Friday, February 12, 2016

Book Review: "Shaker" by Scott Frank

Shaker reads like a movie, and that's not a bad thing. You can totally see the film version of this book playing out before your eyes.

This isn't too surprising once you learn that Scott Frank, the author, is an Academy Award-nominated screenwriter who also wrote and directed a film adaptation of a classic Lawrence Block crime novel. And while the film version of Shaker might help alleviate some of the confusion caused by a few characters too many, the book is an addictive, suspenseful, and surprisingly sensitive read worth savoring.

Los Angeles has just been hit by a pretty powerful earthquake which has damaged a lot of the major highways, left many buildings in disarray, and knocked out major cell service throughout the city. Aftershocks keep the city's residents on edge, and sometimes cause more damage. A few days after the big quake, Roy Cooper, erstwhile "errand man" for his New York criminal employers, is dispatched to LA to murder a shady accountant named Martin Shine. Roy isn't told what Shine did to incur his employers' wrath (if anything), but knows his job is to follow orders, not to question details.

Roy arrives in the city and does what he needs to. But he encounters a slight problem after the hit is complete: he can't find his rental car. He has apparently gotten himself confused wandering in the few blocks around Shine's apartment. Then his problems get worse, as Roy stumbles upon another crime in progress, as four young gang members are mugging an elderly jogger. Rather than do what he should, that is, get the hell out of there, Roy gets involved, and the next thing he knows, the jogger is dead and Roy is in the hospital.

It turns out the elderly jogger was a leading mayoral candidate, bent on solving the gang problem. The mugging, and subsequent murder/shooting, was captured on a bystander's cell phone video, so the media has branded Roy a hero. This doesn't sit well with a lot of people, including his employers, the gang members who feel Roy disrespected them, and a figure from Roy's past, who has a score to settle. And as the cops, including disgraced police detective Kelly Maguire (who has a bit of an anger management problem), try to figure out exactly who Roy is, he needs to get out of the public eye and finish what he inadvertently started.

Frank juggles a lot of different narrative threads in the book, and all but one ultimately are relevant to the plot. (There's even some flashbacks to explain what brought Roy to this point in his life, and they're pretty fascinating on their own.) There's some great action, some creepy violence, and some pertinent social commentary on what drives gang members to live lives of unrelenting violence, lives they know may ultimately lead to their own demise. While I found Roy and Kelly's characters really fascinating (and would have loved it if the book focused more on both of them), Shaker drifts from time to time, juggling too many different narratives, and I just looked forward to the plot returning to the story at the book's heart.

As you'd expect from a talented screenwriter, Frank is a pretty strong storyteller, and while the book may meander occasionally, it's tremendously captivating. A great addition to the thriller/crime genre, and hopefully Frank will continue writing books in addition to films.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Book Review: "Symptoms of Being Human" by Jeff Garvin

I was bullied quite a lot in high school because my lack of athleticism and my passion for music and drama made me an easy target. While there was a lot in high school I enjoyed, it was a tremendously stressful and traumatizing time in so many ways, and every day I wanted to escape the notice of my tormentors.

But as painful as that was, it doesn't hold a candle to the treatment of Riley Cavanaugh in Jeff Garvin's absolutely amazing Symptoms of Being Human.

"The first thing you're going to want to know about me is: Am I a boy, or am I a girl?"

Riley is a gender fluid teenager. Some days Riley identifies as a boy, some days as a girl. That certainly doesn't make things easy, or allow Riley's wish to simply blend in ever to be realized. To top it all off, Riley is about to start attending a new, public high school (things at the private Catholic school didn't go well, to put it mildly), and Riley's congressman father is locked in a tight re-election battle in his conservative Orange County district. It's more pressure than any teenager could bear, much less one struggling with understanding who they are, and keeping it all a secret.

When the pressure gets to be too much, Riley follows a therapist's advice: share. So Riley creates Alix, a fictional persona with tremendously similar characteristics, and starts to write a blog as an outlet. Riley doesn't realize how cathartic it will be to share feelings, fears, insecurities, frustrations—from when a new friend turns away rather than confront bullies, or the mysterious behavior of a punk-rocker girl that catches Riley's eye. And Riley quickly realizes there are so many people out there experiencing the same things and dealing with the same problems. It's the first time Riley has felt valued in a long while.

But while Riley's online persona does attract some negative feedback as well, the biggest problem comes when someone starts leaving comments on the blog hinting that they know who Riley is, and they threaten to expose who the real Alix is. This could pose a real problem, as Riley isn't ready to embrace the truth or share it with others. But the stalker isn't interested—and there's no better time to reveal Riley's secret than just before Election Day.

What an emotional, fantastic read this was! I actually read the entire book in less than two hours, thanks to some bronchitis-related insomnia. It was tremendously poignant and truly insightful, for while I don't understand what it is like to be gender fluid, I do understand what it's like to feel different, but to simply want to be able to live your life the way you want, with no one interfering. Garvin did a great job trying to make most of the characters, including Riley's parents, more sympathetic and complex, although the two real villains in the book didn't get the same treatment, so you didn't quite understand what pushed them to do what they did.

As I've said before, I believe it is so wonderful that books like this exist in today's world, and Symptoms of Being Human is such a good one. While we've come a long way in terms of public perception of sexuality and gender issues, there is still a long way to go, and it's important that today's teenagers and young adults have books and other resources to help them deal with their struggles instead of leaving them to harm themselves or take their own lives.

Book Review: "Hotels of North America" by Rick Moody

As a society, we're kind of obsessed with giving our opinions about everything—restaurants, movies, businesses, products, etc. (No, the irony is not lost on me that I'm making this comment in a book review I'm writing.)

While many of these reviews you find on sites like Yelp or Amazon (or Goodreads) can be useful, have you ever stopped to wonder what possesses people to share stream-of-consciousness ramblings that have very little relevancy to what is being reviewed? And while we're at it, have you ever been so interested in these people that you find yourself reading a lot of their reviews?

This is the concept behind Rick Moody's Hotels of North America. Presented as a compendium-of-sorts of the reviews of Reginald Edward Morse, which he posted on a fictional website called RateYourLodging.com, the book is both a commentary about one person's opinions on the declining state of many of the country's (and the world's) hotels, as well as the portrait of a man whose life is spiraling out of control, and how he chooses to handle it.

Morse started his career as an investment banker and erstwhile day trader, only to suddenly pursue a (not particularly) successful career as a motivational speaker. As his reviews unfold, we learn that he has been as unlucky in love as he has been in his career—his marriage has ended, and his short-lived affair with a "certain professor of language arts" didn't last, although he admitted to sporadic "bouts of recidivism" where she was concerned. In some of his reviews he mentions K., his companion (who also likes to be referred to by various bird names), with whom he experiences some of the worst hotel experiences, and with whom he practices a number of different cons to try and avoid paying for said hotel stays.

Hotels of North America is similar to Julie Schumacher's Dear Committee Members in that the reviews that comprise this book are much less about the hotels than about Morse's state of mind, although the latter book is more humorous in tone than this one is. Morse comments on everything from front desk clerks at cut-rate hotels ("The young man at the front desk looked like there was no sorrow he had not experienced") to cheese grits ("...it is not possible to consider a serving of cheese grits as falling under the rubric of grits") and Waffle House ("...it was presumed at Waffle House that you were on your last nickel, that you had squandered opportunities, that all was illusion"). He also takes the time to criticize those on RateYourLodging.com who call his veracity into question, or simply criticize his writing or make assumptions about his personal habits.

One of my favorite pieces of Morse's commentary is his thoughts on bed-and-breakfasts: "To summarize, these are the three main problems of bed-and-breakfast establishments: throw pillows, potpourri, and breakfast conversation, and the fourth problem is gazebos. And the fifth problem is water features. And the sixth problem is themed rooms, and the seventh problem is provenance (who owned the inn before and who owned the inn before that, and who owned it before that, and what year the bed-and-breakfast was built, and how old the timber is in the main hall), and the eighth problem is pride of ownership, because why can't it just be a place you stay, why does it always have to be an ideological crusade?"

The reviews are interesting, at times funny, at times poignant, but the book seems to drag on longer than it needs to. And then Moody throws himself into the story, under the guise that he had been asked to write an afterword for the compilation of Morse's reviews, only to find Morse had vanished. I felt this was an unnecessary gimmick that, while it provided some interesting commentary, didn't advance the book in any way.

This is only the second book of Moody's I've ever read, the first being The Ice Storm a number of years ago. As with that book, Hotels of North America proves his storytelling ability and his talent at satirizing suburban America and its denizens. I just wish the book was longer on substance and shorter on gimmickry.

Book Review: "New Dogs, Old Tricks: How to Succeed in a Second Generation Family Business" by Peter J. Postorino

Full disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the author in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making it available!

When people hear the term "family business," they think it's an old-fashioned concept, like "mom and pop" businesses of yesteryear. But family-owned businesses exist and thrive today, across a wide number of industries. More importantly, however, they have the potential for lasting success through multiple generations—provided they don't fall into the traps that have harmed many a business.

Pete Postorino knows very well of what he writes—he and his brothers took over their father's environmental services business more than 20 years ago, and have grown it far beyond what anyone had initially envisioned. But this wasn't, and isn't, an easy journey. Keeping any service-oriented business running and thriving through the years is always challenging, and once you throw family into the equation, it increases the pressure and the potential for risk, as well as success, exponentially.

This is a really well-written book, because Postorino isn't just spouting management theories—he's citing specific examples and incidents in his 20+-years of experience, acknowledging that some truths are fairly universal, while some may be more specific to a particular situation. He's not afraid to put himself in an unflattering light from time to time, as he recounts some of his own mistakes, some of his and his family's "a-ha" moments, some of the things they wish they knew in advance. As he puts it, "this is as much a how-not-to as it is a how-to manual."

But don't discount this book if you're not involved in a family business, or not considering opening your business to your children or other family members in the future. I run an industry trade association, but still walked away with a lot of useful information—ideas I've thought about but lost in the midst of day-to-day craziness, as well as concepts that I should have thought of but they never crossed my mind. Postorino's writing style is straightforward and even a little sarcastic from time to time (which always gains points with me), and he backs a lot of his points up with some strong research. (Plus, how can you pass up a book that quotes not only A Few Good Men, but our favorite Jersey boy, Bruce Springsteen?)

If I'm interested in learning more about a subject, I want to go to an expert. And that's the case with this book: it's an enjoyable-to-read, easy-to-understand, valuable resource from someone who knows what he's talking about.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Book Review: "A Place Called Winter" by Patrick Gale

Full disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review. Many thanks to NetGalley and Grand Central Publishing for making it available.

This was a lovely, beautifully written, poignant book, that reminded me a little bit of John Boyne's The Absolutist in its tone and subject matter, although the former left me more of an emotional wreck than this one did!

Growing up a child of privilege, Harry Cane was shy, ill-at-ease in social situations, and more than happy to blend into the scenery than be noticed. His financial situation left him able to live a life of leisure, and if he could interact with no one but his more gregarious younger brother, Jack. But when Jack meets an outspoken young woman, Harry comes along to meet her sister, and before he knew it, finds himself happily married to a woman whose social discomfort is similar to his own, and they are proud parents of a baby girl.

Despite some financial challenges, life is peaceful for Harry, and he is able to live the life he wants. But when he finds himself drawn into an unlikely affair, it changes him completely—and its discovery threatens to ruin his marriage, his comforts, and even his life. With nowhere else to turn, Harry decides to join the crush of people migrating to the Canadian wilderness in the hopes of settling a homestead there. Life is bleak, and the work is even harder, but he learns that he is far stronger than he ever thought, and can handle adversity better than he imagined.

Living in the harsh landscape brings him face-to-face with a menace both attractive and ruthlessly dangerous, and two relationships which will change his life in similar but different ways. Harry realizes that he is willing to fight for what he believes he deserves, and he is worthy of love. But he must face occasional isolation, harsh elements, the threat of war, even madness.

Patrick Gale is a terrific storyteller. This book captures perfectly the tone and feel of its time in history, its setting, and the conventions of the world in which his characters live. While at first Harry's passivity is a little frustrating, you watch him discover his inner strength and you find yourself rooting for him. A Place Called Winter is loosely based on a mystery within Gale's own family, and that makes what transpires in the book even more aggravating and upsetting.

While I found the book moved a little slower than I would have liked from time to time, and found the continued return of one of the book's villains to be a little improbably after a while, I really enjoyed this book, and found myself very emotionally invested in what happened to the characters. This is the second of Gale's books I've read and he again dazzled me with his writing—this is book of sensitivity, emotion, a little suspense, and a lot of heart.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Book Review: "All the Birds in the Sky" by Charlie Jane Anders

There were a number of times while reading Charlie Jane Anders' All the Birds in the Sky that I thought, "How am I going to review this?"

What I realized, however, is that while the book was utterly different than I expected it to be from the blurbs I read, and there's much about the plot that defies description, I found it to be an ambitious, poignant, slightly meandering, somewhat imperfect book, which packs a resonant, emotional punch.

Laurence and Patricia meet in middle school. Both are outcasts—Laurence is obsessed with computers and technology, so much so that he builds his own two-second time machine (mostly to help him avoid being bullied), while Patricia discovers she has an unusual ability to communicate with other creatures. And while these abilities make them less than popular among their peers, and cause a multitude of problems within their families, when Patricia reveals the full extent of her skills to Laurence, that—along with the machinations of a teacher—strains their relationship nearly to the breaking point.

Years later, they are both living in San Francisco when they run into each other again. Patricia, having graduated from an exclusive school for those with magical talents (but far more mercenary than Hogwarts), works with a band of magicians to right wrongs, and sometimes destroy the people perpetrating these wrongs. Laurence works for an eccentric genius he met when he was younger, and he and his teammates are building a device to save the world in the event of total catastrophe, which seems imminent. Laurence and Patricia are, once again, drawn to, and repelled by, one another, but there is no denying the two share a powerful bond. Until the interests she and her fellow magicians are working to protect interfere with Laurence's work, which sets a chain of events in motion that rocks the world.

All the Birds in the Sky is a book about friendship, love, magic, and trying to avoid the end of the world. It's about the struggle between listening to your heart and following your head, and how hard it is to stay true to yourself in the face of cruelty and doubt. And it's also about the power of one person (or two) to make a difference, although the difference that Laurence and Patricia are seeking to make is a little more dramatic than everyday change.

About a quarter of the way into the book, I wasn't sure I wanted to stick with it. I felt as if Anders spent a lot of time dwelling on how bullied Laurence and Patricia were, and how horribly misunderstood they were by their families. It got a little relentless, and it wasn't what I was expecting or wanted to read. But I soldiered on, and I am glad I did, for while the book is confusing and a little overblown, it's still utterly fascinating, and Laurence and Patricia are such fascinating characters that I couldn't tear myself away.

Charlie Jane Anders is very talented—she really worked hard to create an entire world in this book. While I wished at times she would have followed the core of her story a little more, I still was quite interested in what she was going to do with the characters and their story. This is certainly not a book for everyone, but if you give it a chance, I think you'll agree about Anders' storytelling ability.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Book Review: "The Narrow Door: A Memoir of Friendship" by Paul Lisicky

"What is it like to know a single human in time?"

In The Narrow Door, his poignant, gorgeously told memoir, novelist Paul Lisicky paints a picture of the two overarching relationships in his life—one with the late novelist Denise Gess, and one with his ex-husband, a poet he refers to as M. More snapshots from random moments in time than a fluid narrative, this is an account of how fundamentally our lives our changed by being needed and wanted, as well as being slighted and hurt.

Paul Lisicky met Denise Gess when the two were teaching assistants at Rutgers. Denise was larger than life, confident in front of a classroom or a crowd, and seemingly much more sure of her writing ability than Paul, who always felt as if he needed to throw up when teaching, and lacked the self-confidence in his own storytelling skills. The two quickly form a tight bond, borne of insecurities, a mutual love of Joni Mitchell, and the desire to succeed in the writing world.

The Narrow Door traces the path of Paul and Denise's friendship—the cherished moments and memories they shared, the secrets they kept from each other, the resentments and jealousies they tried to mask, and the way they rescued each other at times of need. Paul recounts the ways Denise changed his life, both for better and at times, for worse, and shares the pain her 2010 death from cancer caused him.

"Perhaps what we love about a friendship is that it makes us look over our shoulders, stay on our toes. We watch our words. There are never any rules to guide us, no contracts, no bloodlines, just the day after day of it. It's work, though it pretends it's painless and easy. And beneath everything: the queasy possibility that it all might end tomorrow."

This is also the story of his relationship with M, one which started as a friendship and blossomed into romance. Lisicky recounts the ways love changes us, the ways we often take its presence for granted, and how easy it is to ignore the problems and hope they go away. How do we make the difficult decision of how long to fight for love, and when to walk away?

The book jumps around from memory to memory, from the 1980s when Paul and Denise first met, to 2010, following her death and as Paul's relationship with M begins disintegrating. At times it's a little disorienting because you have to remember where the characters were at that particular point in time, but Lisicky reels you back in fairly quickly. It also tells of the things he focused on to avoid focusing on his anguish and loneliness, although I wished he didn't dwell as much on those things, but how can he change what he felt?

I wasn't familiar with Lisicky's work before finding this book, but I was really dazzled by the way he writes. If you've ever had a friendship that dominated so much of your life, and/or a relationship that held your heart for so long, perhaps The Narrow Door will resonate for you. And even if you can't identify with what Lisicky went through, the sheer poignancy of his emotional account will grip you.