Review: Girls on Fire #WeekofReviews

Girls on Fire, Robin Wasserman

Published May 17th 2016 by Harper

Hardcover, 368 pages

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Girls on Fire tells the story of Hannah and Lacey and their obsessive teenage female friendship so passionately violent it bloodies the very sunset its protagonists insist on riding into, together, at any cost. Opening with a suicide whose aftermath brings good girl Hannah together with the town’s bad girl, Lacey, the two bring their combined wills to bear on the community in which they live; unconcerned by the mounting discomfort that their lust for chaos and rebellion causes the inhabitants of their parochial small town, they think they are invulnerable.

But Lacey has a secret, about life before her better half, and it’s a secret that will change everything..

Let me just say, I’m among a few black sheep on this book.  I saw Michelle at That’s What She Read raving about this story of unhealthy high school friendships in the 90s and I couldn’t wait to pick it up.  As one who had my share of unhealthy high school friendships in the 90s I thought this description sounded amazing.  But for me, it just wasn’t.  

It isn’t the writing – I thought that was great.  Something about Hannah and Lacey’s story just went too far for me.  It went from feeling real to just shy of ridiculous.  Yes friendships are that intense as Hannah and Lacey’s was – two girls against the world.  Music can be a lifeline as with Lacey’s beloved Kurt Cobain, drugs are there for experimenting and horrible things happen between teenagers.  But all in all it was just too much for me – the drugs, the perception of satanism, the sex, the violence – too much!

Shannon at River City Reading has this post praising The Girls by Emma Cline and Dear Fang, With Love by Rufi Thorpe both of which I’m dying to get my hands on.  It sounds like maybe these will give me the look back into the teenage girl that I wanted from Girls on Fire.  If I ever get off the library hold list that is!

Thank you Harper and Edelweiss for this advance copy in exchange for an honest opinion.

Visit Estella’s Revenge for more #WeekofReviews! 

Review: Sweetbitter

Sweetbitter, Stephanie Danler

Publication: May 24th 2016 by Knopf

Hardcover, 368 pages

Source: ARC gifted from a friend

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“Let’s say I was born when I came over the George Washington Bridge…”

This is how we meet unforgettable Tess, the twenty-two-year-old at the heart of this stunning first novel. Shot from a mundane, provincial past, she’s come to New York to look for a life she can’t define, except as a burning drive to become someone, to belong somewhere. After she stumbles into a coveted job at a renowned Union Square restaurant, we spend the year with her as she learns the chaotic, punishing, privileged life of a “backwaiter,” on duty and off. Her appetites—for food, wine, knowledge, and every kind of experience—are awakened. And she’s pulled into the magnetic thrall of two other servers—a handsome bartender she falls hard for, and an older woman she latches onto with an orphan’s ardor.

These two and their enigmatic connection to each other will prove to be Tess’s hardest lesson of all. Sweetbitter is a story of discovery, enchantment, and the power of what remains after disillusionment.

I think this is my favorite read of 2016 so far.  I don’t think I’m ever going to feel the same way dining out at a nice restaurant.  Tess leaves her childhood home and her life as she’s known it behind at 22 and heads to New York to find her adult path.  She almost never looks back.  She lucks into an apartment to share and a job at an unnamed restaurant in Union Square where she’s hired as a backwaiter.  The training, the hazing, the bar towels, the wine, the food, the semi-incestuous staff relationships, the management, the FOOD, the drugs.  So many things are going on in a restaurant and I had no idea!

Tess navigates new friendships and toxic relationships with the bravado and bluster every 22 year-old should have.  She’s brave and she’s thoughtless and I just loved her story.   The writing is intense and enthralling.  I loved the slips into stream of consciousness as Tess lived out her days at the restaurant.    

Once you admit you want things to taste like more or better versions of themselves – once you commit to flavor as your god – the rest follows.  I started adding salt to everything.  My tongue grew calloused, abraded, overworked.  You want the fish to taste like fish, but fish times a thousand.  Times a million.  Fish on crack.  I was lucky I never tried crack.

Read this with a glass of wine – skip the crack.  Then come talk to me about it!  I’m going to be reading this again soon and then hoping to be out at a great restaurant watching the staff.

Review: My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry

My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry, Fredrik Backman

Published June 16th 2015 by Atria Books

Hardcover, 372 pages

Source: Library

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From the author of the internationally bestselling ‘A Man Called Ove’, a novel about a young girl whose grandmother dies and leaves behind a series of letters, sending her on a journey that brings to life the world of her grandmother’s fairy tales.

Elsa is seven years old and different. Her grandmother is seventy-seven years old and crazy, standing-on-the-balcony-firing-paintball-guns-at-men-who-want-to-talk-about-Jesus-crazy. She is also Elsa’s best, and only, friend. At night Elsa takes refuge in her grandmother’s stories, in the Land of Almost-Awake and the Kingdom of Miamas where everybody is different and nobody needs to be normal.

When Elsa’s grandmother dies and leaves behind a series of letters apologizing to people she has wronged, Elsa’s greatest adventure begins. Her grandmother’s letters lead her to an apartment building full of drunks, monsters, attack dogs, and totally ordinary old crones, but also to the truth about fairytales and kingdoms and a grandmother like no other.

If you haven’t read A Man Called Ove I have to respectfully ask what the hell you’re waiting for?!  Frederik Backman broke my feelings into tiny pieces and he tried to do it again with last year’s My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You I’m Sorry.  I was afraid that Backman wouldn’t work magic twice and so I waited too long to pick this up. I was wrong.   

Elsa’s grandmother is batty – totally batty.  We meet Elsa and her Granny after they’ve broken into the zoo and granny has been arrested.  Not what you expect for a woman with her 7 (almost 8) year-old grandmother.  Elsa basically broke my heart.  She’s smart and precocious and she’s bullied and so lonely.  Granny tells her stories to help her to be brave and to fall asleep at night.  They journey every night to a fairy tale world with warriors and Beasts, dreams and magic.  Every child needs someone like Granny in their lives because she was brilliant and amazing.   

Having a grandmother is like having an army.  This is a grandchild’s ultimate privilege: knowing that someone is on your side, always, whatever the details.

But then Granny dies.  Elsa is left friendless and without her champion.  Her mother is 8 months pregnant with her new half-sibling, affectionately called Halfie, and Elsa is excited but unsure of her place in her family.  Elsa and her Granny were neighbors in an apartment building of odd characters.  There’s Alf, who drives a cab; the boy with the syndrome; and Britt-Marie, who is a nag bag to name a few.  Granny leaves Elsa with a letter for one of these neighbors with an apology and ends up leading Elsa on a quest to find magic and friendship.  Once again Backman made me laugh out loud and cry while reading.  I loved how strong and brave Granny was and what she taught Elsa along the way. 

If I can’t convince you will all of the above let me leave you with this quote:

And there’s a Russian playwright who once said that if there’s a pistol hanging on the wall in the first act, it has to be fired before the last act is over.  

Any book that references Chekov’s gun on the wall has to be a winner!  Read it!  I didn’t make the mistake of waiting to read Backman’s next book.  I’ve already devoured his May 2016 release and will review it soon!  But I will say for now that you don’t want to miss it.  Backman is magic – if magic brings both tears and laughter while reading.

Review: Jane Steele

Jane Steele, Lyndsay Faye

Published March 22nd 2016 by G.P. Putnam’s Sons

Kindle Edition, 427 pages

Source: Penguin First to Read

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“Reader, I murdered him.”

A sensitive orphan, Jane Steele suffers first at the hands of her spiteful aunt and predatory cousin, then at a grim school where she fights for her very life until escaping to London, leaving the corpses of her tormentors behind her. After years of hiding from the law while penning macabre “last confessions” of the recently hanged, Jane thrills at discovering an advertisement.  Her aunt has died and her childhood home has a new master: Mr. Charles Thornfield, who seeks a governess.

Burning to know whether she is in fact the rightful heir, Jane takes the position incognito, and learns that Highgate House is full of marvelously strange new residents—the fascinating but caustic Mr. Thornfield, an army doctor returned from the Sikh Wars, and the gracious Sikh butler Mr. Sardar Singh, whose history with Mr. Thornfield appears far deeper and darker than they pretend. As Jane catches ominous glimpses of the pair’s violent history and falls in love with the gruffly tragic Mr. Thornfield, she faces a terrible dilemma: can she possess him—body, soul, and secrets—without revealing her own murderous past?

“Reader, I murdered him.”  

Who doesn’t want to read this book based on that line?  So let me tell you, Reader, it was amazing.  I was a bit unsure at first as I read, wondering just how beloved Jane Eyre could be turned into a murderess.  Then Jane Steele herself holds Eyre up as a model of nearly all goodness and I realized how very different these characters would be.  Jane Steele is orphaned and is sent by her aunt to away to school, these facts and that she later becomes a governess are pretty much where her similarities to Jane Eyre end.  Jane Steele is funny!  She’s smart.  She’s quick on her feet.  Most importantly she realizes violence is necessary to save herself at times.  

As excited as I was to read this book I did not think I would get too attached to our murderess but I really did.  I was expecting a cold-hearted sociopath.  What Faye delivers is a child who is lost without her mother, preyed on by a creepy cousin and then delivered into a school that sounds like hell.  No wonder she turns to murder!  Really when you consider what she’s been through she is very brave!  Jane is also loyal and remarkably honest.  She grows into a remarkably thoughtful young woman, despite her views of herself.  

I’ve seen some complaints in reviews about the second half of the book where Jane returns to Highgate House being slow.  I thought this half was nearly faster than the beginning and the gothic feel much lighter.  I loved the addition of the Sikh party at Highgate House and how comfortably teaching Jane about their religion and history in India flowed with the story.  The romance was sweet and completely appropriate for the book.   I was nervous for Jane while she wrestled with the question of how to meld her past and  her hopes with  Mr. Thornfield (and I loved Thornfield!).  In the end I was just delighted and completely entertained.

Now that I’ve read my second successful Jane Eyre related book (Re Jane was another great book!) I am definitely going to have to go back to the classic.  

4 stars!

Thank you GP Putnam and Penguin First to Read for this advance copy in exchange for an honest opinion!

Review: The Passenger

The Passenger, Lisa Lutz

Hardcover, 320 pages

Expected publication: March 1st 2016 by Simon & Schuster

26154406In case you were wondering, I didn’t do it. I didn’t have anything to do with Frank’s death. I don’t have an alibi, so you’ll have to take my word for it…

Forty-eight hours after leaving her husband’s body at the base of the stairs, Tanya Dubois cashes in her credit cards, dyes her hair brown, demands a new name from a shadowy voice over the phone, and flees town. It’s not the first time.

She meets Blue, a female bartender who recognizes the hunted look in a fugitive’s eyes and offers her a place to stay. With dwindling choices, Tanya-now-Amelia accepts. An uneasy―and dangerous―alliance is born.

It’s almost impossible to live off the grid today, but Amelia-now-Debra and Blue have the courage, the ingenuity, and the desperation, to try. Hopscotching from city to city, Debra especially is chased by a very dark secret…can she outrun her past?

I’ll start with a confession, I bought my first Lisa Lutz book years ago –The Spellman Files– and still it sits on my kindle unread.  I will be remedying that shortly.  

Tanya finds her husband’s body at the foot of the stairs in their home after his natural – but unexpected – death.  Rather than deal with any questions from the police Tanya packs a bag and leaves town. Who does that?  Tanya calls in a favor and becomes Amelia, which is the first of many names that we’ll get to know her as.  Tanya/Amelia crosses paths with many people who both help her and hinder her passage.  Most importantly she meets Blue; and in Blue Amelia seems to have found a true friend with a plan that will free them both from their pasts.  But is it really a safe road?

There were a few scenes where things were rushed, but since the book was so fast paced it didn’t take away too much from the overall enjoyment of the read.  The emails interspersing chapters between a mysterious Jo and Ryan only made me more curious about who Tanya really was and what she was hiding from.  I won’t spoil the ending, but I will just say those were twists I never saw coming!  I loved how Lutz wrapped everything up.  Pick this up when you have time to race through it because you won’t want to put The Passenger down. 

4 stars

Thank you Simon & Schuster and NetGalley for this advance copy in exchange for an honest review!

Review: The Gracekeepers

The Gracekeepers, Kirsty Logan

Hardcover, 320 pages

Published May 19th 2015 by Crown

Source: e-ARC from Edelweiss

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As a Gracekeeper, Callanish administers shoreside burials, sending the dead to their final resting place deep in the depths of the ocean. Alone on her island, she has exiled herself to a life of tending watery graves as penance for a long-ago mistake that still haunts her. Meanwhile, North works as a circus performer with the Excalibur, a floating troupe of acrobats, clowns, dancers, and trainers who sail from one archipelago to the next, entertaining in exchange for sustenance.

In a world divided between those inhabiting the mainland (“landlockers”) and those who float on the sea (“damplings”), loneliness has become a way of life for North and Callanish, until a sudden storm offshore brings change to both their lives–offering them a new understanding of the world they live in and the consequences of the past, while restoring hope in an unexpected future.

This was a very strange book.  It was I think a future on Earth in which water has taken over most of the world.  We have the damplings who live on boats vs. the landlockers who live on what islands are left or what they can build out from those islands.  North dances with her bear on a circus boat and Callanish is a Gracekeeper.  If this had been a story just about the Gracekeepers I might have been into it.  The Gracekeepers perform ritualistic burials at sea for the damplings – this was still odd but kind of beautiful.  I think more worldbuilding in the beginning might have set me up to enjoy this book more.  I felt like I was just dumped onto a boat without enough perspective.

North was born to circus life, while Callanish chose to leave her island and live in a hut at the equator to perform restings.  What exactly brought Callanish to this decision was never totally laid out which frustrated me.  North’s path seems fraught with danger and I read with a feeling of dread throughout.  Oddly enough that’s what kept me reading, but that really didn’t pay off for me.  I knew something terrible would happen, I just thought something amazing could still come from it.  The writing was beautiful at times, but this book was just not for me.  All around I just would have liked more – what was given of each character’s story could have had so much more depth and too many questions were left unanswered.

The sea was an endless battlefield, and the deeper you went the worse it got, because everything that died had nowhere to go but down.  In its darkest depths, the sea was nothing but an endless rain of bone, teeth, scales and flesh.

2 stars

Thank you Crown and Edelweiss for this advance copy in exchange for an honest opinion.

All quotes taken from an unfinished copy in advance of publication.

Review: The Guest Room

The Guest Room, Chris Bohjalian

Published January 5th 2016 by Doubleday

Hardcover, 336 pages

Source: e-ARC from Edelweiss

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When Kristin Chapman agrees to let her husband, Richard, host his brother’s bachelor party, she expects a certain amount of debauchery. She brings their young daughter to Manhattan for the evening, leaving her Westchester home to the men and their hired entertainment. What she does not expect is this: bacchanalian drunkenness, her husband sharing a dangerously intimate moment in the guest room, and two women stabbing and killing their Russian bodyguards before driving off into the night.

In the aftermath, Kristin and Richard’s life rapidly spirals into nightmare. The police throw them out of their home, now a crime scene, Richard’s investment banking firm puts him on indefinite leave, and Kristin is unsure if she can forgive her husband for the moment he shared with a dark-haired girl in the guest room. But the dark-haired girl, Alexandra, faces a much graver danger. In one breathless, violent night, she is free, running to escape the police who will arrest her and the gangsters who will kill her in a heartbeat.

I read The Guest Room in a day – not a stay at home reading day – granted a ridiculous train commute added to my reading time – but I worked all day and found time to finish.  That’s how compelling this book was!  Chris Bohjalian tweeted at me when I said I was in shock, “My books walk a tightrope between heartbreak and hope.  Never sure on which side they will end up.”  That’s a pretty accurate summation of my feelings at the end of this one.  Heartbroken and hopeful both.  

Richard is kind of an idiot for offering to host his brother’s bachelor party in his family home – and from that bad decision many others play out.  Another friend arranges for strippers to be at the party, but they didn’t expect the strippers to be sex slaves who kill their bodyguards and run.  I feel like this book could have been turned simply into a simple mystery with a lot of action and gore – it is what makes Bohjalian so great that this was an extremely emotional read while still tense and compelling.  

We follow Richard, his wife Kristin, and their young daughter Melissa as they each try to deal with what happened and recenter their family after such a violation of their home – both by Richard and by the murder.  We also follow Alexandra and learn how she went from an Armenian school girl to a victim of an international slavery ring.  Her story is all the more heartbreaking when you realize how disgustingly common it is.  Alexandra’s story pulls no punches – the language is graphic and her life is violent.  This was a strong juxtaposition to the chapters from the point of view of Richard’s spoiled 9 year-old.  What very different lives for these girls.  I was really surprised at how invested I felt on both sides of the story though – I worried about Richard’s future nearly as much as I worried about Alexandra.  And oh his poor wife!  How do you stay married?!  What do you do? Clearly I’m definitely still reeling from this book and the ending.  This would be a great book club book – I very much need to talk it over with someone!  

This was so incredibly different than Bohjalian’s last book Close Your Eyes Hold Hands – which I also really enjoyed and also left me emotionally all over the place.   Last, if you check out his website you can read about the Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking and the work they do – check it out!

5 stars!

Thank you Doubleday and Edelweiss for this advance copy in exchange for an honest opinion.