Book Rec ~ Salt Slow, by Julia Armfield

Salt Slow
by Julia Armfield

Coming October 8, 2019

This collection of stories is about women and their experiences in society, about bodies and the bodily, mapping the skin and bones of its characters through their experiences of isolation, obsession and love. Throughout the collection, women become insects, men turn to stone, a city becomes insomniac and bodies are picked apart to make up better ones. The mundane worlds of schools and sea side towns are invaded and transformed by the physical, creating a landscape which is constantly shifting to hold on to the bodies of its inhabitants. Blending the mythic and the fantastic, the collection considers characters in motion – turning away, turning back or simply turning into something new.

From the winner of The White Review Short Story Prize 2018, salt slow is an extraordinary collection of short stories that are sure to dazzle and shock.

 

I rated this book 4.5/5 stars. The writing is visceral, magical, and sometimes horrifying. You can read my full review over at The Girly Book Club’s website!

❤️ Jenna

The Nobody People, by Bob Proehl (Review)

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The Nobody People
by Bob Proehl

Genre: Science Fiction

Length: 496 Pages

Release date: September 3, 2019

Publisher: Del Rey Books

Synopsis: 

After decades in hiding, a group of outcasts with extraordinary abilities clashes with a world that is threatened by their power.

When Avi Hirsch learns that his daughter Emmeline has special abilities, he tries to shield her against an increasingly hostile society. Carrie Norris can become invisible, but all she wants is to be seen by the people she loves. Fahima Deeb has faced prejudice her entire life, but her uncanny connection to machines offers her the opportunity to level the playing field. These are just a few of the ordinary nobodies with astonishing gifts who must now band together against bigotry and fear, even as one of their own actively works to destroy a fragile peace. Will their combined talents spark a much-needed revolution–or an apocalypse?

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My thanks to NetGalley and Del Rey Books for sending me an advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and are not influenced by the publisher. 

The Nobody People was a bit of a lukewarm read for me. I love superhero stories, but the concept has been done to death at this point, making it really difficult to write one that doesn’t feel stale. There needs to be an interesting twist, super engaging characters, or just… something new to say. Unfortunately, The Nobody People felt just a bit too cookie-cutter for me.

As other reviewers have noted, one of the bigger flaws of the novel is that it feels like someone has taken a four or five book series and tried to cram it all into a novel. Proehl is trying to do a lot of interesting things with his varied cast of characters, and the book has a bit of a long timeline. In the end, it was too much for one book, and none of it got explored with the depth needed to actually engage readers. Avi, for example, who is one of the major characters, has to come to terms with a crumbling marriage and essentially losing his super-powered daughter as she finds a sense of community with others like herself. All of this ends up feeling very surface level, as there is simply too much going on with the many other characters at the same time.

With super-powered humans going to a school and living largely segregated from regular humans, the novel with inevitably draw comparisons to X-Men. One thing I did like about this book was that it took a lot of the things that were purely allegorical in X-Men (i.e., parallels between the civil rights movement, the fight for gay rights, etc.) and brings them to forefront of the novel. Prejudice against super-powered people doesn’t suddenly mean your garden variety racism has been forgotten, and some of the characters in Proehl’s novels are dealing with intersecting levels of marginalization due to their status as, for example, immigrants, mix-race people, or members of the LGBTQ community, making their experiences more complex.

All in all, this was an okay book, but not necessarily one I’d recommend to anyone. If superhero stories are your speed, there are much better ones out there to read. Some of my favorites are the books in the Reckoners series, by Brandon Sanderson, which takes the interesting angle of making all the super-powered humans villains and giving us a cast of ordinary people fighting back.

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Conversations With Friends, by Sally Rooney (Review)


Conversations With Friends
by Sally Rooney

Genre: Contemporary

Length: 304 Pages

Release date: July 11, 2017

Publisher: Hogarth

Synopsis: 

A sharply intelligent novel about two college students and the strange, unexpected connection they forge with a married couple.

Frances is twenty-one years old, cool-headed, and darkly observant. A college student and aspiring writer, she devotes herself to a life of the mind–and to the beautiful and endlessly self-possessed Bobbi, her best friend and comrade-in-arms. Lovers at school, the two young women now perform spoken-word poetry together in Dublin, where a journalist named Melissa spots their potential. Drawn into Melissa’s orbit, Frances is reluctantly impressed by the older woman’s sophisticated home and tall, handsome husband. Private property, Frances believes, is a cultural evil–and Nick, a bored actor who never quite lived up to his potential, looks like patriarchy made flesh. But however amusing their flirtation seems at first, it gives way to a strange intimacy neither of them expect.As Frances tries to keep her life in check, her relationships increasingly resist her control: with Nick, with her difficult and unhappy father, and finally even with Bobbi. Desperate to reconcile herself to the desires and vulnerabilities of her body, Frances’s intellectual certainties begin to yield to something new: a painful and disorienting way of living from moment to moment.

Written with gem-like precision and probing intelligence, Conversations With Friends is wonderfully alive to the pleasures and dangers of youth.”

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“Gradually the waiting began to feel less like waiting and more like this was simply what life was: the distracting tasks undertaken while the thing you are waiting for continues not to happen.” 

As you can clearly see by the rating, I was not a fan of this book. I was so excited to get into it because I’d heard lovely things about the author and I stumbled across an autographed copy. (I’ll buy pretty much anything that’s autographed. It’s a problem.) Unfortunately, Conversations with Friends was immensely disappointing.

First and foremost, the prose is all very matter of fact and devoid of feeling. This may have been an intentional writing choice to reflect some level of emotional numbness of the protagonist while she’s going through an odd and difficult time in her life. Nonetheless, the end result makes for a very dry reading experience. Frances is dealing with some really heavy things in regards to her mental and physical health, but none of it was emotionally evocative in the slightest for the reader.

The story, which focuses on the relationships between Frances, her best friend Bobbi, and a married couple whom they befriend,  can essentially be summarized as “terrible people being terrible to each other.” The dry writing style could have easily been redeemed for me by an interesting plot, but nothing about this drew me into the story. The major thrust is an extra-marital affair that is wholly uninteresting in every way. Bland Frances gets together with a married, bland, almost-famous actor who’s using her 21-year-old body to make himself feel like he’s worthwhile as his youth and chances at success and fame fade away. Blah.

Frances seems so passive throughout the entire narrative and it drove me crazy. Frances doesn’t do much. Things happen to Frances and she says, “Oh, okay, I guess this is happening.” The affair with the married man, the come-ons from her best friend, life in general, it all just seems to happen without Frances giving much thought as to whether or not she wants these things or expending much effort to exert any semblance control over her life.

Her best friend, Bobbi, is even worse, practically oozing smugness at every opportunity. (Bobbi remarks at one point that Frances doesn’t really have a personality. Bobbi is right, but lord, this is how she talks to her best friend, so you can imagine how she comes across to the rest of the world.

I was so prepared to like this book. Lesbian and bisexual representation, mental and physical health themes, and explorations of complicated relationships? This could have been so interesting. Instead, it was simply boring and occasionally irritating. Oh, well. On to the next one!

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Member of the Family, by Dianne Lake (Review)

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Member of the Family: My Story of Charles Mason, Life Inside His Cult, and the Darkness that Ended the Sixties
by Dianne Lake

Genre: Nonfiction, True Crime, Memoir

Length: 384 Pages

Release date: October 24, 2017

Publisher: William Morrow

Synopsis: 

In this poignant and disturbing memoir of lost innocence, coercion, survival, and healing, Dianne Lake chronicles her years with Charles Manson, revealing for the first time how she became the youngest member of his Family and offering new insights into one of the twentieth century’s most notorious criminals and life as one of his “girls”

At age fourteen Dianne Lake—with little more than a note in her pocket from her hippie parents granting her permission to leave them—became one of “Charlie’s girls,” a devoted acolyte of cult leader Charles Manson. Over the course of two years, the impressionable teenager endured manipulation, psychological control, and physical abuse as the harsh realities and looming darkness of Charles Manson’s true nature revealed itself. From Spahn ranch and the group acid trips, to the Beatles’ White Album and Manson’s dangerous messiah-complex, Dianne tells the riveting story of the group’s descent into madness as she lived it.

Though she never participated in any of the group’s gruesome crimes and was purposely insulated from them, Dianne was arrested with the rest of the Manson Family, and eventually learned enough to join the prosecution’s case against them. With the help of good Samaritans, including the cop who first arrested her and later adopted her, the courageous young woman eventually found redemption and grew up to lead an ordinary life.

While much has been written about Charles Manson, this riveting account from an actual Family member is a chilling portrait that recreates in vivid detail one of the most horrifying and fascinating chapters in modern American history.

Member of the Family includes 16 pages of photographs.

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Member of the Family was not entirely what I expected, and I think in this case that was a good thing. A pretty significant portion of the book takes place before Charles Manson was ever on Dianne Lake’s radar, and this makes for a pretty interesting character study in what made Lake vulnerable to be recruited into a cult. She was just 14 years old and her parents had more or less checked out. Like many who find themselves recruited into cults, Lake was feeling incredibly isolated and desperate for some sense of belonging and stability. Charlie’s “family” seemed like they could provide that for her, and the prospect of being treated as an adult was also enticing to an adolescent.

Lake was not present for any of the infamous murders committed by Manson’s followers, although she was in the cult at the time the crimes occurred. Consequently, the book is devoid of any graphic descriptions of the group’s murder spree (something I think we can all do without.) However, the book should come with a content warning for physical and sexual abuse of a child. Lake suffered what she only later recognized as sexual abuse at the hands of older men starting from a very young age. This left her primed to be subject to Manson’s influence, as that behavior had been normalized for her.

Member of the Family is a difficult read at times, but an excellent first-hand exploration of the before, during, and after of becoming entrenched in a violent cult. Lake seems to have built a normal and healthy life for herself in the aftermath, keeping out of the public eye. I definitely recommend this book to true crime readers or people who are interested in the psychology behind cults.

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Stolen Things, by R.H. Herron (Review)


Stolen Things
by R.H. Herron

Genre: Thriller

Length: 368 Pages

Release date: August 20, 2019

Publisher: Dutton

Synopsis: 

A sensational crime, a missing teen, and a mother and daughter with no one to trust but themselves come together in this shocking debut thriller by R. H. Herron.

“Mama? Help me.”

Laurie Ahmadi has worked as a 911 police dispatcher in her quiet Northern California town for nearly two decades. She considers the department her family; her husband, Omid, is its first Arab American chief, and their teenaged daughter, Jojo, has grown up with the force. So when Laurie catches a 911 call and, to her horror, it’s Jojo, the whole department springs into action.

Jojo, drugged, disoriented, and in pain, doesn’t remember how she ended up at the home of Kevin Leeds, a pro football player famous for his on-the-field activism and his work with the CapB—“Citizens Against Police Brutality”—movement. She doesn’t know what happened to Kevin’s friend and trainer, whose beaten corpse is also discovered in the house. And she has no idea where her best friend Harper, who was with her earlier in the evening, could be.

But when Jojo begins to dive into Harper’s social media to look for clues to her whereabouts, Jojo uncovers a shocking secret that turns everything she knew about Harper—and the police department—on its head. With everything they thought they could rely on in question, Laurie and Jojo begin to realize that they can’t trust anyone to find Harper except themselves . . . and time is running out.

ratingthree

My thanks to NetGalley and Dutton for sending me an advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and are not influenced by the publisher. 

This book was a bit of a mixed bag for me. It’s compulsively readable and fast-paced, but the twist at the end is a bit much to swallow. I loved the alternating perspectives. “Mom who is practically married to her job” alternating with “teen daughter who the mother doesn’t know half as well as she thinks” is a little overdone in the genre at this point, but I thought it worked really well here.

There is a wide divide between the two POV characters, not just for typical “angsty teens are unreachable” reasons, but because Jojo is at a point in her life where she’s figuring out her own politics and value system, and they don’t align with those of her parents. Mystery/thriller novels are best, in my opinion, when they’re not driven solely by the mystery; Stolen Things has lots of interesting relationship dynamics to keep the story interesting.

One of the predominant themes of the book is police brutality, and that is part of what’s driving a wedge between Jojo and her parents, who both work in law enforcement (her father as a police chief and her mother, a former police officer as a 911 dispatcher). Also prominent in the story is an exploration of rape culture and victim blaming. While including social issues like these in a story can be admirable, I’m not sure that a fast-paced thriller is really up to the task of treating these topics with the gravity that would be necessary for them to feel like a natural part of the story. While the book is not categorized as Young Adult and is a bit too dark to fit into the genre, some of the passages which centered on social issues had a very YA feel to them.

Overall, this was definitely a page turner, but some sections felt awkward and fell flat. Stolen Things was worth a read and may be a great choice for fans of authors like Mary Kubica and Megan Miranda.

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The Winemaker’s Wife, by Kristin Harmel (Review)


The Winemaker’s Wife
by Kristin Harmel

Genre: Historical Fiction

Length: 400 Pages

Release date: August 13, 2019

Publisher: Gallery Books

Synopsis: 

Champagne, 1940: Inès has just married Michel, the owner of storied champagne house Maison Chauveau, when the Germans invade. As the danger mounts, Michel turns his back on his marriage to begin hiding munitions for the Résistance. Inès fears they’ll be exposed, but for Céline, half-Jewish wife of Chauveau’s chef de cave, the risk is even greater—rumors abound of Jews being shipped east to an unspeakable fate.

When Céline recklessly follows her heart in one desperate bid for happiness, and Inès makes a dangerous mistake with a Nazi collaborator, they risk the lives of those they love—and the champagne house that ties them together.

New York, 2019: Liv Kent has just lost everything when her eccentric French grandmother shows up unannounced, insisting on a trip to France. But the older woman has an ulterior motive—and a tragic, decades-old story to share. When past and present finally collide, Liv finds herself on a road to salvation that leads right to the caves of the Maison Chauveau.

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My thanks to NetGalley and Gallery Books for sending me an advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and are not influenced by the publisher. 

Okay. Minority opinion alert. This book currently has a very respectable 4.14 average on Goodreads, so if the synopsis sounds like something you’ll love, by all means, don’t let my review turn you off of it. But my honest reaction to this novel was mainly disappointment.

To start with, the synopsis gave me an impression of a plot that was firmly rooted in the resistance movement in France. Unfortunately, this all felt very secondary in the novel, and the main thrust of the historical portion of the plot hinges around marital affairs and discord. In and of itself, this could have been a decent focus for a story (despite not being what I was expecting) had the characters involved been a bit more developed. All that being said, there were high stakes for this part of the book and good cause to be emotionally invested in the outcome.

The modern portion of the plot, by contrast, felt tacked-on and lifeless. Liv, much like the characters in the earlier timeline, feel quite underdeveloped, and she was without the benefit of the tension in the HF portion to push the story along. Liv is recently divorced and sad about it. A very obvious romantic interest figure pops into the story when Liv’s grandmother, Edith takes her to France, and their romance is delayed to a positively ridiculous degree by a misunderstanding and multiple characters’ failure to communicate very basic facts.

Harmel has quite a few novels under her belt, but this one unfortunately read like a debut, in my opinion. The characters were all very shallow, and were often unsympathetic when I believe the author did not intend for them to be. The plot sometimes strained the limits of incredulity, and the more interesting aspects of the story routinely took a back seat to things like wine making and affairs. The rating is comparable to her prior books, however, so I think it’s safe to say that fans of her existing work will not be disappointed in this book as I was.

All that being said, I was still prepared to rate this around three stars rather than two until I got to a particular scene that cast the entirety of the book in a bad light for me. I will try to be as vague as possible to avoid giving away huge plot points, but some spoilers are ahead.

In a moment of distress, a character (I’ll call her person A) confides in a person whom she knows to be a Nazi collaborator. The secrets she gives away lead to the arrest of several people, who then end up in a concentration camp. Years later, one of the characters who has managed to survive the camp (I’ll call her person B) makes quite a point of saying that she doesn’t blame the person who gave her up to the Nazis. Her reasoning is essentially that Person A was careless but not cruel. Again, I’d like to emphasize that Person A was well aware that her confidant was a Nazi collaborator.

I’m all for victims finding forgiveness for those who have harmed them if it helps them find peace, but Person B is not a real person with autonomy; she is a character being fed lines by an author. Forgiveness can be healing, but there’s something about the narrative that seems to frame this as the “correct” choice, and that didn’t sit well with me. Perhaps I’m entirely misreading the author’s intentions, but this was the impression I left the book with, and it was enough to turn me off of a book I already had a rather lukewarm experience reading.

Again, many readers thoroughly enjoyed this book. If you are a fan of Harmel’s work, please do give it a chance. Unfortunately, this was my first impression of her work and I don’t think I’ll be reading another of her books.
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We Are All Good People Here, by Susan Rebecca White (Review)

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We Are All Good People Here 
by Susan Rebecca White

Genre: Historical Fiction

Length: 304 Pages

Release date: August 6, 2019

Publisher: Atria Books

Synopsis: 

Eve Whalen, privileged child of an old-money Atlanta family, meets Daniella Gold in the fall of 1962, on their first day at Belmont College. Paired as roommates, the two become fast friends. Daniella, raised in Georgetown by a Jewish father and a Methodist mother, has always felt caught between two worlds. But at Belmont, her bond with Eve allows her to finally experience a sense of belonging. That is, until the girls’ expanding awareness of the South’s systematic injustice forces them to question everything they thought they knew about the world and their places in it.

Eve veers toward radicalism—a choice pragmatic Daniella cannot fathom. After a tragedy, Eve returns to Daniella for help in beginning anew, hoping to shed her past. But the past isn’t so easily buried, as Daniella and Eve discover when their daughters are endangered by secrets meant to stay hidden.

Spanning more than thirty years of American history, from the twilight of Kennedy’s Camelot to the beginning of Bill Clinton’s presidency, We Are All Good People Here is “a captivating…meaningful, resonant story” (Emily Giffin, author of All We Ever Wanted) about two flawed but well-meaning women clinging to a lifelong friendship that is tested by the rushing waters of history and their own good intentions.

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My thanks to NetGalley and Atria Books for sending me an advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and are not influenced by the publisher. 

We Are All Good People Here is trying to do a lot of things, but at the forefront is an exploration of radicalization. At the beginning of the book when Daniella and Eve first meet, Daniella seems the more likely of the two to fall into a radical protest movement. She is a young Jewish woman who experiences discrimination during a formative part of her life, and she’s passionate about fighting injustice against others. However, Eve, privileged, wealthy, and sheltered, has a difficult time navigating her early years away and college and all the drastic changes that come with it. She ends up being a more appealing and susceptible target for radical groups.

Eve was endlessly frustrating to me, not just as a person, but in the way she is written. She took a long time to make sense to me as a character, as her viewpoints swing from one extreme to the next and then back again. By the end of the book, I came to understand her as a person who defines herself by those who surround her and support her at any given time. She will become a mirror and reflect their own beliefs right back at them, and it becomes difficult to fathom what, if anything, is beneath that shiny surface.

While there was a lot of meat to this story and a lot of potential, my reading experience with it was just okay. The pacing sometimes felt a bit off and the story seemed to drag at time. But a big part of the problem is that I think the author was trying to do a little too much. Some books have loads of hot-button issues within them and they make it work. More often, it feels like the author is throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks; it does not feel organic.

While this book fell a little flat for me, I don’t regret reading it. I would recommend it to fans of books like The Help.

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