The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress by Ariel Lawhon

The Wife, the Maid, and the MistressThe Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress by Ariel Lawhon
Published by Doubleday
Review copy provided by SheReads

In the 1930′s in New York City, New York Supreme Court justice Joseph Crater disappears one night, never to be seen again. Although there’s a ton of speculation on what might have happened to him, the three women who were closest to him – Stella, his wife, Ritzi, a showgirl who’d been sleeping with him, and Maria, the Craters’ maid – might have some information about what happened. But unless the detectives working on the case can crack these women, there is no hope of discovering the truth about the fate of Joseph Crater.

Although in reality, the case of Joseph Crater’s disappearance was never solved, in this unique and captivating novel Lawhon imagines what really happened to him and unwinds the tale in spellbinding, exciting detail. This book is layered and complex, and it isn’t until the very end when the reader fully understands the vision that Lawhon created for these historical figures.

There is so much to love about this novel. The historical setting is absolute perfection and it is full of the quintessential 1930′s elements that are so fascinating to read about - Showgirls, speakeasies, gambling, gangsters – you name it. It was abundantly clear to me that Lawhon really did her research because the setting was done so fantastically, it was so atmospheric and I truly felt that I was there with these characters.

And the characters! What I loved about these women is that although they made terrible choices, choices that had disastrous consequences, they were asserting their power in the only ways available to them at that time. They did exactly what they felt they had to do in order to survive, and thrive, in an incredibly difficult time. Stella seemed the most innocent of the three, at least in the beginning she felt that way, but as the novel goes on, it’s apparent that she is quite a strong and intelligent woman in her own right. Ritzi is probably the most daring, the most cunning, but also the one who made the worst choices, but she’s also the only one of the three who is without a husband and needed to take more desperate measures to protect herself. And Maria made so many choices to take care of and promote her loved ones – you can’t help but admire her for that. I can’t say I loved all three of them equally, but I did truly appreciate them all and loved them in different ways. I most loved that Lawhon created three incredibly flawed characters and got me to truly care about them all, to want the best for them despite their bad decisions and the consequences of their behavior.

I thought the concept behind The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress to be so unique and creative and overall Lawhon did such an excellent job with it. Her vision is one I never would have come up with, but by the end it was the only possible way this story could have ended, the only possible fate for Justice Crater. I couldn’t put this book down and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Highly recommended!

Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins

Anna and the French KissAnna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins
Published by Dutton

When Anna Oliphant’s famous author father (think Nicholas Sparks) decides she should go to boarding school in Paris for her senior year of high school, instead of her public school in Atlanta, she is horribly upset and terrified of this huge change in her life. Surprisingly, Anna finds herself in a group of friends almost immediately upon arriving in Paris, and even more surprisingly, she becomes BFF’s with one of the guys in the group, the charming, intelligent, and gorgeous St. Clair. While she can’t stop herself from having a crush on him, she knows he has a girlfriend so she remains content with their friendship for most of the year. But when she starts to think he might be interested in her, too, she can’t help but think of how good they would be together …

I’ve been eyeing Anna and the French Kiss probably since it was released in late 2010 and bloggers began raving about it. Now that I’ve read it myself, I’m here to tell you that all that raving was justified – this is such a sweet, fun, charming, well-written and well-characterized young adult romance. It was everything I want my YA to be.

What I loved about this novel is that while the romance is a BIG part of the story, Anna’s own journey towards independence and learning she can grow as a person and do things on her own, can learn new things and experience a new culture, was just as important. She is the kind of character you can’t help but love – she’s smart, resourceful, honest, caring, but isn’t perfect, she makes mistakes, misjudges people, misinterprets situations, all the stuff regular people do on a daily basis. Her internal monologue is hilarious at times but also so very realistic and mirrors what real teens think and feel, how they deal with difficult situations, and how they process their emotions.

But the romance! So sweet. St. Clair is absolutely charming, so smart and so kind to everyone, the kind of guy you want the heroine to fall in love with. The way they were truly great friends for such a big part of the novel really worked for me – the romances that come out of nowhere can be fun, but aren’t very realistic. This one made sense, they fell in love over time, they truly knew each other and could appreciate little things about one another, it was just so sweet and perfect.

Anna and the French Kiss is a fantastic book in the YA romance category. I am kicking myself for waiting so long to read this book and I’m really looking forward to reading more from Stephanie Perkins. Highly recommended!

Every Day by David Levithan

Every DayEvery Day by David Levithan
Published by Knopf Books for Young Readers

Every morning, A wakes up in the body of someone different. A doesn’t have gender or a body of A’s own, but every day A is able to take on a new personality and new life, and then wake up the next morning and get a brand new one. A is okay with this and has learned over time not to form any attachments with people, to stay under the radar while inhabiting people’s bodies, and not to interfere with people’s lives. But everything changes when A wakes up in Justin’s body and falls madly in love with his girlfriend, Rhiannan. A wants to spend every possible moment with her, but how can that be possible when tomorrow A will wake up and be someone else?

This book has such a unique concept and before I began reading it, I was worried that I wouldn’t connect with this A person. Because A is a different person every day, each chapter requires the reader to learn about a whole new individual’s life. While that sounds like it would get confusing or overwhelming, it never does. As a reader, you actually come to see A as an individual – almost like a soul that is inhabiting these bodies for a day at a time.

Levithan writes teenage emotions so well. I truly believed, despite the unique concept of A not having a body of his/her own, that A and Rhiannan were in love. And while it sounds crazy that Rhiannan could love a different physical body every day, Levithan made me believe it was possible and true. I hung onto A’s every word and truly felt A’s pain as he/she worked so hard to find ways to get to Rhiannan and to make their love work.

This book made me think, too. Gender is SO socially constructed and so ingrained into my brain that it was really tough for me not to think of A as male simply because he was in love with a girl and because he was in a boy’s body when he fell in love with said girl. Even when he was in girl’s bodies, it was like in my mind he was a guy in a girl’s body. I am sure that Levithan came up with this concept to challenge people’s notions of gender and sexuality, and to make the reader examine one’s own thoughts on this subject, and this definitely happened for me. I’m still thinking about it and trying to understand my thoughts on A’s “real” gender – even though A doesn’t have a gender, it’s so outside of my mind to get the concept that not having a gender is possible. Like I want to put A in a box and categorize him somehow – I know Levithan is challenging the reader to think through this, and I appreciate it. But I’m still thinking.

I felt somewhat conflicted over the ending but as I’ve thought about it a lot, I have come to the conclusion that I liked it. Any other ending would have been unrealistic. While nothing about this book is very realistic, if you can suspend your disbelief to get to the ending, the way Levithan chose to end things makes the most possible sense, I think.

What I loved most about Every Day is how much it made me think. I loved the characters and I continue to feel that Levithan is a truly talented author, but I loved that I’m still thinking about this book weeks after finishing it. Highly recommended.

Heartbeat by Elizabeth Scott

HeartbeatHeartbeat by Elizabeth Scott
Published by Harlequin Teen
Review copy provided by the publisher

Elizabeth Scott has a talent for writing YA books that deal with tough subjects in a delicate way, personalizing tragedies and showing them to the reader through the lens of a teenager.

Heartbeat is no different – in this novel we meet Emma, who is suffering from the recent loss of her mother. But her mother is not deceased, rather she’s being kept alive by machines after a tragic accident as she’s pregnant with Emma’s half-brother. Emma’s stepfather doesn’t care that her mother would never have wanted to be kept alive while brain-dead, he only cares about his son growing inside Emma’s mom. When she is at her most desperate and has no one to talk to, Emma meets bad-boy Caleb – a guy she never would have looked twice at before, but now that her life has been completely turned upside down, he might just be the person who can help her see through her grief and open her heart to the possibilities of life and love.

This book is full of heart-wrenching, grief-drenched moments that will take your breath away, but also soft and tender moments that will show you the meaning of true love and reconciliation between people at odds over the most fundamental of ideas. This is what Elizabeth Scott does so brilliantly and what I love so much about her books – this awful tragedy, this devastating situation that Emma is in, is something that’s been in the news and that real people have gone through, and she makes it so personal, so realistic. I felt that Emma was a real teenager, her struggles felt so true to me. Her stepfather, too, broke my heart – he was just trying to do the best he could for his family and truly was doing what he felt his wife would have wanted.

Of course we don’t know what Emma’s mother would have wanted – she’s not around to tell her side of the story. So we have to look at it from Emma’s point of view, and from her stepfather’s, and come to a conclusion that they are both right. They both want what’s best for this woman they love so much, this baby they hope might be born alive, and for their fledgling family they are struggling to hold onto.

And the relationship between Emma and Caleb was a perfect addition to this already beautiful novel. He made her see another side of things, another way of life and another way of looking at the world around her. He was exactly what she needed at a crucial time in her life, when everything else was falling apart, he was able to be a rock for her. It was sweet and melted my heart.

I loved this book! Elizabeth Scott is so talented, truly, if you aren’t reading her YA fiction you really should be. Highly recommended.

The Engagements by J. Courtney Sullivan

The EngagementsThe Engagements by J. Courtney Sullivan
Published by Knopf

“A diamond is forever” – four words that changed the face of engagements and weddings in America forever. This novel is based on the true story of Frances Gerety, the woman who coined that phrase for DeBeers in 1947, while also focusing on four other couples and their marriages – or lack thereof. This sprawling novel takes place over the course of almost a hundred years, and while the characters couldn’t be more different from one another, by the end of the novel they all come together in unexpected and delightful ways.

I have been a fan of J. Courtney Sullivan since reading  her debut novel, Commencement, and I must say that I think The Engagements might be her best work yet. There were just so many layers to this novel, so many different characters with important stories, and I thought the way everything came together at the end was sort of genius.

I loved all the historical tidbits about the diamond industry and how the whole engagement/wedding industry was basically created by the companies that benefit from the mass consumer spending of this stuff.

This is one of those cases where I don’t have a lot to say about a book, even though this is a novel on the longer side and I thought it was absolutely wonderful. I loved everything about this book but all I have to say is, if you like smart writing, compelling characters, and a storyline that continues to surprise you, pick up The Engagements. You won’t be disappointed.

The Memory of Love by Linda Olsson

The Memory of LoveThe Memory of Love by Linda Olsson
Published by Penguin
Review copy received at SIBA 2012

Linda Olsson’s third novel centers on a fifty-year-old woman named Marion Flint. Marion resides in a small, quiet town off the coast of New Zealand and lives a very solitary life that for the past fifteen years has given her the opportunity to keep her past shut away inside her mind, to never talk about it or even reflect on it to herself. But one day she meets a young boy, Ika, and she’s compelled to help him – she feels a connection with him unlike anything she’s felt in years. She becomes almost like a mother to Ika and this relationship forces memories from her past to the surface of her consciousness, making her examine her life and finally heal from all the brokenness in her heart.

I really loved Olsson’s first two novels and she definitely did not disappoint me with The Memory of Love. I’m not going to lie, Marion was a difficult character to get to know at first. She is a solitary person with no friends or family, and even though the reader is allowed inside her head, she isn’t all that likable a person. She’s prickly and as her past is revealed slowly, in memories, the reader doesn’t really know her very well until the very end of the book. It isn’t until she meets Ika, and later when she discovers how truly awful his life is, that she opens up her heart and shows the reader how genuinely kind and loving she can be.

Olsson’s writing is absolutely beautiful, her prose is some of my favorite that I’ve ever read. She says so much with so few pages and she creates stunning imagery with her words. She was able to make this character who I didn’t even like come alive before my eyes and transform into a woman I rooted for and truly enjoyed reading about by the end of the novel.

The subject matter in this book is pretty brutal, to be honest. Ika’s life is really, really difficult for a little kid and once Marion’s past is revealed, it’s clear that her life was pretty horrible too. It is no wonder that these two characters connected on such a deep, instinctual level – Marion saw in Ika all the pain that she suffered growing up and wanted desperately to shield him from having to go through the same stuff. It was heartbreaking to read but also there was such redemption when Marion finally faces her past and does right for Ika.

The Memory of Love is a gorgeous novel. Although the book is short, it packs an emotional punch, and the writing is not to be missed. I highly recommend all of Olsson’s books but there’s a chance this might be my favorite yet.

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

The Rosie ProjectThe Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion
Published by Simon & Schuster

This novel is one I wouldn’t have read if not for book club, and thank goodness for book club because what a gem this book is! Don Tillman, a socially awkward professor of genetics, is in his early forties, has never been on a date, and is convinced that although he’d love a relationship, he’s unsuitable for a wife. His one and only true friend disagrees with him and sets him on a quest to find the perfect wife – involving speed dating, internet dating, matchmaking, and most importantly, a questionnaire intended to find the one perfect person for Don. One day he meets Rosie, a younger woman who is his opposite in every way – she’s an independent, spur-of-the-moment, who-cares-what-they-think kind of person, but lucky for Don she’s not looking for romance from him. What she’s looking for is to find her biological father, and Don begins to help her on this quest. Along the way, the two become closer than they ever expected and Don finds himself having feelings for Rosie he never before thought possible.

This novel was just so charming! Don is aware that he is different, but it’s almost like at his core, he feels that it’s everyone else who is different from him – he just doesn’t understand why people behave the way they do sometimes, why they don’t say exactly what’s on their mind, why they use sarcasm and humor and tell white lies. His candor is absolutely hilarious. I loved the irony of the fact that he’s researching Asperger’s and has absolutely no understanding of the fact that he’s probably on the spectrum himself. Everything about him charmed me and he was so quirky in an interesting way.

I loved Rosie too and felt deeply for her as she was really a lost child in an adult’s body. She lost her mother at a young age and was told at that time that the man who raised her is not her biological father. I understood her tough exterior because it was clear that she was in pain underneath. And you wouldn’t think that a man like Don who is completely insensitive and doesn’t understand what a woman needs to hear would be able to get under her skin and into her heart,but you’d be wrong. What I loved about the two of them was that they each made the other better. Rosie made Don have more fun, be more outgoing, and get better at engaging with people and being a part of the world. Don made Rosie understand the value of routine and structure and organization – and they worked together so well. I loved the two of them and their slow journey toward finding one another.

The Rosie Project is a really sweet story and I enjoyed it a lot. These two characters that you would never think could work out together both found their way into my heart. It’s fun, quirky, and like I said before, so utterly charming. I definitely can recommend this one and I’m grateful to my book club for bringing it to my attention!

Return to Tradd Street by Karen White

Return to Tradd Street (Tradd Street, #4)Return to Tradd Street by Karen White
Published by NAL Trade
Review copy provided by the publisher

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I love Karen White’s books, and the Tradd Street series in particular is one of my favorite things (as a whole) that she’s done. So when I learned she was coming out with another book about Melanie and Jack, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to read it right away. Warning – this will contain spoilers for the first three books in the series.

The book begins with Melanie, sick in her first trimester of pregnancy, and utterly devastated at the fact that she and Jack are not currently together (not that she’d ever admit that, of course). After Melanie declared her love for Jack, and he responded with “thank you”, she turned down his marriage proposal. Of course. So now she’s alone, again, in this big old house she’s renovating, when yet another ghost comes into the picture and demands answers – and Melanie, as always, answers the call and begins hunting for clues to solve this new ghost story.

I have yet to be disappointed by Karen White and this new installment of the Tradd Street series was another hit with me. I love the dynamics between Melanie and Jack – just when I think I’m over their bantering back and forth and not being honest with one another about their feelings, another book comes out with the exact same dynamic and I’m hooked once again. I just love these two! Add to the picture them having a baby together and things just got crazy, in the best possible way.

The ghost story in this book was another good one, the fact that it was about a mother and baby was that much more relevant to Melanie as she is pregnant and then gives birth herself over the course of the novel. The ghost was truly speaking to her, mother to mother, desperate for Melanie to uncover the secrets of the house’s past and let the ghost go “home”. The way the truth of what happened to this ghost was revealed was done slowly and expertly, as White knows how to do perfectly.

I absolutely loved the ending to Return to Tradd Street, and although it ended in a way that suggests White is finished telling Melanie and Jack’s story, there were a few hints at the very end that suggest that might not be the case. I would of course love another book about them, but I also feel satisfied with how this book ended so I’d be okay with the series finishing with this book. Either way is good with me!

I highly recommend this series of books for a combination of ghost story, historical old homes, romance, and a main character in Melanie that you can’t help but love, frustrating as she may be at times. Highly recommended – but start with the first book if you haven’t read the rest of the series!

The Descent by Alma Katsu

The Descent (The Taker, #3)The Descent by Alma Katsu
Published by Gallery Books
Review copy provided by NetGalley

This final installment in The Taker trilogy has Lanore tracking Adair down at his home set on a remote island in the middle of nowhere. She’s come to ask him a favor – to help her travel to the Underworld to release Jonathan, who is being held hostage by the Queen of the Underworld. Upon arriving at his home, though, Lanore learns that he’s keeping two women for his pleasure and old feelings stir up inside of her. Lanore promises Adair she’ll return to him as soon as she frees Jonathan, but once she gets there she has the opportunity to make a real choice between life and death, and must decide who she truly loves, and if that love is worth fighting for.

This trilogy was a complete surprise to me when I read the first book, The Taker, and fell in love with this dark, gritty, twisted world Katsu created. I was definitely sad to see it come to an end but overall I don’t think Katsu could have ended this series in a better way than what she did here.

There is something undeniable between Lanore and Adair, and those feelings are obvious as soon as she gets to his home. Katsu has developed both of these characters so well over the first two books that the ways they were interacting with each other in this final installment – with kindness, concern, and a mutual respect – made perfect sense and was nice to see. The addition of the two women Adair brought into his home was confusing at first, and felt out of place, but towards the end of the book the reason they were there is clarified so it made sense too.

While the middle of the novel meandered a bit for me, once Lanore reaches the Underworld, things really picked up and I was hooked once again. While the ending wasn’t one I would have wanted in the first book, by the time it happened, I LOVED it. I thought it was absolutely perfect and helped me put the series away in my mind, it was the definition of closure.

I cannot recommend this series more highly for those who love strange, gritty, dark books that will shock you but keep you riveted to the pages. The Descent was the perfect end to a great series. I can’t wait to see what Katsu does next.

Love Water Memory by Jennie Shortridge

Love Water MemoryLove Water Memory by Jennie Shortridge
Published by Gallery Books
Review copy provided by She Reads

I was excited when I learned that Love Water Memory was the January selection for the She Reads book club because I’ve enjoyed Shortridge’s books in the past and unfortunately, I didn’t get to this one when it was originally published in hardcover, even though I had really hoped to. So this was a perfect selection for me.

This novel is the story of thirty-nine-year-old Lucie Walker, who wakes up one day sitting in the San Francisco Bay, with no idea of who she is or why she got there. She learns at the hospital that she’s suffering from amnesia caused by some emotional trauma that is unknown to her, and that she’s engaged to a man named Grady Goodall. When Grady gets to the hospital to pick her up, she has no choice but to go home with this stranger, to a strange home, and possibly to a successful career she knows nothing about. As the weeks go on and she and Grady tentatively get to know each other – she getting to know a whole new person and Grady getting to know a new Lucie, as she’s changed quite a bit, she must dig dip to unravel secrets from her past to figure out what really happened in her childhood and what caused her to run from her life.

Love Water Memory pulled me in from the very beginning, with Lucie confused and alone, knee-deep in cold water, and I almost didn’t put it down until the very end. I connected with Lucie instantly – I cannot possibly imagine what complete memory loss must feel like, but Shortridge did such a good job showing the reader through Lucie’s eyes how difficult it was that I felt that pain right along with her. She broke my heart with how desperate she was for answers, how much she ached to feel in love with this man she was engaged to, and how raw and real her pain was at the simple desire to know herself.

Something that Shortridge did really well in this story is tell it from the point of view of both Lucie and Grady. It gave a more complete picture of their story to see it from his eyes too. I felt so sad for him as well – this woman he loved with his whole heart, with everything he has, doesn’t even know who he is. How awful must that feel? I cannot even imagine. It was heartbreaking to see how both Grady and Lucie were so desperate for one another, yet since they felt like they barely knew one another after her amnesia, neither one had the courage to be honest and talk about their feelings.

Ultimately the reader learns, along with Lucie, what was so traumatic about her childhood and what specific incident pushed her to run away and empty her mind of all memories when she did. It’s horrible, and it makes the reader feel even more deeply for Lucie. But also it causes the reader to feel that she is incredibly brave, to have gone through what she’s been through and come out on the other end a mostly normal, well-adjusted, successful person. And once this is all out there, her ability to love and be loved grew so much. It was beautiful to read this transformation in her heart and in her personality.

I really enjoyed this book, just as I have enjoyed previous Shortridge novels. She’s really a talented author who gets women and knows how to write relationships. Kudos to She Reads for another great pick!