Keep Your Friends Close by Paula Daly – A Book Review

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Before I even start this review, can we just talk about the cover?? Um….

It might be a good idea to judge Paula Daly’s “Keep Your Friends Close” by its cover. Seriously, it goes to crazy town. And not the good crazy town of “Gone Girl,” but more like the half-baked realm of Lifetime. Honestly, this actually would have probably made for a better Lifetime movie than novel (though, I guarantee they already have a film with this exact plot).

Hard-working mother who is focused on success career loses track of her marriage, husband is seduced by her shady “best friend,” life falls to pieces, blah blah. How will she fight back to expose the truth and get her life back? You know the story, and you can probably figure out how it is going to play out. Though the plot may have been a little far-fetched, if Daly had focused on building out realistic characters and created any sense of urgency, the book would have been OK. Instead, what you get is soggy and so predictable that it’s really not much fun to read.

A few spoiler-related thoughts that you are going to have to highlight to read below:
- Who doesn’t know their best friend is crazy? Really? If you have no idea that your best friend has lied about her family, past and all kinds of very basic things, that really makes you a bad friend. 
- I don’t know why Natty fights to keep Sean. He’s really such a loser that she should be counting her blessings that her psychopath friend wants to take him off her hands. 

Launched in the UK before it hits US shelves, I’m curious to see what reviewers across the pond have to say. Available from pre-order from Amazon.com and on shelves in September 2014.

xo The Book Bird

Disclaimer: An advance copy of this book was provided to me for the purpose of review via the Publisher.

Close Eyes, Hold Hands by Chris Bohjalian

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Chris Bohjalian is one of my favorite authors, so I was particularly pleased when I was provided advance access to his new novel, “Close Eyes, Hold Hands.” Though the protagonist is a teenaged girl, don’t confuse this for YA literature.*

Emily Shepard is your average under-achieving suburban high-schooler, until the nuclear power plant in her town melts down. Compounding matters, her father, is being singled out as the individual directly at fault. The plot nicely combines a coming of age story with the semi-apocalyptic backdrop of nuclear disaster, in a format that is written for adults. There is adventure without any skimping on the character development. One of the things I enjoy most about Bohjalian as an author, is his ability to write his characters in a way that is believable. Emily comes to life on the pages; she is difficult, irrational and a character I liked spending time with.

Clocking in at a little under 300 pages, I don’t think I would have liked any more or less. While Emily, as the the protagonist, is front and center, it would have been nice for some of the other characters to be a little bit more fleshed out. Yet, at the same time it works– the story is being told from a somewhat self-centered teen, and life becomes very transient following the accident.

One random thought: As someone who does not have a scientific background (I still don’t understand the how microwaves work…), I struggled with understanding what a nuclear meltdown looks like and how it happens. I get that there was an explosion, radioactive fallout, etc but how does that happen? What are the mechanics? Spent some time on Wikipedia afterwards which was helpful, but an appendix or some type of illustration would be cool.

Available for pre-order from Amazon.com and on shelves July 8th.

xo The Book Bird

Disclaimer: I received an advance copy for the purpose of review via the publisher.

*In fact, based on some of the subject matter, I would definitely not recommend this to younger YA readers.

The Mirk and the Midnight

16055662As an avid fan of Nickerson’s first novel, “Strands of Bronze and Gold,” her sophomore follow-up “The Mirk and the Midnight Hour” was one of the novels I most highly anticipated this year. Set in the south at the start of the Civil War, its protagonist, the teenaged Violet Delancey, finds her world changing rapidly. Her father is off to war, and has left behind a new stepmother and sister, and a young cousin has also recently been deposited at the family farm. In addition, the arrival of mysterious group of travelers in town, coincides with the discovery of a Union soldier hidden in the woods.

What I enjoyed most: As with her previous novel, I found it very easy to get involved in this novel. Nickerson is a strong storyteller, and for the most part allows the reader to suspend disbelief.

Where I struggled: The language was not always consistent- the story will grab you, but occasionally you’ll be struck by the odd word here or there that just doesn’t sit right. Example: an old woman who uses the word “yup.” Eh… no. Some of the characters can be a bit too one dimensional. Some characters (like Violet) get a lot of love, whereas others rely too heavily on existing stereotypes (ex. Sunny… who is the WORST). Pacing was also off- I got bogged down in the middle of the novel, and in my opinion it took way too long to get to the meat of the story (around the 40% mark).

Overall, a fun read- though I have to admit “Strands” continues to be my favorite of the two. Looking forward to Nickerson’s third novel! “The Mirk and the Midnight Hour” is on shelves now and available for purchase from Amazon.com.

Side note: “The Mirk and the Midnight Hour” is an inventive re-telling of the legend of Tam Lin. I highly recommend doing a Google search for the original story AFTER you’ve finished the book as you will definitely be impressed with the imaginative way that Nickerson weaves aspects of the traditional into her novel.

xo The Book Bird

What Has Become of You by Jan Elizabeth Watson – a Review

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High-school teacher Vera Lundy is a character you will pity. A forty-something woman, she is clearly book smart but lacking in confidence and good judgment. Having recently moved out of her mother’s home, she has accepted a temporary position at a prestigious all girls school in Maine where she is to teach English literature. It is there that she first meets Jensen Willard. Somewhat of an introverted misfit, it is only when Vera assigns journal writing assignments that it becomes clear that all is not as it seems. When a series of shocking murders occur, Vera finds herself more involved than she would have ever expected.

I debated over whether to give Jan Elizabeth Watson’s “What Has Become of You,” 3 or 3.5 stars. Watson does a wonderful job of portraying characters who you don’t quite love, but feel invested in. The premise she sets up is intriguing, and I wish she would have done more with her characters. Part coming of age novel (oddly enough more so for Vera than anyone else), part thriller- not deciding to firmly be one of the other is where the book’s biggest flaw lies. (And personally, I would have preferred the latter).

Overall, a good read for those that like novels like Kimberly McCreight’s “Reconstructing Amelia” and enjoy tales of menacing, plotting private school girls. Available for pre-order from Amazon.com  and on shelves May 1.

xo The Book Bird

Disclaimer: I received an advance copy for the purpose of review courtesy of the publisher.

Sleeping Beauty Grows Up – “While Beauty Slept” by Elizabeth Blackwell

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Elizabeth Blackwell’s “While Beauty Slept” is a rich re-telling of the Sleeping Beauty story that we all know. Told from the point of view of Elise, who starts her life as a lowly castle servant in the kingdom of St. Elsip, Blackwell’s creations blend beautifully with those we already may be familiar with. What I particularly enjoyed was the love and attention that Blackwell gives to each of her characters. Elise, Rose, Queen Lenore, Malefic- I mean, Millicent– I felt like I knew each of them like friends by the end of the novel. The author does a nice job of walking the line between the aspects of the story we have come to expect (ex. the spinning wheel), and much more grown up themes. Though I would not describe “While Beauty Slept” as a coming of age novel, it touches on themes that far exceed your traditional fairytale; instead of the kids’ version, we get adult ambition, love (not just the instant-at-first-sight kind), greed, envy, and revenge. Don’t pick this one expecting fairies, magic potions, etc, “While Beauty Slept” almost reads more like historical fiction.

 Except for being a little too heavy handed with foreshadowing about all of the “horrible things to come” and the “curse that hung over everyone,” Blackwell’s writing is clean and evenly paced. I did find myself putting the book down around the 40% mark for a little break, but when I picked it up again it was finished in a day long sitting.  On the long side (400+ pages), I did not find myself wanting less or more and was very satisfied by the conclusion. The writing is descriptive enough to help paint each scene without bogging the reader down in too much detail; trust me once you have a mental picture of St. Elsip each scene comes to life in vivid color.

Overall I highly recommend to anyone who enjoys classic stories with a twist on the new, though I would argue that what Blackwell creates is a new story in its own right. If you liked “The Kingdom of Little Wounds” (read our review here) you should definitely pick this one up.

Available from Amazon.com.

 xo The Book Bird 

p.s. You should definitely listen to this song on repeat while you’re reading- it got stuck in my head and totally set the atmosphere!

“A Circle of Wives” by Alice LaPlante, a Review

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3.5 out of 5 stars.

Having just read an advance copy of Jennifer Murphy’s “I Love You More” I was curious to see how Alice LaPlante would approach her novel, “A Circle of Wives,” about three women who all discover they’ve been “married” to the same, recently deceased man. (Side note, men with multiple wives… maybe these two novels should be treated as cautionary tales; in both the husband is no longer in the land of the living.) Both books focus on unraveling the mystery of the husband’s death, though LaPlante takes a different path than Murphy- choosing to narrate her novel from the perspective of each individual wife, and the young, junior detective assigned to the murder case.

What struck me as funny about both “A Circle of Wives” and “I Love You More,” is that each novel was less about the relationship between husband and wife, and more about the inter-dynamics of “the other women.” LaPlante paints believeable scenarios and encounters that pull the reader in. I did not think I was going to like her naive detective, but found that she was a character that grew on me by the end of the novel. I also appreciate that she gets her own story arc and satisfying resolution.

All of the female characters in LaPlante’s novel get equal treatment and attention. Though initially I feared that the cast was a little stereotypical (the “hippie wife”, the “first” wife, etc), I was pleasantly surprised at how they developed. If anyone gets the short-end of the stick, it’s Dr. John Taylor, who is at the center of this circle of wives. Though we get a good idea of who he was, or at least how he portrayed himself, he’s never quite fully in focus.

Overall, I really enjoyed “A Circles of Wives”- though would love to one day read a novel with this premise told from the man’s POV. (Seriously, I would love to know what makes someone think it’s a good idea to take on three wives…)

I got my copy of “A Circle of Wives” from the NY Public Library, where it is currently on shelves, or you can purchase yours from Amazon.com.

xo The Book Bird 

The Frangipani Hotel: Short Stories by Violet Kupersmith – A Review

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Is it just me, or are debut novels now on average around 300+ pages? The short story collection by Violet Kupersmith, “The Frangipani Hotel” was a MUCH needed break from the bulky novels I’ve been getting bogged down in.  Based on traditional Vietnamese ghost stories, Kupersmith adds her own modern twist to the tales (though I was not familiar with the original source material, so couldn’t tell you how accurate they were).

A mix of stories set in the past, recent past and present, what I enjoyed most about “The Frangipani Hotel” was how well all of the stories came together. Each has its own identity and unique characters, but contributes nicely to the atmosphere of the entire collection. Oh, and reader beware- there is definitely something creepy about 90% of the tales. The last group of stories were my least favorite, but don’t let that turn you away– everyone has different qualities they look for in a short story.  That said, not sure if I would ask for more tales- the book is edited very well and the only thing I’d switch is maybe the order of the stories.

In all, I loved the book and would highly recommend it, a solid four out of five stars.

Available for pre-order from Amazon.com and on shelves April 1, 2014.

xo The Book Bird

Disclaimer: An advance copy of this book was provided in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.