books and reading · reviews

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.

books and reading · reviews

What I Read This Week

These are the books I finished this week:

32187419Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney: Frances and her best friend Bobbi are young and beautiful and perform spoken word together. In college, they share an intertwined past. When a journalist named Melissa approaches them and tells them she sees great potential in their act, the two find themselves drawn to her more glamorous, older life. Frances finds herself particularly drawn to Melissa’s actor husband Nick. As she succumbs to temptation, she finds that many of her other relationships suffer at the hands of her actions.

I wanted to love this one, and there were parts of it where I did–the exploration of complicated female friendships reminded me a little of Emma Jane Unsworth’s Animals–but here the narrative gets too bogged down in Frances’s navel-gazing. A lot of reviews focus on how unlikeable all the characters are, which isn’t a problem for me (people are, generally, the worst), but there’s a meandering quality to this novel that didn’t quite work for me.

 

Bad Romance by Heather Demetrios:

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Grace’s family life is anything but perfect, or even pleasant. Her mother makes her clean the house even when it’s spotless, and her stepfather uses fear to control her. She wants an escape in the worst way. When Gavin shows interest in her, she can’t believe it. But it isn’t long before Gavin starts controlling every aspect of Grace’s life, and Grace is caught up in a romance that is anything but the beautiful escape she wanted it to be.

I’ll be the first to admit it: the gorgeous cover drew me in, as well as the obvious illusions to Gaga’s best song (who will fight me?). But the narrative is surprisingly captivating, despite its length, and there aren’t any easy outs here. Demetrios tackles a trope in YA that isn’t always handled with subtlety and really does it justice.

What did you read this week?

 

books and reading · reviews

Book Review: Final Girls by Riley Sager

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Quincy Carpenter survived a massacre at a cabin when she was in college. She was the only one of her friends to survive. It’s been ten years, and she’s managing pretty well. She has an almost fiancee, a successful baking blog, and a Xanax subscription that never ends. Dubbed by the media as one of the infamous Final Girls, she has tried to move on from the night she cannot remember. Then Lisa, one of the other Final Girls, turns up dead in what appears to be a suicide. Then Samantha Baker, the other Final Girl, shows up on Quincy’s doorstep, and forces her to confront her past.

It’s important to note that “debut” author Riley Sager is really established author Todd Ritter, and that the deliberate use of a female-sounding pseudonym to publish this thriller is a calculated marketing move that doesn’t sit quite right with me as a reader. While the book is fairly fast-paced and has a few genuine twists (however implausible they might be), it’s also not very good. The writing is mediocre at its best moments and laughably terrible at its worst. Still, it’s a thriller with a “fresh” perspective, it’s been blurbed by one of the greats, and it will find a reader base.

It’s a book that demands to be gobbled up quickly, and readers will oblige. But the truth of the matter is that the longer I’ve sat thinking about this book, the more uncomfortable I become with some of the book’s glaring issues: the internalized misogyny, the tired trope of the sexy bad girl, the reinforcement of the idea that women can never truly be friends with one another because they’re always secretly in competition for men, and on and on and on. There was never a moment while reading the book where felt as though any of the characters were at all authentic or even realistic, and that still nags at me. I know that this is basically a horror movie put to paper, but that doesn’t mean it has to suck this badly.

Also, there’s a scene where Quincy and Sam become vigilantes and search Central Park for people who need saving. They immediately come across a female in trouble, and her assailant is the only person of color in the entire book–and his skin color is mentioned. Not only does the scene itself fall apart under even the slightest scrutiny, but it feels like something an editor should have excised from the text prior to publication.

But it hardly matters, right? This book is what we are gifted in a post-Gillian Flynn world. We love our pretty white girls in peril, and this book perpetuates all those same sexist tropes. It’ll fly off shelves for a while, but there’s much better fare out there.

Final Girls by Riley Sager. Dutton: 2017. Library copy. 

 

books and reading · reviews

Book Review: Dead Letters by Caite Dolan-Leach

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Ava Antipova’s family is a mess. Her father abandoned them and their failing vineyard, her mother has all the symptoms of early dementia, and her identical twin sister, Zelda, betrays her with a boy she loves. So she runs away to Paris, and she starts a life there with a French boyfriend and develops a taste for (better) wine. But when news arrives that her sister has died, Ava must return to upstate New York to pick up the pieces of her fractured family. Only: is Zelda really dead? Because the emails start arriving, and Ava wonders if Zelda has played her best trick yet.

Dolan-Leach’s debut novel is a twisty, beautifully written novel that has hints of Agatha Christie while also providing a fresh perspective on the literary mystery genre. Her characters are starkly drawn and her prose is oftentimes darkly funny and smartly observant. The book’s central mystery will be compelling enough for some readers, but it’s Dolan-Leach’s careful crafting of her complicated characters that make the book a standout in its own right.

The book’s ending will surprise some readers while leaving others feeling weirdly let down. But it’s also clear that Dolan-Leach isn’t that concerned with the ending so much as the journey to get there. Ava is a fully realized character, full of self-deprecating observations about herself, and her thorny feelings about her family feel realistic and terrible all at the same time. There’s a lot of interesting ruminations on families and sisters and the pervasiveness of alcoholism here, and it’s a memorable book, if perhaps a bit overly long.

An author to watch.

Dead Letters by Caite Dolan-Leach. Random House: 2017. Library copy.

books and reading

What I Read This Week

These are the books I finished this week.

32796253Final Girls by Riley Sager: Quincy Carpenter was in college when she was the only one who survived what the media dubbed the Pine Cottage Murders. One of the Final Girls, Quincy joins a few other very unlucky women who were the only survivors of similar massacres. It’s ten years later, and Quincy is doing okay, thanks in large part to her Xanax prescription. But then Lisa Millner, one of the other Final Girls, turns up dead. And Samantha Baker, the other Final Girl, shows up at Quincy’s apartment. Suddenly, Quincy’s unable to keep the past hidden away in her mind, and what she discovers about herself is surprising.

I tore through this one, but I have really complicated feelings about it. It’s certainly an interesting thriller, and it’s a book version of a horror movie in many ways. The writing is competent enough, but none of the characters ever felt real for me, and I couldn’t ever quite shake that

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feeling.

Gather the Daughters by Jennie Melamed: It’s been years since the country burned and a brave group of men moved their families to the island. They colonized the space and built a society based on ancestor worship and child-rearing. The only people who are allowed to leave are the Wanderers, men who explore the wastelands for salvageable goods. The women on the island serve the purpose of being brides and child-bearers. When they are no longer useful, they take a final draft and die. But when wone of the girls sees something that breaks with everything she knows to be true, the daughters put in motion a revolt that will forever alter the island.

 

This gorgeously written debut is a hell of a read. I absolutely devoured it and found myself thinking about it even when I wasn’t reading it. It’s part Handmaid’s Tale, part Never Let Me Go, and yet it’s wholly original and harrowing and wonderful. I can’t wait to see what Melamed does next.

What did you read this week?

books and reading · reviews

Book Review: Such a Good Girl by Amanda K. Morgan

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Riley Stone is practically perfect, and everyone knows it. She’s popular, gets perfect grades, excels at everything she does, and is all-around a model teenager, active in charities and bound for an Ivy league college. When it becomes clear that her super hot French teacher maybe returns her feelings, Riley abandons her no-dating rules in order to pursue what she knows is a forbidden relationship. In order to distract her friends from her new love interest, she starts joining them at parties and other social gatherings she’d previously eschewed in order to study. But while Riley thinks she’s calling the shots, so does Mr. Belrose, and the results are surprising.

Hailed as Pretty Little Liars meets Luckiest Girl Alive (this is debatable), this taut, twisty novel from Amanda K. Morgan will grip readers from the start and won’t let them go until the very end. There’s a lot of good, compelling stuff here, including Morgan’s meticulous characterization of Riley up until the very end. Interspersed between Riley’s first-person narration are short lists of things that people should know about Riley Stone. At first, these seem like a Mean Girls-esque way of talking up Riley’s popularity, but it isn’t long before savvy readers are going to start to connect the dots and realize there’s a larger puzzle in play. The last bit of the book provides closure that some might see coming, though how Morgan chooses to get there is still somewhat of a surprise.

Also interestingly portrayed is the burgeoning relationship between Riley and Mr. Belrose, who used to be a friend of her brother’s and who pursues Riley as hard as she pursues him. While it’s still a predatory relationship without question, Riley’s ability to manipulate those around her makes for a complicated dynamic between the two. There are moments where it feels like they’re almost perfect for one another in that they’re both kind of sociopaths.

The problem comes near the book’s climax, where everything goes off the rails. What was a compelling, believable narrative gets turned completely around in an unbelievable way, making the novel’s shocking reveal fall completely flat. Some readers will love the shocking ending, while seasoned readers are likely to be left scratching their heads. Unreliable narrators work best when the author doesn’t go for the cheapest ending possible.

Still, this was an enjoyable read, and it holds immense teen appeal.

 

Such a Good Girl by Amanda K. Morgan. Simon Pulse: 2017. Library copy.

books and reading

What I Read This Week

These are the books I read this week.

5161066Dead and Gone by Charlaine Harris: Because the reveal of vampires went fairly well, shifters decide to come out to the world. But things don’t go as smoothly for the magical community, and when Sookie’s brother’s estranged wife Crystal is found dead, it’s clear that something evil is brewing. Once again, Sookie finds herself at the center of the turmoil.

These are starting to really drag, guys. I’m determined to finish the series but these are not as charming nor as compelling as the first titles in the series.

 

Recovery Road by Blake Nelson: Called Mad Dog Maddie at school, sixteen-year-old 8712290Maddie Graham has ended up in rehab for alcohol and anger issues. It’s there that she meets a boy named Stewart, and even though it’s forbidden, the two begin a relationship. But what happens when one person really wants to get better, and the other one doesn’t?

I loved the woefully short-lived series based on Nelson’s book about addiction and recovery, and I wanted to love this as much. But I didn’t, not because it isn’t an interesting novel–it is–but because it tries to condense too much time into a relatively slim book. The result is a story and characters that fall way short of potential.

30900136Dead Letters by Caite Dolan-Leach: Ava and Zelda are identical twins, born into a dysfunctional family of alcoholics. Ava escaped to France, leaving her wilder sister to care for their ailing mother. But Ava has to return to upstate New York when news arrives that her twin is dead, having perished in a barn fire. But is she really dead? Ava finds notes from her sister, leading her on a scavenger hunt to uncover the truth.

A patron recommended this book to me, and after waiting on the list at the library forever, I wanted to love it. And there’s a lot to like–Dolan-Leach is an author with promise–but the book felt overly-long, bogged down with characters I never quite connected to. The ending isn’t as shocking as it thinks it is, either. But it’s definitely an interesting debut, and there’s plenty of suspense to go around.

Who was Michael Jackson? by Megan Stine: A biography geared at the elementary-25310624middle school set, this short, accessible non-fiction title takes a look at the life and struggles of Michael Jackson, world-renowned pop star. It spans the star’s entire life, from his childhood in the Jackson 5 to his later years as a reclusive celebrity and father.

I tore through this as part of prepping for a “Who Was…” book club we’re doing at the library this summer, and I was surprised by how accessible and interesting the book was. I really appreciated the fact that the book didn’t shy away from the darker and more controversial aspects of Jackson’s life, while also not dwelling on them.

What did you read this week?