The Party

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Thank You to Gallery, Threshold, and Pocket Books for providing me with an advance copy of Robyn Harding’s novel, The Party, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT – Kim and Jeff Sanders are doing everything possible to raise their children right. Despite their Silicon Valley wealth, they throw a simple sleepover for their daughter Hannah’s Sweet Sixteen. Hannah has invited over a few friends and the girls are going to have pizza and watch PG-13 movies in the basement. Hannah’s parents have been very clear with the rules = No drinking, no drugs, and no boys.

Hannah’s parents trust the girls and go to bed. They are awoken in the middle of the night to learn that one of the teenagers in their care has fallen through a glass coffee table, and is seriously hurt. This accident will change the Sander’s family forever.

LIKEThe Party is a page-turner. Harding does a fabulous job at teasing out information that kept me turning the page. For example, early in the story we learn that Jeff’s younger colleague has turned him on to microdosing LSD, a new trend in Silicon Valley that is supposed to foster alertness and creativity. This is something that Jeff has done a handful of times and although he does not have a drug problem and this has nothing to do with the accident that occurred at the birthday party, this decision will continue to haunt him. The Party is filled with little decisions, seemingly innocuous decisions, that will have a negative impact. It’s about the fine line between perceptions and the truth. It will make you consider your own decisions. It’s quite maddening!

Harding’s characters are rich and memorable. A large chunk of The Party deals with popularity and bullying, both with teenagers and adults. It’s cynical, but also rings true. A theme of The Party is kindness, which seems to be in short supply with many of the characters.

The Party is reminiscent of one of my favorite films, American Beauty, with regard to tone and themes.

DISLIKE– I’m torn about the ending. Although I felt it was a realistic scenario, it didn’t sit well that an accident turned into a punishment/reward scenario. The very last scene was a shock. It made me want to shake the character involved. Was nothing learned?

RECOMMEND– Yes! The Party is fast-paced and thought-provoking. This is my first time reading Harding and I will definitely check-out her other novels.

The Rules Do Not Apply

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Thank You to Random House Publishing Group for providing me with an advanced copy of Ariel Levy’s memoir, The Rules Do Not Apply, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT- In her memoir, The Rules Do Not Apply, journalist Ariel Levy explores love and loss, in her relationships, career, and path to motherhood. She learns the hard truth that life is a series of trade-offs and that the conventional concept of “having it all,” is a myth.

LIKE– I vividly remember the final lecture of a Western Civilization class that I took at Pasadena City College, when I was in my early-twenties: The male professor, an self-proclaimed feminist, who would later be caught in several scandals and removed from his position, gave a piece of advice, that in way I’ve forgotten, was tenuously related to the lecture; he said that time is limited and that fertility did not last forever. He was speaking primarily to the females in the class, urging us, as we focused on our education and careers, to consider that the time frame for fertility is limited. I’m not quite sure what prompted this advice, but I remember the urgency in his tone. He was middle-aged, and in hind-sight, I’m guessing a recent personal predicament influenced his words. I’ve never wanted children, but that advice has stayed with me, especially as I near forty, still not wanting children, but realizing that the window of opportunity may already be shut. This idea is at the forefront of Levy’s memoir.

Levy’s road to motherhood is not clear. She is in an unstable marriage with Lucy, an older woman, who is an alcoholic. As Levy tries to strengthen her marriage, she is tempted through reconnecting with former lovers. Her writing career has always been important, and one that sends her on assignments around the world. Lucy’s alcoholism isn’t the only instability, as Lucy has sunk their savings into starting a solar panel company. Levy is in her late-thirties when she finally decides that she wants to be a mother, and they have a close friend who is happy to not only donate sperm, but to help out financially, and be another adult figure in their child’s life. Levy easily becomes pregnant, and her life seems to be heading towards stability and happiness, until tragedy strikes. Levy delivers her child prematurely, alone in a hotel room, while on assignment in Mongolia. The baby is born alive, but dies about fifteen minutes later, as Levy is rushed to the hospital. It’s crushing, even more so that she had minutes where she held her living child.

The title, The Rules Do Not Apply, are about all of the conventional things that as a child (or even into adulthood), you expect will happen. You expect to graduate from college and land a great job. You expect to fall in love and have a family. You expect that your parents will live long enough to see those grandchildren. You expect that hard work and being a good person should grant these rewards. However, as Levy points out, this has not been the case for her, and it has not been the case for many of her friends. Life simply does not work like that for most people. Conventionality is a myth.

Levy’s thoughts are poignant and her personal story is compelling. She has a knack for phrasing and writes beautifully. She weaves her story with the stories of people that she profiles in her reporting, making her memoir global and expansive. I can’t imagine any reader would be left unaffected by this emotional and thought provoking memoir.

DISLIKE– Nothing. The Rules Do Not Apply is powerful and riveting.

RECOMMEND– Yes! The Rules Do Not Apply is a must-read memoir. I’m certain that Levy’s story will be a bestseller and generate a lot of buzz. Read it and be part of the conversation!

The Trophy Child

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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