Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Book Review: "Anything is Possible" by Elizabeth Strout

I don't know about you, but people watching utterly fascinates me. It's really amusing to watch the dynamics of families and groups of friends, but what's even more fun is making up stories about those we see, developing a narrative about their relationships, challenges, and victories. (It would be great to find out how far from the truth these stories are, wouldn't it?)

Reading Elizabeth Strout's new collection of linked stories, Anything is Possible, feels like a cross between people-watching and eavesdropping, because the stories give you glimpses into people's lives you might not ordinarily get, without facing the embarrassing risk of getting caught. These stories are beautifully written, at times utterly moving, and, like people-watching, often truly fascinating and compelling.

I haven't read Strout's My Name is Lucy Barton, but the stories in this collection feature Lucy's small Midwestern hometown of Amgash, Illinois, and Lucy has a presence in many of the stories, and an adult Lucy is a character in one. These are stories of people struggling with challenges—emotional, romantic, familial, professional, even philosophical. As Strout says of a character in one of her stories, but this applies to most of them, "Life had simply not been what she thought it would be."

My favorites in this collection included: "The Sign," in which an elderly man finds his faith tested after a conversation he has with a troubled man he occasionally looks after; "Sister," where an adult Lucy Barton returns to her hometown and her siblings after being away for nearly 20 years; "The Hit-Thumb Theory," about a Vietnam veteran suffering from PTSD who has a dilemma that could radically change the course of his life, and he finds a moment's solace in a small bed-and-breakfast; "Windmills," in which a lonely widow changes her life after reading a book written by someone from her hometown; and "Snow-Blind," about a shocking discovery a young actress makes after she has left her family behind.

These are not happy, well-adjusted people in many cases. A few of the stories deal with odd sexual situations, and at times the characters are quite mean to each other. But Strout's talent as a storyteller makes even the somewhat bizarre stories, and those with unappealing characters interesting, and you want to keep reading them.

Interestingly enough, I've only read one of Strout's earlier books, The Burgess Boys, and I didn't like it that much. But now I'll definitely need to read more of her work, because I really found these stories moving and so well-written. If I had any criticism, it's that she uses subsequent stories to advance the plot of previous ones, referring to a character and saying, "Did you hear that so-and-so did...?" But that was a minor irritation for me.

I know short stories, even linked ones, don't appeal to everyone. But Anything is Possible feels a little like hanging out a party—you spend some time with lots of different people and get the opportunity to hear something about their lives and what makes them tick, then you move on. But the good news is, you don't have to bring an appetizer, help clean up, or worry how you're going to get home afterward.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Book Review: "The Awkward Age" by Francesca Segal

Ah, family drama. What would we do without you? I'm just glad none of these issues happened on The Brady Bunch (although apparently some of the shenanigans were occurring backstage)!

It has been a number of years since Julia Alden's husband died, leaving her with a young daughter, Gwen. Julia and Gwen have been an inseparable duo, weathering life's problems and enjoying adventures together, just the two of them. But now Julia has fallen in love with James, an American OB/GYN who has made his home in England for years. James has awakened Julia's passions—for life, love, sex, and security—things she figured she'd never find again.

The two plan to merge their lives and their households together, and receive nothing but enthusiastic support from James' daughter as well as Julia's inlaws, a couple which has their own interesting relationship. The roadblock? Gwen, now 16, completely dislikes James, and can't even deign to keep her hatred a secret. Not only does she resent the fact that her mother has found happiness again and (as she sees it) abandoned her, she now has to share her house with James and his egotistical, 17-year-old son, Nathan.

Every day is an emotional minefield for the blended family. But after a Thanksgiving trip to James' Boston hometown, Gwen and Nathan begin to see each other in a different light. It's not long before the new relationship turns the household upside down, bringing drama and recrimination, and severely testing Julia and James' relationship.

"How was it possible that one spoiled, angry teenager had wrested control of all their lives?"

Even as your children grow to adulthood, are you expected to sacrifice your own happiness for their sake? Should your loyalty always lie with your own child, even if it might cause stress in your own romantic relationship? How much, and for how long, should you owe your child for a difficult childhood? Does honesty really mean telling the person you love everything you feel, even if it's about their child?

The Awkward Age is an interesting look at these questions. It's a take on modern relationships, gender roles, and how often the things we don't say to one another can cause the most damage. The book definitely has a soap opera-esque feel, even veering into melodrama, and at times I wanted to shake some of these characters to get them to be sensible.

I absolutely loved Francesca Segal's first novel, The Innocents (see my original review), an interpretation of The Age of Innocence set in a Jewish suburb of London. Segal created fascinating characters and a plot you couldn't tear yourself away from.

I didn't feel as if she succeeded as well with The Awkward Age. I thought the first part of the book, which dealt with Julia and James' growing relationship and how everyone around them reacted, was really interesting, but once the melodrama began it lost a bit of its appeal. Perhaps the plot was realistic, but everyone just acted so unpleasantly and dodged around the elephant in the room for so long, I wished I could have walked into the story and set everyone straight.

Segal is an excellent writer, and there is a lot to like about this book. Her characters, while irritating, are really well-drawn. (I found Julia's inlaws and James' ex-wife fascinating.) I just wish this book was less dramatic and more contemplative, because when her storytelling does the talking, the reader definitely wins. (P.S.: Definitely read The Innocents!)

Monday, May 22, 2017

Book Review: "He Said/She Said" by Erin Kelly

Now that's the way you do a thriller.

Kit and Laura are young and newly in love in the summer of 1999. Kit, who has been chasing solar eclipses since his childhood, convinces Laura to join him on a trek to Cornwall for a festival, during which they're expected to see a total eclipse of the sun. While the weather doesn't quite cooperate to give them the full eclipse experience, it still wows Laura, as she truly understands why Kit finds these events so mesmerizing, and loves being able to share them with the man she loves.

Walking back to their campsite after the eclipse, Laura comes upon a man and a woman. At first she doesn't understand what she's seeing, but then she realizes that the man appears to be taking advantage of the woman. She, then Kit, intervenes, the woman is dazed, the man is angry and protests his innocence. Once the authorities take over, the peace of the event is shattered for Kit and Laura, knowing they may find themselves part of a trial in the future.

After the case is over, the woman gets in touch with Laura to express her gratitude for their help. As the woman becomes needier and needier, both Laura and Kit have concerns, but how can Laura turn a woman away who has had her whole life turned upside down, even been betrayed by those she considered friends? Little by little, Laura starts feeling unsure that she made the right decisions—did she actually see what she thinks she saw? Is the victim as innocent as she appeared?

"...that's the thing with secrets. They're leaky; you can't decide to share the bits that suit you without a million questions oozing out. You have to solder a part of yourself shut."

Fifteen years later, Kit and Laura have changed their names and live almost in hiding, off the physical and virtual grid. Every move they make is one made cautiously, and both live in fear that everything they've built can be destroyed in a moment. But while they share the same fears, they also have vastly different things they are afraid of, things which have caused Laura nearly paralyzing anxiety and have strained their marriage.

"There is so much unshared life to intrude upon the marriage; so much opposing history. The defining event of my life is the defining event of Laura's. I don't know how couples who haven't been through something like that stick together."

With so much at stake, they know their fears will catch up with them. And when they do, will they—and their marriage—be able to survive?

He Said/She Said seems like a pretty basic thriller at first, but Erin Kelly's storytelling keeps you hooked. If you read thrillers, or even watch crime-type shows on television, you've seen this story before, and you have a feeling what will happen. At least you think you have. But Kelly never rests on plot-as-usual; she stretches everything to the limit, so just as some of the things you expect to happen do, the next second you're shocked by what else unfolds.

The book may get a little more melodramatic than it needs to at times, and because certain aspects of the story take a while to unfold, I found myself confused by the behavior of some of the characters. But this was a really well-written book, and Kelly kept me hooked from start to finish. While I could have passed on the jet-lag-induced insomnia, I didn't mind passing the time devouring the remainder of this book.

I've only read one of Kelly's previous books, The Poison Tree, and I remember enjoying that, too. While she's apparently referred to as "the queen of the killer twist," I think if you just let the story unfold as Kelly intended it, and don't keep focusing on the twist, you'll be able to concentrate on all of the things that made this a great thriller.

NetGalley and St. Martin's Press provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Book Review: "Edgar and Lucy" by Victor Lodato

Edgar Allan Fini is an eight-year-old boy unlike any other. Because he suffers from albinism, his physical appearance is tremendously unique (a fact not quite appreciated by his bullying peers), but his heart and his mind are far more advanced in many ways than most kids his age. Since his father's death when he was a baby—an event no one speaks of—he lives with his mother, Lucy, and his beloved grandmother, Florence, with whom he has a special connection.

"Even those who loved you best were bound to find the flaws if they stared long enough. To lose his grandmother's favor would be the end of everything. Unlike his mother, whose light flashed on him only intermittently, like the beam of a lighthouse, the old woman was nothing less than the sun. The idea that she might think less of him filled the boy with shame."

Edgar has his secrets, but then again, so do Lucy and Florence. Lucy mourns for the passionate, troubled man who rescued her from a troubled childhood and loved her fiercely, yet she continues to be angry with him for leaving her alone with his mother and their infant son. She tries to fill her husband's absence with alcohol and destructive relationships with other men, yet she can't help but wonder if she made the right choice all those years ago when her husband needed her most. While she loves Edgar, she doesn't know how to deal with him, and is happy to defer his parenting to Florence, despite what she believes Florence thinks about her.

Florence, on the other hand, mourns for her lost son and tries to understand what happened to him and what role she played in his problems. She has pinned all of her hopes on Edgar, and loves the young boy with the force of her being, yet she wants to be sure he doesn't follow in his father's footsteps. She tries desperately to shelter him from the outside world, and from the mess she believes Lucy is making of her life and the memory of her son.

One day, feeling hurt, alone, confused, and angry, Edgar makes the decision to befriend a man with his own secrets and his own tragedy. It is a decision that impacts both his and Lucy's lives profoundly. Edgar must figure out what means the most to him, and what he truly wants, while Lucy must come to terms with her marriage, her husband's problems, her own childhood, and her relationship with her son.

I'm being fairly vague with my plot description because there are a lot of elements which are more powerful if you let them unfold rather than learn about them in advance.

Edgar and Lucy is a book a number of my Goodreads friends rated very highly and felt very passionate about, so despite my trying to tamp down my expectations, I had high hopes. This is a beautifully written book—seriously, Victor Lodato is a prose master, creating imagery and using language which truly took my breath away. It's very powerful emotionally, and Edgar and Florence's relationship made me a little teary. But despite the beauty of its storytelling, I liked, but didn't love the book.

I wished that the story was tighter, as I felt the plot dragged on longer than it needed to. After a while I just wanted the plot to resolve itself. There are elements of mysticism I didn't quite understand, and at times there were characters I felt were extraneous. I was thankful that Lodato didn't take the story down a path I feared, and I felt that there was so much going on at times that it diluted the powerful heart of the story. But maybe these are the quibbles of someone who expected too much—perhaps if you just go into this book knowing you'll be moved, you may enjoy it more than I did.

At its heart, Edgar and Lucy is a book about the beauty and pain which come with relationships and love of all kinds, and how painful it can be to be the one left behind. If you like beautiful writing, you'll be blown away. Heck, you may even cry.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Book Review: "The Breakdown" by B.A. Paris

As Kermit the Frog is fond of saying, it's not easy being green. It's also not easy being a voracious yet all-too-human of a reader, who tries desperately not to let the hype of all of my Goodreads' friends five-star reviews creep in and color my expectations of a book. Sometimes immovable Robot Larry wins, and sometimes the flawed mess more commonly known as Larry does. Apologies in advance.

Cass seems to have it all—a loving husband, a job she enjoys, a secure financial position, and good friends. One night in the middle of a huge rainstorm, she takes a shortcut home through the woods (in her car, not with her picnic basket), even though she promised her husband she would avoid that route. When she's nearly home she comes upon a car on the side of the road, in the midst of the storm, and she sees a woman sitting in the car.

Cass should stop and see if the woman needs help, right? But the woman doesn't have her flashers on, and didn't honk her horn—wouldn't she do that if she needed help? Then Cass realizes this could be a scam of some sort, one which might leave her vulnerable in the middle of the woods on a rainy night, with no mobile service to call for help. Since the woman must already be waiting for help, Cass decides to drive home and alert the authorities afterward, but when she arrives home she forgets about it.

The next morning, Cass is distraught to find out a woman was found murdered in her car in the woods the previous night, the woman she saw. But she was fine when she drove by, wasn't she? Or was the killer still in the woods, waiting to see if Cass would stop so he could kill her, too? Cass is utterly wracked by guilt, but she can't admit to her husband that she took the shortcut. As the days following the murder pass, Cass is barely able to function—she's consumed by the thought that she could have helped the victim, and she's growing increasingly more afraid that the murderer saw her stop that night, and is planning to silence her.

Cass' days are spent feeling convinced she's being watched, worrying that someone is trying to break into her house, and someone keeps calling her house but not saying anything. She's coming utterly unglued, and to make matters worse, she's starting to forget things—plans she's made, occasions she's planned—even whether she took her pills or activated the burglar alarm. The only way she can seem to cope is by taking pills to calm her anxiety, but they leave her in a drugged stupor, much to the chagrin of her husband.

Why can't she get past the murder? What is happening to her that she can't remember anything? Will she wind up alone, unaware of what is going on around her?

The Breakdown took a while to build up speed and tension. Obviously you know something will happen, but you don't know what or when. For a while, Cass' character really started grating on my nerves because she was just a sniveling mess, falling to pieces at the slightest thing, yet taking all sorts of risks. And then...BOOM. B.A. Paris throws in a twist which, while not utterly surprising, really turns the plot on its ear and sends the book careening to its conclusion.

I haven't yet read Behind Closed Doors so this was my introduction to Paris' storytelling. Once the book hit its stride, I really enjoyed it, and found myself reading it quicker and quicker, so I could see how everything panned out. While it took a little while for the tension to build, once it started she didn't let up, which is the mark of a good thriller.

I tend to be really hard on thrillers, so I can totally see why others fell so hard for this one. I still have Behind Closed Doors on my to-read list, and I have little doubt that The Breakdown will be seen on beaches, airplanes, and e-readers once it is released this summer, and deservedly so.

NetGalley and St. Martin's Press provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Book Review: "A Promise to Kill" by Erik Storey

If you like your thrillers heavy on action and a little lighter on plot, check out A Promise to Kill, the second book in Erik Storey's series featuring mercenary-turned-drifter Clyde Barr. Storey knows how to write some great action scenes, and this book has lots of fighting, battles between good guys and bad, situations in which a female character saves the day (just like real life, more often than not), and even a little terrorism.

Clyde Barr is a solitary man, but one who understands the meaning of loyalty. It's not so much that he never shies away from a fight, it's just he is very committed to making sure that the little guy, such as it is, doesn't get taken advantage of. It was the hallmark of his time as a mercenary of sorts in Africa, the Middle East, and South America, and he paid the price for it at one point, with a stint in a Mexican jail.
(P.S.: I'm not casting aspersions on Barr's character. I just love this line.)

Barr is wandering in the Utah desert, alone with a horse and a mule, planning to clear his mind and do some hunting. He runs into an elderly Native American man from the nearby Ute reservation who is in the throes of a medical emergency and rushes him to the hospital, despite the man's reluctance to be off the rez. At the hospital, he meets the old man's daughter, Lawana, a doctor at the reservation's clinic, and his grandson Taylor. Seeing that they're in need of help at the family's ranch, Barr agrees to stay on to help until the man is on his feet again. Although Lawana doesn't quite trust him, she is in desperate need of help.

It isn't long before Barr notices the reservation is in some trouble: a group of bikers has overrun the place, filling the community with fear and violence. The one tribal policeman can't do anything about it because he can't arrest white men, and the government won't get involved in cases like these. Despite his instincts to try and solve the crisis and send the bikers on their way, Barr tries to lay low and focus on working the ranch, but it isn't long before the bikers attack a local boy, and send Barr's temper skyrocketing. Lawana warns him not to make trouble, but avoiding trouble isn't what makes him tick.

As Barr and some local tribe members prepare to do battle, he discovers that the reason the bikers have taken over the reservation and refuse to stay isn't just a penchant for violence and a need for power: there are more nefarious elements involved, and the threat actually ranges far beyond the reservation itself. When his actions put Lawana and Taylor in danger, Barr knows he must act and act quickly, but is this an enemy he can beat? Can one man really protect an entire town? Will the members of the tribe rally around an outsider?

I really enjoyed this book and read the entire thing in one sitting on a plane ride. The action sequences really kept the story rolling along to its conclusion, and while I wasn't surprised by much of what happened (and wondered if one whole plot element was even necessary), I was pretty hooked anyway. Storey writes really good thrillers, also evidenced by the first book in his Barr series, Nothing Short of Dying (see my original review).

As I mentioned earlier, the book doesn't spend a lot of time in backstory, which suits this book well. This is one you can pick up even if you didn't read Storey's first book in the series. This type of drifter-ish character, like a Lee Reacher, is always fascinating, and Storey has definitely created a memorable member of that group. If you like this genre, check this guy out.

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

Monday, May 15, 2017

Book Review: "At the Edge of the Universe" by Shaun David Hutchinson

Did you ever get the feeling you and an author would be great friends (or perhaps mortal enemies), simply based on the books they write and the way they tell stories? Even if that's irrational as thinking you'd be great friends with a television character, I still believe that from time to time.

Near the top of my list would be Shaun David Hutchinson, who absolutely slayed me with We Are the Ants (see my original review), which was in the top five of the best books I read last year. Now he's back with At the Edge of the Universe, which I loved nearly as much, and it just convinced me I'd love to spend time just talking to Hutchinson and understanding how he thinks. At the very least, I'd love to be friends with one of his characters.

Ozzie and Tommy have been best friends since childhood, and they've been boyfriends since the eighth grade. Tommy is so much of Ozzie's world, the two have weathered so much, particularly Tommy's abusive father, and they dream of one day escaping their Florida hometown. And then one day, Tommy disappears, without any warning. But worse that that, Tommy has ceased to exist—no one but Ozzie remembers Tommy, and all of the memories that the two shared, or shared with others, have been amended or totally rewritten.

"It's impossible to let go of the people we love. Pieces of them remain embedded inside of us like shrapnel. Every breath causes these fragments to burrow through our muscles, nearer to our hearts. And we think the pain will kill us, but it won't. Eventually, scar tissue forms around those twisted splinters like cocoons. They remain part of us, but slowly hurt less. At least, I hoped they would."

As Ozzie desperately tries to figure out what happened to Tommy, and convince those around him—including Tommy's mother—that he actually existed, Ozzie begins to realize that the universe is shrinking, and perhaps Tommy was taken away into some alternate universe. But that's not the only crisis Ozzie has to face—his parents are getting divorced, his older brother has joined the military and is about to head to basic training, and one of his best friends, Lua, is becoming distant as her dreams of musical success start coming to fruition.

Then Ozzie is paired with Calvin on a physics class project. Calvin was once a star wrestler, class president, and all-around popular guy, until the day he quit wrestling and student council, came into school every day wearing the same hoodie and jeans, and mostly sleeps through class. Obviously there's something that made Calvin change so abruptly, and Ozzie wants to get to the bottom of it, but at the same time, he really can only focus on finding Tommy. But as he gets to know Calvin, he can't deny that he might be falling for him, but he doesn't know what to do—is it unfair to Tommy for Ozzie to pursue another relationship, or should he try and move on? And what if Tommy really doesn't exist?

As the universe continues to shrink, and Ozzie's life continues to change, he knows he has a finite amount of time to find Tommy. But he also realizes there are so many more people in his life with problems. Should he help solve those, even if it might betray their trust, or should he not lose site of his goal? And will there be a universe left when he decides?

Even though it's a little confusing when the plot goes all science-y, this is a beautiful book that hits you right in your heart. Once again, Hutchinson combines sci-fi and emotion to create a tremendously compelling, moving story about friendship, love, loyalty, trust, family, secrets, and selfishness. There is so much here to like, even if the characters aren't always 100 percent sympathetic, but it is Hutchinson's storytelling, his use of language and dialogue, that kicks this book up another notch. His characters may be wiser than their years, but they don't sound as if they just walked out of a John Green novel, where every sentence is a sarcastic burn or a philosophical insight.

Hutchinson is open that as a teenager he struggled with depression and contemplated suicide, so he has a tremendous amount of empathy for his characters and their problems. I do wish he had dwelled a little less on the physics, but it didn't keep me from loving this book and these characters. Like We Are the Ants, it will be a long while before I'll be able to get this story out of my mind. Is it 100 percent plausible? No. Does it matter? Not to me, given how tightly it grabbed my heart.