Nothing to See Here

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Thank you to HarperCollins Publishers for providing me with a copy of Kevin Wilson’s novel, Nothing to See Here, in exchange for an honest review.

Madison Roberts seems to have it all. She’s gorgeous, wealthy, and has a perfect family: an adorable son and a handsome husband who is on track to become the next Secretary of State. Her situation changes, when she must take on her step-children, whose mother has recently died. It would be difficult enough to have twin ten-year olds brought into her family, but the twins have a special ability: They spontaneously combust.

The fire doesn’t hurt the twins, but it terrifies everyone else. Madison and her husband are fearful of the twins, worried for their property, and most important, they can’t let this secret destroy their political ambitions.

Madison hatches a plan to contact Lillian, her friend from boarding school. Madison and Lillian were former roomies and unlikely friends. Madison was from a rich family and Lillian was a scholarship kid, but the girls bonded over a shared love of basketball. Lillian’s time at the boarding school came to an abrupt end, when Madison got caught with cocaine and Madison’s father paid-off Lillian’s family, to have Lillian take the fall. Lillian’s life continued on a downhill trajectory, including dropping out of college, working low-level jobs, and living in her mother’s attic.

Although her life was destroyed due to Madison’s actions, Lillian still cares for her. She still has a teenage crush on the charismatic Madison and Madison knows it. Madison uses this leverage to ask Lillian to move into her guest house and become a short-term governess to the twins, Bessie and Roland. Lillian has zero experience with children and doesn’t even like them very much, but she accepts the job, as it puts her in proximity to Madison and provides an escape from her dismal life.

Taking care of Bessie and Roland isn’t easy, but Lillian quickly realizes that she can help these children. It changes not only the way she views herself, but also how she sees Madison.

I loved Nothing to See Here. It’s a quirky, quick read. The best parts were Lillian with the twins. The twins are initially distrustful of everyone, with good reason as they have just experienced a huge trauma ( no spoilers!), but Lillian manages to get them to drop their defenses. Lillian is not someone who is a natural choice to care for children. She has no training and can barely take care of herself, but in a delightful turn, taking care of the twins ultimately helps Lillian the most. It gives her purpose and direction. It pulls her out of her funk.

Lillian feels bonded to the twins, because she is similar to them. The twins are not asked how they feel and are kept as a secret obligation, rather than members of their own family. When Lillian’s mother accepted the bribe from Madison’s father, she didn’t consider how it would affect her daughter. Lillian and the twins have both experienced deep betrayal by their blood relatives.

Nothing to See Here is delightful, unexpected, and full of heart. I highly recommend it.

 

The Family Upstairs

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

Libby Jones is living an ordinary life in London: she has a small flat, is looking for love, and works as a high-end kitchen designer. Everything is life as normal, until a bombshell is dropped on Libby twenty-fifth birthday. She is contacted by a solicitor, who informs her that her birth parents, whom she knows nothing about, set her up with a trust fund. The contents of the trust is a multi-million pound home in the posh Chelsea neighborhood. This home has been locked up for decades, ever since Libby’s parents were discovered dead with a third mystery man. Libby’s older brother and sister were never found, yet Libby was discovered in the mansion with the bodies, safe in her crib.

In trying to understand what happened to her biological family, Libby falls down a rabbit hole, eventually leading her to a news article written by Miller Roe. Miller spent years trying to uncover the truth and his obsession with the case cost him his marriage. His curiosity is rekindled when Libby contacts him and he agrees to work with her. The plot thickens when they realized that someone has been breaking into the Chelsea mansion.

The Family Upstairs is told from three alternating perspectives: Libby, Henry (Libby’s older brother), and Lucy, a single-mom who is desperately trying to make a life for her kids, while working as a street performer in France. In Henry’s narrative, we learn of life in the Chelsea house prior to Libby’s birth and how their parents transitioned from rich socialites to recluses who died next to a strange man, with most of their possessions missing.

As this is a mystery, I don’t want to give away any of the plot twists. The Family Upstairs is addictive and if I didn’t have other responsibilities, I easily would have read it in a single day, but as it was, it stretched into two. I’ve read several of Jewell’s books and she is brilliant at crafting quick-paced mysteries with unexpected twists. She writes characters that I care about and puts them in dangerous situations. I was especially worried for Lucy, who needs the help of her abusive ex-husband and is forced to be alone with him in his house. It is a tense situation!

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the mansion. The Chelsea mansion is just as big of a character, as any of the humans in the story. Not only was it the site of multiple deaths, unsolved deaths, but it has sat abandoned for twenty-five years, leaving it dusty and in disrepair. Most of the belongings are long-gone, but Libby discovers small objects that remain, like bottles or old food. She also finds a boy’s name, Phin, carved into cabinets and drawers. The house creaks and moans when it moves. It’s is the quintessential haunted-house and a place that feels uncomfortable every time Libby enters it. Jewell teases out the truth of the house and the conclusion is shocking.

Go read The Family Upstairs. I finished it last night and I have already texted many friends to recommend it. Especially as we are all stuck indoors due to Coronavirus, this is a much needed escapist read. Jewell is a fabulous writer and I recommend all of her books.

 

The Expectations

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Thank you to Little, Brown and Company for providing me with a copy of Alexander Tilney’s novel, The Expectations, in exchange for an honest review.

Fourteen-year-old Ben Weeks is a new student at St. James, an exclusive boarding school that has been attended by generations of men in his family. He is ecstatic to continue the family tradition, especially entering the school on the heels of his recently graduated and very popular older brother. Ben is ready to take his rightful place at St. James and fully anticipates that he continue the family legacy.

Ben’s roommate is Ahmed Al-Khaled, the son of a very wealthy Emirati sheik. Ahmed is wealthier than any of the other kids at St. James, but immediately, he is an outsider. Ahmed doesn’t act or dress like the other students, but more than that, he is legitimately self-confident, a rarity among teenagers. Ben is conflicted. He wants to help Ahmed fit-in with American culture, but he is doing it for his own benefit, as he doesn’t want to be looped with the “weird kid.” He also witnesses other students harassing Ahmed and Ben is conflicted as to whether or not he should intercede.

Ben doesn’t lack empathy, but his drive to be accepted overrides almost everything. The importance of being accept was a fundamental lesson from his upbringing and a core value that is reinforced at St. James through hazing.

The biggest issues that Ben faces are a direct result of his upbringing. He comes from an upper-class family that places a high value on money, social class, and tradition. This brings immense pressure and a sense of responsibility to uphold the family name, but a conflict arises when it is revealed that the Weeks’ family has lost their wealth.

Shortly into his first semester at St. James, Ben learns that his family is in a dire financial crisis and his father is involved in a tentative business deal. His father’s desperate business deal involves land for strip malls. Ben is mortified that his father would be in a deal with such a scummy, lowly enterprise as strip malls. This is the heart of the problem: Ben has been raised to be snobby. His parents are desperate to keep up their image of wealth, including hiding their problems, as much as possible, from their son. When Ben learns that there is trouble, his first instinct is to hide it from his fellow students. He doesn’t want to be perceived as different from them and must keep up the image of his family. The idea that he might need to go on financial aid is incredibly devastating and he is desperate to figure out an alternative. When a solution to his problem presents itself, he jumps on it, even though it involves a secret with Ahmed.

The Expectations is an apt title, as the novel deals with a variety of expectations: The expectation that Ahmed will learn to fit in at St. James. The expectation that Ben’s family will seamlessly maintain their wealth and status. The expectation that Ben’s life will continue on the trajectory that Is expected for men of his station.

On a smaller level, Ben is learning to handle these expectations vs the reality of being a teenager. He is a talented squash player and he fully expects to be a top athlete at St. James. His father has even donated money towards a fancy new squash court. The news of their financial situation derails Ben, as he cannot play on this new court knowing that they are no longer rich. Quitting squash is a way that he can directly go against the expectations of his father.

Tilney does a great job at writing teenage anxiety. The Expectations isn’t a story with dramatic plot twists, it is far more subtle and affecting. It is easy to remember being a teenager and struggling to fit in, trying to combine the expectations of your parents with those of your peers. I didn’t come from a wealthy family and I can appreciate that Ben’s expectations were different from my own, yet I feel that any reader will be able to relate to Ben’s conflicts, which include things like stressing over having the right clothes and talking to a girl that he is crushing on.

Ahmed, with his lack of awareness, is a refreshing contrast to Ben. It’s not that Ahmed doesn’t care about fitting in, as he does want to mesh with American society, but he also does not fear being himself. Although extremely wealthy, he doesn’t carry with him the same social status hang-ups that Ben and many of the other student’s carry.

Ahmed’s family has different expectations. The whole reason that Ahmed is studying at St. James is because of an old family friend, who helped Ahmed’s family grow their wealth and status. This friend was an American who studied at St. James and who told them that the private school fundamentally altered his life. Ahmed’s father is hoping that the same will happen for his son and there is a strong expectation that Ahmed will soak in this magic from his St. James experience.

At its core, The Expectations is about two teenagers from different worlds, who are both trying to navigate adolescence, but from under the weight of their parent’s enormous expectations. The pacing is a little slow and it took me over a week to read The Expectations, however the beauty in the book is it has so many layers. It’s a great novel for book groups and classroom discussions. Tilney has crafted a strong social commentary, with memorable and relatable characters.