Review: We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

We Were Liars

Had We Were Liars not cautioned me against revealing too much of the book’s ending to anyone, I might have enjoyed it more than I did. The promise of having the rug pulled out from under me in the final few pages left me pondering what the twist would be and how it would work rather than sitting back and allowing me to slowly draw out the line before setting the hook.

In many ways, it reminds me a lot of the problems I have when approaching an M. Night Shymalyan film. I’m so conditioned to expect a twist that I find myself less concentrating on the story and characters than I do on looking for the seeds to be sewn for the twist or trying to be one-step ahead of the game and guessing the twist ending.

That feeling didn’t necessarily ruin We Were Liars for me, but it kept me from having quite the same zen-like experience that other readers have had with the novel.*

* I will note from a perusal of other reviews that the book seems to be fairly polarizing. It seems that readers either love it or they’re not necessarily sure the destination was worth the ride.

It’s the novel of the Sinclair family and their summers spent on the family island. The first three grandchildren plus a young man named Gat, spend each summer there together, having adventures on the island and growing up together. Our narrator is Cady, who has feelings for Gat.

Two years earlier, Cady waded out into the ocean in her clothes and was found on the beach with a head injury. She experiences short term memory loss, debilitating migraines and other side effects from the experience. She skips one summer on the island to tour Europe with her estranged father and the next summer insists on going back for half the summer in the hopes of reconnecting with her family and figuring out exactly what happened that fateful summer evening. Cady’s family can and will tell her what happened, but Cady doesn’t recall being told even moments later, leading her mother and doctors to decide she needs to remember what happened on her own.

Over the course of the story, E. Lockhart explores the complicated relationships and history of the Sinclair family. What from the outside appears to be the “perfect” family is instead one built on lying, deceit and manipulation. It seems that grandchildren are just one attempts by various parties to control and manipulate each other and to stake various participants claims to the family legacy.

The novel sets up the coming “pulling out the rug” moment fairly well with enough threads put into place that when it does come, it feels substantial and earned. That said, I’d guessed (part of) what was to come a long time before the big reveal, which allowed me to be both smug at my own intuitiveness and surprised by what Lockhart achieves in the final few pages of the novel.

Told from the point of view of Cady and easily shifting from past to present, We Were Liars is a book is good, but it’s not quite one that I’d rate as necessarily being great. It’s well written, fun and entertaining but it’s not quite the zen-experience (for me anyway) that others have made it out to be.

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Review: The One and Only by Emily Giffin

The One and Only

On the surface, Emily Giffin’s The One and Only is a bit outside my usual reading comfort zone.

My wife lovingly teased that I was reading “romance” and “chick lit” as I read the book over the course of a couple of days, neglecting several other more “manly” novels like a Michael Connelly mystery and the latest installment from the Dresden Files.*

* It also earned me some strange looks when I picked it up on reserve at the library. Oh, how I wish my local library has self-serve reserves like other library sytems! 

As I’ve stated before, I find it frustrating when we (readers, authors, marketers, book stores, libraries, etc) have to create such a niche for reading material. I often find myself wanting to create a section called “Really good stuff that you should take no shame in wanting to read.” I’d unreservedly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a good story with interesting characters. I know I certainly enjoyed it a great deal and I don’t necessarily think I have to turn in my “guy card” for doing so.

Part of it could be that our protagonist, Shea Rigsby is a die-hard football fan. For as long as she can remember, Shea has been obsessed with the Walker football program. She can quote stats, recall players and analyze plays with the best of them. This has led to her staying in the small Texas town where she grew up so she can be close to the team, her family and her good friends, including the family of Walker’s legendary head coach.

It’s when the wife of the head coach passes away that the early 30′s Shea is given a moment to take a step back and assess her life and if she’s really happy or if she’s just passing time. That leads Shea to dump her boyfriend and begin pursuing her dream of becoming a sports writer. She also begins dating the superstar QB for the Dallas Cowboys, but it turns out she may have feelings for someone else in the picture.

I’ve read a couple of reviews that really call into question the romantic subplot of Shea developing feelings for the older Walker football coach. But I don’t necessarily understand these objections, other than the superficial ones related to the age gap between the two. Giffin’s development of this story works well and feels authentic, including Shea’s guilt over her feelings in the wake of the coach’s wife’s death and the fact that she’s been best friends with his daughter for years. It’s clear that Shea has always admired the coach and had a bit of a crush on him, but it’s not until well after his wife passes away that she begins to think he might be something more to her. Again, the journey that Giffin puts Shea on with her romantic life rang true to this reader. Certainly, we’ve seen a lot of couples overcome obstacles on the printed page and this one is no different than most.

What kept me from giving the book a full five stars is the fact that it felt like it needed a bit more time to develop a few things in the last quarter. The novel proceeds at a nice pace, with certain things developing in Shea’s life and then suddenly it seems to kick it up into a higher gear with about fifty pages to go and a lot to wrap-up. It feels as if the novel or Giffin started to run out of steam or is preparing for a sequel.

As for the issues of this being “chic lit” and “romance,” yes there are elements of both here. But the romance angle isn’t your standard bodice ripper with phrases like “love muffin” used so I think you’ll be OK if that’s a roadblock to your wanting to read this one. And if this is “chick lit” with a strong female protagonist who undergoes an interesting character arc all while loving football, then sign me up.

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Review: Everything is Perfect When You’re a Liar by Kelly Oxford

Everything Is Perfect When You're a Liar

Before I started listening Everything Is Perfect When You’re a Liar, I had no idea who Kelly Oxford was. I was drawn into the (audio) book by the title and that I like to listen to memoirs while working out (in this case swimming laps) since if I get distracted for a moment, I won’t necessarily miss a crucial detail that plays a huge role in the resolution of the story.

After spending several hours with Kelly, I have to say that it’s highly unlikely we’d be friends. Or that I’d even be one of the millions of people that follow her on Twitter. Maybe she’s funny, witty or zany over there, but in this collection of essays, I found her smug and with an over-inflated opinion of herself and her own importance.

It’s one thing to help create a mental picture of someone by comparing them to an 80′s celebrity icon. It’s another for EVERY SINGLE PERSON in the book to get this treatment, ensuring that it goes from being clever to being annoying somewhere around the third or fourth portion of the audio book. It also doesn’t help that essay after essay brags on a)her looks (usually done by other people) b)her cleverness (again done others) or c)both.

And for all the time I spent with this memoir (because for some reason I felt like at some point it HAD to get better), I never quite got how or why she chose this as the title for her book or if there’s be an essay in there that tied everything together. In fact, it finally occurred to me in fifth or sixth segment that Oxford’s books felt more like a collection of blog posts than an actual book of essays with a theme or at least a thread running through it.

And I was fully prepared to give the book a single star until I got to the chapter in which Oxford talks about her going back to school and her internships working with brain-damaged and elderly patients. This chapter helps humanize Oxford and make actually begin to like her. Her reactions, observations and reported interactions actually began to make me see there was more to her than the girl who blew all her money so she could get a free plane ride home from a local charity. (If there’s one thing that really started to stick in my craw as the book went along, it’s how Oxford’s self-absorption never seems to have any consequences for her….or at least any she tells us about).

For that chapter alone, the book rose one star to two.

Other that that, not much to recommend here.

I can’t help but feel the audio book wasn’t helped by having Oxford read it.  I’ve read other reviews that talk about how the printed version overuses certain forms of punctuation and felt like it needed a good editor.   The audio book wasn’t helped by the feeling that Oxford is continually bragging about how her various misadventures and how there seem to be little, if any consequences to them for her.   It probably underlined the feeling of her being self-absorbed and self-centered a great deal to hear these stories related in her own voice and with her own vocal emphasis.

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Review: The Illegitimates

The Illegitimates

Secret agent Jack Steele is cut from the same cloth as another famous British secret agent — including all the same proclivities from dueling over-the-top villains with delusions of grandeur to fine single beverages to the latest in high tech gadgets and toys. He’s also the same love ‘em and leave ‘em type of guy — except that Jack has apparently left a string of illegitimate heirs across the years and world from his globe-trotting, world-saving adventures.

When Jack is killed in action, the British secret service turns to his illegitimate children in the hopes of crafting a team of agents with all the skills that Jack had — minus, of course, the rampant seduction of every member of the opposite sex who crosses their path. Brought together to fight a threat to world safety and peace, the team isn’t necessarily interested in saving the world, at first. Then someone kidnaps their mothers and the team has an incentive to work together and try to find out the mastermind behind the nefarious plot.

Collecting together the first several issues of The Illegitimates, the story told here is largely a throw away Bond-homage until the final two issues when a fairly interesting twist is thrown into things. I won’t reveal what it is here because it will ruin a lot of the fun of reading this collection, but I will say that it made me sit up and take notice of this comic collection in a way I hadn’t necessarily thought possible based on the first three and a half or so issues. In fact, I’d say those first couple of issues are largely fun, but not necessarily ground breaking with the most fun coming in the flashbacks to Steele and his liaisons with the various mothers of the children.

In the interest of full disclosure, I received a digital ARC of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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Review: Just One Evil Act by Elizabeth George

Just One Evil Act (Inspector Lynley, #18)

A good friend (and fellow Lynley and Havers fan) used to say that she looked forward to each new Elizabeth George novel because it offered her the chance to catch up with some old friends. I have to admit that I agreed with her at the time and it still holds true today. George writes a compelling mystery, but it’s the strength of her characters that keeps me coming back to her books time and again.

No where is that more the case than with the latest entry in the series Just One Evil Act.

Picking up where Believing the Lie left off, Evil Act gives center stage to Barbara Havers. Ath the conclusion of Lie, it was revealed that the former lover of Taymullah Azhar and mother to Hydiah had vanished without a trace with Hydiah. Becuase Azhar never married the mother nor was recognized as Hydiah’s father, he has little or no legal recourse is determining where his daughter has gone or in getting her back. Instead, he is forced to turn to private detectives and less than above board means to try and reunite with his daughter and possibly see her return home to him.

Six months later, the mother shows up in London, accusing Azhar of kidnapping their daughter. It seems that someone has taken Hydiah from the Italian marketplace where she and her new lover (and father to her child) shopped each week. Havers is desperate to find a way to help Azhar and get Hydiah back, eventually trying to pressure Scotland Yard to jump into the case by leaking details to a tabloid journalist and forcing the hand of her superior, Isabelle Audrey. Audrey reluctantly goes along but instead of sending Havers to Italy, she sends Lynley.

As events continue to escalate, Havers is forced to go further and further to try and cover her tracks in her attempts to help Azhar. Interestingly, the novel examines issues of trust in the novel and continually asks you to question who you believe and why you believe them. In the case of Barbara, if you’re a long time reader of the series, you can’t help but begin to feel (as Lynley does) that at some point she’s got to wake up and smell the coffee. Multiple clues point to Azhar’s involvement and potentially ulterior motives in the case, but Barbara is so blinded by her attraction to Azhar and her love for Hydiah that she refuses to believe them or won’t examine them until she gets a chance to talk to Azhar in person.

Meanwhile, it seems as though Barbara is more and more willing to throw her entire career out the window instead of coming clean to Lynley or trying to make things right.

The novel seems to adopt the world-view of one Gregory House in that “Everyone lies” because there are lots of lies going on here, all told with good (for the most part) intentions and intended to achieve what each character perceives as a positive outcome to things (or at least so they imagine).

It all makes for a fascinating, compelling novel, even if (as I’ve seen several other reviewers complain) a murder doesn’t happen until close to halfway through the novel. I feel like many of these complaints are missing the forest for the trees. While George can craft a solid mystery, at this point the Lynley and Havers novels are more than about being a simple “whodunnit?” and intended to be more about the impact certain evil acts can have on the community and the characters.

If you approach the novel from that perspective (as I did), you are likely to love just about every minute of this novel. I will admit the ending left me a bit flummoxed, feeling a bit like George trying too hard to push a reset button of sorts instead of really following through on some of the potential consequences of choices and actions made by characters in this book. But I reserve too much judgment on that until the next novel in the series gets a chance to address these things and possibly offers us some more insight into the fallout.

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Booking Through Thursday: R-Rated

btt button

How do you feel about explicit detail in your reading? Whether language, sex, violence, situations and so on … does it bother you? Faze you at all? Or do you just read everything without it bothering you?

As long as the explicit details in question are adding to my understanding of the characters or the advancement of the plot, I don’t necessarily mind such scenes or moments on the printed page.   It’s when such scenes are gratuitous that I start to question if or why they’re included and may end up skimming or skipping certain passages in a book.

There’s also the theory that less is more.  I don’t need every single detail put on the printed page (necessarily).    Some details are good, but don’t go for the overkill.  Allow my imagination to fill in the gaps.  This is where I feel horror writers like Stephen King or Richard Matheson are at their most effective (in terms of offering up scares to readers).  They include just enough details to give you an idea of what is happening but so many that it starts to feel over the top.   This could be one of the many reasons that I feel like there are so few really good adaptations for the screen of these two writers’ works.

It’s interesting that this question should come up this week, since I’m reading the new Dresden Files novel, Skin Game.    The first quarter of the book features a scene between Harry and Karrin Murphy that, at first, felt like it would be more at home on the pages of a bodice-ripper romance novel than it does in an urban fantasy novel.  I know that Jim Butcher hasn’t shied away from allowing Harry to have intimate moments in the past, but this one felt a bit out of place — at least at first.  Once I finished the chapter in question and saw how and why Butcher included the detail he did, it made a lot more sense.  It also revealed a bit about Harry’s character and where he is at that moment in not only the book but his character arc.

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Review: The Girl With All the Gifts by M.R. Carey

The Girl with All the Gifts

If you think there’s nothing new in the world of zombie novels, you might want to think again.

M.R. Carey proves that there is something new in the world of the undead with The Girl With All the Gifts.

Melanie is a special little girl. Each morning, she’s strapped into a contraption much like the one used on Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs and wheeled into a classroom, where a rotating series of teachers will be to educate her and her classmates. Melanie’s favorite teacher is Miss Justineau, who is less distant from the class than the other teachers and more willing to bend the rules and go outside the core curriculum with the students.

The secret is that Melanie and her fellow students are zombies. But they’re not the standard brain-eating, mindless zombies. Instead, they’re a group who can learn and actually have some higher brain function that is normally the case in zombie presentations. But don’t worry — Melanie and this group of young children are the exception rather than the rule and there are other types of attacking zombies out there, even if they’re not necessarily the mindless brain-eating type made popular by The Walking Dead.

Like an onion, Carey peels backs the layers of his story with each layer revealing something else underneath and opening up new avenues for exploration. After starting off with the mystery of how Melanie is and why she’s being educated in this fashion, Carey reveals the nature of the zombie disease and just how far the world has fallen as well as looking at what humanity is doing to try and survive. Setting the novel a couple of decades after the initial outbreak helps drive some of the last half of the novel as Melanie, Miss Justineau and several others from the base are forced to go out on the road and try to find sanctuary elsewhere.

Carey deftly balances sections of suspense as the group struggles to survive with sections that serve to develop our insight into the characters and this world. Short chapters help the novel move along at a nice pace and allow us to spend time with each character of the party. Carey pulls of the trick of allowing us to understand each character’s motivation even if we aren’t necessarily meant to like them or agree with what they’re doing.

The final product is a fascinating, compelling character-driven zombie story that actually manages to break some new and interesting ground in the genre. If you’re looking for something different to read this summer, I can’t recommend The Girl With All the Gifts enough.

In the interest of full disclosure, I received a digital ARC of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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