Review: Musical Chairs

Musical Chairs

Happy publication day to Amy Poeppel and the team behind Musical Chairs! If you saw my previous post, you’ll know that I enjoyed this book thoroughly. Re-posting my original review, with added quotes from the ARC I received months ago. Hope you all enjoy this book, and let me know what you think in the comments!

 

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

I particularly enjoyed the subtle, but effective metaphors throughout the book, weaving together music, love, and the “series of inspired follies” that is life. As the novel comes to its culmination, we’re reminded that “Life is most delightful when it is on the downward slope.”– a beautiful, if not often neglected, sentiment, particularly given the demographic here.

“Life is a perfect combination of chance and choreography… a group of people come together and delight int he act of rearranging themselves into new configurations. ONe person turns, leaving a space, upsetting the arrangement, but the other dancers follow suit and they all align themselves anew. For a moment they are all in motion, shifting with a chassé or a crossover, until a new constellation forms, and then there’s a moment of equilibrium… before it begins again.”

How beautiful, right?

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

Rating: 4/5 stars.

Order Musical Chairs on Amazon here.

 

Review: True Love

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Click the image to purchase True Love on Amazon.

I think I’ve lived this life before.

First, let’s all take a moment to appreciate the beauty and sadness of that cover. Here, you really can judge a book by its cover, because that combination of art, satire, and melancholy is exactly what is delivered in Sarah Gerard’s True Love.

This will likely be wrongly eviscerated, or at least under-appreciated, by the modern masses, who seem to only find validity in literary fiction that deals with disenfranchised people. Perhaps if the author’s biography and ties to the LGBTQ community was highlighted or placed at the beginning of the novel, so that we’re fully aware they have a deeper history of societal struggle than their character’s, it might be considered more favorably, or at least given a chance at objectivity.
There’s a certain authenticity that makes this book feel more memoir than fiction, which I quite like, as it resonated more deeply for me. Nina is exactly the kind of self-centered, self-destructive person who might spend long nights on the phone, complaining about her circumstances, while continuing the patterns, ignoring the advice of friends and her psychiatrist. She’s difficult to love, but at the same time remains cognizant of the particular maze in which she has found herself/created for herself. She is a woman trapped not by an oppressive system, but rather paralyzed by the options and unable to really start living in a way that is satisfying and true to herself– likely because she hasn’t defined who she is or what she values, or figured out how to cope with the reality of herself.
True Love is a searing look at what it is to be a millennial woman in 2020, and the myriad struggles we face– and, spoiler alert: it’s bleak. Gerard demonstrates a deftness with words and an acerbic wit as she handles her characters, though rather than judging or sugarcoating them, she gives them the freedom to be dislikable and narcissistic.

Rating: 4/5 Stars.

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 Half Sister

The Half Sister

Having not read The Other Woman, Sandie Jones was a new author to me, and this book didn’t disappoint. I went in completely blind, only scanning the synopsis, so I was expecting your more typical over-dramatized psychological thriller. Is the half sister who she says she is? Is she out for some kind of vengeance? Though those questions do come up, this is truly a domestic thriller, by which I mean that it’s far quieter than its genre-siblings.
For me, what tipped the scales from a 4-star to a 3-star is that I often found myself lost in who is who re: Lauren and Kate. While they’re “complete opposites”, they didn’t have distinct voices, so I kept having to rely on context clues: which one has the family, which one is struggling with fertility? It would’ve worked better for me had they been differentiated by their voices.
The end of the book is also a bit cacophonous, which stands in stark contrast to everything before it. It’s so rooted in reality and then, I assume to give us some meaty plot twists, there is a whole potential fake abortion plot that comes from out of nowhere, as well as calling into question the DNA test, which makes no sense. As the author tries to fake us out, so that we don’t see the rather-obvious answer, it all gets rather convoluted.
Overall, I would recommend this book to anyone who is looking for a softer thriller, as it is an enjoyable read and it doesn’t have much in the way of gruesome details or violence, which is a nice break from the expected.

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: Louisiana Lucky

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

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

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

Rating: 3.5/5

Pre-order Louisiana Lucky on Amazon here.

 

Review: Little Secrets

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

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

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

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Review: If I Had Your Face

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

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

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

3.5 Stars – PopCultHQ
Rating: 3.5/5 stars