Waisted

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Thank you to Atria Books for providing me with a copy of Randy Susan Meyers’ novel. Waisted, in exchange for an honest review.

Weight gain has been a life-long struggle for Alice. However, she met her husband, Clancy, when she was going through an tough time in her life, which resulted in weight loss. Now, over the years, which included giving birth, the pounds have piled back on and Clancy feels that his wife is not the woman that he married. Through this strain in their relationship, Alice runs off to participate in a weight loss reality show called “Waisted.” She does not tell Clancy until she has left for the show, because Clancy is in the documentary film industry and “Waisted” is being produced by his biggest rival.

During the filming of “Waisted,” Alice becomes fast-friends with her roommate and fellow contestant, Daphne. Daphne has a supportive husband, but she has a negative body image from her overbearing mother. Daphne has even tried bulimia to keep the pounds off.

From the first day of filming it is clear that “Waisted” is not the show that was originally pitched to the contestants. Rather than a wellness retreat, “Waisted” is more of a hardcore bootcamp. The women are stripped of their possessions, including phone access, and are made to wear unflattering jumpsuits. They are belittled, starved, and exercised to exhaustion. When they are given amphetamines to push their weight loss goals to unsafe levels, the women seek to find out the truth about the production and what they discover is shocking.

Meyers tackles heavy themes of self-love, body acceptance, and family dynamics. I found her overall message to be positive and uplifting. I especially like a scene in the novel where Daphne, a make-up artist by trade, helps an disadvantaged teenager build her self-confidence, by giving her skin care and make-up tips to cover extreme acne. I liked how it showed that it is okay to both love yourself and acceptable to use fashion or make-up: the two don’t have to be separate. Earlier in the story, Daphne hides behind her make-up, using her skills to create a distraction from her body, highlighting features like her beautiful eyes. However, as soon as Daphne lets go worrying about her body, her make-up becomes part of her self-expression, rather than a shield.

Alice and Daphne are two strong, female protagonists and the story is structured to alternate between their lives at home and their time on “Waisted.” The weight issues aside, I think many women will find aspects of these character’s lives and emotions to be relatable. I was rooting for these characters to succeed, especially Alice dealing with her emotionally abusive husband. I found Daphne’s desperation, including the use of pills and bulimia, to be heartbreaking.

Unfortunately, the plot for Waisted is very messy. An exciting story opportunity was missed with the reality show aspect. “Waisted” is quite horrific and we learn that the aim of the show is to expose the extremes that women will go to in the name of weight loss. Its purpose is to be shocking and not to actually help these women meet their goals. The concept of this could have made a potentially intriguing story, especially holding a mirror to the way our society gobbles up these types of shows. I have no doubt that if a real version of “Waisted” aired on American television, it would be both a sensation and crucified. People would not admit to enjoying it, but they would secretly watch it and the ratings would be high. We live in a time where it is both still socially acceptable to shame fat people and one where we promote the idea of having a positive body image. I think things will shift towards being more body positive, but we are not there quite yet. Meyer had a real opportunity to play with the larger societal impact of a show like “Waisted” and that would have been intriguing.

Unfortunately, the women’s participation in “Waisted” fizzles. They leave the show and make efforts to expose the producers, but there is not a truly satisfying conclusion to this issue. I was let-down. I felt like the story was heading in the direction of making a real statement against the reality television production, but the plot meandered and focused more on the individual relationships that the main characters have with their families. This was important too of course, especially in the area of character development and growth, but it was far less interesting than the fallout from “Waisted.”

Waisted is strong in character development, but weak in plot. Often, I can overlook weak plots if the characters are great, but in this case, I can’t overlook the missed opportunities in the storyline. Although Waisted tackles important and sensitive topics, it only skims the surface and goes for cliches. For this reason, I can’t recommend it.

Things My Son Needs to Know About the World

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Thank you to Atria Books for providing me with a copy of Fredrik Backman’s memoir, Things My Son Needs to Know About the World, in exchange for an honest review.

I’m a huge fan of Fredrik Backman and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to review his latest book. Things My Son Needs to Know About the World, is Backman’s first memoir, a departure from the novels for which he has garnered world-wide acclaim. He last few novels (Us Against You and Bear Town) were exceedingly bleak and dark. I loved them, but they left me with a heavy feeling. Generally, the tone of Things My Son Needs to Know About the World, is humorous and light-hearted. Backman has a hilarious style of self-deprecating humor and I often found myself giggling while reading.

The memoir comprised of short chapters, some less than a page, all written within the frame work of advice that Backman wishes to impart to his young son. There is one sweet chapter where he speak directly to his wife, whom he clearly adores and references throughout his book.

Although mostly humorous, there is a running current of Backman’s serious fears and dreams for his son. For example, in one chapter he mentions the importance of finding a sports team. It’s not that he cares that his son plays or watches sports, but Backman sees the way that sports has created bonds in his own life. He wants his child to be able to bond with friends and he sees sports as an easy entry point, but he also fears that his son might develop interests in which he does not know how to relate. He wants his son to know that he will be a supportive father, no matter what, but that he also fears that they won’t have things to bond over. The bonding is vital.

Backman writes about a time when he was shot during a robbery in a convenience store and how just a matter of inches could have left him dead or paralyzed. He speaks to the importance of those inches in everything in life, how something so small can change everything. This chapter was exceptionally poignant and along with the rest of the memoir, made me understand more of why Backman chooses certain subjects for his fiction works.

My step-children are Swedish and live with their mom in Stockholm, so I was interested in the tidbits on parenting in Sweden. I probably shouldn’t be surprised, but most of Backman’s concerns and dealings with other parents, are similar to sentiments that are echoed by my parent friends in the United States.

There is a hilarious chapter on navigating Ikea, which also rings true for the Ikea shopping experience in the United States. Follow those arrows!

Whether writing fiction or non-fiction, Backman is a fabulous writer and someone whom I am always thrilled when he publishes a new work. I highly recommend all of Backman’s books!

Not That I Could Tell

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Thank you to St. Martin’s Press for providing me with a copy of Jessica Strawser’s novel, Not That I Could Tell,in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– Yellow Springs, an idyllic suburb in Ohio, is rocked to its core when Kristen and her two young twins, go missing. Kristen is in the middle of a divorce and her soon-to-be ex-husband, Paul, is devastated by their disappearance. He had been living in an apartment, but he moves back into the house that he shared with Kristen during the investigation. Not everyone in the neighborhood is convinced that Paul, a respected doctor, is as innocent as he appears. The neighbors try to figure out what has happened to their dear friend. Can the police or Kristen’s friends solve the mystery before something else goes wrong?

LIKE– I loved Desperate Housewives and although Not That I Could Tell is quite a bit more serious, it had shades of the show. In particular, it had similarities with the various personalities in the neighborhood and mystery element of the story. Also, how sprinkled throughout the novel are short chapters written by Kristen, which reminded me of Desperate Housewives narrator, Mary Alice.

I liked the mystery elements of the story. Strawser does a great job at building the suspense, especially when she builds to the climatic moment in the story. I was gripped and glued to the page.

I loved the character of Hallie, a neighborhood pre-teen, who takes it upon herself to be a amateur sleuth. I wasn’t quite sure how her story arc would play-out and it was a wonderful surprise. She adds a lot of conflict to the story, sending it in a wild direction.

The magic in Not That I Could Tell is in the friendships between the women. Strawser has vividly imagined her neighborhood and its inhabitants. I appreciate that she included Izzy, a single woman without children. Izzy is in a different place in her life, but she easily finds friendship with her neighbors. Not That I Could Tell celebrates all types of families and relationships.

DISLIKE– The ultimate outcome of the story was predictable. I appreciate that Strawser tackles a difficult and sensitive subject matter with care, but I was hoping for a more unexpected ending. I think with the way that Strawser peppered the narrative with Kristen’s chapters, I was hoping for a Gone Girl-esque twist that never arrived.

RECOMMEND– Yes! Not That I Could Tellis a solid page-turn that speaks to an important issue. You’ll love the neighborhood and friendships that Strawser has created.

The Best Kind of People

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Thank you to Random House Publishing Group for providing me with an advance copy of Zoe Whittall’s novel, The Best Kind of People, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT – Avalon Hills, an affluent suburb in Connecticut, is rocked when beloved high school teacher George Woodbury is accused of sexual misconduct with several students. While George is in prison awaiting trial, his family must deal with the fallout. They find themselves unsure of his innocence, yet in the position of defending him and themselves, against a very angry town.

LIKE- The Best Kind of People isn’t so much about George or his trial; it’s about how his family experiences the trauma of having a loved one accused. It’s about how they process whether or not to believe him and what that means for their family moving forward. This is not a crime or legal novel, this is a family drama.

When a tragedy or crime happens, I do always wonder about the families of the accused. Depending on the crime, it sometimes seems like they are automatically judged as guilty alongside the actual accused. Joan, George’s wife, experiences this when people in town don’t understand how she could have been unaware of her husband’s transgressions. Joan works as a nurse and is highly regarded by her colleagues and patients, yet she feels that she has to take a leave of absence from her job and hide from the people in her town, as they harass her; throwing eggs at her car and leave threatening messages on her answering machine. When she does build up the courage to return to work, she has support from some of her colleagues, but gets the cold shoulder from others. She is guilty by association.

Also guilty by association are George’s children. His daughter, Sadie, still attends the high school where her father taught and is forced to interact with the girls who have accused her father of misconduct. His son Andrew, is now a lawyer living in New York, but he finds that small town gossip from the past comes back to haunt him. As far as the town and the media are concerned, the entire Woodbury family is fair game. Adding to the drama is Kevin, who is dating the mom of Sadie’s boyfriend. Kevin is a novelist who hasn’t had a hit in over a decade and he decides to use his proximity to the Woodbury family to cash-in by using their story as the basis for his latest manuscript.

Whittall has a talent for create fascinating characters who react in diverse ways to adversity. I like how she focused her story on the family members, rather than George or his legal problem. Her characters each react in surprising, yet organic ways that make for a compelling read. Although many readers have probably not been in this specific situation ( I hope not), I think most people will find areas to which they can relate. If not, I think this story will make readers more compassionate, especially when it’s so easy to engage in gossip or judgement.

I didn’t know much about the story going in and I actually thought I was reading a true story for the first few chapters. It felt real, rather than fiction. I was engaged immediately.

DISLIKE– I’m still contemplating the ending. I don’t want to give anything away, but I expect that I’m not the only reader that will have trouble with the ending. I think it’s probably very realistic, but it’s also incredibly frustrating. I actually gave a rather mournful “NO!” outloud when I read the last line.

In general, The Best Kind of People is a very heavy read. This isn’t a negative, it is what it needs to be for the story, but I also felt that it affected me personally. I found myself feeling low energy and negative on the days I was reading The Best Kind of People. Whittall’s writing and story had a noticeable affect on me.

RECOMMEND– Yes. The Best Kind of People is a shocking and affecting story. Whittall has crafted emotionally rich characters that are placed in a desperate situation. I will not soon forget this story.

Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies

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Thank you to Atria Books for providing me with an advance copy of Michael Ausiello’s memoir, Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– In his memoir, Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies, entertainment journalist Michael Ausiello writes about his thirteen-year relationship with his husband Kit Cowan and Cowan’s death after an eleven-month battle with a rare form of cancer.

LIKE– I finished Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies two nights ago and I’m still feeling shattered. I feel like I might cry while writing this review. I’ve been a fan of Ausiello’s entertainment writing for many years, but I did not know anything about his personal life. Ausiello has written a true love letter to Kit, who died painfully and tragically in his early forties. I related deeply to Ausiello’s emotions as a caregiver and his fears for Kit. I think this is what hit me the hardest. I still feel emotional over my own role as a caregiver for family members who have since passed.

The best aspect of Ausiello’s memoir is his complete openness to share sensitive topics. He clearly loves and adores Kit, but he also doesn’t refrain from sharing Kit’s infidelity or the problems that they faced in their relationship. It’s raw and honest. Ausiello shares intimate moments that made me feel like I knew both him and Kit personally. What’s more, I really liked both of them. Ausiello has a warm way of bringing the reader into his life; a talent that not all memoirist have and that really makes his story a stand-out. This aspect of his writing is probably what left me feeling utterly crushed in the last quarter of the book, which involved Kit’s decline and death.

I love the title; that Kit is the hero in Ausiello’s life. How perfect and touching.

DISLIKE– Not a single thing.

RECOMMEND– YES!!! Do you like memoirs? Do you like love stories? Are you prepared for an emotional rollercoaster? Ausiello has poured his heart out on paper and it’s a very worthy read. Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies is one of the best memoirs that I’ve ever read. It’s just beautiful.

Whispers Through a Megaphone

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Thank you to Steerforth Press for providing me with an advance copy of Rachel Elliott’s novel, Whispers Through a Megaphone, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT – Miriam was raised by a mentally-ill and abusive mother, who told Miriam that her father was dead. Using intimidation, Miriam’s mother drilled into her the need to be quiet and as a result Miriam does not speak above a whisper. Now in her mid-thirties, Miriam’s mother has died and Miriam has not left her home in three years. Miriam does not have any family left, but she is not alone. She has a childhood best friend who visits and urges Miriam to rejoin the world. She also has a next door neighbor who has been gathering his courage to ask her out on a date. In addition, Miriam has been receiving mysterious postcards from a stranger.

When Miriam finally decides to leave her home, she walks in the woods and meets Ralph. Ralph’s marriage is imploding and he has run away from his wife, Sadie, who has revealed that she no longer loves him. Can Ralph and Miriam help each other face their fears and change their lives?

LIKE- Miriam is a complex and intriguing character. She is truly a wonderful protagonist and it was effortless to root for her as she worked through her obstacles. Her backstory and terrible neglect are heartbreaking. Whispers Through a Megaphone has a lovely twist when we find out  who is responsible for the mysterious postcards and it makes for an emotional read.

Ralph’s story is given nearly as much weight as Miriam’s, making him a dual protagonist. Like Miriam, it’s easy to root for Ralph, especially as he has been dealt a rough hand. His storyline features themes of love, nostalgia, and regret. When their marriage is falling apart, Ralph and Sadie both seek out long-lost loves from their youth. Time does not stand-still and they are both shocked by what they find when they try to recapture what has been lost. As a cat lover, I was endeared to Ralph by his adopting the stray cat. It made his time in the woods seem a little less pitiful.

DISLIKEWhispers Through a Megaphone has too many storylines. The onslaught of characters and stories has the negative effect of overshadowing Miriam and Ralph. It’s not that the other characters are less interesting, I just felt overwhelmed and unable to keep focus, like I kept getting yanked from one story and pulled into another. I would have liked a deeper focus on Miriam and on her backstory. I was left wanting to know more about her mother and her childhood. Miriam and Ralph are both rich characters to whom an entire story could have been dedicated and although their friendship is lovely, I wondered if it was necessary.

RECOMMEND– Maybe. Elliott has created complex characters and a surprising story. There are many aspects of Whispers Through a Megaphone that I enjoyed, but the lack of focus and too many characters made the pacing sluggish. I’d definitely read Elliott’s next novel, but I didn’t absolutely love Whispers Through a Megaphone.