Friday, October 31, 2014

US by David Nicholls

I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher.

I have to admit that I was a bit lukewarm on ONE DAY.  I just didn't connect with it.  I think Nicholls' caught me at just the right moment with US.  Doug Petersen has a pretty decent life.  He has a good job, a wife he adores, a comfortable home, and an almost-grown son.  Through his 17-year-old son Albie is bit moody and unpleasant, he is about to leave for school and Doug has planned one last family trip of a Grand Tour around Europe.  Right before the trip, Doug's wife Connie wakes him up and tells him she doesn't want to be married to him anymore.  The pronouncement shakes Doug's world and he decides that the Grand Tour will now be a trip to reconnect with and save his family.

Although I still have awhile to go before I am Doug's age, something about his story really connected with me. Since I also have an only child who is a son, the story made me wonder what the future holds for my child and my relationships. As we follow Doug and his family on their disastrous trip, the story manages to be both humorous and heartbreaking.  Doug must confront facts about his family and who they really are and must take ownership of his own failings as a husband and father. Even so, you can't help rooting for this family to weather the storm and survive.  There were moments when I laughed out loud and others that nearly brought me to tears. Told in both the present tense and in flashbacks, the reader gets a clear idea of who these people are and the stresses of family life that led Doug, Connie and Albie to this point. I found it incredibly moving and well done.

BOTTOM LINE: Highly recommended. This may end up being one of my favorite books this year.  A wonderful story about a family in distress against the backdrop of European travels.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

UNBECOMING by Rebecca Scherm

I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher.

Grace is a chameleon. She is a master at fitting in and becoming the person that others want her to be. In her current incarnation, she is hiding out in Paris working in a business that repairs antiques.  She is hiding from the two most important men in her life who have just been released from prison. Grace grew up in small-town Garland, Tennessee where she was the girlfriend of the town golden boy, Riley.  Grace secretly marries Riley when they are in college in a move to maintain her position in his family. Soon after the marriage, she finds herself attracted to his friend Alls. In a desperate attempt to escape from Garland, the group of friends decides to rob a local historic home.  Alls, Riley, and their friend Greg are caught. Grace escapes to Europe with a valuable painting.  Now, her husband and lover have finally been released from prison and Grace is afraid that they will track her down and force her to confront not only her past but also who she has become.

I have seen this book compared to everything from GONE GIRL to Tartt's GOLDFINCH to Highsmith's TALENTED MR. RIPLEY. I did not think of any of those novels when reading UNBECOMING. The only real connection to GOLDFINCH is that of a stolen painting.  It is probably closest to TALENTED MR. RIPLEY simply because of Grace's attempt to play roles and become whoever she needs to be at any given moment. I really loved the idea of the book and the backstory. Grace is an interesting character and I loved reading about how she came to be in Paris.  The disappointment came with the ending.  It did not make any sense to me. The build-up was so good but the ending fell flat and didn't seem believable. There are hints about who Grace is at her core and this might be the closest connection I can make to GONE GIRL.  Grace's lack of a true core and sense of self is a little reminiscent of a certain character in GONE GIRL.  The reasoning behind this lack of self doesn't really work for me.  And I did not buy the transformation of Alls' character AT ALL.  It was a very nice, well-paced read until the ending and then it completely fell flat.

BOTTOM LINE: Not recommended. Interesting characters and a good concept but the author failed to follow through with a plausible ending.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014


(I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher)

I love a good scary story.  Especially at this time of year.  But I am very particular about my scary stories.  I like suspense and chills but I do NOT like explicit violence.  When the buzz started up among my library colleagues about this book, I knew I had to get my hands on a copy. It sounded like the perfect Autumn read.

Ever since he almost drowned in the ocean three years earlier, ten-year-old Jack Peter has been afraid to leave his home in a small coastal Maine town. It is implied that Jack Peter may have something akin to Asperger's which further isolates him and his family.  Jack Peter's only friend is Nick. Nick was there the day the two boys almost drowned and they share a special bond even though Nick is beginning to want to distance himself from Jack Peter. Jack Peter begins to draw monsters and it seems like those monsters are taking on a life of their own. Strange appearances begin to happen in the small town and Jack Peter's mother, Holly, begins to hear strange noises.  She turns to a local priest for help.  His housekeeper tells her about local shipwrecks and ghosts and convinces Holly that her family may be experiencing a haunting. Jack Peter's father, Tim, tries to find a rational explanation for the strange appearances but cannot find an explanation. While Holly, Tim, and Nick try to make sense of what is happening, only Jack Peter knows the truth.

This is such a hard book to describe!  Especially without giving away spoilers!  The story is very atmostpheric.  It takes place in the winter when all of the Summer people have fled for the season. This makes the town feel isolated and remote. The descriptions of the apparitions are chilling and the reader is forced to try and make sense of what is happening.  Are these truly the ghosts of shipwrecked souls?  Why are they plaguing this one family?  The majority of the book gives the reader a feeling of unease and uncertainty.  What exactly is going on here?  There is less overt horror and more the suggestion of frightening things.  It isn't until the very end of the book that Donohue turns everything on its head.  When I read the last page, I yelled, "GET OUT!"  I did not see the ending coming. 

BOTTOM LINE: Highly recommended.  I think Gaiman fans will find a lot to like here.  The book is spooky without being grotesque and violent.  The M. Night Shyamalan-style ending will delight readers and make them want to start the whole book over again.  The perfect read for cold evenings by the fire.

Friday, September 26, 2014

DINOSAUR FARM by Frann Preston-Gannon

(I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher.)

Dinosaurs and farms! What a winning combination!  This book just made me smile the first time I saw it. Before sitting down to read it with my 6-yr-old, I read through it first on my own. It gave me an idea. I told my son that I had a new book for us to read together but he had to promise to keep his eyes closed. I told him to imagine the pictures in his mind.  I was curious to see what conclusions he would draw. Here's the fun little trick about this book. The text says NOTHING about dinosaurs! 

"First things first.
Your animals will be hungry, so you
must serve them breakfast."

My son pictured a farmer feeding chickens and cows.  This is the actual illustration:

After we read through the book with my son's eyes closed, I told him to open his eyes and we would read it again. He was so surprised to see all the dinosaurs!  The book takes you through an average farmer's day with the twist that dinosaurs live on the farm. The farmer cares for the animals and plants and even has to deal with messes like dinosaur poop left by the Triceratops!


The farmer also has an adorable pet dinosaur in place of a dog that appears on most pages. My son loved looking for him and seeing what he was doing. We also enjoyed trying to identify the dinosaurs on each of the pages. The illustrations were so adorable!

This book was a big hit in our little family.  We really enjoyed the combination of a traditional farmer's day with a very nontraditional farm. The illustrations were full of humor and fun and we loved the little details in each one.

BOTTOM LINE:  Recommended! An adorable book that can be enjoyed by children and adults alike!

Thursday, August 28, 2014

THE BARTER by Siohban Adcock

I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher.

Monday, August 18, 2014

THE STORY HOUR by Thrity Umrigar

I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher.

Trapped in a loveless marriage and crushed by loneliness, Lakshmi decides to take her own life.  After she fails, she is forced to attend therapy sessions with Maggie.  Maggie is everything that Lakshmi is not.  As a strong African-American woman who is a successful therapist in a happy marriage, Maggie doesn't seem to have much in common with Lakshmi. Yet, something draws her to the young Indian woman. Lakshmi's domineering husband has limited her world to their home and grocery store/restaurant.  With no friends and no connection to family, Lakshmi's crushing loneliness leads her to her desperate act.  Maggie helps Lakshmi to realize her worth and how to become more independent. In spite of herself, Maggie is drawn to Lakshmi and begins to cross her carefully constructed professional lines.  The two women begin to confide in one another and share secrets without realizing that each one has very different expectations about the relationship.

Although it took a little while to get going, I really enjoyed this story.  I thought both women were really interesting and that the characters were well-developed. It was especially satisfying to see Lakshmi come into her own throughout the course of the book. However, it was equally upsetting to see the poor choices that Maggie made. While one woman began to thrive, the other began to all apart. Much of the book had to do with friendship and the importance of connections between people but I think the most important part of the book was the theme of forgiveness.  Although the actions of the characters could often be frustrating, I think the book was ultimately a lovely tale of forgiving and moving on.

BOTTOM LINE:  Recommended.  A really nice story featuring on the connection between two unlikely friends and the far-reaching consequences of that relationship.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

DOLLBABY by Laura Lane McNeal

I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher.

When I first heard about this book, it was billed as a read-alike for THE HELP.  I loved THE HELP so that description immediately attracted me to the book.  However, I feel that comparing this book to THE HELP is doing it a disservice.  Yes, it takes place during the 1960s. Yes, civil rights issues are highlighted.  Yes, some of the main characters of the novel are African-American women in domestic service.  But, for me, that is where the comparisons end.

Liberty "Ibby" Bell is unceremoniously dropped off by her mother at the home of the grandmother she has never met when he father unexpectedly dies in the Summer of 1964.  Everything about Grandmother Fanny's New Orleans house is foreign to Ibby. Especially the idea of hired help.  Fanny employs a cook named Queenie and her daughter Dollbaby.  Dollbaby has gotten involved in the Civil Rights movement and sneaks out to participate in acts of civil disobedience.  Dollbaby and Queenie help Ibby to navigate her way through her new life. Ibby learns the hard truth about race in the South over her years with Fanny.  During that time, family secrets come to light that will change everything.

I describe this book to people as THE HELP meets Fannie Flagg. It has a lot more humor than the THE HELP and the focus is much more on the family dynamics than the the Civil Rights movement. As long-time readers of this blog know, I am a huge fan of family secret dramas.  This one does not disappoint in that department.  The characters are all interesting and compelling.  I like to think about how books could be adapted into movies and I visualized Jessica Lange as Fanny. It took a little while for the story to get going, but once it did I was pulled in and could not put the book down. The ending was especially satisfying.

BOTTOM LINE:  Highly Recommended. One of my favorite books this year.  A great family drama with a lot of love and humor.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

LUCKY US by Amy Bloom

I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher.

When Eva turns 12, her mother unceremoniously dumps her at her father's house. Eva has understood for years that she and her mother are her father's second family.  When her father's wife dies, Eva's mother takes the opportunity to start a new life.  Eva moves into her father's home and meets her older half-sister Iris for the first time. Iris has big dreams of becoming a star and escapes to Hollywood as soon as she can with her little sister in tow. The family's fortunes ebb and flow over the 1940s as the girls are eventually reunited with their deadbeat father and attempt to make a life for themselves as a family.  Each of them is a flawed individual so consumed by their own dreams that they can't seem to come together as a family. The book is mostly told from Eva's perspective and follows the family throughout the 1930s and 1940s.

Although I think Bloom has some interesting things to say about success,failure, redemption, and family, I had a hard time connecting with the characters. Although they were all plucky and worked hard to achieve their individual dreams, they were not particularly likeable.  While some describe the book as humorous, I did not find that to be true at all.  I thought it was pretty heart-breaking. It made me sad to see how selfish the individual family members were and how often Eva bore the brunt of that selfishness. The book was interesting and well-written but not particularly enjoyable.

BOTTOM LINE: Recommended for some readers. Bloom fans will find much to like here. Her characters and settings are definitely vivid and interesting.  The people just aren't particularly likeable.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

THE BOOK OF LIFE by Deborah Harkness

I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher.

**NOTE:  Although I try to be VERY careful about spoilers, I have to allude to previous books in the trilogy for this review. There may be general spoilers and allusions to events
in the first two books.**

It has been a long wait for the final book in the ALL SOULS TRILOGY but it is almost here!  Although I have never been a big fan of books about witches and/or vampires, something about this particular trilogy pulled me in from the very beginning. I always recommend these books to fans of Diana Gabaldon. The first book, DISCOVERY OF WITCHES, introduced us to scholar Diana Bishop who accidentally calls up a mysterious book at the Bodleian Library that turns out to be a book coveted by witches, daemons, and vampires alike. Diana has never manifested any powers even though she comes from a long line of witches.  Her quiet life as a scholar is compromised when she discovers Ashmole 782 and attracts the attention of other creatures including the mysterious vampire Matthew Clairmont.  The two become embroiled in the conflict surrounding the mysterious manuscript while engaging in their own forbidden romance.  In SHADOW OF NIGHT, we continued to follow Diana and Matthew's relationship as they journey to Elizabethan England to hide from the creatures seeking to exploit Ashmole 782 while giving Diana time and help in learning to cultivate and understand her powers.  Two years later, it is time to finish Diana and Matthew's story in BOOK OF LIFE.

The BOOK OF LIFE picks up where SHADOW OF NIGHT left off with the return of Diana and Matthew to the present.  Diana has greatly developed her powers during her time in the past but is keeping quiet about her new talents. Diana and Matthew try to settle into their life together after all the changes they experienced in the past including the fact that Diana is now officially a member of the de Clermont family thanks to Philippe.  Diana must figure out her new position, her new powers, and creature politics while keeping the secret about a very specific change in her that occurred in her that she brought from the past. All of the characters are back as the de Clermont family readies themselves to take on the creatures looking for the Book of Life as well as fighting the Congregation.  Diana and Matthew must hurry to find the missing pages of the Book of Life before their enemies do.  In the meantime, they face a new threat in the form of one of Matthew's vampire children who threatens to destroy everything.

I thought Harkness did a great job in tying up loose ends and finishing the trilogy. I felt perfectly satisfied when I finished the book although I was disappointed that one character didn't get a clear ending.  I would love to see Harkness choose some of the characters from these books (Nathaniel/Sophie/Margaret or Gallowglass, for example) and give them their own book or books. I hate to leave the characters behind. Harkness has created such a fascinating world.  I find it amusing that she omits a lot of the less attractive aspects of vampires such as only being able to come out at night, never being able to consume anything but blood, etc.  It certainly makes them more attractive! With her intricate descriptions of vampire politics and bloodlines, it is clear that she has thought a great deal about the intricacies of this world that she created.  It is really fascinating!

I have heard people describe Harkness' books as "bodice rippers" and I would have to disagree. Although the books contain a good deal of romance and sex, the sex scenes are modest and do not go into intimate detail.  In my experience, "bodice rippers" tend to be of "Romance" genre and include some pretty specific and graphic descriptions of sex that tend to involve heaving bosoms and the ripping of clothing. These books do not.  What you WILL find is romance, mystery, time travel, action/adventure, history and much more.  The books are wonderfully entertaining and make for terrific vacation reads.

BOTTOM LINE: Highly recommended!  If you are looking for a highly entertaining vacation read, these books are for you!  BOOK OF LIFE comes in at over 570 pages and I finished it in two days. I couldn't put it down!  Very fun books!

I hope they consider making movies or a television series out of these books. I already have a cast in mind:

My Picks for an All Souls Trilogy Cast

Buy the book here and enjoy!!!

Thursday, July 10, 2014

TOMORROW AND TOMORROW by Thomas Sweterlitsch

I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher.

I feels as if I have been reading a lot of dystopian/futuristic novels lately. I may have reached a saturation point.  One thing I love about these types of books is the fact that I can see so many of them easily translating to the big screen. When I read TOMORROW AND TOMORROW, I couldn't help but envision Joseph Gordon Levitt as John Blaxton.

In the near future, everyone has Adware hardwired into their brains. This hardware also contains special lenses that go inside your eyeballs to not only project images in front of you everywhere you go such as commercial ads but also to record what you are viewing. The city of Pittsburgh has been destroyed by a terrorist attack but an Archive of the pre-apocalypse city has been preserved by creating a virtual city through the collected visual recordings of its inhabitants. John Blaxton lost his wife and unborn child when Pittsburgh was destroyed. He spends most of his free time in the Archive reliving his time with his wife. It has become an addiction for him. Blaxton works as a claims investigator who works within the Archive to verify insurance claims made on those who perished in the blast.  While in the Archive, Blaxton finds an unreported murder. He becomes fixated on finding the truth about this woman and it brings him into a greater mystery where his very life may be in danger.

This book is so hard to describe!!!  The world that Sweterlitsch has created is a bit complicated and it took a little while to catch on to what he was describing.  As someone who is a bit ad-phobic, the idea of the Adware was horrifying to me.  This neural network is embedded in your brain and makes ads pop up in front of your eyes everywhere you go.  The software component reads your mind and knows exactly how to customize ads to your preferences. For example, if you are a man who loves curvy blondes, the Adware would superimpose a live action image of a curvy blonde modeling lingerie if you looked over at a Victoria's Secret store. And, of course, this Adware is subject to hacking and tracking. The mystery is compelling and I loved the characters.  The book had the feel of "Blade Runner" in terms of style.  I could absolutely see this book being made into a movie.

BOTTOM LINE:  Recommended. A really creative and interesting mystery. I thought Sweterlitsch had a very compelling vision of the future. And it was scary!