Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Book Review: "The Cutaway" by Christina Kovac

Two words: Awe. Some.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 26, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 20, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Book Review: "The Marriage Pact" by Michelle Richmond

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 17, 2017

Book Review: "Snapshot" by Brandon Sanderson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Book Review: "The Lonely Drop" by Vanessa North

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 13, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: "Exit West" by Mohsin Hamid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Book Review: "Himself" by Jess Kidd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 10, 2017

Book Review: "Goodbye Days" by Jeff Zentner

"Where are you guys? Text me back?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 6, 2017

Book Review: "Caraval" by Stephanie Garber

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Book Review: "Bed-Stuy is Burning" by Brian Platzer

No matter how far we believe we've come as a society, the issue of racial tension is still a very real one, one that can trigger violence as a result of real or perceived antagonistic actions. Couple that tension with the resentment often felt when a neighborhood predominantly occupied by minorities is on the cusp of being "gentrified," where long-time residents are pushed out by those with more money and greater ambitions, and you have a recipe for potential disaster.

Such is the environment in which Brian Platzer's novel Bed-Stuy is Burning is set. Bed-Stuy, short for Bedford-Stuyvesant, is a neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York. It's often referred to as "still gritty," even as wealthy people move in, drive up housing prices, and push others out. Aaron and his girlfriend Amelia are one such couple—Aaron, a former rabbi who left the rabbinate in a crisis of faith (among other things), is now a wealthy Wall Street banker, and Amelia is a journalist trying to find her big break. They live with their newborn son in one of the neighborhood's historic brownstones, once occupied by an African-American family.

Already-simmering tensions in the neighborhood are about to come to a head when a 12-year-old African-American boy is shot by police 10 times, and it is discovered he was holding a video game controller, not a weapon. A large group of youths are mobilizing, tired of the violence being perpetrated against them and tired of the haves getting what is rightfully theirs, and they're ready to take their neighborhood back. And in a split second, it explodes at full throttle, as rioting begins, with enormous numbers of young adults taking control and inciting violence, destruction, and total chaos.

It's not long before the riots reach Aaron and Amelia's doorstep. That afternoon, Amelia is home, ostensibly working, and the baby is being cared for by Antoinette, their nanny, a woman seeking religious salvation. Visiting Antoinette at the house is Amelia and Aaron's neighbor, Jupiter, a single father who is smitten with Antoinette, and wants her to know he will protect her, even as he worries about the fate of his own son during the riots. Also at home is Daniel, one of the tenants who lives in Aaron and Amelia's basement apartment. Daniel is an increasingly suspicious person who has grown slightly afraid to leave his home.

While Amelia, Antoinette, Jupiter, and Daniel deal with circumstances at home, Aaron is struggling with dangerous circumstances of his own. And over the course of one afternoon, each of these individuals will be affected by the events of the day, events which will test them physically and emotionally, challenge everything they hold dear, and make them wonder about what the future holds.

I thought Bed-Stuy is Burning had a lot of potential, a lot of things going for it. Platzer is a capable storyteller, and I really found Aaron in particular a fascinating if flawed character. I felt as if in trying to tell a comprehensive story, Platzer took on more than was necessary. If the plot really was about the events of that day, I found the periodic forays into the backgrounds of all of the supporting characters, including a young rioter and even NYC Police Commissioner Bratton(!), extraneous. I also really wasn't sure what Platzer's ultimate message was here, because the characters' actions didn't all add up for me. (In particular, I was unclear about one of Antoinette's interactions with the baby.)

Sometimes books have great ambition but don't succeed in the execution. For me, Bed-Stuy is Burning was one of those books. Platzer's talent is impressive, and he definitely knows how to ratchet up suspense and tension. Some may not be as thrown off course by what I found excessive about the plot, so if what I've described appeals to you, definitely give it a try.

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

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Book Review: "Desperation Road" by Michael Farris Smith

Yes, yes, YES! This book was amazing!!

Does everyone deserve a second chance? Can we ever free ourselves from the yoke of the wrongs we've done, or are we destined to pay for them forever? Is hope something all should feel entitled to, or should we just accept that hope is a luxury not everyone can afford? These are just a few of the questions Michael Farris Smith addresses in his bleak, brilliant new novel, Desperation Road.

Russell Gaines has just gotten out of prison after 11 years. He has spent that time thinking about a lot of things—the mistake he made that landed him in jail, those who will continue to wish him harm even after his release, and the woman he loved, the woman he let go.

"...he was taken away from thoughts of his youth and forced into thoughts of the man he had been when he was taken away. He had told himself he wasn't going to do it. Wasn't going to stare out the window and lament what he had lost, like some hapless guy in some hapless moment but he wasn't able to resist."

He's ready to start his life anew, even if he knows it won't be easy. But it isn't long at all before those seeking revenge are ready to wreak havoc on the rest of his life, even if he's done his time. And Russell must decide how to respond, how far to let them push him before he must push back.

Meanwhile, a young woman named Maben is walking along the side of the highway with her young daughter, carrying all of their possessions in a garbage bag, hoping for a break. The sun is punishing, yet the pair soldiers on, and Maben hopes they can find someplace to wait out the heat, and then perhaps find temporary respite in a shelter until she figures out their next move. All her life, it seems, she has been running away from something, and she doesn't want to subject her daughter to these same mistakes.

"There were times when it was impossible to sleep as all the evil in the world seemed to gather in her thoughts and she couldn't figure out how to keep the child from it and there were other times when all the evil in the world gathered in her thoughts and exhausted her to the point where she couldn't fight it anymore."

That night Maben is forced into a corner the likes of which she doesn't expect and fears she might not escape, so she acts instinctively, which only causes more trouble. She and her daughter must flee, but no matter where they go, no matter how they try to get a foothold, the mistake she made follows her and threatens to swallow them whole.

One day, Russell and Maben cross paths in a moment of desperation. Neither wants anything to do with the other, but Russell feels like it is his responsibility to protect Maben and her daughter, even if he thinks she is hiding something major. When he finds out what she has done, he knows it's already too late to disentangle himself, and he has to decide whether to save himself or accept what will ultimately come his way. At the same time, Maben finds herself unwittingly involved in Russell's problems as well.

This is really a phenomenal book. I'd never read anything Smith had written before, but I was captivated almost instantaneously by his prose, by his characters and the bleak world they lived in. At times I worried the book would become almost too depressing to bear, because I'd imagine Russell and Maben both felt something like this at times throughout the book:
It is a testament to Smith's talent as a writer that you find yourself utterly immersed in this story of two people whom life really is battering about. He really paints a full picture for you—strong characters, evocative setting, tension that ratchets up increasingly as you feel the locomotive of their troubles heading toward them. But I loved every minute of it. I rooted for Russell and Maben and hoped Smith might take their story in a different direction than I thought.

Whenever I see so many people giving a book 5- and 4-star ratings I worry a lot that somehow its appeal might pass me by. Happily, that wasn't the case for me with Desperation Road. This might not be the most cheerful read, but it is truly evidence of an author's virtuoso performance, one which should absolutely be read.