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Book Review: The Foundling by Ann Leary

Image of a digital book cover. A blueish greenish gloom settles over a vista of the tops of connected buildings with one light glowing in one window.

It’s 1927, and eighteen-year-old Mary Engle thinks she’s found her way to independence and success when she starts working as a secretary for a woman doctor at a remote institute for mentally disabled women. But not everything is as it appears to be at Nettleton State.

Summary:
It’s 1927 and eighteen-year-old Mary Engle is hired to work as a secretary at a remote but scenic institution for mentally disabled women called the Nettleton State Village for Feebleminded Women of Childbearing AgeShe’s immediately in awe of her employer—brilliant, genteel Dr. Agnes Vogel.

Dr. Vogel had been the only woman in her class in medical school. As a young psychiatrist she was an outspoken crusader for women’s suffrage. Now, at age forty, Dr. Vogel runs one of the largest and most self-sufficient public asylums for women in the country. Mary deeply admires how dedicated the doctor is to the poor and vulnerable women under her care.

Soon after she’s hired, Mary learns that a girl from her childhood orphanage is one of the inmates. Mary remembers Lillian as a beautiful free spirit with a sometimes-tempestuous side. Could she be mentally disabled? When Lillian begs Mary to help her escape, alleging the asylum is not what it seems, Mary is faced with a terrible choice. Should she trust her troubled friend with whom she shares a dark childhood secret? Mary’s decision triggers a hair-raising sequence of events with life-altering consequences for all.

Review:
I read Ann Leary’s contemporary fiction The Good House last winter (review) and was excited to read her new one and further intrigued to see it was a piece of historic fiction. In spite of being very different from that piece of contemporary fiction, this book lived up to it quite well with richly imagined settings, complex and flawed characters, and an honest depiction of alcohol.

The author discovered this aspect of history – the forced institutionalization of women deemed “feebleminded” in the 1920s for the express eugenics purpose of preventing them from having children – while researching her own family genealogy. (Please be aware that “feebleminded” is a pejorative in modern times. In the 1920s, it was a term used clinically to classify patients.) Her grandmother worked briefly as a secretary at such an institution. The author was made curious by the name of the institution and thus the research that led to this novel was borne. Read more about her perspective on the research process, connection to her family, and the history of this treatment of women.

One of my favorite aspects of Leary’s writing is the characters. She’s not afraid to let them be flawed. In this case, the flaws are partially a reflection of the flaws of the times and partially innate to the characters themselves. No one in this book is perfect, and yet you find yourself rooting for them anyway. It can be difficult from a modern perspective to understand why Mary’s initial reaction to the asylum is positive. Or why she doesn’t trust or believe Lillian right away. But this book does an eloquent job of showing why that is, for personal and societal reasons, and letting Mary grow and change on her own.

Another strength is in making the horrific problems clear without dwelling on them in a gratuitous way. By the end of the book, the reader knows exactly what’s wrong as the asylum, but it remained straight-forward and succinct about it. I dislike it when historical books about difficult issues have scenes that feel like they could have come from a Saw movie. This book avoids that well.

The book also highlights the very serious issues for interracial couples. But there is an interfaith couple for whom the same attention isn’t paid. It felt a bit pie in the sky to not directly address the issues facing a Jewish/Catholic couple in the 1920s. Especially when the Catholic half of the couple is serious enough about her faith that she attends weekly Mass and worries about when she can have Confession. This is a level of seriousness about her faith that made me question how she seemed to not worry at all about the issues facing her in an interfaith relationship. Given the attentive detail given to the interracial couple, it felt even more like a weakness.

I was interested as to how the author would handle alcohol in this 1920s historic piece given The Good House is largely about a woman struggling with alcoholism. Alcohol is not the focus of the book, but it is featured in ways that are realistic to the 1920s. In other words, while Prohibition is still in existence during the book, alcohol is pervasive in society. The downfalls of alcohol are well depicted, again, without being too gratuitous.

Overall, this is a well-researched and crafted piece of historic fiction that covers difficult ground with grace. Recommended to fans of historic fiction. But keep in mind the romance is a subplot in this one.

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4 out of 5 stars

Length: 336 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: Library

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Book Review: Lavender House by Lev A.C. Rosen

November 14, 2022 Leave a comment
Image of a digital book cover. A woman's silhouette reveals 1950s style purple wallpaper. Rabbits run across it. Some of them are bleeding.

A 1952 noir-esque mystery — but everyone from the detective to the murder victim to most of the suspects themselves are part of the queer community.

Summary:
Andy was just fired from the San Francisco police department after he was found in a compromising situation in a gay bar’s bathroom. He’s having one last night of drinks before throwing himself into the bay when a woman shows up asking him to investigate the murder of Irene Lamontaine – the matriarch of the Lamontaine soap company. She wants Andy to do the job because it turns out Irene was a lesbian, and almost everyone in her home is queer. A secret they have to keep if they want to remain an empire.

Review:
All I noticed in the blurb I saw was that this was a queer Knives Out. I somehow missed the historical part. I loved Knives Out but I wasn’t prepared for the amount of period appropriate homophobic content in this one.

This book is authentic to its time period. It doesn’t gloss over homophobia whatsoever. We witness one brutal gay bashing (literal gay bashing) and two other characters reference their own beatings. This is a world of bribes and secrecy from society such that even the happy characters can never be fully happy. Be prepared for the realistic depiction as you go into it.

The family Lamontaine consists of Irene and her partner Pearl. They have a son Henry. I can’t remember whose biological son he is. He has a partner named Cliff. He’s legally married to a woman named Margo who has her own partner Elsie, who is bisexual and runs a queer bar. Margo’s straight mother Alice begrudgingly lives with them. They have a butleresque character who is also gay, as well as another sapphic couple who run the kitchen and garden. They all get to be themselves inside the Lamontaine house but never outside of it. Irene was found dead in the perfume library. The family and coroner rule it a fall, all with the exception of Pearl who suspects foul play. She found out about the recently outed cop and figured he could be their private investigator without risk of outing them all. The characters feel like a lot but are actually easy to keep track of.

I appreciate that there was a bisexual character. I wished that there was more diversity. There was one Filipino bar tender and a rival soap company run by a Jewish family. With all the rampant homophobia being depicted, I was honestly shocked that racism didn’t come up. It would certainly have been period appropriate to, for example, even allude to issues like redlining or racist responses to the Korean War. If one was completely unaware of history coming into this book, one could have left it thinking the only issue of tolerance and acceptance in the 1950s was sexuality. (For a queer book that does explore racism in San Francisco in the 1950s, check out Malinda Lo’s Last Night at the Telegraph Club).

Please also note that there is a scene where some rabbits are killed. I don’t think this is a spoiler as it’s alluded to on the cover. I wouldn’t have asked for the book at all on NetGalley if I’d been able to see the full cover as it’s rendered now, because I have a personal love for rabbits so that was distressing to me. One of the characters is depicted as having a drinking problem that they are told to snap out of. This is never followed up on in a way that implies the drinking problem is fine now. This isn’t how a drinking problem works. I found this to be a flawed and misleading depiction of alcoholism that was used as a plot device.

The mystery itself was kind of ho-hum. I suspected who did it from the get-go and was proven correct. The solution seemed….more than a bit obvious to me, honestly. If you’re curious, take a guess in the comments, and I’ll respond with if you’re right. Ultimately though for me I wanted this book to swing more fully into one direction or the other. Either to go full period piece and get into all the nitty gritty or move it into the present and just make it fun.

Overall, if a simply mystery set in the 1950s with a mostly queer cast facing an intolerant society appeals to you, then you should give this one a go.

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3 out of 5 stars

Length: 274 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: NetGalley

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Book Review: In the Event of Love by Courtney Kae

Image of a digital book cover. This is a cartoon style drawing Pine trees make up the background. On the left is a blond white woman in a pink coat, torn jeans, and knee high boots with a cowboy hat. On the right is a brunette woman in a red flannel shirt, khakis, and work boots, holding an axe on a stump. There's a Christmas wreath behind her.

Summary:
With her career as a Los Angeles event planner imploding after a tabloid blowup, Morgan Ross isn’t headed home for the holidays so much as in strategic retreat. Breathtaking mountain vistas, quirky townsfolk, and charming small businesses aside, her hometown of Fern Falls is built of one heartbreak on top of another . . .

Take her one-time best friend turned crush, Rachel Reed. The memory of their perfect, doomed first kiss is still fresh as new-fallen snow. Way fresher than the freezing mud Morgan ends up sprawled in on her very first day back, only to be hauled out via Rachel’s sexy new lumberjane muscles acquired from running her family tree farm.

When Morgan discovers that the Reeds’ struggling tree farm is the only thing standing between Fern Falls and corporate greed destroying the whole town’s livelihood, she decides she can put heartbreak aside to save the farm by planning her best fundraiser yet. She has all the inspiration for a spectacular event: delicious vanilla lattes, acoustic guitars under majestic pines, a cozy barn surrounded by brilliant stars. But she and Rachel will ABSOLUTELY NOT have a heartwarming holiday happy ending. That would be as unprofessional as it is unlikely. Right?

Review:
This is a thoroughly queer holiday romance for your holiday needs. It has the returning to my small town from the big city to try to save a small business trope. It also has the second chance love trope.

The two main characters in this sapphic romance are BOTH (!) bisexual (and say the word), which I don’t think I’ve ever seen before in a romance. There’s a secondary male character who I think is bisexual, although it’s possible he’s gay and has dated women in the past (no one ever says which). There’s another secondary gay character, and a trans woman of color. The owner of the business Morgan works for is a woman of color. A tertiary character is a woman of color married to a Jewish man. Chrismukkah happens briefly. There’s also a pine tree decorated for a mix of Hanukkah and Kwanzaa.

The sex scenes are steamy and on-screen (all f/f), and there were at least three? Maybe more? I lost count. There’s also one ahem, self-love scene, which I honestly skimmed over because that’s not something I’m personally into reading. I appreciate that it did move the plot forward and wasn’t pointless though. (The character essentially clears her head in this way and then is able to solve a problem she’s been puzzling over).

The one thing I didn’t like was how alcohol is handled in this book. Rachel (the love interest)’s dad has alcoholism. That’s absolutely fine to include. In fact, it’s generally something I’m happy to see. But the representation of this struck false. The main thing that really bothered me is how Rachel interacts with alcohol herself. The book establishes that she’s traumatized by her dad’s alcoholism. It tore the family apart in high school. He’s been in and out of rehab that her and her brother pay for. Her mom left the family after Rachel (the youngest) graduated high school. Rachel routinely drops by her dad’s apartment (that she and her brother pay for) to check for signs of alcohol. YET she STILL drinks regularly. Not occasionally. Regularly. Most people I know who’ve seen this much of the negative impacts of alcohol won’t even allow it in their homes, let alone go out drinking themselves regularly.

Plus, there’s the whole instigation event to Morgan coming back to Fern Falls. (I don’t consider this a spoiler because it happens in chapter one). She gets wasted out at a bar and accidentally kisses the fiancé of someone whose wedding she’s organizing. He’s “in disguise” because he has a hoody on, but we all know she’d have recognized him if she wasn’t drunk. Anyway, everyone knows about this because the news wrote it up. We know Rachel knows about it. She still goes for Morgan. No way. No adult child of an alcoholic would set themselves up like that. I overlooked it because it’s a cheesy romance, but this is not a realistic depiction of an adult child of an alcoholic who’s actively engaged in their recovery. Adult children of alcoholics tend to fall either into the camps of also alcoholics themselves or sober. Rachel falls into neither. I feel weird complaining about realism in a holiday romance novel, but this is real life for a lot of us, and I disliked it being used as a plot device poorly. Alcoholism is serious, and Rachel wouldn’t be casually getting drunk with some love interest who’s only home because she became a hashtag while doing something drunk. In fact, I think this was a missed opportunity for some real bonding. They could have been at a town event and both noticed they were drinking hot chocolate. Rachel reveals the stuff about her dad. Morgan reveals she’s decided to dial it way back with the alcohol after possibly losing her career on that night out. Instant believable bond. But no….they just share spiked drinks.

All of that said, I still gave it four stars because this is a fun holiday romance. It’s not supposed to be that serious! And the bisexual rep is so uncommon and needed. I just wish the alcoholism/adult children of alcoholics rep was just as well done.

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4 out of 5 stars

Length: 320 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: NetGalley

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

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Book Review: Lucy Checks In by Dee Ernst

Image of a digital book cover. This is drawn in a cartoon style. The back of a woman with long brown hair. We can tell she's gazing ahead of her at two European style buildings, one is covered in vines.

Summary:
Lucia Giannetti needs a fresh start. Once the hotel manager of a glamorous NYC hotel and intimately involved with the hotel’s owner, Lucy had her entire future planned out. But when the owner disappears, taking millions of dollars with him, Lucy’s life as she knows it falls apart.

Two years later, forty-nine years old and unemployed, Lucy takes a job in Rennes, France to manage the Hotel Paradis. She pictures fur quilts and extravagant chandeliers, but what she finds is wildly different. Lucy is now in charge of turning the run-down, but charming hotel into a bustling tourist attraction. Between painting rooms, building a website, and getting to know Bing, the irritatingly attractive artist, Lucy finds an unexpected home. But can she succeed in bringing the Hotel Paradis to its former glory?

Review:
I have a real soft spot for romances whose main character is in a “needs a fresh start” spot in life. I was further intrigued by the age of a protagonist. I can’t remember the last time I saw a main character in a romance in her forties, let alone in her forties without kids.

Lucy has a delightful character arc. She starts off seeming a little high maintenance and self-critical, but then we get some reveals that show valid reasons for her being the way she is currently. Then we see her willingness to adapt and change. And honestly it’s easy to empathize with Lucy. She’s having to almost start over from scratch at 49 for reasons way beyond her control. I suppose one could judge her for dating the owner of the hotel but it’s realistic that a lot of people do date those they work with.

Then there’s the setting. I was at first surprised this wasn’t set in Paris (seems like all of these sorts of books are) but I enjoyed the setting of Rennes. I liked the old hotel, the apartments that were once stables. It was definitely a what a cool place to live vibe. I also think the author handled reminding us of the various languages the characters were speaking like it was a movie while still pretty much always writing in English. It was smoothly done yet necessary, and I appreciated that a big mark in Lucy’s favor for this job to begin with was her fluency in French. Because…not everyone speaks English, people.

Now, I didn’t really get hot and bothered for the romance. I didn’t dislike it either. It just was. It’s reasonably done and charming enough, I suppose, but to me the big sell of the book was the setting much more than the romance. I think I also worry a bit about Lucy’s work life and personal life becoming so entwined yet again. And not just in the romance. She’s got a close relationship with the older woman owner of the hotel too. Did the woman learn nothing from embezzlementgate?

Lucy has a brother with alcoholism. The book handles the relative with kindness, but also there’s constant wine drinking because it’s France. Lucy drinks with lunch and dinner on a seemingly daily basis. It seems like questionable behavior, but she never stops to consider it. Something that I would have hoped she’d have done at some point over the course of the book given her brother. Like even just a hm, maybe I should cut back to one glass of wine with dinner thought toward the end of the book would have been nice.

Overall, imagine this as Emily in Paris but with a 40-something main character who can actually speak French, set in Rennes, and with a focus on hotels/architecture instead of fashion. If that appeals to you, then I encourage you to pick it up.

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4 out of 5 stars

Length: 288 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: NetGalley

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Publication Announcement: Novella – Waiting For Daybreak – Second Edition

July 21, 2022 3 comments
Image of a digital book cover. The silhouette of a woman and a cat sit in front of a sunrise. Red blood splatters across the title.

I am thrilled to announce the publication of the second edition of my novella Waiting For Daybreak. I published the first edition 10 years ago in 2012. I have completed major updates throughout the second edition, as well as added an author’s note and a content note. You can view both of the notes in their entirety by using the preview book feature on its Amazon page.

Here is the updated blurb:

I just want to live like normal people. But my Borderline Personality Disorder fills each day with emotional pain. And drives other people away. Not that there’s anyone to drive away anymore…

Frieda’s a struggling twenty-something young professional when the apocalypse comes. Overnight, Boston falls apart as a rapidly spreading virus makes her neighbors crave brains. Enough to kill for them.

She survives alone for a whole year in her urban studio apartment. And she surprises herself by managing her mental illness better than she did before. When her beloved cat becomes ill, Frieda goes on a quest to save her. It sets off a chain of events that challenges everything.

Reviews of the first edition call this a “dynamic” read that’s a “great story with a twist I didn’t foresee.” This places a character you’d expect in a women’s fiction novel at the heart of a zombie apocalypse.

Today and tomorrow (July 21st-22nd, 2022, Pacific Time), the ebook is free for everyone. Please consider downloading your copy today!

If you previously purchased the first edition, note that Amazon does not automatically send the second edition to your kindle. Please take advantage of these two free days to get the updated version. If you missed the free days, you can sign up for my newsletter to get notified of future ones. I hold them periodically.

Please be sure to check out my Publications Page for my other work.

Book Review: The House Across the Lake by Riley Sager

July 5, 2022 1 comment
Image of a digital book cover. A greenish lake shows a glass house on the other side of it. It glows with light. The title is in yellow across the front.

Summary:
Casey Fletcher, a recently widowed actress trying to escape a streak of bad press, has retreated to the peace and quiet of her family’s lake house in Vermont. Armed with a pair of binoculars and several bottles of liquor, she passes the time watching Tom and Katherine Royce, the glamorous couple who live in the house across the lake. They make for good viewing—a tech innovator, Tom is rich; and a former model, Katherine is gorgeous.

One day on the lake, Casey saves Katherine from drowning, and the two strike up a budding friendship. But the more they get to know each other—and the longer Casey watches—it becomes clear that Katherine and Tom’s marriage is not as perfect and placid as it appears. When Katherine suddenly vanishes, Casey becomes consumed with finding out what happened to her. In the process, she uncovers eerie, darker truths that turn a tale of voyeurism and suspicion into a story of guilt, obsession and how looks can be very deceiving.

Review:
I have read every single Riley Sager book almost as soon as I could get my hands on them. I find them all enjoyable, although I enjoy some more than others. I particularly appreciate their twists on common horror movie tropes. So I was excited to have a new one available for my summer thriller season.

Unlike the other books, I’m not sure what horror movie trope this is playing with. (Is it playing with one at all?) Nothing stuck out to me, but it’s also not like I’ve watched every single horror movie on the planet. At the beginning of the book, that dialed down my enjoyment a bit, because in general I find Sager’s fictional commentary on these tropes to be snappy and witty. I missed it. What made up for it a bit to me was the setting at a lake in Vermont. I grew up in Vermont, and I really enjoyed the whole a bunch of too wealthy for their own good New Yorkers come to their vacation homes and cause trouble plot while the local Eli sighs heavily and tries to make sure no one drowns in the lake. Again.

That said, the beginning dragged a little bit for me. Setting up Casey’s backstory felt like it could’ve been a bit tighter, partially because it’s not the first alcoholic lonely woman main character in a thriller I’ve read, so I didn’t need it super spelled out. Maybe someone else would. I’m glad I persevered though because WOW did I not see those twists coming. That’s right. I said twists.

I found the ending satisfying. I appreciated how alcoholism was handled, although I will say, I didn’t find its handling particularly mind-blowing or moving. I’d say it was accurate but not earth-moving to me.

I would definitely recommend reading this because I found the twists unique and genuinely surprising and yet I was kicking myself for not figuring it out sooner. I feel like there were enough clues there that I could have figured it out. I just didn’t. And if you know what horror trope this is playing with, let me know in the comments!

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4 out of 5 stars

Length: 368 pages – average but on the longer side 

Source: library

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

Book Review: The Younger Wife by Sally Hepworth

April 12, 2022 4 comments

Summary:
Tully and Rachel Aston look upon their father’s fiancée, Heather, as nothing but an interloper. Heather is younger than both of them. Clearly, she’s after their heart surgeon father’s money. They understand why he might want to date, given that their mother is in a care home due to rapidly advancing early onset Alzheimer’s, but it feels disrespectful that he’s going to divorce her to marry another. Meanwhile, they’re each struggling with a secret. Plus, Heather has secrets of her own. Will getting to the truth unleash the most dangerous impulses in all of them?

Review:
I have a soft spot for Australian psychological thrillers. This is the fourth Sally Hepworth one I’ve read. It ranks near but not quite at the top among her works for me. (My favorite being The Mother-in-Law). It’s pretty obvious early on that Heather is not the big bad, so then the main mystery remains – who is? And of course, what is Rachel’s secret? And when will everyone find out Tully’s secret?

We find out almost immediately that Tully struggles with kleptomania and that Rachel used to date but suddenly abruptly stopped. So the main issues surrounding the two sisters is when will others find out about Tully’s uncontrollable shoplifting and what exactly made Rachel stop dating. I thought the former was handled better than the latter. Tully seeks out therapy and her problems don’t disappear overnight. Rachel meets a nice guy and with him is able to overcome her trauma. That frustrated me a bit. Especially since Rachel is set up as being so strong. One can be strong and also find help in therapy. Or even in a support group structure. It shouldn’t all be on the significant other to help someone heal. So it was a little bit hit and miss for me with the two sisters.

I thought the main mystery of what was actually going on in the weird triangle of the dad, Heather, and the mom was quite well done. I especially appreciated the handling of Alzheimer’s. I do think this book falls prey to the old idea of alcoholism – that one can only have an alcohol problem if one is at rock bottom. Beating a spouse or getting delirium tremens (the shakes) when going too long without it. There are definitely characters in this book who display problems with alcohol, but the narration brushes off the idea that they might have a problem.

The structure starts with a bang – at the wedding, someone is injured, and we don’t know who. The wedding is put on hold, the police are called. We then flash back to Heather meeting the daughters and build back up to the wedding. This is a multiple point of view book. Rachel, Tully, Heather, even the mother get a turn narrating.

This book confronts the problem looming for a lot of new contemporary fiction – do we or do we not acknowledge the pandemic? This strikes a gentle balance of what to do. The characters talk about not shaking hands anymore, one character had a big career setback due to lockdowns, and another character’s marriage is a bit impacted by the work-from-home situation. No major details are mentioned (for example, masks are never discussed, no deaths from the pandemic are mentioned). I envisioned it as happening in 2021 or early 2022. Post lockdowns but not far flung future. I thought it worked fairly well.

Without any spoilers, let’s discuss the kind of gray ending. While it seems to be open to interpretation, for me it demonstrated how even when an abuser is gone, the impacts of the abuse continue. It shows how the voice of the abuser can live on in the mind(s) of the abused. Gaslighting from beyond the grave, but not in a supernatural sense.

Overall, this was a fun read with a different enough plot to keep me engaged. It was a little bit of a mixed bag, which is what kept me from loving it. I put content warnings in for this book over on Storygraph if you’re interested in those. I did wish I’d had them myself.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 352 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: NetGalley

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

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Book Review: The Good House by Ann Leary

January 25, 2022 1 comment
A digital book cover. The peak of the roof of a yellow house with a cardinal on it in the snow.

Summary:
Hildy Good is a successful realtor in her small town on the North Shore of Massachusetts. She’s also a grandmother, dog owner, and divorced. She’s also recently back from rehab for alcoholism from an intervention her two daughters staged for her. Hildy is not an alcoholic, but she went along with the whole thing to ensure access to her grandbaby. Inconveniently now, she must continue to pretend to abstain in public and suffer through parties sober until she can get home to a glass of wine or two in the evening. She also begins to befriend a newcomer to town she sold a very expensive home to – Rebecca. She is obsessed with horses and her one-time psychiatrist. When a cluster of secrets become dangerously entwined, the reckless behavior of one threatens to expose the other, with devastating consequences.

Review:
The North Shore of Massachusetts is a really fun and unique place, and this book artfully and realistically depicts both that location and the unfortunate realities of alcoholism, especially as it is seen in the older generation. I particularly like that alcoholism in an older woman is featured.

Hildy clearly thinks the story is about her own ability to be a successful businesswoman in the face of encroaching real estate chains and her daughters’ “ridiculous” belief that she’s an alcoholic putting a damper on her socializing. She also likes her new friend Rebecca but can’t understand why Rebecca and her psychiatrist care that Hildy knows they’re seeing each other. The thing is, the reader can clearly see that the real story is about Hildy, alcohol, and the havoc she’s wreaking across her own and other people’s lives. But the story isn’t heavy-handed about this. It comes across as this is the day to day life of this woman in this North Shore community. It’s just her day-to-day life is impeded by alcohol. Occasionally at first, but ever increasingly as the story progresses. It’s a slow burn of moderation quantifiably not working.

My absolute favorite scene in the book is when Hildy has a bottom moment and goes out to walk her dogs the next morning. She’s uncharacteristically angry at them and berates them verbally. Normally she loves these dogs to pieces. She gets to the shore, sees a heron, has an ah-hah moment, and breaks down crying. What was so gorgeous about this to me was how real this moment is. Being hungover and doing something ordinary yet suddenly connecting to something higher than yourself and realizing you’ve really messed up. But it was bittersweet because I just knew this wasn’t Hildy’s bottom yet. (Even a person with no addiction experience would realize this as it does not occur anywhere near the end of the book). But Hildy doesn’t realize it. You think all it will take is one powerful moment but in fact it takes so much more than that.

The book does not shy away from the worse features of late-stage alcoholism, and these come to a head alongside other issues in the town at the end of the book. I really appreciate that it goes there.

What kept me from loving the book is how Hildy treats her love interest. Not when she’s drunk. But when she’s sober. I know no one is perfect, but it really saddened me to see how she treats this lovable old New England man. Is it accurate to how I’ve seen men like that treated here? Yes. But I wanted a bit more escapism in that regard in my read. For me that held me back from complete love.

Recommended to readers looking to visit the North Shore or see the trajectory of alcoholism in an older main female character.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 292 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: Audible

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

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Book Review: Safe In My Arms by Sara Shepard

Image of a digital book cover. A fence with a yellow backpack hanging on it. the title of the book is superimposed over it in a different shade of yellow.

Summary:
Three women whose children attend an elite preschool in coastal California find their lives intertwined when they all receive threatening notes in their children’s backpacks.

Review:
Sara Shepard is most famous for writing Pretty Little Liars, the series the hit tv show is based upon. In Pretty Little Liars the threat is text messages. Here it’s old school notes. Only this time, it’s the moms twisted into secrets and lies.

The three moms are at the center of the book, and I only actually liked one. Andrea is a trans woman who moved to California to be able to transition and live openly, away from her elite and judgmental family. Now, I will note I am a cis woman, and I would like to hear what a trans woman thinks of the representation, but I thought Andrea was written very well. I appreciated the realism of having to deal with some transphobia in her family but also being warmly welcomed by the other two women – both as a friend and as a woman. The author’s note at the end makes it clear she sought out a sensitivity reader for Andrea, and I could tell. If only the same efforts had been made for the other two women….

Lauren is struggling with postpartum rage (a symptom tied to postpartum depression). I just felt she was quite two-dimensional, and I just couldn’t bring myself to care about her.

Ronnie is a topless maid, formerly a stripper, who moved here from Pennsylvania with her daughter. It at first appears she did so to get away from an abusive man. I can’t talk about Ronnie without revealing a slight spoiler (it’s revealed about 1/3 of the way into the book), so be warned.

Ronnie’s “daughter” is actually her niece. Her sister was in a relationship with an abusive man and was addicted to something. It’s vaguely explained as drugs. Ronnie, after a violent fight with her sister’s significant other that ends with her discovering her sister wounded on the floor, takes the baby and runs with her. She never follows up to see if her sister is ok. No, no, she just steals her daughter, changes her daughter’s name, and decides her daughter is better off with her anyway. I just simply could not empathize with the child abductor here. Ronnie had other options to help her niece. She had never even tried anything else (beyond living with her sister to “protect” her). I’m ok with a book featuring a less than ideal character. I’m not ok with the whole tone of the book being that I should empathize with her or that what she did was a mistake.

Because that’s the thing. The book kind of wraps up with the message that all moms make mistakes and it’s ok to not be perfect. I mean, sure, within reason. But there’s it’s ok to not be perfect and then there’s you’re only in the mom club because you stole someone else’s child.

Also as someone who cares about addiction and recovery, I found the depiction of Ronnie’s sister Vanessa to be heartless. She isn’t given the same chance and possibility to recover and change and learn from her mistakes as the other mom’s. In fact, the whole “moms don’t have to be perfect” scene features the moms describing all the reasons their children make them drink alcohol. The hypocrisy of this scene sickened me.

Contemporary books are approaching the pandemic in a variety of ways. This one chose to set the story “post-pandemic.” I’m fine with that optimistic choice, and I understand why it was made. But the strange thing is it mostly seems to acknowledge the impacts of the pandemic as purely economic – there’s a lot of talk about economic challenges from when we all stayed home but almost zero mention of anything else. I think there was one mention of face masks? This is set in California. There was way more impact than just economic. It rubbed me the wrong way how it made it out to be all about economic issues, and also how things just immediately snapped back to normal. If one wants a normal contemporary book, fine, just don’t acknowledge the pandemic at all then. Include an author’s note that this is for escapism and move on. Don’t acknowledge it as an economic downturn like 2008 and nothing much else…..

Beyond this, the actual main issue going on at the school was interesting and twisty. I had my suspicions early on, but I still enjoyed the twists. What really saved the book for me, though, was Andrea. We need more positive trans rep in psychological thrillers, and Andrea was very well-done.

3 out of 5 stars

Length: 304 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: NetGalley

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Book Review: The Organ Thieves: The Shocking Story of the First Heart Transplant in the Segregated South by Chip Jones

Image of a digital book cover. A graveyard is in the background. The book title is laid over it in white, with three red stars, and then the author's name.

Summary:
In 1968, Bruce Tucker, a Black man, went into Virginia’s top research hospital, the Medical College of Virginia (now Virginia Commonwealth University) with a head injury, only to have his heart taken out of his body and put into the chest of a white businessman. Covering the inequalities innate in cadaver harvesting through the mismanagement of discovered human remains on university property in the 1990s, journalist Chip Jones explores how organ transplant in the US reveals systemic inequalities and racism, not just in health care, but in other related fields as well.

Review:
Organ transplant science is something that can feel like it’s been around forever, but in fact it’s really still a fairly new form of treatment. The first transplant of any organ was in 1954, and the first heart transplant was in 1967. The Civil Rights Act was in 1964, so at the time this treatment was emerging, segregated health care was still present in the US.

This book first gives context to the inequities seen in organ donation and reception by looking at the topic of where student doctors get cadavers to practice dissection upon. Although currently there is a system in place for the ethical donation of remains for educational use, at the time there was no such system in place. Medical schools turned to grave-robbing – and they preferentially robbed from Black graveyards. Black families called these “night doctors.”

Parents even used the specter of “night doctors” to make their children stay in bed. “You’d better go to sleep,” they’d say, “or the student doctors will get you.”

(loc 3353)

This was also a time period where there was some debate about what counts as death. Legally, until 1968, death was the full cessation of the working of all organs. In 1968, with advancing science, the theory of brain death was proposed. This was partially due to new health care technology that allowed for a machine to keep the organs operating. In tandem, the science of organ transplantation was emerging. The fresher the organ, the better the chances for the transplant to succeed. With the emerging theory of brain death meaning organs were operating but the patient might be able to be considered dead, and I’m sure you can see where this was going.

Bruce Tucker was a blue collar worker. He was hanging out with friends having a few drinks of alcohol on a stone wall. He fell and suffered head trauma. He was brought to the hospital alone. In spite of having his brother’s business card in his pocket, no one called his brother. Police officers were sent to his home to try to find family, but he didn’t live with his brother. At the same time, a white businessman was waiting for a heart transplant at the same hospital.

The early conversations among the surgeons had little to do about his chances for survival but rather concerned using him for another purpose. No one was discussing whether he might recover and be rehabilitated….Men like Tucker, arriving with alcohol on their breath and seemingly no one to claim them were often written off as ‘charity patients.’ They weren’t expected to pay their bills, with the hospital absorbing any expenses.

loc 2064

Jones notes that Tucker thus suffered from what can be termed a social death. Arriving at the hospital with alcohol on his breath meant that he was looked down upon by society, on top of how he was already perceived as a Black man in a Segregated southern hospital. Add to that the fact that the hospital decided he seemed to have no loved ones, and he was viewed as disposable.

Tucker did have loved ones, though, and when his body was sent to the funeral home, the caretaker notified his family that he arrived without a heart. This is when Tucker’s brother started to pursue answers and justice.

The next part of the book deals with the lawsuit that came about and how the court case was ruled. I wasn’t surprised, but was still severely disappointed to see how the hospital and doctors got away with it, and the Tucker family was left without justice. Notably to me is the quote from the prosecuting lawyer,

It doesn’t change the fact that when they took his heart from him he was not dead according to the law. So they broke the law and never would admit it, and that’s what bothered me more than anything else.

(loc 4397)

A clarifying note that the defense team used the argument of brain death, which was not the law at the time. The defense team also organized for as many transplant experts as possible to be in town at the time of the trial. They arranged for a transplant conference that just so happened to coincide with the scheduled trial. The conference was sponsored by Pfizer. The book notes just how much sway having transplant experts on the stand had on the judgment.

What stood out to me in reading this book is how societal inequalities and judgements can and do severely impact the quality of care that a patient might receive. I also was surprised to learn how recently brain death became the standard, and to read about the arguments on both sides of that debate. Brain death is not as clear-cut as I once thought it was.

The author does a good job of making history personal by focusing on Bruce Tucker and his family but also fleshing out with enough surrounding historical details that the complex situation made sense to read about. I do think his epilogue was unnecessary, where he details trying to speak with Bruce Tucker’s son, who did not want to speak to him. I feel that truly leaving Bruce Tucker’s son alone would have entailed simply a note that he did not wish to be interviewed and leaving it at that.

Overall, this is a fascinating and sad read about the history of organ transplants and brain death in the US. Recommended if these topics interest you.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 400 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: NetGalley

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

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