Thursday, May 28, 2020

I could try to be just like you: I'D GIVE ANYTHING.

I'd Give AnythingI'd Give Anything by Marisa de los Santos

My rating: 3.75 of 5 stars

At eighteen, Ginny "Zinny" Beale is a lighthearted, fun, brave girl with a close group of friends and brother with whom she can unite against their uptight mother. But one night changes all of that. Someone sets the town's high school on fire and in the aftermath, the father of Ginny's best friend, Gray, is dead. The townspeople look for someone to blame--leaving most of it on a troubled teen--but Ginny learns some news that changes her entire world. She tells no one, but the secret alters her life and leaves her an outcast among her friends and family. Over the next twenty years, Ginny transitions, settling down, returning to her hometown and marrying Harris, a professor. They have a daughter, Avery, and Ginny cares for her mother, who is dying. But when scandal rocks the town again--this time focused on Harris--Ginny has to make some choices. It's time to confront the past and the secret she's kept buried all this time.

"In one night, one night, I lost all of them."

I adore Marisa de los Santos and her writing, though this wasn't my favorite of her books. Still, she's just so good at capturing the little moments in life: nailing down the feelings and emotions of her characters. Ginny, Avery, and others spring to life in this one. The story swings between past and present, with older excerpts often told from Ginny's diary entries. It takes a while to learn Ginny's big secret, which is a bit of a pet peeve of mine: I'm not always a fan of dragging out a secret.

This is a poignant and sad read, delving into marriage, love, and parenthood. My favorite character was fifteen-year-old Avery, who is hit hard by the incident involving her father, Harris. In many ways, I was far more invested in Avery's growth than Ginny's--I liked Ginny, but I couldn't quite find myself fully wanting to root for her. Although the juxtaposition between young Zinny and present-day Ginny was quite well-done.

Did you stop being your old selves? Did they fall away? Were you always only the self you were in the present?

The book explores how one secret can so change a person and the ripple effect it has on many lives. Ms. de los Santos examines her characters very closely via her writing, and I will always love picking up her books and getting an intimate look at her cast of players. In the end, this is a touching and well-written novel, even if I couldn't always find myself fully engaged in Ginny's world. 3.75 stars, rounded to 4 here.

I received a copy of this novel from William Morrow in return for an unbiased review.

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Tuesday, May 26, 2020

I've gone a little bit crazy thinking a little bit too much: SISTER DEAR.

Sister DearSister Dear by Hannah Mary McKinnon

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Eleanor Hardwicke grew up in the shadow of her perfect older sister, Amy, and dealing with a resentful mother. But she always had her father, who loved her no matter what. Now Eleanor's dad is in hospice care, dying of pancreatic cancer. As Eleanor cares for her father, she learns a heart-wrenching secret: her father isn't her biological father. She is the result of her mother's affair with a wealthy man. With her only loving family member dead, Eleanor's life is shattered and she seeks out her biological father--and her half sister, Victoria, who appears to have the perfect childhood Eleanor longed for. Victoria has everything: loving parents, wealth, and love. And Eleanor is going to get her share now.

"Every last detail leading up to one fateful night. The night someone died because of me. The night I lost you, too."

This was my first Hannah Mary McKinnon book--I was very excited to give her books a try. This was a slow and steady read with a dark and twisted plot. Eleanor is not the most likable of characters, though her mother is an absolutely terrible person and, with the death of her father (at least the person Eleanor thought was her father), you can't help but have sympathy for the poor girl. Alas, Eleanor makes a lot of stupid decisions in this book, making it hard to retain said sympathy. Couple this with a handful coincidences that seem to be thrown in to keep the plot moving and eh. I wound up mostly liking this book, but not really loving it.

I also guessed a lot of what was going to happen--though I'll give McKinnon credit that I was still wondering along the way. She had me wavering in my decisions several times. The book does a good job delving into family dynamics and the complicated ways a family forms us. And while the ending is explosive, so to speak, I had most of it figured out and honestly, I found it depressing. I'm going to give this one 3 stars, but it just barely ekes them out.

I received a copy of this book from Harlequin/Mira and Netgalley in return for an unbiased review; it is available as of 5/26/2020.

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Friday, May 22, 2020

Life just seems to sink into the ground: THE RED LOTUS.

The Red LotusThe Red Lotus by Chris Bohjalian

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Alexis is an emergency room doctor in New York; it is there that she meets her future boyfriend, Austin, who happens to work at the hospital in development. Austin comes in with a bullet wound, received in a freak accident at a bar. Six months later, the pair heads to Vietnam as a part of a bike tour. Austin also wants to visit the site where his father and uncle fought in the war. But Alexis waits futilely for Austin to return from his bike ride. The story is that he was killed on his bike in a hit-and-run accident. However, we learn that two men took him as he rode. Alexis works with local authorities and the FBI and quickly realizes that Austin lied about his reason for being in Vietnam. As she digs through their relationship and Austin's world, she starts to learn more and more secrets about her boyfriend, and she worries that he's left her in danger.

"Let’s face it, in all of human history, the most effective delivery vehicle for mass death ever to exist on earth has been—wait for it—the rat."

This is a timely novel and rather scary, as it dips into medical research--particularly rats--and the plague. There's something slightly uncomfortable about reading about the spread of mass disease during a pandemic. It was, however, fascinating, too. Bohjalian tells his story from a variety of points of view--Alexis; Austin and his acquaintance Douglas; investigators in Vietnam who work Austin's case; a private investigator named Ken whom Alexis hires and more. Somehow it all works, with the careful unfolding of facts. We learn about Austin's real reason for being in Vietnam and it all builds up to a dangerous crescendo.

Overall, I enjoyed this one. Bohjalian has a way of embodying his characters, and I particularly loved Ken, the crusty yet kind P.I. The story was quite interesting; oddly well-timed; and the ending especially horrifying. Definitely worth a read. 4 stars.

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Wednesday, May 20, 2020

We could wreck some bridge besides this bed: RODHAM.

RodhamRodham by Curtis Sittenfeld

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Curtis Sittenfeld's engaging novel looks at Hillary Rodham's life through this prism: what if she hadn't married Bill Clinton? In 1971, as Hillary Rodham graduates from Wellesley, she delivers a commencement speech that gains national prominence. She heads to Yale Law school--an intelligent woman, filled with the desire to help those in need. It is there she meets Bill Clinton, a fellow law student. The connection between the two is instant--for the first time, Hillary feels she has found someone who appreciates her both emotionally and physically. In real life, Hillary and Bill head to Arkansas. He proposes three times, and she finally accepts, becoming Hillary Rodham Clinton.

"The first time I saw him, I thought he looked like a lion."

But here, in this imaginative and powerful novel, Hillary does not accept Bill's third proposal. Devastated, she leaves Arkansas and embarks on a different life. The pair's paths cross again (and again) in the years ahead, causing Hillary to sometimes doubt her decision.

I found this to be such an interesting read and oddly hopeful somehow, as if Sittenfeld read my brain and created the world I dreamed of--what a great book to read during these dismal times. It takes a little time to get into the flow of the writing: the first-person narrative certainly places you in the action, but I needed to adjust to switching back and forth between time periods (Hillary's past and present). And, funnily enough, you have to remember that this is and isn't Hillary--the first quarter of the book or so loosely follows Hillary's real life, so sometimes you have to recall who is truly speaking. I am not actually reading a Hillary memoir.

I loved how this book rewrites history--and with zero apologies. Bill Clinton does not always come off looking good here, though the love and chemistry between the two is clearly palpable. You find a variety of other characters from real life, so to speak, who sometimes play their actual roles, or re-imagined versions, and it's so fun. And, why yes, even Donald Trump has a place here. What a wonderful place it is, too. If you love politics, or political satire, there's a lot to love here.

"'If Bill Clinton was my boyfriend, I'd keep an eye on him too.'"

The Hillary of Sittenfeld's world is so real, so true, and so vulnerable and lovable. (And whoa, are there sex scenes, guys.) Even better, Sittenfeld doesn't make her perfect by any stretch; she's flawed and fallible, too. It doesn't take long to see history's actual Hillary taking this path, and sometimes, oh sometimes, I longed for her to do so. Sittenfeld excels at telling a tale from another person's perspective, somehow putting herself in their shoes. I got so caught up in this Hillary's world that I read the last half of the book in one take, desperate to know what happened to her. She felt real to me, and I needed to know how her life turned out. Please, Hillary, let it all work out this time.

This book is different, yes. It might not be for everyone, politically. But I found it fascinating to think about such a thing--how the choices we make in life affect so much. Not just saying yes to a marriage proposal, but all the other actions we take on any given day. This is a smartly written book, cementing Sittenfeld as a brilliant writer and storyteller. 4 stars.

I received a copy of this novel from Random House and Netgalley in return for an unbiased review; it releases 05/19/2020.

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Monday, May 18, 2020

Even this is going to pass: MY KIND OF PEOPLE.

My Kind of PeopleMy Kind of People by Lisa Duffy

My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

Ichabod Island is an insular island off the coast of Massachusetts, where the residents, while they may keep to themselves, know and care a great deal about one another and their neighbors' lives. It's a terrible tragedy when they lose two beloved residents, Brian and Ann, who leave behind their ten-year-old daughter. Former Ichabod resident Leo returns to the island to care for Sky, per the will that named him her guardian. Leo is grieving the death of his best friends and Sky that of her parents. Leo quickly finds himself struggling to balance raising Sky along with performing his mainland job and maintaining his marriage to his husband, Oliver, who is wary about their newfound parenthood and life away from Boston. Leo must rely on Brian and Ann's neighbors: Maggie, Sky's teacher, who helps watch her for Leo, even as she finds her own marriage to the local police chief dissolving and Joe, a builder who knows more about Sky's parents' relationship than most.

"She thinks about it all the time. Wonders if her parents are gone because they never belonged to her in the first place."

This novel cemented Duffy as one of my absolute favorite writers. This is a lovely and touching read, bringing to life the group of islanders who come together to care for Sky. Duffy builds her worlds so perfectly: I was lost on Ichabod Island with these characters--all of whom are so uniquely them. This book will go straight to your heart.

I fell immediately for sweet Sky. We learn that Brian and Ann are Sky's adoptive parents, so she's basically been orphaned twice. She is troubled as her parents were fighting a lot right before they died--going against the town view of them as the "perfect couple." While this novel is mostly a deep dive into its characters, there is a touch of mystery here. Why were Sky's parents fighting, and did it have anything to do with the car crash that caused their death? Also, a mysterious woman arrives in town--what is her role to play in the story? Duffy weaves together all of these plot points so well; I was captivated by the book and even though I wanted to slow down and savor it, I also wanted to know what had happened, to find out what would happen to Sky and Leo.

"A fearless girl who doesn't just think she's safe alone in the dark on an island in the Atlantic. She knows it."

I love that Duffy included a gay couple in her novel--and treats them like regular people. Leo is a wonderful character: complex and struggling with new parenthood. In the end, you feel like you know the entire neighborhood block, from sweet Joe; to Maggie, who is coming into her own in her '50s; to longtime resident Agnes, who is set in her ways; to Sky's tough best friend Frankie; and Sky's newly found grandmother, Lillian. All of these characters play a real role in this story: not an easy feat when the focus is on Leo and Sky.

Overall, this is a wonderfully written novel that covers family, marriage, tragedy, love, and so much more. Duffy's characters are beautiful, and she has an amazing way of bringing you right into the world she has created. I will always read anything she writes. 4.5 stars.

Thank you to Atria Books for my copy in return for an unbiased review.

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Thursday, May 14, 2020

And the days you defend will turn to gold: THIS IS HOW I LIED.

This Is How I LiedThis Is How I Lied by Heather Gudenkauf

My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

Eve Knox was only sixteen when she died in the caves by her house. She was murdered, her body found by her best friend Maggie and Eve's younger sister, Nola. While there were some suspects--her boyfriend, Nick; the local town drifter--no one was ever arrested and the case, led by Maggie's police chief father, went cold. Now Maggie herself is a detective in her hometown of Grotto, Iowa. She becomes lead on Eve's case when it is reopened after new evidence emerges. Immediately Maggie is transported back to her childhood and her friendship with Eve. But as Maggie digs deeper into the case, she realizes there were a lot of secrets buried with Eve, many of which no one in Grotto want discovered. Maybe not even Maggie herself.

"Over the years, I lost my mom, my innocence and my best friend. This street has been a graveyard to me."

This book was one of those delicious surprises that turns out to be so much better than you expect. I've never read a book by Heather Gudenkauf before, but I certainly will be reading more of her books now! I read this as I was sent a Netgalley widget, and I'm so glad! This is such a dark and twisty tale, and I loved how it kept me guessing the entire time, always wondering and doubting myself about what exactly happened to Eve.

Gudenkauf tells her tale from multiple perspectives and time periods, but unlike so many thrillers these days, she does so deftly. It's heartbreaking to hear from the Eve of twenty-five years ago, knowing her fate, yet fascinating, as she slowly dispenses details and clues about what has happened to her. Eve's younger sister is the "town crazy," a veterinarian with a penchant for extreme creepiness. We also have Maggie's even-keeled husband, Shaun, who runs their orchard (and did I mention Maggie is way pregnant?), her father, the ex-chief, who is suffering from dementia, and her brother, who has been forced to care for him. And lets not forget Eve's ex-boyfriend, Nick, who now runs a store in town.

The small-town dynamics are perfect here. Eve's murder is the biggest thing to happen to this town. Everyone knows everyone else, and they think they all know each other's secrets. But, goodness, the secrets and lies buried deep in this small town are just beginning as Maggie starts investigating Eve's death again. The story unfolds perfectly--new pieces coming at you in just the right amount, constantly changing the perspective and allowing suspects to switch around in your mind. Half the thrillers I read, I feel like I have the "whodunnit" figured out from the beginning, but I was never sure here, always frantically reading, always wondering, and being pulled deeply into Eve and Maggie's lives.

Overall, I really enjoyed this one. I loved the surprise of it--finding a book I didn't expect to be so good--and I loved being drawn into such a taunt well-written thriller. 4.5 stars.

I received a copy of this book from Harlequin/Park Row and Netgalley in return for an unbiased review. It is available as of 5/12/2020.

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Monday, May 11, 2020

Brutal fantasies I catch as catch can: CATHERINE HOUSE.

Catherine HouseCatherine House by Elisabeth Thomas

My rating: 2.5 of 5 stars

Ines comes to Catherine House to leave her past behind. It's a dark past, with secrets and memories she'd rather forget. And that's good, because Catherine House is an institution that requires its students to give it three total years of their lives--leaving behind their families, television, music, and more. In return, they get a completely free education and the promise of a liberal arts background that has formed the minds of some very famous people: authors, inventors, presidents, and more. Ines comes to Catherine House with few expectations and for the most part, fits in, forming a strange friendship with her uptight and studious roommate, Baby, and the other students in her freshman year. But when tragedy befalls Baby, Ines begins to wonder about the House and its strange rituals, many of them tied to its most famous concentration of study, plasma.

"That was the Catherine experience: give the house three years--three profound, total years--then become anything or anyone you want to be. Watch all your dreams come true."

This book totally stressed me out. I usually love a good boarding school novel (though technically these students are in their college years), but this was mostly just a bunch of kids drinking and occasionally attending weird classes. Why are there never normal people at these schools who just do their work and don't drink?

Anyway, besides that pet peeve, this book was incredibly slow and nothing ever happened. This was mostly a story about a lot of frivolous kids at school with some weird scientific plasma stuff thrown in. It was incredibly difficult to care about Ines for most of the book--or any of the other characters--and truly, most of the plot. I thought about abandoning the book, but wanted to see if anything interesting ever happened with the scientific aspect. (No, not really.) The book sells itself as a mysterious ride, but it's more a character-driven novel. About lackluster, annoying characters.

Now the last third was fairly enjoyable and somehow an irritating book with eh characters had a satisfying ending, but getting there was just painful. Thomas is a good writer and this is no doubt one of those smart books where not much happens that book critics will worship, but it didn't really work for me. 2.5 stars.

Thank you to LibraryThing and Custom House for my copy. This book is on sale 5/12/2020.

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Friday, May 08, 2020

I've had her picture in my head all day: DARLING ROSE GOLD.

Darling Rose GoldDarling Rose Gold by Stephanie Wrobel

My rating: 3.75 of 5 stars

Rose Gold Watts was sick for the first eighteen years of her life. In and out of the hospital, she used a wheelchair and stopped attending school at a young age. Her entire world revolved around her mother, Patty, who was her caretaker and only advocate. Neither Patty nor the doctors could figure out exactly what was wrong with poor Rose Gold. But suddenly, things change, and it's revealed that Patty has been making Rose Gold sick. Patty is put on trial and sentenced to five years in prison. Rose Gold has a chance to start her life over anew, without the (literal) poisoning influence of her mother. But when Patty is released, she has nowhere to go. She pleads with Rose Gold to take her back, and everyone is shocked when she says yes. Patty promises she wants to make amends, but Rose Gold isn't so sure. And the more time Patty spends with Rose Gold, she isn't so sure her daughter is the malleable little thing she once was...

Riddle me this: if I spent almost two decades abusing my daughter, why did she offer to pick me up today?

I'm going to keep my review short to avoid spoilers. This is an extremely readable and engrossing book. It's dark and twisted, and yeah, wow! I'd heard it was shocking and it certainly has its moments. I thought I saw where it was going, and I definitely got some of it right, but not all of it. It some ways, it was a fun little journey; in other ways, a bit terrifying. The perspectives alternate between Rose Gold and Patty, with some looks into the past as well. It's very effective, and one of my favorite parts was that your loyalties shifted between the two. Did Patty hurt Rose Gold? Is Rose Gold as despicable as her mother? Is there anyone we should be rooting for here? The book leaves you with a lot to think about.

I'm glad I read this one. It might not be a light and happy read, per se, but it's a compelling and twisted one. 3.75 stars, rounded to 4 here.

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Wednesday, May 06, 2020

Know you're always in my heart and on my mind: FOUR DAYS OF YOU AND ME

Four Days of You and MeFour Days of You and Me by Miranda Kenneally

My rating: 2.5 of 5 stars

Every spring the students of Coffee County High School get to take a class trip. The locations get better as they get older. And every year, Lulu's relationship with Alex Rouvelis gets a little more convoluted and intense. As freshmen, they were enemies after an intense race over a student council position. But they couldn't deny their chemistry either. The two date, breakup, and much more across the span of four years, but each year, the class trip seems to bring them together again. And Lulu and Alex must decide if their love is worth fighting for.

"Our first kiss was exactly four years ago today, and since then, nothing--and everything--has changed."

I hate writing less-than-positive reviews, especially for authors I typically enjoy, but this book was not a favorite of mine. It's told across Lulu and Alex's four class trips (one per year) with flashbacks to other times. I simply could not warm up to Lulu or Alex. Honestly, of the two, I probably liked him better, but we don't hear his side. It took nearly half the book for the story to engage me even a little bit, and I thought about giving up, but for some reason, I have a tough time just stopping a book.

Now, I read YA a ton, so it's not that I don't enjoy YA novels. I read one right after this and *loved* it. But I found this story way too simplistic, and I feel like teens would too. There is so much better YA out there--for all of us. The book just felt simplistic in its writing and the "will they / won't they" storyline was boring. I did not care if they did or not. Honestly, there was a side plot about Lulu's gay best friend Max that was much more interesting--I would have rather read about him!

Supposedly Lulu is an artist/writer and that's her thing, but that felt forced. Mostly, the book felt about a girl (and her friends) all trying to find boys to like (and like them back). That's what they cared about and talked about. I felt no huge connection between Alex and Lulu and hence no reason to root for them to choose each other. They didn't feel destined for one other, as most couples do in a good romance. The story does pick up a bit near the end, but by then, I just felt burned out.

So maybe this story would resonate a bit more with a teen set (and it should be an older teen set, due to language and themes), but there are a lot of other better books out there. Now, others seem to enjoy this more than me, so maybe I just got caught in a bad mood. 2.5 stars for me, though.

I received a copy of this book from Netgalley and Sourcebooks Fire in return for an unbiased review.

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Monday, May 04, 2020

Let us take on the world while we're young and able: BIG SUMMER.

Big SummerBig Summer by Jennifer Weiner

My rating: 4+ of 5 stars

Daphne Berg idolized Drue Cavanaugh when they went to school together. Drue seemed to have the perfect life--beautiful, rich, and adored by all. But eventually Daphne tired of Drue's mistreatment, with one incident finally pushing the two apart for good. So she's quite surprised when Drue appears back in her life, asking Daphne to be maid-of-honor in her upcoming wedding. Daphne is now an Instagram influencer, with a growing following in plus-size fashion. And, truly, she could never say no to Drue, especially when she visualizes the wedding as a prospect for more followers and the potential to meet a cute guy. So off to Cape Cod she goes--ignoring the warning of her best friend and roommate, who knows the pain Drue can cause. The night before the wedding, Daphne does meet a handsome and charming guy. And she overhears rumors that all might not be right in Drue's world. In the morning, she awakes to something terrible, causing her to dig deeper into those rumors and her own relationship with Drue.

"The trick of the Internet, I had learned, was not being unapologetically yourself or completely unfiltered; it was mastering the trick of appearing that way. It was spiking your posts with just the right amount of real... which meant, of course, that you were never being real at all."

Well this was an unexpected yet enjoyable read. It's far less serious than Weiner's previous book, the expansive and beautiful Mrs. Everything, but I think it's exactly the read we need for these times. I finished feeling happy and grateful for what I had in my life. Big Summer was a wonderful distraction from real life.

This is a fun story featuring our engaging plus-size heroine, Daphne, who is still struggling to find herself as an adult. Many of her scars and insecurities come from her so-called friendship with Drue, who was more of a user than a friend. After Drue hurt Daphne one time too many, she hasn't seen her in six years. But she's still powerless to say no to her, especially when she's begging for her to attend her high society wedding.

"You are susceptible to Drue Cavanaugh. She's your Kryptonite."

I found Daphne to be sweet albeit in need of a backbone at times. Her journey to self-actualization is certainly engaging. Big Summer takes a huge turn about halfway through, giving me a big surprise, but I loved it, honestly. I'm glad I hadn't read about the twist--a lot of reviews give it away, but I won't. Let's just say that Drue and her minions can be quite twisted at times, and there's a lot to unravel and unwrap here in terms of motivations and backstory. Big Summer starts with a little snippet set in the early 1990s, setting us up for the story ahead. We also learn about Daphne and Drue's past and all about their friendship.

This is such a sweet, sometimes silly (oh how I love Daphne's parents), and real read. Goodness, the pieces about Daphne's weight can be so heartbreaking. There's a section where she remembers her grandmother caring for her for a summer and basically giving her her weight insecurities, as she put Daphne on her first diet, making her aware of being heavier. Oh man. Weiner is an excellent writer, and she brings Daphne to life here, making her such a true person, whom we want to root for, hug, and love.

And she gives us a book about family, love, and reminds us to be grateful for what we have. The grass isn't always greener on the other side, per se. Always important, but even so more right now. I loved this one, with its escapist nature and twisty yet heartfelt storyline. 4+ stars.

I received a copy of this book from Atria Books and Netgalley in return for a honest review. It releases 5/5/2020.

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