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review SPOILER ALERT! 2017-05-20 18:15
A Harvest Of Thorns by Corban Addison
A Harvest of Thorns - Corban Addison

In Dhaka, Bangladesh, a garment factory burns to the ground, claiming the lives of hundreds of workers, mostly young women. Amid the rubble, a bystander captures a heart-stopping photograph—a teenage girl lying in the dirt, her body broken by a multi-story fall, and over her mouth a mask of fabric bearing the label of one of America’s largest retailers, Presto Omnishops Corporation. Eight thousand miles away at Presto’s headquarters in Virginia, Cameron Alexander, the company’s long-time general counsel, watches the media coverage in horror, wondering if the damage can be contained. When the photo goes viral, fanning the flames of a decades-old controversy about sweatshops, labor rights, and the ethics of globalization, he launches an investigation into the disaster that will reach further than he could ever imagine—and threaten everything he has left in the world. A year later in Washington DC, Joshua Griswold, a disgraced former journalist from the Washington Post, receives an anonymous summons from a corporate whistleblower who offers him confidential information about Presto and the fire. For Griswold, the challenge of exposing Presto’s culpability is irresistible, as is the chance, however slight, at redemption. Deploying his old journalistic skills, he builds a historic case against Presto, setting the stage for a war in the courtroom and in the media that Griswold is determined to win—both to salvage his reputation and to provoke a revolution in Presto’s boardroom that could transform the fashion industry across the globe.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

In the fall of November 2013, a garment factory in Dhaka, Banglaesh goes up in flames. The fire is so intense the entire building burns to the ground, killing hundreds of employees. One witness captures a photo of one of the victims, a young woman lying dead on the ground. Oddly, a piece of fabric bearing the logo of the company -- a major United States clothing retailer -- lays across her mouth. Once word of the fire hits worldwide media outlets, the news also finds its way back to the company's headquarters in Virginia. And boy is it news, because the company's CEO says he was under the impression that that particular factory had been officially closed for some time! Still, it's the company name on everyone's lips, thanks to the continuing media coverage, so a legal team is assembled to try to quickly, quietly, and hopefully successfully pull off a good bit of damage control. Head legal counsel, Cameron Alexander, soothes the concerns of CEO Vance Lawson, assuring him that people generally have short memories, so all they have to do is hire BP Oil's PR firm (you might remember that big ol spill of theirs?) and just wait for all this to blow over. 

 

Instead of the story quietly going away, news outlets continuing to air footage of the fire and all the sordid details of the company behind it only stirs up an even stronger hornet's nest of anger amongst those itching for a good reason to protest & picket. Soon, labor law wars ignite, inciting age-old arguments over work conditions & labor laws in general. 

 

Cameron took the pants in his hands and rubbed the spandex fabric between his thumb and forefinger, imagining mothers across America dressing their six-year-olds in them for Christmas. Of all the things to die for, he thought. 

 

The story then fast forwards years later, where the reader is introduced to Josh Griswold, a disgraced journalist who is given the opportunity to repair his professional reputation when he's offered up the chance to re-investigate the story around the fire and take down the corporate bigwigs behind it once and for all. 

 

So what new details does Griswold uncover after meeting up with labor activists in Bangladesh? A scandal of epic proportions! He's quickly schooled on the topic of "red listed" factories, locations officially closed down (usually over safety issues), which means they're obviously no longer backed by the corporations they previously produced inventory for... except .... well, it seems some locations are secretly kept open to cover the overflow of order requests when the "official" factory locations can't keep up with demand. The managers of the official factories quietly and very much under the table illegally subcontract the "closed" locations to help with those massive orders. The corporation itself (at least the big guys over at headquarters) are kept out of the loop. All they know is that their orders are getting filled. At least until PR disasters such as this hit. 

 

Griswold finds himself quite the human rights story to report. The company at fault were charged no fines and the survivors of the fire / surviving family members of the deceased victims were only provided a pittance of compensation money. Fire survivors couldn't even cover medical expenses with what they were given. Griswold digs even deeper and finds cases of outright exploitation, slave labor, even female employees being raped by site managers!

 

This novel will definitely raise the hackles of the socially minded reader. CEO Vance Lawson is a letdown. He outwardly presents himself as an innocent at first, almost likeable in the way he seems to honestly want to know how this tragedy happened and how future incidents can be prevented. He even relates to how the photographed victim appears to be the same age as his own daughter! But it's just sickening how stereotypically self-serving this guy turns out to be. The company's stance is to say that actions leading to the cause of the fire were "in violation of the code of conduct" but virtually no other action is taken beyond that. 

 

For history buffs out there, the prologue of this novel may bring to mind the similar (true life) story of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911. There are some commonalities as far as a sketchy, ultimately deadly work environment and CEOs that seriously dropped the ball when it came to protecting their hardworking employees. In fact, in both that real fire and this novel, we see examples of the senseless deaths of hundreds of people because financial greed was chosen over safety and respect for employees. A Harvest of Thorns itself is inspired by a factory fire that did indeed occur in Bangladesh in 2012. This novel is not an exact retelling of that tragedy, but the details of that day and the companies behind that real fire -- Sears, Walmart, Target, Gap... just to name a few -- certainly inspired the characters and settings of this novel, as author Corban Addison explains in his afterword. In 2015, Addison traveled to Bangladesh and interviewed survivors of that 2012 fire, which helped him craft the character and plot development you find in this novel. If you scan the acknowledgements, you might also spot that John Grisham served as a beta reader for A Harvest of Thorns. Though Addison himself is an attorney, it's likely that he also bounced ideas regarding the legal portions of the novel around with Grisham, a former attorney. 

 

Ugh. It's a tough read but a perfect one for getting meaty book club discussions going... just prepare yourself for the heat it might bring! While this reader didn't find the writing consistently riveting, it's a solidly important topic that needs to be looked at more often. This novel leaves one with an uncomfortable reminder of just how hard it is, as a consumer, to stay on the right & ethical side of things, no matter how much we may want to... even the seemingly trusty "Made In USA" tag can have its shady roots! 

 

Those interested in getting the conversation going will find helpful discussion questions provided within the hardcover edition (and possibly the paperback -- I say hardcover simply because that's the copy I was given). Additionally, you may want to check out the website truecostmovie.com

 

 

FTC Disclaimer: TNZ Fiction Guild kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book & requested that I check it out and share my thoughts. The opinions above are entirely my own.

 

__________

 

Extras:

 

Corban Addison is also the author of The Tears Of Dark Water, another novel inspired by true events, which I reviewed last year (click to go to review).

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review 2017-05-02 20:40
A Corner of the Universe by Ann M. Martin | #AutismAwareness
A Corner of the Universe - Ann M. Martin

Hattie Owen enjoys peaceful Millerton summertimes with "houses nodding in the heavy air," being in charge of Miss Hagerty's breakfast tray at her parents' boardinghouse, and drinking lemonade on the porch after supper. Yet this year, it's different -- Hattie's uncle Adam is coming home. Returning from a Chicago school that's just closed and whose existence is kept quiet by adult family members, Adam is a 21-year-old man with a child's mind, having a knack for talking quickly, a savant-like ability for remembering weekdays, and a passion for I Love Lucy. Hattie and Adam wind up spending precious time together -- including a visit to the recently arrived carnival with Hattie's new friend, Leila -- which makes her feel soulfully connected to her uncle, especially when he declares that she's "one of the people who can lift the corners of our universe." But when Hattie takes Adam on the ferris wheel one night, it sets off dramatic events that lead Hattie's family to strengthen its bonds and changes her life's outlook forever.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

Young Hattie Owen has enjoyed the peaceful pace of life in her small Midwestern town of Millerton these past 11 years, helping her parents run the local boardinghouse. That pivotal summer in the 1960s, on the cusp of her 12th birthday, brings a new reality, one that will shake Hattie to her very core. That is the summer she is introduced to Adam.

 

Hattie grew up knowing her mother, Dorothy, to only have one brother, Hattie's Uncle Hayden. But quite suddenly one day, it is revealed that in fact she has another uncle, Adam, whose existence has been kept secret from her all these years. Adam, Dorothy's youngest sibling, has been away in Chicago, living at a special school for those with mental illnesses or disabilities. Though he was never given a certain diagnosis, it is believed Adam suffers from either schizophrenia or autism. Now that school is permanently closing, so Adam is sent home to stay with his parents until new living arrangements can be made.

 

Though initially startled by the news of Adam's existence, Hattie is undeniably curious about him. Before long, she finds they are actually something of kindred spirits, both knowing deep loneliness and a sense of not quite belonging in this world. It is also during this most important summer that a circus comes to Millerton, the biggest event to happen to the place in years! This circus brings Hattie a new friend, Leila, the niece of the circus owner and daughter of Pretzel Woman (a contortionist, I'm guessing). Leila's introduction into the story also fits in with the theme of not fitting into societal norms. In one conversation, Hattie asks Leila if it bothers her that people pay to stare at her mother who performs in a sideshow. Hattie's telling response, "It's better than them staring and not paying."

 

While Adam displays many traits commonly attributed to autism -- repetitive behaviors, fascination with / memorization of entire TV show episodes, emotional meltdowns over seemingly minor instances -- Hattie does lay out her confusion regarding his diagnosis (or lack of) and what it means in regards to the rest of her family:

 

I don't know exactly what is wrong with Adam, but maybe it is one of those diseases that runs in families. Maybe that is why Nana and Papa seemed ashamed of him. And maybe... is that why Mom and Dad never told me about Adam? To keep the knowledge of his illness from me? Do they maybe even think that I'm a little like Adam? Is that why Mom wants me to be like other kids -- so she can prove to herself that I won't turn out like Adam one day? I twist around and look at my family. I can't stop the questions from coming, And I can't ask a single one of them.

 

Though not overly complex in plot (but stayed tuned for the Ferris Wheel incident and all that follows up to the end!), A Corner of the Universe will definitely give young readers a small taste of the stigma that surrounded mental disorders during this era. Author Ann Martin does offer some impressive character studies within this story that will surely stir up healthy discussion. Most notably, there's Hattie's grandmother, one of the wealthiest women in Millerton. "Nana" had grand dreams of having that enviable family with the perfect husband and gorgeous & talented children. As life would have it, her youngest son required being placed in a group home and her daughter Nana pinned such hopes on, well... she "married beneath her", deciding to shack up with a "lowly" artist! Additionally, now her granddaughter has proven to be a bit of a social pariah, preferring to keep to her library books and inside her own mind. 

 

But it's not just Hattie's grandmother who causes her to wonder. When Hattie asks about why she is an only child, her mother responds with a pat answer of, "Well, you were just so perfect we didn't want to push our luck." After meeting Adam and observing how Dorothy acts around him, Hattie suspects she was kept an only child because her parents might have feared possibly having a child like Adam. 

 

Hattie doesn't see what the big deal is with Adam's condition. Though Adam is in his early 20s, his parents treat him almost like a toddler. Hattie witnesses his heartbreak when people stare, taunt him and call him things like "Freak Show". But she actually envies the way he views life. He is unabashedly happy in the small moments, endlessly entertained by the minutiae of one's day. Adam's love of soft & pretty things, not to mention is fascination with the lovely bank teller, Angel, boarding at the Owen home, brought to mind Lenny from John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, who similarly had a childlike innocent love of the small things in life. But there is also a serious side to Adam that comes out when moments become especially trying for him, a side that shows he is all too aware of what is going on around him and how people see him. 

 

"No one knows," says Adam, "what it is like."

"No, I {Hattie} reply, although I think I might know more than most people.

"You are not an alien, Hattie. I am the only true alien."

But Adam is wrong. I am an alien too. 

 

This novel might strike some as a departure for Ann M. Martin, who is perhaps most well known for her Babysitter's Club series, but Martin also penned Rain Reign, which featured a young girl with Asperger's Syndrome who has a love of homonyms. Those curious about Martin's inspiration for A Corner of the Universe will find the Scholastic's After Words™️ section most helpful. It features an interview with Martin in which she explains that the idea for this particular novel was loosely inspired by events from her own life, namely an uncle she never met but was later told about who was deemed mentally ill. This section of supplemental material also includes historical overview blurbs of cultural topics Hattie references within her story. Also included is a neat reprint of a few pages from a 1960s era Junior Scholastic magazine!

 

above: "Baseball is a man's world! But girls are an important part of it. Why? Because almost every baseball is sewed by the nimble fingers of a girl. It has been that way since Civil War days, when baseball first became popular..."

 

 

 

For those curious about Adam's trick of being able to recall the day of week of any date in history, there is a page -- "The Amazing Day Finder" -- that teaches readers the math behind this trick so that they too can impress their friends! 

 

While there is some grit and sadness to the storyline, A Corner of the Universe does also show a love for small town life -- the way everyone knows you, the coziness of community coming together, small business owner pride, etc. While living in a small community can have its downside, readers who have experienced the good and have been distanced from it for a time will likely feel a little nostalgia for Hattie's particular little corner of the universe. 

 

A note to parents: this novel does describe a suicide near the end of the story. If you're particular about what images or information your child is exposed to during the younger years, maybe give this one a pre-read through. Though this book does include some sensitive material in that sense, A Corner of the Universe plays an important role in taking the first step towards educating youth on the importance of advocating acceptance and kindness to those who may be struggling with mental disorders / challenges. 

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review 2017-04-22 00:09
The Dog Who Was There by Ron Marasco
The Dog Who Was There - Ron Marasco

No one expected Barley to have an encounter with the Messiah. He was homeless, hungry, and struggling to survive in first century Jerusalem. Most surprisingly, he was a dog. But through Barley’s eyes, the story of a teacher from Galilee comes alive in a way we’ve never experienced before. Barley’s story begins in the home of a compassionate woodcarver and his wife who find Barley as an abandoned, nearly-drowned pup. Tales of a special teacher from Galilee are reaching their tiny village, but when life suddenly changes again for Barley, he carries the lessons of forgiveness and love out of the woodcarver’s home and through the dangerous roads of Roman-occupied Judea. On the outskirts of Jerusalem, Barley meets a homeless man and petty criminal named Samid. Together, Barley and his unlikely new master experience fresh struggles and new revelations. Soon Barley is swept up into the current of history, culminating in an unforgettable encounter with the truest master of all as he bears witness to the greatest story ever told.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

In 1st century Jerusalem, a pregnant stray dog gives birth to a litter of pups in a wooded area near the river. The runt of the litter is spotted by Micah, the young son of a wealthy landowner. Micah sneaks away from chores each day to play with the pup, until the day he is found out by his father. The father tries to have the whole litter killed but thanks to the efforts of Duv, a woodcarver, and his wife, Adah, the young pup is saved and named Barley. 

 

It is in the home of the woodcarver that Barley first starts to hear stories of an already near-mythic man from the land of Galilee. That's right, none other than than big man himself, Jesus! For seven years, Barley has a cozy home life full of love and treats. But one regular work day in town leads to tragedy for the woodcarver and his wife, a turn of events that once again puts Barley out on the streets. The scared canine is soon spotted by Samid, a homeless man / petty criminal, and his lady friend Prisca. Though the accomodations are significantly more humble than his previous pad, Barley takes what he can get and soon settles into a moderately comfortable routine with new pal Samid. Barley's life with Samid puts him in close proximity to Jesus, now in Jerusalem, so Barley is there to witness the final days leading up to the Passion of Christ

 

For dogs, no less than for people, firsts matter. They echo long past their point in time, especially in dreams. It's true of the good firsts, and very true of the bad ones. That's why when a dog cries in a dream -- even a full-grown dog, even an old dog -- the cry it cries is the cry of a pup, because that's what it is doing when it sleeps -- reliving a first. 

 

Well, right off, I will say that this is a unique way to breathe fresh new perspective into a tale that's been told a million times over! The writing sometimes struck me as somewhat simplistic but that could just be a natural by-product of the author choosing to tell the story from the inner thoughts of a dog. Perhaps the simplicity is intentional? Regardless, the benefit of a simple voice is that it makes this story perfect for sharing with readers within a wide age range.

 

Note that I was careful not to say "of all ages", because there is material within this novel that may be a little traumatic for the littlest ones in your life, whether they read independently or have you read to them. Barley witnesses (and describes) seeing the bodies of people executed by hanging, there are moments of extreme violence within Barley's own life, moments where he is injured, not to mention Barley relaying the sights of the Crucifixion itself near the end of the novel. The fate of Duv & Adah (the woodcarver and his wife) show just how rough and sometimes lawless this time period could be. So when it comes to the smallest of your story lovers, I'd recommend maybe first doing a read-through to see what you need to gloss over for them. 

 

Much of the story, as far as plot, while solidly enjoyable, lacked that little something extra for me. For the majority of the book, I kept waiting for that extra oomph to kick in. That said, I did enjoy the "voice" of our dog narrator and one of my favorite bits of the whole story was Samid and his friendship / something more? with Prisca. There was a good dose of humor and lively banter between them. I agree with Prisca, Samid outwardly appears rough around the edges, but you get the sense there's a good guy there deep down.

 

"Despair."

 

Samid said the word before she could. Which made them smile at each other, sweetly but sadly. 

 

"Why is our despair such a difficult thing for us to give up?" asked Samid.

 

Prisca replied, "I think despair is so difficult to let go of because it helps us to justify teh worst things inside of us. We think: I lack, so I can steal. I hurt, so I can injure. I failed at one thing, so now watch me destroy my whole life ... But when the despair is gone, we cannot help but change. We simply must."

 

The two were silent for a few moments. 

 

 

What ended up bumping this up to a four star read for me was simply Barley's observations during the Crucifixion. The way author Ron Marasco painted these scenes gave me a whole new visual of this event I've heard told in stories SO many times over. Yet something in the way Marasco illustrates it (in words) made it more real for me than nearly any other piece on the Crucifixion I've ever read. Ever. I physically flinched at what Barley describes himself seeing as the walk up to the cross is taking place. The attention to detail Marasco provides when describing the whippings Jesus is taking from soldiers, the way Barley winces and whimpers and thinks of him (Jesus) as Kind Man. It all just knocks you right in the heart! Beyond the Crucifixion scene, there is a further twist to the ending that I did not entirely see coming! 

 

 

FTC Disclaimer: TNZ Fiction Guild kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book & requested that I check it out and share my thoughts. The opinions above are entirely my own.

 

 

--------------------------

 

EXTRAS

 

Author Ron Marasco has a PhD in theater history and is a professor at Loyola University. He also has some acting credits to his name on shows you've likely watched! 

 

 

 

 

A note on promo blurbs & cover design:

 

First off, thumbs up for getting a blurb from Kristin Chenoweth on there. Love her!

 

But regarding the cover, I was one of a select group of bloggers who were asked to give their opinion on the few different design options designed for this title. Still bummed that my pick was not chosen, as I voted strongly AGAINST having to have a cover featuring a dog anus front and center. Particularly when there was one design (the one I voted for) that featured an ADORABLE dog's profile giving a little glance to the reader. I'll let it go though, because this cover dog does look similar to my mother in law's sweet pup. :-)

 

But props to Thomas Nelson Pub. for at least darkening that area to a little less off-putting level lol Also funny to read in the book the dog's coat being described as "off-white fur". I know it's a little hard to tell with the lighting but that cover dog looks as if it'd be pretty distinctly brown with maybe some black highlight areas. A little reading peeve of mine, when it seems like the cover designer didn't read the book they were designing for! 

 

 

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review 2017-04-21 18:11
Sunny Side Up (graphic novel) by Jennifer & Matthew Holm
Sunny Side Up - Jennifer L. Holm,Matthew Holm

Sunny Lewin has been packed off to Florida to live with her grandfather for the summer.  At first she thought Florida might be fun -- it is  the home of Disney World, after all.  But the place where Gramps lives is no amusement park.  It’s full of . . . old people.  Really old people. Luckily, Sunny isn’t the only kid around.  She meets Buzz, a boy who is completely obsessed with comic books, and soon they’re having adventures of their own: facing off against golfball-eating alligators, runaway cats, and mysteriously disappearing neighbors.  But the question remains -- why is Sunny down in Florida in the first place?  The answer lies in a family secret that won’t be secret to Sunny much longer. . .

Amazon.com

 

 

 

It's the year of America's Bicentennial celebration (1976) and Pennsylvania preteen Sunny Lewin cannot be more excited for the family's summer trip to their beach house! But when her older brother's demons end up ruining family time at the fireworks show, Sunny's parents quickly decide it would be better for her to spend the summer visiting her grandfather in West Palm Beach, Florida. 

 

Not only is Sunny still reeling from the family drama brought on by her brother's struggle with alcoholism, but she's also not sure what to do with herself while trying to acclimate to her grandfather's retirement community, Pine Palms. Pine Palms has strict rules limiting the number of pets or children allowed on the property, so it's not so easy for young Sunny to find her place. Not to mention everyone is old and the place itself is about 2 hours away from Disney World! What's a kid to do?!

 

Luckily, it's not long before she does run into another child her age, Buzz. Buzz and Sunny are soon sharing a love of comic book stories as well as developing a little side business of tracking down "secret" (aka not technically allowed) pet cats of Pine Palms. Just as Sunny starts to settle into a "bloom where you are planted" mentality about the retirement community, she's struck by yet another struggle within the family -- her grandfather trying to hide his smoking habit from her. This is the last straw for Sunny. She is tired of trying to shoulder everyone's secrets and addictions on her small shoulders! Sunny gives the adults in her life a wake-up call that she is a child and needs to be allowed to experience these fleeting moments of innocence before it's too late. 

 

Adults that grew up in the 70s and 80s will have great nostalgic fun with this one! I myself was more of the 80s-90s era, but I could still spot plenty of pop culture references worked into the artwork: the unmistakeable 70s stylin' of the characters' clothing, Donny Osmond posters on the wall, loading up the station wagon to go to Sears to do school shopping, Sunny browsing lunchboxes with a Holly Hobby design faintly noticeable among the selections... it was just fun to make a sort of "I Spy" game of it all! 

 

 

The artwork style itself also brought to mind similar lines and colors seen in Sunday cartoons like For Better Or Worse and LuAnn, maybe even Zits. The coloring in Sunny Side Up is done by none other than Lark Pien, who also did the coloring for the Printz Award winning graphic novel American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang as well as Yang's follow-up work, the duology Boxers & Saints.

 

Even if the timeframe isn't your childhood era, there are some universal topics addressed within Sunny's story. I got a particular kick out of her starting school and getting a teacher her older brother had, and having to get the scowl when the teacher makes the connection between her and the troublemaker brother. O.M.G., do I ever remember going through that myself! LOL.

 

 

No doubt, Sunny Side Up touches upon some tough themes for young readers: a grandfather's secret cigarette habit, a brother's struggle with alcoholism, certain residents of Pine Palms showing signs of the early stages of dementia, even talk of the Cuban Revolution / immigration issues of the 1970s gets thrown into the mix.

 

 

Possibly uncomfortable reading for the young ones, but there is a point to it all, and an important one at that! In a brief author's note at the end, brother / sister author team Jennifer and Matthew Holm reveal that the idea for this graphic novel stemmed from their own tough childhood experiences. They figured there were likely other kids out there who have had or are having similar struggles that need to find stories they can relate to, stories that will possibly help direct them toward the help they need to get through these kinds of challenges. While some moments within this story are undoubtedly hard-hitting, the Holm siblings leave readers with a sense of optimism for the future and a reassurance that there is help and hope out there if you just stay the course and, as Sunny's grandpa reminds her, "keep your sunny side up!"

 

 

Fans of YA literature, note the shout-out to David Levithan in the acknowledgments section at the end! 

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review 2017-03-10 06:40
Losing The Light by Andrea Dunlop
Losing the Light: A Novel - Andrea Dunlop

When thirty-year-old Brooke Thompson unexpectedly runs into a man from her past, she’s plunged headlong into memories she’s long tried to forget about the year she spent in France following a disastrous affair with a professor. As a newly arrived exchange student in the picturesque city of Nantes, young Brooke develops a deep and complicated friendship with Sophie, a fellow American and stunning blonde, whose golden girl façade hides a precarious emotional fragility. Sophie and Brooke soon become inseparable and find themselves intoxicated by their new surroundings—and each other. But their lives are forever changed when they meet a sly, stylish French student, Veronique, and her impossibly sexy older cousin, Alex. The cousins draw Sophie and Brooke into an irresistible world of art, money, decadence, and ultimately, a disastrous love triangle that consumes them both. And of the two of them, only one will make it home.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

Brooke Thompson is a copy editor living in NYC when a friend invites her to attend an event which brings Brooke's past rushing back to her in an instant. It turns out another attendee at this party is none other than Alex, a Frenchman with whom Brooke once had a heady but fleeting romance. A romance it's taken her years to let go of.

 

While the novel starts out in present day, the bulk of Losing The Light lays out what happens that fateful year when college-aged Brooke was encouraged to take a study-abroad course in Nantes, France. The final chapters bring us back to present day as Brooke tries to bring closure to the most painful story of her life. 

 

In her debut novel, author Andrea Dunlop gives readers a complex story of friendship, lust and luxury that ultimately runs off the rails. While Brooke is in college, she, along with one of her professors, gets caught up in a school scandal. While the professor chooses to resign his position, the college dean encourages Brooke to take a study abroad course in France temporarily, while everyone waits for the heat of the situation to die down. Brooke agrees and soon even has schoolmate Sophie tagging along on her trip. Shortly after starting up classes in Nantes, Sophie and Brooke meet local Veronique, who invites them to a gathering at her apartment to meet the other local 20-somethings. It's at this party that Sophie and Brooke first meet Veronique's gorgeous cousin, Alex -- the man who will prove to be their ruination. Having fallen under the spell of Veronique and Alex (and the whole de Persaud family for that matter, what with their proverbial closets seemingly chock full of mysteries and skeletons!), Brooke and Sophie get caught up in a whirlwind of culture, money, love and decadence. Only too late do they realize they are in a tailspin towards a painful reality! 

 

Brooke is written as the more shy one, while Sophie is your fun-loving, social butterfly... at least on the outside. Little hints here and there suggest that Sophie is struggling with some sort of mental disorder or hardship -- manic depression, perhaps? -- which she has had to be temporarily committed for, as well as being on medications which she is reluctant to take / stay on. The scenes where Brooke and Sophie first arrive in Nantes reminded me a bit of the scenes in the first Taken movie, where the girls first arrive in Paris (I think it was Paris, been a minute since I watched those films...). This novel, once you know the synopsis, gives you that same sort of unease as that film. You know things are going to start out nice and lovely but you're just waiting for the fake backdrop to fall to expose what's really in store for the girls. 

 

As far as the setting of the novel, I was all set to settle into a story with heavy doses of -- what would you call it... "French-ness"? -- I didn't want things to go full-bore Pepe LePew obviously, but with any novel set in a place you know to be steeped in culture, you want to have that armchair traveling vibe firmly established. I can't say I completely felt that in the Nantes portions of the story (though there is a little bit with moments of shopping, cafe lunches and meeting with Alex / Veronique's grandmother at her grand estate... otherwise, it often seemed like the Nantes portions of the story really could have been set anywhere) but the feel I was hoping for does kick in when the ladies go on excursions to Paris and the French Rivera. 

 

Paris didn't feel like a place you could just go to the way you could move to any American city. Its money and glamour were ancient and inherited, as inaccessible as the stars. 

 

This novel had a bit of a slow burn for me. It didn't seem like too much was going on for the first 100 pages or so. But I was curious to stick with it. The author herself contacted me after having read my review for Abroad by Katie Crouch, which has a somewhat similar storyline to this book (Crouch even provides a blurb on the cover of Losing the Light). I had read enough into the novel to find I had developed solid interest in the characters and was definitely invested enough to see how everyone's story panned out. 

 

Alex gave me mixed feelings. Sometimes he comes off as the stereotypical, overly suave Frenchman. He'll push boundaries, sometimes get a little too handsy without permission from the ladies, sometimes say a truly cringe-worthy line (that you would probably fall for, at least once, if it was directed at you, let's be honest)... other times you gotta give it to the guy, he can be damn smooth with his technique. But then when you're almost ready to like him, he'll go and say / do something to perfectly ruin every good impression you almost had. I know this guy. I ashamedly admit I dated this guy -- more than once! -- during my early college years, so I felt for Brooke. Just a part of life ladies have to do the walk of shame through and ride out so they know what the deal breakers are on their way to the true Mr. Right. ;-)

 

I'd say my favorite character was Sophie. I liked her complicated blend of "social butterfly with the perfect life" exterior + dumpster fire of emotions on the inside. Yes, she could be selfish and bratty at times, but other moments you see her vulnerable, her insights on the world around her offering important social commentary on the struggle so many have with the "us vs them" mentality that bounces between "the beautiful people" who seem to have it all and the blue collar folk who feel like they have to endlessly struggle to hold on to even a few crumbs of good fortune. Sophie ponders on the lengths people go to aspire to BE the beautiful people while never understanding that problems -- serious, dark problems --  exist on that side too, problems that are never taken seriously because of the shiny glow around all that reside in that world. The only trouble I had with Sophie was that I didn't feel that her character was developed quite enough to have the full, high-intensity impact needed to really make that ending knock the wind out of the reader. While I wanted to gasp, I was left more with a quiet "well, that's a shame..." followed by a "wait, what now?!" (but again, not in a jaw-dropping shock kind of way, but more like a hazy confusion).

 

Note to sensitive readers: This novel does use some crude language at times within the dialogue of the characters, and some characters do have some sexy-times scenes that do include descriptions of fellacio / cunnilingus. Just a heads up if you prefer to avoid such subject matter in your reading. 

 

 

FTC Disclaimer: Author Andrea Dunlop kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book & requested that I check it out and share my thoughts. The opinions above are entirely my own.

 

 

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