The Trauma Cleaner

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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.

Not That I Could Tell

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Thank you to St. Martin’s Press for providing me with a copy of Jessica Strawser’s novel, Not That I Could Tell,in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– Yellow Springs, an idyllic suburb in Ohio, is rocked to its core when Kristen and her two young twins, go missing. Kristen is in the middle of a divorce and her soon-to-be ex-husband, Paul, is devastated by their disappearance. He had been living in an apartment, but he moves back into the house that he shared with Kristen during the investigation. Not everyone in the neighborhood is convinced that Paul, a respected doctor, is as innocent as he appears. The neighbors try to figure out what has happened to their dear friend. Can the police or Kristen’s friends solve the mystery before something else goes wrong?

LIKE– I loved Desperate Housewives and although Not That I Could Tell is quite a bit more serious, it had shades of the show. In particular, it had similarities with the various personalities in the neighborhood and mystery element of the story. Also, how sprinkled throughout the novel are short chapters written by Kristen, which reminded me of Desperate Housewives narrator, Mary Alice.

I liked the mystery elements of the story. Strawser does a great job at building the suspense, especially when she builds to the climatic moment in the story. I was gripped and glued to the page.

I loved the character of Hallie, a neighborhood pre-teen, who takes it upon herself to be a amateur sleuth. I wasn’t quite sure how her story arc would play-out and it was a wonderful surprise. She adds a lot of conflict to the story, sending it in a wild direction.

The magic in Not That I Could Tell is in the friendships between the women. Strawser has vividly imagined her neighborhood and its inhabitants. I appreciate that she included Izzy, a single woman without children. Izzy is in a different place in her life, but she easily finds friendship with her neighbors. Not That I Could Tell celebrates all types of families and relationships.

DISLIKE– The ultimate outcome of the story was predictable. I appreciate that Strawser tackles a difficult and sensitive subject matter with care, but I was hoping for a more unexpected ending. I think with the way that Strawser peppered the narrative with Kristen’s chapters, I was hoping for a Gone Girl-esque twist that never arrived.

RECOMMEND– Yes! Not That I Could Tellis a solid page-turn that speaks to an important issue. You’ll love the neighborhood and friendships that Strawser has created.

My Dead Parents

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Thank you to Crown Publishingfor providing me with a copy of Anya Yurchyshyn’s memoir, My Dead Parents, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT-In her memoir, My Dead Parents, Anya Yurchyshyn examines how life shaped her parents into the people that she knew; an alcoholic mother and a tempermental father. When Yurchyshyn was a teenager, her father George, died in a tragic and suspicious car accident in the Ukraine. Her mother, Anita, feeling that her husband had been murdered fell into a deeper despair and drank herself into an early grave. As Yurchyshyn sorted through her parent’s belongings, she discovered letters and pictures that sent her on a journey to discover the parents that she never met, the people that her parents were before she was born.

LIKEMy Dead Parentsis impossible to put down. It wasn’t short enough for me to read in a single sitting, but I plowed through it in less than two days. Yurchyshyn is a gifted writer and they way that she has presented her family story packs the biggest punch. She begins with the fact that her parents have both died, as is evident in the title, but then she quickly goes back to her childhood and starts painting her complicated relationship with both of them.

Her earliest memories are of parents who were glamorous and exciting. They would often travel to far-flung parts of the world and return with treasures, like rugs from the middle east and masks from Asia. These treasures filled Yurchyshyn’s home and imagination, making it seem like she lived in a museum. But this part of her parents was also mixed with her mother’s alcoholism and refusal to step-in to protect Yurchyshyn and Yurchyshyn’s older sister, Alexandra, from their father’s demanding behavior. Yurchyshyn rebels against her parents, especially when George temporarily relocates to his home country of the Ukraine, leaving his family in America.

When George dies in a car crash, Anita suspects that it was staged and that he had been murdered. Yurchyshyn feels guilty for feeling relieved that her father has died and that she is now out from under his controlling behavior. However, now as she transitions to adulthood, her mother’s alcoholism ramps up. Alexandra tries to take the brunt of care taking for their mother, in efforts to shelter her younger sister, but she cannot conceal everything. Anita’s alcoholism is out of control and up until her death, her addiction and behavior creates a lot of pain within the family. Echoing how she felt when her father died, Yurchyshyn feels relieved when her mother passes.

However, as she is going through her parent’s possessions, she falls down a rabbit hole of wondering about her parents, trying to figure out how such seemingly vivacious people could have turned into the parents she knew. She takes her discovery of letters further, to speak with family and close-friends of her parents, in efforts to understand the people that they were before she was born.

Who are our parents and can we ever really know them? This is the central question of My Dead Parentsand something that I found personally relevant, but that is a concept that I’d argue will be universal for all readers. Like Yurchyshyn, I’ve lost both of my parents and I have definitely look through all of the objects that are now in my possession and I’ve tried to cobble together “the truth” of their lives, especially for my father, who died when I was four. I have a hard time reconciling the mom that I knew, from what I knew of her as a person from before me. Life can dramatically alter people. Yurchyshyn writes about her parents with care and love, but she also does not spare the difficult parts of their relationship or her feelings. I felt heartbroken, but like I could fully relate to her memoir.

Yurchyshyn learned that she had an older brother who died as an infant, a pain that her parents never recovered from. She also learned of the cultural differences between her parents. Her father’s family fled the Ukraine when he was young, moving to America. Her mother was from a Polish-American family. There is a long history of distrust between Ukraine and Poland. Her parents union was not approved of by her father’s parents. Additionally, George’s strong ties to his Ukrainian heritage became more prevalent as years went on, including his disappointment that his daughters did not carry on the culture. As a teenager, Yurchyshyn didn’t understand why her father needed to return to Ukraine and felt that it was because her parent’s marriage was crumbling. In hindsight, she now realizes that it was a deep-seeded need to help repair his home country, rather than a failing in his marriage. The car accident cut short his efforts in the Ukraine and also his plan to return to living with his family.

The last part of the memoir turns to an investigation, as Yurchyshyn travels to the Ukraine to try to determine if her father’s death was an accident or murder. I’m not going to spoil it, but just know that this entire section is intense and unexpected.

DISLIKE– Not a single thing.

RECOMMEND– Yes!!! My Dead Parentsis a memoir that I will not soon forget and I’m certain that it will be on the bestseller’s list. A great pick for a book club too, so much to discuss.

Sociable

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Thank you to Doubleday Booksfor providing me with a copy of Rebecca Harrington’s novel, Sociable, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– Journalist Elinor Tomlinson is devastated when her boyfriend and fellow journalist, Mike, breaks up with her. They had been dating for four years and the break-up seems to have come from out of the blue. Elinor suspects that Mike was cheating on her with his colleague, Andrea, but no matter how much she dives into Mike’s social media, she cannot get concrete proof. In the months after the break-up, Elinor starts working at a company called Journalism.ly, where she has a knack for writing articles that go viral on social media. She starts figuring out life on her own with a new apartment and jumping back into the dating scene, but Mike is never far from her mind. Will Elinor ever understand her breakup or will she just drive herself crazy by using social media to relay to Mike that her life is fine without him?

LIKE– One of the best part of Sociableis the commentary on how men treat women in the workplace. Elinor is a talented journalist, yet the men in her life use subtle tactics to undermine her efforts. When she is dating Mike, his career and talents always shine above hers. The ending of the story has a nice nod to Elinor realizing that she is just as talented and worthy. Her superiors at Journalism.ly, are male and they constantly belittle her. One guy, who is her age and whom she went to college with, feels that he can serve as her mentor, because he has been at the company a few months longer. It’s insidious and the worst part is the men clearly don’t even realize what they are doing. It’s simply the way things between men and women have always been. I certainly recognized the behavior from my own experiences in the work place. Men can be very patronizing, even when they are the “good guys.”

Speaking of the men in Sociable; they come across as very flat characters, especially Elinor’s co-workers. When I finished the novel, I felt disappointed, especially with Peter, a coworker whom it seems might have a crush on Elinor, but where the storyline never develops. However, after giving it some thought, I’ve concluded that the point of Sociableis that Elinor allows her fixation on Mike to get in the way of her goals. The point is for Elinor to come into her own and realize that she is worthy outside of having a relationship or validation from social media. It was a little odd that so much of the Peter situation was developed without a pay-off, but the ultimate pay-off was Elinor’s self-realization.

And Elinor, oh Elinor…she’s a mess. It’s not a requirement to have a likable protagonist, but I have to confess that I wish that I had been able to like Elinor a bit more. She reminded me of a character from Lena Dunham’s series, Girls. Elinor is self-involved, not particularly nice to her friends, and neurotic. She is full of contradictions and is rather unpleasant. I felt that her situation was highly relatable, but I found myself rooting for her to succeed in her situation, not her as a person. That said, I found Sociableto be a compulsive read that I didn’t want to put down. I was locked-in and finished it in one afternoon.

I also want to mention that the same day that I sat down to read Sociable, my husband and I had a discussion about Facebook and the fake realities that people create for themselves or how they post things on social media just for attention. I found this to be very timely with regard to my reading of Sociable, especially how Elinor works hard to cultivate a perfect social media presence. In several scenes, Elinor is at party or a mixer, and she is on her phone (as are others) ignoring real social interactions, while favoring documenting a false version of the situation on their social media accounts. It’s stomach turning, because it’s what’s happening in real life all of the time. Reading Sociablehas made me step back from my own social media usage.

DISLIKE– Besides wishing that I had liked Elinor, I found it odd that the story occasionally broke the fourth wall, addressing the reader directly. It was infrequent enough to be a quirk that I found unnecessary and distracting. It always pulled me out of the story.

RECOMMEND– Yes. Sociableis a quick read that stuck in my mind for several days after I finished reading it. It reminded me so much of Girls, that I recommend it to fans of the show. Harrington is a solid writer and this is a on-point topic.

Object Lessons: Luggage

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Thank you to Bloomsbury Academic for providing me with an advance copy of Susan Harlan’s book, Object Lessons: Luggage, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOTObject Lessons is a new short book series that explores ordinary objects. In this edition, author Susan Harlan writes on luggage, sharing the history of luggage and how it relates to her own travels.

LIKE- I like the concept of the Object Lessons series; an in-depth exploration of an ordinary object. Object Lessons: Luggage blends historical information with personal thoughts, via an American road trip that Harlan takes while writing the book.

I was most intrigued by the history of luggage. For example, there is a short section talking about luggage that was brought on the Titanic and the fact that one single piece of luggage survived the sinking. I also learned about the origins of Louis Vuitton steamer trunks and that you can currently buy retro versions of the trunk and the company will customize your suitcase with travel stickers. You can have stickers that reflect your own travels or even create a fantasy of where you would like to go. This is a great book for building your repertoire of trivia knowledge.

I adore travel writing, but I was less interested in Harlan’s journey. However, towards the end of Object Lessons: Luggage, Harlan visits the Unclaimed Baggage Center in Alabama. Airlines sell unclaimed luggage to the Unclaimed Baggage Center, which then sells the items to consumers at a great bargain. This is a huge tourist attraction and special items have even earned themselves a place in an onsite museum. I thought this was fascinating and certainly a reason to consider visiting Alabama. The museum sounds quirky and my kind of place.

DISLIKE– I was unevenly interested in Object Lessons: Luggage. I felt that some of the references, especially quotes from movies and pop culture, provided tenuous connections. The tone of the book flipped between academic and informal, where I wish it would have picked one style. I think academic would have been the way to go.

RECOMMEND– Maybe. I definitely learned a lot of interesting tidbits while reading Object Lessons: Luggage, but I also found myself skimming sections. I have another book in the series on my Kindle, so I will be interested to see how a different author explores a different subject.

Bachelor Nation: Inside the World of America’s Favorite Guilty Pleasure

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Thank you to Penguin Group Dutton for providing me with an advance copy of Amy Kaufman’s book, Bachelor Nation: Inside the World of America’s Favorite Guilty Pleasure, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– Amy Kaufman provides an unauthorized look at The Bachelor franchise.

LIKE– I was a reluctant fan of The Bachelor,  including all of its many spin-offs. I became a fan of the show, when I was a caretaker for my aunt, who was obsessed. Now, years after my aunt has passed away, it remains one of my favorite “guilty pleasure” shows.

At one point Kaufman was officially invited by ABC to be part of the press for Bachelor events, but they found that she was being too negative on social media and she was blacklisted. To write Bachelor Nation, she combined her insider knowledge, research (there are so many interviews/articles/books) and she interviewed both previous contestants, and those who worked on the production. Not everyone would speak with her, but her book still feels comprehensive. My main take-away regarding Kaufman’s interest in the subject, is that she’s simply a huge fan of the show, warts and all.

It’s pretty trashy. I don’t think it will come as any surprise that The Bachelor is heavily produced and a large portion of Kaufman’s insider look involves exposing the tricks that the producers use to create characters out of contestants and manufacture story-lines. It’s more fascinating than the actual show. Let’s face it, producing is the primary reason that the show is compelling. I’ve not seen about 3/4 of the seasons, so I didn’t know all of the contestants, yet Kaufman explains the scenarios in a way that is easy to follow, without prior knowledge. Even a casual fan, will find Bachelor Nation to be an engaging read.

Kaufman has also alerted me to  the Lifetime series, UnReal, a fictional  look at the production of a Bachelor-esque show= I know my next binge weekend.

DISLIKE– Truely, I enjoyed Kaufman’s behind-the-scenes look, but I didn’t like how her writing style leaned towards informal, using a lot of slang to make herself sound relatable. It didn’t work for me. For example, she refers to her group of friends and fellow journalist that meet to discuss The Bachelor as “Bach Discush.” I cringed each time I read that.

RECOMMEND- If you watch The Bachelor or are interested in the behind-the-scenes of a reality show, Kaufman’s Bachelor Nation: Inside the World of America’s Favorite Guilty Pleasure, is a must-read.

The End We Start From

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Thank you to Grove Atlantic for providing me with a copy of Megan Hunter’s novel, The End We Start From, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT – In the not-too-distance future, a major flood has destroyed London and the unnamed narrator must try to survive with her newborn baby.

LIKE- The End We Start From is a survival story at a break-neck pace. Although due to family visiting, I had to read it in small chunks, Hunter’s novella can easily be read in a single sitting. Due to the fast pacing and intense subject of the story, I would highly recommend setting aside a few uninterrupted hours and diving in.

I liked that Hunter left a lot of mystery, she does not spell things out. Although we know that there has been extreme flood, we don’t know more details. For example, we don’t know the range and extent of the disaster. This put me in the mindset of the narrator, as she struggles to survive with a lack of direct information. The larger scope of the disaster is really irrelevant to this particular story. The focus is on her survival, the immediate situation, and deals with the rumors and misinformation that she receives as she moves to different refugee camps. She must assess her best move on the fly, including dealing with dangers.

The End We Start From reminded me of The Walking Dead or Cormac McCarthy’s novel, The Road. The themes and general story line are not a new idea, however, The End We Start From remains compelling because of the narrator and the exploration of how humans react in extreme circumstances.

The ending was very interesting to me. It switches from a story of physical survival to one of emotional survival. Hunter ends the story at a precarious moment. The only thing that I was left feeling certain of, is that the narrator is a survivor and will continue to survive.

DISLIKE– I’m a bit uncertain as to whether only naming the characters by their first initial was a good move. As a reader, I sometimes found it to be confusing and distracting. I had to reread sections to remind myself of a character, which took me out of the story. From a storytelling standpoint, it creates a necessary barrier that the narrator must put up for her own survival. It also quickens the pacing.

RECOMMEND– Yes. The End We Start From is a fast-paced and emotional journey. It’s filled with danger and tension. I never quite knew where it was heading and I found the ending to be quite a surprise. I’d seek out future novels by Hunter.

The Tribulations of August Barton

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Thank you to author Jennifer LeBlanc for providing me with a copy of your novella, The Tribulations of August Barton, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– It’s difficult being a college freshman and it’s even more difficult if you’re August Barton. August is an anxious young man and his anxiety issues spike when things in his life spiral out of control. His parents are getting a divorce, he is completely uncool in the eyes of his dorm roommate, and his wild-child grandmother is causing problems in her nursing home. Can August handle all of these issues and learn to enjoy his first year at college?

LIKE– This story is nuts. It’s really outlandish and unexpected in the best possible way. August’s grandmother, Gertie is the polar opposite to August’s personality. Where he is shy and nervous, she embraces life and lives loud. She is not content to spend her remaining days in a nursing home, so she runs away, implicating August in her wild adventures. She brings along an old friend and fellow former prostitute, Tunes, and they work together to have a last hurrah, while making sure that August learns to live a little. They even join August at a college party, proving that age is no barrier to a good time or popularity.

The Tribulations of August Barton has a wonderful zest for life and a theme of seizing the day.

DISLIKE– Too short, way too short. The story felt crammed in, especially for the level of wackiness. I needed more time to understand and embrace the characters. The breakneck pace was too much for a novella and underserved the story.

RECOMMEND– Maybe. I loved the characters and the spirit of The Tribulations of August Barton, but I felt I was reading a solid draft, rather than a polished story.

A Thousand Rooms

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Thank you to NetGalley and author Helen Jones for providing me with a copy of A Thousand Rooms in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT- Katie has just died and she finds herself at the scene of her death without anyone to greet her or further instructions. When she thinks of something, such as the store where she purchased the snazzy new red heels that she was wearing when a car hit her, she is transported to that place. Katie begins to get the hang of transporting herself and travels to see her family and friends as they deal with her death, but she is still left wondering, if this is all there is?

Katie get an idea to travel to a convalescent hospital to be near another human when they die and she discovers that the afterlife is different for everyone. Katie learns that she can travel to different afterlife realms and soon she is gathering pieces of the puzzle to understand the meaning of her own death.

LIKE– Jones fills A Thousand Rooms with so much creativity that I kept turning the page to see what was coming next. I couldn’t anticipate where Jones was taking her story, which kept it compelling. She weaves folklore and concepts from various religions into the different rooms/realms that Katie visits. I love the idea that the afterlife can be such an individualized experience. One of my favorite small twists is when Katie thinks she is witnessing a death, but it turns out to be a conception. It’s a joyful moment. Also joyful, are the scenes when Katie is reconnecting with her grandfather in their heaven. It’s a wonderful balance after the somber scenes of Katie watching her family on earth grieving.

DISLIKE– Katie felt flat. I could easily go along with her story because it was so unexpected, but I had difficulty both imagining her physically and going along with her emotional journey. When I felt emotion, it was situational, rather than because I was connected to the protagonist. For example, having experienced profound grief, I felt emotions while reading about her parents and friends in grief, but not for the loss of Katie specifically. When Katie connects with Jason, I didn’t feel the emotions. I like the concept of their relationship and how they are kept apart, but I didn’t bond with either character.

RECOMMEND– Maybe. A Thousand Rooms is a quick read and I liked the concept of Jones’ story. My lack of connection to the characters hold me back from fully recommending A Thousand Rooms. 

Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs

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Thank you to W.W. Norton and Company for providing me with an advance copy of Beth Ann Fennelly’s Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOTHeating & Cooling is Beth Ann Fennelly’s collection of short memoirs, ranging from a few sentences to a few pages, each a snippet of Fennelly’s life.

LIKE- I absolutely could not stop reading Heating & Cooling. Admittedly, it’s a quick, short read (less than an hour), but I could’ve easily read four times the amount in a single sitting and still have been left wanting more. I love Fennelly’s humor, her wry wit, and keen observations. The fact that it’s memoir, makes it even more compelling.

I’ve written micro-fiction and I’ve read it in magazines, but this is the first time that I’ve seen it compiled in a book. It’s a great format and one that I will seek out. Anyone out there reading this review have any recommendations for other authors working in micro-fiction that have compiled their writing into a book?

 Each story is strong on its own, but a big part of the magic is the order in which Fennelly has listed her stories. She has not ordered them chronologically with regard to her life events, instead she has ordered them to pack a punch. Much like a album track list, Fennelly has ordered her stories to elicit emotion and create varying tones. The result is excellent pacing, making Heat & Cooling a compulsive page-turner.

DISLIKE- Nothing. I loved Heating & Cooling. Immediately after finishing it, I went on Amazon to purchase a few of Fennelly’s poetry books. I needed more of her writing in my life.

RECOMMEND– Yes! Heating & Cooling is a unique memoir by a very talented writer. I’m so thrilled for this “new-to-me” author discovery.