The Keep by Jennifer Egan (2006)

Read a review of Egan’s fantastic novel Look at Me here: http://wp.me/p6N6mT-c2

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“The castle was falling apart but…looked solid as hell: two round towers with an arch between them and across that arch was an iron gate that looked as if it had not been moved in three hundred years. The towers had indentations around the top that little kids put on castles when they draw them. The walls were twenty-feet high, jagged and crumbling…the walls looked silver under the moon, stretched out over the hill in a wobbly oval the size of a football field. The castle itself was a…clump of buildings and towers jumbled together. But the tallest tower stood off on its own, narrow and square with a red light shining in a window near the top.” 3-7

The Keep is novel that is truly wonderful to read, but because it takes a non-linear, experimental approach to story-telling, it presents a challenge to describe for potential readers. While on its surface this book is a story about a castle, situated in some indistinct corner of Eastern Europe, and some of the people who travel there; underneath Egan is telling a series of internal stories within stories within stories that sometimes intersect at the castle in transformative ways, and sometimes only intersect with the castle for the briefest of moments. Although it is true that the author ties the lives — sometimes past, sometimes present, and sometimes future — of the characters together before the close of the novel, her path there is circuitous and complex.

The story’s narration also proves to be a fluid element of the story: with first one primary narrator being pre-empted by another and then by a third narrator, each of which expands the story outward layer by layer, almost like nesting dolls. Each of these narrators helps to fill in the picture of the castle and the events that take place there, but their individual connection to one another is not revealed until the ending chapters of the book. As a result, the stories that the three narrators tell — to readers, and to one another — paint a very three dimensional picture of the castle and its Keep, both as it has been over the centuries, and as it exists in the present day.

At the start of the book, the core story is that of Danny — a New Yorker who has spent his life running from the past and hiding from aging — whose life is threatened by a shady deal gone wrong so he accepts the bizarre offer from an estranged cousin, Howard, to travel to Eastern Europe to visit a castle Howard is renovating. Upon his arrival at the castle, Danny finds it harder and harder to keep out the past and to keep control of what he calls “the worm.”

“The worm was a word Danny and his friends had invented all those years ago to call those things that happened when people lost confidence and got phony, anxious, weird. Was it paranoia? Low self-esteem? Insecurity? Panic? Those words were all too flat. The Worm was three-dimensional, it crawled inside a person and started to eat until everything collapsed, their whole lives.” 10

The castle begins to tug at Danny, distorting his sense of reality. Steeped in so much history — twelve centuries of it — what is happening in the present day becomes blurry and the past rushes in to fill the space. Without his connection to the rest of the world — no phones, no Internet, no communication with the present — New York Danny ceases to exist and the facade Danny has so artfully crafted for himself begins to crumble.

Danny is not the only one who the castle is transforming. The entire work crew there with Howard feels its pull. Soon Howard’s vision of creating a hotel fades and he becomes determined to protect its spooky, blurry atmosphere: he will a create a place where visitors come not to be entertained, but to live for a while inside their imaginations.

In an attempt to discover as many secrets about the castle as possible, Howard calls on Danny to unearth them by befriending the elderly woman illegally inhabiting the Keep, The Baroness, whose family has lived in the castle for nine hundred years. Danny agrees but soon it becomes clear the stories the Baroness has shared with him will be to the detriment of the project, not its benefit.

Here the story shifts to Ray, another narrator, who appears to be writing the story of Danny, Howard, and the Keep from his prison cell somewhere in America. His stories fill in some other details of the Castle, the Baroness, the Keep, and Howard’s project. How Ray is connected remains vague until the end of the novel, but his insights round out the story being told. Soon, Ray and Danny are telling simultaneous but competing stories to the reader.

Finally, our third narrator, Holly, enters the story. A creative writing instructor working in the prison and the woman who is reading Ray’s story of the Keep. It is with Holly that the full story of the castle — and of Howard, Danny, the Baroness, and the others — is brought to completion. It is also with Holly that the future of the castle is revealed, when she is moved to journey to Eastern Europe to find out whether the words of an unreliable, incarcerated man — words that moved her in inexplicable ways– will prove to be real.

Is The Keep a ghost story? A love story? A redemption story? It is all of those, but also many other things. It is a story that shows us how one person’s story can connect them to another person — perhaps in a completely different place and time — and then, upon retelling, connects to another person, and so on, rippling outward. Stories of the Keep travel across time and space, changing the lives of each person whose hears them. The Baroness’ story is of the castle distant past; Ray and Danny’s stories tell of the castle’s recent past; Howard and Holly’s stories are that of the castle’s present and future. A curious, winding, and challenging read, but without a doubt, a remarkable one.

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Landline by Rainbow Rowell (2014)

I just spent the most delicious afternoon curled up on the couch re-reading Landline by Rainbow Rowell. I loved this book the first time I read it and I think I loved it even more the second time around. Touching, funny, honest, and unique…it is filled with all the elements that make a great story, all brought to life by a truly wonderful writer.

Enjoy!

Originally posted May 5, 2016+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

“Things did not go bad for Georgie and Neal. Things were always bad and good. Their marriage was like a set of scales constantly balancing itself. And then, at some point, when neither of them was paying attention, they’d tipped so far over into bad they’d settled there. If Georgie could talk to herself in the past, before the scales had tipped, what would she say? Love him more.”

Landline is the story of a marriage between Georgie and Neal from its first, heady moments upon meeting in college (“Neal didn’t take Georgie’s breath away, but the opposite, he filled her lungs with air”) until the moments right before Christmas 2013 when their marriage appears to be ending.

Georgie is a headstrong, outspoken comedian and writer who wholeheartedly pursues Neal from the very first, “she had added Neal to this list of things she wanted and needed and was bound to have someday. Georgie had decided, cocksure, that Neal was what she needed to be happy.” Neal is a soft-spoken, Midwestern boy, unclear of what the future had in store for him, a boy in love with Georgie and willing to make her dreams his own without any thought to what that would mean in the future.

And so their life begins, Georgie charging forward toward the life that she wants — working and writing for television in LA — and Neal, aimless and in love, along for whatever ride Georgie took him on. “Georgie had tied Neal to her so tight…because she wanted him, because he was perfect for her, even if she was not perfect for him. Because she wanted him more than she wanted him to be happy.” As the years pass, Georgie needs more from Neal (to care for the house, to raise their daughters, to smooth out her sadness and failures) and needs Neal, as a partner, less and less. She has ignored his growing unhappiness, his sadness at always having to take a backseat to her goals and dreams, and hoped that his love for her would be enough to keep the marriage together.

Finally, Neal has had enough and tells Georgie that this time she will have to choose Christmas with the family or work, that he will not cancel the holiday and disappoint loved ones to accommodate her work schedule. Georgie choose work, Neal goes. Only hours later does she begin to realize that Neal might have left forever. Frantic at their miscommunication, she tries repeatedly to get in touch with Neal on his cell but no calls or texts will go through. Only when she calls on her mother’s landline to his mother’s landline can she reach him…and when she does it is not the Neal of 2013 that she reaches, but Neal circa 1998, the Christmas before they married.

Fearing a nervous breakdown Georgie ends the call and tries to ignore the rising terror she feels at not being to get in touch with Neal. These fears force her to really look at the past fifteen years — really look, no rose colored glasses, no “I’ll deal with this another day” — to see if she can find what went wrong. As the days pass, the only version of Neal she can reach on the phone is the one from 1998, so she engages him as best she can in a dialogue about their marriage. A marriage she is desperate not to let go of, and one he does not know yet exists. In Georgie’s darkest moments, she has to admit to 1998 Neal that choosing to marry her will make him happy at times but also very, very unhappy at others. Present day “Neal was not happy or unhappy…he never pushed or pulled, but he was pissed, resentful, tired, bitter and lost.” Georgie had allowed him to be so, “because she had come to need Neal, he had become like air to her” and she would not let him go, even if it was best for him.

What follows is an amazingly unique and magical story of one woman’s attempt to examine the past and present of her marriage to determine whether or not clinging to Neal, circa 2013, is what is best for him. She must confront her own selfishness, her demons about whether she worthy of love, her fear of abandonment, and what is means to be in marriage that is truly a partnership. Georgie realizes that she has allowed the everyday to obscure the magical parts of her marriage; she has allowed Neal’s unhappiness to stretch too far, allowed too many to go unsaid…and now she must face the truth, have they strayed too far from loving one another to recover?

Georgie comes to realize that her marriage is not a place she and her husband reside, but a connection they have forged to one another through seventeen years of love and commitment. “You can’t know what it means, really, to crawl into someone’s else’s life and stay there. You can’t see all the ways you’re going to get tangled, how you’re going to bond skin to skin. When Georgie thought of divorcing Neal, she imagined them on two operating tables with a team of doctors trying to unthread their vascular systems.”

Astonishingly touching and so, so tender, this is a novel that I felt deeply moved by…not only for Rowell’s wonderful characters, not only for the magic she weaves into the book with skill and humor, but also for the wonderful examination of love and marriage. As a woman who met her husband in college in 1998, I cannot but feel drawn to her story  because Georgie and I share the same cultural frame of reference. In fact, she specifically mentions the first movie my husband and I ever watched together, Life is Beautiful….not to mention umpteen CD’s I also had and shows I watched and loved. Far more importantly, this story touches me because it reminds of what a beautiful, amazing gift a marriage filled with love is and how important it is for us to nurture and care for it so it can thrive.

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My first ever landline phone — and perhaps my favorite! — my Swatch Watch Double Talk phone!

The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende (2015)

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Upon finishing The Japanese Lover, my first thought was, “why did I not read that book sooner?” The entire novel was mesmerizing: its gorgeous prose, its imperfect but lovely characters; its sadness that felt transcendent rather than heart-wrenching; but most of all its beautiful love story.

Drawing on a huge range of historical events, social upheavals, and covering more than eight decades, The Japanese Lover is a breath-taking epic of a novel, but it is also a novel about the deep connection between two people, Alma and Ichimei, who –over the course of their lives — found ways to love one another, despite all odds.

As the novel opens we meet Irina, a Romanian immigrant who has begun working at an unconventional, San Francisco Bay Area retirement home, Lark House. Despite her youth and lack of experience, she immediately finds comfort in caring for her clients and satisfaction in making their lives better. When Alma, an aloof artist who lives at Lark House, develops an interest in Irina, she hires the young woman as personal secretary and they set to work– along with Alma’s grandson Seth — on a project to record Alma’s life story.

“Irina tried to understand what it meant to carry winter on your back, to hesitate over every step, to confuse words you don’t hear properly, to have the impression that rest of the world was going about in a great rush; the emptiness, frailty, fatigue, and indifference toward everything not directly related to you, even children and grandchildren, whose absence was not felt as it had once been and whose names you struggle to remember. She felt tender toward their wrinkles, their arthritic fingers, and poor sight.” 67

Soon the three of them are traveling back into Alma’s memories of her childhood in Poland and her emigration to America, which Allende paints for us in vivid flashback scenes, that tell of a little girl’s fear and loneliness and the blanket of stoicism she cloaks herself in to soften her pain. Entering into her life are two boys who will become the men who shape her life: her cousin Nathaniel and the gardener’s son, Ichimei.

Slowly, Alma tells her story to Irina and Seth, who fill in the blanks with photos, archival documents, and sleuthing. While Alma’s life is revealed to us in short bursts, so is Irina’s own troubled tale of immigration and heart-break. Irina is a hard-working young woman who wants only to care for her aging clients with kindness and be left to the anonymity she so desperately wants. More and more, her work with the residents at Lark House and the  project that is bringing her closer to Alma and Seth is drawing her out and asking that she share more of herself with the people around her.

On and on the book winds, back and forth, filling in the blanks of Alma’s life and her romance with Ichimei; of Ichimei’s terrifying years of Internment and segregation; their illicit romance and its ups and downs. Alongside those tales are ones from Irina of her meager existence in post-Cold War Romania, her horrific experiences after emigrating, and the shell of a life she feels she has had to create in order to survive. Those tales, while sad at times, remain uplifting as the characters from the past are given new chances, fresh choices, and more time to love as their lives unfold.

“Alma gave herself to the unconscious joy of love. She wondered how nobody noticed the bloom on her skin, the bottomless dark of her eyes, the lightness of her footsteps, the languor in her voice, the burning energy she could not and would not control. She wrote in her diary that she was floating and felt bubbles of mineral water on her skin, making the down on her body bristle with pleasure; that her heart had blown up like a balloon and was sure to burst; although there was no room for anyone by Ichimei in that huge, inflated heart because the rest of the world had become distant and hazy…the need for her to know she was loved was insatiable.” 166-167

Each story is painted in vivid detail by Allende with writing is so elegant, so restrained that it almost — only almost — seems aloof. I think of it as causally brilliant. Underneath the simplicity of her language, however, there is intelligence, wisdom, warmth and heart but never sentimentality. Even when her writing is at its most restrained — those scenes that deal with the most difficult heartaches — you can still feel her love for her characters and her sympathy for their plight. It is almost as if these scenes are made just a bit more bearable to read when presented at a remove. Tragedies endured by the characters are discussed but not belabored; the reader has no problem filling in the blanks when it comes to the hardship and abuse that was suffered, and Allende seems to acknowledge that it would be undignified to give those horrors too much space on the page.

Allende tells stories of deaths and of aging and dying that are frank and melancholy but somehow not morose, rather matter of fact. Death — theirs to come and the deaths of loved ones –is on the minds of all the characters; it is their constant companion, louder and more insistent for some than others.

“Alma suspected that death was drawing closer. Previously, she could sense it in the neighborhood, then hear it whispering in the dark corners of the house, but now it was lurking around her apartment. At sixty she thought of death in abstract terms as something that did not concern her; at seventy it was a distant relative who was easy to forget because it never arose in conversation, but would inevitably come to visit one day. At eighty, she had become acquainted with it and talked about it.” 184-185

The characters who began the book as strangers become family to one another. Even those who are no longer alive and only exist inside the stories Alma tells become precious to Seth and Irina. The love Irina, Seth, and Alma find with one another lifts them all up and makes it possible for all of them to make peace with the past and, for the aging, to begin to let go of living. For Alma, conjuring Ichimei up for her stories, revisiting his letters, and reliving their romance brings her enormous joy and comfort.

The book is a masterpiece. Allende’s language is at times soft and gentle, at others strong and powerful but always perfectly captures her characters and their emotions. Although the novel describes wide-arcing stories that cover almost eighty years, it is told with a tempo that is fast but not rushed, as if Allende, like Alma, has much to say before time runs out.

Island of Glass by Nora Roberts (2016)

Book #3 in The Guardians trilogy. A review of Book #1 of The Guardians trilogy can be found here: http://wp.me/p6N6mT-2K  (Note: Although I read it, I did not post a review of Book 2.)

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Cliffs of Moher, County Clare, Ireland

 

 

Readers who follow this blog are well aware that I love Nora Roberts. After first discovering her as a teenager, I have been an unabashed fan of her work since then and I have read — although people often doubt me! — every single one of her more than two hundred and seventy-five books. Nora Roberts consistently delivers exactly what I want in a romance novel (or, in the case of her JD Robb books: a science-fiction murder-mystery) and always ties up every single storyline, just in time, with a happy ending.

All that praise aside, I have to admit that I do not like this most recent trilogy. The books have some of the elements of her books that I do love: a steamy romance between two sexy consenting adults; a great supporting cast of characters; an enviously luxurious setting; and a larger story of being on a quest — in this case, to save the world. Somehow, though, the story feels lacking in some indefinable element. After some thought, I have decided that she has written past stories that are similar to these but also better than these and, by comparison, I find The Guardians lacking. Not terrible, not unreadable…but somehow less than her supernatural-fantasy-romance best.

SPOILER ALERT: If you continue to read this post, I might spoil some secrets that are revealed in books one and two. As always, I strongly suggest that you read every book series in order! (Side note: some of this material appeared in my blog review of book #1 http://wp.me/p6N6mT-2K )

Officially classified as a romance, the book actually belongs in the sub-genre of supernatural romance, of which Roberts has written more than a few novels. The story of Stars of Fortune follows six gifted young people — Bran, Sasha, Riley, Sawyer, Doyle, and Annika — who come together to complete an epic quest searching for three priceless jewels, the Stars of Fortune, that have been hidden on earth by three goddesses from a distant world. They must learn to live, search, and fight as a team in the hopes of finding the jewels and of defeating the evil sorceress who is searching for them herself.  All six of the characters are all supernaturally gifted: Riley is a bright archaeologist and a Lycan; Sawyer is a time-traveler; Doyle is a weapons-wielding immortal; Sasha is a seer; Bran is a wizard; and Annika is a mermaid brought to the surface for a short time to help the others.

In Island of Glass, we find our heroes newly arrived at the final destination on their quest: a mansion on the coast of Ireland. Here, surrounded by sumptuous furnishings and gorgeous scenery, they begin the work of locating the last Star of Fortune. Using a combination of ancient texts, excursions to remote parts of Ireland, and magic, the team grows closer and closer to finding the Star. Along the way, they learn that a much deeper magic than simple friendship has linked them together and — of course — the final two characters, Doyle and Riley, fall in love.

Even though I do not always love supernatural and fantasy romance novels, I still have loved some of Robert’s previous books in that genre (see two suggestions below.) This time, however, things just seem super-supernatural, to the point of being silly: distant planets, hidden parallel worlds, everyone a supernatural being, everyone on a life and death quest to save the world; and there is still time for a lot of steamy sex!  Oddly, even with all that going on, there is still quite a bit of the novel dedicated to domesticity. Every time the action slows, there are discussions of who’s doing the dishes and whose turn it is to do the laundry. While I applaud Roberts’s attempt to address the issue of shared work between the men and women, at times it gets to be too much of the plot.

Those criticisms aside: Roberts’s book is populated with likable characters and her signature romantic story-arc is, as always, nice to read. The simple fact is this: she has written similar stories before that make Stars of Fortune seem less than her best.

Among the similar books that Roberts has written, there are several I would recommend in place of Stars of Fortune. If you are in search of supernatural romance, try Three Sisters Island trilogy which follows three witches who must use their powers to stop an dark, menacing presence haunting their beloved island. If you like the idea of a story about six people fated to fight evil together, a better read is the Signs of Seven trilogy which finds a group of six living and working together to defeat the ghost that infects the residents of their town every summer.  If you prefer traditional romances rather than supernatural stories, try The Reef (a stand alone novel) and The Chesapeake Bay Saga (four books told by four male narrators). Reviews of many, many of her books can be found by clicking the Tag “Nora Roberts,” on the right hand side of the main page of this website.

Find a list of all her series, including the ones I mentioned, here http://noraroberts.com/trilogies-and-series/

 

Unquiet Land by Sharon Shinn (2016)

Book 4 in the Elemental Blessings series. Book #1 reviewed here http://wp.me/p6N6mT-1q1 Book #2 reviewed here http://wp.me/p6N6mT-1re Book #3 is reviewed here http://wp.me/p6N6mT-1s0

“In Welce we affiliate ourselves with one of the five elements — fire, water, air, earth and wood. But there is more to it than that. Each element corresponds to a physical component. Fire and mind. Water and blood. Air and spirit. Wood and bone. Earth and flesh.  But we’re never just one element. We realize we need all of our elements, all of our physical selves, to function in harmony.” From Jeweled Fire (Book #3)

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Sharon Shinn has created a fantasy series that is about women and for women; one that fulfills our desire for books that are both rich in setting as well as story. Exotic lands, mystical people, curious customs, magic, desire, and danger are all present in her stories. Missing — thankfully — are the misogynistic story-lines and female characters, common in male-written fantasy novels, that exist only to be rape victims or scheming wives. Instead Shinn’s Elemental Blessings series has created four female-centric novels where the women are powerful, sensual, and intelligent; women who rule their country with peace and prosperity, and who are partners with — not the property of — the men in their lives. Additionally, by focusing on the affiliation the characters have to the natural elements, she creates a wonderful framework for her world: one that is balanced, rich, and nourishing.

The latest installment of Sharon Shinn’s Elemental Blessings series, Unquiet Land, returns readers once again to the far-away, magical land of Welce and back into the chaos of that country’s royal family. Just as the author did in the first three books, Unquiet Land, introduces us to a fiercely intelligent, independent, and spirited young heroine — Leah Frothen. Leah is a young woman affiliated with Earth and Flesh elements, a woman who yearns deeply to be in her homeland and be surrounded by her family but who instead has lived away from them for five years to serve as a spy in foreign lands. Finally returned to Welce and back with her loving extended family, Leah begins to allow herself to hope that a life of stability and tranquility can be hers. Before she can begin to create that quiet life for herself, she is called on by the King to resume her spying.

Soon Leah finds herself courting foreign visitors whose appetites for debauchery and violence make them very dangerous people to entertain; people who would be deadly foes if they found out her secret agreement with the King. Calling upon her newly renewed ties to her extended family and her relationships with some of the seedier residents of Welce’s capital city, she begins to suspect that her visitors are responsible for a string of terrifying crimes and might possibly have plans to harm the royal family.

A well-written novel that is entertaining and unique as well as romantic, with a new heroine that is as fiery and likable as the first three (and with the added bonus of bringing back two of Shinn’s heroines from books one and two.)

Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin (2015)

Spurred on by my enjoyment of re-reading Gretchen Rubin’s Happier at Home (here: http://wp.me/p6N6mT-1zq ), I picked up my copy of Better Than Before and re-read it as well. Better Than Before is Rubin’s outstanding book about changing habits — how to form good ones and break bad ones — in which she lays out a plan to help readers accomplish our goals by encouraging us to deeply examine ourselves for clues on how to make our changes stick. Self-knowledge, Rubin argues, allows us to harness the power of who we are to help us become who we want to be.

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Originally posted October 1, 2015

In Better Than Before, Gretchen Rubin offers us concrete ways to stop doing the things we we found out we want to stop (nagging, shouting when I’m in a hurry) and start cultivating the habits we want in our life (start a blog!)

Where her earlier two books focused on strategies Rubin tested in her own life, Better Than Before seeks to help readers find exact methods that will lead them to personal success in creating better, healthier habits. Identifying what we want to change is the easy part! What next? The book asks us to study our “Tendencies,” those idiosyncrasies and personal traits that guide our daily decisions (are you a morning person or night owl? do you like large groups or private activities? do you need to be accountable to others or are you good at self-monitoring?) to help us pick pathways to habit formation that suit us best. Know thyself! As the author wisely points out, a night owl who signs up for a 6am Spin class might find it hard to cultivate the habit of attending the class.

You can take Rubin’s quiz right now to find out your Tendency! http://gretchenrubin.com/happiness_project/2014/03/quiz-are-you-an-upholder-a-questioner-a-rebel-or-an-obliger/

Once we have sorted ourselves into our Hogwarts houses (or Four Tendencies, as it they are called in the book), Rubin peppers us with dozens of strategies we might employ to develop those good habits. We can find ways to schedule our good habits; monitor our progress; hold ourselves accountable; and identify the “loopholes,” or excuses, we are likely to use to block our path. The ideas outlined are practical and simple to start (regularly forget to take your vitamins? do it with the never-missed morning cup of coffee every day.) And the volume of ideas she presents means that we can discard any practice we feel certain will not work for us, and try the next!

As an unabashed Upholder who easily sticks to new habits and who is obsessed with keeping track of all of those habits on various calendars and apps, I love that the book confirms my instincts for staying on track. More importantly, I see the great wisdom of the book for people who are not Upholders and for whom how to create new routines can seem a mystery. A simple formula can be found! Set a goal + adjust for your tendency (the “variables” in your personality) + plan for ways around your weaknesses and excuses  = and a successful routine of good habits can be created.

We can know ourselves, identify our excuses, track our progress, and end up with habits that make us happier, right now, today, by following Rubin’s examples and advice. And who doesn’t want that?

The Thousandth Floor by Katharine McGee (2016)

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In The Thousandth Floor, Katharine McGee has written a young adult science fiction novel that is sophisticated, edgy, and sexy. Driven by five excellently crafted narrators, with the story’s events unfolding in a spectacular setting, the book is both a fast-paced thriller and an emotionally-raw portrayal of the timeless need humans have to be find someone they trust to love them.

In the year 2118, the world has been dramatically reshaped by (invisible to the reader) environmental events, and the cities of the twenty-first century no longer exist. Constructed over the last century, The Tower was built to house the residents of New York City: a thousand floor building into which all of “Old New York” has been transported. Massive in size, the structure has been constructed to mimic the outside world, which is now too hostile for day-to-day living. Inside the Tower are hologram-generated views, manufactured weather, fake sunlight, genetically modified plants, a building-wide transportation system that mimics public transportation. In order to preserve the comforts and privileges of the rich, the Tower has been segregated by floor. The lower floors, dirty and crowded, are home to the poor; the middle floors are the dreaded suburban section of the Tower; and the upper floors — lush, glamorous, filled with every possible luxury –are reserved for the most wealthy families. For its residents, the Tower is where they spend every moment of their lives, with trips to the outside dangerous and expensive.

McGee’s 2118 is technologically and medically advanced; with hi-tech  methods of communication and travel, as well as a long list of new temptations: enhanced social media outlets, VR gaming, designer drugs, alcohol, and easy to find sex. Perhaps it is the fact that these indulgences are more readily available; perhaps it is the fact that the social stigma surrounding them has dulled; or it might be a result of the quasi-safety of the cloistered life in the Tower, but the teens in the story indulge in a myriad of risky behaviors in a manner that is socially acceptable. The freedom to behave like adults makes their lives seem far more sophisticated than their age would suggest and makes their stories far from childish.

Enter our five teenage narrators — Avery, Leda, Eris, Watt, and Rylin — who are all living  in the Tower. Living on the 1000th floor of the Tower is Avery Fuller, part of one the wealthiest families in world. Avery is a stunningly beautiful girl who was genetically modified by her wealthy parents to be flawless. Adored by all and worshiped for her beauty and money, Avery fears showing anyone her emotional flaws, and as a result she keeps a desperate secret from the world. She wants to find a boy who can see beyond her manufactured perfection and love her for who she really is.

Leda Cole’s family is newly wealthy and she navigates her new life in the glitzy world of the Upper Tower with less ease than her peers. After an illicit affair which she must keep secret, she develops a drug and alcohol addiction to deal with her heartache and insecurities. Hopeful that a romance with a boy she has loved for years will pull her out of her downward spiral, Leda becomes more and more desperate to win his love.

Eris Dodd-Radon is Avery’s rich and beautiful side-kick, whose happiness stems from her father’s endless supply of money and the sexual attention she garners from the most desirable boys and girls in the Tower. When her parents secrets are reveals and their family’s fortunes shift and she finds herself without the armor of money and power, she becomes more vulnerable and insecure than she ever imagined possible.

Watt Bakradi is a super-genius living on the lower floors, who puts his computer skills to use helping his family pay their bills and saving for college. He is in business of stealing — and profiting from — other people’s secrets, and he must walk a fine line between legality and profitability if he has any hope to move up in the world. When he falls in love with an Upper Floor girl, he must decide how many of her secrets he can exploit to win her attention without losing her.

Finally, we meet Rylin Myers, an orphaned teenage girl living at the very bottom of the Tower, supporting her younger sister with a series of terrible jobs and — at times — illegal activities. She wants more than anything to provide her sister a good life but she cannot help frequently unwinding with drugs, sex, and drinking. Her financial desperation leads her to lie and steal, even though it might not only threaten her chances at love, but her sister’s future.

As the story unfolds, the lives of these five characters draw closer and closer together, and the lies they tell one another grow larger and more complex. McGee writes a thrilling page-turner (I finished it in just a few hours!) that is filled with teenage characters who are — despite their futuristic setting and high-tech advancements — achingly real, with a yearning for love and acceptance that is universal.