3 Star Reads, Adult Fiction

Book Review: Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller

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★ ★ ★

When I saw that Claire Fuller was releasing another novel, I could not contain my excitement and contacted the publisher for an ARC, so first and foremost, thank you to Tin House Books for kindly sending me a copy. I’ve had to restrain my thoughts for this review for months now, so I’m glad I can finally share with everyone because Claire Fuller is one of my favorite author’s and Bitter Orange is her latest gem.

A hazy, hot summer read about a woman on her last days, looking back on her life and recalling the memory of summer 1969 where she lived with a mysterious couple in a decaying English estate in the countryside. Frances is the sole narrator for Bitter Orange, one who makes for an unreliable storyteller, which I enjoyed for this. The novel had a very blurry feel, almost like a dream sequence, because of Frances being an unstable narrator and not knowing if what she is saying is true or accurate because in the present day her memory is fading—and even through her recalling that one summer, she appears as a naive and awkward individual which made for a complex and intriguing main character.

Unusual things begin happening around the estate and we do not know if it is haunted, if it’s in Frances’ mind, or if the newly arrived couple who’ve caught Frances attention has something to do with it because they are a strange couple and Frances becomes quite obsessed and with that comes blurred lines and might induce some delusional behavior. Claire Fuller writes beautiful prose that is always atmospheric and eerie, and this was no exception. While this almost feels suffocating and cloudy, almost like a scorching hot humid summer day, it would make for the perfect fall read because of that disoriented and foggy perspective about what went on during the summer of 1969.

Synopsis 

From the attic of Lyntons, a dilapidated English country mansion, Frances Jellico sees them—Cara first: dark and beautiful, then Peter: striking and serious. The couple is spending the summer of 1969 in the rooms below hers while Frances is researching the architecture in the surrounding gardens. But she’s distracted. Beneath a floorboard in her bathroom, she finds a peephole that gives her access to her neighbors’ private lives.
To Frances’ surprise, Cara and Peter are keen to get to know her. It is the first occasion she has had anybody to call a friend, and before long they are spending every day together: eating lavish dinners, drinking bottle after bottle of wine, and smoking cigarettes until the ash piles up on the crumbling furniture. Frances is dazzled.
But as the hot summer rolls lazily on, it becomes clear that not everything is right between Cara and Peter. The stories that Cara tells don’t quite add up, and as Frances becomes increasingly entangled in the lives of the glamorous, hedonistic couple, the boundaries between truth and lies, right and wrong, begin to blur. Amid the decadence, a small crime brings on a bigger one: a crime so terrible that it will brand their lives forever.

Hardcover, 320 pages
Published October 9th 2018 by Tin House Books

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I received a copy in exchange for an unbiased review from the publisher. All opinions are my own.

4 Star Reads, Adult Fiction, Book Reviews

Book Review: As Bright as Heaven by Susan Meissner

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★ ★ ★ ★

What a breathtaking introduction to Susan Meissner’s novels. A thoughtful, heartwrenching story set in 1918, Philadelphia during the Great War, as the Spanish Flu makes its way to the shores of America. It’s told from the perspective of the Bright women; Pauline and her three daughters, Evie, Maggie, and Willa, as they make their way to a new city for a better life.  What comes is the tragedy of war and loss, the journey of coming-of-age and grief, and a miracle baby that brings hope to a distraught family during one of the darkest times in history.

It usually takes me a couple days to get through a book, but I read this in one night. In fact, I stayed awake until 6am to finish it because I could not put it down and would not rest until I read the last page. Then I laid in bed for half an hour thinking about the story and how I was going to put my thoughts into perspective for this review. While it was a slow burn for me, it was captivating and picked up about 2/3 the way through. Even when it came to the characters I did not particularly like, I felt for them in those difficult times because Meissner’s writing reaches you as a reader and you can’t help but want peace for all of them.

There is so much heartache and sorrow in this novel, but there is also perseverance, hope, and growth. Even when it came to an end, I wanted to know what came next for the Bright family. Whether you are new to historical fiction or looking for a story that pulls at your heart-strings but comes together in the end, Bright as Heaven is one to pick up.

Synopsis 

In 1918, Philadelphia was a city teeming with promise. Even as its young men went off to fight in the Great War, there were opportunities for a fresh start on its cobblestone streets. Into this bustling town, came Pauline Bright and her husband, filled with hope that they could now give their three daughters–Evelyn, Maggie, and Willa–a chance at a better life.
But just months after they arrive, the Spanish Flu reaches the shores of America. As the pandemic claims more than twelve thousand victims in their adopted city, they find their lives left with a world that looks nothing like the one they knew. But even as they lose loved ones, they take in a baby orphaned by the disease who becomes their single source of hope. Amidst the tragedy and challenges, they learn what they cannot live without–and what they are willing to do about it.

Hardcover, 387 pages
Published February 6th 2018 by Berkley Books

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4 Star Reads, Adult Fiction

Book Review: The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill

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★ ★ ★ ★

Women’s Prize for Fiction Nominee for Longlist (2017), The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill is about two gifted orphans who travel around the city performing artistic routines but are separated as teenagers and sent to work as servants during the Great Depression. The story follows their lives until they finally reunite and set out to accomplish their childhood dream–the most extraordinary and seductive circus show the world has ever seen.

I did not expect my first book of 2018 to have me feeling so conflicted, and I can only hope this isn’t the setup for the rest of the reading year. Let me just say, this is not going to be a short review like I usually write because of that. I thought this was going to be a 5-star read for me because the premise was intriguing, the praises were high, and I thought I was going to love it. This has been compared to The Night Circus, which is one of my favorite novels, but let’s be clear: it is not similar aside from the whimsical cover and magical prose with metaphors.

The Lonely Hearts Hotel was gritty and disturbing, but it was like being immersed in a modern dark whimsical fairytale. It’s very magical and the world-building created this haunting yet at times hopeful atmosphere. The story began with a lot of potential, but the slow pace made it difficult to read more than a couple chapters at a time because after about 200 pages, it was just repetitive.

Set in the backdrop of the Great Depression, this is a very bleak setting for our characters, but despite everything they go through, they remain imaginative and hold onto their childhood dreams. There is a lot going on in this book; drugs, the underground scene, gangsters, prostitution, pornography, exquisite performers, imaginative characters, evil nuns, a prodigy pianist–and that is just naming a few. There were clowns, too, but what I could not get over is the number of chapters focused on clowns–that was a section I skimmed, and not because I have an issue with clowns. but because at that point, the story was being stretched out and I just couldn’t care less about what was going on.

Some readers may be uncomfortable or find it difficult to read some of the subject matter in this because at times it was brutal. Within the first couple of chapters, there is a fair amount of child molestation, and throughout there are forms of abuse. If those are triggers for you or you just don’t want to read about that, this book may be one you don’t want to pick up. This, however, did not factor into my rating.

I went into this with an open-mind, and you should not go into this with the expectation of a happy ending because it was bittersweet–Pierrot’s fate was evident about a quarter of the way through the story, and Rose became someone that as a reader, you caught glimpses of throughout the years, but fully developed at the conclusion. O’Neill’s writing has a way of leaving you–at least in my experience–disconnected from the characters, so there is never really a connection, you don’t feel an impact with what they are going through, but the last couple of chapters leading to the conclusion wrecked me.

That aside, it was an incredible story, and no matter how many times I put it down, I always found time to continue reading it because I wanted to know the ending.  This is more of a 3.5/5 star read for me, but was so close to being 4 stars–I just think some of it could have been cut to make this not so slow-paced and underwhelming at times. I did not enjoy this as much as I expected, but I still liked it and would recommend it.

Synopsis

Two babies are abandoned in a Montreal orphanage in the winter of 1910. Before long, their talents emerge: Pierrot is a piano prodigy; Rose lights up even the dreariest room with her dancing and comedy. As they travel around the city performing clown routines, the children fall in love with each other and dream up a plan for the most extraordinary and seductive circus show the world has ever seen.
Separated as teenagers, sent off to work as servants during the Great Depression, both descend into the city’s underworld, dabbling in sex, drugs and theft in order to survive. But when Rose and Pierrot finally reunite beneath the snowflakes after years of searching and desperate poverty the possibilities of their childhood dreams are renewed, and they’ll go to extreme lengths to make them come true. Soon, Rose, Pierrot and their troupe of clowns and chorus girls have hit New York, commanding the stage as well as the alleys, and neither the theater nor the underworld will ever look the same.

Kindle Edition, 400 pages
Published February 7th 2017 by Riverhead Books

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5 Star Reads, Adult Fiction, Book Reviews

Book Review: The Gentleman by Forrest Leo

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★ ★ ★ ★ ★

The Gentleman is Forrest Leo’s debut novel, about a husband who conjures the Devil, and accidentally sells his wife, which results in planning a rescue mission to Hell. A variety of personas come along for the quest, and a whole lot of over-the-top encounters happen along the way that will have you laughing out loud. I have been talking about this novel to anyone willing to listen, and I think I will for a while even now that I finished reading it.

There was so much about this novel that I enjoyed, especially the writing style–it was one of those stories that captured me from the first page and brought me along on the ridiculous adventure that took place. The novel itself is beautiful with the dust-jacket’s vivid colors, the hardcover is red with a gold spine, and the author’s initials are engraved on the cover. Throughout the book, there are illustrations and footnotes that I really enjoyed while reading because it brought another experience to the reader. While it is a short read, I took my time to cherish how exquisite the novel is as a whole. It was hysterical and delightful.

I would not mind seeing this as a play, or possibly a movie, as long as it sticks to the story-line because there wasn’t an aspect in this that I didn’t find entertaining. It is a charming, enjoyable story that is full of madness and humor that is crafted so brilliantly. Between the story and the characters, it was a memorable read that I will continue to come back to, and recommend to anyone looking for a fun and lighthearted novel. It is an absurd, action-packed, and witty read, and I cannot wait to read more of Leo’s novels in the future.

Synopsis

When Lionel Savage, a popular poet in Victorian London, learns from his butler that they’re broke, he marries the beautiful Vivien Lancaster for her money, only to find that his muse has abandoned him.
Distraught and contemplating suicide, Savage accidentally conjures the Devil — the polite “Gentleman” of the title — who appears at one of the society parties Savage abhors. The two hit it off: the Devil talks about his home, where he employs Dante as a gardener; Savage lends him a volume of Tennyson. But when the party’s over and Vivien has disappeared, the poet concludes in horror that he must have inadvertently sold his wife to the dark lord.
Newly in love with Vivien, Savage plans a rescue mission to Hell that includes Simmons, the butler; Tompkins, the bookseller; Ashley Lancaster, swashbuckling Buddhist; Will Kensington, inventor of a flying machine; and Savage’s spirited kid sister, Lizzie, freshly booted from boarding school for a “dalliance.” Throughout, his cousin’s quibbling footnotes to the text push the story into comedy nirvana.

Hardcover, 287 pages
Published August 16th 2016 by Penguin Press

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I received a copy in exchange for an unbiased review from the publisher. All opinions are my own