Friday, May 26, 2017

Book Review: "Standard Deviation" by Katherine Heiny

It has been a long while since I literally laughed out loud while reading a book, but Katherine Heiny's debut novel, Standard Deviation, had me cracking up more than a few times. (Nothing quite like sitting at the chiropractor laughing to yourself and having everyone wonder if you need more than your back adjusted...) Zany, contemplative, occasionally moving, and tremendously insightful, this is a book about love, family, raising children, temptation, and origami.

"It had begun to seem to Graham, in this, the twelfth year of his second marriage, that he and his wife lived in parallel universes. And worse, it seemed his universe was lonely and arid, and hers was densely populated with armies of friends and acquaintances and other people he did not know."

Graham's wife, Audra, is tremendously outgoing, the type of person who can tease a story from a stranger with whom she's waiting in line within a matter of minutes. This is the complete opposite of Graham, who would prefer to blend into his surroundings, and would rather not know the personal peccadilloes of everyone in their apartment building, their son's pediatrician, even his wife's yoga teacher.

"Audra could converse with a statue. (In fact, once in the ER she had had a long talk with a man who turned out to have had a stroke and could only communicate by blinking.)"

Audra is vastly different than Graham's first wife, Elspeth, a slightly standoffish lawyer. But Audra has decided that she wants to be friends with Elspeth, so through the sheer force of her personality, she wills Graham to make it happen. For a little while it works, which leads Graham to wonder what his life might have been like if he had stayed married to Elspeth, and wonder what it was that kept their relationship from working. (Other than the fact that he cheated on her with Audra.)

In addition to Audra's utter vivaciousness, the couple deal with the challenges of raising a son with Asperger's. When Matthew becomes interested in joining an exclusive origami club (seriously), the couple throws themselves into their son's passion as much as the other socially awkward members of the club will allow. And as Matthew navigates the difficulties of adolescent friendship, again, Audra, dragging Graham along for the ride as they try to convince a boy to be friends with Matthew again (even if a little bribery is involved).

Standard Deviation made me laugh quite a bit, but it also made me tear up a few times, and it made me think. Sometimes Audra is almost too wacky to be believed, but yet I know a few women who seem to befriend everyone they meet, even those not interested in speaking. The book is a fascinating, touching, humorous meditation about what love, marriage, and parenthood mean, and how those who don't remain in our lives still have the tendency to affect us.

I remember wanting to read Heiny's debut story collection, Single, Carefree, Mellow, but you know—too many books and not enough time. Given how good this was, how well Heiny balances humor and heart, the quiet moments of life along with the zany ones, I'll definitely need to give her stories a try as well.

Even if you don't have an Audra, an Elspeth, a Matthew, or a Graham in your life, this book is so worth picking up. I don't think I'll get these characters—or the things Heiny made them say or do—out of my mind anytime soon. And I don't think I mind that one bit.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Book Review: "Anything is Possible" by Elizabeth Strout

I don't know about you, but people watching utterly fascinates me. It's really amusing to watch the dynamics of families and groups of friends, but what's even more fun is making up stories about those we see, developing a narrative about their relationships, challenges, and victories. (It would be great to find out how far from the truth these stories are, wouldn't it?)

Reading Elizabeth Strout's new collection of linked stories, Anything is Possible, feels like a cross between people-watching and eavesdropping, because the stories give you glimpses into people's lives you might not ordinarily get, without facing the embarrassing risk of getting caught. These stories are beautifully written, at times utterly moving, and, like people-watching, often truly fascinating and compelling.

I haven't read Strout's My Name is Lucy Barton, but the stories in this collection feature Lucy's small Midwestern hometown of Amgash, Illinois, and Lucy has a presence in many of the stories, and an adult Lucy is a character in one. These are stories of people struggling with challenges—emotional, romantic, familial, professional, even philosophical. As Strout says of a character in one of her stories, but this applies to most of them, "Life had simply not been what she thought it would be."

My favorites in this collection included: "The Sign," in which an elderly man finds his faith tested after a conversation he has with a troubled man he occasionally looks after; "Sister," where an adult Lucy Barton returns to her hometown and her siblings after being away for nearly 20 years; "The Hit-Thumb Theory," about a Vietnam veteran suffering from PTSD who has a dilemma that could radically change the course of his life, and he finds a moment's solace in a small bed-and-breakfast; "Windmills," in which a lonely widow changes her life after reading a book written by someone from her hometown; and "Snow-Blind," about a shocking discovery a young actress makes after she has left her family behind.

These are not happy, well-adjusted people in many cases. A few of the stories deal with odd sexual situations, and at times the characters are quite mean to each other. But Strout's talent as a storyteller makes even the somewhat bizarre stories, and those with unappealing characters interesting, and you want to keep reading them.

Interestingly enough, I've only read one of Strout's earlier books, The Burgess Boys, and I didn't like it that much. But now I'll definitely need to read more of her work, because I really found these stories moving and so well-written. If I had any criticism, it's that she uses subsequent stories to advance the plot of previous ones, referring to a character and saying, "Did you hear that so-and-so did...?" But that was a minor irritation for me.

I know short stories, even linked ones, don't appeal to everyone. But Anything is Possible feels a little like hanging out a party—you spend some time with lots of different people and get the opportunity to hear something about their lives and what makes them tick, then you move on. But the good news is, you don't have to bring an appetizer, help clean up, or worry how you're going to get home afterward.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Book Review: "The Awkward Age" by Francesca Segal

Ah, family drama. What would we do without you? I'm just glad none of these issues happened on The Brady Bunch (although apparently some of the shenanigans were occurring backstage)!

It has been a number of years since Julia Alden's husband died, leaving her with a young daughter, Gwen. Julia and Gwen have been an inseparable duo, weathering life's problems and enjoying adventures together, just the two of them. But now Julia has fallen in love with James, an American OB/GYN who has made his home in England for years. James has awakened Julia's passions—for life, love, sex, and security—things she figured she'd never find again.

The two plan to merge their lives and their households together, and receive nothing but enthusiastic support from James' daughter as well as Julia's inlaws, a couple which has their own interesting relationship. The roadblock? Gwen, now 16, completely dislikes James, and can't even deign to keep her hatred a secret. Not only does she resent the fact that her mother has found happiness again and (as she sees it) abandoned her, she now has to share her house with James and his egotistical, 17-year-old son, Nathan.

Every day is an emotional minefield for the blended family. But after a Thanksgiving trip to James' Boston hometown, Gwen and Nathan begin to see each other in a different light. It's not long before the new relationship turns the household upside down, bringing drama and recrimination, and severely testing Julia and James' relationship.

"How was it possible that one spoiled, angry teenager had wrested control of all their lives?"

Even as your children grow to adulthood, are you expected to sacrifice your own happiness for their sake? Should your loyalty always lie with your own child, even if it might cause stress in your own romantic relationship? How much, and for how long, should you owe your child for a difficult childhood? Does honesty really mean telling the person you love everything you feel, even if it's about their child?

The Awkward Age is an interesting look at these questions. It's a take on modern relationships, gender roles, and how often the things we don't say to one another can cause the most damage. The book definitely has a soap opera-esque feel, even veering into melodrama, and at times I wanted to shake some of these characters to get them to be sensible.

I absolutely loved Francesca Segal's first novel, The Innocents (see my original review), an interpretation of The Age of Innocence set in a Jewish suburb of London. Segal created fascinating characters and a plot you couldn't tear yourself away from.

I didn't feel as if she succeeded as well with The Awkward Age. I thought the first part of the book, which dealt with Julia and James' growing relationship and how everyone around them reacted, was really interesting, but once the melodrama began it lost a bit of its appeal. Perhaps the plot was realistic, but everyone just acted so unpleasantly and dodged around the elephant in the room for so long, I wished I could have walked into the story and set everyone straight.

Segal is an excellent writer, and there is a lot to like about this book. Her characters, while irritating, are really well-drawn. (I found Julia's inlaws and James' ex-wife fascinating.) I just wish this book was less dramatic and more contemplative, because when her storytelling does the talking, the reader definitely wins. (P.S.: Definitely read The Innocents!)

Monday, May 22, 2017

Book Review: "He Said/She Said" by Erin Kelly

Now that's the way you do a thriller.

Kit and Laura are young and newly in love in the summer of 1999. Kit, who has been chasing solar eclipses since his childhood, convinces Laura to join him on a trek to Cornwall for a festival, during which they're expected to see a total eclipse of the sun. While the weather doesn't quite cooperate to give them the full eclipse experience, it still wows Laura, as she truly understands why Kit finds these events so mesmerizing, and loves being able to share them with the man she loves.

Walking back to their campsite after the eclipse, Laura comes upon a man and a woman. At first she doesn't understand what she's seeing, but then she realizes that the man appears to be taking advantage of the woman. She, then Kit, intervenes, the woman is dazed, the man is angry and protests his innocence. Once the authorities take over, the peace of the event is shattered for Kit and Laura, knowing they may find themselves part of a trial in the future.

After the case is over, the woman gets in touch with Laura to express her gratitude for their help. As the woman becomes needier and needier, both Laura and Kit have concerns, but how can Laura turn a woman away who has had her whole life turned upside down, even been betrayed by those she considered friends? Little by little, Laura starts feeling unsure that she made the right decisions—did she actually see what she thinks she saw? Is the victim as innocent as she appeared?

"...that's the thing with secrets. They're leaky; you can't decide to share the bits that suit you without a million questions oozing out. You have to solder a part of yourself shut."

Fifteen years later, Kit and Laura have changed their names and live almost in hiding, off the physical and virtual grid. Every move they make is one made cautiously, and both live in fear that everything they've built can be destroyed in a moment. But while they share the same fears, they also have vastly different things they are afraid of, things which have caused Laura nearly paralyzing anxiety and have strained their marriage.

"There is so much unshared life to intrude upon the marriage; so much opposing history. The defining event of my life is the defining event of Laura's. I don't know how couples who haven't been through something like that stick together."

With so much at stake, they know their fears will catch up with them. And when they do, will they—and their marriage—be able to survive?

He Said/She Said seems like a pretty basic thriller at first, but Erin Kelly's storytelling keeps you hooked. If you read thrillers, or even watch crime-type shows on television, you've seen this story before, and you have a feeling what will happen. At least you think you have. But Kelly never rests on plot-as-usual; she stretches everything to the limit, so just as some of the things you expect to happen do, the next second you're shocked by what else unfolds.

The book may get a little more melodramatic than it needs to at times, and because certain aspects of the story take a while to unfold, I found myself confused by the behavior of some of the characters. But this was a really well-written book, and Kelly kept me hooked from start to finish. While I could have passed on the jet-lag-induced insomnia, I didn't mind passing the time devouring the remainder of this book.

I've only read one of Kelly's previous books, The Poison Tree, and I remember enjoying that, too. While she's apparently referred to as "the queen of the killer twist," I think if you just let the story unfold as Kelly intended it, and don't keep focusing on the twist, you'll be able to concentrate on all of the things that made this a great thriller.

NetGalley and St. Martin's Press provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Book Review: "Edgar and Lucy" by Victor Lodato

Edgar Allan Fini is an eight-year-old boy unlike any other. Because he suffers from albinism, his physical appearance is tremendously unique (a fact not quite appreciated by his bullying peers), but his heart and his mind are far more advanced in many ways than most kids his age. Since his father's death when he was a baby—an event no one speaks of—he lives with his mother, Lucy, and his beloved grandmother, Florence, with whom he has a special connection.

"Even those who loved you best were bound to find the flaws if they stared long enough. To lose his grandmother's favor would be the end of everything. Unlike his mother, whose light flashed on him only intermittently, like the beam of a lighthouse, the old woman was nothing less than the sun. The idea that she might think less of him filled the boy with shame."

Edgar has his secrets, but then again, so do Lucy and Florence. Lucy mourns for the passionate, troubled man who rescued her from a troubled childhood and loved her fiercely, yet she continues to be angry with him for leaving her alone with his mother and their infant son. She tries to fill her husband's absence with alcohol and destructive relationships with other men, yet she can't help but wonder if she made the right choice all those years ago when her husband needed her most. While she loves Edgar, she doesn't know how to deal with him, and is happy to defer his parenting to Florence, despite what she believes Florence thinks about her.

Florence, on the other hand, mourns for her lost son and tries to understand what happened to him and what role she played in his problems. She has pinned all of her hopes on Edgar, and loves the young boy with the force of her being, yet she wants to be sure he doesn't follow in his father's footsteps. She tries desperately to shelter him from the outside world, and from the mess she believes Lucy is making of her life and the memory of her son.

One day, feeling hurt, alone, confused, and angry, Edgar makes the decision to befriend a man with his own secrets and his own tragedy. It is a decision that impacts both his and Lucy's lives profoundly. Edgar must figure out what means the most to him, and what he truly wants, while Lucy must come to terms with her marriage, her husband's problems, her own childhood, and her relationship with her son.

I'm being fairly vague with my plot description because there are a lot of elements which are more powerful if you let them unfold rather than learn about them in advance.

Edgar and Lucy is a book a number of my Goodreads friends rated very highly and felt very passionate about, so despite my trying to tamp down my expectations, I had high hopes. This is a beautifully written book—seriously, Victor Lodato is a prose master, creating imagery and using language which truly took my breath away. It's very powerful emotionally, and Edgar and Florence's relationship made me a little teary. But despite the beauty of its storytelling, I liked, but didn't love the book.

I wished that the story was tighter, as I felt the plot dragged on longer than it needed to. After a while I just wanted the plot to resolve itself. There are elements of mysticism I didn't quite understand, and at times there were characters I felt were extraneous. I was thankful that Lodato didn't take the story down a path I feared, and I felt that there was so much going on at times that it diluted the powerful heart of the story. But maybe these are the quibbles of someone who expected too much—perhaps if you just go into this book knowing you'll be moved, you may enjoy it more than I did.

At its heart, Edgar and Lucy is a book about the beauty and pain which come with relationships and love of all kinds, and how painful it can be to be the one left behind. If you like beautiful writing, you'll be blown away. Heck, you may even cry.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Book Review: "The Breakdown" by B.A. Paris

As Kermit the Frog is fond of saying, it's not easy being green. It's also not easy being a voracious yet all-too-human of a reader, who tries desperately not to let the hype of all of my Goodreads' friends five-star reviews creep in and color my expectations of a book. Sometimes immovable Robot Larry wins, and sometimes the flawed mess more commonly known as Larry does. Apologies in advance.

Cass seems to have it all—a loving husband, a job she enjoys, a secure financial position, and good friends. One night in the middle of a huge rainstorm, she takes a shortcut home through the woods (in her car, not with her picnic basket), even though she promised her husband she would avoid that route. When she's nearly home she comes upon a car on the side of the road, in the midst of the storm, and she sees a woman sitting in the car.

Cass should stop and see if the woman needs help, right? But the woman doesn't have her flashers on, and didn't honk her horn—wouldn't she do that if she needed help? Then Cass realizes this could be a scam of some sort, one which might leave her vulnerable in the middle of the woods on a rainy night, with no mobile service to call for help. Since the woman must already be waiting for help, Cass decides to drive home and alert the authorities afterward, but when she arrives home she forgets about it.

The next morning, Cass is distraught to find out a woman was found murdered in her car in the woods the previous night, the woman she saw. But she was fine when she drove by, wasn't she? Or was the killer still in the woods, waiting to see if Cass would stop so he could kill her, too? Cass is utterly wracked by guilt, but she can't admit to her husband that she took the shortcut. As the days following the murder pass, Cass is barely able to function—she's consumed by the thought that she could have helped the victim, and she's growing increasingly more afraid that the murderer saw her stop that night, and is planning to silence her.

Cass' days are spent feeling convinced she's being watched, worrying that someone is trying to break into her house, and someone keeps calling her house but not saying anything. She's coming utterly unglued, and to make matters worse, she's starting to forget things—plans she's made, occasions she's planned—even whether she took her pills or activated the burglar alarm. The only way she can seem to cope is by taking pills to calm her anxiety, but they leave her in a drugged stupor, much to the chagrin of her husband.

Why can't she get past the murder? What is happening to her that she can't remember anything? Will she wind up alone, unaware of what is going on around her?

The Breakdown took a while to build up speed and tension. Obviously you know something will happen, but you don't know what or when. For a while, Cass' character really started grating on my nerves because she was just a sniveling mess, falling to pieces at the slightest thing, yet taking all sorts of risks. And then...BOOM. B.A. Paris throws in a twist which, while not utterly surprising, really turns the plot on its ear and sends the book careening to its conclusion.

I haven't yet read Behind Closed Doors so this was my introduction to Paris' storytelling. Once the book hit its stride, I really enjoyed it, and found myself reading it quicker and quicker, so I could see how everything panned out. While it took a little while for the tension to build, once it started she didn't let up, which is the mark of a good thriller.

I tend to be really hard on thrillers, so I can totally see why others fell so hard for this one. I still have Behind Closed Doors on my to-read list, and I have little doubt that The Breakdown will be seen on beaches, airplanes, and e-readers once it is released this summer, and deservedly so.

NetGalley and St. Martin's Press provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Book Review: "A Promise to Kill" by Erik Storey

If you like your thrillers heavy on action and a little lighter on plot, check out A Promise to Kill, the second book in Erik Storey's series featuring mercenary-turned-drifter Clyde Barr. Storey knows how to write some great action scenes, and this book has lots of fighting, battles between good guys and bad, situations in which a female character saves the day (just like real life, more often than not), and even a little terrorism.

Clyde Barr is a solitary man, but one who understands the meaning of loyalty. It's not so much that he never shies away from a fight, it's just he is very committed to making sure that the little guy, such as it is, doesn't get taken advantage of. It was the hallmark of his time as a mercenary of sorts in Africa, the Middle East, and South America, and he paid the price for it at one point, with a stint in a Mexican jail.
(P.S.: I'm not casting aspersions on Barr's character. I just love this line.)

Barr is wandering in the Utah desert, alone with a horse and a mule, planning to clear his mind and do some hunting. He runs into an elderly Native American man from the nearby Ute reservation who is in the throes of a medical emergency and rushes him to the hospital, despite the man's reluctance to be off the rez. At the hospital, he meets the old man's daughter, Lawana, a doctor at the reservation's clinic, and his grandson Taylor. Seeing that they're in need of help at the family's ranch, Barr agrees to stay on to help until the man is on his feet again. Although Lawana doesn't quite trust him, she is in desperate need of help.

It isn't long before Barr notices the reservation is in some trouble: a group of bikers has overrun the place, filling the community with fear and violence. The one tribal policeman can't do anything about it because he can't arrest white men, and the government won't get involved in cases like these. Despite his instincts to try and solve the crisis and send the bikers on their way, Barr tries to lay low and focus on working the ranch, but it isn't long before the bikers attack a local boy, and send Barr's temper skyrocketing. Lawana warns him not to make trouble, but avoiding trouble isn't what makes him tick.

As Barr and some local tribe members prepare to do battle, he discovers that the reason the bikers have taken over the reservation and refuse to stay isn't just a penchant for violence and a need for power: there are more nefarious elements involved, and the threat actually ranges far beyond the reservation itself. When his actions put Lawana and Taylor in danger, Barr knows he must act and act quickly, but is this an enemy he can beat? Can one man really protect an entire town? Will the members of the tribe rally around an outsider?

I really enjoyed this book and read the entire thing in one sitting on a plane ride. The action sequences really kept the story rolling along to its conclusion, and while I wasn't surprised by much of what happened (and wondered if one whole plot element was even necessary), I was pretty hooked anyway. Storey writes really good thrillers, also evidenced by the first book in his Barr series, Nothing Short of Dying (see my original review).

As I mentioned earlier, the book doesn't spend a lot of time in backstory, which suits this book well. This is one you can pick up even if you didn't read Storey's first book in the series. This type of drifter-ish character, like a Lee Reacher, is always fascinating, and Storey has definitely created a memorable member of that group. If you like this genre, check this guy out.

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

Monday, May 15, 2017

Book Review: "At the Edge of the Universe" by Shaun David Hutchinson

Did you ever get the feeling you and an author would be great friends (or perhaps mortal enemies), simply based on the books they write and the way they tell stories? Even if that's irrational as thinking you'd be great friends with a television character, I still believe that from time to time.

Near the top of my list would be Shaun David Hutchinson, who absolutely slayed me with We Are the Ants (see my original review), which was in the top five of the best books I read last year. Now he's back with At the Edge of the Universe, which I loved nearly as much, and it just convinced me I'd love to spend time just talking to Hutchinson and understanding how he thinks. At the very least, I'd love to be friends with one of his characters.

Ozzie and Tommy have been best friends since childhood, and they've been boyfriends since the eighth grade. Tommy is so much of Ozzie's world, the two have weathered so much, particularly Tommy's abusive father, and they dream of one day escaping their Florida hometown. And then one day, Tommy disappears, without any warning. But worse that that, Tommy has ceased to exist—no one but Ozzie remembers Tommy, and all of the memories that the two shared, or shared with others, have been amended or totally rewritten.

"It's impossible to let go of the people we love. Pieces of them remain embedded inside of us like shrapnel. Every breath causes these fragments to burrow through our muscles, nearer to our hearts. And we think the pain will kill us, but it won't. Eventually, scar tissue forms around those twisted splinters like cocoons. They remain part of us, but slowly hurt less. At least, I hoped they would."

As Ozzie desperately tries to figure out what happened to Tommy, and convince those around him—including Tommy's mother—that he actually existed, Ozzie begins to realize that the universe is shrinking, and perhaps Tommy was taken away into some alternate universe. But that's not the only crisis Ozzie has to face—his parents are getting divorced, his older brother has joined the military and is about to head to basic training, and one of his best friends, Lua, is becoming distant as her dreams of musical success start coming to fruition.

Then Ozzie is paired with Calvin on a physics class project. Calvin was once a star wrestler, class president, and all-around popular guy, until the day he quit wrestling and student council, came into school every day wearing the same hoodie and jeans, and mostly sleeps through class. Obviously there's something that made Calvin change so abruptly, and Ozzie wants to get to the bottom of it, but at the same time, he really can only focus on finding Tommy. But as he gets to know Calvin, he can't deny that he might be falling for him, but he doesn't know what to do—is it unfair to Tommy for Ozzie to pursue another relationship, or should he try and move on? And what if Tommy really doesn't exist?

As the universe continues to shrink, and Ozzie's life continues to change, he knows he has a finite amount of time to find Tommy. But he also realizes there are so many more people in his life with problems. Should he help solve those, even if it might betray their trust, or should he not lose site of his goal? And will there be a universe left when he decides?

Even though it's a little confusing when the plot goes all science-y, this is a beautiful book that hits you right in your heart. Once again, Hutchinson combines sci-fi and emotion to create a tremendously compelling, moving story about friendship, love, loyalty, trust, family, secrets, and selfishness. There is so much here to like, even if the characters aren't always 100 percent sympathetic, but it is Hutchinson's storytelling, his use of language and dialogue, that kicks this book up another notch. His characters may be wiser than their years, but they don't sound as if they just walked out of a John Green novel, where every sentence is a sarcastic burn or a philosophical insight.

Hutchinson is open that as a teenager he struggled with depression and contemplated suicide, so he has a tremendous amount of empathy for his characters and their problems. I do wish he had dwelled a little less on the physics, but it didn't keep me from loving this book and these characters. Like We Are the Ants, it will be a long while before I'll be able to get this story out of my mind. Is it 100 percent plausible? No. Does it matter? Not to me, given how tightly it grabbed my heart.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Book Review: "The Leavers" by Lisa Ko

The Leavers by Lisa Ko is utterly exquisite. This book about two different people's struggle between doing what is right, what people want and expect them to do, and what they want to do, is tremendously moving and powerful. As the title suggests, it's both a story of those who leave and the effect on those who are left.

Deming Guo is 11 years old. He's being raised by his mother, Polly, an undocumented Chinese immigrant, and they live in a crowded Bronx apartment with Polly's boyfriend, his sister, and his nephew, who is Deming's surrogate brother. Polly wants more than her exhausting job at a nail salon—she wants the opportunity to make more money and not kill herself in the process. Deming wants his mother to be around more yet he wants her to have the money to give him what he wants.

One day, Polly leaves for her job, and never returns. At first, no one is exactly sure where she went. Did she go to Florida to pursue a better job opportunity, and she'll send for Deming when she gets on her feet? But if that's the case, why hasn't she gotten in touch with anyone? Deming doesn't understand why his mother has left him, and bargains with himself constantly that if he does better in school, is nicer to his peers, Polly will return. But she doesn't.

When the burden of caring for Deming becomes too much to bear for those left behind, he becomes the foster child of an older couple, Peter and Kay, both college professors, and they convince him that to better adjust and assimilate with his peers in upstate New York, he should change his name to Daniel. Daniel has a great deal of trouble adjusting, however, something that causes Peter and Kay a great deal of difficulty, since they aren't sure if they're even suited to be parents anyway. But still, they adopt Daniel, and pressure him to buckle down academically.

The Leavers follows Daniel as he grows into a rudderless young man, torn between wanting to pursue his own dreams and wanting to please his parents, or he's afraid they'll leave him as his mother did. It also traces Daniel's struggles to understand what happened to his mother and deciding if he should try and follow some leads that might have presented themselves to him. The book also follows Polly from her childhood in China to the day she disappeared, and outlines the difficult choices she is forced to make.

Ko's storytelling is truly breathtaking, as she has created two characters who capture your heart and will stay in your memory. Neither character is 100 percent admirable, and at times their actions are frustrating, but you understand their struggles and feel for them. And while some of the other characters may make decisions that anger or frustrate, you see that they're also very complex, no matter how much time they're in the book.

I absolutely loved this book, and read the entire thing in one sitting while on a plane. I was moved, I was blown away, I wanted to shake the characters and make them act or say the thing that might move things forward, and ultimately, I was sad when I was done. I cannot wait to see what's next for Lisa Ko, because this was one hell of a book.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Book Review: "Since We Fell" by Dennis Lehane

Dennis Lehane is truly one of my most favorite contemporary authors. He electrified me the minute I read the first Kenzie-Gennaro mystery (and all of the others that followed) and dazzled me with Mystic River, and while not every subsequent novel has been a home run, the indisputable fact is, I love the way he writes.

Needless to say, I pounced on Since We Fell, his newest novel, practically at midnight the day it came out. I've decided that how you feel about this book may very well depend upon whether you've been led to believe it's a thriller or a novel. As a novel, it's definitely thrilling, particularly the last third or so, but as a thriller, it's not quite as pulse-pounding as you would probably expect it to be. Expectations. Tricky things, no?

Rachel Childs had a difficult childhood. Raised by a single mother who refused to give her any information about her father, Rachel was simultaneously nurtured and bullied by her mother, smothered and neglected. After her mother's death, her search for her father leads her to meet some interesting people, and learn just how difficult and controlling her mother really was.

Given her dogged investigative thirst, Rachel finds success first as a print journalist, then a television news reporter. She is being groomed for major success when, covering the aftermath of the Haiti earthquakes, she has a breakdown on the air. Her career in ruins, she becomes a virtual shut-in, barely leaving her apartment, licking her wounds. And then one day a chance encounter with someone from her past, someone who has always intrigued but confused her, makes her realize that happiness might not be totally out of her grasp.

Rachel and her husband live a relatively quiet, reasonably ideal life. He travels a bit for work, and encourages her to overcome her agoraphobia, little by little, but doesn't push too hard. He wants her to find the strength to thrive on her own. But then one afternoon, as she decides to venture out on her own, she makes a shocking discovery that throws her for a bit of a loop. As she tries to make the puzzle pieces fit, she uncovers a web far more tangled than she could ever imagine. She isn't sure whether she should let her panic attacks consume her again or if she should battle back for the first time in a long time. And she's not even really sure what she's battling against.

Since We Fell takes a while to build up steam, but it's still a well-told, compelling story about a woman driven to uncover secrets, first about her father, and then about the news stories she covers. It's a story about a woman knocked back on her heels, and whether she should try to find the strength to knock back, or if she should just be content with being a has-been more famous for appearing crazy than the work she did. It's also a story about how an unexpected relationship might not save you, but it may give you the courage you need to save yourself.

Lehane's storytelling is in fine form here, and once he kicks the book into thriller mode, the engine just takes off, leaving you breathless at times. There are a lot of twists and turns here, some I saw coming, some surprised me. It's not necessarily new ground, but it's kind of like having a familiar dish prepared by a master chef—everything is just a little bit better.

Years ago, a few days after Mystic River was released, I met Lehane at a reading and book signing. When I told him I had already read the book, he said, "But the book came out Tuesday. It's Friday, man. I don't think I can write that fast!" I offered to sharpen his pencils if that would help. Needless to say, I've done it again, and I know I may have to wait a few years until Lehane's next book. But Dennis, if you're reading this, I'd be glad to sharpen some pencils if it will help.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Book Review: "The Gypsy Moth Summer" by Julia Fierro

The fact is, I'm not a fan of bugs. I recognize they're all God's creatures, I know that some bugs actually help the environment, and the demise of certain bugs can spell peril for our world, but that doesn't change the simple fact that (most) bugs creep me out. And don't even get me started if I see/feel one crawling on me.

I probably should have considered this when I decided to read Julia Fierro's The Gypsy Moth Summer, which takes place in the summer of 1992, when gypsy moths invade Avalon Island, off the coast of Long Island. So many times in the book these bugs were crawling on people, landing in inopportune places, swarms of them were making noise, and I cringed the whole time. The preface of each chapter even had information and drawings of the caterpillars and moths. I can't stop itching...

Okay, moving on now. The Gypsy Moth Summer is about a community under siege from natural and unnatural, human and insect causes. Avalon Island is ground zero in the battle between the haves and the have-nots—the perfectly manicured, coiffed, and bred citizens of East Avalon versus the tougher, working class residents of West Avalon, which also is home to the island's main source of income, Grudder Aviation, birthplace of planes and bombers that fueled the nation's victories when at war. But suddenly, Avalon residents are getting sick with unexplained cancers, and people are wondering: is Grudder to blame?

When prodigal daughter Leslie returns to Avalon with her African-American husband and biracial children in tow, it turns the island upside down. While the more progressive residents are thrilled at Leslie's happiness, even her devil-may-care attitude, the welcoming, accepting spirit isn't shared by everyone on the island. And while the resident group of teen mean girls from East Avalon have nothing but disdain, one of them, Maddie, whose family background straddles both sides of the island, finds herself falling head over heels for Brooks, Leslie's son. But there are many not content to let that happiness be.

I felt many times while reading this that Fierro was trying to capture the spirit of Liane Moriarty's Big Little Lies, with a little bit of Mean Girls thrown in. All of the elements were there—those living with privilege and those without, secrets, scandals, mysteries—but it didn't quite capture either the suspense or the camp of Moriarty's book.

Fierro is undoubtedly a talented storyteller, and she did a terrific job evoking the imagery of the island as well as the different personalities which made up the cast of characters. But I felt in trying to create drama, she threw everything she could into the plot—disease, racism, abuse, animal cruelty, sex, even class warfare. Between all of that and the shifting narration, it became a little confusing at times.

I've seen a lot of great reviews of this book, so if the elements of the plot appeal to you, I'd encourage you to read it. You certainly won't be disappointed by Fierro's writing ability—as long as you can stomach the bugs.

NetGalley and St. Martin's Press provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Book Review: "Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore" by Matthew Sullivan

How do you select the books you're going to read? Oftentimes I'm drawn to books written by authors I love (and sometimes I decide to give an author another shot), and other times I choose books and/or authors which have been hyped or those about which I've heard good feedback. And then sometimes, it's something intangible, like the cover design catches my eye, so it leads me to read the description, and I'm hooked.

This is the crazy way my mind worked when I decided to read Matthew Sullivan's terrific Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore: I used to work in a bookstore, I love going to bookstores, and I really enjoyed Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore (see my original review), one of the last books I read which took place in a bookstore. The gamble definitely paid off with this one—while it wasn't what I was expected, it was so much more.

Lydia is a bookseller at Denver's Bright Ideas Bookstore. Not only is she excellent at her job because she's well-read and perfectly satisfied to work where she is, she's tremendously patient with a group of people she calls the BookFrogs—the downtrodden, sometimes homeless regulars (most often men) who make the bookstore their surrogate home.

"Lydia's skills as a bookseller came mainly, she believed, from her ability to listen. A raging case of bibliophilia certainly helped, as did limited financial needs, but it was her capacity to be politely trapped by others that really sealed her professional fate. From bus stops to parties to the floors of the store, Lydia was the model of a Good Listener—a sounding board for one and all. Strangers and acquaintances and the occasional friend unloaded on her by the hour..."

One night, just as the store was closing, Lydia finds Joey, the youngest, most sensitive and inquisitive BookFrog, with whom Lydia has struck up a friendship of sorts, has committed suicide on the store's top floor. She knew that Joey had had his problems in the past, but he never seemed desperate enough to consider suicide. When she finds out that Joey has bequeathed Lydia his meager possessions—mostly a few random items and a milk crate full of books, most of which he bought from the store, she is saddened for the path his life took. But as she flips through his books, she discovered that pages in each were defaced, as if he was sending Lydia coded messages of some kind.

As Lydia tries to figure out what Joey was trying to tell her, she also finds among Joey's possessions an item from her own childhood, something she cannot figure out how he would have gotten. You see, Lydia has her own secrets as well, basically a childhood tragedy that has caused her to keep everyone, even her boyfriend, at arm's length, and never let them truly know who she is and what she has been through.

The messages in Joey's books, along with the resurgence of her own memories and insecurities, leave her on edge, a condition further exacerbated by the reappearance of one of her childhood best friends, as well as a dogged police detective and her estranged father. She is determined to find out what Joey was asking of her, and she realizes she needs to get answers to the questions that have haunted her own life since she was younger, even if that means reliving an experience that still chills her.

While this book is billed as a mystery, and there certainly are suspenseful elements of the plot, there is so much more to the story. This is a book about giving people a chance no matter who they are or what their background is. It's a book about friendship, sacrifice, the need to feel wanted and loved, the danger of secrets, the grief we keep hidden inside, and how the love of books can truly be pervasive. I found this book so surprising and so moving—even as I figured out how the plot would unfold I was so invested in Sullivan's characters I couldn't stop reading.

Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore is really a special book, and Sullivan is truly talented as a storyteller. Because it straddles a few genres, I hope it doesn't get lost in the shuffle, because this is a fantastic read—full of emotion, a little suspense, and a lot of heart.

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

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Book Review: "The Half-Life of Remorse" by Grant Jarrett

Many believe that people come into our lives for a reason—to provide support or companionship during a critical time, to impart knowledge or wisdom we might not otherwise gain, or to help us reach a goal we might have believed was unattainable.

When Chick and Sam meet, both have been living on the streets for some time. Neither is exactly sure for how long, or is really interested in dwelling on how they came to this point. Both have held jobs from time to time to help them survive, but for the most part, it's been their survival instinct that has kept them alive, although both might question if seeking shelter and food wherever you can find it, no matter how unsavory, is really living.

"When you live out here on the street, it don't matter much what town you're in. One place is pretty much the same as the other far as I can tell, and I figure I been around more than most. Sure, some places maybe got nicer weather than others, and some's got cops or thugs, which is pretty much the same thing, with nothing better to do with their time than roust some poor beggar from a park bench or a bus station so the rats can have it to theirselves, but still in all, you figure out what's what soon enough if you want to keep breathing, which maybe sometimes you do and maybe sometimes you don't."

Sam sees in Chick somewhat of a kindred spirit, although they are very different from one another, but Sam invites Chick to share the rudimentary shelter he has put together under the stairway of a church. Sam insists he is a wizard, one who has lived for hundreds or perhaps thousands of years, so Chick worries a little bit about Sam's mental condition, but little by little they begin to trust and count on each other, and Chick helps find ways to make their meager day-to-day existence a little more palatable.

Chick has spent his adult life haunted by a crime he was part of when he was a teenager. He's never been able to shake what he saw, or his guilt in simply just being a bystander as things unfolded. When Sam starts having visions of a man in trouble, a man whose life is apparently in danger, he wants to try and help. And when Chick realizes what Sam's visions mean, he must make a critical decision: does he help Sam return to the scene he keeps seeing in his mind's eye, and risk having to divulge his own role in the incident, or should he let Sam's delusions continue?

Meanwhile, Claire, Sam's daughter, hasn't seen her father since she was very young, but she's never given up hope that he'll return to her someday. She lives with her own emotional and physical pain, but she is unprepared for what her lifelong wishes might mean for all those involved.

The Half-Life of Remorse may turn on a very convenient coincidence, but it doesn't lessen the power of this book. This is a story about two men trying to steer clear of their past, although only one really knows what they're doing. It's also a story about the kindness of strangers, and the empathy one shows another, even when doing so may be harmful or hazardous to themselves. It's also the story of love and redemption, hope and the power of memory, and the beauty of friendship.

The book shifts narration among all three main characters, and Sam's portions take a little bit of getting used to, because he uses very fancy words befitting of his perception of himself as a wizard. But the emotions, particularly in Chick's parts, are palpable even though he is a man of few words, and you can tell he really doesn't know how to handle the situation he's found himself in. The other quirk is that because Chick, in particular, isn't well-educated, his narration tends to have a lot of "must ofs" instead of "must haves," and other grammatical errors. (I seriously had to turn my inner editor off when reading those sections.)

Grant Jarrett is a pretty fantastic writer. While his first book, Ways of Leaving (see my original review), had almost a Tropper-esque vibe to it, this book is more spare in its narration, at times reminding me a little of Kent Haruf. He really deserves some renown for his talent, and perhaps The Half-Life of Remorse may push him into the spotlight. It certainly should.

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

Friday, May 5, 2017

Book Review: "The Hate U Give" by Angie Thomas

Wow. Just wow.

In my life so far, I've had the opportunity to experience many different things, but there are certain things I'll never get/have to experience. For example, I'll never experience childbirth, not that I'm complaining, although I once had a cortisone shot in my hip flexor, and my orthopedist said she thought those hurt just as badly. (You can debate on that.)

I'm also fortunate enough that I'll never have to worry about the police viewing me as a threat as soon as they see me, just because of the color of my skin. I'll never have to think about the possibility of a routine traffic stop turning into something more dangerous just because a policeman gets nervous. That's something I take for granted, but I won't now that I've read Angie Thomas' searing, powerfully moving The Hate U Give.

Starr is 16 years old. She feels like there are two of her—the devoted daughter who lives in a poor neighborhood and saw her best friend get killed in a drive-by shooting when they were 10, and the student at the fancy prep school her parents sent her and her brothers to in order to get them out of the ghetto, the student who doesn't speak the way she does at home, and lets very few people into her "real world." Even her boyfriend at school, Chris, with whom she watches reruns of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air doesn't know the "real" Starr, although he says he wants to.

"Funny how it works with white kids though. It's dope to be black until it's hard to be black."

One night while Starr is at a party in her neighborhood, she runs into her childhood friend Khalil. Khalil was her first crush, and although she hasn't seen him for a while, it feels good to reconnect. When a fight breaks out at the party, the two leave before things get out of hand. Not long afterward, police pull Khalil's car over, and before they know it, Khalil gets shot and killed by the cop. He was unarmed.

Khalil's death throws Starr and her family into a tailspin. The media has already branded Khalil a drug dealer and a thug. Starr doesn't feel like she can tell her friends at school what happened because that would be exposing them to a part of her she has tried to keep hidden, but she is angered by the attitude of one of her friends toward Khalil's shooting. Starr is afraid of the ramifications of telling the truth of what happened that night to police, prosecutors, everyone—what if police target her family? What if others think she should just keep her mouth shut? And will speaking up make the difference anyway, if most of the time white cops don't pay the price for shooting black people?

"I've tweeted RIP hashtags, reblogged pictures on Tumblr, and signed every petition out there. I always said that if I saw it happen to somebody, I would have the loudest voice, making sure the world knew what went down. Now I am that person, and I'm too afraid to speak."

Starr's involvement in Khalil's death uncovers friction in a number of places—between her parents, who argue about the merits of getting their family out of their neighborhood versus their responsibility to making sure it doesn't die; between her father and his nemesis, the leader of a powerful gang, who is intertwined with Starr's family in too many different ways; between her and Chris, as well as her friends at school; and between the factions of their neighborhood and others in the community, some who riot for the sake of rioting and don't care what destruction they cause, and some who understand the power of their actions.

The Hate U Give is tremendously moving and just so current given what is happening in our society. While certainly it focuses on police brutality and the anger minorities feel when the authorities don't get punished for doing wrong, it is quick to point out that not all police are bad, just as not all black people are drug dealers, gang members, or looking to do harm. This is a book about racism, but it's also a book about family, friendship, loyalty, community, and how often it truly does take a village to save someone. This is a book that addresses the plight that many young black men face, but it doesn't place the blame on anyone but them, either.

I thought Thomas did a great job with this book, making sure it wasn't too heavy-handed in its messaging or too extreme in its plot. She created characters you grew to care about, characters you were invested in, so when pivotal events occurred, you were moved by them. This really blew my mind, and I think this is a book which really deserves all of the hype it is getting.

Several times in the book Starr's mother uttered the quote, "Sometimes you can do everything right and things will still go wrong. The key is to never stop doing right." I hope The Hate U Give reaches those despairing whether doing the right thing is still worth it even if it doesn't get the result they want. Because it really, truly is.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Book Review: "Trajectory: Stories" by Richard Russo

Some authors make you wait a while between books. In some cases, it's a L-O-N-G while. And then, sometimes, the fates smile upon us—in just about a year we've gotten not only Everybody's Fool (see my original review) from Richard Russo, but now we have Trajectory, a collection of four stories, which again show why he is a writer to be reckoned with.

But don't be fooled into thinking that because Trajectory contains only four stories, it will be a quick, breezy read. That is not the case. Nearly 260 pages in length, these stories have heft, complexity, and emotional depth. Each of the stories have their roots in Russo's oft-visited New England (although a portion of one story is set in Venice, home of his beautiful novel Bridge of Sighs), and feature characters at emotional crossroads.

I really enjoyed all four stories, although I struggled a little bit with the longest of the four, "Voice," in which a former academic recovering from a professional catastrophe agrees to accompany his estranged brother on a trip to Venice, and finds their relationship has disintegrated even more than he imagined. I liked the story but it shifted back and forth from Venice to the narrator's academic crisis a little too often, and I'm never enamored of books whose plot turns on a failure to communicate.

The other three stories were tremendously moving, and I had a hard time picking a favorite. The stories were: "Intervention," about a realtor facing a major medical crisis who is reminded of his father's being in the same position years before—and he wonders if he should follow his father's actions; "Milton and Marcus," in which a once-semi-successful writer is enticed by an elderly movie star to revive a script he wrote years ago, only to be bewildered by the racket of show business; and "Horseman," which tells of a college professor unnerved by both professional and personal challenges, and unsure what her next step should be on both fronts.

I've always said that the mark of a good story is when I find myself thinking about what happened to the characters after the story ends, and wishing I could read a novel just with those characters. Each of the stories in Trajectory fall in those categories, both because I became so enamored of the characters, and I would have loved to get more of their backstories.

I have loved Richard Russo since I picked up Mohawk in 1986. I have read every one of his books since then, and even when they don't quite click, I can't get enough of his storytelling. I just hope the embarrassment of riches we've experienced this year doesn't mean an even longer wait for his next book!!

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Book Review: "The Locals" by Jonathan Dee

Few contemporary authors have as keen an eye for observing society and personal dynamics as Jonathan Dee. His previous novels have looked at the haves and have-nots, the way the public revels in and revolts against scandal, and failing and thriving marriages, among other topics.

In his latest novel, The Locals, Dee takes on the foibles of a small New England town being caught in a tug of war between those who want the town to stay the same and those who believe it can be better than it is, and are willing to invest in it—as long as things go their way.

Howland, Massachusetts has never been much of a tourist attraction; there's really only one site worth seeing, the historical home in which a former railroad baron and his ill wife once lived. In the days post-9/11, Howland is, like many towns, populated by those who believe in personal freedoms and those who believe the government should do anything it can to keep people safe.

Mark Firth, a contractor and home restorer, was actually in New York City on 9/11, as he was planning to give a deposition in a case against the man who swindled him out of his family's savings. Now, as he worries about how much longer people will need his services and what that will do to his family, and thinks about those wealthy people who come up to Howland, build fancy houses, and leave them empty all winter, he wonders why some people have all the luck and others have to fight for every last thing.

Philip Hadi was one of those wealthy people, but after 9/11, he brought his family up from New York permanently, as he wasn't sure whether as a wealthy financial manager he might be a target of a subsequent attack against the U.S. He employs Mark's company to bolster his home's security features, and the two build a relationship of sorts, one which inspires Mark to look beyond contracting and home restoration and consider pursuing investment in Howland's housing market.

Meanwhile, Hadi, who enjoys the small-town feel of Howland and believes it can be more than it is, becomes the town's first selectman, and uses his money to essentially buy the town's loyalty, as he saves businesses and citizens from foreclosure and bankruptcy. But as he moves to turn the town into a wholly different place, and encroach on personal freedoms he doesn't agree with, the town starts to push back.

These stories play out against a backdrop of those of other Howland residents, including Mark's sister, brother, wife, daughter, and other citizens. There are stories of infidelities, alcoholism, struggling to find yourself, dealing with aging parents and feeling as if you're the only one carrying that weight, financial woes, etc.

I felt as if Dee tried a little too hard to make this book an epic story of sorts, because there are just so many characters mentioned in and out of different sections that it was difficult to remember who was whom. Then, suddenly, as the book would move into another section, an undisclosed amount of time would have elapsed and major (although perhaps not surprising) plot points would simply be mentioned in passing.

Dee is a great writer, and his storytelling shines through this book, which is a little more of a downer than I expected. I just wish he made his characters more appealing and sympathetic, because I didn't feel there was really anyone to root for. Additionally, I felt that the whole first section, although it helped develop a little bit of Mark's character, was nearly superfluous, so I'm not sure why it had to drag on as long as it did. Still, the social commentary Dee provides is tremendously insightful and on point, especially in today's political environment.

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

Book Review: "White Fur" by Jardine Libaire

What a crazy, terrific book! Being a child of the 1980s, and given the fact that's when this book takes place, nothing captures the essence of White Fur better than these lyrics from the song "Obsession" by Animotion:
You are an obsession
I cannot sleep
I am your possession
Unopened at your feet
There's no balance
No equality
Be still I will not accept defeat
I will have you
Yes, I will have you
I will find a way and I will have you
Like a butterfly
A wild butterfly
I will collect you and capture you
You are an obsession
You're my obsession
Who do you want me to be
To make you sleep with me
You are an obsession
You're my obsession
Who do you want me to be
To make you sleep with me
The moment Elise Perez sets her eyes on Jamey Hyde in their New Haven neighborhood, she knows she wants him. Although they live next door to each other, they couldn't be more different. Elise was raised in housing projects all over Connecticut—she never knew her father, and became familiar with a life of sex, drugs, violence, and neglect all too early. Jamey, on the other hand, is a blue-blooded child of privilege—scion of an influential banking family, heir to a fortune, and son of an unstable film actress. He finds Elise fascinating, sexually alluring, and yet can't figure out why he'd want her in his life.

"But Jamey doesn't want to know her for the same reason that—(his brain starts fuzzing up here, trying to save him from the thought he's about to think)—for the same reason a farmer isn't close to his animals—it's not supposed to last."

It starts out as purely sex—Jamey doesn't take Elise out on dates or invite her to parties or even over to his house, but Elise knows she has baited the hook and will ultimately reel him in. Elise wants more, wants it all, but it isn't because of Jamey's money or his social standing (which she doesn't really understand at first, anyway), it's because she wants everything—love, sex, companionship, the kind of relationship she's only seen on television and in movies.

"She's always been an outsider. She isn't clearly black or white or Puerto Rican, and the world where she grew up was easier if you were one thing or the other, or if you claimed one thing or the other, which she could have done but never did."

Jamey feels simultaneously drawn to Elise and repelled by his attraction and his growing feelings to her. He knows this isn't what is expected of him, not what he was raised to do, yet the more he realizes he cares for Elise as more than a source of constant sexual fulfillment, the more he becomes enamored of the way it will upset the apple cart of his social circle. He doesn't want anyone to judge him or their relationship, although he doesn't realize exactly how he's treating Elise at the same time. And then his family gets involved, and the whole game changes.

White Fur explores the age-old theme of dating outside your social strata, disobeying your family, and deciding to follow your heart instead of what you've been raised to do. This is a book about how love can change us in ways we want it to, and ways we hope it won't, and whether giving in to those feelings is surrender or the right thing to do. And beyond that, this is a story of whether a love which causes so much trouble is the right love or simply an act of rebellion.

Based on the way the book begins, I was expecting the story to unfold very differently than it did, but I loved the path that Jardine Libaire took her plot down. These characters were fascinating, frustrating, at times even a little repulsive, but I couldn't get enough of them. Even though there are elements you expect, the plot takes many different twists (one which I wasn't quite sure about), and you find yourself rooting for these two to last even if you're not sure whether they will.

Libaire was tremendously attentive to her book's 1980s vibe, and the grittiness of New York City, where much of the book takes place. This is a book that is a little raunchy, a little romantic, a little predictable, but you can't stop reading, because you wonder how the plot will be resolved. Just a surprising, terrific read.

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

Book Review: "Ragdoll" by Daniel Cole

Despite the fact that I had a medley of Aerosmith's Rag Doll and Rag Doll by The Four Seasons running through my head while reading this book (not because of any plot points, just because my head is full of musical earworms), Daniel Cole's Ragdoll was a pretty fantastic, page-turning crime novel. It's a rarity when a book like this can surprise me, when my habit of suspecting nearly every single character introduced doesn't irritate me when the crime is solved, but Cole did a great job with this book.

Dogged police detective William Oliver Layton-Fawkes, nicknamed Wolf, has received more than his share of notoriety, most of it more negative than anything else. After catching the suspected "Cremation Killer," London's most prolific serial killer in its history, his reputation went from hero to villain as the trial highlighted manipulation of evidence, police brutality, and suspicions of abuse in his own marriage. When the suspect was acquitted, Wolf's actions wind up getting him suspended and hospitalized in a mental institution, his life a shambles.

When the killer acts again, and Wolf is proven to have been correct all along, he returns to the police force under psychological evaluation and more supervision than he has had in the past. But it's not long after he's handed his most grisly murder case, which the press has labeled "The Ragdoll Murder"—the body is made of the dismembered parts of six victims, sewn together like a puppet. As Wolf and his colleagues set out to identify the victims and find the killer, but their work is foiled by the press, particularly Wolf's ex-wife, Andrea, a ruthlessly ambitious reporter. Andrea anonymously receives photographs of the crime scene as well as a purported list of the killer's next six targets, with the dates he plans to kill them. Last on the list: Wolf.

The police force finds themselves in a race to protect the people on the killer's list, but realize they are dealing with a more ingenious and dangerous nemesis than they originally believed, not to mention one willing to use the media to help pressure the police into making mistakes. At the same time, the intensity with which Wolf throws himself into this case threatens to reopen the emotional wounds he suffered during the Cremation Killer case, and has the potential to pit colleagues against colleagues in solving the crime.

Cole balances the crime-solving in this book with a great deal of character development as well as suspense, action, and emotion. Wolf is a fascinating, flawed character I hope to see again, and the relationships with his colleagues which Cole explored were complex and compelling. This is a book which works on all levels, which is often a rarity with crime novels.

It's amazing to think that this is Cole's debut novel, because his storytelling is tremendously focused and on-point. While there was one plot point I didn't love, I enjoyed this book immensely, and if I were anywhere other than my association's annual conference I would have devoured it in a second. Don't be swayed by the unusual musical earworms it spawned in my head—pick up Ragdoll if you're a fan of crime novels, because this is one not to be missed.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Book Review: "The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley" by Hannah Tinti

One thing about love, be it romantic, parental, filial, even platonic, is that sometimes you can't help whom you love, and you find yourself loving someone in spite of their faults (if not even because of them). Do we turn our backs on those we love just because they may be imperfect, despite all they may have given us? These ideas and questions are at the core of The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, Hannah Tinti's exquisite new novel.

For as long she can remember, it's just been the two of them—Loo and her father, Samuel. He's a mysterious man, with scars all over his body, including many from bullet wounds, but his rough exterior belies a deep sensitivity borne from the death of her mother, Lily, when she was very young. Samuel and Loo have a nomadic like existence in her childhood—just as it seems they're getting settled somewhere, suddenly one day her father will come home and tell her they're moving away, and they pack up only the essentials and flee wherever they're living, setting out on a new course. One of the only constants she knows is the shrine of sorts her father builds for her mother wherever they go, tiny glimpses into a life she never really knew.

"The marks on her father's body had always been there. He did not show them off to Loo but he did not hide them, either. They reminded her of the craters on the moon that she studied at night with her telescope. Circles made from comets and asteroids that slammed into the cold, hard rock because it had no protective atmosphere to burn them up. Like those craters, Hawley's scars were signs of previous damage, that had impacted his life long before she was born. And like the moon, Hawley was always circling between Loo and the rest of the universe. Reflecting light at times, but only in slivers. And then, every thirty days or so, becoming the fullest and brightest object in the sky..."

In Loo's teenage years, Samuel recognizes the need for constancy, so the two move to Olympus, the New England town where her mother grew up. He finds work—and challenges—as a fisherman, while Loo tries to fit in at the local high school. But it isn't long before the characteristics that make Loo special, the behaviors that come from a young girl raised only by her father, that she becomes an outcast, which awakens a surprising anger deep inside her, at the same time that she finds herself drawn to one particular boy.

The longer they stay in Olympus, the more entangled in the community and its quirks both become, yet the more Samuel can't seem to escape his old ways. Loo becomes more desperate to know about her mother, and the secrets her father has kept hidden all her life, and being Olympus helps to unlock some of those mysteries, yet leaves her questioning just who her father is, and whether the things he has kept from her all of her life were lies or simply sins of omission.

As much as this book is about Loo and Samuel's relationship, it's also Samuel's story, a chronicling of his criminal past and where each of his bullet scars came from, and the story of a love he thought would save him, a love he didn't nurture and care for as much as he should have. And it's also the story of a man trying desperately to tread the right path for his daughter despite his inability to keep his own demons at bay.

This was a fantastic, moving, beautifully told book. The relationship between Samuel and Loo is truly a special one, and even though he's not the best role model for his daughter, and he introduces elements into her life she would have been better off without, these things give color and shape to their relationship. There are times you wonder if Loo might be happier and more adjusted without her father, but then again, what would her life be without him?

While The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley is essentially a two-person story (with Lily's presence a strong third element), Tinti doesn't give the supporting characters short shrift. These are fascinating, flawed, memorable individuals who are so much more complex than they first appear. Not all of these characters are likable, but they truly bring something special to the book.

You may not think that Samuel is deserving of sympathy (or empathy, for that matter), but like many a flawed character in literature, you care about him despite his flaws, and for his good qualities, especially the fierceness with which he loves and protects his daughter. This is a book I won't soon forget.

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

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Book Review: "Letters to a Young Writer: Some Practical and Philosophical Advice" by Colum McCann

I love following friends on Goodreads who have similar tastes in books to mine. It's always fascinating to see different people's perspectives on books you've read, to see if they love the same ones you do, and if they were as disappointed as the ones which let you down. The potential downside? When it seems as if EVERYONE has read a book that you hadn't even considered, or just haven't gotten to yet. You know what I mean...

It's not that I hadn't considered reading Colum McCann's Letters to a Young Writer: Some Practical and Philosophical Advice, it's just that there are always far too many books and far too little time, so I thought a foray into nonfiction might bog me down. And then the reviews started popping up—people were breathless with their praise, they were moved, some were even in tears! Well, hell, I couldn't let this one pass me by then.

The fact is, when I was in fifth grade I wrote my first novel. Since I was mostly influenced by my afterschool diet of soap operas and my prime-time consumption of television shows like The Love Boat and Fantasy Island (it was the 70s, after all), the book was a tad melodramatic. In fact, my very first reviewer, my aunt, said to me, "So, does anyone in this book do anything more than get married, have affairs, have babies, kill each other, and die?" Well, no. Needless to say, the novel died a quick death.

I have dreamed of being a writer for most of my life. I write quite a bit as part of my "real job," but not fiction (although the occasional marketing copy or memo to my Board of Directors might qualify). I've written a few short stories that I tried to get published, but I've never gotten that far. I know I have a story, or a novel, inside me, but I just can't seem to flesh out the ideas enough to get them on paper.

Needless to say, McCann's book didn't just speak to me, it sang. Filled both with new takes on advice I've heard before, and new perspectives I hadn't considered, Letters to a Young Writer both encouraged me and made me realize the things I've perhaps been doing wrong in my pursuit of the fiction deep within me.

"One day you might find yourself hating writing precisely because you want to make it so good. Yet this awful truth is just another form of joy. Get used to it. The sun also sets in order to rise."

Beyond the inspiration of this book, what I loved is that while McCann treated writing as a calling, something writers feel they must do, he recognizes it can't be the only thing. He talks about the need to escape the pressure of writing, the need to enjoy life outside (and the outside), and the importance and sheer beauty of reading, one of my most favorite activities in the world.

"You read to fire your heart aflame. You read to lop the top of your head off. You read because you're the bravest idiot around and you're willing to go on an adventure into the joy of confusion. You know when a book is working. Give it time. ... A good book will turn your world sideways."
I am energized by this book, with the desire to write, certainly, but also the desire to read more of McCann's work. The fact that he could dazzle me so with a book about writing, combined with how I felt about Thirteen Ways of Looking (see my original review), definitely convinces me to revisit the one novel of his I had trouble with, as well as his other books.

Do you need to be a writer, or want to write, in order to enjoy this book? It certainly helps, but the fact is, anyone with an appreciation of the craft of writing, or who simply marvels at the lyrical beauty of sentences will enjoy this. McCann is a writer at the top of his craft, sharing his craft with us as he tells us about his craft. It's a little meta, but it's a lot fantastic.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Book Review: "Who is Rich?" by Matthew Klam

If people were happy with their lives, if they weren't having to deal with crises of conscience, relationships, and faith, what would that mean for the state of fiction? Much in the way that evil characters are more fun to read (and write) about, unhappy characters definitely provide a richer mine from which to build a novel.

Rich Fischer, the protagonist of Matthew Klam's Who is Rich?, is definitely unhappy. At one point he was a cartoonist of some renown, but he now works as an illustrator at a magazine which covers politics and culture.

"Illustration is to cartooning as prison sodomy is to pansexual orgy. Not the same thing at all."

The only thing really left from those better days is that every summer he travels to New England to teach a four-day cartooning workshop at a week-long arts conference. It's not the most fulfilling opportunity, but it does get him away from his family and from the constant problems weighing on his mind and his psyche.

"I wasn't a teacher. I didn't belong here. I'd ditched my family and driven nine hours up the East Coast in Friday summer highway traffic so I could show off in front of strangers, most of whom had no talent, some of whom weren't even nice, while I got paid almost nothing."

Rich and his wife Robin are unhappily married and on the verge of utterly resenting each other full time. Their two young children have their own dysfunctions, and how the couple chooses to handle (and/or ignore) these issues adds more strain to their exasperating relationship. Money is always tight, their sex life is almost non-existent, and both are often bitter, about their relationship and their lives.

"Was it a good life? Was I more joyful, sensitive, and compassionate in my deeply entangled commitment to them? Was there anything better than seeing the world through the eyes of my nutty kids? Was my obligation to Robin the most sincere form of love?...Was this as close to love as I was ever going to get? The closer I got, the more I wanted to destroy the things I loved. Something rose up in me, threatening me. I had to deflect it somehow."

There is one bright light drawing him back to the workshop this year—Amy. Amy is a painting student whom Rich met at last year's workshop, and they shared a flirtation, a little bit more than that, and then spent the winter alternately texting and longing to see each other, and punishing themselves for wanting this. She lives in a wholly different world than Rich—Amy is married to an extremely wealthy, reasonably loathsome Wall Street magnate who is barely home, and rarely pays attention to her and their children when he is. And as much as Amy wants more, wants something different, she isn't sure if she deserves that, and if so, if Rich is that something different.

This is an interesting meditation on monogamy, marriage, children, middle-age, financial success, and whether abandoning your dreams for something more stable makes you a sell-out or a failure. It's also an exploration of what kind of happiness we should expect from life—should you take what you're given or should you hope for more?

Klam is an excellent writer. I read his story collection, Sam the Cat: And Other Stories, about 17 years ago, and he's been one of those writers I've been waiting for years to write another book. This definitely didn't disappoint, although it's a bit more of a downer than I expected. Given the subject matter, it's not too surprising, but I felt the book flowed a lot more slowly because of its morose tone. There are moments of lightheartedness, even humor, but the dilemma that Rich and Amy find themselves in, and Rich's own struggles tend to take more precedence, at least early on.

Who is Rich? definitely made me think, and helped me keep the challenges of my own life in perspective. And isn't that why we read sometimes, to make us feel better about our lives than those the characters are living?

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

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Book Review: "The Dinner Party and Other Stories" by Joshua Ferris

Sometimes you love every book an author writes, and other times you have a completely different reaction to every one of their books. Joshua Ferris definitely falls into the latter category for me—Then We Came to the End left me bemused yet ambivalent; I absolutely couldn't get into To Rise at a Decent Hour; and I really enjoyed The Unnamed.

Despite that mixed track record, I still really enjoy the way he writes, so I jumped at the chance to read an early copy of his first story collection, The Dinner Party and Other Stories. Overall, I really enjoyed it—he kept some of the quirks which occasionally throw me in his writing in check, and these stories are compulsively readable. They're fascinating, some are really packed with emotion, some are a little bizarre, and you just want to know how Ferris will tie things up.

Many of the 11 stories in this collection seem fairly innocuous at first, with characters you think you've seen before—a husband dreading another dinner party with his wife's oldest friend and her husband; the retiree who laments growing old alone; a man who is falling to pieces because he believes his wife has left him. But as you delve deeper into these stories, you discover that nothing is quite what it seems, and which gives each story a little bit of an unexpected kick. Sometimes that doesn't quite work, but for the most part, it really does.

Only one story in the collection really didn't excite me, but my favorites included: "The Pilot," in which an insecure writer gets invited to the party of a famous writer he met once, but he wonders if she meant to invite him, and he struggles with whether to go; "The Valetudinarian," about an elderly man struggling with growing old alone, whose life is literally changed by the arrival of an intriguing gift from an estranged friend; "More Abandon, or What Ever Happened to Joe Pope," which tells of a man's exploits in his office after hours; "The Breeze," about a woman who nearly comes undone with the possibilities which arrive with an unexpected spring breeze; "The Stepchild," in which an actor seeks out a woman he met one night, in order to counter his despair that his wife has left him; and the title story, which tells of a couple awaiting friends to come over for a dinner party, despite the fact that the husband is utterly over them.

There were many times in these seemingly simple stories that I was wowed by Ferris' prose. One such example comes from "The Stepchild":
And what you are growing here, and there, and over there, are little moments, and the memories make a life that can't be taken away from you by anyone or anything, not other people's fickleness, not even death. In the long run, you know, that's better than bowls of dried flowers, or whatever.
I don't believe that every person who has been successful at writing novels is as successful writing stories, and vice versa. But I felt that Ferris' storytelling ability was on great display in The Dinner Party and Other Stories. These were stories which really resonated, and worked for me in ways that his novels haven't always succeeded. And even if you've never read any of his books but you're a short story fan, this is a collection worth exploring.

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!

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Book Review: "The Upside of Unrequited" by Becky Albertalli

Becky Albertalli, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways...

I fell in complete and utter love with Albertalli's first book, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda (see my original review). I devoured it in less than a day, and it was a no-brainer that the book showed up on my list of the best books I read in 2015.

As you might imagine, the minute her newest book, The Upside of Unrequited, came out, I pounced. I bought it at like 12:01 a.m. on the day it was released—I set my alarm and woke up to buy it, dork that I am. I tried really hard to keep my expectations from getting utterly out of control, because when you love an author's first book, don't you expect—and hope against hope—that you'll love every one of their subsequent books, too?

Molly Peskin-Suso is 17 years old. She's funny, smart, sensitive, and amazingly crafty—she can actually make the things you see on Pinterest. She makes desserts (including safe-to-eat raw cookie dough) in mason jars. She knows she has a bit of a weight problem, but everyone tells her what a pretty face she has, and sometimes her anxiety gets the best of her. But she's also a hopeless romantic—a fact that can be easily borne out by the 26 crushes she's had on boys throughout her lifetime.

"There's a reason I've had twenty-six crushes and no boyfriends. I don't entirely understand how anyone gets a boyfriend. Or a girlfriend. It just seems like the most impossible odds. You have to have a crush on the exact right person at the exact right moment. And they have to like you back. A perfect alignment of feelings and circumstances. It's almost unfathomable that it happens as often as it does."

One night, Molly's twin sister Cassie meets Mina, the girl of her dreams. (Actually, Molly meets her, but immediately knows that she's Cassie's dream girl.) For the first time, Cassie is smitten beyond a simple hook-up: Mina is relationship material. Suddenly Molly finds herself on the outside looking in—of course Cassie wants to spend time with Mina and talk about Mina, and she's totally happy for her, but she's a little sad, too. But it's not like Cassie is one of those people who throws everyone else away when she's in a relationship—one of Mina's cute hipster friends, Will, seems to like Molly, so they should totally hook up and they can double-date!

Will is cute and charming and seems to think Molly's funny. And while Molly has proven that she's more than capable of having crushes on boys, with Will it seems like she's more excited about the idea of having a crush on him than actually feeling that way. Maybe that's because she's just met Reid, a chubby, adorable fan of Game of Thrones, Tolkien, and the Renaissance Festival. Reid makes her feel that way, but if she lets herself fall for him, won't it ruin everything with Cassie?

"If I had to describe the feeling of a crush, I'd say this: you just finished running a mile, and you have to throw up, and you're starving, but no food seems appealing, and your brain becomes fog, and you also have to pee. It's this close to intolerable. But I like it. More than like it. I crave it."

Amidst the backdrop of a family wedding, a visit from their wacky, critical, slightly racist grandmother, and the emotional crises of other friends, Molly needs to decide what she feels, and for whom, before she ruins everything with everyone. Including Cassie. It's too much for anyone, much less a 17-year-old with questionable self-esteem and a history of public vomiting.

I really, really enjoyed this book. Becky Albertalli drew me in on the very first page and didn't let me go until the very end, and I'll admit, I was sad that the book ended. While I'll admit I found Molly's inability to express her feelings or thoughts to anyone tremendously frustrating at times, I understand that doing so poses a challenge for anyone, especially someone who suffers from anxiety.

There was just so much to love about this book—dialogue and behaviors that actually seemed teen-like, as opposed to old-beyond-their-years; the flush of excitement that accompanies crushes, first loves, and infatuation; boys I could totally see myself crushing on if I was that age; and the realistic relationships between sisters, friends, parents and children, and those who like each other. Albertalli's characters are so special and memorable that you'd love to be friends with them in real life, even if their parents are probably younger than you. (Sigh.)

A lot has been made about the incredible diversity of the book's cast of characters—Molly and Cassie have two moms, one black and one white, they're being raised Jewish, characters are straight, gay, lesbian, and pansexual—but none of it seems forced, and very little of it is really a focal point. This is just a sweet, special book, about relationships, about finding the courage to believe you're worthy of love, and following your heart, not what people tell you your heart should feel.

If you've not read Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, read that, too, and you'll see why I'm a huge Becky Albertalli fan, and why I read her new book on the day it was released. (And then you can join me in my vigil for her next book.)