Review of “We Could Be Beautiful” by Swan Huntley

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Catherine West is a wealthy trust fund (43 year old) kid living the good life in Manhattan. Like many wealthy people, she seems to have it all from the outside. Her days are spent bag shopping and lunching (though she doesn’t actually eat anything). Her nights are filled with gallery openings other society events. Somehow she manages to squeeze in massages on Sundays. She barely has time for involvement in the boutique stationary store she owns though she considers being a small business owner an important part of her identity. She is superficial and judgmental. Even her generosity (she loves to mention that she throws money at her staff, waiters, etc.) seems egocentric rather than being born of a need to actually help or reward people. Though she has been burned a few times when it comes to love, and she longs to have a husband and family, she’s such a you-know-what that it’s hard to find any sympathy for her.

She has a sister who adores her but she finds Caroline to be weak and needy. She judges her parenting skills. She’s happy to let Caroline take on the lion’s share of responsibility when it comes to caring for their mother who has recently been moved to an assisted living facility due to the progression of Alzheimer’s Disease.

When she meets William Stockton at a gallery opening, things begin to look up for Catherine. He’s handsome and cultured and his parents were friends of Catherine’s parents many years before. This move very quickly and they become engaged. However, it soon becomes apparent something may be a little off with William. Catherine struggles with her competing emotions. On one hand, she’s ecstatic that she’s found her Mr. Wonderful. On the other, she has some questions and William is not exactly open to talking about the past. And why is it that her mother shuts down at the mere mention of the name William Stockton? With her wedding growing nearer by the day, Catherine needs to find out.

The first half of We Could Be Beautiful was difficult for me to get through. It didn’t feel psychological or mystery-like. It felt like Chick-Lit. There’s nothing wrong with Chick-Lit if that’s your preferred genre but it’s generally not mine. Fortunately, the second half was much better. I won’t include much in the way of spoilers but I will say I think Catherine (finally!) grew up.

This was, overall, a solid debut. Though originally categorized as General Fiction on NetGalley, I see that it has now been recategorized as Women’s Fiction on the Penguin Random House  website which I think is more fitting and will draw a more appropriate and appreciative audience.

3.25/5 stars

Thanks to Doubleday via NetGalley for providing me with a free ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

 

Review of The Girls by Emma Cline

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The Girls , Emma Cline’s highly-anticipated debut novel, is the story of 14 year old Evie, growing up in 1960’s  California, and how she becomes entangled with a violent cult. Evie is now an adult who has, for the most part, moved on with her life. The story toggles back and forth between the two timelines in a well-paced and seamless manner.

The parallels with the Manson killings of that time are very obvious. I’m a bit obsessed with true crime books and TV (ID is pretty much the only thing I watch). I read Helter Skelter many, many years ago, and was fascinated by the ability of Charles Manson to control the minds and actions of so many people. Let’s face it – he was a super-creepy looking misfit. What were these people thinking??

I was hoping this book would answer that question and really dig deep into what makes people join cults and allow themselves to be brainwashed in such a way. We know that they are often looking for a sense of belonging and acceptance. (Evie’s parents had recently divorced and she had become estranged from her BFF… ) We know they are often young and beginning to use/are using drugs and alcohol. (Evie does.) We know they often feel a lack of control and a resentment toward authority. (Evie is about to be sent to a boarding school against her will.) But there must be something much deeper and darker. Many young adults have similar experiences and don’t seek out murderous cults to be their surrogate family.

While this book was a page-turner, I didn’t gain a clear enough understanding of why Evie joined, and kept going back to, this cult.While I understand that Evie’s attraction to and fascination with Suzanne, the most influential of the girls, was a major factor, I don’t think it was enough. And it didn’t explain how Russell was able to gain such power and influence over the rest of the group. I needed more details. Russell, the leader of the cult, was not as central a character as I’d expected him to be and I was a little disappointed in that. I would have liked to see him more fully developed and to understand more about his relationships within the group.

 

Overall, however, this was a very solid debut novel. I feel that if I didn’t know so much about the Manson Family, I may have actually enjoyed it more. It was unable to stop making constant comparisons between the novel and the real-life story and I think that certainly had an impact on my overall impression of the book.  I would look forward to reading Emma Cline’s next book even though I didn’t end up loving this one as much as I’d hoped.

My rating: 3.25/5 stars

Thanks to Random House Publishing Group via NetGalley for providing me with a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

May Book Club “Madamoiselle Chanel” and Circo

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A couple of weeks ago, (I am waaay behind on posting), the NYC Ladies Fine Dining and Fiction Book Club got together at Circo to discuss Mademoiselle Chanel, which was selected for the group by one of our regular members. It was a book I’d been excited about reading for a long time so I was quite happy with the choice.

I really enjoyed the book and it’s quite evident that the author did an amazing amount of research. I though I knew quite a bit about Gabrielle Chanel but I was wrong. (Who else thought the trademark interlocking Cs stood for Coco Chanel? Wrong!!)

She led an amazing life having been orphaned at an early age and rising through the fashion ranks to be what many consider the most influential designer in the history of fashion. Though we take many of designs for granted as classics, she was the fashion innovator of her time. Her styles reflected the changing times in Europe, much of which necessitated by WWII and the Nazi occupation of Paris.

Though, in many ways, I couldn’t really relate to her, I appreciated the sacrifices she made for her career and the difficulties she faced as a female entrepreneur, often forced to rely on men for money and opportunity, frequently not in complete control of her own destiny. Though she seemed to be a source of great fascination and enchantment to many men throughout her life, her relationships were often full of controversy and scandal, not the least of which was her romantic liaison with a Nazi officer.

I was also surprised to learn of the  history of Chanel No. 5. While the story if its origins and development were fascinating, the story of her relationship with the Wertheimer family, with whom she partnered to finance, market, and produce the fragrance, appalled me. Not only did she not want honor the contract she entered into with them, she tried to regain all of their interest in the company during the occupation under Hitler’s law that Jews could not own property of business enterprises.

Long-time book club member, Jane, found the story of the creation of the LBD to be fascinating. She also found the history of Chanel No. 5 to be intriguing. She loved Chanel’s idea that the woman should wear the dress as opposed to the standard at the time which was quite the opposite. Though Jane agrees with many of us that Chanel may not have been a very likable woman, she feels that Americans seems to be obsessed with the notion that creative geniuses also be nice people which she feels is often not possible.

As for the restaurant, I have to say that I was somewhat disappointed. One meal had to be sent back (not mine) and I think the consensus was that the food ranged from just okay to pretty good and the service was somewhat lacking. We were a group of twelve and while I can certainly appreciate that managing a group of that size may present some challenges, I don’t think providing water for the table in a timely manner should be one of them. And then there was the fire alarm which went off not once, not twice but THRICE during our meal!

As for my own meal, it was a mixed bag. I shared the Salsiccia pizza with a friend as an appetizer and it was excellent. For my entree, I ordered the Mafaldine Con Sugo D’Anatra, which is pasta with a duck and mushroom ragu. I didn’t love it but I think that had to do more with my own palate than the preparation. I’ve only been eating duck for a short time and had only ordered duck breast in the past. The sauce was more brown vs. the red sauce I was expecting. The homemade pasta itself was very good, however, and perfectly cooked.

Long-time (probably charter is more accurate) book club member Nadine felt that overall, the food was just okay; the risotto being a bit too al dente, the ravioli a tad bland, and the veal a bit too salty.

It wasn’t all bad, though. The decor provides a nice change from the typical decor you see in different versions of the same aesthetic throughout the city’s better restaurants. It’s colorful, whimsical, and cheery. The sommelier was very helpful and we were able to choose a red which suited everyone’s taste at a fair price point. And, as always, the company was fabulous and the discussions lively.

I wouldn’t necessarily discourage anyone from dining at Circo, and I’m glad I was able to get there as it had been on my list for a long time. I probably wouldn’t go out of my way to make a return visit (With rare exceptions I try not to repeat. There are too many great places I’ve yet to get to.) but neither would I be horrified at the prospect of going back if I had a reason to.

After dinner, a few of us went out for drinks at Flute Bar which was a great place to enjoy an after dinner drink. It was not overly crowded, the DJ played great music at a decibel level that allowed for conversation when seated, the service was great, and all at reasonable prices. I would definitely return.

Ratings are my own.

The book 4/5 stars

The restaurant 3/5 stars

The bar 5/5

 

 

A New Reason to Love Goodreads

I’m always amazed at the number of avid readers who haven’t yet created a Goodreads account. If you need one more reason to join, here it is. Goodreads has announced a new program called Goodreads Deals which will offer members discounts on e-books based on the members’s preferred genre and/or books on your “want to read” shelf. When you sign up to receive deals, you’ll be asked to edit your preferences which, in addition to genre, and your “want to read” list, can include authors you follow, and even allows you select the type of device you are using.

As for all of the “old” reasons to love Goodreads (and there are many, I’ll keep it very basic here.), here are my top 5:

5) I can keep track of books I’ve read. This may sound simple to many of you but over the years I often forget which titles I’ve read. Especially if I’ve read multiple titles from the same author that have a similar feel or themes. (Think Dean Koontz.) I can then give it a star rating, write a narrative review, both, or neither.

4) Recommendations! Ever feel like you want to read something but you don’t know what? (Even when you have a shelf or library full??) Goodreads can provide you with suggestions based on what’s on your shelf, genre, etc.

3) Goodreads Giveaways! Who doesn’t love free books? In addition to the link here, Goodreads will send you an email every time a book on your “want to read” list is being given away. Personally, I don’t ever go through the general link, opting only to enter if there’s a giveaway for a book I will actually read. Giveaways are limited to a certain number of copies so why have a book sitting around your house when someone else may have been truly lusting after it??

2) Goodreads Community. There are groups for online book clubs, upcoming book events, and every tiny niche in reading and publishing you can conceive of. And if you don’t see what you’re looking for you can create your own group!

1) Friends, friends, friends! I’ve saved the best for last. You can invite friends from your Facebook account, send emails to your friends, and meet new friends on Goodreads. Some you may know personally, others you may not, (there’s a “compare books” button on each user’s profile that allows you to see how much you have in common with a potential friend) but it’s amazing how many people you can truly connect with. When you are friends with someone, most of what they do shows up in your feed (similar to Facebook). I can’t tell you  how many times something a friend is reading ends up on my “want to read”, aka TBR, list. Any many times I wouldn’t have even known the book existed otherwise.

Have I forgotten anything? I’m sure I have. I’d love to hear about your experience with Goodreads. I know there are other similar sites so please feel free to recommend/comment on those as well.

Next up: My first BEA experience.

Review of “Britt-Marie Was Here” by Fredrik Backman

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Britt-Marie was an intensely unlikable woman in My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s SorryPerhaps that’s because she was so unhappy herself. I’m so glad I was able to get to know her better in Britt-Marie Was HereIt should be mentioned that, although I highly recommend reading My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry, and you will be even more impressed by Britt-Marie in this book if you do, you won’t have any trouble at all reading this as a stand-alone.

Sixty-three year old Britt-Marie has finally left her philandering husband and is trying to move on with her life. But there are more than a few obstacles in her way. To begin with, it’s more than a little difficult for a woman her age, who has not been gainfully employed in forty-some years to find a job in the middle of a financial crisis. But Britt-Marie is very resourceful. And by this, I mean that she pesters the poor young woman at the unemployment office, wearing her down until she finds her a position in the somewhat disadvantaged town of Borg. Thus begins Britt-Marie’s journey toward independence, friendships, and self-actualization(!). No small accomplishments for this very quirky, somewhat neurotic, maker-of-lists, and keeper of order who loathes soccer, has never had children of her own, and has somehow become the children’s soccer coach in Borg.

This is one of those books that is not terribly long, and is written very simply, but packs a huge punch in terms of conveying an astounding amount of emotional ranges and the understanding of human relationships.(And, at times, those with dogs and rats.) From desperation and sadness to hopefulness and redemption, it’s impossible not to laugh and cry, at times simultaneously. It is a beautiful thing, how Britt-Marie became such a vital part of the community. And even more so how the community became such a vital part of her.

Every character is so carefully revealed and so richly developed it would be quite easy to convince me I actually knew them. There are too many to mention but individually but I will say that I wouldn’t mind having a beer with Bank and Somebody. But as much as each character stands out individually, it’s the collective character of the town that is most unique and endearing.They are mostly good people, doing the best they can. And while they may not agree on every little thing, when the you-know-what hits the fan, they stand together. Many of us have lived in Borg, if not geographically, then metaphorically, at one time or another. And if not, then we should wish that we had.

 

5/5 stars

Many thanks to Atria Books via NetGalley for providing me with a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review of “The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper” by Phaedra Patrick

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Arthur Pepper misses his wife. It has been a year since she passed away. Miriam and Arthur were married for forty happy, peaceful, uneventful years. It’s not until Arthur steels himself to the task of sorting her things that he discovers a charm bracelet he’d never seen before. A telephone call to a number on one of the charms prompts Arthur to begin a journey in search of the truth of his wife’s past prior to their meeting. Along the way he meets some interesting characters, forges some unlikely friendships, and slowly discovers that it is possible to be happy, or at the very least, content again.

The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper has a lot going for it. Arthur is a very likable guy. If fact, most of the characters are of an equally likable, upbeat sort. The story is pretty relatable in its essence. We’ve probably all learned things about a spouse or lover at one time or another that made us question how well we really knew that person. Arthur’s adventures help him to reconcile three versions of his wife; the wife he thought he knew, the (post-finding-the-bracelet-wife) he then questioned if he ever  knew at all, and finally, the “true” Miriam.

Unfortunately, there was something I found lacking that I’ve not been able to put my finger on after having reflected for a few days. I can only describe it as an inability to be excited or completely engaged. Perhaps it was a bit too predictable. Maybe it was the implausibility of some of Arthur’s adventures. While I appreciate why so many readers are giving such glowing reviews, I find myself unable to do likewise. There was nothing overtly wrong with the book. It just left me feeling a little flat.

3/5 stars

Thanks to MIRA via NetGalley for providing me with a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review of “Free Days with George: Learning Life’s Little Lessons from One Very Big Dog” by Colin Campbell

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Full disclosure: I own a Newf. Therefore, there was little to no chance this book was getting less than five stars no matter what. But I’m happy to say those five stars are well-deserved! I read this book in less than a day. It’s a fast-feel good read and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Colin Campbell was a man who’d hit a rough spot in life. His wife, the love of his life, left him suddenly and with no explanation. Truly devastated, he buried himself in work and picked up a few bad habits. He was still having a great deal of difficulty moving on when, months later, a coworker suggested he get a dog. Fortunately for all involved, this coworker was quite persistent (a role I myself have played many times), pointing him to Petfinder to find his doggie love match. And there he finds Kong (a name change was obviously in his future), a one hundred forty pound Landseer  Newfoundland who’d had his own share of bad luck. Everything was about to change for both of them.

Without giving too many details of the story, I’ll say it’s a beautiful one, told with humor and honesty. The classic who-saved-who story that happens so frequently in rescue mixed with some very George/Colin-specific  elements that are quite unique! I thought I knew what a “free day” was but I’ll never again hear the expression without thinking of how it is defined in this book, as told to the author by his beloved grandfather. I highly recommend this book, especially to dog lovers.

And for those of you who are not fortunate enough to own an oofa-newf, and who may think the author is exaggerating in his telling of George’s compulsion to “save” everyone in the water, here is a little video of my girl Belle. (She’s ashamed of her short haircut so please, if you see her, don’t mention it.) In it she is “saving” Jerry, the Labrador Retriever who DOES NOT NEED SAVING. Labs, as you may know, are very competent swimmers. It’s a little long so if you want to fast forward, the “BIG RESCUE” comes at about 20 seconds prior to the end.

5/5 stars

Many thanks to Penguin Random House Canada, via NetGalley, for providing me with a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.