Tag: Debuts

Best Debuts of 2018

December 6, 2018 Annual "Best Books" Lists 15

Best Debuts of 2018

 

I’ve always felt strongly about reading debut novels…I love to support these authors and I’ve traditionally had great luck with the debut novels I’ve read.

Last year, two out of eight of my Best Debuts of 2017 also made my overall Best Books of 2017 list. 

I haven’t completely finalized my Best Books of 2018 list, but one of these debuts will for sure make it and a couple others are on the bubble. 

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

I made a grave mistake with this post…

Where the Crawdads Sing

 

Y’all, I can’t believe I did what I’m about to tell you I did. I have no idea how this happened or what came over me, but I omitted one of my MOST favorite debuts of the year from this list…Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens (my glowing review). Not only did I forget to include it here, but I DID include it in my Instagram picture for this post that’s going up later this afternoon. And not only that…but, in my caption for that post, I called out Goodreads for “tragically” leaving Where the Crawdads Sing off their Best Debuts nominee list for the Goodreads Choice Awards. Pot, meet kettle.

I kind of feel like I should send Delia Owens flowers or something. Delia, if by some off chance you’re reading this, I’m SO SO sorry. I loved your book and you’ll see it on another, even better, list soon.

And, if you haven’t read this one yet, it’s my #1 Go-To Recommendation on my 2018 Holiday Gift Guide!

On to the rest of the list…

Best Debuts of 2018

Bad Blood by John Carreyrou (my review)
Though I got lost in some of the science and engineering details, I was fascinated / horrified at the arrogance of Elizabeth Holmes, Theranos’s young CEO who viewed herself as the next Steve Jobs, and the lengths Theranos went to to create a “unicorn” despite the absence of a viable product.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon

Educated by Tara Westover (my review)
Imagine if you had to choose between getting an education (both the traditional kind and an education about life in general) and having a relationship with your family. That’s what happened to Tara Westover. This one is topping a bunch of Best Books of 2018 lists!

Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon

From the Corner of the Ovalby Beck Dorey-Stein (my review)
This quarter life crisis memoir set in the world of politics might be my favorite audiobook of the year! It’s like listening to your fun friend who happens to have a job in the White House with access to the President give you all the very best anecdotes (plus, a good dose of her love life) over a glass of wine!

Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara (my review)
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. Doesn’t hurt that a suspect in the attacks was arrested soon after the book was published.

Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon

Laura & Emma by Kate Greathead (my review)
The key to loving Laura & Emma is loving Laura’s voice and the writing style (which I obviously did). Laura is offbeat, but likable and funny in an awkward way (she reminded me of a less damaged version of Eleanor Oliphant).

Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon

Tangerine by Christine Mangan (my review)
The story of a fraught, obsessive friendship and all the wreckage it leaves behind. It’s kind of a page turner, but not in the traditional sense. It’s taut with emotional and psychological tension…my kind of “thriller.”

Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon

The Book of Essie by Meghan MacLean Weir (my review)
The Book of Essie is the type of brain candy I love…a story about weighty topics that reads quickly and easily. Bonus: you get an interesting behind-the-scenes look at reality TV and image management in the media spotlight.

Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon

The Ensembleby Aja Gabel
I almost skipped this book and I’m so relieved I didn’t! It’s about a musical quartet (which I’m not interested in at all…hence the “almost” skip) and is one of those character-driven novels that I couldn’t put down. It’s all about the simmering dynamics of this group and it explores the implications of having an essentially business relationship that supersedes all other relationships in these characters’ lives. And, the writing is drop dead gorgeous…especially for a debut.

Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon

What are your favorite debuts of 2018?

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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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January Read It, Skip It: Grist Mill Road, Tell Me More, The Immortalists, Anatomy of a Scandal

January 18, 2018 Mini Book Reviews 24

Grist Mill Road, Tell Me More, The Immortalists, Anatomy of a Scandal


You may be familiar with my Read It, Skip It posts where I normally cover two books. I’m trying something different this month by rounding up all my January releases into one big Read It, Skip It post. What could give you a clearer picture of the January releases than that?!

Plus, if you’re thinking about tracking your reading this year, check out my “Rock Your Reading” Tracker! It automatically compiles all your reading stats into pretty Summary Charts and enables you choose better books by helping you track your recommendation sources.

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

Read These

Grist Mill Road by Christopher J YatesGrist Mill Road by Christopher J. Yates
Fiction (Released January 9, 2018)
352 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Publisher: Picador)

Plot Summary: Two and a half decades after Patrick, Hannah, and Matthew were involved in a childhood crime in their hometown of Roseborn, NY, they meet again in New York City and have to grapple with what happened years ago.

My Thoughts: Yates’ debut novel, Black Chalk, was one of my favorite books of 2014 and I had high expectations for his sophomore effort. Though Grist Mill Road wasn’t perfect and I didn’t love it as much as Black Chalk, I couldn’t put it down. It’s the kind of book I could’ve read in one sitting if I had the time. It’s part coming of age story (reminiscent of My Sunshine Away) and part psychological thriller, while managing to remain literary (well…until the overly thriller-y ending). The opening Prologue reveals the big “what” of the story and will take your breath away, but the intensity doesn’t let up as you start to learn the “how” and “why.” I do wish Matthew’s backstory had been introduced earlier in the book and that certain storylines hadn’t been told in letter format. Nevertheless, Grist Mill Road is a solid choice if you like dark, twisty, literary thrillers about extremely complicated friendships (a la If We Were Villains).

That there must have been a thousand and one different ways I could have saved her that day. But what did I do? I did nothing.

Tell Me More by Kelly CorriganTell Me More by Kelly Corrigan
Nonfiction – Memoir (Released January 9, 2018)
256 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Random House)

Plot Summary: Corrigan’s memoir is organized around the “12 hardest things she’s learning to say,” including “No,” “I don’t know,” and “I Was Wrong.”

My Thoughts: I absolutely adored (it’s my favorite 2018 release I’ve read so far!) this memoir that spoke to me in a “yes, that’s exactly how it is” way. She kicks things off with an essay that will touch the conflicted hearts of overtaxed moms everywhere and moves on to cover many big life issues (marriage, motherhood, illness, religion, friendship, grief, and loss) in a relatable and irreverently funny way. And, the second to last essay might even make you cry. Corrigan is a welcome addition to my “women who get women” club (current members include Anna Quindlen, Ann Patchett, and Cheryl Strayed) and I’d highly recommend Tell Me More to anyone who loved Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake or This is the Story of a Happy Marriage.

What Will didn’t point out, because he wanted me to arrive there on my own, was that his brand of acceptance wasn’t grim compromise or gritted-teeth tolerance. He was not suggesting that we roll over, but rather that we keep rolling, onward.

Skip These

The Immortalists by Chloe BenjaminThe Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin
Fiction (Released January 9, 2018)
352 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Putnam)

Plot Summary: When a psychic in 1969 NYC tells the four Gold children the dates of their respective deaths, the information drives their choices for the rest of their lives.

My Thoughts: I’m definitely in the minority in not loving this debut novel. It’s getting lots of attention from the bookish media and love from some bloggers I normally agree with (Ann Marie at Lit Wit Wine Dine and Renee at It’s Book Talk). The beginning felt like The Rules of Magic: 1960’s/70’s NYC, a bit of magic, and young siblings trying to slide things by their parents. From that point on, the story is told in sections, one focusing on each of the four Gold children’s lives. These were hit and miss…I was engrossed in some parts (Simon’s and parts of Daniel’s) and kept tuning out during others (Klara’s and Varya’s). I didn’t care much about the sibling in the final section because he/she had been virtually absent for much of the book. That being said, the writing was great, so I would consider reading whatever Chloe Benjamin does next.

For so long, he hated the woman, too. How, he wondered, could she give such a terrible fortune to a child? But now he thinks of her differently, like a second mother or a god, she who showed him the door and said: Go.

Anatomy of a Scandal by Sarah VaughanAnatomy of a Scandal by Sarah Vaughan
Fiction (Release Date January 23, 2018)
400 Pages
Affiliate Link: Pre-Order from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Atria Books)

Plot Summary: When charismatic politician James is accused of a serious crime, his wife (Sophie) is forced to confront who he might be under his smooth veneer while the prosecutor (Kate) wrestles with her own past.

My Thoughts: Anatomy of a Scandal is a timely book (privilege, abuse of power, scandal, ego) and got a fair amount of pre-publication hype. While I expected the story to be fascinating, the telling of it fell flat. It reads easily, but is predictable and lacks subtlety and nuance in the serious issues it addresses. Every character is a cliche. By the second half, I was skimming just to see what would happen (nothing particularly interesting did).

She feels like laughing. James will be fine because he is the right type, he has done nothing illegal, and he has the prime minister’s patronage. She glances past him to the bookshelves on which Hilary Mantel’s pair of Cromwell novels sit: stories of an era in which a mercurial king’s favour was everything. More than four centuries have passed, and yet, in Tom’s party, there is still a flavor of life at court.

What are some of your favorite January 2018 releases?

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Best Debuts of 2017

December 5, 2017 Annual "Best Books" Lists 19

Best Debuts of 2017


Last year, an astounding seven out of eight of my Best Debuts of 2016 also made my overall Best Books of 2016 list. That’s the most debuts that have made my overall Best Books of the Year list since I started blogging by far.

I can pretty much assure you we won’t approach that number this year, but you will be seeing a couple of these books on my overall list in a couple weeks!

Best Debuts of 2017

Dead Letters by Caite Dolan-Leach (my review)
Dead Letters was my first overwhelming winner of the year. I’ve been recommending it like crazy ever since and it’s one of the most frequently purchased books from my affiliate links.

Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon

Dear Fahrenheit 451 by Annie Spence (my review)
This year’s winning book about books! Spence is relatable, funny, and often snarky…and you will likely have heard of most of the books she talks about.

Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon

Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong (my review)
This tiny gem of a novel is one of the few this year that the book critics from the traditional media and I agree on! Ruth’s endearing, witty, real, and relatable voice is the star of this one.

Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon

If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio (my review)
The The Secret History read-alike I’ve been searching for forever!

Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon

Rabbit Cake by Annie Hartnett (my review)
A sweet, delightful, and whimsical story with a main character reminiscent of Scout Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird).

Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon

Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiny (my review)
A debut novel with straight talk about marriage. Plus, Heiny introduces the brilliant idea of a drop-off club for houseguests (similar to the kids clubs at resorts).

Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
A rare YA (Young Adult) book that I loved! And, the rare “issue” book that is first and foremost a compelling and well-told story.

Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon

We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter (author interview)
Fiction based on the harrowing true story of Hunter’s family that defies statistics, explanation, and imagination. Also one of the only World War II books I’ve read recently that hasn’t felt like a slog!

Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon

What are your favorite debuts of 2017?

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Am I the Only One Who Didn’t Love Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine?

July 20, 2017 Fiction 54

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail HoneymanFiction – Debut
Released May 9, 2017
336 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it…if you like heart-warming stories with tidy endings. Otherwise, Skip it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased (published by Pamela Dorman Books)

Headline

I liked Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine alright, but I’m not on the bandwagon with the level of hype it’s getting.

Plot Summary

Quirky and broken Eleanor Oliphant is living a solitary life when she strikes up a friendship with Raymond, the IT guy at her office, which opens her eyes to a different way of living.

Why I Read It

This book has been getting tons of buzz and two book bloggers whose taste I generally agree with recently loved it (Susie at Novel Visits and Tara at Running N Reading).

Major Themes

Childhood Trauma, Abuse, Family Secrets, Friendship, Redemption

What I Liked

  • I loved Eleanor…and I suspect she is why this book is getting such high praise from some. She’s quirky, solitary, and doesn’t fit in well with the world, but she makes no bones about who she is and is completely endearing. And, with her tragic childhood, I was rooting for her to figure out how to actually participate in the world rather than just skim the surface of life.
  • I was super curious about Eleanor’s past. How did she get her scars? How did she end up in foster care? What happened with her mother? What was the big incident that blew up her life? These questions kept me reading, but I wish the book had delved deeper into them.
  • Eleanor went on some spectacular rants about things that irked her about everyday life. They were salty and funny and I completely agreed with most of them. Here’s one:

    On wedding gifts/registries:
    Of all the compulsory financial contributions, that is the one that irks me most. Two people wander around John Lewis picking out lovely items for themselves, and then they make other people pay for them. It’s bare-faced effrontery. They choose things like plates, bowls and cutlery—I mean, what are they doing at the moment: shoveling food from packets into their mouths with their bare hands? I simply fail to see how the act of legally formalizing a human relationship necessitates friends, family and coworkers upgrading the contents of their kitchen for them.

What I Didn’t Like

  • While I can see appeal of this book for some people (it’s a heart-warming, feel-good story), it didn’t live up to the hype for me. I liked it fine, but I expected to like it much more based on the reviews and the hype. That being said, I am still recommending it for a certain type of reader (those that like heart-warming stories that are neatly tied up) because I know there are lots of this type of reader out there…it’s just not me.
  • I was so curious about Eleanor’s childhood and her relationship with her mother. Those issues were one of the main hooks that kept me reading. But, I felt like the story focused more on Eleanor’s friendship with Raymond and learning how to interact with the world again. I wish Honeyman had gone darker and delved deeper into Eleanor’s childhood and the nitty, gritty of what went down. I kept thinking it would happen, but it never really did.
  • While the story is certainly heart-warming, it felt a little cliche to me…in a bit of a rom-com way.
  • The ending was too neat and tidy. And, there was one particular element that is often used in novels that absolutely drives me crazy every time I see it. It feels like a cop out. I don’t want to spoil anything, so I won’t say anymore.

A Defining Quote

My life, I realized, had gone wrong. Very, very wrong. I wasn’t supposed to live like this. No one was supposed to live like this. The problem was that I simply didn’t know how to make it right. Mummy’s way was wrong, I knew that. But no one had ever shown me the right way to live a life, and although I’d tried my best over the years, I simply didn’t know how to make things better. I could not solve the puzzle of me.

Good for People Who Like…

Dysfunctional childhoods, heart-warming stories, neat and tidy endings, quirky characters

Other Books You May Like

Another heart-warming story about people facing an unconventional situation:
This Is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel (my review)

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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

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Read One, Skip One: The Fall of Lisa Bellow and The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley

April 6, 2017 Mini Book Reviews 17

Fall of Lisa Bellow, Susan PeraboThe Fall of Lisa Bellow by Susan Perabo
Fiction – Debut (
Released March 14, 2017)
352 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link:
Source: Publisher (Simon & Schuster)

Plot Summary: After Meredith Oliver witnesses the abduction of a her classmate (but not necessarily friend), Lisa Bellow, she and her entire family struggle to process the impact of being the one left behind.

My Thoughts: I adored Susan Perabo’s short story collection, Why They Run the Way They Do (my review), so was thrilled to hear her first full length novel was coming out this year. While I still prefer Why They Run the Way They Do, The Fall of Lisa Bellow is a psychologically suspenseful novel that gets to the nasty little heart of things (thank you, Catherine!), a type of story I’m always game for. This story is not about what happened to Lisa Bellow, but about the survivors and survivor’s guilt. It’s about the often ungenerous, but brutally honest thoughts, of those who escaped the worst. And, it’s about the minefield of life as a middle school girl. Perabo’s biting portrayal of middle school made me alternately chuckle and cringe…just like actual middle school.

Lisa looked at her. There was the look. This was why everyone hated her. This was why middle school girls had stomachaches when they woke up in the morning. This was why girls were afraid to read the next text, or turn the corner into the cafeteria. This was why Jules could think, why they all could think, all the girls who were not her friends, why they could all secretly think: Good riddance.

My major gripe lies with the publisher’s blurb, which calls The Fall of Lisa Bellow “gripping” and “suspenseful,” leading readers to expect a page turner. The suspense here is the emotional type rather than “what happens next” type, and readers going in expecting the latter will likely be disappointed. I’d call it more of a coming of age novel with a crime in the background than a page turning mystery.

Twelve Lives of Samuel HawleyThe Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti
Fiction (
Released March 28, 2017)
400 Pages
Bottom Line: Skip it.
Affiliate Link: Amazon
Source: Publisher (The Dial Press)

Plot Summary: Following a life of crime, Samuel Hawley and his daughter (Loo) move back to Loo’s mother’s hometown of Olympus, Massachusetts, where Loo begins to unravel her father’s past and how her mother died.

My Thoughts: This novel has gotten a ton of pre-publication hype and two fellow bloggers whose tastes I usually agree with loved it (Novel Visits, It’s Tara Leigh). It was also marketed as a coming of age novel / thriller, which sounded right up my alley. Unfortunately, The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley was just okay for me and I’m having trouble understanding all the hype.

The story alternates between Loo and Samuel navigating life in Olympus (the “coming of age” portion of the story) and chapters explaining each one of Samuel’s twelve bullet scars (the “thriller” portion of the story), with the two threads converging towards the end. I enjoyed the coming of age aspect (Loo/Samuel sections) of this structure, but after multiple “thriller” chapters (i.e. the bullet sections), I started to get bored with all the violence. With an exception or two, these chapters seemed senseless and the stories began to run together in my head. By the 75% mark, I began skimming just to find out how things would end.

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Dead Letters by Caite Dolan-Leach: The Book I’ll Be Recommending to Absolutely Everyone

March 7, 2017 Fiction 24

Dead Letters, Caite Dolan-LeachFiction – Debut
Released February 21, 2017
353 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased (published by Random House)

Headline

This debut novel has absolutely everything and is one I’ll be recommending to just about everyone I know for a long time.

Plot Summary

When Ava Antipova gets word that her wild twin sister (Zelda) is dead, she leaves her Paris graduate program to return to her family’s vineyard in upstate New York…only to find circumstances surrounding her sister’s death that are a bit off and a message from Zelda.

Why I Read It

I never would have picked up this book on my own (I’m not a fan of the title or the cover and the premise of the story is not particularly appealing)…but Catherine at Gilmore Guide (whose reading taste I trust implicitly) said I absolutely must read it.

Major Themes

Dysfunctional families, alcoholism, degenerative illness, twins

What I Loved

  • It’s rare that I find a book I can comfortably categorize as “literary” AND “brain candy.” These are my favorite kinds of books to discover and are the ones I feel like I can recommend to anyone at any time. Dead Letters is the first book I’ve read in awhile that fits this description.
  • I knew within the first two paragraphs that I would love this book. Ava’s voice spoke to me immediately and I would later discover the crackling dialogue and snarky, occasionally morbid humor that’s right up my alley.

He has rented a flashy convertible, of course. My dad likes to travel in style, regardless of finances, seemliness, tact. He tends to think of any economic restriction as a dead-letter issue, a rule that does not apply to him.

  • It’s a mystery and a dysfunctional family novel (two of my favorite things) all wrapped up into one ball of alcohol-soaked perfection. There is a crime, but it’s not the center of the story. Rather, it’s a device that helps unravel the twisted dynamics of Zelda and Ava’s relationship (and their relationship with their parents), which is what this book is truly about. And I can add it to my list of winning novels that have a “crime that is not the center of the story” (My Sunshine Away, Every Last One, and Only Love Can Break Your Heart).
  • Dead Letters has almost all of my favorite fiction elements: a perfectly paced plot, a dysfunctional family, a mystery, great writing, snarky humor, and depth. I don’t think I’ve come across a novel as jam packed with elements that are so firmly in my wheelhouse in quite a while.
  • It’s a book that is fun, yet dark and morbid at the same time. There is a delightfully demented scavenger hunt that strings the reader right along for the ride, yet death and loss permeates the entire story.
  • There’s a sly Friday Night Lights reference!
  • This is a book that you just need to pick up and read. Don’t bother learning a ton about the plot beforehand…going in blind adds to the fun.

What I Didn’t Like

  • I HATE the cover and am not a huge fan of the title. Both make Dead Letters look like it will be type of book that’s compared to Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train, then inevitably doesn’t live up to either. Though Dead Letters does have some similarities, it’s it’s own kind of wonderful.
  • I also think the publisher’s blurb gives away far too much information about the plot.

A Defining Quote

Maybe because we were twins, we sought a way to differentiate, to oh so rigorously sketch out our borders. You needed to say, to speak the ways you were different. I’m Ava, I’m the ambitious one; that’s Zelda, she’s the messy one. As though you could determine your own story, secure the ending you wanted through obsessive narration.

Good for People Who Like…

Stories about sisters (particularly twins), stories about mothers and daughters, dysfunctional families, accessible writing, unexpectedly funny, snarky humor.

Other Books You May Like

Another deeply dysfunctional family novel that involves a family member returning home:
The Roanoke Girls by Amy Engel

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Read One, Skip One: The Sleepwalker and The Futures

January 12, 2017 Mini Book Reviews 23

The Sleepwalker, Chris BohjalianThe Sleepwalker by Chris Bohjalian
Fiction – Thriller (Released January 10, 2017)
304 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Doubleday)

Plot Summary: When Annalee Ahlberg, a notorious sleepwalker, disappears from her home in the middle of the night, her husband and two daughters try to piece together what happened.

My Thoughts: Chris Bohjalian’s most recent books are giving him quite a reputation for coming up with mysteries…with more. They have the who-done-it/why-done-it elements of your run-of-the-mill mystery, but he layers on something deeper. In 2016’s The Guest Room, it was sex-trafficking, and in The Sleepwalker, it’s parasomnia. I found the parasomnia angle fascinating…it’s much more than the book’s title suggests. It’s a real thing (thank you, Google) and can cause shame for the sufferer, so Bohjalian’s exploration of an extreme example of parasomnia’s potential disastrous consequences had real-life appeal for me beyond this particular story. And, I liked the psychological exploration of the impact of parasomnia on a marriage and a family.

They both felt shame, but different reasons: he because of what people saw and she because of what she could not control.

All this being said, I would have liked to see the book go in a slightly different direction. I can’t share too many details without ruining the ending, but I would’ve liked the story to explore the legal implications of parasomnia a bit more. Still, The Sleepwalker is a book you can fly through (which I need sometimes) and is going on my Page Turners list.

The Futures, Anna PitoniakThe Futures by Anna Pitoniak
Fiction – Debut (Release Date: January 17, 2017)
320 Pages
Bottom Line: Skip it.
Affiliate Link: Amazon
Source: Publisher (Lee Boudreaux Books)

Plot Summary: When college sweethearts Evan and Julia move to New York City after graduating from Yale, they face a tougher road than they imagined finding their place in the post-college world.

My Thoughts: I quite honestly don’t have a lot to say about The Futures. It’s the story of a quarter life crisis…something I certainly went through and could identify with. The “coming of age in your twenties in the big city” storyline always seems to suck me in, yet has proved disappointing the past few rounds (also Why We Came to the City).

Julia and Evan’s college and immediate post-college experience resembled my own to a certain extent (minus the Ivy League tag). Despite or (possibly because of?) this relatability, the plot was predictable and not particularly memorable. I was disappointed with the lack of “yes, that’s exactly how it is” writing, which could have upped the memorability factor for me. On the plus side, it was a nice, easy Brain Candy book that I never had to force myself to pick up.  

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Why Idaho by Emily Ruskovich Didn’t Quite Gel For Me

January 5, 2017 Fiction 38

Idaho, Emily RuskovichFiction
Released January 3, 2017
320 Pages
Bottom Line: Skip it.
Affiliate Link: Amazon
Source: Publisher (Random House) via NetGalley

Headline

This debut novel has some intriguing story elements, but they never quite gel into a cohesive story.

Plot Summary

Ann Mitchell tries to piece together the details behind the crime that ended her husband, Wade’s, first marriage, and landed his ex-wife (Jenny) in prison for murder.

Why I Read It

This debut novel caught my attention when I reviewed Random House’s Spring 2017 catalog and, later, I heard good things about it from Shannon at River City Reading.

Major Themes

Marriage, family secrets, memory

What I Liked

  • Idaho is a quiet mystery of what happened to a family…and I don’t think I’ve ever used the words quiet and mystery in the same sentence. However, this combination had promise.
  • While the story is built around the crime that destroyed Wade’s family, that’s not really what the book is about. It’s more about the layers on top of the central mystery (Wade and Ann’s marriage, Wade’s illness, living under a cloud that you don’t know much about)…making it feel like more than your average mystery.
  • The writing is gorgeous at times. There are beautiful sentences, but they rarely string together to create a gorgeous paragraph or chapter.

The postwoman in Ponderosa feels entitled; she moves with confidence and knowing, as if because her fingertips have had the privilege of sorting out Ann’s envelopes, she has glimpsed what she thinks is inside them all – lies, pleas, false trails, dirty news, licked closed by the tongues of the past.

What I Didn’t Like

  • This is an odd book. There were times when I couldn’t put it down and others when I found myself skimming just to get through it. I was intrigued at times, but bewildered at others.
  • There are compelling elements to this story…I think the downfall is in the execution. The story construction is clunky and there are a number of sub-plots going on, yet they never converge into a central theme. It’s almost like Ruskovich couldn’t decide whether the book was about Wade and Ann’s marriage, Wade’s illness, the murder itself, or Jenny’s fate following the murder and her experience in prison.
  • There were parts of the story that seemed pointless and confusing (ex: Ann’s imaginings of how the murder might have happened, Elliott’s – an extremely minor character – romantic issues later in life)…but I was sure things would all tie together in the end. They didn’t.
  • The major questions of the book were never addressed. I don’t mind open-ended endings, but this was so extreme that it made me wonder what the point of the book was. For example, one of the things that kept me reading was to find out why Jenny committed the murder she did. There are sections of the story from Jenny’s perspective while she’s in prison where Ruskovich could easily have addressed the why of it all, but never did.
  • While beautiful at times, the writing also veered into “head-in-the-clouds” territory too often for my taste.

The sameness of that prison wall is like a winter spent in a wilderness you can’t hope to matter to.

A Defining Quote

“You know you don’t like me going up there, but you don’t know why. You’re so angry at me and you don’t remember why.”

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