Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Book Review: "The Frontman" by Ron Bahar

If John Hughes made a movie about a slightly nerdy, Jewish high school student torn between pleasing his parents and pursuing the career (and the girl) of his dreams, it would be a lot like Ron Bahar's The Frontman. This is a fictionalized account of the author's life in the 1980s, growing up in Lincoln, Nebraska, the son of Israeli immigrants.

For as long as he can remember, Ron has known his parents have expected him to be a stellar student so he can go to medical school. He's willing to work as hard as he can, and he's actually interested in medicine, so following this path isn't too hard for him. But he has other ambitions, too, and he's getting tired of hiding those from his parents or pretending they don't matter.

Ron loves to sing, and he knows the words to nearly every 80s song there is. He's most comfortable lip syncing or singing karaoke, but every now and again he dreams of the glory that could come from being a band's lead singer. When his friends start to give him the opportunity to sing a song or two during their band's performances, he starts to love the adrenaline rush that performing gives him, not to mention the attention he gets from the girls in the audience!

Everyone tells him how talented he is as a singer, and even someone in the music business tells him he shouldn't let his voice go to waste. But his parents don't like the idea of him using his voice for anything other than religious purposes, so how would they react if he abandoned his (and their) dreams of medical school for a career in music?

And that's not his only dilemma. He has had a crush on Amy Andrews, the daughter of close friends of his parents, for quite some time. Amy is beautiful, smart, friendly, and crazy enough, she likes insecure, geeky Ron as much as he likes her. Wounded by her parents' divorce, Amy wants someone to be true to her and protect her, and she wants to believe Ron is that person. Ron wants to be that person, and more than that, he wants Amy. There's just one problem.

"Even at the tender age of twelve, however, I understood that, to my parents, Amy represented the ultimate forbidden fruit: the non-Jewish girl to the Jewish boy. With regard to my feelings, I knew they knew, they knew I knew they knew."

The more success he has in singing, the more jealous and distant Amy becomes, plus he has to hide how much he's enjoying it from his parents. He doesn't want to disappoint them, but whose dreams should he pursue—his or his parents'? Is there a happy medium? Can he get his parents to accept Amy as the one he loves?

This is a goofy, endearing book, full of 80s references (each chapter is prefaced with a snippet of lyrics from a song that hit the charts in the 80s), and quirky humor. Since Bahar lived this life (or at least a version of it), he obviously has a great deal of affection for his characters, even as they do misguided or inappropriate things. And who hasn't struggled between doing what you want and what your parents want?

The Frontman is a quick, fun read, one that brought back lots of memories.

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

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Book Review: "Need to Know" by Karen Cleveland

Wow, this was so good!

If you're looking for a suspenseful thriller that will keep you guessing, one that seems tailor-made for the movies, look no further and pick up Karen Cleveland's Need to Know. (In fact, the film rights have already been sold to Universal Pictures for Charlize Theron.)

Vivian Miller has the perfect life—a handsome, supportive husband, a challenging job as a CIA analyst, and four beautiful kids. Sure, with her career moving at breakneck speed she's not at home as often as she'd like, so she's missing key moments in her children's lives, but she's doing important work that impacts the country, as she tries to track down a Russian sleeper cell here in the U.S. It's what she has been working for, and success means a big promotion.

One day, in the midst of some surveillance on the laptop of someone believed to be a handler of Russian spies, she makes a discovery that takes her breath away and turns everything upside down. For someone who has always been so sure of what her next steps are, she suddenly feels completely out of control, and doesn't know where to turn. But the one thing she does know is she must protect her children, her family, and the life she has known—no matter what the cost.

It seems like whatever decision Vivian makes is the wrong one, and it plunges her deeper and deeper into a situation with serious ramifications. She knows, however, that she is stronger than everyone thinks she is, and she tries to search for a way to turn her situation around. But whom should she trust? How will she know if believing in someone will be her downfall, and possibly cost her her family, her future?

I'm being somewhat vague because even though you can guess some of what will happen in this book, there still are a lot of twists and turns I didn't see coming. From nearly the very first page, Cleveland revs the engine of this story and doesn't let up until the very last page. Vivian is a pretty tough character, and I could totally see an actress like Charlize Theron playing her.

If you like spy thrillers and espionage, or television shows like The Americans, this book should be right up your alley. I nearly read the entire book in a day, because the pacing and the storytelling were top-notch. Now I can't wait to see what Cleveland does next!!

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Book Review: "Digging In" by Loretta Nyhan

My mother, God rest her soul
Couldn't understand why the only man
She had ever loved had been taken
Leaving her to start
With a heart so badly broken
Despite encouragement from me
No words were ever spoken...

—Gilbert O'Sullivan, "Alone Again Naturally"

I loved this! What a great story.

Jesse was a part of Paige's life since eighth grade, and he was her only love. Often it was the two of them against the world, and she always knew she could count on her husband and their marriage. Then one day, an accidental tap of a highway median, and it was all over—he left her alone with their teenage son, Trey.

"Forever. Till death do us part. The thing is, no one tells you what to do when the parting happens. And they forget to explain that when death is sudden, the parting is actually a ragged tear, not a clean separation. It leaves all the ends unfinished, and they just unravel and unravel and..."

That was two years ago, yet she's still drifting through life. The house is in disrepair, the yard is a shambles—much to the chagrin of her uptight neighbor, whose anger seems excessive despite the number of dandelions and other weeds that have popped up. Trey, now a high school senior, is getting increasingly frustrated with his mother's antics, preferring the stability of a friend's house. And even though she used to be able to coast at her advertising job, a new boss has changed the dynamic at work, leaving Paige and her colleagues to compete for their jobs.

"Death was final, but grief wasn't; it was a dirty street fighter who rose again and again even when I thought I had successfully knocked it to the ground. King of the sucker punches."

One night, staring at the condition of her lawn, remembering Jesse's obsession with ensuring it was perfect and reeling from her neighbor's anger at her neglect, she starts to dig. Putting her hands in the dirt feels therapeutic, but she makes a mess. As the hole gets bigger, she decides she's going to turn the entire backyard into a vegetable and herb garden, which again runs her afoul of her neighbor and others in her perfectly ordered and manicured community. Yet for the first time, she doesn't really care.

She's determined to make her garden work, but she's barely holding it together otherwise. Her son is hurting and angry, her boss is disappointed and wondering if he should cut her loose, and her homeowners' association is on her tail, but little by little she realizes she's the only one who can rescue her life. With the help of friends old and new, and the interest of a kind policeman, she starts to take root into her new reality, no matter how difficult it may be.

Even though you've seen this story before, in Loretta Nyhan's hands, it's so engaging, enjoyable, and poignant. Paige is a tremendously sympathetic character, yet she has her flaws, and it's fascinating as she realizes that some of the things that brought her so much comfort throughout her marriage might have left her at a disadvantage now. But as much as she just wants to put her head in the sand and just mourn Jesse forever, she knows she must pull herself and her life together, for her sake as well as her son's.

The way each person deals with grief in this situation is very different, but some of the emotions Paige experiences I've seen in my mother as she has navigated life since my father's death nearly four years ago. Incredibly, Nyhan was in the middle of writing this book when she lost her own husband, which certainly increases the poignancy of this book and Paige's story. There certainly are moments which might bring a tear to your eye, but this isn't a maudlin book in any way—it's warm and immensely readable, and I nearly read the entire book in a day.

Lake Union Publishing made this available through Amazon's First Reads program. Thanks for making this available!

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Book Review: "Crimson Lake" by Candice Fox

I've never been to Australia, but it's definitely a place I'd love to visit someday, and I find myself obsessed with all things Australian. I also think it's a terrific setting for books, particularly thrillers—there's just something about the dry heat, the wetlands, the bush country that seems unrelenting to me, which is one reason I've been drawn to books like Jane Harper's terrific series featuring Aaron Falk, The Dry and Force of Nature, and now, Candice Fox's Crimson Lake.

Ted Conkaffey was a police detective in Sydney—well-respected by his peers and good at his job, happily married with a newborn baby daughter. Needing to escape his house one afternoon after an argument with his sleep-deprived wife, he decides to take a drive and then go fishing. A random stop on the road to fix something in his car puts him in the wrong place at the wrong time, and he has no idea just how those six minutes will turn his life upside down, as he is accused of abducting and attacking a young girl he saw along the road that day.

Imprisoned for a crime he swears he didn't commit, his wife and his longtime friends and colleagues turn their backs on him. His release for insufficient evidence doesn't vindicate him, it merely frees him. With nowhere to go, and no one who believes he's innocent, he heads north to the wetlands of a small town called Crimson Lake. He tries to keep a low profile but it's not long before people figure out who he is and what he stands accused of, so he must defend himself from vigilantes and two dogged policemen who want to do him harm.

Through Ted's lawyer, he connects with Amanda Pharrell, a quirky, eccentric private investigator—and a convicted murderer, who served time for a gruesome crime when she was a teenager. The two team up to try and find out what happened to the author of a wildly popular book series which juxtaposed religion and young adult drama. It turns out the author had some secrets of his own, and there appears to be more than a few people who wished him harm.

As Amanda and Ted work their case, Ted isn't entirely sure whether Amanda was guilty of the crime she was punished for, and he can't stop himself from looking into it. Meanwhile, he continues to be taunted by those who believe he shouldn't be free, and those who don't like the idea of the two criminals joining forces—and some mean to do him, and perhaps Amanda, grave harm if they don't heed their warnings.

This is one of those books that hooks you at page one and doesn't let you go. It's taut, tense, and it packs quite a one-two punch of action and suspense. Ted and Amanda are both fascinating characters—you really don't quite know what to believe about either of them. Fox is a great storyteller, and she really makes you feel you're right there in the croc-infested wetlands with her characters, hearing the sounds of nature and watching your surroundings.

I had never read anything Fox has written before, but I was really impressed. I'm excited there's a second novel in this series due out soon, because I'm definitely hooked. There may be an unending supply of thrillers and mysteries out there these days, but Crimson Lake is one you should add to your list.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Book Review: "The Shakespeare Requirement" by Julie Schumacher

Jason Fitger, the beleaguered English professor who was the protagonist of Julie Schumacher's very funny Dear Committee Members, takes us on a return trip to Payne University in Schumacher's new book, The Shakespeare Requirement. Fitger, pompous and irascible as ever, finds himself elected chair of the English department, and he has no idea of the chaos and aggravation that awaits him.

As if having to work on substandard equipment and in squalid conditions isn't bad enough, the Economics Department and its chair, Roland Gladwell, who convinced the university and corporate sponsors that his department needed state-of-the-art classrooms and technology, now has his eye on the English Department's remaining space. Fitger has to guard himself against angry wasps, faulty air conditioning, and a computer that might work—if he could ever get the University's IT department to schedule an appointment. (And don't try to set up a meeting with him on P-Cal, the university-wide calendar system, as he refuses to use it.)

But these problems are just the tip of the iceberg. He has to deal with a department in shambles, get his colleagues to adopt a new-agey Statement of Vision for the department (just ridiculous), and his attempts to get a 90-year-old Shakespearean scholar to retire backfire when the man convinces the press that Shakespeare isn't important to the English Department any longer. Plus, any requests he has have to be approved by the dean, who happens to be his ex-wife's lover. It's enough to make any man crumble.

The Shakespeare Requirement follows Fitger as he navigates university and department politics, tries to figure out exactly what his relationship is with his ex-wife, and wonders what secrets his assistant, Fran, is hiding. The book shifts narration among a number of characters—Fitger, his ex-wife Janet; Philip, Fitger's boss and Janet's lover; Fran; Roland Gladwell; Professor Cassovan, the Shakespeare expert; and Angela, a sheltered student away from home for the first time.

What I enjoyed so much about Dear Committee Members (see my review) is that it was an epistolary novel—the whole story was told through letters Fitger wrote to various people within and outside the university. His voice was tremendously memorable and at times hysterically funny, plus it reminded me of a committee chairman I was working with at the time.

However, this book is told in the traditional narrative style, which didn't quite work for me. While most of the characters used the same pompous, high-brow language that Fitger did in the earlier book, the story didn't flow as well in this manner. I thought there were too many characters to follow, and after a while there were so many machinations to keep straight, so much politics to navigate, I didn't enjoy it as much as I had hoped.

Stories of systemic dysfunction and office politics are often humorous, and some may find this funnier than I did. There's no doubt that Schumacher is a talented storyteller, and these characters are fascinating. I'd love her to write another epistolary novel someday—it's a terrific change of pace!

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

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Book Review: "In Sight of Stars" by Gae Polisner

Klee (pronounced "Clay") worshiped his father. They shared a love for art and artists, especially van Gogh, and they spent countless hours together painting and visiting museums and galleries, and Klee loved listening to his father's stories, even the ones which were so clearly made up. He knew his father gave up his dreams of becoming an artist to have a stable job as a lawyer, but his father wants him to have the chances he never had.

His father's sudden death turns Klee's life utterly upside down. He's forced to leave New York City, leave his best friends behind, and move to a house in the suburbs with his mother, whom he thinks of as "The Ice Queen." He doesn't think she's sad enough about his father dying, and he blames her for everything that has gone wrong. But he just needs to bide his time a little bit longer before he can go to art school in Boston, fulfilling his father's wishes.

Klee feels angry and abandoned, and isn't dealing well with his grief. But then he meets Sarah, a free-spirited girl in his art class at his new school, and he is drawn to her immediately. She simultaneously draws him in and keeps him at arm's length, but she recognizes Klee's talent and his generous heart (as well as his abs). He starts to think that perhaps Sarah can save him from his crushing grief, but she has her own troubles, and doesn't like it when he broods.

"I follow silently, wondering what it is about her that breaks my heart and fills it at the same time, that scares me but comforts me, that makes me want to tell her things I can't begin to find words for."

One night, feeling that Sarah is pulling away from him and suddenly being confronted with what he believes is the truth about his parents' marriage, things go utterly, utterly wrong. In a moment of abject despair, Klee's actions land him in what is known as the "Ape Can," a psychiatric hospital for teenagers.

As Klee begins to deal with the feelings that sent him spiraling downward, he must begin to confront the truth—about his father, his mother, his parents' relationship, and his relationship with Sarah, and he needs to figure out what is real and what he has imagined, or dreamed into existence. With the help of an understanding therapist, a unique hospital volunteer, and a few of his fellow patients, he starts to realize that he can pick up the pieces and live his life doing what he loves—art.

In Sight of Stars (taken from the van Gogh quote, "For my part I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream") is told in two perspectives—present time and Klee's life after his father's death—in order to get a full picture of the challenges he has faced, and you get to uncover the truth at the same time he does. It is gorgeously told, and you feel the emotions, the struggles, the epiphanies that Klee does.

Gae Polisner, whose last book, The Memory of Things (see my review), made my list of the best books I read in 2016, writes with such beauty, such empathy, such heart. I loved these characters, and wouldn't have minded if the book were twice as long.

I struggled a bit with the start of the book, because in an effort to help you see things from Klee's traumatized and drugged perspective, the narration was a little jumbled and I wasn't sure what was real and what were his hallucinations. But that ended quickly, and I found myself utterly hooked on this story, needing to figure out what had happened. Polisner made me cry, she made me laugh, and she made me think. There were so many times I just marveled at her turn of phrase, or a piece of imagery.

In Sight of Stars might not necessarily break new ground, but it touched my heart and my mind. This is a book that says you can't go it alone, that we need to come to terms with the flaws of those around us as well as our own flaws, admit what is hurting or bothering us, and that is how we can find the strength to move on. I hope those who need to hear that message get their hands on this book.

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!

Monday, March 12, 2018

Book Review: "Us Against You" by Fredrick Backman

"...we only pretend hockey is complicated, because it isn't really. When you strip away all the nonsense surrounding it, the game is simple: everyone gets a stick, there are two nets, two teams. Us against you."

Frederick Backman's Beartown (see my review) was probably the best or second-best book I read last year. This story of a Swedish town that is literally obsessed with hockey, and which faces a crisis that will practically tear the town apart, surprised, delighted, and devastated me, all over the course of a few short hours as I plowed through it very late one night.

Given how I felt about that book, I approached the sequel, Us Against You, with a bit of trepidation. Could Backman achieve magic in Beartown again? Were there new stories to tell, and would they affect me with the same level of emotion and, frankly, devotion, that the first book did? Once again, I plowed through the 450-page book within a few hours, and stayed up very late at night to finish it. Now I can answer my questions unequivocally: yes, yes, and oh my god, yes.

In fact, I'll leave it to Rob Lowe to sum up my feelings.

Beartown is struggling to right itself after the crisis which nearly destroyed the town, but so many lives will never be the same. The town is dealt another blow when it learns that their beloved hockey club will be liquidated, a decision of local politicians, and all of the funding will go to the hockey club of their rival town, Hed, where many of the former Beartown players have gone. This decision upends those for whom hockey was a job, a dream, an escape, a scapegoat, and a tradition.

But one crafty person isn't willing to let Beartown hockey die—it's all part of a larger master plan for power. A most unusual coach is hired, and they begin building a new team with an unlikely squad of players—Benji, the lone wolf battling between self-destruction and redemption; Amat, smaller than the other players but perhaps more talented than anyone; Bobo, Amat's best friend, who can't skate well but can't imagine a life without hockey; and Vidar, an exceptionally talented goalie with an exceptionally short (and dangerous) fuse.

As Beartown, and its residents, try to recover, marriages and long-time friendships will be severely tested, loyalties will be questioned, split-second decisions will damage and endanger lives, and hearts will break. Violence becomes a more-present part of their everyday lives as the rivalry between Beartown and Hed intensifies, and the big game draws near. Everyone will face moments which could utterly destroy them, but amidst all of the darkness, there are glimpses of hope.

"People will say that violence came to Beartown this summer, but that won't be true, because it was already here. Because people are always dependent upon other people, and we can't ever really forgive each other for that."

This book absolutely blew me away. I wasn't sure if Backman had it in him a second time, but he has written a sequel that is just as good as its predecessor, which was exceptional. I love these characters so much—the ones you root for and the ones you root against. Reading this book was like getting to visit old friends—you revel in every minute because you know you'll be sad when your time together is over. That was definitely the case here.

You really should read Beartown first, both because it provides a great framework on which this book is built, and because it is fantastic on its own. Even though these books are about a hockey-obsessed town, they are about so much more than that. That's where Backman keeps surprising you.

God, I hope there's a third book. I'm ready for another late-night read, where I'm laughing and sobbing and feeling sentimental all over again. Who can ask for anything more?

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