& Review: Beach Read by Emily Henry

beachreadCover Love: Another beach read (that is literally titled “Beach Read” haha) that leans into its niche genre with its cover: our two star-crossed lovers lounging waterside with the title holding them apart. It practically screams “put me in your weekend bag!”

My Review: 

Augustus Everett is an acclaimed author of literary fiction. January Andrews writes bestselling romance. When she pens a happily ever after, he kills off his entire cast.

They’re polar opposites.

In fact, the only thing they have in common is that for the next three months, they’re living in neighboring beach houses, broke, and bogged down with writer’s block.

Until, one hazy evening, one thing leads to another and they strike a deal designed to force them out of their creative ruts: Augustus will spend the summer writing something happy, and January will pen the next Great American Novel. She’ll take him on field trips worthy of any rom-com montage, and he’ll take her to interview surviving members of a backwoods death cult (obviously). Everyone will finish a book and no one will fall in love. Really. 

What a sweet premise! Two people, opposite in temperament and writing genres, are literal next door neighbors at a beach town in Michigan. They (of course) fall in love, but not without some twisting turns along the way.

This book was a really good balance of dark and light. These are complex characters with some deep hurts in the past. The romance writer doesn’t have a rosy childhood with an example of a perfect marriage in her perfect parents. The literary fiction writer doesn’t write haunting stories to spice up his own milquetoast background. Juxtaposed nicely with the very well-written banter (man do I love a good, well-timed quip) were moments of real reflection and vulnerability. I felt more deeply for these characters in a romance novel than I do with a lot of other works of fiction.

This book fell into the trap that a few other rom-coms that I’ve read fall prey to: the male lead suddenly becoming an asshole after their First Time, then frustratingly keeping our narrator guessing for days afterward. Using a Haunted Past as an excuse to be Mysterious and Brooding and Unwilling to Share. But the characters ended up being nuanced enough that these choices seemed at least somewhat justifiable.

The books-within-a-book thing was tough to pull off. Emily Henry had to describe both a literary fiction book-in-progress as well as a romance for both of her characters to write (for the record I think January tried a lot harder to write a lit fiction piece than Gus tried to write a romance). She had to balance describing these plots just well enough that we understood them and rooted for Gus and January to finish them, and to where their weekly “assignments” for each other made sense, but not so much that they detracted from the overall story. And I think she did that well.

A great romance, wonderful characters, and steamy sex scenes. Ticked all the boxes for me!
My Rating: 3 ½ out of 5 novel drafts

& Review: Big Summer by Jennifer Weiner

bigsummerCover Love: This cover knows its niche! Simple graphic, woman in beachy hat and a swimsuit. This practically screams “I’m a summer read!”

My Review: 

Six years after the fight that ended their friendship, Daphne Berg is shocked when Drue Cavanaugh walks back into her life, looking as lovely and successful as ever, with a massive favor to ask. Daphne hasn’t spoken one word to Drue in all this time—she doesn’t even hate-follow her ex-best friend on social media—so when Drue asks if she will be her maid-of-honor at the society wedding of the summer, Daphne is rightfully speechless.

Drue was always the one who had everything—except the ability to hold onto friends. Meanwhile, Daphne’s no longer the same self-effacing sidekick she was back in high school. She’s built a life that she loves, including a growing career as a plus-size Instagram influencer. Letting glamorous, seductive Drue back into her life is risky, but it comes with an invitation to spend a weekend in a waterfront Cape Cod mansion. When Drue begs and pleads and dangles the prospect of cute single guys, Daphne finds herself powerless as ever to resist her friend’s siren song.

Well, this started off as one thing and ended up as something completely different!

Our main girl is Daphne Berg, a social media influencer whose journey through fat-shaming and body acceptance had led her to a tentative truce with her pretty-great-so-far life. A past relationship comes back to haunt her. Not an ex-boyfriend, but an ex-best friend – a mean girl whose hurtful words and actions helped compound Daphne’s low self-esteem, and with whom Daphne had a blowout fight outside of a bar years ago that went viral.

But surprise! Ex-best friend wants to reconnect. In fact, she wants Daphne to be a part of her very high profile and highly publicized society wedding.

I started to have an issue with the amount of flashbacks that were happening in the novel’s beginning. It was getting to be that we spent an hour or two in the current timeline, and Daphne would have walked us through two or three significant memories from her past – Drue accompanying Daphne and her father on one of their Sunday dinner trips, Drue doing something mean and petty in high school (TBH this was most of the memories). It bogged down the flow of the story a little bit, and I was hoping for a break in the flashback action.

And then, at almost exactly the halfway point of the novel, the book nearly entirely switches genres. 

After recovering from a little story whiplash, I was all for it. 

I finished this story quickly, gobbling up Daphne’s journey throughout the story and the stories of the well-written, fully detailed secondary characters around her. And while I might never understand the propensity of women’s fiction to describe everyone’s outfit from head to toe, I loved that the plot went ways that I wasn’t expecting.

I’m not sure that Drue was ever “redeemed” in my eyes. But on the other hand, I’m not sure she’s meant to be. We get so much more of her bad side, and when she’s bad, she’s SO bad, that any sweet moment she shares with Daphne, any glimpse of vulnerability or sympathy about her awful family life didn’t tip the scales hard enough.

This is a twisty turny book full of sweetness, bittersweetness, loneliness, hatefulness, forgiveness – a lot of ‘nesses. It’s a great “beach” read, or any other kind of read.

My Rating: 3 ¾ out of 5 new followers

& Review: The First Sister by Linden A. Lewis

thefirstsisterCover Love: Very striking. Reminds me of that scene in Guardians of the Galaxy 2, where Ego is showing all these scenes from his life in these weird 3D dioramas? Anyway, it looks very Art Deco yet space age-y. I’d definitely pick this one off a shelf to see what it was about!

My Review: 

First Sister has no name and no voice. As a priestess of the Sisterhood, she travels the stars alongside the soldiers of Earth and Mars—the same ones who own the rights to her body and soul. When her former captain abandons her, First Sister’s hopes for freedom are dashed when she is forced to stay on her ship with no friends, no power, and a new captain—Saito Ren—whom she knows nothing about. She is commanded to spy on Captain Ren by the Sisterhood, but soon discovers that working for the war effort is so much harder to do when you’re falling in love.

Lito val Lucius climbed his way out of the slums to become an elite soldier of Venus, but was defeated in combat by none other than Saito Ren, resulting in the disappearance of his partner, Hiro. When Lito learns that Hiro is both alive and a traitor to the cause, he now has a shot at redemption: track down and kill his former partner. But when he discovers recordings that Hiro secretly made, Lito’s own allegiances are put to the test. Ultimately, he must decide between following orders and following his heart.

I mean, when you compare a book to both The Handmaid’s Tale (one of my all-time favorite novels) and Red Rising (a sci-fi series I recommend to any sci-fi fan I meet), I immediately have to see if I can get my hands on it. Luckily I was approved for an eARC and away we go.

The comparisons to these two books are obvious from the novel’s description alone: a woman belonging to a religious sect, surgically silenced and forced to obey the whims of soldiers onboard a spacecraft (à la handmaids forced to procreate with military members in Atwood’s post-apocalyptic society) and a story involving elite trained warriors fighting in a war across familiar planets with spacecraft and highly advanced weaponry (à la Golds trained to fight and caught in an interplanetary war in Brown’s Red Rising  saga). This story has the added benefit of featuring well-rounded LGBTQ+ characters: a non heterosexual romance, as well as a non-binary main character.

To start off with, there is a LOT going on in this story. There’s a complex war happening between different planets with differing opinions: the Icarii and the Geans. There is a holy leader called the Mother, who is in charge of all of the Sisters. There is a Warlord (a bit self-explanatory there). There is a science mega-company bent on Making the World a Better Place (not suspicious at all). There are humans used to life in space who have adapted physically to different environments called Asters; they are looked down on similarly by both sides. There is corruption, betrayal, and political alliances abound.

And yet there is a strange lack of battle; we spend the one space battle scene with the First Sister, who is trying to stay away from the action happening elsewhere on the ship. We see our other narrator, Lito, fight hand-to-hand more often. Lito is part of a highly specialized, psychically linked fighting duo, and any battle scenes where the Daggers and Rapiers had to fight in tandem were well-written and tension-filled. I had hope for more epic, sprawling battles, but that is probably set up for future installments.

There were also a lot of heavy-handed messages and themes: bodily autonomy, having a voice (literal and figurative), choosing a side, etc. There were also some tropes I wish I didn’t have to see again. Overall, it was an action-packed plot with so many twists, most of which I didn’t see coming. The end is a whirlwind and at times the twists felt like too much at once. But I enjoyed the character arcs and the themes from stories that I also loved so much. Very much looking forward to the second book!

My Rating: 4 out of 5 neural implants

& Review: Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas

catharinehouseCover Love: Those colors! *starry eyes* Made to look like a gothic gate, like the one that swings shut behind Ines as she enters the Catherine House grounds for the first time, this image is beautiful and juicy and ominous. It looks like the beginning of a beguiling mystery…

My Review: You are in the house and the house is in the woods.

You are in the house and the house is in you . . .

Catherine House is a school of higher learning like no other. Hidden deep in the woods of rural Pennsylvania, this crucible of reformist liberal arts study with its experimental curriculum, wildly selective admissions policy, and formidable endowment, has produced some of the world’s best minds: prize-winning authors, artists, inventors, Supreme Court justices, presidents. For those lucky few selected, tuition, room, and board are free. But acceptance comes with a price. Students are required to give the House three years—summers included—completely removed from the outside world. Family, friends, television, music, even their clothing must be left behind. In return, the school promises its graduates a future of sublime power and prestige, and that they can become anything or anyone they desire.

Among this year’s incoming class is Ines, who expects to trade blurry nights of parties, pills, cruel friends, and dangerous men for rigorous intellectual discipline—only to discover an environment of sanctioned revelry. The school’s enigmatic director, Viktória, encourages the students to explore, to expand their minds, to find themselves and their place within the formidable black iron gates of Catherine.

For Ines, Catherine is the closest thing to a home she’s ever had, and her serious, timid roommate, Baby, soon becomes an unlikely friend. Yet the House’s strange protocols make this refuge, with its worn velvet and weathered leather, feel increasingly like a gilded prison. And when Baby’s obsessive desire for acceptance ends in tragedy, Ines begins to suspect that the school—in all its shabby splendor, hallowed history, advanced theories, and controlled decadence—might be hiding a dangerous agenda that is connected to a secretive, tightly knit group of students selected to study its most promising and mysterious curriculum.

Thank you Custom House and Edelweiss+ for an advanced eARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

This book is a very long, slow, weird burn. It is very atmospheric and strange. It has been described as “gothic,” and “mysterious,” and I think I’d add “aloof” and “slightly inaccessible” as well. 

Because here’s the thing: you finally get “the point” at the 77% mark (I read this on my Kindle so I could pinpoint the moment exactly). It’s a bit late. It feels very late, if what you have dealt with up until that point is a school where you’re not exactly sure what they teach, a mysterious science is kept behind very closed doors, and our protagonist barely seems to muster the energy and enthusiasm to exist, let alone solve the mystery.

You see, Catherine House takes on very capital S Special Students. These Special students either follow a “regular” line of coursework, or get absorbed into an ultra secret line of research on a new material discovered by an disgraced scientist from the school’s past. No one knows what this material is or can truly do, and oddly enough no one at the school seems as interested as they should be. Except for Ines. Her interest gradually builds, although by her inherently guarded nature and her incredible traumatic past, she holds off on exploring that curiosity. This becomes understandable the more we get to know her, but it only adds to the verrry slow build of the story.

Adding to this strange atmosphere are the mentions of food and actual classes. The curriculum at Catherine House is incredibly rigorous: mostly Ines and her increasing circle of friends study while they converse at all hours of the day and night. But as the story progresses, the class titles get stranger and almost no one class name is mentioned twice. The same goes for food: whenever Ines eats, the entire dining hall menu is mentioned. The food is vivid, and most often in weird combinations. And it’s unclear why everything on the menu has to be mentioned every time.

(This book brought me back to my college days just a little bit, what with the dorms and late night cram sessions in libraries. And I graduated with an English degree, so I feel like I should be able to parse the significance of the extensive food lists…but for the life of me I can’t. It only served to distract me from the main point of the book, which I was so desperate to figure out.)

Ines makes everyone and everything seem so blase, so inconsequential, that when she suddenly has a group of friends, you have to wrack your brain as to where they popped up first, what they were like when she first mentioned them. It leads to a meandering, piecemeal view of the overall story.

That story does redeem itself once clues start coming together and you, along with Ines, start taking agency and figuring out the eerie motive behind Catherine House’s true intentions. I blew through the last fourth of the book and thought to myself more than once, “okay, here’s where it’s really getting good.” And it is good. The school’s secrets are dark and moody and nefarious and the last few pages are even quite harrowing.

We do stop the novel just when things seem to get good. There could have been another fifty pages added to the end, and about a similar length trimmed from elsewhere in the novel. Overall it does feel like the book reveals too little too late. If you don’t mind a slow, strange burn of a book, check this creepy tome out.

My Review: 3 out of 5 obscure art history course names

May Book of the Month

may2020botm

(For past Book of the Month posts, I’ve copied and pasted the synopses of all of the selections. That has come to seem tedious and silly – you can look up a book yourself if the title or my words make it seem appealing! I’ll do my best to give each book it’s brief due. Let me know if you’d prefer full synopses going forward!)

This month’s Book of the Month selections are so good, y’all! I almost ordered all of them…then narrowed them down to four…then to three…then finally to two. Although one of them may show up as an add-on in a future box…

This month we have Sue Monk Kidd’s (of Secret Life of Bees fame) latest novel: a fictionalization of Jesus’ wife Ana. Ana is an unabashed feminist, and the book’s description is giving me a lot of Circe by Madeline Miller vibes.

Happy & You Know It is one of those rich-people-with-secrets books that I can see myself greedily gobbling up on a rainy Sunday. Claire is a down-on-her-luck musician who gets roped into playing songs for a children’s group for Manhattan moms. She of course gets swept into drama, intrigue, etc. Maybe a Gossip Girl meets Liane Moriarty vibe?

Another great-sounding thriller by Kimberly McCreight, in which the main character does a solid for a friend accused of killing his wife by defending him in court….except he might have actually done the murdering he’s accused of.

I have been throwing myself into romances lately. Nothing like a happy ending to make these times of quarantined times more pleasant. The Boyfriend Project sounds delightful: start with strong female friendships, add a steamy romance? Sold.

The Knockout Queen sounds like an angsty coming-of-age, complete with issues like parental alcoholism, LGBTQ identity, violent pasts, and just general teenage awkwardness. It has some really glowing reviews!

Ultimately I went with The Knockout Queen, and The Boyfriend Project in case the first book bums me out too much. What would you have chosen? Or if you already subscribe to BOTM, what did you choose? Hope you’re staying safe and sane out there!

& Review: The Heir Affair by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan

theheiraffairCover Love: In the same graphic/pop-arty style of the first book, this one in its bright blue coloring is definitely eye-catching. And while the first book made no effort to hide its romantic theme, this one actually hints at the dramatic shifting relationships inside.

My Review: Making it up the aisle was the easy part: After marrying the heir to the throne, Rebecca “Bex” Porter must survive her own scandals as she adjusts to life in the glamorous British royal family, in this “highly anticipated” follow-up to The Royal We, the “fun and dishy” bestseller and NYT Summer Reading List pick inspired by Will and Kate’s romance (People).

After a scandalous secret turns their fairy-tale wedding into a nightmare, Rebecca “Bex” Porter and her husband Prince Nicholas are in self-imposed exile. The public is angry. The Queen is even angrier. And the press is salivating. Cutting themselves off from friends and family, and escaping the world’s judgmental eyes, feels like the best way to protect their fragile, all-consuming romance.

But when a crisis forces the new Duke and Duchess back to London, the Band-Aid they’d placed over their problems starts to peel at the edges. Now, as old family secrets and new ones threaten to derail her new royal life, Bex has to face the emotional wreckage she and Nick left behind: with the Queen, with the world, and with Nick’s brother Freddie, whose sins may not be so easily forgotten — nor forgiven.

Thanks to NetGalley and Grand Central Publishing for this eARC in exchange for an honest review.

I may have let out an unladylike squeal when I found out I received an eARC of the sequel to one of my favorite romances back in 2015. I was more than happy to re-read The Royal We in preparation for this book and it was just as delightful and lovely as the first time I closed its covers.

And while The Heir Affair picks up almost right after the events of the first book, this ain’t really a romance. This is a capital D DRAMA: Bex and Nick are in hiding – even pretending to be other people – after the most public hellish wedding possible. It broke my heart after the beautiful, hope-filled conclusion of the first book to see these characters trying to put on a brave face in an impossible situation.

They are soon called back home to “The Firm,” and the drama doesn’t stop from there. I was most surprised about the characters we heard the most from and the ones that took a step back. Up to the plate, filling out even further as characters and proving more flawed and complex than perhaps initially thought; the Queen, Freddie, and Bex herself. Simmering quietly in the background: Bex’s twin sister, Lacey, Gaz-Cilla-Bea-Gemma (all lumped together as the Friend Group that Occasionally Pops Up From Time to Time), and Nick. 

One thing I wished in the first book was that Nick had been more complex: he came across perfect and heart-throbby and swoony, if a little absent due to his royal duties. I think in my review of the first book I called him “a little too dreamy.” And while he has his vicious jealous monster moments in this sequel (of course he’d have some issues: the world just found out his brother and new bride Had a Thing) I still felt like I saw more of his brother Freddie than I did the prince-to-be. We see the way that Freddie has had to pick up the slack while Nick and Bex pretend to be other people and the bitterness and hurt that has grown from that. We see him struggle with his feelings and relationship with both Bex and Nick. We see Bex struggle with balancing her relationship with both brothers and trying to heal the hurt from all sides. We see Nick deal with the monumental press backlash from his wedding retreat, all while having to hide his hurt from both his bride and his brother. As much as I would have liked this love triangle to drama to go away, it does lead the forward direction of this book, and while I begrudgingly followed, it was hard not to get swept up in it all.

Another driving drama of the story is a deep dark family secret that I OF COURSE cannot spoil here (the real reveal happens so late in the novel that I feel like I can’t even hint at it). Leading up to it, we learn more about a very central character who played a surprisingly small role in the first book: the Queen herself. She and Bex actually wind up developing a very complex and interesting relationship. The authors do a great job here of making this matriarch seem at the same time sympathetic (the crushing PRESSURE of this kind of job?! And what it does for your relationships to the family and people around you) and horrible (how much of your humanity/moral code do you have to compromise to do what it takes to run a country and helm a dynasty?).

Then the family secret comes around and wallops everyone. The different parties involved retreat to process the ramifications of the overwhelming truth revealed, all while Bex and Nick are harboring a pretty devastating secret of their own. It’s such a big secret that it feels almost hypocritical of them to cast judgment on those involved in the family drama. 

The book wraps up very quickly: storylines come to, if not 100% satisfying ends, then resolutions with interesting ramifications for all (side note: I can’t help but feel like there’s a set up for a third installment for Freddie? Since we spent so much extra quality time with him this book). The family secret is processed, dealt with from all parties involved, and set aside for a final scene that wraps everything in a nice bow. I want to again point out that this sequel is not a romance. It deals with some deep, dark issues that face a lot of people who fall in love, who are newly married, who have a job or larger responsibility that takes a toll. It may not be what I was expecting, having loved the lovely relationships created in the first book and the romance that was the backbone of it all, and having a lot of those relationships set on the back burner for this story. But I still had an emotional response and felt a lot of love for these characters as they went through the next chapters (pun intended?) in their lives.

My Rating: 3 ½ out of 5 scathing tabloid headlines

& Review: The Sun Down Motel by Simone St. James

A6EF9C0F-33EC-44B7-9600-27B5CA018C2FCover Love: There is A LOT of love out there for this book cover! It’s the first thing most reviews seem to mention. While I think the filter/patina on the edges are great, and the image overall does well with evoking a creepy vintage vibe, it’s not crazy astounding to me. It doesn’t make the book stick out on a shelf.

My Review:

The secrets lurking in a rundown roadside motel ensnare a young woman, just as they did her aunt thirty-five years before, in this new atmospheric suspense novel from the national bestselling and award-winning author of The Broken Girls.

Upstate NY, 1982. Every small town like Fell, New York, has a place like the Sun Down Motel. Some customers are from out of town, passing through on their way to someplace better. Some are locals, trying to hide their secrets. Viv Delaney works as the night clerk to pay for her move to New York City. But something isn’t right at the Sun Down, and before long she’s determined to uncover all of the secrets hidden

I feel like if you like podcasts like My Favorite Murder, Netflix documentaries like Making A Murderer, and you can’t get enough of the many Ted Bundy documentaries and movies out there now, this book will be right up your alley.

After all, Carly’s aunt disappeared from the eerie and barren Sun Down Motel years ago. And Carly (along with her similarly semi-morbid new roommate) become obsessed with finding out what happened.

While I am not a murderino/Netflix True Crime aficionado (I feel like I could be, but I also have a VERY overactive imagination that makes watching more than one Walking Dead episode sleep-preventative), I still really liked this book’s excellent blend of atmospheric moody thriller and ghost story, as well as the structure of the mystery itself.

It is difficult to balance two points of view, especially those spaced years apart. But St. James does this very well, timing each chapter break so that you feel like you need to read just a little bit more to get the answers you want. Carly experiences her first taste of the ghostly goings on at the Sun Down and suddenly we switch back to Viv in the past, getting used to the old motel’s quirks and its possibly/probably dead former residents. Many chapters end on a cliffhanger so I ended up tearing through this book to get down to the bottom of things.

If this story were a recipe, it has the perfect dose of the paranormal. This is still a thriller grounded in reality. The ghosts both never feel like a Scooby Doo villain – created by smoke and mirrors and possibly modern day projectors and sound effects – but they also never tip this story into the realm of the unbelievable. They spice up the horror/mystery recipe here, never detracting.

Overall, there is a lot here for the thriller/true crime fan. But I think it might also be a great gateway read for fantasy and horror fans into the more pedestrian-feeling mystery genre.

My Rating: 3 ½ out of 5 mysteriously open doors

& Review: The Two Lives of Lydia Bird by Josie Silver

EB753810-9311-4E26-870C-4125B15D12ACCover Love: Ain’t no doubt this is a romance novel! It’s got pink, it’s got cursive, it’s got hearts and girls in dresses and two realities inverted on the same cover. Sweet but simple.

My Review: 

Lydia and Freddie. Freddie and Lydia. They’d been together for more than a decade and Lydia thought their love was indestructible. But she was wrong. On Lydia’s twenty-eighth birthday, Freddie died in a car accident.

So now it’s just Lydia, and all she wants is to hide indoors and sob until her eyes fall out. But Lydia knows that Freddie would want her to try to live fully, happily, even without him. So, enlisting the help of his best friend, Jonah, and her sister, Elle, she takes her first tentative steps into the world, open to life—and perhaps even love—again.

But then something inexplicable happens that gives her another chance at her old life with Freddie. A life where none of the tragic events of the past few months have happened.

Lydia is pulled again and again through the doorway to her past, living two lives, impossibly, at once. But there’s an emotional toll to returning to a world where Freddie, alive, still owns her heart. Because there’s someone in her new life, her real life, who wants her to stay.

I received an early copy of this book from the publisher and Netgalley in exchange for an honest review (thank you! *waves*)

I read Silver’s previous work – One Day in December – via Book of the Month last year, so I was eager to read another British love story that tugged at my heartstrings.

And tug it did! To be fair, you are already set up for heartbreak by the premise of Lydia Bird. You know that Lydia’s fiancé dies. You know that you’re going to watch her grieve, then come to terms with the fact that she can somehow still be with Freddie in an alternate reality, making every waking moment without him that much more bittersweet. But you’re still not quite prepared by the very convincing grief that comes off the pages of Silver’s latest novel. 

The journey through Lydia’s grief takes many twists and turns, but they are all very believable. I love the relationships she had with secondary characters, who were all really well fleshed-out. Her close knit relationships with her single mother and corporate-yet-cool sister were very believable and fraught with their own unique tensions and hurdles. Her intense connection with her fiancés best friend – and only survivor of the accident that killed him, by the way – is at times predictable and other times a little too neatly tied up. Lydia and everyone else around her seem to come to terms with the fact that Jonah lived and Freddie died. No one blames Jonah and their relationships don’t seem to suffer with him because of that (which is good and healthy and everything, but I’m not sure it’s realistic).

It comes as no surprise that living in these two worlds – one where she can be with, marry, and travel with her former fiancé, and another where she has to work through her grief over his loss – becomes unhealthy. The desire to be in one world – either world – starts to affect her life in the other. And spoiler alert: reality is almost always better.

I had the same problem with the end of Lydia Bird that I had with One Day in December – the ending closes the curtain right when I think the story could get really good. Right when everything feels as it should be and you might actually get to see the characters grow and develop together and have a few more happily ever afters. It’s a sweet rom-com close, one that I’m trying hard not to spoil too much here, but it seems a bit of a cop out when all I want is to see these grief-stricken characters be more happy.

My Rating: 3 out of 5 alternate timelines

& Review: The Witch Elm by Tana French

thewitchelmCover Love: Stark and to the point: the witch elm in question is washed out in barely-there gray-on-white in the background, while the title sits in bright blue in the foreground. Plain but effective.

My Review:

Toby is a happy-go-lucky charmer who’s dodged a scrape at work and is celebrating with friends when the night takes a turn that will change his life – he surprises two burglars who beat him and leave him for dead. Struggling to recover from his injuries, beginning to understand that he might never be the same man again, he takes refuge at his family’s ancestral home to care for his dying uncle Hugo. Then a skull is found in the trunk of an elm tree in the garden – and as detectives close in, Toby is forced to face the possibility that his past may not be what he has always believed.

This story is quite different from Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series. It doesn’t feature an officer from one of French’s other works, and in fact spends a lot more time with the victims and suspects of a crime instead.

And it’s slllooowww. Boy does it pick up in the last third or so of the novel, but if you are new to French’s work, this is not the work to start with. It is a very slow burn with a very frustrating protagonist. The ending is one of the most gut-punching finales of French’s work, but it’s a bit of a slog to get there.

Toby is a lucky guy. His luck is such a focus point in this book – it’s mentioned many times and makes for a rather poignant ending. But you don’t want him to be lucky because Toby is also an asshole. He’s a judgmental misogynist who hasn’t really had to work for anything. His life is rosy – great girlfriend, steady friends, good job that he just narrowly avoided losing – when he interrupts a burglary in his home and gets beaten within an inch of his life. It is indeed a horrific event, followed by months of therapy and treatments. But Toby continues to be so woe is me about the attack for the remainder of the story that you find yourself wishing he’d shut up about it (which is a horrible thing to think, but that just serves to illustrate how insufferable this character gets to be). He laments his spot of bad luck so thoroughly that you find yourself wishing that his bad luck continues.

So when bones are found in the towering witch elm in the backyard of Toby’s dying uncle (a dying uncle that Toby is rather reticent to caretake – more evidence in the “this character is a putz” category) you start to rub your hands together, eager to see where Toby’s supposed “luck” takes him now.

But the story doesn’t really pick up from there. It is a long, slow burn towards finding out who the bones belong to, how that person came to be at the uncle’s house, everyone’s relationship to the dead person, etc. Toby and various family members become suspects, then become suspicious of each other. Where the book really shines is the last third/last quarter or so. There are so many twists and turns, and so many shocking events had me frantically turning pages and wondering how things could possibly get any worse (they could).

It is a solid story, but takes a while to get there. And you have to deal with a narrator who is at times insufferable, at most other times pathetic.

My Rating: 3 out of 5 garden buried secrets

& Review: An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green

anabsolutelyremarkablethingCover Love: The title immediately grabs your attention – it is colored boldly and the font is in an aggressive typeface. The humanoid figures fade into a pattern and their blue on blue is subtle (but I like that just one of them has lit-up eyes). A very graphic, attention-grabbing cover.

My Review:

The Carls just appeared.

Roaming through New York City at three a.m., twenty-three-year-old April May stumbles across a giant sculpture. Delighted by its appearance and craftsmanship–like a ten-foot-tall Transformer wearing a suit of samurai armor–April and her best friend, Andy, make a video with it, which Andy uploads to YouTube. The next day, April wakes up to a viral video and a new life. News quickly spreads that there are Carls in dozens of cities around the world–from Beijing to Buenos Aires–and April, as their first documentarian, finds herself at the center of an intense international media spotlight.

Seizing the opportunity to make her mark on the world, April now has to deal with the consequences her new particular brand of fame has on her relationships, her safety, and her own identity. And all eyes are on April to figure out not just what the Carls are, but what they want from us.

This plot has so many things that I love: a witty yet flawed protagonist, a scavenger hunt style clue-gathering plot, several well-crafted plot twists, and a helluva ending. Being not the biggest fan of John Green’s YA selections (I didn’t even know Hank Green was his brother until the Author’ Bio section at the end!), I was so pleasantly surprised about this lovely, relevant story.

I will say that there is a LOT of telling and not showing in this story. Told from the first person perspective of April May, the sarcastic and irreverent protagonist whose first recording of the “Carls” launches her into unexpected fame, we spend a lot of time inside her head. She takes you step by literal step into what happens when you start to get famous. Or how YouTube videos start to make money. Or how legal contracts help manage fame. While some of this is interesting, it bigs the story down a little.I found myself skimming some passages because it just wasn’t a topic I was ever interested in and I wanted April May to get back to what was actually happening with her and the Carls.

But other than the sometimes irrelevant-seeming minutiae of fame and monetization of fame, this book ticked a lot of boxes. April May herself walks a thin line of being flawed and being unsympathetic. She feels like a real person (albeit very gregarious) who unexpectedly becomes the center of a huge amount of attention. She is great and comfortable with public speaking, but sometimes says things without a lot of thought or consideration. She burns bridges with loved ones, but her regret feels very sincere on the page.

The pacing of this plot is excellent as well. We never get truly concrete and definitive answers about or from the “Carls” but just when one mystery seems to run its course, another one materializes. There is a slow and steady ramp up that leads to an explosive ending that ends on a semi-frustrating quasi-cliffhanger (luckily, there’s a sequel to look forward to!)

The story and characters are modern and well-crafted. You really care for them, and are left still head-scratching about the Carls by the turn of the last page. I loved this, and eagerly await A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor (also: these are terrific titles!)

My Rating: 4 out of 5 major media contracts