Monday, May 2, 2016

Book Review: "Happy Family" by Tracy Barone

Cheri Matzner's life is in a bit of turmoil. She and her filmmaker husband are barely speaking yet she's trying to have a baby, her job as a professor of comparative religions is in jeopardy (but all she really wants is a spot on a crew slated to head to Iraq to catalog and translate antiquities), and she's trying to keep her overbearing, functionally alcoholic mother from throwing her a 40th birthday party.

But Cheri is used to chaos in her life, as she has reinvented herself more times than she can count, from the suburban adolescent to the multiple-pierced, blue-haired teenager, from the slightly radical Yale student to the tough-as-nails cop entangled in a relationship with her partner. Part of her restlessness seems innate to her, but she'll admit some of her transformations have simply been ways of angering her adoptive parents—her well-meaning but emotionally distant father and her smothering, insecure mother. She's never really understood why her parents treated her the way they always have, but while she's tried to shrug it off for most of her life, they've affected her more than she cares to admit.

A series of professional and personal setbacks make Cheri question everything—her marriage, her maternal instincts, her career path, and her family. She reflects upon her life growing up as some sort of symbol to both of her parents (something different to each of them), and wonders how much of this is attributable to her adoption as an infant. But more than that, Cheri realizes that it can take a significant amount of time before you really understand your parents and yourself, and sometimes your lowest moments are what you need to really change your life.

Tracy Barone's Happy Family is an emotional and sometimes humorous book about how growing up in the midst of dysfunction can only prepare you for more dysfunction in adulthood. It's also a book about finding strength in difficult times, and how life has a way of surprising you, both positively and negatively. The description of the book led me to believe it would be more about Cheri's birth mother and the foster family that took her in when she was an infant, but their impact is felt only briefly at the start and end.

Barone is a tremendously talented writer, and I found myself so wrapped up in the plot of the book that I honestly didn't realize how good she was until I read a paragraph near the end of the book which made me gasp. I re-read that and then started noticing Barone's almost-poetic style in some places. Cheri is a fascinating, flawed character; this is her book, and some of the other characters paled in comparison to her. (Cheri's mother almost never transcended a stereotypical Italian immigrant, clinging fast to her old-school ways and customs despite being in the U.S. for many years.)

Happy Family is a sensitive and occasionally sexy portrait of a woman who always believed her life was more together than it actually is. If you've ever wondered whether why you are the way you are has more to do with your upbringing than your own choices, this is definitely a book you'll enjoy. Barone's writing ability is definitely worth taking notice of.

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!

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Book Review: "We Are the Ants" By Shaun David Hutchinson

I stayed up until nearly 2:00 a.m. to finish this book and I cannot stop thinking about it. Honestly, I read a good amount of YA fiction, and a lot of it is tremendously well-written and emotionally evocative, but I've not been this blown away by a book since I read Jandy Nelson's I'll Give You the Sun, which made my list of the best books I read in 2014.

Seriously. This one was brutal and absolutely beautiful.

"Sometimes I think gravity may be death in disguise. Other times I think gravity is love, which is why love's only demand is that we fall."

For the last few years, aliens have periodically abducted Henry Denton. As if high school wasn't already difficult to deal with. The aliens don't tell Henry what they want from him or why they've chosen him, but apart from leaving him nearly naked in strange places all over his Florida town, they haven't hurt him too badly.

No one believes Henry's stories, except his boyfriend Jesse. But Jesse recently killed himself, and Henry believes he is to blame, or at least should have seen how badly Jesse was hurting. Everyone else in Henry's life, including his fellow classmates, taunt him and call him "Space Boy," making every day at school a living hell. And his home life isn't much better—his mother works more and more shifts as a waitress while her real dream is to be a chef; his older brother abuses him physically and psychologically nearly every day; and his grandmother, suffering from Alzheimer's, seems to have fewer and fewer lucid moments.

The aliens have given Henry an ultimatum: Earth will be destroyed in 144 days, unless Henry makes the decision to save the world. All he has to do is push a button. But does Henry want to save the world? Is the world really worth saving without Jesse in it?

"Most people probably believe they would have pressed the button in my situation—nobody wants the world to end, right?—but the truth is that nothing is as simple as it seems. Turn on the news; read some blogs. The world is a shit hole, and I have to consider whether it might be better to wipe the slate clean and give the civilization that evolves from the ashes of our bones a chance to get it right."

As the deadline draws closer, Henry searches for evidence that the world is worth saving—in the bully who wants to be with Henry in secret but terrorizes him in public; in Audrey, his former best friend, who used to be an enormous part of his life; in the new student who adds some mystery into Henry's life; and Henry's family members, each dealing with their own struggles. Sure, there are moments when life isn't so bad, but Henry has to decide whether humanity is worth saving or if letting the world end would also end his own emotional anguish.

We Are the Ants is a difficult book to read at times, emotionally. It seems incredible that Henry would allow himself to be treated the way he is by so many people, and that no one would put a stop to it, but the truth is, this type of thing happens more often than not in real life. He is such an incredible character—as are many of the supporting characters—that you root for them to be happy even as you begin to understand that maybe Henry's pain is too much for anyone to bear.

That's not to say that the book is a total downer. There were many moments that made me smile and laugh, and moments that touched my heart and made me even cry good tears (as opposed to the ugly ones I cried at other times). I haven't ever read anything that Shaun David Hutchinson has written before, but after this, rest assured I will. This is such an inventive, moving, beautiful book I feel utterly privileged to have read. I won't soon forget it.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Book Review: "The Second Life of Nick Mason" by Steve Hamilton

Five years ago, Nick Mason went to prison, expecting to serve a 25-year sentence. He tries to live day by day and stay out of trouble, and dreams of what his life used to be like with his ex-wife and his young daughter.

One day he is summoned by Darius Cole, a fellow inmate whose power within and outside the prison has never ceased despite the double-life sentence he is serving. He calls the shots and lives a fairly pampered existence, and he takes a liking to Nick because of his ability to keep to himself and stay even-tempered. It isn't long before Cole offers to make the rest of Nick's sentence disappear—for a price.

How could he refuse the chance to get out of prison while his daughter is still young, to be able to do what he pleases when he pleases, without having to watch his back? Nick is given a home in a posh Chicago neighborhood, fancy clothes, a classic sports car, and money to burn. But as you'd imagine, this freedom doesn't mean he's truly free—he is given a cell phone by one of Cole's associates, and whenever it rings, day or night, he must do whatever he's told to.

As Nick waits for his orders, he tries to visit his ex-wife and daughter, as well as one of the friends he protected the night things went wrong for them. But Nick's unexpected release doesn't sit well with everyone, including another one of his cohorts from the fateful night five years before, and the dogged police detective who arrested him and doesn't understand how he was able to regain his freedom. Nick would like to pursue a new relationship, but doesn't know if it's wise to involve someone else in his situation.

And when the orders come, it forces Nick to do things he'd never imagined, and it's not long before he realizes he's being used as a pawn in a battle where there are no good guys. He must decide whether to continue to follow the orders he is being given, or follow his conscience and put his life, his freedom, and those who loves in jeopardy. It's a no-win situation, and the stakes are getting progressively higher.

I don't know why Steve Hamilton isn't more famous. I think he's one of the best crime writers out there right now. His series with flawed Michigan private investigator Alex McKnight are absolutely fantastic, and the few stand-alone books he's written have been pretty tremendous as well. The Second Life of Nick Mason deserves to stand alongside his other books—Hamilton once again delivers crackling action, taut plot development, and some strong and memorable characters.

I believe I read that this book has been optioned for a film adaptation, and that doesn't surprise me. It reads like a movie, and I don't mean that in a disparaging way. If you've never read one of Hamilton's books before, and you're a crime fan, you can't go wrong with this one, the incredible The Lock Artist, or any one of his Alex McKnight books. Hopefully you'll see what the world hasn't quite seen yet—Steve Hamilton is a writer to be reckoned with.

First to Read and G.P. Putnam's Sons provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

Book Review: "Your Father Sends His Love: Stories" by Stuart Evers

Maybe it's because the two-year anniversary of my father's death is approaching in a few weeks that first attracted me to reading Stuart Evers' new story collection. But while certainly many of these stories focus on the relationships between fathers and their children (or, in one case, grandchildren), there are stories which focus on other emotional connections and relationships as well.

Among my favorites in the collection were: "These Are the Days," in which an elderly man tries to mediate tension between his estranged son and his granddaughter; "Something Else to Say," which follows the reunion of a man and his best friend, who has experienced a series of emotional crises, and the man's efforts to identify topics to keep their conversation flowing; "Sundowners," about a married woman in the midst of an affair with a younger man, who wants her more than she does him; "Wings," where a woman gets a tattoo in memory of her less inhibited sister and it suddenly frees her emotionally; "Frequencies," in which a man babysits his infant son while his wife is away on business, and he overhears snippets of an interesting conversation on the baby monitor; and my favorite story, "Lakelands," about a man who makes a weighty sacrifice in defense of his gay son.

I had never read anything Evers had written before, and I definitely enjoyed his way with language and imagery, as well as his skill with dialogue. Some of these stories packed a real emotional punch, while I didn't quite understand the point of several others. I felt as if he was at his best when he told straightforward stories; a few more experimental stories don't work as well. Interestingly enough, I felt as if the collection was front-loaded so that the majority of the strongest stories came early on.

The number of talented writers out there today doing magic with short stories grows larger and larger by the day. While not every story succeeds, by and large, Stuart Evers demonstrates his significant talent with Your Father Sends His Love. These are well-written stories that examine the fragility of relationships of all kinds, and they'll definitely resonate in your mind after you're done reading them.

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

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Book Review: "Before the Wind" by Jim Lynch

"Families split over money, betrayal and abuse, over resentments, infidelities and misunderstandings, over people being jackasses. Most anything can rattle the fault lines. Yet I know of only one family torn asunder by a sailboat race."

Joshua Johannssen has sailing in his blood. It's virtually all he and his siblings have known basically since birth. His grandfather designed sailboats, his father designed and raced them, and the two passed down this fever to Josh, his older brother Bernard, and their younger sister Ruby, a true sailing prodigy. They knew sailing terms and how to race boats in every weather condition better than they knew the English language or how to relax with any other pastime. Even their scientist mother plays a role, teaching them about the disbursement of air and water molecules, and how to measure the wind.

But something happened and everything changed. Josh, now 31, lives on a boat and repairs boats at a marina not far from his childhood home in Washington State. The family sailboat business has hit hard times and faces bankruptcy after too many lawsuits caused by their father's cutting corners. Their mother is becoming obsessed with solving a series of scientific equations that promise a significant monetary reward. And both his siblings have fled far away, Ruby to Africa, where she helps care for the poor and sick, and Bernard to who-knows-where, as he has become a fugitive and a champion of the working class.

"...strains of this gentle madness course through my family the way diabetes or alcoholism clusters in others. For years, sailing bound us. We were racers, builders and cruisers. It was our family business, our sport, our drug of choice. Yet eventually, sailing blew us apart, too."

It is Swiftsure, a famed sailing race, that brings the entire Johannssen clan together for one last hurrah. Sailing an old family boat altered by Josh (following his father's orders) to allow it to compete with the newer, faster crafts, their father hopes that this will be the moment that repairs all of the damage done through the years (although he's not quick to acknowledge his role in all of that damage), and restores the Johannssen name, reputation, and business. But the entire family is unprepared for what occurs, and the revelations that are revealed.

Jim Lynch may be one of the best writers you might never have heard of, and Before the Wind is a pretty terrific book. Lynch again returns to his beloved Pacific Northwest, and has created an utterly compelling portrait of a dysfunctional family both brought together and torn apart by their mutual obsession with sailing. This is beautifully written, emotionally gripping, humorous, and insightful.

I have one caveat for you: Before the Wind goes heavy on sailing terms. You may not know spinnaker from starboard, or boom from boat, but in the end, this is a story about a family, and you can guess what most of the terms mean. The book starts a little slowly, but much like a sailboat, it picks up speed and emotion and heft, until you're completely immersed. While I'd recommend any and all of Lynch's books, this is a great one to start with. I loved this.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Book Review: "The Vanishing Year" by Kate Moretti

When you watch a thriller or crime movie, at some point a character tells the beleaguered protagonist, Trust no one. If they listen to that advice, they find themselves questioning everyone's motivation, second-guessing seemingly innocent gestures even from people they know. (That is if they're smart, which characters in thrillers or crime movies rarely are.)

I operate the same way when I read a thriller or crime novel. I guess I've read so many through the years, and seen all kinds of twists, that I see almost everything as a potential clue toward the villain and/or the plot's resolution. That's definitely what happened when I read Kate Moretti's new book, The Vanishing Year.

Zoe Whittaker appears to have it all. At one point in her life she didn't even have enough money to give her mother a proper burial, and when she first arrived in New York, she was living in a homeless shelter. But now she is married to Wall Street tycoon Henry Whittaker, who indulges her every whim and surprises her with romantic trips and gifts, and she is helping make a difference with her charity involvement. It's a far cry from the purple-haired, multiple-pierced floral apprentice she was when she met Henry.

While her life was vastly different back then, no one really knows how different. No one really knows that Zoe wasn't always Zoe, and that she was involved in things which put her life in significant danger. She had no choice but to flee that life, that existence, even if it meant saying goodbye to good memories as well as frightening ones.

Without warning, Zoe's past seems to have found her. While there are parts of her past she'd like to understand, there are many parts she hoped she'd escaped for good. She can't tell Henry, whose moods are growing increasingly mercurial. She doesn't know whom to trust, where to turn, or what to do. And the danger seems to be growing dangerously closer and closer.

I thought this book had tremendous potential, even if we've seen this type of plot before, the woman-who-isn't-who-you-think-she-is, the damsel-who-used-be-in-distress-and-is-again. Moretti kept me guessing for a while just how the story would unfold, and I kept trying to figure out which character would end up being the one (or ones) who betrayed Zoe. I just found the story took far too long to build up steam, there were red herrings that were sprinkled throughout the plot unnecessarily, and in the end, I was disappointed.

I am a really tough critic of this genre of fiction because I read a lot of it, so I either like to be surprised or I like to be impressed with the author's execution of the plot even if it unfolds as I've expected it might. That's a tall order, so I would encourage you to pick up The Vanishing Year if it sounds intriguing to you. Hopefully if you're not as demanding as I am, you'll find it a suspenseful and more enjoyable read than I did.

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

Book Review: "The Hopefuls" by Jennifer Close

The Washington, DC area gets a bit of a bad rap. Sure, there are people who work within presidential administrations and on Capitol Hill that are a little status-obsessed, and really only want to deal with those who have similar jobs. (I've attended more than a few parties in my years down here in which people literally disengaged when they found out I worked in the association management field rather than in politics.)

But this area is unique in many ways—random encounters with political figures still leave me a little starstruck nearly 29(!) years after I arrived, and you can't beat the magic of an inauguration, especially when it's a candidate you supported. (Getting stuck behind a motorcade when you're in a hurry immediately gets old, however.)

When Wisconsin native Beth Kelly uproots her cosmopolitan New York City life to move with her husband Matt down to Washington, DC, where he had accepted a job with President Obama's Presidential Inauguration Committee, she's a bit shell-shocked. It's hard to believe that the Nation's Capital can feel like such a small town (unlike the anonymity you can escape into in NYC), the pace is really slow, and all anyone talks about is politics. And themselves. And what they do working in politics. And others who work in politics.

With no real career prospects and no friends to speak of, it's a fairly lonely existence for Beth. And the other downside to living in Washington is their close proximity to Matt's family, ruled by a mother who thinks Matt can do no wrong, and who treats all of her daughters-in-law as if they are outsiders no matter how long they've been married to her sons. Beth tries to get acclimated to the city and her new life, but it doesn't seem to be working.

Salvation comes when Matt meets Jimmy Dillon, a charismatic White House staffer, and Beth becomes very close with Jimmy's wife, Ashleigh, a Texas girl who is utterly unlike Beth in every way. The two couples become very close, and when Beth gets a job on a DC-social scene website, things seem to be looking up. But as Jimmy's career seems to be rising, Matt's seems to be stalling, and his jealousy of the opportunities Jimmy is getting—opportunities that Matt believes he is more deserving of—it threatens to drive a wedge into their friendships as well as Matt and Beth's marriage.

I found The Hopefuls to be a really enjoyable and fun read. Jennifer Close really hits all of the right notes about the culture and interpersonal dynamics in Washington, and what it's like for an outsider looking in. Even things that may seem outlandish to those unfamiliar with the city had me nodding and even laughing out loud a time or two. (I can actually recall having a conversation with friends about how many of the Safeway grocery stores in DC have nicknames—the Social Safeway, the Soviet Safeway, etc.—so it was funny seeing that in the book.)

Close is a very engaging writer with a keen ear for dialogue. I enjoyed the characters although I found Beth to be a little too passive throughout nearly the entire book, and I kept wanting her to get angry or make a scene. I also thought that perhaps Close drew out Beth's unhappiness with the area a little longer than necessary, but it didn't really interfere with my enjoyment of the book.

If you've never lived in the DC area, you may be amazed or skeptical of the culture that Close describes in the book. It's pretty dead-on, though, but you don't have to know anything about this city to enjoy The Hopefuls. It's fun (and funny), enjoyable, and well-written. It feels like a great summer book.

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