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. 

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.

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.

The Best of Adam Sharp

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Thank You to St. Martin’s Press for providing me with an advanced copy of Graeme Simsion’s novel, The Best of Adam Sharp, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT- Twenty years ago, while working in Australia, Adam Sharp met Angelina Brown, a vivacious soap-opera actress. Adam and Angelina had a short and intense relationship, which ended when Adam’s work took him to New Zealand.

Now, over twenty-years later, Adam is living in England and his marriage is on the rocks. His wife, Claire, has a major career opportunity that might require her to relocate to the United States, and Adam isn’t sure he should follow. In the midst of his marital crisis, Adam receives an email from Angelina, whom he had lost touch with years ago. Although Angelina is married with three children, she begins a flirtatious email exchange that plunges Adam down the rabbit hole of nostalgia. Angelina invites Adam to spend a weekend with her and her husband, Charles. This weekend seems like a bad idea, a very bad idea: but can Adam resist his past?

LIKE- I’ve read Simsion’s The Rosie Project and The Rosie Effect, and I’m a fan of his writing. He’s fabulous at creating memorable characters. The Best of Adam Sharp is a character drive novel. It is a riveting emotional drama, one where the stakes are enormous and it feels like everyone is bound to lose.

Nostalgia is at the heart of The Best of Adam Sharp. Adam and Angelina meet prior to the internet being a big deal and when they part, they don’t have an easy form of communication. It’s a contrast to todays technology and social media, where it is easy to keep in contact with people from your past. Prior to Angelina reconnecting, Adam only has his memories of her. He has a hobby as musician and he links songs to memories. He met Angelina while playing the piano and singing at a bar: Angelina joining him on stage. They connect through music and the  lyrics become a form of secret communication that takes on a huge importance. I think most readers will be able to relate to this form of nostalgia, where we look at the past with rose-colored glasses and where we put certain moments on a pedestal ( good or bad memories), allowing particular fragments to take on a deeper meaning. The further the distance, sometimes leads to less perspective.

The first half of the novel is about the nostalgia and the romance, but the second half takes a rather dark turn, when Adam decides to stay at the country house in France with Angelina and Charles. Angelina and Charles do not have a happy marriage and they have brought Adam into their troubles. The moral of the story being, while it is possible to reconnect with your past, be careful that the boundaries are clear, and that your past, doesn’t endanger your present or future.

 DISLIKE– The second half of the book left me feeling funny about both Adam and Angelina. Character likability is certainly not a requirement for me to enjoy a novel, however it helps. I liked both Angelina and Adam, when they were nostalgic for their past, but when they crossed the line into a bizarre and rather uncomfortable scenario with Angelina’s husband, I was left with a bad taste for both of them. I wasn’t sure what to think about Charles. It’s realistic that under the circumstances he would be a little hostile or conflicted, but it was hard to respect his character, even in the end. The story included a bit of erotica, which was surprising. I’m not prudish, but under the circumstances of the novel, it was highly uncomfortable to read. I guess what I’m saying is that I felt “squirmy” while reading the second half, which is what I think Simsion set out to do.

RECOMMEND– Yes. Simsion is a wonderful storyteller, who writes about complex emotions and relationships. The Best of Adam Sharp made a deep impression on me.

The Trophy Child

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Thank You to Grove Atlantic for providing me with an advanced copy of Paula Daly’s novel, The Trophy Child, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– Ten-year-old Bronte Bloom, is overworked and stressed-out. Her mother, Karen, keeps Bronte on a tight schedule, shuttling her between various lessons and tutors, accepting nothing less than excellence. She insists that her daughter is gifted and exceptional, but even if that isn’t quite true, Karen believes that it’s nothing that can’t be fixed by pushing her daughter to work harder, or by hiring more qualified teachers.

Bronte isn’t an only child. She has an older teenage brother named Ewan, who is a slacker, and rather than finding a job or attending college, he spends his days playing video games and smoking pot. He is Karen’s son from a previous relationship, although the name of his father is a mystery. Bronte’s older half-sister, Verity, has moved into their home. Verity’s mother has multiple sclerosis  and was moved to a nearby live-in care facility. Verity and Karen do not get along. Verity is fiercely protective of Bronte, whom she feels is being pushed too hard. The family patriarch, Noel Bloom, stays on the periphery of the madness going on in his own home. He is unhappy in his marriage, yet afraid to take on the force that is Karen.

When Bronte goes missing for a day, the Bloom family is in a panic. Bronte has been so sheltered, that they fear she cannot survive on her own. When she returns the following day, happy, unharmed, and unwilling to talk about her disappearance, the Bloom’s are left feeling perplexed. Karen faces a public backlash for her parenting style and is even accused of giving Bronte a reason to run away. The backlash is so intense, that Karen gets harassing phone calls and written death threats. Karen vanishes a month later, her car found abandoned with splattered blood. Could Bronte and Karen’s disappearances be linked? Was Karen attacked for being too much of a “Tiger Mom?”

LIKEThe Trophy Child has two separate elements going on: It’s a family drama, but it is also a murder mystery. I preferred the family drama to the suspense/mystery elements of the story. As a drama, we have a blended family struggling to make it work, and that dynamic is compelling.

At the start of the story, we don’t know if Verity is an unreliable character. When we meet her, she is in trouble for choking her step-mother in a blind rage, and her private school is threatening to expel her, if she doesn’t attend therapy sessions. However, we quickly learn that Verity is incredibly protective of Bronte and through Karen’s rigorous demands of her younger daughter, she was physically hurting her. Yes, Verity was enraged, but Karen was also acting in an extreme manner. Verity is actually incredibly mature for her age and compassionate of others. Not only does she try to help her younger sister, but she is kind to her half-brother, Ewan and his mentally handicap friend, who is a frequent visitor to the house. Verity visits her mother, sneaking her in marijuana, which calms her mother’s tremors. She is even patient with Karen’s bullying parents, who accuse her of potentially harming Bronte and Karen, when each goes missing. Verity takes this all in stride, even though her life has been nothing but upheaval with factors out of her control. This makes her even more sympathetic than Bronte, and it’s hard to beat the sympathy factor of a abused child!

I love the setting of the Lake District in England. Having visited there ( it’s magical), I could easily picture the village and the houses. I could see Lake Windermere, which is the setting ofa pivotal scene in The Trophy Child. I have such good memories of my visit there, that I was delighted to revisit it in this story world, even if murder and shady characters were involved!

I’m intrigued by the helicopter parenting/tiger mom thing. I have step-children, but they do not live with us, so I don’t really have parenting experience, and my mom, although she pushed me, definitely didn’t fall under this category. I liked how Daly played with the backlash that Karen receives. Clearly, Karen thought that she was doing the best thing for Bronte, but she could not see or admit to the negative ways it was affecting her daughter. Certainly, Karen was extreme and doing Bronte harm, but Daly adds another layer of the community members being judgmental regarding her parenting, and the idea that you never quite know what is going on in someone else life.

DISLIKE– I’m on the fence about the murder mystery and the character of detective Joanna Aspinall. I didn’t find the budding romance between Joanna and Noel to be compelling or necessary. I kept expecting that this would have a large repercussion on Joanna investigating the disappearance of Karen, but other than a slight internal conflict, i.e.- she knew she should mention it to her boss, nothing came of it.

The very end of the story, in which the crime is finally resolved, felt like a very big coincidence. Too many pieces of the puzzle slid together neatly. Although the twist played out as far as me not realize the story would head to that conclusion, I didn’t feel that the twist was satisfying.

I think part of the problem with the crime aspect of the story, is it lost momentum when Bronte returned home and the mystery of her disappearance was quickly eclipsed by the disappearance of Karen. We do learn what happened to Bronte, but it doesn’t come until the end of the story, and it doesn’t have much of a link to Karen’s disappearance, other than it put Karen into the spotlight.

RECOMMEND– No. The Trophy Child was a quick read. Daly has a knack for writing family dynamics and conflict. I would be inclined to seek out other books that she has written, but The Trophy Child was an uneven read.