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The Witch Elm

⇒Secrets and lies color a life on the verge of incalculable change. This is the Butterfly Effect on Xanax.⇐


Author: Tana French

(3.64 stars – Goodreads rating)

Genre: Mystery

Format: Audiobook (CDs)

Published October 9, 2018, by Viking

Pages: 509 ; 18 Audio Discs (22 hours)

#TheWitchElm


What if I never got another day in my life when I was normal again?

Toby

In middle school, my friends and I (how I wish I could put it all on them, but I can’t) decided to prank our classmates. Just a certain few of them who we thought were a bit too big for their britches. We did the usual obnoxious phone calls – which worked back then because no one had caller ID yet (I’m dating myself) and everyone still used landlines. It was the perfect way for some bored pre-teens to spend Friday nights while also watching network TV and being housebound (no internet or social media back then).

One such prank went just a little further than the rest. We called one of our classmates and threatened to fight her (insert dramatic music and loads of judgment right here). She was a “mean girl” and totally deserved a good thrashing (Not really, but I’m trying to justify my 12-year-old mind). We told her to meet us by the water fountain on the red hall after lunch the next day – if she wasn’t scared. It was maddening to wait all those hours to see if she would actually show up!


So what in the world does this have to do with The Witch Elm? Spoiler Alert: this book is about questionable life choices. Well, it’s about a lot of things, but making bad life choices is key among them – bad choices that get justified along the way and then accepted as harmless or inconsequential. But let me let you read the Goodreads blurb to see what else it’s about:

Toby is a happy-go-lucky charmer who’s dodged a scrape at work and is celebrating with friends when the night takes a turn that will change his life – he surprises two burglars who beat him and leave him for dead. Struggling to recover from his injuries, beginning to understand that he might never be the same man again, he takes refuge at his family’s ancestral home to care for his dying uncle Hugo. Then a skull is found in the trunk of an elm tree in the garden – and as detectives close in, Toby is forced to face the possibility that his past may not be what he has always believed.


…one gets into the habit of being oneself. It takes some great upheaval to crack that shell and force us to discover what else might be underneath.

I’ve managed to get this far into the review without saying that I really didn’t like this book. Why? Well, I didn’t want to start out my fresh new year of reading with a dud. OK, let me be fair, it wasn’t a “dud”, but it wasn’t for me.

This book was a long, slow march to the death of everything I thought I loved about long reads and audiobooks. I started feeling like I was being punished around disc 5 and from there (all the way to disc 18) I was sure I had angered the literary gods somewhere along the way for them to steer me towards this dark, vice-riddled study in depravity. Then I started criticizing myself for being too critical! Maybe I just needed to get past Toby’s seemingly endless inner monologue and focus on the deeper meaning of the story: self-discovery, balancing perceptions with reality, etc. And I honestly tried to do that. But I still felt like getting through the whole thing wasn’t enjoyable – it was just drudgery.

There are plenty of people who 5-starred this book. It has been well-recognized and earnestly reviewed. And I should have left them to it.

To be fair, Tana French is a good author. Her prose is classically descriptive, and at some points reads like poetry. But… did there have to be so MUCH of it?! Half of the book takes place in Toby’s head (not a comfortable place to be, btw) and the best action only happens when he looks outside into the world for a change. What’s most troublesome about that is that he is not a likable character. You want to like him, but he doesn’t allow it. He’s unreliable for many reasons, not the least of which is that he’s wishy-washy. First, the answer is A, but then it could be B. Nope, back to A, I’m sure of it. Wait… but now C is looking interesting… But I can’t discount B again because remember that time back in high school… Arrrrgggghhhhhhh!!!!!!!!

…it was me, wronged innocent, white knight, cunning investigator, killer, selfish oblivious dick, petty provocateur, take your pick, what does it matter? it’ll all change again.

Toby

High praise to Paul Nugent, the audiobook narrator, however, whose lilting Irish brogue was my only salvation as we both slogged through this 18-disc, 22-hour behemoth of a book. Twenty-two hours! That’s almost a full day of tainted introspection, Xanax-influenced rants, and the tiniest bits of truth tossed in here and there about guarded explorations into the weight of our perceptions of the world around us.


So by now you may be wondering whatever happened with the water fountain fight threat. Can you believe that she actually showed up? And with a group of her “mean girl” friends too! My friends and I stood just close enough in the midst of the gathering crowd to hear their heated conversation about what they would do if “whoever” showed up. We didn’t want any of what they were promising! Plus, we had no real intentions of fighting anyone anyway. Even though it was great middle school drama, it was ultimately a waste of everyone’s time and energy, and I stopped pranking after that. Life lesson learned. And another one learned years later: be very wary of 500+ page Tana French books.


Tana French is the New York Times bestselling author of In the Woods, The Likeness, Faithful Place, Broken Harbor, The Secret Place, The Trespasser, and The Witch Elm. Her books have won awards including the Edgar, Anthony, Macavity and Barry Awards, the Los Angeles Times Award for Best Mystery/Thriller, and the Irish Book Award for Crime Fiction. She lives in Dublin with her family.


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Obsidio (The Illuminae Files #3)

⇒An exhilarating journey is about to end, but before it does, new heroes and new dangers emerge. Battle lines are drawn and the die is cast.⇐


Authors: Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

(4.58 stars – Goodreads rating)

Genre: YA / Science Fiction

Format: Hardcover

Pages: 615 (Hardcover)

#Obsidio #Illuminae #Illuminaefiles


I am clarity, I am necessity. I am inevitability. But am I evil?

AIDAN

If you are a series reader, and if you enjoy some YA sci-fi tossed into your reading list, then do not skip this series. It is clever, inventive, fresh, and masterfully written. I read a lot of series – some that have gone on past their Use By date – but the Illuminae Files is one that I wouldn’t mind starting over again (if I ever get to a point in my life when my TBR pile isn’t so massive.

Obsidio is the third book in the Illuminae series and it is as intense and exciting as both the first and second releases. More characters, a different spaceship, but the same dark, evil threat looming over them all: BeiTech. Here’s the Goodreads blurb…

Kady, Ezra, Hanna, and Nik narrowly escaped with their lives from the attacks on Heimdall station and now find themselves crammed with 2,000 refugees on the container ship, Mao. With the jump station destroyed and their resources scarce, the only option is to return to Kerenza—but who knows what they’ll find seven months after the invasion? 
Meanwhile, Kady’s cousin, Asha, survived the initial BeiTech assault and has joined Kerenza’s ragtag underground resistance. When Rhys—an old flame from Asha’s past—reappears on Kerenza, the two find themselves on opposite sides of the conflict. 
With time running out, a final battle will be waged on land and in space, heroes will fall, and hearts will be broken.


Before I launch into a glowing review of how good I think Obsidio is, Here are links to my reviews on both Illuminae and Gemina just in case you’re curious about the series and haven’t quite committed to checking it out yet. Hint: You should. Seriously.

I should say first, do NOT let the size of these books scare you off. They are actually really quick reads. There are pages that read like comics. So even if your regular reading material is closer to the 200-250 page range, you’ll feel comfortable with this even though Obsidio‘s page count is 615. Trust me on that.

The book is written in a series of Audio Visual transcripts and Instant Message screenshots — there are even some personal scribbled notes tossed in there too — and fascinating illustrations that put you right in the thick of the action. The layout of these books is one of the best things about the series. Any time I find myself turning a book in circles in order to read it, I know the author has me hooked and could do basically anything on those pages. And Kaufman and Kristoff do just that.

Live a life worth dying for.

Kady Grant

Obsidio plays out on the page like a movie plays out on the screen. One hundred moving parts and yet all of them gel into a violent, deadly, animated, touching story of resilience and grit. Sure, it’s teenagers running around doing amazing things to save their part of the universe, but I feel sucked into their world and I don’t want to know anything other than their reality — it’s just that compelling.

The two “stars” in Obsidio are girl-next-door Asha Grant and her ex-boyfriend (now turned to the dark side), BeiTech soldier Rhys Lindstrom. Both of them are in situations that they didn’t choose, but to survive they have to learn to trust each other all over again. And that’s not easy to do in the midst of a forced enemy occupation that leads to a space war right over your head.

Every story needs its monster. <error> And the monster is me.

AIDAN

One thing that kept pulling me into this serious is the presence of the mad/mad genius AI supercomputer, AIDAN. I definitely have a love/hate relationship with this thing (entity?). Is it that AIDAN has no conscience? Or is that he has more conscience than a computer should have, and therefore creates chaos? Read the books and you decide. But one thing is sure, AIDAN is the catalyst for most of the action in all three books. And if action is what you like in your reading (along with questionable moral decisions and awkward computer romance), then this is the series for you.

I’m sad that it ends with Obsidio, but I feel that this book wrapped everything up nicely – no pretty bows or shiny paper here, but a solid ending that puts a bold period where the previous two books left question marks. I’m satisfied after this series, and that’s not something that I get to say a lot when reviewing other books in a series. The Illuminae Files does not disappoint.


Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff

Kaufman Website

Kristoff Blog


A Head Full of Ghosts

⇒My October Spooky Reads book #4 is A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay. What do you do when you’re literally living with your deepest fear?⇐

by Paul Tremblay
SmellRating3.5
(3.81 stars – Goodreads rating)

Published June 2, 2015, by William Morrow

Genre: Fiction / Horror / Thriller

Format: Paperback

Pages: 284

#AHeadFullofGhosts

A Head Full of Ghosts…being literally and figuratively haunted by outside forces, is almost as horrible as what actually happened. Almost.

October Spooky Reads month continues, and I’m getting exasperated! I AM NOT BEING SCARED! Ok, ok, so maybe my book picks are at fault because I chose to read primarily from physical books that were already on my shelves instead of lining up some truly, awesomely frightening books from the library. BUT!…. some of these have held the promise of “scary” without quite delivering.

A Head Full of Ghosts for example. I mean, come on! It’s right there in the title! Ghosts. In a Head. Gotta be horrifying, right? Meh, only marginally so.

…there are all these ghosts filling my head and I’m just trying to get them out…

Here is Goodreads’ synopsis:

The lives of the Barretts, a normal suburban New England family, are torn apart when fourteen-year-old Marjorie begins to display signs of acute schizophrenia.

To her parents’ despair, the doctors are unable to stop Marjorie’s descent into madness. As their stable home devolves into a house of horrors, they reluctantly turn to a local Catholic priest for help. Father Wanderly suggests an exorcism; he believes the vulnerable teenager is the victim of demonic possession. He also contacts a production company that is eager to document the Barretts’ plight. With John, Marjorie’s father, out of work for more than a year and the medical bills looming, the family agrees to be filmed, and soon find themselves the unwitting stars of The Possession, a hit reality television show. When events in the Barrett household explode in tragedy, the show, and the shocking incidents it captures become the stuff of urban legend.

Fifteen years later, a bestselling writer interviews Marjorie’s younger sister, Merry. As she recalls those long ago events that took place when she was just eight years old, long-buried secrets and painful memories that clash with what was broadcast on television begin to surface—and a mind-bending tale of psychological horror is unleashed, raising vexing questions about memory and reality, science and religion, and the very nature of evil.

Are you good at keeping secrets, Merry?

The story is told from 8-year-old Merry’s perspective, so we get the innocence and gullibility of youth combined with her faith that her big sister and best friend would only always protect her. With a sister like Marjorie though, that’s blind faith indeed.

Marjorie is fourteen. And we all know how heinous some teenagers can be. Sure, blame it on imbalanced hormones and the awkward state of trying to “find oneself”, but Marjorie had some help with her misplaced aggression and angst: a psychotic break.

Here we tread on thin ice – do we pity her because mental health issues are gravely serious and people suffering from them should be treated not only with medicine but with respect and dignity? Or do we make Marjorie the monster because, hey, she’s “crazy” and this is a fictional book? You decide because I couldn’t.

I mean, this chick was definitely certifiable, but it seemed that her family was too in many ways. They definitely didn’t help her situation. So many different turns could have been taken that weren’t. It feels more like they were all in on it together, so their story really ended in the only way it could have.

What if you expelled the person’s real spirit and only the demon’s spirit was there to take its place?

Gripes: (in my whiny voice) I wanted it to be scarier! I wanted a real horror book. I read psych thrillers a lot, and that is what this book felt like to me. Now, don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t a bad book – and there are some genuinely creepy moments. However, I found myself looking for more of those moments instead of being interested in the rest of the story.

Were these the most irresponsible parents on the planet? I’m thinking yes. Right now, I’m sitting here trying to dredge up one redeeming value about either of them… I got nothing.

And was that supposed to be a twist at the end? Hmmm… no spoilers, but I think what was supposed to pass as astounding information in the final two chapters just felt like a given. Still interesting, but predictable.

… I’m wicked smart, because I have to fill my head with something other than the ghosts.

A Head Full of Ghosts left me wanting more horror, but it was still a creepy book that had me questioning on several occasions whether or not there was really more to Marjorie’s mental health issues than what we’d rationally surmise. Could there have possibly been ghosts? In her head? Extremely willful and manipulative ghosts?  And how does that line up with the scientific definition of what psychosis is understood to be?

In the 1800s, Marjorie would have probably been burned at the stake instead of given her own reality show (19th-century folk didn’t play around with demons or witches), but that age is long gone; the spectacle is now more important than the cure. It’s sad. And that’s how this book makes me feel. Sad, instead of pleasantly scared and jittery like I wanted to be.

But that’s not quite right either. Maybe I really feel horrified, but in a completely different way than I intended.


About the Author

Image result for paul tremblayPAUL TREMBLAY

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Paul G. Tremblay is an American author and editor of contemporary horror, dark fantasy, and science fiction. He is also a juror for the Shirley Jackson Awards.

(Bio from Google)


 

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The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein

⇒My October Spooky Reads book #3 is The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein. An unexpectedly compelling and clever retelling of a classic monster story.⇐

by Kiersten White
SmellRating4
(4.02 stars – Goodreads rating)

Published September 24, 2018, by Delacorte Press

Genre: Horror / Historical Fiction / Young Adult

Format: Hardcover

Pages: 304

#TheDarkDescentofElizabethFrankenstein   #Frankenstein

The Dark Descent of Elizabeth FrankensteinVictor was the only person left whom I loved. I would not let the monster take him.

Do you ever read the author’s notes at the end of the book? I have to admit that often I don’t (especially if I’m reading down to the wire and I have to write my review or my blog by a specific deadline). But I am SO glad that I stopped and read this author’s note before closing the cover on this fascinating retelling of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

So over 200 years ago, on a dare, Mary Shelley wrote a book that is referred to now as a classic gothic science fiction novel. In White’s book, she felt it was important to highlight Mary Shelley’s genius in writing that classic through presenting her story through the eyes of a female protagonist. White writes in her notes:

… at publication, for decades after, even today, people gave all credit to the men around her. After all, how could a girl — a teenage girl — accomplish something so great? …

How much of who we are is shaped by those around us? What happens when everything we are depends on someone else? And, as always: Where are the girls? Even Mary’s wild and expansive imagination could not put a girl at the forefront of this story. They’re relegated to the background, mere caricatures. And that was where I found my story. With a girl given to a boy as a gift. With a girl whose whole life revolves around the brilliant boy she loves. With a girl who inadvertently helps create a monster. With a teenage girl, because, as Mary Shelley proved, nothing is more brilliant or terrifying than that.

I had accused Victor of creating a monster, but I had done the same.

Goodreads summarizes the book this way:

Elizabeth Lavenza hasn’t had a proper meal in weeks. Her thin arms are covered with bruises from her “caregiver,” and she is on the verge of being thrown into the streets . . . until she is brought to the home of Victor Frankenstein, an unsmiling, solitary boy who has everything–except a friend.

Victor is her escape from misery. Elizabeth does everything she can to make herself indispensable–and it works. She is taken in by the Frankenstein family and rewarded with a warm bed, delicious food, and dresses of the finest silk. Soon she and Victor are inseparable.

But her new life comes at a price. As the years pass, Elizabeth’s survival depends on managing Victor’s dangerous temper and entertaining his every whim, no matter how depraved. Behind her blue eyes and sweet smile lies the calculating heart of a girl determined to stay alive no matter the cost . . . as the world she knows is consumed by darkness.

You are mine, Elizabeth Lavenza, and nothing will take you from me. Not even death.

The Dark Descent… is a very good book but it was not the book I thought I was going to read. I wanted a spooky story for the season to flesh out my October TBR that featured a classic monster and a creative retelling to give the familiar story a fresh feel.

I got all of that in addition to an exciting and challenging story about one young woman’s determined struggle to find security and truth in a world that constantly tries to rip both away from her. And yes, it was about Frankenstein too.

Kiersten White has done a masterful job with this book by exposing monsters in all shapes and forms and giving us a heroine who chooses to defend the world from them.

The book is moody and atmospheric and is perfect for fall reading. It’s very well written with characters that grow and become richer with each chapter. And I love, love, love how White inserts Frankenstein’s monster is inserted in fits and spurts throughout the story. We get small doses of him while being overtly exposed to the true monster in Victor Frankenstein himself.

This was a truly enjoyable book that fast readers could definitely finish in one or two sittings as long as they took the time to really let the meaning of the novel sink in as the chapters fly by. I am not a fast reader, but I think that was a benefit when it comes to this book – it left more time for Elizabeth’s personality to grow on me and for Victor’s duplicitous nature to become a heartwrenching tragedy.

Four stars for this female-led novel that is absolutely perfect for fireside reading underneath big blankets with steaming hot chocolate and a dozen fresh-from-the-oven cookies! Go for it!


About the Author

Kiersten WhiteKIERSTEN WHITE

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Kiersten White is the New York Times bestselling author of many books for teens and young readers, including And I Darken, Now I Rise, Bright We Burn, The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein, and Slayer. She lives with her family near the ocean in San Diego, where she perpetually lurks in the shadows.


 

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A Well-Behaved Woman : A Novel of the Vanderbilts

⇒RELEASE DAY REVIEW (almost): A rags-to-riches story based on real life, A Well-Behaved Woman follows Alva Smith’s rise within the esteemed Vanderbilt family’s bubble of wealth and influence. ⇐

**Many thanks to NetGalley, St. Martin’s Press, and the author for the opportunity to read a free ARC of this book in exchange for my honest review.

by Therese Anne Fowler

SmellRating4

(3.97 stars – Goodreads rating)

Publish Date: October 16, 2018, by St. Martin’s Press

Genre: Historical Fiction

Format: Kindle Edition

Pages: 400 pages

#AWellBehavedWoman  #NetGalley

A Well-Behaved Woman: A Novel of the VanderbiltsLife was contrast. Light and dark. Comedy and tragedy.

I know that I have mentioned in other posts that my family has ties (albeit loose ones) to the Vanderbilt family. My grandparents lived most of their lives in Asheville, North Carolina where the famous Biltmore House Estate was built by George Vanderbilt. My Uncle Sylvester initially worked with their gardener and later came to be exclusively in charge of their azalea gardens. My mother and her sisters often visited him at the estate and were often allowed to visit inside the house and explore its many rooms.

That connection is through George Vanderbilt’s line, but this is not his story. 

Instead, this is the story of Alva Smith, who had to save herself and her family from starvation. Alva found herself in a position to improve her family’s circumstances, so she took it – she married a Vanderbilt.

A woman’s lot is made for her by the love she accepts. – George Eliot

From Goodreads:

In 1883, the New York Times prints a lengthy rave of Alva Vanderbilt’s Fifth Ave. costume ball–a coup for the former Alva Smith, who not long before was destitute, her family’s good name useless on its own. Marrying into the newly rich but socially scorned Vanderbilt clan, a union contrived by Alva’s best friend and now-Duchess of Manchester, saved the Smiths–and elevated the Vanderbilts.

From outside, Alva seems to have it all and want more. She does have a knack for getting all she tries for: the costume ball–no mere amusement–wrests acceptance from doyenne Caroline Astor. Denied abox at the Academy of Music, Alva founds The Met. No obstacle puts her off for long.

But how much of ambition arises from insecurity? From despair? From refusal to play insipid games by absurd rules? –There are, however, consequences to breaking those rules. One must tread carefully.

And what of her maddening sister-in-law, Alice? Her husband William, who’s hiding a terrible betrayal? The not-entirely-unwelcome attentions of his friend Oliver Belmont, who is everything William is not? What of her own best friend, whose troubles cast a wide net?

Alva will build mansions, push boundaries, test friendships, and marry her daughter to England’s most eligible duke or die trying. She means to do right by all, but good behavior will only get a woman so far. What is the price of going further? What might be the rewards? There’s only one way to know for certain…

Love was a frivolous emotion, certainly no basis for a marriage — every young lady knew this.

Growing up, my interest in the Vanderbilt family extended only to the North Carolina branch of that illustrious family. It makes me embarrassed now to realize how little I knew about that family and their contributions to American culture, politics, and society as a whole.

Therese Anne Fowler uses this novel to walk us through one woman’s rise through the ranks of society after she gained the name Vanderbilt and used its influence to lift herself and that family to unprecedented levels of wealth and power in 19th century New England.

Although Fowler’s book is fictional, she bases her characters on the real people and actual events mentioned in the book. Her writing is so compelling that I found myself Googling along with some of the action – Did that really happen? Did they really get married? Did that actually happen in real life?

This book captured my attention and my imagination because it showed a strong-willed woman who participated in high society while, at the same time, forcing it to conform to her will. Alva Vanderbilt was not to be messed with!

I feel even more invested in Alva’s story once I read the author’s note at the end:

One of the reasons I was compelled to tell Alva’s story (and Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald’s in my previous novel, Z) is to combat the way notable women in history are too often reduced to little more than sensationalized sound bites. Strong women — especially if they elect to lead lives outside of the domestic sphere — are often depicted without appropriate context, are made to seem one-note (as if any of us could be defined by a single act in our personal history or a single aspect of personality), and are described with sexist labels. An intelligent, ambitious, outspoken woman is called “pushy”, “domineering”, “abrasive”, “hysterical”, “shrill”, etc., most often by men but sometimes by other women as well.

I love that Fowler is motivated to depict influential women in this way. It is encouraging for the future of literature and history that more interest is being given to telling more of the truth so that we, our children, and future generations will see history through a wider lens.

Four celebratory stars for an extremely well-written book and a rags-to-riches story with a true hero at its center.


About the Author

Therese Anne FowlerTHERESE ANNE FOWLER

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Therese Anne Fowler is a contemporary American author. She is best known for Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, published in 2013. The work has been adapted for television by Killer Films and Amazon Studios, with Christina Ricci and David Hoflin in the roles of Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald.


 

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Everything I Never Told You

⇒SHELF-DISCIPLINE SEPTEMBER is well underway with my fourth off-the-shelf read this month – a haunting story of one family’s unraveling after one member goes missing.⇐

by Celeste Ng

SmellRating4
(3.82 stars – Goodreads rating)

Published November 13, 2014, by Blackfriars

Genre: Fiction / Contemporary

Format: Paperback (Trade)

Pages: 292

#EverythingINeverToldYou #ShelfDiscipline #CleartheShelves #ReadWhatYouOwn

In September I committed to reading only (ok, mostly) books from the shelves in my house. I need to do this because books deserve to be read AND because, frankly, I don’t have room to buy/store any more books! 

Everything I Never Told Youdifferent has always been a brand on his forehead, blazoned there between the eyes. It has tinted his entire life, this word; it has left its smudgy fingerprints on everything.

Some readers classified this book as a mystery, but I think of it as exactly the opposite. The first line of the book is:

“Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.”

That’s the very first line. No opportunity for second-guessing or questioning. It’s right there. Spoiler Alert! And that’s how most of this book plays out. In fact, sometimes we know a little too much – things that would make the characters look better to us if we didn’t know. But that’s not what Celeste Ng is trying to do with this book. She wants us to see this family for who they are, and Lydia death for what it was. Was it all just a mistake? You decide.

And Lydia herself — the reluctant center of their universe — every day, she held the world together.

Lydia Lee is her parents’ favorite child. They don’t even hide that fact. Her mother wants her to be a doctor; her father wants her to be popular. When the Lees discover Lydia missing from their NW Ohio home, they soon discover that what they thought they knew about their beloved daughter couldn’t be further from the truth.

The Lees are a typical American family in the 70s/80s. There is a mom, a dad, two daughters, and a son. They live in an average house on an average street and they drive average cars. The father teaches and the mother takes care of the house and the children. Maybe not very exciting, but typical.

But the Lee Family is also atypical. They are a mixed Chinese-American family, and James Lee and his mixed children have been ostracized and criticized simply for not being white. Marilyn Lee is white, but she hasn’t escaped the claws of judgment and separatism either. As the only female in several math and science classes, she struggled to pursue her dreams of becoming a doctor in a world that wasn’t quite tempered for that kind of ambition.

So, on these shaky foundations, the Lee family balances their days at work, school, and home with no help or support from neighbors, colleagues, or friends. Reading about how alone this family is made me really appreciate how much support I get from friends, family and even my never-met associates on social media. Come on Lees, no friends? Really?

…she hadn’t realized how fragile happiness was, how if you were careless, you could knock it over and shatter it.

This is my second Celeste Ng book. The first was Little Fires Everywhere and I rated it a high 5 stars. Everything I Never Told You is just as well written and intriguing. The characters are entirely fleshed out – like people you’ve met before, or seen in your class, at your job, or in your family. And their tragic story will make you sad, angry, bitter, sympathetic.

Everything… is not entirely about Lydia’s death, nor is it a whodunit. There’s no long drawn out search or big community coming-together rally to plea for Lydia’s return. It wasn’t that type of town and the Lees weren’t those type of people.

Instead, it’s a story of the character of a family with their own special set of trials and triumphs. It’s about lives overloaded with love, lives going unnoticed, and lives hovering somewhere in between. It’s a showcase of all the mistakes and all the second tries that happen behind closed doors.

It’s also a display of what love looks like in several different forms. How that love infiltrates the hopes, desires, and expectations we all have for those we care about. And it’s a journey of self-discovery for each and every family member. When the scales tip, each person is forced to reevaluate in order to try to restore the balance.

I rated Everything I Never Told You a strong 4 stars. The characters are flawed and the story isn’t sunshine and roses, but both truly draw you in. And for 292 pages, you are shuffling through an earlier century with them uncertain about everything that you thought you knew about the world too.

Brava, Celeste Ng, again.


About the Author

celestengWebsite

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Celeste Ng is the author of the bestselling novels Everything I Never Told You and Little Fires Everywhere. Celeste grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Shaker Heights, Ohio, in a family of scientists. Celeste attended Harvard University and earned an MFA from the University of Michigan (now the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan), where she won the Hopwood Award. Her fiction and essays have appeared in One Story, TriQuarterly, Bellevue Literary Review, the Kenyon Review Online, and elsewhere, and she is a recipient of the Pushcart Prize. Currently, she lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

(Bio adapted from Goodreads)

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The Dinner

⇒SHELF-DISCIPLINE SEPTEMBER starts off for me with this dark dinner party of unlikely antiheroes.⇐

by Herman Koch
Translated by Sam Garrett
SmellRating4
(3.22 stars – Goodreads rating)

Published February 12, 2013, by Hogarth

Genre: Fiction / Adult Contemporary

Format: Hardcover

Pages: 292

#TheDinner #ShelfDiscipline #CleartheShelves #ReadWhatYouOwn

This month I’ll be finally committing to reading some of the books that I swear are more than colorful decorations on my bookshelves. I need to do this for my own sanity, and maybe one day I will be able to say that yes, I have in fact read most – if not all – of the books I own. What? A girl can dream!

The DinnerWhen people get a chance to come close to death without having it touch them personally, they never miss the opportunity.

Every month or so, my friends and I get together for a fun little dinner party. We prepare our own food and share it around a table that is overflowing with laughter, life stories, and goodwill. And, oh yes, wine. There’s always wine!

After reading this book, I am so thankful for those cheerful parties and each one of my affable friends.

Only one time did something run amiss at one of my parties – an uninvited person crashed the party and uneasiness threatened to suck all of the air out of my normally welcoming home. It was uncomfortable for a time, but my wonderful friends managed to salvage the night and we laughed about it later.

Unfortunately for the characters in The Dinner, the only laughing being done is somewhat sinister and there is absolutely no salvaging of this strange summer night in Amsterdam.

Unhappiness can’t stand silence – especially not the uneasy silence that settles in when it is all alone.

The story starts off harmlessly enough. Paul Lohman and his wife Claire meet his brother Serge and Serge’s wife, Babette, for dinner at a swanky restaurant. It’s not just a casual night out, there’s something they all need to talk about. A discussion about both of the couples’ sons needs to be had. But that’s not why Paul is annoyed. He seems to be bothered by… everything: The choice of restaurant, the waiter describing the food, even the guy who comes into the bathroom next to him. Claire is cautious too because Babette had been crying before they even reached the restaurant, and for other secret reasons as well. Serge, who is on the political trail to become the next prime minister is his usual confident and demanding self, with something else lying just under the surface. Uncertainty? Anger? Fear? Yes.

By the time dessert is served, the gloves have come off and their lavishly prepared dinner has become only a bothersome backdrop to a frightful new reality. One in which everything they each know is threatened by the actions of people that aren’t even present at the table.

Happiness needs nothing but itself; it doesn’t have to be validated.

The Dinner was not at all what I was expecting. Reading a book like this – one that defies your assumptions and charges down the road less traveled – is what most of us look for from this form of entertainment, right? But as the old saying goes, be careful what you wish for.

This was definitely a dark path and the people I met upon it are not the sort you want to run into after the sun goes down.

I can say, thankfully, that I could not relate to any of these characters. They each had something dark and foreboding about them that made them monstrous in their own right – our unreliable narrator, Paul, the chiefest among villains. His unrelenting negativity and criticisms left a figurative bad taste in my mouth before their dinner had even begun. And Serge, his charismatic brother is the kind of smarmy politician that sours any event. Babette the weepy sister-in-law who constantly interrupts the meal with emotional outbursts may be the most normal out of them all because Claire, Paul’s wife, eventually reveals that her moral compass is dangerously off-kilter.

Koch tells a cheerless but magnetic story where something obviously ominous is hovering over the dinner table at all times. As we start to learn what that “something” is, it’s clear that the darkness isn’t only present at the table, but within these characters and their relatives as well. I was left searching for even one redeeming character among them all – maybe Valerie, the daughter/niece that is hardly mentioned? Maybe her autism gives her position that is apart from and above all the rest of them, so that’s why she has no place in the story (or at the table).

The Dinner is not humorous or endearing in any way. It was a very good read, but maybe not an enjoyable one, if that makes any sense. However, it did make me consider mental health issues much more seriously. By the end, I felt grateful for all the dinner parties I’ve been to that ended only with hugs, more laughter, and takeaway boxes.

Read an excerpt of The Dinner (courtesy Goodreads): HERE


About the Author

Herman KochHERMAN KOCH

Website

Herman Koch (born 1953) is an internationally bestselling author. The translation rights of The Dinner (2009) have been sold to over 55 countries, which is unprecedented for a modern Dutch novel. The Dinner has been adapted into several international stage plays and into a Dutch and Italian movie. The US movie adaptation of The Dinner released in 2017, starring Richard Gere and Laura Linney. Summer House with Swimming Pool (2011) and Dear Mr M. (2014) are international bestsellers as well.

His latest novel The Ditch is enthusiastically received upon publication, and already declared a ‘vintage Koch’.

(Bio adapted from Goodreads)


 

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The Forbidden Place

⇒RELEASE DAY REVIEW: Something sinister is lurking in the mire of Mossmarken and it will take one woman’s curiosity and another’s memories to unlock some dark and deadly secrets. ⇐

**Many thanks to NetGalley, Grand Central Publishing, and the author for the opportunity to read a free ARC of this book in exchange for my honest review.

by Susanne Jansson

SmellRating3

(2.5 stars – Goodreads rating)

Publish Date: September 04, 2018, by Grand Central Publishing

Translated by Rachel Willson-Broyles

Genre: Crime Fiction / Mystery

Format: Kindle Edition

Pages: 352 pages

#TheForbiddenPlace  #NetGalley

The Forbidden PlaceSomething had pulled her in this direction, maybe for years. Something that she hadn’t listened to on a conscious level, but still somehow had followed. Like a yearning from the underground. A call from within.

OK, so I wanted this book to be so much more than it is. It is a crime mystery/thriller that has whisperings of something sinister and creepy underneath the surface. It is not a horror story, but I’m thinking that maybe it would have been better if it was.

Here’s the blurb:

In the remote Swedish wetlands lies Mossmarken: the village on the edge of the mire where, once upon a time, people came to leave offerings to the gods.
Biologist Nathalie came in order to study the peat bogs. But she has a secret: Mossmarken was once her home, a place where terrible things happened. She has returned, at last, determined to confront her childhood trauma and find out the truth.

Soon after her arrival, she finds an unconscious man out on the marsh, his pockets filled with gold–just like the ancient human sacrifices. A grave is dug in the mire, which vanishes a day after. And as the police investigate, the bodies start to surface…

Is the mire calling out for sacrifices, as the superstitious locals claim? Or is it an all-too-human evil?

A long time ago, people were sacrificed out there. And there’s always been talk about how people vanish without a trace around Mossmarken.

Although this is not a horror story in the true sense of that genre, the underlying tone of the story is dark and definitely includes paranormal phenomena from beginning to end. That’s the part I liked.

I wish I could say that I enjoyed the rest of it as much as I anticipated a truly creepy resolution. But neither of those things panned out for me with The Forbidden Place. The paranormal nuances were tossed off as kookery and the human antagonists just weren’t as interesting as they were set up to be.

It is not a bad book. The story flows and the characters develop along lines that make sense for each of them. The setting is atmospheric (I learned more about a bog than I really ever really wanted to know) and the ultimate resolution isn’t a dead giveaway (no pun intended).

Three stars for a book that is good, but lacking just a little bit of spark that would have made it really good.

Hear an excerpt of The Forbidden Place (via SoundCloud): Click here


About the Author

Susanne Jansson

Website

SUSANNE JANSSON was born in 1972 in Åmål, Sweden. She later moved to Gothenburg to work in advertising and then to New York to study photography. After returning to Sweden, she worked as a freelance photographer while studying journalism, and for the past twenty years she has been combining her work as a photographer with being a freelance journalist focusing on reportage and profile stories in areas such as culture, film, theatre and literature. She has also written crime short stories for weekly magazines. The Forbidden Place is her debut novel. Jansson lives with her family in Lerum outside Gothenburg.

(Bio taken from http://ahlanderagency.com)


 

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Spinning Silver

⇒This is not your grandma’s fairytale! Naomi Novik spins a new tale of Rumpelstiltskin that starts out as silver but ends up as pure gold.⇐

by Naomi Novik
SmellRating5
(4.35 stars – Goodreads rating)

Published July 10, 2018, by Del Rey

Genre: Fiction / Fantasy

Format: Hardcover

Pages: 466

#SpinningSilver

Spinning SilverBut of course a Staryk king would want a queen who really could make gold out of silver, mortal or not. The Staryk always came for gold.

When I was a child, I imagined that unicorns lived in the woods behind my grandparents’ house in the mountains of Asheville and that fairies made little mushroom houses in the tall grass.

I imagined all their magic could be shared with good little girls like me (smirk) if only I believed hard enough and if I was nice to wild animals. I even wanted to grow wings like a fairy!

Then I watched movies like The Last Unicorn, Legend, and The Dark Crystal and I realized that the world of fantasy can be a dark and scary place.

Of course I was afraid. But I had learned to fear other things more: being despised, whittled down one small piece of myself at a time, smirked at and taken advantage of.

In Naomi Novik’s second fairy tale retelling (The first is Uprooted, a reimagining of Beauty and the Beast), the author puts a new spin on the classic tale of Rumpelstiltskin in a very original way.

Originally this story has nothing to do with rainbows or pixies – none of the niceties of fairyland. The Brothers Grimm told a tale of a greedy miller who pawned his daughter off to an equally greedy king with the promise that she could spin silver thread into gold – something that she really had no clue how to do.

The king locks her inside three progressively larger storage rooms filled with straw and threatens her life unless she is able to spin the straw into gold by morning. Each night she is rescued by a vertically-challenged, opportunistic man who collects her jewelry as payment for performing the task. The final night, she’s out of baubles, so she barters away her first-born child in exchange for the little man’s spinning services in order to save her own life.

Years later, her first born child is born and little dude comes to collect his due. She is only given a reprieve when he tells her that if she can guess his name in three days, then he will let her keep her child. After two days of incorrect guesses, one of her servants overhears the little man singing a song bragging about his impending dinner to be made of the queen’s child and in the song he lets slip his name. The servant drops the dime on the little man to the queen, and she fronts him out in front of the whole court with his name: Rumpelstiltskin! <cheers, claps, bowing, curtseying, thank you, thank you>.

You were challenged beyond the bounds of what could be done, and found a path to make it true.

So that was how the Brothers Grimm framed their story. Naomi Novik kept a lot of the symbolism of the original tale, but her reimagining takes a totally different spin. See what I did there?

Spinning Silver is the story of three women with inner power that they didn’t even realize they had:

MIRYEM – The daughter of a Jewish moneylender who realizes that she is better at the job than her dad is. Maybe too good. Suddenly she’s swept up in the icy cold world of the Staryk (think Game of Thrones White Walker) changing silver coins into pure gold. With her life always under threat, Miryem has to balance protecting herself and her beloved family back home in a town so small it doesn’t even have a true name.

WANDA – The daughter of an abusive town drunk, Wanda becomes responsible for her two brothers and her own survival during a harsh winter. Her strength of character and some old-fashioned good luck propel her into an uncertain destiny, but one that she embraces more than the cruelty of the life she once knew. Seriously, the development of this character is so endearing – she can’t be overlooked as one of the book’s true champions.

IRINA – The daughter of a duke who is only interested in increasing his household in money and in position. And if he can use Irina to do that, then all the better. But when he gives her in marriage to the demon-possessed tsar, Irina has to do more than learn how to rule and protect a kingdom; she has to learn to save her own life.

These are the three heroines of the story, but there are other characters that contribute heavily to the story and make these women successful. And then there are the bad guys who are indeed bad, but they have a reason. Or a motive. Or a defense. You decide. Either way, I love to hate them, and then I hate to love them.

But I had not known that I was strong enough to do any of those things until they were over and I had done them. I had to do the work first, not knowing.

Spinning Silver is one of those books that I really wanted to read the moment it was released; however, due to a clump of NetGalley ARCS that released in July and August, I wasn’t able to get to it until now. It became available at my local library, so I snatched it up and finally read it in three days.

And now that I’ve read it, I wish I could have slowed it down and savored it more.

I love the classic fairy tales, but often retellings can be hit or miss. This one is a hit. Although it is a reimagining of the classic Rumpelstiltskin, it earns its own identity – building a unique world with strong characters and more than one terrifying antihero.

Things I love: The originality built into a story that we thought we knew; the multiple POVs; the internal strength of the heroines that seems to come from genuine heart, not trumped up attitude; the fact that there is no clear right and wrong action for the characters to be goaded into by the reader; that sometimes even the enemies surprise you.

This book is worth a re-read (in the future when my TBR list no longer resembles a literal mountain) and it has made me add Novik’s Uprooted to that pile in hopes of finding another 5-star read.


About the Author

Naomi NovikNaomi Novik

Website

Twitter

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Naomi Novik was born in New York in 1973, a first-generation American, and raised on Polish fairy tales, Baba Yaga, and Tolkien. She studied English Literature at Brown University and did graduate work in Computer Science at Columbia University before leaving to participate in the design and development of the computer game Neverwinter Nights: Shadows of Undrentide. Her first novel, His Majesty’s Dragon, was published in 2006 along with Throne of Jade and Black Powder War, and has been translated into 23 languages. She has won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, the Compton Crook Award for Best First Novel, and the Locus Award for Best First Novel. The fourth volume of the Temeraire series, Empire of Ivory, published in September 2007, was a New York Times bestseller, and was followed by bestsellers Victory of Eagles and Tongues of Serpents.

(Bio taken from Naomi’s Website)



 

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The Other Sister

⇒RELEASE DAY REVIEW: Family ties get really messy in this psych thriller/mystery that will leave you guessing until the very last chapter. ⇐

**Many thanks to NetGalley, Grand Central Publishing, and the author for the opportunity to read a free ARC of this book in exchange for my honest review.

by Sarah Zettel

SmellRating3

(3.4 stars – Goodreads rating)

Publish Date: August 28, 2018, by Grand Central Publishing

Genre: Psychological Thriller / Mystery

Format: Kindle Edition

Pages: 380 pages (Hardcover)

#TheOtherSister  #NetGalley

The Other SisterShe had to be a good girl. Good girls didn’t hate anybody. Not their sisters or their mothers. And most especially not their fathers.

Trying to summarize this book sans spoilers is very difficult, so I’ll just include the official blurb:

Two sisters. One murder plan.

Geraldine Monroe is the bad sister. Reckless and troubled, she ran away shortly after the mysterious death of their mother twenty years ago.

Marie, on the other hand, has always been the good sister. She is the obedient daughter and a loving mother to her son.

Bound by blood and a need to right the past, Geraldine and Marie set a deadly plan in motion. When old secrets and new fears clash, everyone is pushed to the breaking point . . . and the sisters will learn that they can’t trust anyone, not even each other.

It’s worth noting how many times it turns out that the good sister is not as helpless as she looks. Or as good.

The story includes:

  • Multiple timelines
  • Two POVs (Marie & Geraldine, sisters)
  • Unreliable narrators (yes, both of them)
  • Unlikable characters – How many? Mostly all of them. Not kidding
  • Pervasive mysteries (yes, more than one) throughout that only become clear(ish) at the end
  • Numerous triggers for some including emotional abuse, drug abuse, rape, alcoholism

Blood’s thicker, isn’t it? Even when it’s spilled on the stairs and on the snow.

This book did not click all my boxes. As a fan of thrillers / mysteries, I usually am all for the sociopathic character who wreaks havoc throughout a town or family. And The Other Sister had that; however, there is also all kinds of other “crazy” going on in this story.

There are no likable characters. None. Zero. Zip. Zilch. Nada. The father is controlling and terrible in all ways. The men around him are subservient tattletales. And the women around him – including our MCs – are weak and emotionally and/or mentally unhinged. And everyone – EVERYONE – lies, even to themselves! Who is there to cheer for?

I didn’t relate to anyone in this book. The “victims” only became so due to their own acquiescence. Even Geraldine, who is characterized as “The Rebel”, only rebels in fits and starts and never enough to purposefully effect true change – even though we are led to believe that that is the sisters’ plan. 

The MCs’ parents are both despicable in their own ways, and though I do feel pity for some of the other family members and friends for getting caught up in this sick, twisted web, pity does not equal likability.

I cannot, no matter how hard I’ve tried, make Outside understand what it is to be us.

Also, I felt like I was never invited into the story. I was an outsider the whole time – not knowing any of the secrets, truths, or motives until the very end. And even then I wasn’t sure of the “truth” I had been told. Feeling separated from both the characters and the story is not a winning combination. I toyed with a two-star rating, but I don’t want to discourage others who don’t mind stories that develop that way.

So… a reluctant 3 stars for a book that I really wanted to like much more than that rating reflects.

»»Listen to an excerpt (courtesy of SoundCloud): Click Here

Today is Release Day (Aug 28, 2018). Get it here: Amazon | B&N | Indiebound


About the Author

Sarah ZettelSarah Zettel

Website

Twitter

Sarah Zettel is the critically acclaimed author of more than twenty novels, spanning the full range of genre fiction. Her debut novel, Reclamation, won the Locus Award for Best First Novel. She has written eighteen novels and multiple short stories over the past seventeen years in addition to practicing tai chi, learning to fiddle, marrying a rocket scientist and raising a rapidly growing son.

(Bio adapted from Goodreads)


 

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