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.

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. :)

Me Since You by Laura Weiss

Me Since YouMe Since You by Laura Weiss
Published by MTV Books
Review copy provided by the publisher via NetGalley

Sixteen-year-old Rowan Arena is a regular girl living the all-American teenage life when the decision of a complete stranger shatters her picture-perfect world. Suddenly she is plunged into a situation of uncertainty, grief, and most of all, fear. She doesn’t know how to deal with what’s just been thrown at her, and worst of all, her solid foundation and rock, her police officer father, can’t seem to handle it either.

Laura Weiss is another one of those YA authors, like Elizabeth Scott (who I love) who can so eloquently and beautifully write about really tough stuff for teens. I’ve read a few of her books and they’ve all been gorgeously written, with gut-wrenching emotional moments and characters that tug at your heartstrings – and Me Since You is another one to add to that list.

Something happens very early on in this novel that completely shatters Rowan’s world, and I will not spoil that for you, but what I will say is that it was completely unexpected, an out-of-nowhere thing that didn’t even effect her directly. Except that it did, and the fact that it did is sort of the point of this whole novel.

There is so much sadness, so much pain, in this book, and Weiss handled this awful situation with such grace and created a character in Rowan that the reader can’t help but feel deep empathy for. And in the midst of this awfulness, Rowan meets a boy who completely gets what she’s going through and is able to be there for her in a way nobody else can be – and this romance, while verrry slow, is truly perfect and such a light in this otherwise dark novel.

All I can say about Me Since You is that it is a YA novel that begs to be read. If you like books that pack an emotional punch, especially those that are well-written with great characters, this is one not to be missed. Weiss is another one of my favorite YA authors and in this novel she proved to me once again why I feel that way about her. Highly recommended!

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

The Invention of WingsThe Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd
Published by Viking Adult
Review copy provided by the publisher via NetGalley

This novel is absolutely everywhere right now so you probably already know what it’s about. But honestly, any summary I could provide wouldn’t do it justice, so in case you’re unfamiliar with the novel here is the publisher’s summary:

Hetty “Handful” Grimke, an urban slave in early nineteenth century Charleston, yearns for life beyond the suffocating walls that enclose her within the wealthy Grimke household. The Grimke’s daughter, Sarah, has known from an early age she is meant to do something large in the world, but she is hemmed in by the limits imposed on women.

Kidd’s sweeping novel is set in motion on Sarah’s eleventh birthday, when she is given ownership of ten-year old Handful, who is to be her handmaid.We follow their remarkable journeys over the next thirty-five years, as both strive for a life of their own, dramatically shaping each other’s destinies and forming a complex relationship marked by guilt, defiance, estrangement and the uneasy ways of love.
As the stories build to a riveting climax, Handful will endure loss and sorrow, finding courage and a sense of self in the process. Sarah will experience crushed hopes, betrayal, unrequited love, and ostracism before leaving Charleston to find her place alongside her fearless younger sister, Angelina, as one of the early pioneers in the abolition and women’s rights movements.

Inspired by the historical figure of Sarah Grimke, Kidd goes beyond the record to flesh out the rich interior lives of all of her characters, both real and invented, including Handful’s cunning mother, Charlotte, who courts danger in her search for something better.

The Invention of Wings is a sweeping novel that takes place over the course of several decades, at a time in American history we aren’t too proud of as a nation, but also a time when great change was just around the corner. Sue Monk Kidd took this very real historical figure, Sarah Grimke, and fabricated another character (Handful) and created a truly remarkable piece of fiction. There was a lot to love about this book, and before I get into that, let me be honest about what was less than perfect about it for me.

I had a really difficult time connecting to most of the characters, if I’m being completely honest. While I admired Sarah, especially throughout the second half of the book, there was something missing for me in terms of how I was able to emotionally connect with her. With Handful my connection was more immediate and much easier, but as her life was so unimaginably awful and difficult, it was almost painful for me to feel that deep connection – like I wanted to shy away from it, her painful life was just too raw and real for me. And every member of the Grimke family besides Sarah was awful – it was difficult for me to read a book with SO many horrible people. I completely understand why these books are important and we need to read them to confront the truth of what our history as a nation is, but it was hard for me to love the book given my difficulty with the characters.

That said, The Invention of Wings is really a wonderful novel. There is SO much history here, and there is an author’s note at the end where she explains what is real and what is her imagination, and so much of what is in the book is based on real events! Many of the scenes in the book that were so painful to read were inspired by historical events that the author learned about while doing research for the novel. Obviously, it’s difficult to read about the specific ways slaves were abused, which I understand is the point – we must confront this stuff and accept that we as a people did this to other human beings. But it’s not easy to read, I’m telling you.

I loved how much time the book covered, as you really get to see the changes in society over the course of the novel. Things don’t end with perfection, but it’s clear that we’re getting somewhere as a country by the time Sarah is an older woman. She worked tirelessly in her adult years for equality of both slaves and women, and I loved seeing how that work affected the country in positive ways through her lifetime.

Ultimately this is a story about two very different women, growing up in the same household but who couldn’t possibly have more opposite experiences, and the strength and power both women found within themselves over the course of their lifetimes. Sarah and Handful couldn’t be more different, but in the end they spend most of their lives searching for the same thing – freedom and the power that comes from that freedom. Whether or not they find it, and how they attempt to do so, is sort of the point of the book.

Sue Monk Kidd’s writing is gorgeous, she truly brings this time period and the story alive with her words. I really enjoyed the book in many ways and I can see why it’s getting such praise. Even though I didn’t fall in love with the characters, this is an extremely powerful story and one that I can wholeheartedly recommend.

Comeback Love by Peter Golden

Comeback LoveComeback Love by Peter Golden
Published by Washington Square Press
Review copy received at SIBA 2012

Gordon Meyers is en route to his sister’s home to deal with a family catastrophe when he decides to detour to see an old flame, Glenna Rising, and surprises her at her Manhattan pediatrics practice. Thirty-five years earlier, in the 1960′s, the two lived the greatest love story of each of their lives, until its shattering conclusion and emotionally charged breakup. As the two meet for a drink, Glenna tries to learn the real reason Gordon came to visit her, and old secrets and hurts are brought to the surface as the two of them rediscover their feelings all over again.

Why did I wait so long to read this book? I’ve had it since September 2012 and it was so good I’m kicking myself for not picking it up sooner. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it definitely wasn’t this beautiful love story, one fraught with challenges and issues and sticky, hard situations but with two people at its center who had the kind of all-consuming love that is undeniable and inescapable.

One thing I loved so much about Comeback Love is that Golden managed to weave so much history into what is, on the surface, a romance novel. Told mostly in the past, the book spends the majority of its time in the 1960′s, and Glenna is active in the movement to legalize abortion, so there is a lot about that in the book. I loved how Golden explores how personal choices can be so far from one’s beliefs, and even when we want them to match up perfectly, we can’t always reconcile what we believe with what we actually do when faced with decisions of our own. The same can be said about the Vietnam War – Gordon struggles with whether to go to war or to keep himself out of the draft with his student deferments, and then when his own son is of age the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are in full swing and he wants to protect his son from the very same choices he made as a young adult. There’s something so wonderful about getting these bits of history inside such a well-written, character-driven novel.

Even though Gordon and Glenna’s relationship is fraught with complications, and they both make bad choices and all of that, I still really liked them each individually and the two of them together as a couple. It’s hard to really know Glenna, because the book is told from Gordon’s point of view, and the reader therefore only sees her as he does – not as she sees herself – but even still, I liked her and wanted the best for her. Gordon is, of course, a character to root for, but his disastrous choices made me want to shake him at times. There was this crazy magnetic pull between the two of them that really drew me into the novel and kept me turning pages, even when their relationship wasn’t going in a direction that I necessarily wanted for them.

I liked this novel so, so much and I’m annoyed with myself for having waited so long to read it. It is beautifully written, with characters and settings that jump off the pages and right into the reader’s heart. Highly recommended.

Collateral by Ellen Hopkins

CollateralCollateral by Ellen Hopkins
Published by Atria
Review copy received at SIBA 2012

Ashley, a student at San Diego State University, always expected that she would grow up and marry someone just like her – an intellectual, bookish type, someone who had a similar background as she and had many of the same interests. So it’s a complete surprise to her when she falls for Cole, a military man who is, on the outside, nothing like her, but she finds a passionate, smart, completely sweet guy beneath his tough exterior. Their relationship lasts five years and four deployments, and just when Cole is ready to marry Ashley, she meets someone new – someone more along the lines of who she’d always pictured herself with – and she begins to question if the military life is one she can actually see herself living for good.

If you’ve been reading my blog for any length of time, you know that I’m quite a fan of this author’s work. Her ability to write about incredibly difficult subjects using the most beautiful verse just does something to me. Collateral is her second book for adults (she usually writes YA) and I can definitely say it was successful.

The romance between Ashley and Cole is HOT. There are some steamy scenes in this book. While it gets quite sexy between the two of them, there is a clear element of love there and I felt that Hopkins communicated that quite well using poetry. There was a real connection between these two, one that went far deeper than their physical connection. I could feel the love and admiration they had for one another, and even when things got really hard for them, ultimately they cared about each other so much and that caring was what was so heartbreaking about their situation.

There is a very tense undercurrent running throughout the entire novel, and by the time the conclusion is reached, the tension is at a maximum – I couldn’t stop furiously turning pages until I was done reading. The whole time the reader is getting to know Ashley and Cole, it’s obvious their love is going to face serious challenges, but what exactly challenges them isn’t revealed until the very end. Hopkins did an amazing job making the reader fall in love with their relationship, while at the same time acknowledging that it was far from perfect, making the reader desperate to find out how things would turn out for them. I was shocked by the ending, but looking back it wasn’t shocking at all – Hopkins laid out their fate perfectly throughout the book, you just have to be reading closely to see what’s between the lines.

I really enjoyed Collateral and highly recommend it. I love novels in verse when they are done well, and Hopkins is a master at her craft. Not only is this a story with memorable characters and a real romance at its core, it illuminates at a terrifyingly real level what soldiers go through in their transition from military to civilian life. It’s a scary thing, something that isn’t talked about enough, but an important subject to understand. Highly recommended.

Someday, Someday, Maybe by Lauren Graham

Someday, Someday, MaybeSomeday, Someday, Maybe by Lauren Graham
Published by Ballantine Books

Aspiring actress Fanny Banks has given herself just three years to become successful, and with just six months to go things aren’t looking good. She’s working as a cocktail waitress, living in Brooklyn with her best friend Jane and their friend Dan, an aspiring writer with a deadline of his own. Even though Fanny is getting call backs from auditions, she’s only booking silly things that she doesn’t feel are  “important” enough for the actress she knows she’s capable of becoming. And the charming guy in her acting class, James, who begins to show interest in her, keeps telling Fanny how important it is to be taken seriously as an actor, if you want to become successful. This is a truly funny and heartwarming coming-of-age story set in New York in the early ’90′s – a story about finding and accepting yourself.

While I’m a huge fan of Lauren Graham (the actress) I wasn’t sure how her talent as an actress would translate into a talent for writing fiction. Luckily, she seems to be excellent at writing too and I thoroughly enjoyed her first foray into the fiction world. I am sure that much of this novel is based on Graham’s own experiences as an aspiring young actress when she was in her twenties, and the authenticity of those experiences shines through on the page.

Fanny is an extremely likable character and she’s easy to root for from the very start. She’s smart, ambitious, funny, interesting, and someone I would want to be friends with. Her inner monologue is hysterical at times, as she’s constantly analyzing the people and situations around her and has running commentary to provide for the reader on just about every single thing that happens to her. It’s impossible not to be entertained by how she interprets the world around her and deals with the obstacles that come her way. She’s the kind of character that you can’t stop reading, that you want to get to know better and hang out with in real life.

I loved how the romance in this story is such a small part of the overall novel. She’s in a relationship with this actor guy, but the reader never gets to know him well because even though he’s a somewhat significant part of Fanny’s life, acting and the pursuit of success is such a bigger part. At one point there becomes a sort of love triangle thing going on, but even that story is secondary to the story of Fanny’s journey, both professionally and personally. I loved how this book is really all about Fanny and the guys (and her best friend) in her life are so secondary to what’s going on with her.

I enjoyed Someday, Someday, Maybe quite a lot! Also, I forgot to mention this but Lauren Graham narrates the audio herself and it is fantastic. I highly recommend the book and listening to the audio.