That Night by Chevy Stevens

That NightThat Night by Chevy Stevens
Published by St. Martin’s Press
Review copy provided by SheReads

From the publisher:

As a teenager, Toni Murphy had a life full of typical adolescent
complications: a boyfriend she adored, a younger sister she couldn’t relate to, a strained relationship with her parents, and classmates who seemed hell-bent on making her life miserable. Things weren’t easy, but Toni could never have predicted how horrific they would become until her younger sister was brutally murdered one summer night.

Toni and her boyfriend, Ryan, were convicted of the murder and sent to prison.

Now thirty-four, Toni is out on parole and back in her hometown, struggling to adjust to a new life on the outside. Prison changed her, hardened her, and she’s doing everything in her power to avoid violating her parole and going back. This means having absolutely no contact with Ryan, avoiding fellow parolees looking to pick fights, and steering clear of trouble in all its forms. But nothing is making that easy—not Ryan, who is convinced he can figure out the truth; not her mother, who doubts Toni’s innocence; and certainly not the group of women who made Toni’s life hell in high school and may have darker secrets than anyone realizes. No matter how hard she tries, ignoring her old life to start a new one is impossible. Before Toni can truly move on, she must risk everything to find out what really happened that night.

But the truth might be the most terrifying thing of all.

I was a huge fan of Stevens’ first novel, Still Missing, but was less than thrilled with her second, Never Knowing, and didn’t even bother with her third. So I have to admit that I went into this novel with a bit of trepidation. But I have to say, That Night really impressed me – she’s completely back to the place she was at for her first novel, and I might have even liked this one better than Still Missing.

The thing about this book is that you go into it knowing that you have an unreliable narrator on your hands. Toni’s past isn’t the best, she’s made some serious mistakes, and the love of her life, Ryan, could possibly be a shady character. We have Toni’s memories, which color everything in her favor, although she does admit to being somewhat of a troubled teenager, and then we have the people around her who assumed she and Ryan were guilty based on their preconceived ideas of what kinds of people they were.

Even though I knew I couldn’t trust Toni, I wanted so desperately to believe her from the very beginning. I just couldn’t let myself believe that she would do such a horrible thing and I had my fingers crossed throughout the entire novel for her to find the real killer and get the opportunity to clear her name. I kept going back and forth in my mind as to whether I could really trust her story or if she was playing me, the reader, for a fool the whole time. The book takes a ton of twists and turns and while I didn’t guess the ending, it was one of those “aha” moments for me and things finally clicked into place. It made so much sense and I loved how Stevens took me on this wild ride and delivered a shocking, but perfect, answer to all of the questions I had along the way.

I’m not sure that Stevens meant for this to happen, but That Night does an excellent job showing just how difficult it is for ex-cons to make any kind of lives for themselves after their sentences are over. Also, it illuminates the fact that once you are labeled something in life, it’s extremely difficult to get out from under that label and make something of yourself. Every single time Toni had something good going for her, her past would rear its ugly head and find a way to drag her down. People would frame her for things and accuse her of things, and immediately it was assumed she was guilty because of her past. It made me stop and think – this is how we treat people who have been convicted of crimes, or even suspected of crimes – crimes they may not have even committed. I know this is a thriller and not a social commentary, but it was a surprisingly interesting element of the novel for me.

Anyway, I was thoroughly impressed with That Night and I’m once again a fan of Chevy Stevens. Highly recommended!

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.

Mini-reviews – wrapping up 2013 reading part 2

And here are the final four books I read this year and haven’t reviewed.

The LowlandThe Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri – I absolutely loved Lahiri’s short story collections and her first novel, The Namesake, so I was beyond excited for this one. The writing is just as gorgeous as I knew it would be, and she sure can tell a story about strained family dynamics. It gave me a glimpse into politics in India in the 1960′s, a place and time I know very little about. As I was reading, I felt deeply connected to the characters, to these two brothers who were so close as children but grew so far apart in adulthood. The novel is brimming with tragedies, but it never felt heavy-handed, it felt like a true family saga in which the family is struck with bad luck, bad choices, and inability to find peace. I loved The Lowland even though it didn’t quite live up to her earlier books for me – I still gave it five stars! That should tell you how much this author can do no wrong in my eyes.

Allegiant (Divergent, #3)Allegiant by Veronica Roth – This was one of my most highly anticipated books of this year and overall I did like it. I found the plot to be a bit meandering at times in the middle but the end was satisfying. A lot of people didn’t like the way Roth chose to end the series but I personally thought it was absolutely perfect. After closing the book, I just can’t imagine another way she could have resolved things for these characters. I’m really looking forward to the movie series now!

The Silent WifeThe Silent Wife by A.S.A. Harrison – This was a book club pick and one I would have read anyway because I was so compelled by the premise. I was expecting to be taken for a ride and I was not disappointed. The one thing everyone at my book club could agree on was that we hated all of the characters. They are selfish, immature, and have zero redeeming qualities to speak of. But despite that I couldn’t put this book down. I read furiously til the end, desperate to know how things would turn out for these despicable people. And the ending was a complete shock and was kind of genius actually. I really liked this one.

Days of Splendor, Days of Sorrow (Marie Antoinette, #2)Days of Splendor, Days of Sorrow by Juliet Grey – This is a sequel to a book I really loved (Becoming Marie Antoinette) but I have to admit that this one disappointed me. Marie Antoinette came across as incredibly selfish, spoiled, caring little for the people around her and only seeking out her own pleasure. She was so detached from the realities of life beyond Versailles that truthfully it disgusted me. I gained a bit more interest when she begun having children but overall this book was not what I was hoping for. The final book in the trilogy was recently released and honestly I’m not sure if I’ll ever get to it.

Mini-reviews: The Preservationist and How to Be a Woman

I’m not reading a ton these days but I’m blogging even less, so if I ever plan to get through my backlog of unreviewed books I realized I need to start doing some more mini-reviews. So here are minis of a couple of the books I read in September! Stay tuned for more of these coming soon. :)

The Preservationist by Justin Kramon
Published by Pegasus
Review copy provided by the author

I absolutely loved Kramon’s first novel, Finny, so when he contacted me asking if I’d be interested in The Preservationist, I jumped at the opportunity, even though I’ve been accepting very few review copies lately. Kramon’s second novel is completely different from his first, and in a way that’s a good thing – it shows he has talent writing more than one kind of book, in fact this one is in a whole new genre (thriller). To be honest, though, this departure from what I loved about Kramon’s work was a slight disappointment for me – I adored his first book so much that I was looking forward to getting my brain back in that space. This novel did have some stuff going for it, though, as I found the atmosphere to be deliciously creepy, especially towards the end when things start getting crazy for our main character, Julia. Also, while I had a good idea about what was really going on with these two men in her life, Sam and Marcus, I was impressed by how Kramon handled working out all the details and how he brought the two together in a shocking, although not altogether surprising, conclusion. The very end was a bit of a surprise, and one that I quite liked in fact. Overall, while The Preservationist wasn’t exactly what I wanted to read from this beloved author, I still enjoyed it and will continue to be interested in his work.

How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran
Published by Harper Perennial

This book is more a personal feminist manifesto than anything else. Moran’s wit and sarcasm add just the right amount of humor and snark to what are, in most cases, incredibly serious subjects she’s discussing. I particularly appreciated the chapters on sexism and abortion. The book is packed with insightful observations on everything related to being female and being a feminist in today’s world. I listened to the audio of How to Be a Woman and it was fantastic. Moran narrates herself, so it’s as if she’s telling her thoughts and feelings directly to the reader. I highly recommend this unique feminist memoir and especially would recommend listening to the audio for a fabulous listening experience.

Save Yourself by Kelly Braffet

9780385347341Save Yourself by Kelly Braffet
Published by Crown, an imprint of Random House
Review copy provided by TLC Book Tours

Patrick Cusimano is not having an easy time of things as he enters his mid-twenties: he works the overnight shift at a shady convenience store, his father is in jail for murder, and suddenly he is finding himself obsessing over his older brother’s live-in girlfriend, Caro. In addition, seventeen-year-old goth girl Layla Elshere has decided to become his friend, a fact that Patrick knows is probably wrong (due to the age difference) but for whatever reason, he can’t shake this girl.

Layla’s younger sister, Verna, is having a terrible first year of high school – her older sister’s deviant ways and her parents’ ultra-conservative Christian teachings have combined to make Verna the most prime target for the bullies at her school. Unable to cope with the awful treatment Verna receives, she decides to get in with Layla’s circle of friends, and unfortunately she learns a bit too late that Layla’s choices are far darker than Verna had imagined. When Verna finally decides to disentangle herself from the group, things go from bad to much, much worse.

I was looking forward to reading this book because I thought it would be dark and twisty, exploring the relationships between these characters and their choices in a way that would be compulsively readable. I definitely got what I was looking for, but I have to tell you that Save Yourself was MUCH darker, and way twistier, than I had bargained for.

The thing about this book is that the characters are way f*ed up. WAY. Patrick is such a sad excuse for an adult – he has an awful-paying job that he hates, is forced to live with his brother (who has just as awful a job, which he also hates), and is basically letting the fact that his dad is in jail ruin his life. He is just an unhappy person who is simply existing, walking through life rather than actually living it.

Layla and Verna are also pretty messed-up, and a lot of that is due to their parents, which honestly is really sad. Layla was a “good kid” for a long time, until an extremely publicized incident made her turn completely the other direction. And Verna just made me so depressed – she wanted to follow her parents’ rules and do the right thing, but she was so tortured, so harassed, bullied so horribly, that the only thing she could think to do was to follow her sister’s lead. After all, Layla didn’t get bullied because she was a bad ass – so Verna thought she could do the same.

Reading Save Yourself is like watching a car wreck in slow motion – you know things are going to be absolutely horrific, there’s no possible way it can end well, but you just can’t look away and you HAVE to see how it all unfolds. There’s this huge sense of danger that you can literally feel as you read the book, this feeling that NO WAY can things possibly end up okay, and yet when you get to the final pages it’s still an incredibly shocking moment. One you think you will see coming, but really, it’s not possible to imagine this ending. It’s part genius, part crazy.

I definitely appreciated this novel but it was a little more than I was expecting. Things get really heavy, creepy in an insane way, and I just wasn’t expecting THIS. I would absolutely recommend Save Yourself for those who like thrillers, books with that “creep factor”, and if you can deal with the wild ride Braffet takes you on, books with well-drawn characters and great writing. Because Save Yourself has all of these things and more. I don’t know that I can say I liked the book, exactly, but my appreciation level for it is extremely high. Does that make sense?

The Next Time You See Me by Holly Goddard Jones

The Next Time You See MeThe Next Time You See Me by Holly Goddard Jones
Published by Touchstone, an imprint of Simon & Schuster

The small town where Ronnie Eastman lived isn’t altered too much by her disappearance, but the situation does seem to have a ripple effect on a few people’s lives. Ronnie’s sister, Susanna, a teacher who is unhappy in her marriage but passionate about her daughter and students, becomes fixated on Ronnie’s disappearance and obsessed with finding her, despite the fact that Ronnie’s always been quite unpredictable and could have very easily just run off somewhere. Tony, former baseball star turned police detective with a long-ago connection to Susanna, takes the case and begins to hunt for clues right alongside Susanna. Emily is an incredibly unpopular thirteen-year-old whose fascinating discovery is just about to change her life. And Wyatt, a solitary guy who works at one of the town’s factories, decides to indulge in a rare night out with the guys and is surprised to find himself falling for a woman he meets there. These people seemingly have nothing in common, but they are connected to one another in ways they cannot begin to imagine.

I’ve been hearing good things about The Next Time You See Me for several months now, so when I saw the author’s name on the list of UCF Book Festival authors, I thought it was the perfect time to pick up this novel I’d already been interested in reading. Overall this book didn’t disappoint – it was suspenseful, held my interest, and I engaged fully with the characters while reading it – and the experience definitely made me look forward to seeing Holly Goddard Jones in April.

While this novel centers around the fact that Ronnie is missing, it’s more about the four main characters than anything else. Each has a unique point of view and each one of them is connected to Ronnie in some way – although we don’t find out how exactly until the very end, in some cases – and I loved getting to know each of them and figuring out how their stories were all interconnected.

Of the four main characters, I definitely felt the strongest connection to Susanna. I felt deeply for her, as she was struggling in her marriage, yet still focused on being the best teacher and mother she could be. I empathized with her desires to have everything she wanted in life, and felt torn for her when she couldn’t decide what to do about her dissolving marriage. I can’t exactly condone some of her actions, but at the same time I can’t say I blame her for the choices she made either. She was also the only person in this entire novel who gave a damn about the fact that Ronnie was gone. Nobody else seemed to think anything of it, but that sisterly connection, that women’s intuition if you will, told her something wasn’t right. And she didn’t give up, not for one minute, until she figured out what was going on. I admired that about her character.

What I liked a lot about this novel was the way each character’s piece of the story was completely different, yet they came together brilliantly and seamlessly in the end. Jones weaved everything together just so, and just when the reader was convinced of how things would work out, she threw just a little curve ball – not the kind of manipulative ending I don’t enjoy, but just enough of a twisty ending to make you go, “ahhh, now I get it.”

I truly enjoyed The Next Time You See Me and can solidly recommend the novel. While not a typical thriller, it has plenty of twists and turns to keep the reader’s interest, while also containing a well-developed and interesting cast of characters. I really liked this one.

White Horse by Alex Adams

White HorseWhite Horse by Alex Adams
Published by Atria, an imprint of Simon &  Schuster
Review copy provided by the publisher via NetGalley

Zoe was just plugging along in her life, slaving away as a janitor at Pope Pharmaceuticals, when the virus that infected most of the world’s population took root in her city. Since that time, she’s had to navigate a world that has basically ended, and what little of the world is left is nothing like what it used to be. Desperately holding on to her last shreds of humanity, Zoe sets off on a journey of survival.

White Horse has been compared to a lot of great post-apocalyptic reads – most notably, The Road – and I have to say that while this novel didn’t quite live up to the hype for me, there were a lot of elements of the novel that I did really enjoy.

First of all, Adams made me want to root for Zoe from the very start. She was, quite simply, a very ordinary person who lived a boring life before this mysterious disease took over the world, but she became incredibly tough and kick-ass once she had to fight for her own survival every day. I loved the way Adams went back and forth from the time before the disease hit and after, because it gave the reader a super close look into Zoe’s personality and I felt that I got to know her on such an intimate and true level. She felt so real to me and I just wanted desperately for things to work out for her.

As for the events in the book, there are some things in White Horse that made me cringe, some things that made me want to throw up, some things that made me cheer in victory for Zoe, and some things that broke my heart. My emotions were all over the place while reading the book and I did like that aspect of the novel. I never knew what to expect.

I do have to admit that White Horse doesn’t come close to the fantastic-ness that is The Road, even though this is a solid novel it doesn’t compete to a classic such as The Road, a book I absolutely loved. Adams has really lovely, poetic prose, packed with metaphors and beautiful language, and while the writing was enjoyable to read it was a bit distracting from everything else this book had to offer. Yes, the writing is gorgeous, but I’m just not sure how well the style of the writing fit in with the overall dark, sad atmosphere of the events in the novel.

So, there were a lot of elements I liked about White Horse. Unfortunately, I didn’t love the book, but that doesn’t mean I won’t pick up the sequel – I definitely will. I liked Zoe, was interested in where Adams took this story, and was captivated by much of what happened here. While the writing was a bit strange and other elements weren’t exactly perfect, I can still recommend this unique post-apocalyptic thriller.

The Uninvited by Liz Jensen

The UninvitedThe Uninvited by Liz Jensen
Published by Bloomsbury USA
Review copy provided by the publisher via NetGalley

Hesketh Lock is an anthropologist investigating a scandal in the Taiwan timber industry. Shockingly, his contact in Taiwan dies suddenly at the same time that Hesketh learns of a series of bizarre murders back home of children killing their parents and caretakers. Unable to connect well with other people due to his Asperger’s Syndrome, Hesketh does have a close relationship with his stepson, Freddy, and when Freddy starts acting strangely Hesketh knows he must turn his investigation towards these horrific acts being committed by children. Hesketh will do anything to protect Freddy from whatever is happening to these kids, but he might just lose everything else in the process.

I was SO intrigued by this book when I started reading it! I was even more intrigued by the fact that I couldn’t figure out what the heck was going on, but deep down I felt confident that Jensen would clear everything up for me eventually, so I relaxed myself and settled in for the ride.

What I really enjoyed about The Uninvited was that it was a thriller, very focused on plot, but still Jensen really gets the reader into the head of the main character, Hesketh, and therefore gives the reader the opportunity to get to know him and truly care about him. The situation between he and Freddy’s mom was heartbreaking to me and it hurt me deeply to understand that Hesketh was being kept from seeing Freddy, so this kid had a father figure who truly loved him, yet he was kept from experiencing that love. That human element of this otherwise incredibly strange, twisted, but thrilling story is what really kept me tethered to the book and held my interest.

And strange and twisted are perfect words to describe this book. Children were killing their parents in horrific, disgusting, beyond disturbing ways. SO creepy! But I have to admit that I was interested by this – it certainly kept me turning the pages, desperate to find out what on earth could have possessed these children to act so, well, possessed! Scary.

Unfortunately, the ending really disappointed me and I’m not sure I can get over that. I won’t give anything away, but it wasn’t clear enough to me, I didn’t feel any solid answers were given (that I can accept, anyway) and I was left with a horrible empty feeling that I don’t think I can forget. While the book showed lots of promise, ultimately the ending ruined it for me.

The Uninvited is definitely a thrill ride that will appeal to lots of readers because of the personal, human element of the relationship between Hesketh and his stepson. While the ending, for me, was so disastrous to cancel out most of the good feelings I had about the book, other readers may disagree so I would still encourage you to pick up the novel and decide for yourself. This was an interesting read, to say the least!

Cover of Snow by Jenny Milchman

From the Hardcover editionCover of Snow by Jenny Milchman
Published by Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House
Review copy received at SIBA

Nora Hamilton wakes up one cold, snowy morning in her home in the Adirondacks to find her husband, Brendan, absent from their bed. A careful search of their house leads Nora to the shocking discovery that he has committed suicide, leaving her devastated and asking the obvious question of “why?” In the haze of her grief, Nora devotes herself to the task of answering that very question. She is beyond surprised to learn that Brendan had kept many secrets from her, and as she begins unraveling the secrets of her husband’s life, she learns that his past is inexorably tied to the secrets of the small town she calls home.

I have to be upfront about something here, and that is that I met Jenny Milchman at SIBA this past September and I absolutely adored her. Which is why it breaks my heart to have to write about Cover of Snow because … well, I thought overall it was unsuccessful. I can definitely appreciate what she was trying to do with this novel, but unfortunately it just didn’t work for me.

The novel starts out with a bang, as Nora wakes from a peaceful, but dead-to-the-world slumber to find Brendan missing, and the concept is certainly promising, and when she finds her husband hanging, dead, I was definitely excited by where Milchman was going to take this strong start to the story and how she would run with it. It does get rocky from there, however, when Nora quickly learns some major facts about her husband’s life he had kept secret from her, as she learns them in very coincidental, incredibly improbable ways, and rather quickly following the discovery of her husband.

After the first 75 pages or so, I became hopeful for the novel to change my initial opinion (and skepticism) as things begin to pick up and the mystery started to become more interesting and mysterious. I found myself trying to figure out what was really going on in this small town, what was behind the facade of the perfect police department, and why on earth did Brendan have such a difficult and hostile relationship with his mother. I also found myself charmed by Nora’s relationship with her sister, Teggie, and while they went through something of a rough patch over the course of the novel, I liked the sisterhood dynamic, as it’s something I can relate to myself.

And to be honest, I was even somewhat impressed with the way Milchman resolved everything – the answers Nora found took a turn I wasn’t expecting and I did find creative. However, overall the beginning was really rough, the middle felt entirely too long, and there were so many aspects of the book I was trying to overlook because of how much I enjoyed the author and wanted desperately to like the book. The writing was clunky, the characters didn’t seem fully realized or at all complex, and the book didn’t always travel logically from point A to point B. I found myself confused a few times, lost by a discovery Nora made that didn’t make a ton of sense, and I couldn’t discern what anybody’s motivations were for much of anything until the absolute end.

I’m sad to write this because as I said earlier, Jenny Milchman is awesome! But sometimes books just don’t work for me, and this was one of those times. While the novel showed promise at certain points throughout, overall Cover of Snow was disappointing to me.

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

From the Trade Paperback editionSharp Objects by Gillian Flynn
Published by Broadway, an imprint of Random House

Camille Parker is a cutter. In order to deal with the pain of losing her sister when she was young, and of dealing with her unstable mother, as a child Camille began cutting words into her flesh and didn’t stop until her recent stay at a psych hospital. Camille is a reporter, and when a series of violent crimes takes over the town where she grew up, Camille has no choice but to move back into her childhood home for a period of time in an attempt to boost her career by getting a first-hand look at these murders. Unfortunately, the time spent at her mother’s home is about to undo all the healing she did at the psych hospital, as nothing is normal in this household and all the old wounds Camille thought she pushed away begin coming back to the surface, just as painful as ever.

I cannot BELIEVE I just discovered Gillian Flynn this year when she’s been publishing these insanely gritty books for years! This is her first novel, and while I have to admit that you can tell it’s a first novel, especially compared to her other two, it was still pretty great.

The way that Flynn creates these horribly dysfunctional, creepy characters, and then uses the most amazingly TRUE descriptions for them, it’s just something you have to experience for yourself to understand. I’ve not read any other author that does such a thing in the specific way that Flynn does it. And even though her main characters are never likable you find yourself caring about them, wanting them to become likable, wanting them to become someone you, as a person reading and loving their story, can be proud of. It’s hard to explain but easy to understand once you have read one of her books.

SO much of this book was creepy times twelve. But somehow Flynn makes it all work. And while Sharp Objects was slightly more predictable than her first two, she still throws some stuff at the reader that absolutely NO ONE can expect. It’s pure talent this woman has, I’m telling you.

Read Gillian Flynn’s books! The great thing is that her three books have nothing to do with each other, so you can read them in whatever order you want. They are each awesome in their own unique ways. I can’t wait for her to write another one.