Book review: ‘Pretty Little Liars’ by Sara Shepard

Once close friends, life for Hanna, Aria, Spencer and Emily has changed dramatically since the disappearance of their friend Alison when the girls were in middle school. Now harboring secrets of their own, the girls have reached high school — and grown apart. As the group is reunited when Aria returns with her family from overseas, the question over what happened to Ali seems to grow stronger.

Especially when each girl begins receiving mysterious messages exposing their dirty little secrets — tidbits only one person in the world ever knew: Alison. But if their secret-keeper hasn’t been seen or heard from in years, who could possibly know about Hanna’s sudden weight loss, Aria’s secret relationship, Spencer’s affection for the wrong boy — or Emily’s own complicated feelings for a new neighbor? Who’s behind the emails, text messages and notes they begin receiving, threatening to ruin the careful facades they’ve built?

Sara Shepard’s Pretty Little Liars, the first in a popular young adult series, is full of all the treachery, cattiness and boyfriend-stealing you’d expect of a gaggle of high school girls in an affluent Pennsylvanian suburb, but with an added twist: a mysterious disappearance and, quite possibly, a murder. I was sucked into the story of these “It Girls” from the first page. It’s obvious from the get-go that the ladies were involved in something quite unsavory, and that they alone knew about it was reason enough to bind them together. But since Ali’s disappearance, even that bond has been frayed and broken.

Pretty Little Liars is the epitome of a fast read; I finished it in two days of inconsistent reading. Each time I went to pick it up, I found myself fumbling along for the next page to figure out what sort of trouble the girls had found themselves in this time. Alternating between the past and the present, the novel’s quick pace definitely helped the novel’s feeling of urgency.

My quibble with the book is probably the same as my problem with any story featuring too many characters — it took me a while to keep them all straight and I didn’t really emotionally connect with most of them. In addition to the four main friends and the mysterious Ali, we had a crew of miscellaneous friends, boyfriends, siblings, parents and teachers whose names seemed to disorient me each time they appeared, forcing me to wrack my brain in trying to place them. Still, that’s not a huge deal. And maybe, you know, a personal reading problem.

So we all know I’m 24 and no prude, but I will say that — for a young adult novel — I was shocked at some of the behavior and themes of the book. Like Gossip Girl and other YA series, there’s plenty of lying, cheating, sex and other mature content at the heart of the story. It was pivotal to the plot, yes, but just a caution if you or your teen would rather stay away.

If you’re looking for a quick, entertaining and juicy read, the Pretty Little Liars series could be a good companion for a rainy afternoon. We won’t be chattin’ philosophy, science or complex issues by the close of the final (cliffhanger of a) page, but that’s not what this is all about. This was cotton candy: fluffy and fun. And with six additional books in Shepard’s series, there’s plenty more where this snack of a story came from.

3.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 006088732X ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy obtained through BookMooch

Book review: ‘Raven Stole The Moon’ by Garth Stein

On the day she leaves Seattle for Wrangell, Alaska — site of a terrible tragedy that occurred years before — Jenna Rosen has snapped. It’s not enough that it’s two years to the day since her son Bobby drowned; she must also be stuck at a party with associates she despises, putting on a happy face while attendees whisper about the Rosens as her husband, Robert, schmoozes and acts like she’s insane for not being “over it.”

It’s also that time has marched forward for everyone but Jenna, pushing them all toward a new life — a new world — when her own resolved issues stay firmly on the surface, like raw wounds. Though everyone believed Bobby drowned in an accident on Thunder Bay, his body was never recovered — and Jenna is unable to find any peace or closure over his passing. To her, her 6-year-old son has still vanished. And something pulls her back to Alaska, setting off a chain of events and bringing to light pieces of native folklore she never thought possible.

Garth Stein’s Raven Stole The Moon is a contemporary novel set against an interesting backdrop: the beliefs and ancient folklore of the Tlingit people. As Jenna traipses through Wrangell and meets an interesting cast of characters — including Oscar, a dog who suddenly follows her everywhere, and Eddie, a man who befriends and shelters her, no questions asked — we begin to learn of a supernatural phenomenon which is intriguing and spooky. What did happen to Bobby?

I’m one of the few people in the world who has not read Stein’s The Art Of Racing In The Rain, so his writing style was completely new to me. Characterized by short sentences, his prose comes out in a staccato-like rhythm that took a little getting used to. It certainly wasn’t bad, but I wasn’t accustomed to getting the stream-of-consciousness-like details the author shared with us. Told in third person but focused primarily on Jenna and her viewpoint, the book hammered out important tidbits in a style pretty distinct to Stein.

After I hit roughly the 60-page mark, I was hooked — completely drawn into the tale and desperate to find out what happened to Bobby. Stein gives us just enough detail to sustain the mystery without dragging it all out too long, frustrating readers who must go hundreds of pages without new information. As we learned more and more about certain spirits known to inhabit Alaska and meet David Livingstone, a native shaman, I could feel goosebumps erupt on my skin.

I didn’t find the book to be the “horror” story some claim, but nor is it a tepid tale of family or forgiveness. It’s something in between. Relying plenty on religious and supernatural elements and requiring the reader to suspend disbelief for a sizeable chunk of the story, Raven Stole The Moon was a riveting novel — and even though I didn’t particularly like Jenna or Robert, I was unable to put the book down. It’s pretty rare that I’m so apathetic to two of the main characters and still enjoy the novel. Why? Because though I didn’t feel for them, I felt with them — and I knew that, in the wake of their son’s death, how could I judge them? I couldn’t. And didn’t. I just read their story through as unbiased a lens as I could.

Originally published in 1998, the book maintains a sort of innocence before the dawn of Google searches and iPhones. As Jenna disappears from the lush, dull world she inhabits in Washington, we’re able to remember how much easier it was to “go off the grid” before we were all accessible 24/7 via devices we keep in our pockets and palms. Stein notes in the afterword that he could have changed the timeframe and updated these references but chose not to, and I agree with the decision to keep the book firmly rooted in the late 1990s. It made me feel — dare I say it? — nostalgic.

Fans of contemporary fiction with a heavy mysterious, supernatural element will find plenty to enjoy here, and probably much for discussion. Though I was happy with the book’s resolution for the most part, those closing pages? Makes me wonder . . .

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 0061806382 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publicist

Book review: ‘Almost Home’ by Pam Jenoff

Since a tragedy claimed the life of her boyfriend Jared at Cambridge University, U.S. State Department intelligence officer Jordan Weiss has been run, run, running away from the past — fighting always to stay one step ahead of the painful memories. Advancing to her current post in Washington, D.C., Jordan chooses to stay emotionally aloof by burying her feelings and focusing always on her work.

Until a letter arrives, that is, changing everything. Sent from her close friend, now terminally ill, Sarah mentions she’s returned to England. Aware of her friend’s deteoriating health, Jordan barely hesitates before asking for a transfer to London to help care for her — in a place she has steadfastly avoided since her life there was shattered in the wake of Jared’s drowning. Now ten years removed from that terrible night, Jordan returns to the U.K. and immediately begins work with Maureen Martindale, a friend and superior who asks for her assistance in busting up a serious mob ring.

Aware of the danger surrounding her new task, Jordan carefully begins uncovering more than a few secrets floating around England — and one close to her heart. When an old Cambridge classmate reappears and begins asking questions about their shared past, the wounds on Jordan’s heart reopen. And it’s only through searching for the covered truth — with Chris Bannister, Jordan’s old best friend — that they might finally heal.

Atmospheric, cerebral and exciting, Pam Jenoff’s rollicking Almost Home kept me on the edge of my seat from page one. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from a novel filled with so many elements — romance, murder, grief, passion, suspense, family — but Jenoff’s masterful use of description and language dropped me in the middle of each scene and refused to let me out.

As a reader, a novel’s setting — and the way in which it’s described — can make or break a book for me. In the case of Almost Home, the sense of place couldn’t have been more perfect or artfully described. As an Anglophile, I eagerly consumed Jenoff’s descriptions of England and British culture. And as the novel opens in Washington, my hometown, I could easily picture everywhere Jordan was traversing, giving the book added authenticity.

The mysteries embedded in the plot — plentiful, complicated — are what kept me up reading until 3 a.m. and up again just four hours later to finish. Jenoff dispenses enough information at each twist for us to feel like we’re “getting somewhere,” only to then flip around and unmask another complication. And I have one gripe about these mysteries: I think the back cover description gave away too much of the plot, and I knew more about the “mystery” going in than I would have wanted. In my own story description above, I’ve left out several key pieces of information you’d get from an Amazon or other description, so beware. It certainly did not ruin the novel for me, but I wish that one secret, in particular, hadn’t already been divulged.

Jordan’s character, while sometimes prickly, was someone I admired, respected and rooted for. I couldn’t completely understand her “any port in a storm” approach to romance, but I could also recognize the deep grief from which she was just beginning to recover and didn’t fault her for that. While some of her fledgling relationships felt a little one-dimensional, I did appreciate Jenoff’s development of one in particular.

Every reader will come to Almost Home with a different expectation — mystery, thriller, women’s fiction, historical fiction, British fiction — and probably find their needs met, as I did. Jenoff’s sequel Hidden Things is due out in July, and yours truly will be running (or, you know, driving) to the bookstore to find out what’s up next.

4.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 1416590706 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by author

Book review: ‘Size 12 Is Not Fat’ by Meg Cabot

size_12_not_fatI have to admit — the title of this one intrigued me. And as a size 12 — the size of the “average American woman,” as we’re reminded frequently — and one of Meg Cabot’s biggest fans, I wasn’t sure how I could go wrong with this one!

And, well, I didn’t go wrong exactly. I’m just not exactly sure I went completely right.

In Size 12 Is Not Fat, trouble is certainly afoot for former teen pop star (and, yes, size 12) Heather Wells. Newly separated from her philandering boy band boyfriend and starting a job as assistant director of a residence hall at New York College, Heather is determined to get in good with her coworkers as she readies herself to get on the med school track and put her teen sensation days behind her. She’s even sharing a home with Cooper, a handsome and suave private eye — and her ex’s brother. Still, you know, things could happen . . . and Heather is determined to string more than two syllables together in his presence.

But Cooper — and everything else — gets put on the back-burner when girls at the dorm begin to appear at the bottom of elevator shafts. Officials want to write off the deaths as accidental, but Heather knows that foul play is involved. With the help of Coop and her cadre of well-meaning friends, she puts on her girlie sleuth cap and begins to investigate. And what finds definitely surprises her.

Size 12 Is Not Fat is campy, light, over-the-top and entertaining — but not really one of the books you’re going to pick up again and again, or pass along to friends while crying, “You’ve got to read this!” (Or, you know, giving the book a starring role on my blog. Or something.) Did it change my life? No. And that’s okay, because it is just a lot of fun.

Cabot writes with her trademark wit and natural dialogue. Heather is snarky, funny and self-effacing — a strong female character with plenty of gumption. I loved her interactions with friend and cafeteria worker Magda, who adores her residence hall “movie stars” more than anyone else, as well as her relationship (twisty though it may be) with ex Jordan.

I guess I just couldn’t really wrap my head around the mystery . . . and I had a hard time joining Heather on her adventures while trying to snoop out the culprit. Which — I know — sounds silly, considering I knew this was a “mystery” when I got it. Still, I love Cabot and I poured through this one quickly. I was more interested in Heather’s past stardom — and fledgling music career — than any solving crimes, though.

3.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0060525118 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor’s Website
Personal copy purchased by Meg

Book review: ‘Best Intentions’ by Emily Listfield

best_intentions1First came the facts: A 39-year-old woman is discovered dead in her apartment in Manhattan.

And then, especially for Lisa Barkley, come the questions: Why? How? And where did this all begin?

Emily Listfield’s Best Intentions is the story of a marriage, a friendship, a host of lies, more than a little betrayal, unrequited love and our often crazy attempts at regaining what it is we’ve felt we lost.

Lisa is a hard-working mom, devoted wife to Sam, and PR representative — clearly cut responsibilities, duties and obligations. Her best friend Deirdre, in turn, is an explosion of possibility — the opposite of predictable. She bounces from boyfriend to boyfriend, often involving herself with married men in the hope that they’ll eventually realize how special she is to them. In the meantime, she runs a boutique in New York City and plays dutiful auntie to Claire and Phoebe, Sam and Lisa’s daughters, who attend an elitist private school downtown.

Lisa is torn between several worlds — the world in which she must work as hard as possible to keep her job; the place she must come home to, her roles as mother and wife irreplaceable; the space she inhabits as Deirdre’s best friend since college, offering her advice and hoping against hope she won’t make bad decisions. And so goes life in their corner of the city . . . until Jack, Deirdre’s first love and college friend, drops back into their lives.

Told from Lisa’s perspective as the world rocks and bucks around her, Best Intentions is fast-paced, suspenseful and pretty unpredictable. I read compulsively, knowing that another twist was just around the corner — and also hoping that though the evidence pointed to something so painful, maybe it was all a misunderstanding. The book relies upon these turns — Listfield herself mentions the turning of a kaleidoscope, all of the facts shifting and changing into different patterns as you look at the situation, or turn it ever-so-slightly. Every time I thought I had my balance with the story, the ground shifted again . . . and everything changed. There didn’t seem to be any easy resolutions. I liked that about it.

And the book seemed to be realistic — the characters felt like people I could know. Though I can’t say I ever got really attached to any of them — I don’t know why — I did feel for them, especially Lisa. It seemed like she was so desperately looking for something to hold on to as everything she knew was blown apart, and I can’t imagine how terrible that must feel.

Listfield weaves great insights into everyday life throughout the story, too. Attention to little things — the tiny, seemingly inconsequential details — is what grabs me as a reader. These tidbits added up to making me wonder how well we can ever really know another person — and how far we can let them know us. We all want to do right by each other, love each other and mean something to the world; and, as Deirdre says, we’re all seeking our “In Case Of Emergency” person. But what do the pieces of our lives add up to form?

The trajectory of a life, laid out across a table, reduced to jottings in a pad, would no doubt seem both damning and inane, our imperfections difficult to justify despite our best intentions.

All in all, a solid and fast read. My only gripe? Some of the punctuation in the novel felt a bit . . . off. Too many commas where there should have been a semicolon. It was really distracting to me! But that’s certainly not a deal-breaker, and shouldn’t keep you from grabbing this one if you’re looking for a little love, some intrigue — and one giant mystery.

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 1416576711 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website