Book Review: A Tragic Kind of Wonderful

Book Review:  A Tragic Kind of WonderfulA Tragic Kind of Wonderful by Eric Lindstrom
four-stars
Published by Poppy on February 7th 2017
Genres: Contemporary Fiction, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 288
Source: Library
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

Goodreads Synopsis:  For sixteen-year-old Mel Hannigan, bipolar disorder makes life unpredictable. Her latest struggle is balancing her growing feelings in a new relationship with her instinct to keep everyone at arm’s length. And when a former friend confronts Mel with the truth about the way their relationship ended, deeply buried secrets threaten to come out and upend her shaky equilibrium.

As the walls of Mel’s compartmentalized world crumble, she fears the worst—that her friends will abandon her if they learn the truth about what she’s been hiding. Can Mel bring herself to risk everything to find out?

 

MY REVIEW

A Tragic Kind of Wonderful follows the story of Mel Hannigan, a 16-year-old who is living with bipolar disorder.  Life with bipolar disorder is not easy, as we witness through Mel’s day-to-day struggles with the disorder, but for the most part, Mel seems to have things under control.  Where Mel really struggles though, as do so many others who are living with mental illness, is with her refusal to let anyone outside of her immediate family know that she has bipolar disorder. She fears the stigma of mental illness — that her friends will start to treat her differently or that she’ll become defined by her illness.  Rather than opening up to her friends and possibly allowing them to be a part of her support system, Mel instead chooses to keep her disorder a secret.

Mel is also living with another secret that is eating away at her.  Bipolar disorder has a genetic component — her beloved older brother Nolan had the disorder as well.  Tragically, he ended up dying because of it and what happened to him is a constant source of fear for Mel.  If she can’t control her disorder, will she suffer a fate like her brother’s? So not only does Mel not tell people about how her brother died, but now that she is starting at a new school, she doesn’t even tell people that she ever had a brother. She pretends to be an only child.

Those are some pretty big secrets for a 16-year-old to be carrying around and much of the novel focuses on how keeping those secrets really starts to negatively impact Mel’s life.  Just before Mel is officially diagnosed with bipolar, she has an episode that results in a huge fight between her and her best friends, Annie, Zumi, and Connor.  Her episode escalates immediately following the fight and she ends up hospitalized and doesn’t return to school for weeks and weeks.  She refuses to contact her friends because of what she’s going through and so they basically turn on her, assuming the worst about her because of some lies that Annie is spreading about her. By the time Mel does return to school, she basically has no friends and chooses not to make anymore because it’s easier to just keep people at arm’s length. She has a couple of casual acquaintances that she’ll chat with, but that’s it. A chance run-in with Connor a few months later clues Mel in that maybe keeping her disorder a secret and refusing to explain why she behaved the way she did during their fight wasn’t the best course of action, but by that point, it’s too late – the damage is already done. It still hurts though because she really misses Zumi, in particular.

Keeping her disorder a secret also impacts Mel’s romantic life as well. One day while working at the local senior center, Mel meets a boy that she thinks she might like to date.  Mel is immediately tormented by her usual concerns – how can I get close to this boy without him finding out about my disorder and, if he does find out, is he going to treat me differently because of it? Along with how she’s feeling about what happened with her friends, Mel ends up on a pretty big emotional roller coaster ride and the main question of the novel becomes how long can she continue to cope with her disorder while dealing with all these mixed emotions and keeping so many secrets.

LIKES

I really liked Mel a lot.  She’s a nice girl and I immediately sympathized with everything she’s going through.  One of the qualities I liked most about her is the way she handles herself at the senior center with the elderly residents.  She loves working with them and cheering them up if they’re having a down day or aren’t adjusting well to living there.  At the same time, however, she is self-aware enough to know when she’s on a downward cycle with her bipolar disorder and isolates herself from the residents because she doesn’t want to bring them down with her.  I was really touched by that level of sensitivity and caring.

I also liked how the author, Eric Lindstrom, accurately portrays bipolar disorder as a disorder that is unique to each person who has it. Not everyone who has bipolar experiences the exact same ups and downs, and some like Mel are what are called rapid cyclers.  I thought he did a wonderful job of capturing Mel’s ups and downs and of showing us that even though Mel has bipolar disorder, there is still so much more to her than her disorder.

My absolute favorite part of the book was the overriding theme that sometimes you need help in life.  Sometimes no matter how independent we think we are or how afraid we might be of being judged, we still need to reach out to others.  There are some problems out there that are just too big to handle alone.  I think that lesson is true not just for someone who is coping with a mental illness, but for all of us.  Sometimes we all have to let people in.

DISLIKES

The only real issue I had with A Tragic Kind of Wonderful was that it felt like Mel’s drama with her ex-circle of friends often took up too much of the story.  While I understood that the drama was meant to show it’s unhealthy for a person to try to hide their mental illness from those who care about them, it still just felt like too much time was spent delving into Mel’s relationships with both Annie and Zumi and seeing what led to the collapse of their friendship.  It’s one of those things that probably won’t bother other readers, but it just started to feel like a bit of a distraction to me.

FINAL THOUGHTS

A Tragic Kind of Wonderful is a beautifully written YA contemporary that paints an accurate and vivid portrait of bipolar disorder while simultaneously breaking down the stigma that is often associated with mental illness.  If you enjoyed books such as Jennifer Niven’s All the Bright Places and Emery Lord’s When We Collided, I think you would enjoy this read as well.

 

RATING:  4 STARS

four-stars

About Eric Lindstrom

Eric Lindstrom enjoys writing Young Adult novels, including his debut novel Not If I See You First in 2015 followed by A Tragic Kind of Wonderful.

English publication of both in the USA is by the Poppy imprint of Little, Brown for Young Readers, and in the UK and the rest of the world by HarperCollins Children’s Books.

He has worked in the interactive entertainment industry for years as a creative director, game designer, writer, and combinations of all three. As Editor and Co-Writer for Tomb Raider: Legend he received a 2006 BAFTA nomination for Best Video Game Screenplay. As Creative Director and writer for Tomb Raider: Underworld he received a 2009 BAFTA nomination for Best Action Adventure Video Game and a 2009 Writers Guild of America (WGA) nomination for Best Writing in a Video Game.

He also raised children, which led to becoming first a school volunteer, then a substitute teacher, then a part time kindergarten teacher, then getting a credential to teach elementary school, and most importantly the discovery that Young Adult books are awesome. It’s pretty much all he ever reads, and now writes, in his house near the beach on the west coast, with his wife and, yes, cats.

Book Review: Saints and Misfits

Book Review:  Saints and MisfitsSaints and Misfits by S.K. Ali
five-stars
Published by Salaam Reads / Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers on June 13, 2017
Genres: Young Adult Fiction, Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 336
Source: Netgalley
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Goodreads Synopsis:  Saints and Misfits is an unforgettable debut novel that feels like a modern day My So-Called Life…starring a Muslim teen.

There are three kinds of people in my world:  1. Saints, those special people moving the world forward. Sometimes you glaze over them. Or, at least, I do. They’re in your face so much, you can’t see them, like how you can’t see your nose.  2. Misfits, people who don’t belong. Like me—the way I don’t fit into Dad’s brand-new family or in the leftover one composed of Mom and my older brother, Mama’s-Boy-Muhammad.  Also, there’s Jeremy and me. Misfits. Because although, alliteratively speaking, Janna and Jeremy sound good together, we don’t go together. Same planet, different worlds.  But sometimes worlds collide and beautiful things happen, right?  3. Monsters. Well, monsters wearing saint masks, like in Flannery O’Connor’s stories.  Like the monster at my mosque.  People think he’s holy, untouchable, but nobody has seen under the mask.

MY REVIEW

S.K. Ali’s debut novel Saints and Misfits is a beautifully written coming of age book about family, friendship, love, religious faith, and so much more. It’s also a book that focuses on the importance of not judging people, of not making assumptions about people you don’t even know based on how they look or how they’re dressed, or maybe even how religious or not religious they may seem.  Saints and Misfits tackles all of these important themes and allows us to explore them through the eyes of a hijabi teen, Janna Yusuf, as she navigates her way through life in her high school, at home, and in her Muslim community.

For the most part, Janna’s life is just like many other teens.  Her parents are divorced and Janna shares an apartment with her mother and her older brother, Muhammad.  Janna, a sophomore in high school, is fairly popular at school, works hard to get good grades, and is also starting to become interested in boys. Outside of school, Janna keeps herself busy with a part-time job taking care of her elderly neighbor Mr. Ram and also by pitching in as a photographer and website maintainer at the mosque where her uncle serves as Imam.

Janna is also a young woman with two very big secrets that she is trying to keep hidden from her loved ones and her community: 1) that she is attracted to Jeremy, a cute non-Muslim boy from school and she’s afraid that her family will not approve, and 2) that while attending a party at her friend Fizz’s house, Janna is nearly raped by Fizz’s cousin, Farooq.  Janna is traumatized and ashamed about what happened with Farooq but is afraid to tell anyone because Farooq is a very well- respected member of their close-knit Muslim community.  She doesn’t think anyone will believe her.  Janna’s experience is made all the more traumatic by the fact that Farooq seems to turn up nearly everywhere she goes, lurking in the background, almost as if he’s stalking her.  Janna’s two secrets drive much of the book’s storyline as she must decide what to do about each of them.  Will she choose to pursue her attraction to Jeremy and perhaps have to deal with the disapproval of her loved ones?  And will she find her voice and speak out against Farooq, to let her community know that he’s not a man to be revered and respected, but instead, he’s really a monster?

 

LIKES

There’s so much to love about Saints and Misfits, but I’d have to say my favorite part is the wonderful cast of characters.

Janna.  I adored everything about Janna.  She’s super smart, hilarious, a little bit snarky, and just an all-around likeable character, probably one of the most likeable characters I’ve read so far this year.  As if all of that wasn’t cool enough, Janna is also a Flannery O’Connor loving book nerd! If I had gone to school with Janna, I totally would have wanted to be friends with her.  I also found her voice to be authentic and I loved seeing the events of the story unfold from her perspective.  Her journey to find herself and to ultimately decide what kind of person she wants to be is such a compelling one.

Muhammad.  Janna’s older brother Muhammad is a great character too. He’s a typical annoying older brother at times, but he’s also just an all around good guy.  He’s protective of both his mother and his little sister, and he’s also adorably head over heels in love with his girlfriend, who Janna has dubbed “Saint Sarah” because the girl appears to be perfect in nearly every way.  (Janna learns that she’s wrong to make such a judgment about Sarah—that Sarah is human and has a past just like everyone else — but I’ll leave the details about that for you to discover on your own).

Sausun.  After Janna, Sausun is probably my next favorite character.  I loved Sausun because she comes across as kind of a badass. She’s tough, not easy to impress, and she wears a niqab accessorized by Doc Martens.  She also hosts a hilarious YouTube show called Niqabi Ninjas, which she says she does to “lighten things up” so that people won’t be afraid of her and of other Niqabi (girls who cover their faces, in contrast to hijabis like Janna who just cover their hair).  What I loved most about Sausun though was how she steps up and gives Janna the metaphorical kick in the pants that she needs to try to stand up to Farooq.

Nuah.  Nuah is such a loveable character. I loved this guy so much.  Janna meets him at the senior center where she takes her neighbor, Mr. Ram, every week.  Where Farooq’s presence suffocates and overwhelms Janna, Nuah’s presence puts her at ease and whether she realizes it or not, she’s more herself around Nuah than she is around any another male we see her with in the story.  Nuah is super sweet, always sees the bright side of things, and loves to tell jokes and be silly.  He’s a big hit with all of the seniors at the center, and he also clearly likes Janna even though she doesn’t seem to realize it. As we learn during the course of the story, Nuah also is truly devout as opposed to the fake Farooq, who may have memorized the entire Quran but clearly has no interest in what it actually means.

There are also tons of really likeable secondary characters as well, like Janna’s uncle, who runs an advice column as part of his duties for the mosque.  He sends his answers to Janna so that she can edit/proofread them, so we get to see them as well.  He always has such warm and witty responses to the questions that are asked of him. You can’t help but chuckle when reading them.

In addition to the fabulous cast of characters, I also loved the realistic representation of the Muslim community.  Janna’s community is close-knit and supportive, with everyone pitching in and helping wherever they can.  I loved the positive depiction, which is so important these days when there are those who constantly try to demonize Muslims.  Ali does a wonderful job of illustrating that the Muslim community is just like almost every community out there, and she does it in a realistic way.  Yes, the community is positive overall and filled with caring people, but also like any other community out there, it has its issues as well, in this case the issue being Farooq.

Diversity.  Saints and Misfits is overflowing with diversity in the most wonderful way.  As I’ve already mentioned, the novel is set in a Muslim community and most of the main characters are Muslim, with both Hijabis and Niqabis being represented.  On a side note, while I’m thinking about the different types of coverings that can be worn, one of the things I really loved about the book was how Ali illustrates that just like with any other religion, different people interpret the Quran in different ways and thus their practice of the religion is very individualized. Just like not all Christians are the same, not all Muslims are the same either.

But the diversity doesn’t end there.  In addition to being Muslim, Janna is also half-Egyptian and half-Indian. Mr. Ram, the neighbor Janna cares for, is Hindu, and Ms. Kolbinsky, another elderly neighbor (who happens to have a crush on Mr. Ram!) is newly arrived from Poland.

 

DISLIKES

That it’s over?  Seriously. I adored Janna and her friends so much and would definitely be up for reading more about them, especially some of the characters that we just barely scratched the surface on. I’d totally be up for a standalone book on Sausun, Nuah, or even Janna’s brother Muhammad.

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

Saints and Misfits is an important novel because of the themes it explores and because of its realistic depiction of a Muslim community.  What makes this book even more special though is that it’s not just an important read, it’s a beautifully written and engaging read as well, one of my favorites of the year so far.

I read an article in Entertainment Weekly this week about books that should be made into TV shows and Saints and Misfits was one of the books on the list.  I actually really hope it happens because I think it with such a diverse and vibrant cast of characters, it would make for a very entertaining show.

 

RATING:  5 STARS

Thanks so much to S.K. Ali, Salaam Reads/Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, and Netgalley for the opportunity to preview this book.

five-stars

About S.K. Ali

S.K. Ali is a teacher based in Toronto whose writing on Muslim culture and life has appeared in the Toronto Star. Her family of Muslim scholars is consistently listed in the The 500 Most Influential Muslims in the World, and her insight into Muslim culture is both personal and far-reaching. A mother of a teenage daughter herself, S.K. Ali’s debut YA novel is a beautiful and nuanced story about a young woman exploring her identity through friendship, family, and faith.

Book Review: No Turning Back

Book Review:  No Turning BackNo Turning Back by Tracy Buchanan
three-half-stars
Published by Crooked Lane Books on June 13th 2017
Genres: Mystery, Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 352
Source: Netgalley
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Goodreads Synopsis:  Anna Graves’s whole life has recently been turned upside down. A new mother, she’s just gone back to her job as a radio presenter and is busy navigating a new schedule of late night feeding and early morning wake ups while also dealing with her newly separated husband. Then the worst happens. While Anna is walking on the beach with her daughter, she’s attacked by a crazed teenager. Terrified, Anna reacts instinctively to protect her baby.

But her life falls apart when the schoolboy dies from his injuries. The police believe Anna’s story, until the autopsy results reveal something more sinister. A frenzied media attack sends Anna into a spiral of self-doubt. Her precarious mental state is further threatened when she receives a chilling message from someone claiming to be the “Ophelia Killer,” a serial killer who preyed on the town twenty years ago—and who abruptly stopped when Anna’s father committed suicide.

Is Anna as innocent as she claims? And is murder forgivable, if committed to save your child’s life? Internationally bestselling author Tracy Buchanan takes readers on an emotional roller coaster ride filled with heart-stopping secrets and hairpin turns in No Turning Back, her U.S. debut.

 

MY REVIEW

Tracy Buchanan’s No Turning Back is aptly named because once you get started reading this heart-pounding roller coaster ride of a novel, there’s no turning back and no putting this book down until you’ve made it through all the twists and turns that this story throws at you.  If you like a mystery that will keep you guessing until the very end, this book is for you.

Anna Graves is a popular local radio host who is just returning to work after maternity leave.  She is also going through a divorce and so has a lot on her plate living the single mom life.  As if she didn’t have enough drama in her life, one day while strolling along the beach with her infant daughter, Joni, she is accosted by a teenage boy with a knife.  With no one around to help her, Anna desperately searches for something to protect herself and her child with.  She finds a comb with a long, pointed handle and points it at the boy to fend off his attacks. He slices her face with his knife but then loses his footing and falls on the handle of the comb Anna is holding.  It punctures his neck and he ultimately dies from the wound.  Anna is of course horrified by what has happened since she was only trying to protect herself and Joni and didn’t mean to harm the boy.

At first, the police believe Anna’s story and deem the boy’s death an act of self-defense.  But when the autopsy results reveal that he was poisoned shortly before his death, questions start to arise and the police start to question whether this was a straight case of self-defense or not.  Public reaction is also mixed with some hailing Anna as a heroic mother, while others proclaim her to be a murderer.  The media doesn’t help matters either, as they try to sensationalize the story from every angle, first seeming like they are on Anna’s side but then turning on her and trying to dig up anything they can to tarnish her reputation. Then Anna starts receiving taunting email messages from someone claiming to be The Ophelia Killer, a serial killer from 20 years ago who was never caught.  The Ophelia Killer targeted teenage boys who looked like the boy Anna killed and used the same poison that was in Anna’s victim’s system. When another teenage boy goes missing, the story takes on a whole new level of creepy suspense.  Is the original killer back? Or is it a copycat? Or is it just some sicko playing mind games with Anna?

 

LIKES

Anna Graves.  I really liked Anna.  I think being a mom myself, I found it very easy to put myself in her shoes while she was standing on that beach trying to do whatever it took to protect her infant daughter.  I could also empathize with the challenges of being a new mom and trying to juggle that with a career.  In all of these ways, she was a very relatable character.  I also tend to root for the underdog in stories so when the media, the community, the police, her soon-to-be ex-husband, and even her so-called friends started turning on her and questioning her actions and her mental state, I found myself in her corner that much more.

The Suspense and the Plot Twists.  Buchanan does a phenomenal job of weaving together an intricate mystery that will keep you guessing who the real killer is all the way to the end. Lots of dirty little secrets come to light throughout the course of the story, each of which seemed to lead either directly to Anna, much to her dismay, or else toward a suspect who could plausibly be The Ophelia Killer. I lost track of how many times I was sure I knew who was behind the murders only to end up being completely wrong.

The Portrayal of the Media.  Even though I was not at all a fan of the media in this story, I thought Buchanan portrayed them in a very realistic manner, especially in terms of the power the media wields.  With one positive or negative story, they can make or break a person’s reputation.  And when tabloid style journalism gets in the mix, all bets are off as to how they’ll choose to cover a story. Any shocking headline that is guaranteed to get the public’s attention seems to be fair game.  As we were given glimpses of some of the stories that were being written about Anna, all I could think of was a certain President running around yelling “Fake news! Fake news!”

The Big Question.  What I really enjoyed about No Turning Back was that in addition to being a wildly entertaining mystery, it’s also a book that made me think.  That big question that was out there from the early moments of the book – How far would you go to keep your children safe? Could you take a life? I bet it’s a question that stays on every reader’s mind, whether they have kids or not, long after they finish reading this story.

The Jaw Dropping Ending.  I can’t say anything else about it without giving away the story, but just WOW! I didn’t see it coming at all and it blew my mind!

 

DISLIKES

Overall, I loved the novel but I did still have a couple of issues with it.  The main one was that I didn’t like how the police were portrayed.  While it made Anna’s journey that much more of a roller coaster ride to have it seem like even the police were out to get her, I just couldn’t imagine a police force conducting itself like the one in this book did.  They didn’t really seem to care much about evidence or about Anna’s safety when she was receiving threats from the dead boy’s family.  They had little to no interest in finding evidence that would exonerate Anna.  Instead, they seemed to look at everything only insofar as to see how they could use it to prove Anna was guilty.

The other aspect of the novel that bothered me was that some events just didn’t seem plausible, the biggest one being right at the beginning of the novel when the boy falls on Anna’s comb and gets fatally stabbed in the neck. What are the odds of that actually happening?  I think it would have made for an even more compelling story than it already was to have Anna make a conscious choice to stab him in self-defense rather than having it be more like a freak accident.

 

 

FINAL THOUGHTS?

If you like a good mystery that will keep you guessing up until the final pages, I’d highly recommend No Turning Back.  With all of the twists and turns this plot has to offer, there’s never a dull moment!

 

RATING:  3.5 STARS

three-half-stars

About Tracy Buchanan

Tracy Buchanan is a full-time author who lives in Buckinghamshire in the UK with her husband, their little girl and their puppy, Bronte. Tracy travelled extensively while working as a travel magazine editor, sating the wanderlust she developed while listening to her Sri Lankan grandparents’ childhood stories – the same wanderlust that now inspires her writing.

Book Review: The Weight of Lies

Book Review:  The Weight of LiesThe Weight of Lies by Emily Carpenter
Also by this author: Burying the Honeysuckle Girls
four-stars
Published by Lake Union Publishing on June 6th 2017
Genres: Mystery, Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 380
Source: Netgalley
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Goodreads Synopsis:  In this gripping, atmospheric family drama, a young woman investigates the forty­-year­-old murder that inspired her mother’s bestselling novel, and uncovers devastating truths—and dangerous lies.

Reformed party girl Meg Ashley leads a life of privilege, thanks to a bestselling horror novel her mother wrote decades ago. But Meg knows that the glow of their very public life hides a darker reality of lies, manipulation, and the heartbreak of her own solitary childhood. Desperate to break free of her mother, Meg accepts a proposal to write a scandalous, tell-all memoir.

Digging into the past—and her mother’s cult classic—draws Meg to Bonny Island, Georgia, and an unusual woman said to be the inspiration for the book. At first island life seems idyllic, but as Meg starts to ask tough questions, disturbing revelations come to light…including some about her mother.

Soon Meg’s search leads her to question the facts of a decades-old murder. She’s warned to leave it alone, but as the lies pile up, Meg knows she’s getting close to finding a murderer. When her own life is threatened, Meg realizes the darkness found in her mother’s book is nothing compared to the chilling truth that lurks off the page.

MY REVIEW

I thoroughly enjoyed Emily Carpenter’s last book Burying the Honeysuckle Girls, so I was thrilled to see she had a new book, The Weight of Lies, coming out.  I couldn’t get to Netgalley fast enough to see if it was available for request.

Like Burying the Honeysuckle Girls, The Weight of Lies is classified as Southern Gothic.  And let me tell you, I think Carpenter has found her niche.  She is a master of creating these riveting, creepy psychological thrillers that keep you guessing until the very end.

The Weight of Lies focuses on socialite Meg Ashley and her troubled relationship with her mother, writer Frances Ashley.  Frances, who is just a real piece of work in every way and who was basically no mother at all to Meg, earned her celebrity status and a cult following back in the 1970’s when she wrote a best-selling horror novel.  The novel, “Kitten,” was about a young girl who exhibits increasingly disturbing behaviors and who may or may not have murdered another young girl.  Frances drew inspiration for her novel from an actual unsolved murder that took place on an isolated island in Georgia, Bonny Island, while Frances was staying there.  Inspired by Kitten, fans flocked to Bonny Island in droves.  Some wanted to meet the real life people who inspired the characters in the novels, while others sought to play amateur detective and see if they could solve the real murder.  Kitten created a cultural phenomenon, although it was little more than a burden to the people of Bonny Island, particularly Dorothy Kitchens, who most people believed to be the “Kitten” character in Frances’ book.

When Meg is approached with an offer for a book deal to write a scandalous tell-all memoir about her mother and their troubled relationship, Meg’s sense of resentment to her mother for neglecting her all her life wins out.  She knows such a book will wreck whatever remains of their relationship, but the chance to show the world what their precious Frances Ashley is really like is just too tempting to pass up.  When Meg is then told that Dorothy Kitchens would also like to have her side of the “Kitten” story told, Meg rushes off to Bonny Island to start digging up dirt on her mother and to hear what Dorothy has to say.  Once she gets there, however, and starts digging into not only her mother’s past but also into the events that took place 40 years ago on that island, Meg gets a lot more than she bargained for. Instead of finding the truth, she just keeps uncovering more and more lies about the events surrounding the murders and starts to wonder if she can trust any of the people on the island, or even her own mother since she seems to be somehow involved in things as well. What starts out as a mission of truth seeking and revenge for Meg, turns into something potentially much more dangerous as she becomes determined to find out the truth.

 

LIKES

I really loved how atmospheric this story was.  Bonny Island is basically a private island that is owned by Dorothy’s family.  When Meg heads down there, she learns she can only reach the island via ferry and that there are no businesses and limited cell phone coverage on the island.  There used to be a hotel – the one run by Dorothy’s family, where Frances stayed when she came to Bonny Island, but it has since been closed to guests.

At first, Bonny Island seems almost like a secluded little paradise, complete with free-roaming wild horses. It’s the perfect spot for Meg to do her research, interview Dorothy, and then stick around and write her book.  However, the things that first make Bonny Island seem so charming soon start to take on a more creepy and ominous feeling once Meg starts getting caught up in uncovering the truth about the murder that took place here.  The reader starts thinking about the fact that if Meg digs too deep and uncovers something that people on the island don’t want uncovered, she’s completely cut off from the rest of the world until the ferry comes again. And with that spotty cell phone coverage, there’s no guarantee she could call for help if she needs it.  All of these details were great suspense builders as Meg continues to dig for information. And the more information she finds, the more lies seem to fall in her lap. At a certain point, she is so deep in uncovered lies that she doesn’t know who she can trust anymore.

As fantastically creepy as the atmosphere was, I was equally fascinated by the book’s structure.  The story is presented to us in alternating chapters – an excerpt from “Kitten” followed by a chapter that follows Meg.  Like the setting and the events of the story, the “Kitten” excerpts seem straightforward and harmless enough, but just like Meg’s journey becomes darker and creepier as we move through the story, so do the “Kitten” excerpts.  I thought this mirroring effect was a very innovative way to present the fictionalized version of the murder (if it is, in fact, actually fiction) alongside Meg’s journey to uncover the truth about the real-life murder.

 

DISLIKES

The only real issue I had with The Weight of Lies was that I found some of the events in the story to be somewhat implausible, including the book deal itself.  It just seemed highly unlikely to me such a book deal would be offered to the child of a famous writer, and I also didn’t buy into what the book would entail.  Half tell all about being the daughter of Frances Ashley, half tell all about Frances’ time on Bonny Island and how her book impacted Dorothy and her family?  It’s probably just me, but I never could envision how that could come together as a coherent book that people would want to buy.  Thankfully Meg gets so wrapped up in investigating the murder though so the implausible book faded to the back of my mind after a while.

One other issue I had was this random leg nerve pain that is nagging Meg at the beginning of the story and that sporadically nags her throughout the story. It ends up being an important detail to the latter part of the story, but taken out of context before it’s revealed to be important, it just felt like a random distraction from the story I was really interested in, which was the truth about the murder.

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

Even with the couple of issues I had with those plot points, I still found The Weight of Lies to be a very entertaining read. I devoured it cover to cover in less than two days, refusing to put it down until all of the lies had been unraveled and the truth uncovered.  The family drama between Meg and Frances, coupled with the intriguing mystery that Meg is trying to solve, make The Weight of Lies a truly riveting read.

 

RATING:  4  STARS

Huge thanks to Lake Union Publishing, Netgalley and of course to Emily Carpenter for the opportunity to preview The Weight of Lies.

four-stars

About Emily Carpenter

EMILY CARPENTER, a former actor, producer, screenwriter, and behind-the-scenes soap opera assistant, graduated with a Bachelor of Arts from Auburn University. Born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, she now lives in Georgia with her family. BURYING THE HONEYSUCKLE GIRLS is her first novel. You can visit Emily online at emilycarpenterauthor.com.

ARC Review: The Sunshine Sisters

ARC Review:  The Sunshine SistersThe Sunshine Sisters by Jane Green
four-stars
Published by Berkley Books on June 6th 2017
Genres: Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 384
Source: First to Read
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from First to Read in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Goodreads Synopsis:  The New York Times bestselling author of Falling presents a warm, wise, and wonderfully vivid novel about a mother who asks her three estranged daughters to come home to help her end her life.

Ronni Sunshine left London for Hollywood to become a beautiful, charismatic star of the silver screen. But at home, she was a narcissistic, disinterested mother who alienated her three daughters.

As soon as possible, tomboy Nell fled her mother’s overbearing presence to work on a farm and find her own way in the world as a single mother. The target of her mother s criticism, Meredith never felt good enough, thin enough, pretty enough. Her life took her to London and into the arms of a man whom she may not even love. And Lizzy, the youngest, more like Ronni than any of them, seemed to have it easy, using her drive and ambition to build a culinary career to rival her mother’s fame, while her marriage crumbled around her.

But now the Sunshine Girls are together again, called home by Ronni, who has learned that she has a serious disease and needs her daughters to fulfill her final wishes. And though Nell, Meredith, and Lizzy are all going through crises of their own, their mother’s illness draws them together to confront old jealousies and secret fears and they discover that blood might be thicker than water after all.

MY REVIEW

The Sunshine Girls is my first experience in reading Jane Green’s novels and I have to admit, I was a little hesitant to read it since most sites I visit categorize it as Chick Lit, which isn’t generally a genre I enjoy.  I’m so glad I gave it a chance though because The Sunshine Girls is a beautifully written, compelling family drama that focuses on mother-daughter relationships, the bond between siblings, the search for love and self-worth, and most importantly, end-of-life regrets and the search for forgiveness and redemption.

The story focuses on Ronni Sunshine, an aging Hollywood star who has been diagnosed with a terminal illness.  When the story opens, Ronni is reflecting on her life – choices she has made, good and bad, and especially on regrets she has.  Her biggest regret – and one she hopes she can fix in the little time she has left – is how she raised her three daughters, Nell, Meredith, and Lizzy.  Even though she would never admit it before, Ronni is now fully cognizant of how she was so consumed with herself and with her career, that she never gave her daughters the attention, love, and support they needed.  She raised them in an environment where she was not only often physically unavailable to them, but she was emotionally unavailable as well.

The environment that Ronni created for her daughters was not only harmful to her relationship with them, but it also damaged the bond between the sisters as well.  When Ronni was frustrated with how things were going in her professional life, she often took out her frustrations on her girls, especially Meredith and Nell, heaping criticism upon criticism on them.  Her favorite target was Meredith because Meredith was overweight and very insecure about herself, but Nell was a close second.  Youngest daughter Lizzy somehow managed to escape the brunt of the verbal abuse, maybe because she was the baby or maybe because in most ways, she was the most similar to Ronni.  Whatever the reason, Lizzy always being excluded from Ronni’s moody tirades only served to create resentment and drive a wedge between the sisters.  For each of them, their primary goal in life is hurry up and graduate from high school and move as far away from Ronni as possible.

Each of the Sunshine sisters therefore go their separate ways and follow their own path.  While each sister is moderately successful professionally, their personal lives are less than ideal. Healthy relationships seem to elude them, and they rarely ever speak to each other or to their mother.  Oldest daughter Nell gets pregnant right out of high school, but the father doesn’t want anything to do with the baby so she’s left to raise her child alone. Nell stays closest to home, moving into a nearby farm and working as the caretaker there.  Middle daughter Meredith moves to London, becomes an accountant, and gets engaged to a man that everyone assumes she has just settled for because in many ways, he’s a giant loser. Youngest daughter Lizzy becomes a successful business entrepreneur and operates a successful line of pop-up rooftop restaurants in Manhattan.  Lizzy is married and has a child, but Lizzy also has a long-standing affair with her business partner.

As she reflects on her life and how she wants to leave this world, Ronni decides that she wants to do whatever she can to bring her daughters back together and repair the sisterly bond that she damaged when they were young.  She therefore summons all three of them home so that she can tell them about her illness and so that she can try to begin the healing process in their relationships.  While Ronni ultimately hopes they’ll forgive her for being such a sub-par mother, what she’s most concerned about at this point is that they come back together as a family so that she knows they’ll have each other after she’s gone.

 

LIKES

My favorite part of The Sunshine Sisters is how well drawn each of the characters are.  Even though the story starts out from Ronni’s point of view, we also see things from each of the three daughter’s perspectives so in each case, we get to see how they view themselves as well as how others view them.

I also liked the complexity of the relationship between Ronni and her children, as well as the relationships that each daughter has as they move into adulthood and beyond.  It’s easy to see how their upbringing has shaped them into people who find it hard to enter into healthy relationships.  Nell finds it easier to just not even put herself out there. It’s easier to just say she’s too busy with the farm and with raising her son.  In Meredith’s case, the insecurity about her weight that her mom helped to perpetuate has made it so that she just assumes no one will ever fall in love with her. And in Lizzy’s case, she almost seems determined to sabotage what at least on the surface appears to be a healthy marriage.  Ronni knows this is her fault and makes it her end-of-life mission to have a heart-to-heart with each daughter, basically giving them a lifetime of motherly advice and pep talks in one last conversation.  While she knows it’s probably too little too late in terms of them forgiving her, Ronni still hopes that these talks will at least let her daughters know that even though she was a horrible mother, she still loves them with all her heart and wants nothing but the best for them.

DISLIKES

I can’t really say I had any real dislikes other than that a few plot points were a little predictable.  In most cases, the outcome was what I was hoping for though so it didn’t really bother me too much.

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

If you like a good family drama that explores relationships gone wrong and whether or not they can be repaired, then The Sunshine Sisters is one you should have on your radar.  It will make you laugh, it will make you cry, and Ronni being Ronni will occasionally make you want to throw the book across the room, but ultimately you won’t be able to put it down until you find out if Ronni achieves her dying wish to reunite her family.

RATING:  4 STARS

Thanks so much to First to Read, the Publisher, and of course Jane Green, for providing me with a copy of The Sunshine Girls in exchange for my honest review.  This in no way influences my opinion of the book.

four-stars

About Jane Green

Jane Green is the author of eighteen novels, of which seventeen are New York Times Bestsellers, including her latest, Falling Previous novels have included The Beach House, Second Chance, Jemima J, and Tempting Fate.  She will be debuting her cookbook, Good Taste, on October 4th.

She is published in over 25 languages, and has over ten million books in print worldwide. She joined the ABC News team to write their first enhanced digital book— about the history of Royal marriages, then joined ABC News as a live correspondent covering Prince William’s wedding to Kate Middleton.  A former journalist in the UK, she has had her own radio show on BBC Radio London, and is a regular contributor on radio and TV, including as well as regularly appearing on television shows including Good Morning America, The Martha Stewart show, and The Today Show.

Together with writing books and blogs, she contributes to various publications, both online and print, including anthologies and novellas, and features for The Huffington Post, The Sunday Times, Cosmopolitan and Self. She has taught at writers conferences, and does regular keynote speaking, and has a weekly column in The Lady magazine, England’s longest running weekly magazine.

A graduate of the French Culinary Institute in New York, Green filled two of her books, Saving Grace and Promises to Keep, with recipes culled from her own collection. She says she only cooks food that is “incredibly easy, but has to look as if you have slaved over a hot stove for hours.” This is because she has five children, and has realised that “when you have five children, nobody ever invites you anywhere.”

She lives in Westport, Connecticut with her husband and their blended family. When she is not writing, cooking, gardening, filling her house with friends and herding chickens, she is usually thanking the Lord for caffeine-filled energy drinks. A cancer survivor – she has overcome Malignant Melanoma, she also lives with Chronic Lyme Disease, and believes gratitude and focusing on the good in life is the secret to happiness.

Book Review – Empress of a Thousand Skies

Book Review – Empress of a Thousand SkiesEmpress of a Thousand Skies (Empress of a Thousand Skies, #1) by Rhoda Belleza
three-half-stars
Series: Empress of a Thousand Skies #1
Published by Razorbill on February 7th 2017
Genres: Science Fiction, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 314
Source: Library
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

Goodreads Synopsis:  Crown princess Rhiannon Ta’an wants vengeance.  The only surviving heir to an ancient Kalusian dynasty, Rhee has spent her life training to destroy the people who killed her family. Now, on the eve of her coronation, the time has finally come for Rhee to claim her throne – and her revenge.

Alyosha is a Wraetan who has risen above his war refugee origins to find fame as the dashing star of a DroneVision show. Despite his popularity, Aly struggles with anti-Wraetan prejudices and the pressure of being perfect in the public eye.

Their paths collide with one brutal act of violence: Rhee is attacked, barely escaping with her life. Aly is blamed for her presumed murder.  The princess and her accused killer are forced to go into hiding – even as a war between planets is waged in Rhee’s name. But soon, Rhee and Aly discover that the assassination attempt is just one part of a sinister plot. Bound together by an evil that only they can stop, the two fugitives must join forces to save the galaxy.  In this exhilarating debut for fans of Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles and Pierce Brown’s Red Rising trilogy, Rhoda Belleza crafts a powerful saga of vengeance, warfare, and the true meaning of legacy.

 

MY REVIEW

 

Rhoda Belleza’s Empress of a Thousand Skies is a novel I picked up because it’s advertised as being for fans of Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles and Pierce Brown’s Red Rising trilogy.  Since those are two series that I’m currently reading and really love, I thought this would be a fantastic read for me.  For the most part it was, too. I thought it was a very exciting adventure with a lot of twists and turns in the plot and two very compelling main characters. That said, I did have a few issues with it though — mainly that the synopsis is rather misleading. It states that main characters Alyosha (known as Aly) and Rhiannon (called Rhee) will “join forces to save the galaxy.” Sounds pretty exciting, right? And I’m waiting for it to happen with each passing chapter…and waiting…and waiting, and guess what? Rhee and Aly don’t even meet in the first book. You can tell that’s the direction the series is most likely moving in, but I was surprised and a little frustrated to reach the end and the two of them had never crossed paths yet.

LIKES

That gripe aside, I really enjoyed the overall story. It’s an exciting mix of science fiction and politics, deception and betrayal, and it also tackles some pretty big topics that are relevant to our own society such as racial prejudice and scapegoating, as well as privacy issues that can arise because we surround ourselves all the time with technology that can be hacked.

I also really liked both of the main characters and was sympathetic to both of their stories, which were presented in a dual point of view. Rhee’s entire family was killed in an explosion so she’s the last surviving member of the Kalusian dynasty. She thinks she knows who killed her family and has been training for years to seek her revenge against the killer. She plans to exact revenge on her 16th birthday when she will be crowned Empress. All doesn’t go according to plan though because an attempt is made on her life, and presumed dead and not knowing who she can trust anymore, Rhee goes into hiding until she can figure out who has betrayed her and how she can get the throne back and uphold her father’s legacy.

Aly’s story is equally compelling. He is a Wraetan and a war refugee who, like Rhee, has lost his entire family. He lost his when Wraeta was destroyed ten years ago by Kalu during the Great War. Aly manages to overcome the anti-refugee sentiment and rises in status to become a famous TV star. Even though he is a star, however, he still struggles with anti-Wraetan prejudices and is often belittled because of his dark skin color. When Aly finds evidence that Rhee may not be dead after all and attempts to broadcast this news, he suddenly finds himself the prime suspect in her murder. The real perpetrators knew he would make for the ideal scapegoat because of the racist attitudes toward his people. Aly’s journey then parallels Rhee’s as he too must go into hiding until he can figure out his next move and who he can trust.

 

DISLIKES

There was a lot of info dumping in the beginning as the author set out to describe all of the different planets and territories in this galaxy as well as the backstories of each of these characters. It’s to be expected since she’s creating an entire galaxy from scratch, and the world building itself is phenomenal, but it did tend to slow the pace down at the beginning.  Once she got that out of the way, however, the story really took off for me and I read the whole book in less than two days.

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

Empress of a Thousand Skies is a book I’d definitely recommend to sci fi fans and to anyone who enjoys political intrigue. It’s like House of Cards set in space, and I definitely want to read the second book when it comes out to see how Rhee and Aly finally do join forces to take down their common enemy and stop a war that threatens to tear apart their world.

 

RATING:  3.5 STARS

three-half-stars

About Rhoda Belleza

Rhoda Belleza was raised in Los Angeles, where she grew up writing XFiles fanfiction and stuffing her face with avocados. When she’s not writing, Rhoda obsesses over nail art tutorials, watches kung fu movies, and sews together crooked things that pass for clothes. She’s a children’s editor at a publishing house and writes from a sunny Brooklyn apartment stuffed far too many bikes and far too many shoes. Empress of a Thousand Skies is her debut novel.

ARC Review: The Party by Robyn Harding

ARC Review:  The Party by Robyn HardingThe Party by Robyn Harding
four-stars
Published by Gallery/Scout Press on June 6th 2017
Genres: Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 352
Source: Netgalley
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Goodreads Synopsis:  In this stunning and provocative domestic drama about a sweet sixteen birthday party that goes horribly awry, a wealthy family in San Francisco finds their picture-perfect life unraveling, their darkest secrets revealed, and their friends turned to enemies.

One invitation. A lifetime of regrets.

Sweet sixteen. It’s an exciting coming of age, a milestone, and a rite of passage. Jeff and Kim Sanders plan on throwing a party for their daughter, Hannah—a sweet girl with good grades and nice friends. Rather than an extravagant, indulgent affair, they invite four girls over for pizza, cake, movies, and a sleepover. What could possibly go wrong?

But things do go wrong, horrifically so. After a tragic accident occurs, Jeff and Kim’s flawless life in a wealthy San Francisco suburb suddenly begins to come apart. In the ugly aftermath, friends become enemies, dark secrets are revealed in the Sanders’ marriage, and the truth about their perfect daughter, Hannah, is exposed.

Harkening to Herman Koch’s The Dinner, Christos Tsiolkas’s The Slap, and Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies, The Party takes us behind the façade of the picture-perfect family, exposing the lies, betrayals, and moral lapses that neighbors don’t see—and the secrets that children and parents keep from themselves and each other.

 

MY REVIEW

I wasn’t at all sure what to expect when I started reading Robyn Harding’s The Party.  I was looking for what I liked to call a guilty pleasure or indulgent read, and when I saw this book advertised as something fans of Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies would enjoy, I knew The Party was the book I was looking for.

And wow, what a ride it took me on! It actually surprised me how much I enjoyed it because, truth be told, none of the characters are especially likeable and they all made such bad choices throughout the story that I found myself literally wanting to scream at them.  But still, there was just something almost intoxicating about watching this domestic drama play out.

The story begins on a simple note when Kim and Jeff Sanders, a wealthy couple who have what appears to be a picture perfect life in an affluent community in San Francisco, decide they want to throw their daughter, Hannah, a Sweet Sixteen party.  Their version of a Sweet Sixteen party, however, is Hannah being allowed to invite a few of her best girl friends from school over for pizza and a sleepover.  Sounds innocent enough, right?  What could possibly go wrong?

Well, Hannah’s parents have no idea that she is desperately trying to climb her way up the social ladder at school and wants to be a part of the “Mean Girls” crowd.  Hannah knows that if she’s going to be accepted by the coolest girls in school, she is going to have to step up her party game. Pizza and a slumber party just isn’t going to cut it.  Once the girls arrive and Kim lays down her list of rules – no alcohol, no drugs, no boys, etc., the girls are left to their own devices, which includes breaking pretty much every house rule that was laid out for them.  The next thing Kim and Jeff know, it’s the middle of the night and Hannah is standing in their bedroom, crying and covered in blood. There has been a terrible accident…

The rest of the novel follows the Sanders family as their lives are laid bare in the wake of this accident, which has left a girl, Ronni, permanently disfigured.  Ronni’s mother goes on the attack, determined to make Kim and Jeff pay for what has happened to her daughter, and their friends take sides as some think they are culpable for what happened regardless of having laid down the house rules prior to leaving the girls unattended.  In the wake of an impending lawsuit, family secrets and mistakes from the past resurface to haunt them, and as the layers are peeled away from the façade of the Sanders’ lives, it appears that Kim and Jeff’s perfect life isn’t nearly as perfect as it seemed on the surface.  It also appears that many in the community are taking great pleasure in watching them, especially Kim, fall.

Ironically though, even though everyone is basically ganging up on them, it’s still nearly impossible to feel any sympathy for the Sanders because as if the party itself wasn’t a bad enough situation, they continue to make horrible decisions from that point forward.  Kim walks around acting self-righteous and denying that they are in anyway responsible.  Some of the things she says about Ronni and especially her mother are just completely out of line, considering the circumstance.  And Jeff is no better.  He spends his time trying to hide the fact that after Kim laid down the house rules the night of the party, he snuck back to the party and gave the girls a bottle of champagne so they could properly celebrate Hannah’s milestone birthday.  He begs all of the girls involved not to rat him out and somehow accidently leads one of them on so that she starts sending him inappropriate texts, etc., all of which would make him look awful if it were to ever come out because of the lawsuit.  Every time he responded to her, I just wanted to yell at him to stop being such an idiot.

I almost got to the point where I thought they deserved whatever happened to them because they were both such annoying characters.  On the flip side though, although I felt sympathy for the girl who was disfigured, I was only semi-sympathetic to the way her mother went on the attack, determined not just to do what she could to take care of her daughter, but also hell bent on doing whatever she could to actually ruin the Sanders in every way possible.

 

LIKES

Okay, so if I didn’t like any of the characters, what did I like about The Party?  As I said, I was looking for a guilty pleasure read when I selected this book and I got exactly what I wanted. The story reads like a mashup of Big Little Lies, Mean Girls, with a side of Desperate Housewives thrown in for added flavor.  It’s a truly fascinating look at just how ugly and mean people can be.

And even though I didn’t like any of the characters, I still liked the way they were written.  They were all flawed and therefore utterly human. I also found everything that happened to be pretty relatable and realistic in the sense that all of the things that went wrong – the party, the accident, and all of the ensuing drama and meanness, etc. — could easily play out in any community, as could the bullying that took place at Hannah’s school once Ronni was deemed not pretty enough to hang around with the “cool” kids anymore.

I loved the pacing of the story too. There was never a dull moment because there was constant drama unfolding from all sides as I waited to see if the Sanders would ultimately be held legally responsible for what happened at the party and regardless, how they would begin to put their lives back together after the character assassination they faced from the victim’s mother and her attorneys.

I also liked that the story was told from multiple points of view, including Hannah, Jeff, Kim, as well as others in the community.  Seeing what was driving each character really fleshed out the story and made the drama that much juicier.

 

DISLIKES

The only real dislike I had was the ending.  I can’t say much about it without giving it away, but it was not a satisfying ending for me. I wanted lessons to be learned from what had happened, and while I think some of the characters did learn and grow, the one I wanted to learn and grow the most apparently learned nothing. The ending was shocking and unexpected so in that sense was highly entertaining, but I was still a little disappointed.

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

If you’re a fan of domestic dramas like Big Little Lies or Desperate Housewives and don’t mind characters who aren’t especially likeable, I’d say The Party is well worth a read.

 

RATING:  4 STARS

 

four-stars

About Robyn Harding

Robyn Harding is the author of several books and has written and executive produced an independent film. She lives in Vancouver, BC with her husband and two children.

Book Review: You Don’t Know My Name

Book Review:  You Don’t Know My NameYou Don't Know My Name (The Black Angel Chronicles #1) by Kristen Orlando
four-stars
Series: The Black Angel Chronicles #1
Published by Swoon Reads on January 10th 2017
Genres: Young Adult Fiction, Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 288
Source: Library
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

Goodreads Synopsis:  Seventeen-year-old Reagan Elizabeth Hillis is used to changing identities overnight, lying to every friend she’s ever had, and pushing away anyone who gets too close. Trained in mortal combat and weaponry her entire life, Reagan is expected to follow in her parents’ footsteps and join the ranks of the most powerful top-secret agency in the world, the Black Angels. Falling in love with the boy next door was never part of the plan. Now Reagan must decide: Will she use her incredible talents and lead the dangerous life she was born into, or throw it all away to follow her heart and embrace the normal life she’s always wanted? And does she even have a choice?

 

MY REVIEW

 

Kristen Orlando’s You Don’t Know My Name follows the story of Reagan, 17 year old high school student who also happens to be actively training to become a member of the Black Angels, a top secret elite spy organization which both of her parents are also members of.  The Black Angels are such a top secret agency that Reagan has lived under assumed names all of her life and she and her family relocate every year or so if there is a fear that their identities have been discovered.  Reagan has been training to join the Black Angels for as long as she can remember – she’s already an expert marksman and is trained in mortal combat – and her parents fully expect her to follow in their footsteps to serve her country.  As the time gets closer for her to commit to the Black Angels, however, the more conflicted Reagan becomes. Is this really the life she wants for herself?  A lonely life filled with constant danger, panic rooms, secret identities, never staying in one place for any amount of time, etc. What about love, friends, college, a normal job, a family of her own someday?

 

LIKES

Reagan was, by far, my favorite part of this story.  I love that on the one hand, she’s this total badass spy-in-training, but on the other hand, she still comes across as quite vulnerable because she’s so conflicted about her future.  Her doubts are also completely understandable so it’s easy to relate to what she is feeling and to sympathize with her.  I can’t even begin to imagine living the way that she does, having a panic room built into her basement in case someone discovers who her parents really are.  Any time a mission goes wrong and identities are potentially compromised, her life gets turned upside down and she has to start all over again.  It’s very easy to understand why the idea of saying no and making her own way in the world would be so appealing.  In that sense, You Don’t Know My Name is as much a coming of age story as it is a spy novel.

There’s even a bit of romance thrown in for good measure.  Luke is a super hot ROTC cadet who lives across the street from Reagan at her home of the moment. Reagan and her family have actually stayed at this location for a little over a year now and so Reagan and Luke have gotten to know each other.  They’re in the “friends on the way to maybe becoming more than friends stage” when we meet them and I really enjoyed their chemistry.  In many ways, Luke is the impetus for many of Reagan’s conflicted feelings.  She really likes him and wonders what it would be like to have a future with him and it kills her to think she’ll never have that kind of experience if she follows in her parent’s footsteps.  She also worries about getting too close to Luke because what happens the next time she and her parents have to abruptly relocate? She wouldn’t even get to tell Luke goodbye. She would just disappear, never to be heard from again.  I don’t want to give any major plot details away, but I totally fell head over heels for Luke when something happens later in the story and he ends up finding out about Reagan’s family and the Black Angels.  As much of a badass as Reagan is, Luke scores pretty high on the badass meter himself.

Speaking of badass, the action and suspense in this story is off the charts.  From the first pages of the novel when we witness Reagan and her family abandon their house in the middle of the night to escape from a threat all the way through to what can only be described as a heartbreaking, life-changing event when one of her parent’s mission goes terribly wrong, this is a book you won’t be able to put down once you get started.

 

DISLIKES

Only one dislike comes to mind as I’m thinking back on this book and that’s a conversation between Reagan and her mother.  Reagan is slated to visit a college she’s interested in possibly attending.  In Reagan’s parents’ minds, this is just part of Reagan’s cover story since she clearly won’t be going to college.  Even though they were supposed to go with her to visit the college, they back out at the last minute because of something work related.  Upset by this, Reagan breaks down and confesses to her mother everything that she has been feeling so conflicted about. She tells her mom she doesn’t know if the Black Angels is for her, that she might just want to live a normal life and be happy and safe.  What got to me was her mother’s response to what Reagan says.  Her mom basically says that some people are born to be happy but that Reagan isn’t one of them. Reagan was born to serve her country, end of story.  I just found that very off-putting and couldn’t imagine any parent saying something like that to their child. Thankfully her mom reconsiders those words and apologizes later, but boy was she on my bad list for a while there.

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

 

This is my first time reading a YA spy novel so I don’t have anything to compare You Don’t Know My Name to, but that said, what a fantastic read this was for me. I truly loved pretty much everything about it.  The story grabbed my attention from the first few paragraphs and I was glued to the book until I reached the last page, which has left me dying to get my hands on the next book in the series. I highly recommend this book!

 

RATING:  4 STARS

 

four-stars

About Kristen Orlando

 

“Writing is one of the great loves of my life (with bacon mac and cheese, Netflix binges and PJs also in the mix). My childhood in Columbus, Ohio was spent reading every single Baby-Sitter’s Club book ever written and acting out imaginary tragedies in my room (complete with costumes and props) until a really embarrassing age. I started writing plays for my younger cousins as soon as they were all old enough to act (The Spoiled Princess may be a personal favorite) and haven’t stopped writing since. After graduating from Kenyon College with a B.A. in English Literature, I’ve been lucky enough to make writing my career; first as a television producer, then as a marketer and now as a novelist.” (Kristen Orlando, in her own words, taken from kristenorlando.com)

ARC Review – Once, In Lourdes

ARC Review – Once, In LourdesOnce, in Lourdes by Sharon Solwitz
three-stars
Published by Spiegel & Grau on May 30th 2017
Genres: Fiction
Pages: 320
Source: Netgalley
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Goodreads Synopsis:  A poignant novel of teenage friendship set during a two-week span in the turbulent summer of 1968, in which four friends make a pact that will change their lives forever.

Four high school friends stand on the brink of adulthood—and on the high ledge above the sea at the local park in Lourdes, Michigan, they call the Haight—and make a pact. For the next two weeks, they will live for each other and for each day. And at the end of the two weeks, they will stand once again on the bluff and jump, sacrificing themselves on the altar of their friendship. Loyal Kate, beautiful Vera, witty C.J., and steady Saint—in a two-week span, their lives will change beyond their expectations, and what they gain and lose will determine whether they enter adulthood or hold fast to their pledge. Once, in Lourdes is a haunting and moving novel of the power of teenage bonds, the story of four characters who will win your heart and transport you back to your own high school years.

 

MY REVIEW

 

Once, In Lourdes is a story that, I have to confess, left me scratching my head.  I’m also finding it a little hard to review so I’m basically just going to jump in and ramble for a bit.  In the opening pages of Once, In Lourdes, we meet four teens – Kay, Vera, Saint, and CJ.  They are basically outsiders at their school who managed to find their way to each other and form a pretty strong bond of friendship. When we meet them, three of them are at the park playing bridge while the fourth, Vera, is conspicuously absent.  Once she finally does arrive, there is something amiss with her and her friends pry until she finally confesses that she has just dropped acid for the first time.  After this confession, Vera then announces that she thinks the four of them should all kill themselves in a grand “f*** you” kind of gesture to everyone around them.  After much discussion, the other three agree and they actually draw up a suicide pact where they pledge to live their lives fully for the next two weeks and then on the fourteenth day, they will return to the park at dawn, climb up on the bluff wall and throw themselves off the wall and on to the rocks below. The rest of the novel follows the four teens for those two weeks leading up to the agreed upon date of death.

 

LIKES

 

I have mixed feelings about the story overall, but I would definitely give the author full marks for her recreation of the summer of 1968.  With her inclusion of little details like Bob Dylan’s music, dropping acid, sexual freedom, protests, and discussion of the Vietnam War, Solwitz captured the atmosphere perfectly and makes you feel like you’re experiencing the late 60’s era. It felt very authentic and I did love that.

I also liked how Solwitz was able to create suspense with this story.  Even though I had a few issues with the story overall, I still read this in about a day because I was so curious about why these kids were so eager to end their lives and I really wanted to know if they would actually go through it or not.  Since the story is being told from Kay’s point of view, I knew she had obviously survived but the fates of the others was very unclear.

 

DISLIKES

 

My biggest issue with the story was that I had a hard time connecting with any of the teens, even with Kay even though we probably got to know her the best out of the four.  I don’t know if it’s just because I’m older and too far removed from my teenage years, but I just felt nothing but frustration over the fact that these kids were willing to throw their lives away.  Following them for those two weeks, it was clear to see that they each came from somewhat dysfunctional home lives – there are some instances of abuse, both physical and verbal.  I understood that life was a struggle for them at times, but every step of the way, all I kept thinking was “OMG, you guys are about to be high school seniors. One more year and you’re out of here anyway. Why throw everything away to make some tragic statement?” Maybe if I had connected with the characters more, I’d feel more understanding about their reasoning for making this suicide pact but as it was, I just felt like a curious onlooker watching these kids.  Plus, their version of living life to the fullest and living it for themselves just didn’t really resonate with me either.  For the most part, it just felt like they squandered those moments if they were indeed meant to be their final moments.

One other issue I had with the novel was that it was full of very long paragraphs.  I’m sure this is just a personal quirk with me, but I prefer writing that is broken up into smaller paragraphs.  Turning a page and seeing a paragraph that is over half a page long just makes me sigh and start to skim, especially when the novel is full of them. If long paragraphs don’t bother you, this probably wouldn’t be an issue like it was for me.

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

 

As I said, even though I had some issues and wished I could have better connected with the characters, their journey and their fate was still compelling enough to keep me reading until the end even if I didn’t fully understand their motives for making the pact. Once, In Lourdes is filled with dark themes – suicide, abuse, even incest – but if you can handle those, it also provides an intimate look at just how far friends are willing to go for one another.

 

RATING:  3 STARS

 

Huge thanks to Netgalley, the author, and the publisher for providing me with an e-galley of this book in exchange for my honest review. This is no way affects my opinion of the book.

 

 

three-stars

About Sharon Solwitz

Sharon Solwitz is the author of a novel, Bloody Mary, and a collection of short stories, Blood and Milk, which won the Carl Sandburg Literary Award from Friends of the Chicago Public Library and the prize for adult fiction from the Society of Midland Authors, and was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award. Several of her stories have been featured in Pushcart Prize anthologies and Best American Short Stories. Other honors for her individual stories, which have appeared in such magazines as TriQuarterly, Mademoiselle, and Ploughshares, include the Katherine Anne Porter Prize, the Nelson Algren Literary Award, and grants and fellowships from the Illinois Arts Council. Solwitz teaches fiction writing at Purdue University and lives in Chicago with her husband, the poet Barry Silesky.

Book Review – Zenn Diagram

Book Review – Zenn DiagramZenn Diagram by Wendy Brant
four-stars
Published by Kids Can Press on April 4th 2017
Genres: Contemporary Fiction, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 328
Source: Netgalley
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Goodreads Synopsis:  The more I touch someone, the more I can see and understand, and the more I think I can help. But that’s my mistake. I can’t help. You can’t fix people like you can solve a math problem.

Math genius. Freak of nature. Loner.

Eva Walker has literally one friend—if you don’t count her quadruplet three-year-old-siblings—and it’s not even because she’s a math nerd. No, Eva is a loner out of necessity, because everyone and everything around her is an emotional minefield. All she has to do is touch someone, or their shirt, or their cell phone, and she can read all their secrets, their insecurities, their fears.

Sure, Eva’s “gift” comes in handy when she’s tutoring math and she can learn where people are struggling just by touching their calculators. For the most part, though, it’s safer to keep her hands to herself. Until she meets six-foot-three, cute-without-trying Zenn Bennett, who makes that nearly impossible.

Zenn’s jacket gives Eva such a dark and violent vision that you’d think not touching him would be easy. But sometimes you have to take a risk…

MY REVIEW

 

Zenn Diagram follows the story of Eva Walker, who is the ultimate math nerd. Not only is she really great at all things math-related, but she also just flat out loves math. It’s her passion and she’s not afraid to admit it. Eva is a bit of a loner though, not because she’s a math nerd, but more so out of necessity.  She has a condition where when she touches someone or touches something that belongs to them, she gets visions.  The more troubled the person’s life is, the more dramatic and violent these visions are and the more unbearable they are for Eva. They can literally bring her to her knees and so for this reason, Eva tends to limit her contact with others.  She has one close friend, Charlotte, who knows about Eva’s visions, and beyond that, the only real social interactions she has are with the students that she tutors in math.  Eva is a whiz when it comes to tutoring, not just because she has mad math skills, but because she can actually get visions of what exactly a student’s math struggles are just by touching their calculators.  This is probably the only way her “gift” comes in handy.

The visions Eva has have plagued her pretty much all her life and although doctors have no idea what has caused them, Eva is a girl with a plan.  She plans to go to college, study neuroscience, and find the cure herself!  When we meet Eva, she is actively making plans to apply to elite colleges such as MIT and Northwestern and to apply for as many scholarships as she can to make her dream a reality.

Enter Zenn Bennett.  Zenn is a new student who walks into Eva’s life when he needs help with math.  During one of their tutoring sessions, Zenn accidentally leaves his jacket behind and Eva, without thinking, grabs it up to take it to him.  The fractal that hits her is so dark, violent, and upsetting that she literally collapses on the floor.  In spite of this, however, she stills feels herself drawn to Zenn.  He’s cute, funny, appreciates her math nerd humor, and she feels a connection to him that she hasn’t felt with anyone else before.  Is there anyway this can work out for Eva?

 

LIKES

Eva.  I am all about main characters who are a bit nerdy, so I adored Eva.  I mean, seriously, how cool is it to have a girl that’s into STEM as the protagonist?  I also loved that she wore her nerdiness loud and proud and was just downright hilarious at times.  I would have totally wanted to be friends with Eva if I went to her school and the vibe I got from Eva was that if she didn’t have this issue about getting physically close to people, then she probably would have had tons of friends and been actively involved in many social circles.

I think the author did a wonderful job of making Eva a relatable and sympathetic character.  I understood the hurt, resentment, and even jealousy Eva felt when her only friend Charlotte suddenly becomes interested in dating and the two of them start drifting apart because Eva can’t really follow suit and date as well.  It’s very easy to relate to her plight because these visions really are keeping her from living her life the way she wants to.  How can she have friends, boyfriends, etc., if she has to cower away from all physical contact in order to keep the visions (or fractals as she refers to them) at bay?

Zenn.  I loved Zenn as much as I loved Eva.  He’s a gifted artist and he’s also sweet, funny, and super cute.  He also has this tremendous sense of responsibility that’s very appealing and that makes him a character that is easy to sympathize with.  Early on we learn that he is working three jobs while trying to go to school because his father is out of the picture and his mother is a mess.  He would actually love to go away to art school after he graduates but it just doesn’t seem in the realm of possibility based on his current circumstances.

I fell in love with Zenn the moment that he showed that he totally “got” Eva’s math nerd humor.  He totally appreciates her nerdiness and the two of them just instantly click.  Theirs is a relationship that you can’t help but root for, whether Eva and Zenn just become really close friends or if they can actually get past those darn fractals and date each other.  Their chemistry is just so sweet and after seeing what both of their lives have been like up to this point, it’s like “Please just let them be happy together!!!”

The Fractals (or Visions).  While Zenn Diagram would have been a great contemporary read even without Eva’s issue, I loved the little almost sci-fi twist that these visions throw into the mix.  The fractals themselves fascinated me.  They’re not exactly psychic visions, but more along the lines of colored patterns that she sees when she touches a person or something that belongs to them.  The more personal the item, the more intense the visions.  They’re traumatic for Eva because while she can’t necessarily sense actual events that have happened to a person, she senses all of the emotions from the events.  So if someone has been abused or otherwise had something horrible happen to them, it’s all laid bare for Eva just by touching something that belongs to them.  Not only is it overwhelming when it initially happens, but Eva also finds it heartbreaking because she automatically wants to “fix” whatever it is that has happened to the person, but knows she’s can’t.  Eva says that the only people she can really bear to touch are children because they’re still so innocent and their fractals are therefore peaceful and soothing.

 

DISLIKES

The only moment where I felt a little let down was where I guessed what was going to happen regarding a certain scholarship that is mentioned throughout the novel.  I don’t want to give too much away, but as soon as I read about it and then saw who had applied for it, I totally guessed how it was going to play out.  I still love the direction the story took but just wished it hadn’t been quite so easy to guess.

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

If you think you would enjoy a contemporary YA read with a sci-fi twist and if you love nerdy main characters, I’d definitely say to give Zenn Diagram a try.  Zenn Diagram is one of those books that I probably wouldn’t have picked up if not for the recommendations of some of my fellow bloggers.  I’m so glad I listened to those recommendations though because I really loved it.

 

RATING:  4 STARS

 

Thanks so much to Netgalley, the author, and the publisher for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.  This in no way affects my opinion.

four-stars

About Wendy Brant

At age ten, Wendy Brant wrote her first book, My Mysterious Double, the story of a girl and an impostor pretending to be her. Years later, after graduating with a degree in journalism from Northwestern University and completing the Publishing Institute at the University of Denver, Wendy wrote adult fiction (albeit unpublished) while working as an HR manager and being a mom. But when she started reading the same YA books as her kids, her attention and passion shifted. Now she likes to write about isolated teenagers who somehow find a way to connect with others, and she’s also a sucker for a little romance.

Wendy lives in the Chicago area in the best neighborhood in America (as crowned by Good Morning America in 2010) with her husband, teenage daughter and son, and guinea pigs Mac and Tosh.