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.

In the Land of Believers: An Outsider’s Extraordinary Journey into the Heart of the Evangelical Church by Gina Welch

In the Land of Believers: An Outsider's Extraordinary Journey into the Heart of the Evangelical ChurchIn the Land of Believers: An Outsider’s Extraordinary Journey into the Heart of the Evangelical Church by Gina Welch
Published by Metropolitan Books

Gina Welch, who grew up without serious religion of any kind but technically considered herself Jewish, decided to spend two years immersing herself in Evangelical Christianity. She chose to spend that time at Thomas Road Baptist Church (Jerry Falwell’s church) and did everything from regular Sunday service to joining the singles groups to going on a mission trip and everything in between. What she found was both surprising and enlightening.

Before I talk about my thoughts on this book, let me explain my own personal beliefs and where I was coming from when I decided to read it. You all know I’m Christian, right? But I’m not Baptist, nor am I a huge fan (or any kind of fan actually) of Jerry Falwell and his hateful ways. I think Christianity – and religion in general – should be a way to bring people together and show love, not tear people apart and preach hate at anyone who doesn’t agree or share the same “lifestyle”. I’ve been interested in this book for quite some time, mostly because I so fundamentally disagree with the kind of Christianity that Falwell represented that I was interested in seeing what his church was truly like, from an outsider coming into it.

Overall I found almost exactly what I expected in this book. Welch surprises herself by learning that most of the Christians she met and became quite close friends with are actually incredibly wonderful, kind, caring people. This was probably the aspect of the book I enjoyed the most – the fact that she was going into this expecting the people of this church to be some “other” that she couldn’t understand or relate to, but in fact she mostly found the opposite. She found evangelicals to be fun, interesting, basically normal people who also happened to have a relationship with God – which is of course what I hoped she would find! But I found it so refreshing that she was able to sit back and examine how her expectations of what these people would be like turned out to be wrong (in most cases).

What made me sad was when she found some things that weren’t so good about the people of the church – judgment of those different from themselves, older men insinuating that the only way Welch could be happy was to land a husband, evangelicals shoving Christianity down strangers’ throats in rude and hateful ways, Falwell using his sermons as opportunities to be political and say that those who disagree with him will go to hell, etc. This stuff made me sad, although it seemed to be more of a generational thing than anything else – the younger crowd almost never fell into any of these patterns, but the older members of the church almost always did. So that made me hopeful that as time goes on, some of this negative stuff will change. Either way, it was somewhat eye-opening to see how some of the craziest things that have been said about this church and its leader were actually true!

In the Land of Believers is an extremely well-written novel and I really admired Welch for doing what she did in order to bring the reader this piece of investigative literature. While I really enjoyed the book overall, I couldn’t help but question what Welch’s point really was. I was left, in the end, feeling a bit disappointed that she draws no real conclusions or ties things together in any kind of way. I get that she’s basically reporting to the reader what she witnessed and learned while spending two years in this church, but I am left asking “why?” Why did she spend two years of her life doing this, what did she get out of it, what does it really mean? I guess there’s no real answers to these questions but I think I’m just looking for some way for her to pull all of her experiences together and show the reader something new.

Again, I really liked this book. For a thorough examination of this particular church, it’s a fantastic choice (perhaps the only choice). And for those of you who enjoy books about different religions and these investigative memoir type reads, this is a great choice.

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.

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!