Sunday, July 24, 2016

Book Review: "The Beauty of the End" by Debbie Howells

"I was fourteen when I fell in love with a goddess. Goddesses have that effect, even on teenagers such as I was. Being plump or uncool has no bearing on the ability to fall in love—and my fate was sealed."

Noah Calaway remembers the minute he laid eyes on April Moon. (Even her name intoxicated him.) Even though she barely acknowledged his existence, and he had little if any hope of ever catching her eye, he knew he wanted April. She was mysterious, beautiful, quirky—and even rumored to be a bit of a witch, as she and two of her friends would meet on top of a hill and allegedly cast spells and do other magic. April was everything that studious Noah dreamed of.

Years pass, and April has moved in and out of Noah's life a number of times, in each instance affecting him tremendously. One time they were even engaged to be married when she canceled the wedding the day before it was to happen, leaving him with barely any explanation. Even though it has been some time since the two had been in touch, he is utterly shocked to receive a call from his former best friend Will, who tells Noah that April is accused of murdering a man, and following the incident took a drug overdose and now is in a comatose state from which she isn't expected to recover. While Noah remembers April was a very troubled young woman (and that trouble continued into adulthood), he is unable to reconcile the accusations leveled against April with the woman he knew.

A former lawyer who became a writer specializing in criminal psychology, Noah travels to the town where April lived, ostensibly to find out more information about what happened. He thinks he may represent April should criminal charges be filed against her, but more than anything, he wants to see this woman who meant so much to him, wants to understand all of the things she kept hidden from him. Yet the more he uncovers, he realizes that there are far more complicated—and apparently dangerous—issues at play here, which may have harmed April, and may even have followed her throughout her life.

The Beauty of the End juxtaposes Noah's investigation into what might have happened to April with the story of their relationship through the years, and all of the many instances in which April loved him yet pushed him away. The story isn't told in a linear fashion, so at times it was difficult to figure out at which point in time the story was occurring (despite the dates at the top of those chapters), but the story of their relationship was really compelling.

I definitely liked the story of Noah and April more than the mystery elements of the book. While there were a few more twists and turns than I expected (when I thought I figured out what happened—and I called part of it very quickly—I was frustrated, so I was glad to see Debbie Howells had a few more tricks up her sleeve), I felt that was more routine than the rest of the book.

As I've said before, I tend to be a little cynical when I read mysteries, so I would think those who don't read a lot of them will enjoy this even more than I did. I think Howells did a great job setting the story and ratcheting up the suspense, and although a few of the characters didn't transcend stereotypes, several characters were really fascinating, including April, of course. This is as much a lament on lost love as it is a mystery, so it has some depth to it.

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

Book Review: "Lions" by Bonnie Nadzam

The small town of Lions, Colorado was envisioned to be a grand city, but it never amounted to much. Farming, mining, really nothing succeeded in Lions, and apart from a few small businesses—a diner, a bar, a thrift shop—little by little, the town is dying.

"There was no future in Lions. No matter how many stories you heard about years gone by, no matter how many plans you had stocked up for the future, you were confined to a never-ending present."

The Walker family has lived in Lions for several generations. John Walker is a talented welder who could easily have made quite a living if he and his family moved to Denver or another metropolis, but instead chose to keep his family's welding shop open despite the fact that there was barely any business to be had, and when there was, he usually undercharged his neighbors or let them pay for it in kind. Those left in the town never understood why he did the things he did, and although they thought he was a fine, upstanding man, they somehow saw his refusal to better his life as a character flaw.

"They never could understand John Walker or what seemed to be his lifetime of poor decision making. The backward code he seemed to live and work by—his entrepreneurial failure somehow as perpetual as it was absolute. It was as if each of the Walkers in his time was choosing again and again, every morning in his workshirt with his first cup of coffee, to fail."

One night, a mysterious man and his dog show up in town. He speaks very little, but the Walkers show him tremendous charity, providing him and his dog food, new clothes, even money. When the man visits the town bar, and tempers among the citizens of Lions flare for no reason, the man's appearance sets a chain of events in motion which leads to John Walker suddenly dying of a heart attack, among other things. But before John dies, he asks his teenage son, Gordon, to promise to continue a mysterious errand which generations of Walker men have handled, according to legend.

The death of his father and his mother's grief completely unravel Gordon, who in a short number of weeks was scheduled to leave town with his girlfriend Leigh, whom he has known since they were children, and go to college. Leigh dreams of nothing more than leaving Lions for good and having a life larger than she ever thought possible. She cannot understand why Gordon is suddenly having second thoughts, why anyone would want to stay in a town which is shedding people like a dog sheds its fur, when they have the chance to embrace so much possibility and potential.

Lions is a beautifully drawn portrait of life in a dying small town, and the people who call it home. The book is a little bit allegorical and a little bit mysterious, but it is really well-written and compelling. You could feel the tension these people had between staying where they've lived for most, if not all, of their lives, and the need to go to a more vibrant place. The characters were really well-drawn, and although Leigh seemed like a bit of a spoiled brat, you could understand her point of view as well.

I'd never read anything Bonnie Nadzam has written before, but I was really captivated by her storytelling ability. This is a book which seems simple on its surface, but is really a much more complex and moving story than I expected. Really well done.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Book Review: "Learning to Swear in America" by Katie Kennedy

Poor Yuri Strelnikov. The 17-year-old physicist prodigy has traveled from his Moscow home to California to help NASA stop a giant asteroid that is hurtling toward Earth. It won't wipe out the entire planet, but it may destroy the entire state of California, and cause tsunamis which might wipe out the Pacific Rim.

The thing is, Yuri knows how to stop the asteroid. He even has unpublished research that demonstrates this, research he's sure will earn him a Nobel Prize someday, which is something he has dreamed about since he was very young. But because he is so young, he can't convince his NASA colleagues to listen to him. They don't want to take chances on a kid's unpublished research, they want to use the methods they know—even if it means they won't be successful.

Yuri is alone, shuttled between his hotel room and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory where the work is being done. He can't reach anyone from home, and when he does, he understands that one of his chief academic rivals is looking to take credit for his research. And then he meets Dovie Collum, a free-spirited, creative teenager who tries to live life in a carefree way, although she struggles with those who want to squelch her creative spirit. Little by little, she shows Yuri what it's like to be a real American teenager, and gives him the opportunity to experience some of the simple joys of life.

But in the end, Yuri has a mission, and he is determined to save the world from the asteroid the way he knows how, so he can go home again. How can he convince his colleagues to listen to him, even if his research hasn't been proven, and even if there are inherent risks? Should he just let them do what they think is best, even if it means putting people in danger?

I really enjoyed Learning to Swear in America. I thought it was sweet and funny, and I enjoyed getting to spend time with the characters. It's a reasonably predictable book but I didn't think that took anything away from its charm. This is a book that didn't take itself too seriously even as it dealt with the potential of a disaster, but the characters didn't seem overly precocious or wise beyond their years, save Yuri, but he was only wise in terms of science and math.

Katie Kennedy definitely knows how to write an enjoyable story. Even her author's note was funny. Consider this: "I did a lot of research to write this book, but if you're trying to stop an asteroid, you probably shouldn't use it as a guide. Finally, if you do notice an incoming asteroid, please give the nearest astrophysicist a heads-up because there really are only about a hundred people in the world looking for them. And it really is a big sky."

If you're looking for something that's light and enjoyable, with a little bit of soul-searching thrown in for good measure, pick up Learning to Swear in America. You may know what's coming, but you'll still enjoy the journey.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Book Review: "The Animators" by Kayla Rae Whitaker

"From age eighteen on, I had a partner, a kindred spirit. I had a friend. Someone bound and determined to keep me from the worst in myself."

Sharon Kisses leaves her rural Kentucky home to be a scholarship student in visual arts at a liberal arts college in upstate New York. A few weeks into one of her art classes, she meets Mel Vaught—brash, unabashedly talented and ambitious, and fighting the demons of her own childhood amidst the swamps of Florida. In many ways, Mel is everything Sharon wishes she could be. The two quickly bond over family problems, their shared love of classic cartoons and cult-classic animation, and their desire to shake up the world with their work.

Ten years later, Sharon and Mel are a renowned, award-winning duo of animators. Their first full-length movie, Nashville Combat, a stylized look at Mel's dysfunctional childhood, has turned the entertainment world on its ear, and Mel's unfiltered, often drug- and/or alcohol-fueled behavior, has gained the team even more notoriety. Yet as they begin their publicity tour for the movie, and prepare to accept a major arts grant to support their work, their partnership is starting to fray.

Mel's behavior is getting more and more out of control, and a personal tragedy, which causes her to contemplate using her childhood as fodder for entertainment isn't helping. Sharon is tired of being the responsible one, the one who keeps the stories on track, the one who ensures Mel shows up when and where she's supposed to. She starts to wonder if she is as talented as Mel, or if she's destined to spend her career a step or two behind. Yet when an unexpected emergency occurs, the strength of their friendship and their partnership is truly tested, and both must demonstrate their love for, and reliance upon, one another, and decide whether their work and their relationship are worth fighting for.

The Animators is the story of two people drawn together by talent and passion, and the toll that being a creative genius often takes on a person. It's the story of how we try to hide from the problems and questions that nag at us, and how burying them in our work can have mixed results, professionally and emotionally. It's also the story of the sacrifices people make for their work, and whether you have the right to use your memories as creative fodder if they're shared by others. But at its heart, this is the story of a professional and personal partnership, and all of the joy, pain, and emotional anguish that comes with it.

I really enjoyed this book. Mel is a fascinating, flawed character, and you can clearly see why Sharon was so drawn to her, as well as the price Mel paid for her talent. Sharon is more passive (and some of her actions were really frustrating) but she, too, was an interesting character. I thought this book raised a lot of interesting questions, and it definitely shed more light on the world of animation and cartoons for me. I only wish I could have seen some of the work that was described in the book!

It's hard to believe that this is Kayla Rae Whitaker's debut novel. Her writing is tremendously self-assured, and she really drew me into her story very quickly. I thought at times it moved a little slower than I would have liked, but I really enjoyed the dynamics of these characters, and was sad when the book ended. I really look forward to seeing where Whitaker's career takes her, because she has a true talent. This would make a really interesting movie, actually.

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

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Book Review: "I'm Thinking of Ending Things" by Iain Reid

Seriously, what the hell was this?

"I think what I want is for someone to know me. Really know me. Know me better than anyone else and maybe even me. Isn't that why we commit to another?"

In Iain Reid's I'm Thinking of Ending Things (I'll admit I thought of ending my reading of this book more than a few times), an unnamed woman is on a road trip with her boyfriend, Jake. They've been dating six weeks, and she enjoys his intelligence, his sense of humor, his intensity, and the way he surprises her with simple gestures that show how much he cares, yet she's thinking of ending things with him. But since they're traveling to see his parents, she figures she'll wait and see how the trip goes before making any decisions.

As the drive progresses, the pair have a number of conversations, about the imperfection of memory, the importance of relationships, the value of faith, science, free will, and fear. Periodically the peace of the trip is interrupted by a persistent caller on the narrator's cell phone, but she refuses to answer those calls or discuss them with Jake, although he can clearly see she is agitated by them.

When they arrive at the farm where Jake was raised, the tenor of the visit starts to disturb her. She is left feeling ill-at-ease by Jake's parents, although they're doing their best to be pleasant; she is troubled by Jake's swift mood change as he interacts with his parents; and she sees and experiences a number of things that unsettle, even frighten her. She doesn't know what is going on or what she's supposed to do, but she does know she absolutely must end things with Jake when they return home. Then things utterly disintegrate on the trip home, beginning with an ill-advised stop at a Dairy Queen (in the midst of a snowstorm), and ending with an unexpected detour.

The story of the road trip is interspersed with flashbacks of the past six weeks since she met Jake, as well as snippets of a conversation between two people about a tragic incident.

I had no idea what to expect when reading this. Much of the hype I've seen talked about how terrifying and unsettling the book was, and I guess I agree with the latter part of that statement. To be honest, I am not sure I understand some of what happened in this book, and I guess I don't think any book should purposely be this obtuse. The story just kept getting weirder and weirder, and I couldn't discern what was actually happening and what was the work of an unreliable narrator.

There's no denying that Reid is a talented writer. He kept me wanting to find out what was going to happen even as I kept shaking my head and getting squeamish from time to time, and his use of language was extraordinary. The issues raised in the conversations during the trip were also fascinating and thought-provoking. But in the end, I found this unsettling and ultimately unsatisfying, partially because I think the book took a very strange turn, and partially because I just wasn't sure what I just read.

If you've read this and enjoyed it, we should talk!! I'd love to get someone else's take on this book, especially if you're among those who enjoyed it.

Book Review: "Father's Day" by Simon Van Booy

Six-year-old Harvey (an odd name for a girl, but it is what it is) is living the life of a typical child when her world is turned upside down, with the sudden death of her parents. The machinations of Wanda, a seasoned social worker, lead Harvey to her uncle Jason, her father's older brother, whose troubled past and criminal history kept him a stranger from his family.

Jason is utterly unprepared to become a father. Lonely, reeling from a traumatic childhood and a difficult adulthood, and living with a disability, he has resigned himself to a life of anger, of expressing his frustrations as they occur. He has never expected to amount to much of anything, and never expected anyone to depend on him. Yet something in Harvey touches his heart, and even though he feels he is no match for the needs and mood swings of a young girl, particularly one who has seen so much tragedy at such a young age, little by little he lets his guard down and lets Harvey in.

At times, like any child, Harvey is more perceptive to Jason's vulnerability, yet other times she is utterly childlike, saying what she feels when she feels it without consideration of how Jason might react. And while Jason may be different than the fathers of most of her friends, and their life together is difficult at times, she starts to feel safe with him, and recognize that she is as much a help to him as he is to her.

Can a person who has convinced himself he is unworthy of love and affection allow himself to depend on those emotions? Do we recognize love as we feel it, or does it take time and perspective to help us realize and appreciate it? Are we changed by those we love as much as we change them? Simon Van Booy's beautiful and poignant Father's Day is a portrait of the sacrifices we make for those we care about, and how we may not realize until much later how much those sacrifices mean.

The book shifts between Harvey and Jason's tentative steps towards becoming a family and the challenges they face (some of their own making), and Harvey's reflections some years later as she is working in Paris and awaiting a visit from her father. Given the circumstances that brought them together, and the difficulties both had depending on others, theirs is an emotional story, but one that is uplifting and moving, and demonstrates how the beauty of perspective can show us just how much our actions truly mean to another.

I've been a huge fan of Van Booy since I read his exquisite story collection Love Begins in Winter. I love the way he imbues his characters with shades of grace even while they are flawed, and the emotions his writing provokes are truly memorable. Father's Day is a sweet and moving book, and it certainly made me miss my own father all the more as I read this.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Book Review: "Loner" by Teddy Wayne

"All I could think about, running in a loop, was Veronica Morgan Wells, Veronica Morgan Wells, Veronica Morgan Wells. The quadrisyllable that halves its beats at the middle name, dividing again at its pluralized terminus of subterranean depths. The percussively alert 'c' drowsily succumbing to the dozing 's.' Perfectly symmetrical initials, the 'V' found twice upside-down in the 'M,' inverted once more in the 'W,' and, if spoken, easily confused with a German luxury automaker."

David Federman is an academically gifted student, but he's never been able to make much of an impression socially. While he had a group of friends in high school, they all tended to be those on the social fringe. As an incoming freshman at Harvard, he hopes things will be different. He's ready to trade witty barbs with fellow classmates, become noted for his academic prowess, forge friendships that will last for a lifetime, and, of course, finally have some luc in the romance department as well.

But his chance to reinvent himself socially doesn't seem to be working, and he finds himself part of a very similar group of social misfits as he had in high school, although this time there are a few female members, and he seems to have a reasonably easy rapport (and a great deal in common) with Sara, one of the group's members. And then David sees Veronica Morgan Wells. Veronica is beautiful, intelligent, worldly, and seems to carry herself with immense poise and social grace, the antithesis of David's life to date.

David is convinced that Veronica is the one for him, and all he has to do is prove it. He does everything he can to set up situations where she'll get to know the "real" David, to see him for the smart, witty, generous, romantic guy he knows he is. But as David's obsession with Veronica grows, he starts to make questionable decisions that have ramifications for him academically, socially, and morally. Even as he realizes that Veronica isn't the person she seems to be, he still feels the need to finally be noticed by her as an equal.

Loner is an interesting look at how someone who has always been on the fringes of life—partially by choice and partially because of the social pecking order common to high school and college—finally wants to be noticed by the "in-crowd." It's a book about struggling to find yourself when you appear to be surrounded by a sea of people who already have found themselves, and how feeling you have never really made an impact on anyone starts to take its toll. It's also a book about how we fail to notice what we actually have as we strive for what we think will be better.

Above all, however, Loner is about obsession. David isn't quite the stalker that we've traditionally seen in books and movies, yet you can feel just how palpable his longing is. As you watch this mild-mannered, significantly intelligent young man transform into someone completely different, you wonder whether these characteristics have been latent in him all along, or whether he simply began cracking under the strain of desire and the need for acceptance.

I thought this was a good book, but my main problem was that I found David not particularly likable, which, I guess, is understandable given his actions. I understood his desire to be noticed, to transcend the social doldrums in which he always seemed to find himself, and his inability to recognize what he actually had right in front of him. But as his desire for Veronica intensified, I didn't find him sympathetic in the least, so while I was interested in seeing how the story unfolded, I didn't really care about his plight.

I've never read anything by Teddy Wayne before, and while I didn't find David to be a particularly compelling character the entire book, I thought Wayne did a great job with the "Harvard voice"—the types of things Harvard freshmen talk about when having social conversation. Even David's own thoughts, as evidenced in the quote that began this review, were well-voiced. This was an intriguing look at the downside of college pressure, and Wayne definitely kept me reading to see what happened.

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