Posts Tagged summer reads
With or Without You by Caroline Leavitt. Algonquin| August 4, 2020| 288 pages | $26.95| ISBN: 9781616207793
The way you expect your life to be isn’t often the way it ends up being. Societal pressures and outside influences affect decision-making. People change over time and sometimes love relationships don’t work anymore or just don’t fit. Why do some people languish in relationships that aren’t particularly satisfying anymore? When do you just let go of a relationship, even if you’ve been in it for a substantial amount of time?
Stella and Simon, both 42, live in New York, have been together for 20 years and don’t have any children. An RN, Stella wants a stability and a family. Simon, a musician, still dreams of success and fame in the music industry. Stella and Simon have different personalities and demeanors. Stella is strong, independent, organized, goal-oriented. Simon is laid back and not super responsible. He lives the musician lifestyle— he’s laid back and frequently takes drugs.
“She had given up things for him before. After their first year together, she’d left her job as an RN because it was so exciting to travel with him. And then being on the road got old, or maybe just she did. But by the end of her second year touring with him, she began to feel the need to be a nurse again. It was like a physical pull. She missed having a community of doctors, nurses, and staff that she saw every day.”
It had almost been out of character for Stella to fall in love with Simon— “He came over to see her the next night, and the next, and suddenly there she was, responsible Stella with both feet firmly planted, Stella who never missed a shift, who read books and adored classical music, falling heedlessly for a rocker with an impulsive lifestyle and a way with words, simply because he cared so much about her, Iike no one ever had before.”
As someone who has tried to make relationships work with people who don’t have the same values as me or who don’t have a compatible personality or aren’t going to learn and grow over the years, I found myself deeply connected with this novel. As a music journalist I’ve had many encounters with musicians. I understand the charisma and the draw involved. Someone you might not look at on the street becomes 10x more attractive on stage playing an instrument and/or singing. As a middle-aged woman, I completely comprehend wondering how time flew by and why aren’t I more fulfilled in my life?
On the eve of the start a tour that he hopes will catapult his stagnant music career, Simon convinces Stella to take drugs with him and she falls into a coma for two months. Simon can’t make it out on tour and his band mates find a replacement. He doesn’t know what to do with himself now that he’s no longer in a band. The coma completely transforms Stella. She’s now an artist with a remarkable ability to draw portraits in which she’s able to capture a person’s innermost desires and feelings. While Stella was in the coma, Simon got close to Stella’s best friend. Do Stella and Simon choose loyalty or independence?
At turns melancholy, amusing, relatable and infuriating, With or Without You is a thoughtful novel about choices, identity, self-worth in relationships and careers and remaining true to yourself. It’s about questioning everything that makes you happy and what you should do vs. what truly fulfills you. It’s a complex and unique read.
Mrs. Fletcher by Tom Perrotta. Scribner| August 2017| 320 pages | $26.00| ISBN: 9781501144028
It’s amazing sometimes that you read the right book at the right moment. In reading you might feel connected with and find solace in characters on the page. It’s comforting to read relatable characters. Although I’ve never been married and don’t have any children I felt a kinship with Eve Fletcher. She’s figuring out what she wants to do next. Me too. She’s taking a class. Me too. She works as executive director at the senior center. I’ve worked in elder care. An apt description: “It was hard sometimes, dealing with old people, having to cast out the unfortunate souls who could no longer control their bladders or bowels, trying to reassure the ones who couldn’t locate their cars in the parking lot, or remember their home address. It was hard to hear about their scary diagnoses and chronic ailments, to attend the funerals of so many people she’d grown fond of, or at least gotten used to. And it was hard to think about her own life, rushing by so quickly, speeding down the same road.”
After Eve’s son went off to college, she felt a bit adrift and disconnected. She’s looking for meaning. Eve enrolls in a gender studies class at the community college which is taught by a trans woman. Once she starts class she finds how much she enjoys being part of this intellectual experience and academic community. At night she scrolls though her Facebook feed “reminding herself that she wasn’t really alone.” She also finds herself hooked delving into porn. And why not? She’s exploring her sexuality. Her marriage ended after her husband met a woman through the Casual Encounters section of Craigslist.
As he’s effectively done in previous novels, author Tom Perrotta details the tragicomic trials and travails for Eve and those around her. On her family: “Her only real alternative was to drive down to New Jersey and spend a couple of days with her widowed mother and never-married sister, who were living together in the house where Eve had spent her childhood. She was overdue for a visit, but it was always so exhausting to see them—they bickered constantly, like an old married couple—and she just didn’t have the patience right now.” He provides biting and relevant commentary on suburban life– from its quiet moments to its meticulous homogenous appearance. Mrs. Fletcher contains several points of view: Eve Fletcher; Eve’s colleague Amanda; Eve’s son Brandon and Brandon’s classmate Amber. Perrotta excels at developing colorful, flawed characters in an amusing yet warm manner.
Amanda: “Without realizing it, she’d been part of a hipster reverse migration, legions of overeducated, underpaid twenty-somethings getting squeezed out of the city, spreading beyond the pricey inner suburbs to the more affordable outposts, like Haddington, transforming the places they’d once fled, making them livable again, or at least tolerable.”
Amber: “You were supposed to love the weekend, that all-too-brief window of freedom, your only chance to wash away the stink of boredom with a blast of fun. Use it to drink and fuck yourself into a state of blissful oblivion, the memory of which would power you through the work week that followed, at the end of which you could do it all over again, ad infinitum, or at least until you met the right guy (or gal) and settled down.”
Eve: “It had been like this all winter long. She found it difficult to relax after dark—couldn’t curl up with a book, or settle down long enough to watch a movie from beginning to end. She was full of nervous energy, a nagging jittery feeling that there was somewhere she needed to go, something else—something urgent and important—that she needed to do. But that was the catch: there was nowhere for her to go, and nothing to do.”
Definitely one of the best novels I’ve read this year. Perfect summer reading.
–review by Amy Steele
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Scribner.
The Ambassador’s Wife By Jennifer Steil.
Doubleday| July 2015|389 pages |$26.95| ISBN: 978-0-385-53902-9
When I first heard about this novel I knew I wanted to read it: ambassador’s wife in a Middle Eastern country who gets kidnapped sounded both riveting and exciting. Unfortunately, it’s disappointing because the novel doesn’t delve far enough into the ambassador’s wife as the independent bohemian artist prior to meeting and marrying the ambassador. The basic storyline is that Miranda, an American, married British national Finn who serves as ambassador in a fictional Middle Eastern country. Prior to the marriage, Miranda lived a bohemian lifestyle and dated a woman.
“In the past, only with a woman had she felt her body truly unclench, the result of her politics falling in line with her heart. With men she had always been wary, monitoring her every interaction for signs of a power imbalance.”
Now with Finn, they have round-the-clock protection, servants and bodyguards. For Miranda, she’s given up much of her freedom and also pursuing her art in order to be a steadfast ambassador’s wife. She remains naïve about the dangers associated with being the ambassador’s wife. She thinks she can function just like she did as a single woman in this country. One day hiking with a group of women, she’s kidnapped and it’s an unbearable month-long ordeal that changes everything.
“Despite the tragedies, the restrictions felt slightly absurd to Miranda. She has been hiking in this country for three years without incident, and no one she has encountered on her journeys has ever been less than hospitable. In fact, she has been treated more like royalty in this country than she has been anywhere else in the world.”
There’s not enough color, depth and strength in the details. Steil explains Miranda like this: “In fact, she felt a reflexive and guilty condescension toward such domestic ambitions. Her conscience wrestled with this prejudice, meanness not sitting comfortably in her psyche. Who was she to judge anyone else’s choices? Just because traditional wifely duties were not for her did not make them less worthy.” However, Steil fails to show Miranda as this independent spirit. There are mentions of her teaching her Arab students and encouraging them to paint provocatively but the reader fails to truly feel the power and emotion which art can provoke.
Instead the author turns it into somewhat predictable fodder when she’s kidnapped. Instead of being this cool creative, Miranda is a devoted mom whose child to engulf every aspect of her life instead of remaining that vibrant independent. She truly loses her sense of self by being a mother. In addition, it becomes bogged down in unnecessary detail and for a thriller-esque novel it travels at a snail’s pace. Not good in any way. I applaud author Jennifer Steil’s ability to shape this middle Eastern country and provide readers with an idea what it would be like to be an American navigating such an unusual culture.
I kept reading so that’s the bonus. I would like to read a novel from a female ambassador’s point-of-view. The two novels I’ve read have been from the wives’ perspective. The wives tend to serve as hostesses and do some volunteer work; nothing nearly as challenging as their spouses. Author Jennifer Steil worked as a reporter in Yemen and is currently an ambassador’s wife. I expected way more detail. I’m sure she didn’t want to offend any country but I could certainly recognize either Yemen or Libya in her descriptions. I’m not sure why she chose to fictionalize the country. To me that falls flat. Either create a completely different country or city or don’t faintly hide it and think that no one will figure it out.
–review by Amy Steele–if you like my reviews and interviews please donate so I can continue to write.
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Doubleday.
purchase at Amazon: The Ambassador’s Wife: A Novel
The Dressmaker By Rosalie Ham.
Penguin Books Original| August 11, 2015|256 pages |$16.00| ISBN: 978-0-14-312906-6
“The stranger went back to her room to smoke her cigarettes. She wondered how Paris had found its way to the dilapidated confines and neglected torsos of banal housewives in a rural provence.”
It’s quite possible that I still would have read The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham at some point. However, knowing that Kate Winslet would star in the feature film based on the novel piqued my interest. That’s good and bad. Kate Winslet happens to be one of, if not my all-time favorite actress and not for Titanic. I’ll see anything that she stars in. She’s such an immense talent. Here’s the thing with The Dressmaker: I can’t picture Kate Winslet and Liam Hemsworth together in the lead roles, not only because she’s 15 years older than him and they’re supposed to be close in age [which frequently happens in Hollywood].
After studying dressmaking and fashion design in couture houses throughout Paris, Myrtle “Tilly” Dunnage returns to the small Australian town in which she grew up. Not only did Tilly grow up in Dungatar but she faced much harassment and was basically banished as a child following a false murder accusation. The townspeople find themselves titillated by Tilly’s sewing talents—she can reproduce anything from a fashion magazine and makes lovely outfits to suit any figure—and wary due to her reputation around town.
“Sergeant Farrat said love was as strong as hate and that as much as they themselves could hate someone, they could also love an outcast. Teddy was an outcast until he proved himself an asset and he’d loved an outcast—little Myrtle Dunnage. He loved her so much he asked her to marry him.”
While her fashion business blooms, Tilly finds friendship with cross-dressing police sergeant Farrat and love with Teddy, yet she mostly desires revenge. Tilly proves to be an intriguing character. She’s independent, outspoken and strong despite her past. Her dressmaking and style superb. Is it just provincial pettiness that drove Tilly away and envy that keeps fueling the battle? Ham’s descriptions of the townspeople and fashion burst from the pages and this is a fun, quick summer/weekend read.
–review by Amy Steele
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Penguin Books.
purchase at Amazon: The Dressmaker: A Novel
–Downton Abbey, the novel? Perhaps. This novel’s setting is one of London’s big houses in the early twentieth century. It focuses on class differences. It’s based partly on author France Osbournes’ own family railway dynasty.
Close Your Eyes by Amanda Eyre Ward
Devoured this mystery/thriller and story about self-discovery and an amazing brother-sister relationship. It’s a complete page turner. [longer review soon]
The Pursuit of Alice Thrift by Elinor Lipman
In this engaging story, Lipman delves into an honest and amusing portrayal that follows a late-bloomer in her journey toward self-confidence and contentment. Alice Thrift, an unhappy and socially backward surgical resident in Boston brings her head up and out of her shell through a series of odd events—a mistake in surgery, participation in a birth and the central focus of the book: her doomed relationship with an unsuitable salesman. Lipman creates genuinely warm and hilariously zany characters just like those you might pass in your daily life.
Feminista by Erica Kennedy
Erica Kennedy turned out a feverish bitch lit novel with an astounding eye for the often ridiculousness aspects of social-climbing, societal expectations and prosperity. The central figure 33-year-old Sydney Zamora is outspoken, hard-working and independent and rocks the combat boots. She’s also a bit pissed off at everything. She literally says whatever is on her mind with little editing. This lovely, sassy biracial Manhattan celebrity journalist earns a fantastic salary for glossy magazine Cachet and works very few hours per week. But is she truly happy? Why can’t women have both great careers and great personal lives? Will powerful female executives with families ever NOT be asked how they manage to “balance” it all? Will single women over 30 ever stop being asked if they have plans to “settle down?” Will society stop looking at single women over 35 as anomalies or freaks? In FEMINISTA, Kennedy manages to delve into such multi-faceted issues with adept style, wit and an innate knowledge of what motivates and infuriates today’s women.
BEAT by Amy Boaz
As Beat opens, an American and her 7-year-old daughter explore the Louvre. Days pass and the duo wander the streets of Paris from café to museum to bistro to park. Once it has been established that this is not a vacation for Frances and her daughter Cathy but an escape from the New York suburbs, the reader starts to wonder why this mother moves from one seedy hotel to another with one eye over her shoulder during this excursion. Through flashbacks that piece together a fiery romance, author Amy Boaz methodically reveals the reasons. Through dazzling, smart, dynamic writing, Boaz spins an enigmatic, unique story about dissatisfaction, passionate love, and the value of individual character. Boaz writes vividly and thoughtfully. Beautifully written, Beat often read likes poetry.
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake stands out from other novels with its delightful and richly woven central character Rose. In tasting any homemade food, she has the innate and unusual ability to discover the feelings and secrets of the person who prepared it. When she’s nine, her mom serves her lemon cake and it’s quite upsetting for the young girl. But soon she grows into her special gift. She finds ways to embrace it or avoid it. Rose’s gift and its impact on her life– both positive and negative– slowly unfolds in a quiet yet riveting fashion that overflows with emotion. Rose’s special gift changes her relationships with her mother, father, unusual brother [who also has a strange secret], as well her societal interactions. Aimee Bender writes exquisitely. The fairy-tale magic realism propelling The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is charming and irresistible.
The Swimming Pool by Holly LeCraw
The Swimming Pool contains far too many secrets that could have devastating effects on all involved. The setting: Cape Cod. Siblings Jed and Callie take some time off to stay at the family’s house on the Cape. Jed leaves his job in Atlanta and Callie leaves her husband back in Greenwich, Conn. The story involves intricate family secrets that connect two families in rather unexpected ways. Both Callie and Jed have many questions and unresolved feelings toward the deaths of their parents. LeCraw deftly unravels the past and mixes it with the present through a riveting narrative style.
Tethered by Amy McKinnon
Amy MacKinnon’s an exquisite writer who arranges sentences with precision and care. TETHERED delves into the absolutely necessary, though some might feel morbid field of undertaking. MacKinnon provides the pertinent details and visuals. In Clara Marsh, TETHERED has the ideal detached heroine who left her own painful childhood behind to pursue this unusual profession at a funeral home in Brockton, Mass. [her mother died in a car accident leaving her to be raised by an abusive grandmother]. She leads a quiet and solitary life and prefers it that way. She gardens and even has her own perfect secret garden that few people know about. Gardening is her escape. When a young girl, Trecie, begins hanging around the funeral home and then shows up in child pornography, Clara is reluctantly drawn into a case along with Detective Mike Sullivan. The case is also connected to an unidentified child [nicknamed Precious Doe] who died three years prior. The funeral home gave her a service and buried her. Signs lead to the Reverend and then even to Clara’s own boss who treats her as his daughter. Who really is the mastermind behind this child pornography ring and will it be too late to save Trecie from the same fate as poor Precious Doe? TETHERED is a clever thriller that keeps you turning pages and guessing to the end.
Dead Light District by Jill Edmondson
In Dead Light District, Author Jill Edmondson has added exactly the right amount of research to this novel to provide background information and advance the plot but not bog the reader down in details. Private Investigator Sasha Jackson learns about sex trafficking, sex trade and prostitution—probably more than she’d ever expected. It disgusts and scares Sasha to think about the mistreatment and exploitation of women throughout the world. This provides her with a moral dilemma at times in searching for the missing Mexican call girl, Mary Carmen. Did Mary Carmen leave on her own accord or was she kidnapped or did a former pimp find her? When a pimp is found murdered, for Sasha, all signs point to Mary Carmen and she’s not so sure that’s all that bad a thing. Couldn’t Mary Carmen have acted in self-defense? Edmondson has created the ideal character in Jackson—liberal morals, ex-drummer/singer turned PI, single woman over 35 who’s sassy and fun.
The Social Climber’s Handbook by Molly Jong-Fast
Through acerbic wit and a ruthless plot, author Molly Jong-Fast highlights greed, excess and selfishness in the quick moving The Social Climber’s Handbook. It’s an amusing and sometimes disturbing novel about moneyed and powerful Manhattanites. The clever Jong-Fast provides a diabolical twist making The Social Climber’s Handbook an even juicier read. Dick and Daisy Greenbaum, an unhappy couple with two disaffected young daughters, possess affluence and status but lack an affinity for each other or anything of real importance. What happens when their protected world collapses around them? Jong-Fast applies a critical eye to marriage and family amidst the standards of “the wacky world of wealth.” Some parts are cringe-inducing and others laugh-out-loud.
The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom & Party Girl by Marc Schuster
This is a refreshing novel about a woman facing the realities of getting older and losing her comfort zones through divorce. Using wit, situational humor and deft observations, author Marc Schuster constructs a fast-paced story with various twists and turns.
One night when she’s out with a co-worker, she tries cocaine and soon finds she really likes it. Audrey’s Wonder Mom by day and Party Girl at night. Soon the lines blur and she’s a real mess. Audrey can no longer keep her dark secret. While becoming a drug addict may be extreme, author Marc Schuster uses it as a metaphor for many quick fixes that Americans use to solve their issues. The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom & Party Girl hovers between amusing and tragic but doesn’t cross the line too much in either direction.