Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Midlife Crisis

cover169357-medium

Thank you to Grove Atlantic for providing me with a copy of Ada Calhoun’s Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Midlife Crisis, in exchange for an honest review.

In Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Midlife Crisis, Ada Calhoun explores the unique challenges facing Generation X women, who are now middle-age.

Spanning from the early 60’s to the early 80’s (there is some disagreement on the dates), Calhoun explains that many women born during this time had a challenging childhood. We ( I am a Gen-X woman) were raised by mother’s who fought for equality and told us that we could do anything. This created an immense pressure to “have it all,” even when “having it all” is an impossible goal and reaching for the brass ring has made us deeply dissatisfied. The caustic divorces that we experienced with our parents, created a drive to maintain the semblance of a perfect life for our children, to hide any cracks in the co-parenting relationship. Growing up latch-key kids and experiencing a free-roaming childhood, has turned Gen-xers into overprotective, helicopter parents. We are drowning as we fail to keep up with our self-imposed expectations.

Calhoun argues that previous generations did not put such a big emphasis on perfection. Our mothers didn’t have social media to constantly compare themselves to their friends and celebrities. They didn’t post pictures of their gluten-free cupcakes or their latest beach vacation. They didn’t feel a constant pressure to keep looking youthful. Societal pressure to go vegan or to believe in a certain movement didn’t plague them every time they looked at their phone, because cell phones didn’t exist. Social media didn’t exist.

Interestingly, Calhoun explains that the pressure to compare and to be perfect seems to be felt more strongly with Gen X. Younger generations don’t seem as worried about what people think. Perhaps it is because Gen Xer’s were older when social media became common place. I was born at the end of Gen X and Facebook wasn’t popular until I was in my 30’s. I can’t imagine what it would have been like to have my teen years and 20’s recorded on social media. Calhoun notes that younger generations seem to post on social media with less worry of how it will be perceived, where as Gen X is more careful regarding what they post. We are a generation that has quickly adapted to technology, yet we have not had it in our lives the same way that the generations after us have experienced.

Why We Can’t Sleep made me feel stressed. I can attest to the feelings of perfectionism and failure. I’ve entered my 40’s happy with my life. I don’t have children ( two wonderful step-children, but they are only with us for holidays), so perhaps that lessens the intensity of needing to prove something or create a certain life. I think it gives me freedom. Still, I had a mom who drove home the idea that “anything is possible,” which, as I reflect, doesn’t feel true. I entered the work force and experienced inequality. My mom gave me a clear message that men should not be fully trusted, yet she also pushed a traditional marriage. I was told to be both independent and dependent. It was confusing.

Additionally, Calhoun pointed out something that I didn’t realize I was resentful over, until I read it. She mentions that there is now a backlash for the freedom that we experienced in childhood. I was a latchkey child starting in third grade and although there were adult neighbors, I was basically left home summers/holidays/after school, from the age of eight. That would be unheard of now, but my mom was a working, single-mom and we had no choice. Besides that, I don’t really remember my mom being engaged with me. When we were home together, I was told to play outside or in my room. Maybe it’s because my mom had me later in life, but she continued the, “children should be seen and not heard” motto from her generation. There were times that my mom did things with me, like take me to museums or to the movies, but on a whole, I was on my own. Calhoun says that this was common for Gen X childhoods and this has prompted many Gen X parents to become uber engaged with their children. I see this in my friends with their parenting styles. I realize that my mom had to work and things were hard, but I do feel that I was disconnected with her as a child and did not become close to her until I became an adult.

Calhoun tackles perimenopause and the options that women have to ease this transition. She states that this is an important life change that is simply not discussed. I agree, I’ve never discussed this with anyone, including my doctors. I’m 42 and I haven’t noticed much of a change yet, but I appreciate that Calhoun speaks to this topic.

With everything going on in the world with corona virus, I’m not sure that it was good timing to read Why We Can’t Sleep. I made me feel more anxiety. That said, I think Calhoun has written an important book that is worth a read. I will definitely recommend it to friends of my generation.

 

All That’s Bright and Gone

cover163696-medium

Thank you to Crooked Lane Books for providing me with a copy of Eliza Nellums’ novel, All That’s Bright and Gone, in exchange for an honest review.

Six-year old Aoife has recently witnessed her mother have a mental break-down at a shopping mall and is currently being cared for by her Uncle Donny, while her mother is recovering in a hospital. While living with her uncle, she tries to search for clues regarding the mystery surrounding her older brother, Theo. Her mother talks about Theo as though he is still alive, but Aoife is sure that he has been murdered. To add to Aoife’s confusion, her mother’s boyfriend has started coming around and he claims to be Aoife’s real father. Aoife attempts to navigate her muddled world with the help of her imaginary friend, Teddy, and her eight-year-old neighbor who is an amateur sleuth.

Nellums has created a vibrant and winning protagonist in Aoife. I think it is hard to craft a believable young child protagonist, but Nellum has nailed it, balancing Aoife’s precociousness with her innocence. Also balanced is the amount of truth that we know from the adults in Aoife’s world, allowing the reader insight to her reality vs. her assumptions. It is a compelling look at a child caught in the middle of adult issues.

Teddy makes the reader wonder if Aoife is headed down the same path toward mental illness as her mother or if an imaginary friend is simply a childhood rite of passage. Teddy resembles a teddy bear and he urges Aoife to act in ways that direct her toward danger. The inclusion of Teddy worked well to make me think that Aoife could be an unreliable narrator, but the uncertainty of it kept me on fence, adding to the mystery of the story.

I throughly enjoyed All That’s Bright and Gone. I truly had no idea where the story was headed, but was gripped from the start. I was hooked by the feeling of uncertainty and that Aoife might always be in danger. There is a great scene with a elderly neighbor that had me really worried for Aoife. Nellums never allows the tension to drop, which keeps the pacing tight and makes All That’s Bright and Gone a quick read.

Nellums is a gift writer with regard to both prose and plot. All That’s Bright and Gone is her debut novel and I’m looking forward to reading her future works.

 

Full Support: Lessons Learned in the Dressing Room

cover134495-medium

Thank you to Amberjack Publishing for providing me with a copy of Natalee Woods’ memoir, Full Support: Lessons Learned in the Dressing Room, in exchange for an honest review.

During College, Natalee Woods applied for a summer job at a high-end department store and was placed in the lingerie department. This summer job turned into an off-and-on career, spanning over a decade, carrying through her move to Los Angeles and return to her native Seattle. During this time she navigated financial instability and the death of her parents. Woods becomes a certified bra fitter, which requires her to come in intimate contact with her customers. She learns that her job isn’t simply about selling underwear, but that often she must use discretion and empathy to serve woman who have a range of body issues, including breast cancer survivors.

Woods never mentions her employer, but it is clearly Nordstrom. As a former Nordstrom employee myself, I could immediately identify with the company culture, including her initial hiring for the anniversary sale, Nordstrom’s biggest annual event. Much like Woods, I was thrown into the fire of the anniversary sale and placed into a department (Men’s Furnishings) where I had to learn on the fly. It was utter chaos and Woods describes it, just as I experienced it.

Woods touches on the strange and rude customers that we find at Nordstrom, but that isn’t the focus of her memoir. Full Support is honest, but it is not a tell-all about being a Nordstrom employee. It’s a true reflection on what it is like to work for the retail giant, but Woods is not a disgruntled former employee. Her time with the company was not perfect, but she is not out to slag-off her former company or co-workers.

The focus is on the customers who made an impact on her perspective. For example, shortly after Woods’ lost both of her parents, a father brings his young teen daughter into the lingerie department. She needs a bra and her mother has just died. Woods has the father go off with his son, giving her time to help the daughter. The conversation transitions from bras to loss, with Woods carefully giving the young girl encouragement, as she tries not to break down herself.

During my short time at Nordstrom, I had a few customers who made a lasting impression. I helped a woman find an outfit for her mother’s memorial service and I helped a teenager find a suit for his first job interview. I’m not arguing that working in retail carries the same weight as other professions, but it is possible to make a positive impact on someone’s life and to be of service. The lingerie department is probably the most impactful department. Woods and her coworkers have the ability to help women love their bodies, including women recovering from cancer. Nordstrom has a service where they help with prothesis fits for breast cancer survivors. It is truly a wonderful thing.

Woods beautifully blends the stories of her customers with her own tumultuous life. Woods lost both of her parents to cancer and was with them during the last months of their lives. She also struggled to make it living in Los Angeles. Los Angeles is my hometown and I can attest that this is no easy feat, especially on a retail, commission-based salary. Woods is living life paycheck-to-paycheck and does not have a bigger plan for her future. One hundred percent, I could relate to this. I spent my twenties and early thirties in a survival mode similar to Woods, including being a caretaker for a parent dying of cancer.

My only negative comment is that I occasionally felt that the dialogue rang false. I could easily believe the situations with the customers, even the most outrageous, but the way the dialogue was written felt too quickly intimate or simply not the way people really speak. There are cliches. More than once, the dialogue rang false in a way that made me stop reading to consider it, which disengaged me.

The dialogue issues aside, I very much enjoyed Woods’ memoir. Full Support has a lot of heart. It will be of particular interest to those who have worked high-end retail, but I would recommend it to everyone. Also, if you’re a woman who has not worked with a certified bra fitter, it is a game-changer!

 

Nothing to See Here

cover163488-medium

Thank you to HarperCollins Publishers for providing me with a copy of Kevin Wilson’s novel, Nothing to See Here, in exchange for an honest review.

Madison Roberts seems to have it all. She’s gorgeous, wealthy, and has a perfect family: an adorable son and a handsome husband who is on track to become the next Secretary of State. Her situation changes, when she must take on her step-children, whose mother has recently died. It would be difficult enough to have twin ten-year olds brought into her family, but the twins have a special ability: They spontaneously combust.

The fire doesn’t hurt the twins, but it terrifies everyone else. Madison and her husband are fearful of the twins, worried for their property, and most important, they can’t let this secret destroy their political ambitions.

Madison hatches a plan to contact Lillian, her friend from boarding school. Madison and Lillian were former roomies and unlikely friends. Madison was from a rich family and Lillian was a scholarship kid, but the girls bonded over a shared love of basketball. Lillian’s time at the boarding school came to an abrupt end, when Madison got caught with cocaine and Madison’s father paid-off Lillian’s family, to have Lillian take the fall. Lillian’s life continued on a downhill trajectory, including dropping out of college, working low-level jobs, and living in her mother’s attic.

Although her life was destroyed due to Madison’s actions, Lillian still cares for her. She still has a teenage crush on the charismatic Madison and Madison knows it. Madison uses this leverage to ask Lillian to move into her guest house and become a short-term governess to the twins, Bessie and Roland. Lillian has zero experience with children and doesn’t even like them very much, but she accepts the job, as it puts her in proximity to Madison and provides an escape from her dismal life.

Taking care of Bessie and Roland isn’t easy, but Lillian quickly realizes that she can help these children. It changes not only the way she views herself, but also how she sees Madison.

I loved Nothing to See Here. It’s a quirky, quick read. The best parts were Lillian with the twins. The twins are initially distrustful of everyone, with good reason as they have just experienced a huge trauma ( no spoilers!), but Lillian manages to get them to drop their defenses. Lillian is not someone who is a natural choice to care for children. She has no training and can barely take care of herself, but in a delightful turn, taking care of the twins ultimately helps Lillian the most. It gives her purpose and direction. It pulls her out of her funk.

Lillian feels bonded to the twins, because she is similar to them. The twins are not asked how they feel and are kept as a secret obligation, rather than members of their own family. When Lillian’s mother accepted the bribe from Madison’s father, she didn’t consider how it would affect her daughter. Lillian and the twins have both experienced deep betrayal by their blood relatives.

Nothing to See Here is delightful, unexpected, and full of heart. I highly recommend it.

 

The Family Upstairs

cover165361-medium

Thank you to Atria Books for providing me with a copy of Lisa Jewell’s latest novel, The Family Upstairs, in exchange for an honest review.

Libby Jones is living an ordinary life in London: she has a small flat, is looking for love, and works as a high-end kitchen designer. Everything is life as normal, until a bombshell is dropped on Libby twenty-fifth birthday. She is contacted by a solicitor, who informs her that her birth parents, whom she knows nothing about, set her up with a trust fund. The contents of the trust is a multi-million pound home in the posh Chelsea neighborhood. This home has been locked up for decades, ever since Libby’s parents were discovered dead with a third mystery man. Libby’s older brother and sister were never found, yet Libby was discovered in the mansion with the bodies, safe in her crib.

In trying to understand what happened to her biological family, Libby falls down a rabbit hole, eventually leading her to a news article written by Miller Roe. Miller spent years trying to uncover the truth and his obsession with the case cost him his marriage. His curiosity is rekindled when Libby contacts him and he agrees to work with her. The plot thickens when they realized that someone has been breaking into the Chelsea mansion.

The Family Upstairs is told from three alternating perspectives: Libby, Henry (Libby’s older brother), and Lucy, a single-mom who is desperately trying to make a life for her kids, while working as a street performer in France. In Henry’s narrative, we learn of life in the Chelsea house prior to Libby’s birth and how their parents transitioned from rich socialites to recluses who died next to a strange man, with most of their possessions missing.

As this is a mystery, I don’t want to give away any of the plot twists. The Family Upstairs is addictive and if I didn’t have other responsibilities, I easily would have read it in a single day, but as it was, it stretched into two. I’ve read several of Jewell’s books and she is brilliant at crafting quick-paced mysteries with unexpected twists. She writes characters that I care about and puts them in dangerous situations. I was especially worried for Lucy, who needs the help of her abusive ex-husband and is forced to be alone with him in his house. It is a tense situation!

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the mansion. The Chelsea mansion is just as big of a character, as any of the humans in the story. Not only was it the site of multiple deaths, unsolved deaths, but it has sat abandoned for twenty-five years, leaving it dusty and in disrepair. Most of the belongings are long-gone, but Libby discovers small objects that remain, like bottles or old food. She also finds a boy’s name, Phin, carved into cabinets and drawers. The house creaks and moans when it moves. It’s is the quintessential haunted-house and a place that feels uncomfortable every time Libby enters it. Jewell teases out the truth of the house and the conclusion is shocking.

Go read The Family Upstairs. I finished it last night and I have already texted many friends to recommend it. Especially as we are all stuck indoors due to Coronavirus, this is a much needed escapist read. Jewell is a fabulous writer and I recommend all of her books.

 

The Expectations

cover160294-medium

Thank you to Little, Brown and Company for providing me with a copy of Alexander Tilney’s novel, The Expectations, in exchange for an honest review.

Fourteen-year-old Ben Weeks is a new student at St. James, an exclusive boarding school that has been attended by generations of men in his family. He is ecstatic to continue the family tradition, especially entering the school on the heels of his recently graduated and very popular older brother. Ben is ready to take his rightful place at St. James and fully anticipates that he continue the family legacy.

Ben’s roommate is Ahmed Al-Khaled, the son of a very wealthy Emirati sheik. Ahmed is wealthier than any of the other kids at St. James, but immediately, he is an outsider. Ahmed doesn’t act or dress like the other students, but more than that, he is legitimately self-confident, a rarity among teenagers. Ben is conflicted. He wants to help Ahmed fit-in with American culture, but he is doing it for his own benefit, as he doesn’t want to be looped with the “weird kid.” He also witnesses other students harassing Ahmed and Ben is conflicted as to whether or not he should intercede.

Ben doesn’t lack empathy, but his drive to be accepted overrides almost everything. The importance of being accept was a fundamental lesson from his upbringing and a core value that is reinforced at St. James through hazing.

The biggest issues that Ben faces are a direct result of his upbringing. He comes from an upper-class family that places a high value on money, social class, and tradition. This brings immense pressure and a sense of responsibility to uphold the family name, but a conflict arises when it is revealed that the Weeks’ family has lost their wealth.

Shortly into his first semester at St. James, Ben learns that his family is in a dire financial crisis and his father is involved in a tentative business deal. His father’s desperate business deal involves land for strip malls. Ben is mortified that his father would be in a deal with such a scummy, lowly enterprise as strip malls. This is the heart of the problem: Ben has been raised to be snobby. His parents are desperate to keep up their image of wealth, including hiding their problems, as much as possible, from their son. When Ben learns that there is trouble, his first instinct is to hide it from his fellow students. He doesn’t want to be perceived as different from them and must keep up the image of his family. The idea that he might need to go on financial aid is incredibly devastating and he is desperate to figure out an alternative. When a solution to his problem presents itself, he jumps on it, even though it involves a secret with Ahmed.

The Expectations is an apt title, as the novel deals with a variety of expectations: The expectation that Ahmed will learn to fit in at St. James. The expectation that Ben’s family will seamlessly maintain their wealth and status. The expectation that Ben’s life will continue on the trajectory that Is expected for men of his station.

On a smaller level, Ben is learning to handle these expectations vs the reality of being a teenager. He is a talented squash player and he fully expects to be a top athlete at St. James. His father has even donated money towards a fancy new squash court. The news of their financial situation derails Ben, as he cannot play on this new court knowing that they are no longer rich. Quitting squash is a way that he can directly go against the expectations of his father.

Tilney does a great job at writing teenage anxiety. The Expectations isn’t a story with dramatic plot twists, it is far more subtle and affecting. It is easy to remember being a teenager and struggling to fit in, trying to combine the expectations of your parents with those of your peers. I didn’t come from a wealthy family and I can appreciate that Ben’s expectations were different from my own, yet I feel that any reader will be able to relate to Ben’s conflicts, which include things like stressing over having the right clothes and talking to a girl that he is crushing on.

Ahmed, with his lack of awareness, is a refreshing contrast to Ben. It’s not that Ahmed doesn’t care about fitting in, as he does want to mesh with American society, but he also does not fear being himself. Although extremely wealthy, he doesn’t carry with him the same social status hang-ups that Ben and many of the other student’s carry.

Ahmed’s family has different expectations. The whole reason that Ahmed is studying at St. James is because of an old family friend, who helped Ahmed’s family grow their wealth and status. This friend was an American who studied at St. James and who told them that the private school fundamentally altered his life. Ahmed’s father is hoping that the same will happen for his son and there is a strong expectation that Ahmed will soak in this magic from his St. James experience.

At its core, The Expectations is about two teenagers from different worlds, who are both trying to navigate adolescence, but from under the weight of their parent’s enormous expectations. The pacing is a little slow and it took me over a week to read The Expectations, however the beauty in the book is it has so many layers. It’s a great novel for book groups and classroom discussions. Tilney has crafted a strong social commentary, with memorable and relatable characters.

 

Toil & Trouble

cover162423-medium

Thank you to St. Martin’s Press for providing me with a copy of Augusten Burroughs’ memoir, Toil & Trouble, in exchange for an honest review.

I’m a huge fan of Burroughs and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to read his latest memoir. Much like his previous best sellers, Toil & Trouble dives into Burroughs’ life, including his difficult relationship with his mother and his relationship with his husband, Christopher. Burroughs has a quirky outlook on life and a wry sense of humor that cracks me up. He has a knack for great phrasing and I often pause while reading to admire his off-beat descriptions.

In Toil & Trouble, Burroughs claims to be a witch. His witch powers are hereditary, passed down from his mother. He is told that he is a witch as a young child and several incidences, particularly those involving premonition, lead him to believe that this is true.

I’m not sure if I believe in witches, but Burroughs makes a convincing argument. In any case, I recommend that readers go along for the ride and believe in the magic, because Burroughs does create magic with storytelling and the premise of Toil & Trouble ends in a lovely way, where we see that his witchcraft has managed to protect the person he loves the most. It’s truly a beautiful story and Burroughs has arranged the chapters for maximum emotional punch. In these pages, I really grew to love his marriage to Christopher and the life that they have built in rural Connecticut.

Aside from the heart-warming aspect of the story (and I fully suspect that Burroughs would never call himself heart warming), I delighted in the stories of Burroughs’ bizarre neighbors. In Connecticut, they have moved next-door to a former opera singer and her henpecked husband. These are nosy neighbors, the kind of neighbors that are perpetually awkward. I’ve had those neighbors and could completely relate to making efforts to avoid them at all costs, even to your own discomfort.

The chapter that had me laughing to the point of tears, involved Jeffrey, a very strange and narcissistic man, who was selling his lavish home. Burroughs’ friend, Maura, was the realtor selling Jeffrey’s home and she suggested that Burroughs’ come along to see the house. Jeffrey, a model, furniture builder, and jack-of-all-trades, was a force of nature. Quite honestly, I whole heartedly believe that Burroughs’ is giving an accurate recollection of his experience with Jeffrey, because the truth is stranger than fiction. This is too weird to be fake. It’s hilarious, but also a bit sad, as obviously Jeffrey is a troubled person and lacks the self-awareness to realize how he portrays himself to others.

Toil & Trouble is another home-run for Burroughs. I throughly enjoyed this book and highly recommend it. It’s funny and it has heart. Plus, as a bonus, the chapter have fun “witchy” themed names.

 

The Grace Year

cover158489-medium

Thank you to St. Martin’s Press for providing me with a copy of Kim Liggett’s novel, The Grace Year, in exchange for an honest review.

Garner County is ruled by men and those men enforce a rigid moral code through severe punishment and fear. As part of their fear tactics, all sixteen-year-old girls must retreat to the woods for what is termed as their “Grace Year.” Far from home, they will survive together in a rustic fort and get rid of “their magic.” The idea that teen girls possess powerful magic is a deeply held superstition that has all of the men in the community terrified and willing to send their daughters into harms way to dispel it. When the girls return from their “Grace Year”, they are forbidden to speak about it and the whole thing is shrouded in mystery, especially since many girls don’t return, and those who do are damaged, including missing limbs.

Tierney James is facing her “Grace Year” and her rebel heart makes her question the process. As she embarks on her journey, her experiences tell her to question everything, even if it means she could be killed, either by shadowy poachers who kidnap “Grace Year” girls to harvest their magical body parts, or by the patriarchy of Garner County, who don’t stand for dissent.

The Grace Year is young adult fiction that is a blend of The Hunger Games and The Handmaid’s Tale. It has the blood-sport, teens killing teens for survival and uncomfortable love triangle of the former, with the women rising against oppression of the latter.

Liggett has a created an intriguing premise and the first third of the book is a page-turner. I was hooked immediately. Mostly, I wanted to know the mystery of the “Grace Year” and to understand why girls were dying and getting maimed. It’s grotesque. I was particularly intrigued by the idea that there are poachers who flay the girls, selling their body parts as magical medicine. This is sick and stomach turning enough when we think of this happening to endangered animals, let alone teenage girls.

The Grace Year starts off like a shot, but has a soggy middle. The love story did not work for me and it distracted from the story of the girls. In a similar dynamic as Katniss in The Hunger Games trilogy, Tierney faces a situation of passionate love with a fiery partner vs. the less interesting, yet steady love of a guy who she has in the friend-zone. Like Katniss, Tierney is a strong woman, who makes it quite clear that there are more important things in her life than love. Tierney is very vocal in her desire to avoid marriage and to lead a life of working in the fields. She does not dream of romantic love, yet it seems to find her. It is possible for her to have a change heart or to be swept away in the moment, but I found the weight given to this aspect of the story, undermined the strength and spirit of her character.

The story redeems itself in the last third, where many of the mysteries are solved and where the women show their power. The strongest element of The Grace Year, is the concept of oppression. The women are not the only ones who are oppressed by Garner County’s rules. Anyone who tries to challenge or who dares to be different, is beaten, executed, or banished to the edge of town. The family members of unruly citizens, even very young children, can be punished. The banishment creates a whole different class of society; women who survive by prostitution and men who become the poachers. The people who are banished live through the mercy of those who are still in town. They are part of the ecosystem of Garner County, yet they exist on the edge of it. Their participation in superstition of the power of young girls is part of maintaining the patriarchy.

Garner County reminded me of Salem, Massachusetts during the infamous witch trials. During that time, Salem had both a strong patriarchal and religious culture with fear ruling the society. Punishment could be severe. The young girls who made accusations of witchcraft found their power in a society where they had none. The Grace Year explores this concept in opposite, as the “Grace Year” is not supposed to give girls power, but the concept of it is to break the girls and make them compliant as they head back to Garner County to be the property of men. As soon as they return, they will be either wives or workers, with communication between women a rarity.

Although the middle was a tad sluggish, I enjoyed The Grace Year. I read that Elizabeth Banks has optioned the film rights, with Liggett working on the screen play. The story is exciting with many unexpected twists. It is very cinematic and I can imagine that it would be a box-office hit.

 

Imaginary Friend

cover163186-medium

Thank you to Grand Central Publishing for providing me with a copy of Stephen Chbosky’s novel, Imaginary Friend, in exchange for an honest review.

Strange things are happening in the small, Pennsylvania town of Mill Grove. The town has been plagued with missing children spanning over several generations, inspiring urban legends. Kate Reese is escaping an abusive relationship and she decides to make a fresh start for herself and her seven-year-old son, Christopher, in Mill Grove. On the surface, it appears to be an idyllic town, but soon Christopher is swept up in the horrors that have befallen other children of the community. It all begins when Christopher makes an imaginary friend that he names “The Nice Man.”

I love horror and I have never been legitimately freaked out until Imaginary Friend. The horror and graphic imagery is on a level that almost made me quit the book. I’m quite honestly shocked by how much Chbosky’s novel affected my sleep and invaded my imagination. He’s an incredible writer.

Chbosky’s story assaults the reader in multiple ways. He balances intense descriptions that leave little to the imagination, with gaps that allow the reader to imagine the worst. I read that Imaginary Friend is in development to be made into a movie or TV series. I don’t think that I could handle it and I seriously can’t imagine how any visual could match or be worse than what I was creating in my mind. The action, especially in the last half of the story, is virtually non-stop and at a break-neck pace. I kept catching myself holding my breath from the intensity. There are several great plot twists that I did not see coming.

Imaginary Friend is one of the most unexpected books that I have ever read. It’s a roller coaster ride. I think I was caught off-guard primarily because it is so vastly different than Chbosky’s best-selling novel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower. I loved The Perks of Being a Wallflower and was excited to see his much-anticipated follow-up. I’m sure many readers will pick up Imaginary Friend, based on their love for The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and they may be left disappointed. The books are so dissimilar and horror, especially this level of horror, is not going to be everyone’s cup-of-tea. However, it’s awesome that Chbosky wrote a wildly different type of story. He took a risk. He wrote the story that he needed to tell. I have so much respect for him.

My only criticism is that the story felt long. It is long, coming in at around seven-hundred pages. The pacing wasn’t slow, but it was too long to live in that particular story world. It’s a stressful read and I wanted out. It also suffers from a glut of action at the end of the story, pushing Imaginary Friend to continue beyond the point of where it felt like the story should have ended. It was along the lines of an action movie that has one too many explosions or car wrecks, or the horror film when the villain rises from the dead, but in this case, it was several resurrections too many.

This criticism aside, I found Imaginary Friend to be a highly memorable read. Chbosky has a unique voice and a crazy brain for horror writing. You’ll never look at deer the same way. It will also make you reevaluate any imaginary friends that your kids might have at the moment.

It was so darn creepy, that I have the chills just writing this review!

 

The Swallows

cover163853-medium

Thank you to Random House Publishing Group and Ballantine Books for providing me with a copy of Lisa Lutz’s novel, The Swallows, in exchange for an honest review.

Shortly after joining the faculty of Stonebridge Academy, an elite boarding school, creative writing professor Alexandra Witt, begins to notice that dark secrets are being kept amongst the students. The faculty turns a blind-eye out of fear and the professor whom Alexandra had been hired to replaced left under mysterious circumstances. Despite several warnings, Alexandra is determined to reveal the truth.

I’m drawn to stories that take place at boarding schools. I’ve always loved going to school and ever since I was a young child, I had romantic ideas of what it would be like to attend a boarding school. The setting for The Swallows does not disappoint. The campus is lush and the students are privileged. Lutz explores the “Upstairs/Downstairs” aspect of showing perspectives from both the wealthy students and the mostly average-means faculty. These are kids accustomed to power via the privilege that comes with wealth.

The Swallows is both a mystery and suspense novel, but it is also a commentary on our times with the “Me Too” movement. At Stonebridge Academy, there is a strong hierarchy of popular students, which includes a fluid ranking of the top male and female students, but within this group, the boys have their own club. Within this “boys club”,” they use their influence against the girls by creating a secret, sex driven ranking system. Alexandra is the type of teacher who easily bonds with teenagers and as she learns what the boys are doing, she uses her influence to help the girls stand-up for themselves. However, it is not as simple as pointing out the wrongs, the girls want revenge for their humiliation.

One of the more interesting twists comes from a student who begins a nightly ritual across campus. Her silent walks with a loud scream at the end, pick-up steam and soon she has begun an entire movement. She never speaks to the meaning of her ritual and others assume that it is in response to her having been raped or assaulted. She never confirms or denies the reason and her actions explode in popularity, attracting the attention of the national news. This situation blurs the lines between reality and the way society likes to attach meaning to situations, regardless of the truth. She becomes a symbol of a movement, simply because her actions seem like they reflect the pain of a woman who has been harmed by men.

Although there are intriguing aspects to The Swallows, I didn’t find myself completely gelling with the story. It was uneven in pacing and I found a lot of it to reek of “shock value,” in a way that made it hard for me to believe or connect. I didn’t entirely dislike The Swallows, but it was a solid 3 out of 5 for me. The most interesting aspect is the ways that the various characters use power to their advantage and this alone made it a worthwhile read.