Review: Such A Fun Age

10 Books We Can't Wait To Get Our Hands On In 2020 ...

 

Oookay, so I’m a bit behind the times on this one. Just as it took me a while to finally read Queenie, which I also wound up loving, I was slow to dive into Such a Fun Age. Why? Because honestly, there’s enough divisiveness and racial tension in the world, and quite frankly, I usually look to reading as an escape. For the same reasons, I often pass up heavier literary fiction because my reading time is sort of a meditative thing I do for pleasure. However, these books that take me a bit to decide to actually commit to reading frequently become some of my favorites. See: anything by David Foster Wallace and Julian Barnes, The Secret History, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, etc.)
ANYWAY, let’s focus. Kiley Reid’s debut novel, Such a Fun Age is phenomenal. It does exactly what great contemporary fiction is supposed to do in that it feels effortless and easy to digest, but underneath it lies a cultural commentary which provokes further thought. I love when a book stays with me, and this one certainly has. The story here is simple, without much in the way of action, and focuses on domestic issues, with race, wealth inequality, and societal status all playing a role. It all feels completely believable, and Reid succeeds in creating tension among the characters without having to cram anything down your throat. There’s no ‘bad guy/gal’ here, nor is there a ‘good guy/gal’; instead, the characters are all flawed in their own ways, but we get the sense that each of them is trying to do their best to get by, which is generally the case in real life. So often, authors get trapped in their own story, letting their own emotions get the best of them so that they create one-dimensional characters in order to force their agenda.

Here, I think all of the characters are likable to an extent– maybe because I know so many people who are exactly like Alix and Kelley, as well as Emira and Zara. It was great to see some satirical moments in which Reid subtly calls out the woke folk for their hypocrisy and their use of ethnic friends as a way to gain cultural currency. I think this book really hit home for me, though, because I was raised by an African American nanny, and I have always consistently felt more comfortable around African American people, or a ethnically mixed group of people, than I do around a group of people who are my own race. Why? I have no idea. Maybe it brings back my childhood. Or maybe because I find African American people in particular to be more warm and welcoming of me (just speaking from my own experiences here, not generalizing). I don’t know. But whatever the case may be, I am aware that this is odd, and as I look back on my childhood, I can see how complicated the relationship can become when people are paid to essentially be a part of the family. There’s a commodification of love and care, but also there’s a question as to whether the relationship, forged only as a result of an exchange of money, is made false because of its very nature? Or is it possible that the relationship is real, regardless of the transactional element? I think this book does a great job exploring that, as Emira does truly grow close to Briar and vice versa.

Rating: 4.5/5, rounded up.

Buy Such A Fun Age on Amazon here.

Review: The Love Solution

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I’d give Ashley Croft’s The Love Solution a 2.5, as it really was just okay, but after having looked at the other reviews, I decided to round up to 3 stars (on Goodreads) because I don’t believe a book’s quality should be assessed based on the moral judgements of its readers. It’s one thing to say a book is poorly written, constructed, plotted, or its characters are one dimensional, etc. But to say ‘this book is not good because I disagree with the morality of the characters, choosing to use a love potion’, is silly. Not that I think the Love Bug story points add to the quality of the book as a whole; in fact, I actually think the book could’ve done without that bit entirely, and would’ve perhaps been stronger, as that whole back and forth was ultimately a bit pointless, and the characters and relationships were interesting enough on their own. Also, characters are meant to be flawed– and sure, maybe *you* are the kind of person who maintains utmost integrity, even in the face of heartbreak, and you would never succumb to your own desperate misery. But I’m not going to pretend for one single second that I couldn’t be led down a ‘dark path’, or that I’d label someone who did resort to something like a magic love pill as a ‘bad person’. Yeah, there are ethical issues with that– that’s precisely why we have Science Fiction (or, in this case, Romantic Comedies with Sci-Fi-Light elements), to extrapolate and tease out the potential pitfalls of such medical and technological advancements.

Outside of all that, The Love Solution is truly mediocre. It’s the kind of thing you pick up because you’ve exhausted everything other option, or because there’s a secondhand copy on sale for $1.99. Funny enough, after I wrote this review, I went to pull the Amazon link and it is indeed being offered for… $1.99. At least the publisher is aware what they have here, and they’re not price gouging their customers. It feels like it has been churned out, a bottom of the barrel tale that the author spruced up so she could make that next mortgage payment. It all feels very dated, in its language and domesticity, as if it was either created twenty years ago, or else is intended for an audience of senior citizens who prefer a more tame story. And, by the way, I don’t mean that as a cut down; I think it could be successful in assisted living book circles, and there’s not a ton geared towards that demographic.

Rating: 2.5/5 stars

Buy The Love Solution on Amazon here.

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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: 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: 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: Jane Doe

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Let’s cut straight to the chase here: this novel isn’t written with an eye towards literature. If we’re strictly focused on the writing, it’s probably a 3. Rarely do I make it through a book that I’m enjoying without stopping regularly to highlight beautiful turns of phrase and philosophical tidbits, yet my copy of Jane Doe is nearly pristine in its lack of notations.
So then how did I come to like this so much? I think maybe it’s precisely because it is so quick-paced and searing. There’s no flourish, but there’s also no fat to trim. It’s cut and dry, remorseless, just like the titular character. And there’s a certain kind of art to this ostensible artlessness. Writers often fall prey to their own pens (proverbially, given the whole digital age). How often do you find yourself reading something and thinking “what the hell is this author even saying?”, or taken out of the narrative because the wording is so pretty and attention-seeking? Writers fall in love with their words as much or more as any of their devoted readers, resulting in books that are bloated to the point that the plot is beyond recognition. Or else, on kind of the opposite side of the same spectrum, authors are trying to hit that word count— a phenomenon that is especially prevalent in this particular genre, where publishers are cranking these things out for the hungry masses.
Jane is a self-described sociopath, with a vague plan to take, or at least ruin, the life of the man responsible for emotionally terrorizing her best friend, Meg. I laughed out loud several times at Jane’s calculated, understated subversion. I loved her unapologetic behavior, her acknowledgement that she was confident even while she feigned feminine modesty and drama. This character-playing-a-character added just the right amount of depth, providing a sort of cultural commentary between the lines that never overwhelms or distracts from the story or its characters.
Rating: 4/5 stars