Posted in 3 Stars, Book Review

REVIEW: The Invoice by Jonas Karlsson

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Genre: Satire, Literary Fiction
Publisher: Hogarth
Publication Date: July 12, 2016
Formats Available: Kindle, Hardcover, Audible

Hilarious, profound, and achingly true-to-life, Jonas Karlsson’s new novel explores the true nature of happiness through the eyes of a hero you won’t soon forget. A passionate film buff, our hero’s life revolves around his part-time job at a video store, the company of a few precious friends, and a daily routine that more often than not concludes with pizza and a movie in his treasured small space in Stockholm. When he receives an astronomical invoice from a random national bureaucratic agency, everything will tumble into madness as he calls the hotline night and day to find out why he is the recipient of the largest bill in the entire country. 

What is the price of a cherished memory? How much would you pay for a beautiful summer day? How will our carefree idealist, who is content with so little and has no chance of paying it back, find a way out of this mess? All these questions pull you through The Invoice and prove once again that Jonas Karlsson is simply a master of entertaining, intelligent, and life-affirming work.

MY RATING: 📚 📚 📚

First off, I think calling this a novel is a stretch. It’s just over 150 pages, and it took me less than 3 hours to finish it. The premise was interesting and the writing solid, but something was missing. I finished the book not really understanding why this single middle-aged guy with a dead-end part-time job was somehow the happiest guy in Sweden. His “few precious friends,” as the synopsis describes them, are really just immature losers who pop in and out of his life. Before the invoice arrives, our unnamed hero is a boring gray blob of a person–the only interesting aspect of this story are his repeated conversations with Maud, the phone representative for the agency who sent him the astronomical invoice.

Additionally, I would have liked more details about what W.R.D. really is. Are they a government agency? A corporation? Some kind of bureaucratized karmic institution? I have no idea. Our hero doesn’t seem to be able to pay attention to any of the information given him, so the readers are left just as confused at the end as they are at the beginning. I would have been fine with the level of information we received were this a short story, but when you read something of this length you expect more answers than what Karlsson was willing to give.

That leads to my biggest problem with The Invoice–I feel like the author beats us over the head with his satirical point, without actually telling us what the point is. Are we supposed to feel critical of the government? Businesses? Society? Materialism? Consumerism? Responsibility? Attachment? The symbolism, and at times the story itself, is so vague that I walked away not quite sure that I’d “gotten” whatever it was Karlsson desperately wanted me to get.

Despite these issues, I did enjoy this book. There was a scene toward the end between the protagonist and Maud that was especially touching. I think this would be a good film, actually, if the idea of W.R.D. was fleshed out a little more. If you’re not usually bothered by the issues I mention above and you enjoy literary satire, I would definitely recommend it.

I received a complimentary copy from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Posted in 3 Stars, Book Review

REVIEW: First Comes Love by Emily Giffin

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Genre: Women’s Fiction
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Publication Date: June 28, 2016
Formats Available: Kindle, Hardcover, Audio

Growing up, Josie and Meredith Garland shared a loving, if sometimes contentious, relationship. Josie was impulsive, spirited, and outgoing, Meredith hardworking, thoughtful, and reserved. When tragedy strikes, their delicate bond splinters. 

Fifteen years later, Josie and Meredith are in their late thirties, following very different paths. Josie, a first grade teacher, is single–and this close to swearing off dating for good. What she wants more than the right guy, however, is to become a mother–a feeling that is heightened when her ex-boyfriend’s daughter is assigned to her class. Determined to have the future she’s always wanted, Josie decides to take matters into her own hands. 

On the outside, Meredith is the model daughter with the perfect life. A successful attorney, she’s married to a wonderful man, and together they’re raising a beautiful four-year-old daughter. Yet lately Meredith feels dissatisfied and restless, secretly wondering if she chose the life that was expected of her rather than the one she truly desired. 

As the anniversary of their tragedy looms, and painful secrets from the past begin to surface, Josie and Meredith must not only confront the issues that divide them but also come to terms with their own choices. In their journey toward understanding and forgiveness, both sisters discover that they need each other more than they knew–and that in the search for true happiness, love always comes first. 

MY RATING: 📚 📚 📚

(True Rating: 2.5 Stars)

Emily Giffin has long been one of my favorite women’s fiction authors, but something was missing in this one. The writing was well-done as always, and the characters interesting, but it failed to snag my heart.

Neither Josie nor Meredith seemed like a real person to me. I had to keep reminding myself that Josie was 38, not 22, because honestly she acted like a very young, immature person. It was hard not to think of her as unstable when she constantly obsessed over her ex of eight years. And Meredith . . . Meredith is difficult, as I see a lot of my own negative personality quirks in her, but there’s nothing redemptive about her as a character. She spends her life being angry at everyone and everything, constantly justifying poor treatment of her sister, her husband, and even her small daughter.

It was hard to like either of them, although Josie has a slight edge because she’s not constantly miserable. Their relationship was just awful. A book with a setup like this had me braced for a new, reimagined version of Jennifer Weiner’s In Her Shoes, which does a great job of showing a contentious sister relationship, but here there just didn’t seem to be a good reason for why these women hated so many people–and each other. They’re both obsessed over things that have happened in the past. Josie’s still mad because her ex-boyfriend broke up with her over a misunderstanding eight years ago (although honestly, I don’t blame him). Meredith and Josie both are mad because the woman who had just started dating their brother FIFTEEN YEARS PRIOR has had the audacity to move on with her life. I couldn’t believe what I was reading.

As another reviewer pointed out, sources of conflict seem to fade in and out. First Will and Andrea, then Pete, then Leslie, then Nolan, then . . . There is no moment of resolution at the end that ties all lose ends together, as I’ve come to expect in a Giffin novel. It simply ends.

I wanted to like this book, because again I’m a Giffin fan from way back, but for a book called First Comes Love, I have to say love was shockingly absent from both the characters and the plot. The 2.5 stars I’ve given here are for the strength of the writing and pacing alone.

I received a complimentary copy from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

Posted in 3 Stars, Book Review

REVIEW: The Memory of Lemon by Judith Fertig

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Genre: Magical Realism, Romance, Women’s Fiction
Publisher: Berkeley (Reprint edition)
Publication Date: June 14, 2016
Formats Available: Kindle, Paperback

The author of The Cake Therapist returns with another sweet and emotional tale featuring Neely, the baker with a knack for finding exactly the right flavor for any occasion . . . 

A crisp tang of citrus that is at once poignant and familiar, sharpening the senses and opening the mind to possibilities once known and long forgotten . . . 

Claire “Neely” Davis is no ordinary pastry chef. Her flavor combinations aren’t just a product of a well-honed palate: she can “taste” people’s emotions, sensing the ingredients that will touch her customers’ souls. Her gift has never failed her—until she meets a free-spirited bride-to-be and her overbearing society mother. The two are unable to agree on a single wedding detail, and their bickering leaves Neely’s intuition frustratingly silent—right when she needs it most. 

Between trying to navigate a divorce, explore a new relationship, and handle the reappearance of her long-absent father, Neely is struggling to make sense of her own conflicting emotions, much less those of her hard-to-please bride. But as she embarks on a flavorful quest to craft the perfect wedding celebration, she’ll uncover a family history that sheds light on both the missing ingredients and her own problems—and illustrates how the sweet and sour in life often combined to make the most delicious memories . . .

MY RATING: 📚 📚 📚

This book seemed to check all my qualifying boxes. Chick-lit? Check. Food fiction? Check. A hint of magical realism? Check. I couldn’t wait to start reading it. I was expecting some cross between The Devil Wears Prada and Like Water for Chocolate, which perhaps was an unfair expectation.

Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy The Memory of Lemon near as much as I enjoyed the idea of it. The characters were interesting, but I never felt like I really was able to become acquainted with any of them. Even though the reader spends half the book in Neely’s head, I didn’t feel like I really knew her at all. This could very well be due to the fact that this is a sequel to The Cake Therapist, which I did not realize until after I had already started reading. I had hoped the book would focus more on the gift that Neely shares with her father and grandmother, the ability not only to taste emotions but also to experience the memories of others. I also found the flashbacks to be very confusing and wished the author had included a few family tree charts, because it was very difficult to keep track of who was who, and who was related to who. I’m still not sure I completely understand.

That being said, despite being confused a great deal of the time, my interest held until the end. The ending was a bit predictable but I still enjoyed it. The descriptions of flavors and pastries were absolutely mouth-watering–in fact, I think this is the strongest aspect of the book! The romance was sweet, and I wish there was more of it! Even though I’m sure it seems my reaction to this book was lackluster at best, this concept is so intriguing that I find myself still interested in going back to read The Cake Therapist and any future books about Neely.

I received a complimentary copy from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Posted in 3 Stars, Book Review

REVIEW: A House for Happy Mothers by Amulya Malladi

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Genre: Women’s Fiction
Publisher: Lake Union Publishing
Publication Date: June 1, 2016
Formats Available: Kindle, Paperback, Audio

In trendy Silicon Valley, Priya has everything she needs – a loving husband, a career, and a home – but the one thing she wants most is the child she’s unable to have. In a Southern Indian village, Asha doesn’t have much – raising two children in a tiny hut, she and her husband can barely keep a tin roof over their heads – but she wants a better education for her gifted son. Pressured by her family, Asha reluctantly checks into the Happy Mothers House: a baby farm where she can rent her only asset – her womb – to a childless couple overseas. To the dismay of friends and family, Priya places her faith in a woman she’s never met to make her dreams of motherhood come true. 

Together, the two women discover the best and the worst that India’s rising surrogacy industry has to offer, bridging continents and cultures to bring a new life into the world – and renewed hope to each other. 

MY RATING: 📚 📚 📚

While this book isn’t necessarily short, it’s a fast read. I could hardly be persuaded to put it down over the 24 hour period in which I read it. I found myself fascinated by this strange, sad, and at times horrible predicament Priya and Asha found themselves in.

This is my first experience with Amulya Malladi’s work, and I was not disappointed with her writing. Through Priya, who while biologically half-Indian is essentially American, those unfamiliar with Indian culture (like me) learn customs, traditions, and cultural norms organically through her eyes. Between this and the lovely descriptions, I felt immersed in the story almost immediately. Torn between Priya’s heartache and Asha’s plight, I often found myself on the brink of tears. Malladi does an excellent job exposing the joys and the tragedies of such a nuanced, morally complex issue like surrogacy.

I gave this book 3 of 5 stars for a couple of reasons. First, I could not stand Priya’s husband Madhu. He’s not understanding of Priya at all, tells their secrets, makes decisions without her, and frankly doesn’t seem very committed to her or the family they ostensibly hope to build together. While I understand that some of this bad behavior is triggered by mistakes Priya has made, I felt he was just too petty and immature for someone supposedly in his mid-thirties.

Second, the ending was not at all what I had hoped for. The resolution is not complete. Throughout the entire book, there are hints at exploitation and unethical behavior surrounding not only the Happy Mothers House but potentially all of these pregnancy “outsourcing” clinics in India, and with regards to that there is no closure for the reader. I won’t say anything more for fear of spoiling, but if the thought of doctors and businesses taking advantage of the poor and uneducated upsets you, this book will most likely not leave you feeling satisfied.

That being said, A House for Happy Mothers and the tale it holds is relevant to this modern age, where technology, transportation, and a global economy create new ethical minefields for us to traverse. This is an excellent read for those who often ponder whether ability justifies action.

I received a complimentary copy from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

Posted in 3 Stars, Book Review

REVIEW: The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi

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Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
Publication Date: April 26, 2016
Formats Available: Kindle, Hardcover

Cursed with a horoscope that promise a marriage of Death and Destruction, sixteen-year-old Maya has only earned the scorn and fear of her father’s kingdom. Content to follow more scholarly pursuits, her world is upheaved when her father, the Raja, arranges a wedding of political convenience to quell outside rebellions. But when her wedding takes a fatal turn, Maya becomes the queen of Akaran and wife of Amar. Yet neither roles are what she expected. As Akaran’s queen, she finds her voice and power. As Amar’s wife, she finds friendship and warmth. 

But Akaran has its own secrets – thousands of locked doors, gardens of glass, and a tree that bears memories instead of fruit. Beneath Akaran’s magic, Maya begins to suspect her life is in danger. When she ignores Amar’s plea for patience, her discoveries put more than new love at risk – it threatens the balance of all realms, human and Otherworldly. 

Now, Maya must confront a secret that spans reincarnated lives and fight her way through the dangerous underbelly of the Otherworld if she wants to protect the people she loves. 

The Star-Touched Queen is a lush, beautifully written and vividly imagined fantasy inspired by Indian Mythology.

MY RATING: 📚 📚 📚

True rating: 2.5 Stars

“It was superficially lovely.”

This quote ironically does a nice job of summing up my thoughts on this book.

The Star-Touched Queen has all the makings of a wonderful book. Chokshi spins a compelling tale about love that transcends realms of reality and lifetimes and reincarnations. There is betrayal and bitterness and magic and mystery. She even places this story in a beautifully rich exotic locale filled with hints at Hindu folklore and mythology. The writing is lovely. It should have easily garnered five stars.

Despite what Chokshi gets right, though, this is a laborious read. The writing is lovely, as previously mentioned, but often completely abstract. Nonsensical metaphors like “lightning seemed across the gloaming earth like a broken eggshell veined with light” and “fat moths the size of palms wreathed my hair like pearls and moonstones” might be nice every once in a while, but they form the bulk of the prose we’re given. I had to fight to finish the second half, mostly because the action was so incredibly hard to follow. There are several references to mythological creatures, which I appreciated, but little to no explanation of what these creatures are and what functions they serve in the world the author has given us to explore. I shouldn’t have to stop reading a book fifteen times to look up and read articles on Hindu mythology just to understand two paragraphs of a novel. And try as I might, I never connected to Maya or Amar. The only characters I felt attached to were Guari, Maya’s half-sister whose arc never reaches resolution, and Kamala, a flesh-eating demon horse.

I’m aggravated that I didn’t like this book more because I’ve been looking forward to reading it for months now, but it just wasn’t for me. However, given the intriguing premise and the quality of the writing, I can understand why it’s gotten so many positive reviews. If it sounds at all intriguing to you, I recommend you at least try it. I’m glad I read it. I just wish I had enjoyed it more. I’ll definitely want to check out more from this author.

I received a complimentary copy from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

Posted in 3 Stars, Book Review

REVIEW: A Fierce and Subtle Poison by Samantha Mabry

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Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy, Magical Realism
Publisher: Algonquin Young Readers
Publication Date: April 12, 2016
Formats Available: Kindle, Hardcover

In this stunning debut, legends collide with reality when a boy is swept into the magical, dangerous world of a girl filled with poison.

Everyone knows the legends about the cursed girl—Isabel, the one the señoras whisper about. They say she has green skin and grass for hair, and she feeds on the poisonous plants that fill her family’s Caribbean island garden. Some say she can grant wishes; some say her touch can kill. 

Seventeen-year-old Lucas lives on the mainland most of the year bust spends summers with his hotel-developer father in Puerto Rico. He’s grown up hearing stories about the cursed girl, and he wants to believe in Isabel and her magic. When letters from Isabel begin mysteriously appearing in his room the same day his new girlfriend disappears, Lucas turns to Isabel for answers—and finds himself lured into her strange and enchanted world. But time is running out for the girl filled with poison, and the more entangled Lucas becomes with Isabel, the less certain he is of escaping with his own life. 

A Fierce and Subtle Poison beautifully blends magical realism with a page-turning mystery and a dark, starcrossed romance—all delivered in lush, urgent prose. 

MY RATING: 📚 📚 📚

Magical realism isn’t attempted nearly as often as it should be, so I was happy to learn of A Fierce and Subtle Poison and see that it was doing well.

I’m certainly not disappointed that I read this book. Ms. Mabry’s descriptions are exquisite. I could see, hear, smell, and taste everything happening around Lucas. I also applaud the way she wove Spanish and English together in a way that does not isolate readers who don’t know the language, but at the same time adds a layer of believability and depth for readers who do. Additionally, her use of Carribean legends and cultural structures made the events described in this book seem that much more real. I also really appreciated the hat tip to Borges, one of the most iconic Latin American magical realist writers.

There are a few reasons for the two-star deduction here, first of which is pacing. This novel should be the most exciting, page-turning thing I’ve read all year. I should have ripped through it in one day, maybe two, and mourned the last page’s too-soon arrival. And indeed, there were some parts of this novel that gripped me, compelled me to keep reading. There just weren’t enough of those moments. In fact, on the night before I finished, I dropped my phone (and Kindle app) down and asked aloud how on earth it was possible for a story this interesting could be so boring.

Lastly, while I did enjoy watching their story unfold, I couldn’t connect emotionally with any of the characters. Lucas, through whom we experience A Fierce and Subtle Poison, is incredibly self-absorbed. It seems the only time he expresses care or concern about others, he is really concerned only about how their absence or hurt will affect him. There were also some pretty serious questions that are left unanswered at the end.

All in all, this was an interesting, thought-provoking read. I hope Ms. Mabry delves into this world again. I’d love to know more about it. Even if she doesn’t, though, I’m definitely looking forward to this author’s next book.

I received a complimentary copy from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

Posted in 3 Stars, Book Review

REVIEW: The Syndicate by Sophie Davis

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Genre: Science Fiction, Time Travel
Publisher: Dabber & Baehr
Publication Date:
March 1, 2016
Formats Available: 
Kindle, Paperback

In a future where time travel has been outlawed, a black market exists for anyone with the money, connections, and nerve to request items from days past. As a Runner for one of the underground syndicates that now controls the timewaves, Stassi 2446-89 has seen it all: the fall of Rome, the rise of Hitler, the end of democracy, the establishment of time tourism, and the devastating consequences of it. Her job is to seamlessly slip through the past, in search of items of value to the syndicate’s clientele. Stassi’s next assignment takes her to Paris in the 1920’s, in search of a lost manuscript by one of the twentieth century’s greatest writers. She and her partner, Gaige, are swept up in the City of Light during the height of fashion and culture—as alluring a locale as they’ve ever visited. But a seedier side of life lurks beneath the glamorous façade, and the pair quickly learns this run is more dangerous than any of their previous missions. Because history isn’t playing out as it should be—a first for the syndicate. When the stakes are raised and it becomes a matter of life or death, Stassi and Gaige must ultimately decide how far they’re willing to go to ensure the future as they know it.

MY RATING: 📚 📚 📚

The Syndicate is such a difficult book to rate. There are aspects of it I think are absolutely brilliant, but I also walked away feeling confused and a little disappointed.

First, the good things. I absolutely love the premise and found it extremely plausible. Based on what I know of history and human nature, it makes total sense that if time travel were possible, it would soon become outlawed. There’s always that one group who can’t follow the rules and ruins everything for the rest of us. The Syndicate system was as widespread and intricate as you’d expect from what is essentially a Mob. The integration of historic figures was very well done, and was something I appreciated as a former student of history. I also really enjoyed the characters and easily connected to them. While it’s not at all the main focus, there’s a cute romantic development that really snagged me.

Now on to the things that didn’t really work for me. The pacing was incredibly slow, especially the first quarter of the book, and although big books don’t scare me, I think this one could have been much, much shorter and still told the story thoroughly. While I appreciated the author’s attention to detail, too much of it was focused on training sessions, meals, hair and makeup, getting dressed, etc. A little of that would have been perfect to set the scene, but I quickly got bogged down and had to take a break from the book. Additionally, Stassi’s and Gaige’s mood (as well as that of the narrative) tended to shift from silly and carefree one minute to dead serious the next, which was a little disorienting. I also found myself longing for the characters from the 25th century to be speaking a little differently–I know they’re time travelers so they probably use old slang a lot, but it was a little difficult to believe they’d still be using expressions and cliches from our time.

The main source of my confusion at the end were details I think really should have been addressed in the first book of the series. They mention that prima materia is the substance that allows time travel to exist, which is fine. But since this is an alchemical term and some of the Syndicate’s employees are called alchemists, I was really hoping they would further explain what exactly was going on with that. I was especially interested to find out why being an alchemists is a family thing. Hopefully this is something that will be explained in subsequent books in the series.

Even though there was a lot that didn’t work for me, The Syndicate did keep me interested throughout and I am definitely interested in finding out what happens to Stassi, Gaige, Molly, and the rest. I’ll be reading the second book when it comes out. I just hope it’s a little bit easier to get through!

I received a complimentary copy from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.