Archive for category Books
With or Without You by Caroline Leavitt. Algonquin| August 4, 2020| 288 pages | $26.95| ISBN: 9781616207793
The way you expect your life to be isn’t often the way it ends up being. Societal pressures and outside influences affect decision-making. People change over time and sometimes love relationships don’t work anymore or just don’t fit. Why do some people languish in relationships that aren’t particularly satisfying anymore? When do you just let go of a relationship, even if you’ve been in it for a substantial amount of time?
Stella and Simon, both 42, live in New York, have been together for 20 years and don’t have any children. An RN, Stella wants a stability and a family. Simon, a musician, still dreams of success and fame in the music industry. Stella and Simon have different personalities and demeanors. Stella is strong, independent, organized, goal-oriented. Simon is laid back and not super responsible. He lives the musician lifestyle— he’s laid back and frequently takes drugs.
“She had given up things for him before. After their first year together, she’d left her job as an RN because it was so exciting to travel with him. And then being on the road got old, or maybe just she did. But by the end of her second year touring with him, she began to feel the need to be a nurse again. It was like a physical pull. She missed having a community of doctors, nurses, and staff that she saw every day.”
It had almost been out of character for Stella to fall in love with Simon— “He came over to see her the next night, and the next, and suddenly there she was, responsible Stella with both feet firmly planted, Stella who never missed a shift, who read books and adored classical music, falling heedlessly for a rocker with an impulsive lifestyle and a way with words, simply because he cared so much about her, Iike no one ever had before.”
As someone who has tried to make relationships work with people who don’t have the same values as me or who don’t have a compatible personality or aren’t going to learn and grow over the years, I found myself deeply connected with this novel. As a music journalist I’ve had many encounters with musicians. I understand the charisma and the draw involved. Someone you might not look at on the street becomes 10x more attractive on stage playing an instrument and/or singing. As a middle-aged woman, I completely comprehend wondering how time flew by and why aren’t I more fulfilled in my life?
On the eve of the start a tour that he hopes will catapult his stagnant music career, Simon convinces Stella to take drugs with him and she falls into a coma for two months. Simon can’t make it out on tour and his band mates find a replacement. He doesn’t know what to do with himself now that he’s no longer in a band. The coma completely transforms Stella. She’s now an artist with a remarkable ability to draw portraits in which she’s able to capture a person’s innermost desires and feelings. While Stella was in the coma, Simon got close to Stella’s best friend. Do Stella and Simon choose loyalty or independence?
At turns melancholy, amusing, relatable and infuriating, With or Without You is a thoughtful novel about choices, identity, self-worth in relationships and careers and remaining true to yourself. It’s about questioning everything that makes you happy and what you should do vs. what truly fulfills you. It’s a complex and unique read.
The Sea of Lost Girls by Carol Goodman. William Morrow| March 3, 2020| 304 pages | $16.99| ISBN: 9780062852021
“For all the town’s fascination with its dark history–the Indian massacres and early colony, the influenza epidemic and lost girls– those stores are meant to be part of the past, told on candlelit ghost tours or sold in glossy paperbacks to be read on rainy weekends the lost girls aren’t meant to come back.
But here I am.”
I tore through this mystery/thriller!
Tess teaches at Haywood Academy, a boarding school in Vermont, and her husband, Harmon, is head of the history department. Her 17-year-old son, Rudy, struggles with dark moods and anger. He doesn’t know much about his birth father. His mother wont reveal all that much about him.
Tess got pregnant when she herself was a student at Haywood. One night, Rudy’s girlfriend, Lila, is found dead on the beach. Was it an accident or murder? Did Rudy kill her? Turns out Lila was writing a paper about a missing girl from many decades ago and her connection to Haywood. Is history repeating?
Family secrets get exposed and there are multiple suspects in Lila’s death. Haywood school has a long entrenched history of unsolved cases involving missing girls. The novel revolves around the standard trope of a teacher-student relationship with numerous twists that I definitely didn’t see coming.
I really like school settings, particularly private schools. Privilege, power, youthful insecurities, New England myths and legends, local townspeople provide plenty of drama.
Has anyone heard of the Bennington Triangle? That served as inspiration for author Carol Goodman. I don’t listen to true crime podcasts so I hadn’t heard of it even though I live in Massachusetts and spent many family vacations in Vermont in my youth. I’m now going to find a podcast!
–review by Amy Steele
I received a review copy from William Morrow.
Agnes is the story of a romance. A writer writes the story of his relationship with Agnes, a PhD candidate. It becomes unclear what’s real and what’s fiction. Life completely imitates art. He writes: “In my head, our relationship was already much further advanced than it was in reality. I was already wondering about her, beginning to have my doubts, though we hadn’t even been out together.” Soon enough his writing changes the relationship as Agnes follows in the footsteps of her fictional counterpart. The author crafts exactly what he wants to happen. It’s the power of the pen in full. If he wanted her to dress a certain way for an upcoming event, he’d write about it.
He writes: “Now Agnes was my creation. I felt the new freedom lend wings to my imagination. I planned her future for her, the way a father would plan his daughter’s.” Do they really care about each other or is this writing now solely interested in writing the perfect character and story? Writers possess the power to change circumstances and create narratives. The writer begins to become more focused on writing about the relationship than actually being in the relationship. He writes: “I wasn’t daydreaming. I was fully in control, and everything I thought to myself instantly became real. It was a feeling like walking along a narrow gorge that I couldn’t leave. And if I tried to, I felt a kind of resistance, the presence of another will, some sort of elastic fetters that kept me from setting off in the wrong direction.” It’s an intriguing concept and beautifully written in this short, strong novel.
review by Amy Steele
Metropolitan Stories: a novel by Christine Coulson. Other Press| October 2019| 241 pages | $23.00| ISBN: 978-159051-058-2
I loved this so much and devoured it during a leisurely day of reading. I couldn’t put it down. It’s a love story to art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art told through a series of vignettes. The stories range from amusing to surreal to fanciful to melancholy. The novel brings art to life through detailed descriptions and creative scenarios whether it’s personifying a chair, a drawing (“I am part of the Met’s collection, yet totally invisible.”) or a sculpture (“All the art in the Met could move, but not until it had to.”) Characters include curators, lampers, museum directors, security guards and even an older man who kept the paper gift bags folded and organized. Author Christine Coulson utilizes her vast knowledge of the inner workings of the Met and melds art history, museum subculture and personal experience.
In “Musing” a museum director searches for a muse to bring to an event. There’s a casting call with all the available muses in the museum department by department–“A major crease in the shoe was Michel’s long-held disinterest in American art.” An assistant in the development office delivers inter-office mail in “Meats & Cheeses.” Staff refers to inter-office envelopes as “cheese.” The assistant has this brilliant observation: “I had only worked at the Met for a year, but its strange cocktail of confident superiority and tolerated eccentricity had introduced me to a promised land.”
“The Gift Man” is about a famous photographer who takes pictures of a major donor after he makes a particularly news-worthy gift to the museum. Turns out that 85% of the museum’s collection is procured through donation. A security guard hears and feels whatever a painting depicts in “Night Moves.” If it’s a snowy scene, he feels cold. Of a war scene: “For him, the metal echoed with the howls of battles and death and smelled of burning corpses and ravaged flesh.” The young women of the development office, at a fancy fundraising event, center “Mezz Girls” —“The Met had convened its club and this benefit to raise money for building the collection felt like its actual dance.” In “The Lehman Wing,” a wealthy Walter Lehman left his collection to the Met in 1969 with the requirement that it be assembled exactly as his house. A man who recently lost his job spends his time in the museum and gets lost in that wing.
I’ve applied to the Museum of Fine Arts and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum many times. I have development and communications experience but lack the art history degree and/or art experience that most employees likely possess. That’s clear from reading Metropolitan Stories.
Christine Coulson will be appearing at Boston Public Library on November 21, 2019
–review by Amy Steele
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Other Press.
We Are the Weather by Jonathan Safran Foer. FSG| September 2019| 272 pages | $25.00| ISBN: 978-0-374-28000-0
“The truth is I don’t care about the planetary crisis—not at the level of belief. I make efforts to overcome my emotional limits: I read the reports, watch the documentaries, attend the marches. But my limits don’t budge. If it sounds like I’m protesting too much or being too critical—how could someone claim indifference to the subject of his own book? —it’s because you also have overestimated your commitment while underestimating what is required.”
Okay so two things: I have been a vegan for 15 years and was vegetarian for at least a decade prior to that; I am a fan of Jonathan Safran Foer. Eating Animals and Here I Am are favorites of mine. I always recommend Eating Animals to people. And it’s not that I wouldn’t recommend We Are the Weather but I just didn’t like it that much. I wasn’t impressed. It’s a self-exploration of why Foer isn’t doing more or caring more. This is the book someone writes to appease guilt. It’s an existential search for why he cannot sustain a vegan diet and lifestyle. It’s well-written and researched–the book provides plenty of facts to back up the thesis that factory farming affects climate change. Foer writes: “Climate change is the greatest crisis humankind has ever faced, and it is a crisis that will always be simultaneously addressed together and faced alone. We cannot keep the kinds of meals we have known and also keep the planet we have known. We must either let some eating habits go or let the planet go. It is that straightforward, that fraught.” This book didn’t move me as much as Eating Animals moved me.
Utilizing family history, notable the Holocaust and WWII, Foer states the importance of decreasing meat consumption for the common good. Foer notes: “Ninety-six percent of American families gather for a Thanksgiving meal. That is higher than the percentage of Americans who brush their teeth every day, have read a book in the last year, or have ever left the state in which they were born. It is almost certainly the broadest collective action—the largest wave—in which Americans partake.”
I understand something is better than nothing and I’d like everyone to reduce meat, dairy, poultry and fish consumption. As someone who is first and foremost vegan for the animals, I can’t relate to the sentiment that it’s okay to sometimes eat fish or meat or sometimes have dairy ice cream if someone says they’re vegan. It isn’t a “cheat” diet. There are dire consequences. Foer writes: “According to Project Drawdown, four of the most effective strategies for mitigating global warming are reducing food waste, educating girls, providing family planning and reproductive healthcare, and collectively shifting to a plant-rich diet.”
Most people remain ignorant to the impact of their diets. They’re not morally opposed to consuming animal products. They also don’t think that an individual’s choices will affect the greater good. They’re wrong. He states: “When I first chose to become vegetarian, as a nine-year-old, my motivation was simple: do not hurt animals. Over the years, my motivations changed—because the available information changed, but more importantly, because my life changed. As I imagine the case for most people, aging has proliferated my identities. Time softens ethical binaries and fosters a greater appreciation of what might be called the messiness of life.” He makes these types of statements but by the end of the book I still don’t understand these other motivations and why it’s so hard for Foer not to be 100% vegan. If you want to be vegetarian or omnivore then that’s your choice. It’s not, however, difficult to commit to being vegan if you’re in it for the right reasons. And if you’re committed to helping the environment, then it’s critical that you make changes in your diet.
Here’s some notable facts from the book:
–“There have been five mass extinctions. All but the one that killed the dinosaurs were caused by climate change.”
–“Since the advent of agriculture, approximately twelve thousand years ago, humans have destroyed 83 percent of all wild mammals and half of all plants.”
–“Sixty percent of all mammals on Earth are animals raised for food.”
–“There are approximately thirty farmed animals for every human on the planet.”
–“In 2018, more than 99 percent of the animals eaten in America were raised on factory farms.”
–“Humans eat sixty-five billion chickens per year.”
–“On average, Americans consume twice the recommended intake of protein.”
–“The four highest-impact things an individual can do to tackle climate change are eat a plant-based diet, avoid air travel, live car-free, and have fewer children.”
–review by Amy Steele
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Farrar Straus Giroux.
Invisible as Air by Zoe Fishman. William Morrow| September 2019| 392 pages | $15.99| ISBN: 978-0-06-283823-0
Good novel but I put it down and went back to it weeks later. It didn’t have quite the emotional pull I expected but I’m not a mother or a wife so maybe I’m not the right audience although good storytelling and writing should have a wide appeal and take people into an experience, they aren’t personally familiar with. It wasn’t that compelling when I wanted it to be. Maybe if it were a bit shorter it would be better.
I did appreciate a novel centered around a woman over 40 years old. Sylvie is 46. She’s still mourning the loss of her daughter, born stillborn. Her husband had been dealing with his grief by putting all his free time into biking. When he hurts his ankle, his doctor prescribes him oxycontin. He doesn’t want to take it and managing his pain with ibuprofen. Sylvie sees the pills one day and decides to try one to see how she feels. Turns out she likes how she feels: “It had almost been two hours since she had swallowed the pill. Inside, Sylvie was an undulating ripple of goodwill, despite the fact that she was steeled for Paul’s unwelcome reverence and splattered with batter.” Not unexpectedly, as Sylvie becomes addicted to the oxycontin, her marriage and relationship with her son spiral out of control. She also loses her job. It’s a solid story about a family coping with grief. I started reading it because I love the cover of horses on a beach during sunset.
–review by Amy Steele
I received a copy of this for review purposes from William Morrow.
Oops! I did it again. I read another contemporary romance. These keep getting sent to me even though I have repeatedly stated that my reading interests primarily lie in historical fiction, memoir, contemporary literature, literary fiction and feminist books. I know that these are popular books and I’m often sucked in by the cover and descriptions. It’s definitely a good way to break up my reading. After a challenging book, I often want a palate cleanser such as YA or thriller or romance.
So let’s look at this novel and why I chose it. First the cover attracted me– a fun picture of a couple kissing under an umbrella with a dog and a bright color palette with pink and blue. Next, is the author–I’ve read at least one novel by Meg Cabot in the past. She writes both contemporary adult fiction and YA. She wrote the popular The Princess Diaries. Finally the description sounded great. Hurricane season seemed the perfect time to read a novel about a hurricane in a gorgeous island setting. Plus there’s animal rescue? I’m in!
Bree Beckham left Manhattan for Little Bridge, a small island in the Florida Keys, where her family vacationed. Bree’s mother is a millionaire and famous radio personality known as Judge Justine. She’s working as a waitress and trying to figure out next steps as a category 5 hurricane barrels toward the island. Most people leave but Bree stubbornly decides to stay with her rescue cat. Her boss’s wife invites her to stay at their more Hurricane-proof home. She takes them up on the offer. After the hurricane, she starts rescuing and helping pets left behind and her boss’s nephew Drew offers to help her out. They of course start to fall for each other. I found Bree’s story to be relatable. She was working in a field she didn’t quite like and she’d left a terrible relationship behind in New York. Her intelligence and strength carry the novel. That and her flirty banter with Drew. Their relationship starts in Moonlighting style. Do they like each other or don’t they? Little Bridge is the true star though. This is Cabot’s love letter to the Florida Keys. She creates a strong sense of place throughout this novel. Although it’s predictable, it’s a sweet little romance novel sure to allow readers a bit of escape. It’s the first in the Little Bridge series, of course, as the most popular novels tend to be.
Cabot was inspired by the true-life story of Brittany Davis who rescued pets in need during Hurricane Irma. Cabot herself decide to stay at her Key West home during the storm that hit the Florida Keys in 2017. Cabot had a landline and soon her home became a hub for locals who wanted to connect with the outside world after the power went out.
–review by Amy Steele
I received this book for review from William Morrow.
The Accidentals by Minrose Gwin. William Morrow| August 2019| 381 pages | $16.99| ISBN: 978-0-06-247175-8
–review by Amy Steele
“That fall June and I had at long last begun to plumb the depth of our mother’s unhappiness.”
In 1957, Olivia McAlister chooses to have an abortion in Mississippi. Illegal at the time, the only options for abortion were often cheap, quick back-alley abortions. Olivia longed to return to New Orleans and feels like an “accidental”—a migratory bird flown off course. Olivia dies leaving her two daughters, Grace and June, and her husband Holly on their own, the effects far-reaching throughout their lives. Holly becomes obsessed with building a bomb shelter. The daughters struggle to find their place in the world.
As a teenager, Grace becomes involved in a love affair with two boys. When she becomes pregnant, she’s sent away to have the child. Originally the aunt had planned the raise the child as her own but the child’s born with a facial defect—a cleft palate—and the aunt gets scared away. At an orphanage, the baby has an accident and is presumed dead. Ed Mae Johnson, an African-American care worker ends up taking the child home and raising her. Grace goes to college and later grad school. She travels the world studying ancient texts—“Here I am, fluent in Greek and Latin and Arabic. I can examine a piece of papyrus and give you its age within twenty years . . .” She works as a professor. She bird watches and feeds the wildlife in her backyard.
“One of the few things I’d come to pride myself on was having learned to take pleasure in things nobody else would think twice about. I had no expectations so I was constantly surprised by small pleasures. A thick peanut and butter and jelly sandwich, flocks of blackbirds flashing their red-tipped wings as they swooped down on the corn, Elsa’s celery smell at the end of a day in the kitchen. The first snow of winter, which had fallen just the past week and melted the next day.”
June finds religion as a teenager. She goes to church with a friend and gets baptized. She practices kissing with a female friend until that friend gets a boyfriend. She attends college and works as a journalist. She notes: “… I am the bona fide reporter, hardcore police beat and such, first woman in my paper’s history to work the news desk.” June unhappily marries and has a son. After undergoing cancer treatment, she starts fostering and adopting dogs—“These dogs of mine, they weren’t pretty to look at, and after Noel left, I made a point to choose the ones I know didn’t have a rat’s chance of getting taken.”
Everyone ends up in Nashville, Tennessee at the end. After many years with little communication or contact, June moves to help Grace after she’s diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Grace’s baby, now grown, lives in the city too. They may have already met. The Accidentals packs in plenty of details as chapters alternate points-of-view. It’s a lovely story about resilience, forgiveness and family bonds.
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from William Morrow.
No More Boats by Felicity Castagna. Europa Editions| February 2019| 250 pages | $17.00| ISBN: 9781609455095
Addressing many hot button topics—immigration, the working poor, migrants, terrorism, political asylum, national identity—No More Boats is a thoughtful and powerful novel. I became quickly engrossed and couldn’t put it down. Set in a working-class suburb outside Sydney, Australia, the novel focuses on a retired construction worker’s reaction and subsequent mental breakdown when hundreds of refugees remain stranded in a boat off the coast of Australia due to political debates. It’s known as the “Tampa affair.” This occurred in 2001, in the months leading up to 9/11.
An Italian immigrant, Antonio finds himself forced to retire after injuring himself during a construction accident that kills his best friend—“They were the last of their kind. There was no one else to talk to, really; they had outlasted all the other people like them. Now the young Aussies sat with the children of people like them who had migrated too long ago for anyone to remember that they were migrants too.” Extremely frustrated and hopeless, Antonio paints “No More Boats” in front of his house. This leads to much debate within the neighborhood and community. The white supremacy group welcomes Antonio to its meetings. It pushes his already dissatisfied family over the edge. His wife questions their relationship. His adult children—Clare and Francis—seem rather aimless. Clare quit her teaching job to work at a bookstore although she never told her parents. Francis would rather smoke and party than work. Everyone’s affected by Antonio’s seemingly rash action.
I love the daughter Clare. She’s socially awkward and rather nerdy, preferring to read rather than anything else. She has an on-again-off-again boyfriend–“What she would like to do, really, was spend the rest of the evening reading in bed. She wanted to fall asleep with a book by her side and get up again tomorrow morning and read it some more and now that she’d had sex with Richard she could do these things and stop feeling like she hadn’t put some kind of effort into the outside world.” Clare explains her father: “I just think, he’s old and he’s angry that he’s not in control anymore. He’s always had a thing about migrants these days not working as hard, not trying to fit in as much as he did but, you know, it’s nothing extreme, just the usual racism, I guess.” One day one of Clare’s former high school students, Paul, arrives in the store to work and they start to hang out often together. Paul is of Vietnamese descent and despite the age difference, they find many commonalities. She explains her former political activism: “I was like crazy busy with self-invention. I joined all those anti-nuclear marches and spent the night chained to a chair inside the Vice Chancellor’s office. I got kind of stuck in this vortex of radicalism. It sucks you in. Mostly, the social side of it. I was just like awkward and bookish and I didn’t know how to talk to people, so it worked for me. You know, people shouting slogans all the time. I didn’t have to talk and nobody noticed me, but I got to be in this big crowd of people. I could convince myself that I was never lonely, but I was always alone. I’m not sure if anyone really even knew I existed.”
I became quickly engulfed in No More Boats. It draws you in and you’ll think about the characters and subject matter long after finishing it.
–review by Amy Steele
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Europa Editions.
The Right Swipe by Alisha Rai. Avon Books| August 6, 2019| 386 pages | $14.99| ISBN: 978-0-06-287809-0
“’It’s a terrible feeling. When you ghost someone, you’re saying, I don’t care enough about you as a human being to even tell you I don’t want to see you again. How humiliating is that?’ She tried to keep her smile intact, but she feared it was turning a little feral.”
I don’t read a lot of romance but I have extensive online dating experience so this novel interested me—the title and the bright pink cover immediately pulled me in. I don’t have that many romance novels sent my way. Rhiannon is an online dating app creator and a fairly typical romantic lead trope: she’s beautiful and smart and successful in business but not doing that well with her personal life. She uses online dating apps to hook-up with guys when the mood strikes. Two years ago, she met Samson, a former NFL player, and they had amazing sex, he’d asked her out again, but then proceeded to ghost her. I’ve also been ghosted many times and it hurts. It’s disrespectful. It’s unusual to run into the person who ghosted you.
“On the rare occasions she was itching for a hookup, Rhiannon chose her conquests carefully, men who appeared to be far away from her world in both distance and work. Samson had looked big and eager for sex and they’d been almost 250 miles north of her home base in L.A. Just her type.”
Rhiannon and Samson are at the same professional event. He’s the new face of old-school dating website Matchmaker. Rhiannon runs Crush. The panel is called Slow Dating vs. Swiping. I’ve done both with varying degrees of success. Rhiannon wants to buy Matchmaker and it’s not going to be easy to deal with Samson. They agree that they have amazing chemistry. It turns out that Samson’s aunt owns Matchmaker. Rhiannon definitely doesn’t want her relationship with Samson to affect her business. She wants to earn the company on her own merit. Rhiannon and Samson start a marketing series where Rhiannon, who runs the newer dating app Crush, coaches Samson and other Matchmaker clients. It all seems a bit unusual as they’re competing companies. But I didn’t dwell on it too much. They needed some way for the two to work regularly together. While Rhiannon and Samson have obvious physical chemistry, they find themselves connecting intellectually as well. Samson might be a jock but he’s also somewhat of a geek.
There’s excellent diversity in the characters–Rhiannon is black, Samson is Samoan, Rhiannon’s business partner is Asian-American and suffers from extreme anxiety and agoraphobia, her assistant, Lakshmi is of Indian descent. Storylines involve CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy)—Samson’s father and uncle suffered from it– and the #MeToo movement—Rhiannon was pushed out of her last company and her ex-boyfriend/ ex-colleague spread vicious rumors about her–adding depth to this romance. There are several steamy sex scenes. Will they or won’t they end up together? It’s all about the journey. They’re both good-looking and wealthy and incredibly likeable people and you end up rooting for them to be together. I definitely appreciated a strong feminist central character. I enjoyed the novel but it seemed a bit dragged out at times and lost my attention a bit at the end–maybe too predictable or not enough something there.
–review by Amy Steele
I received this book for review from Avon Books.