Monday, November 30, 2015
I never read Jesse Andrews' Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, because just when I discovered the book, the movie was about to come out, and I hate reading books just before I see the film adaptation. Then, of course, I never got around to seeing the movie, so I figured I'd jump on the chance to read his second book, The Haters. I'm glad I did, because while it didn't blow me away as I hoped it would, it made me laugh out loud more than a few times, and yeah, it moved me, too.
Wes and Corey have been best friends since childhood. They have a number of things in common, including a love of all kinds of music, as well as the uncanny ability to pretty much hate on every type of music as well. They share a fairly juvenile sense of humor (including the teenage boy-fueled obsession with the word "dick") but they're both a little more sensitive than they let on as well. When they get the opportunity to attend jazz camp, they're both pretty excitedand then they arrive to find it's almost all guys who are utterly pretentious, and most are more talented than they are.
And then they meet Ash. She's free-spirited, older than they are, inexplicably hot, and she shares their absolute love of music. After jamming together for more than three hours they think they've found kindred musical spirits. When circumstances at jazz camp don't quite go their way, Ash has a brilliant idea: the only way they can achieve greatness as a band is to hit the road and play wherever, whenever they can. So they leave camp (and their cell phones) behind and take off in Ash's SUV for The Haters' Summer of Hate Tour. What could possibly go wrong?
The Haters is wacky, funny as hell, a little moving, and pretty juvenile (not that that's a bad thing). Having never read Andrews' writing before, I don't know if this book is similar to his first or if his way of storytelling is unique for this story, but it took some getting used to. Wes is a terrific narrator but he used a simile or metaphor in almost every sentence in the first 10-20 percent of the book, and some of them were references to obscure musicians or musical styles that went over my head. I almost gave up on the book, but I'm glad I persevered, because it's a really enjoyable read if you know what to expect.
Juvenile dialogue aside, this is a book about friendship, lust, music, growing up, adventure, and the positive and negative effects parents can have on us. This book has a great deal of heart, which is what makes it more than just your average book about kids in a band. I definitely need to go back and read Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, too.
Sunday, November 29, 2015
Given that opening salvo, however, The Grownup isn't really raunchy, nor is it erotica or sex-focused. The 64-page story is narrated by a smart young woman who spent her formative years learning from her mother how to beg for money (mainly because her mother didn't want to have to work otherwise), and it wasn't long before she became better at it than her mother. In her adulthood she found a job at Spiritual Palms, which provided tarot readings, fortune telling, and other "spiritual" analysishowever, her job was more physical (hence the opening lines).
After suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome ("...when you give 23,546 hand jobs over a three-year period, carpal tunnel syndrome is a very real thing."), she becomes an aura reader. It's not long into this job before she meets Susan Burke, a well-to-do wife and mother who is in utter distress, convinced her house is evil and so is Miles, her 15-year-old stepson. In Susan, the narrator sees a ticket out of her current situation, as she believes she can mine Susan's crisis into a more upper-crust spiritual adviser-type position. But when she visits Susan's house, and meets Miles, it isn't long before she realizes she may be out of her leaguethere probably is evil in the house, but whether it's coming from Susan, Miles, or the house itself, she's not quite sure.
The Grownup hooked me completely from the very beginning. (How could it not, really?) It's funny, a little creepy, and full of surprises, all in just 64 pages. While it's billed as a ghost story, I don't quite agreeperhaps if Flynn had took the story a little further those elements would have presented themselves. I wasn't wild about the ending but it certainly has left me thinking.
I've been a fan of Gillian Flynn's since she published her first book. Reading The Grownup seems a little like a tease, so I hope a new novel is on its way. And in the meantime, I may need to read George R.R. Martin's Rogues anthology, which is the book Flynn originally wrote this story for. This was definitely a good, quick, fun read.
Saturday, November 28, 2015
In Catherine Armsden's beautiful, moving Dream House, Gina Gilbert is a San Francisco architect whose life is in the midst of significant turmoil. Her parents died suddenly in a freak car accident, and she and her older sister Cassie must pack up their childhood home in Maine so it can be sold by their parents' landlord. The house was the epicenter of some of Gina's most cherished moments, as well as many tumultuous ones, as she and Cassie navigated their parents' stormy relationship, their mother's emotional outbursts, and the tension that existed between their mother and her sister, who lived in the family's legacy, a house once owned by Sidney Banton, secretary to George Washington.
At the same time, Gina is growing increasingly anxious over the well-being of her own children, not realizing that her over-protectiveness and emotional instability mirrors her mother's when she was growing up. And it's been nearly two years since she and her husband bought property in Marin, but despite her ability to design houses and serve her clients' requests, she seems to have "architect's block" when it comes to designing her own house, a fact that is putting a strain on her marriage.
Gina returns to Maine to try and figure out where her head is, and spend some time with her childhood home. As she approaches the house like an architect would, studying the form and structure of each room, she also unearths memories, both good and bad, and reframes her parents' tumultuous relationship. She also tries to understand her mother and what made her act the way she did, and begins remembering the family issues she had repressed or forgotten, in the hopes she might be able to come to terms with her own issues.
Many books have been written about the reflection and soul-searching that comes after the death of one's parents, and the return to our childhood home. While some of the issues that Armsden explores in Dream House aren't new, her tremendous storytelling ability and use of language elevates this over other similar stories. But what sets this book apart is the way it juxtaposes emotion with architecture, and how both come together to tell the story of a family.
"Perhaps in this world there were no owners or renters, only borrowers choosing a bit of ground to call home during their short stay on earth. We must choose carefully, Gina thought; when we set our walls down to enclose something ordinary or extraordinary, we must be passionate about what we capture, inside and out."
This book really struck me in so many ways, and so many times I found myself in awe of Armsden's writing. I'll admit that Gina's character and her indecision irked me from time to time, but I understood where she was coming from, and just found the whole story tremendously moving. A great find.
Sunday, November 22, 2015
Here's a question: does anyone else, when they read mysteries, find themselves suspecting everyone, and whenever a new character is introduced you try to determine whether that person is the culprit? I don't believe I'm alone in that behavior, but it's difficult to disengage the "detective" part of my brain!
Holly Seddon's tense debut novel, Try Not to Breathe definitely had me entertaining lots of possibilities in my mind. When Amy Stevenson was 15 years old, she disappeared from home. While the police tried to tell her parents she ran away, they knew that wasn't something Amy would do. And when she was found shortly thereafter, her body severely beaten, no one could figure out what happened and who assaulted herand Amy, who was in a persistent vegetative state, couldn't tell.
Fifteen years later, Alex Dale, a reporter whose career and personal life had both seen better days, was researching a story on advances being made by a local neurologist, who boasted of some success "communicating" with some patients in a persistent vegetative state. When Alex comes upon Amy in the hospital, she remembers the case that captivated the area for some time, and the turmoil it brought to many whose lives were turned upside down.
Alex is determined to stand up for Amy, to try and find out the truth once and for all. Solving a cold case is never easy, but Alex has an extra burden as she is a barely functioning alcoholic whose life, career, and health have been destroyed by her addiction. But the more Alex digs into the case, interviewing those who were closest to Amy, she knows that there are answers amid the mystery, and it is up to her to try and bring some closure for Amy's sake, while Amy remains conscious but mostly unaware of where she is and what has transpired in her life since the assault. Mostly being the operative word...
I thought this was a really interesting concept for a book, and enjoyed the way Seddon teased out the story despite my best efforts to figure it all out before she was ready to divulge details. Alex's character in particular was really fascinating, and I felt Seddon did a terrific job giving voice to Alex's alcoholic existence and her continued decline despite the regrets she carried with her. While not all of the characters were as fleshed out as I would have liked, Alex drives the story, and she is so appealing (while being so flawed) that I really was invested in her quest. The tension level rises and rises as the plot moves forward, and for the most part, I really liked the direction Seddon took the story in.
For a debut novel, this is a pretty self-assured book. So many mysteries fail as they try too hard; Try Not to Breathe will captivate fans of the genre.
Friday, November 20, 2015
In A Wild Swan and Other Tales, Michael Cunningham, one of my favorite authors, tries to humanize the tales a bit, modernizing them, and imbuing many with more emotion and character development than the originals offered. He looks at some familiar talesJack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel, Rumpelstiltskinand others I wasn't familiar with. All in all, it's an interesting exercise, one which I think had mixed results.
As I've said many a time before, if a story hits me emotionally without making me feel manipulated, it definitely resonates. The stories I liked best in this collection either moved or amused me, sometimes both. My favorites included "Jacked," in which Jack (of beanstalk fame) is a lazy man-child whose encounters with the giant provokes intriguing feelings in the giant's wife; "Little Man," an amusing and moving take on Rumpelstiltskin; "Beasts," an interesting twist on Beauty and the Beast; "Steadfast; Tin," a story about a couple which reminded me more of "How I Met Your Mother" than any fairy tale; and my favorite, "Ever/After," a moving look at the idea of happily ever after.
I love the way Michael Cunningham tells a story, and I've always found that characterization is among his many strengths, so those stories in which the characters were front and center worked best. A few of the stories were odd, and one was told in such a way that I wasn't exactly sure who was narrating it or what was happening.
Overall, this was an intriguing and worthwhile read. If you like fairy tales, give this a tryit's not quite the tales you know, but they'll definitely get you thinking.
Thursday, November 19, 2015
The epigraph of Vanessa Blakeslee's emotional debut novel includes a quote from the great Gabriel Garcia Marquez which I feel so accurately sums this book up: "What matters in life is not what happens to you but what you remember and how you remember it."
Growing up the daughter of a wealthy landowner in Colombia, Mercedes Martinez lives a life of privilegea driver takes her where she needs to go, maids take care of her every whim, and she never wants for anything. Yet her life isn't perfecther mother left when she was very young and never tried to get in touch, and what Mercedes really hopes for is true love.
When she meets Manuel, a passionate young activist who is firmly rooted in his faith and the need for radical changes in their country, she is instantly smitten. Manuel and his brother Emilio open her eyes to the plight of the poor in Colombia, and how she cannot simply accept her father's worldview on what is happening around her.
It's not long before Manuel and Emilio cause Mercedes to re-evaluate all that her father has told her about his life before she was born, and why her mother left Colombia and never tried contacting them. She begins to suspect that her father is far more dangerous than she could ever have imagined, and wonders exactly why he is trying to keep her and Manuel apart, instead forcing her to go to boarding school in America.
An act of violence one night changes everything, and she realizes her only option is to flee to America and leave her old life behind her. But as she grows older, her life is always shadowed by her suspicions and the events of her teenage years. Fifteen years later, she returns to Colombia to try and find answers, but is absolute truth ever possible, or just more questions?
I'll admit I know very little about Colombian history and the violence which occurred in that country, so I found Juventud both enlightening and disturbing. Blakeslee really captured Mercedes' voice so well, and I felt she gave the character complexity so she was so much more than a pampered teenager who suddenly found a conscience. I also found that she had a deft hand when it came to evoking the dichotomy of Colombia's beauty and the extreme poverty and violence affecting the country.
At times the plot moved a little slower than I would have liked, and yet I felt it rushed a bit when Mercedes went to America. I felt as if some of the other characters were a little less fleshed out, but this is Mercedes' story. At its heart, Juventud is a moving story about love and loss, and how our lives are shaped not only by what we see and what we do, but also by the things we don't say, the questions we don't ask.
Sunday, November 15, 2015
Holy crap, this was one roller coaster ride of a book!
Last year, Caroline Kepnes' You pretty much hooked me completely, as it introduced New York City bookseller Joe Goldberg and his love/obsession with Guinevere Beck. That book was also a pretty wild ride, and a testament to Kepnes' writing talent as she made you care about a character whose actions weren't quite admirable. (To say the least...)
In Hidden Bodies, Kepnes brings Joe back, and kicks up the story a few more notches. After his relationship with Beck ended, Joe figured he was destined for a life alone. And then beautiful, quirky, mysterious Amy Adam comes into his bookstore and intrigues him pretty much immediately. They're on the same wavelength intellectually, the sex is mind-blowing, and her refusal to embrace any form of social mediawhere Beck's life was an open bookenamors her to him even more. But just as he's ready to propose, and completely leave Beck behind, Amy disappears, leaving Joe hurt, angry, and betrayed.
The clues Amy left in her wake leave Joe with only one option, no matter how odious it may seem to himhe decides to move to LA to find her. It's not long before Joe finds himself face-to-face with all of the quintessentially LA stereotypes he had only heard aboutfrom the bookstore manager/aspiring actor/aspiring screenwriter to the aging comedian, the gossip columnist who just wants to be loved to the narcissistic talk show host. But try as he might, Joe cannot find Amy, and his obsession about finding her grows ever stronger.
But then Joe finds Love. Literally. Love Quinn, the do-gooder heiress to a grocery store fortune, steals Joe's heart and introduces him to a world of privilege and, well, love, that he never dreamed of. Joe knows that Love is his destiny, and if there are some bumps along the road to eternal happiness, well, a guy's gotta do what a guy's gotta do to ensure he gets the life and the love he deserves, right? No matter what.
Even more in this book than in her first, Kepnes so fully occupies Joe's character in every wayintellectually, emotionally, sexuallythat I had to keep reminding myself that this book was written by a woman. Even when the plot gets a little bit unreal from time to time, there is not a false note in Joe's character, and once again, I found myself rooting for him at the same time I was disgusted by him. I really had no idea how Kepnes would tie up the plot, and that doesn't happen for me with many books.
Is this a realistic book? I hope not. But it's utterly entertaining, and I was completely hooked from start to finish. I just let it devour me as I devoured it, caught between wanting to finish it quickly to end my suspense and wanting to savor it. This isn't a book for everyone, but if you like books about seriously flawed but fascinating characters with a penchant for sex, violence, and foul language, pick up these books. (And while you don't have to, I'd recommend starting with You, the first book in Joe's story.)
Friday, November 13, 2015
I'm sure I'm not the only one who has wondered just how much actors are like the characters they portray. Yes, I know that they're acting, but sometimes you wonder if particular roles hew a little closer to a particular actor's personality.
I've been a fan of Mary-Louise Parker's since I saw her in Prelude to a Kiss on Broadway in 1990. I was tremendously intrigued by her intelligence, the power she exuded onstage, and the indescribable quirkiness she brought to her role. And no matter what roles I've seen her play, all three of those qualities come through, and she seems as if she'd be a fascinating and fun person to get to know.
In her new book, Dear Mr. You, Parker gives more credence to that assumption as she gives glimpses into her life through letters to various men with whom she interactedfamily members, lovers, mentors, teachers, and people with whom she had random encounters. These letters are at times poignant and filled with emotion, at other times raunchy, sexy, romantic, and/or nostalgic; and at other times they share regrets, hopes, and wishes.
Many times, the intended recipients of these letters aren't identified by anything other than enigmatic titles"Dear Risk Taker," "Dear Popeye," "Dear Big Feet," "Dear Young Leman"that only those closest to Parker would know their real identities, but other letters are written to family members or people with whom she came into fleeting contact, such as "Dear Firefighter," "Dear Mr. Cabdriver," and "Dear Mr. Orderly."
Some of these letters were absolutely moving, such as those she wrote to the grandfather she never met, her father, close friends and mentors, and those who left an indelible impression on her life in a momentin particular, the letters she wrote to a random firefighter she passed on the street just after the 9/11 attacks and to the oyster picker she imagined was responsible for providing the oysters her dying father so enjoyed. Parker's use of language and imagery was so beautiful at times. Here's one example:
"It was short but I loved our little trip. We fell in love, but the way you love a view that comes along once or twice in life. You don't want to leave it because it feels like, yes of course, this is the perfect spot. Those moments always come with a little shock and I love that sensation, when you think, this is too good, I'll catch up with everyone else later. You just have to take in the truth of that expanse a few more seconds before it changes and becomes something else entirely, or before you do."At times, however, the letters were a little too cryptic, a little too precious, a little too jumbled for me to follow. It was difficult trying to gain emotional traction with some of the letters without really understanding to whom she was writing, or of what she was referring. And of course, I'm only humanI wanted to know which letter was about Billy Crudup!
All in all, this is beautifully written and fascinating book, conveying complex emotions and giving just a little more insight into a talented actress and tremendously interesting woman.
Monday, November 9, 2015
The one thing about YA fiction that sometimes puts a slight damper on my enjoyment is the precocious nature of the dialogue in many books. So many YA characters are wise beyond their years, sarcastic and proud of it, and ready with an insightful, sensitive, and/or cutting remark in a split second. And while this dialogue can make you gasp, and reach for a highlighter (or press the highlight key on your e-reader), sometimes it's all just too clever to be true, you know?
One of the reasons that I really enjoyed Randy Ribay's An Infinite Number of Parallel Universes, other than it just felt, well, sweet (and not in a bad way), was that the dialogue felt much more realistic than many other books in this genre. Not all of the characters are fully evolved emotionally or intellectually, and Ribay allows them to be flawed, to hurt each other intentionally and unintentionally, and if they're sensitive, it's because it works for that particular character.
Mari, Dante, Archie, and Sam are long-time friends who have been playing Dungeons & Dragons together for years. As they get ready for their senior year in high school, everyone's lives are in the midst of major turmoil, but none have really shared their problems with each other. Archie is struggling with the effects his parents' divorce is going to have on his life and his friendships, Mari is trying to decide whether to contact her biological mother, Dante wants to come out to his friends but faces ignorance from his family, and Sam's relationship with his girlfriend is on the skids.
At first, the book follows several days through each of the characters' eyes (so you see how two people view the same incident in a completely different way). And then, in an effort to help Sam (not to mention avoid their own problems), the four embark on a cross-country road trip, and find themselves in the midst of utter chaos, self-discovery, and the kind of adventure you can only experience when you're young and your whole life is ahead of you.
While the plot is familiar, and you may even have seen some specific incidents before (or you can see them coming), this is a tremendously engaging and charming book. Not all of the characters are likable, but you still root for them, and that is in large part to the love Ribay has for them, which comes across in his storytelling. This is a sweet book that may take you back to your high school days, but hopefully with none of the angst you might have experienced back then!
Saturday, November 7, 2015
Ezra and his wife, Loring, were chess masters. Following Ezra's death, Loring continues giving chess lessons, both as a way of making ends meet, and as a small source of companionship in her old age. When she agrees to teach a young boy, Stan, she is immediately intrigued by him. It's not long before she is convinced that somehow Stan is the embodiment of her late husband.
When you lose someone you love so dearly, someone with whom you've spent so much of your life, the idea of their coming back in one form or another is definitely appealing. As Loring begins seeing more evidence that supports her belief about Stan, she wonders if this is the truth or if her mind is simply seeing what it wants to.
The problem with this story is that it meanders all over the place. It's a reflection on grief, love, and loss, and look at how societies treat the elderly. It's also a commentary on what dreams are, why games can be important to both adults and children, and the importance of belief in things that can't quite be explained, such as magic. But far too often, Ball veers from the core of his story into random details that he picks up and drops just as quickly, which made it very difficult to comprehend. Here's one example:
"The caretaker was there, and saw her walking. He came up, and with him his wife and daughter. This wife and this daughter, they were the same person, by a series of odd coincidences, but we will not go into that at the moment."
I've never read anything by Ball before, so I don't know if he was being deliberately obtuse and mysterious with the way he told this particular story, or if this is the way he writes. I was expecting a story about human emotion and perhaps a little mystery, and while I did find a bit of the former, much of the story left me disconnected and frustrated.
Wednesday, November 4, 2015
My dad was a pretty voracious reader, and he particularly liked thrillersMichael Connelly, Lee Child, John Sandford, and Dennis Lehane were among his favorite authors. Whenever I'd read a great book in this genre, especially when it was by a new author or one even I'd never heard of, I always would mention it to him and encourage him to read it. Although he passed away about 18 months ago, I still think of him when I read a great thriller, and wish he was around so I can pass on some more recommendations.
Boy, he would have loved Matthew FitzSimmons' The Short Drop, and I did, too. It's honestly been a while since I've gotten totally immersed in a book like this, one that left me breathlessly turning pages and wishing that the phone wouldn't ring during lunch so I could see how the book ended. It has some great action, characters that are much more complex than they appear on the surface (although some are just what you'd expect), and there's even a few twists I didn't see coming.
Ten years ago, 14-year-old Suzanne Lombard disappeared from her home. By all accounts, it appeared she ran away to meet a mystery boyfriend, although her trail quickly went cold. Suzanne wasn't just any runaway, howeverat the time of her disappearance, her father was a U.S. senator, and his political star rose as his family grieved for their missing daughter.
Gibson Vaughn was the son of Benjamin Lombard's trusted chief of staff, and he was in essence an older brother to Suzanne. They were tremendously close, until a scandal rocked the Vaughn family, leading to tragedy, and sending Gibson to the Marines, where his legendary hacking skills were put to good use.
As the 10th anniversary of Suzanne's disappearance draws closer, Benjamin Lombard, now the vice-president, is expected to become the next President of the United States. At the same time, Lombard's former security chief asks Gibson, a former nemesis, to help him with a covert investigation into Suzanne's disappearance. It's not long before Gibson helps uncover a tangled web of secrets that have the potential to destroy many livesand put the lives of Gibson and his investigative partners at risk, not to mention force him to relive emotional moments from his past that he tried to forget.
I found this book utterly compelling from start to finish. I tend to get irritated when the villains in thrillers are all-seeing, all-knowing, and always one step ahead of the protagonists, but it is a testament to FitzSimmons' storytelling ability that I wasn't bothered when that happened in this book. You don't know who to trust, and my head was spinning with possibilities about where the plot would go. Sure, you may have to suspend a little disbelief here and there, but I bought the story hook, line, and sinker.
If you're a fan of taut thrillers with at least a little bit of emotional complexity, get yourself a copy of The Short Drop. I can't believe this is FitzSimmons' first book; I definitely can't wait to see what's next for him.
Monday, November 2, 2015
I choose to read a book for many different reasonsit's written by an author whose I work I enjoy, it was recommended by a friend or critic, it's one of the "buzzier" books out there at a current time, or it was recently adapted into a movie I missed. But other times my decision to read a book is purely a visual onefirst I get intrigued by the cover design, then I pick it up (or look it up online) and see if the plot description draws me in. So while you can't judge a book by its cover, I do often select a book because of it.
All that babble to explain that it was the cover of Susan Perabo's soon-to-be-released story collection, Why They Run the Way They Do, that piqued my interest first. However, after devouring all 12 stories fairly quickly, I'm so thankful the cover design was so intriguing, because otherwise I might have missed an affecting, well-written, memorable collection by an author whose work I'm going to need to keep reading.
The characters in these stories face emotional crossroads of all kindsspending time with their terminally ill mother, dealing with a serious infatuation with a childhood best friend, being confronted with evidence of an extramarital affair in an unusual way, or trying to help a friend escape a mental hospital so she can commit suicide, for starters. But so many of these stories are more complex than that, even surprising at times. (There's even one story called, of all things, "This is Not That Story," which opens up a number of intriguing plot twists but then cuts them off by saying, "But that is not this story.")
Perabo's voice is so deft; while the majority of her main characters are female, she is equally talented with male protagonists as well. She packs a tremendous amount of heart, character development, and plot into fairly short stories, but they don't ever feel confusing or unfinished. I've always said that for me, the sign of a great story collection is if I am interested and invested enough in the characters to wish that they were part of a full-length novel; I could see that with many of these.
Among my favorites in this collection (and it was hard to narrow it down to just a few to mention in this review) were: "Story Goes," which follows two young female residents of a mental hospital, when one asks the other to help her escape so she can commit suicide; the title story, in which a receptionist must deal with the affair she is having as well as the imminent departure of her best friend and companion; "The Payoff," about two eight graders who witness two teachers in a sexual actand they make an interesting decision about how to handle it; "Michael the Armadillo," in which a couple must deal with an unusual reminder of one's infidelity; and "A Proper Burial," when a woman spends a weekend with her terminally ill mother before her condition starts to decline.
I've been so blown away by the quality of the short story collections I've read this year, and Why They Run the Way They Do is an excellent addition to that continuously growing list. Fans of short stories: here's another one for you to hopefully enjoy as much as I did!