The Opposite of Everyone by Joshilyn Jackson

The Opposite of EveryoneThe Opposite of Everyone by Joshilyn Jackson
Published by William Morrow

Paula Voss is in her early thirties, working as an attorney in Atlanta, when she receives a postcard from her long-estranged mother, letting her know that she won’t be needing the check Paula sends her every month because she has terminal cancer and she will be dead soon. When Paula was a girl, she and her mother lived a mostly nomadic existence until the day that Paula did something unforgivable at age eleven, landing her in foster care and her mother in prison. Upon receipt of this postcard, she is forced to attempt to find her mother and unbury the years of secrets and lies that lie between the two of them.

Jackson has such a talent for creating characters that feel in such a deep, true way like real people – flawed people, but real people nonetheless. That was completely the case here with Paula – within the first twenty or thirty pages, I felt like I knew her, I felt like she and I were friends and she was telling me the story of her life.

And what a story it was – Jackson goes back and forth in time in the book, between what’s happening to Paula today and then back to her childhood, right before and after she made the decision that caused the huge rift between her mother and herself. The way the story was told was so effective because it really kept me on the hook, waiting for more about what happened to Paula as a child and hoping desperately that it wasn’t as bad as I feared it was. Also, I was so hopeful that she would have some kind of resolution to the estrangement between herself and her mother. No spoilers, but the way that Jackson ties everything up is not perfect but certainly realistic and happy enough to satisfy just about any reader. It’s the perfect mix of “happy ending” while being realistic about what would make sense to happen to these characters.

I listened to the audio of this novel and I have to say that audio is the way to go for any Joshilyn Jackson book. She narrates them herself, and her flawed, funny, smart, Southern female characters just come to life with her voice.

Joshilyn Jackson has done it again – this is a wonderful story with a great character just trying to weather the storm that is life. I have enjoyed every single one of her books and The Opposite of Everyone is no different.

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Fearless: The Historic Story of One Navy SEAL’s Sacrifice in the Hunt for Osama Bin Laden and the Unwavering Devotion of the Woman Who Loved Him by Eric Blehm

Fearless: The Heroic Story of One Navy SEAL's Sacrifice in the Hunt for Osama Bin Laden and the Unwavering Devotion of the Woman Who Loved HimFearless: The Historic Story of One Navy SEAL’s Sacrifice in the Hunt for Osama Bin Laden and the Unwavering Devotion of the Woman Who Loved Him by Eric Blehm
Published by The Doubleday Religious Publishing Group

Adam Brown had an interesting life, before and during the time he was in the military. He was a member of the SEAL Team Six (the guys who took down Osama Bin Laden) but tragically died about a year before the Bin Laden mission, on another valley at the base of a different mountain in Afghanistan, taking down other terrorists with his team. Brown was a guy who loved his family, friends, God, and his country, a guy who lived life to the extreme and made the most of every minute he had with the people he loved. He lived an exceptional life, although short, and his story is one that needs to be heard.

This was a book club book and to be honest, it’s not really my thing so I probably wouldn’t have read it if not for that reason. However, I found myself pleasantly surprised by how inspiring I found Adam Brown’s story. He was the typical popular kid all throughout school – football player, friends with everyone, you know the deal. After high school, though, he went down a dark path to drugs and became an addict. After attending several rehabs, he found Jesus Christ and that gave him the strength to get sober and look for a different path in life. He met a woman who later became his wife, got involved with his church, and decided to go to the military. During his training to become a SEAL, and while serving in the military, he lost an eye, almost lost his entire hand, and had countless debilitating injuries over the years. In fact, he was offered disability discharge with full retirement benefits about ten separate times but continued to refuse, as he wanted to fight for his country. He truly believed that was what he was put on this earth to do.

Adam Brown died defending his country from the same terrorists who were involved in 9/11, and based on everything I learned about him in this book, that’s exactly how he would have wanted to go. It was inspiring to read about someone so dedicated to something intangible, something outside of himself, and I was also inspired by his wife’s strength in the face of such difficult circumstances to be there for him and raise their children on her own after he died.

The one thing I had difficulty with in this book is the sheer volume of religion that is laced throughout the book. Christianity was a big part of Adam Brown’s life, but it did feel a bit preachy at times and I kept getting the message that if you’re not a believer in Jesus Christ, good luck accomplishing things because that is the secret ingredient to achieving your dreams and finding true happiness. As I don’t necessarily believe that myself, that message was a bit annoying to have to take while reading the book. And I think it bears being honest to say that because I did find this a very valuable story, super inspiring, and one that I think needs to be told. Unfortunately I think the religious aspect of the book will be a turn off for a fair amount of readers, which is a shame.

If you’re into inspiring stories, heroism, especially as it relates to the military, this is a fantastic choice. While I’m not super into military books, I still found Adam Brown’s story really interesting and was inspired by a lot of what I read here. Definitely give the book a chance, and maybe you’ll surprise yourself with genuinely enjoying it, as I did.

When We Were Worthy by Marybeth Mayhew Whalen

When We Were WorthyWhen We Were Worthy by Marybeth Mayhew Whalen
Published by Lake Union Publishing
Review copy provided by the publisher via SheReads

The small town of Worthy, Georgia is shattered when three high school cheerleaders are killed in a car accident caused by another student at their school. Told from the points of view of four women – Ava, a teacher at the school; Marglyn, the mother of one of the cheerleaders; Darcy, the mother of the boy who drove the car that killed the girls; and Leah, the fourth member of the group of girls, the one who was not in the car that night – this is the story of how the town deals with a horrifying tragedy and how the mystery of what really happened that night is concluded.

When We Were Worthy was a great reading experience – the kind of book that I can’t help but race through, desperate to find out the characters’ fate and fill in the missing details about their lives and this huge event that had reverberating impacts among the community. I loved getting to know these characters, trying to understand their motivations, feelings, and behaviors, and trying to predict how things would turn out for them. The story is told from four different points of view, and while sometimes this format can turn into a big mess, Whalen handled it extremely well, deftly weaving the voices of these four women throughout the book, gradually showing the reader each of their personalities as the book went on.

One thing this novel does really well is illuminate that particular period in a person’s life that is called being a teenager. These teens think they know everything, think they understand the world around them and their part within it, and in some cases their eyes are more open to the realities of the world than the parents and teachers in their lives, but in a lot of cases they are just incredibly naïve. It is an interesting period in life for a lot of reasons, but primarily because the juxtaposition of feeling like an adult in body and mind while at the same time, not having money or freedom or the right to do a lot of things. The teenagers in this book are exactly like that – they think they get it, they think they rule the world (or at least, their small town that essentially is their world), but they have no idea how swiftly life can be taken from them, how quickly everything can change in an instant. That’s the part of life that they aren’t worldly enough yet to get – they think they are invincible and, unfortunately, nobody is.

And let’s talk about the adults in the novel – they were more messed up than the kids in some cases. Every single person in this novel is dealing with demons, struggling with something, and making choices that profoundly affect their families. The adults really don’t have things together any better than the teens do, and unfortunately that comes with some majorly bad consequences for a few of them. I did like about this novel that Whalen mostly wraps up everyone’s stories in a way that is satisfying and makes sense, while not giving people a perfect, happy ending. It’s true to life the way she handles these characters’ situations and life choices. If I had ONE criticism of the book – and I really just have this one – I will say that there was one storyline with one particular character that I felt added nothing to the story whatsoever and was, frankly, unnecessary and a distraction from everything that I thought the book really should have been focusing on. However, it was an extra element of drama so I’m sure plenty of readers were interested in that particular plot line. I just didn’t think it was helpful to the overall story at all.

Anyway, I really liked When We Were Worthy! It was equal parts character-driven and plot-driven and I thought Whalen did a great job with both elements of the book. Highly recommended.

We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

We Should All Be FeministsWe Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Published by Vintage

This essay is adapted from the author’s TEDx talk about feminism – put in simple language that makes good sense for the average person who wants to understand what feminism is and why it’s important in today’s world.

We Should All Be Feminists is short but powerful. It packs a ton of arguments into fifty pages. The author highlights how the marginalization of women in the US, Nigeria, and around the world harms both women and men and discusses simple things that can be done to educate ourselves and our children in order to halt misogyny in the near future. She shares personal stories and life experiences, as well as things she’s read and studied over the years that point to factual evidence of discrimination of women throughout the world.

This should be a required primer on feminism for anyone who is even the least bit interested in understanding the subject. Many people may not understand that feminism is simply about the belief that all sexes should be equal, and this essay illustrates that extremely well. I can see why it became such important reading and I highly recommend We Should All Be Feminists to just about everyone.

In Farleigh Field by Rhys Bowen

In Farleigh FieldIn Farleigh Field by Rhys Bowen
Published by Lake Union Publishing

This novel centers around Lord Westingham and his wife and five daughters who reside at Farleigh Place, an elaborate estate about an hour away from London in the first few years of World War II. Family friend Ben Creswell is tasked with uncovering the mystery of a British airman who fell from the sky and perished in fields of Farleigh, a job that brings him closer to the woman he loves, Pamela, the middle Westingham daughter. Meanwhile, Pam is working in covert operations decoding German radio broadcasts while her lover, Jeremy, is stuck at a German war camp as a POW. Pam’s sister Margot is in Paris, choosing to stay with her French lover Gaston who may or may not be part of the Resistance there, and this relationship begins to put Margot in jeopardy. The novel shows how this war affects everyone in Europe, from the richest of them all to the poorest folks, and these characters become an integral part of the war effort.

This is an interesting novel because while it centers around the Second World War, it’s rather mild in its handling of the horrors of the war. This could be for two reasons. One, it’s the early stages of the war, so the characters haven’t truly understood the full reality of what’s at stake here and what Hitler is really capable of. Two, these characters are the most privileged of the British, so even how the war affects them is mild compared to the people who were in London at the time, getting bombed all over the place, losing homes and businesses and everything. It was interesting to see the war from this perspective, although a little strange because knowing the history, things got a LOT worse for people like the Westinghams before they got better.

Anyway, the biggest plot point of this story is around the man who landed in Farleigh Field after his parachute failed to open – who is he? Is he a German spy? Is he truly a British soldier? Why did he flee his plane directly over Farleigh? Ben is tasked with uncovering this mystery, and ultimately the mystery is solved by Ben and Pamela working together. The way that Bowen wrapped up this mystery made sense and, while fairly predictable, I didn’t totally guess until close to the very end.

Another big element of the story itself were the characters within it. I had a love-hate relationship with most of the characters. Pamela was extremely frustrating – she had a very important job, but she still thought very little of herself to the point that she wasn’t really that proud of what she was doing. She was also in love with a total asshole (Jeremy) and unable to see the amazing guy right in front of her who was in love with her (Ben). I liked Margot, but honestly I would have liked to see more of her story and less of Pamela’s, she seemed much more plucky and interesting than her sister. There was an older sister who was married and mostly on the sidelines, a younger sister who was slightly too young to be a major character (18) and a much younger sister who was a part of the story but just a kid – although she ultimately became the hero by the end of the book.

I liked the book but overall it was just okay. It held my interest and it kept me wanting to find out how the mystery would turn out, but as a war novel it was overall a bit disappointing. I think I’ve read so many World War II books that at this point, I expect there to be a ton of emotion, heart, and high stakes in these books, and In Farleigh Field just didn’t have those elements. So, overall not my favorite, but definitely an interesting concept and I liked that it was set in a time and place during the war that I hadn’t read much about before.

Marriage of a Thousand Lies by S.J. Sindhu

Marriage of a Thousand LiesMarriage of a Thousand Lies by S.J. Sindhu
Published by Soho Press
Review copy provided by the publisher

Lucky is a gay woman married to a gay man, Kris. The two of them decided to get married after they both attempted to come out to their conservative Sri Lankan families and were met with the immediate reality of their families wanting to disown them. They’ve been married a few years when Lucky finds out that her childhood best friend, who she happens to be in love with, Nisha, is getting married. Armed with that news as well as news of her grandmother being sick, Lucky spends a few months at her mother’s home in Boston, forced to confront the truth about herself and whether she will get to keep her family, her sexual orientation, and her best friend – or if she will have to choose between the three.

I adored this novel. I don’t think I’ve read any books before about the ways in which being gay plays out differently in different cultures, and definitely not what that looks like when one generation is American and the older generation is more old-school and traditional in their thinking. Lucky and Kris are stuck in this place of wanting to be loved and accepted by their families, wanting relationships with them, but knowing for sure that being themselves and being honest with their families about what that actually means will cause them to be disowned. The pain that this causes in Lucky is excruciating, and the way that Sindhu writes the character of Nisha is even more painful – she’s buckling under her family’s pressure and agreeing to an arranged marriage, to a straight man she barely knows much less likes, when she knows for one hundred percent sure that she is gay and in love with Lucky. The way that Sindhu writes these two characters with such love and care, so much nuance in their personalities and in their relationship with one another, is incredible. I truly felt their deep, heartbreaking, breathtaking pain as they tried to navigate their futures knowing full well they had no future together if they wanted their families to love them.

There’s a lot going on here – it’s not just that Lucky and Kris are gay and their families don’t know, there are other issues at play, too. Lucky’s father divorced her mother several years ago after falling in love with her mother’s best friend. Lucky’s older sister, Shyama, is married to a man she doesn’t really like (after breaking up with the white man she was in love with) because the relationship was arranged by both sets of parents, and she seems miserable in her life as a wife and mother. Lucky’s other sister ran away from the family years ago after her boyfriend, a black man, was not accepted by Lucky’s parents, and Lucky hasn’t seen or heard from her in years. This family has fallen apart in so many ways, yet Lucky is still so desperate for their love and acceptance that she is literally lying to them every time she sees or speaks to them by denying her sexuality. To say that it is heartbreaking is the understatement of the year.

One aspect of the novel that isn’t discussed much is the situation with Kris. He was an immigrant on a student visa when he and Lucky got married, and if they decide to be honest with themselves and divorce, he will have to go back to Sri Lanka – which he absolutely can’t imagine doing. But the complexities of this fact of his life combined with his being gay and possibly having to go back to a place where almost no one will accept him are not discussed much at all. I get that the novel is mainly focused on Lucky, but I liked Kris, or what the reader sees from him at least, and wanted more about him.

In the end Lucky has to make some major compromises and decide what she needs in life in order to accept herself and be at peace with the relationships she has to give up in order to be authentic to herself. The ending of the book is bittersweet – in one way, she resolves some of her own demons, but in another way, her demons are only getting started as the reader can see that she has an uncertain future ahead of her. There are no easy answers here, and Sindhu certainly didn’t shy away from how difficult and emotionally challenging these characters’ lives are. I really enjoyed this novel and felt deeply for the characters within. Highly recommended.

The Forever Summer by Jamie Brenner

The Forever SummerThe Forever Summer by Jamie Brenner
Published by Little, Brown and Company

When attorney Marin Bishop loses her job and her fiancé in the same week, she can’t imagine any more surprises in her life – until she gets a call from a stranger, Rachel, who explains that she and Marin are biological sisters and Rachel is on her way to meet their biological grandmother. Marin’s parents have been happily married since before Marin’s birth, so while this news is extremely confusing and she remains in denial about Rachel’s claims, she agrees to accompany her to their supposed biological grandmother’s beach house. At the last minute, Marin’s mother tells her that she and her father are getting a divorce and she’d like to accompany Marin and Rachel on this trip – even though she still refuses to tell Marin the truth about her paternity. This road trip is just the beginning of a summer filled with secrets being outed, lives being changed forever, and relationships evolving as these three women figure out the truth about their pasts and futures.

The Forever Summer started off with a lot of promise, but it has SO much going on that it ended up being a bit much for me. I will just be honest and say upfront that I just did not enjoy the book. About halfway through, I wanted to give up because there was just too much drama – most of it unrealistic – but a small part of me did want to know what would happen to the characters, so I pushed on.

Without spoilers, I will just say that way too many bad things happened to these characters in a short period of time to the point where it felt like a soap opera and not a novel. It was just too much – unrealistic melodrama at its finest. I totally get why people could love this, though – there are multiple characters with Major Issues to focus on, complicated family dramas, big reveals towards the end of the book, all kinds of stuff to keep the reader interested. I have to admit, I was kept on my toes throughout most of the book as I waited anxiously to find out what would happen to these characters. But the reason I wanted to find out how things would turn out wasn’t because I cared, necessarily, it was more that I had already invested time into the book and wanted that time to pay off somehow.

Overall I didn’t HATE the book but just can’t recommend it. Plenty of people would enjoy The Forever Summer but it just wasn’t my cup of tea.