Estelle: Burning by Elana K. Arnold

Burning by Elana K. ArnoldBurning by Elana K. Arnold ( web | tweet )
Publication Date: June 11, 2013
Publisher: Delacorte (Random House Kids)
Pages: 308
Target audience: Young adult
Keywords: post-high school graduation, gyspies, desert, recession
Format read: Hardcover provided to me by author. (Thanks!!)

Summary: Ben and his family are a few days away from leaving Gypsum, a town built on a mine that is no longer needed and cost everyone their jobs. With a scholarship to college, Ben will be living away from his friends and family for the first time ever. At the same time, Lala and her family are in town for the Burning Man festival hoping to make some money giving readings to people in attendance. As part of a Gypsy family, Lala is a few months away from marrying the groom her parents have chosen for her but she’s starting to wonder about that future…

Ben is a fixer and kind of a worrier. I can so relate to both of these qualities. He and his family are being forced out of Gypsum, a town dependent on the success of their mine. Unfortunately, the recession and lack of home construction makes the gypsum useless (it’s used in drywall) and the town is forced to close up for good.

One by one, Ben watches his neighbors leave and more paced boxes pile up in his own house. His family will move to Reno, and so will his two best friends, but Ben has the golden ticket — a scholarship to run at USCD. Despite all the hard work he did to earn it, part of him feels guilty. His dad doesn’t have a job. (Is he too old to find meaningful work?) And what about his younger brother James? Ben has been dodging bullies for the kid for years, and he’s worried about James being “too different.”

All of these changes are really weighing on Ben. He’s struggling with leaving the only place he has ever known, a place he most likely won’t see again. Being without his family and friends for the first time ever, and just generally unsure of what the future holds.

On the flip side of this story is Lala. A young girl from a gypsy family who is in town for an annual festival, hoping to make some money telling people their fortunes. Ben and Lala’s upbringing couldn’t be anymore different. She has been told what to wear, what tasks she must complete, and also, who to marry. In fact, she is betrothed to her sister’s brother-in-law and will be marrying him as soon as she turns 18.

Despite all of these restrictions and expectations, Lala truly loves her life. She enjoys fortunes (she is great at reading people), she adores her siblings, and for a long time she couldn’t think of a better life than marrying and getting to spend more and more time hanging out with her sisters. (Even if it meant she wasn’t in love.) But slowly things are starting to bother her. She reads many books and wonders what else is out there, and it’s not until Ben walks into her fortune tent that her mind really starts going into overdrive.

It’s that whole “you can’t unthink something once you think it” kind of thing.

As you can see, there’s a lot of backstory for both characters and it did take quite some time for me to get swept into Burning. I’m so happy that I stuck with it because the writing is utterly beautiful and I could legitmately picture these settings in my head, gain understanding of the gypsy culture, and also hear the voices of Ben and Lala so clearly. (It helped that Lala speaks so formally; she sounded much older than she really was.)

And the two of them together? Ben and Lala are taken by each other very soon after their first meeting, and even though she tries to resist and Ben kinda/sorta gives up, when they finally get their day together… wow. Their chemistry is so strong, and I loved as they swapped their different life stories with each other. Even though there was this ticking time bomb in the background, I felt like this moment, any moments they shared together, would prove to be so effective and memorable no matter the endgame.

In the period of just a few days, Arnold changes the lives of both of her characters. And not in ways I totally expected either. Burning is a unique story of moving forward, embracing independence, making tough decisions, and discovery. Some of it is beautiful, and some of it is messy and Arnold doesn’t feel she needs to tie everything up in a pretty package. I really appreciated that even if that meant my heart breaking at times. Despite the enchanting feel of the story, Burning is rooted in some tough realism for all of the characters and I was ridiculously impressed by their strength, their honesty, and their blunders.

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Estelle: The Secret Ingredient by Stewart Lewis

The Secret Ingredient by Stewart LewisThe Secret Ingredient by Stewart Lewis ( web | tweet )
Publication Date: June 11, 2013
Publisher: Delacorte (Random House)
Pages: 256
Target audience: Young adult
Keywords: adoption, cooking, family, summer
Format read: Paperback ARC from Shanyn. Thanks!

Summary: Olive has a great family — two days that love her and a brother, Jeremy, who might not always do the right thing but he always has her back. But she’s starting to feel like something is missing — will finding her birth mother be that thing? Or is it Theo, the boy who returns with his own secrets?

Last year, I sat curled up at a hotel pool reading You Have Seven Messages. I fell hard for Stewart Lewis’ lyrical prose. So it was with great anticipation that I started The Secret Ingredient.

I love how Lewis has created another old soul character in Olive, a master chef in her own kitchen and her dad’s restaurant before she has even graduated high school. She’s insightful and loyal, as she wades through the many unknowns in her life: who is her real mom? Will her dad lose his beloved restaurant? What about their home? She has a lot on her plate, so to speak. But the confidence she has in her family unit does shine through, even during the rough, quiet moments. Another Lewis signature touch is the closeness of the siblings. Despite their different bloodlines, I really liked how Jeremy and Olive related to one another even though their goals were so different. They didn’t tiptoe around the other when they were unhappy with each other’s choices, and still showed such solidarity and affection.

I’ll be honest, I’m a little jealous of how easy Olive can whip together delicious dishes. She finds apples and black beans and makes burritos, friends. It’s like magic! Why can’t I do this? I think a character like Olive can teach us a lot of things. How confident some people can be in some areas, and how it takes some time to catch up in others. Just how observant a character can be about the world. And when it comes to finding her mom, she’s not entirely honest with her Dads, but she also doesn’t go in hoping for a happily ever after either. She’s a realist.

Trips to Laguna Beach, a great moments with her best pal, Lola, the story of an old cookbook, and a sweet romance with the mysterious Theo swirl in and out of The Secret Ingredient, and all add up to a summer of discovery and lots of imagination for Olive. Once again, Lewis has caused me to fall in love with another multi-dimensional and intelligent character. And this story? It felt so fast-paced even though I worked to enjoy every single word. It was just as good as one of Olive’s masterpiece dinners.

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P.S. Did you know they were making a movie of this book during the summer?

Estelle: Piece of My Heart by Lynn Maddalena Menna

Piece of My Heart by Lynn Maddelena MennaPiece of My Heart by Lynn Maddalena Menna
Publication Date: June 18, 2013
Publisher: Merit Press
Pages: 218
Target audience: Young adult
Keywords: budding singer, New York City, music scene
Format read: eBook from Publisher via NetGalley! (Thanks!)

Summary: Marisol has been working hard to get her voice noticed by someone in the music industry. When her chance finally arrives, will it all work out? With an unsupportive on and off again boyfriend and distractions at every turn, she has a lot more on her plate than she realizes.

Piece of My Heart reminded me of that Jay-Z song “Empire State of Mind”:

Concrete jungle where dreams are made of
There’s nothing you can’t do
These streets will make you feel brand new
Big lights will inspire you
Let’s hear it for New York

Marisol is a sassy and ambitious young lady living in Harlem and hoping her killer voice will make her a music phenomenon. She sacrifices time with her best friends and her on-and-off again boyfriend, Julian, to work with her friends, doing karaoke for parties from Manhattan to the Hamptons. Hoping, just hoping that one evening her dreams will come true and someone important will notice her.

She doesn’t have to wait long. In the opening chapter, she is already set to record a track with one of her biggest musical influences (and crushes) and so begins a fast-paced story where the music industry seems so accessible to these characters, it’s almost like a fairy tale.

But Marisol’s journey to get what she wants is not easy. There are definite setbacks and people she comes in contact who may want more from her than just her talent. She may be a little naive but our girl seems to have her head screwed on straight. She wants to make it the right way.

For a girl on the verge of 18 though, Menna writes Piece of My Heart in a very young tone even though there are a lot of mature situations unfolding. I wish she had dived more into Marisol’s dad’s unexpected death, or really fleshed out her relationships with her best friends. And then there is Julian. Julian, who gets mad that Marisol spends a majority of her time doing something music related. For a guy that Marisol is so in love with, he doesn’t seem to support her dreams so much. His character is totally selfish, and I was wishing for Marisol to live up to her fiesty personality and let him go. He didn’t deserve her.

Piece of My Heart reminded me a bit of Audrey Wait and Awkward (the sudden fame), it fell more on the serious side of things and felt a little rushed. I think I would have enjoyed this one more if the actions and thoughts of the main character were more age appropriate and some of the plotlines were more streamlined.

A bonus? Menna wrote some original songs and showcased them in the story. Definitely a nice addition.

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Estelle: Island Girls by Nancy Thayer

Island Girls by Nancy ThayerIsland Girls by Nancy Thayer ( web | facebook )
Publication Date: June 18, 2013
Publisher: Random House/Ballantine Books
Pages: 320
Target audience: Adult
Keywords: Nantucket, family secrets, sister, summer
Format read: ARC from Publisher via NetGalley.

Summary: Three sisters (two step, one half) are forced to spend 3 months together at their recently deceased father’s house in Nantucket in order for them to inherit the house and sell it off.

Nantucket, Nantucket! This place is all I hear about lately. And rightfully so, it is the perfect setting for a summer novel. Small town, beautiful people, clear skies, bright stars, and gorgeous beaches. I’m always wishing I could jump right into the pages of my book and be right there, alongside the characters.

Despite the serene environment, Island Girls is a bit of a drama fest. (In an addicting way.) Rory, dad to Arden and Meg (different moms) and adopted dad to Jenny, has just passed away and stipulates in his will that the girls must spend three months together at the family house in Nantucket in order for them to be able to sell it and reap the benefits. Doesn’t sound so bad, right? Wrong. Very wrong. Back when they were in their early teens, Arden and Meg were “exiled” from the Nantucket house by Rory’s third wife, Justine, after she accused Arden of stealing her necklaces. The sisterhood the three girls had been forming was immediately shut down, and in the recent years, anytime they see each other was as an obligation to their dad.

Now in their 30s, they are all determined to get through the summer without killing each other.

Luckily each of them have some distractions: Arden is looking for a new angle for her TV show (after she was deemed “too old”; shes 34.); Meg is finishing up her May Alcott book, on break from school and standing clear of her feelings for a younger colleague; Jenny hopes to make up for lost years with her sisters and finally find out who her dad is.

Tall orders for three months, don’t you think?

There is something about Island Girls that kept me hanging on every word. The family dysfunction, the cautious friendship growing between the girls, and the most unconventional family reunion near the end; I could not put it down. The novel might not be perfect (the dialogue seemed a little too old for women in their 30s plus there was a fairy tale ending) but I liked how it was a little love letter to Nantucket, the sexy relationship between Meg and Liam, and how these woman did try to make the best out of some crazy situations.

So if you can’t make it up to Nantucket any time soon, Island Girls is the next best thing!

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Estelle: Two of a Kind by Susan Mallery

Two of a Kind by Susan Mallery: Fool's Gold seriesTwo of a Kind by Susan Mallery ( web | tweet )
Part of the Fool’s Gold series.
Publication Date: June 25, 2013
Publisher: Harlequin HQN
Pages: 379
Target audience: Adult
Keywords: romance, new jobs, surprises
Format read: eBook from Publisher via NetGalley (Thanks!)

Summary: Felicia and Gideon had one night together many moons ago. And Felicia has never forgotten it. When the two reunite in Fool’s Gold, much has changed: Felicia is making her home there, recruited for a huge job linked to the town’s traditions and Gideon is still reeling from his capture and torturing. He can’t promise Felicia much but when she asks him a favor, he’s glad they have each other’s back because life isn’t done surprising the two.

The Fool’s Gold series continues to suck me in!

What you need to know about Felicia: She is so book smart and so sheltered that she talks in such technicalities and sounds like a walking textbook. Even when it comes to sex. While I sometimes felt embarrassed for her, this quality also made her genuinely honest and straightforward. (Fun fact: instead of putting leaves or hearts on top of lattes she wants to make pi symbols. Does that not explain everything?)

What you need to know about Gideon: He’s reeling from post-tramautic stress disorder after being held captive for two years and watching his fellow captives die one by one. Known as the sexy voice behind Fool’s Gold’s radio station, he tends to keep people at a distance and doesn’t want to ever get emotionally involved.

So what’s their deal?: After a wild night together years ago, Felicia still finds that Gideon is the only guy she thinks about being with. Especially now that she feels ready to settle down and have a family. Meeting again in Fool’s Gold is such a perfect coincidence and their chemistry is still red hot, but Gideon isn’t looking for forever and tells her so. Instead Gideon agrees to help Felicia out: she’s never been on a date, doesn’t understand what it’s like, and she wants him to guide her. Will Gideon’s mind be changed? Will Felicia fall for him completely?

Two of a Kind starts out a little slow but I think that has to do with getting used to how Felicia communicates with people. She’s been forced to be a loner most of her life, found comfort in her studies, and sounds a little like a robot. But lucky for her she has many great girlfriends and Gideon to teach her how to be “normal”. (Something she so desperately wants to feel.) Her new job — organizing the town’s many themed festivals — throws her out of her comfort zone, gets her in touch with the Fool’s Gold community, and makes her feel at home (despite her insecurites).

But in her personal life, things are heating up up up with Gideon. (Two words: the deck.) As much as she tries to, she can’t control her feelings for him and as a reader you wonder when Gideon is going to just let go and see what happens with her. It is one sexy ride filled with a twist that brings its own little charms into the story. I really liked how Felicia and Gideon’s lives mirrored one another even if their circumstances were substantially different; they are both so used to depending on themselves that they weren’t so confident in their feelings and teaming up with someone else.

Two of a Kind is sweet, sexy, and fun just like a romance novel should be but it also has some great girlfriend moments, matchmaking little kids, and a sincere town mayor that really does have eyes behind her head. And in true Mallery style, she makes some new character introductions that made me even more enthused to pick up the next couple of books.

The obsession grows…

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Estelle: The Mourning Hours by Paula Treick DeBoard

The Mourning Hours by Paula Treick DeBoardThe Mourning Hours by Paula Treick DeBoard ( web | twitter )
Publication Date: June 25, 2013
Publisher: Harlequin MIRA
Pages: 336
Target audience: Adult
Keywords: disappearance, family dynamics, flashback, small towns
Format read: ARC from Publisher via NetGalley. (Thanks!)

Summary: When Kirsten is 9 years old, her brother’s girlfriend disappears in a winter storm. Told in flashback, Kirsten relays the events leading up to the start of her brother Johnny’s relationship with Stacy and everything that happened after her disappearance from their cozy small town’s betrayal to her own guilt about never knowing the truth.

Talk about addicting. And also dangerous. I’m pretty sure I didn’t take many breaths at all during my reading of The Mourning Hours (just about a 24-hour period, to be precise).

Paula Treick DeBoard immediately opens The Mourning Hours with a ton of mystery. A young woman is returning home for the first time in a long time; she is nervous and fidgety and when she gets pulled over by a cop for speeding, she is hoping and praying he doesn’t recognize her last name. Before Kirsten reaches her final destination, we are transported many years back to her family’s farm and her 9-year old self.

This year was a complete turning point once her older brother/wrestling team star, Johnny, starts dating Stacy, a well-to-do girl from his high school. At first, Kirsten is totally enchanted by how gorgeous Stacy is, and how in love Johnny and Stacy seem. But, despite her age, Kirsten still sees how her mom is super concerned by how all encompassing their relationship is, how Johnny and Stacy have this electric and kind of scary chemistry when they fight, and Stacy’s tendency to show up everywhere.

When Stacy disappears during a snow storm one night, Johnny is the last person to have seen her and the only person of interest. Kirsten feels guilty because she had seen them fighting earlier but is assured by her aunt that telling the police about that won’t help. In the meantime, the cute little town turns on Johnny and the entire family and things start really falling apart all over the place.

It’s such an interesting choice to give a 9-year old the narrating baton. It’s smart because Kirsten was never going to know everything that was going on (no matter how nosey she was) and she was just too young to understand what was happening in her home. It’s truly heartbreaking to see this family put through the ringer by their own neighbors and each other. I found myself constantly questioning Johnny’s actions: was he innocent or did he really have something to do with Stacy’s disappearance?

THIS was why I had to finish The Mourning Hours as soon as possible. I needed answers. Would we ever know what happened to Stacy? Would we ever hear the full truth from Johnny? DeBoard sets up the Hammarstrom’s as such a solid family unit, and it is so tragic to see how this one event and lack of knowing just how to handle it really changes them. The fact that I couldn’t tell if the parents really believed in Johnny’s innocence also raised the stakes.

DeBoard’s writing is really well-done. She realistically maneuvers her way into the brain of a 9-year-old kid (who just wants her parents to realize all this mayhem is going to make her miss her spelling bee) during this tramatic life event and also does a nice (yet subtle) job of drawing parallels between nature and real life; the importance of the natural order of things on the farm directly relates to the spiraling that occurs after Stacy’s disappearance.

If you are looking for something a little bit different, The Mourning Hours is the way to go. rather be reading worth it icon

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