Monday, February 29, 2016

Book Review: "The Remnants" by Robert Hill

Full disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an unbiased review. Many thanks to Forest Avenue Press for making it available!

As many people I know, I read a tremendous amount. But even though I read on average of 130 books a year, in a number of different genres, some books have similar themes, ideas, or plotlines, even if they're told in different ways.

And then there are the books that are utterly different. Robert Hill's The Remnants definitely falls into this category. While the heart of this book is familiar—the power (both positive and negative) of love in all its forms, the pull of family (again, positive and negative), and the tug-of-war between following your dreams and being happy where you are, Hill has created a universe of characters and a setting so unique, it almost seemed as if I were reading a book whose characters were fantastical creatures rather than actual people.

The town of New Eden is on its last legs, as most of its residents have died. It's Kennesaw Belvedere's 99th birthday, and, hewing to the tradition he has followed for a number of years now, Kennesaw is going to have tea and saltines with his friend True Bliss. True is one day shy of her 100th birthday, and although age has taken its toll on her body and her mind, she has never forgotten the memory of being stood up by the boy she loved so long ago.

"What kept him coming to her house for his birthday tea year after year was friendship based on age and familiarity, and the habits we can't shake and the hurts we can't outrun, and the senility that in its arbitrary mercy blocks our memories of it all."

As Kennesaw sets out for True's house, his mind wanders through the peaks and valleys of his life—being mistreated by his parents because he was more attractive than the average New Eden resident, the affection he had for another of New Eden's citizens that he didn't allow himself to feel, and the injustices of growing older. Unbeknownst to Kennesaw, his old friend Hunko Minton is also on his way to True's house, determined to stop the birthday tea and reveal a secret he has kept (mostly) hidden for so long.

New Eden is a whimsical town, where intermarriage between not-too-distant family members has created a unique blend of physical and mental characteristics among its residents, and through the years, many have died of unusual causes and in bizarre fashion. But despite their uniqueness—and their unusual names—(the names of the characters I've listed in this review are just the tip of the iceberg where that's concerned), these are people dealing with the same wants, hopes, and hurts as you see in any other town.

Hill has a voice all his own. It's at times flowery and old-fashioned, as he talks of begetting and lonesomes; at times it's gag-inducing, with a great deal of talk of bodily functions and the smells of each person; and at times it's even a little ribald, as he discusses sex but in a way I've never quite seen. It's a little off-putting at times, a little twee even, but these characters have such heart, and the payoff is both endearing and emotional, so it was worth the journey.

This is definitely not a book for everyone. You have to be willing to allow yourself to be transported into a town, a world of characters, a language all its own. And while you may wonder just what on earth you're reading, hopefully at the end (or perhaps sometime before), you'll find yourself smiling, and maybe even wiping away a tear or two.

Book Review: "The Never-Open Desert Diner" by James Anderson

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

This book snuck up on me and both charmed and utterly fascinated me.

Ben Jones has been a trucker in Utah for some time now, traveling up and down Route 117 in the desert. It's a fairly solitary existence he's eked out for himself—during his workdays he interacts periodically with some of his customers, but there's a reason they live off of a little-traveled road in the desert, and most are not really the type for socializing beyond general niceties.

Along Ben's route is a somewhat-famous diner, often used as scenery in movies. The diner is rarely if ever open, ever since the diner's owner experienced a painful tragedy there a number of years before. But Walt, the diner's cantankerous, tough-as-nails owner, and Ben have a lukewarm relationship, and he is one of the few people Ben might consider a friend.

One day on his route Ben comes upon a solitary home that was probably used as a prototype for a never-built housing development. It's a beautiful home, and it catches his attention, although not as much as the beautiful woman he sees inside the house, silently playing the cello. She fascinates him, and he wants to get to know her, even as he knows it probably would be a mistake. And when he learns that this woman, Claire, is hiding from her husband and events in her past, he is convinced even more that he should avoid her. But she has gotten under his skin, and he wants to be with her.

He can't get Claire out of his mind, and she is slowly warming up to him. Then he suddenly begins catching the attention of mysterious people, including a woman appearing in different guises in the fairly solitary desert community and an earnest, young reality show producer who has allegedly taken interest in Ben. He worries about Claire being found by those who are looking for her, but he should worry more about himself, because he unexpectedly winds up under suspicion of several crimes.

What, or whom, is Claire really running from? What brought her to the desert? And what happened in the diner all those years ago? The Never-Open Desert Diner is a book about secrets and the danger they bring, and it's also a book about loneliness, how it can be both comforting and depressing. It's also a book about love—romantic, parental, filial—and the lengths we go to in order to protect it.

James Anderson is an excellent storyteller and he created some really memorable characters. Ben was really fascinating, as were many of the supporting characters in this book. I loved how Anderson gave us some insight into a number of these people, fleshing them out as more than just people wanting to protect their solitude. This is a mysterious, insightful, thought-provoking book that definitely evoked some emotions as well. I really enjoyed this one.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Movie Review: "The Revenant"

During the Oscars this coming Sunday night, Leonardo DiCaprio is expected to finally win an Oscar for his role in Alejandro G. Iñárritu's The Revenant, and both the film and Iñárritu himself are considered leading contenders for Best Picture and Best Director awards as well.

While I believe that DiCaprio's win is as much a payback for his previous Oscar-worthy performances (this is the Oscars, after all) and an acknowledgment of how harrowing it was to make this movie, I will be tremendously disappointed if either the film or the director wins an Oscar. To say the very least.

The Revenant takes place in the 1820s (a fact I had to research, since the movie itself never divulges where or when it takes place) in the midst of the burgeoning fur trade, where battles between Americans, the Indians, and the French were commonplace. An expedition of American frontiersman, which includes scout Hugh Glass (DiCaprio) and his Native American son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), is trying to gather as many pelts as they can, although they're not making as much progress as one member of their group, Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy, sounding a bit like Mushmouth from Fat Albert, yet with a Southern accent), would like.

Early one morning, Glass is scouting nearby where his group has settled in for the night when disaster strikes—in the form of a very angry, protective bear. Glass is repeatedly mauled and tries to fight the bear off any way he can. The attack leaves him (no pun intended) barely alive, but he fights for survival. The group needs to move on, but the captain (Domhnall Gleason) wants to do the honorable thing and not leave him behind to die. Hawk and a friend, Bridger (Will Poulter), agree to stay behind, as does Fitzgerald, more because money is offered to sweeten the deal.

Almost immediately after the remainder of the group leaves, Fitzgerald is ready for Glass to die, either by natural causes or by his own hand. And after several days of watching Glass' condition worsen (SPOILER ALERT if you've not seen any of the trailers for this film), Fitzgerald kills Hawk and buries Glass alive, convincing Bridger that Hawk disappeared and Glass died, and the two head to meet up with their group.

The movie then shifts into revenge mode, as Glass, barely breathing and torn to shreds by the bear, digs himself out of the grave and nurses himself back to enough strength to try and track Fitzgerald down. On the way he encounters more crises, survives a blizzard by sleeping inside the carcass of a dead horse (I thought Luke Skywalker did this better in The Empire Strikes Back), and deals with Indians and unsavory French fur trappers before the inevitable showdown.

I saw someone refer to this film as "a much longer Road Runner/Wiley Coyote cartoon," because Glass is able to keep on his path of revenge even after surviving a bear attack, pneumonia, and various other injuries and accidents. Along the way he is buoyed by memories of Hawk and Hawk's mother, and these spur him on despite his severely weakened condition.

This movie is beautifully filmed, and I understand it was tremendously difficult to make. While I understand the concept of the story, of the power of love and revenge to strengthen us, the movie never clicked with me, and it even felt preposterous at times. DiCaprio certainly underwent significant physical torture making this movie, and there was some emotion in his performance, but I definitely don't think this was the best performance of the year by a long shot, despite the fact he's a sure bet for the Oscar. Hardy, too, has delivered Oscar-worthy performances before, but this is definitely not one of them.

Beyond that, though, I thought this movie was utterly predictable and certainly not worthy of the praise being heaped upon it. A movie should be recognized as Best Picture because it is the best, not because it was challenging to make. Should this win Best Picture on Sunday evening, it will be one of the biggest disconnects I've ever had with the Oscars.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Book Review: "All the Lasting Things" by David Hopson

I was able to read this book through Amazon's Kindle First program. Thanks to Amazon and Little A for making it available!

"'Life will always be disappointing,' he said with pressing emotion. 'Even if everything looked exactly as you thought it would, even then, there would be disappointments. Deep, even ruinous disappointments. Compromises we think we can't possibly live with. But we do. We do because we must. It's the contract we sign for being here. We have to treat life like it's precious. Even when we think it's not. Especially then. Because then we see how easily it can be thrown away.'"

The Fisher family has had more than its share of ups and downs, and more than anything, now seems to be a time of more downs than ups. Henry, the family patriarch, is a famous writer who is in the throes of Alzheimer's disease. His condition is becoming more of a burden on everyone, especially his wife, Evelyn, but she isn't ready to seek full-time care for him or move him to a nursing home, even as she suffers emotionally and physically.

Their son, Benji, was a child actor famous for his stint in a 1980s sitcom, but he's never quite gotten back to that level ever again. He spends his days pitting his ego and his desire for fame against his increasingly self-destructive behavior. In the midst of a less-than-glamorous regional theater production of Hamlet, Benji hits rock bottom—although not quite as rock bottom as his family is led to believe. It's up to his older sister, Claudia, usually the stable one, to keep her family together through Benji's recovery and Henry's continued decline.

Then a more-than-20-year-old secret is revealed, and suddenly the stable one has her life rocked to the core. And while this secret shakes up the entire family in different ways, it also sets into motion a chain of events which will further knock the family for a loop, and confront the question about whether hiding the truth from someone is the same thing as lying.

David Hopson has created a compelling look at a family dealing with more than its share of crises. Benji and Claudia are the most fleshed-out characters (along with a third), but they're not always sympathetic, so it's difficult at times to get fully engrossed in their stories, and I didn't really understand what made them do many of the things they did. Hopson has a vivid ear for language and emotion, even if he sometimes uses three metaphors when one would suffice.

Although I didn't like how the bulk of the story was resolved (even though I anticipated that was how things might end), and I felt the epilogue was completely tacked on and didn't really flow with the rest of the book, I still enjoyed All the Lasting Things. It made me feel and it made me think, and I look forward to seeing what Hopson's career has in store.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Book Review: "Cold Barrel Zero" by Matthew Quirk

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

Matthew Quirk's third book, Cold Barrel Zero, almost literally begins with a bang.

John Hayes was once an elite soldier in Special Operations. He and his fellow soldiers were trained to infiltrate targets by completely immersing themselves in their midst, essentially becoming one of them. They performed many deep cover missions, eliminating enemies of the U.S. by whatever means necessary, and their very existence was disavowed by the country they were fighting to defend. When one mission goes wrong, Hayes and his cohorts are labeled as traitors and are disgraced, forced to go into hiding and leave their loved ones behind. But Hayes knows at some point those who betrayed them will come after them again, and he must be ready to fight with everything he has.

Tom Byrne once knew Hayes, once fought by his side as a combat medic, and even helped patch him up after a firefight. Yet the two followed different paths—after a particularly difficult time on the front lines, Byrne makes the decision to leave the military and become a surgeon. But the memories of his time as a soldier haunt him, making it difficult for him to stay in one place too long or commit to a relationship.

Much to his surprise, Byrne finds himself enmeshed in Hayes' plans for revenge despite not having seen him for years. He isn't sure whom he should trust—a soldier he fought with years ago who seems utterly capable of the crimes of which he is being accused, or the U.S. government, who is allegedly protecting Byrne but yet isn't sure whether he is to be trusted either. Whatever choice he makes is a dangerous one, with significant repercussions for everyone involved, including the woman he's starting to fall in love with. This is a battle with the highest of stakes, for both life and liberty.

I first came upon Quirk a few years ago when I read his debut novel, The 500, which really impressed me. I missed his second book (but will have to pick it up, as it was a sequel of sorts to the first) but in the ensuing years, Quirk has definitely matured as a storyteller. He has a real knack for action sequences—I felt my pulse racing during some of the fight scenes. He also has a created some very interesting characters, although he doesn't develop all of them fully, leaving some of them to be a little more rote than I wished they were.

There is definitely a lot going on in this book—too much at times, in my opinion. Between the use of a lot of jargon and acronyms I'm not familiar with, and the large cast of cohorts on both sides of the battle, I found myself having to re-read passages to be sure I knew which side I was reading about, and who did what to whom. This is definitely a book that keeps you guessing, and while that makes for a suspenseful read, there was a lot of double- and triple-crossing to keep track of.

If you like action and espionage, I think you'll find Cold Barrel Zero a really compelling read. Quirk's talent makes you want to keep reading, and while it is a little confusing from time to time, your heart will be pounding as you race through the book.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Book Review: "You Should Pity Us Instead" by Amy Gustine

The characters in You Should Pity Us Instead, Amy Gustine's powerfully moving story collection find themselves in the midst of all kinds of challenges or emotional crises. But while reading 11 stories about people at emotional crossroads may sound harrowing, many of these stories also have a little bit of suspense, some have traces of sly humor, and all are tremendously compelling.

I had never heard of Amy Gustine before finding a mention of this collection in one of Book Riot's weekly emails highlighting new releases. I love finding story collections by new authors, and find that some of the best writers out there are generating such power and emotion within the confines of short stories. Gustine now has a fan in me, that's for sure.

The characters in these stories deal with both everyday and unusual problems. I honestly liked every story in the collection, but my favorites included:
  • "Prisoners Do," in which a radiologist is torn between his loyalty to his wife, who lives with the aftereffects of a stroke, and his lover, who is also a doctor;
  • "AKA Juan," which follows a young man whose adoptive siblings want him to be their ailing mother's caregiver, but he wants to live his own life;
  • "When We're Innocent," in which a man travels to pack up his daughter's apartment after her death, and meets one of her neighbors, who is dealing with his own crisis;
  • "All the Sons of Cain," the story of the mother of a kidnapped Jewish soldier who travels to Gaza to try and find her son;
  • "Half-Life," which follows a young nanny as she cares for a couple's children and navigates the memories of her own troubled childhood; and
  • the title story, about a woman whose life is affected by her husband's book about the hypocrisies of religion and her children's desire to understand what religion is.

Gustine's ear for dialogue, characterization, and language really shows through in these stories. Not all of the stories are perfect, but they do pack a punch, and leave you thinking about them long after you're finished. Not everyone is a fan of short stories, I know, but this is a collection worth reading and savoring.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Book Review: "The Throwback Special" by Chris Bachelder

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!

One weekend every November, a group of 22 guys get together at a hotel. They aren't friends during the year, but there is rarely a question that they'll miss this weekend.

The purpose? They gather to reenact (although they hate that word, since for them it connotes people dressed in war uniforms holding guns) what is known in football history as "the most shocking play in NFL history": on November 18, 1985, Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann had his leg horribly broken on live television by New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor. The injury ended Theismann's career, and was replayed several times that night on television, although commentator Frank Gifford warned those "with strong stomachs."

The weekend isn't just a casual game of touch football. Every year one of the men becomes the commissioner, and each man gets to choose which player (of those Redskins and Giants players who were on the field for that play) they will play that year. They watch the film of that play, room together by position, and even dress in authentic uniforms, down to wristbands or taped body parts. Some of the men take the weekend and their roles very seriously, while others would rather be anywhere else but know they're obligated.

If your eyes have already glazed over because you're not a football fan, rest assured that Chris Bachelder's The Throwback Special is less about football and more about life. The men have been playing for a number of years now, and most are approaching or are solidly entrenched in middle age, experiencing all of the stresses and problems which come with it, from physical ailments, difficulties and/or concerns with their children, financial challenges, marital woes, etc. These are men who bear the weight of life on their shoulders, and while this weekend should serve as a release for them, they can't seem to shake everything that's going on in their "real lives."

This is a really interesting and sensitive meditation on the burden of manhood and growing older, as well as the dissatisfaction and the disappointment that comes with it. Bachelder has a great ear for dialogue, which imbues this book with a great deal of sensitivity and humor. The challenge is, there are so many characters that it's hard to keep all of them straight—there's Fat Michael (who isn't fat in the least) and Bald Michael (who is bald), Adam and Andy, and many others—and while some of the characters are more vivid, it takes a little time to remember which one you're reading about.

I'm a huge football fan and we even have Redskins season tickets, so this book definitely appealed to me, but you don't need to know the first thing about football to enjoy The Throwback Special. If you're a guy dealing with growing older and the challenges of life, or you know someone like that, this book may interest you. It's very different than I expected it to be, but it definitely captivated me.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Book Review: "Lust & Wonder" by Augusten Burroughs

Full disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review. Many thanks to NetGalley and St. Martin's Press for making it available!

The more-than-slightly zany, self-deprecating memoirist from Running with Scissors, Dry, Magical Thinking, etc. is back, this time recounting his challenges with love, sex, and relationships, and how the heart and the mind don't always work in tandem—especially when your mind is almost always working overtime.

Finding and keeping love can be difficult for anyone, but for Burroughs, who struggled with issues of self-worth and anxiety, and is a recovering alcoholic, relationships were a major hurdle. In Lust & Wonder, he touches on three major relationships in his life, the high and low points, and the challenges he experienced, both sexual and emotional.

The book deals with his relationships with Mitch, an author with his own self-confidence issues; Dennis, whose personality and expectations are quite different from Augusten's, but Augusten was more than determined to make it work; and Christopher, his longtime editor, who (somewhat of a spoiler alert if you don't know much about Burroughs' life) eventually becomes his husband. Burroughs reflects on the sacrifices you make to keep a relationship flourishing, and when you realize it's not working, and how the fear of being alone and disentangling everything often keeps people in relationships long after they've died romantically and emotionally. It also addresses the question of how important sex and sexual chemistry is to a relationship, and whether relationships can survive when at least one person has their own emotional and sometimes physiological demons to deal with.

Burroughs is more than willing to shoulder his portion of the blame when things didn't work out. When you've dealt with the kind of childhood he did, struggled to maintain sobriety, and lost people close to you, it's no wonder you have difficulties committing yourself fully, or doubting what your partner tells you when he tells you he is happy.

"So many years of anticipating disaster is exhausting. Thought I have tried to train myself not to think this way, it never works, so plan B is to go ahead and think this way but then remind myself I'm wrong. Which means I can only cobble together a life by clobbering my faulty 'gut instincts' 100 percent of the time."

When I first read Running with Scissors I was so surprised, I remember laughing out loud on an airplane while reading it. Lust & Wonder does have its funny moments, but it's definitely a more contemplative, emotional read rather than the utterly zany ride that book was. Burroughs is a very talented storyteller, and I can only imagine what he'd be like in person. I did feel that this book meandered a bit too much at times, and while Burroughs' other emotional issues and coping strategies certainly had an impact on his relationships, I felt the book spent more time than it needed to dwelling on those, and it distracted from the heart of the book.

While comparing this book to some of Burroughs' earlier ones definitely demonstrates he has mellowed a bit as he has aged, there's still plenty of craziness in store. If you're a fan of his, or if you've ever struggled with love, lust, and relationships, this may hit a chord or two with you.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Book Review: "Shaker" by Scott Frank

Shaker reads like a movie, and that's not a bad thing. You can totally see the film version of this book playing out before your eyes.

This isn't too surprising once you learn that Scott Frank, the author, is an Academy Award-nominated screenwriter who also wrote and directed a film adaptation of a classic Lawrence Block crime novel. And while the film version of Shaker might help alleviate some of the confusion caused by a few characters too many, the book is an addictive, suspenseful, and surprisingly sensitive read worth savoring.

Los Angeles has just been hit by a pretty powerful earthquake which has damaged a lot of the major highways, left many buildings in disarray, and knocked out major cell service throughout the city. Aftershocks keep the city's residents on edge, and sometimes cause more damage. A few days after the big quake, Roy Cooper, erstwhile "errand man" for his New York criminal employers, is dispatched to LA to murder a shady accountant named Martin Shine. Roy isn't told what Shine did to incur his employers' wrath (if anything), but knows his job is to follow orders, not to question details.

Roy arrives in the city and does what he needs to. But he encounters a slight problem after the hit is complete: he can't find his rental car. He has apparently gotten himself confused wandering in the few blocks around Shine's apartment. Then his problems get worse, as Roy stumbles upon another crime in progress, as four young gang members are mugging an elderly jogger. Rather than do what he should, that is, get the hell out of there, Roy gets involved, and the next thing he knows, the jogger is dead and Roy is in the hospital.

It turns out the elderly jogger was a leading mayoral candidate, bent on solving the gang problem. The mugging, and subsequent murder/shooting, was captured on a bystander's cell phone video, so the media has branded Roy a hero. This doesn't sit well with a lot of people, including his employers, the gang members who feel Roy disrespected them, and a figure from Roy's past, who has a score to settle. And as the cops, including disgraced police detective Kelly Maguire (who has a bit of an anger management problem), try to figure out exactly who Roy is, he needs to get out of the public eye and finish what he inadvertently started.

Frank juggles a lot of different narrative threads in the book, and all but one ultimately are relevant to the plot. (There's even some flashbacks to explain what brought Roy to this point in his life, and they're pretty fascinating on their own.) There's some great action, some creepy violence, and some pertinent social commentary on what drives gang members to live lives of unrelenting violence, lives they know may ultimately lead to their own demise. While I found Roy and Kelly's characters really fascinating (and would have loved it if the book focused more on both of them), Shaker drifts from time to time, juggling too many different narratives, and I just looked forward to the plot returning to the story at the book's heart.

As you'd expect from a talented screenwriter, Frank is a pretty strong storyteller, and while the book may meander occasionally, it's tremendously captivating. A great addition to the thriller/crime genre, and hopefully Frank will continue writing books in addition to films.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Book Review: "Symptoms of Being Human" by Jeff Garvin

I was bullied quite a lot in high school because my lack of athleticism and my passion for music and drama made me an easy target. While there was a lot in high school I enjoyed, it was a tremendously stressful and traumatizing time in so many ways, and every day I wanted to escape the notice of my tormentors.

But as painful as that was, it doesn't hold a candle to the treatment of Riley Cavanaugh in Jeff Garvin's absolutely amazing Symptoms of Being Human.

"The first thing you're going to want to know about me is: Am I a boy, or am I a girl?"

Riley is a gender fluid teenager. Some days Riley identifies as a boy, some days as a girl. That certainly doesn't make things easy, or allow Riley's wish to simply blend in ever to be realized. To top it all off, Riley is about to start attending a new, public high school (things at the private Catholic school didn't go well, to put it mildly), and Riley's congressman father is locked in a tight re-election battle in his conservative Orange County district. It's more pressure than any teenager could bear, much less one struggling with understanding who they are, and keeping it all a secret.

When the pressure gets to be too much, Riley follows a therapist's advice: share. So Riley creates Alix, a fictional persona with tremendously similar characteristics, and starts to write a blog as an outlet. Riley doesn't realize how cathartic it will be to share feelings, fears, insecurities, frustrations—from when a new friend turns away rather than confront bullies, or the mysterious behavior of a punk-rocker girl that catches Riley's eye. And Riley quickly realizes there are so many people out there experiencing the same things and dealing with the same problems. It's the first time Riley has felt valued in a long while.

But while Riley's online persona does attract some negative feedback as well, the biggest problem comes when someone starts leaving comments on the blog hinting that they know who Riley is, and they threaten to expose who the real Alix is. This could pose a real problem, as Riley isn't ready to embrace the truth or share it with others. But the stalker isn't interested—and there's no better time to reveal Riley's secret than just before Election Day.

What an emotional, fantastic read this was! I actually read the entire book in less than two hours, thanks to some bronchitis-related insomnia. It was tremendously poignant and truly insightful, for while I don't understand what it is like to be gender fluid, I do understand what it's like to feel different, but to simply want to be able to live your life the way you want, with no one interfering. Garvin did a great job trying to make most of the characters, including Riley's parents, more sympathetic and complex, although the two real villains in the book didn't get the same treatment, so you didn't quite understand what pushed them to do what they did.

As I've said before, I believe it is so wonderful that books like this exist in today's world, and Symptoms of Being Human is such a good one. While we've come a long way in terms of public perception of sexuality and gender issues, there is still a long way to go, and it's important that today's teenagers and young adults have books and other resources to help them deal with their struggles instead of leaving them to harm themselves or take their own lives.

Book Review: "Hotels of North America" by Rick Moody

As a society, we're kind of obsessed with giving our opinions about everything—restaurants, movies, businesses, products, etc. (No, the irony is not lost on me that I'm making this comment in a book review I'm writing.)

While many of these reviews you find on sites like Yelp or Amazon (or Goodreads) can be useful, have you ever stopped to wonder what possesses people to share stream-of-consciousness ramblings that have very little relevancy to what is being reviewed? And while we're at it, have you ever been so interested in these people that you find yourself reading a lot of their reviews?

This is the concept behind Rick Moody's Hotels of North America. Presented as a compendium-of-sorts of the reviews of Reginald Edward Morse, which he posted on a fictional website called, the book is both a commentary about one person's opinions on the declining state of many of the country's (and the world's) hotels, as well as the portrait of a man whose life is spiraling out of control, and how he chooses to handle it.

Morse started his career as an investment banker and erstwhile day trader, only to suddenly pursue a (not particularly) successful career as a motivational speaker. As his reviews unfold, we learn that he has been as unlucky in love as he has been in his career—his marriage has ended, and his short-lived affair with a "certain professor of language arts" didn't last, although he admitted to sporadic "bouts of recidivism" where she was concerned. In some of his reviews he mentions K., his companion (who also likes to be referred to by various bird names), with whom he experiences some of the worst hotel experiences, and with whom he practices a number of different cons to try and avoid paying for said hotel stays.

Hotels of North America is similar to Julie Schumacher's Dear Committee Members in that the reviews that comprise this book are much less about the hotels than about Morse's state of mind, although the latter book is more humorous in tone than this one is. Morse comments on everything from front desk clerks at cut-rate hotels ("The young man at the front desk looked like there was no sorrow he had not experienced") to cheese grits (" is not possible to consider a serving of cheese grits as falling under the rubric of grits") and Waffle House (" was presumed at Waffle House that you were on your last nickel, that you had squandered opportunities, that all was illusion"). He also takes the time to criticize those on who call his veracity into question, or simply criticize his writing or make assumptions about his personal habits.

One of my favorite pieces of Morse's commentary is his thoughts on bed-and-breakfasts: "To summarize, these are the three main problems of bed-and-breakfast establishments: throw pillows, potpourri, and breakfast conversation, and the fourth problem is gazebos. And the fifth problem is water features. And the sixth problem is themed rooms, and the seventh problem is provenance (who owned the inn before and who owned the inn before that, and who owned it before that, and what year the bed-and-breakfast was built, and how old the timber is in the main hall), and the eighth problem is pride of ownership, because why can't it just be a place you stay, why does it always have to be an ideological crusade?"

The reviews are interesting, at times funny, at times poignant, but the book seems to drag on longer than it needs to. And then Moody throws himself into the story, under the guise that he had been asked to write an afterword for the compilation of Morse's reviews, only to find Morse had vanished. I felt this was an unnecessary gimmick that, while it provided some interesting commentary, didn't advance the book in any way.

This is only the second book of Moody's I've ever read, the first being The Ice Storm a number of years ago. As with that book, Hotels of North America proves his storytelling ability and his talent at satirizing suburban America and its denizens. I just wish the book was longer on substance and shorter on gimmickry.

Book Review: "New Dogs, Old Tricks: How to Succeed in a Second Generation Family Business" by Peter J. Postorino

Full disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the author in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making it available!

When people hear the term "family business," they think it's an old-fashioned concept, like "mom and pop" businesses of yesteryear. But family-owned businesses exist and thrive today, across a wide number of industries. More importantly, however, they have the potential for lasting success through multiple generations—provided they don't fall into the traps that have harmed many a business.

Pete Postorino knows very well of what he writes—he and his brothers took over their father's environmental services business more than 20 years ago, and have grown it far beyond what anyone had initially envisioned. But this wasn't, and isn't, an easy journey. Keeping any service-oriented business running and thriving through the years is always challenging, and once you throw family into the equation, it increases the pressure and the potential for risk, as well as success, exponentially.

This is a really well-written book, because Postorino isn't just spouting management theories—he's citing specific examples and incidents in his 20+-years of experience, acknowledging that some truths are fairly universal, while some may be more specific to a particular situation. He's not afraid to put himself in an unflattering light from time to time, as he recounts some of his own mistakes, some of his and his family's "a-ha" moments, some of the things they wish they knew in advance. As he puts it, "this is as much a how-not-to as it is a how-to manual."

But don't discount this book if you're not involved in a family business, or not considering opening your business to your children or other family members in the future. I run an industry trade association, but still walked away with a lot of useful information—ideas I've thought about but lost in the midst of day-to-day craziness, as well as concepts that I should have thought of but they never crossed my mind. Postorino's writing style is straightforward and even a little sarcastic from time to time (which always gains points with me), and he backs a lot of his points up with some strong research. (Plus, how can you pass up a book that quotes not only A Few Good Men, but our favorite Jersey boy, Bruce Springsteen?)

If I'm interested in learning more about a subject, I want to go to an expert. And that's the case with this book: it's an enjoyable-to-read, easy-to-understand, valuable resource from someone who knows what he's talking about.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Book Review: "A Place Called Winter" by Patrick Gale

Full disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review. Many thanks to NetGalley and Grand Central Publishing for making it available.

This was a lovely, beautifully written, poignant book, that reminded me a little bit of John Boyne's The Absolutist in its tone and subject matter, although the former left me more of an emotional wreck than this one did!

Growing up a child of privilege, Harry Cane was shy, ill-at-ease in social situations, and more than happy to blend into the scenery than be noticed. His financial situation left him able to live a life of leisure, and if he could interact with no one but his more gregarious younger brother, Jack. But when Jack meets an outspoken young woman, Harry comes along to meet her sister, and before he knew it, finds himself happily married to a woman whose social discomfort is similar to his own, and they are proud parents of a baby girl.

Despite some financial challenges, life is peaceful for Harry, and he is able to live the life he wants. But when he finds himself drawn into an unlikely affair, it changes him completely—and its discovery threatens to ruin his marriage, his comforts, and even his life. With nowhere else to turn, Harry decides to join the crush of people migrating to the Canadian wilderness in the hopes of settling a homestead there. Life is bleak, and the work is even harder, but he learns that he is far stronger than he ever thought, and can handle adversity better than he imagined.

Living in the harsh landscape brings him face-to-face with a menace both attractive and ruthlessly dangerous, and two relationships which will change his life in similar but different ways. Harry realizes that he is willing to fight for what he believes he deserves, and he is worthy of love. But he must face occasional isolation, harsh elements, the threat of war, even madness.

Patrick Gale is a terrific storyteller. This book captures perfectly the tone and feel of its time in history, its setting, and the conventions of the world in which his characters live. While at first Harry's passivity is a little frustrating, you watch him discover his inner strength and you find yourself rooting for him. A Place Called Winter is loosely based on a mystery within Gale's own family, and that makes what transpires in the book even more aggravating and upsetting.

While I found the book moved a little slower than I would have liked from time to time, and found the continued return of one of the book's villains to be a little improbably after a while, I really enjoyed this book, and found myself very emotionally invested in what happened to the characters. This is the second of Gale's books I've read and he again dazzled me with his writing—this is book of sensitivity, emotion, a little suspense, and a lot of heart.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Book Review: "All the Birds in the Sky" by Charlie Jane Anders

There were a number of times while reading Charlie Jane Anders' All the Birds in the Sky that I thought, "How am I going to review this?"

What I realized, however, is that while the book was utterly different than I expected it to be from the blurbs I read, and there's much about the plot that defies description, I found it to be an ambitious, poignant, slightly meandering, somewhat imperfect book, which packs a resonant, emotional punch.

Laurence and Patricia meet in middle school. Both are outcasts—Laurence is obsessed with computers and technology, so much so that he builds his own two-second time machine (mostly to help him avoid being bullied), while Patricia discovers she has an unusual ability to communicate with other creatures. And while these abilities make them less than popular among their peers, and cause a multitude of problems within their families, when Patricia reveals the full extent of her skills to Laurence, that—along with the machinations of a teacher—strains their relationship nearly to the breaking point.

Years later, they are both living in San Francisco when they run into each other again. Patricia, having graduated from an exclusive school for those with magical talents (but far more mercenary than Hogwarts), works with a band of magicians to right wrongs, and sometimes destroy the people perpetrating these wrongs. Laurence works for an eccentric genius he met when he was younger, and he and his teammates are building a device to save the world in the event of total catastrophe, which seems imminent. Laurence and Patricia are, once again, drawn to, and repelled by, one another, but there is no denying the two share a powerful bond. Until the interests she and her fellow magicians are working to protect interfere with Laurence's work, which sets a chain of events in motion that rocks the world.

All the Birds in the Sky is a book about friendship, love, magic, and trying to avoid the end of the world. It's about the struggle between listening to your heart and following your head, and how hard it is to stay true to yourself in the face of cruelty and doubt. And it's also about the power of one person (or two) to make a difference, although the difference that Laurence and Patricia are seeking to make is a little more dramatic than everyday change.

About a quarter of the way into the book, I wasn't sure I wanted to stick with it. I felt as if Anders spent a lot of time dwelling on how bullied Laurence and Patricia were, and how horribly misunderstood they were by their families. It got a little relentless, and it wasn't what I was expecting or wanted to read. But I soldiered on, and I am glad I did, for while the book is confusing and a little overblown, it's still utterly fascinating, and Laurence and Patricia are such fascinating characters that I couldn't tear myself away.

Charlie Jane Anders is very talented—she really worked hard to create an entire world in this book. While I wished at times she would have followed the core of her story a little more, I still was quite interested in what she was going to do with the characters and their story. This is certainly not a book for everyone, but if you give it a chance, I think you'll agree about Anders' storytelling ability.