Toil & Trouble

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Thank you to St. Martin’s Press for providing me with a copy of Augusten Burroughs’ memoir, Toil & Trouble, in exchange for an honest review.

I’m a huge fan of Burroughs and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to read his latest memoir. Much like his previous best sellers, Toil & Trouble dives into Burroughs’ life, including his difficult relationship with his mother and his relationship with his husband, Christopher. Burroughs has a quirky outlook on life and a wry sense of humor that cracks me up. He has a knack for great phrasing and I often pause while reading to admire his off-beat descriptions.

In Toil & Trouble, Burroughs claims to be a witch. His witch powers are hereditary, passed down from his mother. He is told that he is a witch as a young child and several incidences, particularly those involving premonition, lead him to believe that this is true.

I’m not sure if I believe in witches, but Burroughs makes a convincing argument. In any case, I recommend that readers go along for the ride and believe in the magic, because Burroughs does create magic with storytelling and the premise of Toil & Trouble ends in a lovely way, where we see that his witchcraft has managed to protect the person he loves the most. It’s truly a beautiful story and Burroughs has arranged the chapters for maximum emotional punch. In these pages, I really grew to love his marriage to Christopher and the life that they have built in rural Connecticut.

Aside from the heart-warming aspect of the story (and I fully suspect that Burroughs would never call himself heart warming), I delighted in the stories of Burroughs’ bizarre neighbors. In Connecticut, they have moved next-door to a former opera singer and her henpecked husband. These are nosy neighbors, the kind of neighbors that are perpetually awkward. I’ve had those neighbors and could completely relate to making efforts to avoid them at all costs, even to your own discomfort.

The chapter that had me laughing to the point of tears, involved Jeffrey, a very strange and narcissistic man, who was selling his lavish home. Burroughs’ friend, Maura, was the realtor selling Jeffrey’s home and she suggested that Burroughs’ come along to see the house. Jeffrey, a model, furniture builder, and jack-of-all-trades, was a force of nature. Quite honestly, I whole heartedly believe that Burroughs’ is giving an accurate recollection of his experience with Jeffrey, because the truth is stranger than fiction. This is too weird to be fake. It’s hilarious, but also a bit sad, as obviously Jeffrey is a troubled person and lacks the self-awareness to realize how he portrays himself to others.

Toil & Trouble is another home-run for Burroughs. I throughly enjoyed this book and highly recommend it. It’s funny and it has heart. Plus, as a bonus, the chapter have fun “witchy” themed names.

 

The Grace Year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Imaginary Friend

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Swallows

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Thank you to Random House Publishing Group and Ballantine Books for providing me with a copy of Lisa Lutz’s novel, The Swallows, in exchange for an honest review.

Shortly after joining the faculty of Stonebridge Academy, an elite boarding school, creative writing professor Alexandra Witt, begins to notice that dark secrets are being kept amongst the students. The faculty turns a blind-eye out of fear and the professor whom Alexandra had been hired to replaced left under mysterious circumstances. Despite several warnings, Alexandra is determined to reveal the truth.

I’m drawn to stories that take place at boarding schools. I’ve always loved going to school and ever since I was a young child, I had romantic ideas of what it would be like to attend a boarding school. The setting for The Swallows does not disappoint. The campus is lush and the students are privileged. Lutz explores the “Upstairs/Downstairs” aspect of showing perspectives from both the wealthy students and the mostly average-means faculty. These are kids accustomed to power via the privilege that comes with wealth.

The Swallows is both a mystery and suspense novel, but it is also a commentary on our times with the “Me Too” movement. At Stonebridge Academy, there is a strong hierarchy of popular students, which includes a fluid ranking of the top male and female students, but within this group, the boys have their own club. Within this “boys club”,” they use their influence against the girls by creating a secret, sex driven ranking system. Alexandra is the type of teacher who easily bonds with teenagers and as she learns what the boys are doing, she uses her influence to help the girls stand-up for themselves. However, it is not as simple as pointing out the wrongs, the girls want revenge for their humiliation.

One of the more interesting twists comes from a student who begins a nightly ritual across campus. Her silent walks with a loud scream at the end, pick-up steam and soon she has begun an entire movement. She never speaks to the meaning of her ritual and others assume that it is in response to her having been raped or assaulted. She never confirms or denies the reason and her actions explode in popularity, attracting the attention of the national news. This situation blurs the lines between reality and the way society likes to attach meaning to situations, regardless of the truth. She becomes a symbol of a movement, simply because her actions seem like they reflect the pain of a woman who has been harmed by men.

Although there are intriguing aspects to The Swallows, I didn’t find myself completely gelling with the story. It was uneven in pacing and I found a lot of it to reek of “shock value,” in a way that made it hard for me to believe or connect. I didn’t entirely dislike The Swallows, but it was a solid 3 out of 5 for me. The most interesting aspect is the ways that the various characters use power to their advantage and this alone made it a worthwhile read.

 

Unfollow: A Memoir of Loving and Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church

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Thank you to Farrar, Straus and Giroux for providing me with a copy of Megan Phelps-Roper’s memoir, Unfollow: a Memoir of Loving and Leaving The Westboro Baptist Church, in exchange for an honest review.

Unfollow is a memoir of faith and forgiveness that details Megan Phelps-Roper’s decision to leave the controversial Westboro Baptist Church. The church was founded and headed by Megan’s grandfather, Fred Phelps and is famous for its aggressive protest campaigns.

If you live in the United States, it’s very unlikely that you haven’t heard about the Westboro Baptist Church. They are constantly in the news for their hate-filled attacks towards what they believe is sinful behavior, such as homosexuality, even going as far as to protest at funerals of those whom they believe are sinners. The church is considered by many to be a hate group and they certainly do not shy away from hateful speech in efforts to have their message heard. They relish the attention and media coverage, including leveraging it to their advantage by arguing with those who disagree with their tactics.

I found Phelps-Roper’s memoir to be eye-opening and honest. I knew about their protests, but I didn’t know anything about the members of the church or its structure. The Westboro Baptist Church is comprised almost entirely of members of the Phelps’ family. It’s a small group. It rarely has outsiders join and therefore, is a very insulated group. I wrongly assumed that they would behave more like other conservative fringe groups, but what Phelps-Roper revealed was surprising to me. For example, the kids attended a regular school and were very familiar with pop culture, such as current music and movies. Pop culture was not forbidden or sinful. Although they had a modesty dress-code, it was probably even more liberal than other churches and did not become more restrictive until Phelps-Roper was an adult and deciding to leave the church.

The Phelps family is highly educated and above all, law degrees are prized. Fred Phelps was a lawyer and he encouraged his children to follow in his path, including Phelps-Roper’s mother. The women in the church take a very active role, using their education to fight lawsuits and also fight for their protections under freedom of speech. I suppose that this shouldn’t be surprising, as the Westboro Baptist Church has operated a shocking campaign for many years and has been able to defend their right to do so. I think most people, myself included prior to this book, would be surprised to learn that they are a very educated group of people with strong women.

I was also surprised that in his early years, Fred Phelps was a strong defender of civil rights. This is such a contradiction, as Phelps is in many ways a villain, yet he was also a strong activist, using his legal background to help the black community.

Phelps-Roper’s memoir is about a girl raised in the faith of The Westboro Baptist Church. She spent her childhood and young adult years at protests and believing the faith of her family. She even took on a stronge leadership role when she became an adult, which included spearheading their social media campaign. Yet, she was always questioning and engaging with people who had different beliefs. It took many years, but over time she began to have a crisis of faith. This crisis occurred around the same time that her church was undergoing changes, including a rise in male leadership and a suppression of women. She grew up in a church where every church member’s voice was heard, but now hers was being minimized. She saw terrible things happening to her immediate family, when they were accused of breaking church rules. She also began to see the ways to interpret the Bible and had doubts about her church doctrine.

I had mixed emotions for Phelps-Roper, as she made her decision to leave the church. Leaving the church mean’t a total cut-off from her family and although she left at the same time as her younger sister, Grace, they were two young women who were very alone in the world. I feel like it is important to make clear that I don’t agree with any of their principals, nor their tactics. I think what the Westboro Baptist Church does is disgusting. As much as I want to defend their and anyone else’s right to freedom of speech, I feel their sentiments are hate speech. It’s reprehensible. That said, I can’t image the bravery that it takes to make the decision to leave both your faith and your family. in addition, Phelps-Roper is a public figure and she had to leave under the scrutiny of the public eye, especially of those whom she hurt through her previous actions.

The amazing thing is how her memoir shifts to forgiveness. Phelps-Roper found many friends from those whom she had protested against and considered sinners. She was welcomed with many hugs and much forgiveness. It seemed like the people she had harmed were actually more willing to offer her forgiveness, than she was towards herself. Phelps-Roper continues to make amends by publicly speaking about her childhood in the church and writing books, such as Unfollow.

Unfollow is an important memoir for the insight that it provides. It’s very easy to hate groups like the Westboro Baptist Church, but it isn’t easy to take a deeper look at them. I still consider their speech and tactics to be hateful, but I also have a broader understanding of what it would be like to grow-up in that world and what it truly means to both seek and give forgiveness.

 

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.

 

Campusland

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Thank you to St. Martin’s Press for providing me with debut author Scott Johnston’s novel, Campusland, in exchange for an honest review.

Devon University is a “not-quite Ivy League” east-coast institution that has provided a quality education for generations. Through fond memories and rich traditions, Devon has built a strong group of wealthy alumni, who are happy to support their alma matter, as long as it continues to reflect the values they treasure.

However, there is a problem. The world is changing and life at Devon is beginning to reflect the most extreme state of these changes.

Campusland is a satire and it is laugh-out-loud hilarious. Johnston pokes at several issues, however important they may be, that have spiraled out of control due to a lack of common sense. For example, when Freshman student Lulu Harris takes a spill and is injured on campus, no one will believe her when she tells them the truth: she was not sexually assaulted. Instead of believing the truth, the situation escalates to the point that Lulu feels that she has to name an accuser and decides to point the finger at her professor, Eph Russell.

Lulu is complicated. She is a NYC party girl, who is stuck at a college far from the city and is feeling her status slip away. She has failed at making friends and can’t seem to catch a break. Lulu had a bit of a crush on Eph and his rejection stung, however she did not initially intend on blaming him or anyone else. She tried to tell the truth, but no one would believe her word. When she names Eph as her attacker, she realizes that she has an opportunity to promote her social status through a social cause. In a calculated move, Lulu starts a nightly ritual of crawling through campus. Lulu’s crawl is silent and she never speaks of her “assault,” however other people assume that she is making a statement and speaking on behalf of all sexual assault victims. Lulu becomes a sensation and she doesn’t correct any of the assumptions.

Currently, with so many powerful men being accused of sexual assault, there is such outcry at women not being believed when they are attacked, this shows the same problem in a reverse situation. Lulu was never attacked, but no one will believe her. She is only believed, when she becomes the victim that people want her to be. Her voice has actually been silenced by the very people who pretend to support her. It’s sick.

Eph, the true victim, is a white male from the South and he is helpless as his career go down the drain. Not only is he accused by Lulu, but prior to the Lulu situation, his course syllabus comes under attack by students accusing him of racism for teaching “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” and for not including more writers of color. Eph has counter argument to their accusations, but the momentum of this group, including many students who are not enrolled in his class, grows. Eph keeps expecting that his luck will change and that surely having truth on his side will prevail. However, not even the clearest proof of his innocence will stop those who want him gone. By virtue of his historical power of being a white male, he is not allowed to be the victim and the people who have the power to help him, see it as a loss, if they accept the truth of his innocence.

At Devon, having power is more important than morals or truth. Fairness is a sham.

Campusland reflects a world where common sense is missing and extremism rules. This is a story world where people are very divided and there is no room for civil debate. It is uncomfortable and reflects our current world with a “You’re either with us or against us” attitude.

I loved Campusland. Johnston’s novel is a hilarious page-turner that is a keen observation of our society. I can’t wait to read Johnston’s next book.

 

Breathe In, Cash Out

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Thank you to Atria Books for providing me with a copy of Madeleine Henry’s novel, Breathe In, Cash Out, in exchange for an honest review.

Recent Princeton grad, Allegra Cobb has landed a job as an analyst at the prestigious New York City investment firm, Anderson Shaw. She is on the fast track to success, yet her life feels empty. Her true passion is yoga and if she can just endure her insane work schedule until her annual bonus, she plans to quit banking and follow her dreams. However, staying sane while pulling all-nighters becomes more difficult when she meets Skylar. Skylar is a beautiful and magnetic yoga instructor with an popular social media following. Skylar brings Allegra into her circle, trying to convince her to leave her job early. In the beginning, Allegra is enchanted by Skylar, but she soon realizes that Skylar is not what she seems.

The themes of Breathe In, Cash Out will strike a chord with most readers. Like Allegra, a majority of the people I know, including myself, have put dreams on the back burner to pursue money or a more “sensible” career. Allegra was raised by a single father, who also pushed her to chase the dream of working in banking. Allegra is an overachiever, but the goal of getting an Ivy League education and working for this specific firm, was in big part because of her father’s pressure. It is a pressure not just to succeed, but to succeed in a specific way. Although my mom was nothing like Allegra’s father, I could definitely relate to Allegra’s desire to please her father and not disappoint. It’s a winning moment when Allegra decides that she must follow her own life path, even if it means disappointing her father or giving up what society would consider to be a dream job. We have one life and we must live it on our terms.

Breathe In, Cash Out also plays with the theme of trust. Allegra exists in a cut-throat world and trust is difficult. Allegra learns hard lessons when she puts trust in people who are only looking out for themselves and she devalues those around her who have her back. I liked the relationship between Allegra and her co-worker, Tripp. True to his frat-boy sounding name, Tripp seems like the last person that Allegra should trust. He’s charming and never seems to take life seriously. However, appearances can be deceptive. On the theme of appearances being deceptive, Breathe In, Cash Out explores the idea of being social media famous and how that does not necessarily equate joy or success. When we live in a culture that puts a heavy emphasis on perception, it is easy to lose perspective.

Based on the themes and premise, I was very excited to read Breathe In, Cash Out, but my expectations fell short. It was akin to having trouble starting a car. I would begin to invest in a storyline and then the pacing would stall.

For example, the story opens with Allegra having a one-night stand with someone who she later learns is her superior at work. This should have set up a ton of conflict and tension, but it doesn’t. She quickly realizes that he is married and that he is treating the whole evening with her, as if it never happened. He is not a nice person or a good boss. Fairly quickly, Allegra realizes what is happening and to her, it is written off as a mistake. The potentially explosive scenario fizzles.

Skylar, who turns out to be the primary antagonist, is another example. There is a truly creepy situation with Skylar at the end of the novel, which I anticipated would lead to an even bigger scene or revelation. However, it is a false alarm. The storyline ends abruptly, which is unfortunate, as it was the most memorable scene in the story. It gave me the chills.

Breathe In, Cash Out was far too involved in the world of Allegra’s job with loads of technical terms and presentations, but skimpy on the character development. I could relate to Allegra’s conflict and passions, but I could not relate to her.

Henry had a great story idea, but Breathe In, Cash Out missed the mark. I cannot recommend it.

 

Mrs. Every-Thing

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

In Mrs. Everything, bestselling author Jennifer Weiner explores the lives of the Kaufman sisters, Jo and Bethie. Although they are very different women, the Kaufman sisters are close, until Bethie is raped. The guilt, miscommunication, and things that go unspoken drives a wedge between the sisters and they spend most of their lives struggling to repair their relationship.

Mrs. Every-Thing is an epic story that begins in the 1950’s and spans decades, following Bethie and Jo through their childhood to their golden years. Weiner tackles many of the heavy themes of those decades, including feminism, civil rights, and gays rights. Her characters are in the thick of it.

Jo seems to follow a more traditional path, marrying young and becoming a mother. She lives in the suburbs of Connecticut and outwardly reflects the attitudes of a conservative housewife. However, she is hiding a relationship that she had with a female classmate in college, a love that has never died. She carries the burden of not feeling that she can live her authentic-self, as she tries to maintain a happy home for her children, while her marriage is crumbling.

Bethie takes a different path. After being sexually assaulted, she turns to an alternative, hippie lifestyle of the 60’s and lives on a commune. She is wary of marrying or having kids, but is vocal in her passion to promote feminism. She eventually realizes that she has a desire to be an entrepreneur, which is in conflict with the ideals of the commune, so she leaves and becomes a successful businesswoman. She also finds love with an black man in an time not long after the civil rights era.

Admittedly, in the hands of a different writer, the topics covered in Mrs. Every-Thing, may have come across as cliche. However, Weiner is a masterful storyteller and she has created two compelling protagonists. The tale of the Kaufman sisters is a page turner and I was engaged for the entire ride. It made me consider my own life path as a child of the late 70’s and how different my options have been from those of my mom and aunt, who were both born just a decade prior to Jo and Bethie. We often judge the world and the people living in it from the standards of now, however people are very much a product of the era in which they were raised. Our world is constantly changing and every generation has unique challenges. Through hindsight, I can now see just in my lifetime how far we have come with regard to inclusion and rights, yet how far we need to go. The story of the Kaufman sisters is look at a few pivotal decades in American history and moreover, what it meant to be female during that time.

I highly recommend Mrs. Every-Thing and Weiner’s other novels. She’s a talented writer!

The Paper Wasp

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Thank you to Grove Atlantic for providing me with Lauren Acampora’s novel, The Paper Wasp, in exchange for an honest review.

Abby and Elise were childhood best friends raised in a small town in Michigan. They began to grow apart when as a teenager, Elise became involved in acting and her career took off.

Flash-Forward to their late 20’s: Elise is an actress living in Hollywood, while Abby is stuck in their small town, a college dropout. She is working retail and dreaming of a career in the film industry. Abby obsesses over Elise, saving every magazine article that features her former friend. The two women reconnect, when they both attend their high school reunion. Following the reunion, Abby decides to run off to Hollywood, showing up on Elise’s doorstep. Elise, takes Abby in for an extended stay, treating Abby to a taste of her lavish lifestyle. Soon, the boundaries of their relationship are blurred, when Abby accepts a job being Elise’s personal assistant. The situation is further strained by Abby’s growing ambition, a ticking time-bomb that is ready to explode.

I absolutely loved The Paper Wasp. Acampora is a masterful writer, combing gorgeous prose with complex characters. I could not put The Paper Wasp down and plowed through it in a single afternoon.

I’m a Los Angeles native and I found the way that Acampora captured the city to be perfect. There is a wonderful moment where Elise drives Abby through Hollywood for the first time, noting its lackluster, dingy atmosphere, which is a strong contrast both Abby’s perceived image of Hollywood and to Elise’s glamorous lifestyle. Elise takes meditation classes at an exclusive institute and although I’m not sure of a real-life counterpart, it is certainly something that exists in Los Angeles. It has strange, ethereal quality, but is also is a bit of a cult. I could easily imagine the type of fellow Angeleno’s, not only celebrities, who would have a membership to this type of club. One of the more memorable aspects of the institution, is their crazy costume parties, where members come dressed as images from their dreams. It’s strange and magical, with a hint of a nightmarish quality; akin to a scene from Alice in Wonderland.

There is another contrast, when Abby travels back to Michigan to see her sister. Her sister is a drug addict, who has recently had a baby daughter. Abby visits her sister and niece, seeing that they live in a filthy trailer barely able to make ends meet. Abby’s heart tells her to kidnap her niece and save her from the poverty and neglect, but she can’t act on it.

Abby’s obsession with Elise creates a tension throughout the story. In the start, she appears to be a bit of a stalker, but then as we see the dynamic between the two women, it is clearer that Abby is more concerned with the lack of direction that her life has taken. She is envious of Elise, who doesn’t seem to deserve her lucky breaks. Rather than wishing to be Elise, Abby thinks that she is more deserving or at least, if she were to have a good opportunity, she would know how to make the most of it. We learn that Abby has been carrying around a terrible secret that is making her more motivate to take risks in life. Abby becomes emboldened throughout the story, making her actions increasing erratic, creating a sense of danger.

When Abby is confronted with the real Elise, not the Elise from the magazine articles, she realizes that her friend lacks self-confidence. Elise lives a messy life. This sets up a social commentary on how we view celebrity, or even ordinary people, via carefully curated social media accounts. Abby couldn’t imagine the real Elise, because she was so caught-up in the fake, media version. Not only that, Abby spent a decade so hyper-focused on this fake Elise, that when she was confronted with the truth, her world cracked open.

The Paper Wasp is my current favorite read of 2019. I was hooked from the first page and cannot wait to read Acampora’s collection of short stories, The Wonder Garden. She is such a talented writer.