The Hopefuls

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Washington, D.C. has been the center of media attention since the beginning of this year. It makes sense, since we are in the first year of a new administration and all the newness provides countless stories for the press. The fact that I currently live here too gives me a front row view of what is going on. But there’s another side to D.C., one that has to do with the people and the culture. This is one of the plot points of Jennifer Close’s novel The Hopefuls.

Beth and Matt Kelly have recently moved to Washington, D.C. from New York City due to Matt getting a new job. While Matt settles into his new workplace, Beth, unemployed and stir crazy, struggles to adjust to life in a new city and to make new friends. Things get interesting when they meet Jimmy and Ashleigh Dillon, Texas natives who offer a new perspective on what moving to a new place has to offer. When Jimmy decides to move back to Texas and run for public office, they invite the Kellys to manage their campaign and live in Texas for the year. Though Beth and Matt are looking forward to an adventure, they soon find out that campaigning is not as easy as it seems.

I could relate to Beth on many levels. The adjustment to living in D.C. is a definite one. I never lived in New York, but it took some time to get used to all the people, navigating the streets and the grocery stores. The unemployed factor: I at one point did not work for over two months, and while it was nice at first, not having a job made focusing and maintaining and identity difficult.

Close did a great job of capturing the city’s essence, from people knowing each other’s connections to the nicknames of the Safeways. However, I felt like the setting was what made most of the story. There was no real plot, and the pages were mostly filled with descriptions of Beth’s experiences: what people were doing, where they were going, and so on.  There was some insight as to the stress and mental toll a campaign can have on those involved and some character development, but no major climax or anything like that. I found myself skipping ahead a couple of times just to see what would happen.

I recommend this novel for those who enjoy a perspective of D.C., but be prepared for a story that doesn’t have much substance other than that.

All In Pieces

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Happy Almost Summer! Today’s review will be Suzanne Young’s novel All In Pieces.  

Teenager Savannah “Savvy” Sutton is facing a tough situation. After attacking her ex-boyfriend for making fun of her special needs brother Evan, she is sent to a alternative school to finish out her high school studies. At home, her life revolves around taking care of Evan, as their mother left years ago and their alcoholic dad provides little support. With her aunt Kathy threatening to take custody of Evan, Savvy feels like she can barely hold it together. Enter Cameron, a new student who’s nonchalance and nonjudgmentalism intrigues Savvy and provides as a distraction from her own complicated life. With her ex out for revenge and her family life quickly unraveling, Savvy hopes she can keep it together.

One of the thing I really liked was the realism of the writing. Young didn’t hesitate to show us Savvy’s inner voice, raw and real, as she narrates through her difficulties. Situations that happen to real people everyday, no sugarcoating.

As far as I know, this is one of the few novels I’ve read that features a special needs character, which can be a tricky element to write about, but Young did a great job. Evan’s excited and simplistic perspective of the world provides an anchor for Savvy to hold onto.

I look forward to reading more of Young’s work.

 

 

Freedom: My Book of Firsts

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Five years after Jaycee Dugard released A Stolen Life, a memoir about her 18 years of captivity, her second book came out. This one, titled Freedom: My Book of Firsts, talks about her experiences since her recovery, reintegrating herself back into society.

Jaycee documents her experiences of  “firsts,” her first time flying, traveling to a foreign country, being at her sister’s wedding, among others. Her accounts also describe her family life, getting to see her mother again, reconnecting with her younger sister, and continuing to raise her daughters. She also talks about founding the JAYC Foundation, an organization focused on helping families that have become victims of trauma. The foundation also provides educational programs to elementary school children.

One of the more interesting aspects of her accounts is experiencing all these things for the first time at an older age. I realized that we have all traveled, met people, gone to school, learned to drive and done more. We never really give our everyday activities a second though. But I had never really considered about how it would be if I hadn’t learned all of that until I was older. To be completely cut off from society for so many years takes bravery and strength to overcome.

A Stolen Life

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Jaycee Lee Dugard was kidnapped in June 1991 when she was 11 years old. For more than 18 years, no one knew what happened to her, until 2009, when she was discovered living in the backyard of a convicted sex offender. By then, she was almost 30.

Two years after her reappearance, she released A Stolen Life, a memoir about her experience in captivity. At the time of its release, I was 18 and tried reading it, but found the content a little too graphic for me.  I was an avid fan of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, but realized that this account was very real and in no way fictional. Now, more than 5 years later, I decided to give it another go.

The book is written in the format of a journal, with each chapter documenting an experience. After each one, Dugard reflects on the section from her adult perspective. The interesting part about her writing style is the simplicity of it, containing many short sentences. This is due to the fact that she only had a fifth grade education, as she never completed school. However, she wrote it entirely herself with no co-writer, and didn’t hesitate to describe the details of what happened to her on a daily basis. She talks about giving birth to her two daughters as a teenager in captivity and raising them, and trying to maintain a positive attitude.

Although I in no way will ever be able to fully understand what she endured, I was continually awed by Jaycee Dugard’s incredible resilience and willingness to write about the details. As I read the book, on the subway to work, during lunch and on the bus, I found myself drawn into the story by her words and honesty.

I definitely recommend this memoir, as it tells an unbelievable story of someone who spent a lifetime as a captive, but found the strength to carry on. I hope to read the follow up, Freedom: My Book of Firsts, next.

The Defining Decade

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Truthfully, I haven’t read that many self-help books. There’s a whole market dedicated to them that seem to tell you the same thing: you can be healthy by doing this or that. The Defining Decade, though, is one I found different because of the fact that it is written by a licensed clinical psychologist. I first found out about it through an NPR interview the author gave.

Meg Jay, Ph.D., is a psychologist who has worked in Virginia and California. Several of her clients were twentysomethings who found themselves at a crossroads in their lives. This nonfiction book is a compilation of her experience with those clients (with name and life details changed, obviously) and how she worked with each of them through their issues. After awhile, she realized that there wasn’t a book that focused on the importance of your 20s, which, in her opinion, is when certain decisions are the most critical and can affect the rest of our lives. And so began the basis for the Defining Decade.

The book is split into three sections: love, work and the brain and the body. Each section features the various predicaments of Dr. Jay’s clients, interspersed with facts, history and stories that relate to the issue and how they can help one work through the problem. For example, in one account that describes one twentysomething having trouble finding a job, Dr. Jay talks about the importance of utilizing connections: contacting the alumni from your alma mater, or even an old high school classmate. What makes it more interesting is the psychological angle she puts on it, like why someone is likely to reach out to a person that they don’t know.

One of the major reasons I liked this book is because the accounts documented people like me: those who came from middle-class families, went to college and are trying to figure out what exactly to do with their lives. I found this a contrast from some books “written” by celebrities in which they recall their experiences and struggles, which I’ve found harder to relate to since they usually have plenty of money and no worry about paying rent.

I definitely recommend this book as a read on the reality of how our 20s can be.

First & Then

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I realize it’s been a month since my last post. I’ve been busy with work and family, but finally got the chance to read a novel. This one is written by Emma Mills, also known as Elmify on her YouTube channel.

First & Then is the story of Devon Tennyson, a senior in high school who has no plans for her future and prefers life in the status quo. But that changes when her younger cousin Foster comes to live with her family. A former only child, Devon finds herself learning important life lessons that come with having a new addition in her family, and it triggers her thoughts for her future, friends and how people’s lives are shaped by certain events.

Devon reminded me a lot of myself in high school. She doesn’t seem to belong to one particular clique, interacting with the popular girls, sports players, smart students and so on. I never considered myself part of any one group, and knew a lot of people through extracurricular activities.

I liked the message that family is family, no matter what. Despite Foster biologically being Devon’s cousin, he still considers her his sister, and she thinks of him as her brother. Mills chose to focus on the relationship between cousins, a nice change from the common sibling-to-sibling, parent-to-child, or stepfamily dynamics seen in a lot of other books.

I look forward to reading Emma’s other books.

Open Road Summer

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Country singers make up a good portion of the music industry, with superstars like Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley having been around for over 10 years. Others, like Taylor Swift, started when they were young. American author Emery Lord’s novel Open Road Summer tells the story of a teenage country singer’s summer tour, but in a different kind of way.

Seventeen-year-olds Reagan O’Neill and Delilah Montgomery have been best friends since Reagan moved to Nashville from Chicago several years ago. To millions of people, Delilah is know as Lilah Montgomery, superstar country singer and songwriter. To Reagan though, she’s just Dee, a normal teenage girl trying to navigate her life and fame.

The two of them are traveling cross country on Dee’s summer tour. For Reagan, it’s the chance to distance herself from her old ways of drinking and partying that landed her into legal troubles. But when an unexpected photo leak puts Dee’s reputation in jeopardy, the publicity team invites former singer Matt Finch onto the tour as an opening act. While Reagan was hoping to spend the summer with Dee, she finds herself drawn to Matt’s nonjudgmentalism and perspective of family.

I liked Reagan’s character the most. She is a resilient, no-nonsense girl who knows what she wants and is determined to protect herself from the negative influences of her past and anything that could hurt her in the future. Dee, in contrast, complements Reagan with her calm and friendly demeanor.

Lord wrote about the side of fame that not all people think about: the limits. Dee constantly expresses her desire to be able to do normal activities without being followed around, but accepts that it comes with living her dream. It sheds a light on what the affect of fame can have on someone, especially when the person is only a teenager and has their whole life ahead of them.

The aspect of friendship also serves as an important part of the plot. It makes you think about all these famous celebrities- we know their name, their face and what they’ve done, but what are they truly like? Who are their childhood friends that knew them before they made it big? There’s a whole story behind the famous faces that we see everyday. Emery Lord does a good job at telling that kind of story.

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