Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Best Books of 2016, Part 1.

It's that time -- to look back on my favorite books of the past year. At the beginning of 2016, I set my goal on the site, Goodreads, to read 60 books this year. It was a good (!) year, and I surpassed the goal, ultimately reading 105 books. If you follow this link, you can take a look at all the books I read in 2016 and my ratings. Note that not all books were published in 2016, of course, they just happened to be books I picked up over the year. In fact, because some of them were Advanced Reader Copies (ARCs), they won't be published until 2017.

One of the (many) things I love about Goodreads is its ability to rate books. This entry is a run-through of my most highly rated books of the year (beginning with the most recently read). This mostly means any book rated 4 stars or higher. I quickly realized that reading over 100 books means this entry got long quickly, so I separated my top ten favorite books of the year into a separate entry, which you can find here. You can find reviews of any of these via my goodreads site, or simply follow the link in each entry to the in-depth review in this blog. Happy reading in 2017 and beyond!!

Best books read in 2016... (look for my top 10 books of the year in the next post!)

*The Beautiful Dead - Belinda Bauer. This was the last book I read in 2016, and it surprised me. Eve Singer is a crime reporter who becomes embroiled with a serial killer. This novel was certainly creepy, but also had a certain nuance and depth to it that I wasn't expecting. Eve is a complicated and likeable character, and the book doesn't just cover murder and gore, it goes into her personal life, and the struggles she has caring for her father and his failing memory. It lost me slightly for a bit near the end, but managed to get back on track, and even threw in a very interesting twist I didn't see coming. This was a well-done thriller with a different and engaging plot. I really found myself drawn to Eve, and her father, Duncan. It was an enjoyable novel with which to end the year.

*Talking As Fast As I Can - Lauren Graham. Apparently, I'm rather picky with my celebrity memoirs, but this one won me over. Lauren Graham's first nonfiction work is a series of stories and essays covering her thoughts on her time on Gilmore Girls (both the old show and the new Netflix series), her childhood, breaking into acting, Parenthood, and more. It's told in Graham's unique, humorous voice, and it's just a fun, witty look at her life and what it was like to play Lorelai Gilmore (twice). I could have read about 100,000 more of her perceptions. Some of them are so unfathomable because they counteract the completely realistic portrayal of the characters on the show. But they are insightful and intriguing. Graham reminisces about her time on the actual show -- a lot of it reinforced by going back and watching the episodes (something she does reluctantly, as she hates watching herself on film). Overall, sure, this book is a little light. But it still spans a lot of Graham's life and I felt like a learned a decent amount about her, considering she's such a private person (something she repeatedly mentions). She's a fun and humorous woman, and I gained some insights about all the various versions of Gilmore Girls I would have never had before. I read this book in basically one day and thoroughly loved it. This book may not have the same impact on someone who isn't a Graham/Gilmore Girls/Parenthood fan, but if you are, it's a fun, quick read.

*The Twilight Wife - A.J. Banner. This was a fascinating book that really took the premise of the "unreliable" narrator to a whole new level. Kyra Winthrop and her husband, Jacob, are headed to live on a remote island to get away from it all. Kyra recently suffered a head injury in a diving accident; she hit her head on a rock and while Jacob saved her, she cannot remember the past four years of her life and is having trouble with her current ability to retain things. Kyra and Jacob hope time away, in a quiet place, will let Kyra--and her memory--heal. But once on the island, Kyra begins to remember more and more about the accident and about her past. What I enjoyed the most is that we learned the bits and pieces about Kyra's life, and who she was, just as she did. This made the novel very suspenseful and helped make up for any points where it seemed a little unbelievable (e.g., only forgetting exactly these 4 crucial years, no Internet on the island except at their home, etc.), or where the story felt a bit flat. Kyra is our main character, and she's interesting and complicated, with her memory loss and unknown past. She's truly trying to find out who she is. I found the book captivating and basically read the second half in one sitting: it's a very fast read, and you become easily drawn into Kyra's world. It's a little eerie, a little creepy, and a little haunting. It was sort of a fun version of a Lifetime movie--one that had me hooked and enjoying the plot, versus rolling my eyes and changing the channel--and because I so enjoyed seeing everything come together and racing through the end of the book, it pushed my rating up to 4 stars.

*Holding Up the Universe - Jennifer Niven. This was just a lovely book. I sped through this novel in about a day, because it was just so amazing, but I sort of wish I had savored it more, because it was so good. In it, Libby Strout has the distinction of being "America's Fattest Teen" -- the girl who was once lifted out of her house with a crane. But no one has ever really taken the time to know Libby, a complicated and kind person who is still struggling with her mom's death and the aftermath of the crane incident. At school, Libby meets Jack Masselin. Jack is a popular kid struggling with a secret: he doesn't recognize faces. This issue makes high school popularity (and life) surprisingly complicated. Jack's life becomes even more complicated when he gets caught up in an awful high school bullying game that involves Libby. As a result, the two of them wind up in counseling together. Libby is an excellent character. There were moments were I was simply amazed by her, and it's easy to say that I fell hard for her. Jack, too, but Libby - Libby is something special. You cannot help but root for Libby. As with many YA books, it did seem like Jack and Libby were a little mature for high school, but mostly, they felt right on point; if anything, they were each a reflection of how kids have to grow up so much faster now, what with the world being so cruel and all the bullying around them. Besides, each had suffered so much in their own way, even if Jack's life was so much easier on the surface than Libby's. It was a well-written and beautiful book and just left me with a good feeling at the end... even if it also left me wishing I could meet Jack and Libby in real life.

*Inherit the Bones - Emily Littlejohn. This was an excellent and well-plotted mystery novel. The story reels you in immediately and never lets you go with its strong, complex narrative. Gemma is a likeable, fairly deep, and interesting lead character. Early in her police career, while skiing, Gemma found the long-buried bodies of two young boys who disappeared in the mid-1980s. The boys were murdered; their killer never found; and their disappearance and the subsequent crime has haunted the town. Now, in the present day, Gemma is called upon to investigate the gruesome murder of a teenage circus worker who was part of a circus traveling through town. Soon though, Gemma will come to realize that this murder is connected to the disappearance of the boys. She'll uncover a dark past that haunts her town--and discover that someone desperately wants her to leave the past alone. I took to her quickly and found myself wrapped up in her life. Working in a small town, she finds quickly that she can't really trust anyone, and Littlejohn gives us good insight into her squad dynamics. She also captures small town living fairly well. This is a town wrapped up in its past, unable to move on from a web of secrets and lies that have tormented it for years. Indeed, the secrets continue to unfold, but in a completely believable manner, which I really appreciated. I guessed a part of the plot early on, but there were still so many pieces to the story that I was very much riveted until the very end. There's a strong supporting cast here as well, without the usual simple stock characters who sometimes support a rural detective.

*The Survivor's Guide to Family Happiness - Maddie Dawson. Dawson's novel is told from the varying points of view of its main women: Nina, Lindy, and their biological mother. Adopted as a child, her mother's death rekindles Nina's desire to search for her birth mother. She's always felt as she's never belonged anywhere, searching strangers' faces and eyes for her potential birth mother. Amazingly, Nina manages to find her biological sister, Lindy, whom she actually knew as a kid from her neighborhood. But Lindy, who is obsessed with creating a perfect house and life, isn't too thrilled about her wayward sister bursting into her life. It's a humorous--and sometimes heartbreaking--look at family and the different forms it can take. Dawson has created a cast of characters who seem incredibly real. She captures the little details just right, from family life with kids, to Nina's romantic woes. Nina is a trip: you can't help but love her and her relentless optimism. Even when the novel drags a bit in the middle, when you feel like Nina and the plot need a bit of a push, it recovers through its humor and Nina's personality.In the end, I really enjoyed this novel. It combines several other supporting characters, including the children of Nina's boyfriend, into a great read. At times it's truly laugh out loud funny, even if it gets a bit preposterous. But it's also heartfelt and touching and a lovely look at the bonds of family.

*Cruel Beautiful World - Caroline Leavitt. This book is not what I expected, but it was a wonderful (although sometimes haunting) tale. Leavitt creates nuanced, well-developed characters who jump off the page. The book has a poignant sadness that stays with you, even after you've turned the last page. As young girls, Lucy and Caroline come into the care of the older Iris. The girls' parents had died, and they wind up living with Iris, who becomes a sort of adopted mother to the two sisters. Both Lucy and Charlotte are extremely close until high school, when they find themselves drifting apart. Studious Charlotte is focused on getting into college, where she hopes to study to become a vet. Lucy, however, can never quite seem to live up to her sister's academic shadow. That is until she meets a vibrant teacher, William, at her high school. Lucy falls fast for her older English teacher and suddenly finds herself running away to a remote area of Pennsylvania to start over with her new love. Iris and Charlotte, however, are devastated, and cannot give up their search for Lucy. Even worse, Lucy's life of promise and happiness with William may be falling short. The story unfolds from the point of view of Lucy, Charlotte, and Iris, which allows us to get to know each of them. Each is different and beautiful in their own way. Overall, I loved most of this book. It slowed for me about 3/4 through, but recovered by the end. Some of the characters' actions are frustrating, but it does not take away from its almost poetic nature.

*Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew'd - Alan Bradley. Book 8 in Alan Bradley's wondrous series picks up with Flavia returning home from Canada--no longer in boarding school--and back home among her sisters, family servants, and faithful bike, Gladys. Unfortunately, upon returning home, she is met with the news that her father is gravely ill with pneumonia. Only Flavia's pesky cousin, Undine is around to greet her. Out and about in town, Flavia runs an errand and--in true Flavia fashion-- stumbles across the body of a dead man. From there, Flavia's downtrodden spirits lift immediately, as there is nothing like a dead body to return her to her true self. She sets out to solve the case before her pal, Inspector Hewitt, can, but this case will offer plenty of twists and turns, even for our young sleuth. This novel is immediately Flavia, from the start, like picking up with an old friend. With Flavia back from Canada, it's a return to Bradley's tried and true Flavia de Luce formula, but it's certainly not trite, or tired. While the plot is a bit twisty and keeps you guessing, as always, it's Flavia who is the true star. In this book, we see our heroine growing up a bit: not just in age, but in maturity. Thankfully, though, she's still our Flavia, with her feisty spirit and deep love of chemistry. Truly, she's just a dear character and Bradley is amazing in how he captures her voice so perfectly. These novels never fail to disappoint -- this one, as well. I will continue to highly recommend this series.

*It Looks Like This - Rafi Mittlefehldt. This book is heartbreaking in many ways, but hard to describe without completely ruining the entire plot. Mike and his family move from Wisconsin to Virginia for his father's new job. Mike isn't thrilled, as he's in high school, but the family is used to doing what Mike's overbearing father desires. Quiet Mike, who loves art more than sports, doesn't fit in well with his religious family, or with a lot of the boys at his school. Quickly, he finds himself being bullied by several kids at school and pressured by his father to join a school sports team. But Mike finds comfort when he meets Sean, another kid at school, and the two become fast friends. However, other people at school have an eye on the pair's friendship, too. It's a lovely gem of a LGBT book. It's difficult to read: the dialogue is all jammed together (no quotation marks, for example) and in my ARC, there wasn't even a space between the start of a new section of thought. Once you get used to that, it's easier to read, and you get into the flow of Mike's thoughts. Tension builds slowly, as you learn more about Mike, his life, and his inner thoughts and desires. I wish this book could be standard reading for gay youth--and their parents. It's poignant and truthful, albeit it hurt my heart in many places. I quickly grew fond of Mike, whom I wanted to take in, and I loved his spunky younger sister, Toby. Mike's never-ending need for detail grows old at times (just get on with story already), but this is still a worthy read, and certainly a great tale for LGBT youth. It definitely affected me deeply.

*All Is Not Forgotten - Wendy Walker. This is a timely thriller, which will keep you guessing until the last minute. One evening, teenage Jenny Kramer heads to a party. She's planning to meet a boy, but when she spots him with another girl, she's devastated. Drunk and embarrassed, Jenny heads into the woods to be alone; instead, she is attacked and viciously raped for over a hour. After the horrific incident, Jenny is given "the treatment," which erases the incident from her memory. But Jenny cannot move on from that awful night. Jenny is taken to a psychiatrist, Dr. Forrester, who has some experience with the treatment, including another client of his--a war veteran named Sean. Can Dr. Forrester help Sean and Jenny retrieve their memories? Will Jenny track down her rapist before she's consumed by that night's events? This novel gets you immediately from the beginning (definite trigger warning for violence/rape, though). The entire book is told from the perspective of Dr. Forrester, which gives it a totally unique slant. Is he reliable? He's certainly a weird guy, and hearing the story from his side only makes things more intriguing. I thought the story would be more about both sides of forgetting and "the treatment," but it's really, truly the story of Jenny's rape, tracking down her rapist, and the interconnected story of several people in her town. Overall, this is a great thriller, with a ton of twists and turns. I always enjoy a novel where I don't actually see every plot piece coming, and this one didn't disappoint. The cast of characters in the novel is varied and intricate. Some of the good doctor's machinations are a little preposterous, but it doesn't detract from the your enjoyment of the book. Even better, the ending kept up with the earlier parts of the novel and actually made me go "wow." (That's not easy to do.) A very enjoyable, different, twisty novel - worth picking up.

*The Beauty of the End - Debbie Howells. This is a suspenseful and fascinating thriller. Noah Calaway is a lawyer (though he's left his city practice) and semi-successful crime novelist who lives alone in a secluded cabin. A barely functioning alcoholic, Noah is stuck in the past, when he was in love with a beautiful girl, April Moon, "his goddess" and supposed the love of his life. Over the years, the two would run into each other and were even engaged for some time. But April left Noah shortly before the two's wedding, and he's never really recovered. However, years later, Noah receives a call from another of their friends, Will. April is in the hospital, nearly dead from an overdose, and even worse, she's suspected of murder. Noah makes the trip to her side, and begins sifting through the pieces of April's life, trying to figure out what happened. As he does, he uncovers a different April than the one he thought he knew--and much more. It alternates Noah's story with a tale of a young girl named Ella, whose tale is told in italics. Noah's story flashes back in forth in time as he recalls his various encounters with April, as well as describes the present day happenings. This is a little confusing at first--it takes some getting used to--but once you're in the groove, the book picks up speed and completely hooks you. This is a feat in itself because our main character, Noah, is not particularly likeable, a bit clueless, and really rather frustrating. The one we truly might empathize with, April, is in a coma, and we only learn about her life through various stories filtered by our potentially unreliable narrator. But somehow, Howells makes it all work. She's really a master at unfurling the suspense. The story becomes crazily readable (hey, that's a term) quite quickly. The cast of characters is layered, complicated, and complex, but they add to the story and its intrigue in just the right way. The plot leaves you constantly guessing and trying to stay a step ahead. I found myself figuring some things out and kicking myself for missing others. Overall, I really enjoyed this one. Parts of the plot and Noah's actions certainly frustrated me, but the storyline was exciting and fun to read.

*Defending Taylor - Miranda Kenneally. I can't help it: Kenneally's books are just enjoyable. In her latest, Taylor has always grown up expecting the most of herself. After all, her father is a State Senator, and he and her mother have high expectations for their youngest daughter. At her private school, Taylor excels at school and is now captain of her soccer team. But all of that changes when Taylor makes a mistake--and gets kicked out of school. Now she's forced to start over at the local public school, which puts her dreams of Ivy League college in jeopardy. She joins the school's soccer team and tries to make things right with her family, but she can't deal with the secrets she's keeping, or the crushing disappointment of her entire family. This one leaves you in the dark in the beginning as to exactly what happened to Taylor--while frustrating, it builds suspense effectively and keeps you turning pages. Taylor's under so much pressure, but Kenneally easily captures the teen experience and the dramatic "life and death" sensation of being a teenager. Sometimes you roll your eyes at Taylor's actions, but you have to remember what it's like to be a teenager: you really do feel bad for the kid. Her parents put a crazy amount of pressure on Taylor, as do her perfect older twin siblings, and the book offers a good commentary about the burden and anxiety teens face these days regarding school and the college process. Plus, Taylor has the extra stress of her behavior being under the microscope of her father's senate campaign. I was a little frustrated about how Taylor couldn't handle talking to her parents about her life, but could fall quickly and easily into a mature romantic relationship, but that seems to be par for the course for many YA novels these days. Besides, you can't help rooting for her relationship (and the cute guy). I enjoyed the message in this novel about taking a step back, finding yourself, and doing things your own way. I think it's a message that could benefit many teens. I also couldn't help but fall for Taylor, even if she was frustrating at times, and overall, I enjoyed this one. Kenneally has a way with words and writing teens--her books are worth the read.

*The Nest - Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney. This novel received a lot of hype, so of course I avoided reading it for a while. As I was reading it, I thought for quite some time that I'd been duped, as it seemed to be about a bunch of greedy, hateful siblings who cared about nothing but money and appearances. But D'Aprix Sweeney has a deft way with words and somehow, amazingly, this book is compulsively readable and surprisingly enjoyable. The four Plumb siblings aren't exactly the most likable group of brothers and sisters. Is their rather despicable, hands-off mother, Francie, to blame? Further, the siblings can't agree on much, either, except how they are all looking forward to the inheritance they've deemed "The Nest." Their late father intended the money to simply be a small sum to help each of his children along late in life (they can't get the money until the youngest turns 40), but the money has been inflated by the stock market and wise investments, and now each sibling is seriously relying on the money in some way. But then, one evening at a wedding, the eldest brother Leo drunkenly gets behind the wheel of his Porsche, a young waitress from the party at his side, and crashes the car. The waitress is badly injured, and the children's mother dips deeply into The Nest to get Leo out of his jam. The other siblings are enraged as they are forced to confront their own financial problems. After a while, you get to know each Plumb sibling fairly well. While some are pretty despicable (ahem, Leo, ahem), some are just people and parents trying to get by--albeit not always in the most reasonable fashion. The most interesting part about this novel is that D'Aprix Sweeney doesn't just focus on the four siblings, but she opens up the aperture to include a whole cast of supporting characters, and that is where the novel really shines. Everyone becomes connected somehow, but it doesn't feel trite. We hear from folks in the literary world who work (and love) the siblings, for instance. So while parts of the novel are predictable and I found myself wondering if I cared about any of the Plumbs whatsoever, it's the characters to whom they are connected that are interesting. It takes a talented author to make you want to read a story, even if you don't like the main characters, per se. However, you'll find yourself caught up in the story and wanting to find out what happens. The bonus of extending the characters beyond the four Plumbs is that you get several characters' perspective on an issue or event. In the end, things tie up and together, but again, not too neatly or annoyingly. The ending is perfect somehow--again, a testament to the author's skill. Overall, the novel surprised me. I honestly usually am not a fan of the spoiled New Yorker novels, but this one was different. It really drew me in. There's a depth and a warmth behind the characters.

*The Lost Girls - Heather Young. This novel was a quick read, which pulled me into its tale immediately. In 1935, on the last evening of summer vacation, six-year-old Emily disappears from her family's vacation lake home. Emily's doting mother is devastated, and she and her two daughters (Emily's older sisters) spend the rest of their lives at the lake house, waiting for Emily to return. Six decades later, only Lucy, the middle sister, is still alive. Afraid of dying without telling her story, she writes the tale down in a notebook and leaves it, along with the house, to her sister's granddaughter, Justine. When Justine receives the news that her great-aunt has left her a house in Minnesota, she's shocked. But Justine realizes the house represents a way to flee the suffocating life she's living now, and to give her daughters a better life. So they pack up for Minnesota, only to find the house run down, the Minnesota winter cold and isolating, and their only neighbors two elderly men who live in the nearby lodge. The POV alternates between present-day (late 1990s) with Justine and then flips back to the 1930s, as Lucy tells her story via letter. In this way, we get snippets about the past in chunks, allowing for the story to unfurl slowly, building up suspense. Young does an excellent job in creating her characters: Lucy and her older sister Lilith practically jump off the page, as does little Emily. Lucy was the star of the show for me, both as her younger self and via her letter-writing. Her sadness is easily apparent as she tells a tale of a family trapped by their own secrets. This is a somber book with serious themes; it's not always an easy read. Still, the back and forth POV works well in this case, and you'll quickly become enraptured in Lucy and Lilith's past, in particular. Justine and Maurie are more frustrating characters, but their story is still interesting, especially as you learn about Justine's mother's life growing up at the lake house with Lilith and Lucy. Overall, this was a different book (in a good way), with insightful and well-drawn characters, and an intriguing plot. Lucy sticks with you, even after it's over.

*First Comes Love - Emily Giffin. This was a difficult book, but one I really enjoyed. Josie and Meredith are sisters with an often antagonistic relationship. Meredith and Josie lost their older brother in a tragic accident: an incident that influences and affects their entire family, even after fifteen years. With the anniversary of Daniel's accident looming, Josie and Meredith have to face their painful past, for once and for all. I will warn you up front: neither Josie nor Meredith is a particularly likeable character. However, they were, at least to me, relatable, which is key. Their flaws are human and ones we can spot in ourselves and those around us. This book particularly hit home to me as a very real portrayal of how families deal with with loss and grief. Giffin did an excellent job of showing how Meredith, Josie, and Daniel's parents and close friends were still so affected by his passing after fifteen years. This will hit home to others in similar situations, grappling with the guilt and grief that comes with losing someone you love. The book isn't always easy to read because of this, but I do think it's worth it. There are some comedic moments in there as well. Still, sometimes it's good to read about real life and to see it portrayed so realistically and clearly. The characters are flawed, but vivid and real and you become invested in their lives. Their tangled web is a twisted one, but it's one you want to see them emerge from. By the end, I found myself smiling and feeling at peace; I had really become caught up in these characters' lives, which I feel is the sign of a good book. It's not the tense sort of novel I'd like to read all the time, but this one resonated with me.

*The Widow - Fiona Barton. This one received a lot of hype when it was published, so I was a little wary of picking it up. However, it totally sucked me in. I read it in one day and it completely kept me guessing, which isn't always easy to do. Jean Taylor is a dutiful wife, who always stands by her man, Glen. But now Glen is dead, and Jean no longer needs to play the role of silent, obedient wife. This works well for Kate, a reporter known for getting her subjects to open up. Meanwhile, Bob, a detective, is desperately working to close the case of missing toddler Bella, who was brazenly taken from her front yard while her mother, Dawn, was inside making tea. The novel is the intersection of these various stories. The chapters cross both time periods and character point of view, which can get a bit confusing. However, it all combines into a very compelling story -- you'll be left flipping pages frantically, wondering what happened to Bella, to Glen and Jean's marriage, and more. This is an exciting thriller and well-worth the read.

*The Raven King - Maggie Stiefvater. The fourth and final book in Stiefvater's "Raven Cycle" series picks up shortly after the third. Obviously, if you haven't read the three previous books, you should, and you shouldn't continue reading this review, as there will be spoilers. Gansey, of course, is still after the elusive Glendower, a buried king whom he believes will change his life. Blue, daughter of a psychic, is not-psychic, but still an amplifier of those who are, and still destined to kill her true love upon their first kiss. The pair--now in love--are joined by their usual gang: Ronan Lynch, dreamer of all things magical; Adam, a survivor, who is tied to the magical forest of Cabeswater in mysterious ways; Noah, who is dead; Maura, Blue's mother; and many more. In fact, we gain several more characters in this final installment, namely far more involvement from fellow Aglionby Academy student, Henry. Together, this group is focusing on the frenzied search to find Gansey's beloved king. This whole series is amazing and crazy. I need to re-read all four books at some point, now that all are released. This novel actually started out a bit slow for me. It was, as weird as it sounds, almost a bit too fantastical, filled with almost too bizarre magic and plot. However, as things continued to unfold, pieces fell into place, and I was consumed by the story and its characters, per usual. Overall, I found this a fitting end to a beloved series. I will insert a caveat that it doesn't tie up loose ends for some of the ancillary characters and some pieces may leave you a bit befuddled. But some of the magic of these books is that everything doesn't make sense to the characters, so I give it a pass when it doesn't all make sense to us as well. I'd recommend the series-- it's an amazing trip to another world, and I certainly have grown to love the characters. I'll miss them!

*The Space Between - Michelle L. Teichman. Overall, this is a dynamo of a book, which I sped through rapidly. Harper Isabelle has a pretty good life: she's beautiful, smart, and popular. Her first year in high school is going quite well, thanks in part to the protective shadow cast by her sister, Bronte, the most popular girl in school. For Sarah Jamieson, however, things aren't exactly as smooth. While Sarah's twin brother Tyler has always been in the in crowd at school, Sarah has not. So imagine Sarah's surprise when Harper shows an interest in her-- and when Sarah herself feels drawn to Harper. It actually builds its storyline rather slowly, as Harper and Sarah deal with their feelings for each other, but I found it that a nice antidote to the usual YA where the characters seem to fall in love overnight. This was similar to some of my own experiences coming out. Harper and Sarah are well-drawn characters who pop on the page -- they are complicated, sweet, and beautiful as they work through the multitude of emotions that comes with falling in love in high school. There is definitely a cheesy element to some of the writing but it really doesn't take away from the experience of watching these girls struggle to find each other. Perhaps the only thing that takes away from the story is a little of the weirdness factor in that Harper also dates Sarah's brother; it manages to work with the story, but it does occasionally give you pause. Honestly, I was very touched by this book and found it to be a sweet coming of age/coming out story. I wish there had been more of these around when I was going through a similar experience. It does an excellent job of showing some of the difficulty teens still face in dealing with their sexuality in high school (and with their families) today. You'll find yourself quite invested in Harper and Sarah's story.

*Girls on Fire - Robin Wasserman. This is an oddly captivating and compelling novel. The story unfolds before you and you're powerless to stop the events as they occur. Hannah Dexter has led a fairly mundane life in the small town of Battle Creek, where everyone knows everyone else and everything that happens to everyone. But her life is turned upside town by two events: the suicide of a local boy, Craig, and the arrival of a new girl, Lacey, who quickly becomes the town's resident bad girl. Hannah and Lacey quickly unite over their hatred of the town's "it girl" Nikki Drummond. Lacey transforms Hannah into Dex--a darker version of Hannah. It's told mainly from the alternating points of view of Lacey and Hannah, and we slowly learn about the events that led to their friendship and its aftermath--and also Craig's suicide. The book wasn't a particularly fast read for me, but it was fascinating. It's an accident where you can't look away, even though you know something horrible will happen. This book is dark and disastrous and makes you afraid to ever send your children off to high school. Parts of the novel are a bit cliched (it's almost too dark, too awful) but it doesn't stop it from being intriguing and captivating. It pulls you in to Lacey and Hannah's world and as time somehow moves forward, yet we learn about what happened to Craig in the past, Wasserman does an amazing job of unfurling her plot. I was drawn to the book and the characters. Tragic Lacey, confused Hannah, evil queen Nikki: you can see them so clearly in your head. The book almost casts a spell over you as it sucks you into its world. The writing is intense, the storyline is intense, and you're left almost breathless at the end. I didn't really enjoy the book, per se, but I appreciated it. It's a wild ride, a dark one, and definitely one worth taking.

*Girls' Weekend - Cara Sue Achterberg. Upon first reading it, the premise to this novel seems a little farfetched, but the characters immediately seem very real and the book gives a lot of little details about motherhood that lend it realism (for instance, humming annoying intro music to a children's show at inappropriate times). Each woman is different, but you can relate to a piece of each of them. I found myself liking parts of each and being frustrated with other parts - just like your actual friends. Charlotte, Dani, and Meg have been friends for ages-- bonding over motherhood and the issues that accompany it. However, each woman has their own problems and are reluctant to bring them up with their friends. When the three women get a chance to go away for a girls' weekend, they jump at the chance, even if involves a little rearranging of schedules. But once there, they make a fateful decision: they aren't coming back home. The book speaks universally to many women, especially mothers: those seeking answers in life, those feeling guilty for not being happy when life seems perfect on paper, those wondering when life simply became a series of errands. I felt like Achterberg did an excellent job of dealing with and capturing some of the quintessential problems facing the modern mom. The book is painful to read at times, but only because it's so well-written. It lags a little in the middle, but really, the women do too, as they try to figure out exactly what they should do. It is fascinating because they are doing what you can't quite imagine pulling off. My mind was racing as I read: I mean, who would really watch your kids for that long? What spouse would be OK with this? Who could leave their kids for that long? And yet, you sort of dream for the time away, envy the women as you read the novel. It's easy to empathize with them, even as you may question some of their motives. Overall, the book was easy to read and Charlotte, Meg, and Dani were interesting and relatable characters. The book made me think (and highlight many passages). It's a fun read, but also goes deeper, too.

*P.S. I Still Love You - Jenny Han. In this sequel to To All the Boys I've Loved Before, Lara Jean is back - still a hopeless romantic, but also a bit more grown up. Lara Jean is struggling with the ramifications of her relationship with Peter, including a viral Instagram post that leads to a great deal of humiliation (oh the joys of high school). As she and Peter learn to navigate a "real" relationship, she also finds herself writing John Ambrose McClaren-- one of the original boys who received a love letter in Book #1. I actually found myself enjoying this book more than the first. Perhaps I'd just become more accustomed to Lara Jean and her style, but this was a really sweet and enjoyable novel. Lara Jean comes into her own in the sequel, as she negotiates high school and all the romantic woes she encounters along the way. The second book also avoids a few of the "icks" I felt from the first (e.g., crushing on her older sister's boyfriend). You become a little more used to some of Lara Jean's idioms, and she really does grow up a bit -- taking care of her sitter, Kitty (still a spitfire and a great character all in her own), looking out for her dad, and coming out of her own world a bit. Even better, the plot is unpredictable and keeps you guessing. Both boys seem viable options for Lara Jean, and she truly comes out of her shell and lives a little, while still remaining true to her self (key). The book presents a great family dynamic with Lara Jean's dad, a single guy raising his three girls, and the supporting cast of characters (especially Kitty) are fun and well-developed. Overall, I read this one in about 24 hours and found it quite entertaining and delightful. A great presentation of high school life and certainly a worthy sequel.

*The Woman in Blue - Elly Griffths. The eighth book in Elly Griffths' Ruth Galloway series finds much of the action taking place in Walsingham, an English town famous for its religion. Cathbad, Ruth's druid friend, is in town housesitting for a friend, when he sees a lovely woman in a dress and cloak in the nearby cemetery. In the morning, a young woman is found dead in Walsingham - wrapped in blue cloth. At the same time, Ruth is receiving emails from an old friend, Hilary, now a priest. She's receiving threatening letters from someone who clearly isn't happy about women in the priesthood and wants Ruth's help. Are the letters and the death connected? When Hilary comes to Walsingham to attend a conference for women priests, Ruth finds herself in the middle of it all. As does DCI Harry Nelson, of course, who is tracking not only the woman's killer, but Hilary's letter writer. I've made it clear by now that I'm a huge fan of Griffths' Galloway series. I think of Ruth as an old friend. Curling up with one of these books is like going home, or talking to a familiar and beloved friend. The characters' quirks make you laugh simply because you know them so well. Griffiths has created a cast of characters who are so well-done, so simply "them," that you look forward to returning to their world. The eight installment differed a bit, to me, as it focused a bit more on the personal side of things, mainly the Ruth and Nelson story (or, truly, the Ruth, Nelson, and Michelle triangle). This was certainly good, albeit stressful, as it's difficult when you're favorite characters aren't getting along. Still, the developments in this novel are necessary in the trajectory to move all three characters forward. The religious plot was a little confusing for me, at times - between a lot of British references I don't always quite get, but the mystery was still enjoyable and plotted well. The supporting cast of characters introduced in this tale rounded out the story well, and I was truly left wondering until nearly the end about "whodunit." All in all, another great Ruth tale, which made me laugh out loud several times.

Black-Eyed Susans - Julia Heaberlin. This was a wonderful book; the subject matter is frightening, but the book itself was a captivating page-turner. The mystery is extremely well-plotted and riveting. When she was sixteeen, young Tessa "Tessie" Cartwright was found, hanging on to life, in a field of Black-Eyed Susans. The other girls "dumped" with Tessa did not survive (in fact, some were just bones), and Tessa is doomed to live her life as the surviving "Black-Eyed Susan" in the press. Justifiably, the event haunts her life and her nightmares. Further, she is tormented by the fact that her testimony about what happened helped put the suspect, Terrell, on death row. Now, a grown woman and mother, Tessa is working with the Terrell's legal team to exonerate him. This includes a forensic scientist (the forensics in the book are detailed and excellent). Her main reason? It seems wherever she lives, a patch of Black-Eyed-Susans follows, forcing her to live in fear, and to wonder if the sentenced killer truly is guilty. But if he isn't, are Tessa and her daughter safe? Even when I was pretty sure I had things figured out, I was rapidly turning pages, still guessing and eagerly awaiting to find out what had happened to Tessa (and the other "Susans," as she calls them) back then. The book flips between present-day Tessa's point of view and to "Tessie," as a younger Tessa was known, talking about events leading up to and right after Terrell's trial. It's a suspenseful plot device that works well here; I was up late turning pages, desperate to know what happened. Tessa is a well-formed character, even with her angst and anxieties resulting from her horrific past. Her supporting cast - her daughter, Terrell's lead lawyer, the forensic scientist, a quirky neighbor, her best friend from her youth - are all well-done, too. At times, the book is confusing due to Tessa's unreliable narration; she is suffering from memory loss and anxiety, after all, but it only adds to the book's suspense and intrigue. Perhaps the only thing I can find to complain about is that the ending is a bit too pat: it pops up suddenly to resolve things, but there's still a door left open, and it does nothing to diminish how enjoyable the book and the story is. Overall, an excellent thriller and a worthy read.
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