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.

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.

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.

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!

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 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.