Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Playing your story in fits and starts: THE WITCH ELM.

The Witch ElmThe Witch Elm by Tana French

My rating: 3,5 of 5 stars

Life has always been pretty easy for Toby--school, girls, job, etc. All that changes in an instant, however, after a night out with his two best friends. Upon arriving home, Toby surprises two burglars in his home. They beat him horribly, leaving him with terrible injuries that may impact his life forever. Unable to go back to work, Toby reluctantly heads to the Ivy House, his family home, where he spent many happy summers with his cousins. His Uncle Hugo is ill--with irreparable brain cancer--and Toby agrees to help care for him in his last few months. Then Toby's nephew discovers a skull in the backyard of Ivy House and everything changes again. Toby begins questioning everything he remembered about his happy childhood--and his own guilt and innocence.

This is the first "stand-alone" for Tana French, versus her group of loosely connected police procedural novels. For some reason, it wasn't quite what I was expecting, and I found myself sort of missing the detective side of things. As this is a typical Tana French novel, there are a lot of thoughts and feelings, with Toby explaining (a lot) about how he feels, how things affect him, etc. It's always something you just have to be prepared for and used to with her books. She's a wonderful writer, and the novel's setting unfolds so easily around you.

Of course, it also means that things can happen fairly slowly. The discovery of the skull, for instance, while heralded in the novel's description, doesn't happen until around 200 pages in. Those first 200 pages can be a bit slow. Things do pick up when they find the skull, but there is definitely a lot of character-driven angst that accompanied the mystery of what happened in the backyard of the Ivy House, and sometimes it was a bit much for me.

Toby has to grow on you, and the book is Toby central, with everything coming in from him and all his many ramblings. The other characters are a bit hard to like (with the exception, perhaps, of poor Hugo), which doesn't make things any easier. A lot of bickering unlikable relatives can only take you so far.

Still, I was intrigued as to what had gone down in the backyard to lead to a skull landing in a tree, and I cannot argue that French is just a lovely writer, who can weave a beautiful scene. This was an interesting novel and compelling at times, but it was a bit long, and it took me a over a week to finish, which is certainly longer than usual in my typical reading span. I never really felt excited to read it, though I often enjoyed it once I picked it up, if that makes any sense. It's probably a 4-star read in terms of writing prowess, but because I rate based on my enjoyment of the book, it gets 3.5 stars from me. I'll still be back to read whatever Tana French writes, of course.

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Monday, October 29, 2018

I won't look back anymore: SUMMER OF SALT.

Summer of SaltSummer of Salt by Katrina Leno

My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

In Georgina Fernweh's family, it's just accepted: the Fernweh women have magic. Every female in Georgina's family has received their magic by age of eighteen. Georgina is almost eighteen, though, and she's shown no sign of getting her magic. Her twin sister, Mary, has floated since birth. Mary and Georgina live on an island, By-the-Sea, which isn't a regular place to grow up. Strange things happen here: it could snow one minute and be sunny and 70 the next. Their mother concocts sleeping potions when the girls can't sleep. And every summer people flock to the island to watch a three-hundred-year old bird who may or may not be a Fernweh ancestor. But when something terrible happens on the island, the Fernweh family (and their magic) comes under a suspicious light. And Georgina starts to wonder about her past--and future.

I picked up this book thanks to my Goodreads friend Melanie, whose review convinced me that this was worth reading. I so rarely read a book that wasn't planned, so thanks! This was totally worth it. This is a beautiful book--it's well-written, lyrical, and a magical read, both in content and writing.

The storyline on this one is amazing--I have a soft spot for tales about twins. I really liked the dynamic between Georgina and Mary: it was very realistic. The characters are well-developed, and I fell for Georgina immediately. There's also a wonderful lesbian storyline, which is always a plus. The book weaves a mystical, magical tale--if you can't suspend disbelief easily, it might not be for you. But it's so easy to get caught up in the plot, and at its core, it's a story about families and love.

"'Well, you won't have me at college, so you'll have to make some new friends.' 'Ugh. That sounds exhausting. They should assign you friends like they assign you a roommate.'"

There's also some serious parts to this book and some just freaking amazing quotes related to sexual assault and rape that I wanted to blow up and put on the walls of every high school everywhere. I won't quote most of them here, due to spoilers, but wow--this is a powerful, powerful novel that had me pumping my fist and cheering for the characters. There's some real strength here and a message everyone should read, especially in our current times.

"Because there was nothing in a girl's history that might negate her right to choose what happens to her body."

Overall, this was a great book. It's beautifully well-written with excellent characters and a powerful message. This is one where I would love a second book to follow these characters. Highly recommend! 4.5 stars.

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Thursday, October 25, 2018

There's plenty left to make a getaway: LEAVE NO TRACE.

Leave No TraceLeave No Trace by Mindy Mejia

My rating: 3.75 of 5 stars

Maya Stark is twenty-three and an assistant speech therapist at Congdon, a facility for the mentally ill. She's had a tough past, and it isn't easy for her to form attachments with anyone. Maya's mom left when she was a kid, and Maya was once a patient at the facility where she now works. So she's surprised when she feels drawn to Congdon's newest patient, nineteen-year-old Lucas Blackthorn. Lucas arrives at Congdon after being arrested for breaking and entering into a wilderness store. Lucas and his father, Josiah, haven't been seen in ten years: Josiah took his son camping in the vast stretch of Minnesota territory known as the Boundary Waters a decade ago and the two haven't been heard from since. It's clear that Lucas wants nothing more than to return to the Boundary Waters. He's a recalcitrant and sometimes violent patient, who will cooperate with no one but Maya. Maya wants to help Lucas, and she wants to know why she feels so strong for this strange and angry boy.

This was my first Mejia book, and while it wasn't quite what I was expecting (I was thinking more mystery, less character-driven novel), it was really interesting. It's told mostly from Maya's point of view, but we hear some from Lucas and others too. It's a very readable book--I tore through it quickly, as there's something gripping about the style and reveal of facts about both Maya and Lucas' lives. We start out knowing very little about either of them--what put Maya in Congdon, what drove Lucas and Josiah into the Boundary Waters, and the novel does a good job of keeping you reading and wondering.

It's an emotional read--obviously being partially set in a mental hospital, it deals with mental illness. I thought, overall, Mejia did a good job with the topic, but if that's a trigger for you, just keep it in mind. The ancillary characters are pretty sparse: Maya's boss, the patients, Maya's dad, etc., but all are well-formed as well. Maya and Lucas are the stars, and both are well-done and easy to picture. The novel did a great job of pulling together all its various pieces. I was impressed how Mejia brought together the different parts of Lucas and Maya's lives--it's quite exceptionally thought out.

Probably the only thing marring this one for me were little things, but they nagged at me a bit. At times, the care Lucas receives seems odd and a bit weirdly thought out--giving a speech therapist such control over his care, for instance, and taking a violent patient into some strange situations. Maya and Lucas' instant attachment was also a little hard to completely believe, as well. But those were pretty small pieces in the scheme of the book.

Overall, I enjoyed my first Mejia book. The plot was the best part for me--I loved how it was a quick read and how enjoyable it was to put together all the various pieces of Lucas and Maya's lives. While there were a few little quirks that kept this from being a 4-star read, it was still a solid, worthwhile read. 3.75 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.

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Monday, October 22, 2018

Well, I live in the city but don't fit in: THE GREATEST LOVE STORY EVER TOLD.

The Greatest Love Story Ever ToldThe Greatest Love Story Ever Told by Megan Mullally

My rating: 3.5+ of 5 stars

In 2000, Megan Mullally and Nick Offerman meet on the set of a play. And the rest, as they say, is history. Their book is the story of their relationship--telling the story of how they met, from each's first impressions of one another and ranging across their courtship, wedding, work, and romance. The book covers such topics as family, past romances, religion, theater, and more.

I love both Megan and Nick immensely, so I was extremely excited when I saw they had a book coming out. My library copy arrived a day after publication, so I hadn't even had a chance to read many reviews. I didn't realize that most of the book is in interview/oral history-type format, so when you read the actual book, it just flips between Megan and Nick chatting back and forth. This takes a little getting used to and while I'm not a big audiobook fan (personal preference, my brain wanders too much), I think this is one that would be *fantastic* in audio form. I'm stalking our public library, waiting for them to get an audio copy for my wife. There are a few chapters that are written out, and I enjoyed those a bit more.

"To my way of thinking, it's an illustration of a relationship that the reader might find surprisingly normal. When all you have by which to judge a relationship are some grippingly cute Instagram videos, it might not occur to one that there's a lot of banal real life." ~Nick

So mostly, this book is just Nick and Megan talking. Because it's Nick and Megan, it's still pretty darn enjoyable. They cover certain topics in various chapters, so it can get a bit repetitive in places (we learn multiple times that Nick's family is salt of the earth and Megan's was, well, not). Still, it's fascinating to learn how the two met, a bit about their various careers (not as much as I would have liked--there are no funny Will and Grace or Parks and Recs anecdotes here), and a lot about their pasts.

The best part is that the book makes you smile--it's clearly apparent how much Nick and Megan love each other. I enjoyed learning more about both of them and how they spend their life together. Megan shares a fun Meryl Streep story, I loved her even more because apparently she's a hermit who loves to read (ME TOO MEGAN LET'S BE FRIENDS), and they are a couple who likes to hang out and do puzzles with their dogs. Life goals at its best.

"It's a wonder that I ever had a boyfriend in my entire life, because all I really like to do is read. I don't even know how I ever met another human."

"All I ever want to do is read. I only leave the house under duress."

Overall, this is fun book about two fun and interesting people. If you're an audiobook fan--even a little bit--I bet you'd enjoy it more in that format. If you like Megan or Nick, you'll find something to enjoy in this one. If you're looking for a chronological history with lots of tidbits about their careers, this isn't that book. But if you want some insight into Megan and Nick as people, this is a worthwhile read. 3.5+ stars.

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-makes you smile; apparent how much they love each other

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Friday, October 19, 2018

When we live such fragile lives: THE SPITE GAME.

The Spite GameThe Spite Game by Anna Snoekstra

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Ava was terribly bullied in high school by three girls she idolized: Melissa, Cass, Saanvi. One particular incident so traumatized her that she cannot move on and years later, she finds herself unable to get past it. So she watches her former classmates--online and in real life--and she plots. If she can just find a way to get even, Ava thinks, then she can move on with her own life. But Ava's stalking threatens to overtake her life and perhaps her sanity. She finds herself in a police station, waiting to tell her story to a detective. What has Ava done?

"The bad thing inside of me took root there. Like mold, it grew in that hot moist place. You won't want to hear any of this. My story. I know that. But if you want me to confess, then you'll have to listen."

This one reminded me of a lesser version of Roz Nay's Our Little Secret, where so much of the tale is our main character telling her woes and recapping her life while in a police station. I didn't love Ava or hate her: I often felt sorry for her. Her inability to move past high school basically crippled her entire life, and her revenge mission is all she has.

This was a weird book. It switches in time frequently, going between whatever the present moment is and then Ava remembering moments in high school. I found the timeframe to be confusing at times. Ava's singular focus on her former classmates--and getting even--could be frustrating at moments, yet the book was also oddly compelling and somewhat addictive. It certainly did a good job at capturing the meanness of high school girls. What a terrible time that is.

"I was so naive, so ready to give those girls everything: my loyalty, my trust, my devoted friendship. I was ready to spill every secret I ever had, to follow them to the ends of the earth. I guess the last bit turned out to be true, in some ways."

It was a creepy read sometimes. I guessed the ending a bit early, but that didn't really make it any less enjoyable. Overall, I found this one a little odd and a little off-putting. It was a strange read, with a pointed focus on its main character (and her own mission). Still, it was rather readable. 3.5 stars.

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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 10/30/2018.

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Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Let me hold your crown, babe: QUIVER.

QuiverQuiver by Julia Watts

My rating: 4+ of 5 stars

Liberty "Libby" Hazlett is the oldest six kids (soon to be seven). She is part of an evangelical Christian family who practices the Quiverfull lifestyle--having as many kids as God deems they should. The father is the head of the family and his wife and children (especially the girls) should do everything he says, no matter what. Libby and her siblings are home-schooled and rarely see anyone outside of their family and church. So when a new family moves next door, it's a pretty big deal. Zo and her family are not exactly in the same vein religiously or politically as Libby's family. Still, Libby and Zo become fast friends--a friendship that may be cursed from the start. Spending time around Zo's family is eye-opening for Libby. But no one challenges Libby's father or their religion in her family. What does it mean for Libby that she's questioning her faith? And what will the repercussions be?

"It's all over the Bible--'be fruitful and multiply' and then there's Psalm 127 that says that children are like a warrior's arrows and 'blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them.' Some families like ours call themselves Quiverfull for that reason."

This was a really interesting, eye-opening, and sometimes scary novel. It was very well-written, and I really enjoyed it. A huge thanks to LibraryThing to introducing me to Julia Watts and her work. This novel is told in varying viewpoints between Libby and Zo, highlighting the stark contract between their upbringing and the way the two girls look at the world. It does an excellent job at showing how religion shapes your thought.

For Libby, her religious family is basically her entire life. We see how differently boys and girls are treated in her family, with the girls serving as helpmates in every way. She is not allowed any independent thought and is completely indoctrinated in her family's evangelical religion. Any thoughts she has that differ from her family's way of life make her feel strange and scared--and stepping out of line in any way means punishment. Even worse, she can't see any way out. Even though she doesn't want to, her future is set: getting married and having babies in the name of God.

Libby was so wonderfully written, and my heart ached for her. Watching her confront what she was taught, seeing her yearn for a different life--it really opened my eyes to how hard it must be for so many kids raised in religious homes. It's so easy to be derisive about religious views with which you don't agree, but the book did such an excellent job showing how Libby didn't have a choice: religion was such a part of her life from the moment she was born.

Zo's character was great, too. She didn't always seem as fleshed out to me, but it was refreshing to see a gender fluid character in YA literature. She was very down-to-earth, and it was nice to see her sexuality not be her defining characteristic. I also enjoyed how very feisty she was:

"The fact that Mr. Hazlett justifies his dictatorship through religion makes me think of all the families and communities and countries that have been torn apart because of people who claimed to be acting in the name of God."

This was a lovely book, which even had some surprises. It made me want to cry at times and laugh at others. It's very well-written and so beautiful to read. The subject matter is different, well-worth reading, and wrapped up in a very entertaining and interesting story. It certainly gets you thinking, plus it's very hard not to fall for Libby and Zo, too. 4+ stars.

I received a copy of this novel from LibraryThing and Three Room Press in return for an unbiased review - thank you!

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Friday, October 12, 2018

I need to say goodbye: YOU WERE ALWAYS MINE.

You Were Always MineYou Were Always Mine by Nicole Baart

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Jessica Chamberlain and her husband, Evan, have been separated for months, so she's quite surprised when she gets a call from the police regarding him. Even more shocking is that the police believe Evan to be dead--his body found on a hunting ground in another state. As Jessica attempts to figure out what happened, she must also try to mother her two boys, thirteen-year-old Max and six-year-old Gabe, who is adopted. Jess can't believe Evan is dead, however, and the more she digs, the more she starts to wonder if it was truly a hunting accident. She's sure her house was broken into, for instance, and she feels like Evan was investigating something in the months before his death. Soon, she wonders if that had something to do with Gabe's adoptive mother--someone with whom Jess vowed never to be involved. What really happened to Evan? And are the rest of the Chamberlains safe?

It's always exciting to request an ARC on a whim and have it be enjoyable. I've never read anything by Nicole Baart before, but I will certainly be picking up some of her past books. This novel was a little outlandish and unbelievable at times, but it was just so compelling and readable. It was exactly what I needed at the moment.

Jess was a very relatable character: as a mother too, I felt quite connected to her. Baart put in a lot of little details that made her feel real, not a cardboard cutout parent that you so often see. She did a great job at capturing parenthood in all its ups and downs. I found myself very attached to Jessica's two boys, as well. They went through a lot in the book, and you found yourself rooting for the entire family unit.

The plot itself--while a bit of a soap opera sometimes--was really quite fascinating. I couldn't put this one down, even during a crazy time at work. The writing was crisp and the novel just flowed so easily. I was actually really surprised by the twists and turns (it's always so fun when that happens) and certainly along for the ride with Jess and her clan.

Overall, this was just a really enjoyable book with an interesting, twisty plot and realistic, relatable characters. It was a pleasant surprise, and I'll definitely be reading more from this author. 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 10/16/2018.

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Monday, October 08, 2018

In the spotlight so clear: THE CRAFTSMAN.

The CraftsmanThe Craftsman by Sharon J. Bolton

My rating: 4+ of 5 stars

The year is 1999 and Assistant Commissioner Florence Lovelady returns to Lancashire for the funeral of Larry Glassbrook, a murderer she arrested 30 years ago. Larry killed three children, burying them alive in caskets he made himself. He also kidnapped and tortured Florence while she was investigating his case. Thirty years ago, Florence made a name for herself with the Glassbrook case, which changed her life forever. Clay effigies were found with each of the children's bodies, suggesting an element of witchcraft. Now, when Florence returns for the funeral, she finds a fourth: of herself. Does this means Florence is in danger? And what does the message Larry sent her from prison mean? Is there still a killer out there?

"I wonder what words his headstone might carry: Loving husband, devoted father, merciless killer."

I'm a huge Sharon Bolton fan, so I was excited to read this one. I hadn't really read the description in a while, so I didn't realize so much of the narrative took place in the late 1960s. I'm usually more of a modern fiction fan, but I found the 1960s portion--narrated by Florence--to be surprisingly engaging and enjoyable. It offered a really detailed look at how women were treated, especially on the police force, and was a true testament to Florence's strength. She was a fascinating, nuanced character who drew me in from the beginning. The book really revolves around her, but she makes it worth it.

The novel is certainly creepy--definitely a good spooky read for the month of October. It can be dark and gruesome. There's a witchcraft portion that sometimes seems a little unbelievable, but I thought it worked well within the confines of the story. There's even some funny moments--made even better by what a great heroine Florence is.

There's an excellent mystery here, which will keep you guessing from the start. The story skips between 1969 and 1999, and the two portions work together seamlessly. I found the tale to be complex, complicated, and just really compelling. There's something about this book that simply keeps you reading. Florence is an awesome character, the story is fascinating and different, and it's just a really enjoyable (if somewhat dark) read. Definitely recommend. 4+ stars.

I received a copy of this novel from the publisher and Netalley in return for an unbiased review (thank you!); it is available in the U.S. on 10/16/2018.

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Monday, October 01, 2018

Nobody gets too much love: A SPARK OF LIGHT.

A Spark of LightA Spark of Light by Jodi Picoult

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It starts off as a typical day at the Center, a women's reproductive health care clinic in Mississippi. For Hugh McElroy, it's his 40th birthday, and a day that he hopes will pass by quietly and quickly. But everything changes in a moment when an armed shooter enters the Center--shooting employees and patients on sight. Hugh, a negotiator for the police, is immediately called to the scene. Once there, he comes to the horrifying realization that his sister, Bex, and his only daughter, fifteen-year-old, Wren, are inside. Hugh tries to keep this information to himself, determined to save the people he loves the most. Meanwhile, many inside the clinic are struggling to stay alive, while the shooter is trying to come to terms with the reasons that brought him to the clinic in the first place.

"Here was the one thing all these women had in common: they hadn't asked for this moment in their lives."

Jodi Picoult is known for her powerful books that make you question the world around you, and her latest is certainly no exception. This novel asks interesting, thought-provoking, and timely questions: not just about abortion but about women's rights in general and the power men have over women, including their bodies. It makes you think, and it's certainly not an easy read. I found it to be an eye-opening experience. You may go in with a set view and particular political stance--and while this novel is in no way attempting to change your view--it allows you to see things from all sorts of points of view. The book is filled with complicated people and their stories; nothing is simple here.

The novel is told backward: starting with a shooter entering the clinic and working back from that moment. I'm not always a fan of this format, and it does take some getting used to (for me anyway). I read this one while I was sick and busy at work, so I always had to pause a little bit to get my bearings with each chapter. But the format causes the story to be extremely tense, forcing you to really want to know what happens. I've read some reviews where they thought the backward style left nothing unexplained/nothing left to know, but I found it to be the opposite. The first chapter leaves you with a near cliffhanger, and you spend the rest of the book frantically flipping the pages, trying to find out what happens.

I found this one to be especially poignant and excellent at portraying its characters. Picoult captures moments in time, as our characters remember back on things. It's a lovely look at fatherhood for two sets of families, and Hugh and his daughter, Wren, are a wonderful pair. Picoult does an excellent job paralleling them with another set of characters, too. Then there's Izzy, a nurse, with whom I dare you not to fall in love, and Dr. Louie, the doctor at the clinic. Both are so tough and easy to root for. I also learned so much while reading about them. It was easy to picture these characters and even easier to fall for them--all signs of a well-written novel.

By the end, Picoult has some twists up her sleeve: some surprising, some not. I thought the ending wrapped up a little quickly, but I still was impressed with one. You don't enjoy it, per se--the subject matter is a little rough for that, but you'll find yourself wowed by the characters and their shared story. 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 10/02/2018.

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