Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Doing things the wrong way: SOCIABLE.

SociableSociable by Rebecca Harrington

My rating: 2.5 of 5 stars

After college, Elinor moves to New York with her journalism degree and dreams of writing pieces that mean something. She sees a future with her boyfriend, Mike, also a journalist. Instead, Elinor lives in a cramped apartment with no kitchen, sleeps on a foam pad, and nannies to two slightly whiny and obsessive children. She thinks her future is looking up when she's offered a position at, a digital brand a la BuzzFeed. But soon Elinor learns that her sole function there is to produce pieces that go "viral" and then she and Mike break up, pushing her into a deeper depression. Is it even possible to have the creative and romantic life she dreamed of, Elinor wonders?

I won't lie; this was a strange book. Even the narration style is odd. While it's told mostly from Elinor's point of view, we get this peculiar device thrown in at times (e.g., "the reader should know"). You get used to it eventually, but still.

In fact, the whole novel can be very awkward at times and after a while, I lost the thread on whether it was because the book was well-done (she's so well-written!) or just awkward and painful. A lot of the book features much melodrama between the characters, most of whom always seemed to be having bad days. Really, was life so terrible? There is much angst, a lot of social media usage, lots of happy hours and supposed networking, and not a lot of people to care about.

For indeed, a lot of the characters are not likable, and I found myself vacillating in my feelings for Elinor. I didn't grow up in the social media world, like she, but am immersed in it enough now that I could empathize with her--to a point. At some stages, the novel really captured some painful situations. There were some funny points, and places where Elinor could be helpless yet sympathetic. At other points, Elinor was just hapless and unable to take charge of her life in any capacity and filled me with abject terror for the future of the nation.

I was honestly baffled at times on whether the book was satiric, or a commentary on social media and journalism, or taking itself too seriously. Elinor winds up working for, which is said to be similar to BuzzFeed (and many other sites), and she's told to make things go viral, which, funnily enough, she has a bit of a knack for, despite her own inability to make friends or succeed in social situations (or life, in general). Whether all of this is ironic or not, I'll never quite know.

So, in the end, I'm at a loss with this one. I really don't know how I feel. Satire? A look at a generation? A bunch of hapless unlikable people prattling on? All three combined? I can say that this was a fast read--the author drew me in, as I read it in about a day. I was left with a weird feeling when I finished. I can't say I really recommend it, but it was an interesting read at times. 2.5 stars.

I received a copy of this novel from the publisher and Edelweiss in return for an unbiased review (thank you!); it is available everywhere as of 03/27/2018.

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Saturday, March 24, 2018

Adventures half discarded: NOT THAT I COULD TELL.

Not That I Could Tell: A NovelNot That I Could Tell: A Novel by Jessica Strawser

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In the quiet town of Yellow Springs, Ohio, the disappearance of one of its residents, Kristin, is a big deal. She vanishes after an evening with several of her neighbors, filled with wine and conversation around the fire pit. She also takes her young twins, Aaron and Abigail. Left behind is her soon-to-be-ex-husband, Paul, a well-known ob-gyn. A window in Kristin's house is broken and some of her belongings missing. But otherwise, there is no trace or idea about where she and the twins have gone. Paul accuses her of disappearing with money owed to him. Kristin's neighbors, especially her next-door neighbor, Clara, for whom Kristin's disappearance hits a bit close to home, and Izzy, a single woman who recently moved to the neighborhood to get away from her own issues, are baffled. They realize how little they knew about their friend--and that they have no idea where she's gone.

This was an interesting one. From the beginning, this book felt familiar to me--the "something happened" after a barbecue reminiscent of Truly Madly Guilty and others I'd read lately. I was sick while reading, so I had trouble keeping the women and their backstories separate for a while. Too much cold medicine and fatigue, probably.

The book is told from various viewpoints--mainly Clara and Izzy. I was always expecting there to be more: some unexpected surprise or twist, but there never really was. The ending threw in a bit of one, but it wasn't quite what I was expecting. Still, there is a tenseness to the novel, and it can certainly be creepy at times. The novel also does a good job of capturing kids and parenthood--the weariness of the day-to-day of parenting small children, for instance. I also liked how it captured how preschools can be a microcosm of life and small towns and such a cesspool of stress and gossip.

This one moved slowly for me. I liked the characters, but wasn't drawn to them. I had some sympathy for Izzy, but also questioned her motives a lot. I should have been more drawn to Clara, but wasn't. Perhaps because, while I have small children, I don't have the same sort of neighborhood tribe as these women? I'm not sure. Not even the token lesbian neighbors could do it, though I appreciated the effort.

Overall, the story was good, but never offered the big surprise I was waiting for. Characters are interesting but I was never fully pulled into their stories. 3 stars.

I received a copy of this novel from the publisher and Netgalley in return for an unbiased review (thank you); it is available everywhere as of 03/27/2018.

You can read my review of Strawser's ALMOST MISSED YOU here.

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Tuesday, March 20, 2018

But there's no use hiding away: THE BROKEN GIRLS.

The Broken GirlsThe Broken Girls by Simone St. James

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Idlewild Hall has been abandoned since 1979. Until then, it was a boarding school of last resort, where parents sent the daughters they'd sooner rather forget. Now someone is looking to restore it, bringing back all of journalist Fiona Sheridan's memories of her teenage sister, Deb. Deb was murdered and her body left in the fields of Idlewild. A rich teen--her sister's boyfriend--named Tim Christopher was charged with Deb's murder. But it never seemed quite right to Fiona. So, she decides to write a story about the restoration, but encounters more than she bargained for as she begins to uncover years of long-buried secrets.

This is a wonderful, captivating book that drew me in immediately. I've never read anything by Simone St. James, so this was a welcome surprise. The novel alternates between two time periods: 1950 and 2014. In 1950, we hear from four girls attending Idlewild Hall--Katie, CeCe, Sonia, and Roberta. One of the girls soon goes missing and her disappearance ties to 2014, where Fiona is both searching for more information about her sister's death and, eventually, more knowledge about the missing Idlewild student. It's incredibly well-done and extremely suspenseful, drawing you quickly into the narrative and the two separate but related worlds.

The book plays on the boarding school mystique and offers up more supernatural elements than I was expecting, but they somehow work here. The novel is creepy and not one I always wanted to be reading alone in the dark! Like some of my favorites, Jennifer McMahon and Carol Goodman, St. James has a flair for the eerie and the ghostly, and it works well in this context. The boarding school stands stark and haunting in the book-terrifying at times-and you feel the fear ooze across the pages from the various characters.

Indeed, St. James does a great job capturing her characters, whom practically come to life before your very eyes. The group from boarding school are excellent--each different in their own way--and Fiona is an excellent, complicated character as well. While the two eras stood alone, I enjoyed how the stories intermingled and slowly tangled together, making the book quite fascinating and a real page-turner. This one wasn't what I expected; at times, it could be quite heartbreaking and touching.

Overall, this is an incredibly well-done thriller. It's quite captivating with lovely characters. A great discovery. 4 stars.

I received a copy of this novel from the publisher and Netgalley in return for an unbiased review (thank you!); it is available everywhere as of 03/20/2018.

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Monday, March 12, 2018

Years of practice and design: LET ME LIE.

Let Me LieLet Me Lie by Clare Mackintosh

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Anna Johnson is still reeling from the suicide of her father, Tom, when her mother, Caroline, dies as well, in a suicide that copies that of Tom's. A year later, Anna is grief-stricken, parenting a young baby, and trying to put together the pieces of her life. She lives in her parents' old home, surrounded by memories of their life together. On the anniversary of her mother's death, Anna receives a suspicious note that prompts her to dig into her parents' past and their deaths. She quickly discovers that nothing is as it seems--not their suicides, nor the happy childhood memories she holds so dear.

I really love Clare Mackintosh; her first novel, I Let You Go, is one of my favorites, and she's one of those authors I follow on Twitter and find very relatable. So I was very excited to finally get a chance to read this one. I'm still in awe of Mackintosh--who spent twelve years in the police force--and her writing talent. She has such a talent for creating some of her characters. And boy, can she really shock you with a plot twist.

I must first preface that if you have issues or triggers with suicide, this might be one to skip. Having lost a loved one to suicide, I can tell you that this can be a little hard to read. But Mackintosh treats the subject very delicately; she also presents us with a character with BPD, and I thought her treatment of mental illness was very well-done.

The novel is told mainly from Anna's point of view and that of a former police detective, Murray, who gets involved with her case. We do get snippets from someone else--we are left to imagine to try to figure out who it is, when they are speaking, and what has happened to them. Once Anna receives the note questioning her mother's suicide, she takes it to the police, where Murray--an investigator/detective now relegated to desk duty post-retirement--starts looking into it, which is a bit against the rules. This doesn't matter to us, because unless you have no heart, you'll immediately love Murray. He was the star of the story, to me, and I immediately adored him. He's also a great detective and a wonderful force in the book. (Can we have another story with Murray, please, Ms. Mackintosh?)

The book is ominous, creepy, and and tense, as the story slowly builds to its conclusion. It's not a fast-paced thriller, per se, but I was definitely fascinated in what had happened to Anna's parents. I was kept guessing for good chunks of the book, which I certainly appreciated. There are a bunch of twists and turns, several of which had me quite surprised. I just love how Mackintosh can throw you off track and then shock you quite convincingly.

For me, part of this book was a little far-fetched, and I thought Anna acted a little odd at times -- though in her defense, the poor girl is put through a lot. The book is best if you roll with the surprises and just enjoy them. Even better, you have Murray, who offers a touching character (his interactions with his wife are beyond lovely and show a deftness in writing that is quite impressive) as well as superbly-written detective. The book was compelling; nearing the end, I kept going "what? what did he find? who?!" so I know it was effective in creating suspense. It's also creepy at times and surprising until the end. Well-done. 4 stars.

I received a copy of this novel from the publisher and Edelweiss in return for an unbiased review (thank you!).

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Thursday, March 08, 2018

I'm too far gone to turn this heart around: SOMETIMES I LIE.

Sometimes I LieSometimes I Lie by Alice Feeney

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amber wakes up in the hospital in a coma after an accident, which she cannot remember. She is paralyzed, unable to move or speak. She feels convinced that her husband, Paul, may have had something to do with it. Her visitors include Paul and her sister, Claire.

Well, this is an interesting one. The novel takes the unreliable narrator trope to the highest level. After all, Amber is in a coma, with memory issues. She also tells us, at the beginning of the novel, that she lies. Armed with this information, we are thrown headfirst into the story, trying to figure out exactly what has happened. The reader struggles along with Amber to learn what happened as she overhears snippets in her hotel room. It's quite the ride.

The novel is told in three parts: Amber's thoughts as she struggles to remember from within the coma, Amber telling events as they lead up to the accident, and snippets of childhood journal entries. The result is a confusing, suspenseful read that makes you instantly suspicious about everything and everyone. The novel is full of warning signs and creepy moments. It also features its share of impressive twists and turns. I was definitely shocked a couple of times.

I was, honestly, a little confused sometimes too. I have some weird feelings on this one. It's a great thriller. It keeps you guessing, and it surprises you. A lot, if you're me. I'm not sure I always enjoyed the characters, but I'm certainly impressed by the book, if that makes any sense. No more details, as I highly recommend going in spoiler-free.

I received a copy of this novel from the publisher and Netgalley in return for an unbiased review (thank you!); it is available everywhere as of 03/13/2018.

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Sunday, March 04, 2018

Shouldn’t I hear the future calling me: IF I DIE TONIGHT.

If I Die TonightIf I Die Tonight by Alison Gaylin

My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

Havenkill is a pretty quiet town--mostly focused on its football team. So when a washed up 80s rockstar named Aimee En stumbles into the police station in the middle of the night, claiming someone carjacked her Jaguar and then ran over a teenage boy who was trying to help, it receives a lot of police and media attention. The young teen's name was Liam--a star on the football team--and he's quickly portrayed as a hero for trying to save Aimee and her vehicle. Suspicion turns fairly soon to another local teen, Wade Reed, a social outcast, who is vilified by his peers and the local media. His younger brother, Connor, struggles as his own friends distance themselves in the wake of Wade's alleged actions. And Pearl Maze, a member of the Havenkill police force, who was there when Aimee arrived, isn't sure how real Aimee's story actually is.

The novel's story is told via short snippets of narrative from a varied cast of characters, including Pearl, Aimee, Connor, and Connor and Wade's mom, Jackie. It's effective--and effectively frustrating, as you find yourself wanting to know more about what happened the night Liam died. The book sucks you in immediately via this format and its excellent, well-drawn characters. These characters are complex, as are the relationships between everyone in the novel. Nothing is as it seems, and everyone is hiding more beneath their surface (and the past). I was shocked at how well-done these interconnected relationships were and how much I wanted to keep reading. I felt such allegiances to particular characters and such distaste for others. Pearl, Jackie, even Wade and Connor--they were magnificently written and the book was just so well-done. I was really impressed by this one.

Pearl, for instance, was such a complicated character, with such a nuanced backstory. She was an excellent cop, and I found myself immediately rooting for her. She was so smart. Gaylin did a wonderful job of portraying how small towns deal with tragedy and how social media can influence opinion--and how it can affect teens. It was really powerful. As the novel wears on, you're not exactly sure who to trust--or exactly what happened the night Liam died--and I couldn't stop myself from obsessively turning the pages, trying to figure out what happened. Even though the novel is very character-focused, it's suspenseful too and focused on the Liam mystery.

Overall, this was great and such a pleasant surprise. I love requesting an ARC of an author I've never read before and discovering such a great story. This was a suspenseful read, with an excellent, well-written cast. I'm looking forward to reading more of Gaylin's work. 4+ stars.

I received a copy of this novel from the publisher and Edelweiss in return for an unbiased review (thank you!); it is available everywhere as of 03/06/2018.

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Thursday, March 01, 2018

Back you go against the wind and good advice: FORCE OF NATURE.

Force of Nature (Aaron Falk, #2)Force of Nature by Jane Harper

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Aaron Falk doesn't receive the voicemail until the morning. It's mostly garbled anyway, but he feels like he hears the strains of "hurt her" at the end. He doesn't think much of it until the woman who left the message, Alice Russell, doesn't return from a corporate retreat. Alice and four of her female colleagues went into the woods together. But when the women come out--bruised and battered--Alice isn't with them. Their stories don't quite match up about what happened, either. Aaron joins the investigation about Alice's disappearance as she's related to a case he's working with his partner, Carmen. He quickly realizes that nothing is as it seems deep inside the bushland. But is Alice simply missing, or worse?

I absolutely adored Jane Harper's first Aaron Falk novel, The Dry, and was really excited to see Aaron back again. He's a wonderful, complex character. Indeed, all the characters in THE DRY were so intricate and deep. Here, I was definitely sucked into the world Harper created again. I won't lie, beyond Aaron, most of the characters in FORCE OF NATURE are not easy to like. The five women who head off on this retreat are often despicable, whiny, and just plain mean. But, as the novel continues, we learn more about their motives and what drives them to act as they do. They may still be, well, despicable and mean, but there's a reason for it. There is no unformed character in a Jane Harper novel. Each comes with a backstory and a reason for every action.

It's nearly impossible not to get sucked into this book. The chapters alternate between the present, from Aaron's point of view as he tries to unravel things, and then flip to the near-past, slowly ticking down the events of the women at the retreat. The result is a nearly unbearable suspense at times, where I found myself wanting to scream, "What happened to Alice?!!" It's a slow, tense, fascinating build as we watch things fall apart for the group--getting lost in the deep woods--and seeing events unfold from there. We also see Aaron figuring out his own chain of events. The format works quite persuasively. Even better is that we get Aaron and Carmen's financial investigation thrown in as well. It adds a nuanced layer to the plot and the overall apprehension.

Overall, I really enjoyed this one. The characters are complex, and I really liked how their intricate personal lives intertwined. I'm not sure I loved this one quite as much as THE DRY, but part of that is because you can never quite replicate the joy and surprise of discovering a new, talented author again. Nonetheless, this is a great thriller that keeps you guessing with its nuanced characters. I certainly hope Aaron will be back for a third book.

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