Category Archives: Reviews

Book reviews, including recaps, analysis, and MVP, my pick for favorite character.

Review: Unqualified

Recap: Actress Anna Faris is unqualified to write this book about relationships and relationship advice. There’s no denying that. She’ll tell you that right off the top. Hell, it’s in the title. But she doesn’t care what you think. So she’s doing it anyway. Why? Well, in all honestly it’s at least in some part because her very successful podcast of the same name has garnered such a massive following that she knows she now has the ability to write a book that will sell. But on a less meta and more compassion wavelength, Faris is the kind of woman who battles insecurity like the rest of us and yet overcomes it – at least on the surface level – with a strong sense of “I-don’t-give-a-s***.” It’s taken her until her 30s and 40s – and admittedly so – to care less about what other people think and more about what’s best for her and her family.

That’s what Unqualified is really all about – a mix of stories and anecdotes from her life and the lessons they have taught her. She details the ways her relationships have changed her as a person and the ways fame has tried to do the same. Seventy-percent memoir and 30-percent self-help, Unqualified is a very honest glance into the world of a famous – but not super, uber iconic status famous – person who truly strives to be a better person everyday for her family, her fans and herself.

Analysis: Is Unqualified the best written memoir I’ve ever read? Absolutely not. Faris is not a writer. She is an actress and podcaster. She writes like she talks. As a broadcast journalist, I do the same, but in the beginning of her book I had a hard time taking her seriously because of the lackadaisical manner in which she writes. Here’s the thing: stick it out. It’s worth it.

If you’ve ever listened to Faris’s podcast, some of the anecdotes and things about her will be a little redundant. (We know this, Anna. We’ve heard it before.) But when it comes to her relationships with her exes and even friendships, she gets more honest and real than I ever expect out of a memoir, particularly a celebrity memoir. Was Chris Pratt okay with this? Was her first ex-husband? I’m sure she had clearance, but I was so flabbergasted with her realness, I couldn’t help but wonder.

That honesty is what works here. Faris does not pretend to be a perfect person. (Unqualified, remember?) But she writes what she knows, what she’s learned and hopes that for someone out there who may or may not even realize they need it, her book offers help. For me, it did; by showing me that we are always evolving and there is always room for acceptance and kindness.

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Review: Before We Were Yours

Recap: The location is a hospital in the South. The time is the 1930s. The twins delivered did not fare well. The parents are destroyed.

And now here we are, in present day, following the life of Avery Stafford. The 30-something lawyer is used to living in the limelight of her father and his long political reign. But now he is sick, and she is forced to prepare to take his spot in politics as he also deals with an ongoing scandal involving nursing homes. In visiting her grandmother at one, Avery meets another elderly woman who is completely taken with her. A misplaced bracelet and a curious family photo forces Avery to return to the woman as she itches to learn more about her and whether this woman is somehow connected to her own family.

Now we are back to the 1930s, and Rill Foss is left in charge of her brother and sisters after their parents rushed to the hospital. Living on the river in Tennessee, they are now orphans as their parents never return. They are scooped up and taken in by the Tennessee Children’s Home Society orphanage, and they face every form of abuse: verbal, physical, sexual. Living in a constant state of fear, Rill feels compelled to take care of her siblings, but there’s only so much a 12-year-old girl can do.

The stories of Rill and Avery intertwine more and more throughout Before We Were Yours in a beautiful and mysterious way, but it’s the fact that this historical fiction novel is based on true events from the real horrors of adoption in the 1930s that make this book so haunting.

Analysis: One of the characters we come to know in the book is the woman who run’s the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, Georgia Tann. But Georgia Tann was a real woman, known for having made adoption in the United States an industry and for charging families an exorbitant amount of money for adopting children. These children were bought and sold, practically as a form of slavery and treated traumatically in the process.

Author Lisa Wingate tells this story through the lens of a little girl during the time and through the eyes of a present-day woman who, like many of us, had no idea any of this was happening in the 1930s.

Despite the horrors, Wingate does an excellent job of keeping the reader invested in the characters, curious about what happens next and still manages to offer hope through the love we see shine through her characters. Before We Were Yours takes a bit of time to get into, but once you start to put together the pieces of the puzzle and realize that Rill and Avery and the old woman she meets are all connected, the journey to get there is worth every word.

MVP: Rill. She has been through so much and has been forced to grow up very fast at a very young age. She has no choice. But she does it with vigor and comes out on the other side.

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Review: Then She Was Gone

Recap: Laurel Mack has been struggling for a long time. Her daughter went missing at the age of 15 and was never found. It was the kind of tragedy that destroyed her marriage and broke her relationship with her other children too, as they remained just that: “other.” So when she meets a nice man, the first who has taken interest in her in quite some time, she is flustered, flattered and fairly fixated on him.

Very quickly she meets his daughter, Poppy. Laurel can’t seem to get Poppy out of her mind. Poppy and her daughter, Ellie, look so much alike that Laurel finds herself consumed with the disappearance of Ellie once again. She doesn’t want to let her family in on it since they’ve finally reached a point in which they’re getting along well again after so many years of grief, pain and awkwardness.

So she sets out for answers by herself, and what she learns leaves her astonished.

Analysis: Holy, Gone Girl vibes. This twisty thriller was a page-turner, but offered a different determination than Gone Girl did for me (and yes, Gone Girl has become my go-to book of comparison for all modern-day, female-written and female-driven thriller novels); where Gone Girl‘s twists captured me by complete surprised, I’ve now come to expect the shocking surprises. Instead of desperately trying to learn what happened in Then She Was Gone, I found myself powering through to figure out if my theories were rights.

As it turns out, it was. And therein lies the problem for me. As much as I enjoyed this book – and I really did! – the foreshadowing was anything but subtle. Several friends who read the book along with me also figured out at least some aspect of the mystery. And while it’s fun to play to detective, I think it’s more fun to be completely blown away. Without giving away any spoilers, my prediction of what led up to the book’s ending was definitely off. Some of the story lines played out a lot creepier and weirder than I expected.

What really made the story for me were the alternating characters narrating, as my favorite novels do. The book goes back and forth between present day and the time of Ellie Mack’s disappearance, offering us many more breadcrumbs as to what may have happened to Ellie.

MVP: Ellie Mack. Though we know less about her than some of the other characters, we learn enough to know that despite what she’s been through, despite her age, compared to the other characters, she might be the only one to have a good head on her shoulders.

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Review: Stinky Tofu

Recap: It’s the 80’s in Chicago and banker Sam Lowe is living his best life. He’s a man about town: making good money, always fit and well-dressed and dating around. He’s well-respected at work and happy living in Chicago. Until he’s not. Expecting a big bonus, he’s instead sent off on a new project. He finds himself at a conference that he’s completely dreading until one woman changes everything. Linda Liu. She’s so beautiful, he doesn’t even know quite where to begin.

But Sam’s sure-of-himself attitude takes over and soon the two are seriously dating. After months of long distance, he moves to New York to be with her and marry her. Sam is Jewish. Linda is Chinese. What Sam didn’t realize is that before they could marry, Linda would first need approval from her family in Taiwan. They make the trip and spend some good quality time with her family. They’re not too sure of him at first, and they don’t hesitate to put him through the ringer.

But once again, Sam miscalculates. The family not only approves of him. They now want to move to New York with Sam and Linda too. Suddenly Sam’s life is being controlled by his wife’s family, and he doesn’t seem to have much say in the matter.

Analysis: Here’s the thing. This semi-autobiographical novel is described and marketed as “a comedic novel.” But mostly it just feels racist and uncomfortable. Every bit of Asian culture Linda and her family bring into Sam’s life, he rejects and then ultimately succumbs to it.

I read the book because I identified with Sam. I’m Jewish and thought this would be like if I married someone Asian or even someone non-Jewish. The book is about the marriage of two cultures, and that’s something everyone can relate to in this day and age. But the lines meant to be funny read as offensive. The worst part is the author doesn’t even seem aware of how offensive his writing is. Lines like “I tried speaking to her in English, but it was as if she’d just stepped off the boat” is the least of it.

Set aside the racism, the writing feels juvenile and the characters are unlikable. Sam bends over and takes whatever Linda and her family throw his way. You could say he does it for love, but we never get a clear picture of just how in love he and Linda are. He comes across as weak, and Linda and her family are so selfish and demanding, they’re not likable either.

MVP: No one.

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Review: Mistress of the Ritz

Recap: The year is 1940. The place is Paris, France at the Ritz Hotel, one of the most beautiful, extravagant and famous hotels in the world. Claude and Blanche are at odds with each other and the world. Fear envelops both of them as the war takes its firm grip on more and more of Europe. For so long, they lived a life of luxury living at the Ritz with Claude as the hotel manager and Blanche, his wife, gossiping among the wildly famous authors and artists who stayed there. Their marriage was never as strong as the confidence they portrayed separately.

The Nazis are taking over the hotel. Claude no longer runs the place. He must bend to the ways of the Germans and bow before their boldness. Blanche is in fear everyday, wondering what comes next while simultaneously loathing her adulterous husband. So she spends time with her friends, people like Lily, who Claude has come to vehemently dislike over the years.

Out of fear and anger and a need to do something – anything – to fight for her future, Blanche takes her own steps toward battling back against the Nazis, not knowing that her husband is doing the something similar. The lies increase in number but they also stem from good intention and a desire to better their lives.

Analysis: After reading another Melanie Benjamin book so recently, I was thrilled to start Mistress of the Ritz. I had already become familiar with Benjamin’s style of rotating narrators, strong female characters, historical fiction and varying timelines. But when I started Mistress, I was surprised to find this one wasn’t so female-driven. One of the narrators was a man. Would I like this partially-male centric novel as much? Especially when Blanche and Claude were so at odds with each other, so unlikeable initially and so spiteful? It took a few chapters, but yes.

Once Benjamin outlines some of the backstory between Blanche and Claude – their whirlwind meet-cute and wedding, their crazy honeymoon shenanigans and the ongoing issues between them – we start to understand why they are the way they are. And when the story takes a turn, offering solace to both of them via fending off Nazis, the true beauty of their personalities and relationship come to life.

Once again, Melanie Benjamin finds an already incredible TRUE story (Blanche and Claude Auzello were, in fact, real people who used the Ritz to assist the resistance against the Nazis) and finds a way of making it modern and relatable through her depth of characters and their relationships with each other. This is a story that’s 80 years old and not well known, and with the sentiment of a strong women finding her voice in the midst of turmoil, it Mistress reads as 2019 as anything.

MVP: Blanche. Not the most likeable initially, she uses her innate skills, talent and personality to find power in the most troubling times. Her growth and character development are a thing of beauty.

Get Mistress of the Ritz in paperback now for 17.38.

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Review: The Light We Lost

Recap: Can you really blame Lucy? It’s not entirely her “fault” she fell obsessively in love with Gabe. It was an impressionable age, an impressionable time, an impressionable place and period in history even. New York City, September 11, 2001. A chance meeting in class at Columbia followed by a tragedy at a level the city had never seen before. Lucy and Gabe ran together, watched the city go up in smoke and kissed. They needed a glimmer of hope and found it in each other. They needed to believe this wasn’t the end and that while everything broke around them, they could still find something fresh, beautiful and new. And yet. Gabe had a girlfriend. Or an ex who kept them from really exploring the relationship until more than a year later.

By then, they’d considered it a sign. And they were off and running, falling madly, deeply in love with each other in only the way people can when they’re under the age of 25 — romantic to the point of cheesy and incredibly lustful.

Which is why when they break up, Lucy defines break. She falls apart into a million pieces, unable to function or move on. September 11th inspired Gabe to travel to the Middle East and find work as a photojournalist. It was the only thing he felt he could do in response to the terror attacks of that dreaded day. But Lucy couldn’t bring herself to go, and Gabe couldn’t stay.

Lucy eventually finds solace, comfort and ease in Darren. They marry. They build a life together. But Gabe is always there, even when he’s not. The years pass and the more she thinks about him, the more confused Lucy becomes about what Gabe means to her and if their love was ever real at all.

Analysis: From page one, Lucy takes the reader full-throttle into the depths of her heart and mind. She speaks in the second person to “you,” an unusual choice. We don’t immediately know who “you” is but very quickly learn it’s a guy (insert heart-eyes-smiley emoji here). It takes the entire book to find out why she’s speaking in the second person to him, and when we finally do, it’s shocking and desperately sad. But in its completely depressive state, we — and Lucy – finally realize who means what to her. It’s a formatting and narrative decision that really pays off in the end, and throughout the book. Author Jill Santopolo does an excellent job of foreshadowing and dropping just enough hints and clues to force me to turn the page.

The book less has a plot than it really just follows Lucy throughout 13 years of her life, but it’s compellingly written and has unexpected twists and turns, even though that seems like something appropriate for murder mysteries. I felt so in tune with who Lucy was and what she struggled with that I simply devoured the book. Her feelings of first love are nostalgic and relatable for any reader. Each person I know who has read this book has said the same thing: “it’s sad, but it is the most honest portrayal of first love I’ve seen in a book” and THAT is powerful.

MVP: Lucy. She’s complicated, and I didn’t always agree with her decisions or actions, but she’s also like anyone else: just trying to figure it out along the way and doing the best she can given the circumstances and curveballs thrown her way.

Get The Light We Lost in paperback for $11.77.

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Review: Not That Kind of Girl

Recap: Lena Dunham is a woman who has something to say. Like her or not, she uses her platform to proudly proclaim her thoughts and opinions and is willing to use any medium available to do it. Her book of essays is no exception. After years of fictionalizing semi-autobiographical vignettes of women in their twenties on her TV show Girls, she put her pen to the page in this more honestly revealing look at her life to date. She acknowledges that she is young and has so much more to go, and reading her book five years after publication proves as much. In some ways, it’s dated already. Since publication, Dunham and her long-term boyfriend, who is openly written about in several essays, broke up. She also had several major medical emergencies and surgeries and became clean and sober. Her life proves that much of what you think you know in your twenties gets flipped on its head by the time you turn 30.

But as “dated” as the book is in terms of the plot twists of her personal life is how timeless the book is at the same time. She writes openly about losing her virginity, sexual assault, falling in love, falling out of love, breakup with guys, breakups with friends, the power of female friendship, the seemingly always difficult relationship women have with food and their bodies and her experiences with drugs, alcohol, family and the professional working world. Hers is a book and a story and a life that’s relatable for any woman. They’re experiences that, good or bad, that little girls and young women will continue to have for years to come, no matter what generation they fall into.

That may be what makes her book so powerful. This is not some celebrity memoir, dripping with scandal and salacious details of behind-the-scenes hookups and drug problems. Nor is it an opportunity to use her name to announce a political or social do-gooder platform. It’s also not a self-help book, pronouncing herself the knower of all things. It’s simply her story, her life as a person, a woman and nothing else.

Analysis: It’s her honesty that makes the book work, but also her writing. Her simultaneously self-deprecating and ostentatiously prideful humor seeps into every chapter in a way that made me laugh and sometimes shout “Yes! Exactly!” But in darker moments and depictions of assault and disordered eating, my heart hurt. She writes in a matter-of-fact way, not meant to incur sympathy. I respect that.

The book was divided by large sections: Love & Sex, Body, Friendship, Work and Big Picture. Each essay is placed in whatever chapter it fits best thematically. There’s no timeline. Everything’s out of order. Some stories are from college, some as young as when she was two years old. I found myself wondering if she wrote the book all at once or if she pulled from journal entries and essays she wrote in real-time throughout her life. They were just so detailed, it was impressive to me that she would still recall certain nuggets of information and deep emotions from 10, 15, even 20 years earlier.

Some essays were so brief, I was left to wonder what their significance was. But all together, it was a well-structured mess of stories paralleling the well-structured mess she tends to portray on TV, in movies, on red carpets and Instagram: the honest, well-structured mess so many of us are and try to hide, but Lena Dunham does not.

Get Not That Kind of Girl in paperback now for $9.89.

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