Thursday, October 20, 2016

Book Review: "Ashes" by Steven Manchester

Brothers Tom and Jason Prendergast have been estranged for years, since each committed an act of betrayal against the other, essentially ending their relationship. The one thing that had always united them was their hatred for their violent, alcoholic, physically and psychologically abusive father, and each left home and any contact with him as quickly as they could.

It's a surprise to both when they get word that their father has succumbed to cancer. But in his ultimate act of asshole-ism, he specifies in his will that both Jason and Tom must drive cross-country to Seattle (he never liked flying) to spread his ashes. Together. If they do, they'll benefit from the contents of a sealed envelope their father left with his lawyer. If they're not willing to make the trip together and perform this final task, they'll get nothing.

While neither has any idea what, if anything, their father could have had that is worth anything, curiosity and need get the best of both of them. Within minutes of beginning the cross-country trip, they're at each other's throats, needling each other with painful memories of their childhood and their father's abuse. They couldn't have taken more different paths in adulthood—Jason is two years away from retirement after years as a prison guard, while Tom is a college professor. Yet as they criticize the other's life choices, habits, and virtually every move, they start realizing they have more in common than they realize, and each could truly benefit from listening to the other.

Their journey takes them through small towns and big cities, and they spend a lot of time rehashing the way their father treated them. And while neither is particularly happy with their lives right now, and they want nothing more than to be rid of their father (and each other) as quickly as possible, they can't help but imagine what is inside the envelope that is their reward at the end of the trip.

Can we ever get over the pain and trauma inflicted on us in childhood, particularly by our parents? Is there a statute of limitations on being angry at your siblings, or are you justified in resenting, even hating them, all your life? How is it that someone who doesn't really know you can diagnose your problems quicker than you can?

In Ashes, Steven Manchester strives to answer those questions, framed against the backdrop of Jason and Tom's tumultuous road trip. Family drama always provides fascinating fodder for novels, and this is no exception. While the story unfolds much as you'd expect it would, Manchester does a great job teasing out the tension, making you wonder what roadblocks might befall the brothers which could hamper their ability to complete their trip and see if there's gold at the end of the, well, envelope.

I had never read anything Manchester has written before, although it appears he's fairly prolific. He's a really strong storyteller. My one criticism of this book is that I wished the characters didn't fall into such complete stereotypes—the prison guard drives a pickup truck, listens to country music, and loves to eat fried, greasy food and smoke cigars; the college professor mostly eats salads and lighter foods, and drinks wine. While it turns out the characters had more depth than it appeared on the surface, it threw me for a loop initially.

This is a good, solid story, full of moments to make you laugh, and a few which might bring a tear to your eye. But in the end, it's a palpable reminder of how we don't often realize how important people are to us until we're missing them.

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

Monday, October 17, 2016

Book Review: "Good Morning, Midnight" by Lily Brooks-Dalton

This book was absolutely extraordinary.

Loneliness is a powerful emotion, yet you can feel just as lonely while spending time with people, or in the middle of a crowd, as you might when you're completely alone. Lily Brooks-Dalton's powerful, haunting, contemplative debut novel, Good Morning, Midnight, is a meditation on loneliness, regret, ambition, love, and loss, through the eyes of two unique people.

"He was drawn by the isolation and the punishing climate, the landscape that matched his interior. Instead of salvaging what he could, he ran away to the top of an Arctic mountain, nine degrees shy of the North Pole, and gave up. Misery followed him wherever he went. This fact didn't faze him and it certainly didn't surprise him. He had earned it, and by then he expected it."

Augustine was once a brilliant astronomer, known as much for his devotion to his research as his self-destructive behavior and his reputation as a cruel manipulator of women. At the end of his career he is stationed in an Arctic research center, when news spreads that a catastrophe has affected the world, and all of the scientists must evacuate. But Augustine stubbornly decides to stay put, even though he knows he may never leave. While to his surprise he discovers a mysterious child abandoned in the research center, and that helps assuage his loneliness, when he discovers that the radio waves have gone silent, he wonders what will become of them.

"Even as a little girl the emptiness had called to her, and now she was a wanderer too. Remembering how her journey had begun distracted her from the uneasy question of how it might end."

At the same time, the crew of the Aether has just finished a groundbreaking voyage to Jupiter, going further into space than any before them. Mission Specialist Sullivan reflects on her journey to this moment, and the cost of this achievement—the end of her marriage, barely knowing her daughter. Yet traveling into space is all she has ever thought of, so she has convinced herself that the sacrifices were worth it. But when Mission Control goes silent for reasons they cannot explain, the crew must grapple with the idea that they may never make it home to Earth, and even if they do, life will not be the same as it was when they left.

Does pushing people away make you stronger, or does it leave you more vulnerable? What is the price of achieving your dreams, of reaching the pinnacle of your career, if you really have no one to share that with? Is it ever too late to make a true connection? These are some of the questions Augie and Sully ponder in this beautifully written book.

This truly blew me away. Brooks-Dalton created so much suspense that I kept waiting for a tragic event (beyond whatever has happened on Earth) to occur, yet I couldn't stop reading. I felt what these characters were feeling, and could picture what they were seeing so vividly, and that is a testament to her amazing strength as a storyteller.

It took a little while for the story to get going, but once it did, it honestly moved me and took hold of my heart. It reminded me a little of Peter Heller's The Dog Stars and, although I'm always loath to agree with the comparisons publishers draw, it also had a little bit of Station Eleven in it as well, but for those of you who were unimpressed by that book, it's more similarity of the feelings I felt than the actual plot.

I can't stop thinking about this, and wish the book were longer, because I want more time with these characters. Kudos to Lily Brooks-Dalton for creating an utterly captivating, gripping, truly beautiful world, and giving us the chance to visit.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Book Review: "Setting Free the Kites" by Alex George

Few friends have a first meeting like Robert Carter and Nathan Tilly. It's the first day of eighth grade in 1976, and Robert has resigned himself to another year of being bullied by his nemesis, Hollis. Yet Nathan literally rescues Robert in the midst of Hollis' repeatedly sticking his head in the toilet. Not quite an auspicious meeting, but certainly a memorable one, one which Robert is truly grateful for, especially once events continue to unfold.

The boys' friendship intensifies rapidly. Nathan is the brave, carefree one, obsessed with the wonder of flight and all things that fly, while Robert has spent most of his life being much more cautious, perhaps as a result of his parents' protectiveness in the wake of his older brother's serious illness. But each brings out the best in the other, and while there isn't much to do in their Maine hometown, the two are pretty much inseparable, especially in the wake of two tragedies. But they take jobs at the local amusement park owned by Robert's family, and that both occupies and complicates their lives.

As Robert watches his parents' marriage weather difficult times, he can't seem to muster up the enthusiasm for life that he once did. And as Nathan faces each situation with a never-fail, constantly positive attitude, especially around winning the attention of the most beautiful girl in school, Robert starts to get frustrated with Nathan. He misses their us-against-the-world friendship, their recklessness, and he wants his old life back.

Setting Free the Kites is a pretty terrific book about how friendship changes your life, especially when you're young. It's also a story about fear and bravado, love and loss, and what it's like when children begin to realize their parents have secrets and flaws, just like everyone else.

I really loved this book. There's so much emotion, nostalgia, humor, and heart in this story, and Alex George did such a terrific job in making a simple, familiar story so compelling and making his characters so interesting. Even though you've definitely seen elements of this story before (I have no idea why I was reminded of the end of the movie Stand By Me, as this book has almost nothing in common with that movie), it's really a special book.

Alex George is tremendously talented. I remember wanting to read his first book, A Good American, so I'm definitely going to need to add that to my list now. If you love books that make you feel nostalgia for those special friendships of childhood, you should absolutely read Setting Free the Kites. It'll leave you with a lump in your throat and a smile in your heart.

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

Monday, October 10, 2016

Book Review: "The More They Disappear" by Jesse Donaldson

Part crime novel, part lament on the affect that drugs, poverty, and the hunger for power have on a small town, Jesse Donaldson's The More They Disappear is an atmospheric thriller and fascinating character study, truly evoking imagery of life in a downtrodden small town.

In 1998, Lew Mattock is running for re-election to an unprecedented fourth term as sheriff of Marathon, a small town in Kentucky. Lew's success as sheriff isn't just because he has been tough on crime—he's greased more than his share of palms (and had his palm greased more than a few times), and he's not afraid to use his power wherever it's needed. But when Lew is murdered during a campaign event, most of Marathon's citizens are saddened to see this fixture of their town meet his end.

The task of finding Lew's murderer falls to Harlan Dupee, Lew's chief deputy, more because Lew wanted someone on the force he didn't feel threatened by as his second-in-command. Introspective, and still mourning the tragic death of his girlfriend a few years earlier, Harlan never really had any ambition to be sheriff, but he knows that investigating this crime is his duty. And the more investigating he does, the more he uncovers a massive web of greed, intimidation, secrets, addiction, and corruption, and Lew was smack in the middle of it all.

While Harlan wants to find out the truth behind what caused Lew's murder, his discoveries also force him to revisit his own loneliness, and the destruction that is being wrought in Marathon as a result of the introduction of OxyContin. He wonders if uncovering the truth can actually save Marathon and those being torn apart by Lew's death, including Lew's widow and son, or whether the town will be able to survive the poverty and despondence that is slowly eating away at it.

It's always interesting reading a crime novel when you know who the perpetrator is, and pretty much know how everything unfolded, but you need to wait for the protagonist to figure it out. Even though that seems like it might be a boring read, in Donaldson's hands, this book is completely compelling. Marathon is not unlike many small towns in the U.S., and you find yourself both hoping the truth will be uncovered so the town might be able to start fresh, and hoping the status quo can remain.

There are a lot of interesting characters in this book, and Harlan is far from the slow-seeming sad sack that he appeared to be at the start. Donaldson made you care about these characters, and how they are affected by what has transpired, and his storytelling ability is really quite strong. Thanks to his use of evocative imagery, I could picture Marathon pretty clearly in my head, and found it both fascinating and sad.

While this may lack the suspense of many crime novels, The More They Disappear, is more than a crime novel. It's a great read, and a great look at a town caught in the cross-hairs of poverty and greed.

Book Review: "One of the Boys" by Daniel Magariel

Particularly when we're young, we'd do anything if we thought it would make our parents happy. For the 12-year-old narrator of Daniel Magariel's bleak, tremendously affecting novel One of the Boys, that means siding with his father and older brother in their parents' bitter divorce, even if he needs to embellish the truth a bit to make his mother look more dangerous.

"This is your brother for life. You are his last line of defense."

After they've been able to emerge victorious from "the war," their father's term for the divorce, they leave their Kansas home and drive to Albuquerque. The prospect of a new life, just the three of them, is an exciting one. But as they start to get immersed in their new routines, making friends, and, in the case of the older brother, excelling at sports, things start to change. Their father's moods become more erratic. Although he is ostensibly working from home, he doesn't seem to be working much, instead spending hours, even days locked in his room. And his cigars don't hide the chemical smell that permeates their cramped apartment.

The boys are unsure of what to do, whether they made the right decision to ally with their father. He starts to become paranoid, starts coming and going at odd hours, disappearing at times and leaving the boys with no money; at other times there are other strange people in the house with him. While at times he rebounds and acts like the father they remember, more often than not he lashes out, trying to turn brother against brother in a test of loyalty to him.

Does their father really have their best interests at heart, as he says he does? Should they continue to trust him, or should they try to go back to Kansas and be with their mother? Will she understand what happened during the divorce? And how bad will this get?

One of the Boys packs a real punch, accurately conveying the hurt, fear, and hope that these boys feel as they realize they're stuck in the middle of a battle much larger than themselves. What do you do when the person who says they love you, who convinces you you're better off with them, turns out not to be what they say they are? This is a bleak but well-written book with a tremendous amount of tension, as you don't know what's going to happen and who will break first.

This book is troubling, perhaps even more so when you realize there are children trapped in these same battles all over the world. Magariel has tremendous storytelling talent, and it's amazing that he was able to create such sympathetic characters without giving them names. I look forward to seeing what comes next in his career.

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

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Book Review: "Holding up the Universe" by Jennifer Niven

Don't go into reading Jennifer Niven's new novel, Holding Up the Universe, thinking this is going to be identical to the phenomenal All the Bright Places (which made my list of the best books I read last year), in tone or the emotional power of its subject matter. I don't say this to denigrate Niven's new book in any way—I think with this book she set out to tell a different and more personal story, yet one with slightly more universal themes.

"You know how it's easy to believe everything is about you, especially when something goes wrong? Why me? Why do I have the worst luck ever? Why is the universe so mean? Why does everyone hate me? My mom used to say sometimes it's actually about the other person and you just happen to be there. Like sometimes the other person needs to learn a lesson or go through an experience, good or bad, and you're just an accessory in some way, like a supporting actor in whatever their scene happens to be."

Libby Strout has already had a brush with notoriety. Once dubbed "America's Fattest Teen," when she weighed 653 pounds at her heaviest and had to be cut out of her childhood home while the media watched, she's spent the last two years being home schooled while she recovered. Now 302 pounds lighter, she's ready to go back to high school and be someone different, someone with tremendous possibilities, new friends, maybe even someone that a guy could fall in love with.

When Libby meets Jack Masselin for the first time, it's an encounter that winds up with both of them getting detention, having to go to counseling, and participate in community service for their school. Jack has always seemed like someone who has it all, and knows it—he's good-looking, a bit cocky, and tends to swagger through school. But this bravado hides a significant vulnerability: Jack has prosopagnosia, or the inability to recognize faces, even those of his family members or people he's known all his life. Each time he sees someone, he has to try and figure out who they are, and he's not always successful, which leads to more uncomfortable situations than he'd like.

In Jack, Libby sees someone who is hiding their true self, someone who understands what it's like to have secrets and sadness and emotional anguish, while in Libby, Jack sees fearlessness, even when she's being mistreated. But as much as he's drawn to Libby he has to wonder if the persona he needs to maintain in order to protect his secret would ever really give someone like Libby attention. And Libby has to decide whether pursuing everything she wants without worrying about the consequences is actually worthwhile, or if she should just do her best to hide in the background.

Holding Up the Universe is a story about finding courage when you feel you don't have any, and not letting anyone sway you from what you want. It's also a book about finding hope after loss and difficult times, and how to hang on to that hope in the face of adversity. But more than that, this is a book about letting people see who you really are, and admitting when you need help.

There were things I really loved about this book and things that bothered me. I liked some of the characters very much, and loved how Niven revealed their complexities little by little. This certainly was a unique story in many ways, but it didn't feel gimmicky in any way, and there was so much emotion and heart in this story, but it never felt emotionally manipulative.

What bothered me is just how cruel Libby's classmates were (even if I know this fact better than I'd like to admit, even all these years later), how unending that cruelty was, and how she really wasn't willing to tell anyone what was going on. There were a lot of things which remained unsaid in this book, and I found that frustrating. I also admit that I wondered whether someone like Jack would actually find himself falling for a girl who still weighed 350 pounds, and that distracted me a little bit.

I issued my warning at the start of my review because I'll admit I went in hoping for another All the Bright Places, so some of my disappointment was my own unrealistic expectations. But once I gave it a fair chance, I really enjoyed Holding Up the Universe. It's a book that deserves to be read on its own merit, and although it didn't touch my heart as much as Niven's last book, it still proved Niven's tremendous talent.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Book Review: "The Babylon Line" by Richard Greenberg

Tony Award winner Richard Greenberg's new play, The Babylon Line is an intriguing, thought-provoking, and surprisingly emotional look at the lives of a group of suburban Long Island residents at the end of the 1960s, as they come together to participate in a writing class through an adult education program. Some of these people know each other, some merely know of each other, and not all of them intended to participate in a writing class—some were closed out of the classes they actually wanted to attend.

The teacher, Aaron, is a writer who once showed some promise but never delivered, despite his attempts to write every day. His failure causes him to take a job that forces him to commute from his New York City home to Levittown and teach a group of adults, the majority of whom have never written (and never had any desire to do so). These are people who would rather gossip and complain than put pen to paper, but little by little, some start to open up to the creative process, and their writing becomes more personal and therapeutic, and raise the hackles of their fellow students.

Aaron's most talented student, Joan, is a troubled housewife disliked by the other women in the class. She and Aaron, both in failing marriages, are drawn to one another through their love of reading and their desire to write, and Joan begins looking to Aaron as a life raft from the chaos of her life. But fear and ennui are powerful anchors.

The Babylon Line looks at the class over the course of a semester, and then follows each of the characters after the class is over to narrate what became of them. Greenberg has an ear for dialogue, and particularly captured the nuances of bored, angry, and self-righteous suburban housewives. Some of the characters are more well-developed than others, but they're all pretty fascinating, and you wonder what revelations will come from the students' stories.

Other than the new Harry Potter, it's been a long while since I've read a play. It required a little bit of an adjustment for me, since you must glean most of the plot from dialogue rather than description and imagery. I felt as if the plot took some time to build up steam, but once it did, it was amusing and thought-provoking, and the recaps of what happened to each character brought the sap out in me. And of course, like any good novel, there were times I wanted to shake the characters for their inaction, or for not saying what they were thinking.

I loved Greenberg's play Take Me Out, and The Babylon Line once again proves his talent. It would be interesting to see this performed some day, to see how everything takes shape on the stage. All in all, definitely a worthwhile read.

First to Read and Penguin provided me an advance copy of the play in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!