April Showers brought April reading as I went on a bit of a tear last month. I found myself reading quite an eclectic collection of historical and contemporary fiction and one fascinating non-fiction tale that will strike a chord for anyone raised in the 70s or 80s.
The Exiles by Christine Baker Kline: Kline was an author I had been meaning to read, ever since an acquaintance gushed over The Orphan Train, so when the Youtube’s Bookish Knitter recommended we read The Exiles, I was thrilled.
Let me say right out of the gate that The Exiles isn’t a light read. The book jacket says it’s the story of three women during the colonization of Australia, but the book is much deeper than that. In a little over 400 pages, Kline manages to tackle the themes of justice, colonialism, racism, classism, misogyny, motherhood, and female empowerment . With a lesser writer, tackling this many social themes might become preachy, but Kline lets her story do the talking. One doesn’t learn about the various injustices, but rather experiences them along with the characters. It’s the ultimate lesson on show, don’t tell.
As for the story itself, the action focuses on three women, two convicts from Great Britain, and an aboriginal girl forcibly brought to live in white society. It’s difficult to go into too much detail without spoiling the different storylines. Let me simply say that all three women earn your sympathy immediately. All three change over the course of the story, and the end, while satisfying, isn’t necessarily all happy. Kline makes some bold story choices – one of which had me literally shouting at the page. Again, it is her skill as a writer that makes these plot points work.
The book is available now. For a more in-depth review, you can watch our discussion on Off the Shelf.
Sister Stardust by Jane Green: Oh Jane, Jane, Jane. Your book had such promise. Sex, drugs, rock-n-roll, and tragedy during the swinging sixties? I was so there, Jane. Why then, did your book fall flat?
The book tells the story of CeCe, a young woman whose life intersects with Talitha and Paul Getty for six wild weeks in Marrakech. For those who aren’t familiar, Talitha and Paul are young, beautiful, and fabulously wealthy. They live a life of utter decadence surrounded by models, rock stars and socialists. Drugs and sex rule the day. To CeCe, life in Marrakech is fun and glamorous. Until it until isn’t.
I had a real problem with CeCe. Throughout the book, I kept waiting for her to evolve into a better, more mature version of herself or to experience some kind of repercussion for her actions, but she doesn’t. The one time she does suffer some consequences, she seems to brush them off as bad luck more than a lesson. I never felt like she suffered or earned any of the rewards that came her way.
I also took issue with how Green romanticized the drug lifestyle. Yes, people popped pills and smoked weed like there was no tomorrow. That didn’t bother me. But again, there weren’t any repercussions. Even when there are overdose deaths, Green makes a point of mentioning suspicious circumstances. No one, in Green’s world, simply dies because they shot up too much.
This was a huge disappointment for me Green had the potential to write a hard hitting, emotional story, but didn’t dig quite deep enough. Available now.
Our Last Days in Barcelona by Chanel Cleeton: Some of you may remember those sweeping sagas of the 70s and 80s. Books like North and South and The Kent Family Chronicles which focused on families rather than a single protagonist. I got a similar vibe reading Our Last Days in Barcelona. Barcelona is the fifth book in Cleeton’s series about the Perez family, wealthy Cubans exiles living in Florida. The family’s story, which began with Next Year in Havana, unfolds in gloriously dramatic style with espionage, family secrets, forbidden love, loveless marriage, tragedy, etc.
This isn’t to say the books are soap operas. While Cleeton know how to tell a good story, she also knows her history. She does a terrific job of capturing the danger, sadness and uncertainty Cubans faced in the 1960s. These are men and women who didn’t leave their home country voluntarily, but rather fled in the middle of the night. Their love for their abandoned homeland reverberates on every page.
Our Last Days in Barcelona features a duel timeline. The first timeline focuses on Isabel Perez, who travels to Spain when the family loses contact with her younger sister, Beatriz. Once there, she finds herself embroiled in a potential espionage plot. What’s more, her sister has uncovered a secret from their mother’s past. While the sisters seek answers, the second storyline shares with readers what really happened. Both stories are tales of love and life-altering decisions.
The female characters in Barcelona a strong, proactive women. I loved the way they stood toe-to-toe with the men in their families. My only complaint is that occasionally Cleeton’s romance roots seep through. I enjoy a good love story as much as the next, but with women as strong as the Perez women, I’m fine with them standing alone.
Our Last Days in Barcelona is out May 24, 2022. Thank you to Netgalley for the advanced copy.
Guarding Rachel by Lesley M. Mathews: Speaking of strong women, Guarding Rachel features a female martial arts sensei with multiple black belts to her credit. More often than not, martial arts romances feature male black belts. Therefore, it was refreshing to read a story where the heroine is the one who saves the day.
The ‘Rachel” in the book is a thirteen-year-old girl whose abusive father killed her mother and who wants to learn how to protect herself. Rachel’s uncle and guardian, still grieving the loss of his sister, is opposed to the idea. Much of the conflict stems from the back and forth between the uncle and the female protagonist, on the merits of martial arts.
Some of the uncle’s acrimony comes off as a bit over the top, but overall, the book does a good job of portraying both the spiral of spousal abuse and the difference between true martial arts versus basic self-defense. Plus, readers get to enjoy the heroine kicking the villain’s ass in the finale.
By the way, the author, is a third-degree black belt, so the fight scenes are very accurate. In the spirit of transparency, I should mention that Lesley is a dear friend. This is her debut novel. Available now.
Unmask Alice: LSD, Satanic Panic, and the Imposter Behind the World’s Most Nortorious Diaries by Rick Emerson: Go Ask Alice, the diary of a young drug addict, left a giant impression on me, along with most children of the 70s and 80s. Who didn’t feel sucker punched by the last page?
Therefore, it was a shock when I discovered that Beatrice Sparks, the anonymous author behind Go Ask Alicewas a fraud. I was even more disturbed to discover that Alice was just the beginning. Sparks’ follow-up novel, Jay’s Journal, took a real-life suicide and twisted the story into a tale of the occult and satanic worship. Remember the obsession over heavy metal and its dark influence over children? How about stories of sacrificing babies and ritualistic abuse that propagated daytime television in the early 80s? Both were fueled by Jay’s Journal.
Emerson’s book explores the backstories behind Sparks’ novels as well Spark herself. What emerges is a portrait of a woman so desperate to become a famous author that she was willing to not only lie and steal, but to destroy a family. I read this book in two nights. It was riveting.
Unmask Alice will be released June 21, 2022. Thank you to Netgalley for the advanced read.
The Four Tendencies by Gretchen Rubin: If you read my blog earlier this month, you know that I found The Four Tendencies to be a terrifically helpful read. Rubin’s theory is that there are four personality types: Upholders, Obligers, Rebels and Questioners. Each of these types has a different pattern of behavior when it comes to meeting internal and external exceptions. Once you understand your personality type, you can tailor your behavior for maximum effectiveness. For example, Obligers do best when they add an external accountability component to their personal goals.
Rubin’s book describes the idiosyncrasies of each type and offers suggestions on how to work with each personality. What I found extremely helpful were the passages on how the different types interacted with one another. Her idea is that once you understand a personality type, you can better understand their behavior and that better understanding leads to more productive teamwork. For example, I have often felt sad that I wasn’t able to be as goal -focused as my bestie. However, now I know that she is an Upholder who is very good at meeting her own expectations while I am Obliger whose boundaries are easily breached by outside forces.
Knowing thyself keeps a lot of the comparison demons at bay. I really recommend this book.