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Review: The Sweeney Sisters

Recap: The Sweeney sisters are known around Southport, not solely for their seemingly sweet sisterly bond or their beautiful red hair. But as is too often the case in towns based on tradition, they are known for their relation to a man: their father, the great author William Sweeney.

So when William Sweeney dies, and the country, celebrities, literary enthusiasts and the entirely of Southport mourn his loss, the women must come together with a force similar to that of their father’s prose to a) organize his funeral and celebration of life b) go through his things, sell his house and divide the earnings he left behind and c) find the memoir he wrote that he only wanted published after he died.

What they didn’t anticipate adding to that To Do List was d) forming a relationship with the sister they never knew they had, the lovechild their father had with the next door neighbor while he was still married to their mother.

The Sweeney Sisters follows put-together Liza, mad Maggie, tackle-it-all Tricia as they spend the summer coming to terms with their father’s loss by befriending Serena, their next-door-neighbor turned sister. Serena is a journalist, and they worry she may be seeking out salacious details to write a scandalous, bestselling memoir and tarnish their father’s name. It’s unclear if they can trust this new sister and if they ever really knew their father.

Analysis: Summer setting, check. Romantic sex scenes near water, check. Catty women, check. The Sweeney Sisters has all the trappings of a fun summer beach read (which frankly the world could use right now). And yet, it’s fair to say this fun novel goes a little beyond that. Sure, the ending is wrapped up with a perfect, beautiful bow, maybe a little too perfect. And sure, some of the plots were tropes I’ve read in other books.

But the relationships between the sisters feels real. These are women who are very clearly outlined, who are so different and yet so the same, who really know each other and understand why they are the way they are. Adding a fourth sister to the mix could have been done in a generic way (i.e. all the sisters hate her and then learn to love her or all the sisters love her and then realize she’s evil). Instead, it’s a slow burn and each sister has a unique, individual relationship with the new sister, making it less predictable as to how things would all wind up.

Each sister also has her own problems, aside from the death of their father and the entrance of Serena: Liza with her divorce, Maggie without a job or real inspiration for her path in life and Tricia with her difficultly in connecting with others. Between the three of them (four, if you include Serena!), there is some quality for any woman to relate to: loss, failure, fear. It’s book about women coming together to stand on their own without needing a man to help them, and that is something to be revered.

MVP: Maggie. Her ultimate ending is a little too picture perfect for me, but she is so messy and dramatic and fractured, so wild and free and fun. Her journey in the book, connecting with her late mother through art, is one of true awakening in a way that feels authentically sad and beautiful.

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Review: Okay Fine Whatever

Recap: Courtenay Hameister has been living in a state of anxiety and dread for years. She knows it. She’s accepted it as her way of being. And then she decides to step down from her job as a host of a popular NPR show, knowing that working on the show in a less-showy capacity will eliminate a fair amount of her stress. She’s right, but she quickly realizes in order to better handle her anxiety, she cannot only step down but also must step up and face her fears.

Courtenay Hameister begins a new mission, calling it her Okay Fine Whatever (OFW) Project, during which she must suck it up and say “okay, fine whatever” to all the things that scare her. For a year-and-a-half, she follows this mantra as she dives into a sensory-deprivation tank, goes on 28 first dates, visits a sex club, dates polyamorous men, books a session with a professional cuddler and gets high while writing with her coworkers.

For better perspective, it’s worth noting we’re not talking about a young, hot twenty-something embarking on all this but a mid-40’s woman who never had experience in any of these areas. This is exactly why these leaps of faith are much more than simply “experimentations” but they’re explorations of self-discovery and opportunities to flex her bravery muscles, which only sets her up for the next big thing in her life.

Analysis: Doused in dry humor and brave bluntness, Okay Fine Whatever may have been the exact perfect book to read in the middle of a pandemic. Though compartmentalized into little vignettes, it’s a book that forces you to step back and look at the bigger picture. It’s not about her crazy shenanigans, but about the baby steps she’s taking toward being up to the something bigger in her life. She’s doing the things she needs to do to take a massive leap at the end, and that’s more than I can say for most people.

It must be said that the concept feels a little redundant. Grey’s Anatomy writer/producer/creator Shonda Rhimes wrote the book Year of Yes a number of years ago with a similar idea: say yes to all the things that scare her. But the things Hameister embarks on versus Rhimes are completely different, as is her writing style and voice. So while similar in nature, they’re not necessarily that similar in tone.

Hamesiter is uproariously funny and weird and goes in unexpected directions. Her honesty is astounding; I know I wouldn’t feel comfortable writing half the things she wrote about, let alone doing them. Massive kudos to Hameister for letting it all hang out there.

Get it in hardcover for $14.79.

Or get it on your Kindle for $11.99.

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Review: Unbearable Lightness

Recap: There’s a voice in Portia de Rossi’s head. There’s a voice telling her she’s disgusting. And fat. And lazy. Ugly. Stupid. Worthless. It’s a voice that’s been there since she was a little girl, pushing her to work harder at everything, including her job, her weight, her sexuality. It’s a voice that’s only grown louder over the years until it becomes a constant and piercing ringing in her ears.

In Unbearable Lightness, actress Portia de Rossi writes honestly about her struggles with an eating disorder, being gay and fame and success. She writes about her young modeling career, her journey from Australia to America, the pull she felt to be “pretty” and “perfect” and “straight” in order to attain success in Hollywood.

She writes about the embarrassment and crying fits while doing fittings for her first big job on “Ally McBeal” and her divorce from her husband, knowing she was in love with women in her life. She opens up about the vomiting after eating Mexican food or ice cream, the incessant cycle of binge and purge, of running up and down the stairs for an hour to eliminate the calories she’d already eaten.

Reading this book, one comes to learn Portia de Rossi was an extremely unhappy woman for a very long time, a woman living in fear, in a state of inner isolation and violence, striving for something more while only allowing herself to feel less.

Analysis: This book came recommended to me by a good friend, and though I don’t know much about Portia de Rossi or her work, I read it anyway. And I’m glad. As someone who overcame an eating disorder years ago, I identified with so many of her disordered thoughts around food. I remembered those days. But the degree to which de Rossi obsessed was on another level that seems unimaginable.

Her ability to access those thoughts directly, to state them plainly without judgement or shame is astounding. Her bluntness and honesty and beautiful, yet dark language are impressive. Not every “celebrity memoir” is necessarily well-written. This one is. She has a poetic way of describing the deranged thoughts coursing through her mind.

The book details her slow and steady declines and culminates in the moment where she needs help. It was an interesting way to end the book, rather than giving us the full rollercoaster ride of worsening and getting better. She offers an epilogue, but it’s written from the voice of so many years later that it’s hard to piece together exactly what the journey was from start to finish. And maybe that was the whole point — to NOT offer glimmers of hope amid shiny stars and rainbows, but to be REAL. And real is not always nice.

Get Unbearable Lightness in paperback now for $16.99.

Or on your Kindle for $12.99.

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Review: The Magnanimous Heart

Recap: A reflection on loss and grief, The Magnanimous Heart dives into meditation as a means of not necessarily coping with it all, but embracing it all as part of the process of life. The self-help book explains that the “magnanimous heart” is a heart of freedom, liberation, acceptance and balance. By explaining the “constant squeeze” of suffering that we all feel, author Narayan Helen Liebenson offers suggestions and concepts for stepping into feelings of “enoughness.” 

She makes the case for not trying to “fix” anything but to accept and approach each moment exactly as it is and to recognize that our thoughts are mere thoughts, not truths or facts. 

She explains the difference between psychological questions and meditative questions and encourages asking yourself those meditative questions and learning to just sit in it, even though the answers may not come. 

The real freedom, she explains, comes when we relax the grasping, the “constant squeeze” for perfection or more or whatever that unattainable thing may be for you. It comes when we recognize “enoughness,” allow it and accept it. 

Analysis: As a practitioner of meditation for several years and a deeper dive over the last year, I had been looking forward to reading this book for quite some time. After my father died a few years back, the title resonated with me. I ultimately enjoyed the book and found it incredibly insightful but it’s more difficult to say I found it useful. 

Liebenson writes in a very abstract, greater concept kind of way with too few anecdotes to make me feel connected to her. I had to read sentences sometimes three and four times just to understand the point. And then once she made it, she often repeated it.

I loved everything she wrote and appreciated her explanations of why meditation can be helpful. But with a few weeks hindsight, I already can’t think of a specific tangible tidbit she offered for me to use to either improve my life or my daily practice …other than keep practicing. 

But alas, maybe that’s enough. Maybe that’s the whole point. Maybe if I had been practicing meditation more consciously, my mind would have been sharp enough to have remembered more of her book.

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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.

Get Unqualified in paperback for $7.99.

Or on your Kindle for $4.99.

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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.

Get Before We Were Yours now in paperback for $10.29.

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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.

Get Then She Was Gone in paperback now for $8.78.

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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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