Tuesday, March 07, 2017

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

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

First we have Cat Clarke's wonderful middle school/YA novel, THE PANTS PROJECT, which draws you in immediately. Liv (Olivia) was born a girl, but knows in his heart that he's a boy. But this realization isn't easy for a kid entering middle school, which can be a heartless place for anyone. What complicates things for Liv is a move to a new school, which brings a stringent dress code: girls must wear skirts. No exceptions. While Liv knows that he's a boy, the school system (and kids at school) don't see it that way. Liv is already dealing with enough, but now he feels uncomfortable everyday in his school clothes. It also doesn't help that his best friend is dropping him for a group of mean-spirited bullies who bully him on a daily basis. But Liv perseveres and comes up with an idea: Operation Pants Project. Liv is going to get this uniform dress code overturned, no matter what. This is an excellent YA novel; I found the storyline to be interesting from the very beginning, and it never wavered. Liv is a wonderful, amazing, resilient young man, and I loved him from the moment I met him. Liv's story is heartbreaking at times, but also very poignant. I see this tale as a must-read for transgender kids, but also all middle school kids, as it offers a wonderful chance to teach empathy. But, seriously, just having this story, and the way Liv expresses his thoughts on being transgender is so key. Yes, a lot of the story is probably a tad simplified, but still. It's just so refreshing to see this in book form. Overall, I loved this book, and I wish it was on the shelves of every middle school (and high school) -heck all libraries and bookstores-- everywhere! Huge portions of it make you smile, and you will find yourself just rooting for plucky, wonderful Liv and his spirit. There's a great sappy message in this book that I wish everyone could read in these troubled times. 4+ stars

Next is Amy Engel's spellbinding novel, THE ROANOKE GIRLS, a completely alluring book that took me by completely (good) surprise. Lane Roanoke is just a teenager when her mother commits suicide, and Lane is sent to live with her grandparents in Kansas. While Lane lived a sad life with her depressed, volatile mother, her wealthy grandparents represent a chance for a new start - and Lane can meet her cousin, Allegra, who is close to her age. When Lane arrives in Kansas, she quickly befriends Allegra and is amazed by the kindness of her grandfather, but she also realizes not everything is as it seems. Eleven years later, after Lane has fled the farm (and left her family there behind), Lane receives a call from her grandfather: Allegra is missing. Can she please come home? Reluctantly Lane returns to a place she vowed she'd never see again to search for her cousin, whom she has always felt bad about leaving behind. But returning only brings up bad memories, and Lane quickly worries that something terrible has happened to Allegra. This is quite the novel! The story alternates between the present-day and that fateful summer (from Lane's point of view), with a few snippets from earlier generations of the other Roanoke girls thrown in. It quickly pulls you in and never lets you go. I was immediately captivated by this novel and read it in less than 24 hours. It's not some "feel good" novel, but it's amazingly well-written. It starts off with a bombshell and then hooks you from there with the dark story of the twisted Roanoke family. There is something completely alluring about how messed up and sick the Roanokes are. I couldn't turn away from them. Overall, I was incredibly impressed with this book. Its entire plot was creepy and twisted, and it was compulsively readable, with plenty of shocking moments. Yet it also had empathetic, well-written characters. It was an amazing dark look at the power of childhood, your parents, and your past. It's a mean and twisted novel and impeccably written, because you feel such a range of emotions for its characters. One of my favorites so far this year - definitely recommend. 4.5 stars

Another dark saga of tormented families comes from Dan Chaon and his novel ILL WILL. In Chaon's tale, Dustin Tillman is a psychologist in Ohio; he's married with two sons and rarely even thinks about the horrific incident of his childhood, when his adopted brother, Rusty, murdered Dustin's parents and his aunt and uncle. Dustin was just a child then, and his brother was arrested largely on the testimony of Dustin and his cousin Kate and the 1980s' fears over satanism. But now Dustin learns that Rusty is being released from prison; his appeal has been granted, and his verdict overturned based on DNA evidence. Meanwhile, Dustin is struggling with one of his patients, Aqil, a former police officer who believes there is a link among a group of drunken college boys who have died by drowning. As more and more things start going wrong in Dustin's life, he gets drawn into Aqil's paranoia, and he threatens to bring down his family with him. This book has an interesting premise: linking two sets of crimes in the past and present, but I felt like that premise was a little forced/falsified, and I never got into the book, or the characters. As a reader, you'll probably find the way it's written either brilliant or incredibly irritating, and I fell squarely into the irritating camp. There are very abrupt chapter switches between the present and the past that are quite annoying, making it difficult to tell exactly where you are in time. Even more, the story is written quite like the characters think--which is fine in theory--for instance, this includes Dustin's tendency to just stop mid-sentence, something his family teases him about. After a bit you get somewhat used to the random sentences that end mid-thought, or the weird white spaces, but it's still strange. Other parts are the story are split into two or three parts on a page and told almost in parallel, causing you to flip back and forth to read each set. I never was quite sure of the point of that. Yes, people in the novel are going crazy and on drugs. I could get that concept and not have to flip back and forth constantly to read chunks of the story. It's one of those storytelling devices that, to me, could be amazing, but just winds up driving you slightly insane. This novel is also very dark. Again, that's fine. After all I loved the aforementioned THE ROANOKE GIRLS, which was incredibly dark. But this one: I just didn't find it that interesting. I found myself finishing it more out of a vague curiosity and duty than anything else. I figured out one of the main plot points pretty on and wasn't engaged with any of the characters. Then, after all of this, the ending is awful and vague, and there's no resolution, and I found myself just throwing the whole thing down in disgust. Definitely not one of my favorites. I can see the potential for others, but it wasn't for me. 2 stars

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

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

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