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: 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: The Heir Affair

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

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

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

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

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Rating: 3.5/5 stars, rounded up for Goodreads and NetGalley

Review: If I Had Your Face

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

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

3.5 Stars – PopCultHQ
Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Review: My Dark Vanessa

My Dark Vanessa

“People will risk everything for a little bit of something beautiful”

First thing’s first: My Dark Vanessa is extremely well written. But it is not an easy or comforting read. If you are at all triggered by sexual misconduct, manipulation, or statutory rape, be warned. Though, to tack onto that– the author’s treatment of the subject here may actually open the door for difficult conversations, allowing victims to relate and feel understood and heard without judgment.

This book has been on my radar for quite some time, as I had requested to review an advanced copy (but was denied). Since I’ve got so many other approvals– and, because, let’s be real, I’m often quite bitter when I’m rejected– I rarely go back and read books where I’ve not gotten an ARC. However, this one really stood out to me because the teacher and willing student relationship is a situation about which I’ve always wanted to write a novel myself.

Having been in the position where lines have been crossed with older, more authoritative figures, I understand the complex relationships and feelings, both positive and negative, that can develop. Russell does an impeccable job conveying the convoluted dynamics– so much so, that she had to add at the beginning a disclaimer that the story was in no way borne of nonfictional events that occurred to her. The success of the book is largely due to its reading like a memoir rather than a fictional character study. I agree with other reviews which have found problems with its length, as it easily could’ve been half the length and been as effective, if not more so. However, the strength of Russell’s writing– her weaving of poetry and classical literature into the narrative, so that it isn’t gratuitous or derivative, but rather an integral and enriching part of the story.

“Your life is like a movie. She didn’t understand the horror of watching your body star in something your mind didn’t agree to. She meant it as a compliment. Isn’t that what all teenage girls want? Endlessly bored, aching for an audience.”

Perhaps one of the things I loved most about the novel was that, while it’s clear that Vanessa (and all of those like her) has suffered greatly, it also allows the space for her to hold contradictory beliefs without judging her. What I mean by this is that often, people refuse to acknowledge that there may be legitimate feelings of love or attraction on the part of the “victim”. To negate those feelings because the victim is ‘too young’ or was being ‘coerced/manipulated/seduced’ is to undermine that person, who has already been through so much already. Russell never once strays into that territory, always giving her character the benefit of the doubt and allowing her to voice her various beliefs.

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Rating: 4/5 stars

Review: 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

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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 Other Mrs.

The Other Mrs.

If you’ve read any of my other reviews either here or on Goodreads, you’ve probably noticed a common thread: I can’t help but compare every psychological thriller to Mary Kubica. And almost without fail, I find the book/author I’m holding up for scrutiny to be lacking in comparison. I have a deep love for her complex female characters and intricate plots. The Other Mrs. (Not to be confused with The Other Mrs. Miller, which is another novel in the same genre and of the same quality as this one) is Kubica’s latest effort, and it serves up all of the goodness we’ve come to expect from the author.
Female-centered psychological thriller? Check.
Unreliable narrator(s)? Check.
Twists and turns? Check.
Quick pacing? Check!
Several times, I found myself thinking ‘ugh, this is so predictable, it’s obviously the husband/the creepy son/the troubled teen girl/the jilted ex-wife’, lured into believing at various turns that I had outsmarted the author, but these are almost all red herrings. In the end, Kubica successfully pulls the rug out from under you, which is all the more shocking because she’s never deliberately hiding information as so many more amateur authors do. Instead, she trusts in her reader, knowing we’ll fill in the blanks (incorrectly), thus helping veil the truth.
All of that being said, this isn’t my favorite of her books because of the way all of the truths are veiled. There’s a mental illness plot point here that I found to be a bit of a cop out. Though it is well plotted, it ultimately left me feeling a bit jipped. It’s sort of like the cliche “it was all just a dream” ending, but with more eye rolls, because it has the added element of being a bit far-fetched, too.

In comparing this to her other novels, I’d say it’s firmly in the high-middle– below The Good Girl and Pretty Baby, but above the rest. This feels much more polished and intentional than some of her recent books, which seemed like they had been rushed.

Rating: 3.75/5 stars, rounded up to 4 for Goodreads.

Buy The Other Mrs 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.