Wednesday, November 11, 2015

From the Bookshelf: Recently Read - November 2015 Edition

We made it back from New Mexico around 1:00 a.m. this morning, and I'm still feeling kind of out of it. (Thankfully I took the day off from work to recover!) I haven't been as productive as I'd hoped, but I did manage to finish my "book reports" (Eric's term, not mine) so I could join Steph and Jana for my favorite link-up!

Life According to Steph
I'll be responding to comments and catching up on my blog reading as I have time (though joining this link-up means I'll have even more great blogs to check out and comment on!). For now, though, I'll leave you with my thoughts on the books I've read since the last link-up.

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Black-Eyed Susans by Julia Heaberlin - 349 pages

Completed on 10/18/2015 - Read more reviews on Goodreads

About a month ago, I wrote that I had started this book but was having difficulty really getting into it. I, of course, was incredibly disappointed. I mean, this is exactly my kind of book, so I felt like I should love it. (Not to mention the fact that I was on the waiting list at the library for at least 3 months before I finally had it in my possession!)

But as I continued reading, it (thankfully!) got much better.

Black-Eyed Susans is the story of Tessa Cartwright, who, at only 16 years old, was found barely alive with a dead young girl and a bunch of human bones in a remote Texas field. She becomes known in the media as the only surviving "Black-Eyed Susan," so named for the carpet of flowers spread across that shared grave. Although she remembers nothing about what happened to her, she is urged to testify, putting a man on death row.

Now, almost 20 years later, she is the single mother of a teen girl trying to live a relatively normal life. However, after someone plants a patch of black-eyed Susans beneath her bedroom window, old memories are brought to the surface and she begins to wonder if the right man is in prison or if her monster is still out there, watching.

The story is chopped into 3 sections, the first shifting between Tessa's present day life and her life after she was discovered in that shared grave, with a significant focus on her sessions with a psychiatrist. In the second section, readers are once again placed in both Tessa's present and her past, though the chapters from her past deal mostly with the trial. In the final section, everything finally comes together, with Heaberlin once again blending the past and present to make sense of what has happened.

There's no doubt in my mind that Julia Heaberlin is a great writer, but she definitely focuses on tiny details. Although I really appreciate that (it definitely forces me to really pay attention and think about what's on the page in front of me!), I think this is what prevented me from loving the book from the very beginning. Since the chapters are short, I was squeezing in a few chapters at a time during my lunch break at work, before my yoga classes, etc. There's nothing wrong with that, of course, but it definitely made it more difficult for me to keep all the tiny details straight in my mind. I found myself flipping back through the book multiple times in an effort to figure out when (or if) the author had mentioned something previously and what it could possibly mean. That was obviously my own issue, though.

I loved that Heaberlin clearly put a lot of effort into researching this novel. It made things seem much more realistic, especially when things didn't always fit perfectly into place with little to no effort. That's one of my major complaints about a lot of psychological thrillers/crime thrillers, so it was refreshing to read something like this.

I had two theories about who the "Black-Eyed Susan Killer" was about halfway through the book. My first theory proved to be incorrect, but my second guess was right. Without giving any spoilers, I will say that I was a little disappointed that Heaberlin chose to make this person the killer. It almost seemed a little too "perfect." (A shame, since nothing else in the book came together quite so perfectly.) I think if she'd taken the story in the direction I thought it was heading, it might have been a little creepier. That being said, I didn't hate the way things came together in the end ... I just thought it could have been a little better.

Overall, I enjoyed Black-Eyed Susans. I thought it was well-written (almost haunting and dreamlike) and well-researched. And, although it took me a while to really get into it, once I did, I had a hard time putting it down. I didn't love the way she ended things, but at least it made sense. I really hate when authors try to come up with a big twist that leaves you scratching your head and thinking, "What just happened here? This makes absolutely no sense based on everything else in this book." I just thought things were tied together almost a little too perfectly.

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The Stranger by Harlan Coben - 386 pages

Completed on 10/23/2015 - Read more reviews on Goodreads

I rarely give books only 1 star on Goodreads because I can usually find at least one redeeming quality. That being said, I just really didn't like anything about The Stranger, and, after spending about a week slogging through this book, I felt completely justified giving it a 1 star rating.

In The Stranger, Adam Price, an attorney living in a fairly affluent suburban New Jersey town, learns a shocking secret about his wife after he is approached by a mysterious man simply known as "the stranger." When he confronts his wife, she doesn't deny that this is true. She does, however, ask him for some more time before she explains everything.

And then she vanishes, her last communication a text telling Adam that she just needs a few days away and requesting that he not try to contact her. When she fails to respond to him or to their two young sons, he becomes desperate to find her, wondering if maybe there is more to the story than her original secret.

I initially picked this book up because the premise sounded at least somewhat intriguing and it had a lot of high ratings and good reviews on my local library's website. Apparently Harlan Coben is a popular author with several novels that debuted at #1 on the New York Times bestseller list. I'd never heard of him before, but I assumed the book would at least be decent based on everything I'd seen on my library's website.

Honestly, I guess I can see why people like authors like Coben. The writing is very simplistic, so you don't have to really think to get through the book. And while I really have no problem with easy reads, I was at least expecting something a little better than what he delivered. The writing seemed sloppy, kind of like what you might expect a high schooler (or even a middle schooler) to throw together if they didn't give a shit about a creative writing assignment. It was pretty bad.

In addition to the sloppy writing, The Stranger was just ... Boring. It's supposed to be a fast-paced thriller, but I found myself reading ahead only to see what kind of nonsense he'd throw in next. The secret was revealed at the very beginning of the book (on page 2 or 3, if I remember correctly), so there was really no buildup. And, while the secret involved the wife doing something pretty shitty in order to deceive her husband, it wasn't the kind of secret that would keep me glued to the novel, desperate to learn more.

I haven't read a thriller that I disliked this much in a long time. Do yourself a favor and avoid this one.

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Everybody Rise by Stephanie Clifford - 371 pages

Completed on 10/31/2015 - Read more reviews on Goodreads

I wasn't really sure what to expect when I started reading Everybody Rise. Based on the information given in the Goodreads summary, I thought it might be like a slightly more grown-up version of Gossip Girl (embarrassingly enough, I loved that show).

In some ways it was. Evelyn Beegan is a woman in her mid-twenties who has just started working at an up-and-coming social media website, People Like Us. People Like Us targets the elite members of society, and as their Director of Membership, Evelyn is expected to step into the world of the privileged, convincing socialites and other wealthy, influential New Yorkers to join their social network.

As she continues to spend time with these people, however, Evelyn increasingly loses sight of who she is. She spends time and money she doesn't have in order to fit in and "be somebody," and concocts lie after lie in order to wedge herself in further.

When her father, a class-action lawyer, is indicted for bribery, Evelyn becomes desperate to keep her family drama at bay as she struggles to maintain her lifestyle. As things begin to spiral out of control, Evelyn must determine how far she's willing to go in order to be part of this world.

Although I enjoyed some parts of the novel, many sections seemed to just drag on and on. I understand that Stephanie Clifford was trying to give readers an inside look at the world of Manhattan's elite, but I really couldn't care less about sailing or rowing or the history of Adirondack camps or any number of other things discussed in painful detail. I'm sure some people may find those things fascinating, but I don't.

Additionally, the characters were mostly incredibly unlikable. I usually don't have a problem reading books featuring horrible people, but about halfway through this book, I actually found myself hoping that Evelyn would fall from grace. She's somewhat likable at the beginning of the novel, as a slightly socially awkward young woman hoping to simply fit in. But as she begins to insert herself into the lives of the privileged, she becomes a huge bitch, alienating her former friends and treating the majority of the people she comes in contact with like shit. I honestly haven't hated a main character this much in a long time.

I gave Everybody Rise 2 stars on Goodreads. Like I said, it had some enjoyable (and funny!) parts, but it mostly didn't work for me. Clifford had an interesting idea, but the story moved at an almost glacial pace and the main character was terrible.

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Girl Defective by Simmone Howell - 301 pages

Completed on 11/04/2015 - Read more reviews on Goodreads

First, a big thank you to Erin for recommending this wonderful book! As many of you know, I'm completely obsessed with music ... So a novel featuring a main character who lives with her family above the record shop her father owns (and who, like me, loves music more than most things) was exactly the type of thing I knew I'd enjoy.

And Girl Defective didn't disappoint. The novel follows the events of a single summer in the life of Skylark Martin, a somewhat socially awkward teenage girl. She spends most of her time at school, in her dad's record shop, and taking care of her younger brother, Gully. She often finds escape in her favorite music, as well as with her beautiful, mysterious older friend, Nancy.

As the summer rolls on, Sky's world begins to change. Her father hires Luke, an attractive boy with a somewhat tragic past, to work in the shop. Nancy begins spending most of her time with a local musician, leaving Sky feeling lonelier than ever. Sky's absent mother begins making decisions that will impact the rest of her family in a major way. And those are just a few of the things that make it a summer that will change everything.

Girl Defective is an easy read, but it's not a book I'd call light and fluffy. Howell's story has the perfect combination of sad and funny elements, and reminded me of the crazy rollercoaster of emotions all teenagers are forced to endure at some point. It's a lovely book about family and friendship, first loves and finding your place in the world. I think the summary on the inside flap sums it up perfectly: "It's about summer and weirdness and mystery and music. And it's about life and death and grief and romance. All the good stuff."

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Ally Hughes Has Sex Sometimes by Jules Moulin - 278 pages

Completed on 11/08/2015 - Read more reviews on Goodreads

Like Everybody Rise, this isn't the type of book I usually go for. However, unlike Everybody Rise, Ally Hughes Has Sex Sometimes was actually enjoyable.

Ally Hughes is a professor at Brown University, struggling to balance her work life with her personal life as a single mother. In an effort to make her life a little simpler, she closes herself off to the possibility of romance ... Until she hires former student Jake Bean to do some work around the house. The chemistry between them is undeniable, and soon she finds herself swept up in a whirlwind of sex and excitement.

Unfortunately, Ally just can't let her guard down and the two part ways. Ten years later, Jake reappears in her life ... On the arm of her beautiful 20 year old daughter.

I'll admit that much of the book was completely unbelievable. If I'd been looking for a realistic read, I would have been very disappointed. However, since I knew going in that this would be a light, fun read, I wasn't expecting to be completely blown away. This is the type of book that's perfect if you just want to relax and escape from your life for a few hours. I chose to read it during my time in New Mexico, and it was the ideal vacation book.

There are some things I'd like to say about this book that I really can't say without including spoilers. I will, however, say this: I really dislike when characters say they've completely fallen in love with one another when they've only known each other a short time. Yes, Ally had Jake in her classes for 3 years, but she taught huge classes ... She admits near the beginning of the book that she has so many students that she usually can't put names with faces (and that includes Jake). And yes, I know this is supposed to be a fun escape from reality (and it was) ... But it did make the story a little less enjoyable for me.

Overall, though, it was a nice way to pass the time. It wasn't the best book I've ever read, but it was a nice change from my usual darker choices (especially since I've now moved on to a pretty disturbing and depressing novel!). If you're looking for a fun, lighthearted book (or if you're just a huge fan of chick-lit), Ally Hughes Has Sex Sometimes is a great choice.

"TL;DR" Summary:

Black-Eyed Susans is an interesting (if slightly unsettling) read. If you're a fan of crime thrillers/psychological thrillers, you'll probably enjoy this book. I found it a little hard to get into at first, but it eventually picked up. I'd recommend reading more than just a few chapters at a time, though, because Julia Heaberlin sprinkles small (yet often important) details throughout and it can be hard to keep track of them if you're only reading 20-40 pages a day. I didn't hate the ending, but I felt it took away from some of the other, more realistic elements in the story. The ending, along with my inability to immediately get into the story, prevented me from giving it a higher rating on Goodreads, but it still earned a solid 3 stars.

The Stranger is one of the worst books I've read this year. The writing was bland and sloppy, and the plot just kept getting more and more absurd. It falls under the "thriller" genre, but there is honestly nothing thrilling about it. I basically just finished it because I have a hard time quitting books (and because I wanted to see just how ridiculous the story would get). Although I rarely give 1 star ratings on Goodreads, I had no problem assigning a single star to The Stranger.

Everybody Rise was just an okay read. It had its high points, but it felt like it took forever for the story to really take off.  Stephanie Clifford focused on mundane details of high society instead of making an effort to move the plot forward or make readers care about Evelyn, the main character. Evelyn was actually one of the worst parts of the book ... I don't think I've hated a main character this much in a long time. Although it still managed to earn a 2 star rating from me, I wouldn't recommend it.

Girl Defective is a wonderful story about family and friendship, first loves and finding your place in the world. (And, for a music lover like myself, it's an added bonus that the main character is a total music junkie!) After suffering through a couple of terrible books, I was happy to settle in with something I really enjoyed. It was a great way to kick off the Semi-Charmed Winter 2015 Book Challenge (earning me 10 points), and a great way to wrap up my own personal 50 book challenge for the year. I gave it 4 stars on Goodreads, and definitely recommend it!

Ally Hughes Has Sex Sometimes is a fun, fluffy book perfect for fans of chick-lit. I'm not a huge fan of this genre, but I still found it enjoyable. I chose it for one of the Semi-Charmed Winter 2015 Book Challenge categories (and earned 20 points by finishing it!), but I probably would have eventually picked it up anyway since Jana recommended it in an earlier link-up. It earned a 3 star rating from me on Goodreads, and I'd recommend it to anyone looking for a quick, lighthearted read.

Although I didn't read a ton of really amazing books this time around, I'm happy to say that I've completed 2 books for the Semi-Charmed Winter 2015 Book Challenge and I've read a total of 51 books so far this year! I've set a 50 book goal for myself for years, but this is the first time I've actually hit that goal! And, thanks to this link-up (and my obsession with Goodreads!), I'll have plenty of books on my "To Read" list to hit an even higher goal next year! (Okay, I know that was a lot of exclamation points, but I'm really excited about this!)


  1. I'm SO glad you enjoyed Girl Defective, and your synopsis of it was perfect. I picked up Black-Eyed Susans from the library, and it is my next book to read. I've never read a Harlan Coben book before, but I know he is widely popular. Wait, is it a he or she? Anyways, if I ever get to that author, I won't be picking up The Stranger. Congrats on hitting (and exceeding) your goal for 2015!

  2. I also have trouble quitting books, but I know I can read a good book in a matter of a few days. Why suffer through a bad one?

  3. I'm reading Ally Hughes right now.

    I'm glad Susans was worth it overall - I've been waiting for that book to come in at the library for months. GRRR

    I love Harlan Coben's Myron Bolitar series. I'm sorry his foray outside of that was crappy.

  4. Ally Hughes was a fun book. That is the best way I can describe it. It was a great read on a plane ride and it's chick lit and the whole thing with her daughter was ridiculous but still. A fun book.

    I think I need to add Girl Defective to my list. Everybody rise is already on there so it makes me sad to hear that you didn't think it was that great.

    Hooray for achieving and exceeding your reading goal!

  5. yay for reaching your goal! congrats girl. i think i need to add girl defective to my list after that recommendation!