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Review: FORGET YOU KNOW ME

Review:  FORGET YOU KNOW MEForget You Know Me by Jessica Strawser
Also by this author: Not That I Could Tell
three-half-stars
Published by St. Martin's Press on February 5, 2019
Genres: Fiction, Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 336
Source: Netgalley
Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Netgalley. All opinions are my own..

FORGET YOU KNOW ME review

I went into Jessica Strawser’s Forget You Know Me expecting to read a thriller.  What I got, however, was something entirely different and not necessarily in a bad way.  Instead of being a thriller, Forget You Know Me is a powerful and emotional exploration of the hurt we all experience when we drift apart from someone we care about, be it a spouse, sibling, or a close friend.

There is a small “thriller” element that takes place in the early chapters of Forget You Know Me, but it’s only central to the plot in the sense that it serves as a catalyst to show just how far apart former best friends Molly and Liza have drifted over the years, as well as how fractured Molly’s relationship with her husband, Daniel, has become after years of neglect and taking advantage of each other.

During a video chat with Molly, for example, Liza sees something terrifying on screen that makes her jump in the car and drive hours to Molly’s house to make sure Molly is okay. When she arrives, however, instead of being grateful that her friend has come all this way to make sure she’s okay, Molly is cold and aloof and pretty much kicks Liza out of her house with no explanation.  The awkwardness continues when not only does Molly offer Liza no explanation, but she also hides what has happened from her husband, who probably should have been the first person she told.  Why the awkwardness and the secrets with the two people she should be closest to?

Strawser’s novel highlights the idea that you only get as much out of a relationship as you’re willing to put into it and just how fragile and fractured relationships can become if neglected.

My favorite part of Forget You Know Me was how well drawn all of the central characters are.  The book is filled with messy, complicated characters who are going through things we can all relate to, whether we want to or not.  Strawser does a wonderful job of making the ups and downs of the friendship between Molly and Liza feel so authentic.  We’ve all been in relationships where we’ve just simply drifted apart over the years, either because we’ve moved away and don’t make enough of an effort to stay in contact, or else because our interests just don’t coincide with one another anymore.

Strawser does an equally impressive job of fleshing out the marriage woes between Molly and Daniel, who have clearly fallen into a rut over the years.  Again, if you’ve been in any kind of long-term relationship, their relationship issues are oh-so-relatable.

In addition to complicated characters in relatable situations, Strawser also does a nice job of building a bit of suspense by keeping that thriller element lurking in the background throughout the novel as she is exploring the relationship struggles of her characters.  The tension created by all of these troubled relationships, in addition to wanting a resolution to the thriller element, kept me glued to the pages.

Strawser’s smooth writing style also kept me turning the pages. Everything just flowed so nicely and I really liked the way this whole story unfolded with its many twists and turns.

My only real disappointment with the novel was that the thriller element, although it had such a huge build up in the early part of the novel, just seemed to fizzle out and take a backseat to everything else that was going on. I really expected and hoped that it would be more central to the story than it ended up being.

I would recommend Forget You Know Me to anyone who is interested in a slightly suspenseful read that explores relationships and what happens to them if they aren’t properly nurtured.  If you’re looking for a true thriller, I’d say to try a different book.

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

Forget You Know Me is that book you can’t put down, and can’t stop thinking about when you are finished.” —Sally Hepworth, bestselling author of The Family Next Door.

When a video call between friends captures a shocking incident no one was supposed to see, the secrets it exposes threaten to change their lives forever.

Molly and Liza have always been enviably close. Even after Molly married Daniel, the couple considered Liza an honorary family member. But after Liza moved away, things grew more strained than anyone wanted to admit—in the friendship and the marriage.

When Daniel goes away on business, Molly and Liza plan to reconnect with a nice long video chat after the kids are in bed. But then Molly leaves the room to check on a crying child.

What Liza sees next will change everything.

Only one thing is certain: Molly needs her. Liza drives all night to be at Molly’s side—but when she arrives, the reception is icy, leaving Liza baffled and hurt. She knows there’s no denying what she saw.

Or is there?

In disbelief that their friendship could really be over, Liza is unaware she’s about to have a near miss of her own.

And Molly, refusing to deal with what’s happened, won’t turn to Daniel, either.

But none of them can go on pretending. Not after this.

Jessica Strawser’s Forget You Know Me is a “twisty, emotionally complex, powder keg of a tale” (bestselling author Emily Carpenter) about the wounds of people who’ve grown apart. Best, friends, separated by miles. Spouses, hardened by neglect. A mother, isolated by pain.

One moment will change things for them all.

three-half-stars

About Jessica Strawser

Jessica Strawser is the Editor-at-Large for Writer’s Digest magazine, where she served as editorial director for nearly a decade. Her debut novel, ALMOST MISSED YOU (St. Martin’s Press), was a Barnes & Noble Best New Fiction Selection upon its March 2017 release, as well as a She Reads Book Club Selection and a PopSugar Best Spring Read. Her second, NOT THAT I COULD TELL, was a bestselling Book of the Month selection for March 2018, and is now new in paperback and available at Target stores nationwide, with a bonus Reading Group Gold guide included.

Her latest novel of domestic suspense, FORGET YOU KNOW ME, released Feb. 5, 2019, from St. Martin’s Press, having been named to “Best Of” and “Most Anticipated” lists from Goodreads, PopSugar, BookBub, and elsewhere. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly calls the novel “masterful,” saying, “fans of well-written suspense are in for a treat.”

Her diverse career in the publishing industry spans nearly two decades and includes stints in book editing, marketing and public relations, and freelance writing and editing. A Pittsburgh native and “Outstanding Senior” graduate of Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism, she counts her New York Times Modern Love essay and her Writer’s Digest cover interviews with such luminaries as Alice Walker, Anne Tyler and David Sedaris among her career highlights. She lives in Cincinnati, Ohio, with her husband and two children, and has recently been named the 2019 Writer-in-Residence for the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County.

A proud member of the Tall Poppy Writers and Women’s Fiction Writers Association, she tweets @jessicastrawser, enjoys connecting at Facebook.com/jessicastrawserauthor, and speaks frequently at writing conferences and events that are kind enough to invite her.

Visit jessicastrawser.com to learn more, read some of her work and sign up for her email list to receive occasional updates and hellos.

Review: THE FAMILY NEXT DOOR by Sally Hepworth

Review:  THE FAMILY NEXT DOOR by Sally HepworthThe Family Next Door by Sally Hepworth
Also by this author: The Mother-in-Law
four-half-stars
Published by St. Martin's Press on March 6th 2018
Genres: Contemporary Fiction, Mystery
Pages: 352
Source: Netgalley
Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Netgalley. All opinions are my own..

MY REVIEW:

“Do you ever really know your neighbors?”  This tagline from the cover of Sally Hepworth’s The Family Next Door is what initially drew me to this book and I think it very accurately sums up the overall premise of the story.  No matter how long you’ve lived next door to someone, how well do you really know them?  The Family Next Door’s answer to that question is quite simply:  “Not nearly as much as you think you know.”

At its core, The Family Next Door is a book about secrets.  Some secrets are, of course, more scandalous than others, but really – is there anyone out there who truly shares everything about themselves with everyone they meet?  I know I sure don’t.  And, let me tell you, any secrets I may be keeping to myself pale in comparison to those the ladies of Pleasant Court are each trying to keep under wraps.  Boy, do these ladies have some dirty laundry!

First of all, especially after reading that tagline, I had to chuckle as soon as I saw that their neighborhood is called Pleasant Court.  On the surface it sounds lovely, but it immediately made me think of Desperate Housewives and Wisteria Lane, which also sounded lovely and was a huge hotbed for secrets and scandals.  Pleasant Court is a very family-oriented community.  Most of the residents have been in Pleasant Court for years and are all raising young families.  Main characters Essie, Fran, and Ange all fall into this category.  Essie’s mother, Barbara, also lives there and she helps Essie out by babysitting her grandkids.  The only character who doesn’t fit the typical mold of a Pleasant Court resident is the mysterious Isabelle, who is new to town, and who is also unmarried and has no children.  It was almost comical to watch the “radars” of the Pleasant Court women perk up as soon as Isabelle moved in:  Why would she move here? She doesn’t even have a family, etc.  These ladies become thoroughly engrossed in trying to figure out the scoop on Isabelle.  It was especially funny to me once I realized these ladies were the last people who should be casting stones and making judgements about someone they don’t even know.

That all sounds pretty vague, right? Well, since this is a book about secrets, there’s not much I can say about the plot without spoiling it.  I think it makes for the best reading experience to go into The Family Next Door knowing as little as possible and letting the secrets these characters are hiding unfold naturally.  Bottom line though:  No one in Pleasant Court is as innocent as they would have you believe.  Everyone, even Grandma Barbara, is lugging around a dirty secret or two!

 

Domestic dramas like The Family Next Door seem to be emerging as the latest trend in fiction and I have to say I enjoy these so much more than I enjoyed the unreliable/unlikeable narrator trend that books like Gone Girl started a few years ago.  Even though I enjoy them, I have had one consistent complaint with so many of the recent domestic dramas I’ve read and that’s that even though the actual drama in the story is deliciously scandalous and makes for a great page turner, I usually don’t feel very invested in any of the characters.  What made The Family Next Door head and shoulders over those books for me is that Hepworth actually made me care about the families in Pleasant Court.

She presents the story from the perspective of five very complicated female characters, but she fully fleshes out each character and infuses them with so much heart that even though each of them is clearly flawed, I still liked them and wanted them to be able to get past the deep, dark secrets that threatened to bury them.  When each of the secrets were revealed, instead of just sitting there waiting to see whether or not the secrets destroyed lives, I was sitting there like “OMG!  Damn girl, you need to fix this before it rips your family apart!”

In addition to giving me characters that I felt fully invested in, Hepworth also gave me everything else I love in a good domestic drama.  The secrets were scandalous and juicy, the pacing was quick and even – no lulls at all, and Hepworth wove enough twists and turns in the storylines of each of these characters that I stayed equally interested in all five accounts all the way through the book.  Even with so many characters to keep track of, there was no point along the way where I felt bored or distracted.  I really wanted to know everything about all five of these characters and their secrets, and that need to know really kept me turning the pages.  There were many characters and secrets to juggle, but Hepworth juggled them perfectly and crafted them into an incredibly well written and satisfying read.  I easily breezed through the book in less than two days.

 

None at all!

 

If you’re into stories that have a Desperate Housewives, Big Little Lies kind of vibe, I think this book would be a good fit for you.  This was my first time reading a novel by Sally Hepworth but it definitely will not be my last!

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

A gripping domestic page-turner full of shocking reveals, perfect for fans of Liane Moriarty, Amanda Prowse and Kerry Fisher.

The small suburb of Pleasant Court lives up to its name. It’s the kind of place where everyone knows their neighbors, and children play in the street.

Isabelle Heatherington doesn’t fit into this picture of family paradise. Husbandless and childless, she soon catches the attention of three Pleasant Court mothers.

But Ange, Fran and Essie have their own secrets to hide. Like the reason behind Ange’s compulsion to control every aspect of her life. Or why Fran won’t let her sweet, gentle husband near her new baby. Or why, three years ago, Essie took her daughter to the park – and returned home without her.

As their obsession with their new neighbor grows, the secrets of these three women begin to spread – and they’ll soon find out that when you look at something too closely, you see things you never wanted to see.

four-half-stars

About Sally Hepworth

Sally Hepworth is the bestselling author of The Secrets of Midwives (2015), The Things We Keep (2016) and The Mother’s Promise (2017), and The Family Next Door (Feb 2018). Sally’s books have been labelled “enchanting” by The Herald Sun, “smart and engaging” by Publisher’s Weekly, and New York Times bestselling authors Liane Moriarty and Emily Giffin have praised Sally’s novels as “women’s fiction at its finest” and “totally absorbing”.

Sally’s novels are available worldwide in English and have been translated into 15 languages.

Sally lives in Melbourne, Australia with her husband and three children.

Book Review: The Female of the Species by Mindy McGinnis

Book Review:  The Female of the Species by Mindy McGinnisThe Female of the Species by Mindy McGinnis
four-half-stars
Published by Katherine Tegen Books on September 20th 2016
Genres: Contemporary Fiction, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 341
Source: Library
Amazon
Goodreads

Goodreads Synopsis:   Alex Craft knows how to kill someone. And she doesn’t feel bad about it. When her older sister, Anna, was murdered three years ago and the killer walked free, Alex uncaged the language she knows best. The language of violence.  While her crime goes unpunished, Alex knows she can’t be trusted among other people, even in her small hometown. She relegates herself to the shadows, a girl who goes unseen in plain sight, unremarkable in the high school hallways.

But Jack Fisher sees her. He’s the guy all other guys want to be: the star athlete gunning for valedictorian with the prom queen on his arm. Guilt over the role he played the night Anna’s body was discovered hasn’t let him forget Alex over the years, and now her green eyes amid a constellation of freckles have his attention. He doesn’t want to only see Alex Craft; he wants to know her.

So does Peekay, the preacher’s kid, a girl whose identity is entangled with her dad’s job, though that does not stop her from knowing the taste of beer or missing the touch of her ex-boyfriend. When Peekay and Alex start working together at the animal shelter, a friendship forms and Alex’s protective nature extends to more than just the dogs and cats they care for.

Circumstances bring Alex, Jack, and Peekay together as their senior year unfolds. While partying one night, Alex’s darker nature breaks out, setting the teens on a collision course that will change their lives forever.

MY REVIEW

Wow, what a book! I hardly know where to even begin so I’m going to start off by saying Mindy McGinnis’s The Female of the Species is a book that definitely isn’t going to be for everyone.  This is not a light contemporary read by any stretch.  The Female of the Species is dark, violent, and incredibly intense.  It’s also one of the most powerful takedowns of rape culture that I’ve ever read.

LIKES

For me, the most fascinating part of The Female of the Species is main character, Alex Craft.  Alex has always had a dark side. She can feel the violence bubbling beneath the surface, just waiting to be unleashed.  For most of her life, she has been able to keep this dark side under control.  However, when her older sister Anna is sexually assaulted and murdered and the murderer goes free, the beast within Alex awakens and she takes matters into her own hands to get justice for her sister.  Alex gets away with her crime but feels like she could easily do the same thing again if she encounters another predator so she doesn’t really trust herself to be around other people.  Because of this, she doesn’t really make any friends at school and is mainly known by her classmates as “the girl with the dead sister.” That is, until she unexpectedly becomes friends with Jack and Peekay, her first real friendships, and it suddenly becomes a lot harder to hide her true dark nature.

I loved the complexity of Alex’s character.  On the one hand, she’s a straight A student in line to be valedictorian of her class and she also volunteers at the local animal shelter and is super gentle with all of the animals that she cares for.  On the other hand, she’s a stone cold vigilante who will go after anyone she views as a predator.

The first time her new friends witness vigilante Alex in action is in the hallway at school when a guy makes a really bad sexual joke in front of Alex.  The joke is stupid, hurtful, and offensive and it earns the guy a punch in the groin from Alex that brings him to his knees.  The reactions of those who witness the punch are a mixed bag: some are shocked and appalled, while others pretty much cheer her on.  I count myself as one of those who cheered her on.

At first I thought that perhaps her friendship with Peekay (aka Preacher’s Kid, but whose real name is actually Claire) would help to settle Alex and help her live a more normal day-to-day life as they worked at the shelter together and bonded so well.  Instead, however, it actually makes the vigilante behavior escalate because the more Alex begins to care about Peekay, the more protective she becomes of her.  When Peekay gets drunk at a party and some guys try to take advantage of her, Alex swoops in like a hawk and violently attacks the guys, actually drawing blood and disfiguring one of them.  I have to admit that I cheered Alex on here as well but at the same time was a little uncomfortable with just how violent she got.  Or maybe my discomfort was more with myself for thinking “Yes! Get them, Alex!” while she was pulverizing them.  Either way, this was kind of a ‘Holy crap!’ scene for me.

To fully flesh out Alex’s character, McGinnis structures the story so that it is told from three different points of view, each of them giving us a slightly different look at Alex.  Alex, of course, is one of them, while her friends Peekay and Jack are the other two.

It is through Alex’s chapters that we see how dark of a character she really is.  One standout moment for me was when she thinks back to a time when she tried reading a bunch of psychology textbooks trying to figure out what’s wrong with her because she knows the way she feels isn’t normal but doesn’t think she’ll ever feel differently:  “I’m not fine, and I doubt I ever will be. The books didn’t help me find a word for myself; my father refused to accept the weight of it. And so I made my own. I am vengeance.”

Alternating Alex’s dark chapters with those of Peekay and Jack allows us to not only see how Alex views herself, but also how others around her see her and how their views of her change the more they get to know her and see her darker side showing itself more and more.  While Alex views herself as this monster who can’t be trusted around others, Peekay sees her as a wonderful friend and as the one who can work magic with even the most hostile animals at the shelter where they work.

Jack, along the same lines as Peekay, sees Alex way different from how she sees herself.  He sees her as a girl he wants to know as more than just the girl with the dead sister. He becomes attracted to Alex because he sees her as having so much more substance than other girls their age. Eventually Jack and Alex do become romantically involved and their closeness gives Alex a glimpse at what a normal life could look like and she starts to wonder if it’s possible to control the darkness within her and live happily ever after with Jack.

Seeing the story from these three different points of view made for a very suspenseful read because as that darkness kept showing itself and giving Jack and Peekay little glimpses into Alex’s violent nature, I couldn’t help but want to know if these relationships would survive if they were to find out the whole truth about Alex and what would happen to Alex if she were to lose these two people who had become so important to her.

DISLIKES

My only real dislike was that there was one scene that contained animal cruelty, which is always a turnoff for me.  Thankfully it was a small scene, but it just didn’t feel necessary to the plot so I was disappointed that it was in the book.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Even though I’ve said this isn’t a book that will appeal to everyone because of the darkness and the violence, The Female of the Species is still such an important book that I wish everyone would go outside of their comfort zones and read it anyway.  It makes a powerful statement about rape culture and how it affects people.  There shouldn’t need to be Alex Crafts in the world to take matters into their own hands.

That said, I can state without hesitation that Alex Craft and The Female of the Species are going to stick with me for a long time.  They’ve given me a lot to think about.

RATING:  4.5 STARS

four-half-stars

About Mindy McGinnis

Mindy McGinnis is an Edgar Award-winning author and assistant teen librarian who lives in Ohio. She graduated from Otterbein University with a degree in English Literature and Religion, and sees nothing wrong with owning nine cats. Two dogs balance things out nicely.

Mindy runs a blog for aspiring writers at Writer, Writer Pants on Fire, which features interviews with agents, established authors, and debut authors. Learn how they landed their agents, what the submission process is really like, and how it feels when you see your cover for the first time. Mindy does query critiques every Saturday on the Saturday Slash for those who are brave enough to volunteer.

Book Review: Girl in Pieces by Kathleen Glasgow

Book Review:  Girl in Pieces by Kathleen GlasgowGirl in Pieces by Kathleen Glasgow
five-stars
Published by Delacorte Press on August 30th 2016
Genres: Young Adult Fiction, Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 416
Source: Purchased
Amazon
Goodreads

 

Goodreads Synopsis: 

Charlotte Davis is in pieces. At seventeen she’s already lost more than most people lose in a lifetime. But she’s learned how to forget. The broken glass washes away the sorrow until there is nothing but calm. You don’t have to think about your father and the river. Your best friend, who is gone forever.  Or your mother, who has nothing left to give you.

Every new scar hardens Charlie’s heart just a little more, yet it still hurts so much. It hurts enough to not care anymore, which is sometimes what has to happen before you can find your way back from the edge.

My Review of Girl in Pieces:

Girl in Pieces is one of those books that I literally could not put down once I got started. Kathleen Glasgow shows us a raw and unflinching look inside the world of those who self-harm.  Girl in Pieces centers around Charlotte Davis (or Charlie as she is known).  Charlie has been through more in her short seventeen years than most of us go through our entire lives. Both her dad and her best friend have died, she has ended up homeless for a year, been exposed to drugs, alcohol, and witnessed sexual abuse while living in what was basically a sex house, and that merely scratches the surface of all that she has experienced.  Reaching the breaking point and attempting to end her life lands Charlie in a hospital where she finally gets much needed help and begins her road to recovery.  Most of the novel focuses on Charlie’s journey to recovery and all of its ups and downs.

* * * * *

What Did I Love?

  • Charlie:  My love for this book centers directly around Charlie.  I was drawn to Charlie from the moment we meet her in the hospital, where she is so traumatized that she can’t even speak.  I felt an immediate connection with her and was just so heartbroken by the state she was in.  Once she began to speak and talk about what was going on in her mind and then especially when she is released from the hospital and subsequently handed a bus ticket to Arizona by her mom who basically washes her hands of Charlie, I just loved Charlie all the more and wanted her to succeed in her recovery efforts.  I mean how can you not feel sympathetic towards someone who is basically abandoned by their mom when they probably need them the most?

Charlie is an immensely likeable character that I think most everyone will relate to.  Either she’ll remind them of themselves or of someone they know.  Because she’s so familiar and so relatable, her journey is all the more real and all the more shocking because it makes you realize that anyone around you at any time could be going through a similarly rough time, fighting inner demons that you can only begin to imagine.

What I really liked about Charlie was her determination.  She gets off the bus in Arizona and immediately sets out to make her way in the world, taking things one step at a time, one day at a time.  Sometimes it takes everything in her to fight the fear of being alone so that she can function, but she does it. She secures a job at a coffee shop, finds herself a low budget room to rent, and slowly but surely begins to build a life for herself.  Now that’s not to say everything is sunshine and roses for Charlie just because she has a job and a place to life.  There are still plenty of ups and downs, especially once Charlie begins a relationship with a coworker named Riley, who has a drug problem and whose behavior is becoming increasingly erratic the longer Charlie knows him.  Because Riley is so caught up with his own issues, he’s not exactly the ideal support system for Charlie and her dependence on someone who cannot be relied on leads to some occasional dark moments for her.

But as I said, Charlie has a lot of determination to make it through the darkness.  She is not just a girl in pieces, as the title indicates, broken by all that has happened to her. She’s also a girl who is seeking to discover all of the pieces that make her who she is, both the good and the bad, so that she can fit them all together and better understand who she is so that she can make peace with it and move forward.  Charlie is an artist and ultimately it is through her drawings that she finally begins to find her sense of self and to feel more whole.

  • The Book’s Messages:  The book is filled with important messages that really resonated with me as I was following Charlie on her journey.  Like Jennifer Niven’s All the Bright Places, it’s a book that seeks to remove the stigma that is often associated with mental illness.  If you know someone who self-harms, I think this book will allow you to come away with an idea of what the person is going through — what is driving them to harm themselves — so that you can better understand what they’re up against.

Perhaps its most important messages are for those who self harm.  Girl in Pieces lets those who self-harm know they aren’t alone – that others are going through what they’re going through.  We see it first in the hospital where Charlie encounters many other girls like her and then throughout the book, Charlie meets a few other people she would never have guessed were self-harmers until she sees their scars and realizes that it’s not just her.  Girl in Pieces also conveys the message that there are also people out there who care and who want to try to help.  Even though Charlie’s mother is no help at all, Charlie has many friends, both old and new, who genuinely care about her and want to see her succeed.

Girl in Pieces also shows that the path to recovery is a long and sometimes never-ending journey and that it will have ups and downs.  When Charlie relocates to Arizona, finds herself a job and a place to live, for example, she still brings along the kit that she uses to cut herself with, just in case she needs it.

Even if you’re doing great one moment, something could happen that triggers a relapse.  The message of the book is to realize that setbacks are normal and that they are just that – setback.  They are not failures, and they do not define you and no matter how many setbacks you have, you should never lose hope of someday reaching a point where you no longer feel the need to engage in self-harming behavior or to keep that cutting kit with you – just in case.

  • The Writing.  Not only is this an important book, but it’s a beautifully crafted book as well.  The subject matter is dark, but the writing is gorgeous, almost poetic at times and as painful as Charlie’s journey is at times, the story is still so captivating that you won’t be able to put it down. I also think Glasgow does a wonderful job of handling such a sensitive subject matter with a great deal of respect, and I commend her for that.

* * * * *

Anything I Didn’t Like?

At first, I had Charlie’s relationship with Riley in the “Don’t Like” category.  Riley is a former musician who is very charming and charismatic, but whose life is in just as bad a place as Charlie’s is.  Because of that, their relationship is pretty toxic and I constantly wanted to scream at Charlie to just get away from him.  Ultimately, however, I came to terms with the fact that toxic relationships are quite likely to occur when someone is on the path to recovery.  Looking at it from that perspective, I think Charlie’s experiences with Riley therefore only further add to the authenticity of Glasgow’s story.  While Riley himself may initially be considered somewhat of a negative, he ultimately ends up being a very important part of Charlie’s journey and so I’m going to pull him out of the “Don’t Like” category and let’s just leave it at “It’s complicated.”

 * * * * *

Who Would I Recommend Girl in Pieces to? 

Honestly, I think Girl in Pieces is one of those books that everyone should read.  It’s raw, honest, brave, haunting, and without a doubt, one of the most powerful books I’ve read this year.  I would temper my recommendation just to say that I’m sure some of the topics covered would be considered triggers to those who self-harm, so they’d have to determine for themselves if the book is a good fit for them.

 * * * * *

Rating:  5 Stars

five-stars

About Kathleen Glasgow

Kathleen Glasgow is the author of the New York Times best-selling novel, Girl in Pieces.

She lives in Tucson, Arizona and is a researcher for The Writer’s Almanac. Girl in Pieces has been named to “best of lists by Goop, TeenVogue, BN Teen, Refinery29, EW.com, TeenReads, and more.

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
Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Netgalley. All opinions are my own..

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.

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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.

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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.