Sugar Daddy by Lisa Kleypas

Title: Sugar Daddy
Author: Lisa Kleypas, known for writing historical romances
Release Date: 2007
Genre: Texan bildungsroman with hints of steaminess.
Describe it in a sentence: Liberty Jones goes from the trailer park to a millionaire’s mansion, and has men from both parts of her life to choose between.
TV/movie character who would like it: Tyra Collette from Friday Night Lights. In fact I think she might have written it.

It’s only a matter of time before a real-life sugar baby writes a literary memoir about her time, all short sentences and detached emotions which catch up later, as she smokes a cigarette or showers off the smell of her wealthy older companion’s cologne.

That is not this book. Though it’s called Sugar Baby, a more appropriate title would be Daddy Warbucks. How convenient when a dashing millionaire appears in your life without wanting anything from you other than to love you! Platonically! Yes, that is the better description of this novel.

Sugar Daddy was my first novel by Lisa Kleypas. I read it in the late evenings—which is always when I read my romance novels, because they calm me down. My wonderful romance book club chose it as this month’s selection. After many consecutive rom-coms, I enjoyed this change of pace.

Sugar Daddy is technically a romance, but I find that it’s better classified as a…coming-of-age story that ends in romance. It’s the SAGA of Liberty Jones, belle of the Texas trailer park. My Sugar Daddy reading coinciding with my ending of Friday Night Lights, so I’m just about ready to plan a post-COVID trip to the Lone Star State to get a vibe.

Kleypas manages to make so much happen! There’s a drum-beat in this book. And yet I enjoyed seeing where Liberty, who is our first person narrator, slowed down to savor the moment—like the first time she meets Hardy, the neighbor she imprints on (gah Stephanie Meyer for introducing that word into my vocabulary).

Honestly, to talk about the plot is to spoil a lot. The book winds up to a major twist that changes the course of Liberty’s life. It caught me off guard, as it did her, and I think it makes for a better reader experience not to know. Kleypas pulled a real switcheroo; the book became something I never expected it to become midway through. Certainly, Liberty was as surprised as I was. In a book, it’s fun to not see something coming (less so in life).

Yes, I absolutely pictured both of the leads as Tim Riggins.

I will say: I’ve read romance novels that have introduced similarly gasp-worthy plot twists, and this one does it way better, because Kleypas gives Liberty time to process and deal with what happens. The love introduced isn’t introduced as a way to hurry up her healing. He arrives when she’s ready.

This is the kind of book I might pick up if I was at a hotel and it was in the library because someone left it behind and I’d read it in a day. It reminds me of my aunt’s Danielle Steels on hot summer days in Cyprus. But a bit (read: way steamier). The emphasis is definitely on Liberty—and it worked. I rooted for her from the start. Her practicality and skepticism, balanced by a real heart. In fact, one could say the practicality is the way she protected herself from that big heart—she knew she could get hurt. Look at me, reading into a novel character. That means it worked!

I’m really looking forward to discussing this book with my book club. For one, the names are something else: Gage and Hardy are the two leading men (have you ever MET a Gage or a Hardy?!). Liberty’s sister is named Carrington for a Dynasty character.

I also have Thoughts about the convenient plot machinations, but I also accept them to be the machinations of a novel. And ultimately they produced positive endorphins in me. So I shall not complain…and instead shall read the next book in Kleypas’s Travis series.

The Green Shore by Natalie Bakopoulos

Title: The Green Shore
Author: Natalie Bakopoulos, whom I was lucky enough to have had as a workshop leader once upon a time
Release Date: 2012
Genre: Highbrow historial
Describe it in a sentence: 
A politically connected family in Athens experiences the military coup differently
TV/movie character who would like it: Anyone living through the Trump presidency

It’s going to be challenging for me to resist turning this post into a self-centered piece of nostalgia. Look, there I go, right now.

But how can’t I? When I hear Natalie’s name I think of the summer I spent in Greece after my junior year in college at a writing workshop. Now I sit, confined to the house due to a raging pandemic, and I’m reading her book. I would hate to be Cassandra; I’d hate to know the future. In fact I’d like to have the opposite. Be an animal, trapped in the present. I would’ve enjoyed that summer instead of worrying about the future, one I never would’ve been able to predict anyway.

That summer Natalie taught me about writing fiction. I was too starstruck, at the time, to read her book. She was effortlessly cool, boundlessly generosity. I accepted her cigarettes and smoked on the patio and stared at the sea. Whatever choices could get me back to that moment, over and over, that’s the life I wanted. Though my life has indeed changed (see: pandemic), those desires haven’t.

That summer Natalie seemed to me someone who knew Greece, who’d internalized it. After reading The Green Shore, which she wrote and researched while living in Athens, I realize how much she had internalized it. This book was the result clearly of being steeped in history, of a dark era in Athens: The military junta, which spanned from 1967 to 1974 and ended n part because of a shocking act of police violence at an Athens university.

Me (left) in Greece. I miss it!

Ultimately I’m happy to have waited to read The Green Shore. The novel came into my life at just the right time. The relevant time. It’s a book about people living through massive political upheaval—emphasis on the living. With guilt and with anguish, they kept living. Because the toppling only affects people at certain points. The rest of us keep living.

It’s something I’ve thought about constantly the last four years. The pandemic is arguably the first time that we’ve all been affected by the Trump presidency at once. But others have been affected. It was easy, as we were living, to forget about them.

The characters in The Green Shore are Greek, so they don’t live quite as restfully as we comfortable Americans. They’re always fighting against the power; being sent to island prisons or locking themselves in universities. Protest is more a part of daily life and ethos in Greece; I admire it. In fact, I think the characters in this book would be on the streets now, as I write this, demanding that Nevada hurries up. Or at least Sophie would be—before she left for Paris.

The book follows a politically active family dealing with the decade-long military junta. The mother, Eleni, is a doctor. Her eldest, Sophie, has to leave Greece after following in her political poet uncle’s footsteps and protesting vehemently. Her son scurries goes off to America at the first opportunity (and I hate to say it, definitely becomes someone who loves the Orange One). Her youngest, Anna, had a journey that I was particularly transfixed by—she morphs from a quiet girl to a firebrand, and I bought it.

Reading the historical events had me Googling through the entire book. One of the details struck me. I knew that Greek islands were used as prisons for political prisoners, but actually reading of the reality of those islands was striking. The Greek islands retain a reputation of being a vacation bliss, with the intellectual aura as old as the Odyssey. It’s the seat of the good life, the place where the Mediterranean diet gives people unusually long life expectancies (hey there, Ikaria).

But they’ve also been used as prisons—adjacent to where people are vacationing. And they’ve been used as essentially holding pens for migrants, the ones who survive and aren’t drowned in the Mediterranean. The Green Shore forced me to interrogate my somewhat rosy picture of Greece after visiting for vacations. The islands, through another slant, are not beautiful—they’re barren, isolated. A place cut off from the world, where terrors can take place without witnesses. A testament to exile.

Makronisos, an island used as a prison during the Greek Civil War (and other times). Today, it’s uninhabited.

So yes, I went down those grim paths, got stung by a few thorns. But there were roses too. The relationships between characters were carefully drawn. I enjoyed that Eleni defied stereotypes of the Greek mother—she was hands off, allowing her kids to make their own decisions in the world (sometimes too hands off). Also interesting to see how she negotiated (and excused) having a boyfriend that leaned conservative for years. Reminded me of the few women I know who disagree with their boyfriends’ political leanings (and yes, I wonder how they do it).

While The Green Shore is a special book to me because of my connection to Greece and Natalie, this would’ve been a memorable read regardless. Historical fiction that’s grounded in eternally relevant dynamics and lyrical language. Sign! Me! Up!

Buy The Green Shore.

Read it in a Day Rec: The Guest List by Lucy Foley

Not sure what to read anymore? Are all of your days blending together in a gray blur, as if highlighters no longer had neon ink but dull? My “Read it in a Day” book recommendations are for whiling the day away.

Title: The Guest List
Author: Lucy Foley, who has the kind of name I wish I had.
Release Date: 2020 Reese’s Book Club edition
Genre: Isolated island thriller
Describe it in a sentence: 
A bunch of privileged guests with money and secrets gather on a gloomy Irish island for a wedding.
TV/movie character who would like it: The cast of Lost, who would say, This is nothing!

Books about entrapment. Books where characters are dealing with the idea that there is no way out, no way off this ride. I bet it’s no surprise that books like this are particularly fascinating to me right now (cough: quarantine). I like seeing what happens to people, how their personalities change, when forces are closing in on them. I guess you could call them “claustrophobic books,” though they needn’t take place in elevators. It’s almost like they’re preparing me for what my life could be like this winter as the temperature drops lower and lower and I can’t leave (Lucy Foley let me know if you need inspo for a new horror novel).

Currently I’m reading Tina Brown’s brilliant biography of Princess Diana, called The Diana Chronicles. After the wedding, it sinks in that she’s really going to have to spend the rest of her life with these stodgy people and their stuffy rules, so old that dust would come up if you blew on ’em. Naturally, she freaks out.

The characters in The Guest List don’t have to spend the rest of their lives on that tiny island off the coast of Ireland, barely inhabitable. But they do have to spend the rest of their lives with themselves. And based on the revelations in this carefully plotted mystery novel, that’s enough of a shame. The setting, an island so small you can walk the circumference, separated from the mainland by a rough passage, complements the almost spiritual claustrophobia of secrets. They can’t run from themselves any longer.

Actually, I wouldn’t mind being trapped on an island like this, thx

The Guest List has whiffs of HBO’s Big Little Lies (rich people behaving badly, plus a timeline that goes back and forth) and Agatha Christie (a medley of voices, any of whom could be the killer). It’s the kind of book you can read in one day, and be happy you did—I was totally surprised by the ending, making the race to the finish worthy. OK, maybe not totally, but pretty much surprised. It still gave me that longed-for jolt of attention: I should’ve known!

Here’s the deal. This obnoxious couple insists on planning a destination wedding even though the destination is universally inconvenient for everyone, themselves included. They’re these kind of people: “But it’s all about the moment, a wedding. All about the day. It’s not really about the marriage at all, in spite of what everyone says.”

They want to have a “special” and “unique” wedding. Based on the baggage and secrets on both sides of the wedding party, their wedding would’ve been “special” and “unique” everywhere (and I use those words in exactly the tone you think I’m using them). But thanks to the rough terrain of the island that stormy night, the party becomes…dun-dun-dun: Homicidal.

Christine Quinn of Selling Sunset WISHES her “Gothic fairytale wedding” were this dramatic

Foley lets the story unfold in the voices of multiple characters (and potential victims and suspects): The bride, the plus one, the best man, the wedding planner, the bridesmaid, and the body. Foley’s writing flows effortlessly and easily—deceptively so. Since the characters are all speaking in first-person, if you read too fast, you might mss what they’re saying. Pay attention and it’s totally possible to see the ending coming toward you like headlights in the fog.

Naturally, I had to cast all of these characters. Except for the body—no spoilers. Here are my deranged castings:

  • The bride, Jules, is a media tycoon so I pictured her as Stella Bugbee from The Cut.
  • The plus one, Hannah, is skeptical of all of the people at the wedding. I saw her as the English actress Sarah Lancashire (Happy Valley).
  • Johnno is the best man. I imagined him as the mix of an ex and the actor Daniel Mays (who is in White Lines).
  • Olivia the Bridesmaid is absolutely Xanthippe from The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Dylan Nicole Gelula).
  • Aoife the wedding planner had to be someone foreboding and austere. She is Harriet Walker, queen of stern and sly old women.
  • The groom, Will, is smug TV host of an adventure show. I pictured him Jack Whitehall in hiking gear.
  • Charlie is Jules’s bestie. Due to the overwhelming stickiness of Lost, I can only picture people named Charle as Charlie from Lost.

I think I also liked this book because it was skeptical of all the same things I’m skeptical of: Namely, blowout weddings for couples who only just met. My antenna is always up when that happens IRL, but it was fun to have the chance to be freely judgmental. I guess that’s another lesser-acknowledged virtue of reading. Judge away. Characters can’t have their feelings hurt when you roll your eyes at them.

Are there any claustrophobic books that have spoken to your current situation? Or are you reaching for the opposite kind of book now—travelogues and escapist fantasies? Let me know!

BuyThe Guest List here.

The Roommate by Rosie Danan

Cool trend defy-ing coover

Title: The Roommate
Author: Rosie Danan, debut author! Go Rosie!
Release Date: 2020
Genre: Rom-com with the lights dimmed and the softcore music playing
Describe it in a sentence: 
A buttoned up WASP blows up her life and moves to L.A., where she learns her fetching new roommate is a…….porn star!
TV/movie character who would like it: Rachel Bloom from Crazy Ex Girlfriend

Hello, friends, writers, readers, countrymen. It’s been a long time since I picked up my place in this blog. But that doesn’t mean I’ve been reading–I have been! A lot! What else is a person to do in a pandemic, aside from read, worry, take temperature, drink wine, and repeat? If you have an answer, let me know. (You can check out my full list of 2020 reads here).

Anyway, I wanted to add blogging and reviewing to my list of activities, hopefully to knock the anxiety-related ones off a pedastal.

An exceptionally long wind-up to my saying that The Roommate is one of many rom-coms and romances that have provided me with solace and companionship this year as my own romantic prospects have dwindled. These books, with their twists and turns really just currents leading me to a guaranteed happy endings, have been more than comfort food. They’ve been escape pods to a universe where things keep getting better, not worse. They’re full of people like Josh and Clara, the characters in The Roommate, who are flawed, yes, but undeniably decent.

The book’s premise is what drew me to The Roommate, ever since I heard about it a few months ago. I wouldn’t be surprised if it what draws everyone to The Roommate, actually. It’s provocative: What would it be like to date an adult performer? What would it be like to date as an adult performer?

I found the book’s cheery and wholesome tone to be at odds, occasionally, with the subject matter: I wanted more humor, more sharp prodding at the underlying tension between the characters and their positions on the Great American Pyramd. More Clara freaking out at watching Josh have sex with other women (or at least…broach the topic of jealousy at all!) MORE SEX. But more on that later.

Right, so, the premise: Clara Wheaton is a wealthy WASP from a family with Connecticut pedigree (as in, there are university buildings named after them). In a real Rachel Bloom from Crazy Ex Girlfriend move, she moves across the country to chase down her childhood crush, Everett Bloom, who has a spare room in L.A. Right after she arrives, Everett announces he’s moving, leaving Clara to live with the dimpled stranger he met off Craigslist (Note: I don’t know if he’s supposed to have dimples, but he has them in my head).

Josh, in my head

Enter: Josh Darling, the porn star with a sheen of Midwestern wholesomeness and a heart of gold. (I pictured him as Scott Porter from Friday Night Lights). When Clara learns that her roommate is an adult performer, and holds her breath in so tightly that eventually all of her tightly buttoned up cardigans start to pop.

Until she met Josh, Clara hadn’t given much thought to her own pleasure. Suddenly, it’s all she can think about. They’re both buzzing around at home, constantly horny and yearning, yet unable to give in to each other for different reasons (reminds me of quarantine, TBH).

Finally, these two hyperactive 20-somethings decide to funnel all that energy not into leaping into bed but into…forming a company to teach women to harness their pleasure (and ostensibly give men a GPS to find the clitoris). Their company, Shameless, comes together in rom com-level warp speed, skipping past all the questions I had about logistics. I wanted to know what the product was, its specific pricing, and how they intended to be profitable, okay!

For a book abut embracing pleasure the two characters sure do a good job of denying themselves pleasure constantly. Part of this is for the same reason that allows rom-coms (or most of them) to work: None of This Would Happen If You Just Talked To Each Other Honestly. Lots of miscommunications. But ultimately, they’re able to function despite constantly thudding into a wall of lust.

Here’s the thing.

As someone who has been in a dangerously complicated romanic entanglement with a roommate, I can speak on ths.

The situation is IS A LOT MORE AGONIZING IN REAL LIFE than t’s depicted as being in The Roommate. I needed more torture and high-temperature than I got in The Roommate. Especially given their different positions in life.

Clara has real season 1 of Mad Men energy

This might be a good segue for me to say that I didn’t quite buy them as a couple, Josh and Clara. OR, I would’ve bought them, if Josh and Clara had spent more time actually working out their relationship. Namely, he’s a porn star; she’s an Uptown Girl. I needed them to talk about those things. Not sing the equivalent of a Billy Joel song about it and walk into the sunset.

There’s a place where Danan should’ve slowed down and simmered: The couple’s main conflict at the end. Clara publicly denies that Josh is her boyfriend, because she’s ashamed, because he’s a porn star. Eventually, the conversation gets buttoned up—but without the soul-level excavation of societal programming, gender roles, etc. that’s necessary for them to meet on an even playing field of mutual understanding.

I wanted them to talk about finances, and class, and perception, and privilege, and shame—and how all those filtered into pleasure/female pleasure, their favorite topic of conversation. Talk about why Clara never felt that pleasure was something that should be on her checklist (marrying well, instead, was). And why Josh turned to porn instead of a PhD in art history, when he was aimless (he doesn’t have a trust fund).

Then, once they get together as a couple, I wanted to see them deal with bridging those gaps. That, to me, is the fun. Not only the getting together. The working out, too. An example of a romance novel that does the “working out” bit excellently and convincingly For Real by Alexis Hall. The couple, both men, are about 15 years apart—and their age and wealth gap are grappled with throughout the novel. Since they “get together” (ie sleep together) much sooner than Josh and Clara in The Roommate, this couple has time to, well, talk. Their heads aren’t always buzzing with desire.

The premise of The Roommate book is fascinating, as I stated. Inherent to Josh and Clara’s relationship is a lot to figure out, and a lot to teach each other. I wanted to watch them start the process, at least, of figuring out how this relationship would work in the real world—and maybe I would’ve bought them as a couple more. And bought the scene of Clara’s Greenwich parents having Thanksgiving with Josh (THAT is a conversation I needed to see, especially given her need for their approval!)

Do I sound like a fun sucker? I’m sorry if so. The book was a romp and an optimistic page-turner. I appreciated the characters’ definition of “love” as a kind of freedom to be yourself, and be wholly accepted. I totally recommend it for a feminist take on the porn industry, and a rosy portrayal of what could be in adult entertainment.

The Roommate is a worthy read—after all, it’s always a joy to watch women unravel into puddles of pleasure after reigning themselves in for so long. Sort of like Sandy from Grease, though I could never tell if she wanted to be a Greaser or if she was just changing for Danny.

Josh and Clara in his Corvette

Whether Clara changed for Josh or because of Josh (and I think it’s the latter), I’m happy it happened. Another woman who learns to exhale, sink into her body, and enjoy her life. Even if she and Josh don’t work out (WHICH I KNOW isn’t the point of the book), I think she’ll remember that lesson in Greenwich.

Buy The Roommate

Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane

download (13)Title: Ask Again, Yes
Author: Mary Beth Keane
Release Date: May 28, 2019
Genre: Literary suburban drama
Describe it in a sentence: 
Two neighboring families are forever united by a shocking incident, and forced to keep colliding through a love story.
TV/movie character who would like it: Such a throw-back but I think Ruth of Six Feet Under would appreciate the morbid humor in the characters’ situation,

If you end a book in tears, then you know it worked. It moved ya. This moved me. Bow down, because Mary Beth Keane is a FICTION MASTER. She sets up this impossible situation and boom, lets the cards fall in this remarkable way.

Right, so the Stanhopes and the Gleesons live on the same New Jersey block in the 70s. The dudes in the family had worked for the NYPD at the same time then migrated to the ‘burbs together. The Gleeson house is bursting with lots of joy and daughters. But there’s a strangeness to the Stanhope house. One that the Gleesons don’t go near. Except for Kate, the youngest Gleeson daughter. She can’t stay away from the Stanhope son — and so bruushes with the Stanhope strangeness.

Actually, I’m just going to tease what the event is, because no one should be deprived of a Twist (people who don’t believe in spoilers, get @ me — plot is a thrill experienced without risk and please let us experience our hairpin turns at full velocity!!). Just know that it is really not so great. And the characters have to live with this forevah. Or as long as their lives go on.

Especially Kate Gleeson and Peter Stanhope, whose relationship clinks with their families’ baggage. Hear that? That’s the sound of people who can’t escape their family (it’s a relatable sound).

Ask Again, Yes is a story about family, obviously. How we’re in this long-term relationship with the people that brought us into the world, and who we came into the world alongside. Even estrangement is a kind of relationship. When it comes to a family member, there’s no such thing as a restless absence. There’s a void. A roar. Sometimes the thought of Peter, so lonely, makes me want to reach through the pages and wrap him up in a bear hug.

It’s a story of forgiveness. Of mental health — and what happens when a woman’s wellness is completely ignored, when unhappiness is left to fester. Of neglect and then the process of accepting care after years without it.

I found the ending sentence to be an actual punch in the gut and a hug at the same time. Keane is a helluva story-teller. I recommend this book wholeheartedly to anyone who thinks of life as a voyage, and wants to travel on another person’s.

The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware

61467918_1847418322025053_4237299821543809294_n(1)Title: The Turn of the Key
Author: Ruth Ware
Release Date: August 19
Genre: true psychological thriller, in the sense that you don’t know if she’s actually seeing ghosts or if she’s actually just cray! 
Describe it in a sentence: 
A young woman takes a “perfect” job nannying for a wealth family in a Scottish highlands “smart” mansion — soon, the house starts playing tricks on her (or the kids? or the ghosts? or her mind?)
TV/movie character who would like it: The governess in The Turn of the Screw, who would feel a real solidarity with our girl Rowan.

Summer, as you and I know, is the season for tearing through books. I want books that leave pages shredded in their wake. I want the desire to read to be near-violent. Everything else pales the the book. I’d safely put The Turn of the Key in that category. I finished the book in a day — and told a lot of people about the book during said day. The Turn of the Key is my first Ruth Ware book, though I doubt it’ll be my last. You could wring out the pages and it’d drip Britishness. WE LOVE A GOOD BRITISH READ.

Anyhoo, let’s do the quick “summary” part. The book begins with a young woman writing to a lawyer from prison. She claims she’s been wrongfully convicted for murdering one of the girls she was nannying. She was typecast as murderer. It adhered to the tropey worst nightmare “troubled nanny” story you occasionally see on the news or an Adele Slimani novel. But in this case, the story wasn’t true.

Rowan’s here to salvage her reputation, and maybe get out of prison along the way. She knows her story isn’t perfect. There are phenomena she can’t explain. What were the noises coming from the attic in the house? Why had this family gone through so many nannies? What was the force that ejected people from the house? She knows her story has holes. But she’s hoping she can explain enough of the space around those holes to redeem herself

As someone who grew up babysitting, Rowan’s story was harrowing. She shows up for her first day of nannying in a house like the one in the movie Smart House – each room has cameras and a Siri-equivalent. So yah, she’s being spied on by her type-a employer who reminded me of Gwyneth Paltrow. Then, on her second day of work, the parents DIP OUT for an undisclosed period of time, leaving her with the four daughters (!) one of whom is straight out of a horror movie. She has that limp stare like the kid in a movie poster. Unsurprisingly things get……..out of hand. It doesn’t help that Rowan is kept up at night by terrifying noises. Maybe the same lingering Victorian ghosts that drove out the other nannies.

So, what HAPPENED during those weeks in Heatherbrae House? The book is driven by those big “wtf” questions that you’ll be desperate to answer. In some ways I found the ultimate conclusions somewhat predictable but I also enjoyed the journey there.

If you like any of the following things — Scotland, mysteries, mischievous children, time-hopping books, smart houses, women like the women in Big Little Lies, the book The Turn of the Screw — then point yourself toward Ruth Ware’s latest book.

Fake Like Me by Barbara Bourland

51mAzWVBwOL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgTitle: Fake Like Me
Author: Barbara Bourland
Release Date: June 2019
Genre: Intellectual thriller
Describe it in a sentence: 
After an unnamed painter (wow, I’m just realizing she’s unnamed because she felt so real to me) her latest project in a fire, she travels to the compound of a famous group of painters to repaint; while there, she discovers their secrets. 
TV/movie character who would like it: The artists in Velvet Buzzsaw, a far more satirical take on the art world

I’ve been thinking a lot about scammers. How can’t I, when they’re everywhere? Anna Delvey isn’t sorry for cheating rich, vacuous New Yorkers. Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman were caught in the great scam that is the American “meritocracy.” Last summer there was the great Social Creatures by Tara Isabella Burton; I recently read a great book called Duped by Abby Elin about what it’s like to date a fraud. All of this is to say — I’m fascinated by the subject. 

But whatever else I read, Fake Like Me blows it out of the water. What a thoughtful, philosophical dive into what it means to be a woman, to be an artist, to be a woman artist! After the first-person protagonist’s paintings burn down, she decides to commit what she calls fraud: She’s going to recreate the massive oil paintings, which had taken her three years to paint, over the course of a summer.

In comparison to the other shit that goes down in the novel, though, her intentions are just sweet! Simply adorable! She’s a scammer with the best intentions: Personal ambition. She’s not hurting anyone unlike some of the oooother characters (you know who I’m looking at, you genetically blessed but cruel bunch!)

After pulling some strings, she scores studio space at the upstate commune that belongs to “Park City,” a collective of five artists who hit it big after art school. The most famous, Carey Logan, was known for alarming life-like sculptures of the human body. Two years prior, Carey walked into the lake near Park City and took her own life. None of the remaining artist have ever been the same.

Carey’s the elephant in every room. Think Rebecca of Rebecca, but of its own kind of torture for the artist. Especially since she had always looked up to Carey. Both had pulled themselves up from rough, working class backgrounds; both worked incredibly hard. When the artist starts sleeping with Carey’s ex, Tyler, the lines between her and Carey become thinner.

Bourland clearly knows what she’s writing about. She goes into such detail about the labor required to create art. That art comes from some collision of originality and actual sweat — the skill required to pull a vision into the real world. Every time the artist took measurements about cutting a canvas or paying 22,000 in oil paints my brain jolted. Art is rock ‘n roll, man. I also loved the snippets of dinner party conversation — artists talking about other people’s projects. The way that vast quantities of money are attached to esoteric ideas…the economy of the art world is fascinating. (And also so concerning. This stuff isn’t going to museums! It’s going to the Monopoly Man!)

To add another layer to this book about art, Bourland herself is so obviously an artist. Sentences, all carefully wrought, add up to shape this incredibly complicated character study of many compromised people. I’d recommend slowing down while reading the book. As a notorious speed reader, I found that treating this book more literary and less thriller was rewarding. It deals in ideas as much as plot. So when you get to the end, if you’ve been following the ideas, it’ll have been far more rewarding.

I REALLY recommend this book to people looking for guilt-free page-turners. You’ll underline the shit out of it. I’ll leave you with this brilliant passage of the weight of the seven “virtues” on women. How these concepts police women, but they’re really just traps:

D6pIb_eXYAcIz2_.jpgThe forced perspective of humility. The delirium of purity. The weight of chastity. The rage of temperance. The shame of modesty. The regret of prudence.

The REGRET OF PRUDENCE. *head explosion emoji.* The rim of sadness around all of those nights spend in, spent prudently make sense now.

We Set the Dark On Fire by Tehlor Key Mejia

819wRE-AaMLTitle: We Set the Dark On Fire
Author: Tehlor Kay Mejia
Genre: 
YA dystopia — but not the kind you’re used to
Describe it in a sentence: 
A young woman has been primed to be a “Primera,” or “first wife,” to a man in a world upheld by bigamist marriages and extreme inequality (and some pretty creative mythologies)
TV/movie character who would like it: The women in The Handmaid’s Tale would definitely feel solidarity to Dani’s problems.

In preparation for Refinery29’s YA Month, I’ve been reading a lot of YA. A lot. And I’ve enjoyed a lot of them. But among them all, We Set the Dark on Fire by debut novelist Tehlor Kay Mejia stands out for its timeliness, its stunning prose, and its absolutely new/creative/wonderful world.

Dani was never supposed to get to where she was: At the Primera graduation ceremony, about to be married off to the son of an incredibly powerful family. Years ago, her parents illegally crossed over to Medio, the affluent half of the island, making their daughter’s social ascent possible. So, Dani holds a secret. It will be the first of many.

Dani is married off to Mateo Garcia, poised to be the next President of their country. As a Primera, Dani is supposed to be his partner and intellectual equal. But his soul and body will be nourished by his Segunda wife – Carmen. Of all the wives, Dani didn’t want it to be Carmen. They were sworn enemies. Now, Dani is locked in this cold (but fancy AF) environment. Mateo is like a mini power hungry Commander Fred of The Handmaid’s Tale. He squashes all input from Dani. Her role is to be helpful and supportive. What is she going to do if he rejects all her advances? Well, Mateo knows what he wants her to do: Clean, clean, clean some more. Not quite what she envisioned for herself back at school. But since she’s a Primera, she’s supposed to remain placid, keep her composure.

Of course, Mateo’s so busy being a teenage man about town he doesn’t realize what else is happening right under his nose. Dani and Carmen realize their friction may have come from another source. Not hate, but fascination. Not hate, but looove. Yes! There are some terrific moments of intimacy, punctuating the bleak conditions of Medio. As with my favorite books, there are sprinklings of attraction that remind us why we’re on the planet.

There’s also the other factor moving the book’s plot forward. The revolution. They’ve tapped Dani. She’ll have to sacrifice her safety to be a part of something bigger than herself.

Mejia has tapped into something special with this book. It’s politically relevant, yet, but also emotionally potent. I was cheering Dani on. She’s not invulnerable, not completely brave all the time like so many YA protagonists in dystopias are. She has to become brave, because no one else is looking out for her in this cold, unequal world. TOO REAL!

I’m really looking forward to seeing how she expands the world in the next book. Unlike adult dystopias, there’s a glimpse of hope at the end of this book. Dani might be all right. Medio might be, too.

Are You the Most Important Person In the World? Or: The Heavens by Sandra Newman

91mmm8FL3xL.jpgTitle: The Heavens
Author: Sandra Newman
Genre: 
Literary fiction (but the kind you can tear through)
Describe it in a sentence: 
A young woman believes that her dreams — which uniformly take place in Elizabethan England — are actually real; they start having an impact on her life in New York. 
TV/movie character who would like it: Nadia of Russian Doll, who also wakes up in a slightly altered universe every day

Most of the time, I take home books for work, read a few pages, and move on. But The Heavens wrapped its smoky coils around me and kept me inside its enchanting, wildly imaginative story until I found out what would happen (and TBH, I still don’t completely know).

Do you ever wonder what your place in the world is; if it matters? Are you ever pulled between the impulses of thinking you’re insignificant, versus thinking you’re extremely special? Kate feels destined for something. She always has. It’s because of her dreams. Her dreams that seem realer than real life.

Real life, for Kate, takes place in an alternate New York in the year 2000. This is a clean, bright, beautiful city — kind of a liberal’s fever dream. There are no cars! Global warming isn’t even a phrase anyone knows! Kate lives with her wealthy friend in a large apartment building, where a cast of colorful characters walks in and out. At one such party, Kate meets Ben, the man who will remain her constant on what will become a haywire journey. At the party, they debate about the validity of the “great man” theory. Is it possible that a few key individuals really define the course of human history? But they’re so swept up in fast love that they don’t continue the argument.

Kate begins to dream more frequently. Her dreams last longer, are more vivid. And when she wakes up, she wakes up in a world slightly altered by whatever she changed in her dream — and altered for the worst. Kate doesn’t understand very basic facts of this new world she’s woken up in. A new president? Cars on the road? Her friends think she’s quirky, at first. Then, after enough lapses, they think she’s deranged.

Is she deranged? Newman keeps us guessing throughout this structurally inventive novel. The whole time I read this book, I questioned whether it was possible a book could be so up my alley. Guess what? It can be! This is a bold, playful foray into big questions: The fate of ourselves, the fate of the world. What a thrill to read a book that defies all of our expectations, and takes us on a wild ride instead.

The Hating Game by Sally Thorne & The Curse of the “Nice Guy”

514sa3HcecL.jpgTitle: The Hating Game
Author: Sally Thorne
Genre: 
hot hot HOT romance, plus some jokes
Describe it in a sentence: 
Two co-workers at an Australian publishing house think that they hate each other, but it turns out that hate is just masking lakes and lakes of luuust (and eventually maybe love?)
TV/movie character who would like it: This book was pulled straight out of the central romance in Much Ado About Nothing. Beatrice and Benedick would see Josh and Lucy and nod knowingly.

I first heard about The Hating Game when I was researching a story about rom-com books for Refinery29. Thorne’s debut novel pre-dates the current rom-com resurgence by a few years. This book came out all the way back in 2016; it’s only now that rom-coms are flooding the market with their cute illustrated covers. These covers mask a whole lot of sexiness, you guys. Because This. Book. Is. SEXY!

Lucy and Joshua are co-workers at Bexley and Gamin, a publishing house that had merged a few years prior. Just as Bexley and Gamin had two different governing philosophies, so do Lucy and Joshua. They’re polar opposites (for more reasons than their height difference). Josh is a neat freak, uptight, seething, grouch. Everyone in the office is afraid of him. Lucy makes it her job to be professionally agreeable — to everyone except Josh. When the book kicks off, Lucy and Josh are regularly throwing insults and each other and racking up HR violations (TBH they do not work in the healthiest work environment – their bosses pit them against each other in a race for a promotion and it’s very corporate Hunger Games).

Don’t be fooled by their friction. Friction fuels fire! The more these two good-looking leads combat each other, the more other feelings grow. Lucy finds herself drowning in her all-consuming hatred for Josh, and then the weird feelings of affection that sprout the more she looks into his eyes.

Sally Thorne is great at writing rom-coms. I would read her rom-coms for days. Quippy dialogue, singular characters, plot that traipses along in between “the good parts” (and you know what the good parts are. I believe in Lucy and Josh’s chemistry.

BUT. I totally worry for them! I worry for their emotional intelligence! First of all, it’s not healthy to fill up your days with a deep and wild hatred for your coworker. Second of all, Josh makes being a “nice guy” out to be like, the worst trait in the world. In the book, “nice” is code for boring, dull, safe, etc. Josh is not expressly “nice” but he will love Lucy with scary intensity. And somehow that is a fair exchange? A loyal pitbull man instead of a friendly golden retriever.

Admittedly, I have historically been drawn to guys like Josh. Guys who make you bend over backwards to crumple their intensity. Cold guys, who make you so hungry for affection that you’ll blush at a smile. Stubborn guys who don’t deviate from their own code of ethics. Hard-working guys who promise they’ll take you where they’re going — so long as you play by their rules. My relationships ended when I had to ask for the simple request: Please be kind to me.

Guys like Josh can be sexy! But the whole book I kept saying to myself – Lucy, be careful! Yes, he makes you feel special now — but only because he’s been a total ass for so many years. Maybe I’m reading too far into this? But the “gruff asshole is secretly a kind softie” is a trope that I see work out in a lot of books, but not necessarily in real life. What do you think?

Overall, I definitely recommend The Hating Game, if you take the relationship with a grain of salt, and not as a model. Here’s hoping that Josh is kind to her as his relationship with Lucy continues (and that he doesn’t turn into his father!)