The Animators

1483987931806

 

Thank You to Random House Publishing Group for providing me with an advanced copy of Kayla Rae Whitaker’s novel, The Animators, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT – Two young women, each escaping tumultuous childhoods, meet at a prestigious liberal arts college in upstate New York. They bond, not only over their talent in the visual arts and their love of obscure animation, but also their similar roots. Sharon Kisses is from rural Kentucky, raised among alcoholics and a neighbor with a life-altering secret. Mel Vaught hails from Florida, with a mother in prison. Mel and Sharon shift from classmates to business partners, moving into a studio apartment in New York City, which also serves as their art studio. The women build a cult following by creating highly acclaimed, gritty animated films based on their childhoods. As they scrape by on meager profits and grants, Mel’s erratic behavior and substance abuse puts Sharon on the brink of dissolving their partnership, an idea that is shelved, when Sharon suffers a stroke and Mel is by her side.

LIKE– I’m absolutely sick with envy over Whitaker’s brilliant writing. She’s so talented that I don’t even know where to begin. I guess I should start with Mel and Sharon, two beautifully complex and heartbreaking characters. As individuals, they are tragic, and their relationship is even more tragic.

Sharon, quiet and introverted, spends her life obsessing over men, some of whom are terrible for her, others don’t even realize she exists. Vibrant and brash, Mel is a polarizing personality. Where Sharon sees herself as a mouse, Mel does not hide in shadows. While Sharon tries to mold herself into the person she thinks she needs to be to please a man, Mel is herself, in real life and in her art. The only place Mel is shy, is in her feelings for Sharon. Their relationship is fragile and the secrets that they keep from one another are a threat. Just as Sharon cannot speak of the men that she secretly obsesses over, Mel cannot reveal that she loves her best friend. They can share their dark family secrets with the world through their art, but they cannot speak of their most intimate, personal thoughts with each other.

Whitaker writes beautiful, sensory filled imagery. Mel and Sharon do not live in glamour, their world is dirty and dangerous. It’s covered in a film of dust and cigarette smoke. They pour coffee into cups stained with leftovers. Greasy hair and body odor tinged tee-shirts are their uniforms. Whitaker masterfully sets the stage asĀ The Animators transitions between New York, Florida, and Kentucky. Each setting is a unique landscape, filled with different perils for Mel and Sharon.

I never quite knew where The Animators was heading, or what additional themes would emerge. One of the more thought-provoking themes, is the one of who owns the right to share personal information in art. Should a person be allowed to expose another person’s secrets? What if a person shared a part of their life, that irrevocably changed your own? Is it now yours? Are there themes that should not be exposed in art? What is the line between art and exploitation? I don’t know the answers, and although Whitaker poses these themes, she leaves it subjective. Whitaker took me on a journey that left me shattered and one that I will keep close to my heart.

DISLIKE– Nothing. The Animators is brilliant.

RECOMMEND– YES!!!! The Animators is not only the best novel I’ve read in a long time, but I would go as far to say that it is one of the all-time best books I’ve ever read. I hope that there isn’t a long wait for Whitaker’s next novel.

Our Visit to Amazon Books

1484608207725

After nearly a week of cabin fever due to Portland’s “Snowpocalypse,” Dan and I decided to risk icy roads and drive to the Washington Square Mall. We are still fairly new to Portland and this was our first visit to the Washington Square Mall, which is fabulous. I was pleased to see many of my favorite stores, including an enormous Nordstrom. However, our specific purpose was to check out Amazon Books, the third in a growing chain of traditional “Brick and Mortar” bookstores that Amazon.com has opened.

I feel it’s safe to say that most people in the book community, whether they are book lovers or industry professionals, would vehemently agree that “Print is Not Dead,” and to that end, the idea of new bookstores opening is a happy sign. However, when I attended the 2016 AWP Conference, there was a lot of buzz regarding Amazon and worries over what their new bookstores would do to our beloved independent bookstores. Is there room for both to co-exist?

My initial impression of Amazon Books is that it’s incredibly welcoming and inviting. The store was full of shoppers, but the aisles are easy to navigate and the products are spaciously displayed. Nothing is crammed or out of place. Amazon Books was impeccably organized.1484609437165

Notice that all of the books face-forward? This is throughout the entire store, with every book. Recently, I had the pleasure of reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Clothing of Books, in it, Lahiri writes about moving abroad, and since she has so few posessions in her new home, she faces her books forward, using the covers as art. It forced her to really think about book covers; what goes into making them, and how they represent what is between those covers. I thought of Lahiri as I browsed, really taking a look at all the beautiful covers and noting how certain authors have become so recognizable from the style of their covers, with a font or palette that is used from book to book.

 

Facing the books forward, also limits the space for inventory. Amazon Books is a carefully curated store, and the stock seems to be exclusively popular books and classics. The thing I love most about browsing in an independent bookstore, is the odd-ball discoveries, the books from small presses or ones that the owner of the store stocks out of love. I like the sense of risk in stocking books that are not well-known or already popular. This isn’t to say that I don’t read plenty of bestsellers, I do, however it’s not as much fun to browse amongst bestsellers. The sections of a bookstore that I usually shop from are Fiction, Travel, and Non-Fiction/Memoir; in Amazon Books, I was familiar with a majority of the books stocked in these sections. I saw plenty that I wanted to buy, but I didn’t have a single discovery. This made me realize that Amazon Books is not directly competing with the independent Bookstores that I treasure. If anything, they are more closely competing with Barnes and Noble, which may have more stock, but is not nearly as pleasant of a shopping experience. I’ve not visited a Barnes and Noble in Oregon, but the ones that I had near my home in California, were always messy and increasingly filled with non-book related items.

I appreciate that Amazon Books has sections dedicated to local authors and employee recommendations. Although it’s primarily a place for bestsellers, it’s not devoid of a personal touch.

What about the Kindle? I was a reluctant Kindle owner, when a first generation Kindle was gifted to me from my aunt and uncle in 2008. My aunt worshipped at the shrine of Oprah, and when Oprah featured the Kindle on her annual Oprah’s Favorite Things, my aunt immediately called Amazon and got on a waitlist. When I opened my present on Christmas, I had no idea what I was holding. I had never heard of the Kindle. My aunt, by no means a technology expert, was chuffed to have presented me with not only the year’s hottest gadget, but one that was book related. She spent the rest of her life gloating about being in “the know” about the Kindle, before her young-ish niece.

I say I was reluctant, because I didn’t want to give up my physical books. I barely used that first generation Kindle. It took me years to realize that e-readers are awesome for travel, and easier to read in bed. I’m now on my fourth Kindle and I’m a fan. Amazon Books dedicates a small corner of their store to Kindles, and other Amazon technology, like Alexa ( Alexa has been another woman in our house for over a year, we love her). What’s great about this, is it serves as a place to go with your Kindle questions or problems. Sometimes it’s just nice to get help from a human standing in front of you, rather than dealing with customer service over the phone. In a clever move, Kindles are set up around the store, so that you can check one out, without feeling like an employee is hovering. This said, I found all of the staff to be friendly and helpful, without giving any type of sales pitch.

All of this sounds great, but what about prices? If you are a member of Amazon Prime, you will get the same price as Amazon.com. If you’re not a Prime member, the price was as marked on the book, which I found a little high. Price checkers are scattered throughout the store. Like the stock market, the prices on Amazon.com are always shifting. The Amazon Prime price is where Amazon Books destroys other bookstores. Unless a book is on special offer, it’s rare to see prices quite this low. Also, it seems that the Kindle prices are often higher than the print prices.

 

Check-out was a breeze. I used the same credit card that I normally use for my Amazon Prime purchases and my account was located immediately. An email receipt was sent, without me having to provide any additional information.

1484611402226

I purchased Paul Beatty’s novel, The Sellout, and the book was automatically removed from my Amazon Wishlist.

1484611493973

I was impressed with Amazon Books. The store is inviting and a pleasant browsing experience. The prices cannot be beat, yet I’m relieved that they are currently not positioning themselves to compete with the things that I love about my indy bookstores. I feel like each has their own place and each can gain my business for different reasons. The world is a better place for having more bookstores.

Pretty Little World

1483462061369

 

Thank You to Lake Union Publishing for providing me with an advanced copy of Elizabeth LaBan and Melissa DePino’s novel, Pretty Little World, in exchange for an advanced review.

PLOT – In a suburb of Philadelphia, three sets of neighbors living with shared walls, have developed deep friendship. Mark and Celia, with their large family, are beginning to feel that they need a bigger house, and they tell their friends that they will soon be moving out of the neighborhood. Their neighbors, Hope/Leo, and Stephanie/Chris, are distraught over this news. A possible solution presents itself, when the shared wall between Mark/Celia’s and Stephanie/Chris’ house develops a large hole. The couples decide to hire a professional to remove the shared wall and open up Hope/Leo’s wall, allowing the three families to share their lower floors, functioning as a larger family unit. Can this experiment work? Are they putting their friendships at risk?

LIKE– I was drawn to the concept of Pretty Little World. Whether fiction or non-fiction, I like stories of alternative lifestyles and family groups. Coming from an extremely small family, I like the idea of the importance of friends, and that friends are the family that you choose. In theory, I really like the idea of families choosing to live together and caring for one another. However, after reading Pretty Little World, I can see where this nice idea, has some major problems.

The issues that LaBan and DePino create for their characters in their new living arrangement are intriguing. For example, when living in a group, the couples found themselves shifting focus away from their own relationships and family units, in efforts to work as a team, this ultimately created friction. Rather than turning to their spouses, some characters turned to other people for emotional support, creating a distance from their spouse. There was a nice, subtle twist, with the realization that it is okay to have different types of connections with other people, but this only works when you put your spouse first.

Hope experiences a moral crisis when she is in charge of watching the kids play outside and a car narrowly misses hitting them. Hope reaches for her own daughter first, and this action makes her feel like she should not have the responsibility of caring for the other children, a revelation that crushes her. I thought this was one of the most riveting and honest moments in the story.

DISLIKE– The structure could have been stronger, perhaps starting, Pretty Little World, after the couples had already made the decision to live together, as their tight bond was very clear and the reason for their decision did not need to be drawn out with a long opening. Their leap to moving in together seemed too easy, rushed, which would have also been eliminated by changing the starting point. The concept and characters, kept me engaged, even though it was slow to start and had clunky moments.

Speaking of clunky, the subplots were uneven with regard to my level of interest. The story of Mark’s infidelity with a sexy, younger neighbor was one of the more interesting subplots, especially when his secret is discovered. I was less interested with Chris, who quite honestly, was the least memorable character.

There is a reoccurring fear that their life style will be discovered. I wasn’t sure why this was such a huge deal? There didn’t seem to be a real consequence from being “found out” other than some people might disapprove. This fear needed to have higher stakes or needed to be lessened. I could believe one character expressing worry over being discovered, but I didn’t believe the overall paranoia.

RECOMMEND- No. Pretty Little World, has an interesting concept, and was an okay read, but when there are so many amazing stories waiting to be read, okay doesn’t cut it.

The Futures

1482178479884

 

Thank You to Little Brown and Company for providing me with an advanced copy of Anna Pitoniak’s novel, The Futures, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– Set during the financial crash of 2008, Anna Pitoniak’s novel, The Futures, follows the lives of recent Yale graduates, Julia and Evan, as they move to New York City, and begin their careers. Evan is a sweet and honest man from a small town in Canada. After attending Yale University on a ice hockey scholarship, he is aggressively pursued, and offered a “too good to be true” job at a hedge fund. Although the situation seems far outside of his skill set, he gets swept away by the high income and perks, also seeing the job as a way of staying in the United States and being with Julia. Julia, comes from a wealthy family, who supports her as she flounders on her way to figuring out a post-university career. Can Julia and Evan’s relationship survive outside of the protected walls of an Ivy League University? How will the financial crash shape their futures, both as individuals and as a couple?

LIKEThe Futures is timely, with the repercussions of the financial crash still affecting us today, and it was certainly an event that shaped the futures of those who graduated from college around 2008. Setting the book during this time added another level to the story, it made me wonder how much the timing factored into Julia and Evan’s struggles? Would they really have fared better if they had been born five or ten years earlier? Are their problems unique to 2008-ish, or are their problems the same ones that many new college graduates face, regardless the decade? I suspect it’s more the latter. I’m in my late thirties, and although I can’t say I escaped 2008 unscathed, I certainly wasn’t affected in the same way as Julia and Evan’s generation, however I found their general problems to be completely relatable. This idea of generation vs. stage of life, kept me engaged in the story.

Pitoniak’s framing of The Futures, reminded me of Jason Robert Brown’s musical, The Last Five Years. The Futures doesn’t go backwards/forwards in time like, The Last Five Years ( which is brilliant), but it does have a similarity with the way we see the two perspectives of Julia and Evan, as equal protagonists. Also similar, is how we see the same situation, like what happened at a party, from both perspectives in alternating chapters. Neither Evan or Julia are unreliable narrators, however as a reader, it’s easy to jump on the side of the point of view that you read first. I liked how Pitoniak shook that up, allowing the reader to see the same situation from both sides. Most similar to, The Last Five Years, was the sad and reflective tone, as we see a relationship between two people with good intentions, head on a collision course.

DISLIKE – I felt an emotional distance in many of the scenes, more like I was being told how the characters felt, rather than experiencing their emotions. All of the elements of the story added up; solid protagonists, clear conflict, engaging plot, et…Pitoniak’s writing was also very strong, except for emotions, it was like a wall was up and I wasn’t getting a full experience.

RECOMMEND– Maybe. I’m not sure that I would recommend The Futures to many of my friends, however, I’d recommend it to their younger sisters, or to someone in their late teens/early twenties. I think it would be of interest to anyone who graduated college around the time of the financial crash. In general, I felt that The Futures was a story that skewed to a younger audience.

Wishful Drinking

Wishful_drinking_(book).jpg

 

PLOTWishful Drinking is Carrie Fisher’s memoir, based on her one-woman stage show of the same name. In Wishful Drinking, Fisher writes about her childhood, career, relationships, and mental health issues.

LIKE– Admittedly, I’m not a huge Carrie Fisher fan. Sure, like everyone on the planet, I’ve seen Star Wars, but I would not call myself a Star Wars fan. I’ve seen each film once, and I may have snoozed a bit, especially during the latest installment. However, after Fischer and her mother, Debbie Reynold’s passed away in late 2016, I became intrigued with the phenomenon that is Carrie Fischer. I received an Amazon offer to buy a digital copy of Wishful Drinking at a massive discount, and thought that it was worth a go.

The best thing about Wishful Drinking (besides the clever title) is Fisher’s voice. She writes in a personal, informal manner, that made me feel like a dinner guest in her home. She rambles, jokes, strays off topic, but is always engaging and warm.

Being Princess Leia, might be the least interesting thing about Fischer’s life. She is the daughter of famous parents: Debbie Reynolds of Singing in the Rain fame, and crooner Eddie Fischer. Eddie Fischer caused a scandal when he left Reynolds following an affair with her friend, Elizabeth Taylor. This all happened when Carrie Fischer was a young child; her life was in the public eye long before auditioning for George Lucas. In her twenties, she married musician Paul Simon, and although their marriage only lasted two years, they continued to date off and on for over a decade. It was passionate and tumultuous. Fisher would go on to have one child, a daughter named Billie, with Bryan Lourd, a talent agent who ended up leaving Fischer for a man. Fischer mentions her substance abuse problems and her bipolar disorder, including receiving electroshock therapy. She shares a sad story that happened in her home, when a close friend died in bed, while sleeping next to her. Wishful Drinking never suffers from a dull moment.

Speaking of her bipolar disorder, I felt that Fischer’s reveal of her own challenges is helpful for other people who might be suffering, or even living without treatment. Fischer was such an admired celebrity, that I think her sharing her own story, could help others who feel embarrassed or alone.

DISLIKE– I don’t often do audio books, but I would have loved to have read along with Fisher doing her own narrator. I might even go as far as to suggest that you skip reading the book and go straight to the audio version. I suspect that Fischer’s actual voice would enhance the experience. This was originally a stage play after all.

RECOMMEND– Yes. Even as a self-proclaimed non-Fisher fan, she won me over with her feisty spirit and entertaining stories. I think if you’re already a fan, you’ll love Wishful Drinking.

Nowhere Else I Want to Be

1480641978811

 

Thank You to Inkshares for providing me with an advanced copy of Carol D. Marsh’s memoir, Nowhere Else I Want to Be, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT- In the mid 90’s Carol Marsh founded Miriam’s House, a shelter in Washington D.C. for homeless women infected with HIV. Marsh spent many years as the director of the non-profit, including living in Miriam’s House with her husband, Tim. Nowhere Else I Want to Be, is not just Marsh’s story, but the story of the women who both worked and lived at Miriam’s House.

LIKE- I saw Nowhere Else I Want to Be on NetGalley and requested it for personal reasons. This summer, I moved to Portland, Oregon and we have an apartment in the middle of downtown, where we are confronted with extreme homelessness and drug addiction every time we step outside of our building. Quite honestly, it’s a difficult thing to see, and I’m not dealing with it well, basically sheltering myself within our building. I had hoped that Marsh’s memoir, might give me a better sense of the difficulties that people are facing, and that the personal stories, might make me less fearful and more compassionate. On this personal level, I think Marsh’s book succeeded. It’s the personal stories that make Nowhere Else I Want to Be, so compelling and tragic.

One of the saddest stories is of a young woman, if I’m remembering correctly she is the youngest Miriam’s House resident, who had contracted HIV from a blood transfusion as a child living in Africa. Although her family had to stay in Africa, she was sent to America for medical care. Her mother desperately tries to save money for visits, but knows that her daughter is dying in America, alone. The residents and employees of Miriam’s House try to give her daughter comfort, but she is severely depressed and lonely. It’s crushing.

One of the strict rules for residents at Miriam’s House is no drugs or alcohol. Zero tolerance, so that the women trying to maintain their sobriety won’t be tempted by another’s slip-up. Many of the women relapse, several times, making their stays at Miriam’s House sporadic. Some die from overdoses and some simply disappear. However, more of the stories are hopeful, even if they ultimately end with death. These women get to die with care, knowing friendship and love towards the end of their lives. They have times where they can laugh and smile, knowing a sense of comfort that they likely would not have experienced without the non-profit. Another hopeful element of the story, is as Marsh’s time working at Miriam’s House comes to an end, new drugs and a better understanding of the virus, are extending lives and the women are learning to manage their disease, rather than rapidly declining. Miriam’s House is no longer a place where women go to die.

The part of Marsh’s experience, that I didn’t anticipate, but found so interesting, is her missteps and miscommunications as a white middle-class woman, working with primary poor women of color. Beyond the residents of Miriam’s House, Marsh makes an effort to hire African American women, which sometimes creates a cultural difference between Marsh and her fellow employees. Although, over time, this lessens, as Marsh and her staff, learn to listen to each other and work with their various communication styles. Early on, it is pointed out to Marsh, that she has a great need to be “liked” and that she needs to let go of her need to better serve the women in her care. The transformation of Marsh is as compelling as the stories of the Miriam’s House residents.

DISLIKE- Nothing. Nowhere Else I Want to Be is a very worthwhile, transformative read.

RECOMMEND- Yes. Be sure to steel yourself for some depressing stories, and have your kleenex handy for those uplifting moments that will make you cry. One that really got me, was a very ill woman who got to go on an outing to Six Flags Theme Park. There are many reminders to cherish the smaller pleasures in life.

The Most Dangerous Place on Earth

1481259062610

 

Thank You to Random House Publishing Group for providing me with an advanced copy of Lindsey Lee Johnson’s novel, The Most Dangerous Place on Earth, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT- In the privileged and idyllic Northern California town of Mill Valley, the kids seem to have it all. However, look beneath the surface, and their lives are ruled by insecurities, bullying, and vicious gossip, all magnified by social media.

The Most Dangerous Place on Earth, begins with an incident that rocks an eighth grade class; a boy sends a note to a girl professing his love and the note falls into the wrong hands, driving the boy to commit suicide. The impact of the suicide is primarily felt by Calista, the girl to whom the love letter was written. As the students transition to high school, they don’t understand the impact of gossip, until they are on the receiving end. How much risky behavior can they get away with before facing the consequences? How much will the consequences alter their lives?

LIKEThe Most Dangerous Place on Earth is a page-turner. I absolutely couldn’t put it down and although it isn’t necessarily a short book ( nearly three hundred pages), I tore through it in a single day. I just had to keep reading. Johnson’s compelling cast of characters and thrilling plot kept me up late.

The book title is not an overstatement, Mill Valley is a place filled with danger. It’s not a conventionally dangerous place, no murders; the danger is in the behavior of the people and the general callousness that they show towards others. Mill Valley could be a stand in for many parts of America, or even wealthy suburbs in other countries. This is a community where the parents are wrapped up in their own lives, giving their teenagers ample freedom. As long as the kids keep up a facade of perfection ( good grades, on track toward a prestigious college), no one notices the negative behavior, like crashing expensive cars, running up credit card tabs, and social media obsessions. The danger level keeps ramping up in scary and shocking ways.

It was so shocking that I had to stop reading and share portions with my husband. I’ve been thinking about the shock value over the last few days. and I think the reason that it packed such a punch, is that nothing is this story seems outlandish. These kids are very much real, so much so, that if I had been told this was a memoir, I would have believed it. The things that happen in this story, you don’t want to imagine are happening in high schools, but I’m certain they are and it’s upsetting. Johnson writes with emotion that is raw and real. The Most Dangerous Place on Earth points to major flaws that our society is currently facing with regard to our obsession with social media, and the way that we isolate ourselves from truly engaging with others. It’s stomach turning and makes this novel very current.

DISLIKE- Nothing. The Most Dangerous Place on Earth is brilliant.

RECOMMEND– Yes. The Most Dangerous Place on Earth is a must-read and I’m certain that it will be on the 2017 best sellers list. This would be a great book club pick, as it begs to be discussed. Johnson is a fantastic writer and I look forward to her next novel.

The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo

 

 

PLOT– In her memoir, The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo, comedian Amy Schumer shares stories from her childhood, career, and love life.

LIKE– When choosing books to take on vacation, I have a tradition of picking memoirs by comedians to read on the plane. They tend to be highly entertaining, an easy read in a distracting environment. For my winter holiday, I went with Schumer’s The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo. Recently, my husband and I have been on a Amy Schumer kick, binge watching her television series: Inside Amy Schumer. She has an off-beat world view that informs her comedy. She makes us laugh.

Although often humorous, The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo, reveals a more serious, introspective side of Schumer. She writes about her rocky childhood, which includes financial changes, her father’s alcoholism, and her mother’s infidelity with Schumer’s best friend’s father.

Schumer’s father was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, which Schumer writes about in length. Having cared for a sick parent, I found these stories to be the most close to my own heart, especially those of her father being sick in public. Crushing. There is a beautiful story about the last time she went body surfing with her father, when he knew that soon his health would decline to the point where it would be impossible. They braved the cold waters to have that last experience together of an activity that he used to do with her when she was a kid. Amy has a lot of love for her family, a theme that is repeated throughout the book. As an only child, I was very envious of the bond that she shares with her younger sister, Kim.

One of the biggest shocks, was Schumer revealing that she had been in a highly abusive relationship in her twenties. Schumer is so fearless and strong in her career, that it is hard to imagine that she could be a victim of domestic abuse. The power of her sharing this story, is that it can truly happen to anyone. Domestic abuse doesn’t just happen to “weak people”.

Schumer writes about the Louisiana movie theatre shooting that occurred during a screening of her film, Trainwreck. Two women, Mayci Breaux and Jillian Johnson, were fatally shot and this completely shattered Schumer. She became involved in gun control activism, including dedicating the end of this book to the cause.

The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo, made me an even bigger fan of Schumer. I like that she took a serious tone throughout much of her memoir, rather than writing a flippant humor book. She is still young, but she had plenty to share without padding her memoir with filler. The actual story of her lower back tattoo is painfully funny.

DISLIKE– Nothing. However, I’d like to caution anyone who like me, thinks that The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo, is good pick for a flight…this is a noisy book, meaning I had to reign myself in from laughing-out-loud, and I had to try to hide the fact that I was moved to tears. This is not a memoir that you can read without emotion.

RECOMMEND– Yes! I know that Amy Schumer tends to be one of those polarizing entertainers that you either love or hate, however, I would still recommend The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo to non-fans. Not all, but much, of Schumer’s memoir is a departure from her comedy and a really meaty story of dysfunction and family.