Thursday, December 31, 2015

Book Review: "Call Me Home" by Megan Kruse

Beautifully poetic yet emotionally brutal at times, Megan Kruse's Call Me Home is absolutely fantastic. I stumbled on it when it was recommended by a columnist on a blog I read faithfully, and it really blew me away; clearly the last book I'll read in 2015 is one of the best I'll read all year.

Amy is growing up in the small Texas town of Fannin, and she dreams of something better in her life. She thinks she has found it in Gary, who is mercurial but passionate, and whoo dreams of getting away from Texas and the disregard of his family. The two move to rural Washington, and it isn't long before Amy realizes that Gary's passion quickly turns violent.

The couple raise two children, Jackson and Lydia, and Amy bargains with herself that if she lets Gary continue his periodic abuse of her without reprisal, he won't turn his eye onto the children. But Jackson and Lydia know all too well what is going on, and Jackson tries to protect his younger sister from the realities of their parents' marriage. As Jackson's homosexuality becomes more apparent, both Amy and Lydia realize that they must do what they can to protect him as well.

After several thwarted attempts to escape, Amy finally succeeds in leaving Gary, taking Lydia with her, and hoping Jackson will find the freedom to live the life he wants. As Amy returns to her hometown to try and retrace the steps that took her into the life she has fled, Lydia tries to understand what would keep her mother tethered to her father for so long, and whether she has any of her father inside her.

Meanwhile, Jackson, after a period of hustling, decides to go to Idaho, where he gets a job on a construction crew. He is conscious of being different from the other men and tries to keep his sexuality a secret, but it's not long before he embarks on a potentially dangerous relationship, which tests his heart in ways he has never experienced.

Call Me Home is about what we do for love, and how sometimes we put our own self-interests last, much to our detriment. It's about the pull of family and those we choose as our family, and the importance of belonging and feeling a sense of security. And, of course, it's also a book about the destructive effects of abuse on all of those who witness and live through it.

Megan Kruse is a tremendously gifted writer. Her storytelling is lyrical, poetic, and mesmerizing, as she weaves the story through different points in time, narrated by Amy, Jackson, and Lydia. Jackson's story is probably the most fleshed out and he is the most fascinating character, and at times I found myself nearly reading with my hands over my eyes, afraid something might happened to him. This is a moving book that packs a powerful punch, and I hope Kruse's talent finds itself a wide audience.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Book Review: "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" by Jesse Andrews

Yep. All the feels. And what would you expect from a book with a title like Me and Earl and the Dying Girl?

When I read Jesse Andrews' soon-to-be-published second book, The Haters, last month, I remarked that I had wanted to read Me and Earl and the Dying Girl first, but had held off because I thought I might see the movie version instead. But I never got around to seeing the movie, so I gave the book a shot, given the rave reviews it has gotten.

Happily, I wasn't disappointed. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is goofy and a little juvenile at times (but then again, so am I), but it has tremendous heart and humor, and is far more realistic dialogue-wise than a lot of other young adult books out there, where the characters are so clever and wise beyond their years it's easy to forget they're supposed to be teenagers.

Greg Gaines is an awkward, self-deprecating high school senior, who spends most of his time trying not to be noticed. He's nice to everyone but not too nice, for fear that people might think he's affiliated with a particular group or clique and judge him for it. He's basically just trying to bide his time and stay out of sight.

"So in order to understand everything that happened, you have to start from the premise that high school sucks. Do you accept that premise? Of course you do. It is a universally acknowledged truth that high school sucks. In fact, high school is where we are first introduced to the basic existential question of life: How is it possible to exist in a place that sucks so bad?"

Greg really only has one friend, Earl, although their relationship mostly revolves around grossing each other out, cursing, eating, playing video games, and making really amateurish films. So Greg is utterly unprepared when he learns that Rachel, a girl he used to know from Hebrew school, is dying of leukemia, and his mother wants him to spend time with Rachel to cheer her up.

This book isn't one of those in which the main character makes remarkable discoveries about life and friendship while spending time with a terminally ill friend. Greg doesn't really have an epiphany—in fact, he spends most of his time with Rachel vacillating between trying to make her laugh, making her laugh, and saying things he wished he didn't say. And then things devolve even further when Greg and Earl are convinced to make a film for Rachel, and they have no idea what to do, and what the consequences of their actions will be.

I laughed out loud more than a few times reading this book, and I got choked up more than a few times, too. But while the book is a little bit zany at times, it felt very real—while it's been some time since I was a teenager, Greg reacts to situations in ways I'd expect less-than-well-adjusted teenagers would react. I liked that Andrews didn't try too hard to hammer you with messages about cherishing every moment, or fighting as hard as you can, since that wouldn't have fit with the book.

The humor is a bit juvenile at times, and there is a lot of cursing (because, again, teenagers). But if goofy and puerile don't put you off, you'll be rewarded with a book that has sweetness within its ornery nature, and balances the funny with the emotional. For me, that makes a pretty enjoyable read.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Movie Review: "Room"

Simply put, Room is a gut-wrenching sucker punch of a movie. If you haven't heard anything about it or the book it's based on, so much the better, so I'm going to keep this review to the basics.

Jack (Ethan Tremblay) is five years old. Like any five-year-old, at times Jack is demanding, questioning, and/or hyperactive, but his mother (Brie Larson), who is raising Jack on her own, does everything in her power to keep him happy. They tell stories, watch television, do crafts, and run races, among other things, and Jack knows how much Ma cares about and wants to protect him.

As long as he can remember, Ma has told Jack stories about the world around them. But now that he is five, she tells him the truth, and she needs his help. She needs Jack to be braver than he has ever imagined, and do something incredibly scary, but something that will hopefully change their lives.

Room, based on the novel by Emma Donoghue, is an immensely powerful, incredibly moving film about the incredible sacrifices a mother makes to keep her child safe and happy despite extraordinary circumstances, and the one chance she takes to try and change their situation. It's the story of how we choose to deal with a situation beyond our comprehension, and how lives change. And it's also the story of how sometimes in our rush to protect someone else, we forget to deal with our own problems, and the difficulties this may cause.

I have been a fan of Brie Larson's since I saw her amazing performance in Short Term 12 a few years ago. That movie was on my list of the best movies I saw in 2013, and Larson's performance should have garnered her a Best Actress Oscar nomination. But as good as that performance was, her performance in Room is rawer and more powerful. It's emotional and angry without being maudlin, and you can read the conflicts her character faces in every expression, every gesture. This is an Oscar-winning performance, plain and simple.

Although Jacob Tremblay is actually nine years old in real life, he is tremendously believable as a five-year-old, especially one as unique as Jack. He perfectly captures the frustration and limited comprehension of children that age, yet Jack's bravery is incredible, and Tremblay imbues his performance with both vulnerability and innocent bravado. If there is any justice, he'll receive a Best Supporting Actor nomination in a few weeks.

While this movie may not seem realistic, sadly, it is more real than we'd like to imagine, but we don't get to hear the stories of those in Ma and Jack's situation. Room is never flashy, never overdone—if anything, its power lies within its simplicity. This is a must-see, although it will stay with you for some time afterward.

Movie Review: "Carol"

Therese Belivet (a wide-eyed Rooney Mara) is a clerk at a New York City department store in the 1950s. She's not really certain what she wants out of her life, but knows there's more to offer than a job she doesn't really care for, and her earnest boyfriend, who keeps trying to convince her to go on a European trip with him.

When Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett), a New Jersey housewife, sweeps into her department, her glamour and attitude immediately captivate Therese, nearly leaving her at a loss for words. But when Carol leaves her gloves at the store, Therese sees it as an opportunity to once again interact with this woman who has inexplicably fascinated her in ways she had never imagined possible.

The two strike up a friendship of sorts, and it is soon clear that both are smitten with each other. While this has happened before to Carol, Therese can't seem to explain it, although for the most part she is willing to let Carol take the lead. But Carol's decision to pursue this relationship comes at great peril to her family—her soon-to-be ex-husband, Harge (Kyle Chandler), has filed a petition for sole custody of their young daughter due to a "morality clause." Carol must face the dilemma of whether to follow her heart or allow herself to be "cured" so she can spend time with her daughter. This leaves Therese, who had never imagined herself in this position in the first place, in emotional limbo, as well as uncertainty about the other facets of her life as well.

Blanchett is absolutely dazzling as a woman whose public bravado masks deep vulnerability and fear. As she tells a friend who says she hopes Carol knows what she's doing in getting involved with a younger woman like Therese, Carol replies, "I never did." While she has the same speech patterns as her character in Blue Jasmine, this isn't a woman putting on airs or reinventing herself—this is a woman who is trying to play the role expected of her but her heart keeps getting in the way.

My only exposure to Mara's talent was in her Oscar-nominated turn in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, so to see her play someone reasonably subdued and timid at first, but whose courage awakens with her heart, was a true revelation. In this film, Mara has a clean-scrubbed freshness, similar to Audrey Hepburn's in Roman Holiday, and her eyes are so tremendously expressive, so they provide a dimension beyond her dialogue. Both Blanchett and Mara are immensely deserving of Oscar nominations. As Carol's former girlfriend and confidante, Sarah Paulson does a terrific job with her small-yet-pivotal role. While Chandler gets to play the heavy, he does bring more emotional depth to his character, a man who knows his wife was probably going through the motions but he continues to love her anyway.

Carol is beautifully filmed with exquisite attention to detail, in a way similar to director Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven, another film which dealt with relationships that didn't fit the mold of society at that time, and how they affected those around them. I wondered where the plot would go, and was pleased with the way the story unfolded. More than anything, however, I realized that while our world is far from perfect, it is a hell of a lot better than the world of 1952, when Patricia Highsmith wrote the book upon which this movie is based. But Haynes treated this love story like any other, and that added to the film's poignancy. Truly excellent.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Book Review: "Mendocino Fire: Stories" by Elizabeth Tallent

Relationships have the potential for tremendous complexities and complications, which is why they're such valuable literary fodder. In her newest collection of stories, Mendocino Fire, Elizabeth Tallent mines these challenges as they arise among family members, romantic partners, and others, and proves nothing is as simple as it seems.

Not every story worked for me, as I found that some of them tried to cram too many disparate ideas together, but there were some stories that absolutely knocked me out. My favorites included, "Tabriz," in which a man watches his life begin to unravel when he unearths an expensive rug at a dump; "Briar Switch," chronicling a woman's return home in the midst of a blizzard upon learning that her estranged father is close to death; "Never Come Back," which follows a man whose good intentions complicate his family's life in numerous ways, time and time again; "The Wrong Son," about a young man's complicated relationship with his taciturn father; and my favorite story in the collection, "Nobody You Know," which tells of a woman's struggles following her divorce, and what occurs upon her return home.

I'd never before read anything Tallent has written, and I was tremendously impressed by her mastery of language and imagery. While her sentences tend to be very wordy, they're not verbose, and I found myself marveling numerous times at each story. Here's just one example, from "The Wilderness":
"She could swear that an enthralled reader nineteen years old is the most beautiful animal on earth—at least, she's seen one or two who were, in their spellbound moment, the incarnation of extremest human beauty. They were not themselves. Literature looked back at her from their eyes and told her certain things she was sure they ought not to have understood at their age."
Tallent's, well, talent, is evident throughout this collection, and I'm now interested in reading some of her earlier work. I've been fortunate to find so many short story writers whose work I've enjoyed this year, and I'm happily adding Tallent to that list.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Movie Review: "Brooklyn"

Sometimes you see a movie or read a book which utterly charms you so much, that one of the most apropos words you can use to describe it is "lovely," and that is not disparaging in any way. Brooklyn is such a movie—it's charming and beautiful and it worms its way into your heart without your even realizing it.

In the early 1950s, Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) is growing up in Ireland, living a less-than-remarkable life. Even though she's smart she can't find a job beyond working as a shop clerk, and there doesn't appear to be much opportunity on the romantic front as well, so her older sister arranges for Eilis to go to America, and she'll have a job and a place to stay lined up. But life in Brooklyn, even among countless Irish immigrants, is tremendously lonely, and all she can think about is going home.

Little by little she becomes more acclimated to her new home, and is enrolled in bookkeeping classes. And while at an Irish dance, she meets Tony Fiorello (Emory Cohen)—he's not quite the Irish lad she envisioned, but his attentiveness, affection, and enthusiasm for the future he has envisioned for them helps her to fall for him rather quickly. As she tells her sister in her letters home, she finally feels at home all the way across the ocean.

When tragedy strikes, and Eilis plans to return home to Ireland for a month, she must make some crucial decisions about Tony. And as she settles back in to her old life, she suddenly realizes that there are opportunities in Ireland for her as well, and that her home isn't really as small and provincial as she once thought. But as she grows more comfortable back home, and plans for her future should she stay begin taking shape, she must decide once and for all on which shore she belongs—and whether she should take control of her own life or allow it to be controlled as it always has been.

On the surface, this seems like a fairly simple story, but it is full of complex emotions, difficult decisions, and the thrill of watching someone blossom in their life for the first time. Ronan's performance is tremendous—sensitive yet strong, brave yet giddy, and truly moving. You may not agree with the decisions she makes, but you see how difficult her decisions are, and you may wonder how you might react if you were a 1950s woman torn between life in the home you've always known and life in the home you've built for yourself.

Cohen isn't the strongest actor (although he's better than he was on Smash, where he played Debra Messing's petulant son), but his charm is infectious, and you can see why Eilis would be attracted to him aside from his looks. Julie Walters and Jim Broadbent, as two adults Eilis turns to in America, turn in charming performances within the small roles they're given.

In the end, this is Ronan's film. She's come a long way from the petulant troublemaker she played in Atonement, which earned her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nod back in 2007. This is a fully mature and complex performance, once which has caught the attention of a number of film critics' groups, and is expected to earn her a Best Actress nod next month. This movie will make you cry, laugh, and smile—sometimes all at once. And how can you ask for more?

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Book Review: "The Drifter" by Nicholas Petrie

Full disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review. Many thanks to NetGalley and PENGUIN GROUP Putnam for making it available!

I've said in previous reviews that when I read great thrillers, I often think of my late father, with whom I would trade recommendations of books in this genre. Boy, would he have loved this one. Balancing tightly wound suspense, crackling action, and excellent character development, Nicholas Petrie's The Drifter is the type of book for which series and action films are made.

Peter Ash is a veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan, who returned home after multiple tours of duty plagued by "white static"—serious claustrophobia brought on from the traumatic stress of combat. It's so bad he can barely stand to be indoors for more than a few minutes, which is why he spent the last year traveling the country, sleeping outside.

When he learns that Jimmy, one of his friends from his days in the Marines, committed suicide, he is overcome with guilt that he never tried to see him or make sure he was doing okay. To repay his perceived debt, Peter returns to the "regular" world to help Jimmy's widow and their children by doing some repairs to their house. As he starts fixing the dilapidated porch, Peter discovers that living under the house is the ugliest, meanest dog he has ever seen, and no one is quite sure where it came from.

Underneath the house Peter also finds an old suitcase full of money and explosives. It's not long before he realizes that there have been people watching Jimmy's house, trying to find where he hid the money—which puts Peter and Jimmy's family in harm's way. And as Peter tries to understand just what Jimmy might have gotten himself into, he discovers people willing to help veterans like himself, and he finds both unlikely allies and very dangerous, unlikely enemies. Who can he trust, and of whom should he be wary?

From the very start Petrie reels you into the book, and doesn't let you off the hook until the very end. Peter is a complex, fascinating character, and Petrie really did his research on the challenges veterans have faced after returning home. Even though I had suspicions about where the plot might go, I couldn't stop reading this, and definitely felt my pulse quickening as I raced toward the ending.

The Drifter is a tremendously self-assured debut, and I'll definitely be watching for what comes next from Nicholas Petrie. I hope that this was just the first book in a series featuring Peter Ash—he's a character who deserves to become as familiar as Jack Reacher and others.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Book Review: "Signal to Noise" by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

I just love it when I find a book I've never heard of and know nothing about and it just totally takes me by surprise and wows me. Such is the case with Silvia Moreno-Garcia's Signal to Noise, a heartfelt, nostalgic look at music, love, family, a little magic, and the friendships of our youth which never quite leave us.

Mercedes ("Meche") is growing up in Mexico City in 1988. She's a smart girl and obsessed with music—her father is a DJ, so she thinks of everything in terms of different songs. She and her two best friends, Sebastian and Daniela, form their own little band of outcasts, no matter how hard they try to fit in, and escape their broken families (at least Meche and Sebastian's). And truly, in many ways they are just your average teenagers—Daniela has a crush on one of their teachers, while Sebastian and Meche are both infatuated with the most popular and attractive guy and girl in their class, and neither pays them much attention.

But Meche is determined to change the course of their lives so things go in their favor. When she discovers she can cast magic spells using particular songs, she enlists the help of her friends to help the spells hit their target. And while their success starts changing their lives slowly but surely, they realize there are many potential downsides—the intoxicating power that turns good intentions into bad, and the way that their friendships, particularly Meche and Sebastian's, are changing because of the magic.

"Meche and Sebastian were used to each other, comfortable in their proximity. They folded and kept their dreams in the same drawer, spun fantasies side by side, lived in the easy harmony of youth which did not know the need for tall walls and sturdy defenses."

More than 20 years later, Meche returns to Mexico City, which she fled after everything in her life changed. Her estranged father has died, and she reluctantly attends his funeral, and once again encounters both Sebastian and Daniela. So much was left unsaid back then, so many feelings were unexpressed, except the resentment that each of them feels, particularly Meche. As Meche deals with all of her damaged relationships, she turns to music again, and wonders if it will help her coast through the tumultuous times the way it used to, or if she will have to confront all of the emotions she has bottled up for so long.

It's amazing how relationships can turn on a simple act, a simple misunderstanding, a simple word said in anger. This is even truer in adolescence, as the stress of friendships and relationships is compounded by the usual teenage angst. Signal to Noise explores the delicate yet fiery nature of these relationships, as well as the hurts that our family can cause us as well. Betrayals are never taken lightly, especially when they come from those we're closest to.

Being a huge music fanatic for most of my life, I easily identified with how music shaped Meche's life. And I remember the intensity of the friendships of my teenage years, and how utterly awful betrayal—real or imagined—felt. Moreno-Garcia has captured this time in life, these emotions, these passions so vividly, and while the thread of magic in the plot is a little fantastic, it doesn't detract from the story. So much in our life can hinge on the things that are and aren't said, and this book mines that vein very effectively.

I'd like to thank Amanda Nelson of Book Riot, who included this book on her list of 13 of the best books of 2015 you may have missed. I'm so glad I found this book, and hope others pick it up, because I'd love to discuss it with you!

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Book Review: "We've Already Gone This Far: Stories" by Patrick Dacey

Full disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review. Many thanks to NetGalley and Henry Holt & Company for making it available!

Patrick Dacey's story collection, We've Already Gone This Far, is moving, amusing, thought provoking, and truly excellent. The stories are linked in as much that they either take place in the small town of Wequaquet or the characters once lived there or are descended from those who did, and many of the stories mention characters who have been the focus of a different story. This is certainly a look at working-class America, but many of these characters don't have the typical problems you'd expect of the working class.

Life is not always good for the characters in these stories, but even when they're struggling they're experiencing moments of grace, or whatever grace means to them. These are parents, spouses, misfits, soldiers, and those just desperate to find their moment. These stories are about love, sex, self-esteem, despair, devotion, and hope. Dacey is a writer with a tremendous gift.

Only one story of the thirteen in this collection really didn't work for me, but some of them really wowed me. Among my favorites were "Downhill," in which the father of a blind child is struggling to make ends meet and provide his son a world he feels safe and happy in; "Mutatis Mutandis," which told the story of a woman who has let herself go who finds redemption of a sort when she gets plastic surgery provided by a television talk show; "Patriots," in which one woman finds herself outraged and moved by her neighbor; "Acts of Love," about two men whose marriages are in trouble who meet while living in temporary housing; and "Never So Sweet," in which a young boy is forever affected by the death of his uncle and the impact his uncle's girlfriend had on the boy's life.

I've often said that for me, one of the hallmarks of a good story is when I feel myself wishing the story were longer, even novel-length. I honestly could have seen many of the stories in Dacey's collection expanded into novels, and would love to know more about some of these characters. Dacey's use of language is vivid and poetic, and his storytelling is mesmerizing and emotional at times. This is really a collection worth reading, and I look forward to seeing what's next in Dacey's career.

Book Review: "Dryland" by Sara Jaffe

Ah, adolescence. Our adult lives may be difficult from time to time, but nothing beats the anguish and turmoil—real or imagined—of the teenage years.

Fifteen-year-old Julie Winter, growing up in 1992, is trying not to make any waves. She's following her best friend Erika, listening to her obsess over crushes and trying to be popular. Since her older brother, who nearly qualified for the Olympics as a swimmer, fled to Berlin without much explanation, she's trying to figure out what made him go, and who he really was.

When Alexis, the swim team captain, recruits Julie to join the swim team, it gives way to a lot of different feelings. She's anxious about swimming again but although she doesn't want to be compared to her brother she wants to make everyone proud. But more than that, she's confused by her feelings for Alexis, who has more than her own share of confusion where that is concerned. Julie doesn't know whether what she's feeling is right, or true, or if she should act on it, and if she does, what it all means. She finds herself turning to Ben, an old friend of her brother's, to help her understand both her own issues and her brother.

This was a very quick read—I read the entire book in a day—and Sara Jaffe really captured the voice and the angst of adolescence. I found the book moving and really well written, but I found it frustrating as well, because there's so much that remains unsaid for so long, in so many different areas. Julie herself is an interesting and sympathetic yet somewhat irritating character, because she's just so passive. I really liked Ben, though, and almost wish he was more of a factor in the story.

I wouldn't want to repeat most of my teenage years, but Jaffe gave those memories more than a good jolt with this book. It's an effective mix of the weighty and the frivolous issues we faced back then, with a good dose of nostalgia and emotion.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Book Review: "Thin Blue Smoke" by Doug Worgul

Warning: If you’re a fan of barbecue, do not read Doug Worgul’s Thin Blue Smoke on an empty stomach! You will feel intense cravings that may only be satisfied by a trip to your local barbecue establishment. Perhaps twice, depending upon how long it takes you to read the book.

Hunger pangs aside, I thoroughly enjoyed Worgul’s book. It’s utterly charming, occasionally moving, humorous meditation on life’s ups and downs, surviving the challenges thrown at us, the redemptive power of love and friendship, and how sometimes life just doesn’t go the way you planned. While the book takes place in Kansas City, it honestly felt as if it were one of those wonderful little books about a small town, where nearly everyone is connected in some way.

LaVerne Williams had a brief stint as a major league ballplayer when he was younger, and the end of his baseball career still haunts him more than he’ll admit. He and his wife own a small but popular barbecue joint in Kansas City, and sometimes it succeeds despite LaVerne himself. But beneath his cantankerous exterior lies a vulnerable core, a man devoted to preparing barbecue his way, and a heart laid bare more than once.

A.B. Clayton has been working at the restaurant for as long as he can remember, and given the challenges with his own upbringing, views LaVerne and Angela as surrogate parents as well as bosses. He is a shy, sensitive man, whose world revolves around the restaurant and his few friends, but he knows there is more out there.

Ferguson Glen is an Episcopal priest who was the star of the literary world when he was younger, but he was never able to live up to his early potential. Always unsure of his place in the spiritual world, his drinking problem is his biggest challenge, and it may keep him from realizing what he truly loves.

The lives of LaVerne, A.B., Ferguson, and a number of others unfold in Thin Blue Smoke. A novel in vignettes, the chapters move back and forth in time and are narrated by different characters, but as each chapter unfolds it provides more insight into what makes them tick. This is a beautifully written book about life, love, music, friendship, and, of course, food, and it really grabbed hold of my heart.

At times it’s difficult to keep time and place straight, and there are a lot of characters to remember. And Worgul introduces one plot element toward the end that I thought was unnecessary, but luckily it disappears fairly quickly after making its mark. But in the end, this is a book with so much heart, and so many vividly drawn characters, that in addition to desiring barbecue, you want to spend more time with them.

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Friday, December 11, 2015

Book Review: "Movie Game" by Michael Ebner

Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review. Many thanks to NetGalley and Pen and Picture for making it available!

The story of a teenager who spends much of his life watching or thinking about movies, Michael Ebner's Movie Game reads kind of like a blockbuster movie. There's action, intrigue, mystery, romance, violence, sex, and even a little drama. But like many popular blockbusters there's so much shoehorned into the plot it veers off the rails from time to time, but its charm ultimately keeps you reading.

It's the summer before Joe's senior year of high school. He spends nearly every waking moment watching or thinking about movies, or playing the rapid-fire Movie Game with his buddies, which he usually wins. He considers himself the defender of distraction-free movies, and often follows offenders home after the movie has ended. Joe also has late-night encounters with Nikki, who keeps their relationship a secret from her real boyfriend, and he's a big fan of dark dipping, or swimming in neighborhood pools late at night.

Joe and his older sister have been keeping up appearances since their father disappeared three years ago and their mother left to live with her new boyfriend, afraid if authorities find out Joe is without parental supervision, social services may step in. While Joe is a cinephile, his sister is an excessive reader. But what Joe doesn't realize is that government agents have him on constant surveillance, because their father isn't quite who he said he was.

"Their excessive consumption of fiction was an essential distraction from their broken home."

Suddenly Joe's life seems more and more like a movie—his new college-aged girlfriend may have hidden motives for their relationship, the stories he's been telling his sister to push her to live her own life are actually less elaborate than the truth, and then there's the increasingly annoying presence of the federal agents, who want his help tracking down his father, who has apparently become a terrorist. All that, and he's still dealing with the trauma of his high school girlfriend's tragic death three years earlier.

Will Joe choose the bonds of family over the long arm of the law? Will he finally get the girl he deserves? Will he be able to continue winning at the Movie Game, or will a new competitor supplant him? And most importantly, will they all live happily ever after?

Ebner's book is a little wacky and far-fetched (I can't tell you how often I had to remind myself that Joe was supposed to be entering his senior year in high school given his level of sophistication), but it's fun, funny, and even a little bit moving. There is a lot going on in this book—too much, I think—so the plot really goes all over the place, and you sometimes don't know what scenario you're in at a particular moment. But Joe is a fascinatingly charming yet flawed character, and you're compelled to keep reading to see where his story goes.

Summer movie season may be over, but Movie Game is like a summer movie in book form. All you need is the popcorn.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Book Review: "The Unfinished World and Other Stories" by Amber Sparks

Full disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review. Many thanks to NetGalley and W.W. Norton & Company for making it available!

The descriptions of Amber Sparks' new collection of stories plus a novella compared her to Kelly Link and Karen Russell. While there are elements of the macabre, the futuristic, the fantastic in these stories, Sparks' voice is all her own—it's at once familiar and unusual, jarring and moving, and quite intriguing.

There isn't really a theme that weaves through all of the stories in this collection, although each is characterized by the outpouring or manifestation of some emotion and/or desire—love, grief, sadness, fear, the desire for a new start, etc. The stories take place in the past, present, and future; there is even an adaptation of a fairy tale thrown in for good measure. (Ironically, it's one of the same fairy tales adapted by Michael Cunningham in his newest book, A Wild Swan and Other Tales, which I read last month.)

While I didn't quite "get" everything in this collection, and some of the stories didn't work for me, there were some absolute stunners. Some of my favorites included: "Things You Should Know About Cassandra Dee," about an overweight girl with a special gift that isn't quite a blessing; "And the World Was Crowded with Things That Meant Love," one of the most straightforward stories in the collection, which is not your usual love story; "Thirteen Ways of Destroying a Painting," a humorous tale which featured an immensely determined time traveler; "The Janitor in Space," which is poignant and beautiful; and "The Cemetery for Lost Faces," which chronicled a brother and sister who handle their grief through taxidermy and unusual art.

If you're a fan of more traditional stories, this collection might not be for you, but if you can open your mind to stories which may force you to think of the future or the past, pick up The Unfinished World and Other Stories. You'll be intrigued, you'll be moved, you'll shake your head at Sparks' creativity, but most of all, you'll get to witness her storytelling talent and her deft skill with language and imagery first hand.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Book Review: "Paulina & Fran" by Rachel B. Glaser

Many of us probably knew someone like Paulina, one of the title characters in Rachel B. Glaser's debut novel, Paulina & Fran. Always larger than life, always wanting to be the center of attention, women and men are drawn to her, and they often feel illuminated by her attention—until she tires of them and discards them, leaving them resentful. She seduces men and women to feel desirable and in control, and doesn't handle rejection well. And she isn't interested in other people's lives or problems at all, despite her reassurances to the contrary.

An art school student with little to no discernible artistic talent, Paulina is coasting academically. On a school trip to Norway, abandoned by the most recent object of her infatuation, she meets Fran, who is equally beautiful although she lacks Paulina's confidence, possesses artistic talent she can't seem to harness, and is sweet and trusting. The two quickly form an intense bond.

"She felt Gretchen was the kind of girlfriend she would be offered again and again by the adult world, the real world, but Paulina was someone truly original, someone who existed only once."

Paulina and Fran's friendship blossoms fully, leaving their other friends by the wayside. And then Fran decides to begin dating one of Paulina's ex-boyfriends, someone Paulina grew tired of and rejected. But as happens so often in life, once Fran finds him appealing, Paulina isn't so sure she doesn't want him anymore. However, she instead decides to do everything in her power to destroy their relationship, even if it means severing her friendship with Fran at the same time. And in one fell swoop, one action and its aftermath change everything, including their paths post-graduation.

This book was really intriguing, although both main characters aren't particularly likable. In Paulina, Glaser creates such an egotistical yet flawed dynamo, one who always draws your attention when she's on the page, yet after a while her fury and appeal peters out. (Luckily she regains both for a short while.) While people like Paulina do exist, at times I just found her ability to coast from opportunity to opportunity a little unbelievable. But Glaser's dialogue is funny, ribald, and occasionally moving, and her use of language and imagery is particularly vivid. She truly captures the mixture of innocence and cynicism that comes toward the end of college, and the weariness of recent graduates as they try to find their way.

I've seen this referred to as a "woman's novel." While it is about women, and perhaps women are more likely to have the type of intense friendships that occurred in the book, Paulina & Fran was definitely intriguing and entertaining for me. I think we could all use a little of Paulina's energy in our lives, perhaps without some of her intensity.