Review: Broken People

Broken People: A Novel by [Sam Lansky]
Click to purchase Broken People on Amazon.

Sam Lansky’s Broken People, I suspect, will be quite divisive amongst the literary-minded folk who pick it up. On one hand, its masturbatory millennial philosophizing is tiresome to the point that it seemingly comes back around to satirize itself, an ouroboros for the 21st-Century intellectual elite. The characters are selfish, self-centered, unlikable, and mostly unremarkable, while the plot is nonexistent, despite its being at least 50 pages longer than necessary.
On the other hand, Lansky’s writing is maddeningly relatable, conveying all of life’s questions and existential angst with eloquence. The book is beautifully written, to the point that I’m struggling to narrow down quotes to use here. Do I focus on the purely poetic turns of phrase, a la “desire browned to loneliness, like fruit oxidizing”?, or stick with thematically-relevant passages?
This “novel” (I suspect it’s rooted far more in the author’s life than most novels, given its strong, singular point of view, which feels deeply personal at all times… Oh, and that the central character shares a name with the author) is angsty in the way that so many others try to be, but fail for winding up too whiney or else eye-rollingly dramatic. There’s nothing dramatic about Sam– the character, not the author, but maybe him, too– and I mean that in both the most positive and negative sense. But here is a portrait of a man almost crippled by his depression, though he doesn’t crave death. Instead, he occupies an eerily-relatable, suicide-adjacent space,

“He did not want to die, in a practical sense– the corporeal permanence of death terrified him– but rather, to already be dead, to skip the death process and coast into a static condition of un-being… Certainly that had to be better than sustained consciousness.”

What I liked best about this book is that it feels reminiscent of Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow or Julian Barnes’ Sense of an Ending, in that it is a meditation on memory, and what it is to be human, both in the abstract and corporeal senses. It’s an updated version, though, so it doesn’t risk being derivative.

You’re afraid of your shadow. But as you move, so does it. You and it are inextricable. And still you run from it… You think telling stories is a way of facing yourself. But it’s actually how you run from yourself.”

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4/5 Stars

Review: The Heir Affair

It’s here! The highly anticipated sequel to 2015’s bestselling The Royal We, The Heir Affair is finally making its way into the public. Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan have delivered more of the same– which is to say that while it’s not exactly earth shattering, if you enjoyed the first book in the series, you’ll be chuffed with this follow up.

All of your favorite characters are back, in their full glory, perhaps none more so than the apple of every reader’s eye, Freddie, as well as a few new characters. Most notably, Princess Daphne, who, at first blush, seems rather obnoxious, but then I really grew to like her. No more Bex-Freddie shenanigans… Well… Okay, yes, there is tons of dramz with Freddie. But this time, the scandal isn’t nearly as frustrating as before. This book isn’t quite as ‘fun’ as its predecessor, but it matures alongside its characters. Though Nick is his typical, Manic Pixie Dream Boy-self, he finally lets his hair down (or, at least, what’s left of it), albeit for brief romps, such as in ski gondolas. Surprisingly, one of my favorite elements of this book is the relationship forged between Queen-Grandmother Eleanor and Bex. I love the snarky Queen, and am I the only one who felt badly for her? I mean, yes, she’s a slave to the Crown and forces others to bend to its might and antiquated traditions… But, guys, she’s A SLAVE! TO THE CROWN! The real villain here is Prince Dick, amiright? Ugh. I didn’t like him before and I like him even less here. Oh, yeah, and Clive.

For anyone wondering whether they *have* to have read The Royal We to be able to get into this book, the answer is no. There are plenty of moments where the authors fill you in on what you might have missed. That being said, their recaps serve better as reminders of what you might have read and forgotten in the 5 years between books (no need to re-read). I’d recommend taking the full tour de Lyons, if you’ve not read the first book.

If you had a problem with the length of The Royal We, this one’s even longer. Great, if you’re enjoying the journey (as I did); not so much if you’re just looking to add numbers to your ‘read’ list.

The Ultimate Life is a Journey of Passion and Purpose ...
Rating: 3.5/5 stars, rounded up for Goodreads and NetGalley

Review: The Royal We

Buy The Royal We on Amazon Here.

Dun dun da duuunnnn.

A blast from the past, friends! But not really, since I’ve just finally gotten around to reading The Royal We. I remember when this book came out in 2015 and immediately landed on all of the bestseller lists. Not being a particular fan of modern monarchs– I didn’t make it through season one of The Crown and, *GASP*, I didn’t watch either of the royal weddings– this wasn’t in my ‘to be read’ pile. However, I can’t resist a good romance. I requested an ARC for the much-anticipated sequel, The Heir Affair, and was granted a copy, so figured I’d go back and start with the first book in the series.

Let me just paint a picture for you really quickly, of my reading habits. Every morning, I wake up and do two hours of fasting cardio. That’s over ten miles on the treadmill, per day. This is my prime reading time, and really the only way I can keep going for that long. What does that mean? I’m not always the most patient or forgiving reader. This book had me excited to wake up and get on the treadmill. What a great surprise, to become so invested in and entertained by this silly, but endearing, novel. I’ve no clue how much of this is or isn’t “true”, as I don’t know much about the contemporary royals and their wives. I do think it’s interesting, reading it after Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle both married into the House of Windsor, as Bex reads like an amalgamation of both of those women, rather than solely Kate, after whom she was apparently modeled.

Regardless of the truth/lack thereof, there’s so much to enjoy. The plot is strong, the characters are mostly lovable, though they’re all flawed and have their own complexities (as far as characters in a romance have complexities, I mean). Usually, I’m the first to point out flat characters, a lack of overall edginess, and a book being too long. But here, where characters are boring/lack edge, it’s expected– hello, these are royals— if Bex were a drug kingpin or Wills Nick were turning tricks for play money, it would be insufferably unbelievable. There’s just enough scandal, but it all lies within the realm of possibilities, including the final, almost-relationship-ending scandal. (Yes, it’s far-fetched, but could I see it happening? Sure. There’s a reason such cliches exist. Though would a royal couple still go on to marry after such a scandal? That, I’m not necessarily buying. Though I will, for the sake of the sequel.) Which brings me to the length. Absolutely, this could’ve been shorter. But it’s such a fun ride, I wouldn’t have wanted it to end any sooner. In fact, I fully intend to ride this wave through the next installment of Bex and Nick’s story. Hey, we’re in quarantine. There are no rules here regarding guilty pleasures. Gotta make the best of it.

Stay tuned for my next review, of The Heir Affair, which is due for release June 16th, 2020.

Rating:

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Rating: 4/5 stars

Review: In Five Years

Click the link to purchase In Five Years on Amazon.

I’ve been eagerly anticipating the release of Rebecca Serle’s In Five Years for the comparisons to One Day in December. Overall, I really enjoyed the book; it was a quick read that I didn’t want to finish. But weirdly, in examining its parts, I didn’t love the individual elements. The characters didn’t particularly grab me, nor did I feel strongly for either relationship (with long-term fiancé David or premonition-fling Aaron), and I thought the concept had much more potential than the book actually delivered. I was on the fence about the relationship between Dannie and Bella, because both of them could be quite frustrating, but I did feel for them once the major struggle manifested *don’t want to ruin a major plot point there*.
My favorite thing about this book is the jumping off point: where do you see yourself in five years, and what would you do if you could actually see a snapshot of where you end up? It’s similar to the device Serle employed in her previous effort, The Dinner List, that one being: if you could have dinner with any five people, who would they be? In this book, Dannie sees a snapshot of her life that is completely out of alignment with what she thought her life would be like in five years. I think what’s great is that, while she doesn’t overhaul her life in an effort to change the outcome, she does make small changes that wind up leading her to the same conclusion (however, it should be noted that said conclusion is not what one might expect).

Have you read this book? If so, what did you think?

Review: The First Date

The First Date: A heartwarming and laugh out loud romantic comedy book that will make you feel happy by [Zara Stoneley]
Click to buy The First Date on Amazon!

I don’t usually do too much research on a book before I request to read it, save for a quick scan of the synopsis and a look at the comps, so this one was my bad. I saw “from the author of New York Times bestseller The Wedding Date” and got the author confused for Jasmine Guillory. Oops. Anyway, the concept here is rom-com-cute: convinced she’s terrible at first dates, a broken-hearted bookstore employee doubles down on her conviction when she’s stood up before meeting her opposite, a serial dater who takes her on as his de facto student. Surprise, surprise, as their dates/lessons proceed, they reluctantly fall in love with one another.
What bothered me most with this book is not that it’s populated by cliché characters, nor that the plot refuses to veer from the expected. Instead, it is the insistence of the central character, Rosie, on comparing Noah to her father. I ‘get’ the abandonment issues, and I have compassion for the residual problems caused by an absent father, however, the constant reminder of her ‘plight’ was simultaneously a reminder of the story’s weaknesses. Instead of trusting in the reader’s ability to buy into the story and Rosie’s reticence in letting go or embracing her feelings for Noah, the author seems to have felt the need to ‘motivate’ this, but I think it wound up hurting the story. Clearly I wasn’t the only one bothered by this particular issue, as it’s mentioned in nearly every other sub-4-star review I’ve read.

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2.5/5 stars.

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.