A Place For Us: A Review

A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen MirzaSiblings Hadia, Huda, and Amar could not be more different. It’s always been like this. Their father saw it with the way Amar always saw life as a game where the world was against him. Their mother saw it in Amar’s sensitivity and the questions he asked about Islam as a child.

Now, the family is gathered for Hadia’s wedding–a love match in the face of years of traditionally arranged marriage. Steadfast and dependable Huda is there, always the reliable middle sister. But if Amar will show up, and what state he will be in if he does, remains to be seen.

As the wedding progresses the entire family reflects on the moments that brought them to this moment, together, as well as the moments that quietly and irreparably tore them apart in A Place For Us (2018) by Fatima Farheen Mirza.

Find it on Bookshop.

This ambitious debut novel has shifting perspectives following Hadia, Amar, and Huda as well as their parents in close third person. The wedding serves as a starting point with the story moving both backward in flashbacks and forward after the wedding in a complex narrative.

A Place For Us skillfully balances its large, multi-generational cast and a plot spanning decades to deliver an engrossing family epic exploring themes of memory, choice, faith, and belonging.To talk about any one aspect of the story would diminish the reading experience but even a year after reading it, I feel like there’s still so much to find in this story and so much to learn from these characters.

A Place For Us is all about meeting people where they are, and where they need to be met. And sometimes not making it. Recommended for fans of family sagas and stories where there is more than meets the eye.

Possible Pairings: The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui, And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini, The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, Red at the Bone by Jhumpa Lahiri, A Woman is No Man by Etaf Rum, Digging to America by Anne Tyler, Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin

The Sullivan Sisters: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Sullivan Sisters by Kathryn OrmsbeeSisters Eileen, Claire, and Murphy used to be close. A visionary, a planner, and a performer respectively the sisters could accomplish amazing things–like making their house feel like a home even with their father dead and their mother increasingly absent.

But that was years ago. Now the girls can barely stand to be around each other.

At eighteen Eileen has been carrying a potentially dangerous secret for years. She is working a dead end job. She’s managed to hide her drinking from her mother so far. Her sisters aren’t as easy to fool.

Seventeen-year-old Claire is an Exceller and she is ready to use everything at her disposal to Excel, succeed, get the hell out of her small Oregon town, and find her first girlfriend. With advice from her favorite self-help Youtuber, Claire has done everything right. But she still didn’t get into Yale–the only college she applied to.

Fourteen-year-old Murphy has always felt like a fifth wheel in her family. She never met her father so she can’t miss him. Her mom is never around. Eileen and Claire never have time for her. Luckily, Murphy has her magic tricks to keep her company. She used to also have Siegfried the family turtle. But then she forgot to feed him one too many times.

Days before Christmas Eileen receives a letter that could change everything. The sisters have inherited a house from an uncle they’ve never heard of. A house that could have answers for Eileen, money for Claire to get out of town, and a chance for Murphy to feel like she’s part of a family again in The Sullivan Sisters (2020) by Kathryn Ormsbee

Find it on Bookshop.

The Sullivan Sisters alternates between third person chapters from each sister. Unfortunately, the clinical tone of the narration also makes the sister’s blend together. A heavy reliance on quirks to define their personalities doesn’t help matters.

Your feelings about this book will depend heavily on your expectations going in. If you are looking for a heartfelt story of sisters reconnecting, this is the book for you. If, like me, you came expecting an atmospheric house mystery you will likely be disappointed.

Ormsbee tackles a lot in the book and the mystery aspect, such as it is, barely makes the list. What The Sullivan Sisters does well is present three flawed characters (four if you count their mother) who have gotten so used to drifting along that they need a major jolt (like a surprise inheritance) to get back on track.

Throughout the book Eileen is forced to confront her alcoholism (she is in AA by the end of the story). Claire has to admit that her self-help idol may not be as helpful as she thought but also it may not be as terrible as Claire thought to be queer in a small town–even without a plan. Murphy is a hard one. She is funny and often the most approachable of the sisters. But she also killed Siegfried the turtle through her own neglect–something that was hard to swallow even with an abundance of remorse on her part.

The Sullivan Sisters is a story about connection and secrets. Recommended for readers who enjoy reading about complicated sibling relationships, family secrets, and flawed characters.

Possible Pairings: Serious Moonlight by Jenn Bennett, Everything All at Once by Katrina Leno, Tigers, Not Daughters by Samantha Mabry, Confessions of the Sullivan Sisters by Natalie Standiford, The Insomniacs by Marit Weisenberg

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

Unclaimed Baggage: A (Blog Tour) Review

“Sometimes you had to give something up to get what you really wanted in the first place.”

cover art for Unclaimed Baggage by Jen DollNell, Grant, and Doris have nothing in common.

Nell is a Chicago transplant unsure what to do with herself in small town Alabama–especially when her amazing boyfriend is still back home.

Grant used to be the the star quarterback. His family and coach are keen to help him keep that persona by covering up his recent DUI. But he’s starting to think he might just be a has been.

Then there’s Doris. She knows she’s an outsider. How can she be anything else as an outspoken liberal feminist in her conservative small town? She doesn’t mind because at least she has free reign of Unclaimed Baggage where she works sorting through and selling lost luggage.

As the three become reluctant coworkers for the summer Nell, Grant, and Doris will have to work together if they want to manage all of their own excess baggage in Unclaimed Baggage (2018) by Jen Doll.

Unclaimed Baggage is Doll’s debut novel. The story alternates between Nell, Grant, and Doris’ first person narrations with smaller vignettes throughout detailing the many journeys that brought key pieces of lost luggage to the store.

Over the course of one summer these three unlikely characters become friends as their lives entwine in unlikely ways. Doris is still grieving her aunt’s sudden death last year, Nell is shaken up by the culture shock of her move, and Grant is trying (and often failing) to come to terms with his drinking problem.

Each character has a distinct narrative voice while the surprisingly compelling luggage vignettes have a more omniscient tone. Doll brings small town Alabama to life with its charms (notably seen at a balloon festival) and its small-mindedness as Doris struggles with the stigma she hasn’t been able to shake since a boy in her church group groped her and she refused to stay quiet (or return to church) and, later in the novel, another character is targeted in a racially motivated attack.

Unlikely friends, hints of romance, and a mystery surrounding an empty suitcase flesh out this character driven plot. Unclaimed Baggage is a charming slice-of-life novel about one formative summer and the small moments that can lead to big changes. Recommended.

Be sure to check out my exclusive interview with Jen about Unclaimed Baggage too!

Possible Pairings: With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo, Starry Eyes by Jenn Bennett, Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley, In a Perfect World by Trish Doller, The Way You Make Me Feel by Maurene Goo, Here We Are: Feminism for the Real World edited by Kelly Jensen, The Art of Losing by Lizzy Mason, Moxie by Jen Mathieu, When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon, Foolish Hearts by Emma Mills, The Nowhere Girls by Amy Reed

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration at BookExpo 2018*

Damaged: A Review

Damaged by Amy ReedKinsey Cole knows people can only bear to hear so much bad fortune. That’s why everyone in the small town of Wellspring, Michigan knows that Kinsey’s best friend Camille died in a car accident when Kinsey was driving. It’s easier for people to see the straight A student with a full athletic scholarship.

Kinsey is struggling to stick to her own plan for the future now that Camille is dead. She is going to go to college and get away from her small town and her mentally unstable mother once and for all. She is going to succeed the way everyone always expected she would.

The only problem is that Kinsey is quietly falling apart.

When Camille’s boyfriend, Hunter, invites Kinsey on a road trip to San Francisco, Kinsey jumps at the chance to get away from all the memories and start her real life. But with Hunter’s heavy drinking and Kinsey’s own demons, it will take more than a fresh start for either of them to accept everything that has been lost in Damaged (2014) by Amy Reed.

Kinsey and Hunter travel across a largely barren landscape on their way to California in this haunting and well-done novel. An unflinching focus on Kinsey and Hunter makes this character driven road trip story even stronger.

Nightmares that may or may not be her dead best friend plague Kinsey throughout the novel adding a surreal quality to the plot. Reed offers a well-plotted and excellently written meditation on grief, loss and the power of new beginnings in this striking novel about two wretched characters trying to make themselves whole.

Possible Pairings: The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson, Suffer Love by Ashley Herring Blake, Graffiti Moon by Cath Crowley, The Devil You Know by Trish Doller, Stealing Henry by Carolyn MacCullough, Since You’ve Been Gone by Morgan Matson, Fracture by Megan Miranda, I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson, Isla and the Happily Ever After by Stephanie Perkins, Even in Paradise by Chelsey Philpot, A Map of the Known World by Lisa Ann Sandell, Paper Valentine by Brenna Yovanoff

*A more condensed version of this review appeared in the September 2014 issue of School Library Journal from which it can be seen in various sites online*

The Spectacular Now: A Review

“Goodbye, I say, goodbye, as I disappear little by little into the middle of my own spectacular now.”

The Spectacular Now by Tim TharpSutter Keeley is  great in his own mind. Larger than life, always the life of the party. Sutter is, surely, as irresistible as he is wise.

The reality, unsurprisingly, is a little different. What Sutter defines as a life as “god’s own drunk” is a boilerplate drinking problem. The rest of Sutter’s charms are debatable at best and vary wildly depending on if you’re asking one of his beautifully amicable ex-girlfriends, his family who is legitimately worried, or his friends.

Sutter is content to live the moment, whether it involves trying to win back his gorgeous, fat ex-girlfriend Cassidy or befriending the mousy, painfully nerdy Aimee, or getting a drink. The problem with living in the moment is that eventually everyone else starts to pass you by in The Spectacular Now (2008) by Tim Tharp.

Your reaction to this book is going to depend a lot on how you feel about Sutter. Tharp provides another fine addition to the already well-populated world of lovable alcoholics in fiction. The problem–not just here but in general–is that this general affability belies the fact that alcoholics are train wrecks and only very rarely lovable.

There are no consequences for Sutter in his own mind or in real life. Drunk driving never leads to an arrest or even a ticket. Drinking only impairs his judgement so far as it needs to go for the plot. While no story needs to have a message or a moral, it felt strangely one-sided to read this story and watch Sutter skate through life on his charms, his flask, and very little else.

Following the story thread with Aimee and Sutter, it’s possible to argue that Sutter is a Manic Pixie Dream Boy meant to flit through life, fall in love and leave his love interest the better for their acquaintance. Except Sutter is a really terrible MPDB and profoundly bad at making anyone’s life better.

The other reading, the one I favor, is that Sutter is a sociopath. Everything in the narrative is sinister. Sutter is sinister. Ideas and themes are touched upon but never fleshed out enough to really matter or leave an impact. Sutter’s unreliable narration raises more questions than the story ultimately answers.

While Tharp’s writing is excellent and completely on-point The Spectacular Now is lacking in character development and, on a smaller level, heart. With a narrative that reads more as a mid-life crisis than teenage unrest, this book is interesting but ultimately frustrating.

Possible Pairings: Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You by Peter Cameron, Finding Mr. Brightside by Jay Clark, I Hunt Killers by Barry Lyga, Slumming by Kristen D. Randle, The Beginning of Everything by Robyn Schneider, Wild Awake by Hillary T. Smith, Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman