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Review: Over the Plain Houses by Julia Franks

Over the Plain Houses by Julia Franks (May 1, 2016 / Hub City Press)

It’s 1939, and the federal government has sent USDA agent Virginia Furman into the North Carolina mountains to instruct families on modernizing their homes and farms. There she meets farm wife Irenie Lambey, who is immediately drawn to the lady agent’s self-possession. Already, cracks are emerging in Irenie’s fragile marriage to Brodis, an ex-logger turned fundamentalist preacher: She has taken to night ramblings through the woods to escape her husband’s bed, storing strange keepsakes in a mountain cavern. To Brodis, these are all the signs that Irenie—tiptoeing through the dark in her billowing white nightshirt—is practicing black magic.

When Irenie slips back into bed with a kind of supernatural stealth, Brodis senses that a certain evil has entered his life, linked to the lady agent, or perhaps to other, more sinister forces.
Working in the stylistic terrain of Amy Greene and Bonnie Jo Campbell, this mesmerizing and award-winning debut by Julia Franks is the story of a woman intrigued by the possibility of change, escape, and reproductive choice—stalked by a Bible-haunted man who fears his government and stakes his integrity upon an older way of life. As Brodis chases his demons, he brings about a final act of violence that shakes the entire valley. In this spellbinding Southern story, Franks bares the myths and mysteries that modernity can’t quite dispel.

My Review: 
This novel initially attracted my attention with its black magic/witchcraft theme, but it sat on on my Kindle until the author won the Townsend Prize last month. That sparked me into action and I moved it up on my list. Once I started reading this story, I had a difficult time with it and honestly considered quitting it several times...but I stuck with it. The problem for me was that Julia Frank's writing style is not modern and I found myself rereading several sentences to get the flow. My note to anyone who is going to read this is that you need to be aware of this, but stick with your reading and you will be greatly rewarded. 

When you think of religious fundamentalism and gender oppression, you probably don't think about the mountains of North Carolina in 1939, but Julia Franks blends the Salem witch trials with modern evangelicalism to produce a wonderful work of fiercely feminist historical fiction. 

Review:: Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion by Michelle Dean

Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion  (April 4, 2018 / Grove Press)

The ten brilliant women who are the focus of Sharp came from different backgrounds and had vastly divergent political and artistic opinions. But they all made a significant contribution to the cultural and intellectual history of America and ultimately changed the course of the twentieth century, in spite of the men who often undervalued or dismissed their work.

These ten women—Dorothy Parker, Rebecca West, Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, Pauline Kael, Joan Didion, Nora Ephron, Renata Adler, and Janet Malcolm—are united by what Dean calls “sharpness,” the ability to cut to the quick with precision of thought and wit. Sharp is a vibrant depiction of the intellectual beau monde of twentieth-century New York, where gossip-filled parties at night gave out to literary slugging-matches in the pages of the Partisan Review or the New York Review of Books. It is also a passionate portrayal of how these women asserted themselves through their writing in a climate where women were treated with extreme condescension by the male-dominated cultural establishment.

Mixing biography, literary criticism, and cultural history, Sharp is a celebration of this group of extraordinary women, an engaging introduction to their works, and a testament to how anyone who feels powerless can claim the mantle of writer, and, perhaps, change the world.

My Review: 
A great compilation of admirable and witty women! Each of the book's chapters focus on one of 10 sharp women (listed above) and the chapters build on one another through the women's relationships to each other--almost a "six degrees of separation" type of setup.  I felt like I got 10 mini-biographies in one with this book. Author Michelle Dean takes care to focus on both the support these women did and did not receive from society, their male and female peers, and the public. She also dispelled some myths while also providing new information about each woman. I would recommend this to anyone looking for a non-fiction read divided into easily digestible chapters. This would make a great gift for the sharp female graduates on your list. 

Review: Cat's Eye by Margaret Atwood

Cat's Eye by Margaret Atwood

The Bell Jar meets Mean Girls.
This was a slow burn of a book. There are so many undercurrents and big issues smashed into small settings and occasions. As a matter of fact, one tiny occasion really stuck with me: Cordelia's family dinners and how much they differ when it is only her, her mother, and her older sisters versus the evenings when their father joins them. The event is so small it only garners a few sentences but so much is packed into the clothing, manners, and expectations.

The Handmaid's Tale is one of my favorite books of all time, so it's no wonder that I would dive further into the Atwood canon after achieving that high (low?). I've found that I absolutely LOVE the Maddadam trilogy but was deeply disappointed with The Blind Assassin. Moving on to Cat's Eye, I found a middle ground...or building stone. Long before the gift of Tina Fey's Mean Girls, Atwood put her finger on the festering blister of female bullying--it starts slow, embeds itself, and never lets up. Only when women step outside of the situation do they realize the contained chaos in which they were/are living in.

Published in 1988, Cat's Eye embodies the rise, fall, and continuance of female "friendships". The juxtaposition Atwood provides with her main character, Elaine Risley's youth and her subsequent artistic achievement are abrasive, hurtful, and vengeful. As a controversial painter who returns to Toronto for a retrospective of her art, Elaine is overwhelmed with emotions and images of her past, including "a trio of girls who initiated her into the fierce politics of childhood and its secret world of friendship, longing, and betrayal." During the course of the novel, which almost reads like a diary, Elaine "must come to terms with her own identity as a daughter, a lover, and artist, and woman - but above all she must seek release from her haunting memories."

A definite read for anyone interested in mid-century suburban feminism, female-to-female bullying, women entering the art world, and a recommended read for any Atwood fan.

Review: I'm Just Happy To Be Here by Janelle Hanchett

I'm Just Happy To Be Here by Janelle Hanchett (May 1, 2018 / Hachette)

**Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. I received no additional compensation**

From the creator of the blog "Renegade Mothering," Janelle Hanchett's forthright, wickedly funny, and ultimately empowering memoir chronicling her tumultuous journey from young motherhood to abysmal addiction and a recovery she never imagined possible.

At 21, Janelle Hanchett embraced motherhood with the reckless self-confidence of those who have no idea what they're getting into. Having known her child's father for only three months, she found herself rather suddenly getting to know a newborn, husband, and wholly transformed identity. She was in love, but she was bored, directionless, and seeking too much relief in too much wine.

Over time, as she searched for home in suburbia and settled life, a precarious drinking habit turned into treacherous dependence, until life became car seats and splitting hangovers, cubicles and multi-day drug binges--and finally, an inconceivable separation from her children. For ten years, Hanchett grappled with the relentless progression of addiction, bouncing from rehabs to therapists to the occasional hippie cleansing ritual on her quest for sobriety, before finding it in a way she never expected.

This is a story we rarely hear--of the addict mother not redeemed by her children; who longs for normalcy but cannot maintain it; and who, having traveled to the bottom of addiction, all the way to "society's hated mother," makes it back, only to discover she will always remain an outsider.

Like her irreverent, hilarious, and unflinchingly honest blog, "Renegade Mothering," Hanchett's memoir speaks with warmth and wit to those who feel like outsiders in parenthood and life--calling out the rhetoric surrounding "the sanctity of motherhood" as tired and empty, boldly recounting instead how one grows to accept an imperfect self within an imperfect life--thinking, with great and final relief, "Well, I'll be damned, I'm just happy to be here."

My Review:
I can sum up this book in one word...wow! While books on motherhood have been more accepting of moms who are messy or non-mainstream (hipster, tattooed, free-range, etc.) in recent years, there aren't a lot of (any?) books that talk about how children DO NOT COMPLETE YOU! I related so much with this author when she would talk about the soul crushing shackles of motherhood and then in the next breath talk about how intensely she loved her children. This division of the role from the relationship is so simple but is often misunderstood. Not loving being a mother does not equate with not loving your child. The author's desire for adventure, her postpartum visions, and so many of her excuses read like they were pulled directly from my brain. I also self-medicated for years (though not in the same ways) and I see so many other mothers currently doing it every day. This was an emotionally tough read but I am so glad that this book exists.

Review: The Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware

The Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware (May 29, 2018 / Gallery)

**I received a free copy of this release in exchange for an honest review. I received no additional compensation**

On a day that begins like any other, Hal receives a mysterious letter bequeathing her a substantial inheritance. She realizes very quickly that the letter was sent to the wrong person—but also that the cold-reading skills she’s honed as a tarot card reader might help her claim the money. Soon, Hal finds herself at the funeral of the deceased…where it dawns on her that there is something very, very wrong about this strange situation and the inheritance at the center of it. Full of spellbinding menace and told in Ruth Ware’s signature suspenseful style, this is an unputdownable thriller from the Agatha Christie of our time.

My Review:
This is the first book by Ruth Ware I have read because the others were just so hyped. It usually takes me quite a while to come around to book that everyone RAVES about because I usually read them and think "That was good but not THAT good" and then I think "maybe people liked it because they don't read as much as me" and then I think "well that's a bit snobbish, Rhiannon" and then I get on a spiral of thinking about how there are just so many mediocre thrillers being produced in the hopes of another Gone Girl (but I'm not alone here, check out Sarah's thoughts on the matter) that I become mentally exhausted and decide to just move on. As for The Death of Mrs. Westaway, I read the summary and thought the concept of a tarot card reader sounded fabulous (even though I didn't really love The Immortalists which everyone loved, *see above rant*). Reading, The Death of Mrs. Westaway, I was skeptical with every page. Would I figure it out right away and be dragged along on a not so surprising journey? Would it be full of cheesy clich├ęs about magic? Would I have to give a bad review of one the most highly praised modern thriller writers? Guess what? None of the above! The storyline twists so slightly here and there that you catch a little undercurrent but you can't put your finger on the problem, let alone solve it. The main protagonist is smart and perceptive and the gothic setting is deliciously spot on. In short... I LOVED IT!