Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Book Review: "Miracles and Conundrums of the Secondary Planets" by Jacob M. Appel

You know when you read a book by an author you've never heard of before, and you love it so much, but when you read another book by the same person you're disappointed? I was utterly captivated by Jacob Appel's quirky, moving story collection, Einstein's Beach House, but I wondered if Appel's charm would be apparent in his newest collection, Miracles and Conundrums of the Secondary Planets, or whether the quirkiness would become cloying.

I'm pleased to say that this new collection is equally as good, and that once again, I am so dazzled by Appel's talent. These stories are unlike many I've read, but they're not outlandish; each is full of so much heart and emotion and incredibly unforgettable characters. This is a brief but powerful collection that left me wanting more.

Some of my favorite stories in the collection include "Invasive Species," in which a woman struggles with the impending death of her young daughter, and tries to decide whether the romantic attention of her next-door neighbor is a good thing; "Phoebe with Impending Frost," which follows an expert in climate change as he tries to deal with the return of his high school crush amidst a true climate crisis; "The Resurrection Bakeoff," in which a man is worried that one of his darkest secrets will be revealed to his wife before she dies; and "Measures of Sorrow," about a graduate student who teaches a cab driver about everything he knows so he can woo a woman he's attracted to.

And then there's the amazing title story, in which an alien masquerading as a Latvian immigrant in Birmingham, Alabama, keeps the peace between pro-life and pro-choice advocates—and finds himself falling in love.

I don't know why Jacob Appel isn't a household name, because the way he writes, the way he weaves emotion and humor and heart and makes you think, deserves more recognition. These stories pack a punch, and will stick in your mind, and you'll want to tell everyone you know about them.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Book Review: "Boys of the Fatherless" by David C. Riggins

Although it only runs less than 200 pages, David C. Riggins' Boys of the Fatherless packs a powerful, thought-provoking punch.

In a dystopian society in our future, the country is divided into zones, which are managed by "fear and intimidation." Martial law exists, carried out by security drones armed with infrared cameras and nine-millimeter shotguns, which they are more than quick to use. The lower the zone number, the lower on the societal food chain you are; those who live in Zone N-1, or "Fatherless," are those families whose fathers have been killed or who have abandoned their families.

When Danny Roberts' father abandons him, his bipolar, promiscuous mother, and two sisters, their family is sent to Fatherless. But Danny is determined not to let his life be doomed despite the fact that his teachers don't think he'll amount to anything, his mother barely cares about him, and the threats of violence around him could take him down a dangerous path.

"I felt like a kind and gentle boy who had been thrown to the wolves with two options, adapt or be devoured. I adapted."

Danny tries to find joy in the simple things—his two best friends, Jessie and Sam; his girlfriend, Sarah; and the attentions of Darius, an old friend of his father's, who is determined to look out for Danny and be sure he makes something of his life. But when the deck is stacked against you from the start, can you beat the odds? Are love and friendship enough to save you?

This was a very intriguing, well-written book, although at times the plot moved so quickly I felt like I missed things. There is a lot of emotion in this book, and the undercurrent of loss throughout is tremendously poignant. The characters are really interesting and have stayed in my mind, and I can't stop thinking about this story and some of the surprises it held.

Boys of the Fatherless is unique and not at all what I expected. Riggins is a talented writer, and he has created a fascinating world that I'd like to spend more time in, and I'm pleased that it appears the book is the start of a series.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Book Review: "Days of Awe" by Lauren Fox

They say tragedies often happen in threes, and that's precisely what has happened to Isabel Moore. Following her best friend Josie's tragic death in a car accident, Isabel's life has been further turned upside down by the imminent demise of her marriage, and the fact that her preteen daughter Hannah is starting to hate her.

"Death smashes a crater into your life, and you're left alone to sort through the rubble."

In Days of Awe, Lauren Fox examines the life of a woman who thought she had everything—a best friend who "got" her, a teaching job she loved for the most part, a family she cherished—only to discover things are not as she imagined, and in fact, things seem to be rapidly slipping from her grasp. Isabel tries to figure out where Josie's life went wrong and tries to understand what was happening in the months before her death. Were there signs she missed? Who was to blame? And shouldn't everyone's lives remain in flux until she's had the time to process the loss of Josie?

But recovering from this loss isn't all she has to deal with. She needs to figure out whether her marriage is worth fighting for, if there is a way to get her daughter to like her again, and consider whether to let someone else into her heart. But beyond that, she needs to find a way out of the rut she is in, and whether she can prevent herself from the same behavior patterns and same choices that have caused her problems in the past.

"What if you make the right choices? What if you shelve those immature and solipsistic pursuits in favor of the grown-up occupations of family and career—happily, you do it without regret, in love, looking forward—then those fall apart? You turn around and you're staring at the moonscape that used to be your life."

I found this book tremendously engaging and enjoyable, and read most of it in one day while sitting at the pool. While I didn't necessarily agree with all of Isabel's choices, I really like characters that try to diffuse difficult situations with sarcasm and humor and yet don't always correctly gauge the moods and tolerance of those around them, mainly because I do the same thing more often than I should. Even if not everything that happens is surprising, I still found myself wanting to know what happened next. These are complex, fascinating characters.

Fox is a very talented writer. How many of us have struggled with grief and chaos in our lives, wondering whether the choices we are making are the right ones, or whether we even have the capacity to change the path we're heading down? Days of Awe is moving, amusing, thought provoking, and very well written. That's a pretty great combination.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Book Review: "Barefoot to Avalon" by David Payne

I first stumbled upon David Payne's writing when I read his second novel, Early from the Dance, in 1989. That book about the dazzling and paralyzing power of friendship utterly captivated me, and there was a brief moment of folly where I was interested in optioning it for a film adaptation, but as a poor college student, nothing came of that. However, I became a Payne fan for life, reading his first book (Confessions of a Taoist on Wall Street) and every subsequent book as it was released.

Even loving Payne's writing didn't prepare me for the powerful emotions he conveyed in Barefoot to Avalon, the story of George A., his younger brother, who was killed in a car accident while helping David move from his home in Vermont to his new home in North Carolina. While George A. appeared to have many things David didn't while they were growing up—an easy confidence, athletic grace, a drive to succeed—he also suffered from bipolar disorder and manic depression, which derailed his life multiple times, threatening to ruin any successes he was able to achieve.

Barefoot to Avalon is not only the story of a sibling rivalry that lasted long into adulthood, it's the story of mental illness and alcoholism that pervaded many generations of Payne's family on both sides. It's also the story of Payne's own resentments, fears, and inadequacies, about his relationships with his family members, the women in his life, and later, his children. For while everyone knew of George A.'s struggles, David was nearly incapacitated numerous times by his own, putting his career, his relationships, and his family at risk.

"How much of [George A's] incapacitation is bipolar I disorder, and how much is the old family sickness, hostile dependency, by which the weak and sick and injured depend upon and hold the strong ones hostage, and the strong ones, in the name of goodness and self-sacrifice, help the weak and disable them entirely?"

If you've ever struggled to figure where you fit in your family, resented parents or siblings for neglecting you or appearing to favor another over you, this book will resonate. And if you have unresolved guilt about a failed relationship with a family member, this book will probably hit you hard. As you might imagine from the subject matter, this is a book of deep, sometimes painful introspection, and exploration of how our family history and family dynamics have a role in helping us soar as well as prompting us to sink.

While I'm the oldest of four, my two brothers are both much younger than I am, so we didn't have the relationship or the rivalries that David and George A. had when they were growing up. But even so, some of the issues David confronted and told about in the book rang true for me and moved me quite a bit. This is a heavy book, sometimes getting tangled in its own words and emotions, but ultimately it is a book of healing and hope, one that I felt privileged to experience.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Book Review: "All This Life" by Joshua Mohr

Tremendously thought-provoking, compelling, and slightly disturbing, Joshua Mohr's All This Life is an intriguing commentary on the chaos wrecked by society's constant obsession with social media, and how it simultaneously connects and disconnects us. (And yet, here I sit, posting this review on my blog and multiple social media sites...)

It seemed like just an ordinary morning on the Golden Gate Bridge. Countless commuters are stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic, including Paul and his teenage son Jake. Then suddenly the morning doldrums are broken by a seemingly unbelievable group of people who appear from out of nowhere—and then absolutely astound onlookers with their actions. Jake, riveted in disbelief, captures the entire incident on his phone and quickly posts the video, achieving viral success and garnering online fame—and criticism.

At the same time, in a small town, 18-year-old Sara is distracted by the coverage of the cataclysmic event in San Francisco by her own media event: her boyfriend has posted their sex tape online, and she becomes both a pariah and an online obsession. Needing to get out of town, to escape the criticism and pointing fingers, she enlists the help of Rodney, her old boyfriend whose injury in a freak accident three years earlier derailed his life and their relationship, but not his feelings for Sara.

As the lives of Paul, Jake, Sara, Rodney, and others are affected and transformed by tweets, social media posts, text messages, and online videos, they also must confront problems they never expected. They struggle with being judged, cajoled, criticized, and occasionally praised by people they've never, and will never, meet, and they'll also deal with feeling more alone than ever before despite being connected to people all over the world.

"This is how the world works. This is why we're smarter now: We share everything with everyone, have access to each sight and sound. We are informed and connected!"

As someone who is pretty active on many different forms of social media, but sometimes falls prey to obsessing over the number of friends, followers, likes, or retweets I get, I found this book really fascinating and powerful. Mohr weaved a number of seemingly disparate storylines together, and all but one seemed like a story you'd hear about from a friend, or perhaps see through a post on your friend's Facebook wall or Twitter feed, or perhaps see on a YouTube video. He is an excellent storyteller, and this book really made me think.

If I have any criticism of All This Life, it's the appearance of one random character whose presence threatened to derail the entire book, but luckily Mohr didn't let his characters fall prey. So many issues, emotions, and tough questions are pondered here, but the book never really seems heavy; it seems very current and relevant. Well done, Joshua Mohr!

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Book Review: "White Man's Problems" by Kevin Morris

Men—both in fiction and in reality—often get a bad rap, sometimes justifiably and sometimes unfairly. While some of the characters in Kevin Morris' thought provoking and beautifully written collection, White Man's Problems, certainly deserve whatever is coming to them, many are simply struggling with the challenges and dilemmas of everyday life, no matter at what stage of life they are, or what problems they're confronting. The end result is a collection of stories about complex characters, some more flawed than others.

I first heard of this collection when I saw that Matthew McConaughey had recorded an audio version of the opening story, "Summer Farmer." I stuck with the written version, and there were instances where I honestly was awestruck by Morris' use of language. While the characters in these stories are mostly average, everyday people, Morris' writing is definitely not. Here's one example from "Summer Farmer" which gut punched me:
"It is true of any of us that, should a stranger meet us at the intersection of elevator and automobile when the chill cloud of memory hits; if he should recognize the subterranean cascade of longing and remorse; if he knows well the depthless sadness of not seeing a child rise into the brace-face, the inappropriate midfriff, the biology major, the bride; he would be privy not just to the naked basis of our being but to our utter defenselessness to the lateral and vertical rhythms and movement of this world."
Umm, yeah.

Among my favorite stories in the collection were: "Here Comes Mike," a story about faith, courage, and family, which looked back at the life of a high school basketball player whose life of promise was derailed, told through the eyes of his youngest brother; "The Plot to Hold Hands with Elizabeth Tremblay," which recounted the exploits of a high school student with a crush on a fellow student; "Miracle Worker," about a lawyer who takes on the once-powerful patriarch of a formidable family on behalf of a former employee; and the title story, which looked at a divorced father who can't stop making mistakes while chaperoning his young son's class trip to the Washington, DC area.

Not all of the stories are perfect; a few (including the aforementioned "Summer Farmer") seemed almost unfinished, leaving me a little confused and disappointed, because they were so powerful up to that point. But overall, this is a strong collection, buoyed by memorable characters, emotionally resonant situations, and excellent storytelling. Definitely one I'm glad I stumbled on, and one I'm pleased to heartily recommend.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Book Review: "The Boys from Eighth and Carpenter" by Tom Mendicino

Full disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review. Many thanks to Kensington for making it available.

Tom Mendicino's The Boys from Eighth and Carpenter ratchets up the tension pretty soon after it starts. One night, after helping his older brother Frankie out of a bit of a bind, Michael Gagliano makes a shocking discovery that has the potential to drastically change the course of both of their lives.

Sounds pretty interesting, right? And obviously, if you're reading the book, you know what the discovery is, although you don't know the context of how it got there. However, Mendicino shifts the course of the book after that, going back in time to when Luigi Gagliano first came to America from Italy with his mother, to meet the father he barely knew. He follows in his father's footsteps and runs a barber shop, waiting until the day his wife would bear him a son, and she does—two, in fact.

Frankie and Michael are both fairly young when their mother dies, but even at age eight, Frankie understands the solemnity of the promise he makes his dying mother: to look after Michael for the rest of their lives. He protects Michael from their father's violent outbursts and from the not-always-motherly behavior of the succession of women Luigi marries after their late mother. As Michael grows up, he realizes that his brother Frankie is different, and needs his protection as much as Michael needed Frankie's when they were younger.

Frankie takes over their father's shop, transforming it to meet the changing South Philly neighborhood where it is located. Michael becomes a successful prosecutor with an eye on a political career. Despite Michael's worries about the way Frankie lives his life, and his disapproval of some of his choices, the brothers remain close, and both continue to protect each other, despite what that could mean to each of them.

I really wanted to like this book more than I did. It's a good story, and although I didn't feel as if the characters rose much above ethnic and sexual stereotypes in a number of ways, they were still interesting and complex in their own ways. I just wish that Mendicino hadn't delivered such a setup at the beginning of the story and then taken far too long to return to that part of the plot, because while laying out the family history was helpful to understanding the characters, after a while it was the same events and behavioral patterns over and over again.

Having read Mendicino's first novel, Probation, I know he's a talented writer. While this book didn't grip me, his storytelling ability is still evident, and there is a poignancy and a richness to the story that appeals.