Wednesday, July 26, 2017

"The Dollhouse" by Fiona Davis

The DollhouseThis novel was exactly my type of summer read - compelling with a solid plot,  but not dense. I could get lost in the intriguing characters, but still read it quickly.

The Dollhouse is the Barbizon Hotel for Women, an old New York City apartment building whose oldest residents remember the scandals from when it was an all-women residence. Perhaps most famous as Sylvia Plath's residence in "The Bell Jar," this novel centers on a fictitious scandal from the 1950s.  Rose is living there in the present day, looking for a story to jump start her journalism career. As she hears rumors about Darby, one of the remaining residents from when the building housed only women, and and some sort of deahtly squabble with a maid, Rose decides this may be the story she should tell.

The novel alternates between Darby's and Rose's timelines, and Darby's is particularly fleshed out with great side characters and a jazz club. The present-day side is interesting for its unraveling of the mystery, more than for Rose's actual life. Nevertheless, the mystery is well-plotted, so I'm wary of saying anything that could accidentally give something away. This book sold me on Fiona Davis and I am excited to see what she does next. Luckily, I already received and eARC through NetGalley of her next novel, "The Address," which will be released next week!

Verdict: Affirmed. A well-plotted mystery that would be a good change of pace for someone who sticks with chick lit or literary fiction, or for a thriller reader who needs something lighter for the summer.

"The Dollhouse" by Fiona Davis, published August 25, 2016 by Dutton Books.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

"All the Lives I Want" by Alana Massey

FTC Disclosure: I received an e-ARC from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

I requested this book based on its subtitle - "Essays about My Best Friends Who Happen to be Famous Strangers." Essay collections are great to begin with -- add some pop culture commentary about people that are in my fairly limited scope of reference, and I am in!

Massey unpacks the way society views female celebrities like Britney Spears, Amber Rose, and Anjelica Huston. Writing about Lil' Kim and Nicki Minaj, she looks at the feud between the two and explores how the two were pushed into a beef they may not have necessarily wanted, forced to confront an artificial notion that there could only be one widely-recognizable female rapper. She looks at the ways Sylvia Plath has been idolized by young women and the precedent set for today's social media, explaining "Sylvia was an early literary manifestation of a young woman who takes endless selfies and posts them with vicious captions calling herself fat and ugly...The ongoing act of self-documentation in a world that punishes female experience (that doesn't aspire to maleness) is a radical declaration that women are within our rights to contribute to the story of what it means to be human."

Massey's book stands out most because she pairs these views with insights and experiences from her own life. She explores what Amber Rose means to her as a former stripper, and how she relates to Britney Spears' having to deal with incessant media coverage owing to her own struggle with an eating disorder. In each essay, Massey looks at how society is reacting to and consuming female celebrities and characters, how culture re-writes their stories and proscribes new personalities and meaning to them. She ultimately begins to look at how women can re-claim their icons and recognize these women for their varied strengths and dignities. She starts with what they mean to her.

Verdict: Affirmed. Whether you're a fan of pop culture looking for a deep but fresh take, or looking for new, honest writing about one woman's experiences, this essay collection is a great read.

"All the Lives I Want" by Alana Massey, published February 7, 2017 by Grand Central Publishing.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

"The Hammer of Thor" by Rick Riordan

This series is on fire. I don't even think I can write a proper review, I just need to gush.

Plot is normal Riordan -- Thor lost his hammer, Magnus and crew have to go find it. I mentioned in my post on "The Sword of Summer" (Book 1 in this series) that his books are a bit formulaic, but the diversity shines. And then this book just stepped up the game even more.

In this book we see two fantastic developments. First, Alex. Alex is a gender-fluid character and child of Loki. She is fiery and intense and a possible love interest for Magnus. Moreover, the book naturally handles explanations of gender fluidity in age-appropriate terms without feeling like a random info-dump or a lecture. It's just a discussion of who she is, like any discussion of Blitzen as a dwarf or Samirah as a Valkyrie.

And speaking of Samirah, we see a lot more about how she balances her duties as a Valkyrie with her values and beliefs as a Muslim. We get the technical discussion of how she reconciles her faith with her existence in a world of Norse deities, and a deeper exploration of her culture and family life. Add this to meeting Hearth's horrible family and learning more about his upbringing, and this book really opens up the characters in this series.

Plus, it looks like we're heading toward crossover territory by the end, so I am absolutely counting down until book three is released this October!

Verdict: Affirmed. This installment really elevated the Magnus Chase series by fleshing out the side characters, and I can't wait to read more.

"The Hammer of Thor" by Rick Riordan, published October 4, 2016 by Disney-Hyperion. Audio narration by Christopher Guetig, published October 6, 2016 by Listening Libray.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

"The Fall of Lisa Bellow" by Susan Perabo

FTC Disclosure: I received a copy from the publisher for review consideration. Below is my honest review.

When I received this book from the publisher, I didn't know much about it but was very intrigued by the premise. The popular girl at school gets kidnapped, and a nerdy girl is left behind? Sounds fascinating. And Perabo added depth and nuance to this premise to create a fascinating book.

Meredith is picking up a soda after school when the deli is robbed. The clerk is knocked out and Lisa Bellow, the most popular girl in Meredith's eighth grade class, is kidnapped. Meredith is left lying on the floor, wondering why she was left. Now she and her family have to figure out how they move forward after this traumatizing event.

Meredith's family is no stranger to trauma. Her older brother, Even had his eye shattered by a rogue baseball, ending his promising baseball career before it got started. The novel alternates perspectives between Meredith and her mother, Claire, to show how Meredith's experience and process of coping affects the entire family. My minor quibble with the book is that Evan's story often seems like a distraction from Meredith's. However, the relationship between Evan and Meredith is worthwhile, especially seeing how their dynamic shifts as they each try to move on from their own trauma.

The most outstanding feature of the book is how it examines the same incidents from both Meredith and Claire's perspectives. Early in the book, Meredith and her friends discuss Lisa and the popular clique, and some major slut-shaming occurs. I was skeptical, and wondering how this could be so casually inserted without comment. I was too hasty. Cut to Claire's perspective, and we see a mother questioning how she raised a daughter to think so poorly of others without recognizing the harm in her own behavior. Such incidents from both sides add nuance and depth to the novel.

Verdict: Affirmed. What could have been a gossipy novel or average thriller is elevated to a compelling portrait of a family in a time of crisis.

"The Fall of Lisa Bellow" by Susan Perabo, published March 14, 2017 by Simon & Schuster.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

"Fever Dream" by Samantha Schweblin

I requested this from the library after Liberty Hardy recommended it fervently on the All the Books podcast. It was a great recommendation, and probably not something I would've picked up otherwise.

An unrelated mother and son are in a hospital, striving to pinpoint a specific moment by recounting the events that led to their current situation. Amanda is the mother, vacationing with her daughter Nina while her husband works & plans to join them for the weekend.  David is the son, a neighbor of Amanda's vacation rental with his mother Carla. Carla has insisted to Amanda that David is not right, and Amanda fears for her daughter.

Told in an alternating dialogue between David and Amanda, this short book spins its tale in quick, furtive bursts that are rife with detail and mystery. I was afraid along the way that the answer would be too complicated for me to comprehend when I reached the end, leaving me unsatisfied and out of my depth. Luckily, that was not at all the case. I was surprised and pleasantly puzzled, and, just like Liberty, flipped back to the beginning to puzzle over this strange story.

From her bio on the book flap, Samantha Schweblin has been recognized by Granta as a top writer in Spanish under 35 and received several literary awards. Though this is her first novel, she has published three short story collections. I will be hunting down any of her work that has been translated to English & hope to see much, much more from her.

Verdict: Affirmed. This was a weird little book that I found utterly compelling. I'd love for someone  to read it so we can discuss and puzzle it out together.

"Fever Dream" by Samantha Schweblin, translated by Megan McDowell, published January 10, 2017 by Riverhead Books.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

"My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry" by Fredrik Backman

If you have been reading my reviews for a while, you know that "A Man Called Ove" made my top 10 for 2014, and I was similarly smitten with "Britt-Marie Was Here." Yet somehow, Fredrik Backman's sophomore novel almost escaped my notice. And what a shame that would have been, because it is my favorite of Backman's novels so far.

Elsa's eccentric grandmother had been seven-year-old Elsa's best friend. She told Elsa magical stories and took her on adventures in real life.  Now, Elsa has been sent on a mission upon her grandmother's death: she must deliver her grandmother's posthumous apology letters to a wide-ranging cast of characters. Along the way, Elsa makes new friends and learns the roots of her grandmother's magical stories, and ultimately her grandmother's own incredible story.

Admittedly, that descriptions sounds like trite jacket copy. But I don't want to spoil any of the truly lovely, heartwarming details. Basically, this book gave me the warm fuzzies, as my first-grade teacher would say. Elsa's grandmother was a fierce woman, with an admirable devotion to her granddaughter and others around her. She and Elsa are both offbeat in that way I've come to associate with Backman protagonists -- gruff and defensive on the outside, but driven and loyal once tasks have been set and friendships have been developed. The clever plotting and intricate details are lovely, but it is ultimately Backman's unforgettable characters that breathe life into his novels. This one is no exception, and Elsa and her grandmother have become two of my favorites.

A bonus - Britt-Marie of "Britt-Marie Was Here" got her start in this novel, and it's wonderful to see how the seeds of her story were planted here. I can't wait to get to my review copy of the next spinoff, "Beartown," in time for its release in two weeks! (Thanks Atria!)

Verdict: Affirmed. Elsa will charm and endear you as you follow her on her grandmother's last adventure.

"My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry" by Fredrik Backman, published June 16, 2015 by Atria Books.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

"You Will Know Me" by Megan Abbott

Many know that this was the novel Abbott was inspired to write after seeing Aly Raisman's parents watch their daughter compete. What is it like to be inside such a family, where everyone's hopes and fears are pinned to a single member and her solitary pursuit?

If that is the jumping off point, Abbott pushes it to extremes, adding an untimely death in uncertain circumstances to the mix to create a novel that is part family drama, part mystery.  Devon Knox found gymnastics after a freak accident with a lawn mower when she was a toddler.  Since then, her parents Katie and Eric have shaped their lives around getting Devon to the Olympics, dragging her amiable younger brother along for the ride.  Their lives are spent at her gym, among the coaches and other parents. Yet the death of someone in the gym's orbit threatens to derail the Olympic dreams everyone in Devon's orbit has been pushing her toward.

Where "The Fever" stood out for its portrayal of relationships, You Will Know Me focuses on Katie, just one member of the Knox family. It's structurally necessary to limit the information available to the reader and to better maintain the mystery. Yet, it also provides the basis for exploring the underlying theme of how well can you ever know your children and family. The focus on Katie enables the mystery, but constrains the ability to explore the depths of what different parents will do for their children and how parent-child relationships can vary greatly within a single family.  Nevertheless, it's a compelling read, and particularly good on audio.

Verdict: For fans of mysteries and family dramas, this is a solid, quick read.

"You Will Know Me" by Megan Abbott, published July 26, 2016 by Little, Brown. Audio narration by Lauren Fotgang, published July 26, 2016 by Hachette Audio.