Friday, April 28, 2023

Book Review: "Small Mercies" by Dennis Lehane

Man oh man, this guy can write.

I’ve been a fan of Dennis Lehane’s since his first book, A Drink Before the War, utterly blew me away. I’ve loved so many of his books—Gone Baby Gone, Shutter Island, and of course, Mystic River, which is an all-time favorite of mine. (And an excellent movie, too.)

Although highly anticipated books by favorite authors have been hit or miss for me this year, Lehane’s newest book was definitely a home run for me.

“That’s what ghosts are—they’re testaments to what never should have happened and must be fixed before their spirits leave this world.”

It’s the summer of 1974. A heat wave is mercilessly punishing Boston, and everyone is on edge. But it’s not just the heat causing temperatures to rise—the forced desegregation of Boston schools is about to happen, and almost no one is happy about it.

Mary Pat Fennessy was born and bred in the housing projects of Southie, where she has raised two kids of her own. She’s struggling financially and she’s always been at least a little bit angry, a little bit proud, and, like most of her neighbors, at least a little bit racist.

One night, her 17-year-old daughter, Jules, doesn’t come home. That same night, a young Black man is found dead in a nearby subway station, apparently struck by a train. Are the two events interconnected?

The longer Jules is missing, the more suspicious Mary Pat becomes. And then she decides to get to the bottom of the matter herself—no matter whom she angers or what trouble she causes. Her nothing-to-lose, don’t-give-a-damn attitude and actions set off a powder keg in a city already on edge.

This is a tense (and intense), sometimes sad, and tremendously thought-provoking book. Mary Pat isn’t trying to be a hero; she just wants to figure out what happened to her daughter. And at the same time, she’s realizing how the way she was raised and the way she raised her children might have played a factor in all that occurred.

This will make one heck of a movie.

Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Book Review: "American Mermaid" by Julia Langbein

Julia Langbein’s debut novel is unique and thought-provoking.

Penelope was a high school English teacher, barely making ends meet, and still having to rely on her parents far more than she’d like. But then inspiration strikes and she becomes the author of a feminist novel about a mermaid.

The book becomes a surprise hit, and Penelope is offered the opportunity to help write the screenplay for the film adaptation. She moves to California and quickly realizes the world of film isn’t quite what she thought it would be. Paired with two male screenwriters, they try to change the main character from a fiercely feminist eco-warrior to a sexy teenage nymphet wearing a clamshell bra. How much latitude does she have to fight back before the movie doesn’t resemble her book at all?

But the more things change in the script, the more weird things start happening. Strange additions and changes appear in the script and no one can figure out who is responsible. People are lured into dangerous situations. Is there a possibility that Penelope’s character has come to life to avenge the changes being made?

This is a quirky and really creative story within a story. We see both Penelope’s struggles in Los Angeles and get to see her book’s plot unfold. The problem for me, however, is that nothing felt fully done; in jamming the book full of two plots, neither seemed complete.

Some reviews have said that this book is really funny, but I didn’t see that. There’s a lot of the same jokes about men being sex-crazed chauvinists and after a while that gets tiring. (I don't disagree about some men, but still.)

This wasn’t a book I enjoyed, but it definitely was an interesting story. And now I’ve read two mermaid/merman books (with The Pisces). Who knew it was a genre?

Sunday, March 19, 2023

Book Review: "A Likely Story" by Leigh McMullan Abramson

Secrets and drama abound in the family of a bestselling author.⁣

⁣ All Ward Manning wanted was to be a famous writer. And while it took some time to build momentum, he’s a literary legend now. His wife, Claire, is a philanthropist and socialite, with the brains and beauty to match.

⁣ ⁣ The couple’s only child, Isabelle, has wanted to follow in her father’s footsteps since childhood. She was envious of the way everyone clamored for his attention and favor, not to mention the fame. But her writing career can’t seem to take off; her first book was rejected by publishers, and as she nears her 35th birthday, the pressure is mounting, as is the fear of failure.⁣

⁣ When Claire dies unexpectedly, it throws both Ward and Isabelle into turmoil. Ward is coming to terms with the fact that his popularity may be dwindling, and realizes just how much Claire brought to his life. And when Isabelle goes through some keepsakes Claire left for her, she discovers something which makes her question everything that has transpired in her life, all of her assumptions about her parents and the people they were.⁣

⁣ I love some good family drama and dysfunction, and this certainly delivered more than its share of secrets and lies. The book shifted back and forth through past and present, narrated by the three Mannings as well as Isabelle’s best friend, Brian. Also, interspersed between chapters are excerpts from a novel about a woman wronged by her husband and how she tries to right the score. But whose book is it?

I just wanted a bit more from this book.⁣

Friday, March 17, 2023

Book Review: "The Golden Spoon" by Jessa Maxwell

In The Golden Spoon, the contestants on a popular baking show have more to worry about than simple competition.

Meh. I wanted so much more from this one. I mean, a mystery that takes place on the set of a baking competition? I could almost taste the possibilities. (Sorry, it did make me hungry.)

It’s the 10th season of “Bake Week,” the beloved competition show. It’s filmed at Grafton Manor, the historic Vermont home of the show’s host, baking legend Betsy Martin. The five contestants are assembled, as is Betsy’s new co-host, culinary bad boy Archie Morris, whose hire Betsy is none-too-thrilled about.

But as the competition gets started, things to go awry. Contestants’ work is getting sabotaged, tensions are mounting between Betsy and Archie, secrets are hidden, and then, murder. Hang on to your whisks!!

The plot for this one seemed completely by-the-numbers. Narration alternated between Betsy and each of the contestants, although one contestant got barely any mention.

Oh well, you can't win 'em all…

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Book Review: "Just My Type" by Falon Ballard

The latest from Falon Ballard is a fun, sexy, and emotional rom-com about second chances and finding yourself first.

Lana is an excellent girlfriend. Parents always love her, and she’s so good at putting her boyfriends’ needs over her own. Ever since her high school boyfriend broke up with her in college, she’s never been good at being alone, so she quickly moves from relationship to relationship.

When her most recent relationship ends with her getting dumped instead of being proposed to (and it’s not the first time that’s happened), she realizes maybe she should take some time for herself before dating again. And then he arrives: Seth, her high school boyfriend, who has been traveling the world as a journalist, and who broke Lana’s heart—twice.

It turns out Seth will be working temporarily at the website where Lana has been working since college. (Why does he look even more amazing now?) With the chemistry and unresolved issues between them off the charts, Lana’s boss pits them against each other in a competition: Lana has to write about coming to terms with being single (and staying single), while Seth has to put down roots and try finding a relationship. The winner will get a coveted columnist job.

Each has to do—and write about—things chosen by the other. And as they try to deal with their own issues, their past keeps getting in the way. Will the competition ruin any possible chance for a future together?

I thought this was great! It’s a little more emotionally and psychologically weighty than most rom-coms, but the banter, steam, and supporting characters were fantastic!! This is why Ballard is an auto-buy author for me.

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Book Review: "Zig-Zag Boy: A Memoir of Madness and Motherhood" by Tanya Frank

Tanya Frank's new memoir is a powerfully moving and thought-provoking account of a family affected by mental illness.

“…all the vigilance in the world cannot save or fix my boy. He has his own voice. He needs to find it again.”

Tanya’s younger son, Zach, was smart, charming, curious, and loving, a UCLA student who always seemed to have a girlfriend and a group of friends. Yet one night in 2009, he suffered a schizophrenic break, convinced he was being monitored and that someone was trying to kill him.

That night launched their family into the overwhelming, emotionally draining, often-confusing, and frustrating mental health system. They quickly find there’s not one concrete diagnosis, not one proven method of treatment, not even one drug to help manage symptoms. Zach is often caught between the choice of taking drugs that have horrible side-effects or allowing his symptoms to overwhelm him.

It’s not long before Zach’s condition has strained Tanya’s relationship with her wife and their finances, and left her wondering what her approach should be. How can she abandon her son at his most vulnerable? But how can she be involved in his care and still be a good wife and a good mother to her older son? And if Zach wants her to walk away, can she? What will his future look like?

I learned a lot about schizophrenia from this book, and as someone with depression and anxiety, I did recognize some of the struggles and emotions that Zach, Tanya, and their family faced. This is beautifully written, and I felt very fortunate that Tanya was willing to share her family’s challenges.

Friday, March 10, 2023

Book Review: "Pineapple Street" by Jenny Jackson

Pineapple Street is a fantastic, character-driven look at the foibles and crises of a wealthy New York family.

The Stocktons are an old-money family living in the historic section of Brooklyn Heights. Cord, the only son, works in their family’s real estate business with his father. Their mother occupies her time playing tennis and tracking the latest gossip among “their kind,” and can always be counted on for an appropriate tablescape for a party or everyday meal.

Darley, the oldest daughter, was once a businesswoman in her own right, but she gave up her career to raise a family, and her inheritance to marry for love. But when things get tough, she wonders if she gave too much away.

Georgiana, the youngest, hasn’t quite grown up yet. But when she strikes up a relationship with a coworker—a man she cannot have—it changes her, and she realizes she needs to make some major adjustments to be the person she wants to be.

When Cord marries Sasha, a woman from a middle-class family in Rhode Island, it causes friction among the Stocktons. Darley and Georgiana view her as a gold digger and resent the fact that Sasha and Cord got to take over the family brownstone. Sasha doesn’t really care about the money—what she wants is to feel a part of the family, not like an outsider. She even feels like Cord sides with his family over her.

I thought this was such a terrific story, even though it’s one in which not a lot happens. The characters were fascinating and flawed, but it took a slightly different path than I expected, which is great. A very impressive debut!