The Butterfly Sister by Amy Gail Hansen

The Butterfly SisterThis little literary mystery peaked my interest at the mention of Virginia Woolf.

Our narrator, Ruby, has recently attempted suicide and dropped out of college. A few months into writing obits, a suitcase arrives at her front door that she once borrowed from an old dorm mate, Beth, who has gone missing. In the suitcase, Ruby finds a beat up copy of Virginia Wolf’s A Room of One’s Own with a clue nestled inside that leads her on a mission to find out what happened to Beth. Shenanigans ensue. Plus, literary ghosts.

If you’re heading to the beach anytime soon, this is the perfect read for a sun soaked vacation. Even more so if you are a book nerd or former English major such as Ruby. Her senior thesis centers around female authors who have famously and gruesomely ended their own lives which adds an extra layer of funness (a word that should exist) to the psychological thriller within Hansen’s pages. And if you’re not reading too hard, you’ll have a great time.

The Butterfly Sister reads quickly and entertains in a commercial fiction sort of way. The writing is passable if slightly lacking a seasoned quality. Little things bugged me like continuously calling New Orleans the Crescent City. Sometimes sentences didn’t flow very well which I noticed but perhaps others would just fly right past. I also think the first half is much stronger than the conclusion which bordered on convoluted, clunky, and predictable. However, there were enough surprises along the way to adequately hold my interest. I think the biggest flaw might be how utterly forgettable the plot will inevitably be – I’ve already forgotten most of the details. So pick this one up before the long, lazy summer days come to close and you shouldn’t be too disappointed.

Have you read any other beachy gems this summer? Do you like a bit of mystery while you’re sitting pool side?

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Thanks to TLC Book Tours and the publisher for a copy of The Butterfly Sister in exchange for my honest review. Check out the other tour stops!

About the Author:

downloadA former English teacher, Amy Gail Hansen is a freelance writer and journalist living in suburban Chicago. This is her first novel.

 

 

 

 

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The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan + Giveaway (Closed)

The-Panopticon-JacketSo, I’ve read a lot of books that have left me speechless this year. That’s both good and bad, I suppose. Mainly, I’m still surprised at how shocked a book can leave me. The Panopticon left me utterly stunned, uncomfortable, and smiling. An odd mixture, for sure.

Anais is 15, covered in blood, and on her way to The Panopitcon. That’s a prison-like place (home for wayward children) that allows no privacy. You can be seen from anywhere at all times. Anais is suspected of having more than a little to do with a cop in a coma. She’s had a tough life – born in a psychiatric hospital, no family that she knows of, 30+ foster homes in 15 years, drugs, sex, and just general delinquency. This is her story.

Jenni Fagan has written an explosive debut novel. And she’s been racking up the literary awards ever since the book’s release in her native United Kingdom – she’s Scottish. I’d describe my reading experience as akin to lying on a bed of nails. For some it will be nothing but uncomfortable pain, but for others, there’s an opportunity to profoundly change your understanding of the social work system, kids lost in the system, or even your own life.

Fagan’s writing is mostly dialogue. Scottish dialogue, so it takes a bit of warming up to for the non-Scottish reader. The kids in this story are brash, blunt, and their language, lives, and loves are extremely colorful. Violently colorful. Drugs are used frequently and sex is a fact of life no matter the age. In fact, I’m not certain Anais was ever completely sober for longer than a few pages. A good portion of the novel reads like an acid trip, literally. And there’s a rape scene that will level you. Not for the feint of heart, not even close. I took a shower immediately after finishing.

Beyond the gruesome, what really shines through is how amazing these kids are – Anais especially – who have had the most fucked up lives ever. They are smart, funny, loving, and lost in a system they will probably never escape. It’s absolutely enraging. Reading The Panopticon will make you think twice about the next juvenile offender you instantly write off during the 6 o’clock news. A very powerful book, if you let it be.

The only complaint I really had was the end. And I loved the end which makes my complaint seem ridiculous. But when I stepped back and thought about how Anais’s story wrapped up, it felt a bit odd and out of place. A bit too easy and too happy. I wonder, though, how much of that conclusion can actually be trusted when told by a very wasted, generally unreliable narrator? A book well-worthy of an in depth discussion.

If you’d like to experience The Panopticon for yourself, just fill out this form to win your very own copy! Giveaway winner will be announced on August 13th. US residents only, unfortunately. Good luck! Update: Congrats to The Book Wheel on winning!

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Thanks to TLC Book Tours and the publisher (Hogarth) for a copy of the book in exchange for my honest review. Visit the other tour stops here!

About the Author:

Jenni-Fagan-Credit-Urszula-SoltysJENNI FAGAN was born in Livingston, Scotland. She graduated from Greenwich University and won a scholarship to the Royal Holloway MFA. A published poet, she has won awards from Arts Council England, Dewar Arts and Scottish Screen among others. She has twice been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and was shortlisted for the Dundee International Book Prize.  She is currently the new Writer in Residence at Edinburgh University. The Panopticon is her first novel.

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The Exiles by Allison Lynn + A Giveaway! (Closed)

THE-EXILES-Final-Cover-Hi-Res-199x300The Exiles intrigued me initially due to the modern day Fitzgerald comparisons. Since most of these comparisons never live up to their promise, I mostly had low expectations when I began Lynn’s newest novel. It felt like I was daring the book to impress me.

The story centers around a thirty-something couple, Nate and Emily, who have been priced out of Manhattan. As a mediocre investment banker, Nate can no longer afford the lavish lifestyle of his more successful friends. With a new mouth to feed, Emily and Nate pack their bags and move their small family to Newport, Rhode Island where a new job awaits and the promise of normalcy beckons. When they arrive in Newport, their jeep and immediately essential possessions are stolen. Over the next three days, they shack up in a hotel they can’t afford and are forced to face the secrets and denials they’ve been keeping from each other and themselves. Also, art theft!

Allison Lynn’s novel quietly sneaked up on me. At first, the story feels fairly humdrum with extremely unlikable characters. But slowly, the secrets Nate and Emily have been keeping start to unfold and the pages begin turning at a tremendous pace. The two never become likable, but they do become completely engaging and compelling. Their web of lies and denials is absolutely astounding at times, but also gritty and realistic.

The Exiles is essentially about two people running from themselves and from each other who collide dramatically over one long weekend. The book progresses through such topics as hereditary disease, art thievery, parenthood, and deception. It’s a world where you’re asked to sympathize with a family that makes $150K+ a year, but due to their environment feel ‘poor’. Allison Lynn has done a superb job of making a mundane story thrive with energy and flow with seamless writing.

Honestly, I can’t believe this book hasn’t gotten more attention. It’s better than a lot of popular novels I’ve read recently and a title I recommended to my bookclub on Sunday. Do yourself a favor and give it a read. To help you out on that front, you can enter to win your very own copy by filling out this form!! Only US/Canada addresses eligible. No P.O. Boxes. Winner will be drawn next Tuesday, July 30. Good luck! (closed – winner selected)

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Thanks so much to TLC Book Tours and the publisher for providing a copy of The Exiles in exchange for my honest review. You can check out other stops on the tour here.

About the Author:

Lynn-cKelley-Jordan-Photography-high-res-220x300Allison Lynn is the author of the novel Now You See It, which won awards from both the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society and the Bronx Council on the Arts. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, People,  and elsewhere. She teaches at Butler University in Indianapolis, where she lives with her husband, the writer Michael Dahlie, and their son.

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The Illusion of Separateness by Simon Van Booy

16248119Well, I loved it. So let’s just get that out of the way right up front. He’s a hell of a writer.

The Illusion of Separateness tells the story of how a chance meeting between an American soldier and a German soldier during WWII crisscrosses throughout time and distance to connect people in the present day. The connections are made through short vignettes of six or so characters in many different decades. The language is concise, straightforward, lyrical, and stunning. Van Booy’s words are essentially narrative poetry. The man can destroy you in six words and rebuild whole worlds in just six more. Talent oozes from every single sentence.

What most impressed me was how fleshed out and fully developed the story and its characters are despite the book’s 200-ish pages. You can tell he’s a master short story writer, and I fully intend to read everything the man has ever written. Please feel free to join me. This is the kind of book I’ll be gifting come holiday season. Because it’s perfect for even non-readers.

I don’t want to say anymore. This quiet little story is best read knowing as close to nothing as possible. I truly do hope y’all decide to give The Illusion of Separateness a chance. It’ll more than likely end up on my best of 2013 list and will be something I read for years to come. The absolute best way to spend a couple of hours.

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Thanks to TLC Book Tours and the publisher for a free copy of the book in exchange for my honest review. Check out more tour stops here.

About the Author

Simon Van Booy is the author of two novels and two collections of short stories, including The Secret Lives of People in Love and Love Begins in Winter, which won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. He is the editor of three philosophy books and has written for The New York TimesThe Guardian, NPR, and the BBC. His work has been translated into fourteen languages. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and daughter.

Big Brother by Lionel Shriver

Big BrotherI don’t know how to review this book. Not only are my feelings extremely complicated, but the damn thing involves a plot twist that would spoil the book. But that plot twist is essential to talking about the book. Oh dear. I promise not to spoil things, but if you end up reading please email me and tell me all of your feelings.

It’s rare that anything leaves me speechless in this life I call mine, but Shriver has managed to do so.

In Big Brother, Shriver is tackling obesity. Pandora is our main character who has settled into a very normal Midwestern life at the age of 40. She’s married, has two stepchildren, and runs a very successful doll making company which she founded. For the first time in her life, she’s finally come into her own and stepped out from beneath the shadows of her father and brother.

Her dad was a television star when Pandora was younger and clings to that success decades later. Edison, her older brother, is a renowned jazz pianist in NYC. She has idolized Edison since she was a kid. The novel gets things going with a phone call in which Pandora learns Edison has fallen on bad times financially and needs a place to stay. She flies him out to Iowa despite her husband’s protests. The ‘visit’ has no end date in sight, but Pandora feels loyal to her brother. She hasn’t seen him in four years and doesn’t even recognize him at the airport baggage claim. Why? Because he’s gone from 163 lbs to approximately 400 lbs.

Pandora is baffled at how her once handsome brother has grown so grotesquely large. He eats everything in sight almost without shame. He even breaks her husband’s priceless handmade furniture by merely sitting on it. Pandora’s whole family is mystified and annoyed by Edison – not just because of his girth. He’s actually kind of an entitled jackass and a fairly one dimensional character overall. But Pandora feels some sort of sibling affection for Edison and eventually faces a big decision. She can either leave her husband and children to help sort out Edison’s life and keep him from eating himself to death or she can stay loyal to her family and kick Edison out the door to deal with his own problems.

Her decision is horrendous, jaw-dropping, and made me want to throw the book out of the window. And we haven’t even gotten to the major spoiler that I promised I wouldn’t share.

From a technical standpoint, Shriver is an excellent writer. Her vocabulary amazes me but never bogs down her narrative. The story remains conversational and easy to read in the literal sense. My problems begin with her choice of first person narration. We are stuck inside Pandora throughout the duration of the novel. If you like Pandora, good for you! If you don’t, you’ll be so pissed off while reading this thing that you’ll seriously considering giving up. I challenge you to keep going because the worst is saved for the final 20 pages. *insert evil laughter*

Big Brother is a difficult novel to read emotionally and intellectually. I really couldn’t understand Pandora’s motivations half the time or how such a seemingly smart woman would make such ridiculous decisions. And just when things start really looking up, Shriver crushes all your hopes and dreams. *insert more book chucking* There is nothing fun about this reading experience – not the slightest bit of entertainment or pleasure. But somehow I don’t regret reading and even find myself thankful for not giving up. Why? Because this story will challenge you in a way that most books won’t. How things unfold felt very unique although maybe a bit gimmicky. And I even had a couple of moments of self-realization where I had fallen head first into hypocrisy.

So if any of my bumbled and fumbling review above sounds interesting to you – definitely seek out Big Brother. I’m not sure how it stands up to her other novels, but she’s an author that now has me thoroughly intrigued. After finishing this one, I did some research and discovered that Shriver’s brother died due to complications from obesity so that helps me see how this novel came to be and how difficult a situation Pandora might have been in.  So…recommended with reservations, but perhaps a wonderful book for a book group to discuss. Litwits – I’m looking at you!!

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Thanks so much to TLC Book Tours and the publisher for a copy of Big Brother in return for my honest review. Check out the other tour dates here!

About the Author:

Lionel ShriverLionel Shriver is a novelist whose previous books include Orange Prize–winner We Need to Talk About KevinThe Post-Birthday WorldA Perfectly Good Family, Game Control, Double Fault, The Female of the SpeciesChecker and the Derailleurs, and Ordinary Decent Criminals. She is widely published as a journalist, writing features, columns, op-eds, and book reviews for the Guardian, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, the EconomistMarie Claire, and many other publications. She is frequently interviewed on television, radio, and in print media. She lives in London and Brooklyn, NY.

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Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953 by Elizabeth Winder

Pain-Parties-WorkThat’s a long title. But the book itself is rather short and fantastic. It’s a non-fiction new release that focuses on Sylvia Plath’s summer internship with Mademoiselle magazine and the culture of the early fifties. The novel is comprised of pictures, fashion tidbits, and anecdotes from Sylvia’s diaries as well as the other ladies who interned alongside her. You also get a brief synopsis of Plath’s short life before and after her internship to give you a fuller picture of her trials and tribulations.

Winder’s purpose in writing this novel seems to be showcasing a Sylvia Plath in opposition to the typical mythology. Instead of a bleak, suicidal existence, we are privy to a 20 year old girl out living life to its fullest. Bright red lipstick, a vibrant dating life, and a vivaciousness that’s hard to imagine in someone who will attempt suicide for the first time in a few short months. Winder proves that Plath is so much more dynamic and so much more interesting than her death scene. I loved that and was thankful to see her so thoroughly fleshed out.

Having read The Bell Jar several times, I was surprisingly shocked to see just how autobiographical a character Esther was. In so many ways, Winder’s novel and Plath’s novel are like twin sisters. I think reading these books back-to-back might be a very fascinating authorial case study into the life of such a prolific human being. I can also see Pain, Parties, Work being a successful educational text – not just because of its academic qualities, but also because the book is just so dang readable. I think high schoolers and college kids alike would eat this up.

I’d recommend this look into Sylvia’s young adulthood to anyone who has ever been even remotely interested in Plath’s life, her writing, or even just the culture of the 1950s – particularly the feminine culture. I think this book could easily be read as a history of a certain time period and interest those readers who aren’t even invested in Plath herself. A great addition to any non-fiction collection. A short work that’s so accessible to any reader or even a non-reader. I’ll definitely be seeking out a finished copy for my permanent shelves!

Bonus:

Sylvia loved New York City and that love shines through here! I loved reading about the city in 1953. You really feel like you’re walking the streets alongside Sylvia and all her friends.

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Thank you so much to TLC Book Tours and the publisher for a copy of the book in return for my honest review! Please visit the TLC website for other tour stops!

About the Author:

Elizabeth-WinderElizabeth Winder is also the author of a poetry collection. Her work has appeared in the Chicago Review, the Antioch Review, American Letters, and other publications. She is a graduate of the College of William and Mary and earned an MFA in creative writing from George Mason University.

 

 

 

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Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

11447921Long time no write! I’ve had a miserable go of it these past few days with the stomach virus from hell. But it gave me a ton of time to read which is the only positive side I could manage. And today I’m going to be reviewing a lovely little novel by Jess Walter that is coming out in paperback to a store near you soon – or maybe it’s already there!

Many of y’all discovered and loved Beautiful Ruins last year so I’m a bit behind the curve. When Trish at TLC Book Tours invited me to be on the tour marking the paperback release, I jumped quickly. So glad I did. I literally just finished about 5 minutes before beginning this post and so expect mostly an incoherent gush fest to follow.

Walter’s novel is hard to summarize. Next to impossible, really. It beings with a young Italian man returning home to run his family’s hotel in the nowhere village of Porto Vergogna after his father’s death in 1962. One day, Pasquale is attempting to build a beach on the rocky coastline to attract American and French tourists when a tall, beautiful, blonde film star arrives at his hotel. Dee Moray has been working alongside Liz Taylor on the film, Cleopatra, and has been sent away diagnosed with stomach cancer. When she meets Pasquale for the first time, a story spanning decades and many, many lives is set in play. That synopsis only scratches the barest of surfaces. But Beautiful Ruins is a book best read cold and discovered along the way.

For a book that jumps around in time so much, Beautiful Ruins sure does have some major flow. I’m really baffled at how seamlessly Walter is able to weave together the past and present along with various different mediums of narration such as chapters from fictional novels and plays scattered throughout the story. I like to think of Walter as a storytelling magician.

I was also taken with Walter’s ability to write both a deeply complex character driven story that happens to work as a page-turning plot as well. Achieving both is such a rare occurrence in books I read. And he’s able to make each of his many characters matter and to easily stand out as their own person. I always knew who I was reading about, could easily remember their back story, and yearned to stay with them just a bit longer. I think part of this success comes from Beautiful Ruins being such an effortlessly imagined novel. By that, I mean that the narrative played out in my head so vividly, almost like a movie. Jess Walter would make a fantastic screenwriter.

Beautiful Ruins is the best contemporary novel I’ve read in quite some time. It’s at once wickedly comedic and lyrically sad. It has so much to say about life, death, dreams, and the paths our decisions lead us down everyday. Walter has written a book meant to be read more than once with something new to be discovered upon each reading, I’m sure. It’s the kind of novel that bodes well as a gift for a new graduate or someone nearing death. Poignant, purposeful, and a hell of a ride!

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Thanks so much to TLC Book Tours and the publisher for a copy of the novel in exchange for my honest review. Check out the rest of the tour here.

About the Author

Jess-WalterJess Walter is the author of six novels, including the national bestseller The Financial Lives of the Poets, the National Book Award finalist The Zero, and Citizen Vince, winner of the Edgar Award for best novel. His collection of short fiction, We Live in Water, has just been published by Harper Perennial. He lives in Spokane, Washington.

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