Posted in 2 Stars, Book Review

REVIEW: Break-Up Club by Lorelei Mathias

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Genre: Chick-Lit, New Adult
Publisher: HarperCollins
Publication Date: May 19, 2016
Formats Available: Kindle

There’s never been a better time to be single . . . 

Holly Braithwaite and loveable loser Lawrence have been together for five years. But the obvious cracks in their relationship can no longer be ignored and Holly soon finds herself saying “it’s not me, it’s you.” 

In the shock aftermath of their break-up, Holly finds unlikely companions in Olivia, Harry and Bella. Together, they form the Break-up Club, as they support each other through their mutual melancholy and find ways to love, laugh and function as human beings again. 

Break-up Club meets every Sunday. Each week, as the comedy and drama unfolds, they discover a new BUC “rule.” And one by one, the rules become vital markers on their journey to recovery . . . 

MY RATING: 📚 📚

I’m disappointed by how much this book disappointed me. The premise is spot-on, and the reading was somewhat enjoyable, but in the end, it’s just not for me.

For one thing, I couldn’t connect with the characters. All the members of the Break-Up Club seemed incredibly immature for their age. Most of the book consisted of them getting hammered, taking drugs, and being all-around silly–not exactly what I’d expect from a group of (mostly) professional people in their late twenties. Their interactions with one another seemed even more unhealthy than their previous relationships.

For another, this pacing was slow. As I mentioned above, pretty much every chapter consisted of the characters getting together to get wasted and whine. The only parts of the story I didn’t find boring were Holly’s short film ideas.

The tone also shifts drastically, going from silly to satirical to serious with little to no warning. The ending didn’t seem to fit at all, and I was really disappointed that a certain coupling–which was hinted at quite a bit–never took place. **SPOILER** I was also disappointed that the Break-up Club didn’t become a reality show. It would have been a terrible idea for the characters, but would have been really interesting.**END SPOILER**

That being said, there were several clever bits that entertained, and despite not really liking this book overall I am interested in looking for Ms. Mathias’ other works. If you’re a big fan of chick lit and don’t mind the issues I mentioned, I’d give this a go.

I received a complimentary copy from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

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Posted in 2 Stars, Book Review

REVIEW: The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

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Genre: Fiction, Fantasy, Philosophy
Publisher: HarperCollins
Publication Date: 
May 1, 1993 (first published 1988)
Formats Available: 
Kindle, Paperback, Hardcover, Audio

Summary:

Combining magic, mysticism, wisdom and wonder into an inspiring tale of self-discovery, The Alchemist has become a modern classic, selling millions of copies around the world and transforming the lives of countless readers across generations. 

Paulo Coelho’s masterpiece tells the mystical story of Santiago, an Andalusian shepherd boy who yearns to travel in search of a worldly treasure. His quest will lead him to riches far different–and far more satisfying–than he ever imagined. Santiago’s journey teaches us about the essential wisdom of listening to our hearts, of recognizing opportunity and learning to read the omens strewn along life’s path, and, most importantly, to follow our dreams. 

MY RATING: 📚 📚

This book has been on my mental to-read shelf for years for several different reasons. For one, I fell in love with Latin American literature during college, when I was studying the Spanish language. Even though this book was originally written in Portuguese, it seemed to have all of those delightful elements I adored in authors like Gabriel García Márquezand Jorge Luis Borges: magical realism, mysticism, and of course, alchemy.

For those who are unfamiliar, I love alchemy and its presence in literature, both overtly and symbolically. I encountered it first in a reading of Michel Butor’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Ape: A Caprice, and subsequently gobbled it up in Borges’ Ficciones, and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Alchemy is why I have a developing love for Medieval literature. Alchemy is everything.

So, understandably, I expected to fall in love with this book. I didn’t. In fact, I struggled to finish it. I imagine that had it been any longer, I probably would have set it down, but the story was only 167 pages long. I couldn’t give up on something so short.

There is no question that Paulo Coelho is a gifted writer. He knows how to construct a beautiful sentence, and his imagery is superb. The premise of the story, too, is good: the classic hero’s quest, in which a simple shepherd boy follows a long string of omens to seek after treasure promised him in a dream. Over the course of his journey he suffers loss and encounters peril, but through this also achieves wisdom, understanding, and enlightenment.

But overall, this superficial goodness could not secure my heart in favor ofThe Alchemist. Perhaps I would have appreciated it more had Coelho given me the chance, but with each page I felt like he was bludgeoning me to death with the point. The text was overly repetitive, to point that I considered playing some kind of drinking game every time a character mentioned “the Soul of the World,” “the Language of the World,” or “Personal Legends.” This book read like a pretentious New Age self-help book, rather than a modern classic.

Perhaps I went in with expectations set entirely too high. I wanted another One Hundred Years of Solitude, or at least something similar. That isn’t what I received. If you have read and enjoyed Paulo Coelho’s other works, you may enjoy this one as well, but otherwise, I can’t think of anyone I would recommend this to.

Posted in 2 Stars, Book Review

REVIEW: 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl by Mona Awad

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Genre: Literary Fiction, Women’s Fiction
Publisher: Penguin Books
Publication Date: 
February 23, 2016
Formats Available: 
Kindle, Paperback

Summary:

Growing up in the suburban hell of Misery Saga (a.k.a. Mississauga), Lizzie has never liked the way she looks–even though her best friend Mel says she’s the pretty one. She starts dating guys online, but she’s afraid to send pictures, even when her skinny friend China does her makeup: she knows no one would want her if they could really see her. So she starts to lose. With punishing drive, she counts almonds consumed, miles logged, pounds dropped. She fights her way into coveted dresses. She grows up and gets thin, navigating double-edged validation from her mother, her friends, her husband, her reflection in the mirror. But no matter how much she loses, will she ever see herself as anything other than a fat girl?

In her brilliant, hilarious, and at times shocking debut, Mona Awad simultaneously skewers the body image-obsessed culture that tells women they have no value outside their physical appearance, and delivers a tender and moving depiction of a lovably difficult young woman whose life is hijacked by her struggle to conform. As caustically funny as it is heartbreaking, 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl introduces a vital new voice in fiction.

MY RATING: 📚 📚

I’ve included a few spoilers in this review, but mostly they’re thematic rather than details about the specific plot. Proceed at own risk.

My relationships with both weight and food have been complicated and mountainous for as long as I can remember, so when I heard about 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, I couldn’t have been more excited to read it. Whether you struggle with your weight or not, I’m sure you’re familiar with the obsession our culture has with physical appearance. The way we view our bodies and reduce their value to the hypothetical sexual desires of others is quite ridiculous. I couldn’t wait to see what Mona Awad had to say about the issue.

First and foremost, this book is well-written. There were several one-liners that, as a writer, I felt almost jealous that I hadn’t come up with them myself, namely this golden nugget:

“My wide slash of bared stomach feels like an emergency no one is attending to.”

I mean, how great is that?

Aside from the well-crafted language, the pacing was good. I liked that this was more a collection of vignettes from Elizabeth’s life, rather than a straightforward narrative. Much like a struggle with weight, it was unpredictable and confusing. In that way, the organization was a real strength.

Mainly what I had a problem with was this hopeless despondency we are left with at the end. Everything our protagonist does to lose weight, she does for other people. She isn’t trying to be happy, boost her health, or feel good about herself. She just wants strangers to approve of her appearance, for men she has no interest in to find her sexually desirable. She has no real friendships, no real career, and she lets the only successful relationship she has fall apart, all because she has entered indentured servitude to her Gazelle and her food scale.

I understand what it’s like to be a slave to the calorie, I really do. I understand what it’s like to have a metabolism that seems almost sentient in its attempts to screw you over. It isn’t easy, by any stretch of the imagination, and Awad definitely captures the frustration, guilt, and self-loathing that comes with the territory, even though I think there are a lot of things this book gets wrong about being a “fat girl”–mainly, the weird sexual aspect of the story. I’m not squeamish when it comes to sexual themes in literature, but that element in this particular book was just bizarre and felt rather forced.

I was hoping for a more uplifting message, one in which Beth/Elizabeth/Lizzie/Liz learned to appreciate herself and embrace being healthy, because when she is thin she is definitely not healthy, physically or mentally. Instead we are left to assume she spends the rest of her life alone, punishing herself for not being someone else’s idea of perfect. She even begins to dehumanize other people who are overweight to make herself feel better! That’s a very damaging idea, and really one I found off-putting.

I wish I could recommend this book, because as I said before it is quite well-written and the topic is both relevant and important, but the underlying message is just too disturbing to pass along.

I received a complimentary copy from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.


 

Posted in 2 Stars, Book Review

REVIEW: Lights Out in the Reptile House by Jim Shepard

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Genre: Literary, Dystopian, Coming of Age
Publisher: Open Road Media
Publication Date:
December 22, 2015 (Original: 1990)
Formats Available: 
Kindle

Summary:

In an unspecified country that combines elements of Chile under its military regime, South Africa under apartheid, and Italy under fascism, fifteen-year-old Karel Roeder asks only to be left alone to learn from Albert, his mentor at the zoo’s reptile house, and to devote himself to his girlfriend, Leda. But both Leda and Albert lead him into increasingly proscribed areas of thought and speech, and thus into conflict with a newly ascendant party that intends to prosecute a border war against an officially despised ethnic group and criminalize dissent. Citizens have been disappearing and surveillance in the name of safety has become all-pervasive. When Kehr, a special assistant of the civil guard, billets himself at Karel’s house for unknown reasons, Karel finds his already tenuous hold on his own innocence crushed as Kehr—tribune, inquisitor, and metaphysician of terror—instructs his unwilling protégé in those moments when history is let off the leash.

Lights Out in the Reptile House is at once a dystopian political parable, a meditation on totalitarianism, and a moving coming-of-age story, as its protagonist struggles to understand his own values and meaning even in the most extreme of crucibles.

MY RATING: 📚 📚

We often hear that no matter how good a story may be, it must be well-written to provide an enjoyable reading experience. Having put away many books for this very reason, I tend to agree with this idea. Lights Out in the Reptile House is an example of how the opposite is true, as well.

Jim Shepard’s writing is technically flawless. All the elements of literary fiction writing are present. His descriptions are vivid and effective. There are unexpected linguistic twists and turns, surprising aphorisms, and beautiful, paradoxical metaphors that will make you remember why you fell in love with reading to begin with.

So, why the low star rating?

I did not connect emotionally with the characters at all. Karel was a big of an enigma to me, even though we spent the entire book hovering around his head. I didn’t understand why he was so enamored with Leda, who was mean to him so often. I often forgot he was fifteen, because he acted (and was treated by most of the other characters) as if he were seven or eight. The rare sexual thought passing through his mind shocked me into remembering he was an adolescent, but other than that, he thought and behaved in a rather childish way. Had there been a reason for why this was, I would have been fine with that–after all, I don’t think all teenage protagonists have to be the bravest or the smartest to be interesting–but it just did not make sense.

I could have forgiven vague, unemotional characters had they been placed in a more concrete setting, but I was denied that as well. I understand why Shepard chose to leave so many details about where they are, who the Praetor really is and how he came to power, what The Party really aims to accomplish. We begin the book watching a meeting of the League of Young Mothers, but we never understand what this group is or why it is “semicompulsory.” This lack of information reflects the chaos of those living under Party rule. It manages to transfer confusion and uncertainty to the reader, so the method is obviously effective, but the book ends leaving so many questions unanswered.

Not to mention, the story finishes with absolutely no hope. In the interests of remaining spoiler-free, that’s all I’ll say. George Orwell does the same thing in 1984, one of my favorite books, but he does it in such a way that doesn’t make me feel like I’ve wasted hours of my life.

As much as I wanted this book to satisfy me, it just couldn’t quite get there. However, I’m on the fence when it comes to literary fiction. It’s always a toss-up whether I will like it or not. If you’re a more devoted fan of the genre, you will most likely enjoy this book. If you’re looking for another 1984 or Brave New World, though, you won’t find it here.

I received a complimentary copy from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.


About the Author

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Jim Shepard was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and is the author of six novels, including most recently Project X, and four story collections, including the forthcoming You Think That’s Bad (March 2011). His third collection, Like You’d Understand, Anyway, was a finalist for the National Book Award and won The Story Prize. Project X won the 2005 Library of Congress/Massachusetts Book Award for Fiction, as well as the ALEX Award from the American Library Association. His short fiction has appeared in, among other magazines, Harper’s, McSweeney’s, The Paris Review, The Atlantic Monthly, Esquire, DoubleTake, the New Yorker, Granta, Zoetrope: All-Story, and Playboy, and he was a columnist on film for the magazine The Believer. Four of his stories have been chosen for the Best American Short Stories and one for a Pushcart Prize. He’s won an Artists’ Grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He teaches at Williams College and lives in Williamstown with his wife Karen, his three children, and two beagles.

Posted in 2 Stars, Book Review

REVIEW: Camp Outlook by Brenda Baker

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Genre: Children’s/YA Fiction, Christian
Publisher: Second Story Press
Publication Date: 
March 11, 2014
Formats Available: 
Paperback, Kindle

Summary:

Shannon, who has been delighted that her parents are finally going to have a longed-for second child, is horrified when her new brother turns out to have Down syndrome. Like most kids, Shannon wants to blend in and have a family that is considered normal. She is torn between delight and fury at how the family’s prayers for a new baby have been answered.

After some erratic (but absolutely believable) behavior, Shannon is sent away against her will to Camp Outlook with her best friend. There she meets some fellow campers who are “different” from the norm. These new friendships, along with a series of mysterious experiences, help her to gain a new understanding of her spirituality and to see the specialness of her younger brother. 

MY RATING: 📚 📚

I found the process of reading Camp Outlook to be enjoyable. It’s very short and fast paced–I think it only took me about three hours collectively to read it from beginning to end. The story addresses important issues, like the concept of Imago Dei and our society’s treatment of those with special needs. The story is non-linear, alternating chapters with Shannon’s time at Camp Outlook and the events leading up to her departure for the camp. While this was a little confusing at times, it worked.

However, there is a reason I gave this book two stars. While the writing is good and solid, the characters felt flat to me, and the plot is not very interesting. Shannon’s inner ramblings are completely true to reality for most seventh or eighth graders, I’m sure, but I found it very difficult to connect with her because of it. She was very judgmental, especially of the character, Sam. I was hoping she would repent of her behavior at the end and realize it’s wrong to feel so negatively about someone based simply on the way they dress, but she doesn’t. She also throws around the word “bimbo” a lot, which is just…strange. And upsetting.

I’m also a little upset that Shannon’s parents never spoke with her about how to treat people with mental and physical disabilities until Gabriel was born. I could understand her ignorance if she was four or five, but a twelve or thirteen year old girl should know it’s not right to treat people poorly. Even her peers who bully and mock the special needs characters in the book know it’s wrong to do so.

Finally, I have a very real problem with this being labelled as a Christian book. It has Christian values in it, certainly. But the strange things that happen to Shannon at Camp Outlook are of a very mystical quality, and not really explained. She doesn’t undergo a conversion. She simply comes to an understanding of how mental and physical disabilities don’t detract from a person’s value. This is an idea embraced by, but certainly not unique to, Christianity. I would say that most if not all faith traditions, and even those who are not religious, would agree with that statement.

If you enjoy YA books that deal with heavier subjects in a light manner, you may enjoy this book. However, if you’re attracted to it because of the Christian label here, I urge you to proceed with caution.

I received a complimentary copy from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

Posted in 2 Stars, Book Review

Review: The Witch of Lime Street: Séance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World by David Jaher

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Genre: History, Spiritualism
Publisher: Crown
Publication Date:
October 6, 2015
Formats Available: 
Hardcover, Kindle

Summary:

History comes alive in this textured account of the rivalry between Harry Houdini and the so-called Witch of Lime Street, whose iconic lives intersected at a time when science was on the verge of embracing the paranormal.

The 1920s are famous as the golden age of jazz and glamour, but it was also an era of fevered yearning for communion with the spirit world, after the loss of tens of millions in the First World War and the Spanish-flu epidemic. A desperate search for reunion with dead loved ones precipitated a tidal wave of self-proclaimed psychics—and, as reputable media sought stories on occult phenomena, mediums became celebrities.

Against this backdrop, in 1924, the pretty wife of a distinguished Boston surgeon came to embody the raging national debate over Spiritualism, a movement devoted to communication with the dead. Reporters dubbed her the blonde Witch of Lime Street, but she was known to her followers simply as Margery. Her most vocal advocate was none other than Sherlock Holmes’ creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who believed so thoroughly in Margery’s powers that he urged her to enter a controversial contest, sponsored by Scientific American and offering a large cash prize to the first medium declared authentic by its impressive five-man investigative committee.  Admired for both her exceptional charm and her dazzling effects, Margery was the best hope for the psychic practice to be empirically verified.  Her supernatural gifts beguiled four of the judges. There was only one left to convince…the acclaimed escape artist, Harry Houdini.

David Jaher’s extraordinary debut culminates in the showdown between Houdini, a relentless unmasker of charlatans, and Margery, the nation’s most credible spirit medium. The Witch of Lime Street, the first book to capture their electric public rivalry and the competition that brought them into each other’s orbit, returns us to an oft-mythologized era to deepen our understanding of its history, all while igniting our imagination and engaging with the timeless question: Is there life after death?

MY RATING: 📚 📚 📚

Actual Rating: 2.5

Since reading Quenby Olson’s The Half Killed a while back, I’ve been interested in learning more about Spiritualism and the séance culture that took England and the United States by storm. This book takes place in the 1920s, several decades after the initial rising of this flavor of Western Occultism.

My low star rating has nothing to do with the information Mr. Jaher provides here. I was actually quite fascinated by his accounts of Harry Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, both of whom I knew only little of before I began reading this book. There is also a wealth of information here about Spiritualism and Occultism that enriches my understanding of the early 20th century.

There are several reasons why I stopped reading earnestly at 80% and skimmed my way toward the end. First, the organization here is very poor. The book is entitled The Witch of Lime Street, but the reader doesn’t even find out who bears that title until nearly halfway through the book. There is no clear direction or introduction informing us that the focus of the book will be the Scientific American contest or the subsequent rivalry between Mina Crandon and Harry Houdini. There is no central point, no guiding reason, no thesis. This book, while well-written and informative, is more a report and collection of information than synthesizing research. Additionally, the inclusion of so many similar accounts of séances and seemingly unrelated tangents makes the reading process tedious. It was very strange to be both attracted and put off by the subject matter and the writing.

I’m glad that I read what I did of this book, because as I said before it gave me more insight into Spiritualism and its impact on early 20th century American culture, but I’m not sure that I can heartily recommend it. If you have the opportunity to pick it up, definitely flip through and glean what you can. The information is definitely there. It’s just difficult to process.

Recommended forthose interested in historical accounts of occultism, paranormality, etc.

I received a complimentary copy from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. 

Posted in 2 Stars, Book Review

Review: The Restaurant Critic’s Wife by Elizabeth LaBan

The Restaurant Critic's WifeThe Restaurant Critic’s Wife by Elizabeth LaBan
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I received a complimentary copy from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

Sigh. I don’t think I’ve ever been this disappointed by such a well-written book.

On a technical level, The Restaurant Critic’s Wife is nearly flawless. Ms. LaBan’s style flows nicely and her descriptions, while a bit heavy-handed at times, are effective. She even does a good job at piecing various elements of the story together. Unfortunately, though, there isn’t much of a story for her to work with.

As you’ll see in the synopsis provided by the publisher, The Restaurant Critic’s Wife is about just that. Lila is married to Sam Soto, Philadelphia’s newest and most sought after food critic, and she’s having a hard time adjusting to her new life. In less than five years, she’s gone from workaholic to a reluctant stay at home mom to a toddler and a newborn, a lonely stranger in a new city. Sam, paranoid about his identity being revealed, becomes increasingly controlling as what little bit of plot there is unfolds, forbidding Lila from returning to work, making friends, or even leaving the house without him.

There are several issues that I have with this book. First off, from a storytelling perspective, it’s just downright dull. There are entirely too many minor characters that add next to nothing to the storyline. Several of the neighbor ladies could have been combined into one or two characters with no major loss. The woman who is supposedly Lila’s best friend in the world is only briefly mentioned, while people she supposedly hates who add nothing to the story are mentioned over and over again.

Second, the book could have been much, much shorter. Much of the time is spent on episodic tangents that don’t really seem to contribute to the story at large. Pages and pages are filled with the minutiae of Lila’s domestic affairs–there are about one hundred detailed accounts of her breastfeeding her son, tons of her daughter whining and wanting to change clothes, a huge chunk of a chapter devoted to her trying to get the kids in the car to go to Sam’s aunt’s house for tea. I have the feeling that Ms. LaBan wanted to convey the utter exhaustion and tedium that is the stay at home mother lifestyle, and if that hunch is correct, she definitely succeeded. While I applaud her abilities in this regard, it was more frustrating than enlightening.

Third, ninety-nine percent of the conflict in this story could be resolved with a few quick conversations and a hug or a handshake. So much of Lila’s inner dialogue goes over how frustrated she is by Sam’s asinine rules, how much she wants to return to work, how much she wants to make friends, but she hardly ever opens her mouth to have an honest conversation. Granted, Sam is incredibly childish and difficult, so the success of said attempt is questionable at best, but it would have been nice to see her try a little harder to get through to him. Also, I’m still not quite clear on why Sam didn’t just operate under a pen name for his reviews, if he was worried about restaurant employees giving him special treatment. The buzz surrounding him didn’t seem entirely believable either–I’m no expert, but I found it highly unlikely that non-foodies gave a rat’s behind what Sam thought of restaurants, anyway. Most of the places he visited seemed a little high-brow for an average American family.

Now, we get to the huge problem I have with this book: Sam.

I can’t stress this point enough: I hate Sam. Sam is a terrible, terrible human being.

For those interested in textual evidence:

“Lila, I hear you, but I don’t know if you can do it. I’m starting to think that letting you out there is like setting a wild animal free in a city–you just can’t help yourself.”

“I wish I were enough to make you…happy.”

“[Sam] would probably scold me for leaving the house at all.

Sam is despicable. He cares exactly not at all about Lila’s well-being or happiness. He moves their family across country without really caring about her opinion, he keeps her from going back to work even though that’s what she really wants to do, he forces her to isolate herself from her neighbors and pretty much everyone else she befriends because heaven forbid, someone might know someone who is somehow connected to a restaurant and everything will be ruined. He doesn’t even like her taking the kids out for lunch. This is a woman who has gone through a lot of life changes and is now caring for two children, one a nursing baby, completely on her own–a woman who is a prime candidate for postpartum depression–and he cuts her off from everyone who might be able to help her out. Honestly, I kept waiting for Lila to snap and stab him or something. Instead, she’s almost constantly frustrated at him but often forgets her feelings because she remembers how charming he was when they first met, or she sees him smiling at their children. Because, you know, that makes the emotional abuse just dandy.

Their conflict is finally “resolved” by Sam magically understanding Lila around the same time she comes around to the idea that his paranoia is justified. She actually blames herself for someone STEALING A PICTURE OF SAM FROM THEIR HOME to circulate around the local restaurants. She decides not to go back to work full-time, because he was right about that too, somehow, and instead she begins doing some maybe possibly part-time freelance work.

Here’s the thing: I don’t have a thing in the world against stay at home mothers. I actually have a lot of respect for them, and wouldn’t mind having the option myself some day. But I’m not okay with a woman being strongarmed into staying home, just because her husband says so, without really talking to her or trying to understand what she wants out of life. Some women really want to work out of the home after they have children, and that deserves equal respect, especially when there are financial problems in the household. Ahem.

The Restaurant Critic’s Wife was a total disappointment, doubly so because of how well the actual writing was. The two star rating is for Ms. LaBan’s skills in that arena alone; otherwise, it’s a solid .5-1 stars. Avoid if possible. It will only break your heart.

View all my reviews