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.

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.

Shepherd & the Professor – By Dan Klefstad

Rating:

*Note : I received a digital copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review*

Buy Links:

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Synopsis2

Most people take comfort knowing their family and friends will remember them after they die. For Susan Shepherd, “remembering” is bullshit. She wants an eternal shrine to her sacrifice: a book that never goes out of print.

Shepherd served her country in the Gulf War, got shot while serving her community as a cop, raised an ungrateful daughter by herself — and for what? A diagnosis of terminal cancer and she isn’t even fifty. If you were in her shoes, you might agree that nothing short of national perpetual acknowledgement will do.

She’s glad you feel that way; she just wrote a memoir and sent a flurry of query letters, hoping a publisher will memorialize her with a best-seller. After hitting Send, she waits not-at-all patiently for an editor to decide if her story will sell enough copies — that is, if her life really mattered.

My review

The writingUnconventional and refreshing. Slightly acerbic at times, Klefstad isn’t afraid to let his characters indulge in highly-charged conversations at the risk of not sounding PC. The format of the book does lend itself to being categorized as an epistolary (but it is one long query letter, and not a series of short ones) and it did take some time for me to get used to the changing narrators (as different people take over at from Susan at different times) and the initial time-leaps in the reminiscences. But once the book hit its stride – I got more comfortable reading it after 35-40% – I appreciated the atmospheric detailing that made the small university town of Charters come alive.

(Check out some of my favorite quotes from the book here.)

The charactersThis is Susan’s story and I found it interesting that Klefstad completely skips addressing the details about the big cancer-related chapter of her life – and I think it is a gutsy decision! I mean, kudos to the author for not making this entire book and Susan’s life about cancer.  Instead, we are given brief glimpses of a couple of early incidents in her life, including her only significant but brief relationship with a guy (who is the father of her child). All these experiences left indelible marks but I would like to think they only made her stronger and more equipped to deal with everything that came with single-parenting.  But from what we see of Susan’s twenty-something daughter Emma, and by Susan’s own admission, she has a lot of regrets with how things have turned out for her daughter. Although as a reader, Emma is absolutely infuriating to read about, an ungrateful brat who is hell-bent on throwing away whatever her mom is working very hard to provide.

Though this is Susan’s story on the query letter, the plot itself doesn’t move by the precipitating actions of any one single character. It is an ensemble plot in the truest sense as every character’s actions have a ripple effect though each one thinks they are doing what is required for them to survive and move up in Charters. So, there is a student, who is at loggerheads with his devout lecturer by arguing the under-representation of atheism in literature. Then there is a campus law enforcement chief vying for the position of the new President of the University. There is a also a radio jockey fighting to keep the seven-minute interview hosting slots amid reports of falling ratings. Finally, there is a woman identifying herself as Judy Peterson who is a bit of an enigma, a loose cannon willing to do what it takes to become the president.

Through all this radio station, university and law enforcement politics, there is a shady drug dealing business that Susan keeps trying to shoo away from Emma and herself, but her efforts prove futile as Emma is bullish about sticking to her drug-peddling boyfriend.

The plottingI felt that the book could have used one single high-stakes plot point centering all the characters instead of many – such as the president nomination, funds misappropriation, drugs consumption, investigative journalism and so on. The only thing holding these characters together in one book is the university and I just found the whole plot surrounding the president post a bit weak and unconvincing. Maybe it is because I could never get a sense of how “evil” Judy is. I mean, she is described as someone who has gotten away with scheming for years and yet, she makes so many mistakes – so many basic ones – that I just couldn’t believe she has never got caught. She came across as too vulnerable.

Then there was this drug peddling business that the Sheriff’s department has been looking for an opportunity to bust. I was a bit confused about how the entire thing went down. The department apparently was “successful” by the end of it, but the result of the entire operation seemed to be a heap of mess, so I am not sure what happened there.

Overall impressionsWould definitely recommend the book if you want to read something that just – well – reads differently! It tested my patience at times (especially the first half), but I began enjoying the leisurely vibe later on.

[ARC Review]Sometimes We Tell the Truth – By Kim Zarins

Rating:

Hardcover:  448 pages
Expected publication: September 6th 2016
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Note: I won an ARC of this book via yareads giveaways.
Buy Links:
 Kindle              Hardcover

Synopsis:

In this contemporary retelling of The Canterbury Tales, a group of teens on a bus ride to Washington, DC, each tell a story—some fantastical, some realistic, some downright scandalous—in pursuit of the ultimate prize: a perfect score.

Jeff boards the bus for the Civics class trip to Washington, DC, with a few things on his mind:
-Six hours trapped with his classmates sounds like a disaster waiting to happen.
-He somehow ended up sitting next to his ex-best friend, who he hasn’t spoken to in years.
-He still feels guilty for the major part he played in pranking his teacher, and the trip’s chaperone, Mr. Bailey.
-And his best friend Cannon, never one to be trusted and banned from the trip, has something “big” planned for DC.

But Mr. Bailey has an idea to keep everyone in line: each person on the bus is going to have the chance to tell a story. It can be fact or fiction, realistic or fantastical, dark or funny or sad. It doesn’t matter. Each person gets a story, and whoever tells the best one will get an automatic A in the class.

But in the middle of all the storytelling, with secrets and confessions coming out, Jeff only has one thing on his mind—can he live up to the super successful story published in the school newspaper weeks ago that convinced everyone that he was someone smart, someone special, and someone with something to say.

In her debut novel, Kim Zarins breathes new life into Chaucer’sThe Canterbury Tales in a fresh and contemporary retelling that explores the dark realities of high school, and the subtle moments that bring us all together.

My Review:

This is probably the third retelling I have read this year and for the first time I wished I was more familiar with the original work. As much as I liked the book, I feel like there were some things I would have appreciated more if I knew how to spot the references to the plots from the original tales. Nevertheless, the book stands tall in its own right and is effortless in telling a story about high schoolers on a six hour bus ride.  Effortless because it addresses so many issues, from embracing your sexuality, to adoption, parent struggling with depression, parents’ abandonment, sibling suffering from PTSD, and then dealing with everything else that comes with the territory of being in high school and just counting off the remaining days left to get into the college you have applied for. Yet, it never felt like there was some deliberate attempt to tick off a diversity checkbox.

The book starts off with listing and describing the cast of characters, and this fondly reminded me of some of the books I used to read in middle-school, like the Perry Masons and Poirot stories. Most of the chapters begins with and is named after the tale narrated by one of the teens. Some tales are completely fictional and used by sparring students to settle scores by casting the others as unsavory characters in their tales. Some other stories are heavily inspired by something from their life. Others pitch ideas and beliefs that they feel strongly about. Since there were so many stories, I guess it was bound to be a bit of a hit-and-miss?  I mean, I really liked some of them, and I do understand that the stories were meant to have takeaways that were morally ambiguous to generate discussion amongst the teenagers, but sometimes I wished that they weren’t that vague. Then, there was this whole running theme of one of the girls, Cece, seeing an opportunity to attack anti-feminism everywhere. I wasn’t really sure whether the heavy-handed approach taken to raise this topic was to seriously espouse the cause or criticize those who were giving it a bad name because, for most part, that’s how Cece was coming across; although she did redeem herself slightly with her lovely tale.

Another person who stood out, both due to her personality and her tale was Alison. Actually, she was one of the few who prefixed the tale with a real-life snippet from when she was twelve. Without giving away much, all I will say is that both her real story and made up one was a bit disturbing and as a reader, it did make me sit up and think about her current emotional head-space. Some of my other, (unexpected) favorites by the end of the book were Reeve and Cannon because for most part of the book they come across as a killjoy (Reeve) and a casual opportunist (Cannon). But then you learn a little bit more about them and end up understanding their actions better (if not sympathizing).

Through this motley collection of tales and people, the book’s primary story features the changing dynamics between ex best friends Jeff and Pard. As the book progresses, we are given bits and pieces of details about what transpired between them over the past couple of years. There is also an allusion to an eventful party and a high-school prank gone wrong.  While the party does indeed end up turning significant to the current Jeff and Pard equation, I am not exactly sure what the entire deal about the high-school prank was. There is a lot of noise made about it with accusations and suspicions flying around amongst everyone in the school bus, but I found the entire sub-plot unnecessary. Then, there is another guy called Mace who was friends with Pard once upon a time, but they now avoid each other. I felt like there was a lot more to the history between Pard and Mace which didn’t make it to the book. All that we end up with is Mace’s acne problems.

Jeff and Pard are alike in the sense that both fall in the peripheries of all the established high-school cool cliques. But, that’s probably where the similarity ends. Jeff is passive when it comes to really sticking your neck out and be a friend, and well in his own words, his signature move in tough situations is to – “do nothing”.  Pard, despite all his faults (well, no matter how you spin it, drawing naked images of your friends without permission is creepy), exudes quiet strength and self-assuredness.

By the end of the book, nothing much changes for the group as a whole; they are just back to hanging out with their own coteries; so any illusion that this bus ride made a dent in the inherent high-school social structure is quickly dispelled. Jeff wasn’t magically given a ticket to be accepted into the cool crowds.  But what did happen is this – Jeff found the courage to look in the mirror and accept himself, warts n’ all. Well, as Alison says:

“When people want to love you, let them. When people open a door like that, never close it, not even to hide”

 

Forever Since An Apple – By Ken Welsch

9781942111061Rating:

*Note: I received an e-copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review*

Buy links:

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Kindle

Summary (From Goodreads):

Reality TV stardom. Garage band dreams. Through the lens of his camera, news photographer Daniel Evart sees a world in which opportunities are evident and success is clearly defined. If only life was that simple. 

Set on a fictional college campus in rural northwestern Michigan, “Forever Since An Apple” tells the story of how Daniel struggles with early-adulthood confusion and learns to define his own measure of success.

My Review:

Daniel is just a week away from graduating in Journalism from the Great Lakes University (GLU) located in the fictional town of Wanishing. He and his friend+roomie+GLU-ite Ebner have been working for Campus Telegram, a small-time local newspaper run by GLU folks, over the past one year. Most of their assignments are a mix of mundane and mildly interesting until the last week of semester when they get a new and exciting feature to work on – a reality show which is going to take them Chicago. What follows next is a short road trip, a week-end of observing the idiosyncrasies of a reality show up close and personal, and the aftermath.

The book is a little bit of many events, all meant to be instrumental in nudging Daniel to, in Ebner’s words- “not do nothing”. You see, he has so far been perfectly okay to just go with the flow of things, photographing events for the local newspaper, that he hasn’t really dreamt anything big or flashy or pondered over the huge “questions of life”. Ebner is the flamboyant counterpart to Daniel’s “ordinary” self – he cannot see himself stuck in the rut of wherever the natural progression of his career graph would take him. He has already planned things out to start his own designing/advertising venture after the end of next semester and has roped in Daniel to take care of the graphic designing and photography part. I must say, Ebner was probably the most fun character to read about. I guess, he was intentionally written that way – the kind of guy who can command attention and make any event all about him.

So coming back to all the little events and characters in the book, there is Darren, another GLU guy who is participating in the reality show, and the reason Daniel and Ebner were sent to Chicago to cover the show. There is Sidney, who is Daniel’s best friend in class and whom he somewhat harbours feelings for. There is Jim, a parks and rec director, who is married with two kids and another one on the way. To Daniel, his is an almost picture-perfect life, filled with love, laughter and companionship. There is Peter Spellman, an aged editor and Daniel’s boss at the Mirror, where he takes up a job after college.

It is funny, but what I have seen or observed is that most of the time no amount of pushing or goading really works when you want someone to pursue something, it can be something as simple as a hobby or as huge as changing your professional path. Sometimes, it is just a series of events that fall into place (the whole “right place at the right time” phrase) or sometimes it is just that one fleeting moment when you feel like someone has smacked you hard right across the face to see what was always in front you and wake up. The same thing happens with Daniel, and ironically what shows him the mirror (literally) is photography. I really liked that moment.

(Although, if I may add, that there is nothing wrong with following the “mundane” .. I mean, not everyone needs to have that one awakening to go “OMG, This is my passion.. let me leave everything else and follow this and make up for lost years!!!” … Like seriously, if you are just happy with the “ordinariness” of life, then just let it be… I guess that was what Jim represented.)

I think what sort of bugged me is that some story and character arcs just felt unfinished and half-baked. Like, I never really understood what the whole Sidney-Daniel deal was. I think she was supposed to be like some sort of talking conscience for Daniel to have a conversation with, but her function in the storyline was as vague as her ad-hoc poetry. And then there was this whole reality-show plot which is supposed to be the running background on which this novel is constructed. Again, I never understood what the takeaway was from the whole experience of being privy to insider info. Disillusionment? Bewilderment? Envy?

I guess what didn’t sit well with me is how things were left open to interpretation. I would have liked some sort of definite answers. And now that I look back, I don’t think the reality show played much of a part in enabling Daniel to make decisions, let alone being a tipping point. So while some things didn’t work for me, I will say that it was a pretty breezy read. And if you like stories which give you a part road-trip and part slice-of-life and coming-of-age feel, made of everyday characters and occurrences, this book is probably right up your alley.