The End We Start From

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Thank you to Grove Atlantic for providing me with a copy of Megan Hunter’s novel, The End We Start From, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT – In the not-too-distance future, a major flood has destroyed London and the unnamed narrator must try to survive with her newborn baby.

LIKE- The End We Start From is a survival story at a break-neck pace. Although due to family visiting, I had to read it in small chunks, Hunter’s novella can easily be read in a single sitting. Due to the fast pacing and intense subject of the story, I would highly recommend setting aside a few uninterrupted hours and diving in.

I liked that Hunter left a lot of mystery, she does not spell things out. Although we know that there has been extreme flood, we don’t know more details. For example, we don’t know the range and extent of the disaster. This put me in the mindset of the narrator, as she struggles to survive with a lack of direct information. The larger scope of the disaster is really irrelevant to this particular story. The focus is on her survival, the immediate situation, and deals with the rumors and misinformation that she receives as she moves to different refugee camps. She must assess her best move on the fly, including dealing with dangers.

The End We Start From reminded me of The Walking Dead or Cormac McCarthy’s novel, The Road. The themes and general story line are not a new idea, however, The End We Start From remains compelling because of the narrator and the exploration of how humans react in extreme circumstances.

The ending was very interesting to me. It switches from a story of physical survival to one of emotional survival. Hunter ends the story at a precarious moment. The only thing that I was left feeling certain of, is that the narrator is a survivor and will continue to survive.

DISLIKE– I’m a bit uncertain as to whether only naming the characters by their first initial was a good move. As a reader, I sometimes found it to be confusing and distracting. I had to reread sections to remind myself of a character, which took me out of the story. From a storytelling standpoint, it creates a necessary barrier that the narrator must put up for her own survival. It also quickens the pacing.

RECOMMEND– Yes. The End We Start From is a fast-paced and emotional journey. It’s filled with danger and tension. I never quite knew where it was heading and I found the ending to be quite a surprise. I’d seek out future novels by Hunter.

Millard Salter’s Last Day

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Thank you to Gallery Books for providing me with a copy of Jacob M. Appel’s novel, Millard Salter’s Last Day, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT- Psychiatrist Millard Salter has decided to kill himself. The love of his life has recently died after an illness and he fears the idea of growing old with the possibility of having a disease or needing assistance. He feels that he has lived enough life and plans to hang himself, while things are still good. With this plan in mind, he spends his last couple of days tying up loose ends. He tries to wrap things up at work and visits with his ex-wife and adult children. He soon learns that leaving might not be as easy as he had anticipated.

LIKE- It took me time to get into the pacing and rhythm of Millard Salter’s Last Day, but as soon as I did (last third of the story,) I felt swept away. Appel has created a complicated protagonist in Salter and I felt the weight of his worries and sorrows. Through his characters, Appel makes a strong argument for the need to have assisted suicide and speaks to the trauma of watching a loved one battle through a terminal disease. Salter helps a loved on with assisted suicide, which is described in detail.

Although Salter is a lauded psychiatrist, his fears and depression create a situation where he justifies ending his life.  I suppose the argument could be made that people should have the freedom to live their lives ( or end their lives) as they see fit, at any stage, but I felt the overriding theme of Millard Salter’s Last Day is that Salter’s life should not end. His judgement is clouded. The worst of it, is none of the other doctor’s at the hospital where he works, even notice that something is wrong. They are too busy trying to get ahead in their careers and dealing with office politics. Salter’s family doesn’t notice either. It’s a sad and unfortunate situation all around, a commentary on how isolated people can feel and how blind we can all be to the suffering of others.

DISLIKEMillard Salter’s Last Day is pitched as a book similar to Frederik Backman’s novel, A Man Called Ove. They deal with similar themes; like Salter, Ove is hell-bent on killing himself and finds the leaving process to be more difficult than anticipated. However, that’s where the similarities end. Backman’s novel has humor and light to breakup the heavy theme. Ove undergoes a huge transformation, where as Salter stays the same. Salter’s weak story arc, my primary issue with the story.

I had compassion for Salter, but I found him to be a difficult character to stay with for an entire novel. I couldn’t read Millard Salter’s Last Day, without reading several other books at the same time. As such, it took me over a month to read, when it should have taken a day or two. As I mentioned previously, it didn’t grab me until the last third, the first two-thirds were sluggish.

RECOMMEND– Probably not. Millard Salter’s Last Day is heavy. Salter is a solid character, but he  doesn’t have a solid story.

 

The Tribulations of August Barton

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Thank you to author Jennifer LeBlanc for providing me with a copy of your novella, The Tribulations of August Barton, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– It’s difficult being a college freshman and it’s even more difficult if you’re August Barton. August is an anxious young man and his anxiety issues spike when things in his life spiral out of control. His parents are getting a divorce, he is completely uncool in the eyes of his dorm roommate, and his wild-child grandmother is causing problems in her nursing home. Can August handle all of these issues and learn to enjoy his first year at college?

LIKE– This story is nuts. It’s really outlandish and unexpected in the best possible way. August’s grandmother, Gertie is the polar opposite to August’s personality. Where he is shy and nervous, she embraces life and lives loud. She is not content to spend her remaining days in a nursing home, so she runs away, implicating August in her wild adventures. She brings along an old friend and fellow former prostitute, Tunes, and they work together to have a last hurrah, while making sure that August learns to live a little. They even join August at a college party, proving that age is no barrier to a good time or popularity.

The Tribulations of August Barton has a wonderful zest for life and a theme of seizing the day.

DISLIKE– Too short, way too short. The story felt crammed in, especially for the level of wackiness. I needed more time to understand and embrace the characters. The breakneck pace was too much for a novella and underserved the story.

RECOMMEND– Maybe. I loved the characters and the spirit of The Tribulations of August Barton, but I felt I was reading a solid draft, rather than a polished story.

Flat Broke with Two Goats

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Thank you to Sourcebooks for providing me with an advance copy of Jennifer McGaha’s memoir, Flat Broke with Two Goats, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT- Jennifer McGaha was living a comfortable, upper middle-class life in the suburbs, when her world fell apart. A combination of the 2008 financial crash and living beyond their means, created a hole that Jennifer and her husband, David, couldn’t seem to climb out of. David dropped a bombshell on Jennifer, when he revealed that they owed over a hundred thousand  in back taxes, and that their house was about to be repossessed. A small solution presented itself, by way of a bargain rental cabin deep in the Appalachian countryside. The cabin was in disrepair and lacked all of the comforts that they were used to having. It also boasted some roommates: venomous snakes, spiders, and other critters. Would Jennifer and David be able to embrace their new lifestyle as they slowly fixed their debt? Would their marriage survive?

LIKE- I liked McGaha’s frank discussion regarding her financial issues. She experiences a range of emotions, including a lack of trust towards her husband and a profound sense of loss. Although she never loses sight of the fact that she has come from a privileged background and at the end of the day, she still has a roof over her head and love from her family, she still undergoes a transition, where she has to mourn her old life and reshape herself.

Certainly, Flat Broke with Two Goats, made me think about my own finances and I took this to be a cautionary tale. Your life can easily change by any number of factors. On a much more minor level than McGaha’s experience, last year I moved to a different state and sold my childhood home, when my husband got a job transfer. I was depressed over it for about six months and I wish I had read McGaha’s memoir during that time, as it’s a great boost towards putting things in perspective. Life changes and you must roll with them.

Also, on the financial cautionary tale aspect, it was scary how long it took McGaha to be able to negotiate a repayment plan with the IRS. It’s not as if they weren’t trying to come up with a  solution, but as time passed, they had their wages garnished and had zero access to credit cards. They really had their hands tied, as they spent years in the process of trying to work out a repayment.

McGaha’s transition from a suburbia dweller to living in the country, is fascinating. She embraces her family’s pioneering, Appalachian roots. by growing crops and raising animals. She learns to raise chickens for eggs and goats for cheese. McGaha has a beautiful writing style and she really imparts the unique personalities of her farm animals to the reader. As an animal lover, it was heartbreaking to read about their animals getting ill and old, but she writes about learning to tend for farm animals with love and compassion.

DISLIKE– They is not much that I disliked about Flat Broke with Two Goats, but I did wonder about the title. There are far more than two goats in the story and it’s not like a particular two goats are more meaningful than the others. The chickens seem to play a big role too. I think it sounds nice as a title, but I wondered when the meaning would present itself and it never did.

RECOMMEND– Yes! Flat Broke with Two Goats is an inspirational story and McGaha is a engaging writer. I think this is a great pick for anyone undergoing a transition in their lives and in need of a moral boost. it’s also great as reminder to be aware of your finances and lifestyle.

A Thousand Rooms

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Thank you to NetGalley and author Helen Jones for providing me with a copy of A Thousand Rooms in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT- Katie has just died and she finds herself at the scene of her death without anyone to greet her or further instructions. When she thinks of something, such as the store where she purchased the snazzy new red heels that she was wearing when a car hit her, she is transported to that place. Katie begins to get the hang of transporting herself and travels to see her family and friends as they deal with her death, but she is still left wondering, if this is all there is?

Katie get an idea to travel to a convalescent hospital to be near another human when they die and she discovers that the afterlife is different for everyone. Katie learns that she can travel to different afterlife realms and soon she is gathering pieces of the puzzle to understand the meaning of her own death.

LIKE– Jones fills A Thousand Rooms with so much creativity that I kept turning the page to see what was coming next. I couldn’t anticipate where Jones was taking her story, which kept it compelling. She weaves folklore and concepts from various religions into the different rooms/realms that Katie visits. I love the idea that the afterlife can be such an individualized experience. One of my favorite small twists is when Katie thinks she is witnessing a death, but it turns out to be a conception. It’s a joyful moment. Also joyful, are the scenes when Katie is reconnecting with her grandfather in their heaven. It’s a wonderful balance after the somber scenes of Katie watching her family on earth grieving.

DISLIKE– Katie felt flat. I could easily go along with her story because it was so unexpected, but I had difficulty both imagining her physically and going along with her emotional journey. When I felt emotion, it was situational, rather than because I was connected to the protagonist. For example, having experienced profound grief, I felt emotions while reading about her parents and friends in grief, but not for the loss of Katie specifically. When Katie connects with Jason, I didn’t feel the emotions. I like the concept of their relationship and how they are kept apart, but I didn’t bond with either character.

RECOMMEND– Maybe. A Thousand Rooms is a quick read and I liked the concept of Jones’ story. My lack of connection to the characters hold me back from fully recommending A Thousand Rooms. 

Goat Castle: A True Story of Murder, Race, and the Gothic South

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Thank you to University of North Carolina Press for providing me with an advance copy of Karen L. Cox’s book, Goat Castle: A True Story of Murder, Race, and the Gothic South, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– Historian and author, Karen L. Cox, explores the sensational true-crime case of Jennie Merrill, who was murdered in Natchez, Mississippi in 1932.

LIKE– Although I had never heard of the Jennie Merrill murder case, this was one of the top news stories during the Great Depression. One of the primary reasons that Merrill’s murder captivated America, and one of the big reasons that this book was so fascinating, is the bizarre and colorful characters that were involved.

Merrill was a rich, recluse who lived in a mansion and aside from necessary trips to town and work-staff, she only socialized with her cousin, who was in love with her and lived in a nearby house. They were both older and there was gossip that they may have even secretly wed. Merrill was murdered in a robbery gone wrong and several people were involved.

Two of the suspects were Merrill’s next door neighbors, Richard Dana and Octavia Dockery. They were essentially squatting in a crumbing mansion, where animals like goats and chickens freely roamed the rooms. The house should have been condemned, it was filled with vermin, mold and rotting animals. Dana and Dockery were eccentrics and went by the monikers; Mountain Man and Goat Woman. They had previous court dealings with Merrill over their goats destroying her property and there was zero love between neighbors.

Along with Dana and Dockery, George Pearls and Emily Burns were at the scene of the crime. Pearls was an African-American man who had recently returned to his hometown of Natchez, after having trouble finding a job up North. He quickly began a relationship with Burns, a local domestic, who became involved with the robbery/murder, after Pearls picked her up, giving her the impression that he was taking her on a date.

Burns ended up being the only person to serve time for Merrill’s murder, even though she was the least involved of the four. Pearls ran away up North and although he was convicted for his involvement, he was presumed dead and didn’t serve time. Dana and Dockery were initially jailed as suspects, but were set free, even though the evidence was against them. It’s very likely that being white is what allowed them to escape, especially since lawyers were able to pin the crime on Burns. At that time in Natchez, they law held that if you were involved with a murder, whether or not you committed the actual crime, you were equally guilty by association. Burns served eight years of hard labor of a life sentence, a sentence that was overturned by a government official who decided to show her mercy and set her free for time served. It was very clear that Burns did not plan the crime and her guilt was one by association and for standing-by while the crime took place.

The craziest part of the story involved Dana and Dockery. When they were released, they capitalized on the fame of their story and started giving tours of their home. They had zero shame and hammed up their eccentricities, giving the public what they expected. Their living conditions shocked the nation. Although they were still technically squatters, Dana and Dockery did nothing to pay rent or use the money to fix up their home. They also had several different lawsuits for various matters, always trying to squeeze money from somewhere. They both died years after Merrill, still living at Goat Castle. The actual owners of the property were never able to evict them and when they were dead, Goat Castle was demolished.

DISLIKE– The pacing was slow. I found the second half of the story to be more compelling than the first. It took me longer to read Goat Castle: A True Story of Murder, Race, and the Gothic South, than it should have, simply because of the pacing.

RECOMMEND– Yes, if you’re a fan of American history or true crime, Goat Castle: A True Story of Murder, Race, and the Gothic South, is a great pick.. The story is outrageous and filled with fascinating characters. Although this happened in the 1930’s, it’s unfortunate to note that justice/incarceration issues for African-Americans in this country, has not changed much. The Goat Castle case remains relevant with regard to the treatment of race in America.

Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs

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Thank you to W.W. Norton and Company for providing me with an advance copy of Beth Ann Fennelly’s Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOTHeating & Cooling is Beth Ann Fennelly’s collection of short memoirs, ranging from a few sentences to a few pages, each a snippet of Fennelly’s life.

LIKE- I absolutely could not stop reading Heating & Cooling. Admittedly, it’s a quick, short read (less than an hour), but I could’ve easily read four times the amount in a single sitting and still have been left wanting more. I love Fennelly’s humor, her wry wit, and keen observations. The fact that it’s memoir, makes it even more compelling.

I’ve written micro-fiction and I’ve read it in magazines, but this is the first time that I’ve seen it compiled in a book. It’s a great format and one that I will seek out. Anyone out there reading this review have any recommendations for other authors working in micro-fiction that have compiled their writing into a book?

 Each story is strong on its own, but a big part of the magic is the order in which Fennelly has listed her stories. She has not ordered them chronologically with regard to her life events, instead she has ordered them to pack a punch. Much like a album track list, Fennelly has ordered her stories to elicit emotion and create varying tones. The result is excellent pacing, making Heat & Cooling a compulsive page-turner.

DISLIKE- Nothing. I loved Heating & Cooling. Immediately after finishing it, I went on Amazon to purchase a few of Fennelly’s poetry books. I needed more of her writing in my life.

RECOMMEND– Yes! Heating & Cooling is a unique memoir by a very talented writer. I’m so thrilled for this “new-to-me” author discovery.

Living the Dream

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Thank you to Holt Paperbacks for providing me with a free copy of Lauren Berry’s novel, Living the Dream, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– Emma works for a marketing firm in London, but dreams of finding success as a writer. She’s miserable at her day job, but has a decent following on her blog and keeps pitching article ideas to various trendy magazines. Emma struggles with her desire to quit her day job to chase her dreams against the reality of having a stable income. Adding to her frustrations is her roommate, a DJ who seems to squeak by, despite not having an “adult career.”

Emma’s best friend, Clementine, has just finished a prestigious screenwriting course in America and has returned to England with the idea that her big break is just around the corner. In the meantime, she is completely broke and forced to move in with her family, who do not understand her creative aspirations.

Pitched as a Bridget Jones’s Diary for millennials, Living The Dream follows post-college age friends as they struggle to chase their dreams, find romantic partners, and make ends meet in London.

LIKELiving the Dream reminded me of Lena Dunham’s series, Girls, except the characters in Berry’s story were less self-involved and far more likable. Emma and Clementine generally had a supportive friendship, one that can weather rough patches. They are both characters that I liked and rooted for to succeed.

Berry gives equal weight to both Emma and Clementine’s stories, making them dual protagonists. However, there is a third friend added to the mix, Yasmin. Yasmin is their high-maintenance, drama-filled friend who is about to marry a wealthy man. At first Yasmin proves to be a difficult character to like, but by the end of the story, as some of her secrets and motives become clear, I totally adored her. It made me think of the somewhat difficult friends that I’ve had in my life and it’s a gentle reminder to be a little understanding and not to rush to judgement.

I’m forty, a touch older than the target audience for Living the Dream, nevertheless less, it transported me back to that time in my life. Berry may be writing for the millennials, but this is a story that should ring true for older women too. The struggles at that stage of a woman’s life is will resonate with older generations. Frankly, it makes me happy to be older and hopefully, wiser! The twenties are a stressful decade.

I love novels set in England, especially London. Although the characters are struggling, London is still a glamorous location.

DISLIKE– I enjoyed Living the Dream and Barry is a strong writer, but I don’t think in the grand scheme of my yearly reading that this will be memorable. It was a quick, enjoyable read, but not a stand-out.

RECOMMEND– Maybe. Living the Dream would be a good pick for a woman in her twenties who is struggling to figure out her direction in life. It can feel like you’re the only one with problems and Living the Dream is a good reminder that everyone facing similar issues.

The Other New Girl

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Thank you to She Writes Press for providing me with an advance copy of L.B. Gschwandtner’s novel, The Other New Girl, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– Susannah Greenwood is one of two girls starting at a Quaker boarding school in their sophomore year. Susannah joins the swim team and is quickly accepted by the popular group of girls. The other new girl, Moll, doesn’t have an easy time. She quiet and simply different than the other students. Susannah tries to befriend Moll, but a series of events leads to disaster.

LIKE- I’ve always been drawn to stories that take place in boarding schools. I didn’t attend a boarding school and I didn’t even go to summer camp, so the idea of kids living away from their parents is somewhat romanticized in my mind. Additionally, I’m drawn to stories about religion. I didn’t know much about the Quaker faith and I found that aspect of Gschwandtner’s novel to be fascinating. In fact, I wish she had dove deeper into it.

The Other New Girl is written from the perspective of an adult Susannah who runs into an old classmate which sends her down the rabbit hole of reflecting on a terrible thing that happened in high school. There are themes of guilt and regret. The teenage Susannah is placed in an incredibly difficult position and she is shaken to the core by what happens around her, things that were set into motion by her and that quickly spiral out of control. The Other New Girl is about the domino affect of actions and how your life can be impacted negatively, even when you have the best intentions.

DISLIKE– I found it difficult to connect with Susannah. I can’t pinpoint it, but there was something about Gschwandtner’s writing that made me feel distant from the protagonist. Although I found the story compelling, this lack of connection with Susannah hampered my ability to emotionally connect with The Other New Girl.

I recently read an article ( unfortunately, I can’t remember the source, but it was in one of my writing magazines) that mentioned the 1960’s as being an over-used era for coming of age novels. The Other New Girl takes place in the late 50’s/early 60’s and it does have many of the cliche historical/social references of the era. If I hadn’t read this article, I probably wouldn’t have thought about it one way or the other, but since I did, I wondered how different and perhaps more potent this story would have been, had it been set in a different era?

RECOMMEND– Maybe. Although I couldn’t connect with the protagonist, I still was compelled to read The Other New Girl. It’s a quick read and Gschwandtner hit on subjects that interested me. Also, I did a quick scan of reviews and other readers are loving this book. I think I’m an outlier with my dislikes.

The Best Kind of People

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Thank you to Random House Publishing Group for providing me with an advance copy of Zoe Whittall’s novel, The Best Kind of People, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT – Avalon Hills, an affluent suburb in Connecticut, is rocked when beloved high school teacher George Woodbury is accused of sexual misconduct with several students. While George is in prison awaiting trial, his family must deal with the fallout. They find themselves unsure of his innocence, yet in the position of defending him and themselves, against a very angry town.

LIKE- The Best Kind of People isn’t so much about George or his trial; it’s about how his family experiences the trauma of having a loved one accused. It’s about how they process whether or not to believe him and what that means for their family moving forward. This is not a crime or legal novel, this is a family drama.

When a tragedy or crime happens, I do always wonder about the families of the accused. Depending on the crime, it sometimes seems like they are automatically judged as guilty alongside the actual accused. Joan, George’s wife, experiences this when people in town don’t understand how she could have been unaware of her husband’s transgressions. Joan works as a nurse and is highly regarded by her colleagues and patients, yet she feels that she has to take a leave of absence from her job and hide from the people in her town, as they harass her; throwing eggs at her car and leave threatening messages on her answering machine. When she does build up the courage to return to work, she has support from some of her colleagues, but gets the cold shoulder from others. She is guilty by association.

Also guilty by association are George’s children. His daughter, Sadie, still attends the high school where her father taught and is forced to interact with the girls who have accused her father of misconduct. His son Andrew, is now a lawyer living in New York, but he finds that small town gossip from the past comes back to haunt him. As far as the town and the media are concerned, the entire Woodbury family is fair game. Adding to the drama is Kevin, who is dating the mom of Sadie’s boyfriend. Kevin is a novelist who hasn’t had a hit in over a decade and he decides to use his proximity to the Woodbury family to cash-in by using their story as the basis for his latest manuscript.

Whittall has a talent for create fascinating characters who react in diverse ways to adversity. I like how she focused her story on the family members, rather than George or his legal problem. Her characters each react in surprising, yet organic ways that make for a compelling read. Although many readers have probably not been in this specific situation ( I hope not), I think most people will find areas to which they can relate. If not, I think this story will make readers more compassionate, especially when it’s so easy to engage in gossip or judgement.

I didn’t know much about the story going in and I actually thought I was reading a true story for the first few chapters. It felt real, rather than fiction. I was engaged immediately.

DISLIKE– I’m still contemplating the ending. I don’t want to give anything away, but I expect that I’m not the only reader that will have trouble with the ending. I think it’s probably very realistic, but it’s also incredibly frustrating. I actually gave a rather mournful “NO!” outloud when I read the last line.

In general, The Best Kind of People is a very heavy read. This isn’t a negative, it is what it needs to be for the story, but I also felt that it affected me personally. I found myself feeling low energy and negative on the days I was reading The Best Kind of People. Whittall’s writing and story had a noticeable affect on me.

RECOMMEND– Yes. The Best Kind of People is a shocking and affecting story. Whittall has crafted emotionally rich characters that are placed in a desperate situation. I will not soon forget this story.