• ARC's,  Book Reviews,  Writing

    The Hollows: a book review

    Jess Montgomery showcases her skills as a storyteller in The Hollows: a powerful, big-hearted and exquisitely written follow-up to her highly acclaimed debut The Widows.

    Synopsis – Ohio, 1926: For many years, the railroad track in Moonvale Tunnel has been used as a shortcut through the Appalachian hills. When an elderly woman is killed walking along the tracks, the brakeman tells tales of seeing a ghostly female figure dressed all in white.

    Newly elected Sheriff Lily Ross is called on to the case to dispel the myths. With the help of her friends Marvena Whitcomb and Hildy Cooper, Lily follows the woman’s trail to The Hollows―a notorious asylum―and they begin to expose dark secrets long-hidden by time and the mountains.

    Review – Strong female characters are my favorite and weaving the history of Ohio’s first elected sheriff into the story showcases a piece of history many may not know. But with that comes the uphill battle of sexism against Sheriff Lily Ross that she and her friends handle quite well.

    The other piece of history is much more troubling and dark, the WKKK – the female counterpart of the KKK. With that comes the mystery of who killed Thea, race relations, the Underground Railroad, the treatment of the mentally ill in asylums, and more issues around women’s rights.

    The author expertly navigates these tough topics with both balance and depth. She is never pulled into using the language of the times in her own writing – a pet peeve of mine in historical fiction.

    The characters are well-written but I do recommend reading the first book, The Widows, first. This could be a stand alone but you will lose a lot of background which only makes the women in this book more interesting.

    Drawbacks: I found the first quarter of the book to be a bit slow. But once the book got going, I could not put it down. The only other issue is that some readers could find some of the secrets discovered to be disturbing.

    If you enjoyed The Woman of Troublesome Creek, This Tender Land, and of course The Widows, add The Hollows to your list ASAP. This book is available in stores now!

    Purchase Links

    Amazon Books-A-Million | Barnes & Noble

    About Jess Montgomery

    JESS MONTGOMERY is the Literary Life columnist for the Dayton Daily News and Executive Director of the renowned Antioch Writers’ Workshop in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Based on early chapters of The Widows, Jess was awarded an Ohio Arts Council individual artist’s grant for literary arts and the John E. Nance Writer-in-Residence at Thurber House in Columbus. She lives in her native state of Ohio.

    Thank you to TLC Book Tours and Minotaur Books for a free copy of this book to read and review. All opinions are my own.

  • Book Reviews,  Bookish,  mental health,  Writing

    Wednesday Words: trigger warnings

    Can we all take a moment to agree that saying “I am triggered” as a joke is actually not something that is funny?

    We don’t do this with physical illness and if you do well…. that’s not funny either.

    Because this is something I am intimately familiar with, let me explain what it’s like as someone who can be triggered; as well as a caregiver of someone of the like.

    You are going about your day. Maybe you are in Anthropologie, your favorite store. Or maybe you’re in the library. 

    A person walks past and you catch a whiff of their cologne that most love.

    You break out into a cold sweat. Tunnel vision sets in and the exits disappear. You are transported back to “that place” where the worst thing happened to you. Your heart is racing and you can’t breathe. 

    Now you’re making a self-perceived spectacle of yourself in one of your favorite stores or places. 

    If you are lucky you have someone with you who can remind you to breathe. They see what is happening. There’s the five-finger trick where you have something associated with each finger that grounds you. You use your hands to feel the floor, the chair, the person you are with and you are slowly transported out of your worst nightmare and back to current reality.

    But you still feel like shit and the public embarrassment isn’t even part of that. A surge of adrenaline does incredible and also devastating things to your entire body.

    But what happens when you are alone, reading a book at home that everyone has raved about – or even worse, a public place? The same thing.

    There are movies and TV shows our family and I avoid because they have content warnings. We know the triggers and take the warnings seriously.

    Ninth House is a wildly popular book that is shown all over Instagram. I saw it in countless top lists of 2019 – which is fine – but I never saw a single mention of a warning about the content that quite frankly, would have upset people who don’t even have PTSD. Instagram is huge so it is always possible I missed a mention of this but it’s not just this book.

    I don’t know why books don’t carry warnings. It would take up so little space to include: child r@pe, extreme hazing, violence against women including drugging and assault… you get the point. And all of these and a few more should have been included in a blurb for Ninth House.

    It’s not that difficult. But that may mean that a group of people don’t buy a particular book. I would hope the publishing industry isn’t as calculating as this seems but one has to wonder.

    The last thing I will mention is context. Because, as a writer, that is something to be considered. Does the graphic description do something to advance the plot? Is it integral to the character and their personality? Is it being used as a message to be shared? I will still argue that graphic content may not be necessary – we leave readers to their own imaginations all the time.

    So, I don’t know how this changes unless more readers speak up. Until then, my reviews will include trigger warnings. Because I know from personal experience that a praised book can take me to a dark place fast and that is certainly not the point of reading and I never want to be responsible for transporting a fellow book lover back to their worst moment.

    The world is scary enough already.

     

  • ARC's,  Book Reviews,  Writing

    The Heap: a book review

    As intellectually playful as the best of Thomas Pynchon and as sardonically warm as the best of Kurt Vonnegut, The Heap is both a hilarious send-up of life under late capitalism and a moving exploration of the peculiar loneliness of the early 21st century. A masterful and humane gem of a novel.” —Shaun Hamill, author of A Cosmology of Monsters

    You had me at Pynchon and Vonnegut. But this also left huge shoes to fill for a debut novel. I inhaled this book in a day so it’s safe to say, those shoes were a perfect fit.

    Synopsis:

    Standing nearly five hundred stories tall, Los Verticalés once bustled with life and excitement. Now this marvel of modern architecture and nontraditional urban planning has collapsed into a pile of rubble known as the Heap. In exchange for digging gear, a rehabilitated bicycle, and a small living stipend, a vast community of Dig Hands removes debris, trash, and bodies from the building’s mountainous remains, which span twenty acres of unincorporated desert land.

    Orville Anders burrows into the bowels of the Heap to find his brother Bernard, the beloved radio DJ of Los Verticalés, who is alive and miraculously broadcasting somewhere under the massive rubble. For months, Orville has lived in a sea of campers that surrounds the Heap, working tirelessly to free Bernard—the only known survivor of the imploded city—whom he speaks to every evening, calling into his radio show.

    The brothers’ conversations are a ratings bonanza, and the station’s parent company, Sundial Media, wants to boost its profits by having Orville slyly drop brand names into his nightly talks with Bernard. When Orville refuses, his access to Bernard is suddenly cut off, but strangely, he continues to hear his own voice over the airwaves, casually shilling products as “he” converses with Bernard.

    What follows is an imaginative and darkly hilarious story of conspiracy, revenge, and the strange life and death of Los Verticalés that both captures the wonderful weirdness of community and the bonds that tie us together.

    Review:

    A smartly written and original dysptopian novel for adults is not an easy book to find. Because we are adults, we have already sussed out every worst case scenario.

    Or at least I have because I worry about everything. But one thing I did not have to worry about in this book was the trope of hurting children found in so many dystopian plots.

    However, I now have something new to worry about because I never imagined living in a 500 story condominium-type building that would collapse. Where, not even a class system of outer units (with a view) and inner units (no view) could prevent the ultimate collapse of this 500 story society.

    Or that it would be the middle class – the Dig Hands – that literally pulled the upper class out of a heap of trash.

    The plot was sharp, the characters darkly witty, and each time I thought the author would take the easy allegorical way out, he leaned on satire instead; like The Making of The Mole People newsletter. This was published, prior to the collapse, when two much hated time zones were created to cut down on hallway and elevator traffic.

    We all made it clear that we expected a reverse of the policy as quickly as possible. Instead, Mitner doubled down. He began to isolate groups of inner units throughout the Vert, reversing some delays, adding to others. Soon, the outer units – there were fewer of them than the inner units – all ran on “true time” while an inner unit might be in any number of different time zones. The result was not a population divided in half; rather, Mitner, whether he meant to or not, had developed and entirely unique twenty-four-hour culture.

    I think that’s actually called Facebook.

    But eventually, like us, the characters in the book liked these time changes and the 24 hour access to an impersonal life, right outside their doors.

    I thoroughly enjoyed the glimpses into a prior life – provided by residents called “displaced travelers” who were away when the building collapsed. I would love to see a second book just on life prior to the collapse. And the survival, connection and disconnection between the two brothers would make a fantastic follow-up as well.

    Or perhaps we are already all too familiar with that disconnected life – we just don’t live in a 500 story building with residents divided by the haves – the 1% – and the have nots.

    Either way, it was fascinating to watch a society on the brink.

    In addition to the societal and economic paralells, there were little points for the reader to pick up on, the veiled Tower of Babel reference in particular, that truly made this book unique. And please do not forget about the snakes: can they go backwards?

    Can they?

    My few issues: the author built an incredible world in a relatively low number of pages. I wished there had been a bit more detail and a few more characters developed. However, this did not detract from the overall experience and is my personal opinion.

    If you are a fan of Kurt Vonnegut and/or Thomas Pynchon, then this book is for you. If you enjoy satire and dark humor, you will also enjoy this book. And if you are up for a truly unique dystopian book then give this gem of a book a go.

    This was a fantastic debut novel and I cannot wait to read more from Sean Adams. This book is available in stores today!

    Thank you to the publisher, William Morrow, and TLC Book tours for providing me a copy of this book to promote. This review is made up of purely my own thoughts, observations, and opinions. 

  • Book Reviews,  Bookish,  Writing

    Fleishman Is In Trouble: a book review and the lies we believe

    There was no way for her to voice an opinion without being accused of anger. Everywhere she turned in her own home, there was a new insult. She would wake up in the morning and walk out the door with Toby and the kids and before she headed in the direction away from the school, she would hear the doorman talk about what a hero Toby was for taking his own children to school.

    ✂️✂️✂️✂️✂️/5

    Rachel is a wildly successful agent. Toby is a respected doctor. They are getting a divorce and one morning Rachel drops their kids, Solly (9) and Hannah (11), off at Toby’s apartment at 4 am.

    Then Rachel disappears from their lives and her voice from the book.

    Toby is a good dad, there’s no doubt about that. But how good of a parent are you when you hold open contempt for the other parent and question their love for their children?

    Toby scrambles for childcare and is met with sympathy and accommodating help. And against the backdrop of Rachel’s disappearance, she is left without perspective during the pages upon pages airing Toby’s grievances against her, far beyond her disappearance.

    The entire story is told through the eyes of Libby, a longtime friend with struggles and frustrations of her own. From a literary standpoint, the use of her as a narrator was both fascinating and creative.

    And it drove a subtle point home as she is also largely quiet for long portions of the book. The women in Toby’s life don’t have the opportunity to say much.

    Fleishman Is In Trouble… but which Fleishman?

    Toby does his own investigative work and determines that Rachel is having an affair on top of abandoning their children. Double standard: they are technically still married but his extensive use of dating apps and hook-ups are treated as nothing short of normal.

    It was so interesting to me the amount of sympathy, help, support, and passes that Toby received while his wife was torn apart for her career, her drive, and the role reversal within the marriage – that he benefitted from, all while complaining about it at the same time.

    We don’t hear from Rachel until the latter part of the book and while some suspicions were confirmed, what we really found was a woman broken by the belief that women can have it all.

    The writing, the narrator, the stories told within the story, and the subtle way that the author created appeal to almost any adult reader made this a five star book for me.

    There were parts of this book that struck incredibly loud chords with me. Yes, this book may appear to be about divorce – but only on the surface. Sex is a prevailing storyline so no, this book is not for everyone. But if you were taught the lie that a woman or a man could “have it all”, this book is well worth a read.

    Much like Rachel, I spent 20 years in a male dominated industry. Locker room talk, harassment, and all the other fun things that come with the territory were the norm. I believed that I could have it all but it never happened – something always had to give.

    That something was everything from respect from colleagues to the death of a certification I wanted and studied out my guts for.

    That’s where this book really began to resonate with me. I’ve been there and have fought the stress and untimely pause or death of a dream. Sure, I could have gone in the direction of Rachel but we would have ended in the same place.

    Angry and insulted no matter our achievements.

    Women are tired. Men are frustrated. The lies are everywhere. In the book, Toby was free to exhibit little drive by keeping the same job, even when given opportunities for advancement, while he watched Rachel climb the endless corporate ladder which benefited the entire family.

    A fancy apartment in the city, a house in the Hamptons, the best schools – all things Toby begrudged while blaming Rachel for everything. Decisions made jointly were suddenly Rachel’s ideas and Rachel’s career help Toby’s back,  and of course the kids, they preferred Toby over their mother.

    Rachel couldn’t have it all. But neither could Toby. And it broke them.

    Because Fleishman was in trouble.

  • Audiobooks,  Book Club For Introverts,  Book Reviews,  Himalayas of Literature,  Lists,  Recommendations,  Writing

    Top Books of 2019

    When you read 153 books in one year, narrowing it down to a top list is so difficult. I am a firm believer in the DNF so if I finish a book, there is some value to be found in the writing. I picked these books based on what the book did for me. Did it change me as a person? As a reader? Did it change my world view? Did it bolster a current belief?

    I attempted a top 10 and couldn’t narrow it down by a single book more so here are my Top 11 Books for 2019:

    1. Drive Your Plow Over The Bones of The Dead by Olga Tokarczuk – this book won the Nobel Prize in Literature. It’s dark, but not too dark. It was thought provoking and expertly captured the human condition and our roles in society. This is my top book of 2019 – the rest are in no particular order.
    2. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead – A tough read but one that should be filed under “books everyone should read.” This book not only delved into the Underground Railroad but also what happened after “freedom” was achieved. It was an eye opener and a gut punch done so well because the author was not only well-researched but also an incredibly talented writer.
    3. Trust Exercise by Susan Choi – Theatre kids are ________. Kidding, of course. But as the parent of a theatre kid, I throughly enjoyed this non-linear story that explored power, consent, revenge, and emotion. This was a challenging read but well worth it.
    4. The Dearly Beloved by Cara Wall – This book. It’s probably the one I can’t stop talking about. It’s also one I can recommend to almost anyone… for those who are religious, those who have been hurt by religion, those who doubt and question, those who enjoy historical fiction… I could go on and on. This book changed me as a person.
    5. A Prayer for Travelers by Ruchika Tomar – What a wild ride! Told in a completely non-linear format – even the chapters were numbered out of order – this book explores what it is to be marginalized, forgotten, and what it takes for a teen to pull herself out of that life. This book stuck with me for quite some time.
    6. The Dutch House by Ann Patchett – Meet my new favorite author. This character driven story covers what it is to be a member in an imperfect family – so basically all of us. And extra stars for the audiobook, narrated by America’s favorite uncle, Tom Hanks. I listened to this book and loved every minute of it.
    7. There There by Tommy Orange – This book is an experience. It follows over a dozen Native American characters headed to the same event. Another non-linear format that flashed back to explain each character and the person they are in the present. If you want to understand more about the plight of the Native American, this would be great book to start with.
    8. Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner – I finished this book yesterday and cannot stop thinking about it. On the surface it seemed to be a book about divorce. Except it wasn’t. Gender roles, parenting, career sacrifices, marriage, and the old adage that “women can have it all” are what this book was really about. Definitely a book that I identified with and I cannot wait to post my full review of this one.
    9. Naamah by Sarah Blake – Magical realism is my favorite genre. Magical realism that takes place on Noah’s ark told through the eyes of Noah’s wife, Naamah? This was probably the most original book I read this year. It is not for everyone though – if you prefer the original version of Noah and his ark, you probably want to stick with that one.
    10. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt – This year’s A Little Life for me. This was an epic book of loss, love, deceit, and redemption. And yes, the book was better than the movie.
    11. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace – This book changed me as a reader. I read this book with my Book Oblivion group and it was the beginning of a shift in focus for me. It’s a beast and not to be read alone. My Book Club for Introverts is tackling this book in January and February. Check us out on Goodreads if you’d like to join the fun! We are also reading another book during those months if Infinite Jest isn’t for you.

    Thanks for talking books with me this year!

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