Sunday, July 23, 2017

Book Review: "Young Jane Young" by Gabrielle Zevin

Living in the Washington, DC area during the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal, you just couldn't escape it—everything from news to gossip to rumors to hatchet pieces about Lewinsky, even spoofs of her on Saturday Night Live and other television shows. And while President Clinton certainly was the subject of a great deal of criticism, in many people's eyes, it seemed like Lewinsky was the only one to blame, and yet for quite some time you never heard her side of the story, but certainly her life was adversely affected.

In Gabrielle Zevin's Young Jane Young, Aviva Grossman interns for an up-and-coming Florida congressman with whom her family was friends when she was younger. Immensely smart and driven, with possible ambitions of a political career of her own someday, at first Aviva does the "typical" intern stuff—answer phones, send out mailings, make phone calls—but as she demonstrates her intelligence, the congressman and his staff begin relying on her for more serious tasks.

It's a few years after the Lewinsky scandal, but clearly Aviva didn't learn from that, as she and the congressman begin an affair. She knows it's wrong, but she falls in love with him, and she really believes him when he tells her that his marriage hasn't been happy for some time. Since she can't tell anyone about this, she keeps an anonymous blog about their relationship, this in the early days of blogging when she has no way of knowing if anyone is even reading what she writes.

When news of the affair becomes public, Aviva becomes a laughingstock. She can't get a job because of her "fame," her family is disgraced, and even graduate school seems a remote possibility because anyone with an internet connection can find out what she has done. She finds that she has no choice but to leave Florida and head far away, to Maine, where she changes her name to Jane Young and begins her life anew.

Years later, Jane has a successful event planning business and is raising her headstrong daughter Ruby to make smarter choices than she did. When Jane is convinced to run for mayor of her small Maine town, it's not long before her past is exposed. And when Ruby finds out that her mother isn't quite the person she believed she was, Ruby sets off a chain of events which bring Jane and her family back into a time of her life that she had tried putting behind her.

Young Jane Young is told from a number of different perspectives—not only Jane and Ruby's, but also Jane's mother, whose life was also affected by her daughter's scandal, and Embeth Levin, the congressman's wife. The narrative shifts from the time of the scandal to the present, and even includes a pseudo "Choose Your Adventure" section in which Aviva gets the opportunity to tell her side of the story.

This is a fascinating book which shows how quick we are as a society to rush to judgment about someone, even if that someone is our own family member, and how we often don't realize how many ripples a scandal can cause in other people's lives. It's also a book about owning your mistakes and trying to move on, but how sometimes you just can't outrun your past. Of course, it's also an exploration of the double standards that still pervade our society, double standards we've seen play out recently in our political arena here in the U.S.

I've read a few of Zevin's books in the past, with my favorite being The Storied Life of AJ Fikry (see my original review), which made my list of the best books I read in 2014. I really like the way she writes, and I like the way she made her characters fascinating despite their flaws.

I was frustrated by Ruby's actions after she discovers her mother's past. No matter how intelligent and independent Ruby was supposed to be, I just found the way she reacted and what she did a little unbelievable and immensely unlikable, despite understanding why she felt the way she did. The whole thing just seemed more melodramatic than the rest of the book, and it irked me.

Despite my irritation with a portion of the book, this was a very fast and enjoyable read, and an interesting look at the lifecycle of a scandal and its victims. Zevin's talent as a storyteller takes a familiar tale and makes it funny, fascinating, and a little soapy.

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

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Book Review: "Less" by Andrew Sean Greer

It's been said (in a catty way, of course) that after age 42 gay men become invisible, that no one wants an older gay man except, if they're lucky, another gay man. Andrew Sean Greer's beautifully moving but slightly uneven new novel, Less, deals with a man coming to terms approaching his 50th birthday, wondering if he'll ever find true love, and trying to define himself and his career. No small feat, there!

When he was in his early 20s, he was the boyfriend of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Robert Brownburn, who was a member of the famed Russian River School of writers and artists. Even though the relationship ended after a few years, Arthur has always been defined somewhat as the former boyfriend of Robert Brownburn, even as he experienced a slight bit of renown in his own literary career. Robert will always be Arthur's first love, even though Arthur knows he frittered away the relationship as many much-younger gay men would.

As Arthur's 50th birthday approaches, he is in the midst of a crisis. His former boyfriend of nine years (this time he picked someone younger) is getting married to someone else, and Arthur has been invited to the wedding. His publisher isn't interested at all in his newest novel. And he wonders if he'll spend the rest of his life alone, unloved and unsuccessful. So he does what any self-effacing person would do: he flees the country.

But he's not running away. (Well, yes, he is.) He's pursuing a number of different literary opportunities across the globe, which will end with some time at a writer's retreat in India, where perhaps he will be able to fix what ails his novel. Along the way he travels to Mexico, Italy, Germany, France, and Morocco, plumbing the depths of his soul, looking back at the memories of relationships gone sour, and trying to figure out where he goes from here, and whether he's made the biggest mistakes of his life by simply deciding not to decide things, not to say things, not to do things.

How does a man who always seems to intrigue, always seems to provoke feelings in others, figure out his self-worth, and find the courage to act instead of waiting for things to happen to him? There are lessons to be learned in mistakes and failures, but does he want to learn those lessons? What awaits him on the other side of 50?

Less is an emotional, somewhat elegiacal meditation on aging, love, and one's professional and romantic legacy. It is at times poignant, at times funny, even a little ridiculous occasionally, but tremendously thought-provoking. Greer brings so much poetry and beauty to his sentences, and even if his main character is a somewhat elusive enigma, at least to the reader, his lamentations and his journey are utterly fascinating.

I enjoyed this book quite a bit. I felt as if so much of this story was so interesting, so moving, that I was a little irritated when the narrative veered into almost farcical and/or metaphysical territory a few times. In a sense you know how the story may ultimately unfold, but Greer makes you wait a really long time for the payoff, and there were a few moments I just wanted Arthur to stop moping, stop walking around with his head in the sand, and speak, or act, the way he knows he should.

I have been a huge fan of Greer's since reading his first story collection, How It Was for Me. While it took me a while to get into what is perhaps his most famous book, The Confessions of Max Tivoli, I absolutely loved his other books, The Path of Minor Planets, The Story of a Marriage, and The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells. He is an absolutely beautiful storyteller, and even though this book has some flaws, reading Greer's writing is like eating a fine meal or watching a beautiful movie or play—you just don't want it to end, you want to savor every minute.

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

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Book Review: "The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue" by Mackenzi Lee

Just when you think that no one is writing anything original, along comes a book that is so different in many ways that you wonder how the author came up with the idea in the first place, and how they were able to sell it to a publisher. Mackenzi Lee's The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue is one of those books. What a sensational story, with characters I won't soon forget!

In 18th century England, Henry "Monty" Montague has grown up a son of privilege. His father is a lord with a sizable estate and business concerns, all of which he expects Monty to take over sometime soon. The thing is, Monty is more than a bit of a rake—a lovable one at times, but a rake nonetheless—one who is far too fond of carousing, drinking, causing trouble, and finding himself in romantic situations with a large number of young men...and women. All of this and he's not quite 18 yet!

Monty and his best friend, Percy (with whom Monty is more than a little besotted) are scheduled to have one last hurrah—a Grand Tour of Europe, where they will see the sites and have their last gasps of fun, after which Monty will begin working alongside his father and becoming a responsible adult, while Percy will leave for law school in Holland. But Monty's father has tired of his son's escapades and sharply curtails what his son has planned, sending along a teacher/chaperone of sorts who will monitor all of their activities. And then his father makes the ultimate threat—embarrass the family one more time, or get caught with another young man, and Monty will be disinherited.

"I'm too useless to make a life on my own, no matter how odious the one selected for me is. I'm well shackled to my father, no way to escape or want things for myself."

While at first his father's restrictions put a damper on the Grand Tour, it's not long before Monty and Percy begin to sneak away and enjoy themselves, under the watchful and jealous eye of Monty's younger sister, Felicity, who is supposed to be dropped off at finishing school along the way, despite her desire to pursue an educational and career path open only to men in those days.

"It occurs to me then that perhaps getting my little sister drunk and explaining why I screw boys is not the most responsible move on my part."

The more time Monty and Percy spend together, the more he wants to divulge his feelings for his best friend, despite his father's warnings. Yet one of the many things Monty is clumsy at is expressing his feelings, and more often than not, he winds up pushing Percy away, which is precisely what he doesn't want. One night, in a pique of jealousy and mischief, Monty makes a rash decision that puts the trio in danger, and sends them fleeing through France into Spain and Italy, throwing them into untenable situation after untenable situation, and forcing them to do—and say—things they never thought they would.

Along the way they will reveal and uncover secrets about one another which may forever change their relationships and their futures, and Monty, in particular, will finally begin to understand what life is like for those not born into privilege. But will these discoveries be enough to free them from danger and change the course of their lives?

The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue is both a rollicking adventure and an emotional book about finding what makes you happy (or whom), and accepting who you are and where your life should lead. It's also a book about coming to terms with the world around you and finally acting like an adult when you've been coddled and indulged for far too long to really understand the challenges other people face. Despite the setting and the characters' backgrounds, this is book with universal themes, and one that is just so wonderfully told that it made me laugh, smile, and, of course, get a little teary-eyed more than a few times, too.

I seriously loved this book. The characters Lee has created, from Monty, Percy, and Felicity to those they encounter along the way, are all fascinating in different ways. Monty does get annoying from time to time, and you wish he'd just do and say what he needs to, but I just couldn't get enough of him. I would love to see this as a movie, because I think these characters and their story would be as fascinating to watch unfold as it was to read. I can't wait to see what Lee comes up with next.

I really don't have any more words to express how I felt about this book. Maybe Meryl Streep can help.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Book Review: "Goodbye, Vitamin" by Rachel Khong

It's ironic how a book told so simply could pack so much beauty and emotion into its words, but Rachel Khong's Goodbye, Vitamin did just that. This is a somewhat quirky, slightly odd book that I found quite moving—in fact, I had to do the "no, I'm not crying, I'm just rubbing my eyes" thing more than a few times on my plane ride this morning.

Ruth is 30 years old. Her engagement has ended and she feels untethered to the life she has known, so she comes home to visit her parents for the holidays. She has avoided her family for a while after hearing stories of her father's drinking and his infidelities, so she is unprepared to find her father, a former college professor, in the throes of dementia, while her mother is trying to care for her father, but in an oddly detached way. Ruth agrees to quit her job and move home for a year to help out, although she probably is in equal need of help, albeit a different kind.

"What imperfect carriers of love we are, and what imperfect givers. That the reasons we can care for one another can have nothing to do with the person cared for. That it has only to do with who we were around that person—what we felt about that person."

What follows are reflections on a difficult year for her family and herself, told as diary entries of a sort. She reconnects with old friends, gets involved in a scheme to try and help her father's self-worth, tries to understand why her relationship ended (and wonders if she really cares), and attempts to figure out her parents' relationship with each other. At the same time she takes tentative steps toward her own future.

There are moments of humor, poignancy, frustration, and beautiful emotion in this book. At the same time, Ruth is one of those characters you wish would say the things she really wants to say, but she's so used to taking such a passive role in her own life. (She left college weeks before graduating because her then-boyfriend wanted to move away.)

I really enjoyed this book, and despite the fact that the story is told in small snippets of events from each day, I didn't get the feeling I was missing anything from the story. It did feel a little disjointed at times—although there was an over-arching narrative, the story jumped quickly from day to day, so it didn't flow quite as neatly as it could have.

Khong's storytelling, however, is utterly exquisite. While her style is rather spare, much like Weike Wang in Chemistry (see my review), she can wring humor and emotion from the simplest sentences. I can't wait to see what she writes next, because her talent really is dazzling.

For those who have dealt with a loved one or friend suffering from dementia, this may be a difficult read. But Khong took what could have been a maudlin subject and added other dimensions, so it's the story of a family's journey through difficult and good times, instead of simply the story of a man growing increasingly ill. That's the mark of true talent.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Book Review: "The Late Show" by Michael Connelly

Here's a little bit of an oxymoron for you: Michael Connelly is one of my favorite authors, yet I haven't read one of his books in a while. I love the way he writes, but somewhere along the way I lost track of which Harry Bosch books I've read so far, so I've missed a bunch of them. I'll have to just suck it up and read from somewhere in the middle, because he sure knows how to tell a story.

The good news is, with The Late Show, he's introduced a brand new character to get hooked on, LAPD Detective Renée Ballard. She has her issues (and I look forward to Connelly spending more time exploring them in future books) but she's definitely not as dark and cynical as Bosch is (not that there's anything wrong with that). And with this new book, once again, Connelly proves he's a master at weaving suspense, emotion, character development, and some good-old-fashioned police work.

Ballard works the night shift in Hollywood, known as the late show. She and her partner are often the first to respond to different incidents throughout the night and early morning—robberies, assaults, the occasional homicide—but they usually don't see them through to fruition, because they're kicked to the day squad. This frustrates Ballard, who once had a promising path as a detective, only to be shuffled to the late show after filing a sexual harassment complaint against a supervisor.

She loves the job, but it frustrates her, because she has so much more potential than taking initial statements and then leaving them to someone else to solve. And she knows that she could solve at least some of the cases, probably more so than those who take them on, but overtime isn't allowed, and she just needs to learn how to play the game.

But one night gives her a little more than she bargains for. First, she and her partner are called to the scene of a transgender prostitute who was brutally beaten and left for dead. The amount of violence perpetrated on this individual amazes Ballard, and she is reluctant to let the case go, because she wants to find who could do such a thing. While at the hospital, they're called to watch over a young waitress shot in what appears to be a multiple homicide case at a nightclub. When the woman dies from her injuries, Ballard wants to understand if she was intended to be a victim or if she was just collateral damage.

Both cases give her more than she bargained for. And as much digging as she wants to do on the nightclub shooting, the lead detective on the case is her former supervisor who had her demoted to the late show, and her former partner, who refused to back her up in her claims, is involved. The more she gets involved trying to track down the perpetrator in the assault case, and the more she tries to find dirt in the shooting, the more she finds the cases are intertwined, and bring her own demons to light at the same time.

"To me it's like the laws of physics—for every action, there is an opposite and equal reaction. If you go into darkness, the darkness goes into you. You then have to decide what to do with it. How to keep yourself safe from it. How to keep it from hollowing you out."

Renée Ballard is a brilliantly drawn character. I love her determination, her hard-headedness, her vulnerability, her strong (if occasionally misplaced) sense of right and wrong, and the way she takes her job seriously. She is definitely flawed, and you can see the potential for those flaws to cause her danger. But she is a truly fascinating character, and in Connelly's hands, she so transpires the stereotypical qualities you often see in fictional female detectives.

Once again, Connelly does a terrific job balancing the narrative of the story with its suspense and action. There are a few twists and turns along the way, and I was hooked from the start. Reading The Late Show reminded me why Connelly is one of the greatest crime writers around, and it makes me want to kick myself that I've let so much time slip by since I've last read one of his Bosch books.

Ballard isn't portrayed as a superwoman, but she's a super woman, and one I can't wait to see in another book sometime soon. This is a fantastic start to a new series I hope has the staying power of Bosch's.

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

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Book Review: "Seven Days of Us" by Francesca Hornak

At one point in Seven Days of Us, Andrew, the somewhat snarky and elitist patriarch of the Birch family, equates all of the drama affecting his family with a popular British soap opera. But then he realizes it's even crazier than all that.

"Never mind EastEnders—this was pure telenovela."

He's not quite wrong. In her debut novel, Francesca Hornak throws more issues and crises at the Birch family, more secrets thought buried, than you can even imagine. It's like multiple Jodi Picoult novels meshed together without the ethical issues her characters have to consider. And yet despite all of it, you can't help but feel sympathy for some of the characters, anger for others—you want to shake some of them just to get them to say what they need to—but you find yourself moved by what is happening to them.

It's been a long while since the Birches eldest daughter Olivia has come home for Christmas. She always has obligations which keep her away—or are they excuses? But this year, after a stint treating a major disease in Liberia, she must be quarantined for seven days, so she and her family are going to spend it together, cozy as anything, at the family's seen-better-days country estate. They're not allowed to go anywhere or see anyone, and to top it off, wi-fi and cell coverage is spotty at best.

Andrew, a haughty former war correspondent-turned-restaurant critic, would rather be anywhere but stuck with his family for seven days, especially once he receives an email he has subconsciously been expecting for a while now. His wife, Emma, who once shelved dreams of her own career in order to raise their children, can't wait to spend the week nurturing both of her children, especially since it will keep her mind off a secret of her own.

Younger daughter Phoebe can't concentrate on much more than the excitement of her recent engagement. She wants the perfect wedding, the perfect life, and she's not happy that her older sister can't focus on anything but the disease in Africa. It's not all that's important, after all! Olivia lives in constant trepidation that she might test positive for the disease and put her family in danger, and she can't seem to focus on her family's first world problems. But all the while she is haunted by a decision she made in Liberia, and wonders how it will affect her future.

As the family unearths old arguments and wounds, and inflicts new ones on each other, the arrival of two unexpected guests throw everyone and everything completely off-kilter. It seems like the perfect recipe for a dysfunctional holiday—but the stakes could be higher than nearly anyone realizes.

"This was why she despised secrets. When they emerged, as they always did, they opened up a whole labyrinth of other unknowns."

About halfway through Seven Days of Us, I wasn't sure if I was enjoying it, even though I was hooked on the story. The characters really weren't likable, and I just didn't understand why no one would talk to each other and say what they're feeling. I get the whole British stoic stiff-upper-lip thing, but come on. But the more I read, the more I found myself immersed in all of the drama, and even if some of the problems the characters faced were all too familiar, it didn't matter.

That's mainly because Hornak made her characters very real, despite all the drama swirling around them. You've seen these people in real life—heck, some of them may even be your own family members, with or without the British accents. The book is sappy and a little silly but it's ultimately warm and sweet. While there's no way I could spend seven days quarantined with my family, after reading this book I just had to call everyone, just to make sure everyone was okay.

If you like a healthy helping of melodrama along with your family dysfunction, definitely pick up Seven Days of Us. See if you agree that it's a little like a telenovela.

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

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Book Review: "Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic" by Alison Bechdel

Family dysfunction, bow down to the Bechdel family.

Alison Bechdel's father Bruce was an enigma to her while she was growing up—an English teacher and director of the family-owned funeral home (aka the "Fun Home") who had an exacting eye for fashion, decor, and gardening. He wasn't a bad father, but he always seemed to keep her and her brothers at arm's length, not to mention her mother.

While Alison remembered some special, tender times, she remembered more moments of being forced to wear an outfit she didn't want, scolded into meeting his tough cleaning standards, and feeling bewildered at his obsession with making sure all of the flowers around their house always looked perfect.

When Alison was in college, she came out to her parents as a lesbian. Shortly thereafter, she found out that her father was gay. While perhaps not entirely surprising if she added up all of the signs and clues she might have noted subconsciously, the discovery still throws her for a loop. And while they had one half-conversation about this, a few weeks after his revelation, her father died, leaving a legacy of mystery and confusion in his wake.

"Perhaps my eagerness to claim him as 'gay' in the way I am 'gay,' as opposed to bisexual or some other category, is just a way of keeping him to myself—a sort of inverted oedipal complex."

Fun Home is both a daughter's efforts to make sense of her father's life and death as it is an account of growing up uncomfortable in your own skin, of knowing you are different but being afraid of acknowledging it for fear everything might change, even though it should. It's a story of coming to terms with who you are, while remembering a man who really never had that luxury.

I'm really late to the party in reading this, and while I've heard some of the music from the musical version of Fun Home, I never saw the show either. I've never read a graphic novel/memoir before (although I read lots of Archie, Betty, and Veronica comics growing up, and was addicted to the Silver Surfer), and this was both a refreshing and challenging format for me.

This book practically pulsates with emotion, anger, and confusion, as well as the uncertainty that comes with self-discovery. When it dealt with Alison's own life or her father's struggles to find himself, the book is strongest, but it spends a lot of time holding up their story against a backdrop of classic literature (which her father so loved), and after a while I didn't enjoy those portions as much. However, as someone who wishes his father was still alive so we could have conversations about life there never seemed to be time for then, I found Fun Home beautifully moving.

If you mostly read books via Kindle or another e-reader, do yourself a favor and borrow or buy the printed version of this one. I was so glad I made the investment to enjoy the power of how Bechdel's illustrations told as much of the story as her words. While this wasn't perhaps as good as I had expected it to be, it still is powerful, and I'll remember it for some time to come.