The Secret Place by Tana French

The Secret Place (Dublin Murder Squad, #5)The Secret Place by Tana French
Published by Viking Adult

From the publisher:

Detective Stephen Moran has been waiting for his chance to get a foot in the door of Dublin’s Murder Squad—and one morning, sixteen-year-old Holly Mackey brings him this photo. The Secret Place, a board where the girls at St. Kilda’s School can pin up their secrets anonymously, is normally a mishmash of gossip and covert cruelty, but today someone has used it to reignite the stalled investigation into the murder of handsome, popular Chris Harper. Stephen joins forces with the abrasive Detective Antoinette Conway to find out who and why.

But everything they discover leads them back to Holly’s close-knit group of friends and their fierce enemies, a rival clique—and to the tangled web of relationships that bound all the girls to Chris Harper. Every step in their direction turns up the pressure. Antoinette Conway is already suspicious of Stephen’s links to the Mackey family. St. Kilda’s will go a long way to keep murder outside their walls. Holly’s father, Detective Frank Mackey, is circling, ready to pounce if any of the new evidence points toward his daughter. And the private underworld of teenage girls can be more mysterious and more dangerous than either of the detectives imagined.

The level of excitement that I feel when Tana French publishes a new novel can’t quite be explained. I think she is so incredible, so thoughtful in her plotting and characterizations, so insightful with how she uses her characters and their motivations to tell a story, I can’t get enough of her.

There was so much about this book I loved. The fact that teenagers were in the spotlight here was something different from her previous novels and a welcome surprise. Who among us bookish people doesn’t appreciate a good boarding school drama? Although, to be honest, these teenagers certainly got on my last nerve more than once. Since I don’t have a teenager at home, I’m not as familiar with their particular mess of anxiety, self-hatred, overconfidence, bitchiness, etc., but friends of mine with teen daughters say that French was spot on with these girls.

I liked Stephen a lot and appreciated his relationship with Conway. I’m REALLY hoping Antoinette Conway gets to be the focus of French’s next book – while I liked Stephen, it’s possible I found her slightly more compelling than him. I liked how well French got Stephen’s personal feelings about Mackey and Mackey’s daughter mixed into this story and how it was clear that his relationship with Mackey was clouding his judgement about Holly. It was just enough to make me question a LOT of where my own head was at with this story.

In the end, the culprit was not the person I had guessed, but looking back it would have been easy to figure out if I was looking for the right clues. (And if I was even remotely good at guessing these things, when in fact I am not.) I loved The Secret Place, just as I’ve loved all of her novels, and even an imperfect Tana French is almost perfect for me. Highly recommended!

These Girls by Sarah Pekkanen

These GirlsThese Girls by Sarah Pekkanen
Published by Washington Square Press

Cate and Renee are good friends and roommates, and have both moved to New York to pursue their careers – currently they’re both working at the high fashion magazine, Gloss. After being named the features editor for the magazine, Cate is excited but super nervous, and it only takes a few days for her to realize that she’s signed up for more than she’d ever imagined. Renee would love a promotion like Cate’s, and in her desperation to lose a few extra pounds to “look the part” she starts popping diet pills like candy. The two of them take in a third roommate, Abby, who has abruptly left her job as a nanny and seems incredibly traumatized by something, although she reveals nothing to Cate or Renee. The three of them become closer over the course of the novel, and it is their friendship that gets them through some of the toughest times in all of their lives.

I liked this book a lot, and raced through it while on vacation. It was perfect beach reading – not too heavy, but certainly not light either. The three girls in this novel are dealing with very different issues, and I felt for each of them. Cate’s struggles to fit in as a woman in a man’s world and the difficulty she had in navigating her new leadership role really resonated with me – I’ve dealt with a lot of the same things in my own career (and continue to do so). Renee’s weight issue is something that most women can relate to - what woman hasn’t dealt with feelings of not fully being happy with herself physically? And truthfully, I felt for Abby the most. Even though her story is the farthest thing from my own life, I really got her character the most and my heart just broke for her.

Pekkanen does a really great job writing female friendships. She showed how much these women leaned on one another, how that friendly face when you get home from an awful day can just mean SO much. I haven’t lived with a roommate since college but reading this book really brought me back to those days – coming home after school or work or a combination of both and my roommates would be there, ready with a glass of wine, our favorite TV show just about to start, and a listening ear to hear me bitch about whatever terrible thing happened that day. I have such fond memories of those days and Pekkanen really captured those feelings and that particular period in time perfectly.

I really liked this book! It’s my second Pekkanen and I think it’s my favorite of the two. I’m excited to read more of her novels!

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone re-read/Readalong

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (Harry Potter, #1)Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling
Published by Scholastic

I have no idea how many times I’ve read this book. Lots. I’ve definitely read it the most of the entire series, because when the last three books came out I read the rest of the series from the beginning in anticipation of the newest book (each time). But even though I practically have the book memorized, it’s still a great reading experience every single time.

Every time I pick up this book I am amazed at J.K. Rowling and the sheer brilliance of what she created. I heard that she didn’t know she would be writing seven books as she wrote this one, but that’s incredibly difficult to believe because there are SO MANY things throughout this book that indicate where the rest of the series is headed.

My favorite scene in the book is the one in which Harry, Ron and Hermione beat the troll in the girls’ bathroom and from that point on, the three of them are best friends. Anyone who’s read this series has fallen in love with the three of them and their true friendship, and to read where it all began … I love that scene.

I am privileged to live near Orlando, Florida and also to have season passes to the Universal Studios/Islands of Adventure theme parks where Harry Potter world is located. Upon finishing The Sorcerer’s Stone I happened to be at Universal with my husband, and for the first time since visiting the second half of Harry Potter world (the new half, Diagon Alley), I took the time to go into all the stores and allowed myself to imagine I was going to be a new student at Hogwarts. I went to the wand shop and looked through all the wands, the robe store, the owlery, everything. I’ve done all of this before, but never so quickly after reading one of the books, and it was just that much more fun. Also, if you ever have the opportunity to travel to Orlando, you MUST visit these amazing theme parks. The attention to detail is incredible – you truly feel like you are in Harry Potter’s world.

I’m having so much fun reading these books! Thanks again to Sheila of Book Journey for hosting the readalong. Next up – Chamber of Secrets!

She Makes It Look Easy by Marybeth Whalen

She Makes It Look EasyShe Makes It Look Easy by Marybeth Whalen
Published by David C. Cook

She Makes It Look Easy introduces the reader to Ariel Baxter, a stay-at-home mom who feels like she’ll never “get it right”, who despite loving her children and her husband, feels lonely and insignificant a lot of the time. When Ariel and her husband move to a new neighborhood, she meets Justine, a “perfect” wife and mother who seems to have all the answers. The two become close friends, but even Ariel doesn’t know the secrets that Justine is keeping from the world. When rumors begin circulating the neighborhood, Ariel has to choose between believing her new friend or the truth that is staring her in the face.

I don’t read a lot of Christian fiction because it tends to be too light and sometimes preachy for my tastes, but I make an exception for Marybeth Whalen for two reasons. One, she is an awesome person and I love to support fantastic, wonderful people at whatever they do, and two, her books weave the Christian part of Christian fiction in very thoughtfully, and it’s not at all overwhelming or preachy. She Makes It Look Easy was everything I’ve come to expect from Whalen and it was a subject that I’m sure hits close to home for a lot of people.

Since I don’t have kids, the world Whalen details in this book is unfamiliar to me, but most people, including myself, can relate to feelings of jealousy or that pesky “the grass is greener on the other side” feeling. Ariel is jealous of Justine, she wants to BE Justine, so she settles for being her friend, but being her friend blinds her to the reality of Justine’s life. When she finally realizes the secrets that her friend has been keeping from her, it’s like a slap in the face to Ariel – a feeling that maybe her life is great just the way it is and she should be happy with who she is instead of trying to be someone else.

Whalen also gives the reader chapters from Justine’s point of view, and while she is a selfish person who makes bad choices, the reader can’t help but feel sorry for her. These chapters really illuminate how important it is to plan for the worst case scenario, to focus on what’s really important in life, and to nurture your marriage and family. When the world comes crumbling down, your family is all that’s left, and if you haven’t taken care of those relationships things can be devastatingly hard. It’s easy to judge people who make awful decisions, but when the reader sees it from Justine’s point of view it becomes clear how sad of a person she is, how desperate she is for something she can’t quite grasp. I liked that Whalen did this, because otherwise it would have been too simple a story – with Justine’s point of view it becomes more complex, more real.

I liked She Makes It Look Easy a lot. For those who are put off by Christian fiction, this would be a good choice, and for those who enjoy the genre, it might be something a little deeper and more gritty than your typical fare.

Mini-Reviews: Books About Families in Crisis

I read both of these books on my cruise, and what they have in common is that both are about families really struggling with Issues. Both books also follow one family over a long period of time. Other than those two things, they are very different books.

CCarry the Onearry the One by Carol Anshaw
Published by Simon & Schuster

This novel begins with a wedding and quickly gets to the point – a car filled with a few drunk and stoned wedding guests accidentally hits and kills a girl. We then follow three siblings – Carmen (whose wedding was being celebrated that night), Nick, and Alice – for the next twenty-five years, as their lives slowly unravel, and in some cases, are put back together in a way.

The thing about it is that the three siblings used the accident as a catalyst for all kinds of things – Nick to spiral out of control with his addiction, Alice to get romantically involved with a woman who was also in the car, Carmen to become an activist for women’s rights – but I think their lives wouldn’t have been that different without the accident. It was almost as though some of them used it as an excuse. Nick was already on drugs before the accident and most certainly would have gone deeper into his addiction either way, Alice was already gay but wasn’t allowing herself to admit it yet, and Carmen simply found something she could believe in, which probably would have happened eventually anyway.

That kind of sounds like I didn’t like the book, when in reality I really did. But I can’t say I liked any of the characters, which is okay in a well-written, interesting and layered novel – which Carry the One certainly is. This was definitely a book I raced through, hoping against hope that someone in this family would turn out all right in the end. Overall, I really enjoyed the reading experience even though I kind of hated all three of these siblings.

The ConditionThe Condition by Jennifer Haigh
Published by HarperTorch

The Condition introduces the reader to the McKotch family – Paulette, her husband Frank, their sons Billy and Scott, and their daughter, Gwen. The book begins in the 1970′s when the family learns that thirteen-year-old Gwen has Turner’s syndrome, and follows this family for more than twenty years after the diagnosis.

I love Haigh’s writing so I’m always excited to pick up one of her books, and this was no exception. I also have a love for family sagas, so I thought this would be a for sure favorite of mine. I did like the book, a lot, but as in the previous book I spoke about, the individual characters were SO unlikable that it was difficult for me to say I loved the book. What’s so interesting about this family is that they are all supposedly so affected by Gwen’s diagnosis, but she really couldn’t care less about it. She builds her own life in her own way and is happy doing so, but the rest of her family can’t seem to get that she’s perfectly OK the way she is. Honestly, it annoyed me – she was the sanest, most clear-headed, most normal of all of them – yet she was the one that had something “wrong” with her!

As in Carry the One, it seemed like in The Condition, the characters used this singular thing – Gwen’s diagnosis – almost as an excuse for a lot of bad choices and wrong turns in their lives, when in actuality they probably would have ended up not all that different had she not been diagnosed with Turner’s. Ultimately, I really liked this book even though I wanted to punch most of the characters in the throat (except for Gwen – I liked Gwen).

I think because I read these books back to back, they seem very similar to me, when in truth they are very different books. While they are both very character-driven and well-written, Carry the One is a quicker read while The Condition is deeper, more literary (even though I hate that word, I’m not sure what other word I can use in its place). I recommend them both but I don’t recommend reading them back to back! If I had to pick just one to recommend, I think The Condition comes out just a bit ahead.

The Sunday Salon

47289-sundaysalonGood afternoon friends and welcome to The Sunday Salon. It’s been a pretty uneventful week over here, which is mostly a good thing. I decided to use an extra vacation day I hadn’t planned for and treated myself to a five-day weekend/staycation this weekend. So I took Friday, Saturday, and Monday off. Tuesday we are closed for Veteran’s Day, giving me five whole days to myself. It’s been glorious. I’ve been able to organize drawers and closets I hadn’t gotten to in more months than I can admit, leisurely do household chores (instead of rushing to finish everything on Sunday like usual) and READ!

I finally finished The Valley of Amazement! Even though the book was mostly torturous for me, the ending was one that I kind of loved. And I did like the first 100 pages or so. So I ended up giving it three stars, even though it could have (and should have) been about 200 pages shorter than it was. After that, I started and finished Dept. of Speculation (which I liked but didn’t love) and my re-read of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. This morning, I started The Impossible Knife of Memory by the incredible Laurie Halse Anderson and Carole Radzwill’s memoir, What Remains, at the urging of a friend. So far, both books are fantastic.

I mentioned last week that I wanted to cook more, so today I decided to join Trish’s Cook It Up challenge this month. Basically, the idea is to use our cookbooks more and exactly how to accomplish that is up to the individual participant. For me, I’m going to try to focus on one cookbook per month (or use one for a couple of months if it’s going well or if I don’t have time to try lots of recipes) and then decide if it’s a cookbook I want to keep or toss. I have SO MANY cookbooks I never use that this is an easy and (hopefully) delicious way to weed out the bad ones from the good. So for now I’ll be focusing on Rachael Ray 30-Minute Get Real Meals, a cookbook I’ve had for YEARS but have never used. Tonight I’m making Indian Summer Turkey Chili – sounds super tasty and perfect for this cool, grey day.

Not much else to report here. I’m off to the grocery store to buy ingredients for my chili, and I plan to veg out with books or TV for the rest of the day. What are you up to today?

Re-reading Harry Potter

G2bI’m doing it! By “it” I mean joining Sheila’s Harry Potter Re-read that began on November 1. I started reading The Sorcerer’s Stone earlier this week and am REALLY looking forward to digging into these books for what will be, I think, the fourth time.

I joined Pottermore when it first came out and played around on the site for about half a second back then, but lost interest rather quickly. So for the re-read, I went back and got Sorted and I’m Ravenclaw! Which should come as a shock to exactly no one.

Have you read these books before? Care to join me to revisit the fun all over again? Or perhaps immerse yourself in Harry Potter’s world for the first time? You won’t be sorry. :)