Saturday, April 30, 2016

And I'm so tired but I lay here awake wonderin' what you see.

The Space BetweenThe Space Between by Michelle L. Teichman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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. Between her stutter and style of dress, she's not only on the fringes, she's mocked by other students at school. So imagine Sarah's surprise when Harper shows an interest in her-- and when Sarah herself feels drawn to Harper. Is Harper only interested in Sarah because she wants to date Tyler? Why do the two girls feel so close, as if being drawn together by a magnet?

Overall, this is a dynamo of a book, which I sped through rapidly. 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. Definitely a worthwhile read.

I received a copy of this book from Netgalley (thanks!); it's available everywhere.

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Friday, April 29, 2016

I'm the one who makes you laugh when you know you're about to cry.

Modern LoversModern Lovers by Emma Straub

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Zoe, Andrew, and Elizabeth have been friends since their college days at Oberlin. Back then, they were part of a band with their fourth friend, Lydia. Now the first three are nearing fifty, living in the same New York suburban neighborhood. Zoe resides with her wife, Jane, and their daughter Ruby. Meanwhile, Andrew and Elizabeth, now married, have a teenage son, Harry. The friends have been together through thick and thin, but things are starting to get a bit more difficult as they face the trials of aging. Zoe isn't sure if her marriage is going to hold, while Elizabeth is struggling with issues of her own. And Andrew, well, is Andrew going through some sort of midlife crisis? The three friends must confront their past (and some well-kept secrets) as well as deal with their future, including their growing (and rapidly maturing) offspring.

I wasn't one of those who adored Straub's previous novel, The Vacationers, though I liked it, but this one sounded interesting and worth a try. And, in its defense, it was. It receives bonus points immediately for having lesbian characters who are simply part of the fabric of the novel (what, lesbians simply living regular life? surely not!). Straub's characters are crisp and well-defined. They are also a bit "New Yorky" and fall into that bucket that I so often find of whiny, self-involved New Yorkers. Andrew, in particular, though I suppose that is perhaps the entire point of Andrew. Still, overall, I found the book witty and wise. The younger protagonists--Ruby and Harry--in particular, offer fresh and fun voices. They are teenagers, after all: they are allowed to be self-involved! This was a quick read; it's engaging, fun, and occasionally sweet, even if it causes you to roll your eyes from time to time. 3.5 stars overall.

I received a copy of this novel from Edelweiss (thank you!); it is available for publication everywhere on 5/31/2016.

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Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Some days I miss your smile.

After You (Me Before You, #2)After You by Jojo Moyes

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

First of all, I think it goes without saying, but if you haven't read Me Before You and you wish to, stop reading here. Did you stop? OK, you've been warned. After You picks up after her beloved Will's death, and Louisa Clark is foundering. Will wanted her to live life to its fullest and Lou has tried, really. She's traveled, bought a flat... but nothing feels right. Suddenly, Lou realizes she really isn't living much of a life at all. An accident changes things, however, as well as the arrival of an individual linked to Will. Lou's life is no longer so boring, but will she be able to make the changes she needs to move on, to live the life Will would have wanted for her? More importantly, to live the life Lou wants?

I was wary about picking up this book, as its predecessor was a lovely and heartbreaking tome. This one is also very poignant and touching. It's surprisingly easy to pick back up with Louisa again-- as if you're falling in step with an old friend. Her voice and character remain true, as do those of the ancillary characters from the previous book (Will's parents, Louisa's family, etc.). There were times, with this novel, that I felt it was a bit too in your face with its message: a lot of saying it straight out versus letting the story and narrative do its work. That was a bit tedious at times.

Still, there were many times that I found myself smiling as I read, because Lou really is just a sweet, fun character, and you can't help but love her. If you enjoyed (and cried over) the first book, you may not find this one as heart-wrenching, but is that really a bad thing? Do we need such emotion twice in a row (and does Lou)? This was a strong follow-up about a character we've grown to love, and it was nice to spend some more time with her and her family. They all truly feel like our own family now.

You can read my review of Me Before You here.

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Thursday, April 21, 2016

The tabloid tainted actress knows the myth of higher ground.

JuneJune by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Cassie is twenty-five and living in the dilapidated mansion, Two Oaks, she inherited from her grandmother, June. The house is literally falling down around her: also a pretty good metaphor for Cassie's life. She's fled her life as an artist in New York and come to St. Jude, Ohio, to grieve for her grandmother and lick her wounds. That basically amounts to hiding in the house, ignoring the phone, and letting the mail (and bills) pile up around her. But even she can't ignore the constant ringing of the doorbell. With it comes some pretty shocking news: Cassie has been named sole heir to the fortune of the legendary movie star, Jack Montgomery. Considering Cassie only barely knew of Jack's name, this comes as quite a surprise. Why did this famous actor leave her his fortune? Did Jack know Cassie's grandmother, June? Suddenly Jack's two daughters show up, wanting answers as well, and Cassie's life will never be the same.

There are really no words for this book. It's a beautiful and magical adventure. It takes what should be a fairly simple event - figuring out whether Cassie is related to Jack - and turns it into a lovely, suspenseful read. I simply couldn't put this book down. The characters are so real, so fully actualized that they jump off the page. Cassie, June, June's childhood friend Lindie, Jack, the people of St. Jude - they are all there, truly vivid in your mind's eye. The book really does simply set out to determine if and how Cassie and Jack are tied together, but it's this amazing and compelling read.

You're pulled into the spellbinding world of then versus now... the story twists between present day, told from Cassie's point of view and the 1950s, which is really accurately portrayed. I'm usually a contemporary fiction reader all the way, but this period portrayal is so well-done, and I loved it. The character of Lindie, especially, makes your heart ache. As the book flips between time and the story unfolds, you become completely enmeshed in the characters' world; Beverly Whittemore does such a good job of creating them that you feel with them and really become part of their lives.

I am trying to think of any flaws, but I can't. I guessed at a few of the plot twists, but only narrowly before they happened, and it certainly didn't ruin my enjoyment of the story whatsoever. Cassie can be a frustrating character at times (read your mail, darn-it), but it's only because she's so well-created. Overall, this is really a beautiful, suspenseful book that brings you into its world. I highly recommend it. 4.5 stars.

I received a copy of this novel from Librarything (thank you!); it is available everywhere on 5/31.

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Why do you have to go and make things so complicated.

Don't You CryDon't You Cry by Mary Kubica

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Quinn and Esther are roommates trying to get by in Chicago. When Esther disappears without a trace, Quinn is confused and worried. It's not like her friend to just vanish. As Quinn starts looking into things more, she finds some disturbing papers and items among Esther's things. Quinn begins to wonder: how much did she really know her roommate? Was she really the sweet, kind person she thought her to be? Meanwhile, in a Michigan town on the outskirts of Chicago, Alex is working his life away while his high school friends live theirs miles away. Saddled by caring for his alcoholic father, Alex feels trapped by his job washing dishes in this small town. However, his life becomes more interesting when a lovely young woman appears in town and catches his attention. Alex watches her and names her Pearl, due to the bracelet she wears on her wrist. As Quinn becomes increasingly worried about Esther, Alex simultaneously gets drawn more into Pearl's web.

Kubica's novel catches your attention right away, but for me, it really picks up about halfway through. The second half is a thrilling roller coaster ride full of suspense and plot twists. It keeps you guessing and surprised. The beginning dragged a bit; I found Quinn frustrating and was irritated by her lack of initiative in finding Esther. Why doesn't she call Esther's cell phone immediately? Or look at the whiteboard the roommates share that details their comings and goings? Combined with some of that, her jump to conclusions about Esther's personality seem a bit implausible.

However, the second half really does make up for a lot. Alex and Pearl's story is pretty mesmerizing, as it weaves in a ghost story from his small town, passed on through the townsfolk. By alternating between Alex and Quinn's point of view, Kubica does an excellent job of constructing her story, while still drawing out the twists and turns. I kept thinking I'd figured out parts of the plot, only to be surprised or proved wrong. The last half of the book will keep you up reading, desperately wanting to find out what happened to Esther. Overall, 3.5 stars.

I received an ARC of this book from Edelweiss (thank you!); it is available everywhere on 5/17.

You can read my review of one of Kubica's earlier novels, "Pretty Baby," here.

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Wednesday, April 13, 2016

And show the knack for knowing when and the gift for knowing how.

RelativityRelativity by Antonia Hayes

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Twelve-year-old Ethan is a bright boy, who loves physics and science. His mom, Claire, loves him with a fierceness that she can barely fathom sometimes. It's just Ethan and Claire living happily together in Sydney. However, a sudden accident forces Claire to confront her past, especially what happened with Ethan's father, Mark. At the same time, Ethan must deal with his own emotions about his absent father.

Hayes' book is well-written, with strongly developed, complicated characters who jump off the page. It's a small cast of characters: Ethan, Mark, Claire, and a few others. I fell immediately for Ethan, who is lovable, sweet, and slightly nerdy. Claire and Mark are slightly more problematic. Mark especially is a very difficult character with whom it is hard to sympathize. Hayes does an excellent job of unfurling her plot in such a way that the reader is as perplexed as the characters. The storyline is tense and runs the gamut of emotions.

The book revolves a lot around science. While much of the storyline uses science and physics to its advantage--for instance, I found the idea of genetic memory fascinating--at times, I also found my eyes glazing over at the scientific passages. Sometimes the science overshadowed the actual plot. Still, overall this is a sharp, well-written novel with in-depth characters. A strong 3.5 stars.

I received an ARC of this novel from Netgalley in return for an unbiased review (thank you!); it is available everywhere on 5/3/2016.

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Tuesday, April 12, 2016

They say love this hot can be a dangerous thing.

Girls on FireGirls on Fire by Robin Wasserman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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--who adores Lacey and Kurt Cobain's music (this is the early '90s after all). But Hannah doesn't realize that Lacey is hiding a secret from her, a pretty big one, which threatens to destroy the very fabric their friendship is based on.

"Girls on Fire" is an oddly captivating and compelling novel. The story unfolds before you and you're powerless to stop the events as they occur. 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.

I received an advanced copy of this novel from Edelweiss (thank you!); it is available everywhere on 5/17/2016.

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Monday, April 04, 2016

I've got the sunshine and a few good friends I've found.

Girls' WeekendGirls' Weekend by Cara Sue Achterberg

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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. Charlotte, a busy and successful interior designer, has a dentist husband and a loving son, but she feels like her husband, Brett, doesn't even see her anymore. Dani's life appears great -- a caring husband and two kids, but she can't quite shake the empty feelings she has. And Meg is still reeling from losing her young son two years ago; her grief remains, but everyone around her seems to have moved on. 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.

When reading it, the premise seems a little farfetched, but the characters in this novel 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.

It's probably true that parts of the book are stereotypical toward men (and fathers) -- painting them as bumbling and clueless toward their wives and children, but sadly, there is some realism to it, too. Plus, as the storyline progresses, you fixate less on this fact and realize there's more to this story than black and white. Honestly, it 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. Your heart breaks for Meg and all she has been through. The book 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. Really enjoyed it.

I received an ARC of this book from Netgalley (thank you!); it is available everywhere on 5/3.

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Saturday, April 02, 2016

It's easy to see she's the perfect girl.

The Rosie Project (Don Tillman #1)The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Don Simpson is a genetics professor in Australia. Nearing 40, he's also looking for a wife, so embarks on "The Wife Project," an extensive endeavor that involves a 16-page questionnaire for his prospects. If that sounds intense, it's because, well, Don is a bit intense. While it's not explicitly stated, he'd probably rank on the autistic or Asperger scale. He has a series of quirks, and his life is carefully planned, right down the same meals eats each week - same meal on the same day, prepared the same way, and eaten at the exact same time. But when Don meets Rosie, she threatens to disrupt the fabric of his carefully created life. Don wouldn't mind, except Rosie has immediately failed the wife questionnaire. So why does he continue to spend time with her?

This was a book I've heard about for a while and been meaning to read for ages. There's a sequel out by now, so the outcome wasn't exactly a surprise (though I doubt it would have been even if I didn't know about the sequel), but it was still a lovely journey to embark upon. Don is extremely well-written and his personality comes across the pages amazingly well. The book does an excellent job of conveying a range of emotions from haunting sadness to just pure amusement. Don is amusing, but I never felt like the laughs came at his expense. If anything, you come to love him. His voice is captured precisely (and like several of my friends, I often pictured him as Sheldon Cooper). His journey to fit in in the world is not an easy one, and Simsion portrays it quite well. Many times I just wanted to hug Don (although I wouldn't, as I knew he'd hate it!). Rosie is an excellent foil for Don and seeing him through her eyes is magical in its own way. The book is not a conventional love story, but it's lovely and sweet, funny and sad, and really quite enjoyable. I'll definitely check out the sequel at some point, too.

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