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Book Review: Grit by Gillian French

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Darcy Prentiss lives in rural Maine. When she isn’t raking berries with her sister Mags and cousin Nell, she spends her time drinking and swimming in the quarry. She’s got a reputation, but she also knows how to have a really good time, and her reputation as the town “slut” means that everyone is watching her every move. When someone nominates her for the Bay Festival Princess, Darcy realizes that it might be as a joke–but it might have a more sinister meaning behind, it too. As the summer heats up, so do the secrets that Darcy’s been trying to keep hidden.

Gillian French’s novel about girlhood and sisters and secrets is so gorgeously written that this review could stop right there. But French’s prose is just the tip of the iceberg on this memorable, smart, and captivating book. Darcy’s narration is riveting and real, and she’s a heroine who is flawed but so strong and determined it’s impossible not to root for her even as she makes mistakes.

Secondary characters are also given care and consideration, rounding them out from the caricatures they could easily become in a less gifted writer’s hands. The bonds between Nell and Darcy and Mags are fully realized, and French spends time examining the prickly bonds of sisterhood and family. There’s a lot of exploration of what it is to be a girl in the world, of what it is to be a sexual being, of what it is to be poor. ┬áIt’s really excellent.

Although it’s not a straight-up mystery, there are secrets that help propel the narrative forward. French does a beautiful job of weaving hints into the narrative without every being too obtuse nor too obvious, and the result is very satisfying and realistic. Readers will be guessing until the end, and even those who figure it out early will find the ending emotionally resonant. I loved this one. One of my favorite reads of the year.

Grit by Gillian French. Harper Teen: 2017. Library copy.

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Book Review: Made for Love by Alissa Nutting

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Hazel is on the run from her tech-giant CEO husband and has found herself crashing with her elderly father and his lifelike sex doll in his trailer park. Determined to go off the grid after a decade being essentially held prisoner in her husband’s tech compound, Hazel fully immerses herself into a different kind of life, one filled with strange characters.

Nutting’s first novel, the deeply riveting and equally disturbing Tampa, set her up as an author to watch. That novel was excellently plotted, and fully explored the unsettling ideas it put forth. This is not the case with Nutting’s follow-up, which presents a ton of fascinating ideas at the onset and then fails to see any of them through. The result is muddled, disappointing, and a bit boring at times.

Part of the problem lies with Hazel, who never really becomes a fully realized character. Neither does Jasper, a con artist whose freak encounter with a dolphin fundamentally alters his sexual proclivities. It’s hard to connect (ironically, part of Nutting’s central thesis) as a result.

The result is uneven and unsatisfying. While the novel starts with a promising few chapters, it quickly loses its momentum and focus, and the result is disappointing. I can’t wait to see what Nutting does next, but I hope it’s not more of this.

Made for Love by Alissa Nutting. Ecco: 2017. Library copy.

 

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Book Review: When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon

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Dimple Shah is ready for her college life, and she thinks that a special coding summer course is the thing to give her a leg up when she starts her program in the fall. She’s surprised when her parents agree to it. Enter summer course classmate Rishi Patel, a boy who is a hopeless romantic…and apparently Dimple’s future husband. Unbeknownst to Dimple, both sets of parents have set in motion an arranged marriage for the two. Dimple fights it, but Rishi is actually pretty sweet. Maybe opposites do attract?

Told in alternating chapters, Dimple and Rishi narrate this lighthearted novel about culture and identity. Menon’s book has garnered a great deal of praise, and it’s easy to see why people are attracted to it: she blends Hindi language and traditions into the narrative without it ever feeling jarring, and she manages to distinctly encapsulate the personalities of two very different protagonists. It’s a heartwarming story with a happy ending that many readers will gobble up.

That said, it’s also way, way too long. Nearly every conflict presented in the book is resolved about two-thirds of the way through, leaving readers with another 100 pages where the narrative threads largely unravel. The result is a flabby mess of an ending, and one that could have been avoided with a stronger editing hand. Menon is also a debut author, and there are moments where the prose isn’t nearly as strong as it could be.

There’s a lot to like here, and Menon should be commended for writing about a touchy subject (especially in a YA novel) with such grace and generosity. Menon is an author to watch, because there’s enormous teen appeal here. I just wish it had been more tightly constructed.

When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon. Simon Pulse: 2017. Library copy.

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Book Review: See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

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In August of 1892, Lizzie Borden called out to her maid that someone had killed her father. News of the brutal murder of Andrew and his wife Abby flew through town, and it wasn’t long before the Borden daughters, Lizzie and Emma, are embroiled in a police investigation. As the police work to solve the crime, Emma deals with her sister’s increasingly bizarre behavior.

See What I Have Done is Sarah Schmidt’s re-imagining of the Borden murders, but it’s a clever take on the infamous event. While she presents some facts to keep readers grounded in the historical realities of what took place all those years ago, she’s far less interested in presenting a new version of what “really” happened to readers. Instead, she focuses on just four days in the Borden household, and presents it in shifting perspectives to keep things interesting (and unreliable). The result is a claustrophobic fever-dream narration, and it really works.

The writing is compelling, as Schmidt allows Lizzie’s narration to verge from almost lucid to something closer to baby talk, while the mysterious stranger Benjamin’s narration also hints at being somewhat unhinged. Schmidt plays with her prose, allowing nouns to become verbs and relying heavily on sensory language to build tension and also a sense of place. Repetition is used to great effect.

A master at telling readers just enough while leaving many blank spaces for each individual to fill in with their own imaginations, this is a deeply unsettling read. It’s compelling, horrifying, and absolutely riveting. Readers won’t be able to put this one down. Recommended.

See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt. Atlantic Monthly: 2017. Library copy.

 

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Book Review: Bad Romance by Heather Demetrios

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Grace’s home life is pretty terrible. Her stepfather uses fear to control everyone, and her mother’s got her own demons to fight. Grace wants to escape desperately, wants to leave California for the streets of New York. When Gavin starts to show interest in her, she can hardly believe it. The two start an intense romance that quickly threatens to swallow Grace whole. As he becomes more and more controlling, Grace realizes she’s in another situation she needs to escape–desperately.

Told in first person and directed at “you” (the you being Gavin, of course), Heather Demetrios’s latest offering is a frank look at abusive relationships. Unafraid to present the ugly realities of these relationships, Demetrios’s book is strongest when it allows Grace to fully be present under the ever-tightening control of Gavin, and it is weakest when it flips between present and past, because knowing where Grace is at in the present moment lessens any tension the narrative has built. The result is a mixed bag.

The beginning is very melodramatic, but readers who stick with the writing will find that the stream-of-consciousness gives way to a more fully realized story with pretty realistic characters. Unlike other YA titles that attempt to tackle this subject, Demetrios’s book never feels overly-didactic, and much of what happens feels like natural progression rather than the author pushes pieces around on a chessboard. It’s easy to see how Grace falls for Gavin and how swept away she gets by the romance, even though friends are warning her of the danger signs.

Definitely a strong offering for readers looking for realistic fiction about abusive relationships. Hand this one to teens instead of stuff like But I Love Him. Compelling stuff here, for sure.

Bad Romance by Heather Demetrios. Holt: 2017. Library copy.

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Book Review: Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney

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Frances still considers herself one half of a duo with former girlfriend turned best friend Bobbi. The two perform spoken word together and catch the eye of older journalist Melissa, who invites them into her social circle. Both women are taken with Melissa’s sophistication, and her adult world, but Frances is particularly taken with Melissa’s husband Nick, an actor who has perhaps never quite lived up to his full potential. The two are drawn to each other and begin an affair that has far-reaching consequences.

Rooney’s debut novel is a character study where the characters do all the talking. Character-driven, this smart, subtle novel is tightly written and full of completely unlikable characters. The result is a mixed bag: Rooney does what she sets out to do, but her plotting is so meticulous and her characters so perfectly crafted that there isn’t much room for readers to get attached.

Which is perhaps the point. Rooney doesn’t rely on visual language to tell her story: she lets her characters do all the showing through their telling. They label themselves so Rooney doesn’t have to: “I’m gay, and Frances is a communist,” says Bobbi at one point. The labels don’t stop there. Rooney uses them to allow her characters to tell others who they are, or at least who they most desire to be. But they aren’t in total control of their actual bodies, and the result is what happens when desire gets the best of even the most controlled humans.

There’s a lot of great stuff here. Rooney herself is very young, and she writes beautifully (and is at her strongest) when she writes about young, smart but supremely self-destructive women. The problem is that Frances undergoes such little growth that many readers will be frustrated by the end. But that doesn’t mean that the journey isn’t worthwhile: the writing is very good, and there’s a lot more to digest here than first meets the eye.

Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney. Hogarth/Crown: 2017. Library Copy.

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Book Review: Gather the Daughters by Jennie Melamed

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Before the country was destroyed and became a mostly dead wasteland, ten men and their families journeyed to an island off the coast and made it their home. Patrilineal, obsessed with ancestor worship and controlled breeding, the island isn’t an easy life for anyone, but especially for women. Only the wanderers–always male–are allowed to cross the water into the wastelands to scavenge. When girls become women at the first sign of puberty, they are married off. But before that, the summers belong to them to run wild and free. When one of the girls sees something that contradicts everything they’ve been taught, she tells the others and sets in motion a rebellion unlike anything the island has ever seen.

Melamed’s excellent, harrowing story of a dystopian society is gripping from start to finish. A wide cast of characters, a fully developed sense of place, and gorgeous writing make this a standout of a novel. This one will stay with readers long after they’ve finished the last page.

While comparisons to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s tale abound and aren’t without merit, the truth is that while Melamed is clearly influenced by Atwood, she has crafted a society and story that is uniquely her own. She creates a believable world in which technology doesn’t exist, the climate is harsh, and everything is man-made. The descriptions of the icy winter and the mosquito-infested summer are particularly well done, and her sense of place envelops both the characters and the reader.

The characters take turns narrating the story, and each girl has a unique voice, a distinct personality, and a well-crafted family life that makes them stand out from one another. Readers will grow to care for each of these girls, and the narrative tension builds to a terrifying degree, making the girls’ futures all the more tenuous.

 

This is a truly spectacular debut, and Melamed is an author to watch. Hands down one of my favorite reads of the year. Highly recommended.

Gather the Daughters by Jennie Melamed. Little, Brown: 2017. Library copy.