Author Archives: gayle

THE ONE by John Marrs

The idea of there being a single “soulmate” out there for everybody is an intriguing one, and it’s the subject of John Marrs’ thriller The One. (It’s also the subject of an AMC show, Soulmates, that may or may not be related to this book – I can’t seem to get a good answer on that.) The One follows five couples who have been matched by a London app called Match Your DNA to see how they fare after they learn that they’ve been matched. There are twists and turns around the way, and few people in the book are who they appear to be.

Why I picked it up: I like the premise (and have watched a few episodes of Soulmates) and I had heard that The One was impossible to put down. Also, it was overdue at the library.

The five pairings in The One are interesting: an engaged heterosexual man matched with another heterosexual man; a serial killer matched with a police officer; a woman in London matched with a farmer in Australia; a woman matched with a man who has just died; and a powerful CEO matched with a kind but unsophisticated man. The chapters rotated among these pairings, exploring what happened after the person who submitted their DNA reached out to their match. There are lots of twists and turns, with surprises that continued until the end of the book.

But despite the adrenaline rush that The One is, I didn’t love it. The characters are pretty one-dimensional and it was hard to feel invested in any of them. Despite the huge complications that the soulmate service could create for society, for existing relationships, for dating, for everything -Marrs addressed them superficially, glossing over them in favor of shocking plot twists. In the end, The One fell flat for me. At least I can now return it to the library.

The One was Book #3 of 2020.

SOMETIMES YOU HAVE TO LIE by Leslie Brody

When I was growing up, Harriet the Spy was one of my all-time favorite books. I read it so many times that the spine cracked. (I actually still have my copy of the book – scroll down for a picture of it.) It’s the story of Harriet, an irreverent, nonconformist eleven year-old girl who keeps notebooks detailing the goings-on of her Yorkville neighbors and containing unflattering comments about her classmates. One day, her notebook is confiscated and read, and Harriet must suffer the fallout from this unfortunate discovery. In the end, she learns the value of tact, compromise and the well-placed apology, as she tries to get back into her friends’ good graces. But who was the creative genius behind Harriet The Spy and its classic illustrations? She was Louise Fitzhugh, the subject of Leslie Brody’s biography, Sometimes You Have To Lie.

Why I picked it up: When I was offered the chance to be part of the blog tour for Sometimes You Have To Lie, I eagerly accepted the invitation, as I wanted to learn more about the author whose book I had long loved.

Louise Fitzhugh was a complicated woman. Born in Tennessee in 1920s to a mismatched couple who divorced soon after, she was raised by her father’s wealthy family and kept from seeing her mother until she was basically an adult. She never felt comfortable in segregated Memphis and moved during college to New York, where she eventually settled in Greenwich Village. Fitzhugh was an artist, dabbling in everything from painting to murals to book illustrations and, eventually, fiction. Harriet The Spy came out in the mid-60s and reflected Fitzhugh’s generally iconoclastic view of the world. She disliked artifice, convention and predictability. She never hid her lesbianism and had several long, committed relationships with women. She dazzled and entertained her friends with her passion, humor and talent, but she could also be impetuous and flighty.

Brody’s memoir, compiled from a wide range of interviews with Fitzhugh’s family and contemporaries, explains how Fitzhugh’s roots turned her into the person she became. Her father, in particular, was a smart but insecure man whose insistence on control and propriety was soundly rejected by his daughter (and would have been by Harriet, too). His mother, Fitzhugh’s grandmother, was kind but eccentric, and she too found a place in Fitzhugh’s writing over the years. Harriet’s beloved nanny, Ole Golly, was an amalgamation of caregivers who had shown Fitzhugh kindness and affection in her childhood – something she had lacked from her own parents.

Brody was clearly taken with her subject, and her writing is lively and detailed – sometimes overly so, as there is a fair amount of information in Sometimes You Have To Lie that could have been pared back or eliminated. And because Fitzhugh was reclusive and rarely gave interviews, Brody was often left to guess about Fitzhugh’s innermost thoughts. But for diehard Harriet fans – of which there are surely millions – Sometimes You Have To Lie is a rewarding look at the woman who conjured up such a compelling heroine.

Sometimes I Have To Lie was book #2 of 2021.

GOOD MORNING, MONSTER by Catherine Gildiner

Therapy books are hot right now (go figure!), and there is a trio of them in particular that have been making the rounds: Maybe You Should Talk To Someone by Lori Gottlieb, Group by Christie Tate and Good Morning, Monster by Catherine Gildiner. I am interested in this niche and just tackled one of them: Good Morning, Monster. This memoir, about five of the toughest cases Dr. Gildiner worked on over her career, is a fascinating look at how she approached these patients with extremely traumatic backgrounds that caused serious long term, negative repercussions in their adult lives.

Why I picked it up: Good Morning, Monster was recommended to me by Katie Bassel, Senior Publicity Manager at St. Martin’s Press, and it was one of the hot books of fall 2020.

To prepare for her book, Gildiner, a Toronto-based author and psychologist, looked back on her career and chose five of the most challenging cases she had ever worked on: Laura, Peter, Danny, Alanna and Madeline. Each of these patients had had unspeakably difficult upbringings: abuse (emotional, physical and sexual), neglect, being forced into adult roles at very young ages. And now, as adults, they had all sorts of issues – inability to love, impotence, fear of abandonment, inability to grieve, irrational fear, on and on. Gildiner describes these five as heroes for what they were able to overcome through therapy, and she’s right.

Each section of the book focuses on one patient. Gildiner takes her readers through the process of getting to know the patient, learning about their families and their past, and then kicking off their therapy. Gildiner approaches each one like a puzzle, trying to uncover their secrets and understand how what happened to them when they were young led to the deep-seated problems they had as adults. She explains her strategy for treatment and how different principles of psychology apply in each individual case. She also admits to mistakes she made while treating these patients, owning up to her own fallibility and acknowledging the often fragile threads that bind therapist and client.

I really liked Good Morning, Monster. I was hooked from the very start, eager to learn about these patients and how Gildiner would approach helping them. There are some very sad and disturbing stories in the book, though. The evil that lurks in some people’s hearts truly knows no bounds. Alanna’s was perhaps the toughest to read, but really, they were all tough. If you don’t know a lot about psychotherapy, or if you’re skeptical of it, Gildiner does a good job of explaining how basic psychological principles applied to her patients’ individual cases and the roles they played in their treatment and recovery.

I listened to Good Morning, Monster on audio. It was narrated by Deborah Burgess, whose voice seemed to match perfectly how I pictured Gildiner in my mind (or was it the other way around?). Her performance was a good blend of clinical and empathetic – just right for this book. I had some long stretches in the car with this audiobook and found myself totally engrossed.

Good Morning Monster was book #1 of 2021. It satisfies the memoir category of the 2021 EDIWTB Reading Challenge.

A GOOD NEIGHBORHOOD by Therese Anne Fowler

My last book of 2020 was A Good Neighborhood by Therese Anne Fowler. A domestic drama told in part through a Greek chorus of old trees in the suburban neighborhood where the book takes place, it’s one of those books that instills dread from page 1. You know it’s not going to end well, but you’re just not sure how you’re going to get there.

Why I picked it up: My final remaining category for the 2020 EDIWTB Reading Challenge was Pick A Book, Any Book, so I sent my son into my room to pick a book from my bookshelves. He came back with A Good Neighborhood.

Two families live side by side on an idyllic suburban North Carolina street. Valerie, a middle aged Black woman, and her son Xavier, a senior in high school with a promising future in music ahead of him, have lived for decades in a modest house with a gorgeous old oak tree in the backyard. When nouveau riche white businessman Brad and his wife Julia build a modern mansion with a pool in the lot next door, the relationship between the neighbors starts out friendly but quickly sours when the health of Valerie’s tree is threatened by Brad’s construction, and Xavier gets romantically involved with Brad’s stepdaughter Juniper.

Valerie’s anger at Brad grows in lockstep with Brad’s creepy possessiveness of Juniper and the development of the teenagers’ relationship. Not a good trajectory. Along the way, Fowler explores racism, power dynamics, environmental degradation and sexual abuse. As the book goes on, Fowler ratchets up the tension and intensity among these characters, increasing the reader’s sense of dread and foreboding and giving little hope of a peaceful resolution.

A Good Neighborhood is a powerful and insightful book, but it’s not a fun read. The Greek chorus lets you know early on that things will get complicated, and they do. Though A Good Neighborhood is a fast read, it stays with you long after you close the book.

A Good Neighborhood was the 66th – and final – book of 2020. It satisfied the Pick A Book, Any Book category of the 2020 EDIWTB Reading Challenge.

2021 EDIWTB READING CHALLENGE

It’s finally time to introduce the 2021 EDIWTB Reading Challenge!

My goal with the Challenge is to help you expand your reading horizon a bit, make a dent in your TBR list and read your bookshelves, without making it all feel like a chore. This is supposed to be fun!

Here is the spreadsheet where you can keep track of your progress. If your name doesn’t already appear from former challenges, please add it to the list. When you complete a category, add the book title and author to your row on the spreadsheet. It’s fun to see what other people are reading!

Here are the 2021 categories! (Some of these are repeats from prior challenges.)

  1. A book with a red cover
  2. A book that’s been sitting on your shelf for 2+ years
  3. Pick a book any book – go up to your shelves, eyes closed, and pick the first unread book you touch. No do-overs!
  4. A genre you don’t usually read. Go outside your comfort zone!
  5. A book recommended by your best friend
  6. A memoir
  7. A non-fiction book on a topic you love
  8. A debut novel
  9. A historical fiction novel
  10. A book/movie pairing. Read a book, and then watch a movie or show based on that book.
  11. Celebrity book club pick. There are a lot of celebrity/influencer book clubs out there – pick one of the books chosen for one of them in 2021
  12. A book by an author you love

Thanks for joining the 2021 EDIWTB Reading Challenge! Please also join the 2021 EDWITB Reading Challenge Facebook Group, where we share book ideas and encourage each other as the year goes by.

First Book 2021

We made it to 2021! YAY.

Every New Year’s Day, Sheila at Book Journey hosts First Book, a post where she collects photos of readers with their first book of the year. (You can read about it here.) I’ve participated for many years, and this year is no exception. To see what people are reading today, go to Book Journey and check out the First Book 2021 post.

I am sitting on a number of overdue library books right now, which I really hate. There are no fines during covid-19, but I still feel very guilty about preventing books from getting into other readers’ hands. So I am pledging to read some of those overdue books in January and return them as soon as possible.

My first book for January is a library book that was due on December 16: The One by John Marrs. It’s about five people who take a DNA test to find out who their soul mate is… and what happens to them after that. Reviews are mixed. Last month, I also started an AMC show called Soulmates which I believe is based on the book.

What’s your first book of 2021?

2020 Reading Year In Review

What a year 2020 was! Sometimes, reading was my salvation, my escape, while other times, finding the focus to read was really difficult. I also found myself mood reading on steroids, jumping from genre to genre and putting books down after just a few pages if it wasn’t the perfect match for my frame of mind. Overall, memoirs were my most successful genre.

Somehow, I managed to set a reading record and read 66 books in 2020. Completing the 2020 EDIWTB Reading Challenge has dominated the last few weeks, but overall the categories I chose were easy – and pleasurable – to satisfy. (I’ll be posting the 2021 categories in a few days.)

Here are my 2020 reading stats.

Books finished: 66
Fiction:
49 (75%)
Non-fiction:
17 (25%)
Authors of color:
9 (14%)
Male/Female authors:
54 female (81%), 11 male (16%), 1 collection
Audiobooks:
20 (30%), plus 5 audio/print combos
Average rating: 3.75
Repeat authors: 
17 (25%) – Curtis Sittenfeld, Camille Pagan, Jennifer Weiner, Jojo Moyes, Jenny Offill, Rebecca Serle, Taylor Jenkins Reid, Lily King, Laura Zigman, Sally Rooney, Emma Straub, Julie Clark, Caroline Leavitt, Christina Baker Kline, Rumaan Alam, Kent Haruf, Yaa Gyasi

My resolutions for 2021: to read more BIPOC authors; to break 70 books for the first time; to plow through a lot of of the backlist books at home; and to continue to be respectful of and responsive to my reading moods.

Here are a few superlatives for the year:

Best Books of 2020: 
Oona Out Of Order by Margarita Montimore
The Knockout Queen by Rufi Thorpe
The Cactus League by Emily Nemens
28 Summers by Elin Hilderbrand
Plainsong by Kent Haruf
Normal People by Sally Rooney
Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener
Long Bright River by Liz Moore

Best Audiobooks
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
Smacked by Eilene Zimmerman
Plainsong by Kent Haruf

Books I Could Not Put Down: 
28 Summers by Elin Hilderbrand
Long Bright River by Liz Moore

Books That Should Be Required Reading
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
Good Talk by Mira Jacob
In The Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

Best Memoirs:
Smacked by Eilene Zimmerman
Good Talk by Mira Jacob
Maid by Stephanie Land
In The Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado
Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener

Most Overhyped:
All Adults Here by Emma Straub
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

I end with a heartfelt thank you to everyone who read my blog in 2020. I hope that you all had a fulfilling 2020 reading year. I wish you all a happy, safe and healthy new year, and look forward to sharing and talking about books more in 2021.


ATTACHMENTS by Rainbow Rowell

I just read the sweetest surprise of a book.

I needed an epistolary novel for the 2020 EDIWTB Reading Challenge (yes, really coming down to the wire here…) and had read somewhere about Rainbow Rowell’s 2012 debut novel, Attachments, which is told in large part via email. Attachments takes place at a newspaper in late 1999/2000, when twentysomething Lincoln takes a night-shift job as an IT guy whose job includes monitoring email for inappropriate content. He starts reading flagged exchanges between two work best friends, Beth and Jennifer, who share confidences over email, not knowing that someone was reading their exchanges. Before long, Lincoln has fallen for Beth, having never seen her in person. Attachments is about whether Lincoln and Beth will find their way to each other despite this inauspicious start.

Why I picked it up: I needed an epistolary novel for the 2020 EDIWTB Reading Challenge and somehow Attachments found its way onto my radar. I am so glad it did.

I loved this book! Rowell’s characters are so real – smart, funny, flawed. They face adult issues – pregnancy, breakups of long relationships, floundering careers. The writing is pitch perfect – in 300+ pages, there were barely any words that didn’t feel authentic. I liked that it’s a romantic comedy told from the man’s point of view. I liked the slow buildup of Lincoln and Beth’s relationship. It didn’t bother me that Lincoln was reading her email – it was his job, and I’m sure I would have done the same in his position. Who could resist? In real life, good relationships can develop in random and unexpected – even inadvisable – ways.

Attachments is a charming, sweet story about likable people that never feels overly cute or saccharine. After a somewhat slow start, I had a really hard time putting it down. I also enjoyed the Y2K and early millennial references, though 20 (!) years later, the book doesn’t feel dated. It was a great note to end this endless year on – oh wait, I still have one more book to read. Never mind.

Attachments was book #65 of 2020 and satisfies the Epistolary Novel category of the 2020 EDIWTB Reading Challenge.

OONA OUT OF ORDER by Margarita Montimore

Have you ever fantasized about going back in time to a younger version of yourself and giving yourself some advice? Or about jumping ahead in time to help guide you through an important fork in the road? In Oona Out Of Order by Margarita Montimore, at the stroke of midnight on her 19th birthday – New Year’s Eve – Oona Lockhart jumps ahead to another year of her life. At 11:59PM on New Year’s Eve 1982 Oona is 18, and at midnight she finds herself in her 51 year-old body, in 2015. This happens every year – she leaps back and forth in time, while physically, she ages normally. Meanwhile, she retains the knowledge and experience she gains from her leaps, for better or worse.

Why I picked it up: Oona Out Of Order satisfies the Time Travel category of the 2020 EDIWTB Reading Challenge. (I still have two more books to go – ugh!)

I loved Oona Out Of Order. It is a mind-bending emotional joyride that takes Oona through love and loss, testing her patience and trust in her relationships. One year, she finds herself married to a man she knows she later divorces, yet she gets caught up again in the romance of their relationship even though she knows that it won’t work out. Oona leaves herself letters to read at the beginning of each leap to orient her and give some hints for the year, but she is careful not to give away too much so that Oona can experience the year and not affect the future. Like most time travel books, the science (?) can be confusing and doesn’t always make sense, but Montimore does a good job of plugging as many holes as she can and using the time travel to develop and evolve Oona and the other main characters like Oona’s mom and her loyal advisor, Kenzie.

There was no need to be trapped by her flawed chronology or supposed destiny. She wouldn’t tiptoe around her life, suffer the frustration that resulted from chasing stability. She would not be defeated by her known future.

I just found this book so poignant. I loved its message about living in the present, focusing on the journey rather the destination and appreciating the people in your life while you have them. It’s not perfect, though. I wished Oona had found more purpose in her life… that she had been moved to do something meaningful for the world instead of focusing so much on her personal relationships. I guess I wanted Oona to have a little more to her.

Overall, though, Oona Out Of Order was a standout read for me. I am a sucker for time travel and this was a fresh and creative take on it.

Oona Out Of Order was book #64 of 2020 and satisfied the Time Travel category of the 2020 EDIWTB Reading Challenge.

THE EXILES by Christina Baker Kline

This is a good year to be reading historical fiction, right? What’s better than transporting yourself OUT of 2020 to another time? Christina Baker Kline’s The Exiles takes you to 1840s Australia (though I am not sure it’s all that much better than 2020). The Exiles is about three women: Evangeline, a woman wrongly convicted of theft and sentenced to prison and then exile to Australia; Hazel, an Irish girl also convicted of theft and sent to exile in Australia; and Methinna, an orphaned Aboriginal girl who is adopted by a British governor and his wife in Tanzania. These three women’s lives intersect as they navigate the difficulties of their new lives.

Why I picked it up: I really enjoyed Kline’s Orphan Train (reviewed here) and was in the mood for some good storytelling from an other era. (I also loved her earlier book, Bird In Hand, reviewed here).

Kline clearly did a ton of research for The Exiles. She includes a lot of detail every step of the way, from Newgate Prison in London to the transport ship, the prisons in Australia and the work assignments women convicts received when they got off the ship, Kline’s storytelling is rich and evocative. I felt as though I could imagine these women’s lives – what they ate, what they wore, where they slept. I was aware that England sent convicts to settle Australia, dislodging of course the native Aborigines who populated the island before the British got there, but I learned a lot more from The Exiles.

The Exiles is relentlessly depressing, though. These women experience unspeakable loss and abuse, and their lives are very difficult and treacherous. This is definitely not light, escapist fiction. Also, in the end, the story and characters were a bit superficial. Methinna’s storyline gets dropped pretty early, while naive Evangeline and scrappy Hazel do not get developed very deeply as characters. The book is about the power of friendship and perseverance, but the strength of the book lies in its historical detail rather than in its storytelling. The Exiles is not terribly long, but it felt like it took me a long time to get through it.

I listened to The Exiles on audio, and the narration by Caroline Lee was excellent. She covers a lot of accents and even has do to some singing at times. She’s perfect. I highly recommend the audio version if you want to read The Exiles.

The Exiles was book #63 of 2020.