Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Book Review: "I Will Send Rain" by Rae Meadows

I love it when a book slowly takes you by surprise, as you realize what on the surface seemed like a fairly simple story dazzles you with emotion and beauty of its telling, when a story about a family tested by difficult times and tragedy reveals its richness, layer by layer. Rae Meadows' newest book, I Will Send Rain, is definitely one of those books.

The town of Mulehead, Oklahoma, as with many towns in the Great Plains region of the U.S. in the mid-1930s, cannot escape the drought. It's wrecking havoc on farming families everywhere, including Annie Bell and her husband, Samuel, who moved to Oklahoma as homesteaders and little by little, built a farm they were proud of, then a family. But now the Bells are suffering—their crops yield little, and the whole town is paralyzed by the economic and emotional effects the drought is having.

When the dust storms start hitting Mulehead, the Bells truly feel they're close to rock bottom. Samuel, who tries valiantly to keep his farm limping along, is suddenly plagued by dreams of severe rain that he cannot explain, nor can he explain what he is compelled to do as a result of those dreams. Their 15-year-old daughter, Birdie, is in the flush of young love and wants much more out of life than Mulehead can offer her, but doesn't think anyone can understand her hopes and dreams, even if she is risking her chance at freedom. The Bells' young son, Fred, a sensitive, old soul, is plagued by dust pneumonia, and Annie herself finds herself tempted by a new admirer for the first time in her life, and is unable to understand the fervor of her husband's actions.

"More and more, he saw the drought as a test of faith. More and more, she feared the drought would free this tight coil of restlessness in her, expose her as someone less than steadfast."

As conditions in Mulehead worsen, Annie is torn between the path she has taken her entire life and the chance for something new, something that might offer her a way out of the crushing devastation the community is experiencing. But can she risk everything she has, everything she knows, for the slim hope of a chance? Does she really want to? And as Annie tries to make sense of what is happening to her family, her home, and her faith, she knows that problems won't simply be solved with much-needed rain, but she has to decide whether to see things through or finally live life for herself.

I thought this book was truly lovely, full of tension, emotion, anguish, and hope. Meadows so perfectly captured the anxiety and fears of this terrible period in American history, how people were affected and how they coped. As I mentioned earlier, this seemingly simple story of a family dealing with adversity packed so much power, so much beauty, that even when you had a feeling how certain plot threads might resolve themselves, you felt the story and these characters in your heart.

I'll admit that at first I was hesitant to read I Will Send Rain because historical fiction doesn't always resonate with me. But this book was really just so good, and Meadows' storytelling ability shone through a book which takes place in such a drab time and setting. This is a book—and an author—worth taking into your heart.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Book Review: "The Grand Tour" by Adam O'Fallon Price

Richard Lazar was once a writer with promise. His first novel garnered some acclaim but his subsequent work never quite connected with the public, and quickly disappeared. After two failed marriages and a disastrous relationship with his daughter, Richard finds himself fat, old, and drunk, and living in a trailer in the middle of Arizona.

"The nice part about being young wasn't really being young; it was not being old."

It's as much a surprise to him that his memoir of his time as a soldier in Vietnam has received some of the best reviews of his career. People are suddenly paying attention to him for the first time in his life, and more than that, they want to hear him read. His publisher sends him out on a book tour, although given his penchant for indulging in more than a healthy dose of "liquid courage" before a reading or interview, often with less-than-stellar results.

At a college in Washington, Richard meets Vance Allerby, the awkward young president of the Richard Lazar fan club. (There's currently only one member, but that could change at any time.) Vance's admiration of Richard borders on hero worship, and he is hoping Richard will read the novel Vance has been writing and give him advice, possibly open a few doors for him, so he can stop living with his troubled mother, working a dead-end job, and wondering if he will ever amount to anything. But his meeting Richard, and Richard's behavior during and after his scheduled reading, not to mention the advice he gives Vance, couldn't be further than what Vance had hoped.

To make it up to him, Richard invites Vance to drive him to the rest of the West Coast stops on his book tour. Vance jumps at the chance to spend more time with someone he admires, but he has no idea what he's in for. He doesn't realize that driving Richard means caring for, practically babysitting, Richard, and watching his self-destructive behavior continue declining. Richard never seems to learn his lesson, despite the toll this self-abuse is taking on his health, his relationships, and his literary reputation. But it's possible, too, that Richard isn't the only one in need of rescue.

"In a general sense, Vance felt he'd spent his whole life around adults who acted like children, who needed constant tending to and worrying over, and a glance at the passenger seat didn't help to dispel the feeling that he might easily take on the same role with Richard."

The Grand Tour is an interesting look at two men who couldn't be more different and yet who are strangely the same in many ways. This is a book about coping with lifelong disappointment no matter how long your life has been, and how even when you know what path you need to take to change things, you're often unable or even unwilling to follow it. It's also a book about the relationship between parent and child, both biological and surrogate, and how easy it is to let down those who care about us the most.

Adam O'Fallon Price does a good job in creating these characters who are definitely more than meets the eye, although that doesn't mean they're particularly sympathetic. The book takes a while to build up steam, and in some places reminded me of many other literary or cinematic road trips. After a while, though, the book really becomes a bit of a downer, because the characters never seem to make headway, and you wonder just how much worse Price can make their situations.

While somewhat predictable, Price does throw in a surprise or two. He's a talented writer, and despite their faults, he keeps you interested in his characters, even if you're not sure whether it's an empathetic interest or a can't-look-away-from-the-trainwreck kind of interest.

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

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Book Review: "The Dream Life of Astronauts: Stories" by Patrick Ryan

So let me make one thing clear before you make the decision whether or not to read this collection of short stories based on the title: despite taking place at or around Cape Canaveral (in some cases simply in the same Florida county), the majority of these stories have nothing to do with astronauts.

While a few have the space program as a narrative thread within them (or at least mention something space-related in passing), for the most part, these well-written stories are about people who find themselves at a crossroads in their lives. Some are emotional, some are thought-provoking, and at least one was laugh-out-loud funny, and a few are interconnected with others in the collection.

Among my favorites in the collection were: "Earth, Mostly," in which a woman who is raising her granddaughter finds herself assigned to a driver's ed class after a traffic accident and is attracted to the instructor; "Go Fever," which is about a man whose coworker is convinced his wife is poisoning him (but that's just the tip of the iceberg); "Miss America," in which an aspiring Miss America contestant is taken to an audition with a less-than-reputable talent scout, while she is dealing with upheaval in her own life and her mother's; "Fountain of Youth," about a man in witness protection from the Mafia now living in a retirement community and matching wits with the power-hungry head of the condo board; "The Way She Handles," which tells of a young boy whose parents' marriage hits a rough patch with the arrival of his carefree uncle; and the beautiful title story, in which a young man is drawn to a former astronaut and is unprepared for what comes next.

While one or two of the stories didn't resonate for me as much as the ones I mentioned above, Patrick Ryan is a tremendously talented writer, and he created some memorable characters and situations I really enjoyed reading about. Although I felt that a few of the stories could have taken place anywhere and the connection with Cape Canaveral almost felt like an afterthought, it is the foibles of the human heart and our interactions with lovers, colleagues, family members, children, and strangers that powered these stories and imbued them with impact.

I am continually amazed at the immense talent among those individuals writing short stories today, and Ryan definitely belongs in this community. If you like short stories, this is a collection worth reading, even if you're not a space enthusiast. I look forward to seeing what's next in his career.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Book Review: "You Will Know Me" by Megan Abbott

While the so-called "mystery" part of this book held about as much suspense as whether Ryan Lochte and his swimming compatriots were actually robbed at gunpoint in Rio, You Will Know Me further cemented Megan Abbott's talent as one of the best creators of mean girls (and adults, for that matter) that is currently writing.

"And so gymnastics became the center, the mighty spine of everything for them."

Katie and Eric Knox have given nearly everything in pursuit of their daughter Devon's dreams of becoming a gymnastics superstar. But while many parents would let their children's dreams override any semblance of a normal life for their family, Devon isn't just any aspiring gymnast—her coach believes she can make it all the way to the Olympics. So do the other parents whose children practice in the same gym Devon does—they know their children simply orbit around the planetary force Devon represents and hope that simply being in her presence and watching her might pay off.

Katie and Eric barely have a minute for their "real" lives outside of practices, coaching sessions, and meets. Fortunately their precocious young son Drew is content to watch his sister and occupy himself, so he doesn't appear to mind that he play second fiddle to his sister. And while Katie is the one who spends most of her time shuttling Devon back and forth, Eric has taken an increased role as head of the gym's booster club, and isn't afraid to use his handsome charm when necessary to get things he wants for the gym, especially when they could impact Devon's chances of success.

And then the sudden death of a member of their close-knit gym family throws them all for a loop, and threatens to disrupt Devon's progress toward the tournament for which she has been practicing, which in turn, causes ripples for the other girls and their families. Eric tries to take charge and do what's best for Devon and, by extension, the gym, but Katie starts to wonder if all of that effort, all of the hungry ambition is worth it. Is it worth turning these young girls into women while their bodies don't catch up? Is it worth all of the sacrifice, the hurt, the fears, the destruction of people's lives?

"That was what gymnastics did, though. It aged girls and kept them young forever at the same time."

The more rumors swirl around the gym community, the more Katie tries to figure out just what happened and what, if any role her husband played in the tragedy, while hoping not to discover the actual answers. But as she gets to see the full scope of Devon's ambitions, and all that people will do to ensure their star reaches the heights they believe she is destined for, Katie doesn't know whether to be repulsed or to root for her daughter with all of her might.

Especially in the midst of the 2016 Olympic Games, this book was definitely intriguing, and it's probably a lot more realistic than it might seem at first glance. Abbott created a particularly odious group of characters, most of whom had slightly noble intentions but lost them somewhere along the way. (Those who aren't utterly unlikable are pretty freaking clueless.) This is the third of Abbott's books I've read (after Dare Me and The Fever) which boasts such a motley, well-drawn crew of miscreants.

While this book is certainly entertaining, as I mentioned earlier, you can see the resolution of the "mystery" coming from a mile away. I guess if this book hadn't been peddled so hard as a mystery I might not have cared, but that was the one piece of the book that didn't work for me. This was a fairly fascinating and timely look at the single-minded pursuit of dreams and just how far people would go, but it didn't grab me as much as I hoped it would.

Still, this is a slightly creepy look at the group think of helicopter parents and people who live vicariously through their children's accomplishments. Perhaps you'll recognize someone you know in one of the characters—I certainly did!

Monday, August 15, 2016

Book Review: "A Tragic Kind of Wonderful" by Eric Lindstrom

Mental illness is something many people, including teenagers, live with every day. Yet all too often, these people force themselves to deal with their illness in secret, hiding the truth from loved ones and friends for fear they'll be treated differently, that people will expect less (or more) of them, and that they'll always be thought of as a person with a mental illness rather than simply a person. But of course, not letting those they care about see the truth means that they aren't willing to let themselves be truly known.

"I can't let anyone know what really happened, or what's wrong with me. I can't bear the thought of how they'd look at me, and treat me, if they knew how many pills I take every morning just to act more or less like everybody else."

For 16-year-old Mel Hannigan, life with bipolar disorder is a daily struggle, yet only her parents and her aunt, as well as one friend of her grandmother's, know what she is dealing with. During one particularly bleak period she stayed out of school and isolated herself from her closest friends, so they believed the lies of another friend, and ended their relationship with her. And although she's found new friends, she keeps them at arm's length, never letting them truly see the real Mel.

As Mel tries dealing with the re-emergence of emotions around her old friends, she meets someone new, someone she'd like to pursue a relationship with. But how can she let him in when she knows he won't like the real her, when if he knows the truth he'll treat her differently and always want to hover over her and wonder when her next cycle will be? As she tries to keep her emotions in check around relationships new and old, she also must come to terms with a tragedy from her past, and figure out exactly how she can live in its shadow.

A Tragic Kind of Wonderful is beautiful, heartbreaking, and so accurate in its portrayal of the many shades of bipolar disorder. Eric Lindstrom so perfectly captured Mel's voice through her ups and downs (the downs, which manifest them as ups, are eerie and so candidly portrayed), and how each person in her family deals with her condition. The book also captured the teenage attitude and dialogue without being overly precocious—you can hear these characters saying the things they do in the book without wondering if there really are 25-year-olds inside of them.

This is a book about realizing your problems are too big for only you to handle them, and the importance of trusting people and letting them in, but at the same time recognizes the value and necessity of self-protection. It's a book about letting ourselves feel, and not being afraid to admit how and when we're hurting. And this is an important book for those struggling to understand just what mental illness can do to a person.

I'm always loath to compare books to others, but I'll admit that this reminded me a bit of Jennifer Niven's fantastic All the Bright Places, but more for its honesty and its heart than anything else. They're two wholly different and equally superlative books. Read them both, because they're both tremendously exquisite.

NetGalley and Little, Brown Books for Young Readers provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

Book Review: "Livia Lone" by Barry Eisler

Barry Eisler has done it again. The author of the fantastic series of thrillers featuring John Rain has created another memorable, kick-ass character.

Growing up in Thailand, Labee protected her younger sister, Nason. Labee was brave, feisty, independent, good with tools and with weapons needed to hunt food. One day she and Nason are abducted by a group of traffickers to whom her parents sold them. Labee doesn't understand why they were sold, or what is going to happen to them, but she knows above anything that she must protect Nason. Facing abuse at the hands of their abductors, she constantly tries to keep Nason safe even at her own expense, until one day her rage and protective instinct get the best of her. And that is one of the last times she sees her sister.

When she finds herself rescued in the small town of Llewellyn, Idaho, she isn't sure what to expect, even as she is presented the chance for a new life. Taking the name of Livia, she finds herself not far from the life she knew before despite her surroundings, but the only thing that keeps her surviving on a daily basis is her desire to know what happened to her sister and where she is—and her vow to seek revenge on those who harmed them. She takes this passion for justice and a first-hand knowledge of monsters like her abductors and becomes a sex crimes detective in Seattle. She does everything she can to bring rapists and other criminals to justice, or she handles it her own way when the system fails.

"Sometimes, she almost wanted the prosecutor to say no, or to plea the charges down. It was a reason, an excuse, to do it her way instead. But she knew she had to be careful of that temptation. There was a balance. She respected the system, but she wouldn't be a slave to it."

Slowly but surely she tracks down those responsible for her and Nason's abduction years before. And when she uncovers a massive conspiracy was behind her rescue, for nefarious purposes, she forces herself to relive those days of torture to get the answers she seeks, to try and find what happened to her sister once and for all, and to make people pay. She has waited too long and suffered too much to let anyone get the best of her this time, no matter the risks and no matter what it costs her.

Livia Lone is a dark and disturbing book, but the bravery of its main character and Eisler's storytelling ability make it impossible to put down. Livia is one of the most fascinating female characters I've seen in quite some time, perhaps since first meeting Lisbeth Salander in Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy. She is raw, passionate, brave, and has a tremendous heart to go along with her physical and mental toughness. This is a young woman who thought she has lived her whole life for one purpose, to find her sister, but really helps so many more people through the work she does.

I love the way Eisler writes, and his facility with both action scenes and suspense are tremendous. Livia seems like a character who would be as fascinating to see on film as she was to read about. I hope to see Livia in another book someday—perhaps joining forces with John Rain?

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

Friday, August 12, 2016

Book Review: "The Things We Wish Were True" by Marybeth Mayhew Whalen

"And yet, Jencey understood, there were the things she wished were true, and there was what was actually true. She was learning that there was usually a great distance between the two.

Sycamore Glen, North Carolina is one of those small towns. You know, the ones where everyone knows everyone's business, where people remain entangled in each other's lives from childhood on, where secrets are hidden just out of sight. Bryte grew up in Sycamore Glen, pining for the boy her best friend dated, wanting a love and life to call her own, and years later, she has everything she wanted. But behind her happiness lies a secret, and the pressure to hide it may cause her to risk everything she holds dear.

It seemed that Jencey had everything she could want while growing up in Sycamore Glen. Yet one day she left without warning, without explanation, leaving those who loved and cared about her feeling angry, hurt, and betrayed, and forced to rebuild their lives without her. Years later she returns after her life is upended, and her reappearance causes fears to be reawakened, and ripples into other people's lives.

Zell is the neighborhood helper, always the one to bring food to a family dealing with a tragedy, lend support when it is needed, quietly observe what is going on around her. Yet she has her own secrets, things she hopes never come to light despite the fact that they might help someone else. And there is still things she isn't aware of.

One summer, a near tragedy occurs. It brings people together, threatens to tear others apart, and starts to gnaw away at the secrets everyone has hidden away. The courage and curiosity of one brave young girl is both what the town needs and what could potentially destroy relationships and lives.

If The Things We Wish Were True sounds a lot like a soap opera, it definitely has a soapy, melodramatic tone, and I don't mean that in a disparaging way. There's a lot of drama, both real and manufactured, and these people sure do have a lot of buried skeletons! But amidst the secrets and the fears are inherently good people caught up in circumstances they can't control, and the possibility of redemption and happiness where some might have feared there would be none.

I enjoyed this book, but then again, I always loved a good soapy novel every now and again. While some of the plot twists I saw coming pretty early on (and perhaps that's what was intended), Marybeth Mayhew Whalen threw in some surprises as well. At times this book reminded me of a less campy Desperate Housewives (more for the secrets than the mischief-making women) and at other times it reminded me a little of a Liane Moriarty novel, but it didn't try to steal style from anyone.

Whalen keeps you wondering what will become of her characters, whose names annoyed me but they themselves really didn't. This book feels like a good beach read, but it's just a plain good one.

Lake Union Publishing and Kindle First provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!