The Kids are Gonna Ask

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Thank you to Harlequin Trade Publishing for providing me with a copy of Gretchen Anthony’s novel, The Kids are Gonna Ask, in exchange for an honest review.

Seventeen-year-old twins, Thomas and Savannah McClair, have been raised by their grandmother, Maggie, after their mom was killed in a tragic accident. Their mom, Bess never told them who their father was, a secret that she kept from everyone.

The twins have started a podcast where they invite dinner guests into their home, and interview them over a meal. Their podcast has a small following, until one episode goes viral, an episode when they mention the desire to know about their father. They are contacted by a high-profile producer to create a new show that follows the search to discover the identity of their birth father. The twins are thrust into the spotlight, which includes being placed in the middle of the controversy over privacy rights.

I enjoyed Anthony’s debut novel, Evergreen Tidings from the Baumgartners, and I was excited to read her follow-up. The Kids are Gonna Ask didn’t disappoint. Anthony has a wonderful strength in writing endearing characters, and her stories have a lot of heart. It was the perfect type of read for these pessimistic Covid-times. This isn’t to say that her stories are trite or that her characters are perfect. For example, Maggie has to deal with some lingering anger she has towards her dead daughter, which is difficult as she is also grieving for and has a tremendous amount of love for Bess. The emotions are complex.

Although I know who my birth father was, he died when I was four. I could easily relate to the twins feelings of not knowing their parent, and have a whole missing piece of themselves. I can count the things I know about my dad on one hand. More to that, there is a chapter when Savannah is relating to Nadine, the daughter of the McClair’s personal chef. Both girls have lost their mother, and they mention how difficult it is, because it always creates an awkward situation. No one knows how to act or speak around children who have lost their parents. I have felt this the most. The twins lost their mother to a front-page new accident, where as Nadine lost her mom to a drug overdose, she only needs to share this info with the people she trusts. I lost my father more in the way of the twins, but just because everyone at school knew, didn’t make it easier. Divorce is fairly common, but I didn’t know anyone who had a dead parent.

The Kids are Gonna Ask dives into the idea of paternity secrets and privacy rights. Do the twins have the right to publicly air their search? What will they discover? They have to contend with criticism leveled towards their mother ignoring the paternal rights of their father. To add fuel to the fire, their producer seems to only care about controversy and ratings. It’s hard enough being a teenager, let alone being forced into the public eye.

Part of the story is set in Breckenridge, Colorado. I moved to Colorado in late 2019, and I have recently visited Breckenridge for the first time. It’s a beautiful area and I got a kick out of having a new connection to this place, and then having it appear in The Kids are Gonna Ask. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect! I love when a novel includes places that are familiar to me.

One of the pleasure of the story is the discovery that the reader has along with the McClair family. Anthony unfolds the secrets in a way that keeps the intrigue constant. I don’t want to give anything away, so I will stop here. The Kids are Gonna Ask is a thought-provoking story and the McClair family will steal your heart

 

The Lies that Bind

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Thank you to Random House Publishing Group for providing me with a copy of Emily Giffin’s latest novel, The Lies that Bind, in exchange for an honest review.

Twenty-eight-year-old Cecily Gardner is a mid-west transplant trying to create a life as a journalist in New York City. Ready to take the next step with her long-time boyfriend Matthew, she break-ups with him, when he doesn’t want a bigger commitment.

Distraught, she heads to a bar to drink, and consider if she has made a grave mistake. At the bar, she is about to call Matthew and ask him to take her back, when Grant steps into her life. Grant is charming and Cecily feels an instant attract to him. She quickly forgets Matthew and begins a whirlwind romance with Grant, including flying to London with her best friend Scottie, to see Grant, who has taken his twin brother to London for ALS treatment.

A few months into their romance, September 11th happens and Grant, who works for a financial firm in the World Trade Center, is presumed dead. Cecily realizes that she didn’t know very much about Grant, including his last name. While reporting on the terrorist attacks, Cecily encounters a sign with Grant’s picture as a missing person. She calls the number and speaks with Amy, Grant’s wife. Shocked by this discovery, Cecily becomes obsessed with unraveling the mystery of Grant’s life, and in the process, becomes friends with Amy, who doesn’t know about her husband’s infidelity.

I’m a fan of Giffin, and I was very excited to read her latest novel. It has been nearly twenty years since the September 11th terrorist attacks and I remember the day clearly. I was just a few years younger than Cecily, and although I was living in California, I had many friends in NYC. I can’t recall reading another novel that uses 9/11 as a central aspect of the plot. It was strange to realize, with the technology and cultural references, how much time has passed, but to still have this day so etched in my memory. Giffin does a great job writing the uncertainty and fear surrounding that day and its impact. It’s unsettling to read and dredged up memories.

As a contrast, I experienced joy reading the chapters detailing Cecily and Scottie’s trip to London. London and NYC are two of my favorite place. Cecily and Scottie have a wonderful friendship, the kind of support and love that everyone should have in their lives.

The Lies that Bind becomes increasingly more complicated from the lies that are created after Cecily learns of Grant’s infidelity. I don’t want to give any spoilers, but quite a web of deceit is woven, and even though the lies are due to generally good intentions, they quickly spiral out of control. Coming clean becomes increasingly difficult.

I didn’t feel Cecily’s attraction to Grant, especially when he seemed to be giving her mixed messages. It was the same with her relationship with Matthew. Cecily is a doormat for a majority of the story. I believe this is to set her up for making the transition towards realizing her own strength and independence later in the story, but this revelation happens really late. For a majority of The Lies that Bind, Cecily is a weak character, and it made it difficult for me to connect with her. I felt sad for Cecily.

The Lies That Bind has an intriguing premise and it’s a fast read. I don’t think it’s Giffin’s best novel, but if you’re a fan of her writing, you should absolutely add this to your bookshelf.

 

Hollywood Park

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Thank you to Celadon Books for providing me with a copy of Mikel Jollett’s memoir, Hollywood Park, in exchange for an honest review.

For those unaware, Mikel Jollett is the frontman and lyricist for the Los Angeles rock band, The Airborne Toxic Event. I’m a massive fan who has had the joy of seeing them live many times. The energy and storytelling of The Airborne Toxic Event affects me in a way that is unlike anything else.

Music is a funny thing. Like poetry, sometimes it is difficult to nail down why it speaks to you. With The Airborne Toxic Event, the songs and rhythm feel personal, and unique in capturing my experience growing up in Los Angeles.

Reading Hollywood Park and learning about Jollett’s life, made me understand my own life. Our situations are vastly different, but some of the childhood trauma rings true. It also helped me understand some of my early relationship choices and dysfunction. Like Jollett, I’ve reached a place in my life where I feel at peace with my past and hopeful for my future.

Jollett’s Hollywood Park was released as a memoir with an accompanying album of the same title. It is a grand undertaking that has been many years in the making. Both are fabulous and deeply affecting.

In his memoir, Jollett dives into his early childhood years spent at Synanon, a commune in California. Synanon was original started as place for recovering addicts, but over time, the leadership and motivations shifted. Jollett’s parents, his father a former heroin addict, and his mother, a Berkeley idealist, joined at a time when the commune was changing, including new rules that separated parents from their children. Jollett, and his older brother Tony, spent several years in an orphanage type arrangement in Synanon.

Their mother escaped with them in the middle of the night, but leaving Synanon was not easy. They feared retribution, and Jollett witnessed the severe beating of their mother’s boyfriend, who had also escaped the commune. Jollett’s mother suffered from mental illness and struggled with poverty. She had unstable relationships, including one man who was very abusive. Jollett’s father also left the commune, marrying Bonnie, another former Synanon member, who happened to work at the child center on the compound. Bonnie had bonded to Jollett when he was young and remained a second mother to him.

In Hollywood Park, Jollett comes to terms with the effects of his difficult childhood, which created problems in his adulthood. He carried the weight of his family, including the history of Jollett men going to prison, and falling into addiction. Even though he escape this family pattern, he was waiting for the other shoe to fall, as he found success with college, writing, and The Airborne Toxic Event. He struggled with relationships, always finding excuses to run away. After seeking therapy, he discovered that he had attachment disorder. Through therapy, he was able to prepare himself for engaging in a lasting relationship, which he found, and is now married with two children. It also prepared him to deal with his mother’s erratic behavior and the death of his father.

The title refers to a former Los Angeles landmark, a racetrack called Hollywood Park. Hollywood Park is a place where Jollett’s father used to escape for an afternoon of gambling and where he spent time with Jollett. The once glamorous race track fell into disrepair prior to it being torn down to make way for a football stadium. Jollett writes beautifully about these places that now only exist in our memory, both the physical places and the memories that we have of people we have lost. I lost my mom in 2008, and I have my own memories with her at both Hollywood Park and Santa Anita Race Track.

Jollett doesn’t write much about The Airborne Toxic Event, but he does give insight to the origins of two of their early hits: “Wishing Well” and “Sometime Before Midnight.” This memoir isn’t really about the band, but more about the origins of the man who felt compelled to put his words into songs.

I was fortunate to attend a virtual book event for Hollywood Park that was hosted by Tattered Cover, a Denver based bookshop. The event was originally supposed to be live, but due to Covid-19, virtual was the next best option. It was actually great. Jollett joined us from his home and played several songs. He was gracious with answering questions and sharing intimate details of his life. A week after the event, I received a hardback copy with an autographed bookplate.

Hollywood Park is a stunning memoir. It’s heartbreaking and uplifting. It is a must-read for fans of Jollett, but even if you’ve never heard of The Airborne Toxic Event, I highly recommend Hollywood Park. It is one of the most affecting and engaging memoirs that I have ever read.

 

 

 

The Companions

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Thank You to Gallery/Scout Press for providing me with a copy of Katie M. Flynn’s novel, The Companions, in exchange for an honest review.

In the near-future the world has suffered a deadly pandemic that has resulted in years of quarantine. Scientist have developed a way to transfer human souls into robots, allowing humans a way to become immortal, but the catch is they are property of the Metis Corporation. The Metis Corporation leases the robots, referred to as “Companions” to other humans. Sometimes those who take on the lease are the family members of the companion and sometimes, when a family member is unwilling or cannot afford the lease, the companions are sent out to be workers. The companions not only provide companionship to the lonely who are quarantined, but they can perform tasks without fear of catching the virus.

Lilac has been leased by a family to provide companionship to their young daughter. Although Lilac only has vague memories of her human life, she begins to recall certain events and with some internet sleuthing, she learns that she had been murdered as a teenager. It is now decades later and she wants to find her murderer to seek revenge, before that person dies.

The Companions offers an intriguing premise and brings up plenty of ethical issues. Would you be willing to lease your soul to a corporation in exchange for a longer life? What obligations does that company have to provide for your care? What happens when you out live those you knew in real life? Is a robot with a semi-human soul still human? The idea for The Companions caught my attention immediately. It reminded me of the series Black Mirror.

Unfortunately, the actual plot failed to hold my interest. It had strong moments, but I never felt connected to the characters. There are many characters and plots, so many that they become muddled. The plots do intersect, but I wasn’t satisfied. I think it would have worked better as a series of short stories based in the post-pandemic story world, each dealing with the various implications of having companions.

The Companions will benefit from buzz due to its eerie timing. It was published the first week in March, right as much of the world was about to be locked down due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Obviously, there is no way that Flynn could have realized this when she wrote The Companions, but many of her ideas about how a lock down would feel and heaviness of it all, are spot on. Our current world situation added to my discomfort and sense of unease, that I likely would not have felt if I had read The Companions at any other time.

 

All That’s Bright and Gone

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.