Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Book Review: "Unquiet Ghosts" by Glenn Meade

Political intrigue and corruption. Stolen antiquities. The aftereffects of war. Family secrets. Glenn Meade's Unquiet Ghosts hits all of those buttons, and then some. This is a thriller in which very little is what it seems.

Kathy Kelly's life was turned upside down when her husband Jack, a veteran of the Iraq war, was killed in a plane crash, along with the couple's two young children, Amy and Sean. Not a day has gone by when she hasn't felt the pain of losing all of them, and although she has tried valiantly to rebuild her life, she can never seem to get the pieces to fit back together the way they used to when her family was alive.

While their deaths were an absolute shock, they are something she has come to accept every day for the last eight years. Needless to say, she is utterly unprepared for a freak discovery, when a plane crash in the middle of a storm leads authorities to locate the wreckage of Jack's plane, deep in the middle of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, nowhere near where the plane should have been. And while they've been able to find the pilot's remains, there's no sign of Jack's or the children's.

Could they be alive, after all this time? And if so, why have they been hiding from Kathy and making her believe her life had ended with theirs?

The investigation into what happened that night eight years ago uncovers more questions than there are answers, especially based on some mysterious discoveries, and Kathy's growing understanding that there were things her husband, as well as her soldier father and brother, who fought alongside Jack, kept hidden. And the secrets keep on popping up, as Kathy begins to see that other events that marked her life, such as her mother's death years before, may be connected.

Kathy wants the truth. But the truth might kill her, and if it doesn't, it certainly will endanger her and her loved ones, not to mention cause her to question everything and everyone she has held dear. Because there are people who wanted Jack dead, and they'll do anything to make sure this time he gets that way.

Meade throws lots of twists and turns and mystery into this book. There are a lot of parallel plot threads which eventually come together, and they really make you wonder whether there is some truth to some of the fiction that he has created. You may figure out what happened and who was responsible before everyone else does, but this is far from a boring ride—there is some great suspense and some strong action scenes. Meade definitely knows how to tell a story.

Even with all of the above, the book's pacing didn't move as quickly as I wanted it to, and a few times my attention flagged. But overall, this is a good thriller, and I could totally see it being adapted into a movie sometime soon.

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

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Book Review: "Running" by Cara Hoffman

Enigmatic and atmospheric, Cara Hoffman's newest novel, Running, is the story of the relationships which leave an indelible mark on our lives, and the secrets we keep both from each other and ourselves.

Bridey Sullivan arrives in Athens in the 1980s, fleeing a life of tragedy and dysfunction in Washington State. She immediately meets Jasper Lethe and his boyfriend, one-time boxer Milo Rollack, and she joins them in becoming a "runner," essentially a shill paid a small commission to attract tourists to a run-down Greek hotel. There is a thriving culture of these runners in Athens, many of whom spend their paltry salaries on alcohol and drugs, and engage in both friendly and not-so-friendly tactics to drive the tourists to their hotels.

"We'd drifted south from the same lost places to find this life."

Bridey, Milo, and Jasper form a family of sorts, which becomes more and more complicated by Bridey's infatuation with Milo, and Jasper's increasingly erratic behavior. When a scheme to try and make some quick money gets them peripherally involved in an act of terrorism, it signals the end to the trio's idyllic life, and lead to significant changes for each of them.

I wasn't sure about this book at first, but it hooked me fairly quickly. These characters fascinated me, with their raw emotions, their passion, and their mysteries, and it was interesting to see how helter-skelter their lives were while they were running. Hoffman's portrayal of the relationships between the characters was very powerful and I can't stop thinking about them.

Running shifts back and forth in time and place, from Bridey's childhood in Washington before she left for Athens and Milo's working-class existence in Manchester, England, to Athens, to an isolated house on the cliffs of the Mediterranean, and modern-day New York City. At times it takes a moment or two to figure out where in the plot the narrative of a particular chapter falls, and that takes some getting used to, and in many instances, the plot leaves you with as many questions as it does answers, so I'd love to talk with Hoffman about what ideas lay behind these characters.

I read Hoffman's first novel, So Much Pretty, shortly after its release in 2011, and I remember being impressed by her storytelling ability. (Interestingly enough, as you can see from my review, one of my chief criticisms of that book repeats itself here.)

I love the way she's grown as a writer in the last five years, and think this story of how the relationships we form when we're younger often stick with us our entire lives won't be forgotten anytime soon. This may not be a book for everyone, but if you can get your mind around this type of life, you'll be rewarded with a beautiful story.

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

Friday, December 2, 2016

Book Review: "The Mothers" by Brit Bennett

There's an incredible sense of longing that pervades Brit Bennett's terrifically compelling debut novel, The Mothers. There's longing for love of all kinds—maternal, romantic, even the love of good friends—a longing for answers, a longing to find one's place in the world, and a longing for truth. But getting what you think you want doesn't always make things turn out right.

Nadia Turner is smart, destined for a future far better than her parents had. But at the end of her senior year of high school, her mother's unexpected suicide throws everything off-kilter. Her relationship with her father was never completely stable, and now he can't look at her for fear he's reminded of what he has lost. As she tries to make sense of this loss, she begins a relationship with Luke Sheppard, the son of the pastor of her church, a once-golden star athlete whose injury ends his future dreams, leaving him waiting tables at a local restaurant.

Four years her senior, Luke knows his relationship with Nadia is wrong, but he finds comfort in it. Nadia wants more from Luke than he can give, she wants him to take her home to his parents, to hold her hand in public, but instead they must keep everything secret. But when she gets pregnant, she knows the last thing she wants is to be tied to her hometown; she's planning to attend the University of Michigan and isn't going to let anything, much less a baby, hold her back. Although Nadia makes the decision how to handle things, she's unaware of who has their hands in the aftermath.

She spends the summer before college dealing with the consequences of her decision, and she befriends Aubrey Evans, a girl whose mother also abandoned her, although due to estrangement, not suicide. Aubrey and Nadia develop an intensely close bond, yet there is one secret that each girl never reveals to the other, secrets that affect them at every turn.

"...she too understood loss, how it drove you to imagine every possible scenario that might have prevented it."

When Nadia leaves for college, she doesn't come home for several years, and when she does, all of her relationships are more complicated than they were when she left. What does she want, to relive the past or continue building a life completely devoid of connection to what she's known? Can we really outrun the secrets we try to put behind us, no matter whom they may hurt?

The Mothers is showing up on a number of year-end best lists, and I certainly can see why. Bennett has created a narrative rich with emotion, secrets, and, yes, lies, and that sense of longing that I mentioned at the start of my review makes this story even richer. While the elements of the plot aren't necessarily unique, the puzzle pieces come together with great skill and beautiful storytelling. The narrative is accented by a Greek chorus of sorts comprised of the "mothers" of the local church—the elderly women who have seen it all more than once.

It's funny: all I kept thinking of as I read this book was the John Mayer song, "Daughters," particularly these lines:
Girls become lovers who turn into mothers
So mothers be good to your daughters too
I hope this book marks the start of a long and illustrious literary career for Bennett, because she certainly knows how to tell a story. The book isn't perfect, and some threads of the story are left unresolved, but it is still a rich and beautiful story worth reading.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Book Review: "Searching for John Hughes: Or Everything I Thought I Needed to Know about Life I Learned from Watching '80s Movies" by Jason Diamond

As I've remarked on countless occasions, I'm kind of obsessed with all things 1980s. That was the decade of middle school, high school, and part of college, so it represents some pretty significant times in my life, and the movies, television shows, music, celebrities, and other pop culture phenomena of that decade served as touch points, a soundtrack and backdrop along the way.

I'm also a huge movie buff, so I remember spending an immense amount of time at the movies in the 80s, or watching videos over and over again. John Hughes' movies—in particular, Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, Some Kind of Wonderful and Ferris Bueller's Day Off—still are among my favorites, and I can still recite lines from each of them at any time. (Scarily enough, I can even tell you who I was with when I saw these movies for the first time, and where we saw them. Egads.)

Needless to say, when I first heard about Jason Diamond's book, I couldn't wait to read it. Another Hughes fan, who actually was passionate enough about his movies to write a book about them?

"Hughes accomplished the almost impossible task of making me feel inspired. They made me feel as if I could get out and be better. I related to the teens in his movies, their happiness, their sadness, the anger, angst, and longing."

Searching for John Hughes is Diamond's account of his (immensely) troubled childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood, his (incredibly) troubled relationships with his parents, his inability to do much in school except take drugs and zone out, and his struggle to make something of himself and be happy with himself as he grew older. Hughes' movies provided comfort, inspiration, a feeling of kinship, and it was finally the man behind the movies who became the focus of Diamond's obsession, his quest to write Hughes' biography.

I guess I never dug more into the description of this book than the title, because I really expected it to be a discussion of Hughes' movies and their significance to pop culture at the time they were released, and why so many of them continue to endure today, for kids who weren't alive in the 1980s and (shudder) 1990s. Instead, this was more of a memoir of a guy trying desperately to make it in spite of really difficult circumstances, of trying to find a purpose, and find confidence in his future.

Diamond is a really good writer, but his story is really, really harrowing, so much so it became difficult to read after a while. The fact that he found the strength to keep moving forward despite so much adversity, and finally has a career as a writer after spending years writing whatever came to mind is tremendously inspiring. I would love to read more of his writing, but this book just didn't click for me, especially because I was expecting something totally different.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Book Review: "You Will Not Have My Hate" by Antoine Leiris

"So, no, I will not give you the satisfaction of hating you. That is what you want, but to respond to your hate with anger would be to yield to the same ignorance that made you what you are. You want me to be scared, to see my fellow citizens through suspicious eyes, to sacrifice my freedom for security. You have failed. I will not change."

I, like so many people across the world, was riveted to my television the night of November 13, 2015, as we learned of the coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris, particularly the massacre at the Bataclan Theater, which left 90 concert-goers dead and countless more injured. Among those killed was Hélène Muyal-Leiris, a young wife and mother who was attending the concert with a friend.

Three days after his wife's murder, Antoine Leiris wrote a letter to her killers, which he subsequently published on Facebook. He let them, and the world, know that while he had every right to be angry, to hate the terrorists for taking his wife from him and his young son, he wouldn't allow them the luxury of his hate. His post went viral, and Leiris became an inspiration not only to others who lost people in the Paris attacks, but to anyone struggling with a senseless loss at the hands of another. This new role became as much a burden at times as it did an honor.

"Since then, I have been lost: I don't know where I'm going, I don't know how to get there. You can't really count on me...I think about all the others who have written to me. I want to tell them that I feel dwarfed by my own words. Even if I try to convince myself that they are mine, I don't know if I will live up to them. From one day to the next, I might drown."

You Will Not Have My Hate is a short, powerful account of the days and weeks following Hélène's murder. It is raw, emotional, and utterly mesmerizing how Leiris was able to find the strength he needed to face raising his young son alone, handling the rituals alone which he and his wife once performed together. It is also a portrait of a love story and a testament to a woman who left her indelible mark on two lives, although one never really had the chance to know her.

I thought this was beautifully written, emotional without being maudlin, fiercely courageous, and, as you'd imagine, totally moving. But beyond that, I found this really inspirational, both as an account of overcoming a sudden loss and a paean to finding strength and resolve at a time when you have every right not to.

Between this and Paul Kalanithi's exceptional When Breath Becomes Air (see my review), I've found two books to turn to when life's challenges may seem insurmountable. Because if these two men could find the strength to soldier on, I know I will be, too.

Book Review: "A List of Cages" by Robin Roe

This book is at times harrowing and heartbreaking, at times hopeful. But what adds to this book's power is the fact that its plot isn't fantasy, and there are children dealing with these issues every day.

Life changed for Julian five years ago when his beloved parents died. He lived with a foster family until a relative took him in. He misses his parents every day, and this loss truly encompasses him, because they understood him, they supported his creativity, and made life fun.

"It's strange how many ways there are to miss someone. You miss the things they did and who they were, but you also miss who you were to them. The way everything you said and did was beautiful or entertaining or important. How much you mattered."

Now a high school freshman, life couldn't be further from fun. Julian has a number of learning disabilities, including dyslexia, which make school absolute hell for him, and his teachers don't care enough to find out what his problems are, they just berate him, fail him, and send him to the principal. His fellow students ridicule him as well. And he constantly feels as if he is living on eggshells at home, where one wrong step could spell disaster.

One day, Julian is shocked to encounter Adam, who was once his foster brother. Adam, a high school senior assigned to help the school psychologist track down Julian for his appointments (which he always conveniently misses), is excited to see Julian again. He remembers many of the things Julian enjoyed when he was younger, and does everything he can to integrate Julian into his wide circle of friends, despite the difference in their ages, and despite Julian's efforts to try not to call attention to himself.

Adam, who tries valiantly to keep his own ADHD in check (not always successfully), is dealing with his own issues, including a crush on a long-time friend, and his best friend Charlie's unhappiness. But he wants Julian to be a part of his life, and he wants to understand what is happening to him—why is he absent without warning for a few days, why is no one allowed over to his house, why would this relative that took Julian in all those years ago not pay for clothes that fit him?

"He's only four years younger than me, but I feel so much older, or maybe he feels so much younger. I used to think struggle was what aged you, but if that were the case, Julian should've been a hundred years old. Now I wonder if the opposite is true. Maybe instead of accelerating your age, pain won't let you grow."

Things come to a head when Adam starts suspecting things are worse for Julian than he lets on, and Julian tries desperately to keep his friend from finding out the truth. Adam's quest to rescue his friend could wind up seriously endangering both of their lives.

A List of Cages is a sad story that is all too commonplace. Julian is a tremendously special character whose hurt and pain reminded me a tiny bit of Jude's in A Little Life, although the books are vastly different. I enjoyed Adam's character, too, as well as those of his friends and even his mother. I never felt that these kids were more erudite than they should be, which happens all too often in young adult novels.

While the plot isn't necessarily surprising (perhaps we've sadly all become a little too familiar with instances like these), Robin Roe pulls you in to Julian and Adam's stories, makes you care, and makes you feel in the process. I could have done without the one melodramatic plot point, but beyond that, this story gripped me from start to finish. It's hard to read at times because it is so harrowing, but there is light at the end of the tunnel.

I hope this book finds a wide audience because of its subject matter, but also because Roe's storytelling ability is so powerful. I'm glad I had the opportunity to read it.

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

Friday, November 25, 2016

Book Review: "Everything You Want Me to Be" by Mindy Mejia

Hattie Hoffman is a talented, intelligent, beautiful high school senior who wants more out of life than her small Minnesota hometown can offer. She dreams of becoming an actress, of moving to New York City just after graduation. She already has a plan, even if she doesn't know anyone or have much money. She has the talent and she has the drive, but no one around her, not her friends or her family, really understand why she wants to leave, nor do they want her to go.

As her high school career comes to an end, her crowning achievement is starring as Lady Macbeth in her school's production of the Shakespearean tragedy. Her opening night performance was fantastic, and for the first time, people actually started to believe she could make it in New York. But what happened after she left the school after the play? How did she end up murdered?

Hattie's small town is rocked by her murder. Things like this just don't happen in this town, which throws Del Goodman, the local sheriff, for a complete loop. Hattie, the daughter of his fishing buddy, is a girl he has known and adored since she was born. As he investigates Hattie's murder, he uncovers as many unanswered questions as he does facts. Was this, as her best friend has suggested, caused by the famous Macbeth "curse," or was someone (or more than person) responsible for snuffing out this promising life?

What Del discovers as he digs deeper into the case is that Hattie was not only a talented actress—she was talented at being exactly who everyone needed her to be. The slightly rebellious yet loyal daughter, the perfect girlfriend, the exceptional student, the patient listener and friend, the talented actress. But who was Hattie really, and was this mercurial nature responsible, at least in some way, for instigating her death?

Everything You Want Me to Be is a fascinating, suspenseful portrait of a girl torn between what she wanted and what she thought everyone else wanted her to be. The book is narrated by Hattie, Del, and Peter Lund, Hattie's English teacher, who is reasonably new to town, and it shifts between the months and days leading up to Hattie's murder and the investigation.

Mindy Mejia throws in lots of twists and turns, and while the cynical, frequent-mystery-reading me suspected absolutely everyone, I really liked how she let the story unfold. This is a tragedy on many levels, and Mejia's storytelling hooks you from the start and doesn't let you turn away until you see how the book ends. I really enjoyed this and would have devoured it a lot quicker was I not cooking Thanksgiving dinner for 30 people this week!

This is definitely a book to pick up, because even though we've seen elements of this plot before, Mejia makes it seem fresh and makes you care about her characters.

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