The Girl He Used To Know [ARC Review] – By Tracey Garvis Graves

36117813  Rating: 

Synopsis2New York Times bestselling author of On the Island, Tracey Garvis Graves, presents the compelling, hopelessly romantic novel of unconditional love.

Annika (rhymes with Monica) Rose, is an English major at the University of Illinois. Anxious in social situations where she finds most people’s behavior confusing, she’d rather be surrounded by the order and discipline of books or the quiet solitude of playing chess.

Jonathan Hoffman joined the chess club and lost his first game–and his heart–to the shy and awkward, yet brilliant and beautiful Annika. He admires her ability to be true to herself, quirks and all, and accepts the challenges involved in pursuing a relationship with her. Jonathan and Annika bring out the best in each other, finding the confidence and courage within themselves to plan a future together. What follows is a tumultuous yet tender love affair that withstands everything except the unforeseen tragedy that forces them apart, shattering their connection and leaving them to navigate their lives alone.

Now, a decade later, fate reunites Annika and Jonathan in Chicago. She’s living the life she wanted as a librarian. He’s a Wall Street whiz, recovering from a divorce and seeking a fresh start. The attraction and strong feelings they once shared are instantly rekindled, but until they confront the fears and anxieties that drove them apart, their second chance will end before it truly begins.

My reviewIt took some time for me to appreciate how tricky this book must have been to write.  It is hard enough to represent a neurodiverse individual in a love story without ever letting it slide into the space of unequal power dynamics. Now, add mental health too, and it gets trickier. But this book works because of how wonderfully fleshed out Annika’s journey is.

The last time I connected empathetically to the representation of anxiety was Cath’s college life in Fangirl. This book is a more satisfying portrayal because not only do we see Annika’s challenges as a student on the campus, but also as an adult ten years later. We see both – her growth and her stagnancy. We also can’t shake off the niggling feeling that her struggles aren’t just because of anxiety but something else too. As it turns out, she is on the autism spectrum. The author does a wonderful job of not conflating the challenges posed by two very different conditions. She also never makes Annika come across as someone who needs saving in spite of Jonathan being the more successful and “able” individual.

There were so many moments which stayed with me long after I finished the book – her distaste for noisy bars and lack of space in crowded places, struggle to initiate small talk and make a friend, “surviving” corporate parties and events by mimicking what others do, going through a mental checklist of actions you have prepared in advance, and feeling sapped of energy once you are done with your share of talking to people for the day.

A lot of books usually avoid showing the toll (for the lack of a better word) it takes on the partner in relationships where one of them usually finds it hard to keep up and other might have to pull most of the weight at times. I guess it is out of the fear of making that person come across as insensitive. But I found Jon so relatable because of this very reason – that he doesn’t hold back when he feels that Annika is capable of trying harder. When he feels she can do more to stand up for and own their love – both to herself and the world. But he is never disrespectful or belittling towards her.

Some of the secondary characters make an impression too. Annika’s mom and her roommate are her biggest cheerleaders throughout, with a little shared secret of their own. Her dad and brother also make their presence felt, especially in the last 50 pages or so. Then, there is Annika’s sessions with her therapist – that’s another aspect of the book I loved. It addresses and shows the need for seeking out help – through counselling or medication (or both) in a positive light. It also addresses the option of getting tested.

I wasn’t a fan of a couple of devices used for the story’s climactic moments – especially since they were pretty predictable. But the way some portions were written and Annika’s helplessness brought a lump to my throat. I guess the only drawback of having such a well-etched character is that Jonathan sort of paled in comparison occasionally. His backstory felt too “basic” and an amalgamation of characters I have already seen in a lot of shows and books. I would have actually liked it if there was more done with the “corporate guy who hates the corporate world” trope. Also, it was hard for me to take his word for Annika being his only true love all those years that seriously – especially when he doesn’t come out looking too good from the way things ended between them and they moved on. I couldn’t reconcile that the Jonathan in college and ten years later is the same one we hear about briefly in those in-between years.

This is one of my favorite contemporary romances in recent times and brought me out of a really long reading slump. I am quite chuffed about winning this ARC (and the fact that the author is from my town piqued my interest because that rarely happens 😛 )

 

 

Love Connection (First Comes Love #1)

Love Connection (First Comes Love, #1) Rating:

*Note : I received a digital copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review*

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Synopsis2Have you ever wondered what might have been?
Gemma Dawson is at the airport, staring at two plane tickets to two different cities. Two different weddings. Two possible futures. She’s at a crossroads.
Be maid of honor at her best friend’s wedding or crash her ex’s?
Gemma’s decision, unknown to her, hinges on a delayed flight and a chance meeting. Now her life is about to go down two parallel tracks—will Gemma fly toward a life with her first love or a future with a man she’s not even met yet? 

Love Connection is a feel good Romantic Comedy about one woman, life’s infinite possibilities, and the destiny that lies beyond two different choices.

My reviewThis is the first book I have picked up with this kind of storytelling. There are two separate stories running in alternate chapters – both as consequences of two different choices Gemma makes – one in which Gemma catches a flight to San Francisco to stop her ex’s wedding and the other where she catches a flight to Chicago to attend her best friend’s wedding. Both stories feature almost the same cast of characters, such as her best friend, sister and some similar events such as Gemma’s bachelorette party. It was a lot of fun to see similar events being played out differently as a result of Gemma’s choice. I liked how the author managed to keep all the chapters and events so consistent. I keep waiting to see if there would be any moment when some character would doff their hat acknowledging the “parallel universe” of Gemma’s life; and it does happen once. So, I did like that slight touch of magic.

Well, I am pretty critical of the whole altar-ditching when it features the main characters since I, as a reader, would be accompanying the MCs on their journey; and altar-ditching is a sure-shot way for me to lose sympathy with at least one MC in the whole situation. I always dislike it when a couple gets their happily-ever-after and has no thought, guilt or consideration for the broken hearts and dreams they leave behind. Since this is a short book with two stories – it was almost like two novellas in one – I didn’t expect pages and pages of stewing-in-guilt scenes. Having said that, and without giving away any spoilers, all I can say is that I really liked Gemma in one story more than the other. She acts like a ditz but she owns it that she messed up and gets these “I feel guilty, Karma is going to get me” stabs on her chest occasionally and well, that was good enough for me. I am not too convinced with the other story though – she got off guilt-free way too easily.

I also felt both stories had very convenient third-wheels who just absolved Gemma from feeling guilty because, well, they were just that forgiving. But, having said that, I didn’t mind it in one of the stories because I did somewhere want closure for Gemma too.  Moreover, like I said, I was happy the author let Gemma stew a bit. But I didn’t really like the final moments in the other story – I found a couple of people’s reactions to the situation a bit unbelievable.

One thing that never gets old in chick-lit is female friendships. I love how they rally around in times of crisis – can be running away from your own wedding or being single on your own honeymoon – and this book is no different.  Gemma’s sister and her best friend were precious ❤ and the three of them provided just the kind of laugh-riot needed to get the other through the times they were feeling lousy.

Overall impressions This book had all the elements of a fun romantic comedy – bachelorette parties, runaway brides and drunken binges with your best friend who is as broken hearted as you are. Now, imagine twice the fun when you have two different stories based on two choices by one person. A lot of rom-coms deal with the dynamics of the girl, her (ex?)boyfriend and her best friend.  Ever felt or wondered how a movie or a book might have turned out if the girl had preferred to place the well-being or interests of one person over the other? Well, this book explores two different possibilities – and keep reading to find out if both lead to the same or different happily-ever-afters.

Shepherd & the Professor – By Dan Klefstad

Rating:

*Note : I received a digital copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review*

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Synopsis2

Most people take comfort knowing their family and friends will remember them after they die. For Susan Shepherd, “remembering” is bullshit. She wants an eternal shrine to her sacrifice: a book that never goes out of print.

Shepherd served her country in the Gulf War, got shot while serving her community as a cop, raised an ungrateful daughter by herself — and for what? A diagnosis of terminal cancer and she isn’t even fifty. If you were in her shoes, you might agree that nothing short of national perpetual acknowledgement will do.

She’s glad you feel that way; she just wrote a memoir and sent a flurry of query letters, hoping a publisher will memorialize her with a best-seller. After hitting Send, she waits not-at-all patiently for an editor to decide if her story will sell enough copies — that is, if her life really mattered.

My review

The writingUnconventional and refreshing. Slightly acerbic at times, Klefstad isn’t afraid to let his characters indulge in highly-charged conversations at the risk of not sounding PC. The format of the book does lend itself to being categorized as an epistolary (but it is one long query letter, and not a series of short ones) and it did take some time for me to get used to the changing narrators (as different people take over at from Susan at different times) and the initial time-leaps in the reminiscences. But once the book hit its stride – I got more comfortable reading it after 35-40% – I appreciated the atmospheric detailing that made the small university town of Charters come alive.

(Check out some of my favorite quotes from the book here.)

The charactersThis is Susan’s story and I found it interesting that Klefstad completely skips addressing the details about the big cancer-related chapter of her life – and I think it is a gutsy decision! I mean, kudos to the author for not making this entire book and Susan’s life about cancer.  Instead, we are given brief glimpses of a couple of early incidents in her life, including her only significant but brief relationship with a guy (who is the father of her child). All these experiences left indelible marks but I would like to think they only made her stronger and more equipped to deal with everything that came with single-parenting.  But from what we see of Susan’s twenty-something daughter Emma, and by Susan’s own admission, she has a lot of regrets with how things have turned out for her daughter. Although as a reader, Emma is absolutely infuriating to read about, an ungrateful brat who is hell-bent on throwing away whatever her mom is working very hard to provide.

Though this is Susan’s story on the query letter, the plot itself doesn’t move by the precipitating actions of any one single character. It is an ensemble plot in the truest sense as every character’s actions have a ripple effect though each one thinks they are doing what is required for them to survive and move up in Charters. So, there is a student, who is at loggerheads with his devout lecturer by arguing the under-representation of atheism in literature. Then there is a campus law enforcement chief vying for the position of the new President of the University. There is a also a radio jockey fighting to keep the seven-minute interview hosting slots amid reports of falling ratings. Finally, there is a woman identifying herself as Judy Peterson who is a bit of an enigma, a loose cannon willing to do what it takes to become the president.

Through all this radio station, university and law enforcement politics, there is a shady drug dealing business that Susan keeps trying to shoo away from Emma and herself, but her efforts prove futile as Emma is bullish about sticking to her drug-peddling boyfriend.

The plottingI felt that the book could have used one single high-stakes plot point centering all the characters instead of many – such as the president nomination, funds misappropriation, drugs consumption, investigative journalism and so on. The only thing holding these characters together in one book is the university and I just found the whole plot surrounding the president post a bit weak and unconvincing. Maybe it is because I could never get a sense of how “evil” Judy is. I mean, she is described as someone who has gotten away with scheming for years and yet, she makes so many mistakes – so many basic ones – that I just couldn’t believe she has never got caught. She came across as too vulnerable.

Then there was this drug peddling business that the Sheriff’s department has been looking for an opportunity to bust. I was a bit confused about how the entire thing went down. The department apparently was “successful” by the end of it, but the result of the entire operation seemed to be a heap of mess, so I am not sure what happened there.

Overall impressionsWould definitely recommend the book if you want to read something that just – well – reads differently! It tested my patience at times (especially the first half), but I began enjoying the leisurely vibe later on.