How To Build A Heart by Maria Padian

Thank you, Algonquin for inviting me to be part of the blog tour of How to Build A Heart, by Maria Padian. For one thing, it’s been awhile since I read a YA book, and for another thing it reminded me of why I should do it more often – because it’s refreshing to read about a protagonist who is modern role model for young women.

In this case, the protagonist is 16-year-old Izzy Crawford. When we meet her, she’s living in a trailer park with her single Puerto Rican Mom (Dad fought and passed away in Iraq) and her precocious little brother. By day, she attends a new private school on scholarship with a capella group the only bring spot. By night, she and her best friend Roz, style outfits and stalk cute boys on social media. Roz lives in the trailer across the street, but she spends more time with Izzy’s struggling but loving family to escape her drunk Mom and her abusive boyfriend.

One of the boys Roz is obsessed with is Sam, her school’s basketball hero and rich teen dream. Izzy finds herself accidentally drawn into Sam’s world through his sister, and tries to not fall for this guy who not only lives in an entirely different universe but is also the object of her BFF’s affection.

When Izzy’s family is selected as a Habitat for Humanity family, her Mom is thrilled to be moving her family forward and up, and Izzy finds herself in the middle of two different worlds and trying to hide her true self from them both. Along the way, the reader follows along as Izzy faces difficult decisions, faces her family’s past and faces who she wants to be in this world.

The Final word: 16-year-old me would have loved reading Izzy’s story – but grown up me loved it, too. Very richly drawn characters and great messages.

At The Edge of the Haight by Katherine Seligman

On the surface. At the Edge of the Haight seems set up to be a mystery/thriller about Maddy, a homeless 20-year-old living in San Francisco who happens to witness the final seconds of a murder. And it is a mystery. But the biggest part of the story is that is pulls back the curtain on the gritty, dangerous lives of the many homeless youth who live in the shadow of the Golden Gate Park.

Maddy has cobbled together a street family of sorts, fellow teens and twenty somethings who’ve banded together to help each other survive. They follow a routine: free breakfast from the shelter, panhandle or give unsuspecting tourists tours of the Haight during the day, set up together in the park to sleep at night, roll up their possessions and try to vacate the park in the morning before the cops run them out.

One night on the way back to their designated sleeping spot, Maddy (and her constant companion, her loyal dog Root) literally stumble over the body of a dead teen. He’s been murdered and it’s fresh, so fresh Maddy spots a figure running away from the scene. A terrified Maddy tries to keep what she saw to herself – both out of fear of the fleeing suspect finding her or her distrust of the cops – but eventually the police and the dead boy’s parents discover that Maddy was there, and they bring her into the investigation.

As the cops and parents investigate, the reader gets immersed in life on the street for kids like Maddy. We wonder how did she get there? How did her friends find themselves on the street? We see them both through the eyes of tourists passing by and either pretending they’re not there; or the ones who ask if they can take their picture. Most of them drink or use drugs to endure their life. It’s gritty, and sometimes hard to read.

Little by little we get clues – both as to how the boy was killed, and how Maddy’s life led to her homeless life. The boy’s parents take an interest in Maddy, hoping to save her where they couldn’t save their son. As a reader, I wanted to save her too. And her dog. And her sweet but hapless boyfriend.

The final word: At the Edge of the Haight is a gritty, raw, slow burn of a book that is an unflinching look at life – and death — among the homeless in San Francisco.

MILK BLOOD HEAT *Book Giveaway*

It’s book giveaway time! Get a copy of MILK BLOOD HEAT by Dantiel Moniz ahead of the February 2 publication date. Just read my review (in previous post) and comment below what intrigues you and makes you want to read this amazing book (aside from the fact I just called it amazing). 🙂 Post a comment by Wednesday, January 27 at 10 p.m. and the lucky winner’s book book will be sent the next day. Thank you for visiting Buzz Girl Books and HAPPY READING! xo Liz

MILK BLOOD HEAT by Dantiel Moniz

Full disclosure: normally I’m not a big fan of story collections. But once I read praise for MILK BLOOD HEAT from the likes of Lauren Groff combined with the fact that all the stories were set in my home state of Florida (many, in fact where I live in Jacksonville), I was sold.

And I’m so glad I was, because no matter where the setting of this book it is GORGEOUS.

In this debut from writer Dantiel Moniz, the reader is dropped into lives of characters in the story as they are in the middle of important moments. Each story feels a little like literally falling from the sky and being a fly on the wall as each character faces things like depression, tragedy, family dysfunction, religion, reckoning and more.

It’s so intimate that sometimes it feels like we almost shouldn’t be there, witnessing their pain, their discovery, their very personal moments. The stories are raw, real, uplifting, redeeming and fascinating. The writing is exquisite.

The stories range from a friendship between two 13-year-olds, one white and one black that takes a turn with unexpected tragedy; a woman reeling between reality/hallucination following a miscarriage; a young girl questions her family’s faith and maybe my favorite story – two estranged siblings take a road-trip with their father’s ashes and are forced to face past issues. The common link between the stories is Florida, which to me almost serves as a background character.

Maybe I’m biased but one of the best parts of the book for me were the very accurate portrayals of the Sunshine State, in all its beauty and quirkiness. Thank so much to #NetGalley for the privilege of reading a preview of this beautiful book.

Let’s Get Back To The Party by Zak Salih

At one of many the first same sex marriages to follow 2015’s Supreme Court marriage equality ruling, childhood friends Oscar and Sebastian run into each other since an ill-fated evening on a college campus a decade earlier. When Let’s Get Back to the Party starts off, we find the two friends (who were once inseparable) at the same wedding, but with totally different life goals.

Sebastian is envious of the grooms. He wants is to settle down. His latest relationship has just ended and when we meet him, he’s still stinging from the breakup, extremely lonely and living in his father’s old house in the sleepy suburbs of D.C. While his love life is lacking, he is happy with his job as a high school art history teacher. And when he runs into Oscar, he sees a chance to rekindle their friendship now that they are both grown up, openly gay adults.

Oscar, on the other hand, is reluctantly at the wedding and spends the reception on his phone trying to set up a post reception hook up. Oscar is tired of attending weddings, tired of gay bars and drag shows (as he laments) being invaded by bachelorette parties and straight people and gay culture fading as more of his friends settle down and have babies.

He has no interest in reconnecting with Sebastian, he has no space in the fabulous life he’s leading of random hook up after hook ups, boozy bunches and evenings of bar hopping for a “boring” suburbanite like Sebastian.

As they go their separate ways after the wedding, Oscar (having been stood up by his post- reception hook up) meets and befriends an older gentleman at the bar – who turns out to be a prolific queer novelist and gay icon, one who fought at Stonewall and embraced his gay lifestyle long before most were “out”. Oscar becomes fascinated by him, and his ability to not hide who he is or his lifestyle.

Sebastian returns to his quiet suburban life, but he also gets drawn into a relationship but with someone of a different generation– one of his students. As the faculty member charge of his school’s LGBTQ club, he meets Arthur. He envies and is fascinated by Arthur’s ease to be himself, at an age Sebastian had to hide his sexuality. His fascination grows to a harrowing borderline of obsession that builds to a climactic event (and a shocking revelation involving Oscar).

Both men learn about themselves from their respective new friendships, which span three generations of gay men, from AIDS-era to today. Along the way, they find each other and friendship again but not without some major bumps and near-catastrophic lessons along the way.

THE FINAL WORD: I love when a book creates characters so vivid, I feel like I know them. Zak Silah has painted Oscar and Sebastian so well that I found myself getting irritated with them both as if they were my friends irl for some of their actions. I also found myself cheering for them. This is a very powerful and immersive story. Thank you #NetGallery and Algonquin for inviting me to read this book!

“The Fortunate Ones” by Ed Tarkington

The Fortunate Ones by Ed Tarkington

The Fortunate Ones was one of those books I plowed through in just a few days. Author Ed Tarkington immerses the reader into the world of central character Charlie Boykin, a young man who lives in a low-income area of east Nashville with his single, cocktail-waitress mother, a former debutante who fled her wealthy upbringing when she got pregnant with Charlie and her family tried to force her to give him up.

Charlie is perfectly happy with his life especially the African American neighbors who take him in as one of their own. Everything changes, though, when Charlie’s mom secures a scholarship for him to attend a prestigious prep school, a school full old money Southerners, future senators and CEOs-in-the-making.

As a scholarship student, Charlie is a fish out of water until he’s taken under the wing of Arch Creigh. A popular, charismatic and also fatherless kid, Creigh pulls Charlie into the rarified world of privilege and rich kids who run wild without parental supervision. Charlie and Arch form a brotherly bond until a secret is exposed that rocks their tight-knit group of friends and sends Charlie running away from a crowd he never really felt at home with anyway.

The book reflects the disparity between rich and poor, black and white while uncovering the seedy side of politics. It also reveals how no matter how much money you have, you are not immune to addiction, illness (both physical and mental) and feelings of isolation.

On a personal note, I love the fact that some of of the story takes place in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, a magical town 170 miles outside Mexico City where my in-laws retired to about five years ago. It is one of my favorite places on earth, and I especially enjoyed the passages that really captured the beauty of this special place (it’s obvious the author has spent some time there himself), and it made me long for the day we can return.

THE FINAL WORD: The Fortunate Ones is part coming-of-age, part family dysfunction, part love story … but it is gorgeously written and a story that stayed with me long after I finished the last word. HIGHLY RECOMMEND.

Thank you #NetGalley for inviting me to read this book.

“Take It Back” by Kia Abdullah

I don’t know about you, but sometimes when I read a certain kind of book, I can totally visualize the movie version or Netflix miniseries, even the actors should play which characters. Take It Back is one of those books. And Riz Ahmed is that actor (I mean, I think he should be cast in everything, but I digress).

Take It Back is a mystery/thriller with brilliant London lawyer Zara Kaleel as the central character. She defies her family’s plans by leaving an arranged marriage and a high-paying, high-profile legal career to use her talents to fight for victims of sexual assault at a non-profit. The consequences of her choices change her life, estranging her from her family and causing her to rely on a steady flow of Xanax to tamp down any emotions she feels as a result.

Her latest case involves Jodie, a 16-year-old girl with extreme facial deformities. On top of struggling her whole life with bullying and mocking by others and living with a mean, alcoholic mother, Jodie tells Zara, she was horrifically raped at the hands of four classmates. And these classmates, like Zara, are Muslim immigrants.

Zara agrees to help Jodie and quickly finds herself in a struggle between fighting for truth and justice for her client, while facing accusations of being a traitor to her own community.

The case eventually goes to trial and becomes one of the most controversial criminal trials in London history. In the process, it also tears the Muslim community apart. I, too, felt similarly conflicted: Who is to be believed? And to what degree? As details from the night of the alleged rape unfolded, I went back and forth wondering who was telling the truth.

And then, just when you think you’ve figured out what really happened … BOOM! The big twist. At the very end.

THE FINAL WORD: The disturbing story, Kia Abdullah’s brilliant writing and the real-world parallels make Take It Back a riveting read. Highly recommended!

And a note to the filmmakers who are wise enough to snatch up the rights to this story, I have two words: Riz Ahmed.

“The Push” by Claire McGowan

The Push by Claire McGowan is a straight-up murder mystery with breadcrumbs—of all sizes— scattered throughout story that will keep the reader engaged in trying to figure out just what happened from the first page until the last.

The story follows a group of disparate characters with little in common other than living in London and being expectant parents. We meet them at a community group for expecting parents run by boho-chic Nina. But at the center of it all is Jax, a 38-year-old, first-time mother-to-be, who is pregnant by her much younger boyfriend Aaron, a handsome bartender she met at a speed dating event.

Almost immediately, the story jumps ahead six months to a barbecue where the group reunites after most of the babies are born. The characters soon realize, however, this is no typical backyard get-together, as one of them falls to their death from a balcony.

From the moment we learn of the accident (or was it?), McGowan takes us on dizzying ride jumping between the modern-day investigation of the death and an examination of the lives of each of the characters prior to the fateful party. We learn about Jax’s tumultuous life and Aaron’s dramatic backstory, as well as the not-so-perfect lives of their former classmates.

Creating even more mystery is the fact McGowan keeps the victim’s identity a secret through half of the book. Her deliberateness in doling out information about the characters, including some dark secrets, serves to further heighten the story’s intensity.

THE FINAL WORD: With twists and turns aplenty, The Push reminded me of an old-fashioned murder mystery, like Agatha Christie would have written. While some clues are fairly easy to piece together (at least for this armchair detective), others are definite jaw droppers. I thoroughly enjoyed following McGowan’s trail of breadcrumbs and would PUSH other fans of the genre to read it too.

Thank you to #NetGalley for the advance reader copy!

“Little Cruelties” by Liz Nugent

When a book promises a little dark, family dysfunction, I am IN (not sure why since my own family has a very normal amount of dysfunction). And Little Cruelties did not disappoint, though, “little” isn’t a word I’d use to describe the level of dysfunction in this family.

Focusing on the Drumm brothers, Nugent brings the toxicity and damage caused by their deeply flawed relationships to the forefront. At the root is their mother, a washed-up singer who still expects her family to treat her like a star. No surprise, the boys, born a year apart, spend their childhood competing for her attention and eventually, grow to resent her, each other and their father for catering to his wife’s whims, as well.

The brothers’ upbringing and the resulting damage color virtually every aspect of their lives. To them, competition isn’t harmless sibling rivalry but, rather, a means of survival. As a result of their individual experiences, each takes a very different path in life, yet, their “mind games” still manage to take a significant toll on the others—until, in the story’s climax, one of the brothers dies.

It doesn’t get much more dysfunctional than that.

THE FINAL WORD: It’s not exactly an uplifting read, but Little Cruelties is so well written and engaging, it definitely kept me turning the pages.

“The Book of Two Ways” by Jodi Piccoult

Over the years, I’ve read many of the prolific Jodi Piccoult’s novels, and to me there’s no one who can capture the intricacies of human interaction, especially when it comes to enduring grief and tragedy, like she can. The Book of Two Ways is very similar to Piccoult’s books I’ve read, but at the same time, it’s unlike any other. And that is why this review goes “two ways.”

Let’s start with the ways I loved the book. For one, Piccoult proves, yet again, her mastery of painting vivid and memorable characters, and in this case, Dawn is the stand-out. A former aspiring archaeologist who now works as a “death doula,” she fascinated me with her interest and abilities in addressing a subject as complex, private and difficult to talk about , as death. Through Dawn and her experiences, Piccoult is able to examine death in ways that are both thought-provoking and comforting (at least to me).

I also appreciated techniques Piccoult used to frame the story. When the story begins, for example, Dawn is on a plane that is about to crash. Who she thinks about in those moments is not, as she might have predicted, her current husband but, instead, a past love. From here, the book splits—Sliding Doors-style—into what Dawn’s life would have been like had she stayed with her dashing, fellow archaeologist and love Wyatt versus her actual life with her steady, solid husband Brian. 

The second way I’d review The Book of Two Ways would be to point out what I didn’t love about it—mainly, the heavily detailed sections on ancient Egypt and hieroglyphics. While I’m sure they’d be fascinating reading for many history buffs and fans of Egyptian culture, they weren’t of much interest to me, and I found myself mentally checking out during those parts. I’m also not sure these in-depth descriptions contributed much to the overall story line. For me, I wanted to get back to the relationships, Dawn’s realizations and her ultimate fate.

THE FINAL WORD: Overall, The Book of Two Ways is a wonderfully written story with a couple of plot twists and plenty of rich and descriptive details, contemplative character development and thoughtful examination of interpersonal relationships. In other words, it’s exactly what fans have come to expect from Piccoult. And also, what they wouldn’t.