Book Review: My Ex-Life by Stephen McCauley

THIS is the book review that I’ve been excited to write for weeks. Not just because the author is one of my favorite professors (hi Steve!) but also because My Ex-Life is a genuinely fantastic book. I stumbled across it while waiting for my fiancée at one of our favorite book shops and just from reading the first few paragraphs I was instantly hooked. The primary setting of My Ex-Life is summertime in the town of Beauport, Massachusetts, a fictional locale that has all the characteristics of the North Shore, including and especially the weather.

Filled cover to cover with humor, biting wit, and compassion, My Ex-Life generously but realistically tells the story of David Hedges, a man made uncomfortable by his life falling apart, and his unexpected reconnection to his ex-wife, Julie Fiske, who is in the middle of her divorce from her second husband and the college search for her daughter, Mandy. As it just so happens, the one area of David’s life that hasn’t crumbled (his younger lover has left him and his long-term lease is cancelled by his landlady because said lover and his new beau plan to buy the house) is his profession  helping high school students apply and receive admission to the school of their (parents’) dreams.

David somewhat-successfully escapes his own troubles by trading San Francisco for Beauport and his real estate problems with Julie’s. Her second husband, Henry, is determined to sell the house entirely instead of letting Julie buy him out, and she is having trouble scraping together the funds. As someone who is only just renting her own apartment for the first time, I greatly enjoyed this peek into the world of real estate, though I have no idea as to how accurate it may be. (See previous note about renting my first apartment as of July first). A constant point of fascination for me was the frequent reference to Airbnb, which I have never used, but feel that I know a great deal more about now that I have read this book.

The text exudes life experience, in that every emotion put in to the page  be it sarcasm or sincerity  is one that can be palpably felt, fully formed, as if the character was someone that we could meet on the street, or run in to at a bar. Even the secondary characters had the air of someone who could have a whole book written about them that would be just as riveting.

I wouldn’t say that I particularly identify with any of the characters, but I can empathize with Julie’s desperation at not wanting to lose her house, and appreciate how her marijuana habit plays in to her relationships in ways that at times seem helpful, but in the end are harmful. Similarly, I am not a gay man in my 50s, but David is easily the most empathetic character in the novel as he does his best to take care of everyone and help them to best succeed. For better or for worse, he is a man moved by his heart and prepared to make sacrifices for those that he cares about.

All that said, my favorite character is Mandy, a seventeen year old girl who is being pulled in to so many different directions that she falls prey to making bad decisions because at the very least they are hers to make.

My Ex-Life is a highly recommended read, and I urge y’all to get yourselves a copy.

Happy reading!

Cheers,

Talia

Book Review: The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid

I have to admit that I chose to read this novel almost entirely because of how entranced I was by both the title and the cover. The idea that anyone could have seven husbands seemed foreign to me, at least until I encountered the character of Evelyn Hugo.

The story starts not with Evelyn, but with Monique Grant, a writer working at the major publication Viviant. If you’ve never heard of it, that is fine, because said magazine is, as far as I know, entirely made up. Never outside of a fantasy novel have I seen worldbuilding as intense as is shown in The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo. Prepare to wipe all the movies and actors and producers that you remember from the history of Hollywood away for this vivid reimagining of what the world would be like if we had a whole new set of stars. Some things are the same – the Academy Awards exist, but with all new recipients; Time Warner and Paramount are name dropped, but they operate in the background. References are made to the Stonewall Riots and the Civil Rights movement, and while they do inform the story, they are not fully engaged with.

The biggest change is the title character herself, Evelyn Hugo. The novel centers around the idea that Evelyn wants her story told in a biography, and she wants Monique to write it. Monique and Evelyn’s conversations, and Monique’s life outside of the time she spends at Evelyn’s apartment, act as a frame for Evelyn’s story in the sense that most of the chapters are flashbacks to Evelyn’s past, told from her first-person perspective. Interspersed are short articles from whichever era Evelyn is describing, that show events from the perspective of the press. The book is divided into sections by which husband she was with at the time, each accompanied by an adjective that succinctly describes his presence in her life. Every few chapters the narration will cut back to Monique’s first person perspective as she ponders over the information that Evelyn has given her, which is equal with what is described in the chapters from Evelyn’s perspective.

This all contributes to my key takeaway from this novel, which is that the entire book is beautiful crafted. I gradually got more and more entranced by Evelyn and Monique, who both have incredible and ultimately intersecting stories. There is just the right amount of foreshadowing that made me curious and kept me convinced that I knew what was going on right up until the big reveal, upon which my theory was proven wrong but the story still sustained itself, just in a way that I never could have imagined. I can confidently say that I have never been so thoroughly shocked about a reveal, including all the Doctor Who episodes I have watched, which have some pretty intense plot twists. That said, independent of the absolutely stunning  reveal, the novel absolutely holds itself up as a well written and compelling work of fiction.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo also contains a healthy amount of diversity and LGBTQIA+ representation. One of the smaller but no less important themes examined by the text is the fact that Evelyn Hugo was born Evelyn Herrera, a Cuban-American woman who shed her identity in order that she may become famous and be what the public wanted from her. Many of the characters in the book are either gay or bisexual, and one aspect of the text that makes me particularly happy is that the struggle against bi erasure gets a significant amount of page time. This was not something that I expected coming in to the text, so when I realized that there was so much queer representation I was pleasantly surprised.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is not exactly a happy book, but it is not a sad one either. The full shape of a life lived is exactly what I needed when confronting my own personal loss, and so I’d also recommend it to those who are grieving in the same or similar manner that I am. That said, as a consequence of reading this book I have an uneven tan line from my last beach day, so for those of you looking for a summer read, full of intrigue and drama, this is absolutely a book for you as well.

Happy reading!

Cheers,

Talia

Book Review: When Katie Met Cassidy by Camille Perri

I will freely admit that romance novels are not typically to my taste. I don’t like romcoms, and my least favorite part of any book or movie is almost definitely the romantic subplot. That said, the often heteronormative plot of the majority of romances is what least appeals to me, not the concept of romance itself — which is to say, if something is gay enough I will definitely give it a chance. When Katie Met Cassidy was one of the books that popped up in my Book of the Month queue and it was the one I picked to have sent to my apartment this June.

I was slightly less than impressed with the character of Katie when I started the book, as I at first misjudged her as being the stereotypical incredibly sad and betrayed woman whose fiance dumped her for the best friend, who sat alone on the couch with comfort food – right up until she got annoyed with fitting into that stereotype and decided to take control of her night and took herself out to a bar. A series of fortunate events leads her to run in to Cassidy, a fellow lawyer who had sat opposite her in the boardroom as both parties negotiated a merger.

Both Katie and Cassidy are compelling characters, and my favorite feature of the book was that it was written from both of their perspectives, each chapter alternating which woman was the focus of the third person limited writing style. As I usually have little to no patience for romance, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this book. Part of why I love reading so much is that it allows me to really get in to the head of the narrator, and so I tend to consider constant POV changes jarring when I am too involved in a novel. That said, I loved the changes in this book, because most scenes depicted in the book are actually told twice, from the perspective of both Katie and Cassidy. I am a strong proponent of the idea that everyone sees the world differently, and that a single interaction has as many legitimate perspectives as there are people in the room. As such, I deeply enjoyed the ability to see the development of Katie and Cassidy’s romance from both of their perspectives.

After so many years of reading YA novels where the characters are young and unsure, it was a breath of fresh air to read a romance between adults, aged thirty (Cassidy) and twenty-eight (Katie) respectively. There’s nothing wrong with YA novels, I adore them as much as the next millennial or gen Z reader, but reading the unfolding of a romance where the characters don’t live with their parents is something that I definitely need more of in my life. The best part about them being adults (in my opinion) is that all of the shyness that comes with the sexual experiences of younger people is gone. There are no blushing virgins in this book. The closest to that is Katie, who is unfamiliar with her own homerotic desire, and her naïvité is contrasted with the unapologetic nature of Cassidy, who is very much in-tune with her own sexuality and desires.

If you are looking for a quick read that includes a healthy but not intolerable dose of romance with a tad of drama that is very gay and has a happy ending, I can almost guarantee that you will like this book.

Happy reading,

Cheers,

Talia

Book Review: Noteworthy by Riley Redgate

From the first line about Monday mornings and having an existential crisis I just knew that I was going to love Noteworthy by Riley Redgate. The premise of what is now my new favorite YA novel is that Jordan Sun, a student at the fictional Kensington-Blaine Boarding School for the Performing Arts, has been rejected from one too many musicals. In the depths of her dismay at the rejection, she gets the idea to take advantage of the lack of communication between students in her own theater department with those in the music department to create the identity of Julian Zhang, the newest member of the Sharpshooters, an elite, all male, a capella octet on campus.

When I was weighing my options on what my next read would be I was hesitant to choose this book, primarily out of worry over whether the novel would pay proper respect to the very real challenges that trans people face, since the character Jordan is a cisgender female. I am happy to report that my fears were groundless, and Jordan as a character is incredibly self aware of herself and her privileges in the novel.

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My hot take text to my roommate after finishing Noteworthy

I have to admit that I do not remember the book of fiction that I read where I genuinely enjoyed being in the headspace of the protagonist. Often I find characters to be insufferable, but Redgate managed to write a character that, while I disagreed with some of her actions, was compelling, authentic, skilled, and willing to grow in to herself in a way that demonstrates both an awareness of her own ignorance and the capability to take steps to rectify said ignorance.

I wish I had this novel when I was a teenager, because it hits all of my buttons. The main character is a bisexual woman of color, which there are plenty of in the world, so having more of them in our fiction is fantastic. So many of the characters are unapologetically out, and yet those that are not do not receive extra criticism for it from friends in the know. That isn’t to say that there is no homophobia or transphobia, because those are real factors that are considered by the characters, but the majority of the relationships that exist are full of loving friendship and apathy. That said, the stakes are played high in this book, and while I do consider it a light-hearted and easy read, there were a few spots where I couldn’t flip the pages fast enough, I was so absorbed by Jordan’s journey.

A recurring and important theme in the novel is the fact that Jordan is a student at Kensington-Blaine due to a scholarship, and so while she attends an incredibly expensive boarding school, her family is incredibly poor and struggles to make ends meet. The juxtaposition of Jordan’s situation with those of her wealthy classmates and friends could be seen as a stereotype, or be ignored, but Redgate integrates Jordan’s experience in a way that is authentic but not exploitative. There comes a moment in the middle of the novel where Jordan acknowledges her poverty not as something to be pitied, but as something that she considers mundane. This causes her to ponder over whether her rich classmates can say the same about their own wealth, and is just one of Jordan’s incredibly self-aware moments that make me again wish that I had been more like her in high school instead of worrying about not having all of the same expensive gadgets as the kids at my private high school who weren’t there on scholarship.

As a former aca-bopper and theater kid myself, in particular as one who didn’t know a lick about it before joining a group my freshman year of college, I delighted in Jordan’s confusion turned to confidence when it comes to the music and the friendship shared by the Sharpshooters. Even so, I’m certain that I would have loved this book even without my musical and theatrical background[1] and I’m confident that anyone who is even mildly interested in YA would love it too.

Happy reading!

Cheers,

Talia

[1] Especially since I have very much let my skills lapse over the years.

Book Review: Circe by Madeline Miller

I first encountered the figure of Circe at the age of nine as I worked on a project detailing Greek and Roman myth. At the time, she was just another mythological entity, but thirteen years later she has blossomed into being for me through Madeline Miller’s Circe.

I had never thought to wonder what Circe’s childhood would be like, but that is precisely where the story as Miller has chosen to tell it begins. The book starts with the first person narration of Circe, detailing the traditions of the ‘lesser’ gods, particularly nymphs such as her mother Perse and demoted or diminished Titans (such as her uncles, who are placated by her father, the sun god Helios, who remains powerful). Circe’s early worldview is shaped by her complete immersion into the world of immortals, with almost no contact with mortals until later in her life.

The narration of Circe’s early life and naivete is intriguing, and sets up for her compelling transition into witchcraft, but the book only truly starts when Circe begins her exile. After growing up in the halls of her father, the sun god, Circe participates actively in a series of events that lead to Zeus demanding her exile, and she begins to live alone on the island of Aiaia. Although it is a punishment, exile is what ultimately leads Circe to discover her own freedom, through the honing of her craft, the mastery of life on the island (animals and plants alike), visits from mortals or other gods, and even a couple trips off the island (one allowed and one illicit). Circe learns how to exert her autonomy and develop relationships, both good and bad with those who come to her island and those in the outside world. Circe is a coming-of-age story not in the literal sense of youth to adulthood, as Circe is millenia old, but in the sense of a person who continuously develops between the stagnated world of gods and the fleeting world of mortals.

The retelling of classical myth from Circe’s perspective is compelling because as someone cut off from the outside world, her isolation puts her into a unique position that allows us to hear the myths she is not the focus of secondhand and from the perspective of an immortal. The secondhand nature of these accounts leads to several myths having but the most basic of cameos, and I am sure that some will go flying over the heads of people who are not as familiar with Greek myth. Nevertheless, I do not think that this detracts from Circe; rather, it enables readers to enjoy the text on multiple levels.

The fact that Circe is an immortal is also important to the narration because when classical myths are told, they are almost exclusively through the perspective of mortals, or from stories told to mortals, where the gods are seen from a worshipful perspective. Since readers are experiencing these myths through Circe we get to see these myths as they might be interpreted from someone who is both divine and female.

I cannot stress enough how much I appreciate having a book with such a resilient and nuanced female protagonist that exists in an environment that is so oppressive to women. When I read Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles* I was taken aback by the stark reference to the maltreatment of women as was customary in the period, something that is also present within Circe. While I considered The Song of Achilles an excellent book, the portrayal of women churned my stomach, as it always does in mythological tales told from the male perspective.

The difference for me in reading Circe was that as a woman Circe is able to pick up on the subtle ways that women maintain what power and autonomy they can, and additionally does so herself. I always remembered Circe from the Odyssey as turning men into pigs because she was cruel, but (mild spoiler) in this book she does so to combat the very real threat of rape by men who come to her island. Circe is full of these small alterations that truly flesh out the character as her own being. Similarly we are allowed access to Medea and Penelope, two other women of myth who have contrasting but equally stunning places in the mythological tradition. Medea is a powerful witch in her own right, as is seen in the myth of Jason, and Penelope is the well-known wife of Odysseus. Both of them have amazing stories, and are personal favorites of mine, which is why I enjoyed their presences within Circe so much, though they fill very different roles within the text.

Overall I consider Circe to be a brilliant take on the mythological tradition and presentation of Circe’s journey is one I have deeply enjoyed. I highly recommend this book to anyone and everyone who has even a passing interest in myth, and I wholeheartedly believe that even those who don’t would be craving more once they’ve read this excellent novel.

Happy reading!

Cheers,

Talia

*To read my review of The Song of Achilles click the hyperlink!

Book Review: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

This is the GIF I sent to my group chat as soon as I finished reading The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller:

crying

Half of the tears were because of the story itself, but the other half were for the fact that I went a whole six years of my  life without having read this book. The Song of Achilles tells the story of the lives of and love between Patroclus and Achilles. Considering that the Iliad, together with the Odyssey serve as what some call the foundation of the Western canon, I think that the moratorium on spoilers is functionally non-existent, but I will do my best to make this a spoiler free-review just in case.

As a classics minor and more importantly a lover of mythology, I knew the basic plot of the story before I turned the first page, but I remained emotionally unprepared for this book that does so much more than retell Iliad. As a matter of fact, the Iliadic portion of the text doesn’t even start until chapter twenty-five. The book opens with Patroclus recounting the marriage of his parents’s marriage and his own birth and childhood. In many ways, The Song of Achilles, is a coming of age story, soaked in the mythic tradition that my professors have so kindly educated me with. We follow, from Patroclus’s perspective, his journey from his place as the son of a son of Kings to be the beloved of Achilles, the best of the Greeks, and staying by his side throughout the most famous war in literary history – that of the Trojans and the Greeks.

According to the back cover of my copy, the Wall Street Journal called this book “One of the best novelistic adaptations of Homer in recent memory,” and I have to agree. Madeline Miller’s text has reinforced my already fierce belief that stories are meant to be told and retold. I  believe that my knowledge of the Homeric tradition greatly added to my experience reading this book, as I noticed all of the subtle (and not-so-subtle!) nods to the myths I have grown to know and love, but I also strongly believe that someone with little to no familiarity with the source material would also enjoy this story.

The blossoming from friendship to love between Achilles and Patroclus is incredibly moving and quite realistic, both within the text itself and when considering its original mythic context. The two quite clearly share a close bond, but one that is not at all overdone or rushed. On a personal note, I am 100% here for literature that acknowledges and celebrates the fact that queerness is here and always has been. Beyond the representation present within The Song of Achilles, I find the cast and characters incredibly compelling and I enjoyed every second that I read through the text. I was so engaged that I read the entire book in one setting* and was hit with the “what do you mean it’s over??” feels. (See above GIF)

That is not to say that I have no criticisms of the book. While I wholly enjoyed the text and intend to read it again, I know that it is not for everyone. The text makes free and constant reference to both rape and slavery in ways that certainly unsettled my stomach. The presence of the content is not the fault of the author, but more the source material and time period. On the very first page we read of Patroclus’s who was arranged to be married to an abusive husband at age fourteen, and Patroclus tells us that his father didn’t care about her appearance because “if she was ugly, there was always slave girls and serving boys.” The text pulls no punches when referencing the treatment of women in the time period, and while Patroclus and Achilles do not themselves participate in such activities, and are uncomfortable at times, they still accept that it is a practice and do not publicly voice any concerns. Despite the fact that I read both Achilles and Patroclus as being bisexual, and thus we do have some queer representation there are class and gender issues abound within the world of The Song of Achilles and I’m not going to pretend that they don’t exist.

On the whole, I greatly recommend the book, though I issue a strong content warning for rape, slavery, gore, and the general violence that comes with close-combat warfare.

Happy reading!

Cheers,

Talia

*Excluding one Hogwarts Mystery break because my phone buzzed and I realized that class was about to end and I was still 2 stars short in regard to successfully brewing my herbicide potion.