Sunday, December 9, 2018

Book Review: "Too Much is Not Enough: A Memoir of Fumbling Toward Adulthood" by Andrew Rannells

I've always thought that Andrew Rannells was my spirit animal.

Seriously, when I first saw him perform in his Tony Award-nominated role in The Book of Mormon, I thought to myself, if I were younger, thinner, and more talented, I could totally be him. But since I'm none of those things, I've become a big fan, having seen him in both Book and Falsettos on Broadway, and watched him on television in both Girls and The New Normal. (He's also a really fun guest on the late night talk show circuit.)

Needless to say, when I was offered the chance to read an advance copy of his memoir, Too Much is Not Enough (the title comes from a lyric from the song "Fame"), I jumped at it. While I was expecting a humorous, heartfelt chronicle of how Rannells made it to Broadway and what it's like to be famous, this book was much more than the former, and didn't really touch on the latter.

This book isn't your typical celebrity memoir of brags and name-dropping. It's actually a more universal story about pursuing your dreams even when everything is telling you that you might want to reconsider. It's also a story about coming to terms with who you are and the need for self-acceptance, or at least getting to the point where you don't give a s--t about what people think. And at the same time, it's the story about navigating the challenges of familial relationships, and how to cope when your family is far away.

Of course, much of this book is Rannells' story about moving from Omaha to New York City in 1997 and enrolling in the theater program at Marymount Manhattan College, and how everything didn't quite turn out the way he thought it would. School wasn't the magical, inspirational classes he saw in Fame, he was living in squalor, and Broadway casting directors weren't quite welcoming him with open arms. (How was he even supposed to find them?)

You also get the story of his childhood, how he became interested in theater and his desire to be a star grew, his relationships with his family, and the always rocky road of coming to terms with his sexuality, and the dysfunctions which accompany finding your way out of the closet and into your first sexual encounters and romantic relationships. (Often the two are not mutually exclusive.)

Rannells tells his story in a witty, often-sarcastic, conversational style which I'm sure belies the anxiety, despair, and depression he felt as things were occurring. There are moments when Rannells recounted incidents which left him emotionally vulnerable, and I'll admit I choked up a time or two. He also sprinkles in a liberal dash of pop culture references which I absolutely loved, and at times he literally made me laugh out loud.

Discussing his fondness for certain color sashes with his altar boy outfit, he said, "Red was my favorite; that was for feast days of martyrs. I think it appealed to me on two levels: I've always loved a martyr story...and I love a classic pop of color. I was dramatic and stylish even as a fourth grader."

Other than being familiar with some of his work, I didn't know much about Rannells, so I really enjoyed learning about his early life. The book ends with his first big break on Broadway, five years before The Book of Mormon, so I found his story really relatable, more about dreams, disappointments, family, friendships, and the search for love and self-acceptance—not to mention wardrobe struggles, figuring out how to call out sick from your job when you have multiple auditions, and trying not to collapse from hunger when you have no money.

I devoured this book in a day. It was so terrific to read a celebrity memoir that was funny, self-deprecating (without trying too hard), and quite enjoyable, one that leaves you feeling like a bigger fan than you might have been when you started. I'll definitely appreciate his performances even more in the future, because I know how hard he worked to get where he is.

Crown Archetype provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

Friday, December 7, 2018

Book Review: "Once Upon a River" by Diane Setterfield

It was a dark and stormy night...

Well, not exactly. But it is a dark night in 1887, the solstice night, the longest night of the year.

"As is well-known, when the moon hours lengthen, human beings come adrift from the regularity of their mechanical clocks. They nod at noon, dream in waking hours, open their eyes wide to the pitch-black night. It is a time of magic. And as the borders between night and day stretch to their thinnest, so too do the borders between worlds. Dreams and stories merge with lived experience, the dead and the living brush against each other in their comings and goings, and the past and the present touch and overlap. Unexpected things can happen."

A crowd has gathered at The Swan, an ancient inn on the Thames River. The crowd is prone to storytelling, and no one tells a story like Joe Bliss, the husband of the Swan's landlady. But that night a story all its own takes shape—a wounded man comes staggering in and collapses, caught by some of the men at the inn. He appears to be carrying a doll or puppet of some sort, but the crowd is once again shocked when they discover it's not a puppet, but the lifeless body of a small child.

"Her skin shimmered like water. The folds of her cotton frock were plastered to the smooth lines of the limbs, and her head tilted on her neck at an angle no puppeteer could achieve. She was a little girl, and they had not seen it, not one of them, though it was obvious."

When Rita Sunday, the town's most reliable medical personnel, arrives, she takes care of the unconscious man and mends his wounds, and then examines the little girl. No one is sure what the little girl's connection is to the man, but a pall falls over the crowd at her untimely and tragic death. And then, a few hours later, she starts breathing again. No one, not even Rita, who searches for a scientific answer, understands how this could have happened.

Who is this little girl? To whom does she belong? Where is she from? How is she connected to the wounded man? No one can find out any answers, especially because the little girl is mute and cannot provide any information. But of course, that doesn't stop those from near and far from inventing stories that explain her situation. And while fictions grow and become more elaborate, there are three families who believe the little girl belongs to them, and each has a complicated story about how they know this to be so, stories as twisted as the Thames itself.

First and foremost, Once Upon a River is a tribute to the art of storytelling. It is beautifully told, and Diane Setterfield weaves together folklore, magic, myth, and good old tall tales as she unfolds this mystery. But beyond the questions that arise about the little girl, this book tells other stories as well, revealing long-held family secrets, regrets, recriminations, and suspicions.

This is a dense book with a lot of characters. It took me a little while to get everyone straight in my head, because there are a few narratives unfolding at once. While I usually read really fast, the pacing of this book was a little slower, so I couldn't rush through it, and while I felt like it plodded a little bit from time to time, in the end, the pacing worked. If you rush through the story, you'll miss some of the richness of the plot.

Setterfield knows how to set a mood, how to create fascinating characters, and how to tease out just enough suspense to keep you always wanting more. Once Upon a River is a special story, and I could totally see it as a television movie or miniseries, because so often the book came to life in my mind's eye.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Book Review: "P.S. I Still Love You" by Jenny Han

This series is so sweet and enjoyable, it definitely makes me smile. Such a nice change of pace to read a book like this every now and again!

"'Lara Jean, I think you half-fall in love with every person you meet. It's part of your charm. You're in love with love.'"

Lara Jean and Peter were just pretending to have a relationship. Somewhere along the way, she got a little forgetful about what was real and what was make-believe. But Peter was just going along with it, right? He couldn't possibly like her the way that she likes him, could he?

When they decide to start dating, Lara Jean is excited and nervous, at the same time. She loves the way being with Peter makes her feel, but she's afraid he'll hurt her or expect too much from her, so they make a contract which includes a promise not to break each other's heart. Of course, she's still not happy about his relationship with Genevieve, his ex-girlfriend and Lara Jean's former best friend, but she's trying not to dwell on it too much. She should trust Peter when he says there's nothing going on beyond helping a friend through tough times, even if she feels like sometimes he'd drop everything for Gen, but not for her.

When a video of Lara Jean and Peter is made public, she is horrified by the things people assume about her. She is touched by how much Peter is bothered by it, but he insists Gen had nothing to do with it, even though Lara Jean knows it was her. Even more than the embarrassment factor, Lara Jean is irritated by the double standard that exists between girls and boys.

"Boys will be boys, but girls are supposed to be careful: of our bodies, of our futures, of all the ways people judge us."

Unexpectedly, another boy from Lara Jean's past reappears, awakening feelings from when they were younger, and confusing her. Is it possible to be in love with more than one person at the same time, even if you're not acting on those feelings? How do you know whether the way you feel about a person is based on nostalgia or real life?

Two guys vying for her attention, worrying that her widowed dad needs to start dating, dealing with betrayal and uncertainty in her relationship with Peter—it's a lot for anyone to deal with, let alone someone with as much sensitivity and heart as Lara Jean. But she's determined to make the most of her life, even if not everyone will be happy with the decisions she makes.

I really enjoyed To All the Boys I've Loved Before, the first book in the series (see my review), and I felt the same way about this second book. It was great to return to Lara Jean's world and all of the characters I enjoyed in the first book, and that same charm and heart was here as well.

I haven't watched the television series based on these books, but I've heard it's good, too. Jenny Han created such a great cast of characters, characters I root for (and against, depending on the person). P.S. I Still Love You, like its predecessor, hooked me from the very first page. Of course, I want to dive right into the third and final book, but I'm going to wait a bit, because then I'll have nothing to look forward to in regard to this series! (Such a hardship, reading is.)

Is it predictable? Sure. Does it matter? Not in the slightest. For a fun, sweet, enjoyable, romantic diversion, dive in to this series.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Book Review: "Where the Crawdads Sing" by Delia Owens

It seemed like everyone had read this one already and couldn't stop raving about it. For some reason, despite all the hype, I just wasn't sure about this one—I thought it was going to be like the Jodie Foster movie Nell, about a feral girl alone in the woods who speaks her own language and somehow gets all tangled up in the real world.

While there is a little bit of the girl-against-the-world thing, I needn't have worried. This book is heartfelt, warm, and endearing, and utterly deserving of the praise and love being heaped on it. It is definitely a story that will live in my mind for a long time.

In the 1950s, Kya is a young girl growing up in a ramshackle cottage in the marshes off the North Carolina coast. She is the youngest of five children, the daughter of a wounded WWII veteran prone to drinking and violence perpetrated on his wife and children. One day when Kya was six years old, her mother left, followed by each one of her siblings. Left to fend for herself, she learns early that she is the only one she can count on, and turns to the gulls and other marsh creatures for companionship, until she befriends a couple who runs the gas and tackle shop where she refuels her boat.

"Her most poignant memories were unknown dates of family members disappearing down the lane. The last of a white scarf trailing through the leaves. A pile of socks left on a floor mattress."

As Kya grows older, rumors swirl in town about the "Marsh Girl," and it becomes a show of bravery to run through the marsh, tag her house, and run freely home. But Kya is so much more than the little girl once ridiculed on her one day of school. She is sensitive, inquisitive, intelligent, and passionate about the marsh and the creatures that inhabit it. When she meets a young man willing to open more of that world up to her, she can't get enough, although it leads to the vulnerability of opening her heart as well.

"'It ain't just that. I wadn't aware that words could hold so much. I didn't know a sentence could be so full."

When Kya finds someone that she believes loves her for who she is, she is fearful about leaving the marsh but willing to do so for love. Yet once again, she learns she is the only one she can truly depend on. And in 1969, when Chase Andrews, once the town's football hero and the son of a prominent business owner, is found dead, the townspeople suspect Kya, as they have never believed her more than "marsh trash" even though she has proven herself capable of so much more.

"For years I longed to be with people. I really believed that someone would stay with me, that I would actually have friends and a family. Be part of a group. But no one stayed. Not you or one member of my family. Now I've finally learned how to deal with that and how to protect myself."

Where the Crawdads Sing is a love letter to nature, but it is also a beautiful story about what you can accomplish when people believe in you and instill you with that confidence. At the same time, it's a story which causes us to examine our prejudices against those who are different from us, how readily we want to believe the worst about people we don't even know. It's also a story about the beauty of human relationships, and how much they give us, even through the simplest of interactions.

Delia Owens has created an amazing, thought-provoking book. Her use of imagery is so lyrical, almost poetic, that you can see the marsh, the gulls, the feathers, in your mind's eye. As great as that is, her characters are incredibly special. Even the characters who seem the least complex have surprising moments, but characters like Tate, Jumpin', Jodie, and of course, Kya, are simply amazing.

There is a simple beauty to this book and so much heart. Read this and you, too, will be thinking about these characters for a long time afterward.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Book Review: "The Lost Girls of Paris" by Pam Jenoff

C'est magnifique!!

In 1946, shortly after World War II ended, Grace Healey is living in New York, fleeing for an anonymous life in the city after the tragic death of her husband. One morning on her way to work she takes a detour through Grand Central Station, where she trips over a suitcase hidden beneath a bench.

She can't resist opening the suitcase, and when she finds a group of photographs, each of a different woman, she can't seem to explain why she has this powerful need to keep them.

Grace soon finds out that the suitcase belonged to Eleanor Trigg, a British woman who ran operations for a group of female spies during the war. These women were deployed throughout Europe, given missions as radio operators, couriers, and other necessary positions to help defeat the Nazis. Twelve of these women—the women in the photographs Grace found—never returned home. This motivates Grace to try and figure out what happened to them, and what Eleanor Trigg was looking for in New York City.

Grace's quest to uncover the truth is juxtaposed with the story of two other women. We follow Eleanor as she is tapped to create this program that brought women into the war as special agents, then tries to understand what is going wrong as her agents are being captured and messages are being compromised, and then, after the war, she, too, wants to understand what happened to the women under her supervision. The book also follows Marie Roux, one of Eleanor's special agents, a young mother who wasn't really sure she was cut out for this type of mission, yet found her bravery and strength just when she needed it most.

The Lost Girls of Paris is inspired by true events. It really does a great job putting a human face on those courageous people, particularly young women, who risked everything to help defeat those seeking to destroy the world.

I am not one who typically reads historical fiction—in fact, I think I've read one other work of historical fiction this year. But when I was offered a chance to read a pre-publication copy of The Lost Girls of Paris, something about the book intrigued me. I thought it was an excellent book, full of rich characters, suspense, emotion, and historical details, all of which made it a tremendously fast read. (I read the entire book in one miserably rainy day.)

I'm new to Pam Jenoff's books, but I was really impressed with her storytelling ability and the evocative imagery she used. I felt the different conditions Marie found herself in, I heard the noises of the city as Grace encountered the suitcase at Grand Central Station. The book took a little bit to build up momentum, but it really hooked me, as I hoped I'd get answers to all of the questions the characters raised.

If you're not a fan of historical fiction, don't be dissuaded from reading The Lost Girls of Paris. It's an excellent novel, a great character study, and even has some suspense, as you wonder how everything will be resolved. If you are a fan of this genre, you probably already want to read it! (And if not, you should!)

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

Friday, November 30, 2018

Book Review: "My Lovely Wife" by Samantha Downing

If you're looking for a heartwarming love story, a tale of two people whose marriage is so full of love and devotion...find another book. This was one crazy, tension-filled, suspenseful book that had me shaking my head and wondering what would come next!

On the surface, they seem like the perfect family. He is a tennis pro at the local country club, she is a successful, high-end real estate agent. They have two teenage kids who play sports, do reasonably well in school, and only give them a bit of backtalk now and again. They eat dinner together every night—no cell phones at the table—and they are totally involved in their children's lives.

But when you've been married for a while, how do you keep the passion burning? How can you keep your spouse from being tempted by the fruit of another? Every couple has their own tricks, their own strategies. Theirs just happens to be a little bit more, umm, unorthodox.

The beauty of this book comes from the surprises that lurk when you least expect them, so I'm keeping my plot summary to a bare minimum. Promotions for My Lovely Wife have described it as a cross between Dexter and Mr. and Mrs. Smith; I found it a little more of the latter (boy, what Brad and Angelina could have done with these roles in their heyday) and not so much of the former. But forget about comparisons, because this is a book all its own.

Samantha Downing has taken a genre that is getting a little tired and predictable at times, and thrown in some "wait, she's not going to do that, is she?" along with more than a few "oh, wows," and sprinkled in a few "holy craps" to boot. I certainly don't want to think that there are people out there like this couple, but given the book's depiction of the media and our crazy world, anything is possible.

What a wild ride this was. My Lovely Wife keeps you flipping those pages because you absolutely must know what happens next, and you cannot get enough of this story and these crazy, amoral characters. I'm sure there are people who won't like this, but it made a believer of me!!

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

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Book Review: "Matchmaking for Beginners" by Maddie Dawson

What a terrific, sweet charmer of a book this was!!

Every family has at least one oddball, one eccentric. Free-spirited Blix Holliday is her family's black sheep, and that doesn't bother her one bit, because she doesn't like them much anyway.

She believes there's a perfect match for everyone, she believes in thought energy, watching people's auras, and her ability to wish things into existence—and she has a book of spells to prove it. Now in her 80s and terminally ill, she wants to live whatever time she has left on her own terms, surrounded by joy and those she loves.

"This is a family that is rotten at its core, no matter what the decor tells you. I see things as they are, right through the fakery and pretense. I can still remember when this place really was authentically grand, before Wendy Spinnaker decided to throw thousands of dollars into some kind of fake restoration of its façade. But that sums up this family's philosophy of life perfectly: plaster over the real stuff, and slap a veneer on the top. Nobody will know. But I know."

When she meets Marnie MacGraw, her great-nephew's fiancée, she immediately feels the two are kindred spirits. Both share some of the same abilities, like the ability to see when two people are destined for one another. But Marnie just wants a normal life—husband, kids, a house in the suburbs—so she doesn't believe Blix when she tells her that there's a great big life out there waiting for, an exciting one far beyond the comforts she craves.

"The subversive truth about love is that it really is the big deal everyone makes it out to be, and it's not some form of security or an insurance policy against loneliness. It's everything, love is. It runs the whole universe!"

Marnie's marriage ends shortly after it began (and it never quite began), but she still can't believe that Blix was right, and that she's capable of exciting things. Little by little, she pulls her life back together and starts to trust her heart again, only to be thrown for another loop, when she learns that Blix has died and bequeathed her brownstone in Brooklyn. (Of course, the bequest isn't as straightforward as she expected.) But it's not just the house—Blix has "left" Marnie all of her pet projects; namely, her friends who are all desperate for love but they just don't see themselves as ready, or even worthy.

So now Marnie finds herself in Brooklyn, uprooting her life and those closest to her once again. She's looking for a quick resolution to the whole brownstone issue, so she can get back to Florida and the plans she's made for her future. She doesn't understand how Blix thought her capable of greatness, because she just wants ordinary comforts. Yet as she settles into her life in Brooklyn and deals with some unexpected surprises and challenges, she starts to realize that perhaps Blix's work needs to be carried on—and maybe she's the one who needs to do it. The only challenge is, she needs a little of this work herself.

"Everybody wants love, and the ones who appear to want it the least actually need it the most."

This was one of those books that feels like a great big hug. It hooked me from the very first page and didn't let go, and I found myself utterly immersed in these characters. Is it predictable? Sure. Did it matter? Not in the slightest. This book was the perfect antidote to the heavy books I've read most recently, and it not only made me smile, but it made me tear up through the smiles, too.

I thought Maddie Dawson did such a terrific job creating quirky and complex characters. Not everyone is likable (just like real life), and not everyone is 100 percent good or selfless (again, just like real life), but even though the book made me believe that just a little touch of magic and mysticism can exist in our world, it also was tremendously believable, because quite often the people who can be difficult to love are the ones who need that love most.

Three cheers for Matchmaking for Beginners. When you need something to charm you, pick this one up.