Sammy’s Hill

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Novels set in D.C. continue to fascinate me, particularly because of all the different genres and author interpretation of the city. In my search for stories set in my current city, I came across Sammy’s Hill, a novel by Kristin Gore, the second oldest daughter of Al Gore, the Vice President under President Bill Clinton from 1993-2001.

The eponymous “Sammy” is protagonist Samantha Joyce, a 26-year-old health care analyst for Ohio Senator Robert Gary. Life on Capitol Hill can be demanding and stressful, but Sammy’s dedicated to her job, complemented by her somewhat neurotic personality. Sammy’s social life is minimal, but when handsome speechwriter Aaron Driver comes in to her life, Sammy quickly falls for him and forms a relationship. But as she soon finds out, mixing work and romance is not always a good thing. A presidential election also throws her into the hectic and crazy life of campaigning across the country.

What I enjoyed the most about this novel is that there was an actual plot and story, unlike Jennifer Close’s D.C.-set novel The Hopefuls, which reads more like a nonlinear diary than a book. Gore presented Sammy Joyce as a likeable, realistic character set against the backdrop of D.C., and accurately portrays the majority of Washington’s employees who are transplants from other states. Written in first person, Sammy makes humorous observations about D.C. color cast of characters.

Sammy’s experience on the campaign trail echoes Gore’s firsthand experience of her father running for Vice President and President. It always intrigues me when the author incorporates his or her personal experiences in to their stories, as it adds substance and authenticity.

I recommend Sammy’s Hill to anyone who enjoys a good romantic comedy set in the capital city. I will most likely be checking out the sequel, Sammy’s House, pretty soon.

 

 

 

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Absolutely True Lies

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Visiting Los Angeles is on my to-do list. I’ve never been past Chicago, so a trip to Hollywood itself would be my first journey out west if I ever get there. For now, I feed my perception of the place with movies, TV shows and books set in that part of the country. Absolutely True Lies is one of those novels set in L.A. Written by American author Rachel Stuhler (from the same area I am!), the book offers a perspective of La La Land from a Northeasterner.

Twenty-five-year-old Holly Gracin has lived in Los Angeles for four years, having taken a job there right out of college. She writes for a small magazine, reviewing movies and other low-key events. When the magazine ceases publication and she loses her job, she finds herself facing the possibility of returning to her hometown. That’s when she’s hired to ghostwrite the autobiography of Daisy Mae Dixson, an eighteen-year-old starlet who’s spent most of her life in front of the camera as a Nickelodeon child star. As she shadows Daisy as research for the book, Holly is thrust into the life of the luxury, meeting producers and insiders, traveling to foreign cities and trying to keep up with the world of fame.

I really liked Holly’s character. I’m just about the same age as her and also a (somewhat) struggling writer. I live in a studio apartment in a big city just like she does, and hope to write a full-length book one day. (For now, I’m content with this blog and my day job as a communications coordinator.)

One of the more important topics of this novel is the dark side of fame. Holly discovers that although Daisy seems to be living the dream, her actual life is not what it’s perceived to be. Daisy struggles with depression and the pressure of maintaining an image. This is a reflection of the all too familiar story of child stars having difficulties later in life. Holly also finds that parts of Hollywood are one big “facade,” or having a fake “front” to hide an unpleasant truth.

What also fascinated me is the concept of ghostwriting in the story. Every chapter starts with an excerpt in Daisy’s autobiography. I liked how Stuhler included these passages as a way to contrast what really happens in Daisy’s life versus what’s written. There are countless books in the market that are supposedly written by celebrities, everything from memoirs to self-help books. I’ve always wondered which ones were really written by them and how many are written by someone else. It’s interesting to know that there’s a whole business behind putting someone else’s name on another person’s work (with compensation and permission of course.) Some sources say that ghostwriters can make as much as $50,000 per project. 

Overall, Stuhler’s novel is worth reading, a writer’s journey through the crazy life of Hollywood stars and what being famous is really like.

 

Until We Meet Again

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Time travel is a popular genre that dates back to literature from almost 200 years ago. Hundreds of mediums use it as a plot device, from H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine to the popular film Back to the Future. Renee Collins’ novel Until We Meet Again uses the element of time travel, but in a unique way.

Cassandra is a rebellious teenager who is dreading spending the summer on the Massachusetts shore with her family. Though they rent a historic old estate, Cassandra is more interested in taking risks with some of the local troublemakers. Then one night, out on the estate’s private beach, she meets an intriguing stranger, Lawrence. Through multiple meetings, the two soon discover they are living in different years, him in 1925, her in 2015, and can somehow see each other only on the beach. Their friendship soon develops into love, but living in different times makes their relationship complicated. Through her research, Cassandra soon learns the awful truth about Lawrence’s fate, and is determined to do something about it.

The story is written in first person and alternate perspectives, with Cassandra and Lawrence each narrating certain chapters. This added some historic depth, as you can see the contrast in how people spoke, acted and dressed in the different eras. Cassandra considers Lawrence’s time to be “simpler” than hers, anticipating how much will go on throughout the rest of the twentieth century.

The interesting part about this novel is how it seems to fall under multiple genres. While the plot definitely has romance, there’s some science fiction with the time travel aspect. The 1920s scenes also adds history to the mix, with references to speakeasys, flappers and more. I admire Collins for doing the research on the lifestyle and being able to write dialogue consistent with that time period.

I would definitely recommend this novel for anyone who enjoys a summer love story with some sci-fi and history mixed in.

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.

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