contemporary · mystery · thriller

Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll

Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll
Pub. Date: May 12, 2015
Source: ARC via publisher (Thank you, Simon & Schuster!!)
Summary: HER PERFECT LIFE IS A PERFECT LIE.

As a teenager at the prestigious Bradley School, Ani FaNelli endured a shocking, public humiliation that left her desperate to reinvent herself. Now, with a glamorous job, expensive wardrobe, and handsome blue blood fiancé, she’s this close to living the perfect life she’s worked so hard to achieve.

But Ani has a secret.

There’s something else buried in her past that still haunts her, something private and painful that threatens to bubble to the surface and destroy everything.
Genre: Contemporary, Thriller, Suspense
Recommended for: Readers looking for a fast-paced, twisty ride with one hilariously cynical narrator

When I received a copy of Luckiest Girl Alive, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Inside the package there were three letters (one from the author, one from the publicist, and one from the editor), each one praising this novel higher than the last. I have never received three separate letters in one book, so right from the start I knew there would be something special about Luckiest Girl Alive.

Before I even started reading I chalked this one up to a suitable follow-up to Elizabeth Little’s Dear Daughter. Not as a sequel, since the two aren’t actually all that similar, but they both have snarky, too-big-for-her-britches narrators, suspense to the max, and a blinding pace to boot! Now that I’ve finished I stand by my initial thoughts: fans of Dear Daughter (if you haven’t read it yet, drop what you’re doing and buy a copy!) will be right at home with Ani.

With high school not-so-securely behind her, TifAni FaNelli – now Ani (long A, thank you very much) – has reinvented herself. In an attempt to put the elite Bradley School behind her, Ani severed what ties she had (not that there were any left, not since that night..) and found a job as a columnist for an ultra-chic magazine. Her blue blood fiance is an absolute dream and her closet is packed with coveted designer brands. But with her wedding day looming on the horizon, Ani’s past creeps back with a vengeance and the secrets she’s kept buried for so long are threatening to surface.

Saying anything about this book would essentially spoil it and I absolutely REFUSE to do that so I’m sitting here practically bubbling with everything I want to say. If you want to know just what happened that night that changed everything, you’re going to have to work for it. Luckiest Girl Alive doesn’t give up its secrets that easily, and just when you think you’ve figured it all out, Jessica Knoll pulls all the stops and you realize the show is only getting started.

With alternating chapters, Jessica Knoll lets the reader into Ani’s life, from her high school days to her current life (including an upcoming documentary about what happened at Bradley), each chapter chipping away at Ani’s past and exposing it piece by piece. From the new boy at school to Ani’s favorite teacher, characters are introduced and given life. Slowly the events unfold and I’ll be honest: I wasn’t expecting some of the twists! There were a few things that I thought would happen that never came to fruition (I’m still not entirely sure whether or not I’m relieved!) and some things I never imagined stared at me from the page.

I want to add a note that while I loved Luckiest Girl Alive, it might not be for everyone. There are some heavy-hitting themes: rape, bullying, murder, trauma, eating disorders and I completely understand that those topics aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. Knoll isn’t afraid to get down and dirty with her characters and I stayed up way to late to finish this one! Luckiest Girl Alive had me gasping, cringing, shouting, and laughing – sometimes all in the same chapter! If unlikable characters and situations make your heart sing, this is the book for you. There are so many moments I’m struggling to keep a secret, so you’re going to have to trust me on this one. Luckiest Girl Alive is an excellent debut that took me on one hell of a ride. HIGHLY recommended!

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contemporary · mystery

Aunt Dimity & the Summer King by Nancy Atherton

Aunt Dimity & the Summer King (Dimity #20) by Nancy Atherton
Pub. Date: April 14, 2015
Source: finished copy via publisher (Thank you, Viking!!)
Summary: There’s trouble in Finch. Four recently sold cottages are standing empty, and the locals fear that a developer plans to turn their cozy village into an enclave of overpriced weekend homes. But for once Lori Shepherd can’t help.

Her infant daughter, her father-in-law’s upcoming wedding, and the crushing prospect of her fortieth birthday have left her feeling inadequate and overwhelmed. Until, that is, she has a chance encounter with an eccentric inventor named Arthur Hargreaves. Dubbed the Summer King by his equally eccentric family, Arthur is as warmhearted as the summer sun. In his presence, Lori forgets her troubles—and Finch’s.

But Lori snaps out of her happy trance when she discovers detailed maps of Finch in the Summer King’s library. Next, a real estate agent comes knocking. Is Arthur secretly plotting Finch’s demise?
Genre: Contemporary, Cozy Mystery
Recommended for: Rainy weekends curled up with a blanket and cup of tea

Lori lives in the picturesque village of Finch. Sure, Finch might not have a booming nightlife – or even its own school – but Lori’s fine with that. She has a brand new baby, her father-in-law’s upcoming wedding, and a tight-knit community full of characters to entertain her instead. When a walk on an abandoned cart path leads her to the Summer King, Lori begins to feel her troubles melt away. No longer does she worry about the four cottages that just aren’t selling (and what that means for Finch, especially in terms of developers). That is, until the day she sees a map of Finch on the Summer King’s wall.

I want to start things off with a confession. While the Dimity series has always been on my radar (and you know how I love my cozy mysteries!), I had yet to read one and was a little hesitant when the publicist reached out to me. Could I possibly jump in with the twentieth book? Would the story be too far gone at that point that there would be no chance of ever catching up? Honestly, aside from a few initial moments of confusion (that were entirely my own fault and assumptions), Aunt Dimity & the Summer King gave me no fuss – I was able to jump right into the story and was easily brought up to speed with Atherton’s breezy Summary of Events-type backstory and introduction to the other residents of Finch. I’m actually wondering if long-time readers would be put off by this. Someone who’s already read the previous nineteen novels would be completely familiar with the town and its inhabitants and wouldn’t need a re-introduction with each book. So while that was great in my case as a newbie to the series, I’m a bit worried how other readers will fare.

ASSUMPTION #1: Aunt Dimity is the star of the show. The books are named for her, after all! Turns out she’s dead. And has been since the very beginning (in fact the first novel is actually titled Aunt Dimity’s Death.) Whoops! Part one of my confusion was with Lori as the main character. I wasn’t sure if she was simply a supporting star and later on Aunt Dimity would swoop in to solve whatever mystery lay ahead. Reading through the blurbs of some of the other novels it looks like Lori has been our girl since Day 1. The books focus on Lori while Dimity offers advice and friendship from beyond. Lori has a special notebook that allows Dimity’s words to come through. Okay, so that can get a little hokey, but I thought it was fun.

ASSUMPTION #2: There would be a murder to solve. Again, entirely my own fault. The other cozies I’ve read were all based on murders that the main character then goes about solving. Because of this I figured someone would turn up maimed or shot and it would be Lori and Dimity on the case. Here, however, Lori’s merely solving a riddle of just why these cottages aren’t selling and the answer goes back decades to a feud between Finch and its neighboring village. All these years later the bad blood is still there and Arthur Hargreaves, the Summer King, is right in the thick of it. In doing a bit of digging, it seems that death doesn’t always play a role in the Dimity series. Only a handful of books actually feature a murder, but the others are lighter in tone: Lori uncovers centuries-old family secrets, evaluates a book collection, discovers priceless jewels hidden away in an abbey, heads to America and the Rocky Mountains, does battle at a Renaissance fair, tracks down a neighbor’s long-lost brother, I could go on and on.

I know I’m breaking away from my typical review format with this one, but I think it works here. Going into Aunt Dimity & the Summer King, I had a feeling that I would enjoy it (A, it’s a cozy mystery and B, it’s from Viking) and enjoy it I did! I had such a great time with this one that I’m VERY eager to track down all nineteen other novels (the mother of all binge-reads?) and get started from the beginning. I would love to see how it all began: from Lori’s realization that Dimity was a real person (she had always assumed Dimity was a character her mother made-up) to the inheritance of the journal and cottage, to meeting Finch’s other residents as they move in. If you’re not already familiar with Dimity, don’t wait years like I did. Aunt Dimity & the Summer King is a quick and easy one-sitting read (and from what I can tell, the rest of the novels all hover around the 200-page mark as well) that was a ton of fun and full of great characters! Now if only I can find the time to read the rest (this is a valid excuse for calling off work for the next few weeks, right??)

contemporary · mystery · thriller

Please Don’t Tell by Elizabeth Adler

Please Don’t Tell by Elizabeth Adler
Pub. Date: July, 2013
Source: Hardcover, borrowed from work
Summary: Fen Dexter’s quiet life on the idyllic California coast is interrupted one stormy night when a blood-covered man shows up on her doorstep, claiming to have had a car accident. He tells her that he is on his way to San Francisco to help the police solve the murder of his fiancé. Unable to make it to the hospital because of the storm, he stays the night at Fen’s, and the attraction between them is obvious. The next morning he heads to the hospital where Fen’s niece, Vivi, is an ER doctor. Vivi is treating the most recent target of a serial killer whose signature move is to leave a note saying “Please Don’t Tell” taped across his victims’ mouths. When Fen’s mysterious stranger comes to Vivi to have his wounds stitched she agrees to set him up to talk with the police about his fiancé. Who is this man, really? What does he want with Fen and her family? And will they live long enough to uncover the truth?
Genre: Contemporary, Thriller, Suspense
Recommended for: Readers who are able to look past an extremely unsatisfying ending and sloppy editing

I’ve recently been on a Contemporary Thriller kick (a few weeks ago I even devoted a GoodReads Recommends post to the genre!) so when I came across a copy of Please Don’t Tell, it sounded like the perfect book to satisfy my craving. Unfortunately, while the opening chapters were excellent and set the scene so perfectly for an awesome ride, the Big Reveal and latter half of the book were so sloppy it felt like I was reading a completely different novel.

A string of murders has California residents terrified, so when a man wielding a knife shows up at Fen’s secluded cottage in the middle of a terrible storm, it’s understandable that she’s more than a little cautious. However, the man tells her he’s just been in a minor accident – the rain-slicked roads caused him to hit a tree at the end of her driveway – and she invites him in to see to his scrapes.

Dr. Vivian, Fen’s niece, has just received word that a new victim has been found and miraculously she’s still alive – but barely. Vivi throws herself into doing all she can to save this woman, who knows what she remembers from her attack that could finally bring police to tracking down the person responsible.

Please Don’t Tell essentially boils down to this: there’s a serial killer on the loose and his ‘calling card’ is a green post-it note saying “please don’t tell.” Initially, the novel geared up for an exciting story, especially with various chapters thrown in from the killer’s perspective, only he’s never named. Sadly, the excitement only lasted so long. Once the romance angle was thrown in, the novel came crashing down.

We have Fen, a 58-year-old woman, happily living in her cottage by the ocean with her dog Hector. As a young woman Fen led quite the life: she took off for Paris when she was 19, became a dancer, and mingled with high society, eventually meeting Husband #1. Husbands #2 and #3 followed shortly after and Fen would have been comfortable – albeit a bit lonely – living in seclusion were it not for an urgent phone call from a lawyer. A cousin Fen had only met once passed away in an accident (along with her husband) and the couple’s two young daughters had no one else.

Now 28-year-old JC is finally realizing her dreams of pop stardom aren’t taking hold and she won’t be able to skate by on her looks for much longer. Meanwhile, 30-year-old Vivi is a successful doctor, though rather unlucky in love. Her fiance just ended their engagement – by text! – and she makes quick work of moving on.

Brad is a cop who has seen too many of these gruesome murders and wants nothing more than to catch the killer. Recently divorced, he spends his time with the dog his ex left behind (a poodle originally named Bitsy, though recently redubbed Flyin’), though a certain emergency room doctor has caught his eye.

I wish I could say Please Don’t Tell will leave you guessing, but I can’t. It’s ridiculously formulaic – I’m sure you can tell just from my descriptions of the characters who will wind up with whom (though at one point both Fen and JC have an interest in Adam, Fen’s ‘Intruder’ as she calls him.) Sadly, the killer’s identity is just as disappointing. From the moment he’s introduced it’s clear he’s Up To No Good. It felt like Adler was trying to throw the reader off guard by having two characters drive the same model of car, the car that just so happens to be coming up in witness interviews. Admittedly, for a while I was jumping back-and-forth. I thought for sure this character was the culprit, but maybe that character could be acting shady too.

Things went from bad to worse when the phrase OMG the psychotherapist was nuts! was used, not in dialogue, but in the actual narration. No, Elizabeth Adler. …just, no. Throw in multiple romances blossoming into instalove after a single meeting – and in Fen’s case, her first meeting with Adam involved a knife and a lot of blood. Then we have 30-year-old Vivi referring to “downstairs” whenever sex is involved.

I could have gotten past the overly cutesy dialogue and the romance if they had been my only issues. Unfortunately, Please Don’t Tell suffers from a SEVERE lack of editing. At one point the killer’s backstory talks about his junkie sister being hit and killed by a vehicle. Later in the story that same sister is the killer’s first victim; he raped and murdered her when he was 13. Does he have two sisters?? There’s also a really interesting motive that was abandoned: early in the book there’s talk of ‘saving’ these girls. That could have been fascinating had it been explored, rather than never brought up again. And why does he write “please don’t tell” on the post-its? We never find out.

More sloppy writing:

[The killer] had always been a meticulous man, even in the crimes he committed. Everything had to be in its place. He left no evidence around his home for his housekeeper to find..

That was on page 309. Less than ten pages later, on 317, the next victim is with this man and happens to walk past his open bedroom door:

She stopped at his door and stood, staring at his bed. On it was a black woolen ski cap. A small camera. A tripod. And a green post-it pad.

Not so meticulous now, are we? It doesn’t help matters that in this particular scene the man is already wearing a ski cap..why on earth would he be wearing a second?! The utter lack of attention paid to detail kept plowing full steam ahead as the novel progressed. Since when do police regularly carry AK-47s?

My last gripe was with Adler’s obsession with namedropping. Everyone wears designer clothes, watches, and shoes, any perfume mentioned is top-of-the-line, and in one scene, she felt compelled to describe a meal being cooked practically in real-time. She went over every single ingredient, stated how long it needed to be cooked, what went into preparing the food, etc.

Although Please Don’t Tell looked SO promising in the beginning, things quickly fell apart. Adults speaking and behaving like children, a mystery that just wasn’t, the sloppiest editing I’ve ever come across, and storylines that were abandoned halfway through led to this novel’s downward plunge. That said, it was fast-paced enough to keep me entertained (and reading), though my eyes were constantly rolling.

contemporary · mg · mystery · sci-fi/fantasy · thriller

two mini reviews: a DNF and a dud

Witherwood Reform School by Obert Skye
Pub. Date: March 3, 2015
Source: ARC via publisher (Thank you, Macmillan/Henry Holt!!)
Summary: After a slight misunderstanding involving a horrible governess, oatmeal, and a jar of tadpoles, siblings Tobias and Charlotte Eggars find themselves abandoned by their father at the gates of a creepy reform school. Evil mysteries are afoot at Witherwood, where the grounds are patrolled by vicious creatures after dark and kids are locked in their rooms. Charlotte and Tobias soon realize that they are in terrible danger—especially because the head of Witherwood has perfected the art of mind control.

If only their amnesiac father would recover and remember that he has two missing children. If only Tobias and Charlotte could solve the dark mystery and free the kids at Witherwood—and ultimately save themselves.
Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy
Recommended for: Actual Middle Grade readers – this is definitely one that’ll be appreciated more by a younger audience

Oh how I wanted to love Witherwood! A creepy boarding school, mysterious locked gates, creatures patrolling the school grounds (which, by the way, was built on top of a plateau that arose from a meteor crash). It was like a checklist of Things Leah Loves. Unfortunately, when it all came together, it did absolutely nothing for me and for a novel this short (even shorter when you take into account the FULL-PAGE ILLUSTRATIONS), I barely made it to the 100-page mark before finally admitting defeat.

I think it was the humor that sealed the deal. It tried to be overly clever and speak directly to the reader, but where powerhouses like Roald Dahl and Lemony Snicket got it right, Obert Skye got it wrong. So very wrong. There was nothing clever here, no one-liners that made me giggle in delight. The tadpole incident described in the blurb totally missed the mark and ended up reading as downright disgusting: two siblings play a prank of their awful nanny by putting live tadpoles into a gravy boat during a meal. I’ll spare you what happens next, but you get the gist I’m sure.

Who knows – maybe I’m just being a big ol’ grump, but Witherwood Reform School feels like a book that actual Middle Grade readers would enjoy far more. I don’t really see much middle ground here – this is a novel that’s definitely written to be enjoyed by a younger crowd.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
Pub. Date: January 13, 2015
Source: Bought
Summary: Rachel takes the same commuter train every morning. Every day she rattles down the track, flashes past a stretch of cozy suburban homes, and stops at the signal that allows her to daily watch the same couple breakfasting on their deck. She’s even started to feel like she knows them. “Jess and Jason,” she calls them. Their life—as she sees it—is perfect. Not unlike the life she recently lost.

And then she sees something shocking. It’s only a minute until the train moves on, but it’s enough. Now everything’s changed. Unable to keep it to herself, Rachel offers what she knows to the police, and becomes inextricably entwined in what happens next, as well as in the lives of everyone involved. Has she done more harm than good?
Genre: Contemporary, Mystery, Thriller
Recommended for: Fans of Psychological Thrillers, casual readers curious about the Next Big Thing in books

IT’S NOT YOU, IT’S ME. I think. This is the book to read in 2015 and y’all know I can’t get enough of my Psychological Thrillers! Add in glowing praise from two friends (who have pretty much the exact reading taste as I do) and I couldn’t wait to get my hands on a copy of this one. Sadly, I don’t know if my expectations were overly high, but The Girl on the Train never grabbed me like I had hoped it would.

I’ve actually been putting off writing this review (at one point I hadn’t even planned on writing one at all!) because I honestly don’t have anything to say. While reading, I was completely okay with setting the book down and not picking it up again for the rest of the day. Whereas my friends read this book in a single sitting, I stretched it out over multiple days. I didn’t care enough to keep going, I didn’t care enough to pick it back up after I had set it down.

I will say though that toward the end I was curious – and it took a while for me to correctly guess Who Did It, so the novel gets a point for that. That said, I’m seriously bummed out I didn’t love this one and I’m not sure who to blame: myself or the book.

contemporary · fiction

The Secrets of Midwives by Sally Hepworth

The Secrets of Midwives by Sally Hepworth
Pub. Date: February 10, 2015
Source: ARC and finished copy via publisher (Thank you, St. Martin’s Press!!)
Summary: THE SECRETS OF MIDWIVES tells the story of three generations of women devoted to delivering new life into the world—and the secrets they keep that threaten to change their own lives forever. Neva Bradley, a third-generation midwife, is determined to keep the details surrounding her own pregnancy—including the identity of the baby’s father— hidden from her family and co-workers for as long as possible. Her mother, Grace, finds it impossible to let this secret rest. For Floss, Neva’s grandmother and a retired midwife, Neva’s situation thrusts her back 60 years in time to a secret that eerily mirrors her granddaughter’s—a secret which, if revealed, will have life-changing consequences for them all. Will these women reveal their secrets and deal with the inevitable consequences? Or are some secrets best kept hidden?
Genre: Contemporary, Fiction
Recommended for: Fans of multi-generational stories, multiple narratives, and those who don’t mind seeing the Big Reveal coming from a mile away

When I first received an advanced copy of The Secrets of Midwives, I was a little hesitant to read it – what do I know about childbirth? Is this really the story for me? Then a month or two later a finished copy arrived at my door, complete with a lovely cover (very reminiscent of my favorite WWII historical novels) and blurbs by Liane Moriarty and Christina Baker Kline. Still, I put off reading it, always opting for something shorter, something I felt would be more me. Over the weekend I was at a standstill – I had finished one book and was in that limbo area, eager to choose my next read and finally decided to pick up the novel I had been putting off for months. You know what? I really ought to trust St. Martin’s publicists. All my fears and worries went out the door as I settled in and devoured the entire book in one sitting.

Neva comes from a family of midwives. Her mother Grace is a practicing midwife – one of the best around – and her grandmother Floss has long since retired, but practiced for decades, first in England, then later in America. Neva’s relationship with her mother (always called Grace, never Mom) is precarious at best, and it comes as a shock to everyone when it’s discovered that, not only is Neva pregnant, but she’s just a few short months away from giving birth. She’s determined to keep the father’s identity a secret and Grace makes it her own personal mission to get to the bottom of it. While Grace is preoccupied with solving this mystery, Floss is struggling with her own secret – the reason she left England all those years ago.

As I said, my reservations were all for naught – turns out The Secrets of Midwives has less to do with midwifery and more to do with – wait for it – the secrets these midwives have locked away. Now you know me: I am ALL about multiple perspectives (the more, the merrier!), and I usually find myself happy with each voice. Here, however, I found myself looking forward to Floss’s chapters. I enjoyed her story so much, in fact, that I could have easily read an entire book devoted to her past. Her upbringing in England, watching her friends marry while Floss comes to terms with her sexuality, that fateful night when she knew she needed to get as far away as possible. She was wonderfully fleshed out and hands down the best character in this book.

Grace, on the other hand, infuriated me to no end. She becomes obsessed with getting answers from Neva – she even tries to get her husband (who always had a much stronger bond with Neva) to force it out of her daughter. Neva’s made up her mind to raise the child on her own, yet Grace makes it her life’s work to find the father. I…just didn’t get it. Her need for answers completely rubbed me the wrong way; what does it matter to her if Neva doesn’t want to share that information? She said the father isn’t in the picture, that the baby is hers and hers alone, yet Grace can’t seem to drop it. She shows up at the hospital where Neva works, watching her interact with doctors and nurses, trying to see which ones have ~chemistry~ When she’s not playing detective, she’s acting like a child. Had I not known better, I would have assumed Grace was the daughter (more of a tween rather than late 20s) while Neva was the adult.

The Secrets of Midwives is largely devoted to Neva and while I loved Floss, I was okay with this. I enjoyed the bit of mystery that came with her story – who was the baby’s father? I had my suspicions and was more than a little appalled by the actions some characters took when the truth (and half-truths) came out. I was also incredibly disheartened to see how midwives were portrayed. The doctors (all men) were always referred to as Doctor, while the midwives were address by their first names. They received little and in some cases no respect from the medical community, cast aside and considered annoyances who get in the way of the real experts.

The Big Reveal didn’t come as much of a shock to me, but, again, I didn’t mind. I enjoyed the journey the story took to get to that point. The Secrets of Midwives came as a pleasant surprise – I honestly wasn’t expecting to enjoy this story as much as I did! – and actually opened my eyes to a world I knew virtually nothing about. With vaccinations playing a large role in the news these days, I felt as though this book played a bit of a companion role in a sense – an alternative to hospitals, opting to have a home birth, etc. While The Secrets of Midwives wasn’t a flawless novel, it was still one I tore though in an afternoon and I can easily see fans of Kate Morton and Lucinda Riley enjoying Sally Hepworth as well.

contemporary · fiction · thriller

Unbecoming by Rebecca Scherm

Unbecoming by Rebecca Scherm
Pub. Date: January 22, 2015
Source: finished copy via publisher (Thank you, Viking!!)
Summary: On the grubby outskirts of Paris, Grace restores bric-a-brac, mends teapots, re-sets gems. She calls herself Julie, says she’s from California, and slips back to a rented room at night. Regularly, furtively, she checks the hometown paper on the Internet. Home is Garland, Tennessee, and there, two young men have just been paroled. One, she married; the other, she’s in love with. Both were jailed for a crime that Grace herself planned in exacting detail. The heist went bad—but not before she was on a plane to Prague with a stolen canvas rolled in her bag. And so, in Paris, begins a cat-and-mouse waiting game as Grace’s web of deception and lies unravels—and she becomes another young woman entirely.
Genre: Adult, Mystery/Suspense, Contemporary
Recommended for: readers who enjoy unreliable narrators and their mystery with a psychological bent, fans of art/heist novels

It’s no secret that I love me some art novels. I couldn’t tell you the first thing about Impressionism or Picasso, but there’s something about art novels that draws me in. Back in 2012, B. A. Shapiro’s The Art Forger kickstarted my new obsession and its fictional backbone taken from the very real Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum theft even made it to one of my History 101 posts! So, basically what I’m trying to say is if you want me to fall in love with your book, throw in a painting.

Naturally when I heard of Rebecca Scherm’s Unbecoming my eyes lit up. A botched heist, Paris, comparisons to Gillian Flynn and Donna Tartt, and it’s published by Viking? Um yes please. Hopefully Matt didn’t install any hidden cameras in our house because the jig I did when this book showed up at my door would be about five years’ worth of embarrassment.

Twenty-two-year-old Julie is living a quiet life in Paris. By day she restores broken pottery and repairs jewelry. At the end of the day she heads back to her rented bedroom and if anyone were to ever ask, she would say she’s from California. In reality, Julie is Grace, originally from a tiny town in Tennessee and is currently hiding out, obsessively checking her town’s online newspaper. Three years ago Grace planned out a theft – a semester spent in New York taught her a wealth of knowledge about antiques and what’s valuable. Garland, Tennessee’s local tourist attraction is an old estate and in Grace’s eyes, a quick way to strike it rich.

Although Grace ultimately backed out, her co-conspirators went through with the plan and were ultimately caught. Her nightly online searches revealed that two of the men were paroled: her husband and the man she’s in love with. Despite her precautions and careful steps, Grace still jumps at every sound, avoids making eye contact with strangers. It’s not possible they would come looking for her…right?

Unbecoming is essentially split into two parts: Julie’s story in the present day and Grace’s from a few years prior and is more of a character study than a thrilling ride. Grace’s home life wasn’t the best – her parents were split the majority of her childhood only to reunite and have children they devoted more attention to. One day at school she met Riley, a sweet boy from a well-to-do family and the moment she went to their house for dinner she knew she found her home. From the time she was twelve she was permanently attached to Riley (losing her virginity at thirteen, moving in at sixteen) and Mrs. Graham took Grace under her wing. She treated Grace like the daughter she always wanted, watching old movies on the couch together, and was the one to buy Grace her first bra. Before Grace left for college, she and Riley secretly married, promising that one day they would have a big wedding – Mrs. Graham would be heartbroken if she knew she missed out.

Eventually her love for Riley changes into a love of what he has: a stable, loving home. Alls, however, comes from the wrong side of the tracks as well and understands Grace. Where she becomes the Grace Riley wants her to be, she’s able to be herself around Alls. A brief tryst while in New York connects these three and begins their downward spiral.

A week or so before the heist, Grace flees the country and it’s there that Julie’s story begins. Julie has perfected the art of lying low. She diligently goes about her job (however shady the owner might be) and keeps her list of friends to a bare minimum. After opening up to a coworker, Hanna, Julie discovers the two aren’t all that different. Hanna has a past as well, one that’s a bit more tarnished than Julie’s and as her trust builds, Julie allows Hanna to hear her story.

I loved the idea of this one more than its execution I think. I suppose my expectations were far too high (in my mind I had pegged this one as being a perfect, flawless novel before I had even started), so any disappointment is entirely my fault. That said, I wanted a little more from Unbecoming. Perhaps if this had been packaged differently, pitched as more of the character study that it was rather than the next Gone Girl I would have been more open to it? To be honest, I’m really not sure how I felt about this one. I certainly enjoyed it and tore through it very quickly, but there was something lacking that I can’t put my finger on.

With blurbs by Kate Atkinson, Tana French, and Karen Joy Fowler, Unbecoming is sure to gain a massive following. It really was an excellent book and hugely fascinating (and Scherm seriously knows her stuff!), but don’t go into this one expecting an action-packed, thrills galore kind of read. I do recommend this one and I highly suggest taking a look at Penguin’s book club kit. Scherm discusses Antiques Roadshow, her own forgeries, and her favorite thiefs. I’m EXTREMELY curious about Sofia Blyumsctein now – she would hide jewels underneath her incredibly long fingernails or get her pet monkey to swallow gems while she distracted jewelers! UM WHAT. There are also cocktail recipes and a Spotify playlist – I swear it’s like they created this kit with me in mind.

5 stars · contemporary · fiction

Lost & Found by Brooke Davis

Lost & Found by Brooke Davis
Pub. Date: January 22, 2015
Source: ARC via publisher (Thank you, Dutton!!)
Summary: Millie Bird is a seven-year-old girl who always wears red wellington boots to match her red, curly hair. But one day, Millie’s mum leaves her alone beneath the Ginormous Women’s underwear rack in a department store, and doesn’t come back.

Agatha Pantha is an eighty-two-year-old woman who hasn’t left her home since her husband died. Instead, she fills the silence by yelling at passers-by, watching loud static on TV, and maintaining a strict daily schedule. Until the day Agatha spies a little girl across the street.

Karl the Touch Typist is eighty-seven years old and once typed love letters with his fingers on to his wife’s skin. He sits in a nursing home, knowing that somehow he must find a way for life to begin again. In a moment of clarity and joy, he escapes.

Together, Millie, Agatha and Karl set out to find Millie’s mum. Along the way, they will discover that the young can be wise, that old age is not the same as death, and that breaking the rules once in a while might just be the key to a happy life.
Genre: Adult, Fiction, Contemporary
Recommended for: Readers looking for an emotion, heartfelt tale with a fantastic cast of characters – be sure to have a box of tissues!

I totally judge books by their covers. I’m not ashamed of this at all – nope, no sirree. That beautiful cover – the striking font and bold, vivid colors – are what initially caught my eye, but I’m VERY pleased to say the loveliness doesn’t end there; the inside is just as incredible. When I discussed Lost & Found with the publicist, she mentioned it was an office favorite and, now that I’ve read it (even before I was finished!) I completely understand why.

Seven-year-old Millie Bird finds herself abandoned inside a department store, obediently waiting in the spot where her mother said to wait for her return…only her mother never came back. Leaving a trail of THIS WAY, MUM and BE RIGHT BACK, MUM notes in her wake, Millie eventually ventures out into the rest of the store, hiding when she can and befriending a mannequin (fully believing, in only the way a lost seven-year-old can, that this mannequin is alive and saved her after collapsing onto a night guard inches away from discovering Millie’s hide-out). In the food court her life becomes entwined with that of an elderly man, Karl.

Karl the Touch Typist’s fingers are always moving, always typing. On the run after breaking out of his nursing home, Karl now spends his days roaming about, waiting for a grand adventure to whisk him away. Although he never meant to befriend a little girl, there’s something about Millie that instantly connects the pair and when Millie is ultimately caught and held while the police are called, Karl knows it’s time to act.

Agatha hasn’t left her home since her husband died nearly a decade ago. Since then her days are lived with a military-like precision: she wakes up at precisely this time, slips on her sensible skirt not a second later than normal, follows her daily ritual of sitting in her Chair of Resentment to shout complaints at the neighbors. One day, without Agatha’s permission, her routine is interrupted. The woman across the street is long gone at that point and her little daughter has been fending for herself. Millie’s arrival at Agatha’s doorstep breaks her solitude and she’s not at all pleased.

Travel itinerary in hand, Millie asks for Agatha’s help in finding her mother. She now knows where she went and, silly Mum, she left before remembering to pick up Millie. Agatha, this woman who hasn’t been out of the house in nearly ten years, decides to track down this heartless woman and, after teaming up with Karl, the pair set off across the country on a life-changing (and eye-opening) journey.

In a note to the reader Brooke Davis discusses how Lost & Found came to be: while in her twenties, she went on a backpacking trip across Asia. After receiving a message from her brother telling her to call home immediately, she learned her mother has unexpectedly passed away and without a moment’s hesitation, she’s on a plane. Her anger and hurt and confusion became Lost & Found and the novel was written for her PhD thesis on grief. I’m not sure if that note will be included in the finished copy, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed. If I hadn’t read it, I’m sure I would have still loved Lost & Found, but because I was given that background info, these characters took on another meaning for me. Their fears and worries were Brooke’s fears and worries and that’s really what took this book to a new level and set it apart from others.

This is a review I’ve been sitting on for weeks. I tore through the book the week before Christmas, but only recently sat down to gather my thoughts. While Lost & Found isn’t a memoir, it’s still an extremely personal experience and, because of that, I’m having a hard time critiquing it (just as I hard a hard time discussing brown girl dreaming, one of my top reads last year). Even now, despite having a wealth of points I want to make and scenes I want to discuss, I’m at a loss and that is how I know a book has affected me. As with my other favorite novels, I’m finding myself struggling over what to say – I don’t want to give away too much, but I also want to shout about it from the rooftops.

A month and several books later, I’m still finding myself thinking back on these characters. Millie and her boots. Karl the Touch Typist’s love for his wife that will never fade. Agatha’s daily measurements of arm wobblage. Yes, Lost & Found can be described as quirky, but there’s also so much love and pain and at multiple times throughout their journey I wanted to pull each character into my arms and tell them everything will be okay. I am NOT a re-reader, but Lost & Found is a novel I just can’t shake and I know I’ll be returning to in the future. This is a beautiful, beautiful novel I’ll be pushing hard on customers and friends.