Thursday, June 11, 2015

From the Bookshelf: Recently Read - June 2015 Edition

Since my post for last month's Show Us Your Books! link-up was kind of pathetic (seriously, only 2 books?), I knew I really wanted to push myself to read more this time around. (It also didn't hurt that May's personal challenge focused on reading.)

I think my new library card also helped me get through more books than usual. I know I can always renew them, but having a deadline (even a flexible one) forced me to spend more time reading and less time watching random shit on Netflix. I still don't know why it took me so long to get one!

Anyway, on to the good stuff ... Here are my reviews of the books I've read most recently:

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Before We Met by Lucie Whitehouse - 276 pages

Completed on 05/14/2015 - Read more reviews on Goodreads

Before We Met focuses on Hannah, an independent British woman in her 30s living and working in New York. After she meets Mark (a fellow Brit) through mutual friends, she suddenly finds herself in a whirlwind relationship culminating in a marriage and move to London. When Mark fails to return from a business trip, Hannah finds herself growing increasingly paranoid when she realizes none of his colleagues know about the trip. Her fears deepen when she finds her bank account has been emptied. How well does she actually know the man she married?

I was initially drawn to this book because I really liked the basic idea. As someone who didn't meet her husband at a very young age or in any of the more traditional ways (school, work, etc.), the fact that we didn't have a lot of shared experiences until we were in our early 20s is actually something I think about often.

That's not to say that I think there's anything sinister about Eric ... There definitely isn't. But it is interesting to consider that I will never truly know who he was before we met. (And, obviously, the same goes for him.) We don't hide our pasts or anything, but people change over time. I'm not the same person I was at 12 or 16 or 20 and neither is he.

I always find it fascinating to hear stories and see pictures from Eric's younger years. But the thing is, I know I'll never really know the person he was then. Lucie Whitehouse took that feeling and twisted it into something more chilling in this novel.

The problem is that I thought I would like Before We Met more than I did. It was okay, but I think it could have been so much better. The writing wasn't spectacular (not awful, but definitely not great), and the plot twists were mostly just "meh" for me. I also figured most of it out before the final reveal, so it fell flat for me.

This is a decent book if you're looking for mindless entertainment. It probably won't wow you and you probably won't be thinking about it after it's over, but it's not terrible if you just want a pretty basic mystery/thriller to relax with.

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The Vanishing by Wendy Webb - 286 pages

Completed on 05/19/2015 - Read more reviews on Goodreads

Books like The Vanishing make me so happy that I took the time to get a library card because I didn't have to waste any money on them. It was fucking awful. In fact, the only reason I bothered to finish it was because I'm challenging myself to not only read 50 books this year, but also to complete every book I start.

I'm not a huge fan of gothic literature/horror, but I really liked Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca when I read it years ago and thought The Vanishing might have some similar elements. And it did ... In the absolute worst way possible. I felt like I was reading watered down shitty fan fiction. Yes, the characters and situations were different, but it seemed like Wendy Webb took some of the elements that made Rebecca so interesting and churned out a very bland story.

At the start of the novel, Julia Bishop's life is turned upside down. Her husband recently committed suicide to escape punishment after conning many people (including some of their closest friends) out of their life savings. She has become a recluse in her Chicago home in an effort to shut out relentless reporters. One day a strange man, Adrian Sinclair, appears at her doorstep, offering her a way out of her current situation. Feeling as though she has no other options, she agrees to leave her life behind and start anew in a sprawling mansion (known as Havenwood) in the woods of Minnesota as the caretaker for Mr. Sinclair's aging mother. As soon as she arrives, she begins experiencing strange things ... Whispered voices, ghostly figures wandering the rooms, and paintings springing to life before her eyes. And the longer Julia stays in Havenwood, the more she wonders why she was brought there in the first place.

While I didn't expect this book to be amazing, I was hoping for a few thrills ... I mean, it is a ghost story. Instead, I got something so boring that I only finished it quickly in order to move on to the next book (and because I started reading it on the plane during my trip to Florida, so I didn't have anything else to distract me). The Vanishing was terrible from start to finish. Don't waste your time on this one.   

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An Untamed State by Roxane Gay - 367 pages

Completed on 05/23/2015 - Read more reviews on Goodreads

I really enjoyed An Untamed State, though I wouldn't say I loved it. The book opens with a bang, as Mireille, the daughter of one of Haiti's richest men, is abducted in broad daylight. Roxane Gay feeds her readers details from Mireille's life (focusing mainly on her relationship with her husband) throughout the novel, alternating between her privileged past and the horrors she experiences as she's held captive.

It's an incredibly dark and brutal book, and I found myself cringing as I read some of the descriptions of the abuse and humiliations Mireille was forced to endure. It's definitely not a book for everyone, as there are some fairly graphic scenes of rape and torture. (So don't say I didn't warn you!)

Ultimately, though, An Untamed State is about a woman who does what she needs to in order to survive. It's about a woman who, after being broken in unimaginable ways, must try to mend herself in order to find her way back to the person she once was.

The novel was very good, but the often awkward dialogue and childish behavior from Mireille was enough to keep me from loving it. One of my biggest pet peeves when it comes to books is when an author makes his/her characters speak and/or behave in a really unnatural way ... It just completely takes me out of the story. That was really my only complaint about this book, but it was enough for me to rate it 4 stars instead of 5 on Goodreads.

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The Poison Tree by Erin Kelly - 323 pages

Completed on 05/26/2015 - Read more reviews on Goodreads

I really loved this book. I wasn't expecting to enjoy it as much as I did, but I found myself wanting nothing more than to pick it up again every time I put it down. I finished it in 2 days (which is pretty amazing for me!).

The Poison Tree, like so many of the books I tend to enjoy, alternates between past and present. Karen, a college student in London with a bright future, spends an unforgettable summer with free spirited Biba and her overprotective brother, Rex, in their crumbling mansion. Karen feels lucky to have been accepted into their lives, and eventually finds herself falling in love with Rex. Unfortunately, that happiness can't last forever ... And as the summer draws to a close, a tragedy changes their lives forever.

10 years later, Karen and her 9 year old daughter, Alice, are picking Rex up from prison. Although she should be ecstatic to have her family reunited, Karen is increasingly paranoid that someone is threatening to tear down the life she has spent years building ... And she'll do anything to protect them.

This novel reminded me in some ways of the movie The Dreamers (which I love, by the way). There are a lot of differences, but the idea of an outsider being taken into the strange and dreamy world of a young brother and sister living on their own was still there. It may not be the most realistic story, but it succeeded in sucking me in and delivered a satisfying ending ... And that's really all that matters.

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The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld - 233 pages

Completed on 05/31/2015 - Read more reviews on Goodreads

This novel is unlike anything I've ever read. It's heartbreaking and beautiful and tragic and horrifying. I don't know how she did it, but Rene Denfeld managed to make the bleakest place seem, well, enchanted.

The novel is narrated by a nameless, mute death row inmate.  I will note that his identity is revealed at the end, and I had a sneaking suspicion I knew who it was fairly early on (and I was right). He seems to see and know everything that goes on in the prison: the corruption, the sadness, the brutality. He lives in a world of books and fantasy in an effort to forget the monsters living all around him (as well as the monsters that reside within).

The Enchanted also features several other characters who are never named (not even in the end), including the lady, the fallen priest, and the warden. There is kindness and sadness in each of them, and the narrator watches and listens to them, hoping that maybe one day they can move past their personal tragedies to find true happiness.

There is so much that can be said about this novel, and I feel like I'm not doing it justice with this brief review. It's not a book that will make you feel good about life, but it will make you feel something. I'll be thinking about this one for a long time.

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The Longings of Wayward Girls by Karen Brown - 311 pages

Completed on 06/07/2015 - Read more reviews on Goodreads

The Longings of Wayward Girls, like The Poison Tree, alternates between the past and present. The story begins in the summer of 1979, when Sadie is an imaginative 12 year old girl clinging to her childhood. She spends her days playing with her best friend, Betty, and trying to figure out exactly how she feels about her mother, a dramatic, beautiful woman who is unlike any of the other mothers in her neighborhood.

When Sadie and Betty grow bored with their usual games, they decide to play a prank on Francie, an annoying girl who always tries to insert herself where she isn't wanted. They tell her a boy named Hezekiah has been leaving them letters under a rock, and, intrigued, Francie begins to leave her own letters for him. Sadie and Betty continue creating a fictional world for Hezekiah, encouraging Francie to share more and more personal information. "He" finally asks her to meet up with him ... And then she disappears.

24 years later, Sadie is married with 2 children of her own. She has recently suffered a miscarriage, and begins to withdraw from her family. After randomly running into Ray, the older boy that inspired Hezekiah, Sadie is drawn back into the strange world of the summer that changed everything for her.

I wanted to like this book much more than I actually did. I thought the plot was interesting, and I loved that it brought to life the idea that sometimes "harmless" childhood pranks can actually cause significant damage. Unfortunately, Karen Brown's execution left something to be desired.

This was a case of characters constantly making bad decisions. With fiction, I try to suspend my disbelief as I'm reading in order to fully immerse myself in the story ... However, when every character does and says completely unbelievable things, I start to lose interest.

The Longings of Wayward Girls had its high points, and I wanted to keep reading to see how things would unfold. It also had its very low points: it dragged in some places, made me wonder how so many people in one town could possibly be so stupid and/or crazy, and a few of the things that happened seemed to have no relevance to the rest of the plot.

Overall, though, I liked the book. It wasn't great, but it definitely wasn't bad. Like Before We Met, I think it's worth a read if you found the summary intriguing ... It's just not a must read.

I know that's a lot of books (and a lot of lengthy reviews!), so if your eyes are glazing over and you're scrolling down thinking, "TL;DR," here's a quick summary:

Before We Met and The Longings of Wayward Girls were just okay and maybe worth a read if you think the plots sound at all intriguing.

An Untamed State was really good and worth reading, but it wasn't without its faults. It's also pretty brutal, so you may want to skim over my review if you're unsure about it.

The Poison Tree and The Enchanted were my favorites out of this bunch. I'd say The Poison Tree might appeal to a more mainstream audience, while The Enchanted is much more unique and may not be everyone's cup of tea.

The Vanishing sucked. Don't bother adding this to your reading list.

I'm sure I'll be adding to my own reading list once I read through all of the Show Us Your Books! posts. I love this link-up because I always find at least a few books to check out!


  1. I am into challenging myself to read a certain number of books, but I can't finish a book I hate. It sucks the joy out of it for me, and then, what's the point?

    I'm sort of interested in The Poison Tree!

    1. I'm so weird when it comes to finishing things. When it comes to books and movies, I just can't stop and never finish ... I have to know how things play out! It's crazy because I could easily just read some reviews with spoilers, but I think most of the time I'm hoping it will get better ... So I just keep going. And, if you're wondering, they almost never get better and I'm left wondering why I wasted my time.

      You'd think I'd learn to stop reading/watching once I realize it's probably not the book/movie for me, but I just can't.

      I'm glad at least one of these books stood out as something you'd potentially be interested in checking out! I have another book by Erin Kelly, The Burning Air, on my "To Read" list now. I hope I enjoy it as much as The Poison Tree.

  2. I've had The Enchanted on my list for awhile. Glad to hear it's a good one. I'll have to check out The Poison Tree.
    Also I used to be someone who always finished a book but I realized that life was too short to read books I don't enjoy. Now, if it doesn't suck me in by 100 pages, I tend to give up.

    1. I'm glad you were able to move past your need to finish books even if you don't enjoy them. That gives me hope that maybe I'll be able to do this one day as well!

      Also, I definitely recommend The Enchanted (especially if it's been on your reading list for a while)! It's so sad but so beautiful, and it's one of the best books I've read all year.