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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