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,, 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.)

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Book Review: "The Reminders" by Val Emmich

"...for most people, memories are like fairy tales, which means they're simpler and funnier and happier and more exciting than how life really is. I don't understand how people can pretend something happened differently than it actually did, but Dad says they don't even realize they're pretending."

Ten-year-old Joan Sully has HSAM, or highly superior autobiographical memory. She can recall every day in her life in explicit detail—she knows what day of the week any day was, what she was wearing, what she was doing, who she was with, and what they said to her.

While this ability certainly comes in handy at times, it's actually very hard to live with. She's not able to enjoy things like movies because something will remind her of a memory from another day, and she'll start replaying that entire day in her head. Not only that, but Joan's mother doesn't like to be reminded how many times she's uttered the phrase "it never fails" over the last six months. (Twenty-seven.)

For someone who can remember everything so clearly, Joan's biggest fear is being forgotten. She saw it happen when her beloved grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, and Joan misses her terribly. An aspiring musician who worships John Lennon, Joan is determined to win a songwriting contest, which she believes will be the first step she needs on the road to notoriety.

Gavin Winters is just starting to experience success as an actor after many years of trying. His life is utterly rocked by the sudden death of his partner, Sydney, and he doesn't know how to cope without him. After the decision to rid himself of anything in the couple's house that reminds him of Sydney gets a little more media attention than he's expecting, Gavin flees their home in Los Angeles for New Jersey, where he hopes to hide out at the home of his old college roommate, who happens to be Joan's father.

At first Gavin is unsure how to handle Joan and her memory, but then he realizes he can use it to his advantage: Joan can tell him in detail each of the times Sydney visited, what he talked about, how he seemed. If Joan shares these memories with him, Gavin agrees to help Joan write her song, and even sing it.

"I was wrong about there being no way of building new memories of Sydney. They can be found, it turns out, in the minds of others."

As Joan shares her memories of Sydney, Gavin starts to discover that there were secrets Sydney was keeping from him. What was Sydney hiding? Was their relationship everything Gavin believed it was, was Sydney the man Gavin thought he was, or were his perceptions vastly different from reality? Sometimes in our desire to remember things, we uncover things we might wish we never knew.

This is a sweet, moving, and thought-provoking book. Val Emmich, who is a terrific musician and an actor, shows real finesse with his debut novel, creating memorable characters and situations that might not always surprise you, but definitely tug at your heartstrings, although not in a manipulative way. (At times Joan seemed a little odd, but then I remembered she was only 10.) If you've ever dealt with the loss of a loved one, you know what it's like to wish you said one more thing, spent more time together instead of worrying about what seemed insurmountable at the time. And if you've ever thought that having a better memory would be a blessing, this book helps you see the flip side of that.

I really liked this book and found it tremendously charming. But can I now put in a plea for no more books featuring characters with unique illnesses or syndromes? So far this year I've seen Moebius syndrome (David Arnold's Kids of Appetite) and prosopagnosia (Jennifer Niven's Holding up the Universe), not to mention the various maladies that affected Ivan Isaenko (in Scott Stambach's The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko). I'm a hypochondriac, so I'm thankful that none of these are contagious, or otherwise I'd be absolutely miserable!

I look forward to seeing what's next for Val Emmich. I know I'll keep listening to his music, and I'll read whatever he writes in the future!

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, November 13, 2016

Book Review: "Buy a Bullet" by Gregg Hurwitz

I haven't decided where I stand yet on this growing trend of authors writing "so-called" short stories as a way to bridge the gap prior to the release of a new novel. On one hand, I'm a fan of anything that gives me an opportunity to read more of my favorite authors, but the contrarian in me feels that these are primarily revenue-generating gimmicks, because the stories themselves are often relatively slight, and in some cases just serve as teasers for the author's upcoming novel.

Gregg Hurwitz's Orphan X blew me away earlier this year (read my original review), and it's definitely going to be among the best books I read in 2016. The story of Evan Smoak, who was trained to be an assassin when he was young as part of an elite government program, and then became the Nowhere Man, a knight-in-shining-armor of sorts for people in trouble, Orphan X hit all of the right notes for me—fantastic action, more than a few twists, some excellent character development, and some pretty cool gadgetry.

Buy a Bullet backtracks a bit to Evan's first outing as the Nowhere Man, where he spots a beautiful young woman in a coffee shop. He can tell she is being controlled by a wealthy tech mogul, and that she is in danger, being brutalized by the man she thinks she loves. Evan knows there is no way she'll be able to escape, no way she'll be able to survive—unless he intervenes.

This story has many of the elements that made Orphan X so great. But at only 76 pages (which seem a heck of a lot shorter on the Kindle), there's just not enough of it. The silver lining here, however, is that the story includes a long sneak peek (longer than the story, in fact) for The Nowhere Man, Hurwitz's second Evan Smoak novel, due out in mid-January.

If you've not read Orphan X, and you love thrillers, do yourself a favor—READ IT! This story is an entertaining amuse-bouche to tide you over until mid-January, but you'll want to read the first book in the series first. You won't be sorry.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Book Review: "Tell Me How This Ends Well" by David Samuel Levinson

I'm a sucker for a novel about family dysfunction, but a novel about dysfunction that takes place during the Jewish holidays? Sign me up!

It's 2022 and while there isn't quite dystopia, the world is in upheaval: Israel has been dissolved, and all Israeli citizens have been dispersed across the world. And to make matters worse, the U.S. is roiled by anti-Semitism, with random attacks and drive-by shootings harming Jews across the country.

In the midst of this maelstrom, the Jacobson family is gathering to celebrate Passover at the home of oldest son Mo, an actor who was best known for a reality show which featured his wife and five sons, until criticism and threats from anti-Jewish viewers led to the show's demise.

Roz, the family matriarch, is dying, and her three children recognize this will probably be their last holiday as a family. Of course, that means they must spend time with their father, Julian, whose default position has always been to be emotionally and verbally abusive to his wife and children. Daughter Edith (aka Thistle), unfairly accused of sexually harassing a student in one of her classes at Emory University, has always tried to play peacemaker between her siblings and her father. Youngest son Jacob, who fled first across the country and then across the world to get away from his father, has returned after a number of years, bringing Dietrich, his German boyfriend.

"...[Jacob] had thought he'd come to terms with and healed from the worst of his dad's treachery, all those years of unwarranted hostility, by finding Diet and moving to Berlin. Unfortunately, he'd begun to realize that he'd unwittingly managed to smuggle the tyranny of his dad in through customs with him. Pieces of him, at least, and the worst pieces at that."

Jacob and Mo have hatched a plan to make their mother's last days more enjoyable, but they need Edith's buy-in. Edith wants to hate her father for his years of passive-aggressive behavior, but on the flip side, he always treated her as if she was his favorite. But the more she thinks about it, and the more she remembers, she realizes her father might not have been the prince she once thought. However, the siblings are thrown by the fact that after all these years, he suddenly dotes on their mother more, and their mother actually seems happy. Can this be, or are they all waiting for the next shoe to drop?

Tell Me How This Ends Well is a well-written, thought-provoking book which often seems as if it's not sure what it is supposed to be. At times it's a chronicle of severe family and personal dysfunction, as not one of these characters isn't significantly flawed. Other times it tries to provide social commentary on anti-Semitism and the return of worldwide hatred of Jews, and still other times, the book tries to be a wacky crime caper.

I think the book succeeds best when it focuses on the Jacobsons themselves. For the most part, these characters aren't really likable—Jacob is the most sympathetic, and even he is a bit of a mess. But David Samuel Levinson doesn't provide any shading for Julian's character, so every time he appears in the narrative, it made me bristle to the point that I couldn't stand reading those pages. I realize that was supposed to make him unsympathetic, but he was virtually disgusting, and I kept waiting to understand the reasons.

I didn't believe that the anti-Semitism piece always worked well. It was an interesting plot thread, but in places it became almost outlandish. But the kicker was that in the world Levinson created, apparently everyone can tell who is Jewish simply by looking at them, and seeing a Jewish person made most non-Jews want to throw racial epithets, if not incite violence.

As the holidays draw closer, Tell Me How This Ends Well is an interesting exploration of a family that both loves and dislikes each other. At times the parts of the family are greater than the sum, but the Jacobsons are can't-look-but-can't-look-away fascinating, and if nothing else, they'll make you realize your own family isn't so bad.

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

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Book Review: "The Sun is Also a Star" by Nicola Yoon

No, I'm not crying. You're crying.

Daniel has always tried to be a dutiful son to his parents, who emigrated from South Korea, but he's always played second fiddle to his older brother Charlie, who is more confident, smarter, and has had a visceral dislike for Daniel since they were younger.

But with Charlie's recent academic fall from grace, their parents are starting to put more pressure on Daniel to follow their wishes, which include getting into Yale and becoming a doctor. The thing is, though, Daniel isn't sure he wants to follow that path—he sees himself as more of a poet—but the truth is, he doesn't feel like he needs to decide his future when he's 17.

Natasha has her future planned out: college and a career as a data scientist. She believes in science, in numbers, in rational thought, and really the only way she lets go is listening to music, albeit angsty music like Nirvana and Soundgarden. But all of her best-laid plans are being torn to shreds, as her family is being deported back to Jamaica in 12 hours. She hasn't lived there since she was eight, and she can't imagine throwing away her future for something that isn't even her fault. She has tried to do everything she can to fix her family's situation, but time is running out.

When Daniel and Natasha meet unexpectedly one day, they're both utterly unprepared by the power of their connection. Yet while Daniel is a strong believer in love at first sight, and wants to ride this journey as long as it can go, Natasha believes love is governed by emotions that have no place in her life, especially at this moment. Even while she feels immensely drawn to Daniel, how can she allow her rationality to be bypassed by her heart, particularly when she'll be leaving the country at the end of the day?

"People spend their whole lives looking for love. Poems and songs and entire novels are written about it. But how can you trust something that can end as suddenly as it begins?"

Over the course of one day, Daniel and Natasha will tell each other things they've never told anyone before. There will be adventure, anger, sadness, more than a little passion, and a discussion of family issues, fears, ambitions, and their views on love and life. Each knows where they want this road to lead, but neither knows where it ultimately will.

Are there times when the head should win out over the heart, or should the heart always rule? Can you truly be understood, be seen and heard so fully by someone you barely know? The Sun is Also a Star is emotional, thought-provoking, a tiny bit frustrating, but beautifully written, a book that makes you smile and, if you're like me, cry, a little, too.

"It's like knowing all the words to a song but still finding them beautiful and surprising."

While for the most part the book tells Natasha and Daniel's story, from time to time it deviates in order to focus briefly on other characters, some supporting and some who appear for a brief moment or two, but whose appearance drives a crucial plot thread. Other times it focuses on a concept, scientific or otherwise, that is mentioned. I found that off-putting at first, although I did warm to it, but certain non-sequiturs still irked me.

Beyond that, however, I really enjoyed this book. I love the way Nicola Yoon writes, and I love the way she didn't shy away from tackling issues of prejudice or familial dysfunction while spinning this story. I didn't feel like this book fell into the trap that plagues many YA novels, where the characters are more erudite and sarcastic than people twice or three times their age.

In the end, I truly felt this in my heart. But there was something in my eye; I didn't cry on the airplane while reading this, I swear.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Book Review: "To the Bright Edge of the World" by Eowyn Ivey

Eowyn Ivey is one of those rare authors whose talent shines brightly when they are capturing small, quiet moments, as well as dramatic occurrences. Her first book, The Snow Child, was an absolute wonder, and it made my list of the best books I read in 2012. In her new book, To the Bright Edge of the World, Ivey returns to her beloved Alaska and dazzles once again.

One of the things that's so remarkable about Ivey's talent is that this book is so tremendously compelling despite the fact that the two main characters are almost never together.

In 1885, Lieutenant Colonel Allen Forrester has agreed to take on a challenging and potentially dangerous mission, to lead a small group of men up the Wolverine River and into the Alaska Territory. They're not really sure to what to expect from this expedition, but Allen is determined to find answers as to what—and whom—awaits them. He leaves behind his young pregnant wife, Sophie, who had hoped to travel with Allen at least part of the way, until she found out she was expecting.

Being stuck in the Vancouver barracks is not the type of life Sophie had in mind. Her passion for nature and wildlife, birds in particular, is out of step with most women of her time, particularly those living in the barracks. But she doesn't really seem to care. She isn't content to simply sit and gossip, or entertain women at her home (much less ensure the house is adequately clean for them). She'd much rather find an elusive hummingbird or other birds she's not familiar with.

"I told myself I would never take it for granted—the freedom to choose my own dress, to plan my days, to walk where I desired and see what I would."

Allen and his men find Alaska breathtakingly beautiful, unforgiving, baffling, and at times tremendously rewarding. Yet there appears to be at least the threat of danger around every corner, and they must contend with the weather, the tundra itself, settlements of Indians which react differently to Allen's group, the challenges of living in close proximity with each other, and some strange occurrences which don't seem as if they have any basis in reality. Allen chronicles everything in his journal, since he knows his letters may take a very long time to reach Sophie, and he views his journal as the ultimate record should their exploring fail.

For her part, Sophie also keeps a diary, chronicling her loneliness and longing for Allen, her feeling stifled by barracks life and the gossiping women around her, and the excitement she feels when she discovers photography is an outlet for both her love of nature and her independent, creative spirit. She is a woman so used to following her own course yet she'd give anything to be with her husband again, or at least get word of his condition.

Allen and Sophie's stories are told against the backdrop of correspondence between Allen's great-nephew and the curator of an Alaskan museum, which also are fascinating exchanges about cultural identity, the thirst for adventure, and both how alike and how different we are from each other.

Much like an expedition, the book started slowly but picked up steam as it progressed. Ivey's characters felt so lifelike, their struggles so real, I felt totally invested in their lives. Ivey has such a way with imagery, with emotion, that I pictured the book in my mind's eye and felt it in my heart. This is totally a keeper and it is utterly memorable.

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!

Friday, November 4, 2016

Book Review: "Guest Bed" by Luke P. Narlee

Ah, I love books that keep me guessing.

Ron isn't having a very good morning, to put it mildly. It's the day before his 12th wedding anniversary. When he finds his wife Kate cooking breakfast, he hopes they'll have a pleasant morning, or at least coexist reasonably peacefully. But his hopes are quickly dashed when his attempts at casual conversation turn into a huge argument. An argument like all the others they seem to be having lately.

Disheartened, angry, and figuring his marriage is on the verge of ending, Ron heads to the train station, only to get into a car accident on the way. On the way home from work, shaken up and bruised, he falls asleep on the train, and when he wakes up from a bizarre nightmare, he finds he is seated near a beautiful young woman named Courtney. The pair clearly have some chemistry, and as they flirt and talk during the train ride, Ron finds himself thinking about how pleasant it is to be appreciated by a beautiful woman, how good it feels to talk with someone who is clearly interested in what he has to say, feelings he hasn't had with Kate in some time.

The more time he spends with Courtney (when he is supposed to be home with Kate), the more drawn to her he becomes. And as she tempts him into some fairly reckless behavior, at the same time, Ron has flashes of conscience, moments when he wonders if all of this seems a little too good to be true. And then he readies himself for another miserable night with Kate, a night of accusations, arguments, and unhappiness.

I'll stop my plot summary here, because things certainly get more interesting! Having read many books and seen movies with a similar plot line, I definitely had expectations of how things would unfold, but Luke Narlee was having none of that! Guest Bed is surprising, tense, romantic, thought-provoking, and tremendously compelling.

As much as I've described Ron as a bit of a victim, Narlee doesn't allow his characters to be one-dimensional stereotypes. His characters are definitely more complex than they initially appear, and you're not sure which person to root for, or what conclusion you hope will occur. This is a book about the excitement of new love and how over time, it is often worn down and/or taken for granted because of the challenges of our everyday lives. It's also a story about trying to understand what happiness means to you, and how hard you're willing to fight to find it or keep it.

This is a quick, entertaining read, one which will draw you in pretty quickly and not let you go until the end!

The author and Take Exit 3 provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Book Review: "And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer" by Fredrik Backman

It's ironic that mathematics figures into the plot of this book (but you shouldn't let that scare you), because I thought about approaching this review as a mathematical proof. Given that Larry is a total sap, prove that this utterly exquisite novella will leave him an emotional wreck. Done and done.

"Noah holds the old man's hand, the man who taught him to fish and to never be afraid of big thoughts and to look at the night's sky and understand that it's made of numbers. Mathematics has blessed the boy in that sense, because he's no longer afraid of the thing almost everyone else is terrified of: infinity. Noah loves space because it never ends. It never dies. It's the one thing in his life which won't ever leave him."

On its surface, this seems like a very simple story about the special relationship between a boy and his grandfather, the many interests and loves they shared, and how much the latter learns from the former, as well as vice-versa. But as you delve deeper, and read Fredrik Backman's almost-poetic dialogue and see his imagery in your head, you realize this book deals with the fear that comes from memory loss; the everlasting nature of love; how palpable regret can be and while it may actually be easy to make amends, how hard doing something easy can be; and the sadness of having to say goodbye to loved ones.

The beauty of this story is letting it unfold without knowing too much, so I don't want to say anything more about the plot. I felt that this was so special because it demonstrates that you can find courage in the midst of fear, and that, clichéd as it might sound, love—both romantic and familial—can be enough to help you through the hard times.

My paternal grandmother was probably one of my most favorite people ever, and I know that I was her favorite. We called her our "playing grandma," because even in her 70s, she would be on the floor playing with my siblings and I, taking us to New York City museums, even climbing up steps in the Statue of Liberty. No matter what I did, she was always as proud as if I had scored the winning goal, won the Nobel Prize, and made millions of dollars all at the same time. She died 12 years ago at the age of 93, although we began losing her to dementia about three years earlier. To this day, I miss her more than words can say, so this book was one that made me smile through my tears, made me grateful to have had her as such a part of my life for so long.

I have read some absolutely fantastic books this year, many of which continue to stay with me long after I've finished with them. I've no doubt that this story of Noahnoah and his grandfather will be one of those, and I hope it is for you as well.

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