Posts Tagged review by Amy Steele

book review: The Fact of a Body

fact of a body

The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich. Flatiron Books| May 2017| 336 pages | $26.99| ISBN: 978-1-250-08054-7

RATING: ****/5*

Some people are true crime fanatics. I’ve read In Cold Blood and some other true crime books but don’t often gravitate toward them. Memoir appeals to me and that’s what drew me to The Fact of a Body. I also may or may not have wanted to go to law school.

Both a memoir and a true crime book, The Fact of a Body is a riveting page-turner but also a disturbing read I had to step away from a few times. To apply to Harvard Law School, Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich wrote the admissions essay about her opposition to the death penalty. During a summer internship at a New Orleans law firm, Marzano-Lesnevich begins to question that stance when she’s tasked to the re-trial of convicted murderer and child molester Ricky Langley. He’s been on death row for years. Not only does her research cause Marzano-Lesnevich to question the death penalty it also brings up her own past family trauma.

Meticulous research and painstaking detail allow readers into the life and crime of Ricky Langley as well as into Marzano-Lesnevich’s terrifying childhood when her grandfather molested her and her sister. Now a law student, she wants to comprehend the why and how. Her grandfather got away with it. Ricky got sentenced to death row. While it could be academic and legal in tone, it’s a compelling, shocking, devastating, frightening and phenomenal read. There’s this chilling line: “The room where now, in the closet, Jeremy Guilory’s body stands rigid, wedged in, wrapped in the blue blanket from Ricky’s bed, a white trash bag covering his head and shoulders.” Or this: “The camera doesn’t linger. It catches the blond hair and then falters in the face of the boy. But on Jeremy’s lip right now—too small for the camera to catch, and no one’s looking at him that closely, no one wants to look at a boy that closely—there is a single dark pubic hair.” Marzano-Lesnevich balances the narrative and the facts just so. It’s a truly powerful reconciliation of past and present.

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Flatiron Books.

Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich will be in conversation with Kristen Radtke on Thursday, June 1, 2017 at Brookline Booksmith

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book review: When You Find Out the World Is Against You

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When You Find Out the World is Against You by Kelly Oxford. Dey St.| April 2017| 310 pages | $26.99| (ISBN13: 9780062322777

RATING: ***/5*

Kelly Oxford is described as “the famed blogger, named one of Rolling Stone’s Funniest People on Twitter… one of the most followed and beloved Twitter celebrities.” Sometimes tweets can transfer to writing essays but often the short, pithy style at which one excels on Twitter can’t be transformed into a detailed essay. This collection is definitely hit or miss. It’s an easy quick read and sometimes an essay collection is cool as you can skip around and pick it up here and there to read an essay. Most of these type essays aren’t for me. I’m not one that finds humor in every situation. The essays on parenting definitely didn’t appeal to me and it’s not that I don’t read about parents. I do. it needs to be a well-written and compelling piece. The essays on anxiety are pretty good and I wish there were more of those. I think maybe she tackled too many subjects here.  I prefer intellectual/existential essays.

I’d tangentially heard of Kelly Oxford but I don’t think I follow her on twitter. I’m aware of the #NotOkay hashtag campaign. creating a trending hashtag seems the pinnacle of online social media success. If your tweets, Instagram pics or Facebook posts don’t go viral then what’s the point to even post them? It seems that way at least. I respect and appreciate that Kelly Oxford created this hashtag which allowed women to feel safe in reporting their stories of sexual abuse after the Donald Trump/Billy Bush tape. She wrote: “I immediately open my Twitter account and see everyone tweeting about this. This is huge. This leaked tape is demanding a response.” Then: “My tweet is instantly being retweeted, but I feel like what I wrote isn’t as clear as I want it to be. So I tweet again.” Later she tweets another and says: “If no one responds, I’ll delete that tweet.” So if nobody immediately responds it’s not worth tweeting? this mindset I don’t comprehend. I tweet a lot. I’m sure my tweets get seen but they’re not always liked or RTed. That’s the way it goes. On people’s bios you see them say that they started such and such hashtag. I’m not jealous of this.

Here are a few good quotes:

on her father: “Whisker burn was his nice way, with skin abrasion, of telling me it was time to get up. I put up with it, because I worried this could be my only interaction with him for the day.”

being a hypochondriac and frequent visitor to doctors: “When I was eight, I’d stolen several thousand of those long Q-Tip strep-throat things from under that sink, you  know, to practice swabbing my throat at home, to rid myself of the gag it caused.” (useful in many ways)

on anxiety: “When I reached the top of the stairs, I instantly felt panic. Like from the very pit of my soul I felt I was worthless and everyone knew it and I would never every climb out and feel better. That even if I did climb out, it would still be as terrible as it felt right at that moment. I felt like I was jailed inside by own sick body and my body was definitely going to kill me.”

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from William Morrow.

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book review: The Sun in Your Eyes

sun in your eyes

<em>The Sun in Your Eyes</em> by Deborah Shapiro. William Morrow| June 28, 2016| 279 pages | $25.99| ISBN: 9780062435583

<strong>RATING: *****/5*</strong>

There’s that saying that you can’t tell a book by its cover. Book covers visually connect a potential reader to the book. The cover image makes you wonder what the book will be about. A beautiful, cool book cover sets expectations. On the cover of The Sun in Your Eyes is a photo of two women with a definite 70s rocker chic. What’s going on between these two women? It’s a 1974 photograph by William Eggleston and drew me right in. I’d also just seen the photo in the documentary Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me which features this photo. The blonde was Alex Chilton’s girlfriend.

In this novel, two former friends reconnect to take a road trip. In college, Vivian Feld met Lee Parrish—the daughter of famed singer/songwriter Jesse Parrish, who died when Lee was four years-old as well as model-turned-fashion designer Linda West. Vivian didn’t really know anything about Jesse Parrish but their other roommate Andy quickly introduced her to his music. Author Deborah Shapiro provides poignant, visceral descriptions of Jesse’s music: “Melancholy strumming of an acoustic guitar and a voice: boyish and bell-like but one that easily slipped into a gritty, growling lower register, occasionally within the same phrasing.” Then there’s Lee’s fascinating and successful mother Linda West. Shapiro writes: “Linda’s candor and freedom, the space she luxuriously floated in, amazed me. My own parents seemed so constrained in comparison. They had done such an excellent job shielding from me their inner lives that I had naturally concluded they didn’t have very rich or complicated ones.”

During college, Lee introduces Vivian to an impressively rock star lifestyle. More than a decade later when Lee contacts Vivian she’s married to Andy. Lee is in search of some unpublished music. “The tapes. The last, lost tapes of Jesse Parrish. One of the mysteries attendant to her father’s puzzling and premature death, only enhancing his cult status. The legend that illuminated Lee and enshrouded her.” This might be what it’s like to be Frances Bean Cobain, connected to the genius musician father you never particularly knew. Lee struggles with depression, identity and finding her independence. To these topics I could particularly relate even if I didn’t have a famous parent. At one point Lee states: “It sucks when you’ve aged out of the time when it’s still socially acceptable not to have things figured out. And you haven’t yet reached the age when it’s socially acceptable that whatever you thought you had figured out starts to unravel.” Exactly. Such truth. Not everyone knows what they want to do with their lives. Not everyone figures everything out or follow a linear path.

Of the two women I could most related to Lee. While I appreciated the women’s connection, Vivian’s relationship with Andy and her TV writing career didn’t particularly interest me. Shapiro delves into the women’s college friendship and its connection to the present. She offers insight, detail and vivid descriptions that allow the reader to understand each woman, their bond and reliance upon one another. Women’s bonds often become broken due to relationships with men (or marriage and families). To this many women (and likely men) will relate. Vivian’s relationship and later marriage to Andy created a rift between the friends. The road trip allows the women to examine their friendship and determine whether or not they should rekindle their friendship, however tumultuous it may have been at times. Jealousy and differing goals certainly pushed and pulled at its core. Glowing descriptions and striking writing comparable to Lionel Shriver propel the story. It’s witty and observant and poignant. This novel swirls and engulfs you like a good song.  If you are a music fan or you are a GenXer you’ll likely truly enjoy this novel as I did.

 

–review by Amy Steele

 

<em>FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from William Morrow. </em>
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book review: The Wander Society

the wander society

The Wander Society by Keri Smith. Penguin Books| March 29, 2016| 176 pages | $20.00| ISBN: 9780143108368

RATING: ****/5*

A beautiful looking book that explains a secretive society designed to allow a person to get in touch with one’s thoughts, one’s soul and nature. By now everyone knows that meditation, yoga and mindfulness help us pursue calmness and productivity. When author Keri Smith found an old copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, she stumbled upon the Wander Society. The members remain anonymous. Author Keri Smith explains: “While we cannot say for sure exactly who the Wander Society is, I believe its members exist to aid us in our quest to discover our own deepest soul life, to help us move to a higher plane of consciousness. That is the theme that seems to repeat itself again and again in its literature. Smith compiled this book after reading and researching any existing literature she could find associated with the Wander Society.

From an introductory pamphlet: “The path of the wanderer is an experiment with the unknown. To be idle, to play, to daydream.”

Included in this brief book: The Nature of Wandering–includes definition; the philosophy; the importance of “randomness” and how to find fellow wanderers; The Wander Society’s Tactical Guide—includes essentials; time; how to be invisible; wandering meditation; Wandering Initiation– includes setting out; creating a uniform; how to invoke an inner wanderer; Assignments/Research/ Field Work—there’s a ton in this section such as documentation; low wandering; sound tracking; leaving symbols; wandering by bicycle; library wandering; random painting; How-To Section—carving a wandering stick; making a wander belt pouch; making a wander notebook. In the end she includes Wander Society Lexicon; Leave Behind Quotes; Excerpt from Leaves of Grass; the Wanderer’s Creed and Wander Symbol’s Key.

Whether you decide to take up wandering every day or once a month, this book will certainly encourage you to try it. The beautiful typeset, photos and organization of the book create an appealing guide. It’s also the perfect size and weight to take along as a reference and inspiration during your wandering. Smith writes: “We need more rambling, daydreaming, thinking, perusing, being, looking, existing, allowing, ambling, opening, listening, because it teaches us what we are capable of. The nomadic tendency of wandering allows us to take pause, to consider what is really necessary, what is important for living well.” Wandering is a bit aimless but it’s also a way to think and observe. It’s a way to break our reliance on technology and take moments to savor the world around us. She adds: “The wanderer becomes one with himself or herself and the universe. We connect with the energy of all living things. We live according to our inner nature.” Another beautiful concept behind wandering: “When we enter into the wandering mindset, which can take a while to kick in, we actually change into our true self, not the person we are trying to be for society.”

In this book you will discover that wandering incites creativity. Smith writes: “qualities of great wanderers: “curious, inquisitive, nonconformist, rebellious, daring, revolutionary, inventive, visionary, solitary, self-sufficient.” That sounds ideal. Many of us—the writers, the artists, the radicals, the free-spirits—desire to be seen as change-makers, running against the grain, anti-societal expectations and precepts. Some well-known wanderers include: Walt Whitman; William Wordsworth; Charlotte Smith [an English Romantic poet and novelist]; Charles Baudelaire; Henry David Thoreau; Aristotle; Thich Nhat Hanh; Oscar Wilde; Rebecca Solnit  and Virginia Woolf. So add wandering to your list which should include yoga, mindfulness [read the chapter on Wandering Meditation if you aren’t familiar with mindfulness because there’s such a thing as mindful walking] and meditation. So pack a snack, a notebook, a camera and a bottle of water and head out there to commune with the earth, discover something fresh. Wandering inside in libraries or old bookstores works too.

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Penguin Books.

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book review: Modern Girls

modern girls

Modern Girls by Jennifer S. Brown. New American Library| April 5, 2016| 366 pages | $15.00| ISBN: 978-0-451-47712-5

RATING: *****/5*

It’s 1935. America’s coming out of the depression and Europe’s heading for WWII. Years before, Rose immigrated from Russia, met her husband Ben and they raised a large family—four sons and one daughter in the Jewish tenements on the East Side of Manhattan. She’s particularly close with her bright 19-year-old daughter Dottie who works as a bookkeeper at an insurance company and just earned a promotion. Dottie excels at math and her mom’s been saving money so that she can attend college. Rose notes: “In my dreams, Dottala went to a fancy college, a place where she could spend her entire day learning, immersing herself in books.” The delight with these characters is that they’re progressive and believe in women’s equality as much as possible in the 30s. Committed to the socialist party for years, Rose wants to return to activism since her children don’t need as much attention. She’s concerned about her brother trapped in Poland as Jewish persecution escalates. She needs to assist in the impending war as much as she possibly can. There’s also a Women’s Conference against the High Cost of Living with which she wishes to be involved. Rose also embraces her Jewish heritage and religion and keeps up with traditions like Shabbat dinner.

While Dottie dreams of marrying her strictly religious boyfriend Abe, she also plans to continue working. She thinks: “I knew I would have to take on the same tasks when Abe and I married, but I didn’t relish the idea. In my dreams, I kept working—either at his store, or perhaps, now, at the insurance office—and hired a girl to take care of the house. But those were fantasies.” Dottie’s new thinking might not mix that well with Abe’s old-school attitudes. When her mother tells her that she’s saved up money for her to attend college and study accounting the idea thrills her as she adores math and the increasing responsibilities in her work. Dottie explains: “How wonderful would it be to sit in a classroom, surrounded by numbers. Were there new numbers to learn? New worlds of calculations to discover?” A woman focused on gaining an education and concentrating on a career makes Dottie an intriguing character. She enjoys earning her own money. She helps her family and likes to keep up with the latest fashion and make-up.

Unfortunately, when both women become pregnant their future plans may suffer. The women must contemplate what’s important to them and make complicated decisions. At first Rose thinks that she might be going through menopause even though she’s only 42. Dottie realizes that her pregnancy resulted from a one night liaison with a wealthy and rather womanizing young man at a Jewish camp in upstate New York. She and her boyfriend of three years have yet to have sex. Abe remains religious, studying Judaism constantly, and intends to wait until marriage to have sex with Dottie. However Abe and Dottie have dated for three years and Abe doesn’t seem all that interested in marrying anytime soon. As Dottie just earned a promotion and isn’t pregnant with her boyfriend’s child, wants to attend college, her mother decides to take some of her savings to pay for an abortion.

Revisiting the past often connects us with the present in unexpected ways. In this debut novel, author Jennifer S. Brown, developed layered and complex characters. We learn the women’s personalities through present and past events. Brown makes Dottie and Rose women you could imagine getting together with for a cup of tea and a blend of conversation. Being younger and born in America, Dottie enjoys a bit of pop culture and trends but she’s also focused on a career. Rose remains partly in the old world while remaining active in her new environment. She’s making the best home and best life possible.

The novel focuses on a strong mother-daughter relationship. Brown incorporates historical details which strengthen the plot, setting and characters. For instance in a meeting Rose attends, she urges her comrades to write letters to their Senators to repeal 1924’s Johnson-Reed Act which instituted quotas on the number of Jews that could enter America. While Rose and Dottie don’t share every detail with each other they’ve developed a solid bond and care deeply about each others well-being. Mother and daughter respect and support each other. Despite the decade, the restrictions against women and standard domestic expectations, these women remain strong feminist characters. A sequel set 10 or 15 years on would be greatly welcomed. These characters must be followed up on. Clear your schedule and brew a pot of tea. Once you start this wonderful, detailed novel you’ll want to read straight through.

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from New American Library.

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music review: James

james girl

In 1994, James catapulted into the U.S. spotlight with the cheeky, yet layered single “Laid” from the album of the same name. The band formed in the 80s in Manchester, England. Part of the 90s Britpop wave along with The Stone Roses, Charlatans UK, Blur, Oasis, Happy Monday, Pulp and The Wonder Stuff. I adored Britpop back in the 90s. It was my heart. In 1997 the band released its seventh album Whiplash with the wonderful songs “She’s a Star” and “Tomorrow.” I giddily interviewed bassist James Glennie in 1997 as contributing editor/writer for the Boston zine Instant Magazine.

In the 90s James was one of my favorite bands. When one of my favorite bands returns with new music, I become nostalgic and also apprehensive. I analyzed the words to every song. Cerebral lyrics ranged from self-improvement to politics [google “Sit Down”] . Heartbreaking, comforting, making me feel less a one-off weirdo. If you could wear out a CD I did. Several times over. Seven remains my favorite James album. Favorite songs [many of them!] include: “Sometimes”/ “Say Something”/ “Born of Frustration”/ “Sit Down”/ “You Can’t Tell How Much Suffering (On A Face That’s Always Smiling)” / “How Was It For You?”/ ”Out to Get You”/ She’s a Star.”

Many bands will remain synonymous with the 90s alternative/ indiepop/indierock/Britpop days, many popular 90s-era bands and artists are touring [Smashing Pumpkins, Liz Phair, Belly, Jesus Jones, Radiohead] and some never stopped. Some put out new material sporadically. Is it a comeback or a continuation after a brief hiatus? That’s difficult to say. Musicians generally keep writing, keep recording, keep performing. I thought that James hadn’t released anything since 1997. But that’s not true. The band took a break in 2001 and reformed in 2007. Somehow I missed some of those other James albums such as Millionaires [1999] and The Night Before [2010]. My relationships with music publicists vacillate. Also we know how fickle music consumers can be. Marketing and music sales have dramatically. I still like [or appreciate] many bands I liked in the 90s but it was a different time, a different decade and will always remind me of my 20s when I was insecure and figuring out a path. I’m still questioning myself and my choices.

So now, over 32 years after signing to Factory Records in 1982, James released its fourteenth album Girl at the End of The World on March 18, 2016. This electronica/ indie-rock album soars on the opener “Bitch” with its wah-wah guitar and the slow-burning “Attention” — a call to arms with its bold urgency—as well as the optimistic “Nothing But Love.” Then “To My Surprise” rouses and burns. Gentleness and Tim Booth’s subtler vocals blend with a funkadelic keyboard-based beat on “Dear John.” The best song “Catapult” features an upbeat attitude, deep riffs and a vaudeville arrangement. The current single “Girl at the End of the World” is a good one with its distinctive James-y wave. Another stand-out is “Move Down South” with its haunting beats and thoughtful lyrics about our relationship to the environment—“too late we’re all responsible/ too late to hold a wake/ we’re all drilled out..” Ah James. Be still my heart. Shatter my soul.

–review by Amy Steele

Girl at the End of the World
BMG
release date: March 18, 2016

purchase at Amazon: Girl At The End Of The World

James Discography:

• Stutter (1986)
• Strip-mine (1988)
• Gold Mother (1990) (re-released in 1991 as James)
• Seven (1992)
• Laid (1993)
• Wah Wah (1994)
• Whiplash (1997)
• Millionaires (1999)
• Pleased to Meet You (2001)
• Hey Ma (2008)
• The Night Before (2010)
• The Morning After (2010)
• La Petite Mort (2014)
• Girl at the End of the World (2016)

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book review: Disgraced

disgraced

 

Disgraced by Gwen Florio. Midnight Ink | March 2016| 288 pages| ISBN: 9780738747668

RATING: ****/5*

Disgraced is the third Lola Wicks mystery [Montana, Dakota] by Gwen Florio. This time around, Lola’s off on a road trip to Yellowstone with her five-year-old daughter Maggie and stumbles upon quite the interesting story. Her co-worker and friend Jan asked her to drive her friend Pal home from the airport. Pal just returned from Afghanistan. At the airport, she witnesses a soldier’s suicide. No one wants to talk about it. What could possibly be the reason? Pal remains sullen, reserved and takes to heavy drinking. She just won’t discuss anything. While she just returned from war she’s still remarkably closed off. This young woman holds many secrets that will slowly be revealed.

Using her investigative journalism skills she digs into this immediately. It involves a group of friends from a local Native American reservation who just returned home from Afghanistan. Until she moved to Montana, Lola worked as a foreign correspondent. She’s familiar with Afghanistan. There’s not much about the suicide in the local paper although Lola notices some connected stories—another soldier killed while on duty. She notes to herself that in most places this many casualties and ruined lives would spark further questioning—“But this was the rural West, with its staunch and unquestioning patriotism.” Author Gwen Florio always excels with establishing sense of place. She writes: “In fact, she thought, throw in a few flat-roofed mud houses, some flocks of shaggy, fat-bottomed Arabi sheep, and bearded men in pajama-like shalwar qamiz toting AK-47s, and Wyoming would look just like Afghanistan—a fact not inclined to endear the state to her.” You can almost feel the sand in your teeth.

Florio writes from own experience as an international war correspondent and someone who relocated from an Eastern city to a less-inhabited state in the West. She knows the journalism business so when Lola pitches this story to an online publication, Florio writes: “She’d have blown her first and almost certainly her last chance to write for one of the few organizations that paid freelancers real money for serious pieces.” Ah, journalism. Such a fickle but necessary professional field. No one goes into it for the money. It’s about truth, providing information and highlighting the fascinating aspects of our culture.

“The war in Afghanistan wasn’t noted for big body counts. But other things were just as insidious. The constant twanging threat that each new footstep could be the one that tripped a mine, that each madly beeping Toyota pickup could be the one that bore a bomb, that each new face could be that of a potential friend—or killer. And the faces themselves, gaunt with hunger and desperation and resentment.”

Although Disgraced deals with serious subject matter, I chuckled at Lola in her new role as mother—“she never though of herself as anyone’s caretaker.” It was something I wasn’t sure I wanted to happen when I read the two earlier books. I appreciated Lola’s single-woman/ independent status. But the bribing her daughter and inability to answer certain questions and having this smarty pants five-year-old along for the ride provides needed levity. And Lola does as Lola wants, child or not. Lola Wicks is my favorite fictional feminist journalist. She remains unmarried to Charlie, her boyfriend and Maggie’s father. She’s brave, outspoken and extremely independent. That’s why this potential story involving soldiers returning from Afghanistan appeals to Lola.

I will always read this series. One day I will visit Gwen Florio and we will ride horses amid the beautiful landscape. Read my interview with Gwen here.

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Midnight Ink.

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purchase at Amazon: Disgraced (A Lola Wicks Mystery)

purchase at Amazon: Montana

purchase at Amazon: Dakota

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