The Breakdown by B.A. Paris (2017)

Cass Anderson is driving home one dark and stormy night, taking an isolated country road, when she sees a woman sitting in a parked car. Cass stops thinking to offer her assistance but sensing that the situation may be more sinister than it appears, drives off without helping.

When she awakens the next morning, Cass learns that the woman in the car has been found murdered and that she may have unknowingly been the only witness to the crime. So what stops her from reporting what she knows to the police? Her deep mistrust of herself.

Suffering of late from short-term memory loss and anxiety, Cass’s memories are often foggy and incorrect and her mistakes regularly lead to problems with her husband and friends. As a result, Cass has learned not to trust things she sees or thinks she sees; so she keeps her information to herself.

The guilt at withholding information from the police causes Cass great stress and her memory problems begin to worsen. Soon, Cass finds herself drawn deeper and deeper into the mystery surrounding the woman’s death and she becomes increasing convinced that the murderer may be after her as well. The only problem is that no one believes that anyone is after her, only that her mental problems have become so severe that she is delusional.

As the story progresses, Cass finds herself more and more isolated and vulnerable, to the point that she alone must prove that her fears are real — that she does have information about the murder that is putting her in danger — or to accept that she has lost her mind completely.

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The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid (2017)

seven husbands of evelyn hugo

In her newest, non-traditional romance novel, Taylor Jenkins Reid, writes a story about a former Hollywood starlet’s famously scandalous life told as a series of flashbacks that center on her seven widely publicized marriages to similarly famous men. Filled with behind-the-scenes glimpses into the machinations of Hollywood, the novel highlights the ways in which the rich and famous may consider marriage something to maximize their box-office potential; and where love, passion, and compatibility means little.

Evelyn Hugo, once Hollywood royalty, one of the most sought-after and beautiful movie stars of the 1950s and 1960s, in the present day is a reclusive millionaire who is rarely seen and never gives interviews. So when Evelyn reaches out to staff writer Monique Grant at the fictional Vivant magazine, offering the young woman the chance to interview her for the first time in years, Monique jumps at the chance. She digs deep into the press surrounding the actress’s decades-long career and her seven marriages and thinks she has a sense of the woman she will be interviewing. Everything she reads leaves her feeling dazzled by Evelyn’s beauty, fame, and wealth.

However, when Monique arrives to meet Evelyn she is shocked to find that the woman is not interested a magazine piece about a charity event, but rather in finally telling the world the true story of her life. Without preamble, Evelyn asks Monique to write her biography, a no-holds-barred account of every betrayal, every scandal, every lie of the actress’s life.

Shocked at the request, Monique insists she is unqualified for such a task and is uncertain how Evelyn has singled her out from all the other writers in New York City. She knows this is a golden ticket, that a book about the real life of Evelyn Hugo would bring her fame and fortune almost overnight, yet Monique still hesitates. Should she tell her boss? Is this too big of a task to handle? Should she offer the chance to write this book to a more seasoned writer?

Monique reluctance angers Evelyn, who tells her the it is time for her to learn that the most important lesson in becoming a success is taking opportunities as they come; without considering others feelings and without guilt. And so begins the relationship between the two women.

Evelyn tells her story, and as promised, she leaves nothing out. She tells the real history, not the fabricated version concocted by agents and movie studios, but the gritty one about a woman who would do anything, hurt anyone, tell any lie, to become a star. What follows is not just a story about the secret life of celebrities and how truly tawdry Hollywood is off-screen (although it is that), but about a woman who passes up chance to be with the real love of her life in order to “protect” her career.

A bond forms between the woman as they work. As she reveals her secrets to Monique, Evelyn also teaches the young woman several important lessons about standing up for yourself, not apologizing for taking opportunities at work, and for not accepting any relationship that is not making her happy.

Although the writing is a bit dry at times, and the story feels less lively that its subject matter perhaps could be written about, the story is interesting and engaging…with a few twists that keep you guessing until the end.

The Circle by Dave Eggers (2013)

Dave Eggers’ The Circle is a near-future dystopia where one super-tech company (think Google + Facebook + Amazon) is attempting to integrate the entire human experience into an online sphere, where everything you do, buy, wear, and think is shared in a continuous stream with the entire world; with the ultimate goal to erase anonymity and make privacy obsolete.

The story’s main character, Mae, is a young woman, newly recruited to work at a tech company called The Circle, a dream-job for her. Mae is dazzled by the extravagant campus — gyms, pools, restaurants, a hospital, shopping, theaters, and more — and cutting edge tech at the company. While Mae expected to be part of a highly competitive and extremely hard-working group, it quickly becomes clear that working for The Circle is not a career but a lifestyle. Mae must not only meet her work deadlines and commitments, but become part of the social structure of the company: dedicating nights, weekends, and countless hours online during her days and nights connecting — endlessly — with her co-workers.

Also startling, is the lack of privacy she must adapt to: her medical records accessed and used to monitor her health; her entire online past uploaded and shared with the entire company; video monitoring her all day and night; and the constant reminders from her superiors that she is being watched and judged. All of this, she reasons, is the price one pays to work for the largest company in the world and to be at the fore-front of the tech revolution.

The Circle beings to announce more and more radical products and services — including hidden cameras stashed that can be bought and placed (undetected) anywhere in the world to send a constant video feed to the Internet — in becomes clear that the company plans to force the world to adapt to The Circle’s ideas of democracy, privacy, and accountability…without asking government for permission.

Two characters emerge as foils to devotion the employees of The Circle’s maintain: Mae’s high school boyfriend who is a critic of the direction The Circle is taking the world, and a mysterious co-worker, Kalden who Mae starts an illicit affair with and who shows her a different, darker side of The Circle. But Mae is in too deep, she agrees to “go transparent” and wear a camera and recording device 24/7 to ensure her complete honesty and makes her lack of privacy utterly complete.

Eggers has created a richly imagined and greatly detailed world and presents it to readers in such a straight-forward manner that it seems like an entirely plausible near-future. However, the book has some drawbacks that distract from the story; many of which seem to stem from a stereotypes about women that the author — perhaps unknowingly, perhaps not — renforces in this book. Among these flaws are the unevenness of his main character Mae, who Eggers tries to portray as a a woman smart enough to quickly become a star employee and charming enough to be quite popular, but is also naive, selfish, incompetent, and back-stabbing. It is unclear whether these are character flaws that stem from her personality, or from the fact that she is a woman. Furthermore, Eggers does what so many male writers do with their female characters by oversexualizing Mae’s character in ways that are out of step with women in general, and this character specifically.

Also of note is the fact that the author feels the need to repeatedly, and at length, lecture readers about the finer details of the plot. Instead of relying on his readers to deduce what dastardly things the company is getting up to, or allowing us to use plot clues to make sense of the dangers of a world without privacy might present, he uses character monologues — almost everytime it is male characters who are “mansplaining” to Mae what is going on at the company or in the world — once again suggesting that his female character is unable to comprehend on her own complex ideas and therefore must be to force fed them by her male counterparts.

This combination of gender-stereotype flaws are wearisome by the middle of the book, and seem practically condescending by the end of it, overshadowing some of the books more interesting ideas.

Since We Fell by Dennis Lehane (2017)

since we fell

In this new thriller, Dennis Lehane has written a novel that is really two books in one. The first part of the book is the tale of Rachel Childs, a woman trying to make her way in the world following series of devastating events. The second part of the book is a story about whether or not Rachel can rebuild herself after yet another enormous set-back. Together the two parts make for a well-written and thrilling story, with a strong and resilient main character that you cannot help but root for.

As a young girl, Rachel Childs was raised by a single mother after her father abandoned them. This abandonment left Rachel emotionally fragile and her mother filled with rage and bent on controlling and manipulating her daughter, determined to make it so Rachel would never be able to leave her mother to search for her father.

As she grew, Rachel found academic and professional successes, but remained haunted by her father’s desertion and her mother’s emotional abuse. When her mother is killed in a car crash, Rachel becomes determined to find her father once and for all. Along the way, Rachel finds that her mother had lied throughout her childhood, and many — if not all — of the truths she had relied on were never real. News of her mother’s betrayals leave Rachel unsteady and unsure of who she really is, but Rachel is determined to build a life that has all of the things she felt were denied her: stability, love, and honesty.

Flash forward several years, when we find Rachel living in Boston and fast rising through the ranks at a local televisions station as their star reporter. Married to a fellow news reporter, a man who is admires Rachel’s beauty, her success, and her drive but not the wounded woman within; he does not give her what she needs emotionally, but does give Rachel the sense of normalcy after such a tumultuous early life.

When the Haitian earthquakes hit, Rachel is given the chance to become an international reporter for a larger network. Initially, her reporting on the crisis win her acclaim and promotion, but soon the despair of the Haitian people and the horror that she faces while there begin to wear Rachel down. She has an on-air break-down that leads to her being fired, her reputation completely ruined, and her marriage dissolving.

Without the safety net of her job and husband, Rachel descends into the worst mental health breakdown of her life. Now panic attacks, crippling anxiety, and agoraphobia mean she lives like a shut in, unable to complete even the most basic tasks.

Against all odds, Rachel meets and falls in love with a man who promises to restore her life. Brain cares for her, accepts her mental health challenges with love, and helps her build a world where she feels safe… or so she thinks. When a series of strange events happen, Rachel is forced to look at her life — a life she wants to believe is finally perfect after all her past heart-aches — she must decide whether or not her husband has been lying to her, making her crippling fears worse not better, and using her mental state on control her.

And that is just part one of the novel. The rest is a thriller filled with twists and turns, lies, and murder. A wonderful book, perfect for summer!

Garden Spells & First Frost by Sarah Addison Allen

Garden Spells (2007),  and its sequel First Frost (2014) both by Sarah Addison Allen

garden spells

All of the Waverley women possess a bit of magic, never the same as her relatives, but interesting and exciting all the same. Their magic gifts and the special knowledge their magic gives them are well-known in their small North Carolina town, sometimes accepted and sought out, at other times scoffed at and feared. As a result, they are a family of women who always find themselves on the outside of things.

In Garden Spells, we meet Claire, Sydney, and Bay Waverley who all live in Bascom, North Carolina. Their ancestral home is surrounded by a magic garden where the plants can cast spells when prepared just right and in which a old apple tree stands. A tree rumored to show anyone who eats its apples the biggest moment in their lives; apples which the Waverley women who live in the house work constantly to prevent people from eating.

For Claire, who arrived in Bascom at age six, the town and her family who lived in it, were a refuge from the wild and often scary life her mother had lived with her on the road. Claire, like her grandmother before her, prepares foods from the magic garden that bewitch the people who eat them. “Nasturtium mayonnaise gave the ability to keep secrets, crystallized pansies made children thoughtful, honeysuckle wine when served on the Fourth of July gave you the ability to see in the dark, chicory and mint salad had you believing something good was about to happen.” (11) Also, like her grandmother, Claire is a bit of a recluse, fearful of change and wary of building relationships with people who might hurt her. Only through the family catering company, where she sells her magic food, is she a part of the town.

For Claire’s sister Sydney, Bascom was a prison where she was constantly avoided, and at times bullied, because of her family’s oddness. She left town at eighteen planning never to return but now finds herself back, living in Waverley mansion with her sister and her daughter Bay. Bascom, however small minded and mean she finds it, at least offers her and her daughter safety from her violent ex-boyfriend. Sydney’s gift is to be able to tell style a person’s hair and change the outcome of his or her day; a gift that makes her a sought-after hair dresser.

Bay Waverley is only five, but already she knows her gift: she can look at an object or a person and know exactly where it belongs. This means that Bay is always finding lost items, rearranging cabinets, and at times, nudging people towards to situations or relationships where they belong. Although young, she understands that she and her mother did not belong with her abusive father, but here in Bascom. And she also knows that her mother and aunt both belong with men who love them.

The sisters are faced with rebuilding their relationship and helping Bay find a place in a town that neither feels totally at home in. This means Sydney must share her secrets and find peace among the townspeople who mistreated her as a child. For her part, Claire must start to participate in the world more and accept friendship and love do not come with promises to never break her heart, but are worth the risk none the less. The curious nature of their magic blends together just so that all three of the Waverley’s draw good luck, love, and friendship to them all; and they are able to overcome their past hurts and heal.

first frost

First Frost (2014)

“On the day the tree bloomed in the fall, when its white blossoms fell and covered the ground like snow, it was tradition for the Waverleys to gather in the garden like survivors of some great catastrophe, hugging one another, laughing as they touched faces and arms, making sure they were okay, grateful to have gotten through it. It was a relief, putting their world back in order. They always got restless before the first frost, giving their hearts away to easily, wanting things they couldn’t have, getting distracted and clumsy and too easily influenced by the opinions of others. First Frost meant letting go, so it twas always a reason to celebrate.” 10

In a book set ten years after Garden Spells, Sarah Addison Allen brings back the magical Waverley women with another tale. In First Frost, our main narrator is Bay Waverley, now nearly sixteen and deeply entrenched in both her extended family and Bascom, NC. As October arrives, the Waverley women begin to feel wild and unteethered and cannot help but “want things they cannot have.” The magic tree that grows in the garden at Waverley mansion affects them all deeply, more and more the closer it draws towards the first frost.

In the intervening years since the first book, both Bay’s mother and her aunt have found love and built a loving family in the small town, but their hope to raise Bay without her being ostracized from the town’s non-magic residents were never realized.  Bay remains an outsider at school but resolutely refuses to let it hurt her. She knows, now even more so than when she arrived to Bascom in Garden Spells, that her magical gift — to know where objects and people belong — is exactly that, a gift. Even if it keeps people away from her, especially the boy she has fallen in love with from afar, Josh Matteson. A boy who has laughed at her claims that she belongs with him, spurned her love and left her humiliated.

“She belonged to him. That alone was hard enough to bear. But the fact that she knew he also belonged to her, that he was on a path he wasn’t meant for, was excruciating. Getting him to believe that was the hardest thing she’d ever tried to do. She finally understood that no matter how hard you try, you cannot make someone love you. You cannot stop them from making the wrong decision. There was no magic for that.” 17

Over the course of one month, all of the Waverley women — including now, Claire’s daughter Mariah — must hold the center while the tree and its magic tempts them to take too many risks and put their hearts too much on the line. Despite their sudden desire to keep secrets from each other, it is only together that they can get through the month without too much pain.

First Frost is just as magical and wonderful as its prequel, and it is so fun to see another generation of women in this powerful, loving family grow.

 

 

This One is Mine by Maria Semple (2008)

“Maria Semple writes with comic brilliance in this smart, compassionate, wickedly funny take on our need for more — and the sometimes disastrous choices we make in the name of happiness.” From the book jacket of This One is Mine

This One is Mine

Maria Semple has written a truly extraordinary novel in This One is Mine. It is populated with richly drawn characters; whose stories are compelling, intense, and reflective of some of the best and worst of human nature; and told throughout with smart, crisp, funny voice that is unique to Semple. This first novel of hers is grittier, edgier, and darker than her two more recent best-sellers, Where Did You Go Bernadette? and Today Will Be Different (reviewed here http://wp.me/p6N6mT-1mx ) and does not rely, as those two novels do, on gimmicky multi-textural elements.  This novel is simply a dynamic story told by a master storyteller, whose insight into the desperation of people chasing down their version of “happiness” is spot on.

Violet and David Parry are an LA power couple, immensely rich and widely envied for their lavish lifestyle and celebrity friends. They are also deeply unhappy in their marriage, teetering on the edge of divorce, and unable to communicate with one another about simple things…and certainly not about what is happening to their marriage. David finds himself disgusted with his wife’s descent from edgy TV writer and intellectual into a deeply depressed stay-at-home mother whose only past-time — he believes — is spending his money.

Violet also does not recognize herself, physically and mentally emptied by post-partum depression and her husband’s increasingly cruel emotional abuse. She is woken up from her numbness when she meets Teddy, a ex-junkie, musician, and sex addict who makes her feel alive with his obsession with her. Through Teddy, Violet once again is reminded of the smart, creative, sexy woman she used to be; the reawakening of those feelings are like a drug to her. Suddenly, she is doing anything and everything for Teddy, including risking her marriage and custody of her daughter to pursue him and make him love her. The worse Teddy treats her, the riskier her behavior grows, and her discretion vanishes.

On the edges of Violet and David’s life flits David’s younger sister Sally. Sally is gorgeous and sexy, desperate to land a rich husband so she can live a life more like her brother and his wife. In fact, she is so obsessed with creating her “ideal” life that she has become unhinged; mistreating friends, lying to men, and constantly scheming ways to get more of everything she feels is owed to her. Her lies and manipulations lead to disastrous consequences, from which Violet and David are forced to rescue her.

The characters in the novel are all so desperate for a different, better, more perfect life that they begin to destroy themselves in the name of having it all. Semple’s intelligence and wit are on clear display in her writing, as is her wide-reaching knowledge of current events and her startling astute grasp of human nature…at its best and its worst. This book was outstanding; unique, sad, funny, awful, and hopeful all at once, and I could not put it down.

 

Forever Interrupted by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Elsie Porter is a newlywed, dazzled with love for her new husband Ben Ross. The two are basking in the glow of their six-month, whirl-wind romance and marriage…and then Ben is killed in a car crash.

Elsie’s world is shattered. Suddenly she is not a bride but a widow, her grief at her lost future enormous. She also finds that her legitimacy to grieve Ben, and to make decisions about his affairs, is challenged by those who knew him longer — namely Ben’s mother, Susan — or those who feel her pain is disproportionate to the time she spent with Ben. It is as if her love with Ben has been erased from the earth, with only her left to have witnessed it.

So Elsie must work her way through her heartache and loneliness with only one friend to care for her. Her situation quickly wears on her colleagues and acquaintances, who all seem to want for her to get over Ben and get back to her “normal” life. But Elsie knows that her normal life is gone, and her new life will be slow to start.

The story has Elsie not healing by finding a new romance (as chick lit often does), but by following the advice of a widow who has experience in the process: Ben’s mother, Susan.

Susan has reached out to make amends after the horrible way she treated Elsie; namely denying her marriage to Ben and forbidding from being part of the funeral since neither she nor any of Ben’s family had ever even met her. Elsie is skeptical of Susan’s motives, but feels drawn to the only person on earth who seems to miss Ben as much as she does; a woman (it turns out) who has some very wise advice for a new widow trying to put her life back together.

A very sweet, non-traditional romance novel — the romance takes place completely in flashbacks — but also a good story of women helping one another through a crisis.