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Girl Well Read

Developmental Editor by day, Book Blogger by night.

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

Manhattan Beach: A Novel - Jennifer Egan

A special thank you to NetGalley and Simon and Schuster Canada for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Egan's latest offering takes place in America during the Depression.  Twelve-year-old Anna Kerrigan accompanies her father to visit Dexter Styles, a man who she perceives to be important.  Anna can't help but notice the lavish house equipped with servants, toys for the children, and the pact between Styles and her father.

Years later the country is at war, Anna's father has disappeared, and she has to support her mother and disabled sister with work at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.  Because of the war, women are allowed to work and perform jobs that were traditionally jobs for men.  She becomes the first female diver—an incredibly dangerous occupation—repairing naval ships.  Anna meets Dexter Styles at a nightclub and realizes that he is the man she visited with her father before his disappearance.  Styles has ties to the mob and Anna begins to understand the complexity of her father's life.    

The first section is smart, sharp, and brilliantly executed.  Egan's writing is solid, exactly what you would expect.  Then the novel makes one of many jumps in time and the story becomes scattered.  There is a complete lack of harmony and the reader is left with a rambling narrative that is a mash-up of three stories.  Hinging on boring at times, I didn't connect with the characters, or the plot, and this is disappointing because Egan has obviously done her homework.  

Surprise Me by Sophie Kinsella

Surprise Me: A Novel - Sophie Kinsella

A special thank you to NetGalley, Edelweiss, and Random House for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

 

I have also had the pleasure of reviewing My Not So Perfect Life and couldn't wait to read Surprise Me.  Sophie Kinsella, you've done it again!  I absolutely adore your writing and your words make me smile.  (If you haven't listened to one of Kinsella's books, I highly recommend it, especially if narrated by Jayne Entwistle.)  

 

This witty and at times emotional novel takes a closer look at marriage and how we can still be surprised by those we think we know best.  Sylvie and Dan have been together for ten blissful years.  They have a lovely home life complete with twin girls, fulfilling careers, and an envy worthy relationship.  A trip to the doctor predicts that they will live for another 68 years—this gives new meaning to "until death us do part" when it spans seven more decades together.

 

To keep the marriage alive, Project Surprise Me is born.  The couple will surprise each other to keep things fresh and exciting.  But is seems that each "surprise" exposes the flaws in their relationship and drives them apart.  

 

Sylvie seemingly enjoys her work at a museum even though there are some pretty archaic systems in place—the owner, Mrs. Kendrick resists technology and Sylvie chalks this up to as charming.  Mrs. Kendrick's nephew, Robert, takes an interest in the operations of the museum and questions their methods and systems.  Is he trying to close down the museum and turn it into two-bedroom condos?     

 

Facing changes both personally and professionally, Sylvie experiences a tremendous amount of growth.  She adored her late father and has kept up the Princess Sylvie persona he created as a way to honour him, when in actual fact, she is doing herself and her family a disservice because she is not being true to herself.        

 

I fell in love with the supporting cast of characters, this is really where Kinsella excels at writing.   The tender exchanges between Sylvie's neighbours John and Owen were some of the most beautiful writing in the book.  One of my favourite quotes is when John says "Love is finding one person infinitely fascinating."

 

Kinsella's latest work is charming, thoughtful, and simply delightful.

All the Beautiful Lies by Peter Swanson

All the Beautiful Lies: A Novel - Peter Swanson

A special thank you to Edelweiss and HarperCollins for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

 

Alternating between past and present, Swanson's newest domestic psychological thriller is a standout in the genre which seems to be increasingly popular as of late.  

 

Harry Ackerson is set to graduate from college when he receives word from his stepmother, Alice, that his father has died in what appears to be a suicide.  Devastated, Harry skips his graduation ceremony and travels to his late father's home in Maine.  

 

Harry and Alice lean on one another to pick up the pieces after such a monumental loss.  For Harry, things start to become uncomfortable and awkward with Alice—he has always considered her attractive, and she has been nothing short of kind to him.  Alice is also 15 years younger than his father was.

 

A mysterious young woman named Grace makes Harry's acquaintance shortly after he arrives.  She claims to be new to the area, but she was at Harry's father's funeral.  Things aren't adding up, and Grace seems to know more than she is letting on.  Grace is not the only woman with interest in Harry, Alice is also growing closer and ends up seducing him.  The more involved Harry gets to with these women, the more he realizes that he doesn't know them at all.  Both women are hiding secrets and the truth about who they really are.  Things are not what they appear, including his father's death which is now looking like murder.

 

Swanson excels at character development and this novel is no exception.  He has a gift for writing characters that are boarder on being psychotic, yet believable.  There is a cleverness and preciseness to Swanson's storytelling without being overly dark.  With just enough plot twists, the story is not predicable or confusing.  If you like psychological thrillers, I encourage you to pick up this, or any of Peter Swanson's other books.  

Odd Child Out by Gilly MacMillan

Odd Child Out: A Novel - Gilly Macmillan

A special thank you to Edelweiss and William Morrow for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

 

MacMillan's second instalment in the Jim Clemo series is about inseparable best friends.  Despite their vastly different cultures—Noah Sandler is British and Abdi Mahad a Somali refugee—their loyalty sees no boundaries.  After what appears to be a prank gone wrong, Noah is found floating unconscious in a canal in Bristol, and Abdi has been shocked into silence.  

 

Detective Jim Clemo is just back from a mandatory leave as a result of his last case.  Because the investigation seems cut and dried, it is assigned to him.  After tragedy strikes, it is apparent that the case it is more than just an accident.  Social tensions begin to rise as the families fight for their sons and seek the truth.  

 

Told from alternating perspectives, MacMillan's story is a slow, tense burn with a deep plot.  She effectively and deftly captures how relentless the press are.  This is especially relevant and relatable in today's climate—whether they print facts, fiction, or a little of both, people will believe it is spun the right way.  However, there are times where the narrative was clunky which accounts for some of its unnecessary bulk.    

 

While the premise is interesting, the characters were at times a bit too stereotypical and because of this, there are times where the story becomes a bit contrived.  All-in-all, a good read and I will definitely be checking in with Detective Clemo again.     

 

 

Little Broken Things by Nicole Baart

Little Broken Things: A Novel - Nicole Baart

A special thank you to NetGalley and Atria Books for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

 

Past secrets and strained relationships are at the heart of Nicole Baart's newest novel, Little Broken Things.  Nora, estranged from her sister, Quinn, sends a cryptic text before showing up on her doorstep with a six-year-old girl.  Nora abruptly leaves the girl in Quinn's care with the instructions to keep her safe, and not to ask any questions.  Quinn and her mother, Liz, believe that the girl may be Nora's daughter.  

 

By telling the story through multiple viewpoints—Quinn, Nora, Liz, and Nora's friend, Tiffany—Baart slowly reveals the circumstances that led Nora to leaving the little girl in her sister's care.  Other past indiscretions are also brought to light to help explain why the relationships between the women are so strained.  Not everything is how it appears from the outside; Liz kept up appearances at all costs, no matter how exhausting and this was the trade off to preserve what she envisioned her image to be as a wife, mother, friend, and socialite.    

 

At times this novel is not an easy read; Baart tackles some pretty big issues.  Even though I wasn't blown away with the ending, I still enjoyed this exploration of familial relationships.  Sometimes the most fragile bonds are with those we love the most.  

The Other Girl by Erica Spindler

The Other Girl - Erica Spindler

A special thank you to NetGalley and St. Martin's Press for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Officer Miranda Rader is known for her dedication, hard work, honesty, and integrity—she's the steadfast leader in a crisis. But Miranda wasn't always that way. She grew up as a wild small-town girl from the wrong side of the tracks. Working hard to earn the respect of her position as a police officer with the Hammond PD, Miranda has left 'Randi' in the past.

A respected and admired college professor, Richard Stark, has been brutally murdered. Stark's father happens to be the president of the college and he is putting tremendous pressure on the force to find out who killed his son. Miranda is called for duty to investigate the murder and what looks like to be a crime of passion however something isn't sitting right with Miranda. She is shocked not only at the horrific nature of the crime, but to find a newspaper clipping from her past also at the scene.

Then a retired police officer turns up dead—this officer is Clint Wheeler, the policeman that took her statement that terrible night from the newspaper article. On the surface, these murders appear unrelated, but they have one commonality, Miranda.

Miranda becomes further involved when her fingerprints are found at the scene from the first murder. Everything she has worked so hard for is in jeopardy as her character is questioned. Is she being set up? Is this related to what happened to her all those years ago? Relationships are tested, truths become lies, and evidence tainted. Will Miranda have to reinvent herself again, this time proving once and for all that she is innocent?

The story starts off strong, there is a nice hook, but it deflates quickly. There were too many conveniences in the plot and this could have been avoided if the back story or side plots were fleshed out. For a cop, Miranda is a little daft—she misses a lot of clues that are obvious to the reader. I didn't find it overly psychological in nature, and the story was lacking originally and a good twist. That being said, this was still an enjoyable read and I would definitely pick up this author again.

Look For Her by Emily Winslow

Look For Her - Emily Winslow

A special thank you to Edelweiss and William Morrow for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

The fourth in a series, Winslow is getting better with each book.  Told from various points of view in first person narrative, this case is about a cold case of a beautiful missing girl from a small English village.

In 1976, Annalise Wood, a teenage girl disappears on her way home from school.  Her body was later discovered, the person responsible for the crime was never found.  Decades later, Annalise is a celebrity of sorts to the small town and for one woman especially.  Named after the dead girl, Annalise Williams believes that sharing the same name has bonded her to the dead girl.

DNA linked to the Annalise murder surfaces and investigator Morris Keene enlists the help of his former partner, Chloe Frohmann to finally solve the mystery and bring closure to the residents of Lilling.  As the investigation progresses, more questions arise rather than answers, the body that was perceived to be the missing girl may be someone else and that a recent drowning also has connections to the cold case.

The partnership between Keene and Frohmann is what great detective series are made of.  These characters are flawed, but endearing, and just so likeable.  The perspective of Dr. Laurie Ambrose added to the story giving it more of an edge and pushing it more into the psychological thriller genre.

My only criticism is how Winslow ties up some of the storyline.  Again, her downfall is linking too many of the supporting cast—it feels a little forced and sometimes convenient.

Finally, finally the marketing team at William Morrow has stopped using Donna Tartt to advertise these books.  

Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Kevin

Young Jane Young - Gabrielle Zevin

A special thank you to NetGalley and Penguin Random House Canada for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Heavily influenced by the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Zevin tackles slut-shaming in her newest book Young Jane Young and it is glorious!  She examines the double standards, sex scandals, and misogyny that resides not only in politics, but in life.  Women everywhere face these issues and are often silenced from the shame, and the threat of losing everything they have worked so hard for.

Before becoming Jane Young the wedding planner, Aviva Grossman was an ambitious, bright intern with the congressman's office.  Aviva has an affair with her boss, the congressman himself, and blogs about it.  True to life, when the affair is made public, it is Grossman that goes down while the beloved congressman carries on.  Aviva becomes the punchline and butt of many jokes—she is labelled as fat, ugly, and a slut.  She is not employable or dateable and sees no other way out that to change her identity and move away to a remote town in Maine.

On top of running her own event planning business, Jane is also navigating being a single mother to Ruby.  Even though she has started her life over, politics doesn't seem to be out of her system and she decides to run for office.  Unfortunately for Jane, the past catches up with her (the internet is forever) and it is only a matter of time before Ruby discovers who her mother really is/was.  Ruby is the vehicle through which Jane must face not only her past, but Aviva herself.  

Told through the voices of Aviva/Jane, Aviva's mother Rachel, Ruby, and Embeth Levin (the congressman's wife), we hear all sides of the story.  Zevin's characters are not without flaws.  In fact, it is these flaws that drive the story forward and this type of narrative is the perfect vehicle to accomplish this.  She effortlessly moves from past to present without confusion.  Her writing is witty, fresh, and thought provoking.

The Visitors by Catherine Burns

The Visitors - Catherine Burns

A special thank you to NetGalley and Simon and Schuster Canada for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

I have been reading a lot of thriller/mystery books lately, and while this is not a fast-paced, page-turning type of thriller, it is still true to the genre—it is more in the gothic and psychological vein.   Burns writes a character-driven novel about a brother and sister with an almost Hitchcock feel to it.

Marion Zetland is a fifty-something spinster shut in who lives with her controlling older brother, John.  The siblings still live in their family home, a Georgian townhouse is a seaside town.  Despite having money, the house is literally decaying and is filled with garbage, dust, and secrets.  

Told from Marion's perspective, Burns' character study is no less than fascinating.  Marion is child-like, but not innocent.  She has been beaten down her whole life, first by her overbearing mother and now by her domineering brother.  Denial is her coping mechanism—when at all possible, she either daydreams or simply turns a blind eye.  Her only friends seem to be her collection of stuffed toys.  She uses these as an escape, especially to what John has locked in the cellar.

After John's has a heart attack, Marion is forced to forced to go down to the basement to face what her brother has kept locked up.  She also has to navigate the outside modern world and other responsibilities that John has normally handled.  Things start to unravel and there is a glimpse that John isn't the only one with a dark side.

If you like books that cross the line into the macabre, then this book is for you.  Like the house, it is grimy and gritty and utterly disturbing.

The Night Child by Anna Quinn

The Night Child: A Novel - Anna Quinn

A special thank you to Edelweiss, NetGalley and Blackstone for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Nora Brown is a high school English teacher.  She leads a low-key life in Seattle with her husband, Paul, and six-year old daughter, Fiona.  After dismissing her class for Thanksgiving weekend, Nora sees the face of a young girl.  She is filled with terror and confusion—is she hallucinating or could this be related to the headaches she has been having? 

The next day while on vacation, Nora sees the face again and is left shaken and disturbed.  She consults with a neurologist and eventually sees a psychiatrist to work through the visions and what they mean.  Through these sessions, Quinn moves the narrative.  We learn that Nora is the victim of a traumatic childhood and as a result has suffered a psychological breakdown.  As the plot unravels so does Nora as she begins to fear that what happened to her could happen to her daughter.  The character dissension is sharp and swift and Nora's husband—who has stepped out on their marriage—is less than supportive.  He has completely checked out of the relationship and has little patience for her.   

As stated, this book is not for the faint of heart—there is sexual violence, child abuse, death, mental illness, and suicide. 

The Flight Attendant by Chris Bohjalian

The Flight Attendant: A Novel - Chris Bohjalian

A special thank you to Edelweiss and Random House for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

 

On Chris Bohjalian's Instagram there is a post where a reader asked him why he always wears a suit and tie to an author event and his response was that it was a way of showing respect and thanks to his readers.  I was touched by his post and thought it showed a tremendous amount of class.  In return, I would like to thank Chris Bohjalian for the opportunity to read and review an advanced copy of The Flight Attendant.

 

Bohjalian, known for several of his books including an Oprah pick (Midwives), is a gifted writer.  Every novel he crafts is vastly different from the last, yet equally as rich in character development and plot. 

 

In The Flight Attendant, we have a flawed, self-sabotaging unreliable narrator—Cassandra Bowden is a flight attendant with a taste for adventure and alcohol.  Being a binge drinker, Cassie suffers from self-loathing and the odd blackout.  Waking up in a hotel room in Dubai after a one night stand with a dead body is beyond blacking out.  Could she have actually killed him?  Afraid to involve the authorities, Cassie starts lying to cover up any speculation that she could be involved.  With each lie she tells, she increasingly looks more guilty.  How far will she go before the truth comes out that she was with the passenger who was found dead in his hotel room?      

 

I recommend picking up this character-driven thriller/mystery.  Bohjalian weaves an engaging tale of regret, murder, and mystery through strong female characters. 

Beartown by Frederik Backman

Beartown: A Novel - Fredrik Backman

A special thank you to NetGalley and Simon and Schuster Canada for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

This book is about so much more than hockey.  What starts off as a story about a small village and their hockey team takes an unexpected turn in both character dissension and storyline.  Backman exposes the small town mentality of its residents and walks a fine line with his characterization of "crazy hockey parents" that are almost too stereotypical, but because his story is compelling, he gets away with it.

Beartown is universal in topic and appeal—sexism, homophobia, racism, and politics are issues prevalent in every town, anywhere.  In Beartown, as the underdogs that represent a community built on hockey, residents are willing to do whatever it takes to make their mark, including covering up a terrible crime against a young girl.  The mentality is staggering and mind blowing.  It is all too familiar where it is the victim that is the one bullied, threatened, and emotionally abused.  How society puts sports figures on a pedestal, they are untouchable, and not held responsible for their actions because they are hailed as some kind of hero.

Backman explores hope, perseverance, and the love of sport and juxtaposes it against the crippling burden of being the best and doing whatever it takes, no matter how high the price and at what cost.

The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo by Amy Schumer

The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo - Amy Schumer

A special thank you to NetGalley and HarperCollins for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Well colour me surprised! I actually enjoyed The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo way more than I thought I would. There were things that made me laugh, and things that moved me too. I could have done without the lists, and most certainly done with out the chapter on her stuffed animals, but other than that, I felt she was incredibly honest, and real.

She shares with readers some truly painful experiences. The way she lost her virginity was sad, horrific, and painful. Schumer was also in an abusive relationship that resulted in a few terrifying ordeals that left me feeling incredibly sad for her, but optimistic in that maybe by sharing her story, she gave someone else the courage to leave an abusive relationship. My heart went out to her when she spoke of her father's MS, but she did take things a bit too far (poop story) and this was not necessary. I could empathize when she wrote about her mother, and their volatile relationship—she has had to establish some pretty tough and firm boundaries. Many mothers and daughters walk a fine line, and I really struggle to understand why women are so cruel to other women, oftentimes this starts out with criticisms from one's mother.

I love that she is unabashedly a feminist. She is also kind, smart, and doesn't make apologies for any of her failures or shortcomings. She works hard, and is of course funny.

“I know my worth. I embrace my power. I say if I’m beautiful. I say if I’m strong. You will not determine my story. I will. I’ll speak and share and fuck and love, and I will never apologize for it. I am amazing for you, not because of you. I am not who I sleep with. I am not my weight. I am not my mother. I am myself. And I am all of you."

The Address by Fiona Davis

The Address: A Novel - Fiona Davis

A special thank you to Penguin Random House First to Read and NetGalley for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Fiona Davis' novel takes readers to the historic Dakota—the famous home of John Lennon from 1973 to his murder outside the building in 1980. The story opens in England with Sara Smythe, a head housekeeper at an elegant hotel. She is offered a job by Theodore Camden after she saves one of his children from falling out a window. Wanting a better life, she accepts the job which is to be the managerette of the Dakota, an upscale apartment building in New York City.

Fast forward to 1985 New York City, where Bailey Camden has just completed a stint in rehab and is trying to get her life back on track. She is hired by her cousin, Melinda, to redecorate her apartment in the Dakota, and is hopeful that this opportunity will relaunch her career. Davis joins the two storylines with the Dakota when Bailey finds Sara's belongings in a trunk in the basement of the decrepit building.

As a reader, the best parts of the story were in the past. Even though the 80s are by far my favourite decade, um hello, best music ever, I simply couldn't connect with Bailey and just wanted to stay with Sara. Davis fell victim of the duelling storylines and I feel of late that this style has been done too much and as an avid reader, this type of narrative is old hat.

Healthy Healing: A Guide to Working Out Grief Using the Power of Exercise and Endorphins by Michelle Steinke-Baumgard

Healthy Healing: A Guide to Working Out Grief Using the Power of Exercise and Endorphins - Michelle Steinke-Baumgard

A special thank you to Edelweiss and HarperCollins for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

After losing her husband in a tragic plane crash, Michelle Steinke-Baumgard faced the darkest moment of her life. Widowed, with two young children, Michelle confronted her grief head on by choosing to strengthen her body, mind, and spirit. In doing so, Michelle rediscovered happiness through fitness and wellness.

Please don't let the title sway you into thinking that you have had to experience a loss to benefit from Michelle Steinke-Baumgard's book. She addresses the physical, mental, and emotional effects of grief juxtaposed against healthy eating and exercise in a 12-week plan that anyone can use.

Steinke-Baumgard dispels a lot of the myths not only surrounding grief, but also with diet and exercise. There is no one-size-fits-all in grieving, healthy living, or wellness—Michelle tackles these myths with knowledge and personal experience. Her approach is kind, motivational, and above all, honest. She has a huge following from her One Fit Widow community where she provides the same support, candor, and honesty to her followers (you can check her out on social media). Michelle is a wonderful writer and I have been following her for a while now.

If you are even remotely considering changing your lifestyle, and/or are struggling with grief, pick up this book. Not only will your body thank you, but in times of loss, your heart and soul will thank you. Michelle, you are a wonderful role model, woman, and coach—thank you for sharing your personal story of loss, your fitness journey, and your knowledg
e.

The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad (Oprah's Book Club): A Novel - Colson Whitehead

A special thank you to NetGalley and Little, Brown Book Group UK for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Cora and Caesar are slaves on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Like all of the slaves, she is treated horrifically, but even more so because she is also an outcast among her people. Things are only going to get worse for Cora as she is approaching womanhood and is drawing unwanted attention from her owner.

Caesar, recently arrived from Virginia, tells Cora about the Underground Railroad. She initially refuses Caesar's idea to escape, but then her situation becomes more dire, and the two decide to leave the plantation and head to the north.

The narrative follows Cora's journey—at each stop she is met with a different world. She is also hunted by Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher, and must navigate her way to liberation. At times, this structure didn't work because the reader gets bumped around from place-to-place and between past and present.

I wanted more from the supporting cast of characters, Whitehead does them a disservice by not developing them to their full potential. Caesar is also underdeveloped, and at times, Cora. There is a definite disconnect—would this book have been better in the first-person? Whitehead certainly did his research, but I can't quite put my finger on it. Maybe the research took over the plot? The idea of an underground railroad was genius, but this component/concept was not fully explored.

This book was hard for me to rate, and at times, to read. There was a lot of disturbing subject matter, and while this is a fictitious story, there were many Cora's and Caesars, and this story is important to tell. I don't doubt that this novel will be the topic of many Book Clubs.