Monthly Archives: March 2014

Hidden

HiddenHidden
by Catherine McKenzie
Published by HMH New Harvest
304 pages
Genre: women’s fiction 
Thanks to NetGalley for the preview
4.5 / 5

 

When your lover suddenly dies, how do you mourn? Let me rephrase that: when your married lover suddenly dies, how do you mourn?

Jeff and Claire have a marriage that neither of them anticipated. She previously dated his older brother, and Jeff himself had to end a relationship to start dating her. Yet they love each other and their son Seth. If in the back of Jeff’s mind he’s always wondered if Claire settled for him when she couldn’t have his brother, he keeps it there, shoved as far back as possible. And if Claire doesn’t occasionally wonder, she keeps those occasions infrequent.

Jeff begins a relationship with Tish, a woman he meets through work. Theirs is a largely emotional affair, if for no other reason than they are 500 miles apart. Those emotions, though, are strong and fierce, and Jeff is drawn mightily to Tish.

So is he going to leave Claire?

Before any of that can be clarified, Jeff gets killed. And now Tish is in the position of being the hidden lover who has to find a way to mourn her loss. So she hops a plane and heads to Jeff’s funeral.

I was hooked on this book from its opening lines and could not put it down. McKenzie doesn’t ask us to choose sides; in fact, she writes in such a way that you side with all three people. Claire makes her share of mistakes in her marriage, and although that does not excuse Jeff’s infidelity, we can see why he’s attracted to Tish. As the Other Woman, Tish is perhaps the least sympathetic; she is in a state in her life where she needs something to change. Unfortunately, that change comes in the form of a man who is not her husband. The apparent rationale for Tish’s straying is her unhappiness, but it doesn’t work well. It seems false.

Nonetheless, this is a page-turner of a book. Will Claire find out about Jeff and Tish? Was Jeff planning on leaving his wife? Can Tish find a way to survive Jeff’s death?

The story is told from the perspectives of all three, and you can almost feel their thoughts and emotions yourself. Jeff fascinated me, and I empathized with him. I wasn’t happy that he sought solace with Tish, even if it was through emails and text messages, nor did I necessarily agree with his rationalization that he had some sort of payback due him. But I could see how he would think that, which made his story quite poignant.

Claire is a bit brittle and at times unlikable. She’s selfish to a degree, sometimes more focused on her own losses to notice how they affect her husband. Still, though, does she deserve for Jeff to emotionally attach himself to someone else?

You will find yourself wondering what you would have done. Tish has some difficult decisions to make in the wake of Jeff’s death. Does she do what you would do? You also will find yourself wondering what is more hurtful and destructive: physical infidelity or emotional?

Be prepared to inhale this book, start to finish. It’s good.

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Echoes of the Heart

Echoes of the HeartEchoes of the Heart
by Alyssa Montgomery
Published by Harlequin Australia – Escape
154 pages
Genre: Romance; chick lit 
Thanks to NetGalley for the preview
3 / 5

 

How can two people possibly be more wrong about each other?

Not FOR each other. ABOUT each other.

Amanda and Jake were in love and hot for each other, but then it went horribly wrong, thanks largely to completely misunderstanding each other. They each got married, but now she’s widowed, he’s divorced, and he’s determined to get her out of his mind. To do that, he stalks and somewhat blackmails her into being his courtesan of sorts. One month, and she’ll get paid. Amanda, you see, needs the cash.

It doesn’t take a great leap to know that Jake and Amanda will realize the extent of their misunderstandings, and as convoluted as they get – and believe me, they get convoluted – you can’t help but want our lovebirds happily together.

There is some mild headboard rockin’, and I’m left thinking that this book needed more of that and fewer convolutions of plot.

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If Only

If OnlyIf Only
by AJ Pine
Published by Entangled: Embrace
260 pages
Genre: Young Adult; teen lit 
Thanks to NetGalley for the preview
3 / 5

 

So you’re about to begin your year of studying abroad, and you’re on a train. You meet not the hot European you think you’ll meet (coughPrinceWilliamcough), but an American. Cute, a bit shaggy, and someone who screams “I’m a Man Whore!”

He’s fun and flirty, and when you discover that you’re headed to the same school, you get all tingly and excited.

During a trip to the loo, you wind up locked in said loo with an even hotter American. And this one carries around copies of The Great Gatsby. And he kisses you. And it is faaaabulous.

If only he didn’t seem to run away after you are rescued. If only you had met him first.

If only.

The premise is fun, as is the book. Jordan is twenty and full of the hope of possibility. She’s studying British literature in Scotland and is ready for whatever comes her way. Meeting Griffin is fun and promising, but meeting Noah. Well, that’s a bit more complicated.

The prevailing sentiment I have for this book is that it’s fun. Pine creates a genuine atmosphere of kids at college in a foreign country, and Jordan’s conflicting feelings over Griffin and Noah is something to which we can relate.

The problem is that it felt repetitive. Jordan likes Griffin, but perhaps not in That Way. She does like Noah That Way, but it’s complicated, as Noah himself says. Those two come together then get ripped apart. It becomes variations on a theme, and after a while, I got just a little bored with it all.

If I were sixteen and reading this, I might have been more in its thrall. So much of it is enjoyable, but if you didn’t enjoy it the first time, you’ll get other opportunities when the story cycles around again.

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The Summer of Letting Go

summer of letting goThe Summer of Letting Go
by Gae Pilsner
Published by Algonquin Young Readers
321 pages
Genre: Young Adult 
Thanks to NetGalley for the preview
4.5  / 5

 

When you’re a teenager, everything seems magnified. Your joys, miseries, friendships, and parental pressure. It’s as if you’re stuck in a vortex that you know will spit you out eventually, but you have no idea where you’ll wind up.

For Francesca (aka Frankie), the teen years are particularly tortured because she feels responsible for the drowning death of her little brother Simon, several years previously. She can’t escape the sense of having lost him, literally and figuratively, and she is certain that her parents, particularly her mother, despise her for it.

She also frets that her father is about to abandon the family. So convinced is she that she begins following one of her neighbors, whom she eventually confronts.

To make matters even worse, she is falling for her best friend’s boyfriend. He occasionally texts her silly observations, and she loves those texts as much as she hates herself for betraying her friend.

Into this vortex comes Frankie Sky, a little boy who seems eerily reminiscent of Simon. Frankie begins to wonder: can this boy be Simon, reincarnated? She begins babysitting him in an attempt to figure out who he is.

It sounds like there is a mystery here, but there isn’t, really. This is more of a coming-of-age story about a girl who suffered a terrible tragedy, blames herself, and is convinced everyone else blames her too. As if to prove to herself that she is unworthy, she falls in love with a guy she can’t have, and she casts suspicions on her neighbor.

You will feel for Frankie. You will feel for her so much that when she finally cracks, you will weep for and with her. She’s fragile, but she’s as strong as steel. She just doesn’t realize that she is. She doesn’t see that she deserves love, both from her parents and from this boy. She thinks she has to pay some sort of penance, but life doesn’t really work that way.

This is a Young Adult book, but “grown ups” will enjoy it as well. It will make you think and make you feel. It’s lovely.

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Tempting Fate

tempting fateTempting Fate
by Jane Green
Published by St. Martin’s Press
350 pages
Genre: women’s fiction; chick lit
Thanks to NetGalley for the preview
4 / 5

 

When you reach a certain age, your life sort of falls into focus. It’s supposed to, anyway. You’ve had your children, you’ve established your career, and you’re with the one you chose.

But sometimes all of that comfort and complacency camouflages how you feel. Your body, for one thing, is betraying you. Parts that were perky and pert are now sagging and shifting. That spouse of yours who you love so dearly no longer surprises you. Sex is routine – fulfilling, but routine. You walk into a bar, and no one notices you. You’ve become transparent and undesirable to everyone but your husband. And even then, you wonder a little. Can he want you with the passion he had for you when you were in your twenties?

Such are the issues facing Gabby. She loves her husband. Dearly, deeply loves him. Elliott is a good man. He’s a doctor, and despite his occasionally chaotic hours, he’s devoted to her and their two daughters. The only blight on his otherwise sterling resume is that he got a vasectomy when Gabby wanted more children. Theirs is a solid, loving marriage with a healthy sex life.

Still, though, Gabby would like to be noticed. So when she goes out with the girls and a gorgeous young man starts chatting her up, she finds herself enjoying it. He flirts, and she flirts back. She is so enraptured by him that she doesn’t even notice when her friends leave.

It turns out that Matt, the gorgeous young man, is an Internet entrepreneur, and he leaves her his card. Before too long, the two begin an email exchange. Gabby can’t help herself. She enjoys the attention from this guy who’s ten years younger than she is. She enjoys it so much that she can’t stop seeking it out, and when Matt comes to town  …

Jane Green aims at the hearts of women and fires away. If you’re in your forties, you know exactly how Gabby feels. Sure, she says she likes the decade because of its Great Revelation: you just stop caring what other people think. Yet she cares a great deal about what Matt thinks. She cares so much that she contemplates Botox and other methods of regaining her youth.

Green also asks us to consider the nature of friendship. When friends of yours struggle, which side do you choose? Do you stick with your gender, or do you pick the one you think was wronged? And how do you value that wrong? Elliott got a vasectomy, effectively ending Gabby’s dream of a third child. He did so knowing that she wanted another one, and he did so despite her asking him to not do it. Isn’t that wrong? What, too, is infidelity between friends? If your best friend sides with someone else, isn’t that betrayal?

Gabby will infuriate you, occasionally making you wish she was there so you could scream at her. Yet why she does what she does makes sense, in a way. Aging sucks, kids. It does. And sometimes you just want to know that you’re still desirable to the opposite sex.

My only quibble with this book is its ending. I liked part of it, yet was disappointed overall. Hit up the comments and let me know what you thought of how Green ended the book.

And ask yourself: is it infidelity if you want to entice someone?

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Waiting on You

waiting on youWaiting on You
by Kristan Higgins
Published by Harlequin
464 pages
Genre: chick lit; romance; women’s fiction 
Thanks to NetGalley for the preview
4.5 / 5

 

For once, I will not begin a review of a Kristan Higgins novel by raving about how much I adore her. Because, you know, that drum has been beaten to its tattered remains. I’m tempted, though, because Waiting On You reaffirmed my adoration.

We get to know characters whom we’ve met in previous installments of Higgins’ Blue Heron series (The Best Man and Perfect Match), both of which focused on members of the Holland family. Present in their stories was Colleen O’Rourke, who owns the local tavern with her brother. Colleen has a reputation in Manningsport as a sort of Hello, Dolly: when you want to know how to find a love match, you go to Colleen.

She’s also known as having a fairly liberal sex life. Colleen might take exception to that; she does not believe she is the town slut, nor does she believe that she’s easy. What she does know is that she’s in her early thirties, still single, and still hung up on The One Who Got Away.

Lucas Campbell was Colleen’s first – and only – love, but he moved away to his hometown of Chicago and got married. The latter is particularly hurtful because Lucas told Colleen that he wasn’t sure he wanted to get married. At least he managed to tell her that, though. He never mustered the courage to tell her he loved her.

But now he’s back home. His uncle, who helped raise him when he moved to Manningsport as a teenager, is dying, and Lucas has come home to help. Not that he feels particularly welcomed. His aunt embraces him with all the love she could have for a rabies-laden squirrel, reaffirming his sense that he’s never been first in anyone’s life. Well, except for Colleen’s. He was first in hers.

Many of Higgins’ hallmarks are here: lovable and quirky characters, laugh-out-loud slapstick, and heartbreaking losses. I wept and wept openly and unabashedly in some of the scenes, especially those in which Lucas reveals himself to us. I particularly enjoy Higgins’ books that take us into the heads of her heroes, and Lucas here is as complex and intricate as you’ll find.

Colleen is equally enjoyable. She’s a tough Irish girl who gave her heart away half a lifetime ago and has never been able to reclaim it. She loves Lucas – oh, how she loves him – but he’s made it clear his home is not in Manningsport. Hers is. If she opens herself to rekindling the flame, she also opens herself to inevitable heartbreak. Much as Lucas has to open himself to coming first in someone’s life and what that means, Colleen has to open herself to mattering beyond a one-nighter.

Higgins isn’t one to confront Big Issues, but there is one lurking here: love. Not the sort of romantic love that Colleen shares with Lucas, but other loves. Love between a father and his daughter. Love between an uncle and his brother’s son. Love between cousins, between siblings, between spouses. Love between friends and former lovers. What is love? What obligations come with it? What should we be prepared to sacrifice and what should we expect in return? What do we owe the people we love?

And then there is the love I have for Higgins’ writing. I just love her books. They make me laugh, they make me cry, and they make me happy.

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The Last Forever

last foreverThe Last Forever
by Deb Caletti
Published by Simon Pulse
336 pages
Genre: Young Adult Lit 
Thanks to edelweiss for the preview
3.5 / 5
The motif of motherless daughters has been well mined by YA authors over the years. Whether dead mothers or absent, either physically or emotionally, we have seen this thread before.

But perhaps we have not seen it quite as it is presented here.

Tessa’s mother died of cancer about a year ago, and during those intervening months, she has realized that there is no such thing as “forever.” Everything changes. Her relationship with her boyfriend isn’t what it once was – not that it ever was all that much anyway – and her friendships are altering as well. But perhaps nothing changed quite so much as her relationship with her father.

Always a rather flighty man – he’s bedecked in a pony tail and smokes pot not so much as a pastime but more as a necessity – he has become untethered since his wife died. It’s as if he has forgotten that Tessa is his daughter, that she is HER daughter, and that she grieves too.

Tasked by her mother to watch over a Pixiebell plant, supposedly the last of its kind, Tessa looks upon it as her last living link to her mother. There is symbolism aplenty here, almost to the point of being heavy handed. Caletti begins each chapter with a description of some sort of plant, and the description in turn becomes the theme of the chapter. Again, it’s a bit much, but some of the plant descriptions were humorous.

When Tessa’s father decides to go on a road trip to see the Grand Canyon, she packs up Pixiebell and heads with him. Even though she still has a few school days to go. Even though she leaves before she lets her boyfriend or BFF know.

After gazing upon the natural wonder, her dad suggests they keep going, head north to Portland, Oregon. Tessa realizes at this point that she has no say in the matter, but when they arrive at the home of one of her father’s friends – a female friend named Mary – Tessa is none too pleased. Worse, her father decides to extend the trip to Parrish Island, his hometown near Seattle, where they will visit his mother, Tessa’s grandma Jenny.

Jenny has been largely absent from Tessa’s life, and the girl has only vague memories of visiting when she was two. Tessa’s all for a family reunion, but when her father bolts the following morning with no notice to Tessa, she is devastated. Her mother died, and now she’s been abandoned by her father as well.

Fortunately, the one place Tessa knows to turn to that can provide her solace is books, and there is a library on the island. This proves to be a bastion not only for emotional succor, but it introduces her to new friends as well, none more important than Henry Lark.

Tessa is captivated by him, and she feels an immediate connection. They bond over Pixiebell, which Tessa has noticed is beginning to look … ill. Henry helps Tessa learn more about the plant, and, of course, more about herself as well.

There are several plot threads running through the book. Tessa’s relationship with Henry, for one, and hers with Jenny. Pixiebell’s increasing fragility and all that it represents is another, as is Tessa’s relationship with her father. She is furious with him, and rightly so. She imagines that he is seeking his balm from Mary, and that outrages her perhaps more than being abandoned with a grandmother she does not know.

The love story between Tessa and Henry tends to occupy center stage, largely because it is through this lens that Tessa views herself most critically. She loves him, even as she realizes that there is much about him that we do not know. Henry’s mystery is quite easily solved, so much so that the only person it shocks is Tessa; we readers know long before she does what secret Henry hides. Jenny knows, or suspects, but does not tell Tessa, a betrayal Tessa feels to her marrow, even if Jenny’s reasons for doing so are valid.

You will need some tissues, as there are several heartbreaking moments. You also will need to remind yourself that Tessa’s father is a fictional character because otherwise, you might want to seek him out and punch him in the face.

Tessa’s circle of friends on Parrish Island includes requisite Quirky People, and her quest to immortalize Pixiebell is loaded with symbolism and allegory. But despite these obvious manipulations, this is an engrossing story that will hook you and make you care. Tessa is lovely, her struggle occasionally crushing, and her victories warming.

There is quite a bit to enjoy about this book, and Caletti tells her story in an approachable, engaging style. If occasionally Pixiebell’s importance feels too heavy handed, we have Tessa – lovely, wonderful Tessa – to make up for it.

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