Thursday, February 25, 2016

It all happens for a reason even when it’s wrong.

Bunny Finds a FriendBunny Finds a Friend by Hazel Yeats

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Cara Jong is working as a process server when she delivers a summons to a Santa. Except this Santa is a gorgeous woman, who immediately strikes a chord with Cara. The two share a "moment," which stays with Cara for some time. She eventually tracks down said Santa, who turns out to be Jude Donovan, a well-known children's book author. The two "meet cute," so to speak, at a reading of Jude's and sparks fly. They begin dating, but it seems like things just aren't meant to be. Will Cara's flighty nature and lack of commitment (all well-documented by her older sisters) doom the relationship? What about Jude's ex and her young daughter Zoe, who doesn't seem happy to have her Mom dating again? Can Cara and Jude overcome these obstacles and find happiness?

This was a cute book, with fairly realistic characters leading a fairly realistic life--something that's harder to find than one would think in lesbian literature. Cara's a regular gal, with a typical lack of commitment found in a myriad characters in literature, gay and straight. Perhaps the biggest issue with this book is that it sort of seems like a sketch of what could have been an even more fully-developed and even more enjoyable novel. We don't get to see a lot of Cara and Jude's actual relationship development, for instance. Their courtship and issues are quickly glossed over. I would have liked to have seen more of what led them to fall for each other--and fall apart. After all, those sorts of things (falling in love, struggling to maintain a relationship while juggling exes and children and jobs) are what we all have in common.

Cara's sisters are also supposed to add a bit of comic relief, perhaps, to the novel, but they sometimes come across as harpy and annoying. While several of them are dealing with complex issues, they don't get the full attention they truly deserve.

Still, this was a fun, quick read. It's always refreshing to read lesbian fiction with normal characters navigating life. I liked Cara, sympathized with her on a multitude of levels, and did enjoy reading about her journey. Overall, 3.5 stars.

I received an advance copy of this novel from Netgalley - thank you!

View all my reviews

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Somebody get my mom 'cause I think something's broken again.

Hold StillHold Still by Lynn Steger Strong

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Maya is an English professor (her specialty is Woolf) dealing with her daughter Ellie's drug addiction and general disinterest with life. The daughter of two college professors, Ellie has never lived up to her familial expectations. Instead, she's drifting, experimenting, and causing her mother great angst. So Maya sends Ellie to Florida, to stay with her friend, Annie and her family: husband Stephen and five-year-old son, Jack. Annie is having her own issues with Jack and looking for some help. But Maya doesn't tell her friend all of Ellie's woes. Then one day, disaster strikes on Ellie's watch, and things will never be the same again. Now, both Ellie and Maya must confront the aftermath of their actions.

This was an interesting book. It's told in chapters that alternate between Ellie's perspective and Maya's; they also alternate in time: before the event and after. The before chapters lead right up to said event. You know generally what has happened, but not how, so it's surprisingly suspenseful for a book that's mainly about emotions and feelings. As such, the novel conveys a stressful tension immediately. It also does an excellent job of delving into the frightening ramifications of becoming a parent. How much do we influence what our kids become? We see Maya--herself so influenced by her own family situation--and then realize her own effects on Ellie. It's startling and humbling.

However, there is a little bit of a "been there, done that" feeling when reading, of experiencing yet another novel of well-off New York parents screwing up their kids. Neither Maya nor Ellie are really likable in any capacity, and while that's not a problem per se, they are harder to relate to than one would think. (Also not likable: her husband. I felt great sympathy for the younger son, Ben.) There were moments I found myself drawn to Maya, but overall, she was too distant and too horrible to really feel any connection to whatsoever. That fact that she's nearly as immature as her daughter was perhaps the point, but I'm not sure it was one I enjoyed or felt was worth making. Also, the plotlines related to Maya's teaching assistant and other friends seem odd and inserted into the story at times.

Still, it was a well-written novel and the somewhat parallel storylines of a lost and drifting mother and daughter were well-done. I'm not sure about the ending, though. In fact, for a good part of the book, I found myself wondering more about Maya's friend, Annie. I think her story might have been one I would have enjoyed more. Overall, the novel certainly makes you feel and the parenting elements resonate. But will it stay with me? I don't think so.

I received an ARC of this novel from Netgalley (thank you!); it is available for U.S. publication on 3/21/16.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

You left in peace, left me in pieces.

The Dead Will Tell (Kate Burkholder, #6)The Dead Will Tell by Linda Castillo

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The sixth installment in Castillo's Kate Burkholder series finds Burkholder, Chief of Police of Painters Mill, investigating the apparent suicide of one of her town's citizens. Of course, not everything is at it seems, and Kate quickly realizes she's at a murder scene. Soon after, Kate finds herself investigating another death. Is it related to the first? And how are these deaths linked to a horrible tragedy that happened at a local Amish farm back in the 1970s? Meanwhile, as she juggles these cases, Kate finds herself in a difficult place with her boyfriend, John Tomasetti. The two have finally moved in together, but Tomasetti is struggling with his own demons, which threaten to destroy the life the couple has finally built.

Honestly, all of the Kate Burkholder novels are pretty similar. I'm a bit astounded why anyone would continue to live in Painters Mill at this point, as people die at an alarming rate in this town. Still, Castillo always offers an interesting mystery in her books, and this one is no exception. This particular novel offers an interesting intersection of the Amish in Painters Mill and the "English" community. I figured out the plot fairly early, but it didn't make the book any less readable or compelling. The book would stand-alone if you haven't read the previous novels, though the backstory between Tomasetti and Kate makes more sense if you're up to date. It seemed like some of Tomasetti's issues were a bit awkwardly inserted into the plot, but I'm glad to see the two of them progressing forward. Kate's not the most deep character, but she's likable and easy to root for, with a love for her job and her police "family" that comes across as strong and admirable.

Overall, an easy read with an enjoyable, if not exactly surprising, mystery plot. 3.5 stars.

You can read my review of the 5th installment in the Kate Burkholder series here.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

I'm coming home for a while.

Eligible: A Modern Retelling of Pride and PrejudiceEligible: A Modern Retelling of Pride and Prejudice by Curtis Sittenfeld

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you thought a modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice--set mainly in present day Cincinnati--didn't exactly sound like a page-turner, no one could exactly blame you. But, nonetheless, you'd be quite wrong. Sittenfeld's novel imagines the Bennet family in our modern times; Mr. and Mrs. Bennet live in a rambling Tudor home in Cincinnati: broke and somewhat clueless as their house crumbles around them. Mrs. Bennet spends her time clucking around her five unmarried daughters: Jane, Liz, Mary, Kitty, and Lydia. The book revolves mainly around the perspective of Liz, a magazine writer in her upper thirties living in New York City. She and Jane, also in NYC, return home to their parents and younger sisters after Mr. Bennet has a heart attack, only to find the house and the family in a bit of a shambles.

The book is amazing. It's been a while since I read "Pride and Prejudice," but even I can tell you that the novel does an excellent job of following the original plot without being annoying or cloying. It's Pride and Prejudice with lesbians and hate sex! The book comes across as familiar yet new, allowing you to ache, laugh, and rage at what feels like a group of old friends.

Mr. Bennet is a trip, even while having a heartbreaking sadness and sweetness at his core (though some of his zingers are priceless). The younger sisters are as (nearly) vapid as to be expected--truly awful at times--for much of the book. But seriously, Lydia and Kitty loving CrossFit? It's awesome. And Liz is wonderful; you will adore this surprisingly realistic and modern Liz, with all of her foibles and issues: a truly modern Liz struggling mightily to keep her family together and afloat.

As for Darcy, well he's as Darcy as ever. Somehow Sittenfeld has managed to truly capture the essence of Austen's Darcy and Elizabeth in her new characters. I don't know how, but it's funny and lovely all at the same time. (Side note: As a woman in her early thirties, will I ever be able to read about Darcy without picturing Colin Firth? I now have a desperate need to watch the BBC/A&E mini-series again.)

Overall, I found this book funny, touching, and compulsively readable. The characters are truly characters: they are fully formed within moments of picking up the book. The city of Cincinnati makes a great guest appearance, with the city playing a prominent role in many scenes (hi Skyline Chili!). If you loved the original, you'll find this updated version enjoyable and imaginative, with a surprising depth behind it. If you've never read Austen's work (and you should), you will still discover a funny, sweet yet weighty story of a family trying to make it in this day and age. Highly recommended (4.5 stars).

I received an ARC of this novel from Netgalley (thank you!); it is available for U.S. publication on 4/19/16.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

God forbid if word got out about your house of cards.

The ExpatriatesThe Expatriates by Janice Y.K. Lee

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Lee's latest novel intricately details the lives of three American women living in the expatriate community in Hong Kong. Margaret, who moved to Hong Kong with her husband and three children, is dealing with a horrible loss and how it has affected her entire being. Hilary, wealthy and married, is adrift in life - struggling to have a baby and floundering in her marriage. And Mercy, the youngest, is a Korean American trying to recover from her own recent horrors and figure out where she belongs. Their lives and stories are linked in small and large ways, as they each traverse the difficulties of life and the consequences of their actions.

It sounds trite - the linked stories of three women, but the book is nearly magical. The chapters are compelling and amazing: you truly feel as if you are there, with the characters, getting completely caught up in their lives and stories. It's one of those books where not a lot happens, yet in some ways, everything happens, and it's mesmerizing somehow. Lee has a unique voice for each character and they each become clearer and defined as the book goes on; they are so themselves that you can't ever imagine not knowing them, or how they would react to a given situation. Much of what happens is sad- in fact, there were times where I felt like my heart was physically hurting reading - but there is much redemption in the book as well. I truly found parts of it to be beautiful.

The ending, which I felt like could have been too easy, or conversely, easily ruined, felt perfect somehow. My only complaint with this book? That it ended. After I finished it, I found myself standing at the sink later that evening, washing some dishes, and thinking, "oh at least I get to read my book later tonight" and then feeling nothing but profound disappointment that the book was over, and I was done being a part of these characters' lives. Lovely, poignant book - highly recommend.

I must note that I received an ARC of this book from Netgalley (thanks!), though I wasn't approved until after it was published. The good news for you is that this novel is available now (as of 1/12/16) in all the various publication forms.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

It's okay if you don't know everything.

In this digital day and age, it seems like we can all stay connected in a multitude of ways. So, in case you want to hear about blog posts in various ways, I offer you all these awesome options:

*Just A Cat And a Book's Page on Facebook - Join in the Conversation!

*Basically one of my favorite book-related sites of all times, Goodreads, which I use for tracking books and checking out other people's reviews

*The Twitter page for the blog - never miss a review, plus check out what other authors are up to!

*And if you really want to go crazy, feel free to follow my personal Twitter account, which talks about books, kids, sports, and a lot of other crazy stuff!

If you have a Twitter or Goodreads account I should follow, let me know!

Monday, February 08, 2016

Say I gave to the house dealer.

Chasing Perfection: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the High-Stakes Game of Creating an NBA ChampionChasing Perfection: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the High-Stakes Game of Creating an NBA Champion by Andy Glockner

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Andy Glockner's book is a "behind the scenes look at the high stakes game of creating an NBA champion." It delves into the fairly recent evolution of statistics (big data analytics) and its impact on professional basketball. How is the NBA-- a league of big money and big outcomes -- using this potentially massive amount of data to its advantage? Is it the players, the coaches, the teams, the front offices looking to benefit? How can big data and statistics fit into the traditional paradigm of the NBA as we know it?

I nabbed an advanced copy of this book, because I'm a sports fan and a big NBA fan. I thought the book was going to take a look at the 2014/2015 season and how stats impacted it, but I don't feel that it exactly delivered on its promise. That's not to say it's not a good read. It's certainly enjoyable if you like basketball, particularly the NBA. If you're a fan of statistics and numbers related to your sports, you'll love the book, as it's chock full of data. In fact, so much that it reads like a term paper sometimes. My biggest issue, in fact, was that is was almost a little too dry and statistics heavy, with an outline that jumped around in organization, making it hard to follow and stay engaged. Still, the book is extremely well-researched and you'll pick up a lot of good tidbits to impress fellow sports fans.

Overall, it was amazing to read about the impact of statistics on the NBA and how what would take the video and tape guys hours (probably days ages ago) can now be compiled in seconds by companies with algorithms and computer programs. Glockner introduces to us to several of these firms, including SportsVU, and does a good job explaining their evolution. (Perhaps too good a job - it gets to be a bit much at times.)

Some of my other issues were that, at least in my ebook edition, some of the graphics were hard to read, as all the lines and charts were hard to read - the lines were basically all the same color.

To me, the book was best when Glockner mixed his use of stats with anecdotes and real stories. I'm not exactly sure billing it as a quest to find the most "perfected player" is true, or even a look at the 2014/2015 season, but the stories were fun. There's a short bit on University of Kentucky Coach Calipari's hire of Joel Justus in the analytics realm and how that led to UK's much talked about platoon system for one season - quite a fascinating portion of a chapter. Further, the Colorado State basketball program is a good anecdotal example use of SportsVU and is far less dry than the more stats heavy or less conversational chapters.

Again, the book also gets you thinking: just like any other advantage in sports, stats often help those programs with more money; for instance, the Duke Blue Devils being the only team able to use the SportsVU system in their practice facility (this stuck in my craw, being anti-Duke and all. Go 'Hoos!) It also talks about how young players are showing worse movement than ever (very scary). And, a lot of the book is mind boggling with its repercussions; for instance, a company at the combine is predicting player injuries before these kids are even in the NBA (leading to great questions about who gets that data, what do they do with it, what does it mean for the kids or the teams scouting them, etc.)

Glockner goes into the biomechanics pieces of stats, with some fun and fascinating bits weaved in. He discusses how the company P3 can tell how a player is "off" in his mechanics, for instance, with their amazing system of measurements. This leads to a great Phoenix Suns and Grant Hill anecdote and the resurrection of Grant's career (again, book had more pull to me when it was aligned with an actual team or player that made it seem more real).

The epilogue is what I thought the whole book was about (Golden State using stats to win), but was actually very brief (basically one bit about an assistant who subbed in someone). It's amazing story about how stats can alter an entire NBA finals, but goes out with a whimper.

Overall, it was a good book, but I confess I probably bumped my rating up to a 3-star simply due to my love of basketball. Some of the chapters just seem hodgepodge - as if a bunch of players were just thrown in to talk about stats with no rhyme or reason; it's interesting, but seems random and nonsensical. Are these the most perfected players we were promised? If so, it's not really made clear. The Kyle Korver story near the end of the book finally ties a lot of the book's themes together (analytics, P3, etc.) in a story form, which was interesting and compelling in its format and how I wish more of the book had been presented. Combine that with a little too many numbers for a casual sports fan and the jumping around in organization and there was definitely something lacking. Still, this well-researched novel will appeal to the rabid stats fans and those who want more history about how the burgeoning field of big data analytics is changing the NBA as we speak.

I received an ARC of this novel from Edelweiss (thank you!); it is available for U.S. publication on 3/8.

Also, if you enjoy books about the NBA, I recommend Roland Lazenby's recent non-fiction piece on Michael Jordan.

View all my reviews

Friday, February 05, 2016

You scare me more than the hard times.

Secret SistersSecret Sisters by Jayne Ann Krentz

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Madeline and Daphne grew up as close as sisters, until, at the age of twelve, Maddie is attacked one night in her grandmother's hotel. Daphne saves her from a worse fate, but Madeline's grandmother and Daphne's mother separate the girls and each move far away from the hotel in Washington state--and all the secrets it holds. However, 18 years later, Madeline and Daphne find themselves back at the hotel, after the death of Madeline's grandmother. Madeline receives a call from the hotel's caretaker, Tom, which causes her to return. Scared and afraid, she returns with Jack Rayner, her recently hired new security consultant. But can Jack protect Madeline (and Daphne) from the secrets hiding in wait on the island?

Per usual, I can't remember why I put this book on my library list, but I probably read a review somewhere. I did not realize it was written by an author who has truly written hundreds of books under various pseudonyms and hence has probably a fairly formulaic approach to writing. The book is more enjoyable if you just sort of embrace that and give into the "cheesiness factor" -- otherwise, it's a little too much at times.

It's a decently plotted mystery - the romance portion seems rather lacking, though. The character development is really thin, and hence the characters' motives and actions all seem really overblown. A lot of their actions are extreme without any background to justify them. Madeline, Jack, Daphne, and Jack's brother, Abe, are interesting characters, but you just don't get enough about them to really know them, or know what's behind them - beyond grand sweeping gestures and ideas ("something bad happened, so she or he is beyond damaged FOREVER!"). The various characters presented as villains are even more caricatured - all the way down to a pyromaniac brother who is portrayed as one step away from the insane asylum at every second.

The plot keeps you guessing, somewhat, even if I figured it out pretty early on (it's so clearly thought to be someone, that you realize it can't possibly be that easy). It's kind of sad, because Jack and Maddie definitely had possibility, as did Daphne and Abe. I could see all four being follow-up/sequel characters if they had more definition and grit to them. This is a fairly quick read with a serviceable mystery plot, but mostly it leaves you wanting more (especially if you are looking for romance).

View all my reviews

Thursday, February 04, 2016

All the the words are replaced and wrong.

P.S. I Still Love You (To All the Boys I've Loved Before, #2)P.S. I Still Love You by Jenny Han

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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. Suddenly, Lara Jean is even more confused. Is it possible to love more than one boy? Is Peter still in love with his old girlfriend (and Lara Jean's ex-friend)? How exactly does one navigate the ins and outs of love and high school?

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.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

But I'd walk into the fingers of your fire willingly.

Dear ThingDear Thing by Julie Cohen

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Claire and Ben have a seemingly ideal life - good jobs, a beautiful house, and what seems to be a strong relationship. But they've been trying to have a baby for years, and it's starting to take a toll on them and their marriage. After yet another failed round of IVF, Claire is done. She cannot put her body (and her heart) through this pain yet again. Ben is upset and not ready to give up. So when his best friend, Romily, drunkenly offers to act as a surrogate for the couple, Ben jumps on it! Why not? Romily -- already a single mom to Posie -- seems like the perfect choice, after all. And Romily does want to give Ben and Claire the baby they so desire. But if she really admits it, she really wants to give *Ben* this baby: Ben, whom Romily has secretly loved since university. Will Romily really be able to give up this baby? And, can she give up Ben?

This was a lovely and fascinating book, which I devoured in the span of about 24 hours. It's an extremely quick read with well-drawn characters who immediately pull you into the story. Having struggled with infertility myself, I certainly identified with Claire, but also found pieces of Romily and Ben to love as well. One of the strengths of Cohen's book is that there is no one true "winner" here - you don't go in and immediately find yourself rooting for one of the women and their "side," which I think benefits the entire book and its storyline.

Some of the plot is almost a little too unbelievable (and sometimes I'd like to swat clueless Ben in the head), but most of it is made up for by the realism of the characters and their emotions. Claire, especially, in her fertility struggle, is true to form, as is Romily, as she struggles with her feelings for Ben. Romily's young daughter Posie is a wonderful character - you will immediately fall for spirited, sweet Posie.

To me, the only weakness of this book was the ending, which seemed a little to pat and simplified for all the complicated emotions the characters had been struggling with throughout. That's the only thing preventing a 4-star rating. Still, a solid 3.5 read and, really, a lovely and worthwhile book. It gets you out of your head for a bit.

I received an ARC of this novel from Netgalley (thank you!); it is available for U.S. publication on 3/29.

View all my reviews