This is the last kind of story that I would have pegged as hopeful. And joyful. And yet it was.
This isn't the kind of love story that would make it into the romance section, but it's a love story all the same. It's about what it means to be you—a person in the world, existing as a separate unit from others—and what it means to discover how you can love the unit that is you.
Stella and Simon have been together for over 20 years. Their marriage has followed the track of Simon's desire to be famous, to be a rock star. Now they're in the forties, and Simon is still the same free-wheeling, "no responsibilities" guy and Stella is trying to make him look toward the future, their future.
And then, Stella falls into a coma.
Simon, now forced for the first time to be the adult in their relationship, has to have a reckoning within himself. He becomes more responsible. He starts thinking of Stella, and not just as someone who exists to support him. He starts thinking of his life, and if it is rolling in the direction it needs to go.
And then, Stella wakes up from the coma. But like many coma patients, Stella comes out different than she went in before.
Stella now has an aptitude for painting and drawing, and she's not like she used to be. Simon feels wrong, she feels wrong, and her best friend Libby treats her more like a patient than a friend. Finally looking at her life from an outsider's eyes, Stella realizes that...maybe she doesn't fit in this life anymore.
Libby is Stella's best friend, and she used to hate Simon. Simon was the man-child that never grew up, never paid Stella the attention and love that she was due. But when Stella goes into the coma, Simon changes. Libby can't help but notice that change, and they fall toward each other in their pain.
Stella, Simon, and Libby all have some growing to do—and they might not make it out to the other side as the same people that went in. But sometimes painful growth is good, and self-acceptance is no small element of happiness.
I absolutely adored this novel. To be honest with you, I didn't think I would. I've always struggled to pick up books that scream sadness, and With or Without You definitely gives off that vibe. And I'll be honest, there are some sad parts. That's no joke. But what I didn't expect—and maybe that's on me, for not trusting the author—was the shining hope and self-love. This is a novel that demands a internal reckoning, and it demands that its characters realize that other people cannot complete them. It's a lesson that resonates with its readers too. I know it resonated with me.
A beautiful story, and sharply real. These characters will stay with you when you leave them, and the writing lingers. Fantastic book.
Thank you to Algonquin Books for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
Reflections on memory, the layers of self that make up who we are, and the sense of mortality at the heart of what it means to be human. This was a heavy and contemplative read.
Pacing: ★★★ (a little slow for me)
Hieroglyphics has a title that makes you think of history. And not just any history, but ancient history. This was clearly intentional, and also relied on the other aspect of a hieroglyphic: the fact that they're pictures displaying stories, the written word, and that their interpretation varies.
My standard review format seems off in this case. It's not a standard novel.
Imagine if you could walk through the mind of your grandmother, your grandfather. What would you see? A haze of distant memories, maybe. Or a winding path cluttered on either side with the small details of millions of moments. Or, just maybe, the space is crystal clear: everything in its place, everything lovingly polished with the element of remembering.
This novel follows the story of an elderly couple, Lil and Frank, and their continuous musings on what it means to remember, what is important about what they're remembering, and how they want to be remembered. If that sounds like a twisting, continuous loop—you'd be right. By the end of this novel I felt like I WAS Lil and Frank. I'd lived their memories and breathed their thoughts and felt the core of their beings from page to page. McCorkle's writing is phenomenal in this, even when she's scraping apart her characters skin layer by skin layer to expose them to the elements of time.
Another element of this novel was Shelley, a woman younger than Lil and Frank, but no less focused on her own memories, pasts, and looping concepts of life. She's the current owner of Frank's childhood home, and when Frank stops by to ask her to let him wander about—to remember, obviously—she doesn't let him in because of her own reasons. This relationship develops through long vignettes of Shelley's experience, her son Harvey's experience and his feelings about ghosts, and through Frank and Lil themselves.
An interesting, thought provoking read that's meant to make us hyper aware of not only our mortality, but also of that old phrase: When an old person dies, a library burns to the ground.
Thank you to Algonquin Books for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
Four men discover that things they buried in the past don't stay buried in this multi-layered cultural horror novel by master writer Stephen Graham Jones.
Potential to linger in your mind forever: ★★★★★
Execution of plot: ★★★★★
This was stellar. That seems to be an odd opinion as I don't see too many 5 stars rolling around, but this horrific tale of past sins, cultural obligations turning into traps, cyclical identity horror, and more was amazing.
The Only Good Indians is a different kind of horror novel. Oh, it goes there with its horror—extreme trigger warnings for horror inflicted on animals being a main example. But it's also a layered look at what it means to be Indian/Native American/Indigenous in today's America—and the cultural identity, cyclical injustices, and lingering wounds of the past that refuse to heal both within the community and in the country at large.
Ten years ago, four friends decide to break the laws of the land and hunt for elk in the elders' only zone. While there, they find a herd of elk and take them down in a glorified slaughter. One of their kills is a young female. And she was pregnant. (Killing young/pregnant targets is taboo for hunters.)
Now ten years later, those four men all live different versions of a modern Native experience. Two are still on the reservation, struggling with their own pasts and present within the constant social chains of familial obligation and tribal identity. One man fled the reservation after the OD of his brother and escaped to North Dakota to work on a oil rig. One man fell in love with a white woman and pretends he's made his own choices to be away from the reservation as opposed to hiding from the sins of his past.
But the past draws long shadows, and the Elk Head Woman is coming to avenge the slaughter of the land. Who will be the first man to fall?
Presented in sections dedicated to the different men and their encounters with the horror stalking them, this novel kept me on the edge of my seat from the first page to the last. Jones' talent for ominous atmosphere delivered through distanced writing was fantastic. It speaks to the talent of the writing that something with relatively little jump scares and/or action was able to keep my muscles so tense for so long, ready for the next jump. This book was terrifying, its progression toward its only conclusion ceaseless and inevitable.
I don't think this kind of horror novel will be for everyone, and as my friends' ratings suggest, that is clearly the case. If you come to this novel with an expectation, expect it to be ignored. The Only Good Indians stands alone in its pacing, its plot, and its ability to have each action and reaction exist not only as concrete points of the surface horror novel but also reflections of horror in myriad forms of the Indian/Native American/Indigenous experience.
Thank you to the publisher and Libro.fm for my audiobook copy in exchange for an honest review.
A quiet tale focused on the rebuilding aspect of a post-apocalyptic reality, this novel was a memorable addition to the genre.
Plot: ★★★ 1/2
First off, I'm not usually a reader of post-apocalyptic fiction. I don't like novels focused on the end of times, death, destruction, and the lack of hope—I tend to like more escape in my fiction, and to me the plot tends to not outweigh the personal stress I feel while reading it!
The Lightest Object in the Universe isn't about destruction though. It's about hope, and new growth.
Carson is a former school principal and history teacher on the East Coast, witnessing the breakdown of normal as the electrical grid shuts down, the world collapses, and his neighborhood, students, and city fall into the grim reality of "after." The only thing he can think of is his lover, Beatrix, who lives in California. Is she safe? Is she alive? Carson decides to go to her, and that decision sparks a cross-country trek the old-fashioned way: on foot.
Beatrix is dealing with her own end of the world life in California, and she wonders about Carson—is he safe? Is he alive? Does her remember the promise he made to her that he would cross the country to be with her? Learning how to live with her neighbors and friends in the new version of the world, Beatrix discovers what it means to carry on.
This is a quiet tale. I have to admit, at times I wished it was a little faster in its pacing...but at the same time, that was kind of the point. In our current world of technology, immediacy, electricity, and the grid, time spent on the quiet moments is seen as something extremely slow and often unnecessary. But for Carson and Beatrix, time flows differently because there is no option to do it faster. It is what it is. Over the course of the novel, I found myself slowing down to match their speed, and once I did that I was able to enjoy the novel more.
Recommended for those who like the quiet, and are willing to spend some lingering time with this radically different post-apocalyptic tale.
Thank you to Algonquin Books for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
This was a Michigan romance, about writers, near the places where I was raised, and about finding yourself and your love from the ashes of a recent and shattering life change. It was GREAT. Strap in for an incredibly biased review. I never read romances set in my area!
Romance itself: ★★★★★
January Andrews is a romance writer who always believed in happily ever after. Or at least, the avoiding-real-life-problems-to-fixate-on-the-happy-ever-after part of the deal. January always pretended her life was great. Her parents were happily married. Her mother successfully beat cancer twice. Her beautiful, spontaneous boyfriend was the perfect aesthetic match. Her New York City apartment fulfilled her image of a writer lifestyle.
All that changes when January's father dies, and it turns out that her life's foundations are a lie. Turns out good old dad had a second house in Michigan, complete with a long-term mistress.
January's life spirals real fast. Her boyfriend can't handle her new "sad self," so he leaves. Without him, January's out of her New York apartment, out of funds, and now on deadline for a contracted romance book deal. And the last thing January wants to do is write a book about love. Love is lie.
So January moves to Michigan to take advantage of the rent-free love nest her father left her. It's awkward, to say the least. It's even more awkward when she realizes that her next door beach house neighbor is her ex-college rival and long-time competitive/attractive muse, Augustus Everett.
Gus and January have always had it in for each other. They were neck in neck in college, and January's always Googled his recent successes to compare her own against them...oh, and also there's the fact that they've both had the hots for each other this whole time.
What could go wrong?
I loved this SO much. Anything I could say about it would just showcase my rampant bias toward these characters, this set-up, the unique clash of enemies to lovers/second chance romance/competition romance/etc, and the fact that I could picture the atmosphere in vivid detail given personal experience.
Read it and weep, folks. This one was awesome!
A mother-daughter college tour that tests their relationship in hilarious ways—with a few surprises along the way.
Characters: ★★★ 1/2
Jessica Burnstein doesn't know how to talk to her daughter anymore. She barely understands her, she's not sure how to help her understand that all she wants is for Emily to be happy, and she sure as heck isn't sure how to fix where they are now.
Emily Burnstein doesn't know how to talk to her mother anymore. She doesn't understand why her mother barely talks to her, she's sick of coming in last in her mom's priorities, and she resents the pressure to be perfect.
This mother/daughter duo is about to be tested in ways that they never expected: it's time for a college tour road trip. Jessica and Emily are signed up for an exclusive, only-for-the-best college bound students tour package with students with more extracurriculars and special skills than empathy, and parents that make the term "Helicopter Parent" seem too kind.
Will they bend and break, or will this tour finally get them to let their guards down?
What I liked:
The selling point of this novel, for me, was its humor. This is a funny novel, no doubt about it. If you need a conversational pick-me-up or a distracting afternoon, this is the perfect pick. I loved the antics, the humor, and the utter relatability of family dynamics gone sour.
What I didn't like:
I really had a hard time with the choppy POV transitions. It was nice to have both Jessica's and Emily's POVs, but it was not chapter to chapter... it was almost page to page in some spots. It was too much for me—I'd barely get my grip on one scene and then have it flipped for me as we switched perspectives. It was a bit like generational whiplash, as these rapid-fire transitions were meant to give us a window into the daughter's AND mother's point of view as close to the event as possible.
Thank you to Berkley for a giveaway ARC in exchange for an honest review.
So so cute, so so positive, so so what we need right now. A quirky elementary school librarian in Texas meets her match in the new school principal.
Romance: ★★★★ 1/2
What You Wish For comes out on July 14, 2020!
So, let's start off with the fact that I'm extremely biased to love Katherine Center. Her past few books have become all time favorites, and her blend of romance, heartfelt healing, and memorable settings made me oh-so-excited to get to this one.
It did not disappoint!
What You Wish For follows Sam Casey, a librarian with epilepsy who has found a haven for herself in Galveston, Texas. Adorning herself with quirky outfits and surrounded by conversation starters in her whimsical school library, Sam's got it good. Her life is filled with laughter and friends, and her found family includes the school principal and his wife, who have taken Sam in to their home.
Then, her school's beloved principal dies suddenly.
Reeling from the personal and professional loss, Sam can't believe what comes next: the new principal coming to town is none other than Duncan Carpenter, a former teacher from Sam's previous school district. The former teacher that Sam had a hopeless, unrequited obsession with. Yeah. That one.
But this Duncan isn't the same as the goofy teacher Sam used to know. This Duncan is hard, stern, and unwilling to see the charms of Sam's beloved school. He seems obsessed with his vision, and a dark event haunts his past.
If Duncan thinks he can just waltz right in and change things in Galveston, he's got another thing coming...
Ugh. Another winner. I laughed, I teared up a bit, I grinned like a loon. I made the mistake of starting this at 9 p.m. and then went to bed at 1 a.m. because that's how long it took me to finish it. If that's not high enough praise, I don't know what to tell you. It's cute, it's positive, and memorable in its adorable side-quests and flirtations between Duncan and Sam.
My only caveat to this story is that it was missing some of the dramatic tension that other novels by this author have had. There was emotional resonance—and an intense commentary on the state of school life in America today—but the romance itself smoothly transitioned throughout. I guess I was looking for more drama? That's most likely a "me" thing.
Regardless, if you're a fan of How to Walk Away or Things You Save in a Fire, definitely check this one out!
Thank you to St Martin's Press via NetGalley for an ARC of this title in exchange for an honest review.
Jennifer Weiner's latest is full of surprises and a deep dive into the world of influencers, body image, and acceptance.
Body Image Discussions: ★★★
Daphne is a plus-size influencer in our modern world of Instagram, hashtags, and body acceptance. But she's still at the "accepting" part when it comes to her own body—and the life she leads on Instagram is a constant push and pull with her internal monologue.
Drue Cavanaugh used to be Daphne's best friend, but when she burned Daphne and made their last epic fight about Daphne's weight, Daphne escaped and never looked back. Drue was rich, thin, blonde, and perfect—it's time for Daphne to cut her losses and be the average girl she was meant to be.
Years later, out of the blue, Drue contacts Daphne and asks her to be in her wedding. She even offers to pay her. Turns out Drue's mean girl self hasn't done her any favors, and her influencer lifestyle needs to look perfect. Daphne knows she's been coerced and bribed, but she says yes anyway. She's never been able to say no to Drue for very long.
Big Summer is mostly about Daphne's experience at the Cape with Drue's wedding, but it's also series of past memories of Daphne's childhood. And, more specifically, a journey through Daphne's mind as she glitches on every single moment with thoughts on her body and body size.
Also, there was a huge twist about halfway through Big Summer that I was NOT expecting. I'm so glad the description didn't allude to it. I thought it made this novel so much better, and really enjoyed where it took Daphne.
If I had to pick a negative to highlight, I'd say that this novel is the most "fat-focused" of any Jennifer Weiner that I've read so far. That feels weird to say as a negative, but hear me out--as someone who is plus-sized herself, I found it really disheartening that literally every single moment, every single thought, and every single plot point focused or mentioned something explicitly related to Daphne's weight. At the beginning, I was like "Yes! Someone gets it!" but towards the first half...and the middle...and the end...I felt myself wishing, desperately, for more balance in the main character. In a way, by focusing on this aspect of Daphne so much, we went past highlighting her "acceptance" to reducing her to that one characteristic...which I feel was a problem, as we're trying to make plus-size women feel seen and normalized. Not reduced to their weight, or distilled down to one trait of self body-hate.
However, overall I thoroughly enjoyed this one, and am thrilled to see where Jennifer Weiner takes us next--don't miss this one this summer!
Thank you to Simon & Schuster for an ARC of this title in exchange for an honest review.
[ ] stars
A Good Neighborhood comes out on March 10, 2020.
I feel uncomfortable rating this work.
What a shattering novel, filled with pain and reflections on America’s veneer of civility over wounds of racism, classism, and hate. And the seeds of hope.
In Oak Knoll, a verdant, tight-knit North Carolina neighborhood, professor of forestry and ecology Valerie Alston-Holt is raising her bright and talented biracial son. Xavier is headed to college in the fall, and after years of single parenting, Valerie is facing the prospect of an empty nest. All is well until the Whitmans move in next door―an apparently traditional family with new money, ambition, and a secretly troubled teenaged daughter. With little in common except a property line, these two very different families quickly find themselves at odds: first, over an historic oak tree in Valerie's yard, and soon after, the blossoming romance between their two teenagers.
Told from multiple points of view, A Good Neighborhood asks big questions about life in America today―What does it mean to be a good neighbor? How do we live alongside each other when we don't see eye to eye?―as it explores the effects of class, race, and heartrending star-crossed love in a story that’s as provocative as it is powerful.
Therese Anne Fowler’s work is a gut-punch delivered in millimeters, something so slow it hurts—and yet the words breeze by with achingly perfect sentences. It is an uncomfortable contrast. I think it means to be.
A Good Neighborhood pulled the tensions like a literary thriller and left me pensive and angry. Simmering. Any novel that provokes such an intense response deserves our attention, but I do wonder at the future purposes of this book. Will it provoke positive change? Or will it just poke at wounds?
I don’t have answers, and I’m not sure my review is overly helpful in the large discussions this novel is engaging.
I will say that I will never forget this, and I did cry. A lot. Powerful words, powerful themes.
Thank you to St Martin’s Press for a giveaway ARC of this title in exchange for an honest review.
Henry VIII and his many wives, but modernized and given a few memorable twists. This was a joy to read as a Tudor-era fan, and it had some quirks.
Pacing: ★★★ 1/2
Wife After Wife is exactly as it's billed on the ticket: Henry VIII is Harry Rose, modern-day media mogul, and this is the story of his many wives.
Now, full disclosure, I love any and all things related to the Tudor time period, include modern retellings. So I loved this for the concept alone. But, separate from the concept, I thought the author's decision to place a Henry VIII-type male character was an interesting one in the context of the #MeToo movement. Was it executed well? That depends.
Harry Rose meets his first wife, Katie—Catherine of Aragon—when he's barely 20 and she's 25. It's the 1980s, and things are going great. Except, that is, for Harry's wandering eye and Katie's fertility issues.
Then Harry meets Merry—Mary Boleyn—when she's married to a closeted gay man and he's still with Katie. Uh oh. A little fun on the side never hurt anyone, right? ...Maybe Katie might disagree.
Ana—Anne Boleyn—is the fashion editor at Harry's company, in charge of running Harry's magazine in the 1990s. So what if she's Merry's sister? Even though Ana's not initially interested in her sister's leftovers, Harry is persistent. And Harry gets what he wants.
And so on...Harry gets what he wants.
The story of Henry VIII and his many wives is relatively popular, so I will stop there at the third famous wife, Anne Boleyn. Now on to some thoughts!
I thought Wife After Wife did a few things incredibly well, including the characterization of all of the women in Harry Rose's life. They were complex, they were products of their decades, and they struggled to maintain a life in the vortex of a supremely powerful and egotistical man.
My problem with Wife After Wife lies with Harry Rose. Harry reads just like Henry VIII to a fault. During the Tudor time period, yes, men could do what they wanted and women just had to take it—they had no agency at all. But in the 1980s? The 1990s? The 2010s? I struggled with Harry's stagnate personality as not only did it not age well with the times, it also became increasingly hard to read his sections. Harry never grew, never changed...he just kept sleeping with all of these women, cheating, lying, and then victim-blaming his wives for problems that were clearly started by him.
Wife After Wife kept this portrayal accurate to the historical reference, but I found it increasingly hard to believe that these women in the 1980s-2010s just let him get away with it, and let him continue to believe his own deluded version of himself. It works with a king, but you'd have to suspend your believe further to believe that it works seamlessly with a more modern couple. I'm not sure if it would have been possible to portray Harry in a satisfying way AND keep him historically referenced, but it did cause a sticking point in my reader enjoyment.
However, other than that this novel was a lot of fun. Let's bring back the Tudors in modern fiction some more—I love it!
Thank you to Berkley for this title in exchange for an honest review.
Amy Imogene Reads
Just someone looking for her own door into Wonderland.