Sweetbitter

81JBREma2IL

PLOT– Just twenty-two and ready to strike out on her own, Tess moves to New York City and lands a job at a prestigious restaurant. As she learns the ropes, trying to work her way up to being a server, she gets a crash-course in the restaurant industry. Tess discovers that the world is a bigger place than she had imagined as she becomes exposed to new foods, wines, and an eclectic group of co-workers. However navigating this new world is not easy, especially when she begins a relationship with a sexy bartender.

LIKESweetbitterhas been on my radar for a long-time. It has gotten a lot of buzz and has recently been turned into a television series on the Starz network. I finally caved and bought it, when it got a great review from Gina B, co-host of theStories We’d Tell in Bars Podcast.It seemed like the perfect vacation read for my trip to England.

Gina was right, Sweetbitteris a page-turner. It’s a bit salacious and soap-opera esque, an escapism read. However, this is not to undermine Stephanie Danler’s writing skills. One of the pleasures in Sweet Bitter is the sensuous way that she describes food and drink. The joy of fine dining is not just in the taste, but also the presentation. There are so many vivid and beautiful descriptions in Sweetbitter.It’s food-porn. The delight isn’t just in the fine dining, but also how Tess and her coworkers steal away things to enjoy. For example, there is a scene where they steal fresh oysters and enjoy them on the sly in the kitchen. The message being that fine dining is not limited to the rich and that the pleasures of food are for everyone. Also, the pleasures of food are not only to be found in expensive restaurants, the characters eat at greasy spoon diners and create feasts in their own homes. Tess learns the need to develop her palate and experience a variety of flavors.

It’s easy for me to fall in love with stories of protagonist who are starting out in the world. i love the idea of fresh starts and how everything is exciting. Tess fits this role perfectly and although she starts to spiral into a dark territory towards the middle/end, I always found myself rooting for her to succeed. I wish she had maintained her innocence longer.

I love the setting of a restaurant. My ex-husband worked in the restaurant industry and I found myself feeling a familiarity with the way the staff had shift drinks after closing and developed a family atmosphere. I also recognized the dysfunction. There is so much dysfunction and extreme behavior.

Simone is the senior waitstaff, a woman with a cool exterior who seems to always have everything under control. She’s a great character. She’s a bit mysterious and always teetering on being either Tess’ friend or foe. I enjoyed the dynamic between Tess and Simone.

DISLIKE– I found Tess’ slide into drug and alcohol abuse to be a little quick. It made the story take a heavy turn than dragged down the pacing. I felt like something else needed to happen with the turn in the story. For example when Tess sits down with Simone at the end, it wasn’t a satisfying resolution, because I failed to believe that Tess had become strong enough to stand up to Simone. It needed another layer to make it believable.

RECOMMEND– Yes! Sweetbitter is a guilty-pleasure read that I fully embraced. I’m looking forward to watching the television series and I’m wondering how they will manage to capture Danler’s rich descriptions. You should read the book, just for the beautiful sensory elements.

Then She Was Gone

cover121313-medium

 

Thank you to Atria Books for providing me with a copy of Lisa Jewell’s novel, Then She Was Gone, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT-Ellie Mack is a beautiful, smart, popular teenager, who seems to have everything going for her. One day, on her way to the library, she disappears and her case goes cold. A decade later. Ellie’s mother, Laurel, begins to date a man named Floyd, whose daughter, Poppy, bears a striking resemblance to Ellie. Laurel begins to revisit her daughter’s disappearance and discovers new facts of the case. Can Laurel finally find out what happened to daughter? Does Poppy hold the key?

LIKE-I’ve read several of Lisa Jewell’s other novels and I was very excited to be granted a copy of Then She Was Gone. Jewell is masterful at crafting great suspense and mysteries. However, where she really shines is with her characters. She has a gift at tapping into the human psyche and creating relatable, multi-deminisional characters.

Characters are what shine in Then She Was Gone. I was most drawn to Laurel, the grieving mother who not only lost her daughter, but also saw her marriage collapse under the weight of a missing child. Laurel is just getting her life back together when she meets Floyd and is shoved back down the rabbit hole of her daughter’s case. Her anxiety and grief is palpable.

We do not learn Ellie’s fate until late in the story, but she is the narrator in some of the flashback chapters. Of course as a reader, our bond with Ellie is not going to be strong, like her mother’s, however these chapters do serve to give us a clearer picture of Ellie and give us a chance to connect with her. Jewell is equally great at writing adults and children, letting us see Ellie’s frame of mind and motivations.

Then She Was Goneheads to some very dark places and is a story that made me anxious. I saw a blurb comparing it to Gone Girl, which was a little misleading. When I think of comparisons to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, I think that the story must have an unreliable narrator. Then She Was Gonehas narrators under duress, but they are not unreliable. I read another that compared it to Alice Sebold’s novel, The Lovely Bones,which is a much better comparison with regard to both theme and tone.

DISLIKE– I anticipated the twist early on and kept hoping that it would not be what I was expecting. It’s not that the story wasn’t intriguing, but it’s always a little bit of a let down when you manage to figure out the twist early on. I did not anticipate the creepy, disturbing aspects of the twist. It gave me chills.

RECOMMEND– Yes! Jewell is such a marvelous writer that I have to recommend all of her novels, including Then She Was Gone.

The Trauma Cleaner

cover124046-medium

 

Thank you to St. Martin’s Press for providing me with a copy of Sarah Krasnostein’s biography, The Trauma Cleaner, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT – Sarah Krasnostein explores the life of Sandra Pankhurst, a woman who beat the odds by surviving an abusive childhood in Australia to lead an extraordinary life, including running her own trauma cleaning business.

LIKEThe Trauma Cleaner was not what I expected, but was a wonderful surprise. Krasnostein alternates chapters, exploring Sandra’s life in the past and present. In the present chapters, we see Sandra’s current life and specifically, how her professionalism and empathy impacts the lives of her clients. Some of her clients are the families of the deceased, homes that Sandra’s team is hired to clean after a tragic death. Other clients include the living, people who are hoarders and need help cleaning up their environment. Sandra has a very special touch with people who are in pain and need her help. She is firm, yet compassionate. What’s interesting about the present chapters is how Sandra is equally impacted by the clients she serves. Part of the reason for her success is that she lets those in need into her life and is deeply touched.

The past chapters take us through Sandra’s life. Sandra, born male and named Peter, was adopted as an infant, becoming the second oldest son in a large family. From an early age, Peter/Sandra, was emotionally and physically abused, eventually being made to sleep in a shed in the backyard. He was isolated from his family, a family that he desperately wanted to please and be shown inclusion. It’s heartbreaking.

In his late teens, Peter moved out and got married. He had two children and ended up abandoning his family just a few years later. The guilt over abandoning his family would stay with Peter for his entire life. He never had a proper reconciliation. Krasnostein interviews Peter’s wife, adding another layer to this biography. As Peter grew comfortable in his own skin, he began to take hormones and prepare to undergo a sex change operation, eventually leading to his new identity as Sandra. The road was very bumpy, including substance abuse, prostitution, and many other dangerous situations. Quite frankly, it’s surprising that Sandra survived.

Later in life, Sandra found love and married again. Although the relationship ended in divorce, she found her true calling with her trauma cleaning business. A big theme of The Trauma Cleaner, is Sandra’s life-long quest to find herself accepted, needed, and loved. The people whom she helps are often those who also feel lonely and abandoned. Sandra helps in a way that goes beyond a professional transaction; she treats all of her clients with tenderness and respect. She makes them feel valued, even when they don’t have the same feelings about themselves.

Sandra was born in the 1950’s, when the world was a far less accepting place for those who are different. It was shocking to read about how Sandra’s job options as a transsexual in her early adulthood were limited to prostitution and drag shows. It was something of a miracle that she was able to transition to living an open life with a traditional marriage and conventional job: first working at a mortuary, then with her husband, and eventually building her cleaning company. She’s is an inspiration.

DISLIKE– Not much. The only negative is that the chapters dealing with the present day were uneven with maintaining my interest. I’m not sure that we needed quite as many examples of the present day to truly grasp Sandra’s resilient spirit and empathy. The biography feels too long.

RECOMMEND– Yes! I was expecting more of a book about the business of trauma cleaning, but I’m thrilled that this was actually a story about an amazing woman overcoming adversity. The Trauma Cleaner is the type of story people should read to be reminded that everyone has their own troubles and that we should show compassion to everyone that we encounter. The world should be a kinder place.