Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Book Review: "Marlena" by Julie Buntin

If you're a fan of The Wallflowers' music, maybe you'll find yourself singing this song while reading Julie Buntin's Marlena: (Not because of any particular plot point or because the lyrics are symbolic, just because there is a Marlena in the book and one, two, three Marlenas in the song. I'm deep like that.)

"Sometimes I feel like she is my invention. Like the more I say, the further from the truth of her I get. I'm trying to hold palmfuls of sand but I squeeze harder, I tighten my fist, and the quicker it all escapes."

Fifteen-year-old Cat's life is turned upside down when her mother decides the best way to recover from her divorce and regain some financial momentum is to move Cat and her older brother Jimmy from their home in Pontiac, Michigan to the rural town she grew up in, Silver Lake. Cat has to leave her private school, her best friend, and the sense of security she had, plus she'll be moving away from her father, and although he hasn't been attentive since moving in with his much younger girlfriend, she knows she'll miss him.

No one is bargaining for the somewhat rundown house they move into, nor do they expect to be amidst trailer homes and other decrepit homes, where it appears less-than-upstanding activities are taking place. But the bright spot for Cat is meeting Marlena, her next door neighbor. Marlena is two years older, worldly where Cat has been sheltered, bold and brazen where Cat is shy, and when they meet, she is already in the throes of addiction to pills of all kinds, but she generally manages to keep her life together on a day-to-day basis.

Before long, Cat and Marlena are mostly inseparable, although she must navigate Marlena's mood swings and the fear of her unstable father. But with Marlena, Cat also gets to experience many firsts—first kiss, first drink, first cigarette, first time skipping school—and feels like she finally is part of something, even if at times it leaves her unsteady and uncertain. But despite the emotional roller coaster of their relationship, and Cat's recognition that Marlena's behavior is, ultimately, dangerous, she is still unprepared for Marlena's death less than a year later.

This book is told from two perspectives—Cat unfolding the story of her relationship with Marlena and all that occurred during that tumultuous time in Silver Lake, and Cat as an adult, decades later, when the appearance of a ghost from her past causes her to revisit the emotions and the regrets, not to mention the addictions she still lives with all those years later. For the first time, she might have to acknowledge just how profound an effect Marlena had on her life, and in some ways, still does.

"The truth is both a vast wilderness and the tiniest space you can imagine. It's between me and her, what I saw and what she saw and how I see it now and how she has no now. Divide it further—between what I mean and what I say, who I am and who I appear to be, who she said she was and acted like she was and also, of course, who she really was, in all her glorious complexity, all her unknowable Marlena-ness, all her secrets."

There's nothing as intense as a friendship formed in adolescence, particularly amidst the tumultuous teenage years. Marlena is a gripping, emotional account of just how much our lives are affected by those we're closest to when we're younger, and the blessings and the scars of those relationships live on with us well into adulthood.

This is a story of young woman trying to hold her own in a relationship that both made her feel special and inadequate, and a woman years later whose life is still shaped by those days, the decisions she made and those she regrets. Buntin does a terrific job capturing the power dynamics of adolescent friendships, and the after-effects felt long afterward. She's a great storyteller, and this book is packed with emotion, imagery, and lots of instances in which you want to smack the characters for not confronting the issues they see in front of them.

Marlena isn't a perfect book; at times the pacing moved a little slower than I would have liked, and at times Cat alludes to things that happen in the future but I would have liked to understand what led up to some of those instances rather than just be told what happened. But Buntin's use of language and emotion transcends the book's flaws, and definitely keeps you thinking about these characters, even if you've seen them before.

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

Monday, February 20, 2017

Book Review: "The Dry" by Jane Harper

Wow, this was really a great book! I love it when books which are hyped actually live up to the praise they're getting, and Jane Harper's The Dry definitely did.

This book had everything—great writing, a terrifically evocative setting (I felt hot every time I read it, and it wasn't just because I'm running a fever, and I kept expecting everyone I came into contact with to speak with an Australian accent), interesting character development, and lots of twists and turns. It's amazing to think that this is Harper's debut novel, because it felt like a book written by a virtuoso.

Federal Agent Aaron Falk returns to Kiewarra, the small, rural Australian town where he grew up, when he hears that his childhood best friend, Luke, is dead, along with Luke's wife and young son. Actually his return for Luke's funeral isn't by choice: he's summoned by Luke's father, who threatens to bring to light an old secret that Luke and Aaron shared if he doesn't come home. Years ago, their friend Ellie Deacon drowned, but it turned out she was murdered. Luke and Aaron were each other's alibi that night, although neither really asked where the other one was. Many in the town suspected they lied.

"They'd all been so tight. Teenage tight, where you believe your friends are soul mates and the bonds will last forever."

Kiewarra has been ravaged by endless drought and the townspeople are on edge, coupled with the tragic circumstances around the deaths of Luke and his family. Given that Aaron and his father fled the town years ago, after both were accused of being involved in Ellie's death, many people in town, including Ellie's ne'er-do-well father and violent cousin, still aren't happy to see him.

As much as he wants to get out of Kiewarra as quickly as he arrived, Aaron promises Luke's parents that he will look into what really happened the day Luke and his family died. Partnering with a local police officer, Aaron tries to make sense of who could have been involved, and they both quickly find more than their share of secrets and lies, and Aaron must come face-to-face with an unending supply of childhood memories, some good, some bad. But the more they dig into the crime, the more they uncover, and the more hostile the townspeople become.

Is this crime related to the lie that Luke and Aaron told all those years ago, or was something else afoot? Are those still trying to cause people to suspect Aaron's involvement in Ellie's death actually involved in Luke's? Did the drought so destroy this town and any sense of hope that someone felt compelled to murder, or did Luke just snap under pressure one day, like so many believe? These are questions Aaron and his police partner need to find answers to, but will danger find them first?

The truth is, a lot of times I'm hesitant to read crime or mystery novels where you actually have to figure out who the perpetrator is, mainly because I feel this way:
Harper really did her best to keep you guessing, although that didn't stop me from suspecting nearly everyone at one point. "Wait, you seem sympathetic? You did it," I thought. But while I wasn't completely surprised by the way she resolved the story, I still was surprised at the motivation behind it until the very end. And there was one revelation about the second mystery that baffled me, so I'm going to need to reach out to someone else who has read the book to see if I understood the plot correctly.

All told, this is a tremendously suspenseful, exceptionally well-written book that really blew me away. Lately I've been reading crime novels that have been more novel than crime, which hasn't been a bad thing, but The Dry was really a crime novel. If this is Harper's debut, I can't wait to see what comes next, because she hit a homer with this one!!

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Book Review: "The Wanderers" by Meg Howrey

Aerospace behemoth Prime Space, which has made its presence known in NASA's waning years, has a plan to put the first humans on Mars in four years. The company has selected the perfect crew for this mission—Helen Kane, Sergei Kuznetsov, and Yoshihiro Tanaka—each of them leaders in their own country's space program who have participated on the International Space Station. The three are chosen for their complementary skills, personalities, and backgrounds, which should mesh perfectly during their mission.

Given the risky nature of their mission, the three will spend 17 months in the Utah wilderness in an amazingly realistic simulation of every aspect of the mission, from launch to the return home. Prime Space's Mission Control will throw everything they can at the crew, from equipment malfunctions, atmospheric anomalies, personal crises, even imminent failure, to observe their actions and reactions in order to determine what things will need to be tweaked when the actual mission rolls around.

Beyond the mechanics of their journey into space, Helen, Sergei, and Yoshi are observed by Prime Space's team of "obbers" around the clock, who monitor not only their physical reactions to situations they are thrown into, but their psychological, emotional, and interpersonal relationships and interactions as well, even how they react to the messages they receive from their own family and friends. And the "obbers" aren't just watching them, they're also watching those closest to them—Helen's daughter, Sergei's sons, and Yoshi's wife—each of whom has their own challenges, both related and unrelated to their family members' imminent journey to Mars.

To spend this much time in close proximity with each other and know that you are being watched around the clock is challenging, yet the three are determined to present the most stable personas to those watching, those who could make the decision to bounce them from the real mission. Yet as the simulated mission proceeds, each faces their own doubts, fears, and regrets, and even struggle with the concept of what is truly real and what is being simulated to test them. Meanwhile, their family members are dealing with their own epiphanies, and how they feel about the absence of their loved ones.

For a book under 400 pages, at times The Wanderers has an almost sweeping, epic feel, as it covers weighty topics such as travel to other planets, the issue of personal legacy, and how astronauts are forced to cope with the double-edged sword of wanting to be there for their families yet constantly wanting to push the boundaries of exploration. But at other times it feels very intimate, as the astronauts deal with their personal feelings of fear, paranoia, regret, loss, and confusion.

There's a lot going on in this book—sometimes that works, and sometimes it doesn't. The book shifts perspective among the crew members, as well as Helen's daughter, Yoshi's wife, and one of Sergei's sons, and a member of the "obbers." I honestly think the book could have been equally as powerful without the family members' perspectives, because apart from one instance, the stories never really got closure. At times the book gets weighted down with technical speak, but luckily that doesn't last long, because the power of this novel truly comes from each of the astronauts, their self-discovery, and their interactions with one another.

I've been a fan of Meg Howrey since her very first novel, Blind Sight (see my review), and you can tell she did a tremendous amount of research to make this book feel authentic. But what I loved most were her storytelling, the complexity of her characters, and the imagery she uses. I thought the pacing of the book was a bit slow, but at its heart the story was very compelling. (By the way, this book is being marketed as Station Eleven meets The Martian, to which I'll reply, nope.)

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

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Book Review: "The Inexplicable Logic of My Life" by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

The minute I received an email from NetGalley promoting Benjamin Alire Sáenz's new book, I jumped on it and submitted a request for an advance copy. I absolutely loved Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (see my review), so I figured even if this one wasn't that good, I still had to read it. Needless to say, I was so pleased to get approved right away, and I began the book the second I finished my previous one.

The Inexplicable Logic of My Life is a different book than Aristotle and Dante..., but man, was it special. I have a hellacious cold, making sleeping (and breathing, really) fairly impossible in my current state, so last night I read nearly the entire book, between 11:00 p.m. and 1:30 a.m. Needless to say, this is how I ended up:

Sal is ready to start his senior year of high school. It's going to be a pivotal year with so much on the horizon, but while his childhood best friend Samantha can think of nothing more than going to college as far away from El Paso as she can (no matter what her mother says), he's getting more and more stressed about the potential for change. Suddenly this anxiety is manifesting itself via anger—all he wants to do is hit people. Whether it's the idiot who called his father a faggot, someone who called him a pinche gringo (even though he is white, he was adopted by his Mexican father), or one of Sam's bad-guy boyfriends, he suddenly can't stop using his fists, and he doesn't understand why, and he is afraid of how people will react if they knew how angry he was.

"But Sam, she had this image of me that I was a good boy, and she was in love with that image. She was in love with simple, uncomplicated, levelheaded Sally. And I didn't know how to tell her that I wasn't all those beautiful things she thought I was. That things were changing, and I could feel it but couldn't put it into words."

Sadly, life throws them curve after curve in this crucial year, and Sal must deal with some major emotional crises, and come to terms with who he is, and what becoming a man really means. But at the same time, he realizes once again the power of friendship and family, of words, of loving and being loved, and of giving people a chance. This is a beautiful, emotional, heart-warming, and life-affirming book, and although there was perhaps a little too much melodrama to deal with in the plot, I applaud Sáenz for not taking the story down a few paths I feared he might.

One of the reasons I love Sáenz's writing so much is that he has such a love for his characters that you can't help loving them, too, and seeing them in your mind's eye. This book is 450+ pages long yet I could have read more, although I might have gotten dehydrated from all of the crying! (And not just sad crying, but good crying, too.)

He uses beautiful imagery and creates some poetic moments, even if at times some friction would have been avoided if people just said what they felt. But ultimately, this is one of those books that teaches you to let yourself be loved, and that no matter what your background or life situation is, you still are entitled to dream and believe in yourself.

I'll sit and wait for Sáenz's next book, readying for this again:

NetGalley and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Children's Book Group/Clarion Books provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

Friday, February 17, 2017

Book Review: "Shadow Man" by Alan Drew

Shadow Man begins with the somewhat-paranoid musings of a person as they set out to murder a woman who is alone in her home, cooking dinner and unaware of what fate is about to befall her. When police detective Ben Wade is called by a friend to assist with the murder investigation, it's not long before all involved realize that Southern California might have a serial killer on their hands, one with a penchant for strangulation, for slipping through screen doors and unlocked windows.

While the prospect of a serial killer has everyone on edge, it's another death that sends Ben reeling. The body of a teenage boy is found in a field, and most signs point to suicide as the cause of death. But as Ben and his longtime friend Natasha, a forensic specialist, begin uncovering clues to the boy's identity, the life he led, and the secrets he kept, Ben's carefully compartmentalized life begins to shake. He's starting to wonder if it was wise to return to his hometown, Rancho Santa Elena, and all of the history that it held for him.

As Ben and his colleagues try to stop the serial killer before he strikes again, Ben tries to find answers in the boy's death as well, answers he might regret finding or deny seeing. But while he's trying to do his job the best way he knows how, he's also dealing with his own family crisis, as he realizes his teenage daughter Emma may be growing up faster than he is ready for, and he must tread a fine line between being concerned and overprotective.

Brooding and atmospheric, Shadow Man is as much a story of one man's battle with himself as it is a crime novel about a serial killer. And that's what surprised and delighted me so much about this book. Given how it began, I expected it to be your typical crime novel, with a fascinating yet flawed main character, and lots of intrigue around the killer and what made him tick. And while the book certainly has its requisite chase scenes and exploration of the killer, this is more a book about Ben and his past, and how what he tried to flee all those years ago is about to spill over and affect a lot of other lives.

The plot ultimately isn't surprising, but it doesn't matter. Alan Drew makes you care about his characters and makes you want to root for them, even as you watch them blunder and not always act in everyone's best interests. These characters are all the more interesting because of their flaws, their hearts and emotions, and the things they try to keep secret. This is a testament to Drew's storytelling ability.

If you go into Shadow Man expecting a police procedural or crime thriller, you'll be disappointed. If you go in expecting a well-told story with a good dose of crime, you'll be able to enjoy this book as much as it deserves to be enjoyed. There are a lot of interesting ideas explored, far more than your typical mystery.

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

Monday, February 13, 2017

Book Review: "The Refugees" by Viet Thanh Nguyen

In trying to express how I felt about Viet Thanh Nguyen's exquisite new story collection, The Refugees, I decided to turn to one of the foremost philosophers of our age, Keanu Reeves.

The issue of immigration is definitely a hot button here in the United States right now, with intense emotional fervor expressed by individuals on both sides. Luckily, Nguyen doesn't stake out a political position in his collection. Instead, these beautifully written stories look at issues that affect nearly every family, no matter the culture—grief, regret, coping with crisis, longing, loneliness, secrets, and the ties of family. At the same time, some of the stories deal with the often-difficult tug of war immigrants feel between their birth country and their new home.

Every one of Nguyen's eight stories has moments of absolute poetry and emotion. While I enjoyed all of them, some of my favorites included: "Black-Eyed Women," which told of a woman suddenly haunted by the ghost of her older brother, who saved her during the family's emigration from Vietnam; "The Other Man," about the cultural and emotional adjustment a young immigrant must make when he is sent to San Francisco, to live with a gay couple; "Fatherland," in which a young woman living in Vietnam finally meets her older half-sister, who appears to have everything anyone could ever want; "War Years," which tells of a family whose placid existence is turned upside down by a woman demanding money to fight the Communists back home in Vietnam; and probably my favorite story, "I'd Love You to Want Me," about a woman who begins calling her relationship with her husband into question when he is suffering from Alzheimer's disease.

Nguyen doesn't paint all of his characters with an idealistic brush; his characters are flawed, complex, even unsympathetic at times. Some of his characters are completely assimilated into American culture, while some don't feel (or act) as if they fit in. Nearly every story has elements of Vietnamese culture woven into their fibers, yet each story is utterly approachable, especially given their near-universal themes.

Nguyen's first novel, The Sympathizer, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction last year, among other accolades, but interestingly enough, the subject matter of that book doesn't appeal to me. (For some reason—and one I believe is completely baseless at that—it makes me think of Adam Johnson's The Orphan Master's Son, which I never could get into.) However, I was so blown away by a few friends' reactions to this story collection, that I felt compelled to read it, and I absolutely devoured it. (P.S.: I'm not interested in getting into a debate on the Johnson book here.)

I've always said that the mark of a great short story for me is when I feel like I could read a novel featuring its characters. Every story in The Refugees felt that way to me, but none in their current form felt unfinished or incomplete, just emotionally rich and terrifically told. Seriously, Keanu was right: whoa.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Book Review: "A Separation" by Katie Kitamura

I've ranted previously about how much I dislike when books are marketed as "the next..." So rather than rant, let me get the record straight right off the bat: despite what you might have seen, Katie Kitamura's A Separation is not "...the literary Gone Girl of 2017." I liked the former a little more than the latter, but I didn't feel Kitamura's book was rooted in a mystery as Gillian Flynn's was, so if that's what you're looking for, this book isn't for you.

A woman and her husband have decided to separate after five years of marriage. But while they had both decided there was no chance they would reconcile, her husband, Christopher, asked that they keep their decision private, and perhaps hold off on actually moving forward with a divorce for a short while.

"Could we keep it between us? I had hesitated, it wasn't that I disagreed with the sentiment—the decision was still new at that point, and I imagined Christopher felt much as I did, that we had not yet figured out how to tell the story of our separation. But I disliked the air of complicity, which felt incongruous and without purpose."

Despite their decision, she is still surprised to receive a phone call from her mother-in-law, Isabella, saying she has been unable to reach Christopher. She is more surprised when she finds out that several weeks ago Christopher told his mother that the two of them were traveling to Greece, a decision obviously she was not aware of, nor was she intended to be included in. Isabella is concerned that she hasn't been able to reach her son, so she urges the woman to travel to Greece immediately and find him—ever the control freak, Isabella even paid for the flight.

When she arrives in Greece, she finds that he apparently hired a driver several days earlier to travel, and didn't return when he said he would. No one is sure where he is but she imagines he is off gallivanting around somewhere, perhaps with another woman. She makes the decision to wait at the hotel a few days, and the things she discovers about Christopher while she waits for his return reinforces her desire to ask him a for a divorce as soon as possible.

When Christopher's parents arrive, she makes the decision to continue keeping her secret from them, despite her anger with Christopher for the detritus—physical and emotional—he left in his wake, and for putting her in this position in the first place. But once you have told a lie, how do you renege? Are you stuck living this lie for as long as those who've been told it remain in your life?

This was an intriguing, well-told, yet frustrating book. Thanks to the marketing hype, I definitely expected more of a mystery-type story, but this is really a meditation on how little we know the people we love, and how easy it is to put blinders on with regard to their faults until you reach a breaking point. It's also an examination of honesty, betrayal, estrangement, giving up your dreams to settle for what's in front of you, and how often we replicate the relationships of our parents.

Katie Kitamura is a really talented storyteller, despite the fact that she didn't really punctuate many of her longer paragraphs beyond commas and an occasional period. I just wish that in the end, this story offered more satisfaction than it did for me.