Category Archives: family

Me Since You

Me Since YouMe Since You
by Laura Wiess
Published by Gallery, Threshold, Pocket Books – MTV
368 pages
Genre: YA 
Thanks to NetGalley for the preview
4 / 5
Oh, boy.

Faithful readers, Laura Wiess is not content to show you sadness and discontent amongst the teen set. No. She wants to grab you by the throat, then use her other hand to rip your heart out.

So you might want to grab a box of tissues before you read this one.

Rowan is a sixteen-year-old high school sophomore determined to skip school one day with her bestie Nadia, who has arranged for the girls to meet up with two hot upper classmen. But things don’t go as planned, largely because Rowan’s father is a police officer, and his brethren are EVERY. WHERE. Oh, it works out swell for Nadia, who heads off with the two boys. Rowan gets a police escort home.

Her father quickly joins her there to harangue her on her choices. They are interrupted by a police call that sends her dad to an overpass, where a “mentally unstable” individual holding an infant stands, apparently about to commit suicide. A passerby, a high schooler named Eli who’s out taking his dog to the vet, attempts to talk the man down. When Rowan’s father races off to join them, a ripple effect of sorts occurs, stemming from Rowan’s decision to skip school.

Later in the book, Eli explains his theory of the ripple effect to Rowan, and it’s one of the themes of the novel. One seemingly insignificant thing can lead to something catastrophic, only you won’t know it until it’s too late.

Rowan’s father goes to do his job, but the ensuing events build to one tragedy after another, leaving Rowan, her mother, and her family reeling.

Those ripples extend beyond Rowan’s family, though. Her friends are affected as well. Or perhaps not as affected as Rowan thinks they should be. Nadia, for instance, seems somewhat put out by the inconveniences of Rowan’s new reality. While this seems deplorable and abhorrent behavior, it rings completely true. She’s a high school girl, and she doesn’t want to – nor does she know how to – adapt to Rowan’s world.

Fortunately, there is Eli. He knows all too well the loss Rowan feels, and he offers her the support she needs. Rowan, though, doesn’t realize she needs support. She thinks everyone else does, and she is disgusted by other people’s reactions and responses to what’s happening in her family.

Some of those reactions are shared on the Internet, where everyone seems to be an expert in what Rowan’s father should have done. People pass horrific, spiteful, evil judgments, and they affect more than just Rowan’s dad. Her classmates, too, think they know better, and they have no compunction about sharing those thoughts with her. Those face-to-face confrontations, though, are warm and fuzzy compared to what’s said in the anonymity of the Internet. Wiess clearly condemns this mindset, and by the time you’re finished with the book, you will, too. If nothing else, you will think before you post an online comment.

[As an aside: I recently published a review that was not terribly complimentary. The author got in touch with me with a couple of questions she had regarding my review. We exchanged emails, and I came away feeling horrible for not loving her book. I re-read the review and wondered if I could 0r should edit the review, but I wound up keeping it intact. I didn’t like the book, and my opinions are true and my own, but I didn’t stop to think about how they would affect someone who put considerable time and care into writing her book, largely because she wasn’t “real” to me until that email exchange.]

Wiess examines other elements here, too. You can grieve the loss of someone who is still alive because who he is now is not who you know him to be. How do we, as family members and as a society, treat depression? How should we? What is the “right” thing to do? What support do the depressed individual’s family members need?

Then there is physical loss, specifically suicide. What right do we have to judge someone’s choice in taking his life? How do we treat the victims – the surviving family members? What can – what should – we do for them?

This isn’t to say that Wiess writes a pedantic, scolding novel. Yes, it makes you think, but it also warms your little heart. Rowan is complex. She’s loyal, she’s feisty, she’s irascible, she’s opinionated, she’s hot-tempered, she’s sweet, she’s supportive, she’s confused, and she’s world weary. She wants love. She wants particular love from particular people. She wants her friends to instinctively know how to respond to what she’s going through. She wants them to choose her. She wants people – her family, her friends – to choose her.

Who amongst us doesn’t? Especially if you’re a teenager. You don’t just want to be chosen, you need it. You NEED people to choose you.

I do have one issue with the book, and to dissect it requires a minor bit of spoiler-telling, so if you don’t want to know a little bit about one of the plot points, finish the review with these words: read the book. It’s good.

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.

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So if you’re still here, then you don’t mind a little spoiling.

It bothered me that Rowan’s father committed suicide. Not because it was sad or heartbreaking – it certainly was – but because it seemed remarkably, pointedly out of character. He discusses suicide with Rowan and seems to find it unnecessarily cruel. That he would do that to his own family seems unconscionable. He knew how his depression affected them, but for him to go to this extreme and kill himself is almost shockingly extreme. Perhaps that’s the point? Perhaps Wiess wants us to understand that his depression was so severe that he had this cataclysmic break with himself, taking him to the point where needing to leave this world overrode his intellectually knowing that what he was going to do would devastate, if not destroy, his family.

If that’s the point she’s trying to make, I still don’t like it. Rowan’s father was a strong man of strong principles. He feared for his daughter as she entered her waning high school years. He knew she needed him to watch out for her. Yet this man, whose life had been selfless and devoted, committed the most cruelly selfish act he could. It didn’t fit. And the more I’ve thought about the book, the more I’ve wondered what this book could have been if Rowan’s father had stayed and battled his depression. If he’d stayed and been true to himself.

But that’s not the book Laura Wiess wrote, and I respect her decisions. I may not like them, but I respect them.

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Heaven Should Fall

Heaven Should Fall
by Rebecca Coleman
Published by Harlequin MIRA
368 pages
Genre: family, literature, adult
Available Sept. 25
Thanks to edelweiss for the preview
4 / 5 cupcakes

Some of us grow up wishing we were part of a family, even if we had one. In the case of Jill Wagner, she has no one. Her mother died in a shocking accident, her father has never been in the picture, and her grandparents are dead. So when Jill meets Cade Olmstead in college, she falls hard. Not just for Cade, but for the promise of what he represents.

First, there is his charm. As Jill acknowledges, Cade is good looking, intelligent, and has a certain sheen of smoothness. It helps that his chosen career is politics. His passion for Jill runs unabated, even in the midst of dire moments for the two of them. And he is ambitious, intently focused on getting a job with a politician for whom he campaigns.

But as with all bright shiny things, if you rub away the pretty exterior, you sometimes find tarnish and rust. In Cade’s case, he tries to cover it up by tanning. Yes, tanning. The boy spends copious amounts of time turning his pasty New Hampshire-bred skin into a more cosmetically desirable brown.

But Jill is in love, and even before she discovers she is pregnant, the two are engaged, with Jill envisioning the family she no longer has and Cade imagining the perfect political spouse. That pregnancy, however, changes the dynamic of their relationship. For one thing, Cade needs to get a job. When he can’t find one in their Maryland college town, he reluctantly – very reluctantly – packs up Jill and takes her to stay with his family for the summer.

This is the first time she meets them, because Cade didn’t bring her home with him for any previous holidays, believing that Christmas by herself on the deserted campus is better than spending it with his family. She has met his older brother Elias, recently home from an Army stint in Afghanistan.

It doesn’t take long for us to see why Cade avoided bringing Jill home as long as he did. His family is, in a word, nuts. And not in a lovable, eccentric kind of way. More in a fear-for-the-gene-pool kind of way.

Cade’s father, Eddy, debilitated from a series of strokes, nonetheless retains the meanness that helped drive Cade out of the state. Mother Leela appears to be accepting of her life, until Rebecca Coleman takes us into Leela’s mind and we discover that there is a lot more going on here than we thought. Sister Candy is the stereotypical ignorant, silly blonde; her husband Dodge is significantly older than she is and they have three rambunctious young sons.

Then there is Elias. Clearly he struggles with post traumatic stress disorder, but he has been left largely ignored by military physicians who attempt to “fix” him by prescribing various painkillers and mood stabilizers. We learn that Elias has been in love with local girl Piper since his teens; we also learn that Cade stole her from his brother, even impregnating her. As Elias and Jill’s relationship deepens and intensifies, we watch with our breaths held. Will Elias exact retribution?

Elias, you see, is the only member of the family with whom Jill forms a connection. Yes, she tries to bond with Leela, even hoping that Leela will become her mother, but it is Elias who Jill offers comfort and compassion. She may not know about Piper, but she certainly knows that Elias begins to form an attachment to her.

Tragedy strikes this family, and we see it coming. The way they react, though, surprises us. Dodge, unflinchingly presented as a wacko, manages to display some decency – that is until he senses weakness in others, which he exploits much the way he did Candy when she was a teenager.

We spend most of the book in Jill’s mind, although Coleman sends us into Cade’s and Leela’s as well. When we spend time with Elias, it is in the third person, as if his trauma prevents even us from getting close to him. As the family deals with the aftermath of the tragedy, we become even more convinced that Cade was right: Jill is better off away from these people.

This is an intricate, heavy book, that is interesting and well written. Those of you who thought that white supremacists and right wing militias exist only in the south and midwest might be surprised to find that they rage in New England as well. Coleman uses them here to spotlight the plight of PTSD. If the Army overlooks its faithful servants, then what is there to stop subversive individuals from exploiting these people?

As for Jill, we alternately want to scream at her and protect her. She mistakes self-help mumbo jumbo for practical advice, and her desperation to be part of a family causes her to ignore some important signs of instability, both within Cade and his family.

Sometimes, Rebecca Coleman seems to say, the adage is true: be careful what you wish for.

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Those We Love Most

Those We Love Most
by Lee Woodruff
Published by Voice
320 pages
Genre: adult; literature; family
Available on Amazon.com
Thanks to edelweiss for the preview
4.5 / 5 cupcakes

I will kick off this review by stating that I really liked this book, although I really did not like many of its characters.

Meet the Corrigans, a typical suburban Chicago family of five: mother Maura, father Pete, and three adorable children.

Cue foreboding music now.

One sunny morning, as Maura walks her sons to school, an accident takes the life of her oldest son, nine-year-old James. The circumstances behind this death are slowly revealed, just as the guilt Maura feels slowly attempts to undo her. How Maura and Pete react to the loss of their son is the central story of the novel. Pete disgusts his wife, whether by talking to the person ostensibly responsible for James’s death or by drinking too much. But Maura has her own issues, and we are not quick to forgive her.

The other story is that of Maura’s parents, Roger and Margaret. These two are a bit more stereotypical than Maura and Pete: Roger is an aging banking wizard who has enjoyed the company of a woman not his wife, largely due to Margaret’s flinty personality. She is not a demonstrative woman, preferring to let her caretaking actions speak for her. Roger, on the other hand, believes he is entitled his flings, and the way in which he treats his Florida lover wins him no fans. Roger and Margaret face their own crisis, and the way in which they approach it echoes the differences between Maura and Pete.

Lee Woodruff writes with compassion, but she does not shrink away from her characters. They say and do loathsome things, and Woodruff makes no apologies for them. She lets us see what motivates them, but she does not excuse them, nor does she ask us to do so. What would you do if you lost a child? What would happen to your marriage? Pete and Maura are not held up as an example of how to deal with a tragedy, yet we do cheer for them to find their way. That is a testament to Woodruff’s writing, because there are times that Pete and Maura seem to beg for unhappiness.

The same goes for Margaret and Roger. Try liking one of those two. Just try! Margaret bestows her affection with great reluctance, and Roger’s inner whinging makes us think Margaret has a point. But his treatment of her is unkind at best.

I hated having to put this book down, because I got so engrossed in the stories of its characters. It is not light reading in the least, but it is good reading.

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Filed under adult, family, literature, tragedy and sadness

The Homecoming of Samuel Lake

The Homecoming of Samuel Lake
Jenny Wingfield
Published by Random House Trade
352 pages
Available on Amazon.com
Thanks to NetGalley for the preview.
5 / 5 cupcakes

When you are accustomed to living where the Lord sends you, the last place you might expect to wind up is home, sweet home. For Samuel Lake, a preacher whose style tends to put off his flock more than bring them to the light, home is what he hopes is a temporary locale. As the adage goes, however, we plan and God laughs.

Every year, on the first Saturday in June, the Moses family holds a reunion. Of John and Calla’s three children, one son died in a tragic accident, one (Toy) lives on the family’s 100-acre farm with his beautiful but terrible wife Bernice, and their daughter, Willadee, lives with her husband Samuel Lake and three children in whichever community Samuel is called to work. Willadee and the children come for the reunion, with Samuel due to follow.

The fun kicks off with a death in the family and continues apace. Told from different perspectives, this book really is like a warm summer day in the south: slowly getting hotter and stifling, with brief moments of respite provided by a nice glass of iced tea. One thing leads to another, leads to another, and pretty soon, you start to think that you’re a member of the Moses family yourself.

When Samuel Lake does get to his family, they are distraught over the death and their need for him – for his comfort, if not his physical presence. No one feels the latter more than Willadee, and it quickly becomes clear that these two enjoy each other in the Biblical sense, much to the dismay of Bernice. You see, Bernice had her chance with Sam, all those years ago, but she played games with him, dumped him, and as he nursed his broken heart, he met Willadee. The fact that Bernice married Toy (out of spite and revenge) does not seem to have had its desired effect on Sam, because he is devoted to Willadee and his kids.

But things do not go as smoothly as Samuel Lake would like. There is the matter of him not finding a new pulpit, for one thing, and he suspects his wife and children hide things from him. He also wonders if they have lost respect for him; when Blade, the young son of an evil neighbor (a man described as Satan’s stepson) escapes to the Moses home for some respite from his abusive father, Sam sends him back, horrifying his precocious eleven-year-old daughter Swan (yes, Swan Lake).

Sam repeatedly tries to save his family and meets with repeated frustration. At one point, he howls to the heavens, begging God for help. Sometimes, he fails to see that God answered his prayers, because God does not necessarily answer them as Samuel would like or expect. Other times, God responds quite clearly and emphatically.

There are several tragedies in this book, all of them heartbreaking. What will strike you as remarkable, however, is this family’s determination to survive what assaults them. They all trust God, some more than others, and their faith in the Lord and themselves is something to behold. Each of them struggles against something, whether it’s loss, failure or powerlessness.

Jenny Wingfield’s voice pulls you into this book, and you will not be able to put it down. You will care for this family (most of them, anyway), and you will want to be sure that they are going to be okay. And when the book is over, you will miss the Moses family.

Read this. It’s a very good book.

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Filed under christian lit, family, literature

Northwest Corner

Northwest Corner
John Burnham Schwartz
Published by Random House
304 pages
Available on Amazon.com.
Thanks to NetGalley for the preview.
4 / 5 cupcakes

Are we destined to repeat our parents’ mistakes?

That is a central question, if not THE central question, in Northwest Corner. The sequel to Reservation Road (which I had not read, nor did I even realize that this was a sequel until I read the interview with John Burnham Schwartz at the end of the book), Northwest Corner picks up twelve years after Dwight Arno went to prison for accidentally killing a young boy. In Dwight’s case, it was the old refrain: it’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up. He served less than three years in prison, after which he moved from Connecticut to California.

Dwight’s post-prison life is simple: he’s fifty, works at a sporting goods store, lives alone, and occasionally dates Penny, a single mother. Yet for all the simplicity of that day-to-day routine, the fact remains that Dwight lives across the country from Sam, with whom he has had no contact since he turned himself in to the police a dozen years ago. We learn that he has had very sporadic contact with Ruth, Sam’s mother and Dwight’s ex-wife.

So imagine Dwight’s surprise when Sam shows up in California. Sam, you see, is in a bit of trouble. After a disastrous outing in a college baseball game, he gets into a bar fight, hits his opponent with an aluminum bat, and sends said opponent to the hospital. He goes, then, to the one person who might understand him.

Except – and here is where this book gets a wee bit frustrating – Sam says nothing. He never talks to Dwight, never discusses anything. Not his anger at being abandoned, not his anger at his father’s previous treatment of his mother, not his fear that the kid in the hospital might not recover. Not his terror that he has become his father.

Yet as we discover, that reticence is very much the man Sam Arno has become. It frustrates us – as it certainly frustrates Dwight – but John Burnham Schwartz is unrelenting with Sam’s depiction. We alternately want to huge him and shake him. The same with Dwight, as a matter of fact. You want him to connect with his son, but at the same time, you are furious that his contact with his boy for twelve years consists of little more than a birthday card with a check. There were no visits east. There were no phone calls. What does Dwight expect?

The suspense of what will become of Sam’s legal problems takes a secondary role to what will become of Sam and Dwight, and even Ruth, Penny and Emma, the sister of the boy Dwight killed. Can they recover? Can they survive the continual assaults on their emotional well-being? Can they be the people they want to be?

As Dwight observes:

To build a solid, lasting bridge between two people, let alone a father and son with a history like ours, is a mighty human endeavor, and to sit here and think I might be able to accomplish it alone, with no glue, a few pickup sticks, and a dollop of spit, is nothing short of hubris. And hubris, the Greeks tell us, will see you dead. The robed chorus chanting your name until, in the last act, they bury and forget you.

Not quite the picture of paternal optimism, is he?

Told from the perspectives of Dwight, Sam, Ruth, Penny and Emma, we get to see how each of them thinks and feels about what happens to them. Emma and Penny get short shrift, Penny especially. While I liked Penny and was interested in what she was going through, I either wanted more or none at all. As it is, she seems sort of thrown in there to have the point of view of someone with no connection to the crimes in Connecticut. Emma is intriguing and baffling. Her feelings about something change completely, or so we’re told, yet we don’t really know why. Or if they really did.

But boy is this a good book. I enjoyed it tremendously, and now I want to go read Reservation Road. All of these characters have flaws, but they all desperately want to feel safe and hopeful. You will want them to as well.

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Filed under family, literature, suspense, Tolstoy was right

East of Denver

East of Denver
Gregory Hill
Published by Dutton Adult
320 pages
Available on Amazon.com
Thanks to NetGalley for the preview.
4.5 / 5

What a quirky, fun, heartbreaking book this is.

They say you can’t go home again, but when his cat dies, Stacey “Shakespeare” “Shakes” Williams decides to bring it back to his small rural hometown, somewhere – you guessed it – east of Denver. Things certainly have changed. Shakes’s dad is in the throes of dementia, occasionally forgetting that his wife died some years previously. Conversations are repeated. The home is a fetid bowl of squalor. And when his father’s caretaker is discovered dead in a locked bathroom (she’d been there for two weeks, but thanks to a disorder that prevents both Shakes and Emmett, his father, from being able to smell, no one noticed), Shakes realizes he needs to stick around for a little while.

He reconnects not only with Emmett, but with some friends from high school as well. First is Clarissa, an overweight anorexic with a fear of vomiting, who works in the local bank. Then there is Vaughn Atkins, a paraplegic who lives in his mother’s basement. Shakes’s interactions with these folks depend on what he needs from them. In the case of Clarissa, it might be feminine companionship, or, more likely, information about Mike Crutchfield, the bank’s owner. Vaughn provides comic relief, as well someone more lucid to talk to than Emmett.

As his visit progresses, Shakes discovers that his father is beyond broke. He’s lost most of the family’s land, and he sold his Cessna to Crutchfield for a mere $20. Shakes goes to confront the bank owner, only to be double-talked and left even more confused and hopeless. What can he do to help his father? In a “you steal from me and I’ll steal from you” sensibility, Shakes decides to rob the bank.

Of course his plans do not quite turn out the way he expects.

Gregory Hill does an excellent job of creating the lazy, constricted atmosphere of a small town on the edge of ruin. While it appears that Shakes is lucky because he did escape, he’s back home, just as ineffectual as everyone else. It seems like nothing good will happen for him or Emmett, and that sense of futility is never greater than when a doctor tells Shakes to feed Emmett fatty foods, because a heart attack beats the slow decline of dementia any day.

But not all is bleak. Hill writes some funny stuff in here, and those moments of wit and humor keep you optimistic, even as you know that Shakes and his father face certain doom and misery. Even the dead cat can’t rest in peace.

There isn’t a whole lot of plot in this book. The characters and dialogue drive the story more than the story itself. We never find out what Shakes has been doing since he left home, almost as if because those years away from Dorsey were as insignificant and meaningless as if he had never left. Shakes, it can be assumed, is damned if he did and damned if he didn’t.

This book won Amazon.com’s Breakthrough Novel Award in 2011, and when you read it, you will discover why. It is witty, sad and uplifting.

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Filed under family, literature, self-discovery

Between You and Me

Between You and Me
Emma McLaughlin & Nicola Kraus
Published by Atria Books
272 pages
Available on Amazon.com.
Thanks to NetGalley for the preview.
4 / 5 cupcakes

Remember a few years ago when Britney Spears dumped her husband, shaved her head and lost her mind? Remember how the courts instated her father as her legal custodian, rendering her – the mother of two children – a child with no rights? Did you ever wonder what was really going on in the Spears home?

When you read Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus’s engrossing book Between You and Me, you might get some answers.

Logan Wade is twenty-seven and struggling to carve out a happy life for herself in New York. She has a high pressure job, a handful of friends, and shares a shoebox of an apartment with another girl. Her boyfriend seems more interested in sex than a relationship. So when her cousin Delia asks her to come to Los Angeles to surprise another cousin, Kelsey, Logan decides to make the trip. But Kelsey isn’t just some girl living in LA. She’s KELSEY WADE, world famous singer and performer, and she and Logan have not spoken for over a decade.

Kelsey is tended to by Delia, as well as her parents, Andy and Michelle. As the story evolves, we learn that Andy has had substance abuse problems and that while with him, Michelle and Kelsey, Logan was in an accident, the nature and circumstances of which come to light later in the book. Neither Kelsey’s parents nor Logan’s are happy with Logan’s visit, and Logan herself isn’t sure it was a smart move. She barely sees Kelsey. In fact, the highlight of Logan’s trip is meeting cute guy Finn in a bar and later rocking the headboard with him at his hotel.

But then Andy fires Delia, and Logan is there, and there is a job opening, so Kelsey makes an offer: stay here and work for me. (Later, Kelsey is offended that Logan views this as a job; Kelsey believes Logan is just “there” for her.) Almost before she realizes what she’s gotten into, Logan is booking hotel rooms, securing rental cars, helping Kelsey select interview outfits, coordinating Kelsey’s schedule, and even drawing her bath for her. But it’s a giddy life, being so close to all of that fame, and Logan enjoys it. Sure, the paparazzi are pests, but to be a part of something like Kelsey Wade and to reconnect with her cousin – that’s alluring for Logan. Meanwhile, she keeps up her correspondence with Finn, who has an interesting job himself.

What I liked about this book was, well, pretty much everything. I enjoyed seeing how difficult it is to separate yourself as a daughter versus a boss to your parents and how insulating that life is. If you want to know what a personal assistant to a major star does, this book walks you through it. When Kelsey talks about wanting romance, you feel for her. She doesn’t have normal relationships, and, after a while, neither does Logan. Through Logan, we see Los Angeles for the perversion it is:

From this vantage point of relentless comparison, I’ve come to find L.A. disorienting in its proportions, the women having paid more than I can comprehend to look like cartoon caricatures. I wipe my spicy fingers on a cocktail napkin as the producer holding “auditions” in the white leather wing-back returns with his stack of eight-by-tens. If tonight is typical, a stream of nervous beauties will swap out in thirty-minute intervals, their vulnerability palpable. I wonder what his method is. 

At its heart, Between You and Me is about family. How do we define ourselves within our families? What happens when one relative – your best friend – becomes a superstar? What happens when it’s your daughter? Should family work for family?

This book also is about finding yourself, and Logan has to undertake that quest. But – and here is where I’m going to have some spoilers, so look away, kids. If you do not want to know the spoilers, then scroll down to where you see the next it of writing. If you do, then highlight the blank spaces and you should be able to read them.

Okay. So Logan sets out to figure out what she wants out of life, but does she? How much of what happens to her is voluntary? In fact, my beef with this book is a big one: why does it take Kelsey firing Logan for Logan to get out of a very toxic (no Britney pun intended) situation? Does Logan learn nothing? Does she grow at all? I know that Kelsey paid for Logan’s college tuition under the guise of a scholarship, so perhaps the intention is for Kelsey to be the wiser person in this relationship. She sees that Logan needs help, and she knows that Logan can’t get out of her own way. 

This is an entertaining, engaging book. I really enjoyed Logan, up to a point, and I adored Finn. As for Kelsey, she made me think about poor old Britney Spears. Did I judge her too harshly? Were her mistakes her own, or were they the result of her trying to have some autonomy?

And now I’m going to go listen to “Lucky,” a Britney song about a girl who seems to have gotten what she wanted, but did she really know what she wanted in the first place?

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