Tag: Campus Novel

February 2018 Books to Read (and Skip)

February 15, 2018 Mini Book Reviews 35

February 2018 Books to Read


This is technically supposed to be a “Read it, Skip it” post, but my February reading was so good that I didn’t actually finish any books I’d recommend you skip! However, I did include a couple February books I DNF’d to account for the skip it portion.

This post contains affiliate links (plus: here’s your Amazon Smile-specific affiliate link).

Read These

And, don’t forget my favorite novel of 2018 so far, An American Marriage, which I already reviewed!

All the Castles Burned by Michael NyeAll the Castles Burned by Michael Nye
Fiction – Debut (Released February 13, 2018)
384 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Publisher: Turner)

Plot Summary: Owen Webb, a scholarship student at the prestigious Rockcastle School (a private day school for boys) embarks on an obsessive, dangerous friendship with Carson Bly, the son of a wealthy and absent father.

My Thoughts: All the Castles Burned was such a pleasant surprise for me (because it had not come recommended by someone who had already read the book…i.e. it was a risk that paid off!). It’s a classic coming of age story with some dysfunctional family drama, some “outsider enters the realm of the wealthy” dynamics, a foreboding friendship, a father/son angle, a touch of romance, and basketball. You can feel the tension simmering and you know things will explode at some point. It’s just a matter of when and how. The writing is stellar, especially for a debut, and I highlighted often. While basketball does play a significant role in the story and there is occasional overkill on the details of the game, basketball’s role in the story is similar to baseball’s in The Art of Fielding. I’d recommend this one for fans of Shadow of the Lions (my review) and Unraveling Oliver.

It’s like a part of being a fully formed human didn’t exist in him. […] Or if it was like carving a Halloween pumpkin, cutting and scraping out the inside, only to take a knife and cut a smiling face into the surface and place a lone candle inside to shine that deceptive, grinning light.

Sunburn by Laura LippmanSunburn by Laura Lippman
Mystery / Thriller (Release Date: February 20, 2018)
384 Pages
Affiliate Link: Pre-Order from Amazon
Source: Publisher (William Morrow)

Plot Summary: When Polly and Adam meet at a bar in tiny Belleville, Delaware in the 1990’s each is merely passing through. As they become more enamored with each other, they discover both are keeping secrets.

My Thoughts: For new readers, I’ve had a dicey track record with thrillers lately, but Sunburn is a thriller that I actually liked a lot! But, I was more confident than usual because it was recommended by Annie Jones from From the Front Porch podcast (one of my Go-To Recommendation Sources) and Megan Abbott, one of my few trusted thriller authors. Sunburn is an unconventional love story where essentially everyone is messing with everyone else. There’s not a single character who is 100% likable or trustworthy (take note if dislikable characters tend to bother you!). The first half focuses on peeling back the layers of the characters (i.e. it’s not super fast-paced) and had me wondering who exactly was pulling the strings. Then, the action picks up in the second half. I’m still mulling over whether I buy the ending in the context of these characters, but all in all Sunburn kept me quickly turning the pages even while sick with the flu!

The goal is never the man. Never. Men are the stones she jumps to, one after another, toward the goal.

I'll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamaraI’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara
Nonfiction – True Crime (Release Date: February 27, 2018)
352 Pages
Affiliate Link: Pre-Order from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Harper)

Plot Summary: McNamara, previously a true crime writer and blogger at TrueCrimeDiary.com, investigated the unsolved crimes of a 1970’s-80’s serial rapist (approximately 45 rapes per the FBI’s Wanted poster) and murderer (approximately 12 murders per the FBI’s Wanted poster) that she dubbed the Golden State Killer (also known as the EAR for East Area Rapist).

My Thoughts: The best true crime books put themselves on another tier by telling the story in a compelling, engrossing way and avoiding getting bogged down in overly dry details. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark does just that. It’s up there with The Stranger Beside Me (but not quite approaching In Cold Blood) in the true crime genre for me. The story is just as much about McNamara and her investigation as it is about the Golden State Killer, who came to dominate her life before she died unexpectedly while writing this book. Many sections are pieced together from her notes and interview recordings, but it doesn’t destroy the flow of the book at all. In fact, it adds more poignancy to the story. The story of the Golden State Killer is chilling and I found I couldn’t read this book at night…but isn’t that what you want out of true crime?

He attacked in different jurisdictions across California that didn’t always share information or communicate well with each other. By the time DNA testing revealed that crimes previously thought to be unrelated were the work of one man, more than a decade had passed since his last known murder, and his capture wasn’t a priority. He flew under the radar, at large and unidentified.

Skip These

I didn’t finish a single February book I didn’t like (that’s the goal, so yay!), so I’m going to share my DNF’s (aka did not finish) and a few thoughts about each one here.

Great Alone, Glass Forest


The Great Alone
 by Kristin Hannah (February 6, 2018)

I know I’m probably in the minority on this one, but I DNF’d it at 37%. I enjoyed the Alaska setting, but I got kind of bored. And, I was incredibly frustrated with Cora’s decision-making…I couldn’t stomach reading any more of it.

The Glass Forest by Cynthia Swanson (February 6, 2018)
At the 14% mark, this dysfunctional family novel was fine (but no more than that). But, I just kept thinking about other books I was excited to read. I’ll pick it up again if any of my Go-To Recommendation Sources say it’s awesome.

What have been your favorite February 2018 books?

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Eight Campus Novels That Will Make You Want to Go Back to School…or Not!

August 22, 2017 Top Ten Tuesday 38

Eight Campus Novels That Will Make You Want to Go Back to School
Regular readers know how big a sucker I am for campus novels, so I was so surprised when I realized I’d never done a round-up of my favorites! And, when I say campus, I mean college, boarding school, or elite private high school. For some reason the “campus” feels more “campus-y” and the potential for drama much greater with these types of schools.

You’ll notice that many of these books fall into the dark and twisty category…which will probably make some of you glad you’re watching all the drama from the sidelines instead of living it!

Eight Campus Novels That Will Make You Want to Go Back to School…or Not!

Black Chalk by Christopher J. Yates (my review)
I feel like I talk about this book all the time…but, with good reason! A secret society, friends backstabbing friends, dares gone way too far…at Oxford University. Bonus: Yates’s sophomore novel, Grist Mill Road, is coming out on January 8 and I couldn’t be more excited! 

If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio (my review)
Seven Shakespeare students who are best friends, life imitating art, a tragedy…at the fictional Dellecher Classical Conservatory (a small, uber-intense performing arts college in the Midwest).

Quicksand by Malin Persson Giolito (my review)
Rich and neglected high schoolers that love to party, a school shooting, an obsessive love story, an abusive father…at a fictional, elite Swedish prep school.

Shadow of the Lions by Christopher Swann (my review)
A boy who disappeared years ago, his best friend who returns to find out what happened…at Blackbourne, a fictional, all boys boarding school in Virginia (but, it’s based on the very real Woodberry Forest School in Orange, VA, also the author’s alma mater).

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach (my review)
Coming of age story, lovable characters, baseball, sports psychology (but, don’t worry, this book is not really about baseball)…at Westish College (a small, fictional college on the shores of Lake Michigan). 

The Lords of Discipline by Pat Conroy (my review)
Possibly my very favorite campus novel and the grandaddy of them all! A gorgeous and sinister Charleston setting, abuse and hazing, friendship…at the very real Citadel (The Military College of South Carolina). 

The Secret History by Donna Tartt (my review)
Best friends, a murder, betrayal…at the fictional Hampden College (a small, elite Vermont college closely resembling Tartt’s alma mater, Bennington College). 

The Takedown by Corrie Wang (my review)
High school girl drama, technology and social media on steroids, public shaming…at a fictional, elite Brooklyn high school.

Are you a fellow sucker for campus novels? What are some of your favorites?

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Read One, Skip Two: Shadow of the Lions, See What I Have Done, and Young Jane Young

August 17, 2017 Mini Book Reviews 15

I moved this week, so life has been crazy! Hence the round-up of August mini-reviews you’re getting today. Two of these books are already out and one is coming on August 22.

Shadow of the Lions by Christopher SwannShadow of the Lions by Christopher Swann
Fiction (
Released August 1, 2017)
368 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.

Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Algonquin)

Plot Summary: After his life spirals out of control following the success of his first novel, Matthias returns to teach at his old boys’ boarding school, where his best friend (Fritz) vanished from campus during their senior year.

My Thoughts: Y’all know I’m a sucker for boarding school novels. But, I’ve had read some stinkers over the past few years. Shadow of the Lions is NOT one of the stinkers! It’s been described as a “literary thriller,” which I’m not sure I agree with. I’d say it’s more of a literary “mystery” than a “thriller” because it doesn’t have all the heart-pounding franticness that a thriller brings to mind.

The story begins with a wistful feeling as Matthias returns to campus and reminisces about his time there as a student and Fritz’s disappearance. And, it gradually picks up speed as Matthias decides he wants to find out what happened to Fritz once and for all. This is also a story about male friendship…the kind of bond that can only be developed in extremely close quarters with shared experiences (i.e. living together in dorms, in the military, etc). Shadow of the Lions is one of those books that you don’t have to think too hard about (I need these sometimes!), but that has enough depth to keep you interested…and is the final book I’m adding to this year’s Summer Reading Guide!

See What I Have Done by Sarah SchmidtSee What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt
Historical Fiction – Debut (
Released August 1, 2017)
336 Pages
Bottom Line: Skip it.

Affiliate Link: Amazon
Source: Publisher (Atlantic Monthly)

Plot Summary: A fictional telling of the famous, unsolved Lizzie Borden murders of 1892.

My Thoughts: I love books about crime. I love fiction based on real people and/or events. I love books about dysfunctional families. See What I Have Done is all of these things, but I didn’t love it. Most of the story centers around the Borden family dynamics (each family member has their own motives to have possibly killed Abby and Andrew Borden) and the days immediately following the murders. Oddly for a story involving crime and a dysfunctional family, it moved slowly and I got bored around the 40-50% mark. I kept expecting things to move along to Lizzie’s arrest and the subsequent trial (the part of the story I find most intriguing), but that didn’t happen until three quarters of the way through. And, when we finally did hear about it, it was covered only briefly and on a surface level (we never even got to hear about the evidence that led to Lizzie’s arrest). When I finished, I felt like I didn’t know much more about the murders than I did before I read the book.

Young Jane Young by Gabrielle ZevinYoung Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin
Fiction (
Release Date: August 22, 2017)
320 Pages
Bottom Line: Skip it.

Affiliate Link: Amazon
Source: Publisher (Algonquin)

Plot Summary: When intern Aviva Grossman’s affair with her much older, married Congressman boss becomes public, she must figure out how to get her life back in order.

My Thoughts: Zevin’s last book, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (my review), was my favorite book of 2014, so I had high expectations going into Young Jane Young. And, I did love the first half. Young Jane Young is an “issue” book without feeling too much like an “issue” book. The storyline closely mirrors the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal, which I was fascinated with when it happened. But, Young Jane Young explores the reverberating impact of a public scandal like this on the female cheatee…and how different it is from the impact on the male cheater. It illuminates the gross double standard that exists in today’s society and how that can truly wreck lives. Zevin had me glued through this point.

But, a gimmicky second half sent things sailing downhill. First, the writing style and tone of the story completely changed during the section told from Ruby’s (Aviva’s daughter) perspective (which was written in a one-sided email exchange with her pen pal). I didn’t like that we never heard from the pen pal either. But, what really sent me over the edge was the final section told from Aviva’s perspective that was written as a Choose Your Own Adventure story (yes, you read that correctly). What?!! There was a point to it, but it still didn’t work for me…mainly because I thought I was reading an adult novel, not a kids’ comic book. To be fair, this was clearly mentioned in the book’s blurb, but I must have skimmed right over that part. I imagine Young Jane Young will be a somewhat controversial read, so it would make a great book club selection even though it didn’t work for me.

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If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio: The Dark Campus Novel I’ve Been Craving

April 27, 2017 Fiction 20

If We Were Villains, ML RioFiction – Debut
Released April 11, 2017
352 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased (published by G.P. Putnam)

Headline

If We Were Villains is the dark campus novel I’ve been craving ever since loving Christopher J. Yates’s Black Chalk three years ago…and is one of my favorite books of 2017 so far.

Plot Summary

After spending ten years in prison, Oliver Marks is ready to tell the story of the tragedy that happened to his seven best friends and fellow Shakespeare theatre students during their fourth year at Dellecher, an intense Conservatory for the arts. 

Why I Read It

Susie at Novel Visits recommended this book and compared it to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History (which I loved). Plus, I’m a complete sucker for campus novels, especially dark ones.

Major Themes

Friendship, Shakespeare, Secrets / Betrayal

What I Loved

  • If We Were Villains is a dark, sinister, Gothic campus novel jam-packed with emotional tension. The dynamics between Oliver and his group of friends are incredibly complicated and constantly shifting, resulting in nail-biting suspense. After the 20% mark, I could not put this book down!
  • The story kicks off with a Prologue that made me think A) I’m dying to know what happened to this group of friends ten years ago and B) I’m pretty sure it’s going to be really messed up.
  • Though I have mixed feelings about all the Shakespeare in this book (see “What I Didn’t Like” below), I do think the general theme contributed to much of the book’s Gothic feel and made what could be interpreted as mundane friendship dynamics feel much more sinister. I just knew that one of these people was going to become believably capable of doing something monstrous.
  • What ended up happening with the Dellecher fourth years was surprising (particularly how it went down), but absolutely made sense within the context of the story. I could see how each player ended up in the role (obligatory acting pun!) they did.

What I Didn’t Like

  • References to and excerpts from Shakespeare’s plays are incorporated throughout this book. The students pepper their own conversations with Shakespeare one-liners, discuss the plays in class, and refer to themes from the plays in their daily lives. I admit I’m not a fan of Shakespeare and find his language kind of unintelligible, so this initially annoyed me. Just before the 20% mark, I actually considered putting the book down. However, I’m so relieved I kept going. I realized that you don’t have to pay close attention to the Shakespeare excerpts or really understand them to get invested in the story. So, don’t let a wariness of Shakespeare deter you from reading this!

A Defining Quote

Actors are by nature volatile – alchemic creatures composed of incendiary elements, emotion and ego and envy. Heat them up, stir them together, and sometimes you get gold. Sometimes disaster.

Good for People Who Like…

Campus Novels, Friendship, Shakespeare, Secrets / Betrayal, Dark Stories

Other Books You May Like

More dark, sinister campus novels:
Black Chalk by Christopher J. Yates
The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Looking for a specific book recommendation? I’ve got you covered!
Participate in a limited time, free trial of my
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It’s Complicated: Loner and The Trouble With Goats and Sheep

September 15, 2016 Mini Book Reviews 16

I had mixed feelings about both of these books…and had trouble deciding whether or not to recommend them. 

Loner, Teddy WayneLoner by Teddy Wayne
Fiction (Released September 13, 2016)
224 Pages
Bottom Line: Skip it…I think.
Affiliate Link: Amazon
Source: Publisher (Simon & Schuster) via NetGalley

Plot Summary: High school geek David Federman hopes to change his social fortunes at Harvard University, becoming obsessed with gorgeous dorm-mate Veronica Morgan Wells on the first day of school.

My Thoughts: I’m a sucker for campus novels, so I was willing to give Teddy Wayne’s latest a shot despite not being enamored with his previous novel, The Love Song of Jonny Valentine. It took me awhile to get into Loner, but the farther I read, the more I was dying to find out how the entanglement between David, Veronica, and David’s girlfriend (Sara, Veronica’s roommate) would resolve itself. David reminded me of Can’t Buy Me Love‘s Ronald Miller, a geek who acquired some measure of social status through questionable associations with a popular girl before flying too close to the sun…and his downward trajectory reminded me a bit of the desperate spiral in Belinda McKeon’s Tender (but, please don’t take this as a comparison to Tender as an overall book!).

When all was said and done, I’m not sure I bought David’s personality evolution or the ending of the book. His motivation for his actions at the end was completely unclear. Did he want another level of attention? Was it out of anger or vengeance or a thirst for power? I also wondered if Loner was intended to address a social issue. If it was, it merely dipped a toe in that pool rather than doing a cannonball into the deep end. Finally, the writing was a bit uneven…brilliantly capturing what it might be like to be an outsider at Harvard at times and resorting to over-the-top pretension at others. As you can see, I’m a bit conflicted about Loner overall.

Trouble with Goats and Sheep, Joanna CannonThe Trouble With Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon
Fiction (Released July 12, 2016)
352 Pages
Bottom Line: Skip it…I think.
Affiliate Link: Amazon
Source: Purchased (Publisher: Scribner)

Plot Summary: During the sweltering summer of 1976 in England, the disappearance of their adult neighbor (Margaret Creasy) ignites two ten year old girls’ (Grace and Tilly) curiosity about community, God, and neighborhood secrets.

My Thoughts: The Trouble With Goats and Sheep was an up and down book for me, sporting high highs and low lows. It has two characteristics I generally love in my reading: releasing background information about characters in drips and drabs (like Did You Ever Have A Family) and melding a coming of age story with a crime or mystery (like My Sunshine Away and Only Love Can Break Your Heart). I was immediately captivated by ten year-old Grace’s voice, which manages to be childlike without being childish. She sounds clever and unique, yet still maintains her innocence.

I had never met anyone who had nearly died, and in the beginning the subject was attacked with violent curiosity. Then it became more than fascination. I needed to know everything, so that all the details might be stitched together for protection. As if hearing the truth would somehow save us from it.

And Cannon’s writing, in general, blew me away…at first. She showed a propensity for writing about emotions like they are physical things and, on the flip side, giving inanimate objects emotion. Worrying was “packed away” and “made silent.” A room looked “tired and unhappy.” This writing trick piqued my interest early on, but it appeared so often that it felt gimmicky by the end. Every time I spotted another example, I’d roll my eyes and think “here we go again.” The story also took far too long to advance through the middle…I felt like we weren’t much farther at 75% than we were at 25%. That being said, I thoroughly enjoyed Cannon’s style during the first 25% and some of the surprises towards the end.

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