Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Maya's Notebook, by Isabel Allende

At the age of 19, Maya has experienced more than most people do in a lifetime.  Raised primarily by her grandparents, Maya's life took a dramatic turn when she was 16.  She started by cutting class and dressing like a goth, and ended up a homeless, drug addicted prostitute on the run from a street gang and the FBI.  Maya's grandmother comes up with a solution; Maya is going to spend a year on an island off the coast of Chile.  During that year, Maya writes her story in her notebook.

Having never really read much South American and South American inspired literature, I was unsure what to expect from this book.  Yet I get the distinct impression that this book is fairly representative of literature by South American authors.  The pace is slow, and dreamy, which was a bit problematic for me, but to people accustomed to the style it will simply appear beautiful.  The words themselves are lovely, the writing style poetic and lyrical.  

I did adore Maya as a character.  She is incredibly complex.  Although the slow pace of the book was a bit difficult for me, I think it was important to let her character develop slowly.  We needed to really care about her before we learned her entire story.  Maya made the story for me.

Fans of South American authors will surely love this book.

I received a review copy courtesy of TLC Book Tours, in exchange for my honest review.  See the rest of the tour here.

 tlc logo resized

Monday, April 29, 2013

Half as Happy, by Gregory Spatz

The world is full of people with stories to tell.  Stories of tragedy, of aching loss, of momentary whimsy, of childhood antics, and of bliss filled seconds of peace.  In this collection of short stories, we get a peek into the different kinds of everyday stories people have to tell.  Some are sad, some are sweet, but most importantly, they all just are.

I am a big fan of classic short stories, but I tend to struggle a little with more contemporary short story collections.  Not because they are not well written, just because the contemporary short story has a different sort of pacing.  And I did find that to be true of this collection.  The writing itself, the very words that make up the stories, are nothing short of glorious.  And the ideas at the heart of the stories are all brilliant.  The one thing I personally struggled with was a connection to the characters.  To me, it was sort of that feeling of being under water, and looking up at the world around you.  You see the real world, but a wavering, distorted view.  That is how I felt about a lot of the characters.  I found myself wanting a much clearer view of them.  However, that is not how life really works, is it?

One of the stories stood out to me a lot, regarding an adult set of twins.  To me, this is the best of all eight stories in the book.  I thought there was a tremendous amount of symbolism in the story, and find myself wanting to dissect the psychology behind it all.  

All in all, this is an interesting collection of stories.  Thought the book is slim, I would encourage you to not rush through the stories.  Take your time, soak in each one.

I received a review copy courtesy of TLC Book Tours in exchange for my honest review.  See the rest of the tour here.

  tlc logo resized

Friday, April 26, 2013

Dark Tide, by Elizabeth Haynes

Genevieve is fulfilling her dream of restoring a barge into a fabulous houseboat, but getting there was difficult.  Along the way, she got mixed up in a seedy world of dancing, drugs, and dangerous men.  Now, just when her life should be perfect, Genevieve finds herself in the midst of darkness.  After a dead body is found near her houseboat, she realizes the danger she is in.

Having read books by this author, I have to say, I was slightly disappointed.  I expected the book to be a bit more thrilling than it was.  The actual "thrill" nature of the book really kind of fell flat for me.  Yes, there was suspense and intrigue, but it just did not seem to move me, and I cannot put my finger on why.  In terms of plot, I was most interested in the portions of the backstory that occurred in the underbelly, surrounding the gentleman's club.  The action and narrative switch from past to present with little to no warning, and it seems a bit jarring in the context of the story.

In terms of characters, I also struggled.  I found Genevieve a hard character to understand.  When women choose "alternative" forms of employment, I often wonder why.  I never felt like Genevieve's motives were genuine or believable, or perhaps just not spelled out in a convincing way.  I am also unconvinced about the love interests she develops in the story.  Both seem unlikely, and underdeveloped.  

I did really like the idea of Genevieve living on a houseboat.  In fact, this was the most intriguing part of the story for me.  I liked the little idyllic world of the marina, and it saddened me a little that so much darkness entered that little piece of paradise.

Overall, the book is just o.k. for me, nothing stellar.  It would certainly appeal to fans of mystery and suspense, thriller, and intrigue.  For me personally, it just fell a tiny bit flat.

I received a review copy courtesy of TLC Book Tours in exchange for my honest review.  See the rest of the tour here.

  tlc logo resized

Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Clover House, by Henriette Lazaridis Power

Cali receives word that her uncle in Greece has died, and left a large portion of his estate contents to her.  She decides to travel to Greece to sort through his belongings.  Along the way, she confronts ghosts from her family's past, and learns a long buried secret that has impacted her life without her knowledge.

I really struggled with this book.  Like so many books these days, the story has duel timelines, one set in present day, and one set in the 40s.  In present day, Cali is dealing with a fear of commitment, brought about by her memories of her parents' acrimonious marriage.  She runs off to Greece, under the guise of dealing with her uncle's estate.  The storyline then focuses on this huge family secret that her uncle apparently wanted her to uncover, thus the reason he leaves his estate contents to her.  I found the story to really plod along, both the past storyline and the present storyline.  I felt like the two stories never really met up.  And by the time we learned what this big family secret was, I found I no longer cared.  There was so much drama and buildup, the reveal ended up being lackluster.

The characters were also somewhat blah.  The only character I found to have real depth was Clio, Cali's mother.  However, she was such a nasty character, I really did not like reading about her.  None of the characters really engaged me in the story.  Perhaps if I were Greek, I would have felt more connected to this story.  There was a great emphasis on Greek culture, without any real explanation of it, so once again, I found myself unable to connect.

All in all, I was just pretty disappointed with the book.  It never clicked with me, and I really did not feel like I gained anything by reading it.

I received a review copy of the book courtesy of TLC Book Tours in exchange for my honest review.  See the rest of the tour here.

 tlc logo resized

Reconstructing Amelia, by Kimberly McCreight

Kate is at work when she receives a call from her daughter's school.  Apparently, her daughter, Amelia, has gotten suspended.  But before Kate can get to the school, something shocking happens; Amelia is found dead, apparently having leapt off the school roof.  After some initial time has passed, Kate receives an anonymous text message suggesting Amelia did not actually jump.  Kate begins digging into her daughter's life through her text messages, emails, and social media accounts, and discovers a web of lies and deceit.

This book was like Pretty Little Liars on steroids.  So much malice and deceit is uncovered along the way.  I thought the mystery/thriller aspect of the story was very good.  I was completely hooked, and read the book in less than 24 hours.  I could not help but be enthralled by the sordid lives of these teenage girls.  Much like an accident scene, it was hard to look away despite the fact that what I was seeing was horrible.

I really loved Amelia as a character.  It is interesting the way we learn who she is, a combination of her past tense narrative, emails, text messages, and information presented by other characters.  I felt like we got a well rounded look at her, and a completely honest image.  She seems like such a typical teen girl, struggling with such normal problems.  Yet the world in which she resides is cut-throat, and the problems do not end with her fellow teens.

I thought there was a lot going on in the book, but all the details really added to the story, and were wrapped up well in the end.  The thing that struck me most of all was how easy it would be for a story like this to happen in real life. We hear stories all the time about teen bullying, and cyber bullying.  So while the story is fiction, it is quite realistic.

I received a review copy courtesy of TLC Book Tours in exchange for my honest review.  See the rest of the tour here.

  tlc logo resized

Monday, April 22, 2013

Orphan Train, by Christina Baker Kline

Molly is a 17 year old girl who has been bounced around the social services system for years.  Her current foster placement is safe, but she still does not fit in.  When she is forced to do community service hours, she meets Vivian, a 91 year old woman who was an orphan herself.  Over the course of time, Molly learns that despite their age difference, she and Vivian have much in common.  And Vivian finally shares her story with someone, after all these years.

If I had to choose a phrase to describe this book, I would choose "heartbreakingly beautiful".  The story is so touching, with its ups and downs.  I felt really emotionally connected to this book, despite the fact that it took me a bit of time to get into it.  I loved the historical nature of the story, surrounding the orphan trains in the early part of the 20th century, and following Vivian's life through various parts of history.  I also like the intertwining nature of both Molly and Vivian's stories.  I found the dual timelines deftly executed, and the result is a story that is seamless, even though it covers so many decades.

I felt very attached to both Molly and Vivian as characters.  I wanted to defend them, to comfort them, and to help them have a better life.  I know that sounds silly, since they are merely characters in a book.  However, the fact remains that these characters are modeled after true stories; people really do go through these kinds of things.  As characters, both women were richly developed.  I loved seeing such strong female characters, able to persevere through hardships and not allow themselves to become victims.

While the story deals with a few rough topics (abuse, drugs/alcohol, death), I think this would actually be a great book for mature young adults who are interested in history.  I also feel like many adult fans of historical fiction and contemporary fiction will enjoy the book.  It certainly had a tremendous impact on me.

I received a review copy courtesy of TLC Book Tours in exchange for my honest review.  See the rest of the tour here.

 tlc logo resized

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Elders, by Ryan McIlvain

Elder McLead is three quarters of the way finished with his mission in Brazil.  As an American, he has a difficult time fitting in with the locals, and as a brash headstrong young man, he has difficulty fitting in with the other missionaries.  He gets paired with a new partner, Elder Passos, who is a Brazilian convert.  They two men could not be more different, and it puts tremendous strain on their partnership.  Their relationships changes when they begin working to convert a beautiful woman and her husband, until everything goes terribly wrong.

I must admit that I have a lot of curiosity when it comes to the Mormon religion, which is what drew me to this book.  I am fascinated by Mormon doctrine, and I while I know of their missions, I know very little of what life is like for the missionaries.  I felt like this was a very honest view of what can happen to young missionaries.  Obviously not all missions are like the one depicted in the book, but I bet more missionaries struggle with these things than anyone is willing to admit.  The biggest struggles discussed in the book revolve around sexual sin and lack of faith or belief, problems I see plaguing all kind of religions.  Many Mormons may not care for this book, considering it dirty and inaccurate, but I bet it hits home more than any would like to admit.

I really thought the writing was fascinating.  I felt drawn into this secret world, like I was spying on the characters, and I enjoyed that voyeuristic aspect.  I found Elder McLead to be genuine, and can imagine many readers would relate to him.  I personally rooted for him, and felt bad for every setback and frustration he suffered.  The dynamic between the two elders is really interesting for the most part.  The plot is not packed full of action, this story is more about nuance.  For that reason, some readers may find it a little slow, but I was intrugued.

While the sexual issues and strong language are present in the book, they are pertinent to the story, and therefore I had no issue with them.  I would even say that with the sexuality and language, this book would still be appropriate for mature teen readers.

I received  a review copy courtesy of the Amazon Vine program, in exchange for my honest review.

Monday, April 15, 2013

All You Could Ask For, by Mike Greenberg

Katherine is a 40 year old Wall Street executive.  Brook is a wife and mother of twins.  Samantha is a female athlete who just married a politician.  None of these women seem all that similar.  Each has her own life, her own drama, and her own way of coping.  But eventually, these women realize they have something very important in common, something that will change their lives.

I have super mixed feelings about this book, because the first half of the book and the second half each had a very different effect on me.  I adored the first half.  We meet the women, we learn the gossip, we watch their fairy tale/soap opera stories unfold before us.  It is intimate, and genuine, and I honestly came to adore all three women.  I felt like each woman's story connected with me, and I could not WAIT to see where this was headed.

Then, I started the second part, and felt like I had been punched in the gut, and while I suspect that was the author's intention, I can tell you, I really disliked it.  By the end of the book, I had reconciled a bit with the way the rest of the story turned out for both Samantha and Katherine, but I really disliked the rest of Brook's story.  It felt like I was complicit in her lie, and I hated that.  

In general, I really enjoyed the writing of this book.  Had I gone into this book blindly, I would have never thought this book was written by a man, let alone a man who works at ESPN, the epitome of machismo.  I felt that the female characters were well written, and well developed early in the story.  I felt like they were also realistic; the characters had depth and dimension.  They reminded me of women I know personally.  So, I greatly admire the author's writing style, I just did not like the second half of the book as much as I did the first half.

I received a review copy courtesy of TLC Book Tours in exchange for my honest review.  See the rest of the tour here.

  tlc logo resized

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Twerp, by Mark Goldblatt

Julian Twerski has gotten the unfortunate nickname of Twerp.  And he has gotten himself into a heap of trouble.  As an attempt to right the wrongs he has committed, Julian is working with one of his teachers, writing down stories from his life, trying to make sense of his own behavior.  Through his writing, Julian reveals what a truly complex young man he is.

I really enjoyed this book, and found it to be a very touching read.  Julian, as a character, is revealed to us through a series of essays he writes about his own life, all the while hinting at some trouble he has gotten himself into.  One the one hand, we have all the bravado typical of a preteen boy, but on the other hand, we see a sweet, sensitive side to Julian, and watch him grow into his own wisdom.  I really loved Julian as a character, I felt his voice was really genuine.  He goes from worrying about being the fastest runner in school to pondering the nature of his friendships.  It felt so familiar to the struggles I went through at that age, struggles we all went through.  I felt like middle grades readers would really relate to the book.

I loved the way the book was written.  It flowed nicely for an adult to read, but was also nicely chunked into sections for younger readers to tackle.  The writing is really timeless, as well.  There is a passing reference to the book taking place in the late 60's, but it could have been just as easily taking place today, and I think that timelessness will really resonate with readers.

In short, this was a great book, and has a great message for young adult and middle grades readers.

I received a review copy courtesy of NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Exposure, by Kim Askew and Amy Helmes

Despite the fact that he is a jock and the new big man on campus, Craig is secretly friends with Skye, who is awkward and in a much lower social circle.  And despite the fact that Craig is dating the beautiful cheerleader Beth, Skye is desperately in love with him.  When Craig's friend and teammate Duncan mysteriously dies, Skye finds that Craig and Beth are hiding something.  Will her desire to protect him be stronger than her conscience?  Or will Beth prove to be the strongest force of all?

Even as a teenager, I really liked Shakespeare.  At times, I was a little frustrated with the language and style of his writings, but when I was able to strip that away and get to the heart of the stories, I was in love.  Young adults today have a little less patience, and are less likely to seek out the heart of his writing, which is why I think books like this can be so brilliant.  This book is a modern retelling of Macbeth, and I found it to be really well done.  It had the perfect balance of creative liberty with the story, while sticking to the most important themes and aspects of the original tale.

I found Skye to be really intriguing as a character, despite the fact that she is the biggest change from the original story.  She serves as a kind of narrator, her point of view frames all the action.  And the story is just as much hers at it is Craig's.  I liked that many of the characters bore strong resemblance to their original counterparts, while others, like the "witches" were quite modern.  Again, I found it to be a great balance.

The thing I really liked about the book is it seemed genuine.  I felt like it accurately portrayed young adult life.  The kids struggled with things real teens do, and for the most part they talked and acted like real teens do.  That means young adult readers will be more likely to connect with this book.  I really think that, by pairing this with the original tale, teachers could open up great discussions with their students over the deeper themes at work in Macbeth.  All in all, I think this is a real gem.

I received a review copy courtesy of the Amazon Vine program, in exchange for my honest review.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Fear in the Sunlight, by Nicola Upson

In 1936, Josephine Trey spent some time at a resort with her friends, interacting with famous film director Alfred Hitchcock.  Hitchcock wants to buy Josephine's novel to make it into a film, so the goal of the weekend is to convince her to seal the deal.  Events take several odd turns, ending up with dead bodies.  It seems like an open and shut case, but many years later the truth is revealed.

I really struggled with this book, for a few different reasons.  We know from the beginning that a murder crime has occurred, but after its first mention, it is not even hinted at again for about 100 pages.  That made the book really plod along in my opinion.  It took so long to get to the action, that by the time the action started occurring, it was pretty lackluster.  Also, there were entirely too many characters for my taste.  I had an incredibly difficult time keeping the characters, and their multitudinous secrets, straight.  I felt like none of the characters were very well developed, which was part of the reason I could not keep them straight.  It has been one full day since I finished the book, and already, I have forgotten most of the characters and their details, because to me, they just were not memorable.

I thought the concept of Alfred Hitchcock as a character was going to be really cool, but I was a little disappointed.  Perhaps I was too colored by the public image of Hitch, but I just had a hard time imagining him saying the things he did in the book.  I feel like, as a person, he had a pretty distinctive voice, and I was not convinced that was captured in the book.

The book does a great job of setting the scene, to me this was probably its biggest strength.  I loved the setting, and the role it played in the story.  It has the perfect combination of luxury and creepiness to make the perfect ambiance for the story.  The book seems much like a traditional mystery book, which may account for my inability to really connect (I prefer contemporary mysteries and thrillers).  It is also one in a series, and having never read the previous books in the series may have altered my opinions as well.

I received a review copy courtesy of TLC Book Tours, in exchange for my honest opinion.  See the rest of the tour here.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Roses Have Thorns, by Sandra Byrd

Elin is leaving her home in Sweden, and her unfaithful fiance, to head to England,  and the court of Queen Elizabeth.  Through marriage, Elin gains rank, and changes her name to Helena, embracing her new identity as a British woman.  Helena develops a close relationship with the Queen, seeing her through perilous interactions with Mary, Queen of Scots.  Throughout the years, Helena learns much about love, loyalty, and what it is that she holds most dear.

Sandra Byrd never fails to bewitch readers with her historical fictional accounts of life in the Tudor court.  I really fell in love with Elin/Helena as a character.  It was interesting to see the perspective of an outsider coming into court life, making choices regarding her loyalty to a country that was not the one of her birth.  I loved watching Elin grow throughout the years, and see the different roles she took on.  I particularly loved watching her relationship with the Queen.  While there was still the appropriate royal etiquette in place, Elin helped the Queen appear as more than just a monarch, but also a real woman, with heartaches, desires, and disappointments.

The Tudor dynasty is fascinating to a great many readers, both British and American.  I really love the way the author weaves small historical details into the larger historical fiction picture.  When historical fiction is done well, it allows history to really come alive, and that certainly happened for me with this book.  I knew very little about the conflict between Queen Elizabeth and Mary, Queen of Scots, so watching it unfold through Elin's eyes really helped me connect to that aspect of the story in a way that no history book ever could.  When I read a book like this, my first instinct is to then research the actual history records to learn more.  I think that is a tremendous compliment to an author of historical fiction, because clearly, the story connected pretty deeply.

Fans of historical fiction will adore this, particularly Anglophiles.  This book is a must read for anyone who is fascinated with the Tudor monarchy.

I received a review copy courtesy of the author in exchange for my honest review.

Something About Sophie, by Mary Kay McComas

Sophie has always known she was adopted, and never really cared to learn about her biological parents.  But when a mysterious stranger contacts her asking to meet with him to discuss her birth mother, curiosity gets the best of her.  She arrives at his bedside a little too late to hear his deathbed confession, but his will, and her role in it, pushes the curiosity even further.  Suddenly, people are being harmed, all because of the secret of Sophie's biological mother.

While this is a mystery book, it feels very untypical of the mystery genre.  Sure, the book opens with a murder, and the secret that murder is protecting, but I found myself focusing much more on the characters than the mystery.  I was really enchanted by Sophie as a character, and her desire to be, as she repeatedly states, flint.  It is clear that she is protecting herself, and anticipates emotional trauma, despite the fact that she has a fairly happy life.  I am also fascinated with the concept of motherhood that Sophie is tangling with.  Her adopted mom died, and her biological mom is such a mystery, Sophie is left without maternal guidance, like a ship without a captain.

The story itself, in terms of mystery, seemed a tiny bit slow to me.  The action was just not enough to draw me in, but luckily the characters more than made up for it.  I cared more about Sophie's personal relationships that who was behind all the nefarious deeds.  However, because I was less invested in the mystery, the revelation came as a big surprise to me, which I loved.  I do feel like the story had good resolution, in every sense, and even despite my lack of connection to parts of the plot, I still consider this a good solid book.

The book will appeal to mystery fans, particularly female mystery fans, as well as fans of psychological thrillers.

I received a review copy courtesy of TLC Book Tours in exchange for my honest review.  See the rest of the tour here.

  tlc logo resized

Friday, April 5, 2013

Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter

In the 1960s, a beautiful American actress named Dee Moray shows up in a remote Italian town.  She stays at a hotel owned by Pasquale, and informs him she is meeting a male friend.  The actress is dying, and when the male friend never shows up, Pasquale takes matters into his own hands.  He seeks the man out, and the result will change the lives of many for years to come.

This book was slow to pull me in.  I knew it had gotten rave reviews, and for the first 50 pages or so, I could not understand why.  There are about 4 or 5 stories going on at once here, some of which I found very irrelevant to the overall story.  It switches time and point of view a lot, and for the life of me, I could not see where the story was going.  Eventually, however, it clicked for me.  And I did really enjoy most of the book.  The main storyline, of what happened in Italy all those years ago, is what made me stick with this book.  The modern storylines, well, I did not care about them at all, and I feel the added very little to the book (particularly the subplot of the young guy pitching his idea of a movie).

The only characters I really cared about were Dee and Pasquale.  However, I did love the fact that Richard Burton and Liz Taylor were characters in the story, it made for an interesting twist.  The modern characters (the producer, his assistant, the man pitching the movie) were of no interest to me, and I found myself mentally checking out on their portion of the story.

Still, it all sort of works, even the parts I found lackluster.  I did, in the end, enjoy the book, though not nearly as much as those rave reviewers.  A good book, but not on my list of best reads for the year.

I received a review copy courtesy of TLC Book Tours  in exchange for my honest review.  See the rest of the tour here.

 tlc logo resized

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Every Hill and Mountain, by Deborah Heal

Abby and John are back, and once again doing some time surfing.  This adventure involves trying to research the family tree of Abby's best friend, Kate.  Kate has traced her ancestry to a man named Ned Greenfield, in the small town of Equality.  The town looks old fashioned and idealistic, but slowly the sleuthing team discovers that not all is as it seems on the surface.  They discover the town has a deeply held secret, one that has a significant impact on Kate's family.

I am completely enchanted with this series.  I think that this third book may be my favorite yet, because it truly elicited emotional responses from me.  First off, we have some of the old characters that we know and love from the previous books.  I enjoy watching Abby and John's relationship evolve.  They truly function as a team, and it reminds me of my marriage.  I also liked having the storyline involve Kate a lot more.  While as a character I really disliked Kate's boyfriend Ryan, he was well written, and served a distinct purpose in the plot.

Speaking of the plot, I really loved the storyline, with a big emphasis on slavery, and the darker side of the slave trade in 19th century America.  This plot was emotional, not only due to it's actual historical context, but in light of all the people in today's world who are still denied their rights and freedoms.  Given the historical context, the language and themes are a little more uncomfortable than in the previous books in the series, but I think it is important the the author tackled them in an honest way.

I never had any doubt that this third book would be fantastic, based on how much I liked the first two, but this surpassed my expectations.  The book is Christian fiction, but the emphasis on evangelism is very low.  Violence and sexuality are mildly present within the appropriate context of the story, but by and large this is a very clean book, one that a parent would feel comfortable allowing a teen to read.

I received a review copy courtesy of the author in exchange for my honest review.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Guilty One, by Lisa Ballantyne

Daniel is a solicitor who is called in to deal with a controversial case.  Eleven year old Sebastian is accused of murdering his young friend Ben at the playground.  During the course of the investigation and trial, Daniel is forced to come to terms with his own troubled youth, and his relationship with the mother figures in his life.

What an emotionally intense book this was!  The action takes off from the very beginning, and while the idea of a child being murdered (possibly by another child) is incredibly morbid, it was also very captivating, and had me hooked from the first few pages.  The writing is crisp, without a lot of fluff, and the book has a feeling or moving rapidly.  There are dualing storylines, the criminal storyline focusing on Sebastian, and the more emotional storyline focusing on Daniel and his past.  The story switches with each chapter, but they run parallel, so that switch always makes sense.  Both stories unfold at the same pace, in complementary ways, so the writing has great impact.

The characters, both major and minor, are really complex, and it seems most everyone one has a guilty secret.  Sebastian, as a character, is troubling and unsettling, which makes his story so captivating.  Daniel, while still an intense character, is easier to handle.  There is obviously an emphasis on the theme of guilt and innocence, but also a strong emphasis on maternal relationships.  

The book will appeal to fans of contemporary thrillers, mysteries, and crime dramas.  But do not be fooled, this book has a lot more depth than just those specific genres.  I was more than a little impressed.

I received a review copy of the book courtesy of TLC Book Tours, in exchange for my honest review.  See the rest of the tour here.

 tlc logo resized