“Better Than This” by Cathy Zane

This book was a roller coaster ride, and not always in the most thrilling of ways.

It is the story of a screwed up marriage, between Sarah and Robert (he’s old enough to be her father) who share a six year old daughter.

The marriage is screwed up ostensibly because of the age difference, because Sarah is a poor, small town girl with a sketchy family while Robert is a rich, successful businessman from one of the richest families in Seattle.

None of this is entirely true. Not really, because Sarah’s friends are torn between thinking Robert is a narcissistic gaslighter and fantastic guy. All while Sarah’s changing herself completely to fit with the vision of a wife he wants.

Which is fine. It seemed like a good, important story about the dynamics of marriage and how it can go bad so very quickly. But then… then we went totally off the rails and the deeper message of Sarah’s struggle for independence was almost entirely negated by how things are ‘resolved.’

******spoilers beyond this point*****

Sarah’s independence is not tied to her breaking free of Robert’s controlling and abusive behavior. Sarah gets her independence when Robert comes out of the closet and she feels somehow finally free because he has claimed the freedom to be who he wants.

It feels like a disservice is done to women and to the LGBT community.

But I’ll give it two stars because I did finish it. It only deserves one because that ending.

Better Than This is on sale August 28, 2018.

(I received a copy of Better Than This through NetGalley and She Writes Press in exchange for an honest review. All thoughts are my own.)

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“Auschwitz Lullaby” by Mario Escobar

The trouble with fictionalized memoirs and biographies of people who actually existed is, can be that fiction can risk trivializing reality, risk making something real seem so different from what it was that the meaning is changed. In the case of Mario Escobar’s Auschwitz Lullaby, it risks making the Nazi ‘Angel of Death’ Josef Mengele seem almost sympathetic at times. Escobar took the risk and defeated it.

He balances every sign of hope, from Mengele, and counters it with the bleak desperation that pervaded every moment of every day at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

The true hope is provided in the form of the semi-fictionalized Helene Hanneman. A woman named Helene, German and ‘Aryan’, did find herself interned at Auschwitz because she married a Romani Gypsy man and their children were going to be deported so she went with them. As she was a German woman, Josef Mengele chose her, in reality and in this story, to run a nursery school he set up for Gypsy children and twins. If you know history, you know of Mengele’s twin studies and experiments. If you know of that, you know that there is nothing good in what Josef Mengele did.

Escobar makes it clear that Helene knew that. She knows that for everything he gives, there is something that he takes. It’s a balance that’s worth doing because it means a moment of hope.

That she used him as much as he used her, at least in terms of this book, is truly impressive and a light of hope in the darkness.

It’s hard to say more, given what is widely known and what might spoil the message of this book. Suffice it to say, I didn’t know as much about the Gypsy existence at Auschwitz as I thought I did, and I am happy to learn more now, and I cannot recommend this book enough.

(I received a copy of Auschwitz Lullaby from NetGalley and Thomas Nelson in exchange for an honest review. All thoughts are my own.)

“Brave Enough” by Kati Gardner

As a kid, I had a thing for Lurlene McDaniel books. Do you remember them? Girl gets terrible disease, girl falls in love with boy, girl usually dies, tragedy and heartbreak abound. That was the definite, general theme. And I got them out of my elementary school library every chance kind Mrs. Wisinski would let me. Then my sister honed in on my book love and suddenly loved them even more. Which was both annoying and fine, because they were basically the only things she read by choice until Harry Potter happened and I have book love for all the books.

I digress.

Kati Gardner’s Brave Enough is like Lurlene McDaniel’s books, and I wonder if Gardner read them too. Not they’re copies or too similar and not unique. Brave Enough is rather fantastic all on it’s own.

It starts with what is typical for contemporary YA novels – a talented girl has dreams beyond the place where her life currently is, a boy is a little damaged and trying hard to be good, the girl meets the boy, the girl is determined not to like the boy…

There are things in the story that sometimes seem a little extreme, a little forced. Cason, the talented ballerina with dreams of dancing in New York City, gets a very extreme cancer and Davis, the damaged boy who dealt and took a lot of drugs after surviving cancer, are a little, I apologize for using the word again, extreme. But these things happen.

Also, I have never been addicted to drugs nor have I dealt them. I have not survived cancer and I don’t know anyone who was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma as Cason is. Those things being said, I have to let Gardner be my guide on what is right and appropriate for Cason and Davis. Even when things get a bit repetitive, I trust in Gardner that the struggle she describes is real.

Cason’s mother, Natalie, undergoes the most profound evolution in the story, She goes from being the micromanager of the Atlanta Ballet Company and a ‘momager’ who would give Kris Jenner a run for her money to someone who learns that she is a mother first and that no mother can endure the burden of a sick child alone.

While Cason and Davis, with their budding and inevitable romance, are fine, it really is the cast of supporting characters that make Brave Enough work. Heather, Dr. Henderson, Mari, Jase, Noah, eventually Natalie… they come together to make sure that Cason and Davis have the support system they need to survive and endure. Maybe that’s the most important lesson to take away from the book – be brave enough to both rely on your friends and to let your friends rely on you. It’s the only way we might get from this day to the next.

(I received a copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest and original review. All thoughts are my own.)

“After Nightfall” by A.J. Banner

After Nightfall falls firmly under the umbrella of the latest, hottest genre that everybody is reading, everybody is writing, and everybody is talking about. I don’t usually do well with what everybody likes and this genre has been more Miss than Hit for me lately.

But A.J. Banner changed the game with this one, my own personal game of trudging through whodunit stories of toxic friendship versus happily devouring every word and being sad when it’s over.

This book is one I devoured and mourned the end of.

It was a little sketchy to start, what with wine-drunk adults at a dinner party flirting with everyone they weren’t married to or about to marry and a kid sitting ignored, and maybe a little crazy, in a corner. I was not hopeful about where it might go.

And then one of the dinner party guests got murdered/died/was no longer alive for some reason, which seemed mostly like another box ticked on the way to a meh book.

But things escalate quickly from there, in an intensely readable sort of way. To be fair, some of the other boxes were ticked – know-it-all woman thinks she can solve the case before the detective, detective suspects know-it-all of crimes when she keeps stumbling into crime scenes, everybody in a relationship harbors a deep mistrust of the one they love, bossy man telling know-it-all to leave it alone because everybody else is crazy and she shouldn’t be that way too.

Yet somehow this manages to make the story better. Possibly because it makes everyone, quite literally everyone, an entirely legitimate suspect in what may or may not be a murder.

Mystery thrillers where it’s hard to even guess who might’ve definitely been the killer are the absolute best thrillers. I don’t want to figure it out early, you know? I want to get to about 95% read and be like “holy crap on a cracker, I did not see that coming!” and I want that moment to be believable, legitimate, and fitting.

A.J. Banner ticked that most important of boxes for me in After Nightfall and I cannot recommend this book enough!

(I received a copy of this book through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All thoughts are my own.)

“Sentimental Tales” by Mikhail Zoshchenko

SENTIMENTAL TALES is a collection of six short stories by Mikhail Zoshchenko, a popular satirist in Russia in the 1920s. The copy I was lucky enough to be granted access to was translated by Boris Drayluk.

Zoshchenko was, as stated above, a satirist. He wrote in the earliest decades of the USSR and his stories are colored by what he experienced during World War I and the revolutions that transformed Russia from a tsarist state into the most powerful Communist nation in the world. They are a commentary on life in those early years, and it’s rather shocking that Zoshchenko did not end up the dead at the hands of the state because the commentaries and depictions are neither flattering nor kind.

The first story in SENTIMENTAL TALES is called “Apollo and Tamara.” Apollo Semyonovich Perepenchuko played the piano and loved a girl named Tamara. Tamara wanted to love someone famous, which Apollo was not. Yet, he said. Apollo went to war and survived. More or less. He came back for her but Tamara still didn’t want him. He tried to kill himself but someone saved him. Sort of. He died awhile later. So did Tamara. (3/5 stars)

“People” is the second story in the collection. The first parts of Zoshchenko’s stories seem to have the theme that the ‘author’ gives a third-person account of the author’s own actions, and it’s definitely a theme that works very well. It comes across as unique and interesting, making it almost a sort of self-insert story. Anyway, in “People” Ivan is so naive, which seems to be a theme with Zoshchenko. A reader can’t help but feel for him, which means he’s probably supposed to represent the lower classes
of the larger USSR. (5/5 stars)

“A Very Bad Night” is the third, and slightly unremarkable story. My notes after I read it indicate that I wasn’t even sure this is the title. But it’s about Boris, who plays the triangle in an orchestra. It’s not a lucrative career in the best of times, and far less so in the early years of the USSR. Boris’ wife is not a fan of his poverty, never has been, and Boris spends most of the story panicking about money. And his wife. (3/5 stars)

And then we have “What The Nightingale Sang” which is, in total honesty, one of the best short stories I’ve ever read and one of the best things I’ve read this year. I haven’t laughed at a story like this in a very long time! The author’s commentary on his actions in the beginning and at the end of the story fit modern times as well as when the story was written. It is the story of Vasily and Lizochka, and it is perfectly cliched and adorable in the way it looks at Love in any time and at any place. (5/5 stars)

The fifth story in the collection is called “A Merry Adventure” and is the story of Sergei, a typical bumbling fool. Sergei is constantly scrabbling for money because he is so eager to please certain people, like pretty girls who want him to take them to the pictures. He is willing to take advantage of a dying aunt to please this girl. It seems as this story is an allegory of Communism and the USSR, in which the weak are manipulated to please the strong. (4/5 stars)

And the final story in the collection, “Lilacs in Bloom,” is about Volodin, who is a beautiful man who wants nothing more than to be adored by the most beautiful ladies in town. The catch is that Volodin is married, and his brother-in-law finds out about his affairs and hatches a plan to splash acid on his nose to make him less beautiful, or to have his wife do it. She misses and Volodin takes that as permission to carry on, especially when his brother-in-law quickly admits defeat. (3/5 stars)

(I received a copy of SENTIMENTAL TALES from NetGalley and Columbia University Press in exchange for an honest and original review. All thoughts are my own.)

“The Shortest Way Home” by Miriam Parker

This book, The Shortest Way Home by Miriam Parker, is going to be a favorite for someone.

It is, unfortunately, not a favorite for me.

This genre, summery novels of self-discovery and idyllic locations, have always been hit or miss with me.

This book is a miss, although it was just interesting enough that I finished it.

Set in Sonoma, California wine country, wine is absolutely the point around which all things in the story revolve. It is why Linda and Everett are married, it is the thing they and their fathers did with their lives, it is what Hannah likes to drink with every meal, it is… everything.

If you like wine, this could be the book for you.

Not tying it entirely to wine, of course, the other unifying point around which things seem to revolve is a bit of what could be called Rich People Problems.

Hannah, newly graduated from business school at Berkeley and about to take a six-figure salary for a starting job at Goldman Sachs in New York, spends much of the book bemoaning her poor Iowa upbringing while contrasting it to an internship at Tiffany’s in New York all while somehow amassing the ability to give up said job for an $800 a week gig as… helper of sorts at a struggling winery in Sonoma. I mean, it helps that the winery job comes with a cottage to live in (and all the wine she can drink!), but I didn’t find her relatable enough to be likable.

It was hard to care if she chose Ethan, the super-rich Park Avenue boy who decides to slum it, as it were, and found a start-up app company because his buddies at Google want new jobs, or William, the son of the winery owners, who she manages to fall head-over-heels in lust/love with after a grand total of maybe three meetings. To Parker’s credit as an author of this sort of book, Hannah chooses neither – and that is why this book got bumped to two stars for me.

But Hannah’s unrelatable and kind of a brat, Ethan is mildly abusive to Hannah, Linda and Everett have a twisted, toxic relationship built on a modern day arranged marriage, and… there just wasn’t much here for me.

I think maybe I finished the book because it is a very fast read, the downside of that being that all of this, all of these life-changing decisions occur over the course of a summer, but really a couple weeks. Marriages break and are rebuilt, a massive heart attack is fully recovered from, a former farm girl marches in and takes over a century and a half old winery with permission from the supposedly very invested owners, affairs are had, a For Rent sign turns into a successful AirBnB B&B and… it’s just too much.

For me.

Maybe not for you. Try it if you like this sort of thing. It has it’s good points.

(I received a copy of The Shortest Way Home from NetGalley and Dutton in exchange for an honest and original review. All thoughts are my own.)

“Entangled Lives” by Imran Omer

Imran Omer’s Entangled Lives is not an easy book to read. It shouldn’t be an easy book to read. It is, after all, the story of how young men in Pakistan and Afghanistan in the 1980s and 1990s saw perpetual war as a given and had little choice but to fight. It is, after all, the story of a war between the USSR and Afghanistan that led to the rise of the Taliban that harbored Osama bin Laden.

And it is part memoir, because Imran Omer grew up in Pakistan during the times he writes about in this novel.

Right away, it becomes clear that Raza, the main character in the story, is representative of the many thousands of poor young boys and men who were orphaned, who were starving, and who had nothing to look forward to when the radical teachers began setting up madrassahs to teach the Quran and ready men for the holy jihad. The schools meant food and shelter and safety, relatively speaking. For too many, it has obviously been the only choice.

One of the strongest parts of the novel is when Raza reads his mother’s diary and learns about the turmoil that rocked Pakistan and the surrounding areas in the 1970s, leaving her pregnant and separated from all family.

Perpetual war.

There is a weaker part to the story, and it has to do with the trope of white saviorism.

Rachel Brown is an American reporter who covers war. Her Indian husband is not happy about prolonged absences but she isn’t particularly happy in her marriage. So it’s fairly clear she escapes to Afghanistan just as the Taliban begins it’s push for total power in 1996. By chance, she interviews Raza at a stadium. By chance, he spares her life later. And by chance, after 9/11 she sees a photograph of him on television, after he’s been arrested as a terrorist and, I think, taken to Guantanamo Bay.

So she decides that should be the greatest story she tells.

The novel is meant to be Raza telling his life story to Rachel, in exchange for her getting his small son out of the same madrassah that put him on the path to terror. Rachel isn’t essential to the story, not really even as a vehicle by which Raza can tell the story. It’s possible to go for long stretches without thinking about her at all.

Raza, as representative that all men who do one thing might not be evil… evil enough to be painted with the same brush as everyone else around them, is what’s important to the story. It’s his story that makes this novel so good and so important.

(I received a copy of Entangled Lives from NetGalley and Roundfire Books in exchange for an honest and original review. All thoughts are my own.)