Showing posts with label contemporary fiction. Show all posts
Showing posts with label contemporary fiction. Show all posts

Friday, October 7, 2016

The Brady Bunch Gone Bad in Commonwealth by Ann Patchett


Title: Commonwealth
Author: Ann Patchett
Publisher: Harper
Publication Date: September 13, 2016
Source: copy received from TLC Book Tours in exchange for an honest review

Plot Summary from Goodreads:

One Sunday afternoon in Southern California, Bert Cousins shows up at Franny Keating’s christening party uninvited. Before evening falls, he has kissed Franny’s mother, Beverly—thus setting in motion the dissolution of their marriages and the joining of two families.

Spanning five decades, Commonwealth explores how this chance encounter reverberates through the lives of the four parents and six children involved. Spending summers together in Virginia, the Keating and Cousins children forge a lasting bond that is based on a shared disillusionment with their parents and the strange and genuine affection that grows up between them.

When, in her twenties, Franny begins an affair with the legendary author Leon Posen and tells him about her family, the story of her siblings is no longer hers to control. Their childhood becomes the basis for his wildly successful book, ultimately forcing them to come to terms with their losses, their guilt, and the deeply loyal connection they feel for one another.


My Review:

Add it to the "best of 2016" list!  Commonwealth left me enthralled from page 1.  If you've enjoyed Ann Patchett's books in the past (Bel Canto left an impression on me, making her newest novel sound all the more attractive), or if you just love a good family saga, this is your next read.

The family structure here is a bit more complex than "Brady Bunch gone bad," but I couldn't help thinking of America's favorite blended family as I read about the Keating/Cousins kids, who are pretty much the antithesis of the beloved Bradys.  The fateful christening party mentioned in the book's description is the dynamite that blows this family in so many different directions.  Patchett shows you this initial explosion, and then gives you a glimpse of how this affected each member of the family over the subsequent decades.  The story is rich with regrets and guilt that will leave you wondering--what would have happened if Bert and Beverly never met on that first day?  Would it have been for the better, or the worse?

If I had to pick one thing that makes this novel stand out, it's the fluidity as Patchett transitions between characters.  There are SO many family members in the Keating/Cousins clan that it does, admittedly, get confusing at times.  However, this made it all the more impressive that the narrative was able to move from one person to the next without requiring a designated chapter for each character (or even a page break, in many cases).  The story lasts just long enough with each family member that your interest never falters, and you end up with a captivating drama that spans generations.

I can't express enough goodness about this book!  Five stars, must read, go go go.

As always, much thanks to Trish at TLC Book Tours for including me on this tour!

Monday, September 26, 2016

Be Frank With Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson


Title: Be Frank With Me
Author: Julia Claiborne Johnson
Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks
Publication Date: September 6, 2016
Source: copy received via a giveaway at Book Hooked Blog--I was then asked for an honest review through HarperCollins and TLC Book Tours

Plot Summary from Goodreads:

Reclusive literary legend M. M. “Mimi” Banning has been holed up in her Bel Air mansion for years, but now she’s writing her first book in decades and to ensure timely completion her publisher sends an assistant to monitor her progress.

When Alice Whitley arrives she’s put to work as a companion to Frank, the writer’s eccentric son, who has the wit of Noël Coward, the wardrobe of a 1930s movie star, and very little in common with his fellow fourth-graders. The longer she spends with the Bannings, the more Alice becomes obsessed with two questions: Who is Frank’s father? And will Mimi ever finish that book?

Full of countless only-in-Hollywood moments, Be Frank With Me is a heartwarming story of a mother and son, and the intrepid young woman who is pulled into their unforgettable world.


My Review:

I went into this book without knowing very much (thanks to my penchant for not often reading full book descriptions), but it made the blog rounds rather favorably when the hardcover came out.  I kept it on my radar, then won a copy from Julie at Book Hooked, and was prompted to move it up my to-read list when TLC ran it on tour.  I am so glad that I kicked myself into reading it sooner rather than later.  This is such a fun gem of a book, and certainly a standout debut for Johnson.

The eponymous protagonist of the novel, Frank, is absolutely the best element of this story.  While he is never given any sort of official diagnosis, I made the conjecture that Frank is somewhere on the autism spectrum.  Alice, the narrator, has quite a job ahead of her when she is thrown into Frank's rigidly-ruled world.  However, despite his penchant for monotone diatribes and precise ways of doing things, Frank comes with his own brand of humor that is made even better by his relationship with Alice.  Watching the two of them grow together in the book is both entertaining and heartwarming.

Johnson has managed to bring the perfect mix to this novel: it's emotional, yet fun.  Wise, yet lighthearted.  I haven't read anything quite like it.  If you're looking for a swift-moving story with unique characters that has a little bit of everything, Be Frank With Me is a sure bet.

As always, much thanks to Trish at TLC Book Tours for including me on this tour!

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

EARTHQUAKE! All Stories Are Love Stories by Elizabeth Percer


Title: All Stories Are Love Stories
Author: Elizabeth Percer
Publisher: Harper
Publication Date: March 22, 2016
Source: copy received for honest review through TLC Book Tours

Plot Summary from Goodreads:

On Valentine’s Day, two major earthquakes strike San Francisco within the same hour, devastating the city and its primary entry points, sparking fires throughout, and leaving its residents without power, gas, or water.

Among the disparate survivors whose fates will become intertwined are Max, a man who began the day with birthday celebrations tinged with regret; Vashti, a young woman who has already buried three of the people she loved most . . . but cannot forget Max, the one man who got away; and Gene, a Stanford geologist who knows far too much about the terrifying earthquakes that have damaged this beautiful city and irrevocably changed the course of their lives.

As day turns to night and fires burn across the city, Max and Vashti—trapped beneath the rubble of the collapsed Nob Hill Masonic Auditorium—must confront each other and face the truth about their past, while Gene embarks on a frantic search through the realization of his worst nightmares to find his way back to his ailing lover and their home.


My Review:

As many of you know by now, I am a sucker for any book that gets compared to another book that I already enjoyed.  Which I KNOW is unfair, because if every novel that was "the next Gone Girl" was REALLY the next Gone Girl, there would be about eleventy billion Gone Girls.  But I am nothing if not consistent.  All Stories Are Love Stories has drawn some comparison to Station Eleven, so really I did not need to know more--sign me up, I wanna read it.

I quickly realized that (as with most book jacket comparisons) the similarities between All Stories Are Love Stories and Station Eleven end pretty quickly.  They both have a bit of a post-apocalyptic feel to them: Station Eleven's is literal, as the civilized world ends after a deadly virus, but in All Stories Are Love Stories, the feeling is figurative, as the characters struggle through death and disaster after an earthquake ("the big one") hits San Francisco.  Beyond that comparison, I think it's safe to say that Elizabeth Percer's new novel has a life of its own.

This novel is interesting because it feels like two separate stories (and I'm not referring to the 2 different primary plot lines: Max & Vashti vs. Gene).  There's the disaster story of the earthquake, which is formidable and striking in its own right.  But then, against this fiery backdrop, you also have the more intricate human stories within it: the love stories, if you will.  Max and Vashti's relationship is definitely the most captivating, as they reunite after a sad separation that unravels slowly for the reader.  (Admittedly, sometimes too slowly--I liked their connection, but often wondered why the details of their history together had to be pulled out so painstakingly.)  But there's also Gene, fighting his way back to his husband Franklin; Ellen, a TV reporter who is trying to decide exactly how much she loves her job; and a group of mismatched survivors trapped in a downtown theater, trying to navigate each other as they also navigate a way out.

None of these "love" stories would be as impactful without the larger earthquake story behind them.  This disastrous scenario creates a sort of do-or-die situation that forces each character to show their true self, and address the nitty-gritty details of their relationships.

Sounds pretty unique, right?  It most certainly is.  However, I have to admit that this probably won't be a novel that sticks with me for very long.  I like the unusual blend of characters that it brings together, and the earthquake situation is written with a degree of detail that shows a fair amount of research on Percer's part.  That said, the mental narratives of some of the characters were a bit too drawn out for me at times.  I don't mind an introspective novel, but when there's constant musing without much forward motion, I start to drift, and that was the case here.

My final verdict was a 3-star Goodreads review: a solid, distinctive novel with a lot of intriguing detail, but a bit too run-on at times to make it stand out in for me.  However, if more reflective, lingering prose is your thing, this may still be up your alley.

As always, much thanks to Trish and TLC Book Tours for including me on this tour!
Want to find out more?  Check out the other blogs on this book tour HERE. And connect with Elizabeth Percer via her website and Facebook.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The Girl in the Red Coat (Giveaway!)


Title: The Girl in the Red Coat
Author: Kate Hamer
Publisher: Melville House
Publication Date: February 16, 2016
Source: copy received for honest review through TLC Book Tours

Plot Summary from Goodreads:

Newly single mom Beth has one constant, gnawing worry: that her dreamy eight-year-old daughter, Carmel, who has a tendency to wander off, will one day go missing.

And then one day, it happens: On a Saturday morning thick with fog, Beth takes Carmel to a local outdoor festival, they get separated in the crowd, and Carmel is gone.

Shattered, Beth sets herself on the grim and lonely mission to find her daughter, keeping on relentlessly even as the authorities tell her that Carmel may be gone for good.

Carmel, meanwhile, is on a strange and harrowing journey of her own—to a totally unexpected place that requires her to live by her wits, while trying desperately to keep in her head, at all times, a vision of her mother …

Alternating between Beth’s story and Carmel’s, and written in gripping prose that won’t let go, The Girl in the Red Coat—like Emma Donoghue’s Room and M. L. Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans—is an utterly immersive story that’s impossible to put down . . . and impossible to forget.


My Review:

That word "immersive" from the last line of the plot summary is COMPLETELY on point.  I was immersed, steeped, saturated in this story.  The Girl in the Red Coat will have you working your page-flipping fingers at Olympic pace.

I went into the novel a bit unsure, because as much as I loved the book's description, the first couple of chapters didn't hook me right away.  I think this is because Carmel and Beth are such unusual protagonists that it took me a while to get a good grip on their personalities.  I didn't understand their peculiarities (especially Carmel's) until I went further into the book.  However, by the time of Carmel's disappearance, my initial hesitations had vanished, allowing me to sink into the story.

The novel alternates between Carmel and Beth's POVs, and Hamer writes them in a way that creates a strong connection between the two, even when they are physically separated.  The mother-daughter bond and its many complexities would be a great discussion point for any book clubs that pick this one up.  That said, I did find Carmel's POV to be more gripping for the reader than Beth's--Carmel's situation stays fluid and unpredictable for most of the book, while Beth's chapters started to become a bit repetitive after a while, without as much forward motion.  This wasn't a deal-breaker for me in terms of enjoying the story, but it was worth noting that I often flew through Beth's chapters to get more of Carmel.

It's worth noting that the conclusion is very open-ended--so if that's not your cup of tea, you've been warned.  However, I LOVED all of the unanswered questions at the end, because they left me with so much to ponder about the various relationships in the novel.

Overall, The Girl in the Red Coat was a super fun read.  It's an excellent thriller, with many of the riveting plot elements that you've loved in other books of the genre, but also with so many unique twists and turns that it won't be a novel easily forgotten.

As always, much thanks to Lisa and TLC Book Tours for including me on this tour!
Want to find out more?  Check out the other blogs on this book tour HERE.

GIVEAWAY TIME!!  TLC Book Tours is giving away one copy of The Girl in the Red Coat to one of my lucky readers.  US/Canada entrants only.  Giveaway ends 3/23/16.  Enter with the Rafflecopter below!
a Rafflecopter giveaway

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

February Minis: 3 for 3!

Hello, readers!  I know, I completely fell off the wagon with Book Blogger Appreciation Week halfway through.  MY BAD.  You know how my blogging is these days.  However, I have been busy reading, and I've got 3 new mini-reviews for you...and all 3 are books that I thoroughly enjoyed.

What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty
Penguin, 2009
borrowed from the library

This is the latest pick from my MOMS Club book club.  Right after I started reading it, my BFF Cari texted me to alert me that this is one of her top 5 books of ALL TIME!  Quite the endorsement!  And I have to say, I now completely understand why.  I loooooved this novel.  Book club is going to have a lot to discuss!

Synopsis: 29-year-old Alice wakes up on the floor of a gym after falling and hitting her head.  Which is weird, because she hates gyms.  But then she finds out that she's not 29 anymore--she's 39.  She's also not pregnant with her first child anymore (as she thought), but now has 3 kids.  And she's also not married to the love of her life anymore--she's getting a divorce.  Yes, Alice hit her head and lost 10 years of her memories.  Now she's trying to figure out what went wrong...and can she regain the person she thought she was 10 years ago?  (Does she want to?)

This is the first time I've read Moriarty's work, and it won't be the last.  The dialogue is lighthearted, but the core issues of this book are not.  The ending is perfection, and guaranteed to leave you with so much to mull over.  This novel is not even a little bit the predictable sappy love story that I feared it might be.  Can't recommend this enough!!

Bull Mountain by Brian Panowich
G.P. Putnam, 2015
borrowed from the library

This book was recommended by ALL THE BLOGGERS.  I saw it on a bunch of best-of lists for 2015, and finally decided to pick it up at the library.  Synopsis: Clayton Burroughs is the sheriff on Bull Mountain in the woods of north Georgia.  He also happens to be the youngest brother of the outlaw Burroughs clan, currently run by his oldest brother Halford.  But Clayton is trying to be different--he's a man of the law, and determined to keep his family's criminal ways out of his life.  And he's doing a pretty good job of it.  Until ATF agent Simon Holly shows up at his door.

I have to admit that I was skeptical of this one.  Half crime thriller/half historical fiction, I didn't know if this would be a great fit for me.  But let me tell you, I was glued from page one.  I even skipped a yoga practice to wake up early one morning and finish it!!  :)  The way Panowich makes this story unfold is absolutely brilliant.  Even if I guessed at some of the twists before they happened, I didn't care, because Panowich has such a way with words that he made them feel surprising anyway.  Complex characters, gripping conclusion--yup, this has it all.  Read it!

Hansons Half Marathon Method by Luke Humphrey with Keith & Kevin Hanson
Velo Press, 2014
borrowed from the library

Have to throw in my latest running read!  Since I am doing so many 13.1s this year, I've been enjoying reading about different training methods for the distance.  I heard amazing things about Hansons, so I had to pick this one up.  Full disclosure: when I first got the book, I immediately flipped to the training programs.  I took one look at these intense 6-day-a-week plans and said NOPE.  Not for me.  I put the book down and decided I'd save this one for a time in my life when I had more availability for such an involved program.

Then I got the notice that the book was due back to the library...and decided maybe I should at least read it first.  So I renewed it.  And I started reading.  And now I am a BELIEVER!  While I still think this is not the right time for me to follow a Hansons plan, I am 100% on board with their methodology, and I feel like I learned SO much more about the hows and whys of the training process.  Hansons plans are based in well-researched exercise science, and reading through them gave me a wealth of helpful new running information, even as I follow a different training calendar.  Absolutely a valuable read for anyone serious about the 13.1 distance, even if you're not going to use one of their plans.  I'm hoping to try one out when I have more time to dedicate to it.

What are your current reads?  Any good book club picks?  What's the last thing you read and loved because of a recommendation from a friend?

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The Ramblers by Aidan Donnelly Rowley


Title: The Ramblers
Author: Aidan Donnelly Rowley
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication Date: February 9, 2016
Source: copy provided for an honest review by the publisher

Summary from Goodreads

Set in the most magical parts of Manhattan—the Upper West Side, Central Park, Greenwich Village—The Ramblers explores the lives of three lost souls, bound together by friendship and family. During the course of one fateful Thanksgiving week, a time when emotions run high and being with family can be a mixed blessing, Rowley’s sharply defined characters explore the moments when decisions are deliberately made, choices accepted, and pasts reconciled.

Clio Marsh, whose bird-watching walks through Central Park are mentioned in New York Magazine, is taking her first tentative steps towards a relationship while also looking back to the secrets of her broken childhood. Her best friend, Smith Anderson, the seemingly-perfect daughter of one of New York’s wealthiest families, organizes the lives of others as her own has fallen apart. And Tate Pennington has returned to the city, heartbroken but determined to move ahead with his artistic dreams.

Rambling through the emotional chaos of their lives, this trio learns to let go of the past, to make room for the future and the uncertainty and promise that it holds. The Ramblers is a love letter to New York City—an accomplished, sumptuous novel about fate, loss, hope, birds, friendship, love, the wonders of the natural world and the mysteries of the human spirit.


My Review:

The Ramblers tickled my fancy to pick up for review because you all know I just looooove a good character-driven, relationship-based drama.  This sounded like exactly the sort of thoughtful contemporary fiction that I'd be into, especially because the 3 protagonists are all in my age range (early- to mid-thirties).  And who doesn't love New York City?

In the end, I have to say I liked The Ramblers, though I can't go so far as to say I adored it.  Let's break down the pros and cons.

Pros: The prose is incredibly perceptive, peppered with insightful observations about self-actualization, the trials and tribulations of romance, and family bonds.  Rowley creates many a gorgeous metaphor between the characters' lives and the book's common plot points (birds, Central Park, photography, etc), so there's no lack of symbolism here.  Thoughtful writing: check.

I also especially enjoyed Clio as a character, along with her handsome Irish suitor, Henry.  (Seriously, if there is someone who is prime candidate for Book Boyfriend of the Year, Henry is IT.)  Clio appeals to me because she comes from humble beginnings and a turbulent childhood, so her now-privileged adulthood comes off as more unpretentious.  Her problems feel tangible, relateable.  I was a big fan of her storyline.

Cons: While the writing is perceptive, it is also incredibly verbose--borderline tedious at times.  The protagonists' long-winded introspections about their lives started to get some eye-rolling from me after a while.  It was too much, and this book could have probably cut at least 20 pages without much trouble.

Also, for as much as I liked Clio's character, I found myself rather turned off by Smith and Tate.  Smith was hard for me to find sympathy towards.  She's been spoiled by her parents for all 34 years of her life, and is now frustrated that she is having trouble getting out from under their millions in order to forge her own path.  Um, boo hoo, I guess?  I can tell that Rowley tried valiantly to write Smith as a down-to-earth woman despite her social status, but it just didn't happen for me.  Her problems felt trite.  As for Tate, he was so aloof and crass at times that I just plain old didn't like him.  As a duo, I was not digging them at all (though I guess it did seem that they deserved each other, in a way).

In the end, The Ramblers is a solid 3-star novel for me.  There's lots to enjoy here, especially the penetrating prose.  However, there are an equal number of downsides that keep this from being a stand-out read.

What's the last character you read that you felt was difficult to relate to, for whatever reason?

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

1st Review of 2016! Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff


Title: Fates and Furies
Author: Lauren Groff
Publisher: Riverhead
Publication Date: September 15, 2015
Source: borrowed from the good ol' public library

Summary from Goodreads

Every story has two sides. Every relationship has two perspectives. And sometimes, it turns out, the key to a great marriage is not its truths but its secrets. At the core of this rich, expansive, layered novel, Lauren Groff presents the story of one such marriage over the course of twenty-four years.

At age twenty-two, Lotto and Mathilde are tall, glamorous, madly in love, and destined for greatness. A decade later, their marriage is still the envy of their friends, but with an electric thrill we understand that things are even more complicated and remarkable than they have seemed.


My Review:

I know I've mostly been doing mini-reviews lately, but I figured my very first book of the year deserved its own post.  Especially when we're talking about a much-hyped book like Fates and Furies!

I'll say from the outset that, while I did enjoy this novel, I was a bit mystified about all the 5-star reviews and "Best Book of 2015" designations that have been tacked onto it.  There was a lot for me to like about Fates and Furies, but I wouldn't really say I loved it.

Number one reason I was into this book: Groff's ability to create wonderfully complex, nuanced characters.  One thing that struck me about both Lotto and Mathilde is that their physical appearances never became entirely clear for me.  While they both regarded each other as physically gorgeous, other characters in the book often described them as awkward and odd-looking, but still beautiful by way of personality or charisma.  As such, I love that my vision of them was shaped more by their personalities than their actual physical traits.  I think this also spoke volumes about their maturation throughout the book.

While Lotto came across is pretty naive and vain across the board, I was struck by the hidden surprises within Mathilde.  For the first half of the book, she is often in the shadows, and I was looking forward to having her mysterious nature unveiled in part two.  Sure enough, she had a lot of secrets to hide, and I loved the unexpected calculating edge to her character.

That said, I think the book didn't reach "amazing" status for me because there wasn't anything terribly unexpected within its pages.  It is an interesting portrait of a marriage, and certainly includes many quotable passages about the subtleties of married life.  But aside from the uniqueness of the two protagonists, I didn't find anything particularly new here.

Is Fates and Furies worth the read?  Absolutely.  Is it going to be on my favorites list for the year?  Questionable.  But I'm still quite happy with it as my choice for first read of 2016!

What are your thoughts on Fates and Furies?  Read any good relationship dramas lately?

Friday, August 28, 2015

Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll


Title: Luckiest Girl Alive
Author: Jessica Knoll
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication Date: May 12, 2015
Source: borrowed from the good ol' public library

Summary from Goodreads

As a teenager at the prestigious Bradley School, Ani FaNelli endured a shocking, public humiliation that left her desperate to reinvent herself. Now, with a glamorous job, expensive wardrobe, and handsome blue blood fiancé, she’s this close to living the perfect life she’s worked so hard to achieve.

But Ani has a secret.

There’s something else buried in her past that still haunts her, something private and painful that threatens to bubble to the surface and destroy everything.

With a singular voice and twists you won’t see coming, Luckiest Girl Alive explores the unbearable pressure that so many women feel to “have it all” and introduces a heroine whose sharp edges and cutthroat ambition have been protecting a scandalous truth, and a heart that's bigger than it first appears. 

The question remains: will breaking her silence destroy all that she has worked for—or, will it at long last, set Ani free?


My Review:

I remember hearing about Luckiest Girl Alive back around the time when I was reading Hausfrau, and The Girl on the Train was still fresh, and everyone was all WE NEED TO FIND THE NEXT GONE GIRL.  (A book that I love, but can we agree that we need to stop looking for the next one?)  That said, I am a sucker and will read anything compared even tangentially to Gillian Flynn's magnum opus--even this book, which honestly seems to get more lukewarm reviews than solidly good ones.

I am happy I fell for the bait here though, because my review is decidedly not lukewarm.  I adored this novel from cover to cover.

My first draw was to the protagonist, Ani, who in the beginning gives off a real bitchy, biting vibe.  I liked her despite this harsh edge.  Ani is judgmental, vain, and sneaky.  However, she's also quite the faker, as she keeps many of her unflattering opinions to herself, manipulating those around her to see only the parts of her that she allows them to see.  This was my first clue to the fact that Ani is not what she initially seems.  Her character transforms immensely over the course of the book.  She exposes weaknesses that I never imagined when I met her tough exterior on page 1.  The Ani of the final page is nearly unrecognizable from the one you meet early on, but given the events that are revealed throughout the novel, I found that to be a perfectly believable shift.

I like plot twists, and I got a lifetime supply here.  Ani's background at Bradley is slowly revealed, and when the BIG problem of her past was finally thrown open, I never saw it coming.  But there were plenty of smaller issues to keep me riveted along the way as well.  This, in combination with the emotional upheaval that Ani is experiencing, literally left my heart racing at many points in the book.  I love it when I have to put down a book for a little while because I am just TOO WORKED UP to continue.

Bonus of this book: amazing flashbacks to high school days, circa early-2000s.  Abercrombie & Fitch cargo pants and Steve Madden clogs for the win.

In the end, I think Luckiest Girl Alive, despite its difficult and violent themes, is actually a bit of a lighter read than many of its contemporaries.  Much of this is due to Ani's character, who brings in more humor than a Rachel in Girl on the Train, or an Amy in Gone Girl.  So it's really the tone that's lighter, not so much the subject matter.

Either way, I recommend this book up and down.  Yay for Ani, yay for books about off-kilter, misunderstood bitches, and yay for Luckiest Girl Alive.

What's the last book you read that you had a different reaction to than many other readers?  (Either you loved it and they disliked it, or vice versa?)

Friday, July 31, 2015

The Shore by Sara Taylor


Title: The Shore
Author: Sara Taylor
Publisher: Hogarth
Publication Date: May 26, 2015
Source: borrowed from the good ol' public library

Summary from Goodreads

Welcome to The Shore: a collection of small islands sticking out from the coast of Virginia into the Atlantic Ocean. Where clumps of evergreens meet wild ponies, oyster-shell roads, tumble-down houses, unwanted pregnancies, murder, storm-making and dark magic in the marshes. . . 

Situated off the coast of Virginia's Chesapeake Bay, the group of islands known as the Shore has been home to generations of fierce and resilient women. Sanctuary to some but nightmare to others, it's a place they've inhabited, fled, and returned to for hundreds of years. From a half-Shawnee Indian's bold choice to flee an abusive home only to find herself with a man who will one day try to kill her to a brave young girl's determination to protect her younger sister as methamphetamine ravages their family, to a lesson in summoning storm clouds to help end a drought, these women struggle against domestic violence, savage wilderness, and the corrosive effects of poverty and addiction to secure a sense of well-being for themselves and for those they love.

Together their stories form a deeply affecting legacy of two barrier island families, illuminating 150 years of their many freedoms and constraints, heartbreaks, and pleasures.


My Review:

I fell victim to total book blogger peer pressure here, people!  Err-body was reading The Shore a few weeks ago.  It was all over my blog reader and the Instagram and the Twitters.  So when I saw a copy just hanging out on my library's New Releases shelf, I had to go for it.  Unlike that time when your mom asked if you would jump off a bridge if all your friends did it to, this was actually a GREAT time to do what all my friends were doing.  Because this is a fantastic novel.

The Shore is wonderfully, unapologetically, vigorously unique.  I saw it categorized as a "short story" collection by some Goodreads reviewers, but I don't think that's entirely accurate.  While most of the chapters are narrated by different characters, and in many cases the time period is completely different between them, the overlapping details between all of these stories are essential to your overall impression of the book.  Do yourself a favor and DO NOT read this on an e-reader, because I had to flip back to the (sizable) family tree at the front of the book every 5 pages or so.  It would have driven me crazy to have to do that on a Kindle.

Even though many of the narrators in this novel are (genetically) related, they've often never met each other.  In that way, each chapter does have an exclusivity to it that leaves readers with that "short story" feel.  However, Taylor has woven all of their narratives together in a way that leaves you with a strong ribbon of similar themes: melancholy. Persistence.  Isolation.  Brutality.  And many, many powerful female characters.  This is what gives the book a tight cohesiveness that I find astounding for a piece of literature with so many different stories to tell.

On top of that, a few of the chapters threw in some genre twists that I was not expecting at all, particularly in magical realism and dystopia.  But it worked.  They caught me off guard at first, but in the end, I was appreciative of how they changed the direction of the novel and managed to carry the previously-established themes even deeper into the story.

I'm not sure if this review gives you anything concrete about The Shore to hold on to, but that is the nature of this book.  Don't let the cover and title fool you--this is much more than a walk on the beach.  If you're ready for something completely different, immersive, and impressively well-crafted, The Shore is an excellent pick!

What was the last book you read because "all the cool kids were doing it"??  :)

Friday, June 5, 2015

GIVEAWAY! Five Night Stand by Richard J. Alley


Title: Five Night Stand
Author: Richard J. Alley
Publisher: Lake Union Publishing
Publication Date: May 12, 2015
Source: copy received for honest review through TLC Book Tours

Plot Summary from Goodreads:

Legendary jazz pianist Oliver Pleasant finds himself alone at the end of his career, playing his last five shows, hoping the music will draw his estranged family back...

Frank Severs, a middle-aged, out-of-work journalist, is at a crossroads as his longtime dreams and marriage grind to a standstill...

And piano prodigy Agnes Cassady is desperately grasping for fulfillment before a debilitating disease wrenches control from her trembling fingers...

When Frank and Agnes come to New York to witness Oliver’s final five-night stand, the timeless force of Oliver’s music pulls the trio together. Over the course of five nights, the three reflect on their triumphs and their sorrows: families forsaken, ideals left along the wayside, secrets kept. Their shared search for meaning and direction in a fractured world creates an unexpected kinship that just might help them make sense of the past, find peace in the present, and muster the courage to face the future.


My Review:

Five Night Stand is the perfect read to accompany a sip of your favorite drinky-drink after a long summer day.  This story felt like jazz itself: soulful, melodious, and smooth.  There isn't anything particularly earth-shattering that happens in the plot--no huge reveal or shocking twist to hang your hat on.  Instead, I found myself enjoying the way Agnes', Frank's, and Oliver's lives came together as their journeys intersected in increasingly intimate ways.

It took me a while to get a good read on each of the characters.  With Agnes and Frank, it was because they both seemed so much older than their actual ages.  Agnes, coping with a neuro-degenerative disease at the young age of 22, has hardened herself to many of the trivialities of life as she tries to make peace with the short time she has left.  On the other hand, Frank, in his mid-forties, is faced with a sudden lay-off, and must decide what his life's direction will be now that his work is suddenly gone.  Their fortunate meeting in New York with jazz-virtuoso Oliver Pleasant puts them both on a path to find some peace.

I'll admit that this book was a little outside my comfort zone (I'm not particularly up on my jazz knowledge, nor am I very musical in general), but the story within these pages has an appeal even for the most musically-unskilled readers.  The relationships here are poignant, while the prose itself is quite subtle, and all together it makes for a very enjoyable read.

As always, much thanks to Lisa and TLC Book Tours for including me on this tour!
Want to find out more?  Check out the other blogs on this book tour HERE.  And connect with Richard J. Alley on Facebook, Twitter, and his website.

GIVEAWAY TIME!  One lucky reader (in the US/Canada) can win a copy of Five Night Stand for their very own.  Just enter using the Rafflecopter below.  Giveaway ends June 11!
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Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Finding Jake by Bryan Reardon


Title: Finding Jake
Author: Bryan Reardon
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication Date: February 24, 2015
Source: copy received for honest review through TLC Book Tours

Plot Summary from Goodreads:

While his successful wife goes off to her law office each day, Simon Connolly takes care of their kids, Jake and Laney. Now that they are in high school, the angst-ridden father should feel more relaxed, but he doesn't. He’s seen the statistics, read the headlines. And now, his darkest fear is coming true. There has been a shooting at school. 

Simon races to the rendezvous point, where he’s forced to wait. Do they know who did it? How many victims were there? Why did this happen? One by one, parents are led out of the room to reunite with their children. Their numbers dwindle, until Simon is alone.

As his worst nightmare unfolds, and Jake is the only child missing, Simon begins to obsess over the past, searching for answers, for hope, for the memory of the boy he raised, for mistakes he must have made, for the reason everything came to this. Where is Jake? What happened in those final moments? Is it possible he doesn’t really know his son? Or he knows him better than he thought?


My Review:

It was hard for me to go into this novel and not compare it, at least in the beginning, to We Need To Talk About Kevin.  There are some basic similarities: a fiction novel about a school shooting, told from the perspective of a parent of the shooter.  However, Finding Jake quickly dovetailed into its own unique tale, as there were important differences that became apparent early on.  Most importantly, Jake is only a suspected shooter in the killing that takes place, and you spend much of the novel trying to figure out if he was actually involved or not.  Related to that, Jake is not nearly so damaged (demonic?) as Kevin in Lionel Shriver's novel.  These details, paired with the fact that the narrator is Jake's father Simon (a self-critical stay-at-home dad), give you a novel that tells a story unlike any other.

With an event so catastrophic as a school shooting at its core, it's easy to expect that Jake will be the center of this novel's universe.  However, I found that Simon's story was truly the driving force for most of it.  When he realizes that Jake could be a killer, Simon delves into the last 17 years of his parenting to figure out where he could have gone wrong.  Did he socialize Jake enough?  Did he let him hang out with the wrong friends?  As the parent who was primarily responsible for child-rearing for so many years, it's easy to see how Simon would want to overanalyze even the most minute decisions he made as a father through the years.  Did he do the right things for his son?  Does he even truly know him?

I found Simon's perspective to be engaging and relatable--yes, likely because I, too, am an overly-critical-of-myself stay-at-home parent, but even if I wasn't, Reardon writes this character with a clarity that brings Simon's reality to life for any reader.  Simon's job has been his kids for nearly two decades, and now he finds that one of them may have committed a horrible atrocity.  How can he not second guess his entire life as a father?  His journey is heartbreaking, but also intriguing, as his position as a stay-at-home dad (vs. the more common stay-at-home mom) adds a distinctive twist to the narrative.

I do have to note that, as well-developed as Simon's character is, I felt that his wife (Rachel) was given short shrift.  Even though Simon is central to the novel, Rachel's actions are important enough to the story that I should have been able to get a better read on her.  However, I often felt there was a disconnect between her personality and her actions, and was sometimes left scratching my head at why she made certain decisions (at one point, she basically abandons Simon during a fairly critical moment in the book, which based on the knowledge I had of her previously, seemed unfitting).  This is not a huge detractor from the novel, but worth mentioning, as I felt it was quite a contrast from Simon's character.

That detail aside, this book was well worth the read, and I was hooked from page one.  While comparisons to novels like We Need to Talk About Kevin might make you start reading Finding Jake, by the time you finish it, those comparisons will be a distant memory.  This novel has a powerful, emotional story to tell, and a unique perspective from which to tell it.

As always, much thanks to Trish and TLC Book Tours for including me on this tour!
Want to find out more?  Check out the other blogs on this book tour HERE.  And connect with Bryan Reardon on Facebook.


Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Inside the O'Briens by Lisa Genova


Title: Inside the O'Briens
Author: Lisa Genova
Publisher: Gallery
Publication Date: April 7, 2015
Source: ARC received from the publisher via NetGalley for an honest review

Summary from Goodreads

Joe O’Brien is a forty-four-year-old police officer from the Irish Catholic neighborhood of Charlestown, Massachusetts. A devoted husband, proud father of four children in their twenties, and respected officer, Joe begins experiencing bouts of disorganized thinking, uncharacteristic temper outbursts, and strange, involuntary movements. He initially attributes these episodes to the stress of his job, but as these symptoms worsen, he agrees to see a neurologist and is handed a diagnosis that will change his and his family’s lives forever: Huntington’s Disease.

Huntington’s is a lethal neurodegenerative disease with no treatment and no cure. Each of Joe’s four children has a 50 percent chance of inheriting their father’s disease, and a simple blood test can reveal their genetic fate. While watching her potential future in her father’s escalating symptoms, twenty-one-year-old daughter Katie struggles with the questions this test imposes on her young adult life. Does she want to know? What if she’s gene positive? Can she live with the constant anxiety of not knowing?

As Joe’s symptoms worsen and he’s eventually stripped of his badge and more, Joe struggles to maintain hope and a sense of purpose, while Katie and her siblings must find the courage to either live a life “at risk” or learn their fate.


My Review:

I already mentioned a few days ago how much I enjoyed Inside the O'Briens.  If you've read any of Genova's other novels, you know that she does an excellent job of humanizing neurological disorders--bringing them to life through stories of (fictional) families forced to deal with the diseases' consequences in the everyday details of life.  That was certainly the case in this book as well.  Before reading, I already knew the "textbook" definition of Huntington's disease, but Inside the O'Briens opened my eyes to the devastating effects that this condition has not only on the person who has been diagnosed, but on all of their family and friends.

I like that Genova chose someone like Joe O'Brien as a protagonist, as well.  He's kind of a macho guy--police officer, patriarch of a large Irish family, doesn't really wear his emotions on his sleeve, and not real concerned about his health in general.  Not someone who might have coping mechanisms already in place for a disease like Huntington's--much less know what it is.  Watching him navigate his diagnosis, as well as its implications for his family, is heartbreaking.  Genova develops his character with amazing heart.

As much as I liked this book, I did feel that it dragged in some parts.  The narrative jumps back and forth between Joe and his youngest daughter Katie (who is trying to decide if she wants to do genetic testing to reveal if she will eventually get Huntington's).  Both Joe and Katie spend a lot of time wrestling with their internal dialogue.  For Joe, it's figuring out how he will cope with the disease as he gets sicker, and how he can best support his family.  For Katie, it's deciding if she should be tested, and if so, what that means for her future.  While their respective journeys of self-discovery do progress over time, I often felt like they got a bit repetitive and "stuck", debating the same points over and over.  I don't say that to lessen the importance of their struggles, but as a reader, it did slow the plot down quite a bit at times.

That said, the strong emotions and family struggles in this book absolutely outweighed the concerns I had about the slow movement of the plot.  This is an excellent read for anyone with an interest in familial drama, neurological disorders, or who just plain wants a good tug on the heartstrings.

**Lisa Genova is encouraging all readers of her book to donate to the Huntington's Disease Society of America, to further research into treatment and a cure for the disease.  Please check out THIS LINK if you're interested!

Have you read any of Lisa Genova's novels?  Has your life been affected by a family member with a neurodegenerative disorder?

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

And then my heart burst. Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum


Title: Hausfrau
Author: Jill Alexander Essbaum
Publisher: Random House
Publication Date: March 17, 2015
Source: review copy provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review

Summary from Goodreads

Anna Benz, an American in her late thirties, lives with her Swiss husband Bruno and their three young children in a postcard-perfect suburb of Zürich. Though she leads a comfortable, well-appointed life, Anna is falling apart inside. Adrift and increasingly unable to connect with the emotionally unavailable Bruno or even with her own thoughts and feelings, Anna tries to rouse herself with new experiences: German language classes, Jungian analysis, and a series of sexual affairs she enters into with an ease that surprises even her. Tensions escalate, and her lies start to spin out of control. Having crossed a moral threshold, Anna will discover where a woman goes when there’s no going back. 

My Review:

I read Hausfrau and now I AM BROKEN INSIDE.

Honestly, I was a bit unsure of this book during the first half.  Hausfrau is getting a ton of buzz right now, and as I jumped into the text, I had to spend some time unraveling Anna's inner turmoil.  At first, I found myself getting rather annoyed with her--what business does she have, cheating on her husband at every turn?  Ignoring her kids in favor of another tryst?  I even was (dare I say it?) bored for a chapter or two as things played out.  (And, I should note (for those who'd like the content warning), they do play out quite graphically.  It got a little 50 Shades of Grey up in there for a while.)  But as the details came together, I began to realize that Anna isn't a stereotypical desperate housewife.  Anna is really and truly depressed.  And this book captures her downward spiral in the most heartbreakingly stunning way.

I think that's the best thing to know going into this book: there is no catch here.  There's no mystery behind Anna's background that's going to explain her actions to you (I kept waiting for some big reveal about her past that didn't happen).  This book is a character study in depression, plain and simple.  And depression doesn't usually have one root cause that can be so quickly explained.

Even though there is no big revelation about Anna along the way, there is a rather significant plot change that occurs in the second half, and this is where my heart basically imploded and I could.not.stop.reading until the very end.  Oh, the sadness, my friends.  I felt so deeply for Anna by the end of this novel.  I don't get real attached to characters in novels most of the time, but I felt emotionally entrenched in her story for sure.

And the ending.  This book could make my favorites list for the year simply because of how well Essbaum wrote the last page.  I won't spoil it for you but just...amazingly poignant.

Do you like character-driven novels?  Do you like to feel all the feels (and I don't even like that phrase), especially the depressingly sad ones?  Then Hausfrau will be the most well-written novel to make you cry in 2015.  HANDS DOWN.

What's the last book that really and truly tugged at your heartstrings?  Made you cry?

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Worst Vacation Ever = Summer House With Swimming Pool by Herman Koch


Title: Summer House with Swimming Pool
Author: Herman Koch
Publisher: Hogarth
Publication Date: June 3, 2014 (English version)
Source: borrowed from the good ol' public library

Summary from Goodreads

When a medical mistake goes horribly wrong and Ralph Meier, a famous actor, winds up dead, Dr. Marc Schlosser is forced to conceal the error from his patients and family. After all, reputation is everything in this business. But the weight of carrying such a secret lies heavily on his mind, and he can't keep hiding from the truth…or the Board of Medical Examiners.

The problem is that the real truth is a bit worse than a simple slipup. 


My Review:

There is a lot (LOT) more to the book description above if you look at the Goodreads link, but I didn't include it because I think it's SUPER SUPER spoilery.  And there are few things I dislike more than a spoilery book description!

If you've read The Dinner (Koch's other English-translated novel...review HERE), you likely suspect that this book is rather dark and unsettling.  And if so, you're 100% correct.  To paraphrase my thoughts on the other novel, I was impressed with the character development (none of them were quite what they seemed) but put off by the farfetched nature of many of their actions, as well as the slow-moving plot action.

That said, I believe I enjoyed Summer House with Swimming Pool more than The Dinner.  This was likely in part because I already knew what to expect from Koch, so the things that threw me off about the first novel didn't ruffle my feathers in this one.  Again, we have highly unlikeable characters all the way around (there's no other way to say it--the protagonist, Marc, is a straight-up a-hole), characters making very questionable choices, and inaccurate medical details that are often sprung from Koch's imagination.  However, one big difference is that I did not find the plot slow-moving at all in Summer House--something new was constantly being revealed, and the book takes place over a longer time period, so there was more to keep me involved as things moved along.

This combination of elements worked better for me this time around.  Koch has created an exceptionally thrilling, foreboding novel here, one that is sure to leave you feeling uneasy long after you finish reading.  (Seriously, some of the subject matter in this one is really stomach-turning at times.)  The "summer house" in question is brought into the novel as Marc (in the midst of the medical error that was mentioned above) flashes us back to the previous summer, when he and his family vacationed with the doomed Ralph Meier at a rental house on the coast.  The sinister nature of the novel's events come together slowly, which kept me riveted from beginning to end.  I had an inkling of what was going on before it was actually revealed, but that didn't make the buildup to the conclusion any less absorbing.

Overall, an excellent read, if not terribly unsettling.  I need to go read something about unicorns or fluffy puppies to even myself out.  If Koch can take a beautiful summer vacation and turn it into something horrific, I can't wait to see what he'll take on next.

What's the most disturbing novel you've read lately?

Ever rented a summer house?  Where?  DETAILS!  (I'm still waiting for the snow to melt here, give me some hope.)
 
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