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book review: Acts of Infidelity

acts of infidelity

Acts of Infidelity by Lena Andersson. Other Press| April 23, 2019| 336 pages | $16.99| ISBN: 9781590519035

RATING: *****/5*

As with Willful Disregard, Swedish author Lena Andersson’s second Ester Nilsson novel, Acts of Infidelity, examines love and its complications, challenges and painful consequences. Writer Ester Nilsson meets actor Olof Sten and immediately falls in love with him. Olof isn’t exactly available, he’s married, but that doesn’t deter either of them from embarking into a relationship. Unfortunately, Ester doesn’t want to be the other woman, she wants to be Olof’s central focus. His one and only. Olof makes it clear that he’s not planning to leave his wife but Ester remains hopeful. “This was exactly what married people said when someone else had shaken their foundations, Ester thought. When people felt an intense desire, they might insist otherwise. The trick was knowing when they meant what they were saying and were saying it to be clear and honorable and when they meant the opposite. The question demanded a far-reaching and risky act of interpretation, work to which Ester was always willing to subject herself.” Unfortunately, Ester becomes Olof’s mistress. It seemed that unless she wanted to eliminate all contact with him that it was inevitable.

The overall darker tone and humor appeals to me. This novel is extremely relatable as is Willful Disregard, in which Ester experienced unrequited love. I often fall for unavailable men or those that just want to be friends with me or just have sex with me. When you’re emotionally vulnerable, it’s easy enough for men to string you along. It’s not that men and women can’t be friends. It’s just that if there’s chemistry or sex involved that definitely complicates things. He lets her know that he merely wants to be friends. He really likes her and wants to spend time getting to know her. But to what end Ester wants to know? When you’re a single woman over 40, how much time and energy should you spend on platonic relationships with men?

I completely empathize with Ester. We’re a lot alike in choosing inappropriate men or having bad timing in meeting men to whom we’re attracted. There’s also the over-sharing: “Those unlucky in love and of a certain temperament are compelled to talk about it, all the time and with anyone. Speaking eases the pain.” It’s this need to know that either we’re not alone in having these relationships or over-analyzing everything. It makes us feel better. When you’re insecure, you need others to occasionally remind you that it’s not you, it’s him or something like that. It’s also just a need to be intimately seen, to be cared for, to be loved. Andersson writes: “But what was the point of living if there wasn’t any hope for intoxication or vivacity? There was no point. You could only grind away because life had been bestowed upon you without you having any say in the matter.”

Olof possesses the arrogance and ability to take advantage of Ester’s vulnerability. He’s bold because he already has the wife, the long-term relationship. Anything that happens with Ester will be a bonus for him. So, they fall into an affair that’s extremely push/pull, stop/go, hot/cold. TOTAL MIXED MESSAGES. At one point there’s this: “The next morning, too, was devoted to erotic enjoyments.” And then this: “The absence of physical contact was worst when they had come so close to it.” Make up your mind Olof! It’s rather frustrating and I felt angered for Ester.

Eventually after this has gone on for years, Ester decides that she needs to push Olof to decide between her and his wife so she emails his wife. It backfires as Olof accuses her of being a stalker and calls her “psychotic, psychopathic and a crazy cunt.” Both Olof and his wife accuse Ester of mental illness and attack her reputation and character. He denies that he ever had an affair. He tells people it was a drunken one-night stand. In this patriarchal society with all the misogyny and toxic masculinity, people generally accept his version of events—“Because a man has urges that require his full stoic and rational powers to shut down, and a woman has her age-old ability to trick men into impregnating her while being irrationally unreliable, once was as good as never.”—which might be amusing if it weren’t so sad and true and disheartening.  Women get blamed and shamed and men walk away with reputations intact.

–review by Amy Steele

I received a review copy from Other Press.

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book review: Under the Table

under the table

Under the Table by Stephanie Evanovich. William Morrow| April 16, 2019| 272 pages | $26.99| ISBN: 9780062415929

RATING: ***/5*

Sometimes you crave a light read, a brain palette cleanser. I read this one back in September when I needed just such a reading break. It’s an easy, unoffensive, cute, rather predictable read. I liked it enough to finish it but didn’t find it particularly memorable. Zoey Sullivan escapes her stagnant marriage by moving in with her single and carefree (naturally) sister in New York. She pursues her passion for cooking and works as a caterer. Of course she meets a millionaire named Tristan Malloy who has the perfect model house kitchen. He’s handsome and successful but rather reclusive and socially inept so Zoey decides to help him by giving him a makeover. She finds herself falling for Tristan of course and then must decide whether to choose the hot millionaire or her Midwesterner, possessive husband Derek. It’s a really difficult decision—“Sweet, sexy, chivalrous to a fault, Tristan. They had no real history. There had been no declarations of love, just a gradual buildup of attraction that inevitably exploded in passion.” In the process of falling in love with the millionaire, Zoey does discover herself and own independence and strength and that’s admirable. Under the Table is the perfect fantasy and will make a perfect beach read.

 

–review by Amy Steele

 

I received an ARC from William Morrow for review purposes.

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book review: The Little Girl on the Ice Floe

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The Little Girl on the Ice Floe by Adelaide Bon. Europa| March 2019| 224 pages | $17.00| ISBN: 978-1-60945-515-6

RATING: *****/5*

“She has everything a person needs to be happy. Her childhood is privileged, sheltered. She’s healthy, pretty, intelligent. She lives in Paris, goes skiing in winter and swimming in the summer, visits museums abroad. She comes from a good family in a nice neighborhood; she’s been well brought up,she knows how to behave in polite society. She’s white, with French roots going all the way back to Charlemagne and to Morvan I, king of Bretons.”

Two decades after being assaulted, a detective re-opens the case of “The Electrician” and DNA analysis identifies a man who police recognize as a serial offender. He’s charged with assaulting 72 minors between 1983 and 2003. French author Adelaide Bon goes to court and testifies in the case and confronts the man who brutalized her so many years ago. Translated from the French by Tina Kover, The Little Girl on the Ice Floe is a remarkable memoir about sexual assault and its aftermath. (I truly enjoyed reading Disoriental which Tina Kover also translated.) There’s a conscious connection between subject, author and final product and therefore, becomes somewhat metta at times. Told in third person with the occasional first person, it’s powerful, raw, thoughtful, angry and exhilarating. It’s a revelatory and stunning depiction of how a woman copes after sexual assault. The author candidly depicts her struggles. The rape affects her in a myriad of ways for decades—from overeating to alcohol abuse to isolating to self-esteem issues to sexual relationships. “She convinces herself that she is made up of two completely separate parts: the disgusting, treacherous body and the pure, bright, joyous mind.”

What do you do when you’re hurting so much, when your suffering becomes unbearable? She becomes an avid reader as books provide the perfect refuge. She goes to therapy. She tries pretty much everything: “She participates in four more family constellation weekends; she tries holotropic breathing, rebirth, primal screaming, kinesiology, floral extracts and St. John’s Wort. She consults an etiopath and makes an appointment with an astrologist. She reads countless books on personal development, Indian spirituality, and nonviolent communication; she studies Jung and Schopenhauer. She’s like one of those trick birthday candles that relight themselves endlessly until you drown them in a glass of water. She is the granddaughter of a legionnaire, and as long as there is a war on, she will return again and again to the front line.” 

This potent creative masterpiece is a must-read.

–review by Amy Steele

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book review: The Quintland Sisters

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The Quintland Sisters by Shelley Wood. William Morrow| March 5, 2019| 384 pages | $15.99| ISBN: 978-0-06-283909-1

RATING: *****

“Their similarity to one another is eerie, even with nothing but their tiny heads poking out of their blankets. All of them have black hair and long, dark eyelashes, too thick, it seems, for their sunken cheeks. The longer I watched them, the more I could see that each one of them has something distinct, something to tell her apart from her sisters. I took out my scribble book in the hopes of capturing them. The one that came first has one eyelid bigger than the other. The second has a tiny crinkle in the upper cusp of her right ear. The third has the smallest nose, and the fourth has the most hair, which seems to curl in the opposite direction from that of her sisters. The fifth and last—she has nothing that looks markedly different, but she is the only one with any wriggle in her.”

Long before Kate Plus Eight or the Octomom, there were the Dionne Quintuplets, the first quintuplets to survive their infancy. They were born in French-speaking, rural Canada in 1934. Their parents had five other children. They were shamed for it. People also sent money and fan mail. The government took custody of the girls, leading to many disputes over the years. A doctor and his crew of nurses took over care of the girls.

The Quintland Sisters tells the story of the first few years of the quintuplets lives from the perspective of a young woman, Emma Trimpany, who works as a nurse to the girls. Born with a large birthmark on her face, Emma is used to being overlooked and disregarded. “This is something I’ve managed to pull off my whole life, to make myself invisible and unremarkable—no mean task with a crimson stain covering half my face.” Her mother sends her over with the midwife the night that the quints are born, thinking it might be a suitable profession for her disfigured daughter.

Emma gets sent to nursing school so that she’s properly trained to assist in their care. She becomes attached to the girls and friendly with several nurses, particularly Yvonne Leroux (known to everyone as Ivy), who she remains friends with even after she leaves. Emma enjoys drawing and this turns into a side-gig as she sells pictures of the girls to advertisers. Someone suggests she apply to art school and it seems this smart and determined young woman will find contentment. The story unfolds through journal entries, letters and news reports.

“I am the one the girls turn to now. A stubbed toe, a puzzling toy, a masterpiece of finger painting that requires praise and admiration—it’s me they seek out. Nurse Noel is the game master who won’t take no for an answer, Miss Beaulieu is the instructor with strict rules and plastic smile. Nurse Sylvie Dubois is the latest practical nurse they’ve brought in to help with all the record-keeping and measurements—she has not yet earned the girls’ trust, let alone their affection, although she is cheery and pretty. Meanwhile Mme. Dionne has been scarce since the autumn, every since Nurse Nicolette’s departure, and I haven’t seen M. Dionne since that awful moment in the courtroom. How ridiculous, but also wonderful, that I, who have always insisted I was not cut out for motherhood, have ended up as a de facto mother of five.”

It’s fascinating to read about their care. Can you imagine caring for so many infants? It definitely takes a team. No one even believed they’d survive past the first week. It was humorous to read the doctor and some of the nurses commenting on the likelihood of the girls’ survival. They gave one of the girls rum to “stimulate” her heart. Before they received a shipment of breast milk, the girls were fed a mix of corn syrup, cow’s milk and boiled water. They kept records of everything.

The quintuplets generated income from visitors as well as through endorsements. It’s not a new Instagram era thing to earn money this way. There was a court case between several corn syrup companies to determine who would have exclusivity. [“The ridiculous thing is, we don’t even feed the babies corn syrup. Dr. Blatz believes sugar in any form is bad for children. I should tell that to the newspapers.”] Several films were made about them. There was a custom-built playground that allowed for spectators. There were 6,000 daily visitors! Celebrities such as Amelia Earhart visited. They sold souvenirs! It was a real money-making business. Unfortunately, not everyone cared for the girls and their future. Celebrity and money attract deceitful people wanting to take advantage of the situation. Many nefarious incidents occurred over the years.

It’s a meticulously researched novel and why I’m a fan of historical fiction. I love having a fictional character introduce me to real people and actual events. I really want to know what happened to the quintuplets as adults. What were their lives like at that time?I made myself not Google while reading. But I’m intrigued and need to investigate.

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book review: Any Means Necessary

any means necessary

Any Means Necessary by Jenny Rogneby. Other Press| February 2019| 442 pages | $16.99| ISBN: 978-1590518847

RATING: ****/5*

“I had my reasons for living like that. I had done it because I knew society doesn’t accept nonconformity. If you deviate from the cookie-cutter norm, you are left out in the cold. Worthless. From there on out, you’re on your own.”

When a terrorist survives a suicide bombing outside the Swedish Parliament building, he will only talk to police investigator Leona Lindberg. He’s insistent on it. She’s tasked to find out why the former member of the French Foreign Legion did it and if there will be other attacks throughout the city.

After work, Leona also gathers a bunch of criminals to teach them how to beat the system. She’s providing them with inside information on police tactics and the best tips to outwit them. To take minimal risks for maximum gains. She carefully selected them to participate in this program of sorts because she’s looking for a reliable crew to carry out a major theft.

I found Leona to be extremely compelling. She’s an outsider, she’s smart and she’s rogue. Leona’s in that gray zone. She’s a fairly good person doing bad things. She’s had it rough over the past few years. She lost custody of her daughter to her ex-husband. Rogneby definitely makes readers see both sides of the situation. Even if you don’t like Leona, you’ll empathize with her. Why is she doing what she’s doing? Will she be caught? How will it affect her career in the police department?

There’s definitely a slow burn with this novel. The Nordic setting makes it uber appealing. I don’t read a lot of thrillers but this one appealed to me because author Jenny Rogneby brings a unique perspective through her experience as an investigator with the Stockholm City Police Department.

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Other Press.

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book review: Learning to See and The Eulogist

When it’s done well, historical fiction transports you to a particular time, place and setting through the eyes of its characters. The best historical fiction makes me want to learn more about the period or the characters. I try to refrain from googling while reading a book but if I’m itching to look something up, I know the author succeeded in transporting me to another time. That’s one of my favorite genres. Two compelling novels came out recently which center around independent and unconventional women, one real and one fictional.

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Learning to See focuses on Dorothea Lange and her photography in the 1930s. I’m familiar with Dorothea Lange’s Dust Bowl photographs but not much else. In this thoroughly researched novel, author Elise Hooper brings readers into Lange’s world. Told from Lange’s point-of-view, the novel follows her burgeoning career as a photographer at a time when women weren’t pursuing careers, they were focusing on raising children. After moving to San Francisco with a friend, Lange finds work at a photography shop. She soon opens her own portrait studio and amasses clients. She’s friends with a group of photographers and artists which includes Ansel Adams. She marries rather volatile artist Maynard Dixon. They travel to Arizona so that Dixon can work on some painting. Lange notes: “Our first few days were spent examining the terrain, so different from everything I’d ever known: wide sweeps of empty desert, soaring sky, endless clouds. It felt timeless, nothing like the city. The simple geometry of the landscape’s lines and bold shouts of color left me awed. During each sunrise and sunset, under a sky bruised with purples and rippling with flames, the desert was reborn. The air thrummed with possibility.” Lange is an independent, strong woman determined to use her skills to benefit others in a deeper manner than merely taking pretty portraits. Navigating her way as a working mother, wife and professional photographer, Lange faces many challenges including her husband’s alcoholism and affairs. When her marriage and the nation’s economy begin to decline, she decides to take a position with the government taking pictures of the country’s disenfranchised, the photographs she’s known for today. She photographs migrant workers and Japanese Americans in camps during World War II. Hooper effectively allows readers the opportunity to see the time period through Lange’s lens.

Learning to See by Elise Hooper. William Morrow| January 22, 2019| 384 pages | $15.99| ISBN: 978-0-06-291035-6

RATING: ****/5*

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This wasn’t on my radar but the title and cover intrigued me so I started reading it one day and became completely absorbed by it. After immigrating to the United States from Ireland, three siblings forge their path in antebellum Cincinnati in The Eulogist. James establishes a successful candle-making business, free spirit Erasmus becomes a traveling preacher and independent, open-minded Olivia challenges a conventional life. These dissimilar siblings function like the id (Erasmus), ego (Olivia) and superego (James). I became completely charmed by Olivia, by her loyalty, curiosity and determination. She attends lectures by feminists and abolitionists and questions women’s expected roles during that time: “That summer of 1829, culture and curiosity came over the city like the quickening of a maiden’s heart. Cincinnati was overrun by fanatics and intellectuals trying to make their case: Caldwell’s discourse on phrenology; Miss Fanny Wright on slavery and marriage; Dr. Alexander Campbell and Robert Owen battling the fundamental relationship between godliness and goodliness.” She’s not particularly interested in marriage [“I have never been one to pine for marriage, nor did motherhood enchant me. As I saw it, marriage was a function of economic dependence, and wrongly, too, since women rarely had money of their own.”] or starting a family. She does end up marrying a doctor who she falls in love with after spending time with him performing autopsies and doing research on corpses. When he dies, Olivia returns with his body to Kentucky to find her brother-in-law heavily involved in slavery. She’s determined to save a young black woman who has been living fairly free in Ohio from being returned as her brother-in-law’s property. She enlists the assistance of both her brothers. Through detailed descriptions and strong character development, I found myself completely engrossed. Taking place in the decades preceding the Civil War, slavery was illegal in Ohio, the first state created from the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. Ohio was active in the Underground Railroad.  I recently found a family tree my grandmother created which traces several generations in Ohio and I’d like to conduct research someday to see if any of my ancestors had any involvement in the Underground Railroad.

The Eulogist by Terry Gamble. William Morrow| January 22, 2019| 320 pages | $26.99| ISBN: 978-0-06-283991-6

RATING: ****/5*

–review by Amy Steele

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book review: Good Riddance

good riddanceGood Riddance by Elinor Lipman. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt| February 5, 2019| 304 pages | $25.00| ISBN: 978-0-544-80825-6

RATING: 4.5/5*

–review by Amy Steele

“I used to have a husband, from a marriage that was a bad idea from the start. Now I can advise others: Never marry a man who proposes too early.”

When Daphne discards her deceased mother’s yearbook, a neighbor decides she’s going to make a documentary about what she discovers in it. One person’s trash is another’s treasure, particularly an enterprising someone looking to advance her career. Daphne’s mother, June, was a teacher and yearbook advisor for the Class of 1968 who attended every class reunion and kept detailed notes about the students in the yearbook. Seemingly everyone had a crush on Daphne’s mother at this New Hampshire high school. June had an affair with a student after he graduated. Daphne attends a reunion as a fact-finding mission and this man, now a state representative, claims to be Daphne’s biological father. Daphne introduces herself to her tablemates in this manner: “I was bamboozled into a loveless marriage because my husband wouldn’t inherit his grandparents’ money while he was still single.” Daphne hasn’t had the best of luck in relationships. She’s self-deprecating and aware of her challenges and somewhat resigned. She’s completely surprised when she embarks on a tryst with her cute younger neighbor, an actor. She ends up having lots of fun and confides in him. It’s just the ego boost she needs. I found Daphne to be quite genuine and relatable. Her father seems like a great dad. The news that someone else might be her biological father, leads Daphne to have bouts of doubt: “My not sleeping great had to do with the ugly breaking news that my entire existence was based on a lie. Shouldn’t I have been warned of inheritable diseases that might be down the road? Or told to work harder in high school because I could apply as a legacy to Dartmouth? Such were the 2 a.m. agitations of a dispossessed daughter.” Will these new discoveries affect Daphne’s relationship with the only father she’s ever known? Between studying online to become a pastry chef, hooking up with her neighbor and helping her father navigate his recent move to New York, Daphne attempts to thwart her plans to expose her mother’s personal life.  Author Elinor Lipman (The Inn at Lake Divine, On Turpentine Lane) successfully contrasts the idiosyncrasies of small town New England with sprawling Manhattan. Lipman is a master of clever, amusing novels with quirky central characters. Her novels are guaranteed delightful fun reading. I love her writing and creativity so much that I received an advanced copy in October and devoured it right away. It’s the ideal anti-Valentine’s read.

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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