Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Julie's Review: The Mapmaker's Children

Author: Sarah McCoy
Series: None
Publication Date: May 5, 2015
Publisher: Crown Publishing
Pages: 320
Obtained: Amazon Vine
Genre:  Historical Fiction, Contemporary Fiction
Rating: 4.75/5
Bottom Line: A gorgeous novel with two strong heroines
Grab, Just get it at the library, or Remove from your TBR list? Grab!
Summary: When Sarah Brown, daughter of abolitionist John Brown, realizes that her artistic talents may be able to help save the lives of slaves fleeing north, she becomes one of the Underground Railroad’s leading mapmakers, taking her cues from the slave code quilts and hiding her maps within her paintings. She boldly embraces this calling after being told the shocking news that she can’t bear children, but as the country steers toward bloody civil war, Sarah faces difficult sacrifices that could put all she loves in peril. Eden, a modern woman desperate to conceive a child with her husband, moves to an old house in the suburbs and discovers a porcelain head hidden in the root cellar—the remains of an Underground Railroad doll with an extraordinary past of secret messages, danger and deliverance. Ingeniously plotted to a riveting end, Sarah and Eden’s woven lives connect the past to the present, forcing each of them to define courage, family, love, and legacy in a new way. ~powells.com

Review: The Mapmaker's Children is a novel that brings the past and the present together in a wonderful way. Instead of the two main characters being directly related, they are instead woven together by an item. I knew that Eden's journey was going to be a tough one from the get go. My first thought was "she is so angry" and it's not that she didn't have reason but she was dealing with it all wrong. The one thing she's wanted her life for she's struggling to attain and everyone is in her way. I knew that she'd find her way but I was hoping that it wouldn't be too late for her happiness.

It didn't take me long to get wrapped up in either story. For different reasons, I admired both women greatly. Sarah Brown was such an inspiration the way she kept up with her father's goals of abolishing slavery and dedicated herself to the cause. Some would say that she gave up her own personal happiness but I disagree because helping the Underground Railroad (UGRR) was her destiny. Her paintings and her genius of how to incorporate them to free the slaves changed the course of history.

Eden's journey wasn't so direct as Sarah's. She was lost and wasn't so sure of her path at this point in her life. It wasn't until a mystery, a young girl and a dog entered her life that she started to find her voice again. It was this mystery that made Eden feel grounded for the first time in years; it lifted her fog, it righted her path.

Ms. McCoy writes both women as strong but vulnerable in different ways. It is the fact that she writes them as someone you can identify with that sucks you into the story. I also loved that I learned some facts about the UGRR that I didn't know.

If you haven't read her other historical fiction, The Baker's Daughter, then that's a must read as well. As for what she writes in the future, I can't wait to read it.


Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Julie's Review: Orient

Author: Christopher Bollen
Series: None
Publication Date: May 5, 2015
Publisher: Harper
Pages: 624
Obtained: publisher
Genre:  Crime, Mystery
Rating: 4.5/5
Bottom Line: Twisty, fascinating look at a small town when a stranger comes around
Grab, Just get it at the library, or Remove from your TBR list? Grab!
Summary: As summer draws to a close, a Small Long Island town is plagued by a series of mysterious deaths— and one young man, a loner taken in by a local, tries to piece together the crimes before his own time runs out. Orient is an isolated hamlet on the North Fork of Long Island—a quiet, historic village that swells each summer with vacationers, Manhattan escapees, and wealthy young artists from the city with designs on local real estate. On the last day of summer, a teenage drifter named Mills Chevern arrives in town. Soon after, the village is rocked by a series of unsettling events: the local caretaker is found floating lifeless in the ocean; an elderly neighbor dies under mysterious circumstances; and a monstrous animal corpse is discovered on the beach not far from a research lab often suspected of harboring biological experiments. Before long, other more horrific events plunge the community into a spiral of paranoia. As the village struggles to make sense of the wave of violence, anxious eyes settle on the mysterious Mills, a troubled orphan with no family, a hazy history, and unknown intentions. But he finds one friend in Beth, an Orient native in retreat from Manhattan, who is determined to unravel the mystery before the small town devours itself. Suffused with tension, rich with character and a haunting sense of lives suspended against an uncertain future, Orient is both a galvanic thriller and a provocative portrait of the dark side of the American dream: an idyllic community where no one is safe. It marks the emergence of a novelist of enormous talent. ~powells.com  

Review: At 624 pages, Orient looks intimidating but it isn't for long because Mr. Bollen pulls you in quickly. It is fairly clear that even though Mills is an outsider to Orient it isn't him who is causing the chaos there. The residents of Orient aren't comfortable with change; they don't like the outsiders coming in and taking over "their" town.

While solving the mystery of the murders and other mysterious goings-on in Orient is the readers main focus, it is also an interesting study of the residents themselves.  There are a bunch of characters in that small town, both old and new residents. Even before Mills arrives they are already wary of him. They are determined to think only negative of him and are immediately suspicious of him.

What Mr. Bollen does very well is keeping you guessing who the murderer is by laying a ton of red herrings. As a reader you are uncovering the clues at the same time as Mills and Beth. What I like about this type of narrative is that you aren't "yelling" at the characters because you know who it is and are dying for them to figure it out. 

I was actually completely surprised by the ending. My mind went in a completely different direction with what was going to happen.

While the book is told from both Beth and Mills perspectives, it is the other characters that keep the novel moving along. For a small town, there sure is a lot of dirty laundry. I'm sure that we'd all be shocked about our neighbors from time to time too. The subplots are just about as intriguing and fascinating at the murder mystery. There is a lot going on in Orient.

I believe that there is a bit of something in the novel for everyone. If you like character driven novels, you will like these characters. If you like plot driven novels, you will like the way Mr. Bollen paves the road to the ending.

I'm anxious to read what Mr. Bollen has up next and perhaps that is the best review a reader can give.


Monday, April 13, 2015

Julie's Review: All The Bright Places

Author: Jennifer Niven
Series: None
Publication Date: January 6, 2015
Publisher: Knopf
Pages: 400
Obtained: via a friend
Genre:  Young Adult
Rating: 5/5
Bottom Line: Heartbreaking, gut-wrenching and beautifully written
Grab, Just get it at the library, or Remove from your TBR list? Grab!
Summary: Theodore Finch is fascinated by death, and he constantly thinks of ways he might kill himself. But each time, something good, no matter how small, stops him. Violet Markey lives for the future, counting the days until graduation, when she can escape her Indiana town and her aching grief in the wake of her sister’s recent death.When Finch and Violet meet on the ledge of the bell tower at school, it’s unclear who saves whom. And when they pair up on a project to discover the “natural wonders” of their state, both Finch and Violet make more important discoveries: It’s only with Violet that Finch can be himself — a weird, funny, live-out-loud guy who’s not such a freak after all. And it’s only with Finch that Violet can forget to count away the days and start living them. But as Violet’s world grows, Finch’s begins to shrink.  ~powells.com

Review: All the Bright Places is one of those breathtaking novels that consumes you. Whether you are an adult that reads this or a teen, you will see bits of yourself, your friends and your family in these characters.Theo Finch is an outsider, Violet Markey is an insider in their world at Barlett High School. It is a fateful day that brings them together under some less than stellar circumstances. It is also when Finch decides to take things into his own hands and partner with Violet on a school project.

It's not that you can't see the writing on the wall. You know that a couple things are going to happen: 1) They will fall in love with each other, Finch quicker than Violet 2) One of them will end up more broken than the other one. I was quick to adore Finch. He's likable and self-effacing. Like all teenagers he doesn't know who he is. He keeps "trying on" new personalities, when really the best one is him just being himself, if he could figure out who that really is. He wants to think that he's letting Violet see the real him but I think he's being what he thinks Violet wants him to be. He never really lets her or anyone else in. No one really knows the struggles he has gone through.

Violet is wandering after the death of her sister, Eleanor. She feels survivors guilt and doesn't know how to move on. It isn't until Finch pairs up with her for a school project that she begins to live again. It opens up her eyes to the good around her.  I loved that Violet's outlet was writing and that while she couldn't do the same thing she did with her sister, she decided to something different. I also loved that she branched out and found like minded people.

Reading this as an adult and parent, I think it just highlights the troubles that teens can go through. I think that it's always hard to go through those years, everyone comes out scarred in some way, but teens these days have other factors we didn't have, like social media. I also realize that as a parent you have to let your teen experience things that perhaps you'd like to protect them from. It allows for growth. (P.S. remind me of this when mine are in their teens)

We are all broken in some way, it is up to us to figure out how to fix ourselves and perhaps see ourselves how other people see us because most of the time they see the better part of ourselves.

This story will make you feel hopeful, sad, happy and it will break your heart. These characters will stay with you long after you have closed the book.


Thursday, April 9, 2015

Jenn's Review: All Fall Down

Author: Ally Carter
Series: Embassy Row #1
Publication Date: January 20, 2015
Publisher: Scholastic Press
Pages: 320
Obtained: purchased
Genre:  YA
Rating: 3.5
Bottom Line: An underwhelming start to a new series
Grab, Just get it at the library, or Remove from your TBR list? Just get it at the library
Blurb: This exciting new series from NEW YORK TIMES bestselling author Ally Carter focuses on Grace, who can best be described as a daredevil, an Army brat, and a rebel. She is also the only granddaughter of perhaps the most powerful ambassador in the world, and Grace has spent every summer of her childhood running across the roofs of Embassy Row.

Now, at age sixteen, she's come back to stay--in order to solve the mystery of her mother's death. In the process, she uncovers an international conspiracy of unsettling proportions, and must choose her friends and watch her foes carefully if she and the world are to be saved.

Review:  I adore Ally Carter's books and couldn't wait for this one to come out.  Both Heist Society and Gallagher Girls are series I love so much that I enjoy re-reading them.  I was desperate to love the Embassy Row series too, the setting is fascinating, the premise has promise, but so far I just don't.

From the blurb, you know going into this that Grace is not a reliable narrator.  That would be okay if there was an anchor provided by the other characters but her friends flitted in and out of the story too much, mostly because Grace was busy pushing them away.   I think I was most disappointed with the lack of character development for the surrounding cast --- Ally Carter always has such a fascinating array of supporting characters and I felt as if I barely got to know them, which is a shame because it would have helped the story immensely.

The pace of the book went from frenetic to stumbling.  Perhaps it was meant to portray Grace's state of mind but it only succeeded in frustrating me.  I felt for Grace but I can't say that I ever connected to her character.  I understand that Grace is suffering from post traumatic stress, along with a myriad of other things, but she is out of control and there isn't a single adult in her life that steps in to take care of her.  (In fact, her grandfather puts her in her dead mother's unchanged bedroom!  That's not just negligent, it's cruel.)  Yes, her family is grieving too and at least they got her therapy but that was obviously not enough.  Without giving away the plot twist I will say that keeping the truth from her was not the best policy.  Especially when, after more than a year, they can see that it's not only not working it's making things worse.

The plot twist at the end comes suddenly and unravels everything in a snap.  I was more than a little incredulous over where things ended.  It was the ending of the book that solidified my interest in the rest of the series.  But the fact that the hook came in the last chapter reinforced the pervasive feeling that this book was just plot exposition for the rest of the series.  In retrospect, I suppose the first book of the Gallagher Girls series could also be considered in the same manner, but that was a far more enjoyable read than All Fall Down.  If anyone can pull this series together it's Ally Carter, so I will still be pre-ordering my next Embassy Row installment, but overall, I was underwhelmed.


Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Julie's Review: The Stranger

Author: Harlan Coben
Series: None
Publication Date: March 24, 2015
Publisher: Dutton
Pages: 455
Obtained: purchased
Genre:  Crime, Thriller
Rating: 4/5
Bottom Line: A deeper, fascinating look into living the American dream at all costs
Grab, Just get it at the library, or Remove from your TBR list? Grab!
Summary: The Stranger appears out of nowhere, perhaps in a bar, or a parking lot, or at the grocery store. His identity is unknown. His motives are unclear. His information is undeniable. Then he whispers a few words in your ear and disappears, leaving you picking up the pieces of your shattered world. Adam Price has a lot to lose: a comfortable marriage to a beautiful woman, two wonderful sons, and all the trappings of the American Dream: a big house, a good job, a seemingly perfect life. Then he runs into the Stranger. When he learns a devastating secret about his wife, Corinne, he confronts her, and the mirage of perfection disappears as if it never existed at all. Soon Adam finds himself tangled in something far darker than even Corinne's deception, and realizes that if he doesn't make exactly the right moves, the conspiracy hes stumbled into will not only ruin lives—it will end them. ~Amazon.com

Review: The Stranger is exactly what I want and expect out of a Harlan Coben thriller. It's what he does so well: taking ordinary people and putting them in extraordinary situations to see how they react. It's a study of human psychology and resilience in unusual circumstances.

Adam Price is living the dream. He's got two great boys, a loving and beautiful wife. He also loves his wife. Unfortunately, things aren't  always as they appear. Corrine has been keeping a secret from Adam and his world falls apart when a complete stranger tells him the secret. As anyone would, Adam begins to investigate what the stranger told him. He quickly falls down the rabbit hole into a world where things quickly spiral out of control. It is pretty apparent that Adam is in over his head.

What Mr. Coben does so well is he keeps you guessing by throwing different issues or secrets into the mix. He likes to steer you in several directions and to keep you changing your theory. It really isn't until he starts to reveal the missing pieces of the puzzle that you say "AH HA".

There's a reason that Mr. Coben is one of the best thriller/mystery writers out there. He takes idealistic situations and turns them on their head. There's always some plausibility with his stories but he always ratchets it up a notch. I will say it's never unbelievable.

When reading his books you can always identify people you know in your neighborhood, school or heck even your friends. It's obvious he's a good at reading people and getting into their heads.

If you've never read him then The Stranger is a great one to start with or any of his other stand-alone novels. If you want to start a series then I definitely recommend his Myron Bolitor books.

. Share/BookmarkGoogle+

Monday, April 6, 2015

Julie's Review: The Good Girl

Author: Mary Kubica
Series: None
Publication Date: July 29, 2014
Publisher: Harlequin MIRA
Pages: 352
Obtained: via a friend
Genre:  Psychological Thriler
Rating: 4/5
Bottom Line: Keeps you wanting more
Grab, Just get it at the library, or Remove from your TBR list? Grab!
Summary: "I've been following her for the past few days. I know where she buys her groceries, where she works. I don't know the color of her eyes or what they look like when she's scared. But I will." One night, Mia Dennett enters a bar to meet her on-again, off-again boyfriend. But when he doesn't show, she unwisely leaves with an enigmatic stranger. At first Colin Thatcher seems like a safe one-night stand. But following Colin home will turn out to be the worst mistake of Mia's life. When Colin decides to hide Mia in a secluded cabin in rural Minnesota instead of delivering her to his employers, Mia's mother, Eve, and detective Gabe Hoffman will stop at nothing to find them. But no one could have predicted the emotional entanglements that eventually cause this family's world to shatter. An addictively suspenseful and tautly written thriller, The Good Girl is a propulsive debut that reveals how even in the perfect family, nothing is as it seems. ~powells.com

Review: The Good Girl is a book that definitely has received a lot of buzz and it is well deserved. The novel is told from 3 different points of view: Eve, the mother; Gabe, the detective; and Colin, the captor. It is Colin's POV that I found the most interesting. For me, he was also the one who had the most character growth or change. It's not that he was a good man, he wasn't but he was also trying to do something good.

Eve wishes she would have been a better mother. She wishes that she would have stuck up for Mia when her dad, James, would be overbearing and rude towards their daughter. James was very much a man caught up in his own ego and stature. He wasn't going to let any daughter of his tarnish his good name. Gabe is a better detective than he gets credit for and it's his detective work that cracks the case wide-open.

Mia is the daughter that could do no right in her father's eyes. Mia was a free-spirit according to him. Mia wasn't trustworthy in his eyes. To say that her relationship with her parents was strained, would be too obvious. Mia wanted to live her own life and was doing just that when her world got turned upside down. I'm not really sure that she ever had Stockholm Syndrome but instead really was looking for someone to show her love. Even if it was in the strangest circumstance. Mia seemed like the simplest character but she truly was the most complex.

While I read the book, I felt that there was a big piece of the puzzle I was missing. Ms. Kubica does a great job of using this to her advantage. She keeps you turning the pages because you just want to know what it is you are missing. As a great author does, she leaves breadcrumbs for you to keep "eating" to the end. It isn't until the end when she drops her bombshell. In fact, I had to go back to read it again to make sure that I had read that correctly. It makes you look at each of the characters in a different light after the reveal.

If you are looking for a book that keeps you on your toes and keeps you turning the pages, then The Good Girl is up your alley!


Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Julie's Review: Best Kept Secret

Author: Amy Hatvany
Series: None
Publication Date: June 7, 2011
Publisher: Washington Square Press
Pages: 352
Obtained: purchased
Genre:  Contemporary Fiction, Women's Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Bottom Line: Heartbreaking and realistic
Grab, Just get it at the library, or Remove from your TBR list? Grab!
Summary: Cadence didn’t sit down one night and decide that downing two bottles of wine was a brilliant idea. Her drinking snuck up on her - as a way to sleep, to help her relax after a long day, to relieve some of the stress of the painful divorce that’s left her struggling to make ends meet with her five-year old son, Charlie. It wasn’t always like this. Just a few years ago, Cadence seemed to have it all—a successful husband, an adorable son, and a promising career as a freelance journalist. But with the demise of her marriage, her carefully constructed life begins to spiral out of control. Suddenly she is all alone trying to juggle the demands of work and motherhood. Logically, Cadence knows that she is drinking too much, and every day begins with renewed promises to herself that she will stop. But within a few hours, driven by something she doesn’t understand, she is reaching for the bottle - even when it means not playing with her son because she is too tired, or dropping him off at preschool late, again. And even when one calamitous night it means leaving him alone to pick up more wine at the grocery store. It’s only when her ex-husband shows up at her door to take Charlie away that Cadence realizes her best kept secret has been discovered…. Heartbreaking, haunting, and ultimately life-affirming, Best Kept Secret is more than just the story of Cadence—it’s a story of how the secrets we hold closest are the ones that can most tear us apart. ~powells.com  

Review: After reading Amy Hatvany's Best Kept Secret, I have to wonder how many women are functioning alcoholics? It is definitely something that society isn't ready to acknowledge or confront but yet it's not helping families. As we meet Cadence she flashes back to the events that led up to her fight for custody of her son. Immediately you know that drinking for her isn't just to relax, that it's developed into a crutch, then into a habit and then into an addiction.

Cadence definitely has a wall up. It is one of the reasons that her marriage failed, well that and the fact that her ex-husband is a momma's boy. When she turns to wine to help her cope with her son during the day and at night, it is understandable. It is what helps her relax and de-stress but it then becomes the only thing she looks forward to. It interferes with her livelihood and her ability to make the right choices.

Ms. Hatvany does an excellent job of showing this reader what a slippery-slope drinking can be and how it is not easy to say you have a problem. How you really need to hit rock bottom to be able to admit a problem and even then it's not easy to grasp. I don't think it's something a reader can fully grasp just reading about it.

I also appreciated the ending of the book. I'm thankful that she didn't tie the story up with a neat bow but ended it realistically. I appreciate that Cadence's sobriety will be a life long struggle and that she will always be fighting for the things she loves.

I have several other books by Ms. Hatvany on my shelf and I am looking forward to seeing what other subject matters she writes about.