Review: Louisiana Lucky

Who says don’t judge a book by its cover? Julie Pennell’s latest effort, Louisiana Lucky, is just as adorable in its content as its cupcake-covered cover.

Three sisters win the Louisiana lottery, each winding up with 22 million dollars– life changing money for anyone. What I loved about this book is that, as fun as the book is itself, it has the added fun of putting yourself in that space. It stirred up thoughts of ‘what would I do with that money’, as I’m sure is the intention. In that way, it’s more of a collaborative, experiential book than most. All three storylines are sort of ridiculously predictable, as all three protagonists move along what is essentially the same arc, from barely getting by financially and emotionally, to the initial highs afforded by their new, spendy lifestyles. Not surprisingly, they’re all brought back down to face the old cliche, ‘money can’t buy you happiness’, or else some milder version of the curse of lottery winners. In the end, after they’ve learned their lessons, so to speak, all is well. Each emerges better for having experienced hardship (wiping their tears with money, I would imagine), but we as readers are left satisfied that the grass isn’t always greener. 

While the book isn’t groundbreaking, it’s well-written and delivers exactly what it promises: a cute story, likable characters, romance, and sisterhood. It offers a wonderful bout of escapism, which is particularly welcome at this time, given the current state of the world. I’d definitely like to read The Young Wives Club.

Rating: 3.5/5

Pre-order Louisiana Lucky on Amazon here.

 

Review: Little Secrets

Little Secrets: A Novel by [Jennifer Hillier]
Click to buy Little Secrets on Amazon.

Happy publication day to author Jennifer Hillier and Minotaur Books for Little Secrets! In case you don’t read any further (I suggest avoiding as much as you can!), the take-away here is, GO GET THIS BOOK! This is one of those rare books that actually lives up to its Girl on the Train or Gone Girl comparisons that sellers love to tout– though such high praise is usually aspirational, if not entirely inappropriate.

For a book populated with unlikable characters, Little Secrets is surprisingly enjoyable. I read a lot of books in this genre, and am consistently disappointed, but I have to hand it to Jennifer Hillier here, because this is definitely one of the better psychological thrillers to come out over the last year.
I’d recommend going into it blindly, as I did, but if you need to know more, read on:
It’s hard to describe what makes this book stand out from an over-saturated genre, since the kidnapped child scenario is so common, as are the characters (philandering husband, distraught wife, younger, Instagram-addicted mistress). I think, actually, what makes it great is that Hillier doesn’t care about her characters’ likability. The central protagonist, Marin, who is the ‘victim’ in that she has lost her son and now her husband, is not ‘innocent’– she is rash, jealous, and even homicidal. This is one of the rare instances where an author isn’t trying to shove any characters down your throat, or throwing in gratuitous ‘save the cat’ moments (i.e. obviously-plotted scenes which are meant to endear the reader/viewer to a character, even though he/she may be difficult). Hillier operates with a confidence so rarely possessed by authors and a trust so rarely given to readers, knowing that her plot is tight enough to keep us engaged and that we’re smart enough to stick with morally complex and/or despicable characters. I call this the Hannibal Lecter approach. While it’s difficult to achieve as an author, it’s so much more rewarding as a reader when you get to read and cheer for characters you love to hate or hate to love.

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Review: If I Had Your Face

How beautiful is this cover? Click to purchase your copy via Amazon.

I’m on the fence with this one as to whether I’d give it 3 or 4 stars. On one hand, it is beautifully written and features an array of unique characters and a world I’ve never gotten to see first hand, or in fiction. However, given the title, If I Had Your Face, as well as the phenomenal (if heavy-handed) dramas that have been a hallmark of Korean cinema, I was expecting something more plot-driven in this narrative piece. Given the banner advertisement that says “I would live your life so much better than you if I had your face”, I thought this was going to be something sinister, like some kind of Sci-Fi identity theft-meets-Memoirs of a Geisha (because of the secret room salons and emphasis on achieving a specific, rigid standard of beauty).

In actuality, Frances Cha’s debut novel is a slow, slice-of-life story with multiple narrators in which nothing monumental happens to any of them. Instead, Cha serves up unique characters and an opportunity to travel via her vivid and precise writing to a foreign country and experience the nitty gritty, day-to-day life. I have to admit, after reading the first chapter, I went on an embarrassingly long binge of before-and-after photos from the various surgeries mentioned in the book. It is quite astounding, and given the prevalence of surgery and the demand for physical perfection, it is undoubtedly ripe for authors (particularly a Korean female) to delve into, expose, and react philosophically, sociologically, and politically. If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to be a young woman living in contemporary Seoul, here’s your opportunity.

3.5 Stars – PopCultHQ
Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Review: My Dark Vanessa

My Dark Vanessa

“People will risk everything for a little bit of something beautiful”

First thing’s first: My Dark Vanessa is extremely well written. But it is not an easy or comforting read. If you are at all triggered by sexual misconduct, manipulation, or statutory rape, be warned. Though, to tack onto that– the author’s treatment of the subject here may actually open the door for difficult conversations, allowing victims to relate and feel understood and heard without judgment.

This book has been on my radar for quite some time, as I had requested to review an advanced copy (but was denied). Since I’ve got so many other approvals– and, because, let’s be real, I’m often quite bitter when I’m rejected– I rarely go back and read books where I’ve not gotten an ARC. However, this one really stood out to me because the teacher and willing student relationship is a situation about which I’ve always wanted to write a novel myself.

Having been in the position where lines have been crossed with older, more authoritative figures, I understand the complex relationships and feelings, both positive and negative, that can develop. Russell does an impeccable job conveying the convoluted dynamics– so much so, that she had to add at the beginning a disclaimer that the story was in no way borne of nonfictional events that occurred to her. The success of the book is largely due to its reading like a memoir rather than a fictional character study. I agree with other reviews which have found problems with its length, as it easily could’ve been half the length and been as effective, if not more so. However, the strength of Russell’s writing– her weaving of poetry and classical literature into the narrative, so that it isn’t gratuitous or derivative, but rather an integral and enriching part of the story.

“Your life is like a movie. She didn’t understand the horror of watching your body star in something your mind didn’t agree to. She meant it as a compliment. Isn’t that what all teenage girls want? Endlessly bored, aching for an audience.”

Perhaps one of the things I loved most about the novel was that, while it’s clear that Vanessa (and all of those like her) has suffered greatly, it also allows the space for her to hold contradictory beliefs without judging her. What I mean by this is that often, people refuse to acknowledge that there may be legitimate feelings of love or attraction on the part of the “victim”. To negate those feelings because the victim is ‘too young’ or was being ‘coerced/manipulated/seduced’ is to undermine that person, who has already been through so much already. Russell never once strays into that territory, always giving her character the benefit of the doubt and allowing her to voice her various beliefs.

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Rating: 4/5 stars

Review: You Were There Too

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Meeting the literal man of your dreams? Sign me up!

I knew I was going to like this book based solely on the premise. The question was, would the writing be brilliant enough that I’d LOVE it? Would it compare to some of my favorites, like Taylor Jenkins Reid’s Maybe In Another Life and Jill Santopolo’s The Light We Lost? You Were There Too bears enough resemblance to those two that I did stick with it, despite feeling let down in the first half.

As with its title, You Were There Too suffers from some clunky writing that, had it been elevated, could have been up there with the aforementioned comparisons. Take a second and compare “You Were There Too”, to “The Light We Lost”– both are simple strings of four words, but the latter has a certain poetry to it, which is present throughout Santopolo’s entire novel, lending it a literary quality. Dissimilarly , Oakley’s novel is just a bit coarse or unpolished. This book is high-concept, average-execution. But the main issue here is that the author wanted this to be a love triangle, where both of Mia’s love interests were equally compelling and worthy. Unfortunately, the draw of the story for me was the promise of the man of one’s dreams, which is compromised by the need to balance him with the protagonist’s husband. 

All of that being said, Oakley’s novel is worth reading. It’s a good story, and, most of all, the end is shocking and completely unexpected. First, the person she chooses is NOT who I would’ve expected, though I respect her decision immensely and think it’s a great lesson for readers. We’re often so caught up in the romance of things that we forget the practicalities. It’s so easy to vilify people in real life who take the ‘grass is always greener’ approach, abandoning their tried-and-true spouses in favor of the newer, hotter, younger thing. Yet, in fiction, we often yearn for our female protagonists to seek freedom or red, hot, lust, or the perfect man (never mind the impossibility of such). Sure, it’s just escapist entertainment, letting our imaginations run wild. But amid a vast expanse of said escapism, it’s refreshing to read something real. (Like dreaming up a man and then meeting him, right? Haha). Maybe because the plot hinges on a pseduo-supernatural occurrence, Oakley decided to take an anti-Romance (capital R, as in the genre) cliche stance. She upends all expectations, and then, throws in a final twist worthy of a great thriller or mystery. Fans of the genre be damned, Colleen Oakley is coming for you, locked and loaded, with this ending.

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Buy You Were There Too on Amazon here.

Review: Sin Eater

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Did ever a more perfect cover exist? I think not. That, coupled with the fascinating synopsis, made me more excited than I’ve been in a while for a new book. What a phenomenal concept, right? Somehow, I’ve made nearly three decades without having ever heard of a ‘sin eater’. According to Wikipedia, “A sin-eater is a person who consumes a ritual meal in order to spiritually take on the sins of a deceased person.”, though it seems there actually isn’t a ton of information on the subject. Given that, I assume Campisi must have made up a lot of the practices, as well as creating from scratch the experiences a sin eater might have had. Though imagined (i.e. fantasy), the world feels vivid, almost historical, in its depiction. But it is the unique plot of this novel that really sets it apart from other novels and makes it a worthwhile read. Where it fails to forge a connection with/between characters– due to the difficulty inherent in writing a story in which the protagonist cannot converse with others– it succeeds in its originality and storyline. I think this is one of those rare instances where the movie adaptation would be better than the book, because this world is so visceral and visual.

Comparing this book to Alice in Wonderland makes absolutely no sense to me. Handmaid’s Tale, I sort of get in that it’s dystopian (though it could be described as such, rather than compared to a book to which it bears little resemblance). I would describe this as dystopian YA-meets-historical fiction, as its tone is more like historical fiction than fantasy. The dark content may make it a tough read for strictly-YA readers, so perhaps this would be best for those more advanced readers who have graduated from Hunger Games, The Selection, etc., but aren’t yet ready for (or interested in) more literary works.

Rating: 3.5/5, rounded up to 4 for Goodreads.

Pre-order Sin Eater on Amazon here.

Review: Musical Chairs

Musical Chairs

This book isn’t scheduled to be released for a while, but I’m going to do something I’ve never done before and post a pre-review, because this should definitely be on your radar. Stay tuned for my full review, which will be posted on publication day, July 20, 2020. Let me know in the comments if you’re excited to read Musical Chairs, or if you’re already a fan of Amy Poeppel!

Let’s start with: this is not my usual fare. I almost exclusively read and review books with twenty-or early-thirty-something protagonists, often set in urban landscapes, with edgy subject matters and/or a biting sense of wit. Musical Chairs has none of that. Instead, it is a tame book about family dynamics, set in rural Connecticut, with a middle-aged protagonist and zero Millennial angst.  Nevertheless, I genuinely enjoyed this book, which is a testament to Amy Poeppel’s writing. There’s not a ton going on here as far as plot, but the characters are all well-developed and the world feels immediately available for entering and viewing, as flies on the water-dampened walls of Bridget’s home. Usually, I’ve found with novels like this, the details drown out all else, but Poeppel manages the fine balance of detail, dialogue, and action. Her skills are so evident that I plan to go back and read her previous work, Small Admissions.

This will be popular among book club enthusiasts, for its quaint story that opens up larger discussions of what it is to be a middle-aged woman, raising children who are struggling to find their way, taking care of aging parents, and having a life of one’s own romantically and professionally. How does the modern woman navigate all of life’s nooks and crannies (which is what it is here, rather than the cliche ‘ups and downs’)? While this isn’t the book you’d go to for thrills, laughs, or a steamy romance, it is the perfect book with which to curl up on a rainy day.

Rating: 4/5 stars.

Pre-order Musical Chairs on Amazon here.