“Dirty Laundry” by Disha Bose

Genre: Multicultural Interests/Murder MysteryDirty Laundry
Publisher: Random House-Ballantine Books
Pub. Date: April 4, 2023

Mini-Review
I was in the mood for a beach read when I decided to review this novel. And fluff is just what I got. The story revolves around a trio of competitive mothers in the present time who reside in an Irish village. One can anticipate that in this genre, one of them will be murdered. The three of them alternately narrate the story from their points of view. We meet the so-called perfect mom, the community’s passive-aggressive ruler. She adopts the immigrant newcomer mom, and they become best buddies. The third mom is shunned by the other two because the ruler does not want her in the trio for petty reasons. Think “Mean Girls.” I enjoyed this novel but only recommend it if you go in knowing that you will be reading yet another dysfunctional neighborhood murder tale often written better in previous books.

I received this novel at no cost from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
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“Bad Dolls” by Rachel Harrison

Genre: Horror Bad Dolls
Publisher: Berkley Group
Pub. Date: December 6, 2022

In these four short stories, Harrison explores the strange happenings in women’s lives as they face shocking, peculiar, and sometimes terrifying events. The themes in this collection center on female body image, complicated friendships, and heartbreak, all written in a spooky manner. One could say that this is a horror women’s fiction novel. However, with lines such as, “I always imagined rage to be a red, chaotic state. But it’s quiet and translucent and euphoric” there is a literary vibe to the collection.

In “Reply Hazy, Try Again,” a young woman purchases a Magic 8 ball that promises to answer your questions by seeing into the future. The seller had no idea where the toy originated from among his flea market bins. Thus, the author introduces the story with a tinge of strangeness. The toy’s responses don’t take long to become too intimate. Similar to when you detect someone cheating on an Ojuju board, but with the ball, there is no other person. This is not a particularly scary tale. It is more a clever way to explore our sexuality.

The story of “Bachelorette” centers on a woman who attends one of her sorority sisters’ bachelorette party, despite not wanting to attend the entire weekend-long celebration. This genuine horror story explores our morals, but mostly how we dislike feeling left out or behind, even though we may have drifted apart from old friends. Spoiler: The woman thinks, “If I’d been told in advance about the blood sacrifice.” There is also some humor in this one. Think “The Witches of Eastwick.”

In “Goblin,” a woman tries out a new software app that offers a cute little goblin-like figure to help its users to attain their weight loss objectives. However, her goblin ends up being anything but adorable. Every time she wants to eat, it terrorizes her. At first, I thought this was a comedy because I did laugh a lot as the author shows us how silly we can be about our weight. However, the main character has an eating disorder, which is what the story is truly about, making this a sad insightful read.

My favorite in the collection is “Bad Dolls.”  Besides the horror elements, unlike the other shorts, there are fully developed themes of family, grief, selfishness, and sacrifice that could warrant a full-length novel. After losing her little sister, a headstrong woman reluctantly returns to her hometown to be nearer to her family during their crisis. Staying at her childhood home would be too painful. She leases a room in a boarding house and discovers a porcelain doll that no one remembers who it belonged to or where it originated. We watch her slowly go crazy as she becomes attached to the doll in a way that she never did with her family.

The entire collection explores feminine motivations and the reasons behind female behavior, particularly under duress, often with a hint of humor. Despite the stories’ predictability, I did enjoy the collection and recommend this book. I would have loved it if Harrison pushed herself a little harder to give more substance to each story other than the obvious.

I received this novel at no cost from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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“Aesthetica” by Allie Rowbottom

Genre: Contemporary FictionAesthetic
Publisher: Soho Press
Pub. Date: Nov. 22, 2022

“Aesthetica” is both a cautionary tale and a contemporary horror-like story with a “Mirror, Mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?” theme making me grateful that social media did not exist when I was in my teens. In the near future, 2032, a 35-year-old woman, Anna Wrey, is in Los Angeles lounging by a hotel pool, reflecting on her first cosmetic procedure back in 2017. The next day, she will have a radical, elective, and dangerous surgery called “Aesthetica,” which claims to undo all of her cosmetic surgeries. Her goal is for her 35-year-old body to look as it should in hopes that it will reflect how she feels on the inside, making her a whole person, no longer a funhouse mirror—a fascinating concept to explore. As social media grips the world, the author asks if someone devoted to looking sexy and gaining fame can change. Moreover, is it their fault if they cannot?

The author nails the desire to emulate a reality star’s life. Think Kim Kardashian. As the hours pass at the pool, Anna’s mind wanders back in time, recalling her youth. In flashbacks, we see her as a teenager who had just moved to Los Angeles to become an Instagram celebrity. The reader can feel her urgency. The more followers she has, the closer she gets to stardom. Rowbottom is good at building suspense and keeping the reader engaged throughout the novel, especially as Anna begins a relationship with a pimp-like man who promises to make her famous by introducing her to a world of seedy gatherings, Botox, fillers, boob jobs, waist reduction surgeries, and butt enhancers, which leaves her with a pain med addiction. I wish the author had gotten into why so many practice this unhealthy behavior. Then again, Rowbottom is an author and not a shrink.

Anna’s Liberian mother has a terminal illness. Anna goes back and forth from visiting her dying mom in the hospital to sex parties. She wants to stay with her mom until she has passed but cannot bring herself to take time off from Instagram. These scenes had such a heavy weight to them that I had tears in my eyes for both mother and daughter. Shrewdly, the author has made Anna’s Liberian mother a feminist, the opposite of her daughter, implying that she should be aware of ludicrous beauty standards. Yet, she often complains about her body’s size and shape. This is smugly in Anna’s mind as she “turned the camera to my face and spoke as I walked, Gonna be a big staaaah, I said and smooched the lens.”

I am sure that the theme of how far we will go to feel beautiful, even if it means losing ourselves in the process, must have been covered in other contemporary literature. However, I have never read them in either a novel or a nonfiction format. The subject matter is fresh to me. This may be the reason why I am so impressed with this author. The book is not without flaws. I expected the ending to have the same vivid imagery as the rest of the tale. It did not. My ultimate feeling was that I missed some parts. Still, I now want to read the author’s memoir, “Jell-O Girls.” I recommend this debut novel that forces us, like Anna’s mother, to realize whether we like it or not society’s glare on our appearance influences all of us.

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“The Block Party” by Jamie Day 

Genre: Domestic SuspenseThe Block Party
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Pub. Date: July 18, 2023

Mini-Review

In “The Block Party,” the dysfunctional residents of a posh neighborhood take center stage. When a murder occurs at their annual party, we rewind with flashbacks to the previous year and discover the secrets each neighbor is harboring that could make them suspects. What we get is a community thriller that is a “Big Little Lies” wannabe. Just as in Liane Moriarty’s novel, the reader gets a heavy dose of lies, infidelity, violence, and a murder mystery. This tale is not as well written as Moriarty’s. However, this may be because the narrative is often in a teenager’s voice, which reads too juvenile for me, probably because I don’t usually care for YA. Still, I found the ending clever, which is when the author finally won over. Though not for me, this sort of escapism novel is a good beach read.

I received this novel at no cost from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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“Free Love” by Tessa Hadley

Genre: Domestic/Historical FictionFree Love
Publisher: Harper
Pub. Date: Feb. 1, 2022

If you are unfamiliar with the free love movement, Stephen Stills’ “Love the One You’re With” sums it up pretty well. Living through it as a teenager, I had mixed feelings about the movement, not unlike the mixed feelings I have about this novel. Set in late 60s “Swinging London,” which was the catch-all phrase for everything new, young, and modern. Hadley vividly writes about this time so well that I could almost see Jean Shrimpton walking around with Mick Jagger.  In this venue, the author explores the risks people take in pursuit of fulfillment and are they worth it. Hadley’s “Free Love” can be as engrossing, and as cringey, as the moment in history that inspired it.

Phyllis Fischer is a 40-year-old mother and wife who appears content with her cookie-cutter life in the suburbs. One night, a friend of her husband’s son, Nicky, comes to dinner. Still in his early twenties, he ignites the desire buried under all the years of Phyllis’ domestic life. One kiss and she finds herself in a relationship that brims with liberating sex and big ideas. “‘If he won’t have me then I’ll die,’ Phyllis thinks to herself. Although she also knew that she wouldn’t really die, she’d go home and put macaroni cheese in the oven. And that would be worse.” She leaves her husband and children to live in a cold water flat with Nicky, who turns out to be the epitome of a potheaded poet wannabe, sleeping with anyone he wishes.

Meanwhile there’s Jean, Nicky’s mother. Here Hadley strikes a sharp contrast between the women.  Jean stuck in an unhappy marriage with her husband of 20 years.  She reflects on the irony of having “allowed herself to submit to an outward order as if it mattered; now that order itself was crumbling anyway, all the sacrifices made to it turned out to have been a sham.”  Phyllis awakening is easy to root for but it causes havoc on her family, especially her children. It doesn’t take Phyllis long to stew in guilt about leaving her family and jealousy as Nicky sleeps around. It seems that there is nothing free about free love.

The book’s scope reaches beyond sexuality. Hadley does well to contrast Phyllis’ new bohemian lifestyle with her conservative views on race. When Phyllis first arrives at Nick’s flat, she thinks she has “never seen so many colored faces before, anywhere in England.” Phyllis says to Nicky’s black neighbor that she “hoped everything was changing” for the better in equality between the races. He has to do the work of explaining, “that when the white boys cut their hair and went back to their careers, the blacks would still be left on the outside.”

Hadley attempts a twist ending that ultimately feels unearned and unnecessary. The book feels less literary, oddly, as it devolves into Greek tragedy. It’s unfortunate, as it detracts from the sensitive portrayal of the characters navigating a complex era. Nevertheless, I recommend this book because of the author’s insights into the 1960s, its excellent writing, and the way it transports us to Swinging London. All the unfulfilled promises of the era regain their urgency.

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“Family History” by Dani Shapiro

Genre: Domestic FictionFamily History
Publisher: Knopf
Pub. Date: 2003

The story reads as a women’s fiction novel with a “literary” vibe. The author explores a family in crisis. “Family History” is a page-turner with flaws, but still worth reading. A young teenage daughter, Kate, returns home from summer camp as a different person shocking her parents, Ned and Rachel. Kate had always been the apple of her parent’s eyes. Before camp, she excelled academically and in sports with a friendly disposition that made her popular in school. Every summer, she had gone to sleep away camp. However, this is the first time Kate returns angry, depressed, and destructive. Her negativity and insolence become even more pronounced as the school year progresses. Her teachers, parents, or even her old friends no longer have any influence on her. Kate is unrecognizable to all that know her. The author nails the parents’ agony in trying to help their child while desperately attempting to understand what is causing her detrimental behaviors. Shapiro can even make you feel sorry for the highly unlikeable girl since she, too, seems clueless about why she is so out of control. This is the point where the flaws come in. The reader never finds out why Kate is so dramatically changed. Is the problem teenage angst on steroids, is she jealous of the new baby, did something happen at camp, or does she have an undiagnosed personality disorder? Since schizophrenia symptoms often show up when someone is in their teens, I went with the last guess. But then again, something horrible could have happened while she was at camp. I was frustrated not having a conclusion. Maybe the author didn’t give her readers an answer because we are often left guessing without an outcome in real life. This is a sad and challenging tale to read. However, as long as you know what you are getting into, I can still recommend this book because of how well the author writes and captures her character’s intensity.

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“Attachments” by Jeff Arch

Genre: Family DramaAttachments
Publisher: SparkPress
Pub. Date: May 11, 2021

The author is most known for the screenplay “Sleepless in Seattle.” His debut novel is not a romantic comedy but also looks closely into love relationships. Two male students are in love with the same girl. One marries her, and the other leaves the country and becomes a monk. A bit over the top to buy. When their Pennsylvania boarding school’s headmaster has a stroke and is on the verge of passing away, these three students, now middle-aged adults, return because he called for them before losing consciousness. The mystery of the tale is why he asked them to return to the school. Arch does a good job of getting into his characters’ heads. However, I found this to be a melodramatic read with a relatively easy-to-guess twist.

I received this novel at no cost from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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“Magnificent Rebel: Nancy Cunard in Jazz Age Paris” by Anne de Courcy

Genre: BiographyMagnificent
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Pub Date: April 11, 2023 

Anne de Courcy wrote a fascinating and well-documented biography of Nancy Cunard, who dominated the Paris scene in the 1920s, hanging around with all those famous people you read about in Paula McLain’s biographical fiction “The Paris Wife” referring to Ernest Hemingway’s first wife. Nancy was the epitome of a hard-core socialite with an “I don’t give a damn” attitude. She was also a poet and a journalist who founded Hours Press. She was promiscuous and a cruel lover. She didn’t care who she hurt as long as her needs were met. I wondered if she had a Borderline or Narcissistic personality disorder. She was an alcoholic, which may have or not have brought on mental illness. This portrayal of a complex woman during the roaring twenties in the City of Lights is first-rate. Unfortunately, I thought I would read a biographical fiction novel, not a biography. I continued reading because the writing was good, and Nancy was a pistol. If you enjoy biographies who will enjoy “Magnificent Rebel.”

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“Close Your Eyes: A Fairy Tale” by Chris Tomasini

Genre: Fantasy/Historical Fiction Close your Eyes
Publisher: December 16, 2021
Pub. Date: Amazon Kindle Direct

In this feel-good, offbeat historical fiction, the reader is transported to the medieval Kingdom of Gora. Here we meet kings, queens, princes, princesses, storytellers, cooks, and jesters. The book’s central theme is love, but it takes a while for this to emerge. Born a dwarf, Samuel serves as the court jester. We are told the story through his eyes as the first-person narrator. The novel reads like a fairy tale for adults, which is appealing if you enjoy magical adventures. I am not a fan of surreal stories. I continued reading, though, because I do enjoy historical fiction. In addition, laughter, wisdom, and melancholy are skillfully woven into the plot.

With a kingdom histrionic outburst, the author’s wit shines from the outset.  In the prologue, we learn that the kingdom’s people woke up in distress one day. “Neighbors question each other about the reason for the hysteria. The most widely believed rumor was that forces of the Holy Roman Empire were preparing to attack our king.” There was no army coming. There was no plan to harm the king. The disturbance had nothing to do with anything political or religious.  It seems that the kingdom had its priorities. What is life without good food and storytelling? The reason for the commotion was that “the King’s cook and the storyteller had fled the castle.”  The novel is often outrageously funny. Another example is when a widow told a group of scholars, “The Greek included passages concerning the sexual proclivities of each animal. You may find a lover capable of replacing your horse.” 

Here is another occurrence that had me laughing out loud. While still in his teens, Samuel worked as a traveling jester. He collaborated with Troyden, a man who stands seven feet tall. The two went by the name “High and Low.” They despised each other. Samuel thought, “Troyden was a genius upon a stage, but in daily life, he was the most asinine dullard I have ever known.” One night they broke character during scenes, “a genuine, and bitter, argument erupted between us.”  Since they believed it was a part of their act, the audience laughed even harder while watching an oddly tall and abnormally short man “quarreling viciously.” The images the reader sees are absurd and hysterical—Slapstick humor at its best.    

The two parted ways, and Samuel goes on to be “the private clown for the children of King Pawel of Gora.” This is where he meets his good friend Tycho, the king’s storyteller. Tycho is a likable scamp blessed with good looks and natural charm. He believes that having a never-ending supply of eager ladies who desire to sleep with him makes up for his lack of affection throughout his formative years. This makes him a fun character to read. The book’s title gets its name from him. “On this night, he said ‘Close Your Eyes,’ and just as I did, I saw that his eyes were bright, were shining.” Samuel is also an engaging character. While Tycho is looking for the meaning of love, intelligent Samuel explores the lessons one can learn from life experiences.

“Fairy Tale” captures the full spectrum of medieval society. Look for a twist with the character, Bishop Tonnelli. Despite not being my cup of tea, the book can be lively and absorbing with its sly humor, flair for characterization, and rich examination of the human condition. This is evident, particularly in the character of Samuel. The novel’s length and added complexity is my most significant criticism. Although the writing is good, it can be disjointed, leaving me sometimes confused. However, the epilogue did explain much of what I initially didn’t get. Tomasini would have written a superior book if he had written this as a collection of short stories or novellas. Still, if you enjoy the genre and can ignore the bulkiness, you will probably eat this one up. Moreover, you might disagree with me that the novel is bulky. Sometimes it is all a matter of taste.

I received this novel at no cost from the author in exchange for an honest review.

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“All the Dangerous Things” by Stacy Willingham

Genre: Family Thriller All Dangerous Things
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Pub. Date: January 10, 2023

A slow-paced thriller is hard to find, so I applaud the author for writing this one. Willingham wrote a story within a story. Although the novel focuses on our protagonist, Isabelle, her husband, Ben, and their kidnapped son, Mason, her traumatic past plays a significant role in the tale. There are two timelines, each with its own mystery. We get a good feel of Isabelle’s childhood and current life. Because the novel doesn’t hint at when or why we jump into the past, at first, the back-and-forth timelines can be challenging to follow. Still, Isabelle’s family back-story with her parents and younger sister, Megan, reads like a ghost story keeping me invested in the tale. In “All the Dangerous Things,” the author explores grief, affairs, marriages, and postpartum depression.

Isabella has been sleep deprived for a year since her toddler son went missing. Willingham adds to the suspense by reminding the reader that lack of sleep can lead to delusions and hallucinations. The author had me wondering if the grieving mother’s perceptions were true or just figments of her imagination. The police have all but given up trying to find her son, and she knows she is a suspect. She takes it upon herself to go around the country speaking at true crime events, telling her story, and seeing if anyone suspicious is in the audience. This is how she meets a true-crime podcaster who takes on a role in the story.

The writing in “dangerous” can be sophomoric at times. However, I enjoyed understanding both timeframes’ mystery solutions, even though one had a predictable twist. I suppose I continued reading this book when the plot became unbelievable is because I got hooked on Isabelle’s childhood. Plus, I prefer watching slow-paced movies, as you can find in foreign films, and reading literary novels, which are typically slow moving. If you want your thrillers at rollercoaster speed, this one is not for you.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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