Saturday, November 28, 2015

Book Review: "Dream House" by Catherine Armsden

"She pondered how shared feelings could pull people closer, or, left unaddressed, like a misplaced or forgotten line in a drawing, could change the course of lives. There were no blueprints for a human life, no architect to pore over details that would ensure a sound and enduring structure."

In Catherine Armsden's beautiful, moving Dream House, Gina Gilbert is a San Francisco architect whose life is in the midst of significant turmoil. Her parents died suddenly in a freak car accident, and she and her older sister Cassie must pack up their childhood home in Maine so it can be sold by their parents' landlord. The house was the epicenter of some of Gina's most cherished moments, as well as many tumultuous ones, as she and Cassie navigated their parents' stormy relationship, their mother's emotional outbursts, and the tension that existed between their mother and her sister, who lived in the family's legacy, a house once owned by Sidney Banton, secretary to George Washington.

At the same time, Gina is growing increasingly anxious over the well-being of her own children, not realizing that her over-protectiveness and emotional instability mirrors her mother's when she was growing up. And it's been nearly two years since she and her husband bought property in Marin, but despite her ability to design houses and serve her clients' requests, she seems to have "architect's block" when it comes to designing her own house, a fact that is putting a strain on her marriage.

Gina returns to Maine to try and figure out where her head is, and spend some time with her childhood home. As she approaches the house like an architect would, studying the form and structure of each room, she also unearths memories, both good and bad, and reframes her parents' tumultuous relationship. She also tries to understand her mother and what made her act the way she did, and begins remembering the family issues she had repressed or forgotten, in the hopes she might be able to come to terms with her own issues.

Many books have been written about the reflection and soul-searching that comes after the death of one's parents, and the return to our childhood home. While some of the issues that Armsden explores in Dream House aren't new, her tremendous storytelling ability and use of language elevates this over other similar stories. But what sets this book apart is the way it juxtaposes emotion with architecture, and how both come together to tell the story of a family.

"Perhaps in this world there were no owners or renters, only borrowers choosing a bit of ground to call home during their short stay on earth. We must choose carefully, Gina thought; when we set our walls down to enclose something ordinary or extraordinary, we must be passionate about what we capture, inside and out."

This book really struck me in so many ways, and so many times I found myself in awe of Armsden's writing. I'll admit that Gina's character and her indecision irked me from time to time, but I understood where she was coming from, and just found the whole story tremendously moving. A great find.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Book Review: "Try Not to Breathe" by Holly Seddon

Full disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review. Many thanks to NetGalley and Random House/Ballantine for making it available!

Here's a question: does anyone else, when they read mysteries, find themselves suspecting everyone, and whenever a new character is introduced you try to determine whether that person is the culprit? I don't believe I'm alone in that behavior, but it's difficult to disengage the "detective" part of my brain!

Holly Seddon's tense debut novel, Try Not to Breathe definitely had me entertaining lots of possibilities in my mind. When Amy Stevenson was 15 years old, she disappeared from home. While the police tried to tell her parents she ran away, they knew that wasn't something Amy would do. And when she was found shortly thereafter, her body severely beaten, no one could figure out what happened and who assaulted her—and Amy, who was in a persistent vegetative state, couldn't tell.

Fifteen years later, Alex Dale, a reporter whose career and personal life had both seen better days, was researching a story on advances being made by a local neurologist, who boasted of some success "communicating" with some patients in a persistent vegetative state. When Alex comes upon Amy in the hospital, she remembers the case that captivated the area for some time, and the turmoil it brought to many whose lives were turned upside down.

Alex is determined to stand up for Amy, to try and find out the truth once and for all. Solving a cold case is never easy, but Alex has an extra burden as she is a barely functioning alcoholic whose life, career, and health have been destroyed by her addiction. But the more Alex digs into the case, interviewing those who were closest to Amy, she knows that there are answers amid the mystery, and it is up to her to try and bring some closure for Amy's sake, while Amy remains conscious but mostly unaware of where she is and what has transpired in her life since the assault. Mostly being the operative word...

I thought this was a really interesting concept for a book, and enjoyed the way Seddon teased out the story despite my best efforts to figure it all out before she was ready to divulge details. Alex's character in particular was really fascinating, and I felt Seddon did a terrific job giving voice to Alex's alcoholic existence and her continued decline despite the regrets she carried with her. While not all of the characters were as fleshed out as I would have liked, Alex drives the story, and she is so appealing (while being so flawed) that I really was invested in her quest. The tension level rises and rises as the plot moves forward, and for the most part, I really liked the direction Seddon took the story in.

For a debut novel, this is a pretty self-assured book. So many mysteries fail as they try too hard; Try Not to Breathe will captivate fans of the genre.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Book Review: "A Wild Swan and Other Tales" by Michael Cunningham

The idea of putting twists on the fairy tales we know and love isn't a new one. Many books have given these familiar tales a modern spin, a more macabre tone, even made them more politically correct, as the originals were decidedly not!

In A Wild Swan and Other Tales, Michael Cunningham, one of my favorite authors, tries to humanize the tales a bit, modernizing them, and imbuing many with more emotion and character development than the originals offered. He looks at some familiar tales—Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel, Rumpelstiltskin—and others I wasn't familiar with. All in all, it's an interesting exercise, one which I think had mixed results.

As I've said many a time before, if a story hits me emotionally without making me feel manipulated, it definitely resonates. The stories I liked best in this collection either moved or amused me, sometimes both. My favorites included "Jacked," in which Jack (of beanstalk fame) is a lazy man-child whose encounters with the giant provokes intriguing feelings in the giant's wife; "Little Man," an amusing and moving take on Rumpelstiltskin; "Beasts," an interesting twist on Beauty and the Beast; "Steadfast; Tin," a story about a couple which reminded me more of "How I Met Your Mother" than any fairy tale; and my favorite, "Ever/After," a moving look at the idea of happily ever after.

I love the way Michael Cunningham tells a story, and I've always found that characterization is among his many strengths, so those stories in which the characters were front and center worked best. A few of the stories were odd, and one was told in such a way that I wasn't exactly sure who was narrating it or what was happening.

Overall, this was an intriguing and worthwhile read. If you like fairy tales, give this a try—it's not quite the tales you know, but they'll definitely get you thinking.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Book Review: "Juventud" by Vanessa Blakeslee

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an unbiased review. Many thanks to Curbside Splendor Publishing for making it available!

The epigraph of Vanessa Blakeslee's emotional debut novel includes a quote from the great Gabriel Garcia Marquez which I feel so accurately sums this book up: "What matters in life is not what happens to you but what you remember and how you remember it."

Growing up the daughter of a wealthy landowner in Colombia, Mercedes Martinez lives a life of privilege—a driver takes her where she needs to go, maids take care of her every whim, and she never wants for anything. Yet her life isn't perfect—her mother left when she was very young and never tried to get in touch, and what Mercedes really hopes for is true love.

When she meets Manuel, a passionate young activist who is firmly rooted in his faith and the need for radical changes in their country, she is instantly smitten. Manuel and his brother Emilio open her eyes to the plight of the poor in Colombia, and how she cannot simply accept her father's worldview on what is happening around her.

It's not long before Manuel and Emilio cause Mercedes to re-evaluate all that her father has told her about his life before she was born, and why her mother left Colombia and never tried contacting them. She begins to suspect that her father is far more dangerous than she could ever have imagined, and wonders exactly why he is trying to keep her and Manuel apart, instead forcing her to go to boarding school in America.

An act of violence one night changes everything, and she realizes her only option is to flee to America and leave her old life behind her. But as she grows older, her life is always shadowed by her suspicions and the events of her teenage years. Fifteen years later, she returns to Colombia to try and find answers, but is absolute truth ever possible, or just more questions?

I'll admit I know very little about Colombian history and the violence which occurred in that country, so I found Juventud both enlightening and disturbing. Blakeslee really captured Mercedes' voice so well, and I felt she gave the character complexity so she was so much more than a pampered teenager who suddenly found a conscience. I also found that she had a deft hand when it came to evoking the dichotomy of Colombia's beauty and the extreme poverty and violence affecting the country.

At times the plot moved a little slower than I would have liked, and yet I felt it rushed a bit when Mercedes went to America. I felt as if some of the other characters were a little less fleshed out, but this is Mercedes' story. At its heart, Juventud is a moving story about love and loss, and how our lives are shaped not only by what we see and what we do, but also by the things we don't say, the questions we don't ask.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Book Review: "Hidden Bodies" by Caroline Kepnes

Full disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review. Many thanks to NetGalley and Atria Books for making it available!

Holy crap, this was one roller coaster ride of a book!

Last year, Caroline Kepnes' You pretty much hooked me completely, as it introduced New York City bookseller Joe Goldberg and his love/obsession with Guinevere Beck. That book was also a pretty wild ride, and a testament to Kepnes' writing talent as she made you care about a character whose actions weren't quite admirable. (To say the least...)

In Hidden Bodies, Kepnes brings Joe back, and kicks up the story a few more notches. After his relationship with Beck ended, Joe figured he was destined for a life alone. And then beautiful, quirky, mysterious Amy Adam comes into his bookstore and intrigues him pretty much immediately. They're on the same wavelength intellectually, the sex is mind-blowing, and her refusal to embrace any form of social media—where Beck's life was an open book—enamors her to him even more. But just as he's ready to propose, and completely leave Beck behind, Amy disappears, leaving Joe hurt, angry, and betrayed.

The clues Amy left in her wake leave Joe with only one option, no matter how odious it may seem to him—he decides to move to LA to find her. It's not long before Joe finds himself face-to-face with all of the quintessentially LA stereotypes he had only heard about—from the bookstore manager/aspiring actor/aspiring screenwriter to the aging comedian, the gossip columnist who just wants to be loved to the narcissistic talk show host. But try as he might, Joe cannot find Amy, and his obsession about finding her grows ever stronger.

But then Joe finds Love. Literally. Love Quinn, the do-gooder heiress to a grocery store fortune, steals Joe's heart and introduces him to a world of privilege and, well, love, that he never dreamed of. Joe knows that Love is his destiny, and if there are some bumps along the road to eternal happiness, well, a guy's gotta do what a guy's gotta do to ensure he gets the life and the love he deserves, right? No matter what.

Even more in this book than in her first, Kepnes so fully occupies Joe's character in every way—intellectually, emotionally, sexually—that I had to keep reminding myself that this book was written by a woman. Even when the plot gets a little bit unreal from time to time, there is not a false note in Joe's character, and once again, I found myself rooting for him at the same time I was disgusted by him. I really had no idea how Kepnes would tie up the plot, and that doesn't happen for me with many books.

Is this a realistic book? I hope not. But it's utterly entertaining, and I was completely hooked from start to finish. I just let it devour me as I devoured it, caught between wanting to finish it quickly to end my suspense and wanting to savor it. This isn't a book for everyone, but if you like books about seriously flawed but fascinating characters with a penchant for sex, violence, and foul language, pick up these books. (And while you don't have to, I'd recommend starting with You, the first book in Joe's story.)

Friday, November 13, 2015

Book Review: "Dear Mr. You" by Mary-Louise Parker

Full disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review. Many thanks to NetGalley and Scribner for making it available!

I'm sure I'm not the only one who has wondered just how much actors are like the characters they portray. Yes, I know that they're acting, but sometimes you wonder if particular roles hew a little closer to a particular actor's personality.

I've been a fan of Mary-Louise Parker's since I saw her in Prelude to a Kiss on Broadway in 1990. I was tremendously intrigued by her intelligence, the power she exuded onstage, and the indescribable quirkiness she brought to her role. And no matter what roles I've seen her play, all three of those qualities come through, and she seems as if she'd be a fascinating and fun person to get to know.

In her new book, Dear Mr. You, Parker gives more credence to that assumption as she gives glimpses into her life through letters to various men with whom she interacted—family members, lovers, mentors, teachers, and people with whom she had random encounters. These letters are at times poignant and filled with emotion, at other times raunchy, sexy, romantic, and/or nostalgic; and at other times they share regrets, hopes, and wishes.

Many times, the intended recipients of these letters aren't identified by anything other than enigmatic titles—"Dear Risk Taker," "Dear Popeye," "Dear Big Feet," "Dear Young Leman"—that only those closest to Parker would know their real identities, but other letters are written to family members or people with whom she came into fleeting contact, such as "Dear Firefighter," "Dear Mr. Cabdriver," and "Dear Mr. Orderly."

Some of these letters were absolutely moving, such as those she wrote to the grandfather she never met, her father, close friends and mentors, and those who left an indelible impression on her life in a moment—in particular, the letters she wrote to a random firefighter she passed on the street just after the 9/11 attacks and to the oyster picker she imagined was responsible for providing the oysters her dying father so enjoyed. Parker's use of language and imagery was so beautiful at times. Here's one example:
"It was short but I loved our little trip. We fell in love, but the way you love a view that comes along once or twice in life. You don't want to leave it because it feels like, yes of course, this is the perfect spot. Those moments always come with a little shock and I love that sensation, when you think, this is too good, I'll catch up with everyone else later. You just have to take in the truth of that expanse a few more seconds before it changes and becomes something else entirely, or before you do."
At times, however, the letters were a little too cryptic, a little too precious, a little too jumbled for me to follow. It was difficult trying to gain emotional traction with some of the letters without really understanding to whom she was writing, or of what she was referring. And of course, I'm only human—I wanted to know which letter was about Billy Crudup!

All in all, this is beautifully written and fascinating book, conveying complex emotions and giving just a little more insight into a talented actress and tremendously interesting woman.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Book Review: "An Infinite Number of Parallel Universes" by Randy Ribay

The state of so-called "young adult" fiction these days is so diverse and the incredible array of talented writers in this genre is really dazzling. As I've remarked many times, they certainly didn't have these kinds of books when I was growing up!

The one thing about YA fiction that sometimes puts a slight damper on my enjoyment is the precocious nature of the dialogue in many books. So many YA characters are wise beyond their years, sarcastic and proud of it, and ready with an insightful, sensitive, and/or cutting remark in a split second. And while this dialogue can make you gasp, and reach for a highlighter (or press the highlight key on your e-reader), sometimes it's all just too clever to be true, you know?

One of the reasons that I really enjoyed Randy Ribay's An Infinite Number of Parallel Universes, other than it just felt, well, sweet (and not in a bad way), was that the dialogue felt much more realistic than many other books in this genre. Not all of the characters are fully evolved emotionally or intellectually, and Ribay allows them to be flawed, to hurt each other intentionally and unintentionally, and if they're sensitive, it's because it works for that particular character.

Mari, Dante, Archie, and Sam are long-time friends who have been playing Dungeons & Dragons together for years. As they get ready for their senior year in high school, everyone's lives are in the midst of major turmoil, but none have really shared their problems with each other. Archie is struggling with the effects his parents' divorce is going to have on his life and his friendships, Mari is trying to decide whether to contact her biological mother, Dante wants to come out to his friends but faces ignorance from his family, and Sam's relationship with his girlfriend is on the skids.

At first, the book follows several days through each of the characters' eyes (so you see how two people view the same incident in a completely different way). And then, in an effort to help Sam (not to mention avoid their own problems), the four embark on a cross-country road trip, and find themselves in the midst of utter chaos, self-discovery, and the kind of adventure you can only experience when you're young and your whole life is ahead of you.

While the plot is familiar, and you may even have seen some specific incidents before (or you can see them coming), this is a tremendously engaging and charming book. Not all of the characters are likable, but you still root for them, and that is in large part to the love Ribay has for them, which comes across in his storytelling. This is a sweet book that may take you back to your high school days, but hopefully with none of the angst you might have experienced back then!