The Windfall

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Thank you to Crown Publishing for providing me with an advance copy of Diksha Basu’s novel, The Windfall, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT – Anil Jha worked hard for many years and has sold his technology invention for a very large sum of money, allowing him to purchase a mansion in a wealthy suburb in India. As they prepare to leave their modest middle-class neighborhood, a neighborhood where they raised their son and where they have formed strong friendships, the Jha’s struggle to reveal their recent windfall to their neighbors. Will they find a home in their new neighborhood or will their windfall adversely affect their lives?

LIKE– Basu’s characters and tone remind me of books from one of my favorite authors: Alexander McCall Smith. Like Smith, Basu is a keen observer of human nature. She uses this skill to pin-point her character’s flaws and fears, often using these weakness in humorous scenarios.

For example, there is a continuous battle between Anil and his wealthy neighbor, Mr. Chopra. The battle is subtle and internal, with each man fearing what the other might be thinking about the other’s wealth and status. It becomes increasingly absurd, even to the point of their bragging that they are so rich that their adult sons do not need to work. These are men that have built their fortune through hard work, and yet, they see it as a source of pride that they can afford for their children to be lazy. Anil is even okay with the idea that his son, Rupak, has been expelled from a college that he was attending in America. Anil twists the story of Rupak’s expulsion to fit the new narrative of their lives. Rupak is ashamed to have been expelled and is baffled by his father’s easy going attitude.

I liked the glimpse of different social tiers in India. It seems like a lot of the stories set in India, both novels and films, that make it to the US market, show the poverty and struggle. It was a nice change to show middle-class and wealthy characters. I liked the sense of community that the Jha family experienced in their middle-class neighborhood. It reminded me of the townhouse complex where I grew up, which connected me to the story.

DISLIKEThe Windfall is social satire and although it makes a poignant statement and is often very humorous, the nature of the story plays close to the surface. Although it is clear that what the characters say or do, is often the opposite of how they truly feel ( for example Anil’s struggle to prove his new wealth), I wish the story had dove a little deeper.

RECOMMEND- Yes. The Windfall is very humorous and filled with delightful characters. I look forward to reading future novels by Diksha Basu.

Watch Me Disappear

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Thank You to Spiegel & Grau for proving me with an advance copy of Janelle Brown’s novel, Watch Me Disappear, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– Jonathan’s wife, Billie, disappeared on a hiking trip nearly a year ago. Her body was never recovered and he is now going through courts to have her death certificate issued, so that he can file an insurance claim. He’s running through his savings and falling behind in bills; money is an enormous stress. He’d love to drowned his troubles in alcohol, but he must pull it together for Olive, his teenage daughter. Olive’s grief has started manifesting itself in visions, where she believes that she’s not only seeing her mother, but that her mother is still alive and needing her help. Jonathan discovers information about Billie’s past that leads him to believe that she might not be the person that he thought he had married, and that perhaps, she really is still alive.

LIKE– I’m a fan of Janelle Brown’s writing and I was happy to be approved for her latest novel. I admire Brown’s ability to write emotionally rich scenarios and compelling characters. Watch Me Disappear has quite a few plot twists and reads like a mystery, but at its core, it’s character driven.

I felt most connected to Jonathan, who has the weight of the world on his shoulders and is really struggling to keep his life together. He’s not a perfect parent (who is?), but he sincerely tries to make Olive’s life better and the two have a beautiful connection. Watch Me Disappear is told primarily in close third-person that alternatively focuses on Jonathan, Billie, and Olive. However, there is a story device in which Jonathan and Billie’s relationship is remembered in first person, through a memoir that Jonathan is writing. I’m not sure that the memoir entries added much to the story. I felt that they slowed the pace. However, they also drew me closer to Jonathan, as I was able to hear his direct voice. I was more interested in Jonathan and Olive’s reaction to their predicament, than I was about the character of Billie.

DISLIKE– There was a confusing element early in the story when I thought that Watch Me Disappear might turn into a fantasy novel. It was the combination of Billie giving Olive books about telepathic kids and then having Olive experience her visions. I spent the first half of the novel expecting it to go an entirely different direction.

I really disliked the character of Harmony. Harmony is a long-time friend of Billie. She has the hots for Jonathan and now that her friend is dead, she is making her move on him. The scenario of a woman coming on to a grieving widow is bad enough, but the storyline with Harmony with regard to Billie’s mysterious past, becomes a muddled mess at the end of the story. I didn’t so much dislike the ending, but it was a onslaught of information and characters creating an overly complicated explanation.

RECOMMEND– Maybe. I didn’t absolutely love Watch Me Disappear, but I enjoyed it. It’s a fast read with unexpected twists; a solid blend of mystery and family drama. I like Brown’s writing and I’d recommend her other novels.

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 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.

Fly Me

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Thank You to Little, Brown and Company for providing me with an advance copy of Daniel Riley’s novel, Fly Me, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– The year is 1972, Suzy Whitman has just graduated from a prestigious college and is planning her next move. Grace, her older sister, is loving her life working as a stewardess and  living in the beach community of Sela Del Mar. Suzy decides to join her sister in California and applies to be a stewardess at Grand Pacific Airlines. At first, her new career and city seem exciting and glamorous, but then she meets Billy. Billy is charming, slick, and a drug dealer. He tricks Suzy into trafficking drugs on her flights to New York. Quickly, Suzy finds herself caught up in a world that she never asked to be a part of and one that she is finding it increasingly difficult to leave. Can she get out before she gets caught?

LIKE– The strongest aspect of Fly Me is the setting. Riley has clearly done his research to recreate the era when commercial air travel was still glamorous. As we now live in a time where flying is a necessarily evil, rather than a pleasure, there is a longing for the way thing used to be. This evident with television shows like Pan Am and attractions like The Pan Am Experience in Los Angeles, where you can experience a vintage mock flight, that includes menus of the era. Riley has written a glimpse into that world. Additionally, I’m from Los Angeles, so I loved the local references and beach city setting. Fly Me is rich with historical and geographical details.

The ending is outrageous and not necessarily believable, but I was happy that Riley tied together some seeds that he had been planting throughout the story. I had been worried that certain elements wouldn’t pay-off, but they did.

The title is great, it’s a play on a vintage aviation advertisement for National Airlines. It’s a sexist ad, but something straight from the era. Suzy is a strong female character, who bucks tradition, and when she is asked to participate in the campaign, she’s appropriately appalled.

DISLIKE– I felt a lack of urgency, even though Suzy is experiencing issues (might be caught trafficking, father with cancer, et) that should create a natural tension in the story. Even thought situationally, the stakes are sky-high, I never felt that Suzy was overly worried. I just watched an episode of Better Call Saul, where there was a scene with a lower-level drug dealer who has stolen his bosses pills and has replaced the medication with aspirin. The scene in which he has to make the switch with the pills was so intense that my stomach knotted up. It was hard to watch. The tension in Fly Me, should have been like this scene.

I didn’t understand the relationship between Suzy and Billy. They hang-out a lot, even though he is slimy and continues to put her in a dangerous situation. He isn’t quite charming or attractive enough for that to be a solid reason for Suzy to keep coming back. For goodness sakes, he’s an adult who lives in his parent’s basement!

RECOMMEND- Riley is a solid writer and this story is well-researched, but I didn’t love Fly Me. I’d be inclined to check-out Riley’s future novels, but unless you’re very interested in the era or aviation, I can’t recommend this book.

Perennials

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Thank you to Random House Publishing Group for providing me with an advance copy of Mandy Berman’s debut novel, Perennials, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT – Located in the Connecticut countryside, Camp Marigold, has impacted lives for generations. Fiona Larkin’s parents met at Camp Marigold and now, she is the next generation making summertime memories. When she’s nine, Fiona, who is from a privileged family, meets Rachel, who is being raised by a single-mom in New York City. Although they are from different backgrounds, the girls develop a deep friendship. When the girls are in college, they return to Camp Marigold to work as summer counselors and this one summer will dramatically alter the course of their lives.

LIKE– I loved Perennials. I was hooked from the first page and I tore through the novel in one day. I could not put it down. Perennials attracted me in several ways.

First, I never attended summer camp, but I desperately wanted to as a child. Summer camp is one of those things that I have romanticized based on friends talking about their own camp experiences and books like Perennials. I feel like I missed out on a quintessential American childhood experience, which attracts me to books on the subject. Perennials is not simply about camp, but it is about romanticizing the experience and that sense of nostalgia that keeps parents sending their children to camp. Perennials is about the ephemeral nature of growing up, where a summer truly is just a summer. Kids returning to camp can’t hold on to the exact recipe that made the previous summer so great, because they too have changed.

Second, Berman has created memorable characters. One of the most memorable is Rachel’s mother, Denise. On the surface, Denise seems very scattered. In her twenties Denise was working as a secretary in a lawfirm and had an affair with a married, older lawyer; Rachel is the product of that relationship. Denise and Rachel have been a secret, second family for Rachel’s father. When she finally realizes that he will never leave his wife, Denise only accepts money for her daughter and struggles to support them in a one bedroom apartment in Manhattan. Although in many ways, Denise seems like a mess: she drinks, constantly smokes, and racks up speeding tickets, but beneath her rough exterior, she is fiercely protective of her daughter. Watching her character reveal itself through the course of the novel was a beautiful story arc and just one example of Berman’s talent for character development.

Third, Perennials has a shocking and affecting twist. I could not have predicted the ending and it knocked me sideways, leaving a lasting impression. Have Kleenex handy.

DISLIKE– This is so minor, but I found the storyline between Nell and Mo to be less engaging than those of the other characters. However, I think their perspective did add another layer to the story.

RECOMMEND– Yes!!! Berman is a gifted writer and I can’t wait to read her next novel. I hope it’s released soon. Perennials is a heartfelt story with rich characters and thought-provoking themes.

Once, in Lourdes

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Thank You to Random House Publishing Group for providing me with an advance copy of Sharon Solwitz’s novel, Once, in Lourdes, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT – Set during the late 1960’s in Michigan, Once, in Lourdes, is the story of four high school friends who make a suicide pact. The teenagers sign a pledge to throw themselves off of a cliff and into the ocean at sunrise in two weeks. In the time leading up to the pact, they find themselves making bold choices and living as if they’re going to actually kill themselves. Who is solid with the plan and who might have doubts?

LIKE– Solwitz has set her novel during the Vietnam War, with her two male protagonists rapidly reaching the age where they might be drafted. The overriding feeling is one of uncertainty and fear, which felt fresh and relevant for our current political climate. Solwitz does a great job at rooting her story in the era and it made me feel transported.

Once, in Lourdes is told in a close third perspective of the four main characters:

Vera- a complicated girl from a wealthy, yet abusive home. She is beautiful, but has a disfigured hand that she alternatively tries to hide and use to shock. A force to be reckoned with, she’s the group leader.

Kate- Sweet and loyal. Kate is overweight and clashes with her stepmom, who has made it her personal mission to get Kate to slim down. Their home is focused on goals and perfection.

C.J. – Brainy and geeky.  C.J. is gay and is struggling both internally and externally with regard to his sexual feelings.

Saint- Handsome and the only one in the group from a poor family. Saint is quiet, kind, and mysterious. Vera, CJ, and Kate all have a crush on Saint.

Once, in Lourdes dips into the minds of all four characters and gives a little backstory of each. I was most interested in the Kate sections. Kate is the least willing to kill herself. In the two weeks leading up to the suicide date, she undergoes the biggest and most natural transformation of the group. Kate finally stands up to her stepmother and she begins to develop a crush on a boy that she plays tennis with, someone who is not part of this somewhat toxic and odd-ball group of friends that she has had for years. What’s even more, Kate allows herself to crush on the tennis boy, even when her friends don’t approve. Kate transforms into someone who has her own opinions and shares them, which is not who she is at the start of the story. I found Kate, who on the surface seems the most mundane of the group, to be the most fascinating.

Solwitz writes vivid descriptions and beautiful prose. I often paused to admire her writing. I thought that the very last chapter was the strongest of the novel. I was intrigued to see how it would all end and the ending has a good emotional pay-off.

DISLIKE – The story was made distracting and less effective, by too much shock value. Vera and her brother, Garth, are in an incestuous relationship. This is core to the story, leading to a major plot development towards the end. However, CJ also has a sexually laced encounter with his brother, while the two play a game of pool. They get naked and although nothing technically happens, CJ is clearly thinking of his brother in those terms. This was just too much for me. I’m not at all a prude, but the story is filled with graphic sexual details of all of the characters, which were simply less interesting than other aspects of the story. It didn’t need to be eliminated entirely, but it could have been used more judiciously for greater impact. It overwhelmed the narrative and I felt assaulted.

I was unevenly interested in the characters. I wish the story had more of both Saint and Kate, and less of Vera and CJ.

RECOMMEND– Maybe. Once, in Lourdes was okay, but I’m not sure that it will be a novel that sticks in my memory.  Solwitz is a strong writer, enough so, that I’d be inclined to check out her other novels.

The Reminders

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Thank you to Little, Brown and Company for providing me with an advance copy of Val Emmich’s novel, The Reminders, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT – Joan is ten-years old and has a very rare brain condition that allows her to recall every moment of her life in sharp detail. Doctors and the media are eager to talk with her, but Joan has more pressing issues. Her grandmother has recently passed away from Alzheimers and although Joan can remember everything, she worries that other people will forget her. Joan realizes that people do not forget their favorite songs and with the help of her father, a musician who owns a recording studio in their home, she plans to enter a song writing contest.

Gavin, a friend of Joan’s parents, has just lost his husband, Sydney. Gavin is a popular actor living in Los Angeles and in the throws of grief, he sets fire to Sydney’s belongings, putting himself front and center for the paparazzi. Realizing he needs to escape his former life for awhile, he travels to New Jersey to stay with Joan’s family, sleeping in the recording studio. Joan and Gavin develop a fast friendship and strike a bargain. Gavin will help Joan with her song and she will provide the memories that she has of Sydney, from when he visited Joan’s home prior to his death. It is quickly apparent that Sydney had not been forthright with the reasons for his visits to the East Coast prior to his death. Can Joan provide enough clues to resolve the mystery of Sydney’s unusual behavior? Will the mystery lead to closure for Gavin?

LIKEThe Reminders is filled with strong, likable characters. Joan is a big personality: plucky and sweet. She also has vulnerabilities and worries that make sense for her age and condition. When she talks about her grandmother’s Alzheimers and her fears of being forgotten by others, it’s heartbreaking. The structure of the novel ping-pongs between Joan and Gavin, each giving us a first person narration in alternating chapters. Gavin and Joan’s developing friendship and the way that they help one another, is the heart of the story. It’s affecting and beautiful. The plot is strong, but character development is where Emmich really shines. Very early on in the story, I cared about Joan and Gavin, which kept me turning the pages.

Prior to The Reminders, I was unfamiliar with Emmich, but learned through his bio, that he is a successful musician. Music is an important part of The Reminders, it’s woven throughout the entire novel. I also read that Emmich has created a playlist to accompany The Reminders, which I’d highly recommend checking out.

DISLIKE– This is minor, because on a whole, I enjoyed The Reminders, but I did find that it took several chapters to hook me. I was confused when the story switched to Gavin’s perspective. It was jarring. I’d like to say that I would have stuck with the novel if it hadn’t been an ARC, but I’m not sure that I would have. That said, if you find yourself in the same situation, stick with it. By 20% in, I was hooked. It’s worth the wait.

RECOMMEND– Yes. The Reminders is funny and emotional. It might make you feel nostalgic with your own memories.

Theft by Finding: Diaries 1977-2002

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Thank you to Little, Brown and Company for providing me with an advance copy of David Sedaris’ latest book, Theft by Finding: Diaries 1977-2002, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– Humorist David Sedaris shares his diary entries from the years 1977-2002.

LIKE– I’m a huge Sedaris fan and I was thrilled to be granted an ARC of Theft by Finding. I’ve seen Sedaris speak several times and at each show, he reads a handful of entries from his diary. Often, they are absolutely hilarious, especially his wry observations of fellow humans, including their conversations that he eavesdrops. I couldn’t help but hear Sedaris’ voice as I was reading Theft by Finding. If an audio version with Sedaris narrating becomes available, I highly recommend it. His tone is half of what makes the entries so funny.

Sedaris explains that the title is from a British law called “Theft by Finding,” in which a person can be punished if they find something valuable and do not turn it in. For example, you’re unlikely to get punished for keeping a pound, but if you find a wallet with a wad of cash and don’t hand it over, you’re guilty. Many of Sedaris’ diary entries involve snippets of conversation and characters that he “finds” by observing strangers. The title couldn’t be more perfect.

Artists will find hope in Sedaris’ career journey. At the start of the diary entries, in 1977, Sedaris is twenty-one. The early entries show Sedaris struggling to figure a career path and his attending art school. He works odd jobs, many involving manual labor, and like a lot of twenty-somethings, lack of money is a major issue. Even when Sedaris sells his first two books ( he earns a two book deal), he still doesn’t earn enough to completely quit his day jobs. As someone who is a late-bloomer with regard to career goals, I took heart in Sedaris’ story, especially that earning a solid living from writing didn’t happen until he was middle-age. Sedaris is a brilliant writer and his success certainly didn’t happen overnight. I’d also argue that some of his best stories come directly from that delayed success. If Sedaris had success young, he’d never have had to take a job as a Macy’s Elf and Santaland Diaries would exist. I don’t want to imagine a world without Santaland Diaries!

I was surprised by the tremendous amount of time that Sedaris has spent at IHOP!

DISLIKE– At the start of the diaries, Sedaris mentions that he envisions Theft by Finding, to be a coffee table type of book, something you’d pick up now and then, rather than read straight through. Since I had a review copy, I read it straight through. Sedaris has the right idea with his advice ( imagine, an author knowing what’s best for their own book!), reading it cover-to-cover in two days, was overwhelming. I found the more recent entries to be far more insightful and entertaining than the earlier ones, likely due to maturity and Sedaris becoming a stronger writer. It also may be that his later entries were written when he was around my current age, so I found them more relatable.

RECOMMEND– Yes. If you’re a Sedaris’ fan, Theft by Finding, is a must-read. If you’re not familiar with Sedaris, don’t make this your first pick. I’d recommend starting with Me Talk Pretty One Day or Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim. I’m hoping that Sedaris will release a companion book with his Diary entries 2002-present.