The Other New Girl

cover116814-medium

 

Thank you to She Writes Press for providing me with an advance copy of L.B. Gschwandtner’s novel, The Other New Girl, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– Susannah Greenwood is one of two girls starting at a Quaker boarding school in their sophomore year. Susannah joins the swim team and is quickly accepted by the popular group of girls. The other new girl, Moll, doesn’t have an easy time. She quiet and simply different than the other students. Susannah tries to befriend Moll, but a series of events leads to disaster.

LIKE- I’ve always been drawn to stories that take place in boarding schools. I didn’t attend a boarding school and I didn’t even go to summer camp, so the idea of kids living away from their parents is somewhat romanticized in my mind. Additionally, I’m drawn to stories about religion. I didn’t know much about the Quaker faith and I found that aspect of Gschwandtner’s novel to be fascinating. In fact, I wish she had dove deeper into it.

The Other New Girl is written from the perspective of an adult Susannah who runs into an old classmate which sends her down the rabbit hole of reflecting on a terrible thing that happened in high school. There are themes of guilt and regret. The teenage Susannah is placed in an incredibly difficult position and she is shaken to the core by what happens around her, things that were set into motion by her and that quickly spiral out of control. The Other New Girl is about the domino affect of actions and how your life can be impacted negatively, even when you have the best intentions.

DISLIKE– I found it difficult to connect with Susannah. I can’t pinpoint it, but there was something about Gschwandtner’s writing that made me feel distant from the protagonist. Although I found the story compelling, this lack of connection with Susannah hampered my ability to emotionally connect with The Other New Girl.

I recently read an article ( unfortunately, I can’t remember the source, but it was in one of my writing magazines) that mentioned the 1960’s as being an over-used era for coming of age novels. The Other New Girl takes place in the late 50’s/early 60’s and it does have many of the cliche historical/social references of the era. If I hadn’t read this article, I probably wouldn’t have thought about it one way or the other, but since I did, I wondered how different and perhaps more potent this story would have been, had it been set in a different era?

RECOMMEND– Maybe. Although I couldn’t connect with the protagonist, I still was compelled to read The Other New Girl. It’s a quick read and Gschwandtner hit on subjects that interested me. Also, I did a quick scan of reviews and other readers are loving this book. I think I’m an outlier with my dislikes.

The Best Kind of People

cover111828-medium

 

Thank you to Random House Publishing Group for providing me with an advance copy of Zoe Whittall’s novel, The Best Kind of People, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT – Avalon Hills, an affluent suburb in Connecticut, is rocked when beloved high school teacher George Woodbury is accused of sexual misconduct with several students. While George is in prison awaiting trial, his family must deal with the fallout. They find themselves unsure of his innocence, yet in the position of defending him and themselves, against a very angry town.

LIKE- The Best Kind of People isn’t so much about George or his trial; it’s about how his family experiences the trauma of having a loved one accused. It’s about how they process whether or not to believe him and what that means for their family moving forward. This is not a crime or legal novel, this is a family drama.

When a tragedy or crime happens, I do always wonder about the families of the accused. Depending on the crime, it sometimes seems like they are automatically judged as guilty alongside the actual accused. Joan, George’s wife, experiences this when people in town don’t understand how she could have been unaware of her husband’s transgressions. Joan works as a nurse and is highly regarded by her colleagues and patients, yet she feels that she has to take a leave of absence from her job and hide from the people in her town, as they harass her; throwing eggs at her car and leave threatening messages on her answering machine. When she does build up the courage to return to work, she has support from some of her colleagues, but gets the cold shoulder from others. She is guilty by association.

Also guilty by association are George’s children. His daughter, Sadie, still attends the high school where her father taught and is forced to interact with the girls who have accused her father of misconduct. His son Andrew, is now a lawyer living in New York, but he finds that small town gossip from the past comes back to haunt him. As far as the town and the media are concerned, the entire Woodbury family is fair game. Adding to the drama is Kevin, who is dating the mom of Sadie’s boyfriend. Kevin is a novelist who hasn’t had a hit in over a decade and he decides to use his proximity to the Woodbury family to cash-in by using their story as the basis for his latest manuscript.

Whittall has a talent for create fascinating characters who react in diverse ways to adversity. I like how she focused her story on the family members, rather than George or his legal problem. Her characters each react in surprising, yet organic ways that make for a compelling read. Although many readers have probably not been in this specific situation ( I hope not), I think most people will find areas to which they can relate. If not, I think this story will make readers more compassionate, especially when it’s so easy to engage in gossip or judgement.

I didn’t know much about the story going in and I actually thought I was reading a true story for the first few chapters. It felt real, rather than fiction. I was engaged immediately.

DISLIKE– I’m still contemplating the ending. I don’t want to give anything away, but I expect that I’m not the only reader that will have trouble with the ending. I think it’s probably very realistic, but it’s also incredibly frustrating. I actually gave a rather mournful “NO!” outloud when I read the last line.

In general, The Best Kind of People is a very heavy read. This isn’t a negative, it is what it needs to be for the story, but I also felt that it affected me personally. I found myself feeling low energy and negative on the days I was reading The Best Kind of People. Whittall’s writing and story had a noticeable affect on me.

RECOMMEND– Yes. The Best Kind of People is a shocking and affecting story. Whittall has crafted emotionally rich characters that are placed in a desperate situation. I will not soon forget this story.

Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies

cover112821-medium

 

Thank you to Atria Books for providing me with an advance copy of Michael Ausiello’s memoir, Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– In his memoir, Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies, entertainment journalist Michael Ausiello writes about his thirteen-year relationship with his husband Kit Cowan and Cowan’s death after an eleven-month battle with a rare form of cancer.

LIKE– I finished Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies two nights ago and I’m still feeling shattered. I feel like I might cry while writing this review. I’ve been a fan of Ausiello’s entertainment writing for many years, but I did not know anything about his personal life. Ausiello has written a true love letter to Kit, who died painfully and tragically in his early forties. I related deeply to Ausiello’s emotions as a caregiver and his fears for Kit. I think this is what hit me the hardest. I still feel emotional over my own role as a caregiver for family members who have since passed.

The best aspect of Ausiello’s memoir is his complete openness to share sensitive topics. He clearly loves and adores Kit, but he also doesn’t refrain from sharing Kit’s infidelity or the problems that they faced in their relationship. It’s raw and honest. Ausiello shares intimate moments that made me feel like I knew both him and Kit personally. What’s more, I really liked both of them. Ausiello has a warm way of bringing the reader into his life; a talent that not all memoirist have and that really makes his story a stand-out. This aspect of his writing is probably what left me feeling utterly crushed in the last quarter of the book, which involved Kit’s decline and death.

I love the title; that Kit is the hero in Ausiello’s life. How perfect and touching.

DISLIKE– Not a single thing.

RECOMMEND– YES!!! Do you like memoirs? Do you like love stories? Are you prepared for an emotional rollercoaster? Ausiello has poured his heart out on paper and it’s a very worthy read. Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies is one of the best memoirs that I’ve ever read. It’s just beautiful.

Girl in Snow

cover104434-medium

 

Thank you to Simon & Schuster for providing me with an advance copy of Danya Kukafka’s debut novel, Girl in Snow, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT – A Colorado suburb is rattled by the mysterious and brutal death of high school student Lucinda Hayes. No one is sure who has committed the crime, but as it is being investigated, suspicion falls on several people in the town. What happens when evidence is flimsy, no one seems to have a real motive, yet odd behavior casts suspicion?

LIKE– Kukafka isn’t just a debut author, but she is also a very young debut author. She is currently in her early twenties, but she started writing Girl in Snow at sixteen. I’m blown away and a tad envious of her talent. What stands out the most is her writing style. She writes in a direct manner with amazing sensory descriptions that avoid being flowery. On top of that, her descriptions are unusual and creative. I love the way her mind works. She packs a punch with her prose.

Speaking of her words, the title is pitch perfect. Rather than the obvious “Girl in the Snow”, Girl in Snow is succinct and it plays into Cameron’s artistic inclinations. His obsession with Lucinda is artistic in nature and when she breaks the third wall to interact with him, he almost doesn’t know how to handle her. Girl in Snow sounds like the title of a painting. It’s perfect.

Perhaps because Kukafka wrote Girl in Snow as a teenager, she has a knack for writing the teenage characters. Kukafka writes them in a way that instantly brought me back to my high school years. It’s affecting and even a little unsettling. Girl in Snow is told through three perspectives : Cameron: an artistic high school student from a troubled family, Jade: a high school outcast who was childhood friends with Lucinda, and Russ: a police officer with connections to Cameron’s family.

I was most intrigued by the character of Cameron, who is immediately a suspect because of several factors that are beyond his control. Cameron’s father was once a police officer and Russ’ partner on the force, but he was put on trial for murdering a woman and when he wasn’t convicted, he left town, abandoning his family. Cameron is extra sensitive; a kid who sees and feels everything. He is also very much an outsider, and prior to Lucinda’s murder, one of her friends openly labeled Cameron as a kid who would bring a gun to school. Cameron doesn’t help himself by exhibiting odd behavior, such as staring into his neighbor’s houses at night, watching them, including Lucinda’s house prior to her death. Cameron has black-outs, rendering him unsure as to whether or not he may have actually killed her. Cameron is a character who has the weight of the world on his shoulders.

DISLIKE– I don’t often read mysteries, but I was disappointed that I could figure out the culprit from the first time they are introduced. I’m not going to spoil it, just to say that it was heavy- handed enough to figure out. I was hoping that I would be wrong, but when it was revealed, it was not a surprise. The best mysteries are the ones that you can’t anticipate.

I thought the plot was a little messy, especially with the character of Russ and his wife. It was all wrapped up in the end, but I wasn’t convinced or engaged with where it was heading through most of the story. Perhaps because it distracted from the mystery of Lucinda. I thought it bogged down the pacing. The pacing was very strong for the first 2/3 and then it lagged in the last 1/3.

RECOMMEND– Yes, primarily due to Kukafka’s marvelous writing. Girl in Snow is a solid mystery, but beyond this first book, I’m certain that Kukafka will have a bright career as a writer. I will definitely read her next book.

First in the World Somewhere: The True Adventures of a Scribbler, Siren, Saucepot, and Pioneer

cover119398-medium

 

Thank you to Unbound for providing me with an advance copy of Penny Pepper’s memoir, First in the World Somewhere: The True Adventures of a Scribbler, Siren, Saucepot, and Pioneer, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– Penny Pepper’s life has been shaped by a severe and crippling form of arthritis that she has had since childhood. However, she has not allowed her disability to define her. Coming of age in England during the early 80’s, Pepper became enamored with the punk culture and started a career singing under her alter-ego, Kata Kolbert. In addition to performing, she also became a writer and advocate for disability rights.

LIKE– Pepper is a strong woman and a role model. I love her fighting spirit; the way she continues to fight for her dreams, even when the odds are stacked against her. I admire that she isn’t afraid to share her fears and struggles.

I had never heard of Pepper’s condition; an arthritis that is so severe, that she requires a wheelchair and needs aids to do tasks like going to the bathroom. The bathroom situation is a really big deal, because Pepper does not have funding for a twenty-four hour caregiver and although during parts of her life she is either married or living with a friend, when she is alone in the house, she is very vulnerable. She often does not have the strength for tasks such as using a bathroom without assistance. Pepper’s condition constantly puts her at odds with the basic human desire to be self-sufficient.

The title of the book comes from Pepper finding out that she was the top of the charts for Indie music in Italy and Greece. The title also stands for Pepper’s fight for change. She might not actually be the first disabled person who sings in a punk band or the first disabled person writing about her challenges, but it doesn’t matter. She doesn’t need to be first to be making an important contribution.

I like the open, frank writing that Pepper does regarding her sexuality. It seems like many of the  doctors and other professionals that she encounters do not treat her like a female or someone with sexual desires. At one doctor’s appointment, it is suggested that she have a hysterectomy. She was in her twenties. I don’t think the suggestion is necessarily insulting, but the way that it is suggested, so flippantly, as if this wouldn’t be a sensitive subject for Pepper, is horrific.

Tamsin, Pepper’s best friend and first roommate is another strong force in First in the World Somewhere. Tamsin has a similar disability, and although she tries living on her own with Pepper, the two part ways when Tamsin envisions a different type of care for herself. This was an interesting dynamic, with both women attempting to be independent, but also coming to terms with their individual needs.

DISLIKE– I’m an American married to a Brit and even though I picked up on a lot of the terminology and “Britishness” of the memoir, I wondered how much would have gone over my head without my husband. Pepper is very involved in politics of the time ( mostly 80’s-90’s) and although I knew some of the players, such as Margaret Thatcher, I think being American and also a little younger than Pepper, made me feel lost in these sections.

RECOMMEND– Yes. First in the World Somewhere is a wonderful memoir about empowerment, overcoming obstacles, and following your dreams. Pepper’s story would be an excellent pick for disability advocates and generally, an important read for everyone. Her openness with regard to her challenges will make readers more understanding and compassionate.

We Are All Shipwrecks

cover97800-medium

 

Thank you to Sourcebooks for providing me with an advance copy of Kelly Grey Carlisle’s memoir, We Are All Shipwrecks, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– When Kelly Grey Carlisle was just three weeks old, she was left by her mother in a hotel room dresser drawer. Carlisle’s mother was murdered, her body strangled and dumped in an abandoned lot in Los Angeles. Although it was suspected that her murder was the work of the Hillside Strangler, the case was never solved.

Carlisle was told that her father was unknown and she was taken in by her eccentric grandfather and his much younger wife, Marilyn. Her grandfather could be loving and jovial, but he could also be angry and verbally abusive. When she was young, Carlisle was treated to fancy clothes and meals out, through money earned from her grandfather’s pornography store business. Later in her childhood, money would get tight, as her grandfather decided to pour all available funds into his dream of owning a boat. They ended up living on a boat that was primarily docked in a marina with a group of off-beat and fellow down-on-their-luck neighbors.

Although Carlisle lived with her grandfather and Marilyn. she honors several adults who took an active interest in her childhood and who helped raise her. We Are All Shipwrecks is a memoir of discovering ones roots, while acknowledging the impact of how you were raised.

LIKE– Carlisle’s life is fascinating and heartbreaking. I was most struck by the contradictions and confusions in her life. She sees two very different men in her grandfather; the man who is fun-loving and the man who cuts with his words. She loves Marilyn as if Marilyn was her mother, but is heartbroken to discover Marilyn’s alcoholism. She is curious about the porn business, but later realizes that some of the porn that her grandfather sells involves violence towards women. In particular, there are parallels between strangulation porn and her mother dying by strangulation. Carlisle mentions a guilty feeling of knowing that the porn business funded so much of her childhood, such as private schools and material possessions.

I had a very personal connection to Carlisle’s story. Towards the end of her memoir, she talks about being in her twenties and taking the initiative to research her family. She discovers a relative who mentions that Carlisle’s mom died in a car accident. My father died in a scandalous way and when I was a teenager, I learned that all of my distant relatives on my father’s side thought that he had died in a car accident. It’s a misunderstanding that has caused a huge riff amongst my family. I had chills and a burst of anger when I read this part in Carlisle’s memoir. Although I was raised by my mom, I can also relate to her desperate need to find out information about her family. I went through similar motions as she did, looking up newspaper articles and latching on to whatever information that I could find in our family records. Information is so precious. I was crushed to read that photographs of her mom and grandmother were destroyed when their boat got wrecked in a storm.

Beyond having an incredible story, Carlisle’s descriptive and emotional writing kept me glued to We Are All Shipwrecks. Her life is filled with many unusual characters and situations that are completely unfamiliar to me. I can’t imagine living on a boat. I had no idea that there are places in Los Angeles (my hometown) where there are these floating trailer parks. Carlisle is also only a year older than me, so many aspects of her childhood were familiar.

DISLIKE– Not a single thing. Carlisle’s story is unusual and compelling.

RECOMMEND– Yes. I enthusiastically recommend, We Are All Shipwrecks. Carlisle’s story is one that I will not soon forget and I loved her overriding message about it taking a village to raise a child. This is a beautiful tribute to her messy childhood and to the people that she has loved.