Posts Tagged book review by Amy Steele
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.
A Girl Returned by Donatella Di Pietrantonio. Europa| July 2019| 160 pages | $16.00| ISBN: 978-1-60945-528-6
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.
“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.
The Lady in the Lake by Laura Lippman. William Morrow| July 23, 2019| 352 pages | $26.99| ISBN: 978-0-06-23904-2
“Alive, I was Cleo Sherwood. Dead, I became the Lady in the Lake, a nasty broken thing, dragged from the fountain after steeping there for months, through the cold winter, then that fitful, bratty spring, almost into summer proper. Face gone, much of my flesh gone.”
“It was only when she started moving her things in that she realized while the apartment was charming, the neighborhood was decidedly mixed. Mixed on its way to being not so mixed. Maddie wasn’t prejudiced, of course. If she had been younger, without a child, she would have gone south to join the voter registration project a few years back. She was almost sure of this. But she didn’t like being so visible in her new neighborhood, a solitary white woman who happened to own a fur coat. Only beaver, but a fur nonetheless. She was wearing it now. Maybe the jeweler would pay more if she didn’t look like someone who needed the money.”
When Cleo, a young African-American woman is murdered in racially divided Baltimore, recently divorced Madeline “Maddie” Schwartz thinks she can solve the mystery. It’s 1966 and Maddie wants to have her own success apart from her wealthy ex-husband –“The infuriating thing was that her mother was right. Everything about Maddie’s post-Milton life was smaller, shabbier.”– She starts working at a newspaper where she’s relegated to answer questions for an advice column. She becomes romantically involved with an African-American police officer who provides her with inside information on Cleo’s case. She’s determined to figure out who killed young Cleo and to earn a better position at the newspaper. Maddie seems to be the only one interested in uncovering the truth about Cleo’s murder. Meanwhile, the ghost of Cleo has her own opinions about Maddie’s sleuthing. Author Laura Lippman effectively takes readers to the gritty streets of Baltimore in the 1960s through the vastly different and unique experiences of a black woman and a white woman.The novel alternates between Maddie, Cleo and a cast of characters (such as a bartender, a classmate, a patrolman, a columnist, a waitress) who may or may not know things about both women and the murder. As the novel progresses, we discover details about each woman. It’s a classic noir novel but also a strong psychological novel that examines what motivates women to make the choices they do, particularly in a white male-dominated society. Will Maddie’s own secrets end her journey of self-discovery, freedom and empowerment?
–review by Amy Steele
I received a copy of this novel from William Morrow for review purposes.
I Guess I’ll Write It Down by Beth Evans. William Morrow| June 11, 2019 | $14.99| ISBN: 9780062796134
If you follow Beth Evans on Instagram, you know how relatable and supportive her comics can be. Social media can be difficult but it can also provide a particular sense of community, a place to realize that you’re not alone in your struggles. Beth’s comics allow empathy and encouragement. She’s open about her mental health especially dealing with anxiety which can be scary and frustrating and debilitating for many. It’s also especially lonely to be side-lined by anxiety. Fans of Beth’s work will particularly appreciate this journal. This journal contains 28 never-before-seen cartoons which will inspire people to share their thoughts and desires. Writing can be therapeutic and many people understand the importance of writing down our emotions. Carry around this compact and pretty journal or keep it in a bedside drawer to write down all the feelings when you need to reflect or keep a record of events. Beth Evans has more than 280, 000 followers on Instagram. Her comics help people feel a bit less alone and a bit less anxious. She’s the author of I Didn’t Really Think This Through.
–review by Amy Steele
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from William Morrow.
<em>The Wonder of Lost Causes</em> by Nick Trout. William Morrow| April 2019| 440 pages | $16.99| ISBN: 978-0-06-274794-5
Dr. Kate Blunt is a single working mother. She’s a veterinarian at an animal shelter. Her son Jasper, who has cystic fibrosis, forms an instantly strong bond with a problematic dog that’s recently arrived. Whistler seems to communicate with Jasper and he also has a strikingly similar cough. It seems obvious that the boy and this dog belong together. If nobody adopts the dog in two weeks, the dog will be euthanized. He’s been badly mistreated and doesn’t trust anyone but Jasper, who desperately wants to adopt Whistler. Kate doesn’t want to adopt any dog. She’s overwhelmed with work and taking care of her chronically ill son. Jasper plans to convince his mother to adopt Whistler. While this is happening, someone contacts the shelter to claim the dog. Apparently, he’s a trained service dog. He’s trained to detect seizures in children. It seems that even if they wanted to adopt him, he belongs to someone else. A child needs him and his special skills. Kate and Jasper travel to deliver the dog to the organization. Will they or won’t they be able to let go of the dog? It’s clear that Jasper’s happier with Whistler.
“I admit it: I’m afraid of change. Living with this disease has rendered me fluent in fear. Change apartments—how hard can it be? Take your dog to work—what’s the problem? You’re a vet; you’ve even got the health insurance issue covered. But let’s say I find a new home that’s perfect for Jasper and money pours into the shelter so I don’t need to look for a new job, I’ve still got to worry. And it’s more than who’s going to clean up an accident because our doctor’s appointment ran late of where on earth the dog will stay when we’re trapped in the hospital for three weeks at a time. It’s the guarantee that a dog will influence my focus on Jasper, distracting me in small, innocent ways, forcing decisions, unnecessary considerations, and, worst of all, extra responsibility. This sounds trivial because it is trivial, but for a single mom with a sick child, the prospect of caring for something, anything more, feels like a burden, a final straw, guaranteed to make our already precarious existence bow, falter, and crack.”
Cystic fibrosis is a genetic disease which causes persistent lung infections and limits the ability to breathe. Alternating between Jasper and Kate’s viewpoints, there’s plenty of insight on what it’s like to struggle with cystic fibrosis and what it’s like to be the caretaker for someone with the disease. Jasper spends lots of time in the hospital. He’s weaker than other children. Jasper comes across as a laid back, savvy, determined child. He’s rather matter-of-fact about cystic fibrosis. His mother understandably worries about her son, maintains a rigid care schedule and remains vigilant about his health and safety. The novel emphasizes how important animals can be to our emotional well-being. I appreciated that author Nick Trout is also a veterinary surgeon in Boston. He brings vast experience to his writing. This novel seems particularly personal as Dr. Trout has a daughter with cystic fibrosis. He’s British and so is Jasper’s absent father, amusingly making Jasper an anglophile to his mother’s dismay. Even if you’re not a dog person, you’ll find yourself rooting for Jasper and Whistler in the end.
–review by Amy Steele
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from William Morrow.
Acts of Infidelity by Lena Andersson. Other Press| April 23, 2019| 336 pages | $16.99| ISBN: 9781590519035
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.
Under the Table by Stephanie Evanovich. William Morrow| April 16, 2019| 272 pages | $26.99| ISBN: 9780062415929
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.
The Little Girl on the Ice Floe by Adelaide Bon. Europa| March 2019| 224 pages | $17.00| ISBN: 978-1-60945-515-6
“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