In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware

In a Dark, Dark WoodIn a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware
Published by Harvill Secker

Nora and Clare haven’t seen each other for ten years, so when Nora gets an invitation to Clare’s bachelorette weekend, she is surprised and confused. Upon talking to a mutual friend, she decides to go on the weekend trip despite her trepidation. Immediately upon her arrival at the cabin in the woods where the party is to take place, Nora knows something is off, but can’t quite put her finger on what.

Everyone raves about Ruth Ware’s books so I finally decided to read one. There were elements of this book I really loved, but other things about it that really disappointed me. Let’s start with what I loved. The creepy vibe is off the charts in the novel and I absolutely loved the ominous feeling that the book gave me. It’s incredibly clear from the very beginning that shit is going to get crazy within these pages. Nora knows this, she can feel it from the moment she drives up to the cabin, but decides to stick around anyway. There are so many moments throughout the book where Ware gets the tension SO high – to the point where I was biting my fingernails in terror/anticipation of what could possibly happen next. This feeling is exactly why I read these kinds of novels, and I absolutely loved it.

I also really liked how the history of these friendships played a huge role into the mystery itself. There are secrets they are keeping from each other, and from the reader, and it was so much fun to guess at what these secrets, that had kept these friends apart for ten years, could possibly be. All of the hidden things twist into the scary parts of the novel, so I loved that it wasn’t necessarily a “bad guy” situation but a build up of long-standing issues within these friendships leading to majorly scary events.

The issue I had with the novel is that I predicted exactly what was going to happen (and I’m not very good at predicting these things). There’s a point in the book where a clue is “sprinkled in” – but I thought it was annoyingly obvious and the opposite of subtle. As soon as that clue showed up, I knew the entire plot of the book, and I turned out to be completely right. I thought it was so obvious that I ended up super frustrated and annoyed with Nora that she couldn’t see it herself. That ONE thing severely limited how much I was able to enjoy the book.

Even though I enjoyed the experience of reading In a Dark, Dark Wood, I was disappointed overall by how predictable I found the plot to be. I am open to reading more books by this author because I absolutely loved her style, but I really hope they are more mysterious than this one was.

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The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

The NestThe Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney
Published by HarperCollins

The four adult children in the Plumb family are anxiously awaiting the day that the youngest, Melody, turns forty, as that is the day that the trust fund, which they call “The Nest”, their deceased father set up for them will pay out. Just a few months shy of that date, the oldest, Leo, gets himself into a major car accident while drunk and has to pay out the family of the nineteen-year-old he injured who he was fooling around with when the accident occurred, using all of the money in The Nest to do so. This of course leaves the other three siblings shocked, angry, and resentful – and holding Leo accountable to figure out how to pay them back.

You would think that reading a story about rich people making stupid decisions that harm other people and not seeming to care too much about that would SUPER annoy me. And usually it would, but in Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s hands, I enjoyed every second of this book. It’s more about the family dynamics between the four siblings – Leo, Jack, Beatrice, and Melody – and how each of them desperately needs the money in The Nest but doesn’t want to reveal to everyone else just how desperate they are. In Jack’s case, he mortgaged a second home without telling his partner and needs the funds to pay that mortgage off so no one will ever know what he did. In Melody’s case, she has spent her entire adult life trying to keep up with the Joneses and needs to figure out how to get her family back on track financially while simultaneously paying for her twin daughters’ college tuition. Bea has been floundering as a writer for years and would love the opportunity to just focus on her true love of writing a novel instead of working at a job she hates. And Leo, well he didn’t really care about the money before, but he certainly does now that he’s facing a divorce and financial ruin.

This is a page-turner for sure. The family dynamics are mostly what you’d expect in a rich people behaving badly type of book, but there were a few surprises and some major reveals that made the book deeper than I was expecting. Everybody in the family has their own issues (and some of them are ISSUES) but at the end of the day, they do try to come together and find a solution because in their own messed-up ways, they do really love each other and want the best for one another. It was funny to me to see the siblings fall into some classic oldest, youngest, middle categories in some ways and completely defy them in others – for example, you’d expect that Bea, one of the middle children, would be a “fixer” and she definitely is, but you’d expect for Leo, the oldest, to be the “responsible one”, which he definitely is not.

Ultimately The Nest is not best book ever material but it was highly entertaining and I really enjoyed the time I spent reading it. If this author writes a second novel I will definitely read it.

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika Sanchez

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican DaughterI Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika Sanchez
Published by Knopf Books for Young Readers

When Julia’s older sister, Olga, is killed in a freak accident, her world is shattered and her parents can barely hold it together. What her parents don’t seem to understand is that Julia is just as devastated as they are, and doesn’t know how she will possibly live the rest of her life without her sister. Unfortunately for Julia, Olga had always been the perfect, well-behaved daughter, so now that she’s gone, Julia’s mother has even more time to focus on Julia’s faults and imperfections. When Julia starts learning things about Olga that contradict the “perfection” she’s always believed her sister to be, she can’t help investigating and gets the opportunity to get to know her sister better than she did when she was alive.

When a book is centered around one character, and that character has a confrontational, prickly, adversarial type of personality, it can be really difficult to like the book. What Sanchez succeeds so well at in this novel is making the reader care about and root for exactly this kind of person in the character of Julia. Julia is not easy to like or even understand. True, most anyone can sympathize and maybe even empathize with the death of a close family member. But Julia had a rough-around-the-edges way about her long before her sister passed away, and it’s clear to the reader throughout the book that she is not the easiest person for others to get along with.

I personally wasn’t irritated by her, because I did sympathize with her situation and I did feel that her parents (especially her mother) put a lot of pressure on her. But there was no question in my mind that she had an obnoxious, over-the-top way about her that made me cringe more than a few times as I read her interactions with others in her life. However – and this is what’s great about how Erika Sanchez wrote this novel – I became deeply invested in her story and truly wanted her life to take a turn for the better. I hoped desperately that she’d start getting along better with her parents, begin understanding the sacrifices they’d made for her and Olga, and become a slightly more mature, level-headed older teen. It was easy to hope for these things because she showed tremendous growth over the course of the novel and in the character of Julia, Sanchez really created a person who comes into her own as the novel progresses. I loved that.

There is a lot of stuff in the book about Mexican culture and immigration and all of the issues that the Mexican community in America has to deal with on a daily basis, but that was a sidebar to Julia’s story. I liked that Sanchez taught the reader a few things as she was teaching those same things to Julia, but the “lessons” didn’t feel heavy-handed or like teaching moments. They felt organic, like I was getting to know this family and their community and their struggles at the same time Julia was growing up and becoming more aware of the world outside of her small personal bubble. It was very well done, in my opinion.

Ultimately I really did enjoy this book. I do have to say that there was a lot of build-up to the big secrets that Olga had been keeping from her family, and the big reveal was less shocking than I was expecting it to be, but truly Olga’s life and death serves as a background for Julia’s story. This book is about Julia growing up and dealing with adult circumstances when she’s just on the verge of being emotionally mature enough to do so. I loved the growth that Julia shows in the book and overall I really enjoyed reading it.

 

Mini-reviews: Books that were not my favorite

The Toughest Indian in the WorldThe Toughest Indian in the World by Sherman Alexie
Published by Grove Press

I didn’t dislike this book because I am not a fan of Alexie as a person (a fact I learned while reading this book). I disliked the book because the stories were just okay to me. There were a few I enjoyed, and even cared about the characters, but overall I had to slog through it. Most of the stories kept repeating the same themes and I found myself uninterested in the majority of what Alexie had to say. His writing is good, I will give him that, but the way women are treated in some of his stories was a major turnoff for me. It was a bit much overall. This book, and I believe Alexie in general as a writer, is just not for me.

On Chesil BeachOn Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan
Published by Jonathan Cape

This entire novel is based on the wedding night of two people, Florence and Edward, who wed in 1962. On their wedding night, they both have anxieties about consummating their marriage, and things go horribly awry. I just did not get this book. One bad night and these two people can’t get over it? I suppose the overall theme is more about how a misunderstanding can have huge consequences; how not setting up proper expectations or, god forbid, TALKING about stuff, can really ruin relationships, and things like that. But wow were these people so silly to me. JUST TALK IT OVER. I don’t get it. The book annoyed me and I will not be seeing the movie.

Wives of WarWives of War by Soraya M. Lane
Published by Lake Union Publishing

This is a novel about two young women, Scarlet and Ellie, working as nurses during World War 2. Scarlet is hoping to find her fiancé, who has been missing for months, and Ellie is single and hoping to do her part for the war effort. I didn’t hate this book but thought it was just okay. I liked both Scarlet and Ellie as characters, but I did think they were both one-dimensional and didn’t seem to have much depth to their personalities. They also fell into this insta-friendship that was a little strange; but I suppose somewhat realistic given the intensity of the situation they were thrown into. Towards the end the story picked up for me and I did like how things were resolved with both women, but overall it was just okay. There are tons of other books about this time in history that are MUCH better so I would recommend skipping this one.

North HavenNorth Haven by Sarah Moriarty
Published by Little A

Four siblings come together for the summer after their mother has just died, leaving their family beach house for them to figure out whether to keep or sell. This is one of those books that follows a premise we’ve all seen a million times, but unfortunately in this case it doesn’t have anything unique to add to the chorus of these kinds of novels. I didn’t dislike the characters, but I didn’t particularly enjoy any of them either. They each had their set personalities and specific back stories from childhood that nobody really seemed to grow out of. The book exhausted me – I just wanted them to figure out what they were going to do, get past their family issues and call it a day so that I could finish the book. North Haven was ultimately a book that I will forget very soon.

Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel

Sleeping Giants (Themis Files, #1)Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel
Published by Del Rey

When Rose Franklin is a young girl, she falls while riding her bike and is found in the palm of a giant, metal hand. Seventeen years later, she is a physicist leading a team to try to understand what this hand is and where it came from. She is working alongside a powerful group of people, including several former members of the military, and what they will uncover about this mystery has the potential to change the world.

This book was SO MUCH FUN. I wasn’t sure what to expect but I absolutely loved taking the journey that Neuvel presents in Sleeping Giants. The book’s synopsis doesn’t do this story justice, which is a good thing, because I went in not knowing what to expect and that paid off tremendously. I was delightfully surprised by the characters, the mysteries within the book, the overarching purpose of what was really going on, and the way that Neuvel told this story.

I love how this book tells its story through a series of interviews by an unnamed and highly mysterious narrator. I loved how Neuvel managed to get at the heart of the personalities of these characters through this method alone – it was so creative and speaks to such a talent as a writer. The reader is kept in the dark about so much of what is going on in this book, including the identity and purpose of this interviewer, and that suspense was SO much fun for me. Once I learned it was a series, I got even more excited, knowing that at some point things would make sense and I could just relax and enjoy the ride.

I absolutely loved this book and can’t wait to read the rest of the series.

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.

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.