Monday, May 23, 2016

Book Review: "The Virginity of Famous Men: Stories" by Christine Sneed

Like you wouldn't be intrigued by a book with this title?

While at times, fiction can take us to worlds, places, times, and/or cultures we can only imagine, at other times, fiction can be equally as effective chronicling the ordinary, everyday activities and foibles we confront in our lives and relationships. Perhaps not all of the situations described in the stories in Christine Sneed's new collection, The Virginity of Famous Men, happen to people every day, but I'd imagine many happen rather frequently.

Sneed's stories are about relationships of all kinds—marital, romantic, parental, sibling, colllegial, even other-worldly. The characters are often flawed in some way, or struggling with some type of crisis or challenge—some serious, some humorous, some ridiculous. But while nothing earth-shattering happens in these stories, they're all tremendously compelling, and nearly all pass the ultimate test of a good story for me—I'd be happy to see many of them converted into novels.

Among my favorites in the collection were: "The Couplehood Jubilee," in which one half of a long-dating, unmarried couple decides it's time she be somewhat compensated for the many weddings and bridal showers she has participated in; "Older Sister," about a vulnerable college student confronting something she thinks happened to her, as well as the sudden discovery that she has an older half-sister; "Words That Once Shocked Us," which tells of a middle-aged divorced woman who wants to get involved when her younger coworker is contemplating infidelity; "Clear Conscience," about the tug-of-war between sexual attraction and family loyalty; the title story, which deals with an unsettled rivalry between a man and his movie star father; and my favorite story, "Five Rooms," about a teenage girl who spends time with an older blind man, and the favor she does him.

I was really impressed with the way Sneed was able to lay out a story in a short amount of time, creating complex and memorable characters, and fascinating situations. She has a real ear for dialogue, both interpersonal and internal, and you could actually imagine people saying such things to one another. While not all of the stories worked perfectly, I found this to be a really strong collection overall, and it has definitely motivated me to read some of her earlier work.

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

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Book Review: "Speak" by Louisa Hall

If you walk into almost any public place, you'll see people on their phones, emailing, texting, surfing the web. And this behavior isn't just exclusive to solitary people—how often do you see groups of people in which some or all are on their phones simultaneously? And how often have you seen two people at a table at a restaurant, or sitting next to each other, yet they're immersed in their own electronic connections instead of taking advantage of the physical one right there in front of (or beside them)?

Technology's effect on person-to-person interaction is a main theme in Louisa Hall's Speak. However, she posits that it isn't just technology that takes us out of conversation—it's fear, anger, pride, jealousy, and despair as well, and this happened long before the smartphone came into being. Hall tells her story through the viewpoints of several characters at different points through history—a teenage girl in the 1600s, emigrating to America and dreaming of adventure, which is worlds away from what her parents have planned for her; Alan Turing, the mathematician whose code breaking skills assisted with defeating the Germans in World War II, who expresses his fears and hopes in letters to the mother of his best friend; a professor of computer science and his estranged wife, who begs him to give the computer he has created the ability to retain a person's memories; and an infamous inventor in the not-too-distant future, who is in prison for creating "babybots," dolls whose ability to communicate was a little too lifelike.

In each somewhat-related vignette, Hall explores the idea that even when a person is right in front of us, we don't say the things we long to or should. She also conveys the idea that while technology can help bridge communication gaps, it creates larger gaps at the same time.

"We have centuries of language to draw on, and centuries more to make up, and only when we accept that there's one right pattern of speech will we be overtaken by robots."

I found the idea behind this book to be an intriguing one, but it didn't, well, speak to me (sorry) as I hoped it would. I kept waiting for the narrative to grab me, but I felt as if I was kept at arm's length, I guess in a sort of parallel to the way technology can create barriers to real communication. There were too many characters to juggle at once, and I felt that in each there was far more backstory that remained unexplained, and which would have given more depth to the story.

Hall is a talented writer, and creates wonders with imagery. As someone who relies quite a bit on technology, I do agree somewhat with the message she was trying to convey, but it didn't compel me enough in the telling.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Book Review: "Nothing Short of Dying" by Erik Storey

I don't know what it is about drifters, but thriller writers seem to love them as protagonists—Lee Child's Jack Reacher; Peter Ash, the title character in Nicholas Petrie's superb The Drifter (of all things); and now, Clyde Barr, from Erik Storey's debut novel, Nothing Short of Dying—just to name a few. I guess the idea of someone with a shady, perhaps troubled past, yet nothing really to tie them down, provides an appealing canvas from which to create a story.

Clyde Barr has seen a lot in his life. A troubled adolescence led him to escape his Colorado home at a young age, seeking fortune and adventure elsewhere. As a hunter, soldier of fortune, and even a convict taking on anyone he sees as a threat, he's had more than his share of violence, death, and visions of destruction to last him a lifetime. He's ready to put the past behind him, and spend his days living off the land and sleeping in the mountains.

And then a phone call comes from his sister Jen, whom he has always sworn to protect since they were growing up. Jen begs him to come and rescue her—and then the call abruptly ends. Memories of their shared hellish adolescence return. He doesn't know who has taken her, where she is, or even if she is still alive, but Clyde knows he has no choice but to hunt down those who have kidnapped his sister so he can bring her home, no matter what.

"Those who needed help always managed to find me, no matter where I hid. They tracked me down and pleaded. And I never refused. Somehow, that always caused bigger problems."

As Clyde struggles to determine Jen's whereabouts and the identity of her kidnappers, he unwittingly finds himself wading deeper and deeper into the middle of a narcotics ring run by a madman and his henchmen. Clyde is no stranger to violence or depravity, but these people stretch even his imagination. He connects with Allie, a bartender who has her own reasons for going on the run, and he looks up some old friends to help him find his sister. But who can he trust? And will finding Jen mean sacrificing his own life in exchange?

I found this book to be pretty compelling, and Clyde Barr is a really fascinating protagonist. He's got a penchant for fighting, a fairly strong threshold for pain, and a hair-trigger temper, which makes him a fun character to read about. This is Erik Storey's first novel, and I think he does a great job in developing his characters' backstories while keeping the action and suspense fairly taut and focused. Even if the plot isn't necessarily surprising, Storey keeps you reading, keeps you invested in what will happen to the characters.

I like thrillers but sometimes find them utterly implausible or not capable of sustaining my interest. Nothing Short of Dying is neither of these; it's well-told, takes off at breakneck speed, and doesn't really look back. Definitely a worthy entry in the genre.

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

Monday, May 16, 2016

Book Review: "The Inseparables" by Stuart Nadler

Henrietta Olyphant was once a bit of a radical feminist, a professor of women's studies in New York, who often spoke about the challenges of being a woman in a male-dominated society. Yet after she married her chef husband, who moved her to a farmhouse in a Boston suburb, and while she was raising their infant daughter, she decided to write a book. The Inseparables was a smutty, titillating romp about female sexual liberation which was reviled by critics and feminists alike, but beloved by everyone else, and Henrietta was never able to escape her reputation as the author of this book for the rest of her life.

Now 70 years old, recently widowed and in desperate need of money, Henrietta reluctantly agrees to an anniversary reissue of the book, despite the fact that it will net her the same kind of notoriety it did back in its heyday. And yet because of her financial predicament, she is willing to do whatever it takes to promote the book she has referred to for years as That Thing or That Motherfucking Thing.

Meanwhile, Henrietta's daughter, Oona, a successful orthopedic surgeon, has moved back to her childhood home with her mother, as she is in the midst of a divorce from her husband Spencer, a perpetually stoned former lawyer. And Oona's daughter, Lydia, a smart, sarcastic 15-year-old, finds herself suspended from the exclusive private school she begged her parents to attend when a nude picture she took of herself is stolen and goes viral on social media.

Over the course of a tumultuous week, all three women make surprising discoveries about themselves and those they care about, struggle with their relationships with one another, and they must come to terms with their own shortcomings. They realize they're poor decision makers in many instances, but that shouldn't doom them to unhappiness, no matter what stage of their lives they're at.

This is a sometimes humorous, sometimes poignant book about family, relationships, love, loss, memory, and self-discovery. I really enjoyed the characters and felt for them, although they definitely are flawed in some ways. The dynamics between Henrietta and Oona, and Oona, Spencer, and Lydia were definitely a highlight of the book.

"They were the sort of family that kept their declarations of affection silent, or at least repressed them and disguised them as the typical ingredients of mother-daughter-granddaughter dysfunction: guilt, conflict, shame, cookies, All of these, you were to understand if you were an Olyphant, were an acceptable stand-in for love."

If I have any criticism of the book, it's the way I felt the situation regarding Lydia was handled. Other than one scene with Spencer when he really realizes the extent of what is going on, I was frustrated by his and Oona's real lack of attention to their daughter's crisis, and Lydia's refusal to acknowledge what was going on. I understand a lot of it was denial, but it just didn't sit well with me.

I think Stuart Nadler is a great writer; I was a big fan of his previous book, Wise Men, which also dealt with family dynamics and dysfunction, albeit with the males in a family. Nadler is a terrific storyteller who really gets you emotionally involved in his characters' lives. So while I felt this wasn't a perfect book by any means, it was definitely entertaining, moving, and a very enjoyable read.

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!

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Book Review: "The Most Dangerous Place on Earth" by Lindsey Lee Johnson

This was a tremendously intriguing book, but not what I expected based on its description. At some point would it be possible for the marketing departments of publishers to spend more time understanding what its books are about, instead of comparing them to any other popular title?

I digress.

In Mill Valley, California, there's an eighth-grade boy who always seems to be the target of abuse and ridicule from his fellow students. He's desperate to feel understood, to belong, to find a friend. But his one bold gesture goes very, very wrong, causing him more humiliation at the hands of his peers. And then one incident changes everything.

Several years later, many of these same students are in high school. They've mastered all of the cruelty, disdain, and casual nonchalance that children raised among privilege often possess. Yet even as their lives move forward, the incident is always in the back of their minds, affecting them in different ways—pushing them to achieve more, motivating them to care less, sending them on a self-destructive path.

When young teacher Molly Nicoll begins work in Mill Valley, she hasn't lost her idealism, her faith that she's going to connect with her students, break through their shells, and inspire them with a love of learning and a love of reading that she found as a student. But what she finds are overachievers and underachievers, drug addicts and students who wish they were anywhere but in school, and yet want to make their mark on their fellow students. Molly thinks her students need her, though, so she finds herself crossing lines to win their trust, their faith, perhaps even their friendship.

The students she tries to reach are unique in their own ways, but share many of the same characteristics. There's Dave, pushed by his parents to be the best, to make something of himself, to not settle for anything but perfection (it doesn't really matter if he wants the same things); Elisabeth, the beautiful and seemingly untouchable one who actually just wants someone to notice her for who she is; Emma, the talented dancer and self-destructive party girl; Nick, who uses his intelligence only when it suits his purposes; and Cally, who changed her name to Calista after eighth grade, and spends most of her days high and daydreaming with her friends.

The Most Dangerous Place on Earth takes an unflinching look at the culture of privilege that many wealthy students grow up in, and how this privilege actually puts them at a disadvantage unless they're willing to take control of their own lives. Most of these students are unsympathetic, flawed characters, although you understand how they got that way. This is a book that leaves you wondering how true-to-life these behaviors are, and how many students really act this way—and how many teachers get caught up in the need to be part of their students' lives.

Lindsey Lee Johnson is a really talented storyteller. There's nothing particularly shocking, plot-wise, but you get engrossed in the story, even as you may feel at least a bit disgusted. This book reminded me of a bunch of other similar books, but in good ways. All I know is, if high school is really like this now, I'm glad I'm far away from it!!

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

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Book Review: "Everybody's Fool" by Richard Russo

Sequels make me nervous. If I'm reading books featuring a regular character or a planned series, that's one thing, but I always worry when an author releases a follow-up, particularly if it's a book I loved. And when the sequel comes a long time after the original, I'm even more wary, because I can't help but wonder if the author will be able to capture the same magic they did originally.

Needless to say, I had a lot of trepidation when I heard that Richard Russo had written a sequel to Nobody's Fool 23 years after the original was published. Not only is that one of my favorite books, but the 1994 film adaptation starring Paul Newman is a favorite as well. I believe Russo is one of the most talented writers around, but would he be able to make us care about the irascible Donald "Sully" Sullivan once again?

Yep, he did.

In the years since Nobody's Fool, Sully has achieved financial stability for probably the first time in his life, but everything else is still kind of screwed up. He's been told by his doctors at the VA that he has maybe 1-2 years to live if he doesn't have a cardiac procedure done, although there's no guarantee he'd survive the procedure. While the affair between him and Ruth, the married woman he has been carrying on with for years, has ended, they've maintained an easy companionship—until suddenly she doesn't want him around anymore. His son, Peter, is getting ready to move away once Sully's grandson goes to college, and Sully doesn't want to admit how much he'll miss him. And Rub, Sully's best friend and favorite object of his torment and teasing, is a little needier than usual lately.

But Sully isn't the only focus of Everybody's Fool, as he was in the first book. In fact, he takes a bit of a back seat to a host of other characters, particularly beleaguered police chief Doug Raymer, who is trying to figure out the identity of the man his wife was about to leave him for when she died in a freak accident, and just can't seem to catch a break otherwise; Mayor Gus Moynihan, whose plans for the city of North Bath don't seem to be coming to fruition, much like everything else in his life; Ruth, who is having trouble dealing with all of the people in her life—Sully, her husband, her daughter, and her ex-con son-in-law, who has just been released from prison yet again; and Sully's one-time nemesis, Carl Roebuck, who seems to be doing a good job of ruining himself.

Russo is in peak form as he navigates these stories, once again creating memorable, flawed characters you cannot get out of your mind. While I wish the book had spent more time on Sully again, as I believe he is the most interesting character of all, I didn't feel as if the book lost any strength when telling others' stories. These are funny, charming, sensitive, and at times, emotional people and their interactions with one another ignite the book like little firecrackers.

Everybody's Fool is the story of friendship, love, loss, fear, strength, and weakness. It's certainly a reflection on growing older and figuring out just what mark you're going to leave on the world, as well as the desire (at least in some) to correct the course their lives are on before it's too late. It's also a story of how we're haunted by the things we didn't do or say sometimes more than those we did.

Richard Russo once again proves he is a writer to be reckoned with, and a storyteller on a different plane from most of his contemporaries. He is a chronicler of the foibles and follies of the human spirit, and does so with humor and heart. While this book doesn't quite match Nobody's Fool, it's still pretty darned good. And now I wait for his next book...

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Book Review: "Been Here All Along" by Sandy Hall

This was a sweet, heartwarming book I read in about 90 minutes. (File me under "People with no plans on Friday night.")

Gideon is smart, organized to a fault, always on time, and always is planning his next steps, which include running for class president and getting into a good college. His best friend Kyle is, in many ways, his complete opposite—the star basketball player, who doesn't like to read (or really even think about college), who's never on time for anything and is always a bit disorganized. But since the two have been friends since they were five, they share a lot, including a love for all things related to Lord of the Rings. (They even speak and write in Elvish at times.)

Gideon is prepared for everything, except the realization that he's fallen in love with his best friend, who happens to be dating Ruby, the head cheerleader. He doesn't want to jeopardize their friendship, so he does everything to convince himself why a relationship with Kyle could never work. But the heart knows differently than the brain.

Kyle feels pretty happy with his relationship with Ruby and his friendship with Gideon. Until both of them start acting weirdly, and Kyle wants to figure out what he did wrong.

Sandy Hall's Been Here All Along is an enjoyable look at how the boundaries between friendship and love can get blurry at times, and how the head and the heart sometimes want different things. It's also a look at the roadblocks we put up to protect ourselves, as well as the stupid mistakes we make when we let our emotions guide us.

This is completely predictable but really sweet. And as I read this book, I once again realized how far we've come in young adult fiction, that books like this exist for LGBT youth who might believe that living their truth might leave them branded "abnormal" or dooming them to life alone. The characters in this book behave the way you'd hope people would (and, in many cases, the way people do), and the crises the characters face aren't the typical melodramatic ones of homophobia, violence, and parental rejection, but the crises that many couples, gay or straight, have faced. (There's even a scenario I remember seeing Ross and Rachel deal with on Friends.)

Kudos to Sandy Hall for creating a book that I hope many kids will read, so they realize that living the life they choose is not only possible, it's acceptable.

NetGalley, Macmillan Children's Publishing Group, and Swoon Reads provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!