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: Who Did You Tell?

Who Did You Tell? is a decent read, though it’s not breaking any ground in the already-crowded niche of female-centered psychological thrillers. Like the seaside town in which it is set, Astrid’s story is mild, with a pervasive air of domesticity. While I like the idea of a sleepy town, I’m not sure that it helped the story here because they play off one another, resulting in an overall sense of flatness. When the story finally picks up and tensions grow with the whodunnit (i.e. who is Astrid’s stalker, and what does she want?), it becomes confusing. There are too many characters related to Astrid’s late ex, that make it feel too coincidental– or, plainly, plotted.
I think this book is truly middling. It’s worth the read, if it lands in your lap, but it wouldn’t be something I’d recommend going out of your way to procure.

Review: Musical Chairs

Musical Chairs

This book isn’t scheduled to be released for a while, but I’m going to do something I’ve never done before and post a pre-review, because this should definitely be on your radar. Stay tuned for my full review, which will be posted on publication day, July 20, 2020. Let me know in the comments if you’re excited to read Musical Chairs, or if you’re already a fan of Amy Poeppel!

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.

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.

Pre-order Musical Chairs on Amazon here.

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

Image result for the love solution ashley croft

 

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.

Image result for breathe in, cash out

 

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

Image result for stay up with hugo best

 

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

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

Buy Stay Up With Hugo Best on Amazon here.

Review: The Water Cure

 

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

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

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

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

Buy The Water Cure on Amazon here. 

Review: An Anonymous Girl

Image result for an anonymous girl amazon

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Buy An Anonymous Girl on Amazon here.

Review: Watching You

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

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

So what’s the book?

Image result for watching you lisa jewell

 

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

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

Rating: 4/5 stars.

Buy Watching You on Amazon here.