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Review: The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

The Heart Goes LastMargaret Atwood’s latest novel The Heart Goes Last has some intriguing ideas but I’m not sure they all necessarily add up to a satisfying reading experience. Like many of her books, the setting is a near future dystopian one with our protagonists Stan and Charmaine living in their car and surviving on the meager earnings Charmaine earns as a waitress. When they’re giving the opportunity to trade in this life for something akin to a romanticized 50’s sitcom version of life, the two agree.

But there’s a price to be paid and a dark side to the agreement. Every other month, the couple spends time separated and locked up in prison. The other month is spent in freedom and doing various jobs within the community based on their skills. The couple is supposed to have little or no contact with the other couple that lives in their house while they’re in prison, but a seemingly change meeting between Charmaine and the other man who lives in their house begins an affair that will begin to change the dynamic of things.

The Heart Goes Last has an intriguing hook and set-up, but the farther I got into the novel, the less I found myself enjoying it. Part of it is that the deeper we get into the novel, the less likeable these characters become. And while there are some interesting twists to the situation that Stan and Charmaine find themselves living in (one early twist finds Stan falling in love with a woman who left a note behind, simply by imagining her, only to late find out that note was written by his wife for her lover), I felt like the novel lost a lot of its early momentum by the mid-point. It does pick up a bit at the end, but that’s not before I felt like I had to wade through a hundred pages that make me care less and less about the characters and what was going on.

Despite all that, Atwood still has a wonderful grasp of language and composes some utterly beautiful and haunting sentences and passages. But that isn’t enough to make this novel live up to its early promise.

In the interest of full disclosure, I received an ARC of this book as part of the Amazon Vine program.

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Review: I Take You by Eliza Kennedy

I Take You

In seven days, New York lawyer Lily Wilder will walk down the aisles, capping off her whirlwind romance with her finance, Will. The two met seven months earlier in a bar and after a passionate weekend, the threw caution to the wind and decided to get married. But the question looming over the wedding is do these two really know each other and are they the right fit?

See, Lily has a side of herself that she’s kept secret from Will. Lily enjoys living up to her last name and living wilder than many — binge drinking, sleeping with strangers, friends, really anyone who comes on her radar (she’s even carrying on an affair with her boss at her law firm). She also has a dark secret from her past that she’s hidden from everyone (or so she thought) and that if it comes to light, it could undo all her current and future happiness.

Despite warnings from family members, friends and lots of other signs saying that maybe she isn’t ready to settle down and that she and Will aren’t a good match, Lily is determined to go through the wedding. Continue reading

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Review: Those Girls by Lauren Saft

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Those Girls

Heading into junior year, Alex, Mollie and Veronica are the queen bees of their school — and they know it. They’ve all been friends since elementary school, but things are about to start changing for each of them.

Lauren Saft’s Those Girls feels like its channeling the spirit of Mean Girls without any of the heart that made the movie work. The stories are told in alternating points of view from each of our three protagonists and I’ve got to admit that somewhere around a third of the way through the novel, I found myself losing track of certain plot threads, like which girl pined for the boy next door and which one was hooking up with him.

There’s a lot of very bad behavior by all these characters, making each of them completely unsympathetic as the story progresses. Saft tries to get us to understand what motivates each of these girls with the alternating first-person narration, but I slowly found myself getting irritated by the girls and their actions instead of understanding them or sympathizing. Each girl (and the other characters who they come into contact with) come across as shallow, vain and down-right mean. It makes it hard to spend close to 300 pages with them.

Which brings up the question of why I kept reading when I wasn’t really enjoying the novel. I kept hoping that Saft might be setting up Alex, Mollie and Veronica for some kind of a fall in the final chapters or maybe we’d finally see their actions catch up with them. Alas, this doesn’t happen — nor do any of the three appear to really learn anything from their actions. This includes random sex, seducing each other’s boyfriends and two of them slipping the third a roofie that nearly costs a male teacher his job.

Maybe I’m just not the target audience for this novel. Whatever it is, I have to give this one just a single star.

In the interest of a full disclosure, I received an ARC of this book.

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Review: I Am Princess X by Cherie Priest

20-books-of-summer-master-image I Am Princess X

At a young age, best friends Libby and May created Princess X together. No ordinary princess, Princess X wore red chucks and wielded a sword. Together, May and Libby created a wide variety of adventures for her as well as adversaries, backstories and side characters. But the entire collection was given to charity when Libby was killed in a car wreck with her mother and her dad donated it.

May was heartbroken by the loss of her friend and sent her parents on an obsessive quest to every charity store in town trying to find the collection. She never succeeded and thought that the saga of Princess X was lost, until years later when she sees a Princess X sticker in downtown Seattle. Digging deeper, May discovers that Princess X is a web comic — but it may be something more. With the help of a hacker, she begins to suspect there is more to the story of Princess X than meets the eye and that her old friend Libby may still be alive and trying to reach out to her.

Cherie Priest has given readers some fantastic stories over the course of her career. And I Am Princess X is no exception to that rule. It’s a fun young adult story that can be read by kids of all ages. I’m sure this will win her new young adult fans and it may even get a few new older readers as well. As an entry point into the fantastic worlds created by Priest, it works extremely well and is a self-contained story (not that I’d mind spending more time with the world, mind you). It’s also a breath of fresh air to find a young adult novel that doesn’t include sparkly vampires or a love triangle with our heroine torn between two brooding guys.

My only drawback with this one was I got an ARC from the Amazon Vine program that didn’t include the final drawn graphic novel panels for much of the book. But instead of turning me off the book, it simply makes me want to seek out a final copy and see what these drawings look like. The ARC includes descriptions and some early drawings in the first few chapters so I could imagine what they might look like.

In the interest of full disclosure, I received an ARC of this book from the Amazon Vine program in exchange for an honest review.

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Review: A Small Indiscretion by Jan Ellison

A Small Indiscretion

Annie Black seems to have the perfect life — a wonderful husband and three children. But when her oldest son is involved in a car wreck, secrets from Annie’s past rear their ugly head, threatening to destroy the life she’s built.

Told as a letter written from Annie to her comatose son A Small Indiscretion chronicles Annie’s life then and now and the mistakes she made along the way. At nineteen, Annie impulsively decides to head to Europe to find herself. What she finds instead is a job, working for an older, married man named Malcolm. A large part of her job involves going to the pub each evening with Malcolm and hearing about his wife and their unusual marriage — seems that the wife is having an affair with an artist named Patrick. Before long, Annie is drawn into this world and finds herself sleeping with Patrick all while fending off Malcolm’s growing advances.

Twenty years later, Annie has created a seemingly perfect life. Married to a doctor and running her own business, Annie seems to have it all. Until it all comes crashing down on her when an old face from the past emerges and her secrets begin to come to light.

I’ll give A Small Indiscretion credit for coming up with an interesting little twist that I didn’t necessarily see coming (I thought I’d figured out exactly what the titular indiscretion was long before Annie is ready or willing to reveal it to us) but that is nicely set-up and paid off during the course of the novel. The letter writing style is nicely done, allowing us to see inside some of Annie’s thought processes but only giving us as much or as little as she’s willing or able to give at the time.

And yet I couldn’t help but come away from the novel feeling a bit disappointed overall. The first and final thirds of the book are utterly riveting as we get to know Annie, her family and the situation. It’s in the middle third that I felt like things were treading water a bit, with Annie dropping hint after hint things but not offering anything more to her son and readers. I found myself growing frustrated with the middle section of the book wishing that Annie would tell us something that we didn’t already know already. Maybe that’s the point or what Jan Ellison is trying to have readers feel in this section.

Overall, the novel is a good one. I’ve seen the marketing materials compare it to The Girl on the Train which I think is a bit unfair to both books. This one is uniquely different and doesn’t have quite the same central, driving mystery Train does.

In the interest of full disclosure, I received an ARC of this book as part of the Amazon Vine program in exchange for an honest review.

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Review: The Bone Tree by Greg Iles

The Bone Tree

Greg Iles triumphant return to the small town of Natchez continues in the middle installment of a new trilogy, The Bone Tree. Thankfully, Tree doesn’t suffer from middle installment syndrome with characters doing a lot of treading water as we slowly set up things for the final race to the finish line.

Iles spends the first third of the book allowing his characters to reflect on the events of Natchez Burning and slowly moving pieces into place for novel’s final acts. But once the revelations start coming, Iles piles them on fast and furiously, making the novel’s final six hundred or so pages fly by and leaving you curious to see what will happen next.

Mayor Penn Cage continues to juggle multiple crises — from his father being on the run from the police and wanted in connection with the death of state trooper to his fiancee not filing him fully on what she knows about the cases unfolding to his own agenda to try and exonerate his father all while uncovering the truths that have long been buried (both literally and figuratively) surrounding racial relations in his own small town, our country and just how that could tie into bigger conspiracy theories (including the shooting of JFK, RFK and MLK). The longer page count of the novel allows time for some of these events to sink in and to impact Cage (and a multitude of other characters) decisions. Seeing the forces aligned against Cage and the other various forces working with him is fascinating and while we may not necessarily root for the various opponents stacked up against Cage, Iles at least allows us to understand their motivations.

And while it’s not quite as fast paced as the first installment in this trilogy, it’s still every bit as page turning and compelling. Once I hit the mid-way point of the novel, it was next to impossible to put down and I was once again left wanting more when the final page was turned.

At this point, I’m not sure how Iles will wrap things up in the next book, but I know that I’ll eagerly be waiting for it.

In the interest of full disclosure, I received an ARC of this book as part of the Amazon Vine Program.

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Review: Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll

Luckiest Girl Alive

For the last decade, Tifani Fanelli has been working to reinvent herself. On the surface she’s got it all — great job, great fiance, a seemingly perfect life.

But just under the surface, events from her past still haunt her and attempt to shatter her seemingly perfect world.

To say more about what these events are would be to ruin several of the twists that Jessica Knoll sews in her debut novel Luckiest Girl Alive. When we first meet Ani (she drops the Tif), she comes across as a driven, slightly calculating and cold character. Asked to participate in a documentary about the events that took place at her private high school, Ani is determined to drop as much weight as possible and seemingly have it all before she appears in the documentary. Early on, it would be easy to dismiss her as a vain, spoiled child who is used to getting her own way. But Knoll wisely drops out nuggets of information from Ani’s past (in the form of alternating chapters in the past and present) to slowly begin to build understanding and maybe a bit of sympathy toward Ani.

Luckiest Girl Alive throws in a couple of well-earned curves that caught me by surprise. Just when I thought I had it all figured out, Knoll would throw in a new nugget that sent the novel in an entirely different direction. Take my advice and don’t let anyone else ruin this one for you. Part of the fun is discovering what really happened — and wondering if we can trust Tifani as the narrator of the story.

I will also say that this novel may require some patience. I initially found Ani an off-putting narrator, but as the story opened up and revealed more about her past, it helped her grow on me a bit. Don’t be off-put by her early brashness. A little patience is a good thing with this one.

Knoll’s debut novel is intriguing and compelling enough that I am looking forward to seeing what she offers next.

In the interest of full disclosure, I received an ARC of this book from the Amazon Vine program in exchange for an honest review.

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Review: The Rosie Effect by Don Simsion

The Rosie Effect (Don Tillman #2)

About halfway through Graeme Simsion’s follow-up to The Rosie Project, I paused to wonder if perhaps too much of Don Tillman wasn’t a good thing.

In the sequel The Rosie Effect, we find Don and Rosie living happily together in New York City. Since the end of the last novel, the newly married couple is adjusting to life together when Rosie announces that she’s expecting a baby and their lives are thrown into turmoil. As Don wrestles with the question of how to be a supporting husband to Rosie during this experience and how to be a good father, he makes an increasing number of well-intentioned but misguided choices that begin to drive a wedge between himself and the love of his life. One such choices finds Don landing in hot water because he wants to observe children and parents interacting so he head out to a local playground and starts recording them on his cell phone.

Part of what made The Rosie Project work so well as that while it hit many of the predictable marks for a romantic comedy novel, Simsion gave us a reason to be invested in Don and Rosie and to root for these two to finally get together. In the sequel, Simsion attempts to tear them down in order to build them back up as a couple and potential parents, but those steps end up making Don look less than noble and Rosy less than pleasant. Thankfully, the novel includes a large group of friends for Don (it’s grown to six now for our hero) to help redeem Don a bit and to at least attempt to stick the landing when the novel reaches its conclusion. (How much of the landing it sticks will be up to readers. This one wasn’t entirely convinced, but was entirely relieved). Continue reading

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Review: This Is the Water by Yannick Murphy

This Is the Water

As a character driven mystery novel Yannick Murphy’s This Is the Water works as long as you enjoy the unique voice in which the novel unfolds. Murphy tells the novel in declarative statements, utilizing the second-person perspective. And while it make take a few pages to really adjust to this different want of storytelling, once you get used to it, it works fairly well.

At least, until it doesn’t. At about the mid-point of the novel, I found the novelty of this technique beginning to wear off a bit. Or it could have been that I was growing weary of waiting for something to happen in the novel. If you’re looking for a hard-edged, fast-paced mystery odds are you won’t like this one. If you’re looking for a novel that examines a criminal act and its impact on the characters and community, this one may be a hit with you.

The novel centers on a swim team and the various people whose lives are affected by it. Murphy does a nice job of developing the characters in the first third of the novel so that when the murder of a member of the team happens readers will feel a bit of the anger, hurt and uncertainty that the characters feel. And while the novel has a central figure in Annie, the conflicted mother who wonders why her husband isn’t giving her the affection she wants and whether she’s attracted to the husband of a friend, the middle third of this novel feels less like it’s developing the characters and situations from the first third and more like it’s treading water (pun not intended).

It’s at this point that the narration hook goes from clever to a bit redundant and when I found myself beginning to lose interest in things. Murphy throws in a couple of huge red herrings and I did make it to the end, but at times it was a bit of a struggle.

It’s a shame because I feel like the book has a lot of potential, I’m just not sure it was well realized.

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