Friday, September 12, 2014

Book Review: "The Naive Guys: A Memoir of Friendship, Love and Tech in the Early 1990s" by Harry Patz Jr.

Full disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review.

Reading Harry Patz Jr.'s first novel filled me with nostalgia. Mark Amici graduates from Boston College in 1991 (the same year I graduated from college), ready to take on the world. But the struggling economy takes its toll on Mark's job prospects, so he moves home to New York to live with his mother, his uncle, and his older sister. As he subsists on bartending and catering jobs from his uncle, he longs for a "real" job while pining for the carefree life he had in college.

While job hunting, Mark spends his time looking for love with his motley crew of best friends—Sally, Pete, and Kostas—and rooting for Boston College and New York's athletic teams to excel in football and basketball. He's a pretty serious sports fan, and just as serious about wanting to find someone special (or at times, just someone). But his wanting to find the perfect relationship sets him on the road to heartbreak a time or two—and confuses the heck out of him most of the time.

When Mark lands a job at Fishsoft, an up-and-coming tech company, he is excited about the opportunity, and despite having to negotiate some interesting office situations, he enjoys his job and excels at it. This is a time when email is just being introduced, a time before cell phones, and where laptops weighed almost as much as a desktop, but he revels in the success he is able to achieve.

Nothing truly earth-shattering happens in The Naive Guys, but that doesn't really matter. Patz has written a tremendously engaging book about a young guy trying to make it in the world, and doing his best to understand work, his family and friends, women, and the rapidly changing world around him. As the title promises, Mark can be a spectacularly naive character (at times nearly bordering on cluelessness), yet his sensitivity and his strong feelings about certain things (particularly sports) make him appealing.

While I really enjoyed the characters, what I enjoyed the most was Patz's pitch-perfect depiction of the world in the early to mid-1990s. From the advent of email and cell phones, to the portable Walkman and Discman (plus the adapter so you could listen to CDs in your car), to cultural touchstones like the first World Trade Center bombing, the 1992 presidential election, the Los Angeles Riots, and the OJ Simpson case, this book brought back so many memories and really made me say, "Wow, I remember feeling that same way!"

This was definitely a fun read, and proof that a book doesn't have to have an action-packed or drama-filled plot to be enjoyable. If you remember the early to mid-1990s, take this trip with Mark and his friends down memory lane...

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Book Review: "The Wonder of All Things" by Jason Mott

Full disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review.

It was an exciting day in the small town of Stone Temple, North Carolina. Many people were gathered to see a local man-turned-pilot perform in an air show for his hometown. But the show ended in tragedy, with the plane crashing into the crowd of spectators. Underneath the rubble, nestled in a small pocket of air, is 13-year-old Ava, the daughter of the town's sheriff, and her best friend, Wash. When Ava realizes that Wash has been injured by a piece of the rubble and lays bleeding near her, she places her hands on him and heals him.

The discovery of this miraculous ability of Ava's rocks her family, her town, and the country. She has kept this a secret from everyone except her mother, who died when she was younger, and so many in Stone Temple are angry that she has kept this miraculous talent to herself, since she could have saved so many people. But what everyone outside her family and friends don't comprehend—or even care—is that every time she heals someone, it leaves her increasingly weakened, both physically and emotionally. To continue doing so would be dangerous.

"There is always comfort in pretending that change has not happened in life, even when we know full well that nothing will ever again be the way it was."

Thousands of people descend upon Stone Temple, hoping that Ava will help them, and trying to make sense of her talent. Also arriving in the town is the Reverend Isaiah Brown, a charismatic television preacher who leads a large flock. While he wants to understand the religious reasons behind this miracle, he also has personal motives for wanting to find his way into Ava's life.

Much as he did in The Returned, where he explored the idea of people long-dead returning to the world of the living, Jason Mott raises many interesting questions to ponder in The Wonder of All Things. It's an intriguing, well-written, emotional novel that definitely makes you think. Is Ava's responsibility to heal people, even at great risk to herself? Or should she be able to live as "normal" a life as she possibly can?

I thought this was a good book, and enjoyed Mott's storytelling ability. I really enjoyed both Ava and Wash's characters, but found many of the other characters not quite as well developed. There were a number of plot points in the book that the moment they were mentioned I had an idea of what would happen, and I wish the story wasn't quite so obvious in places as it raced toward a conclusion. But in the end, I'm still thinking about Ava and Wash, and still left pondering the questions the book raised, so it definitely is both intriguing and affecting.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Book Review: "The Drop" by Dennis Lehane

It all started with a puppy.

Bob Saginowski is a sad-sack bartender, living in the house he grew up in, spending his time shuffling between work, home, and mass at his childhood church. He's a loner; his only real companion (and that's a bit of a stretch) is his cousin Marv, who used to own the bar Bob works at, although the bar is now really owned by Chechen mobsters. Bob spends his days wishing for a way out of his loneliness, and he's hiding a secret or two as well.

One cold winter night while walking home from work, he finds a badly beaten puppy in a trash can. Although the responsibility of caring for something scares him, he rescues the dog and ultimately bringing it home with him. When he finds the dog he also encounters Nadia, a world-weary woman who has seen more than her share of problems. Without expecting it, he finds himself caring for both Nadia and the dog and is utterly unprepared for how it feels.

But all is not rosy for Bob—not only is his church closing, but the bar gets robbed, he catches the eye of a dogged cop determined to make something of himself again, and the dog's original owner, an unstable ex-con with an agenda of his own, returns and wants what he believes is his. It's more than enough to make Bob wonder what path he should follow, and what the consequences of his actions will be.

Dennis Lehane is one of my favorite authors of all time. While this isn't as good as Mystic River or a number of his Kenzie and Gennaro novels, I really like Lehane best when his writing leans more toward grittier, violent character studies than some of the historic material he's covered in his last two books. I love his use of language, both in dialogue and description, and while not everything that happens in the book is surprising, he still knows how to create some good tension.

I learned after I read The Drop (in a little more than one day) that it is an expansion of a short story Lehane wrote in 2009, which explains why, even at just under 250 pages, I felt the book was a little short, and would have liked more time with Bob, Marv, Nadia, and even Detective Torres. There was a lot of intriguing material that could have been developed further, although I didn't feel as if the book ended abruptly or was too short.

I forgot that a movie adaptation of this book is due out later this year. While I try not to read books that close to a movie adaptation (especially one with a little suspense in it), I'm looking forward to seeing how the actors bring to life the characters I've pictured in my head. If you're not planning to see the movie, and you enjoy crime novels, this is one to read. It's a fast read, it's well-written, and most importantly, it's good to have Dennis Lehane back in his element. (Of course, now I want another book, Dennis.)

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Book Review: "Being Miss America: Behind the Rhinestone Curtain" by Kate Shindle

When Kate Shindle was crowned Miss America 1998 in September 1997, she became one of the most polarizing Miss Americas in some time. Some thought she was the clear winner the moment she stepped onstage; some said she only won because the pageant was fixed. Some loved her talent; some hated it. Some thought her swimsuit was fun and unique; others HATED it. But most of her detractors couldn't deny the intelligence and passion with which she spoke about her platform issue or cause, awareness and prevention of HIV and AIDS.

"I have been called courageous, a trailblazer, the first socially relevant Miss America ever, fat, thin, beautiful, handsome, ugly, talented, untalented, inspiring, infuriating, deserving, undeserving."

I've always been a fan of Shindle's, as I feel she is never afraid to tell it like it is. In Being Miss America she speaks candidly both about what it's like to be Miss America—the good and the bad—and the triumphs and challenges the Miss America Organization has dealt with historically, and those it is facing currently.

"Most of the young women who strive to become Miss America see it as the public sees it: as a dream, a wish fulfillment that guarantees one will be respected, praised, and lifted up as an example of all that is right about young American women. Little do they know what they're actually getting into if they win. Decades of stereotypes, expectations, scandal, myths, media scrutiny, public skepticism, and questionable leadership choices have made actually being Miss America nearly impossible."

Those of you that know me are probably aware that I've been a volunteer with the Miss America Organization for more than 10 years. I've been tremendously fortunate to watch some dynamic young women compete in this system, and watch the amazing things they've done with their lives and for their communities, partially as a result of the skills they've burnished through competition, and partially thanks to the scholarships they receive. I've also had the tremendous opportunity to meet a number of immensely dedicated volunteers, who are the lifeblood of this organization. Their love for the system, despite its flaws, and the incredible amount of work and sweat and tears and money they put in (most of the time for no personal gain) is both inspiring and humbling.

That's why as much as I enjoyed this book, it saddened me to get a more in-depth understanding of the problems the organization has, and get Shindle's perspectives on both the causes and the potential solutions. Being a volunteer, even in my own small way, I'm aware of some of these issues, and I also understand them as a person who has worked in the nonprofit association management field for nearly my entire career. Sure, some would say these are only Shindle's perspectives, and she has an axe to grind, and maybe not everything she says is entirely accurate, but I hope this book serves as somewhat of a wake-up call to those with the power to make change happen. Think what you must about the Miss America system, it has made a tremendous difference in millions of women's lives, and still can.

Shindle writes as I'd imagine she speaks, and I found this book really compelling. I read it in just a little more than a day. My only criticism is that the book could have used some more judicious fact-checking: in a few instances, former Miss Americas are referenced by incorrect years, and one recent Miss America's last name is spelled quite wrong throughout the book. But that's the savant in me—many people might not even notice that.

If you have an interest in the Miss America Organization or what it's like to be Miss America, you'll find this book tremendously interesting. If you love the system and/or have given any time to being a part of it, you may feel as I do. But if all you've ever thought about Miss America is she's nothing more than a crown-wearing bimbo who doesn't do anything, I'd encourage you to read this. You may not change your mind, but you should.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Book Review: "The Magician's Land" by Lev Grossman

Another series of books I really enjoyed has come to an end. As I've said many times before, I'm always hesitant to read the last book in a series, both because I don't want to be left without another book to look forward to, and I'm always nervous about how the author will conclude a series I've grown attached to.

Lev Grossman's The Magician's Land is the conclusion to his Magicians trilogy, a series that followed a group of young magicians as they discovered the magical land they had read about in children's books was actually real, and it was in need of rulers to lead it. In this final book, Quentin Coldwater has found himself banished from his beloved Fillory, where he and his best friends had ruled as kings and queens, defending the kingdom where necessary and protecting the magic within it.

"Six months ago he'd been a king in a magic land, another world, but that was all over. He'd been kicked out of Fillory, and he'd been kicked around a fair bit since then, and now he was just another striver, trying to scramble back in, up the slippery slope, back toward the light and the warmth."

Left with nowhere else to turn, Quentin returns to his alma mater, the Brakebills Preparatory College of Magic, to try and find a new purpose in his life. While he discovers a love for teaching, it's not long before circumstances connect him with Plum, a graduate student with tremendous talent and a mysterious history, and they both find themselves exiled from Brakebills as well. The need for money and a purpose lead the two toward a dangerous mission, which is connected to Quentin's past in more ways than they can imagine.

Meanwhile, in Fillory, Eliot and Janet, the High King and Queen, have found that all is not harmonious in the kingdom. Enemies are invading, and the magic that has kept the land protected for years on end seems to be failing. The end of Fillory is at hand, and they are desperate to find a way to stop their kingdom from being destroyed, and them along with it.

This is a book about trying to discover your true purpose, and not losing sight of the person you are, even in the face of tremendous adversity. It's also a book about trying to save the things that mean the most to you. And more than anything, this is a book about the pull of friendship, and the willingness to do whatever is necessary for those we care about.

In all of the books in this trilogy, I marveled at the immensely creative and poetic details that Grossman brought to his descriptions of Fillory and the other magical places, and the powers that the magicians have. I also loved the unique voices he gave each of his characters, how their personalities remained relatively consistent throughout, and I really enjoyed the interactions between them.

I found the concept of Fillory's imminent destruction tremendously intriguing, and felt the book really hit its stride whenever it focused on that, as well as the dynamics between the characters. More than the other two books, however, I felt as if The Magician's Land got a little more bogged down in backstory and details that threw it a bit off course. This is definitely a trilogy where you're expected to read the books in order, because Grossman doesn't provide much information about what happened previously, instead simply mentioning characters and incidents without elaborating.

In the end, while this wasn't my favorite book in the series, I did enjoy the way Grossman concluded everything. I really found Fillory to be a special, intriguing place, and so enjoyed spending time with the characters, and I'm just sorry to see everything end. If you believe in magic, and want something a bit more cerebral, definitely check out this trilogy.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Book Review: "Big Little Lies" by Liane Moriarty

Liane Moriarty's last novel, The Husband's Secret, was tremendously popular last year, and when I finally got around to reading it I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it, domestic drama and all. Her newest novel, Big Little Lies, explores similar territory as it looks at the haves and have nots in a small Australian community, and throws in a little mayhem, melodrama, and murder to boot.

Another year of kindergarten is about to start at the Pirriwee Public School. Madeline, who loves to be the center of attention and will fight for any cause—or person—she thinks needs her support, is struggling, because her ex-husband Nathan and his new yoga-instructor wife Bonnie have moved to the same community, and their young daughter is in the same class as Madeline's daughter, Chloe. (And don't even get her started on the fact that Madeline and Nathan's teenage daughter Abigail would rather live with her father—who abandoned her and Madeline when she was an infant—than her mother.)

Madeline's gorgeous best friend, Celeste, has a picture-perfect life. She has the gorgeous, enormously wealthy husband, Perry, and two beautiful twin sons. Perry gives Celeste anything she wants, and their lives are the envy of most of the parents in their community. But what looks like the perfect life from the outside can be far from perfect on the inside, and Celeste has to figure out how to regain control.

New in town is single mother Jane, who is younger than most of the other parents—so young, in fact, that she is often mistaken for one of the children's nannies or au pairs. She is fiercely devoted to her young son, Ziggy, and despite the way many of the parents treat her, she becomes fast friends with Madeline and Celeste.

When a bullying scandal erupts in the kindergarten class, battle lines are drawn between groups of parents. As the most innocent of incidents are misinterpreted and re-interpreted, the scandal threatens to explode, and it brings many other issues between spouses, between friends, between sets of parents, to a head. And it all explodes one evening, at the school's "Elvis and Audrey" Trivia Night, when everything goes much too far, and someone winds up dead.

I really enjoy the way Moriarty writes. She completely hooks you in this tempestuous little community and gets you invested in the characters, and just when you think you know where she's going to take the story, she flips the script on you. The book flashes back to the months before Trivia Night, and is interspersed with commentary from a Greek chorus of sorts comprised of the other parents, as well as the teachers and administrators from the school.

There was a period of time when this book reminded me of Julia Fierro's Cutting Teeth, in that I found many of the supporting characters so odious that I wasn't sure I wanted to keep reading. But the main characters are so much more complex than I first thought, so I was glad I kept on, because in the end, despite my feeling for some of the characters, I really enjoyed the book as a whole. This is a fun, melodramatic, soapy read, definitely one which will amuse and intrigue you—unless this is the type of life you live.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Book Review: "Tiny Ladies" by Adam Klein

Full disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review.

Carrie is a caseworker in Iowa doing her best to help her clients overcome their struggles and make a fresh start of their lives. She's trying to do the same thing—her previous tenure in the same role while living in San Francisco ended disastrously, with her having an affair with Victor, a dangerous client, and resuming a drug addiction that has had her in its grips since her teenage years. She's desperate to keep her life together, but she can't keep herself from caring too much about her clients.

"Caring about people is wounding. That's why so many people are reluctant to care. It hurts."

When Carrie meets Hannah, a troubled young woman with more than her own share of problems, Carrie feels like helping Hannah might be what she needs to finally move her life forward. But as she realizes Hannah is a more complicated person than she first thought, Carrie finds herself having to confront someone from her past, someone she hoped would never find her, and it sets her on a dangerous path.

Tiny Ladies is a brutal, beautifully written novel about the toll addiction takes on a person's life and those around them, and how hard it is to break the cycle of addiction when it's in your blood. It's a story about struggling to do what is right while your life is spiraling out of control, and you wonder if the effort it takes every day is truly worth it. The book shifts in time throughout Carrie's life, from her childhood growing up poor near the Florida Everglades, the daughter of two drug addicts, to the start of her own addictions, and her relationship with Victor, which has disastrous consequences for more than just her career.

I had never heard of Adam Klein before but the description of this book intrigued me tremendously. Klein is tremendously talented, and he so perfectly captured Carrie's voice and her soul, which isn't always a strong suit of male authors. This isn't a happy book by any means, and at times the storyline seems a little disjointed, but it is so powerful, and you find yourself urging Carrie not to make the same mistakes again, to try and pull her life together. This was an excellent read I'm glad I stumbled upon.