The Identicals by Elin Hilderbrand (2017)

identicals

In The Identicals Elin Hilderbrand cleverly re-imagines The Parent Trap for grown-ups; telling the story of two identical twin sisters who have lived completely separate lives until the death of their father brings them together. Harper and Tabitha Frost were inseparable young girls and best friends when, at the age of seventeen, their parents divorced and made the cruel decision that each parent would take and raise one sister, keeping the girls apart. That decision meant the girls relationship began to fray and by their mid-twenties they had split apart for good. Harper went to live with their father on Martha’s Vineyard and Tabitha remained on Nantucket with their mother; only eleven miles apart but out of each other’s lives for good.

When their father dies, the sisters — along with their cold and controlling mother and Tabitha’s teenage daughter Ainsley — are brought back together with maximum drama. All their past hurts resurface, all that they have lost is brought back into focus, and neither woman feels as if the rift between can be bridged.

The universe, however, has other plans for Harper and Tabitha. Both women suddenly desperately need time away from their home islands and their messy lives and a solution presents itself: Harper will live on Nantucket with Ainsley for the summer and Tabitha will live on Martha’s Vineyard and put their father’s estate in order. Just like that the women swap lives and — of course — chaos ensues!

As the two women try restore order to their lives, they both grow stronger and freer in their new roles. Slowly but surely , the sisters begin to build new lives that have room for new adventures, new loves, and for one another. A great summer read!

Carry On by Rainbow Rowell (2015)

The lazy hot days of late July, with the kids gone at sleep-away camp, seemed liked the perfect time to re-read some of my favorites. Carry On definitely counts as such.

Originally posted May 5, 2016

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

“And it was a happy ending — even if isn’t the ending I ever would have dreamt for myself.”

carry on

WOW! I absolutely loved this book! I gobbled it up, I inhaled it, I devoured it! In fact, if there were not two wonderful people in my life dying to get their hands on my copy of the book, I would have finished the last page and immediately restarted it. Rowell has truly accomplished something magical (no pun intended) with this book…she has made a fantasy story that is quality parts Young Adult romance and whimsical fairy tale. If Fangirl and Harry Potter had a love child, it would be Carry On — it is that good. While Rowell’s Fangirl is not a prequel to this book , the world of Watford was born within the pages of Fangirl and it really is a worthy place to start this journey. You can read my review of Fangirl here http://wp.me/p6N6mT-kf

I hardly know where to start in reviewing this novel. It is a fantasy story set in a magical school in England for teenage magicians learning to use their magic. There are posh uniforms, spells to learn, enemies to thwart, and evil plots to unveil. Even if it sounds like it poor version of Harry Potter, it totally works. The world Rowell creates is just different enough that while you are reading about Watford School, you feel like you are reading about Hogwarts hipper counterpart, not its replica. In a way the story is freer than HP, because the characters do not feel compelled to be so proper, nor their relationships so chaste, and the result is a funny, sexy, and thrilling book…one that gives us spells and epic magical battles but with a much more teen twist (meaning cell phones, drinking, and sex.)

Carry On is presumably book eight in a non-existent series. However, Rowell writes the story in such a way that you learn the entire backstory, the author filling in the blanks along the way so that you feel as if the other six books do exist. The effect is miraculous: readers do not feel cheated, instead reading Carry On gives you the sensation that you have read seven wonderful books, not just one. (More bang for your buck!) As you read, you are pulled into this story and you are given glimpse of all the stories that came before it.

Carry On, at its heart, is a love story. Rowell is doing something profound with this book. In the process of telling us a really good fantasy tale she is also telling us a love story about two young men and defiantly refusing to call it a “gay love story.” It simply is a love story — no qualifiers needed. And what a fantastic love story it is: filled with all the angst and drama and power of any young adult love story but infused with a real sense of tension. As we all know, while most heterosexual relationships are given cultural permission to exist, it is often the case the those for gay men and women are deemed completely taboo. Thankfully that is starting to change, and books like Rowell’s are a reflection of those (slow) changes. She is writing a love story about two men and in no way giving readers the impression that it is off-limits or unallowable. All the characters in the book accept that being gay is just part of their lives or their loved ones. Rowell makes sure that we all know she believes who you love should never matter — only how you treat them.

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.

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!

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.