& Review: The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker

The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker Publisher: Random House January 2017

The Book Itself: A terrific blend of comic and reality. The bold color stripes melting down are one of the things that first drew me to this title, and even the title font seems hand-drawn.

My Review:

In the male-dominated field of animation, Mel Vaught and Sharon Kisses are a dynamic duo, the friction of their differences driving them: Sharon, quietly ambitious but self-doubting; Mel, brash and unapologetic, always the life of the party. Best friends and artistic partners since the first week of college, where they bonded over their working-class roots and obvious talent, they spent their twenties ensconced in a gritty Brooklyn studio. Working, drinking, laughing. Drawing: Mel, to understand her tumultuous past, and Sharon, to lose herself altogether.

Now, after a decade of striving, the two are finally celebrating the release of their first full-length feature, which transforms Mel’s difficult childhood into a provocative and visually daring work of art. The toast of the indie film scene, they stand at the cusp of making it big. But with their success come doubt and destruction, cracks in their relationship threatening the delicate balance of their partnership. Sharon begins to feel expendable, suspecting that the ever-more raucous Mel is the real artist. During a trip to Sharon’s home state of Kentucky, the only other partner she has ever truly known—her troubled, charismatic childhood best friend, Teddy—reenters her life, and long-buried resentments rise to the surface, hastening a reckoning no one sees coming.

On the face of it, this book is about two female artists and how they deal with and help each other through some of life’s more brutal moments. Deeper than that, this story is about the things that break people and the things that repair people at the same time, and about love: love between friends, sisters, the fractured love of some families, and the crazy, teetering feeling of new love. Excuse the momentary foray into melodramatic sentimentality: this book is gorgeous, full of absolute devastation and wonderfully written, incandescent periods of bliss. In still some other words, it is a brilliant portrayal of life.

I didn’t really expect this book to scrape me so raw (does anyone really expect that really, when they pick up a book?) just as I didn’t really expect to find myself in so many character moments. I am not an artist – although one of my childhood ambitions was to become a cartoonist, my margin doodles these days would not inspire anyone – nor did I have the haunting background of either Mel or Sharon. But there were times when Sharon would say, describe something, or act – especially in the throes of a new relationship, or looking back on said relationship – where I had to sit back, where I had to physically stop reading the sentence, go back and re-read what had just struck me so hard. That’s me. I think/thought that way. I’ve done that before! were things I frequently thought. And more often I thought this during Sharon’s weak moments, during a cringe-worthy action or reaction. I saw myself in the flaws of another character.

And it was awesome.

The story is bookended by two major upsets in the character’s lives. I won’t spoil either of them, as you can’t even guess them from the book’s blurbs or synopsis. The plot is an emotional rollercoaster: there are screwed up families, twisted cartoons, drugs, sex, perversion, and great, monumental tragedy.

It is rather hard to describe and have an audience get what a cartoon or animation actually looks like. I can never be sure I pictured Mel and Sharon’s work accurately or even semi-accurately. I had to do a quick Google search sometimes for work they referenced just to get an idea of their inspirations (which was actually kind of cool). But I still felt like I could appreciate what they were doing as artists regardless.

The writing and the story it depicts is gritty and very raw sometimes: this is not a story for the faint of heart, and it is certainly not a lighthearted tale. But the story treats both the characters triumphant highs and bottom-scraping lows with the same deft touch. It’s really a beautiful, hard-to-watch-sometimes story. I can’t wait to see what else Kayla Rae Whitaker will come up with. She has another loyal reader with me

My Rating: 5 out of 5 graphite pencils

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& Review: The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid Publisher: Atria Books, June 2017

The Book Itself: Very atmospheric of the story concept: a swoon-y ingenue figure all in satin. The font of the title seems serious and dramatic, hinting at the darker themes inside.

My Review:

Evelyn Hugo is finally ready to tell the truth about her glamorous and scandalous life. But when she chooses unknown magazine reporter Monique Grant for the job, no one in the journalism community is more astounded than Monique herself. Why her? Why now?

Monique is not exactly on top of the world. Her husband, David, has left her, and her career has stagnated. Regardless of why Evelyn has chosen her to write her biography, Monique is determined to use this opportunity to jumpstart her career.

Summoned to Evelyn’s Upper East Side apartment, Monique listens as Evelyn unfurls her story: from making her way to Los Angeles in the 1950s to her decision to leave show business in the late 80s, and, of course, the seven husbands along the way. As Evelyn’s life unfolds through the decades—revealing a ruthless ambition, an unexpected friendship, and a great forbidden love—Monique begins to feel a very a real connection to the actress. But as Evelyn’s story catches up with the present, it becomes clear that her life intersects with Monique’s own in tragic and irreversible ways.

Sometimes “fluffy beach reads” surprise me.

You know the genre. Candy-colored covers about working women finding love, about quirky families at weddings, about scandals where every character comes out okay in the end. They’re meant to go in your beach bag, to go along with you for the long weekend, and they have relatively straightforward storylines where you don’t have to parse through multiple meanings in the plot.

This ain’t your typical beach read. At least not for me. It has a few of the token elements: pretty woman on the cover, a scandalous yet mysterious main character who is a mash-up between Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor (with some Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn thrown in for good measure), a lovely love story (although not with who you think), and scandal after scandal (where not everyone gets through unscathed).

But it is so much more beautiful than that, and more complicated. I don’t know why this one drew me in from all the other options in June’s Book of the Month selection. Maybe I thought it would be light and fluffy to its core and something about summer makes me want to read breezy books. But I tore through this book and was profoundly touched by the events and the characters inside.

Evelyn Hugo herself is written wonderfully. She’s flawed – boy, does she do some stupid, cruel, and ugly things – but you still find yourself rooting for her because she is also generous, talented, kind, and loving to people throughout her life. She is very believable as an Old Hollywood celebrity, and the setting around her comes alive as well. Her real love story is haunting and beautiful and different from the forbidden/doomed/heartbreaking love stories I’ve read before.

Hugo tells her story to an unknown journalist – Monique Grant – so it’s no spoiler that there is a reason this reporter is sitting with this celebrity to hear this story. I found the portions of the book told from Monique’s perspective outside of Evelyn’s reminiscences to be weaker than the rest of the story. The story is narrated from a point after Monique has already heard everything Evelyn has to say. She refers a few too many times to how angry she is with Hugo, and how this big secret changes everything. It is an attempt to drum up tension for the big reveal on How These Two Women Are Connected, but it feels a little forced after several repetitions. I am already eager to find out why Evelyn chose Monique out of any journalist she could get for this project. I don’t need to be wound up again and again: the story itself already does that.

And there simply isn’t enough with Monique. Although we get a little bit about her struggling with her heritage, with her failing marriage, and a few scenes about her getting up the courage to ask her boss for a raise, it seems to pale in comparison to Evelyn’s story. We don’t spend as much time with her, despite the fact that she’s the one telling us hers and Evelyn’s stories. And the time we do spend with her seems more superficial.

Despite my minor gripes with Monique, I found this story beautifully moving. It deals a lot with secrets and lies and the faces we put on to look better in front of other people. The big secret between Evelyn and Monique did catch me by surprise, and I had an emotional response at the end of the story. Read it for the fluff, stay for the realness.

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 tabloid headlines