Friday, February 15, 2019

Book Review: "Lie with Me" by Philippe Besson (translated by Molly Ringwald)

"This feeling of love, it transports me, it makes me happy. But it also consumes me and makes me miserable, the way all impossible loves are miserable."

Philippe is a famous writer being interviewed at a hotel in Bordeaux when he sees a handsome man walk by. The man jars Philippe's memory, reminding him of his first love, when he was in his last year of high school in 1984.

Philippe is the studious one, shy yet fiercely intelligent. He has already been marked by his peers as "different"; he bears their shouted and whispered insults, and wants nothing more than to blend in. Thomas is quiet, rarely speaks yet is often spoken to, and is popular among his peers. He is handsome, so he catches the attention of many of the female students.

The two have never spoken, yet Philippe is inexplicably drawn to Thomas. He watches him, observes him, but doesn't think Thomas notices him (or even knows who he is), and Philippe is unsure of how he feels about that fact. Does he want Thomas to know what their peers think of him, the names they've called him?

One day, Thomas approaches Philippe. He fears that Thomas might have seen him staring, might want to beat him up. But instead, Thomas asks if he might want to go to lunch in town instead of eat in the school lunchroom. He agrees, but doesn't understand what Thomas wants from him. During lunch, Thomas tells him he is struggling with his sexuality, and he can no longer fight these feelings in silence.

When Philippe asks why Thomas has chosen him, he replies, "Because you are not like all the others, because I don't see anyone but you and you don't even realize it."

The two quickly fall into a secret relationship—mostly sexual, although there certainly are overtones of romance. Outside of their encounters, they pretend not to know each other, and make no move to declare their feelings for one another. Inherently, Thomas knows that when high school is done, Philippe will leave their small French town to make his way in the world, leaving Thomas behind. And despite the intensity of their unspoken feelings, both know that this is their trajectory.

Can we ever forget the raw emotions, the intensity, the longing of our first true love? How does that relationship affect the rest of our lives? In Lie with Me, Philippe Besson poignantly captures those feelings, the way every fiber of your being is affected, the way you want nothing more than that person and cannot bear the thought of being apart. And how you mourn the end of that relationship, how it feels like no pain you've ever experienced, so much more than your heart can bear.

Besson and Molly Ringwald, who translated the novel from the French, paints a beautiful, emotional picture of a man who has made something of his life as was always expected, but when he is reminded of his first love, reminisces about that glorious yet painful time, and how indelibly their lives have changed in the years since.

Lie with Me has been called "the French Brokeback Mountain," and while there are no cowboys, and this book didn't quite make me sob the way that movie did, there is a tremendous amount of poignancy, emotion, and beauty to be had in this story. Ringwald's translation felt flawless to me—quite often when I read translated novels I find some awkwardness in the syntax or the way some expressions are relayed.

"That singular moment. The pure urgency of it. There were circumstances—a series of coincidences and simultaneous desire. There was something in the atmosphere, something in the time and place, that brought us together."

What a gorgeous, moving book this was.

NetGalley and Scribner provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available! To be published April 30, 2019.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Book Review: "The Night Olivia Fell" by Christina McDonald

The Night Olivia Fell surprised me. So often when I read thrillers there certainly are twists and turns to contend with, but it's rare that I find one that touches me emotionally as well. This one did, which made it richer than a simple thriller.

No one wants the phone to ring in the middle of the night. But Abi Knight is roused from sleep and receives the call no mother wants to hear—her teenage daughter, Olivia, has fallen from a bridge. When Abi arrives at the hospital she learns the full, horrible truth, that Olivia is brain dead and will never wake up, but the hospital needs to do everything it can to keep her alive, because she is pregnant.

A single mother, Abi has spent her whole life striving to protect her daughter from any possibility of harm. She pressured Olivia to study as hard as possible, checked her homework, gave her early curfews, made sure she always knew where her daughter was every minute they weren't together. Abi was determined that Olivia would have a more stable life than she had. So how did it all go utterly awry? How could Olivia be lying in a hospital bed, being kept alive by machines in the hopes that her baby might survive?

"I'd spent my whole life hiding, just existing behind the walls I'd built around myself. I never got the answers I needed when my mother died. I was powerless to stop my mom killing herself. Powerless to make Olivia's father choose me. Powerless to stop my daughter from—the pain of reality hit me in the stomach."

When Abi notices the bruises on Olivia's wrists, she expects the police will fully investigate what happened to her. But when the police rule the incident an accident, Abi cannot understand why no one seems to care what happened to Olivia. Abi won't let that roadblock stop her—she is determined to get answers. What happened to Olivia that night? Who is the baby's father? Was Olivia's fall an accident, or did someone deliberately try to kill her?

"What do you do when you know something and nobody will listen? When you need answers and nobody will provide them? When you can't trust anybody to help you?"

Christina McDonald does a great job in both laying out the mystery behind what happened to Olivia, and creating a richly emotional story about a mother struggling to come to terms with tragedy, and the possible glimmer of hope that lies beyond it. The narration in The Night Olivia Fell shifts between Abi and Olivia, between present day and the path of events that culminate in Olivia's fall.

While I didn't find the resolution of the mystery to be particularly surprising, it didn't affect my enjoyment of the book, or how hooked I was on it. Clearly that is because of McDonald's talent in telling this story, making you care about the characters and drawing you in fully, so you can't stop turning the pages and devouring the story.

This is a poignant story of parental love, teenage angst, the need for truth, and the realization that no matter how hard we try, we can't always escape our problems. I enjoyed this tremendously, and can't wait to see what McDonald has in store in the future!

Monday, February 11, 2019

Book Review: "Unmarriageable" by Soniah Kamal

There's that classic line from the song "Beauty and the Beast" which goes, "Tale as old as time..." It signifies a story that's been heard so many times throughout the ages, although it may take on slightly (or drastically) different forms each time you hear it.

Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice is definitely one of those tales as old as time. Not only have there been countless adaptations of this classic on television and in movies, both in the U.S. and abroad, but it has also been used as the basis of everything from Bridget Jones's Diary to Bollywood (Bride and Prejudice) to science fiction (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies), and everything in between.

Soniah Kamal's Unmarriageable is another take on Austen's novel, this time set in modern-day Pakistan. The once-wealthy Binat family has seen its fortunes dwindle as the result of rumors and vicious jealousy. Even worse than losing the creature comforts they had come to enjoy is the damage their financial fall from grace will do to the marriage prospects for the Binats' five daughters.

While this is dismaying for many of the Binat women, 30-year-old Alysba Binat could care less. She'd be fine with never marrying, if only her mother would stop hassling her. Working as an English literature teacher at a British school in her town, Alys tries to teach her students to think independently, to want more than marriage and a family, which is what they are all raised to desire. This often gets Alys into trouble with the school's principal, who wants her to focus on the actual lessons and not trying to change the girls' aspirations.

"Yet it always upset her that young brilliant minds, instead of exploring the universe, were busy chiseling themselves to fit into the molds of Mrs. and Mom. It wasn't that she was averse to Mrs. Mom, only that none of the girls seemed to have ever considered traveling the world by themselves, let alone been encouraged to do so, or to shatter a glass ceiling, or laugh like a mad-woman in public without a care for how it looked."

When the Binats are invited to their town's biggest wedding, attended by the who's who of Pakistan and elsewhere, Mrs. Binat hopes that Alys and her older sister, Jena, will catch the eye of eligible men, and hopefully reel them in. On the first night of the festivities, Jena meets Fahad Bingla, a successful entrepreneur, and he takes a shine to her. Bingla's best friend, Valentine Darsee, also meets the Binat family and is less than impressed with them, especially Alys. Darsee tells Bingla that she is neither smart nor good-looking enough for him, which Alys overhears.

If you've read or seen any version of Pride and Prejudice before, you know what comes next, as Alys and Darsee find themselves in a battle of wills, as the Binat family tries to make sure their daughters find suitable husbands. Mrs. Binat in particular isn't interested in what Alys herself wants; she needs to think of her family for once. But will she marry for money? For love? Or will she be the rare lucky one who can find both?

Unmarriageable is a sweet, fun romp, and Kamal retains enough of the core of Austen's book while adding twists of her own. I found that it worked better for me when I stopped trying to figure out how the characters' names corresponded to the original ones (and, for that matter, stopped comparing everything to the original). She did a great job creating vivid imagery that helped me picture the different settings, the fashions, and the way the love stories unfolded.

I thought the pacing of the book was a little slow, but beyond that, it was a fun, interesting read. I liked Kamal's concept, but I honestly hope it's not a growing trend. I'm one of those curmudgeons who like the classics to stay classic, and don't see the need to update them for the modern world.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Book Review: "The Silent Patient" by Alex Michaelides

I read a lot of thrillers, so I tend to be pretty hard on them. Because, as I've mentioned, I have this tendency to suspect every single character that appears in a thriller, I'm often not as surprised as many others are when authors throw in twists and turns, or when the perpetrator is finally revealed.

While I had some suspicions about the way things in Alex Michaelides' terrific debut, The Silent Patient, might go, I will admit he pulled one over on me at one point. I really enjoyed the way he kept me guessing and was completely hooked on this story of murder, infidelity, psychological instability, and the desire to be a savior.

Alicia Berenson was an artist of some renown, but these days she's more infamous than anything else. Married to a handsome photographer for whom she is consumed by love, they seem to be the picture-perfect couple, at least to anyone on the outside looking in. One night, her husband came home late from a shoot. Moments later, he was shot five times in the face and killed, and the police found Alicia covered in his blood, as well as her own, as she attempted to slit her own wrists.

From that moment on, Alicia hasn't spoken a word. Her trial for her husband's murder was a hotbed of rumors, innuendo, and media sensationalism, but no one ever finds the answers they seek, no one understands what would have made Alicia kill her husband so brutally and then try to take her own life. With no other real choice, the judge sentences her to treatment at the Grove, a forensic unit for dangerous patients, in North London.

"And so, with no further revelation forthcoming, the disappointed media eventually lost interest in Alicia Berenson. She joined the ranks of other briefly famous murderers; faces we remember, but whose names we forget."

But psychotherapist Theo Faber continues to be fascinated by Alicia's case, and he believes that only he can reach her, can delve down into her psyche to uncover the secrets that have kept her silent for six years now. When a position opens at the Grove, he is quick to jump on it, and it isn't long before he has convinced the clinical director, Dr. Lazarus Diomedes, to let him begin treating Alicia, even if she hasn't spoken a word to any other doctor, and has displayed sometimes self-harming and sometimes violent behavior toward others.

Theo does want to help Alicia and perhaps find out the truth behind her husband's murder and the events of that fateful night. But he's also drawn to her because he believes they share a troubled childhood and even a history of emotional challenges. Theo has struggled with depression throughout his life, yet he believes he's uniquely qualified to help Alicia, and perhaps, himself.

"The real motivation was purely selfish. I was on a quest to help myself. I believe the same is true for most people who go into mental health. We are drawn to this profession because we are damaged—we study psychology to heal ourselves. Whether we are prepared to admit this or not is another question."

As Theo attempts to connect with Alicia, he faces challenges from his colleagues and the management of the Grove, who are considering closing down the aging facility, and from Alicia herself. Is she really mad, or is the silence an act? Is she a violent murderer or a misunderstood, grieving widow? Theo seeks answers as his own life seems to be imploding at the same time.

The book's narration shifts between past and present, from Theo's endeavors to treat Alicia to Alicia's reflections of the past expressed through her personal journal. I really wasn't sure what to believe about her, and I kept waiting for some surprise to come bursting out of the woodwork. Michaelides does an excellent job teasing out the suspense in small doses, making you suspect different characters along the way, while you race to figure out the truth as Theo tries to do the same.

In a sea full of thrillers, I found The Silent Patient to be a really strong one that stands apart. There were a lot of layers to this book, and Michaelides was like an orchestra conductor, making sure all of the pieces worked together. If this was his debut, there's no telling what he will come up with next. I know I'll be watching.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Book Review: "When You Read This" by Mary Adkins

I'm not crying, you're crying.

With When You Read This, Mary Adkins has written a novel that is at times funny, poignant, and frustrating (because of the characters' actions or lack thereof; not because of any shortcoming of Adkins).

This is a book that deals with being honest with yourself, facing the realities you try to hide, no matter how much they might hurt. It's a book about how we handle grief and regret, and how accepting that others may grieve, too, can actually help us. And it's also a book about how we find the strength to start again, sometimes more than once.

Iris Massey was only 33 when she died, after battling cancer. For four years, Iris worked as the assistant to PR expert Smith Simonyi, and the two managed his oddball assortment of clients with skill and more than a few outlandish ideas. Iris and Smith thought the same way about things, and each brought out the best in the other.

With Iris gone, Smith is adrift. He has more than his share of other problems, problems which threaten the future of his firm, his finances, even his freedom. His clients start leaving the firm and he's unable to find new clients to take their place—and a new, overeager intern threatens to upend everything.

Before Iris died, she started a blog about what it's like to face a terminal illness at such a young age, how difficult it is to deal with the fact that your dreams may go unfulfilled, and coming to terms with your feelings about the people in your life. Her dying request is that Smith get her blog posts published in book form, which he thinks is a terrific idea—but first he must convince Iris' prickly sister, Jade.

Jade, Iris' opinionated older sister and a chef at a Michelin two-star restaurant, is rocked by grief. She's also preoccupied with concerns about her mother's being able to cope by herself. She feels robbed by Iris' death and wants to hold someone responsible. Did the doctor not prescribe the right treatment? Was Iris' boyfriend good to her? Was Smith holding her back from pursuing her dreams? Jade can't accept the fact that her sister is gone, and she definitely can't accept the idea of publishing Iris' thoughts about dying.

When You Read This is told through emails, blog posts (sometimes illustrated with diagrams), text messages, and online therapy posts. You get a unique perspective into the minds of the characters, as you see everything filtered through their eyes. The epistolary style really draws you in, and I think it intensified the emotions I felt as the plot unfolded.

I loved this book, even if I found Carl's character to be little more than a device to move the plot along, and I had to re-read a piece near the end to be sure I understood something that had happened. Smith and Jade's characters were fascinating, however, and of course, Iris' presence was tremendously felt throughout the book. I'll admit I teared up more than once while devouring this amazing story.

How would it make you feel to read the thoughts of a family member or friend who had died? Would you be able to understand their choices, to honor their wishes? When You Read This gives you a lot to think about. It's definitely a book that will stick with me for a long time to come.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Book Review: "99 Percent Mine" by Sally Thorne


There were moments while devouring Sally Thorne's newest book, 99 Percent Mine, where I would have been like Sheldon in the GIF above if only there were a paper bag handy.

OMG, did I love this book! It literally took every ounce of self-control I had (plus the recognition I had a few conference calls this morning) not to stay up late last night and finish the entire book in one sitting.

For as long as she can remember, life for Darcy Barrett has involved two people—her twin brother, Jamie, and their best friend, Tom Valeska, whom her brother and family essentially adopted when they were younger. Darcy fell in love with Tom when she was eight, but he always seemed more loyal to Jamie than her. But when a moment of vulnerability left Darcy scared of the consequences, she took off running and never quite settled down again.

Now Darcy is back, living in her grandmother's dilapidated cottage, which was bequeathed to her and Jamie with the understanding that it would be refurbished and then sold. She keeps everyone at arm's length, including Jamie, as they have differing ideas of profiting from the cottage's sale. Her once-successful photography career has been shelved in favor of photographing objects for commercial websites, and she's ready to take off again for parts unknown.

"I've been working on this jet-black disguise for many years now, and it's bulletproof. But some people can tell that I'm a weakling, and they try to baby and help me. It must be a survival-of-the-fittest thing. But they're all wrong. I'm not a lame gazelle; I'll be the one chasing the lion."

She's unprepared when Tom, a master house-flipper, arrives at the cottage with his brand-new construction crew, ready to tackle the renovations. Seeing Tom triggers all of the same feelings of lust and love and jealousy and loneliness he always seems to, as he's engaged to his long-time girlfriend, a woman whose luck Darcy covets wholeheartedly. When she finds out that the engagement is over, Darcy wants to finally act on her feelings for Tom, changing their relationship from a brother-sister bond to one that feels like forever.

Are the risks too great? Does he feel the same way for Darcy that she does about him, and even if he does, is he willing to risk everything, including his friendship with Jamie? If Tom gives Darcy his heart (and everything else), will she just take off running again?

"A guy like that is strong in a way that's deeper than muscle and bones, because he wears his softness on the outside. I think I met my ideal man when I was eight, and no one else has ever measured up."

Like many of the romances I've read lately—great books by Christina Lauren, Jasmine Guillory, Josie Spencer, and Thorne herself—there isn't a lot that is surprising in 99 Percent Mine, but I couldn't tear myself away from it. I absolutely loved the complex relationships between Jamie and Darcy, Jamie and Tom, and Darcy and Tom—the intensity of childhood relationships and how they change, and don't change, in adulthood.

This book is hot, too. There is a lot of desire in this book, and Thorne doesn't spare a detail in raising your temperature along with her characters. The sex scenes are pretty unbelievable, too. I mean, how can you not love a line like, "I would have sex with him on a pencil sketch of this bed"?

I read Thorne's first book, The Hating Game (see my review), last month, and I was eagerly anticipating the release of 99 Percent Mine. (At least the Kindle version of this book came with epilogues for both this book and The Hating Game, which was an unexpected bonus.)

I think I enjoyed this book even more than Thorne's first because of the complexity of the relationships. While the plot is relatively predictable, not everything I was expecting to happen did, which made me happy, actually. If you're a fan of this genre, don't miss this one—a really great read when you need a good rom-com.

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Book Review: "The Woman Inside" by E.G. Scott

If you like your thrillers with more twists and turns than a roller coaster, grab your safety harness and pick up a copy of E.G. Scott's new thriller, The Woman Inside! This is a crazy book, one which kept me guessing, kept me racing through the book to see how everything would turn out, and, if I'm honest, made me roll my eyes once or twice, too.

It was love at first sight for Rebecca and Paul. Both were wary of relationships (despite the fact that Paul was married at the time) and both shared dark and painful childhoods marked by tragedy, but they couldn't imagine not being together, almost as if destiny brought them together. They shared a passionate relationship and dreamed of building an amazing home on Long Island, and both contributed—Mark with his contracting business and Rebecca as a successful pharmaceutical sales representative.

Nearly 20 years later their marriage has weathered some serious ups and downs. When Mark lost his job it put a strain on their relationship, and Rebecca found herself more and more in the throes of an opioid addiction—an easy thing to feed when you sell pharmaceuticals. Mark had an affair, and it doesn't take too long for his mistress to want more than he is willing to give her—and that doesn't make her happy. As she grows more unhinged, it threatens to topple Mark and Rebecca's marriage for good, not to mention put them in danger.

"Had we really gotten so far away from each other that I'd stopped looking, and Paul knew I had? Time had passed in the intangible way that it does when you aren't paying attention. I didn't see the tether fraying to such a precarious degree."

When Rebecca discovers Mark's plans for a new life, plans that he hasn't shared with her, she is, at turns, hurt, nervous, worried, and angry. As she becomes more and more dependent on a mixed cocktail of drugs, and her supply dwindles, she can't always think clearly, but she starts to formulate plans of her own, and figure out how to make her husband pay for his betrayal. But there are other elements in play, elements that neither of them can expect.

Whenever I read a thriller, I'm automatically suspicious of everyone and everything. A character comes on the scene, I immediately craft ways they could be responsible. So while that habit is a bit distracting at times, it also takes a lot to surprise me. E.G. Scott definitely kept me guessing in places, and my suspicions weren't always correct. There was one major twist that was surprising, but at the same time I found myself exclaiming, "Really?" (Suspension of disbelief necessary.)

The Woman Inside starts out being narrated by Paul and Rebecca, shifting between the present and their past (everything from the beginning of their relationship to crucial events a few days or weeks earlier), but then Scott opens the narration up to several other characters. I think I would have preferred seeing the story only through their eyes—I found one character fairly one-dimensional, and didn't really enjoy their perspectives even as they were revealing twists.

E.G. Scott is the pseudonym for two writers. They've got a lot of talent between them, and I thought that having Rebecca narrate part of the story while she's in the midst of a drug addiction and dealing with cravings and withdrawals was a great plot device, since she's an entirely different kind of unreliable narrator. Even if I didn't love it, The Woman Inside definitely kept me hooked, and it kept me guessing, so it did a pretty good job.

Thriller fans, you might want to pick this one up!