Fall 2018 Releases to Add to Your List

I don’t know about you, but this month was F U L L. In fact, it feels like Christmas is coming tomorrow — that’s how frazzled school has me! There are so many great books releasing that I haven’t had a chance to get my hands on yet — A Spark of LightThe Witch ElmBridge of Clay — all by some tried-and-true authors that I go back to again and again. There are some other great reads you may not have heard about, though, that I’ve had the pleasure of reading + reviewing — check ’em out below!

  1. The Caregiver by Samuel Park. Simon & Schuster, September 2018. This work focuses on the complex and tumultuous relationship between young Mara Alencar and her mother, Ana, in a Rio neighborhood in the 1970s; and alternately, the relationship between Mara and the woman she cares for within her home in 1990s Bel Air, Kathryn. My full review can be read here.
  2. Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller. Tin House, October 2018. I’ve already sung a love song to this dark, atmospheric read here. This novel is a very literary work, chock-full of evocative imagery, symbolism, and the kinds of features that make English Lit majors’ hearts go pitter-pat. If you’re in the mood for something with a classic vibe and all kinds of eerie features, this is the read for you. (And if you’re in the mood for something action-packed, keep moving.)
  3. Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver. Harper Collins, October 2018. A dense, thought-provoking tome from a seasoned author, Unsheltered is a tale of two time periods: 1880s and present-day Vineland, NJ. Alternating between Willa, modern-day mother and freelance journalist struggling to hold together the pieces of her crumbling family (and home) and Thatcher, science teacher and sadly undervalued husband to a very unappreciative young wife in the 1880s. The two narratives are connected by the characters’ place of residence, both then and now a deteriorating and poorly cobbled-together structure that is symbolic of their own ragged lives. A bit overwrought in terms of philosophical political conversations, but the story and characters are compelling, nonetheless.
  4. To Kill a Mockingbird (graphic novel) by Harper Lee, adapted and illustrated by Fred Fordham. Harper Books, October 2018. This classic novel, recently chosen as America’s favorite novel per PBS’s Great American Read vote-off, was republished this month with a bit of a twist. The novel was reworked into a graphic novel, which means that teachers who are sharing the classic coming-of-age tale with students will have an accessible option for those kids who “hate reading.” Shudders — is there such a thing? 

A few others on my stack that I haven’t gotten to but am looking forward to reading soon:

  • A Key to Treehouse Living by Elliot Reed. Tin House, September 2018. “…the adventure of William Tyce, a boy without parents, who grows up near a river in the rural Midwest.” Coming-of-age novel set in the heartland? Ummm, count me in.
  • An Unexplained Death by Mikita Brottman. Henry Holt & Co., November 2018. A nonfiction work of…true crime?…that follows one woman’s obsessive investigation into a mysterious assumed-suicide at the former Belvedere Hotel in Baltimore. Upping the ante: she uncovers a string of believed-suicides in previous decades, all at the same hotel. I’m HERE FOR IT.

That’s all for now! Back to the school-and-mama-life grind it is. Happy Halloween, and as ever, happy reading, friends.

Review: The Caregiver

Having grown up in an unbroken home, with present and participative parents and enough food to eat and clothes that I didn’t have to buy (or beg for) secondhand, I’ve taken a lot for granted, I know. One major “thing”: my relationship with my parents, and in particular, with my mother. She’s always been a positive part of my life, overflowing with love and kindness and patience. But I know that not everyone is so fortunate, and possibly because of that, I’ve forever been fascinated by the relationships between mothers and daughters.

The Caregiver, by the late Samuel Park, is just that: a portrait of mother and daughter, displayed in pieces of the past. Mara Alencar is an immigrant living in Bel Air in the 1990s, serving as an in-home caregiver for a wealthy (and isolated) woman who is battling cancer. Their relationship is complicated — one stranger caring intimately for another, what wouldn’t be awkward about that, at first? — and made even more so by the fact that Mara’s patient, Kathryn, begins to make extravagant promises about her will and Mara’s imminent inheritance. These “current” snapshots of Mara’s life as an immigrant are full of gems about the unfamiliar nature of common life in America that native residents so take for granted. For example,

“Nothing made me feel more American than being in a supermarket. So much choice, so many different ways to fill yourself up. . . . Even if I didn’t buy anything, walking down the aisles gave me a sense of belonging. . . . Going to the supermarket was free; there was no admission price. Nobody questioned my right to be there. It was the most democratic institution in the city.” (p. 7)

Park writes with clarity on this strange world-inhabiting experience, about what must surely feel like being devoured whole. However, Mara’s life in modern-day California isn’t the bright, shiny bit of this novel. The real gem: the intermittent flashbacks to 1970s Rio de Janeiro, with eight-year-old Mara living in turbulent political times with her mother, Ana.

These flashbacks offer readers something almost tangible, thanks to some vivid and unrestrained writing from Park. Mara’s mother is a voice-over actress, dubbing American films into Portuguese for the general population; and in her mind, something of a starlet. She’s beautiful and almost frivolous, flitting from one idea to the next with only the hounding necessity of money to stabilize her focus. The two live alone, without husband or father, and survive from paycheck to paycheck: feasting and luxuriating in good fortune after payday, grumbling and skimping when jobs are few and far between. As the country nears its political breaking point, Ana’s desperation peaks and she takes a job as an actress — partly out of a desire to prove her worth (to whom, it’s unclear) and partly out of sheer necessity: their cash stores are running low.

When Ana becomes entangled in something far greater than she could have foreseen, their lives are launched onto a trajectory that has devastating consequences for the pairing.

Park writes with a stunning depth of feeling and wisdom in these flashbacks — Ana’s desperation to be something and Mara’s furious devotion to her mother had me captivated. The political unrest and turmoil of 1970s Brazil provides a provocative backdrop, and as events fall into place, the novel seems to scurry toward something dark and unavoidable.

When Mara is an adult, she seeks the truth about her mother’s life, desperate to reconcile her own image of her mother with that harsh mistress — Truth.

Unfortunately, these two narratives don’t . . . quite . . . connect. I was so immersed in Mara’s younger years, but less drawn to her relationship with Kathryn which ultimately left me dissatisfied and a bit underwhelmed. Don’t get me wrong — there are parallels, here; they just don’t seem to ever flesh out completely. The novel feels unresolved, and maybe that’s just because I didn’t get what I was expecting — or hoping for? — at the end. There were some loose ends that needed tying up, and Lazarus’s role in particular felt anticlimactic.

That being said, I appreciated Park’s smooth writing and the various nuggets of genius sprinkled throughout the novel, so I’ll leave you with one more:

“I realized then that I hated when people tried to find the silver lining in tragedy. There was no upside, none. I did not grow from it, or become a better person, or learn to appreciate life, or any such cliche. . . . death would not seed some kind of beautiful legacy . . . It’d just make those [she] left behind feel sad and morose.” (p. 235)

Overall: 3/5 stars. Recommended for those with an interest in family relationships and diaspora literature.

Review: The Waiter

I was drawn to The Waiter — a translation of the Swedish work by Mattias Faldbakken — for a simple reason: the book is advertised as a portrait in miniature, an intimate and classical-feeling depiction of one man’s life as a waiter within the confines of a prestigious and centuries-old family eatery. It didn’t hurt that the book was compared to Amor Towles’s A Gentleman in Moscow — a decadent, exquisite gem of a novel.

While it’s true that both novels employ dense prose with a classical vibe and settings that are confined to one particular space, the similarities end there.

The Waiter opens with an introduction to the title character: a middle-aged waiter in the well-established European restaurant called “The Hills.” The waiter offers a vessel for readers to traverse the inner-workings of the restaurant (which itself is merely a means of exposing readers to the choreography and near-relationship of waitstaff in proximity to customers on a daily basis). Our unnamed title character puts forth a series of cynical observations about the restaurant staff, the diners, the esteemed artwork crammed onto the walls, and the restaurant itself with little rhyme or reason.

“The Hills is one of the capital’s defining institutions, one of which gives Oslo character and draws the long lines. The space, or the premises, where I now and will forever stand in my waiter’s jacket, is an intricate meshwork of scraped-together items, and I sometimes feel sick at the thought that the longest-standing, most constant and unchanging ‘traditional place’ is a mosaic of items dragged and scraped together.”

Time and again, the waiter makes it perfectly clear to readers: he is meticulous, he is old-fashioned and tetchy when routine is disrupted, and he is very preoccupied with the hobby of ensuring things are done as nearly perfect as possible. In fact, at more than one juncture, I wondered if the character might be intended to exude signs of obsessive-compulsive disorder, so intent is he on following certain procedures repeatedly with or without necessity, and on doing things just-so. I’m fairly certain the author did not intend this conclusion, though; I think readers are just supposed to find the waiter steeped in habit as well as socially awkward and stand-offish.

One of the things I loved most about Towles’s Gentleman is that the novel offered readers a portrait of confinement amid luxury and a constantly shifting political and social landscape within the hotel over the course of several decades. Rather than offer readers just one major character to latch onto, though, Towles provided a host of other fastidiously drawn, intriguing individuals to play supporting roles.

While readers are exposed greatly to the waiter’s innermost ramblings, Faldbakken takes a huge misstep with the omission of other significant characterization. Sure, there are a slew of other cast members introduced — “the Pig,” a regular customer of a commanding sort of presence; Sellers, a rowdy party-boy given behavioral freedoms others aren’t on the basis of his several acquisitions for The Hills; Child Lady, a beautiful woman with otherwise very little clear significance to the story; Edgar and Anna, a father-daughter duo that regularly patronize the restaurant and serve as the waiter’s only friends; and a handful of restaurant workers — but the characters themselves don’t feel significant.

Now that I think of it, allow me to correct myself — characterization is not shortchanged in The Waiter; it’s purpose that the novel is severely lacking. All of the aforementioned characters have distinct features and personalities, but at the end of the novel, I couldn’t really tell you why most of them were included in the work. At all.

And that brings me to the saddest point: the plot is virtually nonexistent. Readers spend a few days in the waiter’s hemisphere, privy to his inner ramblings and increasingly neurotic behaviors, only to arrive at a conclusion that is head-scratchingly underwhelming. I’m not sure what Faldbakken envisioned as the driving force behind this narrative, but it certainly was not plot. Was there a climax? Was there a purpose behind the waiter’s actions? Was there a point to Anna’s stay? I don’t know. And I’m not going to lie: this uncertainty on my end left me wondering for several days — am I missing something, here?

To be sure, there are some gems tucked in amid the perplexing meandering of the narrative; a few times, I positively chortled. And Faldbakken makes some painfully accurate estimations of modern culture; each time, I kept cheering and thinking — Now we’re getting somewhere! Here are a few of my favorite quotes:

“It’s as though my face is a cast of all the concerns that have built up within me over the years: the concerns are the mold for my face.”

and

“‘The adornment of a city is manpower, of a body beauty, of a soul wisdom, of an object durability, of a speech truth,’ Gorgias writes in the Encomium of Helen. The part about the body is the only one which still applies, it seems.”

A particular favorite, relating to the minds of children:

“There are a few golden years between infancy and the teenage years, Edgar says, when kids are as smart as they’re ever going to be, or that’s how it seems, when they’re still uncorrupted.”

There were several other striking observations made by the author which redeemed this otherwise sadly-under-edited work, and it’s those bits and pieces that I’ve added to my journal which make The Waiter a difficult work to rate. I wanted to love this novel so much, but I ultimately found the most fundamental aspect — a purpose, a driving force — lacking, or too obscure to be discerned by my brain.

Overall: 2 stars.

The Waiter was sent to me by the publisher in exchange for my honest opinion and review. I’m grateful to Simon & Schuster / Scout Press for sharing a free digital copy with me in advance of publication and my thoughts are all my own — in no way affected by the exchange of goods and services.

Review: The Reluctant Healer

Have you ever considered the effect positive thinking, directed energies, and alternative healing practices can have on your health? If you were struggling with a malady undiagnosed by dozens of specialists, or facing imminent death at the hands of a cancer that is unresponsive to widely-used methods such as chemotherapy and radiation, would you consider visiting an unlicensed — and possibly ineffective — individual on the basis of their rumored potential healing energy? Do you believe that hope can produce a change in our physical and mental states of being?

These questions — and plenty others — are all considerations around which author Andrew Himmel has crafted his debut novel, The Reluctant Healer. Set in New York in the present day, The Reluctant Healer centers on one man’s lifelong notions about medicine and purpose and self-identity. Will Alexander is a lawyer (and not altogether a prominent one) at an up-and-coming firm when he meets Erica, a social worker and spiritual healer. Erica isn’t shy when it comes to her unconventional beliefs about medicine, the mind, and our methods of coping; and she’s quick to point out that Will hosts some sort of powerful (albeit impossible-to-pinpoint) healing properties. What ensues is a careening, dubious tale of the route to alternative healing — from both a healer and healee’s perspective — that will undoubtedly leave you scratching your head. But in a good way, most of the time.

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I went into this book with several strong preconceived notions: that modern (Western) medicine is always the best first path to healing, that doctors sometimes overprescribe antibiotics but for the most part they are well-intentioned, and that spiritual or alternative healers are, in effect, quacks.

From the first chapter, Himmel challenges these notions. Erica introduces the idea of a fastly-growing vaccine-resistant population that, for decades, has thrived without strains of polio or smallpox or other distant maladies, but will soon fall prey to new strains of these viruses that our bodies will not be capable of defeating thanks to decades of preventative vaccination. Whew. That’s a big concept for this very stubborn brain to swallow, and I have to be honest, friends: I’m most definitely, 100% not going to stop vaccinating my child. Himmel’s very brief digression on vaccination at the start of the book did nothing to change my mind about that, and I’m glad that the novel wasn’t an attempt to sway readers in a certain direction as far as that (very controversial) topic is concerned.

However . . . Himmel did succeed in convincing me that much of our healing can be attributed to the placebo effect. Essentially, if we believe we are being treated effectively or that we are being administered something that will cure us or that there is even a fragment of a chance some therapy will cure our maladies, we are more likely to be healed than not. And that, my friends, is a fascinating concept upon which to base a novel.

Characterization was a bit of a struggle for me, but not because Himmel didn’t write consistently; rather, I had a difficult time connecting to the characters because their belief systems — or their life situations — were so radically different from my own. Erica was completely inaccessible to me: she was so persistently vocal (and manic) about the art of healing, it was a bit, for me, like listening to a vegan or crossfit junkie. Okay, we get it — you live an alternative lifestyle. And Will was extraordinarily privileged. I mean, as a teacher, I don’t even get a paid six weeks after giving birth (unless I have stored up my yearly allotment of 10 days for several years in a row), but here we have a middling lawyer at a large law firm who is paid a substantial salary for at least six months to do whatever the hell he wants with his life.

You see what I mean? Hard to connect. Sometimes I’m able to suspend disbelief if the premise of the novel contains elements of fantasy; however, with The Reluctant Healer, I wasn’t able to ignore my feelings of doubt as I knew the work was meant to closely mimic real-life scenarios and belief systems.

As far as the plot goes, again, elements were far-fetched — a whole lotta privilege up in here, folks — but I was certainly taken in by the portions of the novel that discussed healing events Will and Erica attended, or philosophies surrounding alternative medicine. And the work goes beyond that, too; beyond the spiritual and physical healing concepts. In truth, this is a novel about personal growth, the power of our minds as instruments of healing, and the far-reaching benefits of hope.

At the risk of rambling, I present to you a favorite passage:

“Dream and strive and reach. It’s all important, and it’s all well and good. But in all of the excitement and wonder about the future . . . don’t discount the possibility that right here, right now, might be what is most important. Not what your talents and ambitions may someday achieve, but what you’re involved with right now. Because if you can’t do that, if you can’t capture the immediacy and joy of the present moment, then you’re at the mercy of anticipation, with every anxious thought thrown to the future, robbing the present of its impact, and you’ll miss out on everything.”

Damn.

Himmel dropped truth-bombs like this here and there throughout the novel, and these gems are r e s o n a t i n g.

Overall: 3/5 starsThe Reluctant Healer releases TODAY and I highly, highly recommend this book to those with an interest in alternative medicine and/or books that will challenge preconceived notions.

Note: This novel was sent to me free of charge by Smith Publicity in exchange for my honest review/opinions on the book. All thoughts are my own and have not been influenced in any way by the publisher or author.

Review: News of Our Loved Ones

Goodreads [condensed] blurb: Set in France and America, News of Our Loved Ones [by Abigail DeWitt] is a haunting and intimate examination of love and loss, beauty and the cost of survival, witnessed through two generations of one French family, whose lives are all touched by the tragic events surrounding the D-Day bombings in Normandy.

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News of Our Loved Ones is a difficult novel to review, friends. The prose is melodic and the story is ultimately one that should be on your radar if you’re invested in the genres of WW2 and historical fiction, like I am. It’s difficult to name major players, though, as the novel reads like a series of narratives — almost short stories? — cobbled together by threads of DNA with varying degrees of strength.

Each segment of the novel provides readers with a nugget of the Delasalle family history, starting with young Yvonne, in love with a stranger who cycles past her window daily; and later winds up with Polly, a niece of Yvonne’s who visits Paris decades later and is feverish with her desire to make sense of her mother’s behavior and her place in the world.

The experience of reading this compilation of narratives is a bit off-putting — I struggled consistently to place myself in the story, and by the time I was settled, the chapter had ended and a new thread was picking up, but not where the previous had left off. I really appreciated DeWitt’s intimate development of each of the characters; they were distinctive, complex, and rich with life. However, I wish there had been more to each of the characters’ stories, or that there had been fewer family members to keep up with, or perhaps just that I’d been told to read this book one segment per day, rather than in large chunks. At the end, the author thanks a number of literary publications that featured segments of the novel prior to its publication; and truthfully, I think that I would’ve enjoyed the stories even more if I’d gone into the reading with that in mind: these were a collection of narrative, some more tightly tethered together than others.

While I struggled to piece together the narratives in a way that made the characters’ connections clear, I did love the little glimpses we were given into each individual’s experiences during – and in the aftermath of – WW2. My favorite chapters/stories were “Mathilde,” “Someone Else,” and “The Visit.”

Overall: 4/5 stars. Read if you’re a fan of historical fiction and you enjoy family sagas, and if you don’t mind a bit of complexity when it comes to tying together narratives.

Thanks to Harper Books for sending me a review copy in exchange for my honest opinion! All thoughts in this post are my own and in no way influenced by the publisher.

Review: The Mermaid & Mrs. Hancock

“The stories are of men who, walking on the shore, hear sweet voices far away, see a soft white back turned to them, and — heedless of looming clouds and creaking winds — forget their children’s hands and the click of their wives’ needles, all for the sake of the half-seen face behind a tumble of gale-tossed greenish hair.”

The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock is a hefty tome — seriously, y’all, it’s a brick — but one worth of notice by admirers of literary fiction. I went into this novel expecting something light, whimsical, flirtatious, even; instead, I was thrilled to discover a tale of dark whimsy and an extraordinarily well-researched and -written portrait of 1780s English life. Here’s the scoop:

Mr. Hancock is a middle-aged, rather unexceptional individual who runs a moderately successful acquisitions enterprise in which he oversees the purchasing and sales of various commodities. His wife is deceased, alongside their infant child; and he has long been accustomed to a dreary existence that cycles from work to dinner to bed and back again. One day, though, his captain returns with news: the ship has been sold, pennies on the dollar, in exchange for something rare and nearly unbelievable: a mermaid.

Fascinated by the macabre and unusual, as human nature dictates, Mr. Hancock suspends his anger long enough to view the creature — and is convinced it should be shown to private audiences in order to make a few shillings. Begrudgingly, Mr. Hancock agrees to lease the grotesque mermaid — it’s long dead, and a rather dried-up and gruesome-looking bit of taxidermy, by all accounts — to a whorehouse.

Yeah, you read that right. A whorehouse.

Although Mr. Hancock has some qualms about loaning his oddity to a house of ill-repute, he cannot prepare himself for the wild twists of fate the establishment will cast his way.

Here’s what I loved most: characters are deeply flawed and ripe with the most basic — and tumultuous — of human desires. A current of wanting-but-not-having sweeps the plot along until fate steps in; and then, we’re reminded of the sour plateauing sensation that comes with getting what we want most. Gowar fastidiously composes each individual in the novel to portray some of the most fundamental heartwishes of our species. Mr. Hancock longs for company, fulfillment, something greater than the rote existence he has been leading; Angelica Neal, lady of the night, wants nothing more than to be the mistress of her own ship — she’s desperate to control her own destiny and will stop at nothing to find a means to this end; Mrs. Frost seeks her own means of self-support and control.

Perhaps the most striking theme to me in the novel is the female quest for self-reliance and power: each woman featured fiercely desires to remove herself from under the thumb of whatever forces are keeping them in place. The novel may be a tale of dark whimsy, but it’s also a relentless portrait of feminism and the serach for control over fortunes and fates in a world dominated by males and monetary wealth.

Mermaid moves along at an indolent loll, and to be quite honest, not a great deal of action occurs. However! The beauty in this work is found in the artfully constructed characters and their unremarkable lives that serve as a backdrop against the constant current of power struggles. And in the end — the bitter, raw metaphor of possession and wealth as isolation and ultimately, not the bringer of joy — well, that was icing on the cake.

Overall: 4.5 stars. Read this one when you’re in the mood to appreciate some serious fiction with rich prose and a slow-moving but mysteriously mesmerizing unfolding of events.

Thanks a million to Harper Books, who sent me this book free in exchange for my honest review! All opinions are my own.

Review: Not Our Kind

I’m a sucker for historical fiction. I won’t even try to deny it: I’m obsessed. It’s always been my thing, though, to be honest; my first literary love affair was with the American Girl: Felicity and Little House series, both of which I read numerous times. I daydreamed about living in colonial houses at the start of the American Revolution; and of living in a dugout on the plains, not too far from where I grew up.

Some of my adult favorites include The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman, Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, and The Help by Kathryn Stockett. When Harper Books offered an advance copy of Not Our Kind, then, I jumped at the opportunity to read and review the title by Kitty Zeldis (pseudonym). Here’s the synopsis:

One rainy morning in June, two years after the end of World War II, a minor traffic accident brings together Eleanor Moskowitz and Patricia Bellamy. Their encounter seems fated: Eleanor, a teacher and recent Vassar graduate, needs a job. Patricia’s difficult thirteen-year-old daughter, Margaux, recovering from polio, needs a private tutor.

Though she feels out of place in the Bellamys’ rarefied and elegant Park Avenue milieu, Eleanor forms an instant bond with Margaux. Soon the idealistic young woman is filling the bright young girl’s mind with Shakespeare and Latin. Though her mother, a hatmaker with a little shop on Second Avenue, disapproves, Eleanor takes pride in her work, even if she must use the name “Moss” to enter the Bellamys’ restricted doorman building each morning and feels that Patricia’s husband, Wynn, may have a problem with her being Jewish.

Invited to keep Margaux company at the Bellamys’ country home in a small town in Connecticut, Eleanor meets Patricia’s unreliable, bohemian brother, Tom, recently returned from Europe. The spark between Eleanor and Tom is instant and intense. Flushed with new romance and increasingly attached to her young pupil, Eleanor begins to feel more comfortable with Patricia and much of the world she inhabits. As the summer wears on, the two women’s friendship grows — until one hot summer evening when a line is crossed. Both Eleanor and Patricia will have to make important decisions — choices that will reverberate through their lives.

Unfortunately, my excitement was short lived. Not Our Kind began with an engaging start — an unfortunate accident crosses the paths of Gentile and Jew, post-WWII — but soon devolved into a frenzy of hot-and-cold emotions and a cast of characters in a story arc that felt more like a juvenile romance novel than adult fiction.

Characters had every opportunity for depth and complexity, but instead, I found them to be drawn with broad strokes. Where Patricia Bellamy faced a number of struggles — conflict with her only daughter, whom she desperately wants to love; a growing distance between herself and her ghastly husband; the battle between what is right and what is socially accepted — instead, Zeldis spends a majority of the novel focusing on Patricia’s reluctance to sacrifice her social standing, wealth, and personal respect in exchange for treating a Jew as a human being. While this sort of thinking is no doubt par for the course among white Americans after the war, I sincerely wish Zeldis had focused equally — or moreso — on other sources of emotional trauma for the character. In particular, I was largely off-put by the “resolution” of one of Patricia’s most climactic problems in the story; a resolution which was ultimately hastily cobbled together and left me wanting so much more.

Additionally, emotions ran hot and cold — there was absolutely no in-between. One minute, a character was sorrowful and withdrawn; the next, chipper and flamboyant. Decisions were made with about as much thought as it takes to flip a light switch. Major conflicts were resolved more conveniently than I like, and the writing ultimately just felt . . . juvenile. Abundant cliches, an overwhelming abuse of adjectives, cringe-worthy metaphors. *Sigh.*

I know that all sounds bad, and, well, it wasn’t great. However, I did have enough of an interest in the storyline to finish the book; and I feel that the novel would have been stronger if an editor had told the author: don’t make this such a deliberately preachy book — just tell the damn story and let readers come to their own conclusions. Too often, I felt that Zeldis was trying to spoon-feed me the theme; and honestly, that’s something I outgrew in grade school. All of this is sadly too bad: themes like consent and racism ended up feeling like generic concepts the author wanted to write about but couldn’t manage to compose effectively for an adult audience.

Overall: 2/5 stars. If you’re not looking for a super impactful or dense story and enjoy YA fiction, this book will probably be a welcome distraction. Truthfully, if a couple of steamy-ish sex scenes were removed, this would be a great book for those romance-monger teenage girls that populate the halls of my middle school.

Thanks to Harper Books for sharing an advance copy of the novel with me in exchange for an honest review. All thoughts and opinions are my own.

Review: The Dinner List

We’ve all been asked the hypothetical question at some point in our lives: If you could have dinner with any 5 people, dead or alive . . . who? and why?

My five changes frequently — sometimes Matthew McConaughey’s on the list, sometimes he’s replaced by John Krasinski (they seem so down-to-earth — how could I not?). My mama is always there, though I alternate between Jodi Picoult and J.K. Rowling on a pretty regular basis. (I’m trembling at the mere thought of being graced by their presence.) Stephen King — duh. Edgar Allan Poe — ditto.

And what would I do if, by some stroke of fortune, we all ended up actually sharing a meal and a few bottles of champ together? Um. Well.

In Rebecca Serle’s debut novel, The Dinner List, this is exactly the predicament Sabrina finds herself in when she arrives at her restaurant birthday-dinner date with her best friend: seated around the table alongside her best friend, Jessica, Sabrina sees her father, her ex-lover, her former philosophy professor, and — gulp! — Audrey-freaking-Hepburn. It’s an initially unfortunate-seeming mishmash of individuals: Audrey’s clearly out of place with the other mere mortals, and Sabrina needs some convincing that the situation is real. But once the cork is popped and appetizers ordered, the table finds itself thrown into the inevitable: serious conversation. Sabrina is forced to confront regrets, frustrations, anxieties, and losses from previous years; not the least of which is her failed relationship with Tobias, the man she’s long considered the love of her life.

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A great deal of this book worked for me: I enjoyed the premise, the storyline trotted along at a quick clip, characters were largely a fun and supportive mix that worked for the scenario. To be honest, I picked this book up thinking it would be a “fluff” read — a little bit of romance, some drama, basic chick-lit — but by the time I was done, I was quite surprised to have had so many feelings while I read. And introspective thoughts. For that, I applaud Serle — she managed to compose a narrative that is seemingly simple and predominantly light, but not without depth.

And while the timeline is all-too-familiar in today’s market — back and forth, past and present — I found it a successful formatting for The Dinner List, in which the “present” portions are noted with the time on the clock (hence creating a countdown vibe that enticed me to stay up until 1 in the morning on a work night) and the flashbacks provide a more adequate portrait of Sabrina and Tobias’s shared history.

In a sense, the novel includes a touch of romance — after all, it is Sabrina and Tobias’s love story — but don’t head into this one expecting anything steamy, sexy, or happy-go-lucky. The pair’s history is fraught with frustrating turns of fate and unfortunate circumstances. But the book is so much more than this love story, too — it’s a tale of redemption, forgiveness, and really, the concept of fate and how our every choice alters fate on a minute-by-minute basis.

My one gripe: Audrey. I know, I know — she’s an icon. She deserved to have a seat at that table, and on several occasions, I felt that seat was well-filled. HOWEVER, for the most part, it seemed Serle became a bit heavy-handed with Audrey’s portions; instead of being another player at the table with a bit of starshine, she became a history lesson for readers and that became a bit tedious. More often than not, it seemed Serle needed to justify her inclusion of Audrey with reasons for Sabrina’s (aka Serle’s?) obsession with the actress, and it wound up feeling like a biography-within-a-novel . . . which took me right out of the story on more than one circumstance.

That being said, the novel is a largely compelling read with an intriguing and witty storyline. I’d recommend it to just about anyone — but I’ll warn you to be wary of the f-word: The Dinner List goes above and beyond fun. It’s downright decadent.

Overall: 4/5 stars.

Thank you to Flatiron Books for sharing a review copy of this title with me! All opinions are my own and were in no way impacted by the publisher.

Review: Bitter Orange

Well, friends, I’ve done it: I’ve read my “best book” of 2018, and it’s only going to be downhill from here. (That’s not necessarily a bad thing; I’m just basically 923% positive none of my other reads this year will top it.)

In July, I reached out to Tin House to request a copy of Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller, slated for release October 9. I’d previously read her dark and disturbing family drama, Swimming Lessons, and I was extremely pleased to have been granted an early copy by the publishing gods.

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The novel comes adorned with a dark and mysterious cover that features three oranges — two grouped together, one off to the side; appropriate when one takes into consideration the synopsis:

Frances (“Franny”) is a reclusive 39-year-old woman whose only friend (and roommate — her mother) has just died. She’s never had pals her own age before, and remembers in all-too-vivid detail the humiliation of childhood birthday parties attended out of obligation. As she reaches middle age, Franny is socially isolated and overweight — characteristics I later came to attribute to her mother’s overpowering nature. At any rate, in the wake of her mother’s passing, Franny accepts a stint at Lyntons for the summer. She’s to move to the countryside estate and take stock of its outbuildings and decorative architectural features, then report back to a wealthy American who has just purchased the sprawling property sight-unseen.

Naturally, when Franny discovers she’ll be living with two others, she’s a bit hesitant — how should she greet them? Is it too forward to assume they’ll even speak? But she’s quickly welcomed into Cara and Peter’s lives and granted access to their life-loving ways: late night picnics, drinking on the roof, skinny-dipping in the pond. Ever uncomfortable in her own skin, Franny flirts with the idea of becoming beloved to someone.

When she discovers a peephole in the floor of her bathroom — leading directly into Cara and Peter’s bathroom below hers — Franny is overcome with curiosity . . . and remorse. She can’t resist the temptation to peek into their private lives, but the choice leaves her feeling guilty. And lemme tell y’all: guilt is a beautiful thing when you’re writing a character.

Fuller does SO. MANY. THINGS. right with this novel — the prose is evocative and atmospheric, the very definition of “painting a picture with words.” For example:

“I went into the corridor and looked both ways but there was no one there. I called for them again but heard nothing. The shadow at my back returned, grey air pressing up against me, and I spun around to catch it. Wrongdoing. The word came into my head as if someone had spoken it aloud. “Hello?“ I said, but my voice sounded hollow, and I ran then, along the corridor—the locket around my neck bouncing— out of the staircase door, and up into the daylight.”

And:

“Small grey mounds lay on the floor in various states of decay and I saw they were oranges, and I realized that for years the tree must have been fruiting and dropping them on the stone paving, nature hoping some of them would seed. I flapped my hand in front of my face to keep away the tiny flies and wasps which buzzed around the rotting fruit. There were no orange tree saplings in the orangery; the main tree had been taking all the water and light. But other plants were growing: bindweed snaked across the floor, and the whole of the back wall, which must have been built of brick, once whitewashed and covered with trellis, was pasted with the great hairy trunks of ivy, and almost completely obscured. Many of the iron seats around the sides of the room had rusted away, and there were gaps in the stone pavers where an underfloor heating system must have once supplied warmth.”

And sure, the writing is gorgeous; but what about the meat of the story? That’s what you want to know about, right? Is the plot strong?

In a word:

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I discussed this novel in depth with my bookstagram buddy, @cassinthewilds, and we couldn’t stop swooning over Fuller’s absolutely thrilling current of suspense that slowly builds from the start. I may or may not have referred to Fuller as the Queen of Modern Horror at one point. And it’s a silent horror; that’s the beauty of it. I’m not keen on graphic violence, shock-factor, or gore — I think it takes a great deal more skill to quietly horrify readers — and Bitter Orange does just that. The creep-factor sneaks up on you slowly, until you find yourself asking Why am I reading this at 11:47 pm on a Saturday night when I’m home alone?

Another strength lies in Fuller’s characterization of the two leading females, Cara and Frances. Both display complex, deeply-rooted psychological . . . disturbances? . . . which are a direct result of their relationships with their mothers. In turn, their relationships with other humans are also tainted by these past experiences — Franny’s inability to live without her mother has rendered her incapable of self confidence and independence. I’ll leave Cara to you for analysis, dear readers, but just know this — the parallels between the two women are utterly fascinating.

I thought I knew how the book would end. I was certain there’d be a murder, and I was equally sure I knew “whodunnit” — alas, I was absolutely incorrect in my musings. The resolution left me a bit breathless, and to be honest, I’m already looking forward to rereading the novel to follow the trail of breadcrumbs again (this time with the conclusion in mind). I will warn you, though: once you start thinking about the narrative, and the characters, and the concept of truth — you’re going to have a few questions to consider at the end of this book.

Overall: 5 stars. Do not wait to read this book. Pre-order it today. I get nothing if you do, but you’ll get a freaking amazing thrill and I’ll have more friends to talk about this new obsession of mine with.

Also: for fans of Shirley Jackson, “A Rose for Emily,” and Shutter Island. 

Review: Sweet Little Lies

One of August’s Book of the Month picks is a novel that I had the good fortune to receive an early copy of from my friends over at Harper — Sweet Little Lies by English author Caz Frear. If you’re on the fence about what to pick, take it from me: your credit won’t be wasted on this debut procedural.

Sweet Little Lies is one of those books that just vibes noir in every single way. A detective in London is part of a task force met with the grisly murder of an unidentified but seemingly upper-class woman whose body is dumped in the street — and they know that’s not where she was killed. Detective Cat Kinsella is eager to prove she has the stomach for the job after a previous case ended with mandatory time off and visits to the unit shrink. In an effort to prove herself useful, DI Kinsella is suddenly drawn into a much darker rabbit hole than anyone could have expected. Suddenly, her bleak upbringing is brought to the forefront and Cat is forced to hide some unsavory truths from members of both her work and personal lives. (Although, as far as that goes, she’s been withholding on both fronts for years.)

Although the book isn’t void of cliches — the main character becomes an investigator due to some past trauma and a need to right these wrongs from her childhood — characters are tightly drawn and the added element of family drama ups the juice-factor. Cat feels like the kind of person I’d be drawn to in real life: she’s down-to-earth, just the right blend of friendly and sarcastic, and her relationship with her boss — Parnell — is a perfect complement to Cat’s own disastrous personal relationships. She’s also the kind of character readers will empathize with — I think it must have something to do with her utterly normal vibes? — which makes the book that much more enjoyable.

Pacing is just right, motive is logical, and the twist(s): timed perfectly. Though I knew that such-and-such wasn’t likely to occur, I was definitely not expecting the outcome of Sweet Little Lies — and I wasn’t irked to find some “WTF-that-ending” surprise waiting for me from the depths of left field.

Frear manages to write a compelling novel that binds together my favorite mystery elements — dark, dark, dark! — without succumbing to trendy pressure to “blow readers away” with some ridiculous twist (or seven). A perfectly cracking debut novel, Sweet Little Lies read like the start of a lengthy and lucrative career to me.

Overall: 4 stars. Sweet Little Lies is chock full of assumptions, secrets, and childhood memories gone awry. If you’re into Law & Order: SVU and fancy yourself the next Liv Benson, give this debut a peek.

Side note: If you’re interested in reading Sweet Little Lies and want to give Book of the Month a shot, you can sign up using this link — we’ll both get a free book! And who doesn’t love that?!