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. 

Goat Castle: A True Story of Murder, Race, and the Gothic South

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Thank you to University of North Carolina Press for providing me with an advance copy of Karen L. Cox’s book, Goat Castle: A True Story of Murder, Race, and the Gothic South, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– Historian and author, Karen L. Cox, explores the sensational true-crime case of Jennie Merrill, who was murdered in Natchez, Mississippi in 1932.

LIKE– Although I had never heard of the Jennie Merrill murder case, this was one of the top news stories during the Great Depression. One of the primary reasons that Merrill’s murder captivated America, and one of the big reasons that this book was so fascinating, is the bizarre and colorful characters that were involved.

Merrill was a rich, recluse who lived in a mansion and aside from necessary trips to town and work-staff, she only socialized with her cousin, who was in love with her and lived in a nearby house. They were both older and there was gossip that they may have even secretly wed. Merrill was murdered in a robbery gone wrong and several people were involved.

Two of the suspects were Merrill’s next door neighbors, Richard Dana and Octavia Dockery. They were essentially squatting in a crumbing mansion, where animals like goats and chickens freely roamed the rooms. The house should have been condemned, it was filled with vermin, mold and rotting animals. Dana and Dockery were eccentrics and went by the monikers; Mountain Man and Goat Woman. They had previous court dealings with Merrill over their goats destroying her property and there was zero love between neighbors.

Along with Dana and Dockery, George Pearls and Emily Burns were at the scene of the crime. Pearls was an African-American man who had recently returned to his hometown of Natchez, after having trouble finding a job up North. He quickly began a relationship with Burns, a local domestic, who became involved with the robbery/murder, after Pearls picked her up, giving her the impression that he was taking her on a date.

Burns ended up being the only person to serve time for Merrill’s murder, even though she was the least involved of the four. Pearls ran away up North and although he was convicted for his involvement, he was presumed dead and didn’t serve time. Dana and Dockery were initially jailed as suspects, but were set free, even though the evidence was against them. It’s very likely that being white is what allowed them to escape, especially since lawyers were able to pin the crime on Burns. At that time in Natchez, they law held that if you were involved with a murder, whether or not you committed the actual crime, you were equally guilty by association. Burns served eight years of hard labor of a life sentence, a sentence that was overturned by a government official who decided to show her mercy and set her free for time served. It was very clear that Burns did not plan the crime and her guilt was one by association and for standing-by while the crime took place.

The craziest part of the story involved Dana and Dockery. When they were released, they capitalized on the fame of their story and started giving tours of their home. They had zero shame and hammed up their eccentricities, giving the public what they expected. Their living conditions shocked the nation. Although they were still technically squatters, Dana and Dockery did nothing to pay rent or use the money to fix up their home. They also had several different lawsuits for various matters, always trying to squeeze money from somewhere. They both died years after Merrill, still living at Goat Castle. The actual owners of the property were never able to evict them and when they were dead, Goat Castle was demolished.

DISLIKE– The pacing was slow. I found the second half of the story to be more compelling than the first. It took me longer to read Goat Castle: A True Story of Murder, Race, and the Gothic South, than it should have, simply because of the pacing.

RECOMMEND– Yes, if you’re a fan of American history or true crime, Goat Castle: A True Story of Murder, Race, and the Gothic South, is a great pick.. The story is outrageous and filled with fascinating characters. Although this happened in the 1930’s, it’s unfortunate to note that justice/incarceration issues for African-Americans in this country, has not changed much. The Goat Castle case remains relevant with regard to the treatment of race in America.

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.

Living the Dream

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Thank you to Holt Paperbacks for providing me with a free copy of Lauren Berry’s novel, Living the Dream, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– Emma works for a marketing firm in London, but dreams of finding success as a writer. She’s miserable at her day job, but has a decent following on her blog and keeps pitching article ideas to various trendy magazines. Emma struggles with her desire to quit her day job to chase her dreams against the reality of having a stable income. Adding to her frustrations is her roommate, a DJ who seems to squeak by, despite not having an “adult career.”

Emma’s best friend, Clementine, has just finished a prestigious screenwriting course in America and has returned to England with the idea that her big break is just around the corner. In the meantime, she is completely broke and forced to move in with her family, who do not understand her creative aspirations.

Pitched as a Bridget Jones’s Diary for millennials, Living The Dream follows post-college age friends as they struggle to chase their dreams, find romantic partners, and make ends meet in London.

LIKELiving the Dream reminded me of Lena Dunham’s series, Girls, except the characters in Berry’s story were less self-involved and far more likable. Emma and Clementine generally had a supportive friendship, one that can weather rough patches. They are both characters that I liked and rooted for to succeed.

Berry gives equal weight to both Emma and Clementine’s stories, making them dual protagonists. However, there is a third friend added to the mix, Yasmin. Yasmin is their high-maintenance, drama-filled friend who is about to marry a wealthy man. At first Yasmin proves to be a difficult character to like, but by the end of the story, as some of her secrets and motives become clear, I totally adored her. It made me think of the somewhat difficult friends that I’ve had in my life and it’s a gentle reminder to be a little understanding and not to rush to judgement.

I’m forty, a touch older than the target audience for Living the Dream, nevertheless less, it transported me back to that time in my life. Berry may be writing for the millennials, but this is a story that should ring true for older women too. The struggles at that stage of a woman’s life is will resonate with older generations. Frankly, it makes me happy to be older and hopefully, wiser! The twenties are a stressful decade.

I love novels set in England, especially London. Although the characters are struggling, London is still a glamorous location.

DISLIKE– I enjoyed Living the Dream and Barry is a strong writer, but I don’t think in the grand scheme of my yearly reading that this will be memorable. It was a quick, enjoyable read, but not a stand-out.

RECOMMEND– Maybe. Living the Dream would be a good pick for a woman in her twenties who is struggling to figure out her direction in life. It can feel like you’re the only one with problems and Living the Dream is a good reminder that everyone facing similar issues.

The Other New Girl

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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

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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

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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.

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

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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

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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.

P.S. From Paris

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Thank you to AmazonCrossing for providing me with an advance copy of Marc Levy’s latest novel, P.S. From Paris, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT – Mia is a British actress whose latest film is about to be released. Her husband, who also happens to be her co-star, has been caught cheating and Mia runs away to Paris to stay with her friend Daisy; a chef and restaurant owner. In efforts to keep a low profile, Mia changes her hairstyle and helps out as a server in Daisy’s restaurant.

Paul is an American fiction writer living in Paris. His novels have inexplicably seen a great success in South Korea. Paul has a relationship with his Korean translator and although he loves her, she has grown distant. Paul has a fear of traveling and only sees her for a few weeks a year, when she comes to work on his novels in Paris.

Paul and Mia meet through an internet dating site. Mia has taken on Daisy’s identity and Paul is unaware that she is a famous actress. Paul’s life becomes very complicated when the reason for his success in South Korea is revealed. Are Paul and Mia a good match or will their messy lives be their undoing?

LIKE– This is my first encounter with Levy’s writing, although I’ve since learned that he is a extremely successful and prolific French novelist. This is great news, because I throughly enjoyed P.S. From Paris.

P.S. From Paris is dialogue heavy and felt very cinematic. It was effortless to see this novel being turned into a film or perhaps even a stage play. The dialogue is sharp, witty, and affecting. Levy has a gift for achieving maximum emotional impact with zero extraneous words.

There is a sweetness to the relationship between Mia and Paul, which never dips into being overly sentimental or saccharine. I loved both characters and was wholly invested in them as both individuals and as a couple. My feelings towards them, are similar to ones I have with the great romantic comedy pairing of Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks in both Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail. I simply adored the characters. I had a smile on my face as I was reading.

I loved the twist with Paul’s success in South Korea. It was such a surprise.

DISLIKE– I wondered why Daisy put up with so much of Mia’s rude behavior? Mia is quite terrible to her friend. I guess the answer is that they have such a close relationship that it is able to weather Mia’s self-centered antics. However, this still doesn’t sit well. I wish this component of the story had been smoothed out more. I loved what Mia was around Paul, but disliked her when she was interacting with Daisy.

RECOMMEND- Yes. P.S. From Paris is an engaging and lovely story. It’s a feel good novel. I can’t wait to read more stories by Levy. I’m thrilled to have discovered him.