Estelle: Cancel the Wedding by Carolyn T. Dingman

Cancel the Wedding by Carolyn T. DingmanCancel the Wedding by Carolyn T. Dingman ( web | tweet )
Publication Date: August 5, 2014
Publisher: Harper Paperbacks
Pages: 416
Target audience: Adult
Keywords: summer, South, mothers/daughters, family secrets, romance, marriage
Format read: ARC from Publisher via Edelweiss (Thanks!)

Summary: Olivia escapes her job and fiancee to head off to a small town in Georgia to find out about her mother’s childhood, and discovers more than she expected… about her family and herself.

I think we’ve all probably hit a point in our life where we wish we could press pause, take a major break, and decompress.

In the world of fiction, this is possible for Olivia who leaves town as her fiancee tries to pin down a date for their long-time-coming wedding and decides to use the first year anniversary of her mother’s death to do it. She wanted her ashes spread into spots in her childhood hometown, a childhood that her mother (Janie) never shared with Olivia or her sister, Georgia.

So she’s really killing two birds on this impromptu road trip with her niece, Logan. Find out why her mom made these specific instructions and figure out if marriage to Leo and her demanding job is truly what she wants for her life.

I was immediately swept up in the small town of Huntley, Georgia. Debut author Carolyn Dingman painted such a charming portrait of the place where Janie grew up — down to the charming details of the building, the vast lake, and the friendly people. I was ready to head down there myself. The town is so tiny that it doesn’t take many to find a person who recognizes Janie’s last name, and soon the cute newspaper editor, Elliot, is part of the research team too.

Piece by piece, Olivia is formulating a family tree she never knew existed, learning about the fascinating history of the town (Tennessee Valley Authority Act!!)  her mother never wanted to talk about. I was totally hooked to this mystery (pretty creeped out at times), and loved as each part of the story clicked into place. Never predictable, Dingman kept me curious throughout the entire book. In fact, Cancel the Wedding was one of those books I kept thinking about when I was not reading it. (Isn’t this torturous sometimes?!)

As if Olivia’s life isn’t messy enough, she starts to feel completely at home in Georgia. It’s so unexpected and she’s so wrapped up in her mom’s story, that she doesn’t necessarily pay her “true life” the attention it needs. Avoiding Leo, discounting her sister’s advice, and even dismissing some of her niece’s own admissions. (This teen was smart.) You knew that reality was going to slap her in the face soon, and eee, I was nervous nervous nervous. But, at the same time, totally torn because I loved as she and Logan acclimated to life down South, Olive’s growing affection for Elliot, and how each discovery about her mother made her own life snap into better focus bit by bit.

It just that the whole “getting answers” part took longer than the people in her life wanted it to.

Honestly, the only drawback to Cancel the Wedding were the areas where the author decided to explain confrontations instead of present more dialogue. It made it a little difficult to hear the voices of the characters, and also to connect. I wouldn’t have minded an even longer story if there was a bit less exposition and more showing.

Despite that, the book was just so darn readable. I could not get enough of this sweet small town (the history was so impressive), the colorful supporting characters, budding romance, and a main character finding the bravery to put her life on the path she wants — even if that means making hard decisions later rather than sooner.

Cancel the Wedding is the perfect read for your summer getaway.

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Estelle: We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

We Were Liars by E LockhartWe Were Liars by E. Lockhart ( web | tweet )
Publication Date: May 13, 2014
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Pages: 240
Target audience: Young adult
Keywords: family obligations, secrets, summer, romance
Format read: ARC from Publisher via NetGalley. (Thanks!)

Summary:  Cadence Sinclair can’t remember anything. Except her cousins and the boy she loves = the Liars. Summertime with her family in Beechwood Island. And most of all, always putting on appearances.

The kind of power that Granddad wielded over his family makes me angry because this man with all of this money and all of his houses only grew to be more powerful because those around him were too weak to stand up to him. Too weak to stand up for what they wanted and too obsessed with the trust funds they heavily relied on. At least, that’s how his daughters felt. The grandkids — they were a different story.

Cadence (our narrator), Mirren, Johnny, and Gat (not related but not ignorant of these family dynamics) were tired of being pawns in their mom’s schemes to own all the best stuff, stay in Granddad’s good graces, and maintain the facade of the successful, wealthy Sinclair family. When you are young and 15, you can be idealistic and can be so gung-ho about eliciting change and breaking free from the obligations and unrealistic expectations of your family. While these four teenagers definitely had their share of immature moments (who doesn’t at 15), I do think they had a grasp on how the game was played.

But how could they alter things? Did they have the power?

Lockhart has written a captivating story of a puppeteering and manipulating patriarch who cares much more about dollars signs and maintaining control than formulating real bonds with his family and seeing the people in his family be happy by their own accord. So much of We Were Liars was completely fucked up. Using the young ones to keep your kids-who-are-now-adults in line, pushing aside the obvious prejudice Granddad feels toward Gat, and most importantly, how badly this family collects possessions in efforts to top the other.

While the character development was well-done (especially in the pettier scenes), Lockhart’s writing style completely blew me away. The rhythm felt calculated and perfect, and so poetic; it was fast paced and swept me up in this tornado of romance and treachery. I must note the dialogue. It was authentic but also had a flair of theatricality. I could picture these words making quite the impression on stage, and at the same time, could have easily pictured myself saying them in real life.

But for all the intriguing details of We Were Liars, something stopped me from feeling too connected to the story. (Is it possible for the writing to be a triumph and a hindrance at the same time? Maybe.) As Cadence searched for answers about that last summer at Beechwood Island, my brain was scrambling to pick up small clues and figure out what happened. Why had the Liars been ignoring her? Why did they not rush to her aid when she needed it? So I was more curious than anything. But, on the other hand, the romance between Gat and Cadence did turn me inside out because what happens when you feel so much for someone but see that nothing is falling easily into place? Especially since Beechwood was this exclusive, dreamlike world that fed their connection to one another and would never be a year-round thing.

We Are Liars is mysterious and heartbreaking, full of small-minded folks and a perpetual cycle of greed, and children who are forced to suffer because of it. It’s one of those books that had my brain working in overdrive, and also kept me so interested I finished in just about a day. While the style and tone of the writing was so memorable, I think a few fleshed out scenes (not too many, just enough) to balance out the prettily expressed thoughts would have served to create a connection I didn’t always feel.

Still, I think I need this book in my possession.

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Estelle: Recipe for a Happy Life by Brenda Janowitz

Recipe for a Happy Life by Brenda JanowitzRecipe for a Happy Life by Brenda Janowitz ( web | tweet )
Publication Date: July 2, 2013
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
Pages: 336
Target audience: adult
Keywords: summer in the Hamptons, mothers/daughters, moving forward
Format read: ARC eBook provided by author. (Thank you!)

Summary: After a mini-disaster, Hannah, a lawyer in NYC, escapes to the Hamptons for the summer to spend time with her grandmother and figure things out.

When it’s starting to get super frigid outside, there’s nothing like reading a book about the summertime.

Recipe for a Happy Life contains so many of the details I love to read about: the Hamptons, complicated grandmother/mother/ daughter relationships, and a perfect pinch of romance to spice things up.

Hannah is at her wit’s end when her boyfriend’s mother accuses her of trying to kill her boyfriend (it was a mistake! he’s alive!) and runs off to the comfort of her grandmother. Never being close with her always on the go, legendary photographer mother, Hannah finds comfort in her glamorous and generous grandmother (who has been married multiple times) and though she never feels like she can live up to her grandmother’s expectations, she is happy to be in her presence. (Even if this means attending parties she doesn’t want to go to and being dressed up in expensive clothes.)

As you can probably guess, Hannah’s hope for a “no drama” few months in the Hamptons is anything but. When she bumps into Nate, a guy she went to law school with and pretty much loathes, she can’t seem to get rid of him and soon realizes, maybe she doesn’t really want to. Then there’s her mother’s visit, countless frosty interactions and a hidden family secret that comes to the surface and threatens to break bonds just as more bad news comes crashing down.

It may seem like a lot (and it is, for one summer) but Janowitz balances all of the unfortunate news with some vibrant supporting characters like the charming Nate, rock star Jaime, and teenaged Hunter who injects a certain amount of innocence and comedy into these pages. I swear, his character is so memorable and I loved how Hunter and Hannah formed an unlikely (but much needed for both) bond during this summer. Janowitz’s attention to her secondary characters truly made Recipe for a Happy Life stand out amongst other beachy dramas.

This book was practically burning a hole in my bag. Every time I had to put it down, I couldn’t wait for the next free moment when I could pick it up again. All of the life-altering events that occur during Hannah’s summer seem so necessary to her growth as a person and also assisted her in letting go of old prejudices she had held onto for years. By the end of the book, she is more independent, more understanding of her family, and also has a clearer focus on what she wants for the future.

I am officially a Brenda Janowitz fan!

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Estelle: The Lost Summer by Kathryn Williams

The Lost Summer by Kathryn WilliamsThe Lost Summer by Kathryn Williams ( web | tweet)
Publication Date: July 14, 2009
Publisher: Hyperion
Pages: 253
Target audience: Young adult
Keywords: summer camp, growing up, friendships
Format read: Borrowed from the library.
Other book I reviewed by this author: Pizza, Love, and Other Things That Made Me Famous…

Summary: Another summer, another couple weeks of summer camp – a tradition that Helena looks forward to every year — only this year she has been promoted from camper to counselor. While she’s excited about this change, the one downer is her best friend, Katie Bell, still has one more year left as a camper. Though Helena is determined to overlook this difference as best she can, soon she has no choice but to accept that her job title is just the beginning of change occurring this summer.

While Terra Elan McVoy’s The Summer of Firsts and Lasts made me fall hard for summer camp, Kathryn William’s The Lost Summer had me practically smelling the fresh air and hearing the bugles opening every morning.

But oh, the innocence, of summer doesn’t last forever when Helena arrives as a counselor and her best friend, Katie Bell, is still a camper. At first, Helena tries to make it seem like every other summer but when the afterhours meet-ups start happening and she thinks her long-time crush, Ransome, might actually notice her, a whole new world opens itself up and she can’t turn back.

Inevitable changes in an otherwise routine summer are what start to push Helena and Katie apart. In fact, Helena is kind of helpless because she has no choice but to do her job and the prospect of spending more time with Ransome is practically a dream come true. Katie doesn’t take it too well either, starts to act out and we see how naturally growing pains can come between even the closest of friends.

Williams is so spot-on with this familiar problem. Friends growing apart and there is nothing you can do about it. An age-old issue where distractions and time come between the two of you and you’re not so sure you can overcome it. It was painful to read because you could see how much these two girls loved each other, and yet it was so understandable – sometimes it’s no one’s fault and things like this just happen.

But can it be fixed?

The Lost Summer hits on that awkward summer, when you are on the cusp of adulthood but so much want to crawl up on the couch near your mom and have her solve all of your problems. It’s a great mix of fun, and first love, and feeling out friendships and learning a little about trust.

There’s a big game changer of an event that occurs toward the end of the book, and I’m still up in the air about how it popped out of nowhere and changed things even more drastically for the main character. In the end, this event brought many truths to light… even if it was a harsh way to learn a life lesson.

After reading Pizza, Love… and enjoying it for its fluff and lightness, I was very satisfied with all the mature situations Williams presented in this novel and how real the emotions felt. I was so wrapped up in this inviting setting with multi-dimensional characters who face a life-changing summer that I read most of it in one sitting. rather be reading worth it icon

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Estelle: Wild Awake by Hilary T. Smith

Wild Awake by Hilary T. SmithWild Awake by Hilary T. Smith ( twitter | web )
Publication Date: May 28, 2013
Publisher: Katherine Tegen Books (HarperCollins)
Pages: 400
Target audience: Mature young adult (drug use, murder)
Keywords: music, family, siblings, summer, family secrets
Format read: Paperback borrowed from Jamie at Perpetual Page Turner.

Summary: Kiri is ready to make this a summer to remember with the house all to herself while her parents are on a long summer vacation. She knows she has to keep up with her piano lessons in preparation for the big symposium, but she’ll also be rocking out with her best friend aka the guy of her dreams, Lukas, in their band in hopes of winning Battle of the Bands. A call from a stranger changes the course of her summer, when she finds herself heading into a seedy part of town to pick up the possessions of her dead older sister years and years after she died in an accident. And suddenly the summer changes…

In her debut, Hilary T. Smith weaves electrifying visuals with a raw (and fresh) writing style, as our main character discovers that life as she knows it is a complete mystery.

Kiri is a genius pianist with a golden future ahead of her. She also plays the synthesizer in her best friend, Lukas’ band. She’s a sister (to a brother named Denny and her deceased older sister, Sukey). She smokes pot. She loves to ride her bike. And the straight path she thinks she is on — the one that includes taming her eyebrows, wooing Lukas, and keeping up with her piano lessons — is suddenly busted wide open when she receives a call from a stranger who claims he has the last of her sister’s stuff and it’s her last chance to come around and pick it up.

This is when Kiri’s surroundings become like a ticking time bomb, or some kind of twisted version of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Telltale Heart… except the ticking and the constant beating that her family has been trying to ignore and bury deep into the earth is: truth. What really happened to Sukey? Why wasn’t Kiri in the loop? Why does no one talk about her now? What is going on with her family? What is going on with her?

In the midst of these tragic and emotional discoveries, peppered with memories of a sister she idolized and cared so deeply about, Kiri bumps into Skunk one day, a random guy who seems nice enough and fixes her bike. And then she bumps into him again and they begin to bond in a way she hasn’t been able to do with others — partly because he knows this new truth. Their coupling is totally unconventional — it’s not based on looks or having a certain hobby in common. It really feels like happenstance. Kiri and Skunk slowly begin to depend on another, and even when the relationship reaches this peak of perfection (hello, Chapter 24) — nothing, still, is as it seems.

After a lifetime of balancing many roles — a kid who is motivated just to make her parents happy, the girl a guy can’t see, the rocking girl in a band — Kiri is spiraling, spiraling out of control. She can’t sleep, she can’t shut her mind off, and she continues to fall, fall, fall into some dangerous black hole. It’s amazing how much grief can transform you, even when it’s retroactive… even when you thought you were done with all of that.

Smith gives Kiri such a vivid voice — she’s insecure, she’s artistic, she feels sexy, she feels free, she feels stuck. Will she be able to crawl out of this? Confide in someone? Be honest with her parents? Be honest with herself? Wild Awake isn’t your typical summer contemporary novel. The vibrancy the beautiful cover promises is not immediately apparent. In ways, this novel reminds me so much of Kirsty Eagar’s Raw Blue, a story that may have been centered on a horrific moment but still celebrates the lighter moments in life while balancing tough consequences and decisions.

So even if I didn’t necessarily understand Kiri’s actions all the time — they were legit insane out-of-control — they felt like authentic reactions to when your life is turned on its axis and spun and spun until you are so dizzy… nothing looks right anymore. I hoped for Kiri to find some peace, to find a friend, learn to hold true to her memories and not let them be tainted by the events of this summer, and, most importantly, come to terms with what she wants for herself.

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Estelle: This is What Happy Looks Like by Jennifer E. Smith

This is What Happy Looks Like by Jennifer E. SmithThis is What Happy Looks Like by Jennifer E. Smith ( web | tweet )
Publication Date: April 2, 2013
Publisher: Poppy (Hachette Books)
Pages: 416
Target audience: Young adult
Keywords: Summer, fate, celebrities, secrets
Format read: ARC paperback from Publisher. (Thank you!)

Summary: A wrongly addressed email leads to an unlikely friendship between Graham and Ellie, who share a ton of details with each other but never their names. While Ellie lives in a small town in Maine with her mom, Graham is actually a huge Hollywood heartthrob. When his next filming location falls through, Graham decides to test fate and gets the production to move to Ellie’s hometown, where they will hopefully meet once and for all.

It’s kind of surreal to think one tiny blunder could have the power to totally change your life, isn’t it?

This is exactly what happens when Graham’s email about his pet pig accidentally pops up in Ellie’s inbox. A funny whoops leads to an unexpected friendship, where Graham and Ellie eagerly swap emails about small details of their lives, intimately getting to know each other without exchanging names.

Because if they did exchange names, Ellie would immediately recognize Graham as the Graham Larkin and really, what’s the point of names anyway? It’s not like they will ever meet, or these emails will amount to any more than a total highlight to their days. Right? But Graham uses his status to his advantage and when the opportunity comes up to spend a summer shooting a film in Ellie’s hometown, he makes it happen. It’s almost farcical when we find out Ellie’s frustrated that a film crew is disrupting her beloved town’s summer, and Graham is wondering what is going to happen when he finally introduces himself to the girl, the only girl, he feels really knows him.

(Oh, the pressure and zany missteps that lead to their meeting!)

In Jennifer E. Smith’s fourth YA novel, she takes a once in a lifetime occurrence and writes it as if it is the most natural thing in the world. Lyrical prose transported me to that small (“where everyone knows your name”) sea town and had me salivating for all the sight and sounds and feels of summer: the unbearable heat, the relief of a swim, the ice cream, the stars, and the bubbling possibilities. There’s a delicate yet smooth rhythm to this book that reminded me much of her second, You Are Here. Graham and Ellie are two characters who are both going through an internal exploration: the aftermath of his fame and what he really wants for himself while she is haunted by a secret that her and her mom have buried and her need to stay in control, even when she needs to ask for help. (This secret? Not a fan of this sub-story line, and kept me wondering, right through the end, how necessary it really was. Didn’t Graham and Ellie have enough hurdles without this?)

One common thread between Smith’s work, one I believe sets her apart in the young adult genre, is the way she crafts relationships between her characters. They are not solely based on chemistry and attraction, and much of the time, are built upon something so much more: shared interests and bonding over silly yet important details; there is a certain amount of maturity given to these characters and friendship becomes the root of any romance. The possibility of Graham and Ellie working out feels that much truer because of it.

It’s true that This is What Happy Looks Like is not The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight. It took some time for me to adjust my own expectations accordingly because timing wise, that 24-hour window we had in Stat doesn’t exist here, making the feel of these books so unbelievably different. The urgency, the intensity softens in Happy to more of a lull, to gorgeous, quiet moments that encompass a lot of introspection from both sides, as well as off-camera communication through emails (an added layer I loved).

I have the utmost respect for Smith’s writing and I don’t mind calling myself a Jennifer E. Smith cheerleader. Last year, I read every single one of her books and I found them each to be so refreshing and more delightful than the last (Great settings, personal challenges, romance, and dimensional family dynamics!). I appreciate that she took some risk in Happy, especially after coming off the (well-deserved) success of Stat. I love how she builds on such serendipitous instances, while steadily writing about relatable themes without underestimating her reader.

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