Mini-Reviews: Books Everyone is Talking About

Everything I Never Told YouEverything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
Published by Penguin Press

This novel, about a Chinese-American family in the 1970’s, has gotten a LOT of buzz since its publication last summer. In this novel, seventeen-year-old Lydia, the middle child of the Lee family and the favorite child of her parents, has gone missing, and instead of leaning on one another for support, this family, which was already fragile to begin with, basically comes apart at the seams.

I read this for book club, and while I unfortunately could not attend the meeting, I found out the following month that most everyone didn’t like it. I actually disagreed for the most part, I guess I can’t say I “like” a book this depressing, but I thought it was written very excellently and the author really made me feel for these characters. I didn’t like either adult in this family, but all three of the kids broke my heart for different reasons. I really got close with these characters and felt that sense of urgency as the end of the book approached to finally find out exactly what happened to Lydia. While I can’t say I loved Everything I Never Told You, I thought it was a solid piece of fiction, incredibly well-written, and I can see why it has received such high acclaim.

We Are Not OurselvesWe Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas
Published by Simon & Schuster

This is an epic family saga type book – think Wally Lamb but a little quieter – exactly the kind of book that I can really sink my teeth into, get involved with the characters, and come away feeling like I’ve gotten to know and love another family, like I have new friends. We Are Not Ourselves follows Eileen Tumulty, raised in Queens by Irish immigrant parents, from about the age of ten – in the 1950’s – to the present. In that time, she takes care of her alcoholic mother, meets practical scientist Ed and gets married, becomes a nurse, has a son Connell, and basically the reader just follows this family throughout their lives.

It may sound boring but it is far from that. There’s a ton of struggle and strife and the push-pull of a marriage and family here. There’s also a Big Event that happens to this family about three-quarters of the way through the book that changes a lot of the direction of the novel. I thought the writing in this novel was incredible and despite its length, i couldn’t put the book down. I really got involved with these characters, and even though I had a difficult time liking any of them, that seemed not to matter as I just felt for them. They didn’t act the way I would have acted, didn’t see the world how I do, yet I couldn’t help but get them. Does that make sense? Anyway, I thought this book was just as great as everyone says and I highly recommend it!

The Girl on the TrainThe Girl on a Train by Paula Hawkins
Published by Riverhead Books

If you haven’t heard about this one, you must be living under a rock. In this novel, Rachel is an alcoholic who is mourning her failed marriage and loss of her job, so she rides the train into London each day as if she were going to work and watches the families as she rides by. She makes up names and stories about one particular couple, and when she reads in the newspaper that the woman has disappeared, she decides to get involved in the investigation.

I totally loved this one. I didn’t particularly like any of the characters, they certainly didn’t deserve my compassion, but oh my goodness did Hawkins take me on a wild ride here! I could NOT put this book down (especially the last fifty pages – wow!) and was totally engrossed in the story from start to finish. She totally surprised me with the ending and I am just very impressed with what she did here. And for a debut novel, this is incredibly good. Highly recommended – I get why everyone has been buzzing about this one!

Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King

Mr. Mercedes (Bill Hodges Trilogy, #1)Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King
Published by Scribner

From the publisher:

In the frigid pre-dawn hours, in a distressed Midwestern city, hundreds of desperate unemployed folks are lined up for a spot at a job fair. Without warning, a lone driver plows through the crowd in a stolen Mercedes, running over the innocent, backing up, and charging again. Eight people are killed; fifteen are wounded. The killer escapes.

In another part of town, months later, a retired cop named Bill Hodges is still haunted by the unsolved crime. When he gets a crazed letter from someone who self-identifies as the “perk” and threatens an even more diabolical attack, Hodges wakes up from his depressed and vacant retirement, hell-bent on preventing another tragedy.

Brady Hartfield lives with his alcoholic mother in the house where he was born. He loved the feel of death under the wheels of the Mercedes, and he wants that rush again.

Only Bill Hodges, with a couple of highly unlikely allies, can apprehend the killer before he strikes again. And they have no time to lose, because Brady’s next mission, if it succeeds, will kill or maim thousands.

Would you believe that reading Mr. Mercedes was my first time ever reading Stephen King? And that the only reason I read this book is because of one of my book clubs? Crazy, I know. Yet, true. From what I understand, this is one of King’s tamer, more straightforward novels, which kind of makes me nervous to pick up some of his other stuff (because this isn’t exactly tame stuff), but also very, very curious.

So. I was highly entertained by this novel and am finding myself very impressed with King – I get it. He has an incredible talent for writing characters so flawed, so insane batshit crazy, but that are real people. It’s one of those rare things to find in any genre, and to find it in horror/thriller novels is even more special, I think. So first and foremost, I see his talent and am very interested in picking up more of his books.

What I thought was cool about this book is how you know who the bad guy is the whole time, yet there’s still a thrilling sense of urgency throughout the book – will the good guy find the bad guy and stop him in time? Or will thousands of people die? Obviously you need to read the book to find out, but I was furiously turning pages towards the end, biting my nails like a psycho, just desperate to find out how this whole thing turned out.

What I don’t love about these kinds of books is the fact that I’m really squeamish and when something horrible happens that is described in detail, it runs through my head for hours or days or even weeks after I finish a book. There’s only one scene in here that really did that but oh my GOD can I not get that shit out of my head. So I’m scared that more of King’s books have even MORE of this for me to deal with. Anyway.

I thought this book was super great! I will read more of King, I promise. Where should I start?

The Good Girl by Mary Kubica

The Good GirlThe Good Girl by Mary Kubica
Published by Harlequin MIRA
Review copy provided by SheReads

Mia Dennett is the twenty-something daughter of a prominent Chicago judge, a woman who was rebellious in her teens and unconventional in her adulthood – to the disappointment of her parents – but is now settled as an art teacher in an inner-city school. When she meets Colin Thatcher at a bar one night, she likes him enough to decide that a one-night stand is a good idea. Unfortunately for Mia, Colin was hired to kidnap her and deliver her to someone who he assumes will attempt to get ransom from her father. When Colin decides he can’t hand her over to his unknown employer to be hurt, raped, or worse, killed, he takes her to a remote cabin in Minnesota. Mia’s mother, Eve, and the detective on the case, Gabe Hoffman, work around the clock in hopes of finding them, but Colin is sure that he has a plan to keep them both safe – if they can survive Minnesota’s cold winter long enough to act on his plan.

What a roller coaster of a book! What’s unique about The Good Girl, to me, is that for a thriller it was not at all what I’ve come to expect from that genre. While the kidnapping itself was thrill-rideish and the drive to the woods made me have heart palpitations because I didn’t know what the heck this guy was going to do with her, once they got to the cabin the book settled down a LOT. As in, they were basically stuck in this cabin, just the two of them, for days and weeks on end and it almost got a little boring. But it never did because I continued to be on the edge of my seat, just waiting for something to happen. And I wasn’t disappointed in that something, when it did eventually come. But no spoilers.

I loved how the book was told from multiple points of view, but never Mia’s. Some readers might have found this annoying, but to me it worked really well. It was almost as though Mia was the center of the story, but she wasn’t the point of the story at all. Instead, Eve, Gabe, and Colin got to tell their stories and it was all about how Mia defined their lives during this period of time.

The writing in this book was excellent. It was the perfect mix of being evocative and just giving me enough so that I couldn’t stop turning the pages. Kubica really knows how to write a feeling and sense of place, and she did such an incredible job with this one. I felt like I was in that cabin with them, subsisting on canned chicken noodle soup and being so close to freezing to death.

The ending wasn’t exactly shocking – the whole book is rushing toward something, and you know it can’t possibly be good but you can’t stop reading anyway – but I was somewhat surprised by what Kubica chose to do with these characters and their story. Overall, The Good Girl is an excellent book and one that I won’t soon forget. I’m very much looking forward to what Kubica does next.

Mini-reviews – End of 2014 Reading part 3

Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the WestEscape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West by Blaine Harden
Published by Viking Adult

I read this book because a customer at my job recommended it to me during a discussion of the book (and now movie) Unbroken. And also, I had just finished Without You, There is No Us and wanted to read more about North Korea (I still do. Recommendations, please.). Let me just say that anytime I read anything about North Korea, I am never not shocked and heartbroken. That was the case with Escape from Camp 14, without a doubt. I learned more about this atrocious dictator and how he keeps his people enslaved and malnourished and completely ignorant about the rest of the world. In this book, the man who escaped lived in what was basically a death camp, only they don’t outright kill people there, just overwork and underfeed them and get them to have no relationships with one another so they end up either dying of starvation or disease or another prisoner or guard kills them for something horrifyingly insignificant. It’s awful and sad and I don’t even know what to say.

Here’s the thing about this book, thought, that I didn’t like so much. It’s not written by the guy who actually escaped, Shin Donghyuk. Instead, journalist Blaine Harden tells his story for him. For whatever reason, this format just bothered me. I know that Harden spent tons of time with Shin and really got to know him, and I’m sure he knows his story inside and out, but there’s just no way that he can possibly fully understand what Shin has been through. It seemed to me that this format kept the book at arm’s length for me and I would have been much happier reading a book that Shin wrote about his own experiences.

All that being said, Escape from Camp 14 is incredibly fascinating and I would still recommend it. This stuff is happening in our world, RIGHT NOW, and we need to be aware.

YouYou by Caroline Kepnes
Published by Atria/Emily Bestler Books

So. This is a book about a stalker, from the stalker’s point of view. The “you” in the title is the girl he’s stalking. He’s basically writing this book to her, so it reads kind of like this: “I watch you as you get ready for work and you are so beautiful it almost kills me” (I made that line up, but that’s the general idea).

This book is so freaking creepy but it was really good, too. It’s almost weird for me to say a book THIS creepy can be good, but truly I couldn’t put the thing down. The crazy part is that the girl he’s stalking actually becomes friends with him and they kind of start dating … well, read it to find out more. But it got me thinking about all kinds of things like how well do we really know the people we surround ourselves with? You is really good and if you can handle the creep factor, definitely pick it up.

All the Light We Cannot SeeAll the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Published by Scribner

This one is hard for me because I had very, very high expectations. Several people who have very similar reading tastes to mine named it their favorite book of the entire year. I went in expecting to be blown away, and while it is an excellent book and I did really like it, it isn’t my favorite ever.

There’s a lot going on in All the Light We Cannot See, but basically it is set during World War Two, and it’s about two people: Marie-Laure, a young blind girl living in Paris with her father, and Werner, a young German boy who joins the Hitler Youth and ends up being an asset to the Nazis as he has a special talent with radios. I liked the alternating focus between the two – the quick pace kept my interest throughout, and I got to the point towards the end when I was just frantically turning pages to get to how this book would end. I liked how the book explores what this war did to ordinary people, and it was particularly compelling reading about how the Nazis groomed the Hitler Youth to become killers, basically.

I really liked this book, a lot. But it wasn’t my favorite ever and definitely wouldn’t make a top ten list for the year, either. I’ll just take this as yet another reminder that not all books have to be the best, and I shouldn’t have such high expectations.

The Secret Place by Tana French

The Secret Place (Dublin Murder Squad, #5)The Secret Place by Tana French
Published by Viking Adult

From the publisher:

Detective Stephen Moran has been waiting for his chance to get a foot in the door of Dublin’s Murder Squad—and one morning, sixteen-year-old Holly Mackey brings him this photo. The Secret Place, a board where the girls at St. Kilda’s School can pin up their secrets anonymously, is normally a mishmash of gossip and covert cruelty, but today someone has used it to reignite the stalled investigation into the murder of handsome, popular Chris Harper. Stephen joins forces with the abrasive Detective Antoinette Conway to find out who and why.

But everything they discover leads them back to Holly’s close-knit group of friends and their fierce enemies, a rival clique—and to the tangled web of relationships that bound all the girls to Chris Harper. Every step in their direction turns up the pressure. Antoinette Conway is already suspicious of Stephen’s links to the Mackey family. St. Kilda’s will go a long way to keep murder outside their walls. Holly’s father, Detective Frank Mackey, is circling, ready to pounce if any of the new evidence points toward his daughter. And the private underworld of teenage girls can be more mysterious and more dangerous than either of the detectives imagined.

The level of excitement that I feel when Tana French publishes a new novel can’t quite be explained. I think she is so incredible, so thoughtful in her plotting and characterizations, so insightful with how she uses her characters and their motivations to tell a story, I can’t get enough of her.

There was so much about this book I loved. The fact that teenagers were in the spotlight here was something different from her previous novels and a welcome surprise. Who among us bookish people doesn’t appreciate a good boarding school drama? Although, to be honest, these teenagers certainly got on my last nerve more than once. Since I don’t have a teenager at home, I’m not as familiar with their particular mess of anxiety, self-hatred, overconfidence, bitchiness, etc., but friends of mine with teen daughters say that French was spot on with these girls.

I liked Stephen a lot and appreciated his relationship with Conway. I’m REALLY hoping Antoinette Conway gets to be the focus of French’s next book – while I liked Stephen, it’s possible I found her slightly more compelling than him. I liked how well French got Stephen’s personal feelings about Mackey and Mackey’s daughter mixed into this story and how it was clear that his relationship with Mackey was clouding his judgement about Holly. It was just enough to make me question a LOT of where my own head was at with this story.

In the end, the culprit was not the person I had guessed, but looking back it would have been easy to figure out if I was looking for the right clues. (And if I was even remotely good at guessing these things, when in fact I am not.) I loved The Secret Place, just as I’ve loved all of her novels, and even an imperfect Tana French is almost perfect for me. Highly recommended!

The Three by Sarah Lotz

The ThreeThe Three by Sarah Lotz
Published by Little, Brown and Company

From the publisher:

The world is stunned when four commuter planes crash within hours of each other on different continents. Facing global panic, officials are under pressure to find the causes. With terrorist attacks and environmental factors ruled out, there doesn’t appear to be a correlation between the crashes, except that in three of the four air disasters a child survivor is found in the wreckage.

Dubbed ‘The Three’ by the international press, the children all exhibit disturbing behavioral problems, presumably caused by the horror they lived through and the unrelenting press attention. This attention becomes more than just intrusive when a rapture cult led by a charismatic evangelical minister insists that the survivors are three of the four harbingers of the apocalypse. The Three are forced to go into hiding, but as the children’s behavior becomes increasingly disturbing, even their guardians begin to question their miraculous survival…

The premise of The Three didn’t grab me like it did a lot of others, but when everyone and their mother began raving about it, I knew I had to get on board. I chose it for one of my book clubs – meeting later this week – because I thought it might generate some discussion and because everyone who loved it couldn’t possibly be wrong, right?

Right! I totally get why people loved this novel, and while I didn’t LOOOOVE it myself, I liked it a LOT. It’s the kind of book that is unputdownable, and I definitely raced through it as I desperately hoped for some answers as to why the heck these three kids survived, and just what exactly was behind these simultaneous plane crashes.

This is actually a story within a story, as the entire book is a book written by a fictional journalist, using interviews, newspaper articles, and other medium to create the full story of these plane crashes, subsequent investigations, and getting to know the families of the three children who survived. It’s kind of hard to explain, but it’s incredibly creative and I think the format worked really well.

Lots of people said they found this book creepy, and that wasn’t really the case for me, with the major exception of the very beginning, where one of the plane crashes is lived through in meticulous detail by someone who perished in that crash. The rest of the book wasn’t exactly scary, but it was tension-filled and had me on the edge of my seat. The kids were a little creepy, but actually the media hysteria and attention surrounding them was even more so. It caused me to really think about how strong of an impact the media has on our day-to-day lives and how the media can take one event and turn it into a complete circus – way, way more than necessary.

Unfortunately, I kind of hated the ending. I don’t always mind ambiguous endings but in this case I wanted more answers. I felt like the book was racing toward an actual conclusion and one wasn’t provided for the reader at all.

Overall – highly recommended! I couldn’t put this book down and I loved the creativity of the whole thing. While the ending left much to be desired, it was still a worthwhile read for me.

That Night by Chevy Stevens

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

From the publisher:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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