Review Time: The River at Night

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“There’s nothing wrong with a little fear. Keeps you sharp.”

For years, Wini and three of her best friends have taken a vacation together to escape their grueling, everyday lives. This year, Pia — the group’s unofficial leader — has talked the women into hiking and rafting in Maine’s Allagash Wilderness. After a sufficiently creepy start to their trip involving a deserted road and an uncomfortable bathroom encounter, the women make it to their final destination — a beautiful lodging campus in the middle of the woods, only a short distance from the raging river that they’ll be rafting in the coming days with their college-aged tour guide, Rory.

The rafting portion of the trip get off to a rocky start when Pia decides to spend a special night with Rory, causing a tension between the women that they find hard to overcome. Not long after they launch their raft into the water, the group experiences a terrible-horrible-no-good-very-bad accident that leaves them stranded and helpless in the wilderness. As they try to navigate their way back to safety, they stumble upon a sign that help could be near. But (as these things tend to go) safety comes at what cost?

I’m going to be honest here… I didn’t love The River at Night. I’ve been trying to put a finger on why and I think it boils down to the characters themselves. I found the female characters — especially the narrator, Wini — to be frustrating. Yeah, okay, so your friend slept with a dude on what was supposed to be a “girl’s weekend.” Get over it, girl. You’re a grown-ass woman. You don’t need to pout about it for days. (I mean, I probably would pout just as long,  but I annoy even myself sometimes.) The other reason I didn’t love this book was due to the Amazon tease that prompted me to read this book in the first place. The tease mentioned the women’s “supposed saviors” and the suspense that surrounds the search to find out their true intentions. Which sounds awesome. The book, though, takes about 100 years to get to that point and, while this is where the majority of the book’s excitement comes from (for me, at least), it’s not nearly as suspenseful and spine-tingly as I thought it was going to be. Which is, admittedly, my own problem, but it just didn’t live up to the hype I had for it. Sorry, Charlie.

My favorite scene: It’s hard to come up with a way to describe my favorite scene without giving away pivotal surprises and plot twists. But my favorite scenes come towards the end of the novel when, (shocker) the women’s potential saviors show up and they are forced to put aside their own preconceived notions and ideas about how and when help will arrive. Because nothing rounds out a suspense novel like a little of the unexpected.

Review Time: The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo

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“When you’re given an opportunity to change your life, be ready to do whatever it takes to make it happen. The world doesn’t give things, you take things.”

As you may remember, pretty much everyone in my life was thrilled that I put my murder-mystery streak on hold for a week to dive into something new. Hey… I love a good who-dun-it. I will say, though, that I wasn’t sad to break the streak with The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo. It promised to be gossipy and dramatic — and it definitely delivered. But what I wasn’t really ready for what the depth of the story and the light it shone on the lives of the people we love to watch on screen.

Evelyn Hugo was Hollywood’s “It” star in her heyday. She was talented and smart and sexy. Everyone wanted a piece of her. The final piece, though, would be her memoir, shared on her own terms. Monique Grant, a rather inexperienced journalist, is stunned when she gets word that THE Evelyn Hugo wants her to write the coveted memoir. She knows it’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance for her and she’s going to make the most out of it.

As Monique already knows, Evelyn’s had an interesting (and gossip-worthy) life. Born to a poor family in Hell’s Kitchen, she rose above her neighborhood (and terrible father) to forge a path for herself, even if it meant trading a few things on the way to Hollywood stardom. As Monique gets to know the real Evelyn Hugo, a picture begins to emerge of a woman who did what she had to do, and hid what she had to hide, to make a name for herself.

Evelyn knows that the real question her fans want answered is which husband she considered to be her “true love.” So she starts at the beginning, from her road trip out to Hollywood to her abusive first husband and continues through them all one at a time, painting a portrait of a woman with unlimited depth, cunning ambition and unimaginable strength. By the end of Evelyn’s story, she reveals the two things she’s held closest to her heart: which husband was her true love and why she chose Monique to write her story. And the answers to both questions with break your heart. Mine did.

My favorite scene: One of Evelyn’s seven husbands was the kind-hearted Hollywood staple Harry Cameron and their love story is the one that I haven’t been able to forget. Their lives are glamorous — and not without pain — but they manage to navigate them in a way that makes you root for them, despite everything you know (and by this point, you know a lot). Love you, Evelyn. And Harry too.

Grade: ★★★★★

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Review Time: I’m Thinking of Ending Things

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“Sometimes a thought is closer to truth, to reality, than an action. You can say anything, you can do anything, but you can’t fake a thought.”

We’re introduced to our unnamed narrator with the revelation that she’s thinking of ending her relationship with her boyfriend, Jake. As she describes it, it’s a thought that popped into her head and one she can’t shake. To make matters worse, as these thoughts swirl around in her head, she’s embarking on a road trip with her boyfriend to meet his parents.

Jake is a scientist. He toils away, day after day, in a lab. He’s fond of speaking about the abstract. He used to live out on a farm way out in the middle of nowhere. And he’s excited for his girlfriend to meet his parents.

The girlfriend (it feels so weird calling her that, but she doesn’t have a name) enjoys philosophizing with Jake, discussing the deep and abstract for virtually the entire car ride. She gets very odd and very scary phone calls from her own phone number on a semi-regular basis. She’s a little bit all over the place.

Jake’s house is creepy AF. His parents are super odd. The meal they serve isn’t conducive to the girlfriend’s vegetarian palate. The basement door appears to be covered in what looks like frantic scratch marks. There are super odd paintings down in the dark and damp basement that she decided to explore alone (who does that?!). The farm is just weird and she wants to get out.

A snow storm begins as soon as the couple gets back on the road, but that doesn’t deter Jake from detouring to Dairy Queen for a sweet frozen treat. With treats in hand, they start their trip again, though they make another detour a few minutes later to throw away the cups before they cause a mess in the car. LOL WUT? They end up at a deserted high school in the middle of a snowstorm in the middle of absolutely nowhere.

And that’s when shit gets really weird.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things was creepy from the first page to the very last. The couple’s soliloquies about random things during their car ride served to demonstrate their level of intelligence and compatibility, but good grief were they annoying. So many decisions they made, so many things that happened, just made you want to shake both of them. WHAT ARE YOU DOING, YOU NIMROD?!? But I suppose, in the end, those decisions made sense. Those decisions led to what will most likely go down as the weirdest and most WTF ending I’ve ever read. Seriously. You’ll see. It’s a total mind-warp and I think I need to read it four more times to really piece it all together. It toys with your emotions and messes with your mind and really just shakes you up. I finished this one a few days ago and I seriously haven’t been able to stop thinking about just how weird it was. But like… in a good way. Good weird? Is that a thing? It is now.

My favorite scene: Throughout the whole book, there are little excerpts of conversations from people talking about some vague crime that happened, something that totally shocked the community. These little snippets, as vague and disconnected as they are, really serve to push the reader forward with the story. What happened? What are they talking about? Who could they be referring to? Is it Jake? The girlfriend? Who?! Those passages, more than anything else in the story, sucked me in and propelled me forward. Ah, the promise of drama.

Grade: ★★★★☆

Review Time: Since We Fell

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“We live in a world of disposable memory, nothing’s built to last, not even shame.”

Rachel Childs was the next big TV news star. Until she wasn’t anymore. And nothing was ever the same.

Meet Rachel. Her mother is an overbearing one, a best-selling author of relationship advice with scant romantic success to her name. Her father is non-existent, a ghost of a man who left while Rachel was still in the womb–a man her mother refused to acknowledge or introduce. Her husband is an emotionally distant man who cares about image over attachment. She is a hard-working reporter and, like most of us, is a little bit damaged, no thanks to the people in her life.

While covering the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti, Rachel finds herself stretched a little too thin, with too many people watching her fall apart. Finally, after a particularly brutal experience that haunts her for the rest of the story, Rachel reaches her breaking point. Unfortunately for her, it happened on live television and went viral within a matter of minutes. She’s forced to return home to Boston, to a marriage that’s unraveling as quickly as her breakdown went viral and to a career that stopped existing as soon as the camera cut off.

There is a silver lining to her trouble: a wonderful man named Brian who always happens to show up when she needs him most. She first met him while she was trying to find out the identity of her father, then again after her breakdown in Haiti. He was the glue she needed to mend her life, until–you guessed it–he wasn’t anymore .

One rainy afternoon, Rachel happens to see a man that looked strikingly similar to Brian enter a hotel in Boston–but it couldn’t have been Brian because he was on a flight to Europe. Wasn’t he? And so starts the mystery. Does Rachel know who Brian really is? Does she trust herself enough to do what it takes to find out?

All in all, I enjoyed Since We Fell. It was a little slow at the beginning and a little choppy at times, but the story kept my attention. I’ll be honest — I found Rachel to be a little annoying. She’s agoraphobic, which took up a lot of real estate in the book, and her internal struggles started to get repetitive after a while. The action at the end of the book was a little WTF and I wanted to punch everyone in the face at one point, but it was a fun read. Even if I wouldn’t want to be friends with any of them.

My favorite scene: After Rachel thinks she sees Brian in Boston, she concocts a scheme to find out what’s really going on with her husband. She rents a car and follows “Brian” across the city, weaving in and out of traffic, imagining all the horrific scenarios that could explain who this man is. Her chase leads to more questions than answers, but it’s a fast-paced, c’mon-just-tell-me-who-this-guy-is sequence that serves as the jumping off point for most of the book’s action.

Grade: ★★★☆☆

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To Read: August Edition

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This summer has FLOWN by. Like… Where did it go? I still have a hard time remembering the seasonal timeline in Chicago because where I come from, there is no fall. It’s just HOT and then a little less hot. But the word on the street is that fall is just around the corner (like a month away!) and I’m just not ready. Well… Actually I might be ready. After close to 30 years of HOT ALL THE TIME, I welcome cool air with open arms. We moved at the beginning of the month and I finally have a back porch and I’m so excited to spend time out there with my coffee (read: wine) and my books and my cozy blankets. Here are the books I’ll be diving into this month–is boxed wine still taboo? BRING ON THE FALL.

Since We Fell: This one is a Book of the Month club read that I’m super excited about diving in to. Dennis Lehane is the author of the lesser known titles (lolz) Mystic River and Shutter Island. While Lehane might not be a household name yet (lolz again), I’m about his twisted style and I can’t wait to see what his new book has in store.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things: A Booklist starred review called this book “dark and compelling … unputdownable.” Put a fork in me right now Captain, I’m done. This thriller promises to be weird and tense, with a little bit of WTF mixed in. Gimme.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo: This one is another Book of the Month club find and I’m super excited about it because IT’S NOT A MURDER MYSTERY! My boyfriend is so happy I’m reading something other than a twisty, murdery thriller! Evelyn Hugo is the most famous actress on the planet. As she recovers from the death of her only daughter, she decides she wants to finally talk about what everyone wants to know — how she came to be married seven different times. It’s Hollywood and gossip and old school glamour and I love it already.

The River at Night: A freak accident leaves four women stranded in the wilderness with no guide, no map and no way home. All hope is lost until they stumble onto a camp that can provide them shelter and communication with the outside world. Or can it? Have the women stumbled into a place that can save them or a place that will end them once and for all? My spine is tingly already.

Happy reading (and wine-ing!)

Review Time: The Rules Do Not Apply

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“In the last few months, I have lost my son, my spouse, and my house. Every morning I wake up and for a few seconds I’m disoriented, confused as to why I feel grief seeping into my body, and then I remember what has become of my life.”

Ariel Levy, an accomplished and successful staff writer at the New Yorker, had everything she wanted in her life. Until she didn’t. In startling fashion (as these things tend to happen), Ariel’s whole life unraveled. Her marriage disseminated. Her pregnancy ended. Her hope for the future evaporated. Just like that.

But let’s backtrack a bit. Ariel met the love of her life during a blackout in New York in her 20’s. The only problem? Lucy, the woman Ariel knew she was destined to spend her life with, was already in a long-term relationship with a woman in California. But, as was Ariel’s way, she didn’t let that little hiccup ruin her plans. Fast forward a few years and Ariel and Lucy have established a beautiful home for themselves, full of love. And cats. They were both ambitious in their careers–Ariel’s as a writer and Lucy’s as an entrepreneur–which defined who they were, in a sense. Ariel’s career was wildly successful, Lucy’s not exactly as much. Of course they had problems — who doesn’t? Ariel had an affair with a former lover, Lucy hit the bottle a little too hard and a little too often.

While there was a bit of tension in their home life, Ariel, at the ripe age of 38, decided she wanted a family. She wanted to make a baby. So she found someone to make a baby with, a man who would donate his sperm and his wealth in a decidedly hands-off fashion. And it worked. Ariel was with child at 38. And, being the rule-breaker she fancied herself as, she decided that being with child was not going to stop her from traveling the world to cover stories for the magazine. So, she went to Mongolia. It was there, in a hotel bathroom on the other side of the world, that Ariel Levy lost her baby. And with it, her future and her hope for a family. She came home, without her child, to a wife who was dealing with her alcoholism on her own terms. In the process of getting help for Lucy, Ariel lost her house, as well as her marriage. But she still goes on, day after day, sharing her story with the world. And that’s really what it’s all about, isn’t it?

That’s what makes The Rules Do Not Apply so compelling. It’s all of us, but not really any of us at the same time. No one has experienced the exact sorrow and heartbreak that Ariel did, but we all have experienced both emotions in some way. And she puts a voice to the feelings we’ve all lived with and trudged through at some point. She brings an incredible insight into her life, the decisions she made and the consequences she was faced with. I would be lying if I said I didn’t run through this book in three days flat.  It was just so good, so powerful, so sorrowful, so true. I really, really enjoyed it (as much as you can enjoy a story like this). Two thumbs up to this incredible lady. Two huge thumbs up.

My favorite scene: Is it corny to say the whole thing was my favorite? There are a few interactions with a South African physician that are really poignant, really insightful. There are the scenes where Lucy and Ariel are falling in love and they make you recall the emotions you felt at the start of your own love story. There’s the scene in the Mongolian hotel that absolutely breaks your heart as Ariel loses not only her child but her whole future. I know I already said it, but I remember marveling about how Ariel really picked through her own life, laid the blame for things not where she thinks they should go but where they actually belonged and didn’t hold back in admitting her mistakes in judgement and action. So good. So, so good.

Grade: ★★★★★

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