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Saturday, October 10, 2020

'Fleishman Is in Trouble' by Taffy Brodesser-Akner


So. I really enjoyed this, and I didn't think I would.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner's debut 'Fleishman Is in Trouble' came out last year to much fanfare, it was *the* book to read and I was skeptical of its bandwagon. Especially when it was a National Book Award Nominee and I have this weird personal deficit that anything so lauded by Literary Critics is something I won't enjoy.

But I was kindly gifted this book, and after nearly 18-months of people talking coyly about this book's "twist" and how incredible it was; I caved.

My first shock was that it was readable (no, I know I know - but I assume something beloved of the hoity-toity Lit Critics Crowd is going to be like shovelling snow of prose) but this was a book I instantly fell into, and the story of a bitter Manhattan divorce.

I knew there was a twist, and for anyone panicking about a 'Gone Girl' level of upturn, rest-assured; it's all to do with the narration and it's probably the closest I've come to thinking an author has effectively written an ode to seeing through The Matrix. It's also that I started reading this the same week that Ruth Bader Ginsburg sadly passed away; and I kept thinking of her brilliant strategy for gender-equality arguments, whereby she'd represent male plaintiffs to get her point across and turn-tables. That's brilliantly at play here too in 'Fleishman Is in Trouble' with a Trojan Horse narration device that's so subtly brilliant, it about took my breath away.

I will say that I wearied of this story by about the last 50-100 pages... but that's also the genius of Brodesser-Akner, mirroring the very weariness the protagonist first talks about with stories of wronged-parties and divorce. There's a tedium here that weaves so beautifully to the themes overall that I can't even be mad at how frustrating and tiring I found it all by the end, because THAT WAS THE POINT!

Yep. I loved this. Serves me right for coming off a little snobby in not picking it up sooner, just because I thought literary snobs loving it meant I wouldn't ... I was wrong. The masses were right.


Friday, September 25, 2020

'How to Walk Away' by Katherine Center


From the BLURB: 

Margaret Jacobsen has a bright future ahead of her: a fiancé she adores, her dream job, and the promise of a picture-perfect life just around the corner. Then, suddenly, on what should have been one of the happiest days of her life, everything she worked for is taken away in one tumultuous moment. 

In the hospital and forced to face the possibility that nothing will ever be the same again, Margaret must figure out how to move forward on her own terms while facing long-held family secrets, devastating heartbreak, and the idea that love might find her in the last place she would ever expect. 

Having just finished Center's 2019 book 'Things You Save in a Fire' - I went back to this 2018 title because they're *kind of* linked.

In 'Fire' the firefighter protagonist Cassie references one particular call out that stayed with her; a woman badly burned and with a spinal injury after being involved in a light aircraft accident. An accident that happened within a few hours of her boyfriend proposing - the boyfriend who was the pilot and walked away from the crash without a scratch. Cassie in 'Fire' wonders what became of that woman, that she can't quite fathom the ways her life was altered from that moment on. This pinged for me, because I thought it sounded like one of Center's previous books and - lo! - it was indeed.

'How to Walk Away' details that very woman whose life was so utterly altered by one accident - Margaret Jacobsen who has to have skin-graft surgery and may have paraplegia below the knee forever. The book is very concentrated on the six weeks that Margaret 'Maggie' begins physical and occupational therapy, once she's well enough to grasp her new situation and start working towards rebuilding her life.

Six-weeks is all that her insurance company will cover, so that's why it's such a tight timeline and very focused on her rehabilitation (which rings true for American healthcare systems, and I found quite moving in and of itself). She's not only trying to get her altered body to cooperate, but she's juggling a fiancee (maybe?) who's gone off the rails, a pushy mother, understanding father, and her estranged sister Kitty who has flown home from New York to nag her sister into healing, apparently.

There's also physical therapist Iain - a Scottish giant of a man who wears crankypants constantly and pushes Maggie and her belief in herself. The two of them develop a special bond, that also feels very fragile for the circumstances in which they've met ...

I really enjoyed this novel (and I'm glad I followed my instincts to keep reading Center's backlist - particularly this one that harmonises so well with 'Things You Save in a Fire' the two of them acting as a sort of duology). I was also glad that the same way Center did such a marvellous job in 'Fire' of telling a true and fascinating story about firefighting, she did the same here about the challenges of spinal injuries, reality of PT (physical therapy) and existing in a world unfairly designed for the able-bodied. I did worry when a lot of Maggie's internal story seemed to be around "fixing" herself and recovering fully ... but that's actually Center being very honest about the stages of grief a person goes through for their own health and body after an accident.

I also thought the end-point that Maggie got to with her career ambitions was a little twee and cliche, and as with 'Fire' I did wish we got to exist a little longer in the happily ever after and how her life looked down the line.

But overall I loved this story too, and it has further clarified for me how much I love Center's writing!


'Things You Save in a Fire' by Katherine Center


From the BLURB: 

Cassie Hanwell was born for emergencies. As one of the only female firefighters in her Texas firehouse, she’s seen her fair share of them, and she’s a total pro at other people’s tragedies. But when her estranged and ailing mother asks her to give up her whole life and move to Boston, Cassie suddenly has an emergency of her own. 

The tough, old-school Boston firehouse is as different from Cassie’s old job as it could possibly be. Hazing, a lack of funding, and poor facilities mean that the firemen aren’t exactly thrilled to have a “lady” on the crew—even one as competent and smart as Cassie. Except for the infatuation-inspiring rookie, who doesn’t seem to mind having Cassie around. But she can’t think about that. Because love is girly, and it’s not her thing. And don’t forget the advice her old captain gave her: Never date firefighters. Cassie can feel her resolve slipping . . . and it means risking everything—the only job she’s ever loved and the hero she’s worked like hell to become.

'Things You Save in the Fire' is the 2019 novel from Katherin Center, and it was my first time reading her, but it won't be my last!

This is the story of a female Texas firefighter who lands in hot-water when she gives a politician from her past their comeuppance ... but her career is somewhat saved when she's offered a move to Boston, to let the controversy blow over - that also coincides with her estranged mother begging her to come stay, and help her out post eye-surgery.

There's a lot of tension and fault-lines established early; our heroine Cassie hasn't been close to her mother, ever since she walked out on the family on Cassie's 16th birthday to be with the man she'd been having an affair with. Cassie is also moving to an old-school (and rundown) Boston firehouse full of old-guard firefighters who don't like the idea of a woman on their turf.

To add to the complications is Cassie starting her new job alongside an Irish-legacy firefighter rookie who is the first person to make Cassie's heart beat fast and even consider knocking down some of the walls she's put up over the years to protect herself.

I loved this book - I wasn't surprised at the acknowledgements to find that Center's partner was once a medic and is still a volunteer firefighter, because the insights she gives to the culture of camaraderie (tinged with misogyny) and the patterns of fires was really fascinating and clearly came from a place of deep respect to understanding. I also really loved the romance between Cassie and 'The Rookie' - Owen. It was a slow-burn (ha!) that really paid off.

I cried buckets reading this, and my only criticism was that the last two-thirds or so of the novel felt extremely rushed and like a fast-forwarded montage I would have appreciated living inside of a little more as reader.

But overall I'm glad I've finally given this author a try, and I look forward to delving into her backlist!


Monday, September 7, 2020

'Flyaway' by Kathleen Jennings

Received from the publisher 

From the BLURB:

Strange what chooses to flourish here. Which plants. Which stories. 

Bettina Scott lives a tidy, quiet life in Runagate, tending to her delicate mother and their well-kept garden after her father and brothers disappear - until a note arrives that sends Bettina into the scrublands beyond, searching for answers about what really happened to this town, and to her family. For this is a land where superstitions hunt and folk tales dream - and power is there for the taking, for those willing to look.


Not sure this is the *cheeriest* lockdown reading but by golly, did I love it anyway! 

‘Flyaway’ by Kathleen Jennings is a novella of interconnected, fantastical Australiana fairytales that a young woman is unravelling to find and understand her family ... it’s had a simultaneous release in the US, and I recently saw that one of my fave review sites - Smart Bitches, Trashy Books - gave it a stellar A- rating and a *wonderful* write-up! “I call this a feminist story because so much of it involves people who are destroyed or silenced by patriarchal systems of capitalism, colonialism, and marriage – that is to say, by greed or by possessiveness.” 

Like SMTB, I was also pleasantly relieved to find that this isn’t a book of fairytales and folklore that relies on sexual abuse of women ... that doesn’t mean it’s not violent, or there isn’t psychological torture - but to not rely on women’s bodies being torn down in the “typical” ways was a relief of the tallest order. 

This is a must-read novella from an Australian talent who many of us have been anticipating would absolutely break-out, and I’m so thrilled this book has done exactly that. I can see a groundswell starting around Jennings, and anticipation growing for *whatever* she does next. ‘Flyaway’ is outstanding Gothic Australian fantastical fiction and one that imprints on the reader.


Thursday, August 27, 2020

'Rebel Gods' Monuments #2 by Will Kostakis

Received from the Publisher for an honest review  

From the BLURB:

Newbie gods Connor, Sally and Locky want to change the world - no biggie. But they're soon drawn into a centuries-old conflict that just might destroy the world they're striving to make better. Book 2 in the MONUMENTS fantasy duology from YA superstar Will Kostakis.


With the Monuments gone, newbie gods Connor, Sally and Locky must stop the rebel gods from reducing the world to ruin. Trouble is, they don't know how.


While Sally searches for answers and Locky makes plans to change the world, Connor struggles to keep up appearances as an ordinary teenager. But when a rebel god offers them a deal to end the chaos, their lives are turned upside down and they're forced to reckon with the question: who should decide the fate of the world?


Rebel Gods is the gripping conclusion to Monuments, a Children's Book Council of Australia Notable Book 2020, from YA superstar Will Kostakis. It's a heartfelt look at family, friendship and the parallel lives we lead.


‘Rebel Gods’ is the second (and final) book in Will Kostakis’ Monuments YA series.


It’s a series about literal Gods waking up beneath the ‘sanctuaries’ of Australian schools, and three teens – Connor, Sally and Locky – who find themselves the heir-apparent to different Gods, sure to inherit their terrible and awesome powers. ‘Rebel Gods’ picks up where ‘Monuments’ left off, with a launching-pad of rogue Gods surely coming down to wreak havoc and launch an epic battle against the heirs.


That’s the scene upon which we open ‘Rebel Gods’ and the conclusion to Will Kostakis’ hugely successful and brilliant first foray into the YA fantasy genre (but I hope it won’t be his last!).


Will very early on this year made a funny about the fact that he clearly has no God-like precognition abilities because ‘Rebel Gods’ takes place in 2020 and there’s no mention of a pandemic within the pages … BUT: there is something here that speaks to a bigger spark of recognition and story that’s prescient for the times; of doing the right thing even when it’s the hard thing, and coming up against what are very likely insurmountable odds.


I could always read some climate-action parallels in the story of three teenagers from diverse backgrounds (and there is a brilliant LGBT+ love-story in here too) literally coming along and inheriting the powers from these Monuments … these relics; old Gods, and a new world-order being ushered in by these teens.


It may not be pandemic “doom boom” writing, but even the idea of tearing down ‘Monuments’ and the next-gen of power rebuilding, has serious repercussions with a 2020 reading.


And honestly, Will Kostakis is just the LoveOzYA author to write this kind of self-determinism and heroism for his teen characters. There’s nothing easy in this story for them, but they rise to the occasion and by the end will leave you a proud (if blubbering) mess.


Something of ‘Monuments’ now having read it conclusion, is giving me airs of Veronica Roth to Kostakis’ writing and the sheer *epicness* of it all. The little hints and clues present in ‘Monuments’ that come out in satisfying and devastating ways in ‘Rebel Gods’ (and I should say; this comparison is especially on the back of reading Roth’s Chosen Ones).


I really, thoroughly enjoyed this book – even if it left me an emotional husk by the last page. It was one heck of a journey to go on, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat or a re-read.



Friday, August 14, 2020

'The Silent Wife' Will Trent #10 by Karin Slaughter


From the BLURB: 

He watches.

A woman runs alone in the woods. She convinces herself she has no reason to be afraid, but she's wrong. A predator is stalking the women of Grant County. He lingers in the shadows, until the time is just right to snatch his victim.

He waits.

A decade later, the case has been closed. The killer is behind bars. But then another young woman is brutally attacked and left for dead, and the MO is identical.

He takes.

Although the original trail has gone cold - memories have faded, witnesses have disappeared - agent Will Trent and forensic pathologist Sara Linton must re-open the cold case. But the clock is ticking, and the killer is determined to find his perfect silent wife ...


‘The Silent Wife’ is the 10th book in Karin Slaughter’s ‘Will Trent’ crime series, and the 20th published book in her career that started in 2009 with the ‘Grant County’ series and the characters of Police Chief Jeffrey Tolliver and his ex-wife coroner, Sara Linton.

Now – spoiler! – Jeffrey was killed in the sixth book of ‘Grant County’ (called ‘Beyond Reach’ and alternate title ‘Skin Privilege’) then Sara transitioned to the established Will Trent series, where over the course of the last eight or so books, she has started a relationship with Will.

This is all important to note because for the first time since his passing, Jeffrey is back. Kind of. ‘The Silent Wife’ sees one of Jeffrey’s old cases and convictions unearthed when a prisoner who swears black and blue that he’s innocent, points Will Trent and his partner Faith Adams (both of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation) to a potential killing spree for which he was imprisoned, but if his hunches prove true then it means a serial rapist and killer has been on the streets for eight years … the book flashes back to the case unfolding as it did then eight years ago when Jeffrey was chief of police at Grant County, shady cop Lena Adams was just starting out and screwing up, and Jeffrey and Sara’s divorce was only a year old and still raw over his uncovered unfaithfulness. The book switches between Sara and Will in real-time backtracking over the case to see if there are fresh clues and new murders, and Jeffrey in the past working in real-time of the past to track down someone who is murdering female students from the local college.

Now let me just say – I have never been so floored by the loss of a fictional character as I was by Jeffrey Tolliver. I – and all ‘Grant County’ fans – were completely stumped and horrified by that twist we never saw coming, and I think in many ways we’ve all been (much like Sara) grappling with it ever since. After reading ‘The Silent Wife’ I even went back to ‘Beyond Reach’ and read that last chapter again and … tears. Floods of tears. Just like the first time it sucker-punched me.

So when I flipped the page in ‘The Silent Wife’ to find a chapter in Jeffrey’s head as he was then – I gasped. I cried. It was like a pressure-valve lifting and all the old hurts over his loss came flooding back because it was also so damn good to have him back. And this is where Slaughter I think knows her audience so dang well, because I’m sure I’m not alone. I am sure that (again – keeping pace with Sara’s emotional trajectory) majority of us were probably at the point of finally being fully invested in the ‘Will Trent’ series and his and Sara’s relationship … to then yank us back to the past heightens everything. Brilliantly. Viscerally.

This is of course why Slaughter did it. ‘The Silent Wife’ even unfolds with Sara and Will at a precipice point in their relationship (he’s proposed but … abysmally. They both agree to circle back to talking about it but never do and suddenly six-weeks have passed and they can both feel the clock ticking as to what to do about their relationship).

Meanwhile; Sara and Jeffrey in the past are at a point in their relationship that readers have only gleaned second-hand from both parties. The time before first book ‘Blindsighted’ when they’re in the thick of their animosity over Jeffrey’s cheating and subsequent recent divorce (even if it’s blatantly obvious that there’s still love there, it’s only amplifying the hurt right now).

At both points in time Sara is on the edge with the two men in her life – down one path we know that she and Jeffrey reconcile and give it another go that only ends with his murder. But in ‘The Silent Wife’ the events of ‘Blindsighted’ haven’t happened, and Sara has yet to confide in Jeffrey all the truths of her past, including her own rape when she was in college.

Down the other side we have Will and Sara – crazy about each other, but still plagued by their respective pasts. And the reopened case presents an opened wound to be exposed; Will is literally coming face-to-face with the ghost of the late, great Jeffrey Tolliver. The love of Sara’s life, who Will wonders if he’ll always feel second-best to as he grapples with the reality that had he not died – Sara would still be married to him. And Sara is trying to squeeze her love and missing Jeffrey around the way her heart has expanded to need Will, to love him dearly.

It is SUCH a good place for this story to spin around. Absolutely, delicious and juicy and exposing the very reason I kept coming back to this series – the relationships.

In fact, at the back of the book in a spoiler-filled Author’s Note, Slaughter outright admits; “I bet you guys didn’t notice that I’ve been secretly writing love stories. Really gritty, violent, love stories, but still.” I noticed. Lots of us did. I started reading Slaughter’s ‘Grant County’ series when I was 22(!!!) and actually – fun fact! – ‘Blindsighted’ was the very first book I reviewed on my blog! It was the first proper-proper crime series I delved into and it was the tension-filled relationship of Jeffrey and Sara that hooked me (aside from a great whodunnit procedural) I wouldn’t have kept coming back to this series if I didn’t love the characters and want to see the best for them. And ‘The Silent Wife’ is really sticking them all under a microscope in the most amazing, curious way.

There’s so many layers in this book.

It’s also fascinating to see Slaughter admit that Tolliver maybe wasn’t the best police officer like everyone (and probably fans) remember. That’s illuminated in ‘The Silent Wife’ and a case that is literally spun around Jeffrey missing clues and letting a killer get away. It’s also highlighting Lena Adams genesis as a dirty cop … I’ve never liked Lena (I mean; who does?) but I’ve also been bitingly aware of the fact that when we met her in ‘Blindsighted’ it was on her worst day and one that irrevocably changed her – the murder of her sister. What’s fascinating in ‘The Silent Wife’ is – we see the actual genesis of Lena’s foolhardy broken morality just beginning. In stupid, human mistakes sure – but also in Jeffrey seeming to make the connection that she could be what Will later dubs his “grey rabbit”, a cop who gets her hands dirty so others can keep theirs clean, she’s will to go down the rabbit hole of grey-areas.

And here I’ll just say – Lena is also in the present and being interviewed by Will and Faith, and much like our spidey-senses were tingling in anticipation of Will’s ex-wife Angie coming back, Lena’s presence in ‘The Silent Wife’ really works to drop breadcrumbs that Slaughter is not done where she’s concerned. She seemingly got her happily-ever-after with Jeffrey’s son Jared and a baby on the way (I dread her rubbing that in Sara’s face like I know she will) and Faith Adams has the best summary of this seemingly perfect life for one of the most undeserving individuals, when she says;

“Fucking Lena.” Faith flapped down the visor to look in the mirror. “How did that bitch get J.Lo’s life with Lizzie Borden’s personality?”

How indeed.

But I am of the belief that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was right; "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” I think we haven’t seen the back of Lena and her toxicity, but I also believe that she will be exposed for who she really is. Eventually.

At both points in time, we see Sara at a fractious point in both her relationship with Jeffrey and Will. What’s interesting is how differently those trajectories play out, but also what’s illuminated as we observe the men satelliting around the women they love. For Jeffrey, we see him rewriting history and changing the narrative … the same way Lena Adams does in her field-notes. Will has really grown as a character, and though it’s all internalised – we see him reasoning out and talking through his emotions and why he’s experiencing them. That’s Sara’s influence crowding out his head and heart.

What was almost uncomfortable for me to realise while reading ‘The Silent Wife’ was … poking at the idea that maybe Will is the better suitor overall. Much as Jeffrey was – well, Jeffrey. Brilliant and charismatic, bull-headed and egotistical – someone who hurt Sara deeply and repeatedly, but also loved her like no other … Slaughter’s Author’s Note also highlights this when she says she knew Will was going to have to earn Sara’s love. Both between them, and for fans. And reading ‘The Silent Wife’ and the healthier way that he and Sara confront the pitfalls of their relationship head on (eventually) – it’s abundantly clear that he’s done that. Tenfold.

I was uhmming and ahhing whether or not to give this book 4.5 stars or not. The only criticism I have is the whodunnit was very obvious and I had it figured out within a few chapters. But looking back at all the juicy tension and character development and retrospectives … and knowing that this book is Slaughter at her absolute *best* and highlighting the complexities that make her series so wonderful, I am convinced that she always meant for there to be an element of the obvious for the whodunnit. Because a lot of this book is observing the things that are right in front of our faces, but we’re not yet ready to confront and examine or admit to ourselves.

So it’s five-stars from me, and a hearty wish that I already had details of what’s next from my favourite of all crime-writers.



Wednesday, August 5, 2020

'Stepping Stones' by Lucy Knisley

'Stepping Stones' is graphic novelist Lucy Knisley's first middle-grade fiction book.

Knisley is best-known for her adult memoirs ('Relish', 'Kid Gloves', 'Displacement' and more) but recently she has illustrated picture-books like 'You Are New' and 'Go To Sleep: (I Miss You)'

'Stepping Stones' is her first venture into middle-grade realms however, and even though it's biographical (emphasised by the author's note at the back) the protagonist here is called 'Jen' and names have been changed throughout.

'Stepping Stones' tells the story of Jen who has moved to the country with her Mum and her Mum's new boyfriend, Walter following her parent's divorce. Every weekend, Walt's kids - young girls Andy and Reese - come along to Peapod Farm and what begins as a tense relationship on multiple fronts eases into a sweet acceptance of changed circumstance and family-unit.

Knisley's MG offering is very much in the vein of Raina Telgemeier's books - which are also largely biographical recounting aspects of Raina's life growing up in San Francisco (books like 'Smile', 'Sisters', 'Guts' etc.). Raina is really the queen of this niche in tween graphic-novels for a largely female readership; in fact her most recent book 'Guts' with Scholastic got a 1-million copy print-run because her past successes proved she could reach that sales-figure (and did!). It makes sense that a publisher would tap Knisley to produce in this space too; given that she's had huge success in an adult-biographical graphic realm (her last book 'Kid Gloves' was nominated for a Harvey Award, in the Eisners) and in her adult books she's doing similar work to Raina; mining past traumas and complications in her life, to break open various spaces and conversations for her audience (Knisley has written about everything from; miscarriages, to birth complications, break-ups, loss of grandparents, bisexuality, etc.)

But there's something missing in translation as Knisley switches from an adult to middle-grade audience in 'Stepping Stones'. I think what I absolutely love in her adult works is the way she goes off on context-tangents (in 'Kid Gloves' she included pages explaining a history of misogynistic and racist medical practices that see black women dying from labor-complications due to a mismanaged and white patriarchal healthcare structure in America). In her adult works she also seamlessly flashes forward and backward to moments in her life as recounting them brings a fuller understanding of past incidences and future upheavals. That's all missing from 'Stepping Stones' ... we occasionally see Jen (who is also a budding comics artist) drawing out past memories of her parent's fraught marriage and breakdown, but they're stick-figures and light on introspection.

Maybe most frustrating is the character of Walter - her Mum's boyfriend - who really is a bully, and whose own children touch on past incidences between their father and mother, how his aggressive emotional behaviour likely led to divorce. Everything to do with Walt is really left open-ended and not confronted, and it robs the reader of a feeling of conclusion, in a way?

HOWEVER - I did wonder if 'Stepping Stones' was intended as the first in a series based at Peapod Farm, or following the post-divorce adventures of Jen and her family? There are little hints that maybe 'Stepping Stones' is setting up more exploration in this world, and it did strike me that this could be a similar series to Rita Williams-Garcia's 'Gaither Sisters' in switching locations each book, depending on which parent or family-member the girls are with (certainly I could see a Book #2 following Jen home to the city and staying with her Dad?)

As it is; something of 'Stepping Stones' feels a little ... flat? Too short, not quite rich enough with intertextual play like I've come to expect from Knisley and not enough depth to the situations and characters being set-up. I'll hold out hope it's simply a matter of more coming soon!