My Dark Vanessa, by Kate Elizabeth Russell ~ Review

My Dark Vanessa
by Kate Elizabeth Russell

Genre: Contemporary Fiction

Length: 384 Pages

Release date: March 10, 2020

Publisher: William Morrow


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.


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

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American Royals, by Katharine McGee – Review

American Royals
by Katharine McGee

Genre: Contemporary Fiction, Young Adult, Romance

Length: 448 Pages

Release date: September 3, 2019

Publisher: Penguin Random House Books for Young Readers


What if America had a royal family?

When America won the Revolutionary War, its people offered General George Washington a crown. Two and a half centuries later, the House of Washington still sits on the throne.

As Princess Beatrice gets closer to becoming America’s first queen regnant, the duty she has embraced her entire life suddenly feels stifling. Nobody cares about the spare except when she’s breaking the rules, so Princess Samantha doesn’t care much about anything, either . . . except the one boy who is distinctly off-limits to her. And then there’s Samantha’s twin, Prince Jefferson. If he’d been born a generation earlier, he would have stood first in line for the throne, but the new laws of succession make him third. Most of America adores their devastatingly handsome prince . . . but two very different girls are vying to capture his heart.


Oof. Soooo, that was certainly… a book.

I think my major issue with American Royals is that this book doesn’t seem like it knows what it wants to be. Does it want to be a thought-provoking story set in an alternate version of the United States with a monarchy? Yes. Does it also want to be a fluffy young adult romance novel? Yes. Does it also want to be a reality TV-esque teen drama? …Yes. Are any of these elements playing nicely together? Definitely not.

This book is 448 pages and it felt loooooong. Part of the problem is that it’s trying to explore three (three!!!) separate forbidden romance plots which are all fairly redundant when taken together. I get what the author was going for in creating these parallels, but honestly, no single story line brings enough to the table to justify including all three.

First you have Princess Beatrice, first in line to the throne, who is in love with her guard, a commoner. Her younger sister, Sam, is in love with Teddy, the “suitable” potential king consort who has been hand-picked to marry Beatrice. Finally, Sams’ best friend, Nina, another commoner, is in love with Prince Jefferson. I think McGee thought it would be fun to have these parallels and explore how these characters with varying personalities handled the situation, but that doesn’t change the fact that all of these plot lines can be boiled down to “I love this person and my social station is keeping me from being with them.” The story feels extremely bogged down with all the separate romances and point of view characters.

The major characters themselves, while certainly fairly distinct from one another, are very shallowly developed. Beatrice is the dutiful daughter who is being pushed to her breaking point and flirting with rebellion for the first time. Sam has middle child syndrome to the extreme, feels invisible, and is obliviously selfish. Jeff is… well, honestly, after finishing the book I’m not sure I could tell you a single personality trait of dear Prince Jefferson. Finally, Nina, who has grown up understandably insecure as a commoner while the best friend of royalty, is basically Sam’s doormat through most of the book. At no point did I feel moved to care about any of these characters, except poor Nina, who probably should have punched Sam in the face at some point early in their friendship. (#ninadeservedbetter)

But back to the issue of this book clearly not having a good sense of what it wants to be, there is a weird mixture of teenage drama and a thought experiment on how an American monarchy would have changed the world as it exists today. Both of these elements feel like they’re getting in each other’s way rather than meshing well together. There are some great YA books which blend the personal and political together really well. (Red, White, & Royal Blue comes to mind.) This is not one of them. The bits of political philosophizing serve only to up the page count and break up the romance plot lines without ever saying anything new or interesting.

Have you ever read a book that takes place in the real world but with an alternate history? Did you like it? Tell me about it in the comment section!


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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


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.”


“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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The Last Romantics, by Tara Conklin (Review)

The Last Romantics
by Tara Conklin

Genre: Literary Fiction

Length: 368 Pages

Release date: February 5, 2019

Publisher: William Morrow


The New York Times bestselling author of The House Girl explores the lives of four siblings in this ambitious and absorbing novel in the vein of Commonwealth and The Interestings.

“The greatest works of poetry, what makes each of us a poet, are the stories we tell about ourselves. We create them out of family and blood and friends and love and hate and what we’ve read and watched and witnessed. Longing and regret, illness, broken bones, broken hearts, achievements, money won and lost, palm readings and visions. We tell these stories until we believe them.”

When the renowned poet Fiona Skinner is asked about the inspiration behind her iconic work, The Love Poem, she tells her audience a story about her family and a betrayal that reverberates through time.

It begins in a big yellow house with a funeral, an iron poker, and a brief variation forever known as the Pause: a free and feral summer in a middle-class Connecticut town. Caught between the predictable life they once led and an uncertain future that stretches before them, the Skinner siblings—fierce Renee, sensitive Caroline, golden boy Joe and watchful Fiona—emerge from the Pause staunchly loyal and deeply connected. Two decades later, the siblings find themselves once again confronted with a family crisis that tests the strength of these bonds and forces them to question the life choices they’ve made and ask what, exactly, they will do for love.

A sweeping yet intimate epic about one American family, The Last Romantics is an unforgettable exploration of the ties that bind us together, the responsibilities we embrace and the duties we resent, and how we can lose—and sometimes rescue—the ones we love. A novel that pierces the heart and lingers in the mind, it is also a beautiful meditation on the power of stories—how they navigate us through difficult times, help us understand the past, and point the way toward our future.


“If you live long enough and well enough to know love, its various permutations and shades, you will falter. You will break someone’s heart. Fairy tales don’t tell you that. Poetry doesn’t either.” 

I had a serious love-hate relationship with this book. To start with, it’s stylistically beautiful. Fiona, the point of view character, is a poet, and this shines through in the writing style and really contributes to giving Fiona a distinct voice. (This aspect reminded me a lot of The Air You Breathe, by Frances de Pontes Peebles.)

This then is the true lesson: there is nothing romantic about love. Only the most naive believe it will save them. Only the hardiest of us will survive it.

And yet, And yet! We believe in love because we want to believe in it. Because really what else is there, amid all our glorious follies and urges and weaknesses and stumbles? The magic, the hope, the gorgeous idea of it. Because when the lights go out and we sit waiting in the dark, what do our fingers seek? Who do we teach for?

The story begins with the major characters (a group of siblings) as children, as they endure what they later dub “The Pause,” the three year period in the wake of their father’s death when their mother rarely left her bedroom and they were left to fend for themselves. They are all thrust into roles which arguably alter their personalities in major ways for the rest of their lives, with the younger siblings’ sense of security shaken and the older siblings dealing with the additional burden of being forced into a parental role. The relationships between the siblings were one of the big highlights of the novel, with their familial bonds waxing and waning over the years and being tested in various ways.

The story itself… sometimes lost me. For starters, I didn’t entirely understand what Conklin was going for with her choice of framing device, as it didn’t seem to add much to the story. Fionna’s life story is told in retrospect from a somewhat dystopian future. She has become a world-famous poet and is speaking at an event and reminiscing on her life. Not a lot happens during the course of the events of the framing device, but just enough occurs that it leaves the reader expecting the focus to shift to the later timeline at some point. But there’s no follow through, and in the end I was left feeling like the story would have lost nothing if it had all simply been told in past tense from Fiona’s point of view without the framing device.

My second issue with this book has to do with a whirlwind romance that occurs for one of the characters when they are adults. I don’t want to give any spoilers, so I’ll be vague here, but suffice it to say that the character in question has as lot of problems and meets someone who is equally troubled. The way the romance plays out seems unrealistic and optimistic to a fault, in a way. It’s cut short for reasons I won’t spoil, but it seems as if Conklin wants us to believe that, had it not been for that, this would have turned everything around in that character’s life. And, despite the brevity of the relationship, it’s absolutely, 100%, for sure true love. 

Can a good relationship and support system help someone who is determined to turn their life around do so? Sure. Do I feel it was “earned” in this novel? No. Conklin seems to want us to buy into the pure potential in this relationship as some of the other siblings do, when the whole thing felt like an impending disaster to me.

Overall, I thought this was worth the read, despite the issues I had with it. Have you read The Last Romantics? Please share your thoughts in the comments! What do you think about the title of the novel in relation to Fiona’s blog of a similar name? Why do you think Conklin made this choice? Let’s discuss! 


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Review – The Girls at 17 Swann Street, by Yara Zgheib

The Girls at 17 Swann Street
by Yara Zgheib

Genre: Contemporary Fiction

Length: 384 Pages

Release date: February 5, 2018

Publisher: St. Martin’s Press


The chocolate went first, then the cheese, the fries, the ice cream. The bread was more difficult, but if she could just lose a little more weight, perhaps she would make the soloists’ list. Perhaps if she were lighter, danced better, tried harder, she would be good enough. Perhaps if she just ran for one more mile, lost just one more pound.

Anna Roux was a professional dancer who followed the man of her dreams from Paris to Missouri. There, alone with her biggest fears – imperfection, failure, loneliness – she spirals down anorexia and depression till she weighs a mere eighty-eight pounds. Forced to seek treatment, she is admitted as a patient at 17 Swann Street, a peach pink house where pale, fragile women with life-threatening eating disorders live. Women like Emm, the veteran; quiet Valerie; Julia, always hungry. Together, they must fight their diseases and face six meals a day.

Yara Zgheib’s poetic and poignant debut novel is a haunting, intimate journey of a young woman’s struggle to reclaim her life. Every bite causes anxiety. Every flavor induces guilt. And every step Anna takes toward recovery will require strength, endurance, and the support of the girls at 17 Swann Street.



My thanks to St. Martin’s Press and Netgalley for sending me an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and are not influenced by the publisher. 

The Girls at 17 Swann Street is a an honest, unflinching, but fundamental hopeful portrayal of anorexia and the struggles of recovery. Anna enters treatment at the beginning of the novel primarily at the behest of her husband, who is at the end of his rope and fearful that he wouldn’t be able to keep her alive on his own. She is resistant to the idea of treatment at that time, filled up with fear and denial.

Zgheib explores the triggering events that led up to Anna’s situation, from her demanding background in ballet to her sense of isolation as an immigrant in America. Anna’s background felt like one of the biggest strengths of this novel. There is no single factor which led to her developing an eating disorder; the reasons are myriad and the descent was gradual. As is often the case in real life, compounding traumas and pressures slowly built up to a mental health crisis, and it’s difficult to say how Anna would have fared if even one of these factors had been different.

Zgheib seems to take pains to lend a sense of realism to Anna’s recovery efforts throughout the novel. Progress is treated with caution, as relapse is very common with anorexia, but the overall tone does not come across as pessimistic. The reader sees Anna’s mindset change slowly but drastically, spurred in part by a desire to reconnect with family members who have grown distant during her decline and in part through fear of ending up like some of the other girls she encounters in treatment.

There is nothing remarkably original or unique in the telling of this story; a woman hits rock bottom, enters treatment for anorexia, falters and makes slow progress, and the story ends on a hopeful but still somewhat ambiguous note. If you’ve read a lot of novels about mental health, the structure will feel very familiar, but Zgheib’s writing style is engaging and it feels very easy to connect with Anna. The Girls at 17 Swann Street is a rewarding and poignant read, and I look forward to seeing what this author writes in the future.

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Review – Maybe in Another Life, by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Maybe in Another Life 
by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Genre: Women’s Fiction

Length: 342 Pages

Release date: July 7, 2015


From the acclaimed author of Forever, Interrupted and After I Do comes a breathtaking new novel about a young woman whose fate hinges on the choice she makes after bumping into an old flame; in alternating chapters, we see two possible scenarios unfold—with stunningly different results.

At the age of twenty-nine, Hannah Martin still has no idea what she wants to do with her life. She has lived in six different cities and held countless meaningless jobs since graduating college. On the heels of leaving yet another city, Hannah moves back to her hometown of Los Angeles and takes up residence in her best friend Gabby’s guestroom. Shortly after getting back to town, Hannah goes out to a bar one night with Gabby and meets up with her high school boyfriend, Ethan.

Just after midnight, Gabby asks Hannah if she’s ready to go. A moment later, Ethan offers to give her a ride later if she wants to stay. Hannah hesitates. What happens if she leaves with Gabby? What happens if she leaves with Ethan?

In concurrent storylines, Hannah lives out the effects of each decision. Quickly, these parallel universes develop into radically different stories with large-scale consequences for Hannah, as well as the people around her. As the two alternate realities run their course, Maybe in Another Life raises questions about fate and true love: Is anything meant to be? How much in our life is determined by chance? And perhaps, most compellingly: Is there such a thing as a soul mate?

Hannah believes there is. And, in both worlds, she believes she’s found him.



I know there may be universes out there where I made different choices and they led me somewhere else, led me to someone else. And my heart breaks for every single version of me that didn’t end up with you.

This book had me thinking a lot about Dark Matter, by Blake Crouch. …Bear with me for a minute here. I thought it was interesting how two very tonally different books stemmed from the same central idea: the vastly different paths one’s life can take based on a single choice. Specifically, a romantic decision. Dark Matter takes this idea and runs with it, culminating in a dark science fiction story about alternate universes which hinges on the protagonist’s choice to prioritize his career or his romantic partner. In Maybe in Another Life, Taylor Jenkins Reid uses a nod to the multiverse theory to write two love stories for her protagonist, each mutually exclusive.

I think we’ve all spent time thinking about what seemingly inconsequential choices have altered the course of our lives. What tragic accidents have been narrowly avoided? Who are the people who would have changed your life that you almost met? Reid takes Hannah’s decision about whether or not leave a party with her ex boyfriend and runs through the drastically diverging scenarios which emerge. While each story is somewhat engaging on its own, the appeal to this novel is mainly in seeing how one decision can trigger a thousand more, leading to one storyline bearing little resemblance to the other.

When you fall in love, it can be difficult to picture things turning out differently. Reid seems particularly interested in exploring the concept of a soulmate. Hannah (minor spoiler here but not really) eventually ends up happy in both scenarios. Who is to say that one is right or wrong? Who is to say that anyone’s perfectly happy marriage is the only way things could or should have turned out?

I’m just going to do my best and live under the assumption that if there are things in this life that we are supposed to do, if there are people in this world we are supposed to love, we’ll find them. In time. The future is so incredibly unpredictable that trying to plan for it is like studying for a test you’ll never take. I’m OK in this moment.

I loved Hannah as a character. She was a bit of a hot mess, but a self-aware hot mess, and determined to work on herself. It’s difficult not to root for her. I think a lot of Millennials will find her relatable; she’s in her late twenties and struggling with the sensation that things should have fallen into place by now. She should have a stable career, stable relationship, stable life. Instead, she’s untethered and there’s a sense that adolescence is clinging onto her far longer than she’d prefer.

Maybe in Another Life was published two years before The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, and I think it’s fair to say that Taylor Jenkins Reid has grown a lot as an author in those two years. If you’re going into this novel expecting it to be similar in tone and quality to Seven Husbands, you may find yourself disappointed, but taken on its own merit, Maybe in Another Life is cute, sweet, and a worthwhile read.

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Review – A Spark of Light, by Jodi Picoult

A Spark of Light
by Jodi Picoult

Genre: Contemporary Fiction

Length: 352 Pages

Release date: October 2, 2018

Publisher: Ballantine Books


The warm fall day starts like any other at the Center—a women’s reproductive health services clinic—its staff offering care to anyone who passes through its doors. Then, in late morning, a desperate and distraught gunman bursts in and opens fire, taking all inside hostage.

After rushing to the scene, Hugh McElroy, a police hostage negotiator, sets up a perimeter and begins making a plan to communicate with the gunman. As his phone vibrates with incoming text messages he glances at it and, to his horror, finds out that his fifteen-year-old daughter, Wren, is inside the clinic.

But Wren is not alone. She will share the next and tensest few hours of her young life with a cast of unforgettable characters: A nurse who calms her own panic in order save the life of a wounded woman. A doctor who does his work not in spite of his faith but because of it, and who will find that faith tested as never before. A pro-life protester disguised as a patient, who now stands in the cross hairs of the same rage she herself has felt. A young woman who has come to terminate her pregnancy. And the disturbed individual himself, vowing to be heard.

Told in a daring and enthralling narrative structure that counts backward through the hours of the standoff, this is a story that traces its way back to what brought each of these very different individuals to the same place on this fateful day.

Jodi Picoult—one of the most fearless writers of our time—tackles a complicated issue in this gripping and nuanced novel. How do we balance the rights of pregnant women with the rights of the unborn they carry? What does it mean to be a good parent? A Spark of Light will inspire debate, conversation . . . and, hopefully, understanding.



Jodi Picoult was one of my favorite authors back in high school; I still vividly remember staying up late to read My Sister’s Keeper and crying my eyes out. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve started to find her books a bit too formulaic and found myself gravitating away from them. But there was so much hype around the release of A Spark of Light that I decided to check it out. Unfortunately, my experience with this book was rather underwhelming.

Let me start with the structure: the timeline is backwards. Why? Good question. It doesn’t feel like it adds anything substantial to the story. When Megan Miranda did this with All the Missing Girls, I didn’t care much for it then either, but at least it had the function of placing a big reveal late in the novel which happened chronologically early. I’m not sure what Picoult is going for with this other than trying to make it different for the sake of being different, but it just made it unnecessarily difficult to follow at times.

I liked that Picoult made a solid attempt at portraying varying viewpoints, although I think she fell a little flat in this regard. The writing seemed to suffer when she was portraying a viewpoint that wasn’t her own; consequently, some characters’ arguments fall rather flat and don’t always seem to ring true even in their own heads.

The father-daughter relationship was probably one of the biggest strengths of the novel. Hugh McElroy, the hostage negotiator, doesn’t realize his daughter Wren is inside the clinic when he first makes contact with the shooter. I think the uneasy and sometimes secretive nature of the relationship between a father and his teenage daughter will feel familiar to a lot of readers. Wren loves her father, but there are some things she could never tell him, and needing birth control goes at the top of that list.

Overall, though, I think the biggest drawback for me was that facts about abortion and musings about abortion rights took up what felt like a disproportionate amount of the book. It’s not that I have an issue with that subject matter; I read collections of essays about feminism on a semi-regular basis, so I obviously willingly encounter this topic often. Given what I gathered about the story from the blurb and the site of the hostage situation, I obviously expected these themes to come into play, but I did not expect them to overshadow the rest of the story. The events felt very secondary here, like a mere vehicle to insert rhetoric. Basically, it ended up not feeling much like a novel at all.

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