Monday, November 28, 2016

She can't help it if she's made that way: THE WHISTLER.

The WhistlerThe Whistler by John Grisham

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Lacy Stolz is a lawyer and investigator for the Florida Board on Judicial Conduct. Along with a small team, she investigates misconducts by Florida judges. It's a pretty quiet and safe job, and her fellow underfunded and underpaid investigators do not see much excitement either. They are not cops, after all. But when a corruption case is assigned to Lacy and her partner, Hugo, everything changes. The claimant, Greg Myers, tells Lacy and Hugo that a Florida judge is stealing vast sums of money - so much money it will blow their minds. His claim brings Lacy and Hugo into the world of the Coast Mafia: a secret, well-hidden, and highly protective group involved with a Native American casino in Florida. With the judge's help, they've constructed the casino and vast amounts of related real estate and are now skimming huge amounts of the casino's take each month. The Native Americans are enjoying prosperity, the members of the Coast Mafia are living high, and the judge is richer than anyone could dream. But Lacy's client wants to end it all. He has the information, but can he and Lacy stop an organization this powerful and deadly?

It's always hard to pass up a Grisham novel. Even if he's not at his best (it's hard to top books like The Client and The Pelican Brief, in my humble opinion), you know you'll get an intriguing tale. And this one was no exception. It's an interesting and suspenseful thriller that entertains you for a few days, even if it doesn't have the memorable characters and plotlines of the previously mentioned novels. As with many of Grisham's books, this would make a good movie, it quickly sucks you in with its suspense. I actually found myself avoiding it at night, as it was so stressful. Lacy is an interesting character (but again, she's certainly no Darby Shaw), and you'll find yourself rooting for her. The drama surrounding the Coast Mafia, the casino, and the judge keeps your attention well enough.

Still, nothing about this book is incredibly engaging, or enduring. While it's suspenseful in the moment, it's not a Grisham novel that will stick with me. The ending felt rushed and a little anti-climatic. If you're a Grisham fan, you'll enjoy it, but it probably won't be one of your all-time favorites.

You can read my review of Grisham's ROGUE LAWYER, here.

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Wednesday, November 23, 2016

In a world full of people you can lose sight of it all: THE ICE BENEATH HER.

The Ice Beneath HerThe Ice Beneath Her by Camilla Grebe

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A young woman is found brutally beheaded in the home of a famous businessman, Jesper Orre. The scene is chaotic and bloody and to Detective Peter Lindgren, it is eerily reminiscent of a case he and his partner, Manfred Olsson, worked 10 years ago where a male immigrant was also found beheaded. That case was never solved. Here, in present day, Jesper is mysteriously missing, and Peter and Manfred have no idea about the murdered woman's identity. So they turn to Hanne, a behavioral police consultant, who helped the police with their case ten years ago. But Hanne has a secret of her own. She's recently be diagnosed with dementia, and is forced to carry around a notebook, which she uses to record all the events around her, desperately trying to remember everything. Cut to two months earlier, where young shop worker Emma receives a proposal from Jesper Orre, the enigmatic CEO of the clothing store where she works. Jesper wants to keep their relationship a secret: he's been hit hard lately by the press. Emma complies, but when Jesper never shows up for their engagement dinner, she's befuddled. As time passes, Jesper doesn't respond to Emma's texts or calls, and she becomes increasingly enraged.

This was an intriguing Swedish thriller. The beginning half to three fourths of the novel kept me guessing and rather engaged. I was truly stumped and trying to figure out exactly what was happening (which doesn't always occur for me). Is Emma an unreliable narrator? Who is the dead girl in Jesper's house? Where is Jesper? The book is set up to really draw you in. As it continues, I started to draw more connections and eventually figured out a lot of the plot. That's not exactly a big deal; figuring out a mystery is part of reading such a novel, correct? For me, one of the hardest things with this particular novel was that I just didn't really connect or empathize with its main characters. Peter was pretty much an empty shell and not at all sympathetic. Emma was a tough one to read and to engage with. Hanne was probably my favorite, but she didn't get a lot of "air" time, so to speak.

My other problem is that I felt like I'd stumbled into this novel in the middle, as if I'd missed a previous novel, and this was the second novel in the series. Peter and Hanne apparently had had a relationship previously, which was then touched upon again, as was Hanne's Alzheimer's, but I felt like there wasn't a lot of resolution to either. It was just sort of inserted into the story without a lot of bearing on the actual mystery plot and seemed awkward. Same with some references to Peter's detective partner, Manfred, and his life.

Overall, this was an interesting thriller, and I really did find the plot intriguing and well thought out, for the most part. I enjoyed reading the portions where I was scratching my head, trying to figure out how everyone was connected. It was a little less enjoyable once I deduced most of it, and I wish I had related to the characters better, or understood how their backstories were woven in to the fabric of the actual mystery.

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 12/27/2016.

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Monday, November 21, 2016

Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you: THE SUN IS ALSO A STAR.

The Sun Is Also a StarThe Sun Is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Natasha is a Jamaica-born teenager who believes more in science than true love. She and her family are also about to be deported back to Jamaica. (As in today.) Daniel, the son of Korean-born parents, is a dutiful son who dreams of becoming a poet. Daniel loves words and the idea of fate. When he meets Natasha, he's convinced she's his. His fate, his true love. Natasha isn't so sure, but she can't help but admit that this handsome, intelligent boy is something special.

What follows is an amazing story of two young people: most of it occurring across the day they meet. Told from the alternating perspectives of Natasha and Daniel, but interspersed with bits and pieces of history, facts, and small insights into the people with whom they come into contact on their one magical day, this is a beautiful, lovely, and touching story. Daniel readily admits in the novel that he's a cheesy guy, and yes, the story may be a bit cheesy at points, but boy, it draws you in immediately, and it's just... great. I really loved Yoon's first book, Everything, Everything, and I think this one may be even better. How does she do it?

Daniel and Natasha spring to life in front of you, as you frantically flip pages, wondering what will become of these two people. The bit players in their life take on a life all of their own, thanks to the little insight you receive via their own chapters. I am just awed at how well this woman writes teenage characters - spirited, real, flawed, lovely characters. I read the second half of this book in one sitting, because I just had to see how it ended, and find out the fate of Natasha and Daniel.

Indeed, the racial and immigration plotlines of this novel could not seem more timely, what with the Presidential Election and the current tumult America is undergoing. I wish this book was required reading of every citizen.

"If people who were actually born here had to prove they were worthy enough to live in America, this would be a much less populated country." ~ Natasha

This is not just a potential love story; this is a book that will make you think and make you cry. It's a love story of teens, it's an ode to New York City, and it's a tribute to both science and poetry. I highly recommend it.

You can find my review of Everything, Everything here.

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Friday, November 18, 2016

I guess it's been a long decline: SEPARATE LIVES.

Separate LivesSeparate Lives by Kathryn Flett

My rating: 2.5 of 5 stars

It all begins when Susie sees the text on Alex's phone: "Start living a different kind of life ...P :-) xxx." Convinced he's having an affair, Susie sets off on her own trajectory that threatens their partnership of ten years and their life with their two children. And Alex? Is he completely innocent in all of this? And what about the mysterious P?

This novel is told from the alternating point of view of Susie, Alex, and Pippa. Susie's pieces come via standard narrative, Alex's mainly through email exchanges with his brothers and sister, and Pippa via emails to her sister. While this starts off as sort of enjoyable and different, it can grow old quickly (though the email format moved quickly at least). For instance, Pippa and Susie have a way of veering off into tangents about their past, which drove me absolutely insane. These summaries seemed not at all relevant to the book (what they wore and read at seventeen!) and dragged the narrative down and the story on forever.

Meanwhile, the novel sounds interesting in its premise: a group of characters brought together by a potential technological misunderstanding. It's certainly why I selected it as an ARC. The problem is that none of the characters are remotely redeemable or likeable. While a book that revolves around infidelity may not always have the most personable of characters, you can usually find some humanity them. This group: I just could not find any reason to root for them. I would find an occasional glimpse in Susie or Pippa, but overall, they all annoyed me with their whining and life choices, and I felt sorry for their children! Add to that a plot filled with a variety of twists and turns that would be better off in a soap opera or Lifetime movie (surprise pregnancies! love affairs with a spouse's siblings!), and my frustration level reached its peak. Again, there were moments I liked, but overall I just didn't find a lot of humor or enjoyment in this novel. 2.5 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 12/06/2016

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Tuesday, November 15, 2016

This'd be a real good time to hold my hand: YOU WILL KNOW ME.

You Will Know MeYou Will Know Me by Megan Abbott

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Katie Knox's life basically revolves around her teenage daughter, Devon, an extremely talented gymnast who is on a path to the Olympics. Katie and her husband, Eric, have given up their lives, their time, and their money for Devon's dream. But when a sudden death hits their close gymnastic community a few weeks before an important competition, this dream suddenly seems in jeopardy. Devon's fellow gymnasts and their families are awash in gossip as their beloved coach and his family deal with an unexpected loss. Katie wants only to focus on healing and moving on, but she finds her family drawn into the swirl, as each day reveals more surprises about her daughter and husband.

This novel was a very realistic look at the gymnastics world. You could easily picture Devon's gym and the cutthroat parents who populated it, forcing the weight of the world on Devon's shoulders, as they believed the gym's success rides on her shoulders. She captured their gossip and competition quite well. It also did an excellent job of portraying the lengths parents will go to support and protect their children. I guessed the outcome of this one fairly early on, but still found it fairly tense and suspenseful. In fact, this novel is almost too tense at times to be enjoyable, even though it's rather well-written and quite compelling. It's a trainwreck; you can't walk away, even though you know how it will end.

The book is intriguing in that it's written from Katie's perspective, despite the fact that it's basically all about Devon. This adds to the suspense -- how reliable is Katie, and how much does she truly know about Devon, her husband, and her younger son? There are times when you'd really love to key in on what Devon is thinking (and what she knows), which just adds to the tantalizingly frustrating element of this novel.

Overall, I enjoyed this one, though it wasn't one of my all-time favorite thrillers. Still, it's a quick, compelling read. 3.5 stars.

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Friday, November 11, 2016

Smiling, did you see me smiling: TEACH ME TO FORGET.

Teach Me to ForgetTeach Me to Forget by Erica M. Chapman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ellery, a high school student, has a plan. Not a plan for after graduation, or for prom, or even how to pass her next exam. Ellery's plan is how she's going to kill herself. But when Ellery's plan fails, she finds herself at the local Kmart, trying to return the gun that foiled her suicide attempt. There she is confronted by the store security guard, a student in her English class. Colter Sawyer appears to be everything Ellery is not: namely, happy. But Colter has some skeletons in his past, as well, and he quickly deduces Ellery's plans. He gives Ellery an ultimatum: if she can hang on until Halloween, he won't reveal her intentions to anyone else. As Ellery tries to hide her depression from Colter, she also finds herself surprised to have a friend--and discovers herself potentially falling in love with Colter. But is love enough to save her from herself?

This novel starts with a line that immediately grabs your attention and it does a pretty good job of keeping it throughout. It's a quick read, but a heartbreaking one. The pain these teenagers are in is horrific, but overall Chapman does a fairly good job of capturing their real emotion. Your heart will hurt that these teens are dealing with such burdens in their lives.

Overall, I was mostly impressed with the realism in this novel; it truly captures why Ellery would want to kill herself, as well as her friend Dean, another mentally ill kid she meets at school. It is a pretty accurate portrayal overall of depression, and this comes from someone who has lost someone they loved to suicide and who suffers from depression. This book is certainly a good learning experience for those dealing with depression (and especially for those who love them), but it could be a trigger to those dealing with suicidal thoughts. Please keep that in mind.

While reading, I was initially annoyed because I thought this would be a "love can triumph over true depression" but the novel becomes more realistic as time passes. I also almost didn't give the book 4 stars as it seemed a bit of a "straw book": the characters and emotions are there, but I felt it lacked a bit of the depth of a Rowell or Jennifer Niven's latest. Still, it contains such an important message, and I felt so strongly for Ellery and Colter by the end, that 4 stars seemed warranted. There's a depth in feeling in dear Ellery that cannot be ignored. (Also, there should be more Colters in the world.)

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 12/2/2016.

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Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Because a vision softly creeping left its seeds while I was sleeping: THE ANIMATORS.

The AnimatorsThe Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sharon Kisses (yep, that's her real name) and Mel Vaught meet in college in upstate New York. Sharon is a reserved, talented girl from a rural Kentucky town. Mel is a out, tough, lesbian from Florida -- all bravado hiding a softer interior. The two form a fast friendship, bonding quickly over their art and their family histories: both come from dysfunctional families who have formed the girls into what they are today. Mel and Sharon pour this into their art, and they become talented animation partners, with their first movie showing a raw, truthful look at Mel's childhood and her mother, a rough woman who ended up in jail. The two are on the cusp of success -- tours, awards, artistic grants. But success comes with an edge: Mel starts drinking and turning to drugs, while Sharon doubts herself and her role in this brilliant duo. Suddenly, however, none of that matters when tragedy strikes the pair, and everything they've known changes in an instant.

This book is insane and amazing. I honestly had no idea what it was about when I started to read it; I surely had read the ARC blurb when I chose it, but had forgotten by the time I began, and the cover art seems to indicate a light-hearted tale about movies and animation. It is not. This is a powerful, gut-wrenching novel that will drag you into its story and characters and eventually spit you out, exhilarated and exhausted. There was so much about this novel I loved and related to: the fast friendship of two girls in college; an actual lead lesbian character (but whose lesbianism wasn't her only defining aspect - how refreshing); Sharon and her doubts and insecurities - the way she feels as if she's disappearing into herself in her thirties; the way Whitaker so easily captured growing up in a rural town (Sharon's Kentucky hometown)... I immediately identified with both characters, although Sharon is our protagonist, and the one telling us our story.

I won't lie to you: this book will make you feel uncomfortable. It's not a fun read, or really even a pleasant one. It's not a "feel good novel." It hurts--physically hurts--to read this book. Some of the novel is uneven, and it jumps around a bit. This is Whitaker's first novel, and I think she's only going to get more amazing as she goes, because you can look past this, and see so much power and force in this book. It's raw. It's the story of a friendship, and it's told so beautifully that you are completely drawn into Mel and Sharon's world. When you read this book, there is really nothing else going on in your life but this novel. Mel and Sharon are real, you love them, and you can see them in your mind. (I saw Mel as Kate McKinnon, despite the references to Lori Petty.) The storyline, for me, was unexpected, and, as I said, jumped a bit, but it worked. I had one issue with the end (a bit of a cliche about straight/lesbian friendship, but I won't go into it much, for spoiler reasons), but otherwise, found this novel to be energetic and forceful. It's dark, it's an ode to art and friendship and life, it's deep - I really have no words. It will take you to an exposed place inside of yourself, but you'll be glad it did.

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 1/31/2017.

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Friday, November 04, 2016

In the early morning rain with no place to go: DEAR MR. M

Dear Mr. MDear Mr. M by Herman Koch

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"M" is a famous writer whose best days are probably, if truth be told, behind him. He's best known for his novel, Payback, which tells the story of a high school history teacher, Mr. Landzaat, who went missing one winter after having an affair with one of his female students. That student, Laura, had moved on to a relationship with a boy her own age, Herman. The two were staying at a vacation cottage and were the last ones to see their teacher. Did they have something to do with his disappearance? Now, M lives with his beautiful (much younger) wife and little daughter in an apartment. They have a neighbor who seems to have a odd fascination with the couple, but why? The novel weaves together the tales of these disparate characters.

I had heard a lot about Koch's novels and was excited to win this one via a Goodreads Giveaway. It was certainly interesting and definitely different than many novels I read. I have to admit that it was a rather slow read, especially the first three quarters or so. There was actually a point where I was considering giving up for a bit, but I soldiered on. Some characters in the novels never have names (just initials), and we don't really get insight into who our varying narrators are. While I understand why (and it adds to the drama of the novel), I'll confess that it gets a little confusing at times. You really have to stay on your toes as you read.

Still, the novel is definitely more compelling toward the end, and I found myself staying up late to finish it. The twist at the end was certainly not what I expected. The varying viewpoints wind up working out well, as you really see the story unfold from everyone's perspective. Still, I found the story a bit diluted by a bit of a "meta" storyline about writers, as well as an odd insertion about M's father and his role in the resistance, as well as M's own views, which never really seemed to have a full role or point in the tale. I enjoyed the novel, but I didn't love it, and it (frankly) exhausted me a bit.

I received a copy of this novel via a Goodreads Giveaway (thank you!) in return for an unbiased review.

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Thursday, November 03, 2016

Like two sparrows in a hurricane: HOLDING UP THE UNIVERSE.

Holding Up the UniverseHolding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Libby Strout has the distinction of being "America's Fattest Teen" -- the girl who was once lifted out of her house with a crane. But no one has ever really taken the time to know Libby, a complicated and kind person who is still struggling with her mom's death and the aftermath of the crane incident. But Libby is stronger than people realize and she's now ready to try high school for the first time. She wants to experience life at a real school: with friends, clubs, love, and more. At school, Libby meets Jack Masselin. Jack is a popular kid struggling with a secret: he doesn't recognize faces. This issue makes high school popularity (and life) surprisingly complicated. Jack's life becomes even more complicated when he gets caught up in an awful high school bullying game that involves Libby. As a result, the two of them wind up in counseling together. Suddenly, they are spending a lot of time together and becoming surprising friends.

This was just a lovely book. I sped through this novel in about a day, because it was just so amazing, but I sort of wish I had savored it more, because it was so good. Libby is an excellent character. There were moments were I was simply amazed by her, and it's easy to say that I fell hard for her. Jack, too, but Libby - Libby is something special. I had read reviews (before the book came out) saying that its coverage of Libby's weight was offensive, but I didn't find it offensive at all. If anything, the book is empowering, and there were passages that made me want to stand up and shout for her. You cannot help but root for Libby.

As with many YA books, it did seem like Jack and Libby were a little mature for high school, but mostly, they felt right on point; if anything, they were each a reflection of how kids have to grow up so much faster now, what with the world being so cruel and all the bullying around them. Besides, each had suffered so much in their own way, even if Jack's life was so much easier on the surface than Libby's. Because I'd read Niven's previous novel, I was constantly waiting for something awful to happen, so there was that. :) I have to say that I enjoyed this one more than All the Bright Places, even if that's hearsay for some. It was a well-written and beautiful book and just left me with a good feeling at the end... even if it also left me wishing I could meet Jack and Libby in real life.

You can read my review of ALL THE BRIGHT PLACES here.

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Tuesday, November 01, 2016

I've been careless before, so be careful with me: AFTERMATH.

AftermathAftermath by Clara Kensie

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

As a young teen, Charlotte was kidnapped, and spent over four horrible years as a prisoner of her kidnapper, locked in his attic. The only thing that kept Charlotte going through the violence was the thoughts of her family: her mom, dad, and twin sister, Alexa. She imagined Alexa fulfilling all the fantasies the girls wrote down in their dream book. Then, one day, Charlotte manages to escape. She's suddenly "free," but the life she returns to as a sixteen-year-old is nothing like she imagined. Her parents have split, her mother is an alcoholic, her father is using her disappearance for fame, and her sister has completely changed. Charlotte, meanwhile, is struggling with the return to normalcy and finds herself obsessed with the girl kidnapped before herself: a girl her keeper tortured her with to behave, using her death as a way to keep Charlotte in life. Will Charlotte ever be able to move on until she knows what happened to the girl before her?

This was an interesting and rather original novel. Where often you get a story leading up to a kidnapping, or a mystery trying to solve who kidnapped someone, in Kensie's tale, Charlotte's actual confinement takes up little of the story. She learns who her kidnapper is pretty quickly (he never revealed his name to her). Instead, the novel truly does focus on the aftermath of her kidnapping: how will Charlotte recover from this horrible trauma. And, indeed, how will her family recover as well? The novel hooks you very quickly, and I found myself then wondering how Kensie would sustain such an odd plot without the push of a kidnapping or whodunnit (although there is Charlotte's desire to find the girl before her, but we only have her word that she existed). But the novel is very nuanced and has a psychological depth to it. Initially, I was wary that Charlotte wasn't going to exhibit a lot of signs of a young girl who spent four years trapped and abused; she seemed to jump easily from twelve to sixteen. But as Kensie peels away the layers, we do see how much Charlotte is suffering, and how hard it is for her to adjust to life outside of the attic.

While the tale focuses on Charlotte, we also get to see how her disappearance affected her family, as well, which is an interesting technique, as many kidnapping stories don't always involve the family. The dynamic between Charlotte and her twin, for instance, is a complex one, and well-portrayed. Kensie also throws in several surprises along the way, plot-wise: in a novel where you wouldn't think there would be much to hide. These devices don't seem contrived, however, but fit in nicely with the flow of the story.

Overall, this was a nice change of pace from a typical kidnapping novel and well-written. I still think some of Charlotte's adjustment was a little too easy overall, but it didn't detract from my overall enjoyment of the novel. A strong 3.5 stars.

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 11/1/2016.

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