Sunday, May 20, 2018

Book Review: "Leave No Trace" by Mindy Mejia

Ten years ago Josiah Blackthorn took his nine-year-old son Lucas camping in the Boundary Waters, an area of northern Minnesota full of forests and ice-cold lakes. One day it appeared their campsite was ravaged by bears or other creatures, and the two were never heard from again. Once media interest died down, the Blackthorns were all but forgotten.

Until a night 10 years later, when now-19-year-old Lucas Blackthorn was apprehended trying to rob an outfitter store. He became aggressive and violent, and was uncommunicative, so he was sent to the local psychiatric hospital for observation. Both the doctors and law enforcement want to know what happened to Lucas' father, but he refuses to talk—to everyone except Maya Stark, the new, young assistant speech therapist, who seems to engender reactions from the once-lost no-longer-a-boy.

While at first her interactions with Lucas are mainly keeping him from hurting her and others, Maya begins to build what she belies is a genuine connection with him. She can't explain why he feels like he can trust only her, and she can't quite determine where she crossed the line from acting in a professional capacity to wanting him to be able to find his father, without having to go through law enforcement. She knows he doesn't need speech therapy; what he needs is a protector, an ally, and despite warnings from her supervisor and her father, she's determined to be that ally.

The thing is, Maya has issues of her own. Her mother abandoned their family when she was a teenager, and she's spent a number of years blaming herself, as if she wasn't enough or right for her mother. And that's not the only secret Maya is hiding.

"What lies beneath us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us."

Will Maya do the right thing, if she can figure out what that is? Will her single-minded determination to help Lucas put her in danger? Will helping him get her the answers she has been seeking to her own questions, or will her decisions end in disaster?

In Leave No Trace, Mindy Mejia has given us a taut, compelling exploration of the pull of family and the need to be understood. I devoured this book, and while there were certain twists I expected, she threw in some surprises here and there. I found these characters fascinating and even a little unique, and while certainly I questioned Maya's judgment, I could see how past events in her life could lead her to make the choices she did.

Sure, not everything in this book is realistic. But you could see why the characters were compelled to do what they did, and how certain events unfolded. The coincidences and other things didn't bother me. I was hooked from start to finish.

I really enjoyed Mejia's last book, Everything You Want Me to Be (see my review), and with Leave No Trace she proves she's capable of something completely different. She's definitely an author I'll continue to watch with great anticipation, because no matter the genre, she's immensely talented!

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

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Book Review: "Paris Trance" by Geoff Dyer

"People talk about love at first sight, about the way that men and women fall for each other immediately, but there is also such a thing as friendship at first sight."

Luke is an Englishman in his mid-20s who decides to move to Paris in order to write a book. But when he arrives, he quickly realizes the city, and his life there, aren't what he imagined.

He's renting a decrepit apartment in the wrong neighborhood, he barely speaks or understands French, and he can't seem to meet anyone, especially a woman, no matter how hard he tries. He's considering moving back to England but knows that would be admitting failure and taking a step backward.

Then he meets Alex when he begins work at the same warehouse. Alex is a fellow English expatriate, and the two quickly find the rhythm of an intense friendship. With Alex in his life, things begin picking up for Luke—he finds a better apartment, and he begins playing soccer with his other colleagues. These victories bring his bravado back, and it's not long before he meets Nicole, a beautiful Serbian woman, with whom he falls completely in love.

"Even when we recall with photographic exactness the way in which someone first presented themselves to us, that likeness is touched by every trace of emotion we have felt up to—and including—the moment when we are recalling the scene."

As Luke and Nicole's relationship intensifies, Alex meets Sahra, a brilliant interpreter, and the two couples become inseparable, sharing meals, drinks, countless films, activities, travel—even the occasional drugs. Nicole and Luke's relationship is the more passionate and mercurial one, buoyed by wild sex, periodic arguments, and Luke's unending desire for fulfillment. Alex and Sahra are more stable—while their relationship might not reach the same levels of passion, their love is a steady one, which seems key to its future.

Paris Trance follows the four through more than a year of their relationships, the ups and the downs, and how the differences between the two couples—and the two men—become more evident as time carries on. The book also gives a glimpse into the future, and what happens to each of the couples, how some can change with the curves that life throws at you while some cannot.

This story is a beautifully compelling look at friendship and love, how some can enjoy the present while preparing for the future while others can only focus on what is in front of them. The book conveys the flush of relationships, the bonds of friendship, the insecurity of love so well, and captures both the tumultuous moments and the quiet ones. The banter between Luke and Alex, and at times, the four of them, is really enjoyable.

I really enjoyed this book, although I definitely enjoyed Alex and Sahra's characters more than Luke and Nicole's. The story has a poignancy at times, while other times it moves with a frenzy. The one thing I didn't quite understand is the periodic shifts in narration between first and third person. There is also some graphic, borderline kinky sex in the book which some may find awkward or unnecessary.

While elements of the plot of Paris Trance may seem familiar, in Geoff Dyer's hands the book feels unique. The book may not be perfect, but I'll remember it for a long while as a book that touched my emotions.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Book Review: "Ruthless Magic" by Megan Crewe

If The Hunger Games hooked up with Lev Grossman's The Magicians, the baby might somehow resemble Megan Crewe's newest book, Ruthless Magic. While the setting isn't quite as dystopian as the former, and there isn't the type of quest featured in the latter, this book shares elements of both without feeling like a retread of either.

In a society not too far into the future, there are people with magical abilities and there are those without, known as Dulls. The North American Confederation of Mages oversees the use of magic, and each year they decide which 16-year-olds will be chosen to become a part of the magic world, and which ones will be "dampened," essentially having their magical powers lessened so that they'll only be able to use one particular skill for professional purposes.

The Confederation is particular, though—they want to be able to control magic, so they only like to choose descendants of magical families rather than let "new magic" people in or those who came from less exclusive pedigrees. Those rejected by the Confederation have one course of appeal—they can stand for the Mages' Exam, a mysterious, brutal challenge that no one talks about—if they remember it, or survive.

Finn Lockwood is part of a prominent magical family, but his skills have always been lacking, much to his chagrin. Although it is his legacy to be accepted into the world of magic, he wants to be able to use his magic to make a difference; he doesn't want to be saddled with some low-level job. Declaring he'll stand for the Exam gives him the chance to succeed or fail on his own, and he's willing to take the risk.

Rocío Lopez grew up poor, the daughter of Dampened parents. She's spent all of her free time learning about magic and enhancing her skills, and she knows she's more talented than most. She should be a shoo-in for a place in the Confederation, but she is rejected because of her background, so she has no choice but to stand for the Exam, despite the risks that her family is all too sadly familiar with.

Everyone who believes themselves worthy of a place in the Confederation comes to Rikers Island to stand for the Mage's Exam. It will be unlike anything they've ever faced before—a test of will, intelligence, magical skill, and courage, and it will show them (and the Examiners) just how far they're willing to go in order to succeed. Although they have different reasons for wanting to succeed, Rocío and Finn become allies—and possibly more—and vow to protect one another, as well as others in their group, although when magic is involved, whom can you really trust?

I found this to be a really engaging, creative, and quick read. Ever since the Harry Potter series I've been completely fascinated by magic and those who have the skills, and love the dynamics among fledgling and skilled magicians with different abilities. I was really pleased Crewe decided to shift the narration of the book only between Finn and Rocío; I was afraid she'd alternate it among others as well and I thought that might get more confusing.

I've never read anything Crewe has written before, but I was really dazzled by her storytelling and her world-building (even if the world was our own). She has created some engaging characters with real emotions and real struggles, and even gave us those to root against. There's some great action in here, some brutal magical challenges, and the pace flowed really nicely.

Obviously, when I say the words "magic" or "fantasy," there are some who roll their eyes or immediately say, "This one's not for me." You know who you are. But if you're looking for something new, Ruthless Magic may be an interesting book to try. I'll be waiting for the next one in the series. (Apparently if you join Crewe's website, you get a free prequel to the book, so that's where I'm heading next!)

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

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Book Review: "Noir" by Christopher Moore

Well, it's been a while since I've read a book that should have been accompanied by a drum set, in order to generate rimshots after every joke, but this definitely felt like one of those!!

"There are times in a guy's life when he finds himself floating facedown in a sea of troubles, and as hope bubbles away, he thinks, How the hell did I get here?"

It's 1947 in San Francisco. The country has just started putting all of its pieces back together following World War II. Sammy "Two Toes" Tiffin is the evening bartender at Sal's Saloon, and he spends his evenings helping the city's denizens bury their troubles with the help of cheap liquor. Sam always has his hand in some other scheme, either because he needs to make more money or he has connections that range throughout the city. (Most often both.)

Then one night, of all of the gin joints in the world, in she walks—a flirtatious blonde, "a size-eight dame in a size-six dress and every mug in the joint was rooting for the two sizes to make a break for it as they watched her wiggle in the door and shimmy onto a barstool with her back to the door." The dame, it turns out, is named Stilton (like the cheese), and she takes a shine to Sammy. And the shine is more than mutual.

As much as Sammy would like to do nothing more than romance "the Cheese" (as everyone refers to Stilton), he's got his hands full. His boss wants him to recruit a group of women to "entertain" a bunch of VIPs. He may have been inadvertently involved in the assault and kidnapping of a somewhat racist policeman. Oh, and he might have also brought a deadly black mamba snake into San Francisco—and the snake didn't waste time before inflicting some damage.

But is that why two dark-suited, sunglasses-wearing investigators are on his trail? Or is there something else?

When the Cheese goes missing, Sammy needs to take action. He recruits a motley group of friends and associates to help him follow her trail, and it leads them into the middle of one hell of a mess, with cross-dressing members of a secret club, government investigators bent on "taking care" of anyone that gets in their way, and, well, there may be a space alien in the mix as well.

Sammy doesn't know what to make of any of it, but he knows he wants the Cheese back, so he'll take on any enemy that comes his way—even if it may be carrying a space blaster.

Noir is a wacky, corny, somewhat disjointed novel that is simultaneously funny, odd, confusing, and downright bizarre. But all of these adjectives perfectly describe the storytelling of Christopher Moore, author of books like The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove and Island of the Sequined Love-Nun, among others. As I saw in the description of this book, "Think Raymond Chandler meets Damon Runyon with more than a dash of Bugs Bunny and the Looney Tunes All Stars," but I'd throw in a little Men in Black as well.

I was a big fan of Moore's in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but after a while I found myself rolling my eyes more than laughing when I read his books. For some reason I expected something slightly different from Noir, and while it started out that way, by the end there were so many competing storylines, not to mention occasional narration from Petey the black mamba snake, that I just wasn't sure what I was reading.

This is a book that takes on its story with great gusto. I marveled at Moore's creativity, but all in all, Noir didn't quite work for me. However, if zany, no-holds-barred books pique your interest, definitely give this one a try.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Book Review: "My Ex-Life" by Stephen McCauley

In 1987, I read Stephen McCauley's The Object of My Affection. I fell head over heels in love with that book about the often-blurred lines between love and friendship, and how we sometimes confuse security for happiness. I've read it a number of times since then, and it is easily one of my favorite books. (The less said about the film adaptation with Jennifer Aniston and Paul Rudd the better.)

Through the years, I have read all of McCauley's other books, and he continues to be one of my favorite writers. I love the way his characters never quite have it all together (who does, really), and I so enjoy his commentary on the state of modern relationships, be they romantic, platonic, familial, or all of the above. He is, however, one of those authors who makes me wait quite a long time between books—his last book, Insignificant Others, was written eight years ago, but he generally lets four or five years elapse between books.

Needless to say, I was well overdue for a McCauley fix, and happily, his newest book, My Ex-Life provided a terrific remedy.

David Hedges' life is in a bit of a tailspin. His partner, Soren, has left him for an older, wealthier man, his beautiful rental home in San Francisco is being put up for sale (and he most definitely cannot afford to buy it), and he's gained more than a few pounds recently. And how did he wind up in his 50s?

The last thing David was expecting was to hear from Julie Fiske, one of his oldest and dearest friends—who also happens to be his ex-wife.

"He and Julie had a history, albeit an ancient and complicated one. They hadn't seen each other in almost thirty years, hadn't spoken in more than twenty, and David assumed that their story, like a few other things in his life—his desire to visit Petra; his vow to study piano; his sexual relevance—had ended. This didn't diminish her importance to him. His memories of her lingered, faded by the years in flattering ways."

Life has been a mess for Julie, too. She is in the midst of her second divorce, and her soon-to-be-ex-husband wants to sell their home (which Julie has been operating as a not-too-successful Airbnb property) right out from under her. Julie isn't sure where she can find the money to buy the house herself, although the thought of having to leave the seaside town outside Boston is utterly unappealing. Plus, she may have a little bit of a problem with marijuana.

Julie and David reunite under the request that David, whose job entails helping high school kids pull together their college applications and get into the school of their (parents') choice, help Julie's daughter Mandy with the same task. Mandy doesn't think she's much of a catch for a college, and has more than enough problems with her self-worth to worry about SAT scores and essays. But she knows her mother is in a downward spiral, so she agrees to work with David.

When David agrees to visit Julie, he does so in an attempt to rescue her from her current situation, not to mention escape the current craziness in his own life. It doesn't take long before they've slipped into the comforting familiarity of their relationship, albeit with a more mature (and realistic) eye. But there are some secrets which haven't been revealed in 30+ years, secrets which could damage their relationship—and their view of the path their lives took, not to mention people with designs on hurting all three of them.

Once again, McCauley brings his signature wit, candor, and emotion to a story of two people with a rich and complex shared history. While you've seen characters like Julie, David, and Mandy before, McCauley draws you in and makes you care about them and the mistakes they're making, even if you can predict what might happen. There is humor, frustration, hurt, poignancy, and reminiscences, as well as plenty of instances in which the characters wonder if what they remember is accurate or viewed through the happy haze of reunion.

My Ex-Life is a story about the truths and lies we tell ourselves and others, and how the strength to survive is often within ourselves, but it takes a good push from someone else to find it. It's also a story about friendship, love, and secrets, and how it's still possible to have the first two once you've worked through the third.

I remain a huge fan of Stephen McCauley, and I'd encourage you to read his books. I only hope, if he sees this review, he considers not making me wait another eight years for his next book? (Pretty please? I can type it for you if that would help.)

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Book Review: "The Nowhere Man" by Gregg Hurwitz

It's an indication of how many books I read last year that while Gregg Hurwitz's Orphan X, the first novel in his Evan Smoak series, made my list of the best books I read in 2016, I never got around to reading the second book, The Nowhere Man, until now, despite the fact that it came out in early 2017. There's even a third book out. I have to catch up!!

The Nowhere Man is a little bit uneven, so it's not quite as good as its predecessor. But when the book clicks, as it does in places and then consistently in the last third or so, you realize what a kick-ass character Evan Smoak is, and that Hurwitz can write both action scenes that crackle as well as scenes which deliver real emotion.

When Evan Smoak (not his real name) was young, a man rescued him from a troubled life and he trained Evan how to kill. When he got older he became the Nowhere Man, the last resort for a person in desperate trouble. No one knows who the Nowhere Man is, but they know if they call him, he will help rescue them from a seemingly helpless situation.

A call from a teenage girl in a desperate situation leads him to the existence of a sex trafficking operation, which abducts vulnerable young women and sends them into the hands of nefarious characters. As usual, Smoak works to cut the operation off at its knees, but as he tries to determine just how deep its roots are, he is abducted by an utterly unanticipated nemesis, who wants something from Evan, and will stop at nothing to get it.

Suddenly, Evan finds himself captured in an unknown location, under guard by a number of trigger-happy mercenaries, and at the mercy of a sadistic, opportunistic individual with unlimited resources and a real inferiority complex. His captors think they've got the best of Evan, but they don't understand just whom they're dealing with—but outsmarting this clan will push Evan to his very limits, physically and intellectually.

"What did it say about him that he was so easily put back together? He'd long thought that it was a positive attribute, a testament to his durability, but now it felt artificial, unhuman. He was rebuildable, a snap-together Lego toy."

As Evan plots his escape, he is haunted by the need to rescue two different people, and he has his own visions of his surrogate father figure, whose death Evan feels responsible for. And then he realizes that those who hold him captive aren't the only enemies he'll have to defeat.

There are some great twists and turns in this book, and I just love Evan's resourcefulness, and the life he has built for himself, even though it is lonely. There were some fight scenes that literally had my heart pumping as I was amazed at the way he and his enemies kept turning the situation. But Hurwitz also showed his ability to create introspective and poignant moments as well, which gave the book—and its characters—real depth.

Parts of the plot really require you suspend your disbelief, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but I kept hoping that Hurwitz wasn't going to get totally bizarre with the story. (Close, but not quite.) My main criticism is that I love Evan when he is doing what he does best—rescuing those in need and making those responsible pay. Given that he spends a significant part of this book captured (although slowly enacting his revenge), it tended to dull my enthusiasm after a time.

If you're looking for a great series, pick up Orphan X and prepare to be blown away. The Nowhere Man is definitely worth a read as well, and I'll need to check out the third book in this series (which I've heard is fantastic) pretty soon. There's lots of violence, so those who don't enjoy that should steer clear, but if you're okay with fictionalized violence, get ready for your pulse to rise!!

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Book Review: "Number One Chinese Restaurant" by Lillian Li

Growing up in the New Jersey suburbs in the mid-1980s, my family ate dinner out nearly every Sunday evening, and more often than not, we ate Chinese food, as did many other families in my town. (I used to joke that there were classmates I saw more regularly at the Chinese restaurant than I did in high school!)

While there were several different Chinese restaurants in our area, and everyone had a favorite, we frequently ate at one particular restaurant, whose owners my parents had known for a number of years. The owner and his wife seemed to have a fascinating relationship, and the high school gossip I was then loved to make up stories about what was going on in their lives, as well as the lives of the other employees. Perhaps those memories were what drew me to Lillian Li's Number One Chinese Restaurant—that, and the fact that Li's book takes place in a suburb of Washington, DC known for its Chinese restaurants.

The Beijing Duck House in Rockville, Maryland, has certainly seen better days, but it's still a favorite among the community's restaurants. The creation of immigrant Bobby Han, the Duck House was once a place where presidents and celebrities dined, but Bobby's death left the restaurant caught between his two sons, the more managerially suited Johnny, and the more impulsive, ambitious Jimmy.

Jimmy has dreams of getting away from his father's legacy and opening a fancier Asian fusion restaurant where he'd never again have to serve the dishes which exhaust and repulse him. But to make his dream possible requires striking a deal with the devil, one who has been on the outskirts of their family for years now, and doesn't know how to take the word "no" for an answer.

When tragedy strikes, it may make the achievement of Jimmy's dreams closer to reality, but it also upends the lives of many others. For longtime employees Nan and Ah-Jack, they are forced to confront the so-called elephant in the room, their friendship/flirtation, and decide whether to pursue something more after 30 years. But if they do, how will this affect Ah-Jack's wife and Nan's rebellious teenage son, Pat?

Pat, a dishwasher at the Duck House since being expelled from high school, is in the midst of a flirtation with Annie, the hostess, who happens to be Jimmy's niece. While Annie has very little love for her father or her family's restaurant, she's not expecting to get pulled into a scheme which threatens to destroy both.

As Jimmy tries to hold on to his dream, he must battle his brother, their seemingly ineffective mother, and the family friend whose menacing presence has always kept everyone on edge. But what does Jimmy really want? Is it making a name for himself, or continuing to bask in the spotlight his father built all these years ago.

There's a lot going on in this book, with no shortage of melodrama, family dysfunction, angst, and even a little crime for good measure. While the different situations the characters find themselves in certainly have potential, they never really grabbed my interest as I had hoped. I don't know if there was too much to digest (no pun intended) all at once, or if it was more that the characters weren't particularly sympathetic, but I felt that the plot really dragged, and never picked up much steam.

If you like stories of family dynamics, you might enjoy this one. The one thing I truly appreciated about this book is that Li didn't spend too much time dwelling on the food, so I didn't get as hungry as I often do when reading books about restaurants and cooks!

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