Book Review: Circling the Sun

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Circling the Sun

Paula McLain

Ballantine Books

366 pages

Ok, so I’ve found my niche. Paula McLain’s fiction based on historical characters. She just does it so right.

Beryl Markham grew up in the wilds of Kenya. She was a ruthless, spirited tomboy born at the turn of the 20th century. Her mother abandoned her at a young age, which greatly shaped the woman Beryl became. As she got older, she was able to cast off the expectations of society more so than most women to become a horse trainer and eventually a pilot.

If you’ve hear od Beryl Markham, it is probably because she was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. However, Circling the Sun focuses very little on her life in aviation and instead is more of a coming of age story. Beryl was married numerous times, but her one true love (at least as far as the book goes) is Denys Finch Hatton. Denys is a man that cannot be tamed, yet he and Beryl have an undeniable chemistry.

I realize that this review is all over the place, but it is difficult to succinctly put forth the type of woman Beryl was and how she lived. I will just say that I read this book for two reasons. 1. I loved The Paris Wife. 2. I had the opportunity to see Paula McLain speak earlier in the month. I wanted to read the book before I saw her, which incidentally, didn’t happen because my kids were assholes that day. Anyway, I personally hadn’t heard of Beryl Markham and I wasn’t sure that growing up in Kenya was that interesting to me. It turns out, it was.

This was a gripping account and I loved the way McLain went about fictionalizing Beryl’s early life.

Book Review: The Girls

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The Girls

Emma Cline

Random House

355 pages

It’s 1969, the Summer of Love. Evie is a restless 14 year old girl. She is on the outs with her only close friend and dealing with her parent’s recent split. Times are changing and she struggles to find herself in all of it. And then she meets Suzanne. Suzanne’s ethereal beauty and personality immediately catches Evie’s attention and she becomes enraptured by her in the way only a teenage girl can.

Evie quickly ingratiates herself into Suzanne’s fold, which means she becomes familiar with “The Family”, a cultish group of young adults and teenagers that Suzanne lives with, and she moves on to the abandoned ranch where they all live in one big commune. She spends the summer fawning over Suzanne and taking drugs with the head of The Family, Russell, and the rest of the family members. It all ends after The Family is implicated in a couple of murders.

First of all, if you haven’t heard of this book, you’ve been living under a rock. It has to have the most hype of any book this year. Emma Cline is a new author, and was offered an unheard of $2 million dollar contract for this book (which also includes two books to be published in the future I believe) after an all out bidding war. So it is one of those books that felt almost too gargantuan before I even read it. At the same time, seeing it everywhere only made me want to read it more.

I should start out by saying I am an avid reader of anything having to do with Charles Manson and his Family. Up until this point, that has been strictly non fiction. So suffice it to say, I know a lot about his followers and the murders they committed. I was afraid that this would majorly color my perspective and lessen my enjoyment of this book. And in a way, it did. I didn’t quite buy Russell’s character and there were little things that Cline changed that niggled at me. Obviously she took creative license with the story, but I had a hard time reconciling that in my head. However, this wasn’t a story that focused on Russell or the murders, but instead a story that focused on the trials that adolescent girls go through. Evie’s “coming-of-age” was the central focus, with the cult and murders being only a backdrop. Looking at it that way made it easier for me to let go of my hangups and enjoy the story on its own merits.

If you’ve been following the reviews for , you’ll probably notice that they’re pretty mixed. I can see why. I found the prose to be overwritten much of the time, in a way that didn’t appeal to me. I am not sure I would have enjoyed this book in a different setting (isn’t that funny? The Manson aspect truly hurt and helped this book for me), so I’ll be interested to see what Cline comes up with next.

Book Review: My Best Friend’s Exorcism

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My Best Friend’s Exorcism

Grady Hendrix

Quirk Books

336 pages

Abby and Gretchen became best friends in the fifth grade over a failed ET birthday party at the roller rink. They are now in high school and part of a foursome of girls that all consider each other to be BFF (think Mean Girls meets Heathers). Until one night when Gretchen disappears during their middle of the night shenanigans. When they find her a few hours later, she seems different.

The other two girls blow it off, but Abby can tell right away that something has happened to Gretchen. As the weeks go by, her behavior becomes stranger and stranger. She can’t sleep, she stops caring about her appearance, and she even spews vomit exorcism style all over the front lawn of the school. It’s clear she is possessed by the devil, but no one believes Abby, so she is left on her own to help Gretchen.

This is not my typical fare, but I saw it on Litsy (another new obsession) and thought it seemed fun. I promptly reserved a copy at the library, and I’m so glad I did. This is definitely one of those books where the physical book is far superior to the ebook. It’s hard cover and modeled in the fashion of a yearbook. The endpaper even looks like that of a yearbook, with all the signatures, notes, and doodles teenagers often leave for one another. At the end of the book, there are even a few pages of yearbook ads with personalized messages. This, along with the abundance of 80s references, really made this book stand out.

As for the actual story, it was fun and different. I would consider this to be a good palate cleanser for when you’re in between heavier books.

Book Review: Enchanted Islands

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Enchanted Islands

Allison Amend

Nan A. Talese (publisher)

306 pages

Frances Frankowski was born to a poor immigrant family at the turn of the 20th century. She develops a friendship with a peer named Rosalie at a young age, and the two eventually run off together to start a new life away from their families. Enchanted Islands is interesting because it follows their friendship for decades, even though they grow apart and lead separate lives. Frances eventually marries a man named Ainslie Conway, an intelligence officer who needs a wife as part of his undercover assignment in the Galapagos Islands. It’s now WWII and tensions are high, but Frances is ready for a new adventure and hastily agrees to marry Ainslie.

The actual time in the Galapagos Islands only comprises about 1/3 of the book, but it was a nice change of pace from Frances’s city life and friendship with Rosalie. I still don’t completely understand why in the hell Ainslie would have been sent to a remote island to conduct war intelligence, but it was part of the mystery surrounding Frances’s life, because the truth is she dedicated years of her life to a mission she wasn’t really allowed to know much about. She risked her life for her country without knowing why.

I absolutely loved this book. It was a selection for Book of the Month (my new obsession) and I chose it pretty much for the gorgeous cover. Obviously the story sounded intriguing, but it is rare for me to choose a book with so few reviews and by an author I don’t know. I am so glad I chose this book though because it was a five star book for me, easily. I loved every facet and I thought the author did a good job as far as the proportions of Frances’s story. I read a few reviews that lamented the short length devoted to Frances’s time on the islands, but personally I enjoyed reading about her city life as well, so the juxtaposition of the two was perfect for me.

I also really enjoyed the love story between Ainslie and Frances and how imperfect it was. Fiction tends to provide the reader with a neat little romance, perfectly packaged, and I admired that Amend didn’t do that. I truly can’t imagine moving to a nearly deserted island with someone I barely know. Frances was brave in that regard, and perhaps a bit naïve as well.

Enchanted Islands is a phenomenal story about relationships and how humans interact, and how we hurt the ones we love even though we don’t mean to.

Book Review: Jane Steele

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Jane Steele

Lyndsay Faye

Headline Review

432 pages

Jane Steele is a new retelling of Jane Eyre, done in a sassy and clever way. Jane Steele was orphaned as a child and was forced to make her way in Victorian London. Jane is a hardened girl who has been forced to fend for herself, and she quickly learns how to stand up for herself, even if it means resorting to murder. Yes, Jane Eyre has been reimagined as a serial killer.

Eventually, Jane becomes a governess for Sahjara, who is the wars of Charles Thorpe. Charles has inherited Jane’s family mansion, and she has maneuvered her way into the household to determine whether she is the rightful heir, as her mother has led her to believe. As is expected though, she falls in love with Charles Thorpe. He has been hiding his own secrets, and their love is threatened by the pasts they’re withholding from one another.

Jane Steele is one of the best heroines I have read in recent memory. Her snappy dialogue had me laughing aloud, and I loved how brazen she was, while also being humble. And don’t even get me started on the love affair aspect of the book. It was one of those love angles that is so effortless for the reader. I was rooting for them the whole time and really wanted them to be together.

I don’t think it is necessary to have read Jane Eyre before reading Jane Steele. Admittedly, it has been so long since I read Jane Eyre that I honestly don’t remember many details. I feel that Jane Steele, while having been inspired by the original, is truly a standalone book.

Book Review: Cartwheel

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Cartwheel

Jennifer DuBois

Random House

368 pages

Cartwheel is a fictionalization account of the murder of Meredith Kercher. Amanda Knox was Meredith’s roommate abroad in Perugia, Italy and was convicted of homicide, along with her boyfriend at the time and another man who lived nearby. Knox’s conviction was eventually thrown out but the case garnered a lot of media attention, for obvious reasons.

I personally know quite a bit about the case, but am by no means an expert. There were very obvious parallels between the Amanda Knox case and Cartwheel, but at the same time there were many big differences. The biggest one was that Lily’s boyfriend Sebastien was not charged with a crime in the book. Sebastien was actually probably my biggest issue in Cartwheel. He was probably the most annoying character I have ever come across. I typically am not a reader that has to “like” the characters to enjoy a book, but my disdain for Sebastien really hampered my enjoyment of this book. I also thought Katy and Lily were annoying as well and the first half of the book really dragged for this reason.

Eventually, as the book gained momentum with Katy’s death and the continuing investigation (the book was not a linear narrative and the book actually begins with Lily’s family traveling to see her and then goes back and forth until the murder is eventually recounted), I started to warm up a little. Even so, I felt that there was so much build up but Katy’s relationship with Lily was never really explained, at least not to my satisfaction, and then the actual trial was barely mentioned.

I am not sure how I would have felt about Cartwheel had I not been familiar with the Amanda Knox case. I think I would have been just as annoyed with the characters, but it’s possible I would have viewed Lily a little differently. The pacing of the novel would still be an issue for me either way as well. I wish this had worked out better for me because I really love the idea of it, I just maybe expected too much with how it should be executed.

Book Review: Girls from Corona del Mar

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The Girls from Corona del Mar

Rufi Thorpe

Knopf

256 pages

Lorrie Ann and Mia have been best friends since they were young girls. The Girls from Corona del Mar chronicles their friendship from the age of 15 up through their early 30s. Like all friends, their relationship ebbs and flows. They are extremely close as teenagers but as they graduate and begin to lead separate lives, they go through long periods of not talking.

I know my synopsis is vague, especially given how much this book actually covers. It really packs a punch. There is a lot of focus on reproductive health. Pregnancies that end in both abortion and childbirth hold a lot of substance in The Girls from Corona del Mar and Lorrie Ann and Mia both dissected their own decisions at great lengths. It was very raw and very real. I felt like I was reading about two real women and the situations they found themselves in resonated with me completely.

I loved how flawed both characters were. There were times in the book that I thought they were both so wrong, and you could see that self awareness fighting through, and yet I could understand completely every decision they both made. Even Lorrie Ann’s relationship with her son Zach, and how everything ultimately played out, made sense to me, even though I agreed with Mia that Lorrie Ann made some awful decisions.

One thing to mention: this book had the most awful animal scene I have ever read. It was gut wrenching to read and really haunted me. Just something to be mindful of.

I raced through The Girls from Corona del Mar, and the closer I got towards the end, the more I tried to slow down and savor every moment. I would highly recommend this book, and I plan on reading the author’s newest book ASAP.

 

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