Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Book Review: "Emma in the Night" by Wendy Walker

I've remarked in previous reviews that much like they say in spy movies, my philosophy when reading thrillers is simple: trust no one. Any character that appears I immediately view as a possible suspect.

Of course, while that thought process makes it a little more difficult when reading, it helps me avoid being irritated when the resolution of a book includes a character who came totally out of the blue. Where Wendy Walker's crazy, twisty, yet surprisingly weighty new book, Emma in the Night, was concerned, I may not have been ultimately surprised by everything, but Walker took me on quite a journey to get there, full of surprises and twists which kept me guessing.

One night, 15-year-old Cassandra Tanner and her older sister Emma disappeared. Emma's car was found on a beach, but there was never any trace of the girls. FBI forensic psychologist Abby Winter suspected there was more to the girls' disappearance that met the eye, but she couldn't convince her supervisors, and the case nearly destroyed her. But three years later, Cass has returned home without Emma, but she pleads desperately that they rescue her sister.

Cass' story is a harrowing one, of being kept captive on a remote island with Emma. She sacrificed a lot to get home, and is afraid her sister might not still be on the island, or even be alive once the FBI figures out where they've been held captive. Cass' return has also thrown her divorced parents into turmoil, as they are happy that Cass is back but they fear for Emma's safety, and they want to understand what happened to the girls three years ago.

But the more Cass tells, the more Abby wonders what the truth is. Her initial suspicions about all not being right in the household where the girls grew up returns with a vengeance, and Abby wonders what Cass is hiding, and whether she's trying to lead them somewhere, to someone, but is unable to say anything directly. These issues of narcissistic personality disorder are ones that Abby knows too well, and she wonders if her suspicions are true, or if she is being influenced by her own experiences.

"Not knowing, not seeing, being deceived—it makes you question everything you have come to trust. It makes you doubt your own judgment, and the truths you have come to believe in, which sometimes are so deeply embedded, you don't even know they're there, shaping your thoughts."

What happened the night that Emma and Cass disappeared? Where is Emma now? Was their disappearance random, or was it caused by, or the result of, something else in their lives? Is Cass hiding something? Time is running out, and the FBI must figure out the truth and bring Emma home before it's too late.

I liked Emma in the Night more than I thought I would. There was a brief period a little more than a quarter into the book where I worried one of the characters would be such a huge part of the plot that I didn't think I could stand it, but I persevered, and I'm glad I did. This is a book that isn't afraid to paint its characters as not entirely sympathetic, and you're not sure what to believe and you don't know which character to root for.

Walker does a great job unraveling the plot little by little, and while some of it seemed a little too predictable, there was still enough that kept me guessing. I've never read anything by her before, but I was impressed not only with the way she generated suspense, but the in-depth attention she paid to the depiction of narcissistic personality disorder. That is something that unfortunately I've experienced, and she was right on the money with that.

This wasn't a perfect book by any means, but I enjoyed it and couldn't stop reading. Definitely a good book for a last gasp at the beach, or to occupy you during a long trip or commute. I'll definitely need to read Walker's first book now!

Monday, August 14, 2017

Book Review: "The Rules of Magic" by Alice Hoffman

How much did I love this book? I cannot even count the ways.

Franny, Bridget (Jet), and Vincent Owens are siblings growing up in New York City in the late 1950s and early 1960s, raised by no-nonsense parents who discourage their children from exploring their uniqueness. Their mother Susanna knows that her children are different—headstrong Franny can talk to birds, beautiful Jet can read people's thoughts, and charismatic Vincent has been charming people to him since birth, and he uses that to his advantage.

Susanna has many rules she demands her children follow—no walking in the moonlight, no books about magic, no candles, no crows, and most importantly, never fall in love. The Owens family has been cursed since 1620, when their ancestor, Maria Owens, who was accused of witchcraft after loving the wrong man, predicted ruin for anyone in her lineage that dared fall in love. Many bore the scars of that curse, including Susanna herself.

While the children know they are different, at first only Vincent wants to understand what they really are. But after spending the summer at their feisty Aunt Isabelle's house, they are urged to embrace their heritage and their differences, rather than hide who they are and what they can do. Living in the small Massachusetts town where everyone looks askance at the Owens family, believing the rumors of witchcraft and evil to be true, they learn to have pride in who they are, to be bold and unafraid of those who disapprove.

It is in Massachusetts where each of the children come face to face with understanding the curse that plagues their family, and they try to test its limits. As they grow into adulthood, they must wrestle with the dilemma of embracing their identity and keeping love at bay, or risking it all for the magic and fire that love can bring? And what will that risk entail?

The Rules of Magic is utterly compelling, exquisitely told, and really just so fantastic. It's a story of family, identity, self-discovery, embracing your fears, love, loss, and, of course, magic. These characters are so affecting and fascinating, and I could have read a book about each of them. Alice Hoffman is once again at the top of her storytelling form with this book, which has so many beautiful, memorable, touching moments which I'd rather let unfold for you than tell you about.

While this book is a prequel to Hoffman's fantastic Practical Magic, don't worry if you've never read it or, like me, don't really remember it. (It was published in 1995, so don't feel bad.) You absolutely can read this one without any knowledge of the Owens family and enjoy it immensely. And if you've never read Alice Hoffman before, you're in for a treat.

I'm so sad this is over!!

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

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Book Review: "The Art of Starving" by Sam J. Miller

"My sin, my condition, is way worse. I choose not to eat because I am an enormous fat greasy disgusting creature that no one will ever feel attracted to. Now you can't see me, but if you could, you'd probably say what everyone else says. 'What are you talking about?' 'You are so skinny!'"

When Matt looks at himself in the mirror, he doesn't see the attractive young man that everyone else sees. He sees a grossly misshapen, grotesque freak, with red hair and bad skin. He sees the kid that his high school classmates ridicule and abuse, the one they call "geek" or "faggot." So he's taken matters into his own hands, and he subsists most days on the barest number of calories he can consume without people noticing.

"My best guess is that a spell has been cast on me, so that everyone else sees me as a scrawny gangly bag full of bones, and I alone see the truth, which is, as I mentioned, that I am an enormous fat greasy disgusting creature."

Luckily for Matt, his mother works the overnight shift at the town's slaughterhouse, and she has more than enough issues of her own, including worrying about whether she'll get laid off, to monitor Matt's eating habits. Matt's older, take-no-prisoners sister Maya has disappeared, allegedly to record music with her punk rock band, and she only calls home or emails periodically, without sharing any information on her whereabouts. So there's no one really to watch Matt destroy his body.

Matt is convinced that Maya ran away because she was hurt, either emotionally or physically, and he's fairly certain that one of the three bullies in the neighborhood—Ott, Bastian, and Tariq—had something to do with her disappearance. He's determined to get to the bottom of what happened to his sister, and when he discovers the truth, he will enact cruel violence on those responsible to get his revenge. He decides to start with Tariq, as he was the last person to see Maya (at least as far as Matt knows), and while Tariq doesn't stop his friends from their cruelty, he's not as cruel to others himself.

What Matt finds is that not eating actually makes him sharper. It helps him hear people's innermost thoughts, smell their fears, know what they're thinking and what their next moves will be. Suddenly he can slow time down, affect gravity, and cause things to happen simply by willing them to be so. He knows it's his hunger that is responsible for these powers, because whenever he is forced or tricked into eating by his body, he feels slower, sluggish, unable to focus on what is around him.

But the more Matt sees and hears, the more destruction he is causing to his own body, his own psyche. While his newfound confidence makes him less of a target at times, it makes him more so at other times, so he finds himself doubting whether he'll ever find the truth about what happened to Maya. Yet Matt also discovers that everyone carries secret pain with them, fears and anxieties they keep hidden, and which manifest themselves in different and destructive ways. Can he help those in need of saving, if he is powerless to save himself?

"I had spent my whole life listening to stories about what a man was supposed to be. Do. Look like. How a man was supposed to act. It had cost me so much hurt and suffering and courage to come out of the closet, to reject a huge piece of The Masculinity Prison that I never noticed I was still stuck inside it."

This is such a powerful, moving, disturbing book, but one I felt suffered from a bit of an identity crisis. Was it the story of a young man's struggle for self-worth, to be loved and accepted, and to find answers, and the horrible eating disorder he tries to keep hidden? Or is it a story that plays with the supernatural, with fantasy, as Matt discovers his newfound abilities resulting from his intense hunger?

I felt that The Art of Starving works best when it steered clear of the fantastical elements of the plot. Now, I love a good fantasy novel, but I felt that Matt's "powers" distracted from the more moving and affecting core of the book. I wasn't even sure at times whether the things that Matt was seeing happen were actually happening, or if he was simply imagining these things in a hunger-induced fugue of sorts. That confused me more than a few times.

But when the story focused on Matt, his mother, Maya, and the others with whom he was connected—in good and in bad—the book really hit its stride. Sam J. Miller, who in the Acknowledgments section, divulges that he suffered from an eating disorder when he was 15, is a fantastic writer, and he has created some memorable, beautifully moving characters that I won't soon forget.

I've always struggled with my weight, and know what it's like to be a teenager struggling with keeping your sexuality hidden while you're hating yourself and what you look like. The Art of Starving really packed a punch for me; I just wish I didn't have to share the pieces of the story which resonated so much with me with elements that didn't quite mesh. But still, this is a book which will touch you with the raw power of its emotions.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Book Review: "The Light We Lost" by Jill Santopolo

"Love does that. It makes you feel infinite and invincible, like the whole world is open to you, anything is achievable, and each day will be filled with wonder. Maybe it's the act of opening yourself up, letting someone else in—or maybe it's the act of caring so deeply about another person that it expands your heart. I've heard so many people say some version of I never knew how much I could love another human being until...I never knew how much I could love another human being until I met you, Gabe."

Lucy and Gabe meet in their senior year at Columbia University, in a Shakespeare seminar, on September 11, 2001. Being in each other's presence when they learn how the world has changed so radically draws them together in a way they never imagined. As they look out on the destruction of the city, they both vow to live a life that has meaning, instead of pursuing a path that only brings them fortune or fame.

It takes a year for the two of them to meet again, but when they do, their relationship immediately intensifies. They are almost inseparable, each pushing the other to pursue their dreams—Lucy pursues a career in children's television, while Gabe wants to become a photojournalist. Their love burns hot, and they cannot imagine being apart. Yet when the next step in Gabe's career is moving to Iraq to take pictures, he doesn't hesitate, leaving Lucy behind to mourn what might have been, and wonder why she wasn't enough to keep him home.

"You were my comfort and my pain all at once."

Lucy does all she can to pull her life back together, even though she longs for no one but Gabe. But eventually she realizes that although they will always be connected, she needs to move on, and some time later she meets Darren. Darren is a few years older than she is, and offers Lucy more stability than Gabe, although without some of the dynamism. As she grows to love Darren, she knows their relationship will never be the same as her and Gabe's, but is a life of steady love better or worse than a life of brief bouts of burning passion?

While both of their lives move on without the other, Gabe and Lucy still find themselves orbiting around each other from time to time, encounters which provoke passion, pain, betrayal, jealousy, grief and, of course, love. Although Lucy and Darren have a wonderful life and she has a successful career, she cannot help but wonder what might have been. And when she makes a snap decision one day, she has no idea where that will lead—and what it will bring for both of their lives.

The Light We Lost, as you can tell from the image I used at the top of my review, is definitely a tearjerker. But beyond the emotions it provokes, it's an interesting and compelling look at the power of first love, and how it can radically change the course of your life. Sure, it's a little melodramatic, and I don't know if we're given enough evidence of just how intense the bond between Lucy and Gabe is to provoke all that occurs in the story, but you still need to know what happens.

Jill Santopolo knows how to draw you into a story and unravel just enough plot to keep you utterly immersed. The book is told with a lot of foreshadowing, but she never gives away everything. This would be a good movie, and it's definitely a good beach read if you don't mind crying in your lounge chair.

They say you never forget a first love. The Light We Lost surely proves that adage!

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Book Review: "Don't Let Go" by Harlan Coben

Harlan Coben has achieved another mic drop with his latest book, Don't Let Go.

Don't you hate it when "real life" gets in the way of your reading? If work hadn't gotten in the way, and we hadn't been without power due to a storm for more than 24 hours, I would have devoured this book in one sitting. But even spread out over a few days, this book knocked me out, and once again reminded me (after the fantastic Home last year—see my original review) what a fantastic writer Coben is.

Napoleon "Nap" Dumas is a police detective in his suburban New Jersey hometown. Now in his mid-30s, living in his childhood home, he's never quite gotten over the death of his twin brother Leo during their senior year in high school. Leo and his girlfriend Diana were found dead on the local railroad tracks, believed to be either poor judgment due to drugs and alcohol, or some kind of double suicide. Nap never could understand how Leo could either make such a colossal mistake or how he could be so desperate, and this lack of closure has haunted him for years.

And if the shock of Leo and Diana's death wasn't enough for Nap to handle, his girlfriend Maura, also a friend of Leo and Diana's, disappeared that night. No matter how hard Nap tried to find her, he never could, and never understood why she left. Fifteen years later, Nap gets an alert that Maura's fingerprints have turned up in a rental car involved in the murder of a policeman, who, it turned out, was in the same high school class as Nap, Leo, and Maura. Suddenly Nap may be able to find answers to the two questions that have plagued him for years, and he is determined to do everything he can to uncover the truth, no matter how many people warn him simply to let it go.

But instead of finding answers, Nap keeps finding more questions, questions he might not want to know the answer to, questions which involve Leo and Maura and Diana and other high school classmates. And for some reason, right in the middle of all of the questions is a mystery surrounding an abandoned military base in their hometown, which some believed was far more nefarious than the story presented by the government.

What happened that fateful night which changed the course of so many lives? Was it government conspiracy, youthful folly gone wrong, or something even more sinister? Will finding the answers set Nap free to live his life, finally able to put the past behind him, or should he take the advice of those who tell him—and not all do it gently—to let it go? And will Nap even survive his hunt for the truth?

Much like Home, not only did Don't Let Go pack some punches, but it also contained a lot of raw emotional power as well. Nap, Maura, his best friend Ellie, and Diana's father (and Nap's mentor) Augie were fascinating characters, each with secrets of their own. Every time I thought I knew where the book was going Coben took the plot in a slightly different direction, and I was truly hooked from start to finish.

How many of us have wondered about whether we could have changed the course of a tragedy if we had only acted differently, or acted at all? That knowledge doesn't always help, and it creates a burden we must bear until we're ready to move on. That burden is so deeply felt in Don't Let Go, and Coben's mastery with the plot's twists and turns as well as its emotional intricacies makes this an excellent book.

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

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Book Review: "George and Lizzie" by Nancy Pearl

Did you ever meet a couple who are married or dating, and you wonder what it is that keeps them together? Reading Nancy Pearl's George and Lizzie is kind of like that.

George Goldenrosen and Lizzie Bultmann couldn't be more different. George is affable, earnest, maybe even a little goofy. His parents loved him and his brother (and loved each other), and his father was a successful orthodontist in Tulsa, where although he was known as "the Jewish orthodontist," he treated not only all of the Jewish kids, but others as well.

Lizzie, on the other hand, was raised by two behavioral psychologists, who approached parenting as more of an experiment, and worked to control their daughter's behavior like they did their lab rats'. Everything she did, how they responded, and how she reacted were fodder for their research, and so much of her life was part of their academic legacy. But when in a moment of weakness Lizzie admitted her participation in a morally questionable activity she called "The Great Game," she didn't expect it to haunt her.

George and Lizzie have a meet-cute at a bowling alley when Lizzie and George are both students at the University of Michigan, Lizzie as an undergraduate, George as a dental student. Lizzie is nursing her wounds after the end of a relationship she thought was "the one," so she had no expectations of meeting anyone else, but George was instantly smitten. And Lizzie? Well, Lizzie was certainly fond of George...

As their relationship blossoms, Lizzie knows that George isn't really what she wants, but she doesn't seem to have the strength to object. While their different philosophies on love, relationships, and marriage cause friction, George knows he wants to spend the rest of his life with Lizzie. It isn't quite what she wants, but she doesn't know what the alternative really is. Is it settling if she loves George but feels unfulfilled?

George and Lizzie follows the couple through their first 10 years of marriage, until a long-hidden secret of Lizzie's surfaces, forcing her to finally decide what path she wants to follow. In the meantime, the book shifts back and forth between the two, and also shifts back and forth through both of their lives, detouring all over the place to briefly profile other people who have a peripheral role in the story. Sometimes the chapters serve more as vignettes than anything that actually advances the plot.

Nancy Pearl, who is a books commentator for National Public Radio, definitely knows how to tell a story. Parts of the book are entertaining, even funny, while others are poignant and thought-provoking. But in the end, I found Lizzie really unlikable and couldn't understand why anyone, much less someone like George, continued to want to be with her. At one point in the book he tells her that she is the most self-centered person he's ever known, and another time he says that she has the emotional maturity of a young child. While some of that can be attributable to her odd childhood, she doesn't do much to break out of that rut as an adult, and continuing to cling to old memories and regrets, while understandable, doesn't make her a particularly sympathetic character.

There's still a good story in here, but it requires more patience, as well as work to unearth it, than most books do.

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