The Port Elspeth Jewelry Making Club by Holly Tierney-Bedord

The Port Elspeth Jewelry Making ClubRating: 

Synopsis2From the author of Sweet Hollow Women comes a new novel about friendship, surprises, and the secrets that hide in the shadows of even the most ordinary-seeming lives. 

It’s been five years since the idyllic oceanside town of Port Elspeth was rocked by tragedy. Shortly after their high school graduation, Evangeline Maddingly, daughter of one of the town’s wealthiest old-money families, and Oliver Prescott, son of one of the town’s wealthiest new-money families, were found dead in an isolated cabin in the woods outside of town. The circumstances surrounding their untimely deaths are murky at best, thanks in large part to a coroner with connections to the town’s founding families and a sweeping effort from those in power to shut down any negative publicity that could harm the reputation of their pristine community.

Five years later, a small group of strangers gather to create jewelry for one of Port Elspeth’s many fundraisers. Before long, friendships are forming and old secrets are being revealed. Along with solving the mystery of how to make a perfect pair of chandelier earrings or cabochon necklace, these unlikely friends find themselves at the heart of solving the murders that took place half a decade earlier.

My review Dont’ get fooled by the warm palette going on in the book cover. Or the cozy-sounding title. Sure, the book has its share of fun conversations over tea, dessert and jewelry-making sessions. But so much of it skates over an undercurrent of tensions and awkwardness due to the women’s family dynamics.

This story focuses on six women – Margo, Pearl, Cadence, Olivia, Audra, Vivienne – Through them, themes of non-conformance, personal validation in a relationship and the desire for acceptance is explored. It also gets discomfiting to see the near-comical lengths people try to change and adapt to get accepted. But, in the end, most of them help see the other how they are shortchanging themselves and can script a different tale.

This is a book which does the multiple-PoV well. It employs some elements of unreliable narration which not only goes well in building up the mystery but also works well in showing all the dysfunctional dynamics – of parenting, dating, marriage and friendships. It flowed with the storytelling and so it never felt like all the different voices were unnecessary. This also has Tierney-Bedord’s trademark commentary on social appearances and an almost satirical view of the hoity-toity politics of a society comprising the rich, privileged families in a small town – and we are also talking about its founding fathers here.

The murder-mystery stems from and builds on all these factors and pushes the plot to a darker space. It isn’t the most unpredictable whodunit but it is compulsively readable – even at 400 pages.

I am not sure if any spinoffs are in the works, but I can totally see it happening. There is a lot that can be explored further.

This is my second Tierney-Bedord book and once again, I am taken aback by what the book turned out to be. She always manages to write stories that, going by their covers, seem to be in the “chicklits-known-for-their-sunshine-and-rainbows” space, but ends up taking up a wholly unexpected direction. Yet, you never feel bogged down as a reader because it never gets heavy or preachy. There is always this extra zing to her stories that I wish more “chicklit/women’s fiction” had. Don’t get me wrong, I actually enjoy the fun ones too – which is all about wedding crashers, bridal parties and old exes. But, well, you get the drift – it would be nice to have more books that don’t need to be a RomCom+ChickLit .

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*I received an e-copy of this book from the author, Holly Tierney-Bedord in exchange for an honest review*

How often do you judge a book by its cover? How often have you been wrong in guessing the vibe of the book based on its cover?

Beartown (Björnstad #1) by Fredrik Backman (Goodreads Author), Neil Smith (Translator)

Beartown (Beartown, #1) Rating:

Synopsis2The #1 New York Times bestselling author of A Man Called Overeturns with a dazzling, profound novel about a small town with a big dream—and the price required to make it come true.

People say Beartown is finished. A tiny community nestled deep in the forest, it is slowly losing ground to the ever encroaching trees. But down by the lake stands an old ice rink, built generations ago by the working men who founded this town. And in that ice rink is the reason people in Beartown believe tomorrow will be better than today. Their junior ice hockey team is about to compete in the national semi-finals, and they actually have a shot at winning. All the hopes and dreams of this place now rest on the shoulders of a handful of teenage boys.

Being responsible for the hopes of an entire town is a heavy burden, and the semi-final match is the catalyst for a violent act that will leave a young girl traumatized and a town in turmoil. Accusations are made and, like ripples on a pond, they travel through all of Beartown, leaving no resident unaffected.

Beartown explores the hopes that bring a small community together, the secrets that tear it apart, and the courage it takes for an individual to go against the grain. In this story of a small forest town, Fredrik Backman has found the entire world

My reviewIt takes a village to raise a child. The community in Beartown is fierce in its love for ice hockey – and in turn fostering an environment where their kids grow up playing the game, cheering for the game, targeting the major leagues, the NHL and just being involved in it in some way or the other. A good part of the book is about this – fostering a culture where everyone are involved in pooling their resources to push their sons to be the  best in the game. The book builds towards a game that, if the team wins, would revive the dying town by attracting sponsors. Then, an act of violence against a girl brings out the worst in everyone, and the best in some. Sides are taken, a culture of stoicism turns into a shameful culture of silence. The victim is re-victimized – questioned and bullied. The family is boycotted. The “village” that is supposed to have raised their children fosters a community that turns their back on one of their own. It favors hockey over a person: A girl who is dehumanized – who would always be known as “that girl” for the rest of her life.

This is an “ensemble” small-town story at its finest. A story that is more than just a losing team in a dying town. More than just scores and hockey games. It is about a town where everyone knows everyone else. Where a lot of people have moved on to bigger towns but so many have stayed back. I don’t think we are ever told which country this is set in. But it doesn’t really matter. It could be set anywhere – because you would always find that one small-town in some remote part of a country that is fighting to be heard by the bigger cities. Fighting to stay relevant. To get funds. To save their stores and schools from shutting down.

This is a story with a diverse cast of characters who leap off the pages because they are given distinct voices. The deeply ingrained biases are questioned and addressed on-page with characters introspecting their own “It is all in good fun” behavior over the years. 

This is a story about parenting and the right kind – about raising your sons to be decent men and not just testosterone-filled noisy boys in locker rooms who think machismo is about dirty jokes and winning games on the ice rink. 

It is a story about mentors and coaches. The clash between old ideologies  and new thought processes. The blurred lines between nurturing talent with care and pushing for immediate results. The fine lines between loyalty towards your team, your town and your coach. 

It is the story of finding courage in the unlikeliest of places – where the have-nots with everything to lose show more gumption than people with weight and cash to throw around. 

It only takes one spark to start a fire.

 

Under a Painted Sky – By Stacey Lee

22501055  Rating:

Set in the mid-1800s , this road-trip towards a gold-rush (well, not much of that happening..) and through the Oregon trail, follows a motley bunch of five – two girls and three boys. The two girls are disguised as boys – one running from the law to escape a murder conviction and the other is a runaway slave.

I am not fond of road-trip books – I think it is partly because I have a difficulty time getting invested in all the descriptions of the changing landscapes and trails. It is often said the best way to know someone is to travel with them – but somehow this hasn’t translated well with a lot of the books I have picked based on road-trips – where there is a whole lot of traveling and you feel like nothing much has changed in the character-arcs.

Was reading this book any different? Well, for starters this trip served as a clever backdrop to throw light on a period that saw the first wave of Chinese immigration alongside when slavery was still rampant. Clever and breezy, because Stacey Lee doesn’t get too verbose and keeps the slightly thread-bare plot moving forward.
It was interesting to have Samantha and Annamae team up and strangely, even when both are “marked” and “different” and both have faced racism – Samantha’s mother dies during childbirth because the doctors didn’t want to treat a woman who “looked like her” – her privilege of being “free” (at least by birth , if not by law) , ends up protecting Annamae during some circumstances.

Samantha and Annamae disguise themselves as boys – Sammy and Andy – and persuade three boys they meet on their journey to give them a ride.
The remainder of the book is about what each party offer – free Chinese lessons, singing, cooking, cowboy and rifle lessons, having each other’s back when faced with illness, dwindling food supplies and other dangerous outlaws.

Through all this, they form an easy-going, almost familial bond. Sammy is conflicted about their deception because she is falling for one of the boys. She feels guilty when she realizes this farce is somehow triggering his deep-seated wounds of a horrid childhood (which includes him being abused by his dad for having “effeminate hobbies”). From being able to rationalize it by saying he is probably racist and she doesn’t owe him the truth, she is not sure about her decisions anymore.

The conflict in the girls’ minds over reaching for their goals – such as Annamae reuniting with her brother or Samantha seeking out a family friend who could provide the support she needs to get through the remaining years – intensifies as their friendship grows – with each other and also with the three boys.

This is a fun historical fiction, with genuine laugh-out-loud moments amidst what is essentially a terrible string of events and a tenuous journey. My only grouse is that we don’t know enough about the boys’ lives. There is an attempt to fill in as much of their backstories as possible, but it doesn’t feel enough. Also, as I mentioned earlier, there isn’t really much of a plot and whatever little that exists is pretty predictable. So getting through the last few chapters is a bit of a drag.

If you love the good ol’ Westerns, I suspect you would enjoy their journey a bit more than I did.

*I won a signed copy of this book in a giveaway hosted by Shenwei@readingasiam/wordpress . Thank you!*

 

The Lost for Words Bookshop [ARC Review] by Stephanie Butland

The Lost for Words Bookshop: A NovelRating: 

Synopsis2Loveday Cardew prefers books to people. If you look carefully, you might glimpse the first lines of the novels she loves most tattooed on her skin. But there are some things Loveday will never, ever show you.

Into her hiding place – the bookstore where she works – come a poet, a lover, and three suspicious deliveries.

Someone has found out about her mysterious past. Will Loveday survive her own heartbreaking secrets?

My review Loveday Cardew isn’t exactly great at small talk, and prefers to keep people at a distance. The only person who she probably considers something close to a friend and makes an effort to show that she cares about is her employer – Archie – who gives her a job at a time when she was still in the foster care system and was hoping to get out of as soon as possible.

The story is told in three timelines – most of it is in present but there are two smaller past timelines which gives us an insight about two significant phases of her life that has shaped much of her current cynicism and anxieties – her childhood and an abusive relationship. When she meets Nathan – a magician by day and poet/poetry slam organizer by night – she is happier and starts believing the prospects of a new relationship and an easier time at connecting with people again. But a series of suspicious deliveries – books belonging to her parents – at the bookshop – makes her wonder whether a person’s past can truly ever be put behind.

This book is delightful if you are a bibliophile!!! It is strewn with references to all kinds of books from different genres – especially classics. The book timelines are divided into different sections and named after genres – for example: poetry, crime, travel, history and so on. Poetry ends up playing a very important part in the story as Nathan and Loveday end up meeting and performing at poetry slam often. In fact, there are quite a few free-verse poems in the book.

Another aspect of this book that I thoroughly enjoyed was reading about the “inner-working” of a second-hand bookshop. There is a lot of “sorting and shelving the books” paragraphs and I never got tired of reading them. I found it sooo interesting because I guess it is something I have always wondered about .. how are all the books collected and sifted through and put on sale at a second-hand bookshop? It is always a hotchpotch collection of books from different genres – varying from coffee table books to first-edition collectibles and they have to price them, decide what can be cataloged for sale on their website, and what can be sold at throwaway prices.

One running theme with books featuring local bookstores is how it is almost always never really a profitable business and lucrative career option and the people in it do it just for the love for books. It is the same with Archie and Loveday too. Archie is independently wealthy so he doesn’t really depend on this for a livelihood. For Loveday, this was her first chance at being independent and leaving the foster care system behind. But, she never really envisions doing anything else. She could have tried to explore some other career options and study further after completing her A-Levels but she doesn’t. As we know more about her, we see how books went from being something that she associated with happy memories at her childhood home to something that became some sort of a coping mechanism after she lost much of that childhood.

There is a lot to love about this book even if you don’t care much about the whole “bookish” aspect of it. It handles grieving for everything lost and forgiveness to move past that loss sooo well. Forgiveness is messy and grey. Burdening kids with the onus to forgive quickly and make sense of something that even adults struggle with is not fair. I loved how that lesson was underscored so vehemently.

The themes addressed in this book reminded me of Little Big Love by Katy Regan except that I felt more satisfied with the way this book concluded.

 

 

[ARC Review]Five reasons why:LSD packs in a punch !!!

Firstly, a HUGE happy book birthday (in advance) to Helena Hill’s Long Steady Distance which releases tomorrow. I won an e-ARC of this book and just finished reading it yesterday. It was definitely one of my most satisfying novella-length reads (PDF Version – 150+ pages), in recent months. And, I might be speaking a bit early, but I think this would also make it to my year-end list of favorite book covers. Check out the illustrator’s ( Mhaladie: Elizabeth Julien Coyne) profile on  Twitter and on her Tumblr and on her website.

Also, check out the author’s website , twitter account, and the book’s Goodreads and Amazon pages.

Here’s five reasons why you should check this book out:

long-steady-distance-final-cover 1) It is set in high-school and against the backdrop of the year-long track and cross-country racing competitions. My knowledge of inter-school track-n-field competitions’ schedules and routines is literally zilch. But, the author provides such a lovely window into their daily lives, that you don’t really mind feeling occasionally lost about who’s timing how much in which race.

2) Through Sophie, who is biracial and from the “poorer” part of the city”, it does bring in issues of race and classism, but the story never becomes “about” race or class differences. It is resolutely focused on Emily and Sophie figuring out their feelings for each other before giving a thought (or “defining”/”labelling”) to what that means.

3) It is a sensitive portrayal of a teen’s anxieties – about coming out to their family, to friends and to the society at large. Through Emily, it also touches upon insecurities and the feeling of being a part of a facade when her mom remarries after her dad’s death. She gets a stepfather, stepsister (who she dotes on) and step-aunt/uncle/cousin/grandma. I liked how, though pretty ambivalent about her step-dad, she doesn’t lose perspective and sees that he isn’t a bad person. Just not someone she can connect with. It is these little things – like, not painting everyone or their perceptions about each other in absolute terms – that makes this book come across as so thoughtful and wise.

4) It seamlessly merges in discussions about religion v/s atheism and I love how Emily and her Mom handle their differences wrt faith. It was, well, uneasy, but mature and respectful. There is also a discussion about Christianity and verses from the Bible and how they view homosexuality. As I am not that well-informed about the religious texts, I am not sure how to comment or critique it. But I really liked the idea and just the approach of characters looking towards religion itself in order to examine and understand their own beliefs instead of not confronting it at all. (Note: The quoted verses is a very small section of the book and required in context, so you don’t have to be apprehensive about this book reading like “religious fiction”, )

5) The peripheral characters make quite an impact too. Sure, there is a usual trope-y mean girl (who influences a lot of the events that happens in the end of the book) , but most of the characters feel authentic, and though some of them just get a line or two, and make up the rest of the runners’ team, I still felt like I knew them and cared for their running scores, them beating their own personal record times and so on.

Overall impressions : Rating:A fabulous debut novel!!  Simple but engrossing and doesn’t rely on unnecessary drama to propel the love story forward. Sticks to telling the story it is intended to. Provides a great snapshot into the life of a high-school teen – her favorite subjects, teachers, passions, family and friends.

 

My Trip to Adele by R.I. Alyaseer, A.I. Alyaseer

My Trip to Adele Rating:

Synopsis2An Adele concert held in Verona becomes the focus for an unhappy married couple, a divorced mother and a devoted lover from three different countries and cultures.
This is the story of three flawed but likeable people. First up is Elias, a Moroccan man living in Rome. He discovers that a black magic spell was cast upon him but starts to doubt whether it was the real cause of the break-up between him and his long-lost love Malika. He decides to search for her in the shadows of Marrakesh after eight years of separation.
Nadia, a single mother from Jordan, is battling her ex-husband in the courts and doing all she can to secure freedom for herself and her only son. Her dream is to take her son to see his idol, Adele, live.
Finally, Yaser, a married man living in Las Vegas, realizes that his marriage is crawling all over him like a slow, painful death, so he starts to rebel against his wife. While faith initially brought them together, it is now causing them to drift apart.
These three characters are on a journey to break free of everything that has haunted them, learning harsh truths about fate, religion, courage, desire and guilt along the way.

My review I loved this one!! I went into this book thinking it was some “frivolous” read, but I was so taken aback by the breadth of cultural insights and ethical issues it covered. From local sights and sounds of Morocco to the women standing up against patriarchal “family councils” in Jordan – I loved how none of the “dilemmas” felt manufactured. I mean, the whole time you really do wonder about what decisions they are going to take next and how “right” or “wrong” it is.

My favorite story was Nadia’s because of the sheer simplicity and bluntness of its message in the end – Happiness and freedom don’t run in parallel. Sometimes you just have to keep bartering one for the other based on priorities.

I don’t prefer books which end up reading like religious fiction, but in case of Yaser’s story, I didn’t really mind it. Because, more than “religion-specific” it was more about faith and belief in higher power and making a marriage work when one of the thornier issues between the couple is that one is an atheist and the other is a staunch believer. What happens when your belief system is completely different (or non-existent) from your partner but you are not honest about it because you want to make your marriage work? This is the story of Yaser’s marriage with Mariam. His feelings of suffocation within the monotony and acrimonious daily nature of his life with Mariam was well written.. maybe too well. Which is why I couldn’t understand the rationale behind his decision in the end… It felt rushed, and completely contrary to his state of mind some hours ago..

Elias’ story is probably the one I least connected to. I liked the all the backstory of his connection with Malika, but his final thoughts as the story concluded was .. well it was something I had to read twice to understand.. I mean, I didn’t get what was going on in his head though it was all written.. Did he feel foolish about his search? Was he upset or disappointed that the love he imagined in his head didn’t translate into the same reality?

All the three stories lead up to the characters deciding to (or not to) go to an Adele concert – to either mend or nurture existing relationships or start a new one. Well, I won’t reveal who do or do not go but I absolutely loved how (and with which character) the authors decide to end the story. It was so goddamn powerful and reminded me of this quote:

“Listen to the music of your heart and the voice of your soul and dance to the best soundtrack of your life. ” (Credit: http://www.simrankankas.com/quotes)

[Mini Reviews] The Vegetarian by Han Kang & Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven

The Vegetarian Rating:

Buy Links:

Paperback           Hardcover         Kindle

This was pretty unsettling to read. Hard to really summarize the essence of what this was about. On the surface it was about a woman with severe mental health issues, but dig deeper (well, more like scratch the surface a bit..) and it is about renunciation – of societal expectations to get in touch with your most primitive reflections. This story is told in three POVs and interestingly, none of them is Yeong-hye’s. The story progresses with her turning vegetarian to finally giving up on food altogether because of certain recurring dreams and her finally interpreting what they really meant. We get glimpses into Yeong-hye and her sister In-hye’s childhood as they grew up in a patriarchal family system with an abusive father. In-hye later muses whether that was one reason for her sister’s current state. As her “dream” triggers her “madness”, we see the men in Yeong-hye’s life unable to understand her decision to go vegetarian. Instead, they literally try to force-feed her in one scene. Throughout the book, Yeong-hye keeps retreating further away from everyone else and well.. into herself as she resists everyone else’s attempt to tell her what to do to her own body.

I considered quitting this book mid-way quite a few times because I couldn’t connect to a lot of devices used in this story, be it the characters chosen for the three POVs, the three-part narration itself which felt disjointed or the depiction of vegetarianism. I mean, I understand that this book wasn’t really about “vegetarianism” as such, but since so much of the book was about her giving up meat, I really can’t look past it. I didn’t get the people’s reactions around her, and I am not talking about husband and father (both were A-Grade MCPs who were upset for reasons that had nothing to do with her well-being) but I couldn’t understand why the general reaction was one of shock and distaste rather than being supportive or well, checking out more healthy, wholesome vegetarian food options. There were also some other things about the book that I didn’t understand – like the triggering circumstances that caused Yeong-hye’s psychiatric condition. It felt like some sort of half-baked attempt by giving her the background of childhood abuse (like some sort of afterthought, because hey, I need to give a reason, so let me throw in some random reminiscences of childhood). Another aspect of this book that I found irritating is that it isn’t just Yeong-hye plagued by dreams; we also have two of the three narrators getting abstract, creepy dreams and being tortured by it as they are trying to decipher it. Honestly, it was overkill, and well, just way too many people for a less-than-180 pages book that I, as a reader am trying to make some sense of.

This is just one of those books that I can’t rave about, but I am glad I read it, and would definitely not shy away from recommending.

Holding Up the UniverseRating:

Buy Links:

Hardcover         Kindle           Paperback

Synopsis2Everyone thinks they know Libby Strout, the girl once dubbed “America’s Fattest Teen.” But no one’s taken the time to look past her weight to get to know who she really is. Following her mom’s death, she’s been picking up the pieces in the privacy of her home, dealing with her heartbroken father and her own grief. Now, Libby’s ready: for high school, for new friends, for love, and for every possibility life has to offer. In that moment, I know the part I want to play here at MVB High. I want to be the girl who can do anything. 

Everyone thinks they know Jack Masselin, too. Yes, he’s got swagger, but he’s also mastered the impossible art of giving people what they want, of fitting in. What no one knows is that Jack has a newly acquired secret: he can’t recognize faces. Even his own brothers are strangers to him. He’s the guy who can re-engineer and rebuild anything, but he can’t understand what’s going on with the inner workings of his brain. So he tells himself to play it cool: Be charming. Be hilarious. Don’t get too close to anyone.

Until he meets Libby. When the two get tangled up in a cruel high school game—which lands them in group counseling and community service—Libby and Jack are both pissed, and then surprised. Because the more time they spend together, the less alone they feel.

Because sometimes when you meet someone, it changes the world, theirs and yours.

My reviewI was a bit skeptical after reading the synopsis and wondered whether this will be one of those stories about an overweight girl transforming herself into a svelte figure by the end of the book and shocking everyone. Then there is also this male protagonist who suffers from face-blindness (known as Prosopagnosia) . But body-image and self-esteem issues are addressed so well in this book that the love story stands on its own rather than not having any relevance beyond Jack’s neurological disorder and Libby’s struggle with weight.

I think what worked for this book is that by the time we meet Libby, she has already gone through some of the darkest phases in her life. We meet her when she is re-entering the “mainstream” life (high-school after months of isolation and counseling. So, when Libby makes friends, meets Jack, faces bullies, you know it is all on her own terms.

So, what about Jack? Well, he has had a different kind of struggle. While Libby’s lowest phase was telecast across electronic media and her struggle with weight is under glaring spotlight of bullies, Jack has somehow managed to hide his condition from everyone (so that people don’t make his life further difficult in school) until an incident forces him to reveal his secret to Libby. What follows after that is definitely one of the cutest YA love stories I have read so far.

There were few things I found a bit unreal – like the fact that Jack could hide his condition from everyone and that no one, not even his parents noticed anything amiss. This felt like one of those classic “clueless YA parents” tropes. I also felt some of the quotes, though mushy and cute, felt unrealistic when thought by or mouthed as dialogues by teenage narrators (especially some super-cheesy lines.. I couldn’t really imagine anyone talking like that)

I also thought the book had a pretty abrupt and quiet ending? I mean, it felt like the book started with a bang and ending with a whimper because the author didn’t know how else to finish it.

I really liked the book though and some of Libby and Jack’s inner monologues were pure gold. I think my 2017 TBR will now comprise of Niven’s previous works.

Holding Smoke – By Elle Cosimano

Holding Smoke Rating:

Note : I received an ARC of this book via Veronica’s blog giveaway. Do check out her lovely blog here.

Synopsis2John “Smoke” Conlan is serving time for two murders but he wasn’t the one who murdered his English teacher, and he never intended to kill the only other witness to the crime. A dangerous juvenile rehabilitation center in Denver, Colorado, known as the Y, is Smoke’s new home and the only one he believes he deserves.

But, unlike his fellow inmates, Smoke is not in constant imprisonment. After a near death experience leaves him with the ability to shed his physical body at will, Smoke is able to travel freely outside the concrete walls of the Y, gathering information for himself and his fellow inmates while they’re asleep in their beds. Convinced his future is only as bright as the fluorescent lights in his cell, Smoke doesn’t care that the “threads” that bind his soul to his body are wearing thin-that one day he may not make it back in time. That is, until he meets Pink, a tough, resourceful girl who is sees him for who he truly is and wants to help him clear his name. 

Now Smoke is on a journey to redemption he never thought possible. With Pink’s help, Smoke may be able to reveal the true killer, but the closer they get to the truth, the more deadly their search becomes. The web of lies, deceit, and corruption that put Smoke behind bars is more tangled than they could have ever imagined. With both of their lives on the line, Smoke will have to decide how much he’s willing to risk, and if he can envision a future worth fighting for.

My review I havent read too many YA books which just have that slight touch of paranormal. The few I have read recently have been disappointing especially a couple of them which are about mind-body-soul because the book somehow ends up reading like religious fiction instead of what was promised in the synopsis. Thankfully, Holding Smoke not just lives up to what is promised in the cover blurb, but also exceeds it by miles.

No aspect of the book threatens to eclipse the other – the murder mystery complements beautifully with the human stories of the inmates. That’s a rarity in mystery books with a sizeable secondary cast – where sub-plots often tend to test your patience and make you question their need. But here, you actually do enjoy and empathize with everyone – with all their background stories that have been added cleverly into the book through Conlan’s paranormal power. I loved all the prison scenes, there was no unnecessary amped up melodrama but yet it is so effective – whether it is the counseling sessions or the power play in the yard. I feel like this is probably one of the biggest strengths of the book – to never lose sight of the fact that this is a juvenile rehab and NOT an adult prison. No matter how “hardened” they might be because of the circumstances, their vulnerabilities as teens are always bubbling beneath the surface.

I loved how we got the background story of how Conlan ended up in the detention center. The author takes her time to build it up gradually – whether it is the details of the fateful day or nuggets from his earlier difficult years with his abusive father. Conlan’s life is a template of childhood degraded, a present devalued and a future lost – A future that had a college degree and a well-paying job.  This is also the story shared by a lot of characters at the center. Of course, if you are lucky you might have an empathetic warden or a counselor taking an interest in you and reinforcing the belief that you can finish your education and making something of your life once you get out. But no inmate seriously believes it.

There is no romance in this book. What Conlan and Pink have between them is more of a strained-friendship-with-romantic potential and that’s a good thing because both have a lot of things going on in their individual lives. Pink is practical and gosh – just so gutsy! Not some wannabe badass. Conlan initially seeks her out because he needs her help but later does start valuing her and respecting the life she leads. He also feels like he is losing out on someone important to him when turns her away at one point in the story. Despite his feelings for her, I liked how Conlan never turns reckless in using his paranormal ability just to meet her.

I really liked the murder mystery though I guessed the “who” halfway through the book. But I think it is more due to the fact that I have gotten pretty good at guesswork than anything else. I couldn’t guess the “why” though. I also liked all the red herrings the author used and explained in the final pages. The only issue I had is probably the presence of another girl – Vivian – in the story. I felt like the book didn’t really need her. I think any other existing character(s) could have contributed whatever she did to the story. But it is a pretty minor gripe and well, I understood why she was there once I read the Author’s Note in the end. (Do read that once you finish the book!!! You will find some great personal insights there.)

There is an epilogue that I felt was not required. I got my closure even without that. Well, with or without the epilogue, it was such a bittersweet conclusion and an immensely satisfying one.

A (very disappointing!) Little life

A Little Life Rating:

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Synopsis:

When four classmates from a small Massachusetts college move to New York to make their way, they’re broke, adrift, and buoyed only by their friendship and ambition. There is kind, handsome Willem, an aspiring actor; JB, a quick-witted, sometimes cruel Brooklyn-born painter seeking entry to the art world; Malcolm, a frustrated architect at a prominent firm; and withdrawn, brilliant, enigmatic Jude, who serves as their center of gravity. Over the decades, their relationships deepen and darken, tinged by addiction, success, and pride. Yet their greatest challenge, each comes to realize, is Jude himself, by midlife a terrifyingly talented litigator yet an increasingly broken man, his mind and body scarred by an unspeakable childhood, and haunted by what he fears is a degree of trauma that he’ll not only be unable to overcome—but that will define his life forever.

My Review: 

(Note: This is more of a rant and contains spoilers.)

WTF did I just read?!!!! The only emotion I was left with by the end of the book was anger, because this book could have been so much more if it had used less pages and the author had resisted piling on every misery-as-a-result-of-abusive-childhood onto one single person. The mildest analogy (for the lack of a better word) I can make – Take all the victims in all the seasons of Law and Order  SVU, heap all their traumas one over the other, and dump them over one person – and you get Jude St. Francis.

And no, I don’t think it is unbelievable that someone can have such a terrible childhood. That is not even my main issue with the book.  My issue is that everything else surrounding it was so unbelievable – For someone who has seen such horrors, who was abandoned as a baby, raised in a monastery and abused over and over again, by hundreds of men, both physically and sexually – he seems to have had an incredibly easy transition into a successful academic and professional life. He easily makes friends, co-exists with roommates, and wins court cases, cooks amazing food, is a wonderful pianist and mathematician and loved by his peers and feared by anyone who faces off against him in court.

And for all the talk about friendship, none of his friends are forceful about him getting counselling, and just let his self-harm continue through decades. He has a large group of friends, the sorts who take care of him or clean his apartment when he is bed-ridden after his latest hospital visit. But no one, no one puts their foot down to have him committed to a psychiatric facility or rehab. Just because they are scared Jude will cut ties with them.

In a few ways, this book was brilliant – possibly the most horrifyingly vivid close-up of what it is to live through such a trauma, and the self-loathing that stays with you. This was probably the first book I read which dealt with adult adoption and I loved how the author conveyed the feeling of constant doubt and insecurity of Jude with respect to the entire transition to being someone’s son – by law – at the age of thirty. Especially someone like Jude, who constantly feels he isn’t worth that privilege and that whatever is happening is too good to be true. I loved Harold and enjoyed the chapters with his first-person narration.  I wish we could have heard more from his wife Julia too. It is just weird she didn’t have much of a voice considering both Harold and Julia adopt Jude. Then again, this book doesn’t really have any prominent female characters.

The extent to which Williem goes to make Jude a part of his life was incredibly heart-warming, but I honestly preferred Jude and Williem as friends than lovers. I mean, what is the opposite term for being queer-baited? Because, that’s how I felt. It was touching to see the Williem’s love for Jude as a friend, and there was no indication he was homosexual or bisexual. So, I didn’t understand why the author felt the need to change “legitimize” it that way.  It felt like, suddenly the author thought it would be unusual to show Williem devoting his entire personal life caring for Jude as a friend, so she went ahead and made it a romantic relationship. I honestly didn’t see it coming, because prior to that, the author seemed so secure in showing  a selfless friendship. But then she decided, “Okay, so Jude and Williem are practically cohabiting, it is so weird to have two middle-aged guys living together, so let me change their equation to something more..”

I am so divided over this. I loved Jude and Williem and yet, was just very unconvinced with some aspects of how their relationship progressed. (This is a general observation about the book too. While I loved that there was LGBT representation, I was not entirely sure it was done well.) Williem and Jude have intimacy issues and later Jude admits he hates having sex, so with Jude’s permission, Williem has sex with other …. Women.  Like.. what?! There is a moment in the book when someone asks (or mentions?) him about being in love with a man and he replies that he is not in love with a guy; he is in love with Jude.  Soo, does the author want to imply that for Williem, being with Jude is all that mattered? It really wasn’t about the gender? I guess the author’s intention was to state that sometimes the society’s expectation to label everything isn’t always met and maybe that’s why Williem doesn’t even explicitly admit he is a bisexual. But, I just felt that this wasn’t conveyed well and a lot was left vague. Heck, with the conversations always being about “straight or gay?”, I felt there was a bit of bi-erasure.

The synopsis was so misleading!!! It wasn’t about four friends at all. It was all about Jude, everything was about him. JB and Malcolm fade away after a couple of hundred pages and I almost wanted to DNF it at that point. I went into this book thinking it was about four friends and though Jude might get more prominent page-time, we are going to get character-arcs for JB and Malcolm too.  But I was sooo off-the-mark. What irked me is how even when some other character got their “moment” in the book, it too turned out be somehow all about “how would Jude feel?”  So, after JB some cruel remarks against Jude during his drug addiction phase, he is immediately boycotted by Williem and Jude for a major part of the book. Oh well, his fate is no different than the two dozen names of Jude’s friends who keep popping up. And there are a lot of friends. All of whom adore Jude and never lose their patience with him. I am not sure what is about Jude which inspires such loyalty though. I mean, he never really confides about his past with them though they keep asking him. Apart from his work, he doesn’t do anything else to have fun and he being a litigator sets him apart from the artistic crowd of Malcolm, Willem or Malcolm. So, what does he even talk with the others? We never get a sense of what kind of a person Jude is beyond his past.

It felt like by the end of it even the author was tired, because all the beautiful prose that held my attention through most of the first half, turned weary and it was just hard for me to plough through the last couple of hundred pages. My patience for all the excessive details (over JB’s art, Malcolm’s architecture, Jude’s injuries and Williem’s movies) was wearing thin.

All of it ends with the most lazy and predictable plot twist (if you can call it that) ever.  I am not even sure why I just didn’t ditch the book. Maybe it is because I have been looking forward to reading it for over a year. Maybe I just thought the ending will be more hopeful for Jude. But, none of that happens. I have read books dealing with these issues (though not so many in the same book and dealt by the same character), and have liked a lot of those books. My problem with A Little Life was that there is no ebb and flow to the story. It is just incredibly one-note – on one side we have Jude who goes through every horrific experience possible and on the other hand we have him and all his friends being super-successful in their fields with lots of wealth (world-famous artist, world-famous architect, world-famous actor and so on). While the entire book could have really used an editor, I also question the need for a lot of the social gatherings that happen in the book. Some of them just don’t serve any purpose and I just found it so unrealistic that around two dozen of their common friends keep in touch so frequently through the years. All of them land up in the same city from different places and when they don’t, Williem or Jude fly over to whichever part of the world they are and meet them – and again, why do we need such details every time they meet friend X or friend Y for dinner? I do applaud one thing though – the representation of LGBT, ethnicity, and the differently-abled in the background cast of characters (well okay, there were times I went “tokenism” in my head, but I am willing to shrug it off) .

Hanya Yanagihara can write, and write brilliantly. This book could have been brilliant too. If only there wasn’t all that gratuitousness floating around.

The Boy Who Killed Grant Parker – By Kat Spears

Rating:

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*Note: I won this book through Goodreads giveaway program*

Synopsis:

Luke Grayson’s life might as well be over when he’s forced to go live in rural Tennessee with his Baptist pastor father. His reputation as a troublemaker has followed him there, and as an outsider, Luke is automatically under suspicion by everyone from the principal at his new school to the local police chief. His social life is no better. The new kid in town is an easy target for Grant Parker, the local golden boy with a violent streak who has the entire community of Ashland under his thumb.

But things go topsy-turvy when a freak accident removes Grant from the top of the social pyramid, replacing him with Luke. This fish out of water has suddenly gone from social outcast to hero in a matter of twenty-four hours. For the students who have lived in fear of Grant all their lives, this is a welcome change. But Luke’s new found fame comes with a price. Nobody knows the truth about what really happened to Grant Parker except for Luke, and the longer he keeps living the lie, the more like Grant Parker he becomes.

My Review: (contains mild spoilers)

Being bullied is hard. Standing up to bullies is harder. But what about suddenly being in the same position of power as the bully? How does one wield that? As Luke finds out, that’s probably the hardest for him.

I am so conflicted about my ratings (kept toggling between 3 and 3.5). I loved the whole idea behind this book – being on both sides of bullying and how one can get weak when it comes to making the hard choices when everything is suddenly going hunky-dory for you. I rarely read books from the POV of a male teenager. So, this was something different and a change from reading about all the high school pressures faced by teenage girls.

Kat Spears does a very good job of showing it from a guy’s perspective. I really empathized with Luke’s situation – a city kid used to the anonymity provided by Washington – as he ends up in a small town where he sticks out and is soon known to everyone. Right from his flashy T-Shirts and lack of interest in hunting; to his agnostic beliefs, he just feels at odds with everything and everyone in Ashland. The only people who sort of seem to get him are Delilah, one of his classmates and the local police chief’s daughter and Roger – a garage owner who offers Luke a part-time job.  The isolation, embarrassment and dreading over facing school every morning, and then avoiding people and situations amidst all of this – all those feelings were just so spot-on.

The first half of the book is really good and I totally got and understood everything Luke was going through. But, it was after the “freak accident” that I just began to feel disconnected with him.  Luke’s account went from feeling personal to ..well.. me feeling like an outside spectator to the entire in-his-head ordeal. Sure, he is still saying things like him feeling bad about his former friends being bullied and him not doing anything about it or, him feeling uneasy about alienating Delilah and Roger – but it just didn’t feel forceful or honest enough. While I loved that Spears made him a sort of anti-hero and not-so-perfect or likeable teenage protagonist, I just couldn’t understand what I should make of his “introspection” later on. It felt more like a matter of convenience for him – as if he changed only because he wanted people like Delilah and others not to be angry with him anymore; and because the other “cool kids” just bored the hell out of him. Oh, there was also this slight issue of Grant Parker’s former girlfriend (and his current girlfriend) nagging him daily to change him and turn him into some kind of suave social butterfly. So, it basically felt like Luke changed back to his previous self only because he realized it is too hard to don the mantle of Grant Parker’s social self – and not because Luke felt like repenting.

I also felt there were too many secondary characters and none of them made any kind of lasting impression. Those who could have – such as Delilah and Roger – were given sort-of background facts about their earlier life; so I just felt they were given a raw deal when they were ignored in later part of the book. People closer to home – such as Luke’s dad and step-mom were written as weird caricatures of religious people.

This book was a pretty fast and easy read. I liked the theme of the book and Spears’ approach of keeping a lot of the storytelling simple. But, I just felt this “simplicity” ended up being more of a weakness in the later part of the book.