Sunday, March 13, 2016

Recently Read: In-Depth Reviews - March 2016 Edition

As you've probably noticed by now, I've been sharing more in-depth reviews of the books I discuss in my Show Us Your Books! posts the Sunday following the link-up. (If you haven't read my shorter reviews of these books and would prefer to do that, you can find them here.)

I know not everyone loves reading lengthy reviews. I also know I can be long winded when it comes to talking about things I really enjoy (like books and music, for example). That's why I save these posts for the weekend.

If this isn't your thing, skip it and come back on another day. If, however, you want to know a little more about why I did/didn't like a book, this post will give you that information.

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Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson - 278 pages

Completed on 02/13/2016
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Wintergirls was a difficult book for me. I don't mean that it was a difficult read in the way that, say, Anna Karenina was difficult. It was difficult because it spoke so openly and honestly about what it means to struggle with a mental disorder and what it feels like to be completely out of control of your life and your actions.

In the case of Wintergirls, the mental disorders were anorexia (in the case of the main character, Lia) and bulimia (in the case of her best friend, Cassie). Lia also had to deal with some other major issues, including self-mutilation and depression ... And her best friend's death.

Lia and Cassie grew up together, and as they began developing new, more mature bodies, they began to fear gaining weight. As they discover ways to lose weight, they find themselves almost competing to be thinnest. The girls eventually have a falling out, and the last time Lia hears from Cassie is the night she dies ... The night Lia refused to answer even though Cassie called her thirty-three times.

The story is told in an interesting, almost poetic way, as Laurie Halse Anderson weaves together moments from Lia's past and present that have led her to walk the dangerous line between the living and the dead. Haunted by her memories of Cassie (and by Cassie herself), she must decide how much she's really willing to lose.

This was one of the more realistic books I've read when it comes to mental disorders. Anderson very accurately describes what it's like to have obsessive and disordered thinking (two things I unfortunately have firsthand experience with), and how difficult it can be to recognize when others are trying to help when you've followed that downward spiral so deep inside yourself that you can no longer see out.

That being said, it was definitely a very tough book to get through. It's an extremely sad and unsettling story of a girl struggling with her issues because she doesn't know how to do anything else. It's not that she wants to feel these awful things about herself or deny herself the simple pleasure of a cupcake or never experience a life outside of her own head ... She's just felt this way for so long that she no longer knows how to live any other way.

I really loved this book, and wavered between a 4 and 5 star rating. I settled on 4 stars because while it was very good and made me feel so many things (I definitely cried at the end!), I wished Anderson had gotten just a bit deeper into Lia's character. I felt like I didn't know that much about her as a person other than she was the child of divorced parents, she used to take ballet, she was once best friends with Cassie, and she was anorexic and depressed.

It kind of feels weird to say that because readers are given such an intimate look into her mind, yet she somehow felt incomplete. And maybe that was the point ... Maybe she was supposed to seem like she wasn't much more than the mental disorders overwhelming her. But I would have liked to know a little more about her.

Despite this one flaw, I thought the book was amazing. And, even though I still felt like I didn't know much about Lia as a person by the end of the book, I still cared about her.

I would definitely recommend this book, however, I'd do so with some hesitation. If you've dealt with any of the issues discussed in this novel (whether firsthand or with a friend or family member), this may be a really difficult read. It's definitely not the kind of book you want to go into with absolutely no knowledge of what it's about. But, as difficult as it was for me to get through certain sections of Wintergirls, I'm so glad I read it. I'm sure it will stick with me for a long time.

Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg - 293 pages

Completed on 02/16/2016
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Wow. I don't even know where to begin with this book.

Although I anticipated really liking this book (I mean, Jana and Erin both highly recommended it, so I knew it had to be great!), I didn't expect to feel completely gutted (yet strangely hopeful) by the end. I also didn't expect to dissolve into a hot mess of tears that made Eric tentatively ask, "Um, are you okay?" as I finished the last few pages.

When I read a book like Did You Ever Have a Family, I struggle with finding a way to adequately describe my thoughts. Basically I just want to say, "Read this now!" to everyone I know (and anyone who reads this, obviously).

Although their relationship has been strained for the past few years, June Reid and her daughter, Lolly, have been spending more time together as they prepare for Lolly's upcoming wedding. But on the night before the ceremony, June's entire world is shattered.

In an instant, June's home goes up in flames, taking the lives of her daughter, her daughter's fiance, her ex-husband, and her boyfriend, Luke. Feeling completely alone and directionless, June decides to leave her small Connecticut town and begins heading west.

Did You Ever Have a Family is told from multiple points of view, from major characters like June and Luke's mother, Lydia, to those who have a very limited view of things from the periphery, like the wedding caterer and the couple running an inn on the Pacific coast. Although there are many characters, I thought choosing to mix the "insider" points of view with those on the outside was an interesting way to tell the story.

My only real issue with this book was one of the subplots involving Lydia. I think that Bill Clegg was trying to show readers just how lonely she really was, especially after losing her son ... But I just didn't think it was overly effective because it was just so bizarre. (At least in my opinion.)

That being said, I still really loved this book. In fact, I would go as far as to say it was nearly flawless. The characters were rich and vibrant ... I felt like I was reading about real people, not fictional characters. The story was heartbreaking but also surprised me by adding an element of mystery, as readers don't discover what actually caused the fire until close to the end. I also really enjoyed Clegg's writing style, though I admittedly didn't love that he switched back and forth between first and third person quite a bit from chapter to chapter. (That's just something I generally don't like.)

This book broke me apart in so many ways. It's a story about grieving and secrets and guilt. Despite the darker subject matter, though, it's also a story filled with hope.

"And it might be you never know the part you played, what it meant to someone to watch you make your way each day. Maybe someone or something is watching us all make our way. I don't think we get to know why."

The Girl in 6E by A.R. Torre - 336 pages

Completed on 02/22/2016
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I'll start this by saying that, generally speaking, books with an "Erotica" label on Goodreads don't pique my interest. (The one exception was You by Caroline Kepnes, which I read and reviewed last year. I'm patiently waiting for the sequel, Hidden Bodies, to arrive on my holdshelf at the library!) I liked You because it was less about fucking (or romance, for that matter) and more about getting into the mind of a psychopath.

So when I first read the summary for The Girl in 6E, I thought it might be the right kind of "Erotica" for me.

Deanna Madden lives alone in an apartment, locking herself away from the world. She hasn't been outside in three years. But she isn't afraid of what's out in the world ... She's afraid of what she may do if she's around other people.

In an effort to forget her troubled past and avoid her murderous urges, Deanna escapes into an online world. Known as "Jessica Reilly" online, she pays her bills by working in the sex cam industry. Men (and sometimes women) make their requests, and she brings their fantasies to life.

Occasionally she comes across an especially perverted client, but not until she begins chatting with "Ralph" does she feel truly afraid. Ralph is seemingly obsessed with very young girls, and, after talking with him several times, Deanna begins to fear that "Annie" isn't just his fantasy. And, if she is a real little girl in danger, Deanna must decide whether she's willing to take matters into her own hands ... And how far she's willing to go.

The Girl in 6E is one of the more interesting books I've read recently. While it didn't have the sort of emotional appeal that Wintergirls and Did You Ever Have a Family did, I was completely captivated by the story. The author obviously did quite a bit of research on the sex cam industry, and I appreciated that I was able to see inside a world I probably never would have otherwise.

There were a few things I really didn't like, though.

My first major issue with this book was something that bothers me about a lot of books and movies. In fact, I'd say it's probably the number one reason why I don't typically go for entertainment that falls under the "Romance" category. I'll try to avoid spoilers and keep it a little vague, but the whole "I just met you but I'm so completely into you/might be in love with you and will do pretty much anything for you" thing always annoys the shit out of me. Not only did that situation pop up in this book, it also felt really out of place.

My other major issue with The Girl in 6E was that I felt like there were too many inconsistencies when it came to Deanna's character. Was she really an evil murderer or was she just a confused young woman with a lot of issues? It was never completely clear. I think that the author was attempting to create a complex character, but unfortunately it sometimes just came off as a little awkward and unbelievable.

Overall, though, I really enjoyed the story and rated it 4 stars on Goodreads. This isn't the kind of book that will stick with you forever or change your life, but it will definitely keep you entertained! (And I already have the second book in this trilogy checked out from the library, so obviously I wasn't quite ready to leave Deanna and her story behind.)

Missing Pieces by Heather Gudenkauf - 284 pages

Completed on 03/04/2016
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A couple of Heather Gudenkauf's other books, The Weight of Silence and These Things Hidden, have been on my "To Read" list for a while (along with this book). After reading Steph's review of Missing Pieces, I decided to move it to the top of my list. I was in the mood for a good thriller, and this seemed like it would fit the bill.

Unfortunately, Missing Pieces fell flat for me.

Sarah Quinlan's husband, Jack, has a very troubled past. His mother was murdered in their home when he was just a teenager, and, after disappearing, his father became the prime suspect. Eager to cut ties with his hometown and the terrible memories that linger there, Jack moved away as soon as he could and never looked back. But when his aunt is hospitalized after an accident, Jack feels compelled to go back to Penny Gate, Iowa to be with his family.

As Sarah learns more about her husband's family and past, more and more questions arise. Digging deeper into the mysteries surrounding his mother's murder and his aunt's accident, Sarah begins to wonder how well she really knows the man she married.

I'll admit that sometimes I struggle with suspending my disbelief while reading books or watching movies, but so many of the things that happened in this book made me shake my head and think, "What the fuck is this author thinking?" Many of the character's actions were completely unbelievable, and I also found it strange that Sarah knew so little about her husband of 20 years. I mean, he was described as a fairly quiet man who wasn't very open about his past ... But still. I probably could have believed that she was discovering all of these things about his life before her (and reacting the way she did) if they'd only known each other and been married a very short time. But 20 years? No. I don't buy it.

I also didn't really like Sarah (or any of the characters, really). It's not that the characters were simply unlikable (I actually don't mind reading books with unlikable characters) ... It's just that none of them seemed particularly well developed, and I honestly didn't care much about any of them.

And, since I was hoping this book would keep me turning the pages, I was annoyed that I was able to pick out the killer so quickly. I kept hoping that maybe the author would go in another direction (she certainly tried to plant several seeds of doubt throughout the book!), but no ... It was exactly who I thought it would be. In fact, I was so disappointed by this that I tossed the book down as soon as it was revealed and said, "I fucking knew it!"

I didn't know why this person did it, though, so of course I had to read on. Unfortunately, the reason was, in my opinion, a little silly. I understand that this character was supposed to be a little unhinged anyway, but I still had a hard time buying the motive.

I think one of the most disappointing things about this book was the fact that it started off strong and then seemed to drag on. The writing wasn't really bad or anything, but Gudenkauf failed to captivate me. It took me almost two weeks to finish this book because I never felt compelled to pick it up. That's an insane amount of time for a book that's under 300 pages!

I'm not completely giving up on Heather Gudenkauf, though. I'll probably read at least one more of her books. I think Missing Pieces had an interesting plot, but the underdeveloped characters, their unbelievable behaviors and reactions, and the less than thrilling presentation kept me from really enjoying the story. This book definitely falls under the "just okay" category for me, and for that reason I gave it 2 stars on Goodreads.


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