Review | Killing Monica, Candace Bushnell

22675867The author of Sex and the City returns with a spoof of the lifestyle she’s built. Killing Monica is about best selling author Pandy Wallis who would like to write a serious historical novel inspired by her ancestor Lady Wallis, a great feminist. Unfortunately, she’s built her career on a character called Monica, who has spawned a line of novels, movies and merchandise, and her agent, publisher, friends and fans all couldn’t care less about Lady Wallis and instead demand more Monica. Worse, her ex-husband is after her money, and she’ll need to write another Monica novel to pay him off.

Bushnell explores a question that likely haunts many writers — at what point does the creator lose control over their work? As this novel shows and Bushnell can probably attest to herself, there are times when it’s the creation that takes over, and the writer becomes a mere cog in its machine.

A friend to whom I lent this book described it as “Sex and the City turns Harold Robbins,” and I couldn’t have said it better. Through flashbacks, we meet Pandy as a young woman, attempting to break into Hollywood life — there’s a great line about partying with “displaced New Yorkers,” including “a couple of disgruntled literary writers who were determined to show New York, mostly by drinking too much, that they didn’t give a shit about it.” (page 53) I enjoyed reading about her friendship with SondraBeth Schnowzer, who plays Monica onscreen. There’s a total party girl vibe but there are also hints of the jealousy and selfishness that will soon cause friction between them. As a boyfriend points out, Monica is all who SondraBeth is at this point in her career, yet SondraBeth can never truly be her, because the real Monica — Pandy — is still around. Bushnell steers clear of the obvious Single White Female plot directions, which is a bit of a shame, because the novel could have gone much darker, and also much more interesting, with this material.

We see Pandy’s rise in Hollywood, coupled with the diminishing of her personal life, where her marriage becomes a trap and her friendships become more shallow. A fire at her ancestral home gives Pandy a chance at a new life, yet comes too late in the plot to feel much more than a frantic denouement. Bushnell squeezes as much dialogue about women empowerment as she can in the last few chapters, where Pandy — and to an extent ShondaBeth — fight to reclaim their identities beyond the patriarchal Hollywood machine, and in a way, it’s a fitting third act in a story about both women essentially having their actions controlled by powerful men. But it also feels slapdash, and the execution — while never intended to be realistic — still feels too much a strain on credulity to make its impact.

The third act does provide a response to the question Bushnell raises, about the author’s control over their work, and it was really well done. In some of the book’s most powerful moments, we see how people respond to Pandy after the fire, and it’s a haunting, almost terrifying look at the cult of celebrity, and how much the real person actually matters.

A final note, and without giving anything away, I must say that I absolutely hate how Bushnell treats the big reveal about Pandy’s sister Hellenor. The impetus behind Monica’s creation, who later begged to have Monica killed, Hellenor is away in Amsterdam for most of the book. We aren’t told why she left, and while we receive hints that Pandy is no longer in contact with her, we don’t know why until the last few pages. Bushnell keeps it under wraps until the very end for effect, and the actual reveal plays no role beyond, possibly, surprise expected on the part of the reader. Given the general suppression of these kinds of stories, and the lack of representation of this community, I hate that this reveal was played as a cheap trick. It feels disrespectful, and equally important, it feels like a wasted opportunity, considering that Hellenor’s story could have tied in thematically with other points in the plot.

Otherwise, it’s an entertaining story, and if it turns into a TV show, I’ll have the utmost sympathy for any actress who has to wear the gorgeous, but torturous, Monica shoes.

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Thanks to Hachette Book Group for an advanced reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | China Rich Girlfriend, Kevin Kwan

22674105There’s rich, then there’s crazy rich. And then there’s China rich. As Eleanor Young explains to her son Nick, “Aiyah, these people aren’t just everyday rich with a few hundred million. They are China rich! We’re talking billions and billions.” And in this spectacular sequel to Crazy Rich Asians, Kevin Kwan takes us into an even more deliciously decadent, ostentatiously opulent world.

I absolutely adored Crazy Rich Asiansso when I saw that a few ARCs of the sequel were available at the Random House Canada Spring Blogger Preview, I immediately dove for a copy like Carrie Bradshaw at a Manolo Blahnik sample sale. I then pushed the rest of my reading pile off to the side and settled in for an escape into the glitzy glamour of the 0.0001%.

China Rich Girlfriend brings back a lot of the beloved characters from the previous book. Rachel Chu and Nick Young are all set to marry. Singapore’s It Girl Astrid Leong is slowly discovering that her husband’s recent financial success has gone to his head. Former soap opera star Kitty Pong is unable to climb to the upper echelons of Hong Kong society, despite her billionaire husband and efforts to fit in. We also meet new characters, billionaire bad boy Carlton Bao, his girlfriend celebrity fashion blogger Colette Bing, and the catalyst that sets this novel’s plot in motion: Rachel Chu’s birth father.

China Rich Girlfriend has a more soap operatic feel than Crazy Rich Asians. While the first book focused on Rachel’s relationship with Nick and her introduction to his world, their story almost takes a back seat in this sequel. Instead we get drawn into an almost dizzying array of subplots, and I strongly suggest reading/re-reading Crazy Rich Asians before this book. Getting acquainted/re-acquainted with the large cast of characters felt confusing at first, but once you’re settled in, it’s an exhilarating ride.

My favourite plot thread by far is that of Astrid and her friendship with Charlie Wu, who I see from my review of Crazy Rich Asians also stole the show for me in that book. He still holds a torch for her, yet manages to maintain a respectful distance and provide emotional support while she struggles with her husband’s personality shift. The affection between them is beautiful, and after some particularly jerky behaviour by Astrid’s husband, I was on Team Charlie all the way.

As with Crazy Rich Asians, China Rich Girlfriend skewers the materialism of the super upper class. The sequel has a bit less affection and therefore a bit less bite than the original, but is just as much a pleasure to read. A Paris shopping spree scene made me yearn so badly for a shopping trip myself, and only -40 degree weather (I’m writing this on a February day in Toronto) saved me and my credit card from doing anything we regret. This scene of course was closely followed by a luxurious spa scene, which again made me long for all the treatments the characters describe. Despite his satirical treatment of the characters’ behaviour, Kevin Kwan does for high end shopping what Devil Wears Prada does for fashion, and it’s hard to read all those brand names and celebrity mentions without wishing you could experience such a lifestyle, even for just a day. Reading Kwan’s fiction allows us to live vicariously through these characters, lampooning their excess while imagining ourselves in their Louboutin heels (presented personally by their dear friend Christian, of course). That being said, the truth behind a much lauded white linen dress gives hope to us all and makes for one of the funniest moments in the book.

The food is just as gloriously described here as in the first book, and I’m not ashamed to say I ordered Chinese takeout for dinner after finishing the book. Sweet and sour pork may not quite compare to the delicacies described in these pages, but again, a fantastic scene featuring ramen in Paris shows us that at times, the rich really aren’t so different from you and me.

I’m so glad Kwan decided to write a sequel to Crazy Rich Asians. This is such a fantastic world to visit, and his writing is just hilarious. Reading it feels like watching a particularly glittery soap opera, where the jewels are ten times as large and the outfits a thousand times more expensive. Look beyond the glitz and glamour though, and at its heart, this novel is about love and family. How does a young woman deal with finding her birth father? How does a sudden increase in income change a man? And how can a privileged young man deal with having caused a terrible tragedy? Kwan refrains from delving too deep into the sad aspects of the plot, but they add some measure of reality to the story, and remind us of the human beings behind the dollar signs.

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Thank you to Random House Canada for an advanced reading copy of this in exchange for an honest review.

Review | The Knockoff, Lucy Sykes and Jo Piazza

23012475How could I not love this book? The Knockoff is Devil Wears Prada, All About Eve and The Social Network all in one hilarious, entertaining, utterly engrossing read perfect for a lazy Sunday afternoon. The fashion editor protagonist lacks Meryl Streep’s charisma and the conniving upstart lacks Anne Baxter’s subtlety and charm, but the story itself certainly gets right to the heart of today’s digital obsession. If Miranda Priestly is the iconic boss from hell of the early 2000s, Eve Morton is the boss from hell of the immediate present.

When Glossy magazine editor in chief Imogen Tate returns to work after a six month hiatus, she finds her former assistant Eve Morton as the new editorial director, in charge of re-inventing the magazine as a digital app. Eve is a caricature of a millennial — completely addicted to social media, she interrupts her own wedding to update her Facebook status. (“It’s not official until it’s Facebook official!”) A Harvard MBA graduate, she has some great ideas for Glossy — Buzzfeed type lists and Buy It Now buttons that are guaranteed to boost traffic and improve conversion rate — but lacks the creative flair to take her vision beyond increasing ROI. Worse, she’s completely sociopathic and genuinely has no clue how clueless she really is.

In contrast, Imogen has no idea what a hashtag is, nor what a conversion rate means. She may have Alexander Wang on speed dial, but lacks the social media savvy and business background to understand the changes Eve is making to Glossy. In today’s world, does she still have a fighting chance, or is she, as Eve says, truly a “dinosaur”?

I had so much fun reading this book! I did expect a bit more about the real-life fashion world — Knockoff lacked the industry insider feel of Prada, and felt more like a story about office politics than fashion. There’s a subplot about Imogen’s daughter being bullied online, which Imogen compares to her own experience of bullying at work, and indeed, if you’ve ever had a school bully or a toxic co-worker, you realize how some people just never grow up. It’s a compelling tale, and seeing it from the perspective of a woman afraid of becoming irrelevant gives it an added emotional punch.

I also like how accurate the story felt in terms of how much of an asset tech skills are in today’s world, no matter what your industry is. When Imogen goes out for drinks with some of her new, younger co-workers, she learns that in their life beyond the office, many of them want to start their own web-based companies. A tech entrepreneur Imogen meets at a conference comments that many of today’s big businesses — Air BnB, Uber — are successful because someone identified a gap in a system, a need that isn’t being met, and simply capitalized on that. With websites and social media, almost anyone can raise capital and set something up.

What I loved about Knockoff is that the book doesn’t set up the conflict as a dichotomy between technology and heart, between digital app and print glossy. There are many tech savvy, digitally minded characters who are just as creative and talented as Imogen, and Imogen herself doesn’t waste time complaining about how much better things were “in her day.”

It’s a quick, entertaining read, with a deeply satisfying ending. The Glossy app didn’t quite strike me as particularly innovative, but a secondary character had an idea for a vintage fashion/thrift shop type app that I would love to see happen in real life. Someone tweet me if it does.

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Thanks to Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Someone is Watching, Joy Fielding

22694047Private investigator Bailey Carpenter is attacked while working on a case, and her entire world falls apart. From being a confident, independent woman, she finds herself afraid to ride an elevator with a man and unable to sleep without having nightmares. Worse, she sees her attacker in almost every man she encounters — an obnoxious flirt at the gym, a man walking past her in the street, a narcissistic man in the apartment building across from hers. They all fit the frustratingly generic description of Bailey’s attacker: white male between the ages of 20 to 40 years old, average height, average build, wearing black Nikes.

I often find books involving sexual assault difficult to read — for example, Elizabeth Haynes’ Into the Darkest Corner kept me feeling claustrophobic, almost physically trapped, throughout. Fielding’s writing is a bit more detached that Haynes’, and while she did a good job of portraying Bailey’s fear and sense of paralysis after the attack, Someone is Watching felt more like an action-packed thriller than a psychological one.

Part of the reason may be that despite the attack that began the whole story, there were so many other things going on in Bailey’s life. A major subplot is the Bailey’s dysfunctional family — her father had had many children by different women, and left his vast fortune only to Bailey and her brother Heath. Bailey and Heath’s half siblings, led by high powered district attorney Gene, are suing for their share of the inheritance. This adds a touch of intrigue to the motives of Bailey’s half sister Claire, who stays over at Bailey’s apartment for days after the attack. Is Claire sincere in wanting to help Bailey heal or is Heath right and Claire is only after Bailey’s money? This is further complicated by Heath having issues of his own — a struggling actor who is perennially stoned, Heath also happens to be best friends with Bailey’s ex-boyfriend, who still wants Bailey back and who also happens to fit the description of her attacker. Then there is Bailey’s current boyfriend, a married man with children whose identity is glaringly obvious from the beginning and yet whom Fielding for some reason coyly refuses to name until Claire’s daughter susses it out. Finally, there is the man Bailey, Claire and Jade call Narcissus, the vain neighbour who parades naked in front of his open window and appears to know that Bailey is watching him.

There’s a lot going on, and while it’s easy enough to keep the characters straight, it can also be somewhat frustrating to see so many potential red herrings in the mystery. That’s actually a credit to Fielding’s writing, as it mirrors the frustration Bailey and other attack victims must feel themselves, where fear can take many forms, even among those familiar to you. That being said, there appears to be enough drama without adding so many subplots to the mix.

There’s a great moment near the end where Bailey realizes she may never know who her attacker is, and that she would just have to make her peace with that. I love that, because it shows an unfortunate reality of some victims, and it also takes the story back to Bailey’s psychological state rather than the physical investigation of potential attackers.

The ending as a whole felt overly convoluted. The first big reveal in particular seemed complicated, and while I admit it could have happened, the soap operatic nature of this twist detracted from the very real drama of dealing with an attack. The second reveal then felt anticlimactic, almost unnecessary after the dramatic impact of the first. That being said, I may be biased because I wasn’t happy to learn who the villains were, mostly because I had grown to like these characters earlier on. And that too is a testament to Fielding’s writing.

Someone is Watching is Joy Fielding’s 25th thriller, which is pretty awesome. If you’re a fan of her books, or of thrillers in general, this is definitely one to pick up. An entertaining read overall.

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Thanks to Random House Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Summer Sisters, Judy Blume

Judy Blume will always remind me of my childhood. Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret was one of my favourite books growing up, and while a recent re-read didn’t quite affect me as I’d hoped, I still remember getting caught up in Margaret’s concerns about filling out a bra and getting her period and all sorts of rites of passage young girls go through. Fellow Blume fans, say it with me: “I must, I must, I must increase my bust!”

Great news for all of us who grew up with Judy Blume: she has a new adult novel coming in June! In the Unlikely Event hits shelves June 2.

820100I was fortunate enough to have attended the Random House Canada Spring Bloggers Event, where they told us about the upcoming novel. There were no ARCs available, but they generously provided us with copies of Judy Blume’s previous adult novel Summer SistersIf you’ve ever read Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s EyeSummer Sisters reminds me somewhat of that novel, being about the strong bonds formed in female friendship when young, and how these can last in some form or another all through adulthood. And like Cat’s Eye, Summer Sisters took me right back to my childhood.

The novel is about best friends Vix Leonard and Caitlin Somers, who go to Caitlin’s family house in Martha’s Vineyard every summer. Caitlin’s family becomes somewhat a surrogate family to Vix, and helps her out with scholarships to the best schools. Over the years, the girls grow apart — having grown up with money all her life, Caitlin can’t understand why Vix would choose to spend her summers working at a restaurant rather than travel with her to Europe; Vix on the other hand finds it difficult to explain why she feels uncomfortable accepting Caitlin’s parents’ offer to pay for her ticket to Europe. Vix sees a degree from Harvard as a necessity for a stable life; Caitlin thinks it’s settling for an ordinary one. And as the novel opens, Caitlin invites Vix to be maid of honour at her wedding to Vix’s ex-boyfriend, whom they both met during a summer at the Vineyard.

The novel dips into the girls’ stories once a year, at first during the summer season, and then later on, during Vix’s school year. Even though the novel begins with Caitlin’s wedding, the romantic angle is secondary to the story of their friendship, and the boyfriend is as secondary a character as the girls’ parents. I love this glimpse into the girls’ lives, and their adventures in the Vineyard remind me of the unbridled fun summers were as a teen, when they were breaks from the school year, and where even a menial job like cleaning houses could be fun because you were doing it with your best friend.

Blume tells the story mostly from Vix’s perspective, and while various characters are given a chapter or two to tell their side, Caitlin’s voice is notably absent. This adds to her mystique as a character — we see her only as others do, and while Vix may know her more than most, even Vix eventually realizes that there are many layers to Caitlin that she will never know. I actually wasn’t a big fan of hearing from the other characters — with the exception of Caitlin’s stepmom Abby, none of the other interludes really interested me, and I would have rather stayed with Vix the entire time.

I hesitate to call this novel simple, because there is a lot that happens, and so much more in terms of family dynamics that remains unsaid. But in a way, there’s a wonderful simplicity that marks this story, and a forthrightness in Blume’s narration that again takes me back to childhood, to a time where summer friendships meant something, and the potential of the future appears limitless. This is a lovely read, and I can’t wait for Blume’s new novel in June.

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Thank you to Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Something Wiki, Suzanne Sutherland

20860645Something Wiki is about a shy twelve year old named Jo, who has three brainy friends and edits Wikipedia for fun. When two of her friends suddenly decide they’re too cool for her, Jo has to deal with a situation unfortunately all too familiar with many young girls. Add to the mix a twenty-four year old brother moving back home with his pregnant girlfriend, and Jo’s dealing with quite a bit to handle.

Sutherland does a great job of capturing a young girl’s voice, and her writing took me right back to my days as a tween. I remember being like Jo — Wikipedia wasn’t around back then so I had to scribble my feelings in an actual paper journal, but I can certainly relate to her worries about bad hair cuts, monstrous zits, and not quite fitting in with friends who are finding new interests. Kudos to Sutherland for giving Jo a real acne problem, rather than the usual trope in movies of otherwise beautiful girls freaking out over a single pimple. The story feels real, and Jo is a sharp, witty narrator. Her sardonic asides give way to real pain though, and it’s almost painful to read about how cruel young girls can be.

I lent my copy to my sister after reading, and about halfway through, she asked me if Chloe (Jo’s best-friend-turned-kinda-mean-girl) ever gets her comeuppance. Unfortunately, Sutherland ends the story before the girls enter high school, which means we never get to see if Chloe gets major zits before the prom or ends up unable to land her dream job after university. There is some closure, but as in real life, things aren’t completely wrapped up in a tidy little package. The book does give a glimpse of hope, however — J, the girlfriend of Jo’s brother, is the cool older sister type who wears awesome outfits and is beyond caring what others think of her. Attitude-wise, she’s who Jo can grow up to become, and both provides emotional support and a reminder that things do get better.

Despite being in the title, the Wikipedia angle almost seems unnecessary. Perhaps it will resonate on a different level with contemporary tweens, but it  mostly just reminds me of those Baby-sitter Club notebook chapter introductions.

Something Wiki is fantastic realistic YA. It’s much tighter — plot-wise and style-wise — than Sutherland’s first novel, and is sure to resonate with many young girls and women who remember all too well the pains of growing up.

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Thank you to Dundurn for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Black Dog Summer, Miranda Sherry

23574104When Sally is brutally murdered on her farming commune in South Africa, her spirit remains tethered to this world and the people she left behind. Similar to The Lovely Bones, Miranda Sherry’s debut novel Black Dog Summer is about a family dealing with grief and, more significantly, with all the issues left unresolved before death. Sally watches as her teenage daughter Gigi falls into a deep depression alleviated only by drugs. Her estranged sister Adele, her brother-in-law and unrequited love Liam, and their daughter Bryony are all struggling to come to terms with Sally’s death, and with the addition of a silent, troubled teen into their home.

Sherry’s writing is beautiful, and I love how she describes her characters’ lives as threads of stories that Sally must follow before she can move on. Sherry also weaves in a bit of a supernatural feel — the darkness Bryony senses in the aftermath of her aunt’s murder takes the form of a black dog out to harm her and her cousin. Bryony’s next door neighbour Lesedi is a reluctant sangoma, someone in touch with the spiritual realm and can communicate with the dead, and anchors the story’s shifting between both worlds.

My favourite passage in the novel comes early on, almost immediately after Sally is killed. She hears a noise, a “whispering, humming, singing, screaming awfulness.” She soon realizes that

The noise comes from Africa’s stories being told. Millions upon millions of them, some told in descending liquid notes like the call of the Burchells’ coucal before the rain, and some like the dull roar of Johannesburg traffic. Some of these stories are ancient and wear fossilized coats of red dust, and others are so fresh that they gleam with umbilical wetness…

[My family’s story is] just one story amongst millions, and yet it has become so loud now that it drowns out the others. It is howling at me, raging, demanding my attention. I look closer to find that this small, bright thread of story weaves out from the moment of my passing and seems to tether me to this place. Perhaps this is why I have not left yet. Perhaps I have no choice but to follow the story to its end.

Isn’t that beautiful? From that passage on, like Sally, I too felt compelled to follow this story to its end.

I also really like how Sherry connects the spirit world with the elemental one. Sally feels her being a spirit most keenly when Lesedi looks at her, and ironically, she is both most disconnected from the physical world and intimately connected to its elements. She has become an Ancestor, one with the millions upon millions of stories of the past and connected as well somehow to the potential of the future. What a beautiful way to think of the afterlife!

Black Dog Summer is a very emotional book. Much of the story within the physical world is told through Bryony’s point of view, and as a tween, she is barely able to cope with what has happened to her aunt. She looks up the term “massacre” in the dictionary, and repeats this definition several times. And indeed, when faced with something as incomprehensible as murder (not just murder, but mass murder), when having to deal with the overwhelming grief of a cousin you barely know who is now your roommate, when unable to comprehend the rising tensions between your parents, how can anyone cope?

This is a beautiful, heartbreaking, page turner of a book. Like Sally, we as readers are invested in the story while necessarily being detached from it. And like Sally, all we can do is hope it all works out for this family.

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Thank you to Simon and Schuster Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Please note that the passage quoted above is from the ARC, and may be edited prior to publication.