Waiting for Tom Hanks

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Review #46: Fiction

First to Read #5

Waiting for Tom Hanks by Kerry Winfrey

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I really wanted to LOVE this book, because I honestly can’t get enough of rom-coms or Tom Hanks, and maybe having such high expectations has something to do with it, but I definitely only LIKED this book. It hits all the right rom-com notes, and for that I loved it (and rounded up from what I feel is a 3.5 star book). However, the main character fell flat for me, and I was much more interested in all of the surrounding characters and their side stories than I ever was about Annie and the main story arc.  The interest I have for Don and his Dungeons and Dragons cohort, for Chloe and Nick and their (in not just my opinion but the opinion of the main character herself) much better rom-com love story, for Annie’s mother and all of the interesting things we learn about her by the end of this book, even for Annie’s bad date who eats bagels out of the trash…far outweighs the interest I felt for Annie.

I think my main grievance with Annie is that she is supposed to be this romantic comedy expert, moving through life trying to find her Tom Hanks (not the man, but the character he plays in all his rom-coms) but she seems to be the one who least recognizes the rom-com plot devices around her. She is oblivious to the main tenets of a rom-com as they are happening—the meet-cute, the unexpected love interest, the big misunderstanding, the grand gesture to seal the love deal. Throughout, it is Chloe, her best friend, who needs to point out all of these things as they are happening. She also comes across as very, very young and naive when she’s meant to be nearly 30. She reads as sheltered and inexperienced in the world. We learn something about her mother, which is shocking, but Annie acts as if it’s the literal end of the world. She sees an article in a gossip magazine and throws a tantrum. She behaves as if, at 30, she’s never had a single dating experience. I suppose maybe this could be true, but at this stage in life, I find most women have some knowledge of what dating and relationships are like, even if they haven’t been in many. Annie makes mistakes and assumptions and does things I could believe of a 23 or 24 year old, but I found hard to assign to a 30 year old.

Drew, the leading rom-com man, was great. I, however, did not understand why he was supposed to be the unexpected love interest. His description as being a Hollywood jokester—this unserious, immature, playboy—didn’t land with me. If anything, I thought his attempts to stay out of the limelight and away from the paparazzi and the gossip columns made him more attractive. I didn’t see why Annie had such an aversion to him.

One final, very specific thing that bothered me was that Annie absolutely HATED that Drew called her Coffee Girl when in nearly the same breath she would fawn over Tom Hanks referring to Meg Ryan as Shop Girl in You’ve Got Mail. The fact that Annie, the rom-com connoisseur, did not make the connection is too unbelievable.

I liked this because it is a true rom-com, the cast of characters outside of the leading roles was phenomenal (there was a true family of friends created), and all of the small nods to the rom-coms of the past (Tom Hanks-lead and otherwise) were nostalgic and fun. The writing was light, and it’s a quick read that flowed well, but when the main story arc and the main character are the least enjoyable part of a book, it’s hard to do better than “like.”

My rating: 4 (just barely) out of 5 stars.

I received access to an e-copy of this book for this review.

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The Book of Dreams

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Review #45: Fiction

First to Read #4

The Book of Dreams by Nina George

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Nina George is one of my absolute favorite authors. I devoured both The Little Paris Bookshop and The Little French Bistro and it was a sincere pleasure to be one of the first to read The Book of Dreams. George has proven to be a master of pulling at readers’ heartstrings.

Henri Skinner is on his way to meet is son, Sam, for the very first time when an accident leaves him hospitalized and in a coma. Sam and Eddie, Henri Skinner’s ex-girlfriend who he has left in charge of his medical decisions but hasn’t seen in over 2 years, visit Henri everyday, trying to convince him to wake up.

Sam is a synesthete, he experiences his senses in a combination of ways. Notably he can see colors in numbers and in voices, he can feel personalities. This is how he knows his father is inside his comatose body, and he believes Henri can hear and understand him. When Sam asks Henri to find Madelyn, a young girl who has also been left in a coma after a car accident in which she lost her entire family, he truly believes her father can bring her back. Sam feels a connection to Madelyn, and believes she and his father are together, wherever they are.

Eddie must grapple with a love for Henri that she thought she’d let go, only to find it returning even more strongly now that she is faced with truly having to decide if she can let Henri go, while Sam confronts the fact that he may never actually meet his father, though his synesthesia may allow him to know his father better than anyone ever could.

In a story told in the shadows between life and death, George weaves together life, loss, love and pain in new and exciting ways, forcing readers to contemplate just what makes a life worth living, what it really means to be alive. There’s a beauty in the way George writes about death and loss, a spark that ignites our curiosity and pulls at the heartstrings leaving us wondering what more there might be to life that we just don’t know. If we can’t see something, does that mean it doesn’t exist? Can medicine and science truly explain everything? The Book of Dreams asks readers to consider all the things we just don’t know about life and death and the in-between spaces. It inspires us to trust our senses and feelings even when logic and reason and the harsh realities of the world would have us do anything but.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

I received access to an e-copy of this book for this review.

The Winters

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Review #44: Fiction

First to Read #3

The Winters by Lisa Gabriele

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For the most part, this is a highly enjoyable book. It is equal parts romance, thriller, and suspense, though falls short by having small sparks of each, but never going fully in on any one of these.

The story we’re following is of a young woman (we never get her name, which becomes more and more annoying as it’s specifically mentioned several times throughout that she is either happy or irritated when people pronounce it correctly or incorrectly) who meets a widower in the Cayman Islands while working for a tourist boat company. They have a very quick romance – so quick that it never really feels believable. Their relationship is very one-dimensional and a lot of the plot relies on the believability of their relationship. This lack of chemistry between the two characters (Max Winter and our unnamed protagonist) weakens the book.

Max spirits her away to be married and the new head of his extravagant home – Asherley – on Long Island, and to be a stepmother to his teenage daughter, Dani. Dani is the spitting image of her deceased mother, and behaves toward our protagonist as we would expect a teenager to receive a new mother less than two years after her passing. Though, unchecked, Dani begins to go above and beyond normal rebellious behavior, and soon becomes someone to be feared.

The protagonist (I am also annoyed by having to write ‘protagonist’ rather than a character’s name; it was a weird and bad choice by author and editor to move forward with an unnamed protag) gets closer and closer to Max, thinks she’s making strides with Dani, but time and again finds herself on the receiving end of cruel jokes. As these pranks unfold, Dani becomes more unstable, Max becomes more exasperated, the protagonist begins to learn more and more about the secrets Asherley keeps, the truth behind the death of the first Mrs. Winter, and whether or not she’ll meet the same fate.

To get the thriller elements, Gabriele gives us a lot of unsettling moments, creates a truly scary character in Dani, and keeps us asking questions nearly throughout. She uses a lot of misdirection, and red herrings to try to turn the reader’s attention away from putting the pieces together. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work well enough, and before the protagonist figures it all out, most readers will have already deduced the final twist. This leaves around 30 pages of the book where readers will be left waiting for her to catch up.

In the end, there’s not much to be surprised by, and some ill-advised elements (the protagonist’s lack of name, the random addition of a grandmother in Cuba the protagonist doesn’t mention until the very end of the book, the lack of believable romance) weaken what could be a chilling story about family secrets. Dani is the best written character in the book, and definitely moves the story along in ways the protagonist just can’t when she’s not even given a name, is very loosely fleshed out, and finds herself embroiled in this family soap opera based on a foundation-less romance.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

I received access to an e-copy of this book for this review.

When Katie Met Casside

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Review #43: Fiction

First to Read #2

When Katie Met Cassidy by Camille Perri

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This was, for the most part, a really fun read. It’s a classic meetcute style romance, told from both Katie’s and Cassidy’s perspectives, adding some much needed LGBTQ+ voices and stories to the genre.

I loved Cassidy as a character. She’s really fleshed out and I felt like I knew her and really related to her, maybe a bit more than Katie. Katie is a well-rounded character, with a lot of relatable qualities, and I’m sure many readers are able to see themselves or someone they know in Katie, which goes a long way for character development and audience engagement. However, I felt like Katie was a bit generic, very cookie-cutter in some ways. She’s a pretty, blonde, blue eyed southern belle that moved to New York for a taste of the big city and success. Though Perri does try to set her apart, giving her a real job that takes real brains and ambition and we’re told that Katie isn’t like the typical southern girl…she still feels like it. But because of Cassidy, and her character’s depth and layers, Katie is held up in the relationship and the story. Together, Cassidy and Katie work in a way Katie alone would not. Their love story is a fun one to read and watch unfold, to root for, and to worry about when the inevitable turbulence comes.

My only grievance with this book is Katie’s back story. At the start of the book, she has just been dumped by her fiancé for another woman. Very, very recently — only a weekend before meeting Cassidy in a meeting between her company and Cassidy’s. Obviously until this point, Katie is a straight woman, and meeting Cassidy after her break up makes her question that, and eventually she and Cassidy get together. Katie never really confirms she is a lesbian, but simply says that she doesn’t know if she likes women, but she likes Cassidy. This confusion is actually understandable and one of the more real aspects of Katie as a character. My irritation comes from Katie having been wronged by a man, VERY recently, and then meeting a woman and starting a lesbian relationship.

On the surface this isn’t so bad, but it tends to feel like Katie’s story perpetuates the concept that lesbians hate men, are just women who have been hurt by men, and therefore, in response to a man forsaking them, swear off men forever. It’s as if, had a man not burned Katie, she would never have “become” a lesbian. She also reexamines the female friendships in her life, wondering why she felt so possessive of them, why she loved them so much, and decides that maybe she had romantically loved them subconsciously and was then jealous of them when they entered relationships with men. This, again, perpetuates a negative stereotype of gay women, promoting the idea that gay women cannot have platonic relationships with women — they must be in love with them, want them sexually, they cannot be just friends.

Katie, a women in her late 20s, is also completely clueless about sex, and not just sex between two women. She is written as a wholesome, innocent, southern woman, but it’s mind boggling that a women in her late 20s, who has been in New York for years, and was engaged to be married, was completely blindsided by sex toys and books with sex tips, and, honestly, had no inkling of what might go on in the bedroom between two women. She had no understanding of her own wants, or needs, or sexual desires, her likes or dislikes. For a book written in present day, maybe I’m being optimistic, but I don’t find a nearly 30-year-old woman with no sexual knowledge whatsoever to be believable.

Cassidy, on the other hand, is brilliantly written. I wanted to be her, I wanted to be with her, I wanted to know her. She’s so relatable, so real. I feel like I know several Cassidy’s and that Cassidy is part me. Her struggle with settling down, her confusion about being with a “straight” girl, her walls and defense mechanisms, and her backstory explaining it all is pure perfection in character development. More so than Katie, Cassidy grows as a person through this story. She truly knows herself and makes positive changes because Katie enters her life. She recognizes her faults, she addresses her insecurities, she peels off her layers and lets love in, and I was cheering for her start to finish. Cassidy embodies the idea of loving the skin you’re in, being unapologetically yourself, for you and for no one else. She was who she was, you like it or you don’t. She has not hidden agenda, she just knows who she is and in the end, could not be more proud.

Even with my few issues with Katie as a character, the love story that Perri writes for her and Cassidy is cute, playful, turbulent, and in the general sense, real. It was so refreshing to see an LGBTQ+ love story that showcases a character questioning her sexuality and finding herself and highlights different ideas of femininity and masculinity.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I received access to an e-copy of this book for this review.

The Pisces

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Review #42: Fiction

First to Read #1

The Pisces by Melissa Broder

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If you haven’t read Melissa Broder before, you may be shocked (pleasantly or not) by the blunt, crass, in-your-face honesty of her writing. If you’re familiar, you will recognize her voice in The Pisces instantly. Broder is a master at telling it like it is and throwing two middle fingers up at sugarcoating. Just as she has done with her non-fiction writing, Broder leaps into fiction with a reality that is both uncomfortable and refreshing. She refrains from polishing the harsh edges of the world, of people, and doesn’t give in to the fantastical – even in a story involving a merman.

The Pisces, as it turns out, is not about a woman who meets a merman and falls in love. It is instead about a woman who is severely addicted to love and sex and has very destructive intimacy issues. Lucy loses herself in the company of men, she runs from commitment when boredom sets in, then becomes nearly suicidal without a romantic partner. She’s completely self-destructive, feels almost no guilt when her actions negatively affect others, and is constantly using love to rationalize her bad behavior. Lucy enters therapy after a bad break up, while watching her sister’s house and dog in California. Though mostly Lucy silently judges the other women in her group therapy, there are moments when she sees herself in them, and for brief periods of time, realizes she is a mess and actually in need of help. Though another man will come into the picture, or an old one will pop back up, and eventually Lucy loses control and spirals, leaving nothing but ruin in her wake. It is no different when the man is a merman.

One of Broder’s biggest accomplishments with her writing is that she has this ability to make it seem as if she reached inside your head and pulled the words out. It feels so intimate that you want to turn away, give the characters their privacy, but like a car crash, you can’t help but stare. It feels as if Broder has created her characters with pieces of you. Each woman in Lucy’s group therapy, Lucy included, could be you, a version of you. There are fragments of relatability in them. The hard part is that they are not good fragments. It is the hard truths about ourselves that we see in these women, in Lucy, and just like Lucy, we subconsciously judge them for the very things we dislike about ourselves.

Claire and Lucy are arguably the two most destructive and problematic characters, and I found relatable ideas and behaviors in both of them. Ironically, it was these same ideas and behaviors I disliked them for. Lucy and Claire seem to dislike each other for these things as well. Lucy spends a lot of time thinking about how messed up Claire is, but also how she feels as if she is judging herself when judging Claire, and so avoids it. She feels Claire does the same thing. By encouraging and not demonizing Lucy’s behavior, Claire is allowing herself to be just as bad if not worse. They see themselves in each other, just as we see ourselves in them. Broder uses her characters as mirrors, of each other, and of her readers, and probably, herself.

Though the characters are wonderfully crafted and painfully, brilliantly, flawed, the story itself doesn’t feel complete. Lucy fluctuates between destructive behavior and determination to change. She goes from man to man trying to feel better. She slips into states of depression and euphoria. Other women in her group therapy do the exact same; each woman has a break through then a setback then a break through then a setback. Though this is very much how therapy and recovery actually is, perhaps this isn’t the best for the book. The merman is merely another man in the story, another escape for Lucy, another excuse to do unspeakably terrible things. When the book comes to a close, it seems like Lucy may have finally broken her pattern and will turn things around, but we never know. The book ends before we actually see any real progress. And in the end, her (possibly) final straw in letting go of toxic men and toxic routines is caused when Lucy doesn’t feel special enough. She finds out her relationship with the merman is one he’s had with other women before her, and she cannot handle not being special. It’s selfish and childish, and though she leaves that situation claiming to have finally realized she needs to get her life together and has a few ideas about how she can move on, none of it comes to fruition in the book. We have no reason to believe Lucy has really changed. In fact, since Lucy is the only source we have concerning the merman, there’s even the chance he never existed, and Lucy is far sicker than we know.

Broder’s voice is unique and clear and unmistakable in The Pisces. She delivers the kind of uncomfortable characters and situations that reality is made up of. The Pisces feels like an extension of author and reader. However, the story falls flat, it’s very static, slightly predictable, and seems a little like the 200+ page equivalent to walking in place.

My rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

I received access to an e-copy of this book for this review.

How Democracies Die

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Review #41: Non-Fiction

Blogging for Books #13

How Democracies Die by Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky

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How Democracies Die is fast-paced and gripping, throwing history at you, analyzing current world governments, and contemplating the future state of world governments with an emphasis on America’s democracy at just the right speed to keep even non-political junkies hooked. It’s very easy to assume that this book is a Trump-bashing tome, but it’s an honest critique of current politics in America, with evidence from governments around the world through decades of struggle with democracy. And it’s a much shorter read than it looks (there’s an extensive Notes section that has successfully added dozens of books to my TBR, so thanks.)

Ziblatt and Levitsky give us just the facts, ma’am — and for anyone who is legitimately concerned about democracy, citizens’ involvement in government, the use of checks and balances, the US constitution — the facts point to democracy in America failing, and being increasingly jeopardized by a Donald Trump presidency. They build a very compelling case, one that does not place the weight of the destabilizing of America’s democracy squarely on Trump’s shoulders. Example after example of fluctuation governments in South America, in Europe, in Africa, etc., show how democracies have risen and fallen, and discuss the events that led up to those points.

What Ziblatt and Levitsky do is point out how each destabilizing event around the world can be related to something in past or recent American history. They pull no punches when calling out American politicians for straying from democratic behavior; they go back to Washington, discuss Lincoln, Nixon, and up through how Donald Trump was elected…and what could happen in the coming years if democratic norms are not restored. They weave an at once fascinating and terrifying story of the birth and weakening of America’s democracy, give us three possible outcomes of the Trump presidency, and thankfully leave us with optimism that there is still time to correct our path.

True believers in democracy will read How Democracies Die with a lump in their throat and finish it with a fire in their belly to make things right. Unfortunately, those who merely believe in their political party, regardless of how that party may be undermining the tenants of democracy, will probably write the book off as an attack on one party, one figure in particular, and may not get what they should out of this warning. Ziblatt and Levitsky have raised the alarm, and we would all do well to respond to it.

5 out of 5 stars

*I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

The Merry Spinster

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Review #40: Fiction

The Merry Spinster by Mallory Ortberg

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This collection of stories will feel at once familiar and darkly, deliciously fresh.

Though fairytales and fables, these stories carry such a refreshing air of reality. They drip with a dark, sinister unpredictability that flows through our real lives. Ortberg forces the reader to see each retelling and re-imagination through a new lens, one that refocuses the otherworldly and fantastic as real. Remove the preconceived idea that mermaids aren’t real, that animals don’t talk or interact with each other in friendships, or that little boys don’t turn into swans; what do their lives look like? They are as complex and flawed as our own. And they can be similarly heartbreaking and cruel.

With every story, we are given a new glimpse into worlds and situations we thought we already knew. Readers will feel the heart-string tugs of the stories that inspired this collection, nostalgia working to convince us that we know how each story ends. But Ortberg rewrites the script, opening our narrow perceptions to something more – cruel realities of these fairytales we’ve come to love. What may be expected to tarnish the memory of beloved fairytales and fables ultimately elevates them, allowing these stories to grow and mature with the audience.

Ortberg does not shy away from the harsh and unfair or unsavory elements of life, and allows these aspects to shine in this collection. She has given us our favorite stories, with an honest, relatable tone that is unencumbered by preconceived notions of a “happily ever after” ending. We, and our stories, are better for it.

4 out of 5 stars

*Cover image from Amazon