Thursday, September 28, 2017

She starts to dream and then she stops herself: WHEN WE WERE WORTHY.

When We Were WorthyWhen We Were Worthy by Marybeth Mayhew Whalen

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Mary Claire ("MC") and Brynne are beautiful head cheerleaders and together they rule the local high school of small Worthy, Georgia along with a pack of popular football boys. MC and Brynne have basically adopted two other JV cheerleaders, Keary and Leah, whom they promoted up to varsity. But one evening, everything changes in Worthy when, after another winning football game, one of the high school students, Graham, crashes his car into another, which is carrying a group of three cheerleaders. The girls are killed and suddenly nothing in the small town will ever be the same.

This is a story of heartbreak, secrets, and small towns, told from the perspective of four women. Marglyn, Mary Claire's mother; Darcy, Graham's mother; Ava, a Worthy outsider who has recently moved to town with her husband and who is a substitute teacher at the high school; and Leah, one of the four beloved cheerleaders. All four women have secrets and are struggling to find their place within Worthy.

This novel pulls you in immediately, starting with the crash, which is startling and heartbreaking. From there, everything truly changes in this tiny town, as they grapple with losing "their girls" and with finding someone to blame. Further, the crash starts to uncover some buried secrets. Why wasn't Leah in the car with her other cheerleader friends? Basically, a chain of events is unleashed that no one sees coming. As such, we are witness to a variety of people who are hurting, hiding, and struggling in their own ways--though Whalen does an excellent job of capturing some glimmers of hope as well.

She portrays small town living well: the way football is life, for instance. The four voices are extremely well-done, and you can easily picture the characters and the townspeople. This is a story of interconnected people in a town; it's a slow burning novel but compelling, with the majority of the suspense coming from the secrecy in what Leah was doing that night. Seriously, why wasn't she with her friends in that car? For the most part, I found myself caught up in the drama, with the exception of some of the portions involving Ava and her issues--that was the one area that dragged a bit for me.

Mostly this is a fairly poignant novel. Be prepared--there are lot of feelings. Each women takes plenty of time in their chapters to describe how they feel. But Whalen is an excellent writer, and you'll find yourself caught up in the tale of this town and its messed up happenings, which are certainly better depicted than in many small town novels. There's a twist at the end that makes up for so many plot pieces wrapping up a little too neatly. Overall, a sad one, but compelling, hopeful, and lovely too. Certainly worth a read.

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 09/12/2017.

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Friday, September 22, 2017


Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely FineEleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

Eleanor Oliphant leads a simple, albeit lonely, life. Up in the morning, head to work, and heads down at the office (with a solo break for lunch and the crossword). She spends her evenings and weekends alone--typically with a book, the TV, and a lot vodka. Every Wednesday evening, she speaks on the phone with her mother (Mummy)-- always a painful conversation as her mother is judgemental and exacting. Then one day, Eleanor and Raymond, the slightly oafish IT guy from her office, save the elderly Sammy, who has fallen on the sidewalk. The act turns out to change Eleanor's life--bringing her into Sammy's life and that of his boisterous family--and involving her more with Raymond, as well. Suddenly, it's almost as if Eleanor and Raymond are friends and Eleanor isn't completely lonely anymore. But can her friendship with Raymond erase the sadness in her life?

This book, oh this book. Wow, what a journey. I'm so very glad I finally picked it up. Where do I even begin? First of all, Honeyman captures the voice of Eleanor perfectly. I was honestly a bit surprised when I started this one. I'd been expecting a slightly quirky character (a la the lead in THE ROSIE PROJECT), but there's far more depth and darkness to Eleanor (and her tale) than I imagined. It took me a little longer to get into the story, but once I was: wow. You can visualize Eleanor and her supporting cast so clearly. Raymond comes across effortlessly too. The plot is striking-- an amazing combination of heartbreaking and tender. My heart truly broke for dear Eleanor at times.

I was intrigued by the fact that there's no real huge story, per se, to this novel--it's just Eleanor finding her way in the world. As mentioned, Eleanor and Raymond assist Sammy, and this jolts Eleanor out of her life built around routine and sameness. Forced to come out of her shell, she suddenly sees some things in a new light--her appearance, her job, her friendships (or lack thereof), her apartment, and more. The way Honeyman presents the world--through Eleanor's eyes--is uncanny. I cannot describe how well she captures her diction and how aghast Eleanor is sometimes by the world around her (dirty books from the library, people who waste her time with conversation, the food people eat and how they eat, etc.).

At the same time, you realize how much Eleanor is formed by her childhood, or lack thereof, and it's just... striking. How Honeyman gets this all across in words is amazing. The unexpected darkness and sadness that comes across in the novel and the added layer of suspense she casts as we ponder Eleanor's tragic childhood: it's chilling. The entire book is mesmerizing and beautiful.

That's not to say the book isn't funny or enjoyable, too. Eleanor is her own person, and she's witty and true to her self, for sure. You will find yourself rooting for her personality quirks (of which there are many) and all. If Eleanor's attempts to understand the world don't tug at your heartstrings, I'm not sure anything will (and I'm pretty tough nut to crack when reading, mind you). I was worried that perhaps the moral would be that Eleanor would have to change herself to find happiness, but no, I don't think that was Honeyman's ultimate intent, even if Eleanor does make some "improvements" along the way. (I won't say more for risk of spoilers.) Also, I loved Raymond, as well; his mother; Glen (!!!!); and so many other parts of the story that made me smile. Seriously, even with its sad parts, this book just makes you happy.

Ultimately, this is lovely book, with beautiful, well-written characters. The tale of Eleanor Oliphant will stay with me for a long time, and I'm so glad I finally decided to read this book. Honeyman is an excellent writer, her depiction of Eleanor is gorgeous and heart-rendering and the few flaws I found with this were so minor, as I was left just awed by the end. One of my favorites so far this year. 4.5 stars.

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Thursday, September 21, 2017

And I asked the ethereal girls if they were floating yet: LIES SHE TOLD.

Lies She ToldLies She Told by Cate Holahan

My rating: 2.5 of 5 stars

Liza is a struggling writer given an ultimatum by her editor: write a thriller for me in a month. It's been ages since Liza was on the bestseller list (truly, only her first novel was a real success). Meanwhile, she's a mess of fertility drugs and hormones, as she and her lawyer husband, David, are trying to start a family--and getting nowhere. Even worse, David's best friend and business partner, Nick, has been missing for over a month. David is increasingly frantic and distracted, and the police have no leads. So Liza pours her heart and soul into the story of Beth, a new mom who suspects her own lawyer husband of cheating on her. Beth catches him the act and makes a split-second decision that will change their lives forever. As Liza continues to write, the lines between fact and fiction become increasingly blurred.

I was excited to finally pick this one up, as so many of my friends had enjoyed it, but alas, I'm going to be the killjoy here who stands against the popular wave of public opinion. Please note that most people really loved this book and who knows, maybe I'm just getting cranky in my old age. ;) Or maybe I got too caught up in all the hype.

Either way, this one was a let down for me. The clues left along in the story for the reader stand out as huge glaring red flags, basically just screaming the plot twists out. Nothing came as a surprise, I had the entire thing worked out in about the first 15 minutes. Now, I won't lie, this is still an incredibly readable book - it's a fast read for sure. You immediately realize that Liza is an unreliable narrator and a ticking time bomb. I never really warmed to her, but she's somewhat fascinating in trying to figure out what she's up to and what's truly happening.

I've seen some complaints about it being hard to figure out what chapters were Liza's and which were Beth's--I didn't have that problem. They alternate and in my version, Liza's were marked. I occasionally had to remind myself who had which backstory, but I believe that was part of the idea--of Liza blurring the reality around her. And, truly, it was a great idea in concept.

Unfortunately, I found both women to be somewhat frustrating and didn't really buy all of their actions or relationships. Liza's quick attachment to Trevor, for instance, or some of Beth's bizarre decisions. That made it harder to root for them. And, again, absolutely nothing that occurred was a surprise. That was my biggest issue. I want my thriller to surprise me, but none of the twists were shocking whatsoever, right up to the end. Sigh.

Still, as I said, it's an oddly compelling read with the blurred parallels between Liza and Beth and you "wondering" what happened to Nick. At the end, I pondered for a moment whether it was brilliant or awful, but I just couldn't enjoy something I found so predictable, even if it was a page-turner at times. But, I'm certainly in the minority here, so take my review with a grain of salt!

I received a copy of this novel from the publisher and Netgalley (thank you!) in return for an unbiased review. It's available everywhere as of 09/12/2017.

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Wednesday, September 20, 2017

There's a gem waiting in the junkyard: ONCE AND FOR ALL.

Once and for AllOnce and for All by Sarah Dessen

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Louna is the daughter of a single mother, Natalie Barrett. Natalie runs a famous wedding planning business with her friend William. Together--often with Louna's help--they help frantic brides have the perfect day. But Louna, Natalie, and William are a cynical trio: so much that they even take bets on the success of each wedding after every affair is over and they're cleaning up. Louna has another reason to be cynical: she met her true love the previous summer, but it ended tragically. After graduating high school, she's just trying to get through her last summer and head off to college. Standing in her way: charming Ambrose, the brother of one of her mother's clients. Natalie takes on Ambrose as an employee to appease her client, so Louna is stuck with cheery, serial-dater Ambrose. But the more time she spends with him, the less he starts to bother her...

I was surprisingly charmed by this novel. It's predictable, but in a good way. You know what you get with a Dessen novel, and this book came along at a good time for me. It's more serious than expected (I won't spoil that plot twist for you) but also breezy and sweet at times. Louna is a likeable heroine--flawed, complicated, real. The supporting cast of characters is humorous and realistic: Louna's best friend Jilly, whose parents have a food truck business and saddle Jilly with her many younger siblings; William, with his bride-whisperer tendencies; Natalie, and her rigid obsession with her business; and girl-crazy Ambrose, who verges on stereotype, but manages not to. The book also gives you a fun look into the wedding business, which is sort of enjoyable and lets you see how most of our characters deal with stress.

Overall, this is an engaging novel, with serious undertones. It's a quick read, powered by an enjoyable cast of characters. While there are some dark moments that may surprise you, the romance probably won't. But there's nothing necessarily wrong with that sometimes. :)

My review of Dessen's novel SAINT ANYTHING can be found here.

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Monday, September 18, 2017

I will be the one you say goodnight to: SPOILER ALERT: THE HERO DIES.

Spoiler Alert: The Hero DiesSpoiler Alert: The Hero Dies by Michael Ausiello

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Entertainment reporter Michael Ausiello has enjoyed immense success in his professional life, progressing from writing at a soaps magazine to Entertainment Weekly and TV Guide to his current job as co-founder at Ausiello is well-known for his snarky and knowledgeable insights about pop culture and TV. But while Ausiello's career was taking off, he was going through immense personal anguish: the death of his husband, Kit, from neuroendrocrine cancer in early 2015. Ausiello's memoir catalogues meeting Kit, thirteen years before his death, and also describes the heartbreaking journey of losing him to cancer--with much of the trademark wit and humor we see in many of his entertainment posts.

I don't know what possessed me to request this book. I love Ausiello, his reporting, and his columns, yes, but how I thought I'd come out unscathed from an incredibly sad memoir about a lovely gay man losing his beloved husband to cancer... I don't know. Sure, parts of this memoir are funny and snarky, but much of it is just heartbreaking and gut-wrenching. Good grief. There's no real equivalent of reading about a man openly and honestly telling you about losing a great love of his life.

Ausiello's memoir goes back in forth in time. While most of the book focuses on the present-day: learning about Kit's shocking diagnosis, how that affects couple, and ultimately leading up to his death. Still, he also goes back to when the two met, began to date, and fall in love. There's a sweetness to reading about young Kit and Mike, for sure. The early parts of the memoir very much remind me of reading pieces of someone's journal. Some of the beginning parts were a bit of a struggle for me, as you get bogged down in so much detail: what they ate, where they went, where they walked, who called who, etc. That was a little excruciating at times, but as I said, there was also a sweetness and tenderness to it. It just seemed like sometimes there was a little too much oversharing--details and moments that weren't necessarily relevant to the overall story. A little too much telling versus showing, especially in the first half or so of the book.

However, as it continues, it either improves or I became more used to the style. You become really caught up in Kit and Mike's relationship journey. It's painful and sad to read, but there are definitely humorous parts interspersed within as well (thank goodness). Ausiello appears to be brutally honest in his portrayal of everything--the ups and downs of their relationship, the cancer and its toll on Kit (and Mike), and more. What we're left with is a heartbreaking, poignant tale, with a reminder to truly live life to the fullest, as you really never know what comes next.

Overall, despite a slow (detailed) start, this is a lovely tribute to Mike and Kit's love and life together. It's heartbreaking and touching and a beautiful ode to his husband. My heart goes out to Ausiello, but after reading Kit and Mike's story, you'll be left grateful for the time the two had together. We should all be so lucky. 3.5 stars.

I received a copy of this novel from the publisher and Netgalley (thank you!) in return for an unbiased review. It is available everywhere as of 09/12/2017.

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Friday, September 15, 2017

I won't fall for your games: CLASS MOM.

Class MomClass Mom by Laurie Gelman

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Jen Dixon is back in kindergarten. She thought her days as "Class Mom" were behind her: Jen's two daughters are in college after all. But Jen, at age forty-six, is back on the Mom circuit, with her first husband, Ron, and five-year-old son, Max. This is Jen's chance to do things over again, with a husband and the security she lacked the first time around. So when her best friend Nina (also PTA President) asks Jen to be Class Mom, she agrees. The duties of Class Mom seem fairly simple--coordinate field trips, set up class parties, and send out emails to the other parents. Jen does this with aplomb and a fairly decent level of sarcasm, which isn't always appreciated by all the parents. At the same time, she's training for a mud run and attempting to keep the flame going in her marriage with Ron. It doesn't help when she discovers that her high school crush is another parent in Max's class. Jen has a lot going on--can she juggle it all?

This book appealed to me on LibraryThing as I have two daughters in kindergarten and am suddenly in the midst of the whole school dynamic. Luckily, things aren't quite as dramatic as the school portrayed in Gelman's novel! The book came along at a pretty good time, as I've read a string of fairly serious thrillers recent. It's certainly a funny and fast read.

I couldn't help but like Jen. She's an engaging protagonist. Her struggles as a parent, wife, and friend are realistic and yet humorous. Her surrounding cast of characters, while not quite as fleshed out, are also funny, though not perhaps always as realistic (more on that later). I enjoyed that her husband, best friend, and kids weren't the typical stereotypes or cardboard cutouts you often see in novels, but real people, with issues of their own.

Also enjoyable was the way the novel interspersed Jen's emails to the class at the beginnings of many chapters (along with a variety of replies). They were usually funny and lightened up the book and surprisingly moved the plot along fairly well. They also made me grateful for some of the lack of politics at my kids' school--so far. It's still early though, sigh!

The only problem for me was that a lot of the good in this book--great characters, humor--was marred a bit by just a lot going on--not all of it completely believable. There are some silly plotlines thrown in that almost don't seem necessary and once resolved, are a bit disappointing. There's one last "shocker" tossed in at the very end of the novel that did surprise me somewhat, but I'm not really sure it was needed.

Still, this is a very engaging and fun novel for a first-time novelist. It's not a pretentious literary piece, but it's not aiming to be. Instead, it's certainly a witty and fascinating look at the craziness that happens in your children's classrooms. 3.5 stars.

I received a copy of this novel from the publisher and LibraryThing (thank you!) in return for an unbiased review; it is available everywhere as of 08/01/2017.

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Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Slip and fall if I take one more step: DEAD WOMAN WALKING.

Dead Woman WalkingDead Woman Walking by Sharon Bolton

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Jessica Lane treats her sister, Isabel (known to most as Sister Mary Magdalena, as her sister has been serving in a convent for many years) to a hot air balloon ride for her 40th birthday. But things go awry when Jessica--from the balloon--sees a man murder a young woman. From the ground, he spots her face clearly. Then the balloon crashes, and there is only one survivor. The man knows she can identify him, and he won't stop until the threat to his safety is eliminated. So Jessica runs, unsure of who she can trust, or where she can go, all the while knowing that her beloved sister is dead.

Wow, what a book. I don't want to say more about the plot for risk of spoilers or ruining any of the awesome "whoa" moments you encounter while reading this one. The story flashes back and forth in time as Jessica tells us about the day of the accident and then various pieces of the past. It's a combination of suspenseful, confusing, and spellbinding that will grip you from the very beginning. You're immediately roped in as the balloon crashes and then left wondering about the sisters' past, which is only unveiled in small nuggets.

I found this book to be extremely tense. As in, my body was actually tight while reading. I was rigidly turning pages, wondering what was going to happen next and if Jessica was going to get to safety. Bolton made me suspicious of everything and everyone--I felt like our protagonist: I could trust no one.

One of the best parts of this novel is that in addition to our "Fugitive"-esque plot, we have a fascinating police case weaved in. This really keeps the book moving as the plot continues to thicken. Not only is Jessica being pursued, but we're learning more and more about the case she was researching in the years and months before the crash. In addition, the final layer is the snippets about the sisters and their tangled family past. Somehow, Bolton twists them all together nearly effortlessly. You have to be able to keep track of when everything occurs (the chapters are just marked as "XX amount of time before" the crash), but you get used to it.

I totally guessed one of the big shocking aspects of the novel early on, but I was still second guessing myself the whole time, and it didn't diminish my enjoyment of it whatsoever, plus there was still so much that completely surprised me. To the extent that I wish I had time to go back and read it again and figure out how I missed so many things! Seriously. This book made me go "wow!" multiple times. It captivated me the entire time I was reading it. There was one final twist too many for complete plausibility at the end to get 4.5 stars, but I still highly recommend this one. A wonderful, spellbinding thriller that cements for me how much I love Bolton's work.

I received a copy of this novel from the publisher and Netgalley (thank you!) in return for an unbiased review; the U.S. version is available everywhere as of 09/05/2017.

You can read my review of Bolton's novel LITTLE BLACK LIES here.

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Wednesday, September 06, 2017

And it's a hard ride when you feel your life tied down: THE LYING GAME.

The Lying GameThe Lying Game by Ruth Ware

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Isa, Kate, Fatima, and Thea were the best of friends for a year in boarding school. Thick as thieves, they kept to themselves at Salten House, bonded by a game they invented (The Lying Game), where they came up with increasingly higher stakes lies for a series of points and boasting rights. The girls spent much of their time at The Mill House, Kate's childhood home--a quick walk across the marsh from their boarding school and home to Kate's father, Ambrose, and stepbrother, Luc. But all that changes when Ambrose, an art teacher at Salten, dies; a scandal is uncovered; and the girls are expelled. Years pass without the four women seeing each other, until they receive a text from Kate: I need you. Isa--with her baby daughter in tow, Fatima, and Thea return to The Mill House, where Kate still lives, to help their friend. But what exactly happened all those years ago? And are the women still playing The Lying Game?

So I probably enjoyed this novel more than I should have, considering it's rather predictable. There are so few characters in the book as a whole, it seems, for the ending to be that grand of a surprise. It's also a slow-moving mystery where much of the drama could be avoided if the characters would just talk to each other or tell the truth - ever. The main character, Isa, puts her baby in danger far more often than a reasonable parent would, and for what? Even worse, while Isa is a fairly well-developed main character, her three best friends seem to be more of cliches or stereotypes than fleshed out characters.

Still, Ware has had this hold on me on each of her two previous novels--and she did it again here. The book is just oddly readable, and I found myself drawn to it, despite its flaws, so I have to give that to her. I read it rather quickly, despite being swamped at work, and found myself sneaking away to finish it on my lunch break. It's very descriptive, just like her first two books, and you can easily picture the eerie setting. Even if you're not fully invested in what's happening or you're pretty sure what's going to happen, or who was involved, there's just something compelling that makes you keep reading. The novel is told from Isa's point of view, unfolding in the present, but flashing back to her memories of the past. It's a rather effective technique, as we only figure out plot pieces as she does and can discern bits and pieces of the story through Isa's perspective alone.

Overall, I'd hoped for a bit more, and I probably enjoyed Ware's first two novels as a cohesive whole more than this one. But I won't deny that I found this book intriguing and that it kept me reading. There's certainly a lot in the novel that requires you to suspend some elements of disbelief. Still, I'll definitely continue to read anything Ware writes--she just has a fascinating style.

You can read my review of IN A DARK, DARK WOOD here and THE WOMAN IN CABIN 10 here.

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Saturday, September 02, 2017

Playing your story in fits and starts: YOU DON'T KNOW ME BUT I KNOW YOU.

You Don't Know Me But I Know YouYou Don't Know Me But I Know You by Rebecca Barrow

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Audrey is in high school--leading a busy life filled with her art and photography, her boyfriend, her friends, and planning for her future. Audrey is also especially close to her mother, Laura, a formerly famous actress who adopted Audrey as a baby. Overall, Audrey thinks her life is pretty good. But things change dramatically when Audrey learns she is pregnant. She loves her boyfriend, Julian, and the two of them have been practicing safe sex. Yet, here she is, with some major decisions to make. Years ago, Audrey's birth mother made a big decision, and as a result, Audrey has had her happy life. What choice should she make, and how will it affect all the people she loves?

This novel wasn't exactly what I was expecting, even though it's certainly a fairly realistic look at teen life and angst. It's a little hard to read at times, but Audrey certainly doesn't have an easy decision to make, either. For me, I found the novel oddly stressful at times. I found myself rather attached to Audrey. She was a very sympathetic and engaging character. She's nearly a woman, yet just a kid. Nearly all of Barrow's characters are fairly well-developed, but Audrey is the best. She's real, complicated, and confused. I enjoyed her and her depth.

That's not to say I didn't have issues with parts of this novel. There's a lot of fighting. There's a subplot where Audrey and her best friend, Rose, bicker. Audrey tries to push Julian away, at times. These portions can get irritating, and they drag the novel on. The Rose/Audrey fighting pieces slowed things down time after time. The friendship drama, while realistic, was very YA and got a little tiresome.

Still, Audrey's friendship with her group of friends is lovely and realistic. There are a lot of sweet and tender moments in the novel and much to love in Audrey's interactions with her family and friends, especially her relationship with Julian. It's surprisingly mature, yet rooted in the lives of two high school students. There's also a bisexual character who is just part of the novel-it's not a big deal-which is always so refreshing to see in YA literature.

Overall, this one was a little tough to read - unexpected pregnancy isn't exactly an easy subject matter. It doesn't gloss over the subject, and I appreciate that. Some of the writing is a little cliche and slow at times, but it's a first book, and there's a lot here for a debut author. Audrey is a dynamic character, very real, and the book has some endearing moments. Certainly an author to watch.

I received a copy of this novel from the publisher and Edelweiss (thank you!); it is available everywhere as of 08/29/2017.

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