The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

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"I have lost control over everything, even the places in my head."

There is no denying that one of last year's "it" books was The Girl on the Train by debut author Paula Hawkins. Everywhere I looked, it seemed people were reading the book! Amongst my fellow reviewers, reaction to the novel was pretty polarizing. They either loved it or couldn't even stand to finish it. I'll admit that I had a slight aversion to jumping on the band wagon. I've voiced my disapproval of book's that contain the word "girl" in the title just to draw a comparison to Gone Girl. I feared that this would be yet another subpar imitation of that novel. As I started reading it, however, I soon found that I couldn't have been more mistaken.

Life has been hard on Rachel. The grief of not being able to conceive a child eventually took its toll on her marriage. As depression settled in, Rachel turned to alcohol to ease the pain. Her husband turned to another woman. Now, Rachel's life is nothing more than a mundane routine of work and self medication. Each morning she rides the train to work, passing the home she once shared. For a brief instance, she can see into the homes of her former neighborhood. One young couple in particular draws her attention, and she begins to fantasize about their seemingly perfect life.

This voyeuristic curiosity soon begins to take over Rachel's life. She looks forward to her twice daily glimpse into the couple's perfect relationship. Besides alcohol, the story of Jason and Jess (names that Rachel has assigned) becomes her escape from the depression that clouds her mind. Soon reality invades Rachel's fantasy and shatters the idealistic narrative that that she constructed. The Jess has gone missing and the Jason seems to be the primary suspect. Determined to help the couple and to preserve the one part of her life that is positive, Rachel contacts the police to tell them about everything she has watched. But how can the police trust the word of someone who has never even met the couple? More so, how can they seriously consider the word of a woman who gets blackout drunk every evening?

In The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins uses an unreliable narrator to cloud her otherwise straightforward thriller into a murky mirage of uncertainty. Through her consistently inconsistent recollections, Rachel attempts to string together a narrative that is mired in alcohol induced chasms. For her part, Hawkins does an admiral job getting us to care for Rachel. She is a character who seems to be the sole enabler of her misfortunes, but the backstory that Hawkins provides gives her both depth and sympathy. Even though I guessed the conclusion a few pages before it was revealed, the pulse pounding suspense that permeated every moment toward that discovery more than made up for that flaw. The Girl on the Train is a cleverly plotted novel that deserves every bit of the acclaim it has received. If this debut is any indication of things to come in Hawkins career, I can't wait to see what she comes up with next.

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.

(2016, 19)

Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

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"Remember, every treasure comes with a price."

When the blistering heat of the Texas summer hits, I usually change my reading habits a bit. My idea of the perfect summer read is a book that has a quick pace, doesn't require too much deep thought, but one that also doesn't sacrifice quality in favor of being fun. With that in mind, I decided to pick up Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan. This novel has been sitting on my shelf for a couple of years, just waiting for the perfect moment to be read. Described by the publisher as a "outrageously funny debut novel", Crazy Rich Asians seemed like the perfect book to kickoff my summer reading.

The novel follows Nicholas Young and his girlfriend Rachel Chu as they travel to Singapore to meet Nick's family. The academic couple have lived comfortably together for a few years in America. While Rachel and Nick are very comfortable with her single mother, they have yet to meet Nick's large extended family. As the couple heads to Singapore, Nick begins to stress about the details of the meeting. He loves Rachel, but his family can be difficult to deal with. He's also left out one giant detail about his family. . . they are unfathomably wealthy!

Eleanore Young is worried sick about her son. Word has traveled through the grapevine of her various social circles that Nick is bringing home his girlfriend Rachel with the intent to propose to her. Surely these rumors must be mistaken. How could Nick be ready to propose to a girl when he never even mentioned the woman to his mother?! Worse, if the rumors are to be believed, Rachel is an ABC (American Born Chinese). Mrs. Young will not stand to have her son's emotions and bank account be taken advantage of by a woman who is not worthy of the Young family's stature. She vows to do everything in her power (lots of money means lots of power!) to protect Nick and to maintain the prosperity of the Young family name.

Crazy Rich Asians is a novel full of family drama and satire that reads like an over the top soap opera in the same vein as the TV show Desperate Housewives. The tone is light and the pace is brisk. In other words, the novel works as a diversional summer read. Those expecting anything more than that may be disappointed. While Kwan is clearly writing from experience, his story ends up being nothing more than a surface level melodrama. I found myself chuckling at the absurdity of some of the situations, but found it really hard to connect with the over-the-top characters. At over four hundred pages, the material soon begins to overstay its welcome and becomes redundant. Worse, when the book does finally end, most of the narrative threads are left open for a sequel. I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy this book, but the overlong length and lack of any clear resolution might be enough to deter others from spending time with this crazy rich family.

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.

(2016, 18)





Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews

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"I don't know how to live a normal human life."

Greg Gains has high school all figured out. The school is comprised of various cliques, and a student's social status within the school is determined by which clique they are in. As anyone who has gone through high school can imagine, finding your place within that enigmatic social structure can be quite the challenge. Greg has a simple solution. Rather than exhausting himself with the search for the perfect clan, Greg doesn't belong to any of them. By keeping a low profile, he avoids any of the complications that come with a social life.

With all that in mind, you may wonder how Greg manages this life of self-imposed solitude. The truth is that he isn't actually the loner that he seems to be. Greg has only one real friend, Earl. The two boys bonded over a love for classic films and spend their spare time crafting movies of their own. With a dysfunctional family to deal with at home, Earl has little time or interest in finding other friends. This makes him an optimal companion for the introverted Greg.

Greg seems destined to escape high school unscathed, but the titular dying girl comes along and changes everything. Rachel and Greg had the kind of awkward young love that was doomed from the start. He only ended up dating her because he was too peculiar to score the girl he truly desired. That was a while ago. His master plan of not belonging to any group meant limited interaction with people other than Earl. . . especially an ex girlfriend. Now that his mom has dropped the bombshell that Rachel has cancer, Greg feels obligated to reconnect and somehow cheer her up. There's only one problem. Befriending the campus's resident dying girl threatens the anonymity that Greg has desperately tried to achieve.

In Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, author Jesse Andrews defies the conventions of the teen romance genre with satirical wit and emotional heft. Any expectations that I had as I began the novel were immediately negated. Greg narrates the story with the kind of self deprecating humor that is both amusing and genuine. The story itself is not uncommon. It is the way that Andrews plays with our preconceptions of the story that makes the novel so compelling. While other books like The Fault in Our Stars use a cancer story to maximize dramatic and sentimental effect, this novel takes a more nuanced and realistic approach. In a genre that usually tries to inject some kind of deeper meaning into the narrative, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl dares to take situations at face value. By embracing the mundane nature of everyday life, the book is ultimately elevated to a remarkable commentary on death.

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.

(2016, 17)

Giveaway: Pigeon-Blood Red by Ed Duncan

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Pigeon-Blood Red is a fast-paced and suspenseful crime thriller by Ed Duncan. It was released in March 2016, published by Zharmae and is available for sale on Amazon.

Duncan says, "It's always been said that you should write what you know. I am a lawyer - as is a pivotal character in the novel who is being pursued by a hit man - and I'm excited to be able to use my legal training creatively as well as professionally."

Synopsis
For underworld enforcer Richard "Rico" Sanders, it seemed like an ordinary job. Retrieve his gangster boss's priceless pigeon-blood red ruby necklace and teach the double-dealing cheat who stole it a lesson. A job like a hundred before it. But the chase quickly goes sideways. It takes Rico from the mean streets of Chicago to the sunny Honolulu. The hardened hit man finds himself in uncharted territory when a couple of innocent bystanders are accidentally embroiled in the crime.

As Rico pursues his new targets, the hunter and his prey develop an unlikely respect for one another. Rico is faced with a momentous decision: follow his orders to kill the couple whose courage and character have won his admiration, or refuse and endanger the life of the woman he loves.

About Ed Duncan
Ed Duncan is a graduate of Oberlin College and Northwestern University Law School. He was partner at a national law firm in Cleveland, Ohio for many years. He currently lives outside of Cleveland and is at work on the second installment in the Pigeon-Blood Red trilogy. To learn more, go to http://eduncan.net/

Giveaway
Enter to win a kindle copy of this book by using the widget below. Contest is open to US residents only. No P.O. Boxes please. Contest will run to 6/3. Winner will have 48 hours to respond after being contacted.


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The Grownup by Gillian Flynn

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"She defines and eliminates problems. She's practical in an evil way."

Gillian Flynn, author of the bestselling Gone Girl, returns with The Grownup, a novella that features her signature suspense with a dark flair. The story centers around a young woman who has spent her whole life conning people out of their money. She spent her formative years on the street with her mother. Over time, she learned how to read people and to devise the perfect sob story to convince them to hand over some cash. As soon as she was old enough, the woman ventured out on her own and began to make a comfortable living off of her various crimes.

Now our unnamed narrator finds herself "servicing" men in the back room of a bogus fortune teller establishment. When carpal tunnel prevents her from effectively executing her job, she uses her natural intuition to earn a spot at the front of the building as a psychic. Susan Burke seems like an easy target for the narrator. She instantly gives the impression of a woman who is unhappy with her marriage and life at home. On her first visit to cleanse Susan's Victorian mansion of whatever is plaguing it, the narrator soon discovers that there may actually be some truth to Susan's claims of an evil presence. For the first time in her life, the narrator may be the one who is blindsided by the reality of the situation.

At less that a hundred pages, The Grownup is a quick read that easily held my interest. There is a genuine sense of dread that permeates the pages of the work, even when the story gets a little too overblown to be taken seriously. Flynn really plays up the genre to the point where it becomes unclear if she is intentionally making the situation outrageous or not. Just when I thought I had her end game figured out, Flynn turned the story on its head with an ending that completely caught me off guard. There is clearly a larger moral to the work that pertains to the narrator's special ability, but the short length doesn't allow this lesson to come to a convincing fruition. Ultimately, The Grownup is an enjoyable distraction that should whet appetite of Flynn's fans while paling in comparison to her other novels.

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.

(2016, 16)

Wilde Lake by Laura Lippman

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"We always want our heroes to be better than their times, to hold the enlightened views we have achieved one hundred, fifty, ten years later."

Luisa "Lu" Brandt's childhood is one of both tragedy and triumph. Her mother died one day after giving birth to Lu, leaving Andrew Jackson Brandt to raise her and her older brother AJ. Mr. Brandt never adapted to the domesticity that being a single father demands, but he did fiercely love his children. Never having a true female role model, other than the family housekeeper Teensy, Lu struggled to find her place in the world. Even in the idealistic community of Columbia, teachers and students were hesitant to accept Lu for the individual free spirit that she was. Throughout the tribulations of adolescence, Lu learned that family was the only thing in life that would never waver. This lesson was cemented into her being on the night that AJ killed a local townsman while defending a friend. Her father used his influence as the State's Attorney to see that the incident was swiftly resolved and didn't cause any unneeded trauma to his son.

Years later, Lu finds her life coming full circle. After her husband's untimely death, she relocated herself and her twin children back to her childhood home. Not long after the move, she was elected to hold the very same office her father held years ago. With the shadow of her father's highly revered career looming over her, Lu hits the ground running by taking on a murder case. The incident of a mentally unstable drifter killing a local young woman seems like the perfect way for Lu to assert the power of her new job. But new revelations force Lu to face inconsistencies in her own past and call into question the memories that she holds dear.

Readers of Laura Lippman's novels have come to expect intricate mysteries that keep the pages turning and our imaginations working. While Wilde Lake certainly does its part to keep this tradition alive, it is much more a family drama than a conventional thriller. As the story unfolds, the relationship between Lu and her father and brother takes center stage. Yes, there is a mystery that will keep you guessing to the very end, but this mystery is not the central focus of the novel. Rather, the murder case is used to advance the development of the the true nature of the family's narrative.

The novel alternates between past and present. The present day sections read like many of Lippman's past efforts. Lu is a flawed character who we can't help but connect with and root for. It is in the sections about Lu's childhood where Lippman offers something refreshingly different. Echoes of Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird permeate the story of a young girl being raised by her lawyer father. The childlike innocence of these portions only add to the suspense of the present day mystery. As past and present collide, Lippman weaves a poignant tale that comments on family loyalty and the vulnerability of memory. Wilde Lake is a stirring work that proves that Lippman is a master of her craft.

To enter to win one of two copies of this novel, use the RaffleCopter widget below. Open to US residents. No P.O. boxes please. Ends 5/17. After being contacted, winner will have 48 hours to respond.

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.

(2016, 15)

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