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Girl Well Read

Developmental Editor by day, Book Blogger by night.

Hum If You Don't Know the Words by Bianca Marais

Hum If You Don't Know the Words - Bianca Marais

A special thank you to Penguin Random House First To Read for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Set in South Africa during Apartheid, the lives of two people collide and an unlikely bond is formed.  Robin Conrad is a nine-year-old white girl living with her parents in Johannesburg.  Beauty Mbali is a Xhosa woman in a rural village in the Bantu homeland of the Transkei who has been widowed and left to raise her three children.  Divided by race, the two meet as a result of circumstances stemmed from the Soweto Uprising—a protest by black students ignites racial conflict in which Robin's parents are casualties, and Beauty's daughter goes missing.

Robin is sent to live with her irresponsible aunt, and Beauty is hired to take care of Robin while continuing to look for her daughter.  Beauty and Robin become dependent on one another to fill the voids of their lost loved ones.  With the threat of Beauty abandoning her once her daughter is found, Robin makes a decision without understanding the magnitude it will have on Beauty, also failing to realize that this could cost her everything she loves.  Robin is taken on a journey of self-discovery, love, loss, racism, and what family truly means.

Told from alternating perspectives, Marais creates a strong character in Beauty, and an unreliable/naive one in Robin.  There were times where Robin was endearing, and other times she was unbelievably precocious and this, along with the ending, was the reason I didn't love the story.  Would Beauty, after everything she had gone through, really have let Robin save the day? 

I had incredible admiration for Beauty, not only for her intelligence, but for her compassion.  Her stoicism and strength when met with such adversity was nothing short of amazing and I wish that the entire story was told from her perspective.  She is well-written without being trivialized, Marais shines through her characterization.

Source: http://girlwellread.blogspot.ca/2017/06/hum-if-you-dont-know-words-by-bianca.html

The Lying Game by Ruth Ware

The Lying Game: A Novel - Helen Ruth Elizabeth Ware

A special thank you to NetGalley and Simon & Schuster Canada for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

 

After devouring The Woman in Cabin 10, I was excited to get my hands on another Ruth Ware book.  Initially I was enjoying this book, especially the parts that take place at the boarding school, but I didn't fully buy in.  I don't want to make comparisons, and whether this was on purpose or not, but there were echos of The Secret History by Donna Tartt.  Is Donna Tartt not one of the most brilliant literary voices?  This seems like a compliment, right?  But in fact, this comparison does this book a disservice because Ware is a strong enough writer to stand on her own and not have to draw on this inspiration.  Again, this may be me creating the parallel between the two, so I'll move on.  But it's there: the exclusivity, the boarding school, the murder, the circumstances, the lasting effects of the death on the group, and that it is a murder mystery in reverse. 

 

There is an immediate hook—a woman is walking her dog in the quaint coastal village of Salten along the section of river known as the Reach where the tide meets the stream.  Her dog charges into the water to retrieve what is perceived to be a large stick, when in fact it is a human bone.  

 

The next morning, three women—Isa, Fatima, and Thea—get a text from Kate, the fourth in their exclusive group, that simply says "I need you".  Hoping they would never get this request, they drop everything and rush back to Salten.  The girls were a fearless foursome at the Salten House boarding school.  They used to play the Lying Game which involved telling the most outrageous things to people for points.  Only there are rules: tell a lie, stick to your story, don't get caught, never lie to each other, and know when to stop the lie.  For some, the lines become blurred with what are actual facts versus what is fantasy.  Ware reveals bits and pieces of the girl's time at the Salten boarding school, and how extreme the game got—they were all expelled in their final year under mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of the art teacher, Ambrose, who also happens to be Kate's eccentric father. 

 

Where this book stumbles is with our narrator, Isa.  She is a new mother, and Ware loses the plot because this character is so consumed by this role.  The baby proves to be a distraction for both Isa and the reader which ultimately detracts from the story.  Without the baby, Isa could still be an unreliable narrator—her memories of events are viewed through the lens of a naive young girl who seems enchanted with Ambrose, Kate, and Luc (the step-son/step-brother). More of the girls' time at school needed to be written and the other characters needed more attention.  I found it a stretch that these girls were only friends for such a short time, yet remained so incredibly loyal over the span of 17 years.  There was simply so much more to the story.  Ware took a wrong direction, not in using Isa as our narrator, but with hinging so much of her character on being a mother.  The boarding school, and the girls' past is paramount to the plot, yet none of the characters were really fleshed out.  

Hello Sunshine by Laura Dave

Hello, Sunshine: A Novel - Laura Dave

A special thank you to NetGalley and Simon & Schuster for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Sunshine Mackenzie seems to have it all and is truly living the perfect life.  She has a successful YouTube cooking show, a series of cookbooks that would rival any lifestyle celebrity's, a devoted husband, and millions of followers.  With a name like Sunshine, she radiates kindness; in actual fact, she is hiding who she really is.  After a few tweets, Sunshine experiences a catastrophic fall from grace.  She is left to pick up the pieces and reconnect with who she really is.

I really liked this foray into the effects of social media on one's life, and the pitfalls it can have on your social standing.  Without giving a preachy commentary about how toxic social media can be, a lighthearted chick-lit novel is just the remedy one needs to remind themselves that everyone's life is not as picture-perfect as Instagram and Pinterest would lead one to believe.

My only criticism is with the actual characters themselves.  Although Dave pens them as complex, there aren't any redeeming qualities, and the likability factor just wasn't there for me.  For a novel that was about the superficiality of social media, I expected more.    
The pace was on point, I was drawn in with her effortless writing style but was left unsatisfied by the ending.  That being said, I would definitely pick up another book by Laura Dave.

Fierce Kingdom: A Novel by Gin Phillips

Fierce Kingdom: A Novel - Gin Phillips

A special thank you to NetGalley and Penguin Random House Canada for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Joan and her four-year-old son, Lincoln, have just spent a leisurely day at their local zoo.  Estimating that it is almost closing time, Joan gathers up her son and his toys, and starts their journey towards the exit.  She quickly realizes that something is amiss—there is a shooter.  She gathers Lincoln in her arms and runs back into the zoo.  They are now trapped like the animals.     

Keeping one step ahead, Joan relies on her instincts and previous zoo trips to keep her and her little boy safe.  Her survival instincts kick into overdrive when she discovers there are others that are also trapped, and that there is more than one shooter.  Joan is determined for her and Lincoln to walk out of this alive.  The only communication she has with the outside world and her husband is via her cell phone and she realizes this same lifeline is also putting them at risk.  In a rash, but clever decision, Joan uses her cell phone as a decoy and throws the glowing object into the bushes. 

Phillips' primal and raw novel illustrates the powerful bond between a mother and her child and the lengths a mother will go to in order to protect her child.  This riveting novel pits a mother's love against fear, good against evil, and instinct against rationality.  Spanning three hours, this incredible story will have you mesmerized and your heart pounding until the very last word. 

A Tragic Kind of Wonderful by Eric Lindstrom

A Tragic Kind of Wonderful - Eric Lindstrom

A special thank you to NetGalley and HarperCollins UK for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Sixteen-year-old Mel Hannigan has bipolar disorder and she is learning to balance life, relationships, and feelings.  Thinking that she will be abandoned when her friends find out things she has been pushing down, parts of her past, and also parts of who she is—what makes her Mel—she keeps them at a distance, even going so far as to terminate friendships.

This was a mixed bag for me.  I applaud Lindstrom for tackling such an important topic, especially for this genre, but it came up short.  There was a lot going on, he took on too much at once, and this distracted from the beautiful raw emotion that should have been capitalized on.  There were characters that took away from the main storyline and then there were characters, like Nolan, that were not explored enough.

Without sounding harsh, I found Mel to be bright, confident, and honest, and the way she tracked her feelings was incredibly juvenile.  This is where her relationship with the retired doctor could have been fleshed out—this was a flaw in the storyline, there was a beautiful and honest relationship that was never explored.  This could have been the vehicle to her memories of Nolan.  

All-in-all, a good read, and I would like to read Not If I See You First.

The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman

The Rules of Magic - Alice Hoffman

A special thank you to Edelweiss and Simon & Schuster for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Hoffman revisits the Owens family in this prequel to Practical Magic.  For hundreds of years, the Owens women have been blamed for everything that has gone wrong in their Massachusetts town.  It all started in 1620 when Maria Owens was charged with witchery for falling in love with the wrong man.  Hundreds of years later in New York City, Susanna Owens knows all too well the dangers of falling in love, and tries to spare her three children from the curse.  This means no walking in the moonlight, no red shoes, no wearing black, no books about magic, and most importantly, no falling in love!  Franny, her most difficult child, has hair the colour of blood, and skin as white as milk; Jet is a dark-haired shy beauty who can read other people's thoughts; and Vincent, irresistible to women, is full of trouble.

The Owens children visit their Aunt Isabelle at her home in Massachusetts where they uncover family secrets, and the truth of who they really are.  Feared and revered, it is made clear that this next generation of Owens will not be exempt from the scorn of the townspeople, that is until they want something that only magic can cure.
Back in New York City, each of the Owens children begins on their own journey of discovery while trying to avoid the family curse by not falling in love.  They cannot escape the magic, just as they cannot escape love and the bonds they share.

Thrilling and magical, this beautiful work sets the table—the sisters grow up to be the aunts from Practical Magic, while Vincent leaves behind the legacy that will define the Owens women.  Rich with imagery and prose, Hoffman sprinkles pop-culture and history in this beautiful story of love, loss, and magic, and I simply did not want it to end.

White Horses by Alice Hoffman

White Horses - Alice Hoffman

A special thank you to NetGalley and Open Road Integrated Media for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

For those of you who read my reviews, you know how much I love Alice Hoffman's words.  Hoffman could teach a master class.  You know those online seminars that you see advertised on social media sites?  Well, Alice Hoffman should lead one.

Teresa's mother, Dina, fills her head with bedtime stories of an Aria—a dark-eyed fearless hero on a white horse who would come and rescue her.  Aria's are rule breakers and so is her brother, Silver, who Teresa comes to believe is one of these fabled men.  Instead of a fairytale, Teresa and Silver's relationship is dark and dysfunctional, not unlike her mother's relationship with her father, King Connors.  The women in this story are swayed by myth and folklore instead of realizing that they can rescue themselves and be their own hero.  It doesn't help that women can't seem to resist Silver, this only fuels Teresa's belief of him being an Aria.

This story may not sit well with all readers due to the incestuous relationship that is the underlying current of the novel.  There is so much more going on here, Hoffman explores when when fantasy collides with reality and its repercussions.  Teresa must change who she loves and rewrite her story into something real and not forbidden and taboo before she loses herself in myth and fantasy.

Every Last Lie by Mary Kubica

Every Last Lie - Mary Kubica

A special thank you to NetGalley and Harlequin Canada for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

 

Clara Solberg and her husband Nick seem to have it all—a  great marriage, two healthy children, and a successful dental practice.  That is until Nick and the couple's four-year-old daughter, Maisie, are in a car accident that claims Nick's life.  Clara is only a few days postpartum and her emotions are running the gamut from shock, grief, confusion, disbelief, and now paranoia that is fuelled by Maisie's night terrors of "the bad man".  

 

Although the crash is ruled an accident, that Nick was speeding and lost control, Clara can't stop obsessing that Nick was run off the road.  It is here where Kubica turns truths into lies, and secrets start to take flight.  She is a master at this genre.  

 

Told in alternating perspectives of Clara in the present day, and Nick leading up to the accident, Every Last Lie accelerates in pace and suspense, but ultimately stalls out at the end.  Unfortunately with this ending, Kubica negates all of the suspense and build up she so masterfully weaves throughout.  That being said, I would still recommend the book and any of her other works.

 

See What I Have Done

See What I Have Done - Sarah Schmidt

A special thank you to Edelweiss, NetGalley, Grove Atlantic, and Atlantic Monthly Press for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

 

Lizzie Borden took an axe

And gave her mother forty whacks

When she saw what she had done,

She gave her father forty-one

 

Or did she?

 

I'm not going to lie, I kept putting this one down.  The opening chapter narrated by Lizzie was well-written with a nice hook, and then the second chapter narrated by her sister Emma threw me off.  However, I limped through it, and then a few more chapters here and there, and then I couldn't put it down.  This book was well-written and captivating, especially for a debut, and I would definitely recommend it.

 

In See What I Have Done, Schmidt takes on the daunting genre of historical fiction with her account of one of the most famous murder cases of all time with.  Lizzie Borden's father and step-mother are found bludgeoned to death at the Borden residence.  Told from multiple perspectives, the reader goes inside the mind of the unreliable Lizzie, her older sister Emma, the Irish maid Bridget, and a mysterious stranger Benjamin who has ties to the family.  This multiperspectivity works brilliantly and while I enjoyed Lizzie's chapters the most, the other perspectives were needed to balance out the story.  

 

Schmidt juxtaposes the visual imagery of sickness—blood, vomit, rotting food—against the relationships of the family.  This is more than fiction, it is a foray into the human psyche and a study of the most intimate kind of relationships.

The Child by Fiona Barton

The Child - Fiona Barton

A special thank you to NetGalley and Penguin Random House Canada for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Dubbed a psychological thriller, Barton's newest work takes us to a London construction site where the skeletal remains of a baby are found.  Kate Waters, a local reporter, decides to pursue the story of The 'Building Site Baby'.  As she investigates, she discovers connections to a decade-old kidnapping of a newborn baby from the maternity ward of a local hospital—the baby girl was never found.  Waters is drawn into the past of the people who once lived in the neighbourhood.  Told from multiple points of view, truths are revealed, and Kate must decide which secrets to keep and which to tell.

Without spoiling anything, there is a fantastic plot twist that is brilliantly executed.  A slow burn, but worth your patience.  

The Story of Arthur Truluv

The Story of Arthur Truluv: A Novel - Elizabeth Berg

A special thank you to NetGalley and Random House for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

In the same vein as A Man Called Ove, Berg's latest novel doesn't disappoint. This delightful, easy read is about three people whose lives intersect because of loss. Arthur is a widow that visits his dead wife's grave every day to have lunch with her; it is here that he meets Maddy, a teenager who hides out in the cemetery to avoid high school. Although they are an odd pairing, Berg's character development brings their relationships with loss and loneliness to an end and in its place, creates a beautiful friendship. Lucille is Arthur's neighbour. She is incredibly forward and the epitome of a nosy neighbour, but totally endearing. Fresh from a loss of her own, she becomes part of their makeshift family. 

My only criticism is that I wanted more from the relationships. I wanted more Nola and Arthur, and more of Maddy and her father. If Berg had fleshed out these relationships, the story wouldn't be so saccharin-sweet.

Saints for All Occasions by J. Courtney Sullivan

Saints for All Occasions - J. Courtney Sullivan

A special thank you to Edelweiss and Knopf Publishing Group for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Two sisters, 21-year-old Nora and 17-year-old Theresa Flynn, leave their small village in Ireland and embark on a journey that will bring them to America. 

Nora is the more responsible of the two; she is practical and shy and accepts the proposal of a man she isn't entirely sure she is in love with.  Theresa is a free sprit that is easily charmed with her new life in Boston which includes dresses and dance halls.  When Theresa ends up pregnant, it is Nora that comes up with a plan that ultimately changes the course of their lives.

Fifty years pass—Nora has four grown children: John, a successful political consultant; Bridget, in a relationship and preparing for a baby; Brian, a former baseball player who has moved back in with Nora; and Patrick, Nora's favourite child, who is responsible for causing much heartache to those around him.  Estranged from Nora, Theresa lives in Vermont in a secluded abbey and is a practicing nun. 

After decades of not speaking, a death in the family forces the sisters to confront the choices they have made and each other.  This is a beautiful, sweeping novel about relationships, family, secrets, and sacrifice.  

The Good Earth

The Good Earth - Pearl S. Buck, Nick Bertozzi

A special thank you to Edelweiss and Simon & Schuster for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

 
This graphic novel by Nick Bertozzi gives a makeover to Pearl S. Buck's 1931 Pulitzer Prize-winning classic about the rise and fall of Chinese villagers before WWI.  
 
Disclaimer: I didn't realize I was requesting a comic/graphic novel adaptation.  If I had realized this, I wouldn't have requested the title.  That being said, I was pleasantly surprised.  This actually works as a graphic novel and I think that it will put this classic willingly into the hands of the YA audience.

Baby Doll by Hollie Overton

Baby Doll - Hollie Overton

A special thank you to NetGalley and Redhood Books for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Lily was abducted when she was sixteen and has been held captive for eight years in a cabin basement.  During this time, she has given birth to a daughter.  One fateful night, Lily realizes that he has forgotten to lock the door, or is this another test?  Lily wakes her daughter and flees into the night.  Overton's story is what happens next. 

The book has no real surprises or plot twists; there is nothing shocking, are no revelations, and the writing is average at best.  She could have done much more with the characters—especially Lily given that she was held captive for so long and experienced horrific abuse and neglect.  She would need intense therapy to overcome the incredible trauma endured, but that is not the angle that Overton took with Lily's story, even though it mostly takes place after she returns home.

The opening few chapters are the best in the book.  There was definitely a hook, and my criticisms aside, there's some good writing in these beginning chapters. 

Please stop trying to hook people by mentioning Gone Girl and Girl on the Train when marketing your book.  If anything, this is closer to Room, but again, you should just not do these comparisons when a book is sub par to all of the books mentioned in this paragraph.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine - Gail Honeyman

A special thank you to NetGalley and Penguin Random House Canada for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Eleanor Oliphant leads a simple, mundane life, and operates on the same routine every day—she  wears the same clothes to work, eats the same meal for lunch from the same location, makes the same dinners, and every weekend buys the same kind of pizza with the same kind of wine, and two bottles of vodka to get her through the weekend.  She is incredibly isolated and lonely with no benchmark of how life should be.  From a random act of kindness Eleanor realizes exactly what she's been missing and how much better life can be.   

The description of Honeyman's debut made it sound like a Bridget Jones type novel. Eleanor is a 30 year-old singleton, living in the city, who drinks a lot, but that is where the comparison ends.  In fact, I actually thought that Eleanor may be on the Autism spectrum because of her routines, the difficulty she has in social settings, and her formal speech.  However, her behaviour stems from suffering a childhood trauma, and also not having any family or friends to help guide her in social situations—she has been alone for so long that she has no point of reference with things like pop culture, and relationships in general.  She is also victim of mental abuse every Wednesday when she talks to her 'Mummy' on the phone.

The novel unfolds through Eleanor and at times she is an unreliable narrator that serves the story perfectly.  Incredibly sad at times, this exploration of the human spirit was a bright debut and I highly recommend it.

The Change Room

The Change Room - Karen Connelly

A special thank you to NetGalley and Penguin Random House for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

This book was a recommendation from NetGalley. To be honest, this is not a genre I typically read so I was simply going to delete the email and move on, but after reading a glowing endorsement by Ami McKay (author of The Birth House, The Virgin Cure, and The Witches of New York), I decided to give it a chance. I was caught by surprise, Connelly's writing is really good—she captures the psyche of a middle-aged mother/wife/woman so well against a really cool setting (for those of us who are lucky enough to be based in and around Toronto).

Erotic. Truthful. Clever. Connelly begs the question: does anyone really have it all?