Review of The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid is a novel that was not on my radar until it showed up as a Book of the Month pick (before I was a member) and SO many bookstagrammers started posting about it. I read this as a buddy read with one of my book buddies–Priscilla of @2.ps.in.a.bookstagram.

This novel centers around Evelyn Hugo, a starlet whose fame and acquirement of husbands (a la Elizabeth Taylor) rose to astronomical proportions in the 50s and 60s. The book starts in present day with a reporter, Monique, from a fictional magazine coming to interview Evelyn about her life. Most of the story is Evelyn telling Monique about her life. I loved the format of the book. Sections are divided by the names of Evelyn’s seven husbands. At first glance, this may seem like a frothy, light read about an aging celebrity. (Which is what I though going in) Trust me, it is not. This book examines the role and treatment of a female in Hollywood during this time period, and the lengths actresses went to to find success and fame. In addition, it really examines the many forms love takes as well as the importance of the legacy we leave behind.

This novel is definitely not at all what I expected it to be. It delved into places that I did not anticipate. Typically, I shy away from books that center on celebrity or celebrity life, which is odd because I enjoy reading about real celebrities in magazines like People. But, for some reason, reading about fictional celebrities is not something I seek out.  What I love about this novel is that while it does have a lot to do with Evelyn’s thirst for fame, it also has a lost of human elements in it too. In addition, the narrative seems really timely in light of the current sexual misconduct scandal in Hollywood which began with the outing of Harvey Weinstein’s alleged misconduct. After reading Taylor Jenkins Reid’s version of Evelyn’s life in the 50s and 60s, the question that begs an answer is, “Have we really come that far?” I fear the answer is no, and that is utterly depressing.

Taylor Jenkins Reid’s approach to this narrative is unique and well-done. For me, a slow reader, this went by quickly, and I felt all the feelings. At certain points in the story, I sobbed. But it was, oh so good.

Bottom Line:I really enjoyed this book. It would be a fantastic choice for a book club read, because there is just so much to discuss. Loved this one! 5/5

Review of This Is How It Always Is

This is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel is a pick for my work book club. I had a lot of expectations going into this one, because I had heard so many good things about it. And…it delivered. Mostly.

Rosie and Penn Walsh-Adams, a husband and wife, and their five sons–Roo (Roosevelt), Ben, Rigel, Orion, and Claude are a family of seven living in a large farmhouse in Wisconsin. Rosie is an ER doctor who works the night shift so she can help with family duties during the day. Penn is a work-at-home father who is a writer. The book centers around Claude, the youngest of the family who, by age 5, is struggling with gender identity, requesting to wear dresses and barrettes to school, and saying he wants to be a girl. This Is How It Always Is follows the members of the family as they navigate Claude’s revelation and what it means to be a family.

This quickly could have become an “issues book” with a clear agenda. Which is not a bad thing, but could easily turn off some readers. But This Is How It Always Is isn’t a book with an agenda. This book is an exploration about how Claude’s journey impacts the family and how each member is affected by decisions that are made. This is also the story of a marriage and how sometimes, in life, couples have to accept and traverse difficult situations that do not have clear answers. I love the dynamic between Rosie and Penn. They both want what is best for their family, but have different ideas about what exactly that is. It was interesting to see how their differing approaches played out as the story progressed.

My favorite quote in the book really stuck with me, and is a testament to Frankel’s excellent and at times, poignant writing . As a parent, this quote hit me in the heart (and the gut). It comes from Penn, when he and Rosie are discussing Claude:

“You never know. You only guess. This is how it always is. You have to make these huge decisions on behalf of your kid, this tiny human whose fate and future is entirely in your hands, who trusts you to know what’s good and right and then to be able to make that happen. You never have enough information. You don’t get to see the future. And if you screw up, if with your incomplete, contradictory information you make the wrong call, well, nothing less than your child’s future and happiness is at stake. It’s impossible. It’s heartbreaking. It’s maddening. But there is no alternative.”

Oh my goodness, friends, doesn’t this just sum up parenthood? This is what I love about this novel. It doesn’t matter what your political and/or religious affiliation is on the issue of gender identity. You can read this book and see the hope, the struggles, the heartache, and the love that it takes to be a member of any family and to be in a marriage. Because as a member of a family, there are always decisions that have to be made that impact the lives of everyone involved.

For the most part, I really enjoyed the first three fourths of the novel. The last fourth of the novel felt contrived and unrealistic to me. I will not say specifically why, because, you know, spoilers, but I will say that as a mother, I cannot fathom Rosie’s knee-jerk choice toward the end of the novel. Also, for readers who love a page turner, this book is not that. This Is How It Always Is is not a plot-driven novel, but more of a character study. I did not find myself scrambling to read it, but I am glad I finished it.

Bottom Line: I give this a 4/5 for the superb writing style, and the deep dive into what it means to be a family.

 

Review of Devils & Thieves

Thanks to Kid Lit Exchange network for this review copy of Devils & Thieves. All opinions are my own.

Devils & Thieves is a YA fantasy about kindleds, people who have magical abilities, who are also in motorcycle gangs. Sort of like the older version of the Harry Potter kids with magic but without the wands joins Sons of Anarchy-lite. Sort of. I know this sounds strange. (It felt a little gimmicky and arbitrary to me.)

Here’s the premise. Jemmie Carmichael is the eighteen-year-old protagonist of this novel. She is a kindled who does not know how to use her magic to its full potential. She is best friends with Alex, whose brother Crowe is the leader of the Black Devils the motorcycle gang that Jemmie’s family has been associated with in the past. In addition, Jemmie has a spotty past with Crowe which causes her significant angst. As the novel progresses, the Black Devils get ready for a festival where rival gangs roll into town and conflict ensues.

This book is standard fare for soapy YA novels with magical beings. (Disclaimer: I love soapy YA novels with an element of magic. Yes, please!) Honestly, in the opening chapters I was ready to put the book down. These chapters were ineffective and disjointed in explaining this unknown world. When I read fantasy like this, I like the setting and the main aspects of the magical world to be clearly explained at the beginning so I can construct the world in my mind. These beginning chapters did not do this–the magical world felt muddled and confusing. I almost abandoned the book altogether.

Devils & Thieves does get more interesting in later chapters. I enjoyed the overarching story, although there is nothing new or inventive in the narrative as it unfolds. It feels pretty formulaic and surface. The characters have little depth, even though it feels like the author is attempting to give them depth with common plot points such as avenging a loved one’s death and battling personal demons. None of these attempts land particularly well, and thus I felt disconnected from the characters.

In terms of sheer entertainment value, this book isn’t bad. I did find myself wanting to keep reading. I also enjoyed the way the magical element is presented in the story. The magic is divided into different classifications with kindleds only being able to naturally perform a particular type of magic. However, they can create ‘cuts’ they can share and/or sell that will allow another kindled to perform bits of magic that is not his or her own. The most complicated element of this book is the magic, because of all the different types with unfamiliar names. I found myself having to look back in the book to reread to remind myself which magical name went which classification.

This is not a ground-breaking YA book, but it is okay. The audience it is intended for will likely eat it up. Crowe, Jemmie’s male counterpart, is mysterious, sexy, and damaged, which creates all kinds of angst that will delight the audience for this book.

One more note about Devils & Thieves: It has a lot of profanity and underaged drinking in it. At times, both feel gratuitous and excessive. So, if you are a teacher or a parent be aware of this. The book is fine for high school, but it would be a complete judgement call for middle school.

Bottom line: For me as a grown-up, I give it a 2/5. Looking through the lens of the YA crowd, I would bump my rating to 2.5/5. There is better YA out there, but I think there is an audience for this book, especially those who enjoyed books like Twilight and the read alikes it inspired.

Review of The Underground Railroad

I just finished Coleson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. Before I give my review, I would like to take a moment to speak to the fact that this book won The National Book Award. That is no small feat. Coleson Whitehead is a gifted writer and he crafts what he says deliberately and does not waste words. And, while his writing, for lack of a better term, is beautiful it is not excessive and self-indulgent.

So…a brief synopsis…

Cora, a slave on the Randall cotton plantation in Georgia, is a head-strong and capable young woman who endures countless atrocities at the hands of her owner and her fellow slaves. Cora and her quest to be free is the focal point of the novel. When Cora meets Caesar a new arrival to the Randall plantation, and he asks her to join him on an escape attempt, she agrees. The rest of the narrative follows her state by state quest for freedom.  In order to move from state to state, Cora utilizes the Underground Railroad which Whitehead reimagines as an actual system of conductors, railcars and stops that transports slaves from one destination to another. Along the way she encounters and is both helped, hindered, and abused by different characters. Whitehead is thorough in fleshing out the backstories of many of these characters. One such character is Ridgeway, a notorious slave catcher who prides himself on hunting down runaways and returning them to their owners. He is in pursuit of Cora for a majority of the novel.

I found this novel heartbreaking at points, and Whitehead’s descriptions of slave life and the treatment of the black population are harrowing and inexcusable. However, throughout the novel there are perspective shifts and time jumps that made it hard for me to stay invested in the heart of the story. The component of magical realism (the underground railroad being an actual train with no history or background to explain it) present in the novel will appeal to the taste of some readers, but it did not to mine. For me, I wish the focus would have remained on Cora and her journey. While reading, I was incredibly impacted by individual scenes, but not the over-arching story, which can be attributed (for me) to the time/perspective shifts throughout the narrative. I would never discourage a reader from this ambitious novel, because it is eye-opening and unique. However, there were a few narrative choices that I could just not get past which tarnished my reading experience.

That being said, I did love Cora and all she represented, and I rooted for her throughout the duration of the novel.

Bottom Line: This novel is an important look at slave life and is worth the investment in time it takes to read it, if only for Whitehead’s spectacular command of the written word. For me, there were issues in several of the narrative choices which affected my overall enjoyment and rating of the novel. My rating is a 3.5/5.

Review of Caraval

Okay, time for some honest talk. I have been reading some heavier books lately, and I just needed a YA fantasy book to cleanse my palate and gear me up for more heavy reading I have coming up in the near future. YA fantasy books are my absolute favorite for a good reading “palate cleanse.”

Caraval by Stephanie Garber did not disappoint. It was exactly the read I was looking for to whisk me a away to somewhere fantastical, whimsical, and intriguing. It hit all the right notes for me.

The story is centered around two sisters, Scarlett and Donatella (Tella) who live with their controlling, horrible, abusive father, the governor of the fictional, Conquered Isle of Trisda. Caraval is five night magical, mysterious, and adventurous game hosted by the elusive Legend.  Scarlett writes to Legend for many years asking for tickets for herself and Tella in hopes of attending and participating in this mysterious game. Days before Scarlett is scheduled to be married to a man her father has promised her to, she receives a letter from Legend granting her request with three tickets for entry into Caraval, one for her sister, one for her, and one for her fiance, who she has never met and whose name she does not know.

Scarlett is the main protagonist throughout the course of the novel, and it is through her eyes that we see the story unfold. It becomes clear that Caraval is a place where reality blends with magic, and it is difficult to determine what is real and what is part of the game.

There is love (what is a YA fantasy without some angst and love?), there is suspense, there is a magical darkness that felt unique to me compared with other fantasy I have read. I hesitate to say more about this book, because spoilers would be the worst for this story, and it is difficult to say more without spoilers.

This book isn’t going to be for everyone. But if you enjoy YA fantasy, it is an interesting story with a dark element that I didn’t anticipate, but enjoyed. The writing is solid, and at times, the descriptions of the world of Caraval are stellar. I like the way the author plays with the time period in this book. Since time is described in ways such as “Year 55, Elantine Dynasty,” the time period is unknown. It feels like the past to me, because of the way the clothing is described and Scarlett’s mannerisms. But that is the beauty of fantasy–time period does not have to be defined. I also really love the way the love between the two sisters is established and developed within the story.

If I could change one thing about the book it is that the characters felt flat and it would have been nice to know a little bit more about some of the major characters to better understand their motivations (again, I don’t want to name character names because EEK! spoilers), but overall Caraval is an engaging read that I would recommend to other fantasy enthusiasts. It is propelled more by its intriguing plot than by its characters, but that is okay with me for this type of story. If I still had my own classroom, I would snap this up in a second, because this is a book that teenage fantasy fans will love (think fans of The Selection Series by Kiera Cass, Sarah J. Maas’s series). And there are characters that teens will love and root for.

Bottom Line: I give it a solid 4/5 (mostly for the unique (to me) storyline). For middle grades, be aware that while there is no cursing and no sexually explicit scenes, there are a few scenes with sexual overtones, but nothing too racy. There are also a couple of scenes that contain violence which may be disturbing for younger readers.