Review: With or Without You

With or Without You
By Caroline Leavitt
Published August 4, 2020 by Algonquin Books

Publisher’s summary:
After almost twenty years together, Stella and Simon are starting to run into problems. An up-and-coming rock musician when they first met, Simon has been clinging to dreams of fame even as the possibility of it has grown dimmer, and now that his band might finally be on the brink again, he wants to go on the road, leaving Stella behind. But when she falls into a coma on the eve of his departure, he has to make a choice between stardom and his wife—and when she wakes a different person, with an incredible artistic talent of her own, the two of them must examine what it is that they really want.

Unapologetically honest and intimately written, With or Without You is a contemporary story of what happens to relationships as the people in them change, whether slowly or in one cataclysmic swoop.

With or Without You is a beautifully written book about a trio of slightly broken people facing crisis points in their lives.

Simon and Stella have been a couple for 20 years. She wants to get married and have a baby, but Simon is still pursuing his dreams of rockstardom. The night before he’s leavitt_jkt.inddsupposed to leave for a tour that could jumpstart his band’s career, Stella slips into a coma. Simon abandons the trip and stays by Stella’s side. As he navigates his life with Stella’s precarious condition, he finds himself growing close to Stella’s best friend, a doctor named Libby. When Stella emerges from her coma, her personality has changed and she is now a talented artist who can see into people’s souls when she draws them.

This was such a gripping book. I really felt for Stella. She comes out of the coma sort of lost. She was a dedicated nurse before, but now art is the only thing that brings her comfort. She tries to find her way back to Simon, but she’s just not the same person anymore. And Simon, who’s a bit of a manchild, is forced to pull himself together. His band moves on without him, and he gets a job. And then there’s Libby, who’s great at her job, but not so great at life. She’s Stella’s best friend, and although she initially doesn’t like Simon, they grown close as they bond over their shared love (and worry) for Stella.

This is a raw portrait of midlife crises. Stella was coming to a turning point before the coma, and she comes out of the coma deeply changed. I liked reading about her finding her passion for art and how it brings her peace. Simon’s passion is music, but he’s having to face the fact that stardom may have passed him by, and he has to figure out what his life will look like without that dream.

With or Without You is a really lovely book about love and change. While it’s a bit sad, it also shows that there’s hope in embracing change. I highly recommend it.

I received an ARC from the publisher.

Review: His & Hers

His & Hers
By Alice Feeney
Published July 28, 2020 by Flatiron Books/Macmillan Audio

Publisher’s summary:
There are two sides to every story: yours and mine, ours and theirs, His & Hers. Which means someone is always lying.

Anna Andrews finally has what she wants. Almost. She’s worked hard to become the main TV presenter of the BBC’s lunchtime news, putting work before friends, family, and her now ex-husband. So, when someone threatens to take her dream job away, she’ll do almost anything to keep it.

When asked to cover a murder in Blackdown―the sleepy countryside village where she grew up―Anna is reluctant to go. But when the victim turns out to be one of her childhood friends, she can’t leave. It soon becomes clear that Anna isn’t just covering the story, she’s at the heart of it.

DCI Jack Harper left London for a reason, but never thought he’d end up working in a place like Blackdown. When the body of a young woman is discovered, Jack decides not to tell anyone that he knew the victim, until he begins to realize he is a suspect in his own murder investigation.

One of them knows more than they are letting on. Someone isn’t telling the truth. Alternating between Anna’s and Jack’s points of view, His & Hers is a fast-paced, complex, and dark puzzle that will keep readers guessing until the very end.

His & Hers is the sort of fast-paced gripping thriller that’s perfect for summer. I’d call it a great vacation read except that so many of are not going anywhere during this corona summer. Let’s call it a great staycation read.

When a woman is murdered, the detective investigating the crime and the TV anchor Feeneyreporting on the crime find they’re both connected to the victim and to each other. They both have secrets and we’re never quite sure whether one of them might be the killer.

There’s a certain amount of suspension of disbelief that you will need going into this book. Yes, it’s a bit much to have the victim, the detective, and the reporter all connected to each other, but once you accept that, the story really takes off and it’s hard to put the book down. I’m saying very little about the plot because I think it’s better to go in not knowing much. I will say that the plot is twisty and dark, and the mystery is really well done.

I listened to the audiobook, and it’s really well done. The narration alternates between Jack (the detective, read by Richard Armitage) and Anna (the reporter, read by Stephanie Racine). Armitage is a great audiobook narrator, and he does a fine job as always. Racine is new to me, and her narration is really well done. There are interludes from the point of view of the killer that are read through a voice distorter, which is very effective and creepy in the audiobook. (I’m sure it’s still effective in the book, but perhaps not quite as chilling.)

The dual narrative is a good device for this story. Jack and Anna have all kinds of secrets, and they’re both unreliable narrators (my favorite kind). I was absorbed right up until the end when the final twist made my jaw drop. I love it when the resolution of a mystery is truly surprising.

I received an advanced listening copy from the publisher through NetGalley.

Review: Burn Our Bodies Down

Burn Our Bodies Down
By Rory Power
Published July 7, 2020 by Delacorte Press

Publisher’s summary:
Ever since Margot was born, it’s been just her and her mother. No answers to Margot’s questions about what came before. No history to hold on to. No relative to speak of. Just the two of them, stuck in their run-down apartment, struggling to get along.

But that’s not enough for Margot. She wants family. She wants a past. And she just found the key she needs to get it: A photograph, pointing her to a town called Phalene. Pointing her home. Only, when Margot gets there, it’s not what she bargained for.

Margot’s mother left for a reason. But was it to hide her past? Or was it to protect Margot from what’s still there?

The only thing Margot knows for sure is there’s poison in their family tree, and their roots are dug so deeply into Phalene that now that she’s there, she might never escape.

 

Burn Our Bodies Down is the creepy midwestern gothic book I didn’t know I needed in my life.

For her whole life, it’s been just Margot and her mother Josephine No father, no other Powerfamily. But life with her mother is hard. Josephine is emotionally abusive and Margot is constantly on edge, trying to keep from provoking her (and it takes very little to provoke her, and Margot never really knows what is going to set her off). It’s a lonely life, and when Margot finds information about her mother’s family, she goes in search of her grandmother.

Margot ends up in a dying small town, on a very creepy farm, with her very strange grandmother. The townspeople don’t like her family and she’s not exactly welcomed with open arms. Everything about the town, the farm, and her grandmother are weird and unsettling.

Rory Power is a really interesting writer and her books go into some dark places. This is such a well-done story, and Power really ramps up the tension. It’s a perfect gothic tale, and I found it totally gripping. Highly recommended.

I received a digital ARC from the publisher through NetGalley.

 

Review: Unravel the Dusk

Unravel the Dusk
By Elizabeth Lim
Published July 7, 2020 by Knopf

Publisher’s summary:
The thrilling sequel to SPIN THE DAWN, a magical series steeped in Chinese culture.

Maia Tamarin’s journey to sew the dresses of the sun, the moon and the stars has taken a grievous toll. She returns to a kingdom on the brink of war. The boy she loves is gone, and she is forced to don the dress of the sun and assume the place of the emperor’s bride-to-be to keep the peace.

But the war raging around Maia is nothing compared to the battle within. Ever since she was touched by the demon Bandur, she has been changing . . . glancing in the mirror to see her own eyes glowing red, losing control of her magic, her body, her mind. It’s only a matter of time before Maia loses herself completely, but she will stop at nothing to find Edan, protect her family, and bring lasting peace to her country.

I enjoyed Spin the Dawn a lot, and the sequel, Unravel the Dusk, was even better. (There will be some unavoidable spoilers for the first book in my review, so if you haven’t read Spin the Dawn, look away.) This duology is a very loose retelling of the Chinese legend of Mulan. In this version, the Mulan character isn’t a soldier, but a girl who disguises Unravelherself as a man so she can take her father’s place as a tailor (a profession only men are allowed to do at the imperial court).

Unravel the Dusk picks up shortly after the end of Spin the Dawn. Maia Tamarin is now the official court tailor and her true identity is known. Her lover Edan is gone, and the country is on the brink of war because the emperor’s intended bride, Lady Sarnai, has run off. And because of the bargain Maia made to complete the dresses of the sun, moon, and stars, she fears that she’s turning into a demon.

The stakes are even higher in the sequel. Maia is desperate to save her country from a devastating war, even as she struggles with her ambivalence toward the emperor, who’s not exactly a model ruler (although the alternative, the shansen, is far worse, as he will take the throne without any regard for life). Without Edan, she’s struggling to make sense of her magic and what’s happening to her. Maia shows a lot of growth in this book. She doesn’t always make the best choices, but they come from desperation and so they make sense. I was always rooting for her.

I found the ending of this duology really satisfying, and I definitely recommend this series, particularly to anyone who’s looking for some non-western fantasy.

I received a digital ARC from the publisher through NetGalley.

Review: Goddess in the Machine

Goddess in the Machine
By Lora Beth Johnson
Published June 30, 2020 by Razorbill

Publisher’s summary:
When Andra wakes up, she’s drowning.

Not only that, but she’s in a hot, dirty cave, it’s the year 3102, and everyone keeps calling her Goddess. When Andra went into a cryonic sleep for a trip across the galaxy, she expected to wake up in a hundred years, not a thousand. Worst of all, the rest of the colonists—including her family and friends—are dead. They died centuries ago, and for some reason, their descendants think Andra’s a deity. She knows she’s nothing special, but she’ll play along if it means she can figure out why she was left in stasis and how to get back to Earth.

Zhade, the exiled bastard prince of Eerensed, has other plans. Four years ago, the sleeping Goddess’s glass coffin disappeared from the palace, and Zhade devoted himself to finding it. Now he’s hoping the Goddess will be the key to taking his rightful place on the throne—if he can get her to play her part, that is. Because if his people realize she doesn’t actually have the power to save their dying planet, they’ll kill her.

With a vicious monarch on the throne and a city tearing apart at the seams, Zhade and Andra might never be able to unlock the mystery of her fate, let alone find a way to unseat the king, especially since Zhade hasn’t exactly been forthcoming with Andra. And a thousand years from home, is there any way of knowing that Earth is better than the planet she’s woken to?

Goddess in the Machine is a terrific, fast-paced book with lots of twists and turns.

Andromeda was put into stasis to leave Earth and travel to a new colony, and she was Goddesssupposed to awake 100 years later on her new planet. But when she wakes up, 1000 years have passed, society has devolved, and everyone thinks she’s a goddess.

Andromeda is a great character. She’s a normal teenage girl who wakes up and finds she’s a goddess, something she’s completely unprepared for. She’s forced to make an uneasy alliance with Zhade, an exiled prince. He’s maddeningly attractive, but also rather shady, and Andromeda has to figure out how much she can trust him, while she’s working her own angle in the alliance.

For me, the most interesting part of this book was the examination of how a culture can change over 1000 years. Although they technically speak the same language, a lot has changed and the slang is almost unrecognizable to Andromeda at first, but she’s a word nerd and she quickly figures things out. (It’s a little weird for the reader at first too, but most of the language is easy to figure out in context and you get used to it pretty quickly.) The book also looks at how a culture might handle technology that don’t understand. This society has inherited technology, but they didn’t invent it and they don’t know how it works, so they view it as magic and they invent a religion to explain things.

This book is really inventive, and the author does a lot of interesting things with standard sci fi and fantasy tropes. I’m looking forward to the sequel.

I received a digital ARC from the publisher through NetGalley.

Review: The Sullivan Sisters

The Sullivan Sisters
By Kathryn Ormsbee
Published July 8, 2020 by Simon and Schuster

Publisher’s summary:
Time changes things.

That painful fact of life couldn’t be truer for the Sullivan sisters. Once, they used to be close, sharing secrets inside homemade blanket castles. Now, life in the Sullivan house means closed doors and secrets left untold.

Fourteen-year-old Murphy, an aspiring magician, is shocked by the death of Siegfried, her pet turtle. Seventeen-year-old Claire is bound for better things than her Oregonian hometown—until she receives a crushing rejection from her dream college. And eighteen-year-old Eileen is nursing a growing addiction in the wake of life-altering news.

Then, days before Christmas, a letter arrives, informing the sisters of a dead uncle and an inheritance they knew nothing about. The news forces them to band together in the face of a sinister family mystery…and, possibly, murder.

 

Once upon a time, the Sullivan sisters were a close-knit trio, but as the years passed, they’ve fractured into three distinct units. Eileen once dreamed of being an artist, but now she’s given up on art, works a dead end job, and nurses a growing drinking problem. Claire is determined to leave her small Oregon town behind. She’s got straight As and a successful small business, but her dream school has just turned her down. SullivanMurphy is the youngest, and she’s scared of being left behind. It’s Christmas, the girls are alone because their mother has won a cruise, and Eileen learns that they have an inheritance from an uncle they’ve never heard of. This leads to the sisters going on a Christmas road trip to visit the old Victorian house they’ve inherited, and they learn about a murder mystery that involves their family.

I’m a sucker for dysfunctional family stories, and this one is the sort of thing I love. The Sullivan family is a mess. Their father died before Murphy was born, and her mother was left with huge medical bills that she’s still trying to pay off, 14 years later. She works constantly at a drug store, and the girls have been raising themselves for the last few years. The narration moves among the three sisters, and we see inside their heads.

Claire was the most interesting character to me. As a queer teen in a small town, she’s just waiting to finish high school and start life over in a new place. She’s a devotee of a social media influencer, and her path to success follows the influencer’s teaching, which are both depressing and funny. She’s built her dream of escape around getting into Yale on early decision admission, and when she’s rejected, she’s devastated because she didn’t apply anywhere else and she feels like her whole future is on the line (I did wonder why she couldn’t just apply somewhere else. It’s only December, and most regular admissions deadlines are in January as far as I know.).

Eileen’s narrative was a little hard to read at times. She’s had a really rough time, and she’s turned to alcohol to ease the pain. She’s a mess and much of it has to do with a secret she discovered two years before, which is related to the mystery inheritance. Murphy is a sweetheart. She’s 14, and she’s taken the fractured relationship the hardest. She just wants her family to go back the way we were (and to become a famous magician).

The three voices are very distinctive and the triple narrative structure works really well for the story. The family mystery is an interesting one and it works well as a device to force the sisters to deal with each other. I really enjoyed this book and I would recommend it to anyone who likes broken family stories.

I received a digital ARC from the publisher through NetGalley.

Review: The Mall

The Mall
By Megan McCafferty
Published June 9, 2020 by Wednesday Books

Publisher’s summary:
The year is 1991. Scrunchies, mixtapes and 90210 are, like, totally fresh. Cassie Worthy is psyched to spend the summer after graduation working at the Parkway Center Mall. In six weeks, she and her boyfriend head off to college in NYC to fulfill The Plan: higher education and happily ever after.

But you know what they say about the best laid plans…

Set entirely in a classic “monument to consumerism,” the novel follows Cassie as she finds friendship, love, and ultimately herself, in the most unexpected of places. Megan McCafferty, beloved New York Times bestselling author of the Jessica Darling series, takes readers on an epic trip back in time to The Mall.

 

I was so excited when I heard that Megan McCafferty, author of the fantastic Jessica Darling series, was coming out with a new book. Then I got approved for the ARC from The MallNetGalley during a really rough week, so I dropped my other current reads in favor of The Mall. It’s a great book, and it gave me a lot of laughs when I really needed them. I would have loved this book anyway, but it came to me at just the right time.

Cassie Worthy has a plan. After high school, she and her boyfriend Troy will spend the summer working together at ABC Cookies at the local mall food court. Then it’s off to college (Barnard and med school for her, Columbia and an MBA for him). But then she gets mono, and she emerges from a six-week quarantine to find that she’s lost both her summer job and her boyfriend. Now she has to figure out how to live without a plan.

The Mall is a perfect coming of age novel. Cassie is a great character, someone who thinks she has it all figured out, only to have it all blow up in her face. She’s forced to take chances, including an unexpected new job, reconnecting with her childhood best friend, investigating a mystery at the mall, and a flirtation with an annoyingly hot guy who works at Sam Goody. While the romance is very sweet, the book focuses much more on friendship and self-discovery.

The book takes place in 1991, so it’s basically the pinnacle of American Mall culture (and this mall is the social epicenter of the New Jersey town it’s set in). There are lots of nods to the 90s. Cassie and her ex-boyfriend rate mall jobs on a 90210 scale. The best jobs are the Dylan McKays and the worst jobs are the Scott Sampsons. New Kids on the Block is the summer soundtrack, but the hot record store employee introduces Cassie to an up and coming new band named Nirvana. There’s so much nostalgia, and I loved it.

I received an ARC from the publisher through NetGalley.

Review: The Jane Austen Society

 

The Jane Austen Society
By Natalie Jenner
Published May 26, 2020 by St. Martin’s Press

Publisher’s summary:
Just after the Second World War, in the small English village of Chawton, an unusual but like-minded group of people band together to attempt something remarkable.

One hundred and fifty years ago, Chawton was the final home of Jane Austen, one of England’s finest novelists. Now it’s home to a few distant relatives and their diminishing estate. With the last bit of Austen’s legacy threatened, a group of disparate individuals come together to preserve both Jane Austen’s home and her legacy. These people—a laborer, a young widow, the local doctor, and a movie star, among others—could not be more different and yet they are united in their love for the works and words of Austen. As each of them endures their own quiet struggle with loss and trauma, some from the recent war, others from more distant tragedies, they rally together to create the Jane Austen Society.

A powerful and moving novel that explores the tragedies and triumphs of life, both large and small, and the universal humanity in us all, The Jane Austen Society is destined to resonate with readers for years to come.

The Jane Austen Society is a lovely book that celebrates the power of literature to bring people together. Shortly after the end of World War II, a group of disparate people come together to try to preserve a cottage that Jane Austen once lived in.

Jane Austen SocietyThe small British village of Chawton is best known for being the last place Jane Austen lived, in a cottage on her brother’s estate. After World War II, the people of the village are picking themselves up after the long horrors of the war. There’s a lot of quiet desperation in this town. There’s a young war widow, the town doctor who lost his wife many years earlier, the spinster daughter of the local estate, whose horrible father has kept her downtrodden, a laborer whose dreams of education was stymied by World War I, a teenage maid who had to leave school to support her family, and a Hollywood star who may be a bit past her prime.

This is a lovely, gently book. All of the characters are a bit broken in various ways, but they all find solace in the works of Jane Austen. I think anyone who’s an Austen or who has found solace in reading will enjoy this book. My only quibble is that the ending wraps everything up perhaps a bit too neatly, but on the other hand, I cared about all the characters and I wanted happy endings for them.

Review: Catherine House

Catherine House
By Elisabeth Thomas
Published May 12, 2020 by Custom House

Publisher’s summary:
Catherine House is a school of higher learning like no other. Hidden deep in the woods of rural Pennsylvania, this crucible of reformist liberal arts study with its experimental curriculum, wildly selective admissions policy, and formidable endowment, has produced some of the world’s best minds: prize-winning authors, artists, inventors, Supreme Court justices, presidents. For those lucky few selected, tuition, room, and board are free. But acceptance comes with a price. Students are required to give the House three years—summers included—completely removed from the outside world. Family, friends, television, music, even their clothing must be left behind. In return, the school promises its graduates a future of sublime power and prestige, and that they can become anything or anyone they desire.

Among this year’s incoming class is Ines, who expects to trade blurry nights of parties, pills, cruel friends, and dangerous men for rigorous intellectual discipline—only to discover an environment of sanctioned revelry. The school’s enigmatic director, Viktória, encourages the students to explore, to expand their minds, to find themselves and their place within the formidable black iron gates of Catherine.

For Ines, Catherine is the closest thing to a home she’s ever had, and her serious, timid roommate, Baby, soon becomes an unlikely friend. Yet the House’s strange protocols make this refuge, with its worn velvet and weathered leather, feel increasingly like a gilded prison. And when Baby’s obsessive desire for acceptance ends in tragedy, Ines begins to suspect that the school—in all its shabby splendor, hallowed history, advanced theories, and controlled decadence—might be hiding a dangerous agenda that is connected to a secretive, tightly knit group of students selected to study its most promising and mysterious curriculum.

Combining the haunting sophistication and dusky, atmospheric style of Sarah Waters with the unsettling isolation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, Catherine House is a devious, deliciously steamy, and suspenseful page-turner with shocking twists and sharp edges that is sure to leave readers breathless.

 

Catherine House is a very unique place. It’s a college of sorts, a three-year full year program that requires complete dedication and devotion from its students. Once you’re in the gates, you don’t leave for the next three years. You have no contact with the outside world (the book is set in 1996, so cutting off contact is much easier than it would be now). You do not leave the campus. Your tuition and board are covered by the school. catherine houseYou work tirelessly, but you also make lifelong connections, and if you can keep up to the rigorous academic standards, you join an elite group of leaders, academic, and creatives who have graduated from the school.

Ines enters Catherine House, fleeing a difficult year. We never learn the full details of the trouble she was in, but she applied to Catherine House at the urging of a favorite teacher. To her surprise, she’s accepted. It’s an odd place, a combination of high school and a small liberal arts college. There’s no contact with the outside world, but the students have considerable freedom within the gates. They all wear the same clothes, but there’s an endless supply of wine. There are no drugs and little rock and roll (they’re not allowed to bring in any music from outside, but can earn points to buy limited supplies of music at the school commissary), but sex is easy to come by.

I think this is a book that is not going to be to everyone’s taste, but I really enjoyed it. Ines is a rather detached narrator. She’s clearly suffering from some previous trauma, and she sort of stumbles through her first year, numbing herself with sex and alcohol. But after being told she’s in danger of expulsion, she pulls her act together and starts to embrace her time at the school.

This book definitely falls into a dark academia vibe. There’s an undercurrent of weirdness about the school. The most exclusive concentration at the school is the study of plasm, a sort of scientific endeavor that raises a lot of questions for Ines. Although she’s chosen art history as her concentration, she is fascinated by the study of plasm and by the secrecy that surrounds the concentration.

The book reminds me a bit of The Secret History and The Magicians. It’s got the same sort of weird vibes of both schools in those books. It also captures the magic of college in a lot of ways: the intense closeness with friends, the insular atmosphere, But there’s also a weird sense of dread, of something not right abut the school. It’s a really compelling story.

I received a digital ARC from the publisher through NetGalley.

Middle grade review: Eight Princesses and a Magic Mirror

Eight Princesses and a Magic Mirror
By Natasha Farrant
Published by Norton Young Readers May 5, 2020

“Mirror, mirror on the wall . . . what makes a princess excellent?” When an enchantress flings her magic mirror into our universe, its reflection reveals princesses who refuse to be just pretty, polite, and obedient. These are girls determined to do the rescuing themselves. Princess Leila of the desert protects her people from the king with the black-and-gold banner; Princess Tica takes a crocodile for a pet; Princess Ellen explores the high seas; Princess Abayome puts empathy and kindness above being royal; and in a tower block, Princess saves her community’s beloved garden from the hands of urban developers.

Connecting these stories is the magic mirror, which reveals itself when each girl needs it most, illuminating how a princess’s power comes not from her title or beauty, but from her own inner strength. These beautifully imagined stories, complemented by vibrant and inviting artwork, offer the pleasure and familiarity of traditional tales with refreshingly modern themes.

Eight Princesses and a Magic Mirror is a delightful and diverse book about what it takes to be a princess. An enchantress is chosen to be a baby princess’ godmother. She 53122481._SX318_SY475_promises to help her new godchild be an excellent princess, but then she realizes she doesn’t know exactly what that means, so she send her magic mirror on a journey to discover what makes a princess excellent because:

“Pretty, tidy, and kind to animals.
It wasn’t enough.”

The mirror’s journey takes it to many different places, and we meet eight very different princesses. They don’t fit the mold of traditional princess stories. One wants to sail the seas. Another keeps a crocodile as a pet. Another braves a witch to save her sister’s life when her sister’s suitors fail.

This is a really lovely book. The stories are charming and show girls that there are many different ways they can live (princess or not). It’s an important and powerful message for young girls. The princesses in these stories are all individuals who go against stereotypes and blaze their own trails. The illustrations are gorgeous and add a lot to the stories.

I received a digital ARC from the publisher through NetGalley.