The Hot One: A Memoir of Friendship, Sex, and Murder

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Thank You to Simon & Schuster for providing me with an advance copy of Carolyn Murnick’s book, The Hot One: A Memoir of Friendship, Sex, and Murder, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– Carolyn Murnick and Ashley Ellerin were childhood best friends growing up in New Jersey during the 1980’s. They were inseparable as children, but when they became adults, their lives went drastically different directions. Murnick moved to New York City and lived in a tiny railroad apartment, while starting a career in journalism. Ellerin moved to Los Angeles and lived in a Hollywood Hills home with the money she earned as a stripper. She went to wild parties and dated celebrity Ashton Kutcher.

The last time Murnick saw her friend, they struggled to regain their connection. They were still friends, but had clearly drifted apart. A year later, Ellerin would be murdered, stabbed forty-seven times in her Hollywood home.

The Hot One: A Memoir of Friendship, Sex, and Murder, is Murnick’s examination of her friendship with Ellerin and her coming to terms with never quite knowing what happened to her best friend. Murnick attends the trial of Michael Gargiulo, the accused murderer, and becomes obsessed with finding out not only why Ellerin was murdered, but who Ellerin had become prior to her death.

LIKEThe Hot One is a compelling blend of memoir and true crime. With so much information readily available on the internet, Murnick falls down a rabbit hole when trying to figure out what happened to Ellerin. I found this quest to be highly relatable. I’ve had my own unsolved life mysteries (none anywhere near as dramatic as a murder!), but issues that no amount of research can resolve, yet ones that are impossible to let go. I felt connected to Murnick’s obsession and with the hold it had on her.

Even though I lived about fifteen minutes from the murder scene, I don’t remember hearing about this case in the news. It’s gruesome and horrific. Murnick does not spare details. I think the most chilling part is when Murnick decides to visit the crime scene and she stands across the street from Ellerin’s house, in a dog park. Gargiulo had a pitbull that he would take to the dog park and from the dog park, there was the perfect vantage point to spy on Ellerin. Murnick mentions that Gargiulo would have been able to see right into her bathroom. He stalked and hunted her. Other creepy patterns from Garguilo, based on all of his victims, is he liked to pose them and he committed the murders when he had a high chance of being caught, for the thrill. One woman managed to fend him off as he was stabbing her and lived, although she couldn’t positively identify him. Garguilo isn’t a random attacker either, he was Ellerin’s handyman and beyond working at her house, he managed to get himself invited over for social events. Murnick really sets the stage by explaining how she imagined Garguilo hunting Ellerin, waiting for the right moment to strike. It gave me the chills.

DISLIKE– Only that the point in which the memoir ends, does not give us resolution with regard to Gargiulo’s trial. I suppose this mirrors Murnick’s inability to have her own questions answered, but it also makes me wonder if she should have waited to tell this story. It was disappointing to not have this resolution.

RECOMMEND– Yes. If you like true crime and memoir, The Hot One is a compelling read.

The Long Run: A Memoir

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Thank you to Crown Publishing for providing me with an advanced copy of Catriona Menzies-Pike’s memoir, The Long Run, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT – When she was in her early twenties, Catriona Menzies-Pike was dealt a major life-change, when her parents both died in a plane crash. She spent the following decade finishing her education, while dealing with both her profound grief, and the extensive probate process to close her parent’s estate. She had never considered herself very athletic, but when she turned thirty, she decided that she wanted to change her lifestyle and began running. The Long Run chronicles her journey to becoming a marathon runner, including an examination on how running helped her cope with loss and the history of female runners.

LIKE– I’m not a runner. I’ve finished a handful of half-marathons and other athletic events, but I’ve always been more of a slow finisher, mostly walking. I’ve never had the drive to turn myself into a runner. Running is not what drew me to Menzies-Pike’s memoir. Like Menzies-Pike, I also lost my parents at a young age and this is what made me interested in her story.

The Long Run is half a history of running, specifically female runners. I was not expecting her memoir to be so heavy on the history, but I’m glad it was, as it was fascinating. I had recently heard the story of runner Kathrine Switzer, who in 1967 was the first woman to run the Boston Marathon as an official participant. Switzer registered using her first initial, rather than her name, and snuck by in a time when women were not allowed to participate. Famously, a race official tried to physically remove her from the course, but her boyfriend at the time, stepped in and Switzer kept running. The Long Run is filled with stories of other female runners from around the world who helped break down barriers. I may have zero interest in running, but I’m grateful to these women who took risks so that I could have opportunities. It’s amazing to me to think that Switzer’s Boston Marathon run was just ten years before I was born. I feel like I grew up in a world where I could aspire to anything.

Menzies-Pike also writes about the fear that women have, a fear that has been drilled into them, regarding things like running alone or running at night. Until last summer, when I moved to downtown Portland, I’ve never felt unsafe in my environment. Now, I live in a place where I would not walk outside of my building at night without my husband. In the daytime, I even feel nervous. A big part of this, is that we live right next to a pretty park, where unfortunately, bad things have happened. This fear has limited my life. I don’t go to writing events or other things, stuff that I wouldn’t have hesitated to do when we lived in Los Angeles. Fear is powerful and controlling.

DISLIKE– I wish Menzies-Pike had made her memoir more focused on her grieving and transformation. It could have been more introspective. If I was a runner, I think I would have been more interested in the specific details of her major races. As a non-runner, these portions were a little tedious and I found my attention drifting.

RECOMMEND– If you’re a female athlete or interested in the history of marathons, The Long Run would be a great pick.

The Fact of a Body

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Thank you to Flatiron Books for providing me with an advance copy of Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich’s memoir, The Fact of a Body, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– In The Fact of a Body, Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich blends memoir with true crime, exploring the dark secrets of her own family, alongside the 1992 murder of six-year old Jeremy Guillory in Louisiana.

LIKE– Wow. Marzano-Lesnevich has written a book that I’m positive will forever stick with me. It’s surprising, shocking, and wrought with emotion. I can’t remember ever reading a book that blends memoir with an unrelated true crime. It made for an absolutely fascinating read.

Jeremy Guillory was murdered by Ricky Langley, a twenty-six year old man who had a history of molesting children. Guillory was friends with the children that lived in the home where Langley was renting a room, and one afternoon, Guillory showed up while the other children were gone. Langley allowed Guillory to wait inside the house for his friends to return. Langley felt unable to control himself and he strangled Guillory, hiding the child’s body inside his closet, which would not be discovered for three days. Langley would confess to the crime, although he changed the details of his confession several times. Although Langley was never considered mentally incapacitated, he mentioned being overcome by the spirit of his brother, who was decapitated in a car crash before Langley was born. It seems that Langley did molest Guillory, but it wasn’t proven, and he has confessed, although again, not proven, to molesting several other children over the course of many years. There were three trials for Guillory’s death and Langley was put on and subsequently taken off, death row. Guillory’s mother testified on his behalf during the penalty phase, not wishing for him to be executed.

The true crime aspect of The Fact of a Body, would be interesting enough on its own, but Marzano-Lesnevich has taken a more in-depth approach to examining the case. She looks back at Langley’s family and his troubled upbringing, stemming from a car crash before Langley was even born. This crash would kill two of his siblings and give his mother devastating life-long health problems. When she was pregnant with Langley, she was on heavy medication, the effects of which, surely impacted Langley’s development. The family would struggle with poverty and addiction, never able to get their lives back on track.

Marzano-Lesnevich comes from a very different background, but she finds common ground with the Langley’s and Guillory’s. Her family doesn’t discuss her father’s depression or that her grandfather, has been molesting both Marzano-Lesnevich and her sister, for years. These secrets weigh heavy. Marzano-Lesnevich comes across the Guillory story when she is a summer intern during law school and the particulars of the case, make her reflect on her own family history of mental illness and molestation, on anger and forgiveness.

DISLIKE– Not a single thing. The Fact of a Body is a book that I couldn’t put down. However, I will issue a warning that this story has extremely graphic and upsetting details, that might make it too difficult for some readers. Proceed with caution.

RECOMMEND– Yes, you must read this book. Marzano-Lesnevich has masterfully blended memoir with crime to create an unforgettable story. Her writing is poignant and courageous. I’m certain that The Fact of a Body will shoot to the top of the bestsellers list.

I Hear She’s a Real Bitch

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Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada and Doubleday Canada for providing me with an advanced copy of Jen Agg’s memoir, I Hear She’s a Real Bitch, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– Jen Agg’s memoir, I Hear She’s a Real Bitch, details her life as a successful restaurateur in Canada.

LIKE– Previous to reading her memoir, I had never heard of Agg, nor have I dined in any of her restaurants. I was drawn to the concept of her memoir and was not disappointed. What comes across most, is Agg’s love of creating new restaurants, she lavishly describes the design process, both with regard to aesthetics and practicality. Her enthusiasm for creation, made me reflect on my own love for dining out and how the meal is just one part of the overall experience. When I go to an amazing restaurant, whether high-end or a local dive, I don’t simply want to eat, I want to be transported, to have an experience. Agg is an expert at crafting experiences.

I’ve never had a job in the restaurant industry, although my ex-husband was a server and I spent many after-hours hanging out with the staff where he worked, learning about restaurant politics. I also had a childhood friend whose parent’s owned a high-end Japanese restaurant in Hawaii and allowed us to run amok in the kitchen. Since many years have passed, I can without fear of incriminating them, spill the beans that we ate green tea ice cream directly from the giant container. EW!!! In any case, with my glimpse of behind the scenes, I was fascinated by Agg’s closer look, especially the politics of the back vs. front house staff and the discrimination/harassment that women face in this industry. Some of her revelations were shocking. It sounds like you have to be an exceptionally tough woman to make it in the restaurant industry.

Agg is a woman with big ideas and strong visions, but she also explains that collaboration and trust in others, is imperative to her success. She is willing to take-on a variety of roles, but as she has grown in the industry, she has discovered both her interests and her skills. She surrounds herself with other professionals who provide other talents and she is clear, that she wants to succeed along side them, not just because of them. It’s a collaborative business. I got the impression that she might be unique and that not all restaurateurs are willing to fully collaborate or give credit, where credit is due.

DISLIKE– Nothing. I Hear She’s a Real Bitch is a fresh and exciting memoir.

RECOMMEND– Yes! Whether you’re in the industry or just like to dine out, I Hear She’s a Real Bitch is a worthy read. Agg is a great role model for entrepreneurial women. She’s fierce!

A Stitch of Time: The Year a Brain Injury Changed My Language and Life

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Thank You to Simon & Schuster for providing me with an advanced copy of Lauren Marks’ memoir, A Stitch of Time: The Year a Brain Injury Changed My Language and Life, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– Lauren Marks is just twenty-seven years old, when she suffers a brain aneurysm while karaoking at a dive bar with friends in Edinburgh. She is rushed to a hospital in Scotland and her parents catch the first flight from California to be with her, unsure if she will survive the emergency operation. Marks does survive, and in A Stitch of Time, she chronicles her recovery. Until her aneurysm, Marks was an actress and writer, her keen ability with language was a huge part of her personality. Post aneurysm, Marks has Aphasia, making it difficult for her to understand or express herself through language. Through rehabilitation, Marks is able to recover her use of language, but her life and dreams are forever altered.

LIKE -Early on in her rehabilitation, Marks had the foresight to keep a journal and document her progress. Some of what she writes is incoherent and it’s rampant with misspellings, however, it  offers a glimpse into the way her brain has been affected by Aphasia, and it’s clear that through hard work, she has regained much of her language abilities.

I was shocked when she mentioned that many doctors think that a patient has six months maximum after their accident, to regain their language, and after that time, they likely won’t have significant progress. Marks is proof that this time marker doesn’t mean much. As she mentions, and I’m inclined to believe, the six months seems to be more in line with money and insurance payments, rather than what is best for the patient. It hurt my heart to read about Marks’ struggle with getting her insurance company to approve her much needed therapy and also that she was left saddled with debt. She doesn’t mention this in great detail, but enough to have that heavy reminder of our broken health care system.

I think this might be the first memoir I’ve read regarding brain aneurysms and Aphasia. I have been the care-taker for family members with dementia, which while not the same thing that Marks experienced, it did leave me interested in the subject of brain injuries and how the brain works. Marks does a wonderful job at explaining scientific and medical terminology in a way that makes it accessible for any reader. She also does a great job at blending the medical world with her personal life, giving her memoir balance.

When she had her aneurysm, Marks had to leave her life in NYC, where she about to start teaching, to move back home with her parents in California. She was essentially stripped of the direction her life was heading, and even when she began to recover enough to resume elements of her former life, her goals had changed. Many of her friends were getting married, having children, and seeing their careers take-off. Late twenties is a pivotal time for many people and Marks was forced to take a step back. I appreciated her calm perspective and the way she took this change in stride, even as she noted what she was missing out on.

DISLIKE– Nothing. A Stitch of Time is fascinating and affecting.

RECOMMEND– Absolutely. I know several people who have family members with brain injuries and I know that, A Stitch of Time, would be an informative read, but really, this is a fascinating topic for anyone. It would also be a good choice for anyone who is experiencing a major life-change or set-back and needs a dose of inspiration. Marks’ story is inspirational.

One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter: Essays

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Thank You to Macmillan- Picador for providing me with an advanced copy of Scaachi Koul’s, One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter: Essays, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– In her essay collection, One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter, Koul explores growing up in Canada as a child of Indian immigrants. She write about her culture, dating, and dealing with sexism and racism, both stemming from societal biases or the kind that is overt, and from a place of hate. Her writing is both funny and gut-wrenching.

LIKE- I immediately fell in love with Koul’s voice. She’s witty, razor sharp, and insightful. She writes with an openness that is rare: sharing with readers intimate details of her life. For example, she writes about body issues as a child, like worrying over her body hair with an obsession that would never have occurred to her fairer, white classmates. The pain of this is acute, when she recalls a male classmate pointing out the hair on her arms. As a woman, thinking back to that age, my heart broke for her. She writes about being roofied in her twenties, and the way young women have mixed messages drilled into them: Drink to be fun, but don’t get sloppy drunk. Drink to be flirtatious, but be on guard that you’re not a tease. Go out and enjoy yourself, but predators are lurking everywhere. Koul nails the frustrations of being a woman.

I was most disturbed regarding a chapter when explained how she was cyber attacked for voicing a controversial opinion. It wasn’t so much that people disagreed, but it was the way in which they disagreed: through hate. She received messages attacking her sex, her race, her body; truly vile messages. It was shocking and stomach churning.

The chapters where she wrote about her family and traveling to India, were my favorite. The title of her collection actually comes from her cousin, who was getting married in India. It is in reference to the arduous and tedious week-long marriage celebration, which includes elaborate ceremonies, strict traditions, and many changes in outfits. Koul explains how no one who has actually attended an Indian wedding, would want to attend an Indian wedding. I enjoyed this glimpse into another culture and hearing about her family. Just like any family, there is a lot of affection and frustration.

DISLIKE– Nothing. This is an poignant, thought-provoking, and frequently humorous collection.

RECOMMEND– Yes!!! Koul has a unique and appealing writer’s voice. I finished, One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter, and was left wanting more. She’s a great writer!

The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness

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Thank You to Perseus Books Group, PublicAffairs Books, and Nation Books; for providing me with an advanced copy of Jill Filipovic’s The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– Can American women truly find happiness? Jill Filipovic explores the issue of happiness and feminism, looking at the history of the United States, statistics, and personal stories.

LIKE– I was raised by a strong, single mom, and from birth, I was always told that I can do/be anything I want. I never felt like being female limited my possibilities. That said, I’m not blind to the fact that things are not equal. I guess I chalked things up to we’ve come a long way, but there is still further to go and it takes time. Rome wasn’t built in a day, et… I’m an optimist. However reading The H-Spot was eye-opening. Filipovic made me realize that maybe I should reconsider my optimism, by showing me ways that the system has been stacked against women.

For example, Filipovic talks about the expectation that women will give up their last names when they marry. I’ve been married twice. The first time, I kept my maiden name and it bothered family members/friends: I got heat for my decision. The second time, I took my husband’s name. I’m proud to have my husband’s last name, but it’s the societal expectation that is troublesome. She explains that the burden is on women alone, and when surveyed, it became clear that most men, would not even entertain the idea of taking their wives last name, and many would be upset if she didn’t take his. To take this further, Filipovic links the last name to identity and power, something that a woman is pressured to give up. This idea of a lost identity is something that I had never given much thought, but in retrospect, I believe it is why I was reluctant to change my name in my first marriage.

Filipovic put it in terms of a power play, men get to keep the power, while women are expected to sacrifice. The same thing happens when it comes to careers and children. Yes, there are stay-at-home dads, but more frequently, the woman is expected to give up her career or take the time away to be at home. The worst of the situation is when there is a lack of support from the community, including other women. The decisions that women make, often pit them against other women: working mothers vs stay at home moms, those who breastfeed and those who don’t, mom’s vs childless women, et…the support system is flawed, making security and happiness hard to come by.

I liked how Filipovic balanced the content of her book, not just relying on history or personal stories, but blending the two. This made her exploration feel more comprehensive. I was most interested in the latter chapters, those dealing with subjects like fertility and body image. I wish that she had included even more interviews and personal stories. As she mentions, it’s impossible to write a book that is exhaustive on this subject, but Filipovic does a solid job at hitting the main points.

DISLIKE– I was unevenly interested in the chapters, especially the early chapters. I’ve taken several college level women’s history courses, so the history was very familiar: I wasn’t learning anything new, it was more of a refresher. However, to someone who hasn’t had the exposure, the history should be enlightening and interesting.

RECOMMEND– Yes. The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness is a must-read for women. Filipovic’s honest exploration of modern feminism is a worthy read.

Scrappy Little Nobody

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PLOT– In her memoir, Scrappy Little Nobody, actress Anna Kendrick follows her career from a child star on Broadway to breaking into Hollywood with hit movies, like Pitch Perfect and Into the Woods.

LIKE– Memoirs, especially light memoirs, are my go-to plane travel reading. I’m a fan of Anna Kendrick’s films and she’s a low-key celebrity, not one that is making tabloid headlines, so even though she’s only in her early thirties, I was curious to read about her career and personal life.

I had no idea that Kendrick was a former Broadway actress or that she had been nominated for both a Tony Award and Drama Desk Award for her role in High Society. I love musicals and the crazy thing is, if this had occurred in the mid 90’s, as opposed to the late 90’s, I would have known Kendrick from her theatre roles, rather than film. In high school, I was absolutely obsessed with all things theatre and I knew all about everything that was happening on Broadway. I still love theatre, but the obsession waned as other things, like college, got pushed to the forefront. Although, I do remember the production of High Society, the specifics like cast and awards, were not on my radar. I loved reading about her experience on Broadway. especially how her family supported her dreams, even though it meant a lot of sacrifice and wasn’t even financially rewarding. Also, that Kendrick had to sacrifice a normal childhood to chase her dreams and that hanging out with other Broadway kids, is a bizarre experience.

Her Broadway success didn’t automatically translate to film offers. She went the indy route, making a musical film called Camp, I’ve never heard of Camp, but apparently, it has a cult following and Kendrick is often approached by fans of the film. It went to Sundance: Kendrick recounts a crazy trip, where the kids of the film, mostly unknown talent, descended on the Utah ski town and went wild. A repeating theme of Scrappy Little Nobody, is the years of work ( or lean times of no work), that Kendrick had to put in, before she became well-known. Every time she seemed on the verge of having a breakthrough, it wouldn’t happen.

Twilight, where she had a small part as a non-vampire friend of Bella (Kristen Stewart) was a big budget film that gave her enough money to last through the lean times. Even Up in the Air, a critically acclaimed film in which she received an Oscar nomination, didn’t provide enough income or job offers to sustain her. Kendrick recalls her rather unglamorous trip to the Oscars and feeling pressured into buying expensive shoes just to give the appearance of living a rich and glamorous life-style. Until recently, Kendrick shared a small, no-frills apartment with roommates, even during her trip to the Academy Awards.

In Scrappy Little Nobody, Kendrick comes across as a very down-to-earth, funny, and slightly-awkward thirty-something. She shares advice from George Clooney, who cautioned her not to count on fame or fortune in the film industry. Although Clooney is arguably a mega-star, it’s easy to remember that so many actors do have fleeting careers, or they may luck out with steady work, but not obtain the level of fame or money, that the public imagines.

DISLIKE– Nothing. Scrappy Little Nobody is entertaining and inspirational.

RECOMMEND– Yes, if you’re a fan of Broadway or Kendrick. Scrappy Little Nobody is a good pick for people needing inspiration or for a young person looking to break into show business. Kendrick may still be young, but she has had some incredible opportunities and she gives common sense advice based on her rather normal life.

The Dead Inside

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Thank You to Sourcebooks Fire for providing me with an advanced copy of Cyndy Etler’s memoir, The Dead Inside, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– In her memoir, The Dead Inside, Cyndy Etler recounts her time spent in a Straight Incorporated facility during the late 80’s. Straight Incorporated was a highly controversial treatment program to get troubled kids clean from drugs. The program preyed on the drug paranoia of the 1980’s ( Just Say No) and some of the kids, like Etler, were placed in the program, despite not having addiction problems.

LIKE- In efforts to write a fair review, I need to be upfront and admit that upon requesting The Dead Inside from Netgalley, I did not realize that it was a memoir aimed at young adults. I do not often read YA literature ( occasionally, but rarely) and I don’t think that I’ve read a YA memoir, since I was a young adult. That said, at nearly forty years old, I’m not the target audience for Etler’s memoir.

I requested this, thinking it was an adult aimed memoir and I was interested in Etler’s traumatic experience in a cult-like immersive therapy situation. I had heard of Straight Incorporated, as its controversy has popped up in many news stories, but I was interested in a deeper look, which drew me to Etler’s memoir. Her story is upsetting and outrageous. She is very candid with regard to sharing the intimate details of her profoundly disturbing experience.

At the end of the advanced readers copy, there is a note that the final version will have a mini biography about Straight Incorporated. I think this will improve The Dead Inside, as I felt that the program needed a stronger explanation to compliment Etler’s experiences. I hope that it will include info on what the parent’s were told to manipulate them to keep their kids enrolled in the program. What was Straight Incorporated sales pitch to Etler’s parents? It must have been very slick, as it’s hard to imagine parents allowing their children to be away from them for months, even years, with little contact.

DISLIKE– To be fair, I’m unsure if my major dislike has more to do with it being written for young adults, or YA aside, I didn’t connect with Etler’s writing? I felt like I was reading a teleplay for an ABC After School Special from the 80’s. It was very melodramatic throughout. The problem with this, is almost immediately, I didn’t trust Etler. I thought that she was an unreliable narrator, which given this is a memoir, made me feel a little guilty. Even with the terrible things that happened to her at Straight Incorporated, I never wavered from thinking that she wasn’t as innocent as she was claiming. I can believe that her drug use was a new thing and not likely to escalate, however, she had major attitude towards her mom and a desperate desire to be accepted by the kids in the bad part of town. She was definitely looking for rebellion and I can understand her mother’s fear. Etler was running away from home, heading on the path for bigger trouble.

Etler mentions problems with her step-father and alludes to abuse, including sexual abuse. She mentions her mother turning a blind eye and she thinks that her mother sent her into the program to get her out of the way, more than to help her. I believe the abuse, but going back to the unreliable narrator situation, I didn’t believe this about Etler’s mother. Etler’s family situation should have been more at the heart of the story, but I felt muddled regarding their dynamic. I didn’t have a good grasp on why Etler was acting out or how things escalated to having her sent to the program. I wish this had been a larger portion of her memoir for clarity.

The sensationalism of Straight Incorporated is the primary focus of The Dead Inside. As such, I felt removed from the emotion of Etler’s experience because the outrageous and often unbelievable techniques from the program, took center stage. Assuming all of this is true, it’s shocking and horrific. I couldn’t shake Etler as an unreliable narrator, so some of the crazier antics, I had trouble believing happened.

But my main issue with The Dead Inside, is the lack of reflection or purpose. Etler sums up her adult life by mentioning that she now helps troubled kids, which is wonderful, but this quick summation doesn’t offer much introspection. I think it would have been a stronger read, if she had added more of her adult perspective, including how her experience has impacted the kids she helps now. The shock value aspect could have been used more sparingly for greater impact.

Again, I do not have experience with YA memoirs, so I’m not sure if this is the norm for the genre, but Etler writes in a manner that is youthful: filled with slang and bad language. The vibe is “adults just don’t get me.” It felt disingenuous. It was cringe worthy in many parts and I can’t think of any teenager that I know who would respond to this narrative. I’m a little younger than Etler and looking back, I can’t imagine this appealing to me as a teen.

RECOMMEND– No, however I could be off the mark with my assessment of the YA memoir. I think Etler has both a fascinating and disturbing story to share, but The Dead Inside did not work for me.

How to Make a French Family

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Thank You to Sourcebooks for providing me with an advanced copy of Samantha Verant’s memoir, How to Make a French Family, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– In her early thirties, Samantha Verant found herself divorced, working as a dog walker, and living at home with her parents in California. Thinking about her past, she decides to send an apology letter to Jean-Luc, a Frenchman whom she had met in her late teens while traveling in Europe. Verant had promised to stay in touch with Jean-Luc, but failed to keep her promise. Now, nearly two decades later, she discovers that Jean-Luc is a widower with two teenage children, Max and Elvire. Jean-Luc and Verant quickly fall back in love, marrying a year later. Verant’s memoir captures the joys and frustrations of moving to a foreign country and becoming a step-mother to two French teenagers.

LIKE– I’ve read many “fish-out-of-water” memoirs about living in foreign country, but Verant’s unique details make How to Make a French Family, compelling. Verant is not only living in a foreign country, but she is now the step-mother to two French chidren. As a American step-mother to two Swedish children ( and a former dog walker, divorcee and Californian), I could relate to Verant. We still live in the United States, and only have the children on holidays, but it’s not out of the question that we could one day move to Europe. I admire Verant, as she is both tough and brave following her new destiny in France. Luckily, Max and Elvire are accepting of Verant, and normal teenage issues aside, they accept her as part of their family.

Verant is in her late 30’s/early 40’s, when she decides to try for a baby with Jean-Luc. Verant suffers multiple miscarriages, but the support of her French family, allows her to embrace the idea of her current family being enough. Although Max and Elvire were happy about the prospect of a new sibling, both time and the loss of the babies, gave them the courage to express to Verant that they feared she would not view them the same as a child of her own. Verant came from a blended family. and was very close to her own step-father, so this was the last thing that she wanted Max and Elvire to think. This frank dialogue and love, is what I liked most about Verant’s family.

If you’re a Francophile or simply curious about French culture, Verant peppers her story with her American perspective of living in a foreign country. She certainly has some frustrations and mishaps, but most of her writing reveals an affinity for her new home.

Food is a huge part of French culture and Verant includes the recipes for all of the meals mentioned in, How to Make a French Family. Do not read on an empty stomach!

DISLIKE– Nothing. Verant’s memoir is entertaining and it will warm your heart.

RECOMMEND– Yes! How to Make a French Family is proof that your life can shift course when you least expect it. Verant has a beautiful life to share, and it will certainly make you want to visit southern France.