Monday, October 3, 2022

Beach Read by Emily Henry

 

BEACH READ is my first book by Emily Henry, who definitely seems to be a love her or hate her kind of author when it comes to how people feel about her work. I've been seeing Tweets making fun of how basic and white her stories are for ages, and I've come to the conclusion that maybe her books are the pumpkin spice lattes of the chick-lit world. Yes, maybe they are a little over-hyped and saccharine-sweet, and maybe they are a little basic-- but also, there's a reason why millions and millions of people define themselves by them, right?

This book is the story of a girl named January. January is a romance author who's feeling a major slump because she was always inspired to write based on her parents' own larger-than-life love story, and her own good luck in love. But now she's just discovered that her father was cheating on her mother-- while she had cancer-- and when she falls into a depressive funk, her boyfriend-almost-fiance decides he just can't handle it because she's not fun anymore, and they break up.

Ouch.

Now January's father has died and she's at the beach house that she thinks used to be his love nest, trying to figure herself out and what she's going to do next. The picturesque town is beautiful but she's too upset to enjoy it, and all she can think about is the fun loving person she used to be. That's when she meets her grumpy neighbor-- or at least, she has several passing interactions with him where she can't really see his face. And it turns out that Grump is actually her old college writing class rival, now famous in his own right for writing pretentiously depressing lit-fic. The two of them end up bonding at a social event gone wrong and becoming closer-- close enough that they start talking about their writing road blocks and then come up with a challenge: they'll trade genres and see if writing something else fixes it, and the winner gets to have the other person blurb their book.

At first I was thinking this book was going to get a four or a five. The way the emotions the characters feel can be so beautiful. It's kind of like if someone turned every meaningful 3AM conversation you've ever had into a book. The portrayal of depression and grief felt dead-on, and I liked that every light moment of banter was counterweighted by some heavy emotional stuff. Where this book failed for me was that it started to feel a little too cyclical. After a while, it felt like Gus and January started to have the same arguments over and over. The ending, when Gus does his confession, felt a little bit mean the way he did it. And I hated the way he ended his "romance" novel-- because it didn't have an HEA. THAT'S NOT A ROMANCE NOVEL GUS. Oh my God, if I read a romance that ended the way his did, I'd be so mad. 

In the end, I'm giving this a very high three because I loved the way this author wrote about two authors falling in love and I did think that it was just the right amount of quirky. It gave me good '90s rom-com vibes. If you enjoyed Beth 'O Leary's THE FLAT SHARE, I think you'd enjoy this too. Same vibes.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, October 2, 2022

Putney by Sofka Zinovieff

 

I found PUTNEY on a list of books suggested for people who enjoyed (maybe enjoyed is the wrong word?) MY DARK VANESSA. This is an excellent multi-POV, dual timeline saga with three narrators. The first narrator is Ralph, who is dying of cancer in the present timeline as an old man, but in the '70s he was a wunderkind composer hobnobbing it with other bohemians, when he meets the heroine, Daphne, at the Greenslay estate. Daphne, in the present timeline, is a single mother with a good job, but in the '70s she was a wild child with too little adult supervision which left her vulnerable and lonely. The third narrator is Jane, Daphne's childhood best friend and a not-so-impartial observer who has secrets of her own regarding both Ralph and Daphne.

PUTNEY is an exceptionally difficult read because it portrays the nuances of grooming behavior and the way its aftermath can take hold for decades after the fact. Daphne's story actually reminded me a lot of this memoir I just read recently, called CONSENT, which was written by a French woman named Vanessa Springora. Like Daphne, she thought she was "consenting" to a relationship with an older man who also referred to her as his "muse" (I wonder if perhaps this memoir inspired the author), and like Daphne, it took her a while after the fact to recognize his behavior for what it was, and how it upset her life.

The first half of this book was genuinely painful to read. I have ZERO sympathy for people who abuse children so it was difficult to stomach these portions, like watching a train wreck in progress. I think people who have experienced actual abuse may find this book very triggering, because the accounts are detailed (but not graphic). The second half was satisfying, because Ralph does eventually receive his comeuppance, but not in the way you might expect. It was also great to see the relationship between Jane and Daphne play out, and how childhood jealousies still affected them decades later, as women in their fifties. I found it genuinely touching and gratingly realistic that motherhood is what really cements what happened in Daphne's mind as abuse, when she realizes that if someone did to her daughter what Ralph did to her, she would find it unconscionable and come for him with claws out.

PUTNEY is not a light read but it's beautifully written and basically a master class in how to write complex, deeply flawed, and outright unlikable characters. Even the side characters were so layered and interesting. I feel like if a book makes you want to read between the lines of every interaction, then it is a genuinely good book. I can't wait to see what other books Sofka Zinovieff writes. I would definitely recommend this book to readers who enjoyed MY DARK VANESSA or THE GOLDFINCH.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, October 1, 2022

Green Girl by Kate Zambreno

 

I found this book on a list of transgressive women's fiction. GREEN GIRL, by the author's definition, is sort of like a depressed ingenue. Picture a Shirley Manson music video or any '90s Winona Ryder character, and that's basically our heroine, Ruth. She is a sad clown, but in girl form. There's no real plot to GREEN GIRL. In the afterword, it seems like this character was written with the old cinema trope of the "shopgirl" in mind, and I can see that; it's a symbolism that's forcibly emphasized with epigrams from old Hollywood movies.

GREEN GIRL is a good book but if you don't like "unlikable" female characters or stream-of-consciousness, character-driven stories, you won't like this book. Sometimes the writing style could be grating but most of the time I really loved it. There's a sort of poetry to the writing, which I think is why this book is being compared to THE BELL JAR. Some people are saying this is a bad comparison but I don't think it is. Both books are about women who are depressed and don't really know how to even really exist in the midst of all their exhaustion. The only difference is the zeitgeist, and what ennui looks like in different decades, in different venues.

I used to read a lot of literary fiction when I was younger and still defined myself by the media that I consumed, but I stopped because most of the voices getting lauded were white, cis-gendered men, and when only one sort of voice is dominating the narrative, things can get a little boring. I wish I'd had more access to books like these when I was a younger woman: books about women who aren't happy, who struggle to exist, who aren't good people but who are still entitled to their stories. Reading GREEN GIRL made me appreciate that now, we're finally starting to get those stories and they're finally getting some airspace-- not just for white women, but for the LGBT+ and women of color, too.

If you know of any other books about women toiling under the weight of their malaise, please send me recs. Books like WHITE OLEANDER and THE BELL JAR made me realize that yes, I actually do enjoy literary fiction if the stories resonate and the characters are interesting.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

Friday, September 30, 2022

Impulse by Candace Camp

 

So there are a couple romance tropes that make me go absolutely feral and one of those is a well-written blackmail romance and another is a calm and composed hero who loses his shit only where the heroine is concerned. IMPULSE has both of those tropes, and so many other tropes I love that it was almost as if she had reached right into my depraved skull and written this romance just for me.

IMPULSE is the story of Cam and Angela. Angela is the daughter of nobility (an earl, I believe) and Cam is their stable boy. They've been childhood friends since they met, but recently they became secret lovers. But then Angela's grandfather finds out what they've been up to in the stables and he threatens to destroy Cam and frame him for theft unless she marries the rich asshole he's picked out for her personally. So Angela tearfully marries Dunstan and Cam is then beaten by the grandfather and sent away, and things are off to a pretty gloomy beginning.

Thirteen years later, Angela is divorced and finds out that someone has been buying up her family's shares in a failing mine. This person also wants to marry Angela, and if she doesn't, they will ruin her family. TA-DA! It's a hardened, bitter Cam, fresh from the America's, nursing lust and grievance. Also, apparently Angela's brother, Jeremy, is bisexual, and in addition to bankrupting her family, he threatens to out her brother (which is douchey, but we later learn that he had no intention of actually doing this). With no choice but to save her family, Angela grudgingly marries her childhood lover-turned-enemy, but only after telling him that she has absolutely no intention of having him in her bed.

I don't want to say too much more, but let's just say that there is a TON of well-plotted angst, emotional intimacy, kinky sexy-times (BDSM), a murder subplot that doesn't feel like an afterthought, a quest to find one's hidden family, and a secondary romance that is super cute and takes up just the right amount of page time. Also, Angela has such a truly tragic and horrific backstory. When she reveals what her first husband did to her, my heart broke. And I also liked how both Dunstan and Cam were both kinky, but Dunstan was an abuser, whereas Cam was a consent king. Often plot devices like these end up kind of demonizing kink culture, so I liked that Camp portrayed both the light and dark sides of it.

My only qualm was that the author used a few phrases in her sex scenes that I wasn't the biggest fan of. "Fleshy buttons" for nipples and "male breasts" were a bit too ish and ended up pulling me out of the otherwise really steamy sex scenes. But that's my only petty complaint and I'm not going to down-rate for it. If you enjoyed Meredith Duran's DUKE OF SHADOWS and Meagan McKinney's WHEN ANGELS FALL, then I think you're going to love IMPULSE, as it shares the same theme of obsessive "I've loved you for years" loved, family legacies, and danger. I love, love, LOVED this!

4.5 out of 5 stars

The Comeback by Ella Berman

 

THE COMEBACK is yet another book that I applied SO HARD to get an ARC of when it was just coming out. Obviously, I did not get one, like the book peasant I am, so I had to wait until it came out to get my hands on a copy. Now that I've spent a delirious two days of gut-clenching agony and vindictive elation experiencing the highs and lows of this book, I think I can safely say that THE COMEBACK met all of my expectations and even exceeded them in some ways.

Grace Turner/Hyde is in her early twenties. When she was in her teens, she was an It Girl, one big movie away from being a red carpet A-lister. But then something happened and now she's just a wreck. After disappearing for a year, she's back home in L.A., trying to figure herself out. We see her with her dysfunctional family, ex-husband, and old friends, as she tries to navigate who she is, and what the film director, Able Yorke, reduced her to with years of abuse.

This is simultaneously the story of a damaged girl's rise and fall, like WHITE OLEANDER, and a #MeToo story that ends in triumph (or, at least, something like it). It's hard to write a fully fleshed out and nuanced character who has serious emotional baggage without sensationalizing it, but I feel like Ella Burman did such an amazing job with Grace. Her thoughts and the way she turned to substances to ease her cognitive load really rang true, and there was never a moment that I wasn't in her corner, even when she was making all the wrong choices.

I think anyone who enjoys dramatic coming-of-age stories or female characters with trauma is going to love THE COMEBACK. It's a sympathetic portrait of a very troubled woman, and I loved hearing her story. Just keep in mind that it has loads of triggers for abuse, addiction, and trauma, so if that's something you're not comfortable reading about, you might want to avoid.

I can't wait to see what this author writes next.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Black Sheep by Brynne Weaver

 

DNF @ 36%

Maybe I'm just not in the mood for this book right now but I've been struggling with it for weeks. I liked the beginning but Bria kind of felt like a Mary Sue. She's too perfect and too good at what she does, and she's a sociopath, so there's that. I stan me a good antihero and no-holds-barred psychopathy can be fun, but this kind of just felt like a gender-reverse Dexter with porn. Her love interest, Eli, is just a really nice guy (except, you know, for lusting after his student), and he's okay. It's kind of nice to see a nerdy professor who has a hard-on for BDSM. But that's his core personality. The two of them eventually find out that they're both hunting down the same cult figure and his group of followers, which is a really cool premise. It just wasn't clicking for me. I tried.

The writing is really good, though. So don't let my review discourage you if it sounds like it's something you'd be into. I'm just not feeling it.

2 out of 5 stars

The Hacienda by Isabel Cañas

 

THE HACIENDA has been on my to-read list ever since I learned of its existence. As someone who is a huge fan of old skool gothic novels, this sounded like it was going to be everything I loved about the genre, infused with Mexican history and culture.

Beatriz's father was killed as a traitor during the overthrowing of the Mexican government. After that, she and her mother were left at the mercy of distant relatives, who resented their presence and treated Beatriz cruelly for being too dark. When she meets Rodolfo and he proposes marriage, it seems like a dream come true: he has the fair good looks of the upper-class and runs an agave plantation that is used to make pulque. San Isidro is so massive that there is plenty of room to send for her mother and have the two of them live happily ever after.

But pretty soon it becomes obvious that a traditional ending is not in the cards. Beatriz sees and hears what appear to be apparitions and there is a darkness, a coldness, that runs through the house. Her new sister in law, Juana, does not appear to care for her, and there are terrible rumors about her husband, Rodolfo. The only one who can help her is a priest named Andres, but he has secrets as well. If Beatriz is unable to fix what is wrong with the hacienda, her life might be in terrible danger. But so might be everyone else's, too.

So this was really good. The writing was beautiful and spare and I thought the atmosphere was amazing. Cañas did a great job staying true to the classic gothic formula, and there were scenes in it that scared the shit out of me. I liked all the characters I was supposed to like and hated all the characters I was supposed to hate. The ending was fantastic, too. My only qualm was that the characterization was a little bland. I guess I was hoping for more nuance from some of the characters. Beatriz and Andres felt pretty interchangeable as narrators. It sure was great for a debut, though, and I honestly thought it was a lot better than MEXICAN GOTHIC (it's weird that they're being compared so much because they have totally different writing styles and HACIENDA runs circles around MG, in my opinion).

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars