Friday, September 22, 2017

Book Review: "Release" by Patrick Ness

Patrick Ness' new book, Release, is essentially two completely different novels in one. The core story is absolutely wonderful, thought-provoking and emotional, funny and sweet, and it reaffirmed why I am such a fan of Ness' writing. While I think I understood the point of the second story, I don't understand why it was necessary to tack it on here, so I guess I would have preferred some sort of explanation or connection between the two.

Some may be so put off by the second story that it may detract from your enjoyment of the core story, and that's unfortunate, because there is so much heart and poetry to be found.

One hell of a day is in store for Adam Thorn. His ex-boyfriend-of-sorts, Enzo, is leaving to move to Atlanta, and he still can't seem to shake his feelings for Enzo or completely process how and why their relationship ended. And although a new boy, Linus, is more than happy to take Enzo's place, and might possibly be in love with Adam, Adam is struggling with feelings of betrayal and low self-worth. He hopes everything will work its way out at Enzo's farewell "get-together."

Meanwhile, there is a crisis at home which roils his ultra-religious family. While Adam has gotten used to his parents' barely hidden disapproval of him (although he's never come out to them), it still hurts to see how easily they will forgive the missteps of his brother, who is following in the footsteps of their preacher father, but that they don't get him. But more and more, Adam knows that your chosen family is so much more important and cherished than the one you're born into.

For Adam, that chosen family is his best friend, Angela, and her family. Adam and Angela have gotten each other since a near-death experience bonded them together as young children. Adam envies Angela's relationship with her free-spirited parents, while Angela is saddened for her friend's treatment at the hands of his family. She's willing to fight his battles for him or with him, and always has his back. But she, too, has a bombshell for Adam which threatens to rock their solid core.

As if the day can't get any worse, things at his part-time job at the "evil international mega-conglomerate" come to a head because of his creepy, lecherous boss, Wade. When Wade gives Adam an ultimatum he really can't refuse despite the implications, it sets up multiple confrontations which put Adam on the short end of the stick. It's really enough to break anyone, much someone struggling as much as Adam is.

Meanwhile, as Adam's life appears to be falling apart, a second story is occurring, one with a plot that is part fantasy, part supernatural (I think). In this story, which takes place at the same time and in some of the same places as Adam's story, a faun with mysterious powers must save his young queen from enacting her revenge, even if it means destruction for them both. There is some overlap to Adam's story (that eventually becomes clear), but I don't actually know if what takes place in the story really does happen in Adam's world.

I'm trying to be somewhat vague, even with Adam's story, because it flows so beautifully as it unfolds. Nothing is necessarily earth-shattering or unique, but there's just so much love, pain, angst, and heart, I fell head over heels for the story. And while the other story is confusing, Ness is still a tremendously poetic guide, so I marveled at his language even as I found myself asking over and over, "What does this have to do with the story?"

Ness knows how to tug at your heartstrings and how to make you laugh. The relationship between Adam and Angela felt so loving and genuine that it makes you wish you had a friendship like that (or perhaps inspires you to call that special friend and let them know how you feel about them). While Adam's situation is a little depressing at times, you know there are so many teenagers just like Adam struggling with these same issues. I know I struggled with some of them myself back before movable type was invented.

One interesting thing, which may or may not put you off this book: Release is the first book I've read that actually has sex scenes between two gay teenagers. (They're of age, though, so relax.) They're not completely explicit but they're definitely more detailed than what you usually see in YA novels. So be warned if that makes you uncomfortable.

Not everyone will love this book, because of that odd second plot. I totally understand that, but it's sad, because I think that at its core, Release is a book about finding the freedom you need to be yourself and live your own way, no matter who you are or how you choose to label yourself. It's also a book about love, both conditional and unconditional, whether it's among family, between friends, or in a romantic sense.

While this isn't quite the home run I had hoped it would be, I still love the way Ness writes, and it will be a while before I can get this book out of my head. I still have to catch up on some of Ness' older books, too.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Book Review: "Exit Strategy" by Steve Hamilton

Steve Hamilton is one of a handful of authors who can leave my pulse pounding when I'm done reading his books. I'll honestly never understand why he isn't more famous, because not only does he know how to write an action scene, he's a fantastic storyteller, one who creates thrillers with immense depth and characterization. Exit Strategy, the second book in his new series featuring Nick Mason, once again proves Hamilton is at the top of his form.

Nick Mason was in the middle of a long prison stint when he caught the eye of hardened criminal Darius Cole, who was imprisoned possibly for life but yet still ruled the entire system. Somehow Cole is able to pull enough strings to get Mason released years ahead of time, but of course, for a price: Cole essentially owns Mason—whatever he orders Mason to do, he must do, or he'll either find himself back in prison, or dead.

This time he has been given a seemingly impossible task: kill the three witnesses responsible for putting Cole in jail in the first place, to whom the government is turning once again for a retrial. Of course, these aren't ordinary witnesses—they're buried deep inside the federal witness protection program in sites unknown to almost everyone. But Cole has amazing information sources, so Mason is sent on a number of hunting expeditions taking him to both rural and urban locations. If Mason is successful, Cole might be set free; if any of the witnesses survive to testify, it could guarantee Cole's imprisonment for life—and destruction of everything Mason holds dear.

While Mason pursues his tasks knowing what is on the line, he is still trying to find a way out of Cole's clutches. He wants a life that is his, one that doesn't force him to jump every time his cell phone rings, one which doesn't allow him to come clean to those he cares about. But that kind of life is only possible if he can guarantee that Cole is destroyed, which, of course, can only bring about his own destruction.

The clock is ticking, and what Mason doesn't count on is that as he hunts the witnesses is he is being hunted at the very same time, by one of the three men he will need to kill. This ruthless assassin who once performed the very same lethal tasks for Cole that Mason does now isn't content to wait for Mason to try and kill him—he decides to take the fight to Mason as well.

If Cole is freed from prison, will Mason ever be free, or will he then become dispensable? Can Mason complete the mission he has been given without turning into the cold-hearted monster who controls him? Can he complete the mission before he becomes the target? Is there a price too high for his freedom?

Hamilton ratchets up the suspense little by little, and keeps the action flowing throughout. There are some fantastic action and chase scenes in this book, with plenty of twists and turns to keep you guessing. Mason is one of those characters like Jeff Lindsay's Dexter who is a true criminal, but you root for him anyway. You want him to win, even though he is doing some of the same things the book's villains are doing.

That you care about this flawed character is truly a testament to Hamilton's skill as a writer. While I hope he'll one day return to Paradise, Michigan, home of his series of books featuring private investigator Alex McKnight, it is always great to see what he can do with a new series or a standalone book.

Even if you didn't read The Second Life of Nick Mason, which is this book's predecessor, if you're a fan of crime novels and thrillers, you'll find this one gets your adrenaline pumping and doesn't let go. And can you ask for anything more?

Monday, September 18, 2017

Book Review: "In the Fall They Come Back" by Richard Bausch

Ben Jameson is fresh out of graduate school when he lands a teaching job at a small private school in Northern Virginia, Glenn Acres Preparatory Academy. It doesn't matter that he didn't pursue education as a course of study while in college, and never really thought of himself as a teacher—the school needs an English teacher and he needs a job. He doesn't think this is what he'll want to do for the rest of his life, but he's fine with that.

He finds the atmosphere at Glenn Acres a little unorthodox, but that doesn't bother him, because his teaching methods aren't quite by the book, either. (At one point the head of the school has to remind him that he needs actual lesson plans, because the state mandates students learn some specific things, not just participate in discussions about writing.) Ben is tremendously idealistic, it's not long before he thinks this job may be a noble calling of sorts, one that will allow him to make a difference in young people's lives.

When Ben is told by his colleagues that one of his students is being physically abused, and encouraged to watch over him, Ben cannot sit idly by and allow this to continue to happen. Even though his colleagues tried unsuccessfully to intervene in the past, Ben believes he must get involved and he must save this boy. Instead of helping, he makes even more of a mess of the situation, causing trouble for the school, and causing him to have to act contrary to what he feels he should do if he has any hope of keeping his job and keeping the student in school.

This idealism happens a few more times for Ben, once in the case of a withdrawn, mute, and psychologically damaged student, and another time in dealing with a precocious troublemaker who is over 18, but is bound and determined to graduate anyway, even if she hasn't to date. In each case, Ben feels compelled to do the right thing, even if he has no idea what the right thing really is, and even if his blundering actually makes things worse rather than better.

"This is not a story about teaching. Nor is it about education, or school, although most of what happened started in a school. This is a story about caring a little too much; or maybe about not caring enough. I really don't know which. The only thing I know for certain is that I wish a lot of it did not happen."

Reading other people's reviews of Richard Bausch's In the Fall They Come Back leads me to wonder if I completely missed the point of the book, because I really didn't like this at all. While I saw the point he was trying to make relative to the fact that the best of intentions is often not enough to change things the way we want to, and how idealism can sometimes be a harmful thing, I found much of this book tremendously predictable, and many instances in which if people had just said what they meant, or what needed to be said, chaos in some cases might be avoided.

I also found the description of the school and its administration to be very far-fetched; while this private school might not have had to hew to all of the same rules and regulations public schools did, I found it hard to believe that a school which allowed two aged dogs to do their business in classrooms would actually be able to operate. I found many of the characters to be unlikable, even the main character, whom you just couldn't believe could be so stupid over and over again, yet his desire to give, to make a difference, blinds him.

Bausch is a storyteller with a strong body of work, yet I found this book to be one of his weakest, plus it runs far longer than it should. However, since many other reviewers have loved this book, you may want to see if you hew closer to their opinions than mine, which might be the mark of a clueless reader rather than an astute one.

NetGalley and Bloomsbury USA provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

Book Review: "The Cuban Affair" by Nelson DeMille

Why Nelson DeMille, you sly old dog! Where has your sarcastic sense of humor been hiding all these years?

I've read a number of DeMille's books through the years—The Charm School, The Gold Coast, The General's Daughter, Cathedral to name a few—and while I enjoyed all of those, I don't remember them being funny. But in his newest book, The Cuban Affair, he displays a playful side I haven't seen before, and it brought a new dimension to his writing.

"Being captain of your own fate doesn't mean you always make good decisions."

Daniel "Mac" MacCormick is a decorated war veteran with more than a few scars to show from his two tours in Afghanistan. Although his patrician family back in Maine hoped he'd amount to something after recovering from his wounds, Mac has different ideas. He spends his days in Key West as the owner of a 42-foot charter fishing boat, and he specializes in sunset cruises, fishing trips, drinking to excess, and perhaps more than a little womanizing. It doesn't seem like such a bad life for a 35-year-old.

Well, maybe he could use a little more money. And that's why he agrees to meet Carlos, a Miami lawyer with connections to anti-Castro groups of Cuban citizens wishing to someday make it back to their country. Carlos tries to hire Mac and his boat to work a 10-day fishing tournament in Cuba, but Mac turns him down because he doesn't think the job is on the up-and-up. Undeterred, Carlos sweetens the deal, offering Mac two million dollars instead. And although Mac knows if a deal seems too good to be true it usually is, he decides to hear Carlos out.

When Mac meets Carlos' clients, including a beautiful Cuban-American architect named Sara Ortega, the chance to spend time with Sara plus make more money than he has in his lifetime proves enticing. It turns out that years ago, Sara's grandfather hid more than 60 million dollars in a cave in Cuba so it didn't fall into the wrong hands, and Sara and her colleagues want Mac's help to rescue the loot and return it to its rightful owners, Cuban exiles all. It's a mission that could make Mac a wealthy man—not to mention a wanted one, or worse, a dead one.

The Cuban Affair follows Mac and Sara on their mission to Cuba as part of a study group from Yale. They know what they need to do, and have their plans set, but Mac doesn't realize how many loose ends there are to deal with—and of course, he has no idea what he doesn't know, or what he's not being told. All he knows is he wants Sara and he wants his money, and he doesn't know if he'll get either.

This is a meticulously researched book, providing a tremendous amount of information about how the relationship between Cuba and America deteriorated through the years, and how the anticipated "Cuban Thaw" between the two countries could change everything—for both better and worse. It's also an in-depth look at the anti-Castro forces both within and outside Cuba.

I really liked Mac's character, and found Sara to be a bit of an enigma (as did Mac). I also enjoyed some of the supporting characters, including Mac's first mate, Jack, a cantankerous and perhaps slightly crazy Vietnam vet with a penchant for slightly twisted t-shirts. DeMille definitely generated some good suspense in the book, because I kept expecting everyone to double-cross everyone multiple times over, and you want to know how everything will be resolved.

At times I felt the book got bogged down with all of the history and factual details, so it seemed more like a nonfiction book than a thriller. And while once the action got going the book really crackled, it took a little too long to get to that point—I felt a little too much time was spent setting up background and painting the scene. But DeMille's storytelling talent, and Mac's dry, slightly ribald sense of humor definitely helped add levity.

I'd love to see another book featuring Mac some day. I believe he's a terrific addition to the cast of memorable characters that DeMille has created through the years. While this book is a little uneven, it's still great to see a master at work, and experience a new side of him.

NetGalley and Simon & Schuster provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Book Review: "Little Fires Everywhere" by Celeste Ng

Sometimes one of my greatest frustrations with books I read is that it is difficult for me to believe that a character would do something egregious as a knee-jerk reaction to something they don't agree with. I know, I'm reading fiction, which isn't always directly based on real life, but sometimes a character's actions are so ridiculous and ring so false that they really change my feelings about a book.

Other times a character is so unlikable (although you may discover it's all an act) that they're just so off-putting, and they detract from the book's appeal.

Both things happened for me while reading Celeste Ng's new book, Little Fires Everywhere, and I'm so disappointed, because I wanted to love it. While I found much of the book simply beautiful, the plot—and one character—travel down a path that I found a little too far-fetched and irritating that it spoiled how I felt.

To someone on the outside looking in, the Richardson family seems like the quintessential Shaker Heights, Ohio family—two successful and driven parents, four good-looking children, sure to follow in their parents' footsteps. The perception isn't all false—Elena Richardson, who returned to her hometown after college to raise a family, is a reporter for the local paper; her husband is a successful attorney. Their children, each one year apart, are each popular and successful in their own way, except the youngest, Izzy, who has a knack for standing out, especially if it means pushing her mother's buttons.

When Mia Warren, an enigmatic, slightly bohemian artist, and her daughter Pearl arrive in Shaker Heights, and move into the Richardsons' rental apartment, the family quickly falls under their spell. Pearl, who has moved more times than she can count, always on her mother's whim, has finally extracted a promise from Mia that they will stay in Shaker Heights, and she is excited to finally be able to make friends and cement relationships instead of biding her time until she leaves town again.

Pearl and the Richardsons' younger son, Moody, become close friends, although quickly she becomes a part of the family. Mia, too, in addition to working on her art, begins working for the Richardsons, becoming an unexpected confidante for older daughter Lexie, and forging a relationship with Izzy that she can't have with her mother. But Mia is also wary of the Richardsons and doesn't quite trust that all is as perfect as it seems.

When a custody battle involving one of Elena's oldest friends becomes fodder for the media, everyone in town has an opinion. Elena discovers that she and Mia are on opposite sides of this fight, which causes Elena to view Mia with suspicion. Suddenly she feels the need to find more about this mysterious woman who holds her family in her thrall, and Elena doesn't realize—or care, really—about what damage the truth may cause, for everyone.

"All her life, she had learned that passion, like fire, was a dangerous thing. It so easily went out of control. It scaled walls and jumped over trenches. Sparks leapt like fleas and spread as rapidly; a breeze could carry embers for miles. Better to control that spark and pass it carefully from one generation to the next, like an Olympic torch. Or, perhaps, to tend it carefully like an eternal flame: a reminder of light and goodness that would never—could never—set anything ablaze. Carefully controlled. Domesticated. Happy in captivity. The key, she thought, was to avoid conflagration."

Little Fires Everywhere is a powerful meditation on motherhood and the sometimes-tenuous bond between mother and child. It's also a book about the destructive power of secrets, misunderstandings, and miscommunication, and how easily problems could be avoided if people would just say what they thought, or speak up rather than let a person roll over them. At its most poignant, this is a book about the damage that can be done by neglect or mistreatment, even when it's unintended, and how finding someone who seems to care about you can be a life-changing force.

Ng is a storyteller with such quiet power. As she did in her spectacular first novel, Everything I Never Told You, she captures the routine and dramatic moments in a family's life, uncovering just how much goes on underneath the silences. While I appreciate her fearlessness in creating unappealing characters, I really was unhappy with some of her choices, which I won't reveal for fear of spoiling the plot, but they just seemed so ludicrous (and in one case, just a wee bit convenient and predictable) that one character and her treatment of others became almost one-dimensional.

I've seen many glowingly positive reviews of this book, so I wouldn't let my criticisms dissuade you from reading it if it interests you. Ng is an immense talent, and I look forward to seeing what's next for her. If you do read this, I would love to talk to you after you're finished, to see what you thought about the things that frustrated me.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Book Review: "They Both Die at the End" by Adam Silvera

Well, what else would you expect from a book called They Both Die at the End?

"No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don't want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life's change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new."

—Steve Jobs

Shortly after midnight on September 5, Mateo and Rufus both get a call they've never wanted to receive. It's from Death-Cast, the company that lets people know they're scheduled to die sometime that day.

Mateo recently turned 18, and while he was too scared to go away to college, he has a lot of plans and dreams—he's going to attend school online, and hopefully become an architect some day. He's really only close to his father, who raised him, and his best friend Lidia, and he spent a lot of his life being too shy to do the things he imagined doing, to be the person he wanted to be, and live the life he knew he should. But that doesn't mean he's ready to die.

"Because I refused to live invincibly on all the days I didn't get an alert, I wasted all those yesterdays and am completely out of tomorrows."

Rufus is three weeks from his 18th birthday, and although his life has been marked by serious loss, he knows who matters—his foster parents, his two foster brothers/best friends, and his ex-girlfriend Aimee, who Rufus still can't believe has left him for another guy. In fact, when Rufus gets the call from Death-Cast, he's in the process of beating the crap out of Aimee's new boyfriend, even though that is totally out of character for him.

Both boys know they don't want to die alone, yet they know that they don't want their deaths to traumatize those they're close to. Using the "Last Friend" app, Mateo and Rufus meet. They're both very different—there's nearly no challenge that Rufus is afraid to tackle head-on, while Mateo spends so much time alone, fearing the unknown and worrying people will deceive or laugh at him. But when they meet, each vows to help the other live the best End Day they can—live it to the fullest, no regrets.

The boys will face some challenges, share secrets with one another that they've never told others, and deal with their fears, together. They'll say goodbyes to those they care about, and do things that they've always dreamed of. And at the same time, they'll both realize how much you can live in just one day.

Between this and The Immortalists (see my original review), my reading taste has skewed a little morbid lately. But while They Both Die at the End certainly is an emotional read, kudos to Adam Silvera for not making it as maudlin as I feared it might be. Did I cry? Well, of course. But I didn't feel like someone punched me hard in the feels repeatedly, which made me enjoy this more.

I'll admit I wanted a little more backstory into the whole Death-Cast thing, especially since this book takes place September 5, 2017 (ironically, the day Silvera's book was released). It saddened me that two young men were scheduled to die at such a young age, and I wish it took a little less time for Mateo to break out of his shell. But those minor quibbles aside, I really loved this book, the relationships the characters had with each other, and the message that life is uncertain, so why not live it to the fullest whenever you can?

With More Happy Than Not, History is All You Left Me, and now this book, Silvera has rapidly joined my list of authors I would follow almost anywhere to read their work. (That never avoids sounding stalkerish, but don't worry.) I love the way his mind works, I love the emotion, heart, and beauty he brings to his books, and I love the way he respects his characters, because it really shows.

You can always count on me to recommend books which will give you a good cry. They Both Die at the End is tremendously affecting and really unforgettable, and yeah, it will give your tear ducts some good exercise, too.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Book Review: "The Child Finder" by Rene Denfeld

You've got that right. But it's not Gaston who has slayed me this time, it is Rene Denfeld's exquisite new book, The Child Finder.

Denfeld has left me breathless before, with her incredible debut novel, The Enchanted (see my original review), which made my list of the best books I read last year. With her second novel, she proves her talent for creating exceptionally memorable characters and beautiful stories which you cannot get out of your mind.

Naomi is an investigator with an uncanny ability of finding lost children. She is often the last resort for desperate parents and police, sometimes even defense attorneys, who call her the "Child Finder." But as successful as Naomi has been at finding out what happened to these children, even saving many of them, Naomi was once a lost girl, too, and she can't quite remember what happened to her before she was found.

"Each child she found was a molecule, a part of herself still remaining in the scary world she had left behind. Eventually they would all come together and form one being, knitted together in triumph. We are not forgotten, her actions told her. You will not put us aside."

Naomi is hired by the Culver family to find their daughter Madison, who went missing three years ago in Oregon's Skookum National Forest, when they were looking for a Christmas tree. No one can figure out what happened to Madison—did she get lost, did she fall into an abandoned mine hole or other crevasse, or was she taken by someone watching the woods? While the latter option is a disturbing one to ponder, the bitter cold and snow makes it unlikely she might have survived otherwise, let alone still be alive three years later.

Naomi is methodical in her search, knowing that one misstep, or misjudging the weather, could prove dangerous. Yet as she tries to figure out what might have happened to Madison, whether she is alive, and if so, where she might be, she has her own struggles to deal with. She wants to figure out what the nightmares that have her running in her sleep and waking with a howl mean, and where the missing pieces of her own childhood memories lead.

"Her entire life she had been running from terrifying shadows she could no longer see—and in escape she ran straight into life. In the years since, she had discovered the sacrament of life did not demand memory. Like a leaf that drank from the morning dew, you didn't question the morning sunrise or the sweet taste on your mouth. You just drank."

She must also understand why she can never stay in one place, and why she doesn't allow people to get too close to her. And more than that, she faces a decision about her future, and how she feels about the one person who has been a consistent figure in her life for as long as she can remember.

I fell in love with The Child Finder from its very first lines. This is a quietly powerful and emotional story, one of tragedy and triumph, loss and hope, of the balance between uncovering the truth and letting memories be. The chapters are narrated alternatively by Naomi and a magical child, and the characters in this book will find their way into your mind and your heart.

Denfeld is an exceptional writer, and she knows how to draw you into a story and keep you hooked from start to finish. This is a must-read, and if you've never read The Enchanted, run, don't walk, to get that one as well. I will now wait impatiently for Denfeld's next book.