Watching You

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Thank you to Atria Books for providing me with a copy of Lisa Jewell’s latest novel, Watching You, in exchange for an honest review.

A brutal murder has taken place in one of the beautiful Victorian home in the affluent Melville Heights neighborhood in Bristol, England. In acclaimed novelist Lisa Jewell’s latest crime novel, Watching You, the reader quickly realizes that there are as many suspects, as there are potential victims and we will not know the truth of the situation until the final moments of the story.

I’ve read several of Jewell’s previous novels and she is simply a master at writing crime fiction. This is not a genre that I often read, yet I am thrilled every time she publishes a new book, because I know that I will love it. Watching You is no exception. Jewell knows exactly how to pace her novels to keep readers engaged. She always has a twist that is unexpected, yet makes perfect sense when you rethink through the hints that she has been cleverly dropping throughout the entire novel. At the very start of Watching You, we are told that a murder has taken place and we know that one of the characters is being questioned as a suspect, yet we do not know the murder victim until the last chapters of the novel. It’s brilliant.

More than a crime novel, Watching You is a solid drama. Jewell’s characters are having affairs, teenagers navigating first love, and families in crisis. The drama is as equally important as the crime element. I feel that this is a strong reason for why I gravitate towards Jewell’s novels. She has rich, well-rounded characters who are facing difficult situations. The crime element ups the stakes and intensifies their troubles, but it is not the root or only cause of tension in the story. Jewell’s characters are complex and troubled, even if murder wasn’t on their street.

Watching You is creepy. It has themes of power and dominance, especially through the character of Tom Fitzwilliam, a school headmaster in his early 50’s. Tom has a history of showing attention to young women. He’s charismatic and someone that women, young and old, tend to crush on. Throughout the entire story, we never quite know if Tom is a villain or victim. Is he a predator or misunderstood? The character of Tom reminded me of one of my college professors, who lost his career for predatory behavior. I never had an inappropriate situation with him, but I did get swept up by his charisma and when he was very publicly fired, it was both a shock and not a shock at all. I kept imagining this professor, every time Tom was on the page.

Culpability is a theme throughout Watching You. The recently married Joey Mullens, Tom’s neighbor, is enchanted by Tom and has an affair with him. She knows that she bears blame for this decision, yet she can’t help but focus on Tom’s power over her, as if she is possessed. Another character is confronted with her extreme bullying behavior as a teenager. Many decades have passed, but she never took responsibility and now her past has come back to haunt her. As the title implies, we are all being watched and cannot hide from our sins.

Watching You is a page turner and I was enthralled until the last word. I think this might just be my favorite Jewell novel yet.

The Dreamers

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Thank you to Random House Publishing Group for providing me with a copy of Karen Thompson Walker’s novel, The Dreamers, in exchange for an honest review.

In California, the small college town of Santa Lora has been struck with an unusual and highly infectious disease. Its citizens are falling into a deep sleep, lasting from weeks to over a year. No one knows why it is happening, how to cure it, or how to stop it from spreading. It afflicts all age groups and strikes so suddenly, that those whose bodies go undiscovered, quickly die of dehydration. Karen Thompson Walker’s novel follows several citizens of Santa Lora, who are desperate to keep from becoming infected, as they are stuck within the city limits during a mandatory town quarantine.

The Dreamers is a force of a novel. I could not put it down. I was most struck by the way in which Walker imagined this catastrophic situation, creating a range of scenarios and human emotions. For example, how would a new father trying to protect his newborn react when the two young girls from next door need his help? How would college students, sensing that their lives might soon end, interact when thrown together in an intimate situation? How do two children survive, when their father falls asleep? One character, a college student who is an early victim, takes ill shortly after becoming pregnant. She doesn’t even realize that she is pregnant, yet her baby grows while she is asleep. Even if she survives the disease, how will it affect her baby?

I loved The Dreamers, but I do have a criticism. The story is too short to contain all of the intriguing scenarios that Walker mentions. It’s as if she had too many great ideas and could not flesh them out in the space. For example, little attention is paid to a storyline in which a nursing home patient with memory loss temporarily regains his memory. This whole scenario could be an entire story. It’s fascinating and made even more compelling when we realize the result of this temporary memory issue. I don’t want to give any spoilers, as it is such a great twist with where this character and his spouse go next. Truly, it could have been the plot for another book and I wish that Walker had explored it more deeply. I felt the ending in general was rushed, when we learn about the dreams that the victims had been experiencing. It was so compelling and unexpected, that I wish Walker had expanded on her ideas.My disappointment all stems from wanting more.

The Dreamers is intense and unlike any book that I have read. Walker is an excellent storyteller. Her novel has quick pacing that kept me glued to the book. I read it in a single sitting. She has created characters and scenarios that will easily allow readers to empathize and imagine themselves in a similar situation. The Dreamers is a wonderful pick for book clubs and discussion groups, bringing up ideas of health, public safety, and morality. With the recent measles outbreak and debates over mandatory vaccinations, this is a timely novel.

The Dreamers is one of the best books that I’ve read in a long time and I can’t recommend it enough. I had not previously heard of Walker, but I can’t wait to read her first novel, The Age of Miracles and I look forward to her future works.

We are Never Meeting in Real Life: Essays

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I received Samantha Irby’s essay collection, We are Never Meeting in Real Life, as a birthday present from my husband. I think that he figured that he could never go wrong with presents involving both books and cats, with Irby’s cover sealing the deal. He was right.

An afternoon was lost, as I snuggled under a blanket and immersed myself in Irby’s essays. Her writing reminds me of one of my favorite authors, David Sedaris. Like Sedaris, Irby has a very unique and strong voice, that grabbed my attention immediately. I treated her essays like a bag of potato chips; just one more, until the whole thing was finished!

Like Sedaris, Irby has a knack for finding humor in dark places. Her essays tackle subjects such as family estrangement, failed relationships, and health issues. Like Irby, I lost both of my parents at a fairly young age and have had to navigate being an “adult orphan.” Although our situations are different, I could relate to her on this topic. It’s a situation that I do not share with any of my friends that are in my age group. I also found some of her anxieties and social issues to be similar to mine. Her sense of humor adds levity to these sensitive topics.

One of my favorite essays was Thirteen Questions to Ask Before Getting Married. In this essay, Irby answers questions from New York Times quiz that her wife, Mavis, sent to her shortly before they wed. It’s filled with somewhat generic questions that people should consider prior to marrying and Irby answers them with raw honesty. She is answering them from the perspective of someone who is comfortable with who they are and what they need. It made me think of my own marriages and how different my second marriage was from my first. When I met my current husband, I was in my mid-thirties and I knew what I wanted and needed. This was not at all the case with my first marriage at twenty-six. I’m not saying that young people can’t have very successful marriages, just that I didn’t. I needed to know myself better and to enter the union knowing what I needed and how to help my partner with what they needed.

Mavis also has children and Irby does not. I’ve never wanted my own children, but I became a stepmom with my second marriage. It’s such a mix of emotions, luckily mostly wonderful, but certainly something that I had never sought out. I could relate to Irby navigating this new territory. Being a stepmom is a joy and challenge, which Irby writes about with care and humor.

I recommend We are Never Meeting in Real Life: Essays and I look forward to reading Irby’s other works. She’s a talent!

I Owe You One

 

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Thank you to Random House Publishing Group for providing me with an advance copy of Sophie Kinsella’s novel, I Owe You One, in exchange for an honest review.

Fixie Farr has lived her life always putting her family first. After the passing of her beloved father, Fixie began to help her mother run their family store, which sells everything from small kitchen appliances to wrapping paper. Fixie’s mom has the opportunity to travel throughout Europe with her sister and she decides to leave the store in the capable hands of her three adult children.

Unfortunately, Fixie’s siblings do not share her passion for the family business and they have other ideas on how to improve the store. Fixie’s sister, Nicole, wants to push aside the merchandise to hold Yoga lessons, and her brother, Jake, thinks that the store should become more upscale. To make matters worse, Fixie’s mom has put faith in Uncle Ned to guide her children and he is content to hold business meetings at lavish London restaurants, soaking up profits. No one seems to understand the family store or its loyal customers. Fixie’s mission statement of putting family first is ruining the family business and she must figure out how to communicate with them, without becoming a doormat.

To further complicate her life, Ryan, Fixie’s teenage crush has come back to town. He uses her for sex and a place to crash, but Fixie is so smitten, that she constantly excuses his behavior. Fixie’s love life changes, when she helps a dashing stranger in a coffee shop and sparks fly.

I’ve enjoyed many of Kinsella’s previous novels, including her Shopaholic series, which was turned into a film starring Isla Fischer. While I would not consider her novels to be profound or life-changing, they are entertaining. Her novels are the perfect beach-read. Kinsella always creates memorable, relatable characters and I love getting swept away by her stories. She has a knack for writing humor too.

I Owe You One fits the mold of Kinsella’s previous novels. It’s light-hearted, but not without heart. Kinsella has given Fixie plenty of drama to contend with, including an exceptionally bitchy antagonist in Briony, the ex-girlfriend of Fixie’s romantic interest. I wish Briony has been given a larger role in the story, just because her clash with Fixie is epic.

As someone, who like Fixie, has a high-tolerance for putting up with other people’s bad behavior, I felt a sense of joy, as Fixie grows her courage and begins to push back. I think it’s easy to stay quiet and not make waves, especially when family is concerned, but Fixie figures out how to stand up for herself and fight for her family, without ripping them apart. Family is the biggest theme of the novel, with romance as a secondary theme.

I do not buy into Fixie’s relationship with Seb, the man that she meets in the coffee shop. It’s rushed and awkward. Their chemistry does not leap off of the page. They are an odd match. The family element resonates much stronger, than the romance parts of the story.

If you’re heading on a holiday, I recommend I Owe You One or any other Kinsella novels for a fun vacation read. Her stories are quick-paced, humorous and will often strike an emotional chord.

Brick and Mortar: The Closing of Samuel French on Sunset

A few days ago, I heard that Samuel French Film & Television Bookshop, is closing its Sunset Boulevard location at the end of this month. I felt crushed by this news. Samuel French, especially the Sunset blvd. location ( other locations still live on,) has been one of my favorite places since I was a teenager. Bookstores are magic and for a theatre lover, Samuel French is the most magical of all.

My love of theatre and plays began well before I discovered Samuel French. It started in elementary school, when I was about ten and I found the play section at our local Crown Books. My mom and I used to have an amazing ritual, where every Friday night we would go the bookstore and she would buy us each a new book. As soon as I discovered theater, I began to amass quite an impressive collection of plays. Neil Simon, especially his Brighton Beach Trilogy, was the first playwright that I really loved. I read plays and became familiar with playwrights, before even attending my first play. My mom had instilled a love for books and movies (our Sunday morning ritual was a trip to the cinema), but she wasn’t a fan of live theater.

As soon as I saw my first play, I was hooked. It was a production of The Phantom of the Opera at the Ahmanson Theatre in downtown Los Angeles. I would guess that many Los Angeles kids of my generation had this same show as their first musical or theatre experience. It ran at the Ahmanson Theatre for four years and to say it was a big deal in Los Angeles is an understatement. I ended up seeing it seven times during its run.

Shortly after, I auditioned for The Los Angeles County High School for the Arts (LACHSA) and was accepted to begin my sophomore year as a theatre major. I love theater and respect the art of acting, but acting was never for me. I love my high school, the friends that I made, and the many incredible experiences that it afforded me, but I wish at the time that my school had offered a writing department. It would have been a better fit for me. I did take the optional playwriting classes, where I worked on abysmal experimental theater pieces that I’d be mortified if they ever come back to haunt me!

It was through LACHSA, that I discovered Samuel French Bookshop. It changed my life. My passion for plays was no longer relegated to the single bookcase that most bookstores offered, but now I had an entire store of theatrical books. AN ENTIRE STORE!!!

Samuel French had two locations in Los Angeles. The smaller location was in Studio City and it’s lovely, but the real prize was the Sunset Boulevard location in Hollywood. Both bookstores were located about a twenty minute drive from my house, but asking my mom for a trip to Samuel French, was akin to asking her to drive me to Florida. She hated it. I think worse, she knew that it wasn’t as simple as a quick shop, that she could leave me to browse all day. She would agree to quarterly visits or if I desperately needed something for school ( this was the early/mid 90’s, before online shopping was a thing) and she would wait in the car with a novel, while I had about an hour to shop.

When I had my first car and could drive myself, it was bliss. I would spend hours discovering new playwrights. Samuel French on Sunset blvd was my happy spot. I continued to be a regular customer for many decades and it was a bookstore that not only brought me so much joy, but opened me up to new writers and new worlds.

Learning about the closure, I’m not only sad for what will no longer exist, but I feel guilty. Through changes in my life and reading habits, I have not been a recent customer. I have not visited Samuel French in over five years. One of the reasons that the store is closing, is because more customers are shopping online, they cannot justify a brick and mortar store. The delight of browsing and the thrill of discovery is a unique aspect of physical bookstores. I am using this as a stark reminder, to keep shopping at physical bookstores, to keep spending my money in the stores, rather than online. As much as I love the convenience of online shopping, it simply does not replace the magic of a physical bookstore. Online stores cater to well-known authors, rather than exploring new or lesser known talent. The experience for a book lover does not compare.

Samuel French will continue to exist in other physical locations and online, but it hurts that the Sunset location is closing. It really hurts.