ARC Review – Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, by David W. Blight

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Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom
by David W. Blight

Genre: American History, Biography

Length: 896 Pages

Coming: October 2nd, 2018

Blurb via GoodReads: 

The definitive, dramatic biography of the most important African-American of the nineteenth century: Frederick Douglass, the escaped slave who became the greatest orator of his day and one of the leading abolitionists and writers of the era.

As a young man Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) escaped from slavery in Baltimore, Maryland. He was fortunate to have been taught to read by his slave owner mistress, and he would go on to become one of the major literary figures of his time. He wrote three versions of his autobiography over the course of his lifetime and published his own newspaper. His very existence gave the lie to slave owners: with dignity and great intelligence he bore witness to the brutality of slavery.

Initially mentored by William Lloyd Garrison, Douglass spoke widely, often to large crowds, using his own story to condemn slavery. He broke with Garrison to become a political abolitionist, a Republican, and eventually a Lincoln supporter. By the Civil War and during Reconstruction, Douglass became the most famed and widely travelled orator in the nation. He denounced the premature end of Reconstruction and the emerging Jim Crow era. In his unique and eloquent voice, written and spoken, Douglass was a fierce critic of the United States as well as a radical patriot. He sometimes argued politically with younger African-Americans, but he never forsook either the Republican party or the cause of black civil and political rights.

In this remarkable biography, David Blight has drawn on new information held in a private collection that few other historian have consulted, as well as recently discovered issues of Douglass’s newspapers. Blight tells the fascinating story of Douglass’s two marriages and his complex extended family. Douglass was not only an astonishing man of words, but a thinker steeped in Biblical story and theology. There has not been a major biography of Douglass in a quarter century. David Blight’s Frederick Douglass affords this important American the distinguished biography he deserves.

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I received an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and are not impacted by the publisher. 

While I had of course heard of Frederick Douglass before reading this book, my knowledge of him was spotty at best, consisting mostly of fuzzy, half-remembered elementary school lessons detailing how he cajoled white children into teaching him to read as a young slave. He then went on to become a prominent abolitionist as an adult after escaping slavery. This was the beginning and the end of my knowledge of Douglass.

Frederick-Douglas-reddit.com-colorized-history-1-736x900Blight’s biography brings Douglass into sharp focus, not just as a historical figure, but as a man. The regal looking figure we can see in photos today was once a small boy, treated as property by the Auld family. He was heartbroken when he was emotionally rejected by his mistress, Sophia Auld, who had begun his education before her husband convinced her it was dangerous to educate a slave. He had a granddaughter who liked to braid his hair. His love of music was bordering on the spiritual.

He also, like all of us, had flaws. He may have been unfaithful to his wife. His emphasis on self-reliance was so extreme that it at times felt like a blind spot. He was a self-made man who pulled himself up out of slavery to become a highly influential figure and seemed at times almost disdainful of anyone who couldn’t or wouldn’t do the same. But that single-minded determination was perhaps his defining trait; he fought for equality quite literally up to his dying day. Douglass had a speaking arrangement scheduled for the evening of his death, before a heart attack took him unexpectedly.

“Slavery is not abolished until the black man has the ballot.”

Blight’s recounting of the life of Frederick Douglass is intensely researched and thorough. It was not quite as readable as other biographies I’ve read, such as Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton biography, but there’s something to be said for valuing substance over style. Reading this was an infinitely valuable education experience, and I recommend it to anyone with an interest in American history and the beginnings of the civil rights movement.

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Review – Nightingale, by Amy Lukavics

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Nightingale
by Amy Lukavics

Genre: YA, Horror

Length: 384 Pages

Release date: Sept. 25, 2018

Blurb via GoodReads: 

At seventeen, June Hardie is everything a young woman in 1951 shouldn’t be—independent, rebellious, a dreamer. June longs to travel, to attend college and to write the dark science fiction stories that consume her waking hours. But her parents only care about making June a better young woman. Her mother grooms her to be a perfect little homemaker while her father pushes her to marry his business partner’s domineering son. When June resists, her whole world is shattered—suburbia isn’t the only prison for different women…

June’s parents commit her to Burrow Place Asylum, aka the Institution. With its sickening conditions, terrifying staff and brutal “medical treatments,” the Institution preys on June’s darkest secrets and deepest fears. And she’s not alone. The Institution terrorizes June’s fragile roommate, Eleanor, and the other women locked away within its crumbling walls. Those who dare speak up disappear…or worse. Trapped between a gruesome reality and increasingly sinister hallucinations, June isn’t sure where her nightmares end and real life begins. But she does know one thing: in order to survive, she must destroy the Institution before it finally claims them all.

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Well, this book was certainly… an adventure. What started out looking like a book about a young woman suffering from Capgras delusion (a belief that someone close to you has been replaced with an identical impostor) slowly delved into weirder and weirder science fiction territory. (Or perhaps not; June is an unreliable narrator and it’s possible that the science fiction elements are all the result of a broken mind. Who can say?) I don’t want to give too much away in terms of plot, but rest assured that what you might expect from the blurb for this book bears little resemblance to the book itself.

While the unexpected is certainly not in itself a reason for a negative review, the plot twists in this book simply were not well executed. It felt like there was insufficient buildup and too many questions left unanswered. The overall result was a flimsy plot with horror elements that were far from horrifying. For example, Lukavics seemed to rely too much on gore and body horror to make the reader squirm. There was a lot of “ick” factor that simply wasn’t scary, with repeated mentions of worms crawling around in the brains of live people and the detailed description of a mangled corpse.

June had some potential to be a good protagonist, and she definitely had some elements which made her sympathetic. She bristles at the rigid expectations of her gender in the 1950’s, but it seems that Lukavics takes this trait too far in trying to drive the point home. June expresses irritation at one point that her mother expects her to wear clean clothes; hygiene is not a gendered issue, June. She is extremely resistant to learning to cook, and while this is something disproportionately thrust onto women, June honestly just seems disgruntled at the thought of being asked to do anything at all.

Her desire to be a writer when her family wants to turn her into a housewife was an engaging element of her character. She has no desire to marry the boy they’ve selected for her, for reasons which become more and more obvious as the plot moves along. I wish Lukavics had spent more time focusing on these issues rather than June’s disdain at being asked to do so much as clean up after herself. Flawed protagonists are fine, but whiny protagonists are generally unbearable. June has some internal struggles going on that would have made for really intriguing character development, but they were very shallowly explored. All in all, this book felt like a first draft; there’s a good story hiding under a bit of a mess.

I received an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and not influenced by the publisher. 

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Review – Eliza Hamilton: The Extraordinary Life and Times of the Wife of Alexander Hamilton by Tilar J. Mazzeo

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Eliza Hamilton: The Extraordinary Life and Times of the Wife of Alexander Hamilton
by Tilar J. Mazzeo

Genre: Biography, History

Length: 352 Pages

Release date: September 18, 2018

Blurb via GoodReads: 

From the New York Times bestselling author of Irena’s Children comes a comprehensive and riveting biography of the extraordinary life and times of Eliza Hamilton, the wife of founding father Alexander Hamilton, and a powerful, unsung hero in America’s early days. 

Fans fell in love with Eliza Hamilton—Alexander Hamilton’s devoted wife—in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s phenomenal musical Hamilton. But they don’t know her full story. A strong pioneer woman, a loving sister, a caring mother, and in her later years, a generous philanthropist, Eliza had many sides—and this fascinating biography brings her multi-faceted personality to vivid life.

Eliza Hamilton: The Extraordinary Life and Times of The Wife of Alexander Hamilton follows Eliza through her early years in New York, into the ups and downs of her married life with Alexander, beyond the aftermath of his tragic murder, and finally to her involvement in many projects that cemented her legacy as one of the unsung heroes of our nation’s early days. Featuring Mazzeo’s “impeccable research and crafting” (Library Journal), and perfect for fans of the richly detailed historical books by Ron Chernow and Erik Larson, Eliza Hamilton is the captivating account of the woman behind the famous man.

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five

“Best of wives and best of women.”

This was an immensely readable biography. Mazzeo’s writing style creates the immersive reading experience of a good novel. While this at times requires her to take certain liberties and to speculate (the book opens, for example, with Eliza blushing in response to a letter she received from Alexander Hamilton), she does seem to draw from what is known as much as possible. Eliza’s thoughts and feelings, while not always documented, can often be inferred from letters she exchanged with Alexander and others. All in all, some speculation, within reason, can certainly be forgiven in the service of crafting a fleshed-out image of a woman so long lost to history.

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Portrait of Eliza Hamilton by Ralph Earl. Earl was in debtors’ prison when Eliza sat for this portrait and persuaded other ladies to do the same. The income generated from this allowed Earl to earn enough money to repay his debts and regain his freedom.

Perhaps the most intriguing part of the biography is Mazzeo’s treatment of the Maria Reynolds incident, wherein she questions the commonly accepted version of events, made famous once again by the musical Hamilton. The affair is often treated as fact, but Alexander and Eliza’s contemporaries were far from in agreement as to the truth of the matter. Was Alexander simply a cheating husband or was the whole affair a cleverly crafted ruse to cover up the illegal financial activities of which he was suspected at the time?

Mazzeo argues for the latter. I won’t go into detail, as the book will surely handle the material more elegantly than I could here, but one interesting question raised is this: If Alexander had love letters from Mrs. Reynolds to substantiate the affair, as he claimed he did, why would he not produce them? He printed transcriptions of the supposed letters in his pamphlets on the matter, but refused to produce the original documents. Mrs. Reynolds, who vehemently denied the affair, was willing to submit to a handwriting comparison in an attempt to clear her name. Alexander refused. This is just one piece of the puzzle which leads Mazzeo to conclude that Alexander’s real crimes were financial, not romantic.

If I had to name a weakness in this book it would be this: Alexander looms quite large in Mazzeo’s recounting of Eliza’s life. Yes, he was her husband, but Eliza lived to a ripe old age and had half of her life ahead of her at the time of his death, years which were filled with joy, sadness, and endless public works. Eliza was so much more than Alexander’s wife.

However, her accomplishments are by no means completely ignored. The book goes into detail about Eliza’s involvement in founding New York’s first private orphanage, as well as her involvement in public education. Children were Eliza’s passion, particularly orphans, a focus likely sparked by Alexander’s humble origins. Mazzeo paints a portrait of a strong and compassionate woman.

This is a beautiful and well-researched piece of work which shines a well-deserved spotlight on one of US history’s most interesting women. The flowing prose makes this an excellent read for fans of biographies as well as historical fiction, and, of course, fans of Hamilton. 

I received an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and not influenced by the publisher. 

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Thank you for reading! What are your thoughts on biographies? Do you prefer a more formal, fact-focused tone, or does speculation on thoughts and feelings of the people involved make for a better reading experience?

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Coming Soon – Legion: The Many Lives of Stephen Leeds by Brandon Sanderson

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Legion: The Many Lives of Stephen Leeds
by Brandon Sanderson

Genre: Science Fiction

Length: 400 Pages

Release date: September 18, 2018

Blurb via GoodReads: 

Stephen Leeds is perfectly sane. It’s his hallucinations who are mad.

A genius of unrivaled aptitude, Stephen can learn any new skill, vocation, or art in a matter of hours. However, to contain all of this, his mind creates hallucinatory people—Stephen calls them aspects—to hold and manifest the information. Wherever he goes, he is joined by a team of imaginary experts to give advice, interpretation, and explanation. He uses them to solve problems… for a price.

Stephen’s brain is getting a little crowded and the aspects have a tendency of taking on lives of their own. When a company hires him to recover stolen property—a camera that can allegedly take pictures of the past—Stephen finds himself in an adventure crossing oceans and fighting terrorists. What he discovers may upend the foundation of three major world religions—and, perhaps, give him a vital clue into the true nature of his aspects.

This fall, Tor Books will publish Brandon Sanderson’s Legion: The Many Lives of Stephen Leeds. The collection will include the science fiction novellas Legion and Legion: Skin Deep, published together for the first time, as well as a brand new Stephen Leeds novella, Lies of the Beholder. This never-been-published novella will complete the series.

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I received an partial preview of this book (in the form of the first of the three included novellas) in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and not influenced by the publisher. 

I’ve been a fan of Brandon Sanderson for several years now, but have somehow managed not to stumble across his Stephen Leeds novellas until now. While this was a fun read, I didn’t find it quite as strong as some of his other works. I’d rate it at about a 3.5/5, which I’ve rounded up to a 4/5 here. So while it was definitely  worth reading, it felt a bit lacking coming on the tail of so many novels by Sanderson which felt like solid fives.

The mental health angle was definitely one of the most interesting parts of the story; Sanderson has crafted a character with schizophrenia who is not simply coping, but thriving. Stephen Leeds has hallucinations who have skills and knowledge which he does not; these are treated as their own characters and Leeds uses them to his advantage throughout the story. It was refreshing to see a story with a character dealing with a mental health issue where the entire story wasn’t about how much he suffers from it.

Several parts of the story didn’t flow particularly well; it felt like Sanderson was forcing his own musings into the characters’ mouths in a way that didn’t feel natural. One such example is when the logical problems surrounding the functioning of a piece of technology are brought up briefly, only to be dismissed and never addressed again. Logical problems aside, the fictional piece of technology does function within the parameters of the story, and there seemed to be little narrative purpose to bringing up all the reasons it shouldn’t work without offering any theories as to how it does so. Several exchanges surrounding religious matters, specifically on the concept of faith, felt similarly awkward and forced.

There was a lot to this story: the many hallucinations of Stephen Leeds provide a distinct cast of characters, and Leeds’ ability to rely on them to perform above his own abilities makes for an interesting twist. The science fiction tech is intriguing and provokes seemingly infinite hypothetical questions to mull over. A mysterious woman who Leeds wishes to track down provides intrigue. This all feels like a lot to try to develop over the course of a novella, but one thing is certain: the reader will definitely not be bored.

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ARC Review: Not Her Daughter, by Rea Frey

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Not Her Daughter
by Rea Frey

Genre: Mystery/Suspense

Length: 352 Pages

Release date: August 21, 2017

Blurb via Goodreads:

Emma Townsend. Five years old. Gray eyes, brown hair. Missing since June.
Emma is lonely. Living with her cruel mother and clueless father, Emma retreats into her own world of quiet and solitude.

Sarah Walker. Successful entrepreneur. Broken-hearted. Kidnapper.
Sarah has never seen a girl so precious as the gray-eyed child in a crowded airport terminal. When a second-chance encounter with Emma presents itself, Sarah takes her—far away from home. But if it’s to rescue a little girl from her damaging mother, is kidnapping wrong?

Amy Townsend. Unhappy wife. Unfit mother. Unsure whether she wants her daughter back.
Amy’s life is a string of disappointments, but her biggest issue is her inability to connect with her daughter. And now Emma is gone without a trace.

As Sarah and Emma avoid the nationwide hunt, they form an unshakeable bond. But what about Emma’s real mother, back at home?

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four

I received an ARC through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Not Her Daughter is fast-paced, engaging, and a relatively quick read. It opens with a relatively common situation: a stressed-out mother in a crowded public place is a little rough with her daughter. Maybe a little too rough. Maybe it’s an isolated incident.  Maybe it’s not.

Those “maybes” start to pile up, and Sarah Walker, our main protagonist, can’t cope with the thought of leaving an innocent little girl in a bad situation. When she happens to encounter Emma again, she views it as a sign that she needs to find out more. After witnessing another act of cruelty by Amy, Emma’s mother, Sarah does the unthinkable and takes her. What follows is Sarah’s desperate effort to stay ahead of the hunt for Emma’s kidnapper while attempting to give her a better life.

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Amy is miserable, both before and after the kidnapping. She has anger management problems and a marriage that leaves her feeling smothered. She has never been able to bond with Emma in the slightest, and her younger child also prefers her husband to herself. She seems to spend every waking moment itching to escape.

What’s interesting about this book is that one has to question the reliability of both of the main POV characters. Sarah has unresolved trauma from childhood caused by her mother. She is also dealing with emotional distress caused by a recent breakup of a long-term relationship. She is feeling desperate and alone, and she sees herself in Emma. Emma gives her a sense of purpose and perhaps a chance to rescue the little girl she once was herself. Can this desperation cause Sarah to read too much into a situation?

Amy resents Emma deeply, and seems to ascribe a level of malicious intent that is simply not believable in a five-year-old child. Emma fidgets because she knows it drives Amy crazy. Emma climbs a tree because she’s so desperate to pull the attention away from Amy and onto herself. Emma does absolutely everything she does because it is her life’s mission to make Amy as miserable as possible.

The images of Emma conjured up by each of these women cannot possibly be the same child. Sarah or Amy must be mistaken. Personally, I think they both are to some extent, and part of the fun of this book was in trying to suss out a clear impression of the real Emma.

Parts of the plot strained the limits of credulity, especially the resolution, but that’s okay. Reading ordinary and perfectly believable events would not have made for a very interesting story. This is Frey’s debut novel, and while I think there was some room for improvement, it was a fun read. I look forward to seeing how she grows as an author over time.

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ARC Review – When Elephants Fly, by Nancy Richardson Fischer

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When Elephants Fly
by Nancy Richardson Fischer

Genre: YA, Coming of Age

Length: 400 Pages

Coming: September 4, 2018

Blurb via GoodReads: 

T. Lily Decker is a high school senior with a twelve-year plan: avoid stress, drugs, alcohol and boyfriends, and take regular psych quizzes administered by her best friend, Sawyer, to make sure she’s not developing schizophrenia. Genetics are not on Lily’s side.

When she was seven, her mother, who had paranoid schizophrenia, tried to kill her. And a secret has revealed that Lily’s odds are even worse than she thought. Still, there’s a chance to avoid triggering the mental health condition, if Lily can live a careful life from ages eighteen to thirty, when schizophrenia most commonly manifests.

But when a newspaper internship results in Lily witnessing a mother elephant try to kill her three-week-old calf, Swifty, Lily can’t abandon the story or the calf. With Swifty in danger of dying from grief, Lily must choose whether to risk everything, including her sanity and a first love, on a desperate road trip to save the calf’s life, perhaps finding her own version of freedom along the way.

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I received an early release copy of this book in exchange for an honest review, courtesy of NetGalley and the publisher. 

As a person with an education background in psychology, I had some misgivings about the subject matter of this novel going into it. Lily’s schizophrenic mother tried to kill her when she was a young girl. Lily struggles to deal with that trauma and also the looming threat of developing the disorder herself, given the genetic component. Schizophrenia is a such a highly stigmatized illness, and a novel with a schizophrenic character committing such a dramatic act of violence at the center of the story is concerning. While delusions in thought can cause a person with schizophrenia to become violent, most people living with this disorder are not violent and are at far greater risk of harming themselves than they are anyone else. So while Lily’s story is certainly not out of the realm of possibility in the real world, these are important things to keep in mind when reading a story like this.

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Photo by Kat Jayne on Pexels.com

That being said, I do think that Fischer made efforts to treat the subject matter with sensitivity. She has used Lily’s concerns about developing the disorder as a means to relay information to the reader; Lily has researched this topic tirelessly as a means of maintaining a sense of control over her life and mental health, and is aware, for example, of the risk of suicide for patients dealing with this disorder. Lily is a very sympathetic protagonist who is acutely aware of her risk of developing this disorder; she also gives the reader a window into what it feels like to be unfairly dismissed based on their mental health status.

Certain characters look down on Lily based on the mere possibility that she may have inherited her mother’s illness; should this possibility prove to be true, the contempt would be that much worse. Any and all of Lily’s opinions can be dismissed based on the speculated status of her mental health. For an insecure and yet passionate young woman just emerging into adulthood, this is excruciating.

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Photo by Casey Allen on Pexels.com

And then there’s Swifty. I got so emotionally invested in this baby elephant; Lily’s connection with Swifty is palpable, and my heart broke for both of them as Swifty struggled after being rejected by her mother. Many of the passages about Swifty are very well written, but some of them showcase the novel’s main weakness, in my opinion. It’s very clear that Fischer wanted this novel to educate, and that’s admirable.

However, with a 400 page book dealing with intricate subjects such as mental health, adolescence, parenting, and animal rights, the information may not always be woven seamlessly into the story. Certain passages felt forced and awkward. It sometimes felt like the author’s own research was pasted into the story without regard to the overall flow of the novel; it had the effect of pulling the reader momentarily out of the story.

Overall, this was a strong novel. It was well-paced with a well-developed and sympathetic protagonist. The story was interesting and multi-faceted. It brought us a character who, despite her overwhelming anxiety about her mental health, is more than her mental health status. Lily has people who love her deeply and a cause she’s willing to fight for.

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ARC Review – Goodbye, Paris, by Anstey Harris

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Goodbye, Paris
by Anstey Harris

Genre: Contemporary Fiction

Length: 288 Pages

Release date: August 7, 2018

Blurb via GoodReads: 

Jojo Moyes meets Eleanor Oliphant in Goodbye, Paris, an utterly charming novel that proves that sometimes you have to break your heart to make it whole.

Grace once had the beginnings of a promising musical career, but she hasn’t been able to play her cello publicly since a traumatic event at music college years ago. Since then, she’s built a quiet life for herself in her small English village, repairing instruments and nurturing her long- distance affair with David, the man who has helped her rebuild her life even as she puts her dreams of a family on hold until his children are old enough for him to leave his loveless marriage.

But when David saves the life of a woman in the Paris Metro, his resulting fame shines a light onto the real state of the relationship(s) in his life. Shattered, Grace hits rock bottom and abandons everything that has been important to her, including her dream of entering and winning the world’s most important violin-making competition. Her closest friends–a charming elderly violinist with a secret love affair of his own, and her store clerk, a gifted but angst-ridden teenage girl–step in to help, but will their friendship be enough to help her pick up the pieces?

Filled with lovable, quirky characters, this poignant novel explores the realities of relationships and heartbreak and shows that when it comes to love, there’s more than one way to find happiness.

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Goodbye, Paris was a great feel-good read for the summer. Despite Grace’s precarious position as the mistress of a man who is obviously (to everyone but Grace, that is) fundamentally selfish and childish, the tone for the story is quite optimistic. Grace begins the story as a somewhat unlikable narrator; while this may be a bit of a turn-off for some readers, it leaves so much room for growth and character development, which is what this novel is all about.

The blurb makes reference to Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, and this feels appropriate; Grace will feel familiar for fans of Gail Honeyman’s novel. Part of the reason she has scales over her eyes when it comes to David, her married boyfriend, is because she is otherwise so fundamentally isolated. While she has a few friends, people she has bonded with in the course of her work, there is a definite sense of a barrier there, and one can see it slowly dissolving throughout the course of the novel.

Grace is passionate about music, and Harris has woven this into every aspect of her story. Music is connected to the trauma of her youth which took away her sense of self worth, and it is intricately connected to her healing as an adult as she slowly regains her confidence. Her closest friendships come through a shared love of music. Her faith in her abilities helps her to see herself as a person of value outside of her relationship to David.

Goodbye, Paris is a tad predictable and not terribly deep, but it was immensely satisfying to read. If you’re looking for a warm and fuzzy tale of a woman coming into her own, however belatedly it may be, pick up a copy today.

I received an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and not influenced by the publisher. 

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