Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Book Review: "Killman Creek" by Rachel Caine

After delivering a heart-pounding, stay-up-real-late-to-finish-it thriller with Stillhouse Lake (which was one of the best books I read last year), Rachel Caine returns with Killman Creek, another adrenaline-boosted installment in this series. Once again, she delivers quite a punch!

“For years I clung to a terrible fiction of a marriage—a life in which Melvin Royal controlled every aspect of my reality, and I failed to realize or fear it. Gina Royal, the old me, the vulnerable me…she and the kids were Melvin’s camouflage for his secret, terrible life. On my side of the wall, I had only known that it all seemed so normal. But it never was, and now that I’ve left Gina Royal behind I clearly see that. I’m not Gina anymore. Gina was tentative and worried and weak. Gina would be afraid that Melvin would come hunting for her. Gwen Proctor is ready for him. I know in my heart that it all comes down to us. Mr. and Mrs. Royal. In the end, it always has.”

Gina Royal seemed to be living the perfect suburban life—loving (although slightly controlling) husband, two beautiful children. Then one day that illusion shattered when she and the world realized Melvin was a brutal murderer, and he perpetrated his crimes in their garage. After being arrested as his possible accomplice and facing the scrutiny of those who wondered how she could be so oblivious, Gina took the kids and fled, changing their names and hiding where she hoped those who believed she was responsible for her husband’s imprisonment and promised to make her pay couldn’t find her. Gina became Gwen Proctor, a kickass, take-no-prisoners, fiercely protective mother.

But even when they thought they found security in idyllic Stillhouse Lake, that illusion was again shattered. And although she wants to flee with her kids again, when she learns that Melvin has escaped from prison, she knows that he will stop at nothing to find her and the kids. She cannot—she will not—let him get to them, but she’s more than willing to use herself as bait if she has to.

Melvin isn’t willing to end Gwen’s anxiety anytime soon, however. Aided by a shadowy group of hackers and thugs, Melvin won’t be happy until he destroys Gwen and everything she holds dear, especially her already-shaky relationship with their children. There comes a point when even Gwen can no longer completely believe she didn’t play a part in Melvin’s crimes, leaving her completely isolated and vulnerable.

“You never understand how vulnerable you are in this age of social media until something breaks against you, and then…then it’s too late. You can shut down Facebook, Twitter, Instagram; you can change your phone number and your e-mail. Move to new places. But for dedicated tormentors, that isn’t a barrier. It’s a challenge.”

Is there anyone left for Gwen to depend on, or should she just surrender to Melvin’s manipulations, if it means saving her children? Will that even satisfy him? And as far as the kids are concerned, do they know whom they can trust? Will their decisions lead them into the trouble their mother warned them about, or will they realize a different truth about her, too?

Killman Creek is an excellent follow-up novel, nearly as strong as its predecessor. In this book, Caine shifts narration between Gwen, her kids, and Sam Cade, the mysterious man the family has called friend even though his motivations are questionable.

Caine is one terrific writer. She can balance razor-sharp action, nail-biting suspense, and moments of actual emotion, as she explores what hell Melvin hath wrought, and its effect on everyone involved in the story. There are times that you don’t know what is going to happen, or whom you should trust, and there are times you want to scream at the characters for making stupid blunders.

I’ll admit I would have been happier had the book been narrated just by Gwen and Sam, but I understood the perspectives the kids brought to the story, and the deepening of the narrative by doing so. As annoying as some of their actions were, they seemed true-to-life, especially for kids in the middle of such a maelstrom.

While you can read this book without reading Stillhouse Lake, why would you? Start at the beginning and then read this book. You’ll savor two taut thrillers in the hands of a badass writer. I can’t wait for what comes next!!

See all of my reviews at itseithersadnessoreuphoria.blogspot.com, or check out my list of the best books I read in 2017 at https://itseithersadnessoreuphoria.blogspot.com/2018/01/the-best-books-i-read-in-2017.html.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Book Review: "This Could Hurt" by Jillian Medoff

Things at Ellery Consumer Research Group haven't quite been the same since the crash of 2008. Even the HR department took its licks, shrinking from 22 to 16 to 13 people, then finally to 11. But even though promises of stability were made throughout the company, even a year later, times were tough, and rumors of more layoffs float throughout the halls.

Rosa Guerrero is the chief of human resources at Ellery, a woman who fought hard through the years to get where she is now. She battled hostility, sexism, ethnic prejudice, but now, comfortably in her 60s, she rules the roost, and is well-respected throughout the company and within her own department. She knows the importance of both looking the part and acting it, and her own employees seek her advice, her counsel, her knowledge, and of course, her approval and favor.

She knows that the company may need to downsize itself a little longer, but she wants to do everything to protect her employees. She tries to put plans in place that will keep her staff out of the crossfire, while continuing to demonstrate her value and that of her team, but circumstances constantly foil her. Her staff is somewhat of a motley crew of ambition, ego, insecurity, hunger for power, and occasional dysfunction. What's a boss to do?

After discovering the wrongdoing of one long-time employee, Rosa feels betrayed, and starts to wonder how much longer she can handle the pressure of the job, especially as the CEO is breathing down her neck, expecting her to find ways that will allow for more people to be laid off. Little by little, chinks start to appear in Rosa's once-impenetrable armor, and her staff realizes they must protect her if they're going to be able to protect themselves.

This Could Hurt follows Rosa and her employees through a tumultuous year. From Lucy, the immensely ambitious yet insecure woman whose professional life flourishes while her personal life languishes, to Kenny, whose degree from Wharton makes him feel he's just biding time in this job until something better comes along—until he realizes nothing might, Leo, fiercely devoted to Rosa and the company, yet unhappy with himself and the path his life appears to be on, to Rob, happily married yet wanting more than he has, each employee faces crises, of conscience, of faith, and in their lives.

Truth be told, this book didn't work for me. I think it couldn't decide whether it wanted to be funny (sporadically the book features unnecessary footnotes a la Kevin Kwan's Crazy Rich Asians series, yet none were as humorous as intended) or serious, because the book did deal with some emotional issues as well as office politics, but it never stayed firmly in one camp. While I started out thinking the characters were interesting, none of them were really that likable, and their foibles and issues became repetitive.

I feel like when authors write novels about the workplace, they strive to capture the magic that the television show The Office had, but I've yet to find a book that can tap into that effectively. This Could Hurt is well-written and had an interesting premise, but it took too long to wrap itself up, and its conclusion, told in organizational charts over the years, is jarring, because they divulge changes in the characters' lives without explaining them.

I'm disappointed, but you can't win them all. At least reading this book made me realize I've worked in far crazier and more dysfunctional places, no contest there!

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Book Review: "Fire Sermon" by Jamie Quatro

When Garth Greenwell, whose book What Belongs To You (see my review), absolutely blew me away last year (it even ranked in the top five of the best books I read in 2016), took a pause from his social media hiatus to encourage people to read Jamie Quatro's Fire Sermon because of its absolute beauty, you can believe I listened.

I've got to say, Greenwell didn't steer me wrong. This book contains some of the most gorgeous prose I've read in some time, although the book as a whole didn't quite hit a home run for me. Still, there's so much raw emotion here—love, loss, hope, regret, fear, grief, wonder, and need—so it's really something.

"Was it something we carried in ourselves—something I sent out to you, and you sent out to me? Or did it exist independently, a potential fire hovering in the middle space between us, appearing only when we looked at one another? In which case, the second we stopped looking, the fire disappeared."

Maggie and Thomas met in college and married shortly after graduation. Maggie is a scholar, but is willing to put her educational pursuits on hold while she raises the couple's two children. She is happy (for the most part) doing her part to be the dutiful wife, devoted to her husband, her children, and God. While their relationship isn't perfect, she knows Thomas loves her passionately, and she feels secure in their life together.

When she resumes her teaching career, she begins a correspondence with James, a poet. At first, she is dazzled by his talent and marvels at their shared interest in theological writing, and their correspondence is professional and intellectual. But little by little, their communication transforms into something deeper, something that offers temptation, fantasy, perhaps even hope. When they finally meet, they are overcome by their feelings, and Maggie realizes all she has been missing her entire life.

Yet all too quickly, as strong as their feelings for each other run, they are consumed by guilt. Maggie must reconcile her devotion to God with her infidelity, her desire to throw everything away for James with the vows she took to love her husband until death do they part. They try to avoid seeing each other, even talking to one another, sticking solely to correspondence, but even that is tremendously difficult.

Will God forgive her? Should she confess to Thomas, even if that might jeopardize the family she holds so dear? Does she even deserve all that God gives her? Should she follow her heart, and stop caring about the consequences?

"(But would you leave a husband who, when you wake in the middle of the night, your body slick with sweat—dreaming you had to say goodbye to a man you slept with, once upon a time, but the man doesn't care, he has better things to do, he doesn't mind that he'll never see you again and the pain in your chest is so acute it forces you awake, gasping for air—this husband gets up to bring you a glass of water, then holds your hand across the mattress until you fall asleep? A man who, when your son brings home a girl who dropped out of high school and wants only to get married and have a kid, sits with her for an hour and talks about the benefits of higher education, offers to pay for her to take the GED and apply to colleges? Would you leave such a man? Or would you think: confess, repent, he is the one who should leave?)"

Fire Sermon examines one woman's struggles between the life she promised to live when she was 21 years old and the life she believes she so desperately wants, essentially a battle between duty and passion. At times powerful, at times quietly poignant, this is a book full of passion, conflict, need, and faith.

The book jumps between past and present, between Maggie's relationship with Thomas and her time with James, and also includes a great deal of theological conversation between Maggie and James, and Maggie's own conversations with God and an unidentified person. As someone who doesn't have much awareness of theology, while I understood the point that Quatro was making, I felt like those portions of the story slowed everything down and didn't quite work for me.

Maggie is a fascinating, fiery, flawed character, and Quatro draws her with such complexity. I was so taken by the storytelling and the language she used here, and I absolutely need to read her story collection now. Even though this book didn't quite knock me out, it's a story that really made me think, and I can't stop marveling at what a fantastic writer Quatro is.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Book Review: "Tin Man" by Sarah Winman

Oh my god, did I love this book. I don't know if everyone will feel the same way I did, but this one had me from the first page to the last.

I know that blurbs on the covers of books often come from friends or other authors from the same publisher, but when Matt Haig says, "This is an astoundingly beautiful book. It drips with tenderness. It breaks your heart and warms it all at once," how can you resist?

"'There's something about first love, isn't there?' she said. 'It's untouchable to those who played no part in it. But it's the measure of all that follows,' she said."

Ellis is a quiet boy growing up outside London. His mother has always felt a little stifled in their town, so she wanted Ellis to follow his dreams, to keep drawing, and to stay in school, paths that aren't necessarily encouraged in the 1960s. He meets Michael, the grandson of a local shopkeeper, and they become fast friends, Michael's more ebullient nature as a complement to Ellis' thoughtfulness.

As the two grow into manhood, they are nearly inseparable. Their friendship transforms, deepens, but both cannot give what the other wants. Then one day Ellis meets Annie and the two are instantly smitten with one another. Yet this isn't the type of story in which one friend gets discarded when the other gets married—Michael becomes a part of Ellis and Annie, an inseparable companion to each in a different way. They are whole when the three are together, mischievous, exuberant, bold.

But after a time, Michael needs to live his own life, and he leaves Ellis and Annie behind. This challenges the couple, as they find themselves becoming what they always swore they wouldn't be—ordinary. And as Michael sees places in the world he always wanted to, and experiences deep emotion, he feels a hole where his friends once were.

"In those days of my twenties and early thirties, I remember how friendships came and went. I was too critical — a disagreement over a film or politics gave me permission to retreat. Nobody matched Ellis and Annie, and so I convinced myself I needed nobody but them. I was a sailboat at heed to the breeze, circling buoys before heading out to the uncomplicated silence of a calm bay."

When Michael returns, the circle is once again completed. Yet he returns with secrets, secrets that could threaten the delicate balance of their lives. But their love for one another, and the joy they get from their friendship, is as if no time has passed.

I'm being a little vague in my description because I felt part of the story's beauty and power was letting the plot unfold. It jumps around through time from the 1960s to the 1990s, and shifts narration between Ellis and Michael. This is an immensely memorable story about friendship, love, and longing, and the blurred lines between those things.

This is a simple story, really—a tale as old as time, if you will—but it held me in its grasp completely. It runs just under 200 pages, so I read the entire book in an evening. This was not quite what I was expecting, but it absolutely blew me away. Sarah Winman's writing is so lyrical but yet it packs a punch. I loved these characters, and was sad that the book ended when it did—I'd love to see a sequel because there's so much more which could transpire.

It took eight days, but Tin Man is the first book to truly dazzle me in the new year. Again, it may partially be a function of the fact that books that touch my emotions really resonate for me, but this one I won't forget anytime soon. Wow, wow, wow.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Book Review: "The Woman in the Window" by A.J. Finn

Paranoia, the destroyer
Self-destroyer, wreck your health
Destroy friends, destroy yourself
The time device of self-destruction
Light the fuse and start eruption
—The Kinks, Destroyer

Reading A.J. Finn's new, much-hyped thriller, The Woman in the Window, I had lots of paranoia-related songs running through my head (including Garbage's I Think I'm Paranoid and the line from Harvey Danger's Flagpole Sitta which goes, "Paranoia, paranoia, everybody's coming to get me..."), but I felt the above lyrics by The Kinks described this book's protagonist perfectly.

Anna Fox used to be a successful child psychologist. She used to have her life together—marriage, family, career—but 11 months ago, a trauma left her with agoraphobia, so she's been unable to step outside of her New York City home all this time. She spends her days watching black and white movies, playing chess and learning French online, drinking too much while ignoring or doubling up on her meds, and counseling others like her in an online forum for people with agoraphobia.

She also has a bit of a photography habit, which stems mostly from her interest in watching what is going on outside her home, particularly in the homes of her neighbors. She's seen some pretty interesting things, including the recent afternoon activities of Mrs. Miller, who moved in across the street with her husband.

"Watching is like nature photography: You don't interfere with the wildlife."

When a new family, the Russells, move in directly across the park from her, Anna is quickly transfixed by them. They seem almost perfect—husband, wife, teenage son. She meets the son first and then the wife, and is amazed at how much she enjoys the wife's company. And then one night, as she watches through their windows, Anna sees something her eyes cannot believe. She knows it's something horrible, something she must alert the police about, and even provide help herself.

And that's the moment when everything turns upside down. Did Anna actually see anything, or was it a hallucination from her medicine or the old movies she has seen over and over again? What is she to believe, her eyes or those who tell her what her eyes have or haven't seen? What, and who, is real? Does she have anyone or anything to fear?

This is a taut thriller that definitely hooked me from the get-go. I had a lot of questions as I read, and wondered how Finn was going to bring everything together. While I felt like the book borrowed a lot from other thrillers and even some of the old movies Anna watched, the suspense definitely gets under your skin, and you absolutely want to fly through the book to see what the truth really is. Throughout most of the book, Anna feels like an old woman, but that's because of her condition. I had to keep reminding myself how old she really was.

I felt like the whole story took a little too much time to play out—there were only so many times I could handle Anna's drunken binges, her not being believed by those she trusted, and her intense paranoia, which pushed everyone away. But there are some great twists here, some I didn't quite see coming and one I suspected (which disappointed me), and much like many thrillers and crime novels, the perpetrator spends far too much time explaining themselves and their motivations.

I read a lot of thrillers so I tend to be really cynical about them. This is a good one, and I'd imagine this one is going to have many people eagerly turning the pages and staying up late because they can't get enough!

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Book Review: "How to Stop Time" by Matt Haig

"If you saw me, you would probably think I was about forty, but you would be very wrong. I am old — old in the way that a tree, or a quahog clam, or a Renaissance painting is old."

Because of a rare medical condition, Tom Hazard has been alive since the 1500s. Born into a wealthy French family, he has traveled all over the world, assumed many different identities, and led a life characterized by adventure, trauma, emotion, and loneliness. Tom has performed with Shakespeare, explored with Captain Cook, shared a cocktail with F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, and experienced the drastic changes the world has undergone through the centuries.

Even though he has seen incredible things, what Tom wants more than anything is a normal life. He had that once, back in Shakespeare's time, when he met a woman and fell in love, but as his unchanging appearance caught the notice of suspicious and fearful townspeople, he had to leave that life behind. Yet he's never stopped thinking of her and wishing things were different, that he was different.

"So, don't think of me as a sexy vampire, stuck for ever at peak virility. Though I have to say it can feel like you are stuck for ever when, according to your appearance, only a decade passes between the death of Napoleon and the first man on the moon."

Those like Tom are watched over by a group called the Albatross Society, which protects them and ensures they keep their longevity a secret from the general public. The shadowy head of the society, Hendrich, controls Tom and calls in favors to move him to place to place every eight years (since that is about the period of time before people notice he doesn't seem to grow any older). But Hendrich has his own ulterior motives, and his own methods of ensuring Tom and his brethren are kept in check. And the one major rule Hendrich has impressed upon Tom for many years now? Never fall in love.

Tom's latest persona is as a history teacher in London, a place that stirs old memories for him, memories of love and loss. But when he meets a beautiful French teacher who seems to think she's seen him before, he starts to wonder whether the rules to which he's adhered are truly worth it. What good is living for hundreds of years if you have to do so alone, without letting anyone get close to you? But Hendrich will stop at nothing, will use everything and anyone to ensure his charges comply with his rules.

This is a fascinating, beautiful, moving book about love, loss, loneliness, and adventure. How to Stop Time shifts between Tom's current life and the different persona he assumed throughout the years. It's both a rollicking adventure through time and a love story through time, populated with fascinating characters and events.

Matt Haig is a tremendous storyteller, and I found this book so creative, poignant, and enjoyable. It gets a little slow at times, but for the most part it's just such a beautiful story. Obviously, some suspension of disbelief is necessary for a story like this, but at its core, it's a book that explores universal themes. Definitely a winner.

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

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Book Review: "You Think It, I'll Say It" by Curtis Sittenfeld

Many of us, whether we'll admit it or not, have made snap judgments about people. Sometimes we judge people we might have met once, or known a long time ago, and are coming into contact with them again after a while. Sometimes we believe something about a person we know well, while other times, it's people we don't know, but we formulate an opinion based on something we hear them say or do.

The characters in Curtis Sittenfeld's first story collection, You Think It, I'll Say It, are all guilty of judging others, but the tension in the 10 stories occurs when those judgments are revealed to be incorrect, either gradually or all at once. The end result are thought-provoking stories which leave their mark in your head, and at times, in your heart.

I enjoyed all of the stories in the collection, although I felt eight of them were the strongest. My favorites included: "The Prairie Wife," in which an unappreciated housewife realizes a popular celebrity was a girl she was romantically involved with briefly during summer camp, although the celebrity is now a married darling of conservatives; "Gender Studies," which follows a college professor's fling with her airport shuttle driver—for the wrong reason; "Off the Record," about a freelance writer lined up to interview an actress on the cusp of major fame, someone she had connected with when interviewing them a few years earlier; "The World Has Many Butterflies," in which a man and a woman engage in a gossipy game every time they see each other, but only one interprets that as the sign of something deeper; and "Do-Over," about a reunion between two boarding school classmates who each have different interpretations of past events.

I've been a fan of Sittenfeld's since I read her debut novel, Prep, back in 2005. I found it so engaging and surprising, and I've followed her work ever since. That same talent is more than evident in You Think It, I'll Say It—these stories aren't outlandish or unrealistic, and you could imagine the situations the characters face happening to you, or hearing about them from people you know. Her writing style is so breezy and approachable, and there were times I didn't realize how dazzling her words were until after they passed me by, kind of like a person wearing a cologne or perfume you suddenly catch the scent of.

I know short stories aren't for everyone, but this is one of those collections I think even non-story lovers might enjoy. Most of the stories feel like mini-novels, and there were at least a few I'd love to see developed into something more expansive. You Think It, I'll Say It is a prime example of why I love stories, and the incredible talent it takes to make a collection work. Come on, give it a shot!

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