Saturday, November 10, 2018

Book Review: "Nine Perfect Strangers" by Liane Moriarty

Ugh. This one really fell flat for me.

The idea of self-improvement is often an appealing one, but it takes so much work, so when someone offers us a quick solution, how can we not jump on it?

That's what is bringing nine people to Tranquillum House, an exclusive health resort in a remote part of Australia. They're coming to lose weight, to detox a bit from the alcohol they've become fond of, to get lots of spa treatments and massages, and to get a jump on the problems that have been plaguing them. In 10 days, the resort promises, they'll feel totally changed.

Frances Welty, once a best-selling romance author, is one of those coming to Tranquillum House. She knows she needs to lose some weight and come to terms with menopause, the imminent decline of her career, and the hurt and humiliation she feels after a romance has gone awry. She's been nursing a bad back, a cold, and a vicious paper cut, and she hopes the pampering and the light fasting will help solve her problems.

Ben and Jessica are a young married couple whose relationship has definitely seen better days. All Ben seems to care about is his fancy new sports car (well, it's a Lamborghini, so can you blame him?) while Jessica has spent tons of money on plastic surgery to make herself look better (at least in her eyes), yet her husband doesn't ever tell her how great she looks. They're hoping some marriage counseling might make the difference.

Napoleon, Heather, and Zoe, are a family that certainly looks healthy. But they're carrying around a lot of grief, anger, regret, fear, and guilt related to a tragedy that happened just three years ago. While it might have been a better idea to go on a cruise or some other vacation, they hope that the time to meditate and reflect might help them move past these issues.

These people and others expect that their stay won't be all pampering and relaxation, but they're not prepared for all that the health resort is going to throw at them. It's going to take some work to make change happen, but they have no idea just how far the director of the resort is willing to take things. It's going to be more than fasting, yoga, massages, and hikes in the beautiful countryside. In some sense, their very survival may be at stake—certainly their willingness to fight for themselves will be challenged.

I had high hopes for Nine Perfect Strangers given how much I enjoyed some of Liane Moriarty's previous books, including Big Little Lies and The Husband's Secret. But this one never took off for me; in fact, the pacing was so slow it felt like I was reading it for 10 days, as long as these characters were planning to be at the health resort!

First of all, when a book introduces 11 characters to you and provides in-depth backstories for most of them, that's a lot to wade through. There definitely were some interesting characters to follow with fascinating (and sometimes sad) stories, but I could have done with half of them, because the constant shifting of narration made it difficult to keep any sort of rhythm.

But honestly, the whole situation with the director of the resort and her decision to take things in a new direction I found utterly laughable. I was waiting to see just how over-the-top Moriarty would take things, and found some of it really hard to believe. I did like the way she tied things up with some of her characters, but I was really disappointed on the whole.

I hate when you've been waiting for an author you like to come out with a new book and it disappoints. The good news for me is, there are still some of Moriarty's earlier books I haven't read, so I look forward to those. And who knows? You may enjoy this one more than I did.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Book Review: "Roomies" by Christina Lauren

After reading two particularly heavy books, I needed something a little lighter, something that wouldn't leave me emotionally debilitated. Once again this year, I turned to Christina Lauren, two writers whose work I've become a tremendous fan of. (This is the fourth book of theirs I've read this year; the fifth, Autoboyography, was among the best books I read last year.)

I know when I pick up a book of Lauren's I'm bound to find a charming, poignant, utterly engaging, sexy story, full of appealing characters. The plots may be predictable but I usually have a smile on my face when I'm done reading their books, and Roomies was no exception to that rule.

Holland Bakker knows she wants more out of her life, but she doesn't know how to get it. She has always dreamed of being a writer but for some reason can't seem to coax a single word out of her brain. She has depended upon the kindness of her uncles—one of whom is the musical director for one of Broadway's hottest shows—for her NYC apartment and her job, which doesn't fulfill her, but at least she feels part of something.

The only thing that has given her joy over the last six months is her weekly jaunts into the subway station near her house to listen to a street musician whose guitar playing absolutely dazzles her. (The guitarist himself is pretty dazzling, too.) She's never made any contact with him beyond putting money in his guitar case every time she sees him, but she's getting obsessed enough with him that she's even given him a name—Jack.

One night, armed with the courage only alcohol can provide, Holland decides to speak to him—and then fate intervenes, when a homeless man comes after her, wanting her cell phone. The next thing she knows she winds up on the train tracks. Although her musician crush rescued her from a dangerous fate, he disappears before the cops can question them. When she runs into her savior at a concert a few days later, she learns that the Irishman's real name is Calvin—and he's even more talented (not to mention even sexier) than she thought.

In an effort to repay Calvin for his heroics, and help her uncle out of a bind, she gets Calvin an audition for her uncle's Broadway show. He wows everyone, and gets offered a plum position in the orchestra which is sure to make him a star. The only problem? Calvin is in the country illegally, since he let his student visa expire a number of years ago and never did anything about it.

In an effort to help both her uncle and Calvin, Holland makes an impulsive decision and suggests that she and Calvin get married so he can get his green card. She's not willing to admit that she actually has feelings for him, but she figures, how bad could it be to have him around for at least a year? Of course, the fact that she finds him increasingly more sexy every day complicates things, but the chemistry between the two is palpable. But are Calvin's feelings real, or is he just trying to act more authentic to pass their immigration interviews?

"It's not until he's said those words that I understand what really draws me to this. It's unlike anything I would ever do. I am shit at taking risks; I'm bored to hell with my life already, and I'm only twenty-five. Maybe the reason I can't write about fictional life is because I haven't actually lived."

From reading this plot summary, you may have suspicions about how the book will unfold, and you'll probably be right. But that doesn't lessen Roomies' appeal. Holland and Calvin seem utterly believable and completely likable, and I found myself quickly getting invested in their story. You want to root for these characters, you want to shake them when they do stupid things or when they don't say the things they should. And that's the appeal of Lauren's storytelling.

Roomies took a little longer to get rolling than some of their other books, but it's still a fun read, and it once again shows me why Christina Lauren is becoming one of my favorite go-to authors.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Book Review: "A Charm of Finches" by Suanne Laqueur

Tell me about it. I think I just pulled myself together emotionally, and I finished this book last night!!

Two weeks ago, I read Suanne Laqueur's An Exaltation of Larks (see my review), and I haven't been able to get it out of my head since. Amazingly, people told me that as good as this book was, I needed to read Laqueur's follow-up, A Charm of Finches, because it was even better. Some even called it the best book they've read so far this year.

Honestly, that sounds about right. I am loath to compare books, but I can honestly say that A Charm of Finches reminds me a bit of Hanya Yanagihara's A Little Life (an easy pick to be the best book I've read this decade), although it didn't leave me a total emotional wreck. This book is a little more brutal than its predecessor, but it's also a little bit more hopeful, and it illustrates life's beautiful and painful moments so expertly.

"I think love is a big wisdom made up of small understandings."

Javier Landes has never believed himself worthy of love. That's why he was an escort for so long—it was so much easier to keep people at arm's length than allow them to see how vulnerable he truly is. After his first two attempts at love went horribly awry, he's not sure what he wants—until he meets Steffen Finch. They're clearly attracted to one another and enjoy each other's company, but as their relationship intensifies, they both pray they've found the one, although they can't believe how easy it all seems.

"From any direction, any angle, Stef rested on Jav's eyes the way a classic rock song always sounded good to your ears, even for the eight millionth time. You knew the words, you sang without thought, you air guitared or drummed on some available surface. Because you couldn't not. Your ears heard and your soul obeyed. Jav looked at Stef and goddammit, his soul started singing."

An art therapist working with male victims of sexual assault, Stef is excellent at his job, but he's always sought a connection, both physical and emotional, to help bring him back from the brink where his clients' problems take him. The more time they spend together, Stef realizes that Jav provides those connections for him—he just hopes that the anxieties of Jav's past don't keep him from falling as deeply as he wants to.

Stef's newest client is Geno Caan, a young college student whose brutal sexual assault left him psychologically shattered, physically broken, and more alone than he could ever imagine. The things Geno saw and experienced make it unbelievably hard to trust anyone, yet little by little he lets down his guard to let Stef in. But the more Geno becomes attached to Stef, the lines between professional and personal get blurred, and threaten both Stef's relationship with Jav and Geno's recovery.

There is so much more to A Charm of Finches than I've described. It's a beautiful story of finding love and self-worth, of realizing it's okay to depend on others, and of how redemptive that love can be. It's also a story of courage in the most desperate of situations, how our strength somehow allows us not to fully break and keeps us from losing the very best of us, even if it's buried deep under our scars.

This is a gorgeous, sensitive, sexy, emotional book, full of moments that made me smile, made me blush, horrified me, and made me full-on ugly cry at times (on a plane, no less). Laqueur's ability to pull you into her books so completely, to feel such attachment to her characters that you can't stop thinking about them when you're finished reading, is absolutely dazzling.

Suanne, now that you've hooked me, please say there's another book coming in this series. Don't leave me without Jav and Stef, not to mention Alex and Val, Roger, Stav, Trelawney, Ari, and Deane—how's a person supposed to cope?

Read these books. You've simply got to.

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

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Book Review: "What We Owe" by Golnaz Hashemzadeh Bonde

Wow. This book packs one hell of a punch.

"There is no future. Think if people knew. You put so much time into planning for the future and then it doesn't even exist. Who would have thought."

Nahid is diagnosed with cancer and given six months to live, although the doctors don't know how long it will take for the disease to work its course. As a nurse, she understands what it's like for a patient to receive this type of diagnosis, but she is utterly unprepared for the range of emotions she feels—grief, fear, despair, and overwhelming anger.

As she grapples with her diagnosis, she looks back on the difficult life she has lived. From her days as a participant in the Iranian Revolution, where she experienced significant loss, to living as a refugee in Sweden, her life has always been about sacrifice, none greater than the sacrifices she made for her daughter, Aram.

Now, as Aram tries to take care of her mother, and readies for the birth of her own child, Nahid vacillates between gratitude and jealousy—jealousy that life has been easier for her daughter than her, and jealousy that Aram will live while she will die. But at other times, Nahid is sensitive, tender, wanting only to see her grandchild born before she dies.

"Maybe pain moves in a circle. Maybe I caused her pain to avenge my own."

What do we owe our children? Are the sacrifices we make on their behalf enough? Is it wrong to expect anything in return? And why does it seem that life never gets easier for some, that some people never get the chance to be truly happy and instead spend their lives reliving the difficult and painful moments they have lived instead of experiencing true joy?

What We Owe is a powerful, at times gut-wrenching meditation on these questions. It's a look at how one woman tries coming to terms with the difficult life she has lived, the reflections on whether all that she has suffered has been worth it, and whether that should mean something in the end. At the same time, this is a story about the often-difficult relationship between mothers and daughters, and how guilt and emotion gets caught in the crossfire.

Golnaz Bonde told this story so effectively. There were times I marveled at her turn of phrase (kudos to Elizabeth Jane Clark Wessel, who translated the book) and how well she nailed the range of emotions Nahid felt. It's a difficult book, because occasionally Nahid's anger borders on toxic, and she lashes out at Aram, but then you realize where this anger is coming from, and its history in her system.

This is a tremendously thought-provoking book, one that would be excellent for a book club or discussion group, because in Bonde's hands, there is so much to ponder.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Book Review: "One Day in December" by Josie Silver

It was a scene from one of the hopelessly romantic movies she loves: one late afternoon just before Christmas, Laurie is packed sardine-like onto a double-decker bus, when through a misty window she spots a handsome man. Some mystical force tells her that he is the one, and when their eyes meet, it's like they both know this to be true. But before Laurie can move or the man can try to board the bus and hopefully sweep her off her feet, the bus drives away.

Even though she's almost certain that "Bus Boy" may never come back into her life, she spends a year looking for him at every bus stop, shop, bar, everywhere she goes. She can't imagine finding anyone else. And just as she gives up hope that she'll ever be reunited with her mystery man, they finally do connect—only he's on the arm of her best friend and flatmate, Sarah. Yes, "Bus Boy," whose name is Jack (and who is more handsome than she even imagined), is Sarah's new boyfriend, a man she's fallen head over heels for.

Part of Laurie wants to tell Sarah the truth, that Jack is the man she has been hunting for. But when Jack doesn't seem to recognize her, she realizes she has been hanging on to a foolish obsession, and how can she stand in the way of her best friend's happiness? Of course, Sarah doesn't make it easy for Laurie, since she wants the three of them to spend lots of time together, and more importantly, she wants Laurie and Jack to be friends, too.

Jack actually did recognize Laurie, and he can't believe that the woman he may have had more than one or two fantasies about is actually his new girlfriend's best friend. But Laurie and Sarah are complete opposites, and he doesn't want to jeopardize what he's starting to have with Sarah. Even if it's difficult to try and be friends with Laurie, if it means that much to Sarah, he'll put any lingering feelings he has aside and do it.

Is there such a thing as destiny? Is there really one right person for everyone? How can you be happy when someone you truly care about gets what you want, what you think should be "yours"? Can you move on with your life if your heart isn't quite ready to let go?

One Day in December follows Laurie, Jack, and Sarah through 10 years of heartaches and triumphs, passion and anger, connections and misunderstandings, secrets and facing the truth. If ever there were a book that highlights how important it is to say what you feel, what you think, when it happens, it's this one.

If reading the plot summary in my review gives you ideas of how this book will unfold, you may be right. There isn't anything too surprising here, but that doesn't matter, because Josie Silver's appealing yet flawed characters grow on you, even though you want to shake them at times for not saying how they feel. It's a charming, romantic book, sure to warm the hearts of those looking for a good story about love and friendship and how one can get in the way of the other.

I thought this was going to be a breezy, mindless read, but it's a little more complex than I expected. I really enjoyed this, even though I would have liked it more if we didn't run through the same situations with the characters so many times. It definitely appealed to the sap, err, romantic in me though!!

Book Review: "Then She Was Gone" by Lisa Jewell

"When her children were small they'd sometimes say, 'What would you do if I died?' And she would reply, 'I would die too, because I could not live without you.' And then her child had died and she had found out that somehow, incredibly, she could live without her, that she had woken every morning for a hundred days, a thousand days, three thousand days and she had lived without her."

Ellie Mack was a golden child—beautiful, smart, popular. At 15, she was the apple of her family's eye, well-liked by all, with a handsome boyfriend and a life full of possibility waiting for her. Then one day, Ellie was supposed to go to the library and be home by lunchtime, but she never made it there, and she never returned.

For 10 years, Ellie's mother Laurel has held out a small sliver of hope that Ellie might have simply run away for some reason and she might come back, even though in her heart she knows her daughter is probably dead. This combination of despair and irrational hope has left Laurel's life a shambles, leading to the end of her marriage and straining her relationship with her two older children.

But when a discovery helps provide some answers, Laurel decides it is time to get her life back. She meets a handsome man, Floyd Dunn, in a neighborhood cafe, and for the first time in 10 years, she realizes she can live for herself. She is surprised at how quickly she and Floyd fall for each other, and how quickly their connection deepens into a real relationship, and before she knows it, she is even meeting his daughters and spending weekends at his home.

Laurel is immediately taken with Floyd's youngest daughter, Poppy, who is beautiful and wise beyond her years, truly an old soul. But Laurel cannot shake just how similar Poppy looks to Ellie, and how at times, when Poppy speaks, it is like she's in the same room with her daughter. As questions start to form in her mind about Floyd and what secrets he might be hiding, more and more her questions about Ellie's disappearance begin surfacing again. Did Ellie run away, or did she run into danger somehow? And why do Poppy and Ellie seem so similar?

I'll admit, I figured out the plot of Then She Was Gone fairly soon into the book. While it did detract a bit from my enjoyment of the book as the story continued to unfold, I was still captivated by the way Lisa Jewell teased out the suspense, making you wonder what surprises might pop up. Having never read any of Jewell's books before, I worried she might throw in some outrageous or melodramatic plot elements, and I was pleased that she didn't do that.

Jewell is a terrific storyteller, and I raced through this entire book on a flight. While I certainly would have loved a little more surprise, I still thought this was a captivating and compelling read, and if you like thrillers, you may very well enjoy this one.