ARC Book Review – The Perfect Stranger by Megan Miranda

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Title: The Perfect Stranger
Author: Megan Miranda
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Release Date: April 11, 2017
Genre: Mystery, Psychological Thriller

*This ARC was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.*

About the Book

In the masterful follow-up to the runaway hit All the Missing Girls, a journalist sets out to find a missing friend, a friend who may never have existed at all.

Confronted by a restraining order and the threat of a lawsuit, failed journalist Leah Stevens needs to get out of Boston when she runs into an old friend, Emmy Grey, who has just left a troubled relationship. Emmy proposes they move to rural Pennsylvania, where Leah can get a teaching position and both women can start again. But their new start is threatened when a woman with an eerie resemblance to Leah is assaulted by the lake, and Emmy disappears days later.

Determined to find Emmy, Leah cooperates with Kyle Donovan, a handsome young police officer on the case. As they investigate her friend’s life for clues, Leah begins to wonder: did she ever really know Emmy at all? With no friends, family, or a digital footprint, the police begin to suspect that there is no Emmy Grey. Soon Leah’s credibility is at stake, and she is forced to revisit her past: the article that ruined her career. To save herself, Leah must uncover the truth about Emmy Grey—and along the way, confront her old demons, find out who she can really trust, and clear her own name.

Everyone in this rural Pennsylvanian town has something to hide—including Leah herself. How do you uncover the truth when you are busy hiding your own?

Megan Miranda’s latest release, The Perfect Stranger, will make for an excellent beach read this summer. While it doesn’t have the punch of All The Missing Girls, I was still caught up in the story and characters, especially in the second half of the novel. This is a slower-paced thriller, which isn’t for everyone, but really hooked me by the halfway point. I love the quiet, sleepy Pennsylvanian town that Megan created, especially since I grew up in Pennsylvania!

There are quite a few mini-mysteries going on in this novel: what exactly happened in Leah’s past, and the strange mystery surrounding Emmy being the two biggest. While I figured out certain aspects fairly early on, other parts of the mystery definitely caught me off guard twoards the end!

Leah is an interesting character, albeit occasionally annoying, and you really get to know her as the plot progresses. She’s a strong woman that doesn’t give up, and the whole storyline brings up some interesting questions. Does the end justify the means? Can you ever really “start over” somewhere new, in a new life? Kyle, the police officer assigned to Emmy’s missing persons case, is one of the weak links in the story. He seemed to be written to be a likable, good guy….but I wasn’t a fan. I do wish his character had been flushed out a bit more. And then there is Emmy, always in the background, a big question mark that is slowly unraveled.

My absolutely favorite part of The Perfect Stranger was the last chapter! I won’t say anything to spoil the ending,  but it was definitely a perfect way to end the book.

If you like mysteries/thrillers that take place in quiet, sleepy communities that hide their secrets well, you’ll probably enjoy The Perfect Stranger.

Rating: 4/5 stars.

Book Review – Serafina and the Black Cloak by Robert Beatty

Asheville is one of my favorites cities in the American South. It kind of defies the odds, and is unlike anywhere else here in the South. Its mix of worldliness and mountain charm renders it quaint, hippy, metropolitan, and rustic…all rolled into one. It’s truly incredible, really, how Asheville pulls it off.

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The Biltmore Estate is one of the most well-known destinations in Asheville, a place we have visited in the past, and when Disney-Hyperion first released the book trailer for Serafina and the Black Cloak, it spread like lightning across Charlotte and the rest of North Carolina (well, across the whole country, to be honest!). Like many others, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the book.

Then it was published, and I asked M, 7 years old at the time, if she wanted to read it. NOPE! No interest whatsoever. This kid is not swayed by marketing efforts at all…a trait I admire, until it conflicts with my own opinion. Ha!

So, I held off. Until last week, when M asked the children’s librarian at our public library for a book recommendation. She was in a reading rut, and was looking for a new mystery or fantasy book, something that would appeal to a kid who loves stories like Chris Colfer’s Land of Stories series. A book with a strong female lead, and not too scary. The librarian led her too…Serafina and the Black Cloak. And her eyes lit up at the cover! Hooray!!

This is why I stopped suggesting books to her. Coming from mom, it never works.

So we checked it out, and both of us read it independently of the other.

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Title: Serafina and the Black Cloak

Author: Robert Beatty

Genre: Middle-grade, fantasy, mystery, historical fiction

Serafina secretly lives in the basement of the Biltmore Estate with her Pa, a maintenance worker for the Vanderbilt family. She roams at night, although she always listens to her Pa’s warning to never venture into the forest that surrounds the estate, and to never be seen by the other staff or the Vanderbilt family and their guests.

Then one night, children start disappearing, and Serafina is the only one who has seen the culprit, a man in a black cloak. She sets out to uncover the identity of the Man in the Black Cloak, with the help of a few friends along the way.

In the beginning, I was quite annoyed with Serafina’s Pa, and couldn’t understand why he treated her the way he did. His perspective and outlook on things starts to make more sense when you learn the back story of their family and why they live in the basement. I also had to put aside a pretty large dose of skepticism at the idea that Serafina could live for years in the basement of the estate and not once, even as a baby and toddler, ever be seen by other workers.

Serafina and Braeden’s relationship forms a large part of the story, and Braeden is interesting in his own right, but it is Serafina that truly makes this story sing. She is curious and solitary, charming and awkward, eccentric for a child so young. Both her and Braeden are unique in their own way, and I am happy to see an author of children’s literature explore and honor the uniqueness of children, and how that uniqueness is what makes a person special.

It’s a fast read, even for kids (or at least for my kid). Serafina and the Black Cloak is aimed towards 8-12 year olds, but I definitely enjoyed it as much as my 8-year-old did. M and I both loved Serafina, and I’ll leave you to guess which one of us figured out her secret first. It would make an excellent selection for a mother/daughter or parent/child book club. Having been to the Biltmore, and frequently hike in the mountains and forests surrounding Asheville, I may never look at those hiking trips the same way again.

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

 

Read Watch Play #4

Read Watch Play is my own version of a Sunday Salon: a round-up of bookish and non-bookish entertainment going on in my home this week. Feel free to join in and let me know what fun you have had this week!

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What I’m watching: 

I still haven’t finished Stranger Things, TV time these days is rare, indeed. I have two more episodes to go. I am really loving Eleven’s backstory, she is such a fascinating kid. I hope she finds some peace and happiness by the end of this season!

I watch Once Upon a Time every Sunday, and I have to admit, I relish this season’s return of the Evil Queen! Lana Parilla must have so much fun playing the part, and the Queen’s costumes are always amazing! Do you think Regina and/or her sister will succumb to the Evil Queen’s tactics? Emma’s premonition is certainly setting up an interesting arc for the first half of this season, but part of me thinks this season is too busy. Between Mr. Hyde, the Evil Queen, the entrance of the Aladdin characters and other untold stories, Emma’s premonition, and whatever Rumple is getting up to these days, there is a lot going on in Storybrooke right now.

I will also be watching the Hillary Clinton/Donald Trump debate tonight. That should be an interesting one. Will you be watching?

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What I’m playing:

I mentioned last week that I am participating in a virtual triathlon this month. I don’t usually like to toot my own horn, but…toot, toot! I am so happy with my progress so far this week.

The Jimmie Johnson Foundation Virtual Triathlon runs from October 1 – October 31. It is a 140.6 mile virtual race that involves a 2.4 mile swim, 112 miles cycling, and a 26 mile run/walk/jog. It is not done at once, but broken up into however many workouts you need to get it done.

Right now, I am ahead of schedule, and might be on track to complete the triathlon a week early! My biggest achievement this week was my first swim. I love swimming, but I haven’t actually swam as exercise in years. I jumped in the pool on Tuesday with a goal of as many laps as I could do in a one hour period. I stepped out of the pool 1 hour 15 minutes later having swum 70 lengths (35 down-and back laps) in a 25 yard pool. That’s a freakin’ mile, people! Amazingly, I wasn’t sore the next day either! Although I did have horribly matted hair. I bought a swim cap on my way home.

JJF Race Stats (October 9)

1.7/2.4 mile swim (71% complete)

42.64/112 mile bike (38% complete)

8.1/26.2 mile run (31% complete)

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What I’m Cooking: 

Meatballs. This batch almost didn’t make it into the oven without losing a few to a curious cat! This is Hello Kitty, lover of tuna, goldfish crackers, and meatballs.

Our meatballs change depending on my mood, but here is the base recipe I build upon.

Italian Style Meatballs

  • 1 1/2 pounds grassfed beef
  • 1 1/2 pounds mild italian sausage
  • one thick slice of firm bread of your choosing (sourdough, whole wheat, baguette…I think I have used them all).
  • 1/4 cup milk
  • 1/2 cup parmesan, finely shredded
  • 1 large egg
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1-2 tablespoons italian seasoning (I use salt-free Catazano herbs from Savory Spice Shop. It contains garlic, lemon peel, marjoram, European basil, Mediterranean thyme, rosemary and Greek oregano).

Directions:

Have your sauce of choice ready to go on the stovetop.

Turn on the broiler. Pour the milk over the bread until it is saturated, and let it soak for a few minutes. Squeeze out the excess milk, and quickly pulse in a food processor. Gently combine all of the ingredients with your hands until just mixed together. Form into medium-large size meatballs (about the size of a Ping Pong ball). Broil in the oven for about 5-7 minutes, until the outside has browned, then transfer the meatballs into your sauce and finish cooking in the sauce on the stovetop, about another 15 minutes or so.

Bon Appetit!

What I’m Reading:

Serafina and the Black Cloak by Robert Beatty. I just finished reading Serafina and the Black Cloak this morning. I think I will count this for Wonderless Review’s Halloween Readathon, even though it is not on my original list. A review will be posted tomorrow! It was interesting to read a book set at the Biltmore Estate, near Asheville, a place I have visited many times!

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. I’m starting this one today! It looks like it will be a quick read. I have been meaning to read this book for ages. There are so many cultural references to Jekyll and Hyde, I have always felt remiss about not reading the original!

What are you up to this week? Let me know in the comments!

Halloween Read-A-Thon

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I always like to read spooky books during the month of October, so I have decided to join the Halloween Read-A-Thon, a challenge hosted by Lauren @ Wonderless Reviews. Halloween is one of my favorite holidays – I love any excuse to dress up in costume! I also love any reason to participate in a themed read!

This year, we are doing a costume theme for the whole family, a first for us. Our theme is villains…villains often have the coolest outfits! My daughter will be dressing up as Harley Quinn and I will be Maleficent, and dear hubby is still deciding. Halloween is so much fun, especially in our neighborhood where some houses hand out treats for both the kids and adults! Our next-door neighbors have chili and beer, another house has margaritas, and we even have a neighbor that sets up a walk-through haunted maze in their backyard! It’s always a lot of fun.

Here is the info on the Halloween Read-a-Thon:

  • The read-a-thon will run from 10 October – 31 October.
  • You can join in at any time until the end of the read-a-thon.
  • You can read as many or as little books as you want!
  • The books have to be horror, thriller, and/or have some kind of supernatural element.
  • When posting your Halloween TBR list, link back to Lauren’ts Read-a-thon post.
  • Use the hashtag #HalloweenWR to share your progress on social media!

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Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz – I’m planning on going back to a few childhood favorites this month. M is really into spooky stories right now, so we will be reading these together in the weeks leading up to Halloween!

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The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. I can’t believe I have never read this book, and Neil Gaiman is one of my favorite authors to read in October!

Blurb: After the grisly murder of his entire family, a toddler wanders into a graveyard where the ghosts and other supernatural residents agree to raise him as one of their own.

Nobody Owens, known to his friends as Bod, is a normal boy. He would be completely normal if he didn’t live in a sprawling graveyard, being raised and educated by ghosts, with a solitary guardian who belongs to neither the world of the living nor of the dead. There are dangers and adventures in the graveyard for a boy. But if Bod leaves the graveyard, then he will come under attack from the man Jack—who has already killed Bod’s family…

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51496 *A book where people are the ones who are causing all the scariness*

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. A scientist unlocking his inner evil? Yeah, this seems like the perfect fit for this category!

Blurb: In this harrowing tale of good and evil, the mild-mannered Dr. Jekyll develops a potion that unleashes his secret, inner persona—the loathsome, twisted Mr. Hyde.

 

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I do a lot of my reading after sunset, so most of these books would apply. Especially Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, which I mentioned above. It just doesn’t seem right to read those books when the sun is up!

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18490Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. I choose trick, reading a book that I have been putting off. I have been meaning to read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for years! Our county public library chose Frankenstein as this year’s Community Read book in October, too. I take that as a sign that it’s time I read it.

Blurb: Mary Shelley began writing Frankenstein when she was only eighteen. At once a Gothic thriller, a passionate romance, and a cautionary tale about the dangers of science, Frankenstein tells the story of committed science student Victor Frankenstein. Obsessed with discovering the cause of generation and life and bestowing animation upon lifeless matter, Frankenstein assembles a human being from stolen body parts but; upon bringing it to life, he recoils in horror at the creature’s hideousness. Tormented by isolation and loneliness, the once-innocent creature turns to evil and unleashes a campaign of murderous revenge against his creator, Frankenstein.

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The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater. It will be a miracle if I read six books for this challenge! But I had to add this to the challenge, as I do really want to start The Raven Cycle soon.

Blurb: Every year, Blue Sargent stands next to her clairvoyant mother as the soon-to-be dead walk past. Blue never sees them–until this year, when a boy emerges from the dark and speaks to her.

His name is Gansey, a rich student at Aglionby, the local private school. Blue has a policy of staying away from Aglionby boys. Known as Raven Boys, they can only mean trouble.

But Blue is drawn to Gansey, in a way she can’t entirely explain. He is on a quest that has encompassed three other Raven Boys: Adam, the scholarship student who resents the privilege around him; Ronan, the fierce soul whose emotions range from anger to despair; and Noah, the taciturn watcher who notices many things but says very little.

For as long as she can remember, Blue has been warned that she will cause her true love to die. She doesn’t believe in true love, and never thought this would be a problem. But as her life becomes caught up in the strange and sinister world of the Raven Boys, she’s not so sure anymore.

These are my selections for the Halloween Read-a-Thon! Are you participating? What spooky books are you planning on reading in October?

 

Standalone books to read when you have Series Burnout

My bookshelves are filled with standalone novels. In my family, it is a well-known fact that I easily get series burnout. When I start to juggle multiple series at the same time, or I’m trying to read through a new-to-me series and find myself reading the same author for weeks, I take a break and pick up something else.

If this happens to you, here is a list of a few standalone novels, from a variety of genres, that have helped me break a reading slump in the past!

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The Night Circus  – Erin Morgenstern (fantasy, historical fiction) –

It is ethereal, magical, other-worldly. The dreamlike imagery the author provokes is astounding; it is also the reason why so many people dislike it. If you need a plot-driven novel, this may not be for you. I loved every second of it, and found it to be a beautifully written, visual book. The descriptions of the circus, vividly drawn but only in the shades of black, white and red, stay with the reader long after finishing the book.

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The Fault in Our Stars – John Green (YA contemporary)

I shed so many tears reading this book. It didn’t help that I had just lost a close family friend to cancer two month’s previously. A beautifully written book about making peace with the unfairness of life. A lesson that rings true no matter what your age. It may also make a good starting point for older readers who typically only read adult literatures but want to explore YA.

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The Ocean at the End of the Lane – Neil Gaiman (fiction, fantasy, horror)

Oh, to be inside Neil Gaiman’s brain and see how it ticks. The is the first book I read by Neil Gaiman that was not a graphic novel, and boy, did it give me the chills! This story brought me back to my childhood; it’s like all of those monsters under the bed came to life in terrifying and menacing way. But it’s not just horror, it’s much more nuanced than that, or I would not have liked it. There is truth and beauty, melancholy and sadness, and a hard look at the innocent ignorance of childhood.

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All The Missing Girls – Megan Miranda (mystery, thriller)

I just reviewed this one recently, which you can read here. I will never look at Ferris Wheel’s the same way again. All The Missing Girls is the perfect stand alone novel to read in the fall at a time when county and state fairs are happening all across America.

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All the Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr (historical fiction)

I don’t usually recommend novels set during WWII, because I don’t read them very often. I read this one for book club this year, and absolutely loved it. It is very character-driven, which is right up my alley, and the attention it has received is well-deserved. The author does an excellent job of heightening your senses along with young Marie-Laure after she loses her vision. And it tackles so many themes in a way that is not over the top: military culture and bullying, free will vs. predetermination, physical vs. spiritual blindness, moral relativism. It is a fascinating read.

What standalone novels would you recommend to readers who need a break from series works?

Bookmarks 2016 Festival of Books and Authors

Yesterday started off with a road trip to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, to visit the Bookmarks 2016 Festival of Books and Authors.

Winston-Salem, home for many years to the esteemed Maya Angelou, is only an hour’s drive from where we live in Charlotte, but I had only ever visited once before (it was another author event – Isabel Allende).

We arrived at the Festival around 10am, on a scorching hot day. Summer has continued unabated here in the South, and while I typically like the heat, it did make for an incredibly sweaty day!

I arrived at the festival with quite the book stash, and left with even more! By the end of the day, all of my books ended up personalized and signed!! This was our total haul by the end:

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The number of authors present was very impressive, we will definitely be coming back again next year! I did not attend any of the ticketed events, most of which were held on Friday or Sunday, so everything that we did was free of charge. There were 6 stages, both inside and outside, so the day was filled with panel discussions, forums and presentations. The author with the longest line by far was Sarah J. Maas; we did not wait in that line. 🙂

Highlights:

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Jaqueline Woodson

One of the first events we went to was Jaqueline Woodson’s presentation. She had two forums that day, and her first one focused more on some of her earlier work, particularly Brown Girl Dreaming and Each Kindness. We love Brown Girl Dreaming, a Newbery Honor Book and winner of both the National Book Award and Coretta Scott King Award. I will definitely be reading her first adult novel in 20 years, that was just published, Another Brooklyn.

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Victoria Schwab

I have to admit, I haven’t read the Shades of Magic books yet. They have been on my TBR list for a while, so I couldn’t pass up the opportunity get them personalized. I love that Victoria Schwab wrote in Stas Reskon in one book, and Travars in the other. I do wish I had already read these, so I had a deeper understanding of what that actually means!

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Colson Whitehead

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“I’m not sticking to the facts, I’m sticking to the truth.” ~ Colson Whitehead

My hubby and M went out exploring the streets surrounding the Festival while I went to Colson Whitehead’s forum. His newest book, The Underground Railroad, is getting a lot of attention right now, it is currently at the top of the New York Times bestsellers list. It has also been picked as the next title for Oprah’s Book Club – a status that I originally held against it. I don’t usually like Oprah Book Club selections. I started the first chapter while waiting for the Colson’s presentation to begin, and I am hooked.

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Kate DiCamillo

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Kate DiCamillo is as enchanting as her books. She has long been a staple in our home, going back to her first book, Because of Winn-Dixie, published in 2000 when I was in college. More recently, M has enjoyed the Bink & Gollie series, Tale of Desperaux, and Flora & Ulysses. We were both thrilled to meet her! We ended up getting four books personalized by her. I can’t wait to read her newest novel, Raymie Nightingale.

We finished off the day by going to Kate DiCamillo’s kid-friendly forum and Q&A. It was a blast; she had a story for every question she received.

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Book Review: All the Missing Girls by Megan Miranda

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All the Missing Girls by Megan Miranda

I was so excited when I first heard that Megan Miranda was coming out with her first adult novel. I have read two of her first YA books, Fracture and Vengeance, and loved the writing style, the characters, and the paranormal aspects incorporated into the story.

In full disclosure, Megan Miranda lives in my neighborhood, and our kids go to the same school, so there was a lot of local buzz amongst some of my friends when All the Missing Girls was published. I picked up a library copy earlier this summer, shortly after its release, and enjoyed it so much I recently bought a copy for myself!

But here’s the thing I’ve learned about leaving – you can’t really go back. I don’t know what to do with Cooley Ridge anymore and Cooley Ridge doesn’t know what to do with me, either. The distance only increases with the years.

I certainly know the feeling. Like Nic, I haven’t been back to my hometown in almost 10 years. Nic Farrell is heading home, after nearly 10 years, from NYC to small-town North Carolina. She left Cooley Ridge not long after her childhood friend Corinne Prescott went missing. Ten years on, most of her high school friends are still living in town. Mysteriously, another young girl goes missing shortly after she returns, Anneleise Carter.

Annaleise was the alibi for the group of friends the night that Corinne went missing a decade previously. And here is where things gets interesting. After Annaliese’s disappearance, the story jumps forward by two weeks, and the reader proceeds to read the story in reverse, working backwards from Day 15 to Day 1. It worked amazingly well. I was worried the twist in chronology and telling a story in reverse would feel gimmicky. It didn’t. Hats off to Megan Miranda for making it work in such a splendid fashion!

I don’t judge a book by its cover, but I am also in love with the cover of this book! Just the right shade of mystery and suspense. Especially considering the fact that the ferris wheel weaves itself throughout the tale, and sometimes feels like a character in and of itself.

Megan Miranda will be one of the authors at the Bookmarks 2016 Festival of Books in Winston-Salem this coming weekend, and I can’t wait to go! It will be quite an amazing line-up of authors, including Jonathan Safran Foer, Victoria Schwab, Jaqueline Woodson, Sarah J. Maas, John Grisham, Azar Nafisi, Terry McMillan, Kate DiCamillo, and many others!

Rating: 4.5/5 stars