Audiobook Review: The Dinner List by Rebecca Serle

Title: The Dinner List
Author: Rebecca Serle
Narrator: Rebecca Serle
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Publication date: September 11, 2018
Length (Print): 288 pages
Length (Audio): 5 hours, 50 minutes
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library
Rating:

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

We’ve been waiting for an hour. That’s what Audrey says. She states it with a little bit of an edge, her words just bordering on cursive. That’s the thing I think first. Not: Audrey Hepburn is at my birthday dinner, but Audrey Hepburn is annoyed.

At one point or another, we’ve all been asked to name five people, living or dead, with whom we’d like to have dinner. Why do we choose the people we do? And what if that dinner was to actually happen? These are the questions Rebecca Serle contends within her utterly captivating novel, The Dinner List, a story imbued with the same delightful magical realism as One Day, and the life-changing romance of Me Before You.

When Sabrina arrives at her thirtieth birthday dinner she finds at the table not just her best friend, but also three significant people from her past, and well, Audrey Hepburn. As the appetizers are served, wine poured, and dinner table conversation begins, it becomes clear that there’s a reason these six people have been gathered together.

Delicious but never indulgent, sweet with just the right amount of bitter, The Dinner List is a romance for our times. Bon appetit.

I picked up The Dinner List on a whim — I was ready to start a new audiobook, and wanted something that would be a quick, non-taxing listen. This popped up on my “recommended” list on the library website, so I figured I’d give it a whirl.

The Dinner List is set in a cozy New York restaurant, where Sabrina is meeting her best friend Jessica for dinner in honor of Sabrina’s 30th birthday. But when she arrives at the restaurant, she discovers that it’s not just dinner for two. Joining them are Sabrina’s former college professor Conrad, her estranged father Robert, and her ex, Tobias. Also, Audrey Hepburn.

And yes, Audrey Hepburn is deceased, as is Robert. But they’re still attending Sabrina’s dinner.

How is this possible? Like Sabrina, we readers just need to go with it and see how the dinner unfolds.

Set over the course of a five-hour dinner, interspersed with chapters tracing the history of Sabrina’s 10-year relationship with Tobias, The Dinner List is an examination of love, loss, friendship, growing up, regrets, resentment, and ultimately, forgiveness and compassion.

Jessica reminds Sabrina that way back when, as college roommates, Jessica insisted that Sabrina play the dinner list game with her: What five people, living or dead, would you want to have dinner with, if you could have anyone at all? Here, in the flesh, is Sabrina’s list. As the group orders their meals and shares bottles of wine, connections are examined, and Sabrina is given the opportunity to reflect on all the events, big and small, that led to where she is today.

I had the rare experience of having to constantly reevaluate my feelings about this book as I went along — listening to the audiobook really was an evolution of reactions. Early on, I was annoyed. The author narrates the audiobook, and her delivery just doesn’t compare to the professional, highly engaging narration I’ve grown used to in audiobooks. Beyond that, the plot confounded me. How is this possible? Is it all a dream? What’s the point? How will this dinner be explained?

But as I listened further, I stopped trying to analyze the situation and just went with the experience, and was surprised to realize that somewhere along the way, my initial annoyance has changed completely, and I was now both charmed and absorbed by the characters, their stories, and the overarching themes. I even got used to the narration, to the point where the author’s voice seemed to fit Sabrina’s mindset and no longer distracted me from the content.

The further along the story goes, the more compelling the story becomes. The chapters focusing on Sabrina and Tobias tell a modern love story, full of passion and devotion, but also the realities of being 20-somethings struggling to make it in a grown-up world and figure out what they want out of life. Somewhere at about the mid-point of the book, there’s a particular revelation that really threw me for a loop yet made complete sense in terms of the overall feel of the book — and this is where my emotions really got involved and I started worrying that I would be a soggy mess by the end.

And I wasn’t wrong about that. The downside of listening to audiobooks when out in public is dealing with the teary eyes and sniffles that come with emotionally charged storylines. So yes, I was kind of hideous by the end.

In the moment of impact we think it’s possible to go back. We’re so close to the previous minute; how hard would it be to just turn back the clock? To just quickly undo what has just been done?

If you’d asked me to rate this book based on the first hour or so of listening, I probably wouldn’t have gone higher than 2.5 stars… so I’m as surprised as anyone to see how highly I ended up rating this book.

Granted, the presence of Audrey Hepburn** — while a cute hook — didn’t feel all that necessary to me, and occasionally came off as a bit twee. Likewise, Conrad (the professor) isn’t exactly essential either, although in a way these two serve as guides for the dinner, steering the conversation and asking the difficult questions that are necessary for Sabrina to confront in order to understand her past and how to move forward.

Overall though, I think this was a terrific audiobook, and I’m sure it would be equally as good in print format. I was unexpectedly moved by the emotionally rich scenario and the unfolding relationships, and found the story bittersweet, touching, and memorable.

I look forward to reading more by Rebecca Serle, starting with her upcoming new release, In Five Years, coming out in 2020.

**A side effect of listening to The Dinner Party is my utter conviction that I need to watch Roman Holiday and Sabrina (and probably more Audrey Hepburn movies) ASAP.

Book Review: The Mermaid by Christina Henry

From the author of Lost Boy comes a historical fairy tale about a mermaid who leaves the sea for love and later finds herself in P.T. Barnum’s American Museum as the real Fiji mermaid. However, leaving the museum may be harder than leaving the sea ever was.

Once there was a mermaid who longed to know of more than her ocean home and her people. One day a fisherman trapped her in his net but couldn’t bear to keep her. But his eyes were lonely and caught her more surely than the net, and so she evoked a magic that allowed her to walk upon the shore. The mermaid, Amelia, became his wife, and they lived on a cliff above the ocean for ever so many years, until one day the fisherman rowed out to sea and did not return.

P. T. Barnum was looking for marvelous attractions for his American Museum, and he’d heard a rumor of a mermaid who lived on a cliff by the sea. He wanted to make his fortune, and an attraction like Amelia was just the ticket.

Amelia agreed to play the mermaid for Barnum, and she believes she can leave any time she likes. But Barnum has never given up a money-making scheme in his life, and he’s determined to hold on to his mermaid.

You guys. I LOVED this book.

I was blown away by the story itself, as well as by the gorgeous writing and the passion that comes through on every page.

She loved him almost as much as she loved the sea, and so they were well matched, for he loved the sea almost as much as he loved her. He’d never thought any person could draw him more than the ocean, but the crashing waves were there in her eyes and the salt of the spray was in her skin and there, too, was something in her that the sea could never give. The ocean could never love him back, but Amelia did.

In The Mermaid, we first meet Amelia as a beautiful, wild being of the sea. After being freed from a net by the kind fisherman who finds her, she can’t stop thinking about the look in his eyes, and finds herself leaving the sea to find him. Once reunited, Amelia and Jack fall deeply in love — and while she leaves his seaside shack to swim in the ocean at night, she sees him as her heart and her home… until the day he goes out fishing and doesn’t return.

For ten long years, Amelia watches the sea, mourning yet refusing to believe that her beloved will never return to her. Meanwhile, far off in New York, rumor has reached the ears of P. T. Barnum and his associate Levi Lyman about a beautiful woman in coastal Maine, whom the locals believe to be a mermaid. Barnum dispatches Levi to find her and bring her back to New York, dreaming of the riches that will pour into his pockets once he puts the mermaid on display in his American Museum.

Amelia has other ideas, though. At a time when women defer to men on all matters, Amelia refuses to become any man’s belonging. She sets her own terms and makes the rules for how, when, and how often she’ll be on display. She yearns to travel the world and knows she needs money to do this, which is why she agrees to Levi and Barnum’s plans in the first place — but once she arrives in New York, she begins to realize how difficult it will be to fit into the world of humans and to survive in a crowded, dirty city full of people who see her as a curiosity, or even worse, as an abomination.

“A bird in a cage still knows it’s in a cage, even if the bars are made of gold,” Amelia said softly.

The Mermaid tells a beautiful story of a woman’s strength, while highlighting the devastating circumstances of woman who lack all power in the world. We see friendship, loyalty, and love, as well as greed and disdain and cruelty. Amelia herself is a marvelous character, intelligent and passionate and determined to stand her ground. The magical elements are lovely — mermaids here are not the objectified versions as seen in drawings and sailors’ tattoos, but beings who are indisputably other, not half-fish, half-woman, but people who are wholly something beyond human understanding or definition.

The ocean was a violent place, yes, but it was violence without malice. When a shark ate a sea lion, it did not hate the sea lion. It only wanted to live.

Author Christina Henry draws on the historical record — Barnum really did have an exhibit called the “Feejee Mermaid”, although it was a grotesque fake, not a live woman swimming in a tank of sea water before a mesmerized public — and then builds a story of wonder and magic and love.

I couldn’t help thinking about The Greatest Showman whenever Barnum and wife Charity and the museum appear, although Barnum’s portrayal in The Mermaid is not at all admiring or sympathetic — he’s a greedy con artist looking for the next big attraction, a lousy husband and father, and overall a cold-hearted, scheming man. Still, reading this book made me itch to watch the movie again… and I will, soon.

I really, really loved this book and will want to read it again before too long. Meanwhile, I look forward to reading more by Christina Henry. Earlier this year, I read her newest novel, The Girl in Red, and (big surprise) loved that as well. Time to go back and read her earlier books too!

Click on the image to read my review of this amazing book!

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The details:

Title: The Mermaid
Author: Christina Henry
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: June 19, 2019
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased

Book Review: Please Send Help by Gaby Dunn & Allison Raskin

 

In this hilarious follow-up novel to the New York Times bestseller I Hate Everyone But You, long distance best friends Ava and Gen have finally made it to the same time zone (although they’re still over a thousand miles apart).

Through their hilarious, sometimes emotional, but always relatable conversations, Ava and Gen are each other’s support systems through internships, relationship troubles, questionable roommates, undercover reporting, and whether or not it’s a good idea to take in a feral cat. Please Send Help perfectly captures the voice of young adults looking to find their place in the world and how no matter how desperate things seem, you always have your best friend to tell it like it is and pick you back up.

First things first: When I requested this book from NetGalley, I had no idea it was a sequel. Despite my qualms, I decided to read it anyway, and I”m glad I did. While it might have been nice to have read the first book, not having read it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of this cute, quirky, quick read. (More on this later…)

Please Send Help is written entirely in texts and emails between two best friends, Ava and Gen. Recent college grads, both are now facing grown-up life as they pursue their career dreams. Ava, in New York, is interning with a comedy show, dying to gain real-life experience as a writer while working her (unpaid) butt off. Gen, in Florida, is trying to break into serious journalism, but the only job she could find is at a small-town newspaper with nothing much at all to cover and no room for advancement at the family-run paper.

Ava and Gen have history together, and their bond is immediately apparent. Ava is coping with anxiety that stops her in her tracks from time to time, and because of Ava’s previous experiences related to mental health, Gen tends to worry about her well-being — especially once Ava gets disastrously involved with her older boss, who’s so clearly a player who preys on young interns. Meanwhile, Gen is bi, out and proud, from a dysfunctional family and with no parental support whatsoever, trying to find connections as well as a juicy story in a backwards, socially conservative town where she has no chance of fitting in.

I loved the humor of the texts. Both Ava and Gen are wickedly, crassly funny, even when freaking out, making absurd decisions, or talking about insane events in their lives.

Tabby finally gave in to her gluttony and came inside. I jumped up and shut the door. She did NOT like that but I have put vodka on all of my scratches so I’m sure I’m fine.

These two are definitely not perfect. But they get one another, and they’re there for one another — and even when they ignore good advice or act out in particularly questionable ways, they still are there to comfort, pick each other up, and kick a little ass if that’s what needed to shake some reality into each other’s minds and hearts.

Genre/library shelf-wise, I’m not quite sure where I’d put this one. NetGalley lists it as teen/YA, but since the characters are 22-ish (I think), I wouldn’t have thought to consider this young adult. (Side note — why are young adult novels mostly about teens and not about actual young adults — which is what Ava and Gen are?) So sure, put it on the YA shelf if you want, but just know that it’s about women in their 20s figuring out life, sex, STDs, and more. Not what I’d typically consider teen fare!

Please Send Help is heaps of fun. I’m glad I wasn’t put off by finding out it’s book #2. Now that I’ve finished it, I think I’ll try to track down the first book (I Hate Everyone But You, set during Ava and Gen’s college years). I’d imagine that the topics of the girls’ families, mental health, sexuality, and more are explored in greater depth in that book, whereas here they’re mostly backstory to the struggle to be independent and start a career and a life in a new city.

BUT, please don’t feel that you can’t read Please Send Help without reading the first book! Please Send Help works perfectly well as a standalone. I’m living proof that you can read this book without any prior knowledge of the characters and their stories. I really did feel like I got to know Ava and Gen through this book, and would love to hear what happens next in their lives! *fingers crossed for a book #3*

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The details:

Title: Please Send Help
Author: Gaby Dunn & Allison Raskin
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication date: July 16, 2019
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

I’m back! Where I went, what I did, and what I read

Hi all! Happy 4th of July!

After three weeks away, I arrived home safe and sound early yesterday morning, and promptly fell into bed to sleep myself back to some degree of being human again. (Only partially successful, but hey, it’s only been one day.)

So what have I been up to while being absent from my blogging life? Quite the whirlwind, in fact.

First, I started off with five days in New York. We stayed at a hotel right at Times Square — and no, that’s not a mistake I’m likely to repeat. The hotel was fine, but the crowds were awful. No need to be quite that touristy! The absolute highlight was seeing the oh-so-glorious Harry Potter and the Cursed Child!

Side note: Going to see the HP production is an adventure two years in the making! Two years ago, when tickets were first released for the London production, I jumped through about a million hoops to get tickets for my daughter and me. We had plans for a trip to London last June… and then complications with my elderly father arose, forcing me to cancel my part of the trip. (Darling daughter and her boyfriend enjoyed the show tremendously, lucky them.) When the Broadway ticketing process opened, I was absolutely determined to make it happen… and it did!

For those not familiar with the HP production, it’s a two-part show, which we saw on two consecutive nights. Really, it’s the equivalent of seeing two full-length Broadway shows. Each part ran about 2 hours, 40 minutes, with intermissions. Drink lots of coffee before you go!

What can I say about the show itself? It’s magnificent. If you’re a Harry Potter fan, chances are you’ve read the book already. I had — but even knowing the plot basics, I wasn’t prepared for the spectacle and wonder of the live show. The staging, the lighting, the effects, and above all, the acting, make this a story that has to be seen to be fully appreciated. We were lucky enough to see the original London cast in the Broadway production… and, no surprise, they were simply amazing. One thing I didn’t get from reading the book is just how awesome the character of Scorpius Malfoy is — he really stole the show (and my heart.)

Around the theater, staff gives out buttons saying #keepthesecrets, so I suppose I’m duty-bound not to reveal too much! All I can say is that the show is magical and delightful, and well worth every moment.

Okay, that’s the Harry Potter stuff! Also in New York, my family and I went to see The Band’s Visit, which is a beautiful musical, full of humor and emotion, tightly woven together into a 90-minute production that’s human and moving and has truly lovely music. If you have the chance, definitely check it out! And what’s a trip to New York without a visit to the top of the Empire State Building and an afternoon at the Metropolitan Museum of Art? Add in some great deli, a walk through Central Park, and oodles of people-watching, and who could ask for more?

From there, I headed to Connecticut for a few days of family time, visiting my dad, spending time with other relatives, and basically just chilling out before stage 3 of the vacation, which was…

A two-week trip to Israel!

My husband was born and raised in Israel, and we try to get back to see his family every few years. Somehow, we let more time than usual go by, so this was our first trip in four years! A big chunk of the time there was spent in Tel Aviv, where the family is. Days of hitting the beach, nights of eating at different relatives’ homes. Food. So much food. So much hummus. So much yum.

Because we were traveling with our teen son, I wanted to make sure to include some travel and culture while we were there (although the boy probably would have been happy with nothing but beach, all day, every day.) So we spent two days in Jerusalem, including solemn places (Har Hertzl, Israel’s military cemetary, and Yad Vashem, the incredibly powerful Holocaust museum), the Old City of Jerusalem, the Western Wall, dinner in the newer parts of the city, and a spectacular light show at night within the walls of the Old City. If we’d had more time, we could have spent days and days exploring, but at least we have something to look forward to on the next trip!

Onward we went, heading into the desert for a night at the Dead Sea, where we did our requisite floating! From there, we ventured to Masada — by cable car, no climbing for me in the incredible heat. Masada is always fascinating, and the views are amazing.

One final road trip before heading home — Rosh HaNikra, at the northern tip of Israel along the Mediterranean, where we took cable cars down to the sea grottoes — one of my all-time favorite places! I try to get there on every trip to Israel.

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And now… ta da! We’re back home in SF, where the skies are cool and cloudy, and I have mountains of laundry, mail, and bills to tackle. The joys of post-vacation tasks!

Okay, as for the “what I read” part — here’s a peek at the reading that kept me busy during my quiet moments (amazingly, there were actually a few) during the last few weeks:

I’ll be doing some mini-review posts to talk more about what I read, once I finally catch my breath and finish unpacking and figure out what time zone I’m in!

It’s great to be home! I may be a bit slow to get back into my blogging groove, but I’m excited to be here and look forward to catching up with everyone!

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.

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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

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Book Review: Depth

DepthSome two hundred years from now, the polar ice caps have long since melted. Chicago is on the coastline of mainland United States, which is ruled by a fundamentalist Christian government. Moving east, you’ll find the Appalachian Islands, and then huge expanses of ocean covering the drowned cities, where tips of building occasionally poke up from the waves.

And then there’s New York which, Depth makes clear, can survive anything.

Water levels have risen about 20 stories — so the million or so people who still inhabit New York live on the 21st floor and above, employing newer technologies such as Glassteel to keep the above-water buildings more or less dry and waterproof. The building are connected by an intricate maze of bridges — some well-maintained, some rickety — and permanently moored boats, such as converted cruise ships and military vessels, which form everything from police stations to nursing homes to floating restaurants.

Watch your step! The waves keep churning beneath your feet, and you WILL get wet. Salt water and sea spray are everywhere, and those bridges can get pretty slippery. One big storm or moment of inattention, and you’ll end up in the water… and in general, those who go in only come out as corpses destined for the recycling plant.

Oh, it’s quite a world that author Lev AC Rosen has built here in Depth. The concept alone is worth picking up this futurist, sci-fi, noir detective story (described in the cover blurb as “Heinlein meets Hammett”) — but hey! There’s an actual plot to go with it, and it’s quite a good one.

Private investigator Simone Pierce is a tough, prickly red-head who goes her own way and sticks to her own company for the most part. Her only two trusted friends are Caroline, a highly-placed politician from a powerful family, and Danny, a young man with some unusual talents who masquerades as a psychic. Simone is out on a routine case, trying to get the goods on a client’s possibly cheating husband, when she’s pulled into something far more deadly and complicated. When the husband turns up dead, Simone finds herself embroiled in a web that includes suspicious cops, a potentially crooked pastor, an art-loving power broker, a sexy grad student, and a mysterious woman, whom Simone thinks of as The Blonde, who seems to be at the center of it all.

The author has pulled off quite a balancing act here, creating a fully fleshed-out detective story that keeps powering forward with high-level energy, and at the same time pulling us into a crazily off-balance world that delights with each water-soaked new chapter. The new environment is just fascinating, and I am full of admiration for the way the author slips in little details about the waves or the salt water or the constant dampness while there’s a chase scene underway.

The dialogue has all the wryness, and sarcasm of a traditional noir detective tale, fine-tuned for this new place and time.

“Are you asking me along to watch you interrogate someone I’m angry at in an attempt to repair our friendship?”

“That is exactly what I’m doing.”

“Will you let me hit her?”

“If the opportunity presents itself.”

Even the descriptive passages are full of some wonderful imagery:

Simone tossed what was left of her cigarette into the ocean. It cartwheeled into the water, one end leaving a trail of sparks like blood spatter.

Really, I just can’t say enough about Depth. I’ve been a fan of this talented author since his debut novel, All Men of Genius, was released in 2011. The detective part of the story is fun and engaging, but it’s this concept of New York as a drowned city that somehow has managed to survive, to thrive, and to keep its own sense of independence and defiance that’s truly a treat. I can’t get enough of the world Lev AC Rosen has created in Depth, and I just hope there will be a sequel so I can visit once again!

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The details:

Title: Depth
Author: Lev AC Rosen
Publisher: Regan Arts
Publication date: April 28, 2015
Length: 272 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Purchased

 

Book Review: The Girls at the Kingfisher Club

Book Review: The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine

The Girls at the Kingfisher Club: A NovelIn this fairy tale retelling, author Genevieve Valentine takes the classic story of the Twelve Dancing Princesses and transplants it to Jazz Age Manhattan, with a result that is equal parts captivating and frustrating.

The Twelve Dancing Princesses was always one of my favorite fairy tales. In a nutshell: A king with twelve daughters locks the princesses into their chamber each night, but each morning finds that their shoes are worn completely through. He offers the pick of the princesses to any suitor who can find out for him how the girls wear out their shoes — but anyone who tries and does not succeed must die. Prince after prince fails to figure out the secret, until finally one man comes who manages to outwit the princesses and follows them to a secret castle where they dance all night until their shoes are worn through. Ta da! He wins the hand of a princess and the kingdom besides. The end.

In The Girls at the Kingfisher Club, the father is no king, but a wealthy, grasping businessman trying to break into high society. His wife produces daughter after daughter, much to his dissatisfaction, so he keeps her pregnant, time and again, until after twelve failed attempts at a son and heir, his frail wife finally gives up the ghost.

And the girls? Each girl is sent upstairs to be raised among her sisters, with a tiny allowance for clothing, a meager library to learn the basics, and strict requirements that they be neither seen nor heard. The girls are hidden away from the world, kept indoors and educated first by tutors, then later by the older sisters, with no hope and no way out. The oldest sister, Josephine (Jo), serves as liaison, summoned a few times a year into her father’s presence to give reports, receive any orders, and then sent back to enforce her father’s rules.

But as the girls age, their frustration grows, and Jo knows it’s only a matter of time until her sisters run away or act rashly enough to bring disaster down on all of them — and so she figures out a release for them all. Jo learns to dance by sneaking off to see movies, then teaches her sisters, and eventually starts sneaking the girls out of the house at midnight to dance the night away at Manhattan’s hidden speaky-easys and dance halls.

Jo is known amongst her sisters as the General — the one in charge, demanding instant obedience, running their days and nights. Jo determines which nights they go out. Jo gets the cabs, Jo sets the rules: Flirt, but don’t give a man your name. Have fun, but don’t get romantically involved. Above all else, always be ready to run, and know where the exits are. The dance halls are glitzy and glamorous, and the beautiful, exotic girls with no names — affectionately nicknamed “the Princesses”  — are the talk of the town, but there’s a constant risk of police raids, or even worse, having their father find out what they’re up to.

When their father finally decides to assert his control in new and awful ways once his daughters are of marriageable age, the sisters have to figure out how to survive — and Jo has to both let go and start to live for herself, rather than putting her own needs after those of her sisters.

Here's the version I remember, from The Twelve Dancing Princesses by Ruth Sanderson

Here’s the version I remember, from The Twelve Dancing Princesses by Ruth Sanderson

There’s a lot to like about The Girls at the Kingfisher Club. In this mostly successful retelling, the fairy tale works well in its new setting. There’s a terrible logic to the father’s cruelty and tyranny, and the girls’ lives are uniformly dull and drab except for their nightly escapes. The dance halls are described in all their decadent 1920s glory — no wonder the sisters come to life on the dance floor, dancing the Charleston with enchanted admirers, always the belles of the ball, living fully in the moment. The era is a smart choice for this story, a time when women started emerging into something like independence, yet often chained to their fathers or husbands by complete financial dependence and a society that viewed strong women as depraved, or worse, mentally unstable.

Where the novel is less successful is in creating twelve distinct characters for the reader to care about. Jo is the point of view for the story, and we come to know her sisters through her eyes, but it’s difficult to differentiate one from another, particularly those we only see in passing. Certain sisters have more distinctive roles to play, but others seem to come and go with only a few lines or scenes, and it’s hard to remember who’s who or what’s special about each one.

The narrative style is somewhat choppy, so that while some passages and chapters keep the feeling of  a fairy tale in their descriptions — telling the story in broad strokes that seem like an outsider’s perspective on an enchanted world — other chapters bog down and feel sluggish. The book suffers a bit from a lack of intimacy. Perhaps because there are so many girls to keep track of, none seem very knowable, and I didn’t end up feeling connected emotionally to any of the characters, thus making the stakes of the story less compelling than they should have been.

Did I enjoy The Girls at the Kingfisher Club? Yes, quite a bit. Still, something was lacking, and the story always felt as thought it was unfolding at a distance. I wanted to know what happened, but I wasn’t invested in any one of the sisters enough — even main character Jo – to make the story feel the urgency it should have by the end.

Still, if you enjoy reading about the roaring 20s and relish the thought of a flapper-era fairy tale, check out The Girls at the Kingfisher Club. For those who always wanted to be one of the royal, glamorous sisters who dance the night away, this book offers a fresh spin on an old tale — and if nothing else, will make you want to dust off your copy of the Brothers Grimm.

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The details:

Title: The Girls at the Kingfisher Club
Author: Genevieve Valentine
Publisher: Atria Books
Publication date: June 3, 2014
Length: 288 pages
Genre: Adult fiction/historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of Atria Books via NetGalley

Book Review: The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells

Book Review: The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer

The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells

The impossible happens once to each of us.

From the very first line, author Andrew Sean Greer sets the stage for a magical, impossible, emotional journey as we follow one woman through three different lives in three very different times.

Who among us hasn’t at one time or another sighed, “I was born in the wrong era” or some similar sentiment?

In The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells, we meet a woman who gets a strange and miraculous chance to experience her life not just in her current world of the mid 1980s, but also in 1918 and 1941. After being treated for severe depression with electro-convulsive therapy, Greta slips into alternative versions of her life, where the familiar and the strange collide. It’s not time travel, but rather a shift in reality, a journey to an alternate universe in which Greta and the people in her life are the same people, but facing very different choices and circumstances.

Greta is a twin, and her brother Felix is the center of her universe. It is Felix’s death in 1985 during the “plague years” of the AIDS epidemic that pushes Greta first into depression and then on her impossible journey into two other versions of herself. In 1985, Greta’s long-term lover Nathan has just left her after she pushed him away during Felix’s illness. In 1918, Greta is a young wife to Nathan, an army doctor away in the trenches of WWI, but she faces her own set of disappointments and fears. And in 1941, with America on the brink of war, Greta and Nathan are married with a child, but Greta has suffered the loss of her beloved aunt Ruth and is beset by worries over Felix’s own unhappiness.

As Greta moves between lives, she leaves a footprint. She becomes convinced that her purpose is to perfect the alternate lives she inhabits — but she’s not the only one. 1918 Greta and 1941 Greta are on this journey as well, so that “our” Greta finds her own world changed by the imprints left by the others as they circle through one another’s lives.

Confused yet? It is a lot to track, and at times (many times) I found myself flipping back to double-check just which version of Greta’s life I was in now, and just where we’d left off that time around.

It’s fascinating to visit New York of 1918 and 1941, to see the roles available to women — housewives, mothers, lovers — and how those changed over time. Equally fascinating, and quite touching as well, is the view into life for a gay man in those times. In 1985, Greta is destroyed by Felix’s loss . She finds him alive and well in 1918 and 1941, but living lives defined by hiding, pretending, and sublimating. Part of Greta’s quest is to help Felix be happy in the worlds left to him; in his “real” life, Felix was an exuberantly joyful man, and although he (like so many others) died too soon, he was able to live his brief life to the fullest, surrounded by friends and loved by a good man. As 1985 Greta meets Felix again and again, she pushes him to find a way to live in his world and at the same time to seek love and truth in whatever way he can.

The writing in The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells is lyrical and lovely, full of moments of quiet emotion and heart-breaking truths. In Greta’s first visit to 1918, she is literally stopped in her tracks by seeing a familiar young man on the street — a man who in her own world of 1985 was but one of the many young men struck down by AIDS:

Laughing again, turning, looking around at me: familiar young men appearing in this unfamiliar world. Men who had died months or years before from the plague miraculously revived! There, in an army uniform, was the boy who made jewelry from papier-mâché beads; he died in the spring. And that one soldier, the stark blond Swede jumping from the streetcar, once sold magazines; he’d died two years before, one of the first: the cave’s canary. Who know how many more were off to war? Alive, each one, alive and more than alive — shouting, laughing, running down the street!

Of course, in the joy of seeing these young men alive once more, Greta is overlooking the fact that other perils await. There’s a war on, and although armistice is around the corner, some of these bright young men, “miraculously revived”, will not make it through the war. It was interesting to see the parallels drawn by the author between the great calamities each age: In 1918 and 1941, it was world war that took the lives of so many as such a young age; in 1985, it was the AIDS plague that seemed to wipe out a generation, so that by the time Greta attends the most recent in a string of funerals, there’s almost no one left to be mourners, all of the deceased’s friends having been taken already.

I couldn’t stop reading, once I’d started, and I probably made a mistake in gobbling it up quite so fast. The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells has an engrossing plot, but in my rush to see what happens next, I didn’t take as much time as I should have to savor the rich characters and the extraordinary use of language. This is not a long book, but it felt jam-packed — with the jumps through time, with vivid period details, with sights and smells that take you immediately into the worlds of 1918, 1941, and 1985 — so that by the time I reached the end, I felt like I’d experienced something much more than 289 pages of a fictional tale.

The simplest way for me to sum up? I was swept away by the magical possibilities of living three versions of a life, and was enchanted by Greta’s journey. Filled with fully-realized characters and given life by a unique premise, The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells is a reading experience to enjoy in the moment, and then to ponder for hours afterward.

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The details:

Title: The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells
Author: Andrew Sean Greer
Publisher: HarperCollins
Publication date: 2013
Genre: Adult Fiction
Source: Purchased

Wishlist Wednesday

Welcome to Wishlist Wednesday!

The concept is to post about one book from our wish lists that we can’t wait to read. Want to play? Here’s how:

  • Follow Pen to Paper as host of the meme.
  • Please consider adding the blog hop button to your blog somewhere, so others can find it easily and join in too! Help spread the word! The code will be at the bottom of the post under the linky.
  • Pick a book from your wishlist that you are dying to get to put on your shelves.
  • Do a post telling your readers about the book and why it’s on your wishlist.
  • Add your blog to the linky at the bottom of the post at Pen to Paper.
  • Put a link back to Pen to Paper somewhere in your post.
  • Visit the other blogs and enjoy!

My Wishlist Wednesday book is:

The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty

From Amazon:

The Chaperone is a captivating novel about the woman who chaperoned an irreverent Louise Brooks to New York City in 1922 and the summer that would change them both.

Only a few years before becoming a famous silent-film star and an icon of her generation, a fifteen-year-old Louise Brooks leaves Wichita, Kansas, to study with the prestigious Denishawn School of Dancing in New York. Much to her annoyance, she is accompanied by a thirty-six-year-old chaperone, who is neither mother nor friend. Cora Carlisle, a complicated but traditional woman with her own reasons for making the trip, has no idea what she’s in for. Young Louise, already stunningly beautiful and sporting her famous black bob with blunt bangs, is known for her arrogance and her lack of respect for convention. Ultimately, the five weeks they spend together will transform their lives forever.

For Cora, the city holds the promise of discovery that might answer the question at the core of her being, and even as she does her best to watch over Louise in this strange and bustling place she embarks on a mission of her own. And while what she finds isn’t what she anticipated, she is liberated in a way she could not have imagined. Over the course of Cora’s relationship with Louise, her eyes are opened to the promise of the twentieth century and a new understanding of the possibilities for being fully alive.

Drawing on the rich history of the 1920s,’30s, and beyond—from the orphan trains to Prohibition, flappers,  and the onset of the Great Depression to the burgeoning movement for equal rights and new opportunities for women—Laura Moriarty’s The Chaperone illustrates how rapidly everything, from fashion and hemlines to values and attitudes, was changing at this time and what a vast difference it all made for Louise Brooks, Cora Carlisle, and others like them.

Why do I want to read this?

I seem to be drawn to historical fiction lately, and I do love the 1920s/New York setting. I adored The Diviners by Libba Bray, which was a supernatural-tinged YA novel set in the same era. The Chaperone, with its hint of glamour and promise of empowerment for the lead female characters, sounds like both a great story about personal change and an exciting trip back to the roaring ’20s.

Have you read The Chaperone? What did you think? And what are you wishing for this week?

Quick note to Wishlist Wednesday bloggers: Come on back to Bookshelf Fantasies for Flashback Friday! Join me in celebrating the older gems hidden away on our bookshelves. See the introductory post for more details, and come back this Friday to add your flashback favorites!

Book Review: Tell The Wolves I’m Home

Book Review: Tell The Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

Tell The Wolves I’m Home, a first novel by Carol Rifka Brunt, defeated my best efforts to remain stoically dry-eyed while reading. What I expected to be a not-so-extraordinary family drama surprised me with its honest, emotional look at love and loss… and yes, there were tears.

Set in Manhattan and Westchester, New York in the mid-1980s, Tell The Wolves I’m Home is a look at one eventful spring in the life of 14-year-old June Elbus. As the book opens, June’s beloved uncle Finn has just died, an early casualty of the AIDS epidemic. Finn was not just June’s uncle, however; he was her godfather, her inspiration, and her first true love. Finn, a gifted artist, introduced June to everything she considers beautiful in her life — Mozart’s Requiem, visits to the Cloisters, an appreciation for the fine details all around her. June believes that the bonds between her and Finn are all-encompassing, but in the weeks following Finn’s death, June begins to realize that Finn had an entire life that she knew nothing about, and is forced to reexamine her relationship with Finn and its central role in her life.

As June reels through previously unimagined depths of loss, she is contacted by a stranger, Toby, who reveals himself to have had a key role in Finn’s life. Finn, before his death, left secret messages asking June to take care of Toby and Toby to take care of June, and as they try to honor Finn’s wishes, they find themselves connecting through shared bonds of loss, love and jealousy. June is shattered to realize how much she didn’t know about her uncle, as Toby struggles to let her in and to give dignity to June’s adolescent broken heart. As June mourns Finn and all she thinks she has lost, her older sister Greta acts out in her own brand of grief and loneliness in a desperate attempt to be understood and to reforge a connection before it’s too late.

The author does a wonderful job of capturing a particular time and place: New York, in the first throes of fear and ignorance about AIDS. Glancing references are made to Finn’s “special friend”, whom June’s parents consider a murderer — blaming him for Finn’s illness and death — and who is ostracized and banned from the funeral. June worries about catching AIDS from a kiss under the mistletoe; June’s sister is yelled at by their mother for using Finn’s chapstick. Other small details of life in the 80s bring the time to life: June wears her Gunne Sax dress in a desperate effort to isolate herself from the real world, as she hides out alone in the woods behind the school and pretends to live in the Middle Ages she so adores. Finn gives June cassette tapes of favorite music; June’s parents listen only to Greatest Hits albums (“it was like the thought of getting even one bum track was too much for them to handle”), and June has a fondness for “99 Luftballons” (the German version — much cooler sounding). June wears Bonne Belle lip gloss, and Greta has half of a “best friends” necklace, the other half of which some erstwhile best friend has long since discarded. It’s these small details and more which lend this book such a sense of nostalgic poignancy. At the same time, this coming-of-age story feels like it could be the story of any girl — or rather, every girl — growing up, seeing the human flaws in her parents, realizing that long-held truths may be illusions, finding and losing love, and coming to terms with a picture of one’s inner self which isn’t always so pretty.

Tell The Wolves I’m Home is a quiet, lovely book, a look backward that feels current and relevant, and a sad, sweet story of love and friendship. I’m so glad to have read it, and recommend it highly.