Book review: ‘Along For The Ride’ by Sarah Dessen

along_for_the_rideThe summer before she starts college, overachiever Auden West makes the unexpected decision to spend her vacation with her father, stepmother Heidi and newborn baby sister Thisbe in their beachside town of Colby. Since her parents’ divorce two years ago, Auden has thrown herself completely into education and ignored any pull at having a social life. Without friends and tired of trying to get the attention of her intense mother, a well-respected college professor, Auden decides to get on “beach time.”

But any hope she’d had of spending time with her father — a once-successful novelist — are thwarted as Robert West holes himself up in his office daily, trying to grind out chapters of a new book which will catapult him back into literary stardom. And there’s another problem bringing down the walls of the West beach home: baby Thisbe just can’t stop screaming. Ever. Overworked, exhausted and at her wit’s end, Heidi comes to rely upon Auden for assistance in navigating the troubled waters of new motherhood and a tense relationship with Auden’s dad. She can only do so much, though — and when she meets Eli, a fellow insomniac who also wanders the town’s sleepy streets late at night, Auden begins to see just how much she have missed while spending her life trying (in vain) to gain her parents’ approval and attention.

What I loved about Along For The Ride — and all of Dessen’s works — is her uncanny ability to blend family stories with romance, friendship and, in many cases, a larger “social issue.” In this novel we’re talking about the children of divorce — and I think she explores that well without it ever becoming treacly. For me, Dessen’s works feature characters about as authentic as they come. I loved watching Auden change, trying more and more of what she never thought she could do, or would be interested in — and watching her friendships develop with Maggie, Leah and Esther. Life with Eli seemed very real, too, and though I knew ultimately what would probably work out between them, I was still excited to get there. The novel didn’t focus exclusively on family dynamics — nor did it talk about the love interest nonstop. Everything was in balance, producing a fun, thoughtful read.

While I have to admit that Along For The Ride lacked the emotional resonance of some of Dessen’s other works — like Just Listen, my personal favorite — I read it very quickly and really felt for many of the characters, especially Heidi. And the ending was perfect! Definitely recommend her work to anyone looking for a great read with very memorable characters.

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 0670011940 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy purchased by Meg

Book review: ‘The Embers’ by Hyatt Bass

embersThe Embers is a sad, sad story.

I say this immediately so any hope you may hold that things are going to improve for the doomed Ascher family will evaporate before you even crack the spine of Hyatt Bass’s debut novel. Trust me — I wish I’d been so warned.

Joe, Laura and Emily are the remaining members of the Ascher clan, three very different, jaded and bitter people dealing with the loss of Thomas, Joe and Laura’s son and Emily’s older brother. The novel opens in 2007, more than a decade after Thomas’s death, and flits between the past and present. We’re given the tragic story in pieces, each new development adding to the mosaic of what we know of Joe’s narcissistic tendencies to obsess over his plays and acting career, his marital problems with Laura, Emily’s acts of rebellion and what really happened to Thomas. Nothing is really as it seems, but everything ended up the way I expected it to.

The Embers is an exploration of family, betrayal, grief, forgiveness and aspirations — and what it means to love and try to love completely. All of these themes were quite well developed, but my fundamental problem with the novel was this: I didn’t like any of the characters. Any of them.

To me, everyone in this novel was hopelessly devoid of redemption — totally self-absorbed, screwed up and blind. The beginning of The Embers was moody, atmospheric and even a little creepy, setting the backdrop for the wedding present-day Emily is planning with kind, gentle fiance Clay. But Emily is so haunted by the death of her brother and weighed down by the complicated non-relationship she has with Joe, she’s unable to really be present in her own life. And that’s just down-right depressing.

We know that though Laura, Joe and Emily have been living their lives apart in recent years and pretending to have found peace since the tragedy that gutted their family, they must ultimately come back together to truly heal. Are they able to honestly confront the past? Are they, in fact, beyond help?

I won’t tell you that, of course. If you’re looking for a very deep, gritty and occasionally moving exploration of one family just imploding upon itself, The Embers is a pretty good psychological read. I definitely felt as though I’d been on a journey after finishing, and I closed the book with a knot in my stomach. I’d spent almost 300 pages with people I didn’t much care for, and I can only hope they someday find the peace I did after finally finishing this one!

3 out of 5!

ISBN: 0805089942 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website

LibraryThing Early Reviewers

Book review: ‘The Penny Pinchers Club’ by Sarah Strohmeyer

penny_pinchersLost in the lush, comfortable world of shopping-as-sport, suburban mom, wife and interior designer Kat Griffiths is about to get one serious reality check on the world of consumerism, wants and needs. When Kat digs into her family’s finances for the first time in her life, she can’t believe how bad the damage has become.

Her lackadaisical attitude toward spending — and Griff’s insistence that she not touch the checking accounts herself — has drained the family and left very little for their teen daughter Laura’s college education. After Kat discovers a bank account Griff has started and kept secret from her, her fears and suspicions reach a fever pitch: it’s time to take action.

At the insistence of her friend and housekeeper, Kat joins the Penny Pinchers Club — a motley crew of folks who meet in the public library to discuss coupons, cutting down on consumption, going green and basically living more thoughtfully. The tips she gleans from her meetings help her out in all sorts of ways . . . and prompt her to take a good, hard look at her own life’s needs . . . and wants. Especially where love is concerned.

There’s really so much to love about Sarah Strohmeyer’s The Penny Pinchers Club — it was funny but had plenty of heart; was light-hearted without being cheesy; felt realistic but not depressing. Though I knew from the get-go that some of the “secrets” couldn’t possibly be true, I didn’t have too much trouble going along with it . . . though I did keep thinking Kat would wake up concerning a few matters! It took a while before that happened.

I loved so many of the auxiliary characters, especially Kat’s sister Viv and Steve. The Penny Pinchers themselves were really fun, sweet people, and I loved learning about their lives and how they’d come to be so cost-effective! And the appearance of an old flame added a lot of depth to the plot.

I really felt for Kat, a realistic main character I adored rooting for. The conflict between the many spheres in which she resides — spender and saver; wife and ex-girlfriend; mom and worker — added depth to what might have otherwise been a pretty ordinary story. A quick and worthy read!

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 0525951172 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website

Along For The Ride — just six days to go!

along_for_the_rideWhat am I waiting quite impatiently for this Wednesday? Sarah Dessen’s newest release, Along For the Ride, which publishes Tuesday, June 16! I’m a longtime fan of Dessen, a young adult writer from North Carolina who captivates with each and every character she creates. I know I’m certainly not alone!

I’m so devoted to Dessen, I can tell you quite honestly that I haven’t even read the synopsis of the book. Regardless of whether it’s about aliens taking over lakes across the country, a team of well-mannered explorers studying exotic plant life or a young woman grappling with the pangs of first love, loss and delicate family relationships (I’m banking it’s somewhere close to the latter), I’ll be rushing out to grab it!

But just for kicks, here’s how Amazon is piquing our interest:

It’s been so long since Auden slept at night. Ever since her parents’ divorce — or since the fighting started. Now she has the chance to spend a carefree summer with her dad and his new family in the charming beach town where they live. A job in a clothes boutique introduces Auden to the world of girls: their talk, their friendship, their crushes. She missed out on all that, too busy being the perfect daughter to her demanding mother.

Then she meets Eli, an intriguing loner and a fellow insomniac who becomes her guide to the nocturnal world of the town. Together they embark on parallel quests: for Auden, to experience the carefree teenage life she’s been denied; for Eli, to come to terms with the guilt he feels for the death of a friend.

In her signature pitch-perfect style, Sarah Dessen explores the hearts of two lonely people learning to connect.

Okay! Well, now I can say that I’ve actually read the synopsis. Sounds awesome, right? I’m quite excited and feel like this rampant enthusiasm will result in me live Tweeting about it as soon as I rip open that cover. And since I leave for the beach next Wednesday, I’ll get it just in time to tout around all vacation!

New to Sarah Dessen? I highly recommend everything she’s ever written, but I have to go on record as saying my favorite novels are Just Listen and The Truth About Forever. Sarah is the master of creating textured, believable characters who think, speak and behave in ways you would expect from disjointed but lovable teens. I’m immediately drawn into her stories of friendship and family dynamics, and there’s always an awesome, tangible love story in there. Dessen is a young adult author, but don’t let that deter you if you’re not usually into YA — her stories will appeal to readers of any age!

What’s everyone else waiting for this Wednesday? Check out more responses over at Breaking the Spine!

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

Book review: ‘A Certain Strain of Peculiar’ by Gigi Amateau

certain_strainGigi Amateau’s new young adult novel A Certain Strain of Peculiar starts out compellingly enough. For Mary Harold, we know that life in Virginia has gotten all but unbearable. Pegged “the grossest girl” and forced into exile by her former best friend, the 13-year-old pleads with her mother to return them to Wren, Alabama to be with Mary Harold’s beloved grandmother, Ayma. When Bye refuses to let her go, she takes matters into her own hands.

Life is definitely different in Wren. Mary Harold sets about helping Ayma’s farm manager Bud with chores around the homestead, wrestling cattle and mending fences long broken. In building up her own strength physically, Mary Harold builds herself up emotionally — and all of the fear and anxiety she experienced in Virginia begin to ebb away.

In the process, Mary Harold meets Bud’s children Dixie and Delta, both “special” in their own way. Since their own mama left them for a shot at stardom, Dixie has “become” a horse full-time, and Delta acts out in often reprehensible ways. Mary Harold befriends Dixie and occasionally clobbers Delta, and the lessons she learns from both are significant — namely, the nature of true friendship.

So I enjoyed A Certain Strain of Peculiar — it was a quick read full of wonderful imagery. Told from Mary Harold’s point of view, it’s a very “internal” book — full of descriptions and her inner monologues, and not a lot of dialogue. That didn’t really bother me so much, but sometimes it felt a little slow. That’s where my ache for “compelling literature” started acting up.

Of every facet of the book, my favorite had to be watching Mary Harold morph from a completely frightened, insecure girl to a brave, strong and tanned young woman, someone secure in her own skin and confident enough to take on anything or anyone — from facing her own crippling panic attacks to standing up for weaker students bullied around by the unsavory Gil.

Mary Harold’s relationship with her mother was very strong and inspiring, and I loved that about it, too. What I missed was a little more back story on Bye, her mom — we know she was a hellraiser who got pregnant young and left town for good. But she doesn’t seem that way at all now. She’s deeply connected to nature, a theme that really is the cornerstone of the novel — the connection to the living things around us, animate and inanimate. Local rivers are a lifeblood for Ayma, Mary Harold and Bye, and the descriptions of nature were great.

There were some moments in the novel that really made my skin crawl — a few disturbing scenes involving Delta’s behavior. If I were young, they might have given me nightmares . . . the build-up to them was a little sudden and intense. They were important to the story, no doubt, but I felt a little uneasy reading after that. When something scary takes me by surprise, it’s hard for me to relax again.

Regardless, Amateau has a very clear and wonderful voice — and I recommend her coming-of-age novel. Teen readers might enjoy it even more than I did, but I liked getting to know the residents of Wren . . . and wish Mary Harold well!

3.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0763630098 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers Program

Cover art love

rude_awakenings2I didn’t know it was possible to be so in love with a book’s cover art, but let me tell you right now — I am in love with this book’s cover art. And it doesn’t hurt that it’s a book by Laurie Viera Rigler, the sequel to Confessions Of A Jane Austen Addict.

Rude Awakenings Of A Jane Austen Addict brings us back to Courtney, modern L.A. girl, last seen in the body of English aristocratic daughter Jane Mansfield a hundred and fifty years earlier. Except now we have Jane in the body of Courtney in present-day California! Oh my! I’m really psyched to see this plot, because one of my biggest issues with Confessions was the lack of understanding regarding what happened to Jane while Courtney was running around English gardens and chatting up attractive English gentlemen in Jane’s body.

confessions_ja_addictBut back to the cover art. A Victorian beauty in a gorgeous pink and white dress — grasping an iPod? Really? Loves it. Anything with a pink sash and awesome font and mixture of textures immediately grabs my eye. Of course, I liked the cover art for the first book, too. But I’m really excited to get my hands on this one, another novel in the long line of original Austen fiction. I just can’t get enough! Rude Awakenings will be released June 25. Check out Rigler’s website here!