Waisted

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Thank you to Atria Books for providing me with a copy of Randy Susan Meyers’ novel. Waisted, in exchange for an honest review.

Weight gain has been a life-long struggle for Alice. However, she met her husband, Clancy, when she was going through an tough time in her life, which resulted in weight loss. Now, over the years, which included giving birth, the pounds have piled back on and Clancy feels that his wife is not the woman that he married. Through this strain in their relationship, Alice runs off to participate in a weight loss reality show called “Waisted.” She does not tell Clancy until she has left for the show, because Clancy is in the documentary film industry and “Waisted” is being produced by his biggest rival.

During the filming of “Waisted,” Alice becomes fast-friends with her roommate and fellow contestant, Daphne. Daphne has a supportive husband, but she has a negative body image from her overbearing mother. Daphne has even tried bulimia to keep the pounds off.

From the first day of filming it is clear that “Waisted” is not the show that was originally pitched to the contestants. Rather than a wellness retreat, “Waisted” is more of a hardcore bootcamp. The women are stripped of their possessions, including phone access, and are made to wear unflattering jumpsuits. They are belittled, starved, and exercised to exhaustion. When they are given amphetamines to push their weight loss goals to unsafe levels, the women seek to find out the truth about the production and what they discover is shocking.

Meyers tackles heavy themes of self-love, body acceptance, and family dynamics. I found her overall message to be positive and uplifting. I especially like a scene in the novel where Daphne, a make-up artist by trade, helps an disadvantaged teenager build her self-confidence, by giving her skin care and make-up tips to cover extreme acne. I liked how it showed that it is okay to both love yourself and acceptable to use fashion or make-up: the two don’t have to be separate. Earlier in the story, Daphne hides behind her make-up, using her skills to create a distraction from her body, highlighting features like her beautiful eyes. However, as soon as Daphne lets go worrying about her body, her make-up becomes part of her self-expression, rather than a shield.

Alice and Daphne are two strong, female protagonists and the story is structured to alternate between their lives at home and their time on “Waisted.” The weight issues aside, I think many women will find aspects of these character’s lives and emotions to be relatable. I was rooting for these characters to succeed, especially Alice dealing with her emotionally abusive husband. I found Daphne’s desperation, including the use of pills and bulimia, to be heartbreaking.

Unfortunately, the plot for Waisted is very messy. An exciting story opportunity was missed with the reality show aspect. “Waisted” is quite horrific and we learn that the aim of the show is to expose the extremes that women will go to in the name of weight loss. Its purpose is to be shocking and not to actually help these women meet their goals. The concept of this could have made a potentially intriguing story, especially holding a mirror to the way our society gobbles up these types of shows. I have no doubt that if a real version of “Waisted” aired on American television, it would be both a sensation and crucified. People would not admit to enjoying it, but they would secretly watch it and the ratings would be high. We live in a time where it is both still socially acceptable to shame fat people and one where we promote the idea of having a positive body image. I think things will shift towards being more body positive, but we are not there quite yet. Meyer had a real opportunity to play with the larger societal impact of a show like “Waisted” and that would have been intriguing.

Unfortunately, the women’s participation in “Waisted” fizzles. They leave the show and make efforts to expose the producers, but there is not a truly satisfying conclusion to this issue. I was let-down. I felt like the story was heading in the direction of making a real statement against the reality television production, but the plot meandered and focused more on the individual relationships that the main characters have with their families. This was important too of course, especially in the area of character development and growth, but it was far less interesting than the fallout from “Waisted.”

Waisted is strong in character development, but weak in plot. Often, I can overlook weak plots if the characters are great, but in this case, I can’t overlook the missed opportunities in the storyline. Although Waisted tackles important and sensitive topics, it only skims the surface and goes for cliches. For this reason, I can’t recommend it.

The Royal Secret

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Thank you to Atria Books for providing me with a copy of Lucinda Riley’s novel, The Royal Secret, in exchange for an honest review.

Reporter Joanna Haslam is tired of being assigned puff-pieces, but her life changes when she is assigned to cover the funeral of veteran actor, Sir James Harrison. At the funeral, she meets a mysterious elderly woman, that sends Joanna on the path to uncovering a decades old scandal involving England’s royal family. As Joanna rushes to solve the mystery, she realizes that there are people willing to kill to keep their secrets hidden.

Riley’s The Royal Secret was actually written twenty years ago ( although she has made updates to this current version) and it was deemed so scandalous, that many booksellers in the UK would not carry it or promote it. This was the info that I received that enticed me to sign up for an Ark of The Royal Secret. It set my expectations high and I have to admit that The Royal Secret did not meet those expectations. I’m not quite sure why it was so shocking or scandalous. I am in my early forties, so I can easily remember back a few decades and it’s hard to imagine that anything in this story would have been reason for refusing to sell the book. That said, I live in the United States, not England, so I am viewing the story through a different cultural lens. Also, Riley’s book was originally published shortly after the death of Lady Diana, so perhaps that may have created a sensitivity regarding anything written about the royal family, fictional or otherwise. Riley’s royal family is completely fictional and she does not use the names of any actual monarchs. If there is any similarities between actual monarchs and her characters, I did not notice.

The Royal Secret is suspenseful from start to finish. It is filled with twists and turns, many of which I could not have anticipated. If anything, it was a bit much with all of the plot twists, especially in the last quarter of the story. The pacing really ramps up to a frenzy and I was overwhelmed with the speed of the information.

The characters are the best part of the story. I especially liked the romantic tension between Zoe Harrison, the granddaughter of Sir James Harrison, and her bodyguard, Simon. Zoe is in a relationship and Simon needs to maintain professionalism, yet there is a beautiful undercurrent of longing and passion between these two characters.

There is a second and equal love story thread between Joanna and Zoe’s brother, Marcus. This romance lacked the sweetness and passion of Zoe and Simon. I felt like Joanna and Marcus were a fling that carried on past its expiration date, yet as Joanna is our heroine, we readers should be engaged in her romantic plot line. I liked Joanna as a plucky reporter, however my primary emotional connection was with Zoe and Simon.

The story had too many coincidences to make it gel. For example, Joanna happens to be best friends with Simon, who happens to be placed on a top-secret assignment guarding Zoe. Through her investigation, Zoe develops a relationship with Marcus and is then introduced to Joanna, which is how she discovers that Simon is an agent; a big secret that she never knew about her best friend. Joanna and Marcus get intwined in this mystery in totally different ways, a mystery that would never have come to light if Joanna hadn’t happened to be sitting next to the elderly woman at the funeral. To push this further, this elderly woman, knowing that she is ill, decides to tell Joanna her biggest secret, but in a way that is still shrouded in mystery, putting Joanna in both professional and mortal jeopardy. Without giving away any major plot twists, The Royal Secret, is full of these chance encounters and people who happened to be in the right place, at the right time. (or the wrong place, at the wrong time) For a story that is built on imminent danger, several aspects of the story happened too conveniently.

I enjoyed the primary setting in the 1990’s and appreciated how the technology of the era was worked into the story. It would have played out very differently, if it had been set now. I also liked the way the story spanned several decades, playing with societal norms of different eras. Riley does a wonderful job of setting the scene and writing atmospheric descriptions.

Overall, The Royal Secret was not my cup of tea and I would not recommend it. This was my first time reading Riley and I would be inclined to seek out her other novels. I enjoyed her writing, but not the general plot of this particular story.

Things My Son Needs to Know About the World

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Thank you to Atria Books for providing me with a copy of Fredrik Backman’s memoir, Things My Son Needs to Know About the World, in exchange for an honest review.

I’m a huge fan of Fredrik Backman and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to review his latest book. Things My Son Needs to Know About the World, is Backman’s first memoir, a departure from the novels for which he has garnered world-wide acclaim. He last few novels (Us Against You and Bear Town) were exceedingly bleak and dark. I loved them, but they left me with a heavy feeling. Generally, the tone of Things My Son Needs to Know About the World, is humorous and light-hearted. Backman has a hilarious style of self-deprecating humor and I often found myself giggling while reading.

The memoir comprised of short chapters, some less than a page, all written within the frame work of advice that Backman wishes to impart to his young son. There is one sweet chapter where he speak directly to his wife, whom he clearly adores and references throughout his book.

Although mostly humorous, there is a running current of Backman’s serious fears and dreams for his son. For example, in one chapter he mentions the importance of finding a sports team. It’s not that he cares that his son plays or watches sports, but Backman sees the way that sports has created bonds in his own life. He wants his child to be able to bond with friends and he sees sports as an easy entry point, but he also fears that his son might develop interests in which he does not know how to relate. He wants his son to know that he will be a supportive father, no matter what, but that he also fears that they won’t have things to bond over. The bonding is vital.

Backman writes about a time when he was shot during a robbery in a convenience store and how just a matter of inches could have left him dead or paralyzed. He speaks to the importance of those inches in everything in life, how something so small can change everything. This chapter was exceptionally poignant and along with the rest of the memoir, made me understand more of why Backman chooses certain subjects for his fiction works.

My step-children are Swedish and live with their mom in Stockholm, so I was interested in the tidbits on parenting in Sweden. I probably shouldn’t be surprised, but most of Backman’s concerns and dealings with other parents, are similar to sentiments that are echoed by my parent friends in the United States.

There is a hilarious chapter on navigating Ikea, which also rings true for the Ikea shopping experience in the United States. Follow those arrows!

Whether writing fiction or non-fiction, Backman is a fabulous writer and someone whom I am always thrilled when he publishes a new work. I highly recommend all of Backman’s books!

Watching You

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Thank you to Atria Books for providing me with a copy of Lisa Jewell’s latest novel, Watching You, in exchange for an honest review.

A brutal murder has taken place in one of the beautiful Victorian home in the affluent Melville Heights neighborhood in Bristol, England. In acclaimed novelist Lisa Jewell’s latest crime novel, Watching You, the reader quickly realizes that there are as many suspects, as there are potential victims and we will not know the truth of the situation until the final moments of the story.

I’ve read several of Jewell’s previous novels and she is simply a master at writing crime fiction. This is not a genre that I often read, yet I am thrilled every time she publishes a new book, because I know that I will love it. Watching You is no exception. Jewell knows exactly how to pace her novels to keep readers engaged. She always has a twist that is unexpected, yet makes perfect sense when you rethink through the hints that she has been cleverly dropping throughout the entire novel. At the very start of Watching You, we are told that a murder has taken place and we know that one of the characters is being questioned as a suspect, yet we do not know the murder victim until the last chapters of the novel. It’s brilliant.

More than a crime novel, Watching You is a solid drama. Jewell’s characters are having affairs, teenagers navigating first love, and families in crisis. The drama is as equally important as the crime element. I feel that this is a strong reason for why I gravitate towards Jewell’s novels. She has rich, well-rounded characters who are facing difficult situations. The crime element ups the stakes and intensifies their troubles, but it is not the root or only cause of tension in the story. Jewell’s characters are complex and troubled, even if murder wasn’t on their street.

Watching You is creepy. It has themes of power and dominance, especially through the character of Tom Fitzwilliam, a school headmaster in his early 50’s. Tom has a history of showing attention to young women. He’s charismatic and someone that women, young and old, tend to crush on. Throughout the entire story, we never quite know if Tom is a villain or victim. Is he a predator or misunderstood? The character of Tom reminded me of one of my college professors, who lost his career for predatory behavior. I never had an inappropriate situation with him, but I did get swept up by his charisma and when he was very publicly fired, it was both a shock and not a shock at all. I kept imagining this professor, every time Tom was on the page.

Culpability is a theme throughout Watching You. The recently married Joey Mullens, Tom’s neighbor, is enchanted by Tom and has an affair with him. She knows that she bears blame for this decision, yet she can’t help but focus on Tom’s power over her, as if she is possessed. Another character is confronted with her extreme bullying behavior as a teenager. Many decades have passed, but she never took responsibility and now her past has come back to haunt her. As the title implies, we are all being watched and cannot hide from our sins.

Watching You is a page turner and I was enthralled until the last word. I think this might just be my favorite Jewell novel yet.

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Thank you to Atria Booksfor providing me with a copy of Fredrik Backman’s latest novel, Us Against You, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– Fredrik Backman returns to his hockey obsessed Swedish town in Us Against You, the sequel to his 2017 novel, Beartown. Beartown is still experiencing the fallout of a scandal that pitted neighbor against neighbor: the rape of Maya, the daughter of the general manager of the Beartown Hockey Club, who accused the star player, Kevin, of attacking her. The town had divided loyalties, which only aided their biggest rival, the town of Hed, when some of the Beartown players defected to the enemy.

Months have passed and it is summer. Kevin’s family decided that it was best to leave town and although Maya will not longer have to see her rapist, she still feels hatred from those who supported him. Her father, Peter, is on the brink of having his hockey club shut down and is struggling to find a way to keep it going. He is approached by a business man with a proposition, yet the solution may come at the expense of the town residents.

LIKE– I love Fredrik Backman’s novels. He creates characters that have a way of invading your soul; characters that are not only memorable, but ones who become part of your world. I was very eager to go back to Beartown. I have to qualify this though, Beartown is not a happy place. It’s an economically depressed town in rural Sweden. Terrible and cruel things happen in Beartown. It is not a place that you’d want to visit on a vacation to Sweden! The characters are all rough around the edges and have a heavy distrust towards outsiders. They would not welcome you to Beartown. That said, they are also people who love fiercely and are protective towards their own. Beartown has a strong sense of community that is enviable. These are people who not only know their place in the world, but actively own it and are proud of it.

Us Against You is even better than Beartown. I think it has to do with the story. Beartownis more straight-forward, where asUs Against Youis all about the fall-out from the rape and people having to face how they initially reacted. It’s complicated. People do not like to be confronted with their mistakes. Change is hard, change is complicated. Us Against Youhas a large cast of characters and each is written with complexity.

I feel that Backman’s story is timely with regards to the current policy climate, both in America and around the world. It’s not a political story per-se , but it is a story about human emotions and about working with different view points or more than that, the idea that people value things at different levels. It seems simple that people would agree that Kevin should be punished for raping Maya, but it’s not simple. Beyond the idea that some people think Maya has lied, some characters feel that things like having a winning hockey team are more important than Maya’s pain. It’s not really the hockey though. For example, some of the parents of other kids on the team, kids that may not be as talented as Kevin, but who have worked hard for many years, will lose their opportunity to be on a winning team if Kevin isn’t allowed to play. They don’t see it as simple as a Kevin/Maya issue, now that their child is affected. Right or wrong, their value is on their own child, over Maya or Kevin. As in real life, Backman’s characters are complicated because they value different things at different levels, which can lead to not only misunderstandings, but an “Us Against You” attitude. Communication is impossible when people build up their walls.

I’ve been to a hockey game, but I can’t claim to know much about the sport. Us Against Youis a story about the people of the town, but it also has a lot about the game of hockey. It’s a testament to Backman’s writing skills that he can keep a non-hockey fan engaged in the parts of the story that involved the hockey games and practice. I felt energy in his writing that made me excited about the sport.

DISLIKE– My only negative is occasional bouts of sluggish pacing.

RECOMMEND– Yes! If you’ve not already read Beartown, read it first. Us Against Youis a must read for Beartownand Backman fans!

Then She Was Gone

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Thank you to Atria Books for providing me with a copy of Lisa Jewell’s novel, Then She Was Gone, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT-Ellie Mack is a beautiful, smart, popular teenager, who seems to have everything going for her. One day, on her way to the library, she disappears and her case goes cold. A decade later. Ellie’s mother, Laurel, begins to date a man named Floyd, whose daughter, Poppy, bears a striking resemblance to Ellie. Laurel begins to revisit her daughter’s disappearance and discovers new facts of the case. Can Laurel finally find out what happened to daughter? Does Poppy hold the key?

LIKE-I’ve read several of Lisa Jewell’s other novels and I was very excited to be granted a copy of Then She Was Gone. Jewell is masterful at crafting great suspense and mysteries. However, where she really shines is with her characters. She has a gift at tapping into the human psyche and creating relatable, multi-deminisional characters.

Characters are what shine in Then She Was Gone. I was most drawn to Laurel, the grieving mother who not only lost her daughter, but also saw her marriage collapse under the weight of a missing child. Laurel is just getting her life back together when she meets Floyd and is shoved back down the rabbit hole of her daughter’s case. Her anxiety and grief is palpable.

We do not learn Ellie’s fate until late in the story, but she is the narrator in some of the flashback chapters. Of course as a reader, our bond with Ellie is not going to be strong, like her mother’s, however these chapters do serve to give us a clearer picture of Ellie and give us a chance to connect with her. Jewell is equally great at writing adults and children, letting us see Ellie’s frame of mind and motivations.

Then She Was Goneheads to some very dark places and is a story that made me anxious. I saw a blurb comparing it to Gone Girl, which was a little misleading. When I think of comparisons to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, I think that the story must have an unreliable narrator. Then She Was Gonehas narrators under duress, but they are not unreliable. I read another that compared it to Alice Sebold’s novel, The Lovely Bones,which is a much better comparison with regard to both theme and tone.

DISLIKE– I anticipated the twist early on and kept hoping that it would not be what I was expecting. It’s not that the story wasn’t intriguing, but it’s always a little bit of a let down when you manage to figure out the twist early on. I did not anticipate the creepy, disturbing aspects of the twist. It gave me chills.

RECOMMEND– Yes! Jewell is such a marvelous writer that I have to recommend all of her novels, including Then She Was Gone.

Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies

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Thank you to Atria Books for providing me with an advance copy of Michael Ausiello’s memoir, Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– In his memoir, Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies, entertainment journalist Michael Ausiello writes about his thirteen-year relationship with his husband Kit Cowan and Cowan’s death after an eleven-month battle with a rare form of cancer.

LIKE– I finished Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies two nights ago and I’m still feeling shattered. I feel like I might cry while writing this review. I’ve been a fan of Ausiello’s entertainment writing for many years, but I did not know anything about his personal life. Ausiello has written a true love letter to Kit, who died painfully and tragically in his early forties. I related deeply to Ausiello’s emotions as a caregiver and his fears for Kit. I think this is what hit me the hardest. I still feel emotional over my own role as a caregiver for family members who have since passed.

The best aspect of Ausiello’s memoir is his complete openness to share sensitive topics. He clearly loves and adores Kit, but he also doesn’t refrain from sharing Kit’s infidelity or the problems that they faced in their relationship. It’s raw and honest. Ausiello shares intimate moments that made me feel like I knew both him and Kit personally. What’s more, I really liked both of them. Ausiello has a warm way of bringing the reader into his life; a talent that not all memoirist have and that really makes his story a stand-out. This aspect of his writing is probably what left me feeling utterly crushed in the last quarter of the book, which involved Kit’s decline and death.

I love the title; that Kit is the hero in Ausiello’s life. How perfect and touching.

DISLIKE– Not a single thing.

RECOMMEND– YES!!! Do you like memoirs? Do you like love stories? Are you prepared for an emotional rollercoaster? Ausiello has poured his heart out on paper and it’s a very worthy read. Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies is one of the best memoirs that I’ve ever read. It’s just beautiful.

Bear Town

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Thank You to Atria Books for providing me with an advanced copy of Fredrik Backman’s novel, Bear Town, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– In the Swedish countryside, deep in the forest, exists a town that’s just barely managing to survive. Beartown has been economically depressed for decades and its population keeps dropping. Ice hockey is the only thing that gives the town hope.

Beartown finally has a great team and if they can win the finals, the town has hope that money will pour back into their community. The weight of this win, rests of the talents of high school students, boys that have been training their whole lives for this opportunity. It’s not as simple as winning a game. There are deep divisions between the coaches, the general manager of the hockey club, and the sponsors. These issues are pushed to the forefront when a star player is accused of raping the daughter of the general manager. What will happen when the loyalties and traditions of a small, fragile town are put to the test?

LIKE– I read Backman’s, A Man Called Ove, a few years ago, and since then, Backman has become one of my favorite contemporary writers. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to read his latest novel, Bear Town.

Admittedly, I don’t know much or care much about ice hockey, but that is not a prerequisite to reading Bear Town. Although the game and game terminology is used, Backman explains it in terms that even someone unfamiliar with the sport, can understand. The biggest thing to know is that the entire town is obsessed with the sport, basically seeing it as a way to pull their town out of poverty. The parents of the players, sacrifice everything to make sure that their kid has every opportunity. It’s this sacrifice that makes the adults act irrationally.

The boys, (there is no female hockey team in Beartown) who are the best players, are essentially elevated to a god-like status and are able to get away with bad behavior. Although the story is set in Sweden, the same attitude towards sports and talented players exists here in America and will feel familiar.

The best part of Bear Town is the intensity and suspense. The first line of the novel tells us that one person has a gun to the forehead of another person, but we do not know how that scene will play out until the end of the novel. Backman kept me guessing the whole way and that introduction of danger was enough to send a ripple through-out the entire novel. What’s interesting is there isn’t a huge amount of plot to the story, it primarily involved this major game, a celebration party, and the aftermath of the rape, yet the story never drops in suspense. Bear Town is character, not plot driven.

What works so well is Backman’s well-developed characters. Bear Town doesn’t have one main character, it has several, and by the end of the story, I felt that I understood each of them. What Backman has done, is he has made the entirety of the town the main character. The theme of being a team or part of a collective is key to the story. There is a huge sense of surprise with regard to how the characters act in response to the rape. I didn’t anticipate some of the reactions, yet they all made sense within the framework of each character. The ending is beautiful and hopeful. The result is a poignant, thought-provoking, and surprising novel: Backman’s storytelling at its best.

DISLIKE– Nothing. If you’re not familiar with Backman, go buy all of his novels, right now!

RECOMMEND– Yes!!! Bear Town is darker and heavier than Backman’s previous novels, but it’s brilliant. Brilliant and important.

 

I Found You

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Thank you to Atria Books for providing me with an advanced copy of Lisa Jewell’s novel, I Found You, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– Single mom, Alice Lake, notices a man sitting on the beach in front of her home. He stares off into the ocean, while the rain pours down on him, and he doesn’t move for hours. Finally, overcome by a sense of compassion and curiosity, Alice goes to check on him. The man has lost his memory and does not have identification. He only knows that somehow he has a link to this seaside village in the north of England. Alice takes him in and he convinces her to hold off on going to the police, to see if he can recover his memories; memories that seem to point to something sinister.

In a London suburb, Lily, a new bride, is worried when her husband does not return home from work. Lily has recently moved from the Ukraine and she has never met her husband’s family. Not only has she never met them, but she does not have their contact information. Could Lily’s husband be the man on the beach?

LIKE– Last year I read Jewell’s novel, The Girls in the Garden, and it was fabulous. I was thrilled when her latest novel, I Found You, showed up for request on NetGalley. It did not disappoint.

I Found You is filled with unexpected twists. I truly did not anticipate where the story was heading, making it a page-turner. I blazed through it in less than a day, unable to put it down. To this end, I’m not going to discuss any specific plot points or characters, as with this novel, more than most, I think the thrill is in the mystery. I don’t want to inadvertently spoil anything for a would-be reader.

In addition to a nail-bitting plot (and intense action sequences), Jewell has memorable characters and a vivid setting. What sticks with me the most is her atmospheric writing and foreboding settings. There is a mansion that is downright creepy. The strong sense of place, coupled with the excitement of the mystery, really grounded me in the story world. I read the last quarter of the novel on my Kindle in a dark room, and I was very relieved to have my husband in bed next to me. I had trouble getting to sleep last night!

DISLIKE– Nothing. After finishing I Found You, I looked up Jewell, and was thrilled to see that she has written many other books. I can’t wait to read through her works.

RECOMMEND– YES!!! I enthusiastically recommend both I Found You and The Girls in the Garden. I saw mention of comparisons to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, and Paula Hawkin’s The Girl on the Train : no slight to either book, I enjoyed them, but I enjoyed both of Jewell’s novels even more! She’s a masterful storyteller.