Seven Days of Us by Francesca Hornak

Hardcover, 368 pages
Expected publication: October 17th 2017 by Berkley Books

A warm, wry, sharply observed debut novel about what happens when a family is forced to spend a week together in quarantine over the holidays…

It’s Christmas, and for the first time in years the entire Birch family will be under one roof. Even Emma and Andrew’s elder daughter—who is usually off saving the world—will be joining them at Weyfield Hall, their aging country estate. But Olivia, a doctor, is only coming home because she has to. Having just returned from treating an epidemic abroad, she’s been told she must stay in quarantine for a week…and so too should her family.

For the next seven days, the Birches are locked down, cut off from the rest of humanity—and even decent Wi-Fi—and forced into each other’s orbits. Younger, unabashedly frivolous daughter Phoebe is fixated on her upcoming wedding, while Olivia deals with the culture shock of being immersed in first-world problems.

As Andrew sequesters himself in his study writing scathing restaurant reviews and remembering his glory days as a war correspondent, Emma hides a secret that will turn the whole family upside down.

In close proximity, not much can stay hidden for long, and as revelations and long-held tensions come to light, nothing is more shocking than the unexpected guest who’s about to arrive…

Seven Days of Us is the quintessential heartwarming family novel, a quick and quaint little holiday read to be devoured in one sitting. With flashes of wit, intellect and social reflection peppered in, Seven Days offers a great combination of laughter and insight, as we get to know these characters while they re-get to know each other. Imagine being stuck in your home for seven days with your family, unable to flee into the night, unable to avoid the unavoidable. To me, that sounds like the worst kind of torture! And Francesca Hornak brought that feeling to life in a meaningful way that allows the reader to identify with at least one of the characters, always a treat.

This read is not one that will bog you down, nor is it one that will stay with me, personally, for very long. Seven Days of Us is a novel that stays in its lane; it doesn’t try to masquerade as something it’s not, and I can respect that. I don’t know that it was “sharply” anything, as the blurb implied, and the ending did hurry to a close like an urgent hand at your back. BUT, it is a read for the lovers of the quaint and cozy literary experience, a novel for anyone who loved the movie The Family Stone (2005), and a delightful treat for those on holiday to pass the time and enjoy a chuckle. If that’s what you’re looking for, you’ve found a home and a warm mug of Earl Grey within the pages of Hornak’s Seven Days. 3*

**Thank you so much to Berkley Publishing who reached out to me and sent me a physical ARC of this book!

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Francesca Hornak Francesca Hornak is a British author, journalist and former columnist for the Sunday Times. Her debut novel Seven Days Of Us will be published by Berkley, an imprint of Penguin Random House, in October 2017. Little Island Productions has pre-empted TV rights to the book.

Francesca’s work has appeared in newspapers and magazines including The Sunday Times, The Guardian, Metro, Elle, Grazia, Stylist, Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan and Red. She is the author of two nonfiction books, History of the World in 100 Modern Objects: Middle Class Stuff (and Nonsense) and Worry with Mother: 101 Neuroses for the Modern Mama.

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Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

Hardcover, 304 pages
Published September 5th 2017 by Scribner

A searing and profound Southern odyssey by National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward.

In Jesmyn Ward’s first novel since her National Book Award winning Salvage the Bones, this singular American writer brings the archetypal road novel into rural twenty-first-century America. Drawing on Morrison and Faulkner, The Odyssey and the Old Testament, Ward gives us an epochal story, a journey through Mississippi’s past and present that is both an intimate portrait of a family and an epic tale of hope and struggle. Ward is a major American writer, multiply awarded and universally lauded, and in Sing, Unburied, Sing she is at the height of her powers.

Jojo and his toddler sister, Kayla, live with their grandparents, Mam and Pop, and the occasional presence of their drug-addicted mother, Leonie, on a farm on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. Leonie is simultaneously tormented and comforted by visions of her dead brother, which only come to her when she’s high; Mam is dying of cancer; and quiet, steady Pop tries to run the household and teach Jojo how to be a man. When the white father of Leonie’s children is released from prison, she packs her kids and a friend into her car and sets out across the state for Parchman farm, the Mississippi State Penitentiary, on a journey rife with danger and promise.

Sing, Unburied, Sing grapples with the ugly truths at the heart of the American story and the power, and limitations, of the bonds of family. Rich with Ward’s distinctive, musical language, Sing, Unburied, Sing is a majestic new work and an essential contribution to American literature.

Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing is true Southern Gothicism at its finest. It is a novel that I’ve been waiting a very long time to read, and I mean that both literally and figuratively. There is so much within these pages—so much angst, so much wonder and so much sorrow—that I am still grappling with it even now. And that’s a wonderful thing, the best feeling and the most lasting impression a writer can ever bestow on their reader.

I read, before reading this novel, that Jesmyn Ward had recently been called the modern-day Faulkner, and I doubted this, I admit, likely because of all the books out there I’ve encountered doing reviews that are buoyed up by their awe-inspiring cover flaps and exalted comparisons to other, greater works, only to fall flat on their faces under the weight of such lofty and inaccurate comparisons. But Sing, Unburied, Sing is the real deal. Its utter humanity and heart bursts forth from every page, particularly leading up to the climax, never shying away from the reality of hard living, always staring it down right in its face, urging us to look it in the face, too. Don’t turn away. I could never turn away.

This is the tale of two Mississippi families, one black and one white, joined by bloodshed and bloodlines. Joined by love and hatred, by death and birth. But this is also a coming-of-age story of one teenaged boy, Jojo, whose life is forever changed. Jojo is the biracial son of the often high, often absent Leonie—who sees her murdered brother, Given, in drug-induced hallucinations—and Michael, whose hostile, racist family will never accept his black girlfriend and half-breed children. Jojo is caught between being a parent to his three-year-old sister, Kayla, and learning to be a man from his grandfather, Pop. But this place he is emotionally sandwiched between is a place he calls home, a place of comfort and togetherness, between Kayla and Pop—until Leonie comes back from a bender and piles them all in the car on the way to Parchman Penitentiary to retrieve Michael from the prison that has changed and ended so many lives connected to theirs. It is on this journey that Jojo sees the naked truth of racial hierarchies and the hatred the South is all too known for, and discovers his gift of sight he never knew he had. And it is also on this journey that Jojo faces who his mother is, what she is capable of and what she will never be.

“When I wake, Michael’s rolled all the windows down. I’ve been dreaming for hours it feels like, dreaming of being marooned on a deflated raft in the middle of the endless reach of the Gulf of Mexico…Jojo and Michaela and Michael with me and we are elbow to elbow. But the raft must have a hole in it, because it deflates. We are all sinking, and there are manta rays gliding beneath us and sharks jostling us. I am trying to keep everyone above water, even as I struggle to stay afloat. I sink below the waves and push Jojo upward so he can stay above the water and breathe, but then Kayla sinks and I push her up, and Michael sinks so I shove him in the air as I sink and struggle, but they won’t stay up: they want to sink like stones…they keep slipping from my hands…I am failing them. We are all drowning.”

If a hallmark of Southern writing is setting, Ward’s novel offers that in spades. Here, in the blazing sun of Mississippi, you can feel the sweat dripping from the characters’ brows, feel their pulse as they confront one another—as they confront themselves. The suffering within these pages was tangible, palpable, like a pulse in the air, a drumbeat at the turn of every page. It marked the characters’ lives just as numbers mark the bottom of each page. But Ward goes beyond that—beyond the quintessential tale of Southern burdens, anguish and racial hate, beyond the stereotypes we can all so readily pluck from our minds to describe the Bible Belt in all its historical wonder and terror. My one note of criticism is that the voices didn’t always sound realistic for the characters. JoJo and Leonie’s chapters after sounded like they were coming from the same voice (the sophisticated voice of the author rather than the rugged voices of folks who have been through some “thangs,” and that rang false to me). But, when I say that Sing, Unburied, Sing is true Southern Gothicism at its finest, I mean that it binds, bridges and merges every aspect of the genre—social commentary, magical realism, surrealism and grit. Blood, sweat, tears, but, most of all: haunting and poetic soul. That it did in spades despite the hiccup with the voices.

This novel will stay with me for a long time. There were aspects of this book that I did not immediately like, but that all came together in the end. And, quite honestly, I haven’t read such an emotively resonating ending like that since Toni Morrison’s “Recitatif,” and for that I could only ever give a well-deserved 5 stars. *****

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**I received a copy of this novel from the publisher, Scribner, via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Jesmyn WardJesmyn Ward is the author of Where the Line Bleeds, Salvage the Bones, and Men We Reaped. She is a former Stegner Fellow (Stanford University) and Grisham Writer in Residence at the University of Mississippi. She is an associate professor of Creative Writing at Tulane University.

Her work has appeared in BOMBA Public Space and The Oxford American.

The Golden House by Salman Rushdie

Hardcover, 400 pages
Expected publication: September 5th 2017 by Random House

When powerful real-estate tycoon Nero Golden immigrates to the States under mysterious circumstances, he and his three adult children assume new identities, taking ‘Roman’ names, and move into a grand mansion in downtown Manhattan. Arriving shortly after the inauguration of Barack Obama, he and his sons, each extraordinary in his own right, quickly establish themselves at the apex of New York society.

The story of the powerful Golden family is told from the point of view of their Manhattanite neighbour and confidant, René, an aspiring filmmaker who finds in the Goldens the perfect subject. René chronicles the undoing of the house of Golden: the high life of money, of art and fashion, a sibling quarrel, an unexpected metamorphosis, the arrival of a beautiful woman, betrayal and murder, and far away, in their abandoned homeland, some decent intelligence work.

Invoking literature, pop culture, and the cinema, Rushdie spins the story of the American zeitgeist over the last eight years, hitting every beat: the rise of the birther movement, the Tea Party, Gamergate and identity politics; the backlash against political correctness; the ascendency of the superhero movie, and, of course, the insurgence of a ruthlessly ambitious, narcissistic, media-savvy villain wearing make-up and with coloured hair.

In a new world order of alternative truths, Salman Rushdie has written the ultimate novel about identity, truth, terror and lies. A brilliant, heartbreaking realist novel that is not only uncannily prescient but shows one of the world’s greatest storytellers working at the height of his powers.

Salman Rushdie’s 13th novel, The Golden House, plays out as a Shakespearean drama re-imagined in the eyes of a postmodernist and set in the Obama era of ultra-riche Manhattan. (There, how’s that for an elevator pitch?) This novel is full of nostalgic references, ornate erudite descriptions and high-brow prose, as you would expect from the man who brought us Midnight’s Children and holds an esteemed Booker Prize. I was first introduced to Salman Rushdie by Hanif Kureishi, who wrote one of my favorite college reads, The Black Album, in response to the fatwah issued by Islamic fundamentalists intent on killing Salman Rushdie for writing his 4th novel, The Satanic Verses. So, you can imagine the anticipation I felt to finally meet this great novelist and essayist up close and in person for myself—or as up close and in person as one’s words on a page will allow us to get to the true author themselves.

And here you have it. Sit back and imagine this:

The Golden House trots along the Obama era years, from his inauguration on January 20, 2009, through the election that gave us our 45th president. This political period is the mirror against which these characters see their lives unfolding, crumbling and transforming. Nero Golden and his household of three sons, of which he is the god-like patriarch, are expatriates of an unnamed country (which is eventually named) after a terrorist tragedy takes the life of their matriarch and shady financial deals finish them off in their homeland, sending the family to New York to rebuild their lives with the help of their obscene and conspicuous wealth by way of the American Dream. They move into a mega-mansion in an affluent neighborhood in Manhattan, where all 22 homes of the community back into a luxurious garden oasis that the families all communally enjoy. It is in this near-utopian communal setting where lives begin to cross and our narrator, René, meets the leading family. We follow him on his journey to infiltrate, observe and ultimately document the Golden lives in a film he’s been longing to make but isn’t really sure of how to go about doing. Along the way, characters come and go. As the modern-day “Julio-Claudian” drama unfolds, death occurs. Birth occurs. Marriage occurs. The saga of their lives unfolds, shatters, melts down and repairs—never in that order.

If you’re looking for a single word to describe this novel, a good starting place would be dense though I cannot argue that it is unnecessarily so, and the read certainly wouldn’t have been the same without this aspect. Literary allusions—call me Ishmael— abound on every page here and, quite honestly, you might want to have a digital encyclopedia on hand for quick reference through some of these passages— Chinese hexagrams of divination, for example? But I loved that, reveled in it for the most part, in fact, because this enlightened display of narrative talent played with so many forms of storytelling, from conventional narrative formatting to scenes written as screenplays, from the use of quotation marks to the use of not-a-one, and back again. It was a journey, but at least it was a ride too, crossing the lines of contemporary fiction, post-modernism and metafiction.

Here you’ll find wry social commentary that crackles and pops with dry irony, heaped on in healthy doses so that no culture—past or present, Eastern or Western—is safe from the scrutinizing eye—though, with the backdrop of this novel being set specifically against the Obama era, much of the commentary hits hard on American culture, smashing up against it forcefully and knocking down our perception of it, knocking down the barriers around talking about it, from Black Lives Matter to the collapse of the housing market to transgender transformation and everywhere in between:

“Once upon a time…if a boy liked pink and dolls his parents would be afraid he was homosexual and try to interest him in boy stuff…they might have doubts about his orientation but it wouldn’t occur to them to question his gender. Now it seems you go to the other extreme. Instead of saying the kid’s a pansy you start trying to persuade him he’s a girl.”

“What is American culture?” This novel dares to seriously ask—often pokes fun at—and ultimately explores—no, turns inside out—this beloved cliché we and the world over cling to called the American Dream, from the viewpoint of the transplant, from the viewpoint of those ultimately in search of themselves in the whirlwind that is our lives in our culture today.

“…I could feel it, the anger of the unjustly dead, the young men shot for walking in a stairwell while black, the young child shot for playing with a plastic gun in a playground while black, all the daily black death of America, screaming out that they deserved to live, and I could feel, too, the fury of white America at having to put up with a black man in a white house, and the frothing hatred of the homophobes…the blue-collar anger of everyone who had been Fannie Mae’d and Freddie Mac’d by the housing calamity, all the discontent of a furiously divided country, everyone believing they were right…”

Rushdie’s insightful narrative is at times chilling it its acute accuracy about our cultural climate and our 45th president—“…the Joker shrieked…in that bubble…gun murderers were exercising their constitutional rights but the parents of murdered children were un-American…mass deportations would be a good thing; and women reporters would be seen to be unreliable because they had blood coming out of their whatevers…”— and made The Golden House a complete package, which managed to be both entertaining and at times mildly surreal, with the help of a wink toward a more avant-garde formatting technique and a nod toward the “magically real.”

I navigated this novel with the sense of one at their grandfather’s knee, he with brandy and cigar in hand, hearing a tale that was often fascinating in its baroqueness. The Golden House is chocked full of so many things we love in reads—solid plotting, whimsy and intellectual stimuli—which made the ornate density of this novel worth persevering through in the end—and that both stirred and excited my reader soul, like a hearty helping of literary gumbo you have to close your eyes and smile to enjoy, adding depth to the layers of the pages, of these words. And, that was easily enough for 4.5 stars. ****

**I received a copy of this novel from the publisher, Random House, via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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Salman RushdieSir Ahmed Salman Rushdie is a novelist and essayist. Much of his early fiction is set at least partly on the Indian subcontinent. His style is often classified as magical realism, while a dominant theme of his work is the story of the many connections, disruptions and migrations between the Eastern and Western world.

His fourth novel, The Satanic Verses, led to protests from Muslims in several countries, some of which were violent. Faced with death threats and a fatwa (religious edict) issued by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, then Supreme Leader of Iran, which called for him to be killed, he spent nearly a decade largely underground, appearing in public only sporadically. In June 2007, he was appointed a Knight Bachelor for “services to literature”, which “thrilled and humbled” him. In 2007, he began a five-year term as Distinguished Writer in Residence at Emory University.

See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

Hardcover, 328 pages
Published August 1st 2017 by Atlantic Monthly Press (first published March 28th 2017)
In this riveting debut novel, See What I Have Done, Sarah Schmidt recasts one of the most fascinating murder cases of all time into an intimate story of a volatile household and a family devoid of love.

On the morning of August 4, 1892, Lizzie Borden calls out to her maid: Someone’s killed Father. The brutal ax-murder of Andrew and Abby Borden in their home in Fall River, Massachusetts, leaves little evidence and many unanswered questions. While neighbors struggle to understand why anyone would want to harm the respected Bordens, those close to the family have a different tale to tell—of a father with an explosive temper; a spiteful stepmother; and two spinster sisters, with a bond even stronger than blood, desperate for their independence.

As the police search for clues, Emma comforts an increasingly distraught Lizzie whose memories of that morning flash in scattered fragments. Had she been in the barn or the pear arbor to escape the stifling heat of the house? When did she last speak to her stepmother? Were they really gone and would everything be better now? Shifting among the perspectives of the unreliable Lizzie, her older sister Emma, the housemaid Bridget, and the enigmatic stranger Benjamin, the events of that fateful day are slowly revealed through a high-wire feat of storytelling.

Sarah Schmidt’s See What I Have Done is a novel that has the advantage of having a truly titillating premise and a built-in fan base of readers who already know of Miss Lizzie Borden’s infamy:

Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one. 

If you’ve ever sung that “nursery rhyme” to yourself, you’re already at least a step ahead. See What I Have Done has its roots in the factual 1892 trial of Lizzie Borden–the characters are even based on and named for the real people who were in and out of the house on the fateful day of the murders. With those common facts out of the way, Schmidt rolls up her sleeves and dives into the task of reconstructing that fateful day and retelling the notorious story of Miss Lizzie Borden.

Let me start by first of all saying that the cover art and title of this novel are both phenomenal. In a bookstore setting (whether in person or online) I’d definitely reach for this book, even if just to see what it’s about!

With that out of the way, I’d be remiss if I didn’t also add that Schmidt has a true talent for finding her readers’ pressure points and picking at them consistently, a skill that sets a suspenseful novel apart from a predictable one. I can see this author’s method working for so many readers, pulling them in and making them feel immersed in these characters’ very thoughts. But, it didn’t work for me. In fact, there were times when this novel was an uphill struggle for me.

The one thing that will always stick out to me about this novel is Lizzie’s temperament. Throughout the novel it was eerily strange despite her obviously childlike temperament, menacing just below the surface in a way that was clearly deliberate on the author’s part. Whether she was not in her right mind in a vaguely sociopathic way or in a childlike way hinting at mental retardation I could not fully tell (though I’m leaning toward the latter), but it certainly functioned to add a little unpredictability and upheaval in the otherwise monotonous 19th century lives these characters seemed to lead.

However, there was something about the execution of this novel that really turned me off—possibly intentionally—but I definitely didn’t take to it the way I would have wanted to. Lizzie’s personality was like an itch under my skin, one I wanted to scratch until she was gone completely and long forgotten about. Instead of building suspense or anxiety, her twitchiness and oddities really just annoyed me to the point that I could no longer stand her. I wanted to be out of her head—away from her altogether at times—at any cost. Only, her chapters were by far the most interesting, as the others seemed to melt into the background for me as a reader. The characters’ voices didn’t pull me in; their actions didn’t interest me. So, that left me with Lizzie, and you can imagine the conundrum that left me in as a reader! 🙂 There was just too much of it. A titillating hint here and there is intriguing; 5 hints toward her psychological oddities per page, every page is annoying. That’s what created that itching sensation under my skin, the tap dancing on my reader Spidey senses.

The thing is, Sarah Schmidt’s ability to affect her reader in that way is a true gift, a skill that’s difficult to hone and display. So, just because it didn’t work for me personally doesn’t mean that I don’t see the cleverness and mental dexterity it took to execute that aspect of this novel, and for that I tip my hat off to her. I’d recommend this novel to lovers of The Village (2004) or of historical mysteries in general. There’s absolutely a fan base out here for Sarah Schmidt and See What I Have Done, and I look forward to giving her another shot the next time she hits the shelves. 3 stars ***

**I received an advance-read copy of this book from the publisher, Grove Atlantic, via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.**

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Sarah  SchmidtSarah Schmidt is a Melbourne based writer who happens to work at a public library. See What I Have Done is her first novel.

The Lying Game by Ruth Ware

Hardcover, 384 pages
Published July 25th 2017 by Gallery/Scout Press (first published June 15th 2017)

From the instant New York Times bestselling author of blockbuster thrillers In a Dark, Dark Wood and The Woman in Cabin 10 comes Ruth Ware’s chilling new novel.

On a cool June morning, a woman is walking her dog in the idyllic coastal village of Salten along a tidal estuary known as the Reach. Before she can stop him, the dog charges into the water to retrieve what first appears to be a wayward stick, but to her horror, turns out to be something much more sinister…

The next morning, three women in and around London—Fatima, Thea, and Isabel—receive the text they had always hoped would NEVER come, from the fourth in their formerly inseparable clique, Kate, that says only, “I need you.”

The four girls were best friends at Salten, a second rate boarding school set near the cliffs of the English Channel. Each different in their own way, the four became inseparable and were notorious for playing the Lying Game, telling lies at every turn to both fellow boarders and faculty, with varying states of serious and flippant nature that were disturbing enough to ensure that everyone steered clear of them. The myriad and complicated rules of the game are strict: no lying to each other—ever. Bail on the lie when it becomes clear it is about to be found out. But their little game had consequences, and the girls were all expelled in their final year of school under mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of the school’s eccentric art teacher, Ambrose (who also happens to be Kate’s father).

Atmospheric, twisty, and with just the right amount of chill that will keep you wrong-footed—which has now become Ruth Ware’s signature style—The Lying Game is sure to be her next big bestseller. Another unputdownable thriller from the Agatha Christie of our time.

 

“…years on, people round here still use your names as a kind of salacious cautionary tale…”

It’s rare that I stumble upon a read as gripping and as raw as this one was. And, it was not an outright or vulgar kind of raw—no, that wouldn’t really be the English way, now would it?—but Ruth Ware’s The Lying Game was something arguably so much better, because it didn’t lean on outright shock, melodrama and over-the-top confrontations. No, here the rawness is in the imagery, a true reader’s delight, because it pulled at the senses and plucked at our moral strings in unpredictable ways, in ways that were altogether unexpected when I picked up this novel.

Here, the reader will peep behind the closed doors of a partially secluded English home at the edge of a reach, a place where the water laps at the very door of the home in high tide just as danger and uncertainty laps at their feet from the moment they receive Kate’s SOS text: I need you. Once a place of refuge and harbor, the Reach has turned into a silent stomping ground for their greatest fears and will forever be a magnet of both dread and longing for each of the women in this sisterhood. Kate, Thea, Fatima and Isa share a secret that bonds them together tighter than blood ever could. And it starts and ends with the Reach.

The gentle suspense here was wonderful, but even it was heightened and magnified like a fly under a magnifying glass by the camaraderie that held these four unlikely friends together nearly 20 years after that fateful night—you could feel their anxieties, mistrust and the burn of their lies scorching your very skin as you read on. Ware swirled so much unexpected goodness into these pages that I was amazed at her deftness and insight. This glimpse into their world was so much more than just that—it was the peeling back of the layers of humanity within ourselves and at the lengths that we will go to protect one of our own.

The very act of peeling seemed to be almost a metaphorical foundation: the peeling away of clothes wet from the waters of the Reach, of skin around ragged fingernails chewed nearly to the quick, of secrets from the truth they’d all stood on as their foundation for years. And, too, within these pages you’ll find little nuggets, like a subtle commentary on the cultural insensitivity Muslims face every day (“What do you think it means? If you think it means that she’s using that head scarf as a bandage, then yes, that’s what I mean. It’s great that Allah’s forgiven you…but I doubt the police will take that as a plea bargain.”) the bond of family—blood and otherwise—and a true sense of setting and surroundings: It gives the whole place a melancholy air, like those sultry southern American towns, where the Spanish moss hangs thick from the trees, swaying in the wind. The town of Salten was embedded in true English culture, making the characters all leap to life on the pages, the values of this tight-knit society playing an important role in the unfolding of events. The Lying Game managed to be about so much more than lying—though those moments of actual “game play” were delightful, fun, frisky and filled with all of the carefreeness of youth that we all remember, that we all yearn to hold on to even now. It was also about the grip of a parent’s love and protection of their children, small town scandal and the whisper of child sexual abuse.

How dare you judge me? I do what I have to do to sleep at night. So do you, apparently. How about you respect my coping mechanisms and I’ll respect yours?

Ruth Ware gave her readers a phenomenal roller coaster of twists and turns. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and would be happy to read more from this author any day! The setting was palpable, the sisterhood and kinship of these women SO relatable. These women felt real; their faults and growth felt real and it made me want to follow them throughout these 300+ pages. The camaraderie was palpable, lifelike, believable and touching. There was no bow-tie happy ending here and I respected that, yearned for that, in fact. Ware had the guts to not put a ribbon on it for us, and her readers can only revere her for that. I loved every moment of reading this novel and I’m definitely a Ruth Ware fan from here on out. The Lying Game easily earned itself a very well-deserved and rarely given 5 stars. *****

 

Image resultRuth Ware grew up in Sussex, on the south coast of England. After graduating from Manchester University she moved to Paris, before settling in North London. She has worked as a waitress, a bookseller, a teacher of English as a foreign language and a press officer. She is married with two small children, and In a Dark, Dark Wood is her début thriller.

 

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Startup by Doree Shafrir

Hardcover, 304 pages
Published April 25th 2017 by Little, Brown and Company

From veteran online journalist and BuzzFeed writer Doree Shafrir comes a hilarious debut novel that proves there are some dilemmas that no app can solve.

Mack McAllister has a $600 million dollar idea. His mindfulness app, TakeOff, is already the hottest thing in tech and he’s about to launch a new and improved version that promises to bring investors running and may turn his brainchild into a $1 billion dollar business–in startup parlance, an elusive unicorn.

Katya Pasternack is hungry for a scoop that will drive traffic. An ambitious young journalist at a gossipy tech blog, Katya knows that she needs more than another PR friendly puff piece to make her the go-to byline for industry news.

Sabrina Choe Blum just wants to stay afloat. The exhausted mother of two and failed creative writer is trying to escape from her credit card debt and an inattentive husband-who also happens to be Katya’s boss-as she rejoins a work force that has gotten younger, hipper, and much more computer literate since she’s been away.

Before the ink on Mack’s latest round of funding is dry, an errant text message hints that he may be working a bit too closely for comfort with a young social media manager in his office. When Mack’s bad behavior collides with Katya’s search for a salacious post, Sabrina gets caught in the middle as TakeOff goes viral for all the wrong reasons. As the fallout from Mack’s scandal engulfs the lower Manhattan office building where all three work, it’s up to Katya and Sabrina to write the story the men in their lives would prefer remain untold.

An assured, observant debut from the veteran online journalist Doree Shafrir, Startup is a sharp, hugely entertaining story of youth, ambition, love, money and technology’s inability to hack human nature.

Never have I been so disappointed about not being approved for an ARC as I was about not getting approved for this novel; I’d had this novel on my radar for a while. Unfortunately, though, never have I been so disappointed about a read I’d so hyped up in my mind either. It wasn’t exactly a crash and burn, but it definitely fell from a pretty tall height in my mind at nearly whiplash inducing speeds.

Doree Shafrir’s Startup was most definitely the knock-off version of Dave Eggers’ The Circle (the book, not that terrible movie version). The characters were so mono-dimensional that I literally got them confused from time to time. No, literally, thought to myself, “Wait, I thought she was doing something else last chapter. Ooh, no, that was the other chick with a personality as flimsy as a paper doll.” The characters were as shallow as a kiddie pool and had no depth of consequence whatsoever. The men were all fist-pumping-type bros with over-inflated egos and near-megalomaniacal views of themselves. Now, I can’t say that this isn’t how it is in startup culture—I have no idea—but you’d think that writing the characters like that would be, at the very least, playing into every stereotype imaginable, wouldn’t you?

However, Startup did present a really witty look at Millennial culture. Though, as a Millennial myself, I’m not sure that this is such a great read for people who are actually of this generation (is Shafrir even? Doesn’t seem like it), because it tended to come off as a near-parody of our already-outrageous cultural mores. That coupled with the fact that Shafrir kept popping in like an annoying game of peek-a-boo to comment on various aspects of the startup culture gave the novel an odd mashup of: vivid, interesting facts about startup arena MEETS condescendingly parodic interpretation of this generation.

Hmm, left a taste in my mouth that’s pretty similar to unsalted potatoes: I could take it or leave it on my plate; not really adding much to my intellectual meal at all.

The first half of the novel was so description heavy, I’m convinced that word count alone must’ve taken up at least a quarter of the word count. So much time was spent both describing everything—South by Southwest (sigh, multiple times), yuppie office spaces, pretty, rich WASPs flitting around NYC. Shafrir painted their world as though it were a dream—a tech bubble fantasy, if you will. That aspect of the novel admittedly added humor, never taking itself too seriously, and I’m sure that plenty of readers will love that version of comedy. I never said that Startup wasn’t a lively read, full of pop culture references and characters who tried to be quirky—and I won’t take this moment to say that either—but I will note that often they came off as unlikeably entitled and pompous. Eeew.

While the main conflicts surrounding the startups themselves offered some appeal and functioned as the driving point of the novel, the internal, wholly first-world “struggles” of the characters were laughably superficial and mostly trivial (not humorously, mind you, laughably). (view spoiler) Floods and floods of details filled the pages, diluting the actual story line, slowing the plot and washing out the impact that the read could have had. That space on the pages could have been put to better use for sure (view spoiler) Because of this, the tension was lackluster at best most of the time.

All in all, Startup was the chick-lit version of a techy person’s dream read. There was little substance, nothing substantial or memorable about it beyond the occasional head-nod-inducing riff or mildly humorous commentary. I’d recommend it for Tina Fey lovers and tech-minded folks in need of some mental reprieve. It’s a fun, mindless read that won’t change or rock your world but may entertain you for the few hours it takes to get through it. 3 stars ***

Doree  ShafrirDoree Shafrir is a senior culture writer at BuzzFeed News and has written for New York Magazine, Slate, The Awl, Rolling Stone, Wired and other publications. A former resident of Brooklyn, she now lives in Los Angeles with her husband Matt Mira, a comedy writer and podcaster, and their dog Beau.

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Things That Happened Before the Earthquake by Chiara Barzini

Hardcover, 320 pages
Expected publication: August 15th 2017 by Doubleday Books
Welcome to LA? Nineties’ Hollywood gets an Italian makeover in this poignant and ruefully funny coming-of-age novel featuring a teenage girl who’s on shaky ground in more ways than one.
Mere weeks after the 1992 riots that laid waste to Los Angeles, Eugenia, a typical Italian teenager, is rudely yanked from her privileged Roman milieu by her hippie-ish filmmaker parents and transplanted to the strange suburban world of the San Fernando Valley. With only the Virgin Mary to call on for guidance as her parents struggle to make it big, Hollywood fashion, she must navigate her huge new public high school, complete with Crips and Bloods and Persian gang members, and a car-based environment of 99-cent stores and obscure fast-food franchises and all-night raves. She forges friendships with Henry, who runs his mother’s movie memorabilia store, and the bewitching Deva, who introduces her to the alternate cultural universe that is Topanga Canyon. And then the 1994 earthquake rocks the foundations not only of Eugenia’s home but of the future she’d been imagining for herself.”

Chiara Barzini’s Things That Happened Before the Earthquake was a novel built on a plausible premise, an exploration of assimilation into American culture through the eyes of an Italian teenager coming of age. I neither loved nor hated this novel, but I could see where the author was trying to go, and there did exist moments where I appreciated the bravery of her writing.

Eugenia’s parents come to the U.S. with stars in their eyes, hoping to make it big as filmmakers in L.A. They’re free-spirited in a truly European way, being shocked at the citations they receive for sunbathing topless on the beach and bewildered by things like private healthcare. They buy a Cadillac to fit in and change their wardrobe upon arrival, not wanting to be typecast as Italian gringos, wanting to fit in and instantly conform into their new surroundings.

Eugenia, is a typical teenager in a lot of ways. Aside from the fact that she has to worry about whether or not she’ll be threatened with deportation in American customs at the airport—and the fact that L.A. natives keep confusing her Italian heritage with French, which acutely annoys her—she searches for her own identity in much the same way as many teenage girls raised in the dazzling lights of a big city. She’s needy, clingy to people who often have little interest in her, exploring her surroundings and individuality through her newfound sexuality, the occasional recreational drug and a pretty consistent series of adventures brought on by risky, naïve behavior. She’s hungry for positive attention, desperate to find herself and fit in, from the “pump up” sneakers she thought would be cool to wear her first day of school (the other girls, she finds, have already graduated to wearing heels) to the slew of sexual trysts and arguably degrading positions she finds herself in. There are times when I questioned whether Eugenia was fearless or stupid, brave or simply naïve—but that is what coming of age is, isn’t it? A combination of all these things in its own right. Several of the scenes came off as memories of my own high-school experiences, of the other students around me all struggling to fit in and claim our places in the hierarchy that exists in every American school. Still, there were times where some of the scenes came off as uncomfortable and strange to me—but those were the moments when Barzini’s own fearlessness as a writer was on full display.

A key note to consider about this novel is that Things That Happened Before the Earthquake is exactly what this book felt like: things that happened.

The plot was pretty loose, and, for the most part, simply read like a series of events—misadventures if you will—that happened to a teenage girl after moving from her native Rome to the scorching Los Angeles, California, just after the riots brought on by the beating of Rodney King in ’92. With that in mind, the setting was rich, the landscape described down to the detail so that you could feel the grit in the Valley air, smell the salt of the sea on the shores of Italy. This novel was punctuated by pop culture events, like milestones that moved the story along on a timeline. The earthquake of 94’, the election of Silvo Berlusconi, O.J. Simpson and the white Bronco, gun to his head. It’s all seen through the eyes of Eugenia, commented on by a voice still trying to find itself. And that did have its own appeal, for sure.

Here you’ll find a slow read driven by finding oneself in the midst of chaos, rather than being heavily driven by plotting, irony, or plot twists. That will appeal to a lot of readers. It was a book that read at a lulling pace but that still had its share of shocking, difficult and awkward moments that pierced through the lull. The characters were flawed in a way that seemed real, authentic, unaffected and devoid of pretenses, and for that readers can be grateful, because that can be hard to find. Fiction is littered with unthought-out stereotypes masquerading as engaging characters, but you won’t find a graveyard of those typecast bones here.

Things That Happened had a sort of hippie-ish soul to it, exploring the crevices of Italian culture and how they made assimilation into American society both difficult and noteworthy at the same time. Barzini was at times bold in her depictions of what unaffected thinking sounds like, what authentic living looks like, from “making out” with your grandmother, to rave parties in the middle of the desert to an inside glimpse of commune life. And, the cover art is phenomenal! (5 stars for that!) But, the slowness of the read couldn’t always hold my attention, and the loose plotting failed to grab me the way I wanted to be held by this story within these pages. For that, I award a solid 3 stars. ***

Chiara BarziniChiara Barzini is an Italian screen and fiction writer. She has lived and studied in the United States where she collaborated with Italian Vanity Fair, GQ, XL Repubblica, Rolling Stone Italy, Flair, and Marie Claire while publishing essays in American magazines such as the Village Voice, Harper’s, Vogue, Interview Magazine, Vice, and Rolling Stone. Her fiction has appeared in BOMB Magazine, The Coffin Factory, Noon, The NY Tyrant, Vice, and Dazed & Confused. She is the author of the story collection Sister Stop Breathing(Calamari Press, 2012) and has written a variety screenplays for both television and film. Her most recent film work, Arianna, the coming of age story of an intersex adolescent, won numerous awards at the Venice Film Festival and was nominated for Best Screenplay at the Italian Golden Globes, 2016. Upcoming movie projects include the film adaptation of “Wonder When You’ll Miss Me” based on the novel by Amanda Davis.