Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Book Review: "The Liars' Asylum: Stories" by Jacob M. Appel

"Aunt Jill had been courting Mitch W. at the Citarella fish counter for eight relentless months, stockpiling our freezer with pompano filets and hand-sliced sable, when the giraffe painter swept her off her swollen feet."

There are few, if any, authors out there who can start a short story like that, and yet not have it dissolve into a total farce. Yet with his latest short story collection, The Liars' Asylum, Jacob Appel once again proves his talent for memorable phrases and stories that both make you smile and tug at your heart.

This is the fourth collection of Appel's stories I've read, after Einstein's Beach House, Coulrophobia & Fata Morgana, and Miracles and Conundrums of the Secondary Planets, and I find myself again in awe of his storytelling ability, his knack for combining just the right amount of quirk with the right dash of emotional poignancy. It's not just his imagination that dazzles, but it's also the way he creates memorable characters that are far more complex than they initially appear at the start of the story.

The Liars' Asylum features eight stories, each one with its own special qualities. My favorites included "Bait and Switch," the story which opens with the line mentioned above, about a teenage girl tasked by her man-hungry aunt to find her a beau; "Picklocks in Oblivion," in which a man who transports invalids is being convinced by his bewitching young girlfriend to commit an unthinkable act; "When Love Was an Angel's Kidney," about a young girl who falls in love with a daring kidney patient attending her parents' dialysis camp; "Good Enough for Guppies," in which a man must deal with his wife's outrage over her elderly mother's sudden urge to remarry; and the title story, about an emergency room psychiatrist faced with a phenomenon which could greatly affect his life.

The fact is, though, while I mentioned five stories, the remaining three were equally strong, but it didn't make sense to describe every story! At times Appel's dialogue made me laugh, at times it made me think, and it times it even choked me up a little. While some of these stories may have crazy situations at their core, they are not unbelievable or farcical stories—you feel as if you could see each of these happening in front of you.

If you're a fan of short stories, pick up this collection or any of Appel's story collections and see why I consistently find him one of the best story writers out there these days. I know there are many of you who don't consider yourself short story fans, but don't discount the literary form completely until you've tried some of his stories. I don't know why he's not more well-known, because his talent certainly merits that level of recognition.

The author and Black Lawrence Press provided me a complimentary copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

Monday, November 27, 2017

Book Review: "Warcross" by Marie Lu

Heck yeah, this was awesome!

My taste in video games has always hewed more toward the classic arcade games—Pac-Man, Asteroids, Space Invaders—and I'll admit, I haven't actually played a video game since my roommates and I had an old Nintendo system freshman year of college. But even though I can't compare the goings-on in Marie Lu's latest book, Warcross, with any first-hand knowledge, that didn't make me like it any less.

"Some people still say that Warcross is just a stupid game. Others say it's a revolution. But for me and millions of others, it's the only foolproof way to forget our troubles."

Warcross is more than a game—it's a worldwide phenomenon. This virtual-reality game has held the world in its thrall for the last 10 years, and it has spawned an empire. While the "official" version of the game is played by teams of highly trained players from around the world who have become celebrities, people play it constantly, rehash old matches, and spend millions on products and other virtual accoutrements related to the game.

Like any game, Warcross has also led to a rise in those seeking to make illegal profits from it, betting on the game illegally. Emika Chen, a teenage hacking wizard, works as a bounty hunter, tracking down those running afoul of the law. But the bounty hunting racket is tremendously competitive, and Emika can barely keep her head above water financially, since she's stuck paying down her late father's gambling debts as well. She's less than 72 hours from being evicted from her apartment and being left with nothing, and nowhere to turn.

With no other alternatives, Emika decides to hack into the opening game of the international Warcross Championships. She expects to sneak in undetected, steal a few things, and sneak back out, with no one the wiser. Instead, she accidentally glitches herself right into the middle of the action for a split second—and then all hell breaks loose. She figures it's just a matter of time before she is arrested, but instead, she gets an invitation from Hideo Tanaka, the handsome, mysterious young billionaire who created Warcross.

Much to Emika's surprise, Hideo summons her to Tokyo, and offers her a job: he wants to put her in the game, as a real contestant, to spy on what he believes is a security breach. Someone is trying to wreak havoc, and Hideo believes Emika is the only one who can solve the problem. In almost no time, Emika goes from being nearly homeless to a true celebrity, whose every move has the tabloids abuzz.

"What must it be like to have a perfect life? To be a superstar beloved by all? To be able to pay your bills on time and buy whatever you want?"

The more Emika becomes immersed in the game, the more she craves the adrenaline rush of both the strategy and the celebrity—not to mention she finds herself becoming more and more drawn to Hideo. As she works to figure out what nefarious plans are in play deep within Warcross' code, she must decide who are her friends and who are her foes, an endeavor which will take her deep into the shadowy virtual underworld. But what she finds is even more sinister than she or Hideo even suspected, and the plot has ramifications for the entire Warcross empire and those involved.

I've read Marie Lu's Legend and Young Elites series, and I've always been impressed both with her storytelling and, essentially, her world-building, as she creates a completely different universe for each of her series of books. Both talents are dazzlingly on display in Warcross, along with some great action, suspense, emotion, and fascinating character development. Her descriptions really brought the game and the world of Warcross to life for me, and I could imagine this will make a really cool movie.

Obviously, the subject matter will rule this book out for some people, but I think it's more than a book about a video game. While I'm not sure I loved the ending (although it's tremendously thought-provoking), I found this moved about as quickly as I'd imagine a video game would, but with far more substance than you'd expect. Marie Lu continues to prove she's a force to be reckoned with, and I'll eagerly await the next book in this series!

Friday, November 24, 2017

Book Review: "Green" by Sam Graham-Felsen

"I am the white boy at the Martin Luther King Middle. Well, one of two. Kev, my oldest friend and the biggest dick I know, is the other. But if you had to pick just one, it'd be me. There are a few other white kids in the system (unless you count Boston Latin as a public school, which you shouldn't), and I pretty much know all of them."

Dave Greenfeld (aka "Green") is starting the sixth grade in Boston in 1992. His "hippie parents" have no interest in the latest fashion trends or really any of the status symbols that would ease his transition into middle school—they'd rather buy his clothes at thrift shops, and don't see the need to spend money on fancy sneakers, even if no one else would be caught dead in year-old Filas. He wishes his parents would just send him to private school, like they do his troubled younger brother, Benno.

Middle school starts pretty much the same way elementary school ended for Dave—the girls pretty much ignore him, and he gets bullied by kids of all races. Even Kev, his oldest friend, would rather avoid him and hang out with the cooler kids. Avoiding bullies and being friendless seems to be Dave's destiny, unless he aces the placement test that will guarantee him a spot at Boston Latin, the best public high school in the city. If you get into Latin, you're going to college, guaranteed.

One day, Dave is surprised when one of his fellow classmates, Marlon Wellings, stands up for him. Marlon lives with his grandmother in the public housing projects down the street from Dave's house. But Marlon is far from the stereotypical "projects kid": he is driven by his ambition to get into Latin, he steers clear of those who want to draw him into their gangs or their trouble, and he's obsessed with the Boston Celtics, especially his favorite player, Larry Bird.

Mar and Dave become fast friends, and they spend their time hanging out at Dave's house, watching vintage Celtics games (Mar has them all on videotape), playing "nasketball," a game Dave made up involving a trampoline, and listening to Mar's obsession with doing well on the Latin placement test. Dave envies Mar's devotion to his church (Dave was raised a "secular Jew," although his family doesn't observe any religion, which is a frustration to his paternal grandfather, whose entire family was killed in the Holocaust), his fascination with going to Harvard some day, and the way he doesn't seem to let anything bother him, yet Dave knows he has issues of his own.

But when Mar is not around, Dave is still being bullied, and confronting the violence that breeds in the urban community in which he lives, as well as among his own classmates. He becomes more and more desperate for his parents to put him in private school because he doesn't think he'll be able to do well enough on the Latin placement test to escape his school, but his parents would rather just report Dave's problems to the principal, making him even more a target. He's afraid to stand up for himself, let alone his friends, like Mar.

As Mar begins experiencing problems of his own, problems he doesn't want to discuss with Dave, Dave realizes that there are differences between the two of them that they keep running into. He never really thought he was actually luckier than his friend, and doesn't quite understand the struggles that Mar faces, snap judgments from people that don't even know him. But little by little, those differences strain their relationship, causing both of them to act in ways they never imagined they would.

Green is an insightful, thought-provoking coming-of-age novel which deals with some significant issues without being overly heavy-handed. Sam Graham-Felsen, in his debut novel, provides interesting, and at times poignant, commentary about racial and cultural differences, and how they can strain a friendship. He has also created a fascinating, flawed narrator in Dave, who at times seems much older than his age, and at times reminds you that you're listening to life filtered through the eyes of a sixth-grader.

I enjoyed this book but thought the pacing was a little slow, and the same things seemed to happen a few times before the plot advanced. There were a few plot threads that never really got resolved, particularly why Benno refused to speak for more than a year, and there were veiled references to tragedies within Dave's father's family that never were addressed. Why allude to things that you're not willing to wrap them up?

One warning: there's a good amount of attention given to Dave's burgeoning hormones and his increasing obsession with masturbation, so this could make you uncomfortable.

Much like the main character himself, Green is imperfect but tremendously engaging. Sam Graham-Felsen has created a refreshing new narrator with a fascinating and moving perspective on growing up in the midst of racial and cultural tensions. It's a surprisingly timely book, even though it takes place in 1992.

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

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Book Review: "Do You Realize?" by Kevin Kuhn

George just needs a break. He hates his middle-management job, his teenage kids are a hassle, and he feels as if he and his wife just aren't connecting anymore. Why can't he return to the less-complicated days, when he and his wife were in the flush of love, and his whole life seemed ripe with promise?

One day, on his train ride to work (the timing of which he has down to the second), the seat next to him is taken by a sloppy, jovial, headphones-wearing, bearded guy named Shiloh. But rather than exchange small talk, Shiloh asks George an interesting question—"What is love?" What ensues is a fairly philosophical and scientific conversation, far more intriguing than a typical conversation you'd have on the train.

As strange as the conversation was, George hopes he sees Shiloh again. When he does, another philosophical and scientific conversation ensues, which leaves him wondering just what Shiloh is trying to tell him. And then one day, Shiloh asks him for a favor: would George be willing to beta-test an app he has developed for the soon-to-be-released Apple Watch? At first, George wonders whether this request is some sort of scam, but when Shiloh gives him the watch, he figures, what can he lose?

When George's family experiences a traumatic event, he discovers that Shiloh's app is actually a time-adjustment app, which allows George to travel back in time. But there are restrictions on this travel—he can't go back further than 25 years, and he can't do this more than 10 times in total—and he also learns that he's traveling to alternate versions of the past, so any changes he tries to make may have a ripple effect down the road, but it might not change what actually happened.

Shiloh and George's friendship deepens, and he tries to get George to realize how important it is not to take life for granted. And as his family is further tested, George must make a decision about whether the past is worth changing, or if life is worth living no matter what happens.

Do You Realize? was tremendously thought-provoking and intriguing. How many of us have wished we could have done one thing differently in our past, wondered about the ripple effect of one event or one action? George is definitely an everyman-type character; the challenges and frustrations he has are felt by so many on a daily basis. But as always, it is how we respond to adversity that characterizes us.

With great power comes great responsibility, and with Shiloh's app, he suddenly has the power to change things. But how do you know what to change? Do you risk altering the course of a tragedy at the risk of something else occurring? Do we focus too strongly on one crisis at the expense of allowing another to happen? These are the intriguing questions Kevin Kuhn raises in this book.

I found this story to be very engaging and compelling, and Kuhn did a great job getting me hooked almost instantaneously. He definitely tells a really enjoyable story. My one criticism of the book—and it's a minor one—is it's a little more science-y than I could handle, and Shiloh's explanations and diatribes tended to run a little long for me. It was a little more telling than showing, but it didn't affect my overall enjoyment of the book.

This type of book may not appeal to everyone, but don't be put off by the time-adjustment element. While it does add another dimension to the story, at the same time, the core of the book is more about dealing with the challenges that life throws at us, and how we need to pay attention to what's in front of us.

The author and Beaver's Pond Press provided me a complimentary copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

Friday, November 17, 2017

Book Review: "The Wife Between Us" by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen

"In my marriage, there were three truths, three alternate and sometimes compelling realities. There was Richard's truth. There was my truth. And there was the actual truth, which is always the most elusive to recognize. This could be the case in every relationship that we think we've entered into a union with another person when, in fact, we've formed a triangle with one point anchored by a silent but all-seeing judge, the arbiter of reality."

Vanessa's marriage is over. She once had a handsome, rich, powerful husband, and they lived a life of luxury. But they drifted apart, and her husband found another woman. Now she lives with her aunt, wears out-of-date clothing, and is a shell of herself, working a job she hates just to make ends meet.

Nellie is a bubbly, young, beautiful preschool teacher. She's finally met her Prince Charming, the man who will rescue her from her messy shared apartment, her nights spent as a cocktail waitress (even though she enjoys them), and takeout meals before hanging out with her friends at various bars and clubs. She also has secrets of her own, and things that cause her to be afraid, and she hopes her fiancé will save her from those, too.

If you think The Wife Between Us is a story about a jilted wife jealous of her husband's new fiancée, you're not quite right. This is a story about how things are seldom as simple as they seem, and how appearances can be deceiving. It's also a story about trust, fear, truth, manipulation, and finding your own way.

Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen throw a lot of twists into this book, which is why my description is fairly spartan, because I don't want to spoil anything for you. Every time you think you have things figured out, they swerve again, so you definitely want to keep reading, to see where it all winds up.

There are a lot of thrillers out there these days, and many of them deal with relationships that don't go as planned, and the aftermath of breakups, as well as the manipulation that often occurs within a relationship. While the twists definitely jolted the plot a bit, overall I felt a lot of the plotlines were very familiar. At times, I found myself growing a little impatient with the pace of the story, because I wanted to see where Hendricks and Pekkanen would go next, and wanted to move past some of the more commonplace incidents.

Is this a compelling thriller? It definitely has its moments, and many of my Goodreads friends have raved about this, so maybe I've just read too many books in this genre this year. It did keep me guessing, though, and sometimes I was right, and sometimes I was wrong. This will probably be one of the beach reads of 2018, so don't let me dissuade you from picking it up.

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

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Book Review: "Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance" by Ruth Emmie Lang

One of the factors that helps transform a very good novel into a great one is memorable characters. And while I've read a lot of books this year and over the last several years that featured characters I couldn't quite get out of my mind, it's rare to find a character as special, as incredible as Weylyn Grey, the main character in Ruth Emmie Lang's terrific Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance.

"Weylyn doesn't quite fit into the world we're familiar with," Daddy said, choosing his words carefully. "He's a strange boy, but in a wonderful sort of way."

Orphaned at a young age, Weylyn was raised by wolves—literally, he lived with a pack of wolves—and is more comfortable being with animals and living outdoors than following traditional social constraints. But that doesn't mean he doesn't get lonely, and when he meets 11-year-old Mary Penlore in the woods, and he saves her from being attacked by one of his wolves, Mary realizes that Weylyn is unlike anyone else she has ever met, and even then she realizes she needs him in her life, and in fact, is willing to run away from home and live among the wolves with him.

The thing is, when Weylyn is around, interesting things happen. The weather seems to change dramatically, he can literally communicate with animals of all types, and he seems to be able to stop tornadoes and storms from happening. But at times, it also appears he might cause those things to happen. He can't explain it, and no one around him can either (if they actually believe what they see), but his biggest fear is somehow he'll cause harm to someone he cares about, so he's more willing to go it alone than hurt someone.

"I've been called magic, but I wouldn't use that term exactly. I like to think of myself as always being in the right place at the right time, or the wrong place at the wrong time. Very rarely am I simply in an acceptable place at a generally convenient time."

Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance follows Weylyn through his life, as he makes his way across the country. It's a story told by those who got to know him, even for a short while, and feel the amazing impact he had on their lives. A family challenged by the decision to take young Weylyn in as a foster child, a teacher struggling with her own childlessness, a young mayor tired of living his life in his father's shadow, even a young boy who wants to believe magic is real—these are the people whose lives Weylyn touches. And as a touch point is Mary, whose life always bears the indelible impact of knowing him.

This is one of those special books that requires you to suspend your disbelief, or simply believe that there are things in life that may seem impossible to grasp, but you just need to accept them. If magic, and communicating with animals, and causing strange phenomena to occur doesn't appeal to you, you'll probably not enjoy this book. But if you do, and you can just let yourself take a leap along with the characters, this is a story you'll marvel over.

I was absolutely charmed by this book from start to finish. I loved nearly all of the characters and I loved Weylyn's relationships with the many people he met. One character remarked that Weylyn might be "too good for this world," but fortunately the world isn't quite as cruel to him as I feared it might be. I also worried that Lang might take the plot into melodramatic territory, and I was so pleased she steered clear of that.

Lang is a fantastic storyteller, and her imagery and dialogue are so skilled, it's so hard to believe this is her debut novel. Books like this don't come along too often, so this is a special one to savor. I can't wait to see what Lang has up her sleeve in the future.

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

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Book Review: "Autoboyography" by Christina Lauren

Yes, Leo, me, too. All the feels.

I couldn't love Christina Lauren's Autoboyography any more if I tried. As I've said so many times, I am so happy that young adult books like this exist and are readily available in today's world, to help this generation realize that whatever their problem is, they will be able to overcome it, and thrive. But at the same time, I can't help but be perhaps a tad bitter that not one book like this existed when I was growing up, because I sure could've used some encouragement through the struggles, even if it was only fictional!

Tanner's family moved to Provo, Utah when he was 15 years old. It's a tough time to relocate your life from a liberal city like Palo Alto, especially if you're a bisexual teenager moving to a predominantly Mormon town—when your family isn't Mormon. Tanner's parents encourage him to keep his sexuality under wraps until he graduates and leaves Provo, not because they're embarrassed or they disapprove, but they don't want him to have to deal with the scrutiny and criticism of the Mormons in the community.

With one more semester left in high school, Tanner's best friend Autumn encourages him to enroll in "The Seminar," an exclusive high school class in which every student will write an entire book by the end of the semester. Even though Tanner can be kind of lazy when it comes to meeting deadlines, he figures, how hard could it be?

"'Come on. I moved here when I was fifteen—which I think we can agree is the worst time to move from Palo Alto, California to Provo, Utah—with a mouth full of metal and no friends. I have stories.' Not to mention I'm a half-Jewish queer kid in a straight and Mormon town. I don't say that last part, not even to Autumn."

When "The Seminar" begins, it upends Tanner in a way he never expected. The prodigal student from last year's class, Sebastian Brother, whose novel was so good the teacher sent it to publishers and the book is about to be released to great fanfare, is helping mentor this year's students. From the minute Tanner sees Sebastian, he is utterly rocked by his attraction to him, and it's not long before Tanner has fallen head over heels in love with him. But given that Sebastian is the son of an LDS bishop, and a model student, there's no way he reciprocates Tanner's feelings, right?

"I can't read him. I can't grasp him. I have no idea what he's thinking and if he's messing with me or if he really is this good, but never before have I wanted so fiercely to lean forward and put my mouth on someone's neck, begging them to want me."

The harder he falls for Sebastian, the more Tanner's life is disrupted. He's never even come out to Autumn, and their relationship is kind of complicated, so he can't share his feelings with her. His parents want him to be happy, but they're very wary of him getting involved with anyone affiliated with the Church, since they know it won't—it can't—end well. He should just stop obsessing over Sebastian, ask one of his female friends to the prom, and hold off just a little longer.

One problem: "His smile ruins me. The feeling makes me uneasy, a dramatic lurch that tells me I need to have him or I won't be okay."

This book works for me on so many levels. The characters are tremendously well-developed and they're not 100 percent sympathetic; they're each selfish in their own ways. While the story's trajectory is, in a lot of ways, unsurprising, I was so happy that the plot didn't blunder into some of the stereotypical pitfalls I expected given the subject matter.

I also was pleased that the book wasn't too heavy-handed in how it addressed Mormons' views on homosexuality—while it was accurate in general, it didn't make every Mormon out to be a villain, although it did question how parents could put religion over their children's happiness.

Unsurprisingly, Autoboyography gave me all the feels, and I finished the entire book in one day. As I sit and write this review just a few hours after a majority of Australian citizens voted in favor of marriage equality, I am encouraged that one day books like this will become the exception and not the rule, because people will accept everyone's sexuality as just another element of their identity, like eye color or height.

For now, though, it's great that books like this exist, because everyone needs to understand that love is love, and everyone deserves to love whomever they choose.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Book Review: "Roll the Dice" by Wayne Avrashow

It's hard to live in the Washington, DC area for as long as I have without becoming at least a little bit of a political junkie. And while our current political climate has me interchangeably ranting, raving, and lamenting, I'm still fascinated by (most) political figures, how parties pick their candidates, and the march toward the election. (Especially the good old days, when we didn't have to think about Russian collusion, cough, cough.)

That's why I jumped at the chance to read Wayne Avrashow's first novel, Roll the Dice. Avrashow, an attorney, is a former campaign manager in Los Angeles politics and was a government commissioner, so he knows of what he speaks. (Although I don't really want to know how much of the inspiration for this book came from real-life events, lol!)

Tyler Sloan is one of the country's biggest rock stars. He's won Grammys, filled stadiums, even been nominated for an Oscar. He has fans all over the world, and he's had more than his share of beautiful women over the years. Politics is in his blood—his father, a former governor, narrowly lost the Democratic nomination for president. But it's still a surprise to nearly everyone when he decides to run as an independent candidate for an open U.S. Senate seat in his home state of Nevada.

Can a celebrity with no political experience be taken seriously as a political candidate? Should they? (No comment.) Sloan's Democratic and Republican challengers quickly dismiss him as a neophyte, a lightweight. They hint about scandals in Sloan's past—sex, drugs, even blasphemy—each of which calls his character into question. But Sloan didn't just wake up suddenly and decide to get into politics. He's given a great deal of thought to his positions (and in fact wants to share his views on every issue far more than his campaign staff wants him to), and he has answers to every accusation that his opponents can throw at him.

Sloan quickly realizes, however, that his celebrity has its limits. Every single event from his past, everything he said and did, even the lyrics of his songs are analyzed ad infinitum by political commentators, reporters looking for a fresh story, and his opponents. He wants to campaign on the issues, but he quickly learns the way the political system works. He doesn't want to stoop to pettiness, but it seems as if every time he turns around he has to justify something from his past, or try to prove to a skeptic that he's more than just a celebrity seeking an ego boost.

His campaign is an uphill battle, and he doesn't have much time. He'll need to deal with scandals among his staff and questions about difficult times in his past, and he'll need to weather his often-strained relationship with his father, whose support he'll need. Will he be able to prove his worth as a potential senator, or will he become a gimmick, a cocktail party trick? Will he be able to handle what comes his way, or will he ultimately fold under the pressure? And is there a secret in his past that will keep him from a possible victory?

Although it may be a little predictable at times, Roll the Dice is a tremendously compelling read. While its examination of the politics of celebrity may perhaps hit a little too close to home given our current environment, Sloan definitely seems to be a candidate who has more to offer than charm, fame, and sex appeal. I definitely couldn't stop reading this, because I wanted to see what obstacles Avrashow would throw in Sloan's way, and just how he would tie everything up.

I feel like this book would make an interesting movie or television mini-series—it just has the right amount of intrigue and drama, as well as emotion and personal interaction, plus the fascinating madness of politics. Avrashow definitely knows his way around a campaign and it shows, and truth be told, this would have been a pretty intriguing election to watch!!

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

Friday, November 10, 2017

Book Review: "Sadness is a White Bird" by Moriel Rothman-Zecher

Oh, wow, this book was so gorgeous and moving and amazing! (Sorry I'm not more enthusiastic about it.)

Jonathan has just turned 19 and is serving in the Israeli army, a responsibility he has taken very seriously. Yet when Sadness is a White Bird begins, Jonathan is in a military prison, telling his story as a letter of sorts to one of his best friends. But how did someone so eager to serve his country wind up in prison, doubting whether military action against the Arabs is the right thing to do?

Although he was born in Israel, Jonathan and his family lived in Pennsylvania for a number of years before he persuaded them to return to their homeland so he could serve in the army, as required of all Israeli citizens. Jonathan's grandfather, who was from the Greek city of Salonica (also known as Thessaloniki), saw his entire community wiped out by the Holocaust, and through his sorrow, played a role in the establishment of the Jewish state of Israel in 1948, so Jonathan sees military service as a family inheritance.

When he meets brother and sister Laith and Nimreen, twin children of one of his mother's Palestinian friends, the three become immediately inseparable. Through their weekly adventures, they talk, share poems (and joints), and Jonathan begins to see what life in Israel is like for Arabs. While his first reaction is to defend his country's efforts to protect itself from militant Arabs, Nimreen and Laith try to explain Palestinians' allegiance to the same country, yet view their treatment by Israelis as persecution not protection. It's not long before Jonathan wonders if he really believes in the country he will be defending, whether it is possible to love your country yet question its motives at the same time.

The story weaves back and forth between Jonathan's time with Nimreen and Laith and the growing love he has for both of him, and his time in the military, leading up to the actions which land him in prison. Nimreen and Laith don't understand why Jonathan is still so adamant about serving in the military when he has begun to see that blind allegiance is not the only path, and it strains their relationship. Jonathan is torn between pride in his country and the comradeship he finds in the army, and knowing one day he may come in direct conflict with people dear to Laith and Nimreen.

This is an absolutely beautiful and poignant book, in part a coming-of-age novel, in part a story of self-discovery, as well as a story about how our idealism and naivete change as we grow older. This is a story about longing and belonging, about how sometimes there is a gap between what is expected and what is right. Moriel Rothman-Zecher does such a wonderful job taking you along Jonathan's path of self-discovery, feeling the things he feels, and he keeps you in suspense as to why he is in prison, and whether the letter he is writing will ever reach its intended audience.

I absolutely loved this book and found it very surprising at times. The characters are so memorable, and Rothman-Zecher's storytelling is so lyrical and beautiful. It will be some time before I get this one out of my head, not that I want to.

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

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Book Review: "The Chalk Man" by C.J. Tudor

Sometimes you see a bunch of your Goodreads friends raving about a book, and you hope that you'll find it just as good as they did. In the case of C.J. Tudor's terrific debut thriller, The Chalk Man, that definitely was the case for me.

"Personally, I have found that it is much better to take your fears, lock them up in a nice, tightly shut box and shove them into the deepest, darkest corner of your mind."

In the summer of 1986, Eddie and his four best friends—Hoppo, Fat Gav, Metal Mickey, and Nicky (even though she was a girl)—were on the cusp of adolescence. They bike around, commit mischief, tease each other, and try to avoid Mickey's older brother and his bullying friends. It seems like a magical summer—they even leave coded messages in chalk for each other to spell out their plans or their whereabouts.

But the idyllic time seems to be ending, as the adults around them wind up in the midst of some trouble, and tragedies strike close to home. Then one day, a strange chalk man leads them to a dismembered body in the woods. Nothing is ever the same again.

Thirty years later, Ed is still living in his childhood home. He'd like to think that he's put the events of that summer behind him, but the fact is, he's never been able to settle down into a relationship, he still spends time with Gav and Hoppo, and he teaches at his old school. When he gets an anonymous letter with a chalk man in it, it dredges up those memories, as does the return of an old friend who had seemingly gone away. And when he finds out that all of his friends received a similar letter, he realizes that perhaps not everything was tied up as neatly as they thought all those years ago.

Are there real answers to be found, and if so, what good would it do to find them? Will solving the mystery put everyone's demons to rest and allow them to get on with their lives, or will it put them in danger? Can we ever recapture our childhood innocence after it has been shattered?

The Chalk Man hooked me from the very first page and didn't let go. It evoked a little bit of the nostalgic feelings of Stand By Me, with a little more mystery and violence, and a lot of heart. There's a lot going on in this book, lots of twists and turns to keep you guessing and lots of interesting characters to fascinate and (perhaps) distract you. Tudor is a terrific storyteller, and it's so hard to believe this is her debut novel, because the writing is so self-assured.

Like with any thriller, I always suspect everyone, and while I was a little surprised at certain twists, and I didn't love every choice Tudor made, I thought this was a great read, one that made me wish I had just a few minutes more to linger over the book every time I picked it up. Believe me, this is one you'll want to read before everyone else starts talking about it.

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

Monday, November 6, 2017

Book Review: "Robicheaux" by James Lee Burke

I've said it before and I'll say it again: James Lee Burke is one of the finest fiction and mystery writers of our time. Ever since I read my first Burke novel in the late 1980s, I have been an enormous fan, and he continues to leave me in awe with his ability to create some of the most vivid, memorable characters I've ever read about (every time one of them appears in his books, I can immediately recall details about each), along with tremendously evocative, almost poetic imagery.

He is one of my favorite authors of all time, and having met him at a book signing, he's a warm, gracious, and friendly guy, too. Simply put, I'm a fan.

My favorite of Burke's characters is Dave Robicheaux, the Louisiana police detective. He is fiercely loyal, sensitive, and immensely flawed, which makes him one of the most fascinating (and at times depressing) characters to read about. In Robicheaux, Burke's 21st novel featuring his most popular character, Dave is struggling with the death of his wife Molly in a car accident. Her sudden loss has ratcheted up his alcoholic cravings, his nightmares of his time in Vietnam, and his visions of Confederate soldiers.

"Why should an old man thrice widowed dwell on things that are not demonstrable and have nothing to do with a reasonable view of the world? Because only yesterday, on a broken sidewalk in a shabby neighborhood at the bottom of St. Claude Avenue, in the Lower Ninth Ward of St. Bernard Parish, under a colonnade that was still twisted out of shape by Katrina, across from a liquor store with barred windows that stood under a live oak probably two hundred years old, I saw a platoon of Confederate infantry march out of a field to the tune of 'Darling Nelly Gray' and disappear through the wall of a gutted building and not exit on the other side."

When the crushing sadness wrecks his prized sobriety, suddenly Dave becomes more of a danger to himself and others, as his anger at his wife's death threatens to overwhelm him. Then, in the midst of a murder investigation, he discovers that he may have been the one who killed the victim, the man who was responsible for Molly's death. As his boss and former partner, Sheriff Helen Soileau, fights to figure out whether to pity Dave or fire him, Dave and his best friend, the irascible Clete Purcel, try to figure out Dave's whereabouts during the murder, and whether his melancholy was strong enough to turn to violence.

As with any Robicheaux novel, Dave and Clete find themselves entangled in a web of unsavory characters, each one with a grudge against Dave and/or Clete, and each one burdened with their own baggage. From Mafia enforcer and aspiring film producer Fat Tony Nemo and his enforcers, novelist Levon Broussard and his troubled wife Rowena, to the enigmatic and possibly dangerous local boy-made-good (or did he) Jimmy Nightingale, who aspires to political power, Dave and Clete need to figure out just exactly how far each is willing to defend themselves from those who appear to be encroaching on what they believe to be theirs. Throw in a dangerous contract killer and a police detective with his own issues, and you have a mess of epic proportions, which the infamous "Bobbsey Twins from Homicide" will be lucky to survive.

Burke does an excellent job of depicting characters whose good qualities are often outweighed by their flaws, but he doesn't immediately condemn everyone. Dave struggles with questions of morality, mortality, and loyalty, and while he is sworn to uphold the law, if those he cares about are harmed, he isn't above enacting his own code of justice. While it seems as if everyone out there has an axe to grind with Dave and Clete, issues which often get visited upon those the two care about, their first thoughts are always protecting those they love and the city they care about.

"Like most of us who subscribe to the egalitarian traditions of Jefferson and Lincoln, I did not want to believe that a basically likable man could, with indifference and without provocation, commit deeds that were not only wicked but destroyed the lives of defenseless people."

While I've enjoyed nearly everything that Burke has written, I love his books featuring Dave Robicheaux the most. These characters have come to feel like family through the years, and reading about them again and again is so pleasurable. And not a book goes by without Burke's imagery taking my breath away. When I first visited New Orleans years after I started reading his books, it felt so real, so accurate to the portraits he has painted through the years.

Robicheaux isn't a quick-moving caper packed with action and thrills. While there is some terrific suspense and a little bit of gruesome violence, this is a book that makes you think and makes you feel rather than raises your pulse. None of Burke's characters are perfect, but they are so complex, so thought-provoking, it doesn't matter that you may be troubled by some of their actions.

Once again, it is an immense pleasure to read a book by James Lee Burke. While at times he switches between the different series he has created, I hope another Robicheaux book is imminent, but I'll be happy to read whatever the master delivers next.

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

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Book Review: "The Ghost Notebooks" by Ben Dolnick

Nick and Hannah's relationship is in a bit of a tumultuous phase—she recently lost her job, they've both been reluctant to talk about getting married even though that is the next logical step in their relationship, and there's tension all over the place—when Hannah admits that she has applied for a job as the director of the Wright Historic House, a museum devoted to an obscure 19th century writer and philosopher in a tiny upstate New York town.

The time between her first phone interview and the job offer seems to fly, and while leaving New York City for a small town isn't quite what Nick had in mind, he's realized he doesn't want to lose Hannah. And for a while everything seems charming—they speak to each other in Masterpiece Theater-like accents, enjoy visiting the town's one grocery store, and can finally listen to the sounds of nature outside their home as opposed to the hustle and bustle of the city. But then the reality of running a museum that very few visitors come to, and dealing with the machinations of a volunteer related to the person whose life the museum commemorates becomes more of a chore than a pleasure.

One night Hannah wakes Nick claiming to hear voices talking, but Nick hears nothing. There have been rumors through the years that the Wright House is visited by ghosts, and a woman whose family lived in the house before it became a museum once disappeared under mysterious circumstances. The stress of being convinced she is seeing and hearing things starts to take its toll on Hannah's already-fragile psyche and her relationship with Nick, which is already straining under the stress of trying to settle on wedding arrangements.

Nick awakens one morning to find Hannah gone. As he tries to figure out what happened to her, he starts to realize she was more emotionally fragile than even he realized, and he is determined to understand whether the house really is possessed by spirits which haunted Hannah, or whether it was her own mind playing tricks on her. His quest forces him to confront concepts of ghosts and the legacy of a troubled writer, and compels him in directions he'd never imagined before.

I honestly wasn't too sure what to make of The Ghost Notebooks. It's certainly an interesting exploration of how a relationship fares under intense pressure, emotional and otherwise, and it's also a look at how grief and extreme emotional stress can cause you to act in very bizarre ways. But I don't know what Ben Dolnick was really trying to say about the situation his characters found themselves in, and whether there really was something supernatural going on, or whether it was some sort of self-fulfilling prophecy.

I've read all of Dolnick's other books—Zoology, You Know Who You Are and At the Bottom of Everything—and I really enjoy the way he writes, and the complexity he brings to his characters. I felt that on the whole, the story flowed well, but it went a little off the rails after a while, and I don't know if that was intentional or not. In the end, while there were some poignant parts of the story, it didn't resonate for me as I'd hoped it would. But if anyone else reads this and has a different take, I'd love to hear it!

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

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Book Review: "The End We Start From" by Megan Hunter

Sometime in the future, London is submerged beneath floodwaters, and people fear the end of the world is drawing near. As the floods approach a woman gives birth to a baby boy, Z. Within a few days, she and her husband R must flee their home and search for a safer place.

Each day they worry about whether the floods will find them. When they take refuge with R's parents, they discover that the fear is never far away from them. And while the woman is worried about what is happening in the world around her, and how R is reacting to it all, she spends so much of each day simply marveling at her baby and how he is growing, flourishing even as the future is uncertain. She is overwhelmed by her maternal feelings, by the miracle she and R created.

As the trio moves to a camp where other displaced people are living, the claustrophobia, the uncertainty, the panic becomes too much for R to bear. He leaves his wife and baby, ostensibly to see what other options are out there, but both know what this departure could signify.

"He says it will only be for a week or so. To get a break. To look into other options. He says we should stay, that it is safer. The relief is hanging from him, a loose shirt. I look at the car before I lose it. I try to take in all of its details. Before he leaves, I put his full hand over my face, like a mask. I do this even though there is no point. Even though smells can't be held."

As circumstances force her to move again, she begins making friends with others in similar situations. But she longs for her husband, reflects on their love, and tries not to stagger under her feelings of love and responsibility for her son. She cannot stop living even though she misses her husband, because she must live for her son. She must show him love, experience his moments of joy and sadness, and watch him grow.

I never would have imagined a book so sparsely written could be so lyrical, but The End We Start From feels almost poetic at times. Megan Hunter chose her words so carefully, it was as if she wanted to be sure no excess words distracted from the beauty of her writing.

"Our city is here, somewhere, but we are not. We are all untied, is the thing. Untethered, floating, drifting, all these things. And the end, the tether, the re-leash, is not in sight."

As much as Hunter's prose is breathtaking, the story itself could use a little more meat. Maybe it was her intent for her readers to fill in the blanks she left in the story, but I would have preferred a bit more narrative. I also found the gimmick of referring to every character with their first initial (the protagonist only interacted with one person per letter, it appeared) to be a little twee. I'm never a fan of books that refer to people or places that way.

This was a moving, thought-provoking read, one that I completed in one sitting. (I took a bit longer for lunch because I had to finish this book.) I liked it a good deal but didn't love it as I'd hoped—it's not perfect, and Hunter's storytelling choices may rub some the wrong way. To me, however, The End We Start From signifies the birth of a new literary talent. Megan Hunter is definitely one to watch, because if this is her first novel, I can only imagine what comes next.