Hollywood Park

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Thank you to Celadon Books for providing me with a copy of Mikel Jollett’s memoir, Hollywood Park, in exchange for an honest review.

For those unaware, Mikel Jollett is the frontman and lyricist for the Los Angeles rock band, The Airborne Toxic Event. I’m a massive fan who has had the joy of seeing them live many times. The energy and storytelling of The Airborne Toxic Event affects me in a way that is unlike anything else.

Music is a funny thing. Like poetry, sometimes it is difficult to nail down why it speaks to you. With The Airborne Toxic Event, the songs and rhythm feel personal, and unique in capturing my experience growing up in Los Angeles.

Reading Hollywood Park and learning about Jollett’s life, made me understand my own life. Our situations are vastly different, but some of the childhood trauma rings true. It also helped me understand some of my early relationship choices and dysfunction. Like Jollett, I’ve reached a place in my life where I feel at peace with my past and hopeful for my future.

Jollett’s Hollywood Park was released as a memoir with an accompanying album of the same title. It is a grand undertaking that has been many years in the making. Both are fabulous and deeply affecting.

In his memoir, Jollett dives into his early childhood years spent at Synanon, a commune in California. Synanon was original started as place for recovering addicts, but over time, the leadership and motivations shifted. Jollett’s parents, his father a former heroin addict, and his mother, a Berkeley idealist, joined at a time when the commune was changing, including new rules that separated parents from their children. Jollett, and his older brother Tony, spent several years in an orphanage type arrangement in Synanon.

Their mother escaped with them in the middle of the night, but leaving Synanon was not easy. They feared retribution, and Jollett witnessed the severe beating of their mother’s boyfriend, who had also escaped the commune. Jollett’s mother suffered from mental illness and struggled with poverty. She had unstable relationships, including one man who was very abusive. Jollett’s father also left the commune, marrying Bonnie, another former Synanon member, who happened to work at the child center on the compound. Bonnie had bonded to Jollett when he was young and remained a second mother to him.

In Hollywood Park, Jollett comes to terms with the effects of his difficult childhood, which created problems in his adulthood. He carried the weight of his family, including the history of Jollett men going to prison, and falling into addiction. Even though he escape this family pattern, he was waiting for the other shoe to fall, as he found success with college, writing, and The Airborne Toxic Event. He struggled with relationships, always finding excuses to run away. After seeking therapy, he discovered that he had attachment disorder. Through therapy, he was able to prepare himself for engaging in a lasting relationship, which he found, and is now married with two children. It also prepared him to deal with his mother’s erratic behavior and the death of his father.

The title refers to a former Los Angeles landmark, a racetrack called Hollywood Park. Hollywood Park is a place where Jollett’s father used to escape for an afternoon of gambling and where he spent time with Jollett. The once glamorous race track fell into disrepair prior to it being torn down to make way for a football stadium. Jollett writes beautifully about these places that now only exist in our memory, both the physical places and the memories that we have of people we have lost. I lost my mom in 2008, and I have my own memories with her at both Hollywood Park and Santa Anita Race Track.

Jollett doesn’t write much about The Airborne Toxic Event, but he does give insight to the origins of two of their early hits: “Wishing Well” and “Sometime Before Midnight.” This memoir isn’t really about the band, but more about the origins of the man who felt compelled to put his words into songs.

I was fortunate to attend a virtual book event for Hollywood Park that was hosted by Tattered Cover, a Denver based bookshop. The event was originally supposed to be live, but due to Covid-19, virtual was the next best option. It was actually great. Jollett joined us from his home and played several songs. He was gracious with answering questions and sharing intimate details of his life. A week after the event, I received a hardback copy with an autographed bookplate.

Hollywood Park is a stunning memoir. It’s heartbreaking and uplifting. It is a must-read for fans of Jollett, but even if you’ve never heard of The Airborne Toxic Event, I highly recommend Hollywood Park. It is one of the most affecting and engaging memoirs that I have ever read.

 

 

 

All That’s Bright and Gone

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Thank you to Crooked Lane Books for providing me with a copy of Eliza Nellums’ novel, All That’s Bright and Gone, in exchange for an honest review.

Six-year old Aoife has recently witnessed her mother have a mental break-down at a shopping mall and is currently being cared for by her Uncle Donny, while her mother is recovering in a hospital. While living with her uncle, she tries to search for clues regarding the mystery surrounding her older brother, Theo. Her mother talks about Theo as though he is still alive, but Aoife is sure that he has been murdered. To add to Aoife’s confusion, her mother’s boyfriend has started coming around and he claims to be Aoife’s real father. Aoife attempts to navigate her muddled world with the help of her imaginary friend, Teddy, and her eight-year-old neighbor who is an amateur sleuth.

Nellums has created a vibrant and winning protagonist in Aoife. I think it is hard to craft a believable young child protagonist, but Nellum has nailed it, balancing Aoife’s precociousness with her innocence. Also balanced is the amount of truth that we know from the adults in Aoife’s world, allowing the reader insight to her reality vs. her assumptions. It is a compelling look at a child caught in the middle of adult issues.

Teddy makes the reader wonder if Aoife is headed down the same path toward mental illness as her mother or if an imaginary friend is simply a childhood rite of passage. Teddy resembles a teddy bear and he urges Aoife to act in ways that direct her toward danger. The inclusion of Teddy worked well to make me think that Aoife could be an unreliable narrator, but the uncertainty of it kept me on fence, adding to the mystery of the story.

I throughly enjoyed All That’s Bright and Gone. I truly had no idea where the story was headed, but was gripped from the start. I was hooked by the feeling of uncertainty and that Aoife might always be in danger. There is a great scene with a elderly neighbor that had me really worried for Aoife. Nellums never allows the tension to drop, which keeps the pacing tight and makes All That’s Bright and Gone a quick read.

Nellums is a gift writer with regard to both prose and plot. All That’s Bright and Gone is her debut novel and I’m looking forward to reading her future works.

 

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.

 

Campusland

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Thank you to St. Martin’s Press for providing me with debut author Scott Johnston’s novel, Campusland, in exchange for an honest review.

Devon University is a “not-quite Ivy League” east-coast institution that has provided a quality education for generations. Through fond memories and rich traditions, Devon has built a strong group of wealthy alumni, who are happy to support their alma matter, as long as it continues to reflect the values they treasure.

However, there is a problem. The world is changing and life at Devon is beginning to reflect the most extreme state of these changes.

Campusland is a satire and it is laugh-out-loud hilarious. Johnston pokes at several issues, however important they may be, that have spiraled out of control due to a lack of common sense. For example, when Freshman student Lulu Harris takes a spill and is injured on campus, no one will believe her when she tells them the truth: she was not sexually assaulted. Instead of believing the truth, the situation escalates to the point that Lulu feels that she has to name an accuser and decides to point the finger at her professor, Eph Russell.

Lulu is complicated. She is a NYC party girl, who is stuck at a college far from the city and is feeling her status slip away. She has failed at making friends and can’t seem to catch a break. Lulu had a bit of a crush on Eph and his rejection stung, however she did not initially intend on blaming him or anyone else. She tried to tell the truth, but no one would believe her word. When she names Eph as her attacker, she realizes that she has an opportunity to promote her social status through a social cause. In a calculated move, Lulu starts a nightly ritual of crawling through campus. Lulu’s crawl is silent and she never speaks of her “assault,” however other people assume that she is making a statement and speaking on behalf of all sexual assault victims. Lulu becomes a sensation and she doesn’t correct any of the assumptions.

Currently, with so many powerful men being accused of sexual assault, there is such outcry at women not being believed when they are attacked, this shows the same problem in a reverse situation. Lulu was never attacked, but no one will believe her. She is only believed, when she becomes the victim that people want her to be. Her voice has actually been silenced by the very people who pretend to support her. It’s sick.

Eph, the true victim, is a white male from the South and he is helpless as his career go down the drain. Not only is he accused by Lulu, but prior to the Lulu situation, his course syllabus comes under attack by students accusing him of racism for teaching “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” and for not including more writers of color. Eph has counter argument to their accusations, but the momentum of this group, including many students who are not enrolled in his class, grows. Eph keeps expecting that his luck will change and that surely having truth on his side will prevail. However, not even the clearest proof of his innocence will stop those who want him gone. By virtue of his historical power of being a white male, he is not allowed to be the victim and the people who have the power to help him, see it as a loss, if they accept the truth of his innocence.

At Devon, having power is more important than morals or truth. Fairness is a sham.

Campusland reflects a world where common sense is missing and extremism rules. This is a story world where people are very divided and there is no room for civil debate. It is uncomfortable and reflects our current world with a “You’re either with us or against us” attitude.

I loved Campusland. Johnston’s novel is a hilarious page-turner that is a keen observation of our society. I can’t wait to read Johnston’s next book.

 

On Being Human: A Memoir of Waking Up, Living Real, and Listening Hard

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Thank you to Penguin Group Dutton for providing me with a copy of Jennifer Pastiloff’s memoir, On Being Human: A Memoir of Waking Up, Living Real, and Listening Hard, in exchange for an honest review.

Jennifer Pastiloff has built an incredible life. She is in a loving marriage, has a beautiful child, and has created a successful career as an inspirational leader of life changing yoga retreats. However, the road to Pastiloff’s currently life was bumpy.

Pastiloff had a tumultuous childhood, which included the death of her father. She suffered from crippling self-doubt and anorexia. Her self-image issues played a role in her refusal to seek medical attention for her progressive hearing loss, an issue that caused her many years of social pain, excluding her from fully participating in conversations and feeling like people viewed her as less intelligent. She meandered through her twenties/early thirties, engaging in self-destructive activities and unable to figure out her true career path or to find a good romantic partner.

On Being Human is part memoir and part self-help book, as Pastiloff gives tips and exercises gleaned from her popular workshops for reader to try at home. Pastiloff is relatable and raw. I related to her sense of feeling lost in her twenties/early thirties. She dropped out of college and spent over a decade working as a server at a cafe. I was in a similar situation and I could relate to knowing that you have skills and dreams, but also not quite knowing how to focus on a career path. The sense of knowing that there is so much more out there for you, but also not knowing how to grab it. In a culture where we value the traditional education/career path, it can be very difficult for people who do not stick to that mold. Pastiloff filled me with encouragement and hope. I would definitely recommend On Being Human, to anyone who is feeling a little lost.

Another aspect of Pastiloff’s memoir is the idea of following your gut or inner voice. Pastiloff did not have dreams of being a yoga instructor or a motivational coach, but she listened to her intuition when the opportunities presented themselves, she took them. The first time she met her would-be husband, she wasn’t interested in him, but a decade later, her gut told her to pursue the relationship. It’s part trusting yourself and part timing, as life is ever evolving and sometimes you might need the time to grow, in order to be ready to accept an opportunity. Pastiloff in her early twenties was not ready to accept certain things and she needed the time to grow. Rather than beating herself up over these missed years, she looks at them as a time needed to develop into the person she is today.

Pastiloff experienced massive hearing loss, a condition that slowly worsened over many years. Finally, she realized that she needed to use a hearing aid, something that she had been embarrassed about to the point of choosing to miss out on hearing. It was a vanity issue. When she finally conceded to needing the hearing aids, she realized that she could not afford them. However, Pastiloff had built a community of friends and clients who wanted to help her purchase them. This community came through with several other financial emergencies. My take-away is if you show enough love to other people, especially giving it freely with no expectations, often this love will come back to you in abundance. I’ve seen this happen in my own life and in the lives of those around me. Pastiloff’s younger adult years were spent in such fear of judgement, that when she was able to push that aside, she saw the blessing of allowing other people to be part of her life. We often hear that it “takes a village” to raise a child, but I think that it applies to everyone. We all need help sometimes. We need a sense of belonging to a community.

On Being Human is a wonderful reminder of the power of humanity and of embracing life. I highly recommend it for anyone who needs a bit of a boost. I’d love to attend one of Pastiloff’s workshops and to see how her energy in person, compares to the page. It is radiant in her memoir!

Are We Really Going to Let Mum Backpack on Her Own?

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Thank you to Hazel Loutsis, for providing me with a copy of her travel book, Are We Really Going to Let Mum Backpack on Her Own?: My Gap Year Traveling Solo at Sixty, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– Hazel Loutsis was a single British woman approaching sixty, when she had a life-altering thought while at the dentist: rather than paying thousands of pounds for a procedure that she didn’t really need, she would spend the money on traveling the world. Loutsis put her affairs in order, bought a good backpack, and flew to India, to begin her year of adventure.

LIKE– Loutsis has an amazing adventurous spirit, embracing all of the experiences that come her way. She picks destinations that are off-the-beaten path, rarely declines trying new things, and truly gets to know the people living in the places that she visits.

I was intrigued by Loutsis style of travel. She keeps it simple, mostly staying in hostels (usually filled with college students) or in accommodations where she volunteers to earn her keep. She is easy-going when it comes to camping, long bus rides, and general discomfort. Honestly, I’m not sure that I could embrace her style of travel, yet I’m envious of the incredible experiences she had during her year abroad. It was certainly a deeper experience than the average traveler. Many times, these experiences seem to come as a reward for her experiencing discomfort, like amazing views after a grueling hike. Loutsis often favored small towns and nature, over big cities- which is also opposite to me. It was engaging to read a travel report from someone so different from myself.

My favorite part was when Loutsis decided to sleep under the stars, while on a tour of the Australian outback. She managed to sleep through Dingos raiding the camp. The Dingos stole sneakers from another woman in the group. Loutsis is told not to worry, since the Dingos don’t usually attack people!

I love travel writing, because it allows me to live vicariously through the author’s journey: Are We Really Going to Let Mum Backpack on Her Own, is no exception. Thanks to Loutsis, I have many destinations to add to my bucket list!

DISLIKEAre We Really Going to Let Mum Backpack on Her Own, is a straight-up travel journal. It was just like reading a travel diary from a friend and lacked a sense of style that is found in professional travel writing.

RECOMMEND- Maybe. I certainly admire Loutsis and I found much of her book to be enjoyable. That said, I’m not sure that it was unique among the many travel books that are on the market and certainly less polished.

Evergreen Tidings from the Baumgartners

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Thank you to Harlequin- Hanover Square Press for providing me with a copy of Gretchen Anthony’s novel, Evergreen Tidings from the Baumgartners, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT- Cerise Baumgartner is pregnant with her first child and her parents are thrilled. Thrilled and very involved, especially Cerise’s over-bearing mother, Violet. Violet likes Cerise’s girlfriend, Barb, but is left feeling concerned and nosy over how the child was conceived, a personal issue that neither Barb nor Cerise is willing to disclose.

As Violet tries to interfere with her daughter’s life, she has other concerns to contend with, such as her recently retired husband, Ed, who doesn’t quite know what to do with himself. Her best friend, Eldris is also going through a crisis. Eldris’ husband, Richard, has lost his job and is acting very secretive. Their son, Kyle, who is also Cerise’s best-friend and the would be godfather to her baby, is being investigated for domestic terrorism. To top it all off, Violet is desperate to please Barb’s parents, who, at least on paper, seem to be the perfect family.

LIKEEvergreen Tidings from the Baumgartners is a delightful novel. It’s funny and has a lot of heart. I appreciated the complexity of Violet and how the truth of her character unfolds. She is quite a lot to handle early in the story, but Anthony does a fine job of teasing out the details of her inner-life and I finished the story with a very different impression of Violet. One of the overriding themes of the story is love and despite the many flaws that the characters have, there is a lot of love to be found.

I think most people have a Violet Baumgartner in their life. She is a force of nature, but also someone who is very sensitive and hides it behind her controlling behavior. She loves fiercely, but also drives people away with her take-charge attitude. I have relatives that are so similar to Violet, that it was very relatable. I could easily understand Cerise’s reaction to her mother and I’ve been in her position.

I’m a big fan of the Christmas card letter. I even save my favorites that are sent to me, certain families have a way with words. I enjoyed the way that Anthony used Violet’s Christmas card letters to give us backstory about the Baumgartner’s life. It really works well with the story. Although I finished reading Evergreen Tidings from the Baumgartners, in February ( on a snowy afternoon), it is definitely an ideal book to read during the Christmas season. It will put you in a holiday mood.

The disastrous dinner party scene at the end really made me laugh. I also found that Anthony had some great plot twists that I did not anticipate.

DISLIKE- Nothing to dislike. Evergreen Tidings from the Baumgartners is not a life-changing read, but it is a very cozy, charming story.

RECOMMEND – Yes! If you are looking for a family drama with a strong dose of comedy, Evergreen Tidings from the Baumgartners is a great pick. I throughly enjoyed it. It’s a feel-good story that will give you the warm fuzzies!

My Squirrel Days

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Thank you to Scribner for providing me with a copy of Ellie Kemper’s memoir, My Squirrel Days, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– Comedian Ellie Kemper reflects on her childhood and shares stories from her journey towards success in the entertainment industry.

LIKE– I’m a huge fan of Ellie Kemper and I was happy to see that she is just as charming and funny the page, as she is in her acting roles.

My Squirrel Days strikes a good balance of stories from Kemper’s pre-fame years to tidbits from her professional career. I think this should be required reading for anyone who is interested in getting into the arts, as Kemper shares both rejections and triumphs, but most important she reveals her tenacity. I imagine that most people think that a regular role on a hit show like The Office, might bring instant fame and wealthy, but Kemper ( although not losing sight on her fortune in landing the role) keeps it in check and shows that not everything is as easy or glamorous as it seems. It reminded me of a similar sentiment that Anna Kendrick mentions in her memoir, Scrappy Little Nobody. Wealthy and fame do not always come quickly in the entertainment industry, even when you land a great role in a hit television series or film.

I really enjoyed the chapter on Tina Fey and the behind-the-scenes of Kemper’s show, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. I love this quirky show and I wish that Kemper’s memoir had included even more about Kimmy.

Kemper’s writer’s voice is hilarious. She sets up early on that she was a curious and intense child, a personality trait that carried into her adulthood. She often pokes fun at her own uber-driven behavior. One chapter focuses on her Soul Cycle addiction and how she was very particular about needing a certain bike in the studio. I don’t do Soul Cycle, but as a very particular, routine person, I found myself relating to this chapter.

Her fan-girl love towards David Letterman and excitement over being a guest on his show is a delight to read. Her wacky idea to make him toast is just awesome.

DISLIKE– I hate to say this, but although I enjoyed reading Kemper’s book, I don’t feel that it is a memoir that will make a lasting impression. Even as I am writing this review, about a week after finishing her book, I needed to go back to remember details.

RECOMMEND– Yes, if you’re a fan of Kemper or breaking into the arts and needing to get a little encouragement. My Squirrel Days is a humorous, light-read that will brighten your day. Plus, gotta love anything with a squirrel on the cover!

Everything Belongs to Us

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Thank You to Random House Publishing Group for providing me with an advanced copy of Yoojin Grace Wuertz’s novel, Everything Belongs to Us, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT – Set in Seoul, South Korea during the late 70’s, Everything Belongs to Us, is the story of two childhood friends from vastly different economic backgrounds. Jisun, the daughter of a successful business tycoon, is from a privileged family, and lives in a secluded mountainside mansion. Namin lives in a poor village, in a small house without running water, and her parents own a food truck, working sixteen hour days. The girls meet when Namin’s impressive test scores admit her to an elite middle school.

Fast forward to college, both women are attending South Korea’s most prestigious university. Namin’s goal is to become a doctor and her family puts all of their money and energy towards her success, seeing her as their ticket out of their hard life. Jisun’s father would like to groom her to take over his company, but she would rather disavow her wealthy upbringing. Instead, Jisun becomes involved in an activist movement, risking not only embarrassment to her family, but jail. A series of circumstances sets a course that will show each woman, that their situations are tenuous and that desire isn’t always enough.

LIKE– Wow. Just wow. Everything Belongs to Us is a dazzling debut novel that gripped me from the start and didn’t let go. I absolutely could not put it down, and as a consequence, I stayed up far past my bedtime to finish reading it. Wuertz’s strong voice, combined with sympathetic characters and a intriguing plot, kept me glued.

What surprised me the most, was how current the story felt. Admittedly, I know very little about Korea’s history during the 1970’s. However, with the exception of the factory protests (which for all I know could also be happening now), I kept forgetting that this story was set decades ago. I think it’s because the idea of college students focusing on power, social climbing and ambition, transcends decades or cultures. The idea of a lower-class family putting all of their dreams towards their child who could raise their status, is something that still happens; same as a child from a wealthy family who might want to test out a different life from the one in which she was raised. These are themes that transcend.

Power is a key theme of Everything Belongs to Us. The most gut-wrenching use of this theme, comes from Namin, when she learns that her younger brother, who has cerebral-palsy, has been sent away from Seoul, to live with their grandparents in the county. The problem is, the family is ashamed, and does not speak of Namin’s younger brother. She fears that he is dead, until as teenagers, Jisun suggests that Namin make a surprise trip to the countryside, to see if her brother is still alive. He is alive and knowing that her elderly grandparents will not be able to care for him much longer, Namin feels an even stronger pressure to finish school, and have a job where she will have the resources to help him. There is a beautiful scene where she takes him in his wheelchair to the river and as they cool their feet in the water, they dream of the fantasy home that they will one day have. Namin dreams of being wealthy, but not so much for herself, but for the power that it would give her to provide for her family. It’s a desperate and non-negotiable need for her.

In college, the girls meet Sunam, a boy from a middle-class background, who like the girls, is trying to find his place in the world. Sunam becomes Namin’s boyfriend, but their relationship declines when she becomes too busy with school and family obligations. Jisun, who is broken-hearted over an American missionary, turns her attentions to Sunam, beginning an affair with Namin’s boyfriend. Unbeknownst to both girls, Sunam is harboring a secret that would destroy both of his relationships. Wuertz’s plot is full of moral dilemmas and impossible situations. It’s suspenseful and kept me guessing until the very end.

DISLIKE– Not a single thing. Everything Belongs to Us is a fabulous debut.

RECOMMEND– Yes! Everything Belongs to Us is set in the 1970’s, but is fresh and modern. Wuertz is a masterful storyteller and I can’t wait to read her follow-up to this magnificent debut. Also, be sure to check out her author website, where she shares pictures of her family, who were inspiration for the characters in Everything Belongs to Us.