Describing a book of human history as whimsical is, perhaps, slightly flippant. What on earth could be less quaint or fanciful than the brutal, war-mongering, ecosystem-destroying history of the most dangerous species on earth?Read More
Murder mystery meets nuclear apocalypse in Hanna Jameson’s bold literary debut The Last. The result is a novel that’s as much a commentary on political divide as it is a tale of chilling disaster.Read More
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When war reporter Marie Colvin was killed in Syria in 2012 it sent a shockwave through the journalistic community. A leading conflict correspondent and veteran of some of the most dangerous places on earth, Colvin seemed impenetrable. Even an attack in Sri Lanka, which left her permanently blind in one eye and resulted in her iconic eye-patched look, couldn’t stop her from returning to the field. It seemed impossible that she had finally succumbed to the inherent risks of her job. But, regardless of her bravery and her reputation, Colvin was ultimately killed doing one of the most dangerous jobs on the planet, and with her death came the inevitable scrutiny and study of her life. What has been revealed is both brilliantly exciting and heart-wrenchingly painful.
In Extremis: The Life and Death of the War Correspondent Marie Colvin chronicles Colvin’s life from her rambunctious childhood to her famous career as a journalist with London’s Sunday Times. It depicts her force of will – for example, showing up at the Yale admissions office and talking her way in to the school despite having missed the application deadline – and the darker sides of her personality that made her such a fantastic reporter but also caused her immense personal pain – i.e. her drinking problem and tumultuous romantic relationships.
The book’s author, Lindsey Hilsum, is herself an accomplished war reporter. Like Marie, who she befriended through the industry, Hilsum has experienced conflicts in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Rwanda and Israel, and has real insight into what Marie experienced in her later years. Using Marie’s personal diaries and extensive interviews with her family, friends and coworkers, Hilsum has compiled a fairly complete portrait of a very complicated woman. In Extremis’ real strength lies in the lingering personality of its subject. In passages from her journals and anecdotes from her friends, Marie Colvin comes to life as a person of incredible liveliness and even more incredible nuance. Even in the more shadowy moments - the ones she’s left no writing about - her silence points to the constant contradictions driving against one another and forcing her to choose between love, work, and ultimately life.
Mortal peril was no obstacle to Marie Colvin at the time of her death. She’d been attacked with guns, explosives, and various other weapons throughout her career. Threats of death and kidnapping were par for the course, and despite these workplace dangers, she continued to return to war zones time and time again. Hilsum explores the factors that motivated Colvin to pursue war reporting, and the problems that plagued her decorated career, including an inability to file copy on time, a bad habit of wracking up satellite phone bills, and an alcohol addiction that threatened to weaken her credibility. Risky behaviors like showing up hungover to a battlefield and ignoring orders from superiors should have signaled that something was amiss, but instead only added to Marie’s legend.
Hilsum rightfully uses Marie’s story to demonstrate the hardships journalists - even those who don’t operate in war zones - face day to day in a changing news industry. Marie struggled constantly with feeling of inadequacy and pressure, and after years of witnessing and writing about the worst of humanity finally had to admit to herself and her loved ones that she was struggling. When being treated for post traumatic stress, Marie’s doctors, most of whom had only ever treated soldiers, realized hers was the worst case of the disorder they had ever seen. While soldiers normally only experience combat in fleeting bursts over relatively short deployments, Marie had been embedded in combat zones for months on end.
In Extremis is a harrowing and highly interesting biography of a woman who defied categorization and felt the emotions of life at their most extreme. She took her duty as a societal gatekeeper very seriously, and in exchange compromised her own happiness and well being on many occasions to give voice to the voiceless. Fans of Lynsey Addario’s memoir It’s What I Do will love In Extremis, and anyone who has ever watched war coverage on television owes it to the reporters in those clips to read about their experiences and gain a better understanding of what it takes to shine a light on the darkest corners of the world.
Former trial attorney Bonnie Kistler’s debut novel is a domestic legal drama that explores tragedy in a blended family.
Divorce lawyer Leigh Huyett is happily married to Pete Conley, and their children - despite coming from different backgrounds - get along well. But when Leigh’s daughter is killed in a car accident with Pete’s son behind the wheel, their perfectly integrated family begins to crumble. Grief stricken and angry, Leigh throws herself into several complicated court cases while Pete grapples with the possibility of losing his only son, Kip, to the American court system.
House On Fire is first and foremost a study of family dynamics. Kistler explores how two broken families can merge together and find peace among the chaos of divorce and custody battles. Leigh and Pete have a beautiful life, and one that many remarried couples would aspire to. But the ease with which their relationship falls apart after the accident demonstrates how fragile relationships of that sort can be. Both Leigh and Pete are forced into impossible situations as the book intensifies. How can a parent choose between their child and their spouse?
House On Fire does have its downfalls. While the main storyline is gripping and reminiscent of a Jodi Picoult novel, it feels as though Kistler has overcrowded the book’s narrative. Side stories about Leigh’s various legal dramas overwhelm and distract from what the book is really about, and at times seem to have no purpose other than to enhance tension and intrigue. It can almost feel like jumping between two completely different books. This isn’t to say the passages about Leigh’s work aren’t interesting, because they are actually some of the more riveting parts of the book. Kistler personal legal expertise is palpable as she describes Leigh’s work, and it’s fascinating to learn about the American legal system. But the two parallel plots don’t mesh seamlessly, and keeping track of all of the characters can be confusing.
It’s also unclear if readers are supposed to sympathize with Kip or hate him. While at times he seems relatable as a teenager who made a mistake, other passages of House On Fire portray him in a darker way. As a main character and the person who the entire story hinges around, Kip’s behaviour was confusing and at times even misleading. He never really emerged as a fully developed character, and despite his central role in the plot he always seemed to linger on the fringes, only coming in to the spotlight in moments where it felt unnatural or unnecessary.
House On Fire is a bold debut, and Kistler clearly has a lot of potential. It’s a complex story and one that is sure to strike an emotional chord in readers, but it’s also somewhat disjointed and overwhelming. Fans of Jodi Picoult and William Landay should give this book a try, and should definitely keep an eye out for whatever Kistler does next.
Eight months after his tragic death, Anthony Bourdain’s inimitable voice still shines brightly through in the book that launched him into culinary superstardom. Despite being published almost two decades ago, Boudain’s memoir Kitchen Confidential: Adventures In The Culinary Underbelly feels as true to his personality as ever. Filled with dark humour, vulgarity and a complete lack of regret, it’s a book about the food industry, but also about a man who was seemingly unaware of how much he had to offer the world and the adventures his life would soon take him on.
After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, a young Anthony Bourdain began his career in New York City. Working his way up from intern to line cook to head chef of various restaurants, Bourdain formed relationships with some of the most influential people in the food industry. Throughout his cooking career he experienced and witnessed the unsavoury side of the culinary world, and in Kitchen Confidential he unapologetically lays bare the bizarre realities of working in a kitchen.
Kitchen Confidential is filled with wacky characters. From the sociopathic bread-maker to the handsy line cook, Bourdain dealt with some truly unbelievable people and situations. His anecdotes about messing up job interviews and cooking for celebrities will have you laughing out loud, and his beautifully lyrical writing will have you in awe of his knack for storytelling. His keen work ethic and can-do attitude are beyond what most people could ever muster. Long work days and infrequent breaks wore Chef Bourdain down like they would anyone else, but his passion for food never faltered.
Kitchen Confidential unveils the real story behind bread baskets on tables, free drinks from bartenders, and the screaming chefs who operate behind the scenes in the restaurants we all frequent. Unafraid of the response he would get from critics and fellow culinary professionals, Bourdain wrote his book with a kind of blunt honesty that’s both appeal and completely repulsive. It’s a little stomach-churning to know what’s really going on in the kitchen of your favourite restaurant. But with Bourdain’s trademark wit stories of rats feasting on leftovers in the kitchen become less disgusting and more hilarious.
Although life changed for Bourdain quite significantly after the publication of his book, reading Kitchen Confidential is a pleasant reminder that he remained the same throughout the rest of his ever-changing career. He never - at least not publicly - lost the kind of curiosity and humour that feature so prominently in his book, and these infectious traits are what made him so popular to people all around the world.
In one of the book’s final chapters Bourdain takes a trip to Tokyo. He describes exploring the city and eating anything (and I mean anything) he could find, and forcing himself to try things he never imagined. In these pages we see the Bourdain we would all come to know and love on television - the man who would try anything once and displayed such appreciation for the cultures and people he visited. Even then, well before the media training and fame, Bourdain knew how to get people to open up. It’s a gift he never lost.
Reviewer note: As a journalist and writer, I have long been an admirer of Anthony Bourdain’s work. I’m not sure why it took me so long to get around to reading Kitchen Confidential, but I’m so glad I finally did. Although we’ll never know what went in in Bourdain’s mind at the end of his life, it is a beautiful thing to be able to remember him through his own words in writing. I feel incredibly sad knowing that the vibrant, excited and full-of-life man I came to know on T.V. and in the pages of Kitchen Confidential was going through so much personal trouble and battling an illness. I hope my review will inspire at least a few people to pick up this book and find out more about Anthony Bourdain.
“You can have all the money and success in the world, but when you're a fucking asshole, you're a fucking asshole and that's all there is to it.”
- Busy Philipps, This Will Only Hurt A Little
As an actress, Busy Philipps is known for her iconic roles in Freaks and Geeks, Dawson’s Creek and White Chicks. More recently she’s joined the deities of late-night television as the host of her own talk show Busy Tonight. While her face may be recognizable to cinephiles and binge-watchers, Busy’s life story is full of twists, turns and heart-wrenching surprises, all of which she very honestly describes in her memoir This Will Only Hurt A Little.
Celebrity memoirs are a delicate subdivision of literature. Whether penned by the celebrity themselves or written by a ghost writer, memoirs about famous people can easily fall flat. Too often they stray into a realm that’s hard for regular people to relate to. After all, talking about juice cleanses and expensive fitness classes is only endearing for so long. But from page one Busy makes it clear that her story isn’t going to be one about fame and fortune (although she does talk about sharing a doctor with the Karashians), but instead about love, heartbreak, family and good old fashioned hard work.
Known for her comedic roles, Busy’s book definitely delivers in the humour department. Anecdotes about running away from home as a toddler and early acting jobs where she had to pretend to be a life-size Barbie will have readers doubled over in laughter. But the true surprise of This Will Only Hurt A Little are the stories in which Busy - while working as a comedic actress - was enduring incredible personal hardship. From an unplanned pregnancy to struggling with extreme loneliness while filming shows to facing constant rejection in the film industry, Busy has dealt with the trickiest parts of fame. She has also had to fight against rampant sexism, body-shaming and gas-lighting from male co-stars and coworkers.
In one particularly upsetting and intriguing portion of the book, Busy explains how the idea and script for the hit figure skating comedy Blades of Glory was stolen from her by a former boyfriend. Despite having the idea and participating in the writing of the original script, Philipps’ name was removed from the project with her consent, and it wasn’t until years later that she got any credit for her integral role in bringing the film to life. She didn’t profit off of the movie, and she had to live with the knowledge that someone she cared about had taken credit for her ideas and work. Despite having been a fan of hers for years, I had no idea Busy was involved in Blades of Glory until I read this book.
She also describes in detail her experience working with James Franco on Freaks and Geeks, and explains how his hot-headed - and borderline abusive - behavior on set was brushed off as nothing more than a star-in-the-making getting into character. Busy’s feelings and personal safety were pushed to the side in favour of her male co-stars desires. Rather than dwelling on the rough history she has with Franco (which she would have every right to do), Busy simply decided at some point that all she could do was be the best actress possible and speak out against misogyny in Hollywood to help others going through similar things.
This Will Only Hurt A Little is a great book. It’s lively and fun, and will give you a little insight into the craziness of Hollywood. Busy Philipps is the real deal - she’s funny and smart and always manages to come across as genuine. She doesn’t shy away from sharing the intimate details of her life, and she definitely doesn’t keep her opinions to herself.
Taylor Jenkins Reid’s newest novel digs deeper into classic rock culture than just the “sex, drugs, rock & roll” narrative we’ll all come to expect from books about 20th century musicians (although those three things feature quite prominently). In Daisy Jones & The Six, Jenkins Reid explores the realities of addiction, the complications of fame, and the hardships people face in trying to keep relationships alive.
Daisy Jones & The Six tells the story of a famous eponymous band that rose to fame in the 70s and eventually broke up under mysterious circumstances that have never before been revealed to the public. Written as an oral history, the novel unfolds with band members, producers, managers and music critics speaking to an unidentified journalist or historian who is collecting all of their memories to reveal the truth behind the groups’ split. Reading Daisy Jones is like reading the script of a Netflix documentary – there’s no narrator description of settings or backstories, only the words of the people who were there and experienced the events the book is about. Sometimes their memories are conflicting or self-serving, which makes piecing together the band’s story all the more interesting and gives the novel an even more authentic feel.
Much of the book focuses on the band’s two lead singers, Billy Dunne and Daisy Jones. Both are talented musicians and songwriters, but their styles are at odds with one another, leading to tense conflict during the production of their most famous album. As each member of the band offers their accounts of the feud between Daisy and Billy, it becomes clear there was more at play the just the egos of two musicians vying for international fame. Daisy and Billy are similar in the worst possible ways - both are headstrong, emotionally complicated, and dealing with brutal addictions that threaten to destroy their careers and relationships. But they also share an innate gift for music and penning songs that people can relate to, and both become the centre of media and fan obsession.
Jenkins Reid, who garnered widespread attention with the publication of her last novel The Seven Husbands Of Evelyn Hugo, is an expert at critiquing fame. In Evelyn Hugo she examined the life of a famous Hollywood actress through the lens of a reporter writing a biography about her career. In Daisy Jones, Jenkins Reid removes the reporter character completely, never transcribing the questions said individual is asking the musicians, but rather letting the story flow through their responses only. It’s clear someone is behind the scenes gathering information, but their intentions are not revealed until late in the novel. It adds a lovely sense of mystery and intrigue to an already riveting story.
At it’s core, Daisy Jones is about a group of people who, despite having all of the money and influence in the world, could never find the peace and happiness they sought while in the limelight. Their love of music and talent for performing was constantly at odds with the other things they wanted - sobriety, love, family and calm. Jenkins Reid’s unique storytelling style and knack for character development come together to create a beautiful and highly entertaining novel that will make you simultaneously want to go online and book concert tickets and call your family and tell them you miss them.
And that’s the beauty of Jenkins Reid’s work – while it provides cultural criticism of real problems in the world (i.e. substance abuse and infidelity) it’s also unbelievably fun to read. Daisy Jones will make you want to put on a Stones record and dance around your apartment. It will make you want to run out to the nearest thrift store and buy an overpriced fur coat. More than anything it will make you incapable of leaving your spot on the couch until you’ve flipped the last page of the book. And because she’s so determined to bring her characters and stories to life and make them jump off the page, Jenkins Reid has actually written full lyrics to each of the fictional songs she writes about in Daisy Jones and attached them to the back of the book.
Daisy Jones is wonderfully fun and deeply insightful novel about fame, fortune, and the people behind the songs we all know and love.
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Her One Mistake is a compelling, well-written, but somewhat disjointed and derivative novel. Using tropes that have become very familiar in the thriller genre like an unreliable narrator, a sudden shift in the story half-way through the book, and a jumping timeline, Her One Mistake feels too similar to other popular works to really hold its own.
A four-year-old girl goes missing from a school fair in a small English town, pitting two women and former close friends against each other. One woman, Harriet, is the missing girls' mother, and the other, Charlotte, is the woman who was supposed to be watching her when she disappeared. Their friendship destroyed and the town in a frantic uproar, both women are subjected to media scrutiny and judgment from friends, acquaintances and complete strangers. As the case drags on and no new information surfaces about the girls' whereabouts, it becomes clear to both women that they made need each other’s help in finding the child.
While the first half of the story has a kind of slow-burn, tension-building feel to it, the second half, rather unexpectedly, is much more fast-paced and action-packed. Secrets are revealed, allegiances are questioned, and what at first seemed like a crime novels suddenly feels a lot more like a domestic thriller.
Her One Mistake has some surprising and entertaining twists, and the writing and storyline are solid enough to keep you reading throughout the novel. But the book ultimately just has too many similarities to Big Little Lies (a gossipy group of women), Gone Girl (a sudden twist halfway through the book) and The Girl On The Train (an unreliable narrator) to be truly original. While there's no harm in playing on popular themes and ideas, it felt like Heidi Perks was trying to incorporate too many overused twists and turns, and the result was a book that felt oddly disjointed and difficult to believe.
I did enjoy the portrayal of certain characters and relationships, especially that of Charlotte and Harriet prior to the disappearance of Harriet’s daughter. Charlotte is a character who's easy to root for. She's nice, interesting, and relatable, and I found her plight to be the most riveting part of the book. She misses her friend but also feels deeply saddened by the way she is being talked about by the press and by former friends. Her struggles to balance her life between her three children, her part-time job and her ongoing divorce are realistic and endearing.
Heidi Perks is definitely a strong writer, and I'm keen to see what else she writes because she has undeniable talent. Her One Mistake was just a bit too similar to everything else on the market. The thriller genre is so saturated with content that it’s hard to find something truly original and unique.
The main character in Lauren Groff’s 2018 short story collection is not a person, but rather a state, described by her as “an Eden of dangerous things.” Gators, bugs, swamps, panthers, storms and criminals make up the physical hazards, but in Florida danger is just as likely to be ideological and societal.
Groff’s human characters include two sisters abandoned on an island, a young woman living in her car, a determined homeowner who hunkers down in a hurricane, and a conflicted mother of two who appears frequently throughout the book. Their lives are not connected, or even similar, except for the fact that all of their existences are intricately tied to the lush, humid, and tempestuous land of Florida.
Some have moved to Florida after childhoods up North, others were born and bred on the land. Either way, they have all experienced the physical hardships and sociological struggles of the American South, and have dealt with it in a variety of bizarre and ingenious ways.
Something about the Florida of Groff’s description feels ominous, malignant even, as though the whole state is shrouded in shadow and mist. She draws her reader’s attention away from the crystal clear water and white sand beaches of Miami and amusement parks of Orlando to focus instead on small neighborhoods on the cusp of poverty and campuses of rapidly expanding universities. Even when her characters leave Florida – in one case to visit Paris – they are plagued by the knowledge of having to return, but also drawn to the place they have come to know as home.
But if Groff gives the semblance that Florida is Hitchcockian, she offsets it by describing in glimmering detail the beauty and lushness of the state, and the resilience of the people living in it. Her characters withstand sexism, racism, violence and poverty, and they do so without fanfare or cries for attention. They refuse large sums of money in favour of protecting their property from developers and survive ordeals at the extremes of human ability. Florida has made them as strong as they are weary.
Groff’s turns of phrase are a large part of the delight of Florida. Neighbours windows become “domestic aquariums” under her keen observation, and relationships falter under the microscope of her writing. No detail is too small for her descriptions, no note too strange for her sentences. She captures the grotesque and the beautiful with equal eloquence, creating plots full of contradiction and mystery.
Florida is a love story to a state, and a deeply introspective study of what it means to think critically about the place you live. Groff’s writing is dreamy and ethereal, and will pull you in right from the opening pages. She writes from firsthand knowledge, as she herself lives in the state of Florida, and the book feels timely amidst the current political strife about immigration, crime and racism. She explores what it means to be American, and how the United States is seen by other countries around the world. Her depiction of America is searing, but at time also funny and entertaining.
The takeaway from this book? Whatever it is Lauren Groff has to say, I will absolutely be ready to listen. Florida is a beautiful book that’s incredibly original and beautifully written.
Ottessa Moshfegh is arguably the most grotesque and gruesome of popular contemporary writers. Her stories are cringe-worthy, creepy and sometimes downright upsetting, but told in biting, bold and luminous prose. The juxtaposition between the stomach-turning content and the beautiful writing makes her work all the more intriguing, and her short story collection Homesick For Another World is no exception.
Last year Moshfegh released her second novel, titled My Year of Rest and Relaxation, to wide critical acclaim and commercial success. The book, which tells the story of a young woman who hates the world so much that she decides to sleep for a year, rung true with an audience of young, disillusioned women who could oddly enough relate to the narrator’s plight. What stood out about the book was the contradiction between the young woman’s life – she was beautiful, had money to spare, and lived in New York City – and the bitter, apathetic lens through which she saw the world.
Many of the characters in Homesick For Another World are like this as well. They see the world as a place of darkness and solitude, and are experts in self-pity. Despite being unlikeable – and at times extremely gross or creepy – all of the characters are compelling. They are people so different from what we’re normally presented in literature that it’s almost impossible to turn away from them. Moshfegh’s stories often revolve around middle-class or lower-middle-class adults who live in squalid conditions and develop odd habits. She explores sexuality and psychology and aging, and each story is filled with a type of humour that’s both dark and extremely entertaining.
My favourite story of the bunch was Beach Boy, which begins in the latter half. A middle-aged man and his wife return from a beautiful island trip where they celebrated their anniversary. When the wife unexpectedly dies of an aneurysm, the husband uncovers some upsetting information about her that changes the way he sees their relationship. Beach Boy is one of the least grotesque stories in the book, and that alone made it feel like a bit of a reprieve – it was almost like the story was an island amidst the rest of the churning, brutal plots. But still it held true to Moshfegh’s darkness, offering insight into the lives of seemingly normal people who are actually just as deranged as the rest of us.
Another story, called A Better Place, is about two young children who believe that if they murder the right person, they’ll be transported to a mythical “better place” where their lives will be filled with wonder and excitement. The narrator, a young girl, is frightening in her intensity, and has disturbing habits like calling her mother “The Woman” and muttering to herself at the kitchen table. The sinister plot and cliff-hanger ending give A Better Place the feel of a horror story.
There are no dud stories in the bunch, although some fell more toward the periphery of what I consider interesting and consumable. A few times throughout Homesick For Another World I found myself wondering how on earth a person could come up with the freakish ideas Moshfegh seems to adept at writing about. It felt almost improper to be reading about fictional characters’ perversions, and several times while reading in public I felt I had to close the book in case someone starting reading over my shoulder. But feeling like you’re peering through someone’s window into their privates lives is exactly what Moshfegh intends. She’s simply showing us that we’re all interesting in the darkest aspects of life, even if we’ve become very good at pretending we’re not.