The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid – a Book Review

Well, I will be completely up front with you. With my next several reviews, I’m going to have to be very concise. I’m desperately behind. My era of distraction and disillusionment has not yet abated, and I’m going to have to do something about it unless I want to just abandon all hope of completing my goals for this year. I’m not yet ready to do that. Perhaps you will be grateful with me for not being quite so long winded.

Synopsis

Journalist Monique Grant isn’t exactly at the top of the journalistic food chain when she gets an odd request to appear at the home of aging Hollywood icon, Evelyn Hugo. Ms. Hugo is adamant that it will be Monique and only Monique who will hear her life story, and Monique will be the one to write her official biography in full detail. Evelyn is finally ready to share the truth, even if some of it will be shocking to her adoring fans. Monique isn’t stupid enough to believe Evelyn doesn’t have some kind of scheme. As someone who is only vaguely familiar with the famous actress with no known professional or personal ties, she understands fully that Evelyn has a reason for choosing her, a reason she refuses to share until the precise right moment. A reason she promises will be life altering for the both of them.

Review

This book is wildly exciting at the beginning. Not only does Reid do an excellent job of building suspense and intrigue right from the start, but she manages to keep the suspense and intrigue going. Evelyn is an extremely compelling character. You will love to hate her and hate that you love her. More important than anything else about this book, though, is the fact that Reid hasn’t presented a cookie cutter idea of what life in Hollywood is like, she’s portrayed a realistic picture behind the facade of glamour and perfection. This is the beautiful and the ugly. It’s re-humanizing the people we’ve stripped of their humanity by giving them god-like status. The price of fame is extremely steep, and there are no returns or exchanges.

I can tell Reid did her research into this book. It’s a deep-dive into the golden age of Hollywood. It will be especially compelling for someone with a fascination with this era. While central characters are entirely fictional, one can glean some similarities between characters and real celebrities. I mean, the string of husbands is a pretty obvious nod to Elizabeth Taylor even if the details surrounding those relationships were fictional. I got a little bit weary of the actual love story. The constant on again off again nature and the drama of it all was initially touching and heartbreaking, but the longer it went on the power of it faded and I just wanted to be done with it. Overall, I really enjoyed the book and it held my attention even if I found the characters and their motivations extremely frustrating. I mean, that’s true to life, right? People and their motivations really suck. This book, however, did not.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Published June 13, 2017 by Atria Books. ISBN 1501139231. Hardcover. 389 pages.

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City of Ghosts (Cassidy Blake #1) by Victoria Schwab – a Book Review

Victoria Schwab is really quite versatile. She is a prolific writer with more than 20 distinct titles to her name just at the age of 34. That’s quite the breakneck pace of authorship. Admittedly, I’m rather skeptical of authors who crank novels out so quickly. What I often notice is that a superb debut is often followed by a string of lackluster disappointments. I realize much of this is due in part to pressure put on authors by publishers and die-hard fans salivating over what could be the next big obsession. I sympathize, because that must be a dreadful feeling. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not at all claiming Schwab is guilty of this. Frankly, I haven’t read enough of her work to make up my mind, because I’m still relatively new to the Schwab library. If you’ve read quite a lot of her work, please feel free to weigh in in the comments.

Of the ones I have read, I’m impressed by how well she can write for both adults and for young adults. While this series and The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue are both delightfully atmospheric, they are still quite unique in overall tone. LarRue has a much more overtly cerebral tone while the Cassidy Blake series is geared toward young adults with fewer complex themes and a more straightforward story line. The lines between good and evil are pretty clearly drawn and there’s little left to wonder about.

Synopsis

Cassidy Blake is unlike other kids her age. For starters, she had an almost complete brush with death and lived to tell about it. Second, and very related to the first thing, she can see ghosts and can travel to a place she calls “The Veil,” a type of in-between place separating the lands of the living and the dead. Her parents, oddly enough, are ghost-hunters who can not actually see the dead, and they have no idea that their teenage daughter can. When her parents announce that they will be piloting a television show that will take their family around the world to the most haunted cities on planet Earth, Cassidy knows her life is about to get even more complicated than before. This first novel in the Cassidy Blake series takes the family to haunted Edinburgh in Scotland, a city rich in history and teeming with ghosts with unfinished tales. While Cassidy is prepared to encounter ghosts, she is not prepared for the Red Raven, a ghost local legends claim is responsible for the disappearances of numerous children spanning across decades. When the Red Raven turns her gaze to Cassidy, she begins to wonder if her gift is more like a curse.

Review

I was definitely in the mood for this book at the time. I needed something a little lighter, if you can call a spooky story about dead children and the evil woman who lured them to their doom light…

Lighter than a Stephen King book but drowning a Beverly Cleary book with the utter weight of despair. It’s an extremely quick read and it doesn’t tend to drag. As a matter of fact, I got through this one and the second book in the series within one week of listening on the Hoopla app through the library. Also, I love creepy stories. I get positively giddy about Edgar Allan Poe, so a quick story like this is like a breath of fresh air from the complexities and monotony of adult life.

There are also a host of quirky characters. Sometimes Cassidy got on my nerves, but I’m not sure there has been a teenage character who was ever 100% completely charming unless it came from a John Green novel. And even then it’s definitely not a guarantee. Probably because I am the parent, I actually found Cassidy’s parents quite charming. It’s funny that they are off desperately seeking evidence of ghostly activity when their daughter is just around the corner having a full-on conversation with an actual ghost. As usual in a YA novel, the parents are completely oblivious to pretty much everything. Always the last to enter a room stating “what did I miss?” Cassidy is joined in her quest to defeat evil by two others, her best friend, Jacob, and new friend Lara. Lara shares Cassidy’s gift of seeing the dead and Jacob is a ghost. Since Lara spends her time busting ghosts, she does not look kindly on Jacob and feels Cassidy should do her job and send him to the hereafter. Secondary conflict adequately achieved.

Overall, this was an enjoyable book that provided plenty of excitement and entertainment. I was willing to go straight to volume two, which is a good sign. I did take a break before picking up the third one, simply because I was in the mood for something different, but I will return and finish the series one day. I give this one 4 stars.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Published August 28, 2018 by Scholastic Audio. ISBN 1338310801. Runtime 5 hrs, 2 mins. Read by Reba Buhr.

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Don’t Cry for Me by Daniel Black – a Book Review

Let me preface this review by stating that as a white heterosexual female, I’m not exactly the target audience for this book, but I still found it to be quite possibly the most powerful and illuminating read of the year. Every letter of this epistolary novel made me deeply contemplate some aspect of humanity or it broke my heart, sometimes both in equal measure. The only reason pain destroys us a little at a time is we don’t give ourselves time to contemplate it. We suppress and deny until what remains is a shell of who we once were. Empathy doesn’t flee the human heart overnight. This can be on a more personal level or on a grand scale that alters human history. As people, we can stop ourselves from thinking, but we can’t stop ourselves from feeling. What happens when one allows emotions to overtake without the benefit of thought? People get hurt. That’s why I’ll never stop arguing that proper education is the solution to our societal problems. And a proper education includes fiction. In fact, literature is essential to a proper understanding of history. I am fascinated by history. I love history. But the history I love is not facts and figures.

The history I love is not the date a slave ship landed on the shore. It’s the feeling of the sand beneath the feet of a woman who is grappling with grief from being ripped from her family. It is fear. It is thirst. It is hunger. It’s the confusion she feels and the weight of loss, both the loss of her freedom and of any future legacy she will be able to have because even her name was stolen. It’s the sadness of the young man who will sit in front of a computer one day wanting to know where he came from but knowing he’ll never know. How can you find a person whose sheer existence was erased simply because those in power decided her value didn’t extend beyond the work forced out of her tired and broken hands? Knowing the date asks you to think. Contemplating her existence demands that you feel.

Daniel Black, in his discussion of Don’t Cry For Me, (extremely worthwhile and inspiring watch) said “books transform the heart.” They show us the real history. Even if it’s imagined, it is still the truth, because the truth of any time period lies in the human stories. The real root of the argument surrounding critical race theory is that some people don’t want you to contemplate what that woman and all those like her felt. They want you to keep forgetting she existed at all, because admitting to her existence would force them to admit to the existence of the people who still live with the burdens placed upon them by such an ugly era in our country’s history. Do we really want a whole generation of adults who have only been taught to think about the convenient truths but have never been challenged to feel the complete depth of all truth? Empathy does not grow from apathy.

This is a deeply personal book for Daniel Black. Black is a vibrant and eloquent human who explores difficult realities that have plagued the black community for years. Historically black men in America have been tasked with providing fierce protection, of ensuring the survival of those he loves. The love of a black father can only take one form, his masculinity must be hard edged and focused solely on providing the necessities of survival. The necessities of the heart are for the women and girls. A man doesn’t cry, and a man raises boys who don’t cry. In Don’t Cry For Me, Black introduces us to Jacob, a dying man who is grappling with regrets never spoken aloud. Before he dies, death grants him one last gift of time to seek absolution. With the time he has left, he writes letters to his son, Isaac. Jacob and Isaac haven’t seen each other in more than a decade. The letters are the olive branch gifted from father to son, recognizing and apologizing for his wrongs, for the mental and emotional bruises he inflicted upon the person he was supposed to love without fail and without the burden of expectation.

In literature, the exploration of systemic racism and prejudice is extremely common. There are numerous powerful reads that examine the relationship between the white and black communities and the historical context that’s laid the foundation for the modern issues that are still rampant. Those issues are still explored in Black’s text, but there’s much more focus on the familial relationships and the festering ills that exist within the black community. It’s really easy to look from the inside out and highlight the pains inflicted on your community by another, but it takes a special kind of bravery to look within your own community and tell the world that there are still ways you could be better. That your ancestors and their ancestors had a lot to learn, and you’re still learning. We can recognize they did the best they could with what they had but they could have been better. They could have said I’m Sorry. And they could have said I Love You.

Healing comes with being able to ask for forgiveness just as much as it comes from being able to forgive. While Black focuses the text specifically on the black community, this argument applies to all. There are men and women of every race, religion, and affiliation walking around with scars and resentments inflicted on them by their parents. Black is showing us that judgment must be set aside to make way for enlightenment, for the ideas of masculinity and femininity that have been presented to us to no longer be given weight. It’s ok to love and honor without expectation, control, or cruelty. The world would be a better place if we didn’t have to reach our deathbeds before we faced and spoke aloud the sheer depth of our regrets.

I realize I haven’t given you a whole lot of information about this novel, but what I hope I have done is told you how it impacted me and how it changed me. How perfect is a book that makes you both think and feel in equal measure? This character of Jacob is so real. He’s so vivid. His letters to his son are visceral and unflinching in their honesty. Sure, this book’s message is primarily for a father, but there’s something important for all parents, including mothers. The character I most identified with was Isaac’s mother. If we are being honest, until Jacob’s letters I don’t think Isaac truly knew the depth of his mother’s pain. Her verbalization of that pain and Isaac’s understanding of that would have offered freedom and comfort to both. I’m not sure at this point in my life I could be so completely open about my history to my children. I don’t know that I could bear the ugly parts of my soul to them as a way to help them understand who I am or how I came to be that way. Not just yet, anyway. But what I can do is always say I’m sorry when I screw up and always be willing to tell them how much I love them.

Do the whole world a favor and read this book and let Daniel Black transform your heart. Then read another book. And another. And another. If more people picked up books like this and allowed themselves to truly feel the power of loss and regret and the beauty of a heart transformed just before it’s too late, we could transform the world before it’s too late. 5 Stars for Dr. Daniel Black.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Published Feb 1, 2022 by Harlequin Audio. ISBN 1488213178. Runtime 7 hrs 28 mins. Read by the author.

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The Push by Ashley Audrain – a Book Review

I thought about posting merely a series of GIFs exhibiting various emotions as representative of my thoughts on this book. I guess I’ll give you a little bit more than that. But, for the record, my search for said GIFs would include such search terms as WTF, OMG, and holy fuckballs, Batman.

I have a feeling in the history of motherhood there hasn’t been one mother who hasn’t worried that she wouldn’t feel an instant connection to her child prior to giving birth. There’s this prevailing notion that the bond between mother and child is natural and inevitable, but sometimes this isn’t the case. And for those of us motherhood doesn’t exactly come natural to, the ones hesitant to hold friend’s babies and such (you know who you are), this feeling is a bit more pronounced. For Blythe Connor, there’s an instant feeling of disconnection that over time begins to plague her with thoughts that something just isn’t right with her daughter, Violet. How can Blythe have a lasting, irrevocable bond with her son but not with her daughter? Everyone else, including Blythe’s husband Fox, believes Violet to be a completely normal little girl. The problem, in their eyes, rests with Blythe. It’s all in her head. She’s manufactured a problem where a problem doesn’t exist.

When a tragedy occurs that changes their lives in an instant, Blythe remains the only person who thinks she knows the ugly truth of what her daughter is truly capable. She finds herself further alienated from her family, falling down into a spiral of depression and anxiety that causes her to question her own sanity. We, as the reader, also reach a point at which we have no idea what is true and what exists only in the realm of Blythe’s fragile imagination. Blythe is the ultimate unreliable narrator, yet we can’t help but to feel a kinship with her in our collective confusion. The result is as thrilling a narration as it is disturbing.

This isn’t necessarily an original idea for a story, but it takes its own original spin on the tale. To me, it’s very reminiscent of both Lionel Shriver’s 2003 novel We Need to Talk About Kevin and William Landay’s 2012 novel Defending Jacob. All three are excellent, compelling novels, but under no circumstances should any of them be read by any mamas currently pregnant with their first child. Just don’t do it. Put the book down and wait until you’re home with that adorable, cooing smiley bundle of love that is a perfect example of what a non-sociopathic infant should be. And don’t worry. The first time you duck to avoid the shoe or toy that’s been chucked at your head, little Billy is not actually homicidal, because all toddlers are a bit insane. He will more than likely grow out of it.

Ok, perhaps Anakin Skywalker wasn’t the best person to bring up at this precise moment. He had some good years, right? Moving on.

In short, this is a difficult novel. Trigger warning for gaslighting assholes in fiction. That’s a common one, right? And thematically there’s just so much psychological torture in this book. And that ending! I’m going to shut up, but holy fuckballs, Batman!

Side note: As expected, this is what comes up when one searches “holy fuckballs, batman” in the gif bar:

Ashley Audrain definitely made a name for herself with this debut novel, and I’m pleased to see her second novel, The Whispers, has an expected release date in March of 2023. Once again, the novel seems to be centered around the theme of motherhood and tragedy, and is almost guaranteed to bring some feels. If you’d like to check it out prior to its release, you can do so here.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Published Jan 5, 2021 by Pamela Dorman Books. ISBN 1984881663. Hardcover. 307 pages.

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The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller – a Book Review

Let me start this review by stating I love what Madeline Miller does. There’s a relatively new push in the entertainment industry to take classic stories of good versus evil, hero versus villain, and add layers of complexity where there once was a simple formula of black and white. Not to say this is a completely new phenomenon, but we’re seeing it pop up on a much larger scale in recent years. We’ve seen this in the Disney universe with movies like Maleficent and Cruella. We’ve seen it in television reboots like Cobra Kai where we find out Johnny is not just a bully and a meathead but a complicated human with a sad past who just might be deserving of redemption. And pretty goddamn sexy, to boot. Daniel, on the other hand, does have the capability of being an arrogant douche who could use a wake-up call. To be fair, Daniel was occasionally a dumb little twerp in the original Karate Kid movies despite being presented as “the good guy.” I’m not complaining about that. Every teenager is a dumb little twerp at some point. It’s amazing any of us survive to adulthood. Let me tell you, I and millions of other fans are completely here for this kind of work that turns the tables on the formulaic good versus evil trope we are all used to! And now we get to love and appreciate both Daniel and Johnny in equal measure and see that the true power of their story is taken when both are given equal narrative attention. Yay for complexity. What just happened?

For literature fans, we’re all back here sort of rolling our eyes at the lateness of television and movies in finally figuring out this should be not just a periodic thing but a common thing. Complexity has always been the domain of a good novelist. Writers like Miller are taking old tales of folklore and myth and adding layers to characters we all actually know quite well. In the case of her 2018 novel, Circe, which I quite adore, she was able to take even more poetic license than she was for Song of Achilles. In the Greek myths, Circe was nothing more than a figure in passing. Miller was able to take what we know of her story and give her a voice, a voice that proves to be quite powerful and captivating.

With Achilles, anyone who isn’t familiar with his name has been living under a very large rock. He’s given his own hero tale within the Greek myths, a tale which has spawned numerous appearances for him in novel, television and film. Most notably, Brad Pitt portrayed the great hero in the 2004 film, Troy. What I will say for this film is they also did a great job at adding some complexity to the characters we all know so well. Madeline Miller kicked this up a notch and added a unique blend of traits that made us question what it truly is to be a hero and challenged the traditional ideas of masculinity and heroism. This is a refreshing change to a genre that typically is rife with all the worst forms of toxic masculinity.

The challenge Miller has here is people already know the story of Achilles, Patroclus, and the Trojan war. Many readers, in fact, know how the story is going to end. So how do you keep readers invested in a story that’s already spoiled due to the fact it’s a retelling? Poetic license really helps here. I noted some very important changes, most notably the lack of Achilles’ immortality save for that one vulnerable place. I mean, it is a little bit silly if you think about it. No man or woman has only one vulnerability, and their vulnerability is rarely ever simply physical. Miller presents Achilles as being a man plagued by multiple vulnerabilities. Quite simply, he can be a real dick. He may be well intentioned, but he is prideful, and pride can bring about disastrous consequences. Just go to an encyclopedia and open it to “war” and you’ll see all kinds of reasons pride has brought chaos, death and destruction. Presenting readers with such a big change as this plants a seed of doubt into whether or not Miller will take the story in the same direction ultimately as the original myth. And no, I’m not going to tell you whether she does or not. You will have to read for yourself.

Overall, this is a fiercely original take on something that could very well have been tired and overused. As usual, the novel is full of Miller’s expert and lyrical but unpretentious prose, making for a quick and enjoyable read. In this case, I listened to the audio as beautifully narrated by Frazer Douglas. Seriously, that man has a sexy voice to go with some pretty erotic narration. Blanche Devereaux approved, indeed.

In short, whether or not you are a fan of the classic myth of Achilles, this is a worthwhile and engaging read. Miller has created something unique out of something often overdone without completely ruining the original. 4 stars.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Published March 6, 2012 by HarperAudio. ISBN0062115588. Runtime 11 hrs, 15 mins. Narrated by Frazer Douglas.

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All’s Well by Mona Awad – a Book Review

I would say the power of a book lies in whether or not it delivers to a reader a simple story or a true reading experience. I’m not necessarily saying one or the other is a good or a bad thing. You can have a great story that is pretty unforgettable, but that story doesn’t perhaps bring with it all the aspects of a full reading experience. It’s sort of the difference between going on a vacation by taking an air conditioned tour bus and slapping on hiking boots and footing it across the countryside. The first is easy and enjoyable. The second is difficult but personally fulfilling in a way you couldn’t get from the first. That begs the question, what does it take to live an experience? Just think of a time in your life that you had a mind bending life altering experience? What did that feel like? Maybe it felt good, in a way. Or, at least, the end of that experience brought some clarity. It changed you, altered your perception of the world or of yourself. But during that experience you probably ran through a wide range of emotions. Amusement, frustration, fear, confusion, sadness, exhaustion, to name a few. Or maybe you had absolutely no fucking clue what you’d taken away from it. Not only is that completely valid, but it’s pretty much the entirety of human existence wrapped into one analogy. Do any of us really know what the hell is going on or why we are here? No, we don’t.

Reading All’s Well is a bit like that. On the surface, it’s a tragedy detailing how one simple moment can turn a person’s world upside down. Miranda Fitch was a talented and accomplished rising star in the world of theater when a tragic accident abruptly brought a halt to her career. She takes a job as a theater director at a small college while she fights the physical and emotional agony of chronic pain. If there’s one thing Mona Awad does well it’s to represent the sheer alienating force of invisible debilitation. A sufferer of chronic pain becomes a pariah, someone to avoid at all costs because they are a “downer.” Even those tasked with helping alleviate the pain treat Miranda as if the pain is all in her head and she’d be totally fine if she just decided that she was.

Here’s the interesting thing, though. While we desperately want to sympathize with Miranda, we do find her utterly maddening. I can fully admit that if I were in utter misery from sunup to sundown and everywhere in between, I would also be a hateful bitter pain in the ass, but that does not make the experience of getting to know Miranda any less frustrating. As we watch Miranda descend deeper into the depths of her addiction to pain killers and depression bordering on psychosis, we can’t help but to simultaneously pity and detest her. It’s a very human response to wish pain on others if even for a moment simply so they may understand what causes you to suffer. As Lewis Capaldi says, “I want someone to hurt just to know how it feels.”

Events in All’s Well take a turn for the classically fantastical when Miranda meets three mysterious men who can grant her the wish to not only share her pain but to transfer it to someone else, freeing herself from it but placing the burden on someone else. As with any good Faustian tale, everything comes with a price. Nothing is ever so simple as just being ok again. Frankly, no character was more insufferable than “ok Miranda.” I’m going to refrain from saying much more besides to tell you that Awad will leave you questioning everything, including reality and perception itself. I feel this is one of those books that is up to reader interpretation on a very grand scale. It would be an incredible book club pick if you feel your group has the patience and fortitude to deal with Miranda for long enough to finish the book.

The last thing I will address is the Shakespeare tie-in. Miranda, as the theater director, chooses the not as well liked All’s Well That Ends Well for the student performance, a decision that draws ire from her students who wish to perform in the more well-known Macbeth. While a familiarity with these plays could be beneficial to the reader and enhance the experience, it’s in no way a requirement for a perfect understanding of the book. In fact, Awad does an excellent job of showing the reader why the play is relevant to her story without making it too obvious or awkward. I also kind of appreciate how Awad pokes fun at society’s lack of attention span. The average person professes to like Shakespeare because we are supposed to in order to appear well read and intellectual, but we make sure to stick to the ones we’ve all seen a million times because we couldn’t possibly learn something new. This is the way. Sorry to steal your line, Mando.

In short, this book is both a brilliant look at addiction and mental health, but it’s also infuriating and deeply stressful. It will certainly make you think and possibly leave you a bit confused, but it’s a worthwhile read from which you will most assuredly bring something valuable. 4 Stars.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Published August 3, 2021 by Simon & Schuster. ISBN 1982169554. Hardcover. 352 pages.

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The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett – a Book Review

Well, it’s positively shameful that my last review was posted in February. Frankly, I’m so far behind on reviews not sure how I will catch up, but my next few may be pretty short. I have still been reading, but the overwhelming nature of life lately has left me both without time or motivation to put my thoughts in writing. Frankly, that’s not really fair to the books or the authors who took the time to put pen to paper with their own thoughts. But that’s the nature of life, as well.

Synopsis

Identical twins born in a small light-skinned black community in the South take diverging pathways in adulthood. Desiree stays in Mallard with her daughter, embracing her identity as a black woman in the South. Stella flees her home and disappears, identifying as white as a way to increase her station in life. The story spans decades and geography to show the result their choices have on their own lives and those of the people they love.

Review

It has been quite some time since I’ve finished The Vanishing Half. What a book it is. This novel has one of the most compelling and unique storylines I’ve ever read, and it makes for an excellent discussion book for book groups. It’s very much about identity. On the surface, racial identity is at the forefront, but that’s not the full spectrum of what this book explores. Under the surface are discussions of gender identity, friendship, dynamics and expectations of family, and class. There are more thematic elements peppered throughout, which makes this book a fascinating exploration of the human condition.

The most fascinating thing about this book was it’s tackling of the race issue and prejudice in general. There were all these multi-layered varying degrees of racism, including among members of the black community. Mallard, though a black town, was portrayed as being intolerant of those with darker skin. They took pride in the years’ long dilution of the African ancestry among their members. Desiree’s daughter, with her dark skin, was bullied and rejected by her peers as inferior. This was positively mind boggling to me. This is representative of the intense reach of ugly and hateful ideas that permeate everything they touch. If you hear a lie long enough and with enough passion and intensity, it becomes your truth even if an outsider looking in could see the notion for what it is: purely ridiculous. Damn, if that’s not relevant today, I don’t know what is!

One of the most powerful themes in this book was the relation of identity to happiness. Is a rejection of one’s identity in order to find happiness a benefit or an obstacle at achieving true happiness? Is it really better to seek a new and better life if it means denying our vulnerabilities and losing sight of our truth? Now this next part is going to get mildly spoiler-y so skip if you like, but I feel it’s important to say. This book, and this metaphor in general, would be incomplete without Reese. Reese is a transgender character. In the novel, we see Stella rejecting her true identity because embracing it would be difficult. She desperately wants to be seen as someone she’s not because she believes who she really is will be rejected by society. She does, essentially, vanish. Reese has the opposite character arc. Who he truly is inside is rejected and ridiculed by a large sector of the population, and he’s faced with the choice to either embrace and take on that rejection, or continue hiding his truth because life would be easier that way. Stella craves camouflage. Reese craves transparency and clarity. Both want acceptance, but they want it for different reasons. One way leads to enlightenment. One way leads to a mental prison in which one is alone in the dark without the comfort originally sought.

Wow, profound stuff. I’ll stop spoiling things now. This isn’t really a book about what happens. Anyone reading for a thrilling revelation is going to be left with disappointment. This is a book so much rooted in the journey. Sometimes the journey is slow and not all that much happens. I didn’t feel quite as connected to these characters as I could have been. I’m not sure why that is, but I felt more like the outsider looking in than I did an active participant immersed in the story. It’s like watching a sitcom and you’re really getting into it and then that laugh track disrupts your thoughts and you realize just how far you’re being held at arm’s length. But don’t expect a laugh track here, this certainly is no comedy.

Overall, this book is incredibly thought provoking, and it is very well written. I will definitely read something else by Bennett when I get the chance.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Published June 2, 2020 by Riverhead Books. ISBN 9780349701462. 343 pages.

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Leonard (My Life as a Cat) by Carlie Sorosiak – a Book Review

My last review for The Bell Jar was super heavy, so I thought I’d follow it up with something super fun. My daughter, who is 7, is reading well above her grade level so we’ve moved on to chapter books. On one trip to the library, we stumbled across this one. She is feline obsessed, so naturally we had to pick it up even it was a bit mature still for her as a middle grade book. Look at that cover! How could you not want to know what lay within the pages? So I read a little of it to her each night, and I think I liked it even better than she did.

Synopsis

Our protagonist is a member of an alien race whose members are each given the opportunity to travel to Earth and live in the body of an Earth creature for a certain amount of time. Think of it like a vision quest. They get to choose which Earth creature they will live as for their time on Earth, and our alien decides he wants to be human. Specifically, he wants to be a park ranger at Yellowstone, because there’s nothing more badass than a Yellowstone park ranger. Unfortunately, something goes a little wrong on his journey to Earth and he arrives in the body of a cat in South Carolina, hundreds of miles from his pickup spot in Yellowstone. As a space alien who has not intricately studied how to be a cat, he finds himself in a little bit of a predicament. He doesn’t have much time to get to his destination to meet with his people before he is stuck in the body of a cat forever. With the help of a wonderful little girl and the quirky people who surround her, our furry hero just might complete his quest, and he might still learn something about being human after all.

Review

Everything about this book is wonderful. The cover is delightful, the characters are quirky and magical, the pacing is just about perfect with a wonderful mix of action thrown in to keep things interesting, and it’s ultimately a very heartwarming tale that all kids should read. It’s also laugh out loud funny in parts. Any child who has ever felt misunderstood, lonely, or wondered why they were so different than everyone else will find a friend in Olive, Leonard’s human companion. And adults might find themselves contemplating what it means to be truly blessed, that love manifests in many different ways. While my daughter isn’t really ready yet to contemplate these more cerebral themes, it does give us the opportunity to talk, her asking questions and me helping connect the dots. That’s what makes books like this so special. On another note, cat lovers will be extra amused by Leonard’s journey discovering the workings of his feline form, how exactly one such as Leonard goes about learning to eat, bathe (particularly amusing), and communicate as a cat.

Young or old alike, I recommend this beautiful story.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Published April 13, 2021 by Walker Books US. ISBN 1536207705. 240 pages.

Posted in Children's fiction, Middle Grade, Science Fiction, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 7 Comments

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath – a Very Different Kind of Book Review

Every now and then, there’s a story behind the story. Fiction is a veil cast over a haunting reality. Many authors’ own lives were as intriguing and sometimes heartbreaking as the tales they wove into the tapestry of literary canon. Those like Kurt Vonnegut, as discussed in my review for SlaughterhouseFive, and Sylvia Plath in The Bell Jar, wove pieces of themselves into their own sections of that tapestry. Their books are about themselves even if they created a new identity to carry the weight of themselves to new eyes, this new persona creating somewhat of a distance in the intimate nature of the truth they were telling.

Sylvia Plath would be plagued by mental health issues her entire life. She battled a fierce and all consuming depression and was treated for psychosis, oftentimes by doctors who didn’t really understand her affliction. Supposedly well meaning doctors pumped her full of drugs which left her feeling like a shell of a human, her creativity deadened beneath a fog of chemically-induced calm. Electroshock therapy was commonly used for patients like Plath. Pretty much any time prior to the present was a nightmare for those suffering from mental illness. It wasn’t understood, and victims of it were maligned and ostracized, often institutionalized because no one knew what the hell else to do with them, and truly helping them was outside the range of abilities and knowledge for psychologists and psychiatrists of the day. We’ve come a long way since then but still have farther to go.

The Bell Jar, one of the most important works of fiction about mental health, is a raw and intimate look into the early experiences Sylvia had in the 1950’s. It’s full of sadness, fear, isolation, and torment. Esther Greenwood is a mirror image of Sylvia Plath, living the events of her life and experiencing the internal torments she’d endured a decade before, as Sylvia wrote this novel in the 1960’s. Sometimes Esther’s thoughts are extremely uncomfortable for us readers. But, if we’re being authentic with ourselves, we know this is because our own thoughts have a tendency to be uncomfortable from time to time. There is no sugar-coating her personality. There’s no going easy on us to assuage our delicate sensibilities. Frankly, this lack of artifice makes us feel more for Esther.

If you do follow my blog, you know I’ve fallen desperately behind on my postings. In truth, I feel I’ve encased myself in a bell jar of my own making. For Esther, the bell jar was a manifestation of her madness. For me, well I haven’t quite worked out exactly what it is. I’ve been plagued by mental distraction. I’ve isolated myself from those I should be trusting with the truth and sought comfort in ways that aren’t helpful or constructive. I’ve wanted validation for the wrong reasons, I suppose. I’m opening up about some really serious things at the moment, and really the only reason I am is that I know these words won’t really be read. Not by anyone who actually knows me in real life, anyway. This blog I really started as a way to try to make myself feel more like the me I used to be and the me I wanted to be all those years ago before I gave it all up and settled because it was the easy thing to do. And now, from my own little isolated bell jar, I’m wondering what it all was for.

I used to be a rock, one with sharp edges that buoyed me from the most difficult things, the one who was always there for other people because I didn’t really need anyone to be there for me. I had this. I was strong, resilient, didn’t give hardship a second thought because it was immaterial, only a stepping stone I had to pass. Those hardships were just smaller pebbles standing in my way, and they were easy to pass. Now? Well, I’m stuck in my bell jar. Like Esther, every day becomes just a little more difficult. I vacillate between numbness and complete despair, crying for hours because I just don’t know how to stop. And thanks to all those years I spent being the rock for everyone else, now I’m just a pebble floating on the surface of the water, my edges worn away by the rushing streams of everyone else’s pain, my pebble getting smaller and smaller. And I’m farther away from anyone than I’ve ever been. I don’t know how to reach out and come back to shore.

I’ve pushed people away not because I don’t want them in my life but because I don’t feel like they need me in theirs, whether they want me there or not. That can’t be normal. I saw that in Esther, too. The need to be alone in her madness manifested as judgment of other people, but it was often a reflection of herself. Don’t get too close, you’ll just fuck it up.

If anyone is reading this, I don’t want it to sound too dire. The truth is, I need to come to terms with all this. I consider it step one in finally pulling myself back up, which I am determined to do. The tiniest pebble is still made of the same tough material as the bigger rock, after all. It just has to fight a little bit harder. It has to weather the blows from the bigger rocks who haven’t lost their sharp edges yet. I guess that’s the evidence that there is still that little voice in the back of my head urging me to keep going, to take care of myself. Ultimately, I’ve still got this.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Published 2006 by Harper Perennial Modern Classics (first published 1963). ISBN 9780061148514. 294 pages.

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The Lady and Her Monsters by Roseanne Montillo – a Book Review

Still working through my reviews from 2021, I come to the Biography for the reading challenge. This is an interesting one in that, while it does surround the life of Mary Shelley, it puts a particular focus on the influences surrounding her creation of her most famous work, Frankenstein: Or the Modern Prometheus. In doing so, Montillo discusses the lives and work of notable scientists and doctors who were experimenting with electricity and reanimation of cadavers. Many people see Victor Frankenstein as a fictional character without realizing he was the embodiment of the vision of greatness in the minds of many a real man. He achieved in fiction what the most ambitious scientific dreamers were attempting, reanimating the dead.

This introduction of a rather odd period of scientific progress does two things for the book. It introduces a moderate amount of “Ewwwww” but also a little humor in a pretty twisted and sick way. I mean, science is a trial and error kind of thing. Will you successfully reanimate a body and bring a man back to life or will his head explode and splatter the rich people in the front row? NOBODY KNOWS!

There are serious overtones to this book. Number one, it brings to light some issues with the criminal justice system during this time period. Many of the bodies acquired by scientists for their experiments came straight from the gallows to the lab. This was a brutal time in which civil liberties weren’t at all considered. Men, sometimes mere boys, were hanged for crimes that would today receive not much more than a slap on the wrist. Often they were innocent. If not from there, they came through the lucrative and mafia-esque criminal enterprise of grave robbing. There was a very fine line separating the realm of science and the seedier shadow world of European society.

All of this historical scientific information was juxtaposed with the details of Mary Shelley’s life, which was far from a happy one. It was one full of loss and strife and containing blatant skepticism from male members of the scholarly community for her intellect and literary achievements. She was ridiculed and rejected by polite society for her bohemian lifestyle, just as her own mother was in her day. Sure, Frankenstein is a marvel of achievement in science fiction, but it’s also a novel rich with emotional depth. Scholars often only focus on the predominantly male aspects in the text, the creation through science, intellectual achievement, a piecing together of dead flesh and reanimation to something with breath and vitality. They often ignore the presence of the female, natural creation through birth, loss of the self, of the humanity of a nameless creature who will never experience love or the nurturing touch of a parent. I in no way mean to imply these two spheres exist solely within the realms of the two sexes, but merely that the scholarly thought at the time distinguished them as such.

Mary Shelley would give birth to five children. She would bury four of them and lose another to miscarriage that almost claimed her life. We’d be remiss to ignore the fact that Mary Shelley’s grief is a haunting presence in this story. Her nameless creature is a reflection of the nameless child whose birth and death preceded the writing, that the rejection of the creature is a manifestation of the motherly guilt that comes with not being able to follow your baby into the frightening world of the unknown. This guilt is totally unjustified, but any mother who has lost a child will tell you its presence is felt just the same.

When we focus on the creature as being a monster, we see him as a villain. I’ve never read the creature as a villain, but rather a lonely and desperate individual whose experiences with nothing but rejection pushed him further into despair. The torment Victor endures after rejecting his creation is a manifestation of the torment felt by a parent who loses a child. In many ways, it’s a novel about mental health, both that of the creature and the creator. It’s about loss and the fundamental change that a person experiences when living through loss so deep it alters every aspect of the self. This is something Mary Shelley understood far too intimately, and Montillo does delve into the depression that afflicted Mary Shelley’s years following the publication of her novel. This depression that was magnified every time she experienced the loss of yet another child.

Writing her masterpiece was a catharsis that could only have come from her own mind, despite the prevailing thought at the time that a woman couldn’t have penned such a work. It was originally published anonymously, nameless authorship in homage to the nameless tragic hero of its text. Many would assume her husband, Percy, was responsible for its writing. Well, the joke is on them, because the average person probably couldn’t name even one thing a bunch of those famous men of the time wrote, but literally everyone is familiar with the name Frankenstein in some capacity, even if they only know that stupid green Halloween caricature that bears no comparison to Mary Shelley’s tragic hero. Her revolutionary work was the perfect blend of the masculine and feminine spheres of society, thus proving that the human self is not complete without the merger of the two. Not to mention, she created a whole new damn genre. No man would be publishing science fiction today had a woman not paved the way for him. Take that, you sexist assholes of the 1800’s.

Ok, wow… I totally stopped talking about the book I’m reviewing and moved to Mary Shelley, because she’s amazing. Frankly, I wish Montillo had discussed her a lot more in this book and focused a lot less on her relationships with the men, like Percy and Lord Byron. Given the fact that we got very little information about Shelley’s writing process, the two parts seemed a bit disjointed. This is largely because much of the theory behind it is conjecture on the part of the author merely because it makes sense. Of course Mary Shelley was influenced by the work of scientists of the time, because her masterpiece reflects their prevailing thoughts and mirrors the experimentation that permeated the scientific community. However, from what I could tell there isn’t really a whole lot that we have to actually tie those two things together besides that conjecture. Perhaps there’s just not much in the written record showing that Mary Shelley actually communicated with or studied the work of scientists. In that respect this book felt a little bit like ping-ponging back and forth between the science stuff and the biography stuff and they didn’t really feel very connected unless you did some mental stretching.

This is an extremely fascinating concept and a very unique perspective on Mary Shelley’s life. For anyone with an interest in Mary Shelley and her most famous literary duo, this is a great start even if it could have been a bit more well executed. The research concerning the science at the time seemed a lot more thorough than the research into Shelley. The things I discussed here in my review were merely alluded to by Montillo and not actually discussed, which I feel was a mistake. Frankenstein is not just a novel about science, it’s a novel about what it means to be human. Overall, 3 stars for this one. Enjoyable but missed the mark in certain ways.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Published February 4, 2013 by William Morrow. Paperback published October 22, 2013. ISBN 006202583X. 336 pages.

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