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.)

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Book Review: "Mrs. Fletcher" by Tom Perrotta

With books like Election, The Abstinence Teacher, The Leftovers, and Little Children, Tom Perrotta has proven to be a master commentator on the foibles of society, on people's attitudes toward love, sex, relationships, religion, parenthood, and morality. He has a wry wit and isn't afraid to expose his characters' flaws, and he does so again in his newest novel, Mrs. Fletcher.

A divorcee in her mid-40s, Eve Fletcher is at a bit of a crossroads. Her only son has left for college, leaving her completely alone for the first time. As she starts trying to figure out how to fill that loneliness, she gets a random text one night from a number she doesn't recognize, which tells her, "U R my MILF!" The text throws her for quite a loop, and as she tries to figure out who might have sent it to her, she suddenly finds herself on the internet, following an interesting chain which leads her to milfateria.com, a porn website she can't seem to tear herself away from.

"What that meant, Eve realized, was that you couldn't really say, I'm not a MILF, because a MILF was in the eye of the beholder. The other thing she'd learned was that you shouldn't google the term if you didn't want to find yourself swimming in an ocean of porn."

As Eve tries to fight her growing porn habit (or is it an addiction?), the videos she watches every day sends her mind into territory she had never thought about before, territory which has the potential to make things difficult in her job as executive director of a local senior center, as well as make her look at people and situations with a very different eye. She isn't sure which end is up, or with whom she wants to end up.

Meanwhile, Eve's son Brendan, a jock and, quite simply, a bit of a douchebag, is having a tough time adjusting to college. He's the type of guy who has multiple shirtless pictures of himself on his Facebook page, because if you look good shirtless, shouldn't you show your body off? Brendan had thought college would be an endless parade of parties, drinking, drugs, and, perhaps most importantly, sex with a wide assortment of women. But with his roommate mostly AWOL, and most of his friends into their own things, it turns out girls don't like it when you call them things like "slut" and "bitch," and college doesn't go so well when you barely concentrate on your classes.

Eve and Brendan both find themselves confronting the after-effects of mistakes they make, mistakes which cause both of them to despair in very different ways. Can Eve overcome her porn habit and find her way to a "real" relationship? Is college the right path for Brendan, and if so, will he find people who think the way he does, or will he need to be the one who changes?

Mrs. Fletcher is a fascinating, fairly explicit look at how our attitudes toward sex, sexuality, relationships, and morality are formed, and how they change. It shows that when sex is all you think about, and you think with your libido instead of your brain or your heart, the direction you move in is probably going to get you in trouble. It's also a book about finding happiness with yourself before you can find someone else.

I love the way Perrotta combines humor with social commentary. While his books have dealt with sexuality before, this was a pretty frank book, and it touched on some very interesting territory, territory which may make some uncomfortable. It's definitely very thought-provoking.

These characters, particularly Brendan, aren't particularly sympathetic—they make a lot of stupid mistakes and sometimes don't even realize they're doing so. I found myself amazed at what Eve got herself into, and how she thought, but at the same time, she wasn't willing to speak up to her son about the way he was behaving.

I enjoyed this book, but I don't think this ranks up there among Perrotta's best. Still, he writes like very few other authors out there, and it's always great to read his work.

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

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Book Review: "Skyscraper of a Man" by Michael Bowe

There's a sense of nostalgia that pervades Michael Bowe's novel Skyscraper of a Man, and it's not just because the book takes place in the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s. The book felt old-fashioned to me, but not in a negative way—it's a story told utterly without gimmick or guile, simply a well-told story rich with character and plot, the kind of book that seemed much more prevalent years ago than it does today.

"While some accomplish great things, others like myself simply manage to be in the right place at the right time as momentous events occur, members of a fellowship that I call The Coattails Club. It is, after all, an inevitable aspect of human history; a talented, inspired few will live noteworthy lives while a fortunate few will bear witness. And for any writer, again like myself, there is no role more fortuitous than that of witness."

Peter Dalton, the Nick Carraway-esque narrator of Skyscraper of a Man, grew up in a middle-class household in suburban Delaware in the 1960s and 1970s, what he referred to as "perfect conditioning for an insignificant life." His parents placed education above almost all else, so Peter decides to go to Stanton University in a town called Cavanaugh (I never quite figured out where in the U.S. it was supposed to be). He is overwhelmed about being away from home but excited about the future.

Within the first few days of college, he meets Benjamin Franklin Matthews, a local Cavanaugh boy of modest means, raised by a Revolutionary War buff and owner of the local printing press. Pete realizes very quickly that Ben is unlike anyone he has ever met—someone so sure of himself and his place in the world, someone with the bravado to dream big but with the intelligence and ambition to build a foundation for, and the drive to work to achieve, his dreams. Ben awakens a slightly lower-grade ambition in Pete, and quickly the two set their sights on becoming the first freshmen in more than 20 years to get an article published in the college newspaper.

As they pursue their journalistic ambitions, Pete and Ben, along with Pete's roommate Danny, once a promising football player sidelined by injury, and Ben's girlfriend Tyler, an aspiring journalist whose ambitions might rival Ben's, form a quartet of sorts, each working to pursue their dreams and enjoy this formative time in their lives. But it's not long before Ben takes the first step and launches Cavanaugh Weekly, a newspaper he hopes will position his hometown for significant growth in the future, and put him on the road to the fulfillment of his dreams. He convinces Pete to drop out of college with him and become the newspaper's editor, a move that Pete quickly jumps at.

As the years pass, Cavanaugh Weekly becomes a paper of significant influence and success, and Cavanaugh itself is on its way to becoming the city Ben imagines it can be. While Pete is tremendously fulfilled by his work, Danny and Tyler each experience roadblocks they don't expect. But it is Ben who is the shining star, and he decides to run for mayor, tangling with a dangerous career politician. Can Ben run as a truly principled candidate, or will the system—and his opponent—break him? Is Cavanaugh ready to elect a political neophyte on the strength of his personality and his vision for the future?

One review of Skyscraper of a Man hailed its "silver screen potential," and truly, I could see this adapted into a riveting television miniseries, because the themes of friendship, ambition, disillusionment, fighting for your dreams, and realizing life rarely winds up as we plan, are tremendously resonant and universal. Bowe imbues his characters with passion, flaws, and complexity, so you want to know what will happen to them, if they will achieve all they hope to.

While the plot isn't necessarily surprising—you pretty much know what will happen in many cases before it does—the storytelling draws you in and keeps you hooked. This is simply good old-fashioned storytelling—I know I keep using that word but it's always refreshing when you read a book that generates excitement without pyrotechnics, violence, or suspense, but on the strength of its plot and its characters.

The author provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks, Michael, for making this available! I look forward to seeing what comes next for you!

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Book Review: "This Savage Song" by Victoria Schwab

So when I finished devouring this book last night before I went to bed, I tried to think of the best way to sum up my feelings. Sometimes when I'm at a loss for words I turn to those more articulate than I am, so:
Ah, thanks, Oprah!

It is a time in the (hopefully very) distant future. At one point, monsters tried to take control of a city. It led to massive destruction, but ultimately a truce was reached which divided the city. One half is run by Harker, a ruthless man whose ambition and lust for power are nearly as dangerous as the monsters he allows to roam free, so he can then charge the city's residents for his protection from them. The other half of the city is run by the more noble-minded Flynn, who wants to keep his residents safe by controlling the monsters, not harnessing them as pawns in a shakedown.

Neither side has complete support, as the truce seems to be weakening. Harker's daughter, Kate, who has gotten herself expelled from her sixth boarding school in five years, has returned home, much to her father's chagrin. She wants to prove that she is just as ruthless as her father, and wants him to finally let her stay with him, and take her under his wing. But she must battle not only her father's ambition and his memories of her late mother, but also the monster he has trained as his second in command.

When Kate is sent to another school in town, Flynn and his followers jump at the chance to get someone close to her, to watch for signs the truce may be breaking. Flynn's youngest son, August, who wants simply to be kind, to live a good life, is pressed into service. The thing is, August is a monster, the rarest of the three breeds, who can steal a person's soul by playing his violin. He needs to hide his secret from everyone in school, especially Kate, but for the first time in his life, he feels as if he belongs, he starts to make friends, and he is fascinated by Kate's intelligence—until she figures out what he really is.

When an attempt on Kate's life sends them both fleeing, they must make a truce of their own. August wants only to protect Kate, and Kate wants to live, although she isn't sure if capturing August could be the prize she needs to cement her relationship with her father. As they seek freedom and safety, they still long for the comfort of their families, even as they realize their families may not provide the safe haven they thought. They must fight not only the enemies they expect but enemies they don't, and they face the toughest battle of all—the enemies within themselves.

Right off the bat, I'll say that obviously this isn't a book for everyone. If you don't like this type of fantasy story, Victoria Schwab's storytelling, no matter how strong a spell she casts, probably won't lure you in. But don't rule it out because you think it's going to be all Twilight-y (a new adjective), because the monsters in this book don't have the Cullenesque shimmer, and more importantly, one of the best things that Schwab does in this book is keep the lovesickness and most of the angstiness out. That makes This Savage Song a much stronger story instead of some YA-ish soap opera.

I love authors who can take you into another world and immerse you so fully. That's a credit to Schwab's incredible creativity and the imagery she uses. There is a vividness to the pictures she paints, and I'd love to see this made into a movie to see just how closely what I saw in my mind's eye while reading this book hews to the film adaptation. Is it a little overly dramatic at times? Sure. A little predictable? Of course. But it doesn't matter, because the characters she has created fascinated me, flaws and all.

When you add to your stress level at work by taking a longer lunch than you should so you can keep reading, you know you've found a good book. (Lucky I'm the boss!) When you find yourself taking your glasses off during the NCAA championship so you can race through the remainder of the story before bed, you know you've found a good book. This was tremendously entertaining and well-done, and I'll be all over the sequel when it comes out this summer!

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Book Review: "The Chalk Artist" by Allegra Goodman

Whether she intended it or not, I feel like Allegra Goodman's newest novel, The Chalk Artist, is two books in one.

It's a love story of sorts between two dreamers who come from different backgrounds and share different perspectives on how to make their dreams come true. At the same time, it's also a look at the world of video gaming and virtual reality, and the way it pulls all different types of people into its wake. On the surface you wouldn't think that these two disparate halves could make a whole, but the end result is a tremendously compelling, beautifully written, slightly imperfect book.

Collin is a tremendously talented artist who never felt like he belonged in art school. His preferred medium is chalk, and he's all too happy to create beautiful pictures and images to captivate viewers, only to erase them and start again. It's a philosophy he follows in life, too—nothing is really permanent. He's really biding his time, waiting tables, acting and designing in a theater company he and his roommate founded, and trying to figure out what the future holds.

When Nina walks into his restaurant, he's immediately smitten. A Harvard graduate who is teaching as part of Teacher Corps, she wants to dazzle her students so they love literature and poetry as much as she does, but she can't seem to reach them or get them to pay attention to her. Although it takes her a while to let her guard down with Collin, she loves how his creativity and fearlessness has awakened her, and she hopes her practical nature will inspire him to do something real with his artistic talent.

Nina is the daughter of a gaming and technology mogul whose video games are tremendously popular. His soon-to-be released game is revolutionizing the world of virtual reality, so in an effort to help Collin harness his talent in a practical way, she convinces her father to give Collin a try at his company, Arkadia. It's a move which energizes him but creates barriers—both real and artificial—in their relationship.

Meanwhile, Arkadia is using some slightly questionable marketing tactics to raise the anticipation for its newest game, and a student at Nina's school, Aidan, gets caught up in both the game's incredibly dazzling magic and the painful realities that his obsession causes. It could prove dangerous not only to him, but to his twin sister, Diana, a student in Nina's class, and others.

When I started reading The Chalk Artist, I couldn't understand why Goodman would want to muddy the waters of Collin and Nina's story with a completely unrelated thread about a teenage boy obsessed with virtual reality. But the more I read, the more I realized how this virtual world really served as a counterpoint to Nina's need for permanence and real reality, and there was so much more to this plotline than I first thought.

Goodman's writing practically sings when she describes UnderWorld and Collin's art. Her imagery really felt as if it would be right at home in any fantasy novel, and it was unlike anything I've seen from her work to date. While Collin and Nina's story is definitely one you've seen before (and depending on your personality, you'll definitely prefer one character over the other), it still is compelling, and you hope that neither will do something stupid.

Not everything works in the book—I felt that Aidan's sister was a little superfluous, and felt like the plot shifted back and forth a little too abruptly at times. But overall, I enjoyed this a great deal. I'm a big fan of books that embrace the power of dreams of all kinds. This book really solidified Goodman as a favorite author of mine, one whose deft hand has created some truly memorable characters through the years.

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

Friday, March 31, 2017

Book Review: "How to Survive a Summer" by Nick White

"In the summer of 1999, when I was fifteen years old, I spent almost four weeks at a camp that was supposed to cure me of my homosexuality. Though I changed in many ways at Camp Levi, my desires—to the grief of everyone involved—did not."

Will Dillard is a graduate student in college working on his dissertation in film studies. He cannot seem to stay in a romantic relationship; in fact, even maintaining friendships is fairly difficult unless the other person is satisfied with a relatively one-sided relationship on which they'll have to expend most of the effort.

It's not that Will thinks he's better than others, or likes being anti-social—he just finds it difficult to remain present all the time, because he is constantly fighting to hide the traumas he sustained during a summer he spent at a gay "conversion" camp. He's never told anyone the entire story of his experience there, and he's always lived a relatively solitary life.

But when a horror movie about the camp, which has as its roots a memoir written by someone he knew from that summer, is released, and starts catching on, Will can't escape the trauma or his secrets. He knows his refusal to deal with these issues is the roadblock keeping him from truly confiding in and loving someone, but the thought of dredging up those memories is more than he can bear. Yet when he decides to head home to Mississippi to try and see his estranged father, a former preacher, the feelings of self-hatred and guilt come swarming back.

"I learned the past is not the past, a lump of time you can quarantine and forget about, but a reel of film in your brain that keeps on rolling, spooling and unspooling itself regardless of whether or not you are watching it."

After encountering two of his fellow campers and one former counselor, all of whom were part of the events of that traumatic summer, Will decides the only thing he can do is go back to the deserted campsite and confront what happened as well as his own complicity in those events. At the same time he must come to term with his own identity, the family secrets he has tried to keep hidden and those he has tried to embrace, and the path he has followed since then.

Nick White's How to Survive a Summer is at times a searingly emotional look at how hard it can be to embrace and love who you are when you are told that who you are is an abomination, and you must change. It's also a powerful story of finally finding the courage to trust others and yourself in order to move past paralyzing trauma.

There were times, however, that the plot meandered off course, veering too much into the stories Will's mother told him about the mysterious, courageous women who lived in the strange area she grew up in. There was even a point in which I thought the book might become a horror story. Luckily, White pulled his plot back together, getting back to Will's journey to confront his demons and deal with his past once and for all.

White is a very talented writer—sometimes the most emotion in his story occurs during the quieter, purer moments than where you might expect them to come. He wasn't afraid to make Will somewhat unsympathetic in his treatment of those who care about him, but yet you still want to understand his story.

There were times, of course, where just the thought of what was being done to these kids was simply horrifying; the fact that it is 2017 now and there are many (including the U.S. vice-president) who believe "gay conversion" should still be used disgusts me. But it is a credit to White's strength as a storyteller that the book wasn't as maudlin or upsetting as I feared.

NetGalley and PENGUIN GROUP Blue Rider Press & Plume provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Book Review: "The Cutaway" by Christina Kovac

Two words: Awe. Some.

Seriously, I was in the mood for a good thriller and this fit the bill perfectly.

Virginia Knightly was once a talented television news reporter with tremendous potential, until the harsh realities of what she was reporting became a little too much for her to handle. She transitioned into the role of news producer and proved this was the job she was born to do—determining what is newsworthy and how best to cover it, wrangling and sweet-talking the on- and off-air talent when necessary, maneuvering through station politics, being a cross between a den mother, a drill sergeant, and a magician. And she gets results.

One day, a notice of a missing person crosses her desk. While normally notices like this sadly get passed over in a city like Washington, DC, news of a beautiful young attorney gone missing definitely catches her attention. She swears she's seen this woman before, and is determined to give her case the coverage needed to hopefully find her.

In the midst of a power play happening at her station, leaving her job and those who work for her in jeopardy, Virginia decides she needs to pursue this case. The deeper she digs, the more she realizes that she must question every fact presented to her, every piece of information given to her by friends and colleagues of the missing woman, even the evidence and leads provided by law enforcement. But more than that, Virginia discovers that the young woman was caught in the middle of a vast number of secrets and lies, and she didn't know whom to trust—a lesson Virginia is learning once again, too.

Tangling with a former flame who is now in a position of authority, and teaming up with her news anchor, a man who means more to her than simply a mouthpiece reading the words she writes, Virginia must fight—for the perfect angle, the breaking news, the truth, her job, her romantic future, and her life. Sometimes no news really is good news, you know?

I enjoyed The Cutaway tremendously. Christina Kovac, a former television journalist and producer, is really one hell of a writer, and she knows how to craft a (nearly) perfect story. There are lots of twists and turns, blurred lines between the good guys and girls and the bad ones, some great action and suspense, and lots of behind-the-scenes looks at the world of television news, especially in an era where it fights for relevancy and ratings against internet sources.

As I've remarked in reviews of thrillers and crime novels before, I suspect nearly every character, so I'm rarely surprised. And while I wasn't here, it didn't matter because the plot had me hooked. These characters were passionate, funny, talented, and totally flawed, and I wanted to smack a few of them more than once for not saying what they were thinking. But I cared about what happened to them, and hope that Kovac may have another book featuring these characters in the works, because I'd love to know what comes next.

The plot is a little overfilled—there are a few tangential storylines that distract a bit more than they advance the story. But Kovac's talent reins you back in, and I always love a good book set here in the DC area. In the end, I would have devoured this book in a little more than one sitting if there weren't obligations like work, eating, personal hygiene, etc.

Ignore the hype that this is "The Newsroom meets Gone Girl," and pick it up because it's a great thriller. Even if it doesn't keep you guessing, it will keep you on the edge of your seat (or at least close to the edge), trying to figure out how everything will resolve itself.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Book Review: "How to Behave in a Crowd" by Camille Bordas

Have you ever gone to see a movie or a comedian that everyone says is really funny, but you sit there and wonder when it will get funny?

I think I have a good sense of humor; those who know me know that I'm really very sarcastic (I often say that sarcasm is my superpower) and I love a good joke, yet for some weird reason movies and books that are supposed to be hysterically or even darkly funny often miss their target with me. In fact, when I see books lauded as funny, I often steer clear of them, because I rarely find them as funny as they're purported to be.

This was the case with Camille Bordas' How to Behave in a Crowd. While it wasn't supposed to be a knee-slapper, the book's characters were full of quirks which almost instantaneously wore on me, almost as if the author was trying to be ultra-clever , and many of the situations which I'd expect were supposed to be funny fell flat for me.

The Mazals are a family living in a small French town. Four of the six children are tremendously accomplished—Berenice, Aurore and Leonard are academic prodigies of sorts, each on track to have their doctorates before age 24; Jeremie is a musician who performs with a symphony; and Simone, although only 13, is already distinguishing herself academically. Only 11-year-old Isidore, more often called Dory, doesn't seem to stand out intellectually, and in fact, is at a loss when it comes to deciding his future ambitions.

What Dory has that his siblings lack, however, is humility and empathy, for people he knows and those he doesn't. Quite often his mother remarks on his kindness and sensitivity, especially when comparing him to her other children. Yet sometimes standing out for not standing out isn't appealing, especially in adolescence, and he often tries to escape his family by running away.

But when a tragedy strikes the Mazal family, each of them handles it in their own way. But as the cracks begin to show, Dory sees how everyone is dealing with their grief and tries to help where he can, often in bizarre yet kindhearted ways. However, Dory has his own issues, and must balance his own grief with the anger he has felt about being the odd man out.

I thought that this book had a lot of potential, but it just never clicked for me. I don't know if the characters were so odd that it was difficult to empathize and connect with them, or if I just found the story to be more of a series of anecdotes than a cohesive narrative. Dory was also seemed much more mature than his age; I often had to remind myself that he was 11 or 12 years old. One other quirk that really irritated me for some reason was that the children's mother constantly referred to their father as "the father," never "your father."

I've seen some tremendously positive reviews of this book, so it's inordinately possible I'll be the one in the minority. If you often are on the same wavelength with books hailed as funny, or the quirks of a quirky family don't drive you crazy, pick this book up. I'd love to hear you tell me how wrong I am!

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

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Book Review: "The Language of Dying" by Sarah Pinborough

"It's been a long few months and, even though time has folded from the first diagnosis to now, my body and soul know that I have lived through every painful second of it. They sing it to me through aching limbs and a torn heart."

A woman's father is in the last few days of his life, as he is dying from cancer. She has cared for him through his illness, watching his body and his mind deteriorate. She wants his suffering to end, but fears what the end of that suffering will mean for her life.

Her siblings have all come to the house they grew up in, now her house, to pay their last respects. Their family has been fractured emotionally for years, with each of them having suffered traumas, some known and some hidden. But even coming together for one purpose, saying goodbye to their father, is fraught with disaster.

The woman herself has had her share of trauma and tragedy, which has left her angry, somewhat unstable, and knowing she may never have the chance to be happy ever again. But she has given everything she has to care for his father and make his last days as comfortable and secure as possible.

Ever since she was a child, she has had visions of a nameless presence, hulking, alone, and waiting for her. She only sees it at certain moments, and she knows that it will come again. But it is a reunion she fears and welcomes, because what will it mean for her if she finally connects with it?

Sarah Pinborough's Behind Her Eyes (see my original review) was tremendously unforgettable because of its WTF ending, but also because of how her storytelling ability helped the book transcend an immensely implausible plot. But as strong as her writing was in that book, it really didn't prepare me for the sheer power and beauty of her writing in The Language of Dying.

Stripped of any artifice, there is poetry and emotion that characterizes Pinborough's writing in this book. Anyone who has seen a loved one suffer from a terminal illness will probably recognize some of the feelings and situations the narrator experiences, the simultaneous desire and dread that the person's battle will end. But while there are certainly moments that may make you cry, this is not an emotionally manipulative book, but rather a tremendously contemplative one.

If the pain of loss is still fresh, reading this book may reopen those wounds. But this is an immensely beautiful book, one which demands to be read, one which will wow and dazzle on the power of its words and its emotions.

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

Monday, March 20, 2017

Book Review: "News of the World" by Paulette Jiles

Yeah, I'm late to the party on this one.

I'm man enough to admit I didn't read this before now because I was misinformed. For some reason I mistakenly believed this book was another story which veered closely to True Grit—you know, cantankerous old man becomes the protector of a young-but-tough girl, and hijinks and friendships ensue. Having read the book, and seen both versions of the film, and also read a pretender or two, I really wasn't enamored of reading another similar story.

While there are perhaps a few similar elements, Paulette Jiles' News of the World is a story all its own, full of heart and beauty and simplicity and tenderness, and even a little poetry. It totally took me by surprise and I loved nearly every minute of it.

1870. The U.S. is starting to recover from the damages wrought by the Civil War. Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a veteran of two wars (the first when he was just a teenager), is now an elderly widower, a former printer who now spends his days traveling throughout Texas, reading newspapers from all over the world to paying crowds anxious and interested to hear about what is happening both in places they know and places they might only have imagined. He is careful, however, to steer away from any news of Reconstruction and the Confederacy, knowing how it will inflame tempers.

While in one town, he is offered a job—and a $50 gold piece—to bring a young girl who had been taken from her family four years before by a band of Kiowa raiders. Her family was killed, but she survived, and was taken in to the Kiowa family, raised as one of them. But such things cannot be, and when she is recaptured, it is decreed that she should be returned to her closest living relatives, an aunt and uncle near San Antonio.

For 10-year-old Johanna, the only family she really knows are the Kiowa Indians who raised her, and she cannot understand why she has been taken away from them. She doesn't appear to know English, refuses to wear shoes or act in a "civilized" manner, will not eat with a fork and knife, and tries to find any opportunity to cross the river and hopefully return home.

But as Captain Kidd and Johanna travel through Texas, finding themselves in danger more often than they care to count, and trying to find common ground, the two begin building a relationship of sorts, with Kidd trying to find empathy for this young girl whose life has already been turned upside down twice, and by dint of his job, he will be party to this happening a third time.

"More than ever knowing in his fragile bones that it was the duty of men who aspired to the condition of humanity to protect children and kill for them if necessary."

As they draw closer and closer to San Antonio, and an uncertain fate for Johanna, Kidd is torn—he knows at his age, a widower living alone has no place raising a child, especially one so traumatized by life as Johanna has been. But can he really let her go, after he has become the only person she trusts and can communicate with? And if he doesn't deliver her to her aunt and uncle, does that make his as much a kidnapper as the Kiowa?

I've really simplified the plot of this book, but it is such a lovely story. Have we seen elements of this type of story before? Certainly. But even if you have suspicions of how the plot will unfold, and those suspicions may prove correct, Jiles' tells such a beautiful story, and has created two immensely memorable characters, characters which warm the heart and stay in the mind.

What struck me about this book is that Jiles was able to create a little bit of tension at every turn, which made the story move even a little faster, and she imbued her descriptions of their surroundings throughout their journey with such evocative imagery, it was lyrical, even poetic. I was fascinated by Kidd's reading the news to people—it's the first time I've ever heard of that happening.

I am not generally a fan of historical fiction, but this book really worked for me. If you're not one of the people who already has taken this book to your heart, add it to your list, because these characters will make you smile and, perhaps even cry a little.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Book Review: "The Marriage Pact" by Michelle Richmond

Is there a secret to a long and happy marriage? Is there one thing, a group of behaviors or conditions, which could ensure that a couple can weather the stresses and strains most marriages encounter and stay married until death do them part?

If you ask Jake and Alice whether they wanted their marriage to last, and believed it could, they'd say yes, although perhaps somewhat dubiously. While Jake, a successful therapist, grew up in a home where his parents' relationship was strong (and is still going), Alice, a singer-turned-lawyer, had a fractured home life, with a family whose demons ate them alive. While Jake saw proposing marriage as a way to hold on to Alice, she saw it as an opportunity for the security she never experienced.

Right before their wedding, Alice works on a case involving a somewhat-famous musician named Finnegan. In the flush of pride at the case's successful outcome, and the anticipation of her wedding, somehow Alice invites Finnegan and his wife to her and Jake's wedding. Surprisingly, he accepts, and the couple is a sweet addition to what turns out to be a beautiful day.

Finnegan's wedding present leads Jake and Alice to an organization called The Pact. The Pact has one simple goal: to ensure marriages succeed. Supportive of that goal, Jake and Alice agree to join. While at first they are dazzled by the parties that their fellow members through, and the fellowship of the group, it's not long before they realize that while some of The Pact's rules—you must give your spouse gifts for no reason a certain amount of times each year, you must plan a non-work-related vacation for just the two of you once a quarter, always answer the phone when your spouse calls—seem innocuous, no infraction of any rule is tolerated.

As Alice's work schedule heats up and she must spend more time at the office, she quickly runs afoul of The Pact's rules. When one minor infraction leads to another, she and Jake realize that this group isn't quite what they imagined it was. And when Jake learns from an old acquaintance some of the measures The Pact uses to ensure marriages succeed, he knows that they need to break their commitment to the group. But The Pact never leaves you, and you never leave The Pact...

I found this concept really intriguing at first, and Michelle Richmond's writing, which I so enjoyed in her previous book, Golden State (see my original review), definitely kept me turning the pages. But the further I got into the book, the more I didn't like it. I just found the whole concept of The Pact and its means to an end utterly preposterous, and I found it really hard to believe that a lawyer and a therapist would so willingly allow themselves to be controlled by a group like this.

Reading The Marriage Pact reminded me a little of reading some of Stephen King's books in the late 1980s through the mid-1990s. Not that there were elements of horror in the book, but that I felt Richmond, like King, had such a brilliant ideas for a book and then little by little, it went more and more off the rails until it was just completely out of control. And while I can handle that in certain books, because of the way this book was rooted in such a solid concept like marriage, suspending my disbelief so completely just didn't work.

I may wind up in the minority here, so if the plot as I've described it intrigues you, definitely give it a shot. I'll still be waiting for Richmond's next book to come along. And perhaps I'll pick up a few rules from The Pact, at least as suggestions...

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

Friday, March 17, 2017

Book Review: "Snapshot" by Brandon Sanderson

What a cool novella this was! (Impress your friends by dropping that statement into casual conversation!)

Davis and his partner Chaz are police detectives, but their beat is different from any other: they're employed by a controversial program called Snapshot, which recreates a specific day down to the tiniest detail. In a Snapshot, they're the only real people; everyone else is a "dupe."

Snapshots are based on days when an unsolved crime was first committed. Davis and Chaz are sent back to a particular day, before the crime is committed, so they can determine who the perpetrator is, or find crucial evidence that they transmit to the police in the real city at the current time. While they need to be careful that they don't cause problems, as any deviations from the original day have the potential to cause ripples, like the butterfly effect, and potentially harm the prosecution of the criminals. But still, they have complete power, which causes them to overrule the civil rights of the dupes they encounter.

They are sent back to the Snapshot for May 1, and their instructions are clear. They are to first track down the weapon a criminal hides, and then they are to respond to a domestic disturbance later that day. But just following orders is starting to wear on both men, plus there's something about the domestic disturbance that is worrying Davis, so he convinces Chaz that they should look into a mysterious crime allegedly committed that day, but it never appeared on police reports.

What they discover is a grisly scene, with larger implications than they can imagine, and it entangles them in something much bigger than they are. But more than that, as the day unfolds, you realize that there are secrets both men are hiding. Who are these policemen? Do they know what they're in the middle of? Who can they trust?

I read Brandon Sanderson's Steelheart a few years ago (see my original review), and I was really impressed with not only his storytelling ability, but the detail he put into the world he created. Honestly, I never read other books in that series more because I have far too many books to read, but I've always intended to get back to them.

The world he created in Snapshot is equally dazzling, perhaps even more so because he does it in so few pages. Sure, there have been books and movies in which characters travel back in time to try and solve crimes (or even perpetrate them), this is such a cool concept, because the characters are going to a replica of a day in the past. Some of the details were a little confusing, but I was hooked from start to finish, and I only wish that this was novel-length instead.

These are fantastic, flawed characters in a world unlike any I've seen, and I only hope that Sanderson takes us back there sometime soon. I'll be waiting.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Book Review: "The Lonely Drop" by Vanessa North

So, I tried to find a way to best express how I felt about this story.

How can I effectively convey that I found this not only hot as hell
but that it also made me get all teary-eyed?

Well, when words fail me, I turn to Benedict Cumberbatch:

Kevin and Nick were practically inseparable best friends in college—soccer teammates and confidantes. The night of their college graduation, Kevin put the moves on Nick, and as much as Nick wanted him, he knew that for Kevin, there was no such thing as a relationship, just hook-ups. That's not what Nick wanted, especially from Kevin, so he walked away—from the encounter and their friendship.

Ten years later they run into each other unexpectedly. The chemistry, the feelings, it's all still there. Kevin makes it clear that he still wants Nick, and the feeling is mutual, but Nick is still convinced that all Kevin wants is something sexual. Should he just be happy to have Kevin's friendship again, or should Nick tell him how he feels, and risk it all?

"There's no dignity in love, Nick. It's messy and embarrassing and fantastic, but it sure as hell isn't dignified. What do you have to lose?"

When circumstances push them together, Nick must make a choice. And once he makes that choice, where does it leave them?

I'd never read anything by Vanessa North before, or anything specifically classified as M/M Romance, but I'd had a few friends recommend this pretty highly. And I can see why. Even though you know how the plot will probably unfold, in just a small number of pages, North has you rooting for Nick and Kevin, gets you emotionally invested in their story, and makes you want to smack them both in the head.

I really enjoyed this. For a longer short story, it had well-developed (pun sort of intended) characters, it tugged at my emotions, and there were a few pretty hot sex scenes, just to up the ante a bit. A total departure for me, but one I'm glad I took. If what I've described sounds like it might appeal to you, it's definitely worth it. And I know I'll be reading some more Vanessa North if there are more stories where this one came from!!

Monday, March 13, 2017

Book Review: "The Truth About Goodbye" by Russell Ricard

Losing a spouse, a partner, a lover is one of the most difficult experiences a person can endure, and when it happens suddenly, there is no rhyme or reason. Seeing a premature end to your hopes and dreams for your shared future can at times seem almost too much to bear, and as much as friends and family provide love, support, and consolation, sometimes that just doesn't seem enough.

Why does everyone expect you to get on with your life, when you feel as if so much of your life has ended? If there were issues which were unresolved when your loved one died, how can you move on when you truly have no closure? When will you know whether it is ever time to try and start again? These are just some of the questions that Russell Ricard touches upon in his upcoming book, The Truth About Goodbye.

Sebastian's world seemed to stop about one year ago, when his husband Frank died suddenly. Yet as devastated as he is about Frank's death, as lost as he still feels, he blames himself as well, because that night he and Frank were arguing about one of Frank's former flames. He really can't move on because he still wonders whether there was anything going on with Frank and the other guy, although perhaps knowing the truth could be dangerous.

Meanwhile, the rest of Seb's life is an absolute mess, and we're not just talking about his apartment. He's barely hanging on to the two part-time jobs he needs to make ends meet, he can't seem to come up with a routine for the tap dancing class he teaches, and he still dreams of landing that big role in a Broadway musical instead of being just a chorus boy at age 40. Oh, and he's convinced Frank is haunting their apartment.

A further complication enters into his life when his best friend and ex-Rockette Chloe, introduces him to Reid, a handsome landscape designer. Reid seems truly interested in Seb, and lord knows he's lonely, but is he ready for a new relationship?

This is a sweet and moving book, and while it deals with some difficult emotional issues—loss, guilt, grief, loneliness—it never gets too heavy-handed. Ricard has created an interesting bunch of characters, and so much of the plot was so entertaining and full of hijinks that I could totally see this as a movie. (Plus, I'd love to see who they'd cast as Reid, who sounded absolutely yummy from Ricard's description.)

For me, the weak link for a good portion of the book was Seb, believe it or not. I understand what he was going through and all of the complex emotions he was dealing with, but I just wished he would have spoken his mind or snapped out of his indecisive fugue state a little quicker, because he just wasn't very appealing. But ultimately, as his character pulled his life together a little bit more, he became more charming.

I look forward to seeing what comes next in Ricard's writing career, because he's written a winning first novel.

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

Book Review: "Exit West" by Mohsin Hamid

"In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war, a young man met a young woman in a classroom and did not speak to her."

So begins Mohsin Hamid's extraordinary new novel, Exit West. At once both sharply current and dreamily magical, this book is social commentary, fantasy, and an emotion-laded look at how we crave connection even in the most chaotic, the bleakest of times.

While reading this book, all I could think of was:

When Saeed and Nadia first meet in a night class, they both are intrigued with each other, but neither acts on it. In an unnamed country beset by impending civil war, pursuing a romantic relationship isn't high on either one's priority list. Nadia is fiercely independent, living alone, and not afraid of embracing her sensuality, while Saeed is more contemplative, quiet, and less sure of himself.

They first pursue a friendship, and then both begin to realize just how much they come to rely on each other, intellectually, emotionally, and socially. When the warring factions begin exerting their power over the country, enforcing curfews, restricting electricity, cutting phone signals and internet coverage, each worries about the other's safety, and their feelings for each other grow, if not quite into love for both, at least something stronger than friendship.

"Dramatic circumstances, such as those in which they and other new lovers in the city now found themselves, have a habit of creating dramatic emotions, and furthermore the curfew served to conjure up an effect similar to that of a long-distance relationship, and long-distance relationships are well known for their potential to heighten passion, at least for a while, just as fasting is well known to heighten one's appreciation for food."

As full-on violence and terror ebb and flow, and tragedy strikes, the two become even closer. They despair over their future, whether they will survive the war, and where it will leave them. More and more, they hear rumors of doors, doors which somehow can help people like them escape far away from the violence—although not without risk, and not without great cost. At first, the thought of leaving seems cowardly and wrong, but the more the violence escalates, they realize they have no choice. After much trepidation, they find a door and see where it leads.

At this point, Exit West's plot becomes a little dreamier, but still equally present and powerful, as it not only examines the effects strife, stress, and constant fear and suspicion have on a relationship, but it's also a pointed look at the refugee experience, and how people in the same situation can treat each other.

This book worked for me on so many levels. At a time in our world where some wish to label all immigrants in a negative way, this is a stark reminder of why so many flee their countries, and how their humanity is often lost in the process. But beyond the social and philosophical commentary, this book is, at its heart, a story of relationships, of love, of loss, and the sacrifices we make for those we love.

"...he understood, at some level, that to love is to enter into the inevitability of one day not being able to protect what is most valuable to you."

Hamid is an extraordinary writer. For as many quotes as I pulled from the book for this review, I found hundreds more. His prose is dazzling, his imagery at once sublime and gritty, and the emotions he generates from this story are genuine, not manipulated. This is a book that has touched me, one which has made me think and feel, one which I will remember and linger over.

For some, the fantastical elements of the plot may not work, but if you allow yourself to become fully immersed in the entire experience, hopefully you will savor it as I have. This is simply fantastic.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Book Review: "Himself" by Jess Kidd

"Mulderrig is a place like no other. Here the colors are a little bit brighter and the sky is a little bit wider. Here the trees are as old as the mountains and a clear river runs into the sea. People are born to live and stay and die here. They don't want to go. Why would they when all the roads that lead to Mulderrig are downhill so that leaving is uphill all the way?"

Mulderrig is a small Irish village, a Brigadoon of sorts. One spring day in 1976, Mahony arrives in Mulderrig from Dublin, where he has lived all of his life. Or most of his life. Because just recently, he found out that one of his chief nemeses at the orphanage where he was raised, Sister Veronica, left him an envelope when she died. And in this envelope was news which changed his life: a picture of him as an infant with his mother, telling him his real name, and that he is from Mulderrig. The note also said that his mother was "the curse of the town," so they took him from her.

For Mahony, who has always been a bit of a rake (yet a handsome one) and a ne'er-do-well, this is powerful stuff. He had believed his mother had abandoned him, but he couldn't understand why, or why she never searched for him. So he heads to Mulderrig to try and uncover the truth about what happened to her 26 years ago.

"He has always believed two things, that his mother was dead and that he had known her. In order to feel her loss he must have known her presence. And he does feel her loss, he always has. Which is why he has been searching for her all his life: because he had loved her and because he had lost her. He'd searched but she'd never answered."

Mahony's return creates quite a stir in Mulderrig for a number of reasons. His physical appearance (even though he's a bit of an unwashed hippie-type) and his newness appeal to women of all ages, who react in unusual ways. His similarities to his mother quickly raise the ire, suspicion, and guilt of those residents who knew her, and might have had a hand in her circumstances. Oh, and his return has also raised the dead, many of whom were alive or around 26 years ago, and only a few people in town, including Mahony, can see and communicate with them.

Teaming up with Mrs. Cauley, an eccentric former theater actress who likes nothing more than to stir up trouble among Mulderrig's residents, Mahony is determined to uncover the truth about his mother. The two concoct a plan to interrogate those who might know something, and hopefully flush out the truth, with the help of some of the town's colorful residents. But this scandal ran far and wide through Mulderrig, and the two might be putting themselves and those they care about in danger as they get closer and closer to the truth.

This is such a charming, magical book, and as quirky as it is, it's quite emotionally moving as well, as it explores the ideas of loss and grief, of a girl trying to rise above circumstances she has been handed although everyone wants to fight her at every turn, and the rejuvenating power of friendship. I know that at its heart, this book is a mystery, but I could have done without its brief foray into actual crime novel territory, even though I understood the point, in showing that even lovely towns like Mulderrig have these types of secrets which many want to remain hidden.

While Jess Kidd spent so much time creating the "good" characters, and they are so tremendously appealing, some of the "bad" characters don't get the same attention, so they feel a little more like stereotypical characters than fully realized. But the beauty of Kidd's storytelling, and the warmth of this book is wonderful, reminding me a bit of those quirky Irish movies like Waking Ned Devine. (In tone, not subject matter.) This is a book which would be absolutely terrific as a movie because there is so much your mind's eye pictures, and it would be great to see that portrayed on screen.

If you're looking for a book with a little bit of charm and whimsy along with its terrific story, pick up Jess Kidd's Himself. In a literary world of copycats, this feels pretty original in many ways.

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

Friday, March 10, 2017

Book Review: "Goodbye Days" by Jeff Zentner

"Where are you guys? Text me back?"

Carver Briggs sent that text to his best friend Mars, who was driving home from a movie with their two other best friends, Eli and Blake. Such an innocuous text. Mars was replying to Carver when his car rear-ended a stopped truck. Mars, Eli, and Blake were all killed in the accident.

It is unbelievable to Carver that his three best friends are dead. He is devastated at the thought of spending his senior year in high school, and his whole life, without them. Even when they did nothing but play video games and make fun of each other, Carver felt like he was part of something.

"There's that feeling that you'll never be lonely again. That every time you speak, someone you love and who loves you back will be listening. Even then I knew what I had."

But as much misery as he feels, Carver's guilt outweighs everything. Eli's twin sister tells everyone she can that Carver murdered her brother, Blake, and Mars, so many people in their community look at him with disgust. And when word comes down that Mars' father, a powerful judge, is pressuring the district attorney to open a criminal investigation into the accident, and it's entirely possible Carver could be found negligent, it's more than he can bear. Convinced he will be going to jail for murdering his friends, he begins suffering panic attacks, which scare him.

"We assume that it's better to survive things, but the ones who don't survive don't have to miss anyone. So sometimes I don't know which is better."

No matter how alone he feels, Carver isn't left to deal with these issues by himself. In addition to his tremendously supportive older sister, Carver begins spending time with Jesmyn, Eli's girlfriend, and the two find themselves leaning on each other more and more as they try to make sense of their loss. He also confides in his therapist, who has an interesting tactic to try and help Carver cope, and Carver also finds both joy and sorrow in spending time with Nana Betsy, Blake's grandmother, who raised him.

One day Nana Betsy asks Carver if he'd be willing to spend a "goodbye day" with her—one last chance to do the things Blake liked to do, to share memories of him, and give the two of them the chance to say goodbye that they never had. As much as he believes this might bring him closure, he worries if his guilt will get the best of him. He just keeps waiting for the other shoe to drop, to discover that someone is trying to make him pay for what they believe is his role in the accident.

How can you process an overwhelming loss when you are consumed by guilt, even fear? How do you start forgiving yourself if you don't think you deserve forgiveness, but you're not sure you deserve to be punished either? How do you know whom to trust, and how can you distinguish feelings of security and companionship from something else? And how do you find the strength to carry on when one of the most integral and important pieces of your life is torn away?

"Funny how people move through this world leaving little pieces of their story with the people they meet, for them to carry. Makes you wonder what'd happen if all those people put their puzzle pieces together."

Well, as you might imagine, this book tore me apart emotionally. But as much as my eyes burned from all of the crying, and my heart hurt, I found this book beautifully hopeful as well. Even if I didn't necessarily agree with how all of the characters behaved, and even if some of the plot was more predictable than I would have liked, the momentous sense of loss, the poetry of the boys' friendship and how much joy they experienced, made this book much more than a sob-fest for me.
That's all because of the talent of Jeff Zentner. Zentner, whose first book, The Serpent King (see my original review) was one of my absolute favorite books last year. Even when his characters are a bit more erudite than your typical teenager, they quickly shift back into immaturity, thus further occupying your heart. I don't know what I'd like more from this book—a prequel, in which we could spend more time with the four boys, or a sequel, in which we could see how Carver is coping.

Goodbye Days is as much about the poetry of friendship, of belonging, as it is the geography of loss. The combination of both makes this an emotional yet resonant read, that I'll remember as much for all of the tears I shed as for the laughs and the smiles. But all that aside, DON'T TEXT AND DRIVE!! EVER!!

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Book Review: "The Hearts of Men" by Nickolas Butler

At the risk of sounding like a total stalker, I would follow Nickolas Butler nearly to the ends of the earth in order to read his writing. I devoured his debut novel, Shotgun Lovesongs (see my original review), while on a not-particularly long plane ride, and was equally infatuated with his story collection, Beneath the Bonfire (see my original review). Butler's books made my lists of the best books I read in 2014 and my favorite books of 2015, respectively.

While his newest book, The Hearts of Men didn't slay me quite as much as his first two books, there was still so much to savor, so much to feel, and so much of Butler's storytelling and use of language to be dazzled by. The book opens in 1962, at Camp Chippewa, a scout camp in Wisconsin. Thirteen-year-old Nelson Doughty is a consummate scout, one who probably has higher-level skills than any of his fellow campers, perhaps even his counselors. But while his achievement of 27 merit badges to date should be impressive, it doesn't give him the social acceptance he craves. Nothing does, really—even his talent with the bugle, which allows him the opportunity to play reveille each morning, has earned him the nickname "Bugler," and it's not meant in a flattering way.

"Nelson has no friends. Not just here, at Camp Chippewa, but also back home in Eau Claire, in his neighborhood, or at school. He understands that this is somehow linked to his sash full of merit badges...possibly, his unpopularity is linked as well to his eyeglasses, though it might just as easily be his inability to dribble a basketball or throw a spiral, or, worse yet, the nearly reflexive way his arm shoots into the classroom air to volunteer an answer."

While Nelson is a loner, if there is anyone he can consider even an acquaintance, it's Jonathan Quick, a fellow scout two years his senior. Jonathan can do everything right and is socially adept, but the two boys strike up an unsteady, slightly one-sided friendship. That summer, Nelson begins to understand the concepts of loyalty, bravery, trust, and what it means to be a good man. He has to make some difficult choices, choices which don't endear him to many, including his father, but he understands the steps he takes.

The second section of the book takes place 34 years later. Nelson, bearing physical and emotional trauma from his time in Vietnam, is now the scoutmaster at Camp Chippewa, and in the evening before camp begins, he gets together with Jonathan and his teenage son, Trevor, who has taken to scouting as well as Nelson did all those years ago. That evening, it is Trevor who learns what it means to be a good man, and understands just what kind of a man his father is, despite all of the stories he has heard from Nelson over the years about what a friend Jonathan was to him when they were younger.

It is the third and final section of the book, 23 years later, which packs the strongest emotional punch, and yet is also the most frustrating. Nelson is in his final summer as scoutmaster before retirement, and Jonathan's grandson, Thomas, and his daughter-in-law attend camp for another summer week. But the dynamics of a scout camp are lost on the youth of this generation, and the characteristics of manhood are lost on their fathers as well. When a troubling incident occurs at camp, Nelson once again demonstrates the simple act of bravery.

The Hearts of Men raises some interesting questions about manhood, bravery, loyalty, and what it means to be "a good man." At the same time, it looks with a critical eye at both the weaknesses and the strengths of men, and how they all too often don't realize the consequences of their actions. This is a book about fathers and sons, but also mothers and sons, and how some relationships—both platonic and romantic—can change us forever.

I love the way Butler writes. He imbues so many of his characters with complexity, emotion, and flaws. I just didn't understand the point of introducing the melodrama in the third section of the book—it really undercut the book's power, especially in a section where there was so much raw emotion. I think I get what he was trying to say, but I could have done without it, and for the most part, the story would have resonated as much, if not more.

While imperfect, The Hearts of Men is still a masterfully written, powerful, beautiful book, and another example of Butler's exceptional storytelling talent. I remain an enormous fan of his, and will now begin my vigil for his next book. (Sorry, Nickolas, to put added pressure on you; I'm just impatient and I'm a fast reader.)

Monday, March 6, 2017

Book Review: "Caraval" by Stephanie Garber

Take a little bit of Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus, throw in some elements from Marie Lu's novels, add some cool magic, and a little bit of Neil Gaiman, and maybe that can begin to describe the awesomeness that is Stephanie Garber's Caraval. It's wild and different and cool, just a rollercoaster ride of fantasy, secrets, and little surprises around every corner.

Scarlett Dragna and her younger sister Donatella live on an island with their cruel, powerful father. He's ruled their lives with fear and violence since their mother left years ago, and only cares about his daughters if he can control them. Both sisters dream of a life away from the island and their father, but Scarlett knows she is destined to stay there forever. But when her father arranges a marriage between Scarlett and a count, Scarlett dreams that perhaps her husband will take her away from the life she dreads, and allow her a little bit of magic and excitement. She dreams of that despite the fact that she doesn't even know her intended's name or what he looks like, just the fact that he writes her kind-sounding letters.

"Sometimes Scarlett felt all of Trisda was under a dome, a large piece of glass that trapped everyone inside while her father looked down, moving—or removing—people if they weren't in the right places. Her world was a grand game board, and her father believed this marriage would be his penultimate move, putting all that he wanted within his grasp."

As children, Scarlett and Tella were told of Caraval, a fantastical, once-a-year event, part performance, part game, led by a magician and illusionist called Legend. When they were children, Caraval used to be a traveling performance, but the story has it that after an unfortunate incident in the game led to someone's death, Legend stopped traveling. Every year growing up, Scarlett wrote to Legend, begging him to bring Caraval to her island, and every year she received no answer. With just weeks before her wedding, Scarlett has given up hope she'll ever get to experience Caraval, yet it is at that moment that she is invited by Legend himself.

Of course, leaving the island could have disastrous consequences for the sisters and Scarlett's marriage, but with the help of a handsome and mysterious sailor, Tella arranges for the sisters to head to the island where Caraval is played. Not long after they arrive in this new and magical place, Tella is kidnapped by Legend, and it turns out that whichever lucky person finds her first is granted the fulfillment of one special wish. Scarlett has no idea what to expect.

"'Welcome, welcome to Caraval! The grandest show on land or by sea. Inside you'll experience more wonders than most people see in a lifetime...But before you fully enter into our world, you must remember it's all a game. What happens beyond this gate may frighten or excite you, but don't let any of it trick you. We will try to convince you it's real, but all of it is a performance. A world built of make-believe. So while we want you to get swept away, be careful of being swept too far away. Dreams that come true can be beautiful, but they can also turn into nightmares when people won't wake up.'"

What Scarlett experiences will dazzle, move, frighten, and challenge her in ways she could never imagine. She won't know when to trust her imagination, her eyes, her ears, her brain, or her heart, and more importantly, she won't know whom to trust. Every move she makes could put her or her sister in danger, and every move she makes puts the possibility of her marriage at risk, which means if she even makes it back to Trisda, she'll bear her father's wrath in ways she never has before. But with each experience she's never had before, she finally realizes a life lived safely isn't a life at all.

I wasn't completely sure what to expect of Caraval, but it really blew me away. Garber is an absolutely fantastic storyteller—the world she has dreamed up, the characters she has created, and the intrigue and mystery she has designed all make this story utterly engaging from start to finish. One of the things that struck me is that Scarlett felt emotions in colors, and I loved the way Garber described that. Throughout the book, I felt as unsure as Scarlett did as to what was real and what was illusion, and wasn't sure whom to trust or what would ultimately happen.
More than just a story with dazzling illusions and beautiful imagery, this is a book about finding your own courage, taking risks, trusting your heart, the sacrifices we make for family, and the power of dreams. This is a world I can't wait to visit again, so I hope Garber is planning a return to Caraval!