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Leaving Coy’s Hill by Katherine A. Sherbrooke

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Leaving Coy’s Hill by Katherine A. Sherbrooke

With incredible elegance and insight, Leaving Coy’s Hill strikes a perfect balance between historical setting and a rendering of the inner woman. I delighted in Lucy’s character, her quirks, ambition, loves, as well as her friendships and connectedness to important figures of the time.  While the novel illuminates the timeless female struggle for equality, tight roping career and motherhood, and achieving financial independence, its crowning achievement is an authentic, poetic voice. Sherbrooke’s language set the clocks back a hundred and fifty years with its soothing, measured cadence. Clear your calendar for this one, it’s an impossible-to-put-down, must read. 

 

This official blurb was provided at the request of the author.

 

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Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth

plain_bad_heroines_emily_danforth_book_review_jeanne_blasbergPlain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth

Okay, so a haunted girls boarding school set in Little Compton, Rhode Island… Plain Bad Heroines had me at hello. Emily Danforth has such a punchy and quick-witted use of language that there were always several layers of entertainment going on for me, and I was taken by her unabashedly addressing the reader throughout.

This novel has been described as Gothic, but it harkened to early Nineteenth century novelists such as Mary Shelley, Emily Brontë, and George Eliot in its third person omniscient voice. The story braids two time frames, 1902 at the Brookhants boarding school with contemporary Hollywood, and features a mostly all-female cast of characters. Both time periods include triads of young women who fall in love and suffer jealousies within their respective triangles. The initial love at Brookhants between Flo and Clara and curious Eleanor (on the outside) was inspired by the work of Mary MacLane, a shocking memoirist who in the late 1800’s scandalized readers with her bisexuality. I mention this only because it was the first of many literary and cultural references that made my experience of this book expansive, ie. a second layer of entertainment value.

As for the story itself, it was not so much a haunted tale as it was a parody of haunted tales past and present, and I am not lying reader, when I say a portion of my home was infested with yellow jackets while I was listening to the audio (you must read the book to get this.) I hear the printed version is 600+ pages, but still I would suggest picking it up if you like smart writing and courageous technique.

 

Note that I listened to the audio version courtesy of Libro.fm and the narrator was outstanding!

 

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White Ivy by Susie Yang

This review was originally published by the New York Journal of Books.

white-ivy-susie-yang-book-review-jeanne-blasbergWhite Ivy by Susie Yang

White Ivy is a suspenseful novel with a protagonist who is intentionally portrayed as an anti-heroine. It begins “Ivy Lin was a thief but you would never know it to look at her.” In classic anti-heroism style, Ivy has few redeeming qualities at the beginning of the novel, and although she experiences growth and revelation, she never comes around morally. She steals, lies, prostitutes herself, and even treats her own body like a garbage dump. So the question is: How do we feel about detestable protagonists? Such a structure certainly demands tolerance from a reader and some appreciation for its departure from what we’ve been raised on—characters who transition over the course of a novel and in so doing deliver a universal message of hope or possibility.

Can we enjoy novels with protagonists we don’t like? There are plenty of male anti-heroes, the Humbert Humberts of the world, detestable protagonists we end up rooting for despite their faults. The fact is the reading public is especially hard on female characters who do not adhere to stereotype, who are not kind and thoughtful and domestic, or do not at least come around to these attributes by novel’s end. Because of this, one can hold White Ivy up as a work of art that challenges societal bias. It receives five stars on that measure, if only three stars on the whole.

On the other hand, the jacket copy describes the novel as one that offers “sharp insights into the immigrant experience.” That statement is pure marketing and potentially exploitive. Ivy Lin is a very complex individual as are the members of her family. One would hate to think that Susie Yang wrote Ivy Lin’s character or the Lin family in general to be representative of Chinese Americans. If that is the case, it paints an extremely negative and troubling picture.

In addition, for a story primarily set in Boston and fictitious towns surrounding the city, it fails to offer authentic details. In fact, there are several erroneous details, creating lapses in credibility that trip up the reader and diminish her eagerness to go along with the narrator on a journey that already demands she withhold judgement on Ivy Lin’s character. For example, bad winter weather usually comes in from the west, not the north, and not from the Atlantic; when leaving Boston one does not drive through upstate New York in order to get to New Jersey; there is no block on Beacon Hill where there are rows of identical front doors; a state senator works in Boston and not in Washington. While Yang writes well and employs fine use of metaphor, occasional poor grammar and word choice threaten to startle the reader from the fictive dream she is working hard to establish.

Ivy Lin grows up in a poor family but attends a private school in Massachusetts on account of her father working there. It is at this school that she develops a crush on Gideon Speyer. After lying to her parents in order to attend a slumber party at his home, Ivy is sent to stay with relatives in China for the summer, and the family moves to New Jersey while she is out of the country. Lin goes on to attend an unnamed women’s college outside of Boston where she reconnects with the Speyer family and drama ensues.

The early chapters of this novel are enjoyable. The relationship Ivy shares with her grandmother is great, as are her travels and the relationships she makes that summer as a young teen in China. The choices she makes to fit in and survive in her family seem plausible. If this is the description of the immigrant experience Yang is going for, then it’s laudable. The second half of the novel, however, is where plot twists enter around the superficially and simplistically wrought Speyer family and the story succumbs to a downward spiral of baseness.

White Ivy is entertaining insofar as it is extremely original. The conclusion left this reader without a sense of hope, depressed over an ending that rewards self-centered opportunism. The final scene is one where Ivy faces off against Gideon’s sister, Silvia Speyer, in a contest of innuendo between two equally loathsome human beings. However, maybe that was the point. The lesson for the reader might be in the irony—that if you are looking for a real hero, the most self-aware and honest character in this novel is the one you would have least expected.

 

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Jeanne McWilliams Blasberg is an award-winning author and essayist. Her most recent book is The Nine, winner of multiple awards including a Foreword Indies Gold Award in Thriller & Suspense. She is the founder of the Westerly Writer’s Workshop as well as a board member of the Boston Book Festival.

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Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

brown-girl-dreaming-jacqueline-woodson-book-review-jeanne-blasbergBrown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

To write a memoir in prose, to distill each experience into just the right words, to leave enough white space on the page for a reader to jump in and participate with the language, that is the work of a master. Reader, you already know you are in masterful hands with Jacqueline Woodson. I listened to an interview with Woodson on the Write-Minded podcast with Brooke Warner and Grant Faulkner where she admitted that it was possible to consume Brown Girl Dreaming in one sitting, but that it pained her to hear when readers did that. She really wished we wouldn’t. Indeed, I enjoyed this memoir slowly in bites I could savor. Keeping it on hand for quiet moments when I could sit and think and enjoy the cadence of the verse. It is a book you will want to keep close at hand, a reminder that poignant imagery transports and conveys meaning better than pages and pages and pages. This is a beauty of a book!

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Anxious People by Fredrik Backman

anxious-people-frederick-backman-book-review-jeanne-blasbergAnxious People by Fredrik Backman

With an equal measure of humor and philosophy, Backman’s latest work examines the intricacies of family and home and the anxiety we feel over getting it right. The novel’s structure engaged me from the very beginning with its omniscient voice moving two steps forward and then one step backward, telling what the novel was about in a way that was delightfully unreliable. And as the dots connected and puzzle pieces began to fit together, the experience of this novel was as much an intellectual exercise as a dive into the neuroses of its many delightful characters. I was struck by Backman’s ability to develop all eight characters in a hostage situation so masterfully. The book goes beyond story telling and is a plea for compassion in this crazy world. It will have you laughing at our foibles and universal oddities, its observations are really spot on. I listened to the audio version of Anxious People and the narrator did an incredible job of giving each speaking character a voice of their own. I highly recommend this book!

 

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The Book of V by Anna Solomon

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The Book of V by Anna Solomon

I loved this book’s ambition. Any modern retelling of a biblical character has me hooked as well. The braiding of the three point-of-view characters’ stories was masterful and the reveal about two-thirds of the way through around how their lives were even more tightly wound was terrific.

Having just finished reading Cassandra Speaks by Elizabeth Lesser, I am struck by how Esther and Vashti’s stories might have been interpreted entirely differently if a woman had first written them. Here was my chance to find out! Just as the Lionel and Ian in the novel malign and misconstrue Vee’s intentions, so has been the masculine lens on a woman’s life.

This book grapples with such important issues around motherhood, femininity, misogyny, but with a structure that is incredibly innovative and entertaining.

 

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The Ten-Year Nap by Meg Wolitzer

ten-year-nap-meg-wolitzer-book-review-jeanne-blasbergThe Ten-Year Nap by Meg Wolitzer

So I’m late to the party on this one but The Ten-Year Nap belongs on the shelf of important feminist novels, addressing issues around motherhood and women spend their time. I am a big fan of Meg Wolitzer and picked this one up after really enjoying her more recent novels. THE TEN YEAR nap felt like listening in on “lessons learned” from generations of suffragists while being entertained by the travails of some marvelous characters. I was drawn in by the omniscient first sentence right away, “All around the country, the women were waking up.” Brava.

 

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A Very Punchable Face by Colin Jost

colin-jost-very-punchable-face-book-review-jeanne-blasbergA Very Punchable Face by Colin Jost

I became a fan of Colin Jost after he delivered the commencement speech at my daughter’s high school graduation – more of a stand up comedy routine than a speech, but he did end up delivering a great message in the end. So I pre-ordered his book as soon as I learned of its pending release and it was like one of those gifts that hits at the perfect moment. Written with humility to the point of self-deprecation, A Very Punchable Face will have you laughing out loud, smiling, and as was the case with the chapter about why he loves his mom, maybe shedding a tear. I suggested my daughter listen to the audio on a recent long drive and it was the perfect travel companion – entertaining yet inspirational. Colin’s honesty and commitment to hard work shines through every page. He is a great guy and Scarlet Johansen is one lucky gal. I highly recommend for any age, to inspire, to make you laugh, to get through a dark time. Really great.

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The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

vanishing-half-brit-bennett-jeanne-blasberg-book-reviewThe Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

I was aware of the general premise of The Vanishing Half before I began it, however the structure was unexpected and delightful. I really loved the multi generational component of this novel, the idea that decisions travel forward and backwards, and that lying is a form of loving. Bennett writes with beautiful language and imagery, especially in the scenes set in Louisiana.

 

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Musical Chairs by Amy Poeppel

musical-chairs-amy-poeppel-jeanne-blasberg-book-reviewMusical Chairs by Amy Poeppel

Amy Poeppel is my go to author for funny fresh read. Musical Chairs didn’t disappoint in its laugh-out-loud smartness, its keen observation of family relationships – especially parenting adult children. Love all the musical references and boy did this book hit home in light of my three adult children flocking home during COVID!

 

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