Kate’s Review: “Tiny Pretty Things”

18710209Book: “Tiny Pretty Things” by Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton

Publishing Info: HarperTeen, May 2015

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Gigi, Bette, and June, three top students at an exclusive Manhattan ballet school, have seen their fair share of drama. Free-spirited new girl Gigi just wants to dance—but the very act might kill her. Privileged New Yorker Bette’s desire to escape the shadow of her ballet star sister brings out a dangerous edge in her. And perfectionist June needs to land a lead role this year or her controlling mother will put an end to her dancing dreams forever. When every dancer is both friend and foe, the girls will sacrifice, manipulate, and backstab to be the best of the best.

Review: I honestly couldn’t tell you what it is, but there is something about the “Drama and mean girl bitchery happening at a boarding school/organization for some kind of art form” trope that I am a complete and total sucker for. It doesn’t necessarily HAVE to be about ballet (after all the movie “Fame” isn’t strictly about that art form and I LOVE it), but it’s just an added bonus if it is. “Center Stage” is by no means a good movie, but if I stumble upon it on the TV I am guaranteed to watch it. “Black Swan” messed me up real good and I could have taken even MORE mental anguish and paranoia from it. Because the competition of being the best within the strict and narrow world of ballet makes people do AWFUL THINGS, according to this trope, and I live for it.

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HERE. FOR. THIS. (source)

So of course “Tiny Pretty Things” was going to appeal to me. The fact that it has an underlying mystery is really just a bonus, I would have picked it up regardless. But “Tiny Pretty Things” also surprised me in a lot of pleasant ways. In a book that could have easily been about a bunch of spoiled and rich white girls (as the ballet world and culture is disproportionately white), authors Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton instead represented a rather diverse cast of characters, and the struggles they all face trying to fit into the ballet box. And they do this seamlessly, weaving these everyday moments of frustration or microaggressions against them into the bigger picture, so their struggles are just a natural, and yet exposed, part of their day to day realities. And there are a LOT of themes here, and since I want to break them all down, we’re going to have a lot to talk about.

One of the themes this book talks about is discrimination in the ballet world, both racial and sexual orientation. Gigi, being the only black student at the school, is always being put in the ‘Other’ role by those around her, be it fellow dancers or even the administrators. Her talents and merits are always being picked apart by those around her, and there is always a question of how much she deserves the roles that she’s getting. June, too, isn’t immune to such treatment, even if it’s to a different extent. Her biracial ethnicity has left her without a group, and since she has never known who her father is she is feeling even more like she has never known her true identity. And while they aren’t given many perspective moments, it’s mentioned that there are a number of the Korean dancers at this school who are absolutely fantastic at dance… but never get lead roles, and rarely get solos, because they just don’t ‘fit’ the part. Not only are racial biases spoken of, but so are those of sexuality and the idea of masculine and feminine ideals. There are two GLBT characters in this book, and while neither of them have perspective chapters, you do get to learn a bit about them through the other girls eyes. William is gay, and is definitely one of the best male dancers at the school. But again, because he doesn’t meet the physical (and yes, sexual preference) ideal of how a male ballerina should be, he too is denied lead roles. And Sei-Jin, June’s enemy, is a closeted lesbian. She torments June but is also terrified that June will tell the world that she’s a lesbian, therein ruining her chances, in her mind, at stardom. I really appreciated that this was touched on in this book when it easily could have just been ignored.

Along with discrimination there is the obsession with perfection and how far you go to achieve it. Be it the eating disorders that June and another girl named Liz are living with, or the Adderall addiction that Bette has, the competition runs all of these girls completely ragged. And this is why even Bette, mean awful HORRIBLE Bette, is a character that I can’t completely hate. She is certainly entitled and spoiled and bordering on psychopathic, but it is because this is all she has been raised to know, even since she was a little girl. She has seen her perfect older sister rise into prominency in the ballet world, and now their emotionally abusive and alcoholic mother wants both of her daughters to be stars. So Bette, who has been raised to be a star, is driven to the extremes beyond her Adderall addiction to achieve this perfection, and starts to spiral into madness when it just can’t quite be achieved. I really liked that this story addresses the fact that these CHILDREN are being completely put through the ringer, and that most of them aren’t going to make it in the ways that they are being pushed to do so.

Which leads us into the mystery of this book (as yes, there is indeed a mystery). Since Gigi is new and black and doing phenomenally well, someone starts harassing her and tormenting her. And while it very well could be Bette (and some of it is Bette because she’s the worst), some of these pranks and taunts are downright violent. While I may have a pretty good idea as to who it is (this is the first in a duology, so it hasn’t been revealed yet), I’m not quite certain. And I love the fact that I’m not quite certain! There are other little mysteries in this book that are a bit more obvious(such as the identity of June’s father, which I won’t spoil here, but it’s really not too hard to figure out), and while that’s fine, the mystery in itself is pretty run of the mill. The joy and power of this book isn’t in the mystery, though there are lots of pretty amazingly over the top moments of drama that surround it. The joy is definitely in the complex issues that Charaipotra and Clayton put in here, as well as, yes, the juicy juicy drama. Whenever a book about ballerinas ends up with one of said ballerinas getting glass shards left in her ballet shoes, you KNOW that I’m going to be a total sucker for it.

I really really enjoyed “Tiny Pretty Things” and will certainly be picking up “Shiny Broken Pieces” as soon as possible. It’s definitely soapy and dramatic, but it uses this premise to talk about other, very relevant problems within the ballet culture. So it’s a double win for me. Definitely pick it up if you want something fun, light, but thoughtful.

Rating 9: Steeped with soapy and sudsy drama, but also taking on some pretty relevant issues within the ballet world, “Tiny Pretty Things” is both a trashy mystery romp and a relevant commentary. A perfect quick read.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Tiny Pretty Things” is included on the Goodreads lists “Diverse Books by Diverse Authors”, and “Hell Is A Teenage Girl”.

Find “Tiny Pretty Things” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Roanoke Girls”

30689335Book: “The Roanoke Girls” by Amy Engel

Publishing Info: Crown, March 2017

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an ARC from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Book Description: Roanoke girls never last long around here. In the end, we either run or we die.

After her mother’s suicide, fifteen year-old Lane Roanoke came to live with her grandparents and fireball cousin, Allegra, on their vast estate in rural Kansas. Lane knew little of her mother’s mysterious family, but she quickly embraced life as one of the rich and beautiful Roanoke girls. But when she discovered the dark truth at the heart of the family, she ran fast and far away.

Eleven years later, Lane is adrift in Los Angeles when her grandfather calls to tell her Allegra has gone missing. Did she run too? Or something worse? Unable to resist his pleas, Lane returns to help search, and to ease her guilt at having left Allegra behind. Her homecoming may mean a second chance with the boyfriend whose heart she broke that long ago summer. But it also means facing the devastating secret that made her flee, one she may not be strong enough to run from again.

As it weaves between Lane s first Roanoke summer and her return, The Roanoke Girls shocks and tantalizes, twisting its way through revelation after mesmerizing revelation, exploring the secrets families keep and the fierce and terrible love that both binds them together and rips them apart.

Review: I don’t know what I was expecting when I requested this book from Librarything for a free giveaway (one again, a big thank you to both Librarything and Penguin Random House for sending me this book!). Reading the description it makes “The Roanoke Girls” sound like a pretty typical, run of the mill “Thriller with a Messed Up Female Protagonist”. Secrets happen, you can’t go home again, etcetera. While you can probably surmise what that big secret is if you read the description and have a working knowledge of the genre, I was not prepared for what I was picking up. Pretty early on the big underlying secret is revealed, but it was how Engel handled it that I was most interested in. And it was in the way she handled it that I was most impressed by this book.

Though I won’t go into many spoilers here, I am definitely going to say that this book carries some serious trigger warnings with it, regarding rape and sexual abuse.

Lane, our main character, seemingly falls into the usual trap of ‘messed up female protagonist’ of a story like this. She harbors secrets, she left town and hoped to never return (with many secrets under her belt), and she comes back reluctantly due to a mystery (being the disappearance of her cousin Allegra). Hell, she even runs into Cooper, her old boyfriend who, of course, still lives in this small town and still carries a brightly burning torch for her. She even has an ex-husband that she cheated on, therein ruining their marriage because she felt like she didn’t deserve him. But while these are, yes, certainly tropes that are all too familiar, the way that Engel writes Lane, and the things that Lane has had to endure, almost make it that I can forgive how familiar they are. Lane is by far one of the most damaged protagonists that I’ve seen in this genre, but Engel never makes her victimhood, or any of the victimhood portrayed in this book, seem tantalizing. Therefore, I never felt that it was exploitative in how it portrayed the abuse. I kind of try to measure it on a “Flowers in the Attic” kind of scale when it comes to that kind of thing. And this never felt like “Flowers in the Attic”.  And Lane’s portrayal felt genuine to me, as did Allegra’s. While they both made terrible decisions, and while sometimes they could be absolutely terrible to each other and others, I never felt like there was any judgment that Engel was throwing at them. They always came off as complex and broken, so therefore their behavior was more tragic than maddening (as I sometimes feel in books of this genre).

This story is told through three different ways to varying degrees. The majority of it is from Lane’s perspective, shifting from her summer in Kansas in the past to her return to the family farm in the present. The mystery of Allegra can be pieced together in both of these time periods, as much of what Lane sees and refers to will eventually come back to her present disappearance. The mystery itself wasn’t really all that interesting to me, as I had it pretty well figured out fairly early on. True, Engel tried to toss a couple of red herrings at the reader, making us question who the culprit was, or if there was even a culprit at all, but it’s all laid out if you’re looking for it. Part of that is because of this third perspective, that of every Roanoke Girl. There are little intermittent chapters from a different Roanoke Girl’s perspective, which are there to really emphasize how far reaching and how damaging the ‘big family secret’ is. I was a bit torn about having this all out in the open, because at first I was thinking that it kind of takes away the secrecy. But then it occurred to me that the mystery isn’t what the family secret is. That would almost be too lurid if it was the big reveal. The mystery is about how deep it has affected Lane, and if she was able to get away before it totally consumed her. The sexual abuse is no secret, to anyone, really, not even the characters. The people who are privy to it are either warped by it so they think it’s normal, or they are more inclined to blame the Roanoke Girls, or see them as tainted goods because this is the culture that we live in. The isolation is just as physical as it is emotional, as Lane has no one to turn to. So ultimately I am glad that Engel didn’t treat it like some big twist reveal. Because that would have felt like it was perpetuating it, somehow.

“The Roanoke Girls” was definitely a rough read for a lot of reasons, but I found it to be worthwhile as well. I definitely want people to approach it with caution, because it’s very upsetting. But I do think that it makes the reader think about how we view victims of prolonged sexual abuse in our current cultural climate.

Rating 8: Though it’s incredibly dark and upsetting, “The Roanoke Girls” pushes the envelope and boundaries of the usual genre conventions, and brings up legitimate questions about how our culture views and treats victims.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Roanoke Girls” has not come out yet and is on very few Goodreads lists. However, it is on “Books About Rape and Rape Culture”, and I think it would fit in on “Family Secrets”.

Though it is not out yet, you will soon be able to find “The Roanoke Girls” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review & Giveaway: “Allegedly”

30037870Book: “Allegedly” by Tiffany D. Jackson

Publishing Info: Katherine Tegan Books, January 2017

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it!

Book Description: Mary B. Addison killed a baby.

Allegedly. She didn’t say much in that first interview with detectives, and the media filled in the only blanks that mattered: A white baby had died while under the care of a church-going black woman and her nine-year-old daughter. The public convicted Mary and the jury made it official. But did she do it? She wouldn’t say.

Mary survived six years in baby jail before being dumped in a group home. The house isn’t really “home”—no place where you fear for your life can be considered a home. Home is Ted, who she meets on assignment at a nursing home.

There wasn’t a point to setting the record straight before, but now she’s got Ted—and their unborn child—to think about. When the state threatens to take her baby, Mary must find the voice to fight her past. And her fate lies in the hands of the one person she distrusts the most: her Momma. No one knows the real Momma. But who really knows the real Mary?

In this gritty and haunting debut, Tiffany D. Jackson explores the grey areas in our understanding of justice, family, and truth, and acknowledges the light and darkness alive in all of us.

Review: Back in January I was in Miami, Florida for a wedding celebration. This also happened to be the same weekend that some crazy and awful shit was going down in this country constitution wise (though this could really mean anything at this point, so I’m specifically referring to the travel ban). During one of the days my husband and I were cooling our heels after family time, I was getting ramped up in an anxiety spiral, so he suggested that we try and find a book store so that I could calm my nerves a bit. We found one in walking distance from our hotel, and I went on a spree. One of the books I picked up was “Allegedly”, as I’d heard some buzz on it and was solidly intrigued by the concept. As bleak and dark as it may be. So I took it on the plane with me and tore threw a lot of it in one sitting.

I liked how unflinchingly honest and real this book was about a great deal of things. Jackson pulls no punches when describing how our criminal justice system treats those who are inside of it, and how it is especially biased against POC offenders. Mary was accused of and convicted of killing a baby, which is, yes, absolutely horrible. But it is made pretty clear from the get go that the attention and rage that is directed at her is based on a deep seated racism in our society. Mary is black, and baby Alyssa was white. Reading about crowds mobbing a NINE YEAR OLD outside a courthouse, demanding the death penalty was gut wrenching, and I was glad that it was put forth multiple times that had the races been reversed between perpetrator and victim, the media wouldn’t have caused such a storm around it. And there on Mary, a child herself, was from then on treated like an adult, an thrown into a legal system that especially punishes people who look like her. I had no doubt that Jackson is taking influence from real life instances, from a nine year old girl being held in solitary to the absolutely abysmal conditions at the group home Mary ends up at.

Not only did I feel that the portrayal of the criminal justice system was accurate, I really liked how Jackson tried to be accurate and fair to portrayals of mental illness in this book. Mary is pretty clearly suffering from some form of PTSD, as her time in prison/solitary confinement as a child has done irreparable damage to her psyche. Instead of going the route of stereotypical symptoms like flashbacks or uncontrollable rage, Mary is skittish, quick to anxiety attacks, and has a heightened sense of flight instead of fight. It’s a side of PTSD that not many people may know about, and I really appreciated that Jackson took such care in her portrayal of it. So, too, is Mary’s Momma portrayed in a pretty realistic way, as a narcissist who may be suffering from bi-polar disorder. We only get to see Momma through Mary’s eyes, but the hints and clues are there that there is definitely something off about her.

Mary herself is a wonderfully created and portrayed narrator (side note: I gotta shout out to the sly aside that one of Mary’s nicknames was Mary Bell… who was also a notorious child aged murderer in England). This book is in the first person, and since Mary has so clearly been stunted from her time in prison there are lots of bits of information that we don’t quite get. The mystery slowly starts to unfold, but you always kind of know that there are things that you are never really going to know about Mary, or her Momma, or the things that happened between them before, after, and even on the night that Alyssa died. You only get to see the various clues to this and the things going on with Ted and at the group home through this lens of a very unreliable narrator. While a lot of the time I think that sometimes this makes some things kind of obvious when it comes to twists, that by hiding certain things you make it obvious that these things are there, Jackson actually surprised me when it really counted. True, I was able to figure out a couple of things, but I feel like it was all one big magic trick that distracted me from the actual solution, so when the actual answers came I was totally knocked off my seat. To the point where I actually said “WAIT….. WHAT?!”

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BraVO. (source)

“Allegedly” is a fabulous book that I cannot recommend enough, both for the societal themes and for the well crafted mystery. Fans of YA should definitely read it, but I think that this is a GREAT example of how YA shouldn’t be dismissed. Go and get your hands on it ASAP.

Rating 9: A tense and VERY upsetting book about the modern justice system, mental illness, and attempted redemption. Though it’s definitely a hard read, “Allegedly” is an important one.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Allegedly” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Deliciously Dark”, and “YA Debuts 2017”.

Find “Allegedly” at your library using WorldCat!

But the fun doesn’t stop there! You could have your own copy of this book, as I am hosting a give-away for a hardcover copy! You know you want it. The giveaway will run until March 2nd, 2017. Please see the Terms and Conditions for more details.

Click Here To Enter The Give-away!

Kate’s Review: “The Most Dangerous Place on Earth”

28561926Book: “The Most Dangerous Place on Earth” by Lindsey Lee Johnson

Publishing Info: Random House, January 2017 (upcoming)

Where Did I Get This Book: An ARC through Random House (won on LibraryThing), for which I will give an honest review. Thank you, Random House and LibraryThing!

Book Description: In an idyllic community of wealthy California families, new teacher Molly Nicoll becomes intrigued by the hidden lives of her privileged students. Unknown to Molly, a middle school tragedy in which they were all complicit continues to reverberate for her kids: Nick, the brilliant scam artist; Emma, the gifted dancer and party girl; Dave, the B student who strives to meet his parents expectations; Calista, the hippie outcast who hides her intelligence for reasons of her own. Theirs is a world in which every action may become public postable, shareable, indelible. With the rare talent that transforms teenage dramas into compelling and urgent fiction, Lindsey Lee Johnson makes vivid a modern adolescence lived in the gleam of the virtual, but rich with the sorrow, passion, and beauty of life in any time, and at any age.

Review: I can hear it now. When “The Most Dangerous Place on Earth” is officially published, I’m going to bet that there are going to be people who grouse that it’s either unrealistic, or an unfair portrayal of teenagers. But let me tell you. I knew these kids in high school. I basically went to this high school, though mine was in the Midwest and not on the West Coast. I knew kids who were vicious and mean to those who were different to the point that it became sadistic. I knew kids who were under incredible pressure to get into good schools because it was expected of them, and that it nearly broke them. I knew kids with serious drug problems who were shielded by their wealthy parents and faced few repercussions, while kids from less advantaged backgrounds were facing expulsion for not having good enough grades. It wasn’t wealthy enough for “Cruel Intentions’… but it was a Minnesota version of ‘Cruel Intentions’.

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All Kathryn needs is a winter parka and a toque. (source)

Suffice to say, this book was kind of like a walk down memory lane, the only difference being that in MY day there was no social media to make things that much worse. Thank God. So yes. While it may not reflect the experiences of all teenagers, it sure reflects the experiences of some.

What struck me hardest about “The Most Dangerous Place on Earth” was that, while it was kind of a soapy thriller grit lit novel in some ways, it really read more like a character study of a number of privileged kids, and who they turn into after one terrible, avoidable tragedy. I liked that we were given a framework, a moment that has changed the lives of a number of kids (some tragic, some sympathetic, many horrible), and we get to see how this moment has predetermined how they are going to end up, in a way. This character study is seen through the eyes of a new, young, teacher named Miss Nichols. I think that it was a good idea to have her be the thread throughout this novel, a Greek Chorus to tie all of these other stories together, to show how they connect to each other and how they affect each other. But at the same time, much of my frustration was aimed at Miss Nichols, whose decision making skills and naïveté were a bit hard to fathom at times. It was as if her desire to understand and sympathize with these kids was being punished, which felt pretty cynical. But at the same time, it was kind of refreshing that this wasn’t just another ‘how do I reach these kids?!’ kind of moment, and that these kids can’t be reached because they don’t want to be reached, and the world has convinced them that they don’t have to be. That said, GOSH I wanted to smack Miss Nichols upside the head a few times.

I was far more interested in the perspectives of the kids, because we did get to see how their various lives were being shaped and destroyed by parental coddling/expectations, their wealth, and their seeming ability to be completely untouchable. For me the two most interesting characters we examined were Abigail and Elisabeth, both struggling with their own problems of teenage girlhood. Abigail is an honors student striving for good grades so she can go to a good school, but she has also found herself tangled up in an illicit romance with a teacher, Mr. Ellison. But Abigail was also one of the main instigators of a horrendous bullying episode in eighth grade, whose participation and needling led to the overarching tragedy of the story, and the end of her most important friendship. It was pretty fascinating to get to see all these different angles of Abigail, and while I definitely felt terrible for her in some ways (she is, after all, being manipulated by a sexual predator), she is also absolutely terrible in other ways in how she treats others. Her multifaceted personality was realistic, and a bit more in depth than some of the other awful kids she surrounded herself with. Elisabeth, however, was a surprising character altogether. So much of what we saw of her at first was from the perspective of those around her, from a moment of compassion towards a bullied classmate (with a sad face emoji in the group chat he was being harassed on), to others, including adults, thinking of her as a beautiful girl who is a sex object to all the men and boys around her. But then we find out that her aloofness is hiding her painfully shy personality, and a troubled home life that has pushed her to dark places. Her perspective chapter was the one that hurt the most to read, but in turn she was also the student that I was rooting for the most. It was just so interesting that I as the reader went in with certain expectations about her based on what other characters said, only to find someone completely different, but only when I actually had to listen to/ read about her from her perspective. It was very well played.

So in all, this is an upsetting book, but I do think that there is quite a bit of truth to it. While it shows the dark and disturbing places that high schools, especially those with unlimited access to money and little consequences to their actions, it also shows that things do go on, and that life will keep going after it for those who just hang in there, and learn from their mistakes. And again, as someone who went to a school like this, I found it to be one of the most relatable books about teenagers that I’ve read this year.

Rating 8: An entertaining and addictive look into the dangers of privilege and how bad teenagers can be to each other, and how they can blindly hurt themselves as well.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Most Dangerous Place on Earth” is not on any lists on Goodreads yet, but I think that it would be a good fit on “The Best of Prep” and “High School Experiences”.

“The Most Dangerous Place on Earth” is not out yet and not available on WorldCat. It is expected to be published on January 10th, 2017. Thanks again to Random House and LibraryThing for providing this ARC!

Kate’s Review: “Before The Fall”

26245850Book: “Before the Fall” by Noah Hawley

Publication Info: Grand Central Publishing, May 2016

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: On a foggy summer night, eleven people–ten privileged, one down-on-his-luck painter–depart Martha’s Vineyard headed for New York. Sixteen minutes later, the unthinkable happens: the passengers disappear into the ocean. The only survivors are Scott Burroughs–the painter–and a four-year-old boy, who is now the last remaining member of a wealthy and powerful media mogul’s family.

With chapters weaving between the aftermath of the tragedy and the backstories of the passengers and crew members–including a Wall Street titan and his wife, a Texan-born party boy just in from London, a young woman questioning her path in life, and a career pilot–the mystery surrounding the crash heightens. As the passengers’ intrigues unravel, odd coincidences point to a conspiracy: Was it merely dumb chance that so many influential people perished? Or was something far more sinister at work? Events soon threaten to spiral out of control in an escalating storm of media outrage and accusations–all while the reader draws closer and closer to uncovering the truth.

The fragile relationship between Scott and the young boy glows at the heart of this novel, raising questions of fate, human nature, and the inextricable ties that bind us together.

Review: For the past couple of years I have been OBSESSED with the FX show “Fargo”. I love the movie, but the show has knocked it out of the park the two seasons it has been on, with a third coming up in the nearish future. I seriously can’t wait because I LOVE this show, and I love how it portrays the deep and violent underbellies of Minnesota life. While still being so damn Minnesotan.

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(source)

Little did I realize that Noah Hawley, the showrunner for that series, is also an author. I didn’t realize this until after I had checked out his most recent novel “Before The Fall”, and once I did I was pretty damn excited and even more intrigued by it. Hawley has a skill for writing and creating complex and nuanced characters, as seen in Bear and Peggy and Molly and Lorne Malvo on the show he’s in charge of. It shouldn’t be much surprise that he brought that same skill and nuance to a number of his characters in “Before The Fall”. Well, a few of them anyway.

Since the cast is characters is pretty big and their fates sealed from the get go, Hawley only has to really show a little bit of motivation for how each person got on this ill fated plane, and what role, if any, they played in it’s crash. Much of the focus, however, is on former addict and down on his luck painter Scott, an artist with a need to try and understand tragedy and accidents even before he survives a plane crash. Scott is by far the most interesting character in this book, because it is mostly through his eyes that we see the aftermath of such a tragedy. I liked Scott as a character, a pretty good guy trying to figure himself out who finds himself the center of a tragedy, and the person that everyone is trying to get answers from. He wasn’t necessarily a hero in a stereotypical sense; he did what he could in an emergency and was able to save himself and J.J., the four year old lone survivor to a media fortune. But of course the fact he isn’t perfect or the ideal heroic figure, that works against him in the eyes of some, which was a fascinating angle to take. He is a wonderful foil to Eleanor, J.J.’s aunt through his mother, who has been thrust into motherhood while in intense grief. Both Scott and Eleanor care very deeply about J.J., but neither of them really know how to adjust to their new roles that have been heaped upon them, be it hero or mother. It seemed kind of on the nose that Eleanor’s husband Doug was just the worst, more interested in dollar signs than his wife or nephew as they navigate their grief, but he just goes to show that Eleanor is strong, and deep. Perhaps his two dimensional characterization is just there to bolster her when she can stand on her own two feet, but I liked having a clear person to hate, so that’s fine!

And along with that, we see how the world tries to make sense, and tries to point fingers towards blame, and how the media (especially media with vested interests in outcomes) can drive a narrative. The media has been accused of influencing people’s opinions a lot lately, especially in the sense of putting info out there that isn’t totally true, or is flat out false. “Before The Fall” focuses a lot on this plot point, as one of the victims, David Bateman, was the head of a Fox News-esque network that is very controversial because of how it spins things or emphasizes sensationalism over facts. The face of the network, Bill Cunningham, is both incredibly stereotypical and yet one of the more intriguing character in the book, as his need to know what happened to his friend and mentor completely clouds his already super cloudy professional judgement. This of course leads to a very bloodthirsty Witch Hunt that his viewers, and other media, partake in. On one hand you feel for him because he’s very clearly in mourning, but on the other he’s such a bastard for exploiting this tragedy for ratings that you can’t help but hate him as well. So yeah, a bit stereotypical, but at the same time you kind of have to wonder about him. He never really gets a full exploration like many of the other players, but isn’t just flat and boring in his wretchedness like Doug. Friggin’ Doug.

I enjoyed how this book slowly revealed the backstories of the victims of the plane crash, showing the things happening in their immediate lives right before their deaths, or in some cases the events that REALLY put them on this path. I do think that it was kind of a fizzle out in some ways, however, as while we get all this background, so much of it doesn’t really end up being totally relevant to the plot and the outcome. But then, that in and of itself is kind of perfect, because that’s the point. Sometimes things happen, randomly, coincidentally, and these things may not actually matter in the long run, at least at the end of all things. These things may just happen but other things outside of your control can change your destiny. That’s the problem Cunningham never quite figures out, and while some may find it to be pointless, I find it poignant as all get out. And so very “Fargo”.

So while it ended up taking me on a long chase and sometimes superfluously, I did end up really enjoying “Before The Fall”. The twists and turns were a fun ride, and I liked how it ended even if it wasn’t what I have come to expect from thriller mysteries such as these. I say check it out.

Rating 8: A well characterized thriller with a lot of interesting plot paths. Though some characters are flat and obvious, many are very intricate and fascinating, and the ideas the book explored were very good.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Before the Fall” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Best Books of Secrets”, and “What She’s Reading This Summer”.

Find “Before The Fall” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “You Will Know Me”

25251757Book: “You Will Know Me” by Megan Abbott

Publishing Info: Little Brown, July 2016

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Katie and Eric Knox have dedicated their lives to their fifteen-year-old daughter Devon, a gymnastics prodigy and Olympic hopeful. But when a violent death rocks their close-knit gymnastics community just weeks before an all-important competition, everything the Knoxes have worked so hard for feels suddenly at risk. As rumors swirl among the other parents, revealing hidden plots and allegiances, Katie tries frantically to hold her family together while also finding herself drawn, irresistibly, to the crime itself, and the dark corners it threatens to illuminate. From a writer with “exceptional gifts for making nerves jangle and skin crawl,” (Janet Maslin) You Will Know Me is a breathless rollercoaster of a novel about the desperate limits of desire, jealousy, and ambition.

Review: When I was a kid my parents signed me up for gymnastics classes at the local Y. They weren’t terribly hardcore or intense. I learned how to walk a balance beam, how to do proper somersaults, and cartwheels, and even how to do a pretty basic routine on the bars, i.e. how to flip around one bar and MAYBE shift your position from one direction to another. There were no delusions that this was just to give me something to do and round my childhood experiences out a bit more, but I did enjoy it for the two years that I did it. I was never going to be exceptional at it, even good at it. I was fine. And while maybe that would break some people’s hearts, it doesn’t break mine, because to be truly exceptional at something means you are investing all you have into it. I’m content watching the Women’s Gymnastics Team at the Olympics every four years, I never needed to be there with them. “You Will Know Me” takes that idea of exceptionalism and explores the darkest sides of devoting one’s life to sheer raw talent. It’s the sacrifice behind the glory, along with some soapy suds, lies, and murder. Aka, everything I ever wanted from a novel about gymnastics.

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Bela Karolyi’s rollercoaster of emotions is my love for soapy thriller novels about gymnastics personified. (source)

I’ve read two other Megan Abbott books about toxic girlhood. “Dare Me” was about high school cheerleading, and “The Fever” was about tenuous friendships. “You Will Know Me” is a bit different, because while it’s definitely about Devon, the very gifted and laser beam determined fifteen year old gymnast, it’s from the perspective of her mother Katie. Katie and Eric have put their entire life into Devon’s gymnastics, having put themselves into serious monetary and emotional debt so she could pursue her dream. Perhaps it’s out of pride, but you also get the sense that it’s out of guilt on both their parts, as a freak accident left Devon with a deformed foot at three years old, an accident that certainly could have been prevented. To see their negligence bloom into something phenomenal is the solace they can take from it, I suppose. Of course, it leaves their younger son Drew a bit neglected in his own right, as now everything, especially for Eric, is about Devon’s success and their collective dream of Olympic Gold. The pride mixed with the toxicity of the need for affirmation is one of the more disturbing things about this book, and Abbott does not hold back on showing how much damage is being done to this family. Even before the unexpected death of Ryan, a young handyman close to the team and their families, you can tell that the Knoxes are in a sedate, yet very real, turmoil. They have put 100% of their eggs into the Gymnastics Basket, and that’s a serious problem. Toxicity indeed.

Abbott does a pretty good job of showing the problems instead of telling them, slowly laying out the information across the story and its characters. The mystery of what happened to Ryan is the heart of the tale, but some of the more interesting parts to me were the family dynamics. You have Katie, a woman who got married young because she was pregnant, who is very much in love with her husband but knows all too well that youth is exciting and maddening. Perhaps that’s why she’s on board with Devon having all this structure in her life, since she herself didn’t have any. Then there’s Eric, a man who never thought he would be married and now his entire life is (one of) his children. And Devon, well…. She’s robotic and scary. The mystery is surrounding this family and the secrets that all of them have, but I do have to say that if you really think about it and the clues that are not so subtly dispersed throughout the story, you will probably be able to figure it out pretty quickly. Maybe you won’t be able to figure out the motive right away, but that too will become pretty obvious if you put some thought into it. So as I was reading I resolved myself to enjoying it for the character study as opposed to the mystery that was presented. And honestly, that was just fine. I devoured this book because I was just taken in by how dysfunctional and screwed up the Knox Family was. Seriously, I read this book in basically a night because even though I pretty much knew what was going to happen, I wanted to see it happen. That’s what I liked about Abbott’s book “The Fever”: it really pulled me in even if I couldn’t tell you much about the mystery now. I love it when a book can do that.

So I suppose that as a mystery and a thriller, “You Will Know Me” didn’t really have any surprises for me personally, but ultimately that didn’t really matter. Abbott does a good enough job of telling an entertaining surrounding story that it kept me going in spite of the lack of mystery.

Rating 7: Though the mystery wasn’t too hard to figure out, the portrayal of family tension and drama was spot on and engrossing.

Reader’s Advisory:

“You Will Know Me” can be found on the following Goodreads lists: “The Girl on the Train Readalikes”, and “Women Are Writing The Best Crime Novels”.

Find “You Will Know Me” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Last Camel Died at Noon”

66528Book: “The Last Camel Died at Noon” by Elizabeth Peters

Publishing Info: Warner Books, 1991

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: Amelia and her dashing husband Emerson set off for a promising archaeological site in the Sudan, only to be unwillingly drawn into the search for an African explorer and his young bride who have been missing for 12 years.

Review: And we’re back for another Amelia Peabody mystery! (I have decided that I need to begin pacing myself with these books so that I can better relish the experience and save them for low reading points when I know I can depend on the next one to be a solid, fun read that might get me out of a slump!)

This book marks a distinct change up in the typical rhythm and flow of previous Amelia Peabody novels, and I found it to be a welcome change! The book description for this one is very light, so…depending on your sensitivity for spoilers, I may be giving a way more of the plot early on in this review just to set the stage some, since, as I said, it’s a step away from the usual narrative.

So, yes, Amelia, Emerson, and Ramses (much to Amelia’s annoyance, as she wanted him to got to boy’s school, but they wouldn’t take him. Shocker!) are back on another excavation. Or, at least, that’s what they had planned on doing until they become caught up in the search for a lost African explorer which leads them to discover a lost civilization hidden in the desert. While it is an archeologist’s dream location, having been cut off from society for centuries and thus still retaining much of ancient Egyptian culture in its arts, history, and religion, the Peabody/Emerson family end up entangled in the middle of a political battle they do not understand and which could have deadly results!

I really enjoyed this change to the story. While I was still greatly enjoying the series as a whole, the last book did feel a bit too familiar during the murder mystery section and seemed to need to resort to relationship drama to keep things fresh (not my favorite remedy). But here, Peters recaptures the magic by creating a mystery that does not revolve around murder, but around political intrigue and cultural misunderstanding.

I particularly enjoyed the clever way she kept readers off balance with the ever-changing and evolving alliances and motivations for different parties involved. There were many points in the story where I was legitimately thrown on who to believe about what, and given that this is well into the series, I count this as a big accomplishment! The side characters are all interesting and appropriately double-faced at times, leaving readers guessing, along with Amelia and Emerson, over who to trust.

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“I am Amelia Peabody, and your petty political squabbles do not intimidate me!” (source)

There were also several layers to the story alongside the mystery (an escape attempt!) that added to the narrative in a unique way for this series. There is also the introduction of a new character towards the last third of the book who seems to be set up to play an even greater role in the story going forward, and I am particularly looking forward to seeing how this will evolve.

The one detractor I have for the story is, surprisingly, again perhaps a lack of page time for Ramses! For a character who I started out on the fence about, Ramses has grown to be one of my favorite characters, and this makes two books in a row where his role seems more minimized. But I have strong hopes for that changing in the future.

Overall, I think this book is a particularly strong entry in the series. It shows a marked difference in plot, highlighting that Amelia is great in any circumstance and thus opening up the door for many new adventures. And a new character is added who may play an important role going forward and bring many new elements to the story. If you have enjoyed the series thus far, definitely don’t skip this book!

Rating 9: I really enjoyed the new setting and change in narrative this book brings to the series!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Last Camel Died at Noon” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Lost World Narratives” and “Agatha Mystery Award Nominees and Winners.”

Find “The Last Camel Died at Noon” at your library using WorldCat.

Previously Reviewed: “The Crocodile on the Sandbank” and “The Curse of the Pharaohs” and “The Mummy Case” and “Lion in the Valley” and “Deeds of the Disturber”