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Whoa, okay, so it’s been a while since I’ve posted here on the blog. This has been primarily due to an intense six months of work, but is also owing to a lack in solid, new releases. I’ve been going back through authors who I already like, for tried and true stories (i.e. I’ve read everything Taylor Jenkins Reid has written). But I’m back, friends.  And the best way to come back? Sharing a brand new author, with a brand new book– one that I actually liked! WHAT!? Yes. I have nothing snarky to say. Well.. Maybe a little something to the effect of “don’t look up the author’s own story or Instagram account before you read this”, but overall, I’d say this should go to the top of your TBR beach reads pile.

Let’s start with this: the PR department over at Atria clearly knows me a little too well, as Breathe In, Cash Out is pretty much tailored for me. As much as I relish in the cleverness and beautiful use of language in highbrow literary fiction, there’s really nothing like a solid piece of chick lit to get me excited. I know, I know, “chick lit” is no longer a phrase we use, but I say it in an entirely non-pejorative, proud of my not-so-dirty and not-so-secretive, way. That’s not to say that the genre is without its problems– it is, and I’d say they’re mostly of a qualitative nature; many of the offerings wind up being of the mediocre mommy porn variety, and let’s just say that’s not helping. But, okay, let’s look specifically at Madeleine Henry’s debut novel, about a young woman on Wall Street whose ambitions involve a different kind of upward (and downward, as in, ‘dog’) mobility than most of her peers. My enjoyment of this novel is likely owing to narcissistic tendencies, as I’m also an avid practitioner of yoga, with Ivy League credentials, working in a male-dominated field, dating a finance bro. The story hits home, yes, but I think there’s an informative component that sets it apart from may other offerings in the genre. If you come to this with a finance background, I would expect you’d pick up some yogic knowledge and perhaps some desire to self evaluate; if you come to this with a yoga background, you’ll likely learn a bit about finance, and the cutthroat atmosphere of working at the bottom rung of banking. In addition, the writing has a great bite to it, as if the author expects the reader to keep up without coddling.

 

Starred Rating: 4/5

Pre-Order Breathe In, Cash Out on Amazon here.

Review: Stay Up With Hugo Best

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I moved Stay Up With Hugo Best to the top of my list when I was approved to read it, as it sounded like the perfect thing for me, as a woman in entertainment with an affinity for comedy. I wanted to like it, I really did– and perhaps the issue was that my expectations were too high? To me, almost every attempt at humor or cleverness fell just short of being truly humorous or clever. It was actually frustrating, how many times I felt that “this is going to be it!” during the set up, only to be let down by the punch line. Despite the promising plot and characters, the story roams about, with nothing of import really happening. There was a lot of ‘tell’ here, rather than ‘show’, like an extended obituary– not even as interesting as a New Yorker profile.

Now, with all of that being said, Somers is a capable writer. There’s nothing truly bad here, and she’s actually quite good at constructing concise, clear sentences, and telling a story. It’s just that this particular story is like watching paint dry. Her writing actually makes the overall even worse, because, coupled with the overall concept, there’s so much potential here. A has-been, millionaire late night television host and his young, impressionable writer’s assistant spend the weekend together? That is a great hook! Give me something more! Give me the ‘wit’ and ‘hilarity’, the ‘enigma’, the ‘less predictable’, as promised in the description! After being thoroughly confused, I returned to the description to see whether I had mistaken the book; was this meant to be funny? YES. THEY PROMISED. I wanted more debauchery, more scandal, more romance, or at least more searing commentary from June about Hugo, or from Hugo, about the cultural climate. If it was meant to just reflect a sad reality, I think the description should reflect that and not use words like “hilarious”, because that sets the reader up for something… Well, HILARIOUS; not an understated, slow-burn character study. I’ve witnessed this same bad-branding/poor marketing in films, with Our Idiot Brother (starring Paul Rudd) and Funny People (starring Adam Sandler), which were both portrayed as being comedies in the trailers, but were ultimately more about the melancholy side of humor.
Rating: 2.5/5

Buy Stay Up With Hugo Best on Amazon here.

Review: The Water Cure

 

Rarely do I read anything outside of my approved galleys, due to lack of time and, usually, bitterness at having requested something and been denied. But I had to get my hands on Sophie Mackintosh’s The Water Cure, as I love all things feminine and cultish. Okay, where to even begin? Mackintosh’s debut is stunning from start to end, and I fear any review would be insufficient. It’s not necessarily the subject matter or the characters that are spectacular here, but rather the author’s expertise in construction, from the macro, to the micro level. Every word is precise, yet at the same time, they’re strung together in a fashion that straddles the borders of prose and poetry. The storytelling itself is what is special here– the author’s daring choice to move between narrators and points of view, without being jarring. In this way, the water motif that carries our characters throughout also carries the story along, flowing between perspectives.

Yet, for all of its literary beauty and daring/experimental choices, it’s still cohesive and clear enough so as not to ostracize its reader. There is nothing masturbatory or gratuitous, nor is there anything condescending to the reader. Oftentimes, I find authors to seem as though they’re being off-center for the sake of being off-center, being elusive or controversial in an effort to assert their own, smug intellect. As if the more they confuse the reader, the more they deserve merit. (And hey, I’m not entirely innocent of that elitism myself– just look at my blog name 😉 But there’s none of that with The Water Cure. And, get ready for this, there’s actually a plot. Things actually happen in this novel, despite it being literary. There are physical acts that extend further than mere perambulations, there’s suspense, there’s violence, and even a few twists. It’s truly one of the few books I could recommend to a casual beach reader with as much confidence as I could to a literary snob.

I realize this review doesn’t say much about the actual content of the book, as much as it does the quality, but I’m hoping my enthusiasm will encourage you to read it yourself. Like I said, trying to boil it down to its essential elements would be a disservice. And as a note, you may be tempted to suck it down in one sitting, but temper yourself. Let yourself sip it slowly, savor it. Let the words wash over you. And if you’ve read it, please comment your thoughts– do you agree with me? Disagree? Let’s chat.

Review: 5/5 stars.  (My first five star review of the year, and it’s only January 13th. I’m not sure I had any 5-stars in 2018. Hopefully this bodes well for the rest of 2019– and doesn’t mean that everything is downhill from here.)

Buy The Water Cure on Amazon here. 

Review: An Anonymous Girl

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Let us first acknowledge the elephant in the room: the only thing sillier than the cover art is the title. There. Now those issues are out of the way, we can move on to the book, which is quite a good one. If you’ve been following my reviews on Goodreads, you know I read a lot of female-focused psychological thrillers, so it’s tough to find anything unique, that I haven’t already read ten times before. Even more difficult is finding something that compares to Mary Kubica or Gillian Flynn, who I think are some of the finest authors in the genre— even though I do find quality control issues among their work, too. So often, it feels like psychological thrillers are churned out, without having been edited properly, as if publishers need to feed a voracious audience and are too lazy (or else too swamped) to give any real attention to developing these stories. As a result, much of the fare feels derivative, cliche, melodramatic— even when there’s a good idea at the root, without time and care, that little bulb is not able to blossom into its fullest potential.

Alright, end rant about the genre and focus on the newest effort by Sarah Pekkanan and Greer Hendricks. An Anonymous Girl *cringes at the name* promises exactly the kind of story I enjoy most: full-on psychological thriller, and it mostly delivers. I was immediately hooked, with the introduction of an active protagonist, who is scrappy and a bit morally agnostic. She doesn’t stumble into danger, as is the case in many of these novels; no, she sees an opportunity and takes it, despite the possible dangers, of which she is fully aware. Or, at least, she thinks she’s fully aware, until things begin going off the rails.

 I also loved that from the start, the reader is involved in the experiment and asked to question their own sense of morality. I wish that had been continued a bit more throughout, so that while Jessica is forced to confront her beliefs, her past, and how she should live in the present, so, too are we. 

An Anonymous Girl offers the best sort of cat-and-mouse game, because Jess is not an innocent who gets sucked into a plot. She is smart and savvy and is trying her damndest to out-maneuver her opponent(s), who is/are always just one step ahead. The novel is rife with twists and turns, which last until the very end. Most are successful at building suspense and skirting around expectations, though as it passes the halfway mark, it loses some of its steam. I think that’s the trouble with books that start out so strong: it’s difficult, if not next to impossible, to keep up that level of intrigue. 

Overall, I would definitely recommend checking this one out. I may even check out the authors’ previous bestseller, The Wife Between Us.

 

Rating: 3.75/5 stars (will round up on Goodreads)

Buy An Anonymous Girl on Amazon here.

Review: Watching You

I’ve been off the grid for a bit, buried in work, but still managing to fit in my daily reading, albeit at five AM. So prepare yourselves for a whole lotta Snark– whenever it is that I manage to get caught up.

All of that being said, I’m going to move the book I finished this morning to the front of the queue.  Why? Because, ladies and gentlemen, I have been genuinely surprised. It’s not often that my expectations are met– and far less that they’re exceeded. Now, it could be that my expectations have withered away over the past few months, having read so many mediocre books. But I’m going to give this one the benefit of the doubt. Of course, now that I’ve built it up, it’ll be a let down for you. Oh well.

So what’s the book?

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WATCHING YOU by Lisa Jewell. I had actually forgotten that was the title until now, and I’m realizing that’s probably why my expectations were so low. Don’t judge a book by its [terrible] title, folks. Watching You is about a small neighborhood in Bristol, England, in which everyone seems to be in everyone else’s business– as is the case in most small towns. But we’re quickly introduced to the fact that there has been a murder in this town, and the primary protagonist, Joey, is also the prime suspect. For about half of the book, it’s unclear whether she’s going to be driven to murder the object of her obsessions, or whether the story is about an innocent woman being framed/wrongly convicted. As the story unfolds, twists and turns are revealed regularly, subverting all expectations (I guess this is the theme of our post today). The way the information is revealed and the transitions are both flawlessly executed, with just enough coming out at just the right times, so that everything makes sense  without feeling contrived. There are a few moments that feel too coincidental, but I’ll give those a pass. Jewell’s writing is clear and her characters are multi-dimensional, possessing positive and negative traits that make them seem human. It’s the kind of writing that is made for movie adaptations. There’s no flowery prose in which to get lost, just a driving plot that keeps you turning pages until the very end.

I’ve never read anything by Lisa Jewell, and since I don’t research authors until after I’ve written the majority of my review so as to keep the person separate from the work, but given her long history writing in the genre, it’s making sense that this book is so solid. It definitely reads like the work of a professional– there’s nothing experimental or avant garde here, no sparks of pure brilliance, but it’s very good. The kind of book you’ll have no problems gifting to anyone and everyone.

Rating: 4/5 stars.

Buy Watching You on Amazon here.

Review: How To Be Alone

Thus far, I’ve focused primarily on works of fiction on the blog. It’s hard to be too snarky when it comes to people’s personal stories. When writing reviews and critiques, it’s imperative to separate the art from the artist, or the work from its author, but that’s a difficult task when dealing with memoir and non-fiction. The characters existed and stories happened, and, at least theoretically, authors of these genera can’t do much to change those elements. That being said, I LOVE memoir and nonfiction, and periodically go through phases where it’s all I read. Generally, I’m more drawn in by a memoirist’s point of view of the world and his or her manner of conveying events, rather than the actual events themselves. I like memoirs by characters who are perhaps too intellectual and clever for their own good, who oftentimes see the macabre hilarity in life, people who are strange and slightly off center– if not altogether mentally unstable– with whom I’d like to have dinner. Examples in the memoir/nonfiction/essay space include Augusten Burroughs,  David Foster Wallace, Carrie Fisher, Jenny Lawson, and, on a more serious note, Ayaan Hirsi Ali. In case you haven’t gathered, memoirs of mental illness top my list.
Enter Lane Moore, who is the cutest human, creating relatable comedic material that is so raw, you’ll want to cry and cuddle with her— partly because she point-blank states that she craves comfortable, platonic cuddling, and partly because you’ve realized, while reading, how much you crave it, too. And by the way, yes, I can say a woman is ‘cute’ and still be a feminist. I’m not saying it in a condescending way. I genuinely find Moore’s outlook on life and her sensitivity to be adorable, though by no stretch do I mean to suggest that this precludes her from also being a badass. After all, how many authors have the brass to give their book the same name as a Franzen work, in the same nonfiction space? I can just imagine a (probably male) editor saying “so, Lane, we like all of it– at least all of it we understand and digest– but you do know the title is taken? By none other than Jonathan Franzen…” and her being like “yeah. I know. I like it, though.” end of story.
I have a hunch this book won’t appeal to everyone, and that quite a lot of people will find it “too millennial”; too soft, too much complaining, too much. But that’s also what makes it so special, that it won’t have universal appeal, that an agent and an editor and a publisher (and all the other members of the village it takes to raise a book up from a conceptual stage, through publication), all found the story worthwhile. They saw past profit margins, to the heart, and decided it was more important to publish good writing that would likely only resonate with a niche market. A book that could make an actual difference in. Areader’s life. A book called How to be Alone, that, for a few hours, makes you feel you’re not alone. Someone, a real, living human, also experiences similar emotions, and she’s afraid to express them, yet she pushes past her comfort zone to deliver us this gift.
Rating: 4.5/5 stars, rounded up on Goodreads because 99% of the people on there are assholes or idiots (or a combination of the two) and I want to make sure I’m bringing the average up.

Review: A Well-Behaved Woman

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Did you like Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald? If so, you’re going to love Therese Anne Fowler’s newest historical novel, A Well-Behaved Woman, which offers all of the same historical glitz and glamour, and a strong female protagonist.

Fowler’s heroine is an underdog in high society, a progressive woman from the start, though it is perhaps unintentional at first. Having been born to a family with little wealth, and not being able to rely solely on her looks, Alva Smith used her cleverness to maneuver her way into one of the richest families in the world. Unlike her playboy husband, who is mostly useless and spent his time galavanting around the world, Alva sought meaning in her life, pursuing a life that was deemed inappropriate and positively un-feminine by society.  Instead of accepting her role as a housewife, she boldly pursued her passions of architecture and social equality, including being a champion specifically for African Americans. She later goes on to be accused of being an “architect of society’s downfall” for her decision to *gasp* procure a divorce from her husband.

Stories of women’s insubordination and refusal to quietly comply with the “rules” of patriarchal society are always timely, evergreen, but no more so than today.  That being said, one of the greatest things about this book is that Fowler allows the feminist angle to emerge organically. Towards the end, it gets a bit heavy-handed, but it’s justified as it reflects the protagonist’s true turn towards the women’s suffrage movement. Throughout most of the novel, we’re invited into an otherwise-exclusive world, but its pitfalls– especially for women– are apparent throughout. Though the environment is glamorous, the unfortunate treatment of women, minorities, and the poor are on full display. In such a seemingly romantic era, all the more so given the grandiose homes and affairs, it’s striking how little love exists. Love, Money, or Titles: ladies, take your pick. While men of status were permitted to sink ships, sleep with whoever they pleased, and generally do as they pleased, a single misstep by one of their wives or daughters could result in a permanent fall from grace. Fowler points out the horrific hypocrisy, as it applied to Alva, that “Society loved her when she was advancing its causes, then castigated her when she was advancing her own. Yet, were not the two ever entwined?”

One of my favorite moments of the book is at the end, when Alva is standing with her husband, her former maid, Mary, and Mary’s husband, the latter two of whom are African American:

“Will you look at us? Four people of exceptional quality and intellect, three of whom began life as the property of wealthy white men. Not to say that our situations were equal. I just mean to demonstrate that all sorts of societal wrongs can be improved.”

How interesting is that observation? As a creative who subscribes to the notion that stories say more about the time in which they are created than they do about the time in which they are set, I think this quote is most emblematic of the connections between societal issues then and now.

 

Rating: 4/5 stars

Buy A Well-Behaved Woman on Amazon here.

Review: You Think It, I’ll Say It

I’ve been off the grid for the past 10 days or so, as it was my birthday AND I was reading some older stuff. Namely, Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife. Boy was that one tough for me. Ten days to read a book? Not my style. I wrote a full review on Goodreads, but given that it came out so long ago, I’m going to review Sittenfeld’s newest effort, You Think It, I’ll Say It, instead.

 

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Short stories are tough for me– I don’t always connect with characters, so when I do find myself drawn to a protagonist or a world painted by an author, I want to remain there for more than 20, 30, 40 pages. Of course, it works rather well when I don’t connect, as I know I’ll be able to move on fairly quickly, but that doesn’t make me any more fond of short story collections.

Despite all of this, Curtis Sittenfeld’s You Think It, I’ll Say It was an enjoyable read. I thoroughly enjoyed the various women and their situations, as they felt just common enough to be relatable, yet offered a unique perspective or twist. I often found myself thinking that I could see myself on various sides.

My favorite story was Bad Latch, in which the middle-class, pregnant narrator feels competitive with (and lacking next to) another expectant mother in her prenatal yoga class. Though I’ve not yet been pregnant, this scenario of feeling less-than, particularly when it comes to mothering, is so easy so imagine, especially in the way Sittenfeld paints it. But the magic isn’t just that we can put ourselves in the narrator’s shoes, it’s that we can just as easily empathize with Gretchen, the ostensibly “perfect” mommy, who plans to give birth naturally.

I also found Off the Record to be especially accessible and relevant to today’s culture. Again, both sides here are easy to grasp and the multitude of feelings, the depth Sittenfeld creates within a short span, is impeccable. I think the overall takeaway from this collection, for me, is reinforcing that saying “comparison is the death of joy” (commonly attributed to Mark Twain, but I no longer trust the internet as a source). Many of the stories deal with tiny jealousies that become insidious, and all the more so because they’re often imagined rather than based in any reality.

 

Rating: 3.5/5

Buy You Think It, I’ll Say It on Amazon here

Review: Josh and Hazel’s Guide to Not Dating

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This is my first foray into the duo that call themselves Christina Lauren, and I wasn’t disappointed. Josh and Hazel’s Guide to Not Dating is exactly what it claims to be: quirky heroine becomes best friends with the hottie from college, fun and emotional chaos ensues as they attempt to set one another up on blind dates that go poorly, until they realize they’re in love. It’s a simple romantic comedy, which is anything but simple to construct, so kudos to the authors.

Something that really stood out to me about this book is that you could almost feel the authors having fun together as they created their story. Obviously I got a sense of Josh and Hazel, who are both thought out and detailed characters, as I read, but there was also a pervasive sense of the authors. I could see Christina Hobbs and Lauren Billings  sitting together, perhaps with mimosas on Sundays, shooting the shit, maybe sharing some anecdotes, and crafting these characters with whom they themselves have fallen in love. Maybe I’m wrong and they’ve just been paired together by their publisher and in reality, they barely speak to one another, working mostly over e-mail exchanges of chapters. In which case, bravo to them, as they’re even more brilliant than I thought.

Aside from that, what kept bouncing through my head were similarities to Helen Hoang’s debut The Kiss Quotient, which was released a mere three months before this. Both books are romantic comedies featuring extremely quirky/conventionally “undateable” lead females, hunky, Korean, men, with that cultural element being a nice little thread throughout. Not that I think there’s any plagiarism here– I’m sure this book was already at the presses when Kiss Quotient was released– but  I think that having read them in such close proximity, it flattened this for me. Both are well written, and I’d actually give the edge to Josh and Hazel’s Guide to Dating as far as writing is concerned. It is slightly more clever and the writers feel more seasoned in this genre, capturing all of the hallmarks of romantic comedy without crossing over into being cliche. This is especially clear in the sex scenes, which is maybe a strange thing to compare, and I’m certainly not a connoisseur of literary porn, but where Hoang’s scenes go too far overboard, Lauren is able to craft a steamy scene that doesn’t make you roll your eyes.

Would I recommend this book to fans of the genre? Absolutely. While it’s not breaking any boundaries, it ticks all the boxes for romantic comedy and would be a nice poolside read. If you’ve read Kiss Quotient, I’d give yourself a little breathing time so this doesn’t feel stale. Unless you were obsessed with that book and want more of the same, now, then have at it.

Rating: 3.5/5

Buy Josh and Hazel’s Guide to Not Dating on Amazon here.

Review: Spindrift

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Hmm… Where to begin? As with many an avid reader, there’s a special kind of nostalgia I get when returning to books or authors I’ve read as a child. V.C. Andrews was one of those authors I read in that in-between space, when I had already exhausted such fare as A Wrinkle in Time, and was looking for something edgier, but wasn’t quite ready to make the leap to adult or literary fiction. Having already established my affinity for all things macabre or off-center, I was drawn to the gothic tales woven in My Sweet Audrina and Flowers in the Attic, and even more satisfying was the fact that I was the only child in 5th or 6th grade reading such disturbing material, which I happily recounted to my soft-stomached schoolmates.

Given this backstory, I was excited when given the opportunity to read an advance copy of the newest offering by Andrews, Spindrift, about a group of young women who attend an elite academy, only to have one go missing. Gothic mystery fiction, female protagonist(s), academia, and one of my favorite childhood authors– what could be better?

Turns out, A LOT.

This book is not well written. It’s messily-plotted, the characters are superficial, with little to no depth, and there’s hardly a phrase worth re-reading, so clunky and utilitarian is the language. There’s nothing of the sexy gothic mystery, that stomach-churning feeling I so vividly recall from my previous experiences reading V.C. Andrews. And don’t even get me started on the inherent (and accidental) irony of calling this series “The Burden of Brilliance”. You might expect, given that title, the book would be oh-so-clever. And you’d be sorely disappointed. I didn’t even want to bother writing a review, such was my dismay. And then I had a realization:

Hadn’t V.C. Andrews died before I was even born? How was she creating more work? 

Turns out, she wasn’t. 

This book isn’t written by V.C. Andrews at all– which is perhaps the most interesting part of the whole story here. Andrews herself died in 1986. Thirty-two years ago. So now you’re thinking “okay, that’s not weird at all. There are plenty of books posthumously published, plenty of tertiary pieces that remained hidden in a desk drawer, and perhaps this was just one of her lesser works, only recently discovered”. But no, that’s not what’s going on here.

This is a case of ghostwriting, with an emphasis on the ghost part.

Turns out, an author called Andrew Neiderman has been ghostwriting for V.C. Andrews, cashing in on her likeness for years, both on paper and on screen. Neiderman is best known for writing The Devil’s Advocate, which went on to be a widely popular film, though it’s widely regarded as being one of the few films that is better than its original material. I can’t help but feel a bit disgusted by this trickery, not only because it’s a little gross that a publisher would conspire to pass off work that is not Andrews’ herself, but because the writer they chose pales in comparison to Andrews. I have so many questions: when there are so many talented authors out there, why choose someone so subpar?

And more importantly, WHY THE EFF would you choose an older, male writer to ghostwrite for a woman who is known for writing feminine stories, from the perspective of young women, for an audience of young women? 

Gross.

Rating: 1/5

If, against my recommendation, you’d still like to purchase this book, do so at your own risk here.