Monday, June 29, 2020

You picked me up just right when I was stuck: IN THE ROLE OF BRIE HUTCHENS.

In the Role of Brie Hutchens...In the Role of Brie Hutchens... by Nicole Melleby

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Brie Hutchens is an eighth-grader at a Catholic school. She loves soap operas and dreams of being the star of the school play. She wants to go to drama school next year. Brie also has feelings that she's pretty sure are different than the other kids at her school. For instance, she gets a fluttery feeling looking at photos online of her favorite soap opera actress. But when Brie's (very religious) mom walks in on her doing so, Brie freaks out and tells her Mom she's been chosen to crown the Mary statue at her school's ceremony. She hasn't of course, and even worse, she probably stands no chance at earning the gig, since it usually goes to a top student. One like Kennedy, whom Brie usually avoids. But as Brie starts to spend a little more time with Kennedy, she realizes Kennedy gives her the same feeling as that soap actress. And that none of this is going to make her mother happy (or help her crown Mary).

This is a very sweet, heartwarming, and touching story about a young girl finding her way and finding herself. I'm a sucker for coming of age stories, but when they are lesbian coming of age stories? I'm sold. Brie is an interesting character, who even comes across a little ungrateful at times--though perhaps she's just a typical teenager. She's embarrassed her dad works at her school and often seems a bit self-centered and in her own world. Okay, yeah, she's a teenager. But her battle with her sexual identity is certainly one I could identify with and it's presented in a lovely and truthful way. It's exactly the kind of book kids this age need, especially teens being raised in a religious environment.

The book is more religious than I expected, but it's not off-putting. As someone whose first love love came from a religious Catholic family, I saw so much of my past life in this book. I loved the fact that Brie is a soap fan--as kid who grew up loving Dallas, Days of Our Lives, Passions, and Sunset Beach, this part of the book was totally fun. Yet, Melleby worked in the angle in a serious way, too, as Brie uses soaps as a way to realize that maybe she isn't so different after all (thank you, soaps, for having some progressive characters ahead of your time).

"But when Brie and her mom sat in the living room, watching their soaps, Brie forgot they had so little in common."

Brie is fun and sweet and she's decidedly her own person, yet scared of how her religious mom and her Catholic school friends might see her if she reveals she likes girls. Her agonizing over this, her fear of coming out, is raw and realistic. The difficultly of coming out really resonates here, and Melleby does a wonderful job capturing how hard it is, even now.

Overall, this is a lovely and tender book--funny and sweet--and a great children's/YA read. If you love coming of age stories, YA novels, or any LQBTIA youth fiction, I think this novel will tug at your heartstrings.

A huge thanks to Kejana from Algonquin Young Readers for my copy. Look for this book on 6/30/2020!

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Friday, June 26, 2020

I guess it's never really over: THE DILEMMA

The DilemmaThe Dilemma by B.A. Paris

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Fast-paced but preposterous and stressful

Livia became pregnant when she was seventeen and her wealthy but distant parents basically disowned her. As such, she's always dreamed of having a giant party of her own. Now she's turning forty and finally having the lavish party she's always longed for. Her husband Adam and eldest child, Josh, will be there, but her younger daughter Marnie, who is studying in Hong Kong, will miss the celebration. And, secretly, Livia is relieved--something she hasn't even told Adam. Adam, meanwhile, just wants it all to go well for Livia. He has his own surprise planned, until he learns something terrible that will change everything.

"What I hate most is that my need for this party came from my parents. If I'd been able to have the wedding they promised me, I wouldn't have become obsessed with having my own special day."

Well, I can say one thing about this book: it's really readable. I flew through it in one day. Now, did I enjoy it? That's something entirely different. The plot is based on a preposterous web of lies and secrets that I don't think any couple would actually keep from one another. Not to mention that Livia is just ridiculous in her desire for this elaborate party, which we learn she has truly been dreaming about and planning for twenty freaking years. Seriously, lady?

Both Livia and Adam make insane decisions in the name of their secrets, but Livia's "secret"--which is actually just her being crazy yet again and overreacting to life--pales in comparison to Adam's, so it's impossible to take her seriously about anything. Meanwhile, you just want to shake Adam, tell him it's a stupid party, and get it together. Man up, tell your wife, and let's go. None--none of this--is necessary!

Honestly, while I kept turning the pages because a) I hoped someone would grow up and make a smart decision and b) I was wishing things would turn out differently, this book was stressful. It was hard to read, emotional, and tense (and not in a good, thrilling way). The whole story has an "ick" factor to it. While it was a quick read, it's not one I really recommend. 2 stars.

I received a copy of this book from Netgalley and St. Martin's Press in return for an unbiased review.

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Wednesday, June 24, 2020

I'm busy getting stronger: WHAT UNBREAKABLE FEELS LIKE.

What Unbreakable Looks LikeWhat Unbreakable Looks Like by Kate McLaughlin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of my absolute favorite reads of the year

This amazing, heartbreaking and powerful book blew my mind. It tugged at my heartstrings and will stay with me for quite some time. This is a must-read, everyone.

Lex is human trafficked and becomes Poppy, kept in a hotel with other girls with flower names. But then the girls are rescued, and Poppy must try to become Lex again. She moves in with her aunt and uncle—a place where’s she’s truly safe for the first time in a long time. But she’s been so hurt and broken and has a hard time trusting or believing she deserves anything good in her life. When she’s sexually assaulted by her boyfriend, Lex has to reckon with the fact that this isn’t something she deserves because of her past.

This book broke my heart and then patched it back together. McLaughlin writes Lex in such a way that she jumps off the page—a realistic, amazing, and wonderful heroine learning to be in charge of her own story. She covers human trafficking in its stark reality and yet this story is hopeful and tender. I loved the character of Lex, as well as her aunt, Krys. Knowing that Lex has been conditioned to think she deserves to be treated badly just breaks your heart--thinking sex is her only power, all she's worth. The way McLaughlin shows how human trafficking has destroyed Lex and distorted her self-image is one of the most powerful things I've read in ages.

This book blew me away. All the stars.

Thanks to Wednesday Books for my copy in return for an unbiased review.

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Friday, June 19, 2020

Make everybody stare through me: THE SWAP.

The SwapThe Swap by Robyn Harding

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

  A spellbinding and different read

Low Morrison grows up on an isolated island, known for its free-loving ways. Her parents take this to the next level, living a polyamorous life that leaves Low embarrassed, ashamed, and a social outcast. When she spots the beautiful Freya at her school, she's enthralled. She sees Freya hanging up signs for a pottery class and knows she must join. She's Freya's only student and quickly becomes besotted with her teacher. Freya has no problem sharing all of her secrets and desires with her young apprentice. That's until Freya meets Jamie, who owns a local shop in town. The two become quick friends, leaving Low feeling left out and an outcast once again. One night Freya and her husband Max invite Jamie and her husband Brian over for dinner; they have no idea a jealous Low is lurking in the shadows. The foursome partake in drugs and a crazy night occurs, changing their lives forever. It also gives Low a chance to hold something over their heads.

This was a slightly insane and improbable thriller that I sped through in an entire day. It was fast-paced and nearly impossible to put down, as you just knew the characters were hurtling toward disaster. It's filled with a variety of fairly unsympathetic characters, though I felt for Low, unwanted in her own busy family and toyed with by Freya, who cares only for herself.

"I'd had to share all my life. I was done with it."

The story is told from Low's perspective, along with Brian, Jamie, and Max. We never hear directly from Freya, whom all of these characters seem to hold on a pedestal. Why exactly, we can never be sure, as she seems self-centered and cruel, playing with and torturing each of them to get exactly what she wants.

I found this to be a spellbinding read--it pulls you in as only Harding can do. Low's obsession, Freya's narcissism, Jamie's naivete. We can sense it all combining into something propulsive and horrible.

Overall, while I didn't love this one quite as much as The Arrangement, Harding's previous novel, I still enjoyed it. It's a fast-paced and creepy read, plus it's different and fun. 4 stars.

I received a copy of this book of this book from Gallery/Scout Press and Netgalley in return for an unbiased review. It is available on 6/23/2020.

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Wednesday, June 17, 2020

And I told myself I wouldn't fall apart: THE GIRL FROM WIDOW HILLS.

The Girl from Widow HillsThe Girl from Widow Hills by Megan Miranda

My rating: 3.75 of 5 stars

Arden Mayor was just a child when she was swept away while sleepwalking during a terrifying rainstorm and went missing for days. Then she became the miracle of her small town of Widow Hills, Kentucky when she was found clinging for life to a storm drain. Her mother, Laurel, wrote a book. The family received money, fan letters, and, yes, stalkers. Soon it became too much and when she was old enough, Arden changed her name. She became Olivia. Now, as the twentieth anniversary of the incident nears, she has her own life. No one in her new world knows about her past. But when she receives word via phone call about her mother's death, something jolts loose in Olivia. She starts sleepwalking again, waking outside her house. And then one night she awakens, outside yet again, the body of a corpse at her feet. Even worse, the man is someone she knew from her previous life as Arden. Suddenly, Olivia's right back where she started: under scrutiny and media attention. And this time, she isn't the media darling, but a murder suspect.

"I was the girl who survived. The girl who held on. The girl you prayed for, or at least pretended to pray for--thankful most of all that it wasn't your own child down there, in the dark. And after: I was the miracle. The sensation. The story."

I don't have a lot of notes from reading this, but I think it's because I was too caught up in the story. This was a twisty thriller, and I simply wanted to know what happens. You can't ask for much more in a good mystery, can you? I've read a few books lately that cast a strong shadow of doubt on the protagonist (Heather Gudenkauf's This Is How I Lied being a great example)--and Miranda does great work of it here. Olivia sleepwalks, and we have a hard time fully trusting her throughout the novel. Heck, she has a hard time trusting herself.

Of course, there are plenty of other suspects and lots of twists and turns to keep you guessing. I enjoyed the story of a girl escaping her past, only to find it catching up with her, no matter how hard she tried. We see how the media and attention can unravel even the happiest of tales, how Olivia's mother couldn't handle the pressure, how Olivia had to become a different person to survive. Why, we wonder, does society have to take a happy thing and ruin it.

"The case made all of us, and then it unmade us."

Overall, this was a fast-paced and intriguing read. Olivia is an interesting character, oddly sympathetic despite her possibility of being a murderess. 3.75 stars, rounded to 4 here.

I received a copy of this book from Simon & Schuster and Netgalley in return for an unbiased review. It releases on 6/23/2020.

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Monday, June 15, 2020

I never wanted to say goodbye: SAVING RUBY KING.

Saving Ruby KingSaving Ruby King by Catherine Adel West

My rating: 4+ of 5 stars

Ruby King is twenty-four-years-old when her mother, Alice, is found murdered in the home she shared with Ruby and Ruby's father, Lebanon. The police show little interest in--to them--another death in the King's black neighborhood, but Alice's death unhinges Ruby and leaves her alone with her violent, abusive father. Her only confidante is her best friend, Layla, who knows how long Alice and Ruby have suffered under Lebanon's wrath. But Layla is angry that Ruby won't do more to get away from Lebanon and she's even angrier at her father, a pastor, who has been close to Lebanon all these years, and yet never did anything to free Alice or Ruby from his abuse. Layla is determined to save Ruby, but as she works to rescue her friend, she starts to uncover a world of secrets and lies flowing back generations.

"I'm stitched together by the lies I tell myself and the lies people want to believe about me." ~Alice

I found this excellent and timely book to be incredibly well-written, with a power and tenderness to it that goes far behind your typical debut novel (I had to double check that this was actually West's first novel, I was so impressed).

West tells her story from a variety of points of view--Ruby; her late mother, Alice; her father, Lebanon; her best friend, Layla; Layla's father, a pastor; and more. We even hear from a central figure in all of these characters' lives--their church, via its omnipresent voice. The plot spans generations, with West giving a nuanced look at each of her complex characters. She does an amazing job of showing the power of family, for both good and bad. How choices can affect generations: one person's bad decisions can pass poison on, with children reliving dysfunction and sins.

"How can there be a me without her?" ~Ruby

No one is simply good or bad here, though Lebanon is not an easy-to-like man. Abused and neglected by his own parent, Sara, we see how Sara's neglect has turned Lebanon hard. But West is such a good writer that Lebanon is not a one-dimensional bad guy, as much as you want to hate him. I was incredibly impressed at how she could create sympathy for so many of her players, even when they did despicable things.

"Without Sara, who do I blame for...being me? Are children supposed to forgive their parents for the horrible things they've done?" ~Lebanon

This novel does an impressive job at delving into racism, domestic abuse, and sexual assault and trauma. The city of Chicago appears as its own character, springing to life via West's lovely prose. She expertly shows the difficulties black people face on the south side (and in general). I read this book during George Floyd's murder and found myself highlighting passages about police brutality that just hit me right in the gut. It's very powerful.

West's book features a variety of characters--they can be hard to keep track of at first, and I was glad to have the family tree in the beginning of the book. A few times the plot felt repetitious and the middle dragged a bit, but it picked up in the second half. There's a surprising amount of twists and turns. Overall, this is a realistic look at racism and domestic violence, but also friendship. It's quite well-written and layered with a twinge of hope throughout. I can't wait to see what West writes next. 4+ stars.

I received a copy of this book from Harlequin/Park Row and Netgalley in return for an unbiased review. It releases on 6/16/2020.

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Friday, June 12, 2020

Every look is a truce and it's written in stone: STRANGER IN THE LAKE.

Stranger in the LakeStranger in the Lake by Kimberly Belle

My rating: 4+ of 5 stars

Charlotte and her husband, Paul, live in a small lake town. But their marriage has caused gossip and rumors, when poor Charlotte, who grew up in a trailer park, marries the rich and older Paul. Then Charlotte discovers a body floating in the lake beside their house--in the exact spot where Paul's first wife died. Even worse, Charlotte saw Paul talking to the woman the day before, but he lied to the police about it. Then he disappears into the woods, leaving her to deal with the aftermath. As Charlotte begins digging into her husband's past, she starts wondering how much she can trust him.

"Something very bad has happened, right outside our door. Again."

This was an excellent and easy-to-read book with a compelling plot. I was drawn in by the story from the start and flew through the pages. Belle creates an atmospheric read, with the snow and lake basically appearing as extra characters. We find Charlotte (once "Charlie") pitted against her old best friend, Sam, who is on the police force and believes Paul killed his first wife. And we learn that Paul had a high school friendship with Micah, the son of the police chief, and Jax, who is now homeless and known as the town kook. It is Jax who asked to see Paul the day before the woman is found--and Jax who is lurking around Charlotte's house. Is he threatening her, or trying to warn her of something? And is there truly a chance that Paul killed his first wife? I loved how much this one kept me guessing.

What I found amazing is that Belle is able to take a familiar plot--a younger woman marrying an older guy with a past--and transform it into such a spellbinding thriller. What could come across as trite and stale is instead fascinating and intriguing. Charlotte is an easy-to-like protagonist who didn't seem to make dumb decisions. This can't be said of her husband, who was, frankly, an idiot. I had an inkling early about who might be responsible, but it did nothing to diminish my enjoyment of the story.

If you like your thrillers filled with secrets and lies, the power of family, and featuring a fascinating plot, this one is for you. 4+ stars.

I received a copy of this book from Harlequin/Park Row and Netgalley in return for an unbiased review.

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Saturday, June 06, 2020

What you tried your best to be: SOMETHING SHE'S NOT TELLING US.

Something She's Not Telling UsSomething She's Not Telling Us by Darcey Bell

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Charlotte is a doting mom who adores her five-year-old daughter, Daisy. She's also extremely overprotective and anxious, watching and worrying over Daisy's every move. Charlotte and her brother, Rocco, had a tough childhood. Rocco reacts by dating a variety of troubled women. But it seems like he's finally found someone special in his latest girlfriend, Ruth. Ruth really seems to love Rocco--and Daisy. But Charlotte rankles at how much Ruth likes Daisy and vice versa. Then Daisy is kidnapped from school, and Charlotte is convinced that Ruth took her. Is she right, or is it just Charlotte's fears rearing up again?

This was a twisty read that kept me guessing the entire time. It makes you work a bit to keep up, going back and forth between different perspectives and time periods, but it is interesting, dark, and compelling, with several good surprises thrown in. I was constantly switching my allegiances between Charlotte and Ruth, wondering which one (if either) I should trust. The ending felt a little abrupt and quick, but I would certainly read Bell's other work. 3.5 stars.

I received a copy of this book from Harper Paperbacks and LibraryThing in return for an honest review.

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Thursday, June 04, 2020

We're a half-written story without any ending: THE LIES THAT BIND.

The Lies That BindThe Lies That Bind by Emily Giffin

My rating: 2.5 of 5 stars

After Cecily breaks up with her boyfriend, Matthew, she's filled with regret and what ifs. She finds herself at a bar, reaching for the phone to call him. But she's stopped by another patron, who tells her not to. They start chatting-fueled by alcohol-and spend a memorable night together (not in that way). But Grant is dealing with a lot: his brother is ill and he's about to head overseas to help him with his treatment. Still, Cecily promises to wait for him. Then Grant returns and is immediately lost in 9/11. Cecily begins to investigate, searching for answers about the man she felt was The One.

Well, this book played with my emotions, but not necessarily in a good way. It was somewhat predictable and, honestly, I'm not sure why it needed to use the backdrop of September 11th for its story. The "one that got away" could have happened without using such a tragic event in this way. Cecily talks so much about her feelings for New York that it felt wrong to have 9/11 as a plot point that didn't really need to be there (I don't want to go into more and spoil anything else).

I'll admit that the book is oddly compelling. I read it in about a day. Cecily made a lot of bad decisions, but I wanted to see how her life was going to turn out. The focus on love, trust, and loyalty certain gives us universal themes with which we can all relate. But I was frustrated with Cecily's choices, the weird plot decisions/coincidences, and the overall ending. Everything just left me with a bad taste in my mouth, even if I was quickly flipping the pages. I hope that makes sense. It's a shame, because overall, I really enjoy Giffin's books. Alas, this clocks in at 2.5 stars for me.

I received a copy of this book from Random House - Ballantine in return for a honest review.

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Tuesday, June 02, 2020

No time to ever take the time to care: REMAIN SILENT.

Remain SilentRemain Silent by Susie Steiner

My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

In the third book in Steiner's Manon Bradshaw series, we find Manon at work part-time in cold cases, leaving her "time" to raise her toddler, Teddy, and teenage son, Fly. She's adjusting to domestic living with Mark and all the bliss that comes with it: who will take out the garbage, pick up the kids, cook dinner, and more. Then Teddy and Manon take a walk to the park and discover a body: a Lithuanian immigrant named Lukas hanging from a tree, a note attached to his body. Manon's annoying and perhaps clueless boss assigns her to lead the case--with her faithful partner Davy Walker--and Manon is back, attempting to juggle work, motherhood, and what could be a very dangerous murder case.

I love Manon and this was yet another well-written mystery from Steiner. The introduction to this book features one of the most amazing, realistic, and yes, depressing, ruminations on marriage, life, and death that I may have ever read. In fact, Steiner so perfectly captures real life, especially juggling being a working mom. I love that she doesn't shy away from how hard Manon finds parenting, or gloss over the difficulties of marriage. Once or twice I might have found these tirades a bit tiresome (back to the case, I say!), but overall, it's refreshing to find a book that tells it like it is.

Speaking of, this is such a timely read, focusing on immigration, racism, and the overall hatred of "otherness" that seems to permeate the world right now. The central plot focuses on the infusion of immigrants, particularly Eastern Europeans, into England. The story told is a heartbreaking one of anger and loss. Steiner deftly weaves a tale from multiple points of view and time periods--we hear not only from Manon and Davy, but Lukas' friend Matis, who spearheads the pair's immigration from Lithuania, only for them to find themselves basically prisoners. They are indebted to the man who brought them over, trapped in a smelly workhouse, and forced to do menial labor to pay off their "debt." With Lukas dead, the story leading up to his death unfolds, and it's absolutely riveting and heartbreaking. Steiner handles the sensitive issues surrounding immigration and racism wonderfully, crafting a well-done mystery that still gives this topic its due.

"'Why do they hate us so much?'"

Overall, I cannot recommend this book (4.5 stars) or this series enough. I have followed Steiner on social media for years and was devastated to learn she was diagnosed with a brain tumor after submitting this book. My heart goes out to her and her recovery.

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

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