Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Book Review: "The Cutaway" by Christina Kovac

Two words: Awe. Some.

Seriously, I was in the mood for a good thriller and this fit the bill perfectly.

Virginia Knightly was once a talented television news reporter with tremendous potential, until the harsh realities of what she was reporting became a little too much for her to handle. She transitioned into the role of news producer and proved this was the job she was born to do—determining what is newsworthy and how best to cover it, wrangling and sweet-talking the on- and off-air talent when necessary, maneuvering through station politics, being a cross between a den mother, a drill sergeant, and a magician. And she gets results.

One day, a notice of a missing person crosses her desk. While normally notices like this sadly get passed over in a city like Washington, DC, news of a beautiful young attorney gone missing definitely catches her attention. She swears she's seen this woman before, and is determined to give her case the coverage needed to hopefully find her.

In the midst of a power play happening at her station, leaving her job and those who work for her in jeopardy, Virginia decides she needs to pursue this case. The deeper she digs, the more she realizes that she must question every fact presented to her, every piece of information given to her by friends and colleagues of the missing woman, even the evidence and leads provided by law enforcement. But more than that, Virginia discovers that the young woman was caught in the middle of a vast number of secrets and lies, and she didn't know whom to trust—a lesson Virginia is learning once again, too.

Tangling with a former flame who is now in a position of authority, and teaming up with her news anchor, a man who means more to her than simply a mouthpiece reading the words she writes, Virginia must fight—for the perfect angle, the breaking news, the truth, her job, her romantic future, and her life. Sometimes no news really is good news, you know?

I enjoyed The Cutaway tremendously. Christina Kovac, a former television journalist and producer, is really one hell of a writer, and she knows how to craft a (nearly) perfect story. There are lots of twists and turns, blurred lines between the good guys and girls and the bad ones, some great action and suspense, and lots of behind-the-scenes looks at the world of television news, especially in an era where it fights for relevancy and ratings against internet sources.

As I've remarked in reviews of thrillers and crime novels before, I suspect nearly every character, so I'm rarely surprised. And while I wasn't here, it didn't matter because the plot had me hooked. These characters were passionate, funny, talented, and totally flawed, and I wanted to smack a few of them more than once for not saying what they were thinking. But I cared about what happened to them, and hope that Kovac may have another book featuring these characters in the works, because I'd love to know what comes next.

The plot is a little overfilled—there are a few tangential storylines that distract a bit more than they advance the story. But Kovac's talent reins you back in, and I always love a good book set here in the DC area. In the end, I would have devoured this book in a little more than one sitting if there weren't obligations like work, eating, personal hygiene, etc.

Ignore the hype that this is "The Newsroom meets Gone Girl," and pick it up because it's a great thriller. Even if it doesn't keep you guessing, it will keep you on the edge of your seat (or at least close to the edge), trying to figure out how everything will resolve itself.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Book Review: "How to Behave in a Crowd" by Camille Bordas

Have you ever gone to see a movie or a comedian that everyone says is really funny, but you sit there and wonder when it will get funny?

I think I have a good sense of humor; those who know me know that I'm really very sarcastic (I often say that sarcasm is my superpower) and I love a good joke, yet for some weird reason movies and books that are supposed to be hysterically or even darkly funny often miss their target with me. In fact, when I see books lauded as funny, I often steer clear of them, because I rarely find them as funny as they're purported to be.

This was the case with Camille Bordas' How to Behave in a Crowd. While it wasn't supposed to be a knee-slapper, the book's characters were full of quirks which almost instantaneously wore on me, almost as if the author was trying to be ultra-clever , and many of the situations which I'd expect were supposed to be funny fell flat for me.

The Mazals are a family living in a small French town. Four of the six children are tremendously accomplished—Berenice, Aurore and Leonard are academic prodigies of sorts, each on track to have their doctorates before age 24; Jeremie is a musician who performs with a symphony; and Simone, although only 13, is already distinguishing herself academically. Only 11-year-old Isidore, more often called Dory, doesn't seem to stand out intellectually, and in fact, is at a loss when it comes to deciding his future ambitions.

What Dory has that his siblings lack, however, is humility and empathy, for people he knows and those he doesn't. Quite often his mother remarks on his kindness and sensitivity, especially when comparing him to her other children. Yet sometimes standing out for not standing out isn't appealing, especially in adolescence, and he often tries to escape his family by running away.

But when a tragedy strikes the Mazal family, each of them handles it in their own way. But as the cracks begin to show, Dory sees how everyone is dealing with their grief and tries to help where he can, often in bizarre yet kindhearted ways. However, Dory has his own issues, and must balance his own grief with the anger he has felt about being the odd man out.

I thought that this book had a lot of potential, but it just never clicked for me. I don't know if the characters were so odd that it was difficult to empathize and connect with them, or if I just found the story to be more of a series of anecdotes than a cohesive narrative. Dory was also seemed much more mature than his age; I often had to remind myself that he was 11 or 12 years old. One other quirk that really irritated me for some reason was that the children's mother constantly referred to their father as "the father," never "your father."

I've seen some tremendously positive reviews of this book, so it's inordinately possible I'll be the one in the minority. If you often are on the same wavelength with books hailed as funny, or the quirks of a quirky family don't drive you crazy, pick this book up. I'd love to hear you tell me how wrong I am!

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

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Book Review: "The Language of Dying" by Sarah Pinborough

"It's been a long few months and, even though time has folded from the first diagnosis to now, my body and soul know that I have lived through every painful second of it. They sing it to me through aching limbs and a torn heart."

A woman's father is in the last few days of his life, as he is dying from cancer. She has cared for him through his illness, watching his body and his mind deteriorate. She wants his suffering to end, but fears what the end of that suffering will mean for her life.

Her siblings have all come to the house they grew up in, now her house, to pay their last respects. Their family has been fractured emotionally for years, with each of them having suffered traumas, some known and some hidden. But even coming together for one purpose, saying goodbye to their father, is fraught with disaster.

The woman herself has had her share of trauma and tragedy, which has left her angry, somewhat unstable, and knowing she may never have the chance to be happy ever again. But she has given everything she has to care for his father and make his last days as comfortable and secure as possible.

Ever since she was a child, she has had visions of a nameless presence, hulking, alone, and waiting for her. She only sees it at certain moments, and she knows that it will come again. But it is a reunion she fears and welcomes, because what will it mean for her if she finally connects with it?

Sarah Pinborough's Behind Her Eyes (see my original review) was tremendously unforgettable because of its WTF ending, but also because of how her storytelling ability helped the book transcend an immensely implausible plot. But as strong as her writing was in that book, it really didn't prepare me for the sheer power and beauty of her writing in The Language of Dying.

Stripped of any artifice, there is poetry and emotion that characterizes Pinborough's writing in this book. Anyone who has seen a loved one suffer from a terminal illness will probably recognize some of the feelings and situations the narrator experiences, the simultaneous desire and dread that the person's battle will end. But while there are certainly moments that may make you cry, this is not an emotionally manipulative book, but rather a tremendously contemplative one.

If the pain of loss is still fresh, reading this book may reopen those wounds. But this is an immensely beautiful book, one which demands to be read, one which will wow and dazzle on the power of its words and its emotions.

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

Monday, March 20, 2017

Book Review: "News of the World" by Paulette Jiles

Yeah, I'm late to the party on this one.

I'm man enough to admit I didn't read this before now because I was misinformed. For some reason I mistakenly believed this book was another story which veered closely to True Grit—you know, cantankerous old man becomes the protector of a young-but-tough girl, and hijinks and friendships ensue. Having read the book, and seen both versions of the film, and also read a pretender or two, I really wasn't enamored of reading another similar story.

While there are perhaps a few similar elements, Paulette Jiles' News of the World is a story all its own, full of heart and beauty and simplicity and tenderness, and even a little poetry. It totally took me by surprise and I loved nearly every minute of it.

1870. The U.S. is starting to recover from the damages wrought by the Civil War. Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a veteran of two wars (the first when he was just a teenager), is now an elderly widower, a former printer who now spends his days traveling throughout Texas, reading newspapers from all over the world to paying crowds anxious and interested to hear about what is happening both in places they know and places they might only have imagined. He is careful, however, to steer away from any news of Reconstruction and the Confederacy, knowing how it will inflame tempers.

While in one town, he is offered a job—and a $50 gold piece—to bring a young girl who had been taken from her family four years before by a band of Kiowa raiders. Her family was killed, but she survived, and was taken in to the Kiowa family, raised as one of them. But such things cannot be, and when she is recaptured, it is decreed that she should be returned to her closest living relatives, an aunt and uncle near San Antonio.

For 10-year-old Johanna, the only family she really knows are the Kiowa Indians who raised her, and she cannot understand why she has been taken away from them. She doesn't appear to know English, refuses to wear shoes or act in a "civilized" manner, will not eat with a fork and knife, and tries to find any opportunity to cross the river and hopefully return home.

But as Captain Kidd and Johanna travel through Texas, finding themselves in danger more often than they care to count, and trying to find common ground, the two begin building a relationship of sorts, with Kidd trying to find empathy for this young girl whose life has already been turned upside down twice, and by dint of his job, he will be party to this happening a third time.

"More than ever knowing in his fragile bones that it was the duty of men who aspired to the condition of humanity to protect children and kill for them if necessary."

As they draw closer and closer to San Antonio, and an uncertain fate for Johanna, Kidd is torn—he knows at his age, a widower living alone has no place raising a child, especially one so traumatized by life as Johanna has been. But can he really let her go, after he has become the only person she trusts and can communicate with? And if he doesn't deliver her to her aunt and uncle, does that make his as much a kidnapper as the Kiowa?

I've really simplified the plot of this book, but it is such a lovely story. Have we seen elements of this type of story before? Certainly. But even if you have suspicions of how the plot will unfold, and those suspicions may prove correct, Jiles' tells such a beautiful story, and has created two immensely memorable characters, characters which warm the heart and stay in the mind.

What struck me about this book is that Jiles was able to create a little bit of tension at every turn, which made the story move even a little faster, and she imbued her descriptions of their surroundings throughout their journey with such evocative imagery, it was lyrical, even poetic. I was fascinated by Kidd's reading the news to people—it's the first time I've ever heard of that happening.

I am not generally a fan of historical fiction, but this book really worked for me. If you're not one of the people who already has taken this book to your heart, add it to your list, because these characters will make you smile and, perhaps even cry a little.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Book Review: "The Marriage Pact" by Michelle Richmond

Is there a secret to a long and happy marriage? Is there one thing, a group of behaviors or conditions, which could ensure that a couple can weather the stresses and strains most marriages encounter and stay married until death do them part?

If you ask Jake and Alice whether they wanted their marriage to last, and believed it could, they'd say yes, although perhaps somewhat dubiously. While Jake, a successful therapist, grew up in a home where his parents' relationship was strong (and is still going), Alice, a singer-turned-lawyer, had a fractured home life, with a family whose demons ate them alive. While Jake saw proposing marriage as a way to hold on to Alice, she saw it as an opportunity for the security she never experienced.

Right before their wedding, Alice works on a case involving a somewhat-famous musician named Finnegan. In the flush of pride at the case's successful outcome, and the anticipation of her wedding, somehow Alice invites Finnegan and his wife to her and Jake's wedding. Surprisingly, he accepts, and the couple is a sweet addition to what turns out to be a beautiful day.

Finnegan's wedding present leads Jake and Alice to an organization called The Pact. The Pact has one simple goal: to ensure marriages succeed. Supportive of that goal, Jake and Alice agree to join. While at first they are dazzled by the parties that their fellow members through, and the fellowship of the group, it's not long before they realize that while some of The Pact's rules—you must give your spouse gifts for no reason a certain amount of times each year, you must plan a non-work-related vacation for just the two of you once a quarter, always answer the phone when your spouse calls—seem innocuous, no infraction of any rule is tolerated.

As Alice's work schedule heats up and she must spend more time at the office, she quickly runs afoul of The Pact's rules. When one minor infraction leads to another, she and Jake realize that this group isn't quite what they imagined it was. And when Jake learns from an old acquaintance some of the measures The Pact uses to ensure marriages succeed, he knows that they need to break their commitment to the group. But The Pact never leaves you, and you never leave The Pact...

I found this concept really intriguing at first, and Michelle Richmond's writing, which I so enjoyed in her previous book, Golden State (see my original review), definitely kept me turning the pages. But the further I got into the book, the more I didn't like it. I just found the whole concept of The Pact and its means to an end utterly preposterous, and I found it really hard to believe that a lawyer and a therapist would so willingly allow themselves to be controlled by a group like this.

Reading The Marriage Pact reminded me a little of reading some of Stephen King's books in the late 1980s through the mid-1990s. Not that there were elements of horror in the book, but that I felt Richmond, like King, had such a brilliant ideas for a book and then little by little, it went more and more off the rails until it was just completely out of control. And while I can handle that in certain books, because of the way this book was rooted in such a solid concept like marriage, suspending my disbelief so completely just didn't work.

I may wind up in the minority here, so if the plot as I've described it intrigues you, definitely give it a shot. I'll still be waiting for Richmond's next book to come along. And perhaps I'll pick up a few rules from The Pact, at least as suggestions...

NetGalley and Random House Publishing Group—Ballantine provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

Friday, March 17, 2017

Book Review: "Snapshot" by Brandon Sanderson

What a cool novella this was! (Impress your friends by dropping that statement into casual conversation!)

Davis and his partner Chaz are police detectives, but their beat is different from any other: they're employed by a controversial program called Snapshot, which recreates a specific day down to the tiniest detail. In a Snapshot, they're the only real people; everyone else is a "dupe."

Snapshots are based on days when an unsolved crime was first committed. Davis and Chaz are sent back to a particular day, before the crime is committed, so they can determine who the perpetrator is, or find crucial evidence that they transmit to the police in the real city at the current time. While they need to be careful that they don't cause problems, as any deviations from the original day have the potential to cause ripples, like the butterfly effect, and potentially harm the prosecution of the criminals. But still, they have complete power, which causes them to overrule the civil rights of the dupes they encounter.

They are sent back to the Snapshot for May 1, and their instructions are clear. They are to first track down the weapon a criminal hides, and then they are to respond to a domestic disturbance later that day. But just following orders is starting to wear on both men, plus there's something about the domestic disturbance that is worrying Davis, so he convinces Chaz that they should look into a mysterious crime allegedly committed that day, but it never appeared on police reports.

What they discover is a grisly scene, with larger implications than they can imagine, and it entangles them in something much bigger than they are. But more than that, as the day unfolds, you realize that there are secrets both men are hiding. Who are these policemen? Do they know what they're in the middle of? Who can they trust?

I read Brandon Sanderson's Steelheart a few years ago (see my original review), and I was really impressed with not only his storytelling ability, but the detail he put into the world he created. Honestly, I never read other books in that series more because I have far too many books to read, but I've always intended to get back to them.

The world he created in Snapshot is equally dazzling, perhaps even more so because he does it in so few pages. Sure, there have been books and movies in which characters travel back in time to try and solve crimes (or even perpetrate them), this is such a cool concept, because the characters are going to a replica of a day in the past. Some of the details were a little confusing, but I was hooked from start to finish, and I only wish that this was novel-length instead.

These are fantastic, flawed characters in a world unlike any I've seen, and I only hope that Sanderson takes us back there sometime soon. I'll be waiting.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Book Review: "The Lonely Drop" by Vanessa North

So, I tried to find a way to best express how I felt about this story.

How can I effectively convey that I found this not only hot as hell
but that it also made me get all teary-eyed?

Well, when words fail me, I turn to Benedict Cumberbatch:

Kevin and Nick were practically inseparable best friends in college—soccer teammates and confidantes. The night of their college graduation, Kevin put the moves on Nick, and as much as Nick wanted him, he knew that for Kevin, there was no such thing as a relationship, just hook-ups. That's not what Nick wanted, especially from Kevin, so he walked away—from the encounter and their friendship.

Ten years later they run into each other unexpectedly. The chemistry, the feelings, it's all still there. Kevin makes it clear that he still wants Nick, and the feeling is mutual, but Nick is still convinced that all Kevin wants is something sexual. Should he just be happy to have Kevin's friendship again, or should Nick tell him how he feels, and risk it all?

"There's no dignity in love, Nick. It's messy and embarrassing and fantastic, but it sure as hell isn't dignified. What do you have to lose?"

When circumstances push them together, Nick must make a choice. And once he makes that choice, where does it leave them?

I'd never read anything by Vanessa North before, or anything specifically classified as M/M Romance, but I'd had a few friends recommend this pretty highly. And I can see why. Even though you know how the plot will probably unfold, in just a small number of pages, North has you rooting for Nick and Kevin, gets you emotionally invested in their story, and makes you want to smack them both in the head.

I really enjoyed this. For a longer short story, it had well-developed (pun sort of intended) characters, it tugged at my emotions, and there were a few pretty hot sex scenes, just to up the ante a bit. A total departure for me, but one I'm glad I took. If what I've described sounds like it might appeal to you, it's definitely worth it. And I know I'll be reading some more Vanessa North if there are more stories where this one came from!!