The Kids are Gonna Ask

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Story Genius

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I don’t often review writing craft books, but Lisa Cron has helped me dig my way out of a cycle of dead-end edits. She is a story structure wizard and her book, Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel, has been priceless for getting me back on track with my story.

A bit of backstory; I graduated from the UCLA Extension Writer’s Program several years ago, and had a solid first draft of a novel. As part of my UCLA experience, I was able to pick one professor to give me a written critique and meeting regarding my manuscript. I picked the incredible, New York Times Bestselling author, Caroline Leavitt for my review. Leavitt had been my instructor for a story structure course and had been very supportive of my writing. She also happens to have given a blurb on the cover of Story Genius. I came across Story Genius separately from working with Leavitt, but I was not surprised to see the connection. Leavitt gave me great advice on how to proceed with my edits, but as I moved forward, I still felt stuck. Last spring, I joined a writer’s critique group, and I have been testing fundamental changes to both my protagonist and the first part of my story, but nothing was working.

Story Genius had been sitting on my bookshelf, so I decided to give it a read. It’s an eye-opener! Cron gives a clear explanation of what attracts humans to stories, including how it triggers us in ways we don’t realize. She details the fundamental elements that stories must have, and how to make sure these key ideas are woven into your story.

Her book has exercises to create story structure prior to outlining or writing your novel. The exercises will develop your characters, which in turn, will inform your plot. I read through Story Genius without doing the exercises, and now, I’m going through the book a second time, following the exercises. Immediately, I feel like I’m on the right path towards correcting the problems with my novel. I had been in a huge slump, but now I feel confident that I know how to solve my character and story structure issues. More than confident, I’m excited about my story. I’m excited to write. The initial thrill is back!

Story Genius is an indispensable craft book, and I only wish that I had known about it prior to starting my novel. I highly recommend it for writers of all levels. I’m sure that it will be read many times, especially as I embark on new projects.

 

The Lies that Bind

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Thank you to Random House Publishing Group for providing me with a copy of Emily Giffin’s latest novel, The Lies that Bind, in exchange for an honest review.

Twenty-eight-year-old Cecily Gardner is a mid-west transplant trying to create a life as a journalist in New York City. Ready to take the next step with her long-time boyfriend Matthew, she break-ups with him, when he doesn’t want a bigger commitment.

Distraught, she heads to a bar to drink, and consider if she has made a grave mistake. At the bar, she is about to call Matthew and ask him to take her back, when Grant steps into her life. Grant is charming and Cecily feels an instant attract to him. She quickly forgets Matthew and begins a whirlwind romance with Grant, including flying to London with her best friend Scottie, to see Grant, who has taken his twin brother to London for ALS treatment.

A few months into their romance, September 11th happens and Grant, who works for a financial firm in the World Trade Center, is presumed dead. Cecily realizes that she didn’t know very much about Grant, including his last name. While reporting on the terrorist attacks, Cecily encounters a sign with Grant’s picture as a missing person. She calls the number and speaks with Amy, Grant’s wife. Shocked by this discovery, Cecily becomes obsessed with unraveling the mystery of Grant’s life, and in the process, becomes friends with Amy, who doesn’t know about her husband’s infidelity.

I’m a fan of Giffin, and I was very excited to read her latest novel. It has been nearly twenty years since the September 11th terrorist attacks and I remember the day clearly. I was just a few years younger than Cecily, and although I was living in California, I had many friends in NYC. I can’t recall reading another novel that uses 9/11 as a central aspect of the plot. It was strange to realize, with the technology and cultural references, how much time has passed, but to still have this day so etched in my memory. Giffin does a great job writing the uncertainty and fear surrounding that day and its impact. It’s unsettling to read and dredged up memories.

As a contrast, I experienced joy reading the chapters detailing Cecily and Scottie’s trip to London. London and NYC are two of my favorite place. Cecily and Scottie have a wonderful friendship, the kind of support and love that everyone should have in their lives.

The Lies that Bind becomes increasingly more complicated from the lies that are created after Cecily learns of Grant’s infidelity. I don’t want to give any spoilers, but quite a web of deceit is woven, and even though the lies are due to generally good intentions, they quickly spiral out of control. Coming clean becomes increasingly difficult.

I didn’t feel Cecily’s attraction to Grant, especially when he seemed to be giving her mixed messages. It was the same with her relationship with Matthew. Cecily is a doormat for a majority of the story. I believe this is to set her up for making the transition towards realizing her own strength and independence later in the story, but this revelation happens really late. For a majority of The Lies that Bind, Cecily is a weak character, and it made it difficult for me to connect with her. I felt sad for Cecily.

The Lies That Bind has an intriguing premise and it’s a fast read. I don’t think it’s Giffin’s best novel, but if you’re a fan of her writing, you should absolutely add this to your bookshelf.

 

Hollywood Park

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Thank you to Celadon Books for providing me with a copy of Mikel Jollett’s memoir, Hollywood Park, in exchange for an honest review.

For those unaware, Mikel Jollett is the frontman and lyricist for the Los Angeles rock band, The Airborne Toxic Event. I’m a massive fan who has had the joy of seeing them live many times. The energy and storytelling of The Airborne Toxic Event affects me in a way that is unlike anything else.

Music is a funny thing. Like poetry, sometimes it is difficult to nail down why it speaks to you. With The Airborne Toxic Event, the songs and rhythm feel personal, and unique in capturing my experience growing up in Los Angeles.

Reading Hollywood Park and learning about Jollett’s life, made me understand my own life. Our situations are vastly different, but some of the childhood trauma rings true. It also helped me understand some of my early relationship choices and dysfunction. Like Jollett, I’ve reached a place in my life where I feel at peace with my past and hopeful for my future.

Jollett’s Hollywood Park was released as a memoir with an accompanying album of the same title. It is a grand undertaking that has been many years in the making. Both are fabulous and deeply affecting.

In his memoir, Jollett dives into his early childhood years spent at Synanon, a commune in California. Synanon was original started as place for recovering addicts, but over time, the leadership and motivations shifted. Jollett’s parents, his father a former heroin addict, and his mother, a Berkeley idealist, joined at a time when the commune was changing, including new rules that separated parents from their children. Jollett, and his older brother Tony, spent several years in an orphanage type arrangement in Synanon.

Their mother escaped with them in the middle of the night, but leaving Synanon was not easy. They feared retribution, and Jollett witnessed the severe beating of their mother’s boyfriend, who had also escaped the commune. Jollett’s mother suffered from mental illness and struggled with poverty. She had unstable relationships, including one man who was very abusive. Jollett’s father also left the commune, marrying Bonnie, another former Synanon member, who happened to work at the child center on the compound. Bonnie had bonded to Jollett when he was young and remained a second mother to him.

In Hollywood Park, Jollett comes to terms with the effects of his difficult childhood, which created problems in his adulthood. He carried the weight of his family, including the history of Jollett men going to prison, and falling into addiction. Even though he escape this family pattern, he was waiting for the other shoe to fall, as he found success with college, writing, and The Airborne Toxic Event. He struggled with relationships, always finding excuses to run away. After seeking therapy, he discovered that he had attachment disorder. Through therapy, he was able to prepare himself for engaging in a lasting relationship, which he found, and is now married with two children. It also prepared him to deal with his mother’s erratic behavior and the death of his father.

The title refers to a former Los Angeles landmark, a racetrack called Hollywood Park. Hollywood Park is a place where Jollett’s father used to escape for an afternoon of gambling and where he spent time with Jollett. The once glamorous race track fell into disrepair prior to it being torn down to make way for a football stadium. Jollett writes beautifully about these places that now only exist in our memory, both the physical places and the memories that we have of people we have lost. I lost my mom in 2008, and I have my own memories with her at both Hollywood Park and Santa Anita Race Track.

Jollett doesn’t write much about The Airborne Toxic Event, but he does give insight to the origins of two of their early hits: “Wishing Well” and “Sometime Before Midnight.” This memoir isn’t really about the band, but more about the origins of the man who felt compelled to put his words into songs.

I was fortunate to attend a virtual book event for Hollywood Park that was hosted by Tattered Cover, a Denver based bookshop. The event was originally supposed to be live, but due to Covid-19, virtual was the next best option. It was actually great. Jollett joined us from his home and played several songs. He was gracious with answering questions and sharing intimate details of his life. A week after the event, I received a hardback copy with an autographed bookplate.

Hollywood Park is a stunning memoir. It’s heartbreaking and uplifting. It is a must-read for fans of Jollett, but even if you’ve never heard of The Airborne Toxic Event, I highly recommend Hollywood Park. It is one of the most affecting and engaging memoirs that I have ever read.

 

 

 

Big Summer

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

Drue Cavanaugh appears to have it all. She’s rich, beautiful, and successful. However, looks can be deceiving, and happiness is something that has always eluded Drue. Drue is magnetic and charming, which draws people to her, but she also has a ruthless, mean streak, which destroys her friendships.

Drue’s childhood friend, Daphne Berg, was a target of Drue’s cruelty, and after a particularly painful incident, they haven’t spoken in six years. Daphne is surprised when Drue contacts her, begging Daphne to be her maid of honor for her upcoming lavish Cape Cod wedding. Drue seems sincere in her desire to fix their friendship, but there is another piece of the puzzle. Daphne is a rising social media star and Drue pitches that Daphne can use the wedding to promote herself. Many aspects of the wedding are being promoted on social media and companies have donated products for the bride and groom to showcase.

Daphne agrees, and she is swept back into Drue’s glamorous world. On the night of the rehearsal dinner, Daphne meets a handsome man and has a steamy one-night stand. The next morning, the man is gone, and Drue is found dead in a nearby hot tub. Daphne is a suspect, and she works to solve the mystery of both Drue’s murder and the identity of her mystery man.

I’ve read many of Weiner’s previous novels, and I’m a fan. I was excited to read Big Summer, but I must confess that this was a miss for me. The first third of the story is strong; setting up the history and dynamic between Drue and Daphne. Daphne is a charming character, especially as we meet her after she has made a big transformation in her life. She is happy and on the path to success when Drue’s reappearance threatens her. Drue’s sway over people is captivating. I found my interest crumbling after Drue died and the story shifts to a mystery.

I didn’t anticipate the reveal of the murderer, yet it wasn’t a satisfying twist. Weiner sets Drue up as someone who has wronged many people and therefore, her murderer could be anyone. Daphne, and her roommate Darshi, set-off to solve the various mysteries. The mystery aspect of the novel has a lot of convenient situations and tenuous links. I didn’t find it plausible and my interest waned. Mysteries are a departure for Weiner, and I applaud her for trying something new, but it didn’t gel.

A lovely aspect of the story was the relationship between Daphne and her parents, especially her father. Daphne and her father have a Sunday tradition of trying different restaurants and cuisines. In a flashback scene, Drue joins them one Sunday. Drue’s parents have held her at a distance, and being included on this Sunday outing was an emotional experience for Drue. Daphne is made aware that the love from her parents and their support is something that money can’t buy.

Big Summer has beautiful themes of the ability to change and not being defined by your past. Daphne has insecurities due to her weight, but when she allows herself to let go of her worries, she finds acceptance, including a new boyfriend, Nick. Speaking of Nick, their romance is passionate and sexy. I may have been blushing!

Big Summer reminds us that not everything on social media is how it appears, both what is shared and what is kept private. People have the ability to change, even if we are not noticing their changes. I’m a fan of Weiner and will certainly read her future novels, but Big Summer was enough of a miss for me, that I can’t recommend it. The strengths in Big Summer are the characters and themes, but the overarching plot is messy.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Companions

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Thank You to Gallery/Scout Press for providing me with a copy of Katie M. Flynn’s novel, The Companions, in exchange for an honest review.

In the near-future the world has suffered a deadly pandemic that has resulted in years of quarantine. Scientist have developed a way to transfer human souls into robots, allowing humans a way to become immortal, but the catch is they are property of the Metis Corporation. The Metis Corporation leases the robots, referred to as “Companions” to other humans. Sometimes those who take on the lease are the family members of the companion and sometimes, when a family member is unwilling or cannot afford the lease, the companions are sent out to be workers. The companions not only provide companionship to the lonely who are quarantined, but they can perform tasks without fear of catching the virus.

Lilac has been leased by a family to provide companionship to their young daughter. Although Lilac only has vague memories of her human life, she begins to recall certain events and with some internet sleuthing, she learns that she had been murdered as a teenager. It is now decades later and she wants to find her murderer to seek revenge, before that person dies.

The Companions offers an intriguing premise and brings up plenty of ethical issues. Would you be willing to lease your soul to a corporation in exchange for a longer life? What obligations does that company have to provide for your care? What happens when you out live those you knew in real life? Is a robot with a semi-human soul still human? The idea for The Companions caught my attention immediately. It reminded me of the series Black Mirror.

Unfortunately, the actual plot failed to hold my interest. It had strong moments, but I never felt connected to the characters. There are many characters and plots, so many that they become muddled. The plots do intersect, but I wasn’t satisfied. I think it would have worked better as a series of short stories based in the post-pandemic story world, each dealing with the various implications of having companions.

The Companions will benefit from buzz due to its eerie timing. It was published the first week in March, right as much of the world was about to be locked down due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Obviously, there is no way that Flynn could have realized this when she wrote The Companions, but many of her ideas about how a lock down would feel and heaviness of it all, are spot on. Our current world situation added to my discomfort and sense of unease, that I likely would not have felt if I had read The Companions at any other time.

 

Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Midlife Crisis

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Thank you to Grove Atlantic for providing me with a copy of Ada Calhoun’s Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Midlife Crisis, in exchange for an honest review.

In Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Midlife Crisis, Ada Calhoun explores the unique challenges facing Generation X women, who are now middle-age.

Spanning from the early 60’s to the early 80’s (there is some disagreement on the dates), Calhoun explains that many women born during this time had a challenging childhood. We ( I am a Gen-X woman) were raised by mother’s who fought for equality and told us that we could do anything. This created an immense pressure to “have it all,” even when “having it all” is an impossible goal and reaching for the brass ring has made us deeply dissatisfied. The caustic divorces that we experienced with our parents, created a drive to maintain the semblance of a perfect life for our children, to hide any cracks in the co-parenting relationship. Growing up latch-key kids and experiencing a free-roaming childhood, has turned Gen-xers into overprotective, helicopter parents. We are drowning as we fail to keep up with our self-imposed expectations.

Calhoun argues that previous generations did not put such a big emphasis on perfection. Our mothers didn’t have social media to constantly compare themselves to their friends and celebrities. They didn’t post pictures of their gluten-free cupcakes or their latest beach vacation. They didn’t feel a constant pressure to keep looking youthful. Societal pressure to go vegan or to believe in a certain movement didn’t plague them every time they looked at their phone, because cell phones didn’t exist. Social media didn’t exist.

Interestingly, Calhoun explains that the pressure to compare and to be perfect seems to be felt more strongly with Gen X. Younger generations don’t seem as worried about what people think. Perhaps it is because Gen Xer’s were older when social media became common place. I was born at the end of Gen X and Facebook wasn’t popular until I was in my 30’s. I can’t imagine what it would have been like to have my teen years and 20’s recorded on social media. Calhoun notes that younger generations seem to post on social media with less worry of how it will be perceived, where as Gen X is more careful regarding what they post. We are a generation that has quickly adapted to technology, yet we have not had it in our lives the same way that the generations after us have experienced.

Why We Can’t Sleep made me feel stressed. I can attest to the feelings of perfectionism and failure. I’ve entered my 40’s happy with my life. I don’t have children ( two wonderful step-children, but they are only with us for holidays), so perhaps that lessens the intensity of needing to prove something or create a certain life. I think it gives me freedom. Still, I had a mom who drove home the idea that “anything is possible,” which, as I reflect, doesn’t feel true. I entered the work force and experienced inequality. My mom gave me a clear message that men should not be fully trusted, yet she also pushed a traditional marriage. I was told to be both independent and dependent. It was confusing.

Additionally, Calhoun pointed out something that I didn’t realize I was resentful over, until I read it. She mentions that there is now a backlash for the freedom that we experienced in childhood. I was a latchkey child starting in third grade and although there were adult neighbors, I was basically left home summers/holidays/after school, from the age of eight. That would be unheard of now, but my mom was a working, single-mom and we had no choice. Besides that, I don’t really remember my mom being engaged with me. When we were home together, I was told to play outside or in my room. Maybe it’s because my mom had me later in life, but she continued the, “children should be seen and not heard” motto from her generation. There were times that my mom did things with me, like take me to museums or to the movies, but on a whole, I was on my own. Calhoun says that this was common for Gen X childhoods and this has prompted many Gen X parents to become uber engaged with their children. I see this in my friends with their parenting styles. I realize that my mom had to work and things were hard, but I do feel that I was disconnected with her as a child and did not become close to her until I became an adult.

Calhoun tackles perimenopause and the options that women have to ease this transition. She states that this is an important life change that is simply not discussed. I agree, I’ve never discussed this with anyone, including my doctors. I’m 42 and I haven’t noticed much of a change yet, but I appreciate that Calhoun speaks to this topic.

With everything going on in the world with corona virus, I’m not sure that it was good timing to read Why We Can’t Sleep. I made me feel more anxiety. That said, I think Calhoun has written an important book that is worth a read. I will definitely recommend it to friends of my generation.

 

All That’s Bright and Gone

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Thank you to Crooked Lane Books for providing me with a copy of Eliza Nellums’ novel, All That’s Bright and Gone, in exchange for an honest review.

Six-year old Aoife has recently witnessed her mother have a mental break-down at a shopping mall and is currently being cared for by her Uncle Donny, while her mother is recovering in a hospital. While living with her uncle, she tries to search for clues regarding the mystery surrounding her older brother, Theo. Her mother talks about Theo as though he is still alive, but Aoife is sure that he has been murdered. To add to Aoife’s confusion, her mother’s boyfriend has started coming around and he claims to be Aoife’s real father. Aoife attempts to navigate her muddled world with the help of her imaginary friend, Teddy, and her eight-year-old neighbor who is an amateur sleuth.

Nellums has created a vibrant and winning protagonist in Aoife. I think it is hard to craft a believable young child protagonist, but Nellum has nailed it, balancing Aoife’s precociousness with her innocence. Also balanced is the amount of truth that we know from the adults in Aoife’s world, allowing the reader insight to her reality vs. her assumptions. It is a compelling look at a child caught in the middle of adult issues.

Teddy makes the reader wonder if Aoife is headed down the same path toward mental illness as her mother or if an imaginary friend is simply a childhood rite of passage. Teddy resembles a teddy bear and he urges Aoife to act in ways that direct her toward danger. The inclusion of Teddy worked well to make me think that Aoife could be an unreliable narrator, but the uncertainty of it kept me on fence, adding to the mystery of the story.

I throughly enjoyed All That’s Bright and Gone. I truly had no idea where the story was headed, but was gripped from the start. I was hooked by the feeling of uncertainty and that Aoife might always be in danger. There is a great scene with a elderly neighbor that had me really worried for Aoife. Nellums never allows the tension to drop, which keeps the pacing tight and makes All That’s Bright and Gone a quick read.

Nellums is a gift writer with regard to both prose and plot. All That’s Bright and Gone is her debut novel and I’m looking forward to reading her future works.

 

Full Support: Lessons Learned in the Dressing Room

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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