Give Me Your Hand

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Thank you to Little, Brown and Company for providing me with a copy of Megan Abbott’s novel, Give Me Your Hand, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT- In high school, Kit and Diane were close-friends, primarily because they were both driven and competitive, both at the top of their class and interested in science. This is where the similarities end. Kit is from a single-mother household, where finances are tight. Diane has divorced, yet wealthy parents and lacks for nothing. Kit is somewhat scruffy and Diane is refined. Kit has social skills and the ability to easily make friends, where Diana is an ice-queen, only friends with Kit.

The girls maintain a friendship primarily based on intense study sessions, until one evening when Diane reveals a shocking secret. Kit is undone by Diane’s revelation and since it is close to graduation, she simply stops spending time with Diane, knowing that after high school, the their lives will head in different directions.

A decade later, Kit is working in a laboratory under the prestigious Dr. Severin, a female scientist who is awaiting funding for her groundbreaking study on PMDD. As they receive word that the study is funded, Dr. Severin surprises the staff by announcing that she will only be continuing with two people, Kit and a new hire, Diane. Kit’s world is rocked by the reappearance of Diane. Will Diane’s secret continue to haunt Kit?

LIKE– I’m a fan of Abbott’s writing and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to review Give Me Your Hand. One of Abbott’s greatest strengths is in creating vivid characters with intense emotional lives. She lays them bare and exposes all of their greatest weaknesses, the types of shortcomings and mortifying thoughts that most people would never admit about themselves. I always cringe when I encounter her characters, but I cringe because those moments ring true. Her characters can be petty and they don’t always make good choices. They act like real people and are compelling.

Along with this, she does such a great job at writing teenage characters. Give Me Your Hand flashes back to Kit and Diane in high school. In a particular cringe-worthy moment Kit reveals a sexual experience she had while being driven home after a babysitting job. The moment she describes is incredibly uncomfortable, but the reason that she is telling the story is worse. She is telling it while on a school trip and in a desperate attempt to fit in with the other girls, she decides to reveal this secret, thinking that it will help her image. As an adult reading this and having the hindsight of age, I want to shake her (and give her a hug), but also as an adult, I can remember those moments at that age. It’s awful. Abbott’s writing is so skillful that it made me feel both a sense of nostalgia and anxiety.

I can’t remember reading many, if any, novels set in a lab, let alone those with strong female lead characters. Go women, go science! Abbott gets bonus points for this.

The early parts of the novel have some great suspense and mystery building. I was eagerly turning the page and curious as to how everything would unfold. Diane’s secret is teased out for a long time too. I kept turning the page, Abbott had my attention.

DISLIKE– Okay, truthfully, I was disappointed in the last third of the story. I was hyped up and along for the ride, but the twists at the end fell flat. I didn’t have a good pay-off.

RECOMMEND– Maybe. I definitely recommend reading Abbott, but Give Me Your Hand wasn’t her best book.

The Only Girl in the World

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Thank you to Little, Brown and Company for providing me with a copy of Maude Julien’s memoir, The Only Girl in the World, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT – Maude Julien recounts her traumatic childhood, being raised in France by parents with a bizarre belief system that causes them to raise their daughter with extreme deprivation and cruelty.

LIKEThe Only Girl in the World is intense and impossible to put down. Julien’s parents have a belief that their daughter must be raised with strict rules and odd punishments, to make her tough and a survivalist. Her parents regulate every aspect of her life, including the precise time she wakes up, how many times she chews her food, and the exact spot she is allowed to sit on a chair.  As soon as she can talk, she is given intense lessons in a variety of subjects, with the expectation that she should naturally be able to understand subjects that are taught to much older children and adults. The ability to play musical instruments is prized and she must learn several instruments, sometimes spending up to ten hours a day studying. On top of her education, she is given manual labor tasks, working along side laborers in the gated house where she lives, a house that she doesn’t leave for years at a time.

As if this wasn’t mad enough, Julien is given other challenges, such as being woken up in the middle of the night and forced to sit still in a pitch-black basement with rats. Her father forces her watch the monthly slaughtering of animals on their property and when she accidentally touches an electrified fence and flinches, he forces her to hold the fence on a regular basis to toughen up.

Julien’s mother plays an interesting role in this whole situation. When Julien’s mother was a child, her parents were poor and Julien’s father offered to buy her. He raised her and groomed her to be his wife, specifically to carry a child that she would then educate. Julien’s mother is complex. She is often just as tortured as her daughter, at the receiving end of her husband’s crazy ideas and anger. However, she is also envious of her daughter and willfully participates in the punishments. In the end, Julien shows forgiveness towards her mother, towards the acceptance that her mother was raised as part of this ideology and felt trapped.

Speaking of Ideology, Julien’s father spouts off confusing beliefs that involve the illuminati, Nazis, and various philosophers. As a reader, it’s clear that he is not in his right mind, as his ideas are not only muddled, but contradictory. Seeing it through the lens of Julien’s childhood, it’s easy to see how these ideas, coupled with her larger than life father, kept her in fear. It’s exciting to see her realize the truth and begin to rebel as a teen.

The most touching parts of her memoir involve Julien’s relationship with her pets. This was tricky to navigate, as her parents showed cruelty to the animals as well and Julien had to hide much of her affection, so that the animals wouldn’t be further punished or used as a way to hurt her. The animals and Julien’s love for books and writing (activities she also must hide) are what keeps her alive.

DISLIKE– Nothing. The Only Girl in the World is often upsetting and it’s emotionally difficult to read, but it’s also an incredible survival story.

RECOMMEND– Yes! Julien has had a difficult, but fascinating childhood. You will be in disbelief at some of the trauma that she had to endure and you’ll admire her perseverance. The Only Girl in the World is a page-turner and must-read memoir.

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.

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.

The Dinner Party and Other Stories

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Thank You to Little, Brown and Company for providing me with an advanced copy of Joshua Ferris’ The Dinner Party and Other Stories, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOTThe Dinner Party and Other Stories, is the first short story collection from award-winning novelist, Joshua Ferris.

LIKE– I can’t think of another author who writes stories that leave me feeling riddled with anxiety. I say this in the best possible sense, as Ferris leaves me feeling rattled and affected: His stories move me. I often pause to admire his creative descriptions or phrasing, and the way he writes short, sharp sentences that punch. He’s just so darn talented!

This is a fabulous collection, but I want to comment on a few of my favorite stories.

The Dinner Party – Everyone experiences friendship fall-out, but where the blame lies, is usually subjective. Amy and her husband have invited Amy’s long time friend and her husband over for dinner, but they never show. As they wait, Amy and her husband ( unnamed), make catty comments about their “friends” and bitch about them, often being quite cruel. Eventually as the night grows late and their phone calls go unanswered, their grumpiness turns to worry. Amy’s husband drives over to their friend’s house, only to discover that their friends, have thrown their own party on the same night. Rather than scuttle away, the husband decides to enter the party and be confrontational, especially when he finds other mutual friends at the party. The Dinner Party is often hilarious, but also holds a mirror up to our human tendency to gossip and complain about others, even those we consider to be friends.

The Valetudinarian – This story is hilarious and unpredictable, following a grumpy senior widower, Arty, as he experiences a birthday surprise. The characters really pop, they’re quirky, fitting with the Florida setting. Arty is a bit of a mess and desperate for attention, even if he has to get it through negative behavior. I couldn’t help but both like him and shake my head at his antics. This story was so unexpected and funny.

The Pilot – This one made my stomach knot and gave me anxiety. Leonard is a budding screenwriter and he has been invited to a Hollywood wrap party with highly influential people. This could lead to connections and his big break, but Leonard can’t seem to shake his worries. He’s paranoid that he wasn’t meant to be invited in the first place, he stresses over what to wear, he worries over the other people invited, et…he just can’t seem to relax. This level of tension is continued through the entire story and it’s infectious. The worst of it, is having lived in Los Angeles and been around industry friends, Leonard is a character that I know well.

A Fair Price – Jack needs help moving his stuff out of a self-storage unit and he hires Mike, a middle-aged man who has been recommended by Jack’s gardener. The two men couldn’t be any more different. Mike is quiet, blue-collar, and rough around the edges. Jack is white-collar and concerned about manners. Right off the bat, Jack feels that Mike hates him. To make matters worse, Mike reminds him of Jack’s abusive step-father. As the morning progresses, Jack magnifies every perceived slight and soon, his anger towards Mike grows out of control. I loved the pacing in this story, the building of a sense of danger. Jack’s internal dialogue is both funny and unhinged.

DISLIKE– Nothing. The collection is very strong, although there were a few stories that were less memorable than the ones mentioned above.

RECOMMEND– Yes! If you’re a short story fan, The Dinner Party and Other Stories is a fine collection, and if you are unfamiliar with Ferris, I’d like to direct you to any of his novels. He’s a gifted storyteller and a must-read author.

Startup

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Thank you to Little, Brown and Company for providing me with an advanced copy of Doree Shafrir’s novel, Startup, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– TakeOff, a New York based tech company, is poised to be the next big thing. Its founder, Mack, is externally confident and cocky, but he has secrets. Mack is desperate for funding, his company is on the brink of failure, and Isabel, a beautiful employee that he has casually slept with, has a new boyfriend. She is no longer interest in Mack. In a moment of desperation, Mack sends Isabel compromising pictures of himself, an action which creates gossip and jeopardizes his fragile startup.

Downstairs, in the same building as Takeoff, is a newsroom, filled with desperate tech reporters, who depend on social media traffic to keep their jobs. Katya is a young journalist, who inadvertently lands a lead on the problems occurring at Takeoff. Her lead involves, Sabrina, who happens to both work at Takeoff, and who is the wife of Katya’s boss, Dan. Dan and Sabrina are in their mid-thirties, struggling with both their marriage and keeping afloat working in a younger persons industry. Dan is hiding a secret crush that he has on Katya. Sabrina is hiding a massive debt that she has incurred from shopping.

How long can these characters keep up their lies, before the lives implode?

LIKEStartup is a fun read. I have to admit that it also made me anxious. One of the major themes is the fear of missing out. For example, early in the novel, we see the characters struggling to keep up with their social media accounts, both with regard to adding personal content and staying current with others. This is even more extreme, when you realize that Katya’s job depends on things like Twitter: it’s not just personal, but it’s her career.

We are introduced to both Mack and Katya, as they attend an early morning rave in Manhattan. The rave is designed to get the day started and rather than alcohol, the dancing/music is accompanied by juice drinks. Naturally, the characters have to instagram that they were at the rave, because why even go, if you don’t share what you’ve done? If you don’t document it, it doesn’t matter. Shafrir nails her assessment of  the current state of our society and while my social media behavior is nowhere near as extreme as her characters, I’ve felt that anxiety of keeping up. It’s a hamster wheel.

Also relatable, is the dynamic between Dan/ Sabrina vs their much younger co-workers. Dan and Sabrina are in their late 30’s, yet next to their coworkers, they feel somewhat irrelevant or washed-up. They are the only characters with children, something their coworkers view as an aspiration for the distant future, which truthfully is only ten-fifteen years away. It’s this dynamic that sets a rather desperate tone for both Sabrina and Dan. Dan looks to recapture his youth by going after Katya and Sabrina tries to compensate by buying trendy clothes. Neither of these are the answer of course, but they keep digging themselves into deeper holes. I don’t ever feel that their coworkers are actively trying to make them feel less-than, more that it’s a self-imposed category.

Startup is funny, timely, and a cautionary tale. It has a wonderful women-power, feminist twist. Part of what drew me to her book is Shafrir’s background as journalist and former writer at Buzzfeed. Shafrir’s writing sparkles and she has created memorable characters.

DISLIKE– This is minor, but I wish that the Shafrir had gotten into the heads of the male characters more, given them more depth. By the end of the novel they came across as egotistical, pigs and for a story with so many layers, I felt she could have gone deeper here.

RECOMMEND– Yes. My husband isn’t much of a reader, but for the tech aspect and themes, I was even recommending Startup to him. Shafrir has a strong voice and she has a tight grasp of current topics. With the current technology and associated lingo, I think this novel will date very quickly, but for now, it’s a trendy, on-point read. It will make you think twice about updating your social media accounts. Of course, I’m headed off to tell put out a blast that I read Startup.

The Futures

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Thank You to Little Brown and Company for providing me with an advanced copy of Anna Pitoniak’s novel, The Futures, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– Set during the financial crash of 2008, Anna Pitoniak’s novel, The Futures, follows the lives of recent Yale graduates, Julia and Evan, as they move to New York City, and begin their careers. Evan is a sweet and honest man from a small town in Canada. After attending Yale University on a ice hockey scholarship, he is aggressively pursued, and offered a “too good to be true” job at a hedge fund. Although the situation seems far outside of his skill set, he gets swept away by the high income and perks, also seeing the job as a way of staying in the United States and being with Julia. Julia, comes from a wealthy family, who supports her as she flounders on her way to figuring out a post-university career. Can Julia and Evan’s relationship survive outside of the protected walls of an Ivy League University? How will the financial crash shape their futures, both as individuals and as a couple?

LIKEThe Futures is timely, with the repercussions of the financial crash still affecting us today, and it was certainly an event that shaped the futures of those who graduated from college around 2008. Setting the book during this time added another level to the story, it made me wonder how much the timing factored into Julia and Evan’s struggles? Would they really have fared better if they had been born five or ten years earlier? Are their problems unique to 2008-ish, or are their problems the same ones that many new college graduates face, regardless the decade? I suspect it’s more the latter. I’m in my late thirties, and although I can’t say I escaped 2008 unscathed, I certainly wasn’t affected in the same way as Julia and Evan’s generation, however I found their general problems to be completely relatable. This idea of generation vs. stage of life, kept me engaged in the story.

Pitoniak’s framing of The Futures, reminded me of Jason Robert Brown’s musical, The Last Five Years. The Futures doesn’t go backwards/forwards in time like, The Last Five Years ( which is brilliant), but it does have a similarity with the way we see the two perspectives of Julia and Evan, as equal protagonists. Also similar, is how we see the same situation, like what happened at a party, from both perspectives in alternating chapters. Neither Evan or Julia are unreliable narrators, however as a reader, it’s easy to jump on the side of the point of view that you read first. I liked how Pitoniak shook that up, allowing the reader to see the same situation from both sides. Most similar to, The Last Five Years, was the sad and reflective tone, as we see a relationship between two people with good intentions, head on a collision course.

DISLIKE – I felt an emotional distance in many of the scenes, more like I was being told how the characters felt, rather than experiencing their emotions. All of the elements of the story added up; solid protagonists, clear conflict, engaging plot, et…Pitoniak’s writing was also very strong, except for emotions, it was like a wall was up and I wasn’t getting a full experience.

RECOMMEND– Maybe. I’m not sure that I would recommend The Futures to many of my friends, however, I’d recommend it to their younger sisters, or to someone in their late teens/early twenties. I think it would be of interest to anyone who graduated college around the time of the financial crash. In general, I felt that The Futures was a story that skewed to a younger audience.