ARC Review: The Girl from Venice

ARC Review:  The Girl from VeniceThe Girl from Venice by Martin Cruz Smith
four-stars
Published by Simon & Schuster on October 18th 2016
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 320
Source: Netgalley
Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Netgalley. All opinions are my own..

Goodreads Synopsis:  The highly anticipated new standalone novel from Martin Cruz Smith, whom The Washington Post has declared “that uncommon phenomenon: a popular and well-regarded crime novelist who is also a writer of real distinction,” The Girl from Venice is a suspenseful World War II love story set against the beauty, mystery, and danger of occupied Venice.

Venice, 1945. The war may be waning, but the city known as La Serenissima is still occupied and the people of Italy fear the power of the Third Reich. One night, under a canopy of stars, a fisherman named Cenzo comes across a young woman’s body floating in the lagoon and soon discovers that she is still alive and in trouble.

Born to a wealthy Jewish family, Giulia is on the run from the SS. Cenzo chooses to protect Giulia rather than hand her over to the Nazis. This act of kindness leads them into the world of Partisans, random executions, the arts of forgery and high explosives, Mussolini’s broken promises, the black market and gold, and, everywhere, the enigmatic maze of the Venice Lagoon.

The Girl from Venice is a thriller, a mystery, and a retelling of Italian history that will take your breath away. Most of all it is a love story.

My Review: 

I had no idea of what to expect when I first started reading Martin Cruz Smith’s The Girl from Venice.  That gorgeous blue cover with the silhouette of a girl standing on the bow of a boat caught my eye as I was scanning the Netgalley site for upcoming releases.  When I read the title and saw that the book was set in Venice during World War II, I was immediately intrigued, being a big fan of historical fiction and having also just visited this beautiful Italian city last summer.

Highlights for me:

I became engrossed in the story right away because Smith does a fantastic job of transporting his readers back to Italy during the final days of WWII. He perfectly captures the dangerous and tense atmosphere of a Venice that is still occupied by the Nazis and where no one feels they can trust anyone else.  There’s also a sense in the air that the end of the war is approaching and with it a Nazi loss, and yet there are still pockets of Nazis desperately fighting on and rounding up all Italian Jews.

Into this treacherous environment, Smith introduces two characters that I fell in love with right away. The first, Cenzo Vianello, is a fisherman born and raised in Venice.  He is a good man with a simple plan – to just keep his head down and survive until this awful war is over.  The second character, Giulia Silber, is an Italian teenager who, up until the time of the war, had lived a privileged life. The war has changed all of that though because Giulia is Jewish and thus a target for the desperate Nazis that are still stationed in Venice.  Cenzo and Giulia cross paths when the Nazis round up the rest of Giulia’s family from their hiding place.  Giulia’s father shoves her in a laundry chute and she is able to escape and is swimming to find help in the lagoon where Cenzo fishes when he comes across her.   Cenzo is immediately taken with Giulia and so vows to protect her from the Nazis and get her to safety, and thus his simple plan for surviving the war takes an unexpected turn into dangerous waters (pardon the nautical pun).  I love a story where I have an underdog I can cheer on and how can you not cheer on a fisherman trying to protect a young Jewish woman from the Nazis?

I especially loved Cenzo in the sense that he’s like an onion, many layered. The more we get to know him, the more layers are peeled away and the more complex his life becomes.  As Giulia gets him to open up about himself, we learn that he is not just a fisherman, but also a painter, and then we also learn that he has been betrayed by his older brother, a movie star who had an affair with Cenzo’s wife.  On top of that, Cenzo’s mother now expects Cenzo to marry the widow of his younger brother, who was killed in the war, but Cenzo does not love the widow and so is doing everything he can to put off this undesirable marriage.  After learning all of the misfortune in Cenzo’s life and that his brother has basically made him a laughingstock, I felt all the more sympathetic toward Cenzo.

What I loved about Giulia is her resourcefulness.  She has a bit of an attitude with Cenzo at the beginning, until she determines she can trust him, but once she realizes he is worthy of her trust, she is game to do whatever she needs to do in order to escape from the Nazis – even if it means hacking off her hair, dressing like a boy, and learning to be a fisherman’s apprentice.  She’s feisty and spirited, and again, like Cenzo, just a completely sympathetic character. Because both characters are so sympathetic, one of my favorite aspects of the novel was watching their friendship grow as they worked to secure Giulia safe passage away from the Nazis.

As much as I loved their growing friendship, I do have to say that I wasn’t completely sold on the idea of Cenzo and Giulia as a romantic couple.  The shift from friendship to romantic partners happened rather abruptly and I guess I just missed it, but I was a little ‘Wait, what?! Where did that come from?’ when it happened.

Characters aside, I also loved the fast pace of the story and all of its many twists and turns.  When Cenzo decides he’s going to help Giulia but then the plan somehow gets betrayed and Giulia disappears, Cenzo is determined to find her no matter what.  This quest takes him out of his league and deep into the political underbelly of the war.  We are transported away from the almost romantic lagoons of Venice to the treacherous Salo, which houses Mussolini, Communist partisans, Nazis, collaborators, resistance – basically a who’s who of everyone you could possibly want to stay away from if you’re a fisherman whose goal is to keep your head down and survive the war.

This section of the novel is just filled with suspense. People are constantly approaching Cenzo, trying to make deals with him, telling him they can help him find Giulia, and he just has no idea who he can trust, if anyone.  No one is who they seem to be, and loyalties are so divided that even if someone seems to be on your side one day, the next they may not be if they think they can get a better deal from the other side.  Even though this is technically historical fiction, The Girl from Venice really takes on the tone of a thriller as Cenzo maneuvers his way through all of the political landmines that surround him while he’s searching for clues about Giulia in Salo. These chapters were very exciting, and I blew through the last half of the book in just a few hours.

Anything I didn’t like?

Aside from not being completely sold on the romantic chemistry between Cenzo and Giulia, I did have a moment’s pause early on as we were learning about Cenzo’s life as a fisherman.  When the narration turned to descriptions of fishing, I had a few painful Moby Dick flashbacks to whole chapters devoted to boring and superfluous descriptions of whaling. Thankfully, however, Martin Cruz Smith smoothly weaves in his descriptions of life as a fisherman so that they flowed organically with the rest of the story.  I felt like I learned a little something about fishing in Venice without being deluged with dry, unnecessary facts so major hat’s off to Smith there.

Who would I recommend this book to?

I think I would definitely recommend it to anyone who is a fan of historical fiction, especially from the WWII era.  I know there are some who complain that it has been too trendy a subject for books, but I think this books’ focus on Italy and Mussolini give it a unique and fresh perspective.

I would probably also recommend it to anyone who loves a good thriller so this one has so much suspense and so many mysterious and deceptive characters.  It’s a story that will keep you guessing until the end as to who is trustworthy and who isn’t.

Thanks so much to Netgalley, Simon and Schuster, and Martin Cruz Smith for the opportunity to read and review The Girl from Venice.

 

Rating:  4 stars

four-stars

About Martin Cruz Smith

Martin Cruz Smith (born Martin William Smith), American novelist, received his BA in Creative Writing from the University of Pennsylvania in 1964. He worked as a journalist from 1965 to 1969 before turning his hand to fiction. His first mystery (Gypsy in Amber – 1971) features NY gypsy art dealer Roman Grey and was nominated for an Edgar Award. Nightwing was his breakthrough novel and was made into a movie.

Smith is best known for his series of novels featuring Russian investigator Arkady Renko. Gorky Park, published in 1981, was the first of these and was called “thriller of the ’80s” by Time Magazine. It became a bestseller and won the Gold Dagger Award from the British Crime Writers’ Association. Renko has also appeared in Polar Star, Red Square,Havana Bay, Wolves Eat Dogs, Stalin’s Ghost, and Three Stations.

In the 1970s, Smith wrote The Inquisitor Series under the pseudonym Simon Quinnand penned two Slocum adult action westerns as Jake Logan. He also wrote theNick Carter: Killmaster series under the alias Nick Carter with Mike Avallone and others.

Martin Cruz Smith now lives in San Rafael, California with his wife and three children.

Book Review – A Time of Torment by John Connolly

Book Review – A Time of Torment by John ConnollyA Time of Torment (Charlie Parker #14) by John Connolly
four-stars
Series: Charlie Parker #14
Published by Atria/Emily Bestler Books on August 2nd 2016
Genres: Mystery, Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 480
Source: Netgalley
Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Netgalley. All opinions are my own..

Goodreads Synopsis:

Dangerous and driven private investigator Charlie Parker returns in the latest gripping thriller of internationally bestselling author John Connolly’s series, in which ungodly fears haunt a strange and isolated community.

Jerome Burnel was once a hero. He intervened to prevent multiple killings, and in doing so destroyed himself. His life was torn apart. He was imprisoned, brutalized.

But in his final days, with the hunters circling, he tells his story to private detective Charlie Parker. He speaks of the girl who was marked for death, but was saved; of the ones who tormented him, and an entity that hides in a ruined stockade.

Parker is not like other men. He died, and was reborn. He is ready to wage war.

Now he will descend upon a strange, isolated community called the Cut, and face down a force of men who rule by terror, intimidation, and murder.

All in the name of the being they serve. All in the name of the Dead King.

My Review:

I have to confess that prior to receiving a pre-approval from NetGalley inviting me to review A Time of Torment, I had never heard of John Connolly nor had I read a single book from his Charlie Parker series. I was therefore a little hesitant to accept the invitation to review since this is actually the 14th book in the series and I typically like to read a series in order. I’m still in the honeymoon phase with Netgalley where rejections are more common than approvals, however, so I figured I would go ahead and give it the old college try and at least see if this was a series that might be of interest to me.

I’m so glad I accepted the invitation too because A Time of Torment turned out to be an incredible read for me. I literally could NOT put it down! At one point, I even had my iPad propped up on the counter as I cooked and did chores so that I could keep reading as I worked. The story is just that riveting!

I don’t want to give away too many plot details since this is a detective story, so I’m just going to focus on a few elements of the story that I really enjoyed:

Charlie Parker and his sidekicks/bodyguards, Angel and Louis. Charlie’s grit and determination really impressed me, especially since he is just fighting his way back from a near-death experience. This happened in a prior novel, but we are given enough information to know that it has affected him tremendously, both personally and professionally. I also liked how devoted Angel and Louis were to him. No matter how tough the stakes got, they always had his back. The three of them made for one hell of a team, a force to be reckoned with, and so it was easy to connect with them and want them to succeed. I also liked that, even though it was overall a pretty creepy read, their interactions were still infused with enough witty banter to lighten the mood at times. I just really liked these guys and look forward to reading some of the older books to watch their relationships develop.

Charlie’s Case – The case that Charlie was hired to investigate was truly fascinating in terms of its complexity and that it all comes about because one man, Jerome Burnel, finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Jerome plays the part of a hero by stopping two men from committing armed robbery, but in doing so, he ends up killing the two men while trying to protect himself and the store owners. Well, apparently, these were the wrong two guys to kill because their deaths set off a chain of revenge against Jerome that is nearly impossible to even fathom. He ends up framed for a crime he didn’t commit and spends five years in prison where he is tortured almost daily by his fellow prisoners. Jerome is convinced that this trail of horror that has dogged him since he shot those two men, and that as soon as he is released from prison, someone will end his life. When he is finally released, he immediately goes to Charlie Parker. He tells Charlie his story and about his belief that something bad is going to happen to him, and he wants to hire Charlie to investigate if something does in fact happen to him. Jerome’s prediction comes true and so Charlie Parker and his associates are on the case, which takes them down the East Coast from Maine to West Virginia, to a cult-like group called The Cut. Charlie immediately suspects that The Cut may be involved, but they are a dangerous group to deal with and the local law enforcement tends to steer clear of them as much as possible and so doesn’t take kindly to Charlie coming in to kick the hornet’s nest, so to speak. It’s fascinating to see how much power this group wields in the town and I loved the tension and suspense that Connolly creates by having Charlie just roll into town, ready to take on The Cut — and anyone else who gets in his way — to get what he needs, no matter what.

The Cut – Wow, what a deranged group of people! The things they do to outsiders who cross them, not to mention what they’re willing to do to each other, will truly have your jaw hanging open. These are vicious characters you’ll truly love to hate and will want Charlie to bring down, whether or not they even have anything to do with Jerome’s disappearance.

John Connolly’s Writing Style – I really enjoyed the way Connolly wove together this mystery. The narrator is third person omniscient so we get to follow along seeing what Charlie sees as he is investigating, but then we also get chapters that focus on other seemingly random characters – characters Charlie hasn’t encountered yet – and we get just enough information about them to wonder how they will fit into the investigation. Then we return to Charlie’s investigation and follow him until he does encounter them and their role is revealed. I thought doing it that way added a unique twist to the storytelling.

I also liked that Connolly included enough history from the prior novels so that this 14th novel is readable as a standalone novel, but not so much background that if you’ve read the 13 previous novels, you aren’t skipping entire passages because they feel like a rehash, which is a problem that I often have with long-running series.

The Supernatural/Paranormal Element – This was another fascinating and unique twist that made A Time of Torment so much more than a typical detective story for me. Again, I don’t want to give away too many details, but let me just say that Charlie’s search for the ‘Dead King’ in particular will keep you on the edge of your seats.

While the Supernatural element was a very entertaining aspect of the story for me, I definitely want to go back and read earlier novels because I felt like I was probably missing some background that would have made this element make even more sense to me, especially as it related to Charlie’s daughter, Sam. Even with my confusion though, the supernatural elements added even more suspense to a story that was already compulsively readable.

If I had it to do all over again, I’d probably start at the first book and read the entire series in order, but if you’re looking for a riveting read that you won’t be able to put down, then definitely give John Connolly’s Charlie Parker series a try. If the 14th book is still this good, I can only imagine how great the prior books must be.

Huge thanks to Mr. Connolly, Atria Books, and Netgalley for allowing me to preview this book in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: a strong 4 stars!

four-stars

About John Connolly

John Connolly was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1968 and has, at various points in his life, worked as a journalist, a barman, a local government official, a waiter and a dogsbody at Harrods department store in London. He studied English in Trinity College, Dublin and journalism at Dublin City University, subsequently spending five years working as a freelance journalist for The Irish Times newspaper, to which he continues to contribute.

His first novel, Every Dead Thing, was published in 1999, and introduced the character of Charlie Parker, a former policeman hunting the killer of his wife and daughter. Dark Hollow followed in 2000. The third Parker novel, The Killing Kind, was published in 2001, with The White Road following in 2002. In 2003, John published his fifth novel—and first stand-alone book—Bad Men. In 2004, Nocturnes, a collection of novellas and short stories, was added to the list, and 2005 marked the publication of the fifth Charlie Parker novel, The Black Angel. John’s seventh novel, The Book of Lost Things, a story about fairy stories and the power that books have to shape our world and our imaginations, was published in September 2006, followed by the next Parker novel, The Unquiet, in 2007, The Reapers, in 2008 The Lovers, in 2009, and The Whisperers, the ninth Charlie Parker novel, in 2010. The tenth Charlie Parker novel, The Burning Soul, was published in 2011, to be followed in 2012 by The Wrath of Angels. The Wolf in Winter, the twelfth Parker novel, was published in April 2014 in the UK and in October 2014 in the US. 2015 saw the publication of A Song of Shadows, the 13th Parker novel, and Night Music: Nocturnes Volume 2, the second collection of short stories. The 14th Parker novel, A Time of Torment, will be published in April 2016 in the UK and in July 2016 in the US.

In 2009, John published The Gates, his first novel for young adults. A sequel was published in 2011 as Hell’s Bells in the UK and The Infernals in the United States; the third in the Samuel Johnson trilogy, The Creeps, was published in 2013 in the UK and in 2014 in the US. DreamWorks Studios acquired the Samuel Johnson trilogy in 2015 for development as a possible franchise.

Books to Die For, a nonfiction anthology co-edited by John Connolly and Declan Burke, won the 2013 Agatha, Anthony and Macavity Awards for Best Critical/Biographical Book of the year.

With his partner, Jennifer Ridyard, John published Conquest, the first book in the Chronicles of the Invaders series for teenaged readers, in 2013. The second book in that series, Empire, followed in 2015, and the third, Dominion, will be out in February 2016 in the UK and in May 2016 in the US.

John Connolly is based in Dublin but divides his time between his native city and the United States, where the Charlie Parker mysteries are set.

Book Review – Magic Bitter, Magic Sweet

Book Review – Magic Bitter, Magic SweetMagic Bitter, Magic Sweet by Charlie N. Holmberg
three-half-stars
Published by 47North on June 28th 2016
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 296
Source: Netgalley
Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Netgalley. All opinions are my own..

 

Goodreads Synopsis:

Maire is a baker with an extraordinary gift: she can infuse her treats with emotions and abilities, which are then passed on to those who eat them. She doesn’t know why she can do this and remembers nothing of who she is or where she came from.

When marauders raid her town, Maire is captured and sold to the eccentric Allemas, who enslaves her and demands that she produce sinister confections, including a witch’s gingerbread cottage, a living cookie boy, and size-altering cakes.

During her captivity, Maire is visited by Fyel, a ghostly being who is reluctant to reveal his connection to her. The more often they meet, the more her memories return, and she begins to piece together who and what she really is—as well as past mistakes that yield cosmic consequences.

From the author of The Paper Magician series comes a haunting and otherworldly tale of folly and consequence, forgiveness and redemption.

* * * * *

My Review:

Charlie N. Holmberg’s Magic Bitter, Magic Sweet was a much darker story than I was expecting. I think maybe that pretty cover fooled me into thinking I was heading into a light, fluffy, and whimsical read.  While I did find the read to be whimsical, instead of the light and fluffy, however, I found myself immersed in a tale full of weighty themes and relevant life lessons, the dominant one being that you have to take responsibility for choices that you make because actions have consequences.

Maire is a young woman who learns this lesson the hard way. When the story opens, Holmberg grabs the reader’s attention immediately as she begins to describe Maire.  Maire is working as a baker and, curiously enough, has the ability to infuse her baked goods with qualities such as hope, strength, generosity, love – basically whatever qualities she chooses. Those qualities are then passed on to those who eat the baked goods.  What makes Maire even more interesting is that she has lost her memory – she has no idea who she is, where she came from, and no memories at all prior to the moment that a woman named Arrice found her in the forest a few years earlier and brought her to her own home to live.  Although Maire is somewhat curious about who she is and where she came from, overall she is content with the life she is living and so doesn’t dwell on her true identity too much.  Right away I found Maire to be an endearing protagonist, both because of her magic, which she seems to use only to help people, and because the memory loss gives her a human and vulnerable quality.  I found myself immediately in her corner, cheering her on, as the real action of the story began.

Holmberg then begins to deftly weave in a few plot twists, the first of which being Fyel. Maire is outside one day when she encounters Fyel, a translucent man all dressed in white, who also has wings of some sort.  He tells Maire that he is not from this world, but that he knows who she is and that she must try to remember as well.  Many of his remarks are cryptic and he refuses to tell her much more because he says she won’t believe his far-fetched tale and that if she denies the truth, she will be lost to his world forever.  He says she must piece the story together herself so that she will believe it.

Maire then becomes obsessed with trying to figure out who she is, but soon after this encounter, we have another plot twist – marauders attack Maire’s village and she is sold into slavery.  Strangely enough, her new master Allemas seems to already know who she is and even acts as though he has been searching for her, even though Maire is pretty sure they’ve never met.

The story takes a dark turn at this point because Allemas is a cruel and unpredictable master and Maire does not fare well working for him, especially once he realizes that Fyel has also found Maire. By this point, Maire is desperately trying to figure out who she is, what her connection to Allemas is, and especially what her connection to Fyel is. The second half of the book primarily follows Maire on her journey as she discovers her true identity, how she ended up where she is, and most importantly, as she realized that what happened to her was a direct consequence of choices she made in her other life. Maire’s journey is particularly fascinating in the sense that with each new memory she has about her past, her body undergoes a change as she slowly starts to transform back into what she was before she lost her memory and ended up here.

I did notice a few plot holes here and there as I was reading — things that happen that seem a little too coincidental or even the fact that Maire doesn’t seem to think it’s at all strange that she has this unusual magical baking ability, but I still thought overall this was a great read. While, like the magical baking itself, I’m not sure they really added much to the plot of Magic Bitter, Magic Sweet, I thought Holmberg’s whimsical touches, such as weaving various fairy tales such as Alice in Wonderland, Hansel and Gretel, and The Gingerbread Man into her story, made the story an immensely fun read.  What I really liked though were the darker threads that ran through it.  Offsetting those whimsical fairy tales as Maire discovers her true identity, is a dark tale that is reminiscent of both Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the Book of Genesis in the Bible.  I loved the added weight those elements gave to the overall story.

For me, the main weakness of the story was the ending. I felt like there was this huge build up to the reveal of Maire’s identity and then a rush to wrap things up, with years tacked on in an epilogue. I would have liked a little more explanation as to what specifically happened from Maire’s return home to what we see in the epilogue. That part just felt too abrupt for me. Other than that though, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Magic Bitter, Magic Sweet is a book I would recommend to anyone who enjoys fantasy. I probably wouldn’t recommend it to children, because even though it has those fun shout outs to familiar fairy tales, I think the darker parts of the story, particularly some things that happen to Maire along the way, would make it too violent and frightening for younger readers.

Thanks so much to Netgalley, 47North, and to Charlie N. Holmberg for allowing me the opportunity to preview this book.

Rating: 3.5 stars

three-half-stars

About Charlie N. Holmberg

Charlie Nicholes Holmberg was born in Salt Lake City, Utah to two parents who sacrificed a great deal to give their very lazy daughter a good education. As a result, Charlie learned to hate uniforms, memorized all English prepositions in alphabetical order, and mastered the art of Reed-Kellogg diagramming a sentence at age seven. She entered several writing contests in her elementary years and never placed.

Being a nerd, Charlie started writing fan-fiction as a teenager in between episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. She became a full-fledged band geek with mediocre talent in high school, where she met her husband. While she strove to win his attention by baking him cookies and throwing ramen noodles at his house, he didn’t actually ask her out until six years later.

Charlie began taking writing seriously during her undergrad at Brigham Young University, where she majored in English and minored in editing. She finally won a few writing contests. She graduated with her BA in 2010 and got hitched three months later. Shortly afterwards, her darling husband dragged her to Moscow, Idaho, where he subsequently impregnated her.

In summer 2013, after collecting many rejection letters and making a quilt out of them, Charlie sold her ninth novel, The Paper Magician, and its sequel to 47North with the help of her wonderful agent, Marlene Stringer. She currently lives with her family in Utah. Someday she will own a dog.

(Did she mention her third book, The Master Magician, totally made the WSJ bestseller list? Because it totally made the WSJ bestseller list.)

Book Review – Faithful by Alice Hoffman

Book Review – Faithful by Alice HoffmanFaithful by Alice Hoffman
Also by this author: Practical Magic
four-stars
Published by Simon & Schuster on November 1st 2016
Genres: Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 272
Source: Netgalley
Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Netgalley. All opinions are my own..

Goodreads Synopsis:

From the New York Times bestselling author of The Marriage of Opposites and The Dovekeepers comes a soul-searching story about a young woman struggling to redefine herself and the power of love, family, and fate.

Growing up on Long Island, Shelby Richmond is an ordinary girl until one night an extraordinary tragedy changes her fate. Her best friend’s future is destroyed in an accident, while Shelby walks away with the burden of guilt.

What happens when a life is turned inside out? When love is something so distant it may as well be a star in the sky? Faithful is the story of a survivor, filled with emotion—from dark suffering to true happiness—a moving portrait of a young woman finding her way in the modern world. A fan of Chinese food, dogs, bookstores, and men she should stay away from, Shelby has to fight her way back to her own future. In New York City she finds a circle of lost and found souls—including an angel who’s been watching over her ever since that fateful icy night.

Here is a character you will fall in love with, so believable and real and endearing, that she captures both the ache of loneliness and the joy of finding yourself at last. For anyone who’s ever been a hurt teenager, for every mother of a daughter who has lost her way, Faithful is a roadmap.

Alice Hoffman’s “trademark alchemy” (USA TODAY) and her ability to write about the “delicate balance between the everyday world and the extraordinary” (WBUR) make this an unforgettable story. With beautifully crafted prose, Alice Hoffman spins hope from heartbreak in this profoundly moving novel.

My Review of Faithful:

Alice Hoffman’s latest novel Faithful focuses on Shelby Richmond and the painful and emotional journey that she takes after a car accident leaves her best friend Helene brain dead. Shelby, who was driving the car that night, comes away from the accident relatively unscathed, and so is wracked by tremendous guilt that she has, in essence, killed her friend. The guilt eats away at Shelby to the extent that she repeatedly tries to take her own life and ends up in a psychiatric hospital. Even after checking out of the hospital, Shelby still basically just withdraws from her life. She gives up on high school and going to college, shaves her head, takes drugs, and hides in her parents’ basement most of the time, avoiding human contact as much as possible. Helene may be in a coma and kept ‘alive’ only by life support, but Shelby is just a shell of herself as well.

I have to say that this is probably one of the hardest books I’ve ever had to read, not because it’s difficult or poorly written, but rather, because the way Hoffman gets into Shelby’s head and portrays that gut wrenching sense of loss and guilt is so powerful that I felt myself getting sucked down with Shelby. The writing is just that powerful and authentic. I actually had to stop reading for a while because it was so upsetting and emotional draining for me. I almost didn’t go back to it either, but I ultimately really wanted to know if Shelby was going to be okay or not.

Once I was able to continue reading, I was relieved to see that Shelby does eventually start to climb out of the pit of misery she was trapped in. Her journey in the second half of the book is still an emotional roller coaster at times, as the human experience often is, but with the help of some unlikely characters – a homeless girl with a tattooed face, a motley assortment of dogs, a mysterious guardian angel who sends her beautiful postcards encouraging her to forgive herself and live, and a best friend that she meets while working in a pet store – Shelby starts to figure out how to move on from the guilt that has enveloped her for so long.

What I Loved:

Shelby – With Shelby, Hoffman has created a protagonist that I can definitely relate to. That car accident is something that could happen to any one of us at any time and I think most of us would react in similar ways to how Shelby did. How do you live with yourself when you believe that you have destroyed someone else’s life?

The Dogs! – It’s probably crazy to say this, but the dogs are my favorite characters in the book. If ever there was a book that shows the healing power of pets, and especially dogs, it’s this one. Shelby might have rescued The General, Blinkie, and Pablo from the horrible environments they were living in, but those dogs saved her just as much as she saved them. They give her purpose and focus where she had none, and they give her someone to love who will love her back unconditionally.

Maravelle and her kids – Maravelle is Shelby’s best friend from her job at the pet store. She’s a single mom trying to raise three kids on her own and has her hands full. Even with all of that, she still befriends Shelby, this scrawny little bald-headed loner girl. Maravelle and her family basically become Shelby’s second family and in many ways help her way more than her own family ever could. Like those crazy dogs, they show Shelby how to live, love, and just connect with people again.

The Anonymous Guardian Angel – I found this character fascinating as well, especially trying to guess who it could possibly be. How does this person know what Shelby is going through? Why do they care? Why are they so determined to help her through her struggles? I thought Hoffman added an interesting twist by having this little thread of mystery flow through the story.

What I Didn’t Love:

It might upset some people when I say this and there are probably many who won’t be bothered by it at all, but I found the whole situation with Helene unsettling. Her parents are obviously not ready to say goodbye to their daughter, even though her injuries are such that there’s no way she’s going to recover. They choose to keep her on life support in a hospital bed in their home for years. Their home becomes little more than a shrine where people line up to see Helene and ‘interact’ with her because it is said that to do so makes miracles happen. I know it’s a personal choice and I couldn’t even say what I would do if my own child ended up like Helene, but it was just disturbing to read.

Who Would I Recommend Faithful to?

I would recommend this to any reader who likes a book that is going to make them feel. It’s an emotional roller coaster and it’s not for the faint of heart. When Shelby is low, she is about as low as it gets. If you’ve suffered a loss of your own and have come back from it, I think you would feel a kinship to Shelby and her journey.

Rating: 4 stars

four-stars

About Alice Hoffman

alice hoffman

Alice Hoffman was born in New York City on March 16, 1952 and grew up on Long Island. After graduating from high school in 1969, she attended Adelphi University, from which she received a BA, and then received a Mirrellees Fellowship to the Stanford University Creative Writing Center, which she attended in 1973 and 74, receiving an MA in creative writing. She currently lives in Boston.

Hoffman’s first novel, Property Of, was written at the age of twenty-one, while she was studying at Stanford, and published shortly thereafter by Farrar Straus and Giroux. She credits her mentor, professor and writer Albert J. Guerard, and his wife, the writer Maclin Bocock Guerard, for helping her to publish her first short story in the magazine Fiction. Editor Ted Solotaroff then contacted her to ask if she had a novel, at which point she quickly began to write what was to become Property Of, a section of which was published in Mr. Solotaroff’s magazine, American Review.

Since that remarkable beginning, Alice Hoffman has become one of our most distinguished novelists. She has published a total of twenty-three novels, three books of short fiction, and eight books for children and young adults. Her novel, Here on Earth, an Oprah Book Club choice, was a modern reworking of some of the themes of Emily Bronte’s masterpiece Wuthering Heights. Practical Magic was made into a Warner film starring Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman. Her novel, At Risk, which concerns a family dealing with AIDS, can be found on the reading lists of many universities, colleges and secondary schools. Hoffman’s advance from Local Girls, a collection of inter-related fictions about love and loss on Long Island, was donated to help create the Hoffman Breast Center at Mt. Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, MA. Blackbird House is a book of stories centering around an old farm on Cape Cod. Hoffman’s recent books include Aquamarine and Indigo, novels for pre-teens, and The New York Times bestsellers The River King, Blue Diary, The Probable Future, and The Ice Queen. Green Angel, a post-apocalyptic fairy tale about loss and love, was published by Scholastic and The Foretelling, a book about an Amazon girl in the Bronze Age, was published by Little Brown. In 2007 Little Brown published the teen novel Incantation, a story about hidden Jews during the Spanish Inquisition, which Publishers Weekly has chosen as one of the best books of the year. Her most recent novels include The Third Angel,The Story Sisters, the teen novel, Green Witch, a sequel to her popular post-apocalyptic fairy tale, Green Angel. The Red Garden, published in 2011, is a collection of linked fictions about a small town in Massachusetts where a garden holds the secrets of many lives.

Hoffman’s work has been published in more than twenty translations and more than one hundred foreign editions. Her novels have received mention as notable books of the year by The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, Library Journal, and People Magazine. She has also worked as a screenwriter and is the author of the original screenplay “Independence Day,” a film starring Kathleen Quinlan and Diane Wiest. Her teen novel Aquamarine was made into a film starring Emma Roberts. Her short fiction and non-fiction have appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe Magazine, Kenyon Review, The Los Angeles Times, Architectural Digest, Harvard Review, Ploughshares and other magazines.

Toni Morrison calls The Dovekeepers “.. a major contribution to twenty-first century literature” for the past five years. The story of the survivors of Masada is considered by many to be Hoffman’s masterpiece. The New York Times bestselling novel is slated for 2015 miniseries, produced by Roma Downey and Mark Burnett, starring Cote de Pablo of NCIS fame.

The Museum of Extraordinary Things was released in 2014 and was an immediate bestseller, The New York Times Book Review noting, “A lavish tale about strange yet sympathetic people, haunted by the past and living in bizarre circumstances… Imaginative…”

Nightbird, a Middle Reader, was released in March of 2015. In August of this year, The Marriage Opposites, Alice’s latest novel, was an immediate New York Times bestseller. “Hoffman is the prolific Boston-based magical realist, whose stories fittingly play to the notion that love—both romantic and platonic—represents a mystical meeting of perfectly paired souls,” said Vogue magazine. Click here to read more reviews for The Marriage of Opposites.

Book Review – The Singles Game by Lauren Weisberger

Book Review – The Singles Game by Lauren WeisbergerThe Singles Game by Lauren Weisberger
three-half-stars
Published by Simon & Schuster on July 12th 2016
Genres: Chick Lit, Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 352
Source: Netgalley
Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Netgalley. All opinions are my own..

 

Goodreads Synopsis:  The new novel from the New York Times bestselling author of The Devil Wears Prada and Revenge Wears Prada—a dishy tell-all about a beautiful tennis prodigy who, after changing coaches, suddenly makes headlines on and off the court.

Charlotte “Charlie” Silver has always been a good girl. She excelled at tennis early, coached by her father, a former player himself, and soon became one of the top juniors in the world. When she leaves UCLA—and breaks her boyfriend’s heart—to turn pro, Charlie joins the world’s best athletes who travel eleven months a year, competing without mercy for Grand Slam titles and Page Six headlines.

After Charlie suffers a disastrous loss and injury on Wimbledon’s Centre Court, she fires her longtime coach and hires Todd Feltner, a legend of the men’s tour, who is famous for grooming champions. Charlie is his first-ever female player, and he will not let her forget it. He is determined to change her good-girl image—both on the court and off—and transform her into a ruthless competitor who will not only win matches and climb the rankings, but also score magazine covers and seven-figure endorsement deals. Her not-so-secret affair with the hottest male player in the world, sexy Spaniard Marco Vallejo, has people whispering, and it seems like only a matter of time before the tabloids and gossip blogs close in on all the juicy details. Charlie’s ascension to the social throne parallels her rising rank on the women’s tour—but at a major price.

Lauren Weisberger’s novel brings us exclusive behind-the-scenes details from all the Grand Slam tournaments: the US Open, the French Open, the Australian Open, and Wimbledon. Charlie Silver jets around the globe, plays charity matches aboard Mediterranean megayachts, models in photo shoots on Caribbean beaches, walks the red carpet at legendary player parties, and sidesteps looming scandals—all while trying to keep her eyes on the real prize. In this sexy, unputdownable read about young tennis stars who train relentlessly to compete at the highest levels while living in a world obsessed with good looks and Instagram followers, Charlie must discover the secret to having it all—or finally shatter the illusion for good.

 

My Review:

I wanted a light read to take with me on a recent weekend getaway.  I saw Lauren Weisberger’s The Singles Game on Netgalley and immediately requested it because I remembered how much I had enjoyed The Devil Wears Prada when it came out years ago.  Thanks so much to Netgalley, Simon and Schuster, and Ms. Weisberger for allowing me the opportunity to read and review this novel.

Let me start off by saying that The Singles Game fit my initial criteria for selecting it perfectly.  It was very entertaining and I easily breezed through it while on my weekend retreat.  If you’re looking for a fun weekend or beach read, I would highly recommend this one.  It’s like binge watching a show on Netflix – once you start, you won’t be able to stop. And I had no idea how racy the world of tennis could be!

 

What I Enjoyed about The Singles Game:

The Underdog Protagonist – Charlotte Silver, or Charlie as she is better known, is definitely my kind of protagonist.  I was hooked on Charlie and in her corner from the moment she went down on Wimbledon’s Centre Court with what could easily have been a career-ending injury.  The spunk and determination she displays as she fights her way back from her injuries and prepares to make her comeback on the pro tennis circuit is truly admirable and I couldn’t help but cheer her on, especially once I got a taste of Natalya, Charlie’s biggest rival on the circuit and about as nasty and conniving as they come.  Once you meet Natalya, you’ll want Charlie to make mince meat of her on the tennis court.

What I also liked about Charlie though was that she makes lots of mistakes along the way.  There’s no attempt here to make her a flawless heroine; she’s human just like the rest of us and like most of us, her judgment can be questionable at times.  As much as I cheered her on, there were also many times when I wanted to throttle her.  Her relationship with Marco is probably at the top of the list, followed by the crazy Warrior Princess image overhaul suggested by her new coach.  I really couldn’t believe she went along with that one – a tiara and a black bedazzled tennis outfit? I don’t know much about tennis, but do players actually wear outfits like that when they play?  All I kept thinking of was watching Katniss Everdeen getting outfitted for the Hunger Games ceremonies.  Weisberger does a very good job here of making me invested enough in Charlie that I want to jump in the book and yank the tiara off her head because I’m embarrassed for her.

Again, because it makes her human and relatable, I like that Charlie stops to re-evaluate her comeback as she begins to feel less and less comfortable with the direction she has taken and some of the choices she has made, and especially when she senses that her father is disappointed with some of her off-court antics.  I think losing sight of oneself is something a lot of us can relate to.  Is what we think we want worth all of the sacrifices we have to make in order to get it?

The Obnoxious Antagonist – Of course I’m talking about Natalya here.  I do love a character that I can hate and Natalya most definitely fits the bill.  She’s evil, conniving, ruthless, and basically has no redeeming qualities other than the fact that she is an amazing tennis player.  Believe me when I say you will loathe this girl.  I lost track of how many times I wished she would trip and fall when she would strut into events where 5-inch heels.

There’s a full assortment of unlikeable characters, such as Marco and Charlie’s new coach Todd, but Natayla takes the crown for being most unlikeable.

Lots of Drama (but the fun kind!) – We’re not talking life and death drama here. This is Chick Lit, after all, but let’s just say that Weisberger’s world of professional tennis has just as much going on off the court as on it between who’s sleeping with who and who’s cheating on who.  These athletes keep the gossip rags and the paparazzi very busy and will keep you turning the pages to find out how it all plays out and to see who gets left out in the cold.  Do nice guys and gals really finish last?

Weisberger’s Handling of the Tennis – Not knowing much about tennis, I was a little worried going in the book that I might find it a little boring, but Weisberger does a fantastic job of accurately portraying the details of the sports itself without making it dry for those who aren’t necessarily interested in the sport.

 

Potential Downsides to the novel:

Overall, I thought this was a really enjoyable read. There were, however, a couple of questionable areas for me.

Too Similar to The Devil Wears Prada? –  There were moments along the way when I kept thinking about how much this book reminded me of Weisberger’s earlier work.  The premise is very similar – for those who haven’t read The Devil Wears Prada, the protagonist is a girl who lands herself in an enviable job in the fashion industry.  The job, however, requires her to undergo such a radical transformation that she doesn’t recognize herself anymore and starts to question if the job is worth the cost to her sense of self.  That said, I can’t say that the similarity really hampered my enjoyment of The Singles Game at all, but I could see it perhaps bothering other readers who want something more original, less formulaic.

Predictable Romantic Ending:  Don’t get me wrong — I loved the way the novel ends for Charlie and couldn’t have asked for better, but I predicted how it would end as soon as the two characters met.  Again, it didn’t hamper my overall enjoyment of the read, but I like a little more mystery and guesswork in my novels when it comes to romantic relationships and how they’re going to play out.

 

Would I Recommend The Singles Game?

Oh yes, definitely.  As I said earlier, I think The Singles Game is the perfect book to take with you on vacation or to the beach.  It’s a fun, fast read with plenty of dramatic and sexy twists and turns to keep readers engaged from cover to cover.

three-half-stars

About Lauren Weisberger

Lauren Weisberger was born March 28, 1977, in Scranton, Pennsylvania, a locale recently made even more chic, if possible, by The Office. She was joined four years later by sister Dana, a.k.a. The Family Favorite, and moved to Allentown, Pennsylvania, at age eleven. At Parkland High School, Lauren participated in all sorts of projects, activities, and organizations for the sole purpose of padding her college application, although she did genuinely enjoy playing varsity tennis (especially when the girl who should have played first singles incurred a season-ending injury and Lauren had no choice but to step in for the team).

Once matriculated at Cornell University, all civic-minded extracurriculars fell by the wayside. There, she focused her energy on securing a steady stream of fake IDs and dating boys from the right fraternities. After graduating in 1999 with a BA in English, Lauren moved home for the summer to save money and then traveled all over Europe, Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Thailand, India, Nepal, and Hong Kong. She carried a single small backpack and stayed in questionable places, further enriching her authentic cultural experiences by eating only Nutella and drinking Coca-Cola Light.

Lauren’s first job after returning to the U.S. and moving to Manhattan was the Assistant to the Editor-in-Chief of Vogue, Anna Wintour. Lauren became proficient in the language of stilettos and Starbucks before moving to Departures magazine, where she wrote 100-word reviews by day and took writing classes at night. The Devil Wears Prada, begun at the Writer’s Voice, was published in April 2003, and spent six months on The New York Times Bestseller List. It was sold in thirty-one foreign countries and made into a major motion picture by Fox 2000 starring Meryl Streep and Anne Hathaway. Lauren has a half-second cameo in the film that even she is hard-pressed to locate after several viewings. Her second novel, Everyone Worth Knowing, was published in October 2005 and is also a New York Times Bestseller.

Book Review – All the Missing Girls

Book Review – All the Missing GirlsAll the Missing Girls by Megan Miranda
three-half-stars
Published by Simon & Schuster on June 28th 2016
Genres: Mystery, Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 384
Source: Netgalley
Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Netgalley. All opinions are my own..

Goodreads Synopsis:

Like the spellbinding psychological suspense in The Girl on the Train and Luckiest Girl Alive, Megan Miranda’s novel is a nail-biting, breathtaking story about the disappearances of two young women—a decade apart—told in reverse.

It’s been ten years since Nicolette Farrell left her rural hometown after her best friend, Corinne, disappeared from Cooley Ridge without a trace. Back again to tie up loose ends and care for her ailing father, Nic is soon plunged into a shocking drama that reawakens Corinne’s case and breaks open old wounds long since stitched.

The decade-old investigation focused on Nic, her brother Daniel, boyfriend Tyler, and Corinne’s boyfriend Jackson. Since then, only Nic has left Cooley Ridge. Daniel and his wife, Laura, are expecting a baby; Jackson works at the town bar; and Tyler is dating Annaleise Carter, Nic’s younger neighbor and the group’s alibi the night Corinne disappeared. Then, within days of Nic’s return, Annaleise goes missing.

Told backwards—Day 15 to Day 1—from the time Annaleise goes missing, Nic works to unravel the truth about her younger neighbor’s disappearance, revealing shocking truths about her friends, her family, and what really happened to Corinne that night ten years ago.

Like nothing you’ve ever read before, All the Missing Girls delivers in all the right ways. With twists and turns that lead down dark alleys and dead ends, you may think you’re walking a familiar path, but then Megan Miranda turns it all upside down and inside out and leaves us wondering just how far we would be willing to go to protect those we love.

My Thoughts on All the Missing Girls:

What first attracted me to Megan Miranda’s All the Missing Girls was hearing that it’s a psychological where the story is told mostly in reverse. I just couldn’t imagine how that was going to work – if it was going to work – but I had to further investigate. I’m therefore very grateful to Netgalley and Simon & Schuster for giving me the opportunity to read and review the book. Since it’s a mystery and I don’t want to give any details that would spoil the reveal at the end, my review will be somewhat general.

I very much enjoyed the story as a whole, especially the fact that it’s packed full of twists and turns that truly kept me guessing all the way to the end. Every time I thought I had it figured out, another clue would surface and I would realize how completely wrong I was. Major props to Megan Miranda for creating such a suspenseful and unpredictable storyline.
The unreliable narration added an extra level of complexity to the mystery as well because – really, how can you fully trust the story you’re being fed if the narrator says she is trying to find out what happened to the missing girls, but who all the while is also actively hiding and/or destroying potential evidence that could really lead to the truth. Was her goal really to find the truth or was it to bury the truth? Even once I got to the end of the book, I still wasn’t 100% convinced that I had all of the facts about what had happened and who was really behind it.

When it comes to the reverse story telling, I have somewhat mixed feelings, which is ironic since that’s the element that initially drew me to All the Missing Girls. Starting 15 days out and backtracking toward the moment of Annaliese’s disappearance is definitely an inventive way to present the facts of the missing persons case and I liked how with each day that we passed back through, some new information would be revealed that would suddenly add new meaning to the chapter that preceded it. It took some getting used to and was a little confusing at first, which frustrated me because it slowed down my reading, but once I acclimated to it, I enjoyed the unique perspective.

The one downside for me was the sparse character development. Some of the characters, even Nic to an extent, didn’t feel fleshed out for me. Aside from the fact that they all obviously had ties to the missing girls, they all grew up in this same small town, and none of them were especially likable, I never felt like I had much of a connection to them. In that sense, the book reminded me a lot of a procedural crime drama, like a CSI or Law and Order, where it’s all about following the evidence and solving the mystery and not so much about the actual characters. Maybe that’s the point, but I would have loved to know a little more about each of the characters involved. That would have made it a 4-star read for me for sure.

Would I Recommend All the Missing Girls?

Oh yes, definitely! Even with the couple of issues I had with it, I still thought it was a very entertaining read. I’d strongly recommend this to anyone who enjoys suspenseful reads with lots of plot twists like Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train. I’m sure those comparisons have probably been overdone already but they really are the best ones I can think of that offer a similar style of mystery.

All the Missing Girls is due out on June 28, 2016.

three-half-stars

About Megan Miranda

Megan Miranda is the author of the young adult novels FRACTURE, HYSTERIA, VENGEANCE, and SOULPRINT (all from Bloomsbury). Her next young adult novel, THE SAFEST LIES, will be published by Crown BFYR/Random House in May, 2016. Her debut adult suspense novel, ALL THE MISSING GIRLS, will be published by Simon & Schuster in June, 2016. Megan has a degree in Biology from MIT and currently lives near Charlotte, North Carolina, with her husband and two children.

Burying the Honeysuckle Girls – Book Review

Burying the Honeysuckle Girls – Book ReviewBurying the Honeysuckle Girls by Emily Carpenter
Also by this author: The Weight of Lies
four-stars
Published by Lake Union Publishing on April 26th 2016
Genres: Mystery
Pages: 310
Source: Netgalley
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Netgalley. All opinions are my own..

Synopsis:

Don’t let that bright and serene cover fool you — Emily Carpenter’s debut novel “Burying the Honeysuckle Girl” is a dark and riveting mystery filled with betrayal, scandalous family secrets, and political intrigue. At the heart of the novel are four generations of women, three of whom all mysteriously died when they turned 30 years old after being committed to Pritchard, a hospital for the mentally ill. The fourth generation is Althea Bell, who is the protagonist of the novel. Haunted all her life by the circumstances surrounding her mother’s premature death, and by the idea that she could suffer a similar fate, Althea has turned to drugs to ease her pain and calm those fears.

When the novel opens, Althea is returning to her family home in Alabama to visit her father after a year-long stint in rehab. As soon as she enters the home, she is met with open hostility by her brother, Wynn, and his wife. It is crystal clear that Wynn, who is running for political office, wants nothing to do with Althea, the black sheep of the family. Driven by those political ambitions, Wynn has plans to get rid of Althea so that there’s no way she can embarrass him while he’s on the campaign trail. He informs Althea that because she is clearly still sick and because of the history of mental illness in the women in their family, he has made plans for her to continue her therapy – with an extended visit to, of all places, Pritchard. Desperate to keep Wynn from imprisoning her against her will and equally determined, especially as her own 30th birthday approaches, not to suffer the same fate as her mother, grandmother, and great grandmother, Althea sets out to discover the truth of what really happened to each of them when they reached the age of 30.

My thoughts on Burying the Honeysuckle Girls

Overall, I thought this was an entertaining read. Carpenter grabbed my attention right away with the face off between Althea and her brother Wynn in the opening scenes. Wynn is clearly such a power hungry jerk that I couldn’t help but root for Althea to beat him at his game and come out on top. I always love a story where there’s an underdog to cheer for.
Aside from being the underdog, Althea is truly just a likeable character in general. She definitely has her flaws and her weaknesses because of all of the emotional baggage she has carried with her all these years, but she gets stronger and stronger throughout the novel as she moves closer to the truth. She is also very resourceful and proves that she can be a badass when the situation calls for it, especially when she realizes what she is up against – namely, the fact that there are some folks who have a lot to lose if the truth gets out and so are determined to stop Althea – no matter what.

“Burying the Honeysuckle Girls” also appealed to me because of its fast, beat-the-clock pace that Carpenter has created and the many twists and turns the story takes as Althea frantically races around Alabama piecing together her family’s history. Althea runs into obstacles at almost every turn – missing death certificates, missing grave sites, very few people who are actually willing to talk to her, as well as too many people who are clearly under Wynn’s thumb.

This was a real page turner for me because there were so many questions that I wanted answers as I followed Althea’s investigation: Will she solve the mystery before her 30th birthday? What will happen to her if she doesn’t? Why was 30 the magic number for whatever happened to them? Were the women in her family really ill at all? Or maybe it’s actually Wynn that’s mentally unstable? Carpenter even manages to successfully weave in a hint of possible supernatural activity that further shrouds the women’s family history in mystery and makes it an even more intriguing puzzle to piece together. I don’t want to give anything away since this is a mystery novel, but I will say that what Althea discovers is more shocking than anything I could have possibly imagined.

Overall, I’d say this is a very solid effort for a debut novel and I would highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good mystery. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed. It’s a hell of a ride!
Thanks so much to Netgalley, Emily Carpenter, and Lake Union Publishing for allowing me to preview this great read!

Rating: 4 stars

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.

Book Review: The Girls

Book Review:  The GirlsThe Girls by Emma Cline
five-stars
Published by Random House on June 14th 2016
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 368
Source: Netgalley
Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Netgalley. All opinions are my own..

Goodreads Synopsis: Girls—their vulnerability, strength, and passion to belong—are at the heart of this stunning first novel for readers of Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad Northern California, during the violent end of the 1960s. At the start of summer, a lonely and thoughtful teenager, Evie Boyd, sees a group of girls in the park, and is immediately caught by their freedom, their careless dress, their dangerous aura of abandon. Soon, Evie is in thrall to Suzanne, a mesmerizing older girl, and is drawn into the circle of a soon-to-be infamous cult and the man who is its charismatic leader. Hidden in the hills, their sprawling ranch is eerie and run down, but to Evie, it is exotic, thrilling, charged—a place where she feels desperate to be accepted. As she spends more time away from her mother and the rhythms of her daily life, and as her obsession with Suzanne intensifies, Evie does not realize she is coming closer and closer to unthinkable violence, and to that moment in a girl’s life when everything can go horribly wrong.   Emma Cline’s remarkable debut novel is gorgeously written and spellbinding, with razor-sharp precision and startling psychological insight. The Girls is a brilliant work of fiction—and an indelible portrait of girls, and of the women they become.

My review:

Set in California during the late 1960s, Emma Cline’s debut novel The Girls tells the story of fourteen year old Evie Boyd, an average, ordinary teenager who has become disenchanted with her life. Her parents are recently divorced – her dad has moved on and is now living with a new girlfriend, while her mom is desperately searching for love again and is constantly bringing men home. The revolving door of men starts to create friction between Evie and her mom, and so Evie starts spending less and less time at home. In addition to her troubles at home, Evie also has a falling out with her longtime best friend, Connie, and is left feeling very much lost and on her own.

Lonely and desperately wanting to connect with someone, Evie meets and is immediately infatuated with an ultra cool and attractive older girl named Suzanne. Suzanne tells Evie all about how she and a group of others live on a ranch together outside of town and about a man named Russell, who loves and takes care of them all. Seduced both by Suzanne and by the idea of this wonderful ‘hippie-esque’ family Suzanne describes to her, Evie jumps at the opportunity to hang out at the ranch and meet Russell.

This begins a journey that takes Evie down a dark and potentially dangerous path because that happy, hippie family is actually a cult and Russell is its Charles Manson. Yes, Russell takes care of his girls, but he also frequently has them do his bidding. The acts committed are fairly harmless at first: the girls dumpster dive for food because they don’t have enough money to feed themselves and they also occasionally break into homes. Once she is part of the group, Evie is persuaded to start stealing cash from her mom whenever the opportunity arises and bring it to Russell. But then as with Manson, that bidding eventually takes a violent and deadly turn. Russell is a singer-songwriter wannabe and has been angling for a record deal with this guy named Mitch. When the record deal never materializes, Russell is furious and sends his girls over to Mitch’s house to send him a message that neither he nor anyone else in their community will ever forget.

What I loved about The Girls:

One of the things that fascinated me most about this novel is that even though it contains a mass murdering Manson-like cult, Cline crafts her story in such a way that the murders committed are really just a footnote. The primary focus of the novel is, as the title suggests, the girls.

Cline deftly uses two narrative perspectives to tell Evie’s story. The first, and main one, is fourteen year old Evie describing how she meets Suzanne and gets seduced into joining Russell’s group. This allows us to see the events as they unfold, to watch Evie’s obsession with Suzanne grow and see the lengths she will go to in order to please Suzanne, and, most importantly, it allows us to understand Evie’s motivations as these events are taking place. In her portrayal of young Evie, Cline perfectly captures all of the nuances of being a teenage girl – the volatile emotions, the vulnerability, the intense need to belong to a group and just fit in. Cline is so spot on with her writing that I felt like I could have been reading the diary of a fourteen year old. Heck, it could have been my own diary when I was a teenager (minus the murderous cult, of course!).

The second perspective Cline uses to tell the story is much more reflective and really helps to round out Evie’s story. Evie is still the narrator, but now she is much older and is looking back on herself when she was fourteen and thinking about what happened, what could have happened, why everything happened, etc. Again, Cline perfectly captures the inner workings of older Evie’s mind down to the almost giddiness that she still seems to feel at being associated, however loosely, with the now infamous cult. Even as an adult, Evie still feels their hold over her, Suzanne’s in particular.
Read more

five-stars

About Emma Cline

Emma Cline is from California. Her fiction has appeared in Tin House and The Paris Review, and she was the recipient of the 2014 Paris Review Plimpton Prize.

‘Eligible’ by Curtis Sittenfeld gives ‘Pride and Prejudice’ a Fresh and Fun Makeover

‘Eligible’ by Curtis Sittenfeld gives ‘Pride and Prejudice’ a Fresh and Fun MakeoverEligible: A Modern Retelling of Pride and Prejudice by Curtis Sittenfeld
Also by this author: You Think It, I'll Say It
four-half-stars
Series: The Austen Project #4
Published by Random House on April 19th 2016
Genres: Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 512
Source: Netgalley
Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Netgalley. All opinions are my own..

Synopsis from Goodreads: From the “wickedly entertaining” (USA Today) Curtis Sittenfeld, New York Times bestselling author of Prep and American Wife, comes a modern retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. A bold literary experiment, Eligible is a brilliant, playful, and delicious saga for the twenty-first century.

This version of the Bennet family—and Mr. Darcy—is one that you have and haven’t met before: Liz is a magazine writer in her late thirties who, like her yoga instructor older sister, Jane, lives in New York City. When their father has a health scare, they return to their childhood home in Cincinnati to help—and discover that the sprawling Tudor they grew up in is crumbling and the family is in disarray.

Youngest sisters Kitty and Lydia are too busy with their CrossFit workouts and Paleo diets to get jobs. Mary, the middle sister, is earning her third online master’s degree and barely leaves her room, except for those mysterious Tuesday-night outings she won’t discuss. And Mrs. Bennet has one thing on her mind: how to marry off her daughters, especially as Jane’s fortieth birthday fast approaches.

Enter Chip Bingley, a handsome new-in-town doctor who recently appeared on the juggernaut reality TV dating show Eligible. At a Fourth of July barbecue, Chip takes an immediate interest in Jane, but Chip’s friend neurosurgeon Fitzwilliam Darcy reveals himself to Liz to be much less charming. . . .

And yet, first impressions can be deceiving. Wonderfully tender and hilariously funny, Eligible both honors and updates Austen’s beloved tale. Tackling gender, class, courtship, and family, Sittenfeld reaffirms herself as one of the most dazzling authors writing today.

My review: 

Prior to requesting Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible from Netgalley, I was completely unfamiliar with the Austen Project, in which six prominent modern-day authors have been tasked with giving contemporary makeovers to Jane Austen’s classic novels.  Because I’ve been a Jane Austen fan since I first read Pride and Prejudice in high school, I was immediately intrigued by the project and eager to see what kind of modern spin these authors would put on some of my beloved favorites.

I’m happy to report that Eligible, Sittenfeld’s modern take on Pride and Prejudice, did not disappoint.  For those who are familiar with the original classic, Eligible preserves its main characters, primary storylines, satirical elements, as well as its overriding themes:   Mrs. Bennet is still obsessed with finding suitable husbands for her five daughters to marry, and Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett again steal the spotlight as they verbally spar their way from hate at first sight to eventual true love.

In spite of the many similarities to Pride and Prejudice, however, Sittenfeld skillfully infuses Eligible with enough modern elements and unexpected plot twists to keep her story fresh and hilariously entertaining rather than simply a rehash of the original.

Highlights for me:

There were so many things I loved about this book that it’s impossible to name them all. The contemporary spin on the Liz/Darcy storyline is a given, but here are some of my other favorites:

The Americanized setting.  Swapping out the English countryside for the suburban landscape of Cincinnati, Ohio gave the original storyline an instant facelift, as did replacing fancy dress balls and strolls around formal English gardens with barbecues and jogs around the block.  The change in scenery was instantly relatable, and of course, there was the added amusement of learning that our oh-so-dignified Mr. Darcy was a big fan of Cincinnati chili.

The aging  of the Bennet sisters.  Since it would have been somewhat old-fashioned to be worried about twentysomethings and the danger of spinsterhood, Sittenfeld deftly updates both the ages of the Bennet sisters as well as the driving forces behind Mama Bennet’s desire to find them all men.  Eldest daughter Jane is now 40, with Liz not too far behind her at 38, so the relevant issue at hand for them, Jane in particular, is fertility.  If they want to have children, they had better get busy.

For the younger three Bennet sisters, the issue is more just about having them grow up and start fending for themselves.  Here, Sittenfeld has woven into her narrative a powerful, albeit humorous, criticism of millennials, and particularly of what she refers to as the ‘boomerang effect’ when the grown children return home to live with their parents.  Even though all five Bennet sisters are grown women, only two of them, Jane and Liz, have moved out of their parents’ home and secured careers for themselves.  Kitty, Lydia, and Mary have instead chosen to remain living at home and behaving like children.  They do absolutely nothing to help out around the house either through monetary contributions or by helping to care for their father when his health declines.  Instead of needing husbands, what these three girls need is a swift kick in the pants to get them out of their parents’ home and living independently.

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four-half-stars

About Curtis Sittenfeld

CURTIS SITTENFELD is the bestselling author of five novels: Prep, The Man of My Dreams, American Wife, Sisterland, and Eligible. Her first story collection, You Think It, I’ll Say It, will be published in 2018. Her books have been selected by The New York Times, Time, Entertainment Weekly, and People for their “Ten Best Books of the Year” lists, optioned for television and film, and translated into thirty languages. Her short stories have appeared in The New Yorker, The Washington Post, and Esquire, and her non-fiction has appeared in The New York Times, Time, Vanity Fair, The Atlantic, Slate, and on “This American Life.” A graduate of Stanford University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Curtis has interviewed Michelle Obama for Time; appeared as a guest on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” CBS’s “Early Show,” and PBS’s Newshour; and twice been a strangely easy “Jeopardy!” answer.

Book Review: Glory over Everything

Book Review:  Glory over EverythingGlory over Everything: Beyond The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom
four-half-stars
Published by Simon & Schuster on April 5th 2016
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 384
Source: Netgalley
Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Netgalley. All opinions are my own..

Synopsis from Goodreads: A novel of family and long-buried secrets along the treacherous Underground Railroad. The author of the New York Times bestseller and beloved book club favorite The Kitchen House continues the story of Jamie Pyke, son of both a slave and master of Tall Oaks, whose deadly secret compels him to take a treacherous journey through the Underground Railroad.
Published in 2010, The Kitchen House became a grassroots bestseller. Fans connected so deeply to the book’s characters that the author, Kathleen Grissom, found herself being asked over and over “what happens next?” The wait is finally over.
This new, stand-alone novel opens in 1830, and Jamie, who fled from the Virginian plantation he once called home, is passing in Philadelphia society as a wealthy white silversmith. After many years of striving, Jamie has achieved acclaim and security, only to discover that his aristocratic lover Caroline is pregnant. Before he can reveal his real identity to her, he learns that his beloved servant Pan has been captured and sold into slavery in the South. Pan’s father, to whom Jamie owes a great debt, pleads for Jamie’s help, and Jamie agrees, knowing the journey will take him perilously close to Tall Oaks and the ruthless slave hunter who is still searching for him. Meanwhile, Caroline’s father learns and exposes Jamie’s secret, and Jamie loses his home, his business, and finally Caroline. Heartbroken and with nothing to lose, Jamie embarks on a trip to a North Carolina plantation where Pan is being held with a former Tall Oaks slave named Sukey, who is intent on getting Pan to the Underground Railroad. Soon the three of them are running through the Great Dismal Swamp, the notoriously deadly hiding place for escaped slaves. Though they have help from those in the Underground Railroad, not all of them will make it out alive.

My Review:

With its heartbreaking and brutally honest depiction of how slaves were treated in the American South, Kathleen Grissom’s The Kitchen House stands out as one of the most memorable novels I’ve read in recent years. Because it had such a profound effect on me, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the sequel, Glory over Everything: Beyond the Kitchen House. Thanks so much to Netgalley, Simon & Schuster, and of course, Kathleen Grissom, for making it possible for me to obtain a copy prior to the novel’s April 5th release date.

So, how best to describe Glory over Everything? Think Nella Larsen’s Passing and Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave, with a smattering of Gone with the Wind thrown in for good measure. While The Kitchen House explores the horrors of slavery by showing how hard it is to live as a slave in the South, Glory over Everything tackles the same theme but from a different point of view, that of the free black or mixed race individual who has managed to escape from the South. Grissom exposes the ugly truth that until slavery was finally abolished in this country, freedom was merely an illusion if you had any ‘color’ in your blood. It could be stolen from you anywhere at any time, and so you lived life constantly looking over your shoulder.

The offspring of a white slave master and a slave, our protagonist James Pyke learns this lesson the hard way. When the novel opens, James has already escaped from slavery once, traveling via the Underground Railroad to freedom. He is now living in Philadelphia as “James Burton”. Because of his pale complexion, he has been able to ‘pass’ as a white man for a number of years now and is a respected businessman and artist in his community. Using a series of flashbacks, the first half of the novel returns us to when Jamie first arrives in Philadelphia and retraces the path he takes to become James Burton.

Two events transpire, however, that threaten to destroy this new life he has worked so hard for: 1) his lover Caroline becomes pregnant and 2) James’ servant, a young boy named Pan that James loves like a son, is kidnapped and shipped south to be sold into slavery. Although he is frightened to return to the South because of his own past, James promises Pan’s father, Henry, that he will find and return Pan home. Initially James is conflicted between his duty to Caroline and their unborn child and his oath to Henry. However, ultimately James is forced to flee Philadelphia when he is betrayed by someone who knows of his past and uses it against him. With nothing else left to lose at this point, James swallows his own fears and heads south to find Pan. The second half of the novel focuses on this potentially dangerous rescue mission.

Highlights:

I loved nearly everything about this novel, but here are some aspects of it that really stood out for me.

The suspense – While the first half of the novel moves along at a slow and steady pace as it traces James’ backstory and focuses on character development, the rest of the novel becomes very Mission Impossible. It’s so intense that I stayed up nearly all night long to finish it because I was so desperate to know how it ended. Every chapter is suspenseful and filled with potential dangers as James, first of all, must lie to everyone he encounters on his journey to create a plausible cover story that allows him to search for Pan. Then, once he locates him, he must come up with a feasible plan to free Pan and bring him home, all the while without revealing his own true identity, especially once he hears that his former slave master is not only still alive, but is still actively looking for him.

Pan – I know James is the protagonist in this novel and a wonderful character in his own right, but I guarantee that you will fall in love with Pan. Just as Mama Mae was the heart and soul of The Kitchen House, Pan is the heart and soul of this novel. He’s a precocious young boy with a heart as big as Texas, who instantly enchants everyone he meets. After Pan was taken, I waited anxiously to hear more of him and wished I could give James a kick in the pants to hurry him along on his journey to rescue him.

Underground Railroad – The chapters that deal with the Underground Railroad stand out as the novel’s most memorable moments. On the one hand, what an absolutely terrifying experience to have an escape route that passes through a swamp containing bears, wild cats, poisonous snakes, and who knows what other dangers. But on the other hand, it was heartwarming to see so many people along the way who were helping as many as they could escape to freedom.
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four-half-stars