Review: The Guest Room

The Guest Room, Chris Bohjalian

Published January 5th 2016 by Doubleday

Hardcover, 336 pages

Source: e-ARC from Edelweiss

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When Kristin Chapman agrees to let her husband, Richard, host his brother’s bachelor party, she expects a certain amount of debauchery. She brings their young daughter to Manhattan for the evening, leaving her Westchester home to the men and their hired entertainment. What she does not expect is this: bacchanalian drunkenness, her husband sharing a dangerously intimate moment in the guest room, and two women stabbing and killing their Russian bodyguards before driving off into the night.

In the aftermath, Kristin and Richard’s life rapidly spirals into nightmare. The police throw them out of their home, now a crime scene, Richard’s investment banking firm puts him on indefinite leave, and Kristin is unsure if she can forgive her husband for the moment he shared with a dark-haired girl in the guest room. But the dark-haired girl, Alexandra, faces a much graver danger. In one breathless, violent night, she is free, running to escape the police who will arrest her and the gangsters who will kill her in a heartbeat.

I read The Guest Room in a day – not a stay at home reading day – granted a ridiculous train commute added to my reading time – but I worked all day and found time to finish.  That’s how compelling this book was!  Chris Bohjalian tweeted at me when I said I was in shock, “My books walk a tightrope between heartbreak and hope.  Never sure on which side they will end up.”  That’s a pretty accurate summation of my feelings at the end of this one.  Heartbroken and hopeful both.  

Richard is kind of an idiot for offering to host his brother’s bachelor party in his family home – and from that bad decision many others play out.  Another friend arranges for strippers to be at the party, but they didn’t expect the strippers to be sex slaves who kill their bodyguards and run.  I feel like this book could have been turned simply into a simple mystery with a lot of action and gore – it is what makes Bohjalian so great that this was an extremely emotional read while still tense and compelling.  

We follow Richard, his wife Kristin, and their young daughter Melissa as they each try to deal with what happened and recenter their family after such a violation of their home – both by Richard and by the murder.  We also follow Alexandra and learn how she went from an Armenian school girl to a victim of an international slavery ring.  Her story is all the more heartbreaking when you realize how disgustingly common it is.  Alexandra’s story pulls no punches – the language is graphic and her life is violent.  This was a strong juxtaposition to the chapters from the point of view of Richard’s spoiled 9 year-old.  What very different lives for these girls.  I was really surprised at how invested I felt on both sides of the story though – I worried about Richard’s future nearly as much as I worried about Alexandra.  And oh his poor wife!  How do you stay married?!  What do you do? Clearly I’m definitely still reeling from this book and the ending.  This would be a great book club book – I very much need to talk it over with someone!  

This was so incredibly different than Bohjalian’s last book Close Your Eyes Hold Hands – which I also really enjoyed and also left me emotionally all over the place.   Last, if you check out his website you can read about the Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking and the work they do – check it out!

5 stars!

Thank you Doubleday and Edelweiss for this advance copy in exchange for an honest opinion.

Nonfiction Review: Romantic Outlaws

Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley

By Charlotte Gordon

Random House, 2015

Source: e-ARCs from Edelweiss

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Holly

You guys. This book was my white whale of 2015.

Let me tell you a (not)secret: I do not read nearly as many books as my sister. To date, I have read about half as many books as my 2015 goal – in part because I spent so much time not-reading Romantic Outlaws.

I started this book in March. I finished it in September. More accurately, I started and stopped this book in March and then read this book in September, but it weighed heavily on me in the interim.

Anyway, you should read this book, but I won’t pressure you about when. Take your time.

I chose – and labored over – this book because Amanda said: ‘hey, let’s read this!” All I knew of Mary Wollstonecraft I remembered from Mr. Nall’s AP European History class, and she sounded like someone I should know more about, having written A Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792, well before the first-wave feminist movement began in earnest.

I went into this book with no idea what I was getting into with the Marys.

Amanda

I too, think I read this book forever.  This is not a read for the faint of heart – it is 672 pages.  But it was completely fascinating and worth all of the time it took.  I really didn’t believe a nonfiction book this long would keep me enthralled but I was hooked.  Occasionally I was thrown off by too many Marys, but I really loved how we flashed back and forth from mother to daughter.

Holly

Mary Wollstonecraft was born in 1759, and died in 1797, when her daughter Mary Shelley was born. Mary W had unquestionably shitty parents – an abusive father and a checked-out mother – and she spent her childhood moving around as her father dodged debts or chased various schemes. Mary W decided she wanted more out of life, and took initiative to make things happen – starting with her writing. She wrote articles, then books, and then decided to document the French Revolution in real time. She willingly went to Paris during the terror while blood is running in the streets. There Mary, not one for social conventions, fell in love and had a child out of wedlock. She was up for the challenges she faced from society, though she had more trouble with her rocky relationship and her own depression. Back in England a few years later, Mary met and eventually married William Godwin, who had once called a husband’s legalized possession of a woman in marriage “odious selfishness.”

Mary Shelley grew up with her father, William Godwin, who remarried shortly after his wife’s death. Godwin, while an interesting person, turned out to be not a winning parent himself. Mary S, singled out her whole life as the child of intellectual heavyweights, went through a rebellious teenaged period which resulted in her running off with the poet Percy Shelley. The married poet Shelley. This was a bad scene, made worse by the fact that Mary’s step-sister and rival, Jane, tagged along. Then Jane changed her name to Claire, and there were pregnancies and rumors and the poet-playboy Lord Byron and before long, the girls and the poets were nicknamed “the league of incest.” All the while, Godwin was either not-speaking to his daughter, or asking her to get Shelley to send money. Along the way, Mary Shelley developed into a talented writer herself, truly the equal of her husband. Mary and Percy marry, eventually, after his wife’s suicide. Seriously – these stories are fascinating.

The book flips with a chapter on Wollstonecraft then a chapter on Shelley. At first, I found this jarring, but when I tackled this book in September I just decided to take notes along the way. Once I actually got into this book, it was a page-turner – in part, because of the scandals and antics, but also because of the impact that mother & daughter had on writing, on feminist ideology, and on the societies in which they lived.

Amanda

Do you ever have that experience when you’re really into a book then find that it relates to everything around you?  As I was reading about Mary W making the choice to stay in France during the Revolution and what she wrote about the revolutionaries I was also reading The Secret History of the Pink Carnation books.  That series focuses on the English nobles who, at times, actively worked with the displaced French nobility.  I had a whole new perspective on my fun historical fiction read.  

Then I met Lord Byron – the Justin Bieber of his time. Seriously, I need to read more about him.  But I then flashed back to Almost Famous Women and the story of poor and illegitimate Allegra Byron.  Does this happen to anyone else?  I swear I referenced this book all the time in conversation and I talked my husband’s ears off.  These Marys were just amazing! I have 21 pages of highlights in my kindle from this book.  I won’t give you all of those – but will leave you with Gordon’s words:

Even those who revere mother and daughter do not fully realize how profoundly they changed the moral code of the day… Not only did they write world-changing books, they broke from the strictures that governed women’s conduct, not once but time and time again.  Their refusal to bow down, to subside and surrender, to be quiet and subservient, to apologize and hide, makes their lives as memorable as the words they left behind.  

So Holly, when are we going to start reading A Vindication of the Rights of Women and Frankenstein?

Read this! Nonfiction November is coming!

Thank you Random House for these advance read copies in exchange for honest opinions!

Review(ish) – Yes Please

Sometime last year, my two besties from high school (and loyal GIAO readers!) and I started talking about reading a book together to discuss and review. Initially, that book was going to be Hillary Clinton’s Hard Choices. Then, we took it down a few notches and decided to read Amy Poehler’s Yes Please together.

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This led to a series of texts and emails over a few weeks about the book, about the virtues of reading, and about coolness. Reading is obviously a pretty solitary activity, but discussing a book with friends can be all sorts of fun. I highly recommend it (and guys, let’s do it again!).

So, here’s what we thought about the book (texts and messages have been edited to sound way more put together than the conversation actually was. My buddies are Bestie 1 and Bestie 2 – they are both brilliant and hilarious.

H: How’s the book going?

Bestie 1: I’m about halfway through – she is funny, but I can’t stop comparing it in my mind to Tina Fey’s book which I thought was funnier. Not a fair comparison, but that’s what’s happening.

H: I am also comparing to Tina Fey, but not sure who wins the comparison yet. I noticed they are both no dummies: UVA and Boston College. With Bossypants, I sort of regretted that I never watched 30 Rock and am now sort of regretting not watching Parks and Rec.

Bestie 2: Interjection: Amy Poehler has a site called Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls that posts cool stuff women achieve worldwide. Also, I have spent more time in the past 12 months reading other women’s advice than is really necessary: Sonya Sotomayor, Ariana Huffington, Elizabeth Warren, Hillary Clinton (albeit indirectly), Tina Fey, Rachel Maddow, Mindy Kaling. I’m sure I’ve got more.

Bestie 1: Half the point of reading is to understand people and who they are and what they did to make them who they are so I would say it was all time well spent.

[Break for messages about when we can all get together for a weekend. Insert note from #2 –  For-freaking-ever H lived on the East Coast near Bestie 1, but she recently came to her senses and moved back to the Midwest where Bestie 2 lives.  Bestie 2 is ridiculously excited about this because now we can force Bestie 1 to come visit and freeze her ass off in the 11 months of the year it is cold here.]

Bestie 1: Things I have thought while reading Yes Please: Amy Poehler is cool. I wish Amy Poehler would stop trying to convince me she is cool. I wish Amy Poehler was as cool as Tina Fey. I wish Amy Poehler was as cool about her coolness as Tina Fey. I wish I was as cool as either one of them.

Bestie 2: She’s also more blatant about her messages than Tina – Say what you want, like who likes you, etc. Tina more told parables that were entertaining along the way that you enjoyed reaching the moral of the story.

[Break for messages about bread, cheese, and wine — in copious amounts. Priorities.]

H (the open-minded optimist): I am 40% done with the book and I don’t feel like Amy is overselling her coolness really. Hmmm.

Bestie 2 (in a moment of delusion): She’s growing on me.

Bestie 1 (always agreeable): I have also turned around on the book – I am almost done now and the final third warmed me back up to who I thought she would be. Not that I was ever really not enjoying it.

[Break for messages about Bestie 2’s new puppy! Yay puppies!  That puppy is amaze-balls.]

H (bringing us back to order): Am I the only one not finished with this book yet? Working on it now! She lost me a bit waxing poetic about her Parks and Rec castmates since I have never watched it.

Bestie 2 (feeling herself again): I have no patience. I skip things I’m not interested in. Only reason I’m still reading this one is to chat with you besties about it.

Bestie 1:  [radio silence]

H: Okay, here’s my final thoughts. From reading this, I think Amy Poehler is pretty cool, but I am definitely not a super fan – she joined SNL long after my days of watching it, and I really haven’t seen her in that much. I really don’t have anything bad to say about the book – I just don’t have anything great to say either. It was okay.

Bestie 1: I am glad we read this book together because I like doing things with you guys and texting funny things to each other. As for the book – it was good, but I just wish it was better. I like Amy Poehler – she is smart and funny and I like that she encourages girls especially to be smart and funny. I honestly just thought she would be a better writer. I was under the impression that she wrote more (I had the mistaken presumption that she created and wrote Parks and Rec like Tina Fey created and wrote 30 Rock). It was a good breezy read. I have been reading a book about the Cook County criminal courthouse, busiest in the US. Interesting so far. [H interjection: that one sounds less breezy!]

Bestie 2 (a.k.a. crabby-pants-mcgee): Umm I have decided that I don’t have to finish everything I start.  

So there you have it.

Review: Henna House

Henna House, Nomi Eve

Reviewd by Amanda

Published August 12th 2014 by Scribner

320 pages

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From Goodreads…

Nomi Eve’s vivid saga begins in Yemen in 1920, when Adela Damari’s parents desperately seek a future husband for their young daughter. After passage of the Orphan’s Decree, any unbetrothed Jewish child left orphaned will be instantly adopted by the local Muslim community. With her parents’ health failing, and no spousal prospects in sight, Adela’s situation looks dire until her uncle arrives from a faraway city, bringing with him a cousin and aunt who introduce Adela to the powerful rituals of henna tattooing. Suddenly, Adela’s eyes are opened to the world, and she begins to understand what it means to love another and one’s heritage. She is imperiled, however, when her parents die and a prolonged drought threatens their long-established way of life. She and her extended family flee to the city of Aden where Adela encounters old loves, discovers her true calling, and is ultimately betrayed by the people and customs she once held dear.

Henna House is an intimate family portrait and a panorama of history. From the traditions of the Yemenite Jews, to the far-ranging devastation of the Holocaust, to the birth of the State of Israel, Eve offers an unforgettable coming-of-age story and a textured chronicle of a fascinating period in the twentieth century.

 I am still reeling from this book.  First of all, how gorgeous is that cover?  I find the practice of henna to be beautiful and fascinating and I had no idea that it was widespread beyond India.  I’ll say I was wholly unaware of the story of Yemenite Jews as well so I feel like I learned a lot from this book.

Adela’s childhood in Yemen was far from idyllic.  Her mother is disconnected from her, her brothers seem like terrible people and she knows her father is dying.  The law of the Imam at the time is that any Jewish child orphaned by their father will be adopted by a Muslim family to be converted.  Adela is watched closely by the family that wants to take her away so basically the poor child lives in terror.  The exception to this rule is for a child who is to be married, so Adela’s parents should have had her engaged from the time of her toddlerhood.  Key being should have. We see how this failure to plan haunts Adela as she grows up and especially in the wake of her parents deaths.

As a young girl growing up in the Middle East in the 1920’s and ‘30s Adela has very little control over her own life.  Despite the lack of power Adela really impressed me.  When her cousins move in next door and introduce her to their henna nights Adela learns about the power she can have as a woman. She learns to draw with henna and begins to learn the alphabet and dreams of more in her life.  Her life at the end of the book was not at all what I would have predicted when we met her.  All of Adela’s life is wrapped up in these henna patterns that you can nearly see through Eve’s words.  The writing is as beautiful as the henna itself.  I both loved and hated parts of the ending I have to say-some of it was just too much for me.

Comparisons to The Red Tent are inevitable and I think this is a worthy successor!

4 stars!

Thank you Scribner and NetGalley for this copy in exchange for an honest opinion.

Review: China Dolls

China Dolls, Lisa See

Amanda

Published June 3rd 2014 by Random House

376 pages

Source: Edelweiss

From Goodreads…

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In 1938, Ruby, Helen and Grace, three girls from very different backgrounds, find themselves competing at the same audition for showgirl roles at San Francisco’s exclusive “Oriental” nightclub, the Forbidden City. Grace, an American-born Chinese girl has fled the Midwest and an abusive father. Helen is from a Chinese family who have deep roots in San Francisco’s Chinatown. And, as both her friends know, Ruby is Japanese passing as Chinese. At times their differences are pronounced, but the girls grow to depend on one another in order to fulfill their individual dreams. Then, everything changes in a heartbeat with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Suddenly the government is sending innocent Japanese to internment camps under suspicion, and Ruby is one of them. But which of her friends betrayed her?

Grace, Helen and Ruby meet as they’re all auditioning as dancers in a Chinese club in San Francisco.  These are great paying jobs for women at the time-especially for Chinese women, but this is not innocent dancing and there’s also a price they pay for that.  Eventually they leave San Francisco and start traveling the country with other Chinese entertainers or those passing as Chinese due to the times.  I had never heard of the “Chop Suey Circuit” of Asian entertainers traveling the United States so the stories were fascinating to me.  This was a shocking read from a 2014 perspective of the racism that was present at all levels and the way that it was just part of these girls’ daily lives. Unfortunately these characters didn’t really come to life for me the way that I felt about See’s previous work such as in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.

Ruby, Grace and Helen’s lives become deeply intertwined and they depend heavily on each other.  Despite that dependence the interactions between them just felt forced to me at times.  They professed to be such true friends, but really were frenemies.  Maybe that’s just show business?  Reading about false friendships can be fun and all-but this wasn’t supposed to be that kind of book.  I felt like I could see what was coming far ahead of time-the great reveals really weren’t any kind of revelation for me.  If See had put as much into her characters as she did into the historical setting this would have been an amazing book.

 3 stars

Thank you Random House and edelweiss for this advance copy in exchange for an honest review.

GoT Update…Still Reading, Sort-of

Here’s a continuation of our ongoing GoT discussion!

We last left the conversation off here.

Holly’s review of Game of Thrones can be found here.

Amanda: I think I hate this book – in part because of the hype. I thought I’d love it right away.

Holly: Do you just think everyone is the worst? Because they sort of are.

Amanda: Yeah I think I hate everyone except Bran and Jon Snow. Maybe Ned. I don’t hate Ned.

Holly: Oh, Ned.

Amanda: Also, why is this mf’er so LONG?

Holly: It doesn’t get any shorter.

Amanda: Catelyn just called out Tyrion. This might have just gotten more interesting.

<interlude for more reading>

Amanda: I hate this book because nearly no one except Neddie and the kids (so far) is who they’re supposed to be.  It’s getting tiresome.  Maybe Dany, but she’s so minor right now I just don’t know if I care – 45% in.

Holly: I think that’s true, but it’s not necessarily a problem for me. The whole story is really about the Starks: Starks v. Lannisters, and Starks v. the whole f’ed up kingdom. I hated that the men were complex characters while the women and girls were all one dimensional…but that seems to change. Or else I am developing immunity.

from http://glockgal.tumblr.com/image/19440986541

How awesome is this picture? from http://glockgal.tumblr.com/image/19440986541

Amanda: Hmmmm.

Holly: Hmmm like I am profound?

<interlude while Amanda considers my profundity. Or continues to hate-read.>

Amanda: Yes, Holly I always find you to be profound!

I admit I’ve given up at this point.  I will go back because I am afraid of you.  Just a little.  Since that one time you punched me.  Or I’m mostly just afraid that if I don’t finish you won’t read anything else I might try to make you read.  And since your life will not be complete if you don’t read Quintana of Charyn, I’ll finish this monstrosity.

But I’ve realized a new issue that I have due to all the hype around this book – Rape Anxiety.  I just don’t want to read about it. And due to all the facebook posts and tweets about the show and the books, I know it’s coming and I just could do without reading about rape.

I know I’m a total nut for Seanan McGuire, but she wrote a great blog piece about why sexual violence doesn’t have to happen in her books and I love her even more for it.  I think we hear enough about situations in real life in which women have their power taken away from them due to sexual violence. and I don’t need it in my fiction too. I’m not saying I don’t read books where rape happens or that I put down books because of it, because I don’t. But when its an issue enough that people who don’t read the books or watch the show Game of Thrones are talking all about the rapes, I think it crosses a line for me.

Holly: Don’t worry sister! As I was waxing poetic about the library , I searched to see if they had Quintana yet, and they do. So, that should be waiting for me to pick up soon.

However, now I sort of feel between a rock and a hard place – because I do want you to read GoT, but I also can’t really defend against the rape aspect. Obviously, I wrote a whole post about how I felt George R.R. Martin hates women, and at least 45% of the statements that come out of my mouth can be directly linked to a feminist-worldview, and well, the other 55% are probably less than 6 degrees away.

So I get it. And I shall respond very very carefully. 

What bothers me in GoT, and in any book, is when rape is used as a characterization – like, we are supposed to understand something about the Dothraki culture based on the preponderance of rape among Dothrakis. And among the wildings. And even among the brothers of the Night’s Watch, which is an escape outlet for rapers.

Not cool, George.

On the other hand, sometimes terrible things happen to the people in the GoT world, rape included. Daenerys’s sexual experiences are integral to the story, and to her development as a character. And the way her story is written seems…realistic, for lack of a better word, for a 13 year old married to a warrior several times her age. For a non-GoT example, think about Lisbeth Salander in the Millenium Trilogy – there is a really really awful rape scene in that book, which plays a pivotal role in Lisbeth’s life. Fun to read? No, obviously. But I don’t think that negates the rest of the story. And, I’ll add that it is possible to write about rape in a way that neither normalizes or excuses it – see Froi of the Exiles…which you demanded I read, no?

For what it’s worth, the storylines in the books really run the gamut in the s-e-x department: consensual sex, sex with prostitutes, young love & young lust, (unexpected) protection against rape, and women using their sexuality as a weapon.

And well, if all else fails, just take your tips from this brilliant piece of satire. You know, turn off that feminist consciousness for a minute, kick back, and read: http://www.theonion.com/articles/woman-takes-short-halfhour-break-from-being-femini,35026/

Also, oh dear. Did you just tell the internet that I punched you one time? For the record, I think I was 6. I have since learned healthier ways to deal with anger. I swear!

Amanda:  You are the funniest person I know over the age of 3.  Back to reading I go.  Heavy sigh.

GoT Update

When we last mentioned Game of Thrones, I (Holly) had mixed feelings about the first book in the Song of Fire and Ice series – mixed because, while I was into the story, I was not at all down with how all of the women in the story were presented. There was a bit too much gratuitous T&A and a lot too much raping, thankyouverymuch. However, I have continued the series, in part because of the people who urged me to continue, but mostly because J has been reading them and talking about them (minimally, since I won’t let him tell me any spoilers).

Since then, I’ve watched the first season of the TV show, finished book #2, and I’m 45% into book #3. And, Amanda is working on reading #1, A Game of Thrones, RIGHT NOW. So, we’ve decided to chat about what we’re thinking so far – mostly for our own entertainment, but hopefully for yours too!

So, here’s what’s been going on via text since Amanda started reading (perhaps edited a bit for clarity…and so we don’t sound like total weirdos)

Amanda: How in God’s name am I supposed to keep all these names straight?

Holly: That sounds like an excellent way to start our post!

Amanda: 10% in. Right where I gave up before. Meh.

Holly: Stick it out a little further! LIke 12 more hours if you’re me. So maybe 45 minutes?

Amanda: I lied. I read more last time. I do like Tyrion I think.

Holly: Tyrion is cool! And there are a fuckton of names. You won’t need them all…sometimes I use the search function on my Kindle.

Amanda: Ah – search function – genius!

Dragon Wedding pic via - tinyurl.com/d43y4yg

Dragon Wedding pic via – tinyurl.com/d43y4yg

Amanda: I far preferred my wedding to the dragon princess’s.

Holly: Yeah, the dragon wedding is about where George started to lose me. There are a lot of rapers.

Amanda: Exactly. I really lose a desire to read a book when it’s about rapers.

Holly: J pointed out that George maybe doesn’t like the men too much either, as evidenced by the army of eunuchs that comes up later (#3).

Amanda: And since he kills characters rampantly?

Holly: Funny on that…since I keep hearing that, I basically am reading every page waiting for someone else to die. So I’m actually more surprised at who is still alive.

Amanda: Noooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo! I just realized I left my kindle at home! This is what I get for having alternating morning and evening commute reading right? I was just thinking I might get into this book now, despite the rapers.  And despite really really really not liking the Queen one bit.

Well, we’d post more, but clearly we both have to forge on through our reading. What are your thoughts on the series? Keep ‘em spoiler free, please!