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 Kids are Gonna Ask

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Thank you to Harlequin Trade Publishing for providing me with a copy of Gretchen Anthony’s novel, The Kids are Gonna Ask, in exchange for an honest review.

Seventeen-year-old twins, Thomas and Savannah McClair, have been raised by their grandmother, Maggie, after their mom was killed in a tragic accident. Their mom, Bess never told them who their father was, a secret that she kept from everyone.

The twins have started a podcast where they invite dinner guests into their home, and interview them over a meal. Their podcast has a small following, until one episode goes viral, an episode when they mention the desire to know about their father. They are contacted by a high-profile producer to create a new show that follows the search to discover the identity of their birth father. The twins are thrust into the spotlight, which includes being placed in the middle of the controversy over privacy rights.

I enjoyed Anthony’s debut novel, Evergreen Tidings from the Baumgartners, and I was excited to read her follow-up. The Kids are Gonna Ask didn’t disappoint. Anthony has a wonderful strength in writing endearing characters, and her stories have a lot of heart. It was the perfect type of read for these pessimistic Covid-times. This isn’t to say that her stories are trite or that her characters are perfect. For example, Maggie has to deal with some lingering anger she has towards her dead daughter, which is difficult as she is also grieving for and has a tremendous amount of love for Bess. The emotions are complex.

Although I know who my birth father was, he died when I was four. I could easily relate to the twins feelings of not knowing their parent, and have a whole missing piece of themselves. I can count the things I know about my dad on one hand. More to that, there is a chapter when Savannah is relating to Nadine, the daughter of the McClair’s personal chef. Both girls have lost their mother, and they mention how difficult it is, because it always creates an awkward situation. No one knows how to act or speak around children who have lost their parents. I have felt this the most. The twins lost their mother to a front-page new accident, where as Nadine lost her mom to a drug overdose, she only needs to share this info with the people she trusts. I lost my father more in the way of the twins, but just because everyone at school knew, didn’t make it easier. Divorce is fairly common, but I didn’t know anyone who had a dead parent.

The Kids are Gonna Ask dives into the idea of paternity secrets and privacy rights. Do the twins have the right to publicly air their search? What will they discover? They have to contend with criticism leveled towards their mother ignoring the paternal rights of their father. To add fuel to the fire, their producer seems to only care about controversy and ratings. It’s hard enough being a teenager, let alone being forced into the public eye.

Part of the story is set in Breckenridge, Colorado. I moved to Colorado in late 2019, and I have recently visited Breckenridge for the first time. It’s a beautiful area and I got a kick out of having a new connection to this place, and then having it appear in The Kids are Gonna Ask. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect! I love when a novel includes places that are familiar to me.

One of the pleasure of the story is the discovery that the reader has along with the McClair family. Anthony unfolds the secrets in a way that keeps the intrigue constant. I don’t want to give anything away, so I will stop here. The Kids are Gonna Ask is a thought-provoking story and the McClair family will steal your heart

 

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.

 

The Rural Diaries: Love, Livestock, and Big Life Lessons Down on Mischief Farm

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Thank You to Harper Collins Publishers for providing me with a copy of Hilarie Burton Morgan’s memoir, The Rural Diaries: Love, Livestock, and Big Life Lessons Down on Mischief Farm, in exchange for an honest review.

Shortly after deciding to leave One Tree Hill, actress Hilarie Burton Morgan was introduced to her would-be husband, actor Jeffrey Dean Morgan. They began a whirlwind romance and a year later, they had a son named Gus.

Although they had zero farming experience, both Hilarie and Jeff dreamed of living a rural life. They found a small cabin in the Hudson Valley town of Rhinebeck, New York. Although they still maintained a house in Los Angeles, they found themselves spending more and more time in their little cabin. Eventually, they decided to make the transition and purchased a farm in the same community. They christened it “Mischief Farm,” after discovering a pair of graves on the property, for two cats: Mischief One and Mischief Two.

Hilarie recounts the highs and lows of the following decade, where they experienced relationship difficulties, multiple miscarriages, plenty of new experiences on the farm and the joy of belonging to a tight-knit community. They even became co-owners of a local candy shop, when the owner, their friend and believed member of the community, passed away. Actor Paul Rudd is also one of the owners.

I loved this memoir! I’m a Jeffrey Dean Burton fan, but I had never heard of Hilarie. I had no clue about their relationship or life on Mischief Farm. The city folk to farm, Green Acres aspect is appealing. Their love has many moments that feel ripped from a romance novel. Hilarie is fabulous. She has a strong spirit and a zest for life. She is very brave to share sensitive aspects of her life, such as her miscarriages and how they impacted her both personally and her relationship with Jeff.

She speaks about the sexual harassment that she experienced as an actress, including being groped by Ben Affleck while working as a host on MTV. She left One Tree Hill due to a toxic work environment. Although she continued to work as an actress, she made her choice to walk away from a popular television show because of harassment. No one should have to make that choice and unfortunately, it wasn’t until the “Me Too’“ movement that her story and the stories of so many other women got traction. In a fateful twist, her daughter was born right as the news was breaking, giving Hilarie even more strength to speak out.

Hilarie has the pioneering spirit. She is unafraid to get her hands dirty and to attempt new challenges relating to homesteading, farming, and home renovations. I wish I could say that I have the same amount of pluck. We just bought a new house and doing a small amount of yard work seems really adventurous for this Los Angeles girl! The Rural Diaries might have just been released at the right time. With the virus and many people stuck at home, there has been a boom in DIY projects. Hilarie provides ample inspiration to those who want to tackle projects and she even includes several recipes that look delicious.

As a personal bonus, I got a kick out of the location. I attended Bard College in the mid-90’s, which is located right in the area where the Morgan’s live. I recognized so many of the landmarks and even though I have not been to the area in decades, it was a trip down memory lane.

I can’t say enough positive things about The Rural Diaries. It is uplifting, honest, and inspiring. There is a fair bit of glamour and famous friends in the mix, but Hilarie never puts them above the people in her community or the experiences she has on the farm. This may sound like a cliche, but she is very down to earth. She’s relatable. I highly recommend The Rural Diaries as the perfect dose of reality that we need during this tough 2020.

 

Full Support: Lessons Learned in the Dressing Room

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Thank you to Amberjack Publishing for providing me with a copy of Natalee Woods’ memoir, Full Support: Lessons Learned in the Dressing Room, in exchange for an honest review.

During College, Natalee Woods applied for a summer job at a high-end department store and was placed in the lingerie department. This summer job turned into an off-and-on career, spanning over a decade, carrying through her move to Los Angeles and return to her native Seattle. During this time she navigated financial instability and the death of her parents. Woods becomes a certified bra fitter, which requires her to come in intimate contact with her customers. She learns that her job isn’t simply about selling underwear, but that often she must use discretion and empathy to serve woman who have a range of body issues, including breast cancer survivors.

Woods never mentions her employer, but it is clearly Nordstrom. As a former Nordstrom employee myself, I could immediately identify with the company culture, including her initial hiring for the anniversary sale, Nordstrom’s biggest annual event. Much like Woods, I was thrown into the fire of the anniversary sale and placed into a department (Men’s Furnishings) where I had to learn on the fly. It was utter chaos and Woods describes it, just as I experienced it.

Woods touches on the strange and rude customers that we find at Nordstrom, but that isn’t the focus of her memoir. Full Support is honest, but it is not a tell-all about being a Nordstrom employee. It’s a true reflection on what it is like to work for the retail giant, but Woods is not a disgruntled former employee. Her time with the company was not perfect, but she is not out to slag-off her former company or co-workers.

The focus is on the customers who made an impact on her perspective. For example, shortly after Woods’ lost both of her parents, a father brings his young teen daughter into the lingerie department. She needs a bra and her mother has just died. Woods has the father go off with his son, giving her time to help the daughter. The conversation transitions from bras to loss, with Woods carefully giving the young girl encouragement, as she tries not to break down herself.

During my short time at Nordstrom, I had a few customers who made a lasting impression. I helped a woman find an outfit for her mother’s memorial service and I helped a teenager find a suit for his first job interview. I’m not arguing that working in retail carries the same weight as other professions, but it is possible to make a positive impact on someone’s life and to be of service. The lingerie department is probably the most impactful department. Woods and her coworkers have the ability to help women love their bodies, including women recovering from cancer. Nordstrom has a service where they help with prothesis fits for breast cancer survivors. It is truly a wonderful thing.

Woods beautifully blends the stories of her customers with her own tumultuous life. Woods lost both of her parents to cancer and was with them during the last months of their lives. She also struggled to make it living in Los Angeles. Los Angeles is my hometown and I can attest that this is no easy feat, especially on a retail, commission-based salary. Woods is living life paycheck-to-paycheck and does not have a bigger plan for her future. One hundred percent, I could relate to this. I spent my twenties and early thirties in a survival mode similar to Woods, including being a caretaker for a parent dying of cancer.

My only negative comment is that I occasionally felt that the dialogue rang false. I could easily believe the situations with the customers, even the most outrageous, but the way the dialogue was written felt too quickly intimate or simply not the way people really speak. There are cliches. More than once, the dialogue rang false in a way that made me stop reading to consider it, which disengaged me.

The dialogue issues aside, I very much enjoyed Woods’ memoir. Full Support has a lot of heart. It will be of particular interest to those who have worked high-end retail, but I would recommend it to everyone. Also, if you’re a woman who has not worked with a certified bra fitter, it is a game-changer!

 

The Wolf Wants In

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Thank you to Random House Publishing Group for providing me with a copy of Laura McHugh’s novel, The Wolf Wants In, in exchange for an honest review.

Sadie Keller’s brother has died and although the case has been closed, she is convinced that her former sister-in-law, a member of the infamous Pettit clan, is hiding the truth. The Pettit’s are well known in rural Kansas for drug running and other criminal behavior. The situation escalates when the body of a local child is found in the woods. Sadie is an old friend of the child’s mother and she fears that the Pettit’s could be involved. Eighteen-year-old Henley Pettit is caught in the crosshairs of the family business. Henley desperately wants to get out of town and live a normal life, but she is also compelled to guard the Pettit’s secrets.

McHugh is a great suspense and mystery writer. I throughly enjoyed The Wolf Wants In. It’s a tension filled novel with strong characters and compelling twists. My favorite aspect of the work is the setting. Although a work of fiction, it isn’t difficult to imagine that this story could have taken place in many rural towns in America. The story speaks to the opioid epidemic and the way addiction fall-out impacts so many lives. This is a timely subject and one that McHugh tackles with care.

The characters have heavy dilemmas, especially Henley who has to make some irrevocable and dangerous decisions at a young age. The tension is thick throughout, making The Wolf Wants In, a page-turner.

 

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!

How Not to Die Alone

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Thank you to Penguin Group Putnam for providing me with a copy of Richard Roper’s novel, How Not to Die Alone, in exchange for an honest review.

Andrew has spent years carrying around a big secret. When he was being interviewed for his current job, he accidentally told his would-be boss, that he was married and rather than correcting the mistake, Andrew went on to fabricate a life that includes a wife and two kids. The lie kept growing and now he feels that he has crossed a point of no return. He works for a government agency who handles funerals for people who have died alone and as he investigates these lives, Andrew realizes that he is in a similar position. His parents are dead and he has a rocky relationship with his sister. A series of events, including a new employee named Peggy, threaten to reveal Andrew’s manufactured life.

How Not to Die Alone is a beautiful story that is both deeply affecting and delightful. Andrew has been hit hard by life and he has reached a state of arrested development, living out a middle-aged existence in a tiny, dilapidated apartment that is filled with model trains. His only friends are those whom he communicates with solely through online message boards for model train enthusiasts. Until her untimely death, he has strained, quarterly calls with his sister, Sally. He doesn’t have a lot in common with his coworkers and is dreading the company bonding dinner parties that his boss has recently cooked up. Andrew’s life is lacking, but his imaginary life is stellar.

Andrew spends so much time crafting his imaginary family, that he almost believes that they are real. No one in his office has any reason to doubt their existence. However, when Andrew meets Peggy, he is instantly attracted to her. She’s funny, attractive, and clearly interested in Andrew. Peggy is in the process of separating from her alcoholic husband and although she may soon be available, everyone knows that Andrew is in a very happy marriage. Andrew fears that by revealing the truth, he will lose trust in his coworkers and possibly his job. Yet, if he wants to have a chance with Peggy, he will have to kill-off his imaginary family. Andrew is used to staying in the safety net of his comfort zone and this situation is forcing him to be uncomfortable. Yet, the more he considers his lie, the more he realizes that his comfort zone isn’t very comfortable. He is ready to reveal the truth, but struggling to work up the courage.

How Not to Die Alone is a story with a lot of compassion. Andrew is a complex character. He constantly lies, yet he has the empathy to attend the funerals of strangers, even when it goes beyond his job description. Roper has structured the story to pack the maximum punch, as we don’t learn the extent of Andrew’s problems until late in the novel. It’s crushing. Roper added a wonderful element of weaving the songs of Ella Fitzgerald into the story. Andrew loves Fitzgerald, but there is one song that he cannot bear to listen to and when we learn the reason why, it is devastating. The musicality works well, adding a theatrical quality to the story. The chapter where Andrew’s big trauma is revealed is very cinematic in the best possible sense.

A major theme is the consequence of dishonesty; how both being dishonest with others and with yourself, can severely impact your life. The way Andrew lies to himself and makes excuses for the life he lives, is almost worse than the lies that he tells others. Andrew is terrified of relationships, yet when he find the courage to reach out to others, they make him realize that his fear was unwarranted. A particularly lovely part of the story occurs when Andrew dares to meet his online friends in real life and to ask them for a major favor. My ultimate takeaway from How Not to Die Alone, is live boldly.

I highly recommend How Not to Die Alone. It just might end up being my favorite book of 2019. Roper is a marvelous writer and I fell in love with Andrew, rooting for him all the way. This novel gave me the warm-fuzzies.

Pure Land

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One of my favorite travel souvenirs is to purchase a book in a local independent bookstore. While on our Arizona road trip, I visited the adorable Bright Side Bookshop in Flagstaff, where an awesome bookseller recommended local author Annette McGivney’s Pure Land.

In Pure Land, McGivney expands on her 2007 article that she wrote for Backpacker, that explored the brutal murder of a Japanese woman, Tomomi Hanamure, who was stabbed while hiking in the Grand Canyon. Pure Land is part memoir, part social commentary, and part true crime.

As McGivney was researching the story, she began to experience triggers from her own abusive childhood and this article took on a greater meaning. McGivney flew to Japan and became close to Hanamure’s family, learning that the woman had been abandoned by her mother at a young age and was raised by a single father. Hanamure always felt a pull towards the United States, specifically the National Parks of the South West and Native American culture. Hanamure was killed by Randy Wescogame, an eighteen year old meth addict living on the Havasupai reservation, who also had a history of childhood abandonment and abuse.

“Pure Land” refers to the Buddhist belief of the ultimate afterlife, the place where a person who has learned everything from earth, through multiple reincarnations, will finally go to rest. Hanamure comes from a Buddhist background and her family prays that she has made it to Pure Land to find peace. However, it also takes on a different meaning with McGivney’s book, as we can imagine that Hanamure and others find their own Pure Land when they are at peace in nature. Perhaps even Wescogame is on his way to Pure Land, while healing in prison, or maybe McGivney is finding it, as she moves forward from her childhood trauma.

Pure Land is a powerhouse. I could not put it down. The story is heartbreaking, but McGivney explores it with compassion and care. I was fascinated with the way that Hanamure felt drawn to a foreign culture, so much so that she worked minimum wage jobs to just save enough to meet her travel expenses. Her entire focus was on her trips to the United States. Her passion for the United States was not shared with her family and friends, yet she was not deterred. By all accounts, she also came across as an unusual soul by those who encountered her during her travels, yet she seemed to own this aspect of her life. It’s crushing to think that someone could have so much love for a land and its people, yet it led to her violent and untimely death.

Pure Land also explores the devastating and complex history of Native Americans and their treatment by the United States government. Through centuries of systematic racism, many tribe members that maintain their autonomy of tribal lands are facing a crisis with poverty, violence, and addiction. McGivney looks at the history of how this has happened and specifically how this life has impacted the Havasupai. While she certainly doesn’t forgive Wescogame’s crime, she does explore his life within the context of living in a tribe that has experienced incredible hardships. I was most interested in reading about the founding of the National Parks. The National Parks are the treasures of the United States and I think most citizens ( and foreign visitors) hold them in the highest regard, but the dark side of the history of the parks includes the displacement of Native tribes, forcing them from their ancestral lands.

McGivney gets specific with regard to the Havasupai, who now have a deeply impoverished reservation on a small piece of land in the Grand Canyon. Crossing through their land is the only way to access one of the most stunning parts of the canyon, a place where Hanamure was headed when she was murdered. The Havasupai tribe has made efforts to attract tourists, including building a small, heavily fortified lodge and offering guides. However, the problems that exist on the reservation make this a very dangerous area and not everyone is welcoming or profiting off of the tourists.

Although we think of National Parks as a places that should be open to all, this particular section of the Canyon is controlled by the Havasupai. It is their land. They have little with regard to ways of making an income and whether they want to or not, allowing tourists brings in much needed revenue. Their willingness to allow tourists to pass through reeks of slum tourism, with the tourists not just passing through on their hike, but also gawking at the shocking poverty on the reservation. The Havasupai that are able to make a living off of the tourists are doing the best with what they have, however reading this made my stomach hurt. The only reason that they are in this situation is because they were forced to give up their lands and forced to accept a rotten deal, yet now they are again pressured into allowing tourists to traipse through their home. I imagine that if they did not allow the tourists to pass, that the government would find a way to intervene on the tourists behalf. It’s a terrible situation.

Pure land is an important read from a historical and societal perspective. McGivney’s writing is heart breaking and haunting. I can’t imagine that I will ever forget this book.