Review: Suicide Club

Imagine a world in which people have achieved near-immortality: It’s possible to live for four-hundred years. Skin is replaced with a tougher, more luminous counterpart that renders pimples a thing of the past and leaves people literally glowing. Organs are seamlessly replaced as needed, stress is discouraged by government mandates, and the science of healthful eating has been unlocked and dispersed for all.

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Such is the world of debut author Rachel Heng’s Suicide Club, a novel in which members are fixated on both life and death — as if it’s possible to focus on one without the other. Lea Kirino is a member of the elite “lifer” society: she enjoys the benefits of a well-paying career, such as a separate living facility with its own bathroom and views of the city; she lives a virtually stress-free existence; she’s engaged to one of the nation’s wealthiest and most well-established bachelors; and she’s got a nearly-flawless life record, with few tarnishes such as dangerous risk-taking behavior, burger-imbibing, and no limb replacements to date. That is, until she steps into oncoming traffic on her 100th birthday.

In a world where life — and the strife for immortality — is sanctimonious, Lea’s actions (I’ll let you read about her reasons) are cause for immediate observation by government-ordered officials, at work and in public and possibly even within the walls of her own home. It’s illegal to take a life, or to show anything less than zeal for living, and Lea’s little “accident” has put her hopes for the Third Wave (read: the Immortality generation) at odds.

Lea soon becomes acquainted with the “Suicide Club,” a group of high-society Lifers who by all outward appearances, seem to be living with adequate demonstrations of joy. However, it becomes clear these privileged individuals seek more than mere immortality, and Lea is forced to broaden her perspective on what it means to truly be life-loving.

***

I was utterly mesmerized by the world-building Heng accomplishes in her debut novel — honestly, I haven’t been quite so sucked into a fiction-verse like this in many, many years. It sounds cheesy, but I was honestly reminded of my middle- and high-school years when I read a great deal of fantasy and sci-fi, and I found myself quickly steeped in the world that I was reading about.

The book struck me as an interesting portrayal of societal grooming. Characters are taught that living as long as possible is the most worthwhile achievement a person can make. They’re obsessed with prolonging their lives, so much so that relationships — and anything else that is considered cortisol-producing — are minimized and abbreviated. In some ways, the observations in the book felt a bit like a sardonic glance at society’s current fads: characters get their nutrition from a drink, not unlike the juicing and Advocare fanatics who swear by the supreme nutrition of liquefied meals. Characters are zealous about their appearance, fretting over any visible wrinkles or laugh lines, and it is a mark of the truly elite that they are able to receive “treatments” that eliminate signs of aging. Again, I was reminded of our cultural fear of aging, and especially the efforts undertaken to retain youthful features (here’s looking at you, Kardashian troupe).

So, is it possible to enjoy such a novel — one in which characters are ultimately superficial and human relationships are dictated by social class and the placability of such pairings? In a word: YES. I found so much to love in the flawed characters and ideologies of Heng’s futuristic world. This book moved me in deep ways, forcing me to reflect on the darker realities of death as an endpoint — or a destination — of living.

While some bigger questions went unanswered — chiefly, who/what determines the “number” people are assigned at birth? Is it random? Why? — I wasn’t significantly distracted by these flaws in the plot. If you’re a highly cynical reader, though, you may find more to criticize in that respect.

Overall: 4/5 stars. A thoroughly enjoyable read about living and dying; one that I see myself recommending often!

The Neighbor (Part 1)

A woman sits on the edge of her cracked-cement porch. It is evening, after eight, and the sky has grown dim as the promise of day fades into muted blues. There is nothing in her hands; usually, she grips her cell phone like a life raft to the world Beyond. Tonight, her hands are clasped loosely, elbows propped on ample thighs, eyes boring into the nothingness that looms on the horizon. Two houses down, a child shrieks with ecstasy — his father is teasing him on the front lawn, his mother looking onward with approval; a Proctor & Gamble advertisement in the flesh.

The woman doesn’t bat an eye at the startling squeals. She doesn’t budge an inch, either, when a mower roars to life across the street. She is impervious to sound; maybe to life.

The garage door at her house gapes in a nighttime yawn: the man has not returned. He’s a phantom: we rarely see him, and when we do, it is as though he only exists when the man looks you straight in the eye. At all other times, he is a silent wisp, ethereally gliding about in the background. We don’t know the man at all.

We watch the woman, sometimes. Usually at night, when she’s put the children to bed. When it’s temperate, she moseys out to the porch to stare blankly at whatever fantasy smothers the reality before her. When it’s not, she idles in the front room, every light glaring at full force in the house, even the ones in the basement. We watch her absently grasp the remote, but her face remains unembellished by the glow of the television. She picks up a few items from the floor — probably stray children’s socks and colorful wooden blocks and discarded Cheerios — only to move the things elsewhere in the front room.

Most of us draw the shades in the evening, in search for a bit of privacy; but not the woman.

She leaves them gaping into the night, lets the dark seep into the house in its familiar prowl, until the lights from her house gleam brightest on the block.

***

At dusk, the garage door is still agape. We rub crust from the corners of our eyes, dash our coffee with possibly-sour milk from the back corner of the fridge, and grumble about our Monday agendas. Perhaps the Sandman dosed us extra heavy last night, or perhaps we’ve become immune to caffeine; either way, none of us notice the heavy boards nailed to the insides of the window frames.

It’s gone ten o’clock when the whispering begins. It starts with a text:

Did you see the Garbler place this a.m.?

And then the flood begins; a practically community-wide group chat devoted to unearthing the truth.

No — but I heard the house is all boarded up! WTF?

It’s from THE INSIDE. I just know that woman is holding her kids hostage…

LOL right?! She’s always been a bit unhinged.

I always thought she seemed nice…a little sad, maybe, but not violent.

That’s what’cha get for thinkin’, June.

GUYS. Back to the issue at hand: who’s gonna knock on her door and find out what’s going on?

The silence is characteristic of small towns: we want to know our neighbors’ business, but we damn sure don’t want to know it from their mouths. Most certainly not when that business involves five-inch nails and two-by-fours. Especially not when it involves the woman.

There are several minutes of silence, several dot-dot-dots hovering in the group message, several collective moments of held breath and nervous chuckles — How could they seriously expect me to knock on her door? I don’t even know the woman! — before the ping comes through.

***

She knows they’re whispering this morning. She can sense their fear, can feel its vibration on the air that is curling up from the gap beneath the back door. People are always suspicious of unknown women.

The boards are an ominous addition to her living room; they’re a pale fir, which shouldn’t seem looming, but the absence of light makes the woman shudder. She can hear nothing beyond the walls of her house; truthfully, nothing more than ten inches from where she sits. The boards have blanketed all sound.

It’s only a matter of time, she reminds herself. Only a matter of time before someone comes knocking.

Outside, the sun continues its ascent.

Review: What We Were Promised

Last week, a highly-anticipated novel made its debut: What We Were Promised, by Lucy Tan. Little, Brown sent me a copy in exchange for an honest review — thanks, publisher friends! — and I decided to dive right in almost immediately after I opened the package.

What We Were Promised is a family saga, of sorts, and chock-full of d-r-a-m-a. Tan crafts a story around the Zhen family: Wei and Lina grew up in China before moving to America to pursue lofty dreams of higher education and corporate success. After twenty-some years, the couple has returned to their motherland, a couple decades older and joined this time by their teenage daughter, Karen. During their years abroad, they accrued wealth and success, and Wei was offered the opportunity to oversee his budding company’s newly-opened Shanghai-branch. They move into an elite hotel community at Lanson Suites, where their laundry, cooking, and cleaning are all accomplished by staff members and Lina doesn’t have to lift a finger to do more than shop for extravagant clothes and accessories. Karen spends most of the year in America at an elite boarding school, but summers with her parents in a land that is completely foreign to her.

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The family lives together, but each person seems to occupy a separate sphere of existence, interacting superficially at mealtimes (when Wei makes it home in time) and during rare moments of collective free time. At first glance, I chalked the characters up as superficial; but after deeper reflections on Wei and Lina’s complicated early relationship, I began to see the characters as complex — albeit often shallow — and savored the unwinding of their histories and present lives.

Woven into the narrative of the Zhen family’s daily life, in poignant juxtaposition, is the telling of Sunny’s experiences as first the family’s maid, and later, their ayi (nanny). Sunny is an anomaly: she’s in her late twenties/early thirties (her age is a bit ambiguous) and although she was married once before, she lives a simple, work-driven life as a single woman — childless, no less — in a society that seems to value women more when they are homemakers and wives and mothers. Sunny’s observations bring another dimension to What We Were Promised, offering readers a juicy (and often, maddening) outsider evaluation of the Zhen household.

While this book didn’t quite shake me as much as I expected it to, I did find a great deal to appreciate in Tan’s work. Her themes of cultural displacement + collective identity gave WWWP a dimension I didn’t think I’d find at the onset of the novel. The family dynamic (or quiet dysfunction, if you will), combined with the bitter taste of rotting dreams, created an atmosphere of regret and desire that made this book a compelling read.

Overall: 4 stars. Read this one if you’re a fan of family dramas and stories that span cultures. What We Were Promised is in the vein of The Leavers (think longing to belong and unfulfilling life choices), Winter Garden (think tension, unresolved pasts, and sibling rivalry/competition/contempt), and

Review: Before and Again

It isn’t hard to surmise a mother’s worst fear; I’m sure it’s the same the whole world over — losing a child. How does a person survive such a tragedy? With my own child nearly thirteen months old and, in truth, the center of my universe, I refuse to entertain the idea that he might someday leave this world before me. I’d imagine it’s akin to losing a limb, or one’s own sense of identity; children being so much a part of a mother’s makeup.

In Barbara Delinsky’s latest release, Before and Again (out via St. Martin’s Press, June 26), Delinsky touches on just that concept: motherhood after loss.

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Thirty-eight-year-old Maggie Reid once had everything: a successful career as a sculpture artist, a handsome and equally-successful husband, a curious and sweet daughter, and a life of luxury in her Boston community. She once had a different name, too — Mackenzie Cooper. But that was all before — before the accident that took her daughter’s life, before the Mackenzie Cooper law limiting the use of technological devices in vehicles, before the court case and divorce and fallout with her family.

It’s safe to say that Maggie Reid needed Devon, the idyllic Vermont town in which she has redrawn her life as a makeup artist at the well-known Spa and Inn. She’s changed her look (to ward off unwanted recognition after all that unsavory press time) and given up on her former clay sculptures, finding artistic release in the application of blush and liner. She’s remained single for the past five years, kept her head down as her years of probation wound down, and made a handful of “close” friends (only one of whom knows her true identity). Maggie allowed herself to make Devon her home, so it’s a complete shock to her system when one day, everything simply goes amuck.

When Maggie’s friend’s son, Chris, is charged with a felony crime and the feds show up in town, she finds herself in a predicament: how can she remain a good friend to Grace without violating the rules of her probation? Before Maggie gets the chance to resolve this problem, a guest from the past shows up, and her life — her Devon life — is instantly complicated threefold.

Before and Again, as with The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo and The Ones We Choose, is reaffirming my decision to sprinkle a bit more chick lit in with my regular reading. These titles go beyond romance and tackle more true-to-life issues that face women (and in some cases, men) in our modern world, and for that, I appreciated Before and Again. The book reaches beyond love and marriage and sexy scenes to draw in audiences with thought-provoking what ifs about loss and estrangement and self identity. These themes are what makes Delinsky’s newest release a gem.

Although the novel starts a bit slowly, things pick up about seventy pages in and move right along. At the onset, I did feel that the book could have benefited from some editing — there is a lot of detail, much of which I felt could have been trimmed significantly (and that’s saying something, coming from this Steinbeck-worshipper). I was quick to forgive Delinsky this indulgence, though, as the plot fleshed out and characters came to life.

My biggest complaint with the book: the convenient and contrived outcomes of many scenarios. (In truth, this may be why I am less apt to reach for women’s fiction, generally speaking. I think that many of the books that fall into this category tend to wrap up with warm fuzzies, and I’m just not generally one for convenient and/or happy endings.) More than once, I caught myself thinking that things did not fall into place that conveniently in real life, and that was a bit off-putting for me. Once I settled in and stopped trying to make the book a critical based-on-real-life publication, though, the storyline was enjoyable and I couldn’t put the book down.

Overall: 3.5-4 stars. I don’t live within a few hundred miles of a beach, but if I did, you’d better believe I’d have finished this on the sand with a fruity drink within reach.

Renee’s Summer Reads: The Big List

It’s not quite June, and I’m already certain this one’s going to be a hellacious summer. We’ve had several consecutive days of 90+ degree temps and Friday is forecasted to hit 104 — for the love — so I’m writing off spring altogether. Nice effort, sister. Better luck next year. (But really. Please. Next year.) I’ll be real honest with you all: I’m probably going to avoid the outdoors as much as possible, until this heat wave decides to back off a bit.

I’m heading back to teaching in the fall (half-time, to tell the truth, but still) and I’m already scrabbling to read as much as is humanly possible before August 20th rolls around. In honor of the literature feeding-frenzy that is, truthfully, already under way, here’s a list of books I’m looking forward to reading this summer! (Also: it’s highly likely I won’t finish this pile. Also also: it’s also very probable I will add some other titles as the weeks pass. I’m a fickle girl, I know.)

  1. Something Wonderful by Todd S. Purdum. Nonfiction. Henry Holt Books sent me a FINISHED HARDCOVER COPY of this bad boy and let me tell ya — I am stoked to pick it up after I finish my current read. Per the dust jacket blurb: A relevatory portrait of the creative partnership that transformed musical theater and provided the soundtrack to the American Century. Yep, you guessed it: this is a biographical portrait of Rodgers and Hammerstein, the musical gods who essentially provided the soundtrack for my childhood. I can’t wait to read and share with my sister, who’s an actress; but I might be most invested in the memories I’m sure this book will bring to the surface, regarding lazy summer days spent in my late grandmother’s living room watching The King & I and Oklahoma! and my all-time favorite, The Sound of Music.
  2. Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool. Fiction. My mom’s been hounding me to read this work — by none other than a Wichita, Kansas author! — for no fewer than five years. She finally pressed a copy of it into my hands last time I was home, and here we are! It’s set in fictional small-town Kansas and follows Abilene Tucker, a young girl whose father sent her away for the summer so that he could work a demanding job. Abilene feels abandoned, so she hops off the train in Manifest, Kansas in search of clues about her father’s past. I’m such a sucker for coming-of-age novels (for real — probably my favorite genre) and I know this one won’t disappoint.
  3. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. Fiction. I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve made it to 28 — and through a BA in English — without having read this American classic. It’s touted as a “poignant and deeply understanding story of childhood and family relationships,” and centers on a young woman’s coming-of-age experience (what’d I tell you about those stories?!) in the poverty of early-20th Century Brooklyn.
  4. The Small Backs of Children by Lidia Yuknavitch. Fiction. From the back cover: “In a war-torn village in Eastern Europe, an American photographer captures a heart-stopping image: a young girl flying toward the lens, fleeing a fiery explosion that has engulfed her home and family. The image, instantly iconic, garners acclaim and prizes — and, in the United States, becomes a subject of obsession for one writer, the photographer’s best friend, who has suffered a devastating tragedy of her own. In a bid to save the writer from a spiraling depression, her filmmaker husband enlists a group of friends . . . to rescue the unknown girl and bring her to the United States.” This book comes with so much praise — I’m confident it’s going to be a great pick.
  5. Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge by Erica Armstrong Dunbar. Nonfiction. I was alerted to this recent release via a Facebook post by Simon & Schuster, regarding works about fierce women. This promising work follows the escape of Ona Judge, Martha Washington’s chief attendant, and her attempt to escape the ownership of her white masters (who were dodging the law at every twist and turn in every attempt to recapture their “property”). I really, really love a good work of historical nonfiction — especially when it’s related to a subject I know little (or nothing) about.
  6. Suicide Club by Rachel Heng. Fiction. This work by debut author Rachel Heng was kindly gifted to me by Henry Holt Books and releases in July. It’s a futuristic work, set in NYC — where people live hundreds of years and are obsessed with achieving immortality. The main character, Lea, is one such person — until an unexpected twist of fate draws her into the inner circle of “Suicide Club,” a group that seeks to live outside society’s norms (aka, the pursuit of eternal life) and achieve death on their own terms. What more do you need to know, guys? I’m fascinated.
  7. Not Her Daughter by Rea Frey. Fiction. I won this August 2018 release in a Goodreads giveaway. The story focuses on two women and a child: an unfit, unhappy mother; a successful, lonely woman who commits a crime to rescue a child that reminds her of herself; and a little girl, whose world is filled with silence and solitude.
  8. A Hope More Powerful than the Sea by Melissa Fleming. Nonfiction. In truth, I was looking for Decca Aitkinhead’s All at Sea when this work caught my eye at Barnes & Noble. Its cover features vivid blue painted waves and the blurb describes this novel as an account of “Doaa, a Syrian girl whose life was upended in 2011 by the onset of her country’s brutal civil war. . . . Adrift in a frigid sea, no land in sight, just debris from the ship’s wreckage and floating corpses all around, nineteen-year-old Doaa Al Zamel stays afloat on a small inflatable ring and clutches two little girls — barely toddlers — to her body.” This immigrant narrative looks to be utterly compelling and heartwrenching.
  9. Whistle in the Dark by Emma Healey. Fiction. Henry Holt Books sent me this July release to review, and I’m really glad for that, because it sounds absolutely fabulous. The story starts with a couple who is traumatized but relieved to have their fifteen-year-old daughter returned to them after she went missing for several days. However, she’s gone mute and the court of public opinion is swirling with theories. In an effort to save her family, the girl’s mother, Jen, sets off on a journey to discover the truth of the events that led to her daughter’s disappearance — and the darkness that she may have encountered while she was gone. I haven’t read Healey’s first book — Elizabeth is Missing — but it’s a critically-acclaimed work and award winner, and that’s usually a strong indication for author potential.

What’s at the top of your summer TBR pile? Drop a comment below and let me know! 🙂 Happy reading, bookworms.

The Mother

Brown strands of hair clung to the corners of her mouth before the wind blew them free, whipping her choppy locks into tangles that could pass for bedhead (if the person scrutinizing her hair had just crawled out of bed, and had yet to put in their contacts, she thought). The woman sighed. There is no such thing as “wind-tousled” hair when one lives on the plains of the Midwest; rather, there are fifty-mile-per-hour wind gusts that render combs useless and tease manes into something resembling the wildling ‘do of Disney Tarzan.

Why bother? She tucked a few errant strands back behind her left ear — not for the first or last time, to be sure — and pushed the screen door open. As the woman surveyed the horizon for the first time this evening, she kept a firm grip on the door. It had been opened against the unrelenting wind, but in Kansas, one could never be too careful. At any given moment, the breeze would shift its course, pulling the door from her grasp and slamming it back against the siding — bending the inadequately spring-loaded door closer and forever rendering it somewhat-less-useful.

The sky was bleached a milky white, as odd a color she’d ever seen it. There was no hint of blue, nor sign of the sinking sun (it was, after all, nearly eight) — only the faintest trace of umber mingled in with the white. Tomorrow, the forecast showed yet another wind advisory; it was likely the dust particles that were whipped into a froth today wouldn’t even settle overnight, and tomorrow’s sunrise would be obscured behind a haze of filth. It was impossible to accomplish anything significant with the wind battering you at every turn; even breathing seemed inadvisable on days like this.

The woman’s shoulders slumped as the screen door banged shut behind her. The house loomed behind her, its ghastly shingled siding an eyesore against what would otherwise be a relatively unblemished (albeit dry and sparse) horizon. From within the walls, she could just barely hear the whimpering cries — her son’s Bedtime Blues, as she’d mentally dubbed them. Every night, without fail: the crying. She wondered if he would ever outgrow it. Surely, the woman thought, surely someday he would fall asleep without the wounded cries of a child whose mother refused to rock him to sleep every night. Surely.

I could just go, she whispered to no one, not even herself (who’d know she was lying). She took a step, toes crunching blades of grass long-dead. The cries were fainter — was the baby still crying, or was this her imagination at work? Often, she didn’t know; especially in bed at night, when the pitch black seemed to play tricks on her ears. How was that possible? It was as though the darkness blanketed sounds, muffled everything except the whirring of her thoughts. Definitely fainter. Probably her imagination.

The woman took another step, and then fifteen more, stopping only at the cool bite of the barbed-wire fence. Now she could hear nothing of her life inside the barracks house, only the trilling of some bird that didn’t know it was bedtime and the distant thrum of tires on the highway.

She turned to her right, holding the top wire of the fence loosely in her fist — sometimes, the wire grazed the inside of her palm, other times it was as though she were grasping air — and closed her eyes. Methodically, probing the ground for holes and pinecones with her tentative steps, the woman made her way to the end of the line. Now the white of the sky had given way to a murky blue-brown, and a hazy blob of orange lingered where sky met earth. The woman definitely could not hear crying, not the child’s or her own. There was only the sound of daylight dying in the arms of Night. And the sound of her pulse, which had grown louder as she walked along the fence, as though the barbs that had torn open her flesh had also unleashed a voice: her heartsong.

Eyes open, she trotted to the car that sat miserably where she’d neglected it the last time she had left the house (six days ago), blanketed in chalky dust and roasting inside — hot air belched into her face when she jerked the handle, it rolled over her like a wave of ocean born in the bowels of an oven.

The baby was still inside. He would be sleeping now, the woman knew. His father would be home in a few hours; before midnight, most likely.

I could just go. There it was again! That lie.

With a grunt, the car came to life at the twist of the key.

He’ll be home in a couple of hours. Maybe even earlier, she reasoned. Sometimes he’s home earlier. The sun was no longer visible at all, the sky now nearly-indigo. The car’s air conditioner had sprung to life immediately, bathing the woman at first in a warm wash of air; but now, her arms were chilled, an odd sensation coupled with the slimy warmth of her thighs against the leather seats. She flicked the lights on, bumped the gearshift into drive. Slowly, slowly, the woman released pressure on the brake, allowing the vehicle to move forward of its own accord. It creeped maddeningly slowly toward the gravel road, but she could not depress the gas pedal. The instinct was there — press down — but somewhere the neurons that transmitted the message from brain to foot were misfiring, or not firing at all, the lazy little bastards.

They rolled onward, the woman and the car, neither in much of a hurry. She wondered if the baby still slept; sometimes, he woke up after an hour or two looking for his mother. They could spend all their waking hours together and he still needed the woman in his sleep, she mused. How magnificent, the needing! — she wasn’t sure that any other creature on the earth required so much from their mothers as infant humans. She knew for certain that calves could be weaned from their mothers within a handful of months, and of course by then, they were already foraging for the greenest shoots of grass and wandering farther from the herd every day. She crawled to a stop several yards before the road, the car idling tiredly at the woman’s indecision.

I could just go, she repeated. I could just go. But — the thought hung in the air before her, and her stomach lurched at the rest of the statement. The woman sighed — it felt like her first breath since she’d exited the house — and shifted the car into reverse. She didn’t quite run the handful of steps up the sidewalk and back to the door, but there was a renewed sense of urgency. Was that the baby, crying, or were her ears playing tricks on her again?

Her palm grasped the smooth metal of the door handle as headlights swept over the yard.

Everyone was home, now.

Review: Jar of Hearts

I’ve received a lot of thrillers and books that fall under the heading “women’s fiction” lately. Some are more original than others — Jar of Hearts by Jennifer Hillier being one of that select group.

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This book isn’t slated to hit shelves until June 12, but I received an early copy after winning a Goodreads giveaway. (Had some pretty great luck with giveaways in January/February and have been in a dry spell ever since. Ha!) I didn’t know much about the novel, only that it promised to be a thriller (um, I’m in) and the title is evocative of Christina Perri’s hit song (yep, definitely in).

Sometimes I have a hard time focusing on books that start in “the thick of it” if I don’t go into the novel with a lot of background information. I get antsy, wondering what the heck is going on; often I have to fight myself to not look up the blurb on Goodreads. (Anyone else have this problem, or am I just a weirdo?) Jar of Hearts starts in this manner: a bit obscurely, and definitely with more than a hint of suspense. I suppressed the urge to Google for more info, though, and I’m so glad I did. This is one of those books that is better if you just go in blind, you know?

But for those of you who want to know a little more, here’s the important stuff:

Georgina “Geo” Shaw is 30 years old and the formidable driving force behind Shipp Pharmaceuticals in Seattle. She’s got it all — a powerhouse fiance, a noteworthy career, Louboutins. What could possibly slow her down?

Readers are thrust into Geo’s past (and present, and past, and present) as the novel opens during a trial in which Geo is a prime witness — and also a player in one of the most heinous crimes committed in the PNW in recent decades. The book makes leaps between Geo’s former and prsent lives to unwrap the neat package that is her hidden history . . . and a series of highly compartmentalized secrets that just won’t stay buried.

I don’t want to give away too much, so I’m going to end the synopsis there — trust me when I tell you this is one book you’ll want to go into blindly. I will, however, highlight a few components of the novel below, for the sake of the review.

The Good: This book is seriously one of the most original thrillers I’ve read in many moons. The plot is unexpected — I guessed very, very little of what would come as the story unraveled — and characters are unconventional. Some tropes are present (the “bad boy” man candy and picked-on-kid-turned-cop), but they worked for this book. Geo’s development is captivating, and I found her a refreshing deviation from the typical female leads that seem to dominate the thriller genre currently.

The Bad: In my humble opinion, Hillier’s editor did her a disservice by not convincing her to cut the epilogue. It’s maddeningly convenient and unnecessary, and I rolled my eyes the whole time. In an otherwise thrilling and enjoyable novel, the epilogue is a sharp reminder that books do not need to end neatly in order to be successful.

Overall: 4 stars. Read this book if you like twists and turns, tv shows like Law and Order: SVU or CSI, and dark (but compelling) narratives.

Review: The Comedown

I grew up in a pretty straight-laced household. We were Catholics, which meant that I felt guilt about, well, anything that might be a sin (stole two dollars from my sister’s piggy bank when we were ten, still feeling that guilt). I made it a personal mission of mine to achieve only the highest marks in school, wouldn’t dream of being sent to the office, and generally avoided anything that resembled trouble (i.e. drugs, alcohol, careless teenage sex). So, you know, a book that is devoted to the saga of two families entwined by a drug deal gone wrong (& decades & decades of drug abuse and general debauchery) sounds like it would be . . . right in the opposite direction of my alley, right?

Wrong.

The Comedown by debut author Rebekah Frumkin features a cast of debased characters who struggle with addiction and generally make some of the shittiest choices known to mankind, meaning that this isn’t a novel I would’ve picked up if the publisher hadn’t sent it to me (& that I initially thought I was probably definitely going to hate it).

love when authors prove me wrong, y’all.

At the start of the book, there are two family trees featuring the major members of the Bloom-Mittwoch and Marshall families. Each family’s troubles can be traced back to the choices of their patriarchs, Leland Bloom-Mittwoch, Sr., and Reggie Marshall — addict and dealer, respectively. Leland is obsessed with Reggie in a way I can only assume that addicts might be with their dealers — he thinks they’re friends, despite Reggie’s obvious disgust for Leland’s depravity. (The irony here is not lost on me.) One night, Leland witnesses a deal that results in a fired weapons, a couple of cold bodies, and a suitcase that is chock-full of greenbacks. The events of that night forever alter the course of their families, and The Comedown is a fascinating portrayal of the decades that follow.

Each chapter of the novel is devoted to the telling of a family member’s (or close acquaintance’s) personal history. Readers aren’t given a full picture — that would take ages to read through, and besides, would be tedious — but rather, are told a bit about the character’s early years before touching on the present (2009). The result is a novel that is largely character-driven and immensely engrossing. Although it may seem like readers never get a full glimpse at each of the family members and/or friends who comprise the story’s unraveling, I would argue that Frumkin has created marvelously distinct characters in limited portions — snapshots, if you will.

Although I can’t say that I loved any of the characters, I was drawn in by their histories. This isn’t a novel to read so that you can find your next favorite character — most had variously unlikeable qualities and habits that are often cringeworthy, if not appalling. But again, Frumkin somehow makes these overwhelmingly lost individuals somehow worthy of readers’ attention and pity — and that is what I love most about this novel. I’m not going to pretend it’s easy to write a character that everyone loves; but it is far more challenging, in my opinion, to craft a character (or a slew, if you will) that has few redeeming qualities and yet still somehow manages to make readers sit up and pay attention.

Mingled in there with the character portraits we’re given, Frumkin weaves together this absolutely improbable storyline that falls a bit more into place with each character narrative. By the end of the novel, readers will not have been given the complicated story’s outcome in a series of first-this-next-that events; rather, readers will arrive at the conclusion in a yo-yoing manner as the tangled lives of the Mittwoch-Blooms and Marshalls are strategically outlined.

The Good: See above. Basically, I loved Frumkin’s careful construction of characters and the more subtle plot development that occurred as a result of their choices. Also — I know I didn’t talk about this much, but this novel’s sense of setting is solid. The book spans several decades, primarily the 70s-2000s. As I wasn’t born until the near-90s, there was much about the earlier decades that I needed to look up (I had heard of Kent State shootings, but the book made me want to know more) . . . but I’m perfectly fine with abusing Google while reading if the subject matter is intriguing. That it was, Frumkin; that it was.

The Bad: You know, I’m reflecting on this book a week after I finished it, and I can’t say that there’s anything in here I hated. At first, I was a bit put-off by the rampant drug use; but as the plot developed, I found myself shaking my head at the characters’ choices before furiously reading on to discover the next individual in the Mittwoch-Bloom/Marshall saga.

Overall: 4.5 stars. If you love a novel with solid characterization and a strong sense of place, this is the read for you!

The Mom Admission Nobody Wants to Make

I’ve been in the heart of baby season for a year now — my own firstborn arrived last June, and the calendar has been peppered with the arrivals of various friends’ own first children since that date. I don’t want to say that Zack and I “started something,” but, it’s possible, right? . . . (I kid, I kid. Pun intended.)

The year has brought an onslaught of firsts and in the early months, I found myself bombarding two of my longtime gal pals (and seasoned moms) with daily texts about poop, nursing, rice cereal, poop, fevers, poop, bath time shenanigans, travel solutions, poop, and more poop. (Side note: there aren’t enough resources in the world about the weird stuff that comes out of babies’ bums.) Time and again, I thought: Damn. I’ve got a great mom tribe. I am so lucky.

Before I knew it, I was the one getting texts from new moms, desperate for advice (despite my clear lack of what one might call “expertise”). I guess, at least, there’s something to be said for having gone through the same experiences just months previously, rather than decades earlier like our own moms. So I tried helping the best I could.

Travel during nap times.

Use Aveeno bath products for sensitive skin.

Try Selsen Blue for cradle cap, if it’s really bad. But be careful! That stuff will burn through their eyeballs like acid.

Make your husband go with you to get your child’s vaccines.

Don’t apologize for not letting everyone and their mother hold your child in the heart of flu season.

And then I got a text, a few weeks ago, that was filled with remorse and pleading and probably a bit of shame: Do you sometimes resent your child?

Oh. Oh. This text made me stop in my tracks for a few moments before I fired back —

YES.

Plus some other stuff, meant to reassure my friend that she isn’t a garbage mom (because she’s not) and that she isn’t a weirdo (because she’s not, at least not in this particular sense) and that she isn’t alone (because, let’s get real — she’s definitely not). This was a question I hadn’t been brave enough to ask my own girlfriends in the frustrating, tiresome early months of my own motherhood; in truth, it wasn’t a realization I could even admit to myself. So I knew the courage it took to ask and I knew it was something I wanted to write about later, at the risk of being mom-bashed on social media by friends who don’tevenhavekids and moms who won’t admit the truth to themselves.

Hi. My name’s Renee, and sometimes I resent my kid.

There. I said it.

I find myself experiencing bitterness when I’m run ragged, firing on a few measly hours of sleep and in a state of self loathing because #mombodprobs (which, of course, never keeps me from eating more chocolate . . . ). The resentment grows when he wakes up every night for weeks to cry inconsolably, even though I know the appropriate emotional response should be only compassion. It doubles when my husband lifts weights in the evenings — just steps out of the shop, gets in his car, drives to the weight room, lifts for a couple hours — while I have to fight guilt to ask my mother-in-law to watch Henry for another hour this week so that I can go for a run or meet the girls for a workout. The resentment deepens when I can’t drive three hours to meet a friend who’s passing through Kansas because Henry hates the car and it wouldn’t be fair to drag him all that way and I can’t ask Cindy to watch him again this week. It grows exponentially when we travel to my parents’ house and he screams three of the four hours in the car. It sneaks up on me when we’re with family for the holidays, and everyone wants to go to a movie or out to eat or stay up till 3 playing games and I’ve got to wreck their plans — I’m staying in with Henry — or go to bed at ten, because he’ll be up at midnight, anyway.

I don’t remember the first time I was hit with a wave of nauseating resentment toward Henry, but I know I haven’t experienced the last — and I’m forgiving myself for each of those times and the moments to come, without hesitation. Here’s why:

  • Momming is friggin’ hard work. It’s often thankless, and the constant state of being needed but not appreciated can wear away at a girl.
  • It doesn’t mean I don’t want my kid. I just don’t want him to cry all night, dammit.
  • I’m human, too. I’m selfish, even when I don’t want to be. I can try to repress the feelings as much as I want, but being a mom is a transition and it’s ridiculous to expect my own selfish desires about how I want to spend my time to just fade or disappear — poof! — overnight.
  • The resentment always, always melts away. Usually just as quickly as it’s come.

And here’s the big one: for every moment of bittnerness or childish resentment I feel toward my little guy, there are a thousand moments of boundless adoration, overwhelming love, and sheer joy.

It’s a challenge, admitting this sort of truth to yourself; especially when you tried for so long to become pregnant or when you acknowledge that these feelings are directed toward a helpless, ten-pound squish. These rare moments of bitterness overwhelm me with shame. They make me feel lesser, even though I know I am a good mama. They make me feel embarrassed and unnatural and cruel — and human.

In the past year, I’ve grown to appreciate just how much struggle, devotion, and sacrifice it takes to be a good mother. I’ve seen old friends with new eyes, regretted my years of teenage jackass-ery (sorry, Ma & Dad), and generally come to accept that motherhood demands nothing short of superhero status on a daily basis.

I’ve watched Batman, though, and I know that sometimes, even the best heroes have moments of darkly humiliating weakness.

It’s what makes them human.

March on the Plains

There’s not a green shoot of grass in sight, other than — somehow, miraculously — the tufts of wheat crawling up from the powdery dust that passes for soil in the field across from our house. The earth hasn’t seen rain in seven months and it shows: trees are shriveled, their bark wrinkled and cracked like the flesh of a centuries-old tortoise; last year’s grass looks more like last decade’s grass; even the slightest cough from the sky sends chalky particles upward in a dizzying pirouette to the sky.

Today, yesterday, tomorrow (most likely) — the wind batters from the south. And the west. And sometimes, the north. It shrieks and moans as it whips around the walls of our abode, which emit their own protestations at the unrelenting battering ram. Together, the wind and the walls squeal out a song of misery, day and night.

The floor lamp flickers again and again, its light a wavering attempt at courage in the wind-storm that rages outside. Its brilliance ebbs and flows, mimicking my inner dialogue — I will not last another day in this desert wasteland. Oh, but you must! Mmph…

Another gust blasts against the door, followed by another and another and another. I imagine our house a dinghy tossed about on the ocean — oh, to be surrounded by water! — it creeps beneath the door, the wind: an unadmitted visitor paying no heed to social niceties, barging in coldly to wrap its wispy fingers around my ankles.

The chill rises, a tingling slowness as though I have been lowered into a pool of water feet-first. Whispers of the furious gales outside crawl deliberately upward, snaking ever closer toward the destination. I am certain — the wind is alive, burning with the icy fire of the soulless wicked.

Hand on the brass knob, I repress a shudder and twist. For an instant, respite: silence descends, dirt hangs motionless on the horizon, tumbleweeds relax their grip on the barbed fence.

In another instant, the door is wrenched from my grasp and Chaos resumes its descent, drawing me into the fray.