My Dark Vanessa, by Kate Elizabeth Russell ~ Review

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My Dark Vanessa
by Kate Elizabeth Russell

Genre: Contemporary Fiction

Length: 384 Pages

Release date: March 10, 2020

Publisher: William Morrow

Synopsis: 

Exploring the psychological dynamics of the relationship between a precocious yet naïve teenage girl and her magnetic and manipulative teacher, a brilliant, all-consuming read that marks the explosive debut of an extraordinary new writer.

2000. Bright, ambitious, and yearning for adulthood, fifteen-year-old Vanessa Wye becomes entangled in an affair with Jacob Strane, her magnetic and guileful forty-two-year-old English teacher.

2017. Amid the rising wave of allegations against powerful men, a reckoning is coming due. Strane has been accused of sexual abuse by a former student, who reaches out to Vanessa, and now Vanessa suddenly finds herself facing an impossible choice: remain silent, firm in the belief that her teenage self willingly engaged in this relationship, or redefine herself and the events of her past. But how can Vanessa reject her first love, the man who fundamentally transformed her and has been a persistent presence in her life? Is it possible that the man she loved as a teenager—and who professed to worship only her—may be far different from what she has always believed?

Alternating between Vanessa’s present and her past, My Dark Vanessa juxtaposes memory and trauma with the breathless excitement of a teenage girl discovering the power her own body can wield. Thought-provoking and impossible to put down, this is a masterful portrayal of troubled adolescence and its repercussions that raises vital questions about agency, consent, complicity, and victimhood. Written with the haunting intimacy of The Girls and the creeping intensity of RoomMy Dark Vanessa is an era-defining novel that brilliantly captures and reflects the shifting cultural mores transforming our relationships and society itself.

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My Dark Vanessa successfully walks a very delicate balance, managing to fully embody the mind of a teenage girl romanticizing her relationship with a grown man without straying into the territory of the narrative itself endorsing that mindset. Vanessa, like most 15-year-olds, believes herself to be wise beyond her years. The novel, which takes place in two timelines 17 years apart, delves into Vanessa’s experience with her teacher while she was still in the thick of it, as well as her much more complicated feelings about it years down the line.

I can imagine that a lot of readers will find Vanessa difficult to love, and I honestly think this is a testament to how well she is written. This is such a raw exploration of the ways trauma can impact a person, and that’s not always easy to look at. Spiraling into depression can leave people dealing with substance abuse, feeling too emotionally drained to do something as simple as washing the dishes, and lashing out at people who don’t deserve it. Vanessa is defensive and angry and messy, and she has every right to be these things. If she’d grown up without any of these qualities, it may have been a feel-good story about overcoming adversity, but it would not have felt real.

The incorporation of the #metoo movement could have easily felt like a cheap attempt to make the novel feel timely, but it was incorporated into the book so extremely well and brought up uncomfortable questions about speaking up. In the face of a worldwide movement bringing down predators like Harvey Weinstein, what does this mean for victims who cannot or will not speak up, especially for those who live with the knowledge that the person who victimized them went on to do it to others? Do we place an unfair sense of culpability on the shoulders of women and girls dealing with the aftermath of a trauma?

My Dark Vanessa is such a solid exploration of all the nuance that can come with topics as sensitive as consent, agency, and sexual assault. Please be aware, however, this can be an extremely difficult book to read. Content warning for graphic descriptions of sexual abuse.buy

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Review – Vox, by Christina Dalcher

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Vox
by Christina Dalcher

Genre: Dystopian

Length: 326 Pages

Release date: August 21, 2018

Publisher: Berkley

Synopsis:

Set in an America where half the population has been silenced, VOX is the harrowing, unforgettable story of what one woman will do to protect herself and her daughter.

On the day the government decrees that women are no longer allowed more than 100 words daily, Dr. Jean McClellan is in denial—this can’t happen here. Not in America. Not to her.

This is just the beginning.

Soon women can no longer hold jobs. Girls are no longer taught to read or write. Females no longer have a voice. Before, the average person spoke sixteen thousand words a day, but now women only have one hundred to make themselves heard.

But this is not the end.

For herself, her daughter, and every woman silenced, Jean will reclaim her voice

rating

three

I wonder what the other women do. How they cope. Do they still find something to enjoy? Do they love their husbands in the same way? Do they hate them, just a little bit?

Vox is a dystopian novel in the vein of The Handmaid’s Tale which blends the personal and the political. Set in an America which has been taken over by hyper-conservative extremists, women are no longer allowed to work, and they are forced to wear word counters which administer painful electric shocks if they go over their allotted 100 daily words.

I originally reviewed this book not long after starting my blog, and my reading habits have changed a lot since then; I think a lot of that has to do with twice monthly book club meetings and getting into the habit of engaging with the media I consume on a deeper level in order to discuss it. I don’t normally revisit books I’ve already reviewed, but when Vox was chosen as this month’s book, I knew before picking it up that my feelings would be a lot different this time, and I thought it may be interesting to talk about.

The biggest issue I have upon rereading Vox is simply that so many aspects of it seem to be under-developed, most glaringly some of the world building aspects. When you write a dystopia set in the near future, you’re asking a lot from your readers in terms of suspension of disbelief, and it needs to be backed up with a solid sense in the text of how we got there.

Comparisons to The Handmaid’s Tale are inevitable with a novel like this, and I think this is one thing that separates them. THT got us to a dystopia really rapidly, but it took a terrorist attack that took out much of the United States’ leadership in one fell swoop to do it. In the face of that level of chaos, it’s easy to see how things could go very wrong, very quickly. Having read Vox twice now, I still don’t feel I have a good grasp of how things descended to the point of half the population receiving electric shocks for the “crime” of using more than 100 words per day.

A lot of the characters feel similarly underdeveloped. While we’re very limited in terms of development for female characters aside from the  protagonist due to the 100 words per day limit, there seems to be little excuse for how one-dimensional the male characters feel. This makes it very difficult to feel emotionally invested in any of the story.

I’ve laid out a lot of criticism here, but there truly were aspects of this novel that I enjoyed. The story was paced well, and it was easy to tear through the whole thing because I needed to see what happened next. On a certain level, I think the novel would have worked better if it were more geared towards the mystery/suspense genre, vs. the piece of feminist dystopian literature that it tries and fails to be.

buy

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What’s your favorite novel with feminist themes? Let’s discuss!

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Darling Rose Gold, by Stephanie Wrobel ~ Review


Darling Rose Gold
by Stephanie Wrobel

Genre: Thriller

Length: 320 Pages

Release date: March 17, 2020

Publisher: Berkley

Synopsis: 

Sharp Objects meets My Lovely Wife in this tightly drawn debut that peels back the layers of the most complicated of mother-daughter relationships…

For the first eighteen years of her life, Rose Gold Watts believed she was seriously ill. She was allergic to everything, used a wheelchair and practically lived at the hospital. Neighbors did all they could, holding fundraisers and offering shoulders to cry on, but no matter how many doctors, tests, or surgeries, no one could figure out what was wrong with Rose Gold.

Turns out her mom, Patty Watts, was just a really good liar.

After serving five years in prison, Patty gets out with nowhere to go and begs her daughter to take her in. The entire community is shocked when Rose Gold says yes.

Patty insists all she wants is to reconcile their differences. She says she’s forgiven Rose Gold for turning her in and testifying against her. But Rose Gold knows her mother. Patty Watts always settles a score.

Unfortunately for Patty, Rose Gold is no longer her weak little darling…

And she’s waited such a long time for her mother to come home.

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My thanks to Berkley and NetGalley 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. 

Darling Rose Gold is filled to the brim with echoes of the Gypsy Rose Blanchard case, with lots of parallels in circumstances and even a main character whose name seems to have drawn inspiration from the case. If you’re as familiar with that case as I am, this book may feel almost cathartic. In real life, Gypsy Rose is currently sitting in jail for the murder of the mother who medically abused her for years; this novel opens with the abuser having just served a substantial prison term for her actions.

The novel alternates perspectives between Rose Gold and her mother, Patty, and being in Patty’s head can be genuinely unsettling and sometimes infuriating. She is filled with righteous indignation and truly doesn’t seem to feel she’s done anything wrong. The author seems to have done a lot of research on Munchausen syndrome by proxy (also known as factitious disorder, a form of abuse in which a caretaker, usually a parent, obtains unnecessary medical procedures for the person under their care by fabricating an illness).

Rose Gold, on the other hand, now has issues of her own, stemming from the years of abuse. Patty’s release from prison sets off a captivating game of cat and mouse. I will say that I have some reservations about this premise. I talk a lot about mental health in fiction on this blog, and I’m always wary of plots that involve abuse victims stepping into anything resembling a villain role. However, I thought this book did justice to Rose Gold as a character. She often acts in erratic and irrational ways, but even at her very worst, I always felt for her. Her years growing up with a warped example of what it means to love someone would inevitably lead her down some dark paths.

The plot is super fast paced and the book can easily be read in a couple of sittings. Despite the heavy inspiration drawn from a real case, the basic aspects of the plot diverged enough from it that I could not predict each next step based on my knowledge of that case. This dark story of revenge comes out in one week and I definitely recommend picking up a copy!

buy

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The Antidote For Everything, by Kimmery Martin


The Antidote For Everything
by Kimmery Martin

Genre: Contemporary

Length: 352 Pages

Release date: February 20, 2020

Publisher: Berkley

Synopsis: 

In this whip-smart and timely novel from acclaimed author Kimmery Martin, two doctors travel a surprising path when they must choose between treating their patients and keeping their jobs.

Georgia Brown’s profession as a urologist requires her to interact with plenty of naked men, but her romantic prospects have fizzled. The most important person in her life is her friend Jonah Tsukada, a funny, empathetic family medicine doctor who works at the same hospital in Charleston, South Carolina and who has become as close as family to her.

Just after Georgia leaves the country for a medical conference, Jonah shares startling news. The hospital is instructing doctors to stop providing medical care for transgender patients. Jonah, a gay man, is the first to be fired when he refuses to abandon his patients. Stunned by the predicament of her closest friend, Georgia’s natural instinct is to fight alongside him. But when her attempts to address the situation result in incalculable harm, both Georgia and Jonah find themselves facing the loss of much more than their careers.

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I received a free copy of this book in my role as blogger for The Girly Book Club. All opinions are my own and are not influenced by the publisher. 

Despite the wildly different subject matter, this book had me thinking a lot about the controversy surrounding American Dirt while I was reading. The story so heavily involves LGBTQ issues, while the author is a straight, cisgender woman. I feel strongly that, while anyone can write about anything, #OwnVoices authors will, by and large, do it better. The Antidote For Everything and American Dirt were both ambitious books, but there are doubts as to how well equipped the authors were to tell the stories they wanted to tell.

A major character within the story is a gay man, and there are minor transgender characters, but the story is told through the lens of Georgia Brown, a straight, cisgender woman much like the author. The thing is, it never felt like this should have been Georgia’s story to tell, and there was no compelling reason I could think of for her to be the protagonist other than the fact that she was the character the author found most relatable.

You can read my full thoughts on this title over on the Girly Book Club’s website.

Have you ever read a book that you wished had been told from the perspective of a different character within the story? Why was that? Tell me about it in the comments.

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No Bad Deed, by Heather Chavez ~ Pub Day Review!

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No Bad Deed
by Heather Chavez

Genre: Thriller

Length: 320 Pages

Release date: February 18,  2020

Publisher: William Morrow

Synopsis: 

Packed with the electrifying pacing and pulse-pounding suspense of Harlan Coben and Lisa Gardner, a thrilling debut about a mother desperate to find the connections between her missing husband and a deadly stalker who knows too much about her own dark family history.

Driving home one rainy night, Cassie Larkin sees a man and woman fighting on the side of the road. After calling 911, the veterinarian makes a split-second decision that will throw her sedate suburban life into chaos. Against all reason and advice, she gets out of her minivan and chases after the violent man, trying to help his victim. When Cassie physically tries to stop him, he suddenly turns on her and spits out an ominous threat: “Let her die, and I’ll let you live.”

A veterinarian trained to heal, Cassie can’t let the woman die. But while she’s examining the unconscious victim, the attacker steals her car. Now he has her name. Her address. And he knows about her children. Though they warn her to be careful, the police assure her that the perpetrator—a criminal named Carver Sweet—won’t get near her. Cassie isn’t so sure.

The next day—Halloween—her husband disappears while trick-or-treating with their six-year-old daughter. Are these disturbing events a coincidence or the beginning of a horrifying nightmare? Her husband has been growing distant—is it possible he’s become involved with another woman? Is Cassie’s confrontation with the road-side attacker connected to her husband’s disappearance? With all these questions swirling in her mind Cassie can trust no one, maybe not even herself. The only thing she knows for sure is that she can’t sit back while the people she loves are in danger.

As she desperately searches for answers, Cassie discovers that nothing is as random as it seems, and that she is more than willing to fight—to go the most terrifying extremes—to save her family and her marriage.

ratingfour

My thanks to William Morrow and NetGalley 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. 

Look at me, rating a thriller 4 stars. Wild. It’s been a minute.

No Bad Deed is fast-paced, deliciously wild, and has just the right amount of twists and turns. Like most thrillers, it will definitely require a certain degree of suspension of disbelief, but it never bends that to the point of breaking. And it’s a debut novel? I’m officially impressed.

The beginning of this novel throws is right into the action, with the protagonist, Cassie, interfering in an altercation between to strangers. I loved Cassie as a protagonist right away. She knows getting involved in a fight between a strange man and woman alone at night isn’t the best idea, but can’t bring herself to sit idly by while the police take who knows how long to get there. Cassie’s a Gryffindor for sure. Her desire to do the right thing ends up putting her at risk in more ways than she could have imagined, and the twists and turns that follow are utterly unpredictable.

No Bad Deed is a great choice for thriller fans who love unpredictable twists and an easy to root for protagonist. Great for fans of Mary Kubica, Christina McDonald, Sarah Pekkanen, and Greer Hendricks!

buy

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Thank you for reading! What was the last book that pleasantly surprised you? Let me know in the comments!

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Quickie Book Reviews! My January Reading

Hello, friends! I’ve been super busy lately and unable to to post full reviews as much, but I thought I’d post some super short and sweet mini reviews of some of the books I finished but hadn’t reviewed yet in January. So, let’s jump into it!

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Down Among the Sticks and Bones
(Wayward Children #2)
by Seanan McGuire

4/5 stars

I didn’t love this as much as the first book, but it was still 100% worth reading! It follows the stories of twin sisters Jack and Jill (whose parents never should have been allowed to name their own children) who readers will remember from book one of this series. this book delves into their backstory, so it technically takes place before book one, and can be read on its own. This has a very dark Alice in Wonderland vibe.

44323551. sy475 Unspeakable Things
by Jess Lourey

2/5 stars

I love true crime and this was loosely based on a real case, so I went into it with high hopes. But the only way I can think to describe this book is “needlessly dark.” The main conflict in the book has to do with young boys being kidnapped and sexually assaulted, so clearly I expected it to be dark. But there really isn’t a moment of light or hope in this book. The main character is a young girl whose father is such a creep that the reader is clearly meant to see him as a major suspect. All in all, this was just drudging and slow and I was just glad when it was over.

20893528Little Women
by Louisa May Alcott

3/5 stars

I know this is a classic and some of you are probably ready to exit out of this post right now over my 3 star rating. And if you loved this book, I’m really happy for you. I wish I had read this when I was a little girl as so many people did; I never got around to it as a kid because I was thoroughly entrenched in my sci-fi/fantasy phase. Reading it for the first time as an adult, I had a hard time looking past how terribly dated a lot of it felt. The two words that kept coming to mind over and over were “aggressively wholesome.” Like, this book wants to smack you over the head with a brick of wholesomeness. That being said, this was one of the few times I’ve loved a movie adaptation more than the book. If you haven’t seen the Greta Gerwig adaptation yet, you are seriously depriving yourself.

28919058. sy475 Autoboyography
by Christina Lauren

5/5 stars

I loved this book from start to finish. It’s a YA romance with a bisexual teen boy as the protagonist; he’s struggling after his parents move to a highly conservative, Mormon area for his mother’s work. He ends up falling for the son of the local preacher. This obviously makes things complicated. I loved this book’s exploration of being closeted, especially since this was a huge change for the protagonist, who’d been open about his identity in the very liberal city where he grew up. (Note to other authors: “coming out” is not a singular moment. It’s a continual thing and sometimes life prompts people to take steps back into that closet for their own safety and well-being.) Watching Tanner adjust to life in the closet when he already had that basis for comparison made it more emotionally compelling. He knows exactly what he’s missing out on. And the romance was so sweet and well done!

34313931A Woman is No Man
by Etaf Rum

4/5 stars

This book explores three generations of Palestinian women living in the US. Fareeda, whose brusque demeanor comes from a traumatic background, came to the US as an adult and doesn’t seem to have adjusted to living in another culture. Isra moves into the household from Palestine to marry Fareeda’s son, who is older and practically a stranger to her. She struggles to gain Fareeda’s approval and has a difficult time meshing with everyone in the household, through no fault of her own. Finally, Deya, Isra’s daughter, has grown up in the US, but has been highly controlled and sheltered by her Palestinian family. She’s entering adulthood and wanting to shake off that control, but also feels like an outsider in the country who sees a girl with brown skin and a head covering and thinks “foreign.” The cultural aspects of this story were really engaging, but the dark family secrets take also take up a lot of the narrative, adding an element of mystery to the book.

43262893. sy475 The Wives
by Tarryn Fisher

2/5 stars

Spoiler warning for this one, because, lord, I have to talk about this. I’m so tired of mental illness as a plot twist. I just write a blog post about this issue a few weeks ago; funnily enough it was about an entirely different book, and then I stumbled across this one. The big plot twist in this book is that the main character is delusional, and a huge chunk of what she relays to the reader didn’t happen. I’m not opposed to unreliable narrators, but the way it was done here felt so cheap and cliche. The synopsis on GoodReads calls this “one of the most twisted, shocking thrillers you’ll ever read.” I’m sorry, but “Surprise, the protagonist was crazy and half of this shit didn’t actually happen!” is not revolutionary or shocking.

43798285The Institute
by Stephen King

4/5 stars

Stephen King is such a hit and miss author for me, so I was wary going into this book, but it was such a fun read. Despite being a rather dark story, it has a little bit of a YA vibe to it at times, and I don’t mean that in a derrogatory way. It’s a dark story and there’s a lot at stake, but it feels like an adventure. The main character is a freakishly smart young boy named Luke. I think we’ve all read a lot of badly written precocious children that are basically mini adults, but Luke always felt like a kid to me, and I was so invested in seeing him make it through this horror story.

Thank you for reading! I’m going to try to make an effort to get back to posting super regularly again!
Do you have any thoughts on the books featured in this post? Let’s discuss in the comments!

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Behind Every Lie, by Christina McDonald (Review)

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Behind Every Lie
by Christina McDonald

Genre: Thriller

Length: 336 Pages

Release date: February 4, 2020

Publisher: Gallery Books

Synopsis: 

If you can’t remember it, how do you prove you didn’t do it?

Eva Hansen wakes in the hospital after being struck by lightning and discovers her mother, Kat, has been murdered. Eva was found unconscious down the street. She can’t remember what happened but the police are highly suspicious of her.

Determined to clear her name, Eva heads from Seattle to London—Kat’s former home—for answers. But as she unravels her mother’s carefully held secrets, Eva soon realizes that someone doesn’t want her to know the truth. And with violent memories beginning to emerge, Eva doesn’t know who to trust. Least of all herself.

Told in alternating perspectives from Eva’s search for answers and Kat’s mysterious past, Christina McDonald has crafted another “complex, emotionally intense” (Publishers Weekly) domestic thriller. Behind Every Lie explores the complicated nature of mother-daughter relationships, family trauma, and the danger behind long-held secrets.

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My thanks to Gallery Books and NetGalley 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 is yet another review that I must preface by saying I’m in the minority opinion when it comes to this book. At the time of this writing, it has a perfectly respectable 4.16 average on Goodreads, so maybe I was just the wrong reader for this book. I read McDonald’s last novel, The Night Olivia Fell, and had a pretty mediocre experience with that book. I thought I’d give her writing a second chance, because a big part of my problem with The Night Olivia Fell was that it bore a pretty stunning similarity to another book I’d already read, leaving the whole book feeling like watching a rerun of a crime drama. After reading Behind Every Lie, however, I think it’s clear that this author’s work just isn’t for me. Soooo, take this review with a grain of salt, I guess.

For starters, the novel felt like a bit of a jumble of over-used tropes. I’ll omit discussing some of them here to avoid getting into spoiler territory, but I can talk freely about the amnesia as that’s discussed in the synopsis. We have a protagonist in a thriller suspected of murder who can’t defend herself because she has no memory of the night in question. Familiar tropes like this can be fun and offer a great way to subvert the reader’s expectations by doing something new and fresh with it. McDonald really didn’t do that (unless you count the novelty of amnesia brought on by a lightning strike, I guess. Bonus points for that?)

This is also yet another thriller with a middle class, white, female protagonist whose boyfriend/husband is clearly terrible, hyper-controlling, and suspect from the very beginning of the story. Whether the significant other is actually guilty of anything (and in 90% of these thrillers, he is) this dynamic has just gotten terribly boring. I feel like I’ve read about the same couple over and over and over, existing in slightly diverging parallel universes.

Finally, there is a sub-plot which emerges in the flashback scenes (told from her mother’s point of view) which is too predictable to every hold any tension. I really wanted to like this book. If you’ve read this author’s other work and enjoyed it, don’t let me dissuade you, but I think it’s safe to say this will be my last Christina McDonald novel. buy

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Do you have any tropes specific to mystery/thriller books that are major pet peeves for you? Tell me about them in the comments!

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