Review: Educated

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***5 Goodreads Stars**

“My life was narrated for me by others. Their voices were forceful, emphatic, absolute. It had never occurred to me that my voice might be as strong as theirs.”

“My father and I looked at the temple. He saw God; I saw granite. We looked at each other. He saw a woman damned; I saw an unhinged old man, literally disfigured by his beliefs.”

Educated is a memoir of Tara Westover’s unusual upbringing in a fundamentalist Mormon household in rural Idaho. It is a heartbreaking, gritty account of life in a family who believes the Second Coming is near, who abandon formal education for homeschooling, Western medicine for essential oils and herbs, and the outside world for family. God, Westover’s parents reasoned, would provide, and His will would be done without the perceived constraints of the external world.

Had I not spent the last 9 years in Idaho, I might not believe that some of Westover’s story could possibly be true. Reading about how Westover’s parents eschewed hospitals when their children had severe injuries and burns, ripped seatbelts out of their cars because God was in control, and avoided public schooling because they perceived the government as corrupt and sinful was not shocking or surprising to me. The extreme remoteness of much of Idaho’s geography allows radical groups to flourish and go unnoticed by local authorities, giving them complete control and reign over their children and sometimes even local communities. For Westover this meant that any abuse she suffered at the hands of her parents and brothers would stay within her household until she could pry her way out of it tooth and nail.

The most miraculous part of Westover’s story doesn’t involve God but rather Westover’s sheer will to access education and break free from her family’s toxic household. In order to access college, she had to carve out time to study books on the ACT, a college entrance exam. Her father makes this hard, forcing her to work in his junk yard during the day, salvaging and sorting through brittle, dangerously sharp metal to be resold. Westover has to petition the county clerk for a formal birth certificate since she and her siblings were born at home; her mother cannot remember what year or month she was born.

Westover’s admittance to the Mormon Brigham Young University is met with familial disdain. In one instance, her parents throw all her clothes out in the rain when they find out she is heading back to college. When she comes home in between breaks at college, her father tries to assert control and authority over her as does her abusive and violent brother, Shawn. Both want her to be back in the fold, and try to manipulate her to stay through both emotional and physical violence. Ultimately, her choice to pursue an education forces her to make a choice between her parents and the siblings who work for them and the siblings who have left her family’s homestead for education and a life beyond their purview. Her parents convince her uneducated siblings that Westover has been turned by the devil, and tell them she is not welcome back home.

It is education (hence the title of the book, “Educated”) that thus creates a vast chasm between Westover’s siblings and parents; two of her brothers left home and managed to get Ph.D.s, both of whom choose education over their family, and both of whom become lifeboats for Westover. Education makes Westover realize just how much of her inner world was controlled and conditioned by her father and mother. Like a number of fundamentalist groups in Idaho, Westover’s father preached that slavery was good, “that slaves in colonial times were happier and more free than their masters, because the masters were burdened with the cost of their care.” Westover discovers how anti-Semitism colored her understanding of the past when she takes an introductory course on Western civilization at Brigham Young. Her parents never taught her about the Holocaust, leading to a series of intellectually embarrassing moments for her at college.

Because Westover was deprived of what many Americans consider common knowledge, the outside world is daunting for her. Westover was not merely deprived of a formal education; she was also deprived of the very knowledge she would need to survive in daily life. Since her parents were anti-government and believed that the Illuminati had infiltrated the US government, she had no idea how any sort of formalized processes worked. Her parents didn’t have auto insurance. They didn’t register their cars. They avoided hospitals at all costs. Westover has to learn to navigate everything on her own. Visiting a doctor for the first time is terrifying. She has never done it before, so she takes a friend with her to help. When she’s prescribed antibiotics for strep throat and mono, she’s scared to take the medicine:

“I thought of Mother, and of the many times she’d told me that antibiotics poison the body, that they cause infertility and birth defects. That the spirit of the Lord cannot dwell in an unclean vessel, and that no vessel is clean when it forsakes God and relies on man. Or maybe Dad had said that last part.”

For readers unfamiliar with extremist religious groups, this is an eye-opening tale of personal redemption and struggle amid a violent, abusive upbringing. This book offers more than just a shocking account of life in a fundamentalist household, however. It is breathtakingly written. Passages like the one below make the story come to life and feel as though you were in the author’s shoes:

“For two days we explored Rome, a city that is both a living organism and a fossil. Bleached structures from antiquity lay like dried bones, embedded in pulsating cables and thrumming traffic, the arteries of modern life.”

Thank you to the author, Tara Westover, the publisher, Random House, and NetGalley for an advanced reader copy of Educated.

Review: Friends and Other Liars

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**5 Goodreads Stars**

It is a pleasure to review Kaela Coble’s debut novel Friends and Other Liars for a blog tour in celebration of the book’s publication month. This breakout book is a simmering mystery that explores how long-held secrets can eat away at relationships, even ones built on the strongest of foundations.

The book features richly drawn characters who are multi-dimensional and relatable despite (or due to, I suppose) their human flaws. The story centers on Ruby, who left her down and out hometown of Chatwick to pursue a fancy education at New York University and an exciting life in New York City. When Ruby gets a call that her friend Danny has died, she reluctantly returns to Chatwick and is forced to face her high school clique known as “the crew.”

Danny, who died of a heroin overdose, has left envelopes containing the crew’s deepest, darkest secrets. Danny requests that the crew reveal their secrets in front of one another. Ruby and the crew either put off Danny’s post-mortem request or craft a lie to cover up the true “secret,” which leads them all down darker paths. Soon, more notes from “Danny” appear in the crew’s mailboxes, cars, and workplaces, leaving the crew unhinged. What does Danny know, and how does he know it? Will their secrets come to light, and if they do, will the crew lose their jobs, their families, and their relationships with one another?

I really enjoyed the relationship between Ruby and Murphy, and it brought me back to the days I was in high school. Murphy was Ruby’s best friend growing up. Eventually they developed feelings for each other, which lead to heartbreak and tears when Ruby decided she wanted to leave Chatwick for college. I empathized with Ruby because I, too, left my hometown where I knew everybody in order to start anew in college in a big, bustling city. It meant leaving behind friends and unrequited relationships, and coming back to town is always a bit awkward and uncomfortable because of it. Coble really captured the spirit of what it is like to desire someone who isn’t willing to follow you on your adventures after high school, someone who wants to stay put and take pleasure in the normalcy of small-town life.

Thank you to the author, Kaela Coble, the publisher, Sourcebooks, and NetGalley for an advanced reader copy of Friends and Other Liars. I look forward to seeing what Coble writes next!

Review: Half Moon Bay

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**1 Goodreads Stars**

I really hate giving bad book reviews. I know how much they hurt as someone who also writes (but for an academic audience) for a living. Unfortunately, I just could not get into Alice LaPlante’s Half Moon Bay. I finished it because I wanted to know the book’s ending, but I am not sure if the book was worth persevering.

The book takes place in the foggy, touristy seaside town of Half Moon Bay (in California), which is lusciously depicted on the stunning cover of Half Moon Bay. The book is told from the perspective of Jane, a middle age woman whose teenage daughter was hit and killed by a car. In the aftermath, Jane’s husband leaves her, and Jane is left to find some way of finding meaning in a life that seems full of infinite meaningless without her daughter.

Jane moves to Half Moon Bay after an incident involving her and the woman who hit her daughter (which was ruled an accident) in Berkeley. She seeks refuge there, free of the baggage she was carrying with her in Berkeley. But the past always has a way of catching up with people. As soon as Jane arrives, little girls are kidnapped, and all eyes turn on her. Even Jane wonders if she’s capable of the crime. She often floats in and out of the world by drinking and roaming the beach at night, utterly lost and destitute without her daughter and husband.

A new couple comes to Half Moon Bay in the midst of the kidnappings, who charm and woe Jane. Jane finds herself entangled in a nuanced and somewhat confounding relationship with the couple, one that is the only thing that makes sense to Jane in a nonsensical world. Who is this couple, and why have they decided to bring Jane into their fold? Do they have ulterior motives?

The book is very, very sad, dark, moody, and atmospheric. Parts of it read like the author’s (or lead character’s) stream of consciousness. The narrative isn’t necessarily linear, reflecting the interior status of Jane’s mind and feelings. She is lost, forever unmoored after losing her daughter. The book meandered and went in so many directions that, at times, I felt as lost as Jane. I was hoping for a bit more suspense and tension, but in the end this book just left me sad and wanting. Maybe that’s what the author was aiming for, but it didn’t sit well with me. The ending also came out of nowhere, and did not seem true to the book.

Thank you to the author, Alice LaPlante, the publisher, Simon & Schuster, and Edelweiss+ for an advanced reader copy of Half Moon Bay.

Review: The French Girl

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**4 Goodreads Stars**

“I wonder, is everyone not who I thought? Maybe nobody ever really knows anyone. And then I wonder; in that case, does anyone know me?”

“His words ring in my head as I pull up the files for my ten o’clock. She said you hadn’t been acting yourself. Acting. Is that all we humans ever really do? Act, and play, and present an approximation of something that becomes ourselves?”

The French Girl by Lexie Elliott is a slow burn of a read, a fire that grows in intensity with every turn of the page. University friends rent out a home in the French countryside for a weekend filled with a dangerous mix of love, alcohol, and drugs. Their fun is cut short when Severine, a lithe, attractive French girl with whom the group interacted, goes missing.

The friends escape the initial criminal investigation unscathed, but a decade later, Severine is back: her corpse found at the bottom of a well near the house they rented. The discovery brings the six friends under the scrutiny of a French investigator, and back together (for better or worse) to solve the mystery of Severine’s murder.

There’s Kate, the main character of the novel, who is a lawyer hoping to build a successful recruiting firm. Seb is Kate’s impossibly handsome ex-boyfriend who broke her heart after severing ties with her the night Severine went missing. Caro is a ruthless, wealthy Oxford bred lawyer who is snobby and insecure, and who has always had an eye for Seb. There’s Theo, who was killed in war abroad after the group’s fateful French escapade. Lara is Kate’s best friend, someone who is both admiringly beautiful and honest to a fault (or so it seems). Finally, there’s the attractive but maddeningly hard to read Tom, Seb’s cousin, who has remained Lara and Kate’s friend since Severine went missing.

Kate, the main character, is haunted by Severine, seeing her apparition everywhere she goes. Is Severine trying to tell her something? Did Kate have something to do with her disappearance? Are her friends truly her friends? Is everything she recalled about that weekend in the French countryside the truth, or is there something she is repressing in her memory that can help solve Severine’s murder?

This book has many beautifully written and complex passages that you’ll want to drink like a well aged wine: slowly, savoring each of its flavors. I enjoyed reading this book with the Traveling Sisters, a Goodreads reading group. Thanks to the author, Lexie Elliott, the publisher, Berkley Books, and Edelweiss+ for the advanced reader copy of The French GirlThe French Girl comes out February 20, 2018.

Review: The Real Michael Swann

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**5 Goodreads Stars**

A mysterious man sets a forest aflame next to a railroad, diverting oncoming trains back to a train station. Not much later, a man wanders into the same train station with a briefcase full of explosives. A few minutes later, the train station is blown to pieces, leaving thousands of people dead and injured.

What happened that fateful day? Who is responsible for the killings?

Bryan Reardon’s The Real Michael Swann centers on this mystery, focusing on how it ripples through the lives of the Swann family. Michael Swann is at the train station, Penn Station to be more specific, when the blast goes off. Julia Swann, Michael’s wife, is on the phone with him when the explosion happens. Michael’s phone goes dead, leading Julia on a wild chase to find her husband and discover the truth about what happened that terrible day.

Is Michael somehow involved in the terrorist plot? Who is behind the plot, and how is the Swann family involved?

This book pulses with heart and tension. The heartbreak and terror Julia experiences as not only Michael’s wife but the mother to their two boys bleeds through the pages. I found the ending very satisfying but bittersweet. I read the book in less than 24 hours because I could not put it down!

Thank you to the author, Bryan Reardon, the publisher, Dutton, and Edelweiss+ for the opportunity to read an advanced reader copy of The Real Michael Swann. The book will be available for purchase on June 12, 2018.