Friday, November 17, 2017

Book Review: "The Wife Between Us" by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen

"In my marriage, there were three truths, three alternate and sometimes compelling realities. There was Richard's truth. There was my truth. And there was the actual truth, which is always the most elusive to recognize. This could be the case in every relationship that we think we've entered into a union with another person when, in fact, we've formed a triangle with one point anchored by a silent but all-seeing judge, the arbiter of reality."

Vanessa's marriage is over. She once had a handsome, rich, powerful husband, and they lived a life of luxury. But they drifted apart, and her husband found another woman. Now she lives with her aunt, wears out-of-date clothing, and is a shell of herself, working a job she hates just to make ends meet.

Nellie is a bubbly, young, beautiful preschool teacher. She's finally met her Prince Charming, the man who will rescue her from her messy shared apartment, her nights spent as a cocktail waitress (even though she enjoys them), and takeout meals before hanging out with her friends at various bars and clubs. She also has secrets of her own, and things that cause her to be afraid, and she hopes her fiancé will save her from those, too.

If you think The Wife Between Us is a story about a jilted wife jealous of her husband's new fiancée, you're not quite right. This is a story about how things are seldom as simple as they seem, and how appearances can be deceiving. It's also a story about trust, fear, truth, manipulation, and finding your own way.

Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen throw a lot of twists into this book, which is why my description is fairly spartan, because I don't want to spoil anything for you. Every time you think you have things figured out, they swerve again, so you definitely want to keep reading, to see where it all winds up.

There are a lot of thrillers out there these days, and many of them deal with relationships that don't go as planned, and the aftermath of breakups, as well as the manipulation that often occurs within a relationship. While the twists definitely jolted the plot a bit, overall I felt a lot of the plotlines were very familiar. At times, I found myself growing a little impatient with the pace of the story, because I wanted to see where Hendricks and Pekkanen would go next, and wanted to move past some of the more commonplace incidents.

Is this a compelling thriller? It definitely has its moments, and many of my Goodreads friends have raved about this, so maybe I've just read too many books in this genre this year. It did keep me guessing, though, and sometimes I was right, and sometimes I was wrong. This will probably be one of the beach reads of 2018, so don't let me dissuade you from picking it up.

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!

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Book Review: "Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance" by Ruth Emmie Lang

One of the factors that helps transform a very good novel into a great one is memorable characters. And while I've read a lot of books this year and over the last several years that featured characters I couldn't quite get out of my mind, it's rare to find a character as special, as incredible as Weylyn Grey, the main character in Ruth Emmie Lang's terrific Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance.

"Weylyn doesn't quite fit into the world we're familiar with," Daddy said, choosing his words carefully. "He's a strange boy, but in a wonderful sort of way."

Orphaned at a young age, Weylyn was raised by wolves—literally, he lived with a pack of wolves—and is more comfortable being with animals and living outdoors than following traditional social constraints. But that doesn't mean he doesn't get lonely, and when he meets 11-year-old Mary Penlore in the woods, and he saves her from being attacked by one of his wolves, Mary realizes that Weylyn is unlike anyone else she has ever met, and even then she realizes she needs him in her life, and in fact, is willing to run away from home and live among the wolves with him.

The thing is, when Weylyn is around, interesting things happen. The weather seems to change dramatically, he can literally communicate with animals of all types, and he seems to be able to stop tornadoes and storms from happening. But at times, it also appears he might cause those things to happen. He can't explain it, and no one around him can either (if they actually believe what they see), but his biggest fear is somehow he'll cause harm to someone he cares about, so he's more willing to go it alone than hurt someone.

"I've been called magic, but I wouldn't use that term exactly. I like to think of myself as always being in the right place at the right time, or the wrong place at the wrong time. Very rarely am I simply in an acceptable place at a generally convenient time."

Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance follows Weylyn through his life, as he makes his way across the country. It's a story told by those who got to know him, even for a short while, and feel the amazing impact he had on their lives. A family challenged by the decision to take young Weylyn in as a foster child, a teacher struggling with her own childlessness, a young mayor tired of living his life in his father's shadow, even a young boy who wants to believe magic is real—these are the people whose lives Weylyn touches. And as a touch point is Mary, whose life always bears the indelible impact of knowing him.

This is one of those special books that requires you to suspend your disbelief, or simply believe that there are things in life that may seem impossible to grasp, but you just need to accept them. If magic, and communicating with animals, and causing strange phenomena to occur doesn't appeal to you, you'll probably not enjoy this book. But if you do, and you can just let yourself take a leap along with the characters, this is a story you'll marvel over.

I was absolutely charmed by this book from start to finish. I loved nearly all of the characters and I loved Weylyn's relationships with the many people he met. One character remarked that Weylyn might be "too good for this world," but fortunately the world isn't quite as cruel to him as I feared it might be. I also worried that Lang might take the plot into melodramatic territory, and I was so pleased she steered clear of that.

Lang is a fantastic storyteller, and her imagery and dialogue are so skilled, it's so hard to believe this is her debut novel. Books like this don't come along too often, so this is a special one to savor. I can't wait to see what Lang has up her sleeve in the future.

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, November 14, 2017

Book Review: "Autoboyography" by Christina Lauren


Yes, Leo, me, too. All the feels.

I couldn't love Christina Lauren's Autoboyography any more if I tried. As I've said so many times, I am so happy that young adult books like this exist and are readily available in today's world, to help this generation realize that whatever their problem is, they will be able to overcome it, and thrive. But at the same time, I can't help but be perhaps a tad bitter that not one book like this existed when I was growing up, because I sure could've used some encouragement through the struggles, even if it was only fictional!

Tanner's family moved to Provo, Utah when he was 15 years old. It's a tough time to relocate your life from a liberal city like Palo Alto, especially if you're a bisexual teenager moving to a predominantly Mormon town—when your family isn't Mormon. Tanner's parents encourage him to keep his sexuality under wraps until he graduates and leaves Provo, not because they're embarrassed or they disapprove, but they don't want him to have to deal with the scrutiny and criticism of the Mormons in the community.

With one more semester left in high school, Tanner's best friend Autumn encourages him to enroll in "The Seminar," an exclusive high school class in which every student will write an entire book by the end of the semester. Even though Tanner can be kind of lazy when it comes to meeting deadlines, he figures, how hard could it be?

"'Come on. I moved here when I was fifteen—which I think we can agree is the worst time to move from Palo Alto, California to Provo, Utah—with a mouth full of metal and no friends. I have stories.' Not to mention I'm a half-Jewish queer kid in a straight and Mormon town. I don't say that last part, not even to Autumn."

When "The Seminar" begins, it upends Tanner in a way he never expected. The prodigal student from last year's class, Sebastian Brother, whose novel was so good the teacher sent it to publishers and the book is about to be released to great fanfare, is helping mentor this year's students. From the minute Tanner sees Sebastian, he is utterly rocked by his attraction to him, and it's not long before Tanner has fallen head over heels in love with him. But given that Sebastian is the son of an LDS bishop, and a model student, there's no way he reciprocates Tanner's feelings, right?

"I can't read him. I can't grasp him. I have no idea what he's thinking and if he's messing with me or if he really is this good, but never before have I wanted so fiercely to lean forward and put my mouth on someone's neck, begging them to want me."

The harder he falls for Sebastian, the more Tanner's life is disrupted. He's never even come out to Autumn, and their relationship is kind of complicated, so he can't share his feelings with her. His parents want him to be happy, but they're very wary of him getting involved with anyone affiliated with the Church, since they know it won't—it can't—end well. He should just stop obsessing over Sebastian, ask one of his female friends to the prom, and hold off just a little longer.

One problem: "His smile ruins me. The feeling makes me uneasy, a dramatic lurch that tells me I need to have him or I won't be okay."

This book works for me on so many levels. The characters are tremendously well-developed and they're not 100 percent sympathetic; they're each selfish in their own ways. While the story's trajectory is, in a lot of ways, unsurprising, I was so happy that the plot didn't blunder into some of the stereotypical pitfalls I expected given the subject matter.

I also was pleased that the book wasn't too heavy-handed in how it addressed Mormons' views on homosexuality—while it was accurate in general, it didn't make every Mormon out to be a villain, although it did question how parents could put religion over their children's happiness.

Unsurprisingly, Autoboyography gave me all the feels, and I finished the entire book in one day. As I sit and write this review just a few hours after a majority of Australian citizens voted in favor of marriage equality, I am encouraged that one day books like this will become the exception and not the rule, because people will accept everyone's sexuality as just another element of their identity, like eye color or height.

For now, though, it's great that books like this exist, because everyone needs to understand that love is love, and everyone deserves to love whomever they choose.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Book Review: "Roll the Dice" by Wayne Avrashow

It's hard to live in the Washington, DC area for as long as I have without becoming at least a little bit of a political junkie. And while our current political climate has me interchangeably ranting, raving, and lamenting, I'm still fascinated by (most) political figures, how parties pick their candidates, and the march toward the election. (Especially the good old days, when we didn't have to think about Russian collusion, cough, cough.)

That's why I jumped at the chance to read Wayne Avrashow's first novel, Roll the Dice. Avrashow, an attorney, is a former campaign manager in Los Angeles politics and was a government commissioner, so he knows of what he speaks. (Although I don't really want to know how much of the inspiration for this book came from real-life events, lol!)

Tyler Sloan is one of the country's biggest rock stars. He's won Grammys, filled stadiums, even been nominated for an Oscar. He has fans all over the world, and he's had more than his share of beautiful women over the years. Politics is in his blood—his father, a former governor, narrowly lost the Democratic nomination for president. But it's still a surprise to nearly everyone when he decides to run as an independent candidate for an open U.S. Senate seat in his home state of Nevada.

Can a celebrity with no political experience be taken seriously as a political candidate? Should they? (No comment.) Sloan's Democratic and Republican challengers quickly dismiss him as a neophyte, a lightweight. They hint about scandals in Sloan's past—sex, drugs, even blasphemy—each of which calls his character into question. But Sloan didn't just wake up suddenly and decide to get into politics. He's given a great deal of thought to his positions (and in fact wants to share his views on every issue far more than his campaign staff wants him to), and he has answers to every accusation that his opponents can throw at him.

Sloan quickly realizes, however, that his celebrity has its limits. Every single event from his past, everything he said and did, even the lyrics of his songs are analyzed ad infinitum by political commentators, reporters looking for a fresh story, and his opponents. He wants to campaign on the issues, but he quickly learns the way the political system works. He doesn't want to stoop to pettiness, but it seems as if every time he turns around he has to justify something from his past, or try to prove to a skeptic that he's more than just a celebrity seeking an ego boost.

His campaign is an uphill battle, and he doesn't have much time. He'll need to deal with scandals among his staff and questions about difficult times in his past, and he'll need to weather his often-strained relationship with his father, whose support he'll need. Will he be able to prove his worth as a potential senator, or will he become a gimmick, a cocktail party trick? Will he be able to handle what comes his way, or will he ultimately fold under the pressure? And is there a secret in his past that will keep him from a possible victory?

Although it may be a little predictable at times, Roll the Dice is a tremendously compelling read. While its examination of the politics of celebrity may perhaps hit a little too close to home given our current environment, Sloan definitely seems to be a candidate who has more to offer than charm, fame, and sex appeal. I definitely couldn't stop reading this, because I wanted to see what obstacles Avrashow would throw in Sloan's way, and just how he would tie everything up.

I feel like this book would make an interesting movie or television mini-series—it just has the right amount of intrigue and drama, as well as emotion and personal interaction, plus the fascinating madness of politics. Avrashow definitely knows his way around a campaign and it shows, and truth be told, this would have been a pretty intriguing election to watch!!

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

Friday, November 10, 2017

Book Review: "Sadness is a White Bird" by Moriel Rothman-Zecher

Oh, wow, this book was so gorgeous and moving and amazing! (Sorry I'm not more enthusiastic about it.)

Jonathan has just turned 19 and is serving in the Israeli army, a responsibility he has taken very seriously. Yet when Sadness is a White Bird begins, Jonathan is in a military prison, telling his story as a letter of sorts to one of his best friends. But how did someone so eager to serve his country wind up in prison, doubting whether military action against the Arabs is the right thing to do?

Although he was born in Israel, Jonathan and his family lived in Pennsylvania for a number of years before he persuaded them to return to their homeland so he could serve in the army, as required of all Israeli citizens. Jonathan's grandfather, who was from the Greek city of Salonica (also known as Thessaloniki), saw his entire community wiped out by the Holocaust, and through his sorrow, played a role in the establishment of the Jewish state of Israel in 1948, so Jonathan sees military service as a family inheritance.

When he meets brother and sister Laith and Nimreen, twin children of one of his mother's Palestinian friends, the three become immediately inseparable. Through their weekly adventures, they talk, share poems (and joints), and Jonathan begins to see what life in Israel is like for Arabs. While his first reaction is to defend his country's efforts to protect itself from militant Arabs, Nimreen and Laith try to explain Palestinians' allegiance to the same country, yet view their treatment by Israelis as persecution not protection. It's not long before Jonathan wonders if he really believes in the country he will be defending, whether it is possible to love your country yet question its motives at the same time.

The story weaves back and forth between Jonathan's time with Nimreen and Laith and the growing love he has for both of him, and his time in the military, leading up to the actions which land him in prison. Nimreen and Laith don't understand why Jonathan is still so adamant about serving in the military when he has begun to see that blind allegiance is not the only path, and it strains their relationship. Jonathan is torn between pride in his country and the comradeship he finds in the army, and knowing one day he may come in direct conflict with people dear to Laith and Nimreen.

This is an absolutely beautiful and poignant book, in part a coming-of-age novel, in part a story of self-discovery, as well as a story about how our idealism and naivete change as we grow older. This is a story about longing and belonging, about how sometimes there is a gap between what is expected and what is right. Moriel Rothman-Zecher does such a wonderful job taking you along Jonathan's path of self-discovery, feeling the things he feels, and he keeps you in suspense as to why he is in prison, and whether the letter he is writing will ever reach its intended audience.

I absolutely loved this book and found it very surprising at times. The characters are so memorable, and Rothman-Zecher's storytelling is so lyrical and beautiful. It will be some time before I get this one out of my head, not that I want to.

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

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Book Review: "The Chalk Man" by C.J. Tudor

Sometimes you see a bunch of your Goodreads friends raving about a book, and you hope that you'll find it just as good as they did. In the case of C.J. Tudor's terrific debut thriller, The Chalk Man, that definitely was the case for me.

"Personally, I have found that it is much better to take your fears, lock them up in a nice, tightly shut box and shove them into the deepest, darkest corner of your mind."

In the summer of 1986, Eddie and his four best friends—Hoppo, Fat Gav, Metal Mickey, and Nicky (even though she was a girl)—were on the cusp of adolescence. They bike around, commit mischief, tease each other, and try to avoid Mickey's older brother and his bullying friends. It seems like a magical summer—they even leave coded messages in chalk for each other to spell out their plans or their whereabouts.

But the idyllic time seems to be ending, as the adults around them wind up in the midst of some trouble, and tragedies strike close to home. Then one day, a strange chalk man leads them to a dismembered body in the woods. Nothing is ever the same again.

Thirty years later, Ed is still living in his childhood home. He'd like to think that he's put the events of that summer behind him, but the fact is, he's never been able to settle down into a relationship, he still spends time with Gav and Hoppo, and he teaches at his old school. When he gets an anonymous letter with a chalk man in it, it dredges up those memories, as does the return of an old friend who had seemingly gone away. And when he finds out that all of his friends received a similar letter, he realizes that perhaps not everything was tied up as neatly as they thought all those years ago.

Are there real answers to be found, and if so, what good would it do to find them? Will solving the mystery put everyone's demons to rest and allow them to get on with their lives, or will it put them in danger? Can we ever recapture our childhood innocence after it has been shattered?

The Chalk Man hooked me from the very first page and didn't let go. It evoked a little bit of the nostalgic feelings of Stand By Me, with a little more mystery and violence, and a lot of heart. There's a lot going on in this book, lots of twists and turns to keep you guessing and lots of interesting characters to fascinate and (perhaps) distract you. Tudor is a terrific storyteller, and it's so hard to believe this is her debut novel, because the writing is so self-assured.

Like with any thriller, I always suspect everyone, and while I was a little surprised at certain twists, and I didn't love every choice Tudor made, I thought this was a great read, one that made me wish I had just a few minutes more to linger over the book every time I picked it up. Believe me, this is one you'll want to read before everyone else starts talking about it.

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

Monday, November 6, 2017

Book Review: "Robicheaux" by James Lee Burke

I've said it before and I'll say it again: James Lee Burke is one of the finest fiction and mystery writers of our time. Ever since I read my first Burke novel in the late 1980s, I have been an enormous fan, and he continues to leave me in awe with his ability to create some of the most vivid, memorable characters I've ever read about (every time one of them appears in his books, I can immediately recall details about each), along with tremendously evocative, almost poetic imagery.

He is one of my favorite authors of all time, and having met him at a book signing, he's a warm, gracious, and friendly guy, too. Simply put, I'm a fan.

My favorite of Burke's characters is Dave Robicheaux, the Louisiana police detective. He is fiercely loyal, sensitive, and immensely flawed, which makes him one of the most fascinating (and at times depressing) characters to read about. In Robicheaux, Burke's 21st novel featuring his most popular character, Dave is struggling with the death of his wife Molly in a car accident. Her sudden loss has ratcheted up his alcoholic cravings, his nightmares of his time in Vietnam, and his visions of Confederate soldiers.

"Why should an old man thrice widowed dwell on things that are not demonstrable and have nothing to do with a reasonable view of the world? Because only yesterday, on a broken sidewalk in a shabby neighborhood at the bottom of St. Claude Avenue, in the Lower Ninth Ward of St. Bernard Parish, under a colonnade that was still twisted out of shape by Katrina, across from a liquor store with barred windows that stood under a live oak probably two hundred years old, I saw a platoon of Confederate infantry march out of a field to the tune of 'Darling Nelly Gray' and disappear through the wall of a gutted building and not exit on the other side."

When the crushing sadness wrecks his prized sobriety, suddenly Dave becomes more of a danger to himself and others, as his anger at his wife's death threatens to overwhelm him. Then, in the midst of a murder investigation, he discovers that he may have been the one who killed the victim, the man who was responsible for Molly's death. As his boss and former partner, Sheriff Helen Soileau, fights to figure out whether to pity Dave or fire him, Dave and his best friend, the irascible Clete Purcel, try to figure out Dave's whereabouts during the murder, and whether his melancholy was strong enough to turn to violence.

As with any Robicheaux novel, Dave and Clete find themselves entangled in a web of unsavory characters, each one with a grudge against Dave and/or Clete, and each one burdened with their own baggage. From Mafia enforcer and aspiring film producer Fat Tony Nemo and his enforcers, novelist Levon Broussard and his troubled wife Rowena, to the enigmatic and possibly dangerous local boy-made-good (or did he) Jimmy Nightingale, who aspires to political power, Dave and Clete need to figure out just exactly how far each is willing to defend themselves from those who appear to be encroaching on what they believe to be theirs. Throw in a dangerous contract killer and a police detective with his own issues, and you have a mess of epic proportions, which the infamous "Bobbsey Twins from Homicide" will be lucky to survive.

Burke does an excellent job of depicting characters whose good qualities are often outweighed by their flaws, but he doesn't immediately condemn everyone. Dave struggles with questions of morality, mortality, and loyalty, and while he is sworn to uphold the law, if those he cares about are harmed, he isn't above enacting his own code of justice. While it seems as if everyone out there has an axe to grind with Dave and Clete, issues which often get visited upon those the two care about, their first thoughts are always protecting those they love and the city they care about.

"Like most of us who subscribe to the egalitarian traditions of Jefferson and Lincoln, I did not want to believe that a basically likable man could, with indifference and without provocation, commit deeds that were not only wicked but destroyed the lives of defenseless people."

While I've enjoyed nearly everything that Burke has written, I love his books featuring Dave Robicheaux the most. These characters have come to feel like family through the years, and reading about them again and again is so pleasurable. And not a book goes by without Burke's imagery taking my breath away. When I first visited New Orleans years after I started reading his books, it felt so real, so accurate to the portraits he has painted through the years.

Robicheaux isn't a quick-moving caper packed with action and thrills. While there is some terrific suspense and a little bit of gruesome violence, this is a book that makes you think and makes you feel rather than raises your pulse. None of Burke's characters are perfect, but they are so complex, so thought-provoking, it doesn't matter that you may be troubled by some of their actions.

Once again, it is an immense pleasure to read a book by James Lee Burke. While at times he switches between the different series he has created, I hope another Robicheaux book is imminent, but I'll be happy to read whatever the master delivers next.

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