Review: Tear Me Apart by J.T. Ellison

My Rating: 4 / 5 stars

Verdict: Buy Borrow Bypass

Synopsis (from Goodreads):

One moment will change their lives forever…

Competitive skier Mindy Wright is a superstar in the making until a spectacular downhill crash threatens not just her racing career but her life. During surgery, doctors discover she’s suffering from a severe form of leukemia, and a stem cell transplant is her only hope. But when her parents are tested, a frightening truth emerges. Mindy is not their daughter.

Who knows the answers?

The race to save Mindy’s life means unraveling years of lies. Was she accidentally switched at birth or is there something more sinister at play? The search for the truth will tear a family apart…and someone is going to deadly extremes to protect the family’s deepest secrets.

With vivid movement through time, Tear Me Apart examines the impact layer after layer of lies and betrayal has on two families, the secrets they guard, and the desperate fight to hide the darkness within.

My Thoughts:

I love that J.T. Ellison writes layered novels. The plot is never as simple as it might appear, and Tear Me Apart is no exception. The race to save Mindy’s life is difficult on its own but the question of the identity of her biological parents is made even more demanding. Almost everyone in this story lies at least once, making it tricky for the reader to know whom to trust. While I did guess part of the conclusion, I certainly did not have everything figured out. As someone who reads a lot of mysteries and thrillers, I consider a book a success if I don’t see everything coming at the end. I flew through this story in just a couple days, determined to reach the ending. Tear Me Apart is a wild ride.

The characters in Tear Me Apart are well rounded. I had no difficulties picturing each character and empathizing with them. And I’m glad that Ellison allowed these characters to feel all kinds of emotions. There is a considerable amount of shock as lies are finally revealed, but everyone still wants what’s best for Mindy and has to balance their feelings. I especially liked reading about Mindy, who is inspiring, mature, and also still a kid trying to cope with maybe never skiing again, learning she has leukemia, and that her parents aren’t her biological parents.

Ellison knows how to write strong thrillers. Much like Gillian Flynn (read my review of Sharp Objects here!), she plays with stereotypes of how women can act and what women can do. Tear Me Apart features several different women who are likeable, troubling, kindhearted, and dangerous. Ellison also knows how to keep a thriller moving. With short chapters and flashbacks, Ellison keeps the reader on the edge of their seat, making this novel a quick read.

Wrap Up:

Overall, I really enjoyed this book! I’ve read a few of Ellison’s other novels, and always enjoy her work. As a fun surprise, much of this story is set in Colorado, and I loved recognizing locations and descriptions! I would definitely recommend this book, especially for fans of Karin Slaughter.

This book is…

fast paced

a page turner

surprising

unputdownable

well written

Publisher: MIRA

Genre: thriller

Page Count: 368

ISBN: 0778330001

Available here from IndieBound.

Have you read Tear Me Apart? What other J.T. Ellison novels would you recommend?

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Review: A Scot in the Dark by Sarah MacLean

My Rating: 4 / 5 stars

Verdict: Buy Borrow Bypass

Synopsis (from Goodreads):

Lonesome Lily Turned Scandalous Siren

Miss Lillian Hargrove has lived much of her life alone in a gilded cage, longing for love and companionship. When an artist offers her pretty promises and begs her to pose for a scandalous portrait, Lily doesn’t hesitate…until the lying libertine leaves her in disgrace. With the painting now public, Lily has no choice but to turn to the one man who might save her from ruin.

Highland Devil turned Halfhearted Duke

The Duke of Warnick loathes all things English, none more so than the aristocracy. It does not matter that the imposing Scotsman has inherited one of the most venerable dukedoms in Britain—he wants nothing to do with it, especially when he discovers that the unwanted title comes with a troublesome ward, one who is far too old and far too beautiful to be his problem.

Tartan Comes to Town

Warnick arrives in London with a single goal: get the chit married and see her become someone else’s problem, then return to a normal, quiet life in Scotland. It’s the perfect plan, until Lily declares she’ll only marry for love…and the Scot finds that there is one thing in England he likes far too much…

My Thoughts:

I thought the plot of A Scot in the Dark to be a refreshing change of pace. Instead of a typical virgin falls for friend turned lover plot, our heroine is decidedly not innocent. She makes a series of dumb choices in the name of love and now must live with the consequences. It was fun to read about Lillian and Warnick working together to save her reputation and her lack of ignorance made for some fun romps in the bedroom…and in a carriage.

Sarah MacLean always gives her female characters plenty of agency, and Lillian Hargrove is no exception. I appreciated the repetitive refrain that Lily chose to sit for the scandalous portrait. It was a conscious decision that she made, albeit a foolish one. Much of Lily’s journey is focused on owning up to her mistake and developing the courage to stand on her own two feet. And Warnick is certainly a different romantic lead than usual. His being from Scotland reinforced how little he fit in with the English aristocracy, which led to several hilarious encounters, usually him bursting out of his clothes!

Curiously, this book was a little slow in the beginning. It felt like a bit too much talk and not enough action. But the story moves along about halfway through, particularly with the addition of more characters. Other reviewers pointed out that the solution to this book’s central problem is obvious: steal the infamous painting back to protect Lily. But that never even occurred to me until it occurs to the characters in this story! Plot developments might seem obvious to some but are not so to others. This is a fun and witty novel that charms from beginning to end.

Wrap Up:

Overall, I really enjoyed this book! Yes, romance novels can be a bit predictable, but that’s another reason to enjoy them. I like knowing what’s coming! This is the second book in a series and I look forward to reading the next one. Sarah MacLean books are always entertaining and I highly recommend her as an author.

This book is…

witty

charming

predictable

sexy

funny

Publisher: Avon

Genre: romance

Page Count: 342

ISBN: 0062465848

Available here from IndieBound.

Have you read A Scot in the Dark? What other romance novels would you recommend?

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Review: Pieces of Her by Karin Slaughter

My Rating: 4 / 5 stars

Verdict: Buy Borrow Bypass

Synopsis (from Goodreads):

What if the person you thought you knew best turns out to be someone you never knew at all . . . ?

Andrea knows everything about her mother, Laura. She knows she’s spent her whole life in the small beachside town of Belle Isle; she knows she’s never wanted anything more than to live a quiet life as a pillar of the community; she knows she’s never kept a secret in her life. Because we all know our mothers, don’t we?

But all that changes when a trip to the mall explodes into violence and Andrea suddenly sees a completely different side to Laura. Because it turns out that before Laura was Laura, she was someone completely different. For nearly thirty years she’s been hiding from her previous identity, lying low in the hope that no one would ever find her. But now she’s been exposed, and nothing will ever be the same again.

The police want answers and Laura’s innocence is on the line, but she won’t speak to anyone, including her own daughter. Andrea is on a desperate journey following the breadcrumb trail of her mother’s past. And if she can’t uncover the secrets hidden there, there may be no future for either one of them. . . .

My Thoughts:

First and foremost, whatever you think will happen next in this book, won’t. Any guesses or theories you might develop as you read will inevitably be wrong. Despite being almost 500 pages, Karin Slaughter’s writing kept me on the edge of my seat and hardly wanting to set this book down. Although the premise initially felt over the top, Slaughter took the story in an unexpected direction that somehow grounded the story. It’s always difficult to discuss a mystery novel without giving away the ending, but through the use of well placed flashbacks, the story ultimately comes together nicely.

At the beginning I struggled to like Andrea. At 31, her actions and attitude felt unrealistic. Maybe I’m biased because I don’t know any 31 year olds who are utterly floundering, but Andrea seemed too helpless to be real. Ironically, she really matured quickly and steps up to the plate once certain events unfold. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I liked her by the end, even though I think you’re supposed to, but she was significantly less annoying by the book’s conclusion. Laura was by far my favorite character, though. At the beginning, she is the kind of mother that everyone wants to be or have, and only becomes more fascinating as her story unfolds. Slaughter grounds Laura’s character in familiar tropes, which keeps her story from becoming a soap opera. The relationship between mother and daughter felt real, which is great as theirs is the central dynamic in this story.

I was really impressed with the pacing of this book. This story got inside my head and I never wanted to put the book down. There are some pop culture references that do date this writing and pulled me out of the story each time. At almost 500 pages, I do think some parts could have been cut, especially in the middle and at the end. But Slaughter obviously knows how to write a thriller, and I’m sure her other books are equally as good.

Wrap Up:

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. Pieces of Her is the first Karin Slaughter book I’ve read but I think I’ll start to work my way through her backlist soon. This book makes a great summer, vacation, or weekend read due to the fast pace. I would definitely recommend this book.

This book is…

shocking

suspenseful

well written

engaging

full of twists and turns

Publisher: William Morrow

Genre: thriller

Page Count: 480

ISBN: 0062430270

Available here from IndieBound.

Will you read Pieces of Her? What other Karin Slaughter novels would you recommend?

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Review: Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate

My Rating: 4 / 5 stars

Verdict: Buy Borrow Bypass

Synopsis (from Goodreads):

Two families, generations apart, are forever changed by a heartbreaking injustice in this poignant novel, inspired by a true story, for readers of Orphan Train and The Nightingale.

Memphis, 1939. Twelve-year-old Rill Foss and her four younger siblings live a magical life aboard their family’s Mississippi River shantyboat. But when their father must rush their mother to the hospital one stormy night, Rill is left in charge—until strangers arrive in force. Wrenched from all that is familiar and thrown into a Tennessee Children’s Home Society orphanage, the Foss children are assured that they will soon be returned to their parents—but they quickly realize that the truth is much darker. At the mercy of the facility’s cruel director, Rill fights to keep her sisters and brother together—in a world of danger and uncertainty.

Aiken, South Carolina, present day. Born into wealth and privilege, Avery Stafford seems to have it all: a successful career as a federal prosecutor, a handsome fiancé, and a lavish wedding on the horizon. But when Avery returns home to help her father weather a health crisis, a chance encounter leaves her with uncomfortable questions—and compels her to take a journey through her family’s long-hidden history, on a path that will ultimately lead either to devastation or redemption.

Based on one of America’s most notorious real-life scandals—in which Georgia Tann, director of a Memphis-based adoption organization, kidnapped and sold poor children to wealthy families all over the country—Wingate’s riveting, wrenching, and ultimately uplifting tale reminds us how, even though the paths we take can lead to many places, the heart never forgets where we belong.

My Thoughts:

Both the story and the truth behind Before We Were Yours is astonishing in the worst possible way. The more you read and discover what really happened, the more shocked you are that such a large scale operation existed for so long and did so much damage. I’m grateful to Lisa Wingate for exposing the truth and sharing this story.

I also really enjoyed how Wingate used two time periods to tell the story. By having Avery investigate, it’s easy for the reader to identify with Avery in her search for the truth. Likewise, by alternating between past and present, it’s almost impossible to put this book down. Wingate does an excellent job of pacing Before We Were Yours and also makes great use of cliffhangers to propel the story forward.

The characters in Before We Were Yours are very well-written. Wingate does a great job of showcasing each character’s intent and motivations in order to understand where everyone is coming from, including the villains. What’s also interesting about this story is that sometimes there are clearly defined good and evil characters, but that sometimes the characters aren’t so clearly defined. And in this, Wingate reflects real life. Sometimes someone does the wrong thing for the right reasons, and vice versa.

Throughout Before We Were Yours, Wingate makes some questionable language choices. She repeatedly refers to Rill Foss and her family as “river gypsies,” which is not only a slur, but not really the correct word choice. Additionally, Rill and other characters in the 1939 timeline make crass and racist observations about anyone who isn’t white, including black workers and that someone’s closed eyes make them look like a “Chinaman.” I would presume that Wingate included these details to reinforce the time period and the lack of political correctness and awareness that is better these days. But instead these remarks felt jarring and pull the reader out of the story. There are other ways to establish that the Foss family is ‘free spirited’ or that nothing about the early 1940s was perfect.

Wrap Up:

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. Wingate does an incredible job of highlighting this horrific situation in our country’s past. Wingate’s former career as a journalist aided in the research and writing of Before We Were Yours and the story unfolds in all the right ways. I highly recommend this book, especially for fans of The Alice Network by Kate Quinn (read my review!) and Next Year in Havana by Chanel Cleeton (read my review!).

This book is…

shocking

illuminating

well-written

engaging

unputdownable

This book contains content warning for…

child abuse (emotional, physical, and sexual)

Publisher: Ballantine Books

Genre: historical fiction

Page Count: 342

ISBN: 9780425284681

Available here from IndieBound.

Have you read Before We Were Yours? What historical fiction about a lesser known piece of history would you recommend?

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Review: The Room on Rue Amélie by Kristin Harmel

My Rating: 4 / 5 stars

Verdict: Buy Borrow Bypass

Synopsis (from Goodreads):

For fans of Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale and Martha Hall Kelly’s Lilac Girls, this powerful novel of fate, resistance, and family—by the international bestselling author of The Sweetness of Forgetting and When We Meet Again—tells the tale of an American woman, a British RAF pilot, and a young Jewish teenager whose lives intersect in occupied Paris during the tumultuous days of World War II.

When newlywed Ruby Henderson Benoit arrives in Paris in 1939 with her French husband Marcel, she imagines strolling arm in arm along the grand boulevards, awash in the golden afternoon light. But war is looming on the horizon, and as France falls to the Nazis, her marriage begins to splinter, too.

Charlotte Dacher is eleven when the Germans roll into the French capital, their sinister swastika flags snapping in the breeze. After the Jewish restrictions take effect and Jews are ordered to wear the yellow star, Charlotte can’t imagine things getting much worse. But then the mass deportations begin, and her life is ripped forever apart.

Thomas Clarke joins the British Royal Air Force to protect his country, but when his beloved mother dies in a German bombing during the waning days of the Blitz, he wonders if he’s really making a difference. Then he finds himself in Paris, in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, and he discovers a new reason to keep fighting—and an unexpected road home.

When fate brings them together, Ruby, Charlotte, and Thomas must summon the courage to defy the Nazis—and to open their own broken hearts—as they fight to survive. Rich with historical drama and emotional depth, this is an unforgettable story that will stay with you long after the final page is turned.

My Thoughts:

Room has been compared to The Nightingale and there are many similarities between the two. Both stories focus on sheltering and moving RAF pilots, as well as taking in Jewish neighbors. But Room and Nightingale differ in tone. Don’t get me wrong, Room is definitely heartbreaking. I cried several time during the last 100 pages compared to my sobbing during the last 100 pages of Nightingale. Room manages to feel like a lighter read and I think that’s because Harmel injects images and conversations about hope early on and frequently throughout the story. Also, as a reader, you know when starting this book that there will be sadness. That’s an inevitable fact about this time period. But Harmel’s messages of hope were a welcome change and a beautiful way to pay tribute to the men and women who did resist the Nazis.

Harmel writes incredible characters. Ruby and Charlotte are strong, well-rounded, and dynamic. I loved reading their interactions with one another and enjoyed their development throughout Room. These two ‘regular people’ sacrificed their own well-being and safety to do the right thing during a horrible time. Harmel makes some strong points about how chosen family can be just as powerful as relatives. I especially fell for Ruby’s involvement with Thomas and for Charlotte’s loss of her childhood. Ruby and Thomas’s love story is so pure and heartwarming. I loved reading as they fell in love. Both characters felt so real and it made their romance really come alive on the page. And as for Charlotte, I can’t even imagine what it would be like to be eleven years old when WWII broke into France. Harmel does a great job of capturing Charlotte’s resolve to help despite her limited understanding of what’s happening and why.

Wrap Up:

Overall, I really enjoyed this book! I love to read well-written historical fiction, especially ones set during WWII. And Harmel definitely delivered! Harmel uses lush language to describe locations in Room, including Paris and Ruby’s hometown in California. I would highly recommend this book, especially for fans of The Nightingale and The Alice Network.

This book is…

beautifully written

a tearjerker

informative

full of interesting characters

engaging

Publisher: Gallery Books

Genre: historical fiction

Page Count: 400

ISBN: 1501171402

Available here from IndieBound.

Have you read The Room on Rue Amélie? What historical fiction book would you recommend?

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Review: Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

My Rating: 4 / 5 stars

Verdict: Buy Borrow Bypass

Synopsis (from Goodreads):

Fresh from a brief stay at a psych hospital, reporter Camille Preaker faces a troubling assignment: she must return to her tiny hometown to cover the murders of two preteen girls. For years, Camille has hardly spoken to her neurotic, hypochondriac mother or to the half-sister she barely knows: a beautiful thirteen-year-old with an eerie grip on the town. Now, installed in her old bedroom in her family’s Victorian mansion, Camille finds herself identifying with the young victims—a bit too strongly. Dogged by her own demons, she must unravel the psychological puzzle of her own past if she wants to get the story—and survive this homecoming.

My Thoughts:

This story is creepy! I loved how much Flynn used Missouri in this story. Missouri is not just the setting of this novel, it is a character in this novel. From luxurious details about the heat and how it gets under your skin to descriptions of the fields and rivers around town, Flynn lets Missouri embody the story. The characters in Sharp Objects are dried up, prickly, and bored. It reminds me of the play Cat On A Hot Tin Roof. In both stories, the unrelenting heat coupled with limited locations drives the characters to make questionable choices. And no one wants to own up to their mistakes.

Camille is a fascinating protagonist. We learn early on that she previously spent time in a psychiatric hospital and that she’s also a heavy drinker. Immediately, Camille’s perceptions are distrusted. Most characters in Sharp Objects act different ways with different people which, especially when coupled with the heat, mean appearances can be deceiving. Camille is also obstinate at times, and her futile interactions with her distant family make the reader question what really happened to drive a wedge between mother and daughter.

And speaking of mothers and daughters, Camille and her mother, Adora, are destructive to themselves, each other, and everyone around them. One of the things I loved about Gone Girl was how much Flynn pushed back against traditional gender roles and challenged some stereotypes. She takes a similar approach in Sharp Objects by questioning the notion that all women should be mothers and that they are, inherently, good mothers. To say that Adora is not a good mother is a massive understatement. Camille seems reluctant to take that path herself which is understandable once we get to know Adora.

Wrap Up:

Overall, I really enjoyed this book! Sharp Objects is definitely more gruesome than Gone Girl, so please keep that in mind if you’re expecting many similarities in tone. I’m eagerly awaiting the HBO miniseries and can’t wait to see how it compares to the book. I would also love to see this turned into a play. It would work quite well! I highly recommend this book, especially for fans of Tana French.

This book is…

sensuous

unputdownable

eerie

unsettling

shocking

This book contains content warnings for…

self-harm

child abuse

animal abuse

Publisher: Broadway Books

Genre: mystery

Page Count: 254

ISBN: 0307341550

Available here from IndieBound.

Have you read Sharp Objects? What mystery book would you recommend?

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Review: Next Year in Havana by Chanel Cleeton

My Rating: 4 / 5 stars

Verdict: Buy Borrow Bypass

Synopsis (from Goodreads):

After the death of her beloved grandmother, a Cuban-American woman travels to Havana, where she discovers the roots of her identity–and unearths a family secret hidden since the revolution…

Havana, 1958. The daughter of a sugar baron, nineteen-year-old Elisa Perez is part of Cuba’s high society, where she is largely sheltered from the country’s growing political unrest–until she embarks on a clandestine affair with a passionate revolutionary…

Miami, 2017. Freelance writer Marisol Ferrera grew up hearing romantic stories of Cuba from her late grandmother Elisa, who was forced to flee with her family during the revolution. Elisa’s last wish was for Marisol to scatter her ashes in the country of her birth.

Arriving in Havana, Marisol comes face-to-face with the contrast of Cuba’s tropical, timeless beauty and its perilous political climate. When more family history comes to light and Marisol finds herself attracted to a man with secrets of his own, she’ll need the lessons of her grandmother’s past to help her understand the true meaning of courage.

My Thoughts:

I really enjoyed the dual storylines of 1950s Elisa and present day Marisol. The shifting perspectives and eras kept the story moving forward and each storyline lent the other needed context. Each storyline also introduced the reader to a vastly different Cuba. While Elisa’s Cuba reeked of opulence despite the world crumbling down around her, Marisol’s Cuba showed the results of their crumbled world. I especially loved the paralleled romances between Marisol/Luis and Marisol/Pablo. Reading along as each couple fell in love was absolutely beautiful and I found myself cheering for them every step of the way.

I appreciate that although Cleeton wrote strong women into this story, they were by no means perfect. Both Elisa and Marisol took tremendous risks to protect their families and the men they love, but neither leapt at the chance to be involved with politics. These are women who did what they had to do to survive. I have tremendous respect and love for Elisa and Marisol, and it’s abundantly clear that Cleeton feels the same. This book is full of strong well-written women and it was a joy to read about them.

I loved reading the interactions between the characters in this story. They were very realistic and lent an air of truth to everything that occurred. Elisa and her sisters felt especially true to me, and I’m excited to learn more about Elisa’s sister, Beatriz, in next year’s sequel. I’d be curious to know if any of these characters are based on real-life people from Cleeton’s life, as they all were engaging, well-written, and familiar.

I hope many people read this book. It’s important talk about the realities of Cuban life and its shifting political climate. Cleeton wrote a beautiful story about one family, and I hope that many more Cuban family stories are shared through books. Cleeton also does a great job of criticizing the rampant tourist fever, along with the disconnect between tourist Havana and citizen Havana.

Wrap Up:

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. While I initially thought the story moved a bit slowly, the pacing really improved once the plot picked up. This story serves as a great introduction to the complicated Cuban political climate and the mindsets of those who stayed and those who left. I would definitely recommend this book, especially for fans of Beatriz Williams.

This book is…

memorable

a page turner

beautifully written

educational

surprising

Publisher: Berkley Books

Genre: fiction

Page Count: 356

ISBN: 0399586687

Available here from IndieBound.

Have you read Next Year in Havana? What fiction set in another country would you recommend?

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Review: You Think It, I’ll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld

My Rating: 4 / 5 stars

Verdict: Buy Borrow Bypass

Synopsis (from Goodreads):

A suburban mother of two fantasizes about the downfall of an old friend whose wholesome lifestyle empire may or may not be built on a lie. A high-powered lawyer honeymooning with her husband is caught off guard by the appearance of the girl who tormented her in high school. A shy Ivy League student learns the truth about a classmate’s seemingly enviable life.

Curtis Sittenfeld has established a reputation as a sharp chronicler of the modern age who humanizes her subjects even as she skewers them. Now, with this first collection of short fiction, her “astonishing gift for creating characters that take up residence in readers’ heads” (The Washington Post) is showcased like never before. Throughout the ten stories in You Think It, I’ll Say It, Sittenfeld upends assumptions about class, relationships, and gender roles in a nation that feels both adrift and viscerally divided.

With moving insight and uncanny precision, Curtis Sittenfeld pinpoints the questionable decisions, missed connections, and sometimes extraordinary coincidences that make up a life. Indeed, she writes what we’re all thinking—if only we could express it with the wit of a master satirist, the storytelling gifts of an old-fashioned raconteur, and the vision of an American original.

My Thoughts:

I was honestly surprised with how much I enjoyed reading each and every story in this collection. Usually, I find that one or two short stories really stand out and the rest are mediocre. But every story in Sittenfeld’s collection deserved to be there. I found myself reflecting on moments and characters days after finishing a story. If you’ve heard anything about this collection, you’ve likely heard great things about “The Prairie Wife.” And let me tell you, that story absolutely lives up to the hype. A few stories touch on the shifting dynamics after the 2016 election and the increasing usage of social media. Sittenfeld’s stories are relevant and therefore useful for reflection. And believe me, you’ll continue to reflect on this short story collection for days after.

Additionally, I thought that every story fit with the title of this collection: You Think It, I’ll Say It. These stories are about the negative thoughts we entertain about ourselves and each other. These stories follow the negative thoughts we have on a daily basis about normal experiences. Sittenfeld writes realistically about jealousy, envy, boredom, despair, and affairs. And as much as you won’t want to admit it, you’ll find yourself and people you know in the pages of this collection. I also appreciate that Sittenfeld continues to write about the white middle class. This is clearly the demographic Sittenfeld knows well and is able to write honestly, even painfully so at times.

Wrap Up:

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed these stories and how much I’m still thinking about them days later. This was the May selection for Reese Witherspoon’s book club and I’m not sure if I would have picked it up otherwise, but I’m very glad I did! I would highly recommend this book, regardless of whether or not you’ve read Sittenfeld’s novels.

This book is…

witty

surprising

relevant

full of interesting characters

engaging

Publisher: Random House

Genre: short stories

Page Count: 223

ISBN: 0399592865

Available here from IndieBound.

Have you read You Think It, I’ll Say It? What short story collection would you recommend?

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Review: The Map of Salt and Stars by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar

My Rating: 4 / 5 stars

Verdict: Buy Borrow Bypass

Synopsis (from Goodreads):

This rich, moving, and lyrical debut novel is to Syria what The Kite Runner was to Afghanistan; the story of two girls living eight hundred years apart—a modern-day Syrian refugee seeking safety and a medieval adventurer apprenticed to a legendary mapmaker—places today’s headlines in the sweep of history, where the pain of exile and the triumph of courage echo again and again.

It is the summer of 2011, and Nour has just lost her father to cancer. Her mother, a cartographer who creates unusual, hand-painted maps, decides to move Nour and her sisters from New York City back to Syria to be closer to their family. But the country Nour’s mother once knew is changing, and it isn’t long before protests and shelling threaten their quiet Homs neighborhood. When a shell destroys Nour’s house and almost takes her life, she and her family are forced to choose: stay and risk more violence or flee as refugees across seven countries of the Middle East and North Africa in search of safety. As their journey becomes more and more challenging, Nour’s idea of home becomes a dream she struggles to remember and a hope she cannot live without.

More than eight hundred years earlier, Rawiya, sixteen and a widow’s daughter, knows she must do something to help her impoverished mother. Restless and longing to see the world, she leaves home to seek her fortune. Disguising herself as a boy named Rami, she becomes an apprentice to al-Idrisi, who has been commissioned by King Roger II of Sicily to create a map of the world. In his employ, Rawiya embarks on an epic journey across the Middle East and the north of Africa where she encounters ferocious mythical beasts, epic battles, and real historical figures.

A deep immersion into the richly varied cultures of the Middle East and North Africa, The Map of Salt and Stars follows the journeys of Nour and Rawiya as they travel along identical paths across the region eight hundred years apart, braving the unknown beside their companions as they are pulled by the promise of reaching home at last.

My Thoughts:

The two plot lines and time periods worked really well in this book. We spent enough time with each story to get to know the characters well and to feel invested in the overall plots. The parallels between the two stories well well crafted. Both Nour and Rawiya experience terror, heartache, love, and courage. I did prefer Nour’s present day storyline because of its relevance to the recent refugee crisis. Salt and Stars goes a long way toward detailing what a refugee might experience and the ways in which current aide systems are failing the very people they’re trying to support.

Nour was definitely my favorite character. I loved her honesty and her inner thoughts. Having suffered considerable loss, Nour speaks and thinks eloquently about grief, loss, and love. She holds stories, especially the stories her father taught her, very near and dear to her heart. Her relationships with her family felt very real to me, especially as someone who is also one of three daughters. These family dynamics felt genuine because love is beneath all of their interactions. It’s even clear that this family loved and misses their father, who also loved them, based on the ways in which they reflect upon their grief and try to find a new way forward.

Admittedly, I have not read many books about the Middle East, which was one of the reasons I did enjoy this book. Salt and Stars takes place in a few Middle Eastern countries and I learned a lot about different cultures, languages, and geographies. And with the two different plot lines, this book felt like an opening into a whole new world. One of which still exists and the other was like a window to the past. I loved that none of the characters looked like me and spoke different languages. Salt and Stars reads like a love letter to Syria and the wonderful people who call it home.

Wrap Up:

Overall, I really enjoyed this book! I found the story to be very compelling and engaging. And the writing is just so incredibly beautiful! This was a book that I thoroughly enjoyed reading and absolutely needed to finish. I didn’t cry like I thought I might, but I was very caught up in the high stakes plot and character decisions. I would highly recommend this book, especially if you love stories about families.

This book is…

lyrical

poignant

moving

beautiful

creative

Publisher: Touchstone

Genre: historical fiction

Page Count: 368

ISBN: 1501169033

Available here from IndieBound.

Have you read The Map of Salt and Stars? What book about refugees would you recommend?

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Review: The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton

My Rating: 4 / 5 stars

Verdict: Buy Borrow Bypass

Synopsis (from Goodreads):

Camellia Beauregard is a Belle. In the opulent world of Orléans, Belles are revered, for they control Beauty, and Beauty is a commodity coveted above all else. In Orléans, the people are born gray, they are born damned, and only with the help of a Belle and her talents can they transform and be made beautiful.

But it’s not enough for Camellia to be just a Belle. She wants to be the favorite—the Belle chosen by the Queen of Orléans to live in the royal palace, to tend to the royal family and their court, to be recognized as the most talented Belle in the land. But once Camellia and her Belle sisters arrive at court, it becomes clear that being the favorite is not everything she always dreamed it would be. Behind the gilded palace walls live dark secrets, and Camellia soon learns that the very essence of her existence is a lie—that her powers are far greater, and could be more dangerous, than she ever imagined. And when the queen asks Camellia to risk her own life and help the ailing princess by using Belle powers in unintended ways, Camellia now faces an impossible decision.

With the future of Orléans and its people at stake, Camellia must decide—save herself and her sisters and the way of the Belles—or resuscitate the princess, risk her own life, and change the ways of her world forever.

My Thoughts:

I really enjoyed the premise of The Belles, and how Dhonielle Clayton blends our reality, fantasy, and folklore in order to craft this unique world. This book had a number of twists and turns that I never saw coming! I’m hopeful that Clayton can continue the suspense in future Belle books. The level of detail in this book is astonishing. Clayton takes the time to name exact shades and hues of colors used in clothing and beauty treatments. While this attention to detail certainly enhanced the richness of this fictional world, I sometimes found it distracting. I wanted Clayton to move slightly faster with the plot or a tumultuous scene and be spared every single detail. The pacing of The Belles ultimately led me to rate this book four stars instead of five. At over 400 pages, some of the details could surely have been spared.

This book is a wonderful reimagining of our society’s obsession with physical appearances and beauty. Clayton makes a number of jabs at forced unrealistic body modifications and the desire to look like someone else. Camellia, and presumably the other Belles but the reader is not privy to their inner thoughts, hesitates to alter someone’s appearance drastically or negatively. She believes that humans should look different from one another. In The Belles, the characters most obsessed with beauty are portrayed negatively, which again serves as a criticism of our culture. On the positive side, I loved that Clayton showcased a wide variety of hair colors and textures, skin tones, and facial features without privileging a specific look. This choice not only proves that diversity can be this easy, but also emphasizes that beauty is not one look only. Humans come in all shapes, sizes, and colors, and all of which are beautiful.

I really liked Camellia as a protagonist. And this may seem odd, but one of my favorite things about Camellia is that she always acts her age. By this, I mean that Clayton knows how a sixteen year old girl behaves. Despite the enormous pressure Camellia faces, we see her real age and self as she interacts with boys for the first time, learns to stand up for herself, and has lots of impulsive reactions. I also loved the strong female-female relationships showcased in this book. While not all of these relationships were positive, a number were. Camellia and Bree, her servant, are honest and trusting of one another. And Camellia has a beautiful sisterly relationship with her Belle sisters that feels realistic and heartfelt. Clayton clearly prioritized having well-defined characters, and it shows.

Wrap Up:

Overall, I really enjoyed this book! The Belles is a fun read that I would definitely recommend for some light weekend reading. I think this book serves as a great introduction to the as yet unpublished books in this series, and this one ends on a nice cliffhanger. This is a YA book, but I don’t think that should stop adults from reading The Belles!

This book is…

detailed

surprising

diverse

lengthy

a great first book for this series

Publisher: Disney-Hyperion

Genre: YA fantasy

Page Count: 440

ISBN: 1484728491

Available here from IndieBound.

Have you read The Belles? What YA fantasy book would you recommend?

I am an affiliate with IndieBound and as such, receive a tiny commission should you choose to click through any of the above links and purchase the book(s). Thank you for supporting A Word is Power!