Review: The Twin

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Revitalizing, or perhaps just revisiting, the evil twin trope, Natasha Preston’s novel The Twin is serving up plenty of drama and tension as ‘good twin’ Ivy has her life torn apart by similarly-flora-named Iris. In the blurb about the book on Goodreads, it seems Ivy may have undergone a name change between the ARC and print, so if that’s confusing, I think her name may actually be Emmy now, which feels less schlocky. As for the cover and why it’s a rose that has been decapitated rather than an Iris, I’m not sure. Although that wouldn’t make sense either, since Ivy/Emmy is the one being attacked. I did read another psychological thriller recently that featured decapitated roses being sent to a protagonist as a gift (Follow Me), but I don’t recall anything having to do with that here.

Okay, okay, let me get down off my high horse, before I get too crazy with this review. This book is meant for a young adult audience, perhaps ideally suited for those teens who will go on to be avid fans of Mary Kubica, Gillian Flynn, etc. It’s not too mature or gruesome, but it is diabolical enough to appeal to that audience, so I think it has actually achieved what it set out to do. It can’t, or shouldn’t, be compared to those great thrillers because it’s in an entirely different sub-genre. This is meant to be compared to One of Us is Lying or We Were Liars, and I think it’s of the same quality in terms of writing. Where it will struggle is that, while it has all of the same, soapy high-school dramz, it doesn’t successfully build compelling relationships that are so necessary for YA. I didn’t feel invested in Ivy’s relationships with her friends, boyfriend, or dad.

The weakest part of this book is its ending. I think it was meant to be a cliffhanger, but it came across as rushed and unfinished, or else confusing and I didn’t ‘get it’. At first, I thought that Ivy being institutionalized was leading us to discover that she had been on her own the entire time and there was no twin. But I don’t think that was actually the case. Instead, I think she’s just locked up, with Iris on the loose, and we’re supposed to want to read the sequel to find out what havoc Iris will wreak and whether Ivy is able to prove her innocence.

If you’ve read this book, would love to know what you thought of the ending in the comments!

Rating: 2.5/5

Buy The Twin 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. 

 

Review: The Light We Lost

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HOW DID I MISS THIS BOOK WHEN IT WAS RELEASED LAST YEAR?! Cue existential crisis-slash-anxiety attack that despite my attempts to keep my finger on the pulse of what’s hot in the literary world, great books are still falling through the cracks. Ladies and gentlemen– or however it is you folks are defining yourselves; don’t let me confine you– I’m giving out what I believe to be my first five star review of the blog. And possibly of 2018 (even though this was released in 2017).

Page One: Jill Santopolo reached right into my chest cavity and grabbed my still-beating heart.

The Light We Lost is stunning, from start to finish. It is that rare book that is both literary and relatable, which I think is due to its using beautiful language not as flourish, but because it’s from the soul. It’s the language of love and loss. Every word is meticulously wrought, but never pretentious or gratuitous. Or perhaps I’m just a hopeless romantic– emphasis on the ‘hopeless’. I think that my having not discovered this book until I did has to be for some reason. I mean, is it a complete coincidence that I randomly found it on September 11th? Social scientists would say yes, total coincidence. But again, I’m somewhat of a romantic.

This book is designed for those among us who are prone to losing themselves, at least occasionally, in the ‘what if’s?’. Those among us who are seemingly content in our lives, but who struggle to resist the urge to stalk the social media accounts of a former flame. Those among us who wonder about ‘the one that got away’– the one that, over time, rather than deteriorating in our memories, has built up, becoming super-human, invincible.

If none of those things sound familiar, then you’re lucky. But not really, because you’ll likely not appreciate the magic of this book. Santopolo is a genius at crafting meals out of mere moments, like this gem:

“Your face closed. I could see it, like a door shutting behind your eyes… I had stumbled into a fault line I didn’t know was there. I filed that away– I was discovering the landscape of you. Already I was hoping it was terrain I’d learn well, one that would become second nature to navigate.”

To me, this book captures the same tragic emotions of one of my absolute favorite soliloquies in Shakespeare: To be, or not to be. It captures perfectly the “heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to”. The only other contemporary author I’ve read who comes close to capturing this kind of heartbreak and longing is Julian Barnes, though I have to say, I think Santopolo’s feminine perspective gives it more resonance, at least for me.

A few other samplings I love from the book:

“It always seemed like you belonged to you and let yourself out to me when you felt like it; I never had complete ownership.”

“Sometimes a year feels like an eternity, broken up into tiny capsules of time. Each chunk is so monumental that it seems like its own lifetime within a life.”

Okay, guys, I could go on and on. And honestly, I’m getting annoyed with the fact that I don’t have anything snarky to say. The worst thing– the only bad thing, really– is that it had to end. I want to cry. I want to hold it in my hands, clutch it to my chest, crush it to bits so that I never have to let it go.

Now that I’ve set your expectations way too high, please check it out and then argue with me.

Rating: 5/5 stars

Buy The Light We Lost on Amazon

(PS: Because this is the first of Santopolo’s novels in this genre, I’m unable to binge read her and thus, would greatly appreciate any recommendations, if you know of any similar books– fiction or nonfiction, either way works for me– or if you have been similarly touched by a book.)

Review: When the Lights Go Out

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A few years ago, I went through a Mary Kubica phase, where I devoured all of her books in short order. I loved her flawed female protagonists, quick pacing, the deep-seated psychological issues, and all the twists and turns in each of her books, or at least in The Good Girl and Pretty Baby. I wasn’t as keen on Every Last Lie, which came out last year, but I’ve tried to push that one aside in my memory. Since my original Kubica binge, I’ve found myself comparing every psychological thriller to hers, and usually they come up short.

Thus, when I saw When the Lights Go Out on NetGalley, I immediately requested it. Usually, it takes me a bit to get to a book as I’ve got quite a queue, but Kubica? She skips to the front of the line, regardless of how far away the publication date is set.

Her newest effort begins much like her previous fare, with a young woman at the center of the story, struggling to make sense of the world around her. In this case, our ‘heroine’ is Jessie Sloane, who is trying to get her life back on track after taking a detour to take care of her ailing mother, Eden. The book alternates POVs, between these two women, with Jessie in the present, and Eden’s story taking place twenty years prior. Kubica does a great job building tension, though I found the pacing here to be much slower than her previous books, with a lot of redundancy. We get it, Eden desperately wants a baby and the pressure is causing her marriage to crumble, while Jessie is struggling with insomnia and can’t seem to solve the mystery of her identity. After a while, what started out as a solid premise and intriguing, mysterious characters, drifted into pleads of “MOVE THE PLOT ALONG ALREADY”.

But the slow burn pacing isn’t the worst thing about this novel. It’s not even really that big of a deal, since the author is still quite talented and engaging, even when she’s not progressing things. But that ending. If you’ve read pretty much any other review of this book, you already know the ending is atrocious. I’ve yet to see one detailed review that is favorable of the ‘twist’ at the end. To me, it’s a cheap cop-out, and I cannot believe an experienced writer like Mary Kubica would resort to it. The very first thing you learn in any writing course, whether it be in literature or screenwriting, is “come up with an ending– don’t lead us by the nose for hundreds of pages and then say “never mind, it was all a dream,”. I’m not even being hyperbolic here– having gotten my Master’s in Creative Writing, I can tell you that almost every individual class I’ve taken has addressed this specific crutch. And I always thought “NO ONE ACTUALLY DOES THAT, QUIT TEACHING IT!”, but apparently people do do that. Even good writers.

To me, it seems like one of two things happened here:

Kubica wanted to ‘break out’ of her typical fare and ‘prove’ she could write with the big boys– that she could be literary and experimental, flouting conventional wisdom and doing it so well that it doesn’t matter if she breaks the rules.

OR

Kubica’s reps wanted her to churn out a novel this year, since psychological thrillers are continuing to sell like gangbusters, so she rushed through this, and the powers-that-be approved it because they were on a publication deadline and assumed readers would gloss over it or be lenient because Kubica’s still one of the most talented in the genre.

If the former, I applaud the author for trying something new and being ambitious, but I still don’t think it worked. If the latter, I applaud the author for making her deadline, but I’d like to go on the record to state that we readers will not accept subpar writing and plotting. Hold the presses until it’s right. To let this novel, which COULD have been very good had it been edited viciously, see the light of day in this premature state is egregious. And in case you’re thinking I’m being too harsh on the lazy publishing here, look at that cover art. Could it be any more cliche and artless? It looks like a bad YA novel. Come on, guys.

Rating: 3/5 stars, and only because I’m still a Kubica fan and will continue to support her and give her the benefit of the doubt.

Buy When the Lights Go Out on Amazon. 

Book Review: The Kiss Quotient

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Autism– especially the high-functioning end of the spectrum, commonly referred to as Asperger’s– has always fascinated me. I think because I’m almost always drawn to people (particularly men) who are treading the fine line between genius and mad, I’ve become well acquainted with the quirks, both positive and negative, that accompany Asperger’s. I loved John Elder Robison’s memoir, Look Me in the Eye, and enjoyed Mark Haddon’s hit Curious Incident. However, I haven’t had much experience with women on the spectrum. I had assumed that was because I seek male partners, and, I guess, I assumed that it was more common in males than females. But Hoang’s notes at the end of the book explain that women are diagnosed far less often because they are more likely to hide their symptoms. I’ve not yet researched this to fact-check it, but it’s definitely believable and interesting to consider.

Anyway, because of my own interest in Asperger’s, and particularly its effects on relationships, I was excited to read Helen Hoang’s highly-praised romance novel, The Kiss Quotient. After all, how great is it when pure entertainment (a la beachy, romance novels) and culturally/socially important messages are intertwined? Not only is it important to get diverse voices out into the zeitgeist, so that we may see things through new perspectives, but it also makes for unique characters that we’ve never seen before. In that sense, this book is successful. It’s cute and fun, culturally relevant, with an intelligent female at its core, and, most importantly, so heartfelt. I connected to Stella and her plight immediately, and that grip never loosened, despite the predictable plot, gratuitous sex scenes, and unrefined writing.

I really loved the world of this novel because of the central character, and I looked forward to returning to it each morning, but I think the writing lacked finesse. While I praise the author on being able to create such a strong emotional attachment to her characters and not let the science and math overwhelm, I think that it needed just a little more poetry and/or intellect injected into the actual writing. This was made even more apparent and at odds, given the supposed brilliance of the protagonist. Stella is portrayed as this phenomenal intellectual, but the immature writing stands in stark contrast. There weren’t any beautiful turns of phrase that I could hold on to and savor, which is one of the things I look for most when I’m reading. I love language, and while plot and emotion are just as important, you can’t sacrifice the words. That being said, it’s a cute novel and I look forward to reading Hoang’s next work.

Rating: 3/5 stars

Buy The Kiss Quotient on Amazon

 

Book Review: Severance

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Another first-time, female author– are we sensing a thread here? I guess this is the season of debut fiction for me, and hey, I’m not mad at it. I’m especially not mad at it in this case, because Ling Ma’s first effort is pretty effing phenomenal. There’s always a risk when reading an author’s first work because they don’t have a track record to give you an idea of what to expect and there’s no foundation for lending the author the benefit of the doubt. Add to this that the new author likely hasn’t yet honed their craft, and may not have even discovered his or her voice yet.

None of these are the case with Severance, which paints a bleak world with beautiful strokes and flows with ease between timelines. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what it is that is so special about this book, because it’s not showy or complex. It possesses very little plot or action, few characters, and the characters who do populate the world aren’t all that unique or interesting. I should also note that while I enjoy relationship-based/grounded Sci-Fi, I’m not a big fan of post-apocalyptic fiction. So what in the hell did I like so much about this book? I think the best way to describe it would be that it struck a perfect balance: between dealing with external, global issues and an individual woman’s interior life; between being beautifully written and literary, without being pretentious or gratuitous; between being contemporary and timeless.

The atmospheric quality of Severance is immediately apparent, as Candace’s world is wrought with precision and poetry. The settings of 2010-era New York City (“its charms as illusory as its facade of authenticity”) and post-apocalyptic Midwest are visceral, and the time period Ma chose– which makes this more a work of revisionist history than a possible future scenario– helps to ground it in reality. I’m not sure whether it would’ve been more effective had it been placed in a near-future, as there was a part of me that stayed outside the story partly because I knew this hadn’t actually happened.

What stood out to me were the little philosophical flourishes and wonderings, a la “The internet is a flattening of time. It is the place where the past and the present exist, on one single plane… It is the place we go to commune with the past.” How beautiful and relatable is that?

And what about this: “Let us return, then, as we do in times of grief, for the sake of pleasure but mostly for the need of relief, to art.” It’s as if Ma is reaching out to the reader, grabbing her by the heart, with the full knowledge that she has sought solace in art many times before, and may very well be doing the same in reading Severance. Maybe that interpretation is too meta, but I don’t think so. I think Ling Ma knows what she’s doing, conversing with the reader so closely, Candace just a thin membrane separating the author from her audience.

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Buy Severance on Amazon

 

P.S: What do you think of the cover art? I got a digital copy, so perhaps it looks better in print? I found it underwhelming– which may actually have set me up to have very low expectations, which then allowed me to enjoy it even more, as I was surprised.

Book Review: Playing with Matches

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If you’re the kind of person who wastes spends hours perusing lists of hot new books, you’ve likely come across Playing with Matches, with its adorable cover and promises of being a great romantic comedy/summer beach read. After flying through When Life Gives You Lululemons, I wanted another smart, cute, easy read– aka more of the same. And maybe that’s not fair, because Hannah Orenstein isn’t a veteran of the genre. In fact, this is her first foray into writing novels, and for a debut, it’s not bad. It’s a quick read, and I made it through without losing interest, though I think that was mostly because I was hoping something would happen that would magically transform the protagonist from a boring millennial, into a multifaceted human with real depth. (Spoiler alert: that never happens).

On the other hand, is it fair to tread lightly or give someone the benefit of the doubt merely because it’s her debut? I don’t think so. Look at Lauren Weisberger– Prada was her debut, and she has a similar story to Orenstein in that both of these first efforts seem to contain at least semi-autobiographical elements (Weisberger was an assistant to Anna Wintour, Orenstein was a matchmaker and young “journalist” for Elite Daily). The Secret History was Donna Tartt’s debut. Jane Eyre was Charlotte Bronte’s debut (well, kind of, since her first attempt wasn’t published until later). The list of successful debuts goes on and on, and in fact, many writers are one-hit-wonders, peaking with their debuts. So, no, we’re not gonna let this one slide. Mostly because I think Orenstein has the potential to write a really solid novel. At least, she came up with a solid concept here and she has her finger on the pulse of culture, to at least some extent.

Maybe that’s what frustrates me, and why I’m spending so much time writing about this novel instead of dismissing it: the story of a millennial matchmaker living in Manhattan, and catering to an elite clientele who doesn’t want to deal with the dregs of Tinder and online dating could have been great. SHOULD HAVE been great. I give the author props for coming up with that foundation, but the execution here is off. As an insider, I would expect her to be able to give us greater insight. Instead, it falls flat. There’s no scandal here, there’s nothing biting or salacious, and there’s nothing unexpected or unique about the scenarios or characters. I also think it was hard to empathize with the “struggles” of protagonist Sasha Goldberg, since she’s reasonably successful and has two strong prospects in terms of matches for herself, and she’s only twenty-two. It’s hard to care that she’s worried about her career or about whether she’ll be getting married because it seems like neither of those things should be happening to her yet. She’s so young, you almost feel like you don’t want her to achieve too much success in her career or relationships yet because she needs to actually experience the struggle and find herself.

Overall, it’s just okay. If you’ve exhausted all of your other options for beach reads and are looking for something simple, straight forward, mindless, I’d recommend it. And when I say mindless, I don’t mean that as a slight. I mean it in the same way that millions of people watch reality television. It’s entertaining, doesn’t take any energy to digest, goes down easily and comes out the other end without adding or taking away too much.

Rating: 2/5 stars

Playing with Matches — Buy Online at Amazon

Review: Baby Teeth

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You know that feeling, when you’re in the airport and you see an exhausted single mother wrangling with a clan of asshole kiddies, and you think “hmm… Maybe I shouldn’t ever have kids”? Maybe it’s just me, as I’m fairly intolerant of misbehavior, but I suspect there are plenty of people out there who have experienced this sense of terror. The thing is, the more you want kids (or think you do), the more sobering it is to see children wreaking havoc, and the more horrific it is when we’re confronted with the possibility of giving birth to some sort of tiny demon. Entertainment like The Omen and Rosemary’s Baby are successful because they’re able to exploit those vulnerabilities, and Zoje Stage’s debut novel, Baby Teeth, seeks to follow in this tradition.

There are so many things I really liked about Baby Teeth, from its realistic portrayal of a couple who are struggling to keep their marriage together as the special needs of their child threaten to tear them apart, to the constant, but underlying, sense of danger that permeates Suzette’s life. The dual narrative and Stage’s choice to alternate between such different voices was perhaps ambitious, but it was mostly effective. It also made me feel uneasy, and I appreciate a book that is able to come alive to the extent that it boils into your blood stream, circulating, disrupting your otherwise-normal life. Whether a book is ‘pleasurable’ or disturbing, its ability to stay with me, to provoke real emotion and thought, is always appreciated. I had to keep reading because I had to know how it all would end. Yet I was conflicted because I was bored much of the time and wanted the book to just get it over with. Rarely do I ever skip chunks of a book for the purpose of getting to the end more quickly– if I feel like I’m slogging through a book, I put it down. After all, there are just too many great books out there to waste any time with something that’s not appealing to me. But I needed to know, so I made an exception and skipped about seventy pages, from about the 3/5 to 4/5 mark, and I’m glad I did.

This book is a slow burn, and I don’t think it’s tense enough, poetic enough, or that it builds enough in the end to ‘earn’ its lack of pacing. To me, it would’ve benefitted greatly from a vicious edit session, to get it down by about 30%. I could see threads of We Need to Talk About Kevin, but I don’t think Baby Teeth goes quite far enough. That being said, a lot of the reviews I’ve read have knocked it for being “too shocking”, “melodramatic”, and “disturbing”, and a common criticism is that it’s billed as a thriller when it should be considered a horror. I personally don’t agree with any of these critics, and it’s hard for me not to dismiss these reviewers as overly sensitive prudes. I would’ve been more engrossed and impressed had Stage really gone there– think Let the Right One In, where the imagery is visceral and haunting enough that it turns your stomach.

Overall, the idea and characters were interesting. I love the willfully-mute, psychopath child haunting her chronically ill mother, and a doting father who is caught between these two. I think the ending was strong, and the conflict was realistic. No parents want to be in this position, and I’ve personally witnessed how something like this can wrack each parent with guilt and tear the marriage at its seams. I thought the ending was bold with its disregard for the “politically correct” way of handling this sort of issue (i.e. all the whinging mummies who would protest that institutionalizing one’s child is morally despicable). Suzette finds her voice and makes a difficult decision that, ultimately, is more out of self preservation than out of what’s right for her daughter. However, as many things as there were that worked in this novel, it didn’t quite come together for me. I think that it would actually be better suited for an atmospheric film, filled with subtle tension. I look forward to seeing Zoje Stage’s career progress, and am interested in reading what she releases next, as I do find her to be a promising new talent.

Rating: 3/5 stars

Buy Baby Teeth on Amazon

Book Review: When Life Gives You Lululemons

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Remember back in 2004 when everyone and their obnoxious mother was reading The Devil Wears Prada? (I know, it was published in 2003, but it takes a while for things to get to middle America). I was twelve when Prada came out, and I remember reading it on the treadmill, while I jogged my ass off, trying to fit in with the cool crowd. Oh, those were the days.

Since then, I’ve been keeping tabs on Lauren Weisberger, hoping she’d come up with something that could rival her breakout hit, but nothing has even come close to the snarkfest that is Prada. After reading Something Borrowed and Chasing Harry Winston, I gave up on Weisberger– partly because I was insecure with my lowbrow literary taste and felt a need to ‘prove myself’ by slogging through James Joyce (#LifeIsTooShortToReadUlysses), but also because those books were mediocre at best.

But, ladies and gentlemen, here it is. She has finally done it. Lauren Weisberger has finally written something that is on par with Prada– and thank goodness we’re going with Lululemon, because Prada is and always has been out of my financial reach.

In Lulu, Weisberger has focused her pen on Emily Charlton, who is arguably the most entertaining and criminally underrated of any of the characters that populated Prada. For God’s sake, her crafty writing of this character gave us the star that is Emily Blunt. HELLO HOLLYWOOD, MAKE A MOVIE ADAPTATION OF THIS ONE because I need some bitchy Blunt in my life, stat.

Again, Emily is the most interesting character, but she’s joined in this novel by her gal pals Karolina, who represents the social elite, and Miriam, who is more representative of the everywoman. This trio complements each other well and provides the reader ample opportunities to explore the one percent-rich microcosm that is Greenwich, CT. I personally appreciated that each of these three ladies were smart and possessed their own senses of agency, but they also had their vulnerabilities. Theres undoubtedly a feminist sensibility here, but Weisberger isn’t hitting you over the head with it, which is refreshing in an era where much entertainment is screaming FEMINISM from the rooftops. Here, it’s subtle, and because of that, more realistic and relatable. The author never lets her politics intrude on the plot or on the characters, even as she’s navigating a cutthroat world that is very much centered around money, status, and political ambition.

Rating: 4/5 stars
Recommend. 

When Life Gives You Lululemons – Buy on Amazon