Review | A Robot in the Garden, Deborah Install

23995237This book caught my attention at the Random House Canada Blogger Preview because it was marketed as “like if Up and Wall-E had a baby.” I love Up, and while I never watched Wall-E, the premise of the book sounded too intriguing to miss: 34 year old Ben Chambers discovers a robot in his garden and embarks on a journey around the world to find out where it came from and return it home.

A Robot in the Garden is an endearing, feel good story. Ben’s quest to find the robot’s home adds a sense of purpose to his generally aimless life, and teaches him about love. The robot Tang is indeed written to be loveable — a child-like total innocent who latches on to Ben and comes to rely on him for everything. I personally found Tang annoying after a while — his helplessness at times struck me as neediness and his wonder at the simplest things was at times cloying. So I wasn’t completely in love with Tang, as I expected I was meant to be, but to be fair, his behaviour is fairly realistic given the world the author built.

To be honest, I was somewhat disappointed that the story took place in a world where robots were everywhere, and that the problem with Tang is that he’s practically obsolete as a model. I suppose when I heard the promo pitch at the Blogger Preview, I’d imagined a world like ours now, and Tang as a rickety, patched up robot that was truly alone in the world because humanoid robots haven’t hit the mainstream yet. (I was about to say that they haven’t been invented yet, but then I remembered this pretty awesome sounding hotel in Japan.) Tang being an obsolete model in a world full of robots makes the story feel a bit more predictable, and the themes raised feel more standard.

That being said, Install’s story is as charming as you’d expect it to be. There’s a hilarious chapter about an android hotel, and a nice subplot about two secondary characters finding love. My favourite part was a scene near the end where Ben goes to a family affair and runs into his ex wife, and it is she who most clearly notices the change that Tang has brought about in him. I love that, because it encapsulates what the whole journey to find Tang’s home has been about: a man finding the humanity in a robot, and a robot helping bring out the humanity in a man.

+

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

Review | When the Moon is Low, Nadia Hashimi

23447506Spanning several decades and two generations, Nadia Hashimi’s When the Moon is Low is about an Afghan family forced to flee Taliban rule. Hashimi’s writing is beautiful and evocative, and gently takes us along with her characters’ journey.

When the Moon is Low almost feels like two separate novels in one. We begin with Fereida’s story — a free-spirited schoolteacher, she struggles against the constraints of her society’s codes of propriety for women. I loved reading about her romantic story arc, how what she viewed as true love turned out to be less than idea,l and how she thought an arranged marriage was settling for less, only to find true love within one. The rise of the Taliban threatens her comfortable life, and Hashimi’s depiction of life under Taliban rule is horrific in its strong but underlying current of tension and fear. In a way, I almost wish the story could have ended with Fereida finding love — that segment alone was romantic and beautiful, and spoke to the struggle of being a woman who wanted more than conservative society permitted.

Fereida’s family’s escape to London forms the rest of the book, and perhaps fittingly, feels like a completely different book altogether. The undercurrent of tension has become all too real and all too immediate, and at each step of the journey is a very tangible threat of being sent back home. It is in the second half of the book that Hashimi switches narrative gears and begins to tell the story from the point of view of Fereida’s son Saleem. In a way, I understand the rationale behind this move — Saleem’s story of trying to earn enough money to finish their journey is far more action-packed and reveals far more of their environment than Fereida’s, who has to stay home to care for her other child.

Hashimi doesn’t shy away from violence. A particularly horrific scene at a wedding reveals how suddenly one’s cocoon of safety can be stripped away. Along with other, similar incidents, it reminds us of how each moment can be filled with fear, and how Fereida, Saleem and other characters can barely afford to ever let their guard down.

Saleem’s story is interesting in many ways — he meets other undocumented refugees in Europe and a woman who is helping them find permanent homes — but I wish his narrative hadn’t come at the expense of Fereida’s. As a woman in that particular place and time, Fereida has such a rich, complex role to play, and I would have wanted to hear more of what she had to say. So it was disappointing to see her gradually disappear into the background as Saleem’s story took over.

True to the spirit of her subject matter, Hashimi doesn’t offer any easy answers. The book’s ending is ambiguous enough, but more than that, we’ve spent enough time with these characters and the people around them to know that there is no such thing as a truly safe haven. It’s a sad story, beautifully written, and it will move you.

+

Thank you to Harper Collins Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | The Rumor, Elin Hilderbrand

23341607Another summer, another Elin HIlderbrand novel. This author is a fantastic go-to for beach reads — her books are light-hearted, gossip-filled, scandal-tinged peeks into the lives of Nantucket residents. Nantucket itself is as much a character as the people in her stories, and to fantastic effect. Reading a Hilderbrand feels like joining her characters’ community yourself, an island respite from real life, where you can lose yourself in the various adventures of the characters she has created.

Her new book The Rumor delivers as expected, and is a delightful summer read. Nantucket writer Madeline King has to deliver a manuscript to her publisher ASAP, and she’s out of ideas. Enter her best friend Grace, who has something to confess about her ruggedly handsome landscape architect. Add to the mix Grace’s husband, whose money problems may have landed him in a situation way over his head, and a condo Madeline rents for writing inspiration and a “room of her own”. Mix in Grace and Madeline’s teenage children, who are dealing with sibling rivalries and love triangles. And of course, over it all is the Nantucket buzz, thrilled at all the juicy goings-on right in the neighbourhood.

Reading my past reviews of Hildebrand’s books, I realize my response to her work has been pretty mixed. I thought Summerland took itself too seriously, but Beautiful Day was rather touching. The Rumor falls somewhat in between. It doesn’t quite achieve the emotional depth of Beautiful Day, but it doesn’t try to either. Rather, it’s simply a fun, breezy read that becomes surprisingly action-packed towards the end.

+

Thank you to Hachette Book Group Canada for an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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.

+

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.

+

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.

+

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.

+

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