The Broken Girls, by Simone St. James (Review)


The Broken Girls
by Simone St. James

Genre: Mystery, Historical Fiction, Suspense

Length: 336 Pages

Release date: March 20, 2018

Synopsis: 

A breakout suspense novel from the award-winning author of The Haunting of Maddy Clare.

Vermont, 1950. There’s a place for the girls whom no one wants–the troublemakers, the illegitimate, the too smart for their own good. It’s called Idlewild Hall. And in the small town where it’s located, there are rumors that the boarding school is haunted. Four roommates bond over their whispered fears, their budding friendship blossoming–until one of them mysteriously disappears. . . .

Vermont, 2014. As much as she’s tried, journalist Fiona Sheridan cannot stop revisiting the events surrounding her older sister’s death. Twenty years ago, her body was found lying in the overgrown fields near the ruins of Idlewild Hall. And though her sister’s boyfriend was tried and convicted of murder, Fiona can’t shake the suspicion that something was never right about the case.

When Fiona discovers that Idlewild Hall is being restored by an anonymous benefactor, she decides to write a story about it. But a shocking discovery during the renovations will link the loss of her sister to secrets that were meant to stay hidden in the past–and a voice that won’t be silenced. . . .

rating

four

The Broken Girls is the perfect novel to pick up in October. It’s creepy, atmospheric, and also surprisingly heartfelt. It’s categorized as a mystery/suspense novel and a ghost story is a large driving force in the narrative. These kinds of novels often fall flat for me because the characters tend to be cardboard cutouts instead of fleshed-out human beings. The Broken Girls is very character-driven, and feels like it has more substance than a lot of novels in the same category.

The main character of the modern story line is a journalist, Fiona, whose life has been altered by the death of her older sister twenty years prior. Her sister’s boyfriend is in prison for the murder, but little inconsistencies have always nagged at the back of Fiona’s mind, and she’s been unable to move on. When she finds out that a developer has purchased the old abandoned girls’ boarding school where her sisters body was found, her personal connection to the place leads her to want to cover the story.

“Idlewild was the boarding school of last resort, where parents stashed their embarrassments, their failures, and their recalcitrant girls. Hidden in the backwoods of Vermont, it had only 120 students: illegitimate daughters, first wives’ daughters, servants’ daughters, immigrant girls, girls who misbehaved…”

The 1950’s sections of the novel explore the lives of various girls who were living at the boarding school at the time. These sections were ridiculously engaging and the characters were each sympathetic in their own way, as St. James explores some of the reasons a girl might be considered “troubled” at the time and simply sent away. For example, one of the girls stopped speaking entirely after experiencing a traumatic event; her parents made some attempts to get her help, but when these were ineffective, off to Idlewild she went.

“It was infuriating how many people got things wrong about you when you were a teenage girl, but as she had learned to do, Katie took her anger and made it into something else.” 

There are two main driving forces in these sections of the novel: a piece of school lore about a possibly malicious ghost named Mary Hand who appears to each of the students sooner or later, and the disappearance of one of the girls, quickly dismissed by authorities as a runaway. In the course of covering the story of the renovation of Idlewild in the modern day, Fiona also gets caught up in these stories and hopes to solve both of the mysteries. At the same time, she begins to uncover new information about her own sister’s murder which may put her in danger herself.

The various mysteries in The Broken Girls are woven together so seamlessly and the story is expertly paced. I fell in love with these characters and was anxious for them in the moments of tension sprinkled throughout the book. The eerie atmosphere is perfect for this time of year.

(This is a repost of a prior review – I wanted to feature this book again because it’s the Girly Book Club pick for this month. If you haven’t heard of them and you’re looking for a book club to join, I definitely recommend checking them out. It’s an international book club for women with chapters all over. If there isn’t one near you, you can reach out to them at info@girlybookclub.com to inquire about starting your own chapter!)

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Thanks for reading! Have you been reading any ghost stories in the days leading up to Halloween? What’s your favorite novel that features a ghost story?

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Salt to the Sea, by Ruta Sepetys (Review)

Salt to the Sea
Salt to the Sea
by Ruta Sepetys

Genre: YA, Historical Fiction

Length: 416 Pages

Release date: August 1, 2017

Publisher: Penguin Books

Synopsis: 

While the Titanic and Lusitania are both well-documented disasters, the single greatest tragedy in maritime history is the little-known January 30, 1945 sinking in the Baltic Sea by a Soviet submarine of the Wilhelm Gustloff, a German cruise liner that was supposed to ferry wartime personnel and refugees to safety from the advancing Red Army. The ship was overcrowded with more than 10,500 passengers — the intended capacity was approximately 1,800 — and more than 9,000 people, including 5,000 children, lost their lives.

Sepetys (writer of ‘Between Shades of Gray’) crafts four fictionalized but historically accurate voices to convey the real-life tragedy. Joana, a Lithuanian with nursing experience; Florian, a Prussian soldier fleeing the Nazis with stolen treasure; and Emilia, a Polish girl close to the end of her pregnancy, converge on their escape journeys as Russian troops advance; each will eventually meet Albert, a Nazi peon with delusions of grandeur, assigned to the Gustloff decks.

ratingthree

“I became good at pretending. I became so good that after a while the lines blurred between my truth and fiction. And sometimes, when I did a really good job of pretending, I even fooled myself.”

What’s happening, bookworms? I’m back with another Minority Opinion Post™. This book has so many positively glowing reviews and came highly recommended by some friends of mine (shout out to my book club ladies… please don’t hate me). I went into it with high expectations and had a really lukewarm experience with this book.

Let me start with the positive. Sepetys has plenty of quotable passages and the writing is really stylistically lovely overall. There were some passages I loved that really packed a punch, like this one: “His smugness was annoying. This was the type of man who looked at a picture on the wall and instead of admiring the photo, looked at his own reflection in the glass.”

The story is technically a continuation of Between Shades of Gray (also published as Ashes in the Snow) but can be read without that background information without any confusion. There is a small overlap, but the story line and cast of characters is largely separate. That being said,  I do recommend reading Between Shades of Gray before Salt to the Sea. While it’s not necessary to follow the story, certain passages which call back to the first book will inevitably have more emotional impact if the books are read in order. I love this kind of flexibility in storytelling, when readers can jump in at either book but fans get that reward of a spark of recognition that won’t be there for all readers.

That being said, let’s get into my issues with this book. The chapters are extremely short, which would not be a problem in and of itself were it not for the fact that we are hopping from one point of view character to the next with these chapters transitions. The end result was that the reading felt very choppy and somewhat shallow; I had a hard time getting invested in characters when I was only spending a few pages at a time with each of them, and they ended up feeling very flat.

Albert, the Hitler fanatic, was the most compelling of the point of view characters. Sepetys seems to have a particular skill for writing a character the reader will despise without turning them off of the book. I sped through Albert’s chapters, with a mixture of horror and barely restrained glee as I waited for what was sure to be his inevitable fate.

Despite my somewhat lukewarm response to this book as a whole, I do love that the author chose to write about this topic. The sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff had a death toll of around 9,000, compared to the Titanic’s death toll of just over 1,500, yet it has all but disappeared from the public consciousness. I was not familiar with these events prior to picking up this book, and one of my favorite things about historical fiction is that it can introduce us to times and events we would not have otherwise encountered, inspiring further research and learning. Sepetys handled this event with the sensitivity and respect for the real-life victims that was deserved. 

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Audio Book Popularity on the Rise… but Print Still Reigns Supreme

The Pew Research Center has published the results of a survey on the reading habits of Americans, revealing some interesting trends. The percentage of Americans who listen to audio books, for example, has nearly doubled since 2011. Print books continue to be more popular than e-books or audiobooks

Given the relative expense of audio books vs. print books, it would be interesting to know if their increased popularity corresponds with increased awareness of their availability through resources like the Overdrive and Libby through the public library system. (Using a new release as an example, Ribbons of Scarlet runs $26.99 for a hardcover copy or $13.42 for a paperback, compared to $29.94 for an Audible copy without a membership.)

Still, print books remain the most popular choice, with 37% of survey respondents saying they read print books exclusively.

37% say they only read print books

Finally, Pew found that those with a college education were the category most likely to read, regardless of the specific format chosen. What’s interesting, however, is that those in the youngest demographic surveyed (18-29) were more likely to have read a book in the past year than any other age group… despite the tendency of some in the older generation to mourn the death of literacy due to the emergence of smart phones. Perhaps such concerns are premature.

College graduates especially likely to read books in a variety of formats

Overall, I think this last graphic is the most important in a lot of ways. When you examine various categories, it becomes clear that accessibility may be a running theme when it comes to how likely any given American is to pick up a book. Higher income means more expendable income to spend on books, and we see higher rates of reading in those with higher income. A college education is correlated with a higher income. Those living in urban or suburban areas will generally have a library closer to home than those in rural areas; we see lower rates of reading in rural areas.

We see a decline in ages 65+, and I think this can also be related to accessibility in some ways; this age group is more likely to experience mobility problems and other health issues, making a trip to a book store or a library low on the list of priorities for a lot of people. Vision and hearing problems are also more common with age, creating difficulty reading standard print size or hearing an audio book.

Read more on these stats from the Pew Research Center here!

What are your thoughts on these figures? What is your favorite way to read? Please feel free to discuss in the comments! 

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The Nobody People, by Bob Proehl (Review)

43334292
The Nobody People
by Bob Proehl

Genre: Science Fiction

Length: 496 Pages

Release date: September 3, 2019

Publisher: Del Rey Books

Synopsis: 

After decades in hiding, a group of outcasts with extraordinary abilities clashes with a world that is threatened by their power.

When Avi Hirsch learns that his daughter Emmeline has special abilities, he tries to shield her against an increasingly hostile society. Carrie Norris can become invisible, but all she wants is to be seen by the people she loves. Fahima Deeb has faced prejudice her entire life, but her uncanny connection to machines offers her the opportunity to level the playing field. These are just a few of the ordinary nobodies with astonishing gifts who must now band together against bigotry and fear, even as one of their own actively works to destroy a fragile peace. Will their combined talents spark a much-needed revolution–or an apocalypse?

ratingthree

My thanks to NetGalley and Del Rey Books for sending me an advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and are not influenced by the publisher. 

The Nobody People was a bit of a lukewarm read for me. I love superhero stories, but the concept has been done to death at this point, making it really difficult to write one that doesn’t feel stale. There needs to be an interesting twist, super engaging characters, or just… something new to say. Unfortunately, The Nobody People felt just a bit too cookie-cutter for me.

As other reviewers have noted, one of the bigger flaws of the novel is that it feels like someone has taken a four or five book series and tried to cram it all into a novel. Proehl is trying to do a lot of interesting things with his varied cast of characters, and the book has a bit of a long timeline. In the end, it was too much for one book, and none of it got explored with the depth needed to actually engage readers. Avi, for example, who is one of the major characters, has to come to terms with a crumbling marriage and essentially losing his super-powered daughter as she finds a sense of community with others like herself. All of this ends up feeling very surface level, as there is simply too much going on with the many other characters at the same time.

With super-powered humans going to a school and living largely segregated from regular humans, the novel with inevitably draw comparisons to X-Men. One thing I did like about this book was that it took a lot of the things that were purely allegorical in X-Men (i.e., parallels between the civil rights movement, the fight for gay rights, etc.) and brings them to forefront of the novel. Prejudice against super-powered people doesn’t suddenly mean your garden variety racism has been forgotten, and some of the characters in Proehl’s novels are dealing with intersecting levels of marginalization due to their status as, for example, immigrants, mix-race people, or members of the LGBTQ community, making their experiences more complex.

All in all, this was an okay book, but not necessarily one I’d recommend to anyone. If superhero stories are your speed, there are much better ones out there to read. Some of my favorites are the books in the Reckoners series, by Brandon Sanderson, which takes the interesting angle of making all the super-powered humans villains and giving us a cast of ordinary people fighting back.

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Conversations With Friends, by Sally Rooney (Review)


Conversations With Friends
by Sally Rooney

Genre: Contemporary

Length: 304 Pages

Release date: July 11, 2017

Publisher: Hogarth

Synopsis: 

A sharply intelligent novel about two college students and the strange, unexpected connection they forge with a married couple.

Frances is twenty-one years old, cool-headed, and darkly observant. A college student and aspiring writer, she devotes herself to a life of the mind–and to the beautiful and endlessly self-possessed Bobbi, her best friend and comrade-in-arms. Lovers at school, the two young women now perform spoken-word poetry together in Dublin, where a journalist named Melissa spots their potential. Drawn into Melissa’s orbit, Frances is reluctantly impressed by the older woman’s sophisticated home and tall, handsome husband. Private property, Frances believes, is a cultural evil–and Nick, a bored actor who never quite lived up to his potential, looks like patriarchy made flesh. But however amusing their flirtation seems at first, it gives way to a strange intimacy neither of them expect.As Frances tries to keep her life in check, her relationships increasingly resist her control: with Nick, with her difficult and unhappy father, and finally even with Bobbi. Desperate to reconcile herself to the desires and vulnerabilities of her body, Frances’s intellectual certainties begin to yield to something new: a painful and disorienting way of living from moment to moment.

Written with gem-like precision and probing intelligence, Conversations With Friends is wonderfully alive to the pleasures and dangers of youth.”

ratingtwo

“Gradually the waiting began to feel less like waiting and more like this was simply what life was: the distracting tasks undertaken while the thing you are waiting for continues not to happen.” 

As you can clearly see by the rating, I was not a fan of this book. I was so excited to get into it because I’d heard lovely things about the author and I stumbled across an autographed copy. (I’ll buy pretty much anything that’s autographed. It’s a problem.) Unfortunately, Conversations with Friends was immensely disappointing.

First and foremost, the prose is all very matter of fact and devoid of feeling. This may have been an intentional writing choice to reflect some level of emotional numbness of the protagonist while she’s going through an odd and difficult time in her life. Nonetheless, the end result makes for a very dry reading experience. Frances is dealing with some really heavy things in regards to her mental and physical health, but none of it was emotionally evocative in the slightest for the reader.

The story, which focuses on the relationships between Frances, her best friend Bobbi, and a married couple whom they befriend,  can essentially be summarized as “terrible people being terrible to each other.” The dry writing style could have easily been redeemed for me by an interesting plot, but nothing about this drew me into the story. The major thrust is an extra-marital affair that is wholly uninteresting in every way. Bland Frances gets together with a married, bland, almost-famous actor who’s using her 21-year-old body to make himself feel like he’s worthwhile as his youth and chances at success and fame fade away. Blah.

Frances seems so passive throughout the entire narrative and it drove me crazy. Frances doesn’t do much. Things happen to Frances and she says, “Oh, okay, I guess this is happening.” The affair with the married man, the come-ons from her best friend, life in general, it all just seems to happen without Frances giving much thought as to whether or not she wants these things or expending much effort to exert any semblance control over her life.

Her best friend, Bobbi, is even worse, practically oozing smugness at every opportunity. (Bobbi remarks at one point that Frances doesn’t really have a personality. Bobbi is right, but lord, this is how she talks to her best friend, so you can imagine how she comes across to the rest of the world.

I was so prepared to like this book. Lesbian and bisexual representation, mental and physical health themes, and explorations of complicated relationships? This could have been so interesting. Instead, it was simply boring and occasionally irritating. Oh, well. On to the next one!

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Member of the Family, by Dianne Lake (Review)

34217494
Member of the Family: My Story of Charles Mason, Life Inside His Cult, and the Darkness that Ended the Sixties
by Dianne Lake

Genre: Nonfiction, True Crime, Memoir

Length: 384 Pages

Release date: October 24, 2017

Publisher: William Morrow

Synopsis: 

In this poignant and disturbing memoir of lost innocence, coercion, survival, and healing, Dianne Lake chronicles her years with Charles Manson, revealing for the first time how she became the youngest member of his Family and offering new insights into one of the twentieth century’s most notorious criminals and life as one of his “girls”

At age fourteen Dianne Lake—with little more than a note in her pocket from her hippie parents granting her permission to leave them—became one of “Charlie’s girls,” a devoted acolyte of cult leader Charles Manson. Over the course of two years, the impressionable teenager endured manipulation, psychological control, and physical abuse as the harsh realities and looming darkness of Charles Manson’s true nature revealed itself. From Spahn ranch and the group acid trips, to the Beatles’ White Album and Manson’s dangerous messiah-complex, Dianne tells the riveting story of the group’s descent into madness as she lived it.

Though she never participated in any of the group’s gruesome crimes and was purposely insulated from them, Dianne was arrested with the rest of the Manson Family, and eventually learned enough to join the prosecution’s case against them. With the help of good Samaritans, including the cop who first arrested her and later adopted her, the courageous young woman eventually found redemption and grew up to lead an ordinary life.

While much has been written about Charles Manson, this riveting account from an actual Family member is a chilling portrait that recreates in vivid detail one of the most horrifying and fascinating chapters in modern American history.

Member of the Family includes 16 pages of photographs.

ratingfour

Member of the Family was not entirely what I expected, and I think in this case that was a good thing. A pretty significant portion of the book takes place before Charles Manson was ever on Dianne Lake’s radar, and this makes for a pretty interesting character study in what made Lake vulnerable to be recruited into a cult. She was just 14 years old and her parents had more or less checked out. Like many who find themselves recruited into cults, Lake was feeling incredibly isolated and desperate for some sense of belonging and stability. Charlie’s “family” seemed like they could provide that for her, and the prospect of being treated as an adult was also enticing to an adolescent.

Lake was not present for any of the infamous murders committed by Manson’s followers, although she was in the cult at the time the crimes occurred. Consequently, the book is devoid of any graphic descriptions of the group’s murder spree (something I think we can all do without.) However, the book should come with a content warning for physical and sexual abuse of a child. Lake suffered what she only later recognized as sexual abuse at the hands of older men starting from a very young age. This left her primed to be subject to Manson’s influence, as that behavior had been normalized for her.

Member of the Family is a difficult read at times, but an excellent first-hand exploration of the before, during, and after of becoming entrenched in a violent cult. Lake seems to have built a normal and healthy life for herself in the aftermath, keeping out of the public eye. I definitely recommend this book to true crime readers or people who are interested in the psychology behind cults.

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Stolen Things, by R.H. Herron (Review)


Stolen Things
by R.H. Herron

Genre: Thriller

Length: 368 Pages

Release date: August 20, 2019

Publisher: Dutton

Synopsis: 

A sensational crime, a missing teen, and a mother and daughter with no one to trust but themselves come together in this shocking debut thriller by R. H. Herron.

“Mama? Help me.”

Laurie Ahmadi has worked as a 911 police dispatcher in her quiet Northern California town for nearly two decades. She considers the department her family; her husband, Omid, is its first Arab American chief, and their teenaged daughter, Jojo, has grown up with the force. So when Laurie catches a 911 call and, to her horror, it’s Jojo, the whole department springs into action.

Jojo, drugged, disoriented, and in pain, doesn’t remember how she ended up at the home of Kevin Leeds, a pro football player famous for his on-the-field activism and his work with the CapB—“Citizens Against Police Brutality”—movement. She doesn’t know what happened to Kevin’s friend and trainer, whose beaten corpse is also discovered in the house. And she has no idea where her best friend Harper, who was with her earlier in the evening, could be.

But when Jojo begins to dive into Harper’s social media to look for clues to her whereabouts, Jojo uncovers a shocking secret that turns everything she knew about Harper—and the police department—on its head. With everything they thought they could rely on in question, Laurie and Jojo begin to realize that they can’t trust anyone to find Harper except themselves . . . and time is running out.

ratingthree

My thanks to NetGalley and Dutton for sending me an advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and are not influenced by the publisher. 

This book was a bit of a mixed bag for me. It’s compulsively readable and fast-paced, but the twist at the end is a bit much to swallow. I loved the alternating perspectives. “Mom who is practically married to her job” alternating with “teen daughter who the mother doesn’t know half as well as she thinks” is a little overdone in the genre at this point, but I thought it worked really well here.

There is a wide divide between the two POV characters, not just for typical “angsty teens are unreachable” reasons, but because Jojo is at a point in her life where she’s figuring out her own politics and value system, and they don’t align with those of her parents. Mystery/thriller novels are best, in my opinion, when they’re not driven solely by the mystery; Stolen Things has lots of interesting relationship dynamics to keep the story interesting.

One of the predominant themes of the book is police brutality, and that is part of what’s driving a wedge between Jojo and her parents, who both work in law enforcement (her father as a police chief and her mother, a former police officer as a 911 dispatcher). Also prominent in the story is an exploration of rape culture and victim blaming. While including social issues like these in a story can be admirable, I’m not sure that a fast-paced thriller is really up to the task of treating these topics with the gravity that would be necessary for them to feel like a natural part of the story. While the book is not categorized as Young Adult and is a bit too dark to fit into the genre, some of the passages which centered on social issues had a very YA feel to them.

Overall, this was definitely a page turner, but some sections felt awkward and fell flat. Stolen Things was worth a read and may be a great choice for fans of authors like Mary Kubica and Megan Miranda.

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