The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis

Paperback, 320 pages
Published November 16th 2015 by W. W. Norton & Company (first published November 2009)
 

 From the author of The Blind Side and Moneyball, The Big Short tells the story of four outsiders in the world of high-finance who predict the credit and housing bubble collapse before anyone else. The film adaptation by Adam McKay (Anchorman I and II, The Other Guys) features Academy Award® winners Christian Bale, Brad Pitt, Melissa Leo and Marisa Tomei; Academy Award® nominees Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling.

When the crash of the U.S. stock market became public knowledge in the fall of 2008, it was already old news. The real crash, the silent crash, had taken place over the previous year, in bizarre feeder markets where the sun doesn’t shine and the SEC doesn’t dare, or bother, to tread. Who understood the risk inherent in the assumption of ever-rising real estate prices, a risk compounded daily by the creation of those arcane, artificial securities loosely based on piles of doubtful mortgages? In this fitting sequel to Liar’s Poker, Michael Lewis answers that question in a narrative brimming with indignation and dark humor.

…there’s a difference between an old-fashioned financial panic and what had happened on Wall Street in 2008. In an old-fashioned panic, perception creates its own reality: Someone shouts “Fire!” in a crowded theater and the audience crushes each other to death in its rush for the exits. On Wall Street in 2008 the reality finally overwhelmed perceptions: A crowded theater burned down with a lot of people still in their seats. Every major firm on Wall Street was either bankrupt or fatally intertwined with a bankrupt system. The problem wasn’t that [they] had been allowed to fail. The problem was that [they] had been allowed to succeed.

I must just have a thing for any work having to do with the “Doomsday Machine” that was our economy at and around the Great Recession. Not only did I thoroughly enjoy this book–and learned a hell of a lot from it as well, but I also would put Carousel Court, a fictional account of the Great Recession, in my top 5 reads of 2016.

There are 2 major reasons for why I’m so enthralled by this phenomenon that occurred in our country and had ripple effects throughout the world economy: 1) When this was happening in 2007 and 2008, I was in college. Just another undergraduate student with big dreams and small money. I didn’t notice what was going on, as so many around me didn’t, because I was used to living off of Ramen noodles and Red Bull, me and 5 of my friends piling into my sedan to go to parties, then still holding down jobs we hated on top of it all. The struggle was real–and it was normalized at that point in our lives, so, at that time, it didn’t occur to me that what was going on around me was not the norm. But now, in retrospect, with the sharpened eyes and heightened cultural awareness I have now, it enthralls me for another reason too (2): because the greed, stupidity and raging capitalism that brought this country to its knees (only for our taxpaying dollars to bail it out and pick it back up again, of course) is what I came to understand that we are widely known for and understood as the world over during my time living overseas. Not the Recession itself, but the mentality that got us there. To see it here, to experience it as close to the inside as I can be, so many years removed, through Michael Lewis’ The Big Short is to understand what has become our weakness and our strength (depending on who you ask) and a global caricature of our mores, our values and our very personalities: greed to the point of raging ignorance.

Don’t worry, I won’t soapbox here unless you ask me to.

The basic idea here stemmed from what we already know of America: it is a land where quite often the rich do get richer while the poor do get poorer, and, because of that, there opened up a market for subprime lending like a yet-undiscovered sea full of plentiful fish just waiting to be pillaged and plundered by Wall Street and the big banks. Not only that, but the big banks functioned like dope boys, essentially, flipping their profits at the buyers’ expense, destroying their surroundings as they did so–only, these flips yielded billions upon billions, and the companies lost billions upon billions as well. The system was set up to profit from others’ losses: as homeowners went into default, homes were lost and lives derailed, there was always someone else there on the other side of the bet (or swap) to get rich off of their loss by buying and betting on the debts of average Americans.

The subprime market tapped a segment of the American public that did not typically have anything to do with Wall Street: the tranche between the fifth and twenty-ninth percentile in their credit ratings. That is, the lenders were making loans to people who were less creditworthy than 71 percent of the population.

I can’t even go into the ratings companies, Moody’s and S&P, who should have been policing this, but were instead lining their own pockets by selling AAA ratings for fees and looking the other way. And, I won’t even further comment on how the mortgage bond market was born and allowed to grow to the size that the U.S. economy came to depend on its stability, all out of greed and ripping of subprime borrowers. Nope, won’t do it–but what I will do is say that anyone who’s never read this book, anyone who is still scratching their heads and trying to figure out, “What the hell was that about?” should pick up this book and read it.

Not only was it a phenomenal read–wholly entertaining, comedic even–but it was also very insightful. I guarantee you, love this country though we do, you’ll understand the next time you’re abroad and you get the side-eye glance from the natives. Our reputations precede us, and this is only one of a million reasons why. An easily earned, happily given 5 stars. *****

*To see more reviews, follow The Navi Review on Goodreads @ Navidad Thelamour and on Twitter @thenavireview

Michael   LewisMichael Lewis, the best-selling author of Liar’s Poker, The Money Culture, The New New Thing, Moneyball, The Blind Side, Panic, Home Game, The Big Short, and Boomerang, among other works, lives in Berkeley, California, with his wife and three children.

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A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

Hardcover, 720 pages
Published March 10th 2015 by Doubleday

First of all, let me say that A Little Life was exactly what I’ve been looking for. This novel was so rich in raw, uninhibited emotion, in the true unveiling of life’s effervescence, horrors and humanity, that I didn’t feel that I was trudging through a thick read—though, believe me, it’s thick!—I felt that I was on a 40-year Hajj with these characters, a journey that, like real life, takes you over lofty and decadent highs then drags you through trough-like lows. It was the lows in A Little Life that made me literally cringe and turn away, re-read at times and stop reading at others just long enough to question what really is humanity?

The theme of lifelong friendship is obviously central to the novel, and I loved that the four focal characters were all male. To get the male perspective on contemporary brotherhood and solidarity was a breath of fresh air; I hardly ever get to experience a literary piece from the viewpoint of modern-day (non-white) men, so if that appeals to you, then this read will be a real treat. Likewise, on that note, I was greatly impressed with the way that Yanagihara handled race in this work, because she flipped the stereotype completely on its head. I remember a feeling of unanticipated surprise, of true and pure admiration of the author’s hand and voice for flipping the script on the typical literary formula.

A Little Life was brilliant in the way that it portrayed the capriciousness and uncertainty of college life through middle-age: the discovery and exploration of their sexuality, life goals, insecurities and the precariousness of their own self-images and the pursuit—often slow and unsure—of their own personal ambitions and aspirations. It all rang so true, so genuine.

     “These were days of self-fullment, where settling for something that was not quite your first choice of a life seemed weak-willed and ignoble…surrendering to what seemed to be your fate had changed from being dignified to being a sign of your own cowardice. There were times when the pressure to achieve happiness felt almost oppressive, as if happiness were something that everyone should and could attain, and that any sort of compromise in its pursuit was somehow your fault.”

Yanagihara’s exploration of religion (Ambition and atheism…only here did you have to apologize for having faith in something other than yourself) and race (Race has always been a challenge for Malcolm, but their sophomore year, he hit upon what he considered a brilliant cop-out: he wasn’t black’ he was post-black…unfortunately, no one was convinced by this explanation, least of all JB, whom Malcom had begun to think of as not so much black but pre-black, as if blackness, like nirvana, was an idealized state that he was constantly striving to erupt into) was modern, realistic and enlightened. This work was full of eloquent, thoughtful and introspective narrative prose, but at the same time, Yanagihara did not hesitate to push the reader beyond their comfort level. Her descriptions of abuse and cruelty, suffering, addiction, fear, and the toll these all take on the human psyche—the way that they impact the human experience—were so vivid, so intensely thought-provoking and emotive.

However, I must admit that I did take a few issues with this one. For one, I was disappointed to not see a single chapter from Malcolm’s sole perspective in the entire piece. With this massive word count, there was certainly ample opportunity to do so. He started off being just as interesting a character as the others, questioning his future and his sexuality, feeling inferior to his sister and entitled while simultaneously, perhaps, feeling a bit embarrassed by his upbringing and entitlement. The groundwork was set for a rich character portrayal of him that could have easily rivaled JB’s and Willem’s, but in all 700+ pages we never heard a peep from his own voice. I also wished that Yanagihara had explored JB more. The chapter that was 100% from his perspective honestly resonates with me louder than any of the other chapters, even those rather disturbing chapters on Jude that are the talk of literary chats everywhere at the moment. I was truly gripped by his sense of terror and self-loathing, his sincere lack of control and, finally, that heart-wrenching scene towards the end of his chapter.

Honestly, I felt that Jude had too many chapters, that the entire novel revolved around him—and I get why it would—but there were several opportunities lost that could have been capitalized on better by the author. Also—gulp, I’m sorry to say—A Little Life could have stood up to a bit of a haircut too. Not a big chop, mind you, but a trim of at least 50 pages would’ve made the novel a less cumbersome read, particularly towards the end, the last few chapters. Chopping some of those arguably useless narrative passages away would have allowed for a feeling of truly running towards something, towards a climax deserving of these wonderful characters. Instead, the novel felt more like it sputtered out (no less heart-breakingly) quietly. In a way, I feel the Fabulous Four deserved better.

Even with all of this, I am truly changed having read this one and thankful that I took the time to sit down and really enjoy it. A Little Life has raised the bar so high for me, I can only hope that my next reads will stand up to the shadow that this tall order may cast over them. Yanagihara has gained herself a lifelong reader and an easy 5 stars. *****

Death Unmasked by Rick Sulik

Paperback, 2nd, 264 pages
Published December 1st 2015 by Christopher Matthews Publishing

I was given this book by the author in exchange for an honest review.

Firstly, let me state that Death Unmasked has a thrilling premise: What if we really could continue on in another life, meeting and interacting with the same people but in different forms and circumstances? Fun idea, the premise of which alone could make for an exhilarating read! I didn’t mind the idea and playing out of reincarnation here at all as others may have. But it didn’t necessarily deliver on the promise thrill that it offered on the back cover, so to speak.
This novel jumped into the story right out of the gate; no piddling around here. By the end of page two or three the action had begun. This novel is broken into three sections: the first of which depicts the Holocaustal genocide where Laura and Emil perish. This section, in itself, would have been a wonderful novella if it had been filled out more. Honestly, it could have stood alone as a brilliant work in itself had it had the fleshing out that it deserved. The second section follows these characters reincarnated, Emil being a police detective, and it all culminates in section three, where the star-crossed lovers are reunited.
However, I wasn’t sure of what exactly I was reading at the start; the setting wasn’t set properly at all. Why were they running? Who were they running from? Even, what year is it and where is this set? The term “ethnic cleansing” was used to explain why the village people had been rounded up, but never elaborated on. Was this fantasy—an imaginative ethnic cleansing in a faraway world—or an apocalyptic event? I had no idea, because the feeling of setting and locale was not properly built out, unfortunately. There was the violence of rape, beatings and genocide to start this one off, which didn’t bother me at all. I felt that that aspect of the novel actually made it more real, more 3-D, and that 3-dimensionalizing made the read far more real.
However, the dialogue did Death Unmasked no favors at all. For me, it definitely felt stilted, unnatural and forced. It didn’t flow well at all from the very beginning. And the littering of italicized thoughts didn’t help either because the thoughts weren’t realistic, particularly not under the circumstances that the characters were in. One wouldn’t—I don’t believe—rail on and on about the hate in the soldiers’ hearts and the injustices around them (in short, prophesizing and intellectualizing) while there is literally mass murder, the shooting of babies and raping of innocent women going on before one’s very eyes! No, you’d be looking for an exit, ready to fight, terrified, shocked! I found myself literally pulling back from the pages and thinking, “Who talks like that?!”
Do keep in mind that this one presented poetry and did so in a lovely way. The incorporation of poetry throughout—and the theme of dark poetry itself—gave Sulik’s work another layer for the reader to appreciate and tie the story together. The poems were dark and faintly macabre in a way that offered just enough theatrics and made the novel a stronger read. But, the author’s hand definitely showed throughout this one. The oft-italicized philosophical rants definitely should’ve been either cut down or better incorporated. And while the middle section was jam-packed with good information and thorough details that only an experienced cop—an author who was obviously of that world before becoming an author—would be able to accurately offer, there was little finesse to it, and it came out like info vomit that pulled me as a reader away from the story line at hand to wade through piles of information that were often stoically presented. The ending wasn’t my cup of tea, but I could see where he was going with it. The idea of star-crossed lovers is one that’s been done to death, so I wasn’t particularly impressed with the way that this one ended (me hating bow ties and all), and I wished that it had been done in a new way. Though, I will admit, the novel itself did attempt a new mold with a fresh and exciting premise.
Reincarnation, big-city detective work, crimes of past and present and karma all played a role in this one and, believe me, the idea of all of that could make for quite the thrilling read! But it needed a more steady and experienced hand to flesh it all out—this one could have easily stood up to another 200 pages and been fine if done well, making it more of an “epic” sort of read—and a different editor, one who knew how to better play the game of Red Light, Green Light. Stop the prophesizing word vomit here; go with more setting there, ect. So, while the idea and the plot line were wonderfully realized, that can never carry a read all the way on its own. In this novel, inexperience peeped around the edges at times and was glaringly obvious and annoying at others. If this wasn’t inexperience at play but the author’s true writing style on display, it needed to be more evident; it needed the deliberateness of a sure hand backed by a read that was complete (enter setting, better characterization, ect.). I give this one two stars. **

Beautiful by Anita Waller

Kindle Edition, 316 pages
Published August 31st 2015 by Bloodhound Books

This novel was given to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

This was a novel for the gentle of spirit and of mind. Waller managed to craft a solid idea but the writing did not read as either fluid or gripping. It read in a jolty, staccato sort of manner that did not enhance the novel but irritated me with its knack for telling instead of showing and jumping from scene to scene without properly filling out for the reader what had even happened. Without spoiling it, the end was exactly this, which made for quite the anticlimactic read as a whole. To come through over 400 pages to be rushed through the end (the end scene was literally comprised of one page of text, the epilogue only a sentence or two)? I found that to be quite the annoyance.

At the start, Beautiful was neither innovatively written nor particularly insightful. I struggled with each turn of a page because there was no meat of substance. Sure, there were twists to the plot within those pages, but they were so swiftly presented with no “meat on the bone,” no climax of suspense, that it was as if I were reading the author’s outline of events, not the intended finished outcome. Amy’s mental and emotional hang-ups are completely realistic in theory, but were not eloquently portrayed so as to elicit the intended reaction out of me as a reader. In all honesty, I had difficulty even finishing this one. I was spurred on by the plot line fundamentally, not by the writing or the execution of said plot line.

In addition, a big show was made of the era in which this novel was set, with the years of the setting at the start of each chapter. Yet, there were almost no references to the era whatsoever. No mention of what these characters may’ve worn, what they would have driven; there was no setting at all really aside from a few scattered cameo mentions and television or disk that may have alerted one to what decade it was. There was no world to be immersed in.

What Beautiful did have was good intentions. I could see where the author was trying to go but never felt that I’d actually arrived. I never read the other reviews for a work before I write my own, but this one made me curious because I felt that surely I’d missed something that others must have seen. However, what I found was that for those who seemed to rate the novel highly, they all commented on how “shocking or difficult” the subject matter was, which makes me believe that this is a wonderful read for those who have never experienced hardship or malice of any sort in life themselves, hence the opening line here.

What I felt was lacking was depth of character and emotion. The presence of the subject matter alone cannot carry the story for those readers who are not easily shocked and who expect more. For those of us in this category, this one merely scratched the surface, softly. Oh, there were wonderful elements to this story that could have really soared if properly filled out, but they instead were one-note and one-dimensional. Here you can find sexual abuse and the emotional trauma that comes along with it, love, murder, sex—the makings of a thrilling work. However, the volume was turned down so low here that it was nearly mute in impact, assuming that the mere presence of the subject matter would carry the novel. For some, that may work as a great read—and it seems that it did; for others, more is needed to make such a work stand out on the shelves, to make it worthy of digging into your pocket and spending your hard-earned money. I, myself, would not have gone into my wallet for this one. Two stars for the plot of this one. 2 stars **

 

The Bazaar of Bad Dreams by Stephen King

Hardcover, 495 pages
Published November 3rd 2015 by Scribner

I have to say, The Bazaar from Uncle Steve was a bit of a letdown. Stephen King is, obviously, one of the most-hyped authors of today, which is why the fall from so high can be so hard for his readers. This collection of previously published works, in itself, had a range like open arms – from eye-roll-warranting clunkers that never took off and seemed rather (dare I say it?) juvenile for such a master wordsmith to others that truly took my breath away and really explored the mental and emotional crevices of humanity in a way that was breathtakingly clear and surprising – similar to reaching the summit of a huge roller coaster and seeing the landscape around you for those vivid two seconds before being dragged back down again. Billy Blockade, Bad Little Kid and Under the Weather, I’m looking at you now. Overall, I will remember this collection as a hodgepodge that had some really great highlights – and those highlights are what I will take from it. The short introductions to each story were a real treat. Those anecdotes and revelations were the extra seasoning that this collection needed to thread it all together. However, it would’ve been cool if the original place of publication had been added to those intro snippets; after all, we all knew that most of them were previously published anyway.

 

Mile 81 –

This story was surprisingly and glaringly amateur. I appreciate that he led us into that with the knowledge that it was one of his earliest works, but it left an awful taste in my mouth and a hesitation to continue on with the collection. Not the best choice for starting out; better to bury that one somewhere in the middle. No stars.

 

Premium Harmony –

Deliciously dry and sardonic. The dialogue hit the nail on the head in that matter-of-fact sort of way that makes you laugh out loud, and the title – fittingly ironic indeed – tied the humor and storyline all together. Great story! **** 4 stars

 

Batman and Robin Have an Altercation –

The father-son storyline warmed the heart, but there wasn’t much else here. * 1 star

 

The Dune –

This story had a setting and cadence that really made the story, but this one would’ve been more compelling if it had showcased action scenes (which King definitely seems to have shied away from in this collection on a whole). At minimum, it would have carried more resonance if the narrator hadn’t described the deaths in such a half-removed-from-the-situation fashion. Nonetheless, the voice and pace were very steady and controlled, allowing me to trust both the author’s hand and the narrator’s voice. **** 4 stars

 

Bad Little Kid –

Awesome story! Sinister, slow and, at times, somber, but never too much. It was a true King story for his avid readers, his hand for the disturbing on full display here. ***** 5 stars

 

A Death –

A great “period” piece mixed with a little “local color” – sorry King, I know you have “no use for that.” This one was an excellent example of how dialogue and regional slang can really set the scene and shape a work! **** 4 stars

 

The Bone Church –

I’m all for contemporary poetry that doesn’t follow the rules, but the two poetry selections presented here proved that I am not a fan of King’s attempts at that particular form of art. Disjointed and confusing, this one gets no stars.

 

Morality –

This story was very well written, but anti-climactic for sure, particularly the ending. Sure – it was a real-world sort of ending, but it didn’t live up to the hype at all, and the “crime” that was so central to the story’s theme was so minor, I couldn’t believe all the hyperventilation they were doing over it! Good story telling, but not much there to sink my teeth into. ** 2.5 stars

 

Afterlife –

This story had a biting humor, juxtaposed by the two main characters’ past interactions with women, that added a new an unexpected layer to this story. The 50s setting and various decades referenced as they discuss the mistakes of their past gave this one body and made it more memorable and 3-D. Good story. *** 3.5 stars

 

 

 

Ur –

UGH! This story was great for the sort of Super Bowl celebrity selling out that we expect to see in commercials, but this one SERIOUSLY took away a lot of King’s street cred! Great for Kindle/Amazon propaganda, but an otherwise ridiculous attempt with a cop-out, oh-this-story-is-getting-to-be-way-to-long-so-let’s-just-end-it-now sort of finale. Definitely warranted more than a few eye rolls. One star for referencing the cool possibility of authors writing new and previously unexplored works in other dimensions, but that’s about it. * 1 star

 

Herman Wouk Is Still Alive –

I LOVED the blunt and unornamented examination of life that this one provided. It was so real, in fact, that it was almost pure. This look at real life aimed for the authentic and came from a character’s POV who was really examining it all for the first time. Thought-provoking and funny, this one was a winner. The story would’ve really hit the mark if it hadn’t been watered down by the elderly couple’s POV. **** 4 stars

 

Under the Weather –

AWESOME story; definitely one of the best of the bunch! I felt a nod to “A Rose for Emily” in this one that I loved; it was macabre in a delectable way that resonated loudly at the end. It had all of the elements of a good short story and a King-worthy ending. The thread about the dream really tied this one together. ***** easily 5 stars

 

Blockade Billy –

This one was another long one, but I truly did not mind it being long at all! The jargon here was thick as molasses, which I didn’t always get, but it didn’t take away from the story; in a lot of ways, it made the story. I felt like I was a part of their world, which is the whole reason that people read when they could just watch a movie. The ending was KILLLER. Really. Killer.  ***** easily 5 stars

 

 

Mr. Yummy –

This one didn’t live up to the intro that King wrote for it; it was neither about desire nor AIDS (for that matter), which made it a bit of a letdown. The irony and humor of the “grim reaper” aspect made the story unique, but this one seemed like a failed attempt overall because those topics were just mentioned in passing, not really explored as the intro seemed to promise. *** 3 stars

Tommy –

No comment is comment enough. Not a fan of Uncle Stevie’s poetry in this collection.

 

The Little Green God of Agony –

Umm, not a winner for me. This was like R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps on steroids (mild steroids that made it appropriate for an adult, not extreme steroids that made it King-like). Enough said. ** 2 stars for the humor added by the nurse’s thoughts and the dynamic between she and her boss.

 

That Bus Is Another World –

Good little short with a surprise ending. I’ll tip a nod here to King for putting his characteristic examination of humanity into this one. *** 3 stars

 

Obits –

Didn’t live up to the phenomenal story I thought I was getting (because of its length and premise highlighted on the jacket flap). You’d think that only the best stories would be highlighted there, but, in my opinion, the opposite happened. This one also veered towards juvenile at times and the ending was…whhhhaaaaat?… a letdown for sure. ** 2.5 stars for the premise

 

Drunken Fireworks –

This one had absolutely nothing to do with horror or even the vaguely macabre. Though King shared his distaste for the term, this one was definitely just an episode of “local color,” which is likely why he felt the need to defend against that. ** 2 stars

 

Summer Thunder –

Sure, what better way to end the collection than with the apocalypse, I agree. This, however, showed again how King didn’t jump in to tackle the big action scenes but settled for examining the aftermath, or 3rd person removed version of them. Other than that, it was a solid story, worthy of the King brand, with an ending that was foreshadowed but…comme si comme ça.

4 stars ****

The Witches, Salem 1692 by Stacy Schiff

Hardcover, 417 pages
Published October 27th 2015 by Little, Brown and Company

I’m sorry to say that this one nearly bored me to tears (yes, literal and actual tears), which is a far cry from what I’d expected—and what Miss Schiff’s previous prize-winner, Cleopatra, invoked in me during the reading of it. I was ever so excited to start this one because I’d SO enjoyed Cleopatra—that one had me turning pages faster than any fiction thriller ever has and literally brought me to tears in the end—definitely the kind of roller coaster read that we all yearn for but wouldn’t dream of finding in a biography!

However, I found The Witches to be a muddled let-down from the very first page! A tremendous bore whose tendency towards superfluous purple prose didn’t have nearly the moving effect as it offered before. This one proved to be as laborious a task in reading as it must have been in writing, which is never the effect that an author wishes to achieve, I’d imagine. It skipped around from progressing through the timeline of events in its narration to delving into the most minute details of the backgrounds of even the most minor individuals—an enterprise to be applauded that her research yielded such the treasure trove of information, but a fact that severely slowed the progression of the narrative and made the following of it more difficult than necessary.

I felt like I was constantly juggling the backstory of each minister, shop keeper, servant and—Lord help me, each family line. Now, who refused to bring firewood to the new minister, and who first accused who of witchcraft because what (and whose cousin/sister/brother/niece/neighbor was that again)? That’s what it sounded like in my head with every page I turned! Ordinarily, such a deep understanding of the characters would be enriching to say the least, but this made me feel leaden down and burdened with the reading of the minutiae, like I was trudging through never-ending quicksand! This actually made it hard to get back into the timeline of events because I sometimes couldn’t remember where I’d even left off in the recounting before the meandering path of anecdotes about all of the interweaving families had knocked me off my reading compass. It was a lot like trying to follow a path already overridden with weeds (over-wrought in its attempts at setting the setting) only to be led off the path and back onto it again over and over by trails you thought you were following to stay on course.

Honestly, the reading of this would have been much easier and more enjoyable if Schiff had organized the information differently—shorter chapters would have been an immensely helpful start—so that the reader could more easily remember, categorize and process all of the moving parts of the story in a way that worked more like a novel, as her previous work did. Sure, there was a Shakespearean-like list and description of characters at the start, but even the use of that pulls the reader away from the flow of the work. The Witches would function wonderfully as a reference for an academic paper or the like, but not as a read for any sort of personal enjoyment, whether it had been based on fact or fiction. And this from someone who thoroughly enjoyed one of her other works. After all, as they say, nonfiction writing requires the finesse for story-telling of fiction authoring. Here, the finesse that I previously knew her for was missing. I would give five stars for the sheer amount of information presented here and for just how deeply her research went, but only one star for the way that it read. 1 star *

Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll

Hardcover, 352 pages
Published May 12th 2015 by Simon & Schuster

This novel was a trumped up work packaged and sold as the must-read of summer 2015. Of course, publishing houses are very good at packaging and selling—that’s what they do—but this one must’ve had the PR agent from heaven! When it appeared on the NYT with its fashionable blurb, I instantly reached for it (all hail the power of sales), but upon reading it, I quickly found it to be an awkward collision between The Devil Wears Prada (though quite the lesser, copy-cat sort of version of it) and Columbine. Yes, try for a moment to imagine that!

The writing was immature, though there were moments where it managed the humorous tone that it was seeking—No man feels very much compelled to rip your clothes off after you inform him, bitchily, that he left one lone turd floating in the toilet—is an example of both, offered fairly early in the novel. However, the juxtaposition between her old life and new was fairly amateurishly handled, and while Knoll tried to paint the picture of “girl with rough past makes it big,” the main character, Ani, really came off as whiny and spoiled and eye-roll-promptingly annoying. Unfortunately, there’s enough to read out there about the privileged white female, so while I have no qualms reading it when done right, generally, no one needs another whiny heroine who fawns over Choo pumps and pink nail polish.

I will give it this nod though, the Columbine-esque overture was handled decently—that entire sequence did prompt page turning, and TifAni’s past sexual experiences were relatable to female readers, I’m sure. We all know of someone who’s encountered something similar (and for similar reasons). In that way, TifAni’s school-age character came off a little of a cliché, but it was a cliché worth exploring because she exists for a reason. And the way that they happened allowed Knoll to reach out and touch an audience that was wide enough, it seems, to propel this novel onto the NYT Bestseller List. In fact, the “past” chapters carried the novel much farther than the “present-day” chapters ever could have.

With that in mind, this one would have been much better if she’d been able to carry that tone throughout because, in a lot of ways, TifAni’s voice was more mature than Ani’s, a regression in tone that irked me to no end and proffered only a snarky tone that often missed the mark and whininess that made her character the utmost annoying and hard to read, let alone like. 2 stars **