BOOK REVIEW: The Impossible Fortress, by Jason Rekulak

BOOK REVIEW: The Impossible Fortress, by Jason RekulakTitle: The Impossible Fortress by Jason Rekulak
Published by Simon & Schuster
Published: February 7th 2017
Genres: Fiction
Pages: 285
Format: eBook
Source: Netgalley

A dazzling debut novel—at once a charming romance and a moving coming-of-age story—about what happens when a fourteen-year old boy pretends to seduce a girl to steal a copy of Playboy but then discovers she is his computer-loving soulmate.

Billy Marvin’s first love was a computer. Then he met Mary Zelinsky.

Do you remember your first love?

The Impossible Fortress begins with a magazine…The year is 1987 and Playboy has just published scandalous photographs of Vanna White, from the popular TV game show Wheel of Fortune. For three teenage boys—Billy, Alf, and Clark—who are desperately uneducated in the ways of women, the magazine is somewhat of a Holy Grail: priceless beyond measure and impossible to attain. So, they hatch a plan to steal it.

The heist will be fraught with peril: a locked building, intrepid police officers, rusty fire escapes, leaps across rooftops, electronic alarm systems, and a hyperactive Shih Tzu named Arnold Schwarzenegger. Failed attempt after failed attempt leads them to a genius master plan—they’ll swipe the security code to Zelinsky’s convenience store by seducing the owner’s daughter, Mary Zelinsky. It becomes Billy’s mission to befriend her and get the information by any means necessary. But Mary isn’t your average teenage girl. She’s a computer loving, expert coder, already strides ahead of Billy in ability, with a wry sense of humor and a hidden, big heart. But what starts as a game to win Mary’s affection leaves Billy with a gut-wrenching choice: deceive the girl who may well be his first love or break a promise to his best friends.

It’s the 1980s, computer programming is starting to become a thing, and Billy and his friends are obsessed with getting their hands on a copy of Playboy featuring Vanna White. While at the store while trying to help his friends conceive a plan in which to buy said Playboy magazine, he and his friends concoct a scheme that involves the shop owner’s daughter, Mary, and feigning interest in her to get her to get them that magazine. Billy volunteers, and the two become friends once Billy discovers that Mary is interested in computer programming, too.

I really wanted to like this book more than I did because it looked like something that’s right up my alley: computer programmers, the 80s, a cute growing up story. However, it ended up taking a weird turn about three-quarters of the way through the book that just seemed uncharacteristic and unrelated to all of the build-up that had happened in the rest of the book. While the main characters are fourteen or so, each of the boys can be unbelievably cruel in one way or another. Billy’s cruelty is the most unbelievable and is the catalyst for the finale, and then the consequences are just pushed away as if none of it really mattered.

The Impossible Fortress started out cute, light, and enjoyable, but ultimately took a turn for the worse. It’s a shame because it had so much potential!

I received a copy of this book for review through Netgalley. All opinions are my own.

BOOK REVIEW: See What I Have Done, by Sarah Schmidt

BOOK REVIEW: See What I Have Done, by Sarah SchmidtTitle: See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt
Published by Atlantic Monthly Press
Published: August 1st 2017
Genres: Fiction, Historical
Pages: 328
Format: Hardcover
Source: Goodreads

In this riveting debut novel, See What I Have Done, Sarah Schmidt recasts one of the most fascinating murder cases of all time into an intimate story of a volatile household and a family devoid of love.

On the morning of August 4, 1892, Lizzie Borden calls out to her maid: Someone’s killed Father. The brutal ax-murder of Andrew and Abby Borden in their home in Fall River, Massachusetts, leaves little evidence and many unanswered questions. While neighbors struggle to understand why anyone would want to harm the respected Bordens, those close to the family have a different tale to tell—of a father with an explosive temper; a spiteful stepmother; and two spinster sisters, with a bond even stronger than blood, desperate for their independence.

As the police search for clues, Emma comforts an increasingly distraught Lizzie whose memories of that morning flash in scattered fragments. Had she been in the barn or the pear arbor to escape the stifling heat of the house? When did she last speak to her stepmother? Were they really gone and would everything be better now? Shifting among the perspectives of the unreliable Lizzie, her older sister Emma, the housemaid Bridget, and the enigmatic stranger Benjamin, the events of that fateful day are slowly revealed through a high-wire feat of storytelling.

 How many years does it take to grow into someone?

Sarah Schmidt’s See What I Have Done is a strange and sometimes engaging reimagining of the famous Lizzie Borden murders. Told from alternating perspectives over the course of a few days, we are given insight into the minds of Lizzie and those involved in one way or another with the murders of Lizzie’s father Andrew and stepmother Abby.

By the end, I enjoyed this book, but I felt the book suffered from two things: target market and a slow exposition/initial pacing. I understand that publishers want to reach a wide range of audiences with certain titles, but I felt like this one was YA as I was reading it because of the writing style. It took me about a good third or more of the book to feel really engaged with the characters and the story, and then it seemed to pick up and then I couldn’t put it down. If you aren’t much of a YA reader, this one might feel a bit simplistic in the way in which it’s told. However, in some ways, I think that starkly simple language is what makes Lizzie’s story effective, because if you’re familiar with Lizzie Borden, you already know what’s coming, and by the time it does, it’s one of those chest-grabbing moments.

See What I Have Done explores in greater depth the relationships between Lizzie and the rest of her immediate household. At thirty-something, she still lives at home, unmarried, and behaves as if she is still a teenager with temper outbursts and juvenile outlooks on the world (which is where my “this feels like YA” comes from). It’s apparent from the very beginning that something is off about Lizzie’s mental state, and this disconnect between reality and what goes on in her mind adds to the Lizzie’s relationship with her father is odd and unsettling. At times, her attention-seeking behavior appears as if she’s a love-sick girl starving for the object of her affection’s attentions, and other times it feels as if her behavior is that of a child wanting her father to pay attention to her. Lizzie’s behavior toward and eventual murder of her father and stepmother stems from her deeply rooted jealousy toward her stepmother. As it happens in fairy tales, the stepmother “replaces” the dead mother, and to the main character, the stepmother is therefore “bad/evil,” and for Lizzie, she is the displaced princess.

In a series of twists and turns, Sarah Schmidt delivers a chilling examination of what goes through the minds of those closely involved with Lizzie Borden and her forty whacks. While it takes a bit to warm up to it, See What I Have Done is a solid debut.

I won a copy of this book through Goodreads giveaways for review! All opinions are my own.

BOOK REVIEW: The Tea Planter’s Wife, by Dinah Jefferies

BOOK REVIEW: The Tea Planter’s Wife, by Dinah JefferiesTitle: The Tea Planter's Wife by Dinah Jefferies
Published by Broadway Books
Published: June 20th 2017
Genres: Fiction, Historical
Pages: 448
Format: Trade Paper
Source: Blogging for Books

#1 International bestselling novel set in 1920s Ceylon, about a young Englishwoman who marries a charming tea plantation owner and widower, only to discover he's keeping terrible secrets about his past, including what happened to his first wife, that lead to devastating consequences

Dinah Jefferies’s The Tea Planter’s Wife begins with nineteen-year old Gwen arriving from London to join her new husband Laurence at his tea plantations in Ceylon. In her struggles to adjust to being a wife and to her new surroundings, Laurence begins behaving oddly toward Gwen and the two have a strained relationship throughout the book, both typical of the time period and for other reasons that I won’t spoil. After she becomes pregnant with twins and gives birth, Gwen harbors a weighty secret for years until she no longer can hide the truth.

Jefferies’s prose is vivid and descriptive, and she crafts an engaging cast of characters. We feel for Gwen’s struggle to adjust to her new life and role as mother and wife, we are charmed by Mr. Ravasinghe, and we are irritated by Laurence and his sister Verity, especially their attitudes and behavior toward Gwen throughout the novel. Each character seems well-developed and suited for the narrative, and I wanted to know more about Mr. Ravasinghe and Gwen’s friend, Fran, and their relationship, but alas. Perhaps in a future/companion novel?

The Tea Planter’s Wife highlights the racial divide, and the subject of race threads through each character’s story. It makes the reader consider the effects of prejudice and how often day-to-day struggles could be lessened if one let go of that prejudice. The book itself has those Gothic undertones that I enjoy, and while some of the events are predictable, I enjoyed the book from beginning to end. It’s the perfect book for those late summer rainy days when you can almost imagine being in one of those plantation houses in Ceylon listening to the rain.

A copy of this book was provided to me for review by Blogging for Books! All opinions are my own.

BOOK REVIEW: The Address, by Fiona Davis

BOOK REVIEW: The Address, by Fiona DavisTitle: The Address by Fiona Davis
Published by Dutton Books
Published: August 1st 2017
Genres: Historical, Fiction
Pages: 368
Format: eBook
Source: Netgalley

Fiona Davis, author of The Dollhouse, returns with a compelling novel about the thin lines between love and loss, success and ruin, passion and madness, all hidden behind the walls of The Dakota, New York City's most famous residence.

After a failed apprenticeship, working her way up to head housekeeper of a posh London hotel is more than Sara Smythe ever thought she'd make of herself. But when a chance encounter with Theodore Camden, one of the architects of the grand New York apartment house The Dakota, leads to a job offer, her world is suddenly awash in possibility--no mean feat for a servant in 1884. The opportunity to move to America, where a person can rise above one's station. The opportunity to be the female manager of The Dakota, which promises to be the greatest apartment house in the world. And the opportunity to see more of Theo, who understands Sara like no one else . . . and is living in The Dakota with his wife and three young children.

In 1985, Bailey Camden is desperate for new opportunities. Fresh out of rehab, the former party girl and interior designer is homeless, jobless, and penniless. Two generations ago, Bailey's grandfather was the ward of famed architect Theodore Camden. But the absence of a genetic connection means Bailey won't see a dime of the Camden family's substantial estate. Instead, her -cousin- Melinda--Camden's biological great-granddaughter--will inherit almost everything. So when Melinda offers to let Bailey oversee the renovation of her lavish Dakota apartment, Bailey jumps at the chance, despite her dislike of Melinda's vision. The renovation will take away all the character and history of the apartment Theodore Camden himself lived in . . . and died in, after suffering multiple stab wounds by a madwoman named Sara Smythe, a former Dakota employee who had previously spent seven months in an insane asylum on Blackwell's Island.

One hundred years apart, Sara and Bailey are both tempted by and struggle against the golden excess of their respective ages--for Sara, the opulence of a world ruled by the Astors and Vanderbilts; for Bailey, the free-flowing drinks and cocaine in the nightclubs of New York City--and take refuge and solace in the Upper West Side's gilded fortress. But a building with a history as rich--and often tragic--as The Dakota's can't hold its secrets forever, and what Bailey discovers in its basement could turn everything she thought she knew about Theodore Camden--and the woman who killed him--on its head.

With rich historical detail, nuanced characters, and gorgeous prose, Fiona Davis once again delivers a compulsively readable novel that peels back the layers of not only a famed institution, but the lives --and lies--of the beating hearts within.

After reading her second novel, Fiona Davis has become one of my new favorite historical fiction writers. In The Address, Davis expertly weaves two women’s lives and the history of a landmark residence, The Dakota, in New York City. The lives of two women from the 1880s and the 1980s are woven together as the mystery behind The Dakota unfolds. The Address begins in 1985 when Bailey Camden, heir without genetic proof to The Dakota’s architect, is released from rehab and reenters the world, ready to make something of herself. The famed residential hotel, The Dakota, has fallen into disrepair, and Bailey, who is trying to reestablish herself as an interior designer, wants to learn more about the history behind the building. The narrative weaves in and out of Bailey Camden’s discovery of the history of The Dakota while exploring Sara Smythe’s connection with the residence.

For me, Sara Smythe’s part of the story was the most interesting. I have a soft spot for stories about women who rise from the bottom to become more than they ever dreamed of becoming. Sara, when we first meet her, is a hotel manager in England who saves the life of an architect’s daughter. Theodore Camden, the architect, offers her a position at the residential hotel he has built in New York City. The attraction between Sara and Theodore is immediate right from the start, and that relationship develops over the course of the novel. The twists and turns at the end of her story were a little unexpected and thrilled me. It’s revealed at the beginning of the novel that Sara stabbed Theodore, but the true thrill are all of those little events that lead up to that event. However, I felt like Bailey’s desire for a fresh start and her refusal to compromise herself tied the lives of both women and tied the story together, because no matter the hundred years between them and no matter the different social structures, both women faced similar struggles and strove to overcome them.

Overall, this is an enjoyable historical fiction novel. For the first third of it, I felt like the story was weighed down by the amount of research and detail in the set up, but that detail redeems itself when the story does pick up and become difficult to put down. I’ve already hand-sold this and her previous novel, The Dollhouse, to some of my customers looking for new historical fiction recommendations, so if you enjoy fiction about women who overcome their struggles and enjoy historical fiction set in New York City, The Address comes highly recommended!

Thanks to Netgalley and Dutton/Penguin for a review copy! All opinions are my own.

BOOK REVIEW: The Good People, by Hannah Kent

BOOK REVIEW: The Good People, by Hannah KentTitle: The Good People by Hannah Kent
Published: September 19th 2017
Genres: Historical
Pages: 464
Format: eBook
Source: Netgalley

Shorlisted for theWalter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction
From the author of Burial Rites, "a literary novel with the pace and tension of a thriller [that] takes us on a frightening journey towards an unspeakable tragedy" (Paula Hawkins, bestselling author of The Girl on the Train)
Hedged in by gossip and joined by their desperation, three women in nineteenth-century Ireland are drawn together in the hope of rescuing a child from a superstitious community, determined to rid itself of the strange and unknowable. Bereft after the loss of her husband, Nora finds herself alone and caring for her young grandson Micheal--a boy whom she recalls as having been a happy and healthy infant but now, in the wake of both his mother's and grandfather's deaths, can neither speak nor walk. Mary, a servant girl from more rural parts, comes to the valley to help Nora just as the rumors are spreading: the talk of unexplained misfortunes and illnesses, and the theory that deformed Micheal is a changeling, a fairy child to blame for the bad luck the valley has endured since his arrival.
Determined to banish the evil in Micheal, Nora and Mary enlist the help of the elderly Nance, a recluse and wanderer once revered by her neighbors for her healing powers, but now condemned as a fraud and a threat by the new priest in town.
As the trio's situation grows more dire, their folkloric practices become increasingly daring--culminating, at last, in a stunning and irreversible act that will put all their lives in danger. Terrifying, thrilling, and wholly original, THE GOOD PEOPLE is a startling examination of absolute belief and superstition taken to their extremes, of the universal yearning to belong, and of love, both tender and harsh.

 Some folk are forced to the edges by their difference. … But ’tis at the edges that they find their power.

I really, really loved Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites, and I read that when it was Waterstones’s pick of the month. I was swept away by the atmospheric writing and the compelling story, so when I head that Hannah Kent was releasing a new book, I requested it and moved that book to the next spot in my reading list. The Good People is a stellar sophomore novel that weaves together the stories of three women who are involved in the horrific treatment of a child whom the women believe is a fairy changeling in a tiny village in Ireland in 1825.

In the beginning of the novel, Nora’s husband Martin dies, leaving her with her daughter’s four year old son Michael who has an unnamed disability in which he cannot speak and cannot fend for himself. Nora finds it difficult to care for the child and her household as a widow with no family on which she can rely, so she hires a girl named Mary to help with the work. When she can’t handle Michael even with Mary’s help, Nora enlists the help of Nance, the local woman trained in the art of natural healing. With the arrival of the new priest in the village, Nance is beginning to be considered a witch and evil and as a result an outcast, but she attempts to cure Michael to prove her skills to herself and to the village. Each “cure” that these women try become increasingly more dangerous until the final act is horrifically devastating.

The Good People is an atmospheric novel that balances the struggles these three women face in a changing society and the risks they must take in order to survive, no matter how dubious those risks are. It is interesting how Kent uses the tropes of the three women (the crone, the mother, and the virgin) to explore the actions and reactions of these women and the actions and reactions of others to these women. Kent also explores how the ideas of poverty and the lack of education in rural areas and ignite a fiery fear toward anyone who is different or toward the unexplainable. The best part of the novel is the last third, when everything culminates in an emotionally charged trial that showcases the growing rift between the old ways of thinking (believing in fairies, believing in changelings, and a reliance on old folklore, old pagan traditions, and old wives’ tales) and the new (following the Christian tradition and following new medical practices).

The only drawback I found to The Good People is the long set up to get to the more thrilling parts of the story. I felt like a third of the novel focuses on the slow development of Nora and Mary’s experiences with Michael, and a third of the novel focuses on Nance and a fairly long account of her life. At the end, I found this knowledge of their lives enriching to the heartrending trial, but before that, I found myself getting a little bit bored and wondering when the story would ever pick up. If you are turned off by a long build up, this might not be the novel for you. But if you are interested in novels about the experiences of women in certain periods of history, the collision between the old ways and the new, and compelling trials, this is one you you’ll want to add to your reading lists as soon as possible.

An advance readers copy was provided to me for review by Little, Brown & Co. and Netgalley. All opinions are my own.