Archive for June 2020

Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas

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In the past couple of years, books that have a boarding school setting have become a kind of subgenre all of their own. There's something so tantalizing about the community dynamic and often simultaneous isolation that a boarding school can offer. Publishers often gravitate toward trends in their novels (see all the thrillers with "girl" or "lie" in the title), so it should come as no surprise that books that take place in or around a boarding school have become the latest trend. I really enjoyed Simone St. James's The Broken Girls, and J.T. Ellison's Good Girls Lie, both novels that featured a boarding school setting. When Elisabeth Thomas's publisher offered me a copy of her debut novel Catherine House to review, it was partly the promise of another mysterious educational institution story that convinced me to read and review it.

What would you sacrifice for the guarantee of success? Behind the formidable black iron gates of the forested estate lies Catherine House, an institution renowned for higher learning. Getting into the revered school is no easy task. Catherine House is well-known for being nearly impossible to gain admission to. Equally infamous is the school's experimental approach to pedagogy. Still, entrance into Catherine House leads to almost certain success. Its students have gone on to be the top in their fields, no matter what the concentration of study. Even better, students of Catherine House pay no tuition and live at the school for free. Admission to the school is not without cost. In exchange for the promise of power and prestige, students must sacrifice three years of their lives, living every moment of those three years at the school, unplugged from their family, friends, and society at large. Would you take that deal?

Catherine House is the last place Ines ever thought she would find herself. She is more used to the decadence of the nightlife than the strict rigors of academia. Still, Ines is excited at the opportunity for a better life that Catherine House promises to provide. She immediately bonds with another girl at the school who is also eager to find acceptance amongst her peers and the world at large. As the pair begins their time at the school, they soon see that things are not how they anticipated at all. Ines's penchant for drugs and casual sex is actually encouraged. The school's director wants all the students to explore and experiment to truly connect to themselves and find their voice within the institution. The faculty is equally unconventional. There's even a highly secretive and mysterious field of study called new materials that only the highest achievers are invited to study. As Ines starts to navigate the strange world of Catherine House her feelings of liberation and possibility give way to an underlying sense of unease. She's promised three years of her life to this place and can't help but start to feel like that might have been a mistake.

In her debut novel Catherine House author Elisabeth Thomas paints a chilling portrait of the sacrifices one makes in the name of ambition. She deftly writes of the Gothic halls of Catherine House, establishing a sense of place that fills each page with equal parts dread and sensuality. There is something about this place that makes the reader suspicious while nevertheless drawing them deeper inside. While the publisher promises a "suspenseful page-turner", I found Catherine House to be much more of a slow burn. The book takes a while to find its narrative footing. The world that Thomas is building is wonderfully rich, but the story that takes place in this world is less sure of itself. It wasn't until the halfway point that I felt the novel gained a true sense of purpose and direction. It was at that point that the pages started to turn a bit faster, making me feel more connected to the main character's drive to discover the secrets behind the school's pristine facade. The revelations were satisfying, though I'm not sure they necessarily delivered on the buildup of the entire book. In the end, Elisabeth Thomas's Catherine House will probably generate a mixed reaction depending upon your personal tastes or mood. It leaned a bit too far into focusing on world-building over the plot for me, but I'll still be happy to read more from this promising new author.

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.
(2020, 28)

Safe by S.K. Barnett

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What are the things that make you feel safe? 2020 has been a year of fear and uncertainty for many, and the idea of safety seems to be one worth exploring. COVID-19 has become an all-encompassing subject, one that promotes much debate, unpredictability, and even fear. I'll admit that my own anxiety levels have increased this week as the number of cases has rapidly risen in my own state. Safety has become a paramount priority for me and my family.  The ability to transition to working from home again after a month of being back at work certainly plays into my sense of security. However small it may seem, wearing my mask when I venture out into public also makes me feel safe. Beyond COVID-19, I find safety in the routine things like cooking dinner, playing with my dog, and falling into the story of a really good book. It seems no coincidence that this week's read is appropriately titled Safe by S.K Barnett. I was gifted a copy of the book from the publisher and was eager to dig into this intriguing thriller.

It has been nearly twelve years since little Jenny Kristal disappeared. The six-year-old was walking from her family home to a sleepover at a friend's house when she was snatched from the streets, never to be seen again. Her parents immediately began the search for their daughter while struggling to hold things together for the sake of their son, Jenny's younger brother Ben. But twelve years is a long time. Even the most optimistic person would have a hard time believing Jenny would ever return home. Parents Laurie and Jake are starting to run out of hope. At a certain point, it may be best to simply move on.

Things change when a woman claiming to be Jenny is found by the police. She seems to fit the description of the missing child. She has the same blonde hair, same age, same dimples when she smiles, and she can even recall details from her life before the abduction. The woman tells a story of escaping from her abusive captors and making her way back home to safety. Laurie and Jake are quick to accept that their daughter has returned. Ben is a bit more skeptical. Years of being apart have been hard, but the return of Jenny means the family is finally all back together. Jenny is finally safe. Or is she?

In Safe author S.K. Barnett brings a different take on a classic missing person mystery. Rather than focusing on the time of looking for the kidnapped child, Barnett picks up the story when the family is reunited. The novel digs deep into what comes after the happily ever after, revealing that the resolution of the years-long case is hardly the end of the story. The joyful reunion between parent and child soon gives way to drama, paranoia, and fear. Barnett deftly writes compelling character development while still filling the book with the twists and turns that make it a truly page-turning thriller. The revelations about each character intertwine with the driving plot, propelling the novel forward at a rapid pace. Flashbacks are interspersed with the present-day story, providing ample context about the events that lead up to the story without giving away any of the shocks that follow. As COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc on the world, I'm happy to fall into the comfort of a good book like Safe by S.K. Barnett.

For more information visit Amazon and Goodreads.
(2020, 27)

Friday Flicks: Where'd You Go, Bernadette

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If it feels like it has been a long time since I last did a Friday Flicks review, that's because it has been. I've always been a fan of going to see a movie in the theater, but movie theaters have become another on the long list of casualties of COVID-19. Streaming services provide a plethora of content, but something about curling up on the couch with a bowl of microwave popcorn just isn't the same. Still, I'd be lying if I said I haven't enjoyed all the extra time catching up on movies that I missed in the theater. One recent offering is Where'd You Go, Bernadette, an adaptation of Maria Semple's popular novel of the same name. With an all-star cast and helmed by acclaimed director Richard Linklater, I knew the movie had the potential to be a worthy version of the bestselling book.

Cate Blanchett stars as the titular Bernadette, a quirky and creative former architect who traded the art world for the suburban life as a mother. Her husband Elgin, played by Billy Crudup, is a genius in his own right, heading up an innovative arm of a large technology company. While Elgin works, Bernadette is responsible for the majority of the activities that come with raising their fifteen-year-old daughter Bee. Bernadette is far from a conventional mother. She largely stays in the family's dilapidated estate and relies upon a personal assistant in India to take care of any shopping or planning needs. Her use of assistant Manjula takes on new heights as Bernadette prepares for a trip to Antarctica that was promised to Bee. She is extremely apprehensive about this trip, but her love for her daughter outweighs her anxiety.

The nuclear family of Elgin, Bernadette, and Bee seems to function just fine. The threesome is perfectly content with their unconventional way of life, but their neighbors have other ideas about the peculiar family. Kristen Wig gives a scene-stealing performance as Bernadette's neighbor and arch-nemesis Audrey Griffin. Audrey is essentially the antithesis to everything Bernadette is. Audrey and the other neighbors begin to pressure Elgin to react to Bernadettes idiosyncrasies. Elgin has to admit that things are starting to get out of hand. Things come to a head when Elgin attempts to stage an intervention with both a doctor and an FBI agent. Bernadette flees the scene, leaving Elgin and Bee to try to piece together the pieces of Bernadette's life, find her, and bring her back home.

I had every intention of seeing this film in theaters late last summer. Negative reviews and a poor showing at the box office meant that it only played in most cinemas for a couple of weeks. Thankfully, I was able to find it on Hulu. After watching it for myself, I really don't understand the negative reaction. I found Where'd You Go, Bernadette to be a pretty faithful adaptation of the novel. I even had a stronger emotional connection to the characters in the film than I did in the book. Blanchett relishes in all of the quirks of her character while never taking her too far away from Bernadette's emotional core. The film provides a more nuanced approach to the novel's themes of balancing personal and professional obligations while navigating the delicate complexities of family relationships. This is something that I was really missing when I read the novel, so I was happy to see Linklater explore it more in the film. There's nothing flashy or showy about this movie, which is why I think it was overshadowed at the summer box office. Instead, Where'd You Go, Bernadette is an intimate character study grounded by stellar performances, the kind of film that will leave you dazzled by the emotional connection you feel through the entire time you watch it.

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

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Since it published earlier this year, American Dirt has been mired in controversy. The novel by Jeanine Cummins led to a bidding war amongst major publishing houses and initially garnered glowing reviews. It was even chosen by Oprah to be part of her famous book club. The shimmering reception quickly gave way to harsh criticisms. Many argue that Cummins, a white woman, has no right to present a story about Mexican refugees, especially when the voices of Latinx authors who have lived this story have been consistently underrepresented or outright stifled by publishers. This controversy has forced the publishing industry to take a critical look at the way they acquire, print, and promote books, a conversation that has grown beyond even this one particular novel. Still, the question remains. Is American Dirt any good? Determined to draw my own conclusions about the novel, I decided to give it a listen.

American Dirt begins with a literal bang. Lydia clutches her eight-year-old son Luca from behind the shower curtain of the bathroom. The pair is immobilized by fear as gunshots ring throughout the house, murdering their entire family. If they make even the slightest move or sound, their fate will be the same. What started as a day of celebration with extended family has shifted to one of tragedy and grief. Sitting there listening to the sound of her family's slaughter, Lydia knows exactly what precipitated this violence. Her husband, a reporter, recently published an article about the notorious head of a Mexican drug cartel. This is clearly an act of revenge, a kind of tic for tac. When the sicarios finally leave, the house is filled with a silence that only comes from the absence of life. Lydia and Luca are the only surviving members of the family and the only lives preventing the jefe from finalizing his revenge. Lydia knows what she must do. She must escape the country and seek refuge in a place where she can't be found.

I think that it is best to critique American Dirt on two levels. One based purely on the novel itself and the second being a larger reflection on the controversy that has surfaced because of it. Jeanine Cummins sets her immigrant story within a thriller. Yes, there are obvious commentaries about the plight of refugees and their reasons for undertaking such a perilous journey, but at its heart, the novel is a thriller. As such, it is the kind of book that keeps you reading, unable to look away (or in my case stop listening) until you've finished the entire thing. Cummins deserves credit for presenting a story about refugees in a way that grabs the reader's attention and forces them to face the harsh realities that it presents. Whatever your thoughts about the novel, I think it is important to recognize that this is a story that often is untold and that the book's success means that many people will connect and be exposed to a story that they would otherwise be ignorant or indifferent to. At its best, American Dirt humanizes immigrants in a way that seeing throngs of people detained on the news fails to.

All that considered, I found many flaws to the narrative itself that I couldn't ignore. Luca is an incredibly bright child who is imbued with knowledge that felt like it was more in service of advancing the plot than developing his character. The child has an almost savant-like predisposition to understanding maps and sensing direction. Cummins attempts to present this as a way for us to connect with Luca as if to say, " Look at how bright this kid is. He deserves our admiration." In reality, his predisposition to direction was more in service of helping the family navigate their way to freedom, a trait that I found to be a bit too convenient to be believable. There is also the fact that Lydia comes from a family of financial privilege. She isn't escaping poverty and violence in search of better opportunity. She has already been afforded that opportunity, even drawing on her sizable bank account to buy safe passage at several points in the book. These two particular characteristics aided in the pace of the novel, but detracted from the sense of reality.

Finally we come to the controversy of American Dirt. There are many criticisms to be made about the novel, but I don't think the flaws of the book itself warrant any kind of cancelation or hate. They simply make it a so-so read. Where the real controversy lies is with the publishing industry at large. It is odd that the book by a white woman about Mexican refugees has garnered this kind of acclaim and prominence when many Latinx authors have written about the same topic to little fanfare. The publishing system in place tilts the scales in favor of white creators. I think that American Dirt has simply brought this conversation to a boiling point that has made more people take notice of this problem. What really matters now is what we and the people in power choose to do next. Publishers must take a hard look at how they can diversify the authors and content that they present. They must do more to give voices to a variety of authors who present a variety of stories. We as readers, in turn, must support these voices. Support the places and publishers who value diversity by publishing and selling books by diverse authors. Buy the books by these authors and share these stories through whatever means you have available. At the end of the day, American Dirt will not be remembered as a great work of literature, but it just might be remembered for the movement and change that it inspired.

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.
(2020, 26)


Good Girls Lie by J.T. Ellison

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It has been a few weeks since I last read a thriller, and I've really missed them. Don't get me wrong, I've really enjoyed expanding my reading habits and exploring new authors and genres. I've gained a greater perspective of the literary world at large, and I'm happy to see such a diverse and fruitful crop of books. I've become a more well-rounded reader and will continue to vary my reading as the year continues. Still, I'd be lying if I said I haven't missed my go-to genre of mysteries and thrillers. There's something about flying through the pages of a good thriller that just can't be beaten. J.T. Ellison flew onto my radar a few years ago when I read her first take as a solo author Lie to Me. I had a few minor issues with that book, but really enjoyed the way Ellison played with her characters. In an attempt to read more from her and to quench my thirst for another thriller, I picked up her latest book Good Girls Lie.

Ashlyn Carr has had a tough run at life thus far. The young, English girl had a privileged but tragic childhood that culminated in the death of both of her parents. An orphan with no family to care for her, Ash turned to an unlikely place to take refuge. The elite Goode School in Virginia has historically been a place of learning for the intelligent and wealthy girls of the US. After completing a successful video conference interview with the school's dean, Dr. Westhaven, Ash was admitted to the school. Attending and living at the school will give her a shot at starting things over, making friends, and grieving for her past life and trauma.

At first, Ash is invigorated by the intellectual challenge the school provides her. She is a natural with all things computer-related, and the computer teacher sets up private lessons to foster her passion for the field. While excelling in academic rigor comes naturally to Ash, she is having a tough time connecting with the other girls. Goode prides itself on being the cream of the academic crop, but it can't overcome the societal norms that plague almost every school. The girls at Goode fall into hierarchal cliques that have a mysterious secret society at the very top. Ash instantly finds herself on the wrong side of senior girl Becca who is the unofficial head of the student body. The plot comes to a boiling point when one of Goode's girls is found dead, hanging from a spike on the front gate of the property.

Good Girls Lie is a twisty and tumultuous thriller that sees author J.T. Ellison tackle classism, grief, and the education system at large. She deftly shifts perspectives between present-day Ash, Ash's past, and the present-day dean Dr. Westhaven. Each chapter reveals a new ripple of revelation that tantalizes the reader with the feeling that everything is coming together. Just when I felt like I knew where this story was headed, Ellison would throw in another curveball. Ellison thrives at inhabiting her novel with characters who are flawed with complexities that have you questioning who, if anyone, to root for at any given point in the story. The plot of this one does veer a bit to the side of being outrageous and unbelievable, but I can forgive that in this case. The pages were turning so fast and I was so invested in seeing what happened next that I really didn't notice the unbelievability until I had finished the final page. Overall, Good Girls Lie more than satisfied my need to read a thriller and reminded me of why I often turn to this genre. Complex characters, a twisted plot, and a breakneck pace make Good Girls Lie a really fun read.

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.
(2020, 25)

Me by Elton John

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"When you reminisce about the good ole' days, you naturally see it through rose-tinted spectacles. In my case in particular I think it's forgivable because I was probably literally wearing rose-tinted spectacles at the time."

With Pride month now in full swing, I'm happy to showcase a few books that either feature LGBTQ+ characters or are written by LGBTQ+ authors. Elton John's autobiography Me certainly fits the bill. John has been out and proud for the majority of his decades-long career. The film Rocketman showcased his life story albeit with a tendency to lean more toward the side of fantasy than reality.  Taron Egerton, who played John in the film, narrated the audiobook version that I listened to. Me finds the famed singer at his most candid, reflecting on his remarkable life, career, and the things to come.

Born Reginald Dwight, Elton John started from very humble beginnings. He was a quiet and shy child who easily faded into the background, a far cry from the flamboyant superstar he would one day become. He took to the piano at a young age, naturally picking out tunes by ear. Eventually, his family allowed him to begin lessons, and he proved to be a natural. He jokingly blames his short, stubby fingers for being the reason he couldn't have a career as a classical musician, but his own stint at London's Royal Academy of Music would beg to differ. John's musical passions were with the up and coming rock and roll music that he could hear on the streets. He joined bands and found moderate success playing and touring. It wasn't until a rejection from a music label that he found his big break. As part of the rejection, the music executive gifted John an envelope of lyrics written by Bernie Taupin. This fateful act would inspire the fruitful collaboration that would soon skyrocket Elton John to superstardom.

Once Elton John comes into his place of fame and fortune, the story gets really wild. He holds no bars in describing the years of literal sex, drugs, and rock and roll. John candidly describes his struggle with addiction and the impact it had on his personal and professional life. He reminisces about his drug-fueled tantrums and benders that left him near death on multiple occasions. John also reflects on the struggle of coming to terms with his homosexuality, a battle that even saw him in an unhappy marriage to a woman for some time. Ultimately, dealing with his drug addiction and accepting his sexuality were the keys to bringing Elton John to the place he is today, happily married, and a father to two young children. In the end, this book, he writes, is meant to be a record for those kids, a kind of definitive resource to cut through all the gossip and celebrity surrounding his life.

I've always had a fondness for Elton John and his music. I've played piano for most of my life and spent many nights playing his tunes at piano bars during my college years. Yes, John emits a larger than life persona and has his fair share of demons, but he has always been willing to own up to them. As a result, Me is a pretty thorough and forthright autobiography. It reads more like stories shared between old friends at a party than a traditional memoir. This conversational style gives the book a lightness that makes for easy reading, especially when John touches on the darker points in his life.  At the heart of this life story is the journey of a man facing his demons and rockstar sense of entitlement.  In the end, he has transformed his life into one of giving back and really trying to make a difference in the world. John's early and continued support of AIDS research and treatment,  both through raising awareness and financial support, has been a large part of his latest act. As he ends his touring career (yes, he says this is really the end) and settles into being a more hands-on father, I look forward to seeing where his life will take him next.

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.
(2019, 41)

Big Summer by Jennifer Weiner

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Over the past several weeks, I've thought a lot about what summer reading means to me. Working from home gave me the luxury of expanding my reading habits and redefining the idea of a summer read. I read some fantastic literary fiction and thought-provoking non-fiction. I was truly becoming a more well-rounded reader. Then this week happened. I went back to work for the first time, and I began the process of readjusting my daily routine. I would get home at the end of the day and be completely exhausted. Add to that the tragic killing of George Floyd and the protesting that followed, and my mental and emotional capacity just couldn't take a heavy read. Enter Jennifer Weiner's latest novel, Big Summer. It is a quick and light read with just enough narrative intrigue and character development to draw your attention away from everything else for a while. In short, exactly the kind of book I needed to read.

Daphne is the kind of character you just can't help but fall in love with. She has struggled with her weight for her entire life. As a child, her grandmother tried to drill healthy eating habits into her, causing self-esteem issues and body dysmorphia that persists to this very day. Being overweight just wasn't acceptable. If you were overweight, you were seen as less than. This translated into all areas of her life, including her friendships. Daphne latched onto Drue Cavanaugh, a rich, skinny girl who used Daphne's loyalty to fit her own needs. Their friendship was never built on an equal fitting, but it served the two girls' needs. Until it didn't. The dissolution of their friendship was inevitable, and the two have not spoken since their falling out.

Six years later, Daphne is living a pretty different life. She still struggles with her weight, but she has embraced it. So much so, in fact, that she's built quite the social media following because of it. Daphne is a bonafide influencer for the plus-size community. Out of the blue, she comes into contact with Drue. Daphne is shocked to learn that Drue is marrying a reality TV star soon, and wants Daphne to be part of the wedding. Daphne is hesitant at first, but Drue promises that she's grown and changed since they last interacted. Finally, Daphne agrees to give their friendship a second chance. Plus a high-profile celebrity wedding can't be bad for the Instagram followers!

The less you know going into Big Summer, the better. Jennifer Weiner fills her book with plenty of twists and turns, each taking the story and characters into unexpected directions. In fact, a twist in the middle of the book turned it from an in-depth character study on friendship and body positivity into a more standard whodunnit. I found this shift to be a bit jarring at first, but the strength of the characters helped carry the change through. Weiner manages to let the book be light and fun while still imbuing it with more thought-provoking commentary on social media, friendship, and body image. I found the mystery aspect to distract from all of this a bit, but I couldn't help but keep reading. Big Summer by Jennifer Weiner is summer escapism reading at its finest. As our world continues to challenge us in new ways each day, it is nice to be able to escape into a good book, even if it is only for a few hours.

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.
(2020, 24)

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