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Review: A Million Junes

I wanted to read all three of my new Book of the Month books in June, but for some reason Emily Henry’s A Million Junes sounded the least exciting so I saved it for last. But I was wrong, so wrong to neglect it because this is now absolutely one of my favorite books of the year.

About the book: June O’Donnell has amillionjunestwo rules: Stay away from the falls, and Stay away from the Angerts. The rules are both more and less important now that June is eighteen and her dad, writer of the rules, has been dead for ten years. Both rules are turning out to be harder to stick to than ever before, but even considering breaking them feels like an insult to her dad’s memory. Even if she develops an instant crush on the enigmatic Saul Angert when they run into each other (literally) at a town event, everyone knows there’s bad blood between the Angerts and O’Donnells. Bad things happen when their paths cross; June has seen proof of that. As her feelings for Saul deepen, however, June is also receiving what she believes to be messages from her dad. The O’Donnells live in a magical place, a thin place where the borders between worlds is weak, and through the gaps June slips into memories of her family’s past that might finally explain why the Angerts have been enemies of the O’Donnells for generations–but she doesn’t know whether finding the answers will end the feud, or drive her and Saul apart forever.

“I think life is about learning to dance even when you’re sitting still. You learn to dance when you cook and clean, when you bite into cherries, and when you lie in clean sheets. It’s easy to believe that if you could do it all over, you’d do everything different.”

This book is a mystery. It’s a romance. It’s magical realism. It’s an exploration of grief. It’s a coming-of-age story. It’s a ghost story. And it does all of those things well.

“This is rapidly becoming a bad teenage retelling of a Shakespearean comedy.”

I laughed so much while reading this book. June and Saul’s flirting is hilarious. There are serious moments, and sad moments, and triumphant moments, but the first half of the book makes great use of humor to pull the reader in and lighten what might otherwise be a very tragic tale. And yet it’s all about balance. I stayed up late, reading for the funny banter, but I marked many quotes about what it means to grieve and move on when someone you love is gone forever. This is a fun read that’s also full of strong messages, and those messages are the part that will stick with me and keep this book in my list of favorites for a long time.

“I wanted to forget this feeling forever. The feeling of being ripped into two people: the you of before and the one you’ll always be once you know what it is to lose something.”

A Million Junes is sophisticated YA. It’s YA for all ages. It’s YA because its main characters are 18 and 20 and coming-of-age, but it’s a great choice for any age group because it’s not lewd or crass, and covers some hard topics that are widely applicable.

“I am very small, and don’t find myself wishing I were any bigger. All I want, with my one tiny moment, is to love you. If you remember anything about me, remember the truest thing: I will love you after all the stars have burned out, after the sun has died and ice has covered the earth, after the last human has taken her last breath.”

There’s an interesting female-female friendship in A Million Junes, as well. June and Hannah are supportive and kind to each other, even in situations when they might be interested in the same boy, or one of them is getting the other one in trouble. Often in books (especially in YA) girl friends can be uniquely cruel to each other and quick to hate, but June and Hannah sort things out calmly and stick together. Of course, since this book is focused on the turmoil in June’s life, we see Hannah routinely asking if June’s all right and what she can do to help, but their friendship is such that I’m sure June would give Hannah just as much love and attention if the situation were reversed; as it is, June’s problems dominate their conversations, but there is textual evidence of June’s compassion and consideration in the friendship, as well, even if it’s mostly internalized. It’s a great example of a literary female friendship.

And did I mention the phenomenal father/daughter relationship? Sometimes books have great dads, but this book realistically addresses the ups and downs of the relationship–realizing that no one is perfect no matter how much you love them, and that even death can’t take them away completely. June’s dad seems a lot like I imagine Ronan’s dad (from Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Cycle) would have been like, magical dreaminess and all. If I had to pick a single purpose of this book, it might be June’s reconciling of the fact that her father’s dead and not who she thought he was, but she will always love him anyway.

“Maybe some people die gradually, move away from their bodies over time, but others–the people who shine–go in an instant. You can see their souls in their eyes until the last possible second, feel the gap in the world the second they’re lost.”

I was expecting a simple elegance to the ending after the rest of the book ran so smoothly, but the answers to A Million Junes‘ mysteries are convoluted. I had to do some serious mental juggling to keep straight which Jack O’Donnell is which (June is technically Jack O’Donnell IV, which means there were three others before her, plus the original Jonathon O’Donnell nicknamed Jack a few generations earlier) and what “the curse” means for different individuals, before I finally got it all straightened out. If I had to name a complaint about this book, it may be the multi-faceted layering of those final answers about the family feud, especially when all those secrets lead to such a simple choice for our main characters. It felt a bit like the plot was digging itself into a hole that Henry was determined to pull it back from at any cost, but I suppose even if it turned messy the plot survived the struggle.

My reaction: 5 out 5 stars. As I mentioned above, this one’s going straight to my best-books-of-2017 list. I was not expecting to love this book nearly as much as I did, and those are the best sort of reading surprises. I’m ecstatic to also have Emily Henry’s The Love That Split the World unread on my shelf because I NEED more of this wonderful writing in my life. My July TBR is already overfull, but expect a review on Henry’s first publication in the near future.

Further recommendations:

  1. Jandy Nelson’s I’ll Give You the Sun is a contemporary YA that also addresses the death of a parent and the ups and downs of other close relationships–mainly the bond between twins, but also in friendships and young love. No magic here, but plenty of art and family history intrigue.
  2. For another compelling YA book that’s important for readers of all ages, try Mindy McGinnis’ The Female of the Species. There are some great friendships and parents in this one, teens standing up against rape, a little romance, and a coming-of-age story for a group of high school seniors learning strength and morality.

Coming up next: Robin Roe’s A List of Cages, a beautiful YA novel about foster sibling love and coping with mental illness. This is one of those heavy-hitting YA books that covers a myriad of difficult topics meant to raise awareness of real life problems, and despite its easy readability it packs a powerful punch.

What are your favorite heavy-hitting YA books?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Sisters Chase

I’ve been loving Book of the Month Club all year, but never so much as in the month of June. It was so difficult choosing from the five new selections this month because I wanted to read every single one of them. I even put some high priority books from my TBR on hold when my box arrived because I just couldn’t wait to dive into the the new books. And now that I’ve read Sarah Healy’s The Sisters Chase, I have a new favorite BOTM book for 2017.

About the book: Diane wasthesisterschase young when she had her first daughter, Mary, and the two of them are more or less alone in the world until baby Hannah joins the family when Mary is 14. There’s no father present for either of the girls, and even the grandparents are gone by the time Hannah is born, so when their mother dies in a car crash four years later, the sisters Chase are truly on their own. Old enough to act as Hannah’s legal guardian, Mary is forced to make some tough choices about their lives. Though the changes she makes are not always positive or even necessarily legal, Mary has only ever wanted to protect Hannah. The two of them set off in a Chevy Blazer and live by Mary’s wits in motel rooms and camp sites and shabby apartments, searching for love and answers and some elusive shard of peace that has always been denied to them both.

“The Chase girls stayed the next morning until it was time to check out, lying on the bed and basking in the infinitude of being nowhere.”

About the layout: the narration is told entirely in the third person, usually focused on Mary but occasionally veering to describe details that Mary wouldn’t know about other characters. Each chapter is offset with a year marker, highlighting a few key years in the 1970’s and 80’s. The timeline is perfect for the story–Mary’s cross-country driving expeditions are made possible by an extra degree of anonymity that hasn’t existed since the more recent digital era; the lack of cell phones is crucial to Mary’s rambling freedom. There are just enough time-accurate details to ground the story in its temporal setting without turning its focus away from Mary.

About the writing: The Sisters Chase is beautifully and emotionally woven (with just a hint of romance) from the beginning. Although there aren’t as many one-liners as I expected from this poignant narration, there’s a finesse of language that keeps the reader going even when the plot hits a (rare) slow point. This book bleeds tragedy, though there are happy moments, as well. It’s not the sort of sorrow that can make a reader cry without context; the sadness of The Sisters Chase comes in the implications and inferences, the masked emotion behind simple actions, the meaningfulness slowly revealed in every seemingly random move that Mary makes.

“At first, Mary decided not to think about it. She decided to tightly fold up the facts in her head again and again. Mary could do that. Mary could lock away parts of her mind, of her heart. Mary could hide things.”

About the characters: each and every person introduced in this story is unique and significant in some way, but the most interesting characters, of course, are the three Chase women. A sort of Gilmore Girls-type friendship is evident between them, despite (or perhaps because of) Diane’s firm but gentle wisdom, Mary’s fierce wildness, and Hannah’s dreaminess. With Diane gone (though always in Mary’s memories and thus present throughout the book), Mary is free to make some truly questionable decisions, but her devotion to Hannah keeps her from going off the rails completely.

” ‘Yes. I wanted you to love her. I didn’t want yo to live for her,’ [Diane] said. I didn’t want you to have to.’ “

The thing about Mary is that she always operates with an escape hatch in mind. She won’t go anywhere or start anything without knowing how she can flee before things go too far south.

“…Hannah feeling the optimism of going somewhere, Mary feeling the relief of having left. The Chase girls were always happiest in those brief moments of in-between, when neither of them was sacrificing, neither of them being sacrificed.”

I saw the big plot twist coming from the very beginning. I saw it, but dismissed it. I wondered about Mary’s past secrets, but when I did, so much was going on at the forefront of the story that it didn’t seem to matter what had happened before. It didn’t matter whether my guess was right because it didn’t change the fact that Mary was presently lying and stealing and bribing her way to cold, hard cash. And then when the past did matter, there was so much fresh emotion layered onto that big lie that it still didn’t matter that the reveal lacked surprise. It made me cry anyway. More trusting readers than me will probably find more shock-value in the big reveal, but my point here is that even if you see it coming, it’s worth it.

“But what Mary knew, what Mary had always known, is that when you stay still, leg in a trap, trouble can find you.”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This book sneaked up on me. I knew right away that I loved the writing and the emotion it contained, but it still took a long time for me to realize just how hard it was going to be to get over the story. Mary is intriguing all the way through, but I had no idea until close to the end that my heart was going to break into a billion pieces for her family. I have very little in common with Mary, but I won’t be able to forget her for a long time. This is one of my favorite books of the year, and I’ll definitely keep an eye on this author going forward.

Further recommendations:

  1. Marlena by Julie Buntin is another 2017 release (and BOTM selection) about two girls who feel like it’s them against the world until tragedy knocks them back into their places. This is another great example of how friendship can overcome almost anything. It’s harsh and gritty in the same way as The Sisters Chase, and it’s also more about the emotion in something unstoppable rather than the event itself. It’s about how girls grow up, in a place where there are no right answers.

What’s next: I’m currently reading Cassandra Clare’s City of Lost Souls, the 5th book in the Mortal Instruments series. I’m getting so excited about nearing the end of both the Mortal Instruments and the Infernal Devices, which I’m reading simultaneously because I’m going through the Shadowhunter books in publication order. Things are heating up in both sets, and I’ve never gotten this far before so I have no idea what will happen or where it will end.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: White Fur

The new selections for Book of the Month Club are perfection this month. I wanted to be reading them all at once, but since I only have one set of eyes I had to choose–and I chose to start with Jardine Libaire’s White Fur. I would classify it as a romance, although it’s unlike any romance I’ve ever read.

whitefurAbout the book: Jamey and Elise are from different worlds. Jamey, the heir to a multi-million dollar corporation, has been raised with a lot of cash and little emotion. Elise, who has only ever had enough to get by and sometimes not even that, falls deeply in love with him at first sight and has enough emotion to carry them both. At first it’s a battle to prove Jamey really does love her, but the real battle comes later–when neither of their previous lives will fit them both and the only way to survive is to start over and locate middle ground. For Jamey and Elise, it’s never been about the money, but their friends and family seem incapable of overlooking the difference in their social classes and the only people who can accept their relationship are each other. Is that enough? And even if it is, how will they escape the loud opinions of the masses?

“He grew up thinking you’re supposed to work till your eyes bleed, be exhausted all the time, get money, get houses, get prestige, do good, be important, be busy, get on the board, run out of time, cancel lunch with friends, run out of gas. Why? Why did he believe them when they said that? Why did he believe anything they said?”

I must admit, the premise of this book worried me. Rich guy falls for broke girl, and tries to make uppity family accept her? There are so many ways that story has already been done, some of them with less success than others. But even though those things happen, they’re not what this story is about. Elise doesn’t want any part of Jamey’s money or power or prestige–she won’t even accept them other than to acknowledge that they’re some of the building blocks that make up Jamey’s life. Jamey isn’t trying to raise Elise’s monetary standing, to bring her up into the world of plenty–he sees good things in her character that have been lacking in his own life, and considers himself the poor party in their relationship. It’s about the money for everyone else, but for Jamey and Elise, it’s about finding where they fit in the world and finally taking the chance to choose for themselves instead of letting their families lay out their futures.

“You go through life thinking there’s a secret to life. And the secret to life is there is no secret to life.”

About the layout: the book starts in June 1987, with a single scene charged with catastrophe and heartbreak. There’s a gun. There’s love, and the questioning of love. And there’s potential for murder. From that scene, the narration goes back to January 1986. Each month is its own labeled chapter. There are further divisions within these chapters that switch back and forth in third person narrative between Elise and Jamey, and the months progress chronologically until we reach that same dangerous motel room scene in June 1987 to finally see its conclusion and aftermath. As Jamey and Elise clash and collide through the rest of the timeline in the book, much of the tension lies not in whether they will fall in love and stay together, but in discovering how they came to be aiming firearms at each other, staring down death and searching for the limits of love. For this reason, the nuances of the relationship keep the reader’s attention: every gesture and thought, every lie and truth and silent action begs to be weighed in the balance against that startling opening scene. Every kiss is a clue.

“What’s the point of anything? Why did we make it this far, she thinks, through hours in our own lives before we met, even after we met, when we were sure we were worthless, but we somehow got to the other side of those times, holding it together, ashamed to be hopeful but being hopeful, when we had no protection and no direction but we kept going anyway, and then we got rewarded, and now it’s being ripped out of my hands?”

Speaking of kisses and romance, I’d like to note that White Fur is a fairly explicit book. It’s solidly categorized as adult literature, and it’s worth mentioning that the physical side of Jamey and Elise’s relationship is often front and center. If you can’t stand reading sex scenes, this isn’t the book for you. White Fur is no Fifty Shades of Gray though. There are R-rated scenes set in bedrooms and beyond, but that’s just one part of the book. It’s the proof that prejudice and class divisions are constructions of the mind, not the heart. The sex is just evidence supporting the underlying messages of the need for equality and love’s perpetual attempt to conquer all. It’s there in abundance, but it’s not the main focus of the book.

“Nothing can ever stay strange for long.”

About the setting: I can’t offer any concrete explanation as to why this book is set in the 1980s rather than present day. I suppose the past offers a bit more anonymity, which allows the characters to move more freely through this world when they’re trying to hide from their opponents, and I suppose also that prejudices were stronger and louder then than they are today. The details of the story fit the time perfectly, but there didn’t seem to be a lot of point to the differences. I don’t think this story would have been impossible to transpose into the world of the 2010s, which made the choice of setting seem a little strange, despite being handled well.

About the characters: White Fur has quite a cast. There’s so much detail given to everyone and everything that each character feels real. I liked that about them, though I don’t think I would choose any of these characters as my friends in real life. Many of them are not bad people. They aren’t unlikable in the way I usually describe characters who seem to have been constructed to alienate the reader, and yet I didn’t particularly like them either. I remained neutrally interested in where they were headed.

“So much of life is about standing on the curb, willing to see what rolls up.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. That opening scene hooked me right away, and with that fresh in mind, the beginning of Jamey and Elise’s relationship remained pretty interesting. Some of the stuff in the middle, after the “I love you’s” and before the gun came back into the story, was much less engaging for me. It was interesting enough that I didn’t have hesitancy about continuing, but the excitement I expected after that opening scene took longer to reappear than I would have preferred. I felt a little deceived. But I don’t regret the time I spent reading White Fur, so it ended up pretty middle-of-the-road for me.

Further recommendations:

  1. Lucky You by Erika Carter is another gritty book about escaping life’s oppressive constructs, but it’ll take a certain audience to appreciate its subtle messages and futility. I think that audience will overlap nicely with fans of White Fur. It’s grimy and brutally honest, with a little romance and a lot of idealism, but it hits failure and the stickier sides of human nature in a way that takes a patient mind and a willingness to accept that not all endings are happy, or even necessarily endings.

What’s next: I started a second book while i was in the middle of White Fur, so I’ve already got another book finished and in the process of review. After reading A Discovery of Witches earlier this month, I basically threw part of my June TBR out the window in favor of continuing the series. So in addition to White Fur (hence the review coming later than I planned, sorry guys), I’ve also finished reading Deborah Harkness’ Shadow of Night, the second book in the All Souls trilogy. This one’s much like book one, plus time travel and the potential for witchy vampire babies, and if that’s not enough to intrigue you then we have nothing in common.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

May Book Haul

I did so well this month! I actually read more books than I bought. I read as many books from my own shelves as I bought. I mean, that was my goal for every month this year, but I think this is the first time I’ve actually achieved it. And I’ve already read several of these! New books make me so happy, but I’m proud of myself for sticking to a reasonable number this month. Hopefully the smaller number doesn’t make this a boring book haul, because I’m excited about all of these.

Books I bought in May:

  1. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. This is a Gothic classic that has been intriguing me since I read Jane Eyre. I haven’t read a lot of Gothic literature, but I’ve liked what I’ve read, and this one has been recommended to me. I already have twelve classics to read in 2017, but I may even pick this one up as an extra in upcoming months. And if not, it’ll almost certainly be on my list of classics for next year. I ordered this one around the time of my birthday in April, but it took a while to ship. I wasn’t in a big hurry for it anyway, although I am growing more and more eager to read it. It’s pretty rare, I think, for a book to be both popular in its own time, and a long-standing classic, so I’m interested to see if this one lives up to its reputation.
  2. Into the Water by Paula Hawkins. Despite its overpopularity for a bit there in 2016, I did love The Girl on the Train when I read it, and I liked the movie. I appreciated that the protagonist is fallible. I’ve been in such a thriller mood lately that I thought this one would be perfect, but now that I’ve read it I wouldn’t call it a thriller at all. In any case, I had to see where this author was going after The Girl on the Train before all the hype (or the bad reviews, if it goes that way) could ruin it for me. When I saw BOTM was adding it to their extras in May, I added it to my box so fast and I almost didn’t even care what the actual monthly selections were going to be. They were good though, in case you were wondering.
  3. Since We Fell by Dennis Lehane. This was my Book of the Month Club pick for May. I was sold at the “literary thriller” description (yep, another thriller), and the fact that this is the same author of the mindwarping novel Shutter Island. If I hadn’t already had so many books in mind to read in May, I would have read this one already, so I’m hoping to get to it soon. I think I want to start leaving my monthly TBRs a little more open, so I have room for unexpected new releases and discoveries that I don’t want to wait for. I’m falling a little behind with my BOTM books, and I think it’s because I tend to plan a pretty rigid TBR for the upcoming month before the new selections for BOTM are announced. I’m still just as thrilled about the books (like this one) that I have yet to read, though.
  4. A Court of Wings and Ruin by Sarah J. Maas. I have been waiting for this release (book three in the A Court of Thorns and Roses series) since I read book two in December. Don’t even get me started on the hellish two week wait I endured between its release date and the arrival of my own copy, when reviews started pouring in and that cliffhanger from book two was at the forefront of my mind. But I finally got my hands on this book and read it in about three sittings. Next time, I will have a better plan regarding ordering a new book in a series that I can’t stand to wait for. It’s one thing to wait for a publication date to arrive, but quite another thing to wait for a copy once the rest of the world is already reading the book.
  5. A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah J. Maas. When I ordered ACOWAR (above), I had an argument with myself about whether it was better to have books on my shelf that I actually enjoy and could see myself rereading, or that look nice in a set. Meaning, I didn’t think I would want to own book one of this series, but it seemed odd to only own book three. So I ordered ACOMAF, book two, along with ACOWAR, and I’ve already skim-read it again and could maybe even see myself wanting to buy and reread book one at some point for a full series reread, maybe around the time book four comes out. For the Feysand scenes, mostly. I didn’t really like Rhysand in A Court of Thorns and Roses, though it was clear to me that he wasn’t as evil as he was depicted by Tamlin. But this isn’t a review, so I’ll leave it at the fact that I really liked ACOMAF and I’m glad to own my favorite part of this series, at least, if not the whole thing at the moment.

maybooks

I’m really happy with this haul. It feels like a good place for my book-buying to be at present. I’m going to set a goal for myself to stick to 5 books for June, just to see how it goes having a planned amount to stick to. (You’d think I would have tried that sooner, but here we are.) I’m mentioning it here to help hold myself accountable, but we’ll see what happens.

In the meantime, you can help me plan my June TBR by checking out my first ever Choose My Next Read post! There are a few hours left to vote for the selection you’d like to see me read and review in June, so go look at the list and tell me what I should read next!

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Marlena

I’m a little late with my March BOTM club selection (Julie Buntin’s debut novel, Marlena), but you know what? It was just as good in April as March, and someday I’ll catch up again. I actually finished this book a few days ago and have been struggling to put together some formal thoughts. Although I loved this beautiful novel, it’s hard to say exactly why because I have very little in common with the characters and their story. And yet, somehow, I could relate.

About the book: Cat’s parents are FullSizeRender (12)newly divorced, and she’s moved with her mom and brother to Silver Lake, Michigan. Her mom cleans rich people’s houses for a living, and her brother, Jimmy, has put off college to work at a plastics factory to help their mom pay for the tiny house they’ve moved into. Next door is a barn that’s been converted into a home for a meth chef and his two uncared-for children: Marlena and Sal. Marlena is a seventeen year old girl trying to take care of herself and her eight year-old brother while also keeping her dad out of legal trouble. Having been introduced to the drug-and-alcohol scene from a young and impressionable age, and having no role models to speak of, she’s already developed some bad habits and a reckless streak. She befriends Cat almost immediately, and leads her down a dangerous path, but she also tries to protect her from some of the worst aspects of her own life. It’s a doomed relationship from the start, but that doesn’t stop them from giving it everything they’ve got.

Marlena is primarily one of those coming-of-age stories that explores what happens when a young girl faces bigger conflicts than she’s equipped to handle yet. It’s told from a future perspective, in alternating viewpoints of the narrator’s present and her past.

“When you grow up, who you were as a teenager either takes on mythical importance or it’s completely laughable. I wanted to be the kind of person who wiped those years away; instead, I feared, they defined me.”

The thing about friendships in literature is that they’re either unrealistically perfect or make the reader want to slap the friend that’s making an obviously horrid decision. In real life, while true friendships are great, there’s always a little jealousy behind the love and desperation behind the loyalty. Maybe you’d do anything for your friend, but you expect the same in return, and yet people are imperfect and often just end up hurting each other even with their good intentions. Marlena hits true friendship right on the nose, complete with those moments when the main character hates her best friend, when she tags along no matter the cost, and when the friend encourages bad choices. It’s a real, gritty friendship.

“I thought being her best friend meant keeping her secrets. I trusted that she knew what she was doing.”

The story benefits from its point of telling, as well. It’s a story about fifteen and seventeen year-old girls, but the narrator is in her mid-thirties by the time she’s telling it. This gives the reader two things: room to doubt some of the details that have been weathered by time and memory, and insight into life and meaning that the narrator lacked as a teenager. Cat can look back and recognize aspects of the story that she didn’t understand yet while she was living it. She sees how she could have helped, in a way that she probably didn’t fully grasp at the time and which gives the story it’s sense of tragic guilt.

“Before that year I was nothing but a soft, formless girl, waiting for someone to come along and tell me who to be.”

Marlena is not a plot-driven book. The reader is told right away which of the characters will not survive, and even the event in the narrator’s present that keeps that part of the story moving forward is a small event, and an anticlimactic one. This, in a sense, fits the story well, though. Marlena’s life was a spark that burned hot and quick, and after it’s gone out there’s simply nothing left. That’s the problem with losing a loved one–they’re just not there, and nothing you can do after can reignite the lost connection. So in a way, the disappointment of Cat’s present fits right in with the tragedy in her past.

“…that day, I learned that time doesn’t belong to you. All you have is what you remember. A fraction; less.”

The only thing I might mention disliking about this book were its sentence fragments. The rules of grammar exist to be broken, I know, it’s an artistic thing; but there were so many beautiful, complete sentences in this book that I’d stumble upon the half-finished ones occasionally and not know what to do with them. There’s nothing wrong with sentence fragments, really, it’s just that they reflect connections in the writer’s thoughts, and sometimes those connections are less clear to readers. It can be a fault of the book when the writing is so lyrical and grammatically perfect that the narration becomes boring, so maybe the fragments help in the end, but they did require a couple of reads sometimes when I was trying to make grammatical sense of a long sentence fragment that just tied back to something mentioned earlier. These awkward little stops and starts were the only problem I had with the writing style.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. At first, the cover made me wary. I think the white swirls are supposed to maybe represent cigarette smoke, but to me they looked like ribbons. The glowing red letters at the ends of the words maybe represent the glowing end of a cigarette, but at first it just looked like some odd pattern with the lettering. An actual cigarette on the cover might have turned me off from the book completely, so perhaps there is something to be said for the subtle approach, but for most of the time I was reading it just looked nonsensical. Between that and the instant removal of plot by Cat mentioning Marlena’s sad and pathetic death, I was skeptical. But somehow this book made me feel everything, even though my own life has been nothing like the story Cat is telling in this novel. This one’s going to stick with me.

Further recommendations:

  1. History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund. Here’s a coming-of-age story about a fifteen year-old girl growing up in Minnesota who meets with death in a strange and painful way before she understands that she could have helped prevent it.
  2. The Girls by Emma Cline. This one’s also a coming-of-age story about a teenage girl, in this case one who becomes involved with a Manson-esque cult in the 1960’s. It’s full of the same sort of commentary on what it means to be a teenage girl that Buntin does so well in Marlena.
  3. Faithful by Alice Hoffman. If it’s the tragedy of Marlena that appeals to you, nothing beats Faithful for difficult emotion and the struggle to rise above one’s past. Also, this is a book for lovers of dogs.

Coming up next: I’m currently finishing up Cassandra Clare’s City of Fallen Angels, the fourth book in her Mortal Instruments series. Unlike the first three volumes in this series, this one is a first-time read for me, and without the nostalgia factor it’s a bit of a different experience. I hope I’ll end up enjoying this one as much as the other Cassandra Clare books I’ve read so far, and I also hope to have a review ready for you tomorrow, so stay tuned!

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Behind Her Eyes

I was so glad to see that one of the Book of the Month Club selections for February was a proper thriller–brand new, hot off the press of course–because that’s exactly what I was in the mood for this month. I was even more excited for Sarah Pinborough’s Behind Her Eyes by the time it arrived in my mailbox, and I’m glad I did find time to read it toward the end of the month; not only because I don’t want to fall behind with my BOTM boxes so early in the year, but because this book was everything I wanted it to be.

About the book: The reader follows two first-person behindhereyesnarrators, one in the present and one that spans a few different time frames from the present and past. Louise, the first character, is an ordinary single mom working as a secretary in a top-notch psychiatric clinic. Her husband is taking their small son for a month’s vacation, but Louise won’t mind having the time to herself because she’s made some new friends with which to fill the gaps. Adele is a stunning, friendly woman who reaches out to Louise with unfailing kindness. She seems a little nervous and maybe even afraid of her husband, and theirs certainly seems to be a strange marriage, but she persists through the challenges because she loves her husband immensely. Even their love is strange, though:

“Dinner’s ruined. We’re ruined. I sometimes wonder if he wants to kill me and be done with it all. Get rid of the albatross around his neck. Perhaps some part of me wants to kill him, too.”

The biggest problem is that Louise met a man in a bar just before the clinic took on a new doctor–and it turns out that the man she kissed at the bar is her new boss. Worse, he’s Adele’s husband. But he’s charming and attractive and he wants Louise–and she can’t resist. She knows its wrong to be friends with Adele while she’s having an affair with the woman’s husband, but she thinks she’s keeping secrets from them both and it can’t last past the end of her son’s vacation anyway. Louise decides to play with fire and keep both relationships–but perhaps there’s more the matter with the marriage than she thinks, and her secrets aren’t quite so hidden. On top of this tangled web, Adele is teaching Louise lucid dreaming, which is another element that adds to the confused mess between the three.

“Everyone’s life is probably a mess of secrets and lies when you boil them right down. We can never see who someone really is underneath the skin.”

This entire book had that wonderful dreamlike quality in which something is always slightly off. Maybe you can tell you’re dreaming, and maybe you can’t, but all these little signs are in place to warn you that reality has been slightly skewed. This is amplified by a slight paranormal element weaved throughout the book, reminding the reader that he/she is not in Kansas anymore.

“Sharing a secret always feels great in the moment, but then becomes a burden in itself. That gnawing in the pit of your stomach that something has been set free and you can’t call it back and now someone else has that power over your future.”

The only thing I would changed about this book is the romance–there’s all the evidence of love between David and Louise, and maybe the problem is only that the reader sees nothing through David’s eyes directly, but the love feels rather inexplicable to me. There’s no denying that it’s there, I just couldn’t quite figure out how it came to be. I like Louise as a character. But what about her and their relationship made David fall in love with her? I just couldn’t quite put my finger on the factor that would tip him from lust into love. But again, maybe that’s because we’re following Louise, who doesn’t seem to understand it any better than I do. I just wish I’d seen more of the falling-in-love part so that their relationship wouldn’t feel like a plot device.

“Had they told each other about me? Them and me. Always them and me, no matter how much I feel inserted between the two of them. Inserted or trapped. One or the other.”

And let’s talk about that surprise ending: I did guess some parts of the big reveal before it arrived, but only bits and pieces as the story neared its end. There are clues hidden throughout the book, and if the reader follows them closely the end is clear, although no less impactful if the reader is determined enough to put it all together him-/herself. However–there are 2-3 pages, one final section right at the end, that sneak up on the reader. This part is shattering and redeeming; it’s not the end the reader hopes for, but it’s so flawless, so perfectly fitting, so creepy and cunning that I loved it even while I hated it. The final clue that makes this ending fall into place comes so close to the end, and seems to be pointing to another major problem for the narrator that even with all the pieces it would be easy for the reader to be too distracted with what is right in front of them to put this final piece into place and shape the entire picture. Seeing the entire book with this new frame was what tipped my review from a 4 to 5 star rating. It’s the kind of ending that makes the reader think, “this was going on the whole time?” and turn back to the beginning to see the story again with fresh information. And that, in my opinion, is what makes a good thriller ending.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This book didn’t seem to have quite as much scare and fighting-for-survival as other thrillers I’ve read, but it was clear from the beginning that the characters were involved in something strange that foretold disaster. These are exactly the characters I expected to meet in a thriller–the puppet, the puppet master, and the one somewhere in between who can see the strings but not quite escape them. Even without the tension of “who’s going to die now?” these characters and their unusual situation kept me fully invested. (Don’t let me lead you astray, though, there’s definitely murder involved. It’s just not the driving force behind the tension.) There was so much more to take from this book than I expected going in.

Further recommendations:

  1. I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh should be your next thriller to read if you like those surprise truths that are nearly invisible in the narration the first time through, but seem to have a lot of supporting evidence once you know. If the crazy twist ending is your favorite part of Behind Her Eyes, don’t miss I Let You Go.
  2. Ruth Ware’s The Woman in Cabin 10 is a strong recommendation if you like the atmosphere of the narration in Behind Her Eyes. Although The Woman in Cabin 10 has more of the scare factor, it also has the close study of character and the persistent tension that something is slightly off about the reality presented to the narrator.
  3. Dark Matter by Blake Crouch is just an all-around good thriller. It’s full of mind-boggling plot twists that the reader doesn’t expect, and it has that great element of a narrator who ends up most afraid of himself. For an exciting read that’ll keep you on your toes, Dark Matter is the way to go.

What’s next: I’m currently reading Cassandra Clare’s Clockwork Angel, the first book in her Infernal Devices trilogy and the fourth book in the great 2017 publication-order Clare binge I’m partaking in. I meant to finish this one in February so expect a review pronto. Shadowhunters in Victorian London is too good to read slowly, so it won’t take me long. I’m having a very different reaction to the book than when I first read it, though.

Have you read any great thrillers lately? I absolutely love trying put their pieces together, but I hate the disappointment when I actually manage it, so sometimes it’s hard for me to find a good one like Behind Her Eyes that will really surprise me. Do you know of any thrillers with totally unpredictable endings?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

 

February Book Haul

I’m trying to keep my book buying to a minimum this year while I catch up on reading what I bought last year, but of course, there are always exceptions. Part of the problem is that I refuse to stop borrowing books from the library (and other sources) even as I’m trying to eliminate unread books from my shelves, and thus as I’m introduced to more new books that I’m borrowing, I discover more that I want to add to my own collection. That was my biggest obstacle to restraint this month

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  1. The Infernal Devices trilogy by Cassandra Clare, consisting of Clockwork Angel, Clockwork Prince, and Clockwork Princess. Since I last read any of these books, the new paperback versions with the cool spines came out. When I started rereading Cassandra Clare this year and loved having my own copy of City of Bones (even though I have the original, less attractive copy with the torso on the cover) and wanted to buy more, my first thought was to purchase this trilogy because I remember liking it even more than the Mortal Instruments. Also because then I would have the set in time to read my own copies when I got around to these three in publication order.
  2. The Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare, consisting of City of Bones, City of Ashes, City of Glass, City of Fallen Angels, City of Lost Souls, and City of Heavenly Fire. I loved the new paperbacks of the other trilogy so much, and I still had four books left to read in this series by the time I found a good sale and ordered these, that I decided it was worth the cost to own them all. I’d almost forgotten just how much I loved the first three books in this series, and I’m loving them even more this time around, so I needed my own books. (Needed. Ha.) I did consider not buying City of Bones because I have an old and beloved copy (it was the first Cassandra Clare book I read), but (this is weird:) I didn’t want the shadowhunter on the new City of Bones spine to feel left out of the group by being shunned from the collection. Also the background image spans all six books, so the picture would have been incomplete without it. Other than two books from the Harry Potter set, City of Bones is now the only book I own two copies of.
  3. Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough. This was my February Book of the Month Club pick. I was in the mood for a thriller and this one was labeled as a thriller with such a great twist at the end that it was impossible to see it coming. Since I love books that are unpredictable, this sounded perfect. I’ve actually just finished reading it so stay tuned for my upcoming review!
  4. All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood. One of my favorite perks of Book of the Month Club is that every month two books can be added to the monthly box for only $10 each–any hardcovers from previous months that are still in stock. I have a feeling that by the end of the year I’ll be utilizing this extra feature regularly, so I’m trying to take it easy as the year begins, but I couldn’t pass up their limited edition publication of BOTM’s 2016 book of the year. This one was already on my to-read list, and I know I’m not going to be able to get around to reading it until probably summer at least, but I’m glad to have this special edition of BOTM’s first ever book of the year on hand for when I find time to start reading it.
  5. The Girl Before by JP Delaney. Again, I will admit I’ve been in a thriller mood lately so as I’ve had my eye on new releases, this one stood out. I managed a pretty good discount on this one with my Barnes and Noble membership, so I couldn’t resist the purchase. Although there wasn’t room for this one on my official TBR for next month, I’m hoping I’ll find some extra time to fit it in sometime in March or April, while it’s still pretty new. It has something to do with a strange house or apartment or some place of residence where the new girl living there is learning strange things about the girl who was there before, and of course finds connections between them.
  6. Every Day by David Levithan. I picked this one up on the same Barnes and Noble trip. I’ve been seeing this one around for years, but something about the title and the cover art just never drew my attention enough to actually look into its plot. When I took the time to read its synopsis lately–a boy who wakes up every day in a different body, in love with the same girl in the same body–I realized it was actually a perfect choice for me as I fit more of the YA I’ve missed in the last few years into my reading schedule. There’s nothing actually wrong with the cover art, of course, so I picked this one up for its story and I have a feeling that the cover will grow on me. Also, David Levithan is a pretty big name in YA fiction, and I’ve only read one book he’s co-authored (Will Grayson, Will Grayson, which I liked but didn’t love, also written by John Green). If I end up liking this one as much as I expect, I’ll probably branch out to more of Levithan’s work.
  7. The Fireman by Joe Hill. This one has been on my radar for months, ever since I realized that Joe Hill is Stephen King’s son. I like Stephen King’s books (mostly, based on what I’ve read) and I admire his writing style (even in the books I didn’t like as much), so the fact that his son is also a writer immediately caught my interest. This was the first Joe Hill title I looked at, and based on the synopsis I knew I didn’t have to look any farther for a first Hill read. It’s been a few months now, as I’ve mentioned, so I don’t remember much about it, but I know it’s the same sort of horror/sci-fi genre that I loved from Stephen King’s books and the protagonist sounded particularly intriguing. I think he has some kind of special superpower/talent related to starting fires. Even when I like Stephen King’s plots, I often dislike his protagonists, so I couldn’t pass up one that sounded so promising. When I read this, I’m going to make an effort not to form any opinions about it based on my already-established Stephen King opinions, and I did think this story sounded immersive and unique enough that I won’t have to struggle with that too much. I’m highly looking forward to checking this one out more in depth.

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And that’s a wrap on my February book haul. I would have been pretty proud of my restraint if it hadn’t been for the Cassandra Clare books. Most of those were available at my library, so buying them all was a true moment of weakness. No regrets though. Even those I found on a good sale through Book Outlet, and the other books were free/cheap from my BOTM subscription and mostly covered between my Barnes and Noble membership discounts and a leftover gift card. So I feel like I made smart book buying choices, at least, which is probably more to the point than just cutting myself off completely.

How do you make yourself stick to a book-buying ban? Is there such a thing as too many books? Is that even a possibility…

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant