Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Book Review: "The Assistants" by Camille Perri

As a society, we love rooting for David over Goliath, for the underdog to get their day, for people we perceive to be unethical or just plain evil to get their comeuppance. But what if we knew the underdog wasn't entirely virtuous or correct—would we still root for them, because we think their foe is worse?

I always marvel when a writer can make readers root for, or sympathize with, characters who aren't entirely on the up-and-up. It's the hallmark of shows like Dexter or even The Sopranos, that you'd rather the bad people not get caught even if they deserve to. Despite the fact that this is her debut novel, Camille Perri demonstrates this skill very well in The Assistants.

"All important men have assistants. That's the first principle I want you to remember. Do important women also have assistants? Yes, of course. But men rule the world. Still. That's the second principle I want you to remember. Men still rule the world. Not because this is some feminist manifesto, but because it's a simple fact essential to how this all started."

Tina Fontana is 30 years old, and the assistant to Robert Barlow, a media mogul who is CEO of Titan Corporation. (Think a Texan, slightly-less-odious Rupert Murdoch.) Robert trusts Tina implicitly, and she's great at her job, solving problems, schmoozing those who want things from her boss he's not willing to give, making reservations, and corralling the staff. She knows she's smarter than her day-to-day tasks prove, and she certainly is worth more than her meager salary, but she feels integral. For an assistant.

One day, she stumbles on an accounting error related to one of Robert's expense reports, an error that presents her with a tidy sum of money. This money would be enough to pay off her student loans, and allow her to perhaps pay her phone bill and eat dinner at a restaurant. Given Titan's finances, this would be just a drop in the bucket. Would anyone even notice anyway?

Once her ethical lapse is discovered, Tina finds herself helping another assistant within the company eliminate her debt. But while she knows she was wrong, and she'd just like to put it all behind her, as more people get involved, Tina realizes her life is changing. Suddenly she's not the mild-mannered assistant who slices limes perfectly for Robert's cocktails. Suddenly she's at the forefront of a movement she unwittingly started, one attempting to bring equity where there never has been before. But it can't work, can it?

While obviously the plot of The Assistants is far-fetched (I'd imagine), it's a really enjoyable read. We know inherently Tina and her crew are committing crimes, and we know their good fortune can't last forever, but we want it to. Perri does a great job unfurling Tina's ethical and emotional dilemmas, but she's careful not to paint Robert as too much of an ogre either. This book definitely taps into some very relevant themes in today's world, including gender inequity and student loan debt.

This really was good fun, and a tremendously entertaining, quick read. If you're the type of person who roots for the "bad guys," you might enjoy this book. I definitely did.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Book Review: "They May Not Mean To, But They Do" by Cathleen Schine

The challenges, frustrations, and fears associated with aging parents and how to care for them (even when they're not interested in being cared for) are issues that many have dealt with or will struggle with in their lifetime. Is our way always the right way? Do we heed our parents' wishes even if we don't think they're in their best interests, or that they even understand their wishes? How can we balance our feelings with what they're feeling?

In Cathleen Schine's new novel, They May Not Mean To, But They Do, 84-year-old Joy Bergman loves her husband Aaron so much that she alone is caring for him as he deals with dementia and the aftereffects of bowel cancer. She still works full-time at a small museum in New York City, even though the new technology befuddles her, and she's exhausted more often than not. But she cannot fathom putting Aaron in a nursing home or assisted living facility (they're riddled with disease), hiring someone to help her care for him (too many strangers), or slowing down her own life (what would she do then?).

Joy's decisions concern and frustrate her two children, Molly and Daniel. While Molly lives in California with her wife, Daniel lives with his wife and children in New York, and both can't seem to understand why their mother won't make it easier on herself. They love their father and are saddened watching his decline, but they also want their mother to take care of herself, yet she refuses their help and advice at every turn, although she's not above throwing some Jewish guilt into the mix every now and again.

An unexpected health crisis for Joy, followed by Aaron's death, leaves her both more vulnerable and more resolute in her decision to "age in place." She isn't interested in making new friends, developing hobbies, moving out of their apartment into an assisted living facility, or discussing her finances with her children, despite their continued individual and collective pleas. And when Karl, a man she dated before she married Aaron, re-enters her life, she is both giddy with the possibility of not being alone, and frightened by what any step toward a relationship could mean. Needless to say, her children want her to have nothing to do with Karl—and aren't above throwing a little guilt of their own at their mother.

"The Bergmans against the world. There was no room for an outsider. The emptiness left by Aaron's death was not a space to be filled; it was a bond to be protected."

They May Not Mean To, But They Do explores the emotions, the roadblocks, and the fears that everyone deals with when parents get older and their physical and mental well-being becomes shakier. Schine does a good job not to take sides in the conflicts between Joy and her children, and explores how those on the sidelines—spouses, grandchildren, friends—have an even tighter road to navigate, supporting their loved ones but deciding where to voice their own opinions. While this is a moving topic, Schine tells her story with humor and imbues all of her characters with flaws, so no one appears to be the "winner" in this debate.

I thought the book was well-written but it never really reached the heights I expected it to. While I certainly understand all of the characters' emotions and actions, Joy, Molly, and Daniel are all fairly unappealing, and there were times I wanted to shake each of them because their passive-aggressive behavior, their denial, and their guilt was just too much. Some of the plot was a little too formulaic for me. But while this book didn't engage me as much as I hoped it would, I know others have loved it, so perhaps those closer (or further away) from the central themes of the book may enjoy it more. Schine's storytelling is always a joy to behold, however.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Book Review: "Last Seen Leaving" by Caleb Roehrig

Flynn returns home one night to find the police at his house. His mind races as to why they could be there—did they find the small amount of pot he had hidden in his desk? But he is utterly unprepared for what the police detectives tell him, that his girlfriend January is missing. The thing is, Flynn hasn't seen her in almost a week, and the last time he did see her, she broke up with him. And she's been ignoring his texts and calls since then.

January had been unhappy since her mother's new husband, a wealthy politician running for the Senate, moved her to a private school where she felt alienated from all of the other rich students. And although Flynn and January's relationship had its challenges, he cannot figure out why she would have disappeared or what could have happened to her, and their closest friends don't understand it either. But as Flynn digs a little deeper, he finds that the stories January was telling others don't match up with reality. He knows something must have happened to her, and he's determined to find out the truth.

But as Flynn tries to uncover the truth about January's disappearance, especially as disturbing evidence surfaces, there is another truth he must face as well—the truth about himself. That may be harder and potentially even more painful than figuring out what happened to January.

Last Seen Leaving is really two books in one. It's both a mystery, as Flynn and others try to figure out the truth behind January's disappearance, and it's also a book about self-acceptance, and finding the strength to embrace your true self. I think the book succeeds more on the latter than the former, and in fact, I think I might have enjoyed it a little more if that was all it focused on. Flynn was a really interesting character, and I liked his interactions with his peers, and his memories of his relationship with January.

It's not that the mystery part was bad; I just felt like it was a little formulaic, with stereotypical villains and the predictable (at least to me) red herrings to throw you off the real trail. Everything was wrapped up (somewhat) a little too seamlessly for me, and I kept remembering that Flynn was actually just a high school sophomore as he was acting like the brave detective all of a sudden.

While the book is a little uneven, at its heart it's an enjoyable and moving story, one which I can identify with very strongly in places. (The self-acceptance piece, not the disappearing girlfriend one.) Caleb Roehrig is a talented writer and I would have loved more time with Flynn, so I look forward to seeing what's next in Roehrig's career.

NetGalley, Macmillan Children's Publishing Group, and Feiwel & Friends provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

Friday, June 17, 2016

Book Review: "See How They Run" by Tom Bale

Wow, this book had so many twists and turns, it left me kind of breathless.

As parents of a newborn, Harry and Alice French are fairly sleep-deprived. It seems like whenever they're just about to drift off to sleep, their daughter Evie wakes up, needing to be fed, changed, and/or held. But one night all three do fall asleep...and then Harry and Alice awake to find masked men in their bedroom.

These aren't just your routine burglars looking for some easy-to-find cash, jewelry, or other valuables. These men have baggies around their shoes to avoid leaving any traces behind. They're convinced that Harry and Alice know the whereabouts of a man named Edward Renshaw, a man who goes by other names, such as Grainger or Miller. Not only do the intruders think the Frenches know this man, they think the couple received a package addressed to him, and they want it. They're willing to stop at nothing—including killing Evie—to get what they want.

But Harry and Alice know nothing of Renshaw. They didn't receive a package. After some very harrowing moments, the intruders believe their story and plan to leave the house, but not before warning Harry and Alice that they'll be watching their every move, and if they call the police or tell anyone what happened or that they're looking for Renshaw, the threat is plain—they will kill Evie.

Although relieved the intruders left them reasonably unharmed (at least physically), this incident throws their world into turmoil. Determined to protect their daughter at any cost, both Harry and Alice try to do their own share of detective work to figure out why the intruders thought they knew Renshaw. Each does what they think is right, but the secrets they keep from each other, and the paths they choose to follow put the three of them in even more danger. Figuring out whom to trust becomes harder and harder, and once they are separated, the trouble and the danger grow.

"It got him thinking about timing, and chance, and how the significance of those small, often innocuous decisions never became clear until you looked back and saw how your life had been nudged, irrevocably, in one direction or another, for better or worse."

This was a pretty gripping thriller which read like a movie. There was lots of action and suspense—there were a number of times I had no idea what to expect, and that doesn't happen all that often for me. I liked the way that Tom Bale kept contorting the plot, allowing information to unfold little by little, so we knew the same amount as the characters (for the most part). While there were times I thought the characters were simply stupid for getting themselves into more and more trouble, I guess I could understand how fear could drive them to such actions.

This isn't a perfect book—I didn't feel that we got to know any of the characters enough, and many of the villains are just shadowy characters. But there is so much suspense and excitement in the book it doesn't quite matter. I definitely want to read Bale's next book, which comes out in September. This will be a fun beach read that will probably make you check and double-check your door locks before you go to bed!!

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Book Review: "The Invoice" by Jonas Karlsson

How much would you pay for happiness, for special memories, for a reasonably pleasant life? Is a placid existence worth more than a turbulent, more passionate one?

In Jonas Karlsson's new book, The Invoice, the unnamed main character lives a simple life. He's a film buff, working part-time in a video store in Sweden, where he likes to talk to people about movies, although he rarely gets the chance. He has a few friends whom he sees periodically, but since a relationship ended some time ago, he has no one special in his life. Mostly his nights include re-watching his favorite movies, and enjoying pizza and/or ice cream. It's not an exciting life, but even though he doesn't have much money or promising career prospects, he's not unhappy.

One day he receives an invoice from an unknown national company. The invoice is for an amount of money he cannot even fathom, and it doesn't explain why he suddenly owes this money. He soon finds that he's turned a blind eye to something that's happening in Sweden—people are literally being billed for the expense of their lives, differing amounts based on events that have occurred throughout their lives, how happy they have been, etc. But what he cannot understand is how can someone with not much to show for himself owe the largest amount of money in the country?

This is a charming little fable of sorts, which raises some interesting issues about happiness and how people perceive our lives differently than we do. Are happy moments better than those which cause us to feel strong emotions? Should we really be financially responsible for how our lives turn out emotionally?

I thought this was a sweet book, but it never really engendered a great deal of excitement for me. (Which, perhaps in light of this book isn't a bad thing?) I kept expecting something big to happen, and although there were some lovely small moments, it just didn't wow me as much as I thought. But the main character is appealing in a sweet, befuddled way, and I thought parts of the book really were charming. An interesting idea to think about.

NetGalley, Crown Publishing, and Blogging for Books provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Book Review: "The Young Widower's Handbook" by Tom McAllister

"You don't fall in love, like some people do, with the idea of being in love, but rather with her, specifically, and only her. Throughout high school and college, you were an extra in the movies of other people's lives, never better than the fourth most charismatic person in any group; your role was to be the designated driver and to occasionally deliver a sarcastic one-liner that your friends could later repeat and claim as their own. And yet when you speak, she listens."

Hunter Cady was utterly, completely in love with his wife, Kait. Sure, they had their disagreements, times when each wanted something different from their relationship and each other. Kait was occasionally frustrated at Hunter's lack of motivation career-wise, and his ability to see anything through to completion. Hunter wished Kait was more forthcoming about her past, and didn't understand why she got so anxious sometimes, and so depressed on other occasions. He was always there for her; why wasn't that enough?

But Hunter is totally unprepared when Kait dies suddenly one night. How could she die, when it seemed like just another day? How could he be a widower at age 29? What about all of the plans they had, the promises that one day they'd save enough money to travel to all of the places they had dreamed of? They were supposed to grow old together.

"...you fall in love with something intangible, the hollowness like devastating hunger when she's gone, the sense of safety she engenders, as if her presence alone will protect you from the terrors of the real world."

Hunter becomes completely despondent. His hippie mother tries to help, his corporate-minded father tries to snap him back to reality, and Kait's family, who never really liked him anyway, tries to bully him into giving them Kait's ashes. He doesn't know what to do, but he knows that his life won't be the same, and he can't go on pretending it is. He sets off on a cross-country journey with Kait's ashes, to try and better understand the woman to whom he was married, and what shape his life is going to take now that she's gone.

Along the way, he has some strange encounters with Renaissance Faire employees, bachelorette party celebrants, a long-married couple with a parrot named Elvis, and an older man still longing for his wife, who disappeared a number of years ago. And as he chronicles his journey, and deals with the reactions of those back home, Hunter reflects on his and Kait's relationship, and how while she made him believe he could be a better man than he ever was, he gave her comfort and security and love, even without the grand romantic gestures and the big trips she might have wanted.

As you'd imagine from the title, this book is a bittersweet, moving portrait of a man struggling to cope with an unfathomable loss and seeking the strength to move on. It's also funny, sarcastic, and reflective, as Hunter realizes all the factors that go into a successful relationship. There are parts of the book that are sad, yes, but this is not the sob-fest I expected it to be, which made me happy.

I really enjoyed this book, and was absolutely wowed at times by Tom McAllister's storytelling ability. I thought Hunter's road trip went on a bit too long, and I couldn't honestly believe the behavior of Kait's family, but I can't get this book out of my mind, and I can't stop wondering what happened to Hunter next. Really lovely book.

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

Friday, June 10, 2016

Book Review: "The Serpent King" by Jeff Zentner

Life is pretty tough for Dill Early. It wasn't always easy growing up as the son of a controversial Pentecostal minister who, along with members of his congregation, handled rattlesnakes and drank poison. But when his father runs afoul of the law and winds up in prison, life gets even harder for Dill. He must deal with the constant bullying of his high school classmates and the suspicion and cruel treatment of former church members and others in his small town of Forrestville, Tennessee.

The future looks bleak for Dill—he cannot even begin to consider college because he has to help his mother survive financially, given the mountain of debt they live with since his father's legal troubles occurred. But fortunately, his two best friends, Lydia and Travis—outcasts in their own right—are there to attempt to cheer him up and support him. Lydia, the creator of a fashion and culture blog, can't wait to get out of Forrestville and start a new life, hopefully as a student at NYU. Travis would rather spend time reading and re-reading his favorite series of fantasy books then focus on his own problems, which he has largely kept a secret from his friends.

As the end of their senior year in high school draws closer and closer, and Lydia gets more excited about leaving their town behind her, Dill gets more and more upset. He feels as if she'll be happy not only to get out of town, but to get rid of him and Travis, and that hurts him more and more, especially as Dill comes to realize just how strong his feelings are for her. Lydia tries to encourage Dill to think beyond the limits he and his mother have put on his future, tries to make him believe that college is an option. But Dill views her attempts to help as wanting to change him. And as events in their lives go from bad to worse, he's afraid to make himself even more vulnerable, and he doesn't want to jeopardize their relationship.

"Because we should do things we're afraid of. It makes it easier every time we do it."

The Serpent King is a beautiful and moving book, at times bleak and at times hopeful. It absolutely captured my heart and my mind. I loved these characters and their interactions with each other. These characters may be somewhat wise beyond their years but they act like real teenagers—you don't marvel at their dialogue at the same time you wonder whether teenagers really talk this way. I was utterly invested in this story from the very first page, and as much as I wanted to read the whole thing so quickly, I was really sad that it was over when I was finished.

This is a book about how we can't let our lives be dictated by our families or our heritage, and we can't let those around us limit our potential. But more than anything, this is a book about friendship and how it frees and changes us, and how we must find the courage to act on our desires and wishes before it's too late.

"And if you're going to live, you might as well do painful, brave, and beautiful things."

Jeff Zentner is such an assured writer; it's amazing to think this is his debut novel. I really loved this, and once again, I marvel at the amazing talent being demonstrated in the YA genre these days, although this isn't a book just for young adults by any means.