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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