ARC Review: Hello, Sunshine

ARC Review:  Hello, SunshineHello, Sunshine by Laura Dave
three-half-stars
on July 11th 2017
Genres: Contemporary Fiction, Chick Lit
Pages: 256
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.

 

 MY REVIEW

I was initially drawn to Hello, Sunshine because of its vibrant summery cover but wasn’t entirely sure what to expect when I actually sat down to read it.  What I got was a timely, relevant, and thought-provoking exploration of how people present themselves online in this age of technology and social media.

Sunshine MacKenzie seems to have it all – a loving husband, a gorgeous apartment in Manhattan, and a wildly successful YouTube cooking show with millions of followers that will soon transition to an even bigger audience once it starts airing on the Food Network.  As perfect as Sunshine’s life sounds, it soon becomes clear that her life is actually more along the lines of a house of cards just waiting to be toppled over and trampled on.  You see, Sunshine’s entire online persona is just that – a persona.  Everything that her fanbase loves about her and that has made her such a success is nothing but a pack of lies.  A pack of lies that Sunshine and her associates have successfully kept under wraps, or so they thought.  When Sunshine’s social media accounts are hacked and the hacker starts unraveling her life one lie at a time, her entire life and career fall apart right in front of her and no amount of PR damage control can stop the bleeding.  Sunshine loses her show, most of her followers, her husband, and her home, and ends up fleeing to her real hometown and to her estranged sister.

The rest of the book follows Sunshine as she tries to figure out what to do next.  Is there’s a way to get her old life back or will reuniting with her sister and spending some quality time with her family, away from the media frenzy, set Sunshine on a different path?  Will she decide there’s more to life than fame, fans, and the stress of trying to maintain an appealing online persona?

 

LIKES

I think what I liked most about Hello, Sunshine was just how relevant the book’s central premise is, that so many people are not being authentic when they are online.  Just as Sunshine has an online persona that has been crafted and scripted for her, there are many who aren’t even in show business who portray themselves as how they want to be perceived online, even if it’s completely contrary to what their life is actually like.  It’s something I think about whenever I see someone online who just seems like their life is picture perfect in every way.  Life is too messy for things to always appear that perfect, if that makes any sense. Or I might even think of it in terms of myself – how do others know if I’m being authentic or if I’m, in essence, putting on a show for them by being what I think they want me to be.

Hello, Sunshine also made me think about how vulnerable we really are if we’ve put ourselves out there on social media – how easily accounts can be hacked and someone’s life can be turned upside down if they happen to make the wrong person angry.

In addition to being a thought-provoking read about social media and authenticity, Hello, Sunshine is also just an entertaining read as well.  All of the drama that surrounded Sunshine’s fall from grace kept me engaged throughout and I kept thinking what a great movie it would be.  Desperate Housewives kept coming to mind as I was reading.

As fake as her online persona is, the Sunshine we’re presented with is brutally honest and she’s dying to give us a blow-by-blow account of how she royally messed up her own life.  If you like that kind of personality, Sunshine is very likable and you’ll want to follow her journey and see where she went wrong at every step along the way.

 

DISLIKES

My main dislike is that I figured out who the hacker was almost immediately. I kept hoping I was wrong and that there would be a huge surprise revealed, but my first guess ended up being correct so that was kind of a letdown for me.  I also didn’t buy the hacker’s reasoning for doing what they did, so that slightly hampered what was otherwise a very enjoyable read.  Hello, Sunshine was still a solid LIKE for me, but a little less predictability and a little more believability here would moved it from the LIKE column into the LOVE column.

FINAL THOUGHTS

If you’re looking for a quick and entertaining read that still manages to be quite thought-provoking, I’d say Hello, Sunshine fits the bill.  I think it would make for a great beach or vacation read.

RATING:  3.5 STARS

 

GOODREADS  SYNOPSIS

From Laura Dave—the author of the “addictive” (Us Weekly), “winning” (Publishers Weekly) and critically acclaimed bestseller Eight Hundred Grapes—comes a new novel about the secrets we keep…even from ourselves.

Sunshine Mackenzie has it all…until her secrets come to light.

Sunshine Mackenzie is living the dream—she’s a culinary star with millions of fans, a line of #1 bestselling cookbooks, and a devoted husband happy to support her every endeavor.

And then she gets hacked.

When Sunshine’s secrets are revealed, her fall from grace is catastrophic. She loses the husband, her show, the fans, and her apartment. She’s forced to return to the childhood home—and the estranged sister—she’s tried hard to forget. But what Sunshine does amid the ashes of her own destruction may well save her life.

In a world where celebrity is a careful construct, Hello, Sunshine is a compelling, funny, and evocative novel about what it means to live an authentic life in an inauthentic age.

three-half-stars

About Laura Dave

Laura Dave is the author of the critically acclaimed novels The First Husband, The Divorce Party, London Is The Best City In America, and the forthcoming Eight Hundred Grapes. Dave’s fiction and essays have been published in The New York Times, ESPN, Redbook, Glamour and Ladies Home Journal.

Dubbed “a wry observer of modern love” (USA Today), Dave has appeared on CBS’s The Early Show, Fox News Channel’s Fox & Friends and NPR’s All Things Considered.  Cosmopolitan Magazine recently named her a “Fun and Fearless Phenom of the Year.”

Three of her novels have been optioned for the big screen with Dave adapting Eight Hundred Grapes for Fox2000.

ARC Review – Final Girls by Riley Sager

ARC Review – Final Girls by Riley SagerFinal Girls by Riley Sager
four-half-stars
Published by Dutton on July 11th 2017
Genres: Thriller, Mystery
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:  Ten years ago, college student Quincy Carpenter went on vacation with five friends and came back alone, the only survivor of a horror movie–scale massacre. In an instant, she became a member of a club no one wants to belong to—a group of similar survivors known in the press as the Final Girls. Lisa, who lost nine sorority sisters to a college dropout’s knife; Sam, who went up against the Sack Man during her shift at the Nightlight Inn; and now Quincy, who ran bleeding through the woods to escape Pine Cottage and the man she refers to only as Him. The three girls are all attempting to put their nightmares behind them, and, with that, one another. Despite the media’s attempts, they never meet.

Now, Quincy is doing well—maybe even great, thanks to her Xanax prescription. She has a caring almost-fiancé, Jeff; a popular baking blog; a beautiful apartment; and a therapeutic presence in Coop, the police officer who saved her life all those years ago. Her memory won’t even allow her to recall the events of that night; the past is in the past.

That is, until Lisa, the first Final Girl, is found dead in her bathtub, wrists slit, and Sam, the second, appears on Quincy’s doorstep. Blowing through Quincy’s life like a whirlwind, Sam seems intent on making Quincy relive the past, with increasingly dire consequences, all of which makes Quincy question why Sam is really seeking her out. And when new details about Lisa’s death come to light, Quincy’s life becomes a race against time as she tries to unravel Sam’s truths from her lies, evade the police and hungry reporters, and, most crucially, remember what really happened at Pine Cottage, before what was started ten years ago is finished.

MY REVIEW

After seeing more than one comparison to Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, I’ll admit I was a little hesitant about whether or not I wanted to read Final Girls.  That just seemed like hype that few books could live up to. That said, however, when I then saw that Stephen King had dubbed Final Girls “the first great thriller of 2017,” my entire perspective changed. I mean, seriously, when Stephen King says I should read a book. I’m darn well going to read the book.  And let me tell you, that man knows a great thriller when he reads one.  It took me a few pages to really get into Final Girls and connect with the main character, but once I did, I literally could NOT put this book down until I reached the end.

Final Girls is a psychological thriller that follows Quincy Carpenter, a young woman who is known as a ‘Final Girl.’  A ‘Final Girl’ is a young woman that is the sole survivor of a mass killing.  Sounds like something out of a horror movie, right? Well, it basically is.

Ten years ago, Quincy and five friends went to Pine Cottage, cabin in the woods, to celebrate her best friend, Janelle’s, birthday.  Instead of the weekend of fun they had planned, however, their time at Pine Cottage quickly turns into the stuff nightmares are made of as all of Quincy’s friends are brutally murdered.  Quincy remembers little or nothing of what happened the night of the attack; all she knows is that she was being chased through the woods, while drenched in blood, and thankfully was found by a police officer, who killed the man who was chasing her.

Although Quincy is the primary focus of this novel, she is actually one of three ‘Final Girls’ who have a presence in the story.  There’s also Lisa, who was the sole survivor of an attack on her sorority house that left nine sisters dead, and there’s Samantha, who survived a late night, massacre-style attack at the motel where she was working.  Dogged by the press and a cult-like following, as well as haunted by survivor’s guilt (Why did they survive when no one else did?), all these three women really want is to pick up the pieces of their lives and move on.

When we meet Quincy, she appears, with the help of a Xanax prescription, to have mostly moved past this traumatic incident in her life and now has a successful baking blog and a devoted live-in boyfriend named Jeff.  She has also maintained a somewhat friendly relationship with Coop, the officer who rescued her that fateful night.

Quincy’s life is turned upside down once again, however, when she learns that Lisa, one of the other two Final Girls, has apparently taken her own life.  Quincy had occasionally been in contact with Lisa because of their shared bond as survivors of such terrible attacks, and so she really can’t believe that after all she went through to survive, that Lisa would then commit suicide.  And then when the third Final Girl, Samantha, suddenly shows up on her doorstep, even though she had dropped off the grid and disappeared years ago, Quincy’s life is yet again rattled especially because Samantha seems intent on forcing Quincy to confront and relive that night at Pine Cottage.  The more Samantha pushes, the more Quincy questions what her real motives are for seeking her out after all these years. And then when new information comes to light about Lisa’s death, all bets are off.  Quincy has no idea who she can trust, who she can turn to, and especially no idea if she can handle possibly remembering the details of what really happened the night her friends were murdered.

And believe it or not, all of that barely even scratches the surface in terms of what happens on this wild ride!

LIKES

Flawed and Complicated Characters.  Just by virtue of what they have been through, both Quincy and Samantha are flawed characters.  Sager does a fantastic job of fleshing them out, adding more and more layers to each character the further we move into the story.  I was especially fascinated to watch Quincy’s seemingly together life practically crumble around her the more Samantha kept trying to push her out of her comfort zone and confront her past.  Even though Quincy seems to have her act together, it becomes clear pretty quickly that it was more of a façade than anything else and that without that healthy daily dose of Xanax, she would be a real mess.

Samantha is such an enigmatic character.  It’s impossible to tell what’s going on with her, what her motivations are for seeking out Quincy after all this time, and what her end game is. She’s also very evasive about where she has been for all these years – “here and there” and what she has been doing – “this and that.”  It becomes a little unnerving that she won’t offer up any real information about herself, especially when she’s pushing Quincy like she is.

Endless Twists and Turns.  Final Girls is one of those wonderfully well-crafted thrill rides that constantly keeps the reader guessing about where the story is going and who the bad guy really is.  Every single time I thought I had things all figured out, I ended up being dead wrong.  Sager is an incredible story teller and takes you on a journey that is full of suspense and twists and turns, and never once, even remotely predictable.

Past vs. Present.  Sager has structured the story so that most of what we see comes from Quincy’s perspective.  The chapters basically alternate between Quincy’s present day life and what happened when she and her friends went to Pine Cottage.  So while we’re following Quincy’s day-to-day life in the present – how she’s coping, especially in light of the new interest in “Final Girls” following Lisa’s death, etc., we’re also being fed bits and pieces about what happened at Pine Cottage.  It added so much suspense to have both stories, – the past and the present – unfold this way. I thought it was very effective storytelling.

The Ending.  All I’m going to say here is OMG, I never saw it coming. Wow.

DISLIKES

This is so random and nitpicky, but the constant mentioning of the grape soda drove me a little crazy as I was reading.  I have no idea why it bothered me so much, but by about the halfway point, I just kept thinking “No More Grape Soda!”  This is obviously a quirk with me and I’m sure thousands of other readers will have absolutely no issue with the soda, haha!

FINAL THOUGHTS

If you’re looking for a well written thriller with a unique and unpredictable storyline, this is your book.  And if you don’t believe me, you can believe Stephen King since he is the master when it comes to thrillers.

 

RATING:  4.5 STARS

Thanks so much to Netgalley, Riley Sager, and Dutton Books for providing me with an advanced copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.  This in no way shapes my opinion of the book.

four-half-stars

About Riley Sager

Riley Sager is a pseudonym for an author who has been previously published under another name. A native of Pennsylvania, Riley is a writer, editor and graphic designer who now lives in Princeton, New Jersey.

In addition to writing, Riley enjoys reading, movies and baking.

Riley’s first novel, FINAL GIRLS, will be published in July in the United States, the United Kingdom and twenty other countries around the world.

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 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.

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.

ARC Review of The Leavers by Lisa Ko

ARC Review of The Leavers by Lisa KoThe Leavers by Lisa Ko
four-stars
Published by Algonquin Books on May 2nd 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:  One morning, Deming Guo’s mother, an undocumented Chinese immigrant named Polly, goes to her job at the nail salon and never comes home. No one can find any trace of her.

With his mother gone, eleven-year-old Deming is left with no one to care for him. He is eventually adopted by two white college professors who move him from the Bronx to a small town upstate. They rename him Daniel Wilkinson in their efforts to make him over into their version of an “all-American boy.” But far away from all he’s ever known, Daniel struggles to reconcile his new life with his mother’s disappearance and the memories of the family and community he left behind.

Set in New York and China, The Leavers is a vivid and moving examination of borders and belonging. It’s the story of how one boy comes into his own when everything he’s loved has been taken away–and how a mother learns to live with the mistakes of her past.

This powerful debut is the winner of the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for fiction, awarded by Barbara Kingsolver for a novel that addresses issues of social justice.

 

MY REVIEW

The Leavers is a very compelling and timely read that explores what happens to a Chinese family living in New York when immigration suddenly becomes an issue and one of them is forced to leave the country.  It follows the life of Deming Guo, an eleven year old Chinese American boy who lives in Brooklyn, New York.  He shares an apartment with his mother, Polly, who is an undocumented Chinese immigrant, Polly’s boyfriend Leo, as well as Leo’s sister, Vivian and her son.   Things are a little tight, but they all do the best they can and it’s the only family Deming has ever known so he’s comfortable with the arrangement.

Then one day Polly doesn’t come home from work.  No one seems to know what happened to her.  Days, weeks, even months go by without a word from her.  Deming vaguely remembers his mother talking about wanting to move to Florida for a better job and sadly assumes that she has chosen to do so and just left him behind.  Then Leo disappears as well, and soon after, Vivian decides she can no longer take care of Deming and surrenders him so that he can be adopted by someone who can.  Deming ends up being adopted by an old white couple and thus begins a new life in upstate New York where the couple lives.  The rest of the novel explores how being left behind by his mother shapes basically every aspect of Deming’s life.

LIKES

Deming’s Journey:  I just found Deming’s story so heartbreaking because he seems so lost most of the time, like he has no idea who he really is and just doesn’t really fit in or belong anywhere.  Even as he moves into adulthood, no matter where he goes and what he tries to do – whether it’s attend college or even to pursue his passion, which is music, the question of what happened to his real mother always casts its shadow over him. He grows up feeling it’s somehow all his fault that his mother abandoned him.  In this sense, Lisa Ko has crafted The Leavers into a coming of age story because Deming (or Daniel as his adoptive parents have renamed him in an effort to ‘Americanize’ him) spends much of the story trying to figure out who he even is.  This search for identity is a major theme.

Flawed Characters:  The older Deming/Daniel gets, the more determined he becomes to find out the truth about why his mother left him.  Lisa Ko adds another layer to the story at this point by adding in Polly’s point of view and having Polly fill in the gaps in the original story that we’ve been following.  We learn what really happened to her and what she has been doing ever since and why she didn’t make more of an effort to get back to her son.  It’s a painful story and Polly definitely made some regretful choices along the way that she has been forced to live with, but her flaws are what make her human and what make her story so moving.  Even though I was angry with her at first for not figuring out a way to reunite with her son, by the end of her story, I found myself forgiving her.

DISLIKES

The only reason I haven’t given this novel full marks is that even though seeing the effects of deportation on both mother and son made for a powerful read, I felt like it sometimes made the story too broad in scope, especially when there were alternating chapters between the son as a boy, the same son as a grown man, and then partway through, we suddenly had chapters from the mom as well. It sometimes took me a few minutes to figure out who the narrator was as I began a new chapter. Even though it confused me at times, however, I still thought it was wonderful read overall.

FINAL THOUGHTS

With its poignant exploration of how deportation can rip families apart and ruin lives, it’s very easy to see why Lisa Ko’s The Leavers won the 2016 Pen/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction.

RATING:  4 STARS

 

Thanks so much to Netgalley, the author, and Algonquin Books for providing me with an e-galley of this book in exchange for an honest review. This in no way impacts my view of the book.

four-stars

About Lisa Ko

Lisa Ko is the author of The Leavers, a novel which won the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction and will be published by Algonquin Books in May 2017. Her writing has appeared in Best American Short Stories 2016, The New York Times, Apogee Journal, Narrative, O. Magazine, Copper Nickel, Storychord, One Teen Story, Brooklyn Review, and elsewhere. A co-founder of Hyphen and a fiction editor at Drunken Boat, Lisa has been awarded fellowships and residencies from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, the MacDowell Colony, the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, Writers OMI at Ledig House, the Jerome Foundation, Blue Mountain Center, the Van Lier Foundation, Hawthornden Castle, the I-Park Foundation, the Anderson Center, the Constance Saltonstall Foundation, and the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center. Born in Queens and raised in Jersey, she lives in Brooklyn.

ARC Review of Defy the Stars by Claudia Gray

ARC Review of Defy the Stars by Claudia GrayDefy the Stars (Defy the Stars #1) by Claudia Gray
four-stars
Series: Defy the Stars #1
on April 4th 2017
Genres: Science Fiction, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 512
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:  Noemi Vidal is a teen soldier from the planet Genesis, once a colony of Earth that’s now at war for its independence. The humans of Genesis have fought Earth’s robotic “mech” armies for decades with no end in sight.

After a surprise attack, Noemi finds herself stranded in space on an abandoned ship where she meets Abel, the most sophisticated mech prototype ever made. One who should be her enemy. But Abel’s programming forces him to obey Noemi as his commander, which means he has to help her save Genesis–even though her plan to win the war will kill him.

Together they embark on a daring voyage through the galaxy. Before long, Noemi begins to realize Abel may be more than a machine, and, for his part, Abel’s devotion to Noemi is no longer just a matter of programming.

MY REVIEW

Wow, what a pleasant surprise this book turned out to be! I’ve never read anything by Claudia Gray and so really had no idea what to expect going into Defy the Stars. I literally spent my entire weekend reading it and I regret nothing.  Such a riveting adventure!

The premise of the story is that Earth has basically used up nearly all of its resources so the planet is dying and its inhabitants therefore need to find another home to move to as soon as possible.  A few other planets have been made habitable, but they are not nearly big enough to hold Earth’s population.  The planet Genesis is the ideal choice for resettlement, but Genesis isn’t having it.  They have seen what the humans of Earth have done to their own planet and have no interest in letting them come, take over Genesis, and do the same thing to their planet.  For this reason, Genesis and Earth are at war when the book opens.

In many ways it’s an unfair fight because Earth has developed an army of what are known as Mechs.  Mechs are incredibly sophisticated robots and humans are just no match against them, especially humans on Genesis because they don’t have nearly the same technological capabilities that Earth does. When the story opens, Earth and Genesis have been fighting for decades and the people of Genesis are in real danger of losing the fight and therefore their planet.

The world building in Defy the Stars is quite fascinating and intricate.  In addition to Earth and Genesis, there are also several other distinct planets, such as Kismet, which is a lush playground of sorts for the wealthy, as well as Cray, which is where all of the great scientific minds have been sent, and then Stronghold, which reminded me a lot of Mars in the way it’s described.  These planets are aligned in a loop and travel between them is accomplished via Gates, which are basically wormholes, and in an act of desperation, the leaders of Genesis have come up with a plan to try to cut off Earth’s access to Genesis by damaging the Gate that lies between Genesis and Earth.  They don’t believe they have the firepower to truly destroy it, but believe that they can disable it enough to buy themselves a few years of peace so that they can regroup and rearm themselves.  The ultimate problem with the plan – the only way the leaders think they can do enough damage to this Gate to render it useless is to send 150 of their soldiers on what is being called the Masada Run, where they will each crash their ships directly into the Gate.  It’s a suicide mission.

When we meet our protagonist, teenager Noemi Vidal, she is training to take part in the Masada Run.  A surprise attack while the Genesis soldiers are making a practice run leaves Noemi’s half-sister, Esther, who was working as a scout, critically wounded.  In an effort to save Esther, Noemi takes her aboard what appears to be an abandoned ship from Earth in search of medical supplies. It is here that Noemi comes face to face with, and is nearly kill by, Abel.  Abel is a Mech, and as it turns out, a one-of-a –kind mech, the most sophisticated Mech prototype ever made, in fact.  By virtue of his programming, he should inherently be Noemi’s enemy, but his programming also requires him to obey his commander, and as Noemi has basically commandeered the ship he is on, by default, she becomes Abel’s commander and he is therefore sworn to follow her every order.  Once Noemi is reassured that Abel is, in fact, loyal to her, she begins to pump him for intelligence.  She learns that Abel was traveling with his creator and a team of researchers who were examining the Gate between Genesis and Earth, looking for deficiencies in it that they could exploit it for their own benefit.  As crucial as this intel is, what Noemi learns that is even more important, is that with a few key supplies that can be secured from other planets, there is another way to destroy the Gate.  A mech could fly in there and destroy it and since a mech isn’t human, there would be no casualties.  Because Noemi is now his commander,  Abel of course volunteers to destroy the Gate and save his commander’s planet.  This knowledge sets Noemi on a new course, with Abel by her side, in which she hopes to not only save her planet but also spare the lives of those who would all die in the Masada Run.  The Masada Run is scheduled to take place in less than three weeks so it becomes a race against time…

LIKES

The Action:  As you can guess by my lengthy lead in, this book is pretty intense in terms of the overall storyline. Pretty much everything I just laid out happens in the opening few chapters and I’ve barely scratched the surface.  That race against time, coupled with the fact that Genesis is not viewed favorably by the other planets in the system because they feel like Genesis abandoned them  to save themselves, leads to a lot of potentially hostile encounters as Noemi and Abel make their way across the galaxy in search of what they need to destroy that Gate.  If you like action and adventure, you should enjoy this aspect of Defy the Stars.

Earth as the “Bad Guy”:  I found it very intriguing that Earth is the one who must be stopped here.  This idea seems pretty timely too, now that we have a U.S. President who apparently doesn’t believe in science.  This fictional scenario could end up being closer to reality than we care to think about.

The Characters:  As exciting as the storyline is, what really captured my attention and made me love the read are the characters themselves.  I loved both Noemi and Abel.  I loved them individually and I especially loved them working together as a team.

Noemi  – I really loved Noemi from the first moment we meet her.  Claudia Gray has created Noemi with this wonderful combination of fierce determination and selflessness that drew me in right away. We learn early on in the story that Noemi has volunteered to take part in the Masada Run, not just to save her planet, but also because the mission will only allow one representative from each household to volunteer to die and she is determined to protect her half sister, Esther, whom she has deemed the more worthy of living.  As much as I was already intrigued by the idea that this teen soldier was willing to sacrifice herself for the good of her planet and to save Esther, her belief that she was somehow less worthy of having a chance to live her life just added a layer of vulnerability to her that made her all the more compelling of a character.

I also love the growth that Noemi undergoes both as she begins to meet citizens from these other planets and as she learns more and more about Abel and realizes that he may actually be more human than robot.  She becomes much more reflective as the novel goes on as she begins to question the actions of the leaders of Genesis as well as her own plans.  Was Genesis right to isolate itself and leave the other planets to fend for themselves against Earth?  Wouldn’t they be stronger and better able to resist Earth if they banded together?  If Abel is truly more human than he is robot, can she really let him sacrifice himself to save Genesis?  So many big questions for such a young person to have to even think about.

Abel – As much as I loved Noemi, I absolutely adored Abel.  Even though he is made up to look like a human, with hair, blood, skin, and even neurons, Abel reminded me so much of C3PO from Star Wars or maybe even Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation.  He’s just charming and funny, and sometimes says things that are so annoying, I half expected Noemi to dismantle him to shut him up.  I found him especially amusing when it became clear that he even has a bit of an ego. He’s proud that he’s the ultimate Mech prototype and that he’s the only one of his kind.  He toots his own horn, so to speak, quite frequently on that subject!

In addition to being such an amusing character, Abel also comes across as so human from the moment we meet him that it’s heartbreaking to learn he has been trapped on this ship for 30 years, just floating around all alone.  He tells Noemi that his creator and the crew were preparing to abandon ship and sent him to the airlock to complete one final task before departure. He became trapped there and they just left without him.  He has no idea what happened to them – if they made it back to Earth or if they all perished – but it never really dawns on him that they didn’t think of him as a life and so thought nothing of leaving him there to try to save themselves.  He even thinks of his creator as his “father” and doesn’t realize that even though he’s one of a kind, he is still viewed as ultimately disposable.

What also makes Abel a truly fascinating character is that he too, even though he is supposedly mostly just a machine, undergoes tremendous growth throughout the story.  Those 30 years all alone caused the neurons in Abel’s body to make new connections and begin to evolve in ways Abel’s creator may never even have thought possible.  Even though Abel still has programming, he is supposed to follow at all times, he has developed the ability to occasionally override that programming. It’s as though he is developing free will or as Noemi starts to wonder, maybe even some form of a soul.  Once Noemi starts to question just how human Abel has become over the years, it takes their relationship to a whole new level and it’s wonderful to watch how loyal they become to each other.

ANY DISLIKES?

I can’t really call it a dislike but there was a lot of information to sift through at the beginning with the different planets, the explanation of the cybergenetics and that Abel was a prototype for 25 other models of Mechs, etc.  I love science fiction so I can’t say that it bothered me too much, although I’ll admit I stopped to take a few notes along the way because there were a lot of details to keep track of, but I could see it potentially making it difficult for some readers to get into the story.  My advice would be to push through the beginning though because once you get past that initial worldbuilding and on to where Noemi and Abel meet, the story just flies along from there and you’ll breeze right through.

FINAL THOUGHTS?

If you like a book that is action-packed, filled with compelling characters, and that asks big questions about ethics, religion vs faith, the environment, technology, politics, and so much more, I’d highly recommend Defy the Stars.

 

RATING:  4 STARS

Thanks so much to Netgalley, the publisher, and of course to author Claudia Gray for allowing me to preview this book in exchange for my honest review.

 

 

four-stars

About Claudia Gray

claudia gray

Claudia Gray in her own words:

“Claudia Gray is a pseudonym. I would like to say that I chose another name so that no one would ever learn the links between my shadowy, dramatic past and the explosive secrets revealed through my characters. This would be a lie. In truth, I took a pseudonym simply because I thought it would be fun to choose my own name. (And it is.)

I write novels full-time, absolutely love it, and hope to be able to do this forever. My home is in New Orleans, is more than 100 years old, and is painted purple. In my free time I read, travel, hike, cook and listen to music. You can keep up with my latest releases, thoughts on writing and various pop-culture musings via Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest, GoodReads, Instagram or (of course) my own home page.

If you want to contact me, you can email me here, but your best bet is probably to Tweet me. I don’t do follows on Twitter, but I follow everyone back on Tumblr, Pinterest and GoodReads.”