Book Review: The Glass Forest


From the New York Times bestselling author of The Bookseller comes a gripping literary suspense novel set in the 1960s about a deeply troubled family and three women who will reveal its dark truths.

In the autumn of 1960, Angie Glass is living an idyllic life in her Wisconsin hometown. At twenty-one, she’s married to charming, handsome Paul, and has just given birth to a baby boy. But one phone call changes her life forever.

When Paul’s niece, Ruby, reports that her father, Henry, has committed suicide, and that her mother, Silja, is missing, Angie and Paul drop everything and fly to the small upstate town of Stonekill, New York to be by Ruby’s side.

Angie thinks they’re coming to the rescue of Paul’s grief-stricken young niece, but Ruby is a composed and enigmatic seventeen-year-old who resists Angie’s attempts to nurture her. As Angie learns more about the complicated Glass family, staying in Henry and Silja’s eerie and ultra-modern house on the edge of the woods, she begins to question the very fabric of her own marriage.

Through Silja’s flashbacks, Angie’s discovery of astonishing truths, and Ruby’s strategic dissection of her parents’ state of affairs, a story of love, secrets, and ultimate betrayal is revealed.

My thoughts:

The Glass Forest is a multi-layered look beneath the surface of a family, slowly peeling away the facade to reveal the deep, dark secrets and hidden truths. Told through alternating chapters focusing on Angie, Ruby, and Silja, we get multiple timelines, all converging by the end to show the truth behind Henry’s death and Silja’s disappearance.

The three main female characters — Angie, Ruby, and Silja — are well-drawn; not always likeable, but despite their flaws, they all possess an inner strength that helps them survive. Silja is a particularly sympathetic character, as we see how the years of her marriage change her. Angie, years younger, seems to be following in Silja’s footsteps to an extent in the early days of her marriage; barely twenty-one, she rushed into marriage with someone who seemed to be the man of her dreams, and only later starts to realize that there might be more to know about him. And Ruby, the teen daughter left behind by Silja and Henry, seems to be a mysterious, secretive girl — but as we find out, there’s a lot more to Ruby than meets the eye.

I really don’t want to say much about the plot, because it’s full of so many surprises, all deftly handled with a masterful set-up. There are shocking developments, but looking back, I can find the little breadcrumbs scattered through the earlier parts of the story that lay the groundwork for the bigger moments later on. The story as a whole is so well done, building to an ending that’s very much unexpected, but that absolutely fits.

I know I’m being deliberately vague here, but really, I just don’t want to ruin the reading experience for anyone. The Glass Forest is a compelling read that got harder and harder to put down, the farther I read. This would make an excellent book group choice — because I promise, when you finish reading it, you’ll be dying for someone to discuss it with!

I rarely go back to the beginning of a book once I finish. The Glass Forest is a rare exception where I ended up skimming back through the entire book once I’d finished to find all the hints and details that didn’t seem all that important the first time through — and ended up amazed all over again by how well put together the story is.

I loved Cynthia Swanson’s previous novel, The Bookseller. The Glass Forest is another winner. Check it out.

_________________________________________

The details:

Title: The Glass Forest
Author: Cynthia Swanson
Publisher: Touchstone
Publication date: February 6, 2018
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of Touchstone

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Book Review: The Great Alone


Alaska, 1974.
Unpredictable. Unforgiving. Untamed.
For a family in crisis, the ultimate test of survival.

Ernt Allbright, a former POW, comes home from the Vietnam war a changed and volatile man. When he loses yet another job, he makes an impulsive decision: he will move his family north, to Alaska, where they will live off the grid in America’s last true frontier.

Thirteen-year-old Leni, a girl coming of age in a tumultuous time, caught in the riptide of her parents’ passionate, stormy relationship, dares to hope that a new land will lead to a better future for her family. She is desperate for a place to belong. Her mother, Cora, will do anything and go anywhere for the man she loves, even if means following him into the unknown.

At first, Alaska seems to be the answer to their prayers. In a wild, remote corner of the state, they find a fiercely independent community of strong men and even stronger women. The long, sunlit days and the generosity of the locals make up for the Allbrights’ lack of preparation and dwindling resources.

But as winter approaches and darkness descends on Alaska, Ernt’s fragile mental state deteriorates and the family begins to fracture. Soon the perils outside pale in comparison to threats from within. In their small cabin, covered in snow, blanketed in eighteen hours of night, Leni and her mother learn the terrible truth: they are on their own. In the wild, there is no one to save them but themselves.

In this unforgettable portrait of human frailty and resilience, Kristin Hannah reveals the indomitable character of the modern American pioneer and the spirit of a vanishing Alaska―a place of incomparable beauty and danger. The Great Alone is a daring, beautiful, stay-up-all-night story about love and loss, the fight for survival, and the wildness that lives in both man and nature.

The Great Alone is many things — a portrait of life in rugged Alaska, a story of the damage done by war, a tale of the horrible secrets lurking underneath a family’s facade… and also, a story of love and devotion and commitment.

We first meet Leni as a 13-year-old who never fits in anywhere, thanks to her parents’ inability to settle. Ever since her father returned from his years as a POW in Vietnam, Leni has been pulled from home to home and school to school, as her father’s instability and nightmares make him unable to keep a job or stay put for very long. Meanwhile, Leni’s mother Cora remains madly in love with her husband Ernt, and constantly tells Leni that she wishes she could remember how he was before. Out of options, Ernt comes up with a seemingly crazy idea — they’ll move to Alaska, to a plot of land left him by a war buddy, and live off the land, off the grid, as homesteaders.

Leni, of course, has no say in this, just as she has no say in most of what happens in her life. Cora is desperate to find the answer to making Ernt happy again, so off they go in their battered VW bus, completely unprepared for the realities of the life ahead of them. When they finally reach their land in Kaneq, they find a falling-down dirty cabin, and not much else. Fortunately, the neighbors in this tiny community rally around to teach them what they need to know, with an emphasis on the all-important preparations for their first Alaskan winter.

The land and its surroundings are breathtakingly beautiful, of course… but the winter is harsh, leaving the small family isolated in their cabin for months on end. For Leni and Cora, life becomes increasingly dangerous, not because of the natural threats such as wildlife and climate, but because of the man they live with. Ernt does not do well in the dark, under stress, and he takes out his inner demons on Cora.

Over the years, the family becomes intertwined with their neighbors, and Cora and Leni develop deep bonds with their new friends, but Ernt becomes more and more obsessed with survivalism, his paranoia and nightmares becoming more and more intense. Leni grows up in the shadow of domestic violence, witnessing her father’s brutal treatment of Cora, but unable to do anything to stop it.

And as Leni matures, she falls in love with the boy who was her first friend in Alaska — but her father hates his father and everything he stands for, and it’s clear that the relationship must be kept hidden from Ernt before it pushes him into even more violence.

I have to be honest and admit that I wasn’t so sure about this book for the first third or so. I was interested, but it was slow-going. The description of Alaska and what it takes to build a life there are intriguing, of course, but I’ve read other stories about life in Alaska, so this wasn’t exactly new. I had a hard time at first with the viewpoint, as this section of the book is seen mainly through 13-year-old Leni’s eyes, and there was just something a little limiting about that. Still, it was sadly fascinating to see Leni’s experience of her parents’ toxic marriage — the loving moments, when the two were so obsessed with each other that they couldn’t see anyone else — and the explosively painful moments, when Ernt’s rage would boil over into fists and abuse.

Later, when Leni is an older teen, her story becomes much more compelling. Suddenly, I couldn’t put the book down. (Seriously, I read the 2nd 50% of the book in one sitting.) Leni’s love story builds along a Romeo and Juliet trajectory, and while we can see the inevitable tragedy looming ahead, it’s still a shock when Leni’s life is turned upside down.

In some ways, the story of Ernt’s violence is simply tragic. It’s hard not to hate him as the years go by and his craziness and violence escalate — but there’s an element of pity, too. In today’s world, his PTSD would be recognized for what it is and he’d be able to get help. In the early 1970s, just back from hellish years as a captive in Vietnam, not only was there no psychological help, but he also was subject to the derision of anti-war America when he returned. It might be easy to view Ernt as simply an evil character, but we can’t. He is horrible and abusive and destructive, but his horror stems from his own status as a victim of war and torture. We can absolutely condemn his behavior and his treatment of his family, but I can’t help but feel sorrow too for how different this man might have been without the trauma of Vietnam.

The depiction of domestic violence is harrowing but has a ring of truth. At that time, there was much less support for “battered women”, and a woman who fought back could easily end up either dead or behind bars, without much in the way of legal defense or public awareness. Seeing Leni’s need to protect her mother, and Cora’s inability to find a way to leave, is painful and tragic.

At the same time, I loved the way Leni’s life in Alaska grows. She becomes a part of the community, part of Alaska itself, and this stays with her and changes her in deep and unalterable ways.

I won’t say more about the love story or its outcome, other than WOW and SOB and TEARS and… well, read it yourself to find out!

The Great Alone is powerful and moving, with a unique setting and memorable characters. Check it out.

_________________________________________

The details:

Title: The Great Alone
Author: Kristin Hannah
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication date: February 6, 2018
Length: 448 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Novella: The Only Harmless Great Thing


In the early years of the 20th century, a group of female factory workers in Newark, New Jersey slowly died of radiation poisoning. Around the same time, an Indian elephant was deliberately put to death by electricity in Coney Island.

These are the facts.

Now these two tragedies are intertwined in a dark alternate history of rage, radioactivity, and injustice crying out to be righted. Prepare yourself for a wrenching journey that crosses eras, chronicling histories of cruelty both grand and petty in search of meaning and justice.

The Only Harmless Great Thing is weird and wonderful, cruel and beautiful. Can you possibly believe that two awful chapters from history — the “radium girls” and an electrocuted elephant — would fit together in one story? Author Brooke Bolander pulls off this seemingly impossible task in a new novella that almost defies description — you just need to experience it.

The narration shifts between elephant and human characters, in language that’s often hauntingly strange and beautiful.

At night, when the moon shuffles off behind the mountain and the land darkens like wetted skin, they glow. There is a story behind this. No matter how far you march, O best beloved mooncalf, the past will always drag around your ankle, a snapped shackle time cannot pry loose.

The human parts of the story are heart-breaking and outrage-inducing… but so are the elephants’ sections. As I read, the story of the radium factory workers’ treatment left me feeling furious. The involvement of elephants in the radium story is startling but makes sense in this alternate world in which humans and elephants converse via sign language, and the elephant language (Proboscidian) is taught in universities.

Then came the Atomic Elephant Hypothesis.

The Only Harmless Great Thing is a quick but powerful read, unusual and a little crazy and definitely something that will stick in my mind for quite some time. It made me angry and sad, and also made me think. Highly recommended.

But chains can be snapped, O best beloved mooncalf. Sticks can be knocked out of a Man’s clever hands. And one chain snapping may cause all the rest to trumpet and stomp and shake the trees like a rain-wind coming down the mountain, washing the gully muddy with bright lightning tusks and thunderous song.

PS – The story of Topsy, the elephant electrocuted at Coney Island, is changed and reinvented here in this novella — but yes, there was a real Topsy, and she really was put to death in 1903 by being electrocuted in front of a crowd as part of a public spectacle. It’s a horrible story that seems too outrageous to be true, but sadly, it really happened. You can read more about Topsy’s awful fate here.

PPS – Reading this novella reminded me that I picked up a copy of the non-fiction book The Radium Girls (winner of the 2017 Goodreads Choice Award for history and biography), and really need to read it!

_________________________________________

The details:

Title: The Only Harmless Great Thing
Author: Brooke Bolander
Publisher: Tor
Publication date: January 23, 2018
Length: 96 pages
Genre: Alternate history
Source: Purchased

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Book Review: Still Me by Jojo Moyes


From the #1 New York Times bestselling author Jojo Moyes, a new book featuring her iconic heroine of Me Before You and After You, Louisa Clark

Louisa Clark arrives in New York ready to start a new life, confident that she can embrace this new adventure and keep her relationship with Ambulance Sam alive across several thousand miles. She steps into the world of the superrich, working for Leonard Gopnik and his much younger second wife, Agnes. Lou is determined to get the most out of the experience and throws herself into her new job and New York life.

As she begins to mix in New York high society, Lou meets Joshua Ryan, a man who brings with him a whisper of her past. Before long, Lou finds herself torn between Fifth Avenue where she works and the treasure-filled vintage clothing store where she actually feels at home. And when matters come to a head, she has to ask herself: Who is Louisa Clark? And how do you reconcile a heart that lives in two places?

Funny, romantic, and poignant, Still Me follows Lou as she navigates how to stay true to herself, while pushing to live boldly in her brave new world.

Still Me is the third Louisa Clark story, taking the young woman we know and love and putting her in a decidedly new and strange environment — New York’s Upper East Side.

In the beautiful Me Before You, Louisa’s life changes through her relationship with Will Traynor, a man she loves but cannot save. In After You, we see Louisa grieve and suffer, finally starting to rebuild a new version of a life as she allows new friends and connections into her world and begins to open up to the possibility of a new love.

Still Me picks up right where After You leaves off, as Louisa leaves her family and new boyfriend Sam behind in England to accept a job working for a super posh family in New York. The Gopniks are incredibly rich and live a life of utter luxury and intense busy-ness, with husband and wife requiring personal assistants to keep their days on track and to get them from one charity event to another. Lou’s role is to be Agnes’s companion as well as assistant, providing reassurance and steadiness to the young wife who is scorned by the more established society matrons.

Lou and Sam plan to continue their relationship, but as we all know, long-distance relationships are tough, no matter the good intentions. Misunderstandings crop up. Communication is strained. Sam’s visits to New York never seem to work out as wonderfully as planned. And then a disastrous visit home leads to even more trouble.

Meanwhile, back in New York, Lou’s career as a companion takes an unexpected turn… but soon new opportunities and friendships come her way. And Lou — finally, slowly — begins to understand that she has the opportunity Will always wanted for her: the chance to decide for herself who she will be, and what she wants her life to look like.

I won’t say any more about the plot — who wants to give away the good stuff? Louisa is, as always, an original — a funky, upbeat, unusual young woman who’s headstrong, loving, creative, and assertive; who also drinks too much when nervous, rolls with the punches, but is decidedly vulnerable too. Will Traynor will always be an indelible influence on her life, but Sam holds her heart… or does he? And is he as devoted to her as she’d like him to be?

Still Me introduces some memorable, delightful new characters, especially Mrs. DeWitt — the feisty, slightly mean old woman who lives down the hall from the Gopniks — and her dog Dean Martin, a pug who’s got just as much of a bite as his owner.

In her New York setting, Louisa gets a new chance to shine, whether wearing her unique style of outrageous fashion or finding her way around Fifth Avenue. It’s fun and heartening to see “our” Lou turn into this new version of herself, whistling for cabs like a New York pro.

In some ways, Still Me could almost be a stand-alone. There are many sections that read like a fish-out-of-water story. Take one small-town English girl and place her in the world of New York billionaires — it’s bound to be entertaining. And yet, for those of us who have read the earlier books, it’s especially heart-warming to see the unsure, broken-hearted heroine of Me Before You finally coming out the other side of a world of grief and taking steps toward becoming who she’s meant to be.

Still Me wraps up a lovely trilogy that’s full of pathos, humor, warmth, and characters who feel like real people, flawed but lovable all the same. I’d love to think that Jojo Moyes might continue writing about Louisa Clark — I haven’t seen anthing that says, one way or the other, whether Still Me is the end of Louisa’s story. I hope not! I think I’d be happy following Lou through the many glorious years ahead of her. Still, if Still Me is the final Louisa Clark book, we can all take satisfaction in seeing the life Louisa has built for herself by the end of the book, and imagine the great things yet to come.

_________________________________________

The details:

Title: Still Me
Author: Jojo Moyes
Publisher: Pamela Dorman Books
Publication date: January 30, 2018
Length: 400 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Book Review: Red Clocks


In this ferociously imaginative novel, abortion is once again illegal in America, in-vitro fertilization is banned, and the Personhood Amendment grants rights of life, liberty, and property to every embryo. In a small Oregon fishing town, five very different women navigate these new barriers alongside age-old questions surrounding motherhood, identity, and freedom.

Ro, a single high-school teacher, is trying to have a baby on her own, while also writing a biography of Eivør, a little-known 19th-century female polar explorer. Susan is a frustrated mother of two, trapped in a crumbling marriage. Mattie is the adopted daughter of doting parents and one of Ro’s best students, who finds herself pregnant with nowhere to turn. And Gin is the gifted, forest-dwelling homeopath, or “mender,” who brings all their fates together when she’s arrested and put on trial in a frenzied modern-day witch hunt.

This book is getting a ton of buzz, with non-stop comparisons to The Handmaid’s Tale, among others. But I’ll tell you up front, I just don’t see it, and feel like the hype is pretty undeserved too.

Also, just to get this out of the way, the synopsis is misleading as well — the book is not about “five very different women” “in a small Oregon fishing town” — it’s about four women, and there are notes from one character’s unfinished biography of a female explorer. But Eivor is certainly not a woman in the small Oregon town. Nitpicky, I know, but accuracy matters.

Okay, so what’s it all about? Through chapters alternating between the four main characters and the notes on Eivor, we get a view of life in an America much like our own, but with a scary difference. Since the Personhood Amendment became the law of the land, abortions are illegal, and by law, life starts at conception, conveying the rights of full humans on embryos. Women who miscarry are forced to pay for funerals for their dead babies. Getting an abortion will result in murder charges. Canada has enacted an agreement to close the border to women seeking abortions; this is known as the “Pink Wall”.

And yet, in all other ways, it’s just a small town with the usual assortment of odd characters overly involved in one another’s lives.

Ro is desperate to become pregnant, but as the clock seems to be running out on her fertility chances, she’s also aware of the law about to take effect (Every Child Needs Two) that bans adoption by single parents. Ro’s student Mattie is bright and ambitious, but finds herself trapped by an unwanted pregnancy. Susan feels trapped in her marriage and family life, and seems not quite stable in a self-destructive way. Gin is a healer with a talent for herbal medicine and the courage to provide care for women with nowhere to turn. All, in different ways, feel trapped by their own circumstances and the laws that take away their choices.

Oddly, Red Clocks is much less compelling than it should be. Yes, the twist about the Personhood Amendment and the return to a world of back-alley abortions is frightening, clearly intended as a cautionary tale for those who take rights for granted and who assume someone will do something about the slow creep of rising conservatism. But in execution, the events of the novel feel narrow in scope — the small town, rather than feeling representative, is just its own odd little locale.

The writing in Red Clocks suffers from literary affectation that’s distracting and even laughable in places. The main characters are referred to only by their generic descriptions in their own chapters — so in Ro’s chapters, she’s referred to only as “the biographer”. Susan is “the wife”, Mattie is “the daughter”, and Gin is “the mender”. Yet they get names when they feature in chapters about the other characters… so what’s the point of not using their names? Are they supposed to be iconic in some way? Perhaps it’s the author’s way of showing the roles that women are assigned, but it doesn’t feel necessary or effective; rather, it feels like someone trying too hard to be different.

And oh, the writing itself drove me a bit batty. Are we supposed to be seeing how these women think? Is that why everything is so disjointed? And yet, the chapters all sound kind of alike, without distinct voices. Here are a few samples — judge for yourself if this is the kind of thing you can stomach:

Labiaplasty surgeons earn up to $250,000 per month.

A little animal — possum? porcupine? tries to cross the cliff road.

Sooty, burnt, charred to rubber.

Shivering, trying to cross.

Already so dead.

(opening lines of a “The Wife” chapter)

A witch who says no to her lover and no to the law must be suffocated in a cell of the hive. She who says no to her lover and no to the law shall bleed salt from the face. Two eyes of salt in the face of a witch who says no to her lover and no to the law shall be seen by policeman who come to the cabin.

(“The Mender”)

There is an egg bracing to burst out of its sac into the wet fallopian warmth.

(“The Biographer”)

Babies once were abstractions. They were Maybe I do, but now now. The biographer used to sneer at talk of biological deadlines, believing the topic of baby craziness to be crap for lifestyle magazines. Women who worried about ticking clocks were the same women who traded salmon-loaf recipes and asked their husbands to clean the gutters. She was not and never would be one of them.

Then, suddenly, she was one of them. Not the gutters, but the clock.

(“The Biographer”)

After Clementine leaves, the mender misses her, wants back the soft white thighs. She likes her ladies big-sirenic, mermaids of land, pressing and twisting in fleshful bodies.

(“The Mender”)

Red Clocks isn’t boring, and the plot does include dramatic and moving moments — but few and far between. Otherwise, it’s all very introspective, and the political and social impact gets drowned under the droning of the inner monologues. The book held my interest, but wasn’t the buzz-worthy read I’d expected.

And a final note: I keep seeing people describe Red Clocks as “dystopian”, but I find that not quite accurate either. While it’s disturbing to see the impact of the Personhood Amendment, the world of Red Clocks is no where near the societal upheaval and tyranny of a dystopian society. It’s our world as it could be, which is scary enough without the “dystopian” label attached to it.

_________________________________________

The details:

Title: Red Clocks
Author: Leni Zumas
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Publication date: January 16, 2018
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Book Review: Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld


This version of the Bennet family and Mr. Darcy is one that you have and haven’t met before: Liz is a magazine writer in her late thirties who, like her yoga instructor older sister, Jane, lives in New York City. When their father has a health scare, they return to their childhood home in Cincinnati to help and discover that the sprawling Tudor they grew up in is crumbling and the family is in disarray.

Youngest sisters Kitty and Lydia are too busy with their CrossFit workouts and Paleo diets to get jobs. Mary, the middle sister, is earning her third online master’s degree and barely leaves her room, except for those mysterious Tuesday-night outings she won’t discuss. And Mrs. Bennet has one thing on her mind: how to marry off her daughters, especially as Jane’s fortieth birthday fast approaches.

Enter Chip Bingley, a handsome new-in-town doctor who recently appeared on the juggernaut reality TV dating show Eligible. At a Fourth of July barbecue, Chip takes an immediate interest in Jane, but Chip’s friend, neurosurgeon Fitzwilliam Darcy, reveals himself to Liz to be much less charming. . . . And yet, first impressions can be deceiving.

This is the most fun I’ve had with a book all year! (Okay, it’s only January 20th, but that sounds impressive, doesn’t it?)

Eligible is a Jane Austen retelling, part of The Austen Project, in which modern-day authors are matched up with Austen novels, retelling Austen’s classic tales in a modern setting. Eligible is the 4th of the Austen Project books to be published, and I’d have to say it’s the most enjoyable so far.

The author opens this Pride and Prejudice reinterpretation with a quote by Mark Twain about Cincinnati being 20 years behind every one else… and thank goodness she does, because this mindset certainly help Eligible make sense. The problem I have with most modern-day interpretations of Austen stories is the unrelenting emphasis on marrying well, which definitely isn’t a notion that fits with a 21st century outlook.

In Eligible, Mrs. Bennet is a Cincinnatian who wants nothing more than for her five daughters to be married off to wealthy, successful men, so she can go brag about it at the country club. Mrs. Bennet is just as insufferable here as she is in Austen’s original. Liz and Jane have found lives and careers in New York, but when they return home due to their father’s health crisis, they’re sucked right back into the Bennets’ world, full of gossip and obnoxious younger sisters and oblivious parents.

The story is quite fun. Darcy is a snobbish neurosurgeon who forms terrible impressions of Cincinnati and the Bennets. And he does have good reason, as Kitty and Lydia are crass and embarrassing every time they open their mouths. Jane is lovely, of course, and Chip is smitten… but complicating matters is the fact that Jane had decided to pursue single motherhood right before returning to Cincinnati, and a pregnancy could definitely throw a wrench in the romance.

The modern-day touches are sprinkled throughout the story. The use of a reality TV show as a catalyst is quite brilliant, especially as Chip’s ongoing connection to the show comes back into play later in the book. Lydia’s story take an unexpected turn as well, and fortunately, she ends up being more sensible and much happier in Eligible than she does in the original.

MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD!

I don’t want to get too far into the details, because the fun is in encountering all the little ways in which the author takes the original P&P story elements and turns them on their head and makes them fit in a contemporary novel. Still, I’ll mention just a few things that I thought were great twist, such as Jasper Wick (Eligible‘s version of Wickham), a married man with whom Liz has an affair for far too long (prior to the events of the story), and who ends up being just the sort of ass we’d expect. Fortunately, Lydia does NOT get involved with Wick/Wickham in this story… but the way the author makes Lydia’s elopement work out is fitting, and I only just now got the play on names that the author pulls off with Lydia’s love interest.

The one thing I had a really hard time with in Eligible is that about mid-way through, as Liz and Darcy keep running into each other, being rude to one another, and clearly expressing their dislike… Liz asks Darcy if he wants to have hate sex, and he agrees, and they end up in bed together! A lot! Okay, fine, I don’t have any problem with consenting adults doing whatever they like, but somehow it’s shocking to think about Lizzie Bennet and Darcy getting physical! I felt like I was going to have an attack of the vapors. Quick, fetch the smelling salts! It actually all works in the context of the plot, but somehow putting those characters in that situation was quite outrageous for my poor, proper sensibilities.

Okay, end of spoilers.

The writing in Eligible is fun and light-hearted, and the short chapters keep the plot moving right along, even though the book itself, by pure page-count, is on the long side. Despite knowing overall how the story must work out, given the premise, getting there was really a blast.

I haven’t entirely loved the Austen Project books that I’ve read so far, because I do find the notion of Austen’s plots really hard to force into modern retellings. In the case of Eligible, though, it’s a great fit, and so well done. If you’re an Austen fan, Eligible is worth checking out, and I suppose even someone not familiar with Pride and Prejudice (gasp!) would enjoy the story as well.

For more on Austen Project books, check out my reviews of:
Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid
Sense and Sensibility by Joanne Trollope
Emma by Alexander McCall Smith

_________________________________________

The details:

Title: Eligible
Author: Curtis Sittenfeld
Publisher: Random House
Publication date: April 19, 2016
Length: 512 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Book Review: I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter


Perfect Mexican daughters do not go away to college. And they do not move out of their parents’ house after high school graduation. Perfect Mexican daughters never abandon their family.

But Julia is not your perfect Mexican daughter. That was Olga’s role.

Then a tragic accident on the busiest street in Chicago leaves Olga dead and Julia left behind to reassemble the shattered pieces of her family. And no one seems to acknowledge that Julia is broken, too. Instead, her mother seems to channel her grief into pointing out every possible way Julia has failed.

But it’s not long before Julia discovers that Olga might not have been as perfect as everyone thought. With the help of her best friend Lorena, and her first kiss, first love, first everything boyfriend Connor, Julia is determined to find out. Was Olga really what she seemed? Or was there more to her sister’s story? And either way, how can Julia even attempt to live up to a seemingly impossible ideal?

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter is a moving, disturbing, and vibrant story of a girl trying to find her own way while under the out-sized pressure of family expectations, poverty, and inner city life.

Julia is a gifted student whose dream is to become a writer. Thanks to the mentorship of a dedicated English teacher, she may have a shot at college — anywhere, so long as it’s away — and a full scholarship.

But Julia’s parents just don’t understand, and since Olga’s death, Julia is reminded over and over again that she’s not what her parents want her to be. She’s not content to be at home, and chafes under the harsh curfews and ceaseless surveillance of her life. Julia’s mother cleans houses of rich people and her father works a fatiguing job in a candy factory. Both undocumented, they crossed the border from Mexico before their daughters’ births, so while the girls are both US citizens, the threat of deportation hangs over the family every waking moment.

The descriptions of the family’s poverty are heartbreaking, and so is the despair Julia feels over the lack of freedom and trust she experiences on a daily basis. She yearns to break free, to pursue her education, to be something and someone different — but she faces constant punishments and groundings every time she steps out of line, and finally gets to a breaking point.

This book deals with the pain of family secrets — everyone in Julia’s family has something they’ve chosen not to share. As she learns more about her parents and her sister, Julia discovers that the bland or hard surfaces hide painful pasts and secrets that could be truly destructive if brought to life. Julia’s understanding of her own family deepens as she learns more, and she starts finally to understand where the harshness and rules and need for control really come from.

I thought the book was very well written, with a sense of immediacy conveyed through Julia’s narrative. We see the world through Julia’s eyes, and understand how the world affects her own sense of self. The way she’s viewed by outsiders because she’s poor and Mexican, the way the boys at home and at school look at her body rather than looking at her as a person, the way her parents see her as untrustworthy because she doesn’t fit the image of a “perfect” daughter the way Olga did — all of these drive Julia’s suffering and the damage to her self-image.

There’s a section of the book that’s set in Mexico, as Julia is sent to visit her relatives there, and while the descriptions of the village are colorful, this interlude felt like it meandered a bit to me. Still, if the point was to show that even in situations that seem cheerful and safe on the surface, there is still darkness underneath, then it’s effective as well.

Overall, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter is a powerful read that really moved me, even while making me very uncomfortable in many parts too. It’s definitely not like anything else I’ve read, and Julia’s distinctive voice is a delight. Touching on subjects such as economic disadvantage, cultural insensitivity and prejudice, sexual health, and mental health, it’s an ambitious book packed with heavy topics, but manages to still keep rays of hope alive as Julia finds her way forward. I’m so happy that I made time to read this book, and definitely recommend it.

_________________________________________

The details:

Title: I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter
Author: Erika L. Sánchez
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Publication date: October 17, 2017
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Young adult
Source: Purchased

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Book Review: 180 Seconds


Some people live their entire lives without changing their perspective. For Allison Dennis, all it takes is 180 seconds…

After a life spent bouncing from one foster home to the next, Allison is determined to keep others at arm’s length. Adopted at sixteen, she knows better than to believe in the permanence of anything. But as she begins her third year in college, she finds it increasingly difficult to disappear into the white noise pouring from her earbuds.

One unsuspecting afternoon, Allison is roped into a social experiment just off campus. Suddenly, she finds herself in front of a crowd, forced to interact with a complete stranger for 180 seconds. Neither she, nor Esben Baylor, the dreamy social media star seated opposite her, is prepared for the outcome.

When time is called, the intensity of the experience overwhelms Allison and Esben in a way that unnerves and electrifies them both. With a push from her oldest friend, Allison embarks on a journey to find out if what she and Esben shared is the real thing—and if she can finally trust in herself, in others, and in love.

In 180 Seconds, we experience Allison’s life through her first-person perspective. She has a wonderful adoptive father, Simon, and a best friend Steffi, but apart from these two, Allison travels through life alone. After her years as a foster child, she’s built sturdy walls around herself, and feels safest when those walls are intact. Even with Simon, Allison keeps a distance. He’s warm and loving and supportive, but after all she’s been through, Allison has a hard time trusting that it won’t just all go away suddenly. Better to never let someone close than to risk it and then get hurt.

Steffi, though, is Allison’s soul-sister. They met in a foster home, and over the years, even though separated by circumstances outside their control, they’ve never lost their bond. Steffi, never adopted, attends college on the West Coast while Allison is in Maine, but they keep in constant contact. Steffi is outgoing, bubbly, and mama-bear fierce when it comes to protecting Allison from anyone and everything that might hurt her.

When Allison meets Esben in that fateful 180-second experiment, she’s shattered by the experience. During those three minutes, her walls come crashing down and she and Esben connect in a way that’s immediately shocking and intimate. Of course, being the age of technology, those 180 seconds make her internet-famous, and Allison finds that her private bubble has been blown apart and the world wants in. And then too, she has to figure out Esben — did he feel it too? Is this connection real?

As Allison and Esben finally meet for real and begin to talk, Allison finds herself opening up for the first time in her life. As she comes out of her shell, she and Esben begin a gentle development of a relationship that’s unlike anything she’s ever experienced, and the positive energy she feels lets her take risks, shut off the white noise in her earbuds, and actually reach out and let the world in.

What I liked:

The characters are really wonderful. Allison is fragile and introverted to the point of unhealthiness — but it’s understandable based on what we learn about her childhood and the amount of rejection she experienced growing up. It’s hard to see her keep Simon at a distance. He’s an amazing person who just knew Allison was meant to be his daughter, and he provides her with a safe and nurturing home and so much unconditional love, asking nothing in return. I loved seeing their relationship deepen as Allison’s ability to trust and accept love expands over the course of the novel.

Steffi is a strong, kick-ass young woman, but even she has vulnerabilities that she tries to hide. Steffi’s secrets because central to the plot in the latter part of the book, and I won’t say anything to divulge them here, but just be warned that boxloads of Kleenex are imperative for this book.

Allison’s blossoming is believable and well-written. You can practically feel the glow spreading within her as bit by bit, her relationship with Esben allows her to open up to life and its possibilities and to start believing in herself.

Minor quibbles:

There’s nothing I actually didn’t like about 180 Seconds, but I do have just a couple of minor issues with the book.

My major issue is that Esben is really too perfect. He’s a lovely person, but there are times when it’s just too much. He’s always sensitive, always respectful, always exactly what Allison needs — plus he’s super hot and sexy and has a heart of gold. This is a guy who uses social media for good, so when he finds out that a little girl’s birthday party is going to be a bust, he takes to social media to make sure she has a birthday princess extravaganza. He’s just SO GOOD all the time, and it makes him seem not quite human at times.

My other complaint is that for the first half or so of the book, it feels pretty episodic, without much dramatic tension or building plot. In each chapter, Allison has some new situation to confront or an event to participate in with Esben, and they deal with it, and she learns something, and it’s all good. None of it is boring or pointless, but it starts feeling like just one nice interlude after another.

Wrapping it all up:

I started 180 Seconds as an audiobook, but when I got within about 2 hours of the end, I had to switch to print so I could move faster and get through the rest of the story. Plus, I’ll be honest — this is another one of those audiobooks that probably should not be listened to in public. I got to a certain part and was taken completely by surprise and began seriously ugly crying… while I was driving my car. Not good!

I’m really not going to go further into the plot or explain my ugly crying jag or anything that happens in the last third. It’s heartbreaking and yet also quite heartwarming… in other words, it gives your heart a work-out!

180 Seconds is a lovely book filled with sympathetic, enjoyable characters and complex relationships. Highly recommended.

Also by this author: Flat-Out Love

_________________________________________

The details:

Title: 180 Seconds
Author: Jessica Park
Publisher: Skyscape
Publication date: April 25, 2017
Length: 300 pages
Genre: Young adult
Source: Purchased

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Book Review: The Marriage Pact


Newlyweds Alice and Jake are a picture-perfect couple. Alice, once a singer in a well-known rock band, is now a successful lawyer. Jake is a partner in an up-and-coming psychology practice. Their life together holds endless possibilities. After receiving an enticing wedding gift from one of Alice’s prominent clients, they decide to join an exclusive and mysterious group known only as The Pact.

The goal of The Pact seems simple: to keep marriages happy and intact, and most of its rules make sense: Always answer the phone when your spouse calls. Exchange thoughtful gifts monthly. Plan a trip together once per quarter. . . .

Never mention The Pact to anyone.

Alice and Jake are initially seduced by the glamorous parties, the sense of community, their widening social circle of like-minded couples–and then one of them breaks the rules. The young lovers are about to discover that for adherents to The Pact, membership, like marriage, is for life, and The Pact will go to any lengths to enforce that rule. For Jake and Alice, the marriage of their dreams is about to become their worst nightmare.

The premise of this book sounded intriguing: A mysterious, secretive club, with complicated rules and requirements, dedicated to enhancing and strengthening marriage. Alice and Jake join the Pact mostly on a whim — they’re amused by the sense of formality and ritual during the initial sales pitch, and sign the contract without a moment’s hesitation. After all, if they sign now, they’ll be just in time to attend the big fancy party coming up.

Uh oh. Never sign without reading the fine print! Alice, a lawyer, really should know better.

Alice and Jake soon learn that there’s a dark side to the Pact. First tip should have been the manual — a huge volume containing endless rules about how to behave in the marriage — and long lists of punishments, graded misdeamenors to felonies — for marital infractions big and small. The couple simply doesn’t take any of it seriously. They act like it’s a silly game. No one actually MEANS any of this stuff, right?

Wrong.

They realize quickly enough that crimes like lack of focus on the marriage carry a penalty, such as relatively benign mandatory counseling sessions with a more senior Pact member, or required early-morning workout sessions with a trainer when one’s weight falls outside the prescribed limits. Yes, there are weigh-ins. Shudder.

The penalties escalate with the severity of the crime against the marriage, and before they know it, Alice is being manacled and shackled and carted off to a prison facility in the Nevada desert. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Too late, Jake and Alice realize that the Pact is not a game at all… and that there’s no way out.

What I liked:

The premise is certainly different, I’ll grant the book that. It’s intriguing at the start to wonder about the true agenda of the Pact. As each consequence become harsher than the previous one, the suspense ratchets up. The book moves quickly, and the tension continues to mount as the book proceeds. Who can be trusted? Where can they turn? Is the danger real? There’s definitely a lot to keep us going.

I liked Alice and Jake as characters, although I need to counter that by saying that they’re way too smart to end up in the situation they find themselves in.

And stretching for anything else positive to say — well, I did like the author’s use of the San Francisco setting. Every time Jake describes which route he took from his house, I can picture the turn-by-turn directions, and I enjoyed seeing “my” beach, Ocean Beach, feature into the plot.

 

What I didn’t like:

Oh, where to start?

My biggest issue, and the one that will pretty much keep me from recommending this book, is that it pretty quickly changes from being dark to being outright sadistic. Yes, people, the punishments include all sorts of sadistic, painful torture and humiliation, and that is so NOT what I thought I was signing up for. The book became frankly unpleasant by the last third. I don’t mind creepy thrillers — but this isn’t that. The Marriage Pact gets into detailed descriptions of horrible acts involving pain and loss of control and cruelty for the sake of cruelty.

Beyond the awfulness of those parts, the plot itself doesn’t hold together. I made light of it earlier, but really, these are two well-educated people who should absolutely know better than to sign contracts on the spot, as if they’re buying a timeshare that they’ll regret later. There’s every indication right from the start that they’re getting involved in something big and scary, and they just ignore the warning signs and sign on the dotted line. Sheesh.

Also, hate to say it, but the Pact just never made sense to me. It’s filled with rich and powerful people, the implication being that if you ever try to leave or expose the Pact, they have the power and the reach to destroy your careers, your reputations, and possibly even your chance of staying alive. But why? The Pact is dedicated to the preservation of marriage. Fine. But what drives all these people to enforce it and be loyal to it? It’s not about money or power — it seems to be only about dedication to the Pact itself. The rituals of punishment, coupled with the loyalty of Pact members, just doesn’t add up.

 

Wrapping it all up:

Reading The Marriage Plot is like watching a train wreck. It’s a horrible sight, but I had a hard time looking away. I did want to know what would happen next and whether Alice and Jake would find a way out. Also, the truly sadistic, torture-ific parts don’t come until later in the book, and by that time I was too far in to walk away without finishing. I guess not everyone will be as bothered by those parts as I was, but that’s definitely not what I thought I was signing up for when I started this book.

_________________________________________

The details:

Title: The Marriage Pact
Author: Michelle Richmond
Publisher: Bantam
Publication date: July 25, 2017
Length: 432 pages
Genre: Thriller
Source: Library

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Audiobook Review: The Knockoff


An outrageously stylish, wickedly funny novel of fashion in the digital age, The Knockoff is the story of Imogen Tate, editor in chief of Glossy magazine, who finds her twentysomething former assistant Eve Morton plotting to knock Imogen off her pedestal, take over her job, and reduce the magazine, famous for its lavish 768-page September issue, into an app.

When Imogen returns to work at Glossy after six months away, she can barely recognize her own magazine. Eve, fresh out of Harvard Business School, has fired “the gray hairs,” put the managing editor in a supply closet, stopped using the landlines, and hired a bevy of manicured and questionably attired underlings who text and tweet their way through meetings. Imogen, darling of the fashion world, may have Alexander Wang and Diane von Furstenberg on speed dial, but she can’t tell Facebook from Foursquare and once got her iPhone stuck in Japanese for two days. Under Eve’s reign, Glossy is rapidly becoming a digital sweatshop—hackathons rage all night, girls who sleep get fired, and “fun” means mandatory, company-wide coordinated dances to Beyoncé. Wildly out of her depth, Imogen faces a choice—pack up her Smythson notebooks and quit, or channel her inner geek and take on Eve to save both the magazine and her career. A glittering, uproarious, sharply drawn story filled with thinly veiled fashion personalities, The Knockoff is an insider’s look at the ever-changing world of fashion and a fabulous romp for our Internet-addicted age.

If not for my book group, I probably would never have considered this book. The Knockoff checks a lot of boxes for topics I usually avoid: the fashion world, corporate life, women being catty, descriptions of what people are wearing, focus on millennials… Still, in the spirit of being a good book group-ie, I plunged right in. Surprise! I ended up having a lot more fun with this book than I could possibly have imagined.

The story is fairly straightforward: Imogen Tate has been the editor-in-chief of Glossy for years, connected with all the top names in the fashion world, guaranteed a front-row seat at Fashion Week, and considered one of the biggest names in the world of fashion media. But after a six-month medical leave, she returns to work to find that nothing is as she left it. Her former assistant Eve is now basically running out the show, throwing out the physical magazine in favorite of an app whose raison d’etre is their BUY IT NOW tagline on every single item in every single photo shoot. Suddenly, Glossy is Glossy.com, staffed by interchangeable millennial 20-somethings who are all looking for their breakthrough into tech gold.

Imogen is immediately out of her depth, helpless with anything related to technology, and being made to feel like a dinosaur. (Literally. Eve has a toy dinosaur on her desk with “Imogen” printed on the side.) But Imogen isn’t without allies and resources, and she sets out to become relevant, going from hopelessly inept twitterer to Instagram idol practically in the blink of an eye.

What I liked:

The characters and the dialogue are bubbly fun. The writing is snappy and witty, moving quickly from scene to scene. The story is mostly told from Imogen’s point-of-view, but we get occasional sections narrated by Eve or by Imogen’s new assistant Ashley, and their voices are distinct and finely honed.

Imogen is a strong lead character, and I loved seeing a woman at the helm of a business, with all the respect and acclaim she deserves. It’s also rewarding to see a powerful businesswoman with a home life. She works hard, but she’s also got a great, supportive husband, and is a devoted mom to two young children. The other thing that’s great about Imogen is that she’s NICE. She’s not the cookie cutter mean boss, the woman who has to be a bitch to get ahead. Imogen believes in treating people kindly and with respect, no matter their role, and it pays off for her tremendously, both in terms of actual results and in the good will generated.

I can’t say that I “liked” Eve — but I think the authors did a great job with her character. She’s completely insufferable, but she’s supposed to be. As written, Eve is simply an awful person, shouting “GO GO GO” at her staff, forcing them to attend spin classes with her and admire her every move, and ready to fire people at a moment’s notice for really no reason at all. She’s abrasive and totally oblivious to the horrible impression she makes on fashion world movers and shakers — she’s all about her Harvard MBA, and can’t see beyond her adorable selfies for more than a moment. So while I despised Eve, kudos to the authors for creating such a thoroughly unlikable character!

Side characters are quite well-drawn as well, from the anxious, eager-to-please young women who follow Eve’s every move, dreaming of their own big breakthroughs, to the supermodels who are Imogen’s friends and the tech gurus whom Imogen finds surprisingly agreeable, each has interesting quirks and personalities. I got a big kick out of Imogen’s nanny Tilly, who becomes Imogen’s emergency social media advisor, teaching her how to hashtag like a boss.

What I didn’t like so much:

Certain parts of the premise just didn’t ring true for me. Imogen is 42 years old. 42! That’s not ancient! There’s no way that a 42-year-old should have to have her assistants print her emails before she reads them. She may not have rocked social media previously, but I simply found it incredible that a woman in business, in her early 40s, would be that incapable of using and understanding technology.

Imogen is out on medical leave for six months, and returns to find her business completely revamped — and no one let her know ahead of time? Is it realistic that over the course of half a year a well-established magazine would completely throw out its business model and turn itself into an app? Didn’t feel that way to me.

The focus on Eve’s wedding toward the end creates the climactic moments of the story, but honestly, the wedding shenanigans seemed overblown to me and beyond the point of credulity. It’s hard to believe that the wedding would have created that level of buzz or attracted the who’s-who of attendees — although Eve’s wedding plans, from choosing only size 2 bridesmaids to dictating guests’ outfits, are kind of hilarious in their awfulness. As the madness piles up, it goes beyond funny to overdone… but yeah, not entirely unfunny either.

Okay, and I have to point out — back in the Glossy office, where is HR in all this? Don’t Imogen and Eve have bosses? How can Eve be managing the staff and the company the way she does for so many months with no intervention? I call poppycock. It’s just not realistic for this size corporation to have absolutely no oversight in place. I was more than a little horrified to read about Eve’s management practices (if you can even call it that). The company should have been swimming in lawsuits.

A note on the narration:

Katherine Kellgren is a terrific narrator. She gives Imogen a posh London accent, then switches gears to portray Eve’s mean girl American drawl and Ashley’s millennial-speak. I often find narrators distracting when they over-do their versions of the opposite gender, but in this case, the narrator’s male voices were well-done without sounding fake.

The voice for Eve was strident and shouty — but that’s Eve. We’re supposed to be that irritated by her.

Wrapping it all up:

The Knockoff was an unexpectedly fun listen. It’s definitely not my usual subject matter, but the mix of humor and personalities really worked. Yes, I had quibbles about the plot, but this is meant to be entertainment, not a true study of the state of corporate America. Imogen’s personal journey is a hoot to witness, and I couldn’t help but cheer for her (while gleefully waiting for Eve’s downfall). The ending is wickedly satisfying, and there’s really never a dull moment. It’s not a particularly deep read, but The Knockoff sure is enjoyable.

_________________________________________

The details:

Title: The Knockoff
Author: Lucy Sykes & Jo Piazza
Narrator: Katherine Kellgren
Publisher: Doubleday
Publication date: May 19, 2015
Length (print): 352 pages
Length (audiobook): 12 hours, 10 minutes
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save