The Breakdown by B.A. Paris

The BreakdownThe Breakdown by B.A. Paris
Published by St. Martin’s Press

I picked up The Breakdown because I was really impressed with Paris’s debut novel, Behind Closed Doors, and I was hoping for a second helping of the same kind of thing. Unfortunately, I didn’t love her second novel – while I found it entertaining, I also found it predictable and the main character was obnoxious to the point of being distracting from the story itself.

The premise here is that we have Cass, who decides to take a “shortcut” home from a party one night through the woods during a bad thunderstorm. On her drive, she passes a car that looks stranded in the woods, and for a variety of reasons, she decides not to stop and help the woman who is inside the car. The next morning, she learns that the woman who was in the car was later found dead, and Cass totally freaks out about this. Unfortunately, she can’t tell anyone what she saw because her boyfriend expressly warned her not to drive through the woods, so she doesn’t want him to know that she didn’t listen, and she also doesn’t want people to know that she saw this woman stranded and chose not to help her. So she spirals into an anxious mess, thinking whoever killed this woman is out to get her, thinking the police will be after her, all kinds of crazy stuff. But when she starts getting threatening phone calls she really goes off the deep end and is convinced she’s going to be killed, too.

What I did like about the book was the pacing and structure and how it had that creepy thriller feel that kept me at the edge of my seat. And it was a super quick read. What I did not like was the character of Cass – one of the most annoying characters I’ve read in fiction in quite some time – and the fact that I had the whole thing figured out from VERY early on. In fact, I thought it was so obvious what was happening that I couldn’t understand how Cass didn’t see it, making me even more annoyed with her character.

I can kind of see why people liked this novel but it just was not for me. I would read more by this author because I like how she creates the atmospheric creepiness that I’ve seen in both of her books. But plot-wise and character-wise, for me, The Breakdown was a miss.

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Smoke by Catherine McKenzie

SmokeSmoke by Catherine McKenzie
Published by Lake Union

This is the third book by Catherine McKenzie that I’ve read in a relatively short period of time, and by now I can completely see why people like her books but I feel that they are very formulaic, and at this point, a little boring to me. This novel features a woman named Elizabeth who works as a fire investigator, and on the same night she and her husband decide to divorce, massive wildfires break out in their area and they are forced to evacuate their home. While Elizabeth works on investigating the fire and repairing her marriage at the same time, her ex-friend Mindy has decided to help the local man whose home was destroyed in the fire. As Mindy is working with the local humanitarian groups to find shelter and other necessities for this man, the fire becomes a fixture in her own home as her teenage son stands accused of having something to do with starting it.

As I was saying, McKenzie’s books can be formulaic but they are enjoyable. Smoke definitely fit that description – these women are similar to many others I’ve seen in stories like this, both from McKenzie and other authors like her, the conflicts are resolved in an appropriately happy(ish) way, and nothing super tragic happens within the novel. I found myself frustrated with both main characters in different ways, while at the same time I ended up liking them both despite their faults. Elizabeth frustrated me because she and her husband do that thing that so many couples do in books where they dance around problems and refuse to tell each other the truth, so they end up mad at each other for absolutely no reason. The most annoying kind of miscommunication, in my opinion. And Mindy was frustrating because she couldn’t see what was right in front of her face – her son was in trouble and needed her support in a major way, yet she was spending all of her time and emotional energy trying to help this random guy who she had never met before. It was kind of her to care about this man, sure, but her own son desperately needed her and she was ignoring his issues.

All of that being said, I did find the book enjoyable and it held my interest. Things were resolved essentially as I expected them to be, the world didn’t collapse, and the characters were essentially fine with things when the book ended. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that because that’s the way a lot of these kinds of books end. I don’t have any other McKenzie books on my kindle so I will likely be done reading her for now. Overall I can recommend Smoke, as I have with her other books, for those looking for something mild and entertaining.

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Exit WestExit West by Mohsin Hamid
Published by Riverhead

Nadia and Sayed meet just as their country is fracturing into a terrifying civil war, and as their love grows, their city becomes a war zone right before their eyes. When they hear rumors about doors that take people away, to somewhere far away from the chaos around them, they decide to learn more. This is the beginning of the adventure the two of them journey on together as they escape from the terrors in their hometown and find themselves in a new place every couple of months.

There is no doubt that the premise of Exit West is extremely compelling and unique; in fact the interesting premise is the exact reason I decided to pick up the book. While I enjoyed a few things about this novel, overall I was more in the camp of finding it unsuccessful than many other readers.

What I really liked about the book was the writing – it was a really cool mix of poetic and concise, telling the reader exactly what he/she needed to understand while at the same time telling the story in a beautiful way. Honestly I may have been more annoyed with the book overall if the writing hadn’t been so gorgeous. I also liked the relationship between Nadia and Sayed, especially in the beginning – I loved reading as they got to know each other, as their relationship developed from friends to dating to something much more serious. I found it fascinating how they managed to navigate their lives and their relationship despite the fact that it felt as though the world was collapsing all around them.

Ultimately my issue with the book was that I felt it was almost two separate books – did the author want to write a book about war, or did the author want to write a science fiction-y book about doors that take people to new places? I had hoped that these two concepts would come together in a way that I found cohesive, but unfortunately I didn’t personally find that to be the case. There were also some issues that I had with the later parts of Nadia and Sayed’s relationship, but I feel that these details are a bit spoiler-y so I’ll avoid the specifics.

I have to say that despite my issues with the book, I did enjoy the experience of reading it. But since the main thing I didn’t like about the book is pretty much the core of the entire thing, I find that to be pretty important. A lot of readers have loved this one, so don’t take my word for it – try it for yourself and come back to tell me what you think.

Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

Behold the DreamersBehold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue
Published by Random House Trade

Jende Jonga is a Cameroonian immigrant living in New York City who has saved enough money, by working low-paid jobs, to bring his wife, Neni, and young son to the US. With help from his cousin, who also emigrated to the US and has since found financial success, he is thrilled to get a job working as a chauffeur for an executive at Lehman brothers, Clark Edwards. Clark, his wife Cindy, and their two sons have the kind of life that Jende and Neni can only dream of. But the year is 2007, and as Lehman falls, all four of them are faced with life-altering consequences.

For many reasons, I really liked this book. The characters are authentic and real, the kind of people you would like to get to know in real life and can easily root for in fiction. The plot moves along smoothly and quickly, with major events happening at regular intervals and enough unpredictability to keep any reader’s interest. The writing is really nice – straightforward in a way that makes it impossible not to get sucked into the story. And I loved the way that Mbue portrayed the immigrant experience right alongside the experience of a rich, white couple living the “American dream” was interesting and gave a different perspective on what it must be like to live and work in the US while knowing that at any moment, the life you’re building could be taken from you (Jende wasn’t exactly in the US legally).

There is a feeling of desperation running through the entire novel that is difficult to ignore and truly made me feel deeply for these characters. Jende is desperate to make enough money to give his wife and family the life they have dreamed of in the US. Neni is desperate to escape her poverty and abusive father back home in Cameroon, and once she arrives in the US, is desperate to stay. Clark is desperate to keep his life together even as he can see that the company he is working for is crumbling, along with his marriage to Cindy. And Cindy may be the most desperate of all – desperate to put on a happy face and pretend to the world that she is in a perfect marriage and is raising perfect children, all the while desperately clinging to an ounce of sanity and stability and knowing that she is losing her husband, her oldest son in one way, and possibly her youngest son in another way.

The fact that the author made me feel so emotionally connected to these characters is by far the best thing about Behold the Dreamers. I deeply cared for everyone in the novel; even when I despised their decisions, I empathized with them and tried to understand where they were coming from. I couldn’t stop turning the pages as I hoped for a better life for all four of these adults and all of their children.

I had a difficult time with some of the plot points and I did feel that some of them were a bit contrived and created to make the story more sensationalized then it needed to be. That being said, this was an unputdownable read for me so that’s certainly saying something. While I was frustrated with some of the plot points, especially when it came to some of the preposterous choices of a few of the characters, overall I was able to look past those things and settle into what was an incredible story. For the most part, I really enjoyed this novel and highly recommend it for so many reasons.

Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner

Missing, Presumed (DS Manon, #1)Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner
Published by The Borough Press

Manon Bradshaw is a detective working on the Cambridgeshire police force, and she’s extremely devoted to her job and well-respected in her field. When beautiful, wealthy graduate student Edith Hind turns up missing for twenty-four hours, Manon and her team get to work, investigating Edith’s boyfriend, her rich and high-society parents, and her best friend, uncovering many threads that seem to be leading somewhere but turn out to be a bunch of loose ends. As the mystery of Edith’s disappearance unfolds, Manon’s personal life takes a journey of its own – she’s thirty-nine and desperately looking for a connection with that one special person, if only she could find him.

Missing, Presumed is the first novel in a planned mystery series starring detective Manon Bradshaw, and it definitely kicked the series off to a promising start. Manon is the type of heroine you can’t help but root for – she’s smart, driven, sarcastic and witty, yet she is helplessly flawed in that she can’t help desperately wanting a life that she simply has not been given. She’s so desperate for a partner, a baby, a family, that she spends nearly every minute of her non-working life obsessing over the hope that she will find “the one”. It’s hard not to feel sorry for her, while at the same time hoping she will figure out a way to be happy despite the fact that she doesn’t have the exact life she wants.

Now, the mystery. It was crafted pretty well, in my opinion. There were enough clues sprinkled throughout to keep me guessing, and I didn’t have all the pieces put together at any point throughout the book – a mark of a good mystery, if you ask me. Steiner surprised me with the ending and while I’m not sure I loved it, it was unexpected enough for me to appreciate it. I also liked how the book was written from multiple points of view – that really gave the story an extra dimension and level of complexity that I think it needed.

Overall, I enjoyed Missing, Presumed and I wouldn’t hesitate to pick up more books in this series. It’s definitely one to look out for if you like mysteries and especially those starring kick-ass female detectives.

Hidden by Catherine McKenzie

HiddenHidden by Catherine McKenzie
Published by Lake Union Publishing

When Jeff Manning is suddenly struck by a car and killed, leaving behind his wife, Claire, and ten-year-old son, Claire is understandably devastated. But someone else is equally devastated – his co-worker, Tish – and unlike Claire, Tish is unable to share her pain and grief with anyone, least of all her own husband and young daughter. But why exactly is Tish taking Jeff’s death so hard? Was there something between the two of them or were they just people who worked together?

Hidden seems like a simple novel about an affair between two people who work together, but the way that McKenzie tells this story leads the reader to feel as though they have no clue what the relationship was between Jeff and Tish. While the story is told from three perspectives – Jeff’s, Claire’s, and Tish’s – it is not revealed until the very end of the book the extent of Jeff and Tish’s relationship. There are clues and hints sprinkled throughout the book, but the information is not shoved in the reader’s face until the last few pages of the book. McKenzie is keeping the true gist of their relationship hidden from not only Claire and the people she confides in about her suspicions, but the reader as well.

I liked this book well enough but didn’t love it. I liked the characters – Tish and Claire especially – and was hooked enough to want to finish the book to get to the heart of things. I cared about Claire and wanted her to get the answers she was looking for, but I strangely also really cared about Tish and felt real sorrow for her. Even though it’s not told what exactly the relationship status was between Jeff and Tish, it was clear that no matter what had happened between the two of them, she cared deeply for him and was truly devastated when he died. That pain was written extremely well by McKenzie and she made these characters’ emotions very believable.

At the end of the day, Hidden was the type of novel that is entertaining but forgettable. I liked it, I enjoyed the time I spent with the characters, but I will ultimately not remember reading this book after a few months. I would still recommend it if you’re looking for an entertaining, character-driven story.

Say You’re One of Them by Uwem Akpan

Say You're One of ThemSay You’re One of Them by Uwem Akpan
Published by Little, Brown and Company

These two novellas and three short stories tell about life in five African countries from the perspectives of the children who are facing some of the most difficult crises of our time. An eight-year-old living in a shanty in Nairobi experiences his twelve-year-old sister selling her body to pay for the family’s most basic needs, such as food and school fees. A young girl in Ethiopia learns that she must cut ties with her best friend because of the religious wars going on all around her. A Muslim boy denounces his religion and attempts to pose as a Christian on a bus in Benin, headed for a distant relative’s home to escape religious persecution. Two young children in Nigeria have been orphaned by the AIDS crisis and are being sold by their uncle into slavery. And the last story, set in Rwanda, is about a young girl who watches her parents, on opposite sides of the conflict there, resort to the most devastating choices possible as a reaction to their circumstances.

I knew going into this book that it would be a brutal emotional roller coaster, and I was not wrong about that. These stories made me feel anger, frustration, rage, sadness, devastation, and horror at what the people in these stories were forced to endure and especially at the fact that these are real life situations that millions of children in the world have had to experience and, in some cases, are still experiencing. There is no milder way to say it other than that this book is heartbreaking and extremely difficult to get through. You have to put on an emotional thick skin in order to read this book, but once you do, it is definitely worth the pain. You can’t help but feel deep empathy for these characters while at the same time hoping and praying that the world will one day become a better place and people won’t have to suffer this way at some point in the future.

As far as my feelings about the individual novellas and stories, I have to be honest and say that I found the short stories more compelling than the novellas. I felt that in both novellas, the author was a bit meandering and the detail wasn’t quite enough for me to understand why those particular stories were chosen to be novellas and not short stories. There just wasn’t enough meat in these two, in my opinion, and I felt they would have both been better served had they been cut almost in half. That being said, the short stories were insanely good and I wanted more from each of these, which to me is the mark of a fantastic short story. The characters were extremely compelling, nuanced, and sympathetic, and I wanted to read more about them, to see how they were able to persevere despite their circumstances, long after I finished their stories. Of the five stories in this collection, it is the three short stories that have stayed in my brain space long after finishing the book, not the two novellas.

Say You’re One of Them, while a slightly uneven collection, overall really impressed me. I hesitate to recommend the entire thing because I wasn’t as into the novellas as I was the short stories, but as the short stories were truly incredible I do still recommend the book. I wish the two novellas hit me as hard as the three short stories did, but still this is a collection worth reading. A difficult, extremely emotional book, but an important one, too.

The Fate of the Tearling by Erika Johansen

The Fate of the Tearling (The Queen of the Tearling, #3)The Fate of the Tearling by Erika Johansen
Published by Harper

After feeling like the second book in this series was good but not fantastic (and I had a MAJOR issue with one particular element in that book), I went into the final installment in this series with a bit of trepidation. I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised – I liked this book better than the second and almost as much as the first in the trilogy.

One thing that I really liked about this book is that I felt like all of the characters really came into their own. Sure, some of the more important characters of the first two books are less so here, but others feature a more prominent role. Also, Kelsea gets inside the mind of yet another person from the past – only this time, it’s a teen girl who was born just a few years after The Crossing – and this peek into the Tearling twenty years post-Crossing was hugely transformative in Kelsea’s understanding of how the world became what it currently is and helped her shape her ideas of what it “should” be. I particularly liked these parts of the book, as the author uses this avenue into the past as a way to fill in gaps in understanding that she’d been keeping from the reader (and Kelsea) for the entire series.

One thing I feel that was missing was a better ending for the evil Queen – yes, she is evil, and no I don’t think she deserved a “happy” ending; but I felt that Johansen did an incredible job showing the humanity of this horrific woman, and there were still things about her that, even at the very end, I didn’t really understand. I felt that she did that particular character an injustice by having her story end the way it did.

Now the ending. Without giving away any spoilers I will say that I was VERY surprised by the ending. Not at all what I was expecting, or what I could have expected in my wildest dreams. However, I think I kind of liked it. It was unconventional, maybe a little too neat and convenient, maybe “easy” for the author, but I thought it was kind of cool. And again, totally unexpected.

So overall – a great series that I’m really happy I read. While not everything about all three of these books was perfect, and there was one particular element to them that enraged me, overall I seriously enjoyed the time I spent with these books and with Kelsea.

Deal Breaker by Harlan Coben

Deal Breaker (Myron Bolitar #1)Deal Breaker by Harlan Coben
Published by Delacorte Press

Deal Breaker is the first in Coben’s Myron Bolitar mystery series. I read one Coben book years back, a standalone, and really enjoyed it, and always meant to read more of his books but just didn’t get around to it. I wanted to read the Bolitar books in order so I started here. The basic premise is that Bolitar, a sports agent, is trying to help one of his clients, a college football star, with the fact that he recently got a call from someone who he thinks is his ex-girlfriend. Only problem is, she disappeared several years ago and everyone believes she is dead. Bolitar enlists the help of his best friend, his assistant, and his own ex-girlfriend (who happens to be the sister of the “dead” girl) and attempt to figure out what is going on and if his football star client is in on it.

I liked this book. I found it to be a fun ride and it was the perfect amount of entertaining. Like brain candy. Bolitar himself is funny, sarcastic, and even a little nerdy at times. The mystery wasn’t super difficult to figure out, but it wasn’t obvious either. It was a good mix of fun for the brain and something to actually think about while reading.

Because it is a series, it was quite clear that many of the characters are being set up for further reveals as the series wears on. While in theory I like that, in this book it was sort of annoying because there were just too many “clues” that will, I assume, lead to further development of these characters in future books. In theory, cool, but in practice it was just too obvious in this particular novel.

So Deal Breaker – pretty good, decent start to a mystery series. It’s not a series that I’m running out to buy the second book immediately, but I would read the next book if it came across my desk.

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

Fates and FuriesFates and Furies by Lauren Groff
Published by Riverhead Books

This book has gotten a TON of attention over the past couple of years, so I’ll just do a quick summary and move on to my quick thoughts. It’s the story of a marriage, with the first half of the book being told from the man, Lotto’s, perspective and the second half being told from the woman, Mathilde’s, perspective. It was on a bunch of best-of lists when it was published a couple of years back, and has gotten tons of great reviews.

What did I think? I really liked it, and I definitely can respect Groff as a writer. What she accomplished with this story is something that seems like it should be a surface-level character study, a basic but good literary novel about two people and their lives together, but ended up being so much more than that. These characters are interesting, twisted, nuanced, incredibly unique, strange in many ways, and their flaws make for exciting and highly entertaining reading. The book changes a LOT when it moves from Lotto’s point of view to Mathilde’s, and while it was jarring for a minute there, I ended up really being wowed by this change in writing and execution of plot.

What’s interesting about the novel is that virtually none of the characters are likable, once you really get to know them, yet the book is compulsively readable and incredibly addicting. Even though I pretty much hated the characters, there was a point at which it kind of turned for me and I found myself rooting for people I essentially despised. What Groff did with these characters and their stories was pretty remarkable.

Overall I really liked this book and I can see why it has been raved about so much. Lauren Groff is an author I definitely plan to read more from.