Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Book Review: "Perennials" by Mandy Berman

I attended a sleep-away summer camp in the Catskills Mountains for 10 years, from the summer I was 10 until the summer I was 19. It's crazy to think that I started there nearly 40(!) years ago, and made some incredible friendships which have sustained through all this time, thanks in some part to social media.

Over the years I realized that only those people who had similar experiences truly "got" what camp meant—how spending every day for eight weeks with people created more intense relationships than with those people you saw 10 months a year back home; how you'd spend so much time during the fall and winter wishing you could be back in camp, thinking of all of the things you couldn't wait to do when summer rolled around again, and how it felt like you could just pick right back up where you left off the year before. Many of those years were some of the best times of my life, and it's crazy how vivid the memories of those days still are given there are days I can't remember where I put my wallet.

Needless to say, when I saw that Mandy Berman's debut novel, Perennials, touched on the camp experience, I jumped on it.

Rachel Rivkin and Fiona Larkin met as campers at Camp Marigold, the same camp where Fiona's parents met as children and fell in love. Even though Rachel and Fiona don't see each other much during the winter months, their friendship is as solid as ever, and they've already planned to stay in the same tent and be as inseparable as always. Yet the summer they turn 13 is a pivotal one, as they teeter on the brink between adolescence and self-proclaimed maturity, innocence and bravado, and their differences threaten to harm their friendship.

Rachel, the daughter of a single mother, knows she is fortunate to go to camp every summer, since they lack the financial resources Fiona's family has. Yet Rachel has something Fiona lacks—self-confidence in her looks and a willingness to test the limits of her budding sexuality, while Fiona has no interest in doing the same and resents Rachel both for moving forward without her and keeping secrets when she does. Even so, they know that their friendship is more important than anything else.

Six years later, Rachel and Fiona return to Camp Marigold as counselors. While they've maintained their friendship even though they attend separate colleges, they're looking forward to one last summer together before they need to become "adults" and pursue internships, jobs, etc. Yet it's not long after that they fall into the same behavior patterns—Rachel is rebellious, flirtatious, confident, and willing to take risks, while Fiona, caught in a cycle of low self-esteem, begins feeling the distance between her and Rachel growing.

During that last summer, things change for both of them, things that rock their lives and Camp Marigold. The book follows not only Rachel and Fiona, but Fiona's younger sister, Helen, now a camper, as well as some of the other counselors and camp staff. This is a book about the power and the burden of friendship, how sometimes our differences make us stronger friends while at other times they just ultimately tear us apart. It's also a book about how fast we want to become adults until we find ourselves in adult situations, and then we wish we could have our innocence back again.

I thought this was an interesting book, and there were definitely instances which I could so vividly picture in my head, as they reminded me of my own experience at camp. Berman is a very talented writer and she knows how to make you care about her characters, even when they may annoy you more than a little bit. (But chances are you know people just like them.)

I liked the first section of the book, which followed Rachel and Fiona as campers, but once the story moved six years later, I feel as if Berman got a little too ambitious and lost the focus and heart of her story. The book suddenly shifted to characters we had never met before, characters who seemed reasonably peripheral to the actual plot, and yet there was a great deal of time dedicated to them. They were interesting but it distracted from the real story (or at least what I wanted the real story to be). I also felt as if Rachel went a little too far, even though I could understand her motivations, and that made her a little less interesting.

I'll admit I was hoping this would provoke a little more nostalgia and generate a little less drama, but perhaps that was my fault. Still, this is a solid story about adolescent friendships and how they sometimes struggle as they move into adulthood, and I'd imagine that given the main characters are both female, it may resonate a bit more for women than it did me.

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

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Book Review: "Behind Her Eyes" by Sarah Pinborough

Umm, seriously? What did I just read?

Sarah Pinborough's new book, Behind Her Eyes is one crazy book, one that at different times had me totally hooked, rolling my eyes, predicting (incorrectly) how the plot would be tied together, and then, ultimately, re-reading the last few chapters a few times to make sure what I thought happened actually did.

So, let's see how to review this.

"Secrets, secrets, secrets. People are filled to the brim with them if you look closely."

Louise is a single mother to a young son. She works part-time as a secretary at a psychiatry office, and for the most part, spends her evenings caring for her son and drinking a little too much wine, and at times suffers from night terrors she can't explain. She'd love to meet a new man but doesn't really want to make the effort.

Then she meets him. Smart, funny, handsome, seems completely interested in her. They spend a somewhat drunken evening in a bar, and clearly there's chemistry between the two of them. After a passionate kiss, he flees, but she feels heartened that finally, someone special took an interest in her. Then on Monday, Louise discovers that this man is David, her new boss. Oh, and he's married, to a beautiful, elegant woman. Bollocks.

Louise bravely tries to soldier on despite her disappointment and David's occasionally flirtatious nature, but she is determined not to be one of those women. One day, while walking near her office, she (literally) runs into Adele, a beautiful, lonely woman clearly in need of a friend. And then, Louise quickly realizes Adele is David's wife. Adele starts to encourage Louise on ways to improve herself—cut back on the wine, quit smoking, join a gym.

When David's interest in Louise starts to intensify, she doesn't know what to do. She definitely has feelings for David, but she likes having Adele as a friend, even under the circumstances. She knows the secrets she's keeping from each of them are wrong, but she can't break up with either of them. And it appears both of them need her, in their own ways, as much as she needs them.

If you think you know what's going to happen from here, you're probably right—and you're utterly wrong. Pinborough combines elements of your typical love triangle and the story of the marriage that no one understands with some seriously bizarre, suspend-your-disbelief plot elements. When it works, the book practically hums with finesse and intrigue, and when it doesn't work, it's one of two things—you just can't wrap your head around what is allegedly happening, or you feel the book has fallen into such stereotypical territory it annoys you.

Ultimately, why this book worked for me (despite having to suspend my disbelief) is Pinborough's storytelling. These aren't likable characters, the plot jumps back and forth between narrators and time periods, and sometimes you wonder how the characters know what's going on. But Pinborough's writing mesmerized me, and the originality she demonstrates helps the positive outweigh the negative.

This will not be a book for everyone. But if you want to go on a crazy ride with some crazy characters, pick this one up. Because when a book comes with a hashtag, #wtfthatending, you know you need to give it a try.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Book Review: "Beartown" by Fredrik Backman

Here's a little bit of a confession: while I really enjoyed Fredrik Backman's book A Man Called Ove, and the charming curmudgeon who was its main character, I have found in recent years that there seems to be a glut of charming yet misunderstood curmudgeons doddering their way through modern fiction.

So despite people's warm feelings about Backman's next two books, I passed, because I have enough to worry about becoming a (hopefully) charming curmudgeon someday soon. However, I did pounce on his novella And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer, and I fell in love with it (curmudgeon-ish character and all), and it easily found its way onto my list of the best books I read last year.

Even with full confidence in Backman's storytelling ability, I was surprised to learn his newest book, Beartown, didn't follow the same pattern of his other books, but rather focused on a small town which many think is dying out, a town literally obsessed with hockey. I wondered how this would work. But then as I read this book over the course of one late evening in the throes of insomnia, I was blown away, because this was so much more than a hockey novel. Backman pulled off a colossal feat, a literary mic drop.
Beartown is a small forest town that seems to be getting subsumed by the trees around it. One of the few highlights of Beartown is an old hockey rink which was for many years home to the only pastime enjoyed by the factory workers who lived there and the townspeople who cheered with and jeered at them.

"Sometimes the entire community feels like a philosophical experiment: If a town falls in the forest but no one hears it, does it matter at all?"

But even for a hockey-obsessed town, the excitement is becoming nearly too much to bear. Beartown's junior ice hockey team is about to compete in the national semifinals, and many in town think they're going to win. The team may be good, but their star player, Kevin, is exceptional, and thanks to his best friend and defender (both on the rink and off), Benji, he's even better. The outcome of the game has the potential to change many lives—the players, including a new player brought on to the team unexpectedly; the general manager, once a hometown hero who briefly dallied in the NFL; several of the club's coaches, who have differing ideas about what coaches are supposed to do; even town leaders, who see the bright horizon a win could bring.

Despite what happens in that game, one night everything changes. An incident, an accusation, cause sides to be taken, lines to be drawn, people to show their true colors, friendships to strengthen and/or wither. Suddenly Beartown isn't sure what it is or should be—should hockey and its players come first? Is that all that matters? Do the haves get, while the have-nots suffer?

Backman has written an outstanding, emotional, thought-provoking novel about so much more than a town and a game. It's a book about the responsibilities and burdens of parenthood and the ripple effects missteps in parenting can cause; it's a book about belonging, about finally feeling a part of something when you've spent so much time on the outside looking in; it's a book about the staggering power—positive and negative—of friendship; and it's a book about the toll keeping secrets can have on you.

It's funny, I was thinking I would get a Swedish Friday Night Lights but instead found so much more. Backman once again proves he is a writer to be reckoned with, and I'll let him lead me wherever he wants to go next time. No questions asked.

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

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Book Review: "Marlena" by Julie Buntin

If you're a fan of The Wallflowers' music, maybe you'll find yourself singing this song while reading Julie Buntin's Marlena: https://youtu.be/RloXtzcCAf8. (Not because of any particular plot point or because the lyrics are symbolic, just because there is a Marlena in the book and one, two, three Marlenas in the song. I'm deep like that.)

"Sometimes I feel like she is my invention. Like the more I say, the further from the truth of her I get. I'm trying to hold palmfuls of sand but I squeeze harder, I tighten my fist, and the quicker it all escapes."

Fifteen-year-old Cat's life is turned upside down when her mother decides the best way to recover from her divorce and regain some financial momentum is to move Cat and her older brother Jimmy from their home in Pontiac, Michigan to the rural town she grew up in, Silver Lake. Cat has to leave her private school, her best friend, and the sense of security she had, plus she'll be moving away from her father, and although he hasn't been attentive since moving in with his much younger girlfriend, she knows she'll miss him.

No one is bargaining for the somewhat rundown house they move into, nor do they expect to be amidst trailer homes and other decrepit homes, where it appears less-than-upstanding activities are taking place. But the bright spot for Cat is meeting Marlena, her next door neighbor. Marlena is two years older, worldly where Cat has been sheltered, bold and brazen where Cat is shy, and when they meet, she is already in the throes of addiction to pills of all kinds, but she generally manages to keep her life together on a day-to-day basis.

Before long, Cat and Marlena are mostly inseparable, although she must navigate Marlena's mood swings and the fear of her unstable father. But with Marlena, Cat also gets to experience many firsts—first kiss, first drink, first cigarette, first time skipping school—and feels like she finally is part of something, even if at times it leaves her unsteady and uncertain. But despite the emotional roller coaster of their relationship, and Cat's recognition that Marlena's behavior is, ultimately, dangerous, she is still unprepared for Marlena's death less than a year later.

This book is told from two perspectives—Cat unfolding the story of her relationship with Marlena and all that occurred during that tumultuous time in Silver Lake, and Cat as an adult, decades later, when the appearance of a ghost from her past causes her to revisit the emotions and the regrets, not to mention the addictions she still lives with all those years later. For the first time, she might have to acknowledge just how profound an effect Marlena had on her life, and in some ways, still does.

"The truth is both a vast wilderness and the tiniest space you can imagine. It's between me and her, what I saw and what she saw and how I see it now and how she has no now. Divide it further—between what I mean and what I say, who I am and who I appear to be, who she said she was and acted like she was and also, of course, who she really was, in all her glorious complexity, all her unknowable Marlena-ness, all her secrets."

There's nothing as intense as a friendship formed in adolescence, particularly amidst the tumultuous teenage years. Marlena is a gripping, emotional account of just how much our lives are affected by those we're closest to when we're younger, and the blessings and the scars of those relationships live on with us well into adulthood.

This is a story of young woman trying to hold her own in a relationship that both made her feel special and inadequate, and a woman years later whose life is still shaped by those days, the decisions she made and those she regrets. Buntin does a terrific job capturing the power dynamics of adolescent friendships, and the after-effects felt long afterward. She's a great storyteller, and this book is packed with emotion, imagery, and lots of instances in which you want to smack the characters for not confronting the issues they see in front of them.

Marlena isn't a perfect book; at times the pacing moved a little slower than I would have liked, and at times Cat alludes to things that happen in the future but I would have liked to understand what led up to some of those instances rather than just be told what happened. But Buntin's use of language and emotion transcends the book's flaws, and definitely keeps you thinking about these characters, even if you've seen them before.

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

Monday, February 20, 2017

Book Review: "The Dry" by Jane Harper

Wow, this was really a great book! I love it when books which are hyped actually live up to the praise they're getting, and Jane Harper's The Dry definitely did.

This book had everything—great writing, a terrifically evocative setting (I felt hot every time I read it, and it wasn't just because I'm running a fever, and I kept expecting everyone I came into contact with to speak with an Australian accent), interesting character development, and lots of twists and turns. It's amazing to think that this is Harper's debut novel, because it felt like a book written by a virtuoso.

Federal Agent Aaron Falk returns to Kiewarra, the small, rural Australian town where he grew up, when he hears that his childhood best friend, Luke, is dead, along with Luke's wife and young son. Actually his return for Luke's funeral isn't by choice: he's summoned by Luke's father, who threatens to bring to light an old secret that Luke and Aaron shared if he doesn't come home. Years ago, their friend Ellie Deacon drowned, but it turned out she was murdered. Luke and Aaron were each other's alibi that night, although neither really asked where the other one was. Many in the town suspected they lied.

"They'd all been so tight. Teenage tight, where you believe your friends are soul mates and the bonds will last forever."

Kiewarra has been ravaged by endless drought and the townspeople are on edge, coupled with the tragic circumstances around the deaths of Luke and his family. Given that Aaron and his father fled the town years ago, after both were accused of being involved in Ellie's death, many people in town, including Ellie's ne'er-do-well father and violent cousin, still aren't happy to see him.

As much as he wants to get out of Kiewarra as quickly as he arrived, Aaron promises Luke's parents that he will look into what really happened the day Luke and his family died. Partnering with a local police officer, Aaron tries to make sense of who could have been involved, and they both quickly find more than their share of secrets and lies, and Aaron must come face-to-face with an unending supply of childhood memories, some good, some bad. But the more they dig into the crime, the more they uncover, and the more hostile the townspeople become.

Is this crime related to the lie that Luke and Aaron told all those years ago, or was something else afoot? Are those still trying to cause people to suspect Aaron's involvement in Ellie's death actually involved in Luke's? Did the drought so destroy this town and any sense of hope that someone felt compelled to murder, or did Luke just snap under pressure one day, like so many believe? These are questions Aaron and his police partner need to find answers to, but will danger find them first?

The truth is, a lot of times I'm hesitant to read crime or mystery novels where you actually have to figure out who the perpetrator is, mainly because I feel this way:
Harper really did her best to keep you guessing, although that didn't stop me from suspecting nearly everyone at one point. "Wait, you seem sympathetic? You did it," I thought. But while I wasn't completely surprised by the way she resolved the story, I still was surprised at the motivation behind it until the very end. And there was one revelation about the second mystery that baffled me, so I'm going to need to reach out to someone else who has read the book to see if I understood the plot correctly.

All told, this is a tremendously suspenseful, exceptionally well-written book that really blew me away. Lately I've been reading crime novels that have been more novel than crime, which hasn't been a bad thing, but The Dry was really a crime novel. If this is Harper's debut, I can't wait to see what comes next, because she hit a homer with this one!!

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Book Review: "The Wanderers" by Meg Howrey

Aerospace behemoth Prime Space, which has made its presence known in NASA's waning years, has a plan to put the first humans on Mars in four years. The company has selected the perfect crew for this mission—Helen Kane, Sergei Kuznetsov, and Yoshihiro Tanaka—each of them leaders in their own country's space program who have participated on the International Space Station. The three are chosen for their complementary skills, personalities, and backgrounds, which should mesh perfectly during their mission.

Given the risky nature of their mission, the three will spend 17 months in the Utah wilderness in an amazingly realistic simulation of every aspect of the mission, from launch to the return home. Prime Space's Mission Control will throw everything they can at the crew, from equipment malfunctions, atmospheric anomalies, personal crises, even imminent failure, to observe their actions and reactions in order to determine what things will need to be tweaked when the actual mission rolls around.

Beyond the mechanics of their journey into space, Helen, Sergei, and Yoshi are observed by Prime Space's team of "obbers" around the clock, who monitor not only their physical reactions to situations they are thrown into, but their psychological, emotional, and interpersonal relationships and interactions as well, even how they react to the messages they receive from their own family and friends. And the "obbers" aren't just watching them, they're also watching those closest to them—Helen's daughter, Sergei's sons, and Yoshi's wife—each of whom has their own challenges, both related and unrelated to their family members' imminent journey to Mars.

To spend this much time in close proximity with each other and know that you are being watched around the clock is challenging, yet the three are determined to present the most stable personas to those watching, those who could make the decision to bounce them from the real mission. Yet as the simulated mission proceeds, each faces their own doubts, fears, and regrets, and even struggle with the concept of what is truly real and what is being simulated to test them. Meanwhile, their family members are dealing with their own epiphanies, and how they feel about the absence of their loved ones.

For a book under 400 pages, at times The Wanderers has an almost sweeping, epic feel, as it covers weighty topics such as travel to other planets, the issue of personal legacy, and how astronauts are forced to cope with the double-edged sword of wanting to be there for their families yet constantly wanting to push the boundaries of exploration. But at other times it feels very intimate, as the astronauts deal with their personal feelings of fear, paranoia, regret, loss, and confusion.

There's a lot going on in this book—sometimes that works, and sometimes it doesn't. The book shifts perspective among the crew members, as well as Helen's daughter, Yoshi's wife, and one of Sergei's sons, and a member of the "obbers." I honestly think the book could have been equally as powerful without the family members' perspectives, because apart from one instance, the stories never really got closure. At times the book gets weighted down with technical speak, but luckily that doesn't last long, because the power of this novel truly comes from each of the astronauts, their self-discovery, and their interactions with one another.

I've been a fan of Meg Howrey since her very first novel, Blind Sight (see my review), and you can tell she did a tremendous amount of research to make this book feel authentic. But what I loved most were her storytelling, the complexity of her characters, and the imagery she uses. I thought the pacing of the book was a bit slow, but at its heart the story was very compelling. (By the way, this book is being marketed as Station Eleven meets The Martian, to which I'll reply, nope.)

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

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Book Review: "The Inexplicable Logic of My Life" by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

The minute I received an email from NetGalley promoting Benjamin Alire Sáenz's new book, I jumped on it and submitted a request for an advance copy. I absolutely loved Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (see my review), so I figured even if this one wasn't that good, I still had to read it. Needless to say, I was so pleased to get approved right away, and I began the book the second I finished my previous one.

The Inexplicable Logic of My Life is a different book than Aristotle and Dante..., but man, was it special. I have a hellacious cold, making sleeping (and breathing, really) fairly impossible in my current state, so last night I read nearly the entire book, between 11:00 p.m. and 1:30 a.m. Needless to say, this is how I ended up:

Sal is ready to start his senior year of high school. It's going to be a pivotal year with so much on the horizon, but while his childhood best friend Samantha can think of nothing more than going to college as far away from El Paso as she can (no matter what her mother says), he's getting more and more stressed about the potential for change. Suddenly this anxiety is manifesting itself via anger—all he wants to do is hit people. Whether it's the idiot who called his father a faggot, someone who called him a pinche gringo (even though he is white, he was adopted by his Mexican father), or one of Sam's bad-guy boyfriends, he suddenly can't stop using his fists, and he doesn't understand why, and he is afraid of how people will react if they knew how angry he was.

"But Sam, she had this image of me that I was a good boy, and she was in love with that image. She was in love with simple, uncomplicated, levelheaded Sally. And I didn't know how to tell her that I wasn't all those beautiful things she thought I was. That things were changing, and I could feel it but couldn't put it into words."

Sadly, life throws them curve after curve in this crucial year, and Sal must deal with some major emotional crises, and come to terms with who he is, and what becoming a man really means. But at the same time, he realizes once again the power of friendship and family, of words, of loving and being loved, and of giving people a chance. This is a beautiful, emotional, heart-warming, and life-affirming book, and although there was perhaps a little too much melodrama to deal with in the plot, I applaud Sáenz for not taking the story down a few paths I feared he might.

One of the reasons I love Sáenz's writing so much is that he has such a love for his characters that you can't help loving them, too, and seeing them in your mind's eye. This book is 450+ pages long yet I could have read more, although I might have gotten dehydrated from all of the crying! (And not just sad crying, but good crying, too.)

He uses beautiful imagery and creates some poetic moments, even if at times some friction would have been avoided if people just said what they felt. But ultimately, this is one of those books that teaches you to let yourself be loved, and that no matter what your background or life situation is, you still are entitled to dream and believe in yourself.

I'll sit and wait for Sáenz's next book, readying for this again:

NetGalley and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Children's Book Group/Clarion Books provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

Friday, February 17, 2017

Book Review: "Shadow Man" by Alan Drew

Shadow Man begins with the somewhat-paranoid musings of a person as they set out to murder a woman who is alone in her home, cooking dinner and unaware of what fate is about to befall her. When police detective Ben Wade is called by a friend to assist with the murder investigation, it's not long before all involved realize that Southern California might have a serial killer on their hands, one with a penchant for strangulation, for slipping through screen doors and unlocked windows.

While the prospect of a serial killer has everyone on edge, it's another death that sends Ben reeling. The body of a teenage boy is found in a field, and most signs point to suicide as the cause of death. But as Ben and his longtime friend Natasha, a forensic specialist, begin uncovering clues to the boy's identity, the life he led, and the secrets he kept, Ben's carefully compartmentalized life begins to shake. He's starting to wonder if it was wise to return to his hometown, Rancho Santa Elena, and all of the history that it held for him.

As Ben and his colleagues try to stop the serial killer before he strikes again, Ben tries to find answers in the boy's death as well, answers he might regret finding or deny seeing. But while he's trying to do his job the best way he knows how, he's also dealing with his own family crisis, as he realizes his teenage daughter Emma may be growing up faster than he is ready for, and he must tread a fine line between being concerned and overprotective.

Brooding and atmospheric, Shadow Man is as much a story of one man's battle with himself as it is a crime novel about a serial killer. And that's what surprised and delighted me so much about this book. Given how it began, I expected it to be your typical crime novel, with a fascinating yet flawed main character, and lots of intrigue around the killer and what made him tick. And while the book certainly has its requisite chase scenes and exploration of the killer, this is more a book about Ben and his past, and how what he tried to flee all those years ago is about to spill over and affect a lot of other lives.

The plot ultimately isn't surprising, but it doesn't matter. Alan Drew makes you care about his characters and makes you want to root for them, even as you watch them blunder and not always act in everyone's best interests. These characters are all the more interesting because of their flaws, their hearts and emotions, and the things they try to keep secret. This is a testament to Drew's storytelling ability.

If you go into Shadow Man expecting a police procedural or crime thriller, you'll be disappointed. If you go in expecting a well-told story with a good dose of crime, you'll be able to enjoy this book as much as it deserves to be enjoyed. There are a lot of interesting ideas explored, far more than your typical mystery.

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

Monday, February 13, 2017

Book Review: "The Refugees" by Viet Thanh Nguyen

In trying to express how I felt about Viet Thanh Nguyen's exquisite new story collection, The Refugees, I decided to turn to one of the foremost philosophers of our age, Keanu Reeves.

The issue of immigration is definitely a hot button here in the United States right now, with intense emotional fervor expressed by individuals on both sides. Luckily, Nguyen doesn't stake out a political position in his collection. Instead, these beautifully written stories look at issues that affect nearly every family, no matter the culture—grief, regret, coping with crisis, longing, loneliness, secrets, and the ties of family. At the same time, some of the stories deal with the often-difficult tug of war immigrants feel between their birth country and their new home.

Every one of Nguyen's eight stories has moments of absolute poetry and emotion. While I enjoyed all of them, some of my favorites included: "Black-Eyed Women," which told of a woman suddenly haunted by the ghost of her older brother, who saved her during the family's emigration from Vietnam; "The Other Man," about the cultural and emotional adjustment a young immigrant must make when he is sent to San Francisco, to live with a gay couple; "Fatherland," in which a young woman living in Vietnam finally meets her older half-sister, who appears to have everything anyone could ever want; "War Years," which tells of a family whose placid existence is turned upside down by a woman demanding money to fight the Communists back home in Vietnam; and probably my favorite story, "I'd Love You to Want Me," about a woman who begins calling her relationship with her husband into question when he is suffering from Alzheimer's disease.

Nguyen doesn't paint all of his characters with an idealistic brush; his characters are flawed, complex, even unsympathetic at times. Some of his characters are completely assimilated into American culture, while some don't feel (or act) as if they fit in. Nearly every story has elements of Vietnamese culture woven into their fibers, yet each story is utterly approachable, especially given their near-universal themes.

Nguyen's first novel, The Sympathizer, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction last year, among other accolades, but interestingly enough, the subject matter of that book doesn't appeal to me. (For some reason—and one I believe is completely baseless at that—it makes me think of Adam Johnson's The Orphan Master's Son, which I never could get into.) However, I was so blown away by a few friends' reactions to this story collection, that I felt compelled to read it, and I absolutely devoured it. (P.S.: I'm not interested in getting into a debate on the Johnson book here.)

I've always said that the mark of a great short story for me is when I feel like I could read a novel featuring its characters. Every story in The Refugees felt that way to me, but none in their current form felt unfinished or incomplete, just emotionally rich and terrifically told. Seriously, Keanu was right: whoa.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Book Review: "A Separation" by Katie Kitamura

I've ranted previously about how much I dislike when books are marketed as "the next..." So rather than rant, let me get the record straight right off the bat: despite what you might have seen, Katie Kitamura's A Separation is not "...the literary Gone Girl of 2017." I liked the former a little more than the latter, but I didn't feel Kitamura's book was rooted in a mystery as Gillian Flynn's was, so if that's what you're looking for, this book isn't for you.

A woman and her husband have decided to separate after five years of marriage. But while they had both decided there was no chance they would reconcile, her husband, Christopher, asked that they keep their decision private, and perhaps hold off on actually moving forward with a divorce for a short while.

"Could we keep it between us? I had hesitated, it wasn't that I disagreed with the sentiment—the decision was still new at that point, and I imagined Christopher felt much as I did, that we had not yet figured out how to tell the story of our separation. But I disliked the air of complicity, which felt incongruous and without purpose."

Despite their decision, she is still surprised to receive a phone call from her mother-in-law, Isabella, saying she has been unable to reach Christopher. She is more surprised when she finds out that several weeks ago Christopher told his mother that the two of them were traveling to Greece, a decision obviously she was not aware of, nor was she intended to be included in. Isabella is concerned that she hasn't been able to reach her son, so she urges the woman to travel to Greece immediately and find him—ever the control freak, Isabella even paid for the flight.

When she arrives in Greece, she finds that he apparently hired a driver several days earlier to travel, and didn't return when he said he would. No one is sure where he is but she imagines he is off gallivanting around somewhere, perhaps with another woman. She makes the decision to wait at the hotel a few days, and the things she discovers about Christopher while she waits for his return reinforces her desire to ask him a for a divorce as soon as possible.

When Christopher's parents arrive, she makes the decision to continue keeping her secret from them, despite her anger with Christopher for the detritus—physical and emotional—he left in his wake, and for putting her in this position in the first place. But once you have told a lie, how do you renege? Are you stuck living this lie for as long as those who've been told it remain in your life?

This was an intriguing, well-told, yet frustrating book. Thanks to the marketing hype, I definitely expected more of a mystery-type story, but this is really a meditation on how little we know the people we love, and how easy it is to put blinders on with regard to their faults until you reach a breaking point. It's also an examination of honesty, betrayal, estrangement, giving up your dreams to settle for what's in front of you, and how often we replicate the relationships of our parents.

Katie Kitamura is a really talented storyteller, despite the fact that she didn't really punctuate many of her longer paragraphs beyond commas and an occasional period. I just wish that in the end, this story offered more satisfaction than it did for me.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Book Review: "The Pictures" by Guy Bolton

Hollywood, 1939. MGM is putting the finishing touches on a movie it has high hopes for, The Wizard of Oz, although studio head Louis Mayer isn't sure about that "Over the Rainbow" number.

LAPD detective Jonathan Craine has just returned to his job after the unexpected death of his actress wife, and he's still a bit of a mess. Not only are his feelings of grief, guilt, and anger all mixed up and residing a little too close to the surface for comfort, but he doesn't know how to handle his young son, Michael, who has gone mute in his own grief.

Craine has been unofficially employed by the LAPD as a "fixer" for the Hollywood studios. He steps in when a star has gotten themselves into a bit of trouble and makes sure the press doesn't catch wind of it, and ensures investigations are closed quickly before anyone can ask any questions. It's a good job, although one not entirely on the up-and-up, and it was a bone of contention between him and his late wife.

He agreed to come back to work if he didn't have to do that job anymore, but he gets pressed into service one more time. When an MGM producer is found dead of an apparent suicide, Craine is asked to smooth out any questions the investigation might uncover, as the producer was married to Gale Goodwin, one of the studio's up-and-coming stars. As always, Craine is the loyal soldier, even if he is starting to realize that things aren't just adding up in this case. But if getting the case to put to bed is all that needs to happen before he can get out from under the studios' thumb, he's happy to do as he's told.

When a dogged young detective keeps peppering Craine with questions and inconsistencies in the case, he decides to do a little bit of investigating just to pacify him. But when Craine realizes the producer's death might be connected with a brutal murder the night prior, and then he gets caught in a gunfight when following what appears to be an innocent lead, he has a real dilemma on his hands. Should he do what he always has done, and put the needs and wishes of the studio ahead of the need for justice, or is it time for him to pursue what is right, not what is desired? And if he chooses the latter path, is he prepared to face whatever consequences might lie ahead?

Guy Bolton's The Pictures is a fascinating look at old Hollywood, the time when the studio heads controlled everything in LA, even the police. While the mystery component of the plot might not be entirely surprising, Bolton's storytelling and character development really shines through. Craine is definitely a flawed character, but he's a man with so much on his shoulders, and he just can't seem to do the right thing with everyone. His story was very compelling, and I would have loved even more background on him, so it would be great if Bolton considers another book featuring him.

The other thing I loved about the book was how effectively Bolton conveyed the mood and setting of Hollywood in 1939. While I didn't read with an eagle eye to make sure every detail was entirely accurate (he obviously took some liberties while keeping some elements of real events), I could just picture the book in my head so well. I could see Mayer raging, the scenes in nightclubs and studio parties. That worked so well.

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

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Book Review: "All Grown Up" by Jami Attenberg

"What do you do when you already know what your problem is? What if it's not really a problem? It's only a problem if I want a relationship. If I want to fit into a conventional mode of happiness. It's only a problem if I care. And I can't tell if I care."

Andrea isn't really sure what she wants. But then again, she's not really sure what she doesn't want, either. She has a tendency to fall for the wrong guys—she gets taken in at the start of a relationship (even a fling), and before too long she and the guy pretty much hate each other. She also drinks more than she should, has a not-too-pleasant history with casual drug usage, and is often misanthropic.

As she approaches 40, most people think she's not a full-fledged adult, even if she has a job she's good at (although she hates it) and her own apartment. Her best friend, Indigo, has gotten married and had a baby. Her brother emerged triumphant from their chaotic and dysfunctional childhood, became a reasonably successful musician (for a while), and now he and his wife are raising their terminally ill baby daughter. Even her mother has gotten her act together, and just wants Andrea to be happy and settle down. But that doesn't seem to be in the cards for her.

Jami Attenberg's All Grown Up is a humorous and emotional look at one woman's struggle to hold it together from adolescence to adulthood, to define her own idea of happiness and security, to love and be loved on her own terms. She knows she's far from perfect, and she's not always happy with herself or her life (or even those in it), but she's willing to do what she thinks she needs to survive.

Attenberg is a storytelling genius. She has captured Andrea's voice so perfectly and it absolutely resonates throughout the book. Many of the other characters are really well-drawn, too, so much so that I could see them in my mind's eye, and that doesn't often happen with books. Much as she did with The Middlesteins, she makes her characters' flaws appealing, and makes you care about them even when they frustrate or annoy you.

The book jumps back and forth through time, from Andrea's teenage years through adulthood, looking at her relationships with her family, friends, coworkers, and the various men in her life, as well as her falling in and out of love with the idea of being an artist. At times it's a little disjointed, because you have to try to remember where everyone is at each particular instance.

I really enjoyed and was moved by this book. Attenberg is tremendously talented, and she has created a compelling portrait of a woman making her way through life on her own terms.

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

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Book Review: "No One Can Pronounce My Name" by Rakesh Satyal

Rakesh Satyal's second novel, No One Can Pronounce My Name, is a patchwork quilt of a book, where different but related threads come together into a gorgeous masterpiece. I read the entire book on a flight to the West Coast, and was dazzled not only by Satyal's beautiful prose, but the amazing amount of heart and joy he brought to his book.

Ranjana has just sent her only child off to college, and she wonders what she has to look forward to now. She's starting to suspect that her husband is having an affair, and she finds herself seeking solace in food. The only thing that truly gives her pleasure is the time she spends each night writing paranormal romance stories, but as much joy as they bring her, she's even too embarrassed to share the stories with the members of her writers' group!

Harit decided a long time ago he'd never be the type of man to marry and have the life everyone expects men to, and perhaps he was destined to be alone. After the sudden death of his beloved sister Swati, he and his elderly mother are consumed by grief. He begins dressing up in Swati's sari each night and pretending he is his sister, in an effort to help his nearly-blind mother find some comfort. The only time he leaves the house is to go to his job at a department store every day, and it is only through the efforts of his flamboyant coworker and friend, Teddy, that he even finds the strength to go out for a drink every now and again. (He doesn't actually find the strength at first; Teddy browbeats him into it.)

A series of events leads to Ranjana and Harit meeting in an unlikely place, and the two quickly strike up a friendship that surprises them both. Not only does Ranjana feel appreciated, needed, cared about, but she feels as if she is helping Harit in some way. And Harit feels that their friendship has finally allowed him to come to terms with so many things he has kept bottled up for so long, and perhaps realize that he is a special person and is worthy of being loved for who he is.

Friendship can be one of the most incredible gifts people give one another, not only for the companionship and confidences shared, but friendship often empowers people to feel they should pursue their dreams, and know that they have supporters behind them. To watch Ranjana and Harit both blossom under the light of their friendship, and realize the value of those around them where they had almost taken them for granted before is a beautiful thing, and one of the pieces I loved about this book.

While I've presented this as a fairly simple story, in Satyal's hands it has such depth, humor, emotion, and complexity that readers should discover for themselves. There is such nuance in his storytelling, and you can feel the love he has for his characters, even when they're acting in less-appealing ways.

I love books that surprise you, not necessarily with plot twists, but the way the author lets the book unfold, and pulls you in until you want nothing more than to spend more time with the characters, in the midst of the story they have created. That was the way I felt while reading No One Can Pronounce My Name. I felt as if I were a witness to all that occurred as a result of Ranjana and Harit's friendship, but more importantly, I felt lucky that Satyal took me on this journey. I felt his heart in this book alongside those of his characters.

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

Monday, February 6, 2017

Book Review: "Barkley Five Oh: A Science Fiction Short Story" by Logan Keys

Oh, man, this story...

Barkley 50 is a robot built in a not-too-distant future. He is programmed to mimic emotions and although he may not understand what the emotions mean, he starts to recognize how they make him feel. Little by little, he becomes more and more intelligent and perceptive of his surroundings and the behavior of the people around him.

As this story proceeds, Barkley moves from owner to owner, further and further into what appears to be a tremendously bleak future. At times he is a companion, at times a protector, a bodyguard, a friend, but the more he understands of the human race the more he realizes that there is a real risk that humanity may not survive. But what does that mean for him? Will he be left all alone in a world that never quite understood or was ready for him?
The closer I get to humanity, the more I see them for what they are. Scared. Simple. Lazy. Genius. Humans. Messy, nutty, stronger than anything—screwed up, cutting and running, life bringing, humans. Courageous, kind, selfless, magical, passionate, organic, weird, and uncomfortably comfortable, humans...loving...and about to be extinct, humans. Everything I hate, and everything I'm longing to be...human.
Logan Keys' story is moving, heartbreaking, awe-inspiring, thought-provoking, and even a little frightening. Barkley is truly one of the most unforgettable characters I've ever read, and although the length of this story worked so well for what Keys was trying to accomplish, I could have read an entire novel with him as the main character. He's truly the embodiment of nearly every robot-believing-it's-human I've ever seen.

For an author to pack so much emotion, so much suspense, so much plot, and so much meaning into 40 or so pages requires tremendous talent. Keys has that in spades. This is the first thing I've read of hers, but it definitely won't be the last. And Barkley 50 won't leave my mind anytime soon.

The author and Le Chat Publishing provided me a complimentary copy of the story in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Book Review: "Small Hours" by Jennifer Kitses

Reading this book reminded me of that classic quote from the movie Cool Hand Luke: "What we've got here is failure to communicate."

So many of the issues faced by the characters might only have been avoided if they had spoken up, rather than kept things to themselves, or figured they'd talk about it some other time.

Both Tom and Helen feel their lives are spiraling out of control, but neither has expressed that feeling to the other. At a particularly vulnerable time, they left New York City and moved more than an hour away to a suburb that promised to be the next great destination, but those plans never materialized, and they find themselves in a fairly deserted town in a house that is more than they realistically can afford.

Helen, a freelance graphic designer, is feeling overwhelmed with the challenges of a growing workload and the demands of staying home to care for the couple's twin daughters, Sophie and Ilona. Although they have made friends with the couple across the street, she still feels as if many in the neighborhood judge her, and Tom, and it's starting to make her feel increasingly angry. For reasons she cannot explain, she is edging closer and closer to the desire to inflict physical violence on someone, but she's afraid to utter this aloud or figure out why she feels this way.

Tom, meanwhile, has his own secrets—one in particular which threatens to topple everything he has. The sheer act of maintaining the façade that everything is fine is taking its toll on him—he is barely sleeping and he is having trouble concentrating, which is particularly troublesome given that he works as an editor on a newswire service. He doesn't realize that Helen notices his inability to focus, but he isn't ready to discuss anything with her.

Over the course of one day, both will be pushed to their limits. Neither is prepared for what they will face, on what seems like another ordinary day, but it will test everything—their ability to parent, their jobs, their relationships with their peers, and most importantly, their marriage. And while they've seen some of what's on the horizon, most will catch them totally unprepared.

This was an interesting book, a look at a suburban marriage which seems to be imploding, both because of misunderstandings and actual misdeeds, but neither person wants to verbalize what is bothering them. Jennifer Kitses keeps dialing up the suspense, making you wonder just how far she'll push her characters, and what she'll make them face in the end. I kept approaching the story like I would a horror movie, because I wasn't sure just how out-of-hand she'd let things get. (While the book really hinted at the possibility of utter chaos, I was glad things didn't explode that badly.)

Neither character is particularly appealing the day the book takes place, but you can see what they were like when they were at their best. I'll admit, I get frustrated when the events of a book turn more on things that are unsaid, when characters tend to be stoic rather than share what's going on, and while that certainly happened in this book, it didn't seem overly egregious.

I didn't love this as much as I hoped I would, but it was very well-written, and it certainly was suspenseful to an extent. I believe this is Kitses' first novel, so she definitely has a great career ahead of her given how well this was told. I could definitely see this as an interesting movie.

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

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Book Review: "This Is How It Always Is" by Laurie Frankel

Penn and Rosie fell in love almost instantaneously. Penn was a writer forever working on his "damned novel," while Rosie worked as an emergency room doctor forever on the night shift. When they decided to have children, especially as their family grew to four boys, they adopted a tandem approach to parenting—"It was just that there was way more to do than two could manage, but by their both filling every spare moment, some of what needed to got done."

One final try for a girl landed them Claude. Claude was precocious—he crawled, walked, and talked earlier than his brothers, but he also was tremendously creative. He liked to write, draw, play music, even bake. He was warm, friendly, and truly a special child. But as Claude approached his fifth birthday, he became obsessed with dresses. What he wanted more than anything was to be a princess, and be able to wear a dress to school.

Rosie and Penn aren't sure what to do. Do they nurture their youngest son's wish, stares and cruel comments and jibes at their parenting be damned, or do they explain to Claude that boys don't wear dresses, and he is a boy? For a while Claude settles for dressing as a boy for school and changing into girl clothes when he returns home, but that really doesn't make him happy. He wants to be a girl.

"How did you teach your small human that it's what's inside that counts when the truth was everyone was pretty preoccupied with what you put on over the outside too?"

As Claude grows, and becomes Poppy, they encourage her to be true to her feelings and who she is. But is that the right parenting choice for a child so young in age? What are the next steps in this journey, not only for Poppy and her parents, but her brothers as well? At some point the burden of keeping Poppy's secret becomes too much to bear for everyone, and then everyone needs to figure out where to go from there.

What choice is the right one? How will Penn and Rosie know if they're acting in their child's best interests, or the best interests of all of their children? How do they protect their child from what they know the world always seems to have in store for people who are different?

Laurie Frankel's This Is How It Always Is is a truly wonderful book. She draws you into the Walsh-Adams family so fully, that you really see how things affect each of them. The book isn't preachy or heavy-handed (although those who believe transgender people to be less than human, and that no matter what you always must remain the gender you're born into will probably not agree), but it also doesn't pretend the whole situation is perfect, for anyone. She emphasizes that it's just as easy to make mistakes by not doing or saying things as it is by doing or saying them.

Frankel is a tremendously talented writer who imbues her books with beautiful emotion. Her previous book, Goodbye for Now (see my review), had me in tears (and I read it a few years before my father died). Frankel even brings emotion to her author's note. But this small exchange in the book moved me the most:

"Tears crawled out of Claude's eyes and nose, and besides he was only five, but he tried to comfort his parents anyway. 'I just feel a little bit sad. Sad isn't bleeding. Sad is okay.'"

Maybe sometimes things happened a little too easily, but I still loved this book. Read it.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Book Review: "Every Giant Becomes a Monster" by Collins Kelly

Colson is a 19-year-old noise musician who leaves his troubled past behind him and rides the rails, searching for a new beginning. He thinks he may have found this in a small Arizona desert town called Flaggtrapp, especially when Donna, a sexy bartender, pays him some kindness. For a young man who has always been self-conscious of his excessively crooked teeth and his skinny body, attention from a woman like Donna goes right to his head.

The thing is, Donna is married to Travis, a former Marine who has never quite been the same since his time in Iraq. He used to be a well-known musician in the punk scene, but since he returned home, he'd much rather get wasted, cheat on his wife, and get into fights. But when he meets Colson, he feels kinship with a fellow musician, whose presence encourages his creativity and revitalizes his desire to perform—when he's reasonably sober.

Donna lets Colson know that her marriage no longer makes her happy, and she'd be receptive to starting something with Colson once Travis moves out. But despite getting some mixed messages from Donna, and discovering some troubling things about her past, he's willing to do whatever she wants—even help precipitate Travis' exiting her life. Colson is torn about betraying Travis, but the possibility of finally finding someone to be with is more powerful than anything else.

As Travis becomes increasingly more unhinged, and Donna becomes more demanding, Colson isn't sure where to turn or what to do, but his singular focus could have disastrous consequences for all.

In the words of Mrs. Potts, this is a tale as old as time—man wants woman, woman is married, woman convinces man to help her get unmarried, disaster ensues. I had hoped that Every Giant Becomes a Monster would provide a fresh twist on this story, but for the most part this book unfolded much as I expected it to. I was disappointed by that, honestly, because I thought Colson's character was very interesting and I saw a lot of potential there, but I guess like most troubled 19-year-old men, he was focused on one thing only.

As the story unfolded, the book became more and more of a downer. And at the very end, some information about Colson comes to light that really would have been more interesting to know earlier on, and perhaps Collins Kelly could have done something with it. I found that frustrating, although I guess it was conveying the message that we can't always blame our circumstances for the trouble we find ourselves in.

I think Kelly is a writer with some promise, and his take on the underground music scene was really interesting, but ultimately, this book didn't really work for me.

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