Review | Secrets Series by Orca Book Publishers (Multiple Authors)

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Seven books, seven authors, seven secrets to uncover. The premise behind the Secrets series by Orca Books intrigued me, and the authors involved read like a who’s who of contemporary YA fiction. The series follows seven teenage orphans from Hope, Ontario. When their orphanage burns down in June 1964, each of them sets off to discover the truth about their past. All they have is some pocket money from the kind orphanage director and a memento from their past — a medical certificate, a Star of David, a tailored man’s coat with the initials E.B., and so on.

The stories are as follows:

  • The Unquiet Past by Kelley Armstrong — Tess travels to a Quebec town and unearths the disturbing history of a mental health facility. A mysterious boy has his own reasons for helping her find the truth.
  • Innocent by Eric Walters — Betty/Lizzy takes a job as a maid in Kingston, Ontario and investigates her mother’s murder. Her father was convicted of the crime, but protests his innocence, and a cute policeman helps her investigate.
  • Small Bones by Vicki Grant — A man’s coat leads Dot to a lakeside resort in rural Ontario, where she and a charming reporter investigate the local legend of a baby who disappeared seventeen years ago. PTSD and the war emerge as themes in the investigation.
  • Stones on a Grave by Kathy Kacer — Sara’s newly discovered Jewish heritage leads her to Germany where she learns the truth behind her mother’s life and her father’s identity.
  • A Big Dose of Lucky by Marthe Jocelyn — Malou investigates her mixed race heritage in Parry Sound, Ontario, and discovers a much larger family than she expected. This book delves into the history behind a particular medical procedure and branch of scientific research, which I found fascinating.
  • My Life Before Me by Norah McClintock — Aspiring reporter Cady travels to Orrenstown, Indiana where she becomes embroiled in a web of politics, corruption and racial tensions.
  • Shattered Glass by Teresa Toten — Toni moves to Toronto, becomes involved in the local club and music scene, and discovers the truth behind the nightmares of fire and burn marks she’s had all her life.

I really enjoyed reading this series. The girls’ family histories are the core of the story, but many of the authors took the opportunity to also explore some pretty meaty subjects — the effects of war, the Holocaust, medical experimentation, race relations and the like. I also really like the love stories in these books. Jackson from Unquiet Past, David from Innocent and Eddie from Small Bones are all particularly charming, and while there was a lot more going on in these stories, the romances were definitely a highlight for me. I love Jackson and Toni’s snappy repartee (totally reminiscent of the romances in Kelley Armstrong’s other books) as much as David and Lizzy’s more old-fashioned, tender slow burning attraction, and Eddie’s teasing of Dot is adorable.

The books are all really short, written for a YA/MG audience, and unfortunately, the length means that many if not all of them end a bit abruptly. Or, possibly, that’s just a sign that I want to read much more of their lives, and to see more of how the romances turn out. (I like to think that David and Lizzy end up getting married, in a totally sweet and classical small town wedding.)

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All the books had their strengths, and certainly the search for family is a compelling thread throughout. Armstrong’s Unquiet Past and Walters’ Innocent were by far my favourites of the series, possibly because both had a more traditional approach to mystery-solving and also possibly because both had the love stories that were most compelling to me. I’ve long been a fan of Kelley Armstrong’s books, and all her best trademarks are here — intelligent and independent female protagonist, spark-tastic romance, and supernatural creepiness grounded in real life. Hers was the book I most looked forward to, and while I think the ending felt rushed, overall it lived up to my expectations. Eric Walters is an author I’ve heard of but never read, but I loved the Nancy Drew feel of his Innocent. A mysterious powerful family, a man who may be in jail for a crime he didn’t commit, and a young girl who doggedly follows the clues to find the truth.

Teresa Toten’s Shattered Glass for me held real potential (central Q: did Toni’s mother try to burn her to death?), but it was probably my least favourite of the series. All the girls were naive to some extent or other, having been sheltered for so long in the orphanage, and all of them to some extent built a fantasy about their past, but Toni’s naivete felt the most pronounced and her fantasies the most unrestrained. It just became annoying after a while, such as when she becomes a complete jerk to the love interest because of one of her theories about her past, which was annoying mostly because, being one of many wild theories contemplated and discarded throughout the story, it felt more like yet another overreaction than an actual problem. That being said, Shattered Glass also had some of most richly drawn adult characters in the series, and I particularly liked the romance that developed between a couple of them.

Overall, a fantastic series and enjoyable read. Recommended for middle school age and younger teens.

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I won the boxed set of this series from Lavender Lines and Orca Books in a blog contest a few weeks ago, and reviewed it just because it’s such an awesome series and one that I think many readers will enjoy. For more information, see the website at readthesecrets.com.

 

 

Blog Tour | Lily and the Octopus, Steven Rowley

27276262By page 3 of Steven Rowley’s Lily and the OctopusI knew this book would make me ugly cry, and I honestly wasn’t sure if I had the guts to keep reading. I tweeted my trepidation, and the author responded, “So much laughter, adventure and love in the pages ahead. If you cry, I hope the journey will have been worth it.” So I decided to continue, and I’m so glad I did. This book is one of the most emotionally affecting ones I’ve ever read. I ugly-cried like I hadn’t since Patrick Ness’s A Monster Callsand that’s a good thing. The best books rip right into your heart and make you feel as you’ve rarely let yourself feel before, and then stay with you long after you turn the last page. Lily and the Octopus was such a book, and I can say with full certainty that yes, the journey was beyond worth it.

The story begins with Ted on a typical Thursday night, debating with his dog Lily about which celebrity Chris was the cutest, when he notices an octopus gripping tightly to the top of Lily’s head. We realize what the octopus wants long before Ted allows himself to, and by page 3, you can probably tell where this story is going and whether you want to stay for the ride. Lily and the Octopus is a beautifully written story of love, of the fierce connection between us and our pets, and of how love can make us afraid to face the truth.

I love how Ted was afraid he was incapable of love until he met Lily:

When I held my new puppy in my arms, I broke down in tears. Because I had fallen in love. Not somewhat in love. Not partly in love. Not in a limited amount. I fell fully in love with a creature I had known for all of nine hours. (p. 22)

How beautiful is that? And how many of us with dogs or cats or other pets of our own can relate to that sense of instant, intense connection, that feeling that they have chosen us as much as we have chosen them and that we will from that point forward be inextricably bonded? This passage certainly rang true for me; I went from wary pet owner to crazy cat lady in the space of a few seconds, and knew exactly what Ted was talking about.

I also really love how absolutely full of joy and energy Lily is. Her conversations with Ted are hilarious, and her sheer happiness at the silliest things — a red ball, an inflatable shark — is just a joy to see. There is indeed much laughter and joy in these pages, and it was wonderful to see Ted and Lily together. Ted’s love for her shone through, and I couldn’t help but fall in love with her too.

The book faltered somewhat for me during a scene involving a boat. I wasn’t sure what was or wasn’t real anymore, and while Rowley may well have intended that ambiguity, I was too distracted by trying to figure it out to really lose myself in the scene, as I had throughout the rest of the book. That being said, for the most part, I was completely caught up in Lily and the Octopus’ roller coaster ride of emotions, and I’d never hated an octopus more.

I read the entire book in a single afternoon, mostly because I was unwilling to put it down and leave Ted and Lily’s story behind. Even while reading it, I knew I would be recommending it to all my friends, especially those who love animals. I did ugly cry in the end, and grabbed my cat for cuddles and a belly rub. I like to think the look he gave me wasn’t of puzzlement but rather of concern. I just didn’t want to be alone after reading this book, and am glad my cat was there to be with me.

This is a beautiful, moving book, and one I highly recommend. Read it, laugh out loud at its silliness, and let yourself ugly cry if you need to. Then put it back on your shelf and give your dog or cat a huge squishy hug. Just because.

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Thank you to Simon and Schuster Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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Blog Tour and Contest

This review is part of the Simon Schuster Canada Perfect Pairing Blog Tour. Check out the full schedule below.

Also: nothing pairs up better with a book than a cup of coffee, so heads up on an awesome contest: Simon and Schuster Canada is giving away a set of books AND one year of free coffee from aroma espresso bar! Enter at readchillrepeat.com.

Summer Fiction Blog Tour

Blog Tour | All the Missing Girls, Megan Miranda

23212667Nicolette Farrell returns home after ten years to care for her aging father. Shortly after she returns, a young girl Annaleise, goes missing. This is particularly creepy for Nic as the reason she left in the first place was that her best friend Corinne had disappeared when she was about Annaleise’s age, and the story behind Corinne’s disappearance had haunted Nic, her brother Daniel and her ex-boyfriend Tyler all the years since.

All the Missing Girls is a thriller told in reverse. After Nic returns home (Day 1), we jump in time to Day 15, when the town is searching for Annaleise, and Tyler had disappeared. The story unravels in reverse, counting down from Day 15 all the way to Day 1, and slowly elements of both disappearances emerge.

The mystery itself is fascinating (what happened to Annaleise, and is it connected somehow to what happened to Corinne?) but the structure felt too gimmicky and left me feeling confused and impatient throughout. I was more interested in what happened after Day 15 and moving the story forward rather than inching back day by day only to be left with the same questions I had at the beginning of the book, namely what happens after Day 15? Often, the significance of conversations in one chapter will only be revealed in the next chapter, with an incident from the previous day, but I felt somewhat cheated because I already knew what would happen next. There were certainly surprises, and the big reveals at the end were satisfyingly surprising, but the impact was somewhat lost on me as it just made me want to think back to Day 15 and what could have happened after.

I’m also glad that Miranda does provide a bit of an epilogue to let us know how things turn out after Day 15. Part 3, with its urgency contrasted with a sense of bleak resignation, wasn’t quite a happy ending, but it felt right.

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Thanks to Simon and Schuster Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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Blog Tour and Contest

This review is part of the Simon Schuster Canada Perfect Pairing Blog Tour. Check out the full schedule below.

Also: nothing pairs up better with a book than a cup of coffee, so heads up on an awesome contest: Simon and Schuster Canada is giving away a set of books AND one year of free coffee from aroma espresso bar! Enter at readchillrepeat.com.

Summer Fiction Blog Tour

Review | Invincible Summer, Alice Adams

27161851I love the idea behind this novel — four friends from college graduate and drift off into separate lives, the novel dipping into their stories intermittently over the next twenty years. I love coming of age stories, and I especially love stories where the “coming of age” chronicles the transition into adulthood and the various milestones (job, marriage, children) that come afterwards.

The main character is Eva, who is secretly in love with playboy Lucien in college and who graduates to become an investment banker. (Kudos to Alice Adams — I think an investment banker heroine is fairly rare in popular fiction, particularly with the amount of industry-specific detail included here. The author’s background in finance is evident, with so much financial terminology and dialogue that it reminded me of my experience watching The Big Short — slightly confused and slightly struggling to care about what are obviously very big and exciting deals.)

Secretly in love with Eva is Benedict, a physicist who, kudos to him, moves on to other women when it’s clear Eva isn’t interested in a relationship with him at that time. Lucien is a playboy in college who goes on to become a professional partier in adulthood, age turning him from charming to sleazy and from fun-loving to rather pathetic. Lucien’s sister Sylvie is an aspiring artist for whom adulthood is a harsh dose of reality.

I enjoyed this story, particularly as it chronicled the shift from the rather rosy expectations the characters have in college to the reality of adulthood, where your talent may not be enough to build a viable career, where the man who pined after you for years may no longer be available when you decide to reciprocate his feelings, where you can land your dream job and do everything right and still not succeed.

Sylvie really stood out to me as the most compelling character, with her descent from popular talented college girl to a woman who can barely make ends meet and can’t figure out what to do with her life. She and Lucien took a much smaller role as the story progressed, with the main focus being Eva’s career and her on-again/off-again will they/won’t they type of romance with Benedict, but I couldn’t help wishing Adams had given us much more of Sylvie’s story.

Invincible Summer is a good book and well-written, but it never quite latched on to me or made me feel so invested in the characters that I had to keep reading. I think it’s because the characters mostly fell flat for me. The character I found most compelling (Sylvie) was relegated to the backseat so ended up feeling flatter than she could have been, whereas the character who was the primary focus (Eva) was okay but a bit too bland to carry the novel. Lucien almost felt unnecessary — he was set up as Eva’s crush in the beginning, but never really stood out as all that appealing, even for a young woman in the mood for a bad boy, and after graduation, he mostly just seemed inserted into the story at sporadic moments, seeming more like the vaguely creepy guy you avoid on the subway than someone who is truly menacing, truly charismatic or truly pathetic. Benedict had potential to be interesting — he is on the team working on the hadron collider! — but his marriage seemed tepid at best, more an obstacle to his happily ever after with Eva than an actual emotional impediment.

Still, it’s a quick read, well-written, and an interesting peek into the lives of 20- and 30-year-olds. Fans of One Day may enjoy the format.

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Thanks to Hachette Book Group Canada for an advanced reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

 

Blog Tour | The Girls in the Garden, Lisa Jewell

27276357Eleven year old Pip, her thirteen year old sister Grace and their mother move into a cozy London neighbourhood flat where their neighbours have all grown up knowing each other. One summer evening, Pip discovers Grace lying unconscious and partially undressed in a hidden corner of the neighbourhood’s communal rose garden. The mystery around who did what to Grace drives the story, and Jewell takes us to the weeks before the incident and to the days in its immediate aftermath.

The Girls in the Garden is a gripping tale with a dark and twisty cluster of relationships among the neighbours. Jewell creates an entire cast of characters, and I admit that at times, it became a bit confusing to figure out the characters’ relationships and feelings towards each other. Grace and her peers are central to the story’s plot, and Pip is the narrator who observes everything, but the parents in the neighbourhood are just as entrenched in the developments. The attack on Grace somewhat mirrors a murder in the same garden years ago, and old suspicions and accusations surface.

Initially, the answer to the mystery seems obvious, even if the perpetrator’s identity is still to be determined. However, Jewell doesn’t give us the obvious. I found the reveal to be darker than I’d imagined, and the characters’ responses to the reveal made it even more disturbing. I felt like there was so much more to unpack in that reveal than we’re given, and I’m still trying to figure out how I feel about that ending. On the one hand, it felt deeply unsatisfying in its seeming neatness; on the other hand, I actually can imagine real people responding like this, particularly within a small, enclosed neighbourhood, and that itself is probably the darkest, twistiest bit of all.

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Thanks to Simon and Schuster Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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Blog Tour and Contest

This review is part of the Simon Schuster Canada Perfect Pairing Blog Tour. Check out the full schedule below.

Also: nothing pairs up better with a book than a cup of coffee, so heads up on an awesome contest: Simon and Schuster Canada is giving away a set of books AND one year of free coffee from aroma espresso bar! Enter at readchillrepeat.com.

Summer Fiction Blog Tour

Review | Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety, Ann Y. K. Choi

29218113Korean-Canadian teenager Mary is tired of having to manage her family’s convenience store. Part of her wants nothing more than to be modern and Canadian, but another part of her is unable to fully leave behind the expectations of her traditional Korean family. This dilemma plays out in different ways: she uses the name Mary but can’t help that her parents sometimes call her by her Korean birth name Yu-Rhee. She is in love with her English teacher, but her parents want her to set her up with a Korean boy named Joon-Ho. There’s also the unspoken family secret about her mother’s estranged sister, and how that may tie in to Mary’s own struggle.

Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety had its weaknesses — in particular, a scene of sexual assault felt tacked on, a tired coming of age trope that was added unnecessarily and then not fully explored. Mary’s crush on her older English teacher also felt cliche, and its outcome inevitable. That being said, I think these two things bugged me mostly because the rest of the book was so strong that any weakness really stood out.

I love how Choi writes about the immigrant experience. I love the sharp observations about feeling the need to represent an entire culture, simply because you are still a minority within the community. One character says of a fellow Korean: “He makes the rest of us look bad. Like we’re all a bunch of idiots who can’t make it here. Don’t you get it? People like him make them suspicious of all of us.” (page 198) Joon-Ho and his family do some really questionable, sometimes villainous things, but their struggle is also a really smart depiction of the pressure around immigration. I love how Choi portrayed Joon-Ho’s need to be as close to perfect as possible in order to achieve residency in Canada, and the additional stress of having your family’s hopes of immigrating lie on your shoulders.

I also love how Choi highlights the rarity of Asian representation in Canadian literature. When Mary’s mother asks her why she never reads books about Korean or Chinese characters, Mary responds that there aren’t any, or at least none that she’s aware of. This story was set in the 1980s, and thankfully today, there are a lot more options available for CanLit books featuring Asian characters. Still, Mary’s mother’s response resonated with me: “You want to know about feeling invisible? It’s always black and white in Canada. The Koreans, Chinese, Japanese, anyone from Asia are the true invisibles. Do you think anyone really sees us when they throw pennies at us for a newspaper?”

Overall, I really like how Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety portrayed the experiences of Mary, her mother and their family. I especially love how Mary realizes she can be Korean even without ascribing to traditions that don’t quite fit her: “I could claim my name myself. I could have everyone call me Yu-Rhee.” It’s a fantastic owning of identity, and realizing that one has the power to claim both sides of a dual identity for themselves, even with something as simple as a name.

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Thanks to Simon and Schuster Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Keeper of the Flame (A Crang Mystery), Jack Batten

25866583Crang is a criminal lawyer who is hired by popular hip hop artist Flame to shut down a blackmail scheme. Some offensive lyrics written when Flame was a teen have been discovered, and could destroy the clean-cut, Cary Grant type image Flame’s handlers are trying to cultivate, unless the performer ponies up eight million dollars. Crang’s investigation leads to an organized gang, murder and a subplot involving a porn video.

Keeper of the Flame is first I’ve read in the Crang series. Crang is a fairly old school wisecracking private eye, whose exploits usually lead him in hotter water than he’d originally planned. I like how he structures his fees according to his clients’ ability to pay — a retail worker gets charged a minimal fee for a fairly complex case, whereas a multimillionaire like Flame gets charged accordingly. I also like how Crang uses Flame’s fame to get things done; in one scene, a detective agrees to do Crang a favour only if Crang could get Flame to write personal messages on the Facebook walls of the detective’s daughters.

 

This is a fun read; it didn’t quite keep me flipping the pages madly, but I like the lighthearted tone and somewhat snappy dialogue. Toronto-philes may also delight in finding Toronto featured so prominently in the story.

Random aside – do any of the other readers keep thinking of Krang from the Ninja Turtles, or is it just me?

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Thanks to Dundurn for an advance reading copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.