Thursday, August 16, 2018

Book Review: "The Man Who Came Uptown" by George Pelecanos

I know I ask this of certain authors from time to time, but why isn't George Pelecanos a star?

In addition to being the author of some pretty terrific crime novels, he's been a writer on television shows like The Wire and Treme, and co-created the series The Deuce. I've often heard about his books becoming movies, but nothing ever seems to come to fruition, and I just don't understand it. This man should be a household name. His books should be seen in people's hands wherever they read in public.

With his newest book, The Man Who Came Uptown, Pelecanos shows that he is a master at creating characters who are more comfortable veering from the straight and narrow, but often have the best of intentions, and he flexes his suspense and action muscles like nobody's business. But at the same time, he shows off a more introspective side, as this book is also a tribute to the love of books and the transformational power of reading.

Michael Hudson is a young man in prison, determined to serve his time without making any enemies or causing trouble. The bright light during his sentence is his interaction with Anna, the prison librarian, who introduces him and his fellow inmates to books and authors they might never have read or even heard of otherwise. Michael, in particular, is tremendously appreciative of Anna's attention and her book recommendations, as she is opening his eyes and his mind to the beauty and power of words and images.

When Michael's sentence is overturned thanks to the manipulations of a private investigator, he is ready to start again. He knows he made some foolish mistakes, but he wants a new life—he wants to find a job, make something of himself, take care of his mother, and find time to read. Even though the Washington, DC he knew before he went to prison has started to change, with gentrification and newer stores, restaurants, and houses popping up everywhere, it still feels like home to him, and with a book in his hand, he feels even more secure.

When the man who saw to his release from prison comes to collect the debt Michael owes him, Michael knows he has a choice. But what path is the right one: doing what is necessary to square your obligations like a man, or running the risk of having to go back to prison again, and destroying everything he has started to build? As the crooked private investigator gets more and more enmeshed in trouble, Michael isn't sure whether honor is worth the risk.

I'll admit, when I started reading this I expected another of Pelecanos' crime novels, so I didn't understand why it was taking so long to get to the action and suspense, why he was laying out so much of the story. But when I realized what he was doing, I let myself enjoy the beauty of his writing and his characters (something I always do when reading his books, although my pulse is usually pounding at the same time), and thought about just how important reading has been to me all my life.

When the criminal elements of the plot kick in, Pelecanos goes at them full throttle, and you don't realize just how much you've gotten invested in these characters, so you're hoping the age-old battle fought by the man trying to start his life anew won't end the same way here. This book isn't one of his most explosive, and that's totally fine, as long as you know to expect that.

Pelecanos is one of those authors that needs to be read. Whether you're a fan of crime writing, suspense, beautiful storytelling, or like to read about Washington, DC in the 1970s and 1980s, you can find one of his books to match your desire. And don't miss this one—especially if you're like me, and your life has been changed by reading.

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

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Book Review: "Girl Made of Stars" by Ashley Herring Blake

Powerful, emotional, and thought-provoking, Ashley Herring Blake's Girl Made of Stars is a beautifully written, poignant book about the bonds of family and friendship, gender and sexual identity, the emotional traumas faced by victims of sexual abuse and assault (not to mention the "blame the victim" mentality which is all too prevalent), and the confusion and anxiety which often accompanies love.

This was utterly phenomenal.

"Once upon a time...a brother and sister lived with the stars. They were happy and had wild adventures exploring the sky."

Mara and Owen are twins, so similar and yet so different from one another, yet they are incredibly close. But one night following a big high school party, Owen's girlfriend Hannah (who is also one of Mara's best friends) accuses Owen of raping her. How could someone Mara once shared a womb with, someone she knows better than anyone else, have done such a thing? Even as their parents rally around Owen and declare his innocence, can Mara believe her brother is truly innocent? If not, what does that do to their relationship? And if so, what happens to her friendship with Hannah?

Confused, hurt, and angry at so many people after the incident, Mara feels adrift because her relationship with her ex-girlfriend Charlie is tremendously uncertain. She knows she wants to be with Charlie but is afraid of what that means, afraid of letting someone get too close. But more than that, Mara has been able to keep a traumatic event in her own life a secret, but at what cost? If she speaks up, will anyone believe her? Will her parents believe her? Or will she be treated by her peers, her friends, her family in the same way Hannah has been?

"What else is there to do? What else is there for any girl to do, when everyone but her can just forget everything like a random bad dream? I have no idea what moving on sounds like, looks like. I've spent the past three years trying and decidedly not getting over anything."

Girl Made of Stars doesn't exist in a fantasy world where every person who does wrong is punished, and everyone learns from their mistakes. It's a book that accepts that life is often grey rather than simply black and white, but we can't stop fighting for what is right, fighting to make sure those who do wrong are punished. I think that's why this book works so well—it's never heavy-handed or preachy, but it does emphasize the difference between acceptable and unacceptable behavior.

Ashley Herring Blake is amazingly talented. Her ear for dialogue, her eye for evocative imagery, the flawed yet unforgettable characters all dazzled. One of the greatest compliments I can give is that this book felt a little like one of Jandy Nelson's exquisite books, two of my absolute favorites (I'll Give You the Sun and The Sky is Everywhere), yet she is an author with a style all her own.

Like many YA books—and like life, honestly—there are moments in this book in which you wish the characters would just say what they were feeling rather than avoid the truth. But while those moments may cause frustration they are realistic, particularly given the issues that these characters are confronting, so it didn't detract from my enjoyment of this book.

Beautiful, emotional, and thought-provoking. I couldn't ask for anything more!

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Book Review: "The Seasonaires" by Janna King

Six beautiful young men and women have been given an exceptional opportunity, to spend the summer on Nantucket and work for popular fashion brand Lyndon Wyld. They'll be "seasonaires"—influential brand ambassadors—for Lyndon Wyld, creating buzz for the entire collection, at events and especially through social media, where it's the number of followers and likes that tell the tale.

The group members are an interesting mix—Mia, a scrappy young woman from South Boston who dreams of a career in the fashion industry but has always put family in first; Presley, the beautiful, blonde beauty queen from the South who is the returning seasonaire from the previous summer, and wants to return again; Jade, the independent, beautiful daughter of a music icon and a model, who has plans of her own; Cole, the handsome introvert; J.P., a designer who can't be swayed from his ambition—and Grant, the carefree stud who flirts with everyone, and has never met a party he doesn't like.

The seasonaires have a pretty sweet life—visiting the Lyndon Wyld store and generating publicity at different events during the day, partying and socializing at night. The maven behind the brand, Lyndon Wyld herself, and her wily sister Grace keep watch on the group members via social media and know when they're doing the right things as well as the wrong things. But the group isn't prepared for an increasingly dangerous rivalry with another fashion brand, whose models are tougher and less supervised, as well as the copious amounts of alcohol, drugs, violence, and betrayal that they're faced with.

Mia loves the opportunities she's getting but can't turn off her protective nature, even when it means caring about a troubled model from the rival brand. She's also unprepared for not knowing whom to trust, and as the summer goes on, her suspicions and fears grow, ending in the murder of someone close to her, and she doesn't understand how a magical summer could turn so dangerous.

After reading a few dark, emotionally heavy books, I was looking for something lighter and more entertaining, and The Seasonaires definitely fit the bill. Janna King has created a fascinating look at a group of young people doing something I had never thought about, but I couldn't stop reading. This is one of those stories where a lot of the plot hinges on actions caused by things people don't say to one another, and people getting access to others' text messages, phones, and social media accounts, but I still found the story really enjoyable.

It's funny; much of the criticism of this book I've seen has stemmed from the fact that people couldn't identify with the seasonaires' activities, and that the reliance on social media, on stories and selfies and likes, made them feel old. I didn't agree with that. The plot may not be earth-shattering, and you may see much of the story coming (and there's at least one plot thread that falls flat since it tells more than shows), but I devoured this book in one day, and enjoyed it from start to finish.

If you're looking for a lighter read, or the perfect book for a late-summer break, try The Seasonaires. It'll definitely put you in the mood for a beach, and maybe a shopping trip or two!

Friday, August 10, 2018

Book Review: "An Anonymous Girl" by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen

The next time you consider signing up for a research study, you might want to think twice—and you will after reading this book!

You're Invited: Seeking women aged 18 to 32 to participate in a study on ethics and morality conducted by a preeminent NYC psychiatrist. Generous compensation. Anonymity guaranteed. Call for more details.

Jess is a makeup artist who came to New York dreaming of a career in the theater. She has a lot of secrets she's kept hidden, which has led her to become totally self-reliant, although money is one of the biggest sources of anxiety she has to deal with. When she overhears a client thinking about not showing up for a research study she was supposed to participate in—and it pays $500—Jess decides there's nothing wrong with pretending to fill in for the young woman, since $500 would really help with this month's rent.

Jess figures all she'll need to do is answer some questions, collect her money, and leave. She wasn't expecting the questions to be difficult, like Could you tell a lie without feeling guilt? Describe a time in your life when you cheated, or Have you ever deeply hurt someone you care about? But more than that, she wasn't expecting the psychiatrist conducting the study—whom she never met—to give feedback on her answers, and encourage her to be more honest and more in-depth.

As the sessions continue, and the payoff increases, Jess can't help but wonder what the study really is all about. While she is utterly unsettled when the psychiatrist, whom she finds out is the renowned Dr. Lydia Shields, asks whether Jess would be willing to expand her participation in the study. But when Jess learns that the compensation would be significantly higher, there's no way she can turn Dr. Shields' request down.

Expanding her participation in the study is definitely not what she expected. Dr. Shields starts to tell Jess where to go, how to dress, and whom to meet—and in some cases, that entails striking up a conversation with a specific man. Jess begins feeling uncomfortable, and wonders exactly what Dr. Shields wants to accomplish. More and more, she questions whether she can trust the doctor—and then Jess discovers a disturbing coincidence that she needs to hide from her, or the doctor could destroy her life.

An Anonymous Girl is a pretty wild book, full of twists and turns. You wonder how you might react in the same situation, but at the same time I found myself shaking my head in disbelief at times that Jess could be so clueless. There were definitely some surprises thrown in, but ultimately I had my ideas about how the plot would unfold. I just kept hoping that things wouldn't go completely awry, and I was pleased they didn't.

Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen, whose last book, The Wife Between Us, contained some shockers but didn't quite click for me, definitely kicked it up with An Anonymous Girl. I didn't love some of the characters (and I wondered whether some of this stuff could and does really happen) but the pacing of the book was terrific, and I was hooked from start to finish. I was also glad that the twists they threw in fit with the plot rather than just be included to confuse and shock.

I know this book will be everywhere when it's released in January, because it's the type of book you can't put down, and it definitely will keep you wondering what comes next. Hendricks and Pekkanen mesh well together, and I can't wait for their next book.

NetGalley and St. Martin's Press provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Book Review: "Give Me Your Hand" by Megan Abbott

"I guess I always knew, in some subterranean way, Diane and I would end up back together. We are bound, ankle to ankle, a monstrous three-legged race. Accidental accomplices. Wary conspirators. Or Siamese twins, fused in some hidden place. It's that powerful, this thing we share. A murky history, its narrative near impenetrable. We keep telling it to ourselves, noting its twists and turns, trying to make sense of it. And hiding it from everyone else."

When Kit and Diane became friends in high school, for the first time, Kit recognized her intelligence as an asset. Diane encouraged her to believe in herself, believe she could accomplish anything she wanted, that she wasn't destined to attend college in her hometown and never amount to much. The two grew inseparable, challenging and pushing each other, both hoping to achieve a prestigious internship. Kit always felt as if she were one step behind Diane, but that didn't stop her from wanting, from trying.

One night, Diane told Kit a secret she had kept hidden from everyone. This wasn't just any secret—this was the biggest secret Diane had, about the worst thing she had ever done. Kit didn't understand why Diane had to tell her this, and it completely destroyed their friendship. Any time she looked at Diane, Kit felt the weight of the knowledge she had about her. She knew she should tell someone, but she can't bring herself to, but she can't escape knowing, either. Still, she hopes that once they graduate high school she'll never see Diane again.

Years later, Kit is where she wants to be—working in a lab under one of the most formidable female scientists, who is just about to receive major grant funding for a project looking at a once-taboo, misunderstood, "female issue." Kit is hoping to be one of the people chosen to work on this grant. And then, unexpectedly, Diane arrives, brought into the lab specifically by Kit's boss.

"Everyone always likes the best, wants the most, admires deeply, the girl who's just out of reach. The girl no one can touch, really. We don't know why we're drawn, but it's unstoppable."

Without warning, Kit faces the same feelings about Diane she had hidden away after high school. All she wants to do is work, but suddenly she's competing with Diane again, trying not to think of what Diane told her all those years ago. But in a moment of weakness, Kit makes a mistake she can't take back, and suddenly Diane is there, protecting Kit, keeping her secret.

Can Kit keep both of their secrets? Is Diane a threat to her, professionally and/or personally? How far will things have to go before Kit feels secure in her work, and her life—or will that ever be a possibility?

Megan Abbott has created some of the best "mean girl" characters in fiction over the last few years, in novels like The Fever, Dare Me, and You Will Know Me. In Give Me Your Hand it's more "crazy girl" than "mean girl," but her work is equally memorable—and unsettling.

This is an interesting story of female intelligence, friendship, rivalry, and relationships, and the challenges women in academia (particularly in science) face to get ahead. It's also a look at how far we would go for a friend, if there's a secret that we'd consider too big to keep for someone, even if we care about them.

Even though this book is fairly predictable, I couldn't stop reading it. I needed to see how far Abbott would take her plot and her characters, hoping she wouldn't go completely off the rails. Give Me Your Hand isn't the strongest of Abbott's books I've read—I think that goes to Dare Me (see my review)—but it's still entertaining, and it will be difficult to get out of your mind.

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!

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Book Review: "A Ladder to the Sky" by John Boyne

When you get ready to read a book by an author whose two previous books wound up at the top of your year-end best lists (and they're truly among some of the best books you've read, at least in the last decade), you get a little nervous whether lightning will strike thrice, or whether you're putting too much pressure on the book. (I am the one who has preached measured expectations when reading new books by favorite authors, because each new book deserves to be weighed on its own merit, not compared to others the author has written.)

All that being said, John Boyne, author of The Absolutist (see my review) and The Heart's Invisible Furies (see my review), has done it again. He has created an unsympathetic, morally dubious character who is utterly unforgettable, and has slayed me in the process.

Maurice Swift is a handsome young writer with a tremendous amount of ambition, but he lacks the talent to back it up. No matter. When he meets noted novelist Erich Ackermann at a West Berlin hotel in 1988, he immediately recognizes that the older man is attracted to him. Ackermann is desperately lonely, and is energized by Maurice's companionship, so he invites the young man to travel with him around the world to participate in different literary events.

Maurice uses his sex appeal, and the tantalizing promise of giving Ackermann more of him, to encourage the writer to divulge a secret he has long kept hidden from the world, a secret with potentially damaging consequences if it is discovered, despite the fact that it happened when Ackermann was a teenager in the midst of World War II. Maurice realizes this story will be the perfect basis for his first novel, so once he gets what he needs from the man, he's ready to move on—and he doesn't seem to care what it does to Ackermann, or his career.

But once Maurice gets a taste of literary fame, he can't imagine life without it. After an encounter with famed writer Gore Vidal which makes him uncertain of how far his looks can help him succeed, he moves from literary circle to literary circle, from the U.S. to London and all over the world, in search of his next opportunity. And as he moves through his life, the stakes get higher and higher—until there's nothing he won't do for fame—but is a life alone worth the acclaim of success?

Although there are similarities to The Talented Mr. Ripley, A Ladder to the Sky is a novel all its own. Maurice is an utterly amoral character, and as much as you dislike him, you have to admire his cunning, his ambition, his single-minded pursuit of fame. We've seen this story before, but in Boyne's hands the suspense crackles, the longing of those Maurice strings along is tremendously affecting, and you can't wait to see whether he'll get his comeuppance.

Boyne throws some surprising twists into the plot, and takes the story to a different level. He's one of those storytellers that hooks you from the very start, and keeps you engrossed in the plot from start to finish. While his last two novels have remained in my mind because of the way they touched my heart, A Ladder to the Sky will stay in my mind because of Maurice Swift's character and his unbridled ambition.

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

Friday, August 3, 2018

Book Review: "My Life as a Goddess: A Memoir through (Un)Popular Culture" by Guy Branum

"We talk about nature and nurture when analyzing a person's character. We see two ways that an identity is formed. One is biological, the mean of parents' traits passed down genetically. The other is environmental: How did the world around this person guide and encourage him? The problem is that by either of these methods, I shouldn't be me. I should be shorter and dumber and not at all concerned with what pairs well with star anise syrup in a cocktail." (BTW, it's notes of orange.)

At a young age, Guy Branum already knew he was different. Growing up in Yuba City, a farming town in Northern California, he was much larger (both taller and fatter) than his peers. Big boys were supposed to be fighters, but Guy didn't have it in him to fight. What he wanted to do was sit inside, read, and learn, find answers to the endless number of questions he had, about nearly everything in the world. But that met with disapproval from his parents, especially his father, who wanted his son to act "normal."

As Guy grew older, as he grew bigger and fatter, he indulged his father's wish and played high school football for four years. But he never had any passion for it. And as he realized he was gay, he knew that was another reason society would look down on him. What he wanted more than anything was to get out of Yuba City, go someplace more exciting, and be free of the expectations of those around him. And while he felt bad about himself, and tried to hide himself and who he really was in plain sight for so long, at some point he realized that he was worthy of love and success and praise, no matter what others might say or think.

"I'm not supposed to like myself, and I'm certainly not supposed to think that I should matter. The world has spent a lot of time telling me that, and in the past thirty or so years, I often listened, because we all listen. The world is mostly full of fine facts and good lessons, but some of those facts and lessons were built to keep you down. And I got kept down for decades. Then I remembered that I was a goddess. I may not always feel like it, but I have powers."

In My Life as a Goddess, a memoir/collection of essays, Branum shares his long journey to self-discovery, from his difficult relationship with his father to the love of movies he shared with his mother; his discovery of his sense of humor and his writing ability while attending Berkeley—which led to an interesting run-in with the Secret Service; what he believes to be society's struggles with both fat and gay people; finally feeling free enough to go to gay clubs; and the rise of his career as a stand-up comedian, comedy writer, and occasional actor.

Parts of this book were literally laugh-out-loud funny. (I got more than my share of odd looks when I read this book in public, and the one time I laughed so hard I couldn't breathe I realized I needed just to read it at home.) Branum's love of pop culture, television sitcoms, movies, and music felt so familiar to me. More than a few times I thought he and I could be great friends, or we'd try to out-funny each other, and he'd probably win, so I'd feel bitter.

But this is more than a comic memoir. My Life as a Goddess has real emotional heft to it as well, and I found myself nodding and even tearing up at times as I recognized situations which occurred in my own life. Branum is tremendously insightful but he doesn't feel sorry for himself; he recounts his life in a very matter-of-fact way. You may think that the difficulty of his journey helped turn him into the immensely funny man he has become, and certainly you see that with a lot of LGBT people, whose creativity was burnished amidst poor treatment.

Branum's childhood and his growth into adulthood was a difficult journey, but thankfully he has risen above it, and more thankfully for us, he is willing to share himself with us. At times he rambles a bit on unrelated topics (and he even recognizes it as he is doing it), but then his heart and his sense of humor shine through, and you realize this book, and this man, are truly special.