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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.

Or get it on your Kindle for $12.99.

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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.

Or on your Kindle for $6.99.

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Review: Wherever You Go There You Are

Recap: Being present. Being mindful. Less time aimlessly scrolling on your phone. These are all things you hear more people talking about these days. Aspirations as many realize how harmful, depressing and unproductive we can be around our phones. But saying that we’re going to do all this is different from actually doing it. The art of mindfulness is less an art and more a conscientious practice — a workout for your brain that develops over time through a lot of hard work. Typically mindfulness starts with meditation. 


I started meditating a few years ago during a tough time in my life and loved the little bits of time it gave me each day to simply relax. But after a while, my meditation practice plateaued, so I went on a five-day silent meditation retreat to really get my engines revving. And boy, did it work. I left refreshed and inspired, with a new outlook and shift in perspective on life. I had bought Wherever You Go, There You Are a while ago but never read it, so I finallyread it after my retreat in the hopes it would keep my meditation glow going. It did. Wherever You Go is the perfect book to not only explain what meditation is and why and how it can be so good for you –so cleansing, so nourishing — but it also explains explicitly how to do it. So many fear meditation because it can seem too “hippie-dippie” or “woo-woo.” Or they worry they won’t be able to do it, that it’ll hurt to sit still for so long, that they won’t be good at it and that their minds will race.

Newsflash: that’s kind of the point: to see how much your mind races and learn what that really means about you and your feelings and emotions. It can be powerful, and this book helps you to understand its value so you can put it in motion.

Analysis: Author Jon Kabat-Zinn is one of the best and brightest in the world of meditation. He’s science-based, so some of his writing can be a little heady. But his metaphors really work, like the mountain meditation. He explains that we should imagine ourselves as mountains, sitting tall with dignity, but still as various weather patterns and chaos happen around us. Some of the quotes and passages he pulled from other great meditators and literature also helped me better understand the power of meditation. Lines like “It turns out we have plenty of time, if we are willing to hold any moments at all in awareness” were a complete and utter revelation to me. Exactly! Yes! This is meditation’s value. But Kabat-Zinn’s ability to word it in such an understandable, simplistic way was incredibly helpful.

And then there was his honesty. He writes about how much he hates washing dishes or how he runs at rapid fire speed up the stairs only to catch himself and wonder “what’s the rush?” These were just what I needed halfway through the book when I thought “this guy is pretty enlightened and I will never be as ‘good’ a meditator as him” — though rightfully so, there’s no such thing as a “good” meditator anyway. But they showed that he has moments during which he lacks mindfulness too. We all do. We are not all walking Buddhas. And so it’s okay if you’re not mindful. Just catch yourself. Without judgement. And keep going in the moment. Wherever you go, there you are.

Get Wherever You Go There You Are in paperback for $8.40.

Or on your Kindle for $9.99.

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Review: Dead If You Don’t

Recap: It was supposed to be a fun Saturday soccer (football) game. Everyone and their mother seemed to be going — or father as the case may be. But the day quickly turned as stadium officials received threats of a terrorist attack at the game, threatening to kill and injure hundreds of fans. But that was just the beginning. Before the game even began, Kipp Brown realized his son, Mungo, was missing. They’d been fighting earlier, but surely his teenage son wouldn’t leave the biggest game of the year over a fight with his father.

The police are slammed, facing both a potential terror attack and kidnapping. The kidnapping is no big surprise considering who Mungo’s father is; Kipp is a well-known and successful business. Anyone would go after him for his money, but they’d be sadly surprised to learn that Brown also has a massive gambling problem and little to no money to his name.

The ransom calls start coming in, and soon Detective Superintendent Roy Grace must step in to deter the terror attack and find Kipp’s son. The investigation leads him to a group of dangerous Albanian men who have made a life for themselves in England by killing anyone who gets in the way of their greedy quest for money, wealth and power. But where is Mungo? And will they get to him in time before he becomes another victim?

Analysis: A straight-up crime detective novel, Dead If You Don’t pulls no punches, getting right to the many tropes that make a crime novel a good one: lots of characters, winding and intertwined storylines, good guys and bad guys, unforeseen turns and short chapters with little cliffhangers that help move the story along quickly.

It didn’t, however, necessarily feel like Roy Grace was the main character of the story. I was more invested in Kipp Brown, his family and his financial stupidity — hoping and praying that he’d learn his lesson when it comes to money. To be fair, of all the officers, Roy Grace was the one whose name I knew the best; he was clearly the star of the unit and the man in charge, but his story was less compelling than some of the other characters in the book. Basic in its structure, but effective in its plotting, Dead If You Don’t was the perfect read if you’re in the mood for a quick and easy crime novel.

MVP: Roy Grace, for the sole reason that he saves the day and Kipp Brown never quite lives up to his full potential.

Get Dead If You Don’t in paperback now for $14.35.

Or on your Kindle for $7.99.

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Review: The Storyteller’s Secret

Recap: It’s after Jaya’s third miscarriage that her marriage falls apart. A journalist in New York, she is at a loss. She no longer has her husband to turn to for support, and her relationship with her mother has always been difficult, lacking love and support. It’s around this time that Jaya learns the grandfather she never knew is dying. He lives in India, where her parents were born, but her mother has no interest in returning home to see her father. Confused and alone, desperately seeking comfort and support in her family, Jaya decides to visit India, to get away from her own problems and to meet her grandfather and learn why he sent her mother away to America many years ago.

By the time she arrives, he has already passed. Inside her mother’s childhood home, she instead finds Ravi, her mother and grandmother’s servant. Ravi welcomes Jaya instantly and over the course of several weeks shows Ravi around India and tells her about her grandparents. It’s a long saga about love, secrets and finding one’s own path. It’s a story that even Jaya’s mother knows nothing about. It’s a story that changes her perception of her life, world and family forever. In looking to the past, Jaya is able to better understand her present and re-shape her future.

Analysis: In its simplest form, the plot of The Storyteller’s Secret sounds like the start of Eat, Pray, Love: woman’s life falls apart, woman sets out on journey across the world, woman finds herself. But Secret also adds the element of the past. The story also changes time periods and storytellers, switching back and forth between Jaya and her grandmother, Amisha, decades earlier. It gives the story an extra layer of depth and mystery that the read is dying to uncover. I found I could not put this book down, desperately wanting to know what happened in Jaya’s family history and how it affected her today.

The title of the book is a reference to so much storytelling that’s happening here: the narration from both Jaya and Amish, the story of Jaya’s past as told to her by Ravi, and the storytelling that Jaya does as a journalist and that her grandmother used to do as a writer and writing teacher. The parallels between Jaya and her unknown grandmother are beautiful and help to deepen the bond between Jaya and her mother. The story is moving in its statements about different cultures and especially womanhood: relationships between women, the strength of women and the sacrifices they make for their families.

The Storyteller’s Secret is a powerful, unstoppable read that makes you laugh, cry, think and feel. A truly excellent story.

MVP: Ravi. While the women are the focus of this book, Ravi may be the real star, the glue that binds together the woman of generations past and present, telling the stories that Amisha is unable to tell in her death. His generosity and love knows no bounds.

Get The Storyteller’s Secret in paperback now for $8.97.

Or get it on your Kindle for free.

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Review: The Four Agreements

Recap: Be impeccable with your word. Don’t take anything personally. Don’t make assumptions. Always do your best. These are the four agreements, the four promises that Toltec master Don Miguel Ruiz says will change your life, offer you personal freedom and make you a happier person with less suffering in this highly recommended self-help book. The agreements are simultaneously simple and difficult: simple in the sense that they appear to be common sense. Of course, if we always do our best, we will be happy. Of course, if we are impeccable with our words or stop assuming or don’t take things personally, we’ll be happy. DUH! But life isn’t quite so easy, and neither is making these changes. It’s one thing to promise to make these agreements; it’s another to actually follow through with them.

Analysis: Before Ruiz can make the case for the four agreements, he first must make the case for why we all have an often insatiable desire to be happy. He does this well, by explaining that we spend our lives raised by our parents, taught their lessons, experiencing the world and society around us and essentially accepting everything that’s thrown our way to be “true.” But it doesn’t have to be this way. It’s up to us to decide whether we want to follow societal norms. It’s up to us to decide whether we want to fit in with the crowd or stand out in our own greatness. He explains that if we opt to not care what other people think. to do what makes us happy and to keep a positive outlook, we can be and remain happy. He explains that most of the suffering we each experience in life is self-induced.

For example, maybe someone cuts you off in traffic and you become enraged. You honk at them and start waving your arms and yelling in the car. The other driver sees you and starts yelling back or gives you the finger. The rest of the drive, you spend gripping your wheel, fuming. We’ve all been there. But what if, when that person cuts us off, we don’t take it personally? What if we realize that person is probably in a massive rush for some reason? What if we realize that their actions had everything to do with them and absolutely nothing to do with us? Then we’d just merrily continue driving to our destination, completely at ease. So why do we so often go down the first path? It’s because we’re causing our own suffering. We have the power to change this. We have the power to recognize that what other people do has nothing to do with us. We have the power to take a positive approach and fill the world with joy instead of anger. It will make you feel better and the others around you feel better too.

The concepts are easy. The actions are hard. But they are also worth it. Because we all want ease and joy. Ruiz’s book is at times a little heady and very spiritual, so it might be a bit much for some. But if you really want to improve your life and yourself, this is a book that will single-handedly get you there.

Get The Four Agreements in paperback for $7.49.

Or on your Kindle for $4.02.

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Movie vs. Book: The Hate U Give

the hate u giveStarr Carter has to bounce back and forth between two worlds: the white world of her private school and the black world in which she lives with her black family in a predominantly black neighborhood, known for its violence and lower income housing. It’s when she’s at a party in her neighborhood that her two worlds come to a head.

She meets up with her oldest friend, Khalil, who she hasn’t seen in quite some time. After shots are fired at the party, the two escape. When Khalil drives Starr home, he’s pulled over. He’s asked to step out of the car. He complies but reaches back in the car to check on Starr and grab his hairbrush. It’s at that moment that Khalil is shot and killed by a white police officer.

Witnessing this devastating trauma is not even the first time it’s happened to Starr. When she was 10 years old, her other best friend was innocently shot and killed in a drive-by shooting.

Tension within the town escalates as the media reports that Khalil had been dealing drugs and paints the white officer in a better light. Starr speaks to investigators but her parents refuse to have her identity revealed. She also keeps the fact that she was a witness to the shooting a secret from her white friends and boyfriend, as she continues to try and separate the worlds. But ultimately, she can’t keep them separate anymore, and as her worlds collide, she grows into the woman she never knew she could be.

The movie version of The Hate U Give is excellent and follows the novel almost to a T. There are four major changes it makes — some are understandable, some are little too dramatic for an already dramatic story. First of all, in the movie Starr and Khalil kiss before he is killed. An understandable change, it helps explain the depth of their relationship and what they mean to each other, making his death all the more shocking and painful for the viewer. That said, I didn’t like that they kissed because it made Starr cheat on her actual boyfriend, something her character would never actually do.

The movie also eliminates the DeVante character: DeVante is a teen in the neighborhood who gets caught up in one of the local gangs. Starr’s father doesn’t want to see him get lost in the gang world so he takes him in and protects him from the gang leaders. He’s a beautiful parallel to Khalil and Starr’s father and what each of them could have been had they received guidance from an adult. Instead the movie folds DeVante’s character into Starr’s older brother. I loved DeVante in the book, but again, I understand the decision to cut him to shorten the length of the movie.

The other big changes come at the end of the movie as rioters are taking over the city, pushing for justice for Khalil. In the novel, Starr navigates the riots with her brother, DeVante and her boyfriend. But in the movie, the boyfriend leaves early and goes home. Maybe producers thought having a white boy in the midst of black people rioting wouldn’t be believable. But in the novel, I thought it was good to have a white person experience that, to be caught up in something that the average white person doesn’t typically see, to witness an eye-opening historic moment and also to show his love for his girlfriend by staying with her through a dangerous time.

But the biggest shock in the movie (***SPOILER ALERT***) comes when Starr’s little brother holds up a gun to the gang leader who has just burned down their father’s grocery story in the middle of the riots. Sure, it is a truly perfect image of how gun violence, racism and society impact children and rob them of their innocence. But it so shocking, dark and also completely absurd (in that if Starr’s parents were looking for her in the riots, they would NEVER bring a seven-year-old with them), it just didn’t work for me. In the book, the cops arrive and cuff the gang leader pretty quickly without any major escalation. Call that anti-climactic if you will, but I call that realistic.

The important thing to keep in mind regardless is that both the book and movie are incredibly important right now. They are so topical, so relevant, so timely, so valuable, I would highly recommend both to everyone.

Get The Hate U Give now in paperback for $7.15. 

Or get it on your Kindle for $11.99.

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