Hex Hall by Rachel Hawkins

Hex Hall by Rachel Hawkins
Published by Hyperion Books

Sixteen-year-old Sophie Mercer just learned three years ago that she is a witch. Her mother, a non-witch, has been as supportive as possible, while at the same time refusing to give Sophie any information about the warlock father she’s never met. When Sophie casts a love spell for a friend that goes horribly wrong, she’s sent to Hecate Hall, a reform school for witches, faeries, and shapeshifters. In her first week at Hex Hall, she’s made enemies with the most popular girls in school, befriended the only vampire there, and developed a crush on a seriously off-limits warlock. But there’s danger at Hex Hall – someone or something is attacking the students – and her best friend is the main suspect.

I had lunch with Sandy and Heather last week and they inspired me to feature a Halloween-themed book for today’s post – the only problem was, I had to read one first! So I knew I needed something light and fun that I could read quickly, but also something with that creepy Halloween factor, and Hex Hall turned out to be the perfect choice. I flew through the book, enjoyed every minute of it, and what could be more Halloweenish than a school full of witches, faeries, werewolves, and vampires?

I’m sort of over the whole paranormal/supernatural YA trend, but Hex Hall is so different from lots of other books in that genre in that it’s got a lighter style to it – it feels more YA and less supernatural, if that makes sense. Sophie is the kind of character the reader can easily get on board with – she’s realistic and very likable. I had a lot of compassion for her as she tried to navigate this world, completely new to her, without the aid of either parent. There’s one point in the book where she has a total breakdown after learning that there is a LOT she doesn’t know about her past or about what she’s really capable of as a witch, and I felt for her deeply. At the same time, Sophie is really funny and clever, and the novel had me laughing out loud on more than one occasion.

Hawkins took Hex Hall in a direction I wasn’t expecting, and the ending was the perfect set up for the sequel, Demonglass, which I will be reading soon. I loved the plot of the book because it always kept me guessing and Hawkins tossed in several surprises which made the story even better.

I definitely recommend Hex Hall. It’s certainly not the most serious of novels, but it’s really fun and totally engaging. I loved it!

Happy Halloween!

Cross Currents by John Shors

Cross CurrentsCross Currents by John Shors
Published by NAL Trade, an imprint of Penguin
Review copy provided by the author

Lek and Sarai, a married couple who make their living by owning a small resort on Thailand’s Ko Phi Phi island, are happy to provide their new American friend Patch with room and board in exchange for his help around the resort. But Patch has a secret – he’s running from the law – and when his brother Ryan arrives, along with Ryan’s girlfriend Brooke, Lek realizes that Patch’s presence in his life puts his family at risk. While Ryan attempts to convince Patch to come back to the states and confess to his crime, Brooke questions her love for Ryan as she begins to develop feelings for his brother.

I’ve been meaning to read a John Shors novel for what feels like forever, and I’m so glad that I finally sat down with Cross Currents. There were so many things that I really enjoyed about this book, and now I can see why so many bloggers have raved about Shors’ work!

What I loved most about this novel was the way Shors crafted the relationships between the characters. The importance of family was probably the most glaring theme throughout the novel and there were several different family dynamics going on here. There was Lek and Sarai with their three children, Patch and Ryan and all the history between them, and Brooke and Ryan were their own little family as well. I love reading about families with long and complicated histories, with intricacies that are not obvious upon first glance, and Shors definitely gave that to me with these characters. Lek and Sarai were the most adorable, solid couple – they loved and supported each other through everything, while at the same time they had their disagreements too. Ryan and Patch, while brothers, were extremely different people and although their long history pulled them together their huge differences of opinion pulled them apart at times. So it was interesting to see how they were able to navigate one another throughout the book. And it certainly didn’t make their fractured relationship any easier when Brooke got involved.

I have to say, though, that relationships between characters could not possibly be engaging if the characters themselves are not written well – so of course Shors wrote compelling, interesting characters here who I truly wanted to get to know. I genuinely liked each of them – it was clear to me that each individual had good points and bad, and their failures and setbacks were compensated by the fact that they were all good people with good intentions. Even Ryan, who I saw as a sort of jerk most of the time, clearly was just trying to do the right thing for his brother.

As you have probably already guessed, based on the setting of the book, the plot culminates with the tsunami of 2004 that ravaged Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, and of course Thailand. These scenes brought tears to my eyes as I watched the characters I’d fallen in love with battle the wall of water that surrounded them. Although it was difficult to read about this, Shors managed to close the book on a hopeful note and I was left feeling satisfied with how he ended things.

Clearly, I loved Cross Currents and would highly recommend the novel. I definitely plan to read more of John Shors’ work in the near future!

Everything We Ever Wanted by Sara Shepard

Everything We Ever Wanted by Sara Shepard
Published by Harper Paperbacks, an imprint of HarperCollins
Review copy provided by the publisher in conjunction with TLC Book Tours

The Bates-McAllister family is shaken by the news that one of them may be implicated in the death of a local high school boy. Scott, who was adopted into the family at age two and as a result has always felt like the outcast, is the one potentially connected to the death as the coach of the boy’s wrestling team. His older brother Charles is inspired by this scandal to dredge up memories from his past he’d long kept buried. Charles’ wife, Joanna, begins to see the Bates-McAllister family (a family she’d always dreamed of being a part of) in a completely different light. And Scott and Charles’ mother, Sylvie, is as unmoored as possible – since the death of her husband a few months prior she hadn’t been the same, and this scandal has left her feeling scared and helpless. This whole family must confront their shared past and long-hidden secrets in order to stay together throughout the challenges they are now facing.

I know that Sara Shepard is known for her YA novels, and  while I enjoyed The Lying Game (the book) and love Pretty Little Liars (the TV show), I fell in love with Shepard’s writing and characterization in her first adult novel, The Visibles. So it goes without saying that I had high hopes for Everything We Ever Wanted. Luckily, I got exactly what I was expecting with this novel and more. As I had anticipated, Shepard is a master at creating flawed but likable characters and her writing is such a pleasure to take in. I put myself on a huge time crunch to finish this book (my own procrastination plus the fact that life just got in the way) and I easily and happily finished it in the one sitting I allowed myself. Everything We Ever Wanted was everything I ever wanted (pun intended, and yes I’m feeling a bit silly today).

There were many things I loved about this novel, but the most important would have to be the characters. Everything We Ever Wanted is more character-driven than plot-driven (although there is a distinct plot, don’t get me wrong) and the characters were extremely well thought-out. I felt that I understood each one of them intimately, and while they were all flawed and sometimes didn’t have the best intentions or made the best choices, I felt a deep compassion for what they were each going through individually. I would have to say that the character I connected with the least was Charles, but towards the end I felt for him a little bit more – there were some major secrets people in his life were keeping from him and I think his personality would have been much different had he been privy to some of that knowledge. I latched onto Scott from the beginning. He actually reminded me of a very close family member, and as I was reading the novel I felt that he was a tortured soul, misunderstood and judged by his family and most everyone else in his lifed. The two women in the story – Joanna and Sylvie – definitely resonated with me as well, in different ways, and while Shepard painted them both as being blind to certain things, they were highly intelligent and capable women and I was able to respect both of them.

While the characters of this novel were the huge sticking point for me, the plot of Everything We Ever Wanted was very engaging and kept me guessing. I had a pretty good idea of how Scott was involved in the student’s death, and I ended up being right, but the bigger plot points were the family secrets that didn’t surface until the end of the book. Shepard created a nice balance between dropping hints to the reader as to the truths in the Bates-McAllister family’s past and keeping things pretty hidden from the reader (and most of the characters) until the very end. I definitely had my own ideas about what would be revealed in the end, but Shepard still kept me guessing. I liked that quite a bit.

The last thing I want to touch on is the writing. I really enjoyed reading Shepard’s writing in Everything We Ever Wanted – it isn’t over the top, showy, or flowery by any means, but it is beautiful in its own way. It propels the plot along nicely but also inspired an emotional reaction from me.

I highly recommend Everything We Ever Wanted. I loved so much about this book and if you are not a fan of YA novels, please don’t discount Sara Shepard as an author! While her YA series are extremely popular and very well done, her adult novels are completely different from those and absolutely excellent. Give this author a try!

Holy Ghost Girl by Donna Johnson

Holy Ghost GirlHoly Ghost Girl by Donna Johnson
Published by Gotham Books, an imprint of Penguin
Review copy provided by the publisher in conjunction with TLC Book Tours

When Donna Johnson was just a toddler, her mother began working with travelling preacher David Terrell as the organist at his church. Soon after joining the church, Donna and her family became prominent members of Terrell’s inner circle. As the evangelical preacher/faith healer’s popularity increased, so too did his life style – what was once broken-down cars and trailer homes turned into Mercedes, airplanes, and luxurious houses. Johnson saw the best and the worst of Terrell and his church, and in this memoir she gives an insider’s view of what life was really like for those who believed in Brother Terrell.

Holy Ghost Girl is one of the most engrossing, compulsive memoirs I’ve read in a long time. I am completely fascinated by the type of evangelism Johnson grew up experiencing, and reading about it from an insider’s perspective definitely added a layer to my fascination and interest in the subject.

I have to say, this book caused me to feel some seriously strong emotions. As Terrell’s popularity increased, Johnson’s mother spent more and more time on the road with him, and in so doing she left Donna and her younger brother with several different families over the years. Several of these families were cruel to the children, even abusive in some cases. This honestly just made my blood boil. I was so angry at Johnson’s mother for abandoning her children in that way – I just cannot comprehend how a parent can do that, and especially when she barely knew most of the people she left the kids with. And the abuse that Johnson and her brother suffered, particularly in one home, was absolutely horrific. It made me so mad and I have to say that I have a very difficult time understanding how someone who claims to be a man of God or woman of God can do that to children. Horrible beyond comprehension.

The most enjoyable aspect about Holy Ghost Girl, for me, was getting a peek at a culture that I admittedly don’t understand even a little bit. I don’t get the whole faith healing thing, I don’t get the hours-long sermons, and I certainly don’t get the way children were treated in this “Christian” environment. I say that in quotations because I am a Christian and no Christian I know would treat kids the way Brother Terrell and his followers did. Brother Terrell certainly seemed to be a charismatic guy, and based on the way Johnson described him and his preaching I can sort of understand how people would be drawn to hear what he has to say. Especially with the faith healing – if you actually believe he is anointed by God to perform miracles, wouldn’t you want those miracles performed on you and your loved ones? I know I would. So it was definitely illuminating to see how he was behind the scenes and the true personality that he had in real life, when not preaching.

I have to say, though, that the ending of Holy Ghost Girl left me wanting. With these types of memoirs, I like to see the author have either personal growth or some kind of revelation, and I simply didn’t see any of that in this book. I was almost left wondering why she wrote the book in the first place. Was she trying to expose the hidden world of tent evangelism? Was she trying to explore aspects of her own childhood? Was she trying to show how she was impacted or changed by her experiences? I honestly am not sure, and for me these questions left me somewhat uncomfortable. When I finish a memoir thinking to myself, “so what?” it’s not really a good thing.

All that being said, I did enjoy Holy Ghost Girl quite a bit and would definitely recommend it. I know many other readers have not had the same issues I had with the ending, so please take my opinions with a grain of salt. This memoir is completely fascinating and compulsively readable and if you enjoy these types of books or are interested in the subject matter like I am, I would definitely suggest you read it.

The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth by Alexandra Robbins

The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth by Alexandra Robbins
Published by Hyperion

Alexandra Robbins follows seven high school students in seven different cities for one year in order to examine the psychology behind popularity. She shows how the characteristics that make people outcasts in high school are the exact same characteristics that cause them to be successful and interesting later in life. Halfway through the year, she surprises each student with a challenge that will force them to go outside of their comfort zones and challenge the status quo of their schools. Throughout the book, Robbins deftly weaves the narratives of these students with essays exploring many of the issues they deal with.

THIS is the type of nonfiction I go crazy for. I absolutely love these kinds of books, exploring the psychology or sociology of a particular issue, especially one I personally care about. In high school, I wasn’t an outcast by any means but I certainly wasn’t “popular” either. So I totally get how bullying and that type of behavior are serious problems in our schools, and Robbins not only goes in detail about how this affects high school students, but also gives actual solutions that parents, students, and schools can put into place.

Just as in Robbins’ two previous books (The Overachievers and Pledged – both of which I enjoyed tremendously) she does a fantastic job in this book balancing the stories from the people she’s following with facts and essays to prove the point she’s making. As a result, the book is extremely easy to read, not heavy at all. The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth would be a great choice for those who don’t typically read nonfiction for that reason. I have to say, also, that these seven people she followed made their way into my heart. Just like when reading a novel, I cared about these characters and truly hoped that things would work out in their favor – only they aren’t characters, they are real people, and that makes caring about them even more emotional. I connected to these students in a way that is very hard to do with nonfiction.

I have to say that Robbins makes some very poignant observations and important findings in this book. I would have to agree with her initial belief that many of the most successful and interesting people in the world today were outcasts in high school. I appreciate the fact that she explored the why behind this but also that she provided some ways for parents, students, and schools to fix this. Nobody should feel as horrible about themselves as some of these students did, and while parents can certainly play a part in remedying this, schools have a lot of power to fix this too. For that reason, I think The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth is an important book for parents and educators to read. I would even go so far as to say that every person who works in a high school should pick up this book.

The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth is an incredibly readable, interesting, and most of all important book that I highly recommend. Alexandra Robbins is truly fantastic at what she does and with this book she has impressed me once again.

What the Dead Know by Laura Lippman

What the Dead Know by Laura Lippman
Published by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins

After getting in a car accident and ending up in the hospital, a thirtysomething woman with no ID is subject to intense questioning by both the police and the hospital staff. Eventually she reveals that she is the younger of the two Bethany girls, sisters who disappeared and were presumed dead thirty years ago. As soon as the woman explains who she is, she stops giving details, leaving the lead detective on her case, Kevin Infante, in disbelief about her story. As Kevin untangles her story and the mystery of what really happened to the Bethany girls, the reader is treated to an exciting journey towards finding out the truth behind this mysterious woman and her past.

Would you believe I’d never read a Laura Lippman novel until now? I’d heard that her writing style is similar to Tana French (who I absolutely adore), so I knew that eventually I’d be reading her books. I had the opportunity to listen to What the Dead Know, and overall I was pleased with the experience.

Laura Lippman definitely has a knack for crafting a creepy, atmospheric mystery. I was kept on the edge of my seat for the majority of the time I was listening to this novel and I really wasn’t sure where the book was going to take me. I loved the suspense Lippman created and I also liked what she ended up doing with the story. It was interesting enough and a unique enough concept so that I wasn’t expecting a lot of what happened.

I have to caution you, though, if you are a fan of Tana French and want to compare the two authors (like I did) – just don’t. Lippman is a good writer and this book had a well-crafted mystery, but this book doesn’t quite measure up to the genius of French’s novels, in my opinion. So you’re best going in not expecting that type of novel. Just enjoy what Lippman does deliver and you won’t be disappointed.

One aspect of What the Dead Know that didn’t totally work for me was the characters. They weren’t written poorly or anything, but I simply didn’t connect to any of them how I would have liked. Perhaps this is because I listened to the audiobook instead of reading it in print, but I just didn’t form an emotional connection with anybody in the book, even the main character. This fact didn’t hamper my enjoyment of the novel too much, as I still found myself engaged in the mystery, but I think I would have loved the novel had I really connected with one or more of the characters.

Overall, I quite enjoyed What the Dead Know for what it is – an engaging and well-crafted mystery that held my interest throughout. I didn’t love the characters, but don’t let that stop you from reading the book as it really is well-written and the mystery is unique and expertly crafted. Laura Lippman is an author I will definitely be on the lookout for in the future.

Summer in the South by Cathy Holton

From the Hardcover editionSummer in the South by Cathy Holton
Published by Bellantine Books, an imprint of Random House
Review copy provided by the author

Chicago-based writer Ava accepts an offer from her college friend Will to spend a summer at his aunts’ home in Tennessee. She plans to take the summer to really work on her novel without the distractions she typically deals with over the course of her “normal” life. The Southern town where Will’s elderly aunts live is a whole different world from the one Ava’s used to, and she soon discovers that Will’s family has an intricate history with many unanswered questions – the kind of family drama that would make great fodder for a novel. But as she peels back the layers of his family’s past, she realizes that most of the members of this family would rather some secrets remain buried forever.

Summer in the South is an absolutely perfect title for this wonderfully sweet novel, as the book details one heck of an interesting summer for the main character, Ava. The book is just dripping with Southern-isms, from the over-the-top perfect manners to the five o’clock “Toddy Time” that Will’s family holds every evening. I have to say that the novel instantly transported me to Tennessee and I enjoyed every minute I spent there.

One thing I enjoyed about Summer in the South is that it isn’t just one type of novel. It would best be categorized as “women’s fiction” but there is more to it than just one woman’s story. There is a touch of romance, there is a touch of mystery, and it’s all wrapped up in a well-written, well-constructed package. I particularly enjoyed the mystery aspect of the novel, it had me guessing the entire time and I desperately wanted to understand the story behind Will’s family history. It really kept me engaged. In fact, I must admit that Summer in the South reminded me quite a bit of a Karen White novel, and that is a huge compliment because I absolutely adore her books.

The characters in this novel were very well-drawn, and I liked Ava immediately. There was a bit of a push-pull thing going on with Will and Ava and while I’m not sure I like how that ended up, it made me more interested in their characters for sure. I couldn’t figure out if they were going to get together or not, and the suspense of that really kept my attention. The aunts were very well-created and they were the quintessential Southern older ladies – just a delight to read about. I actually found all of these characters interesting and engaging.

I would definitely recommend Summer in the South for a well-written and interesting Southern novel with great characters. Cathy Holton is a talented storyteller and I really admire what she’s done here.

Falling for Me by Anna David

Falling for Me: How I Hung Curtains, Learned to Cook, Traveled to Seville, and Fell in Love by Anna David
Published by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins
Review copy provided by the publisher in conjunction with TLC Book Tours

At the age of 35, Anna David had begun to wonder if her choice of putting her career before finding love was the right one. When she comes across the book Sex and the Single Girl, written in the sixties by Helen Gurley Brown, she connects to the message immediately and decides to use Gurley Brown’s advice as a sort of road map for her life. She embarks on a personal journey to make over her life – learning skills she’d never before attempted such as cooking, dressing well, and decorating her apartment – as well as conquering her biggest fears in life. Along the way, David attempts to find the perfect guy to share her new and improved life with, but the person she ends up falling in love with is herself.

In the same vein as Eat, Pray, Love or The Happiness Project, Falling for Me is a quirky but fun memoir about one woman’s journey to self-acceptance and eventually truly feeling at peace in her own skin. The road she takes to get there is full of hilarious moments and devastating setbacks but through it all, Anna David does persevere. Reading her story was an enjoyable experience as she is funny, fun, and ultimately very relatable.

It’s important, for me personally, that when I read these types of memoirs I need to actually like the personality of the author. Otherwise, I end up feeling irritated with their entire story and resent having to read it. Luckily, in the case of Falling for Me, I really did find Anna David to be an interesting person and a woman with whom I could relate. While I am happily married, I could relate to many of her insecurities about herself personally and to her issues with her self-esteem. I too have to fight the running dialogue in my head that tells me I’m not smart enough, good enough, pretty enough, etc. (as I think many women do), and while my issue is not in searching for that perfect person I do relate to the issue of loving the parts of myself that are less than ideal. I related quite a bit to David’s struggle to accept the things about herself that she didn’t love but are simply part of her personality or background or upbringing or whatever. I have to say, though, that some readers might find David’s constant negative self-talk annoying, but I totally got it. Aspects of her personality reminded me of myself, so I connected to her easily, which helped me to enjoy her story.

All of the above rambling is to say that I really did enjoy Falling for Me. I liked that although Anna David certainly wanted to find the perfect man for her, the point of her quest was not to find another person, but to find herself. I liked that she is funny and was easy for me to relate to. Her writing is very well done, easy to follow, and the book moves smoothly from chapter to chapter (something I don’t always find to be the case with memoirs). I definitely would recommend reading Falling for Me if these kinds of memoirs are your cup of tea.

 

 

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

The Help by Kathryn Stockett
Published by Amy Einhorn Books, an imprint of Penguin

The year is 1962 and the place is Jackson, Mississippi. Aibileen is a black maid who has always accepted her lot in life as paid servant to white women, but she’s starting to have difficulty holding her tongue. Her friend Minny, always a bit more feisty than Aibileen, suddenly finds herself in a position with her employer that she could never have predicted. Along with their new friend, Skeeter, who is rich and white and runs in the same social circles as their employers, Aibileen and Minny begin to write a tell-all book about what it is really like to be a black maid in Mississippi that will change all of their lives forever.

What can I possibly say about The Help that hasn’t been said already? This book was, for me, just as wonderful as everyone told me it would be. I can’t believe I waited so long to read it! I have to say that the characterization is by far the best thing about this novel. The characters felt completely real to me, and in fact I wanted to get to know them even better. I admired the courage Aibileen, Minnie, and Skeeter had for standing up to the standard of their time, and I rooted for the three of them the entire way through. Even the “bad” characters were written so well to the point where I completely believed them. And each character was uniquely complex and interesting – these were fully layered, complete individuals and bravo to Stockett for crafting such a fantastic cast of characters.

I feel like there’s not much point in writing a proper review for The Help because basically everyone else has already read and loved it. Allow me to assure you that, if for some reason you haven’t yet read the book, it is just as fabulous as everyone says it is. I absolutely loved this novel, every single thing about it, and can very highly recommend it.

Bossypants by Tina Fey

BossypantsBossypants by Tina Fey
Published by Hachette Audio, an imprint of Hachette

Even as a little girl, Tina Fey always dreamed of being a comedian. Now that her dreams have come true, the creator of 30 Rock and long time Saturday Night Live writer is ready to tell her story. Fey takes the reader on a journey through her childhood and through her career as she details the ups and downs of being a woman in a man’s world. Along with this is her signature witty commentary on motherhood, Hollywood beauty standards, being Sarah Palin, and more.

I loved watching Tina Fey when she was on SNL and I’ve been a fan of the show 30 Rock since its inception, so I was really looking forward to reading Bossypants when I first heard about it. When I heard from another blogger that Fey narrates the audio herself, I was sold on the audiobook. I popped it in my car during a recent mini road trip, and that was the perfect choice because the book kept me laughing out loud for the entirety of my boring drive. Tina Fey is completely awesome and I loved listening to her read Bossypants.

So much of what Fey said in this book was not only entertaining, but insightful as well. She discussed being a woman in comedy (traditionally a man’s world), being a working mother, and what it was like to impersonate Sarah Palin, as well as many more hilariously funny stories from her life. While I have to admit that I would have been happy with a little more depth to what Fey was discussing, I still enjoyed the balance between honesty and humor. Her stories were funny while at the same time actually meaning something. It was a nice balance.

I definitely would recommend getting Bossypants in audio if you are planning to read it because the transcript from her skit with Amy Poehler on SNL (with Fey playing Palin and Poehler playing Hillary Clinton) is on the audio in its entirety. So funny! I really loved listening to it, even though I watched it on TV at the time, it reminded me of how hilarious these two women were together.

Bossypants is a fabulous book by the amazingly intelligent and hysterical Tina Fey, and I highly recommend it.