Review – Tin Man, by Sarah Winman

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Tin Man
by Sarah Winman

Genre: Contemporary Fiction

Length: 214 Pages

Release date: July 27, 2017

Blurb via GoodReads: 

A novel celebrating love in all of its forms and the little moments that make up the life of an autoworker in a small working-class town.

This is almost a love story. But it’s not as simple as that.

Ellis and Michael are twelve-year-old boys when they first become friends, and for a long time it is just the two of them, cycling the streets of Oxford, teaching themselves how to swim, discovering poetry, and dodging the fists of overbearing fathers. And then one day this closest of friendships grows into something more.

But then we fast forward a decade or so, to find that Ellis is married to Annie, and Michael is nowhere in sight. Which leads to the question, what happened in the years between?

Tin Man is a love letter to human kindness and friendship, and to loss and living.

ratingthree
I had a… complicated relationship with this book. This was a story of first loves, heartache, and loneliness, and while I was drawn into the emotions of the characters, I felt less so with the story itself. (Was there much of a story? It felt rather thin, honestly, even taking into account the short length.) Winman’s writing style was at times quite lyrical and melancholy, full of quotable moments such as this: “And I wonder what the sound of a heart breaking might be. And I think it might be quiet, unperceptively so, and not dramatic at all. Like the sound of an exhausted swallow falling gently to earth.”

However, the narrative structure was endlessly frustrating to me. The novel bounces around time seemingly without regard to coherency. It creates a stream of consciousness effect which I suppose was meant to draw the reader into Ellis and Michael’s heads, but the lack of clarity instead had the effect of drawing me out of the story, particularly in the first half of the book, which is told from Ellis’ perspective. (The latter half, from Michael’s perspective, seemed much more coherent.) Combined with Winman’s eschewing of the use of quotation marks, trying to make sense of what could have been a quite lovely book felt like somewhat of a chore.

There’s something about first love, isn’t there? she said. It’s untouchable to those who played no part in it. But it’s the measure of all that follows.

I adored the relationships in this book, and I don’t at all regret reading it. However, I have to confess I’m a bit confused by the number of five-star rave reviews on GoodReads. To me, it felt like a novel which was certainly great at moments, but overall, a bit lacking.

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Purchase links

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Have you read Tin Man or other works from Sarah Winman? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

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Review – Big Magic, by Elizabeth Gilbert

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Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear
by Elizabeth Gilbert

Genre: Nonfiction, Self Help

Length: 288 Pages

Release date: September 22, 2015

Blurb via GoodReads: 

Readers of all ages and walks of life have drawn inspiration and empowerment from Elizabeth Gilbert’s books for years. Now this beloved author digs deep into her own generative process to share her wisdom and unique perspective about creativity. With profound empathy and radiant generosity, she offers potent insights into the mysterious nature of inspiration. She asks us to embrace our curiosity and let go of needless suffering. She shows us how to tackle what we most love, and how to face down what we most fear. She discusses the attitudes, approaches, and habits we need in order to live our most creative lives. Balancing between soulful spirituality and cheerful pragmatism, Gilbert encourages us to uncover the “strange jewels” that are hidden within each of us. Whether we are looking to write a book, make art, find new ways to address challenges in our work,  embark on a dream long deferred, or simply infuse our everyday lives with more mindfulness and passion, Big Magic cracks open a world of wonder and joy.

ratingfour

If you’re in need of a burst of positivity, this is it. There are a lot of takeaway messages to this book, but my personal favorite was this: do not be afraid to make bad art. For the overwhelming majority of the human population, there is only one way to make great art, and that is to make a lot of bad art first. And even if you never achieve Great Artist status, if you enjoyed making whatever you created, that is reason enough. The pure joy of creation is reason enough. If you are the only person who ever gets joy out of your art, that is sufficient justification for its existence.

Gilbert also takes on the depressed, tormented artist stereotype in this book. She challenges the perception that deep inner turmoil necessarily makes for good art. (Side note: this section brought to mind Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix special, Nanette, where she talks about Van Gogh and his struggles with mental health. If you haven’t watched it yet, at the very least, watch this clip.) Gilbert talks about writers she’s known who are afraid to seek help for their depression, substance abuse, or other mental health issues, because they are afraid that health and happiness will stifle their creativity. Gilbert contends that this is a deeply harmful mindset and that artists who succeed in the midst of mental health struggles do so in spite of those struggles, not because of them. (As a former psychology student, I’d like to break in for a moment to say that lack of motivation is a big symptom of depression; that’s not exactly a precursor for making great art.)

The main drawback I saw to this book, and perhaps you’ll see it differently, was Gilbert’s semi-spiritual connection to creativity as a concept. She seems to view inspiration as an almost sentient entity, one that can be reliably wooed if you create just the right mindset. Some of these passages got a bit too new-age for my taste. Art is practically a religion for Gilbert, and the goddess of creativity speaks to her.

Overall, this was a great read. Gilbert radiates positivity and reminds you at every turn that fear is boring. Learning to move beyond the fear and do what you love anyway is the most exciting thing you can do.

Purchase links

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Review – The Book of Essie, by Meghan Maclean Weir

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The Book of Essie
by Meghan Maclean Weir

Genre: Contemporary

Length: 336 Pages

Release date: June 12, 2018

Blurb via GoodReads: 

A debut novel of family, fame, and religion that tells the emotionally stirring, wildly captivating story of the seventeen-year-old daughter of an evangelical preacher, star of the family’s hit reality show, and the secret pregnancy that threatens to blow their entire world apart.

Esther Ann Hicks–Essie–is the youngest child on Six for Hicks,a reality television phenomenon. She’s grown up in the spotlight, both idolized and despised for her family’s fire-and-brimstone brand of faith. When Essie’s mother, Celia, discovers that Essie is pregnant, she arranges an emergency meeting with the show’s producers: Do they sneak Essie out of the country for an abortion? Do they pass the child off as Celia’s? Or do they try to arrange a marriage–and a ratings-blockbuster wedding? Meanwhile, Essie is quietly pairing herself up with Roarke Richards, a senior at her school with a secret of his own to protect. As the newly formed couple attempt to sell their fabricated love story to the media–through exclusive interviews with an infamously conservative reporter named Liberty Bell–Essie finds she has questions of her own: What was the real reason for her older sister leaving home? Who can she trust with the truth about her family? And how much is she willing to sacrifice to win her own freedom?

ratingthree

The Book of Essie opens with this: “On the day I turn seventeen, there is a meeting to decide whether I should have the baby or if sneaking me to a clinic for an abortion is worth the PR risk. I am not invited, which is just as well, since my being there might imply that I have some choice in the matter and I know that I have none.” There is no easing the reader into the drama with this one; you know what the crisis is right from page one. What you don’t know is who fathered Essie’s baby, and that will remain unsaid for the bulk of the book.

Essie’s family is deeply conservative and religious. Despite this, the book does not come off as overly preachy, nor is it critical of that religiosity. Instead, a criticism of hypocrisy is woven throughout the story from start to finish. Essie’s father preaches humility to his congregation and the country at large, all while living in a mansion and wearing $300 ties. Essie’s disgust with her family is palpable.

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“It’s men who trust they will suffer no consequences for their actions, while women suffer no matter what they do.”

The novel has three separate point of view characters: Essie, Roarke (the boy she hopes to marry to legitimize her pre-marital pregnancy), and Liberty Bell (a reporter and former member of a conservative cult). Essie is the clear main character, this being The Book of Essie, but I would have liked to see a bit more development for the other two point of view characters.

Liberty has a tragic backstory informing her choices, but it honestly feels like she could be cut as a POV character without the story losing much of value. Her backstory felt like a distraction and was frankly overkill, considering Essie’s story already explored similar themes: a young girl who becomes a victim of her hyper-conservative family’s choices and somewhat infamous on a national scale. This was probably intended to provide symmetry, but instead it simply felt superfluous.

Roarke’s story revolves around his deep, dark secret, which is revealed fairly early in the story and wasn’t terribly difficult to guess prior to that point. (On that note, most of the big reveals in this story were just a tad too predictable for my taste.) He never comes to feel like a totally fleshed-out person. Instead, it feels like he exists as a plot device, as something for Essie to obtain. That whole portion of the story feels very hollow, which is a shame because Roarke had some potential to be really engaging.

Essie’s interactions with her family members, especially her estranged sister, are the strongest aspect of the book. Essie has been content to play the “perfect Christian daughter” role for her family and their hit TV show prior to the start of the book. Now she’s fed up with pretending and being on display for the whole world, and just beginning to push back when we join her in her story. The Book of Essie is, in a lot of ways, about a young woman finding her strength and her voice. Overall, this was a good read, but it had the potential to be great.

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Thank you for reading! Have you read The Book of Essie? What were your thoughts? Please share in the comments!

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WWW Wednesday 08/15/2018

Welcome to another WWW Wednesday! This meme is hosted by Taking on a World of Words. To participate, just answer the following three questions:
What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?

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So, let’s begin!

I’m currently reading…

 

An Untamed State, by Roxane Gay
I’ve read plenty of Roxane Gay’s essays, but now I’m finally getting around to reading her novel. The story of a Haitian woman who is kidnapped and suffers horrific sexual abuse, this is a really dark, heavy read.

No One Cares About Crazy People, by Ron Powers
I was a psychology major in college, and mental health and the social and systemic issues faced by the mentally ill are very important to me. This particular book isn’t really holding my interest very well at the moment, though. It feels like Powers has chosen a scope of topics a bit too broad, and the book consequently feels a bit unfocused, like one anecdote after another thinly strung together. Also, a lot of the topic is repeat info for me because of my educational background, and I might end up DNF’ing this one.

The Witch of Willow Hall, by Hester Fox
This is a NetGalley ARC. I’ve only just started it so I don’t have much to say yet. Here’s the blurb:

Two centuries after the Salem witch trials, there’s still one witch left in Massachusetts. But she doesn’t even know it.

Take this as a warning: if you are not able or willing to control yourself, it will not only be you who suffers the consequences, but those around you, as well.

New Oldbury, 1821

In the wake of a scandal, the Montrose family and their three daughters—Catherine, Lydia and Emeline—flee Boston for their new country home, Willow Hall.

The estate seems sleepy and idyllic. But a subtle menace creeps into the atmosphere, remnants of a dark history that call to Lydia, and to the youngest, Emeline.

All three daughters will be irrevocably changed by what follows, but none more than Lydia, who must draw on a power she never knew she possessed if she wants to protect those she loves. For Willow Hall’s secrets will rise, in the end…

I recently finished reading…

 

I had another big reading week. The standout book this week was, by far, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo. 

I have reviews up for One of Us Is Lying, The Grownup, and The Seven Husbands of Evelyn HugoNightingale was an ARC and a review will be up on its release date, Sept. 25, 2018.

Hunger was a good read and I definitely recommend it if memoirs are at all your thing; I won’t be posting a full review of it, as I’m not keen on critiquing someone’s heartfelt expression of their own personal struggles. I’ll make an effort to get reviews up for Big Magic and The Book of Essie soon!

Up next…

 

The Woman in the Window is a repeat from last week’s post, because I got sidetracked with other books, as I tend to do.

The Psychology of Time Travel is a NetGalley book that just came through for me. I’m always a sucker for female-centric science fiction, so I’m ready to give this one a go!

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What are you reading this week? Any thoughts on the books listed in this post?  Please feel free to discuss or share WWW links in the comments!

Review – The Grownup, by Gillian Flynn

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The Grownup
by Gillian Flynn

Genre: Short Stories, Horror

Length: 64 Pages

Release date: November 3, 2015

Blurb via GoodReads: 

A canny young woman is struggling to survive by perpetrating various levels of mostly harmless fraud. On a rainy April morning, she is reading auras at Spiritual Palms when Susan Burke walks in. A keen observer of human behavior, our unnamed narrator immediately diagnoses beautiful, rich Susan as an unhappy woman eager to give her lovely life a drama injection. However, when the “psychic” visits the eerie Victorian home that has been the source of Susan’s terror and grief, she realizes she may not have to pretend to believe in ghosts anymore. Miles, Susan’s teenage stepson, doesn’t help matters with his disturbing manner and grisly imagination. The three are soon locked in a chilling battle to discover where the evil truly lurks and what, if anything, can be done to escape it.

ratingthree

The Grownup is a short story which features what seems to be the archetypal Gillian Flynn protagonist: a dark, gritty woman with somewhat of a chip on her shoulder and an unapologetic attitude. She is pragmatic and has grown up doing whatever needed to be done for survival; as a child, that meant begging for money with her mother, and now it means giving handjobs to lonely businessmen or telling fortunes to gullible customers. Honesty is for people who can be sure where they’ll be getting their next meal. She doesn’t have the luxury.

The story was fun and creepy. Flynn writes full-length novels so well, and I had wondered how her skills would transfer to a short story, as she seems to be a master at crafting slow-burning stories. The pacing of The Grownup was quick and engaging; I practically got whiplash trying to keep up with the plot twists.

Flynn seems to have a penchant for leaving the reader hanging in a moment of tension. While this worked really well in Gone Girl, it left The Grownup feeling somewhat lacking, perhaps due to the shorter length of the story. (If you’re only going to give me 64 pages to enjoy, at least give me a resolution at the end of them.) The ambiguous ending felt frustrating rather than tantalizing.

I loved the story, but I need some closure here, Gillian Flynn.

Purchase links

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Review – One of Us Is Lying, by Karen M. McManus

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One of Us Is Lying 
by Karen M. McManus

Genre: YA, Mystery

Length: 361 Pages

Release date: May 30, 2017

Blurb via GoodReads: 

The Breakfast Club meets Pretty Little LiarsOne of Us Is Lying is the story of what happens when five strangers walk into detention and only four walk out alive. Everyone is a suspect, and everyone has something to hide.

Pay close attention and you might solve this.

On Monday afternoon, five students at Bayview High walk into detention.
Bronwyn, the brain, is Yale-bound and never breaks a rule.
Addy, the beauty, is the picture-perfect homecoming princess.
Nate, the criminal, is already on probation for dealing.
Cooper, the athlete, is the all-star baseball pitcher.
And Simon, the outcast, is the creator of Bayview High’s notorious gossip app.

Only, Simon never makes it out of that classroom. Before the end of detention, Simon’s dead. And according to investigators, his death wasn’t an accident. On Monday, he died. But on Tuesday, he’d planned to post juicy reveals about all four of his high-profile classmates, which makes all four of them suspects in his murder. Or are they the perfect patsies for a killer who’s still on the loose?
Everyone has secrets, right? What really matters is how far you would go to protect them.

ratingfour

One of Us Is Lying is cheesy, tropey, and immensely fun. The Breakfast Club meets Pretty Little Liars description feels seriously apt, and you’ll want to pop a bowl of popcorn to watch this story unfold.

The heavy use of tropes can be a huge pitfall for a novel, but it’s part of the appeal here. The novel seems self-aware about this and characters stop just short of breaking the fourth wall to poke fun at it, particularly Simon, who refers to himself as the “omniscient narrator.”

“She’s a princess and you’re a jock,” he says. He thrusts his chin toward Bronwyn, then at Nate. “And you’re a brain. And you’re a criminal. You’re all walking teen-movie stereotypes.”

McManus makes some effort to play with these character archetypes in unexpected ways. While none of these developments are terribly shocking as they unfold, there is a certain fun in having your suspicions gradually confirmed, and I won’t spoil them here.

One thing I particularly liked was what McManus did with what could have been a typical disastrous YA romance. Brownyn, the Ivy league-bound good girl, gets paired up with Nate, the criminal. Good girl / bad boy pairings in YA are so often seriously problematic, with an insecure girl mooning over a boy that treats her like garbage and the whole thing being held up as the height of romance. Nate and Brownyn seem to have genuine chemistry and affection, built upon years of growing up together, and while Nate isn’t perfect, his flaws come from an understandable place and are paired with a genuine desire and willingness to improve.

This novel was fast-paced, fun, and weirdly cute for a story that starts out with a mysterious death. One of Us Is Lying is a lighthearted, simple book sure to get you out of a reading slump.

Purchase links

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Review – The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, by Taylor Jenkins Reid

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The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo
by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Genre: Historical Fiction / Contemporary

Length: 388 Pages

Release date: June 13, 2017

Blurb via GoodReads: 

Evelyn Hugo is finally ready to tell the truth about her glamorous and scandalous life. But when she chooses unknown magazine reporter Monique Grant for the job, no one in the journalism community is more astounded than Monique herself. Why her? Why now?

Monique is not exactly on top of the world. Her husband, David, has left her, and her career has stagnated. Regardless of why Evelyn has chosen her to write her biography, Monique is determined to use this opportunity to jumpstart her career.

Summoned to Evelyn’s Upper East Side apartment, Monique listens as Evelyn unfurls her story: from making her way to Los Angeles in the 1950s to her decision to leave show business in the late 80s, and, of course, the seven husbands along the way. As Evelyn’s life unfolds through the decades—revealing a ruthless ambition, an unexpected friendship, and a great forbidden love—Monique begins to feel a very a real connection to the actress. But as Evelyn’s story catches up with the present, it becomes clear that her life intersects with Monique’s own in tragic and irreversible ways.

ratingfive

To say that I loved The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo would be an understatement. This is one of those books that ends leaving you aching for another page, another chapter.

As far as structure, this book can be divided into three separate categories:

  1. First person perspective of Monique, who is struggling with the dissolution of her marriage as she interviews Evelyn Hugo, aging Hollywood darling and ex movie star
  2. First person perspective of Evelyn Hugo as she reveals her life story to Monique
  3. Newspaper/magazine article asides describing various significant events of Evelyn’s life as seen through the limited perspective of the press

This structure is very effective in calling attention to the wide gap between Evelyn’s reality and the constructed version propped up in the press, where rumors are sometimes reported as fact and vice versa. The Evelyn Hugo that exists in the public’s mind bears little resemblance to the Evelyn Hugo that Monique discovers throughout the story.

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The book touches on a variety of social issues; racial issues are at the forefront early in the novel. Struggling to find her footing in Hollywood, Evelyn Hugo is subjected to a whitewashing makeover reminiscent of Rita Hayworth. With bleach blonde hair and a new last name to sweep her Latina heritage under the rug, the studio hopes to make her more palatable to the masses. While this wasn’t explicitly forced upon her, it’s clear to her that her success to dependent on going along with it. She seems to be okay with this at first, realizing only afterwards how taxing this will prove to be, such as when she struggles to determine whether speaking Spanish in front of her Latina maid is worth the risk of exposure.

This need to hide aspects of her identity foreshadows what is easily the main conflict of the novel. Evelyn spends most of her life in love with another woman and hiding it for the sake of her career and reputation. She is a bisexual character who owns the label “bisexual,” something that is strikingly rare in fiction. She is not an “I don’t like labels” bisexual or an “I went through a phase” bisexual (why straight authors feel the need to write such characters I’ll never understand), she is explicitly bisexual and goes so far as to call out another character for failure to use the correct word. “Don’t ignore half of me so you can fit me into a box. Don’t do that,” she says.

Throughout her rise to fame, Evelyn struggles to reconcile her shame, not of her identity itself but of her own willingness to hide it for the sake of success, with her sense of understanding that she’d probably do it all over again. She is hungry for fame, success, the adoration of the masses, and yes, money.

Reid has constructed a picture of an intensely realistic, flawed, captivating woman. At moments, it’s easy to feel as if you’re reading the memoir of a flesh and blood person. There are intensely fun passages which can feel like getting the inside scoop on real-life Hollywood royalty, but Evelyn’s unflinching honesty about her own personal demons makes the book so much more than that. This was compulsively readable and completely lovely.

Purchase links

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Also by Taylor Jenkins Reid…

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