“Pretty Ugly Lies” by Pamela Crane

haven’t read Big Little Lies or seen the show but it’s hard not to have a general sense of what that story is and I think it’s pretty clear that Pamela Crane’s Pretty Ugly Lies is meant to read and liked by the same people who flock to that.

This is an absolutely fine thing because if you like what I understand that story is, if you like psychological thrillers based on the friendships of women, and if you don’t mind a little murder and adultery, you will absolutely want to read this book. It’s a quick read, it’s a pretty good read, and I had fun reading it.

(things after this point are details of the book so… reader beware, a spoiler might slip out)

It starts with a woman sitting next in a pool of her husband’s blood as she holds his cold, dead hand and thinks of how the blood of her children is on her hands too. And then things escalate very quickly.

It does go fast and, to be honest, I wanted it to be longer. The tagline on the cover is “Four Lives. Four Lies. One Killer Among Them.” and, I’m not going to lie, that’s a lot to pack into just over 200 pages.

June, Jo, Shayla, and Ellie are the four friends. They have four husbands – Mike, Jay, Trent, and Denny. There are… eleven kids among them, I think. But I only remembered this near the end of the book, and a lot of time early on was spent thinking “wait, who is married to Denny???” Basically, I wish I couldn’t known these women better, slower.

They all live on Oleander Way in North Carolina. June and Ellie have been friends since high school. I think Jo and Shayla are friends, or maybe just acquaintances? The four don’t all know each other more than polite neighborly interactions.

But the four all have secrets.

Hidden love for a friend, adultery, trying to poison her cheating husband with oleander, and doubts about her marriage that come back to haunt her (I mixed up the order so it does not at all match the way I listed the friends, you’re welcome).

These things make for an interesting story, one I’d have loved to read if it was twice as long – but this isn’t my usual genre so maybe these stories do keep it short. Given the brevity, it was hard to feel attached to any one woman or the other, hard to root for them to overcome their secrets and their lies.

That is not to say that things don’t reach a satisfying conclusion because they absolutely do.

(I received a copy of Pretty Ugly Lies from NetGalley & Bloodhound Books in exchange for an honest and original review. All thoughts are my own.)

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An immigrant story you need to read…

Everyone knows the rules. Never yield the right of way. Never stay in your own lane. Never slow down at a yellow light. If you missed your exit, simply put your car in reverse. You may change the direction of a one-way street. Blow your horn angrily and with abandon.

(a quote contained in an ARC that may not be in the finished book – though I hope it is)

Donia Bijan’s THE LAST DAYS OF CAFE LEILA is the immigrant novel you need to read.

A story of Family in it’s purest, most raw form, it is the story of the ‘American Dream’. It unwraps the almost mythological idea of the American Dream to compare what that means to the people who never come to America but know of it, the people who come to America and strive for it, and Americans who might take it for granted. That sounds like an awfully grand way to start a review but it is a fair way, as you’ll know when come to the end of the story.

One of the most compelling hooks to the story is that our main characters, Zod and his daughter Noor, are Iranian. Zod is the son of a Russian immigrant to Iran and Noor becomes an Iranian immigrant to America, and daughter, Lily, because a child of two incredibly different worlds. That, the immigrant’s story, is the basis for the story, for the characters and the choices they make throughout the novel.

Noor left Iran when she was eighteen, when Zod sent her and her older brother Mehrdad to America to go to school and make lives for themselves. Noor became a nurse, married a cardiac surgeon – an immigrant from Spain, and had her marriage fall part. When that happens, she goes home to Iran for the first time in eighteen years, taking her teenage daughter with her. The timing is painfully opportune because Zod is dying and needs to make peace with his life, just as much as Noor needs to be able to find herself in her roots.

Bijan tells the story of the family mostly with a present-day portrait of Zod, Noor, Lily, and the people surrounding them but there are flashes to the past, to when Noor and Mehrdad were children and Zod was in adoration of his wife, Pari, to when Noor was a young woman new to America, and even further back to when Zod was a student in Paris. The flashes to the past are important, because they tell the story of the Iranian Revolution, of how that shaped a family, and even of how the Russian Revolution shaped Zod and his descendants.

The action of the story, the height of intensity and character definition in it, is when Lily decides she’s been in Iran long enough and she wants to go home. But it is present-day Iran and it isn’t easy for anyone to move freely. Her plan, playing on the puppy love from a boy named Karim, comes off as almost contrived and cliched but, in the end, it shows just the right sense of teenager desperation to go home. And it serves a catalyst for Noor finally finding herself after a lifetime of defining herself by what she meant to someone else. Offered the chance to go home, to go back to being who Lily and Nelson defined her as, Noor stays in Iran to start being who she defines herself as, combining a world that will involve Lily, a badly injured Iranian girl called Ferry, and Cafe Leila – the place her grandparents began with recipes smuggled from Russia.

I am so honored to having been given an ARC of this book and I felt terrible that I hadn’t read and reviewed it soon, but it turns out the paperback goes on sale today (April 7, 2018) so it’s still timely. And it is a book I will buy a finished copy of, pester every reader I know to read, and read again. It is such a rich tale of immigrants, of East vs. West, of a woman’s fight to be her own person in worlds where women are supposedly equal and where they are definitely not, and of family. There is nothing I can critique about the story, and it made me want to learn everything about Iran. These are definite signs of a good book, one that anyone reading these needs to try as soon as possible!

Facts & Figures

  • publication date: April 18. 2017 (Algonquin Books)
  • buy ithere
  • 320 pages
  • genres/categories: fiction / Iran / immigrants / family / women / contemporary / history / San Francisco
  • my reading dates: March 12, 2018 – March 23, 2018
  • my rating: 5 stars
I received a copy of THE LAST DAYS OF CAFE LEILA through NetGalley, from Algonquin Books in exchange for an honest and original review. All thoughts are my own, and are cross-posted on Goodreads, NetGalley, and my blog.

I read (and liked!) the same book as Barack Obama!

And that book would be Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie. (At least, I assume he liked it. But he definitely bought it. See?)

Anyway, I liked it.

It’s been awhile since I read it (I am so behind on my reviews and my ARCs, humblest apologies to all authors and publishers and firmest promises to catch up… eventually.) but I did keep a log-journal type thing while I was reading it so this, belated, review won’t be totally worthless.

So this book, that I am super proud to have in common with Barack Obama, is my first Salman Rushdie book and I was very excited to get an early copy (through NetGalley and Random House in exchange for an honest and original review).

Having been lately fascinated with fairy tales, folklore, and all things supernatural, this was probably the very best book I could have started with. It begins with the story of Dunia the jinnia and the ‘love’ she shared with Ibn Rushd (who was a real philosopher in 12th century Morocco and Spain, and is more commonly known as Averroes). The story then switches to Mr. Geronimo in present day, post-apocalyptic New York City. Mr. Geronimo the gardener is a descendant of Dunia, though I can’t remember if it’s of her and Ibn Rushd, but I think so.

According to my notes, things got a little bit confusing then. Dunia is seen as the jinn/Mother, therefore the mother of all jinn? There seemed to be a war coming between the ever available adversaries of Good vs. Evil. Mr. Geronimo started to float. In a way, I had the sense that there was some prequel story that I should have known first, some research that I should have done to prepare myself for this book. Needless to say, in terms of jinn lore and Ibn Rushd versus Al-Ghazali in terms of philosophy sent me to Google many times.

And then things started to make sense, and I started to love the book. I’d just read American Gods by Neil Gaiman and I started to think of it as comparable to that. The battle of Good vs. Evil, Light vs. Dark is defined by humanity’s lore and history, and we are sometimes oblivious to the things that can change us. But those are lessons that we need to learn for ourselves, maybe without hiding in lore and stories and giving up control to things we can’t control, that might not exist. That seemed to be the message Dunia was trying to craft, though I could be very wrong about it.

The story faltered slightly when, nearly three-quarters of the way through, the two main antagonists were introduced. Zummurad and Zabardast are fine as adversaries, but they lost something in showing up so late. They ended up less three-dimensional, less motivated to fight so hard in the war against Dunia and her father. She and her father, with their kingdom at Qaf Mountain, also ended up seemingly a little abrupt because if how late in the story it became important.

The ending, my notes say, is something I found kind of anti-climactic. I didn’t see the point of it, exactly, and I wondered if I should have read One Thousand and One Nights before I read this. To it’s credit, I feel like I understand something of Arabian folklore now and I do want to learn more. I do want to re-read it, and since I had to rely so heavily on my notes and not my memories of the story, I think I might do it soon.

For the richness of the story, for what I learned from it, I do very much like this book.

a Bulgarian history lesson in a very good book

When I saw an ARC of Elizabeth Kostova’s new novel available for request on NetGalley, I jumped at the chance to read it because her earlier novel THE HISTORIAN is one of my top… twenty-five favorite books of all time. I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to read it, and I apologize to Ms. Kostova and the publisher for this late review.

As with THE HISTORIAN, THE SHADOW LAND has skips from past to present and back again. This isn’t the easiest thing to follow until you get used to it, because you have to get used to it or you risk missing an important, powerful story.

I won’t compare this novel to the other Kostova book I read any more than that. This one stands alone and it was simply that one that made me want to read this one.

The lead character, Alexandra, comes off as awfully naive, almost to the point of being cliched in her innocent-American-caught-up-in-European-intrigue storyline. The lead man in the story is more original and interesting, though it’s vaguely irritating that he proclaims to be so proud of his Bulgarian heritage but insists that he be called Bobby instead of Aspurah.

One thing it is easy to love about this novel is that, once again, Kostova manages to weave intricate, not well-known Eastern European history into a fascinating story without having the story end up too heavy with historical facts and figures or too light and uneducated. I’ve never learned so much about Bulgaria as I did reading this book and I thank the author for that. That being said, I went into the story expecting folklore (sorry, one more reference to THE HISTORIAN) but I was pleasantly surprised it went into the Communist history of Bulgaria, and of Europe as a whole, instead. This is, as an added bonus, the first book I’ve ever read set in Bulgaria!

Here’s the thing about THE SHADOW LAND, in conclusion –

I would read the story of the Past, of Stoyan Lazarov and his wife and family as they struggled to survive communism. And I would read the story of American Alexandra and Bulgarian Bobby, of their fight to right wrongs and find healing and love. But I am not 100% convinced that the two stories meld together as well as they should. It’s almost… too much coincidence, luck, and circumstance that Alexandra ends up caring what happened to Stoyan. Basically, I want two books instead of one. Which is always a good thing!

The conclusion of the story (as opposed to my conclusion above, it seems) is a little disjointed because of the separate stories. The Bad Guy is the same in both timelines, in both stories, and that’s a good thing. But Alexandra ends up sort of tossed into what is obviously supposed to be a meaningful relationship with a very minor character, making their love lose some of it’s oomph, and Bobby hardly gets an ending at all.

I cared about these people and I want them to have more, darn it!

Overall, though, it’s a good book and it gets four stars from me for Bulgarian history.

I received a copy of THE SHADOW LAND through NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest and original review. All thoughts are my own, my review is posted on my blog, on Goodreads, and on NetGalley.

Coming of age in 1970s Alaska… you don’t want to miss this book…

As a reader, I’ve seen Kristin Hannah books everywhere. I’ve never bought one. Perhaps this was a mistake. Perhaps it was fate, because I was meant to read this Kristin Hannah book.

Either way, requesting an ARC, being ever so kindly granted an ARC, and reading THE GREAT ALONE over the holidays was the perfect way to end a year and start a new one.

This book is long, 450 pages, but I could not put it down and I read it in five days between Christmas and New Year’s. It’s one of those books you rush through because you can’t stop and then it’s over and you’re sad… until you realize you can read it again, almost like new because you read it so fast, and all is well again.
I’m not the only one who feels that way about books, am I?

Anyway, I started reading this tale of wild, untamed Alaska at what might seem like an inopportune moment because I live in Erie and for Christmas Erie got… sixty-some inches of snow in the two days before I started this book. I mean, who wants to read about Arctic weather while you are living it?

Me. Apparently.

I knew this for a fact when I started the book and got to 12% without looking up long enough to realize it had snowed another two inches. This after days of being a little weather-obsessed.

Hannah has created a masterpiece for me with this story. The backdrop of remote, unpredictable Alaska being combined with the struggles of a Vietnam POW and a coming of age story for a teenage girl is immediately haunting and magical.

Ernt Allbright is listless and tormented in regular life after surviving years as a POW during the Vietnam War. He loves his wife, Cora, and his thirteen year old daughter, Leni, but he doesn’t know how to… he doesn’t know how to be. So when a man named Earl Harlan writes to tell him that his son Bo, who died in Vietnam, would want Ernt to have his land in Alaska, the Allbrights leave Seattle for Alaska.

Earl, as it turns out, is more commonly known as Mad Earl and spends his days with his family in a compound that’s part survivalist, part doomsday prepper, and part anarchist. Mad Earl brings Ernt into the fold and they feed off each other, creating a powder keg that’s always ready to spark. More so for Ernt and the demons he battles from the war.

Leni makes friends in Alaska, despite it all, even developing a crush on a boy. The boy is the son of the man Ernt thinks has eyes for Cora, which doesn’t help anything. The tiny town rallies around Cora and Leni as Ernt begins to beat his wife. The tragedy is that Cora doesn’t think there’s any way out, that as long as Ernt doesn’t hit Leni, that he still loves her…

Her constant refrain to her daughter is that “I wish you remembered him before…” and that becomes a sort of theme for the novel. Everyone has a Before and sometimes it’s all you can do to hold tight and fast to that fleeting memory.

As I said, rural Alaska provides a deadly backdrop for the topics and threads that Hannah weaves seamlessly together. Domestic abuse, coming of age, race relations in the 1970s, mental health care for veterans, political beliefs, the wealthy versus the poor, how the law treats women and how it treats men…

There are parts of THE GREAT ALONE that could seem a little forced, a little too perfect. I think they work. They’re forgivable because of everything else that this book is. I can’t go into too much detail because they’re spoilers and I very much need for you to read this book asap.

Seriously. I know this makes for a terrible review but, let’s face it, if you’re following me, reading my reviews… we have similar tastes in books so there’s a strong you’ll love this book as much as I did. Do. Definitely still love this book.

The rest of the books I’m going to read in 2018, be warned. The bar has been set HIGH.

(Also, if you’re seeing this on the book page on Goodreads or something… just get it. You already want to. You won’t regret it.)

(I received a copy of THE GREAT ALONE from NetGalley & the publisher in exchange for an honest & original review. All thoughts are my own.)

Russia, Russia, Russia… this time in fiction, probably

Russia, Russia, Russia.

No, this isn’t a current events article on the state of things in the world. It could be (and that’s kind of frightening) but it’s not.

This is a review of Karen Cleveland’s spy thriller NEED TO KNOW.

The synopsis as posted on NetGalley, who were kind enough to grant me an ARC of the book, kind of, sort of seems to give away the game in that I knew when I thought ‘yes! I want to read that!’ that a CIA analyst’s husband works as a Russian sleeper agent. That’s why I hit ‘request’ on the page, because it sounded good. And yet the reveal scene, where Vivian finds out that Matt is not actually Matt at all, is really intense. When it shouldn’t be… because I knew he was going to be a Russian agent. So kudos for that reveal!

The theme of the book, even more than Russian sleeper agents everywhere!, seems to be the question of just what would you do if, say, you were a CIA analyst (specializing in Russia, of course) and you found out your husband (and the father of your four children) had been a Russian agent for two decades, give or take. What would you do if, say, he said “no, I never told them anything about you or your work” and “you have to turn me in” in the same breath? Do you believe him? Do you still believe him as more and more lies drip out? Do you find that you still love him despite the lies and despite the fact that you’re now stuck in a giant hole whose walls are about to collapse?

Vivian errs on the side of what seems to be self-preservation. That’s understandable. It’s also questionable. It makes her look pretty terrible at her job, when she’s supposed to be this expert at uncovering handlers and ringleaders, so that the CIA can find the agents. Vivian tells the story of dealing with the revelation about Matt (Alexander) in the present tense, which does make for very intense, dramatic storytelling. She flashes back to earlier moments in their relationship in the past tense, which makes for not the most compelling portrait of her intelligence gathering skills.

Can love really make a person so blind that, as a new mother in a new marriage, you’re not like “I don’t know, honey, I like working the Africa desk… why do you think it’s so important I move to the Russia section? And, you know, not stay home with the kids?”

I don’t know. I’m not a CIA agent (thanks to those who are, I could never be one), but Karen Cleveland was in the CIA so I’ll take her word for it, despite my questions. And maybe those questions, maybe Vivian not being super great at her job, at least as it relates to her personal life, are what makes it such a compelling story, one that I could not put down.

There is an ‘80s Cold War vibe to NEED TO KNOW, which is fun and intense. It doesn’t seem out of place either, since there’s a ‘80s Cold War vibe to the present day, which is less fun and more intense.

It’s a quick read. It’s an intense read. It’d make a great tv show. It’s fun! If you like thrillers and espionage, with a touch of romance, please be getting this book!

P.S. I feel like there could be a sequel, given the reveals that end the book. I would definitely read a sequel!

3.75/5 stars

(I received a copy of NEED TO KNOW through NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest and original review. All thoughts are my own. My review is posted on Goodreads, NetGalley, and my blog.)

“After the Parade” by Lori Ostlund

23492669It’s some kind of masterful when you spend the first quarter of a book thinking that the main character is a self-absorbed, ambivalent, almost blissfully ignorant fool but then you read the middle half of the book, getting ever more caught up in his story, and the final quarter of the book realizing that none of those things that made him unlikable and unrelatable at first were his fault and he did grow from them, whether by choice or by force. Sometimes life isn’t anyone’s fault. To alter the title a bit, sometimes life is just a parade it’s hard to see the end of.

AFTER THE PARADE is Lori Ostlund’s tale of a forty-one year old man name Aaron Englund. An ESL teacher, the story begins with him packing up a U-Haul in Albuquerque and leaving for San Francisco. He’s leaving behind eighty-two year old Walter, the man he’s been with for twenty-three years – and known a few years longer. The math works out to mean that Aaron was eighteen and Walter thirty-six when they first became a couple. That fact lands somewhere between unnerving and sad. As a reader, it’s easy to feel bad for Walter at the start. The man he loves leaves on Christmas Eve after nearly a quarter century. He’s elderly.

But then it becomes so much more complicated than that.

As Aaron travels – literally to San Francisco and figuratively to figuring out who he is – his story is told. His memories of an abusive father and a distant mother, who was more distant because of her abusive husband. His memories of never quite fitting in to normal groups at school. His tendency to gravitate toward the outcasts of society, almost as though he is searching for himself in them more than he is searching for a true friend. And so it comes that by the time he meets Walter as a teenager, his father is dead and his mother is gone.

Aaron is inherently a boy in need of something he never had. That he would find comfort in a stable older man when most boys his age would be doing anything but settling down, makes perfect sense. As in all things, defining love and the existence of love is tricky and almost impossible.

In time, woven into a rich story with so many threads, it becomes clear that Aaron teaches English to immigrants because he sees himself as one of them, in a way. He is an observer too, trying to figure out just how to make it through an uncomfortable, unfamiliar world without getting hurt. And maybe get through it with someone to love. The questions his students ask, the stories they tell him… they help Aaron to find himself.

Ostlund’s novel is harsh and sometimes breathtaking in it’s sadness but it is beautiful. Everything makes sense in the end, especially the most perfect of endings.

(I received a copy of AFTER THE PARADE through NetGalley and Scribner in exchange for an honest and original review. All thoughts are my own.)