Florence Adler Swims Forever

Thank you to Simon and Schuster for providing me with a copy of Rachel Beanland’s Novel, Florence Adler Swims Forever, in exchange for an honest review.

Nineteen-year-old Florence Adler dreams of being among a handful of women to successfully swim the English Channel. It is 1934 and she is spending the summer practicing in the oceans of Atlantic City, coached by Stuart, a handsome life guard and son of a wealthier hotelier.

Tragedy strikes when during an afternoon swim, without Stuart’s watchful eye, Florence drowns. Her grief stricken parents, Joseph and Esther, make the choice to hide Florence’s death from their older daughter, Fannie, who is on bedrest in a local hospital during a high-risk pregnancy. Previously, Fannie lost a child after a premature delivery, and her family is fearful that the news of Florence’s death could lead to another loss. They cannot bear another loss. They keep the news quiet and even ask Fannie’s doctors and nurses to hide the information from her, removing the radio from her room and keeping her away from newspapers. Can they keep this charade for two months and how will the lie impact the people Florence loved?

Florence Adler Swims Forever has been one of my favorite reads of 2020. It’s emotional, surprising, and inspirational. I absolutely fell in love with the characters, in particular, Florence’s niece, Gussie, who is seven. The story alternates between different perspectives and when we get to Gussie’s chapters, we really see through the eyes of a child who is trying to understand complex adult decisions. Gussie is staying with her grandparents, while her mother is in the hospital. Her father, Issac, is a peripheral figure, visiting his in-laws for the occasional dinner and seeing his wife a few times a week. We quickly learn that although Issac loves his daughter, he is a man with goals that do not align with having a family.

Gussie spends most of her time with Anna, a young woman from Germany who is spending the summer with the Adler family. Gussie doesn’t know exactly what to make of Anna, who isn’t a relative. Prior to immigrating to the United States, Joseph was engaged to Anna’s mother, and even though Anna is not his child, he felt the need to help her escape from the increasingly dangerous Nazi Germany. Joseph also hopes to help Anna’s parent’s immigrate, something that he can’t quite articulate to his wife, who does not realize that he was more than childhood friends with Anna’s mother. She doesn’t understand why her husband is drawn to helping this foreign family, when their own family is struggling.

While I was reading, I did not realize that Florence Adler Swims Forever is based on the true story of Beanland’s great aunts. It is fictionalized, but just knowing that Florence Adler existed made me connect with the story even more. Also the idea that a family kept their grief hidden to protect their other daughter’s pregnancy is heartbreaking. I had chills when I read that it is based on a true story.

Beanland is a fabulous writer. Florence Adler Swims Forever has a satisfying ending with all of the loose-ends tied, however, this is my plea to Beanland to continue with the Adler family in another novel. I need to know what happens to Fannie, and if Anna’s family escapes Germany. I want to see Gussie grow up and meet Ruby. I love these characters and I want more!!! Please Beanland!!!

Also, I wouldn’t mind a movie or mini-series. Imagine the fabulous costumes and sets! It’s all so wonderful.

I cannot say enough lovely things about Florence Adler Swims Forever. Read it now and have the Kleenex handy.

Florida Man

Thank you to Random House Publishing Group for providing me with a copy of Tom Cooper’s novel Florida Man, in exchange for an honest review.

Spanning several decades, Florida Man is the story Reed Crowe and Henry Yahchilane, who form an unlikely friendship while living on a small island. Struggling from the loss of his child, affectionately nicknamed Otter, Crowe finds himself divorced and the proprietor of a struggling roadside attraction. Yahchilane, a Seminole native, and the older of the two men is a mystery. He is quiet with a tough exterior and rumors fly regarding his criminal inclinations. A skeleton and a sink hole bring Crowe and Yahchilane together, sealing their connection and changing the course of their lives.

Florida Man is a quirky and delightful ride. I read it over two separate trips to central Florida during the summer of 2020, which included an airboat swamp tour, putting me in the mood. The twists in Florida Man are impossible to anticipate, but even more impossible to predict was the emotional impact of the story. I was sobbing while reading the last chapters. I was caught off-guard by how much I grew to care about both Crowe and Yahchilane and even more, how much I related to them. On the surface, it would seem that I shouldn’t be able to relate to these men; I am a forty-three year old white woman living in the suburbs, yet I definitely connected with Crowe and Yahchilane’s lone-wolf, living their lives by their own terms attitude.

I understood how they felt connected to their island, Crowe even refusing to leave it to be with his ex-wife Heidi. Crowe has relationships with other women, but he will always love Heidi. When their daughter dies, Crowe becomes planted on the island, as Heidi leaves to travel the world, dealing with their grief in separate ways.

The first two-thirds of the story are primarily a tension-filled, roller coaster ride. When Crowe becomes involved with helping a Cuban refugee family, he discovers that his childhood friend is a pedophile, putting a young girl from the family he is helping, in danger. Crowe struggles with figuring out the best way to deal with his former friend, a man who shows no signs of remorse.

Crowe’s life is in danger, when an old enemy comes back to haunt him. Hector Morales, nicknamed “Catface” for his disfiguring scars, was left in the swamp when many years earlier, Crowe found his body near a plane crash. Crowe thought he was dead and left Morales, but not before taking a fortune’s worth of marijuana from the downed plane. Morales survived and never forgot Crowe’s face, vowing to track him down.

Morales is a first-rate villain, reminding me of the character Anton Chigurh from Cormac McCarthy’s novel, No Country for Old Men. Similar to Chigurh, Morales is terrifying due to his calm demeanor and unpredictable violence. We stay with Morales as he is on the hunt for Crowe and watch as he interacts with many side characters while on his mission. The reader never knows if Morales will brutally kill someone that crosses his path or simply wish him a good day. The tension is high.

Florida, with its sandy beaches, muggy weather, and thick swamps is a character in Florida Man. Beyond Cooper’s novel, the term “Florida Man” is often used to describe dumb criminals and drug addicts who make the news in the sunshine state for a variety of outrageous antics. Florida is often mocked and taken less seriously than other states. I’m a Los Angeles native, and we are also often dismissed as “La La Land” or a place where “Fake” people live. In some ways, Crowe and Yahchilane embrace their “Florida Man” reputations, but in just as many ways, they defy it. They are simply ordinary men who love their land. I relate. I often bristle when I hear Los Angeles stereotypes. I can see the nuggets of truth in the stereotypes, but I also see so much more that only someone who loves their city, loves their state, can truly understand. Yahchilane and Crowe are insiders and their Florida is different from the Florida people mock. Their version of a “Florida Man” has much more depth than haters could ever realize.

Cooper’s Florida Man is a wild ride and some of the most beautiful, affecting writing that I have ever read. It’s truly a unique literary experience that I highly recommend.

The Lies that Bind

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Thank you to Random House Publishing Group for providing me with a copy of Emily Giffin’s latest novel, The Lies that Bind, in exchange for an honest review.

Twenty-eight-year-old Cecily Gardner is a mid-west transplant trying to create a life as a journalist in New York City. Ready to take the next step with her long-time boyfriend Matthew, she break-ups with him, when he doesn’t want a bigger commitment.

Distraught, she heads to a bar to drink, and consider if she has made a grave mistake. At the bar, she is about to call Matthew and ask him to take her back, when Grant steps into her life. Grant is charming and Cecily feels an instant attract to him. She quickly forgets Matthew and begins a whirlwind romance with Grant, including flying to London with her best friend Scottie, to see Grant, who has taken his twin brother to London for ALS treatment.

A few months into their romance, September 11th happens and Grant, who works for a financial firm in the World Trade Center, is presumed dead. Cecily realizes that she didn’t know very much about Grant, including his last name. While reporting on the terrorist attacks, Cecily encounters a sign with Grant’s picture as a missing person. She calls the number and speaks with Amy, Grant’s wife. Shocked by this discovery, Cecily becomes obsessed with unraveling the mystery of Grant’s life, and in the process, becomes friends with Amy, who doesn’t know about her husband’s infidelity.

I’m a fan of Giffin, and I was very excited to read her latest novel. It has been nearly twenty years since the September 11th terrorist attacks and I remember the day clearly. I was just a few years younger than Cecily, and although I was living in California, I had many friends in NYC. I can’t recall reading another novel that uses 9/11 as a central aspect of the plot. It was strange to realize, with the technology and cultural references, how much time has passed, but to still have this day so etched in my memory. Giffin does a great job writing the uncertainty and fear surrounding that day and its impact. It’s unsettling to read and dredged up memories.

As a contrast, I experienced joy reading the chapters detailing Cecily and Scottie’s trip to London. London and NYC are two of my favorite place. Cecily and Scottie have a wonderful friendship, the kind of support and love that everyone should have in their lives.

The Lies that Bind becomes increasingly more complicated from the lies that are created after Cecily learns of Grant’s infidelity. I don’t want to give any spoilers, but quite a web of deceit is woven, and even though the lies are due to generally good intentions, they quickly spiral out of control. Coming clean becomes increasingly difficult.

I didn’t feel Cecily’s attraction to Grant, especially when he seemed to be giving her mixed messages. It was the same with her relationship with Matthew. Cecily is a doormat for a majority of the story. I believe this is to set her up for making the transition towards realizing her own strength and independence later in the story, but this revelation happens really late. For a majority of The Lies that Bind, Cecily is a weak character, and it made it difficult for me to connect with her. I felt sad for Cecily.

The Lies That Bind has an intriguing premise and it’s a fast read. I don’t think it’s Giffin’s best novel, but if you’re a fan of her writing, you should absolutely add this to your bookshelf.

 

Big Summer

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Thank you to Atria Books for providing me with a copy of Jennifer Weiner’s latest novel, Big Summer, in exchange for an honest review.

Drue Cavanaugh appears to have it all. She’s rich, beautiful, and successful. However, looks can be deceiving, and happiness is something that has always eluded Drue. Drue is magnetic and charming, which draws people to her, but she also has a ruthless, mean streak, which destroys her friendships.

Drue’s childhood friend, Daphne Berg, was a target of Drue’s cruelty, and after a particularly painful incident, they haven’t spoken in six years. Daphne is surprised when Drue contacts her, begging Daphne to be her maid of honor for her upcoming lavish Cape Cod wedding. Drue seems sincere in her desire to fix their friendship, but there is another piece of the puzzle. Daphne is a rising social media star and Drue pitches that Daphne can use the wedding to promote herself. Many aspects of the wedding are being promoted on social media and companies have donated products for the bride and groom to showcase.

Daphne agrees, and she is swept back into Drue’s glamorous world. On the night of the rehearsal dinner, Daphne meets a handsome man and has a steamy one-night stand. The next morning, the man is gone, and Drue is found dead in a nearby hot tub. Daphne is a suspect, and she works to solve the mystery of both Drue’s murder and the identity of her mystery man.

I’ve read many of Weiner’s previous novels, and I’m a fan. I was excited to read Big Summer, but I must confess that this was a miss for me. The first third of the story is strong; setting up the history and dynamic between Drue and Daphne. Daphne is a charming character, especially as we meet her after she has made a big transformation in her life. She is happy and on the path to success when Drue’s reappearance threatens her. Drue’s sway over people is captivating. I found my interest crumbling after Drue died and the story shifts to a mystery.

I didn’t anticipate the reveal of the murderer, yet it wasn’t a satisfying twist. Weiner sets Drue up as someone who has wronged many people and therefore, her murderer could be anyone. Daphne, and her roommate Darshi, set-off to solve the various mysteries. The mystery aspect of the novel has a lot of convenient situations and tenuous links. I didn’t find it plausible and my interest waned. Mysteries are a departure for Weiner, and I applaud her for trying something new, but it didn’t gel.

A lovely aspect of the story was the relationship between Daphne and her parents, especially her father. Daphne and her father have a Sunday tradition of trying different restaurants and cuisines. In a flashback scene, Drue joins them one Sunday. Drue’s parents have held her at a distance, and being included on this Sunday outing was an emotional experience for Drue. Daphne is made aware that the love from her parents and their support is something that money can’t buy.

Big Summer has beautiful themes of the ability to change and not being defined by your past. Daphne has insecurities due to her weight, but when she allows herself to let go of her worries, she finds acceptance, including a new boyfriend, Nick. Speaking of Nick, their romance is passionate and sexy. I may have been blushing!

Big Summer reminds us that not everything on social media is how it appears, both what is shared and what is kept private. People have the ability to change, even if we are not noticing their changes. I’m a fan of Weiner and will certainly read her future novels, but Big Summer was enough of a miss for me, that I can’t recommend it. The strengths in Big Summer are the characters and themes, but the overarching plot is messy.

 

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.

 

Nothing to See Here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Family Upstairs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Expectations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Grace Year

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Thank you to St. Martin’s Press for providing me with a copy of Kim Liggett’s novel, The Grace Year, in exchange for an honest review.

Garner County is ruled by men and those men enforce a rigid moral code through severe punishment and fear. As part of their fear tactics, all sixteen-year-old girls must retreat to the woods for what is termed as their “Grace Year.” Far from home, they will survive together in a rustic fort and get rid of “their magic.” The idea that teen girls possess powerful magic is a deeply held superstition that has all of the men in the community terrified and willing to send their daughters into harms way to dispel it. When the girls return from their “Grace Year”, they are forbidden to speak about it and the whole thing is shrouded in mystery, especially since many girls don’t return, and those who do are damaged, including missing limbs.

Tierney James is facing her “Grace Year” and her rebel heart makes her question the process. As she embarks on her journey, her experiences tell her to question everything, even if it means she could be killed, either by shadowy poachers who kidnap “Grace Year” girls to harvest their magical body parts, or by the patriarchy of Garner County, who don’t stand for dissent.

The Grace Year is young adult fiction that is a blend of The Hunger Games and The Handmaid’s Tale. It has the blood-sport, teens killing teens for survival and uncomfortable love triangle of the former, with the women rising against oppression of the latter.

Liggett has a created an intriguing premise and the first third of the book is a page-turner. I was hooked immediately. Mostly, I wanted to know the mystery of the “Grace Year” and to understand why girls were dying and getting maimed. It’s grotesque. I was particularly intrigued by the idea that there are poachers who flay the girls, selling their body parts as magical medicine. This is sick and stomach turning enough when we think of this happening to endangered animals, let alone teenage girls.

The Grace Year starts off like a shot, but has a soggy middle. The love story did not work for me and it distracted from the story of the girls. In a similar dynamic as Katniss in The Hunger Games trilogy, Tierney faces a situation of passionate love with a fiery partner vs. the less interesting, yet steady love of a guy who she has in the friend-zone. Like Katniss, Tierney is a strong woman, who makes it quite clear that there are more important things in her life than love. Tierney is very vocal in her desire to avoid marriage and to lead a life of working in the fields. She does not dream of romantic love, yet it seems to find her. It is possible for her to have a change heart or to be swept away in the moment, but I found the weight given to this aspect of the story, undermined the strength and spirit of her character.

The story redeems itself in the last third, where many of the mysteries are solved and where the women show their power. The strongest element of The Grace Year, is the concept of oppression. The women are not the only ones who are oppressed by Garner County’s rules. Anyone who tries to challenge or who dares to be different, is beaten, executed, or banished to the edge of town. The family members of unruly citizens, even very young children, can be punished. The banishment creates a whole different class of society; women who survive by prostitution and men who become the poachers. The people who are banished live through the mercy of those who are still in town. They are part of the ecosystem of Garner County, yet they exist on the edge of it. Their participation in superstition of the power of young girls is part of maintaining the patriarchy.

Garner County reminded me of Salem, Massachusetts during the infamous witch trials. During that time, Salem had both a strong patriarchal and religious culture with fear ruling the society. Punishment could be severe. The young girls who made accusations of witchcraft found their power in a society where they had none. The Grace Year explores this concept in opposite, as the “Grace Year” is not supposed to give girls power, but the concept of it is to break the girls and make them compliant as they head back to Garner County to be the property of men. As soon as they return, they will be either wives or workers, with communication between women a rarity.

Although the middle was a tad sluggish, I enjoyed The Grace Year. I read that Elizabeth Banks has optioned the film rights, with Liggett working on the screen play. The story is exciting with many unexpected twists. It is very cinematic and I can imagine that it would be a box-office hit.

 

Imaginary Friend

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Thank you to Grand Central Publishing for providing me with a copy of Stephen Chbosky’s novel, Imaginary Friend, in exchange for an honest review.

Strange things are happening in the small, Pennsylvania town of Mill Grove. The town has been plagued with missing children spanning over several generations, inspiring urban legends. Kate Reese is escaping an abusive relationship and she decides to make a fresh start for herself and her seven-year-old son, Christopher, in Mill Grove. On the surface, it appears to be an idyllic town, but soon Christopher is swept up in the horrors that have befallen other children of the community. It all begins when Christopher makes an imaginary friend that he names “The Nice Man.”

I love horror and I have never been legitimately freaked out until Imaginary Friend. The horror and graphic imagery is on a level that almost made me quit the book. I’m quite honestly shocked by how much Chbosky’s novel affected my sleep and invaded my imagination. He’s an incredible writer.

Chbosky’s story assaults the reader in multiple ways. He balances intense descriptions that leave little to the imagination, with gaps that allow the reader to imagine the worst. I read that Imaginary Friend is in development to be made into a movie or TV series. I don’t think that I could handle it and I seriously can’t imagine how any visual could match or be worse than what I was creating in my mind. The action, especially in the last half of the story, is virtually non-stop and at a break-neck pace. I kept catching myself holding my breath from the intensity. There are several great plot twists that I did not see coming.

Imaginary Friend is one of the most unexpected books that I have ever read. It’s a roller coaster ride. I think I was caught off-guard primarily because it is so vastly different than Chbosky’s best-selling novel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower. I loved The Perks of Being a Wallflower and was excited to see his much-anticipated follow-up. I’m sure many readers will pick up Imaginary Friend, based on their love for The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and they may be left disappointed. The books are so dissimilar and horror, especially this level of horror, is not going to be everyone’s cup-of-tea. However, it’s awesome that Chbosky wrote a wildly different type of story. He took a risk. He wrote the story that he needed to tell. I have so much respect for him.

My only criticism is that the story felt long. It is long, coming in at around seven-hundred pages. The pacing wasn’t slow, but it was too long to live in that particular story world. It’s a stressful read and I wanted out. It also suffers from a glut of action at the end of the story, pushing Imaginary Friend to continue beyond the point of where it felt like the story should have ended. It was along the lines of an action movie that has one too many explosions or car wrecks, or the horror film when the villain rises from the dead, but in this case, it was several resurrections too many.

This criticism aside, I found Imaginary Friend to be a highly memorable read. Chbosky has a unique voice and a crazy brain for horror writing. You’ll never look at deer the same way. It will also make you reevaluate any imaginary friends that your kids might have at the moment.

It was so darn creepy, that I have the chills just writing this review!