Review | Invincible Summer, Alice Adams

27161851I love the idea behind this novel — four friends from college graduate and drift off into separate lives, the novel dipping into their stories intermittently over the next twenty years. I love coming of age stories, and I especially love stories where the “coming of age” chronicles the transition into adulthood and the various milestones (job, marriage, children) that come afterwards.

The main character is Eva, who is secretly in love with playboy Lucien in college and who graduates to become an investment banker. (Kudos to Alice Adams — I think an investment banker heroine is fairly rare in popular fiction, particularly with the amount of industry-specific detail included here. The author’s background in finance is evident, with so much financial terminology and dialogue that it reminded me of my experience watching The Big Short — slightly confused and slightly struggling to care about what are obviously very big and exciting deals.)

Secretly in love with Eva is Benedict, a physicist who, kudos to him, moves on to other women when it’s clear Eva isn’t interested in a relationship with him at that time. Lucien is a playboy in college who goes on to become a professional partier in adulthood, age turning him from charming to sleazy and from fun-loving to rather pathetic. Lucien’s sister Sylvie is an aspiring artist for whom adulthood is a harsh dose of reality.

I enjoyed this story, particularly as it chronicled the shift from the rather rosy expectations the characters have in college to the reality of adulthood, where your talent may not be enough to build a viable career, where the man who pined after you for years may no longer be available when you decide to reciprocate his feelings, where you can land your dream job and do everything right and still not succeed.

Sylvie really stood out to me as the most compelling character, with her descent from popular talented college girl to a woman who can barely make ends meet and can’t figure out what to do with her life. She and Lucien took a much smaller role as the story progressed, with the main focus being Eva’s career and her on-again/off-again will they/won’t they type of romance with Benedict, but I couldn’t help wishing Adams had given us much more of Sylvie’s story.

Invincible Summer is a good book and well-written, but it never quite latched on to me or made me feel so invested in the characters that I had to keep reading. I think it’s because the characters mostly fell flat for me. The character I found most compelling (Sylvie) was relegated to the backseat so ended up feeling flatter than she could have been, whereas the character who was the primary focus (Eva) was okay but a bit too bland to carry the novel. Lucien almost felt unnecessary — he was set up as Eva’s crush in the beginning, but never really stood out as all that appealing, even for a young woman in the mood for a bad boy, and after graduation, he mostly just seemed inserted into the story at sporadic moments, seeming more like the vaguely creepy guy you avoid on the subway than someone who is truly menacing, truly charismatic or truly pathetic. Benedict had potential to be interesting — he is on the team working on the hadron collider! — but his marriage seemed tepid at best, more an obstacle to his happily ever after with Eva than an actual emotional impediment.

Still, it’s a quick read, well-written, and an interesting peek into the lives of 20- and 30-year-olds. Fans of One Day may enjoy the format.

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Thanks to Hachette Book Group Canada for an advanced reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

 

Review | I’m Your Biggest Fan, Kate Coyne

27161824I’m Your Biggest Fan is a fun and funny collection of anecdotes about celebrity encounters from Kate Coyne, executive editor for People and formerly a reporter for Page Six of the New York Post and entertainment editor for Good Housekeeping. She begins the book with a story about her emotional first encounter with Robert Downey Jr, as a teenage fangirl who burst into tears at his autograph and later bumped into him with her eyes still puffy and her nose still swollen. The chapter is titled “Robert Downey Jr. Thinks I’m Emotionally Unhinged,” and that tone of self-deprecating humour sets the tone of hilarity for the rest of the book.

Coyne has what is arguably many readers’ dream job — the chance to hobnob with A-list celebrities and get paid for it. I can only imagine how awkward I would be face to face with RDJ, NPH and all the other celebrities she writes about, so it’s nice to read that someone who does this for a living is still just as starstruck as I would be, though admittedly more professional than I may have managed to act.

 

Coyne’s stories made my laugh (RDJ) or swoon (Tom Cruise, surprisingly, and Tom Hanks), and in one of my favourite chapters, served as a reality check that regardless of how friendly a celebrity is, the interview is still a job, and celebrity journalists are still an acquaintance at best and not necessarily a friend. In this particular chapter, Coyne interviews Mariska Hargitay and is blown away by how warm and friendly Hargitay is. Near the end of the interview, Hargitay makes an offhand suggestion that Coyne and her husband drop by sometime for a game of charades. I’ll be honest: I love Mariska Hargitay, and if she ever invites me over to charades, I may very well respond as starry-eyed as Coyne did, and will likely set myself up for the same disappointment she experienced when the follow up invitation never came. The punchline of the story comes years later when Coyne encounters Hargitay at the Emmys and blurts out something about the charades invitation apropos of absolutely nothing, and then proceeds to make it worse by babbling about the context for her comment. Coyne writes, “As I cackled like a lunatic, Mariska’s gorgeous Louboutin stilettos took two steps backward. She was physically trying to get away from me. She was slowly backing away from the scary stalker that I had become” (p. 67).

Coyne’s writing maintains its light and breezy tone. Listening to her stories felt like chatting with a friend who happens to be invited to amazing events with all the cool people in Hollywood. In another of my favourite chapters, this one featuring Tom Hanks, Coyne is feeling idiotic after a particularly awkward encounter with Neil Patrick Harris and Hanks notices her mood and kindly strikes up a conversation and makes her feel better. I’ve always loved Tom Hanks’ work, and this anecdote makes me just want to hug him.

Coyne also relates some more serious stories, such as her encounters with Kate Gosselin, who is really an object of sympathy unjustly maligned by the tabloids and with Michael Douglas, with whom Coyne shared a lovely moment reminiscing over a childhood encounter with his troubled son. There’s a chapter at the end about a bout with an eating disorder, which felt out of place with the rest of the book. Coyne keeps the tone as light as self-deprecating as ever but in this instance, the tone feels almost discordant with the content, and I wish that, if this part of the story had to be included, that it had been given a bit more space to unpack rather than treated as a throwaway amongst many other anecdotes.

I’m Your Biggest Fan is a fun, humorous look at celebrity journalism and having the dream of a lifetime chance to speak with celebrities you admire.

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Thanks to Hachette Book Group Canada for an Advance Reading Copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | The Immortals, Jordanna Max Brodsky

25746707In The Immortals, the first in Jordanna Max Brodsky’s Olympus Bound trilogy, the goddess Artemis is now living in Manhattan as PI Selene DiSilva, who rescues female victims of abuse and punishes their abusers. When she arrives too late to save a murder victim, she vows to exact revenge on the murderer. Also on the hunt of the killer is Theo Schultz, the victim’s ex-boyfriend and a professor of the classics who notices that the murder has the markings of an ancient Greek ritual.

The Immortals is a nerdy fun read, a Greek mythology of The Da Vinci Code. Theo and Selene’s investigation reveals ancient artifacts, arcane rituals, and a series of murders that somehow have mythological significance. The Greek gods and goddesses at this point have left Olympus, and are fading in strength as their relevance to the contemporary world fades. Gods like Apollo (God of Art and Music) and Dionysus (God of Wine) are still going strong, but others like Selene as Goddess of the Hunt and Demeter as Goddess of the Hearth are fading away as hunting becomes less popular and the hearth is replaced by electric heating. Selene’s search for the murderer is complicated by her realization that she seems to be getting stronger with each death. Worse, her mother Leto is dying, and Selene must face the possibility that if this ritual renews the power of Greek gods and goddesses, the murders may be what is needed to save her mother’s life.

The murder mystery is fascinating, and I particularly geeked out over the scenes in the American Museum of Natural History. I also love the relationships between the characters — Selene’s pain at her mother’s impending death, and the estrangement between her and her twin brother Paul (Apollo) ever since an incident over two thousand years ago. (Readers more familiar than I with Greek mythology may know what happened; I found out a bit later in the book and found it fascinating.) There is also the attraction between Selene and Theo, which she feels the need to fight, partly because she has vowed to remain eternally chaste and also partly because of a long ago heartbreak with another man, Orion. Theo is just a total Robert Langdon type, who is sweet and dorky and prone to going into lecture mode when explaining particular aspects of the crime scene.

If you like Greek mythology, arcane puzzles and nerdy murder mysteries, The Immortals is definitely worth a try.

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Thank you to Hachette Book Group Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Six Impossible Things by Fiona Wood

23250087Dan has been having a hell of a summer. His dad came out as gay and walked out on his family. HIs mom is depressed and unable to get her wedding cake business off the ground. His family has lost their money and has to move into a fixer upper of a house. And he has an unrequited crush on the girl next door, Estelle. He’s come up with a list of goals for the year, six impossible things beginning with kissing Estelle and ending with being a better person than his father.

Six Impossible Things is a fun read. Dan is a witty, self-deprecating narrator, who starts out pretty bitter at the state of his life, yet really develops throughout the course of the story. There’s a scene near the end where his mom comments on how much he’s changed, and while he initially brushes it off with his sarcasm, it’s such an on point observation. It’s to the author’s credit than Dan’s growth is so subtly done that I almost didn’t realize it happening, and didn’t really appreciate how much he’s grown until now, when I’m writing this review and remembering how he was like at the beginning of the novel. Dan is far from a perfect boy — he’s pretty much a jerk to his mom in the beginning, and he straight-up spies on Estelle at some points — but he’s also sweet and lonely, and the kind of boy you want to hug and reassure that it will all work itself out somehow. His development feels real, and his challenges and emotions throughout – both positive and negative – feel real as well.

The book’s weakness is that, with the exception of Dan, the other characters are all pretty flat. Estelle is the standard quirky beautiful crush next door, Dan’s best friends are fairly typical snarky outsiders, and even the man who lives in Dan’s shed — a mysterious, cool older brother type — doesn’t end up being memorable. Dan’s mom is probably the most interesting secondary character, and it was amusing to see the her story arc progress with Dan being so completely clueless that he was blindsided by a revelation near the end. I especially loved the depiction of why her wedding cake business was doing so poorly — the reason is both hilarious and moving, and made me wish her story was more in the forefront.

Still, overall, this is a funny and endearing book. It’s easy to get caught up in Dan’s story, and it’s fun to see how the things that seem so impossible to him at the beginning of the tale turn out to be quite possible after all.

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Thank you to Hachette Book Group Canada for an Advance Reading Copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | The Rumor, Elin Hilderbrand

23341607Another summer, another Elin HIlderbrand novel. This author is a fantastic go-to for beach reads — her books are light-hearted, gossip-filled, scandal-tinged peeks into the lives of Nantucket residents. Nantucket itself is as much a character as the people in her stories, and to fantastic effect. Reading a Hilderbrand feels like joining her characters’ community yourself, an island respite from real life, where you can lose yourself in the various adventures of the characters she has created.

Her new book The Rumor delivers as expected, and is a delightful summer read. Nantucket writer Madeline King has to deliver a manuscript to her publisher ASAP, and she’s out of ideas. Enter her best friend Grace, who has something to confess about her ruggedly handsome landscape architect. Add to the mix Grace’s husband, whose money problems may have landed him in a situation way over his head, and a condo Madeline rents for writing inspiration and a “room of her own”. Mix in Grace and Madeline’s teenage children, who are dealing with sibling rivalries and love triangles. And of course, over it all is the Nantucket buzz, thrilled at all the juicy goings-on right in the neighbourhood.

Reading my past reviews of Hildebrand’s books, I realize my response to her work has been pretty mixed. I thought Summerland took itself too seriously, but Beautiful Day was rather touching. The Rumor falls somewhat in between. It doesn’t quite achieve the emotional depth of Beautiful Day, but it doesn’t try to either. Rather, it’s simply a fun, breezy read that becomes surprisingly action-packed towards the end.

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Thank you to Hachette Book Group Canada for an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Killing Monica, Candace Bushnell

22675867The author of Sex and the City returns with a spoof of the lifestyle she’s built. Killing Monica is about best selling author Pandy Wallis who would like to write a serious historical novel inspired by her ancestor Lady Wallis, a great feminist. Unfortunately, she’s built her career on a character called Monica, who has spawned a line of novels, movies and merchandise, and her agent, publisher, friends and fans all couldn’t care less about Lady Wallis and instead demand more Monica. Worse, her ex-husband is after her money, and she’ll need to write another Monica novel to pay him off.

Bushnell explores a question that likely haunts many writers — at what point does the creator lose control over their work? As this novel shows and Bushnell can probably attest to herself, there are times when it’s the creation that takes over, and the writer becomes a mere cog in its machine.

A friend to whom I lent this book described it as “Sex and the City turns Harold Robbins,” and I couldn’t have said it better. Through flashbacks, we meet Pandy as a young woman, attempting to break into Hollywood life — there’s a great line about partying with “displaced New Yorkers,” including “a couple of disgruntled literary writers who were determined to show New York, mostly by drinking too much, that they didn’t give a shit about it.” (page 53) I enjoyed reading about her friendship with SondraBeth Schnowzer, who plays Monica onscreen. There’s a total party girl vibe but there are also hints of the jealousy and selfishness that will soon cause friction between them. As a boyfriend points out, Monica is all who SondraBeth is at this point in her career, yet SondraBeth can never truly be her, because the real Monica — Pandy — is still around. Bushnell steers clear of the obvious Single White Female plot directions, which is a bit of a shame, because the novel could have gone much darker, and also much more interesting, with this material.

We see Pandy’s rise in Hollywood, coupled with the diminishing of her personal life, where her marriage becomes a trap and her friendships become more shallow. A fire at her ancestral home gives Pandy a chance at a new life, yet comes too late in the plot to feel much more than a frantic denouement. Bushnell squeezes as much dialogue about women empowerment as she can in the last few chapters, where Pandy — and to an extent ShondaBeth — fight to reclaim their identities beyond the patriarchal Hollywood machine, and in a way, it’s a fitting third act in a story about both women essentially having their actions controlled by powerful men. But it also feels slapdash, and the execution — while never intended to be realistic — still feels too much a strain on credulity to make its impact.

The third act does provide a response to the question Bushnell raises, about the author’s control over their work, and it was really well done. In some of the book’s most powerful moments, we see how people respond to Pandy after the fire, and it’s a haunting, almost terrifying look at the cult of celebrity, and how much the real person actually matters.

A final note, and without giving anything away, I must say that I absolutely hate how Bushnell treats the big reveal about Pandy’s sister Hellenor. The impetus behind Monica’s creation, who later begged to have Monica killed, Hellenor is away in Amsterdam for most of the book. We aren’t told why she left, and while we receive hints that Pandy is no longer in contact with her, we don’t know why until the last few pages. Bushnell keeps it under wraps until the very end for effect, and the actual reveal plays no role beyond, possibly, surprise expected on the part of the reader. Given the general suppression of these kinds of stories, and the lack of representation of this community, I hate that this reveal was played as a cheap trick. It feels disrespectful, and equally important, it feels like a wasted opportunity, considering that Hellenor’s story could have tied in thematically with other points in the plot.

Otherwise, it’s an entertaining story, and if it turns into a TV show, I’ll have the utmost sympathy for any actress who has to wear the gorgeous, but torturous, Monica shoes.

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Thanks to Hachette Book Group for an advanced reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Boy Nobody, Allen Zadoff

14740626Allen Zadoff takes the teen-on-a-mission trope to a whole new level in Boy Nobody. The title character is an assassin who works for a mysterious agency. A teenage boy without a past, he is able to slip into the school system, strike a casual friendship with the son or daughter of the target, make the kill and then disappear before anyone connects him to the death. Things get complicated when he falls in love with the daughter of his next target, the mayor of New York City. To make matters worse, he’s been having flashbacks of his life before he became Boy Nobody, which hint that he may have been a victim himself once, and that his current life was forced on him against his will.

Boy Nobody is an action-packed YA thriller and a quick, exciting read. I didn’t expect to like the romance, particularly when I started liking how badass Boy Nobody was as an assassin. But I like Sam — she’s smart and sharp, and able to see through Boy Nobody’s veneer. She calls him out when he’s lying or not standing up for a bullying victim, but she isn’t over the top acerbic either, nor is she by any means perfect. While part of me did wish he would just fulfill his mission already and set to work learning about his own past, another part of me understood why he kept hesitating, and why he began wondering about his orders in general in the first place.

This is the first book in the series, and I can just imagine how exciting the next books will be, as Boy Nobody delves ever deeper into his past and into the organization that sends him on missions. In the meantime, this first book is an exciting ride, a more action-packed, less introspective version of Barry Lyga’s Game series. I particularly love how the romance plays out — the turn it takes is unexpected and, I think, a brave and necessary move. If it were the 90s, I’d say this series would make the perfect TV show. I don’t know if there’s a market for this type of show these days, but as a book series at least, it’s a fantastic read, and I look forward to the rest of the series.

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Thank you to HBG Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.