“True Crime Story” by Joseph Knox – Review

By: Angie Haddock


In the early hours of Saturday 17 December 2011, Zoe Nolan, a nineteen-year-old Manchester University student, walked out of a party taking place in the shared accommodation where she had been living for three months.

Seven years after her disappearance, struggling writer Evelyn Mitchell finds herself drawn into the mystery. Through interviews with Zoe’s closest friends and family, she begins piecing together what really happened in 2011.

Goodreads


If you’re a fan of true crime shows or podcasts, this one’s for you! But a note up front: this book is completely fictional. It just mimics true crime as a genre. Misleading, I know.

But, the format works. The story is told entirely through interviews and emails, with a few (also fake) “editor’s notes” along the way. It makes it fast and easy to read.

Overall, I liked the story here. We’re given a lot of random details, and a lot of twisted characters. Which details are actually important to the case? Which characters had enough of a motive to make someone disappear? And is Zoe dead, or just hiding out somewhere?

One core group of characters are her school mates. Zoe lived in a university flat with several other girls, including her twin sister, Kim. Kim has always lived in Zoe’s shadow, and resents being stuck with her at college. Other flatmates include Alex, who is battling depression, using drugs, and possibly juggling two boyfriends. And Liu Wai, who is kind of a suck up who thinks Zoe is perfect.

Zoe also has a boyfriend, Andrew, who comes from a rich family. They barely get along. His roommate, Jai, is a photographer and a drug dealer who is hard up for money.

There are various other characters introduced – parents, police, professors, etc. – but I think you can already see that everyone has kind of a messy life, which leaves no one’s motives and whereabouts totally “clear cut.”

There are also several mysteries within the bigger one of Zoe’s disappearance. One that comes up in a few different ways relates to the fact that people can sometimes mistake her for Kim, and vice versa. Kim comes out with a confession, years later, that she had been kidnapped a month before Zoe’s disappearance. So, had those kidnappers been after Zoe the whole time? Are the events linked?

If you like a good mystery with lots of tangled storylines, this one could be right up your alley.

I was able to read this book for free through the Sourcebooks Early Reads program.


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“The Mad Girls of New York” by Maya Rodale – Review

By: Angie Haddock


In 1887 New York City, Nellie Bly has ambitions beyond writing for the ladies pages, but all the editors on Newspaper Row think women are too emotional, respectable and delicate to do the job. But then the New York World challenges her to an assignment she’d be mad to accept and mad to refuse: go undercover as a patient at Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum for Women.

Goodreads


While I was reading this one, several friends added it to their “to read” list on Goodreads – so, I think the world is hungry for more great historical fiction based on real life badass women. (I’ll call that the “Marie Benedict effect.”) How exciting!

Nellie Bly had worked as a reporter for a few years already, in Pittsburgh, but she eventually moved to New York City with hopes to work for one of the bigger papers. But just getting in the doors to get an interview proves hard for a woman, because women weren’t considered good choices for reporter jobs.

She’s been in the city for four months, and she’s struggling to pay her rent. She is also very aware that women who are considered “inconvenient” often end up in insane asylums, with no way to prove their sanity. So she needs to land on her feet, soon.

Which is how she comes up with the crazy plan – to act crazy. To see how easy it is to get herself locked up, and to report on the actual conditions and practices inside the asylum, which does not open its doors to reporters. Specifically, she aims to get inside the asylum on Blackwell’s Island, which is rumored to be the most inhumane. She does this “stunt” with the cooperation of the deputy editor of the New York World, who promises to get her out in a week or so.

She does get in, and is there for about 10 days. She meets other women, and of course, most are not really crazy at all – some are heartbroken and/or depressed, sick and in need of medical care their families couldn’t provide, foreign and unable to understand English, or maybe just poor (and therefore a nuisance).

The conditions are deplorable, and they are given no reasons to hope for more. They have to sit on hard benches all day and not talk or move. Nelly reasons that some of them may become insane while there, because they are given no mental or physical stimulation. It’s also freezing cold (she is there in October), and they don’t get enough to eat.

The title – “The Mad Girls of New York” – refers to the women of the asylum. But the story also follows some of Nellie’s acquaintances in the city, as well as her time before and after this assignment. Women trying to support themselves financially, and not just depending on a man to take care of them. And these girls could also be considered “mad” for their time (the 1880’s).

This whole scenario is based on actual events, which Bly wrote her own book about at the time (“Ten Days in a Mad-House“). The author used info from that book, but also based characters on other people and stories from that era.

If you’re a fan of historical fiction, I’d definitely recommend this one. Even though we know Nellie will get out eventually, the stakes still seem high for her comrades in the asylum. And there’s one more fun twist after she gets out, too.

This book comes out today, April 26th. I was able to read an advanced copy through the publisher and Netgalley.


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“The Department of Rare Books and Special Collections” by Eva Jurczyk – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Liesl Weiss has been (mostly) happy working in the rare books department of a large university, managing details and working behind the scenes to make the head of the department look good. But when her boss has a stroke and she’s left to run things, she discovers that the library’s most prized manuscript is missing.

Goodreads


I picked this one just because it’s a book about books – and what book-lover wouldn’t enjoy one of those once in a while?

Specifically, this one takes place in a library of ancient and rare books and manuscripts, housed on the campus of a university. The library has its own bevy of big donors, which makes it important to the university at large.

So when Liesl Weiss has to take over for her ailing boss, she doesn’t mind the real work. In fact, she loves looking at upcoming events and catalogs to see what rare items she could collect for the library. But dealing with donors – boozing, schmoozing, and stroking big egos – is not quite her thing.

She had been on sabbatical, writing her own book, when the head of the library fell ill. So, she wasn’t actually there when the newest addition had arrived, and she hasn’t seen it yet herself. The donors who paid for it are eager to view it, but Liesl can’t find it. The boss does have a safe, which she doesn’t have the combination for, so originally she assumes it’s just in there. She is in charge of the place for a good week or so before she starts to realize it’s actually missing.

And so sets the stage for the mystery here. At various points in the book, suspicion is thrown on each of her other long-time coworkers at the library: Francis, an older James Bond type who’s now a semi-bitter grandfather; Max, a former priest who was outed as gay and is the library’s expert on religious texts; and mousy Miriam, who mostly keeps to herself.

I hadn’t read a mystery in a while, and I really enjoyed this one. As with most, I feel like the pace really picks up in the final third or so – as I got closer to finding out who did it, I couldn’t help but keep turning pages. (I will say, though, without giving it away – that the perpetrator was exactly who I thought it’d be from the beginning!)

The copy I read had a little conversation with the author at the end, and she mentioned that one of her reasons for writing this book is because there are so few middle-aged women protagonists. Liesl is around 60, has worked at the library for decades, and is used to playing second banana. Her daughter is college-aged, and her husband has struggled in the past with depression. So she’s lived some life, if you will. But, as this is her first time dealing with anything of this magnitude, she often wrestles with how much she should go along with what the university president thinks, or how much she should stand up for her own opinions. I think a lot of women will find that relatable.

I was able to read this one for free through Sourcebooks Early Reads.


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“Memphis” by Tara Stringfellow – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Unfolding over seventy years through a chorus of voices, Memphis weaves back and forth in time to show how the past and future are forever intertwined. It is only when Joan comes to see herself as a continuation of a long matrilineal tradition–and the women in her family as her guides to healing–that she understands that her life does not have to be defined by vengeance.

Goodreads


TW: Physical abuse and rape of a child.

This story follows one family through three generations. We first meet Hazel in the 1930s, when she is a teenager in Memphis. Later, she has two daughters, Miriam and August. Miriam also has two daughters, Joan and Mya. The story ends in the early 2000s, when Joan is about to graduate from high school.

The story alternates between the perspectives of Hazel, Miriam, August, and Joan. It is not told chronologically. There are other characters, of course – including Hazel’s husband Myron, Miriam’s husband Jax, and August’s son Derek. The house these women leave in – which Myron built – is almost a character of its own. And the neighborhood is filled with other strong characters, mostly women.

These characters live through many trying times, both in their personal lives and on a bigger scale. We see them continue lives at home while their husbands are off at war, participate in the Civil Rights Movement and react to the assassination of Dr. King, and have a personal connection to the events of September 11th.

As mentioned at top, some of the personal events they have to overcome could be upsetting to some readers. I think this was the hardest part of the book, for me. I was rooting for these characters, but also mad at some of the things that happened.

I expect to see this book on a lot of lists – it’s ripe for being an Oprah pick. (Full disclosure, I read it in the fall of 2021, so this is totally a guess from me.) The multi-generational, non-linear storytelling alone lends it a certain epic quality. And the situations discussed – even the ones I did not enjoy – are certainly real for some people. I think it’s a bit of a hard read, but maybe that’s exactly the point.

This book comes out today, April 5, 2022. I was able to read an advanced copy through NetGalley and the publisher, Random House Publishing Group.


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“Campfire Confessions” by Kristine Ochu – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Annie, Sondra, and Jo were the best of childhood friends—but they haven’t seen each other in far too long. To the outside world, their lives are perfect. But appearances can be deceiving…

Goodreads


The story idea here is that three women reconnect on a canoeing trip. They were childhood friends, but two of them have moved away from the small Midwestern town where they grew up. All three are facing big life problems – depression, divorce, overwhelm, recovery from addiction, a sexless marriage, etc.

The first third of the book introduces us to the characters – Annie, Jo, and Sondra – and all the aforementioned issues (and then some). In 100 pages or so, we see multiple sex scenes (plus one with a vibrator), an overdose, and an attempt at blackmail. This all seemed a little too “soap opera-y” for my personal tastes, but I realized that it was just set-up.

The next section of the book has Jo and Sondra returning to their hometown to see Annie. They reconnect with family and old friends, and hatch a plot with Annie’s four sons.

Eventually, they get out onto the river, with two canoes, a tent, and some basic provisions. This part is where the action really picked up. But it also got to be a little too much at times. All three women end up hurt and/or sick before this excursion is out, and many of their encounters were dramatic.

There’s an interesting dichotomy here, in that the book kind of honors multiple spiritualities. For example, Annie is a preacher’s wife, and so the Christian perspective is represented. But Jo’s husband’s family – who live in the area, and interact with our characters a few times – are Indigenous. Especially out in nature, the women talk a lot of spirit animals and the like, so this perspective is also prevalent.

While I enjoyed that the book included multiple perspectives like this, all of them seemed a little too “in your face” at times. For example, when Annie falls and breaks her arm, she passes out and sees Jesus. They have a conversation, and she writes a song about it – while unconscious – that she remembers and sings after she wakes up. I’m not saying that it couldn’t happen, but it was a little over the top for my personal tastes.

This was a decent book – I didn’t love it, but didn’t dislike it, either. And it moved at a good pace, especially in the final two-thirds.

This book comes out today, March 8th, 2022. I was given an advanced copy from the author through the Books Forward program.


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“Wildcat: A Novel” by Amelia Morris – Review

By: Angie Haddock



New mother, aspiring writer, and former shopgirl Leanne has lost her way. As she struggles with both her grief and the haze of new motherhood, it also becomes clear that her best friend, the default queen of East Side Los Angeles, Regina Mark, might not actually be a friend at all.

-Goodreads


This is another book about a stay-at-home mom living near L.A. – so it was a little funny that I read it back-to-back with Adult Conversation. But the similarities pretty much end there.

This story follows Leanne, a new mom in her early thirties. She also has a book coming out, a lot of well-to-do friends in L.A., and some family baggage from back home in Pennsylvania. In fact, her dad died a week before she had her baby, and she couldn’t fly back for the funeral.

The book’s real drama comes from Leanne’s friends, though, and especially one named Regina. Leanne starts to realize how Regina’s world is so “curated,” every friend and party specifically picked to look good on social media, and/or to get her some publicity for her line of home goods.

Social media plays a big role in this book. I felt like this was a part of it I couldn’t really connect with – I’m on social media, but certainly don’t define my life by how many followers I have. Maybe it’s a generational thing? (Although I’m only a handful of years older than the main characters.) Even though this aspect of the drama didn’t ring true for me, I don’t doubt that it will for some people.

The idea that we compare ourselves to our friends – or maybe seek out friends who make us look good, or can introduce us to certain people we want to connect with – is pretty universal, though. (Even if some of us don’t live all of that out on Instagram alone.)

The initial rift between Leanne and Regina opens when Leanne realizes Regina is not vaccinating her baby. The story takes place pre-COVID, and uses a local measles outbreak to illustrate their stances on this topic. But of course, it’s coming out during COVID, so this aspect of the story could be seen as a “hot-button issue.” Not to say the book is overly political- but I feel like any reader who has strong feelings on that should know ahead of time that this issue plays a strong role in the book.

This book comes out on February 22nd. I won a copy from the publisher, Flatiron Books, in a Goodreads Giveaway.


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“Adult Conversation” by Brandy Ferner – Review

By: Angie Haddock


April is a thoughtful yet sarcastic mother of two who tries her best to be a caring, connected mom in a middle-class culture where motherhood has become relentless. April rages at modern motherhood’s impossible pressures, her husband’s “Dad privilege,” and her kids’ incessant snack requests. She wants to enjoy motherhood, but her idealist vision and lived experience are in constant conflict with one another. Is she broken—or is motherhood?

Goodreads


This book came out in 2020, but I just got around to reading it… familiar story, right?

It starts out as expected – frazzled mom juggling two kids and all the craziness that comes with that (like goldfish crackers and Baby Shark). If you’re a mom who is in that phase now, or can remember it vividly, you will definitely see yourself in many of her daily struggles! I know I laughed out loud at some of the random, everyday stuff she brings up.

But, this story doesn’t just stay in that lane. Oh, no, it gets wild.

April decides to go out of her comfort zone and find a therapist. Just the act of going is a challenge, as it requires her to put on real pants and get someone to watch the kids.

There is a very harrowing scene just over half way through the book that definitely made my heart start racing. This incident brings her closer to her therapist, despite rules of professionalism.

As these women’s lives become more intertwined, things get both scary and fun. (If you know the name Calvin Broadus, and what his “supply” might be… it’s involved. Just sayin’. Cue up your favorite nineties hip-hop while reading.)

April comes to a place where she can appreciate her life. She still needs to work on some things, for sure, but she’s getting there.

I first heard of this book on Facebook, and you can follow the author’s musings there.


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“Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead ” by Emily Austin – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Gilda, a twenty-something lesbian, cannot stop ruminating about death. Desperate for relief from her panicky mind and alienated from her repressive family, she responds to a flyer for free therapy at a local Catholic church, and finds herself being greeted by Father Jeff, who assumes she’s there for a job interview. Too embarrassed to correct him, Gilda is abruptly hired to replace the recently deceased receptionist Grace.

Goodreads


This one came out earlier this year, and immediately intrigued me. I’m not one to ruminate about death too much myself, but the idea of a lesbian atheist pretending to be Catholic was too funny for me to pass up.

Like with “The Midnight Library,” the only complaints I’d seen online about this one were about how depressing the lead character is. So, if you’re not in the mood for that, don’t pick this one as your next read.

Admittedly, Gilda is weird. And depressed. She goes for long periods of time without washing a single dish or cup in her apartment, until they’re stacked so high they end up toppling over. She sits on the edges of bridges while contemplating death. There are a lot of reasons to be worried about this character’s well-being.

But she’s a good person at heart, and I’d even say she’s probably an overly sensitive person who sees/feels everything going on around her. She is worried that her younger brother drinks too much, and angry that her parents don’t see it. She is worried about a neighborhood cat that has gone missing.

She takes a job at a Catholic church, replacing the old secretary who passed away – and is concerned for her friends who will miss her, even though Gilda herself never met the deceased.

But her time at the church was amusing to me, a practicing Catholic. She contemplates religion as a whole, and some of the specific practices she learns while at her job. Some quotes that made me laugh out loud:

“Organ music reminds me more of Halloween and demons that it does of heaven and cherubs.”

“I bet that baby would be absolutely baffled to hear why she’s enduring this. Imagine someone forced you to wear a miniature wedding gown, dunked you underwater in front of an audience of your loved ones, and then explained that their rationale for doing so was so that when you die your spirit would fly to the clouds. If I were this baby, my first words would be ‘fuck off.'”

So, yea, entertaining observations such as these are why I enjoyed this book, despite a lot of it being a bit morbid.


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“An Ocean of Minutes” by Thea Lim – Review

By: Angie Haddock


In this novel America is in the grip of a deadly flu pandemic. When Frank catches the virus, his girlfriend Polly will do whatever it takes to save him—even if it means risking everything. When she finds out there’s a company that has invented time travel, she agrees to a radical contract: if she signs up for a one-way-trip into the future to work as a bonded laborer, the company will pay for the life-saving treatment Frank needs. Polly promises to meet Frank again in Galveston, Texas, where she will arrive in twelve years.

-Goodreads


Amazingly enough, this book came out in 2018 – as in, before our current pandemic. And it was on some “books of the year” lists at the time, but I had not heard anything about it! (I wasn’t on bookstagram yet, so there’s that.) So I happened upon it by chance, but I was immediately taken in by the story, which is both mesmerizing and frustrating.

The story takes place during a pandemic. Time travel is invented, initially to try and stop the pandemic, but that doesn’t work. Instead, people in the beginning years of the pandemic are recruited to jump forward to the post-pandemic era, when there is a dire need for workers. One benefit offered is medical treatment for a loved one in the current era – including expensive, life-saving treatment from the disease ravaging the country.

Such is the situation with lovebirds Polly and Frank. They are in their twenties, and far from home when the outbreak happens. (They’re from Buffalo, but find themselves stuck in Texas now.) When Frank becomes ill, Polly agrees to leap forward 12 years. They agree to meet at an area landmark as soon as she “arrives.”

Unfortunately for Polly, she arrives to a world that is totally foreign to her. The country split into two – the United States and America. She is basically an indentured servant to the time travel company, or whoever they loan her out to, until she works off her expenses. She can’t travel north without a passport, as it’s now a different country. And the hotel she was to meet up with Frank at is now a port, with tight security.

The book bounces back and forth between Polly’s past and present. We learn of how she and Frank met, why they were in Texas, and the like. In the present/future, her situation goes from bad to worse several times, and she struggles with whether or not she should ever hope for more. There are a few turns that literally had me yelling, “No!”

The copy I have has an author Q&A in the back, in which Lim says she modeled Polly’s experiences after those of many illegal immigrants who constantly feel they have no choice but to do the crappiest jobs and live in the crappiest conditions. Sometimes their biggest barriers are not knowing the language or culture of the place they find themselves (or not understanding the rules).

Also of note is that the whole book takes place in our past. Polly and Frank meet in the late 1970s, and the world she finds herself thrust into is in the late 1990s. (Obviously, it is a very different 1990s than we knew!)

This is a very moving story. There’s a mild sci-fi aspect, in that time travel exists. And there is a moderate love story, although most of the book is spent with our leads being separated. But overall, it’s just a gripping tale of one woman trying to survive in a world she cannot understand.


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“Hamnet” by Maggie O’Farrell – Review

By: Angie Haddock



Warwickshire in the 1580s. Agnes is a woman as feared as she is sought after for her unusual gifts. She settles with her husband in Henley street, Stratford, and has three children: a daughter, Susanna, and then twins, Hamnet and Judith. The boy, Hamnet, dies in 1596, aged eleven. Four years or so later, the husband writes a play called Hamlet.

-Goodreads


This was a book that had been on my radar for a while, and I finally put myself on the wait list for it at my library. It was well worth the wait!

The facts of William Shakespeare’s son’s death are not known. The author, having dug up what little info she could find, started ruminating on a thought she had… Shakespeare lived during the time of the plague, yet never mentioned it in his plays. (It had to affect him, at least in the professional sense, as theatres would sometimes have to close when outbreaks were high.) So, she contemplated.. what if he avoided the topic because it was too personal?

From this one thought, and the other scant information she found on his wife and family, she built a whole novel.

While we are introduced to Hamnet and his siblings right away, the real focus of the book is Agnes (William’s wife and Hamnet’s mother). The story shifts between two eras of Agnes’ life – the time of Hamnet’s sickness and dying, and the one of her meeting and marrying her husband.

Agnes came from a farm family, and was adept at making medicinal concoctions from herbs and plants. While many sought out her help, there were also some who thought she was extremely odd (maybe even a witch?).

Because she is so often called on to help others cure their ills, it crushes her even more that she could not save her own son. We sit through her mourning and contemplations, both during his death and burial and in the years after. There is so much sadness, as the reader is going through this from Agnes’ perspective. In the time after, it is obvious to a modern reader that Agnes is dealing with severe depression. In her own time, some of her family members grow tired of her inability to move on.

William and Agnes basically lead separate lives, with him in London or touring with his players and her raising the kids in Stratford. His parents make their home feel unsafe and claustrophobic for him, which is part of why he wanted to leave. Eventually, when he is making good money, he buys her a house away from his parents. Thankfully, she can rely on her oldest brother to have a level head. He is always willing to help her, and William sometimes goes through the brother to get to Agnes when she is being distant.

In the last section of the book, her brother actually goes with Agnes to London to confront William about writing a play with their dead son’s name in it – Hamlet. This is her first time seeing London, and his work.

This is a sad and beautiful story. Read it if you’re in the mood to be faced with big feelings.


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