Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Book Review: "The Frontman" by Ron Bahar

If John Hughes made a movie about a slightly nerdy, Jewish high school student torn between pleasing his parents and pursuing the career (and the girl) of his dreams, it would be a lot like Ron Bahar's The Frontman. This is a fictionalized account of the author's life in the 1980s, growing up in Lincoln, Nebraska, the son of Israeli immigrants.

For as long as he can remember, Ron has known his parents have expected him to be a stellar student so he can go to medical school. He's willing to work as hard as he can, and he's actually interested in medicine, so following this path isn't too hard for him. But he has other ambitions, too, and he's getting tired of hiding those from his parents or pretending they don't matter.

Ron loves to sing, and he knows the words to nearly every 80s song there is. He's most comfortable lip syncing or singing karaoke, but every now and again he dreams of the glory that could come from being a band's lead singer. When his friends start to give him the opportunity to sing a song or two during their band's performances, he starts to love the adrenaline rush that performing gives him, not to mention the attention he gets from the girls in the audience!

Everyone tells him how talented he is as a singer, and even someone in the music business tells him he shouldn't let his voice go to waste. But his parents don't like the idea of him using his voice for anything other than religious purposes, so how would they react if he abandoned his (and their) dreams of medical school for a career in music?

And that's not his only dilemma. He has had a crush on Amy Andrews, the daughter of close friends of his parents, for quite some time. Amy is beautiful, smart, friendly, and crazy enough, she likes insecure, geeky Ron as much as he likes her. Wounded by her parents' divorce, Amy wants someone to be true to her and protect her, and she wants to believe Ron is that person. Ron wants to be that person, and more than that, he wants Amy. There's just one problem.

"Even at the tender age of twelve, however, I understood that, to my parents, Amy represented the ultimate forbidden fruit: the non-Jewish girl to the Jewish boy. With regard to my feelings, I knew they knew, they knew I knew they knew."

The more success he has in singing, the more jealous and distant Amy becomes, plus he has to hide how much he's enjoying it from his parents. He doesn't want to disappoint them, but whose dreams should he pursue—his or his parents'? Is there a happy medium? Can he get his parents to accept Amy as the one he loves?

This is a goofy, endearing book, full of 80s references (each chapter is prefaced with a snippet of lyrics from a song that hit the charts in the 80s), and quirky humor. Since Bahar lived this life (or at least a version of it), he obviously has a great deal of affection for his characters, even as they do misguided or inappropriate things. And who hasn't struggled between doing what you want and what your parents want?

The Frontman is a quick, fun read, one that brought back lots of memories.

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

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Book Review: "Need to Know" by Karen Cleveland

Wow, this was so good!

If you're looking for a suspenseful thriller that will keep you guessing, one that seems tailor-made for the movies, look no further and pick up Karen Cleveland's Need to Know. (In fact, the film rights have already been sold to Universal Pictures for Charlize Theron.)

Vivian Miller has the perfect life—a handsome, supportive husband, a challenging job as a CIA analyst, and four beautiful kids. Sure, with her career moving at breakneck speed she's not at home as often as she'd like, so she's missing key moments in her children's lives, but she's doing important work that impacts the country, as she tries to track down a Russian sleeper cell here in the U.S. It's what she has been working for, and success means a big promotion.

One day, in the midst of some surveillance on the laptop of someone believed to be a handler of Russian spies, she makes a discovery that takes her breath away and turns everything upside down. For someone who has always been so sure of what her next steps are, she suddenly feels completely out of control, and doesn't know where to turn. But the one thing she does know is she must protect her children, her family, and the life she has known—no matter what the cost.

It seems like whatever decision Vivian makes is the wrong one, and it plunges her deeper and deeper into a situation with serious ramifications. She knows, however, that she is stronger than everyone thinks she is, and she tries to search for a way to turn her situation around. But whom should she trust? How will she know if believing in someone will be her downfall, and possibly cost her her family, her future?

I'm being somewhat vague because even though you can guess some of what will happen in this book, there still are a lot of twists and turns I didn't see coming. From nearly the very first page, Cleveland revs the engine of this story and doesn't let up until the very last page. Vivian is a pretty tough character, and I could totally see an actress like Charlize Theron playing her.

If you like spy thrillers and espionage, or television shows like The Americans, this book should be right up your alley. I nearly read the entire book in a day, because the pacing and the storytelling were top-notch. Now I can't wait to see what Cleveland does next!!

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Book Review: "Digging In" by Loretta Nyhan

My mother, God rest her soul
Couldn't understand why the only man
She had ever loved had been taken
Leaving her to start
With a heart so badly broken
Despite encouragement from me
No words were ever spoken...

—Gilbert O'Sullivan, "Alone Again Naturally"

I loved this! What a great story.

Jesse was a part of Paige's life since eighth grade, and he was her only love. Often it was the two of them against the world, and she always knew she could count on her husband and their marriage. Then one day, an accidental tap of a highway median, and it was all over—he left her alone with their teenage son, Trey.

"Forever. Till death do us part. The thing is, no one tells you what to do when the parting happens. And they forget to explain that when death is sudden, the parting is actually a ragged tear, not a clean separation. It leaves all the ends unfinished, and they just unravel and unravel and..."

That was two years ago, yet she's still drifting through life. The house is in disrepair, the yard is a shambles—much to the chagrin of her uptight neighbor, whose anger seems excessive despite the number of dandelions and other weeds that have popped up. Trey, now a high school senior, is getting increasingly frustrated with his mother's antics, preferring the stability of a friend's house. And even though she used to be able to coast at her advertising job, a new boss has changed the dynamic at work, leaving Paige and her colleagues to compete for their jobs.

"Death was final, but grief wasn't; it was a dirty street fighter who rose again and again even when I thought I had successfully knocked it to the ground. King of the sucker punches."

One night, staring at the condition of her lawn, remembering Jesse's obsession with ensuring it was perfect and reeling from her neighbor's anger at her neglect, she starts to dig. Putting her hands in the dirt feels therapeutic, but she makes a mess. As the hole gets bigger, she decides she's going to turn the entire backyard into a vegetable and herb garden, which again runs her afoul of her neighbor and others in her perfectly ordered and manicured community. Yet for the first time, she doesn't really care.

She's determined to make her garden work, but she's barely holding it together otherwise. Her son is hurting and angry, her boss is disappointed and wondering if he should cut her loose, and her homeowners' association is on her tail, but little by little she realizes she's the only one who can rescue her life. With the help of friends old and new, and the interest of a kind policeman, she starts to take root into her new reality, no matter how difficult it may be.

Even though you've seen this story before, in Loretta Nyhan's hands, it's so engaging, enjoyable, and poignant. Paige is a tremendously sympathetic character, yet she has her flaws, and it's fascinating as she realizes that some of the things that brought her so much comfort throughout her marriage might have left her at a disadvantage now. But as much as she just wants to put her head in the sand and just mourn Jesse forever, she knows she must pull herself and her life together, for her sake as well as her son's.

The way each person deals with grief in this situation is very different, but some of the emotions Paige experiences I've seen in my mother as she has navigated life since my father's death nearly four years ago. Incredibly, Nyhan was in the middle of writing this book when she lost her own husband, which certainly increases the poignancy of this book and Paige's story. There certainly are moments which might bring a tear to your eye, but this isn't a maudlin book in any way—it's warm and immensely readable, and I nearly read the entire book in a day.

Lake Union Publishing made this available through Amazon's First Reads program. Thanks for making this available!

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Book Review: "Crimson Lake" by Candice Fox

I've never been to Australia, but it's definitely a place I'd love to visit someday, and I find myself obsessed with all things Australian. I also think it's a terrific setting for books, particularly thrillers—there's just something about the dry heat, the wetlands, the bush country that seems unrelenting to me, which is one reason I've been drawn to books like Jane Harper's terrific series featuring Aaron Falk, The Dry and Force of Nature, and now, Candice Fox's Crimson Lake.

Ted Conkaffey was a police detective in Sydney—well-respected by his peers and good at his job, happily married with a newborn baby daughter. Needing to escape his house one afternoon after an argument with his sleep-deprived wife, he decides to take a drive and then go fishing. A random stop on the road to fix something in his car puts him in the wrong place at the wrong time, and he has no idea just how those six minutes will turn his life upside down, as he is accused of abducting and attacking a young girl he saw along the road that day.

Imprisoned for a crime he swears he didn't commit, his wife and his longtime friends and colleagues turn their backs on him. His release for insufficient evidence doesn't vindicate him, it merely frees him. With nowhere to go, and no one who believes he's innocent, he heads north to the wetlands of a small town called Crimson Lake. He tries to keep a low profile but it's not long before people figure out who he is and what he stands accused of, so he must defend himself from vigilantes and two dogged policemen who want to do him harm.

Through Ted's lawyer, he connects with Amanda Pharrell, a quirky, eccentric private investigator—and a convicted murderer, who served time for a gruesome crime when she was a teenager. The two team up to try and find out what happened to the author of a wildly popular book series which juxtaposed religion and young adult drama. It turns out the author had some secrets of his own, and there appears to be more than a few people who wished him harm.

As Amanda and Ted work their case, Ted isn't entirely sure whether Amanda was guilty of the crime she was punished for, and he can't stop himself from looking into it. Meanwhile, he continues to be taunted by those who believe he shouldn't be free, and those who don't like the idea of the two criminals joining forces—and some mean to do him, and perhaps Amanda, grave harm if they don't heed their warnings.

This is one of those books that hooks you at page one and doesn't let you go. It's taut, tense, and it packs quite a one-two punch of action and suspense. Ted and Amanda are both fascinating characters—you really don't quite know what to believe about either of them. Fox is a great storyteller, and she really makes you feel you're right there in the croc-infested wetlands with her characters, hearing the sounds of nature and watching your surroundings.

I had never read anything Fox has written before, but I was really impressed. I'm excited there's a second novel in this series due out soon, because I'm definitely hooked. There may be an unending supply of thrillers and mysteries out there these days, but Crimson Lake is one you should add to your list.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Book Review: "The Shakespeare Requirement" by Julie Schumacher

Jason Fitger, the beleaguered English professor who was the protagonist of Julie Schumacher's very funny Dear Committee Members, takes us on a return trip to Payne University in Schumacher's new book, The Shakespeare Requirement. Fitger, pompous and irascible as ever, finds himself elected chair of the English department, and he has no idea of the chaos and aggravation that awaits him.

As if having to work on substandard equipment and in squalid conditions isn't bad enough, the Economics Department and its chair, Roland Gladwell, who convinced the university and corporate sponsors that his department needed state-of-the-art classrooms and technology, now has his eye on the English Department's remaining space. Fitger has to guard himself against angry wasps, faulty air conditioning, and a computer that might work—if he could ever get the University's IT department to schedule an appointment. (And don't try to set up a meeting with him on P-Cal, the university-wide calendar system, as he refuses to use it.)

But these problems are just the tip of the iceberg. He has to deal with a department in shambles, get his colleagues to adopt a new-agey Statement of Vision for the department (just ridiculous), and his attempts to get a 90-year-old Shakespearean scholar to retire backfire when the man convinces the press that Shakespeare isn't important to the English Department any longer. Plus, any requests he has have to be approved by the dean, who happens to be his ex-wife's lover. It's enough to make any man crumble.

The Shakespeare Requirement follows Fitger as he navigates university and department politics, tries to figure out exactly what his relationship is with his ex-wife, and wonders what secrets his assistant, Fran, is hiding. The book shifts narration among a number of characters—Fitger, his ex-wife Janet; Philip, Fitger's boss and Janet's lover; Fran; Roland Gladwell; Professor Cassovan, the Shakespeare expert; and Angela, a sheltered student away from home for the first time.

What I enjoyed so much about Dear Committee Members (see my review) is that it was an epistolary novel—the whole story was told through letters Fitger wrote to various people within and outside the university. His voice was tremendously memorable and at times hysterically funny, plus it reminded me of a committee chairman I was working with at the time.

However, this book is told in the traditional narrative style, which didn't quite work for me. While most of the characters used the same pompous, high-brow language that Fitger did in the earlier book, the story didn't flow as well in this manner. I thought there were too many characters to follow, and after a while there were so many machinations to keep straight, so much politics to navigate, I didn't enjoy it as much as I had hoped.

Stories of systemic dysfunction and office politics are often humorous, and some may find this funnier than I did. There's no doubt that Schumacher is a talented storyteller, and these characters are fascinating. I'd love her to write another epistolary novel someday—it's a terrific change of pace!

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

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Book Review: "In Sight of Stars" by Gae Polisner

Klee (pronounced "Clay") worshiped his father. They shared a love for art and artists, especially van Gogh, and they spent countless hours together painting and visiting museums and galleries, and Klee loved listening to his father's stories, even the ones which were so clearly made up. He knew his father gave up his dreams of becoming an artist to have a stable job as a lawyer, but his father wants him to have the chances he never had.

His father's sudden death turns Klee's life utterly upside down. He's forced to leave New York City, leave his best friends behind, and move to a house in the suburbs with his mother, whom he thinks of as "The Ice Queen." He doesn't think she's sad enough about his father dying, and he blames her for everything that has gone wrong. But he just needs to bide his time a little bit longer before he can go to art school in Boston, fulfilling his father's wishes.

Klee feels angry and abandoned, and isn't dealing well with his grief. But then he meets Sarah, a free-spirited girl in his art class at his new school, and he is drawn to her immediately. She simultaneously draws him in and keeps him at arm's length, but she recognizes Klee's talent and his generous heart (as well as his abs). He starts to think that perhaps Sarah can save him from his crushing grief, but she has her own troubles, and doesn't like it when he broods.

"I follow silently, wondering what it is about her that breaks my heart and fills it at the same time, that scares me but comforts me, that makes me want to tell her things I can't begin to find words for."

One night, feeling that Sarah is pulling away from him and suddenly being confronted with what he believes is the truth about his parents' marriage, things go utterly, utterly wrong. In a moment of abject despair, Klee's actions land him in what is known as the "Ape Can," a psychiatric hospital for teenagers.

As Klee begins to deal with the feelings that sent him spiraling downward, he must begin to confront the truth—about his father, his mother, his parents' relationship, and his relationship with Sarah, and he needs to figure out what is real and what he has imagined, or dreamed into existence. With the help of an understanding therapist, a unique hospital volunteer, and a few of his fellow patients, he starts to realize that he can pick up the pieces and live his life doing what he loves—art.

In Sight of Stars (taken from the van Gogh quote, "For my part I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream") is told in two perspectives—present time and Klee's life after his father's death—in order to get a full picture of the challenges he has faced, and you get to uncover the truth at the same time he does. It is gorgeously told, and you feel the emotions, the struggles, the epiphanies that Klee does.

Gae Polisner, whose last book, The Memory of Things (see my review), made my list of the best books I read in 2016, writes with such beauty, such empathy, such heart. I loved these characters, and wouldn't have minded if the book were twice as long.

I struggled a bit with the start of the book, because in an effort to help you see things from Klee's traumatized and drugged perspective, the narration was a little jumbled and I wasn't sure what was real and what were his hallucinations. But that ended quickly, and I found myself utterly hooked on this story, needing to figure out what had happened. Polisner made me cry, she made me laugh, and she made me think. There were so many times I just marveled at her turn of phrase, or a piece of imagery.

In Sight of Stars might not necessarily break new ground, but it touched my heart and my mind. This is a book that says you can't go it alone, that we need to come to terms with the flaws of those around us as well as our own flaws, admit what is hurting or bothering us, and that is how we can find the strength to move on. I hope those who need to hear that message get their hands on this book.

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!

Monday, March 12, 2018

Book Review: "Us Against You" by Fredrick Backman

"...we only pretend hockey is complicated, because it isn't really. When you strip away all the nonsense surrounding it, the game is simple: everyone gets a stick, there are two nets, two teams. Us against you."

Frederick Backman's Beartown (see my review) was probably the best or second-best book I read last year. This story of a Swedish town that is literally obsessed with hockey, and which faces a crisis that will practically tear the town apart, surprised, delighted, and devastated me, all over the course of a few short hours as I plowed through it very late one night.

Given how I felt about that book, I approached the sequel, Us Against You, with a bit of trepidation. Could Backman achieve magic in Beartown again? Were there new stories to tell, and would they affect me with the same level of emotion and, frankly, devotion, that the first book did? Once again, I plowed through the 450-page book within a few hours, and stayed up very late at night to finish it. Now I can answer my questions unequivocally: yes, yes, and oh my god, yes.

In fact, I'll leave it to Rob Lowe to sum up my feelings.

Beartown is struggling to right itself after the crisis which nearly destroyed the town, but so many lives will never be the same. The town is dealt another blow when it learns that their beloved hockey club will be liquidated, a decision of local politicians, and all of the funding will go to the hockey club of their rival town, Hed, where many of the former Beartown players have gone. This decision upends those for whom hockey was a job, a dream, an escape, a scapegoat, and a tradition.

But one crafty person isn't willing to let Beartown hockey die—it's all part of a larger master plan for power. A most unusual coach is hired, and they begin building a new team with an unlikely squad of players—Benji, the lone wolf battling between self-destruction and redemption; Amat, smaller than the other players but perhaps more talented than anyone; Bobo, Amat's best friend, who can't skate well but can't imagine a life without hockey; and Vidar, an exceptionally talented goalie with an exceptionally short (and dangerous) fuse.

As Beartown, and its residents, try to recover, marriages and long-time friendships will be severely tested, loyalties will be questioned, split-second decisions will damage and endanger lives, and hearts will break. Violence becomes a more-present part of their everyday lives as the rivalry between Beartown and Hed intensifies, and the big game draws near. Everyone will face moments which could utterly destroy them, but amidst all of the darkness, there are glimpses of hope.

"People will say that violence came to Beartown this summer, but that won't be true, because it was already here. Because people are always dependent upon other people, and we can't ever really forgive each other for that."

This book absolutely blew me away. I wasn't sure if Backman had it in him a second time, but he has written a sequel that is just as good as its predecessor, which was exceptional. I love these characters so much—the ones you root for and the ones you root against. Reading this book was like getting to visit old friends—you revel in every minute because you know you'll be sad when your time together is over. That was definitely the case here.

You really should read Beartown first, both because it provides a great framework on which this book is built, and because it is fantastic on its own. Even though these books are about a hockey-obsessed town, they are about so much more than that. That's where Backman keeps surprising you.

God, I hope there's a third book. I'm ready for another late-night read, where I'm laughing and sobbing and feeling sentimental all over again. Who can ask for anything more?

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

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Book Review: "Not That I Could Tell" by Jessica Strawser

Boy, do I love a little bit of soapy neighborhood melodrama and mystery...

"It's no great accomplishment to get someone to believe a lie. It's not that hard, really. Look at me: doctor's wife, working mom, good neighbor. You've already summed me up, haven't you? You're already filling in the blanks. But whatever you're writing there, it's not the truth. And that's fine by me. It's easier, knowing you don't know me at all."

One Saturday night, a group of female neighbors gets together around the firepit of one of their houses. They're excited with the prospect of adult company, and by the fact that their baby monitors actually work in the backyard. They all have a little too much wine that night, leaving everyone feeling a little worse for the wear the next day. But all agree it's a price worth paying, and the conversation flows all over the place.

Life proceeds as usual on Monday until they get a real shock: Kristin, the seemingly near-perfect mother of twins, the class mom always willing to pitch in, has disappeared along with her children. Some of her clothes and the children's clothes and favorite toys are missing, as is her mother's heirloom china. But her cell phone was left behind.

Kristin didn't seem at all dismayed that her divorce from her gynecologist husband Paul was nearly final. No one knows what to think about her disappearance, and as the police begin investigating, they uncover secrets that she never shared with her friends, secrets which make them fear the worst. As public suspicion centers around Paul, he tries to focus attention back to his soon-to-be ex-wife, all the while trying to make himself seem more sympathetic.

Kristin's friends and neighbors try to make sense of what has happened, and how they were unaware of what Kristin was going through. For Clara, who lived next door, Kristin's disappearance and the facts swirling around remind her of an incident from her past that she has tried to put behind her, but she finds herself in the middle of the scandal, which causes issues for her husband and her young children. And Izzy, the neighborhood's newest resident, tries to stay above the fray and not pass judgment, because she is dealing with emotional issues of her own.

How well do we know our friends? Should we listen to those around us or should we trust our own instincts? Not That I Could Tell follows the model of books like Big Little Lies and Marybeth Mayhew Whalen's When We Were Worthy, providing a compelling narrative, a healthy dose of melodrama, and a mystery that eats at the fabric of friendships and the neighborhood.

Jessica Strawser does a great job with this book. I devoured it in practically one sitting, and although I had my suspicions of how things would resolve themselves, that didn't dampen my enthusiasm one bit. You've seen this before, but Strawser's storytelling ability keeps you turning the pages. I think this would make a great TV movie, too.

I was looking for something a little lighter, and this definitely fit the bill. This will make a great vacation read!

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!

Friday, March 9, 2018

Book Review: "Scythe" by Neal Shusterman

Wow. Mind totally blown by this one.

In a future world, mortality, war, illness, hunger have all been eradicated. Injuries are quickly healed by the body's own (amped-up) healing properties. Even aging is something you can counter—when you're tired of being your age, you can "turn" yourself into someone younger—over and over and over again.

The only way to control the population is through gleaning—killings of seemingly random people—and they are carried out by scythes, individuals commanded to commit these gleanings. Scythes are revered and feared within society, and while each scythe has their own methods of choosing whom to glean and how, they follow a strict code of behavior and have specific quotas as to the number of people they are to glean each year. It is a necessary evil, and death is no longer feared or worried about.

"The ending of human life used to be in the hands of nature. But we stole it. Now we have a monopoly on death. We are its sole distributor."

After each has an encounter with a scythe, teenagers Citra and Rowan are chosen to apprentice to one of the area's most respected scythes, Honorable Scythe Faraday. This is a role neither wants, for although their families will get immunity from gleaning for as long as they live if they are chosen to become scythes, their lives will be relatively solitary and austere, for they must spend most of their days gleaning or preparing to glean. Who would seek out such a life?

As Citra and Rowan learn from Scythe Faraday, they realize the nobility of the role, the conflicted emotions with which many scythes approach their responsibilities, and the physical, mental, and intellectual skills needed to become a good scythe. While the two are drawn to each other, they know that only one of them will become a scythe at the end of the year, and that competition confuses and motivates them. At the same time, they are forbidden from romantic entanglements with each other, so they channel their feelings into their preparation.

But the world of scythedom is in the midst of its own upheaval, and suddenly Rowan and Citra are pitted against each other, being trained by different scythes. Citra becomes apprentice to Scythe Curie, one of the most famous of the early scythes, while Rowan is an apprentice to Scythe Goddard, one of the bold new scythes, who believes more in his celebrity and presence, and challenges the customs of the traditional scythes. It is Goddard who sets a challenge in motion: whichever apprentice is chosen to become a full-fledged scythe will automatically be expected to glean the other.

This is an utterly fascinating, thought-provoking, exceptionally written book that I could not get enough of. Scythe is a compelling meditation on a world without mortality, and how those tasked with culling the population live their lives and approach those they choose to glean. It's a study in conscience, in guilt, in friendship, and in finding nobility in such a disturbing task.

I have never read any of Neal Shusterman's books, but I'll definitely be reading the second book in this series soon (I'm trying to be patient and not devour it immediately) as well as more of his work. He created such a fascinating world I wanted to know more about (I've not made any mention of the Thunderhead, which is the benevolent ruling entity in the world, and that's intriguing in and of itself), not to mention tremendously complex and distinct characters I couldn't get enough of.

I know that YA isn't a genre for everyone, and this book might sound a little out there for some, but this is really a fantastic book. It's better written than many YA books, and it actually makes you think, and invests you in the plot. Give this one a shot.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Book Review: "Asymmetry" by Lisa Halliday

How do you judge a book—do you just consider whether or not you liked it, or do you also take into consideration whether or not the author's attempt at conveying a message worked for you? This dilemma arose for me after reading Lisa Halliday's debut novel, Asymmetry.

The book is unevenly divided into three novellas. I loved the first one, enjoyed parts of the second one, and really didn't understand the purpose of the third one. Since the third novella portrayed a character from the first novella in a rather unflattering (although not unsurprising) light, I didn't enjoy it at all, and kept waiting for something more to happen.

While it appeared that the first two novellas are completely unrelated, apparently the third novella sheds some light on the characters in the first two, or at least deepens their meaning. I'm not ashamed to say I didn't see that, and honestly, I'm not a fan of having to read something so closely as if to search for hidden meaning. But unfortunately, it dampened my overall enthusiasm for the book, despite it being well written.

"Folly," my favorite, is the story of Alice, a young editor living in New York City shortly after 9/11. She is having an affair with the famed writer Ezra Blazer, a legendary author who is significantly older than she is. Their relationship occurs in fits and starts, as Blazer does everything he can to ensure Alice doesn't become too attached, and in a small way, ensure he doesn't become too dependent on her. As the novella explores Alice's life both with and without Blazer, it also explores the writing process, and how what we read has an influence on what we write, and how we see.

"Madness" follows Amar, an Iraqi-American man who is detained at Heathrow while on the way to visit his brother in Kurdistan. The novella juxtaposes his interrogation, as he tries to make sense of why he is being detained beyond his heritage, and his experiences the last time he and his family visited Iraq. It also provided commentary on identity, ambition, relationships, and the fraught environment of post-Saddam Iraq.

In the third, and shortest, novella, "Ezra Blazer's Desert Island Discs," Blazer returns to appear on the famed BBC radio program and shares his thoughts on which music he'd most want to have with him if stranded. Beyond a list of musical acts and their significance, Blazer shares some memories from his life which provide more insight into his character—and he flirts shamelessly with the program's host.

I believe Halliday really has some talent as a writer. There were a number of times I marveled at her language and imagery. I loved Alice's character in particular, and was fascinated by her relationship with Blazer. I'll admit that I felt a little gypped when her story ended and Amar's began. Amar's story was uneven—I definitely found the scenes with him being interrogated far more compelling than the rest of his rather disaffected life.

While this was an intriguing read, as I mentioned, I didn't see the thread that connected the novellas, so the book as a whole didn't work for me. This could work for others, however—I know a few people who thought it's one of the best books written thus far in 2018. Regardless of where you end up, Halliday is a talent worth watching.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Book Review: "Force of Nature" by Jane Harper

"Later, the four remaining women could fully agree on only two things. One: No one saw the bushland swallow up Alice Russell. And two: Alice had a mean streak so sharp it could cut you."

Nobody likes corporate teambuilding retreats. But employees from the boutique accountancy firm BaileyTennants are off for a three-day hike and camping adventure in Australia's Giralang Ranges. Even the firm's chairwoman and chief executive, brother and sister, are part of the group heading out.

The group is divided into men and women, and each will be expected to traverse a path through the wilderness, camp out (with supplies provided by the outfitter running the retreat), and head back to the starting point two days later.

Yet it doesn't quite go as planned, at least for the women's group. Four of the five women arrive back at the starting point several hours late, with various injuries, bruises, and complaints. One woman, Alice Russell, seems to have disappeared, after acting interchangeably ill-at-ease and aggressive since the trip began. No one knows if Alice left of her own volition to find her way back, or if something untoward happened to her in the wilderness.

Aaron Falk, a federal police agent, and his partner, Carmen, get involved in the search for Alice. They're worried about her whereabouts, of course, but for an entirely different reason, as she was part of an investigation they were conducting, looking into malfeasance at the firm. Alice was supposed to deliver some key evidence to them the day after the retreat, but now she—and, apparently, the evidence—seem to have disappeared.

No one is quite sure where suspicion should lie. Did Alice flee and make it out safely? Did someone within the firm's upper echelons catch wind of what she was helping with, and act to protect themselves? Are there lies behind the slightly different stories each of the remaining women in the group tell of their days in the wilderness? Or is there another dangerous presence lurking in the wild?

In an effort to find Alice and keep their investigation alive, Aaron and Carmen's search will take them deep into the menacing wilderness of the Giralang Ranges. The search will uncover secrets that many of the retreat participants are hiding, and will lay bare some painful memories for Aaron as well.

Jane Harper's The Dry, her debut thriller and first book featuring Aaron Falk, was absolutely fantastic. It was one of the best books I read last year, so needless to say, I've been anticipating this follow-up a great deal. It's always a bit of a challenge when you read the next book in a series you love—you don't want it to feel formulaic but you do want it to feel familiar, and have the same elements that made you love the previous book.

Harper is a terrific storyteller. She loves to build suspense at a slow burn, until you are flying through the pages, desperate to figure out what happened. Much as she did in The Dry, she creates such an evocative sense of time and place, so you felt the cold, the gloom, the menace of the wilderness as it closed in. (I even felt my throat get parched as she described the women's struggles to find water.)

Force of Nature shifts narration between the present, as the search for Alice continues, and the past, recounting the women's actions from start to finish. It's a tremendously captivating story and I was hooked right from the beginning. What was missing in this book for me was Aaron. Even though he's the main character, because of the way the book was narrated, he was only in the story about half the time, and I am such a fan of his character, I wanted more of his presence.

Don't get me wrong: this is still a great book. If you're new to Harper's writing you could pick this one up and not feel like you missed anything, and you'd find a compelling, well-executed thriller. This book did nothing to diminish my enthusiasm for Harper's work, and I so hope that there's a third book in this series on the horizon, hopefully with twice the Aaron!

Monday, March 5, 2018

Book Review: "Paris in the Present Tense" by Mark Helprin

I first encountered Mark Helprin when I read his beautiful, magical book, Winter's Tale, many years ago. It utterly transfixed me, and took me into a completely different world. I read a few of his other books over the years and they didn't quite move or touch me the same way, but I still marveled at his storytelling, as it's sometimes much harder to tell a story rooted in reality than in a fantasy world.

Helprin's latest book, Paris in the Present Tense, definitely drew me in from the very beginning. It has an old-fashioned feel, yet I mean that in the most complimentary way. It really reminded me of one of Ward Just or William Maxwell's books, full of rich character development, reflections on life and mortality, and the travails of the human heart.

"Music is the voice of God (when done properly)."

Jules Lacour is 74 years old. He is a cellist, a veteran, a Holocaust survivor, a father and grandfather, and a man who deeply misses his late wife. He has never pursued the path of financial comfort, but he has never regretted it more than when he learns that his two-year-old grandson is suffering from leukemia. He wishes he had the money to help pay for Luc's treatments. How he decides to obtain that money is one of the main threads of the story, and it carries quite a wallop!

This book is a fascinating study of emotion and mood, a look at a man who doesn't believe you should stop being outspoken because you grow older. Helprin explores how racism and anti-semitism are attitudes still carried by many people, in Paris and elsewhere in the world, despite the destruction they have wrought.

Don't worry that this is simply a brooding, heavy story, however; Jules is a fascinating, complex character—at times irascible and cranky, at times flirtatious and romantic. He is deeply philosophical and there is a great deal of discussion about the importance of music in his life, which is something I share. There are just so many facets to this man and his story that kept me reading, even when the pacing slowed down a little more than I would have hoped.

Paris in the Present Tense is full of dialogue you'll want to read over and over again to be sure you didn't miss a beat, evocative imagery, and an incredible sense of place—I felt Paris around me at times when reading it. I'm still not 100 percent sure if the entire book worked for me as a whole, but Helprin's storytelling made it a book to savor. Amazingly thought-provoking.

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

Friday, March 2, 2018

Book Review: "People Like Us" by Dana Mele

"Does someone who does one bad thing, even one really bad thing, deserve bad things to happen to them? Deserve to be murdered or framed for murder?"

Kay Donovan wanted a chance to reinvent herself after a pair of tragedies marred her life and tore apart her family. She gets that chance by attending exclusive Bates Academy.

Although she is on an athletic scholarship, which sets her apart from her incredibly rich classmates, she becomes a star soccer player and part of the school's most exclusive clique. These girls are notorious for their cruelty, and while everyone wants to be their friend, it's more out of fear than popularity.

"You can get away with murder if you're lucky. You don't even have to be smart. Just have a social or political one up on everyone else. People look the other way if they want to. Everybody knows it."

One night before a ritual post-party swim, the girls make a horrifying discovery: the lifeless body of a fellow student. No one seems to know who she was, but it's not long before they all become suspects in her murder, especially Kay.

Then it turns out that the dead girl got her revenge, as she created an online scavenger hunt-of sorts for Kay, forcing her to expose her friends, At the same time, her new friendship with a girl they once ridiculed is causing a rift between Kay and her best friend, Brie, and making everyone around her suspect she had a hand in the girl's death.

While trying to solve the challenges the dead girl has given her, Kay has to come to terms with the betrayal of those she cares about, and figure out whom she can trust. But more than that, she has to decide who she is, and whether she's ready to come to terms with the destruction she's caused.

Dana Mele's People Like Us strives to be a cross between Mean Girls and Heathers, with a little bit of Karen McManus' One of Us is Lying, with mixed results. Mele tells a good story, and throws in lots of twists so you're not sure which characters to trust. I also liked that the characters' sexuality was presented in a matter-of-fact way.

The problem I had with this book is that none of the characters were sympathetic, especially Kay. That made it difficult to get fully immersed in the story. I also was a little disappointed with the way some of the plot was resolved, because I felt with all of the possible solutions Mele had, this was a bit of a cop-out.

In the end, however, this was an entertaining read, and I think it would make a fun movie.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Book Review: "Night Sky with Exit Wounds" by Ocean Vuong

The most beautiful part of your body
is where it's headed, & remember
loneliness is still time spent
with the world.

To read Ocean Vuong's Night Sky with Exit Wounds is to be dazzled by gorgeous lyricism. I picked this up as part of my exploration of contemporary poetry I have been experimenting with over the last several weeks. It's amazing the breadth of talent that exists in this genre.

I realized after reading the first few sentences of Vuong's first poem just how talented he is. It certainly explains why this book won the 2016 Whiting Award and the 2017 T.S. Eliot Prize, because some of his stanzas simply took my breath away.

Use it to prove how the stars
were always what we knew

they were the exit wounds
of every
misfired word.

Vuong spent the first two years of his life living in a refugee camp, and he never knew his father. This sense of emptiness is palpable through many of the 35 poems in this collection, as Vuong imagines reasons why his father wasn't part of his life. He imagines his father meeting violent or tragic, accidental ends, or even being imprisoned. In several poems, he imagines encounters with his father at various stages of his life.

Like any good son, I pull my father out
of the water, drag him by his hair

through white sand, his knuckles carving a trail
the waves rush in to erase.

Some of the poems touch on mythological themes, some touch on more realistic, violent ones, exploring the experience of Vietnamese refugees. One poem, "Aubade with Burning City," is based on the fact that Armed Forces Radio played the song "White Christmas" as a code to begin Operation Frequent Wind, the ultimate evacuation of American civilians and Vietnamese refugees by helicopter during the fall of Saigon in 1975. The poem juxtaposes verse with lyric fragments from the song, to beautiful effect.

The more poetry I've been reading, the more I realize that just as I prefer "traditional" short stories over those which take more experimental forms and narratives, I feel the same way about poetry. At times, Vuong experiments with form, language, even writes a poem using footnotes, and those poems didn't work for me.

In the end, however, Night Sky with Exit Wounds is at times contemplative, fiery, even erotic. Vuong's power lies in his words, and the emotions he conveys through them. While poetry doesn't get the type of recognition fiction and other genres get, Vuong definitely deserves to be heralded as an artist for our time.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Book Review: "The Great Alone" by Kristin Hannah

Oh, man, this book.

In 1974, the world was turned upside-down, what with Vietnam, the gas crisis, Watergate, and so much more to cause people to feel unsettled. Thirteen-year-old Leni Allbright knew these feelings all too well, but more because her father, Ernt, a Vietnam POW, has never quite been the same since he returned from being captured during the war. Leni watches the almost all-consuming love her parents have for each other, which is exacerbated by the times when her father "just isn't right," suffering nightmares, mood swings, and violent rages which have caused them to pick up and move several times over the last several years.

"One thing every child of a POW knew was how easily people could be broken."

After Ernt loses another job, he makes an impulsive decision: he is going to move his family to a small town in Alaska, and settle on some land left to him by a fellow soldier. The thought of moving somewhere so remote, so dangerous, so unknown, is tremendously frightening, but Leni's mother, Cora, has never abandoned her husband no matter what he has done, so she's willing to follow him into the wilderness, in the hopes this may be the fresh start he needs.

When they arrive, they are all bewitched by the immense beauty of Alaska in summer—the vivid colors, the sounds of animals they had never seen in person before, the feel of living off the land. Yet they know that winter is not that far away, and they've heard that many people don't even survive one winter in Alaska. With limited money and supplies, they prepare as best they can, but they are buoyed by the generosity of the community they've moved into, despite Ernt's resentment that others are providing for his family.

"Alaska isn't about who you were when you headed this way. It's about who you become. You are out here in the wild, girls. That isn't some fable or fairy tale. It's real. Hard. Winter will be here soon, and believe me, it's not like any winter you've ever experienced. It will cull the herd, and fast. You need to know how to survive."

Winter pushes the Allbrights to their limits, and Ernt's mental state begins to deteriorate more and more. Leni realizes that her father is dangerous and she can't understand why her mother continues to stay with him, to even provoke his moods somewhat, and yet refuse to leave when things get bad. And they get bad, with increasing frequency. But Leni knows that she cannot leave her mother, or she might not be able to save her.

As Leni gets older, she becomes less forgiving of her father's moods and her mother's refusal to help them escape. When the community's residents get divided between those who want to see change and modernity brought to the wilderness, and those who prefer living off the grid and fending for themselves, Ernt's resentment grows, drawing his entire family into a dangerous struggle, one from which escape is becoming increasingly unlikely.

The Great Alone is the story of survival, not just in the harsh Alaskan wilderness, but within your own lives. It's a book about confronting your fears and realizing how strong you are, of feeling the need to protect those you love from pain or hurt no matter what the sacrifices you must make in exchange, and how the things we most want to say are the hardest to verbalize. This is a book about courage, the power of love and friendship, and an unshakable bond between parent and child.

I've never read any of Kristin Hannah's books before, and I don't know why that's the case, but this book blew me away. The story is tremendously compelling, and even though it has familiar elements, Hannah's storytelling made it feel fresh. There is such a poignancy in this book, and I'm not ashamed to say it wrecked me emotionally at times, but I kept reading and reading and just couldn't stop. Thanks to a cold, rainy Sunday, I read the entire book in one day, but now I'm sad it's over.

Is this predictable? Perhaps a bit. But this is an exceptional story populated by complex, fascinating characters and vivid imagery that made you feel you were experiencing the beauty and harshness of Alaska. Boy, did I love this.

"In the vast expanse of this unpredictable wilderness, you will either become your best self and flourish, or you will run away, screaming, from the dark and the cold and the hardship. There is no middle ground, no safe place; not here, in the Great Alone."

I have four words for you: Read this book now.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Book Review: "The Wife" by Alafair Burke

It's been said the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. While this may not be a surprise to those who have read her work before, but as a first-time reader of Alafair Burke, I can definitely say that storytelling talent definitely runs in the family! (She is the daughter of one of my all-time favorite authors, James Lee Burke.) But the thing is, James Lee Burke never quite got my pulse pounding as hard as his daughter did in her new book, The Wife!

Angela Powell's husband Jason was quite the guy—smart, handsome, and successful; a best-selling author; a sought-after consultant; and a frequent expert seen on television programs. Ever since she met him when she was catering a high-end party in the Hamptons, he's always stood by her. Not many men would willingly start a relationship with a woman and her young son, but Jason was persistent, and within a year they were married, and she was able to leave her old life behind—which entailed many tragic secrets.

"We need an explanation, something to reassure us that the horrible things that happened to them could never happen to us."

As Jason's star rose, Angela stood beside him, always the dutiful, loving wife. She loved her husband, loved the life they had, even though his every foray into the public eye made Angela nervous that somehow she'd be dragged into it with him, that the careful fa├žade she worked so hard to build might come tumbling down.

When Jason mentions that an intern at work is accusing him of inappropriate behavior, Angela finds it preposterous. If her husband is guilty of anything, it's being a little too handsome and smart at the same time, and maybe a little more flirtatious than is acceptable in the business world. But when a second woman, an executive for one of Jason's clients, steps forward with more serious allegations, Angela starts to wonder if her husband is telling the truth. Did Jason do what these women are accusing him of? If so, what will that mean for their marriage? Perhaps more importantly, what will it mean for her and her son?

As more evidence against Jason mounts, she still stands behind her husband. Perhaps he was unfaithful, and maybe she was in part to blame for some of his behavior, but she is unwilling to consider the ramifications of his guilt. However, she's decided to start taking a closer look at her husband, just be sure she isn't tying her own future to a liar. And when Jason's primary accuser goes missing, she doesn't know whether to feel relief or fear.

This plot summary just scratches the surface for fear of revealing any twists or surprises. Burke certainly has more than a few of those up her sleeve in this book. You may think you've seen all of this before, and perhaps you have, but not with Burke at the helm. She's a fantastic storyteller, leading you along and making you wonder if the story is going to follow the tried-and-true path, but all the while you're suspecting every character that makes an appearance. (Or maybe that's just me.)

I devoured this book in the matter of a few hours, and all the while I wondered why it's taken me so long to read Burke's books given how much of a fan I am of her father. Regardless, Burke is a writer all her own, deserving of praise on her own merits.

I fully anticipate this will be a popular vacation/beach read this year, because in addition to the requisite amount of suspense, and the he-said, she-said nature of some of the accusations, The Wife isn't a lightweight, throwaway book—it's one to wow you.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Book Review: "The Largesse of the Sea Maiden: Stories" by Denis Johnson

"It doesn't matter. The world keeps turning. It's plain to you that at the time I write this, I'm not dead. But maybe by the time you read it."

Denis Johnson's last short story collection, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, was published about eight months after he died from lung cancer at the age of 67. That fact certainly adds a feeling of melancholy to the collection, even when he isn't writing lines like the ones above. It's also a fairly dark book about facing mortality and one's failures.

I first came upon Johnson's writing in the mid-1990s when I read his collection Jesus' Son (way back in the days before I wrote book reviews or counted how many books I read), and it has honestly stuck with me all these years later. I forget at times what a phantasmagorical ride he often took you on, and that his stories had such surprising depth, even when they were a little bizarre, but his deft hand with imagery and word choice often had me re-reading paragraphs more than once, simply to marvel at what he had written.

It was certainly inevitable that I'd come to The Largesse of the Sea Maiden with higher expectations than I probably should have had, given these stories were the last thing he had written (at least as well as we're aware). Unfortunately, I found the collection somewhat uneven—a few stories didn't quite work for me, but they were bookended by one spectacular story and one really good one.

I liked the story "Strangler Bob," a quirky story about a man in prison. While it, too, has some dark elements, there is more humor in this story than most of the others. But my two favorites in the collection were "Doppelgänger, Poltergeist," in which a writing instructor looked back on his relationship with his most gifted student, who became a famed poet, but who also had a strange obsession with Elvis Presley, and the exceptional, unforgettable title story, in which an aging ad man reflects on his life, his successes and his failures through the years, and some of the more interesting people and situations he encountered.

In that story, Johnson shares some truly poignant lines which make it more evident he knew this was his final book. "I note that I've lived longer in the past, now, than I can expect to live in the future. I have more to remember than I have to look forward to. Memory fades, not much of the past stays, and I wouldn't mind forgetting a lot more of it."

The literary world has lost a true treasure in Johnson, and if offbeat, beautifully written fiction appeals to you, I'd encourage you to pick up Jesus' Son and Train Dreams, his more recent novella. Those of you who are short story fans might enjoy this collection as well, if only for a few of the stories, but some may find it difficult to follow.

RIP, Mr. Johnson, and thanks for sharing your immense talent with the world.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Book Review: "An American Marriage" by Tayari Jones

For the latest resurrection of her book club, Oprah chose Tayari Jones' latest novel, An American Marriage. Raw, powerful, full of searing emotion, this is a book which speaks not only to the relationship between man and woman, husband and wife, but it touches on the bond between parents and their children, even in adulthood, and the mercurial nature of life.

"Love makes a place in your life, it makes a place for itself in your bed. Invisibly, it makes a place in your body, rerouting all your blood vessels, throbbing right alongside your heart. When it's gone, nothing is whole again."

Celestial and Roy first meet in college, he being the somewhat-smooth acquaintance of her childhood friend, Andre. Although Roy is attracted to Celestial almost instantaneously, she's less impressed with him. But when they meet again a few years later in New York, the two fall in love. Roy is drawn to her creativity and her fierce sense of independence, while she is impressed that he knows just what he wants from life, including her.

The two settle in Atlanta. Roy starts becoming a successful sales executive, while Celestial's art career is on the verge of taking off. Their marriage isn't without its bumps, as the couple starts talking about whether or not to have a baby. But one night, everything changes. Roy is accused of committing a crime Celestial knows he is innocent of, and he is sentenced to a 12-year prison sentence.

"Looking back on it, it's like watching a horror flick and wondering why the characters are so determined to ignore the danger signs. When a spectral voice says, get out, you should do it. But in real life, you don't know that you're in a scary movie. You think your wife is being overly emotional. You quietly hope that it's because she's pregnant, because a baby is what you need to lock this thing in and throw away the key."

Celestial doesn't know how to deal with a husband in prison, and she's not sure she knows how to be alone. Although she loves Roy, she starts spending more and more time with Andre, who has loved her from afar (and closer than that) for as long as he can remember. Roy struggles with the idea of spending 12 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit, and finds it difficult to be so isolated as the outside world keeps marching on. He vacillates between wanting Celestial to wait the 12 years for him and wanting her to go on with her life.

Five years into his sentence, Roy is unexpectedly released. He finds that life is very different in so many ways, even just five years later. He is unsure what to expect from his marriage—although he and Celestial had difficult times while he was in prison, she never filed for divorce, so he wonders if he has a chance to resume their life together. She is caught between the love she knew, the one she felt tethered to, and the love that gives her security she has always craved. But which one is right for her?

Narrated in alternating chapters by Roy, Celestial, and Andre, An American Marriage is a searing portrait of the ragged ways we fall in and out of love. Jones is such a talented writer, and you actually feel the same dilemmas faced by her characters. She has such an ear for dialogue, for capturing emotion, and for showing how our relationships can both make us feel safe and make us come undone.

As complex as these characters are, none of them are completely sympathetic, and Jones doesn't force you to choose a side in this struggle. There was an instance when I thought the plot would veer into utter melodrama and tread a path I've seen too many times, but Jones showed some restraint, thankfully. I wasn't sure if I liked any of the characters fully, but I was still utterly engrossed in their lives.

"You can never really unlove somebody. Maybe it changes shape, but it's there."

This book really was excellent. It makes you think while it tugs at your emotions, and that felt very fulfilling. And once again, this book proves Oprah knows how to pick 'em.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Book Review: "The Cruel Prince" by Holly Black

So after reading a few rather dark and emotionally heavy books, I thought I could use something a little "lighter." I decided to explore the fantasy genre a bit, which is something I don't do often enough. I had heard quite a bit about Holly Black's latest book, The Cruel Prince, so I decided to give it a try.

This was an absolutely excellent, creative book, but make no mistake—it definitely wasn't a "light" read! However, I was hooked from start to finish, so it didn't matter one bit. What a fantastic story!

It seemed like any other Sunday afternoon. Seven-year-old twin sisters Jude and Taryn are lazing about, while their older sister Vivienne watched television absentmindedly. There is a knock at the door, and a tall, mysterious man stands on the doorstep, a man who makes their mother turn pale. Before the girls even realize what is happening, their parents are murdered and the man has stolen them away to live with him in the High Court of Faerie.

Ten years later, Jude and Taryn have done their best to fit in, but they are constantly reminded they are different from the fey who live in Faerie, not just because the girls are mortal and the others are not. Taryn wants to become fully acclimated, live the life that she is expected to, but Jude wants more. She wants to be known for her strength, her intelligence, her bravery. She doesn't want to be "less than," doesn't want to blend into the background.

"I don't desire to do as well in the tournament as one of the fey. I want to win. I do not yearn to be their equal. In my heart, I yearn to best them."

Jude's refusal to back down, to kowtow to those who tell her she should be subservient. This earns her the condemnation and hatred of several young fey, most especially Prince Cardan, the youngest son of the High King—and perhaps the cruelest son. He and his friends delight in their torment of Jude, threatening her with and inflicting physical and emotional violence upon her, leading her to make impetuous decisions which strain her relationship with Taryn.

"Faeries make up for their inability to lie with a panoply of deceptions and cruelties. Twisted words, pranks, omissions, riddles, scandals, not to mention their revenges upon one another for ancient, half-remembered slights. Storms are less fickle than they are, seas less capricious."

Jude is able to secure herself a key position within the Court, and she hopes it will lead to greater things. She realizes she is capable of deception, treachery, bravery, and bloodshed, and none of those things really bother her. But she's utterly unprepared to become embroiled in the middle of a bloody civil war for the crown, and she is shocked to learn how her family is involved in some of the betrayal as well.

She has to act quickly in order to figure out how to save herself and those she cares about from certain violence and possible danger. This will require the most courage and intelligence she has ever had to demonstrate, and it also means she must once again tangle with Prince Cardan. But in order to make sure her family and Faerie itself are safe, she realizes some sacrifices must be made.

I rarely read books in this genre, and now I'm not sure why. I found this absolutely compelling, mesmerizing even, as Black reeled me into this incredible world she created. Her imagery is tremendously vivid, but this is definitely a book I'd love to see played out on screen, just to see how all of the characters and the kingdom around them look. Black masterfully weaved suspense, intrigue, emotions, violence, and even a little romance to fantastic effect.

Not being familiar with the fantasy genre, particularly the world of the fey, Black used a lot of terminology to refer to the different creatures that I wasn't familiar with, but that's what dictionaries and Google are for! There were times when the large cast of characters became a little confusing, as I wasn't sure which character was which, but that forced me to slow down a little bit and savor Black's storytelling.

This is definitely not a book for everyone (I can hear some of you saying, "Not for me" as you read this review), but if you've ever thought about reading a book like this, I'd encourage you to pick The Cruel Prince up. It's really an unforgettable experience and a cool story the likes of which I've not heard for some time. I'm a fan of Black's work now, that's for certain!

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Book Review: "Lullaby Road" by James Anderson

Some books seem tailor-made for sequels. While you're reading them you get the sense that there's so much more to the story, and in some cases, the author leaves you hanging. But some books seem complete when you've finished them, and although you enjoyed spending time with the characters and found the story compelling, you'd never expect a sequel. (Of course, there are other times you dislike a book you couldn't imagine reading a follow-up, but that's another story.)

I really enjoyed reading James Anderson's The Never-Open Desert Diner (see my review) last year. The story of a trucker in the Utah desert whose solitary life is turned upside-down by the appearance of a mysterious woman was tremendously satisfying and even a little quirky, and I loved the characters Anderson created. But I was surprised to see that Anderson had written a sequel, Lullaby Road (not that it stopped me from grabbing it), because I thought Ben's story was told.

Boy, was I wrong.

Ben is still working as a trucker on Route 117, which most of the year is either affected by back-breaking heat or treacherous snow and ice. He's trying to pull his life back together to some semblance of normalcy after he was shaken to the core by tragedy. All he wants to do is make his deliveries, get paid, and survive.

One snowy morning, making his routine stop for diesel before getting underway on his route, the proprietor of the truck stop tells Ben someone left something for him. It's not just "something"—it's a small Hispanic child who refuses to speak, and the child is accompanied by an over-protective dog. A note is pinned to the child which says:

"Please Ben. Bad trouble. My son. Take him today. His name is Juan. Trust you only. Tell No One. Pedro."

Pedro was the tire man at the truck stop, but he seems to have disappeared. No one will give Ben answers; in fact, everyone from the truck stop has disappeared. He can't leave the child alone in the snow, but the last thing Ben needs is a child to worry about, especially one which appears to have a penchant to take off running in an instant. He needs to find Pedro, but he also needs to start his route before weather conditions get too treacherous.

That split-second decision changes everything for Ben. Everything seems out-of-sorts on his route, even the people and customers he knows all seem a bit different. And in the course of the next several days, he'll realize just how much danger is around him, danger that threatens those he knows, as well as him and the child in his care. It's as bleak as the road that lies ahead of him.

Lullaby Road has a lot of twists and turns—some which make sense and some which confuse, so I'm being purposely vague in my plot summary. Ben is used to encountering people who have taken to the desert because they're not interested in social interaction and are on the run from something, but Ben finds a lot more about those he's known only casually and encounters some new personalities along the way. Barely anyone is particularly friendly, and some are downright deadly.

I love the way Anderson tells a story, and I love the hardscrabble characters he has created. I never quite understood why so many people are quick to dislike Ben, except perhaps for incidents from his past, since he doesn't seem much different than the rest of them, and his reactions to the situations he's in seem to be fairly natural, yet many people call him out for his behavior. But beyond that I was fully engrossed in this story, even as it got a little confusing, and ultimately darker than I had anticipated.

I'd definitely recommend reading Anderson's first book before this one, as Lullaby Road refers to things that occurred in, and characters from, that book. But this one is a truly worthy sequel. I'm not sure if another book is in store, but now I'm hoping there is.

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

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Book Review: "The Fighter" by Michael Farris Smith

"To be alive at all is to have scars."
—John Steinbeck

Michael Farris Smith chose the above epigraph for his new novel, The Fighter, and there may be few epigraphs more well-matched than this one.

Jack Boucher has been fighting since nearly the day he was born. Abandoned at a young age, shifted from foster home to foster home, he quickly learned not to get attached to anyone or anything, to always watch his back. At 12 he finally finds Maryann, the foster mother who wants to care for Jack, wants him to know he's worthy of being cared about. But now Maryann suffers from dementia, and most days doesn't even know her own name, let alone Jack's.

And Jack has more than his own share of problems. Decades of bare-knuckle fighting have left him in unspeakable pain, and the immense number of concussions he has sustained through the years has left his brain shell-shocked. He carries with him a notebook in which he has to write down those people who pose a danger to him, as well as other information, since he's incapable of remembering it himself. He's also become a champ at self-medicating, using stolen painkillers chased with liquor to take the edge off.

"He felt the twenty years of granite fists and gnarled knuckles beating against his temples and the bridge of his nose and across his forehead and into the back of his head. The sharp points of elbows into his kidneys and into the hard muscles of his thighs and into his throat and the thrust of knees against his own and into his lower back and against his ears and jaw."

Maryann has trusted her one legacy, her family home, to Jack. But gambling debts have put the house and the land in the hands of the bank, and he has only eight days to make good on what is owed before it is sold. For Maryann to lose her history, and for Jack to be responsible, is a loss too great to ponder, even if she isn't aware of what is going on around her. Jack is determined to get the money he needs, by gambling or other means.

There's one other drawback in his way—Big Momma Sweet, who rules the Mississippi Delta and has eyes and spies everywhere. You don't owe Big Momma and not square your debts, not if you want to survive. You may think you can hide, but you can't. Jack is ready to pay off his debt and finally get his life back—and then disaster strikes. Addled by pain and burgeoning dementia of his own, it appears he has only one avenue left—getting back in the ring one more time, despite the consequences.

Smith writes about desperation and last chances more effectively than most authors out there. The Fighter is often brutal and relentless, but there are notes of hope. Jack is a fascinating character, and you are drawn into his struggles, even if you have a feeling you know where things will end up. The story of his hard-fought childhood and the woman who saved him is poignant, and you understand why he's willing to risk everything for her.

I didn't love this book as much as Smith's last, Desperation Road (see my original review), because I found its pace a little erratic, and the relentless brutality started to depress me. But I love the way Smith writes, and this is still a tremendously worthwhile read, although hard to take at times. He definitely has a fan in me!

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

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Book Review: "The Apocalypse of Elena Mendoza" by Shaun David Hutchinson

Shaun David Hutchinson's The Apocalypse of Elena Mendoza may be one of the craziest, most thought-provoking books I've read in some time, if not ever. It's wild, poignant, forces you to suspend your disbelief, and some may even think it's sacrilegious or blasphemous, but it definitely cements Hutchinson as one of the best YA authors out there right now, one who combines science, emotion, and life's daily struggles to tremendous effect.

"The apocalypse began at Starbucks. Where else did you expect the end of the world to start?"

Elena Mendoza is used to being an outcast. She is the product of a virgin birth (seriously)—but she wasn't born in a barn or at the beach at sunrise. Her mother was a teenager, banished by her parents because they believed she was lying about getting pregnant. But the truth is, Elena was the product of parthenogenesis, a process where an offspring is born from an unfertilized egg. It was more common in the insect world, but she was the first child created this way.

No one has taken the time to find out the truth, though; instead, they ridicule her, calling her "Mary" (which technically isn't even correct), and treating her like a freak. She doesn't have a lot of friends—in fact, she spends most of her time either working at Starbucks or with her best friend, Fadil—but she doesn't really care.

Elena also has a wicked crush on Winifred "Freddie" Petrine, even though she is part of the crowd that makes fun of her. When Freddie comes into Elena's Starbucks one day, she can't stop staring, until even the siren on the Starbucks cups tells her to say something to Freddie. But when Elena goes to approach Freddie, a boy from their high school pulls out a gun and shoots Freddie, and the next thing you know, Elena is healing her gunshot wound, seconds before the shooter disappears into a beam of light in the clouds.

So now Elena can heal people. But with that power comes a downside—well, many of them—in that every time Elena heals someone, more people disappear for no reason. The voices keep telling her she can save the world, but is that true, or is she actually condemning innocent people to disappear, affecting their families and friends, for no reason except to help someone else? And when Freddie tells her she wishes she didn't save her, what does that mean?

"It also hadn't stopped me from wondering if I might actually be special or from dreaming that my miraculous birth meant I had a destiny that would one day be revealed. I longed to fit in, to discover whether I was playing a lead role in the grand cosmic drama or merely a bit part with no lines. My miraculous birth and the voices had, for years, fueled my convictions that I had a purpose—that I would lead a significant life—and all I'd wanted was for someone to notice me."

As the voices continue to pressure her, Elena struggles with her abilities and whether she should do anything. But she also struggles with love, friendship, family, responsibility, and trying to figure out why the boy would shoot Freddie in the first place. This is a book built on a crazy concept, but it's one with tremendous heart, and it makes you think about what you would do in a similar situation. Who are we to decide who lives and who dies? But can we be content if we do nothing at all?

Hutchinson is an amazing writer. His characters are tremendously vivid and complex, and not just the main characters, either. Some of the supporting characters are fascinating as well, and although I'm glad they didn't distract from the main story, it would have been great to get to know some of them better. While this book didn't leave me as emotionally wrecked as his amazing We Are the Ants (see my review) or last year's At the Edge of the Universe (see my review), it has a beauty and a power all its own.

Clearly, this isn't a book for everyone. But don't discount it as simply folly, because it's so much more than that. This is a book that tackles depression, bullying, family dysfunction, discrimination, friendship, jealousy, love, sexuality—yet it never hits you over the head. I'd love to sit down at a table with Hutchinson and learn what makes him tick, because his mind is a fascinating thing.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Book Review: "Mr. Flood's Last Resort" by Jess Kidd

Some authors know just how to tell stories. Jess Kidd is one of those. Fresh on the heels of her magnificent, magical book Himself (see my original review), which made my list of the best books I read last year, she dazzles with her storytelling ability again in her new book, Mr. Flood's Last Resort.

Maud Drennan is a caregiver whose seemingly unflappable attitude hints at a world-weariness you wouldn't expect of someone her age. But Maud isn't sunny and naive—a childhood tragedy left her slightly traumatized, and it somehow left behind a crowd of saints who appear to Maud at random times each day, befitting of the situation she's in. These aren't always welcome saints, mind you, but they do provide a sort of companionship.

Maud has been assigned to the irascible Cathal Flood, a cantankerous old man who has taken pleasure in running off his previous caregivers any way he can—through fear, intimidation, even threats of physical violence. Mr. Flood lives in a dilapidated old mansion, filled to the brim with collector's items, decaying trash, and what seems like hundreds of cats who roam through the house. Maud is Mr. Flood's last resort, because if he doesn't let her get the house in order, his son has threatened to put him in an old-age home, something the old man will never let happen.

At first, Mr. Flood torments Maud, changing moods so quickly her head spins, and trying the tricks that scared his previous caregivers away. But Maud doesn't scare too easily, and after a while, he realizes she has respect for some of the items he's been keeping all these years, and the two form a tentative bond. (It doesn't hurt that neither trusts his son.)

But strange things do happen in the house. Maud hears noises when there's no one around, and even the cats react to invisible stimuli which startle and upset them. And how can she explain the photos which keep appearing mysteriously, photos which hint at secrets held deep within the house? Do these photos point to long-forgotten crimes, crimes which only she can help solve?

Do people of a certain age have the right to live their last years however they want, or must they adhere to others' wishes? If you sense a mystery, is it your responsibility to try and solve it, even if it means betraying the trust of someone you've started to care for? Can you help someone pull their life together if you don't have yours fully together?

Along with a cast of remarkable characters, Kidd addresses these questions in Mr. Flood's Last Resort, and shows that the special environments she created in her first book weren't a fluke. This is a story about how important it is to come to terms with what happens in our lives, and that sometimes we must forgive ourselves as well as forgive others. It also is a story which demonstrates that our eccentricities don't make us less of a person, or less worthy of happiness.

Although I felt the book moved a little slowly at the start, and lost steam a time or two, this was such an enjoyable read. Kidd drew me in to this world she created, and it felt so true—when Maud was combing through the piles and piles of junk, trash, oddities, and neglected collectibles, I felt as if I were in the mansion with her, smelling the dust and decay. There's certainly some predictability to this book, but that didn't detract from its immense charm.

This type of book won't be for everyone. Those who like more realistic fiction and can't let themselves loosen the bounds of belief may find this odd or bizarre. But Kidd is such a marvelous storyteller, you should let yourself experience her books—if not this one, definitely Himself.

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

Friday, February 9, 2018

Book Review: "All We Can Do Is Wait" by Richard Lawson

It seemed like just another day in Boston. And then, without warning, the Tobin Bridge collapses, with about 100 cars on its span at the time. These were people just going about their business—students, parents, families, people racing to work or school or home or to some other obligation or exciting occasion.

"It was hard to say who was less lucky, the ones who fell into the water or the ones who fell onto Charlestown, debris tumbling on top of them. Was it better to be swiftly crushed or to slowly drown in your car?"

As news of the tragedy spreads, loved ones of those believed to be on the bridge gather in the emergency room of Massachusetts General Hospital. Among those gathered is a group of teenagers, waiting for word about the condition of their family members or friends. They comfort each other, provide solace and support, and offer a sympathetic ear to listen to the others' fears, their regrets, even their secrets.

Siblings Jason and Alexa are waiting for news about their parents. For nearly a year, Jason has withdrawn from his family, preferring to spend his days in a stoned haze, where he is cut off from his feelings. Alexa resents her older brother for abandoning her emotionally, because she has really needed someone to turn to this past year. Yet each is hiding a secret that threatens to further widen the gap between them at a time they need each other most.

Scott's girlfriend Aimee was traveling over the bridge with friends en route to a theater production. Scott is deeply in love with Aimee but worries their relationship will fall apart once she leaves to go to college. He can't help but resent her a little bit because she seems just a little too excited to leave town for school. Maybe she's excited to leave him, too? He knows he's been difficult lately, but he just wants the opportunity to tell Aimee he loves her, so she'll realize they're meant to be together.

Kate, Skyler's older sister, has always looked out for her. Even though she's only two years older, Kate has in some instances acted like Skyler's aunt, even a surrogate mother, especially since their parents are no longer in the picture and their grandparents live in Cambodia. When Skyler was in danger and hid that fact from everyone, Kate knew—and once again, rescued her. So as Skyler waits to find out whether Kate survived the bridge collapse, she wonders how she might possibly survive without the person who has meant everything to her.

Facing uncertainty as to whether your family members or other loved ones are alive, dead, or seriously injured is a difficult task for anyone, much less teenagers dealing with their own problems at the same time. For Jason, Alexa, Scott, and Skyler, just being in proximity to each other brings some comfort as they wait for answers. At the same time, each struggles with reliving past regrets, looking at the events that brought them to this moment.

All We Can Do Is Wait gives evidence to the adage that "misery loves company." The book grabs you right away and keeps you rooted to the characters' stories, to the pain and fear each has borne to this moment, and the pain each could face depending upon the condition of their loved ones. At first I found it interesting that not one of these teenagers had anyone else who was worried enough about them to track them down at the hospital, but you realize that each of them have only themselves and those in the bridge collapse to depend on.

This is a really engaging story that reads a bit like a movie—I could honestly see these scenes playing out in my head. That's a testament to Richard Lawson's writing ability. I did think the book was perhaps a little too melodramatic and angsty even given the setting and the situation facing the characters, but that wasn't a deal-breaker for me. I waited for the "big reveal" in the case of one character, and it unfolded exactly like I expected, but it still choked me up a little.

At a few points I found the characters a little immature, and then I realized these were high school students. It was actually refreshing to find characters that weren't more sarcastic and erudite than people twice their age. There were a few places I worried Lawson might take the plot into total melodrama, and I was glad he avoided that.

This was a very fast read for me and I was completely invested in the story; in fact, I would love to know what happens next to these characters. I hope never to be in a situation like this, but I think Lawson accurately depicted the emotions and the events that would occur if a tragedy like this occurred.