Tag: California

Spring 2018 Wrap-Up

Spring 2018 Wrap-Up

I didn’t do a wrap up for May since there weren’t many books I didn’t want to write about as their own posts or theme posts (look for a post on writing about mental illness coming soon-ish).   In May, I finished seven books and two audiobooks for a total of 2,143 pages; 23 hours and 28 minutes of books. June was also seven books, one very long audiobook (Children of Blood and Bone) for 2, 354 pages; 17 hours and 54 minutes. For the year, that brings us to 15, 841 pages for the year; 187 hours, 31 minutes. You know, in case you were wondering.

And without further ado, here are some mini-reviews of some of the books I enjoyed in June that, oddly enough, are all partially or totally set in California.  Accidental theme?

The Ensemble
“What’s inner harmony?” Brit asked. Daniel laughed, but she continued, “No, really. How can you harmonize with yourself?”

Daniel stopped laughing abruptly. He folded his hands on the table. “Well, I don’t know about you, but I contain many pitches. It’s about moving from polyphony to harmony. People are so much music. People don’t recognize that enough.”

The Ensemble is one of those books that getting a lot of hype—more than one book subscription chose it this summer, Girls Night In chose it for their July read, and Modern Mrs. Darcy chose it as one of her Summer Reading Guide books. This is a book that, for once, mostly holds up to that hype. The Ensemble follows leader Jana, prodigy Henry, scrappy Daniel, and quiet Brit—the Van Ness Quartet—over the span of almost twenty years making music together.

If you’ve read much around here, you’ll know that I talk quite a bit about balance—books that hit the right note (pun intended!) of lightness of story with depth of substance. The drama—driven by external events and internal conflict—kept the book moving at a comfortable clip so I never felt bored while reading. At the same time, The Ensemble was highly character driven—Gabel drew you into the world of these four characters—they made you care, they made you a little mad, a little crazy with their choices. All four of them were also relatable—despite the fact that I’ve never been in the professional music world, I could see something in each of them that I identified with (except maybe Henry. No one has ever accused me of being a prodigy at anything). The quartet’s world was also accessible—you hear about “world building” in the context of fantasy books but Gabel had to do a fair bit of that here. The majority of her readers are probably not within the world of high-stakes career musicianship and it would have been easy to make the book insider-ish. I never felt like I didn’t understand what was happening, nor did I feel like Gabel was speaking down to me. There were no awkward asides, no characters explaining things in a way that felt unnatural. Gabel masterfully opened this world as she revealed her characters. The Ensemble is a definitely a worthwhile summer read.

Far From The Tree
Far From The Tree is the story of three siblings, separated at birth—Grace and Maya were both relinquished at their births while Joaquin was removed from their mother’s care around age 1. None of them knew about each other before now. While Grace and Maya seem to have had it “easy” by being adopted, you quickly realize that families are complicated, whether formed by choice or blood. Joaquin, having been in foster care for almost seventeen years, seems to finally have it good and yet, people can always disappoint you. As the three come together and begin to search for their birth mom, the search will turn up more than any of them ever expected.

The more YA I read as an adult, the more I wish YA had been like this twenty years ago (yes, I am that old), or that I had known where the books like this were when I was the target audience of the YA author. Far From The Tree tackles tricky subjects—teen pregnancy, adoption, foster care—with grace and depth while using situations and language that are appropriate for a high school audience.   Even the children’s birth mother is shown grace as the children discover who she is and how she came to make the choices she made. As a final note, Benway also made an effort to include diverse characters—Maya is a lesbian while Joaquin is mixed-race. I loved these characters, I appreciated the depth Benway brought to the adoption conversation, and I never felt like I was being preached at or that Benway was taking the easy way out on difficult topics.   Studies show that reading books makes readers more empathetic—with books like Far From The Tree I can see how that is the case.   This is a book I highly recommend for both adults and young adults alike.

Goodbye, Vitamin
Goodbye, Vitamin is thirty-year old Ruth’s chronicle of an unexpected year at home following the end of her engagement and her father’s diagnosis with early-onset Alzheimer’s. As a child, Ruth’s father kept a small diary of funny things she said and did, little milestones. Ruth’s documenting of this year at home is the reverse—while she does write much about her own life (particularly at the beginning during the set up), as she settles into life in her parents’ house again, she chronicles her father’s life. His moments of brilliance even as the disease progresses. As the year goes by and Ruth finds her place again with a family she had lost connection to, Ruth writes less until the last chapters have only a few entries per month. Goodbye, Vitamin is poignant and short—I actually felt it was a little too short. I think Khong’s point was that Ruth was reforming her connections to her family and to what life could be as she wrote—as Ruth actually engaged with them, she spent less time writing. What it felt like was that Khong ran out of steam and the book petered out. This really was my only criticism. Ruth won’t be everyone’s favorite protagonist—in many ways she has the sense of life happening to her rather than having agency in her choices as the book opens (I mean this more about her job and place in life, and not in her fiancé’s being a total ass). I wasn’t wild about her as the book began, but I stuck with it and she leveled out for me and I grew to care about her a few “months” (chapters) into the book and, by the end, wanted more of her.

Well that’s it, friends.  Did you read anything good in May or June? I’d love to hear your spring recommendations, dear readers.

Header picture credit: Annie Spratt

Review: A Place For Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza

Review: A Place For Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza

Note: I drafted this post before the decision issued yesterday in Trump v. Hawaii upholding the Muslim ban.  I enjoyed A Place For Us and felt it was relevant when I finished it almost a month ago–today it feels even more relevant.  No matter what the president and the courts have said, Muslims have a place in this country.  This is our generation’s Korematsu and I hope that we feel shame over it sooner rather than later.  If you are of the Muslim faith or from an immigrant family and have stumbled upon this blog, hear me say clearly that you are wanted here.  <3

I received a digital ARC of this book from SJP for Hogarth on NetGalley. I’m grateful to SJP for Hogarth for their generosity and am happy to post this honest review. All opinions are my own.

And it is in these moments that the fabric of my life reveals itself to be an illusion: thinking that I am free, we all are, that we could grow around your loss like a tree that bends around a barrier or wound. That I do not need to see you again. That the reality of our life as it is now is the best that we could have done and the best we could have hoped for.

Synopsis
Set on the day of an oldest sister’s wedding, A Place For Us, introduces the reader to a Muslim Indian-American family whose estranged youngest son has returned for the celebration. Though A Place For Us, Mirza explores themes of one’s place within a family, a family’s place within a community, and a Muslim and Indian community’s place within 21st Century American society. Told in shifting narratives through the decades leading to the wedding, A Place For Us shines as a deeply relevant, debut novel.

Structure
A Place for Us bounces around in time, which will drive some readers a little crazy, though Mirza writes within this structure as well as it can be done. The modern starting point is older sister Hadia’s wedding, for which Amar has come home for the first time in years. We’re told he’s been gone; from there the book flashes back in time to show us why and what it took for him to come home today.   There is no date headers/signpost when the timeline changes—the narrative simply shifts and you determine through what people are talking about how many years forward or backward you are within the children’s lives. This could be really confusing, but in Mirza’s hands, it’s as clean and clear as it can be. She has major events in the children’s lives as signposts that come up fairly quickly. These events and/or comments about the children’s ages or school grade are peppered in early within new sections so you can quickly place it within the narrative.

This has the effect of making the narrative read like a puzzle—you can pretty clearly understand the piece in your own hand and with a little study, you can see where it goes. Each piece makes you form one idea as you read and that idea is confirmed or changed when another character’s point of view and experience appear several vignettes later.

The other thing that helps this structure be less jarring is that the book is told in third person by an omniscient narrator so you can tell when the perspective shifts to another character and who that person is. Several perspectives and times appear within most chapters so when Mirza shifts time and person, there is a paragraph break and symbol that indicates a change so you know you need to be looking for a different time and character. I enjoy when authors use non-linear timelines; just be warned this structure (in addition to the themes and content) make this book one that does require a little more energy and focus to really dig into.

Character Development
The bouncing in time reveals different characters to varying extents. The early chapters are heavy on Hadia and Layla, the three children’s mother. The center picks up more with Amar and the ending is almost entirely Rafiq, the father.

At its heart, A Place For Us is about Amar’s place within the family as much as it is about the place of an Indian Muslim family in modern American society.   It is interesting then that Hadia and Layla are the ones to introduce us to Amar and Rafiq—these two women largely form our opinions of the boy and his father before either of them is allowed to influence our feelings of them much.

Hadia comes across in her own vignettes and others as mostly likeable. She isn’t perfect—she makes (but recognizes) her mistakes. She is perhaps the only character whose presentation didn’t change how I felt about her through the book. Layla’s early chapters make her seem sympathetic; yet later chapters made me reform my opinion. In her efforts to do the best for her children, she does things that hurt them, never really realizing her role in creating the current system of estrangement we have now. You don’t see her mistakes until after you’ve met and been hearing from her for a while, though, so the shift felt like a betrayal—not on the part of Mirza whose writing here is masterful, but by Layla. I trusted her and my trust was broken.

The contrast to this is Rafiq—we don’t meet him on his own terms until the end, when our opinions of him are fully formed by what others have said about him. This gave me the opposite experience of Layla—I hated him, until he had a chance to speak for himself. He is still a deeply flawed man whose choices contributed to where we find our characters today; however, Mirza made me care about him in the end. To go from where we started to wanting the best for him at the end took one hell of a writer and I can’t wait to see where Mirza writes next.

The only odd choice Mirza made in structuring her book and introducing her characters this way is that it feels we never really meet Huda, the middle child. She is present only in relation to the other children and never the focus of a vignette. She was left only partially formed for me. Other reviewers have noted this as well. She serves a purpose—she was the partner to Hadia, so Amar felt more left out as the third-wheel-child. She also became the most devout, a foil to Hadia’s middle-ish (still religious) path and Amar’s opposite. To an extent then, leaving her out isn’t an option since she has these purposes in the story. But if she is going to be included, it feels like she deserved (and didn’t get) the same characterization as the others.

Finally, Amar. It is hard to talk about Amar and his characterization without giving away plot points that are best left discovered as they come up. I will say that Mirza’s characterization of him made me love him deeply despite his flaws. I could see where Amar was coming from, see how he was (in many ways) a victim of well-intentioned but harmful actions by others, and yet, Amar wasn’t ever fully painted as a victim. He made bad choices for which I felt he was still responsible, but I could see why he made those choices. I loved him most.

Identity
This structure and presentation of characters raised questions of identity that have rarely plagued me as a white woman. I have almost never felt out of place because of my race and have certainly never felt out of place within larger society.

Yet, for this family, there seems to be an unanswerable question about where they belong. September 11th occurs when the children are older—somewhere around middle and high school. They’ve had a relatively peaceful childhood living in an area that has a large Indian Muslim population within a larger white population, so the children have friends in both groups. Within the larger population, the events of September 11th uncover the latent racism of those around them. Amar thought he knew his a place amongst his classmates, only to discover he was wrong. On a micro-level, the family chafes at times with their place with the hierarchical Indian Muslim community. On the individual level, there is the question of how Amar fits within the family—a question everyone tries to pretend isn’t even a question until his piece is gone.

The presentation of the characters and narrative structure also raised questions about the way our identity (as we are perceived by others) is formed. On the one hand, we meet Layla largely through her own explanation of her actions and discover later there is more to the story as others talk about her. Conversely, I formed a (negative) opinion of Rafiq without ever really hearing from him at all in the entire first three-quarters of the book. But then, when I did meet him and could see how the questions of identity colored where he was coming from in in his parenting of Amar and his siblings.

Ending (Very, very mild spoiler)
I suspect that this ending may affect how some readers feel about this book. There’s ambiguous endings and then there’s A Place For Us somewhere a few miles beyond that.

I desperately wanted there to be more to this book. I wanted to keep flipping, to know what happened. For there to be a chance at absolution. And yet, if A Place For Us is to feel authentic, it is hard to imagine a scenario where everything I wished and hoped for these characters could come true. It is a kindness then, that I don’t know. There is a still a chance that all of the members of this family can reconcile. That there can be a place in this world for them together as Indian Muslims and that there can be a place for each of them individually within the family. If the book does not say otherwise, there is hope.

Notes
Published: June 12, 2018 by SJP (@sarahjessicaparker) for Hogarth (@hogarthbooks)
Author: Fatima Farheen Mirza (@ffmirza)
Date read: June 2, 2018
Rating: 4 1/2 stars

DBC January Theme: Foster Care & Adoption

DBC January Theme: Foster Care & Adoption

This month’s focus for the Diverse Books Club* was foster care and adoption. While foster care and adoption can be beautiful things, there can also be heartbreak and difficulty for all involved—birth parents, children, and adoptive parents. Too often, the hard reality of adoption isn’t discussed or portrayed when we speak of these things. Adoptive parents are saviors, the children are lucky to get out, and the fairy tale ends with the judge’s gavel pronouncing the creation of a forever family. But adoption is not a fairy tale for most. It is, quite often, simply a necessary evil.

As an attorney, I have seen parents with disabilities who needed temporary help lose their children entirely to the machine that is the child welfare system. I’ve also seen children who needed help far sooner, but even once the State intervened stood little chance of getting what they needed. The failures are typically not for lack of care on the part of the people involved, but rather a function of a behemoth grown too large to manage with perpetually underfunded staff and resources. The end result is that while individual caseworkers, attorneys, and judges may very well care, the system doesn’t. And it is the system that swallows parents and children whole.

I was grateful, therefore, to see that there are mainstream, accessible books that tackle some of these issues and that DBC selected this as a theme to explore.

forever, or a long, long time
The first DBC book I read this month, and my favorite of the two, was forever, or a long, long time—a middle grade book written by Caela Carter. This book was a pleasant surprise to me since I rarely really get into middle grade books. I’m not a teacher and don’t have children, so I don’t have a reason to ever pick them up outside of a book club selection and they’re usual hit or miss for me. I went ahead and got this one but assumed I might be quitting after a chapter or so. Thankfully, I was wrong.

Summary // Foster Care Damage
Forever is told from the point of view of fourth grader Flora who, along with her younger brother Julian has been adopted into what is supposed to be their forever home.   You quickly come to realize that due to some neglect faced by these two children before landing where they are, Flora struggles with processing language—she understands but has trouble putting her thoughts into words and speaking. Julian hoards food, even though he now receives plenty at the table everyday. For children who have been through at least four placements and “entered care” very young, these disabilities and issues are not terribly surprising. Language delays can be common in children who were neglected or otherwise not engaged at a young age. Similarly, hoarding is a common aftereffect of serious neglect where access to food was limited. Long after the neglect has ended, the psychological remains of this neglect stays—rooting this out and filling in the hole left can take far longer. Nor is it surprising that Flora self-sabotages in school, torn between wanting to do well and please her mom and teacher and not wanting to have to transition away from the teacher and classroom she knows and loves.

Though Flora’s and Julian’s new mom and dad do everything they can and show remarkable patience, the adoption is still hard. Adoption did not make Flora speak overnight or keep her from self-sabotaging. It doesn’t keep Julian from hiding moldy chicken nuggets tucked in the folds of his khakis in his closet. Nor does having a mom and dad keep the children from wondering about their first mom and dad, or where they came from. Since no one seems to be able to tell them, Flora and Julian have created a heartbreaking little game, where they come up with theories of where they came from—they formed on the bottom of the sea, they stepped fully grown from a television, etc.

Adding to the mix is the blended family—Dad had a family before and so adoption comes with a half-sister. Though the adults don’t use the “half” or designate the status/worth of their children by differentiating between those acquired by birth and adoption, you can bet the children do themselves. There is a pervading cloud of otherness that hangs over Flora and Julian, despite the efforts of their parents, teachers, and therapist. No one (except maybe dad’s ex-wife) is to blame and everyone is trying their best.

The final piece of the chaos is the loss of Flora and Julian’s files. No one—not Mom, not the agency—knows where the files are. And so, the family embarks on a quest to find where Flora and Julian came from, tracing back one placement by one placement. On this journey, hard truths come out about where Flora and Julian were placed, what motives some of the placements had, failures of the system that resulted in Flora and Julian losing a loving home that was ready and available for them many years before they stopped bouncing around the system. And they find the home where Flora and Julian were taken right after their emergency removal—the home that left me with the solid feeling that they may have been in trouble before, but the home they were thrust into was far worse.

Along the way are all the people—the loving foster home that Flora and Julian lost. The foster-farm parent who takes in large numbers of kids and gives them the bare minimum. The parent who was more concerned about herself than keeping Flora and Julian together. The caseworker who tried her best but still probably failed. And the forever mom, the forever dad, and the forever siblings. All of these people are real people in the system that makes the foster-adoption process the flawed, hot mess with sometimes happy endings that it is.

Recommended
Having written all of this out, Forever admittedly sounds like a bummer of a book. And yet, it was hopeful. It was hard but, as is age appropriate, it ends well for Flora and Julian. They have their forever family. Forever presents an accurate portrayal of what foster care and adoption can look like for one family in an accessible and age appropriate way. There is nothing graphic or scary; however, this is a book that will spark conversation about the fact that not every family is safe. Not every child is well taken care of. And that kid in class who seems kind of weird and doesn’t look like their family—may be one of the best people to get to know. Because not every family looks alike and that’s more than okay.

Forever is a beautiful book that I’m glad I read and will be recommending for friends with kids. Even those who aren’t involved in foster care or adoption should pick up this book for their children and begin exploring these topics so that when Flora and Julian shows up next to them in class, they have a head start on being kind.

Notes
Published: March 7, 2017 by HarperCollins (harpercollinsus)
Author: Caela Carter
Read: January 5, 2018
Rating: 4 ½ stars

Secret Daughter
Admittedly, I was a little less jazzed about Secret Daughter. I think we’ve pretty well established that I’m a book-snob and my tastes, with some exceptions, veer more LitFic than WomansFic. I don’t love the mass market paperback but give me the snobby book nominated for the Man Booker and talked about on NPR. I want to read and re-read a paragraph just to appreciate the cadence of the words. Secret Daughter is definitely more in the WomansFic class.

Summary
Secret Daughter follows two families beginning with the birth of their daughter in 1984 through 2009. Kavita is Usha/Asha’s birth mother, forced by circumstance to give her daughter up in order to literally save her life. Somer and Krishnan are Asha’s mixed-race parents in the States who adopt her as a very young child. As the book moves through time, you read about Kavita’s life—how she wonders about Asha, how her life slowly improves (at least on the surface) with her husband and her son she was allowed to keep, born about a year after Asha. You struggle with Somer over her infertility, her adoption of Asha, her sacrifice of much of her ambition in order to fit into her new role as Mom. And, when Asha grows old enough, you follow Asha as she wonders who she is and where she come from. Layered over this is the mixed-culture marriage of Somer and Krishnan. Krishnan was, with relatively little complaint from him, forced to assimilate to American culture when he came over many years ago for medical school. Somer, during short visits to India chafes against having to assimilate, even temporarily—leaving her with mostly negative feelings about the country of her child’s birth, even independent of any fears she has about Asha’s birth parents.

Verdict // Importance of books like these
I don’t have any major things I can point to about why I didn’t love this book—I think the problem is that I also don’t have anything I can point to that I loved. There were no paragraphs that I re-read to appreciate the writing, though I also never rolled my eyes at anything overwrought. (Secret Daughter is still head and shoulders above Lilac Girls.) I’d give it 3 ½ stars because it is an above-average book. It just isn’t the kind of book I gravitate to and I don’t want to rush to get back to it when I had to put it down.

While I didn’t love the book, after sitting with it for several days, I do think books like Secret Daughter fill an important role, much the way I think some Jodi Picoult books do. There are many readers who will not pick up a serious work on domestic violence or the recent unmasking of the rampant white supremacy around us and yet, these women will pick up Picture Perfect and Small Great Things. It is important that weighty topics not be limited to serious works but that mass-market fiction sold for $11 in Target also introduces these ideas.

Along these likes Secret Daughter raises points that are not highly talked about with international child adoption. Adoptive mom Somer feels she’s lost herself to give her daughter Asha a beautiful life in America—having, like many mothers, sacrificed her own dreams and ambitions for the sake of her child. For her part, Asha, though adopted as a very child, still wonders about her birth country and her birth family. Though Asha has everything she could want in America and two loving parents, there is still the very real urge to find where she came from and why her parents had to give her up.

Here to is where Secret Daughter raises important points, particularly about international adoption. Many if not most “orphans” in places like India, Haiti, and Ethiopia are not orphans. They are children of poverty whose families gave them up because it was the surest way to ensure they would have access to food and shelter. Or some other circumstances intervened to prevent their birth family from caring for them, but this doesn’t mean they are unloved, unwanted, or even actually orphaned. Even medical advances like the ultrasound and things like abortion access come into play in Secret Daughter as it’s a poorly kept secret that these things are used by some in countries like India for sex-selective abortion. The result in places like India and China is an imbalance where men outnumber women significantly by the time a generation reaches childbearing age.

Thematically, Secret Daughter isn’t a beachy read and yet, it kind of reads like one. The writing is straightforward, the characters easy to identify with. The plot has enough action to keep it moving at a decent clip. It’s not a book I plan to keep and I probably won’t recommend widely, though it is something I’d recommend to my mother since she camps pretty solidly in the Women’s Fiction section in her typical reading tastes. If you lean more Women’s Fic than LitFic this is a book you’d enjoy and I do think it a worthwhile use of your time.

If you do pick up Secret Daughter, make sure to read the author’s note about her inspiration to write the book and the real life facts behind Asha’s story.

Notes
Published: April 5, 2011 by William Morrow books (paperback) (@williammorrowbooks)
Author: Shilpi Somaya Gowda (@shilpi_gowda)
Read: January 11, 2018
Rating: 3 ½ stars

*New Members are always welcome in our community for Diverse Books Club!  We’re a publicly viewable group on Goodreads, but if you have any trouble finding us, leave me a comment with your Goodreads name and I can invite you directly.

Review: My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent


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There is so much of her life she doesn’t understand. She knows what happened, but why it happened and what it meant, she doesn’t know.

My Absolute Darling centers around fourteen year-old Turtle and the world defined for her by her father’s making. The central character in her life, he has wrapped himself so tightly around her that he defines her thoughts and is the source of both her pleasure and her pain. Turtle is both everything (his absolute darling) and nothing (“kibble”) to Martin. Its only as others—a new girl named Cayenne and a boy named Jacob—enter Turtle’s world that the rot becomes obvious. Turtle struggles to escape—bound to her father by more than the physical isolation and difficulty of survival without him—until it becomes clear it is the only option to keep both Jacob and Cayenne safe.

Problems
I should never have finished this book. It might be unfair to say so…but I’m blaming this book for the slump I hit in the beginning of November and only managed to come out of a few weeks ago.   Suffice to say, I hated this book. It had all the hallmarks of a book I would love—complicated (to the extreme) families, a literary style, strong female protagonist, and (since I’m a snob) buzz from critics. And yet, in execution, this book not only fell flat for me, it dug a gigantic hole, fell into it, and dragged my reading life down with it. I finished it only so that I could review it—not sure I will make this mistake again since it had a larger impact on my reading generally that I anticipated.

My largest complaints with the book are two-fold: it was unnecessarily graphic and the word “cunt” was overused in the extreme. I don’t think I’m spoiling the book if I say that My Absolute Darling centers around a father-daughter relationship where the father has replaced his wife with his daughter. There are graphic descriptions of rape of 8th and 9th grade Turtle, along with graphic descriptions of Turtle reaching orgasm with her dad—this is all she’s known and her own body both obeys and betrays her in turns throughout the book. My issue here is that the descriptions go so far into these events that the descriptions of sex become pornographic and over the top. Tallent is showing off that he isn’t afraid to go there and can write these scenes. A better writer could still have made me hate Martin, could even have described some of the rape scenes and made the point about Turtle’s body, without the gratuitous showing off.

As to the c-word, Turtle has internalized Martin’s extreme misogyny—as evidenced by the reader’s view of her internal monologue, where every female Turtle encounters (and even Turtle herself) are “stupid cunts.” At some point, using over 100 c-words to describe women has gone so far past making Tallent’s point as to become, again, evidence of Tallent trying too hard. From his short biography at the back of the book, Tallent appears to have grown up rather liberally, raised by two moms, so this overabundance of the c-word seems less likely to be a product of Tallent’s own secret feelings and rather a symptom of Tallent perhaps not having spent time with any actual misogynists and, instead assuming they use the word “cunt” in every sentence. It felt cheap, it lost its shock value, and there were other, less obvious and more skillful ways to show Turtle has internalized her father’s deep hatred for women.

From looking at other reviews, these are the two main complaints. Some people aren’t bothered by these two elements and, as a result, My Absolute Darling has many five-star reviews on both Goodreads and Amazon. Indeed, if this is the kind of litfic you usually like and you can look past these two elements, this is a well-written book that you may really enjoy. I just couldn’t look past them.

Wild Coast
The setting in My Absolute Darling is so central to the book as to become here a character. The descriptions are lush and wild, reflecting back to Turtle and the reader the internal wildness Turtle feels and the barbaric way Martin is raising Turtle. I didn’t get as much out of these descriptions (they are legion) as I have in other books, though I suspect this may have been because my forays into the Pacific Northwest have been strictly limited to the streets of Seattle and the ferry to Bainbridge Island. Having no context or appreciation of either flora or fauna, the lengthy descriptions became a touch monotonous (I can’t tell an Aspen leaf from Maple, I just know I have to rake them all… so I’m not your girl here). For someone with any more appreciation of nature than I, the lush descriptions likely add to the overall feel of the book. For me, I know enough to know I didn’t know enough to fully appreciate these descriptions.

Characters
Outside of beautiful writing, the only elements that kept me going in My Absolute Darling were the female characters—Turtle and Anna. Turtle is resilience personified. I dislike what Tallent frequently did with her inner monologue embracing of misogyny, and she often seemed much older than fourteen (much older than even her forced life experiences would have made her). So she wasn’t perfect. But she was brave and she was fierce. Her internal struggles kept her from fully saving herself until it was clear the only way to save another was to save them both. She was sacrificial in unexpected ways and the last chapters of the book when she takes a stand are the reason I’m giving this book more than one star.  (That and it will be the rare book that would make me rate anything on the same level as Hillbilly Elegy). Even in her brokenness, I wanted to cheer for her. To encourage her to step out of her shell, even if that left her skin exposed and vulnerable.  Anna, as a minor character, is still well-fleshed out. You care for her as she cares for Turtle—pushing and fighting for Turtle, even as Turtle lashes out at her. For all the other flaws in the book, Tallent’s female characters—particularly these two—are beautifully thought out and presented with an internal integrity that makes them appealing, once you cut through the excessive usage of “cunt.”

Notes
Published: August 29, 2017 by Riverhead Books
Author: Gabriel Tallent
Date read: November 27, 2017
Rating: 2 ½ stars

Review: Woman No. 17 by Edan Lepucki


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I was sick of memoirs and the swagger of survivors, the way they mounted the past above the mantel for all to ooh and aah over.

Set Up and Synopsis
Right before Woman No. 17, I’d had an odd run of books. It happens—I get in a rut and don’t love several books or I love all of them and I’m anticipating the run of goodness ending. More recently, I’ve somehow wound up on a run of books about racism—either directly or tangentially (Sing, Unburied, Sing, The Color Purple, Stella by Starlight, Trell, American Street) such that I needed something more pop than folk to reset and pull me out of the hole I had inadvertently dug myself with a series of serious books.

With Woman No. 17, it was a bit of a roller coaster right before—several good, one amazing, several “meh.” I knew I had the string of books starting with Sing, Unburied, Sing coming so I wanted something a little mindless. I thought I was picking up a thriller. That’s what Woman No. 17 sounds like, right? A serial killer is on a spree, but he’s going to mess up on woman number 17….

Not even close.

“Woman No. 17” is Lady Daniels, a would-be writer currently separated from her husband, estranged from her mother, and in need of a nanny for her youngest child. Newly reinvented “S,” walks in to fill this void, spending her days as nanny and confidante to Lady and her nights drunkenly reinventing her mother’s life as an extended piece of performance art. As S. grows closer to Lady’s older son, Seth, it’s only a matter of time until all of the plates S. is spinning to keep up her façade spin out of control. While the book is engaging and will keep you glued to your seat, there is no serial killer running amok in the Hollywood Hills.

As an aside, if you ever needed proof that I occasionally pick books without reading the synopsis and solely because they’re Book of the Month picks or ones critics are talking about, this would be it. I do, however, feel vindicated that another Amazon reviewer thought they were also getting a mystery/thriller but also wound up pleasantly surprised.

Mothers & Identity
I certainly won’t claim it is universal, but the most fraught relationship many women have is with their mothers. Women No. 17 takes the typical tension and turns up the voltage by ten.

Esther Shapiro—now S. Fowler, after her mother’s maiden name—reinvents herself as her mother—from the roots of her hair to the tips of her liver—inhabiting her mother’s personality and mannerisms down to her functioning alcoholism. Lady has spent her life trying to escape from her own mother, whose interference in Lady’s early life far exceeded simple “meddling.” Even Lady’s husband, Karl, and his twin sister Kit have their own mommy-issues as adults who grew up with a parent who had a favored and disfavored child.

In exploring Lady and S.’s relationship with their mothers, Lepucki delves into how each woman’s identity was formed—and with S. how she is actively creating an identity for herself that mimics her mother’s. Lepucki hits the reader over the head with this theme of identity and mothers’ involvement–to me, this was the only area Lepucki was heavy-handed and could have pulled back a bit.

As the book progresses and Lady takes S. (and thus, the reader) into her confidence, her façade drops bit-by-bit until it isn’t entirely clear who Lady is—even to herself. Her birth name is Pearl—a name she rejects with the nickname “Lady.” On top of these, she is also Woman No. 17—the subject of one of Kit’s famous photographs. By giving her three different names, making clear she is different things to different people, Lepucki hammers the idea that Lady is not one coherent person, nor does she know who she is.

With the focus on identity and how mothers shape the women we become, Woman No. 17 becomes a fascinating character study of both Esther/S. and Lady and, tangentially, of the mothers they are trying to become and escape from at the same time.

Writing
The writing is snappy (Lady refers to her mother at one point as a “spiritual landfill in heels”) without being flowery or show-offy. The snap hits the right mark, flowed naturally, and didn’t leave me feel like Lepucki was trying too hard for the quirk. The writing is gritty in places, reminiscent of the imperfections and streaks in classic films. The grit fits the noir style—this story would be out of place if cleaned up by squeaky-perfect writing.

Ending (No Spoilers)
Books as dark and psychologically twisty as Woman No. 17 usually seem to end with no real resolution—the authors aren’t sure how to give the characters resolution, particularly something that might be a happy resolution, without having to also give them years of therapy to be believable and so—the books usually end without the reader knowing where the characters go from there. For a book of this twisty vein, Lepucki does a remarkable job providing a believable resolution for her characters. Lady and S.’s ends aren’t disingenuously happy but also aren’t so bleak as to be unsatisfying. They’re believable with enough hope for the future of both to be satisfying.

Audience
Woman No. 17 gets remarkably varied reviews on Amazon. This may be because others also judged the book by the title (and the cover doesn’t help) and thought the book was a thriller. Others seem to have found the characters too weird—I understand this to a point. I hope there aren’t a ton of people running around with S.’s pathological need to become her mother, manipulating and lying to everyone around them. There’s only so many of those folks society can take before we all fall to chaos. Similarly, several reviewers found many/most/ok all of the characters deeply unlikeable.

It’s dark without being bleak, Hollywood Noir without any actual crime. It doesn’t suffer from an ambiguous ending and, upon completion, it’s clear Lepucki knew where she was going. The book has a clear arc (in hindsight, not as much when reading) and is tightly crafted along this arc. As long as you can handle dark books with morally ambiguous characters and don’t have triggers regarding mother-daughter relationships, I’d recommend this book. While they are very different thematically and in style, I’d recommend Woman No. 17 particularly for readers who enjoyed The Fall of Lisa Bellow—there’s a similar undercurrent between the two that I think gives them a similar appeal.

Notes
Published May 9, 2017 by Hogarth (@hogarthbooks)
Author: Edan Lepucki (@edanlepucki)
Date read: August 26, 2017
Rating: 3 1/2 Stars

Review: When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon


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…Ritu auntie only waved her off, as if she thought Dimple were being demure—who on earth went to college with anything but the aspiration of landing a marriageable partner? Dimple thought of Insomnia Con., of Jenny Lindt, of SFSU, of Stanford. Of all the things she’d jeopardize if she called Ritu auntie a backward, anti-feminist blight on democratic society…

Synopsis
Dimple just needs to get out of the house, with her mother constantly foisting eyeliner and dreams of the IIH (Ideal Indian Husband) on her, to InsomniaCon., a six week coding conference where the winning final project gets to work with Dimple’s idol, Jenny Lindt, to develop and market an app. Rishi is also going to Insomnia Con…to meet Dimple, the girl their parents have arranged to be his wife (a fact about which Dimple is completely unaware). As the novel comes to a head, Dimple has to choose between following her passion for coding and web development and a growing passion for Rishi….or does she?

Representation
Representation matters and Sandhya Menon knocks it out of the park with When Dimple Met Rishi. While I’m by no stretch of the imagination a connoisseur of YA books, I can’t easily name any others with two Indian-American characters who feature prominently. (There probably are some but I think we can agree not enough given their statistical representation in the population.) I loved that Dimple defies old stereotypes of the demure Indian girl. Dimple wants nothing to do with boys, clothes, or makeup. She lives, eats, and breathes web coding and app development and damned if anything or anyone is going to stand in her way. I love that Dimple’s passion is technology and coding and love that Menon created an idol/mentor for her in Jenny Lindt (a fictional, successful app developer). Silicon Valley does horribly by women—more needs to be written (fiction and non-fiction) about women kicking ass and taking names in this field.

Menon goes further and generally defies stereotypes of the conservative Indian community, without minimizing or losing the power of the family. Dimple is a feminist and damn proud of it. Dimple isn’t strident but she also isn’t going to take your bullshit.   Even Rishi—who wants nothing more than to marry Dimple and live the happy life he has seen in his parents is a feminist and supports Dimple without constraining her. I wanted to stand on my couch and cheer. Yes. More female and male feminist role models in YA books. (Or in books period). I. Am. Here. For. It.

Dimple + Rishi
I loved this book for its portrayal of a teenager being comfortable enough in who she is and what she loves to refuse to play the stupid games. Makeup is fine if you’re Celia, her roommate, but it’s not Dimple’s thing and that’s totally ok. And not only is that ok, but you can have friends and even a boyfriend who loves that about you and still finds you beautiful. You don’t have to change to be happy or to get the guy—in fact, changing those things will typically only break your heart (a la Dimple’s roommate, Celia). We need more of this message in YA books, please.

Dimple’s character development and choices over the course of the book feel real. She thought she couldn’t have a relationship—she had to pick and choose. As a result she does some stupid things—she isn’t perfect. We’re all rooting for her, largely because she’s relatable (even if you aren’t, even a little bit, a techie).

In may ways it is Rishi, the male protagonist, who became the stereotypical “girl” character of the book—having to give up things he loves and his dreams in order to please others. He’s made himself (mostly) comfortable with these choices, even coming to accept them as his own. While I am not Indian-American, I was briefly married to one who voiced things very similar to what Rishi said here. When he went to college he would have loved to study other subjects, but had to study business because as the first-born son of Indian immigrants, he was expected to support the family and could not waste time on things like art or history.  This rang true in my limited experience and was a flip of the usual scenario.

The pace of the relationship—from Dimple meeting/hating Rishi to head-over-heels in three weeks felt a little silly and far-fetched….and then I remembered (cringingly) the pace of high school relationships. The timing is probably about right. My absolute favorite chapter was Dimple and Rishi’s first date at a book café where you eat while browsing and reading. That chapter could serve as a primer for the date planner on how to plan an excellent date, even for an adult. (Though in retrospect, this might not be the best first date for me unless you want to be talking to the top of my head while I read all night.)

NSF-School
Speaking of the relationship, this book does have a fair amount of sex for a YA book. The intended audience skews towards older teenagers though the main “limit” here wouldn’t be a hard age-line (in my opinion) but rather whether or not the teen reader understands sex and is beginning to understand when one should and shouldn’t have it. I’m not sure I’ve ever said this about a YA book (or any book) but—I appreciated the way Menon used sex in this book. There are characters who love each other, who think the decision through, and have sex because it is the right choice for them. Menon goes into enough detail in this scene for you to know what’s happening and that it’s a good thing for these two characters. It does get a tad steamy but I didn’t feel like it pushed over into being gratuitous, even for a YA audience. This scene is contrasted with another character who is having sex with someone she’s trying to impress and who doesn’t love her. By having both, Menon not only sets up a contrast and highlights the goodness and badness of these choices but also provides opportunity for good dialogue about these choices and when one knows sex is or isn’t right. I thought Menon handled these scenes deftly and delicately—they’re some of the best sex scenes I’ve read in a YA book.

Pace
When Dimple Met Rishi is a sizeable book, slightly on the longer end for both YA and a general contemporary fiction work. With that said, toward the end I felt like the narrative rushed. I appreciate that the overall length of the book was right—much longer and it would have needed some editing. At the same time, Insomnia Con is supposed to be a six-week conference and the entire last three weeks essentially pass in one sentence. I’m not sure ultimately that this was a bad thing or should be changed—I don’t know what before this point Menon should or could have cut to make room for the last three weeks in the narrative—so maybe this choice was fine. It was momentarily jarring in the sense that I re-read the sentence to make sure three weeks had just passed, shrugged, and moved on to find out what happened to Dimple and Rishi.

Conclusion
While I thought the book was incredibly well done, it is still a YA book. If YA isn’t your thing, this likely isn’t going to be the book for you. It has the shine of a YA book where things are a little too glossy and characters compare their feelings to bubbles at least once. If you love, or even just like, YA then this book is a recent stand out and definitely worth your time.

Notes
Published May 30, 2017 by Simon & Schuster (@simonandschuster)
Author: Sandhya Menon (@sandhyamenonbooks)
Date read: July 5, 2017
Rating: 3  1/2 Stars