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My Progress:

12 / 30 books. 40% done!

2024 Literary Escapes Challenge

- Alabama (1)
- Alaska
- Arizona (1)
- Arkansas
- California (3)
- Colorado (1)
- Connecticut
- Delaware
- Florida
- Georgia (1)
- Hawaii
- Idaho (2)
- Illinois (2)
- Indiana
- Iowa
- Kansas
- Kentucky (1)
- Louisiana (1)
- Maine (1)
- Maryland
- Massachusetts (2)
- Michigan
- Minnesota
- Mississippi
- Missouri
- Montana
- Nebraska (1)
- Nevada (1)
- New Hampshire
- New Jersey
- New Mexico
- New York (4)
- North Carolina (4)
- North Dakota
- Ohio (1)
- Oklahoma (1)
- Oregon (2)
- Pennsylvania (1)
- Rhode Island (1)
- South Carolina
- South Dakota
- Tennessee (1)
- Texas (3)
- Utah
- Vermont (2)
- Virginia (1)
- Washington (2)
- West Virginia
- Wisconsin (1)
- Wyoming
- Washington, D.C.* (1)

- Australia (1)
- Canada (1)
- England (10)
- France (1)
- Indonesia (1)
- Ireland (4)
- Italy (1)
- Scotland (2)
- The Netherlands (1)

My Progress:

27 / 51 states. 53% done!

2024 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

My Progress:

22 / 50 books. 44% done!

2024 POPSUGAR Reading Challenge

23 / 50 books. 46% done!

Booklist Queen's 2024 Reading Challenge

My Progress:

48 / 50 books. 96% done!

2024 52 Club Reading Challenge

My Progress:

39 / 52 books. 75% done!

2024 Build Your Library Reading Challenge

My Progress:

26 / 40 books. 65% done!

2024 Pioneer Book Reading Challenge

15 / 40 books. 38% done!

2024 Craving for Cozies Reading Challenge

My Progress:

10 / 25 books. 40% done!

2024 Medical Examiner's Mystery Reading Challenge

2024 Mystery Marathon Reading Challenge

My Progress

12 / 26.2 miles. 46% done!

Mount TBR Reading Challenge

My Progress

25 / 100 books. 25% done!

2024 Pick Your Poison Reading Challenge

My Progress:

63 / 104 books. 61% done!

Around the Year in 52 Books Reading Challenge

My Progress

43 / 52 books. 83% done!

Disney Animated Movies Reading Challenge

My Progress

68 / 165 books. 41% done!
Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Top Ten Tuesday: Caught Red-Handed (Haired?)

When I saw the topic for this week's Top Ten Tuesday list, I was in the middle of a book my 13-year-old daughter recommended to me—Top Ten Clues You're Clueless by Liz Czukas.  The main character is Chloe Novak, an adorkable redhead who gets caught up in a mystery on Christmas Eve at the grocery store where she works.  Since I'd just read two other books about women with auburn hair, it got me thinking about other fictional carrot tops.  Gingers are rare in the real world, so it's kind of funny to realize how often they turn up in literary ones.  I thought it would be a fun subject for this week's list about Top Ten Books Which Feature Characters Who _____ (are musically inclined, have lost someone, have depression, who grow up poor, etc.).

One of the funnest things about fill-in-the-blank lists is that they're all different.  I love to see the variety of answers everyone comes up with.  If you've got a great idea for this week's list, be sure to join in the fun.  All you have to do is click on over to The Broke and the Bookish for instructions.  It's a good time, I promise!

Okay, here we go with Top Ten Books Which Feature Characters Who Are Redheads:

1.  Anne Shirley (Anne of Green Gables series by L.M. Montgomery)—I'm sure Anne (with an e!) is the first literary redhead who pops into most people's minds.  Her personality matches her fiery locks—she's passionate, stubborn, and quick to lose her temper.  She's also a fun, spunky dreamer who's fiercely devoted to her family and friends.  What's not to love about unforgettable Anne?

2.  Ron Weasley and family (Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling)—Loyal Ron is another beloved redhead, as are all the members of his kind, loving family.

3.  Pippi Longstocking (series by Astrid Lindgren)—I used to love the Pippi books!

4.  Nancy Clancy (Fancy Nancy series by Jane O'Connor and Robin Preiss Glasser)—Ooh la la, it's hard to ignore this little redhead who's enamored of all things glam.

5.  Scarlet Benoit (The Lunar Chronicles series by Marissa Meyer)—a "rebooted" Little Red Riding Hood

6.  Clary Fray (The Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare)—a kick-butt, demon-fighting red-haired heroine

7.  Amber Sterlington (A Heart Revealed by Josi S. Kilpack)—This Regency romance is all about a beautiful socialite dealing with the sudden, inexplicable loss of her thick auburn locks.

8.  Jacinda (Firelight series by Sophie Jordan)—In her human form, she's a beautiful redhead.  In her true form, she's an even more beautiful dragon.

9.  Gemma Doyle (series by Libba Bray)

10.  Chloe Novak (Top Ten Clues You're Clueless by Liz Csukas)—Lastly, the one who started it all!  Chloe's a fun character.  Her story is predictable, but cute.                  

So, what do you think?  Did I miss anybody?  Who should I add to my list?  I couldn't think of ten, after all, so I cheated a little bit, using this fabulous article from The Huffington Post.  Also, in my Googling of redheaded heroines, I came across a blog devoted to the subject.  Who knew, right?

What did you fill in the blank with this week?  I'd love to see your list.  Leave me a comment and I'll be sure to return the favor.

Happy Top Ten Tuesday!

P.S.  Book images are from Barnes & Noble; others were "borrowed" from around the Internet)
Monday, April 27, 2015

The Girl on the Train A First-Rate, Couldn't-Put-It-Down Psychological Thriller

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Still grieving the death of her marriage, lonely Rachel Watson finds comfort in routine.  Every weekday morning, she boards the 8:04 train that runs to London from her home in Buckinghamshire.  Every evening, she returns on the 5:56.  As the familiar rhythm of the ride lulls her, she sips an early drink (which will be followed later by another and another and another ...) and watches the landscape blur outside the train's window.  She pays close attention as her old neighborhood rolls past, drinking in the sight of her former home, where her ex-husband lives with his new wife.  It's not him who Rachel really wants to see, though—it's Jason and Jess, the golden couple that lives down his street.  She's never met them, doesn't even know their real names, but she can tell just from observing them that they have a beautiful, fulfilling life together.  "They're happy, I can tell," she thinks.  "They're what I used to be, they're Tom and me five years ago.  They're what I lost, they're everything I want to be" (10).

Rachel's spent so much time spinning a perfect life for the couple that she's shocked by what she sees one day from her seat on the train.  She's even more surprised to spy a familiar face on the front page of the newspaper a few days later.  It's "Jess"—really 29-year-old Megan Hipwell, who has gone missing from Rachel's old neighborhood.  Worried about her "friend," especially in light of what she saw from the train, Rachel determines to find out what happened to Jess.  Not an easy task when your mind is as muddled from alcohol and depression as is Rachel's.  Still, she has to know.  But the more she persists, the more discomfited she grows.  Although she has little memory of it, Rachel was there the night Megan disappeared.  In fact, she just may be the reason Megan Hipwell is missing—or worse.

I don't want to say too much about the plot of Paula Hawkins' popular psychological thriller, The Girl on the Train, for fear of ruining plot surprises.  Trust me, it's best to go into this one knowing as little about the story as possible.  Suffice it to say, The Girl on the Train is a mesmerizing tale of suspense, full of intriguing characters, taut narration, and didn't-see-that-one-coming plot twists.  Maybe the book's a tad predictable, maybe it doesn't quite live up to all the hype it's gotten, but still, it's a riveting, first-rate mystery.  I literally could not put it down. 

(Readalikes:  Reminded me of Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and Before I Go To Sleep by S.J. Watson)


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for strong language, sexual content, violence, and depictions of excessive drinking/illegal drug use

To the FTC, with love:  I bought a copy of The Girl on the Train from Amazon with a portion of the millions I make from my lucrative career as a book blogger.  Ha ha.  

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Distancing Non-Fiction-y Novel A Plodding, Difficult Read (For Me, Anyway)

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Despite Kläre Ente Kohler's Jewish ancestry, she's never been a particularly devoted practitioner of Judaism.  Her Jewishness exists mainly in fond memories of sumptuous Sabbath dinners with her extended family at her grandparents' luxurious home.  As an adult, her connection to the Jewish community has been tenuous at best.  With the Nazis rising to power in her homeland, however, Kläre has reason to worry.  All around her, Jewish businesses are being ransacked, their proprietors beaten in the streets.  The worse things get, the more terrified she becomes.  Many Jews are fleeing Germany.  Kläre knows her ailing husband and elderly mother can't make such an arduous journey, even if they did have visas.  But what of her two sons?  Can she find a way to keep them safe?  Unable to leave, Kläre must do what she can to help her children, her friends, and herself stay alive.  With Nazi brutality against the Jews growing more deadly every day, that will not be an easy task.  It will take every ounce of strength, courage, and tenacity Kläre possesses just to survive.  

Having grown up hearing dramatic tales about her grandfather's family's former lives in Europe, Barbara Stark-Nemon became especially fascinated by the experiences of her great aunt, Kläre.  Her debut novel, Even in Darkness, is based on the life of this indomitable Jewess who lived through the horrors of the Holocaust, after which she spent many years as the unlikely companion to a much younger Catholic priest.  While Kläre's war story is (unfortunately) not all that unique, it definitely has potential to be the stuff of good fiction.  Unfortunately, Stark-Nemon bogs the story down with so much extraneous detail that the action in the novel feels anticlimactic and dull.  The characters never felt real to me, so I had trouble immersing myself in their conflicts.  Lacking a real plot, Even in Darkness seems aimless and unstructured.  While I appreciated Stark-Nemon's quietly assured prose, I also longed for more dynamic storytelling.  For me, Even in Darkness has the stiffer, more distancing feel of non-fiction instead of the enveloping warmth of a well-constructed novel.  Overall, then, this was a plodding, difficult read for me.  I enjoyed the book's message (beauty and love can be found even in the ugliness of war), but found the novel itself not to be my particular cup of tea.

(Readalikes:  Reminded me of other WWII novels, although no specific title comes to mind)


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for language (no F-bombs), violence and some sexual content

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of Even in Darkness from the generous folks at PR By the Book.  Thank you!
Friday, April 24, 2015

Forbidden Romance Leads to Violence in Thrilling, Thought-Provoking Culture Clash Novel

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Thanks to an athletic scholarship, Shahid Satar has been in the U.S. for three years studying business at a college in Massachusetts.  A starter on Enright's men's squash team, the Pakistani knows the importance of bonding with the other players, most of whom hail from countries as foreign as his.  He's also learned to tune out the jeers and racist slurs often hurled at himself and his mostly dark-skinned teammates.  It's all part of the culture clash he experiences every day as an international student at a liberal American school.  He's used to it by now.

The experience, however, is all new for Afia Satar, Shahid's 19-year-old sister.  Because of Shahid's promise to guard her honor, the young Pashtun woman has been allowed to study in the U.S. as well, although she attends a nearby women's college instead of her brother's co-ed school.  Despite the wild Western ways she encounters daily, Afia remains as she always has been—shy, studious, modest and mostly obedient to the traditional rules of her religion and culture.  She's not without her secrets, however.  Her brother does not know—cannot ever know—about Afia's shameful grocery store job or about her increasingly intimate relationship with his redheaded American teammate.  The latter is dangerous, much more so than earnest Gus Schnieder realizes.

When an innocent photo of Afia and Gus turns up on the Internet, it sets off a series of explosive reactions, especially from Afia's jihad-obsessed stepbrother.  Embarrassed and furious by his sister's betrayal of his trust, Shahid worries how far his family in Pakistan will require him to go to avenge Afia's honor.  Afia fears not just for Gus, but also for her own life—and rightly so.  As events come to a terrifying head, she must face the deadly consequences of falling in love with the wrong man, in the wrong country, in the wrong way.  Will things ever be right for her again?

A Sister to Honor by Lucy Ferriss is a heartbreaking novel about the often violent clash between Eastern and Western cultures.  It's a book about honor, with all its various definitions.  Mostly, though, it's a story about family, friendship, and giving up everything for a chance to live a different kind of life.  Although the tension builds slowly, the tale soon becomes a taut thriller, as horrifying as it is pulse-pounding.  Told from various viewpoints, A Sister to Honor is a compelling novel with intriguing, sympathetic characters; a timely, complex conflict; and an engrossing, well-crafted plot.  My only complaint is that the characters' roles/actions seemed to reinforce all the common clichés about Pakistani and Islamic culture.  I don't pretend to know anything about either, but I still would have liked a broader perspective on both.  Despite that, I enjoyed this thrilling, thought-provoking read.

(Readalikes:  Reminded me a little of Skunk Girl by Sheba Karim)


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for strong language, violence, sexual content and depictions of underage drinking and illegal drug use

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of A Sister to Honor from the generous folks at Penguin.  Thank you!
Thursday, April 23, 2015

Clipped, Quirky YA Grief Novel Memorable And Affecting

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Best friends aren't supposed to die.  Especially when they're beautiful, vibrant and only 14 years old.  Elderly people have trouble with their hearts, not teenagers.  That's why it's still so hard for Emmy Anderson to believe her BFF Kim Porter is dead.  Kim, on the other hand, embraced her impending demise, even making vehement promises to visit Emmy from beyond the grave.  Emmy has clung to those vows, but apparently, Kim has forgotten her.  Aching with grief and loneliness, Emmy can't let her friend go.  She has to find a way to talk to Kim.

Then, Emmy—who assumed she just sucked at communicating with departed souls—gets a shock: she can see dead people.  She spies her nasty science teacher, Emmy's uncle (who is thankfully not naked), even a teenage boy who perished in a tragic roller coaster accident.  It seems the only ghost she can't see is the one she desperately needs to find.  As Emmy comes to term with her new talent as well as her old pain, she finally realizes that the only way to move forward might be to let Kim go.  If only it were that easy ...

Kids-dealing-with-the-loss-of-a-loved-one books are a dime a dozen.  Thus, it takes a lot to make one stand out.  With her newest, The End Or Something Like That, Ann Dee Ellis succeeds in creating a grief novel that's both memorable and affecting.  I've thought a lot about why this one stands out; I think it boils down to three things: writing style, setting, and an overall quirkiness.  Although The End or Something Like That is billed as a YA book, it's got more of a middle grade tone.  Emmy's clipped, choppy narration makes her seem younger than her years, while at the same time giving her a more realistically teenage thought process than is usually found in YA novels.  This, coupled with the intensity of her pain, makes her a wholly sympathetic (although not always likable) heroine.  As for setting, there's just nowhere quite like Las Vegas.  Its boisterous falsity provides the perfect backdrop for this story about what is real and what is truly important.  The unique setting gives The End Or Something Like That part of its quirkiness, but the rest of it comes from larger-than-life characters and the oddball situations they find themselves in.  Although the novel deals with familiar themes, it's these three things, coupled with Ellis' strong prose, that makes this story stand out.  While it didn't blow my mind, I definitely enjoyed this quick, quirky read.    

(Readalikes:  I can't think of anything.  Can you?)


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for brief, mild language (no F-bombs) and sexual innuendo

To the FTC, with love:  I received an ARC of The End Or Something Like That from the generous folks at Penguin.  Thank you!
Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Vietnam War Novel in Haiku Makes Me Feel Every One Of Its 16, 592 Syllables

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

For 17-year-old Ashe Douglas, 1968 is a year of confusion, fear, and anxiety.  With war raging in Vietnam, killing hundreds of U.S. soldiers every day, it's difficult to feel hope about the country's future.  At home, his parents' constant battles are escalating.  Ashe's mother is a peace-loving protester, while his father's fierce patriotism manifests itself in hot-blooded, racist outbursts.  They're opposites, still married for the sake of their only child.  Not only does Ashe worry about their increasing eruptions at home, but he's terrified of being drafted into a violent conflict of which he wants no part.

When a pretty new girl walks into Ashe's Tempe, Arizona, high school, things start looking up.  The blonde "goddess" has her own war woes, but together, she and Ashe might be able to make it through their challenges.

Then, a new crisis bombs Ashe's family.  This time, he fears total destruction.  With things coming to a head both at home and abroad, Ashe will have to make some very, very tough decisions about life, love, and what it truly means to be a hero.

By all rights, Death Coming Up the Hill, a new YA novel by Chris Crowe, should feel gimmicky.  The entire thing is, after all, written in haiku, with each  poetic syllable representing one of the 16, 592 American soldiers who died in the Vietnam War during 1968, its deadliest year.  The book really should feel gimmicky.  And yet it doesn't.  The story's unique format gives it a clean freshness that makes it both impacting and memorable.  Maybe it's because of my uncle, Joe Whitby (pictured at left), who was killed in Quang Tri Province in 1967, but I really felt each of those syllables.  In addition to the book's format, I liked its sympathetic characters, its plot surprises, and its setting.  It was fun for me to read about local hot spots like Pete's Fish and Chips (I was just at the Mesa location a few hours ago!).  Overall, the book's pretty depressing (especially the last two lines, which were taken from a real Vietnam soldier's letters home), but its authenticity touched me.  Deeply.  Death Coming Up the Hill is a quick, compelling read, one I highly recommend.       

(Readalikes:  Hm, I can't really think of anything.  Can you?)


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for language (no F-bombs), violence, and references to sex and illegal drug use

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of Death Coming Up the Hill from the generous folks at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.  Thank you!
Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Top Ten Tuesday: A Few (Seriously, Only Ten?) of My Faves

Sometimes the weekly questions posed by our fearless hostesses over at The Broke and the Bookish really stump me.  Not this week's!  The topic du jour is Top Ten All-Time Favorite Authors.  Easy cheesy.  Except, how am I supposed to limit myself to less than a dozen answers?  Seriously, I could go on and on and on on this subject.    

Since today's prompt is such a simple one, it's the perfect time to join in the fun.  I'd love to hear who your favorite authors are.  Leave me a comment and I'll be sure to check out your Top Ten Tuesday list as well.

Here we go with my Top Ten All-Time Favorite Authors (in no particular order):

1.  Jodi Picoult—With the exception of three (Between the Lines; The Storyteller; and Sing Me Home), I've read all of Picoult's novels.  Although, naturally, some are better than others, on the whole I love her books.  She's known for taking current issues and examining them from several points of view, creating well-rounded stories that always make me think.

2.  Mary Higgins Clark—I've always been a voracious reader on the lookout for new authors to love.  When I was in junior high, my dad handed me a murder mystery from off his bookshelf.  A *slight* Clark obsession ensued.  I spent many a school night reading until the wee hours of the morning, heart racing as I finished one of her novels.  These days, I'm not as impressed with Clark's writing, but I still appreciate the fact that she writes clean, quick-paced mysteries that I could hand to my 13-year-old daughter or my 99-year-old grandmother with equal confidence.  Speaking of the latter, my dad spends lots of time at the bedside of his elderly mother, reading Clark's books aloud to her.  They're both big fans :)

3.  Maeve Binchy—The news of Binchy's 2012 death saddened me, as I've long enjoyed her books.  I love the depth of her novels, which generally focus on family, community, and friendship.  The thought of her never writing another of her tender, warm-hearted stories makes me want to cry :(

4.  Kate Morton—There are few authors of whom I can say that I've read—and loved—every one of their books.  Morton is one (it helps that she's only published four novels so far).  I adore her thick, atmospheric family sagas.  I'm counting down the days until October 13, when her newest, The Lake House, finally comes out.      

5.  Kathy Reichs—Reichs' Temperance Brennan series is one of my very favorite.  Not only do I love the title character, but I enjoy learning about the fascinating science she uses to solve her cases.  As a forensic anthropologist, Reichs knows what she's talking about.  She also has a way of explaining it all to her readers in a way that's intelligent, but understandable.

6.  Neal Shusterman—Although there are a bunch of his books I haven't read yet, I've loved every Shusterman novel I've ever read.  Not only does he tell gripping stories, but they're done in a way that really makes me think.  He's brilliant, IMHO.

7.  J.K. Rowling—Who doesn't love Harry Potter?  Like many of you, I devoured every book in the series.  I read them as they came out, so I'm definitely do for a re-read of the whole story.  I haven't read anything else Rowling has written, but that's okay, I still count her among my favorite authors.

8.  L.A. Meyer—Like Binchy, Meyer recently passed away (July 2014).  The news made me teary because I was hoping he'd start a great, new series now that he'd finished the Bloody Jack books.  Unfortunately, this will never happen.  Luckily for me, I'm only halfway through his novels about the charming pirate Jacky Faber, so I can continue to savor Meyer's wonderful characters and storytelling skills for a little while longer.  

9.  Kimberley Griffiths Little—I adore Little, both as a person and as a writer.  Her warm prose, vivid settings, and compelling characters never fail to speak to me.  Her books set on the Louisiana bayous are wonderful middle grade reads, while Forbidden, her newest, is the first installment in an intriguing historical series for teens.

10.  Liane Moriarty—I've only read 1 1/2 of her books (I'm in the middle of What Alice Forgot as we speak), but Moriarty is definitely a new favorite of mine.  Big Little Lies was one of my best 2014 reads.  I'm loving What Alice Forgot and am anxiously looking forward to reading The Husband's Secret sometime soon.

Obviously, this is not an exhaustive list.  I could have mentioned Laura Ingalls Wilder, Joanne Harris, Robyn Carr, Adriana Trigiani, ... so many.  Still, the ten I listed are some of my most trusted go-to authors, those writers who always enchant me with their magical writer-ninja skills.  Do we share any favorites?  Who's on your list?  I'll definitely be clicking around to find out.

Happy Top Ten Tuesday to ya!

* Photos are from author's websites or Google Images.
Friday, April 17, 2015

Straight-Shooting, What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get Problem Novel Sends Powerful Message

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

After years of being imprisoned and abused, Joy Nielsons is finally free.  With her mother behind bars, the 15-year-old should feel safe.  Especially now that she's living with the perfect family—Aunt Nicole, Uncle Rob and their kids, Tara and Trent—in their perfect Seattle home.  And yet, Joy can't stop the panic attacks and terrifying flashbacks that continue to plague her.  She longs for a normal life, but worries it's not possible.  Maybe she's just too broken.  

As Joy settles in, even opening up to a few friends, she makes gradual progression.  All her steps forward, however, are put into jeopardy when she's faced with the biggest hurdle of all—testifying against her mother in court.  Can Joy find the strength to endure such a traumatizing ordeal?  Or will the very thought destroy her, erasing any chance at the happy, healthy future she's trying to create for herself?

Given its title and synopsis, you can probably tell that Stronger Than You Know by Jolene Perry is a straight-shooting, what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of novel.  Joy's story is simply that—her story.  It describes her journey to heal from hellish abuse by learning to trust other people as well as herself.  That's about it.  Her budding romance with Justin adds a little subplot action, but other than that, the novel revolves around Joy's recovery.  Which is inspiring, as it sends a powerful message (You're stronger than you know!).  Truth is, though, I got a little tired of the extreme focus on the victim-trying-to-overcome-past-abuse plot line.  Call me heartless, but I wanted more to happen in this story.  I especially would have liked to see Joy acting, (maybe reaching out to help someone else as a way of healing), instead of just reacting all the time.  Despite that—as well as the book's many copyediting issues that kept pulling me out of the story—I did find Stronger Than You Know to be a powerful read.  It deals with tough issues, but does so in a sensitive, stirring way.  Like other problem novels, it creates awareness of a disturbing—and all too common—issue, while promoting empathy for its victims.  I wanted more from it, yes, but overall, it's an honest, hopeful novel with a strong, important message.  
(Readalikes:  Reminds me of other novels about victimized teens trying to find healing, but no specific titles are coming to mind.  Any ideas?)


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for brief, mild language (no F-bombs), depictions of child/sexual abuse, sexual innuendo, and depictions of underage drinking

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find
Thursday, April 16, 2015

Haven Lake Compelling, Though Not Completely Satisfying

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Haven Lake has always been a place of refuge for drifters, draft dodgers and down-on-their-luckers.  In the '60s, its idyllic Berkshire setting provided the perfect backdrop for a peace-touting, free-lovin' hippie commune.  Like all the children who lived there, Sydney Bishop pranced naked through its fields and forests, wild and free as a wood sprite.  It was only as a teenager, after twin tragedies shattered not just her community, but also her family, that Sydney ran away from Haven Lake, vowing never to return.  Desperate to leave her past, with all its dark memories, far behind her, Sydney's kept her promise for two decades.

Now 36, Sydney finds fulfillment in her job as an educational psychologist, her quaint cottage on the shore, and her upcoming marriage to Gary Katz, a handsome surgeon.  Soon to be a stepmother, she's worked hard to get to know Dylan, her fiancé's 16-year-old son.  When the troubled boy runs away from home, Sydney's sympathetic, but shocked when she learns he's holing up at Haven Lake with Sydney's mother, Hannah.  Her astonishment turns to anger when Hannah offers to let Dylan stay and help her with the sheep farm.

Dylan's problems, mixed with Hannah's interference, and Gary's increasingly alarming mood swings, create a toxic cocktail that has Sydney questioning everything about her life.  The raging turmoil inside her can't be assuaged, she realizes, until she finds out the truth about what happened on the night her childhood best friend drowned in Haven Lake.  Facing the hurt that defines her past may be the only way for Sydney to find future happiness.  But, what happens when everything you remember is wrong?  And the future you've always dreamed of no longer feels right?  As Sydney confronts her haunting past, she'll have to decide whom to believe, whom to trust, and ultimately, whom to blame for the terrible events that turned Haven Lake into a hell of sorrow, guilt, and pain. 

It's no secret that I'm a complete sucker for a good damaged-woman-returns-to-her-hometown-to-confront-her-past novel.  With a premise like the one I summarized above, it's no surprise that I wanted to read Haven Lake by Holly Robinson.  The question is, did it deliver the kind of rich, redemptive story for which I generally go ga-ga?  Answer:  yes and no.  Although the characters are a sad, depressing lot, Robinson takes time to build them into complex, knowable beings.  Thus, I felt for them and cared about what happened to them.  Plot-wise, the novel roams here and there, with plenty of superfluous subplots that distract from the mystery at the heart of the book.  A tighter, more focused story would have made the novel feel more suspenseful and polished.  Likewise, I could have done without the graphic language and sex scenes, which, for me, detracted from the overall appeal of the book.  In the end, I found Haven Lake compelling, though not completely satisfying.   

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of other novels with similar premises, although no specific title is coming to mind.  Help?)


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for strong language, sexual content, violence, and depictions of illegal drug use

To the FTC, with love:  I received an e-galley of Haven Lake from the generous folks at Penguin via those at NetGalley.  Thank you!
Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Signed, Skye Harper: Carol Lynch Williams Keeps It Real

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Winston Fletcher should probably be angrier about the way her Momma abandoned her in pursuit of a glam Hollywood career.  Truth is, Winston's used to not having her mom around.  She prefers it that way (that's a half truth).  For the past eleven years, the 15-year-old's been getting along fine with just Nanny (her maternal grandmother) and their animals (1 rooster, 13 chickens, 1 dog).  Their lives in small town New Smyrna Beach, Florida, might not be glittery enough for Judith Lee Fletcher (a.k.a Skye Harper, a.k.a mom), but they're alright with Winston.  So, when Nanny receives an urgent letter from Miss Hollywood herself, begging her mother to come get her, both Nanny and Winston feel as ruffled as Denny the Rooster.  What should they do?

Nanny may be a penny-pinching, chain-smoking grump, but she's also a mother.  And a resourceful one at that.  After "borrowing" a slick new RV from an out-of-town friend, she hustles Winston, Denny and Thelma (Winston's dog) aboard the craft and takes off for Sin City.  Unbeknownst to the quartet, they've got a stowaway—cute Steve Simmons is not only the RV owner's son, but also the boy who makes Winston's heart pound like a bongo drum.  Winston's flustered enough over road-tripping in a stolen vehicle to retrieve the mother she hasn't seen in over a decade—now she has to spend the whole time trying to keep it together so she doesn't humiliate herself in front of the guy she likes?  Unbelievable.

Will Mission: Bring Skye Harper Home be a success?  How will Winston deal with having her larger-than-life mom around again?  And what will happen between her and Steve when their unlikely journey together ends?  With so many emotions ping-ponging around inside her, how will Winston cope with it all?  

The thing I love about YA author Carol Lynch Williams is that she does real so very, very well.  Signed, Skye Harper, her newest, is no exception.  Despite the novel's quirky humor, the story remains achingly authentic.  Steve, for example, is probably the most realistic teen boy I've ever encountered in YA fiction.  Yes, his hormonal behavior makes him less likable, but it also makes him more real.  More important are Winston's tender, heartbreaking emotions as she reacts to the upending of her ordered world as well as the highs and lows of falling in love for the first time.  Teens, especially, will relate to the roller coaster of feelings as she rides out her anxiety, confusion, sorrow, and fear.  After such a whirlwind trip with a girl like Winston, it will be impossible for anyone not to cheer as such a memorable heroine finally finds a place in her topsy-turvy world.  Heartwarming, but real, Signed, Skye Harper is just an all-around good read.  I loved it.  

(Readalikes:  Reminded me a little of Sway by Amber McRee Turner)


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for language (no F-bombs), sexual innuendo, depictions of illegal drug use, and lots of talk about "bosoms"

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of Signed, Skye Harper from the generous folks at Simon & Schuster because of my position as a judge for the Association for Mormon Letters (AML) Awards.  Thank you! 
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