Monday, October 16, 2017

Book Review: "Neanderthal Opens the Door to the Universe" by Preston Norton

"You know what the most dystopian idea in the world is to me?" I asked. "The idea that our feelings don't matter. We might as well be robots."

Since his older brother died, Cliff Hubbard has been alone. He has no friends in high school, but he can't sneak through undetected, since he's 6'6" and weighs 250 pounds. He couldn't be any more noticeable; his classmates have bestowed upon him the nickname "Neanderthal." They ridicule him and mock his size, his appetite, his appearance, his loneliness.

But things are, perhaps, worse in his trailer-park home. His unemployed father, usually drunk, sits around and broods and takes out his frustration on Cliff, as he also used to do with Shane. Sometimes that frustration is expressed through verbal abuse, but more often than not it's manifested through physical violence. Cliff's mother, who works herself to the bone so they don't get evicted, sees what her husband has done to her sons, but she mostly keeps quiet, which angered both Shane and Cliff.

While there are a lot of people in school Cliff doesn't like, it's golden-boy quarterback Aaron Zimmerman he hates the most. Aaron coasts through life, driving his classic sports car, having every girl in school throw themselves at him, while he and his friends ridicule those they feel are beneath them. Even the teachers give Aaron a pass.

And then one day Aaron returns to school after being in a coma following an accident. He says he had a near-death experience, during which he spoke to God, who gave him a mission: make Happy Valley High School suck less. This mission has five components that will ensure success and God tells Aaron the one person that can help him is Neanderthal. As crazy as the whole thing sounds, Cliff eventually agrees to help Aaron, both because he wants to make school suck less perhaps more than anyone (except God), and for the first time, he has a friend, a purpose.

The mission isn't an easy one: they need to set the school's meanest bully on a different path, help a gang of drug dealers realize the error of their ways, help an angry English teacher recapture his passion for teaching, deal with the school's most vindictive club, the Jesus Teens, and stop a hacker who seems to know everything that is going on. Nearly everyone thinks they're crazy, but they're more than happy to sit back and watch them fail, because it's not easy to fix a school that's so badly broken.

The deeper Cliff wades into Aaron's mission (or is it God's?), the more he starts to come into himself, and the more he realizes how little he actually knew about his brother. And while fixing what is broken in school, as in the rest of his life, isn't easy, for the first time he realizes he is more than what people say about him.

Neanderthal Opens the Door to the Universe is a mash-up of a lot of elements prevalent in YA fiction these days, but Preston Norton puts his own twist on things. Cliff is such a memorable character—my heart just hurt for him at times, and I just wanted him to open up to people, because here's this smart, sensitive kid that everyone ridicules because of how he looks. There are a lot of supporting characters, some of whom are really fascinating, and some which don't rise above typical teen clichés.

There's a lot going on in this book, and at times I wish that Norton had concentrated the plot on one or two threads rather than multiple ones. I loved the way he pulled everything together, however, and I'll admit I was even surprised at one point with a twist he threw in. Some of the dialogue definitely rivals John Green's, but I think there's a lot more subtle (and not-so-subtle) sensitivity at play here, too. And, yeah, it choked me up, too. Damned book.

I've been reading a good amount of YA in recent years and I'm always blown away by the talent and the quality of writing that is out there. I wish not every book set in high school dealt with bullying (which seems to get crueler and crueler with every book) and teachers and administrators who let it go on unabated, if not encourage it. Believe me, I know bullying exists and the reality is, it is getting crueler, especially with the anonymity of the internet, but sometimes these books hit a little too close to home for me, even years and years after high school.

Neanderthal Opens the Door to the Universe really has a lot of charm and a lot of heart. Cliff is a special character I won't stop thinking about for a while, and I look forward to seeing what's next from Preston Norton.

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

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Book Review: "The Deep Dark Descending" by Allen Eskens

Oh. My. God. I think my breathing has just gotten back to normal. What a fantastic book this was!!

"Your thoughts are dominated by one thing. They have been ever since I came on board here. Sure, it ebbs and flows. Some days are better than others. But your wife's death is always there, just below the surface."

Homicide detective Max Rupert has spent the last several years mourning his wife Jenni's death in a hit-and-run accident. Not only does her loss remain fresh every single day, but he blames himself, as he's sure some case he was working on or a criminal he once helped imprison was somehow responsible for her death. When he is given evidence that proves, in fact, she was murdered, he must decide what to do with this information, since he knows nothing will bring her back to him.

Once he overcomes the shock and emotions this new discovery provokes, Max knows the only option is to hunt down those responsible for Jenni's murder, even if it puts his police career at risk. In trying to find out what Jenni stumbled upon that led to her death, he discovers far more evil closer to home than he even imagined. And he will stop at nothing to make those involved pay, no matter what the need for revenge may do to him.

"I needed a war room, a place where I could immerse myself in Jenni's case with no distractions, a place where I could release my inner Mr. Hyde and indulge in my own form of masochism, like those penitents who flog themselves into religious ecstasy. In this room, I would purge all other thoughts from my head and focus on one task—hunting down the people responsible for my wife's death."

As Max digs for the truth, he and his partner Niki are in the midst of a case in which a young woman was murdered and another man was severely burned. The case is a sensitive one, but they don't realize just how sensitive until they find themselves dodging department politics and old secrets while trying to do—and protect—their jobs. But Max's first priority is meting out his own private justice.

At a frozen lake on the border of the U.S. and Canada, Max must decide what kind of a person he is: the type who will descend into his own private madness on a quest for revenge, even if it destroys him, or does he follow the conscience that has made him a successful police detective—and a man his wife would be still be proud of. And before he acts, he must decide whether the information that brought him to this point is actually correct, or whether he is being manipulated.

Allen Eskens starts this book off at full throttle and never, ever steps back. Even in quieter, more contemplative moments where Max is alone with his grief and his indecision, Eskens ratchets up the tension until you feel your heart pounding and you cannot stop reading, because you must know how the plot will be resolved. (I stayed up very late to finish the book because I literally could not stop reading.)

I have never read any of Eskens' other books before, although I've always meant to, but now I am completely in awe of his talent. Not only is The Deep Dark Descending a true thriller, but it is an exceptionally told story. Eskens is as comfortable writing action scenes and police procedural scenes as he is describing the frozen environment around Max as he comes to a decision about the path his revenge will take. This is a book that you feel in your gut and your brain, because you appreciate the action and the storytelling simultaneously.

This is definitely one of the best books I've read all year. Do yourself a favor, thriller fans, and pick this up ASAP.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Book Review: "Turtles All the Way Down" by John Green

From the outside looking in, Aza seems to have it all. She's smart and sensitive, and she tries hard to be a good daughter, a good student, and a good friend. But life for Aza isn't what it appears: she struggles every day with invasive thoughts, thoughts which at times leave her unable to focus on nothing but the fear and anxiety they cause.

"It's so weird, to know you're crazy and not be able to do anything about it, you know? It's not like you believe yourself to be normal. You know there is a problem. But you can't figure a way through to fixing it. Because you can't be sure, you know?"

When Aza and her best friend Daisy learn about the disappearance of the town's notorious billionaire, Russell Pickett, the father of one of Aza's childhood friends, they are intrigued by the mystery. And when Daisy learns that there is a $100,000 reward for information leading to Pickett's capture, she convinces Aza to help her investigate. While Aza honestly doesn't care about the money, she's doesn't mind that she gets to be reunited with Davis Pickett, on whom she had a crush when she was younger.

As Davis and Aza grow closer, both struggle with questions about the meaning of life and the true nature of existence. Aza tries to help Davis deal with his feelings of abandonment, whether he even wants his father to return, and what it will mean for him and his younger brother, Noah, since their mother died several years earlier. Davis tries to help Aza by understanding the intensity of her thought spirals, and helping her have the type of relationship she can handle, but as her problems deepen, no one can provide her any comfort.

Turtles All the Way Down is an unblinking look at living with mental illness. There's no candy-coating Aza's feelings, and how helpless and frustrating her illness is for her family and friends. It's also a poignant look at just how much we need love, friendship, acceptance, and understanding, and how debilitating it can be to try and understand the challenges that life throws at us.

There's a point in the book when Daisy tells Aza that someone once said she was like mustard, "great in small quantities, but then a lot of you is...a lot." To be honest, while I believe this is an important book, I found it was a little like mustard, and almost relentless. In his quest to give readers a you-are-there feeling where mental illness is concerned, I felt as if John Green sacrificed the book's humor and much of its heart. While Aza and Davis are fascinating characters, I found Daisy tremendously unlikable, while many of the other characters aren't well drawn.

As always, Green's teenage characters are wiser and more erudite than most adults. But that aside, he really shows his storytelling skills when describing Aza's anxiety. Here this paragraph, for example:

"I don't know, like, I'll be at the cafeteria and I'll start thinking about how, like, there are all these things living inside of me that eat my food for me, and how I sort of am them, in a way—like, I'm not a human person as much as this disgusting, teeming blob of bacteria, and there's not really any getting myself clean, you know, because the dirtiness goes all the way through me. Like, I can't find the deep down part of me that's pure or unsullied or whatever, the part of me where my soul is supposed to be. Which means that I have maybe, like, no more of a soul than the bacteria do."

I loved loved loved The Fault in Our Stars and really enjoyed Paper Towns, and I would be lying if I said I didn't hype this book up in my mind. As someone who has struggled with depression and anxiety in my life, and struggled to describe how they make me feel, this book is definitely helpful. I wish I liked it more, but I'm glad I read it. Now maybe I'll go back and read some of his older books.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Book Review: "Her Body and Other Parties" by Carmen Maria Machado

If you think of works of fiction like works of art, Carmen Maria Machado's debut story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, is an abstract painting. It's undoubtedly gorgeous and attention-getting, there's no one right way to interpret the things you see (or read), everyone will see something different in it, and each time you look, you'll catch something you didn't see the first time. You may also find yourself wondering, "What did that mean?"

Seven of the eight stories in this collection are a mesmerizing combination of atmosphere, sexuality, emotion, and gorgeous, gorgeous storytelling. There is also a strange undercurrent of creepiness running through many of the stories. I'll admit I was a little bit nervous while reading, and I kept waiting for something horrible, for a bogeyman to reveal itself, or some shocking event to occur. That tension is almost addictive, because you want to keep on reading, wondering just what Machado has up her sleeve.

The stories that stood out the most for me were "Inventory," in which a woman recounts her sexual exploits as the world is slowly being consumed by an unexplained plague; "Real Women Have Bodies," where a young woman working at a prom dress shop makes a shocking discovery about what makes the store's gowns so unique; "Eight Bites," about a woman visited by an unwanted houseguest after weight loss surgery; the immensely creepy "The Resident," in which a writer at an artist's colony has trouble with the lines blurring between past and present, fact and fiction; and the sexy, mysterious "The Husband Stitch," where a woman's husband has been begging her for years to remove the green ribbon from around her neck, but she never has.

The one story, which is more of a novella, that absolutely didn't work for me, was "Especially Heinous," a spoof of sorts of Law and Order: SVU, which provided brief synopses of 272 episodes of the show, adding supernatural elements, ramping up the show's sexual tension and emotional instability, and throwing in some mundane twists as well. I just didn't get it, and it dragged on far too long for me, but I've seen other reviews refer to this as the best in the collection, so what do I know?

Her Body and Other Parties is a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction, and it is truly the debut of a dazzling, fearless new voice in the world of short stories. While I wish I could talk to someone about what they think happened in some of the stories, I honestly can't stop thinking about the worlds Machado created, and how masterfully she reeled me into them.

This isn't a collection for those who like their stories to be more straightforward, or those uncomfortable with sex scenes both implied and explicit, but if you're in the mood for some genre-defying fiction, pick up this collection. You'll get to witness the start of what is sure to be an incredible career.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Book Review: "What Happened" by Hillary Rodham Clinton

"Losing is hard for everyone, but losing a race you thought you would win is devastating."

I was one of many Americans watching the 2016 presidential election results come in, feeling shock, disbelief, horror, and utter disappointment as the realization that Hillary Clinton had been defeated began to sink in. I really thought, despite the last-minute bombshell dropped by now-former FBI Director James Comey regarding her emails, that she'd be able to prevail.

I honestly believed, as did Clinton and her staff, as well as polling organizations, political experts, and many media outlets, that despite the concerns so many had expressed about her character and her lack of trustworthiness, the idea of electing a person who had never held public office, one who (at least to me) clearly was unprepared for the presidency, would finally persuade people to cast their votes for Clinton.

As we know, the polls and many political experts and others were wrong, and Trump is now president. There were a lot of factors contributing to his victory—the never-ending email scandal being one significant one—but I still found it hard to understand just how a woman I felt was perhaps the most qualified individual ever to run for president could be defeated. (And as hard as it was for me and so many of Clinton's supporters to understand, I could only imagine how she must have felt!

What Happened is not only a powerful, first-hand account of the 2016 election and its aftermath from Clinton's viewpoint, but it's also a candid look at what convinced her to run for president again after losing the Democratic nomination to Barack Obama. It's also an in-depth glimpse into Hillary the candidate, Hillary the former First Lady and dedicated public servant, Hillary the mother, wife, and daughter, Hillary the friend, and Hillary the person.

"I wear my composure like a suit of armor, for better or worse. In some ways, it felt like I had been training for this latest feat of self-control for decades."

While the book does tread on some familiar territory, it's pretty candid in sharing things you probably didn't know about Clinton. Not only does she share the emotion, despair, disappointment, and frustration she felt when she lost, but she also shares how she felt being vilified as horribly as she was during the campaign, going from being the most-admired woman in America when she left her position as Secretary of State to being followed by people chanting "Lock her up" and pictures of her in prison clothes. She doesn't go into great depth about the challenges to her marriage through the years, but she does touch on the struggles she had, and how she addressed her questions and her fears.

Some have questioned why Clinton wrote this book, and immediately assumed she would point fingers at everyone other than herself as factors contributing to her defeat. While she does discuss the impact of many factors—from Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein's participation in the 2016 race to the imbalanced media coverage she received, as well as Trump's oversized persona—she reserves the largest amount of blame for herself.

"On the campaign trail, I offered ideas that I believed would address many of the underlying causes of discontent and help make life better for all Americans. But I couldn't—and wouldn't—compete to stoke people's rage and resentment. I think that's dangerous. It helps leaders who want to take advantage of that rage to hurt people rather than help them. Besides, it's just not how I'm wired. Maybe that's why Trump was now delivering the inaugural address and I was sitting in the crowd."

At times, the book gets a little too in-depth in areas of policy, as Clinton shares those issues which are most important to her and how she feels America could move forward. She also discusses areas she believes Democrats need to focus on in upcoming elections if they want to be successful.

But what makes What Happened so good is the raw emotion Clinton imbues it with. I read the book, I didn't listen to the audio version, but I could still hear her voice narrating it, and there were times when the things she said really choked me up. I can't imagine what it must be like to come so close to achieving a goal you spent nearly eight years of your life tirelessly pursuing, not to mention the disappointment you felt about letting your supporters down, but this book evoked those emotions so powerfully. She also wasn't afraid to show glimpses of her sense of humor and the generosity of her spirit.

I remember how disappointed I felt the night the election results came in, how I struggled to reconcile the country Trump and his supporters saw from the one I did. But if Hillary Clinton can persevere, I know I can.

"Things are going to be hard for a long time. But we are going to be okay. All of us."

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Book Review: "Millard Salter's Last Day" by Jacob M. Appel

Today is Millard Salter's 75th birthday. He has a pretty full day planned—a busy day as a psychiatrist at New York's St. Dymphna's Hospital, lunch with his seemingly unambitious, 43-year-old son Lysander, and a visit to the grave of his second wife Isabelle, whose death he's still mourning. He has promised to help his current flame, Delilah, take care of an important task, and then he plans to end the day by killing himself.

Millard isn't sick or depressed or frail. But he knows all too well the indignities and infirmities that old age can bring, and he's determined to exit before his quality of life is impacted by any of them. He also doesn't want to be a burden to his children, nor does he want people to chronicle or lament his eventual decline.

He's trying to get everything in his life as settled as possible so his death doesn't cause a lot of disruption. He has divested himself of most of his patients and tied up as many loose ends as he can. But the course of life, even when you're planning to end your life, never runs smoothly—Millard encounters frustrated bureaucrats, power-hungry colleagues, depressed patients, a fiercely loyal employee, and a student looking for a recommendation. Oh, and there's a lynx on the loose at the hospital. Luckily, Millard's sly sense of humor helps him take everything in stride.

As Millard goes through the day, he realizes he won't leave this world without some regrets, but he tries to make things right where he can, so he can end his life feeling reasonably satisfied with how things will be after his death. And as he reminisces about his childhood, his marriages, and his career, he sees how much everything has changed, and he doesn't want to feel like a dinosaur.

This was a really interesting concept on which to build a book. Millard is a complex character—he definitely cares about his family and his patients but he's not above some mostly good-natured ribbing of his colleagues. Given the book's plot, this could have veered into either maudlin or treacly territory, and to Jacob Appel's credit it really didn't. You could see as the book unfolded that this was a man who was proud of his life and his accomplishments, but didn't want to linger too long.

Appel is a fantastic writer—he's written some fantastic short story collections I've absolutely devoured—Einstein's Beach House, Coulrophobia & Fata Morgana, and Miracles and Conundrums of the Secondary Planets. His writing is always characterized by a healthy balance of quirk and heart, and both are on display here. I just felt this book meandered a little too much—some of Millard's pranks and reminiscences went on a bit too long, and so many subplots, supporting characters, and odd situations were shoehorned into the book that I felt it distracted from the story at the book's core.

One other caveat, which may be a positive or a negative one for you: the book's marketing blurb mentions A Man Called Ove, and while Millard may have his cranky moments, I don't think he's quite the curmudgeon that Ove was. So don't go into this book expecting that, or don't steer away from this book because you feared that.

Millard Salter's Last Day isn't perfect, but it's tremendously thought-provoking and well-written, with an immensely vivid main character. I think it's a great book club selection, because it could be the source of some fascinating conversation. And as always, Appel demonstrates his talent as a storyteller.

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

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Book Review: "Love and Other Consolation Prizes" by Jamie Ford

"'My theory,' Maisie said, 'is that the best, worst, happiest, saddest, scariest, and most memorable moments are all connected. Those are the important times, good and bad. The rest is just filler.'"

For Ernest Young, born Yung Kun-ai in China just before the start of the 20th century, some of the worst and saddest moments in his life came at a very young age. At five years old, the illegitimate son of a white missionary and a Chinese woman, he and his mother know abject poverty, which causes his mother to make two heartbreaking decisions, one of which is sending him away to America, ostensibly so he can find a better life.

While he is lucky to survive the overseas journey, his life when he arrives in America isn't much better, as he is bounced from place to place, with no true companionship and no one to give him affection, and he is ridiculed by his appearance because of his mixed cultural background. At 12 years old, Ernest Young (as he is now called) is a charity student at a boarding school in Seattle, treated with general disregard by a wealthy patron who pays for his education. He longs for more opportunities, to get more out of life.

His patron brings him to the 1909 World's Fair, and tells him the next step in his life: he will be the prize in a raffle at the fair, and the winner will take him "to a good home." To the surprise of everyone, including Ernest's moral-crusading patron, the winner of the raffle is Madam Flora, the savvy, flamboyant madam of a high-class brothel. Madam Flora is known for making sure her "girls" are not only beautiful but well-educated and sophisticated; she calls them her "Gibson girls." Flora has had her heart set on a houseboy, and she knows Ernest will fit the bill.

Ernest becomes friends with Fahn, an outspoken housemaid with whom he has a previous connection, and Maisie, Flora's headstrong daughter, and little by little, finds himself smitten with both young women. As strange as it may seem given the setting, for the first time, Ernest feels at home, feels part of a family. But when Madam Flora's job-related illness becomes too much to bear, it threatens to ruin the lives of all who live in the brothel, and sets Ernest, Fahn, and Maisie on different courses which might separate them.

Fifty years later, as the World's Fair returns to Seattle, Ernest is caught up in the memories of his childhood when his daughter hears the story of him being offered as a raffle prize. For Ernest, these memories are bittersweet, particularly as he tries to help his ailing wife deal with her own memories, and ensure his children are protected from the ultimate truths of their parents' lives.

It's funny, but when I'm trying to think of a book to read, I always forget Jamie Ford, yet every time I read one of his books, like the exceptional Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, I wonder why he slips my mind. Perhaps it's because his writing seems so effortless, and he so easily is able to pull me into his stories and fascinate me with his characters.

While I wasn't as emotionally wrecked by Love and Other Consolation Prizes, I still enjoyed it a great deal. Even though you as a reader know more about the plot than the characters do, there were still a few surprises Ford threw in. I did wish the plot was a little more linear, because I found the shift between past and present a little jarring occasionally, and I felt things moved at a slower pace than I would have liked. But these characters and their story is a beautiful, heartfelt one (made all the more emotional when you learn it is based on a true story), and there are some emotional moments worth savoring.

This is a book about overcoming struggles, the difficulties in following your heart, and what it feels like to finally belong somewhere, with people you care about who care about you, after never believing that could be true. If you enjoy historical fiction that doesn't feel historical, or you just like well-written stories, pick up Love and Other Consolation Prizes. It's a story you'll keep thinking about.