reviews

Review: Positively Izzy; Terri Libenson

Positively Izzy: Terri Libenson
Genre: Middle grade– graphic
Published: 2018
Pages: 220
Hogwarts House: Ravenclaw

Izzy is the DREAMER. She loves acting and making up funny stories. The downside? She can’t quite focus on schoolwork.

Bri is the BRAIN. But she wants people to see there’s more to her than just straight As.

The girls’ lives converge in unexpected ways on the day of the school talent show, which turns out to be even more dramatic then either Bri and Izzy could have imagined.

Middle school graphic novels are HUGE right now. I myself have been looking for a good graphic novel, but the problem with most adult graphic novels for me, at least, is that they tend to fall into the three S’s: science fiction, social issues, and superheroes. Where is the realistic fiction or the funny stuff? I might have been inclined to write one as a fresh new take on adult lit, but I can’t draw worth anything. So forget that idea.

The kids’ department has what I’m looking for, oddly enough. Positively Izzy is the story–or two, rather–of Bri and Izzy. Izzy is super creative, as the back cover says, and Brianna is super smart. Brianna wants to do well in school, while Izzy just can’t find herself to care. The two stories intertwine, but they don’t really connect–though that is explained later through an interesting twist. I assumed that the two girls would find a way into the other’s talent show event and find a way to help the other where they needed to (i.e. Brianna sees from Izzy that it’s okay to loosen up and Izzy learns from Brianna the importance of studying), but this is not the case. I also believe this is some sort of sequel, with hints of drama or other problems that seem like they’ve been going a while in this established universe. However, readers, and myself, can get the gist of what is going on easily.

Despite the story taking place in only a day, an aspect I thought was pretty interesting, the stories resolve themselves nicely as well (obviously not completely; Izzy isn’t going to become a great student in a day). It makes for a nice little slice-of-life tale. Character development doesn’t suffer in any way from the short timeline.

The artwork adds a unique take on the school experience. Sometimes there are comic panels, sometimes there is just text and drawings. I love Libenson’s asides in the artwork; often quite funny. Is it me, or is it because I already have been though middle school that I laughed harder at the little things? Additionally, the facial expressions are great, particularly when someone is reacting to something.

The story itself also presents a more authentic middle school experience. It’s not just lumping people into “popular girls” and “jocks” and “nerds,” though labels can exist–Brianna, for example, is tired of being “The Brain.” There are mentions of popular kids, but they seem to be popular because they’re athletic or know lots of people, not because they’re mean kids who rule the school. People are unique and may have friends in other classes. Brianna is smart, but she has friends instead of being in “the nerd group.” She is, in my opinion, also portrayed as being somewhat stylish rather than completely uncaring to break the stereotype. This is all very refreshing and more accurate to middle school in my experience. And of course, there are the crushes and parent spats–things that are just as applicable to adult life as they are in middle school.

I found myself thinking fondly of my own middle school memories thanks to Positively Izzy. If you’re hesitant to try another genre or kid’s book, give a graphic novel a try. Sometimes you just need fun, right?

4-stars

reviews

My Life in a Cat House; Gwen Cooper

My Life in a Cat House: Gwen Cooper
Genre: Nonfiction/pets
Published: 2018
Pages: 258

If you’re a cat lover…have you ever struggled to take your cats to the vet? Have you been simultaneously irritated and enamored with your fluffy friends at the same time? Have you ever been perplexed by a cat’s eating habits or wondered why you feel the need to let them rule your life? Gwen Cooper feels you, and she’s here to tell the stories of five different cats she’s owned and loved. From the frustrating to the funny, these cats and their “tales” will remind us all of the struggles and rewards of having pets.

Because the stories here are about the author’s life with her cats, I wondered how much I was actually going to get into My Life in a Cat House. The first story, starring adopting a finicky cat, started slow. As time passed, though, I found the stories to be relaxing and enjoyable…and hilarious and sweet.

Each chapter is its own story. They originated, I believe, as stories in Cooper’s Curl Up with a Cat Tale subscription series. We start with three stories, each about one of her “first generation” cats, that both succeed in telling a story and giving us kind of an “overview” of who that cat is. Homer seems to be the “star” of her life, as Cooper’s career took off with the book she wrote about him specifically. However, each cat has equal time. This gives readers a sense of who each cat truly is. There’s that “one cat,” Scarlett who refuses to take to Cooper. There’s the beautiful Vashti’s certain—artistic—talents in how she expresses her thoughts. There is Clayton’s desire to play fetch, Homer’s friendliness and adventurous spirit despite being blind, and Fanny’s food obsession. There are aloof sides to the cats, annoying sides, and sides that are just plain endearing.

Cooper does a great job of choosing story-worthy moments to write about as well, which are easy-to-read and makes one of the most relaxing books I’ve read in a long time. This is not an easy task. Just because you think your cat does something interesting doesn’t mean that readers won’t be easily bored, but the stories here were good picks. She is also always taking time to explain her cats’ behavior, sometimes to the point of crazy-cat-ladyness. One might wonder if she is truly an expert on her cat’s thoughts and feelings. But when paired with the context of the story, her reasoning actually kind of makes sense. The last story may have been a little deep for its own good, but it still has some interesting insights into cat behavior.

If I had to critique this book for one little thing, it’s because these stories were part of an email subscription, sometimes we get fed the same information a lot. Vashti’s namesake is explained several times, as is Homer’s blindness and Scarlett’s attitude problem. If an author is going to write a book out of stories she’s already written, they should give the reader something new; in this case, a story that flows better and was edited for publication purposes (and maybe a bonus story that wasn’t online). I should also mention that her constant asides get annoying–I think that you could take out every phrase in parenthesis that appears and we wouldn’t lose any relevant information, or we’d gain the loss of lots of unimportant information actually. But that’s nitpicky and something I mostly just want to point out for you future writers out there.

If you’re a pet lover, a cat lover, an animal welfare supporter, a shelter volunteer, a Best Friends donor/magazine subscriber–I think that’s how I found out about this book actually– My Life in a Cat House is for you. I think that the subject matter and constant praises of the cats will get a little cheesy for people who want more than reading about the lives of pets. But if you’re within the target audience, this is a charming hidden gem. I’ll definitely be picking up the sequel late this year.

reviews

Harry Potter Reviews: The Sorcerer’s Stone

When I first tried reviewing Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, I wanted to find issue with it. After all, it wasn’t really a plot-heavy book, and seemed to serve as simply an introduction. However, that doesn’t stop me from loving the book’s magic and a “weaker” plot doesn’t hurt it too much. Does it? Maybe the Potter series just has to be ranked within itself.

sorcerers-stone-review

To review the books in this series, to be as fair as possible, I’m going to give it a ranking out of five stars in several categories: Plot, Suspense/Good and Evil Battle, Characters (primarily the main characters of the novel), Worldbuilding, and Writing Style. I will then give it a total score out of 25.

Goodreads summary:

Harry Potter’s life is miserable. His parents are dead and he’s stuck with his heartless relatives, who force him to live in a tiny closet under the stairs. But his fortune changes when he receives a letter that tells him the truth about himself: he’s a wizard. A mysterious visitor rescues him from his relatives and takes him to his new home, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

After a lifetime of bottling up his magical powers, Harry finally feels like a normal kid. But even within the Wizarding community, he is special. He is the boy who lived: the only person to have ever survived a killing curse inflicted by the evil Lord Voldemort, who launched a brutal takeover of the Wizarding world, only to vanish after failing to kill Harry.

Though Harry’s first year at Hogwarts is the best of his life, not everything is perfect. There is a dangerous secret object hidden within the castle walls, and Harry believes it’s his responsibility to prevent it from falling into evil hands. But doing so will bring him into contact with forces more terrifying than he ever could have imagined.

Characters:

The characters just seem so…natural. They jump off the page and can be real people. Despite what people say about Harry (he tends to be few people’s favorite), he has a personality too: he likes to play the hero sometimes, gets into trouble, and more. You have Ron and Hermione, the best friends with traits of their own, a scatty goofball but loyal friend and a smart-aleck. It doesn’t just end there. I personally love Hagrid. He’s almost a great father figure to Harry, but is best as a friend. Even each professor has their own personality without being too far-fetched. They don’t even need a ton of page time for us to get to know them. As for the Dursleys? Yes, we’ve seen these people in kid lit before. But, do they do the things the Dursleys do? I find them to be fascinating Rowling does a commendable job of making these characters come to live without resorting to stereotypes. This could be the real world.

Worldbuilding:

This is the standout point of the entire series, and even moreso for the Sorcerer’s Stone since it is tasked with setting the stage for the next six books. And it does it so well! The way the school runs…houses, house points, classes, common rooms, even a sport of its own…is just done so thoughtfully. My only question which is so small no points are taken off: how do the dorms know how many first years are going to be there, given that we don’t know who is going to be in what house until the arrival feast? There seem to be exactly the number of beds needed….unless that all-knowing Dumbledore just knows somehow?

Plot

This is where the Sorcerer’s Stone doesn’t accomplish as much as the other books. Basically, there is a mysterious object being stored in Hogwarts and Harry, Ron, and Hermione believe that someone inside Hogwarts is going to steal it. They spend some time on researching its lore and trying to figure out how to get it back. I didn’t get why they thought it was their job to do something like that; most students would probably stay far away. It does accomplish some things, however. It’s an introduction to Voldemort, the series’ main villain, though we don’t hear too much about him either. Overall the plot is okay, and pretty traditional of fantasy kids’ lit. I think the real magic of this book lies in school life, which isn’t a bad thing. Draco Malfoy is placed in the villain role more than Voldemort, and for being a bully he does a good job of it. There is also a lot of time spent at the Dursleys’; almost half the book.

Suspense/Good and Evil Battle

There is decent suspense here, stuff that doesn’t really take away from the school year. For what it does, Sorcerer’s Stone does suspense well. Nothing really detracts from the magical atmosphere, but clearly danger is lurking…on the the other hand, nothing much is at risk since the danger is relatively small. Still, it’s present!

Writing Style

One thing that really stands out to me about the Sorcerer’s Stone is the writing style, which is different than the other books. It reminds me of the way Roald Dahl occasionally talked to his readers, slipping into the second person to make a comparison to modern day, or in this case something in Harry’s life with the Dursleys. We’ve seen this before, of course, especially in British children’s lit. For the most part I don’t have much to add. It does a good job of telling the story. I especially love when someone’s about to say something inappropriate and Rowling compensates for this by having another character suddenly butt in.

OVERALL: 21/25= 84%

The percentage seems a little low, but never fear: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is a super magical tale. The characters and setting alone make it shine, despite the plot that isn’t anything terribly special or time-consuming. But since it’s the first book, isn’t that what it should be doing? (Fortunately, they’re big books.) If you haven’t read this already, give it a try.

reviews

Book Review: The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena

The Couple Next Door: Shari Lapena
Genre: Mystery/thriller
Published: 2016
Pages: 352

couple-next-door-review

Baby Cora has gone missing! While Anne and Marco were at a dinner party, someone has broken into their house and taken her. They vowed to check on her every half hour, but perhaps that wasn’t even enough. When Detective Rasbach begins working their case, he feels sorry for them…at first. Soon it’s revealed that the seemingly happy couple has been keeping secrets from each other as well. How well do these neighbors actually know the couples next door?

Review

Shari Lapena has so far pleasantly surprised me with her seemingly average-sounding stories, and such is somewhat true for The Couple Next Door. Many familiar elements are here. You have a couple with secrets. You have a protagonist who drinks too much AND has a mental illness (two unreliability factors for the price of one!). You have unlikable neighbors, one of whom is very attractive. You have potential affairs. I wasn’t sure about this book at first, but there is enough here to make it somewhat stand out in a sea of thrillers.

Granted, we don’t learn a lot about these characters. The novel is told in present tense, third person omniscient. This is definitely a unique choice for a novel like this; if there is one problem with it it’s that we don’t learn a lot about the main players and that it allows Lapena to summarize. On the other hand, readers get a full perspective into the story of Anne and Marco: a woman of wealth who married a working-class businessman against her parents’ wishes. Readers learn how Anne feels, how Marco feels, how her parents feel. The addition of the neighbors, Graham and Cynthia, do add their own tension and drama.This broad scope allows for readers to get a full picture when trying to crack the case. Of course, these characters aren’t terribly likable. Anne is pathetic and does little but cry. We learn that she is in a “fragile emotional state,” which is a phrase said so often that I felt like this was a non-digital attempt to SEO-ize the book so people who wanted that particular trait could find a book with it! Marco has his own issues which I won’t give away. So do her parents. But maybe you’re not supposed to like them. Either way, I was focused on the story more than the characters, which we learn the basics of but nothing more.

And that’s not necessarily a problem, because the story isn’t as straightforward as I believed. Lapena does something that most domestic suspense writers don’t do and shifts into reverse halfway through the book. It becomes less of “who did it?” and more of “why?” and “how?” Of course, there is still some of “who did it?” I didn’t find any of the reveals here to be a super big surprise, though. The detectives suddenly seem to get answers out of nowhere, and things settle too quickly. The neighborly dynamics reminded me of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation; you have the loving but messy family and then the uptight horror couple living next door.

Adding to the book’s differences were its’ subtle sentiments on judging others. After the kidnapping, the media doesn’t know how to keep their distance. Anne is flooded with hate mail from people who make assumptions about what “she” did. This was thought-provoking. Maybe we need to remember that others are human too, and that we shouldn’t be so quick to make assumptions.

I’m going to be honest: what really takes off points here is the ending. Readers of this blog know that endings can ruin thrillers for me, and what happened really didn’t even have anything to do with the plot, making me realize that one of Anne’s secrets was only included to lead up to a shocking ending. Bummer. I was very close to rating this book 2.5 stars because of it, however the interesting points of The Couple Next Door are interesting enough to consider it a standard novel.

reviews

Sissy: A Coming of Gender Story; Jacob Tobia

Sissy: A Coming of Gender Story; Jacob Tobia
Genre: Memoir
Published: 2019
Pages: 315
Hogwarts House Recommendation: Ravenclaw

Jacob may have been born a male, but they didn’t stay that way. From an early age, Jacob was far more interested in the feminine; looking up to female characters, dressing up, playing with Barbies. This called to mind a term that would stick with Jacob: Sissy.

As they grew older, however, his parents thought it prudent to hide Jacob’s non-conforming identity for reasons of “safety.” The world did not always agree with Jacob’s gender. In some cases; it seemed out to get it. Throughout childhood and as a teenager, Jacob takes you through their journey of self-discovery, proving that gender is more than just a matter of male and female. Ultimately, between the success and failures, Jacob will discover that self-expression is the key to living an authentic life.

Transphobia has always confused me. Think about it. Imagine your kid coming out to you, and you as a parent being like, “You’re the WRONG gender? Get out of my house! I no longer love you and never will again!” I can’t think your love for your child was very strong to begin with if something as superficial as gender affects your entire opinion of them; if that’s all it takes for you to get rid of them.

These are the same questions Jacob explains in their memoir. Why does so much ride on gender? Why do we insist on placing each other into categories…and get angry at each other when we refuse to be labeled? Why does their mother insist she supports them, when she actually encourages them to be more like a guy? However, these questions really aren’t answered. Instead, Jacob presents a different transgender narrative, making for a different book than I thought I was going to get, one that was just as much about. Jacob themselves isn’t taking measures to physically transform into a female, like taking hormones. Instead, they dress up and express femininity that way, along with using the pronouns them/they. And they really love gowns and high heels, something that will last into adulthood.

There is a lot to be learned here. Jacob essentially takes us through their childhood, from dressing up and liking Barbies to going to college and dealing with the social systems in place there, from first coming out as gay at sixteen to fully accepting their feminine identity. While Jacob was indeed celebrated on campus, it didn’t mean that there weren’t little things ingrained in the system trying to bring them down that cisgender people (read: people who identify as the gender they were assigned) won’t notice. I especially liked their thoughts on what it meant to be professional; how the workforce seems to cater to straight white men, and while overt discrimination isn’t as present as it once was, it can display itself in other ways. A born male wearing a dress, for example, won’t be seen as “professional” and may have cost Jacob some scholarships. One thing that did make the Christian in me very happy was that church was a big part of Jacob’s life. While they did take a break from it, they seemed to be mostly accepted, something I wish all Christians would do, as we are a faith of love. Jacob even presents the idea that discrimination is against the Bible’s teachings, as we are supposed to love and embrace one another. It’s not God making a mistake, Jacob argues, if that’s who they are. Overall, they aren’t hesitant about sharing their struggles, but they celebrate the joys and the funny moments as well. It’s not all doom and gloom. Many people in Jacob’s life were quick to accept them. Others were not.

Obviously as a cis woman, I’m hesitant to “critique” anything, because who am I to say whether Jacob is wrong or right? (Except for when they insulted my Hogwarts house…HOW DARE YOU??!??) However, I am a book blogger, it’s my duty to share opinions, and it would be unfair to give it five stars just because Jacob is transgender (see their chapter on being a college campus token–being celebrated for being diverse comes with its own set of rules). Most of the “issues” here, though, were writing-related and I won’t get into them…organization, footnotes (unnecessary and distracting in nonfiction in my opinion, unless you’re crediting someone) and maybe getting a bit sidetracked. What I mean by that is that Jacob is one of those people who figures that since they’re talking about one social issue, they’ll address them all. Paragraphs about cultural appropriation (why white US citizens shouldn’t dress as Native Americans for Halloween), health care politics, the NFL’s treatment of women, and diversity are all present. Although having interesting things to say, most of them distract from the overall ideas and could have been cut.

I also would have liked to hear more about Jacob’s professional life as a culmination of their initial story. I don’t know what they do in LA, but apparently that are very successful in their job. I would have loved to see where they’re at now since I have not heard of them before this book and was a bit disappointed I couldn’t learn more. I guess the theme here, though, was growing up.

In exploring gender and knocking down stereotypes, Sissy does what it sets out to do, nitpicky writing pet peeves aside. It’s a very eye-opening memoir; if you are cisgender, you will learn something. If you’re looking to inform yourself, pick it up and learn something new. If you struggle to accept trans people, even more reason for you to read it. Just try. Love is easier than hate. This book is not “shoving gayness in your face” or “presenting an agenda.” Jacob is right: gender doesn’t need to be serious. This is a way that people are born, and by reading each other’s perspectives, we can change to become more accepting ourselves.

Book Club Questions

To be used for book clubs/blogs/thinking, and answers in the comments are also welcome if you are inspired!

  1. Jacob says that we all have experienced some sort of gender-based trauma, whether we stay the gender that we are assigned at birth or not. Can you recall a time like this in your childhood? If not, can you recall a time you thought “Man, boys (or girls) are so lucky to be able to do this?”
  2. What is one idea you had about being transgender that was proven incorrect in the book? How so?
  3. Based on Jacob’s experiences, what are some steps that we can take to create a more friendly and suitable world for LGBTQ people? How can you personally start living by these principles today?
  4. Describe a time that you deviated from your gender roles. Did anything come of it?
  5. Jacob mentions several well-known institutions. Did the way these locations, organizations, and how people treated Jacob make you think less of them?

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/
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?

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?
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

reviews

The Affair; Sheryl Browne

The Affair: Sheryl Browne
Genre: Psychological suspense
Published: 2018
Pages: 318
Hogwarts House Recommendation: Hufflepuff, Slytherin

They’re a perfect, happy family that would never hurt one another. Or are they?

After tragedy strikes, Alicia is shocked to run into an old flame. Justin picks up on this, and Alicia is forced to confront the past and tell her husband what happened all those years ago. Just when it seems that things can’t get any worse, another secret is revealed causing their daughter to flee the house. Justin is not only on a mission to save his marriage, but to save his daughter from whatever threats are out there. Without Sophie, what does he have left to live for if the rest of his life was a lie? But the random run-in may not have been so random, and Justin must confront not just a threat to their marriage but to his whole family, and his life.

Normally, novels about affairs don’t thrill me. For one, I can’t stand the perpetrators; if you don’t want to hurt your family by doing so, why do it? For another: they’re boring. It seems like predictable affairs take place in every domestic drama lately. But it came as an addition to the original Browne novel I bought, and as it was two books for the price of one, I couldn’t just ignore a free book.

This book features the 3rd person perspectives of Justin, his wife Alicia, and daughter Sophie. (What is it about Sophies in the media always having their main plot be about finding their father?) Of course, you want to hate Alicia for what she’s done to the family, and at first I did. But I was also surprised at how my feelings toward these characters changed as the story went on. The character development, or the way that Browne makes you think differently about people, is pretty strong. I was always in Sophie’s corner. But I did feel some twinges of sympathy toward Alicia farther along, and I didn’t like Justin as much by the end. Maybe. There is also Jessica, Alicia’s sister, who plays a role I should have seen coming but didn’t. Who is right and wrong here? There are multiple conflicts at play between them; to Sophie running away as she doesn’t trust her family to Justin’s disbelief to Alicia’s guilt. The novel does get a little repetitive in saying that “Alicia felt guilty” over and over, and that’s what added to some of the slowness for me. What elevates this novel from the standard is Paul Radley, Alicia’s love interest. You can tell something is off about him from the get-go, though we don’t learn much about him. He seems to have a bigger plan in mind, one that involves Sophie, that escalates as the novel progresses. I wasn’t sure why he was appearing now after so many years apart, however.

Admittedly it was a slow start. It was 50-70 pages of characters mourning their own life and a tragedy that’s taken place which has little to do with the main storyline. Lots of “woe-is-me” is present. It’s a little repetitive here as well, but it does lay the groundwork, which was dull as I expected. But maybe that’s just me; I’m tired of the “affair reveal.” It picks up when Paul enters the picture, but sometimes other events are called upon to keep the story interesting. Browne lays the tragedy on pretty thick here. There’s a car wreck, a stabbing at a bar, and another death. Not all of these things had to do with the plot. I read in the author’s note that Browne herself was struggling from the loss of a child. While maybe this helped her, it really didn’t serve a purpose for the novel. Adding to my above point, it may even have added to the slowness of the first part of the book. I may have cut the tragedy that happens near the beginning for more focus on Sophie’s time at Paul’s apartment.

The ending does get a little Lifetime-movie-ish, preaching about how their family is working toward building their future together, and healing from the past. Mostly where I had mixed feelings was the “excuse” for Alicia… spoiler paragraph below…

…which was that she was actually raped. O….kay. But isn’t she still at fault for having the affair in the first place? And she frames it as an actual affair in her POV chapters, so that didn’t make sense to me either. Maybe it was meant for shock value? I can kind of see how it might work, seeing that it gave her and Justin reason to make up a little faster, but I’m not sure if it did or not. It was a bit of a cop-out.

End of spoilers

The reveals that were supposed to be shocking weren’t shocking at all, and I don’t think that most readers will find that to be so either. I don’t like to take anything as truth until the accusations are proven, so I wasn’t shocked at the reveal of Sophie’s father, either. (I’m not entirely sure I even got the ending, though I have a pretty good idea, Browne doesn’t explicitly say anything.) Either way, this wasn’t a bad ending, even if it wasn’t the shock it was trying to be, and I’m happy that hopefully my strong ending slump seems to be over for now. There are some unanswered questions, like why Paul was trying to put Sophie on a healthy diet, but they didn’t matter too much. Overall I think I enjoyed Sophie’s plot the most.

I’m still not sure whether I would have picked this up as a stand-alone novel, but The Affair brings enough new things to the table where I feel that it wasn’t a waste of time. I even found myself caring about that characters, particularly Sophie, and while it won’t be a favorite of mine it’s not a bad book.

3 stars

Book Club Questions (spoilers)

  1. Why do you think Alicia went ahead with her relationship with Paul? She herself said that she didn’t want Justin to blame her. Does he? How much of a real relationship do you think was present?
  2. Is Justin a good character in this novel? Readers will notice that he has some aggressive tendencies–is he good as a husband? What about Alicia?
  3. Sophie is so angry that her first and only thought is to run away from home. By the end of the book, she is blaming herself. Who is right and who is wrong in this novel, and how so? Do you think that Sophie is to blame for anything?
  4. Do you believe in the saying “once a cheater, always a cheater” as Justin seems to? Or are you okay with second chances? What does it take to ruin a family–the action or the lies?
  5. What happens after Justin and Alicia drop the final bombshell on Sophie at the end? Is their family going to survive this?