Posts Tagged book review by Amy Steele
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
The Quintland Sisters by Shelley Wood. William Morrow| March 5, 2019| 384 pages | $15.99| ISBN: 978-0-06-283909-1
“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.
Any Means Necessary by Jenny Rogneby. Other Press| February 2019| 442 pages | $16.99| ISBN: 978-1590518847
“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.