Sunday, August 21, 2022

Book Review: "An Exaltation of Larks" by Suanne Laqueur

This was one of my favorite books of the last decade, but when I was given the opportunity to receive a free copy of the book from Red Clover Digital and Suanne Laqueur, I wanted to reshare my review.

To borrow from a language spoken periodically in this book, Madre de Dios, este libro! (Mother of God, this book!)

"Second chances are given or made."

In 1973, 11-year-old Alejandro Penda is living in Chile in the midst of a military coup. Both of his parents are arrested, and Alejo doesn't know if he'll ever see them again. With the help of family friends, he escapes to America, to live with his uncle in the upstate New York town of Guelisten. Although the trauma of what he lived through, and his grief over his parents, is tremendously difficult for him, he finds himself becoming very close to the Larks, a large, active, warm family that is friends with his uncle.

Alex becomes best friends with Roger Lark, and he and the Larks' oldest daughter, Valerie, have a love/hate relationship which turns into infatuation when Valerie returns home from college. But although she and Alex are drawn to each other, they give each other the freedom to live their own lives for a while, with Val becoming a successful costume designer in New York, and Alex studying veterinary medicine in Colorado.

Javier Landes had a tumultuous childhood growing up in Queens. When a bout of teenage experimentation is discovered, he loses his family and is forced to make his own way. Through a chance meeting with an older woman, Jav becomes a successful male escort—he's always in demand, highly skilled, and well-versed to meet the needs of his clients. But the only thing that is missing is a love of his own, although he isn't sure exactly what he wants.

Alex and Val first meet Jav in New York City when they're in their 20s. These meetings leave indelible impressions on all three, and their interactions take on different dimensions and intensities before they go their separate ways. Through the years each experiences their own set of tragedies and challenges—Val and Alex together as a married couple, while Jav tries to find his way and his heart's true path.

Years later the three are reunited when Jav comes to Guelisten, after being named the guardian of his orphaned nephew. The three become inseparable, more like family than friends, and together they weather some difficult challenges, and learn some tough truths about one another. But it's the secrets they keep from one another, the feelings they try to keep hidden, the needs each person has that threaten to untie their bonds and unmoor them forever.

An Exaltation of Larks absolutely blew me away. This is a 500-page book and I literally stayed up until 1:30 a.m. because I desperately needed to finish it. This is a story about friends that become family as well as the often-blurred lines between friendship and love. It's a story about how we can never completely outrun the traumas we face, and some times our struggles are more difficult than others, yet life is worth living to the fullest, surrounded by those you love. This is also a book about the challenges of parenthood, the trust that is so key to the success of long-term relationships, and what it is like to feel like you keep missing your chance at happiness.

I absolutely loved these characters, every single one of them. Suanne Laqueur has such love and respect for them as well that she fleshed them out so skillfully and gave them so much complexity that I found myself feeling the same way about them that the other characters did. Yes, there are one or two coincidences that made me roll my eyes a tiny bit, but they didn't detract from the beauty of Laqueur's storytelling or the emotions she made me feel.

There are a few incidences of animals getting injured or dying, due to political unrest and accidents. Those scenes may be difficult for some to read or may make some avoid the book altogether, but I skimmed them and didn't miss anything.

This book, along with the two others in this series (A Charm of Finches and A Scarcity of Condors), are some of the best books I've read in years.

Friday, August 5, 2022

Book Review: "The Heist" by C.W. Gortner and M.J. Rose

With The Heist, this fun, glamorous caper series set in the late 1950s comes to a close.⁣

⁣ I’ve really enjoyed this series of novellas, which started with The Steal and The Bait. In this book, Ania Thorne has been hiding as she plots her next move to try and take down the notorious jewel thief, the Leopard. And she’s figured the perfect bait—she’ll design special jewelry for the Oscar-nominated actress of a major film.⁣

⁣ Jerome Curtis has been living a bleak existence in London, mourning the end of his relationship and the fact he threw away his career for the woman who abandoned him. A friend offers him a security job at her father’s movie studio, but unbeknownst to him, this job will put him right in the middle of Ania’s plan to trap the Leopard, who has gotten the jump on both of them before.⁣

⁣ This is really a series you should read in order, but since each book is less than 200 pages, it’s not that huge of a commitment. I love the glamour of old Hollywood that runs throughout the series, as well as the relationships and characters.⁣

⁣ Thanks so much to Get Red PR Books and Blue Box Press for the complimentary copy of the book. Here's hoping that C.W. Gortner and M.J. Rose team up again, or at the very least give us another installment in this series! ⁣

Book Review: "The Swimmers" by Julie Otsuka

Julie Otsuka's first novel since 2012, The Swimmers is a uniquely told book about our obsessions, but it’s also a poignant story about aging, memory, and loss.

I’ve been wanting to read this for a while but wasn’t sure what to expect. It’s so beautifully written, although the way it’s structured, it feels like two separate stories with one narrative link.

In the first part of the book we hear from a collective group of people who swim at a community pool. Some have been swimming for years, some are newer, but all share an obsession with their lives at the pool, preferring to be there than anywhere else. The chapter is told in a collective “we” voice, almost a Greek chorus, reciting the litany of rules and routines, providing vignette-like descriptions of the swimmers.

When a crack appears at the bottom of the pool, the swimmers are dismayed. Some see it as a sign that they should find another pool or stop swimming altogether. And when the pool closes, they are sent back into their “real lives,” their pleasures and routines ended.

One such swimmer is Alice, a woman in the early days of dementia. Swimming gave her comfort, a circle of friends, a structured routine when everything else in her life is starting to fade away. The remainder of the book follows her as the dementia worsens, as she remembers some things and not others, and tells of her relationships with her husband and daughter, and their feelings of loss.

There is an enormous amount of emotion in this book, so if you’ve had a loved one encounter dementia, this may be triggering. It definitely feels a bit semi-autobiographical, as the daughter is a writer trying to better connect with her mother as she slips away. Just an intriguing and beautiful read.

Book Review: "The Last White Man" by Mohsin Hamid

Mohsin Hamid's latest novel, The Last White Man, is powerful, thought-provoking, and so timely.

“One morning Anders, a white man, woke up tofind he had turned a deep and undeniable brown.”

So begins the latest book by the author of Exit West, a book I absolutely loved. Anders doesn’t understand what happened to him, and for a while he can hardly believe he is the person looking back at him in the mirror. He feels totally different and feels everyone is judging him differently (although that could just be his paranoia).

He keeps his secret from everyone around him except Oona, an old friend with whom he’s recently become much closer. But as the same phenomenon starts occurring to many others, people wonder what could be causing this and what it means.

This is a fascinating story, with a walk-a-mile-in-my-shoes feel, and it’s tremendously thought-provoking. How often do we feel like strangers in our own skin when nothing has changed, so this is pretty profound.

I wanted a bit more from the book, but I honestly just love the way Hamid writes and captures both emotion and the zeitgeist of the moment. This would definitely be a great book for book club discussion.

Book Review: "Immoral Origins" by Lee Matthew Goldberg

How far would you go to help those you love? That's the question Lee Matthew Goldberg raises in Immoral Origins.

Thanks so much to Suzy Approved Book Tours, Lee Matthew Goldberg, and Rough Edges Press for inviting me on the tour for this book. It was wild!

Jake is a petty thief living in New York City in 1978. He mostly sells stolen goods, but he does it to help Emile, his younger brother, who has a host of health problems. He wishes there was a better way.

And then he finds her—a woman with a Marilyn Monroe mask at a Halloween party. It turns out she works for The Desire Card, a shadowy organization that promises to fulfill its high-paying clients’ wishes—for the right price.

As always, what seems too good to be true usually is. Jake finds himself falling for Marilyn and getting drawn deeper and deeper into The Desire Card. But little by little he realizes that it’s not only magnanimous wishes the organization is fulfilling—some of them are actually deadly. In that someone winds up dead.

Having read Goldberg’s Runaway Train trilogy, which so accurately captured the music and ethos of the 1990s, it came as no surprise that the late 1970s setting, complete with the excesses of Studio 54, felt so right. But the thriller elements of the book worked so well, too, that I couldn’t put this down.

This is the start of a brand new series worth reading. It’ll make you think twice about how much you’d sacrifice for those you love.

Tuesday, August 2, 2022

Book Review: "Ben and Beatriz" by Katalina Gamarra

Ben and Beatriz is a modern-day YA retelling of Much Ado About Nothing.

Do you like Shakespeare? While I’ve not read or seen a ton of his plays, Much Ado About Nothing is definitely one of my two favorites. I’ve read and seen it, I love the 1990s film adaptation, and also enjoyed the 2012 updated adaptation, so when Graydon House Books invited me on the tour for this retelling, I was all over it.

Beatriz and Ben are both students at Harvard. Beatriz is fiercely intelligent and blunt, a queer, biracial woman in a world that doesn’t quite get her. Ben is handsome, the son of privilege, known for hooking up with nearly every girl who looks his way. Beatriz loathes Ben and what he represents; she gets under his skin but he hasn’t been able to get her out of his mind since they hooked up freshman year.

The last place Beatriz wants to spend spring break is at Ben’s family’s mansion on Cape Cod, but her cousin and best friend Hero is dating Ben’s best friend Claudio, and she’d do anything for Hero. And it’s not long into the trip before Ben and Beatriz are tearing into each other, fighting over every remark and false assumption they make about one another. But of course, they’re also intensely drawn to each other.

The more time they spend together, the more they discover how vulnerable the other is. Beatriz has nightmares from childhood trauma and is trying to find her place in a country that recently elected Trump president, and Ben is tired of the expectations of his conservative family and his abusive older brother, John. Can the two break through the walls they’ve built around them and find happiness?⁣

I enjoyed this very much. It’s fascinating to experience the themes of the original play with modern twists. This is definitely darker and angstier than the play, but these characters are so beautifully complex. I love the creativity of retellings!

Sunday, July 31, 2022

Book Review: "The Lifestyle" by Taylor Hahn

As Taylor Hahn shows you in The Lifestyle, sometimes you have to shake up your life to figure out what you really want.

Georgina has always gone after what she wants. She has a great job as a partner in a law firm, a great husband, and she’s always trying to put other people’s needs and wants above her own. (Even if her selflessness isn’t always as generous as it seems.)

But having it all means nothing when you walk in on your husband having sex with an associate at your law firm—the associate you’re mentoring. Georgina is devastated, but divorce isn’t part of her plan. When a client tells her that swinging saved her marriage and added the desire and passion back in, Georgina is determined that getting into “the lifestyle” (swinging is such a 70s term) is what she and Nathan need.

She’s excited when her two closest friends and their spouses/significant others decide to join her and Nathan on their foray into this new world. And while she finds her encounters immensely freeing, it’s not having the effect on her marriage that she had hoped. Do they have to try harder? Is this not the issue?

When Georgina runs into her college boyfriend at a party, she’s reminded of the path she chose not to take. But the more she thinks about her future, she’s not sure if the life she’s living is the one she really wants. And what does that mean for her marriage, her career, her future, her friends?

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book, but I really enjoyed it. It’s funny, poignant, and a bit steamy, but it’s also thought-provoking. Swinging isn’t something I’ve ever thought about so it was interesting to learn more about how people go about it.