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Should Writers be Unique or Write to Sell?

This morning on bookstagram, a fellow bookstagrammer posted about their weekend read. It was a story about a teenage girl who is sick and so prevents many people from getting near her. But, surprise surprise, she enters a relationship with a boy and has to find a way to let people in. The book’s title? “Sick Kids in Love.” It doesn’t even try to be creative. That’s like a vampire novel calling itself The Sparkly Vampire Meets the Awkward Loner. (Not that it’s fair for me to criticize a book without reading it, but by the summary alone, which I often use to decide whether I want to read something, I’d be letting this one go.)

It was the same thing with vampires back when I was younger. Our local library’s YA section was so saturated with vampire books–I’d say that was 50% of the book selection– that I got sick of going to the library and went to Barnes and Noble a lot more. (Of course that could just be a slight on my local library, but still.) I think it goes without saying that not every teenager wants to read the same thing. Perhaps that library was trying to make reading “cool” by being super-trendy. But there was nothing for me there. I personally don’t want to read the same story over and over again, nor do I want to pay money to do so. Yes, I do like psychological thrillers featuring obsessive love, but the books still need to do something different to keep my interest. I’m even tiring of the Netflix versions of these because the same cliches keep popping up. What I do appreciate is when a thriller tries something new.

So what can writers do if they do have legitimate interest in writing something that’s seen a lot? Do something new, even if slightly. I took a copywriting course recently, and one technique that advertisers can do to enhance their brand’s message is finding a unique selling point. Meaning, if you want to write another book about sick kids, for example, add something that hasn’t been done yet. Some ideas might include characters being cousins who hate each other, having it be a thriller where the guy isn’t who he seems and may have something more sinister going on, adding a racial/cultural conflict, etc.

Is their risk in doing something new? Sure. But you’d be hard pressed to find me, or many readers, complaining about actually doing something different. In my reviews, even if I don’t like the way something is done, I will almost always applaud seeing something different. Every time I see a character have a good relationship with their father, I want to jump up and down, because it’s so weirdly rare these days. Who knows? Writers may start the next popular trend.

Ultimately, writers should write what makes them happy. If they enjoy writing what they create, chances are it will be a good story. And if something is popular, there will probably be an audience for it. But I think, too, that creativity is important, and that writers shouldn’t hesitate to break new ground. People will eventually get tired of hearing the same narrative over and over. If they’re ultimately doing it for the money, they may do better, and be happier, finding a different career path, as it’s so hard to make a career from it to begin with.

reviews

Things You Save in a Fire; Katherine Center

Things You Save in a Fire; Katherine Center
Genre: Fiction
Pages: 310
Published: 2019
Hogwarts House Recommendation: Hufflepuff, Gryffindor

Cassie was made to fight fires. It’s her life. She does her job and moves on to the next, being the tough girl that she is.

When disaster strikes at her Texas firehouse, Cassie finds herself packing her bags and moving in with her mother on the East Coast–the mother who abandoned her on her sixteenth birthday. The firehouse that she joins is an old-school boys club and nobody is to thrilled to have a female firefighter join the ranks.

Until another rookie shows up. He’s handsome and crushworthy, two things that Cassie has sworn would never sway her. After all, love is for girls. And Cassie is a firefighter. But as time goes on and the two must learn to work with one another, Cassie will have to learn how to deal with those strange things called feelings.

Things You Save in a Fire is a novel that bookstagram and the blog universe have been talking about considerably. Firefighters? That’s a group I’ve never read about before. Romance? Hmm, possibly interesting. Fair warning, though: there are elements of click-lit novels, but there are equal parts of toughness, making for a certainly unique read. But is it truly a romance?

This novel changes the chick-lit narrative by inserting a tough-as-nails heroine, Cassie. This, I liked. It was a nice change from the ditzy magazine writer types I usually see. After standing up to her rapist back home, and forfeiting a promotion, she goes to live with her mom in Massachusetts, becoming a firefighter in what is known as a boys’ club. She was well-developed as a character and had a personality all her own. If she had a flaw, I didn’t care for how she believes that anything girly is bad…just like her captain, who warns her of all sorts of bad man behavior that don’t happen as often as Cassie thinks. This is not the kind of feminism I like to see. I appreciate Center wanting to take a feminist angle, but “only being tough, you know, like a traditional man” isn’t really the way to go about it. Some of the male behavior is pretty corny, too. They make kitchen jokes and talk down to Cassie and all kinds of trite things that misogynistic caricatures do. Speaking of which…

When this book has something it wants to say, either about feminism or forgiveness, it tells you. It’s definitely prevalent–Cassie has to forgive her mother, other firefighters, a rapist, and more. But this novel doesn’t send a subtle message when it says something. It whacks you over the head with a baseball bat. Repeatedly. This was probably the biggest issue I had with the book: it’s preachy. Near the end especially, it gets so heavy on forgiveness–Cassie launches into full-blown speeches about it–that I think it forgets to give Cassie and her coworkers and Owen enough screen time, because it’s so busy getting deep about forgiveness and why women don’t come forward after rape and finding justice and who knows what other things that weren’t all necessarily central to the story. I wonder if it tried to take on too many subjects, between Cassie’s estranged mother and her past and the firehouse drama. If this was truly a romance, I think that more time between Owen and Cassie was necessary. But it often skips over these scenes to go right to the philosophy. These messages are definitely worth thinking about. However, they took up too much time that should have been devoted to Cassie and Owen. I felt like a lot of their relationship was summarized. In fact, I’m almost hesitant to call this a romance because it could be much more in-depth than it was.

Nevertheless, I did like her. As was true for the other characters. Despite the firemen not always treating Cassie respectfully, I had the sense that there was more going on beneath the surface. Diana, her mom, I wanted to dislike and shared Cassie’s stubborn streak when it came to looking at her, until I realized there was more going on there, too. Both tough feminists and romance lovers will find something to like here. On the other hand, will both groups end up disliking the other half of the novel that doesn’t cater to them because it’s so jarring?

Let’s talk about that. The firefighting parts are full of toughness and excitement. The parts with Cassie visiting her mom turn into Hallmark shmaltz. These parts are so different from the other that to move from one scene to another can be jarring. However, I was fine with this, as I do like both. It’s hard to think of a target audience for this book, though. Is it for middle-aged woman who love a Macomber novel and a cup of tea? Is it for radical feminists? Truthfully it appeals to sides of both, maybe to say that the two can run together. Cassie, too, ultimately learns to embrace her emotions, even if these parts are overshadowed by philosophical thoughts on what it means to forgive. Don’t look at it as just a romance, though, because there are plenty of things going on here–maybe too much, as the book seems rushed in places. I often found myself wanting to know just a little bit more–about characters, about a scene that wasn’t included, about the rookie Owen, etc. Additionally, I feel like a lot of characters were extremely quick to make amends and forgive and forget. The bad guys suddenly become great guys. I appreciate that that’s a major theme in the book, but it seems like the author went for the wish-fulfillment resolutions that were too good to be true.

It’s definitely a unique take on romance and different from your standard fare. It could have been made better if the issues and messages were more subtle, and if it was a little longer to expand on some ideas. Still, it’s not just a romance and I’m hesitant to even call it just that. This is a novel about forgiveness and firefighting culture, and if you can swallow the preaching, it’s worth checking out.

Book Club Questions (spoilers!)

  1. What does forgiveness mean to you? What are your limits? What are Cassie’s? Does she end up forgiving Heath? Is forgiving the same as wanting justice?
  2. Cassie refuses to be a girly girl, finding feelings and crushes to be silly. Can you be both a feminist and girly? Is it wrong to be a feminist girly girl?
  3. Do Cassie’s new coworkers truly disrespect her, or is this just how they act to everyone they work with?
  4. Cassie’s captain in Austin warns her about all the things that her new firefighters could do to her. In reality, they sometimes do treat her differently because she is female, but it is much more subtle. How does gender influence our perceptions of others? How did it for Cassie and her fellow firefighters? In which situations do girls have the advantage? Boys?
  5. Is this novel considered chick lit? Why or why not/
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Stories of My Childhood: Amelia’s Notebook

In this series, I explore books that have had a special meaning to me as a kid. It can be any book that tells a story that isn’t a board book, counting/alphabet book, and that is one I remember well. Of course, it should ideally be good too.

What is the book about?

The first book begins when Amelia is getting ready to move to a new house in a new state with her older sister and her mom in fourth grade. She doesn’t want to leave her best friend, Nadia, but there are other fun adventures that wait at her new place. In her notebook, she writes and draws about her time there and new friends. And Amelia isn’t just a writer–she’s an artist and scientist curious about the world.

There are many other books in the series, too. In the sequel, she struggles with a school fire. In another, she corresponds with Nadia and they talk about their dads. When Amelia enters middle school, the books become hardcovers and take on a more linear storyline and deal with subjects such as a mean teacher, gossip, and overnight field trips. Other books are purely entertainment, such as a notebook with boredom busters and another devoted to fortune-telling games.

My favorites had to be Madam Amelia Tells All, Amelia’s Easy-as-Pie Drawing Guide (which actually taught me of all people how to draw some things well!), Amelia’s 6th Grade Notebook, and Amelia’s Family Ties.

How did I discover it?

I was subscribed to American Girl magazine, which used to have a two-page Amelia spread–a mini-story– in every issue. Most of these stories weren’t published elsewhere, but once the feature was retired a book was published that included some of the best stories from the magazine. I bought it, and one thing led to another, and soon I was purchasing other books in the series. It soon became a favorite. Well before that, I think, I bought her Boredom Survival Guide from a school book order.

What I like about the books

They were different! Although they were also good for middle schoolers, it wasn’t a chapter book format–just Amelia’s entries and drawings that combined to form an overall story. They even looked like notebooks with marble covers and lined pages. Amelia was a great artist, too, and her drawings and side notes lined the margins. When she went to Chicago, for example, there was a cow exhibit throughout the city at the time, so she made up little themed cows to draw throughout the notebook.

Just look at these pages. How cool are they? I think these predated Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Dear Dumb Diary, and most other notebook-style stories. I’m not sure if it predated Abby Hayes or not, but either way, this notebook series was arguably the original.

How did the books inspire me?

I tried once or twice to make a notebook of my own, but didn’t get very far. Journaling has always been challenging to keep up with! Fortunately, there was an official notebook you could fill in from the author of the series, and I loved working on that. Of course, I didn’t complete that either.

My thoughts on the books today

I still enjoy them. Looking back, these are very standard issues, but the format is so unique that it never feels like the author is trying to beat you over the head. I don’t know if Marissa Moss is still writing them, but supposedly she also has 7th and 8th grade notebooks. One of them I think involves Amelia wanting to ask a boy to the dance, but it’s my personal prediction that Amelia will eventually come out as bisexual if the books go that far.

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Eleven Fun Garfield Facts

All comics courtesy of Garfield.com.

There shalt be no comments complaining, “but it’s only a comic, you’re looking into it too much!!!” This is just for fun.

Jon wasn’t always the dweeb we know him to be.

His clothing hasn’t changed much, but in the early days, he was your normal bachelor. He smoked a pipe and it was hinted that he liked print pornography. Perhaps this normality was because he lived with a roommate who influenced him. Lyman stopped appearing in the strip sometime in the 80s. Soon after that, Jon dumbed down considerably once the strip needed to find other sources of humor. See my post on Jon’s possible history here.

Garfield used to see a male vet.

He didn’t make a ton of appearances, but based on some comics, we can see that Garfield saw a different person. Dr. Liz didn’t appear until later. She rejects Jon in her first storyline.

Jon finally found love in 2006.

He got together with Liz Wilson and they’ve been together ever since. There are still no signs of a marriage. Maybe Liz still has lingering doubts? (The storyline, in June 2006, shows Jon going on a date with longtime interest Ellen and swapping dates with Liz while there.)

At the time of this writing, Jon is almost 70.

He was twenty-nine sometime in the late 70s. That would make him about 69 today. He’s looking good!

Despite Garfield aging along with the comics, he is still a full-sized fat cat in his first appearance.

We never see him grow up with his parents in the pasta restaurant where he was born. His birthday is considered to be the day he was born. So did he just appear from thin air? Then again, Jon doesn’t seem to age either. Maybe they live in an alternate universe.

Jon going golfing, tropical vacations, and Halloween storylines were popular ideas all but nonexistent now.

Newer popular storylines involve Garfield challenging the dog next door, Garfield befriending mice, and Garfield at Christmas. There was a great existential storyline in the 80s involving Garfield waking up in his abandoned house. Unfortunately, weeklong tales of how Garfield squishes spiders are still common. Irma also barely shows up anymore, if at all.

Jon’s dated a plethora of interesting women despite being unlucky in love.

Garfield Comic Strip for May 27, 1979
Bye, Felicia.

Among them: Big Bertha, a woman named Euphemia, a woman raised by wolves, and more. Jon also dated some normal women near the beginning and even kicked one out of the house when it was revealed she didn’t like cats. He’s had better dating luck than I have.

Garfield has a non-canon Thanksgiving special.

Image result for garfield thanksgiving

In it, Jon must prepare a Thanksgiving dinner in less than a day when Liz actually accepts his invitation to dinner. Garfield, meanwhile, struggles with being on a diet. It takes inspiration and dialogue from the comics but creates an original story. He also has Halloween and Christmas specials.

Jon is not unemployed.

He is a cartoonist. In early days, we can see him working at a board.

There is a comic where Liz congratulates Jon, implying that he just drunk a mug of dog semen. When people took the joke too seriously, Jim Davis came forward and said that wasn’t the case.

In reality, the mug probably contained pet medication or coffee for Liz. However, it remains infamous and a popular meme among the fanbase.

Nermal belongs to Jon’s parents.

Image result for nermal
Garfield Wikia

So if his parents haven’t been off the farm since ’53, how does Nermal get to Jon’s place? And why don’t we see Nermal at the farm? So many questions.

reviews

Lock Every Door; Riley Sager

Lock Every Door: Riley Sager
Genre: Thriller
Published: 2019
Pages: 368
Hogwarts House Recommendation: Gryffindor

A luxury Manhattan apartment. Famous neighbors. $12,000. What could go wrong?
Everything. But Jules, trying to start her life over again, is up for the challenge of living at the historic Bartholomew. Sure, there are some strange rules, like not bothering the neighbors, or not inviting guests. But she’s lost so much–including her parents and sister who she never found again–that she is willing to overlook everything.
After bonding with a neighbor who reminds her of her missing sister, Jules soon realizes that there is more than meets the eye. She begins an investigation of her own and the things that she uncovers are frightening. But will she be able to survive long enough to get out?

I had said months earlier that I’d finally read the scariest book I’ve ever read. Behind Closed Doors, it was called. It was chilling in that it was something that it could really happen. I said it was already a good candidate for Overall Best Book in my 2019 Book Awards.

It now has some serious competition.

Lock Every Door appears to be your standard thriller. A character lands in a too-good-to-be-true situation and there’s probably a bad guy or girl in the midst. It’s more than that, though. This novel goes from just suspenseful (which I like) to Stephen King-scary to flat-out disturbing just like that–fair warning, then, that if you don’t have a strong stomach this probably won’t be the book for you, as the last third is pretty harrowing and not impossible. It never lets up in interest, from the glamorous apartment and interesting people to the times where things start going wrong. An apartment filled with rich and famous people is interesting on its own: favorite authors who wrote a book about said apartment, soap opera stars, and a handsome doctor are worth reading about without the suspense.

And what makes it truly terrifying? Again, it’s something that could really happen, albeit not without lots of work behind it. (The goings-on here are definitely something that exists.) The implications made me nauseous; not something that I don’t believe has ever happened with a book before. This isn’t a slight on Sager’s writing, though. In fact, the mounting terror makes everything seem much more real. The scenario that Jules finds herself in is certainly unique, but continues to go above and beyond as the story progresses. Adding to the fact is that she has pretty much no money left and would otherwise be left to her own devices.

Admittedly, I was worried I came across a spoiler on Goodreads well before beginning, not knowing that I was going to read this novel. Someone asked a question that said: “Do you think that ___________ had anything to do with it?” Armed with this possibility of knowledge, I was able to figure out why they’d be connected to the goings-on pretty easily. However, this is an ending that will be hard for most readers to guess, leaving them with a chill most of the way through. I certainly didn’t. My guess could have been because I had this knowledge, so I can’t speak for anyone else.

What else does this book have? A fun setting, quirky characters to offset the looming mystery, and Jules herself. Okay, yes, Jules spends plenty of time missing her dead parents and sometimes it tries a little too hard to be “deep” about it by making readers dwell on short sentences with their own paragraphs. However, these parts don’t last long. And it also has an end that wraps things up nicely, which I like. One might think that it would be hard to blend components of a ghost story, a psychological thriller, mystery, and horror all into one, but Sager blends them seamlessly. And is it any of those things, really? Readers will have to figure it out.

Twisted, disturbing, and suspenseful, this isn’t a novel I’ll forget about anytime soon. I may read more by Sager–that is, once I’ve read some lighter books to offset the shock and scare factors a little bit. Really well done; though be warned as I’ve said above: there is disturbing stuff here. My five-star picks aren’t a lot of other people’s, I’ve noticed, but I wouldn’t rate it as such if I didn’t feel like it was top-tier.

Book Club Questions (spoilers!)

  1. There is a lot riding on money and wealth in this book. The Bartholomew was created because the family thought they were better than everyone. The staff preys on poorer people, like Ingrid and Jules. Why and how does money corrupt people? What about people that are charitable but unkind or even evil, such as Margaret Milton? Should they be let off the hook? Do you think that the rich always work harder? What are the pros and cons of being wealthy?
  2. Readers never hear what happened to Jane, as don’t many families who see a loved one disappear. Invent an ending for her. Was it possible that she could have been a Bartholomew victim?
  3. Have you done anything out of the ordinary to get out of debt? What was it?
  4. The day of this post is Halloween. There are lots of elements in this book that might qualify it as a spooky Halloween tale. What are they?

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Psst….Anyone out there? Anybody?

I’m getting the feeling that it really is almost Halloween. This blog has taken on the aura of a haunted house, or perhaps a ghost town. I have had barely any views or engagements since my Dumbledore post on October 5. This is absolutely unprecedented ever since Google+ died and I got nearly nothing near the end of my Blogger days.

This is me just checking in to make sure you all are still alive and I’m not in a Halloween horror movie or something. I may also have something very exciting coming up, so watch this space. If you like to read, you are going to love what I have in store! However, if it doesn’t garner enough interest, I will have to cancel it, so bear that in mind.

Otherwise, I may take a break from blogging and move to Instagram for a while. This isn’t what I want to do, but if nobody’s listening, it may be better for the time being. (I do have a great spooky story to review, so keep an eye out for it if you need motivation to stick around.)

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My Favorite (and least favorite) Thrillers This Year

Happy almost Halloween! This means that it’s time to take stock of my spooky books over the last year.

I love the thriller genre. Some of you may be getting sick of seeing so many on the blog. But part of me is also picky. If the ending is weak, if a character is boring, if it centers around yet ANOTHER boring affair or someone else’s missing father, I will be at least slightly let down. I mean, sometimes they do get formulaic.

To me, the best thrillers are the ones I can’t stop thinking about. But what are they, and which ones could I live without?

Best Thrillers

The Woman in the Window

This was a great choice, not just because of the storyline, but because of the atmosphere. I really enjoyed the experience of reading it and “listening to” the author’s voice. It feels like a classic thriller movie and the MC liked classic movies as well, which was an interesting aspect.

Behind Closed Doors

I almost didn’t pick this one up, feeling it would just be a normal domestic abuse story. I was so wrong. OMG THIS WAS FREAKING INTENSE, PEOPLE. With preparation, this could absolutely happen in real life. I don’t understand the lukewarm Goodreads reviews. This is a strong candidate for not just Best Suspense, but for Overall Best Book in my December 2019 book awards. I just lent it out to a coworker and she feels the same way I do! Cannot recommend enough. Sometimes, simple plots are better.

One Perfect Lie

This was a different and exciting one! I like to think of it as taking place in thirds, at which points the story moves in a different direction. It’s hard to take all of these moving parts, and Lisa Scottoline does it pretty well. One problem though: it didn’t need the forced romance.

I am also currently reading Lock Every Door, which obviously I haven’t reviewed yet. However, it is looking good so far…

Perfectly Fine Thrillers:

Before She Knew Him

Okay, this was decent. I did figure out the ending, though, and I didn’t remember much else about it. A good story, but not an especially memorable one.

Best Day Ever

This was another book I enjoyed for the voice. Paul, our narrator, is authentic and creepy. It’s a slow burn but I went in prepared, and I liked the story more for it.

I Know Who You Are

An actress’ husband disappears, leading to a great mystery and even better backstory. Hmm, the backstory was more interesting…is that good or bad? The ending, which although Hitchcockian and creepy, left a LOT of questions.

Obsession

I hadn’t heard of this one before it was on a “recommended” shelf at a local bookstore. Huh. Cheating, cheating, and more cheating. We’ve seen this before…plenty. There were chilling moments for sure, but I also felt that characters acted rashly out of nowhere to keep the book moving. The title is also misleading.

Watching You

I didn’t always find the plot thrilling, but ultimately I connected to the characters. Also, I solved it, and that was super exciting. Not as much of the watching and stalking aspects as I hoped for, but it was still an interesting and well-written book.

With You Always

This was a unique twist…a Christian thriller! But the guy in question is so seemingly perfect that the first third of the book is boring, and again, there are a ton of unanswered questions here. It needed an epilogue.

Someone We Know

This one started out boring me. It was a murder mystery and not much else with regards to substance. However, as things picked up, I connected more and more with the characters and ultimately solved this one as well. It has the honor of being the first mystery I solved before the book ended. I bumped this one up from 3.5 stars to 4 stars just because it got better as it went on and I cared about these characters.

The Affair; Sheryl Browne

A lot better than I thought it would be, honestly. It came with The Babysitter, another novel by the author, so I had to read it. It was a surprising twist on a kidnapping, essentially.

The Babysitter

Like the book above, this is another tale of family hardship and getting the kids involved. I despised this villain, and I worried if she was going to get away with everything. The characters, too, are great, and I would love to see more about these detectives.

Disappointing Thrillers

The House Swap

A couple moves into another person’s house and gets the sense that someone is watching them. Fascinating concept perfect for me even if overdone…but it was very poorly executed. This book was so boring I couldn’t even finish it. It was very repetitive with the same actions taken over and over between the couple. The “twists” were insanely predictable except for the ridiculous one at the end. I also didn’t like the preachy “alcoholism is bad” aspect to it. If you’re going to address issues, do it naturally. And I just can’t get down with protagonists who cheat. Ever. It was a clear first time effort though; maybe we’ll see better in the future.

The Night Before

It was okay, and it had a solid ending unlike so many I’ve read recently. I just didn’t like the main character who constantly reminded us how messed up she was. Overall it felt disorganized and tried to take on too many twists that didn’t relate to the central story. Not terrible, but still somewhat of a letdown.

Looker

Me, Goodreads, and everyone on Goodreads’s brother agrees that this is NOT a psychological thriller. This was such a marketing misfire that I’m not sure it’s 100% the author’s fault. Truthfully, though, it was still pretty boring. There’s a main character, everyone hates her because she can’t have children (so messed up), and so she takes out her sadness on having affairs with her students and though watching an actress–not even doing anything, just making observations. If you want 180 pages about watching a character complain and do basically nothing else, this is it right here.

Did you read any of these? Which choices do you agree/disagree with?

reviews

Nine Perfect Strangers: Liane Moriarty

Nine Perfect Strangers: Liane Moriarty
Genre: Fiction
Published: 2018
Pages: 450
Hogwarts House Recommendation: Gryffindor

Nine people arrive at the Tranquillum House health resort hoping for transformation. Maybe they want to lose weight, or maybe they want to revive their relationship. Everyone is here for their own reason.
52-year-old Frances Welty is looking to get her career…not lose weight, as others may think. A romance novelist suffering from the aftermath of a fake relationship, she is looking forward to taking a break on a friend’s recommendation. She knows it will be difficult, but as the ten days go by, it becomes clear that this isn’t quite the getaway that Frances, or anyone else, had in mind.
Are they really going to transform? Or should they run away…fast?

With the knowledge that this book has gotten very mixed reviews, I decided to plunge in and make a decision for myself. After all, I enjoyed the other books I read by Moriarty. I do have to agree with one thing: this book should be read with an open mind and won’t be for everyone.

This is not an action-packed journey. It is a character study, which I also feel is one of the novel’s strongest points: characterization. Readers meet Frances almost right away, and as a result, I connected with her more. She was older, but genuinely nice, funny, not condescending, and not crotchety. Yes, these people do delve into stereotype-y territory sometimes (we have a gay lawyer who is attractive and flamboyant in speech, a teacher who quotes poetry, a fake Instagram influencer who I didn’t like for most of the novel, a middle-aged romance writer who’s sassy and falls in love with every guy she looks at, a young woman who loves her phone, etc.) but their interactions are what sealed the deal for me. What happens when you place them all at a health resort? Who knows. After all, I’m skeptical of some of these health fads myself as well as anything that’s shown on Dr. Oz, but others are all about them. Recently, too, Ellen DeGeneres sent one of her writers to a spa where she was asked to have leeches suck on her for a while in the name of beauty. But there must be some benefits, right? Otherwise, they wouldn’t be trends.

Everyone is coming for a reason. Lars just wants to get away. Ben and Jessica want to save their marriage. One couple is getting over the death of their child. But then they’re forced together pretty quickly, and I liked seeing how relationships formed as they confronted their difficulties. We learn more about each of them through little reveals as we turn pages. Moriarty is usually not dramatic in her reveals and I like them that way. The setting was a unique character in itself: Tranquillum House is a health resort that used to be an actual house. It has its own history, and I wouldn’t have minded learning more about it after the actual vacation part takes a backseat (more on that in a bit).

There are standard Moriarty traits here: characters and social commentary. I’ve always liked how she’s able to use her characters to say things about ourselves and how we treat each other. However, the commentary here isn’t quite up to her usual standard. She’ll often slide into second person when she has something to say to us about life, and this can be distracting. I did find that she had some interesting thoughts about wealth. Jessica is the fakest person on the planet and loves keeping up appearances, but can she be criticized if she donates a lot of money to charity? Hmm. And why do women have such abusive relationships with their bodies? As always, there are things to think about here. Additionally, it’s worth noting that Moriarty throws in some nifty pieces of foreshadowing that readers don’t notice are foreshadowing until later. Fun!

Halfway through, the book shifts gears sharply. It starts to become a different story, with elements of psychological thrillers even, and that is where I had trouble believing some of the actions taking place. Essentially, all the characters are asked to work together. Still, some moments didn’t make sense. For example, why did the director start behaving the way she did all of a sudden? Further, these methods seemed like a really strange way for characters to find “transformation,” which is talked about throughout the novel. In The Hypnotist’s Love Story, I didn’t have a lot of trouble believing in hypnosis therapy, as I’ve seen shows and it looks pretty legit. Incoming general spoilers, skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want them. With drugs, however, not only did it make for ridiculous scenes, but it also seemed like people that the guests were hallucinating were providing all of the answers for them. Odder still, they seem to almost be real. One character escapes a scary situation when a character in their dreams wakes them up. Other characters all see the same guy at once, even though one of them has not met said guy. That seemed unbelievable. In the end, too, it seems like all the characters got happy endings out of nowhere. Despite the resort itself doing little to nothing to change their lives, everyone suddenly gets a happy ending and knows how to solve their problems upon returning home. Moriarty chalks this up to “good timing.” One of the weirdest parts was how every character seemed grateful for their experience at the resort. That made no sense. Did they not remember how they spent the second half of the novel? Is this book suggesting that certain substances are the answer to everyone’s problems? That seems like a cop-out to me.

The ending–or should I say, last 50 pages, because it truly ended 30 pages earlier than it did–are pretty rushed. I would have liked to see these characters come to terms more with their situations rather than just send everyone home and then do 30 pages of “where are they now?” There’s also a bit of predictability with one character especially, and sadly, with the writing, Moriarty falls into a certain annoying Jane Austen-esque cliche not once, but twice near the end that is nowhere near original (readers will see what I mean–it’s small, but it really bugged me–she’s a good enough author that she doesn’t need to be using these cliches). Add in a very silly, spiteful last chapter (should I be afraid to leave a bad review now?) and the last section is overall pretty weak. I think that these characters should have worked for their endings a little more.

Like many, this is not my favorite of Moriarty’s works. You will need an open mind. However, I also loved these characters and watching them interact. At the same time, though, that’s what it is: a character study, putting nine characters in a room (sometimes literally) with an edgy, thrilling twist. At times it seems just plain nonsensical–in one chapter I could barely comprehend any dialogue– but the characters made me remember how much I like her style. I’ll continue reading novels that she puts out there.

Book Club Questions (spoilers!)

(Note: the novel also comes with questions but they’re very feminist-y and I feel that these will allow for a broader look at the novel for all genders)

  1. In the blogger’s (read: mine) opinion, Masha is an embodiment of her guests’ problems, or else has suffered similar problems (for example, losing a child is reminiscent of why Heather and Napoleon are there). What other problems does she face that connect her to her guests? What made her decide to change her life?
  2. Who changes in the novel, and in what ways? Who doesn’t change? Do you find that the people who are most or least resistant to change are more or less likely to embrace it?
  3. What unusual measures have you tried to improve your health? Did they work for you?
  4. Consider the couples of the novel. Can going on a retreat improve you as a couple? If so, what did Ben and Jessica do wrong? What did Lars do right? If not, what can improve it?
  5. Did your opinions change on any of the characters as the novel went on? For who, and why? Likewise, how do other characters judge each other and how are they right or wrong? Did anyone seem especially judgy to you?
  6. Going back to Ben and Jessica, they were warned that wealth changes people. Jessica’s interests changed, and she chose a “fake” lifestyle of Instagram followers and plastic surgery…and The Bachelor. Ben, however, tries not to make fun of her, because she donates to charity. Does this override her other life’s decisions? Should we be less judgmental of wealthy people if they are charitable?
  7. Masha wants her guests to find transformation. Besides health, what other types of transformations are shown in the book?
challenges

WWW Wednesday (10/16/19)

This is a weekly challenge hosted by Taking On a World of Words. The goal is to answer three main questions:

What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?

So, with that…

What are you currently reading?

I just visited several bookstores and a book festival over the weekend, so I have some interesting new picks! I know it has mixed reviews, but I’ve just started Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty. It features a cast of characters who meet at a health resort, not all of whom I’ve met yet. I’ve liked her books in the past; though sometimes her endings are a little too glossed over. So far, it’s enjoyable…but is that the cardboard gay character stereotype peeking out at me again? Uh oh. Maybe I’m at an advantage; I’m not too educated on the so-called health resort fad.

What did you recently finish reading?

Small Admissions by Amy Poeppel. It was a cute, lighthearted fluff story that appealed to the private school student in me about a woman who gets back on her feet by taking an admissions job at a NYC private school. It wasn’t without issues, but a worthwhile read all the same. Also…for some reason it has no actual pageviews yet, despite being published yesterday. Care to check out the review? All of my social media has just been DEAD the last few days; come show it some love!

What do you think you’ll read next?

Next on the agenda is Lock Every Door, a thriller for Halloween. The premise is intriguing and the cover is SNAZZY. The only thing is that I’m worried I accidentally read who the whodunit was while browsing Goodreads. This is why I don’t check Goodreads until I’ve finished the book and my review is published. Anyway, it looks interesting and I’m looking forward to diving in.

What are you guys reading? Have you read any of these? What did you think?

reviews

Small Admissions: Amy Poeppel

Small Admissions: Amy Poeppel
Genre: (Women’s) Fiction
Published: 2016
Pages: 356
Hogwarts House Recommendation: Hufflepuff

Kate’s life was going perfectly well until her perfect, dreamy French boyfriend dumped her. Cue a year of living on the couch and crashing with her sister, Angela. And Angela has had enough.
When her sister sets Kate up with a job interview at the prestigious Hudson Day School, Kate is certain that she’ll fail. However, she gets the job in the admissions department, and is suddenly thrust back into the real world into a job that she knows nothing about, interviewing all sorts of kids she knows nothing about: spoiled, inappropriate, And as she works to get through the year, her sister and college friends are working tirelessly behind her back to make sure that this time, she stays afloat. But does Kate really need to depend on them like a lost puppy? Or do her friends need more help than she does?

Story time! As a K-12 private school student, I’m not unfamiliar with school admissions offices. The scariest moment of my adolescence was probably when I was going to a summer camp that took place at a secondary school (high school) that I wanted to go to. I was currently attending a different school that I wasn’t fond of, but my parents didn’t want me to change schools again. But I was defiant. One summer, I found a chance to sneak away from the group and schedule a meeting with one of the admissions officers. It would be schedules for 10:30 the next day. That morning, my stomach was in knots trying to go over the details. Once 10:30 came, we had a semi informational interview, and although my chances were basically shot (they didn’t typically accept incoming seniors), I was pretty darn proud with myself.

The rest of the day, I was on a high. I did something AWESOME without my parents knowing. I handled something like an adult. I got after something I wanted. I was capable and competent! And maybe I’d even work there as an adult! That happened to be my last day of camp ever, and it was a super memorable one. So I sort of know how our MC feels about life.

Anyway.

Have you ever taken a blow and struggled to get going again? Kate Pearson knows your struggle, and so do her friends. Told through text, various POVs, emails, and documents, it is the story of one woman’s struggle to get back on her feet and of the people who try and help her and perhaps worry a little too much. Best of all, there are quirky characters. Right?

Maybe. The word “quirky” is one that gives me pause when going into a book. The thin line between not enough and over-the-top is very easy to overstep. It’s why I don’t like a lot of modern sitcoms. For me, there’s got to be realism. They have to be people. Poeppel is guilty of overstepping sometimes. Kate’s parents, professors, are completely over-the-top and academic in everything they do. Kate’s former coworker Sherman talks mainly in Shakespearean language–who does that? Robert’s French dialect is actually written out, which is like nails on a chalkboard to me. Nor was I impressed by Kate’s behavior near the beginning. I don’t find that complaining to potential students about your ex or writing rude notes about a girl just because she is wealthy is funny, but immature and unprofessional. For those reasons, she comes across as your typical lead in a romantic comedy–ditzy, unorganized, and immature, and those are her basic traits. Oddly, she’s one of the least developed characters in the novel. We couldn’t learn more about her, why? She’s clearly intelligent, as she used to want to be an archaeologist, and has had papers published.

However, it’s not just Kate’s story. Her friends and sister are both working to get her back on her feet, even though she’s doing pretty well. Meanwhile, Angela wants to get her family off the ground, Chloe is trying to come to grips with her cousin who supposedly treated Kate badly, and Vicki just wants to do her own thing. This involves some going behind each others’ backs. Those “girl drama” parts turned me off a little. I felt the story was stronger when they got along, and working for Kate whether Kate thinks that is for better or worse. Despite it being women’s fiction, though, I was surprised at the lack of likable females here. I can name three female characters I liked throughout the whole thing: potential student Annie, who is spoiled but kind, a nice change; Kate’s friend Chloe; and Mrs. Pearson (even though she was over the top). Meanwhile, Victoria is judgy and just awful, Angela is controlling, Silvia and Nancy are snobby and demanding, etc. I could have done without Nancy’s and Silvia’s POVs (parents of potential new students), but overall, I’d be lying if I said that most of these characters didn’t redeem themselves somewhat. Kate finds maturity, Angela learns to stop controlling, and even Vicki is an interesting twist on the mean girl in that she is in their friend group. Even Kate’s attitude and the lessons she learn come to help her in the end. Ultimately, they are real, flawed people. But I still didn’t like some of them, and I thought the forgiveness ran a little heavy near the end.

The worldbuilding itself was done pretty well. As a lifelong private school student I was intrigued by the premise of working in an admissions office…even though I couldn’t see myself ever attending Hudson and even disagreeing with some of their values. It was just interesting to hear about that lifestyle. But Kate meets some great people…sassy Maureen, Henry, the director (who is gay but not a stereotype, phew!) and learns to get back on her feet surprisingly quickly. I liked how she got to relate to a few other students whose stories we follow as Kate tried to prove herself. Dating, too, takes a backseat, though I enjoyed the banter between Chloe and George. Even Robert, Kate’s ex, wasn’t unlikable, as shown when they are unraveling details about their failed relationship. Rather, Kate’s story shifts to focus on a couple of new families and kids who we get to know well. And sure, the plot suffers just a touch because of it. I probably would have liked to hear just a little more about Kate and Jonathan’s relationship other than what was said through emails, or about Kate meeting Angela’s friend Nancy, whose son is applying to the school; the differing personalities could have made for something interesting. On the other hand, I was glad that the romance didn’t take over the important stuff, and that there wasn’t more drama through the inclusion of Nancy meeting Kate. So this worked, and didn’t at once. I’d even argue that skimming some of these scenes made the book move along faster and less likely to dwindle on little details.

This book does take a creative risk though: some important scenes are glossed over in favor of mentioning them in passing or through emails. It’s a slice-of-life story. This disjointed flow of the story doesn’t not work, though. I think that the “mentioned scenes” that were skipped over would have been the ones that bored me, like a cookie party, individual dates, and meetings, so I was okay with it.

Finally I do want to talk about the climactic action, because I’m not sure how well it works…though it could. Poeppel seems to be inspired by trends, and I don’t necessarily mean literary ones. I also don’t love how it was chalked up to mental illness and seemed a bit glamorized. I can’t give anything away here, but this is something readers should decide for themselves. However, Kate wraps up things nicely with the skills she’s been taught, and I can’t say that readers won’t be satisfied.

This novel could have been made better with more likable characters and by going a little more in depth. And I really wanted to hear a little more about Kate. Despite its flaws, though, Small Admissions is an entertaining, fluffy, character-based adventure that I think will appeal to many people wanting a new and different life for themselves. It adds interest with how it tells the story of a group rather than one character. This is an odd novel because the positives and negatives tend to balance each other out (the parents are over-the-top, for example, but we don’t see much of them; we don’t hear about some events as much as we should but they may not have been relevant anyway, etc), and overall it made for a nice read.

(3.5 stars)

Book Club Questions (spoilers)

  1. Kate is struggling at first….she won’t get off the couch, she badmouths her ex to prospective students, she can be ditzy. She reminds me of a rom-com heroine, as stated in my review. Does Kate remind you of any other rom-com characters? Which ones? How is her story similar or different? Retell her story in the form of a hit romantic comedy movie.
  2. Which characters helped or hindered Kate’s development? Do you feel that is important to have someone guide you, or would you rather be left to your own devices? Do you think Angela and Vicki had good motives?
  3. Whether in an admissions office, in customer service, or even as next-door neighbors, we have all been in situations where we’ve had to deal with difficult people. Describe a time where you’ve had an intrapersonal challenge and what you got from the experience. Were you successful?
  4. Consider the kids that Kate meets: Dillon, Claudia, Annie, and Gus. Invent futures for them, or imagine where they’ll go. How will their upbringing affect their lives? Who won’t be successful? How did Kate’s parents affect her upbringing?
  5. Vicki/Victoria has a strong appreciation of success to a fault. To you, what is success? Try to name it in 3 adjectives. What is success to Vicki? Do you think that Vicki thinks she is successful? How does our perception of success influence our relationships?
  6. If your club has time, write one of the following scenes that isn’t elaborated on in the novel:
    -The cookie exchange
    -Kate and Jonathan’s first date
    -Vicki and Robert’s breakup
    -Kate’s first week on the job