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book review: The Accidentals

The Accidentals by Minrose Gwin. William Morrow| August 2019| 381 pages | $16.99| ISBN: 978-0-06-247175-8

RATING: ****/5*

–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.

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book review: No More Boats

No More Boats by Felicity Castagna. Europa Editions| February 2019| 250 pages | $17.00| ISBN: 9781609455095

 

RATING: *****/5*

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.

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book review: The Right Swipe

The Right Swipe by Alisha Rai. Avon Books| August 6, 2019| 386 pages | $14.99| ISBN: 978-0-06-287809-0

RATING: 3.5/5*

“’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.

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book review: Careful What You Wish For

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Careful What You Wish For by Hallie Ephron| William Morrow| August 6, 2019| 304 pages | $26.99| ISBN13: 9780062473653

RATING: ****/5*

“Months later, bright and early on this muggy August morning, as she stood in her sunlit bedroom in shorts, a tank top, and flip-flops, the message those socks whispered to her heart was more about privilege than joy. Who on earth needed so many pairs of socks?”

After a video of her organizing her sock drawer goes viral, Emily Harlow decides to leave her job as a teacher to launch a career as a professional organizer. Emily’s lawyer husband remains immune to Emily’s de-cluttering skills, he spends every weekend browsing yard sales. The attic, garage and basement are all filled with her husband’s collection. Emily and her partner Becca have two new clients: an elderly widow, Mrs. Murphy, who needs to de-clutter her late husband’s storage unit and a young woman, Quinn, whose husband won’t allow her things into their home.

Emily finds rare books in the storage unit that appear to have come from several libraries–“Emily was no expert, but it certainly looked old. It was an engraving or an etching, though Emily didn’t know the difference. With no tears or foxing, it was in pristine condition. She used her phone to google the words on the label. Back came a link to an auction house that, in 2012, had offered what looked like the identical map. According to the description, it was published in London in 1624. In “excellent condition,” it had a value estimate of . . . Emily blinked . . . $12,000. If the map in front of her was worth that much, and if it turned out to have been on permanent unofficial loan, she and Becca were catapulted into felony territory.” Did Mr. Murphy steal these books and other antiquities or acquire them legally? Emily brings her librarian mom in to assist with this project. When Emily meets Quinn, after several glasses of wine, the conversation turns personal as Quinn expresses a desire to get rid of her husband. When the husband goes missing and then is discovered dead in the widow’s husband’s storage unit, everyone becomes a suspect. It’s impossible to ignore the similarities between an expensive art collection in Quinn’s house and Murphy’s rare books. How would these men have known each other? Emily’s husband’s law partner recommended that Quinn contact Emily. What’s his connection to all this?

De-cluttering almost always leads to some sort of discovery, often something personal. There’s a reason why people collect or hoard things. Oftentimes it’s to fill a void or due to some emotional connection to their things. According to the Mayo Clinic, hoarding disorder is “a persistent difficulty discarding or parting with possessions because of a perceived need to save them.” Most everyone has seen at least one episode of Hoarders or Marie Kondo’s Netflix show. This topic can go in lots of different directions and provides an intriguing theme.

If you like novels by Elinor Lipman, you’ll like the work of Hallie Ephron. Both women write witty, humorous, observant novels with mature characters. And not mature in any negative sense but in that these are highly capable, experienced women. It gets tiresome to read about 20- and 30-somethings once you’re in your 40s or 50s (I just turned 50). There are a lot of books about 20- and 30-something women out there. It’s refreshing to find older characters with whom one can relate. I appreciated this: “In the month since Emily had least seen her, her mother had dyed her hair red and cut it short and spiky. As she’d told Emily countless times, the problem with getting older was that women over sixty were treated as if they were invisible. At sixty-five, between the hair, a short silk caftan in swirling shades of pink and purple, and the layers of bangle bracelets that jangled whenever she gestured, Lila showed the world just how determined she was not to disappear.”

If you like suspense novels, this one doesn’t disappoint. Be Careful What You Wish For is an ingenious and amusing novel that makes a great summer or vacation read.

–review by Amy Steele

I received this book for review from William Morrow.

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book review: A Girl Returned

A Girl Returned by Donatella Di Pietrantonio. Europa| July 2019| 160 pages | $16.00| ISBN: 978-1-60945-528-6

RATING: *****/5

A Girl Returned is a short, strong, brilliant novel. In 1975, a 13-year-old girl is returned to her birth family, a family she doesn’t know at all. She’d been living in the city with the only mother she’d known. It’s unclear why her adoptive mother sent her back. We know early on that the wealthy mother wanted a child and the other mother could hardly afford to have another child and it was best all-around if this girl went off to live on the shore. The narrator is looking back on her life twenty years later. She’d grown up affluent, cultured and educated. It’s a shock to return to an impoverished, dysfunctional and abusive family.

She shares a bed with her sister, sleeping head-to-toe. The sister, Adriana, wets the bed. She recalls: “In order to get at least a little sleep, I would remember the sea: the sea a few dozen meters from the house I’d thought was my home and I had lived in since I was an infant until a few days earlier. Only the road separated the yard from the beach, and on days of libeccio, the southwest wind, my mother closed the windows and lowered the shutters completely to keep the sand from getting in. But you heard the sound of the waves, slightly muffled, and at night it made you sleepy. I remembered it in the bed with Adriana.”

Her teenage brothers also share the room. One of her brothers, Sergio, torments her. He’s bad, cruel and crude. He masturbates while staring at her breasts. He once throws a pigeon with a broken wing, who became trapped in the children’s bedroom, out the window. He’s spiteful about her upbringing. Vincenzo, the oldest brother, sexually abuses her in a confusing we’re related-but-are-we-really-we-don’t-know-each-other way. Her parents beat the children. There oftentimes isn’t enough money for food. There’s a lot of neglect. Despite everything, the girl becomes close with her sister Adriana. She’s protective of the younger girl. Then a tragedy befalls the oldest son Vincenzo which affects the entire family.

She’s hopeful for a while that the “seaside mother” who she’s known for the longest time will come get her and bring her back to the city house. She writes to the mother and although she never receives answers, the mother starts to send money as well as various necessities such as a new bed, a comforter, a set of sheets. The other mother will pay for the girl to attend school. When she receives a high mark at school, she thinks: “My mother would indeed have been pleased, if she could have seen it. She still worried about me, albeit from a distance, more than she worried about her illness: I refused to stop believing that. And yet, in certain melancholy moods, I felt forgotten. I’d fallen out of her thoughts. There was no longer any reason to exist in the world. I softly repeated the word mamma a hundred times, until it lost all meaning and was only an exercise of the lips. I was an orphan with two living mothers. One had given me up with her milk still on my tongue, the other had given me back at the age of thirteen. I was a child of separations, false or unspoken kinships, distances. I no longer knew who I came from. In my heart I don’t know even now.”

Can you even imagine being sent back to a family you don’t know as you’re growing into adolescence? As you go through puberty and your mind and body change to no longer have the anchor of your home and mother would be brutal and exhaustive. It’s truly the epitome of a nightmare. Even if you didn’t have the best relationship with your mother during your teenage years, you had a familiar mother. The novel’s written with brutal moments and scenes and beautiful turns of phrase. It’s also a redeeming story about perseverance and resilience. This girl makes the best of the situation. She bonds with her sister and she learns to survive. She finds some positive in all the negative and that’s truly remarkable and heart-warming. She’s a smart, brave girl. A Girl Returned is thoughtful, provocative and extremely moving.

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Europa.

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STEELE INTERVIEWS: Claire Gibson

“When they finally reached the hill, Dani watched the rest of her female company mates zigzag across the valley, providing cover fire and dragging the rest of the guys in their platoon, with their various feigned injuries, up to the safe zone. Apparently the ambush had been swift and fierce. Bodies were strewn everywhere. The girls had all survived, while the boys in their platoon had all been taken out of the game. Apparently the boys had been a bit overly aggressive; the girls had the presence of mind to assess the threat before taking action.”

Beyond the Point is an intriguing and engrossing novel that focuses on three very different women—Dani, Avery and Hannah—who meet at West Point. Beyond the Point follows them through school and post-graduation. They’re such strong women and well-developed characters that it’s easy to invest in them. They attend the mostly male West Point in preparation for a male-dominated military career. As they navigate life, the women confide in, encourage and support each other. It’s fascinating, infuriating, inspiring and moving.

Dani is a competitive force, both intelligent and athletic. Dani’s happy to be at West Point and move beyond stereotypes –“Her small-minded suburban town of Columbus, Ohio, had tried to put her into a box.” She’s successful in many ways but struggles with romantic relationships–“Guys always loved to hang out with her, but they rarely saw her as ‘girlfriend material.’ It was her constant relationship kryptonite.”

Avery is the wild-child who would rather not follow the rules, difficult at West Point and in the military. She comes from a strict family and won’t find much relief. Gibson writes: “The Army, at times, infuriated Avery. All of its rules. Its demands. Its ladders of authority. The Army was a lot like her dad, actually—constantly providing new bars to reach, moving each bar higher every time Avery to close. It wasn’t that she needed to be coddled, but to hear that she was doing a good job every once in a while wouldn’t have hurt. She could handle being read the riot act for leaving a job unfinished or for not meeting the standards. But was she really about to be counseled about who she dated on weekends?” Her bohemian spirit often frustrates her friends. I found her the most relatable–“Relationships didn’t work for her the way they did for everyone else. She was either too trusting and got burned, or too suspicious and exhausted the guy’s patience. She either acted too serious and scared the guy away, or acted too cool, leaving the guy confused about her commitment.”

The West Point legacy, Hannah seems to have it easy. West Point and the military are her destiny. She’s quite religious and a bit more conservative than her friends. She ends up meeting her future husband at West Point. She faces the same sexism as her peers–—“Hannah had been one of the highest-ranking cadets at West Point—guy or girl. Now her ovaries were a flashing neon sign to everyone in the room that she couldn’t keep up.”

Author Claire Gibson completed extensive research and interviews with West Point graduates before writing the novel.  I recently interviewed her via email.

Amy Steele: Why did you want to write this novel about West Point?

Claire Gibson: Anyone that has ever been to visit West Point will tell you that it’s a magical, sacred place. I had the privilege of growing up at West Point right there alongside the Corps of Cadets, while my father was a professor.  I know it like the back of my hand. The only way I could have known it better was if I had attended myself — which continues to be something I wonder about all the time — how would I have handled the challenge? Should I have tried? But college choices aside, when I began writing full time, I couldn’t kick the gut feeling that I was supposed to write something about West Point or the Army. Then in 2013, a group of women West Point graduates asked if I’d be interested in interviewing them for a possible story. The more women I spoke to, the more confident I was that I was meant to write their experiences down as a novel — something that every person could engage with, whether they were familiar with West Point or not.

 

Amy Steele: What do you like about each woman—Dani, Hannah and Avery—and how did you decide to focus on these three characters?

Claire Gibson: All of the characters in Beyond the Point are composite characters — Dani, Hannah and Avery’s storylines are the product of more than 25 different interviews with women who graduated from West Point in the decade after 9/11. However, just because the characters are composite and the story is fiction, much of the content came directly from first person accounts. I love Dani’s grit, Hannah’s faith, and Avery’s boldness. They’re so different as women, and yet so complementary as friends.

 

Amy Steele: How is the Bennett’s house similar to your home growing up?

Claire Gibson: Wendy Bennett is loosely based on my mother, who is as kind and hospitable and wise as any woman I’ve ever met. Like our home, the Bennett’s house is full of antiques, and full of the smell of something fresh baked from the oven. There is always a pan of brownies on our counter and cadets coming through our front door. My family took pride in being a “home away from home” for those college kids in need of a break from the barracks.

 

Amy Steele: You packed a lot of events and details into this novel, how do you organize your writing?

Claire Gibson: I use a software called Scrivener which is so necessary for a long project like a novel.

 

Amy Steele: What was the biggest takeaway from the interviews you conducted in preparation for writing the novel? Particularly about striving in a male-dominated environment.

Claire Gibson: I don’t know if there was one great takeaway. However, I will say that these women learned how to hold their own amongst men starting at age 18. It’s no wonder many of them have gone on to excel in other male-dominated environments. By the time they graduated at age 24, the fact that they were a minority had faded in importance.

 

Amy Steele: What did you learn growing up at West Point?

Claire Gibson: At West Point, I learned the important of selfless service and kindness to others. I also learned to love America, which despite its many faults, is still a nation that strives for ideals that I deeply believe in.

 

Amy Steele: What challenges do women in the military currently face? Have there been any improvements in the military’s handling of sexual assault and sexual assault reporting?

Claire Gibson: Women in the military face the same challenges as women who are not in the military. They struggle to balance work with life. They want to find meaningful romantic relationships. They dream about the future and hope that they’re making wise choices in the present. I know the military is working to prosecute sexual assaults more stringently — and yet, we know now through things like the #MeToo movement that sexual harassment and assault are not limited only to the military. I hope that as a whole, our society will work to eliminate that stain from our culture. Rediscovering the sanctity of sex would help promote progress in that arena.

 

 

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book review: Devotion

Devotion by Madeline Stevens. Ecco| August 13, 2019| 304 pages | $26.99| ISBN: 978-0-06-288322-3

RATING: ***/5*

“At first I slipped the ring off before I left my apartment. Then I started wearing it all the time, even in front of Lonnie. I did it because I was bored. Because watching a baby is so repetitive. Because it thrilled me. Because it made me feel sick with worry. Because feeling anything is better than feeling nothing. Because I didn’t feel guilty. Because they had so much stuff and I had no stuff. Because it meant nothing to her and a lot to me. Because I wanted to prove to myself that this job didn’t mean anything to me. Because this job meant a lot to me. Because it was a test of trust. Because I wanted to know how far I could push her. Because I wanted to feel powerful. Because I wanted to feel powerful like Lonnie must have felt powerful, growing up, wearing this ring.”

This reminded me quite a bit of the film Single White Female. A wealthy couple on the Upper East Side hire Ella as a nanny. Ella and Lonnie are both 26-years-old but at vastly different points in their lives. The couple welcomes Ella to make herself comfortable in their home, to eat whatever she wants and sometimes to stay over. Broke when she accepted this position, it’s a welcome environment for Ella. Lonnie lives a charmed life to be sure. It’s seemingly perfect with her beautiful brownstone, handsome husband and young son. She says she’s a writer but Ella cannot figure out what Lonnie’s writing. Ella seems thrown off when she finds out that Lonnie’s having an affair. She can’t understand why. As Ella become increasingly obsessed with Lonnie and her unconventional lifestyle, she starts searching her belongings and reading her journals– “I had the sensation of stepping blinding as I listed the contents of her house’s hidden spaces. Of grasping at textures, trying to make out changes in light. I didn’t know what it was yet that I was inside, only that whatever I was immersed in was larger than my current understanding.” She enters a dangerous cycle where she’s extremely attracted to and repelled by Lonnie. Does she want to be Lonnie or be with Lonnie?  How far will Ella go to destroy her or become her? While none of the characters are particularly likeable, it doesn’t matter because it’s an effectively languid, moody novel examining wealth and envy. It makes for a satisfying summer read. I didn’t rate it higher because it took me longer to read than I expected and the characters are ultimately rather forgettable.

–review by Amy Steele

I received an advanced review copy of this novel from Ecco.

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