Tuesday, June 28, 2016

They left a swimming pool of salted crimes.

The NestThe Nest by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The four Plumb siblings aren't exactly the most likable group of brothers and sisters. Is their rather despicable, hands-off mother, Francie, to blame? Further, the siblings can't agree on much, either, except how they are all looking forward to the inheritance they've deemed "The Nest." Their late father intended the money to simply be a small sum to help each of his children along late in life (they can't get the money until the youngest turns 40), but the money has been inflated by the stock market and wise investments, and now each sibling is seriously relying on the money in some way. But then, one evening at a wedding, the eldest brother Leo drunkenly gets behind the wheel of his Porsche, a young waitress from the party at his side, and crashes the car. The waitress is badly injured, and the children's mother dips deeply into The Nest to get Leo out of his jam. The other siblings are enraged as they are forced to confront their own financial problems. Melody, the youngest, needs to send her twins to college. Jack, the other brother, has been secretly borrowing against his vacation home, without telling his lawyer husband. And Bea, their sister, hasn't been able to follow up on the success of her early work and finish her novel: she even had to pay back the advance. Leo promises his siblings he will pay them back; but can their wayward older brother be trusted?

This novel received a lot of hype, so of course I avoided reading it for a while. As I was reading it, I thought for quite some time that I'd been duped, as it seemed to be about a bunch of greedy, hateful siblings who cared about nothing but money and appearances. But D'Aprix Sweeney has a deft way with words and somehow, amazingly, this book is compulsively readable and surprisingly enjoyable. After a while, you get to know each Plumb sibling fairly well. While some are pretty despicable (ahem, Leo, ahem), some are just people and parents trying to get by--albeit not always in the most reasonable fashion. I felt the worst for Bea and Melody.

The most interesting part about this novel is that D'Aprix Sweeney doesn't just focus on the four siblings, but she opens up the aperture to include a whole cast of supporting characters, and that is where the novel really shines. Everyone becomes connected somehow, but it doesn't feel trite. We hear from folks in the literary world who work (and love) Bea and Leo, for instance. Leo's love interest (and Bea's editor) Stephanie is my favorite. So while parts of the novel are predictable and I found myself wondering if I cared about any of the Plumbs whatsoever, it's the characters to whom they are connected that are interesting. It takes a talented author to make you want to read a story, even if you don't like the main characters, per se. However, you'll find yourself caught up in the story and wanting to find out what happens. The bonus of extending the characters beyond the four Plumbs is that you get several characters' perspective on an issue or event. In the end, things tie up and together, but again, not too neatly or annoyingly. The ending is perfect somehow--again, a testament to the author's skill.

Overall, the novel surprised me. I honestly usually am not a fan of the spoiled New Yorker novels, but this one was different. It really drew me in. There's a depth and a warmth behind the characters. Definitely worth reading.
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Monday, June 27, 2016

Everything is awesome when we're living our dream: Blog Tour for Liz Kessler's READ ME LIKE A BOOK

I was really excited when Candlewick Press asked me to be a part of this blog tour. Sadly, even in 2016, I feel like lesbian characters in literature are few and far between. Realistic lesbian characters and stories are even harder to find in the YA realm. Author Liz Kessler, who has published the best-selling Emily Windsnap series, the Philippa Fisher series, and various middle-grade novels, wrote an early version of "Read Me Like a Book" as her first novel. She went on to dust it off after the success of some of her other novels, update it, and here we are. And we should all be glad, because it's a great book. My review below:

Ashleigh Walker's life is crumbling around her. Her parents are fighting constantly, she's not doing well in school, and her boyfriend, Dylan, doesn't exactly make her heart sing. Suddenly, the one bright spot in Ash's life becomes her new English teacher, Miss Murray. Young and hip, Miss Murray engages Ash in a way she's never felt before. She's even joined the debate club, for pete's sake, and started working hard on her English submissions. But there's more to it than that. Miss Murray makes Ash feel something else. If she really admits it, Miss Murray makes Ash feel what Dylan (and other boys) should. Is something wrong with Ash? And more importantly, Ash starts to think... does Miss Murray feel the same way?

This is a lovely gem of a book. It's the perfect blend of heartbreaking and funny. Kessler, who, as I mentioned, has previously written a series of books for young teens, expertly captures the older teen voice in this novel (which was actually her first book, finally published and updated for the more modern, digital era). She creates a picture as she writes, allowing you to vividly imagine her multi-faceted and complicated characters. Ash is no one-dimensional teen: she's intricate and her own person. As she deals with the agony of her parents' own issues, plus her own inner angst about her love life, your heart goes out to the girl.

Kessler easily paints the angst one feels when in love with a teacher, especially if LGBT - coupled with the delusion that comes with youth, no matter your sexual orientation. Ash's feelings are so real, so strong, and she seems so alone. It's an excellent portrayal of what young teens go through as they wrestle with their sexuality (believe me, I know; it took me back to some tough times in high school).

If anything, some of the resolution is a little too easy, a bit quick and forced at times, but it really doesn't diminish from the force of the book. Watching Ash grow up before our eyes is rather magical. There are some excellent comedic portions from the novel to balance out the heaviness, coupled with a great supporting cast of characters, including Ash's best friend, Cat, and some other youth she meets via school, family, and friends. The novel is perfect for teens struggling with their own sexuality, or needing to see someone "like them" in print, and those looking to support a LGBT best friend, but should also be given to parents of those teens -- as Ash's parents play a role in the story as well.

Overall, I found myself completely wrapped in Ash's coming of age (and coming out) tale. Books with a true to life, multi-dimensional lesbian heroine are still sadly hard to come by, it seems, but Kessler's novel certainly tries to change that.

For more about this lovely book, please check out the rest of the blog tour. It's also a great chance to check out some fun and different blogs:

Official Blog Tour Stops:

6/14 YA Book Central

6/15 My Mercurial Musings

6/16 Hopelessly Devoted Bibliophile

6/17 Mayor of Bookopolis

6/18 I Read Banned Books

6/19 Forever Literary

6/20 Word Spelunking

6/21 My Books Views

6/22 Kelly Vision

6/23 Swoony Boys Podcast

6/24 Reviews Comin At YA

6/25 Comfort Books

6/26 Satisfaction for Insatiable Reader

6/27 Just a Cat and a Book by her Side

6/28 The Reading Date

6/29 Forever YA

6/30 Musing Librarian reviews

7/1 Randomly Reading

Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for a copy of this book; it's available everywhere!

Friday, June 24, 2016

So won't you be my honey bee giving me sweet kisses all the time: BEST LAID PLANS.

Best Laid PlansBest Laid Plans by Jan Gayle

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Nicky James is a single mother who has devoted her entire adult life to raising her son, Austin - now a teenager. She works as a draftsman ("draftsperson") at an architecture firm and goes to school in the evening. She meets Lauren Thomas, a senior architect at her firm, when Lauren requests Nicky's expert help on her projects. Nicky falls quickly for the beautiful and talented woman, but quickly discovers a roadblock when she realizes Lauren isn't used to full commitment. Nicky isn't used to doing anything with less than her whole heart. Can she and Lauren get past their issues?

This was an interesting and heartfelt novel. It's told from the perspective of both women, so you can attempt to understand each of their varied point of views. I enjoyed that I could empathize with pieces of each: the tenderhearted mothering side of Nicky and the workaholic, private aspects of Lauren, for example. There are certainly some cliche aspects to the novel and a few scenes where the dialogue made me wince a bit, but overall it's refreshing to read a novel dealing with two women attempting to reconcile their issues with sexuality and love. It's certainly frustrating at points; for instance, Nicky doesn't even initially seem willing to try with Lauren and her coming out issues. I get that it must be hard, but let's face it, coming out is hard at any age! Things also get a little over-dramatic quickly: it's one date, they work together, why the freakout, etc.

Still, it's a very readable book and oddly exciting at times. I found myself pulled into Lauren and Nicky's story. Nicky and her son, especially, are just plain lovable. You can't help but root for them. There are also some hot sex scenes, which, hey, is a bonus, right? Overall, this is a compelling, fun, and sexy 3.5 stars.

You can read my review of Gayle's previous novel, "Live and Love Again" here.

I received a copy of this novel from the publisher and Netgalley (thank you); it is available everywhere as of 07/12/2016.

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Friday, June 17, 2016

And it makes me feel so fine I can't control my brain.

She Poured Out Her HeartShe Poured Out Her Heart by Jean Thompson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Jane and Bonnie have been friends since college, despite the fact that the pair are quite different. Quiet, reflective Jane leads a seemingly picture perfect life with her doctor husband, Eric, and her two young children. Impetuous Bonnie, meanwhile, works as a crisis counselor, and is always shuffling between ill-fated relationships and boyfriends. The two remain friends well into adulthood, however. Still, Jane can't tell Bonnie about the malaise she feels about her life and the episodes she has, where everything appears white and she disappears briefly to a different (happier) place. Then one evening, Jane has a more severe episode, and must be briefly hospitalized. The same night, Eric and Bonnie find themselves drawn to each other, and they begin a complicated affair.

This is a really strange book, and I'll certainly say that it's not for everyone. It's probably one I wouldn't typically enjoy, usually: the characters are not particularly likable, the plot is odd, and it meanders along with no real resolution. However, there was something about this novel that drew me in, despite its odd, somewhat incestuous seeming plot. It's extremely well-written (and told from Jane and Bonnie's point of view over various time periods). Both women are oddly addictive characters. In total, they may not be the most likable, but they were quite realistic, and I could find myself relating to pieces of each of them.

I don't want to say much more as to not give away much of the book and truly, I'm at a loss at how to describe it. It's almost a bit of a "trippy" experience to read. Overall, I'm glad I picked this one up; it's a solid, weird 3.5 stars. If you're looking for another recommendation, The Year We Left Home is still the favorite I've read of Thompson's work so far.

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Friday, June 10, 2016

So, love can go to hell in a broken heartbeat minute.

The Secret Place (Dublin Murder Squad, #5)The Secret Place by Tana French

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The fifth installment in Tana French's Dublin Murder Squad series reintroduces some familiar faces, notably Holly Mackey, Frank Mackey, and Stephen Moran from French's Faithful Place. Detective Moran is toiling away in Cold Cases, dreaming of joining the Murder Squad, when Holly shows up. She holds in her hand a card reading "I know who killed him," featuring a photo of Chris Harper, a handsome boy from a private school who was killed a year ago. Suddenly, Stephen finds himself inserted into the middle of St. Kilda's School, Holly's private all-girls' school, the neighborhood school to Chris', and the place where his body was found. Stephen joins up with the Murder Squad's Detective Antoinette Conway, one of the original leads on Chris' case, to find out what happened. But Stephen quickly realizes that Antoinette isn't a popular figure in the Squad, and that the girls of St. Kilda's are a tight-knit, complicated bunch whose interconnected relationships present Conway and Moran many obstacles in finding Chris' killer. Can they find the killer before the girls close ranks for good?

This was a typical Tana French mystery in many ways. This novel is compelling, as always, featuring thoughtful and reflective characters and a detailed, well-plotted mystery. The story is told in alternating chapters by Stephen (in the present-day) and then flashes back to various sections told by the girls of St. Kilda's, who are telling bits of the story leading up to Chris' death. It's an excellent technique because Stephen's portion covers basically 24 hours, as he and Antoinette rush to solve the crime before the girls can cover their tracks once and for all. But by going into the past, French effectively builds suspense and allows us to meet the various teens in her tale (about eight in all, which is a lot at times).

Overall, she does an good job of capturing teen culture: particularly, I'm sure, the culture of British teens in boarding school (shockingly, something I'm not too familiar with). While the descriptions of the girls gets a little tedious (a lot of blond, straightened hair), their personalities are clear and develop easily over the course of the novel. The commentary on the bonds of teen friendship is excellent. For me, Stephen wasn't one of my all-time favorite French protagonists, but I enjoyed the dynamic between him and Conway and how the window into their lives is basically less than 24 hours.

The mystery portion was a little less enjoyable for me than some of French's other novels and a bit of a let down at the end, but it was still a great read. One of my favorite things about French's books is how they easily transport you into another world while reading--you find yourself lost in the characters and their world--and this one was no exception. 3.5 strong stars. I'm looking forward to her next novel, which is supposed to feature Conway again.

You can find my review of French's previous novel, "Broken Harbor," here.

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Monday, June 06, 2016

The night is young, come out with me.

The Lost GirlsThe Lost Girls by Heather Young

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In 1935, on the last evening of summer vacation, six-year-old Emily disappears from her family's vacation lake home. Emily's doting mother is devastated, and she and her two daughters (Emily's older sisters) spend the rest of their lives at the lake house, waiting for Emily to return. Six decades later, only Lucy, the middle sister, is still alive. Afraid of dying without telling her story, she writes the tale down in a notebook and leaves it, along with the house, to her sister's granddaughter, Justine. When Justine receives the news that her great-aunt has left her a house in Minnesota, she's shocked. They've only met once, after all, and Justine's flighty mother is still living. But Justine realizes the house represents a way to flee the suffocating life she's living now, and to give her daughters a better life. So they pack up for Minnesota, only to find the house run down, the Minnesota winter cold and isolating, and their only neighbors two elderly men who live in the nearby lodge. Justine's older daughter, Melanie, becomes interested in Emily's disappearance; her mother, Maurie, returns, bringing her usual craziness; and ghosts from Justine's own past threaten their safety. Justine doesn't know what happened at the lake sixty years ago, nor does she know if it's safe for her family now...

This novel was a quick read, which pulled me into its tale immediately. The POV alternates between present-day (late 1990s) with Justine and then flips back to the 1930s, as Lucy tells her story via letter. In this way, we get snippets about the past in chunks, allowing for the story to unfurl slowly, building up suspense. Young does an excellent job in creating her characters: Lucy and her older sister Lilith practically jump off the page, as does little Emily. Lucy was the star of the show for me, both as her younger self and via her letter-writing. Her sadness is easily apparent as she tells a tale of a family trapped by their own secrets.

This is a somber book with serious themes; it's not always an easy read. Still, the back and forth POV works well in this case, and you'll quickly become enraptured in Lucy and Lilith's past, in particular. Justine and Maurie are more frustrating characters, but their story is still interesting, especially as you learn about Maurie's life growing up at the lake house with Lilith and Lucy. Overall, this was a different book (in a good way), with insightful and well-drawn characters, and an intriguing plot. Lucy sticks with you, even after it's over.

I received a copy of this novel from the publisher and Edelweiss (thank you!); it is available everywhere on 07/26/2016.

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Wednesday, June 01, 2016

I wanted to believe every single word she said was true.

Little Girl GoneLittle Girl Gone by Gerry Schmitt

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Afton Tangler is halfway up a cold, icy mountain ledge when the call comes in: a three-month old baby, Elizabeth Ann, has vanished, taken from her home in the middle of the night. The little girl's babysitter is in the hospital after being assaulted, and Elizabeth Ann's wealthy parents are frantic. Afton, a family liaison officer for the Minneapolis Police Department, must console the baby's parents, Susan and Richard Darden. Besides her ice climbing hobby, Afton is also an aspiring police officer, so when the lead detective on the case, Max, has her tag along, she does, trying to untangle the weird web of clues that accompanies this sad case. Who was the strange man, pretending to deliver a pizza, who attacked the babysitter? Is he connected to a woman at a doll show that interacted with Susan? Is Richard's recent job switch a factor? Will a ransom call come in? As Afton and Max race to find Elizabeth Ann, the web only thickens, and they become more frantic to find Elizabeth Ann before it's too late.

This was an interesting mystery novel. I won't lie: the writing is wooden and clunky to say the least. It's certainly not the smoothly written thriller of a say a Tana French or Mary Kubica, whose books I've recently read. Further, the plot is really preposterous at times, and it's crazy to watch Afton, who should really be sitting at a desk and chatting with families, out solving crimes, chasing bad guys, and scaling cliffs (seriously). That being said, you can't help develop but an affinity for Ms. Afton Tangler. She's amazingly good at untangling a mystery (a little too good at times), but she's also incredibly plucky and genuine. She's like a Melissa McCarthy character in "Spy" or "Bridesmaids" - she's so herself that you fall for her in spite of yourself.

I also always find it impressive when authors can make a book suspenseful even when we know who "did it" from the beginning. Little Girl Gone is told from the ever-popular multi-character POV, so we hear from Afton, but also Susan, and several characters related to the crime itself. So while we see the crime unfold and know exactly who took the Elizabeth Ann, Schmitt still does a good job of making the book exciting as Afton and Max attempt to find the little girl and reunite her with her parents. Because of that, plus Afton's tenacious character, I will still give this one 3 stars, despite some of the crazy plot holes and the occasional less than stellar writing.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher and Netgalley (thank you); it is available everywhere as of 07/05/2016.

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