& Review: The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker

The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker Publisher: Random House January 2017

The Book Itself: A terrific blend of comic and reality. The bold color stripes melting down are one of the things that first drew me to this title, and even the title font seems hand-drawn.

My Review:

In the male-dominated field of animation, Mel Vaught and Sharon Kisses are a dynamic duo, the friction of their differences driving them: Sharon, quietly ambitious but self-doubting; Mel, brash and unapologetic, always the life of the party. Best friends and artistic partners since the first week of college, where they bonded over their working-class roots and obvious talent, they spent their twenties ensconced in a gritty Brooklyn studio. Working, drinking, laughing. Drawing: Mel, to understand her tumultuous past, and Sharon, to lose herself altogether.

Now, after a decade of striving, the two are finally celebrating the release of their first full-length feature, which transforms Mel’s difficult childhood into a provocative and visually daring work of art. The toast of the indie film scene, they stand at the cusp of making it big. But with their success come doubt and destruction, cracks in their relationship threatening the delicate balance of their partnership. Sharon begins to feel expendable, suspecting that the ever-more raucous Mel is the real artist. During a trip to Sharon’s home state of Kentucky, the only other partner she has ever truly known—her troubled, charismatic childhood best friend, Teddy—reenters her life, and long-buried resentments rise to the surface, hastening a reckoning no one sees coming.

On the face of it, this book is about two female artists and how they deal with and help each other through some of life’s more brutal moments. Deeper than that, this story is about the things that break people and the things that repair people at the same time, and about love: love between friends, sisters, the fractured love of some families, and the crazy, teetering feeling of new love. Excuse the momentary foray into melodramatic sentimentality: this book is gorgeous, full of absolute devastation and wonderfully written, incandescent periods of bliss. In still some other words, it is a brilliant portrayal of life.

I didn’t really expect this book to scrape me so raw (does anyone really expect that really, when they pick up a book?) just as I didn’t really expect to find myself in so many character moments. I am not an artist – although one of my childhood ambitions was to become a cartoonist, my margin doodles these days would not inspire anyone – nor did I have the haunting background of either Mel or Sharon. But there were times when Sharon would say, describe something, or act – especially in the throes of a new relationship, or looking back on said relationship – where I had to sit back, where I had to physically stop reading the sentence, go back and re-read what had just struck me so hard. That’s me. I think/thought that way. I’ve done that before! were things I frequently thought. And more often I thought this during Sharon’s weak moments, during a cringe-worthy action or reaction. I saw myself in the flaws of another character.

And it was awesome.

The story is bookended by two major upsets in the character’s lives. I won’t spoil either of them, as you can’t even guess them from the book’s blurbs or synopsis. The plot is an emotional rollercoaster: there are screwed up families, twisted cartoons, drugs, sex, perversion, and great, monumental tragedy.

It is rather hard to describe and have an audience get what a cartoon or animation actually looks like. I can never be sure I pictured Mel and Sharon’s work accurately or even semi-accurately. I had to do a quick Google search sometimes for work they referenced just to get an idea of their inspirations (which was actually kind of cool). But I still felt like I could appreciate what they were doing as artists regardless.

The writing and the story it depicts is gritty and very raw sometimes: this is not a story for the faint of heart, and it is certainly not a lighthearted tale. But the story treats both the characters triumphant highs and bottom-scraping lows with the same deft touch. It’s really a beautiful, hard-to-watch-sometimes story. I can’t wait to see what else Kayla Rae Whitaker will come up with. She has another loyal reader with me

My Rating: 5 out of 5 graphite pencils

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& Review: The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid Publisher: Atria Books, June 2017

The Book Itself: Very atmospheric of the story concept: a swoon-y ingenue figure all in satin. The font of the title seems serious and dramatic, hinting at the darker themes inside.

My Review:

Evelyn Hugo is finally ready to tell the truth about her glamorous and scandalous life. But when she chooses unknown magazine reporter Monique Grant for the job, no one in the journalism community is more astounded than Monique herself. Why her? Why now?

Monique is not exactly on top of the world. Her husband, David, has left her, and her career has stagnated. Regardless of why Evelyn has chosen her to write her biography, Monique is determined to use this opportunity to jumpstart her career.

Summoned to Evelyn’s Upper East Side apartment, Monique listens as Evelyn unfurls her story: from making her way to Los Angeles in the 1950s to her decision to leave show business in the late 80s, and, of course, the seven husbands along the way. As Evelyn’s life unfolds through the decades—revealing a ruthless ambition, an unexpected friendship, and a great forbidden love—Monique begins to feel a very a real connection to the actress. But as Evelyn’s story catches up with the present, it becomes clear that her life intersects with Monique’s own in tragic and irreversible ways.

Sometimes “fluffy beach reads” surprise me.

You know the genre. Candy-colored covers about working women finding love, about quirky families at weddings, about scandals where every character comes out okay in the end. They’re meant to go in your beach bag, to go along with you for the long weekend, and they have relatively straightforward storylines where you don’t have to parse through multiple meanings in the plot.

This ain’t your typical beach read. At least not for me. It has a few of the token elements: pretty woman on the cover, a scandalous yet mysterious main character who is a mash-up between Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor (with some Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn thrown in for good measure), a lovely love story (although not with who you think), and scandal after scandal (where not everyone gets through unscathed).

But it is so much more beautiful than that, and more complicated. I don’t know why this one drew me in from all the other options in June’s Book of the Month selection. Maybe I thought it would be light and fluffy to its core and something about summer makes me want to read breezy books. But I tore through this book and was profoundly touched by the events and the characters inside.

Evelyn Hugo herself is written wonderfully. She’s flawed – boy, does she do some stupid, cruel, and ugly things – but you still find yourself rooting for her because she is also generous, talented, kind, and loving to people throughout her life. She is very believable as an Old Hollywood celebrity, and the setting around her comes alive as well. Her real love story is haunting and beautiful and different from the forbidden/doomed/heartbreaking love stories I’ve read before.

Hugo tells her story to an unknown journalist – Monique Grant – so it’s no spoiler that there is a reason this reporter is sitting with this celebrity to hear this story. I found the portions of the book told from Monique’s perspective outside of Evelyn’s reminiscences to be weaker than the rest of the story. The story is narrated from a point after Monique has already heard everything Evelyn has to say. She refers a few too many times to how angry she is with Hugo, and how this big secret changes everything. It is an attempt to drum up tension for the big reveal on How These Two Women Are Connected, but it feels a little forced after several repetitions. I am already eager to find out why Evelyn chose Monique out of any journalist she could get for this project. I don’t need to be wound up again and again: the story itself already does that.

And there simply isn’t enough with Monique. Although we get a little bit about her struggling with her heritage, with her failing marriage, and a few scenes about her getting up the courage to ask her boss for a raise, it seems to pale in comparison to Evelyn’s story. We don’t spend as much time with her, despite the fact that she’s the one telling us hers and Evelyn’s stories. And the time we do spend with her seems more superficial.

Despite my minor gripes with Monique, I found this story beautifully moving. It deals a lot with secrets and lies and the faces we put on to look better in front of other people. The big secret between Evelyn and Monique did catch me by surprise, and I had an emotional response at the end of the story. Read it for the fluff, stay for the realness.

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 tabloid headlines

& Review: The Song of the Orphans by Daniel Price

The Song of the Orphans by Daniel Price Publisher: Blue Rider Press, July 2017

The Book Itself: Simple and graphic. Truth be told, I like the cover of Flight of the Silvers a wee bit better, but this story speaks louder than this cover.

My Review:

After their world collapsed in a sheet of white light, everything and everyone were gone—except for Hannah and Amanda Given. Saved from destruction by three fearsome and powerful beings, the Given sisters found themselves on a strange new Earth where restaurants move through the air like flying saucers and the fabric of time is manipulated by common household appliances. There, they were joined by four other survivors: a sarcastic cartoonist, a shy teenage girl, a brilliant young Australian, and a troubled ex-prodigy. Hunted by enemies they never knew they had, and afflicted with temporal abilities they never wanted, the sisters and their companions began a cross-country journey to find the one man who could save them.

Now, only months after being pursued across the country by government forces and the Gothams—a renegade group with similar powers—the Silvers discover that their purpose on this unfamiliar earth may be to prevent its complete annihilation. With continually shifting alliances and the future in jeopardy, the Silvers realize that their only hope for survival is to locate the other refugees—whether they can be trusted or not.

I hope all of you get the pleasure of waiting a long time for the sequel to a book you really loved, only to see it in person and realize it is an absolutely massive brick of a novel, and you can’t wait to dive in. It’s the best feeling.

Fair warning: this book is brain-numbingly complex and A LOT OF STUFF HAPPENS. Plus, I wrote this review a month or two after reading it, so bear with me here.

I read The Flight of the Silvers again in preparation for the sequel. I remembered that book being quite complex, with lots of players, and I wanted to come into this book fresh from the world the author first introduced me to. A lot of the nemeses and parties involved are the same as the first book. In a super quick, condensed recap, we have:

1. The Silvers, our heroes: Hannah, Amanda, Zack, Theo, Mia, and David. They have now also joined up with Peter Pendergen, a sensei of sorts for these poor six kids who found themselves plopped into an alternate America after their own world ended, only to ALSO discover that they have superhuman abilities now.

2. The Pelletiers: mysterious, all-powerful beings who “saved” each one of the Silvers…and also several other groups of people from the original Earth. For reasons yet unknown at the start of this second story.

3. Weasily little Evan Rander: a former member of the Silvers who repeats the five years between apocalypses because his ability to jump back in time at will makes him think he can just bully the Silvers sadistically and relentlessly forever. He took it a step too far in The Flight of the Silvers and the Pelletiers took him away somewhere…

4. The Gothams: a large group of people with superhuman abilities who live under the radar in AltAmerica. A small group of them are out to get the Silvers because they believe that our misfit heroes will bring about their world’s apocalypse.

5. The government: alllllways with the government, am I right?! DP-9 was one of the Silver’s antagonists last book, because you don’t really want a bunch of kids running around showing off their freaky abilities causing havoc in public. One of their members, Melissa Masaad, has left DP-9 now and is working for the mysterious Integrity unit, a group who seems to be on the side of the Silvers now…

All of that pretty lamely sums up the characters in play. It’s no wonder Song of the Orphans is over 750 pages long, because you need at least that to sort out this tangled mess of people! (I mean that in the best way)

I’m not even quite sure where to start with this review. You should know that if you read The Flight of the Silvers, loved it (and why would you be going onto the sequel if you didn’t at least like the first one, right?!) and are tackling this new one: just get ready. And if you can swing it, read it while convalescing after surgery like I did, so the book can have your constant, undivided attention for when one of its many crazy fight scenes grabs you and doesn’t let go.

I can think of three huge action scenes in the book that really tear you apart. They wound you for several reasons, sometimes all at once. They usually involve 1.) learning an earth-shattering answer to one of the Silvers many questions about their existence, and/or 2.) a character you love dies, almost dies, or is critically wounded. Also, it looks like this review will be full of lists. Buckle up. Price also introduces us to several other characters to fall in love with and subsequently get gutted by. With the introduction of the other color groups in the last book (Silvers, Golds, Coppers, etc), you know our big cast of characters is just going to get bigger. And it looks poised to expand even more drastically with the last book.

Every action scene is brilliantly written, in an edge-of-your-seat, frantically-whipping-through-pages kind of action. The backstory of this world and its characters is being slowly but methodically filled in. By this book’s end, we have a lot, but not all of the answers. And I’m okay with that. We get to know the Pelletier’s ultimate reason for selecting the Silvers, and I still have some questions about it (okay, I basically don’t really get it quite yet, but maybe I’m just thick in the head), but the stage is still set for the third book: we still have an apocalypse to worry about. We learn A LOT more about the Gothams (and meet several hundred more of them…), and even more about the nuances of the Silver’s abilities. More than one of them finds new ways to use their freaky powers for the good of the team. And new characters introduce new powers to the field of play.

There is a big character twist revealed in this book, which I frankly saw coming. This might be because I came into this book fresh off a re-read of the first. But Price drops huge, unbelievable hints in both books, you guys. Here’s how it went for me (all names changed to avoid Spoiler Land):

Book: Oooooh, someone here isn’t who they say they are!

Me: Oh, it’s probably Cameron.

Book: But look, Jane is acting really suspicious!

Me: No, it’s most definitely Cameron. You said a bunch of sketchy things about them in book 1.

Book: Hang on, now Bob did something that definitely makes them seem like a double-crosser.

Me: Nope. It’s still Cameron.

Book: AHHHH!!! IT WAS CAMERON ALL ALONG! AREN’T YOU SURPRISED?

(Please note that Cameron is a unisex name. So I haven’t even spoiled anything there. Ha.)

So….not that surprised at all. I recognized the red herring hints trying to steer me to different people and stuck to my guns on this “Cameron” lady or fellow. It was still an emotional moment, and the characters acted appropriately betrayed (although really, I would think at least one of them would piece it together at that point), but it wasn’t as shocking to me as it could have been.

I also just want to say that there is a really beautiful scene having to do with the book title and a song and reaching out to the other groups of original Earth-ers. Not even kidding when I said I teared up. I’m such a softy.

I should wrap this up, otherwise you all will be drowning in lists and quippy imagined conversations between me and inanimate objects for days. Song of the Orphans is a superb sequel. Yes, it expands the already gigantic world and cast from The Flight of the Silvers, and I’m still scratching my head on certain things already explained or yet to be fleshed out (who the flipping hell is Ioni and WHAT IS HER MOTIVATION?!) but I have a sneaking suspicion that all will be revealed in the knockdown, drag out fight that will be the third book. Sometimes sequels seem like mere bridges to the final installment in a trilogy and not a lot happens, but boy, do things happen in Song of the Orphans. I am so here for the ride.

My Rating: 4 out of 5 silver bracelets

& Review: The Kind Worth Killing by Peter Swanson

The Kind Worth Killing by Peter Swanson. Publisher: William Morrow, March 2016

The Kind Worth Killing by Peter Swanson. Publisher: William Morrow, March 2016

The Book Itself: It’s a rather generic cover: thin woman, who we can assume is beautiful although we only see her in silhouette, wearing only a button down that is conveniently see-though so we can see she’s thin, leaning in a doorway. It might be trying to be sexy and mysterious, but it just looked like a cheap mystery novel on first glance. I’d read good things about The Kind Worth Killing before its release in paperback, so I knew I wanted to read it before I saw this cover. Otherwise, I don’t think this would have drawn me in.

My Review: On a flight from London to Boston, Ted Severson meets the stunning Lily Kintner. Over martinis, the strangers play a game in which they reveal intimate details about themselves. But what begins as playful banter between Ted and Lily takes a turn when Ted claims, half-seriously, that he would like to kill his wife. Then Lily surprises him by saying that she’d like to help.

Back in Boston, Ted and Lily forge an unusual bond and talk about the ways Ted can get out of his marriage. But Lily has her own dark history she’s not sharing with Ted. As Ted begins to fall in love with Lily, he grows anxious about any holes in their scheme that could give them away. And suddenly the two are pulled into a very lethal game of cat and mouse, one in which both are not likely to survive when all is said and done.

There’s something about a crime show condensed into a book that is just pure guilty-pleasure for me.

This book is a re-telling/re-configuring of the classic Strangers on a Train situation: two people meet, both people have enemies in their lives that just happen to be their spouses, and they agree to kill each other’s spouse in order to not arouse suspicion. It’s that “perfect crime” lie that can become masterfully suspenseful and interesting to watch unravel.

This time, only our female protagonist agrees to do the killing. Ted Severson witnesses his wife cheating on him. He meets Lily, who says all the right things and sympathizes in just the right way. Then she suggests that she help Ted kill his wife.

Now…if I were pouring out my woes and a stranger I had just met immediately jumped to “let me help you kill someone,” I would maaaaybe lean towards not trusting them or spending so much time with them. But Ted…oh Ted. Ted does not do that. Ted actually falls a little bit in love with Lily. Things do not end well for Ted.

The story slowly becomes more about Lily, who we learn – surprise, surprise – has a past. Her past – surprise, surprise – includes killing someone. Perhaps more than one someone. The story bounces back and forth between present day action and Lily’s past transgressions. We get to see the monster being made. As a sociopath, the way she views things and reacts to people is different, and it makes for an interesting read. It’s also refreshing that she’s not the clichéd Woman with a Torturous Past, meaning that the author didn’t rely on tropes that I’ve seen other authors use: she was abused physically or mentally, she suffers from depression/anxiety/PTSD/schizophrenia, she was raped, etc. Other authors can write this well and make devastatingly good books, but here we have a woman who is just plain sociopathic. She acts on animal instincts alone, and her narrative voice is chilling.

There are a couple of well-timed twists in the book, but I think the best one is the book’s ending. I’m talking the very last couple of lines. As I neared the end of the book, I began to get skeptical – how were we going to get a resolution here?! Is Lily really going to be released on a technicality? Will there be one last surge of evidence, and will they discover all of the killing she’s done? Am I getting a “happy” ending, or a chilling one?

No spoilers, but the last line puts a decidedly ambiguous spin on that decision. I honestly don’t know if Lily gets caught or not. While this might be lackluster or too indecisive for some readers, when I reached the end, I got a little thrill down my spine. I could read it and picture the conclusion either way, and somehow that worked for me.

Overall, it’s a decent crime novel, great for mystery or crime junkies. Lily is a cold hearted killer and one twisted lady. But if you’re not into reading that kind of thing, this book isn’t going to change your mind.

My Grade: C

& Review: Smoke by Dan Vyleta

Smoke by Dan Vyleta. Publisher: Doubleday May 2016

Smoke by Dan Vyleta. Publisher: Doubleday May 2016

The Book Itself: The colors are more saturated, but the rich watercolor image here is Claude Monet’s “Houses of Parliament,” or more closely resembles one in that series of paintings he did, of the Palace of Westminster at different times of day and in different weather. It is moody and ominous as well as rich and beautiful. I’m not sure if Vyleta or his team in charge of the cover wanted to make a political statement with the use of this painting, or just include it because it had to do with the European setting at the time of the story. Either way, it’s striking.

My Review: England. A century ago, give or take a few years.”
An England where people who are wicked in thought or deed are marked by the Smoke that pours forth from their bodies, a sign of their fallen state. The aristocracy do not smoke, proof of their virtue and right to rule, while the lower classes are drenched in sin and soot. An England utterly strange and utterly real.
An elite boarding school where the sons of the wealthy are groomed to take power as their birthright. Teachers with mysterious ties to warring political factions at the highest levels of government. Three young people who learn everything they ve been taught is a lie knowledge that could cost them their lives. A grand estate where secrets lurk in attic rooms and hidden laboratories. A love triangle. A desperate chase. Revolutionaries and secret police. Religious fanatics and coldhearted scientists. Murder. A London filled with danger and wonder. A tortured relationship between a mother and a daughter, and a mother and a son. Unexpected villains and unexpected heroes. Cool reason versus passion. Rich versus poor. Right versus wrong, though which is which isn t clear.

This book took me quite a long time to get through. Partly because I got addicted to a video game for the better part of the month when I started reading it, and partly because I found the pacing to be rather uneven…

We start at a Victorian-era boarding school for rich boys. A bully golden-child and some probably-corrupt clergy rule the roost, and Charlie and Thomas – our protagonists and perfect foils of one another – barely eke by. The intro chapters are intriguing and set up the world very well. All of the students travel to London and see what real Smoke is like when everyone around you is doing bad things. Charlie and Thomas, now with a taste of the real world, become restless…

Then come some interminable chapters at a country estate with a stiff, mysterious woman and her even stiffer daughter. Vyleta attempts some mystery here, as the lady of the house has some secrets of her own, but for the most part these chapters are a slog to get through. They almost lose all of the momentum the opening chapters built up…

And then they leave the estate. With a bang. No spoilers, but the tension and action ratchets up again, and I started flipping the pages faster. Finally, I thought I was worried there for a second.

And then things slowed down again. I guess you could say the book was consistent in that regard: I felt it rose and fell rather evenly with action and tension and interest, only to falter with some middling actions that didn’t make me want to pick up the book again at night.

The writing and atmosphere I will say, are beautiful. Descriptions are smooth and inviting, there aren’t any clumsy metaphors or drawn out sections of infodumping. The plot just kind of…slows at points and at other times, soars. And I wish it had soared the entire time, because I liked delving into how each character developed. Thomas, Charlie, and then Livia grow tremendously as people. By the story’s close, they don’t even resemble the same naïve teenagers the story started off with.

At times I felt confused at Smoke’s nature: does it display differently for different people? Sometimes actions or words characters would say baffled me: why isn’t the room filling with Smoke? Or why is the Smoke coming out more, or trickling out less than I think it should? As a metaphysical devise, and as a plot devise, I think it was rather…hazy (pardon the pun) on purpose.

The ending does end on a satisfying note, and possibly opens up things for a sequel, although I’m not sure the book needs one. The last 50 pages or so are gripping and raw, and gritty in their description of pain and conflict.

If you have a soft spot for Victorian history or long, beautifully written but meandering tales, this one is for you. It’s a solid middle-ground book for me. I would only recommend it to specific readers.

My Grade: C+

& Review: We Could Be Beautiful by Swan Huntley

We Could Be Beautiful by Swan Huntley. Publisher: Doubleday, June 2016

We Could Be Beautiful by Swan Huntley. Publisher: Doubleday, June 2016

The Book Itself: The shiniest cover I’ve ever seen, I could have probably blinded people had I read this in a sunny area somewhere. I like the woman blurred to the point that we can’t recognize her, the title and intricate scrollwork obscuring her face. I think it’s saying something about superficiality, and not wanting to see what’s right in front of you, but that could just be the English major in me, looking for meaning where there isn’t necessarily any.

My Review: Catherine West has spent her entire life surrounded by beautiful things. She owns an immaculate Manhattan apartment, she collects fine art, she buys exquisite handbags and clothing, and she constantly redecorates her home. And yet, despite all this, she still feels empty. She sees her personal trainer, she gets weekly massages, and occasionally she visits her mother and sister on the Upper East Side, but after two broken engagements and boyfriends who wanted only her money, she is haunted by the fear that she’ll never have a family of her own. One night, at an art opening, Catherine meets William Stockton, a handsome man who shares her impeccable taste and love of beauty. He is educated, elegant, and even has a personal connection—his parents and Catherine’s parents were friends years ago. But as he and Catherine grow closer, she begins to encounter strange signs, and her mother, Elizabeth (now suffering from Alzheimer’s), seems to have only bad memories of William as a boy. In Elizabeth’s old diary she finds an unnerving letter from a former nanny that cryptically reads: “We cannot trust anyone…” Is William lying about his past? And if so, is Catherine willing to sacrifice their beautiful life in order to find the truth? Featuring a fascinating heroine who longs for answers but is blinded by her own privilege, We Could Be Beautiful is a glittering, seductive, utterly surprising story of love, money, greed, and family.

I either like books about privileged, upper class people, or I hate them. I don’t love the woe is me I’m so rich but so unhappy message that so many stories seem to bring to light. I do like when the privileged protagonist (say that ten times fast!) learns something from his/her actions, or changes the game somehow. It can be a kind of escapist fantasy, reading about a character who can go out and buy $600 handbags and thousands of dollars of furniture without batting an eye. For a moment, you can imagine doing that too…and then the crippling reality sets in, about the mortgage/rent, your car payment, that credit card payment you’ve been putting off, etc. etc. etc.

ANYWAY. We Could Be Beautiful is a story about a rich woman. Of the trust fund variety. Catherine West (even her name sounds rich) doesn’t worry that her bespoke stationary boutique never turns a profit. She never frets about rent, clothing herself, or pursuing her hobbies. Every month she gets a hundred thousand dollars or so, and that is that.

Enter William Stockton (again: rich-person name). Because Catherine is just not as happy as she feels she should be, and she’s had troubled relationships in the past and here comes this guy who seems just too good to be true. And surprise, surprise: he is. And we spend the rest of the story puzzling out just why he is.

William as a character comes across as very stilted. In a way, this makes sense: Catherine is so blinded by the fact that she is desperate for someone to love her that she can’t see just how hypocritical and downright rude her partner is being. But William is kind of an ass. The whole time. It is hard to see what is appealing about him, what truly draws Catherine to him. He belittles her when she uses foul language, her best friend immediately dislikes him, they have consistently disappointing sex, and he never speaks a word of his past. On their own, these little things are just character quirks. Aspects of a personality that would make a well-rounded character more interesting. But piled up like this, it feels like the author is just trying to bang us over the head with how bad William is. It would have been far more compelling for me if William were more appealing, and this his secrets were slowly and viciously revealed. As it sits, you just see it coming from a mile away.

Overall, the story and character development felt like they were plodding along to me. I’m not sure if it’s the writing style, or the story’s actual events, but although finding out William’s secret is the main hinge of events, I did not feel overwhelmingly compelled to find out what it was. This was partly because I could already see he was Bad News and that this book would come to that conclusion eventually, and Catherine would move on. But it was also because there seemed to be a lack of urgency. Catherine was in no hurry to confront several facts about her life: that there is something wrong with her boyfriend, that there is something wrong with her family, and that money cannot buy everything (especially when that money starts to run out…)

It’s an escapist read, but Catherine doesn’t really learn anything from the story’s events. I don’t feel like she has grown emotionally at the story’s close, and that leaves a lackluster taste in my mouth. It’s a light read, with an intriguing central mystery, but it’s not my favorite beach or summer read.

My Grade: C-

& Review: Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll

Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll. Publisher: Simon & Schuster April 2016

Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll. Publisher: Simon & Schuster April 2016

The Book Itself: Powerful and dramatic. Not only is the black rose backlit by a spotlight eerie on its own, but the font that the title is in already makes the title seem tongue in cheek – it’s blocky, in-your-face. This story isn’t literally about the luckiest girl in the world. It’s much darker than that.

My Review: Ani FaNelli is the woman you love to hate. The woman who has it all. But behind the meticulously crafted façade lies the darkest and most violent of pasts…

When a documentary producer invites Ani to tell her side of the chilling and violent incident that took place when she was a teenager, she hopes it will be an opportunity to prove how far she’s come since then. She’ll even let the production company film her wedding to the wealthy Luke Harrison, the final step in her transformation.

But as the wedding and filming converge, Ani’s immaculate façade begins to crack, and she soon realises that there’s always a price to pay for perfection.

I thought this book was going to be one, or a combination of two things: another privileged, rich girl story that would make me roll my eyes a lot, AND/OR a crime drama akin to an episode of Criminal Minds/NCIS/Law and Order, etc. where you get a mystery, a crime, and a certain amount of time to figure it out before it’s revealed to you.

And yes, this is a privileged rich girl story. TifAni is one of the most vapid, judgmental, morally horrible female characters I think I have ever read. But she is so unbelievably over-the-top in her thoughts and actions, unable to let a moment slip by where she doesn’t pass judgment on something or build herself up while tearing something else down, that it read like a parody. Knoll makes her insufferable from page one. She makes you hate everything about this TifAni FaNelli, from her bizarre name to her bitchy comments to coworkers and waitresses. And then she spends the rest of the novel unpacking what makes TifAni tick, and why she is so unbelievably awful. Okay, I thought, upon being introduced to our protagonist. Something’s up with this narrator. Let’s find out what it is. And I couldn’t stop reading after that.

A lot of people seem to hate Luckiest Girl Alive’s comparison to Gone Girl. I personally hate comparisons saying “this is the next Harry Potter!” or “this year’s To Kill a Mockingbird!” because books can and do stand apart from one another. They can be LIKE or SIMILAR TO Gone Girl or share traits with a trilogy or genre, but Gone Girl and Luckiest Girl Alive are completely different books. All they really share is a female narrator with a troubled past and psyche. The plot, the methods of telling the story, and the character motivations are completely different. And both, I think, are good in their own right.

Now that I’m off my soapbox: Luckiest Girl Alive gives you the world’s worst person, and then sifts through her past to find what made her this way. You still don’t necessarily like her by novel’s end, or feel that her past justifies her present day actions, but I think it’s an interesting character study.

There are two horrific events that form the foundation of TifAni’s terrible past. I think both are written well. Both are very sudden, very shocking, and very telling of the characters involved. If you read through other reviews, you’ll spoil both events for yourself. I’ll do my best not to reveal anything. While I think either event would do serious emotional damage to any person, let alone a young man or woman growing up, going through puberty, navigating high school, BOTH are just the perfect storm to royally screw someone up.

TifAni doesn’t have an overwhelming a-ha moment. There is no moment where she comes to terms with her traumatic past and sees the error of her ways. But by the novel’s end, I don’t expect her to. The TifAni FaNelli (every time I type that name is just looks more and more absurd) we come to know would not break down and apologize for everything she has ever done. She couldn’t possibly process everything that has happened and become Mother Teresa.  I wouldn’t say that I like TifAni FaNelli by the end. But I can begin to understand her a little better.

I will say that I thought there would be another side to the story. By that I mean that I thought there might be one more shocking twist at the end, revealing that TifAni was more at fault during the traumatic events than we realized. I kind of wished she was a more unreliable narrator, that there was another facet to her (yes, terrible) personality.

But I didn’t hate the book. I wouldn’t say it’s the next Gone Girl.  But it’s a compelling story that pulled me in. Maybe, just maybe, it had me rooting for the worst girl in the world by the end.

My Grade: C+

&Review: All Stories are Love Stories by Elizabeth Percer

All Stories are Love Stories by Elizabeth Percer. Publisher: Harper March 2016

All Stories are Love Stories by Elizabeth Percer. Publisher: Harper March 2016

The Book Itself: Again, another simple cover. The heartbeat monitor in the background is nice, but not enough to really set this cover apart.

My Review: In this thoughtful, mesmerizing tale with echoes of Station Eleven, the author of An Uncommon Education follows a group of survivors thrown together in the aftermath of two major earthquakes that strike San Francisco within an hour of each other—an achingly beautiful and lyrical novel about the power of nature, the resilience of the human spirit, and the enduring strength of love.

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

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

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

I picked up this book on a whim: I really liked the title. As I read it, it dawned on me that I was reading about a fictional (though very possible) devastating earthquake that cripples San Francisco….about a week after my best friend and I purchased show tickets and started planning a long weekend in San Francisco for this fall…

Maybe not my best idea. I’m not freaking out and cancelling reservations or anything, but the book does offer a sobering snapshot of a disaster zone, and the very human moments that occur amidst the chaos.

I cannot offer any insight into the scientific or political accuracy of the events that happen in All Stories Are Love Stories. But everything unfolds much the way you’d expect in a disaster film or scary speculative fiction: you get to know the characters, brief snippets of their backstories, their relationships with their families and loved ones, their actions as they move through their last day before the earthquakes. And then disaster strikes and even though you knew it was going to happen – the earthquakes are clearly outlined in the novel’s synopsis – the scenes that unfold afterward are still heartbreaking and even horrifying at times.

And yet…I’m still a bit ambivalent about the whole thing. I tend to be this way about books and movies created solely, it seems, to elicit an emotional response: all they want to do is make you sad. I sound like a heartless robot now, but there is just something…almost manipulative about a tear-jerker. Sometimes they sacrifice true character or plot development for another emotional twist. I particularly dislike Nicolas Sparks’ books and movies for this very reason. Although All Stories are Love Stories is no Nicolas Sparks: it is better written and has a speculative, human interest bent to it.

Max and Vashti had a beautiful, tragic love together in their past. The reason they broke up, and what each of them did while they were apart is a heartbreaking study of love in and of itself. When they are trapped beneath rubble post-earthquake, they are forced to unpack their feelings about what happen. You do root for them, and their situation is so wrought with conflict that you’re not sure how you would have handled it either.

Gene is a geologist stumbling home to get to his ailing partner post-quakes. He more or less knew these quakes were coming, and soon, and the guilt he feels about that and his fear for those around him make him an interesting character to follow. It is smart for Percer to include him as a character because 1) he brings insight to the earthquakes and the aftermath they wreck on a city like San Francisco. I might not be able to understand some of the science, but a character who can put it into layman’s terms is a good voice to have in the novel, and 2) even I would have become very bored if all of the novel’s action was trapped beneath the rubble with Max and Vashti.

There is also a rather confusing side story involving kids from a children’s choir that Max directs, and a nun and priest from an unusual religious order. The book alternates between these three perspectives, and I definitely think the kids/nun/priest perspective is the weakest. Overall the scenes involving them are confusing – I often lost track of who was speaking – and I thought the other two perspectives were much more compelling.

The pace also kind of lagged for me as well. I don’t think it was a bad book, or a bad story at all. In fact, most of the writing was quite beautiful, and the stories of the characters involved were certainly sad and complex. I’m just not sure this was quite my cup of tea. I would recommend it for those of you who like a good, emotionally-wrought story, though. A final twist at the end really sucker punches you in the heart. Even a stone-cold, robotic heart like mine, apparently 😉

My Grade: C+

&Review: The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

The Nest by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney. Publisher: Ecco March 2016

The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney. Publisher: Ecco March 2016

The Book Itself: A very posh cover – quilted details, monogrammed “P’s” for the Plumb family, the title in what should be a coat of arms. Definitely brings to mind a pedigreed family. Fitting for the story.

My Review: Every family has its problems. But even among the most troubled, the Plumb family stands out as spectacularly dysfunctional. Years of simmering tensions finally reach a breaking point on an unseasonably cold afternoon in New York City as Melody, Beatrice, and Jack Plumb gather to confront their charismatic and reckless older brother, Leo, freshly released from rehab. Months earlier, an inebriated Leo got behind the wheel of a car with a nineteen-year-old waitress as his passenger. The ensuing accident has endangered the Plumbs joint trust fund, “The Nest,” which they are months away from finally receiving. Meant by their deceased father to be a modest mid-life supplement, the Plumb siblings have watched The Nest’s value soar along with the stock market and have been counting on the money to solve a number of self-inflicted problems.

Melody, a wife and mother in an upscale suburb, has an unwieldy mortgage and looming college tuition for her twin teenage daughters. Jack, an antiques dealer, has secretly borrowed against the beach cottage he shares with his husband, Walker, to keep his store open. And Bea, a once-promising short-story writer, just can’t seem to finish her overdue novel. Can Leo rescue his siblings and, by extension, the people they love? Or will everyone need to reimagine the future they’ve envisioned? Brought together as never before, Leo, Melody, Jack, and Beatrice must grapple with old resentments, present-day truths, and the significant emotional and financial toll of the accident, as well as finally acknowledge the choices they have made in their own lives.

This is a story about the power of family, the possibilities of friendship, the ways we depend upon one another and the ways we let one another down. In this tender, entertaining, and deftly written debut, Sweeney brings a remarkable cast of characters to life to illuminate what money does to relationships, what happens to our ambitions over the course of time, and the fraught yet unbreakable ties we share with those we love.

I almost didn’t read The Nest. I was worried that it would be another piece about entitled kids from rich parents at the moments that they realized their lives aren’t set in stone for all eternity. I fell a little bit in cover love with the book, and it was everywhere you looked: on TV, in magazines, on giant posters at the bookstore…

So I gave it a whirl. And while it wasn’t as vacuous and superficial as I feared it would be, it did not stray too far from that often-used trope.

We meet the Plumbs – Leo, Jack, Beatrice, and Melody – I had to look up all of their names again, because there are some plot stumbling blocks that makes the story not about them, but also about the effect they have on other people. This sounds like a good thing, but it also lessens the insight we get into each of the Plumb siblings, who all need more development at the story’s close.

In addition to the Plumbs, we get a grieving widower with a 9/11 connection, one or both of Melody’s twin daughters, occasionally one of the sibling’s romantic partners, and most significantly, Stephanie, Leo’s former flame/perhaps only friend. These perspectives narrate chapters in between the Plumb’s narrations, and it gets distracting. In fact, I could almost say that the story is more about Stephanie than about the Plumb siblings. The book ends on such a strong, life-altering note having to do with Stephanie, that I’m kind of reeling, thinking what did I just read? Is this about the Plumbs, or about the people who know the Plumbs?

The Nest is almost a side-plot. I don’t think we know with absolute certainty what really happens with the money still in the fund. What we really watch is the Plumbs digging themselves more and more into their perspective holes – financially, emotionally, relationship-wise, work-wise, and family-dynamic-wise. And it can be kind of fun/terrible to watch. You know, in the way a crash on the highway causes traffic because everyone is rubber-necking: it’s obnoxious when you’re in the traffic because you’re trying to get where you’re going. But you inevitably rubber-neck too.

The Plumbs are almost universally selfish, naïve, and nearly blind to their own faults while pointing out the faults of others (especially their siblings). The writing is very well done, with chapters zipping by, plot twists carefully laid out, and emotional punches around surprising corners. A dinner party at which the reality of The Nest is revealed to all characters not still in the know is particularly well structured and paced.

But I could eliminate almost all the other chapters from other characters and probably like the novel more, if the extra time were spent on developing and growing the main quartet of Plumbs. By novel’s end, none of them seem to have learned a whole heckuva lot. Leo is perhaps the most deplorable, but I’m not about to spoil anything.

It’s a fast-paced can’t-look-away kind of novel, but we don’t get particularly rounded characters, or even a bottom line on the book’s namesake by story’s end. It’s good, quick summer reading though.

My Grade: C+

&Review: Two if by Sea by Jacquelyn Mitchard

Two if By Sea by Jacqueline Mitchard. Publisher: Simon & Schuster March 2016.

Two if By Sea by Jacqueline Mitchard. Publisher: Simon & Schuster March 2016.

The Book Itself: It’s a nice cover. It’s not terrible. It’s not fantastic. It’s really just an image of water and plain writing. Overall, a little meh.

My Review: Just hours after his wife and her entire family perish in the Christmas Eve  tsunami in Brisbane, American expat and former police officer Frank Mercy goes out to join his volunteer rescue unit and pulls a little boy from a submerged car, saving the child’s life with only seconds to spare. In that moment, Frank’s own life is transformed.

Not quite knowing why, Frank sidesteps the law, when, instead of turning Ian over to the Red Cross, he takes the boy home to the Midwestern farm where he grew up. Not long into their journey, Frank begins to believe that Ian has an extraordinary, impossible telepathic gift; but his only wish is to protect the deeply frightened child. As Frank struggles to start over, training horses as his father and grandfather did before him, he meets Claudia, a champion equestrian and someone with whom he can share his life—and his fears for Ian.

Both of them know that it will be impossible to keep Ian’s gift a secret forever. Already, ominous coincidences have put Frank’s police instincts on high alert, as strangers trespass the quiet life at the family farm.

The fight to keep Ian safe from a sinister group who want him back takes readers from the ravaged shores of Brisbane to the middle of America to a quaint English village.

Even as Frank and Claudia dare to hope for new love, it becomes clear that they can never let Ian go, no matter what the cost. A suspenseful novel on a grand scale, Two If by Sea is about the best and worst in people, and the possibility of heroism and even magic in ordinary life.

I fell prey to the magazine-trap with this book. I saw it in a bunch of magazines that listed it as a “Must Read” or “One of the Hottest Books of the Summer” or “Read This or Your Book Club Isn’t Legitimate” (that last one wasn’t a real article title, in case you couldn’t tell).

Two if by Sea is about a grief-stricken man who semi-kidnaps a child endangered in the same tsunami aftermath that killed his wife and her entire family. Because that won’t give you issues. He eventually takes the boy all the way to his childhood farm to live with him and his parents, falsified passport and everything. The thing that piqued my interest about this book is that Ian, the mysterious boy, has some kind of secret/magical ability that Frank and his family feel they must keep secret.

It’s a great premise. But I don’t think it’s told in a very effective or compelling way, and the ending falls rather flat.

First of all, Frank, our kidnapper (he’s not creepy or anything, but come on, that’s what he did), is way too interior throughout the entire book. He’s the third person narrator of our story, and he just thinks way too much. Some of this is to be expected: he suffered an overwhelming trauma and eventually you just have to think your way around how act and function again. But that’s not what he thinks so hard about. Yes, he’s traumatized and full of grief. But beyond that, the narration of the book is spent on unpacking feelings and the mechanics of certain emotions, and not on actions or plot points in the story. At one point, Frank actually says “What is love, really?” and I 1) immediately got “What is Love” by Haddaway stuck in my head, and 2) literally rolled my eyes as he went on for four whole pages on what love can be compared to, and how the love he had for his wife differs from the love he has for Ian or his new lady love, Claudia. It gets old, fast.

Another reason I was intrigued by this book is that it sounded like horses were going to play a big part in the setting, and maybe in the healing process for both Frank and Ian (I went through a big horse phase growing up). Frank takes Ian to his childhood farm, he becomes romantically involved with a woman who show jumps horses, and horses and horse training seem like they are a big part of his life. But so little time is devoted to horses, I’m kind of left wondering about what their actual function in the novel was. Other than a single scene where Frank (briefly) trains Claudia and her horse, the time spent on horses and horse competitions is very cursory. There is a semi-wild filly that helps illustrate Ian’s ability, and the families in the novel do chores around the barn and talk about what horse should do what event, etc. but either I did not understand the role horses truly played in the novel, or it was not made clear enough (maybe both?)

Ian’s ability is…a little confusing. It is never fully explained – there is no doctor specializing in paranormal or superhuman abilities there to explain away his power (and I am glad there is not). We only have the people around Ian’s opinion and observations about what he can do. The extent of what he can do, as well as its limitations are foggy at best. I wasn’t looking for a concrete, easy to explain superhero power – he can become invisible, or he can heal people – but at the end of the story, I still don’t know if I’m sure what Ian can actually do.

You’ve got a boy with a superpower, and a family protecting him, so of course you’ve got a bad guy. Problem is, you never understand who these bad guys truly are, or what their motivation is, even after the book ends. Sure, Frank and his family flee, the action ramps up in the book’s last 40 pages or so, and there is some tense, violent conflict. But I still don’t know who these people are who have been chasing Ian. What are their backstories? What exactly do they intend to do with him? It feels like a lot of build up for not enough return.

Overall, too many components of the plot and characters were not filled out for me, despite Frank’s insistence on thinking through everything for page upon page. I didn’t truly love any of the characters, because I felt like I didn’t really know them. And the conflict that should have brought the whole thing together, as well as Ian’s mysterious ability, did not help my rating. Sorry that I got “What is Love” stuck in your head…

My Grade: C-