Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Wicked Girls

The Wicked Girls by Alex Marwood (2012)

When they were eleven years old, Bel and Jade met by chance and became friends for just one day. By the end of the day they had killed a little girl and after their trial never saw each other again. Twenty-five years later both women, now under assumed identities, are peripherally involved in a series of murders in the seaside town of Whitmouth, England. Amber Gordon is a cleaner at an amusement park called Funnland where she discovers one of the bodies. Kirsty Lindsay is a reporter who comes to town to investigate the murders. Now that they've crossed paths again in a situation with so much attention turned towards them, the new lives they've built are suddenly threatened to come crashing down.

I honestly can't remember where or how I first heard of this book, but when someone in my book group suggested it, I knew I had heard that it was good so I jumped at the chance to read it. I wasn't disappointed.

There's something especially horrifying about children committing murder and I was rather fascinated by this premise. It's not that I can't conceive of children being cruel or violent; I can. It's more the idea that they now have to go through the rest of their lives with such a thing weighing on them. As proven by Amber and Kirsty, it's not easy. They've both grown into adults who are just like everyone else: they each want a good job, a relationship, a nice vacation now and then. But neither can go a day without thinking of the little girl who is dead because of them, or wipe away the visceral images of that day that still continue to haunt them.

Their lives are both fleshed out quite well, though they are very different. Amber lives with her common-law husband, Vic, who seems like a jerk from the very beginning, and two tiny dogs named Mary-Kate and Ashley (a particularly pleasing touch.) She is friendly with some of her co-workers, including a woman named Jackie who is being stalked by a guy she dated briefly. Amber doesn't have a bad life, all things considered, but she works cleaning an amusement park and she's not paid well for it and her husband leaves a lot to be desired. Kirsty, on the other hand, has an incredibly supportive (though unemployed) husband, two children, and a satisfying job. She is the sort of person who drinks lattes and eats bruschetta. Compared to Amber, she is quite posh. (By the way, this book is British so I feel compelled to use their language.)

Another person we get a close look at is the creepy man who is stalking Jackie, Martin Bagshawe. He is clearly lacking in social skills and doesn't understand how to relate to people, especially women; he will get obsessed with a woman in a way that involves both lust and anger and it is very unpleasant to witness. Still, I have to give props to Marwood for this well-drawn, though uncomfortable character.

If I had to find a criticism, it would be that there are a lot of murderers in this book. That is pretty much all I can think of, and even that doesn't actually bother me. I thought this was a great story with characters that felt genuine, and it was told with a level of detail that made it all very easy to picture without getting too bogged down in descriptions. I highly recommend it if you like character-driven fiction that's a bit on the dark side.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Emmy & Oliver

Emmy & Oliver by Robin Benway (2015)

At seven years old, Emmy, Oliver, Caro and Drew are all good friends. But one day after school, Oliver's dad picks him up for the weekend and never brings him back. For ten years, everyone misses Oliver, the police look for him and his dad, his mother is a complete mess, and his friends feel an empty, gaping hole in their lives. And then Oliver comes home. Now seventeen, he's back at the house next door to Emmy, trying to fit in with his family which now includes a step-father and two younger sisters. He's also trying to fit in back at school and with his old friends. To all of them, Oliver has returned home; to Oliver, he has just been kidnapped all over again.

Since Oliver has been gone, it's not just his mother who was worried. Emmy's mom is so protective that she doesn't want Emmy to go to college, but instead plans for her to stay at home and attend community college. Emmy learned to surf three years ago and loves it, but knows her parents would never let her be on the surf team so she sneaks around and steals precious hours at the beach, hiding her activities. Emmy actually has a pretty good relationship with her parents, but they clearly want her to live in a protective bubble and she just doesn't know how she'll get out from under their thumbs.

When Oliver returned, all the adults admonished the kids to give him space, with the result that Oliver felt ostracized and alone. Finally, Emmy and Drew and Caro started hanging out with him regularly again. Of course they've all changed since ten years ago, but they are getting along very well. Especially Emmy and Oliver, who quickly become more than friends.

But this isn't just another teen romance. Despite the title and cover, it felt much more like it was about friendship. Emmy and Oliver do start dating, but they were friends first and even their romance is based on friendship. Plus, Drew and Caro are huge parts of the story. So if you're turned off by the idea of a teen romance, I would urge you to give it a chance.

The storyline about Oliver's abduction is done so very well, in all its subtle complexities. To Oliver, he wasn't a victim of kidnapping, he just moved away with his dad. He knows now that what his dad did was wrong, but for as long as he can remember, that was just his life. Now he has been uprooted and needs to adjust to a whole new life. I felt so bad for this poor kid! He feels so torn and confused. Thank goodness he goes to therapy.

There is much to love about this novel, but I found Caro to be especially endearing. She is the youngest of six kids (I am the youngest of five myself) and she is super funny. She shares a bedroom with her older sister Heather and they are opposites in the cleanliness department. Heather is like a tornado and Caro is a complete freak for organization and neatness. I marked several passages just because of her clever quips. Like, when she was commenting on a news anchor whose appearance hasn't changed in decades: "She probably makes so much money that she could hire a team of tiny elves to hide in her hairline and hold her face up." Robin Benway is just full of this kind of clever dialogue.

I read Audrey, Wait! several years ago and despite some minor criticisms I really liked it and still recommend it regularly. Although it's tough to pinpoint exactly what makes it so special, Emmy & Oliver is even better - I'm so glad I read another Robin Benway novel.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Isla and the Happily Ever After

Isla and the Happily Ever After by Stephanie Perkins (2014), narrated by Grace Blewer

Isla attends the School of America in Paris, where she has had a crush on Josh Wasserstein for years. This year he finally notices her and they start dating, but it's not an easy happy ending for this troubled couple. This is the third in a series that began with Anna and the French Kiss and continued with Lola and the Boy Next Door. Each book has cameos of characters from the others, but each is focused on a different couple.

I liked this book well enough, but didn't love it like the first two. The story arc was a bit flat and lacked the dramatic tension of the other novels in the series. The conflict was pretty much based on Isla being kind of neurotic, making assumptions about how Josh felt without any evidence or bothering to ask him. This is a typical romance novel trope and it is lame.

There were also some grand romantic gestures that happened near the end which didn't have the intended effect on me. In one case, I was really turned off by something that should have been significant and touching because it happened in a life context that seemed just not right. I'm sorry to be vague, but I'm trying hard to explain my issues with the book without revealing spoilers.

Have said all that, I still liked listening to it and even though I just didn't find the story as interesting, I still enjoyed getting to know these new characters and visiting again with those from the previous books. I really liked Josh as a love interest. Josh was working on a graphic memoir about his high school years and planning to attend cartoon school in Vermont. (This is a real legit thing: my friend Mitra Farmand went there and she just got published in the New Yorker, so.) Josh's dad was a senator running for re-election, and now that Josh was old enough to vote he was expected to fly back to the U.S. for the election and be on tv with his family. In the meantime, he kept breaking rules at school and getting into all sorts of trouble which threatened both his education and his relationship with Isla.

I liked Isla also. She didn't have as clear a path as Josh did, and they had many conversations about what she could potentially study in college. Her aimlessness felt realistic. How many teenagers have some obvious, special talent or know what they want to do with their lives? She had an older sister, Jen, who previously graduated from the same school, and now her younger sister Hattie has just started there. Hattie is not the nicest person in the world and their relationship is a struggle. Isla's best friend is a boy named Kurt, and although I really enjoyed their friendship, I thought Isla was a bit of a dolt about it. She was totally shocked to find out that people thought they were a couple, and can't imagine why a boy she was dating would feel jealous about her relationship with Kurt. I mean, they spend the night in each others' rooms, for crying out loud!

The narration garnered some really bad reviews on Audible, which kind of shocked me. Grace Blewer has a very different voice from the first two narrators, and she has a much stronger voice than the character is described as having, but that's not her fault. She definitely sounded more like she was reading the book than just telling the story, but that's fairly typical and I liked her narration well enough. (Fun fact: Grace Blewer is the daughter of one of my favorite authors, Chris Bohjalian. She actually narrates his most recent book Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands.)

It wasn't a terrible ending to the series (this IS just a trilogy, right?) but I still think it was the weakest of the three stories. It was good, just not as great as the other two.

Now I'll spend a week or so getting caught up on podcasts before I start another audiobook, but I have no idea what it will be. It needs to be less than 10 hours long preferably, and fairly uncomplicated, but different from these 3 teen romances I just listened to all in a row. A coworker suggested Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews, which I might try, but I'm still looking for more ideas. Any suggestions? Let me know in the comments!

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

We Were Liars

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart (2014)

I first experienced this book on audio last year soon after it came out, and was kind of blown away. E. Lockhart wrote one of my all-time favorite young adult novels, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, so I was eager for her new offering and boy, it was a totally different kind of story. My Not-So-Young Adult Book Group at work chose We Were Liars for this month so I just read it again, in print this time. For a summary and my thoughts after listening to the audiobook, go here.

This is a book filled with secrets that you learn only at the end, so re-reading it is truly a different experience. Fortunately, there's enough to love that the experience isn't diminished just because I actually know what is going on this time.

One difficulty I had when listening to the audio is that I would sometimes be confused about which parts of the story took place in the present and which were in the fateful "summer fifteen." (Not because the book made it unclear, but because I am not a fantastic listener.) In print, I always knew which time period I was reading about, and I think this improved my experience.

Because I knew all the secrets this time, throughout the book I looked for clues and was delighted every time I read something and thought "How did I not notice this before?" But they were subtle. You are a clever one, E. Lockhart.

This time I was struck, even more, by the dysfunction in this family. They are wealthy and privileged and clearly want to preserve their family in very specific ways. Gat is an outsider not only because he's not related but because he's Indian. He is welcome in theory, but never really belongs. The family also obviously doesn't handle trauma well. After Cadence's Granny Tipper died, the family just erased her from conversation rather than acknowledge the loss. No wonder it's so difficult for Cady to figure out what happened to her two summers ago.

Most people in my book group had read this for the first time. I got some early feedback from one person who thought the book was a bit too dark, but everyone seemed to really like it nonethless. This is a really great book for discussion. There is so much to talk about!

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Top Ten Auto-Buy Authors

Top Ten Tuesdays are hosted over at The Broke and the Bookish. Today's topic is Top Ten of Your Auto-Buy Authors. I rarely buy books, so just assume that here "auto-buy" actually means "automatically get on hold for a library copy."

It's tough because some of these authors haven't published much, or are new, or may not be publishing anymore (John Green? Hello?) So I'm thinking about it more as a list of authors that I will automatically read whatever they publish next. I don't think I have more than 10 of these total.

1. Sam Savage: I actually do buy his books because they are so short and so good I am likely to read them again.
2. Elizabeth McCracken: Everything she writes is just so perfect. If I could be an author, I'd want to be Elizabeth McCracken.
3. Chris Bohjalian: I've been reading him faithfully since Midwives.
4. Sarah Waters: She doesn't publish frequently and there's still one I haven't read, but despite my semi-disappointment in The Paying Guests I will definitely read whatever is next.
5. Donna Tartt: Only publishes about every ten years, but I'll be there waiting.
6. Jennifer Weiner: We hit a rough patch there with The Next Best Thing so I didn't rush out and read All Fall Down, but when I did finally pick it up it was great! So now I'm really looking forward to her new book.
7. Geraldine Brooks: Like Sarah Waters, there's still one I haven't read, but I'm about to start a galley of one that's not published yet, so I think that makes up for it.
8. A. S. King: One of the most sophisticated YA authors out there. Look out for her forthcoming novel I Crawl Through It this fall. It's kind of amazing (post to come soon!)
9. Rainbow Rowell: How I wish her books existed when I was in high school.
10. John Green: I've read them all and he seems to be focusing more on his vlog (with his adorable brother Hank) and movies. I'm just listing him here in hopes that he will actually publish more books someday.

Which authors do you automatically read every time they have a new book?

Sunday, August 16, 2015


Walden by Henry David Thoreau (1854)

I've gone to Walden Pond a number of times over the years and every time I've gone, I've been reminded about Thoreau's book that I still hadn't read. Thanks to the TBR Pile Challenge, I finally made it a priority to read Thoreau's musings on nature and his time living in a little cabin that he built himself out in the woods.

Somehow I expected it to be a detailed account of his life while he was living near Walden Pond, and I thought that he wrote it while he was there. But it's more like he's looking back on the experience, and though it contains some details about how he lived it's mostly filled with essays in which he meditates on various aspects of life and nature.

I have a lot of conflicting feelings about this book. It contains some of the most beautiful nature writing I've seen, but it's also really slow going and kind of boring in parts. I also found him difficult to like based on many of the views he expressed.

Thoreau clearly has a sense of superiority over other people, and it is not deserved. One could argue that there are certain ways of living that may be objectivity better than others, but cutting oneself off from the world and criticizing those who don't is not one of them. It may be tempting to run away from the more social parts of life, but doing so doesn't make you better than other people. His essays display a love of nature, sure, but it's more of a dislike for being a part of society. He looks down on people who read the news, which he considers gossip. I don't really pay attention to news either, but it's not a bad thing to know what's going on in the world or your local community.

Although he speaks of sucking all the marrow out of life, he eschews travel or any sort of activity that is new or different in favor of just sitting on his front step for four hours at a time. I'm just going to come out and say it: This guy is lazy. He does not want to work. He ridicules people who have jobs. He even says, "He that does not eat need not work." I think part of his keeping his activity levels low is so that he won't have to eat that much, and therefore not have to work for it (either through a job or through hunting/farming, etc.) Well, you may as well lay down and die if you're just going to sit around all the time to conserve energy.

At the same time, we could all do well to spend a little time observing the natural world as he does. He may spend a little too much time describing the ice on the pond, but his account of ants fighting was both educational and amusing. He made his surroundings come alive in his descriptions: "All day the sun has shown on the surface of some savage swamp,  where the single spruce stands hung with usnea lichens, and small hawks circulate above, and the chickadee lists amid the evergreens, and the partridge and rabbit skulk beneath..." There were many such passages I re-read just to savor the poetic language.

At times it was a bit of a slog, but it was nicely balanced with vibrant, lively discussions and observations so I'm glad I finally got around to reading it even if it wasn't the easiest book to get through. If you are thinking of reading it, I recommend the way I read most of it: in summer, while sitting outside.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Bright Lines

Bright Lines by Tanwi Nandini Islam (2015)

Orphaned when she was four years old, Ella traveled from Bangladesh to Brooklyn to live with her aunt and uncle, Anwar and Hashi, and her cousin Charu. The family has many secrets, and one summer when Ella returns home from college, a fateful chain of events is set in motion which will send the family on a trip to Bangladesh and along the way reveal hidden truths about them all.

Anwar runs an apothecary and grows herbs and medicinal plants, including pot. He is also becoming obsessed with his neighbor, Ramona, and it threatens his marriage. Charu's good friend Maya moves into the house to escape her strict father who wants to prevent her from attending college, and Ella is immediately drawn to the young woman. Hashi, who owns a beauty salon and has a talent for seeing people for who they really are, gives Ella a makeover: a short, masculine haircut and a set of men's clothes.

Probably my favorite part of the story was Ella's transformation as she discovers her own sexuality, and how easily accepted she was by her family. I think many non-Muslim Americans tend to think of Muslims as being pretty conservative, and that seems reflected in books and other media, so it was a refreshing surprise to find that this family is not mired in religious dogma. Maya, similarly, was not a strict Muslim. She wore a hijab (but not always), and ate ham and had a tattoo.  This is, of course, no different from the way many people of various faiths pick and choose which parts of their religions they will adhere to, and it made the characters feel all the more genuine.

The whole story felt somewhat loosely held together, but I don't know if it's because the author was trying to take on too much, or just because of how I was reading it (at the same time as Walden, so not super consistently.) The title refers to hallucinations that Ella has throughout her life, and I'm not convinced this is integral to the plot or to Ella's growth as a person. Through much of the story Anwar is penning a letter to Ella about a specific period in his past that he wants her to know about. When I finally saw that letter it was lengthy and went into too much political detail, so I lost a lot of momentum in a part of the story that should have had me eager to get to the end.

Islam takes on a lot in her debut novel. Her story touches on marriage and adultery, gender and sexuality, religion and culture. I mostly enjoyed reading it, especially getting to know Ella and Anwar, who had a very special bond between them and I especially enjoyed the parts focused on them. Overall it was a satisfying story.

Bright Lines is available now. I received my copy courtesy of the Penguin Debut Author Program. I was not compensated for this review.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Top Ten Authors I've Read the Most Books From

Top Ten Tuesdays are hosted over at The Broke and the Bookish.

I wasn't certain how to interpret this one at first: the most books numerically, or the most in proportion to how many the author has written? I ended up going with the first because I realized that I could just ask Goodreads rather than doing extensive list-making and math. Here's the list according to my Goodreads account "Most Read Authors" list. The number to the right is how many books I've read by that author; I took the Goodreads number and added books I read before I had my Goodreads account.

1. Stephen King (26) (Estimate, I can't remember everything I read as a teenager.)
2. Anne Perry (13)
3. Chris Bohjalian (12)
4. Jennifer Weiner (11)
5. Nick Hornby (10)
6. Laura Ingalls Wilder (9)
7. Charles Dickens (6)
8. A.S. King (6)
9. Emily Giffin (6)
10. Stewart O'Nan (6)

Obviously, the list favors authors who have written a lot over a long period of time, hence the number one spot going to Stephen King. I was a little surprised about Anne Perry, but I guess I've been following the William Monk series longer than I realized. Otherwise it's not a very surprising list but is fun to see the actual numbers. Genre-wise, it's all over the place and in that way I think it accurately represents my reading taste. Classics, mysteries, horror, chick lit, regular fiction, young adult - it's all here!

Thursday, August 6, 2015

El Deafo

El Deafo by Cece Bell (2014)

After a scary bout with meningitis at the age of four, Cece lost her hearing. Now in middle school, she has some added challenges both in class and in making friends. Some kids talk really loudly and slowly, which actually makes them more difficult to understand. Some laugh when she mishears them. Some ask questions about her hearing aids. On the other hand, she feels like she has special powers. Her teacher must wear a transmitter for the hearing aid which means that Cece can hear her not only during class, but in the teacher's room and even in the bathroom. In her imagination, Cece isn't that awkward weird kid who stands out because of the cords coming out of her ears - she is El Deafo.

I think El Deafo is geared towards middle grades, but as with many great books for kids and teens, there's loads of appeal for adults too. We all remember our best friends growing up, and how there could be a new best friend every year, and the way that some friendships ended. Particularly poignant were the situations in which Cece found herself unable to express what she felt: in her imagination, her El Deafo self would come right out and tell someone what she thought, but the real-world Cece was afraid to speak her mind. This led to unhappy situations, like remaining friends with someone who wasn't very nice to her, and who she didn't want to be friends with anymore.

Cece experienced a lot of strange comments and behaviors because of her disability, which she didn't really consider a disability. (This was an interesting point, because I have a nephew who is deaf and I think the first time someone referred to his "disability" I was very surprised. I sort of thought, "He's not disabled. He just can't hear!") When some friends invited her to a slumber party, she had a little trouble following conversations and couldn't at all understand the tv, not to mention that one of the girls kept trying to teach her sign language. But when they all decided to talk with the lights out and Cece wasn't able to lip read or rely on visual clues, she decided it was time to go home. In her imagination as El Deafo, she responded to a barrage of questions from one of the girls. "What are those cords for? Why do you wear overalls so much? Are you DEATH?" El Deafo brazenly answers, "Yes, I'm death! And you are next on my list!"

Cece also had some good friends and fun times as well, so it's not a downer of a book at all. It's a more-or-less true account of events from the author's childhood, and I found that it felt very genuine. She really captured what I remember middle school being like. I can't believe I've gotten this far through the post without mentioning that it's a graphic novel, but one of its charms is that all the people are drawn as human-like rabbits. It's very cute.

El Deafo won a Newbury Honor Award and has received lots of praise. I found it cute and endearing and an entertaining way to spend an evening. If you think you might like a graphic novel about a middle school kid just trying to fit in, you should give it a try!

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Galley reading

I recently mentioned that without a To Read list I expected to finish reading books by some of my favorite authors, but have so far failed. What I've mostly been doing instead is reading more galleys of forthcoming books.

So, although I still haven't read one of A.S. King's older titles, I have read her newest book, I Crawl Through It, which will be published this fall. (I can't publish the review until September, but let me just say OMG.) I've also read Andrew Smith's Stand-Off, the sequel to Winger, even though I haven't yet read The Alex Crow or The Marbury Lens. I received both of these galleys by requesting them through Edelweiss and downloading them to read on my nook. It's a little too easy to make a lot of requests, but I think I've been pacing myself pretty well.

For a while now I've been participating in Penguin's First Flights, a program where you can sign up to receive a monthly galley of a forthcoming debut novel. But I haven't actually read a ton of them, so I'm making more of an effort to read those now too. Last month was Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal, and right now I'm reading Bright Lines by Tanwi Nandini Islam.

Finally, I entered and won a Goodreads giveaway for a copy of this fall's release from historical novelist Geraldine Brooks. She is another author whose backlist I still haven't finished, but soon I'll be reading her yet-to-be-published novel The Secret Chord.

Reading books that haven't even been published yet is lots of fun! It's riskier when they are authors I don't already know and there aren't yet many reviews to help me decide if I'd like the books, but I kind of like taking the chance. Plus, I can always stop reading something that I don't like, of course. I greatly prefer paper over ebooks, but the e-galleys can be downloaded as soon as they are available without having to wait for the mail to arrive so it's super convenient.

Have you read any galleys of forthcoming books recently? Which ones would you recommend?