Tag: Secrets/Betrayal

Emma in the Night by Wendy Walker: The Best Psychological Thriller I’ve Read Since Gone Girl

August 10, 2017 Mysteries/Thrillers 20

Emma in the night by Wendy WalkerFiction – Mystery / Thriller
Released August 8, 2017
320 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (St. Martin’s Press)

Headline

Emma in the Night‘s ending has the rare perfect balance between being surprising, yet still fitting with the story and it’s the first 5 star thriller I’ve read since Gone Girl.

Plot Summary

Three years after teenage sisters Emma and Cass disappeared from their home, Cass returns home without Emma and forensic psychiatrist Dr. Abby Winters returns to help Cass find Emma.

Why I Read It

This was a lucky read. I’d read Walker’s debut thriller (All is Not Forgotten), but wasn’t a huge fan. St. Martin’s Press sent me an e-galley of Emma in the Night (thank you!) and I almost wasn’t motivated to pick it up. Then, Michelle at That’s What She Read said she read it in a day while floating in a pool…so, I decided to give it a try.

Major Themes

Childhood Trauma, Abuse, Family Secrets, Sisters, Narcissist Personality Disorder

What I Liked

  • I could not put this book down! And, I liked it so much better than All is Not Forgotten! If I had the kind of life where I could devote a whole day to reading, I could’ve read this book in one day. It’s the first 5 star thriller I’ve read since Gone Girl. If you’re looking for an immersive, edge-of-your-seat page turner for your last vacation of the summer, Emma in the Night is your book!
  • It’s a bit of a cross between a psychological thriller and a dysfunctional family novel. Both paths are extremely well-developed.
  • I was fascinated by the focus on Narcissistic Personality Disorder and the psychology of how this affects a family. I love how Walker went deep with the psychology angle throughout the whole book and explored how this disorder can be passed down through generations.
  • This novel is full of ambiguity. I spent most of my time reading wondering who was telling the truth, who was the real manipulator, and how and why everything played out like it did. I literally changed my mind on these questions dozens of times throughout the story.
  • Finally…a thriller with an ending that is surprising, yet absolutely makes sense with the story!! This is the number one characteristic I look for in thrillers and the number one thing that often goes wrong (hence why I’ve been turned off by thrillers lately). Kudos, Wendy Walker, for getting this exactly right!

What I Didn’t Like

Not one thing.

A Defining Quote

And so they were fierce competitors in their secret club, for each other’s love, for the love of everyone around them. And all I could do was watch from a distance, one short enough that I could see the escalation. Two nation-states in a constant battle for power and control. It was unsustainable. And so it continued, this war between my mother and my sister, until the night we were gone.

Good for People Who Like…

Psychological thrillers, dysfunctional family novels, secrets / betrayal, unputdownable books

Other Books You May Like

The only other psychological thriller that left me the highest level of satisfied:
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (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 16

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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This Is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel Made Me Feel All the Emotions

February 23, 2017 Fiction 20

This Is How It Always Is, Laurie FrankelFiction
Released January 24, 2017
336 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased (published by Flatiron Books)

Headline

This Is How It Always Is is an accessible story about a weighty topic that had me feeling a whole range of emotions…it’s the kind of book many people will enjoy, yet will also provide excellent discussion for book clubs.

Plot Summary

When Claude, the youngest son of a family of five boys, starts to realize he wants to be a girl, the family must learn how to best support Claude and adjust to the situation.

Why I Read It

Susan Perabo, author of the fantastic short story collection Why They Run the Way They Do (my review), tweeted this about This Is How It Always Is:

Major Themes

Gender Dysphoria, Family, Bullying

What I Loved

  • One of the most important things a book needs to do to really draw me in is to make me feel…something. It doesn’t have to be positive all the time, but I have to become emotionally involved with the story and characters in some way. This Is How It Always Is had me feeling a full range of emotions. It’s heart-warming, but also heart-breaking. It’s unexpectedly funny, sad, inspirational, and made me angry at times.
  • While this story obviously centers around Claude and his struggle with gender dysphoria, it’s also very much a story about an unconventional and complicated family. Frankel explores the family dynamics, the impacts of Claude’s struggle on each sibling and both parents, and the more run-of-the-mill struggles of a family (work/life balance, teen angst, sibling disagreements, etc) and how Claude fits into that.
  • While gender dysphoria is a weighty issue and many people have not personally experienced, the Walsh-Adams family as a whole is incredibly relatable. Rosie (the mother) is someone I could imagine being friends with and the family’s reactions to and decision-making involving Claude felt decidedly normal to me.
  • In addition to handling the “big” issues and decisions relating to Claude’s gender dysphoria, Frankel poignantly works through the small moments that become minefields when you’re dealing with someone like Claude (i.e. meeting your new neighbors, the first sleepover).
  • The writing isn’t what I’d call “gorgeous,” but I loved the voice and tone. I felt like I was hearing my relatable friend talk about family life while phrasing things in the most amusing way possible. 

But Roo followed by Ben followed by Rigel and Orion had put a stop to that plan too, children being the enemies of plans and also the enemies of anything new besides themselves.

  • Plus, there’s a bad@ss grandmother, a character type that generally adds a little something extra to a story for me!

What I Didn’t Like

  • I’m generally not a fan of stories within stories and one (a fairy tale, in this case) figures prominently into This Is How It Always Is. It makes sense within the larger context and Frankel executed it well, but I personally found it distracting and unnecessary. It felt a little too cutes-y to me.
  • I’m getting really nit-picky, but some of the things Claude was doing at age five (i.e. designing and constructing a complicated Halloween costume by himself) seemed like a developmental stretch to me, even though his character is quite precocious. I have a six year old son and he could no more design and construct his own Halloween costume than fly to the moon; however, he could name 25 obscure animals you’ve never heard of. So, maybe this criticism isn’t entirely fair.

A Defining Quote

You never know. You only guess. This is how it always is. You have to make these huge decisions on behalf of your kid, this tiny human whose fate and future is entirely in your hands, who trusts you to know what’s good and right and then to be able to make that happen. You never have enough information. You don’t get to see the future. And if you screw up, if with your incomplete, contradictory information you make the wrong call, well, nothing less than your child’s entire future and happiness is at stake. It’s impossible. It’s heartbreaking. It’s maddening. But there’s no alternative.

Good for People Who Like…

Family, unconventional families, secrets / betrayal, marriage, motherhood, emotional gut-wrenchers, debate starters, accessible writing

Other Books You May Like

A memoir dealing with gender dysphoria:
Darling Days by iO Tillett-Wright

Another book centered around a large family with hoards of children:
Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

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Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller: Slowly Revealing the Truth of a Marriage

February 9, 2017 Fiction 23

Swimming Lessons, Claire FullerFiction
Released February 7, 2017
356 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Tin House Books)

Headline

Though Swimming Lessons didn’t immediately grab me, its steady revelations about the Coleman marriage and increasing complexity eventually pulled me in.

Plot Summary

Swimming Lessons tells the story of the volatile marriage between famous author Gil Coleman and Ingrid…through letters Ingrid hid in Gil’s books prior to her disappearance and their daughters’ returns home to care for their ailing father.

Why I Read It

Claire Fuller’s debut novel, Our Endless Numbered Days, was one of my Best Debuts of 2015.

Major Themes

Marriage, family dysfunction, the writer’s life, motherhood, maintaining your identity through motherhood

What I Liked

  • The publisher’s blurb makes Swimming Lessons sound like it will be a mystery, but it’s actually an exploration of a troubled marriage. The “mystery” part of the story is somewhat ancillary and, once I wrapped my head around that, I enjoyed the book much more.
  • Swimming Lessons tackles a topic that is taboo even today and was even more frowned upon in the 70’s when Gil and Ingrid’s story began: not wanting and/or loving motherhood with every cell of your being and the conflicting feelings that come along with that.
  • I truly sunk into the second half of this book. As more layers of the Coleman’s marriage were peeled back, the story’s complexity grew, intriguing me more and more.
  • While not particularly surprising, the ending made sense and fit with the characters in the story, a type of ending that is becoming more and more appealing to me. And, it struck a perfect balance between tidying things up and leaving some questions unresolved / open to interpretation.
  • The potential discussion topics of marriage and motherhood and various interpretations of the ending make Swimming Lessons a compelling choice for book clubs.

What I Didn’t Like

  • Swimming Lessons did not immediately grab me. It’s a book that slowly peels back the layers of a marriage and it took lots of those layers being revealed for me to really get invested in the story.
  • Some of the revelations (yes, they are more revelations than twists) were not surprising, but their inevitability fit with the story.
  • One element of this story has been told before and I kind of rolled my eyes that this particular trope was popping up yet again.
  • I didn’t love Swimming Lessons quite as much as Our Endless Numbered Days…the writing sparkled a tad less and the plot was a touch more predictable.

A Defining Quote

I tried to tell you that I didn’t want it, wasn’t ready, might never be ready, but you put your finger on my lips and said, “Marry me’, and all those plans of creating my own category and giving you up after the summer disappeared like a wisp of sea mist under the relentless energy of your sun.

Good for People Who Like…

Dysfunctional families, marriage, dislikable characters, motherhood, secrets / betrayal, fathers and daughters, character-driven stories, gradual revelations of characters’ backgrounds

Other Books You May Like

Other books that untangle the truth behind a marriage:
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff (review)

The Wife by Meg Wolitzer (review)

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

January 5, 2017 Fiction 34

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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Alcohol & Advil: The Mothers and Hungry Heart

October 25, 2016 Mini Book Reviews 17

Alcohol and Advil Literary Style
Welcome back to Alcohol & Advil, where I pair a book likely to cause a “reading hangover” (i.e. the alcohol) with a recovery book (i.e. the Advil)! For me, the “alcohol” is usually a book that I either absolutely loved or one that punched me in the gut in an emotionally depleting way…and, in this case, it’s the former.

The Alcohol

The Mothers, Brit BennettThe Mothers by Brit Bennett
Fiction (Released October 11, 2016)
288 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased (Publisher: Riverhead Books)

Plot Summary: While seventeen year-old Nadia Turner is mourning the shocking loss of her mother, she starts a relationship with Luke Sheppard, her pastor’s son, resulting in an unwanted pregnancy.

My Thoughts: The Mothers was one of the most hyped books and the big debut novel of this Fall (author Brit Bennet is only 25 years old and was named to the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35). And, it completely lived up to the hype! The first page is one of the best first pages I’ve ever read and I highlighted three passages before moving on to Page 2. I could immediately tell that Bennett’s writing was my kind of writing (which I will try to clearly articulate in an upcoming post) and the tone and style reminded me a bit of Ann Patchett’s in Commonwealth.

Grief was not a line, carrying you infinitely further from loss. You never knew when you would be sling-shot backward into its grip.

What I loved most about the actual story is that it takes on a number of serious topics, but none of them dominate the book. It’s about a young girl trying to make sense of her mother’s death and being left with a father who has withdrawn into his own grief. It’s about a teenager’s relationship to her church…and the feelings that come along with doing things the church likely wouldn’t approve of. It’s about the ongoing repercussions of those actions. It’s about friendship. It’s about race (the story takes place in a black community in California). It’s about the aftermath of trauma. Bennett handles all this in a subtle way…it’s there, a part of Nadia’s life, impacting her feelings and decisions, but life goes on. For me, this rang true to how life really happens. The Mothers will no doubt make my Best Books of 2016 List and would also make a fantastic book club selection.

The Advil

Hungry Heart, Jennifer WeinerHungry Heart by Jennifer Weiner
Nonfiction – Memoir (Released October 11, 2016)
432 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Atria Books) via NetGalley

Plot Summary: Bestselling author Jennifer Weiner’s memoir-style essay collection about her childhood, writing, her struggle with her weight, marriage, and motherhood…and the Bachelor/ette.

My Thoughts: You probably know Jennifer Weiner from her bestselling novels Good in Bed and In Her Shoes or her hilarious and pointed live-tweeting of the Bachelor/ette shows. But, her memoir reminded me that there is far more to this lady than enlivening my Twitter feed on Monday nights. Hungry Heart is an incredibly relatable memoir about a girl gradually growing comfortable in her own skin. After reading about her childhood (which includes a horrific father and adjusting to her mother starting to date women at age 54), I came to respect her determination, work ethic, and ability to recover from her father’s abandonment. She worked her tail off to become the writer she is and was never swept up in the glamour of the “writer’s life.” This memoir also confirmed my belief that she is an author who should host a podcast and I can see her dispensing Dear Sugar-style advice to women as successfully as Cheryl Strayed. Though the book was overly long and a bit repetitive towards the end, it was the perfect mix of light-hearted humor and real-life struggle to help me adequately recover from The Mothers!

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Three Favorite 2016 Summer Reads: Siracusa, The Hopefuls, and You Will Know Me

August 11, 2016 Mini Book Reviews 28

In July, I had a reading streak of absolutely perfect light reads that would be great for vacation. All these books will be going on my 2016 Summer Reading Guide.

Siracusa, Delia EphronSiracusa by Delia Ephron
Fiction (Released July 12, 2016)
304 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Blue Rider Press) via NetGalley

Plot Summary: Relationships are put to the test when two couples (and one couple’s somewhat odd daughter) vacation together in Italy.

My Thoughts: Siracusa might be my favorite vacation-type read so far this year! It’s light and fast-moving, but also smartly written. The story is told from each of the four adults’ perspectives and the writing style shifts with each voice. Going into the trip, both marriages had their own issues, with each spouse frequently mocking his/her partner. As the trip takes on a somewhat surreal quality, everyone starts acting out…refusing to hide their pent-up resentments any longer. Ephron generates suspense by dropping little hints about innocuous moments that later take on greater meaning…contributing to the feeling that things are eventually going to combust.

Beyond the story itself, the characters’ musings on everything from marriage and cheating to travel and the writer’s life allowed Ephron’s writing to shine and kicked this book a notch above other vacation reads for me.

I must have understood more than I realized, how fragile things between us were. Now I do nothing but look at things other ways, flipping them up and around, examining them, trying to understand at the very least my own obtuseness. I think, I really do torture myself with this: Surprises don’t come from people we know well, certainly not people we love. We call them surprises but they are inevitabilities. I must have been playing a role, a starring role, in an inevitability.

Siracusa is a fantastic choice if you’re heading on vacation (particularly to Italy).

The Hopefuls, Jennifer CloseThe Hopefuls by Jennifer Close
Fiction (Released July 19, 2016)
320 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased (Publisher: Knopf)

Plot Summary: When young couple Matt and Beth Kelly move from New York City to Washington, D.C. for Matt’s job, they must navigate marriage and friendship in the political world.

My Thoughts: While The Hopefuls is set in the political world, it’s not a book about politics. Rather, it’s a book about marriage and friendship set against the backdrop of politics. Beth finds D.C. an odd and unwelcoming place until she and Matt meet the Dillons, another couple who will become their best friends. Beth is an accessible and relatable narrator and her witty commentary about the douche-y D.C. politicos had me chuckling. Maybe it was her pop culture references (including one about Friday Night Lights!) or her propensity to point out D.C. traits I would also find annoying or the fact that she and Matt’s time in NYC coincided with mine, but I felt like she was speaking my language. The Hopefuls also tackles themes that resonated with me: making new friends as adults (and navigating the boundaries of said friendships), the nosiness of small towns, and trying to find your footing in a new place.

Here’s what I still hate about DC: the way that nothing is permanent, the feeling that everything and everyone you know, could (and does) wash away every four or eight years. All of these important people, so ingrained in the city—you can’t imagine that this place could exist without them. But one day they’re gone and everything keeps moving just the same. Who can get their footing in a place like this? It feels like quicksand to me.

My only complaint was that the ending wrapped things up a little too nicely, yet didn’t. The question of where the characters end up was answered, but some large issues that figured prominently in the storyline and certainly should have impacted the outcome of the book were left unexplored. Despite the unsatisfying ending, I thoroughly enjoyed the ride (which, as I discussed here, is generally more important to me anyway) and highly recommend The Hopefuls as a light, relatable summer read.

You Will Know Me, Megan AbbottYou Will Know Me by Megan Abbott
Fiction (Released July 26, 2016)
352 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased (Publisher: Little, Brown)

Plot Summary: A tragic accident throws fifteen year-old gymnastics prodigy Devon Knox and her family’s carefully constructed training plans into chaos. 

My Thoughts: If you’re looking for a book that you can fly through, this is it. Megan Abbott writes young girls in the most deliciously demented way (see The Fever and Dare Me) and what better world for characters like that to inhabit than elite gymnastics. Only this time Abbott throws in a pack of overly zealous parents to deepen the appeal. She choreographs a meticulously drawn world of tiny powerhouse girls, parents who push all else aside to “help” their daughters achieve “their” dreams, and families whose literal (mountains of credit card debt, multiple mortgages) and figurative fortunes ride on their daughters’ young shoulders. 

A few months later, after placing sixth on beam and bars in the Level 10 Junior Nationals in sunstruck Orlando, she was ranked first among all Level 10s in their home state. “The greatest day of our life,” Devon said, and everyone laughed at the our, except it was true, wasn’t it?

Though the central plot points weren’t entirely unexpected, Abbott’s writing style had me on the edge of my seat, frantically turning pages, even though I was fairly confident I knew how this would end. The paragraphs are short…with an almost breathless quality and I could feel the tension crackling. If you’re not getting a big enough gymnastics fix during this week’s Olympics competition or just want a page-turning beach read, You Will Know Me is your ticket.

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Only Love Can Break Your Heart by Ed Tarkington: The Southern Coming of Age Novel of 2016?

January 28, 2016 Southern Fiction 16

Only Love Can Break Your HeartFiction – Southern
Released January 5, 2016
320 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Algonquin Books) via NetGalley

Headline

The awkward and innocent, yet calculating voice of Rocky made this Southern coming of age story sparkle…and reminded me a bit of My Sunshine Away, one of my favorite books of 2015.

Plot Summary

When Richard (aka “Rocky”) was eight years old, his rebellious older half-brother, Paul, disappears without explanation, setting off a chain of events that impact their family and community in rural Spencerville, Virginia.

Why I Read It

Rory at Fourth Street Review (my go-to source for Grit Lit recommendations) brought this novel to my attention via her Debut Novels to Look For: Early 2016 list. I haven’t seen many reviews from the bloggers I follow (yet), but I would LOVE for this one to get some more attention!

Major Themes

Coming of age, bonds between brothers, dysfunctional families

What I Liked

  • While I wouldn’t call this debut novel “Grit Lit”, it is a top-notch Southern coming of age story that reminded me a bit of My Sunshine Away, one of my favorite books of last year. Like My Sunshine Away, there is “action” and suspense in this story, but it really serves as a vehicle for Rocky’s coming of age, not the other way around.
  • I loved the focus on the imperfect bond between brothers and the healthy dose of the type of teenage boy hijinks that went on before the world became more uptight.

All I knew was that Paul was effortlessly cool – that even the people who scowled at him plainly desired and envied both his beauty and his indifference. Naturally I worshipped him.

  • But, what really made this book sparkle for me was Rocky, the narrator’s, voice. It’s just the right mix of awkward teenage boy (i.e. Rocky tries to flirt with a girl by making her a mix tape!), innocence, angst, and calculation.

We must all recall the incomprehensible spite of the schoolyard bully: the random selectivity of his malice, the helpless acquiescence of his prey. Perhaps the worst of all, the pathetic betrayal of the victim’s so-called friends, who stand aside or perhaps even laugh and jeer, loyalty being a far less powerful instinct than self-preservation.

What I Didn’t Like

  • I would have liked to lop off the last 10 pages or so of this book. The story ended beautifully for me – a perfect balance of wrapping things up and letting some questions remain unanswered. Then, there came another ten pages of neat and tidy updates on where all the characters ended up…which read much like an Epilogue (but it wasn’t) or a high school yearbook’s Senior Predictions section.
  • If you think you might want to read this book, I would avoid reading the publisher’s blurb (or at least the second paragraph). It includes way too much information for my taste!

A Defining Quote

At some point, every boy feels the urge to lash out at something, to be cruel and violent, to curse the world for its frail humanity. But only a few have the will – be it born of courage or recklessness, folly or sublime wisdom – to act and, by their action, transform themselves. They will pay for their courage, of course; the world does not treat its others lightly. But so will the rest of us – the ones who love them – haunted as we are by our envy of their bright, burning beauty, which we can bear neither to look at nor to turn away from.

Good for People Who Like…

Southern Fiction, gorgeous writing, coming of age, teenage angst, small town life, secrets/betrayals

Other Books You May Like

Southern fiction with a similar narrator’s voice:
My Sunshine Away by M.O. Walsh

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Why Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff Left Me Utterly Conflicted

September 15, 2015 Fiction 33

Fates and Furies, Lauren GroffFiction
Released September 15, 2015
400 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Riverhead) via NetGalley

Headline

The first section (Fates) was a 2 or 3 star slog, but the second section (Furies) is unquestionably a 5 star read. Overall, pushing through the beginning was worth it for me and I’m adding it to my Book Club Recommendation List.

Plot Summary

The story of the marriage of Lotto, a gregarious aspiring actor from a wealthy background, and Mathilde, a mysterious model he met in college, told first from Lotto’s perspective, then from Mathilde’s.

Why I Read It

The Riverhead rep at BEA’s Book Group Speed Dating event sold the living daylights out of this novel. It was the book I was most excited about coming out of BEA.

Major Themes

Marriage, differing perspectives, secrets/betrayal

What I Liked

  • I love the overall theme of differing perspectives, particularly as it relates to a marriage. Groff deftly shows how one person’s background can shape his/her perspective on events…sometimes ending up with a vastly different interpretation than others. 
  • Lotto’s version of his life with Mathilde (Fates) seems fairly normal and even uneventful, but things completely turn on their heads once you switch to Mathilde’s perspective (Furies). So many times, I was left astounded at what had really gone on.
  • Though it took me awhile to get there, I had a very hard time putting the book down by the end.
  • This is a book that has me thinking and pondering and I feel like it will stick with me for a long time.
  • The writing started out a bit terse and I initially had trouble getting into the flow. But, as the story moves along, the writing ends up being absolutely glorious. I was highlighting like crazy by the end.

They handed over spider plants in terra-cotta, six-packs, books, bottles of wine. Yuppies in embryo, miming their parents’ manners. In twenty years, they’d have country houses and children with pretentious literary names and tennis lessons and ugly cars and liaisons with hot young interns. Hurricanes of entitlement, all swirl and noise and destruction, nothing at their centers.

What I Didn’t Like

  • This book started very slowly for me. The first half (maybe even 60%) really meandered and I wondered when it would get to a point. Honestly, I considered putting it down multiple times in the first half and probably would have had I not been so excited about it going in. I’d probably give the Fates section 2 or 3 stars at most.
  • This might be one of the only books where I’ve been glad I knew a bit about the story before reading it (usually, I like to know as little as possible). The only thing keeping me going was knowing that the story turned on its head once you got to Mathilde’s perspective.
  • While I realize that setting up Lotto’s perspective of their life was critical to Mathilde’s perspective having impact, I wish the overall book had been more heavily weighted toward Mathilde. She was the more layered, fascinating character that drew me in, yet more of the book’s real estate was devoted to Lotto.
  • For well over half of the book, I felt incredibly distant from the characters. Events that should have gotten a reaction out of me felt ho-hum.

Lingering Questions

  • Was this book a victim of my overly high expectations or did I repeatedly give it a pass in the first half because of those expectations? So, did my expectations save it or kill it?
  • How good does an ending have to be to outweigh a long and slow journey? Clearly, this was one of the books that inspired my recent post on journeys vs. endings.
  • Does the phenomenal 5 star Furies section bring the entire book up to 5 stars, even though the Fates second would only get 2 or 3 stars from me? I pondered this right up until the last minute before posting this review and finally landed on no, but it did kick it up to 4 stars and a “read it” recommendation.

A Defining Quote

Up before Lotto rose a vision of himself as if attached to a hundred shining strings by his fingers, eyelids, toes, the muscles of his mouth. All the strings led to Mathilde’s pointer finger, and she moved it with the subtlest of twitches and made him dance.

Good for People Who Like…

Books about marriage, secrets/betrayal, books that make you think, great writing, mind games

Other Books You May Like

Because of its theme(s) of marriage and differing perspectives within a marriage:
The Wife by Meg Wolitzer

When Supernatural & VooDoo Work for Me: The Gates of Evangeline and The Star Side of Bird Hill

September 10, 2015 Mini Book Reviews 22

Supernatural and/or voodoo type elements are usually turn offs for me in books, but The Gates of Evangeline and The Star Side of Bird Hill are two debut novels that bucked the trend!

The Gates of Evangeline, Hester YoungThe Gates of Evangeline by Hester Young
Southern Fiction (Released September 1, 2015)
416 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it…if you’re looking for a Southern family drama page turner.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Putnam) via NetGalley

Plot Summary: To escape the grief over losing her son, New Yorker Charlotte Cates decamps to Louisiana to write a book about a thirty year-old missing person case involving the wealthy Deveau family of the estate, Evangeline.

My Thoughts: I love me some Southern family drama and books about wealthy people behaving badly, so it’s not surprising that those aspects of this debut novel appealed to me. But, The Gates of Evangeline also contains a number of elements that usually turn me off: ghosts/visions, a cliche romance, some cheesy writing, and some predictable plot twists. But, I really enjoyed this book despite all the red flags. It reads quickly and easily and, though I guessed a couple of the major plot points early on, I was surprised by most of the surrounding details. Maybe I just needed a solid Southern family drama page turner or, maybe, I just needed an easy read. Whatever the reason, The Gates of Evangeline came along at just the right time and would make a great beach read.

Star Side of Bird Hill, Naomi JacksonThe Star Side of Bird Hill by Naomi Jackson
Fiction (Released June 30, 2015)
294 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased

Plot Summary: After their mother becomes unable to care for them in Brooklyn, sisters Dionne (16) and Phaedra (10) are sent to live with their midwife grandmother (Hyacinth) on Bird Hill in Barbados.

My Thoughts: Everything about this debut novel is just gorgeous: most obviously the writing, but also the coming of age story with generational and cultural clashes front and center. Dionne and Phaedra have been raised in troubling circumstances in Brooklyn and experience quite a culture shock when they arrive on conservative Bird Hill. They suddenly have far more oversight and discipline than they’re used to in the form of Hyacinth’s tough love. Each sister adjusts to Bird Hill differently and poses unique challenges for Hyacinth, resulting in most of the “life lessons” passages that pepper this novel.

You can’t wait for someone else to save you from the life you made for yourself. If I teach you girls anything, I hope it’s how to gird up your loins and face the fate that’s yours.

Jackson’s language flows beautifully, with a comforting tone that invites you into the hominess of Bird Hill. With Hyacinth’s role as the local midwife and practitioner of Obeah (a Caribbean form of folk magic involving herbs and potions) and a high value placed on community and religion, there is a strong sense of place and a simpler way of life. I’m usually not a huge fan of anything resembling folk magic, but Jackson makes it work here much like it worked for me in The Unraveling of Mercy Louis and The Shore. The Star Side of Bird Hill was my favorite August read, came this close to getting 5 stars from me, and is going on my Great Books Under 300 Pages List!