The Last Mrs. Parrish – Liv Constantine

Amber Patterson has decided she’s going to move up in the world. She’s tired of being a nobody and tired of struggling. Gorgeous Daphne Parrish has everything Amber wants: an uber wealthy husband and a beautiful seaside home in an exclusive Connecticut neighborhood. Amber uses an event from the past to insinuate herself into Daphne’s life and the two are soon best friends as Amber plots to steal Daphne’s handsome husband and become the new Mrs. Parrish. When I started the book, I found it a bit ho-hum although well written. It seemed like a typical psychological thriller, maybe even a little sub par given the heroine is old-fashioned and oblivious to Amber’s machinations. But when the narrator switches from Amber to Daphne, the reader learns all is not what it seems on more than one level and the book is instantly lifted to a higher plane. I would have liked for certain revelations to come sooner, but that would have spoiled the fun and ruined several plot points I didn’t see coming. Toward the end, I couldn’t put the book down. 

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The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo – Taylor Jenkins Reid

I’ve been lucky, reading several exceptional books in a row. This one was probably my favorite. It reminded me of a Sidney Sheldon or a Danielle Steele, only better written. Elderly movie legend Evelyn Hugo wants to leave an honest account of her life, only the woman she hires to write her memoirs is young, inexperienced and perplexed as to why she’s landed such a plum assignment. As Evelyn recounts her life, we learn of her early struggles, and the guy who helped her get away from an unhappy childhood. We follow her through her meteoric rise in Hollywood and the various men she marries to further her career. Throughout it all, however, there’s only one person Evelyn truly loves, a relationship forbidden by the constraints of society and stardom. As the story winds down, we learn the reason she chose the writer she did, a reason which makes the young woman question whether she can do the job despite a guaranteed multi-million dollar payday. Sometimes, it felt as if the author was checking boxes on a list of political correctness, but this is an enjoyable, can’t-put-down read which inspired me to seek out her other books and read them, too. 

Born Standing Up – Steve Martin

I still remember the first time I saw Steve Martin perform. He made me laugh so hard and left such an indelible impression I can only compare it to the moment I saw Michael Jackson moonwalk on TV. Martin’s material was fresh; a real departure from traditional stand up comedy. His autobiography isn’t new and I’m not sure what made me grab it but I’m very glad I did. Martin is a terrific writer which is probably the backbone of his success as a comedian. I’ve read many rags to riches stories over the years, but none manage to convey as well the Herculean effort it takes to make it in the entertainment field. Martin spent years on the road, learning his craft and honing his act. He provides in this book a visceral sense of just how awful it can be to tour, a lonely hardscrabble lifestyle which I could never endure. He also paints a very vivid picture of what it’s like to go from obscurity to “instant” stardom, and why, at the height of his stand up success, he chose to walk away. As a child, Martin had a very contentious relationship with his father. Their reconnection at the end of the book made me cry. 

The Mars Room – Rachel Kushner

This is not an easy book to read. Not because of the writing, which is magnificent, but because of the subject. Romy Hall is one of those people who never stood a chance despite being a relatively smart women. Born to a feckless mother, surrounded by poverty, it seems inevitable when she finds herself in prison, sentenced to life for murder. We sympathize with Romy not only because of her circumstances, which include a young son now abandoned to foster care, but because her case isn’t clear-cut and she has no access to the kind of legal representation needed to prove reasonable doubt. In this book, the author manages to make us feel the tragic waste of Romy’s young life as well as the horror of the legal and penal system, unfair and broken. Although the topic is timely and shows the grievous need for prison reform, the real star of the book is the writing which is rich, textured and unique. This isn’t a beach read, but if you like good literature it’s for you. 

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine – Gail Honeyman

This quirky slice of life novel is so good I never wanted it to end. Eleanor Oliphant is Scottish and the woman no one wants to be: socially awkward, dowdy, unsuccessful and all alone. At first, it’s hard to like her because Eleanor is very set in her ways and more than a little judgmental. She spends her time working, avoiding human contact outside the office, chatting with her mother on the phone once a week and getting blitzed on vodka every weekend. But when glimpses of her deeply troubled childhood begin to surface, it’s hard not to respect the fact that she’s somehow managed to survive. Enter Raymond, the office IT guy who’s far from handsome, but has a heart of gold. Raymond seems to have no problem overlooking Eleanor’s weird behavior and it isn’t long before association with him has her reaching for a different kind of life. This book is exceptionally well written, the Glasgow setting giving it an added element of charm. I found myself rooting for Eleanor hard and did not see the twist coming at the end of the book at all. Highly recommend.

Contagion – Erin Bowman

This is one of the best YA books I’ve ever read! It’s heart pounding action from beginning to end and not the mindless kind with no character development. Althea Sadik is working as an intern for renowned microbiologist Dr. Lisbeth Tarlow when circumstances force them to answer a distress call from a drill operation on a distant planet which never rotates to face the sun. On dark Achlys, they discover a missing crew with only the body of an engineer and a cryptic message scrawled in blood. Desperate to find her father stationed on the planet, the captain orders a search despite the crew’s reluctance. What they find are corpses and a lone minor whose survival is too good to be true. This is a two book series and I can’t wait for the sequel as I haven’t read as exciting a last fifty pages since Michael Crichton’s The Lost World. Equal parts Aliens and Resident Evil, the intricate plot, spare yet effective character development, world building and escalating pace make for a truly exceptional novel. 

Orphan Monster Spy – Matt Killeen

This is a sensational young adult book; a unique take on an old theme. Stories about WWII aren’t my favorite, maybe because Nazi behavior is so extreme, but enter a new heroine named Sarah-a smart, sassy, blue-eyed blonde Jew struggling to survive in 1939 Germany. The action starts right away when Nazi’s shoot Sarah’s mom at a checkpoint. Fifteen-year-old Sarah escapes, meeting a mysterious yet kind man with a luxurious Berlin apartment. Using her ingenuity, she quickly learns he’s part of the Resistance. Rage at what’s happening in Germany prompts her to accept his assignment to befriend the daughter of a top Nazi scientist at an elite boarding school to discover what’s going on behind the well-guarded walls of their estate. Sarah’s classmates prove vicious, trained to prop up Third Reich ideology. She’s soon in yet another battle to survive, but woe to anyone who underestimates this cherubic looking girl. The book’s premise is farfetched but there were teenage spies during WWII, and the pacing’s so smart it’s never a problem. You’ll quickly find yourself rooting for Sarah to beat the Nazis at their own game. My highest recommendation.

 

Educated – Tara Westover

In this real life memoir, Tara Westover describes beautifully the difficult journey from primitive existence to the elite world of academia. Born to survivalists in Idaho, she spent her childhood stockpiling food for a disaster that never comes, helping her mother prepare herbal potions used in lieu of traditional medicine, and salvaging metal for money in her father’s dangerous junkyard. There is no healthcare, no education and she must cope with a father bent on destruction, an abusive older brother and a mother who turns a blind eye. When a sibling rebels and goes to college, Tara gets a glimpse of the outside world. With mixed emotion, she teaches herself enough to get admitted to Brigham Young. There, she takes her first steps away from dysfunction, doing so well she is ultimately admitted to both Cambridge and Harvard. But she struggles with relationships, bedeviled by religious restrictions and family abnormality reinforced every time she goes home. This biography is an intense look into the struggle of one woman to overcome impossible odds on the road to self reinvention. It’s a story of loyalty and the grief which ensues from severing our most basic of human ties.

Circe – Madeline Miller

Circe, known in mythology only for her brief encounter with Odysseus, is fully realized in this inventive lush novel. A daughter of the Sun God and his alluring nymph bride, Circe is lonely as a child, too compassionate for the world of Gods. She’s also late to discover her power which is awakened only when another nymph steals her first love. Banished to an uninhabited island ostensibly for using magic to turn her rival into a monster, the reality is her witchcraft scares the mightiest Gods who fear her power might rival their own. On the island, she hones her ability taming wild beasts and crossing paths with famous figures in mythology like Hermes, the Minotaur, Daedalus and his doomed son Icarus, murderous Media and, of course, sly Odysseus. Far from a footnote, this fierce Circe turns men into pigs because they deserve it. In all honesty, I thought the premise of this book iffy, but I’m so glad I took the risk. The writing and creativity are beyond exception. The only good thing about finishing was finding she has another book titled, Song of Achilles. Yay.