Saturday, July 14, 2018

Book Review: "Clock Dance" by Anne Tyler

Willa has always let life happen to her.

As a child in the late 1960s, her family lives at the mercy of her tempestuous mother, whose mood swings and disappearances leave everyone on edge, wondering which woman will be present each day. In the late 1970s, as she is planning a course of study in college that fascinates her, her boyfriend has other ideas, which include marriage and her moving to California with him.

As a relatively young widow in the late 1990s, she must suddenly try and figure out what is next for her life, considering her husband and children have been the ones to chart her course for as long as she can remember. And 20 years later, still seeking a purpose, she gets a completely unexpected phone call, and without warning, she finds herself heading across the country to take care of a young girl and her mother, two people she had never even met before.

While this decision uproots Willa's life and causes significant turmoil, being depended upon, even relied upon, for the first time in many years, feels tremendously fulfilling. And as she helps this family get back on its feet (literally, in one case), she feels a part of something. She has a purpose, even if it's quite simple. And in the Baltimore community, where neighbors seem to know everything about each other's lives, are willing to help each other, and treat one another like family, Willa becomes her own person.

So many books out there focus on characters in unusual circumstances, or in the midst of major upheaval or adversity. Anne Tyler's books more often than not focus on average, everyday people, living life the way they always have, when something changes. She has the ability to make a "regular" person seem much more fascinating than they might in real life, but perhaps more than that, Tyler is the champion for misanthropes, curmudgeons, and those who dither rather than make decisions.

Tyler has such an ear for dialogue. She can perfectly capture conversations between parent and child (no matter what the relationship is between them), husband and wife, siblings (close or distant), and friends. It's one of the hallmarks of her books—she is an author who truly "gets" people, and realizes characters don't have to stop bullets with their hands or navigate great personal strife to anchor a book. That is one reason her talent has endured through the years.

I'll admit I didn't love Clock Dance as much as I hoped I would. (I tend to anxiously await each new Tyler book.) I felt as if Willa's epiphany took a little too long, and then I felt the ending of the book seemed very abrupt. But the characters, while in many cases reasonably unsympathetic, were still fascinating, and I wish Tyler gave us more of some of the supporting characters.

No matter what, any one of Tyler's books is truly a gift. Her novels are truly a testament to her talent and her fascination with the flawed beings we humans are.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Book Review: "You Me Everything" by Catherine Isaac

What is it about books with pronouns in the title?

Me Before You, Everything I Never Told You, The Geography of You and Me, and now, Catherine Isaac's You Me Everything, all turned me into an emotional wreck when I was reading them. (I know there are countless other books which fit this bill, but these come to mind first.)

"Everyone's future is uncertain. Most of us don't think about the fact that we could be run over by a bus tomorrow. We plod through life, taking everything for granted."

Ever since he showed up late for the birth of their son, smelling of booze and with lipstick on his collar, Jess knew Adam wasn't for her. She should have listened to him when he told her he wasn't ready to be a father, but he had told her he loved her, so she thought that would triumph over everything. But it didn't, and she was fine letting him go, even though the burden of being a single mother wasn't the easiest."

Adam has tried to be a good father to William, but it's never seemed to be his number one priority. And again, that hasn't really upset Jess too much—she, along with her parents, have raised a handsome, well-adjusted boy. But now that William is 10, she's realized that he needs to get to know his father better. Bowing to pressure from her mother, Jess and William are heading to the French countryside to spend the summer with Adam at the hotel he operates in a restored castle.

It doesn't take long for William to become utterly enamored with his father. Adam enjoys having William there with him, but he's still not ready to give up the rest of his life for his son. He has a new, beautiful, younger girlfriend, and he doesn't quite understand that when you make a promise to a 10-year-old, he expects you to keep it—you can't just reschedule in order to spend time with your girlfriend.

Even though Jess still bears some old hurts from her relationship with Adam, she is bound and determined for him and William to grow closer, but she isn't willing to tell anyone why this is so important to her. Jess has a fear she has been hiding from nearly everyone, and she can't tell the truth, for fear she might lose everyone she loves. And as her feelings for Adam grow more jumbled the more time they spend together, she knows she has to keep him at long distance, for everyone's sake.

"When life is tough, as it will be for all of us, you have a duty to yourself. To live without regrets."

You Me Everything is one of those poignant, heartwarming tearjerkers that might not break new ground, but it's tremendously compelling. I read 90 percent of the book yesterday in just a few hours, and woke up early this morning so I could finish. Even though the plot is familiar, I found all of the characters really engaging, so I was very invested in seeing their stories through.

Isaac makes her American debut with this book, and her storytelling is tremendously assured. She does a great job with imagery—you can almost picture the French countryside where the book takes place and experience the adventures that Jess, Adam, and William go on. I was hooked from start to finish.

You won't want this one to end. This will be one of those books you need to grab quickly for the beach, the plane, the hammock, or wherever you want to devour it.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Book Review: "Virgil Wander" by Leif Enger

What a gorgeous, quirky, and utterly charming book! Leif Enger may have made us wait 10 years since his last book, but his newest, Virgil Wander, is definitely worth the wait.

Virgil Wander is the slightly curmudgeonish owner of The Empress, a movie theater in decline in the town of Greenstone, Minnesota—which is also in the midst of its decline. One evening, on a snowy night in early autumn, Virgil's car goes flying off a bridge and into the frigid Lake Superior. Fortunately, the owner of the town's local salvage yard happened to be hunting for saleable wares on the shore when Virgil's car went airborne, so he was able to save Virgil's life.

Amazingly, Virgil comes out of the accident concussed, struggling with finding the correct words (particularly adjectives) and living with the memory lapses typical of those sustaining brain injuries. At the same time, he emerged with a different personality, more endearing, decisive, friendly, caring—qualities which are much appreciated by the motley group of friends and townspeople who live in Greenstone.

"If I were to pinpoint when the world began reorganizing itself—that is, when my seeing of it began to shift—it would be the day a stranger named Rune blew into our bad luck town of Greenstone, Minnesota, like a spark from the boreal gloom."

Into this broken town comes Rune, an affable Norwegian man and kite-creating magician. He came after learning that his last trip to the United States years and years ago led to the birth of a son he never knew about—only to learn that this son, minor league baseball pitcher Alec Sandstrom, had died, in a mysterious plane crash. Alec was a mythical figure in the small town, and his disappearance still affected many, including his widow, Nadine, and their teenage son, Bjorn.

As Rune tries to assemble a portrait of the son he never knew, and perhaps start a relationship with the grandson he didn't know he had, he and Virgil build a close friendship, with each depending on each other. But the gorgeous kites that Rune creates and flies captivate the town's residents, who feel freer, unburdened after taking a turn at the strings.

However, Greenstone has been known as a town of hard luck for many years, and it will continue to live up to its reputation. The town's residents experience tragedies, strange occurrences, and the return of a prodigal son whose presence both enlivens and frightens. And while Greenstone's residents show their characteristic resilience, they also experience moments of extreme joy and connection, all set against the gorgeous, open, Midwestern landscape.

This is a difficult book to describe, but it felt so wonderful, almost like a hug in literary form. The novel meanders a bit, and these characters are definitely Midwestern Quirky, but they are so charming and endearing. At times it almost takes on a fairy-tale quality, but it isn't fantastical or beyond the pale of reality, for the most part.

Virgil Wander is a book about rebuilding your life and finding yourself again, about fighting the battles you need to in order to move on, about friendship, family, love, and the charm of a small town where everyone knows everyone's business. Enger is a magnificent writer, as evidenced by his two earlier books, Peace Like a River and So Brave, Young, and Handsome, and he deserves a place alongside writers such as Kent Haruf.

You won't be able to get this one out of your mind—or your heart.

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

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Book Review: "The Banker's Wife" by Cristina Alger

Despite taking place in 2015, Cristina Alger's newest novel, The Banker's Wife, definitely has a bit of a ripped-from-the-headlines feel to it, without being sensationalist.

One snowy morning at an airport in London, amidst chaos caused by multiple travel delays, a couple quietly boards a private jet bound for Geneva. Not long after, the plane drops off of the radar, and later, wreckage is found in the Alps. Investigators suspect weather-related issues, despite the skill of the pilot.

One of the passengers on the plane was Matthew Werner, a banker for the powerful Swiss United, which houses countless offshore accounts for some of the world's wealthiest—and most notorious. Matthew's young wife, Annabel, didn't even know Matthew was in London, and honestly didn't know much about her husband's clients or the work he did, but she knew that it paid for an opulent lifestyle beyond anything she dreamed of. But she found this life, associating with his rich colleagues, to be lonely—sometimes having it all doesn't really mean having it all.

Devastated at the loss of her husband, she is unprepared for the questions that Matthew's death raises. It seems as if her husband had more secrets than she imagined, and she can't help but wonder just what they had to do with his death? Why does it seem like the investigation into the plane crash is being rushed? The more she begins to look into what her husband left behind, the more she suspects that Matthew's death might not have been an accident, and she might be in danger herself, no matter how little she actually knows.

Meanwhile, journalist Marina Tourneau has the job she's always dreamed of, as a top editor at a society magazine. But now that she's engaged to Grant Ellis, the handsome son of multi-billionaire James Ellis, the financier expected to declare his candidacy for President of the United States, it's time to leave her career behind and concentrate on being part of one of the country's richest and most powerful families. She's ready for all that life entails, but she knows she'll miss the thrill of chasing a story.

When her editor-in-chief and mentor, Duncan Sander, asks for her help on one more story, she can't pass up the chance, especially when she knows it deals with the one case which has obsessed Duncan for years. When Duncan is found dead, Marina realizes she's stepping into dangerous territory, but she knows she needs to uncover the truth for Duncan's sake. And when the truths she uncovers about the secrets that Swiss United is hiding, some of which hit closer to home than she expects, she needs to decide whether the pursuit of truth is worth sacrificing everything—including her own safety.

The Banker's Wife alternates between Marina and Annabel's stories, and the danger both find themselves in as they try to understand the secrets that Swiss United is hiding, and discover just how their lives are linked to it all. Even though some of this story unfolds just as you'd expect it to, Alger still throws in some twists and turns, and keeps the suspense coming.

I'm always a little dubious when companies seem to have people at their disposal whose only purpose is to spy on others and cause trouble, but it didn't bother me too much here. I really enjoyed this book and the way the story unfolded, although Alger spent a little too much time dwelling on the financial details of the plot, which made my eyes glaze over a bit. But again, the flashbacks to my short-lived foray into a college economics class didn't detract from my enjoyment of this story.

I loved Alger's last book, the very different This Was Not the Plan (see my review), but if you read her first book, The Darlings (I haven't), there are definitely some references to that book here. However, this was definitely a standalone book.

If you love compelling thrillers and seeing just how different and dysfunctional (and dangerous) the rich can be, check out The Banker's Wife. You'll be hooked!

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Book Review: "The Real Michael Swann" by Bryan Reardon

One moment, Julia Swann is on the phone with her husband, Michael. He's calling from New York's Penn Station, where he's waiting to catch a train home after a job interview, but the trains are significantly delayed. Without warning, Julia hears a noise in the background and then Michael's call is dropped.

She tries not to worry, but as the hours roll by, she still hasn't heard from Michael, nor can she reach him. That evening she finds out that a major incident occurred at Penn Station which left countless people dead and injured. Julia needs to believe Michael is okay, so she decides to drive into New York City to try and find him herself. Even though the city is in the midst of massive chaos, she is determined to get answers as to where he is, and whether or not he was injured. She, like many others, puts up flyers all over the city, asking for people to get in touch with her if they see Michael.

Julia is pleasantly surprised when a woman calls her and says she may have seen Michael. But that surprise quickly turns to uncertainty and fear. Why hasn't he called her or responded to her texts? Where is he heading? Unable to get answers from the authorities, who suddenly view Michael as something other than a victim, Julia knows she must find her husband and get him whatever help he needs, even if she's not sure what to expect anymore.

Julia's efforts to find Michael are juxtaposed with her reminiscences about their relationship, from their meet-cute at a beach party just after college, to their falling in love and building a future together. She also remembers their struggles, as money problems, job struggles, and the responsibilities which come with raising children took their toll on their marriage. But Julia cannot envision a life without her husband.

"In the end, it seems like the moments we thought we messed up were nothing. And we can't even remember the stuff we really screwed up."

The Real Michael Swann is part thriller, part love story, as Julia desperately searches for her husband and for answers to the questions she is afraid to voice out loud. All of this is played out against a backdrop of national terror, political unrest, and a fractured society, all of which seem eerily too real in today's world.

I enjoyed this book and found it grabbed me from the start, although at times it moved a little slower than I expected. There are some other plot points that I didn't want to mention for fear of spoiling them, so hopefully you don't read too many other detailed reviews which might give some of it away, but suffice it to say there is a third narrative which adds another fascinating dimension to this book.

Let yourself get immersed in this story. Bryan Reardon is a terrific storyteller and he knows when to push the suspense and when to slow it down a little bit so things don't get too intense. Definitely one of those thrillers perfect for devouring on the beach, on a plane, or in a hammock somewhere.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Book Review: "The Great Believers" by Rebecca Makkai

At the start of The Great Believers, Rebecca Makkai's beautifully poignant yet meandering new novel, it is 1985, and Yale Tishman and his partner, Charlie, are preparing for the memorial service for Nico, a friend who has recently died of AIDS.

The gay community in Chicago where they live has been devastated by this recently discovered disease, as have gay communities across the country. The sense of loss they feel is just beginning to hit them, as they begin hearing more and more about people getting sick, more people living in denial and fear, more people simply disappearing.

As much as the disease and people's attitudes towards it affect him, Yale has other things to focus on. As the development director for a university art gallery, he stumbles on an unexpected windfall: an elderly woman wants to bequeath her collection of 1920s artwork to the gallery. But uncertainty about the artwork's authenticity and familial outrage at the potential value of a gift that could be given to strangers causes Yale and his colleagues more stress than anticipated, at a time when emotions are running high in his relationship with Charlie as well.

With the disease circling ever closer, Yale finds his life changing in many ways, and he begins relying more and more on Fiona, his friend Nico's younger sister. Fiona is wise beyond her years, and finds herself acting as a companion of sorts, and ultimately, power of attorney, for many of her late brother's friends. It's a role that impacts her greatly.

"'The thing is, the disease itself feels like a judgment. We've all got a little Jesse Helms on our shoulder, right? If you got it from sleeping with a thousand guys, then it's a judgment on your promiscuity. If you got it from sleeping with one guy once, that's almost worse, it's like a judgment on all of us, like the act itself is the problem and not the number of times you did it. And if you got it because you thought you couldn't, it's a judgment on your hubris.'"

In a parallel storyline which takes place 30 years later, Fiona has traveled to Paris to try and find her estranged daughter, who had fled the U.S. after joining a cult. Fiona's relationship with her daughter has always been difficult, but she hopes to make peace with Claire. She stays with an old friend from Chicago, Richard Campo, a photographer who made his name in the 1980s taking pictures of those in the community affected by AIDS, many of whom were his friends and former lovers.

Surrounded by memories both photographic and anecdotal, Fiona is haunted by the ghosts of her friends. She comes to realize how much she sacrificed caring for and loving these men, sacrifices which affected her marriage, her relationship with her daughter, and her life. But given the chance, would she do it over again, or would she put herself and her own life first?

Parts of this book were tremendously moving and poignant, reminding me both of the movie Longtime Companion and, at times, Tim Murphy's gorgeous novel, Christodora (see my review), although this is very different. Makkai did a phenomenal job capturing the emotions, the fears, the culture, and the challenges of those infected with AIDS in the early days of the disease.

I enjoyed Fiona's character and her journey, but I could have done without her protracted search for her daughter and her interaction with another random character, although I like the way her modern-day storyline intertwined with Yale's. And while I loved Yale's character and could have read a book about him alone, I'll admit I could have done without the whole art thing, although it did set other plot points into motion.

I was fortunate to come of age after AIDS had been discovered so I understood the risks and methods of prevention much better than those who came before me. But that doesn't mean that life in the late 1980s and early 1990s weren't without fear and ignorance and prejudice toward those with the disease.

Makkai is a tremendously talented writer, and I've read a few of her previous books. While this book frustrated me at times, I still really found it compelling and emotional, and feel like Makkai did an excellent job examining a bleak time in the LGBT community.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Book Review: "The Book of Essie" by Meghan MacLean Weir

Praise the lord!!

How quick we are to judge people, even if (or especially) when we don't know them. This is even more the case where celebrities are concerned—we think we know the people we see on television or read about in magazines, yet quite often they're far more complex, and their lives are more complicated than we could ever imagine.

Esther "Essie" Hicks has spent nearly every minute of her life in the public eye. Her family has been a reality show staple with Six for Hicks long before her birth. The world has been both fascinated and repelled by her mega-church preacher father, her iron-willed mother who pulls all of the strings, and her siblings, as they've grown into adulthood and lives of faith and service all their own.

"Our family rejected materialism and popular culture and yet we also produced it. The show...paid for the SUVs Mother and Daddy drove, the lake house, the 'spiritual retreat' that was actually a villa in Saint John. It paid for the car seat I rode home in from the hospital, the muslin blankets I was swaddled in when I slept. It paid for my first backpack when it came time for me to go to school, Mother having by then completely abandoned giving lessons in the living room, not just because her time and energy were better spent promoting our brand but also because marketing said that what our audience wanted at that point was a character who was 'normal.'"

When Essie's mother Celia discovers she is pregnant, she and the show's producers must decide what to do. Do they spirit Essie out of the country for an abortion? Do they hide Essie away and then pretend that Celia has given birth to a miracle baby so late in life? Or better yet, do they marry her off, thus reaping the incredible publicity which could accompany a whirlwind romance and storybook wedding?

Celia doesn't realize that Essie is manipulating the situation, pairing herself off with a fellow classmate, Roarke Richards, despite the two of them never having spoken to one another. Roarke has his own secrets, but he is willing to help Essie sell their love story to the world. But once he finds himself part of the story, he realizes that there is far more to Essie than he ever believed, and she is not the judgmental, flighty sycophant he imagined she was.

With the help of reporter Liberty Bell, once immersed in her own media spotlight in the world of ultra-conservative religion, Essie hopes to make her true story known once and for all. But in the meantime, she wants to know why her older sister left home a few years ago, never to return, and wonders whether she'll be willing to help her. However, Essie and Roarke have to be willing to pay a tremendously high price if they share the truth with the world. Are they?

A meditation on the cult of celebrity and the hypocrisies they bring along, The Book of Essie was pretty fantastic. I was hooked from start to finish, even though I had a feeling how much of the plot might unfold. We've seen people like these characters in the media, or perhaps we even know people in similar situations without the glare of the public eye, and yet the story was utterly fascinating.

Certainly a story like this favors one "side" over another, but I liked the way that Meghan MacLean Weir didn't quite make Essie's family and others to be one-dimensional religious zealots. She certainly captured the fervor that conservative celebrities engender, and the issues they use to generate passion among their believers, but she didn't mock everyone with strong religious beliefs. She's a really talented storyteller, and she made you root for Essie and Roarke (and Liberty, too, to some extent).

In a world where everyone is just one or two viral videos away from temporary fame, The Book of Essie is a compelling, well-told look at how fame can be both a positive tool and a dangerous weapon, because of the way it can convince you that your version of reality is the right one. If you've ever wondered how a religious family might handle a scandal or two, this one's for you.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Book Review: "Jar of Hearts" by Jennifer Hillier


That's the feeling I get when a book that everyone else has been raving about turns out to be as amazing as you hoped. In this case, believe the hype—Jennifer Hillier's Jar of Hearts is pretty fantastic!!

"The past is always with you, whether you choose to think about it or not, whether you take responsibility for it or not. You carry the past with you because it transforms you. You can try to bury it and pretend it never happened, but that doesn't work. Geo knows that from experience. Because buried things can, and do, come back."

Georgina Shaw and her two best friends, Angela Wong and Kaiser Brody, were pretty much inseparable in high school. But one night everything changed. Angela went missing one night after a party, and Geo and Kaiser's friendship was never the same. No one knew, or even suspected, the secret that was weighing her down. Who could imagine that she could have anything to do with Angela's disappearance?

Fourteen years later, Geo is an executive on the fast track at a pharmaceutical company in Seattle, engaged to the firm's CEO. She's poised to have it all, and then Angela's remains are found buried in the woods not far from where Geo grew up. The Seattle police department, where Kaiser now works as a detective, has discovered that Angela was an early victim of Calvin James, a serial killer responsible for at least three other murders, who has been dubbed the Sweetbay Strangler.

While the police view Calvin as a cold-blooded killer, he was Geo's first boyfriend when she was in high school. A few years older than she was, Calvin was sexy, volatile, and controlling, and while their relationship was far from perfect given his temper, she couldn't get enough of him, and he was just as obsessed with her. But the night Angela died, everything changed.

Geo carried the secret of what really happened to Angela for 14 years, and when it is finally exposed, and she winds up in prison, her carefully planned life is turned upside down. But as she takes the punishment she deserves, she—and her hometown—are once again shattered by the discovery of more murders, similar to those of the Sweetbay Strangler. It is only then that Geo realizes just how dangerous secrets and lies can be.

I tried to be really careful with my plot description, because Hillier lets her plot unfold slowly, teasing out details, and she had me hooked on this book from start to finish. Geo is a fascinating character, and I kept hoping there would be reasons to continue rooting for her. I also loved Kaiser's character, and really loved the dynamics of the two of them interacting after so long apart.

I wasn't completely surprised by the plot, but I still loved this book. Hillier did a great job with keeping the story moving and not getting too bogged down in reminiscences, since so much of the plot was driven by modern-day events. This is a terrific thriller, full of suspense as well as the realization that what happens in your youth can never be put completely behind you.

Grab this one before they turn it into a movie or television miniseries!!

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Book Review: "The Silliest Stories Out of Bustleburg" by Jimmy Misfit

Many cities get a deservedly bad rap, but none are quite like Bustleburg, a city in rapid decline. Major chemical companies, processing plants, refineries, and waste treatment localities are poisoning the city, creating a so-called "Death Garden." The Yuckamud River has caught fire countless times, and the city's skyline has been voted ugliest skyline every year for the last 20.

But it's not just the environmental conditions in Bustleburg that make it "America's Worst City." The city implemented a caste system similar to India, "so they changed it to where four quadrants were laborers and one quadrant simply got to be top dogs no matter what." (No one who doesn't belong in Burnsvale is allowed to go there.) Libraries and trees are forbidden (well, trees are allowed as long as they stay put in the Municipal Tree Sanctuary), and caffeine, chocolate, and most music is sort of illegal. (Plus, it's very hard for a restaurant to get an oven since they're a fire hazard, but restaurants are doing wonders these days with microwaves, and cold fusion bistros are all the rage.)

Jimmy Misfit's unique, zany collection of stories about this dying metropolis are full of people who find themselves in crazy situations when they run up against Bustleburg's rules and notorious citizens. From the eager employee of the Bustleburg Environmental Lobby who finds his tour to attract new employees hijacked by the local crime family to the young girl who learns about preferential treatment when she has to capitulate to the town's corrupt mayor, from the man excited about his job at I Can't Believe It's Tofu only to be paired up with a new employee with ulterior motives to the striking firemen, Misfit's stories are full of humor, creativity, and turns of phrase sure to make you guffaw.

While these stories certainly are caricatures, Misfit imbues them with heart, as well. Not all of his characters are buffoons or villains—some are simply trying to make their way against the tide, which just happens to be the entire city of Bustleburg. This is definitely one of those books that can provide a total change of pace, the perfect antidote to too much melodrama, murder, or domestic angst. Misfit definitely gets points for creativity here, as he essentially built a whole town full of characters, foibles, and situations!!

Give this one a try when you're looking for a good chuckle.

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

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Book Review: "Tell Me Lies" by Carola Lovering

Sometimes we can't help loving a person who is utterly wrong for us. It's not that we might not have anything in common, or we come from different backgrounds—it's when we love a person despite the fact that they treat us horribly, and yet we keep coming back, pretending this time everything is going to be different.

Lucy is a freshman at Baird College, a small school in California. She's so happy to leave her stifling Long Island home behind, full of preppy social climbers and those with no ambition except to marry each other, have preppy babies, and hang out at the country club. She wants more out of life than that—she wants to be a travel writer and see the world.

When she meets upperclassman Stephen DeMarco at a party she isn't impressed. He's intriguing, perhaps slightly attractive, but she just doesn't feel into him. Even though he tries to ask her out occasionally, she's just not interested in starting anything with someone for whom she doesn't feel anything.

Most men would walk away; Stephen sees Lucy's disinterest as a challenge. Little by little, he pursues a campaign to win her, using tried-and-true techniques which have worked on numerous girls and women through his life. He makes Lucy believe she is worth pursuing, makes her believe that she is beautiful and he wants her more than anything else. It changes something in Lucy, although it puts a tremendous amount of pressure on her to maintain what she believes Stephen wants and sees.

"People always say that you can't have your cake and eat it, too, but you can. I know what girls in Lucy's position want to hear, and I can provide that. More flattery doesn't make the girl feel better, just addicted, and then you've hooked her because she continues to be hungry for that certain category of feedback."

It's not too long before Lucy and Stephen start an intense, on-again, off-again relationship that spans Lucy's entire education at Baird, as well as after she returns to New York following graduation. Her relationship with Stephen consumes her—she's either thinking of him, wondering what he is doing when he's not with her, or making herself sick that she's not with him. It exposes her every vulnerability and puts her other relationships and her education in jeopardy.

Both Lucy and Stephen have secrets they hide from one another. And as Lucy tries, over and over, to regain control of her life, she can't resist her feelings for Stephen, and she knows that if everything was perfect, he'd feel the same. Is she wrong to keep pinning her hopes on someone who keeps disappointing her? Will it ever be different?

"What was I doing? Why was I still chasing him? Did I even like him as a person? How could I ever bank on a future with someone I couldn't trust? There was that one stubborn, annoyingly veracious part of me that knew wanting Stephen had to be wrong. If you ignored the gray and got really honest, if everything in the world was separated into black and white, into good and bad, Stephen would fall into bad."

Narrated in alternating chapters by Lucy and Stephen, Tell Me Lies is a compulsively readable, soapy, and fascinating look at both sides of a relationship. You see the unvarnished, unlikable truths about both characters, their vulnerabilities and foibles, and what they'd like to portray to the other. And as each feels that pull from time to time, you see how a relationship—whether or not it's love—can be all-consuming.

I couldn't get enough of this book, even though the characters are pretty unsympathetic. Carola Lovering does a fantastic job of drawing you in to this push-and-pull, this obsession of sorts between the two characters. You almost want to look away at times when the characters' vulnerabilities are so exposed, and you also may look back on your own life and wonder which of the characters' behaviors you might have emulated at one time or another.

At times, this is a pretty brutal book, and the relationship and the periods between encounters dragged on a little more than I would have liked, but I couldn't stop reading. I was glad that Lovering didn't go for full melodrama with one plot point, and I was glad another major issue was settled before the book ended. While it's not quite the sunny beach book you might want, it's definitely an addictive read you'll devour.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Book Review: "Calypso" by David Sedaris

For me, reading David Sedaris' books is like hanging out with that slightly strange friend—you may think you're crazy, but at least there's someone crazier than you out there!

I've been reading Sedaris' books on and off for a number of years, since his first collection, Barrel Fever, in 1994. In addition to helping bolster my self-esteem, he's always good for a fair amount of chuckling, giggling, and all-out belly laughing, not to mention his unique ability to highlight some of life's frustrating, mystifying, and joy-inducing foibles. Plus, every now and again he simply makes me gasp at his observations.

Calypso, his newest collection, certainly is chock-full of laughs, and there's a good supply of slightly gross observations about bodily functions and other physical issues. But I wasn't prepared for how emotionally rich this collection would be—on a number of occasions I found myself getting a little choked up as Sedaris pondered growing older, the aging and death of family members, the legalization of same-sex marriage and what it meant for his relationship with his boyfriend, even the mood of the country following the 2016 presidential election.

It's funny—in one story Sedaris talks about his mother-in-law, and how she "likes to interrupt either to accuse you of exaggerating—'Oh, now, that's not true'—or to defend the person you're talking about, someone, most often, she has never met." Some of his observations are so outlandish that I'll admit occasionally thinking like his mother-in-law, saying to myself, "That can't be true." Regardless of whether it is or not, Sedaris had me latching on to his every word.

I'm not a Puritan by any means, but I'll admit there were a few stories that were a little heavy on bodily functions and feeding things to animals (read the book and you'll know what I'm referring to). However, so much of this book was terrific, beautifully written, funny, wry, sarcastic, and even poignant. In many of the stories (as is often the case), Sedaris spoke of his family and his relationship with his father, which continues to confound him, even as his father moves into his 90s.

"Honestly, though, does choice even come into it? Is it my fault that the good times fade to nothing while the bad ones burn forever bright? Memory aside, the negative just makes for a better story: the plane was delayed, an infection set in, outlaws arrived and reduced the schoolhouse to ashes. Happiness is harder to put into words. It's also harder to source, much more mysterious than anger or sorrow, which come to me promptly, whenever I summon them, and remain long after I've begged them to leave."

Calypso is a pretty terrific book, further testament to Sedaris' skill as a storyteller, a social commentator, and an observer of this crazy world we live in. His writing is great for some laughs (don't be shocked if you laugh out loud a time or two, so if you're self-conscious, don't read this in public), and this book is good for a few tears as well!

Monday, June 11, 2018

Book Review: "Southernmost" by Silas House

"'Sometimes we laugh and sometimes we cry and as long as we're alive, we can deal with everything else. You know?'"

Shortly after the Supreme Court legalizes same-sex marriage, a flood ravages preacher Asher Sharp's small Tennessee town, leaving many in his congregation homeless or with significant property damage. In the wake of the flood, Asher offers shelter to a gay couple, and they begin to visit his church, which roils his congregation to no end, as many believe the flood was caused by the Supreme Court's decision.

Asher's simple act of kindness emphasizes the cracks in his marriage to Lydia, devout and unyielding in her religious beliefs. But for the first time in a long time, Asher realizes that it is not his job to judge, it is his job to offer kindness, shelter, tolerance. These are qualities he didn't offer his own older brother, Luke, when he admitted his homosexuality—Asher turned his back on his brother and Luke left town, never to return again, although he has sent a few cryptic postcards through the years. This time, Asher is determined not to make the same mistakes by letting hate in his heart.

After delivering an emotional sermon preaching tolerance, Asher's congregation votes to remove him from his job. Lydia files for divorce as well as full custody of their nine-year-old son, Justin. Although his faith that he made the right decision is stronger than ever, he cannot face the idea of only seeing his son on occasional weekends and vacations, but he is unwilling to say he was wrong to call for tolerance and acceptance of all people.

With nowhere to turn, Asher takes Justin late one night and the two flee to Key West, where Luke's postcards were sent from. Asher hopes to reunite with his brother after all these years, and perhaps find peace at the same time. But a journey made in fear of being captured is an exhausting one, and Justin vacillates between wanting to be with Asher and wanting to return home to his mother and grandmother. He doesn't understand why all of the adults in his life can't simply agree with one another so that life could return to normal.

In Key West, Asher and Justin find their place in the colorful community, and learn powerful lessons about faith, trust, belief, forgiveness, and the redemptive power of love. But Asher knows in his heart that this happiness must be fleeting, for if he is to teach his son anything beyond not allowing hate in his heart, he must do the right thing and return to Tennessee with Justin.

Is love enough to overcome life's problems, to turn people away from hatred? How do we reconcile the beliefs we've been taught with the way life changes? How do we allow ourselves to let our guard down when we've experienced hurt and prejudice? In his exquisite and emotional new book, Southernmost, Silas House strives to answer those questions.

I thought this was a beautifully written, poignant book, one which really made me think. It's not an unfamiliar story, particularly in these turbulent times where the law says one thing but some people's beliefs cause them to act differently, but it still touches the heart. House's prose is lyrical and his imagery is evocative, and he gives both Asher and Justin distinctive and memorable voices to tell the story.

I wasn't sure what to expect with this book, but I found it completely compelling and a very fast read. I have often wondered how members of the clergy deal with reconciling what they've been taught, the words they live by, with the world they live in, and Southernmost captures that struggle, as well as the struggle to belong, to be understood, and to be loved and accepted for who you are, not judged for whom you love.

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

Book Review: "Limelight" by Amy Poeppel

If you're looking for an enjoyable read with a lot of heart, Amy Poeppel's Limelight may be the book for you.

Allison Brinkley has her hands full. She's been the most vocal proponent of moving her family from their suburban Dallas home to the wilds of New York City when her husband is offered a new position within his company.

She can't wait to live in a brownstone, enjoy the beauty of Central Park, and spend time with one of her best friends, who has been trying to get her to come to New York for years. She already has a teaching job lined up, too, so she's completely set.

But then reality sets in. She discovers they can't afford a brownstone (more like an apartment in a high-rise building), her friend is escaping to the New Jersey suburbs, and her job has fallen through. All that, and her older daughter is barely speaking to her, her younger daughter is doing poorly in school, and she's already been called into school by her son's principal because of inappropriate behavior. Was moving the right decision?

Ever the optimist, Allison still tries to rally her family—not to mention herself—around the excitement of New York. But when another career opportunity falls through, she starts to despair. Then opportunity comes her way in the most inauspicious of circumstances, when she has a fender-bender with a BMW in front of her son's school—while the "popular mom crowd" watches.

Her accident leads her to a luxury penthouse on Central Park West, where she encounters a foul-mouthed, hungover, spoiled teenager—who happens to be Carter Reid, a famous pop singer and teen heartthrob who seems to be taking a turn down the path of rebellion, spewing curses (and vomit), throwing punches, and causing trouble wherever he goes.

Carter is in New York City, abandoned by those who were working for him, in order to star in Limelight, a Broadway musical adaptation of the famous Charlie Chaplin film. The thing is, though, Carter doesn't want to do the musical and wants to fly home to Los Angeles. He doesn't care that he signed a contract, or what the implications are for his career or his fortune.

Amidst the wreck that Carter is making of his life and his career, Allison finds an opportunity to regain her self-worth, find a purpose, and perhaps finally fall in love with the city that never sleeps—plus she might even get her kids to talk to her again. But it's going to require a lot of patience, marshaling her teaching skills, and buying a lot of cell phones!

This was a really fun read. Even if the story is utterly improbable, it charms you from start to finish. It's a bit of a love note to New York City, a paean of sorts to the power of positive thinking and encouragement, and a look at how if you take the bull by the horns, you can achieve success in the strangest of ways.

I enjoyed Poeppel's last book, Small Admissions (see my review), and I felt the same way about this book as well. Allison is a sweet yet persistent character who is determined not to give up, and although many of the other characters have their faults, I still found myself utterly engaged by the story. (It's probably about 50-75 pages longer than it needs to be, though—Carter's shtick grew thin fairly quickly.)

Poeppel threw in lots of nuggets about Broadway, celebrity gossip, and New York City living along with the plot. This is definitely one of those books that are perfect to relax with on a rainy day, and enjoy the lighthearted story. I'll definitely read whatever Poeppel writes next—and I'm even thinking about checking out the Charlie Chaplin movie, too!

Friday, June 8, 2018

Book Review: "Still Lives" by Maria Hummel

The Rocque Museum was one of Los Angeles' hidden treasures—an art museum for art lovers and collectors more than for tourists. While this set the institution apart, this also took a toll on its finances. Everyone is desperate for a hit exhibition, including the founder's daughter, who is tired of bailing out the museum and the director, who is worried about job security.

They think they've found it in Still Lives, an exhibition by artist and provocateur Kim Lord. Lord painted self-portraits with her standing in for famous murder victims such as Nicole Brown Simpson, Kitty Genovese, Chandra Levy, and the Black Dahlia, in an effort to make a statement about how society and the media sensationalize violence against women. The pictures are chilling, eerie, and disturbing, and the elite of the art world are gathering at the Rocque to see the exhibition unveiled.

There's one issue though: Kim Lord doesn't show up for her own opening. Key museum staff receive texts that she'll be delayed a bit, but she never appears. And while her disappearance is helping boost the number of visitors, the longer she doesn't surface, the more concern grows, especially when some staff recount Lord's mentioning she felt she was being stalked in the museum.

Maggie Richter, a member of the museum's communications and PR office, wants to understand what happened to Kim, too, and it's not just because that would make her job easier. Maggie's ex-boyfriend, gallerist-on-the-rise Greg Shaw Ferguson, essentially dumped her for Kim, and it's not long before he stands accused of Kim's disappearance. Maggie wants to believe that the Greg she knew wouldn't be capable of anything nefarious, but she knows there are things he isn't telling her.

As Maggie searches for clues within Kim's own work, she begins to notice there is a lot more behind-the-scenes drama at the museum than she realized. Little by little, she starts to suspect others might have been responsible for Kim's disappearance, but she can't seem to make sense of their motivation. At the same time, she, too, becomes a suspect, given Kim's relationship with Shaw, but Maggie isn't sure what might happen—will she stand accused of a crime, or will she fall prey to the real perpetrator, who is determined to stop her progress?

"Find the who. Who gets hurt. Who gains. Whose life will never be the same."

This book is a fascinating look at the art world, the rise and fall of artists, the struggles of museums, and how collectors can change the flow of careers. At the same time, it's also a bit of a whodunit, one of those books in which an average, everyday person finds themselves immersed in trying to solve a crime despite having no real skills at doing so, and despite the fact they're putting themselves in danger.

The information that Maria Hummel provides gives a lot of insight into the former, and I like the way she describes the dynamics of the museum staff and the goings-on around the mounting of an exhibition. But as the book shifts full-time toward Maggie trying to figure out what happened to Kim and who was responsible, it loses its footing a bit. There is so much extraneous information thrown into the plot that I can't figure out what were supposed to be red herrings and what were just unresolved threads of the plot.

I like the way Hummel writes—this book has a breezy style, and the characters, while somewhat irritating, definitely got me invested in the story. While I enjoyed the book, I just wish the mystery part was executed a little cleaner, because it really had a lot of potential.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Book Review: "Find You in the Dark" by Nathan Ripley

I had this feeling of pervasive dread while reading Nathan Ripley's Find You in the Dark, kind of like watching a horror movie. I wasn't exactly sure what would happen but the tone of the book was so creepy that I kept reading while waiting for something bad to occur.

Martin Reese is a technology executive who was able to retire very early in order to spend more time with his wife and teenage daughter. But he fills his days in a very unusual way—using police files on serial killers that he buys illicitly, he finds long-buried bodies of their victims and unearths them. Then he calls the police anonymously and lets them know where they can find the bodies, although not without taunting them a little.

He doesn't do this for the glory or for some kind of weird or sexual urge. He does this simply to help the families who have spent years, perhaps even decades, without being able to put their loved ones to rest to get some closure. The only souvenirs he takes from his "digs" are photos, photos which he includes in a computer scrapbook that gets locked away.

One police detective doesn't see Martin's "work" as magnanimous; she thinks that if he's digging up these bodies there must be something else wrong with him. Will he soon lead them to bodies he murdered and buried on his own? She wants to apprehend this individual she has dubbed "The Finder" before he gives them something inexplicable to find.

And that's not the only attention Martin is getting. When he buys the file of infamous serial killer Jason Shurn, whom he believes might have abducted and murdered his wife's sister nearly 20 years ago, and he locates a body, he finds a recently murdered corpse in the same gravesite. It turns out that Martin may be uncovering someone else's kills as well—and they're not too happy about it. How far will they go to get him to stop?

While comparisons to Dexter are inevitable, Find You in the Dark is totally different. It does have a dark, creepy tone, and while it has a similar feel to many other thrillers out there, it definitely has a somewhat unique concept. Ripley knows how to ratchet up the suspense, and even though in the end things turned out a little more predictably than I expected, I definitely wondered where he would take the plot.

I thought this was a good read, although the pacing moved a little slower than many other thrillers. This isn't a book that will leave you breathless, but it definitely will leave you wondering what happens next.

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

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Book Review: "The Last Cruise" by Kate Christensen

Some people love cruises with absolute passion. They can think of no greater vacation than sailing the seas, enjoying all of the creature comforts of the ship (including endless parades of food), and exploring the different ports of call. I have many friends and family members who would take a cruise as often as possible if cost and time were not an issue.

I've never been on a cruise, and to be honest, I've stayed away because of all of the horror stories I've seen in the media—the loss of power and water, the fires, the tipping over, the massively contagious viruses that spread among passengers and crew, and pirates. I know these things don't happen often (although some seem to happen more frequently), but I don't know if I like people enough to be stuck with them in the middle of the ocean.

While Kate Christensen's The Last Cruise isn't going to spur crowds of people to immediately book a cruise, it's more than a litany of things that could go wrong at sea.

The Queen Isabella is a vintage ocean liner from the 1950s which is going to make one more voyage, from Long Beach, California to Hawaii, before it is retired from service and sent to the salvage yard. The cruise ship company has decided to make this trip a nostalgic one—passengers will enjoy "old-fashioned" food like Steak Diane and Baked Alaska, as well as classic cocktails and vintage music. Oh, and there won't be wi-fi on the cruise, either.

The cruise couldn't have come at a better time for Christine Thorne. She left her farm home (and her farmer husband) back in Maine to meet her old friend for a vacation. Christine hopes to settle her mind while on the cruise, and determine whether the life that drew her away from New York City and a potential career in journalism years ago is still what she wants, or if she needs to start anew.

Miriam Koslow is an Israeli violinist who, along with her ex-husband, is part of a long-standing quartet which plays on many of the cruises run by the company. The owners of the ship are also the benefactors of the quartet. This last cruise leads Miriam to contemplation of her own mortality and that of her fellow musicians, and leads her to realize she needs to seize what she wants for the rest of her life, no matter the consequences.

Mick Szabo, one of the executive sous-chefs, is only on the cruise because he's filling in at the last minute for someone else. Working for a temperamental, well-known chef puts him on edge, but his skills are top-notch, and he's determined to prove himself worthy of a career beyond cooking on cruise ships. He's unprepared, however, for how tensions among the crew will affect the job he has to do.

Suddenly, everything changes, and the passengers and crew of the Queen Isabella find themselves facing more than where they'll sunbathe that day, what outfit they'll wear to dinner, or how to deal with the insubordination of an employee. They'll have to deal with issues of health and safety, whether there will be enough food and water, and what to do in case a storm comes their way. These crises will test everyone's mettle, bring long-hidden issues to the forefront, and put people in situations they weren't prepared to face.

Much of what occurs in The Last Cruise is unsurprising, and you can see it coming nearly from the beginning of the book. But Christensen still draws you into the story, and creates tremendously evocative images so you can almost smell and taste the food, hear the music, and see the nostalgic glamour around you. Not all of the characters are likable, but you become invested in their stories, and you wonder what will happen to them.

While the events that occur in the book aren't far-fetched if you've seen any news stories about cruise ships, but I felt like there was just too much happening, one thing after another. It almost became too melodramatic—there was a brief moment where I was expecting locusts or frogs to come next. I also thought the villains in the book were too much of a caricature—I would have liked something more than the greedy, insensitive tycoon.

Even with the things I didn't like, I still found The Last Cruise to be a good story. I wouldn't recommend you bring it with you on a cruise ship, however!

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

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Book Review: "The Stranger Game" by Peter Gadol

You're in a public place and a person or group of people catches your eye. It may be the way they look, their actions, things they're saying, but you just can't stop yourself from surreptitiously watching them. You don't want to get caught, but you can't look away, and you (and perhaps even a companion) imagine who these people are and what they're doing. When they get up, or leave the area where you've been watching them, you may even be (more than) slightly interested in following them, but you know it's too risky, or even foolish.

Take this at least one step further and you have the crux of Peter Gadol's enigmatic new novel, The Stranger Game.

After a few weeks with no contact, Rebecca comes to the realization that her on-again, off-again boyfriend Ezra has disappeared. She can't figure out where he would have gone without any warning, even though their relationship was in one of its odd periods. But he left without giving notice to his job or paying his rent, so she starts to wonder whether something has happened to him.

When she reports his disappearance to the police, they don't seem concerned in the slightest. They suspect Ezra is off playing "the stranger game," a cultural phenomenon which seems to have gripped society. In the game people choose someone to follow (unbeknownst to them), and while the initial objective of the game was to get as close as possible and follow for as long as possible without getting caught, it seems the game has transformed, becoming more complicated and, in some cases, sinister.

In order to see just what type of craze has affected Ezra, Rebecca tries the game. She is almost immediately sucked in, and it starts to affect other aspects of her life. At times she even has trouble distinguishing between who is playing and who is not. She meets Carey, a handsome and mysterious man who awakens her emotions, which have been hidden away for so long. But Carey also draws her further and further into the game, and she doesn't know whom to trust—or where she is safe.

"And then I wondered how many kinds of games people played with strangers every hour every day. We were, each of us, isolated creatures who ached for proximity, for intimacy with others, but who also out of primal self-preservation insisted on and maintained a safe distance. These stranger games we invented shuttled us somewhere halfway between stations of affinity and detachment, but more often than not we ended up at the latter destination. It was a miracle anyone ever connected with anyone. Most of the time we were cast back into our own longing."

To borrow a phrase from Winston Churchill, The Stranger Game is, "a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma." I love the basis on which Gadol built his novel, as I am one of those people who is fascinated by people-watching and wondering about the dynamics between groups I see in public. However, I felt that as the book progressed, the twists became more and more confusing until I, like Rebecca, wasn't sure what was real and what was artifice, part of the game. And while I'm okay with suspending disbelief when I read, I just found the whole premise a little unlikely.

Gadol has always been one of my favorite writers. His earlier books—The Mystery Roast, Closer to the Sun, The Long Rain, Light at Dusk, Coyote, and Silver Lake were all really fantastic, and he is one of those authors for whom I've waited a long time for a new book. As always, his use of language and imagery, and his ability to evoke emotions and connections is superlative. I just wish I liked this book more—despite the interesting concept, it just didn't gel for me.

Looking forward to the next one, however!

NetGalley, HARLEQUIN — Trade Publishing, and Hanover Square Press provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Book Review: "If You See Me, Don't Say Hi" by Neel Patel

With his debut story collection, If You See Me, Don't Say Hi, Neel Patel serves notice that he is a talent to be reckoned with. The 11 stories in this collection are packed with emotion and turn people's perceptions and stereotypes of most Indian Americans on their ear.

Some of the characters in these stories follow traditional paths, while others are anything but traditional—they're Facebook-stalking exes or creating schemes to facilitate booty calls. But in each of these stories, the characters face moments of truth, and often need to make a split-second decision which could have significant ramifications. These dilemmas give the stories extra weight, and make them compulsively readable. I read this entire book in one day.

I really enjoyed all of the stories in this collection, but my favorite stories included: "Just a Friend," in which a young gay man wants to know the secrets his older, married boyfriend has been hiding—but doesn't quite expect what he finds out; "God of Destruction," which tells of a woman enchanted by the wi-fi repairman; "Hare Rama, Hare Krishna," which juxtaposes a teenager's navigating his parents' marital troubles with his acknowledgment of his own sexuality, and all of the good and bad that comes with that; and the title story, which follows the tumultuous relationship of two brothers, from the teenage years through adulthood.

The last two stories in the collection, "World Famous" and "Radha, Krishna," are connected, and are the two I loved best. The stories follow a young man and a young woman who were thrown together as children but went their separate ways, and then reconnected in adulthood, only to find that both had been more scarred by their lives then they'd care to admit. These stories were poignant and thought-provoking, so different than I expected, and I could have read a novel with these two characters. (That is the case with some of the other stories, too.)

Patel imbues his stories with humor, emotion, sexuality, empathy, even surprise at times. He creates some characters you will root for and feel for, and others you might dislike, or not quite understand. There is a warmth to his writing, but he doesn't put his characters on a pedestal—he lets you see them the way others see them.

I thought this was an excellent story collection, and definitely heralds Patel as someone I am going to follow in the future. I know not everyone is a short story fan, but these are stories with some emotional heft, so they feel worth the investment of your time.

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

Monday, May 28, 2018

Book Review: "Don't Believe It" by Charlie Donlea


Looking for your next beach read? I think I've found it for you: Charlie Donlea's Don't Believe It. A unique storytelling style, full of twists and turns and surprises, this one will keep even the most jaded of thriller readers guessing at least a little bit.

Ten years ago, medical student Grace Sebold and her boyfriend Julian Crist were in St. Lucia, celebrating the wedding of two of Grace's closest friends. After being apart for most of their relationship, Grace and Julian were finally going to be in the same place, as they were both matched to the same residency program. But one night, Julian was murdered, and Grace was the prime suspect.

There was both physical and circumstantial evidence pointing to Grace as Julian's murderer, and it didn't take long for a jury in St. Lucia to convict her. Grace has spent 10 years in jail, pursuing every avenue to get the verdict overturned, all to no avail. But then her pleas pique the curiosity of Sidney Ryan, an up-and-coming documentary filmmaker whose previous work helped exonerate three criminals.

Even though Sidney remembered watching Grace's trial as it unfolded in the media and there seemed to be a preponderance of evidence, she feels there's more to Grace's pleas of innocence than simply wanting out of jail. The documentary she begins producing, The Girl of Sugar Beach, promises to explore the murder from all angles, and within a few weeks, after some eye-opening discoveries, it becomes the most watched documentary in television history.

Every week, the world is held in thrall by the documentary. As Sidney starts uncovering mishandled evidence, additional suspects, and what amounted to a conspiracy to convict Grace quickly all those years ago, she also finds some anomalies she can't quite explain. While the success of The Girl of Sugar Beach will allow Sidney to dictate the path of her career, she has to make a crucial decision: does she pursue ratings, or the truth? Will pursuing the former obscure the latter, and could it result in Julian's killer going (or continuing to go) free?

You can get more of a plot synopsis on Goodreads, Amazon, and other sites, but I'm going to stop now. I went into Don't Believe It almost completely blind to what the book was about, and I feel that was a pretty terrific decision.

This book grabbed me from the very first page. I had suspicions about would happen (I'm one of those thriller readers who suspects every character in a book), but Donlea kept flipping the script little by little, so I wasn't sure exactly what to expect. Even as new characters were being introduced, I wondered what the outcome would be, and while I don't know that I was completely satisfied, I like the premise that was hinted at.

I have never read any of Donlea's previous books, so I was really impressed with his storytelling. He took you into to the production of the documentary, and you watched information unfold as Sidney and her crew did. The narration shifted between the past and the present, between a few different characters—sometimes you're not even sure who is narrating.

I will say that there were a few plot threads that were introduced that didn't get explored, and I don't know if Donlea was purposely throwing in some red herrings to confuse the reader or if they just didn't get picked up. That was a little frustrating for me, because there were a few points I didn't understand.

Beyond that, I devoured Don't Believe It pretty quickly. I anticipate seeing lots of people doing the same this summer, whether on the beach, on the plane, or elsewhere. It's definitely a thriller worth diving into!

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

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Book Review: "A Place for Us" by Fatima Farheen Mirza

Poignant, warm, and thought-provoking, A Place for Us is a tremendously self-assured look at an American Muslim family, and the obligations and tangles that family and religion create.

Family and friends of Rafiq and Layla gather for the wedding of their oldest daughter, Hadia, who has broken tradition by marrying for love and not marrying a match arranged by her parents.

Hadia has always been headstrong, but she has made her parents proud by becoming a doctor, again, not a choice usually made by Muslim daughters. At Hadia's side as always is her younger sister, Huda, dutiful and proud, always looking to keep the peace, which is a quality necessary for her job as a teacher.

While the family is a bit nervous because of the wedding, the tension is increased because Hadia has invited her youngest sibling, their brother Amar, to the wedding. No one has seen him in three years. As the only boy, he was favored, but he was more sensitive, demanding, difficult, and always knew how to provoke feelings of love and dissension among his family members. Hadia wants him to attend the wedding but is also afraid of what unresolved issues he may bring with him.

How did the family get to this point? The book spends a great deal of time looking back, from the days before Rafiq and Layla married and their young family grew, to the days where the challenges began. It is a fascinating exploration of how the most innocent of actions or intentions can go spectacularly awry, and how one decision can cause significant ripples which affect many people. The book also moves beyond the wedding, looking at the aftereffects of events that happened that night.

The majority of the book alternates the narration between Layla, Hadia, and Amar, while later chapters are also narrated by Rafiq. You see the same events through different eyes, what those moments meant, and how they shape events around them. Within each chapter, there are recollections of various events at different times, so it does get a bit confusing trying to determine the time and place of what you're reading.

I found A Place for Us so emotionally rich, a fascinating study of a family struggling with how to reconcile the traditions and beliefs of their religion with the needs and wants of the ever-changing world, particularly post-9/11. All too often there was a depth to the characters I didn't initially expect—just when I believed a character was acting a particular way for a reason, with a different perspective, my assumptions were flipped.

I thought this was a terrific book, truly a self-assured literary debut by Fatima Farheen Mizra. I honestly never understood much about Muslim families beyond what I've seen on television and in movies, so I welcomed this opportunity to learn more. This book made me realize once again that no matter how different two families may be, the issues they face are often quite similar.

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

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Book Review: "Half-Truths and Semi-Miracles" by Anne Tyler

"The first thing I tell people is, I'm just an ordinary woman. I'm just like you, I say, I can see they don't believe me."

When she was 17 years old, on what seemed like just a regular afternoon, Susanna discovered she had an exceptional ability. While caring for her aunt, who was suffering from a migraine, Susanna rubbed her forehead, and—amazingly—her pain was gone. She healed her.

Word of Susanna's ability travels fast, much to her chagrin. People begin to travel from near and far in the hopes that Susanna can heal them. But while people say that Susanna's power is God-given, she isn't quite sure. If God is granting her the ability to heal people, why does she fail sometimes? Is it her shortcoming, a lesson God is trying to teach her, or is the person somehow to blame?

The power to heal has changed Susanna's life profoundly. In this short story, famed author Anne Tyler paints a portrait of a woman shouldering an overwhelming burden. She cannot understand why she can't heal everyone, and why when she so desperately needs to call on her ability, she doesn't succeed, and it leaves her questioning why she was chosen to tread such an arbitrary, often thankless path.

Anne Tyler has been one of my favorite authors since the 1980s, so any opportunity to read her work is such a treat. Half-Truths and Semi-Miracles is poignant and compelling, and once again, Tyler has created a memorable character. However, the story was so short it almost seemed truncated. I wanted more time with Susanna, more time to share her struggles and see how her life was affected.

Even though I wish the story was longer, it's still a strong example of Tyler's storytelling talent. If you think about it, it's essentially a literary amuse-bouche to whet our palates until her new novel comes out in July! Can't wait!

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

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Book Review: "The Pisces" by Melissa Broder

"Did it take a mythological deformity to find a gorgeous man who was as needy as I was?"

So, if you watched the film The Shape of Water and thought to yourself, "I wish I could find a sea creature to, well, you know," then Melissa Broder's new book, The Pisces, is for you. I didn't know there was such a thing as merman erotica, but here it is. (Seriously.)

Lucy's life is falling to pieces. She's been working on her doctoral dissertation on Sappho for nine years, and she doesn't know what to do with it anymore, because she's not even sure what her point is. Even worse, she and her longtime boyfriend Jamie break up, and before she knows it she's wandering around town half-dressed and drugged, and she suddenly is harboring violent tendencies.

Her older sister comes to the rescue, convincing Lucy to take the summer at her fancy house on Venice Beach and take care of her beloved dog, Dominic. She promises to attend group therapy, swear off dating, work on her dissertation, and revel in the love the dog can provide. However, it's not long before she becomes depressed by how pathetic her fellow group members seem, and she feels the need to fill the empty space inside her by having sex with anonymous men she meets on Tinder.

"Was it ever real: the way we felt about another person? Or was it always a projection of something we needed or wanted regardless of them?"

One night, while sitting on the beach rocks alone, she meets Theo, a handsome and mysterious swimmer. He seems to be everything she is looking for—sexy, intuitive, sensitive, and immensely attracted to her. She comes back to the beach rocks to find him on subsequent nights, but she isn't sure what his deal is—is he a night surfer, a swimmer, or just some guy who never seems to get out of the water?

As her life continues imploding, she discovers the truth behind Theo's identity: he's a merman, but not one of the horrible creatures portrayed in mythology. Theo may be a merman, but he's all man, and their sex life satisfies her more than any of the recent encounters or her relationship with her boyfriend ever did. But as Lucy tries to make their relationship work by bringing him to her sister's house, she realizes that this kind of life may be more complicated than she realizes.

Faced with the prospect of losing Theo, she makes some crucial mistakes, and when he asks her to live with him underwater, she thinks it might be the solution to all of her problems. Is she totally crazy, or is this the key to everlasting love? What does "living" with him really entail?

In The Pisces, Broder creates a portrait of a woman who desperately wants to feel desired and feel loved, and she believes only a man can make her feel fulfilled. The book is part social commentary on the pressure women feel to behave as expected, and how easily they can be taken advantage of, and it's part fantasy (you know, the merman part). At times the book is painful to read because of the loneliness and depression that Lucy and some of her fellow group members suffer from.

As you might imagine given the subject matter, this book is pretty sexually explicit, and it's probably more of a book for women than it is for men. It tends to drag a little bit at times, as Lucy keeps cycling through her depression and indecisiveness. I also had a bit of a problem with the way she treated the dog, so those who are sensitive to the way pets and animals are treated in books may be troubled by her behavior.

Broder is a tremendously creative storyteller, and she imbues her characters with heart, sensitivity, and humor, as well as some serious libidos. This is an odd book, but it's definitely one of the most unique ones I've read in some time. It certainly may make you think twice when you're at the beach at night!

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Book Review: "Leave No Trace" by Mindy Mejia

Ten years ago Josiah Blackthorn took his nine-year-old son Lucas camping in the Boundary Waters, an area of northern Minnesota full of forests and ice-cold lakes. One day it appeared their campsite was ravaged by bears or other creatures, and the two were never heard from again. Once media interest died down, the Blackthorns were all but forgotten.

Until a night 10 years later, when now-19-year-old Lucas Blackthorn was apprehended trying to rob an outfitter store. He became aggressive and violent, and was uncommunicative, so he was sent to the local psychiatric hospital for observation. Both the doctors and law enforcement want to know what happened to Lucas' father, but he refuses to talk—to everyone except Maya Stark, the new, young assistant speech therapist, who seems to engender reactions from the once-lost no-longer-a-boy.

While at first her interactions with Lucas are mainly keeping him from hurting her and others, Maya begins to build what she belies is a genuine connection with him. She can't explain why he feels like he can trust only her, and she can't quite determine where she crossed the line from acting in a professional capacity to wanting him to be able to find his father, without having to go through law enforcement. She knows he doesn't need speech therapy; what he needs is a protector, an ally, and despite warnings from her supervisor and her father, she's determined to be that ally.

The thing is, Maya has issues of her own. Her mother abandoned their family when she was a teenager, and she's spent a number of years blaming herself, as if she wasn't enough or right for her mother. And that's not the only secret Maya is hiding.

"What lies beneath us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us."

Will Maya do the right thing, if she can figure out what that is? Will her single-minded determination to help Lucas put her in danger? Will helping him get her the answers she has been seeking to her own questions, or will her decisions end in disaster?

In Leave No Trace, Mindy Mejia has given us a taut, compelling exploration of the pull of family and the need to be understood. I devoured this book, and while there were certain twists I expected, she threw in some surprises here and there. I found these characters fascinating and even a little unique, and while certainly I questioned Maya's judgment, I could see how past events in her life could lead her to make the choices she did.

Sure, not everything in this book is realistic. But you could see why the characters were compelled to do what they did, and how certain events unfolded. The coincidences and other things didn't bother me. I was hooked from start to finish.

I really enjoyed Mejia's last book, Everything You Want Me to Be (see my review), and with Leave No Trace she proves she's capable of something completely different. She's definitely an author I'll continue to watch with great anticipation, because no matter the genre, she's immensely talented!

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

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Book Review: "Paris Trance" by Geoff Dyer

"People talk about love at first sight, about the way that men and women fall for each other immediately, but there is also such a thing as friendship at first sight."

Luke is an Englishman in his mid-20s who decides to move to Paris in order to write a book. But when he arrives, he quickly realizes the city, and his life there, aren't what he imagined.

He's renting a decrepit apartment in the wrong neighborhood, he barely speaks or understands French, and he can't seem to meet anyone, especially a woman, no matter how hard he tries. He's considering moving back to England but knows that would be admitting failure and taking a step backward.

Then he meets Alex when he begins work at the same warehouse. Alex is a fellow English expatriate, and the two quickly find the rhythm of an intense friendship. With Alex in his life, things begin picking up for Luke—he finds a better apartment, and he begins playing soccer with his other colleagues. These victories bring his bravado back, and it's not long before he meets Nicole, a beautiful Serbian woman, with whom he falls completely in love.

"Even when we recall with photographic exactness the way in which someone first presented themselves to us, that likeness is touched by every trace of emotion we have felt up to—and including—the moment when we are recalling the scene."

As Luke and Nicole's relationship intensifies, Alex meets Sahra, a brilliant interpreter, and the two couples become inseparable, sharing meals, drinks, countless films, activities, travel—even the occasional drugs. Nicole and Luke's relationship is the more passionate and mercurial one, buoyed by wild sex, periodic arguments, and Luke's unending desire for fulfillment. Alex and Sahra are more stable—while their relationship might not reach the same levels of passion, their love is a steady one, which seems key to its future.

Paris Trance follows the four through more than a year of their relationships, the ups and the downs, and how the differences between the two couples—and the two men—become more evident as time carries on. The book also gives a glimpse into the future, and what happens to each of the couples, how some can change with the curves that life throws at you while some cannot.

This story is a beautifully compelling look at friendship and love, how some can enjoy the present while preparing for the future while others can only focus on what is in front of them. The book conveys the flush of relationships, the bonds of friendship, the insecurity of love so well, and captures both the tumultuous moments and the quiet ones. The banter between Luke and Alex, and at times, the four of them, is really enjoyable.

I really enjoyed this book, although I definitely enjoyed Alex and Sahra's characters more than Luke and Nicole's. The story has a poignancy at times, while other times it moves with a frenzy. The one thing I didn't quite understand is the periodic shifts in narration between first and third person. There is also some graphic, borderline kinky sex in the book which some may find awkward or unnecessary.

While elements of the plot of Paris Trance may seem familiar, in Geoff Dyer's hands the book feels unique. The book may not be perfect, but I'll remember it for a long while as a book that touched my emotions.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Book Review: "Ruthless Magic" by Megan Crewe

If The Hunger Games hooked up with Lev Grossman's The Magicians, the baby might somehow resemble Megan Crewe's newest book, Ruthless Magic. While the setting isn't quite as dystopian as the former, and there isn't the type of quest featured in the latter, this book shares elements of both without feeling like a retread of either.

In a society not too far into the future, there are people with magical abilities and there are those without, known as Dulls. The North American Confederation of Mages oversees the use of magic, and each year they decide which 16-year-olds will be chosen to become a part of the magic world, and which ones will be "dampened," essentially having their magical powers lessened so that they'll only be able to use one particular skill for professional purposes.

The Confederation is particular, though—they want to be able to control magic, so they only like to choose descendants of magical families rather than let "new magic" people in or those who came from less exclusive pedigrees. Those rejected by the Confederation have one course of appeal—they can stand for the Mages' Exam, a mysterious, brutal challenge that no one talks about—if they remember it, or survive.

Finn Lockwood is part of a prominent magical family, but his skills have always been lacking, much to his chagrin. Although it is his legacy to be accepted into the world of magic, he wants to be able to use his magic to make a difference; he doesn't want to be saddled with some low-level job. Declaring he'll stand for the Exam gives him the chance to succeed or fail on his own, and he's willing to take the risk.

Rocío Lopez grew up poor, the daughter of Dampened parents. She's spent all of her free time learning about magic and enhancing her skills, and she knows she's more talented than most. She should be a shoo-in for a place in the Confederation, but she is rejected because of her background, so she has no choice but to stand for the Exam, despite the risks that her family is all too sadly familiar with.

Everyone who believes themselves worthy of a place in the Confederation comes to Rikers Island to stand for the Mage's Exam. It will be unlike anything they've ever faced before—a test of will, intelligence, magical skill, and courage, and it will show them (and the Examiners) just how far they're willing to go in order to succeed. Although they have different reasons for wanting to succeed, Rocío and Finn become allies—and possibly more—and vow to protect one another, as well as others in their group, although when magic is involved, whom can you really trust?

I found this to be a really engaging, creative, and quick read. Ever since the Harry Potter series I've been completely fascinated by magic and those who have the skills, and love the dynamics among fledgling and skilled magicians with different abilities. I was really pleased Crewe decided to shift the narration of the book only between Finn and Rocío; I was afraid she'd alternate it among others as well and I thought that might get more confusing.

I've never read anything Crewe has written before, but I was really dazzled by her storytelling and her world-building (even if the world was our own). She has created some engaging characters with real emotions and real struggles, and even gave us those to root against. There's some great action in here, some brutal magical challenges, and the pace flowed really nicely.

Obviously, when I say the words "magic" or "fantasy," there are some who roll their eyes or immediately say, "This one's not for me." You know who you are. But if you're looking for something new, Ruthless Magic may be an interesting book to try. I'll be waiting for the next one in the series. (Apparently if you join Crewe's website, you get a free prequel to the book, so that's where I'm heading next!)

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