books and reading · reviews

Book Review: Take Me Back by Meghan March

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Kat and Dane met on a beach and got married on one. Now they’re two years into their marriage, and they might as well be strangers to one another. Kat is obsessed with her work and married to her phone, constantly checking in with her company. Dane is drowning in his own secrets, secrets he’s never told Kat but knows he must if they can salvage their relationship. On a last-ditch effort, the two take a 10-day trip to Belize to try to reconnect and see if there’s anything left worth saving.

Meghan March’s Take Me Back is best categorized as romantic suspense. The book favors euphemisms for its sex scenes (“to the hilt” is used several times, and it is never not completely distracting), is heavy on the dialogue and unbelievably light on the character development. It’s a quick read, to be sure, and is guaranteed to attract fans of the romantic suspense genre in general, but it’s also kind of a mess as a whole.

Neither Dane nor Kat are at all developed as characters (Kat’s main trait is that she’s work obsessed, but her actual job is never mentioned, a detail I found both hilarious and weirdly upsetting), and the book jumps so quickly into the action that there’s no time to get a sense of either character, nor their relationship to one another. The other characters, the few there are, are so underdeveloped it hardly matters. The villains are one-dimensional and the plotting is obvious.

Of course, that’s not really the point of a book like this. It hooks readers from the start and keeps the pace so quick that the book flies by. Dual narration on the part of Kat and Dane allows readers insight into what little motivation each one has, and the sex scenes are plentiful. This is standard romantic suspense, with a happy ending readers will see coming from page 2.

Give this one to fans of Maya Banks and Lora Leigh.

Take Me Back by Meghan March. Red Dress Press: 2017. Library copy.

pop culture · reviews

Movie Review: Mommy Dead and Dearest (2017)

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Dee Dee Blanchard and her chronically ill daughter Gypsy Rose moved to Springfield, MO after Hurricane Katrina, and it was there that Gypsy Rose became something of an internet celebrity. Charming, adorable, and certainly someone who had overcome a life full of pain and suffering, she was a perfect candidate for inspiration porn. Her ailments included leukemia, muscular dystrophy, and delayed brain development.  In June of 2015, Dee Dee was found murdered in their home and Gypsy Rose was gone. A short while later, Gypsy Rose posted on Facebook “That Bitch is Dead,” and then the most shocking reveal of all: Gypsy Rose wasn’t sick at all. A victim of Munchausen by Proxy syndrome, Gypsy Rose had suffered for over 20 years at the hands of her mother.

This smart, accessible documentary by Erin Lee Carr examines the life of Gypsy Rose, who is currently serving a 10-year prison sentence for orchestrating the murder of her mother. The documentary answers questions almost as fast as viewers can formulate them in their brains: when did Gypsy Rose know that she wasn’t really sick? Why did this escape the notice of so many doctors for so many years? What about Gypsy Rose’s absent father? And on and on. The film doesn’t shy away from examining these questions, and because they provide so much insight from the family as well as medical professionals, the result is very successful.

Of course, the subject itself is compelling all on its own. Even though it’s clear that Gypsy Rose was the mastermind behind the murder, she didn’t actually carry it out. She left that to her online boyfriend, a man named Nick. Also, since Gypsy Rose had lived her whole life being told she was sick when she was not, how can she even distinguish between what is real and what is not? These questions don’t have such clear-cut answers, but the ride is worth it anyway.

Coming in at a slim 82 minutes, this film is worth watching for any true crime fan, whether they be an obsessive consumer of the macabre or a more casual viewer.  It’s gripping stuff, excellently done, and it stays with you long after the movie has finished. There’s also this excellent piece by Michelle Dean about the mother-daughter duo, and it helps shed even more insight into the whole bizarre event.

books and reading · reviews

Book Review: Do Not Become Alarmed by Maile Meloy

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Cousins Liv and Nora take their families on a holiday cruise instead of spending the Christmas vacation at home. Lulled into a sense of security on the luxurious ocean liner, the families decide to take a day trip into one of the Central American countries when the ship docks. But things go quickly awry, and it isn’t long before the children have gone missing. Lost in a country they don’t know, away from their parents who begin to turn on one another in a game of who’s to blame, the children must tap into resources they didn’t know they even had at their disposal.

One of the things that works so surprisingly well in Meloy’s excellent, taut novel is the way in which she distinguishes between her myriad characters. There are a great many characters in play here, and nearly all of them are given a chapter or two in which they are the narrator. While this could become overwhelming or even collapse the narrative, it doesn’t–Meloy keeps a firm grip on each of these people, and each one is distinctive in memorable ways. The result is an ensemble that propels the narrative while also grounding the reader in a multitude of different lived experiences.

The book is at once a “what-would-you-do?” thriller while also a deceptively deep rumination on life’s coincidences and unlucky moments as they inform a given individual’s character. The plot relies heavily on the concept of “ifs,” for example, if the the children had not swam to shore, if the paper bag with diabetic medicine had not fallen out of a pocket, if the mothers hadn’t fallen asleep on a beach…and the result is a genuinely suspenseful and completely plausible nightmare.  This is made stronger by the fact that Meloy knows her characters so well and allows them to be kind of the worst at times.

This harrowing novel from Meloy is a gripping read from start to finish. It’ll be next to impossible for readers to put it down once immersed in the book’s pages. Tightly plotted, beautifully written, and full of vivid, memorable characters–no easy feat as there are over a dozen important people at play–this is a knockout of a suspense novel. Highly recommended.

Do Not Become Alarmed by Maile Meloy. Riverhead Books: 2017. Library copy.

 

books and reading

What I Read This Week

It was a pretty good reading week for me, and I’m kind of surprised to see the results. These are the books I read this week:

33155774Do Not Become Alarmed by Maile Meloy: Cousins Liv and Nora take their respective families on a cruise over the winter holidays, expecting to have a relaxing, luxurious time. When both families go ashore in Central America for a day of adventure, a series of poor choices and unfortunate coincidences lead to a disaster of international proportions.  The children are missing, and the adults are left to wait to see if they will return at all–all while passing blame to each other.

Told from multiple perspectives in a very deft, very distinctive way, Meloy’s book hooks readers from the very first page and does not let them go until the very end. I finished this book in a day, and it was wholly satisfying.

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What Pet to Get? by Emma Dodd: It was an Emma Dodd themed storytime this week, so I read a bunch of Dodd’s titles in preparation. This was one of my favorites of the bunch.

A kid asks his mom what kind of pet he should get, and his suggestions tend to err on the exotic side. He weighs the pros and cons of many an animal, including a polar bear and an alligator, before finally settling on a dog–but there’s a visual joke at the end guaranteed to delight young readers.

34646926Take Me Back by Meghan March: Dane and Kat fell in love on a beach and got married on one, too. But they’re two years into their marriage, and they might as well be strangers. Kat is obsessed with work, and Dane is drowning in his own secrets he’s kept hidden from his wife. The two decide to take a vacation to Belize in an attempt to save their marriage, but they face more challenges than they realize.

I suppose this counts as romantic suspense and will count toward my goal of reading more diverse genres, but this was not for me. I listened to this on audio, and the dual narrators helped keep the two stories separate in my head, because the writing here is not great. Flat, underdeveloped characters and a completely over-the-top premise made this one hard to stomach.

170210Dead as a Doornail by Charlaine Harris: The fifth book in the Sookie Stackhouse series finds Sookie investigating a series of shootings that appear to be targeting shifters. The two-natured community is suspicious of Sookie’s brother, a newly-bitten panther, but she’s sure it’s not Jason to blame. With less than a month until the next full moon, Sookie has to work quickly to find the real culprit.

This is a reread for me that feels perfect for summer for some reason. I’ve never finished the entire series, so I’m hoping to do that this time around, but I can already feel the decline in the quality of books, which is disappointing. I love Harris as a writer, but I’m already starting to wonder if she should have quit this series while she was ahead.

25036310Last Seen Leaving by Caleb Roehrig: Flynn’s girlfriend January is missing. When the police come to question him, he tells them that they actually broke up over a week ago. But there are other things about January that aren’t adding up. How can Flynn investigate January’s disappearance–and her many secrets–without revealing his own?

This earned a starred review from Kirkus, and it’s easy to see why: Roehrig’s debut is skillfully written and full of lots of mystery and a fair bit of suspense. But it also felt overly long to me, and the mystery itself isn’t anything new, so savvy mystery readers will have it figured out long before the thrilling climax and reveal. But the novel’s other aspects–Flynn’s struggle with his sexuality and budding romance with a guy named Kaz–are very strong and very compelling.

What did you read this week?

 

pop culture

Internet Things I’ve Been Reading and Thinking About This Week

Every so often, depending on how much downtime I have, I like to link to the things I’ve been reading and thinking about in a given week and provide a (very) little commentary about them. These are the posts that got me thinking this week:

The Kids Are Not Alright: How Opioids are Destroying American Families (Mother Jones)

This is a really excellent piece about the opioid epidemic in America, and how tied up it is in poverty, politics, and more. Focusing specifically on a poor county in Ohio, the article looks at the number of displaced children as a result of parents who are addicted to heroin and other opioids. It’s heartbreaking, and fascinating, and delves into the lasting damage a parent’s substance abuse can have on a child:

Mongenel asked questions like, “Do you have enough to eat?” and “Do you like where you’re staying?” and “Do you know what drug use is?” She didn’t say she had just visited Lisa’s house and found Lisa’s father strung out on heroin in the bedroom they share. Lisa’s bed was a pink sleeping bag on a piece of foam surrounded by pill bottles.

Children in Lisa’s situation are subject to incredible psychological stress…But there’s also the long-term impact. Dozens of studies have found that kids who undergo traumatic events early in life are more likely to suffer mental and physical repercussions later on, be it substance abuse, depression, heart disease, or cancer.

Finding a More Inclusive Vision of Fitness In Our Feeds (New York Times)

This short, simple article examines the surge of health/fitness gurus on Instagram, and how the online world allows people to find niches they wouldn’t find in the real world. One part in particular made me snort-laugh with recognition:

Stanley said she was able to find an audience online that would have been hard to build offline: ‘‘There was a niche community of people waiting for a yoga book written by a queer, fat, black person. It was just about finding the means to reach them.’’ But as much as Stanley credits her successes to social media, she noted that the performativity and stylization popular on the internet can quickly get out of hand. ‘‘It can create molds and archetypes that become bigger than the activity itself,’’ she told me. She gave the example of an Instagram cliché: a handstand at sunset on a beach. ‘‘It’s so idealized, like, your life must be perfect if you can hold a balance posture on the beach,’’ she said. ‘‘But the actual practice of yoga isn’t about that at all. The image isn’t important. The practice is.’’

Anything good you read this week? Let me know in the comments.

 

books and reading · reviews

Book Review: The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo

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Monique Grant is a magazine reporter whose personal life is a mess when she gets the professional opportunity of a lifetime: world-famous, award-winning starlet Evelyn Hugo has requested Monique to be the writer in charge of crafting her life story, including all the scandalous truths about her seven marriages.  Monique is bewildered: why her, of all people? As Monique listens to Evelyn’s story unfurl, she realizes there’s much more than meets the eye when it comes to this woman’s life–and there are lasting consequences for Monique, too.

This is a departure for Taylor Jenkins Reid, whose previous works are smart, engaging, and emotionally resonant reads filled with flawed, realistic characters. The celebrity tell-all aspect of this novel could go off the rails quickly, but Reid has a handle on her story and her characters, and the result is a largely nuanced, wholly captivating romp of a story. It’s also un-put-down-able.

Although Evelyn could be easily dismissed as a calculating and cold-hearted ruthless bitch determined to make it to the top, Reid allows her to be a real human and presents her story without judgment. Fully aware of the challenges of being a woman in the male-dominated film industry, Evelyn plays to her strengths and hides what she sees as her weaknesses–specifically her Cuban heritage and her true sexuality. The result is captivating and all too believable.

The story’s weakest point is the character of Monique, who clearly serves as a gateway to Evelyn’s story. Although the majority of the novel takes place chronologically as readers traverse through Evelyn’s storied rise to fame, there are breaks where Monique herself deals with present-day personal issues, including a crumbling marriage and a suspicious editor. These moments are almost startlingly boring in comparison, but it hardly matters, as readers jump right back into Evelyn’s compelling world.

A gem of a read, and one that will surprise devoted readers of Reid’s other works–and attract new fans, as well. Highly recommended.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid. Atria Books: 2017. Library copy.

books and reading · pop culture

February 2017 Recap

This is how the month of February shook out for me. These are the things I watched and read:

Books:

Total:  39
Picture Books: 35
Middle Grade: 0
YA: 2
Adult: 2
Fiction: 37
Non-Fiction: 2
Audiobooks: 0
Total Pages Read: 2848

Favorite Reads in February:

23613983Run by Kody Keplinger: A lovely story about two best friends on a journey of self-discovery, this novel treated a slew of difficult topics with respect and care. Disabilities, GLBTQ issues, and socioeconomics are all explored in this novel, and Keplinger continues to grow as a writer. I really enjoyed this one.

Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale by Mo Willems: A 490867lovely, funny, too-true story about a little girl and her stuffed rabbit. This one was a total hit at storytime, and I loved reading it on my own, too.

28818921Difficult Women by Roxane Gay: This short story collection, like virtually all short story collections, has some knock-out chapters and some forgettable ones, but on the whole it’s a captivating look at a bunch of deeply flawed, deeply human women. Not every story here works, and there are times when virtually all of the men in all of the stories are completely one-dimensional monsters, but on the whole it’s compelling stuff.

 

Movies:

Total: 5
New: 5
Re-Watch: 0

Favorite Movies in February: 
lion_ver5Lion: I ugly cried through most of this one, but on the whole I also loved it. Sunny Pawar is great as the young child in the first half of the film, and Dev Patel is great as the older version. There’s some gorgeous shots of scenery throughout the film, and the narrative is compelling enough that I placed a hold on the memoir that the film is based on.

My reading and watching of new movies was way down in February, which is disheartening. I can blame stress and life changes, but it’s also just laziness. I’m hoping that March is a better month for the consumption of new media, but since I’m also packing and planning a move for April 1, I’m not…optimistic.