Monday, August 31, 2015
In a dystopian society in our future, the country is divided into zones, which are managed by "fear and intimidation." Martial law exists, carried out by security drones armed with infrared cameras and nine-millimeter shotguns, which they are more than quick to use. The lower the zone number, the lower on the societal food chain you are; those who live in Zone N-1, or "Fatherless," are those families whose fathers have been killed or who have abandoned their families.
When Danny Roberts' father abandons him, his bipolar, promiscuous mother, and two sisters, their family is sent to Fatherless. But Danny is determined not to let his life be doomed despite the fact that his teachers don't think he'll amount to anything, his mother barely cares about him, and the threats of violence around him could take him down a dangerous path.
"I felt like a kind and gentle boy who had been thrown to the wolves with two options, adapt or be devoured. I adapted."
Danny tries to find joy in the simple thingshis two best friends, Jessie and Sam; his girlfriend, Sarah; and the attentions of Darius, an old friend of his father's, who is determined to look out for Danny and be sure he makes something of his life. But when the deck is stacked against you from the start, can you beat the odds? Are love and friendship enough to save you?
This was a very intriguing, well-written book, although at times the plot moved so quickly I felt like I missed things. There is a lot of emotion in this book, and the undercurrent of loss throughout is tremendously poignant. The characters are really interesting and have stayed in my mind, and I can't stop thinking about this story and some of the surprises it held.
Boys of the Fatherless is unique and not at all what I expected. Riggins is a talented writer, and he has created a fascinating world that I'd like to spend more time in, and I'm pleased that it appears the book is the start of a series.
Saturday, August 29, 2015
"Death smashes a crater into your life, and you're left alone to sort through the rubble."
In Days of Awe, Lauren Fox examines the life of a woman who thought she had everythinga best friend who "got" her, a teaching job she loved for the most part, a family she cherishedonly to discover things are not as she imagined, and in fact, things seem to be rapidly slipping from her grasp. Isabel tries to figure out where Josie's life went wrong and tries to understand what was happening in the months before her death. Were there signs she missed? Who was to blame? And shouldn't everyone's lives remain in flux until she's had the time to process the loss of Josie?
But recovering from this loss isn't all she has to deal with. She needs to figure out whether her marriage is worth fighting for, if there is a way to get her daughter to like her again, and consider whether to let someone else into her heart. But beyond that, she needs to find a way out of the rut she is in, and whether she can prevent herself from the same behavior patterns and same choices that have caused her problems in the past.
"What if you make the right choices? What if you shelve those immature and solipsistic pursuits in favor of the grown-up occupations of family and careerhappily, you do it without regret, in love, looking forwardthen those fall apart? You turn around and you're staring at the moonscape that used to be your life."
I found this book tremendously engaging and enjoyable, and read most of it in one day while sitting at the pool. While I didn't necessarily agree with all of Isabel's choices, I really like characters that try to diffuse difficult situations with sarcasm and humor and yet don't always correctly gauge the moods and tolerance of those around them, mainly because I do the same thing more often than I should. Even if not everything that happens is surprising, I still found myself wanting to know what happened next. These are complex, fascinating characters.
Fox is a very talented writer. How many of us have struggled with grief and chaos in our lives, wondering whether the choices we are making are the right ones, or whether we even have the capacity to change the path we're heading down? Days of Awe is moving, amusing, thought provoking, and very well written. That's a pretty great combination.
Friday, August 28, 2015
Even loving Payne's writing didn't prepare me for the powerful emotions he conveyed in Barefoot to Avalon, the story of George A., his younger brother, who was killed in a car accident while helping David move from his home in Vermont to his new home in North Carolina. While George A. appeared to have many things David didn't while they were growing upan easy confidence, athletic grace, a drive to succeedhe also suffered from bipolar disorder and manic depression, which derailed his life multiple times, threatening to ruin any successes he was able to achieve.
Barefoot to Avalon is not only the story of a sibling rivalry that lasted long into adulthood, it's the story of mental illness and alcoholism that pervaded many generations of Payne's family on both sides. It's also the story of Payne's own resentments, fears, and inadequacies, about his relationships with his family members, the women in his life, and later, his children. For while everyone knew of George A.'s struggles, David was nearly incapacitated numerous times by his own, putting his career, his relationships, and his family at risk.
"How much of [George A's] incapacitation is bipolar I disorder, and how much is the old family sickness, hostile dependency, by which the weak and sick and injured depend upon and hold the strong ones hostage, and the strong ones, in the name of goodness and self-sacrifice, help the weak and disable them entirely?"
If you've ever struggled to figure where you fit in your family, resented parents or siblings for neglecting you or appearing to favor another over you, this book will resonate. And if you have unresolved guilt about a failed relationship with a family member, this book will probably hit you hard. As you might imagine from the subject matter, this is a book of deep, sometimes painful introspection, and exploration of how our family history and family dynamics have a role in helping us soar as well as prompting us to sink.
While I'm the oldest of four, my two brothers are both much younger than I am, so we didn't have the relationship or the rivalries that David and George A. had when they were growing up. But even so, some of the issues David confronted and told about in the book rang true for me and moved me quite a bit. This is a heavy book, sometimes getting tangled in its own words and emotions, but ultimately it is a book of healing and hope, one that I felt privileged to experience.
Tuesday, August 25, 2015
It seemed like just an ordinary morning on the Golden Gate Bridge. Countless commuters are stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic, including Paul and his teenage son Jake. Then suddenly the morning doldrums are broken by a seemingly unbelievable group of people who appear from out of nowhereand then absolutely astound onlookers with their actions. Jake, riveted in disbelief, captures the entire incident on his phone and quickly posts the video, achieving viral success and garnering online fameand criticism.
At the same time, in a small town, 18-year-old Sara is distracted by the coverage of the cataclysmic event in San Francisco by her own media event: her boyfriend has posted their sex tape online, and she becomes both a pariah and an online obsession. Needing to get out of town, to escape the criticism and pointing fingers, she enlists the help of Rodney, her old boyfriend whose injury in a freak accident three years earlier derailed his life and their relationship, but not his feelings for Sara.
As the lives of Paul, Jake, Sara, Rodney, and others are affected and transformed by tweets, social media posts, text messages, and online videos, they also must confront problems they never expected. They struggle with being judged, cajoled, criticized, and occasionally praised by people they've never, and will never, meet, and they'll also deal with feeling more alone than ever before despite being connected to people all over the world.
"This is how the world works. This is why we're smarter now: We share everything with everyone, have access to each sight and sound. We are informed and connected!"
As someone who is pretty active on many different forms of social media, but sometimes falls prey to obsessing over the number of friends, followers, likes, or retweets I get, I found this book really fascinating and powerful. Mohr weaved a number of seemingly disparate storylines together, and all but one seemed like a story you'd hear about from a friend, or perhaps see through a post on your friend's Facebook wall or Twitter feed, or perhaps see on a YouTube video. He is an excellent storyteller, and this book really made me think.
If I have any criticism of All This Life, it's the appearance of one random character whose presence threatened to derail the entire book, but luckily Mohr didn't let his characters fall prey. So many issues, emotions, and tough questions are pondered here, but the book never really seems heavy; it seems very current and relevant. Well done, Joshua Mohr!
Sunday, August 23, 2015
I first heard of this collection when I saw that Matthew McConaughey had recorded an audio version of the opening story, "Summer Farmer." I stuck with the written version, and there were instances where I honestly was awestruck by Morris' use of language. While the characters in these stories are mostly average, everyday people, Morris' writing is definitely not. Here's one example from "Summer Farmer" which gut punched me:
"It is true of any of us that, should a stranger meet us at the intersection of elevator and automobile when the chill cloud of memory hits; if he should recognize the subterranean cascade of longing and remorse; if he knows well the depthless sadness of not seeing a child rise into the brace-face, the inappropriate midfriff, the biology major, the bride; he would be privy not just to the naked basis of our being but to our utter defenselessness to the lateral and vertical rhythms and movement of this world."Umm, yeah.
Among my favorite stories in the collection were: "Here Comes Mike," a story about faith, courage, and family, which looked back at the life of a high school basketball player whose life of promise was derailed, told through the eyes of his youngest brother; "The Plot to Hold Hands with Elizabeth Tremblay," which recounted the exploits of a high school student with a crush on a fellow student; "Miracle Worker," about a lawyer who takes on the once-powerful patriarch of a formidable family on behalf of a former employee; and the title story, which looked at a divorced father who can't stop making mistakes while chaperoning his young son's class trip to the Washington, DC area.
Not all of the stories are perfect; a few (including the aforementioned "Summer Farmer") seemed almost unfinished, leaving me a little confused and disappointed, because they were so powerful up to that point. But overall, this is a strong collection, buoyed by memorable characters, emotionally resonant situations, and excellent storytelling. Definitely one I'm glad I stumbled on, and one I'm pleased to heartily recommend.
Friday, August 21, 2015
Tom Mendicino's The Boys from Eighth and Carpenter ratchets up the tension pretty soon after it starts. One night, after helping his older brother Frankie out of a bit of a bind, Michael Gagliano makes a shocking discovery that has the potential to drastically change the course of both of their lives.
Sounds pretty interesting, right? And obviously, if you're reading the book, you know what the discovery is, although you don't know the context of how it got there. However, Mendicino shifts the course of the book after that, going back in time to when Luigi Gagliano first came to America from Italy with his mother, to meet the father he barely knew. He follows in his father's footsteps and runs a barber shop, waiting until the day his wife would bear him a son, and she doestwo, in fact.
Frankie and Michael are both fairly young when their mother dies, but even at age eight, Frankie understands the solemnity of the promise he makes his dying mother: to look after Michael for the rest of their lives. He protects Michael from their father's violent outbursts and from the not-always-motherly behavior of the succession of women Luigi marries after their late mother. As Michael grows up, he realizes that his brother Frankie is different, and needs his protection as much as Michael needed Frankie's when they were younger.
Frankie takes over their father's shop, transforming it to meet the changing South Philly neighborhood where it is located. Michael becomes a successful prosecutor with an eye on a political career. Despite Michael's worries about the way Frankie lives his life, and his disapproval of some of his choices, the brothers remain close, and both continue to protect each other, despite what that could mean to each of them.
I really wanted to like this book more than I did. It's a good story, and although I didn't feel as if the characters rose much above ethnic and sexual stereotypes in a number of ways, they were still interesting and complex in their own ways. I just wish that Mendicino hadn't delivered such a setup at the beginning of the story and then taken far too long to return to that part of the plot, because while laying out the family history was helpful to understanding the characters, after a while it was the same events and behavioral patterns over and over again.
Having read Mendicino's first novel, Probation, I know he's a talented writer. While this book didn't grip me, his storytelling ability is still evident, and there is a poignancy and a richness to the story that appeals.
Tuesday, August 18, 2015
A quote from Death of a Salesman says, "Attention must be paid." That is how I felt after reading Mandy Smith's powerful, painful memoir, Secrets in Big Sky Country. This book is worthy of notice, and Smith is to be praised for bringing attention to the tragedy of child sexual abuse.
Smith's parents divorced shortly after she was born, and her mother, afraid of being alone and without the attention of a man, quickly married her ex-brother-in-law. Smith's older brother Cliff went to live with their father, while she was raised by her mother and uncle/stepfather. It wasn't long before her mother realized her new husband wasn't much of an improvement over his brother, but she couldn't live without him.
This was a particular problem for young Mandy (born Cathy). Beginning at age three, her stepfather began sexually molesting her, and she lived in constant fear of sexual assault and physical violence. Her stepfather's actions tore her and her brother apart, and set her on a cycle of eating disorders, depression, fear of being in cars, and PTSD that would follow her into adulthood. And while she tried to tell people, and tried to free herself from the abuse, it wasn't until she was 14 that she was able to convince people what was happening. But sadly, her life took an even darker turn from there.
Smith's story is brutal, but it isn't gratuitously graphicit's honest. It was a wonder to me a number of times how she found the strength to keep living, to keep confronting her abuser and keep from truly going off the deep end. But as difficult as parts of this book are to read, I was often overcome with wonder at her ability to tell her story, to relive it all again, all of the pain and anguish and fear. That is true courage, and true strength, and I hope it inspires others confronting these same issues in their own lives.
Studies show that as many as one in three girls will be sexually abused at some point in their childhood. That statistic is immensely alarming, but what is even more frightening is the number of crimes that go unreported. Hopefully the courageous words of Mandy Smith will find their way into the ears of those who can help stop this cycle from continuing, and lives can be protected before abuse occurs. We should be grateful to those like Smith who are willing to share their painful experiences with the worldwhile they are difficult to hear, we must hear them in order to make change happen.
Monday, August 17, 2015
Oliver is a teenage boy living with his mother in an isolated cabin in the woods. He's deathly allergic to electricityeven the simple act of handling a cellphone or a small flashlight is enough to cause life-threatening seizures. He cannot go to school, and he must live without all of the typical paraphernalia teenagers useiPods, television, the internet, even electricity. The only people he sees on a regular basis are his mother and his doctor, but he is desperate to know what life is like in the world around him, and he wants to understand who his father was.
In an effort to help Oliver cope and combat his loneliness (in a fashion), his doctor encourages him to write letters to Moritz, a German teenager. Moritz's heart requires a pacemaker to keep it beating, and that's not his only disability. But while the two boys develop a close friendship, they can never meet, since the electricity needed to run Moritz's pacemaker could kill Oliver, and Oliver's electromagnetism could short-circuit Moritz's pacemaker.
This book is told solely in letters between the two, slowly unfurling what life has been like for these two boys who are so different from others their age. The letters uplift, amuse, and inspire the boys, as well as anger, hurt, upset, and confuse them. Both experience periods of desperate despair that the other tries to help combat, as each tries to understand the problems the other faces. And as Moritz begins to reveal secrets about another connection the two share despite living on different continents, Oliver must decide whether to continue to accept his life as it is, or try and challenge it, despite the potential complications.
While obviously there's a little of the farfetched here, particularly in the boys' ailments and disabilities, it doesn't detract from this book at all. I found the characters, particularly Oliver, Moritz, and his classmates, Fieke and Owen, so well-drawn and memorable. While some of the plot is predictable, and at times I feared that Thomas was going to take the story down a path I was dreading, she also threw in some surprises that made me smile. (And yes, for those of you who know what a sap I am, I may have teared up once or twice...or more.)
You never know when a person will walk into your life and change it for the better. And even if they don't physically walk in, Because You'll Never Meet Me is a terrific example of the power of friendship, the sacrifices we make for love, and that facing our fears can sometimes be the most difficult but rewarding thing we do. This book made my heart happy.
Friday, August 14, 2015
"Homer, Dante, Milton. They knew about the middle, how all of life revolves around a single moment in time. Everything that comes before leads up to that moment. Everything that comes afterward springs from that moment. In my case, that momentthat middleis my husband's murder."
From the moment she met him, Brett loved Charlie. The easygoing, confident, dynamic brother of her best friend Eli, Charlie quickly mesmerized Brett and captured her heart, despite Eli's warnings to the contrary. When Charlie leaves town, leaving Brett alone again at college, she feels a palpable loss even as she knows she may never see him again. But her heart doesn't care.
Years later, after many ups and downs, Brett and Charlie finally marry and live in his family's cottage on Cape Cod with their young daughter. But despite the fact that they finally have the life Brett has dreamed they'd have, life keeps intervening in different ways, particularly with the continued reappearance of Eli, whose mental illness has taken a toll on the entire family. When the unthinkable happens, Brett is at odds between holding fast to the life she dreamed of and the life she seems destined to live, and needs to determine just what sacrifices are worth the love of your life.
I really enjoyed this book, although I wasn't sure what to expect. Would it be a murder mystery, a psychological thriller, or a meditation on love, loss, and family? Were there elements to the plot that would surprise, or was the power of the plot simply in the storytelling and not in the unpredictable twists? I'll leave you to discover what happens.
Nina de Gramont is an excellent writer, and although at times I wanted to shake Brett to make her act or speak up, I found this book utterly captivating and definitely emotional. It definitely made me think how I would react if faced with the mental decline of someone I once truly cared about, someone of whom I wasn't sure whether to pity or fear. And it made me acknowledge once again how fragile love is, and how quickly our lives can change.
Give this one a shot!
Wednesday, August 12, 2015
When their mother's depression becomes too much for her to bear, 16-year-old Dionne and 10-year-old Phaedra are sent to live in Barbados for the summer with Hyacinth, the eccentric but strong-willed grandmother they barely know. Hyacinth, a midwife, is a pillar of the community, although some treat her differently because she also practices the spiritual rituals of obeah.
For Dionne, the summer in Barbados is both a punishment and a blessing. She does everything she can to avoid her grandmother's watchful eye as she tests her boundaries and explores her burgeoning sexuality, although she recognizes the emotional toll that takes. But at the same time, it is a bit of a relief to not have to care for Phaedra herself, or deal the burdens of living with a severely depressed mother.
"She knew intimately the precarious nature of their life, the way that it depended on a series of carefully constructed lies, the ones she told to get meat on credit at the butcher at the end of the month when her mother's money ran out; the ones she told to fend off her and Phaedra's teachers' suspicions; the ones she told to keep her friends from coming over to her house, and seeing her mother."
Phaedra is having a harder time, trying to understand the reasons her mother became ill and whether she will inherit those traits. In an effort to learn more about her grandmother's midwifery and her obeah practices, she confronts the knottiness of adult secrets, and realizes that as much as the excitement of getting older appeals to her, the risks frighten her a bit. She, too, is torn between the magic of Barbados and missing her mother.
The Star Side of Bird Hill is populated by rich, colorful characters, and Naomi Jackson's vivid descriptions of Barbados definitely bring its landscape, its culture, and its people to life. But while the story is interesting, its pieces fell into place a little too neatly and predictably for me, and it didn't hold my interest as much as I hoped it would. Still, this is a moving, thought-provoking book, which captures the emotional turmoil of growing up amidst crises as well as the strength a parent needs to love a child who is troubled.
Saturday, August 8, 2015
This is a book about how we find comfort, and sometimes anguish, in the home we make for ourselves and the family we choose to embrace, biological or otherwise. It's also a book about finding strength where we didn't know we had it, and the different ways we adapt to and cope with change.
Edith has been the landlord of a Brooklyn apartment building for years, since she and her late husband Declan bought it. The building was home to some of her greatest joys and some of her greatest sorrows and regrets. She is a model landlady, caring for and nurturing her tenants, knowing when they are in need and knowing just what to give them, although she can't solve all of their problems. Her tenants are a group of troubled but giving peopleThomas, a successful artist whose life is turned upside down after a stroke leaves one of his arms paralyzed; Adeleine, whose obsession with antique objects helps her build a home she never wants to leave; Edward, once a popular comedian, whose childhood has scarred him emotionally; and the amazing, childlike, loving Paulie, whose sister Claudia fulfills her parents' wish that her brother be taken care of appropriately.
When Edith's mental and physical condition weakens, her estranged son returns home to claim the building and wants to evict all of her tenants. As they try to navigate the thoughts of their future, they each must confront challenges and determine what is next for them. But this will require courage, strength, even going beyond their comfort zones.
I absolutely loved this book. It's told in very short chapters, but Alcott's use of language and imagery made me literally sigh and gasp at times. There was one point that I worried she was going to take the book down a path I absolutely dreaded, but she resolved that thread quickly and to my satisfaction, differently than I expected. This is a memorable book, both for how it is told and the characters on whom she focuses, many of whom will stick in your brains and your hearts as they did mine.
Thursday, August 6, 2015
"Only love can break your heart. And who wants to live without love?"
Sometimes a novel's greatest strengths are its characters and its storytelling. Nothing tremendously earth-shattering happens (except to the characters), but those books are tremendously enjoyable to read because they're well written and their characters are fascinating, complex people. That's definitely the case with Ed Tarkington's Only Love Can Break Your Heart. There are no real shocking surprises, no literary pyrotechnics, just excellent writing that evokes both nostalgia and emotion.
In the late 1970s, eight-year-old Richard "Rocky" Askew worships his 16-year-old brother Paul, who is just a bit rebellious, drives a cool car, listens to classic rock, and has a beautiful but troubled girlfriend, Leigh. One day Paul picks Rocky up from school, saving him from certain punishment after getting caught fighting, but the day ends with Paul nearly abandoning Rocky to die in the woods. The next day, Rocky and Leigh disappear.
Eight years later, Rocky, now a teenager himself, begins a relationship with the older daughter of the family who lives next door to his, a family that has been in the center of many of the Askews' problems. The relationship, along with several other occurrences, sets a chain of events in motion that will shake both families, and those around them, to the core.
As you might tell from the title, this is a book about love, and the things we are willing to do for it. But it goes beyond romantic love, as the relationship between Paul and Rocky is core to the story as well. It's also the story of how when love goes wrong, it can be the catalyst for many problems.
I really enjoyed this book, and thought Tarkington did a terrific job making you care about the characters. While I wasn't necessarily surprised by anything that happened, I still felt tremendously invested in the story, and wanted to know how (or if) everything would be resolved. This is really good, solid, well-written book, and I hope it's just the start of Tarkington's literary career, because he has real talent.
Monday, August 3, 2015
It's 1983. Eight-year-old friends James, Dallas, and Felix don't have much to do over the summer in their Long Island town of Turnbull, but that doesn't let that stop them. They spend their days roaming through the woods, watching the sheriff evict people from their homes (and then rummaging through the spoils), and avoiding the town's teenagers, many of whom are looking for mischief.
Fifteen-year-old David Westwood is an aspiring artist, intelligent and sensitive, seeking more out of life than he believes he is getting. He is obsessed with a fellow student, and more than happy to antagonize his classmates by making them think he's an Anti-American communist. But at the same time, he wants the acceptance of his peers, and the affection of the girl he loves, but circumstancesand his own behaviorstand in his way.
One afternoon, James, Dallas, and Felix come upon a fort being built by a group of kids, and they decide to take the wood and the tools back to their own neighborhood. This sets off a confrontation that will leave each boy reeling, physically and emotionally, and set them on a collision course with David and his friends. And after a party that David attends that night ends far more differently than he imagined, David's anxiety and anger ratchets up, and the next time the boys interact with David and his friends, it ends in disaster.
Little Beasts was based on a real-life incident, which adds an additional note of tragedy to the plot. This is a book about how one single moment can change so many people's lives, and how angereven misplaced angercan consume. It's also a powerful story about redemption, and how clinging fast to our beliefs without the thought of compromise doesn't always provide the results we expect.
Even though the bookand, in fact, the synopsis which accompanies it on most sitesdivulges the key event in the book, you still cannot stop reading it, even though you know it will sadden and anger you. McGevna is tremendously talented, and created a vivid picture of place and time, populated by characters who are far more complex than you think they will be at first. I look forward to seeing what comes next for McGevna, because I was very impressed with his storytelling ability.
Saturday, August 1, 2015
In Ioannis Pappos' Hotel Living, Stathis Rakis flees his seemingly ordinary life in a small Greek village to pursue college and a career in San Francisco, and then decides to attend a prestigious business school in Paris to obtain his MBA. It is there that he befriends a number of privileged expatriates from all over the world, whose lives of profligate spending and entitlement amaze him (while causing him some amount of envy), and he is a bit of a paradox to his friends. During graduate school, Stathis also fallshardfor Eric, a liberal journalist with a strong social conscience despite his own privileged upbringing.
After graduation, Stathis takes a high-paying job as a management consultant, and finds himself spending the bulk of his time living in hotels, building relationships with the hotel staff, and moving from city to city as his job warrants it. When he isn't working, he's pining for Eric and trying to figure out where he fits in Eric's life, all the while both loving him madly and being angered by Eric's philosophy of the world. As their relationship waxes and wanes, Stathis fills his minimal amount of spare time uneasy in the social spotlight, trying to salve his emotional turmoil with copious amounts of drugs and alcohol. And his downward spiral is fueled by his heart, his greed, his ambition, and his conscience.
I found this book thanks to an ad on Goodreads (the cover blurb by Michael Cunningham caught my eye), and I found it tremendously well-written, part social commentary on this culture of excess and wanton lust and addiction, and part an emotional chronicle of a man who can't seem to overcome heartbreak, someone unable to return to the world he knows but not-quite-comfortable with the world he lives in. Ioannis is a fascinating, immensely flawed character, and his crises are painful to read about but compelling at the same time.
I could have done with a little more character building and interpersonal relationships in the book and less with the extensive details about the work that Stathis and his friends did, and at times the book introduced so many characters at once it was hard to discern who was whom, but Pappos created a fascinating look at a world that many got to experience, while not many came out unscathed. Stathis is a complex character I can't get out of my head, and I'd love to know if Pappos has given any thought to what came next for him.