Saturday, December 31, 2016

Book Review: "Cat Incarcerated" by Noah Nichols

If you're looking for a quirky, slightly zany, sarcastic, and good-natured book to read, look no further than Noah Nichols' Cat Incarcerated. It's a unique story (I haven't seen a book with this plot before), and Nichols' storytelling is very engaging.

Cade A. Tanner is the first to admit he was a fairly miserable person when he was drunk, which was pretty much always. He drove his wife Stephanie away, and found himself alone, with not much more than the food from his favorite Chinese restaurant to keep him company. But somewhere down the line he found the strength to kick his addiction, and started seeing the beauty of life without alcohol.

Then the unthinkable happens: Cade sees an adorable kitten in the middle of the street, practically playing in traffic. The man that Cade has become absolutely can't let the kitten (especially one so cute) meet its maker while he watches, so he rushes out to rescue it, and he is immediately struck and killed by a texting-and-driving teenager. The irony.

Then the even-more-unthinkable happens: Cade wakes up to find he has been reincarnated as, of all things, a kitten. (An even cuter one than the one he rescued, but that's neither here nor there.) As he struggles with where to find shelter and food, not to mention reconcile the fact that he is now a cat ("Will I have to lower my standards and start going to the bathroom...in a litter box?"), he finds even more surprises along the way, because he is ultimately rescued by his ex-wife. And she has become a barely functioning alcoholic.

The book gets a little zanier from there, but it never loses its sense of humor or its heart. Cade (to whom Stephanie has given the name Ethan) raises some interesting existential questions that only a cat who was once a man can ponder:
What if...what if there are multiple poor souls out there who're just like me? A man, a woman, a child, of whatever age or background, inexplicably stuck inside the bodies of cats or dogs or bears or angry badgers (hey, maybe that's why they always look so pissed off for no reason!), or any animal for that matter. What if there's actually a deeper meaning to all of this? Something that's bigger than individuality, a type of extraordinary thing that's meant to overcome with a group of misfits. Something that's meant to teach an incredible lesson as a whole.
Sometimes the book gets a little too witty and, at times, corny, for its own good. A few times I waited for the rimshot to follow some of the jokes (and I won't even try to CATalogue the cat puns). But at its heart, the story is fun and unique, and it made me smile, as I waited to see what Nichols had up his sleeve next. You'll need to suspend your disbelief, of course; if you're one of those people who can't accept the idea of a man being reincarnated as a cat, this isn't a book for you.

The author provided me a complimentary copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks, Noah, for making this available, and for providing some great amusement and smiles!

Friday, December 30, 2016

Book Review: "The Princess Diarist" by Carrie Fisher

"I had never been Princess Leia before and now I would be her forever. I would never not be Princess Leia. I had no idea how profoundly true that was and how long forever was."

I've got to tell you, it was really weird reading this book given the fact that both Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds died this week. There were more than a few times in this book where Fisher made reference to her obituary, her eulogy, or her mother, all of which made me even sadder than I already was.

That being said, I've always been a fan of Fisher's writing, starting with Postcards from the Edge, and I love her sense of humor and her sarcastic, somewhat off-kilter view of everything. The Princess Diarist looks at her journey from her first movie role in Shampoo in 1975, to auditioning for the role of Princess Leia in Star Wars, to the effect that part has had on her entire life. But more than that, this book reveals (although it wasn't a secret once she started doing publicity for the book) information about her affair with Harrison Ford, her older, married costar, while filming Star Wars.

"From celebration to intoxication to assignation to infatuation to imitation to indignation—this was my trimester of the affair that was Carrison." (Carrison was the nickname she assigned to their relationship, much as the way the media creates nicknames for celebrity couples.)

Her recounting of the way the affair ran its course, the way they tried to keep emotions out of it, but the way Fisher really felt about Ford was both touching and humorous. She relied on her usual self-deprecation, but you could see she used it in this case as a defense mechanism, to protect herself from investing and expecting more than she was going to get. It's not an entirely flattering portrait of Ford, although you can tell how deep her feelings for him ran.

Apparently the genesis of this book was when Fisher found the diaries she kept during the filming of Star Wars. So after she told the story of "Carrison," the book then included her diary entries from that period. Most entries are somewhat oblique, not referring to Harrison directly, but it's clear to see how emotionally vulnerable she let herself get with him, and how the casual nature of their relationship hurt her. The entries include love poems, song lyrics, and reflections.

From her diary: "If anyone reads this when I have passed to the big bad beyond, I shall be posthumorously embarrassed. I shall spend my entire afterlife blushing."

If you're looking for scoop on the making of Star Wars beyond the genesis of her infamous hairstyle, you'll be disappointed. This book goes from her getting her role to her relationship with Ford to the aftermath of the movie and what former stars do to make some extra money. The journal entries take up a significant portion of the book, and because they're reasonably oblique, they're not as interesting as I had hoped.

I thought this book was interesting, but it was much more compelling when Fisher injected humor into her writing, as I feel that is where she always excelled. Her reflections on "Carrison" were touching; I can only imagine what it was like for Fisher to have had a relationship at a young age with a costar, a costar to whom she has always been inextricably linked. The book drags on a bit, but Fisher's writing is enjoyable to read.

Fisher left a rich legacy of work, both in film and writing. Her loss is tremendously sad, but we are lucky she shared so much of herself with us, and it is somewhat fitting that, as she thought, she lived her life as Princess Leia, and died while promoting a book about what it was like to live down that legacy.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Book Review: "The Female of the Species" by Mindy McGinnis

"This is how I kill someone. I learn his habits, I know his schedule. It is not difficult. His life consists of quick stops to the dollar store for the bare minimum of things required to keep this ragged cycle going, his hat pulled down over his eyes so as not to be recognized. But he is. It's a small town."

Alex Craft's life was turned upside down three years earlier when her older sister Anna was murdered. The killer was exonerated, but it was clear to nearly everyone in their small town that he was guilty. Alex takes matters into her own hands, and the killer was found brutally tortured and murdered. But no one seems particularly broken up about it, and if anyone suspects Alex, their suspicions go nowhere.

As she goes through high school, she keeps to herself. She's known as the girl with the murdered sister, and she keeps herself occupied by reading and running. She doesn't mind her lonely existence—the fact is, she doesn't really trust herself around other people, because if she finds someone who raises her anger for a serious crime, she might act again in the way she did with her sister's killer. She doesn't have a problem with that, honestly, but she knows others will.

"I'm not fine, and I doubt I ever will be. The books didn't help me find a word for myself; my father refused to accept the weight of it. And so I made my own. I am vengeance."

While Alex steels herself for another situation that might provoke her instincts, she is utterly unprepared for connecting with other people, and senior year brings two intense connections—Peekay, the slightly rebellious preacher's daughter, who befriends Alex when they volunteer at an animal shelter, and Jack, the school's top athlete and biggest playboy, who is drawn to Alex in ways even he can't understand, and to the distinct satisfaction of his longtime friend-with-benefits, star cheerleader (and most beautiful girl in school), Branley.

Peekay awakens Alex's protective nature (and causes her to step outside her comfort zone), and Jack actually makes her feel special, feel wanted, feel as if what makes her so different than everyone else might not be such a deal-breaker after all.

But as senior year unfolds, and Alex's relationships intensify with both Peekay and Jack, she realizes she cannot hide who she really is, what she is driven to do. She tries as hard as she can, but her need to avenge mistreatment, violence, wrongdoing by taking matters into her own hands always wins out. She doesn't want there to be secrets, especially between her and Jack, but she knows if he discovers who she really is, they have no chance at a future anyway, so she may as well fulfill the role she feels destined to.

"There are parts of yourself that you hate; parts that you know other people wouldn't understand."

All I can say about this book is holy crap. (And that's a cleaned-up version.) This seems to be a year of unforgettable, unique characters—Letty Dobesh in Blake Crouch's Good Behavior; Julian in Robin Roe's A List of Cages; Ivan Isaenko in Scott Stambach's The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko; and Evan Smoak in Gregg Hurwitz's Orphan X, just to name a few. Yet no character is like Alex Craft. She's like a cross between Lisbeth Salander and Dexter, but with more vulnerability and heart. (And I say that not to discount this book as simply a gruesome thriller, because it is so much more than that.)

Mindy McGinnis does something I've not seen in a book recently, particularly a YA book: she conveys a strong message without making the story heavy-handed or preachy. While she clearly isn't recommending that people avenge murder, rape, and other violence, she is saying that women (and men) shouldn't allow themselves to live in fear or shame, to remain a victim. I hope that message reaches the ears of those who need to hear it.

I thought this book was really amazing. It's certainly not for everyone, and it's not realistic, but that didn't detract from its appeal in any way. This is book with tremendous heart and emotion, suspense, and some violence which might be troubling for some. But McGinnis knows how to tell a story that hooked me from start to finish, and it's a story populated by characters I won't soon forget. Truly a home run, as far as I'm concerned.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Movie Review: "Hell or High Water"

Hell or High Water is a pretty crazy, take-no-prisoners kind of movie, but one that gets you thinking as much as it gets your heart pumping.

Its plot is familiar: Toby Howard (Chris Pine) has been struggling, both emotionally and financially. He cared for his ailing mother at home on the family's West Texas ranch until her death, and now the bank is ready to take the ranch away. (It's not just money, mind you—there are rumors that there is a ton of oil that the state wants to drill for, but only once they take possession.)

Toby doesn't even have enough money to pay his ex-wife child support, so he is no financial position to pay the bank what is owed on the reverse mortgage and the back taxes. Desperate to save the property, more for his sons than anything, he does the only thing he can think of: floats a plan to his ex-con brother Tanner (a more-than-slightly-unhinged Ben Foster) about how they can get the money they need. Although it's clear that Tanner is the muscle and Toby is the brains behind the scheme, both clearly need each other more than they're willing to admit.

While Tanner is more confident than Toby that they'll pull the scheme off, what neither brother counts on is that quirky Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges, in full curmudgeon mode), who is just a short time away from retirement, picks up their trail and is determined to foil their plans, if for no other reason than it delays his beginning to spend the rest of his life sitting on his porch, wondering what next. Hamilton and his partner, whom he loves to needle more than perhaps solving crimes, try to figure out the brothers' next move before they make it.

Much of the plot isn't necessarily surprising, but it is a crazy, fun movie, with both great action and tension as well as some unexpected moments of sensitivity. The performances truly elevate this from a typical crime movie, and make it a hell of a lot more enjoyable, too. Bridges takes the saltiness and orneriness of his True Grit performance and throws in some emotional depth for good measure, and he certainly chews the scenery from time to time as well. It's a role that film critics seem to love (deservedly so), and I won't be surprised to see him among the Oscar nominees for Best Supporting Actor next month.

I don't think Chris Pine gets nearly enough credit for his acting talent, either because of his looks or the fact that he plays Captain Kirk in the Star Trek franchise, but he is really compelling in this movie. But in my opinion, this movie revolves around Ben Foster. He is truly a whirling dervish in this movie, mischievous and crafty, reckless and protective, and he and Pine make a great team.

I feel like Foster is one of the most unheralded actors of his generation—he's turned in some fantastic performances in his career (check out The Messenger, for one), yet he doesn't get the acclaim he deserves. As much as award voters are singling out Bridges, Foster should be right up there, and it is a crime that he's really not getting mentioned.

I really enjoyed this movie, and thought it was well-written and well-directed, in addition to being well-acted. It's on the shortlist of movies being considered for a Best Picture nomination, deservedly so. It's definitely one hell of a ride.

Movie Review: "Manchester by the Sea"

Can we ever outrun the burdens of our past, or are we stuck carrying them for the rest of our lives? Does a person who makes a terrible mistake deserve another chance, or should they be doomed to a life of misery? At times brutal, at times hopeful, Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester by the Sea attempts to answer those questions.

Lee Chandler (a mesmerizing Casey Affleck) is a custodian for several apartment buildings. He's clearly good at his job, although it is also evident that he isn't challenged much, and is mostly going through the motions. He is well-liked by some tenants, treated as invisible by others, and still others get on his last nerve, and he's not afraid to tell them what he thinks, even if he shouldn't. But there has to be a reason a seemingly intelligent, good-looking man would be willing to live a near-monastic existence, punctuated only by bouts of drunken bar fights.

One day he gets a call he has been somewhat expecting: his brother (Kyle Chandler), who had been suffering from congestive heart failure for a number of years, has died. Lee has to head back to his hometown of Manchester, MA, to tell his teenage nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) about his father's death and handle the arrangements. It's not long before being back in Manchester starts to wear on him—people talk about him behind his back, stare at him, and many can't seem to hide their disdain. That, coupled with having to essentially serve as Patrick's chauffeur (and pimp, of sorts), is more than he can handle given the grief he is feeling.

When Lee finds out that his brother named him Patrick's legal guardian and made arrangements for him to move back to Manchester, there is nothing he wants less. He tries to find someone else willing to care for Patrick, and, failing that, starts planning to move Patrick back to Boston, where he has been living. But Patrick doesn't understand why Lee can't just stay in Manchester, given he didn't have much of a job or a life back in Boston. After all, why should Patrick, who has his whole life in Manchester, be uprooted?

Having to encounter his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) is even harder than he expected. Lee knows he has to figure things out for Patrick's sake and his own, but he doesn't know if he can handle being in Manchester much longer without completely falling apart. And he doesn't know if he's really ready to face the reason he left years ago, even if he needs to for Patrick's sake.

Manchester by the Sea is a really bleak, sad movie at times, but there are glimmers of hope and humor. It is the performances, however, which save the movie from sinking into complete depression. Affleck, who has been known of late more for his off-screen antics and rants than his acting, gives the performance of his career in this movie. Lee is a man who has being seriously suffering, and he clearly thinks he doesn't deserve anything better. Affleck's portrayal treads the fine line between melancholy and stoicism, but you can see in his eyes and his gestures just how much he is hurting.

Williams' role is a fairly small but tremendously pivotal one. There is one scene where Randi and Lee run into each other on the street that both broke my heart and took my breath away. She is so fantastic in this small role; it seems really unfortunate that it appears the Oscars will have her competing in the same category as Viola Davis who, while utterly fantastic in Fences, appears in 95 percent of that movie.

This is the first time I've seen Hedges, who has mostly tiny movie and television roles to his credit. He does a great job here. Patrick is cocky but vulnerable, selfish but still sensitive. While at first he seems like a young man who expects everything to go his way, as the movie unfolds, you realize that he, too, has a lot of hidden hurt inside him.

Lonergan has really created a fantastic film, despite its heaviness. And while this is certainly an emotionally weighty movie, there is much that transpires in the words not said, as well as the things the characters say to each other. It is truly an Oscar-worthy film; both Affleck and Williams deserve to win, although the former is far more likely than the latter, and I'd love to see Hedges included among the Best Supporting Actor nominees.

I wouldn't see this if you're feeling emotionally vulnerable, but see it. These performances, this story may break your heart, but hopefully you'll realize everyone deserves at least a little hope.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Movie Review: "Jackie"

To me, Jackie Kennedy has always seemed like a total enigma. Although she approached her role as first lady with tremendous poise, grace, and style, quite often it appeared as if she wished she could have been anywhere else. And while I wasn't alive during the Kennedy administration, I always admired the fierceness with which she protected her privacy despite still being such an iconic figure, as well as her devotion to her children.

Pablo Larraín's film mainly concentrates on Jackie's life in the moments, days, and weeks after her husband's assassination, one of the most traumatic events the American public had experienced in some time. It also looks back on certain instances in which she demonstrated the flair, the youthful interest in culture, the elegance which endeared her to the public.

The majority of the movie has Jackie (Natalie Portman, practically disappearing into her character) talking to a journalist (Billy Crudup) about what she thinks her husband's legacy should be, and what life was like for her prior to, during, and after the assassination. Of course, she's not going to let him actually publish most of what she says, but the interview is a perfect opportunity to share her frustrations, her fears, what she perceives to be her lack of purpose, and most of all, her grief.

Immediately following the assassination, Jackie had to deal not only with her grief, but how to appropriately embody that to the American people. She was determined that her husband's funeral and burial should be appropriate for a world leader, especially one with his stature, despite his family's reticence and the desire of the new president to control the situation. (Those not alive during this time might not realize that for a while, no one was completely sure whether Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, or if Kennedy's assassination was part of a larger plot which could endanger the country.)

Jackie was a whirlwind of emotions and demands, much to the chagrin of Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard), who has appointed himself her protector. He, too, is concerned about his brother's legacy, but isn't sure the spectacle Jackie wants is right for the country. But as she struggles with her faith, her feelings about her husband and their marriage, and her crushing grief, she is more concerned with doing what is right, what will make people remember her husband and his presidency into the future.

While the movie itself moves at a very slow pace, Portman is utterly mesmerizing. She has Kennedy's breathy, patrician speech patterns down pat, and many times when I saw her on screen I didn't think I was looking at an actress portraying Jackie Kennedy, I thought I was looking at Kennedy herself. This is truly a tour de force performance, one I thought was even stronger than her Oscar-winning performance in Black Swan. It could even net her a second Oscar.

Amazingly, although this movie has a large cast, it often seems like a one-woman show, because the focus is mainly on Jackie. I'm a Sarsgaard fan but didn't think he brought anything special to his portrayal of RFK, and while Greta Gerwig does a sympathetic turn as White House Social Secretary Nancy Tuckerman, and John Hurt brings some crusty charm as Jackie's priest, this is Portman's movie.

I don't know how close to the truth this movie adheres, but it was a fascinating look at such a turbulent time in American history, and how passionate Jackie Kennedy was about preserving her husband's legacy. Living in the Washington, DC area, it is a legacy that is still very much a part of this city, so we can be grateful for all she fought for.

Movie Review: "Moonlight"

Figuring out who you are, finding your place in this world can be difficult for anyone, especially if you get the sense you are different from others. This journey of self-discovery is at the crux of Barry Jenkins' spare, beautiful, and moving film, Moonlight.

The movie is told in three different segments, "Little," "Chiron," and "Black," three names which Chiron, a young boy growing up in a rough Miami neighborhood, is called. In the first segment, he is a young, wide-eyed boy who walks at a slow, dreamy pace, generally keeping his head down and barely speaking, and he doesn't understand why the other kids bully him and call him "soft."

While fleeing from bullies in an abandoned building, he encounters Juan (House of Cards' Mahershala Ali), the neighborhood's drug dealer. The boy awakens Juan's protective instincts, and once he realizes that Chiron's mother (Naomie Harris), a nurse struggling with drug addiction and ways to feed that addiction, isn't providing much in the area of parenting, Juan and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe) become guardians of sorts, although they find it difficult to break through the boy's shell.

In the second segment, Chiron is a high school student still trying to find his way clear of his bullying classmates, who seem to up the ante at every turn, and his mother, who is fully in addiction's grip. Only one friend, Kevin, seems to understand what he is going through, yet that friendship is quickly exploited as well. Chiron remembers Juan's advice about carving out his own path in the world and not letting anyone decide who he is or should be.

In the third segment, approximately 10 years later, Chiron is a powerful drug dealer in Atlanta, becoming almost a mirror of what Juan was when they first met. Out of the blue, he hears from Kevin, who is a cook at a restaurant in Miami, and he invites Chiron to visit sometime so he can make him a meal. Kevin is surprised at how quickly Chiron shows up, and both men are surprised at how the other has changed, and where their lives have taken them.

Obviously there are many details between the lines that I've left out of my synopsis, because the beauty of this film lies in watching the story and Chiron's life develop. This is, for the most part, a quiet movie—there are sparks from time to time, but much of the plot unfolds in Chiron's expressions and actions rather than dialogue. At times, Jenkins leaves some blanks for you to fill in, so one person may see something differently than another.

The acting in Moonlight is extraordinary. Harris is alternately fiery and powerless, and you both sympathize with and hate her. Ali's performance, while rather short, is deservedly being recognized with film critics' awards and has a very good shot at being honored with an Oscar. Monáe, appearing in two films this year, proves she is as talented an actress as she is a singer. But the film belongs to the trio of actors who play Chiron—Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes. Each brings sensitivity and emotion to their performances, and there is a quiet fire you can see in each of their eyes.

At several points in the movie, Chiron is asked, "Who is you?" He doesn't necessarily have an answer, but Moonlight gives you insight into what—and who—drives this boy forward into the man he becomes. It's a beautiful, thoughtful movie, and really unlike anything I've seen in some time.

Book Review: "Another Brooklyn" by Jacqueline Woodson

Wow, this book was absolutely exquisite and powerfully emotional.

"Sylvia, Angela, Gigi, August. We were four girls together, amazingly beautiful and terrifyingly alone."

Another Brooklyn is a memory poem of sorts, a lamentation on lost youth and the intensity of adolescent friendships which burn with an intense heat for a period of time, only to leave behind the ashes of longing, anger, and regret.

Seeing an old friend on the subway brings August face-to-face with her memories. She remembers growing up in Brooklyn in the 1970s after her father brought her and her younger brother from their home in Tennessee. She remembers longing for their troubled mother to join them, remembers how sheltered her father kept them for a while, not allowing them to leave their small apartment. But most of all she remembers watching Sylvia, Angela, and Gigi as they walked down the street, jumped rope, and appeared inseparable, possessing a bond August so desperately desired.

"I was eleven, the idea of two identical digits in my age still new and spectacular and heartbreaking. The girls must have felt this. They must have known. Where had ten, nine, eight, and seven gone? And now the four of us were standing together for the first time. It must have felt like a beginning, an anchoring."

August recalls how the four girls came from disparate ethnic and economic backgrounds yet dealt with the same things—fear of the junkies and the perverts and the creeps who stared at them, wanting them as they matured; wanting to be desired by their boyfriends yet fearful of giving them what they really wanted; and wanting desperately for their dreams to come true, whether they were of stardom, of money, or of a family unit made whole once more. She recounts the way her father struggled, only to find peace as a Muslim, a peace he tried to impart to his children.

The book reflects the changing demographics of the Brooklyn August remembers, one which saw the white people fleeing for Manhattan and the suburbs as increasing numbers of people from all over the world, people with less and less money, moved in. The book also reflects the veterans returning from Vietnam with drug addiction, the murders of young African-American girls all over Brooklyn, the sighs of relief after the Son of Sam held New York in his grip.

Jacqueline Woodson's prose is absolutely luminous in this book. I would read and re-read sentences and paragraphs, and find myself in awe of the language and imagery she used. She let me loose both in the story and in my own memories, as I remembered those friendships, that longing to fit in and be part of a group, to feel both powerful and helpless simultaneously.

This is a short book that has a lot of weight and depth to it. I haven't ever read anything Woodson has written, but she truly dazzled me. I know I'm a little late to the party on this one, but I'm glad I showed up, because this is a book I would regret having missed.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Book Review: "Mister Monkey" by Francine Prose

I remember a number of times attending a local professional theater production that wasn't particularly good, and I wondered about those involved. Did the actors know it was bad, and if so, were they soldiering on for the sake of the audience, or were they so far gone in their own careers that this was the best they could do? It was an interesting, but somewhat sad thought.

"But the actors and presumably the director never expected that they would wind up doing that play—in that theater. Whatever they'd hoped to achieve in their careers certainly wasn't that."

Francine Prose's new novel reminded me a bit of those productions. The story of a very-far-off-Broadway production of a children's musical called "Mister Monkey," the book is both satire and commentary on many different aspects of our society. It's surprisingly sensitive and astute in some places, amusing in others, and doesn't quite work as a whole.

"Mister Monkey" is a musical that has had many runs all over the world over the years, but probably should have been taken off the boards a while ago. The story of an orphaned chimpanzee who is adopted by a widower and his children, only to be surprised when the cheekily larcenous monkey is accused of stealing the wallet belonging to his father's girlfriend, the musical is a favorite of some and reviled by others, yet it lives on. (Even the author of the book on which the musical is based hates the stage adaptation.)

The cast of the latest production is in a bit of an uproar. Adam, the young gymnast who plays the title character, is in the throes of puberty, and his alternately lascivious and obnoxious behavior has nearly all of his fellow actors on edge. Margot, a once-promising actress who views this production as a true sign of her downfall, not only finds herself being preyed on by Adam, but mistreated by the director, who outfits her in a garish costume that makes her feel foolish. Lakshmi, the earnest young costume supervisor, doesn't quite understand her purpose in the show, but views it as fodder for the play she wishes to write.

Each of these characters is the focus of their own chapter, as are everyone from the show's director and the author of the original book, to an elderly grandfather who is in the audience the first day the wheels start to come off of the production, his grandson, his grandson's kindergarten teacher, and a waiter at a fancy restaurant who is given tickets to the show by the author. It's an interesting approach, one which seems to be used more frequently in books, and here it has mixed results.

I'll admit, I expected this book to focus on the show and those involved, and those chapters were the ones I enjoyed the most. I get what Prose was trying to do with the other chapters, both demonstrate the show's effect on audience members, the author, etc., and provide commentary about our culture, how children are raised these days, and so on, but I just didn't feel this worked as well as it could have.

Prose is one hell of a writer, however, and she has created a very memorable set of characters, as well as imagery that you truly can see in your mind's eye. (I could almost picture certain musical numbers she described, in all their dysfunctional glory.) I just wish this book didn't try to do too much, because when it focused on the musical itself and those involved, it was, shall we say, a hit?

Friday, December 23, 2016

Book Review: "The Association of Small Bombs" by Karan Mahajan

"And you know what happens when a bomb goes off? The truth about people comes out."

Dense and well-told, although a bit meandering, Karan Mahajan's The Association of Small Bombs is a thought-provoking look at the causes and effects of terrorism, the human cost even "small" bombs can exact, and how a terrorist can be "grown."

One day in 1996, two young boys, Tushar and Nakul Khurana, are sent by their father to a crowded Delhi market to pick up the family's television set. While they were supposed to drop off their friend Mansoor first, they convince him to join them on the journey to the market. And then disaster strikes—a bomb detonates in the marketplace, killing the brothers instantly, and injuring Mansoor. Bleeding and in pain from his injuries, Mansoor finally makes it home, to the relief of his overprotective parents, but finds himself in the midst of the Khuranas' crushing grief.

The Khuranas try to understand why their sons were killed, who was responsible for the bombing, and what cause they were trying to further. But the course of Indian justice rarely runs smoothly, and while there is suspicion that the perpetrators arrested for the bombing were even responsible, there are continuous roadblocks and delays in the prosecution, which frustrate and sadden the couple. The grief, the anger, the guilt starts to take its toll on their marriage, their health, their future, and not even positive events can help them for long.

Meanwhile, Mansoor, physically and psychologically scarred by the bombing, feels smothered by his overprotective parents as he grows older. He dislikes the stigma of being one of very few Muslims in his part of India, so he chooses to go to the U.S. for college, to pursue a career in computer programming and put the past behind him. But his injuries are compounded by carpal tunnel syndrome, so he has no choice but to return home to India.

Back in India, rudderless, he becomes friends with Ayub, a passionate activist who is determined to change the world. But although he projects a confident exterior, Ayub, too, is rudderless and easily persuaded by forces looking to use him. Through Ayub and Mansoor's eyes, you see how quickly situations and perceptions can change in a post-9/11 world. Their stories are juxtaposed with that of Shockie, a master bomb maker from Pakistan who has sacrificed relationships and a real life for his devotion to his craft.

While terrorist attacks have increased across our world in recent years, The Association of Small Bombs provides the perspectives of those who live with the threat of these attacks on an almost-daily basis. It is fascinating and horrifying to watch the callousness of some who witness these bombings and are more focused on how their livelihood can continue rather than the loss of lives. Watching as an activist is influenced until they become motivated to kill is equally disturbing.

I thought this was a well-written and powerful book. Mahajan does a good job shifting narrative perspectives between the affected, the aggrieved, and the perpetrators. I don't think I can say, however, that I particularly liked the book; despite the raw emotions it examined, it felt strangely cold to me. But in the end, this is an important piece of fiction, one that makes you think, especially when you hear news of bombings in other countries.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Book Review: "The News from the End of the World" by Emily Jeanne Miller

Things aren't going so well for Vance Lake. He's just lost his job teaching college, he's broke, and yet another relationship has ended. With no other alternative, he heads up to Cape Cod for his twin brother Craig's house, where he hopes to lick his wounds and figure out his next move. But when he arrives at Craig's, he discovers that he's not the only Lake in the midst of serious turmoil.

Craig, too, is struggling financially, as he and his wife Gina recently did a great deal of remodeling of their home, which Craig was counting on being paid for by business from his design-build firm. He's gaining weight, losing money, his wife is considering having an affair with one of his best friends (although he's unaware of this), and his biggest disappointment is that his 17-year-old daughter Amanda, who should be getting ready to start at Dartmouth in the fall, is in a downward spiral, and now she's pregnant.

The Lake brothers handle their crises in different ways—Vance prefers getting stoned, while Craig alternates between sullen silence and fits of rage, directed at everyone—Gina, Amanda, himself, and his favorite target, his misfit twin brother. For the longest time, Vance is kept in the dark about what is happening with Amanda, and he tries desperately to help, as he's always had a special place in his heart for his niece, but when he learns the truth, it stirs up memories he had tried to forget.

Amanda is upset she let her father down but is angry at the way he's treating her, and she also feels betrayed and alone. She knows the decision she needs to make to get her life back on track, but isn't sure she can. And Gina, who has always stuck by Craig through the hard times, finds it growing more difficult to do so, especially when one of his longtime friends starts making her feel beautiful again. But mostly, she's trying to be supportive of Amanda, regardless of the friction that decision could bring to her marriage.

The News from the End of the World takes place over a period of four tumultuous days, and chapters are narrated alternately by Vance, Craig, Gina, and Amanda. This is a family with all sorts of problems, and most of them don't seem to be handling things well at all. But of course, if they were willing to communicate with each other honestly instead of gravitating to anger and rehashing old grudges, things would certainly be better!

I thought this was a good, if predictable, look at a family in crisis. Emily Jeanne Miller has thrown a lot of things at her characters and they're not sure if they'll sink or swim. Miller knows how to tell a story and make you want to keep reading, but some of her characters have so many issues and unresolved feelings, that they're not particularly sympathetic. (Hell, Craig is a total jerk through most of the book, even though you understand why.) But you do want to know what happens to everyone, even if you may have your suspicions.

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

Movie Review: "La La Land"

Damien Chazelle's La La Land is a love letter of sorts. It's a paean to the musicals of yesterday, a tribute to the dreamers who power so much of show business, a salute to the City of Angels itself, and, of course, a love letter to love and the often-circuitous path it takes. That's an ambitious agenda, but Chazelle hits each note perfectly, creating a magic film to be savored over and over again.

From the minute the film in all its beautiful technicolor glory opens (a direct contrast to Chazelle's last film, Whiplash, which was both emotionally and atmospherically dark), you know you're in for a treat. Traffic has come to a dead stop on the highway (not a rare occurrence in LA, or almost anywhere these days), and suddenly, a beautiful girl in a brightly colored dress begins to hum, syncopating the rhythm of the horns and the chaos, and then the crowd breaks into song, celebrating the dreams that drove them to this city, to pursue a career in show business. It's a fun start to this movie and it signals this won't be business as usual.

In the midst of the traffic jam are Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone), who have a not-quite-meet-cute as the traffic dissipates. Mia is an aspiring actress who works as a barista at a coffee shop on the Warner Brothers lot, while Sebastian is a jazz musician who dreams of opening his own club someday. But his problem is he's a jazz purist, and although the genre is waning in popularity, he's convinced if people just listen to it, they'll fall as hard as he has. This obsession causes him no end of misery, since he can't bring himself to settle and play other things, which leads to another less-than-special encounter with Mia.

But it's not soon afterward when Mia gets her revenge, in a delightfully campy scene, and when the two finally talk and trade barbs, it's clear to everyone (except them, of course), that this pair has incredible chemistry. They're determined to ignore it, however, and cement those feelings in a charming song-and-dance number with the city's skyline at sunset as its backdrop. It really feels like a classic musical at that point, although with a slightly modern twist.

At the movie's core, along with Mia and Seb's burgeoning relationship, is a key question: should you follow your dreams forever, or is there a time you have to either settle, or give up and grow up? Is the power of those dreams enough to sustain you even if it looks like nothing is going your way, or does that make you unrealistic? Both characters struggle with that dilemma, and it puts the inevitable strain on their relationship, as each does what they feel they need to. And the less said about the rest, the more you'll enjoy the movie.

This movie works on so many levels, in large part because Gosling and Stone both light up the screen (it's no secret I'm obsessed with both of them) and bring out the best in each other. As in Crazy, Stupid, Love, their chemistry just sizzles, and you root for them to get together.

Gosling, who seems often to shy away from his natural leading-man status, takes full advantage here, and brings a debonair song-and-dance-man charm to his role (good to see his early days on The All-New Mickey Mouse Club paid off), as well as a deep well of emotion. Stone, who appeared on Broadway as Sally Bowles in one of the revivals of Cabaret, doesn't belt her way through this movie, thankfully, because that would have felt all wrong. Her voice is light but not lightweight, and she is the perfect foil for Gosling. She, too, brings a lot of emotion to her role.

I really loved this, in part because I'm a fan of musicals, and in part because I love these actors, but mostly because it's an excellent movie. This isn't quite a traditional musical, as there's a lot of dialogue, as well. The songs are a perfect counterpoint at particular times throughout. I've been listening to the songs on YouTube since I saw the movie, and I am honestly thinking of seeing it again. I can't say yet whether this was my favorite movie of the year, as I have a lot of movies to see, but I know it will be among my top three at the very least.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Book Review: "The Geek's Guide to Unrequited Love" by Sarvenaz Tash

It had been a long time since I'd read a (reasonably) non-angsty YA book, and this one absolutely hit the spot! Sweet, fun, full of pop culture and sci-fi gems, it reminded me a little bit of Eleanor & Park but it had a charm all its own.

"Because maybe if the gesture is grand enough, and perfect enough, it won't be unrequited at all and I, Graham William Posner—lanky, pale, glasses, and with a penchant for fantasy worlds—will actually get the girl.

Graham can barely remember a time when his best friend Roxana wasn't a fixture in his life. In fact, he probably only has about five years of memories without her in them. They have watched the same movies over and over again, read the same books and graphic novels, play the same games, and they even write their own graphic series (Graham writes, Roxana draws)—The Misfits of Mage High.

But lately things are changing. Roxana is all Graham can think about—but in a romantic way. He doesn't just want to talk to her, or write with her—he wants to kiss her. He has started a list called "Things Roxana Loves," and he's watched enough 80s movies to know he needs to find the perfect moment to tell her how he feels. He thinks he has found it, when they find out that Robert Zinc, the reclusive creator of their favorite series of all time, The Chronicles of Althena, will be doing a Q&A session at New York Comic Con. All Graham needs to do is get them into that session, and then he'll get the girl, right?

What could go wrong?

Well, needless to say, the path to true love never runs smoothly. Graham finds himself battling more than his share of obstacles in his plans for giving Roxana the perfect weekend. The more things go wrong, the more he considers taking grander steps to get his message across. But what if Roxy doesn't feel the same way about him? Is he willing to risk their friendship for the possibility of taking it to the next step? Can they shake the good-looking British stud who has attached himself to Roxy? And will they ever get to see Robert Zinc before he goes into hiding again?

"When you live for stories, when you spend so much of your time immersed in careful constructs of three and five acts, it sometimes feels like you're just stumbling through the rest of life, trying to divine meaningful narrative threads from the chaos."

Sarvenaz Tash does such a great job with The Geek's Guide to Unrequited Love. It charmed me from the very first sentence, and never let up. We've seen scenarios like these over and over in books, movies, television shows, yet that didn't diminish what made the book so enjoyable. These are familiar but tremendously winning characters, and even when they're sullen because they're not getting their way, you root for them.

There's so much going on in this book in such a short time, it would be fun to see this as a movie. It would also be fun to see Tash develop The Chronicles of Althena into something, because that series sounds fascinating! All in all, though, I really, really liked this. It may not be for everyone, but if my description appeals to you, the book is sure to do more! Can't wait to see what Tash has in store next!!

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Book Review: "Commonwealth" by Ann Patchett

"The christening party took a turn when Albert Cousins arrived with gin."

How can you resist a novel that starts like that?

Bert Cousins' decision to bring a bottle of gin to a christening party for Fix and Beverly Keating's infant daughter Franny, a party to which he wasn't even invited, is much more than a social faux pas. Showing up at that party makes Bert realize he wants more out of his life than his job as a deputy DA, and his wife and three kids (with one more on the way) can offer him. Simply put, he wants Fix's life, or more specifically, Fix's wife.

Commonwealth, Ann Patchett's newest novel, explores the ripple effect that Bert's actions during the christening party have not only on the two couples, but the six children they have between them. Focusing mostly on the children, shifting focus and perspective through five decades, this is a fascinating, moving, at times slightly meandering, but tremendously powerful look at how blended families try to coexist, and the strange and powerful bond that exists among the children in these families.

"Half the things in this life I wish I could remember and the other half I wish I could forget."

The Keating and Cousins children grew up spending summers together in Virginia. They were a motley crew of different, and often disparate, personalities and behaviors, from sullen Cal and bossy Caroline, to know-it-all Holly and Albie, the hyperactive baby of both families. Taming Albie's behavior often was an activity that all of the children participated in, which led to a tragic event one summer day, a day which bonded all of the children with a secret they vowed never to share. But years later, in a relationship with a famous author, Franny shared her family's story, leading to the reopening of wounds thought healed (or at least ignored), and revealing more truths than they are ready to share.

Who owns our story? Does anyone have the right to tell it? Does revealing hidden truths bring about catharsis, or more pain? Patchett raises interesting questions in this book, as she also looks at the challenges of loyalty affecting children of divorce and remarriage, the difficulty some experience in finding their own path in life, and the advantages and disadvantages of growing older.

I've been a big fan of Patchett's throughout her career, devouring and loving all of her books, even the one which many are divided on, Bel Canto. The way she tells a story really immerses you in the middle of it, and her characters are richly drawn, even if they're not always sympathetic. This is a book of moments both big and small, emotions both dramatic and nuanced, and I found it really compelling, even though at times I wondered where she was taking the plot.

Family dynamics and dysfunction is a topic often plumbed by fiction writers, and there have been some other really strong novels this year which centered around it, including Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney's The Nest (see my review) and Calla Devlin's Tell Me Something Real (see my review), among others. Commonwealth is a little stronger than both of those, another novel that makes you think as it makes you feel.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Book Review: "The Futures" by Anna Pitoniak

I don't think of myself as particularly old, but there are times when I hear people talk about situations or see them behave in a certain way, and I think to myself, "Was I ever that young?" But then, when I reflect on their particular situation, the memories come flooding back, and I realize that at some point I really was that young. Egads.

Reading Anna Pitoniak's debut novel The Futures, I felt nostalgic. It's not so much that I necessarily want to go back to the time just after college, trying to make it in "the real world," but it reminded me of those days when crises and relationships and roadblocks always seemed so much more intense.

When Evan and Julia meet as undergraduates at Yale, they're very different. Julia, a daughter of privilege, who was raised in New England, sees Yale as just another step in her upbringing, even if she sees herself as more independent than many of her classmates, not quite of the same ilk. Evan, who came to Yale on a hockey scholarship from a small town in British Columbia, is drawn to Julia, first as friends, then as lovers. And while their differences cause some rough patches in their relationship, the two date throughout college, and when Evan gets a job at a leading hedge fund after graduation, he asks Julia to move to New York with him.

In 2008, when they move to New York, the world is in an interesting place. Evan finds himself hand-picked for a secret, high-stakes, risky deal by one of his bosses, and it promises to provide a substantial payoff, despite the all-consuming financial crisis. But as Evan works harder and harder to stay in his boss' good graces, and be seen as a valuable member of the team, he starts to wonder if everything they're doing, everything they're asking him to do, is on the up-and-up. The job consumes him, which takes its toll on his and Julia's relationship.

Julia, meanwhile, feels rudderless. She doesn't know what she wants to do career-wise, and more and more, she starts to wonder whether Evan is even what she wants, as she feels them drifting apart and she resents him for having a sense of his place in the world. When she lands an entry-level job at a nonprofit foundation, it doesn't really provide her the satisfaction that she's seeking; instead, it sharpens the differences between her path and Evan's, and it sticks her in the midst of other scandals and drama.

When Julia runs into an old Yale classmate, she is drawn to him because of all of the ways he is unlike Evan, who is utterly oblivious to her anyway. But when we make the decision to run away from something rather than toward something, it never quite runs as smoothly as we hope. And as Evan feels he is losing control of his future, he doesn't realize exactly where he is most vulnerable.

In The Futures, Pitoniak skillfully captures the fears, the emotions, the hopes, and the disappointments of recent college graduates, and really catches the anxieties which pervaded our world in 2008. Her characters feel authentic—you can feel the indecision, the unhappiness, the uncertainty that the first major relationship we have can bring about. There is one drawback though: these characters are so accurately depicted that they're not always sympathetic, so sometimes you want to slap them and tell them to act like adults, or just talk to each other.

I thought Pitoniak did a good job with this book, although I felt some of the plot was a bit predictable for me. But she has an ear for dialogue and capturing emotions, and I liked that she didn't rely on too much melodrama to move things forward. I'm definitely looking forward to what's next in her career.

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

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Book Review: "A Gentleman in Moscow" by Amor Towles

This really was a special book, one which at times felt almost magical.

Count Alexander Rostov was always a man who enjoyed the finer things in life. He was always nattily dressed, participating in intelligent conversation, enjoying fine food and drink, and the company of erudite and beautiful people. Rostov lived in grand fashion in Moscow's Hotel Metropol, a hotel just across the street from the Kremlin, and he thrived on being a part of the buzz that passed through its doors and around its bustling neighborhood.

In 1922, he was sentenced to a lifetime of house arrest at the Metropol, although the Bolshevik tribunal that issued the sentence wasn't simply content with allowing him to continue living in grandeur—they reduced his living quarters to one small room in the hotel belfry. But while no longer being able to step outside the hotel doors, and having to cram most of one's cherished possessions and family heirlooms into one tiny room might bring a lesser man to his knees, Rostov is (mostly) unbowed. He doesn't allow himself to miss a step of his usual routine, and it isn't long before he realizes how a life lived within one building can be just as full of excitement as one lived all over the world.

"...if a man does not master his circumstances then he is bound to be mastered by them."

While Russia and the world are experiencing events which cause major upheaval, Rostov doesn't miss out on it all. He can take the country's temperature, of sorts, by studying the behavior of the hotel guests, its managers, and its employees. While many may have written him off as a frivolous dandy, it's not long before many realize the Count's worth is far greater despite his diminished circumstances. He quickly is woven into the fabric of all of the hotel's goings-on, sometimes openly, sometimes secretly, and forms relationships that have ripples in the outside world, even as he realizes that the world he once knew and loved has changed.

"For the times do, in fact, change. They change relentlessly. Inevitably. Inventively. And as they change, they set into bright relief not only outmoded honorifics and hunting horns, but silver summoners and mother-of-pearl opera glasses and all manner of carefully crafted things that have outlived their usefulness."

Spanning several decades, A Gentleman in Moscow is rich with emotion, social commentary, humor, even Russian history. As he did in Rules Of Civility, which also was a fantastic book (see my review), Amor Towles both reveres and satirizes the world in which this book takes place, but the love he has for his characters is a beacon above it all.

While at times the book got a little too detailed with the workings of Russian government, poetry, and Bolshevik history, it always quickly got itself back on track and brought me back into the book's heart. These characters were so special, so fascinating, and Towles' storytelling was so vivid, I almost could see the scenes playing out in front of my eyes as I read them. And honestly, Count Rostov is a character worthy of being put up on a pedestal like other unforgettable ones.

I was a little late to the party on reading this, but I'm so glad I did, and I'm glad it lived up to the praise so many others have bestowed upon it. If you like novels with social commentary, satire, history, and a huge dollop of heart, pick up A Gentleman in Moscow. You'll marvel at it, and even want more.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Book Review: "Unquiet Ghosts" by Glenn Meade

Political intrigue and corruption. Stolen antiquities. The aftereffects of war. Family secrets. Glenn Meade's Unquiet Ghosts hits all of those buttons, and then some. This is a thriller in which very little is what it seems.

Kathy Kelly's life was turned upside down when her husband Jack, a veteran of the Iraq war, was killed in a plane crash, along with the couple's two young children, Amy and Sean. Not a day has gone by when she hasn't felt the pain of losing all of them, and although she has tried valiantly to rebuild her life, she can never seem to get the pieces to fit back together the way they used to when her family was alive.

While their deaths were an absolute shock, they are something she has come to accept every day for the last eight years. Needless to say, she is utterly unprepared for a freak discovery, when a plane crash in the middle of a storm leads authorities to locate the wreckage of Jack's plane, deep in the middle of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, nowhere near where the plane should have been. And while they've been able to find the pilot's remains, there's no sign of Jack's or the children's.

Could they be alive, after all this time? And if so, why have they been hiding from Kathy and making her believe her life had ended with theirs?

The investigation into what happened that night eight years ago uncovers more questions than there are answers, especially based on some mysterious discoveries, and Kathy's growing understanding that there were things her husband, as well as her soldier father and brother, who fought alongside Jack, kept hidden. And the secrets keep on popping up, as Kathy begins to see that other events that marked her life, such as her mother's death years before, may be connected.

Kathy wants the truth. But the truth might kill her, and if it doesn't, it certainly will endanger her and her loved ones, not to mention cause her to question everything and everyone she has held dear. Because there are people who wanted Jack dead, and they'll do anything to make sure this time he gets that way.

Meade throws lots of twists and turns and mystery into this book. There are a lot of parallel plot threads which eventually come together, and they really make you wonder whether there is some truth to some of the fiction that he has created. You may figure out what happened and who was responsible before everyone else does, but this is far from a boring ride—there is some great suspense and some strong action scenes. Meade definitely knows how to tell a story.

Even with all of the above, the book's pacing didn't move as quickly as I wanted it to, and a few times my attention flagged. But overall, this is a good thriller, and I could totally see it being adapted into a movie sometime soon.

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

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Book Review: "Running" by Cara Hoffman

Enigmatic and atmospheric, Cara Hoffman's newest novel, Running, is the story of the relationships which leave an indelible mark on our lives, and the secrets we keep both from each other and ourselves.

Bridey Sullivan arrives in Athens in the 1980s, fleeing a life of tragedy and dysfunction in Washington State. She immediately meets Jasper Lethe and his boyfriend, one-time boxer Milo Rollack, and she joins them in becoming a "runner," essentially a shill paid a small commission to attract tourists to a run-down Greek hotel. There is a thriving culture of these runners in Athens, many of whom spend their paltry salaries on alcohol and drugs, and engage in both friendly and not-so-friendly tactics to drive the tourists to their hotels.

"We'd drifted south from the same lost places to find this life."

Bridey, Milo, and Jasper form a family of sorts, which becomes more and more complicated by Bridey's infatuation with Milo, and Jasper's increasingly erratic behavior. When a scheme to try and make some quick money gets them peripherally involved in an act of terrorism, it signals the end to the trio's idyllic life, and lead to significant changes for each of them.

I wasn't sure about this book at first, but it hooked me fairly quickly. These characters fascinated me, with their raw emotions, their passion, and their mysteries, and it was interesting to see how helter-skelter their lives were while they were running. Hoffman's portrayal of the relationships between the characters was very powerful and I can't stop thinking about them.

Running shifts back and forth in time and place, from Bridey's childhood in Washington before she left for Athens and Milo's working-class existence in Manchester, England, to Athens, to an isolated house on the cliffs of the Mediterranean, and modern-day New York City. At times it takes a moment or two to figure out where in the plot the narrative of a particular chapter falls, and that takes some getting used to, and in many instances, the plot leaves you with as many questions as it does answers, so I'd love to talk with Hoffman about what ideas lay behind these characters.

I read Hoffman's first novel, So Much Pretty, shortly after its release in 2011, and I remember being impressed by her storytelling ability. (Interestingly enough, as you can see from my review, one of my chief criticisms of that book repeats itself here.)

I love the way she's grown as a writer in the last five years, and think this story of how the relationships we form when we're younger often stick with us our entire lives won't be forgotten anytime soon. This may not be a book for everyone, but if you can get your mind around this type of life, you'll be rewarded with a beautiful story.

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

Friday, December 2, 2016

Book Review: "The Mothers" by Brit Bennett

There's an incredible sense of longing that pervades Brit Bennett's terrifically compelling debut novel, The Mothers. There's longing for love of all kinds—maternal, romantic, even the love of good friends—a longing for answers, a longing to find one's place in the world, and a longing for truth. But getting what you think you want doesn't always make things turn out right.

Nadia Turner is smart, destined for a future far better than her parents had. But at the end of her senior year of high school, her mother's unexpected suicide throws everything off-kilter. Her relationship with her father was never completely stable, and now he can't look at her for fear he's reminded of what he has lost. As she tries to make sense of this loss, she begins a relationship with Luke Sheppard, the son of the pastor of her church, a once-golden star athlete whose injury ends his future dreams, leaving him waiting tables at a local restaurant.

Four years her senior, Luke knows his relationship with Nadia is wrong, but he finds comfort in it. Nadia wants more from Luke than he can give, she wants him to take her home to his parents, to hold her hand in public, but instead they must keep everything secret. But when she gets pregnant, she knows the last thing she wants is to be tied to her hometown; she's planning to attend the University of Michigan and isn't going to let anything, much less a baby, hold her back. Although Nadia makes the decision how to handle things, she's unaware of who has their hands in the aftermath.

She spends the summer before college dealing with the consequences of her decision, and she befriends Aubrey Evans, a girl whose mother also abandoned her, although due to estrangement, not suicide. Aubrey and Nadia develop an intensely close bond, yet there is one secret that each girl never reveals to the other, secrets that affect them at every turn.

"...she too understood loss, how it drove you to imagine every possible scenario that might have prevented it."

When Nadia leaves for college, she doesn't come home for several years, and when she does, all of her relationships are more complicated than they were when she left. What does she want, to relive the past or continue building a life completely devoid of connection to what she's known? Can we really outrun the secrets we try to put behind us, no matter whom they may hurt?

The Mothers is showing up on a number of year-end best lists, and I certainly can see why. Bennett has created a narrative rich with emotion, secrets, and, yes, lies, and that sense of longing that I mentioned at the start of my review makes this story even richer. While the elements of the plot aren't necessarily unique, the puzzle pieces come together with great skill and beautiful storytelling. The narrative is accented by a Greek chorus of sorts comprised of the "mothers" of the local church—the elderly women who have seen it all more than once.

It's funny: all I kept thinking of as I read this book was the John Mayer song, "Daughters," particularly these lines:
Girls become lovers who turn into mothers
So mothers be good to your daughters too
I hope this book marks the start of a long and illustrious literary career for Bennett, because she certainly knows how to tell a story. The book isn't perfect, and some threads of the story are left unresolved, but it is still a rich and beautiful story worth reading.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Book Review: "Searching for John Hughes: Or Everything I Thought I Needed to Know about Life I Learned from Watching '80s Movies" by Jason Diamond

As I've remarked on countless occasions, I'm kind of obsessed with all things 1980s. That was the decade of middle school, high school, and part of college, so it represents some pretty significant times in my life, and the movies, television shows, music, celebrities, and other pop culture phenomena of that decade served as touch points, a soundtrack and backdrop along the way.

I'm also a huge movie buff, so I remember spending an immense amount of time at the movies in the 80s, or watching videos over and over again. John Hughes' movies—in particular, Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, Some Kind of Wonderful and Ferris Bueller's Day Off—still are among my favorites, and I can still recite lines from each of them at any time. (Scarily enough, I can even tell you who I was with when I saw these movies for the first time, and where we saw them. Egads.)

Needless to say, when I first heard about Jason Diamond's book, I couldn't wait to read it. Another Hughes fan, who actually was passionate enough about his movies to write a book about them?

"Hughes accomplished the almost impossible task of making me feel inspired. They made me feel as if I could get out and be better. I related to the teens in his movies, their happiness, their sadness, the anger, angst, and longing."

Searching for John Hughes is Diamond's account of his (immensely) troubled childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood, his (incredibly) troubled relationships with his parents, his inability to do much in school except take drugs and zone out, and his struggle to make something of himself and be happy with himself as he grew older. Hughes' movies provided comfort, inspiration, a feeling of kinship, and it was finally the man behind the movies who became the focus of Diamond's obsession, his quest to write Hughes' biography.

I guess I never dug more into the description of this book than the title, because I really expected it to be a discussion of Hughes' movies and their significance to pop culture at the time they were released, and why so many of them continue to endure today, for kids who weren't alive in the 1980s and (shudder) 1990s. Instead, this was more of a memoir of a guy trying desperately to make it in spite of really difficult circumstances, of trying to find a purpose, and find confidence in his future.

Diamond is a really good writer, but his story is really, really harrowing, so much so it became difficult to read after a while. The fact that he found the strength to keep moving forward despite so much adversity, and finally has a career as a writer after spending years writing whatever came to mind is tremendously inspiring. I would love to read more of his writing, but this book just didn't click for me, especially because I was expecting something totally different.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Book Review: "You Will Not Have My Hate" by Antoine Leiris

"So, no, I will not give you the satisfaction of hating you. That is what you want, but to respond to your hate with anger would be to yield to the same ignorance that made you what you are. You want me to be scared, to see my fellow citizens through suspicious eyes, to sacrifice my freedom for security. You have failed. I will not change."

I, like so many people across the world, was riveted to my television the night of November 13, 2015, as we learned of the coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris, particularly the massacre at the Bataclan Theater, which left 90 concert-goers dead and countless more injured. Among those killed was Hélène Muyal-Leiris, a young wife and mother who was attending the concert with a friend.

Three days after his wife's murder, Antoine Leiris wrote a letter to her killers, which he subsequently published on Facebook. He let them, and the world, know that while he had every right to be angry, to hate the terrorists for taking his wife from him and his young son, he wouldn't allow them the luxury of his hate. His post went viral, and Leiris became an inspiration not only to others who lost people in the Paris attacks, but to anyone struggling with a senseless loss at the hands of another. This new role became as much a burden at times as it did an honor.

"Since then, I have been lost: I don't know where I'm going, I don't know how to get there. You can't really count on me...I think about all the others who have written to me. I want to tell them that I feel dwarfed by my own words. Even if I try to convince myself that they are mine, I don't know if I will live up to them. From one day to the next, I might drown."

You Will Not Have My Hate is a short, powerful account of the days and weeks following Hélène's murder. It is raw, emotional, and utterly mesmerizing how Leiris was able to find the strength he needed to face raising his young son alone, handling the rituals alone which he and his wife once performed together. It is also a portrait of a love story and a testament to a woman who left her indelible mark on two lives, although one never really had the chance to know her.

I thought this was beautifully written, emotional without being maudlin, fiercely courageous, and, as you'd imagine, totally moving. But beyond that, I found this really inspirational, both as an account of overcoming a sudden loss and a paean to finding strength and resolve at a time when you have every right not to.

Between this and Paul Kalanithi's exceptional When Breath Becomes Air (see my review), I've found two books to turn to when life's challenges may seem insurmountable. Because if these two men could find the strength to soldier on, I know I will be, too.

Book Review: "A List of Cages" by Robin Roe

This book is at times harrowing and heartbreaking, at times hopeful. But what adds to this book's power is the fact that its plot isn't fantasy, and there are children dealing with these issues every day.

Life changed for Julian five years ago when his beloved parents died. He lived with a foster family until a relative took him in. He misses his parents every day, and this loss truly encompasses him, because they understood him, they supported his creativity, and made life fun.

"It's strange how many ways there are to miss someone. You miss the things they did and who they were, but you also miss who you were to them. The way everything you said and did was beautiful or entertaining or important. How much you mattered."

Now a high school freshman, life couldn't be further from fun. Julian has a number of learning disabilities, including dyslexia, which make school absolute hell for him, and his teachers don't care enough to find out what his problems are, they just berate him, fail him, and send him to the principal. His fellow students ridicule him as well. And he constantly feels as if he is living on eggshells at home, where one wrong step could spell disaster.

One day, Julian is shocked to encounter Adam, who was once his foster brother. Adam, a high school senior assigned to help the school psychologist track down Julian for his appointments (which he always conveniently misses), is excited to see Julian again. He remembers many of the things Julian enjoyed when he was younger, and does everything he can to integrate Julian into his wide circle of friends, despite the difference in their ages, and despite Julian's efforts to try not to call attention to himself.

Adam, who tries valiantly to keep his own ADHD in check (not always successfully), is dealing with his own issues, including a crush on a long-time friend, and his best friend Charlie's unhappiness. But he wants Julian to be a part of his life, and he wants to understand what is happening to him—why is he absent without warning for a few days, why is no one allowed over to his house, why would this relative that took Julian in all those years ago not pay for clothes that fit him?

"He's only four years younger than me, but I feel so much older, or maybe he feels so much younger. I used to think struggle was what aged you, but if that were the case, Julian should've been a hundred years old. Now I wonder if the opposite is true. Maybe instead of accelerating your age, pain won't let you grow."

Things come to a head when Adam starts suspecting things are worse for Julian than he lets on, and Julian tries desperately to keep his friend from finding out the truth. Adam's quest to rescue his friend could wind up seriously endangering both of their lives.

A List of Cages is a sad story that is all too commonplace. Julian is a tremendously special character whose hurt and pain reminded me a tiny bit of Jude's in A Little Life, although the books are vastly different. I enjoyed Adam's character, too, as well as those of his friends and even his mother. I never felt that these kids were more erudite than they should be, which happens all too often in young adult novels.

While the plot isn't necessarily surprising (perhaps we've sadly all become a little too familiar with instances like these), Robin Roe pulls you in to Julian and Adam's stories, makes you care, and makes you feel in the process. I could have done without the one melodramatic plot point, but beyond that, this story gripped me from start to finish. It's hard to read at times because it is so harrowing, but there is light at the end of the tunnel.

I hope this book finds a wide audience because of its subject matter, but also because Roe's storytelling ability is so powerful. I'm glad I had the opportunity to read it.

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

Friday, November 25, 2016

Book Review: "Everything You Want Me to Be" by Mindy Mejia

Hattie Hoffman is a talented, intelligent, beautiful high school senior who wants more out of life than her small Minnesota hometown can offer. She dreams of becoming an actress, of moving to New York City just after graduation. She already has a plan, even if she doesn't know anyone or have much money. She has the talent and she has the drive, but no one around her, not her friends or her family, really understand why she wants to leave, nor do they want her to go.

As her high school career comes to an end, her crowning achievement is starring as Lady Macbeth in her school's production of the Shakespearean tragedy. Her opening night performance was fantastic, and for the first time, people actually started to believe she could make it in New York. But what happened after she left the school after the play? How did she end up murdered?

Hattie's small town is rocked by her murder. Things like this just don't happen in this town, which throws Del Goodman, the local sheriff, for a complete loop. Hattie, the daughter of his fishing buddy, is a girl he has known and adored since she was born. As he investigates Hattie's murder, he uncovers as many unanswered questions as he does facts. Was this, as her best friend has suggested, caused by the famous Macbeth "curse," or was someone (or more than person) responsible for snuffing out this promising life?

What Del discovers as he digs deeper into the case is that Hattie was not only a talented actress—she was talented at being exactly who everyone needed her to be. The slightly rebellious yet loyal daughter, the perfect girlfriend, the exceptional student, the patient listener and friend, the talented actress. But who was Hattie really, and was this mercurial nature responsible, at least in some way, for instigating her death?

Everything You Want Me to Be is a fascinating, suspenseful portrait of a girl torn between what she wanted and what she thought everyone else wanted her to be. The book is narrated by Hattie, Del, and Peter Lund, Hattie's English teacher, who is reasonably new to town, and it shifts between the months and days leading up to Hattie's murder and the investigation.

Mindy Mejia throws in lots of twists and turns, and while the cynical, frequent-mystery-reading me suspected absolutely everyone, I really liked how she let the story unfold. This is a tragedy on many levels, and Mejia's storytelling hooks you from the start and doesn't let you turn away until you see how the book ends. I really enjoyed this and would have devoured it a lot quicker was I not cooking Thanksgiving dinner for 30 people this week!

This is definitely a book to pick up, because even though we've seen elements of this plot before, Mejia makes it seem fresh and makes you care about her characters.

NetGalley and Atria/Emily Bestler Books provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Book Review: "Good Behavior" by Blake Crouch

Blake Crouch blew my mind and threw me for a loop with Dark Matter (see my review). When I decided to read Good Behavior, a collection of three interlinked novellas, I wondered if lightning would strike twice for me when reading Crouch's books.

My verdict? Crouch really is one hell of a writer. While this book didn't quite take my breath away like Dark Matter did, he proved once again that he knows how to create some fantastic action scenes and ratchet up tension until you are absolutely dying to know what's going to happen next. And in Letty Dobesh, he has created a fantastically memorable character I hope we'll see again soon. (The adaptation of some of these stories, starring Downton Abbey's Michelle Dockery, is currently airing, and Crouch provides some insight into the creation of the television show in this book.)

Letty Dobesh is fresh out of prison. She has a son she's not fit to see, a drug habit that she can't quite seem to shake, and while she needs to get herself back on the straight and narrow, she realizes more and more that she's happiest when she's in the middle of a scheme—or using drugs. The sad thing is, despite a few missteps, she's generally really good at being a criminal.

In "The Pain of Others," Letty has returned to her old pastime of robbing hotel rooms when she overhears a conversation between two men, one who has just hired the other to kill his wife. Letty is unsure what to do. Should she contact the police, despite the compromising position she was in when she heard the murder being agreed upon? Should she just walk out of the room when she can and pretend she heard nothing? Or should she try and warn the wife of what is imminent?

In "Sunset Key," Letty is offered a multi-million dollar scheme from an old friend and fellow criminal. A very wealthy banker has been found guilty of defrauding millions of people, and he has been sentenced to a long prison term. He'd like to spend his last night of freedom with a special woman, and Letty can be that woman—for a price. And in "Bad," Letty gets the chance to be part of a heist unlike any others, but it is far from what she expected.

Each of these novellas has a lot of twists and turns, and while you think you know how Crouch will wrap things up, you're not always right. The first and the third novellas in particular ("The Pain of Others" and "Bad") really threw me for a loop a few times. I don't know what it will be like watching the television adaptations knowing all I know, but I'm definitely going to have to see Letty in motion.

Don't go into this expecting Dark Matter or even the Wayward Pines series (which I've definitely added to my list). These are more straightforward crime stories than anything else, but they're still fascinating and utterly compelling. I'm seriously a huge Blake Crouch fan now, not that I wasn't before!

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Book Review: "The Impossible Fortress" by Jason Rekulak

All I need to do is hear that a book takes place in the 1980s and a little alarm in my head goes off that says, "Read this!" Throw in video games and 80s music (even the pop stuff), and I'm totally there!

It's 1987. Billy, Alf, and Clark are all 14, and they're pretty much obsessed with one thing—Playboy has just released pictures of Vanna White. They're determined to do whatever it takes to get their hands on this magazine, which means stealing it from the local office supply/convenience store. The boys hatch a rudimentary plan to get the magazine, and while their mission fails, Billy finds one bright spot: Mary, the daughter of the store's owner.

Mary is not only attractive (albeit a little overweight), but she's funny and tough. And smart—she even knows more about computer programming than Billy, who has created several games on his home computer, and taught himself to code. Mary promises to help Billy with his entry in a computer game design competition being judged by one of the industry's brightest young stars, and she helps him through more than a few tough spots he was stuck on.

When Alf and Clark launch a more complicated yet seemingly foolproof plan to steal the magazines from the store, they need someone to get the alarm code from Mary. Being less than knowledgeable about women, Alf and Clark seem to think they can fake-romance the code out of Mary, but Billy volunteers. He doesn't let on that he and Mary have teamed up on a contest entry, but promises to make progress in order to get the code.

The plot to get the magazines and see Vanna's pictures becomes more and more complicated. While Alf and Clark work on the logistics, Billy is all too happy to spend every evening with Mary, working on their game. He knows he feels something more than teamwork and camaraderie for Mary, and he thinks she feels the same way, but he's never had a girlfriend before, so he doesn't know what to do or how to act. Once the game has been entered into the contest, and things go a little bit awry, Billy is faced with an incredible dilemma: does he tell his friends how he feels about Mary and convince them to end their scheme, or does he keep his word and get the alarm code?

The Impossible Fortress does a good job capturing the cluelessness of teenage boys, and the single-minded pursuit of money, popularity, and naked pictures of women, although not necessarily in that order. It's an entertaining story about loyalty to your friends, the flush of first love, the desire to make something of yourself, and the excitement of creation. Jason Rekulak evokes the 80s really well; it's amazing how different things were back then, when you couldn't rely on the internet for information, when only certain people had a very slow version of email communication, and when no one was in constant communication with anyone.

While Rekulak does a good job portraying his characters' immaturity, he doesn't really give them much depth or appeal. While he throws in one interesting twist, everything else in the book is fairly predictable, and the characters behave much as you'd expect them to. I wouldn't have a problem if we got to know Alf and Clark a little more, but we really just see them acting like idiots and pressuring Billy. Mary is a fascinating character I would have liked more of, and Billy is appealing, while clueless. And for the most part, the boys go from scheme to scheme, each one wackier than the next.

If you're a child of the 80s, or you like entertaining stories about teenage friendships and the challenges of growing up, check out The Invisible Fortress. And as a bonus, you can play The Impossible Fortress game on Rekulak's website, www.jasonrekulak.com, if you're a computer game fan.

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

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Book Review: "Scrappy Little Nobody" by Anna Kendrick

So, I kinda have a thing for Anna Kendrick. I've been (healthily) obsessed with her since 2003, when she appeared in an indie movie called Camp, which was about kids attending a performing arts summer camp in upstate New York.

Anna played a young girl named Fritzi, who had an obsession with a girl named Jill, who starred in most of the plays that summer. But Jill mistreated Fritzi, so in the end, Fritzi got her revenge, as you'll see in the clip below. And fandom was born. (For those offended by strong language, the f-word appears once. Anna shows up about 25 seconds into the clip.)



Not only do I think she's an exceptionally talented singer and performer (I've worn out tracks from Into the Woods and The Last Five Years because I play them so much), but every time I see her on a talk show or make another appearance, I'm convinced that if we had anything in common (other than my admiration), we'd be super-close friends. We're both reasonably foul-mouthed, although not in a mean way (I hide it well when I have to) and totally sarcastic (again, not in a mean way), and neither of us suffers fools gladly. Seems like enough to build a friendship on, don't you think?

My instincts about her were definitely reinforced in Scrappy Little Nobody, her new collection of autobiographical essays which spanned from her childhood to the current time, tracing her anxieties, successes, fears, hang-ups, obsessions, and her sexual history. (Kind of.) This isn't a tell-all book in any way (although she has some nice things to say about a few celebrities, like Zac Efron), but rather a first-hand look at the growth of a star, from her earliest (disastrous) beginnings as a child in dance class to success, including Tony and Oscar nominations.

"I'd thought of myself as fearful and shrinking in childhood, but I was often single-minded and pugnacious. From age three onward I have been practical and skeptical and occasionally more courageous than I have any right to be."

At times uproariously funny (I seriously laughed out loud more than a few times) and incredibly self-aware, this is a tremendously entertaining book, but Kendrick isn't afraid to take herself down more than a few notches as often as she deems it necessary. Referring to her performing a local production of Annie when she was younger, she said:

"To this day, seeing a tattered brown cardigan or a pair of thin-soled lace-up boots makes my heart sing. In a costume context, not, like, on a person. I'm not some out-of-touch monster who sees real-world poverty and longs for the days of her musical-theater beginnings."

And of losing the Tony Award:

"I lost a Tony Award to Broadway legend Audra McDonald when I was twelve, so I've been a bitter bitch since before my first period...I also feel that if I had won and made a televised speech at age twelve, the delayed embarrassment would have been so severe, I'd currently be a Howard Hughes-style shut-in, but without the money for the mansion or the planes or the legion of servants to take away bottles of my urine."

This is frank and funny, and Kendrick doesn't mince words, and she says what's on her mind, so if candid conversation about her sex life and liberal use of curses bothers you, you might want to steer clear of this. But if not, this is the rare portrait of a talented star who takes herself less seriously than nearly anyone. It's refreshing and a hell of a lot of fun. (And I still think we could be friends once we stopped trying to one-up each other.)