Lake Success

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Thank you to Random House Publishing Group for providing me with a copy of Gary Shteyngart’s novel, Lake Success, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT – Barry Cohen is a wealthy, NYC hedge-fund manger who is having a super-sized mid-life crisis. His career is about to implode and he is likely facing jail time due to an SEC investigation. He hides his troubles from his younger, beautiful wife, Seema. Seema hides an affair that she is having with a married writer who lives in their building, a man whom her husband despises. They both battle with their emotions over their severely autistic son. Barry’s crisis makes him flee the city, catching a Greyhound bus and traveling cross-country to reconnect with his first love, who has no idea that he is coming. The adventures on his trip will take him as far away from his luxury lifestyle as he could have ever imagined.

LIKELake Success is completely unpredictable, hilarious, and quirky. Barry and Seema are both unlikeable, narcissistic characters, that Shteyngart manages to humanize and make relatable. I started out disgusted with them and slowly began to care for both of them.

Barry’s misadventures on the road are a great blend of being outrageous and uproariously funny, with affecting. As Barry comes out of his shell, meeting people that he would have never interacted with in his NYC life, he begins to change.

In one scene, he wanders into a rough neighborhood and has a conversation with a crack dealer. The wacky part of this scene is Barry is asked to leave, so the dealer can ramp up his act for a tour group of “Urban Tourists” who are interested in seeing a poor, ethnic neighborhood. The drug dealer puts on an act for the tourists, becoming the character that they imagine him to be based on their stereotypes. Barry is like the dealer, in his NYC life he plays the part of an upperclass, financial guy with the perfect wife. His son is hidden most of the time, as is anything that breaks the facade of perfection. A huge part of Barry’s crisis is the burden of trying to maintain this facade.

Seema is also dealing with a similar issue and through her affair she begins to shed her facade of perfection. Trying to maintain this facade has actually destroyed their marriage. They cannot communicate and see it as a failing to not only their son, but to their life in general, if they admit that anything is less than perfect. But the problem actually seems to have existed before their marriage, when they first began to date. Seema had a focus on a type of guy that she wanted to marry and Barry fit the profile. Barry was attracted to Seema’s youth and beauty. They seem to be attracted to the idea of each other, rather than actually to each other. Although Seema’s crisis didn’t take her on a road trip, she experiences a dramatic change in perspective. Her character growth is equal to Barry’s change.

DISLIKE– This is minor, but it did take me about 3-4 chapters to really be gripped by the story. After the slow start, I was hooked. Lake Success has both strong story and character arcs, with a very satisfying pay-off at the end.

RECOMMEND– YES!!! I finished Lake Success in late 2018, but life got in the way, so I am writing this review very late. That said, I cannot stop thinking about Lake Success. It made a huge impression on me. Shteyngart is a fabulous writer who has created a multi-layered story with heart and a lot of wicked humor. I look forward to reading his other works. He’s brilliant!

You Think It, I’ll Say It

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Thank you to Random House Publishing Groupfor providing me with a copy of Curtis Sittenfeld’s short story collection, You Think It, I’ll Say It, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT-You Think It, I’ll Say Itis a collection of short stories from acclaimed novelist, Curtis Sittenfeld.

LIKE– Sittenfeld is one of my favorite modern writers and I was absolutely thrilled to have an opportunity to review her latest book, a collection of short stories.

Sittenfeld doesn’t shy away from the uncomfortable and many of her characters toy with emotional bombshells. They exist on the edge, often crossing the line by acting on their impulses.

In the story which provides the inspiration for title of the collection, The World Has Many Butterflies, friends begin to have an emotional affair by playing a strange game: “You Think it, I’ll Say It.” They secretly play this game when they come in contact at parties and their kid’s sporting events. Graham initiates the play by mentioning the title and then Julie begins to tear down the other people in the room, as if she and Graham are conspirators thinking the same thoughts. At first, Julie feels a sense of freedom in speaking as she wishes and saying what’s on her mind, but the game becomes increasingly intimate, as she speaks in a way that she wouldn’t dare reveal to her spouse.

Plausible Deniability plays on a similar theme, with Libby having an emotional affair with her brother-in-law. She feels in her gut that it is crossing the line, but for over a year she continues to send him text messages. At a certain point, they agree to only send one message a day and the message can only be about classical music. Libby sends these incredibly intimate texts about the music she loves. When she becomes pregnant and confronts her brother-in-law regarding this emotional affair and intimacy that they are having, he tries to make it seem like it isn’t a big deal. Libby admits that it is a big deal to her, she thinks about him romantically and even though he is devastated that she wants to cut it off, he won’t admit that they have crossed the line. He is the narrator of the story, so we know that he loves her more than he should and even more devastating, he realizes that his brother doesn’t really love her.

Old memories from high school and college also haunt Sittenfeld’s characters. A Regular Couple, involves two couples on their honeymoon who meet at a resort in the desert. The wives were high school classmates over two decades ago. The narrator, Maggie, is both intimidated and fascinated with Ashley, who was a very popular girl in their high school. Now, Maggie is a successful lawyer and immediately, Ashley mentions having seen Maggie in the news. Maggie and her husband are staying in the most expensive rooms, while Ashley and her much older husband, are staying in cheaper accommodations. Maggie knows she has reaches success in her career and she even has a “trophy husband”- She admits that her husband, Jason, is far more attractive than she is and she constantly worries that Jason, who does not have as successful of a career, is using her for her money. Maggie is insecure and spending time with Ashley turns her into a mess. Although Ashley seems to have nothing but goodwill towards Maggie, Maggie can’t help but try to seek retribution for the way that she was treated in high school.

Do-Over is a perfect story for our political climate. A few decades after they graduated from boarding school, Sylvia looks up her old classmate, Clay and they have dinner. Sylvia and Clay ran against each other in a school campaign and there was a tie vote. The school administrators gave the role to Clay, offering Sylvia a lesser leadership role. Years later, Sylvia, who also happened to have a crush on Clay back in high school, decides to confront him or rather, ambush him. Sylvia, feeling she has nothing to lose, lets Clay know exactly how she feels during a very tense and awkward dinner date.

You Think It, I’ll Say Itis a solid collection and every single story was excellent. No clunkers. I adore Sittenfeld. Her characters engage in cringe-worthy behavior, but their mindset and impulses are always relatable. She understands how people tick and I love to see how her stories play out. She always keeps me guessing and turning the page. Her wicked sense of humor also shines through.

DISLIKE– Not a single thing.

RECOMMEND– YES, YES, YES!!! I recommend You Think It, I’ll Say It and everything else that Sittenfeld has written. I can’t wait to read what she writes next. Sittenfeld is such a talent!

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.

Sour Heart: Stories

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Thank You to Random House Publishing Group for providing me with an advance copy of Jenny Zhang’s Sour Heart: Stories, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT – Jenny Zhang’s Sour Heart: Stories is a collection of connected stories following Chinese immigrants living in New York. There is a heavy emphasis on young, female characters, who are trying to understand both their new country and their parents, who lived through China’s cultural revolution.

LIKE- I grew up in a middle-class, culturally diverse neighborhood and many of my close friends are Chinese. Despite experiencing diversity in my life, I’ve realized that my reading selections are not as diverse as they could and should be. I’m grateful that Zhang’s Sour Heart: Stories found its way to my TBR Pile.

I was most interested in the parts that focused on the family relationships, specifically the differences between growing up during the Cultural Revolution and this new generation, that is growing up in America. There is a huge challenge with regard to communication between the generations. The challenge isn’t limited to the generations, it also comes with the different perspectives of the immigrants. Although they all arrive in America with little in way of possessions or money and they meet as strangers sharing a cramped apartment, each family does come from a different background and brings their unique perspective. Zhang’s stories are filled with a huge variety of character experiences.

My favorite story was the last chapter, one dealing with the title character who has been nicknamed Sour Heart for her love of sour foods. In the last story, she is an adult examining the relationship she has with her relatives, both her parents and relatives in China. It’s complicated and includes so many layers. How do you bond with blood when you live so far away and have had such differences in your life?

DISLIKE– As much as I admire Zhang’s storytelling, I have to admit that I felt a disconnect. I found the sections of the girls trying to fit in to their American schools, to be less engaging. Some of their behavior and frank sex talk didn’t ring true to my childhood experience and it was hard to connect.

RECOMMEND– Yes. Sour Heart: Stories was uneven for me, but I’d still recommend it. I’ve not been exposed to many other fictional stories on this subject and for diversity reasons, Sour Heart: Stories is a worthy read. When I was engaged in Zhang’s writing, she absolutely shined and I felt moved by her characters and prose. I look forward to discovering more of her writing.

The Marriage Pact

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Thank you to Random House Publishing Group for providing me with an advance copy of Michelle Richmond’s novel, The Marriage Pact, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– Jake is a psychologist in a small private practice and Alice is a former rock star turned lawyer. After a short courtship, they decide to take the plunge and get married. At the last minute, Alice jokingly invites a client, a famous musician whose case she worked on, to their wedding. Not only does he attend, but the singer and his wife give Alice and Jake an unusual wedding present. Their present is an invitation to an exclusive club called “The Pact.”

The Pact is a group of like-minded couples, powerful couples, who enforce a set of rules designed to strengthen their marriages. When they return from their honeymoon, Alice and Jake are met with a representative from The Pact who asks them to formally sign a contract to seal their membership. Alice and Jake sign, not fully realizing the impact that joining will have on their lives.

The Pact actively monitors their marriage, looking for any cracks. Alice and Jake are given a hefty instruction manual, which details the actions they must take, like booking quarterly vacations and always picking up the phone when their spouse rings. When they don’t take their responsibilities seriously, they face the consequences, quite severe consequences. Jake discovers an old college girlfriend is also in The Pact and she tries to warn him. According to her, those who do not obey mysteriously vanish. Who is the mysterious group leader named Orla? Why were Jake and Alice chosen? Can they get out of The Pact alive?

LIKEThe Marriage Pact has a Twilight Zone/Black Mirror type quality to it. The tone is ominous, unsettling, and creepy through-out. I never quite knew where the story was heading, but I was happy to keep turning the pages. The intrigue and pacing never dropped.

I didn’t account for how dark Richmond’s story would go. The Marriage Pact is utterly disturbing. There are many chapters with scenes of detailed and imaginative torture. I’m left with imagery that will likely never leave my mind. I’m talking stuff like in the Saw film franchise. It’s horrific.

The story is told in first person with Jake narrating. This is an interesting choice, because early on, all of the terrible things happen to Alice, leaving Jake ( along with the reader) imagining and worrying about what is happening. My stomach was in knots. The Marriage Pact is a visceral reading experience. Jake and Alice are both affable characters and it’s easy to root for both their marriage and their individual characters to succeed. They are every-day people caught up in a completely mad situation. Richmond is brilliant with her character development.

I was worried that the ending would fall short and I felt like this until the final twist and the final chapter. Richmond has written the perfect ending. I can’t imagine anything else working.

DISLIKE– I was left with a few questions. How did The Pact manage to grow and become so powerful? At what point did Orla lose her grasp? Although the concept was intriguing, I felt I had to seriously suspend my disbelief. I just can’t imagine so many people going along with this group. I wanted more backstory on the group and its founder.

RECOMMEND– Yes, if you like creepy suspense stories and if you can handle highly disturbing content. The Marriage Pact is a thrill ride and Richmond is a fabulous storyteller.

Who is Rich

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Thank you to Random House Publishing Group for providing me with an advance copy of Matthew Klam’s novel, Who is Rich?, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT – Rich Fischer is a graphic novelist who achieved acclaim early in his career. His success was limited and now, middle-aged, he is trying to get his art career back on track. Rich teaches at a summer retreat, where he looks forward to reconnecting with Amy, a painter with whom he is having an affair. Both Amy and Rich are married with young children and both are unhappy in their relationships. They fantasize about running away from their spouses, but neither is willing to take action. Amy is married to an extremely wealthy businessman and although she is unhappy, she does not want for anything else. Rich is not wealthy, he has the trappings of a middle-class life that he is struggling to maintain paycheck-to-paycheck. He envies Amy’s financial freedom and the success of his peers.  What does it mean to be rich? How does focusing on what you lack make you feel poorer?

LIKE– I liked the concept of Who is Rich?. The themes of envy are very relatable and Rich is a relatable character. I’m not sure that I personally connected to him, but I have people in my life who are similar to Rich. Specifically, I see Rich’s flaws and hang-ups in a few people that I know. I liked the setting of an art retreat, with a large cast of colorful secondary characters. Klam has created a vibrant world and he has fabulous descriptions.

Although I disagree that this story was a comedy, Klam has written some witty phrases and observations that made me crack a smile. There were many times that I paused to admire his writing or even to read aloud a paragraph to feel the pacing.

I liked that Klam used illustrations in his novel. It was a great fit for his protagonist’s profession and the pictures were a fun inclusion.

The title is wonderful play on both the theme and the protagonist’s name.

DISLIKE- On a whole, I didn’t connect with the story. It was sluggish and a chore to read. I actually read several books in-between, rather than reading Who is Rich? straight through. If this had not been a review copy, I likely would not have finished reading it. The story does pick up pace in the last 10% of the book, when Rich has a major moral dilemma regarding a pair of earrings. I wish the stakes/drama had been more intense earlier in the story.

RECOMMEND– No. Who is Rich? was not my cup of tea. That said, I liked Klam’s writing enough that I plan to check-out his previously published short story collection, Sam The Cat. I have a feeling that Klam might really shine in a shorter format.

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 Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley

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Thank You to Random House Publishing Group for providing me with an advanced copy of Hannah Tinti’s novel, The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT – Samuel Hawley is an outlaw, who has spent many years moving across the United States with his daughter, Loo. Now that Loo is a teenager, Samuel feels that he can make an honest living as a fisherman, and he settles in the same New England town as Loo’s maternal grandmother, Mabel. Loo’s mother, Lily, died in a lake accident when Loo was an infant, and Mabel believes that Samuel had hand in her daughter’s death. Was Samuel responsible? Can a man who has committed so many crimes, really be safe from his past coming back to haunt him?

LIKE– Tinti is the co-founder of One Story, one of my favorite monthly magazines ( check it out, it’s awesome), and I had the pleasure of taking an online writing class with her last month. It was fabulous!

Tinti has an interesting way of framing The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley. She has given Samuel a body riddled with scars from bullets wounds, and she alternates chapters between the present and the past, using the past chapters to explain the ways in which Samuel has been shot. In the past, we learn about Samuel’s life of crime, his associates, and how he met Lily. As the story unfolds, we learn the truth about Lily’s death, and how it impacts the trajectory of the story. In the present, we see Loo growing into a teenager and trying to figure out details about her mother, through both her grandmother and living in her mother’s hometown. This structure created a solid framework for pacing the mysteries of the novel and keeping the suspense.

In addition to a strong structure, The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, has memorable characters. I was most intrigued by Lily and her relationship with Samuel. The chapter in which they meet, was the most intense, gripping chapter of the novel. It was cinematic. Speaking of cinematic, Tinti writes in a grand way, with beautiful imagery and sweeping landscapes. For example, there is a dramatic scene on a glacier in Alaska. Having recently visited a glacier in Alaska, I can tell you, that Tinti captured that amazing environment, including the details of the sounds a glacier makes, which is what was most memorable for me.

DISLIKE– There were a few places where I felt my suspension of disbelief was tested; for example, there are two separate scenes with a whale that didn’t work for me. It seemed too outrageous for the tone of the story.

Although I love idea of this outlaw who can survive whatever comes his way, it became a little much to have so many bullet wounds that were patched up. In one chapter he shoots his own foot by accident, which leads to a memorable experience taking a young Loo trick-or-treating, but otherwise, doesn’t seem to advance the story.

RECOMMEND– Yes. Tinti is an imaginative writer that takes readers to unexpected places.  I was able to empathize and connect with all of her main characters. If you can let a few things slide, The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley is worthy read. It’s suspenseful and engaging.

The Rules Do Not Apply

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Thank You to Random House Publishing Group for providing me with an advanced copy of Ariel Levy’s memoir, The Rules Do Not Apply, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT- In her memoir, The Rules Do Not Apply, journalist Ariel Levy explores love and loss, in her relationships, career, and path to motherhood. She learns the hard truth that life is a series of trade-offs and that the conventional concept of “having it all,” is a myth.

LIKE– I vividly remember the final lecture of a Western Civilization class that I took at Pasadena City College, when I was in my early-twenties: The male professor, an self-proclaimed feminist, who would later be caught in several scandals and removed from his position, gave a piece of advice, that in way I’ve forgotten, was tenuously related to the lecture; he said that time is limited and that fertility did not last forever. He was speaking primarily to the females in the class, urging us, as we focused on our education and careers, to consider that the time frame for fertility is limited. I’m not quite sure what prompted this advice, but I remember the urgency in his tone. He was middle-aged, and in hind-sight, I’m guessing a recent personal predicament influenced his words. I’ve never wanted children, but that advice has stayed with me, especially as I near forty, still not wanting children, but realizing that the window of opportunity may already be shut. This idea is at the forefront of Levy’s memoir.

Levy’s road to motherhood is not clear. She is in an unstable marriage with Lucy, an older woman, who is an alcoholic. As Levy tries to strengthen her marriage, she is tempted through reconnecting with former lovers. Her writing career has always been important, and one that sends her on assignments around the world. Lucy’s alcoholism isn’t the only instability, as Lucy has sunk their savings into starting a solar panel company. Levy is in her late-thirties when she finally decides that she wants to be a mother, and they have a close friend who is happy to not only donate sperm, but to help out financially, and be another adult figure in their child’s life. Levy easily becomes pregnant, and her life seems to be heading towards stability and happiness, until tragedy strikes. Levy delivers her child prematurely, alone in a hotel room, while on assignment in Mongolia. The baby is born alive, but dies about fifteen minutes later, as Levy is rushed to the hospital. It’s crushing, even more so that she had minutes where she held her living child.

The title, The Rules Do Not Apply, are about all of the conventional things that as a child (or even into adulthood), you expect will happen. You expect to graduate from college and land a great job. You expect to fall in love and have a family. You expect that your parents will live long enough to see those grandchildren. You expect that hard work and being a good person should grant these rewards. However, as Levy points out, this has not been the case for her, and it has not been the case for many of her friends. Life simply does not work like that for most people. Conventionality is a myth.

Levy’s thoughts are poignant and her personal story is compelling. She has a knack for phrasing and writes beautifully. She weaves her story with the stories of people that she profiles in her reporting, making her memoir global and expansive. I can’t imagine any reader would be left unaffected by this emotional and thought provoking memoir.

DISLIKE– Nothing. The Rules Do Not Apply is powerful and riveting.

RECOMMEND– Yes! The Rules Do Not Apply is a must-read memoir. I’m certain that Levy’s story will be a bestseller and generate a lot of buzz. Read it and be part of the conversation!