Tag: Dislikable Characters

A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne: Darker Than The Heart’s Invisible Furies, But Still 5 Stars!

November 15, 2018 Fiction 4

A Ladder to the SkyFiction – Literary
Release Date: November 13, 2018
384 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher: (Hogarth Books)

This post contains affiliate links (plus: here’s your Amazon Smile-specific affiliate link), through which I make a small commission when you make a purchase (at no cost to you!).

Headline

I’m two for two on 5 star books by John Boyne…though, A Ladder to the Sky is much darker and not necessarily for the exact same type of reader as The Heart’s Invisible Furies.

Plot Summary

Maurice Swift is single-mindedly focused on becoming a world famous author (despite having trouble coming up with story ideas) and will use anything and anyone to get there.

Why I Read It

Because The Heart’s Invisible Furies (my review), obviously!

Major Themes

Ambition, literary world, using people, relationships, writing process

What I Liked

  • Y’all know I loved Boyne’s 2017 novel, The Heart’s Invisible Furies, so A Ladder to the Sky had huge shoes to fill! While it didn’t fill that exact pair of shoes, it did fill a pair of equal size, just in a different style.
  • It’s much darker (I don’t mean sadder…I mean more messed up) than The Heart’s Invisible Furies. For that reason, I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone who loved The Heart’s Invisible Furies, but Boyne’s writing style is absolutely there and I 5 star-loved it.
  • Maurice is an operator / manipulator to a degree I don’t think I’ve seen all that much in fiction. He’s much like many of Herman Koch’s characters in that he’ll say incredibly unsettling things that most regular people may not even think, much less say aloud. He’s not the least bit likable (readers who want to see likable characters in your reading, this is your warning!), but he sure is disturbingly fascinating.
  • A Ladder to the Sky, particularly its structure, unfolds brilliantly. Each section is told from the perspective of someone Maurice impacted on his quest for literary dominance…including the real life literary legend, Gore Vidal. These sections feel a bit like extremely interconnected novellas. I loved it more and more with each new section.
  • The story begins in the 1980’s and moves forward, but a large chunk of the opening section is told through flashbacks to World War II in Germany. Parts of the book felt like historical fiction and parts felt very contemporary. Y’all know I have a finicky relationship with Historical Fiction, but I loved this mash-up of the historical and contemporary.
  • I loved the look into the dark side of publishing and the literary world. I’m hoping Boyne’s portrayal is a bit exaggerated, but it made for delicious reading. I can’t help but wonder how much of this stuff actually goes on in real life.
  • This one could’ve gone on my list of 16 Character-Driven Novels I Couldn’t Put Down and my list of 12 Memorable Villains of Fiction if I’d read it in time!
  • This would be an excellent book club selection!

What I Didn’t Like

  • This isn’t truly a criticism…more of a nit-picky observation about A Ladder to the Sky compared to The Heart’s Invisible Furies. But, one of the things I loved most about The Heart’s Invisible Furies is that it made me feel a  wide range of emotions (joy, sadness, delight, amusement, etc.). A Ladder to the Sky is not that kind of book…it’s more like watching a series of massive betrayals one after the other. You know it’s coming, the surprise is in what form it will take. The prevailing emotion throughout the whole thing is horrified incredulity.

A Defining Quote

“And you’ve heard the old proverb about ambition, haven’t you?”
He shook his head.
“That it’s like setting a ladder to the sky. A pointless waste of energy. […]”

Good for People Who Like…

Dark stories, dislikable characters, a memorable villain, stories set in the literary world

Other Books You May Like

Another book starring authors that features dislikable characters:
Dear Mr. M by Herman Koch (my review)

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4 More Books Perfect for Summer: Calypso, The Banker’s Wife, The Book of Essie, The Favorite Sister

July 19, 2018 Mini Book Reviews 23

More Books Perfect for Summer Reading

 

I posted my 2018 Summer Reading Guide back in May and I told you I’d be adding more books to that list throughout the summer because I tend to find more books perfect for summer as the summer goes on! This is the last crop of books I’ll be adding…and they’re some good ones! After today, The Book of Essie will take over the top slot in the “Something Fun” category from Woman Last Seen in Her Thirties!

Coincidentally (or maybe not so coincidentally since I do love the behind-the-scenes of reality TV), two books on this list are set on reality TV shows and do a great job of portraying what goes on behind the scenes of those types of shows. And, two of these are Book of the Month picks!

4 More Books Perfect for Summer

CalypsoCalypso by David Sedaris
Nonfiction – Memoir/Essays (Released May 29, 2018)
288 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Book of the Month (Publisher: Little, Brown)

Plot Summary: Sedaris’ latest essay collection focusing on middle age.

My Thoughts: David Sedaris is generally known for his dark humor and his ability to make readers sob and laugh hysterically on the same page. Personally, I didn’t cry or laugh hysterically while reading Calypso, but I did chuckle and get sad and appreciate the crap out of his dark humor. I love how Sedaris says things that most people probably think, but are too scared to say out loud. He’s not worried about offending anyone and talks frankly about his own family. In this collection, Sedaris talks a lot about his sister’s downward spiral and eventual suicide and his father’s aging process and how seeing him age impacts his complicated relationship with him. But, it’s not all serious. He also talks about the outrageous and hilarious…like wanting to feed a tumor he had removed to a special turtle at his beach house. I read one essay a night before bed and was always tempted to keep going for one more essay. And, though I read this one in print, Sedaris is fabulous on audio!

My father has done this all his life. You’ll be talking to him and he’ll walk away – not angry but just sort of finished with you. I was probably six years old the first time I noticed this. You’d think I’d have found it hurtful, but instead I looked at his retreating back, thinking, We can get away with that? Yippee!

Banker's Wife The Banker’s Wife by Cristina Alger
Fiction – Thriller (Released July 3, 2018)
352 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (G.P. Putnam)

Plot Summary: When a private plane carrying a Swiss banker and his wealthy client goes off the radar, his wife is left to piece together the shady dealings Swiss United Bank was involved in.

My Thoughts: I needed a fast, easy read after a heavier book and The Banker’s Wife hit the spot! Despite it’s unfortunately domestic sounding title (really…can publishers try for at least one thriller without “Wife” or “Girl” in the title?!!), it’s more of a conspiracy / financial thriller. It’s purely plot driven (so much so that I forgot to highlight passages to share in this post!) and will keep you turning the pages. There are characters who resemble real life people enough to make you wonder, which I always love to see in my reading (see if you can spot Donald Trump, the Fanjul Family, and the late crime/society journalist Dominick Dunne)! If you’re a sucker for a good conspiracy theory involving powerful people, The Banker’s Wife should be right up your alley!

Book of EssieThe Book of Essie by Meghan MacLean Weir
Fiction – Brain Candy (Released June 12, 2018)
336 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Book of the Month (Publisher: Knopf)

Plot Summary: When the youngest daughter (Essie) of a evangelical reality TV family becomes pregnant and realizes her mother is working with their show’s producers to come up with the best way to spin it for the show, she decides to take matters into her own hands.

My Thoughts: The Book of Essie is the type of brain candy I love…a story about weighty topics that reads quickly and easily. The first line will grab you immediately and I was dying to find out how all this was going to turn out. Essie has had enough of the tight leash her family has her on and the glaring media spotlight, so she hatches a plan that involves a male classmate (Roarke) and a reporter with past ties to a religious cult (Liberty). Essie is sneakily subversive and I loved her…she’s someone you can root for. A lot of bad stuff went on with this family, but the story is ultimately hopeful. And though I did have to suspend disbelief at some of Roarke’s decisions, I just went with the story and it was a 100% satisfying vacation read. Bonus: you get an interesting behind-the-scenes look at reality TV and image management in the media spotlight.

First Line:

On the day I turn seventeen, there is a meeting to decide whether I should have the baby or if sneaking me to a clinic for an abortion is worth the PR risk. I am not invited, which is just as well, since my being there might imply that I have some choice in the matter and I know that I have none.

Favorite SisterThe Favorite Sister by Jessica Knoll
Fiction – Brain Candy (Released May 15, 2018)
384 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased (Publisher: Simon & Schuster)

Plot Summary: A shocking death occurs during the filming of a Real Housewives-esque reality TV show.

My Thoughts: I DNF’d Knoll’s first novel, Luckiest Girl Alive, but decided to give The Favorite Sister a chance once I heard it was about reality TV. I’m glad I did because it was just the type of brain candy I love: smart, a bit different, and containing an ending that’s surprising, yet makes sense with the story looking back on it. I’ve always been intrigued by how the sausage gets made in reality TV and The Favorite Sister doesn’t disappoint in that department. In addition to the reality TV scoop, you also get a big dose of passive-aggressive sister dynamics, feminism, and motherhood (although she does occasionally get a bit heavy-handed with all the issues). If you read Reality Steve’s blog, liked Bachelor Nation by Amy Kaufman (my review), or love the TV show Unreal, The Favorite Sister is for you! Warning: if dislikable characters ruin books for you, steer clear of this one!

We don’t need to draw knives and weapons. The most effective way to destroy someone on the show is to disengage, to deprive her of the drama, of the meaningful connections, of the great and powerful storyline. In our world, your sharpest weapon is a polite smile.

What are your best reads of this summer so far?

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Social Creature by Tara Isabella Burton: The Book I Could’ve Rated Either 2 or 4 Stars (Spoilers)

June 5, 2018 Mysteries/Thrillers 13

There’s a short section at the end of this post that contains spoilers. It’s clearly labeled and everything before that section is spoiler-free.

Social Creature by Tara Isabella BurtonFiction – Thriller
Released June 5, 2018
320 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Doubleday Books)

This post contains affiliate links (plus: here’s your Amazon Smile-specific affiliate link), through which I make a small commission when you make a purchase (at no cost to you!).

Headline

I could’ve rated Social Creature 2 stars OR 4 stars and felt good about either choice….it’s completely ridiculous and messed up, but also addictive and intriguing. This book made me say “holy sh*t” multiple times.

Plot Summary

When Louise, a nobody trying to make it in NYC, meets Lavinia, an outrageous party girl/socialite, they embark on an intense friendship during which Lavinia ends up dead (this is not a spoiler…it’s revealed almost immediately and in the publishers’ blurb!).

Why I Read It

I’m a sucker for NYC social world books…especially dark and disturbing ones. Plus, Tyler Goodson (Manager at Avid Bookshop in Athens, GA) and one of my top recommendation sources gave it 4 stars.

Major Themes

Friendship, obsession, social media, New York City, image, socialites

What I Liked

  • This is one demented story. Maybe the most messed up book I’ve read since The Roanoke Girls. If you like dark and twisted, Social Creature is for you! But, fair warning, this book is not for everyone. Some people will absolutely hate it.
  • The bottom line with Social Creature, and the reason I decided on 4 rather than 2 stars, is that it’s absolutely addictive. I couldn’t put it down, especially during the second half.
  • At first, I was bored by the seemingly endless stream of ridiculous parties and socialite antics, but I couldn’t have predicted in a million years where this story would go. It’s the rare book that I wanted to DNF many times in the beginning, but I’m thrilled I didn’t.
  • The writing has a frantic, breathless, almost childlike quality with lots of “and, and, ands”…which totally fits the story.
  • Lavinia and Louise (and some fringe characters) seem ridiculous and unrealistic. But, having lived in NYC for years, I can assure you that people like this really exist. There are “It” Girls who are essentially exaggerated caricatures and have personal “brands” they try to live up to. There are nobodies who completely reinvent themselves into somebodies…while disavowing their past. And, there are the kids of famous and successful people who live lives of debauchery funded by their parents. These characters would’ve made me want to throw the book across the room (and will probably make many other readers do just that) had I not lived in NYC and understood that the craziness is very real.
  • Finally, try to go in as blind as possible. Shockingly, the publisher’s blurb actually does a good job of not revealing too much.

What I Didn’t Like

  • The publishers compared Social Creature to Gillian Flynn and Donna Tartt, which I don’t think are quite accurate. I can see Gillian Flynn a bit, but definitely not Donna Tartt. Publisher comparisons are always a crapshoot!
  • The story takes a bit to heat up. At first, the endless stream of NYC socialite parties was over-the-top, but also annoying and monotonous. I wish some of this had been cut down.
  • It got kind of raunchy at times, which doesn’t bother me, but will absolutely bother people who are more sensitive to that stuff.

A Defining Quote

There’s a reason people are able to function, in this world, as social creatures, and a good part of that reason is that there are a lot of questions you’re better off not knowing the answer to, and if you’re smart you won’t even ask.

Good for People Who Like…

Dark and disturbing books, New York City, dislikable characters, open-ended endings

Other Books You May Like

Another dark, disturbing book with a cat and mouse game:
Dead Letters by Caite Dolan-Leach (my review)

SPOILER-Y Thoughts / Questions

  • Did the second half of this book remind anyone of a more sinister, online version of Weekend at Bernie’s?!
  • I wondered why Louise didn’t just let Lavinia be found in the bathroom by someone else. If she managed to sneak out of there with Lavinia’s dead body, couldn’t she have more easily snuck out alone and let the police try to piece together what happened? Or, couldn’t she have said it was an accident? I realize there wouldn’t really have been a story had either of these things happened, but I wanted a better reason why Louise chose the strategy she did…especially since she picked one that probably would never have occurred to most sane humans.
  • The Ending! I’m still trying to understand exactly why Louise killed Rex. Some possibilities:
    1) She needed him out of the way since she’d just confessed to Lavinia’s murder and cover-up. Purely a “get rid of the evidence” play. But, it seemed more emotional than that…
    2) She was enraged and jealous that he still loved Lavinia…and was lying about loving her (Louise). 
    3) So she could step into Louise’s life for good with people on her team. I thought it was this one for sure, but then why did she abandon that life and walk off into the sunset as Elizabeth Glass? Was she planning to stay around until Cordelia posted her Facebook rant outing Louise?
  • What do you think about why Louise killed Rex?

Have you ever read a book that you wildly swung between loving and hating?!

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Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller: Slowly Revealing the Truth of a Marriage

February 9, 2017 Fiction 23

Swimming Lessons, Claire FullerFiction
Released February 7, 2017
356 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Tin House Books)

Headline

Though Swimming Lessons didn’t immediately grab me, its steady revelations about the Coleman marriage and increasing complexity eventually pulled me in.

Plot Summary

Swimming Lessons tells the story of the volatile marriage between famous author Gil Coleman and Ingrid…through letters Ingrid hid in Gil’s books prior to her disappearance and their daughters’ returns home to care for their ailing father.

Why I Read It

Claire Fuller’s debut novel, Our Endless Numbered Days, was one of my Best Debuts of 2015.

Major Themes

Marriage, family dysfunction, the writer’s life, motherhood, maintaining your identity through motherhood

What I Liked

  • The publisher’s blurb makes Swimming Lessons sound like it will be a mystery, but it’s actually an exploration of a troubled marriage. The “mystery” part of the story is somewhat ancillary and, once I wrapped my head around that, I enjoyed the book much more.
  • Swimming Lessons tackles a topic that is taboo even today and was even more frowned upon in the 70’s when Gil and Ingrid’s story began: not wanting and/or loving motherhood with every cell of your being and the conflicting feelings that come along with that.
  • I truly sunk into the second half of this book. As more layers of the Coleman’s marriage were peeled back, the story’s complexity grew, intriguing me more and more.
  • While not particularly surprising, the ending made sense and fit with the characters in the story, a type of ending that is becoming more and more appealing to me. And, it struck a perfect balance between tidying things up and leaving some questions unresolved / open to interpretation.
  • The potential discussion topics of marriage and motherhood and various interpretations of the ending make Swimming Lessons a compelling choice for book clubs.

What I Didn’t Like

  • Swimming Lessons did not immediately grab me. It’s a book that slowly peels back the layers of a marriage and it took lots of those layers being revealed for me to really get invested in the story.
  • Some of the revelations (yes, they are more revelations than twists) were not surprising, but their inevitability fit with the story.
  • One element of this story has been told before and I kind of rolled my eyes that this particular trope was popping up yet again.
  • I didn’t love Swimming Lessons quite as much as Our Endless Numbered Days…the writing sparkled a tad less and the plot was a touch more predictable.

A Defining Quote

I tried to tell you that I didn’t want it, wasn’t ready, might never be ready, but you put your finger on my lips and said, “Marry me’, and all those plans of creating my own category and giving you up after the summer disappeared like a wisp of sea mist under the relentless energy of your sun.

Good for People Who Like…

Dysfunctional families, marriage, dislikable characters, motherhood, secrets / betrayal, fathers and daughters, character-driven stories, gradual revelations of characters’ backgrounds

Other Books You May Like

Other books that untangle the truth behind a marriage:
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff (review)

The Wife by Meg Wolitzer (review)

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Ten Terrible Family Members of Fiction

October 4, 2016 Top Ten Tuesday 29

Top Ten Tuesday
This week’s Top Ten Tuesday (hosted by The Broke and the Bookish) topic is All About The Villains. As I was running through my list of notorious literary villains, I realized A) that it’s rare to find a book without a single villain and B) many of said villains were terrible to their own families. A few of my favorite villains also didn’t make it onto this list because casting them as villains would spoil the entire book.

Ten Terrible Family Members of Fiction


The Burroughs Family from Bull Mountain by Brian Panowich
Murderous, vengeful, law-breaking.

The Cousins’s from Commonwealth by Ann Patchett (Parents)
Philanderer, completely uninterested in their children.

The Grandmother from Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews
Starvation, whippings, hostage holding.

Pappy McAllen from Mudbound by Hillary Jordan (Father-in-Law)
Sexist, racist, unspeakably evil.

James Hillcoat from Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller (Father)
Absconds with his daughter to the wilderness, essentially holding her hostage.

The Lohman children from The Dinner by Herman Koch
Spoiled, entitled, heartless, self-absorbed.

Bull Meecham from The Great Santini by Pat Conroy (Father and Husband)
The first person I think of when I think of terrible literary fathers. Physically, mentally, and verbally abusive.

The men from The Shore by Sara Taylor (Fathers, Husbands)
Violent and abusive in every way.

Henry from The Truth And Other Lies by Sascha Arango (Husband)
A user of people.

Charlie McNeely from Where All Light Tends to Go by David Joy (Father)
Violent drug dealer who wants nothing better for his son.

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Koch’s Distinct Style Makes Dear Mr. M A Winner, Despite Plot Inconsistencies

September 6, 2016 Fiction 18

Dear Mr. M, Herman KochFiction
Released September 6, 2016
416 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Hogarth) via NetGalley

Headline

While Dear Mr. M‘s politically incorrect social commentary, dislikable characters, and somewhat meandering nature mean it’s not for everyone, Koch’s distinctive writing style make it a winner for me despite some plot inconsistencies. And, its divisive nature would make it a fantastic book club selection.

Plot Summary

M, an aging writer riding on the long-ago success of his bestselling novel based on the true story of a teacher’s murder involving two of his students (Payback) piques the stalker-ish interest of his neighbor, leading to a revisit of the crime at the center of M’s novel.

Why I Read It

I loved Koch’s breakthrough novel, The Dinner. While I didn’t love his follow-up (Summer House With Swimming Pool) nearly as much, Koch is an author whose distinct writing style will make me at least try every book he writes.

What I Liked

  • While I didn’t love Dear Mr. M quite as much as The Dinner, it came dang close. And I thought it ran circles around Summer House With Swimming Pool.
  • Dear Mr. M employs one of my favorite literary devices: the mystery or crime that provides suspense, but is not at the center of the story. The prospect of finding out what happened to the teacher at the center of Payback certainly kept me turning the pages, but it’s more of a catalyst to explore human behavior and emotions.
  • Dear Mr. M is a style book…and Koch’s style is odd and often uncomfortable, but it is incredibly distinct. I adore his writing (and particularly his social commentary), but he’s certainly not for everyone. He’s a master at putting uncomfortable thoughts that the average reader would likely keep hidden front and center.

When someone has been ill for a long time, there’s always a sense of relief when it’s over. Relief on behalf of the sick person who no longer has to suffer, but above all on your own behalf. It’s difficult to admit, especially at the age I was then, but I felt an enormous relief because everything could finally be cleared out of the house. The curtains could be opened again to let in the light. This is where my life begins, I thought to myself. My new life. My life free of sickbeds.

  • Sometimes that commentary is tinged with political incorrectness (i.e. sexism and ageism make appearances in Dear Mr. M). But, it’s refreshing that Koch isn’t afraid to allow his characters to be politically incorrect on the page, even if I don’t agree with the specific viewpoints. 

A writer doesn’t have to do anything, of course. All a writer has to do is write books. But a lovely, young wife can help him do that. Especially when that wife is completely self-effacing; the kind who spreads her wings over his talent like a mother hen and chases away anyone who comes too close to the nest; who tiptoes around the house when he’s working in his study and only slides a cup of tea or a plate of chocolates through a crack in the doorway at fixed times; […] because his mind, after all, is brimming over with things that she, with her limited body of thought – her limited feminine body of thought – could never fathom anyway.

  • The story is told through multiple perspectives and shifting timelines. You see flashbacks to the long-ago lives of the two students involved in the teacher’s murder and their friends, which some reviewers thought distracted from the real story. I liked these sections as they painted vivid pictures of the personalities and dynamics of the group, which better enabled me to understand how the crime ends up playing out. Plus, these sections reminded me a bit of Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings!

What I Didn’t Like

  • Parts of the book meander a bit and it takes awhile for the story to find its direction…it could’ve been shorter and tighter.
  • I’m still scratching my head over why exactly M’s neighbor felt compelled to stalk M. There is lots of ambiguity here, as the most logical explanations can be eliminated based on details provided in the book or just seem too farfetched.

Good for People Who Like…

Social commentary, dislikable characters, writer’s life, crime that’s not the center of the story, gorgeous writing, dark stories, creepiness

Other Books You May Like

Contains a mystery or crime, which is not the center of the story:
Shelter by Jung Yun

My Sunshine Away by M.O. Walsh

Uncomfortable Social Commentary:
The Dinner by Herman Koch

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Three Favorite 2016 Summer Reads: Siracusa, The Hopefuls, and You Will Know Me

August 11, 2016 Mini Book Reviews 28

In July, I had a reading streak of absolutely perfect light reads that would be great for vacation. All these books will be going on my 2016 Summer Reading Guide.

Siracusa, Delia EphronSiracusa by Delia Ephron
Fiction (Released July 12, 2016)
304 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Blue Rider Press) via NetGalley

Plot Summary: Relationships are put to the test when two couples (and one couple’s somewhat odd daughter) vacation together in Italy.

My Thoughts: Siracusa might be my favorite vacation-type read so far this year! It’s light and fast-moving, but also smartly written. The story is told from each of the four adults’ perspectives and the writing style shifts with each voice. Going into the trip, both marriages had their own issues, with each spouse frequently mocking his/her partner. As the trip takes on a somewhat surreal quality, everyone starts acting out…refusing to hide their pent-up resentments any longer. Ephron generates suspense by dropping little hints about innocuous moments that later take on greater meaning…contributing to the feeling that things are eventually going to combust.

Beyond the story itself, the characters’ musings on everything from marriage and cheating to travel and the writer’s life allowed Ephron’s writing to shine and kicked this book a notch above other vacation reads for me.

I must have understood more than I realized, how fragile things between us were. Now I do nothing but look at things other ways, flipping them up and around, examining them, trying to understand at the very least my own obtuseness. I think, I really do torture myself with this: Surprises don’t come from people we know well, certainly not people we love. We call them surprises but they are inevitabilities. I must have been playing a role, a starring role, in an inevitability.

Siracusa is a fantastic choice if you’re heading on vacation (particularly to Italy).

The Hopefuls, Jennifer CloseThe Hopefuls by Jennifer Close
Fiction (Released July 19, 2016)
320 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased (Publisher: Knopf)

Plot Summary: When young couple Matt and Beth Kelly move from New York City to Washington, D.C. for Matt’s job, they must navigate marriage and friendship in the political world.

My Thoughts: While The Hopefuls is set in the political world, it’s not a book about politics. Rather, it’s a book about marriage and friendship set against the backdrop of politics. Beth finds D.C. an odd and unwelcoming place until she and Matt meet the Dillons, another couple who will become their best friends. Beth is an accessible and relatable narrator and her witty commentary about the douche-y D.C. politicos had me chuckling. Maybe it was her pop culture references (including one about Friday Night Lights!) or her propensity to point out D.C. traits I would also find annoying or the fact that she and Matt’s time in NYC coincided with mine, but I felt like she was speaking my language. The Hopefuls also tackles themes that resonated with me: making new friends as adults (and navigating the boundaries of said friendships), the nosiness of small towns, and trying to find your footing in a new place.

Here’s what I still hate about DC: the way that nothing is permanent, the feeling that everything and everyone you know, could (and does) wash away every four or eight years. All of these important people, so ingrained in the city—you can’t imagine that this place could exist without them. But one day they’re gone and everything keeps moving just the same. Who can get their footing in a place like this? It feels like quicksand to me.

My only complaint was that the ending wrapped things up a little too nicely, yet didn’t. The question of where the characters end up was answered, but some large issues that figured prominently in the storyline and certainly should have impacted the outcome of the book were left unexplored. Despite the unsatisfying ending, I thoroughly enjoyed the ride (which, as I discussed here, is generally more important to me anyway) and highly recommend The Hopefuls as a light, relatable summer read.

You Will Know Me, Megan AbbottYou Will Know Me by Megan Abbott
Fiction (Released July 26, 2016)
352 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased (Publisher: Little, Brown)

Plot Summary: A tragic accident throws fifteen year-old gymnastics prodigy Devon Knox and her family’s carefully constructed training plans into chaos. 

My Thoughts: If you’re looking for a book that you can fly through, this is it. Megan Abbott writes young girls in the most deliciously demented way (see The Fever and Dare Me) and what better world for characters like that to inhabit than elite gymnastics. Only this time Abbott throws in a pack of overly zealous parents to deepen the appeal. She choreographs a meticulously drawn world of tiny powerhouse girls, parents who push all else aside to “help” their daughters achieve “their” dreams, and families whose literal (mountains of credit card debt, multiple mortgages) and figurative fortunes ride on their daughters’ young shoulders. 

A few months later, after placing sixth on beam and bars in the Level 10 Junior Nationals in sunstruck Orlando, she was ranked first among all Level 10s in their home state. “The greatest day of our life,” Devon said, and everyone laughed at the our, except it was true, wasn’t it?

Though the central plot points weren’t entirely unexpected, Abbott’s writing style had me on the edge of my seat, frantically turning pages, even though I was fairly confident I knew how this would end. The paragraphs are short…with an almost breathless quality and I could feel the tension crackling. If you’re not getting a big enough gymnastics fix during this week’s Olympics competition or just want a page-turning beach read, You Will Know Me is your ticket.

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Spoiler Discussion: All Is Not Forgotten by Wendy Walker

July 21, 2016 Mysteries/Thrillers 18

All Is Not Forgotten is a book I really don’t have that much to say about without discussing spoilers. So, I’m going to talk about all the nitty gritty details! Stop reading here if you don’t want to know…

All is Not Forgotten, Wendy WalkerFiction – Mystery/Thriller
Released July 12, 2016
320 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (St. Martin’s Press) via NetGalley

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Before I get into all the spoiler-y details, I should say that I could not put this book down. I wasn’t sure I actually liked it…and am still not sure to some extent, but I could. not. stop. reading. It’s incredibly twisty, dark, and deeply unsettling. And, I was fascinated by all the psychology/science about how the brain processes memory and trauma, especially given this Author’s Note:

[…] the altering of both factual and emotional memories of trauma is at the forefront of emerging research and technology in memory science. Scientists have successfully altered factual memories and mitigated the emotional impact of memories with the drugs and therapies described in this book, and they continue to search for a drug to target and erase those memories completely.

What is All Is Not Forgotten actually about?

The publisher’s blurb would have you believe it’s about Jenny, her rape, the controversial treatment she receives and the effects on her family and community:

Now, after reading it, I think Dr. Alan Forrester (the narrator and Jenny’s psychiatrist) is the center of the story. Jenny and her family end up as merely cogs in his wheel of deception and personal issues. So much so that a more apt title for the book could have been The Puppeteer…if it wasn’t somewhat of a spoiler.

What did you think of the narrator/psychiatrist (Dr. Alan Forrester)?

  • At first, I thought the narrator was just a random father of one of the other kids in town. This gave the book a creepy feeling and I couldn’t figure out why a random father would be narrating this story. It actually made me dislike the book at first. Thankfully, someone told me the narrator was Jenny’s psychiatrist well before it was revealed in the book and knowing that immediately improved my reading experience. That being said, the book itself didn’t reveal the narrator’s full identity until Chapter 7 (the 19% mark). I don’t understand what waiting that late added to the story.
  • Dr. Forrester comes off as creepy, arrogant, and manipulative…even before the extent of his machinations are fully revealed. He goes on long tangents about his views on life, his patients, and his own family and is willing to say things most regular people probably wouldn’t…which reminded me a bit of Dr. Marc Schlosser in Herman Koch’s Summer House with Swimming Pool (review). I was never a fan of Dr. Forrester, but I truly hated him by the end (which I suppose was the author’s intent).
  • I also didn’t buy his final justification for his actions:

    I am guilty. Hate me if you must. I have tried to show you the mitigating facts. Charlotte, Tom, Sean. I gave them back their lives, and none of that would have been possible if we had not had the collision. If I had not told my story to an unstable patient. If Jenny had not been in those woods with him. If I had confessed the moment I learned the truth. Hate me. Despise me. But know that I have weighed everything on the scales. And know that every night I fall asleep. And every morning I wake up and look in the mirror without any problem whatsoever.

  • The only person who truly benefited (without incredible cost) from all this was Sean because he was the ONLY person whose trauma was not set in motion by something Dr. Forrester did. Tom and Charlotte may have gotten their marriage back on track (and Charlotte was able to reconcile her two internal identities), but at the cost of their daughter’s rape and attempted suicide. 
  • Finally, the entire fact that the Kramers chose Dr. Forrester as Jenny’s psychiatrist is unrealistic. I think it’s highly unlikely that a teenage rape victim would feel comfortable seeking treatment from the FATHER OF A CLASSMATE for such a personal trauma, regardless of the doctor’s particular expertise.

How far should parents go to protect their children?

  • First, Dr. Forrester’s dilemma reminded me of the choices the Lohmans faced in Herman Koch’s The Dinner (review). And, it astounds me that I just compared parts of All Is Not Forgotten to not one, but two Herman Koch books! I want to be clear that I’m not saying All Is Not Forgotten is a great choice for fans of Herman Koch…I’m just comparing small pieces of each book here.
  • I understand how the Forresters would want to protect Jason if a truly unfortunate coincidence tied him to a high-profile crime he didn’t commit…and the subsequent media storm and damage to his reputation that could result. Even if he is innocent, his name and reputation could get dragged through the mud (i.e. the Duke lacrosse case). 
  • But, Dr. Forrester went down an incredibly intricate path to protect Jason that harmed Sean and all the Kramers (not to mention Bob Sullivan!) while a part of him believed Jason was guilty. 
  • It’s easy to label Forrester as evil because of all this, but do we truly know how far we would go to protect our own children? I hope I never have to find out.

What did you think of the ending?

  • Were you surprised that Glenn Shelby had raped Jenny? I guessed it when Forrester mentioned that Shelby’s post-prison apartment was in nearby Cranston. What I couldn’t figure out was the how or why.
  • That ending was quite an intricate web! It certainly went far beyond just who raped Jenny and I appreciated the more complicated layers. However, I think some plot points were too farfetched.
  • I didn’t buy the crux of the ending…
    A) that Forrester would tell the personal story of his own rape to a prison inmate who is also a patient. 
    B) that Glenn would then try to recreate Forrester’s experience by raping Forrester’s own son as revenge for “abandoning” him.
    C) that substituting Jenny for Jason at the last minute would fulfill Glenn’s weird fantasy (assuming you bought B). Why not find another opportunity to go after Jason?
    D) that Forrester would’ve kept his own scar and/or experience a secret from “the reader” until the very end given how much he revealed along the way about his own life.
  • And, I HATED the part about the killing of Bob Sullivan. It was way too farfetched that not one, not two, but three men (Sean Logan, Tom Kramer, and Lila’s father) reacted to their individual beefs with him by seriously considering killing him and that two of them took action/attempted action at the same time.

All that being said, are thrillers farfetched by nature?

  • There has to be some level of outlandishness to ensure a thriller’s plot is sufficiently surprising. But, I think there’s a fine line between “delightfully surprising, yet still makes sense” and “so over the top it leaves you rolling your eyes.” 
  • This ending leaned toward “so over the top it leaves you rolling your eyes” for me. There were too many fantastic coincidences and unrealistic elements. 
  • I always maintain that Gone Girl has the perfect ending (totally shocking, but fit all the pieces together perfectly)…and yet it does have elements that are completely unrealistic. So, it’s possible I’m being overly critical of the unrealistic elements in All Is Not Forgotten. Sometimes maybe it’s better to suspend reality for a bit and just enjoy the story!

Let’s talk! What did you think about all this?

If you enjoy these types of spoiler discussions, check similar ones on the following books:

After the Crash by Michel Bussi
Behind her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
Where They Found Her
by Kimberly McCreight

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The Expatriates by Janice Y.K. Lee: Expat Life Has A Dark Side

May 5, 2016 Fiction 24

The Expatriates, Janice Y.K. LeeFiction
Released January 12, 2016
336 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased (published by Viking)

Headline

The Expatriates hit a couple of my “what makes a book work for me” buttons: a good balance between plot and style, dark undertones, and social commentary.

Plot Summary

A story about life as an American expat in Hong Kong told through the eyes of three women: Margaret (a married mother of three recovering from a tragedy), Mercy (a twenty-something Korean American Columbia grad trying to get her life on track), and Hilary (a housewife struggling with fertility).

Why I Read It

I was looking for a relatively light read since life has been chaotic lately and I remembered Catherine at Gilmore Guide to Books’ review of this novel.

Major Themes

Maintaining your identity through motherhood, expat life, Hong Kong culture, appearance vs. reality, getting beneath the surface of people

What I Liked

  • When I picked up The Expatriates, I was expecting a light novel about wealthy, successful expats living it up in Hong Kong and I was delighted to find the story also had surprising depth. Yes, many of the characters’ lives sparkle on the surface, but darkness lurks just underneath as it becomes apparent that reality is quite different from appearances.
  • While I can’t say if Lee’s social commentary on Hong Kong culture and expat life is spot-on (having never been to Hong Kong and never been an expat), it was one of my favorite parts of the novel and truly made the setting and context come alive.

This is the Hong Kong curse that expat housewives talk about in hushed voices: the man who takes to Hong Kong the wrong way. He moves from egalitarian society, where he’s supposed to take out the trash every day and help with the dinner dishes, to a place where women cater to his every desire – a secretary who anticipates his needs before he does, a servant in the house who brings him his espresso just the way he likes it and irons his boxers and socks – and the local population is not as sassy with the comebacks as where he came from, so, of course, he then looks for that in every corner of his life.

  • I love when a book contains a mystery or crime, but it’s more of a catalyst to explore relationships and emotions than the center of the story. And, that dynamic gave The Expatriates the kind of balance between style and plot that makes books work for me.
  • The level of entitlement among the expat community and wealthy Hong Kong residents was disgusting at times (i.e. a maid holds up an ipad while a child plays on it in a restaurant). But, it was a train wreck I couldn’t stop reading about!
  • I find that stories about rich people can either completely hit the mark or be incredibly boring…and a key to success is having an observant outsider (i.e. Nick Carraway) to marvel on the wealthy’s social quirks and deliver biting commentary. Mercy played this role in The Expatriates. Though she graduated from Columbia and moved in wealthy circles there, she had a less privileged childhood as a Korean immigrant in Queens. And, she was scrapping by to make ends meet in Hong Kong. She interacted with the wealthy expats, but was not one of them.

What I Didn’t Like

  • In addition to the Epilogue wrapping the story up a bit too neatly (a feeling I have about Epilogues in general), this one was unrealistic and overly sappy.

A Defining Quote

She looks around the table during a pause in the conversation with Mindy. Every woman there is well exercised, watches her diet, has two or three children, a husband. They all have shiny hair, and they are all wearing sheaths and daytime dresses perfect for the occasion. No one is breaking the rules of ladies’ luncheon. They radiate well-being and privilege, and yet she is among them, so who is to say what’s behind any woman’s smiling face.

Good for People Who Like…

Social commentary, marriage, dislikable characters, different cultures, motherhood, wealthy people behaving badly

Other Books You May Like

Contains a mystery or crime, which is not the center of the story:
Shelter by Jung Yun
Social commentary about the wealthy:
The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin

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Shelter by Jung Yun: “Even the devout have their secrets”

April 14, 2016 Fiction 31

Shelter, Jung YunFiction
Released March 15, 2016
336 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased (published by Picador)

Headline

This perfectly balanced (between story and style) debut novel is my third 5 star book of the year!

Plot Summary

After a tragic incident forces Kyung Cho’s parents to move in with him and his young family, they are forced to confront Kyung’s unhappy childhood and address long-simmering family resentments.

Why I Read It

Shannon at River City Reading included Shelter in a Recommendation Breakdown post of books to try if you loved Did You Ever Have A Family, which I did!

Major Themes

Family dysfunction, appearance vs. reality, getting beneath the surface of people, maintaining your identity through motherhood, Korean culture and values (particularly relating to marriage and family)

What I Liked Loved

  • This perfectly balanced (between story and style) debut novel is my third 5 star book of the year!
  • I love dysfunctional family books and Shelter is certainly one of those, but in a dark and serious way. This is decidedly not the “rich siblings fighting over their trust fund” type of family dysfunction (i.e. The Nest).
  • Shelter is the perfect balance between action-packed story, well-developed characters struggling with real issues, and gorgeous writing with lots of social commentary.
  • Shelter‘s first chapter ranks among the best first chapters I’ve ever read. Within the first 18 pages, the story went somewhere I didn’t expect and, by the end of the chapter, it had gone in multiple intriguing directions. It’s dark, intense, and emotional.
  • Many of the themes Yun addressed in this book resonated with me…particularly getting to know what’s behind people’s projected facade and maintaining your identity through motherhood. I completely identified with Kyung’s frustration with his parents’ and their church friends’ smoke and mirrors, refusal to address the real issues, formality, and obsession with social niceties above all else.
  • I enjoyed the focus on cultural differences between Korean and American views of family obligations, gender roles within marriage, and parent/child dynamics. The juxtaposition of the dynamics between Kyung and his wife (Gillian, an Irish woman) with his parents’ marriage illuminates how the American-raised children of immigrants struggle with pleasing their more traditional parents, while living Americanized lives.
  • The ending was exactly what I crave, but rarely find: surprising, yet completely made sense in hindsight.

A Defining Quote

He’s not a good son; he knows this already. But he’s the best possible version of the son they raised him to be. Present, but not adoring. Helpful, but not generous. Obligated and nothing more.

Good for People Who Like…

Dysfunctional families, marriage, dislikable characters, dark stories, fathers and sons, immigrant culture/values

Other Books You May Like

Another book about an immigrant family living in America:
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

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