Radiant Shimmering Light by Sarah Selecky (2018)

In this thought-provoking novel, Sarah Selecky shines a light — equally scathing, mocking, and sincere — on the newest trends in “women’s wellness.” She analyzes the power and folly of social media driven, pseudo-spiritual lifestyles that demand from its (mostly female) followers slavish attention to living pure and a religious devotion on ones image.

In Radiant, our narrator Lilian Quick is a struggling artist living in Toronto who leans on social-media savvy, self-help gurus to guide her towards a better life. Despite being a believer in trendy diets and mantra-chanting, she still finds her business and personal relationships stalled out. Enter Lilian’s cousin, Eleven, a mega-star in the self-help industry, a woman making millions selling women a lifestyle brand that is one part feminism, ten parts consumerism.

Under the guise of empowerment, Eleven is asking women to invest massive amounts of money to adopt her pre-approved, quasi-Hasidic ways of living. She promises unimaginable returns of wealth, success, and happiness to followers who use her products and follow her prescribed routines. Followers will eat pure (vegan, gluten-free, sugar-free, non-toxic,) live pure (high-end organic clothes, pricey meditation-based exercise) and those who comply will be rewarded with enlightenment. In reality, these practices and purchases have nothing to do with personal growth or happiness, and Eleven’s lifestyle is, in fact, an almost comically oppressive way to live.

Eleven invites Lilian to work for her company and become a student of her self-empowerment program, The Ascendency, promising it will transform her into the highest version of herself. Lilian agrees and whole-heartedly embraces all the tenements of Eleven’s brand. Immediately, Lilian changes how she does almost everything in her life so that she is in sync with the company and its messages. Although she presents the “Path” to her followers as flexible and self-expressive, Eleven actually controls everything her acolytes (including Lilian) do: their ways of eating, drinking, socializing, relaxing, and thinking now must conform.

The deception lies in the masking of the true intentions of the program: the things being promoted seem natural and pure, making it difficult for followers to see that they are being manipulated to spend money on things they do not need and, in fact, do not work. Eleven’s Ascendency purports to be a revolutionary way of thinking. In fact it delivers the same culture messages women have been hearing for centuries: be thin, be beautiful, be youthful, be subservient…completely change yourself in order to conform.

The wonderfully crafted tension in this book is that women do (and should) want things such as passion, creativity, solitude, and spirituality. Women should support one another and should take risks and disregard the expectations of others. However, the Ascendency model offers its followers a grotesque commodification of wellness, one which is especially manipulative of women. Only when she bucks the program does Lilian see the “light.”

 

 

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The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker (2012)

the age of miracles

Unlike many of its counter-parts, The Age of Miracles, is a dystopian science-fiction story that does not contain any sudden, dramatic events that change the lives of the characters in the story overnight.  The change that leads to the unraveling of society is this novel — called The Slowing — is so small, so gradual, so invisible, that no one even notices when it begins and even after it is detected, many refuse to believe it is real.

Our narrator is eleven year old Julia who catalogs all of the catastrophic global events that unfold during the two years of the story, as well as her own smaller personal problems. Even though The Slowing is happening on a massive global — even galaxy-wide — scale, Julia is still a adolescent girl who must experience them at the same time she must grapple with everyday problems with loneliness, bullying, and first crushes.

The phenomenon of The Slowing is the, at first, imperceptible slowing of the earth in its rotation. When scientists first recognize that is it taking a few seconds longer for the earth to turn from one day to the next, the problem is so small it seem inconsequential. The problem promptly picks up speed and within a few weeks the days are 30 minutes longer; then in just a few more weeks the days are hours longer than the previous 24. The Slowing is causes problems at first that seem manageable: how to sync up clocks with the new, longer days so that businesses and governments can run as usual. As the problem (and the length of days) grow, all living things on earth struggle to adapt. Crops and plants struggle with rising hours of sunlight (and the higher temperatures this brings) and the cold of the longer nights. Birds fall from the sky as the increasing effects of gravity make flying impossible. And people — who are delicately in tune with the day/night cycles, the tides, the seasons, and the weather — begin to suffer from illnesses caused by being out of sync.

The stress of these global problems begins to effect everyone on earth, including Julia and her parents, as well as their neighbors and friends. Cults spring up, religious groups move to large communities in rural areas, and small groups who are trying to live in sync with the new length of the day/night begin to split off from their “on clock” counterparts: all of these create “us” versus “them” tensions.

Julia calmly reports on the problems in her own house and those she witnesses outside the window. She sees her mother struggle with symptoms of strange illnesses, sees her best friend withdraw to a Mormons-only community, and her parents turn on a neighbor who refuses to stay ” on clock.” All of these massive and complex problems do not prevent the smaller problems of puberty and adolescence that also plague her as she and her parents try to continue to live a normal life…while they can.

The Age of Miracles surprised me with how riveting it remained throughout given its slow, deliberate, unhurried pace. It proved to be unique in every way and a delight to read.

Watching You by Lisa Jewell (2018)

watching you l jewell

In this captivating thriller, a cast of characters living in a idyllic community in Bristol, England find themselves at the center of what seems, at the outset, a series of unconnected events but become a twisting and complicated set of mysteries that will entangle them all with a murder.

At the center of the story is a Tom Fitzwilliam, a national hero of school reform and currently the principal of a once-failing school in Bristol. Charismatic, handsome, and dynamic, Tom is practically worshiped for his ability to turn around struggling schools…and he is actually worshiped by women who cannot help but find themselves attracted to him. For years his work has meant that he, his wife, and their teenage son have moved from town to town, repairing schools and charming women.

The most recent woman to fall under his spell is his neighbor, Josephine Mullen, a gorgeous newlywed who is distracting herself from doubts about her hasty marriage with fantasies about Tom.

Another neighbor, Frankie, is also obsessed with Tom. Frankie is a schizophrenic woman who lives in town and who is convinced Tom is a criminal who is stalking her to keep her from revealing his secrets. Although her ranting is largely ignored, her teenage daughter Jenna cannot help but feel that there might be a thread of truth to her mother’s stories.

While Joey is starting a dangerous flirtation with Tom; Jenna is busy digging into Tom’s past to see if he can be connected to troubling incidents in each of the towns he has lived in. To complicate matters for Tom, his teenage son is also suspicious of his father and begins his own investigation and his wife is becoming jealous of the time he spends at “work.”

Piece by piece, several mysteries linked to Tom — some decades old — come to light and just as the characters in the book are trying to work them all out, a murder raises the stakes on solving them.

The Adults by Caroline Hulse (2018)

Claire and Matt are a divorced couple sharing custody of their seven-year-old daughter, Scarlett. Sensing that their daughter is not handling their divorce well and that she will soon be too old for fancy Christmas celebrations, Claire and Matt decided to book a week at a cabin in the country for the holiday. Both of them are in new, live-in relationships and flippantly decide that everyone should attend together and share a cabin. They are “adults” after all, they argue, and surely everyone should be able to handle one week without making a fuss. That assumption turns out to be a horrible miscalculation.

Before the trip even begins, things go wrong. Matt’s new girlfriend Alex is told about the trip at the last minute and Matt decides to hide some specific (and ultimately, important) details from her. This ensures that, from the get go, Alex is in the dark and out of step with Matt, Claire, and Scarlett. Claire’s new partner Patrick is strong-armed into coming, rather than spending time with his own children, and finds himself made to feel like butt of the joke more often than he would (or anyone, really) would like.

As if the awkwardness of the situation wasn’t bad enough, Matt and Claire both want to recreate some of their earlier Christmas memories with Scarlett; many of which don’t include Alex or Patrick, making them feel even more like outsiders. The final nail in the coffin is Scarlett’s cruel behavior towards Alex and Patrick.

When you put four adults who are growing more and more angry with one another in a too small cabin with nothing to do and plenty of alcohol, you create a tinderbox. Civilized conversations become shouting matches, family outings become bar brawls, and trips to Santa become the time to reveal dirty secrets.

The Adults is reminiscent of Lianne Moriarty novels, although her characters are a bit difficult to like and their behavior leaving readers wondering why in the world didn’t they just go home? That said, dysfunctional families behaving badly at Christmas are always good for a laugh.

Kingdom of the Blind by Louise Penny (2018)

kingdom of the blind

One of my favorite book characters of all time, Armand Gamache, is back for his fourteenth  adventure in and around the picturesque Quebec village of Three Pines. The novel opens with Gamache answering a mysterious letter that asks him to travel to a nearby home to meet at notary public. Curious what the man could need, Gamache braves a winter storm to travel to the meeting place — a condemned house. Once there he is shocked to learn Myrna Landers, a fellow Three Pines villager, has been summoned as well.  It seems that they have been named executors of a will of a elderly woman who they have never met.

Before they can decide whether to accept the responsibility, the snow storm blows into a blizzard and they must make a dangerous drive to Three Pines to hunker down for the duration. Out of the cold, the notary explains that the will is extremely unusual. Beyond naming strangers to carry out her wishes, it seems the deceased woman —  a cleaning woman before her death — claims to be an Austrian Baroness who has millions and owns property across Europe.

Intrigued, they agree to handle the will and begin their own investigation into the life of the Baroness; including interviewing her children and examining Austrian history. Their search into the woman’s past starts as a simple curiosity, but takes a serious turn when the woman’s oldest son is found dead.

Gamache remains on suspension following the violent and deadly end of a drug war take down in Glass Houses https://wp.me/p6N6mT-36v , which means bringing in Jean Guy Beauvoir and his Sûreté du Québec officers to assist.

While trying to untangle the complexities of the will and related the murder, Gamache is also witnessing the down-fall of a young woman he had mentored through the police academy. After being caught selling drugs, she is expelled and returns to the streets, letting Gamache down spectacularly.  She begins to push drugs on her fellow addicts: not just any drug, but carfentanyl, which is by far the most deadly opioid to ever enter North America.

As winter rages on, Gamache and his fellow neighbors and officers explore both of these complicated cases: one that takes them into the darkest corners of Montreal and the other to the pre-WWI Austria and a family feud that is still reverberating 130 years later.

Winter in Paradise by Elin Hilderbrand (2018)

winter in paradise

Russ, Irene, Cash, and Baker Steele are living quiet, if unhappy, lives at the start of  2019. Russ in, per his usual, traveling for work; Irene is quietly troubled that she has been demoted from her dream job; Cash has just learned a business his father helped him start is bankrupt; and Baker’s rocky marriage has just gotten another shock. One phone call renders those worries moot.

Irene learns her husband has died in a helicopter crash in St. John Virgin Islands, thousands of miles away from where she thought he was on business. And that is just the start of the mysteries that the phone call unravels. It turns out Russ was not a traveling salesman but engaged in some shady business transactions. He also owns a home in St John that none of his family knew existed, one worth as much as $15 million dollars. Finally, he died alongside a woman who was his long-time mistress.

Irene is unsure how in the world she is supposed to process her husband’s death and his unimaginable deceit; so she decides to fly to St John to learn in person what has taken place and just what her husband was engaged in. Her sons, while shocked to lose their father, both welcome joining their mother in the islands, if only to escape their crumbling home lives.

Upon arrival, they find “St John” Russ is a man none of them recognize. Gone is the humble, gentle businessman from Iowa: here Russ made a part-time home in a multi-million mansion, engaged in a years-long relationship with his mistress, and hiding enough secrets that a local man was charged with destroying all of his possessions in the event of his death.

Unsure how one processes events such as these, the family begins personal investigations of the the mistress, the home, Russ’s business, in an attempt to piece together why Russ told such lies and what those lies mean for them going forward.

Although the book is much like her others, the new locale brings a new energy to her standard story choices. I would have liked to see the story written in past-tense, as the  present-tense writing detracted from the overall tone of the book.

Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty

nine perfect strangers

Nine Perfect Strangers is Liane Moriarty at her best: writing an intriguing, fast-paced, character-driven story about a group of — as the title suggests — strangers who find themselves in the middle of a most extraordinary experience. Even though what happens is shocking, the group find themselves transformed at the end of it.

Each of the story’s nine characters is a guest at Tranquility House, an upscale health resort and spa that caters to men and women who need to “detoxify”, “unplug,” and “re-balance themselves.” Outwardly, these guests are all seeking rest and relaxation, but under the bland exteriors they display for their fellow guests and the spa’s staff, each of them is managing darker, more serious problems.

Frances is a romance novelist whose career might be coming to an end, at just the same time as she is dealing with the humiliation of a complicated breakup. Her stresses have manifested as physical symptoms and she is seeks to escape her problems for a few days in the hopes that massages and healthy food can heal her.

Lars is a divorce attorney who admits to being a health resort junkie, insisting he only comes to balance out his excesses at home. What he is refusing to address is that his relationship to a lovely man may be ending because Lars refuses to start a family. Looking at the problem too closely might mean light, breezy, “no problem” Lars has to look back at his own difficult childhood.

Tony is a man whose depression has crept up slowly and is threatening to swallow him. He has abandoned all the things and people he once loved and is self-medicating with food, beer, and television. He chooses Tranquility House hoping to shock himself out of his downward spiral.

Carmel is a mother of four little girls, who was blindsided by her husband’s decision that he no longer loved her and was divorcing her. Stunned, Carmel has suppressed all her anger and fear over the divorce and buried herself in busyness to keep the pain at bay. The only feelings she has allowed herself to feel is self-hatred toward her aging body. She tells everyone she is simply there to lose weight, but deep down knows she is going to have to address her self-loathing and rage in order to heal.

Ben and Jessica are a young married couple for whom winning the lottery has ruined their lives. The money has estranged them from family and friends, left them with too much free time and no rules, and meant that the faults in their marriage that they once blamed on having no money can no longer be ignored.

Finally, we have Heather and Napoleon, parents to the ninth guest, twenty-year old Zoe. The family is hoping the spa will offer a healing distraction from the third anniversary of Zoe’s brother’s death. None of they expected the shocking secrets they have been hiding from each other that they will be forced to reveal.

Take nine wounded, grieving strangers who are trying to plaster a temporary bandage on their messy lives subtract all of the things they generally use to distract themselves — food, phones, booze, even talking — and add in a slightly unstable spa director and you have a recipe for chaos.  The harder the challenges the guests face, the more their real problems surface, and the more unstable the entire group grows.

Things come to a wild and shocking crescendo when (after days of fasting) the group is forced into a situation that moves from unpleasant to shocking to downright terrifying very quickly. Whether they want to or not, the group must start revealing their real selves in order to keep the situation from getting dire.

As always, Moriarty has given readers an exciting page-tuner with just the right balance of tears, laughs, surprises, and happy endings. So fun!