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Book Review: Imagine Wanting Only This by Kristen Radtke

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While in college, Kristen Radtke lost her favorite uncle to a rare genetic heart disease that runs in her family. A trip to the nearly totally abandoned Gary, Indiana not long after his funeral sparked an interest and then obsession with abandoned properties all over the world. Traveling all over the world in search of abandoned properties while also looking for meaning, Radtke struggles to make sense of her own illness while also looking for why she feels so alienated from the world.

Radtke’s graphic memoir is part narrative about her search for meaning, and part historical construct of empty, abandoned places. Her drawings are sparse and her figures, in particular, are fairly hollow. This stylistic choice is clearly intentional, and it’s also a style that won’t work for every reader. But it’s effective in conveying its meaning.

This is not a book for every reader. Radtke is heavy on the existentialism as well as the ennui, and these things can be alienating, to be sure. But Radtke’s struggles with finding meaning, and with finding connection, both to the people in her life as well as the spaces she inhabits, is an interesting and at times frustrating thing to watch. There are no easy answers here, and it’s not even clear if Radtke feels like she’s accomplished anything by the end.

The book is strongest when Radtke marries the concept of decay both literally and figuratively: there’s a moment where she portrays her disintegrating relationship with her boyfriend with a toxic sort of mold that begins to climb the walls of their tiny apartment, taking over their shared space. It’s moving and powerful and one of the book’s best illustrations.

It won’t work for everyone, but this one worked for me. Radtke’s illustrations are interesting and arresting, and the book hit me at a time when I was feeling the ennui, too. Recommended for fans of travel, of abandoned place porn, and of graphic memoirs.

Imagine Wanting Only This by Kristen Radtke. Pantheon: 2017. Library copy.

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Book Review: One of Us is Lying by Karen McManus

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Five students at Bayview High sit in a classroom for detention one afternoon. Before the day is over, one of them is dead–and the other four are being treated as murder suspects. Although the four teens don’t have much in common, they find that there are plenty of secrets to go around–and one of them might be pretty guilty.

Karen McManus’ debut novel is a fast-paced, twisty surprise of a book. The beginning might feel like a modern-day rehash of The Breakfast Club, but the plot quickly turns that on its head and presents readers with something completely different, and the result is a ton of fun. Fairly distinct characters (though not always distinct in their narrative voices) and mostly believable dialogue as well as a romance that feels authentic makes this a crowd-pleaser for even the pickiest of teens.

Super-savvy mystery readers might figure out at least part of the mystery before it fully unfolds, but there are still twists and turns that will surprise. There’s a surprising amount of depth to each of the characters, turning this novel into something a bit more substantial than what it looks like on the surface. I devoured this in a single night, and it was well worth the lost sleep.

Take one part Pretty Little Liars, one part John Hughes, and a little inventiveness on the part of McManus, and you’ve got this book. It’s compulsively readable, and teens (and adults) won’t be able to put it down until they’re finished. McManus is an author to watch. Recommended.

One of Us is Lying by Karen McManus. Delacorte: 2017. Library copy.

 

 

 

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Book Review: Last Seen Leaving by Caleb Roehrig

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Flynn’s girlfriend January has disappeared. Her official status is “missing,” but you can tell that people think the worst. Flynn can’t believe she’d just up and leave without a trace, but as he starts to unravel her secrets, he realizes there’s more going on than he initially realized. And Flynn has secrets of his own that he’s desperate to keep hidden. How can he solve January’s mystery without revealing things about himself?

Roehrig’s debut novel tackles a bunch of different issues while presenting a twisty, provocative mystery for readers to devour. Vivid characters help ground the novel’s more unbelievable aspects, and young gay teens will especially relate to Flynn’s issues regarding his process of coming out. This is a smart novel with realistic dialogue (Roehrig excels particularly in this regard).

Seasoned readers of mysteries might figure out the twists well before they’re revealed, but it’s still a heck of a ride. There are enough twists and turns to keep the pages turning, and the oftentimes witty dialogue races by. There are moments where the book feels overly long, though, and a tighter editing hand might have made for an even stronger story.

On the whole, a very entertaining debut. Roehrig is an author to watch, and this is a strong entry into the YA mystery genre. Recommended.

Last Seen Leaving by Caleb Roehrig. Feiwel & Friends: 2016. Library copy.

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Book Review: Take Me Back by Meghan March

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Kat and Dane met on a beach and got married on one. Now they’re two years into their marriage, and they might as well be strangers to one another. Kat is obsessed with her work and married to her phone, constantly checking in with her company. Dane is drowning in his own secrets, secrets he’s never told Kat but knows he must if they can salvage their relationship. On a last-ditch effort, the two take a 10-day trip to Belize to try to reconnect and see if there’s anything left worth saving.

Meghan March’s Take Me Back is best categorized as romantic suspense. The book favors euphemisms for its sex scenes (“to the hilt” is used several times, and it is never not completely distracting), is heavy on the dialogue and unbelievably light on the character development. It’s a quick read, to be sure, and is guaranteed to attract fans of the romantic suspense genre in general, but it’s also kind of a mess as a whole.

Neither Dane nor Kat are at all developed as characters (Kat’s main trait is that she’s work obsessed, but her actual job is never mentioned, a detail I found both hilarious and weirdly upsetting), and the book jumps so quickly into the action that there’s no time to get a sense of either character, nor their relationship to one another. The other characters, the few there are, are so underdeveloped it hardly matters. The villains are one-dimensional and the plotting is obvious.

Of course, that’s not really the point of a book like this. It hooks readers from the start and keeps the pace so quick that the book flies by. Dual narration on the part of Kat and Dane allows readers insight into what little motivation each one has, and the sex scenes are plentiful. This is standard romantic suspense, with a happy ending readers will see coming from page 2.

Give this one to fans of Maya Banks and Lora Leigh.

Take Me Back by Meghan March. Red Dress Press: 2017. Library copy.

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Book Review: Do Not Become Alarmed by Maile Meloy

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Cousins Liv and Nora take their families on a holiday cruise instead of spending the Christmas vacation at home. Lulled into a sense of security on the luxurious ocean liner, the families decide to take a day trip into one of the Central American countries when the ship docks. But things go quickly awry, and it isn’t long before the children have gone missing. Lost in a country they don’t know, away from their parents who begin to turn on one another in a game of who’s to blame, the children must tap into resources they didn’t know they even had at their disposal.

One of the things that works so surprisingly well in Meloy’s excellent, taut novel is the way in which she distinguishes between her myriad characters. There are a great many characters in play here, and nearly all of them are given a chapter or two in which they are the narrator. While this could become overwhelming or even collapse the narrative, it doesn’t–Meloy keeps a firm grip on each of these people, and each one is distinctive in memorable ways. The result is an ensemble that propels the narrative while also grounding the reader in a multitude of different lived experiences.

The book is at once a “what-would-you-do?” thriller while also a deceptively deep rumination on life’s coincidences and unlucky moments as they inform a given individual’s character. The plot relies heavily on the concept of “ifs,” for example, if the the children had not swam to shore, if the paper bag with diabetic medicine had not fallen out of a pocket, if the mothers hadn’t fallen asleep on a beach…and the result is a genuinely suspenseful and completely plausible nightmare.  This is made stronger by the fact that Meloy knows her characters so well and allows them to be kind of the worst at times.

This harrowing novel from Meloy is a gripping read from start to finish. It’ll be next to impossible for readers to put it down once immersed in the book’s pages. Tightly plotted, beautifully written, and full of vivid, memorable characters–no easy feat as there are over a dozen important people at play–this is a knockout of a suspense novel. Highly recommended.

Do Not Become Alarmed by Maile Meloy. Riverhead Books: 2017. Library copy.

 

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Book Review: The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo

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Monique Grant is a magazine reporter whose personal life is a mess when she gets the professional opportunity of a lifetime: world-famous, award-winning starlet Evelyn Hugo has requested Monique to be the writer in charge of crafting her life story, including all the scandalous truths about her seven marriages.  Monique is bewildered: why her, of all people? As Monique listens to Evelyn’s story unfurl, she realizes there’s much more than meets the eye when it comes to this woman’s life–and there are lasting consequences for Monique, too.

This is a departure for Taylor Jenkins Reid, whose previous works are smart, engaging, and emotionally resonant reads filled with flawed, realistic characters. The celebrity tell-all aspect of this novel could go off the rails quickly, but Reid has a handle on her story and her characters, and the result is a largely nuanced, wholly captivating romp of a story. It’s also un-put-down-able.

Although Evelyn could be easily dismissed as a calculating and cold-hearted ruthless bitch determined to make it to the top, Reid allows her to be a real human and presents her story without judgment. Fully aware of the challenges of being a woman in the male-dominated film industry, Evelyn plays to her strengths and hides what she sees as her weaknesses–specifically her Cuban heritage and her true sexuality. The result is captivating and all too believable.

The story’s weakest point is the character of Monique, who clearly serves as a gateway to Evelyn’s story. Although the majority of the novel takes place chronologically as readers traverse through Evelyn’s storied rise to fame, there are breaks where Monique herself deals with present-day personal issues, including a crumbling marriage and a suspicious editor. These moments are almost startlingly boring in comparison, but it hardly matters, as readers jump right back into Evelyn’s compelling world.

A gem of a read, and one that will surprise devoted readers of Reid’s other works–and attract new fans, as well. Highly recommended.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid. Atria Books: 2017. Library copy.

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Book Review: Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley

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Ted is a lonely writer in his early 40s, and his longtime companion is his dachshund named Lily.  The two spend much of their time together, playing board games, talking about which boys they think are cute (Ted likes Ryan Gosling; Lily likes Ryan Reynolds), and watching movies.  One day, Ted notices an octopus on the side of Lily’s head, and the two embark on an adventure to try to defeat the sinister eight-legged creature.

The octopus, of course, is really a tumor, and the book is really about love, loss, grief, and all the stuff in between.  Rowley’s debut novel is funny, smart, weird, and blisteringly sad at times (this reviewer ugly cried through much of it), but it’s also a celebration of the unique bond between human and canine, and it’s ultimately a very beautiful tribute to dogs everywhere.

Some readers are going to struggle with one of the novel’s central issues: the “octopus,” which Ted refuses to call by any other name, and the willingness of those around him to also refer to the tumor as an octopus.  There are moments where this becomes a little grating, but the novel’s venture into magical realism helps sell it. Even if it didn’t, the book’s strengths far outweigh this sometimes irritating affectation.

Far and away the book’s strongest moments are the ones in which Rowley creates a fully-realized character in that of Lily, a dog who loves her owner as much as he loves her. She’s a lazy little snuggler, a lover of ice cream and turkey (TOFURKEY!), and she’s stubborn, too, in the best ways that dogs can be.  She talks to Ted, and she sounds exactly as one would expect a dog to talk.

Rowley is a gifted writer, and this is a strong debut. He’s one to watch, and this excellent novel is one to stay up late reading (and crying). Recommended.

Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowely. Simon & Schuster: 2016. Library copy.