Jule Williams is 18 and an orphan. Her best friend is heiress Imogen Sokoloff, who lives off a trust fund and jet-sets all over the world. The two are inseparable, or are they? Jule seems to be running, but from who?
The convoluted plot of Lockhart’s latest is best left to the vague description above, as trying to explain it further will confuse readers. Starting with chapter 18 and working backward in time, Lockhart’s latest is a pale imitation of her previous (and far superior) effort We Were Liars. I’m frankly stunned by the starred reviews this one has garnered, because it isn’t nearly as good as it thinks it is.
It is, however, fast-paced, and it reads very quickly as a result. As Jule moves from New York to London to California to Mexico, her intense narrative keeps readers turning pages to discover what’s really going on. As narrators go, Jules is completely unreliable, and the mysteries surrounding her are equal parts compelling and aggravating.
There is some suspense to be found here, and there’s certainly some teen appeal, especially for readers who like their stories twisty and their characters complex. There are moments that are truly unsettling, and even more moments that are actually quite gruesome, which might put some readers off the story.
On the whole, though, the book never quite gelled for me. It feels too much like an attempt to recapture the magic of Lockhart’s last book, and it’s as though I could see the author pulling the strings to move the plot along. Perhaps it just wasn’t for me, but there’s certainly an audience for this one. Might make a good movie, too.
Genuine Fraud by E. Lockhart. Delacorte: 2017. Library copy.
After the death of her bookstore owner father, Emilia has returned to her tiny English town to run the family business. While Nightingale Books is a book lover’s haven, it’s also struggling financially. Determined to keep her father’s dream alive, Emilia must find a way to reinvigorate the business while also dealing with the regular customers, whose lives intersect with Emilia’s own.
Very light, very frothy, and a bit romantic, Henry’s novel about a tiny English town and the book lovers who live there is a sweet little gem of a novel. With a robust cast of characters (who are hard to keep track of at times) and an interesting (if not totally riveting) plot, this is a book that will find fans, especially when put in the hands of total bibliophiles. As much about the characters as it is about the love of reading, Henry’s novel is a quiet little distraction from the chaos of everyday life.
There’s certainly not a whole lot of substance here, but there is a great deal of heart, which makes for a delightful read. Henry’s book has a very specific sense of place, and she loves her characters. The plot moves along at a good pace, making the turning of the pages quite easy, and while there’s definitely a happy ending for the book’s characters, the journey to get there is at times a bit bittersweet. There are perhaps too many characters for the book’s own good, and some of these characters are total stereotypes, but on the whole the book is a lot of fun.
How to Find Love in a Bookshop by Veronica Henry. Viking: 2017. Library copy.
Cass takes the road through the woods to get home one night, and she sees a car on the side of the road. It’s raining and dark, so Cass doesn’t stop, but the next day, the news reports that a woman was brutally murdered on that same road. Filled with guilt over what she could have done, Cass also starts to forget things, like where she put her keys and plans she made with friends. Fearful that she’s developing early onset dementia like her late mother, Cass tries to hide her fears from her husband, Matthew.
Paris’s thriller Behind Closed Doors was a hit last year, and her latest offering takes a different take, providing readers with an unreliable narrator who can’t seem to remember simple things in her life. But there’s so little character development across the board here that Paris’s novel doesn’t ramp up the tension so much as provide a very shallow account of what appears to be the stereotypical “hysterical” woman. It’s boring.
Nothing about the story is all that compelling, even in its best moments when it’s a bit claustrophobic. There’s not enough development of characters to care about their motivations, and there’s something very generic about the dialogue so that it often doesn’t feel very authentic. By the time Paris reveals all the (improbable) answers that savvy readers will have already figured out, it’s too little too late. It’s also an unsatisfying conclusion.
This one is kind of a snore. I’d give it a pass, and recommend her first to readers looking for a suspenseful story.
The Breakdown by B.A. Paris. St. Martins: 2017. Library copy.
Julia gets kicked out of her deaf school after her best friend turns her in for graffiti she did on school property. Julia can’t believe it, especially because she was covering up a slur about said best friend. Her moms send her to a “mainstream” school all the way out in the suburbs and forbid her from engaging in any street art. But it’s Julia’s only outlet, and when she realizes that another artist is tagging her stuff, she sees it as a challenge. Determined to figure out who is changing her art, she ends up embroiled in a graffiti war.
Gardner’s novel is smart, compelling, and features a heroine who is prickly, angry, and realistic. The novel presents Deaf culture well, allowing Julia to narrate the book with an authentic voice, and allowing the reader to experience the frustrations Julia faces in the hearing world. Spoken dialogue is punctuated with blank lines, representing the words that Julia wouldn’t be able to lip read. Throughout the book, Julia’s art offers additional insight into her world.
A varied cast of characters, including an at-times patronizing interpreter, teachers who have no idea how to best meet Julia’s needs, and an eager white girl Julia refers to as Yoga Pants, help round out the novel. There are moments where it feels as though there’s too much going on in the narrative, but Gardner’s strong grasp of Julia as a character helps readers wade through the myriad issues that pop up. The ending isn’t as tight as it could be, but it’s still a fun read all the same, offering readers insight into Deaf culture as well as the world of street art. Put this in the hands of people who liked the TV show Switched at Birth, because there are a lot of similarities to be found.
You’re Welcome, Universe by Whitney Gardner. Knopf, 2017. Library copy.
Suzette is home for the summer after being away at boarding school. Reunited with her step-brother and good friend Lionel, she also wants to rekindle friendships she largely left on pause while she was away. But Lionel’s been diagnosed with Bi-Polar disorder, and he tells her he wants to go off his meds. Suzette feels responsible for Lionel, but she also feels guilty, because she’s crushing on the same girl that Lionel has started dating.
The long-awaited follow-up from Brandy Colbert doesn’t disappoint. Filled with interesting and layered characters, as well as a fully engrossing narration by Suzette, this is a strong sophomore effort. Although it could easily fall into the trap of being an “issues” book, Colbert navigates a whole host of tricky topics with total sensitivity and confidence. Easily covering issues like mental illness, bisexuality, and identity politics, Colbert has crafted a novel that’s compelling, memorable, and very realistic.
Perhaps the novel’s weakest point is the sheer number of characters present in the novel. There are moments where it feels as though there are too many characters stuffed in the book’s pages, and as a result there’s too much going on. But the characters that do appear are well-rounded and interesting, and Colbert’s clear love for them helps ground the narrative. A strong sense of place also helps make this novel stand out.
On the whole, a very thoughtful look at coming of age and grappling with all sorts of real-life, messy stuff. Colbert is one of the best authors writing YA right now. This one is not to be missed.
Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert. Little, Brown: 2017. Library copy.
Darcy Prentiss lives in rural Maine. When she isn’t raking berries with her sister Mags and cousin Nell, she spends her time drinking and swimming in the quarry. She’s got a reputation, but she also knows how to have a really good time, and her reputation as the town “slut” means that everyone is watching her every move. When someone nominates her for the Bay Festival Princess, Darcy realizes that it might be as a joke–but it might have a more sinister meaning behind, it too. As the summer heats up, so do the secrets that Darcy’s been trying to keep hidden.
Gillian French’s novel about girlhood and sisters and secrets is so gorgeously written that this review could stop right there. But French’s prose is just the tip of the iceberg on this memorable, smart, and captivating book. Darcy’s narration is riveting and real, and she’s a heroine who is flawed but so strong and determined it’s impossible not to root for her even as she makes mistakes.
Secondary characters are also given care and consideration, rounding them out from the caricatures they could easily become in a less gifted writer’s hands. The bonds between Nell and Darcy and Mags are fully realized, and French spends time examining the prickly bonds of sisterhood and family. There’s a lot of exploration of what it is to be a girl in the world, of what it is to be a sexual being, of what it is to be poor. It’s really excellent.
Although it’s not a straight-up mystery, there are secrets that help propel the narrative forward. French does a beautiful job of weaving hints into the narrative without every being too obtuse nor too obvious, and the result is very satisfying and realistic. Readers will be guessing until the end, and even those who figure it out early will find the ending emotionally resonant. I loved this one. One of my favorite reads of the year.
Grit by Gillian French. Harper Teen: 2017. Library copy.
Hazel is on the run from her tech-giant CEO husband and has found herself crashing with her elderly father and his lifelike sex doll in his trailer park. Determined to go off the grid after a decade being essentially held prisoner in her husband’s tech compound, Hazel fully immerses herself into a different kind of life, one filled with strange characters.
Nutting’s first novel, the deeply riveting and equally disturbing Tampa, set her up as an author to watch. That novel was excellently plotted, and fully explored the unsettling ideas it put forth. This is not the case with Nutting’s follow-up, which presents a ton of fascinating ideas at the onset and then fails to see any of them through. The result is muddled, disappointing, and a bit boring at times.
Part of the problem lies with Hazel, who never really becomes a fully realized character. Neither does Jasper, a con artist whose freak encounter with a dolphin fundamentally alters his sexual proclivities. It’s hard to connect (ironically, part of Nutting’s central thesis) as a result.
The result is uneven and unsatisfying. While the novel starts with a promising few chapters, it quickly loses its momentum and focus, and the result is disappointing. I can’t wait to see what Nutting does next, but I hope it’s not more of this.
Made for Love by Alissa Nutting. Ecco: 2017. Library copy.