Saturday, March 29, 2014

Book Review: "You're Not Much Use to Anyone" by David Shapiro

Full disclosure: I received an advance readers copy of this book from NetGalleys in exchange for an unbiased review.

The last year of college is often fun, but the level of tension and uncertainty ratchets up for many students. There is often uncertainty—even fear—about what you're going to do with the rest of your life, where the money to support you will come from (if you aren't working while going to school), even what will become of the relationships you have. And unless you have a job lined up after college, you're often suffering from some general insecurity as well.

David Shapiro, in his autobiographical novel You're Not Much Use to Anyone, is suffering from all of those feelings. After graduating early from NYU, he doesn't know what he wants to do with his life (although his parents, who are supporting him financially, expect him to go to law school). He's a little insecure about himself physically, and his self-esteem only seems to blossom when he's in a relationship. But he's not quite willing to give himself entirely to relationships, and whenever one of his girlfriends leaves for a job opportunity or something else, he's ready to end the relationship instead of dealing with worries about her cheating on him with someone better.

David gets a job working in the file room of a large company, although it's clear to everyone he's tremendously overqualified for what he does. But it's a good way to make money of his own, and allegedly study for the LSATs. Plus, he can pacify his demanding mother and his conspiracy theory-prone father.

The one thing David is passionate about is the music review site Pitchfork. So many of the reviews he reads on the site infuriate him, and he resents the power this website has to destroy the career of up and coming bands with negative reviews, and build up a less deserving band (in David's mind) with hype and praise. So after ranting about Pitchfork to anyone who will listen, he decides to set up his own Tumblr blog in which he reviews Pitchfork reviews, called Pitchfork Reviews Reviews. Of course, he doesn't have a computer, so he types up the entries surreptitiously on his Blackberry and sends them to his roommate, who posts them on David's behalf. (But no one can no that.)

Before long, David's Tumblr blog has become quite popular, and even the media has taken interest. However, his insecurity hasn't changed, as he takes any negative comments personally. The success of his site doesn't lessen his anxiety that he might lose his job or that his parents might make him stop writing and demand he apply to law school. And it doesn't solve his romantic problems either. What's a guy to do?

You're Not Much Use to Anyone accurately captured the anxieties and insecurities of a recent college graduate, and did so with a lot of humor and emotion. Shapiro doesn't paint himself as a wholly sympathetic character—at times his inability to identify with his girlfriends' moods made it difficult to feel sorry for him when the relationships went awry. But he's definitely an amusing character, and his adventures (such as they were) made for a fun read. And now that I've finished the book, I wonder just how autobiographical this "novel" really is—were only the names changed to protect the innocent, or were some of the situations fictionalized as well? (It doesn't matter, I'm just curious.)

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Book Review: "Of Sea and Cloud" by Jon Keller

Full disclosure: I received an advance readers copy of this book from NetGalleys in exchange for an unbiased review.

Nicolas Graves has known nothing more than the life of a lobsterman. Day in, day out, year after year, he has focused on hauling in lobsters, setting his traps, and worrying about the price per pound. This single-minded focus was for the benefit of his family, but while he and his son Bill were tremendously close, his relationship with his son Joshua (known as Jonah) was fraught with tension and misunderstanding from an early age.

When Nicolas is lost at sea, Bill and Jonah pick up their father's mantle as lobstermen. Both learned at their father's side, and while Jonah left to go to college, he returned to follow in his father's footsteps. Yet their father's death has left them at odds—the two sons don't share the same opinions on what to do next, and have different priorities, especially as the price of lobster plunges across the world.

Bill wants nothing more than to continue as his father would, while Jonah isn't sure that this way of life is the answer anymore. While Bill finds himself enmeshed in a romantic relationship with a girl he grew up with, Jonah is restless and wonders whether his father's death wasn't some kind of sign. Yet as the brothers struggle with each other, and Jonah must deal with his unresolved feelings about his relationship with his father.

But Bill and Jonah also find themselves at odds with an unexpected enemy—Osmond Raymond, their father's partner in the lobster pound business for years. Osmond is also the town preacher and a deeply vengeful and difficult man. Despite his years of loyalty and friendship with Nicolas, he is determined to take control of the business for the sake of his children and grandchildren—no matter what the cost to Bill and Jonah, and no matter what gets destroyed in the process.

Of Sea and Cloud is a powerful story of loyalty—to family, friends, and a way of life that gets harder and harder. It's a story of relationships, resentments, unspoken fears and hurts and arguments. It's also a story of fighting for what you believe in, no matter what the cost. It's a familiar story, but Jon Keller tells it quite adeptly.

Keller is an excellent writer, and this book has a very strong voice that makes you feel as if you're among the lobstermen, deeply enmeshed in their day-to-day struggles. While these characters may be similar to others you've seen in other books, Keller's storytelling ability still keeps them interesting and fresh, and makes you want to keep reading about them. The feeling of tension and of weariness are palpable in this book, and they really set the mood.

The life of lobstermen is one I can't really imagine, but Of Sea and Cloud gave me enough insight into their challenges that I was able to understand why they do what they do every day, and why they struggle in face of danger and economic challenges. This is an interesting, well-told book that resonates.

Book Review: "Sous Chef: 24 Hours on the Line" by Michael Gibney

From the moment I realized I loved to cook (and realized I was good at it), I had a dream of becoming a chef someday, of perhaps having my own little restaurant, where I could decide a menu based on what looked good at the market, and cook for people who loved food. Sure, television shows like Top Chef and Hell's Kitchen made being a chef look a little less appealing, but those shows are enhanced for their dramatic value, right?

Michael Gibney's terrific book, Sous Chef: 24 Hours on the Line, has made me realize that the reality is more like the latter than the former. Gibney has cooked in some of the nation's finest restaurants, and clearly knows his stuff. If someone with his skills and experience can still have nights from hell, what chance do some of us mere mortals have?

Sous Chef: 24 Hours on the Line follows Gibney on a day working at a New York City restaurant. He's one of two sous chefs working with a talented chef, who gives both Gibney and his compatriot a great deal of responsibility and latitude in the kitchen, but expects a great deal, too. You see just how much work it is to produce the food you get to enjoy in a restaurant, how many people are involved, how many crises may occur in the preparation, plating, and serving of the food. You get to understand why your food sometimes comes out under- or over-cooked, or perhaps missing a crucial component listed on the menu. These responsibilities, coupled with the breakneck pace of a day in the fishbowl-like atmosphere of a restaurant kitchen, when many sous chefs and others have been out late drinking the night before, can be overwhelming.

"The sous chef (from the French meaning "under chef") is the lieutenant, the executor of Chef's wishes. He is at Chef's side seventy hours a week or more, for good or bad, a perpetual Mark Antony to Chef's Julius Caesar."

This book makes you feel like you are there on the line with Gibney. You get to experience his highs and his lows, work through the challenges thrown at him, and weather the emotional issues he battles. Gibney writes in a conversational style peppered with bravado and lots of culinary terms (luckily there's a comprehensive glossary at the back of the book)—there's even a good deal of Spanish dialogue thrown in as he chronicles his conversations with dishwashers, salad chefs, and other kitchen staff.

If you're a foodie, fancy yourself a chef without a restaurant, or have ever thought about a culinary career, this is a book for you. It doesn't glamorize the sous chef's role; it presents a fairly realistic picture of a day in a fairly busy, fine dining restaurant, without stooping to clichés or creating stereotypical characters. I really enjoyed this a great deal, although it did reinforce that I was wise not to pursue a career as a chef after I went to culinary school. (I like having some balance in my life. Call me crazy.)

"Without a kitchen there is no restaurant; without a strong line there is no kitchen." I know the next time I go out to eat at a restaurant, I'll think a little bit harder about the blood, sweat, and tears (hopefully not too much of the first two) that went into the preparation of the food, and how much I have the sous chef to thank. And I thank Michael Gibney and his great book for that reinforced awareness.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Book Review: "The Heaven of Animals" by David James Poissant

Do yourself a favor: pick up this story collection. Now. You'll be moved, overwhelmed, touched, and blown away by these stories. Do it.

After finishing David James Poissant's debut collection, The Heaven of Animals, last night, first I marveled at just how powerful these stories were, and how much I enjoyed them. And then I remembered, no matter how challenging my life might feel from time to time, I am tremendously fortunate to have fewer problems than the characters in these stories. Man, in many cases, their lives are tough.

The stories in this collection are about relationships—between parent and child, spouses or significant others, siblings, friends, strangers, even between a man and his wife's dog. (No, not that kind of relationship.) In many cases these are people facing challenges—physical, emotional, financial—and they're struggling to right their own ships, so to speak. But while story after story about people in some sort of crisis could be harrowing to read, in Poissant's hands the stories are certainly moving, but they're told so beautifully and skillfully that you feel empathy, and somehow transformed by the paths these characters follow.

Whether its the father and son that bookend the collection in "Lizard Man" and the title story; the girl willing to sacrifice anything for her mentally ill boyfriend in "The End of Aaron"; the couple struggling after the death of their infant daughter in the two-part "The Geometry of Despair"; the two young friends dealing with more than they bargained for in "The Disappearing Boy"; or the brothers struggling with things unsaid in "Nudity", Poissant's characters are richly drawn, complex, and tremendously memorable.

The collection contains a few very short stories ("Knockout" and "The Baby Glows," among them) which I wish Poissant could have fleshed out a bit more, because I found their premise intriguing. But the other stories in this collection are tremendously satisfying. My favorites in the collection are the title story, which finds a man desperately driving from Louisiana to California to see his estranged son before he dies; the aforementioned "Nudists," "The Geometry of Despair," "The Disappearing Boy," and "The End of Aaron," and the somewhat self-explanatorily-titled "How to Help Your Husband Die." (Get your tissues for that one.)

Poissant is a writer whose talent was evident from the first few lines of the first story. Here's just one example I marveled at: "So where does she fit in? What is she to him? She is cuff links. She's a pocket watch. A thing slipped on for special occasions."

I can't say enough about this collection without going into a treatise on why I loved it so much. So read it. And let me know what you think. I can't wait to see what's next for David James Poissant.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Movie Review: "The Grand Budapest Hotel"

I've always been enamored of movies with a healthy dose of humorous or eccentric quirk, like Christopher Guest's (Best in Show, Waiting for Guffman), but not so much those whose quirkiness leans more toward the bizarre. This should explain quite well why I'm such a fan of Wes Anderson's movies.

His latest film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, is a little more slapsticky than his more recent movies, but it's still vintage Wes Anderson. Set primarily in the 1930s in a fictional European country, it tells the story of the regal Grand Budapest Hotel, and its chief concierge, the sly, fey, manipulative Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes, getting the chance to show off his comic chops for once). Gustave H is a stickler for perfection and customer service, which in his own mind means romancing all of the elderly female guests, and dousing himself liberally in a memorable cologne.

While this European country is on the brink of war, Gustave H is fighting his own battle—he has been accused of murdering one of his paramours, the elderly and colossally wealthy Madame D. (Tilda Swinton). Madame D, much to the chagrin of her children—particularly her son Dmitri (a dastardly Adrien Brody)—has left Gustave a famous painting, but that codicil to her will is under suspicion. At the same time, Gustave is training a new lobby boy, Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori), who is willing to follow Gustave's every whim, as long as he stops flirting with Zero's beloved, baker Agatha (a sly Saoirse Ronan).

As Gustave fights to clear his name and free himself from prison (with the help of Zero and some fellow convicts), he's also determined to find out the truth behind who killed Madame D., even if it means tangling with Dmitri's hired muscle (Willem Dafoe, looking a little vampirish). What ensues are chase scenes, scandalous discoveries, social commentary about the changing humanity in the face of war, and undying loyalty between Zero and Gustave. It's a fun little romp, full of vintage Anderson flourishes and elaborate art and set direction.

This is a little lighter in nature than, say, Moonrise Kingdom or The Royal Tenenbaums, but I found it just as enjoyable. What I love most about Anderson's films are the worlds he creates and the complexity and idiosyncrasies of his characters, and this movie had both of those touches. The Grand Budapest Hotel, both in the 1930s and 1960s, where the movie is narrated from, is a creation all its own, populated with memorable, passionate, and quirky characters. (Many of Anderson's regulars—Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, Edward Norton, Jeff Goldblum, Brody, Dafoe, and Swinton—are back again for more.)

I loved Ralph Fiennes in this movie. So often he plays morose characters, if not evil ones (cough, He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, cough), so it's awesome to see him get to sink his teeth into such a humorous, campy role. I really enjoyed his delivery in many scenes, and the dedication Gustave has to the hotel, even as he's trying to benefit himself as well. Revolori does a great job as the loyal lobby boy, and it's also good to see Ronan smiling in her part. There are so many actors crammed into this movie that you both enjoy their performances and find yourself saying "Oh, wow, they're in this, too?"

Wes Anderson's movies aren't for everyone. But if you're looking for some wisecracking, unusual fun, with some enjoyable performances, definitely check this one out. If you like your movies a little more straightforward and less strange, you might want to pass this one by. I really enjoyed it, though.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Book Review: "Coincidence" by J.W. Ironmonger

Do coincidences really exist? Are our lives determined by chance or does a guiding force dictate what will happen?

On Midsummer's Day (June 21), 1982, three-year-old Azalea Ives is found wandering in the midst of a fair in the United Kingdom. With no sign of any parental figures, and her being too young to provide information about her family or where she lives, she is entered into the foster care system and eventually adopted by teachers Luke and Rebecca Folley.

Ten years later, on June 21, 1992, Azalea's adoptive parents are killed in Uganda, part of an uprising led by notorious warlord Joseph Kony.

The confluence of these events, and the fact that other things have occurred in Azalea's life more than once, has led her to believe that on June 21, 2012, she will die as her mother and adoptive parents before her. She seeks out Thomas Post, a professor specializing in the study of coincidences, to see if he can shed some light on her fate. Post believes that life happens randomly, but the more he gets to know Azalea and learns about how her life has unfolded, the more he starts to wonder—and worry if she might be right about meeting her death on that same day.

Coincidence spans from 1982 to the present, from the United Kingdom to Uganda. It's a tremendously intriguing book that debates whether fate has a hand in determining the course of our future, and whether there is anything that can be done if we believe that to be true. It's also a book about whether you should live your life for the moment instead of worrying about what your fate might be, and how emotions trip up our rational thoughts.

I enjoyed the premise of this book, and liked when it focused on Azalea's story throughout the years and her uncovering the many similarities or coincidences in her life. However, I felt the book spent a little too much time laying out her family's time in Uganda and Joseph Kony's reign of terror (although some of it is explained later in the book) and that took away from the power of the story. I also felt in trying to lay out an argument about whether coincidences really do exist, the book got a bit technical and heavy-handed.

At its heart, this is a powerful, emotional story. I just wish the actual story got more attention than the message the book was trying to convey. But it's still very fascinating, especially if you believe in coincidences.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Book Review: "Shotgun Lovesongs" by Nickolas Butler

Some books do a great job evoking a sense of place and a general mood, which draw you even further into them. Nickolas Butler's Shotgun Lovesongs is one such book. It's beautifully written—poetic, even—and tremendously compelling, and I read it between two short flights.

Little Wing, Wisconsin is a small rural town. Henry, Lee, Ronny, and Kip were best friends who grew up together. While Henry stayed in Little Wing to take over his father's dairy farm, Ronny found some success on the rodeo circuit before his drinking led to a brain injury following an arrest, Kip moved to Chicago to become a broker for the Mercantile Exchange, and Lee was the successful one, becoming a popular singer.

Ten years later, the friends are reunited for Kip's wedding, as he has returned to Little Wing to breathe life into the town's defunct mill. Lee agrees to sing a song at the wedding, and he finds himself caught between the magic of a new relationship with a successful actress and the desire to return home, where life is simpler. But the wedding also causes the start of some stresses among the friends, as they deal with the problems of their own lives and the envy, frustration, jealousy, and insecurity of small-town life when you've known each other forever.

The book shifts in perspective between the four friends as well as Henry's wife, Beth, who also grew up in Little Wing, and had a special connection with many of the friends. It moves back and forth through time, touching on the victories and defeats, hurts and happy times. While some characters are more engaging than others, Butler has imbued them with such life and complexity that they feel almost larger than life, and you find yourself wishing you had friends like these. While nothing out of the ordinary happens in the plot, it doesn't matter, because you become truly invested in their lives. Shotgun Lovesongs is a paean to life in small-town America, its virtues and its disadvantages. It's a book about trying to live your dreams and worrying about what to do if the dreams don't turn out the way you hoped. It's a book about how far the power of love can take you and how far the power of friendship can carry you. And Butler's use of language is so evocative and mesmerizing, but yet still simple and appropriate for the story. Here's an example:

"Strange, I thought to myself right then, how his life was like my own and yet not at all like it, though we came from the same small place on earth. And why? How had our paths diverged, why were they still even connected? Why was he then in my backyard, on my farm, the sound of almost two hundred cows, faintly in the background, mooing and lowing? How had he come back, this famous man, this person whose name everyone knew, whose voice was recognizable to millions in a way that made it impossible for him to be a stranger in so many places?"

I really loved this book and didn't want it to end. I think it would be a great movie as well, because I would love to see these characters and their stories play out in front of me again. I'd encourage you to take a trip to Little Wing, Wisconsin and spend some time with these people. Their lives might not wow you, but their stories will hook you.

Book Review: "The Todd Glass Situation" by Todd Glass with Jonathan Grotenstein

Full disclosure: I received an advance readers copy of this book from NetGalleys in exchange for an unbiased review.

I've been a huge fan of Todd Glass for years, ever since I saw him appear on Star Search in the 1980s. I watched his appearances on televised stand-up comedy shows, attended a few of his shows at the DC Improv over the years, and rooted for him on one of the early seasons of Last Comic Standing. If I were funnier, I'd want to be just like him.

After reading his memoir, The Todd Glass Situation: A Bunch of Lies about My Personal Life and a Bunch of True Stories about My 30-Year Career in Stand-Up Comedy, not only do I still find him hysterically sarcastic, but I'm touched by his heart as well. This is an account of his growing up in Pennsylvania, struggling with school and trying to find a way still to fit in, which he did by making people laugh. It's the story of how his comedy career started—the ups and downs, the advice he was given from fellow comedians, the lessons he's learned along the way, and how comedy has changed through the years. As a huge fan of stand-up comedy (particularly in the 1980s and 1990s), I found this really fascinating.

But this book is also about Glass' coming to terms with being gay, something he only acknowledged recently. Although Glass had always inherently known he was gay, he was truly affected by the attitudes of those around him toward gay people—those who called people "fag" or weird things "gay." He also didn't want audiences or his friends to treat him differently. The book recounts his trying to reconcile his "situation" with being the regular funny guy, trying to find a relationship while simultaneously hiding his true self from those around him, and how doing so for so long really shaped his life. (Glass finally chose to speak out after a rise in suicides of young gay people.)

This book is uproariously funny (I could almost hear Glass narrating it as I read it) and truly heartfelt. I definitely identified with his struggles since we're only a few years apart, and so much of what he had to say in the book I have either said to people or felt myself. I had to be careful not to laugh out loud (I was on a plane while reading this) and I also tried to keep my emotions in check. This is a terrific look at the world of a stand-up comedian and the simultaneous struggle for self-acceptance.

I'm glad Todd Glass was finally willing to share his story. Hopefully what he has to say will not only amuse others, it will perhaps make them think differently as well. That's the way the world changes.

Book Review: "The Cuckoo's Calling" by Robert Galbraith

As much of a fan as I was of the Harry Potter series, I'll admit I was truly skeptical when it was revealed last year that Robert Galbraith, the author of a new mystery/crime series that began with The Cuckoo's Calling, was actually a pseudonym for J.K. Rowling. Given the tepid response her first "adult" novel, The Casual Vacancy, received, how would she fare with mystery writing, especially since she was doing it incognito?

Cormoran Strike is a former British army officer who lost part of his leg in Afghanistan. He is now struggling to make ends meet as a private investigator, and his struggles extend beyond the business world—his romantic life is in a bit of a shambles, and family-related issues constantly cause him anguish and frustration. He's not really certain where the money will come from, or if he'll have enough even to keep his business running.

Salvation comes in the form of John Bristow, a wealthy attorney who hires Strike to tackle a case most private investigators would turn away, but Bristow's deceased older brother was an old school friend of Strike's. Bristow's adopted sister, famed supermodel Lula Landry, allegedly committed suicide a few months earlier, jumping from the balcony of her apartment building. While there were initially some suspicions that her boyfriend, drug-addicted musician/actor Evan Duffield, might have been responsible, his alibi and Lula's history of mental illness and erratic behavior led the police to conclude her death was suicide.

But Bristow is convinced this wasn't the case. He has his theories as well as some evidence he doesn't think the police considered as carefully as they should. Strike finds himself quickly enveloped in his investigation, which takes him into the high-fashion celebrity world, a world of attitude and entitlement. And all the while Strike is battling his own demons, both physical and emotional. The closer he gets to figuring out what really happened to Lula, the more he puts himself in danger—both to those inflamed by his investigation (including the police) and to himself.

Rowling/Galbraith throws in lots of twists and turns, which keep the plot moving at a rapid, entertaining, and believable pace. And while the ultimate resolution of the plot might not shock you, how you get there (and the related stories along the way) is definitely compelling and entertaining. There was some action, some intrigue, even some emotion, which really helped this book transcend so many others in the mystery genre.

After reading The Cuckoo's Calling in one sitting (it was a long flight), I can say that Rowling/Galbraith definitely shows promise in this genre. Much as with Harry Potter, she excels in creating complex, interesting, multidimensional characters that hooked me and made me interested in seeing what would happen with them. I really like Cormoran Strike's character (as well as his secretary, Robin), and I look forward to further installments in this series. It's good to have Rowling back, doing what she's good at.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Book Review: "What Ends" by Andrew Ladd

In 1980, Trevor McCloud is the last baby born on Eilan Fìor, a small island off the coast of Scotland. While at one time the population of Eilan Fìor numbered in the hundreds, times have been tough, and only a few families remain. Trevor's parents operate a guesthouse, which mostly caters to tourists in the summertime, and the adjoining pub serves as the center of the continuously shrinking community.

Trevor's arrival is disruptive to his two older siblings—Barry, the studious boy who has enjoyed being the only pupil in the island school until Trevor's birth hastens sending their sister, flighty and creative Flora, to school as well. She'd rather draw and spy on the wealthy artist who lives in one of the big houses on the island. But until Barry must leave for boarding school (there is no high school on the island), he and Flora share a close bond.

One by one, the remaining families leave Eilan Fìor, until the McClouds are the only people living there permanently. While the parents, George and Maureen, have been reasonably content to stay there for the rest of their lives, their children—Barry and Flora in particular—want more out of life. Barry flees first and then Flora leaves to attend art school, after considering spending the rest of her life on the island helping her parents manage. While Barry never really looks back, Flora is unsure whether life off of the island is what she truly wants until she arrives.

What Ends is a somewhat elegiacal look at how time and circumstances can change the way of life you planned. It's a book about being torn between wanting more out of life than what is in front of you or settling for what you have been given. It's the story of wishes that never quite come true the way you hope, feelings and resentments left unexpressed and unsaid, and the obligations of family.

The book shifts in perspective among all of the McClouds, and spans from 1980 through 2005. Andrew Ladd has created a fictional island that seems very real, full of taciturn yet passionate people, and draws you into their lives. Much like the McCloud children, I wanted a little more from this book than I got. I felt the stories were a bit unresolved, and I didn't feel I got to know all of the characters as well as I would have liked. But Ladd's writing is beautiful, almost poetic, and you find yourself trying to picture Eilan Fìor in your mind as you read.

Book Review: "Cutting Teeth" by Julia Fierro

Full disclosure: I received an advance readers copy of this book from NetGalleys in exchange for an unbiased review.

It takes a talented author to keep you reading a book in which you're not very fond of many of the characters but you're so drawn into the plot you want to see where it leads. That is definitely the case with Julia Fierro's Cutting Teeth—while I found nearly every one of the characters tremendously unappealing because of their behavior and their attitude, I couldn't stop reading the book, even as I kept saying to myself, "God, I hate these people!"

A group of thirty-something parents in New York City, linked together by their children's playgroup, decides to spend Labor Day Weekend at a beach house on Long Island. Nicole, whose parents own the house, is a successful author and instructor who is becoming increasingly paralyzed by her phobias and fears, and her need to protect her son. She moves from obsession to obsession, from fears of swine flu and bird flu to fixation on a rumor that a major attack will happen in New York City over the holiday weekend. She's barely holding it together, with thanks only to a hidden stash of marijuana she secretly smokes, but even that can't calm her down.

Leigh seems to have it all, but the former debutante is actually dealing with serious money problems and the pending discovery of a secret that could ruin her. Leigh's son, Chase, is sweet but developmentally challenged, and he is straining her patience and her marriage. If it weren't for her Tibetan nanny, Tenzing, she would be utterly lost.

Allie and Susanna are newlyweds who met when Allie was Susanna's college instructor. They're the parents of twin boys, and Susanna is now pregnant with a third child and resents that she put her art career on hold for motherhood and to allow Allie's career to continue to thrive, while Allie isn't sure she's cut out for motherhood or the domesticity of married life and the beach house outside of the city that Susanna so craves.

Rip is the only father in the playgroup. Although he considers himself just one of the mommies, he never stops reminding the women that he's all man, despite the fact that his wife, Grace, is the breadwinner and refuses to consider having a second child so Rip can continue being a stay-at-home dad. Although Rip is in love with their son, Hank, and loves being needed, Hank's sensitivity troubles him.

And then there's Tiffany, the only mother in the playgroup with a daughter (diva-in-training Harper), who vacillates between mean girl gossiping and playing the mothers against each other, flirting with Rip and using her sexuality to get what she wants, and being the know-it-all mommy who preaches organics and letting your child breastfeed until they're ready to stop. She'll stop at nothing to ensure her daughter gets the life she didn't have as a child.

As if five preschool children and an infant (as well as a pregnant mother) in one house weren't enough to cause chaos, all of the problems facing these parents and their individual foibles will come to a head during this weekend. Secrets will be revealed, relationships will be tested, fears will be exposed, and feelings (at the very least) will be hurt. Will these parents be able to keep their cool and retain their relationships with each other and their significant others? Will the world end over the weekend, as Nicole fears it will?

Cutting Teeth is a slightly over-dramatized look at modern-day parents in New York City. It's disturbing to think that people really behave and think this way, and you'll probably recognize someone you know in at least one of the characters. These are troubled, deeply flawed people, but for the most part, they are trying their best to be devoted parents, no matter how challenging that is given what is going on around them. I don't think I'd like being around these people in real life, but I found their fictionalized stories somewhat amusing, and I waited to see who would get their comeuppance.

I think this will be a fun and compelling beach read, as long as you don't plan to spend your time in a house with lots of little kids and other high maintenance parents. Perhaps the characters will annoy you as they did me, but hopefully you'll still find the story as readable as I did.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Book Review: "The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld" by Justin Hocking


Having just finished Justin Hocking's memoir about his obsession with surfing and Moby Dick, and his struggles to find direction in his life and overcome his addiction to being in relationships, I feel much like I'd imagine one does after a good round of surfing—breathless and exhilarated, simultaneously.

Justin Hocking was a West Coast kid, outdoorsy, constantly obsessed with motion, an obsession he fed first through break dancing and finally through skateboarding. He became obsessed with Herman Melville's classic novel and really felt it spoke to him, both about his own struggles and the struggles of the world around him. He did painstaking research into Melville's life and career, and read everything he could get his hands on that has been written about the book. (He also has a list of others obsessed with the book, including Jackson Pollock and Laurie Anderson.)

When Hocking moved to New York, he was struggling with the inevitable end of a long-distance relationship and trying to figure out what to do with his life when he spotted someone on the subway holding a surfboard. Shortly thereafter he became obsessed with surfing anywhere and anytime he could, and found himself among a rapidly growing circle of friends who all shared the same love for the sport and the feelings it provoked. As his life grew more and more chaotic and confusing, Hocking could only find peace amidst the waves.

But surfing wasn't enough to make him content. As he started to wonder whether he'd ever find true love, and then began realizing that perhaps he had problems with being in romantic relationships, his life became more emotionally anguished. And on top of that, he grew increasingly unhappy with his job and with much of the culture of New York City, yet found himself incapable of making a decision whether to move to Portland, Oregon, or stay in New York, where he can surf whenever he wants to. On a visit to his family, a violent encounter throws him even more in turmoil, and he equates his struggles and the feelings they cause with those of Captain Ahab.

This is a meticulously researched, emotionally poignant, fascinating, and sometimes humorous book, populated with a tremendously memorable and endearing cast of characters. While at times the book veers off into strange tangents involving Hocking's family (in an effort to illustrate that his obsession with the water may very well be genetic), and he does rant a bit about George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, I was completely compelled by Hocking's memoir. Considering I know nothing about surfing or skateboarding, and have only read Moby Dick once, I was surprised how utterly hooked I was by this book. I think Hocking would be a fascinating person to talk with, and I would love to watch some of the people he wrote with, even from afar, just to see if their reality matched what I saw in my head.

I don't read a lot of memoirs; it takes a compelling subject and a talented writer to reel me in. The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld succeeds in both categories. It's unlike anything I've read, which means it will stay in my head even more than it would on its literary merits alone.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Book Review: "Airstreaming" by Tom Schabarum

Linda is a junior in high school growing up in Kansas City in the 1970s. She is fiercely devoted to her father, who went blind as a result of injuries he sustained during Vietnam. The two listen to jazz music, and even go to a club every now and again so they could simply listen to music. Their closeness causes resentment in Linda's mother, Clare, forced to work because her husband can't, and she wishes that her life didn't involve so many sacrifices on her part.

Martha was a troubled young woman when she met Jack, who was dealing with his own problems. But the two formed a strong connection, and married. What Martha wants more than anything is to have a baby, something that can make her feel truly rooted in the world (although we find out later that there's more to it than just that). Jack is reluctant but knows how much the desire for a baby consumes Martha, so when she becomes pregnant, he is guardedly happy but still worries that something could go wrong.

When a tragedy affects Linda and Clare, it brings Linda into Jack and Martha's life, and it is another tragedy that further brings all four of their lives together. In an effort to help Martha, Jack buys an Airstream trailer, with the thought that the two can travel the world and it will solve all of their problems. But Jack doesn't realize how deep the problems lie, and Linda seeks solace from Jack and Martha at the time when they need to give it most but need their own solace as well.

Airstreaming is a poignant, emotionally compelling book about the power of love—love for your spouse, love for your parent, love for your child, and the desire to be loved. It's a book about the hurts and resentments we keep buried inside, and our need to escape, even when we should face reality instead. And it's also a story about how sometimes the refuge we need isn't always the best solution for us.

I enjoyed this book and found it very moving. All of the characters have flaws, and fears, and problems they should talk about with others but don't. It's interesting that the book took place in the 1970s because at times it felt even more old fashioned than that. I thought the core of the story was very interesting and compelling, although I didn't think a subplot with Linda and Clare's neighbors meshed with the story well. Clearly, Clare is the least sympathetic character in the book, and although I understand what drove her, I wish that Tom Schabarum had focused a little bit more on the depth that he actually gave her.

How do you keep going when it feels like your life is going completely off course, and you don't know how to cope? Airstreaming is a book about people in desperate need of hope, and how they find the strength to carry on.

Book Review: 'Not for Nothing" by Stephen Graham Jones

Full disclosure: I received an advance readers copy of this book from NetGalleys in exchange for an unbiased review.

Nick Bruiseman is a disgraced former police detective and private investigator forced out of his job—and the town of Midland, Texas—after an investigation goes more than a little awry. He returns to his small hometown of Stanton, Texas, where he hopes to drink the rest of his days away, days he's spending working for and living at Aardvark Custom Economy Storage. ("Free room, free board, so long as nobody complains about me taking liberties with their stuff."

He's hoping for anonymity, a life where he doesn't have to handle anything more complicated than picking up chopped beef sandwiches from the nearby water station and letting his old friend' son and his band practice in one of the vacant storage units. But one day in walks Gwen Tracy, former high school cheerleader and homecoming queen, over whom Nick was rather obsessed back in the day (their encounter in his truck one night during senior year didn't help his obsession any). She wants to hire Nick as a private investigator, because she says she is being threatened and stalked by an ex-convict she met while tutoring at a prison.

Shortly after Gwen leaves the storage company, Nick gets a visit from another old friend, Rory Gates. Rory was the star football player to Gwen's cheerleader, the homecoming king to her queen. Nick and Rory used to be friends despite their competition over Gwen. Now Rory wants to use Nick's services to spy on his wife, whom he believes is having an affair. He's not interested in taking no for an answer. The catch of course, is that Rory is now married to Gwen, so Nick has, in a short amount of time, been hired by both husband and wife.

Then someone gets murdered, and Nick is suspected of the crime, which brings him into contact with a shady attorney that owes him a favor. As Nick desperately tries to clear his name and prove what really happens, he finds himself in unending trouble and in the crosshairs of a number of people, including a sheriff sure that all roads lead to his guilt, and a pool shark with a violent streak to whom Nick has owed money for quite some time. And of course, the judge who banned him from Midland pops up, too.

I really enjoyed this book a great deal, and thought Nick was a pretty terrific character. He makes no bones about his flaws and he doesn't care what people think about him (most people, at least); he just wants to live the rest of his failed life in an alcoholic stupor. But he cannot turn off his detective instincts and his need to try and both clear his own name and figure out what's really happening.

Stephen Graham Jones has created a memorable group of characters which seem familiar but are more complex than you first think. It's a plot full of twists and turns, and I like how it kept me guessing. If I have any criticism, it's that there were perhaps too twists—as the story neared its conclusion, I had to re-read a bit just to be clear on what exactly happened and who was really involved. But in the end, Nick Bruiseman and the folks in Stanton, Texas were fun to spend some time with, and I hope Jones takes us back on another journey to Stanton sometime soon.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Book Review: "Ways of Leaving" by Grant Jarrett

Full disclosure: I received an advance readers copy of this book from NetGalleys in exchange for an unbiased review.

Chase Stoller's life is kind of falling apart. He's lost his job as a reporter, his marriage is over in all but the legal sense, and to top it off, his estranged father has just died. He now must return to his hometown in the Poconos, a place he doesn't have many warm feelings for, and face his unresolved feelings about his childhood. Plus, his brother, Aaron, resents him for not being around much and forcing him to care for their father, and Chase's beloved sister, Hannah, has been languishing in a mental institution. It's understandable why Chase has stayed away so long, isn't it?

Growing up with a distant, disengaged father and a mother barely able to contain her simmering rage and depression, Chase really only had Hannah to turn to and protect him, and the two were inseparable until mental illness took hold of her life. And Chase certainly has his own problems—he's addicted to sex and alcohol, has a bit of a rage issue, and his self-destructive tendencies manifest themselves mainly in uncontrollable sarcasm and not knowing when to be quiet. His return home is marked by more than a little bit of abuse (both self-inflicted and inflicted by others), not to mention unabashed flirting and and a few sexual encounters, with an old girlfriend and a fragile, married woman.

"Perhaps everyone found comfort in convenient little myths created out of need, out of desperation. Or maybe some lives were truly wholesome, replete with the rich, sustaining byproducts of love. But what did it matter? Searching for answers was like studying a map after arriving at your final destination. All the information in the world wouldn't alter where he was or what he'd become."

Chase recognizes the problems he sees around him—his brother is so self-centered and self-righteous that he doesn't see how fragile his young children are, and he desperately wants to help his sister out of the catatonia all of her medications have her in, and perhaps bring her back to some semblance of how she used to be. But at the same time, Chase can't seem to help himself. He knows he has problems, he thinks he understands the root of them, but he can't seem to pull himself off the path he's on. He wants to love and be loved but doesn't want the emotional entanglement of relationships, because relationships hurt. He wonders if it would just be better if he died, but he's not courageous enough to take his own life. But it takes a decision only he can make to push him onto a road that might help him recover—or destroy him completely.

I really enjoyed this book so much. Grant Jarrett's writing style reminded me a lot of Jonathan Tropper's, and I really liked the way he developed his characters, particularly Chase. The dialogue is funny, sarcastic, and sensitive at times, and while you may wonder if one person really could find himself in that much trouble all the time, every time Chase opens his mouth or does something, you can see why people have the desire to hit him. Ways of Leaving definitely made me laugh a lot, but it also was poignant and emotional in places.

"Do we all just eventually give up, take what comes to us, convince ourselves it's what we've always wanted and get on with whatever our sad little lives have become because, well, because that's what we do?"

If you like books that combine comedy and emotion with some great storytelling, definitely pick up Ways of Leaving. You may not love Chase's character, but you won't be able to keep away from his misadventures just getting through life.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Book Review: "Redeployment" by Phil Klay

I've been tremendously fortunate to never have had to go to war. I've always been awed by the sacrifices made by the men and women in our armed forces, and truly admire both their physical strength and their mental toughness, which has allowed them to battle actual and psychological challenges.

Thanks to a number of war-themed movies, we've gotten some idea (albeit dramatized ones) of what soldiers went through during wartime and after the battles have ended, and how they coped with injuries and trauma. Add Phil Klay's powerful story collection, Redeployment, to this mix. It's a collection that packs a real punch, and Klay, a Marine Corps veteran who served in Iraq, doesn't shy away from brutal honesty, using images and plots that at times may make you uncomfortable, but which truly sear your mind.

Some of my favorite stories included: "Prayer in the Furnace," in which a chaplain finds his abilities and his faith tested by the actions of a zealous Colonel and the effects his zeal had on those in his platoon; "Psychological Operations," which follows the struggles of a former PsyOps Marine desperate for the approval of his father, and a Muslim classmate; "Money as a Weapons System," which humorously looks at the bureaucracy of war, as a Foreign Service Officer ready to make a difference is encouraged to teach young Iraqi children to play baseball; "War Stories," which powerfully illustrates the aftereffects of major injuries on both the injured soldier and one of his best friends, also a veteran; "Unless It's A Sucking Chest Wound," where a Marine-turned-law school graduate deals with a struggling friend still in the service, and the ghosts of those left behind; and the title story, which is a gut punch, following a soldier upon his immediate return to Fallujah, forced into the idea of taking another life.

Klay is a talented writer whose language absolutely dazzles, and the emotion in his stories really resonated. At times when he described gunfire and other action, you actually felt as if you were in the midst of it. His characters are funny, poignant, and all too human. My only criticism of the collection is that Klay uses so many acronyms that soldiers would know, but the average reader probably doesn't, so while I had an idea of what he was trying to say, I couldn't quite grasp certain things. (One story used so many acronyms I could only understand the bare bones of the plot.)

I look forward to seeing if Phil Klay continues writing, because his voice is a powerful one, and his talent deserves to be read.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Book Review: "The Weight of Blood" by Laura McHugh

Full disclosure: I received an advance readers copy of this book from NetGalleys in exchange for an unbiased review.

Lucy Dane has lived in the small Ozark town of Henbane all her life. She's always felt a bit suffocated by her hometown, always longed for something more, and she can't wait to graduate from high school and leave, in search of more excitement. She's also looking for answers—her young mother, Lila, disappeared when Lucy was just a baby, and no one has ever understood what happened to her, although some of the townsfolk believe that Lila was a witch, the way she enchanted people.

When Lucy's friend Cheri disappears and then is discovered dismembered about a year later, Lucy regrets not being a better friend to the girl, but she also can't stop wondering what might have happened to her. And when she finds something of Cheri's in a surprising place, it sparks her need to find out the truth, no matter what trouble she might dig up. At the same time, she starts trying to figure out the truth behind her mother's disappearance, from those she left behind, and those not as willing to share their thoughts.

"Cheri and Lila, two lost girls, bookends with a lifetime of mysteries between them. And then it occurred to me: If it was possible to find one, why not the other? It couldn't hurt to ask around. Someone out there might know what happened to my mother. It might not be too late to find out."

The Weight of Blood follows Lucy's search for answers, as she turns to her best friend, Bess, and Daniel, a local boy she can't stop thinking about. The book also shifts perspective to Lila when she arrived in Henbane, and the challenges, opportunities, and fears she faced. From time to time, the book also is narrated by other characters in both the past and present, which gives more weight to the story.

This is a really powerful book about the ties of family, how blood is so much stronger than anything else, and it often makes us turn a blind eye to what is in front of us. It's a book about the secrets that weigh on us, those we wish we could tell, and those we know we must carry with us for the rest of our lives. It's also a enormously compelling story about the things that go unsaid, and the actions we're driven to because we don't know the things we should.

Laura McHugh is a terrific writer. She's created a tremendously evocative setting in Henbane that you can truly feel, and her characters don't stoop to the stereotypes you often see in books set in the Ozarks. In some cases these are simple people who have made their lives from virtually nothing, but they're not one-dimensional characters. Both Lucy and Lila's stories are gripping, emotional, and satisfying, and although you probably can guess where the book will lead, the story keeps you hooked, much as Henbane has had its hold on so many throughout the years.

"The Ozarks did have a way of calling folks home, though I'd never thought I would be one of them. All my life I had told myself I didn't belong here. Henbane was a map of the devil, his backbone, eye, and throat, its caves and rivers a geography of my loss. But I hadn't taken into account how a place becomes part of you, claims you for its own. Like it or not, my roots tangled deep in the rocky soil."

I really enjoyed this, and recommend it wholeheartedly.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Book Review: "The Fever" by Megan Abbott

Full disclosure: I received an advance readers copy of this book from NetGalleys in exchange for an unbiased review.

Deenie Nash and her friends, Lise and Gabby, seem like your typical high school students. They're anxious about classes, friends, and especially, boys. But their friendships are on shaky ground, as Lise transformed from a chubby girl into a young woman suddenly unaware of the appeal of her body, and Gabby is withdrawing from Deenie, spending more time with another student, the mysterious Skye. Deenie's father, Tom, is a popular teacher at her high school, and her older brother Eli is a high school hockey player who isn't quite sure how to handle so many girls throwing themselves at him.

In a split second, everything changes. Lise suddenly suffers a mysterious seizure during class, and her condition continues to worsen once she is rushed to the hospital. No one can stop talking about what happened to her, and pictures and videos of the seizure make their way across social media. And then suddenly other female students are experiencing strange symptoms—twitching, anxiety, vomiting, and psychological anguish. At a band concert the night after Lise's seizure, Gabby passes out as well, and no one knows what will happen next, and who will be affected.

As more girls become ill and/or hospitalized, both the school and the entire community are abuzz, trying to figure out what is causing this epidemic. Deenie is struggling more than any, as two of her best friends have been stricken and she doesn't know if she's next, or if she's simply a carrier of something that has made her friends ill. Is it some sort of pollution-related illness from the town's lake? Is it a reaction to the HPV vaccines that female students are required by the school system to receive? Or is it something even more sinister?

Megan Abbott follows up her fantastic novel Dare Me with another fantastic depiction of the complicated, sometimes devious minds and behaviors of high school girls. The Fever is quite as mean-girl-filled as Abbott's previous book, but her characters are really well drawn, and I was compelled to keep reading in order to try and figure out what was causing these girls to fall ill. She did a great job of capturing the building hysteria of a community that wants answers and is willing to sacrifice anyone that stands in their way to get them.

More than that, this is a book about secrets, about the things we don't feel comfortable telling our family and friends. It's a book about the anxieties of being a teenager, both for girls and guys, and the anxieties of parenting, the struggles that come with knowing you can't always protect your children from the world around them.

This isn't a perfect book—I felt as if the book headed you down one too many blind paths before revealing the cause of the girls' illness, and I felt that Skye's character wasn't drawn as well as the others. But Megan Abbott is a really talented writer, and I enjoyed this book a great deal despite its flaws. Definitely a fascinating read.