Book Review: The Most Dangerous Place on Earth

Book Review:  The Most Dangerous Place on EarthThe Most Dangerous Place on Earth by Lindsey Lee Johnson
three-half-stars
Published by Random House on January 10th 2017
Genres: Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 288
Source: Netgalley
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Goodreads Synopsis:

A captivating debut novel for readers of Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You and Curtis Sittenfeld’s PrepThe Most Dangerous Place on Earth unleashes an unforgettable cast of characters into a realm known for its cruelty and peril: the American high school.

In an idyllic community of wealthy California families, new teacher Molly Nicoll becomes intrigued by the hidden lives of her privileged students. Unknown to Molly, a middle school tragedy in which they were all complicit continues to reverberate for her kids: Nick, the brilliant scam artist; Emma, the gifted dancer and party girl; Dave, the B student who strives to meet his parents’ expectations; Calista, the hippie outcast who hides her intelligence for reasons of her own. Theirs is a world in which every action may become public postable, shareable, indelible. With the rare talent that transforms teenage dramas into compelling and urgent fiction, Lindsey Lee Johnson makes vivid a modern adolescence lived in the gleam of the virtual, but rich with the sorrow, passion, and beauty of life in any time, and at any age.

My Review:

I’ll confess up front that I went into Lindsey Lee Johnson’s striking debut novel The Most Dangerous Place on Earth blindly. I was intrigued by its title and have had such great luck with debut authors lately that I eagerly snatched this one up when I received an email from Netgalley suggesting it as a book that might interest me and saw that it was another debut.  I started reading and was immediately captivated and maybe even a little horrified to find that from this book’s standpoint, the ‘most dangerous place on earth’ is, in fact, high school.

The opening chapters pack an emotional punch.  The story begins with a look at a group of eighth graders in an affluent school district in San Francisco.  We see a socially awkward boy named Tristan Bloch, who has been having trouble fitting in and is basically friendless, decide to write a love letter to one of the most popular girls in his class, Cally Broderick.  This single act sets off a heartbreaking and life changing series of events. Cally decides, for whatever reason, to give this note to her boyfriend Ryan, who then decides to post the note on Facebook for all of their classmates to see and then friends Tristan on Facebook with the sole purpose of humiliating him. Other friends follow suit and they then relentlessly cyberbully Tristan until he tragically ends his own life by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge.  The rest of the story follows the core group of kids who were ultimately responsible for Tristan’s death.

Johnson presents her story from multiple points of view.  She weaves together a series of vignettes where we hear from each of those students, beginning in eighth grade and then returning to each of them as juniors and seniors in high school.   We watch them all attempt to navigate the various pitfalls of high school and to a certain extent, adolescence in general – peer pressure, pressure from parents, alcohol, drugs, and of course, lessons not learned regarding using social media to humiliate people, even after what happened to Tristan.  Interspersed between those chapters we also hear from a first year (and still very idealistic) English teacher Molly Nicoll who has all of these kids in her English classes, sees all of them struggling to stay afloat, and tries to do everything she can to connect with them.

What I Liked:

I think what I liked the most about The Most Dangerous Place on Earth is how eye-opening it was.  As a parent, reading this story made me all the more aware of the fact that no matter how I raise my child and how active I am in his life, there are always still going to be so many other influences out there shaping him into who he is going to be, in some cases working directly in opposition to the kind of person I’m hoping he’ll grow up to be.  It also has me rethinking my views on the internet and social media.  In the past, I’ve always been primarily focused on protecting my child from online predators.  This book has really made me rethink that stance since apparently cyberbullying fellow students is also a thing now.  Sometimes the people you know can be even more dangerous than people you don’t know.

I also thought Johnson did a remarkable job of making a story told from about half a dozen points of view so easy to follow.  Each of the voices was so distinctive and so authentic – from the class troublemaker to the diehard party girl, all the way to the high school English teacher.  If I was reading from the point of view of an adolescent male, it truly felt like I was reading the thoughts of an adolescent male, and if I was reading from the point of view of a young English teacher, it felt like I was inside that teacher’s mind reading her thoughts.  None of the voices came across as generic or forced.

Another strength of the novel is that Johnson is actually able to portray these teens in a way that I still felt a tremendous amount of empathy for them even after what they did to Tristan.  That’s not to say that I necessarily found any of them all that likeable, but I did feel for them as they struggled to make it through high school and live up to everyone’s expectation.  Whether it’s the pressure to be as successful as their parents expect them to be or the pressure to live up to a certain reputation, or perhaps even live down gossip that is flowing around the internet about them, the pressure is always present in some form or another.  In some cases, the pressures at home are just as bad, if not worse, than the pressures at school.  I don’t want to give away any spoilers so I’m keeping this general, but the way Johnson portrays high school and the dangers of peer pressure, it’s basically a battlefield and you’re lucky if your child makes it out in one piece.  It’s a very powerful read in that sense.

I also thought the portrayal of teachers was pretty realistic.  I don’t know the exact statistics but I know the burnout rate for new teachers is super high and some of the things Molly Nicoll experiences are surely contributing factors to those statistics.  The desire to connect with her students leads her to cross lines that she probably shouldn’t be crossing because she’s so desperate to reach them.  We need good teachers who can make a different in their students’ lives, but one of the older, more experienced teachers points out to Molly, she’s never going to make it long term if she keeps doing things the way she’s doing them.  High school will chew her up and spit her out just like it does the students.

What I Didn’t Like:

As much as I enjoyed the read, there were still a couple of problem areas for me.  One is that I like to be able to connect with characters and relate to them as I’m reading.  Because there were so many different points of view, it was harder to do that in this book. I never really felt like I got close enough to any of them to do that.  Stylistically though, I’m thinking maybe that was intentional. I think maybe getting too attached to any of the characters would possibly make the reader lose focus on the overall bigger picture. Ultimately I think it was the right choice for the book; it just didn’t play into my own personal preference for that connection to the characters.

A second issue I had was that I would have liked to see a more diverse student population.  I know all of the issues highlighted in this book are chronic issues throughout our school systems, both the wealthy and the poor districts, so I would have liked to see more of a cross-section of our overall student population instead of so many rich, privileged kids.  I think having a more diverse population represented would highlight that these problems are widespread, not just localized to the wealthy and privileged of our society. Again, that’s just a personal preference for me and it didn’t prevent me from enjoying the book overall.

Who Would I Recommend this Book to?

Because of its emphasis on the dangers of bullying and especially cyberbullying, I would recommend this book to parents of middle and high school students, as well as to the students in those same age ranges.  Students need to understand the power of their own words, especially the negative words, and parents need to start hammering that into their kids’ heads at an early age.  The wrong words to the wrong person can set into motion life-altering and often tragic events.  In the case of this story, Tristan Bloch chose to end his life, but he could have just as easily come back to school the next day with a gun…

 

Rating:  3.5 stars

Thanks so much to Netgalley, Random House, and Lindsey Lee Johnson for the opportunity to review this book on my blog.

 

 

 

three-half-stars

About Lindsey Lee Johnson

Lindsey Lee Johnson holds a master of professional writing degree from the University of Southern California and a BA in English from the University of California at Davis. She has served as a tutor and mentor at a private learning center, where her focus has been teaching writing to teenagers. Born and raised in Marin County, she now lives with her husband in Los Angeles.

Review: The Whole Town’s Talking by Fannie Flagg

Review:  The Whole Town’s Talking by Fannie FlaggThe Whole Town's Talking by Fannie Flagg
four-stars
Published by Random House on November 29th 2016
Genres: Fiction, Humor
Pages: 402
Source: Netgalley
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Goodreads Synopsis:  From the beloved author of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe comes another unforgettable, laugh-out-loud, and moving novel about what it means to be truly alive.

Elmwood Springs, Missouri, is a small town like any other, but something strange is happening out at the cemetery. “Still Meadows,” as it’s called, is anything but still. Funny and profound, this novel in the tradition of Flagg’s Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven and Thornton Wilder’s Our Town deals with universal themes of heaven and earth and everything in between, as Flagg tells a surprising story of life, afterlife, and the mysterious goings-on of ordinary people.

 

My Review:

What a wonderful read this was! I’ve read so many books with dark and dystopian themes this year that it feels good to close out the year with such a lighthearted and humorous look at life, death, and everything in between.  In a way that only she can, the legendary Fannie Flagg takes us on a historical journey that chronicles the birth and evolution of the small town of Elmwood Springs, Missouri.

It’s hard to discuss the plot without giving too much away so I’ll be brief, but the primary storyline follows Elmwood Springs and its residents over the course of approximately 100 years.  The story begins in the late 1880s as we watch Swedish immigrant Lordor Nordstrom build the little town from the ground up with the help of his fellow immigrants.  Because they understand that they’re all in this together, these founders work together and lovingly cultivate their town into a thriving and wonderful community.  Once the founders’ initial work is done, we then follow the town and its residents for decades and see important historic and political events, technological discoveries, and much, much more through their eyes.  Some highlights include the Women’s Suffrage Movement, the flight of the first airplane, the Great Depression, World War II, the first landing on the moon, and of course, all of the TV and pop culture icons from each decade.

I also won’t get into the strange happenings out at the Still Meadows cemetery mentioned in the book’s blurb aside from to say that Fannie Flagg will definitely give you food for thought about what happens when you die.  While what goes on at the cemetery may pay homage to Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, it’s definitely got that charmingly quirky twist that only Fannie Flagg can give it.

What I Loved about The Whole Town’s Talking

The Characters:  Fannie Flagg is a master when it comes to creating realistic and endearing characters and she does just that in The Whole Town’s Talking.  Aside from the founders, it’s actually hard to really state who the main characters are, but they’re all just such an endearing group of folks.  Since everyone I know has been binge watching the Gilmore Girls reunion, think of the residents of Stars Hollow and that’s the kind of wonderful assortment of well-rounded characters you’re dealing with in Elmwood Springs.

Some, like Elner, the crazy cat-loving lady who has a chance encounter with the infamous Bonnie and Clyde, are just oozing with personality and will keep you laughing out loud, while others like the hardworking Lordor Nordstrom will just grab your heart and won’t let go.  I fell hard for Lordor in those early pages as he first meets Katrina, the woman he falls in love with.  He’s so charmingly awkward that all of the women townsfolk come to his aid to help him woo Katrina.  It’s just so sweet, but yet not too sweet, because I found myself chuckling at all of their antics throughout those early days.

The Book’s Tone:  I know I keep referring to it as light, sweet, charming, heartwarming, which it totally is, but what I also liked about it was that it wasn’t so saccharine as to be off-putting.  There was such an infusion of classic Fannie Flagg humor that I constantly found myself chuckling a bit, even at what could be considered the sweetest moments of the story.  In that sense, it’s quite well balanced.

The Suspense:  Yes, even in a novel that I’m describing as lighthearted and humorous, there’s a bit of suspense built into the story.  Now I’m not talking suspense in the sense of a thriller. If you’re looking for that kind of suspense, you’ll definitely want to look elsewhere.  No, what I’m talking about are the highs and the lows and the curveballs that life throws at all at the residents of Elmwood Springs.  It’s that kind of realistic suspense we can all relate to because we all experience the same types of highs and lows – it’s just part of being alive.

And then, of course, there are the mysterious happenings down at the cemetery…

Anything I didn’t care for?

The only complaint I really had with the novel was that I would have liked a more in depth look at some of the characters and their lives.  The characters, for the most part, are just so lovable and quirky, that I couldn’t help but want to know a little more about them.  That’s just personal preference with me though because I always want to know as much as possible about characters that I love to further my connection to them.  I don’t think that lack of depth in any way detracts from the overall quality of the storytelling though since its focus is the whole town rather than just a few select characters anyway.

Who Would I Recommend The Whole Town’s Talking to?

I would definitely recommend The Whole Town’s Talking to anyone who already loves Fannie Flagg’s novels.  If you loved Welcome to the World, Baby Girl or Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, then Fannie’s latest work will be right up your alley.

I would also recommend it to anyone else who likes a light-hearted and humorous read that also makes you think about your life and all of the people in it.

 

Rating:  A strong 4 stars

Question:  Have you ever read any of Fannie Flagg’s novels?

 

four-stars

About Fannie Flagg

Fannie Flagg’s career started in the fifth grade when she wrote, directed, and starred in her first play entitled The Whoopee Girls, and she has not stopped since. At age nineteen she began writing and producing television specials, and later wrote and appeared on Candid Camera. She then went on to distinguish herself as an actress and a writer in television, films, and the theater. She is the New York Times bestselling author of Daisy Fay and the Miracle Man; Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe; Welcome to the World, Baby Girl!; Standing in the Rainbow; A Redbird Christmas; and Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven. Flagg’s script for the movie Fried Green Tomatoes was nominated for an Academy Award, and the Writers Guild of America Award and won the highly regarded Scripter Award for best screenplay of the year. Flagg lives happily in California and Alabama.

ARC Review of The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker

ARC Review of The Animators by Kayla Rae WhitakerThe Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker
four-stars
Published by Random House on January 31st 2017
Genres: Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 384
Source: Netgalley
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Goodreads Synopsis:  She was the first person to see me as I had always wanted to be seen. It was enough to indebt me to her forever.

At a private East Coast college, two young women meet in art class. Sharon Kisses, quietly ambitious but self-doubting, arrives from rural Kentucky. Mel Vaught, brash, unapologetic, wildly gifted, brings her own brand of hellfire from the backwaters of Florida. Both outsiders, Sharon and Mel become fervent friends, bonding over underground comics and dysfunctional families. Working, absorbing, drinking. Drawing: Mel, to understand her own tumultuous past, and Sharon, to lose herself altogether.
A decade later, Sharon and Mel are an award-winning animation duo, and with the release of their first full-length feature, a fearless look at Mel’s childhood, they stand at the cusp of success. But while on tour to promote the film, cracks in their relationship start to form: Sharon begins to feel like a tag-along and suspects that raucous Mel is the real artist. When unexpected tragedy strikes, long-buried resentments rise to the surface, threatening their partnership—and hastening a reckoning no one sees coming.

“An engrossing, exuberant ride through all the territories of love—familial, romantic, sexual, love of friends, and, perhaps above all, white-hot passion for the art you were born to make . . . I wish I’d written The Animators.”—Emma Donoghue, author of Room and The Wonder.

* * * * *

My Review:

 

Buckle your seat belts because Kayla Rae Whitaker’s debut novel The Animators is one wild ride!  The novel follows the lives of Mel and Sharon, two art students who meet in college, become fast friends when they realize they have a shared passion of making cartoons, and who eventually become business partners as well. Whitaker weaves together a compelling tale as Mel and Sharon navigate the ups and downs of their personal and professional relationships, as they experience success, conflict, frustration, family drama, love, loss, tragedy, and pretty much everything in between.  Their lives become so entwined that they become more like family than just friends.  Whitaker does a beautiful job of realistically portraying the many layers of their relationship, while also exploring such themes as using art as catharsis, loss of innocence, addiction, dysfunctional families, and more.

What I Enjoyed:

Mel and Sharon – I immediately fell in love with Whitaker’s main characters.  They are basically yin and yang and it’s fascinating to watch the balancing act that is basically their relationship.  Mel is outspoken with a larger than life personality. She’s brash and unapologetic and you literally just never know what’s going to come out of her mouth next.  Sharon, on the other hand, is more the wallflower type.  She’s a small town girl who spends a lot of time trying to figure out how in the world she has even gotten to this point in her life.  As she and Mel experience major success with one of their cartoons and embark on a press tour to promote their work, Sharon often seems awkward and out of place, especially when compared to Mel and the way she just seems to eat up the spotlight and the attention.  Mel comes across as the driving force behind their projects, with Sharon being relegated to more of a workhouse role.  Because Sharon is deemed the more responsible of the duo, it often falls on her to try to reel Mel in and make her act more professionally as they make their required public appearances. Whitaker very realistically portrays the emotions that this kind of situation would easily generate – the jealousy, the resentment, the growing tension as Mel turns more and more to drugs and alcohol thus increasing her erratic behavior, and of course, Sharon’s feeling of not knowing if she even really belongs in this world that they’ve been thrown into.  Is she really talented in her own right or is she just riding Mel’s coattails?

I got so attached to these two ladies and became so invested in their friendship working out that I found myself wanting to yell at them whenever either one of them did something to upset the balance:  “OMG, get your act together, Mel!” or “Snap out of it, Sharon! You know you’re better than this!”

I actually almost lost faith in Mel at one point because she goes so far off the rails with the drugs and erratic behavior, but then when an unexpected medical incident almost kills Sharon and leaves her with a daunting recovery ahead of her, it is Mel who shows up to help — even though they aren’t even on speaking terms at the time of the incident. Mel is there with her every second of every day as she fights her way back from near death. That’s friendship.

Themes:  This novel is just so rich in themes.  Aside from tackling the dynamics of Sharon and Mel’s friendship, another theme that really struck me was the exploration of how living in an unsupportive environment can shape who you grow up to be.  Sharon and Mel both come from the land of dysfunctional families. Mel’s mother is actually in prison and her influence on Mel is the focus of their first successful cartoon, Nashville Combat.  Sharon’s childhood was a little more stable than Mel’s, but coming from a small town where no one EVER went away to school, her family basically never acted as though they were proud of her accomplishments and acted as though they resented her for going away to school.  These feelings clearly contributed to her sense of self-worth or lack thereof.

Another theme that I found interesting was the use of art as catharsis.  In the novel, Mel and Sharon decide to use their passion for art as a way to take control over and work through some traumatic events that shaped their lives.  While on the one hand, this is clearly cathartic for them and an incredibly brave act because they are basically putting their lives, and specifically their pain, on view for the world to see, the act also comes at a cost.  As one of Sharon’s childhood friends points out when he objects to being included in their project, it’s not just their lives on display, but also the lives of everyone else who played a role in the events being depicted. Sharon and Mel dismiss his objections, but it really got me thinking about how Mel’s mother, in particular, must have felt seeing herself exposed to the world as some kind of monster.  Is using your art to work through your own painful experiences worth the cost, which is potentially causing others pain?  I love a book that leaves me with something to think about afterwards and this question has been on my mind a lot since I finished The Animators.  I imagine this is a question that many artist have to weigh in their minds if considering this kind of personal artistic expression.

Was there anything I didn’t like? 

One potential pitfall for some readers could be all of the animation/cartooning talk.  Since the novel does explore, to a large extent, the professional lives of Mel and Sharon, and therefore their creative processes, there is a lot of information about the cartooning/animation process.  Much of it was over my head since I know nothing about art, but thankfully Whitaker doesn’t just do a huge info dump — instead, she weaves it throughout the novel, giving the reader just a little at a time so it’s not overwhelming or dry and boring.

One area I would have liked a bit more detail on was Mel and Sharon’s time in college together.  The beginning of their friendship was so touching and engaging as they bonded and realized that they had this shared passion.  I wanted to read so much more about that, so I felt a little cheated when I turned the page and realized we were jumping ahead in time.  I got over it of course since I clearly enjoyed the book, but it was still a little disappointing.

Who Would I recommend The Animators to?

I would recommend The Animators to anyone who enjoys a realistic portrayal of a dynamic friendship.  It’s not a light read by any stretch of the imagination, but it is a rich and compelling story with layer up on layer.  I think The Animators will end up being a popular book club read next year because it explores so many issues that are perfect for in-depth discussions.

The book does deal, in part, with addiction and some other darker themes of a sexual nature, so I wouldn’t recommend it to younger readers.

* * * * *

Rating:  A solid 4 stars

four-stars

About Kayla Rae Whitaker

Kayla Rae Whitaker’s work has appeared in Smokelong Quarterly, Split Lip Magazine, BODY, Bodega, Joyland, The Switchback, Five Quarterly, American Microreviews and Interviews, and others, and she is a regular contributor to “American Micro Reviews and Interviews” and “Split Lip Magazine.” She holds a BA from the University of Kentucky and an MFA from New York University. After many years of living in Brooklyn, she returned to Kentucky, her home state, in 2016 with her husband and their geriatric tomcat, Breece D’J Pancake.

Review: Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

Review:  Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo MbueBehold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue
four-stars
Published by Random House on August 23rd 2016
Genres: Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 380
Source: Netgalley
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Goodreads Synopsis: 

A compulsively readable debut novel about marriage, immigration, class, race, and the trapdoors in the American Dream—the unforgettable story of a young Cameroonian couple making a new life in New York just as the Great Recession upends the economy.

Named one of BuzzFeed’s “Incredible New Books You Need to Read This Summer”.

Jende Jonga, a Cameroonian immigrant living in Harlem, has come to the United States to provide a better life for himself, his wife, Neni, and their six-year-old son. In the fall of 2007, Jende can hardly believe his luck when he lands a job as a chauffeur for Clark Edwards, a senior executive at Lehman Brothers. Clark demands punctuality, discretion, and loyalty—and Jende is eager to please. Clark’s wife, Cindy, even offers Neni temporary work at the Edwardses’ summer home in the Hamptons. With these opportunities, Jende and Neni can at last gain a foothold in America and imagine a brighter future.

However, the world of great power and privilege conceals troubling secrets, and soon Jende and Neni notice cracks in their employers’ façades.

When the financial world is rocked by the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the Jongas are desperate to keep Jende’s job—even as their marriage threatens to fall apart. As all four lives are dramatically upended, Jende and Neni are forced to make an impossible choice.

* * * * *

My Review:

Behold the Dreamers is a powerful and moving read that follows the struggles of an immigrant family trying their hardest to achieve the American Dream and create the best life they can for themselves and for their children. Aside from the gorgeous writing of the author Imbolo Mbue, the power of this novel lies in the fact that it is so very relevant right now, especially when you consider this year’s U.S. Presidential race and the two candidates’ very different views about immigrants.

I fell in love with Mbue’s protagonist, Jende Jonga, right away.  Jende is a kind man, a wonderful husband and father, and he firmly believes that the American Dream is within his family’s reach if they work hard and play by the rules. In the opening chapters, Jende is attempting to secure a job as a chauffeur for a big Wall Street executive at Lehman Brothers, a job that would be a huge step up for him as he had previously been driving taxi cabs for much less money.  I admired his persistence and determination, especially since his future in the U.S. is tentative at best until he secures a green card, and so I immediately became invested in wanting him to succeed.

Jende’s wife, Neni, is equally likeable.  She is in the U.S. on a student visa and is studying with the intention of eventually becoming a pharmacist.  Like Jende, Neni works as hard as she can and is very disciplined, her sole focus on doing whatever needs to be done to achieve her family’s dream of becoming American citizens.  In the early chapters, we see Neni pulling all nighters to make sure she gets top marks in all of her classes and she works all sorts of jobs on the side in order to bring in extra money for the family.

What I liked most about Mbue’s portrayal of Jende and Neni, however, is that she doesn’t over-romanticize the couple.  They sometimes make bad decisions, lose their tempers, can sometimes be too gullible or naïve, and therefore come across as somewhat flawed and very relatable.

Another aspect of the novel that appealed to me was the subtle building of suspense throughout the novel.  Is Jende going to get his green card? Is Neni going to be able to stay in school?  What is going on in the financial world at Lehman Brothers and is it going to affect Jende’s job security and therefore his family’s chance to achieve the American Dream? The momentum that these questions generated kept pulling me quickly through the story because I was so worried about whether or not Jende and Neni were going to make it.  I was especially tuned in to what the Lehman Brothers fall out might mean for them because I lost my own job back in 2008 because of it and ended up draining my 401k and savings to stay afloat until the economy righted itself.  As crushing as it was for me as an American citizen, I couldn’t imagine how hard it would be for someone in Jende and Neni’s shoes.  Mbue did a fantastic job of conveying all of the uncertainty and unease of that time in our recent history.

Aside from the character development and the suspense, overall I think what makes Behold the Dreamers such a poignant and moving read is the message that there are people out there fighting so hard to secure the best lives possible for their family – to have even a fraction of what most of us take for granted every day.  The story puts the reader in the shoes of every immigrant that has come here in search of the American Dream and hopefully creates a sense of empathy as the reader sees firsthand exactly what they have to go through on the uncertain path to citizenship.

Behold the Dreamers is definitely a book that I would recommend to pretty much anyone who enjoys a moving story about family, dreams, obstacles, and perseverance.  Imbolo Mbue is a gifted writer and I really look forward to reading more from her.

Rating:  A strong 4 stars!

Thanks so much to Random House, Netgalley, and of course Imbolo Mbue for allowing me the opportunity to read and review Behold the Dreamers.

four-stars

About Imbolo Mbue

imbolo mbue

Imbolo Mbue is a native of Limbe, Cameroon. She holds a B.S. from Rutgers University and an M.A. from Columbia University. A resident of the United States for over a decade, she lives in New York City.

Behold the Dreamers is her first novel.

Book Review: The Girls

Book Review:  The GirlsThe Girls by Emma Cline
five-stars
Published by Random House on June 14th 2016
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 368
Source: Netgalley
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Goodreads Synopsis: Girls—their vulnerability, strength, and passion to belong—are at the heart of this stunning first novel for readers of Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad Northern California, during the violent end of the 1960s. At the start of summer, a lonely and thoughtful teenager, Evie Boyd, sees a group of girls in the park, and is immediately caught by their freedom, their careless dress, their dangerous aura of abandon. Soon, Evie is in thrall to Suzanne, a mesmerizing older girl, and is drawn into the circle of a soon-to-be infamous cult and the man who is its charismatic leader. Hidden in the hills, their sprawling ranch is eerie and run down, but to Evie, it is exotic, thrilling, charged—a place where she feels desperate to be accepted. As she spends more time away from her mother and the rhythms of her daily life, and as her obsession with Suzanne intensifies, Evie does not realize she is coming closer and closer to unthinkable violence, and to that moment in a girl’s life when everything can go horribly wrong.   Emma Cline’s remarkable debut novel is gorgeously written and spellbinding, with razor-sharp precision and startling psychological insight. The Girls is a brilliant work of fiction—and an indelible portrait of girls, and of the women they become.

My review:

Set in California during the late 1960s, Emma Cline’s debut novel The Girls tells the story of fourteen year old Evie Boyd, an average, ordinary teenager who has become disenchanted with her life. Her parents are recently divorced – her dad has moved on and is now living with a new girlfriend, while her mom is desperately searching for love again and is constantly bringing men home. The revolving door of men starts to create friction between Evie and her mom, and so Evie starts spending less and less time at home. In addition to her troubles at home, Evie also has a falling out with her longtime best friend, Connie, and is left feeling very much lost and on her own.

Lonely and desperately wanting to connect with someone, Evie meets and is immediately infatuated with an ultra cool and attractive older girl named Suzanne. Suzanne tells Evie all about how she and a group of others live on a ranch together outside of town and about a man named Russell, who loves and takes care of them all. Seduced both by Suzanne and by the idea of this wonderful ‘hippie-esque’ family Suzanne describes to her, Evie jumps at the opportunity to hang out at the ranch and meet Russell.

This begins a journey that takes Evie down a dark and potentially dangerous path because that happy, hippie family is actually a cult and Russell is its Charles Manson. Yes, Russell takes care of his girls, but he also frequently has them do his bidding. The acts committed are fairly harmless at first: the girls dumpster dive for food because they don’t have enough money to feed themselves and they also occasionally break into homes. Once she is part of the group, Evie is persuaded to start stealing cash from her mom whenever the opportunity arises and bring it to Russell. But then as with Manson, that bidding eventually takes a violent and deadly turn. Russell is a singer-songwriter wannabe and has been angling for a record deal with this guy named Mitch. When the record deal never materializes, Russell is furious and sends his girls over to Mitch’s house to send him a message that neither he nor anyone else in their community will ever forget.

What I loved about The Girls:

One of the things that fascinated me most about this novel is that even though it contains a mass murdering Manson-like cult, Cline crafts her story in such a way that the murders committed are really just a footnote. The primary focus of the novel is, as the title suggests, the girls.

Cline deftly uses two narrative perspectives to tell Evie’s story. The first, and main one, is fourteen year old Evie describing how she meets Suzanne and gets seduced into joining Russell’s group. This allows us to see the events as they unfold, to watch Evie’s obsession with Suzanne grow and see the lengths she will go to in order to please Suzanne, and, most importantly, it allows us to understand Evie’s motivations as these events are taking place. In her portrayal of young Evie, Cline perfectly captures all of the nuances of being a teenage girl – the volatile emotions, the vulnerability, the intense need to belong to a group and just fit in. Cline is so spot on with her writing that I felt like I could have been reading the diary of a fourteen year old. Heck, it could have been my own diary when I was a teenager (minus the murderous cult, of course!).

The second perspective Cline uses to tell the story is much more reflective and really helps to round out Evie’s story. Evie is still the narrator, but now she is much older and is looking back on herself when she was fourteen and thinking about what happened, what could have happened, why everything happened, etc. Again, Cline perfectly captures the inner workings of older Evie’s mind down to the almost giddiness that she still seems to feel at being associated, however loosely, with the now infamous cult. Even as an adult, Evie still feels their hold over her, Suzanne’s in particular.
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five-stars

About Emma Cline

Emma Cline is from California. Her fiction has appeared in Tin House and The Paris Review, and she was the recipient of the 2014 Paris Review Plimpton Prize.

‘Eligible’ by Curtis Sittenfeld gives ‘Pride and Prejudice’ a Fresh and Fun Makeover

‘Eligible’ by Curtis Sittenfeld gives ‘Pride and Prejudice’ a Fresh and Fun MakeoverEligible: A Modern Retelling of Pride and Prejudice by Curtis Sittenfeld
four-half-stars
Series: The Austen Project #4
Published by Random House on April 19th 2016
Genres: Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 512
Source: Netgalley
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FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Synopsis from Goodreads: From the “wickedly entertaining” (USA Today) Curtis Sittenfeld, New York Times bestselling author of Prep and American Wife, comes a modern retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. A bold literary experiment, Eligible is a brilliant, playful, and delicious saga for the twenty-first century.

This version of the Bennet family—and Mr. Darcy—is one that you have and haven’t met before: Liz is a magazine writer in her late thirties who, like her yoga instructor older sister, Jane, lives in New York City. When their father has a health scare, they return to their childhood home in Cincinnati to help—and discover that the sprawling Tudor they grew up in is crumbling and the family is in disarray.

Youngest sisters Kitty and Lydia are too busy with their CrossFit workouts and Paleo diets to get jobs. Mary, the middle sister, is earning her third online master’s degree and barely leaves her room, except for those mysterious Tuesday-night outings she won’t discuss. And Mrs. Bennet has one thing on her mind: how to marry off her daughters, especially as Jane’s fortieth birthday fast approaches.

Enter Chip Bingley, a handsome new-in-town doctor who recently appeared on the juggernaut reality TV dating show Eligible. At a Fourth of July barbecue, Chip takes an immediate interest in Jane, but Chip’s friend neurosurgeon Fitzwilliam Darcy reveals himself to Liz to be much less charming. . . .

And yet, first impressions can be deceiving. Wonderfully tender and hilariously funny, Eligible both honors and updates Austen’s beloved tale. Tackling gender, class, courtship, and family, Sittenfeld reaffirms herself as one of the most dazzling authors writing today.

My review: 

Prior to requesting Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible from Netgalley, I was completely unfamiliar with the Austen Project, in which six prominent modern-day authors have been tasked with giving contemporary makeovers to Jane Austen’s classic novels.  Because I’ve been a Jane Austen fan since I first read Pride and Prejudice in high school, I was immediately intrigued by the project and eager to see what kind of modern spin these authors would put on some of my beloved favorites.

I’m happy to report that Eligible, Sittenfeld’s modern take on Pride and Prejudice, did not disappoint.  For those who are familiar with the original classic, Eligible preserves its main characters, primary storylines, satirical elements, as well as its overriding themes:   Mrs. Bennet is still obsessed with finding suitable husbands for her five daughters to marry, and Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett again steal the spotlight as they verbally spar their way from hate at first sight to eventual true love.

In spite of the many similarities to Pride and Prejudice, however, Sittenfeld skillfully infuses Eligible with enough modern elements and unexpected plot twists to keep her story fresh and hilariously entertaining rather than simply a rehash of the original.

Highlights for me:

There were so many things I loved about this book that it’s impossible to name them all. The contemporary spin on the Liz/Darcy storyline is a given, but here are some of my other favorites:

The Americanized setting.  Swapping out the English countryside for the suburban landscape of Cincinnati, Ohio gave the original storyline an instant facelift, as did replacing fancy dress balls and strolls around formal English gardens with barbecues and jogs around the block.  The change in scenery was instantly relatable, and of course, there was the added amusement of learning that our oh-so-dignified Mr. Darcy was a big fan of Cincinnati chili.

The aging  of the Bennet sisters.  Since it would have been somewhat old-fashioned to be worried about twentysomethings and the danger of spinsterhood, Sittenfeld deftly updates both the ages of the Bennet sisters as well as the driving forces behind Mama Bennet’s desire to find them all men.  Eldest daughter Jane is now 40, with Liz not too far behind her at 38, so the relevant issue at hand for them, Jane in particular, is fertility.  If they want to have children, they had better get busy.

For the younger three Bennet sisters, the issue is more just about having them grow up and start fending for themselves.  Here, Sittenfeld has woven into her narrative a powerful, albeit humorous, criticism of millennials, and particularly of what she refers to as the ‘boomerang effect’ when the grown children return home to live with their parents.  Even though all five Bennet sisters are grown women, only two of them, Jane and Liz, have moved out of their parents’ home and secured careers for themselves.  Kitty, Lydia, and Mary have instead chosen to remain living at home and behaving like children.  They do absolutely nothing to help out around the house either through monetary contributions or by helping to care for their father when his health declines.  Instead of needing husbands, what these three girls need is a swift kick in the pants to get them out of their parents’ home and living independently.

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four-half-stars