The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

The StoThe Storied Life of A. J. Fikryried Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin
Published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Review copy provided by She Reads

A.J. Fikry is going through a pretty rough time – his wife recently passed away in a tragic accident, his independent book store, Island Books, is not doing well, and his prized possession, a rare collection of Poe poems (which he’s planned to cash in and use as his retirement plan someday) has just been stolen from his home. But immediately after the poetry collection turns up missing, something else arrives at his home, something that will change A.J.’s life in immeasurable ways.

It’s absolutely true what everyone has been saying about this book! It is a MUST READ. Everything about The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is so charming and fantastic and every book lover has got to pick this up.

While A.J. himself is quite the prickly character in the beginning of the novel, he quickly becomes a better person and it’s impossible for the reader not to fall in love with him. All of the minor characters are great, too, although it’s really hard to talk about any of them without giving away important plot points. So I won’t. :)

What you need to know about this book is that it’s full of literary references, bookish charm, and a wonderfully unique main character that I promise you will grow to love. All the rest is just details – oh except for the fact that I both laughed out loud and cried real tears at a few points throughout the book (always a plus for me). Just read it and I can guarantee that you won’t be sorry!

Mini-reviews of Recent NetGalley finds: Glitter and Glue, Above, and The Haven

Glitter and GlueGlitter and Glue by Kelly Corrigan
Published by Ballantine Books
Review copy received from NetGalley

This quote, from the publisher’s summary, I think sums up the book extremely well.

This is a book about the difference between travel and life experience, stepping out and stepping up, fathers and mothers. But mostly it’s about who you admire and why, and how that changes over time.

While this memoir is sort of about Corrigan’s relationship with her mother (the “glue” to her father’s “glitter”), it’s about so much more than that. Corrigan details a summer she spent as a nanny for an Australian family who had just lost their mother to cancer, and how this experience brought her so much closer to her own mother than she had ever thought possible – as she was basically a stand-in mother to these two children. It’s about how having her own children enriched her life in ways beyond her wildest dreams and how the experience of raising her girls put into perspective just how important her own mother had been for her entire life. Glitter and Glue is a short book but was so emotionally affecting for me. I absolutely loved this one and cannot possibly more highly recommend it. It’s beautifully written and so unflinchingly honest, a must-read for anyone who has a mother or is a mother – whether these relationships are fantastic or horrific, I think you will find something of value in this gorgeous book.

AboveAbove by Isla Morley
Published by Gallery Books
Review copy provided by NetGalley

At sixteen years old, Blythe is kidnapped from a community event in her hometown of Eudora, Kansas, by Dobbs, who’d been watching her for years. Dobbs is a survivalist and takes Blythe to an abandoned missile silo, where he believes the two of them will wait out the apocalypse and repopulate the earth afterwords. Years pass, she becomes a mother, and yet she never gives up on her dream of going above the missile silo and home to her family.

Let me just tell you that this novel turned out to be a lot different from I was expecting – and that’s a good thing. The first half of the book is exactly what the summary describes – Blythe and Dobbs together in this missile silo, him going up every few weeks for supplies and such, her trapped in this awful place, all the while trying to make a life for her son despite their total lack of anything resembling freedom. It even dragged on a bit for me in the middle, because I couldn’t possibly imagine what ELSE could happen to them – I got it, she was bored, she was taking care of her son, now what? Well, that “now what” piece is what is so amazing about this novel. The middle completely changes the game and what follows is an entirely different novel. Above is truly an incredible piece of fiction and while it wasn’t exactly the PERFECT book for me, it blew me away and so surprised me that I must recommend it.

The HavenThe Haven by Carol Lynch Williams
Published by St. Martin’s Giffin
Review copy provided by NetGalley

Put simply, The Haven is about teens living at this hospital, where everything about their lives is closely monitored – their sleep, food intake, exercise, education, everything. They also take a Tonic several times a day that eliminates, or at least protects against, the Disease that they are in danger of getting. Shiloh is different from the rest of the kids there, as she has memories she’s not supposed to have. These memories lead her down a path of trying to understand why they are there, and if there’s a possibility to escape.

Here’s the issue I have with this book: it feels like a total copycat of a VERY popular and extremely well-written adult book I love. If I tell you which book, it will spoil the entire premise of The Haven, so email me if you want to know. Even though this novel is well-written, the characters are unique and I liked them a lot, I couldn’t get past the fact that it felt like a watered-down version of a book I’d already read and loved. So maybe this would be better for teens, or for those adults who haven’t already seen this story play out in another novel, but for me that too-obvious connection sort of ruined the whole thing.

This House is Haunted by John Boyne

This House is HauntedThis House is Haunted by John Boyne
Published by Other Press

From the publisher:

Written in Dickensian prose, This House Is Haunted is a striking homage to the classic nineteenth-century ghost story. Set in Norfolk in 1867, Eliza Caine responds to an ad for a governess position at Gaudlin Hall. When she arrives at the hall, shaken by an unsettling disturbance that occurred during her travels, she is greeted by the two children now in her care, Isabella and Eustace. There is no adult present to represent her mysterious employer, and the children offer no explanation. Later that night in her room, another terrifying experience further reinforces the sense that something is very wrong.

From the moment Eliza rises the following morning, her every step seems dogged by a malign presence that lives within Gaudlin’s walls. Eliza realizes that if she and the children are to survive its violent attentions, she must first uncover the hall’s long-buried secrets and confront the demons of its past. Clever, captivating, and witty, This House Is Haunted is pure entertainment with a catch.

I don’t read ghost stories all that often, but when I do, I need them to also have good writing and well-written characters I connect with, otherwise I’ll simply get scared and want to put the book in the freezer indefinitely. I was super excited upon picking up this book and reading the first ten pages or so, as I discovered that This House is Haunted has both of those things. I was captivated by Eliza from the very instant I met her, and I absolutely loved Boyne’s writing – even though I anticipated hating it as I didn’t think Dickensian prose did anything for me – so while this book wasn’t perfect overall, it was perfect for me.

The fact that the creep-factor in this novel starts before Eliza even gets to the house added to my enjoyment of the book. Right from the start, I knew I was in for a sinister, twisty novel that wouldn’t provide easy answers. The kids are super strange and Isabella especially is like something out of Children of the Corn. Just NOT normal. I was pulled into This House is Haunted so quickly that I read this book in pretty much one sitting, racing through the pages to find out what exactly is haunting this house and why. And WHY on earth were these parentless children so freaking strange?

I read this for one of my book clubs and not everyone enjoyed it as much as I did. A few of us felt that the ghost story part was too obvious, too contrived, that Boyne did way too much explaining, especially toward the end. Not everyone likes their ghost stories to make sense, I suppose. I totally get that – and I agree – but since I read so few of these kinds of books, when the writing is this good and the characters as interesting, I don’t really care. So the lack of ambiguity didn’t bother me one bit.

Oh! And I loved that just when I thought things were wrapped up in a neat little bow at the end, BAM! – so not the case. Boyne made me want a sequel!

I really liked This House is Haunted and can definitely recommend it. Highly entertaining, is what this novel is.

Once Upon a Quinceanera: Coming of Age in the USA by Julia Alvarez

Once Upon a Quinceanera: Coming of Age in the USAOnce Upon a Quinceanera: Coming of Age in the USA by Julia Alvarez
Published by Viking Adult

From the publisher:

The quinceañera, the fifteenth birthday celebration for a Latina girl, is quickly becoming an American event. This legendary party is a sight to behold: lavish ball gowns, extravagant catered meals, DJs, limousines, and multi-tiered cakes. The must haves for a quince are becoming as numerous and costly as a prom or wedding. And yet, this elaborate ritual also hearkens back to traditions from native countries and communities, offering young Latinas a chance to connect with their heritage.

In Once Upon a Quinceañera, Julia Alvarez explores this celebration that brings a Latina girl into womanhood. She attends the quince of a young woman named Monica who lives in Queens, and witnesses the commotion, confusion, and potential for disaster that comes with planning this important event. Alvarez also weaves in interviews with other quince girls, her own memories of coming of age as an immigrant, and the history of the custom itself -how it originated and what has changed as Latinas become accustomed to a supersize American culture. Once Upon a Quinceañera is an enlightening, accessible, and entertaining portrait of contemporary Latino culture as well as a critical look at the rituals of coming of age and the economic and social consequences of the quince parties. Julia Alvarez’s dedicated fans will be eager to hear her thoughts on this topic. It is a great book for anyone interested in American youth today - parents, teachers, and teenagers themselves.

A few years back, Eva read and reviewed this book and inspired me to buy it. And it’s been sitting on my shelf ever since. I am not sure what finally pushed me to read it but I finally did, and I was rewarded by that decision by an excellent look at a cultural ritual that is quickly becoming as mainstream as weddings and funerals.

What I really liked about this book was how it was a mixture of journalism, cultural analysis, and it had a memoir feel at times as well. Alvarez digs deep into the historical significance and modern execution of quinceaneras while at the same time reflecting on her own childhood and experiences growing up Latina in the US.

She tries really hard not to get too judgmental about Latino parents who give their daughters elaborate, expensive parties they clearly can’t afford, although she doesn’t quite get there. It’s obvious to any reader just how silly Alvarez thinks it is to spend fifteen thousand dollars on a party when there is no money saved for that child’s college education (and I happen to agree). But besides that, she really gets involved with these families and gets to know these girls, way beyond just learning about their fifteenth birthday parties. Her analysis and feelings about these celebrations are clearly influenced by how close she got with some of the families, and she put significant effort into not showing any one person or family in a negative light.

While Alvarez shares her own thoughts and opinions about the quinceanera, she leaves things really open for the reader to make his/her own interpretations and conclusions. The book is mainly a look at how the quinceanera celebration is just one manifestation of Latino culture meeting American culture and the many different Latino cultures influencing and changing each other (Mexican, Puerto Rican, Colombian, etc.).

I really liked this one and I mostly appreciate the fact that it’s about a topic I wouldn’t have chosen to read on my own, without the subtle influence of a more cultured and well-read friend. (Thanks Eva!) I think it’s important to open oneself up to reading about and experiencing cultures other than your own, and I’m glad I did that with Once Upon a Quinceanera. Highly recommended!

Lost Lake by Sarah Addison Allen

Lost LakeLost Lake by Sarah Addison Allen
Published by St. Martin’s Press
Review copy provided by She Reads

Kate has spent a year grieving her husband’s death in a dream-like state, leaving the household chores and the raising of her eight-year-old daughter, Devin, to her mother-in-law. When she finally realizes she needs to awake from her grief coma, she takes Devin to Lost Lake, a place where she spent one memorable summer as a child and where her great-aunt Eby owns a set of vacation cottages. Upon arriving in Lost Lake, Kate and Devin are greeted by Eby, who has secrets and demons of her own she’s dealing with, and a cast of regular visitors to Lost Lake who have faithfully come back every summer and created a little family of their own. When they learn of Eby’s plans to sell Lost Lake, they realize this is their last summer together, and decide to make the most of it while at the same time Kate dreams of a way to make Lost Lake her very own.

This is my third experience with Sarah Addison Allen (previously I read The Peach Keeper and The Sugar Queen) and what I’m realizing that I like about her books is she’s very consistent. She always delivers a likable female heroine, some measure of sadness or adversity, Southern charm, and a touch of magical realism. I have found that I’ve liked her books but never fallen in love, and that’s okay, because I think a lot of other folks love her, but for me this book fell into that same place the other two books did – like but not love.

Let’s talk about what I did enjoy about Lost Lake. The way the author created this sense of place, I felt that I was right there with these characters. From the descriptions of the foods they were eating, to their time together outdoors on summer evenings in this beautiful, charming cottage resort, to the swamp out back, all of it made me truly understand where these people were and exactly how being at Lost Lake made them feel.

While overall I felt only okay about the characters, there was one shining exception: Lissette, Eby’s best friend and sidekick for fifty plus years. Lissette was such a sad soul, a person who wouldn’t let go of the wounds from her past, and the way Allen concluded her story brought tears to my eyes. It was by far my favorite thing in the entire book.

When I say I felt only okay about the characters, I did like them. They were each unique and interesting, every one of them contributing something to this hodge-podge of friends who gathered at Lost Lake every year. But there was just something missing for me which caused me to not feel as deeply connected to them as I’d have liked to be. The way things ended certainly helped, as a few of them really surprised me, but overall I just didn’t fall in love with any of them, save for Lissette.

I think this book was just a bit light for my tastes, especially when I compare it to Southern fiction I’ve fallen madly in love with in the past. That being said, I did enjoy Lost Lake and can recommend it for fans of Southern fiction, women’s fiction, and those who like their novels with a touch of magic sprinkled in.

Independent Study by Joelle Charbonneau

Independent Study (The Testing, #2)Independent Study by Joelle Charbonneau
Published by HMH Books for Young Readers

Publisher’s summary:

In the series debut The Testing, sixteen-year-old Cia Vale was chosen by the United Commonwealth government as one of the best and brightest graduates of all the colonies . . . a promising leader in the effort to revitalize postwar civilization. In Independent Study, Cia is a freshman at the University in Tosu City with her hometown sweetheart, Tomas—and though the government has tried to erase her memory of the brutal horrors of The Testing, Cia remembers. Her attempts to expose the ugly truth behind the government’s murderous programs put her—and her loved ones—in a world of danger. But the future of the Commonwealth depends on her.

I really loved the first book in this series so I was anxious to get my hands on this, the second installment in what is a planned trilogy. I have no complaints about Independent Study – it fulfilled all of the hopes I had for the book and I loved it just as much as the first one.

I’m honestly going to pretty much stop there because if you’ve read the first book, I highly recommend you pick up the second one. If you haven’t read the first, there’s no point in me going over what I liked so much about the second one. If you haven’t started this series, you need to. There’s a kick-ass main character, a future world that is beautiful on the outside but is very sinister below the surface, lots of action and intrigue, and good writing. And NO LOVE TRIANGLE! So … what are you waiting for? Read this series! I have nothing further to say. :)

My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor

My Beloved WorldMy Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor
Published by Knopf

Summary from the publisher:

With startling candor and intimacy, Sonia Sotomayor recounts her life from a Bronx housing project to the federal bench, progress that is testament to her extraordinary determination and the power of believing in oneself.  She writes of her precarious childhood and the refuge she took with her passionately spirited paternal grandmother. She describes her resolve as a young girl to become a lawyer, and how she made this dream become reality: valedictorian of her high school class, summa cum laude at Princeton, Yale Law, prosecutor in the Manhattan D.A.’s office, private practice, federal district judge before the age of forty. She writes about her deeply valued mentors, about her failed marriage, about her cherished family of friends. Through her still-astonished eyes, America’s infinite possibilities are envisioned anew in this warm and honest book, destined to become a classic of self-discovery and self-invention, alongside Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father.

This was an impulse listen for me, an audiobook I spotted at the library that I’d heard good things about and that I felt I might enjoy because I like these kinds of reads. I was not disappointed here. Sonia Sotomayor has led an interesting and inspiring life and I loved hearing about what has helped her become so successful over the course of her life.

SO much of what Sotomayor has to say is both important and quotable. I almost wish I read the paper book so I could have highlighted and took notes instead of just listening to what was said; however the audio was really good so there’s that too. I just loved everything she had to say about growing up with not a lot of money, being a minority and a woman, with few examples around her about what success in the traditional sense looks like, yet still being so driven and hardworking that to succeed was the only choice she gave herself. One thing she stressed, which I think is important for anyone trying to nurture and help children, is that the ONE thing that matters in a disenfranchised kids’ life is having one adult who roots for the child, boosts him or her up, and has the child’s back in all things, no matter what. For Sotomayor that person was her grandmother, when I was a child I had one or two people in my life who did that for me, and I have to say that I can’t agree more with this statement. Not all kids have perfect parents or perfect lives, but if you are able to be there for a child who might not be in a great situation, to really show how important that child is, how special and smart and unique and creative and all of those things, it could make a huge difference in that child’s life.

Sotomayor is unflinchingly honest in this memoir and I appreciated her so much for that. She has been through a lot in her life – deaths of loved ones, a failed marriage, education at America’s top schools, many different levels of her career – and she was so open about it all. I found myself really admiring the way she makes decisions and thinks through things – I hate to admit it but I’m not as caught up in politics as I once was so I really didn’t pay attention to her confirmation hearings when she became a Supreme Court Justice and I knew almost nothing about her political beliefs and leanings. She truly is a fair and thoughtful judge – thinking very carefully through every single possible repercussion and consequence before making even the smallest decision. I liked her quite a bit and enjoyed getting to know her and understand her throughout the book.

If you’re looking to get to know Sonia Sotomayor better – the real person behind the media image of her – this is a fantastic choice. Or if you, like me, enjoy these kinds of autobiographies in general, also a fantastic choice. Sotomayor has led a very inspiring life and I have no doubt that she will continue to inspire and interest me throughout the rest of her career. I’m so glad to have read this book. Highly recommended!