Review of Young Jane Young

And here we have another book club pick. Just so you know I am actively involved in two in real life book clubs and one online book club. Yowza! That keeps me super busy with reading. And, I LOVE it. There is nothing I enjoy more than discussing all the bookish things with people who also love books. It is my absolute favorite. Some further information in case you are interested–one of my in real life book clubs is a work one. We meet after work once a month for happy hour at a local restaurant and discuss the book. The other book club I moderate and participate in is at a lovely winery in my area. Honestly, if you can meet at a winery–DO IT. You will not regret it. Wine + Books = Magic. (That should be on a shirt, don’t ya think?)

Anyhoo, Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin is a book I read for my work book club. Before I get to the ins and outs of the book, I have to say that this book really did foster some great discussion. The book’s main conflict calls to mind all of the news stories involving men in power and the treatment of women who work with them. It is especially reminiscent of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal that occurred during the mid nineties.

The book begins with Rachel Grossman, a divorcée, whose daughter Aviva has begun an illicit affair with a congressman, she works for. The book follows, in alternating perspectives, the timeline before, during, and after the affair. We hear from the women, in their own voice, whose lives are affected by the affair, including Aviva, Rachel, Aviva’s daughter Ruby, and the congressman’s wife, Embeth. This is the novel’s strongest point. Hearing from each of these women is illuminating, and being able to “hear” each perspective allows you an opportunity to empathize with all of them.

I liked this novel. The pace is spot on. It reads quickly and it is funny at times and poignant at others. I particularly enjoyed the epistolary portion of the novel written between Ruby and her Indonesian pen pal. The theme of this novel felt particularly timely in the wake of the #metoo and #timesup movement involving the sexual harassment/assault of women in the TV and film industry and beyond. In addition, it brings to mind a host of (recent) historical scandals such as the previously mentioned Clinton/Lewinsky scandal, Chandra Levy and the scandal surrounding her affair with Gary Condit and her suspicious death, and the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill sexual harassment scandal of the early nineties. As a woman reading this book about women in the present social climate, I felt incredibly moved by Aviva’s story and the fallout surrounding it.

The book does a stellar job at giving the perspectives of ALL the women involved, including my personal favorite, Embeth, the wife of the congressman. I enjoyed getting to see her perspective and her struggles in being the wife of a congressman. Zevin does a great job of relaying the sacrifices Embeth makes throughout her life in order to support her ambitious husband, including stifling her own ambitions.

Now for the bad news. (Well, it is not so bad, but, you know, the things I didn’t like so much.) There were parts of the book that were head scratchers for me. For example, the part that involves a parrot named El Meté. I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but you will understand when you read this part of the book. While I understand the bird’s contribution to moving the narrative forward, I am befuddled as to why this particular choice was made.

In addition, I would have liked the story to have been a little more fleshed out by the end. I wanted to know more about these women and their lives not informed by the scandal.

Lastly, the author took a risk with last fifth of the book. It is creative and effective, yet also, somehow, frustrating. It left me wanting more. However, I loved the format of the ending (I am not going to give away anything!) I will say that after I finished the book, I kept wavering on what my rating would be. Young Jane Young kept me thinking about the past and the present and the question, How far have we really come?

Bottom Line: I give this book a 4/5. It is timely, enjoyable, and will keep you thinking.

Review of The Wife Between Us

Thank you to St. Martin’s Press for my advanced copy of The Wife Between US in exchange for my honest review. All opinions are my own.

I am a sucker for a good twisty suspense book. When Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn was all the rage, I literally had it in the passenger’s seat of my car to read at red lights. (Sorry to all the drivers circa Fall 2012 that had to honk their horns to get me to move when the light turned green.) Since the Gone Girl craze, there have been A LOT of read alikes that have been published with a similar premise with similar twists. I am not so fond of the read alike. I just feel like it never lives up to the original.

At first glance, I thought that The Wife Between Us might be a read alike, and I was nervous. (Luckily, that was not the case!) The book begins in alternating chapters between Nellie, a hopeful young preschool teacher engaged to the older, wealthy, distinguished Richard, and Vanessa, Richard’s bitter ex-wife with a drinking problem. (At the beginning of this novel, I worried that the authors were going to borrow from The Girl on the Train with Vanessa’s affinity toward wine, but thankfully, that did not happen.) As the narrative progresses, we get to know each of these women’s motivations and histories.

As with many suspense novels, I hesitate to summarize too much, because I do not want to give any spoilers. (There is no fun in that!)

Parts of The Wife Between Us are brilliant. There was one twist I never saw coming. When I read it, I literally stopped and sat in my big cozy chair, and said to myself, What the…, then I went back and re-read the preceding chapters.

I would give the first half of the book five stars. It is that good. I read a lot of suspense, and the first twist in the book was hall of fame level. However, in the last half of the book, the narrative falls apart a bit. Because the first half of the book is so good, and there is a big pay-off (twist) midway through, the rest of the book struggles to keep up.

Toward the end of the book, there are a few plot choices that feel very contrived. Particularly the appearance of an aforementioned irrelevant character who ends up having a substantial role in the resolution.  b\But I must admit, I this book was a page turner, and even with its weaker plot points, at the end I felt pretty satisfied with the resolution.

I think this book would be an excellent beach read. So, if you haven’t read it, maybe wait until summer vacation to pick it up. It is the perfect read for that moment when your toes are buried in the warm sand, a cold margarita in one hand, and an intriguing page-turner in the other.

For a debut suspense novel, I say bravo to Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen. If you read this book, I would love to discuss it with you. (Suspense books lead to a pretty sparse review, because I am so hesitant to discuss too much for fear of spoiling!) Leave a comment or come find me on Instagram (@meaningfulmadness)!

Bottom Line: I give this a solid 3.5 stars. I liked it, and it definitely kept me interested. The front half is stellar, but the back half is not. That being said, it is definitely worth a read if just for the first twist.

Review: Mr. Dickens and His Carol

Thank you to Flatiron Books for my free copy of Mr. Dickens and His Carol in exchange for my honest review. All opinions are my own.

Samantha Silva’s Mr. Dicken’s and His Carol is a delightful imagining of how Charles Dicken’s  iconic Christmas classic came to be. The story follows Dickens in the weeks before Christmas as he struggles to write a Christmas themed story to satisfy his publishers who are dismayed at the dwindling sales of his latest book. As the pressure mounts to meet the Christmas deadline, a cast of recognizable, yet not quite totally familiar characters provide inspiration and at times trepidation for Dickens.

I thoroughly enjoyed this charming novel. A Christmas Carol is one of my favorite fictional Christmas stories. (The Gift of the Magi is my other one!) Samantha Silva’s portrayal of the Christmastime streets of London during 1800s is magical. She writes, “The air smelled like it had hailed nutmeg and snowed cinnamon.” Be still my heart. Her skill in transporting me from December 2017 in the rural U.S. to the London streets of Dickens’s time is considerable. The smells, the sights–all of the sensory details assist in creating this lovely setting.

While the well-crafted setting is my favorite part of the novel, I also loved Silva’s Dickens. Presented as a lovable, but flawed family man somewhat jaded by success and struggling to accept his floundering popularity, Dickens is at times endearing, and at times completely and utterly frustrating. This character choice provides for compelling interactions with supporting characters in the novel.

The plot is interesting and familiar, yet not (You will understand this if you read the book.); however, the strength of the book lies in the author’s ability to capture a time period and pay tribute to one of the most popular Christmas stories ever written. I so love all the wink, wink, nudge, nudge moments to A Christmas Carol that transpire as the novel progresses.

Another passage from the book that I would be remiss not to mention is as follows:

“The distance between him (Dickens) and Catherine (Dicken’s wife), as in all marriages, was sometimes an inch, but other times the great expanse between hill and valley, ocean and desert. It was Dante’s dark forest, shrouded in shadow, the right path so often obscured. It was being together but feeling alone.”

Silva is so adept with creating a moment that although the setting is in a time much earlier, the words and feelings are timeless. And this is why I enjoyed this novel.

Bottom Line: 4/5 This is a lovely period piece set at my favorite time of the year. What is not to love? However, a reader who must have a fast-paced plot to enjoy a book will probably want to skip this one.

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.