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book review: Girl Ghosted

girl ghosted

Girl Ghosted by Lucy English. New Sun Press| August 15, 2017| 285 pages| ISBN: 9780692882238

RATING: ****/5*

Social worker Penny Wade connects with a guy she met online but then doesn’t hear from him. Has he ghosted Penny? Ghosting occurs when someone abruptly ceases all communication with a person they’ve dated. It’s the worst. In my experience men are terrible at communicating and it’s easier for them to just not communicate at all. Most women appreciate respect and honesty. Penny reflects: “It takes months, if not years, to get to know someone well enough to decide on a partnership. Maybe. Or maybe you can know kind of quickly.” My therapist has said that to me a few times after telling me I bail on guys I’m dating too early. I think that being in my 40s I know what I like and what I don’t like. While I’m open to letting a relationship develop as it will, I’m not going to invest a ton of time in an unworkable situation.

Relatable conversation between Penny and her roommate:

[Penny] “Is he hot?”
[Gloria] “Pretty hot.”
“Smart?”
“Very.”
“Thoughtful?”
“Yep. He makes suggestions about what we should do but lets me know he’s open to other ideas. I like it when guys take a little initiative instead of saying ‘what d’ya wanna do?’ you know?”
Yeah. I definitely know. And you learn some stuff from their ideas and also how they react if you suggest adjustments.”

Penny’s a friendly, determined, earnest 30something who works for Community Counseling Services which often assists the Department of Children and Families (DCF). Penny’s tasked with investigating a neglect case involving a young mother named Ashley and her two children, eight-year-old Olivia and six-year-old Noah. School administrators reported that the children were “dirty, hungry, and often missed school.”

Author Lucy English worked as a sociology professor and she provides extensive detail and an authenticity to this case and Penny’s work. This novel appealed to me with its focus on the germane subject of online dating as well as its Boston setting. English peppers the novel with plenty of Boston area locations such as Henrietta’s Table in Harvard Square, Mela in the South End, Kickstand Café in Arlington, Granary Tavern in the financial district, Trade on the waterfront, the New England Aquarium and Panificio Bakery on Charles Street. Penny visits some prime spots.

This is the third novel in the Penny Wade mystery series and the first I’ve read. It definitely reads as a stand-alone. There’s plenty of character development and description which allows readers to become invested in Penny, her work and her social life. Her supervisor Nathan gives Penny sage dating advice: “What if you started with evaluating a man’s ability to see and love you for who you are, to communicate well, to practice give-and-take. If he doesn’t get gold stars on those, you move on, no matter how good-looking or otherwise compelling he is.” Absolutely. It’s challenging but it’s the best thing to do. Wish I’d learned it in my 30s instead of my 20s. After reading Girl Ghosted I’d absolutely read another Penny Wade mystery.

–review by Amy Steele

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book review: Morningstar

morningstar

Morningstar: Growing Up with Books by Ann Hood. W.W. Norton| August 2017| 192 pages| $22.95| ISBN: 9780393254815

RATING: ****/5*

I meandered my way through these essays because that’s generally what I do with essays and short stories. I read one, read something else and then read another. It’s quite a thoughtful mediation on reading and growing up with books. Ann Hood [Comfort, The Obituary Writer] recalls memorable and influential books. Hood writes: “How can I describe what reading gave me? An escape from my lonely school days, where girls seemed to speak a language I didn’t understand. A glimpse into the possibilities of words and stories. A curiosity about the world and about people—the young Amelia Earhart seeing her first airplane, Helen Keller’s silent world, Nancy Drew solving mysteries, David Copperfield surviving the streets of Victorian London.” She provides plenty of insight into her personal life, family and growing up in a mill town outside Providence, Rhode Island. I’ve read some of the books mentioned and will likely read many others she referenced. Bookworms will find much in which to relate in these essays. She writes: “…whatever book it is, it falls into your hands at just the right moment when you need to read it. It transforms you. Perhaps it lifts you up when you are at your lowest; perhaps it shows you what love is, or what it feels like to lose love; perhaps it brings you places far away or shows you how to stay put when you need to.” When I finished these essays I semi-smiled and nodded knowingly about the power in reading and the comfort one finds within the pages of books.

on Marjorie Morningstar:

“Maybe that’s why i reread it every year. Maybe. as time beats me up and grief or loneliness or a new kind of bittersweet melancholy take hold, I need to remind myself to keep going, keep reaching, to not forget the girl who believed she could have everything and anything at all.”

On The Bell Jar:

“An immediate bestseller, Plath’s story of beautiful, brilliant Esther Greenwood’s breakdown spoke to my generation. The minds of women were just being discussed openly as feminism soared. Questions of career, sex, marriage, and finding yourself were, I suspect, what kept me up at night.”

On The Grapes of Wrath:

“When I finished reading The Grapes of Wrath, so many things about writing a novel became clear to me. Plot. Character. Conflict. Escalating stakes. Metaphor. The Grapes of Wrath begins with a drought and ends with a flood.”

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from W.W. Norton.

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book review: Impressions of Paris

impressions of paris

Impressions of Paris by Cat Seto. Harper Design| April 2017| 176 pages | $19.99| ISBN: 9780062493071

RATING: *****/5*

A lovely adult picture book. The perfect gift for someone who appreciates art and beautiful things. Cat Seto sketches her way through museums, cafes, gardens, bookstores and the streets of Paris. Recalling her time in Paris through watercolor illustrations, she divides the book into four chapters: color; pattern; perspective and rhythm. There’s a reason so many creative types find inspiration in Paris. Culture, art, architecture. There’s art in everything from the buildings to the food to the streets to the fashion and to the residents.

Seto shares her personal experiences and connections to Paris as well as various art principles. It’s a combination memoir and art class within these pages. My strongest memories of Paris include chocolate crepes, art museums and impressive buildings. And eating Chocolat chaud and French bread for breakfast every morning.

On Le Boutique de Saint-Paris: “I have sketchbooks filled with etchings of flowers, and many a pattern has emerged from these tiny discoveries.” On Jardin des Plantes: “I was going to visit the Jardin des Plantes for only a few minutes. I instead spent days there, sketching among all the wanderers, art students, and schoolchildren.” Whether you’ve visited Paris or long to visit, this striking book provides a wonderful examination of the artistic sensibility that attracts so many artists, authors and musicians to the City of Light.

Cat Seto is a San-Francisco-based artist and the founder and creative director of the stationary collection Ferme a Papier. She holds a BFA in painting and an MFA in fiction/creative writing from the University of Michigan.

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Harper Collins.

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book review: Before Everything

32970440Before Everything by Victoria Redel. Viking| June 2017| 288 pages | $26.00| ISBN: 9780735222571

RATING: ***/5*

In hospice for cancer, Anna’s old childhood friends gather at her house. Before Everything moves from present to past to provide the reader with details about each woman’s connection to Anna. Comfort, support and nostalgia connect this group of friends. Each woman has a specific relationship with Anna and with each other and then as a group. There’s the group think and then the individual’s thoughts. Whenever the novel veered into the precious and perfect I lost interest. Lovely crisp writing kept me reading. Author Victoria Redel powerfully chronicles Anna’s battle with cancer and hospice care and dying. This aspect of the novel interested me most. On fear of dying: “That was what Helen had never asked, what over all these years of treatment and periods of health Helen and The Old Friends have trained themselves not to ask. It was a tacit agreement. The answer was too obvious; it loomed in each moment’s specific worry.”

Despite caring so much there’s still a level of competition between the friends: “But Helen knows the answer. She’s known it since she arrived two weeks ago and began her adamant petition to pull Anna from hospice. She knew it back at the pond when she agreed to help Anna if Anna asked. Helen’s job all these years was to keep Anna away from fear and close to the yes. But Anna is not afraid. Again, Anna is doing something before Helen. It has always been this way. Boys. Drugs. Marriage. Children. Even the pregnancy that Anna ended. Over and over. Anna went first. Now this.”

I appreciated the realistic description of outsider views of these old friends: “He was glad for her yelp. Any dose of dark humor was better than all the treacly concern he heard from her visitors.” A newer friend thought: “The Old Friends. Whatever they called themselves, there was always a pecking order. Pretty pathetic considering the circumstance.” When my friend’s mom fought cancer, some of her friends kind of pushed my mom away when my mom wanted to help. I can’t imagine still being so connected to childhood friends. At every phase of my life I’ve lost friends and made new friends. I maintained friendships with high school friends into college and some college friends post-college and sure I am still connected to some high school and college friends via Facebook but if I really needed someone would these friends be there for me? The novel started strong and petered out toward the end. It seemed too much, these women and their near perfect lives and near perfect friendships. At the last high school reunion I attended a friend said that it was impossible to know what other classmates had endured despite outward appearances to the contrary. I get it. Unfortunately, I lost a connection to the various characters.

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

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book review: The Nakano Thrift Shop

nakakano gift shop

The Nakano Thrift Shop by Hiromi Kawakami. Europa Editions| June 2017| 240 pages | $16.00| ISBN: 978-160-945-399-2

RATING: ****/5*

“Takeo arrived, again smelling of soap. For a moment, I wondered if I ought to have taken a shower, but I quickly pushed that thought aside, since had I done so, he might have thought I was expecting something. This was what made love so difficult. Or rather, the difficult thing was first determining whether or not was what I wanted.”

Such a gem of a novel. Author Hiromi Kawakami brings layers and depth to seemingly ordinary, routine lives. Lots of interesting characters plus solid descriptions to create strong setting & sense of place. I appreciated the novel as it allowed me to experience Japan –from the rainy season to love hotels–through these characters. The novel focuses on twenty-something Hitomo who works part-time at the thrift shop. Kawakami writes: “With its second-hand goods (not antiques), Mr. Nakano’s shop was literally filled to overflowing. From Japanese-style dining tables to old electric fans, from air conditioners to tableware, the shop was crammed with the kind of items found in a typical household from the 1960s or later.” Hitomo sort of dates her aloof co-worker Takeo and builds bonds with shop owner Mr. Nakano and his artist sister Masayo. Her relationship with Takeo reminded me of my current on-again/off-again situation. She’s intrigued by Takeo and attracted to him. Does she need to know what kind of relationship she’s going to have with her co-worker? Some people, most of society, feel the need to label something, to put it into a box, cross things off a list. Few people (including Takeo and this guy I was seeing) are willing to allow something to unfold organically and mindfully. You can make plans for the future and have goals but you can also enjoy the moment. Relatable: “We were so different from each other in the first place—it’s not surprising that two people with nothing in common would end up like this, I thought to myself as I threw caution to the wind and continued to steal glances at Takeo’s face.” Also relatable: “When I thought about the idea of spending the rest of my life like this—going through my days I a fog of anxiety and fear—I felt so depressed I could have laid down on the ground and gone to sleep right then and there. But despite all that, I loved Takeo. When I scrutinized love, I still found myself in a world that felt empty.” On her boss Mr. Nakano’s lover: “’The Bank’ was pretty. To call her a beauty might have been going too far, but she had a delicate complexion—she seemed to be wearing hardly any make-up yet her skin was flawless. Her eyes might have been narrow but her nose was straight. There was something inexplicably vibrant about her lips. At the same time, she had purity about her.” Besides beautiful, thoughtful writing, I’m often attracted to the Europa book covers. Look at that cover! Book design credit goes to Emanuele Ragnisco.

 

–review by Amy Steele

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

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book review: Made for Love

made for love

Made for Love by Alissa Nutting. Ecco| July 2017| 320 pages | $25.99| ISBN: 978-0-06-228055-8

RATING: *****/5*

“During her marriage, she sometimes visited her father just so she could feel better about her life when she left. A trip to his home always made a pretty convincing argument that his gruff personality, heavy flaws, and the shortcoming of her childhood that his present-day existence kept freshly resurrected in her memory were fixed roadblocks that would prevent her from ever experiencing true joy, so her choices and lack of personal ambition or work ethic or relative sobriety didn’t really have to matter.”

So much to love about this novel. It’s smart, a bit bawdy, immensely clever, introspective and observational. Hazel recently left her tech billionaire husband, Byron Gogol, and moved in with her father at a trailer park for senior citizens. Her father, who just received his mail-order sex doll Diane, isn’t all that thrilled to have a new roommate. Hazel wants to start over but Byron isn’t going to make it easy.

The marriage seems a compromise. Byron wanted a wife and Hazel wanted an escape from what she assumed would be a rather dead-end life. Author Alissa Nutting writes: “Her life was going to be different from what she’d thought. This had felt sad and she wasn’t sure why, because she’d always planned on having a terrible life. But familiar terrors: loneliness, paycheck-to-paycheck ennui, unsatisfying dates with people a lot like her whom she wouldn’t enjoy because she did not enjoy herself.” She met Byron while in college and they married fairly quickly. His power and wealth dazzled her. He seemed both delighted by her and intrigued by her. [“Here was the thing: Hazel had not delighted her parents, ever. Nor had she delighted herself.” And then . . . “Hazel had never intrigued her parents or herself either.”] She’s been with him for a decade and over the years he’s become more controlling and Hazel’s been limited. During the marriage he’s kept tight tabs on his wife through technological surveillance and tracking. Hazel reached her limit when he planned to connect them via brain chips in a “mind-meld.” Byron’s methods to track down and bring his wife back become intense, severe and threatening. Hazel realizes she must make drastic measures or this megalomaniac will control her for the rest of her life. Or he’ll kill her. Neither appeals to her.

“It was easy to get along with him because she acted like a mood ring, always agreeing with what he found great and what he found intolerable.”

Technology connects us in a plethora of ways yet also disconnects us by making in-person communication less frequent and less necessary in many situations. It’s rare to find someone that has absolutely no social media presence. And if you do it’s just a bit suspect. How can one possibly keep up on news, politics, entertainment, celebrities and college friends without twitter, Facebook and Instagram. We rely on technology for both our professional and social lives. When you end a relationship there’s generally tons of data out there on social media to remind you of that relationship or make it difficult to move on. Plus how are relationships defined in the age of social media?

There’s a blunt honesty, offbeat humor and near absurdity in Nutting’s writing. It’s easy to relate to Hazel’s predicament and moods. Most readers will find solace in both her determination to begin anew and her frustrations in allowing the relationship to continue as long as it did. She’s not afraid to tackle unpleasant or taboo subjects [Nutting’s previous novel Tampa focused on a teacher-student romance] nor does she hold herself back in delving into these topics. In this novel it’s wealth and sex and loneliness and relationships. There’s the strange and humorous relationship between her father and his sex doll Diane. He treats the doll like a person. He’s content with her company.

In her marriage, Hazel felt lonely and isolated. She felt sad and detached. Nutting writes:  “But Hazel hoped now that after so many bad years of internal and external surveillance, of cohabitation with someone she’d grown to hate and fear alike, the absence of sadness might feel something like contentment, or close enough. At one point she meets a guy in a dive bar named Liver who tells her: “I just meet women in this bar. Mainly they use me to help them reach bottom. I’m like a brick they grab onto midair. Sleeping with me helps them admit their lives have become unmanageable. They realize they want and deserve something more, and then their recovery process can begin. I get laid in the meantime. Win-win.” Sounds quite like the last few lowbrow working-class guys I’ve dated.

The perfect blend of absurd and genuine, Made for Love is one of the best novels I’ve read this year.

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Harper Collins.

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STEELE INTERVIEWS: Hallie Ephron

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“Vanessa looked back and forth between the photograph and the doll. The doll in Janey’s arms was the right size. It had on a similar long while dress and what was left of its blond hair was tied with a thin ribbon. But the resolution was nowhere near sharp enough to see whether the doll in the picture had a dimple like the one on the mantle, and the wig on the real doll was too threadbare to make a comparison.”

While playing in the yard forty years ago, Lissie’s younger sister Janey went missing. Lis feels guilty and responsible. They’ve never found out what happened to Janey that day. Every year on the anniversary of the sister’s disappearance, their mother, Miss Sorrel, places an ad in the local paper with a picture of the one-of-a-kind porcelain doll Janey had with her when she went missing in hopes that she’ll find answers. This year, the doll returns and it sets off new theories and a few leads into Janey’s disappearance. Someone must know what happened to Janey decades ago.

Set in a fictional South Carolina town, Hallie Ephron’s latest novel–You’ll Never Know, Dear— explores three generations of women and the aftermath of a devastating event. Miss Sorrel makes dolls which look like the little girls who own them. There’s a certain creepiness to porcelain dolls. Her daughter Lis moved home after getting divorced. Lis’s daughter, Vanessa, conducts research on dreams and PTSD in graduate school.

I spoke with Hallie Ephron last month by phone.

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Amy Steele: As the book’s set in the south, what kind of research did you do?

Hallie Ephron: I’d been in the south very little. In South Carolina you find a lot of wealthy northerners there for the warmth of the winter season. I‘d been to Beaufort– a beautiful riverfront southern town– it’s where they filmed Forrest Gump. It’s a very colorful and beautiful place. I wrote half of it coasting on my memories and then realized I needed to go down and spend a few days with my camera and tape recorder. I spent four days absorbing it. The way that the marsh grass is a matted surface on the water, pecan trees … all the details went into the book. I’d already created my characters and I added details. The big thing I learned is that Beaufort has its own storied past. I fictionalized it so I wouldn’t be tethered to the true history of the place.

Amy Steele: Your parents being screenwriters, how did that influence your writing?

Hallie Ephron: I spent a lot of time not writing. I have three writing sisters and I was going to be the one who wouldn’t write. It took a long time to cave and I don’t think I would have if I didn’t have the genes. It’s a hard slog getting good enough to be published. I think my books are fairly cinematic. That’s from a kid growing up in Hollywood in a house that was movie-oriented. I was afraid I wouldn’t be good enough and I had to be old enough not to care. It took me a lot of time to get confident. There is a story in being a sister and a mother, in the everyday.

Amy Steele: You wrote about three generations of women. What did you like about that?

Hallie Ephron: I like writing about family and generations. I think we’re each so formed by our generation but you’re also formed by your relationship to your family. I particularly like writing older women. I think they’re often caricatured. Especially women over 60 or 70. I take a special pleasure in writing them as human beings with weaknesses. I liked writing Miss Sorrell. She’s kind of a tart individual.

Amy Steele: What do you like about writing in the mystery/thriller genre?

Hallie Ephron: I like figuring it out. I like the click when I figure it out. I usually don’t know the ending when I begin.I just know the set-up. Then I write all the complications, setbacks and challenges and all the while I try to think what does it look like is going on and what do I think is going on. I think in this book the mystery isn’t so much whodunit. I think the reader will realize halfway through who the villain is. But what are the motivations? What are the secrets they’re hiding? That’s what I try to figure out as I work my way to the end.

Amy Steele: How do you organize the novel or your writing?

Hallie Ephron: I have multiple time lines. I think of each character as having a life before the book began and after the book ends. I make a table where each character has a column and the rows are years. I plot the characters in their slots– when they were born and where they went to school– and see where the characters are as their lives progress as well as as the novel progresses. This novel I think takes place over three or four weeks so I do a drilled down version so that I know where the characters are. Even if the reader doesn’t know, I know.

Amy Steele: Do you come up with the characters first or the plot idea?

Hallie Ephron: The first thing I knew is that there would be doll parts. What does that mean? If there were doll parts there would be a doll maker. And who would she be. The story and the character go back and forth as I go along.

Amy Steele: What was the greatest challenge in writing this novel?

Hallie Ephron: I started with two narrators: Lis and Vanessa. I knew I couldn’t be in Miss Sorrel’s head because she knows too much. That was the 20someting and the 40something. I started to ask myself who’s story is this, who’s the protagonist and the answer can’t be both of them. I realized it had to be Lis. She’s the one who lost her sister. She’s the one who had to find her. Lis is the hero. It worked.

Amy Steele: What kind of books do you read?

Hallie Ephron: I read lots of books. I’m reading The Mothers. I just finished Joe Finder’s book. I read lots of books on South Carolina. I powered my way through Pat Conroy’s books. I don’t like horror. I don’t like romance.

You can catch Hallie Ephron speaking about You’ll Never Know, Dear at these events [for more events see her website]:

July 9, 2017
Rockport Public Library
Rockport, Mass.

July 11, 2017
Ferguson Library
Annual Women’s Fiction Night
Stamford, Conn.

July 27, 2017
Maynard Public Library
Maynard, Mass.

August 22, 2017
Bacon Free Library
Natick, Mass.

 
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