Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Book Review: "The Other Language" by Francesca Marciano

Change can be difficult to deal with, and how we handle it defines us as a person. Whether it's a change in a relationship, career, location, age, even the death of a loved one, change is often unexpected and it can produce some tumultuous results.

The characters in Francesca Marciano's story collection, The Other Language, are all facing change of one sort or another. Marciano's stories take place in foreign countries—Italy, Greece, Tanzania, Kenya, India—but although the settings may be different from what we're used to, the themes are universal and many of the characters' struggles will seem familiar.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Book Review: "The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry" by Gabrielle Zevinn

This book, a tribute to a love of books and reading, as well as a tribute to love, is so warm and wonderful, it almost feels like a big hug. It put me in a wonderful but slightly sentimental mood, and the word "sweet" keeps coming to my mind for some reason.

"What, in this life, is more personal than books?"

A.J. Fikry is the cantankerous owner of Island Books on Massachusetts' Alice Island (a fictionalized version of Martha's Vineyard). Lonely since the sudden, tragic death of his wife a few months earlier, his business is struggling as much as he is. He's drinking a little too much (maybe a lot too much) and giving serious thought to closing the store, but that doesn't stop his definitive ideas about what types of books he should sell to his customers. (The list of the types of books he doesn't like fills nearly an entire page.)

Friday, April 25, 2014

Book Review: "Wonderland" by Stacey D'Erasmo

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

Anna Brundage is a rock musician. While she never was an enormous star, her band's first album made an impact in the music world, and people still talk about it. The second album didn't do so well, and by the third album, she had thrown her chance away, lost in a haze of drugs, insecurity, and a lack of dedication. Her tempestuous affair with a married man she met on one of her tours ended badly, and she couldn't make her marriage work.

Anna now lives in a small apartment in New York City, teaching shop class to young girls at a private school. But she dreams of making it back into the music world. She recognizes that she has one more chance, and she'll do anything she can to make this time last. She sells a priceless piece of her famed artist father's work to fund one more album and a European tour. She's ready to pull out all of the stops.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Book Review: "The Steady Running of the Hour" by Justin Go

Tristan Campbell's life is fairly uneventful. He's not quite certain what he'd like to do with his future, and he's been drifting emotionally somewhat since the death of his mother to cancer. And then out of the blue, he receives a letter couriered from a prestigious law firm in London which says Tristan may be connected to the beneficiary of an estate, one which has yet to be distributed to its heirs. The law firm summons him to London (at their expense) as soon as possible.

From the attorneys, Tristan learns that in 1924, an Englishman named Ashley Walsingham died while on an expedition to climb Mount Everest. He had left his significant estate to a woman named Imogen Soames-Andersson, with whom he shared an brief yet intense love affair before he went off to fight in World War I. Despite the fact that Ashley hadn't seen Imogen in seven years, and the last time they saw each other they fought angrily, he was determined to leave Imogen his fortune.

Imogen never claimed Ashley's estate, and it has remained in trust for the past 80 years. As a result of new information, the attorneys representing the estate believe that Tristan may be related to Imogen and Ashley, and could very well be the legal heir to the estate, which would mean he would inherit millions of dollars. But time is growing short—the law firm swears Tristan to absolute confidentiality and bids him to find evidence that proves he is connected to this couple who lived 80 years ago. No mean feat there.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Book Review: "A Better World" by Marcus Sakey

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

When you read a series of books, you always hope that the next book will be as strong if not stronger than the one that preceded it. Marcus Sakey's dazzling, creative Brilliance was one of the best books I read last year, so while I was tremendously excited to read A Better World, the second book in Sakey's Brilliance Saga, I was also a little hesitant. Could it live up to my (perhaps unrealistic) expectations? Would it remain true the story Sakey so deftly created?

Having torn through the book as quickly as life allowed me to, I can unequivocally say yes to both questions.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Book Review: "The Quick" by Lauren Owen

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

This was an interesting and well-written book, but so much of its appeal came from not knowing what to expect, so I'm going to be fairly vague in my review.

Siblings Charlotte and James Norbury grew up on an aging estate in the English countryside. With a deceased mother and a virtually absent father, they were raised mostly by servants and a distant relative, and left to their own devices. Charlotte took good care of her younger brother, serving as his teacher, protector, and occasional tormentor. But as the estate—and their family's financial position—declined, they were free to pursue their imagination and challenge their bravery.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Book Review: "Family Life" by Akhil Sharma

Eight-year-old Ajay, his older brother Birju, and their mother live in India in the late 1970s, waiting for their father to send for them and bring them to America, where he has been working. While they don't truly know what to expect, they dream that America will bring them all of the luxury and privilege they are hoping for, even beyond anything they can imagine.

When their father finally does send their plane tickets, and they are forced to give away almost all of their possessions in preparation, Ajay begins to wonder whether migrating to America is really worth it.

"Till then, I had not fully understood that going to America meant leaving India."

Book Review: "Astonish Me" by Maggie Shipstead

Maggie Shipstead's debut novel, Seating Arrangements, was a funny and touching comedy of manners which chronicled a man's search for sanity and solace in the midst of the days leading to his daughter's wedding. Shipstead chose a completely different route for her second novel, Astonish Me, which focuses on the world of ballet as well as the obsessiveness of relationships and the secrets they foster.

Joan Joyce is a ballet dancer in the early 1970s. For as long as she can remember, she has lived for nothing more than to dance, and she is conscious of the sacrifices she must make to do so, knowing that time is the greatest enemy of her dancing career. Deep inside, she knows she may never be more than a member of the dance corps, but she still feels the need to give her body and her emotions fully to every dance.

"She has been trained to believe that the motions are enough. Each motion is to be perfect, repeated endlessly and without variation, strung in a sequence with other motions like words in a sentence, numbers in a code."

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Book Review: "A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip: A Memoir of Seventh Grade" by Kevin Brockmeier

"He has always been the kid who cries too easily and laughs too easily, the kid who begins giggling in church for no reason at all, who blinks hotly in shame and frustration whenever he misses a question in class, living in an otherland of sparkling daydreams and imaginary catastrophes."

If I had to pick a memorable year in my life to recount in a memoir, I don't know that I would have picked seventh grade, but for Kevin Brockmeier, that year in 1985 clearly resonated, for good and bad reasons. Growing up in Little Rock, Arkansas, Kevin and his fellow seventh graders were sent to a new school, a combined junior high and high school, so suddenly he was thrown into a world with even more uncertainty, even more potential to make him feel more uncertain about himself.

Seventh grade is an interesting year for Kevin. He falls in and out of infatuation with various female classmates, harnesses his ability to make people laugh, discovers his creative talents (which aren't always as appreciated as they should be), experiences his first kiss, and becomes infamous for his speed in getting ready for gym class. It's also the year when two of his childhood best friends turn on him for no reason and mock everything he does, when he is desperate to outsmart the bully who keeps stealing his lunch out of his locker, when he wants more than anything to fit in, to be loved (or at least liked), to not feel like he always needs to wonder if he's on solid footing.

But Kevin doesn't always make it easy for himself. His desperation to fit in leaves him prone to saying just the wrong thing at the wrong time. He's a little more sensitive and tightly wound than he should be. And for some reason, his schemes to make himself popular (such as dressing up like Dolly Parton for Halloween) make him stand out in the wrong way.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Book Review: "Past the Shallows" by Favel Parrett

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

Wow, what a brutal, beautiful, sad book this was.

Joe, Miles, and Harry are brothers growing up in Tasmania. Their lives have been harder since their mother's death, and their father, a struggling fisherman, has become increasingly erratic, vacillating between hard drinking, hard working, and unpredictable rage. When Joe gets old enough to move away from their father's moods, it leaves Miles to work on his father's boat, and take care of Harry, who gets easily seasick, often daydreams, and likes finding treasures in the sand near the water.

As their father struggles with the supply of fish, his moods become more volatile, and Miles does all he can to meet his expectations and keep Harry out of their father's line of sight. He'd much rather be surfing all he can, but knows Harry needs his protection, and the more time he spends with his younger brother, the more memories of his mother's death come to the surface—as does a startling and disturbing revelation. One day during a storm, everything comes to a head. Miles knows he must protect his brother at any cost.

I wasn't sure what to expect from this book, and although at the start it was hard to figure out exactly what was happening and how the story would unfold, as the entire narrative came to light it became more and more compelling, and more and more poignant. Favel Parrett is a beautiful writer—her imagery of the sea at both calm and in fury is breathtaking, and the way she gradually unfurled the plot was very skillful.

I loved the way Parrett drew the boys' characters. Joe isn't as much of a presence as Miles and Harry, but they were all very different. George, the mysterious, damaged man whom Harry befriends, was very interesting, and I wish we had the opportunity to know more about him and what made him tick. Clearly, the boys' father was the heavy in this novel, and although Parrett gave us glimpses of the man behind the rage, he seemed a little too one-dimensional, although understandably so.

This was a short but very powerful, beautifully written book that will definitely leave an impression on you, much like the treasures Harry found in the sand. Not a perfect read, but tremendously intriguing and moving.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Book Review: "Part the Hawser, Limn the Sea" by Dan Lopez

I've said many times before that I marvel at the way short stories can move you, or make you think, in just a small number of pages. Good stories often leave you wanting more—not that the stories necessarily feel unfinished, but rather they get you so hooked on the characters that you would love to spend more time with them.

Dan Lopez's short collection, Part the Hawser, Limn the Sea, included five reasonably short but intriguing stories, several of which I wished were longer because I wanted to know more about the characters. The stories are linked by the sea—the water and boats factor in each of the stories, as do the roller coaster ride of emotions that relationships take you on.

In "Coast of Indiana," a man must decide if he should give up his own career and life's routines to follow his boyfriend, who will be attending graduate school in a small Indiana town. Time on the beach and on a ferry gives him more time to consider this decision. "The Cruise" follows a group of gay men on a cruise who are all lusting after a deckhand, who has ambitions of his own. In "Volumes Set Against a Twilight Sky," an architect, confronting grief after the death of his partner, decides to take the man's diaries on a cruise with a friend, and must come to terms with what he reads. And in the moving title story, two men are brought together by their shared grief about losing custody of their daughters.

I don't know where I heard about this collection, but it was really beautifully written and several of the stories were very moving. I really wish that some of the stories were longer because I would have appreciated getting to know some of these characters more, and better understand what made them tick. One or two seemed to end sooner than I would have liked, and left me wondering what happened next. But Dan Lopez is a tremendously talented writer, and these stories resonate even after they're done.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Book Review: "And The Dark Sacred Night" by Julia Glass

How much of our life's future direction can be gleaned from who we are, or who we believe we are? Do questions about our heritage really influence the way we think about ourselves?

Kit Noonan is an unemployed professor of art history with a strong interest in Inuit art. He was an excellent instructor but lost his job because he couldn't bring himself to finish his book, a condition of his continued employment. In fact, he can't seem to motivate himself to do much of anything but cook for his family and shake himself out of his daily paralysis to keep some basic routines. This inertia is having a tremendously negative effect on his marriage to Sandra, a strong-willed landscape architect.

Sandra believes that the reason Kit is afraid to move forward with his life is that he's stuck in the past—specifically the fact that he doesn't know who his father is. Raised by a secretive, stubborn mother, Daphne, who refused to tell him who his father was or even share the circumstances of his conception, Kit has always been curious but has tamped down his desire to know where he came from for fear of causing trouble. So Sandra forces Kit out of their New Jersey home, encouraging him to seek answers from Jasper, the outdoorsman and former ski instructor whom his mother married when he was a young child, and was the only father figure he ever knew.

"To change direction, to go somewhere entirely new, maybe you need to know exactly where it is you came from in the first place. A secure foothold. Don't you think?"

Kit's time with Jasper reawakens feelings of nostalgia in both men, as well as stokes the resentment of both toward Daphne. Despite his promise to Daphne never to share the details of Kit's paternity, Jasper points Kit in the direction of Lucinda Burns, the wife of Vermont state senator Zeke Burns, a woman who has been dealing with her own grief for a number of years, and tried to find ways to carry on with her life the best she could. Lucinda has answers to Kit's questions, and leads him on a path of discovery that has tremendous ramifications in his life and for many others. (Even though some reviews of this book divulge more of the plot, I'm going to leave a little mystery for the readers.)

This is a moving and compelling book about the need to understand who you came from, the need for answers, the need to feel a part of something larger than yourself. It's also a book about the strength of relationships, how they can build us up and tear us down, even years after they've ended. It's about trust and sacrifice, guilt and pain, and the pull of family, those to whom we're related by blood and those we choose to make part of our family.

I really love the way Julia Glass writes, and it was good to revisit a few characters from some of her earlier books. Her characters are so nuanced, so complex, they draw you into their lives and you want to know everything about them and what makes them tick. The plot is at times tremendously emotional, at times tremendously frustrating because of the things left unsaid.

I enjoyed this book quite a bit, but interestingly enough, I found Kit's character to be the weak link of the book, even though he is the linchpin around which the other characters revolve. It was almost as if the inertia that Sandra accused him of translated into his character, because he seemed almost lifeless despite what was going on around him. However, this is still a beautifully written book worth reading, a book that will make you think and make you feel—and maybe it might even make you a little emotional.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Book Review: "Graveyard of Memories" by Barry Eisler

"If you knew at the outset what you understood at the end, would you make the same choices, take the same risks, accept the same sacrifices?"

So asks John Rain, the enigmatically magnetic mercenary who is the protagonist of Barry Eisler's fantastic series of books, which include Rain Fall, Hard Rain, and Rain Storm. (I believe that the publisher has changed all of the titles of these books now, but these are the original titles I'm familiar with.) Rain is a deadly, intelligent adversary who has the uncanny ability to separate what he does from whom he does it to.

But how did Rain become a mercenary, a man without a true home and very few real connections? Graveyard of Memories is an excellent prequel that finds 20-year-old Rain in 1972 Tokyo, when he is fresh out of the Vietnam War and still a little shaken by what he had to do in the heat of battle. Working as a bagman for the CIA, he mostly delivers cash to another third party, and doesn't really want to know much about where the money really goes or what it's ultimately used for.

One day following an exchange, Rain's impetuousness inflames his hair-trigger temper and causes him to lash out in violence, at the wrong people, which ultimately leaves him the target of one of Japan's more powerful yakuza families. In an effort to protect himself, and perhaps ingratiate himself with his CIA handler, he takes the only path he can—kill before he is killed—but he also agrees to murder a high-profile member of the Japanese government at his handler's behest. It is through these encounters that the roots of Rain's patience and intelligence begin to take root, although they're often obscured by his impulsiveness and the pride of a brash 20-year-old.

As Rain tries to get himself out of the mess he's created, he instead begins realizing he may have found himself in a Gordian knot of sorts, one from which he may not be able to escape. Meanwhile, alone and adrift, without family or any real friends save a policeman he's reluctant to speak with, he finds himself falling for Sayaka, the intelligent, stubborn night clerk at a love hotel. Confined to a wheelchair, Sayaka doesn't know what to make of John, and as his feelings for her grow deeper, so does his dilemma about his "situation" and how to solve it once and for all.

I have loved all of Eisler's John Rain novels so far, and Graveyard of Memories is a worthy addition to this series. Eisler has a true talent for balancing bloody, movie-worthy violence with strong character development, and he does a fantastic job in laying the foundation of Rain's early life, which clearly makes him into the man he becomes in later books. It's a strong writer who can keep you interested in a character who kills people for a living, even if they "deserve" to be killed, but the ease with which Rain ultimately operates somehow doesn't make him seem unsympathetic or psychotic. This book lays bare a little more of how Rain's mindset came to be, and you find yourself utterly compelled.

When I read some of my favorite series of books, I always feel as if getting another opportunity to spend time with characters I enjoy is like spending time with an old friend, no matter how twisted that friend may be. Reading Graveyard of Memories is a unique opportunity to get to understand what makes a character tick, and you realize just why they fascinate you so.

I really hope it's not long before Eisler gives us another glimpse into the world of John Rain. It's a violent but incredibly fascinating world to visit.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Book Review: "Love Letters to the Dead" by Ava Dellaira

This book made my heart hurt (but in a good way).

At the start of her freshman year of high school, Laurel gets an interesting assignment in English class: write a letter to a dead person. Laurel chooses to write to Kurt Cobain, who was her older sister May's favorite singer. Laurel knows that Kurt understands deep emotions, pain, and anguish, feelings all too familiar to Laurel over the last year, because of May's tragic death she can't really talk about, as well as her parents' separation and her mother's subsequent move to California from their New Mexico home.

Laurel's letter to Kurt taps a well in her soul which encourages her to write more letters—to Cobain, as well as Amy Winehouse, River Phoenix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Judy Garland, Amelia Earhart, and poets like John Keats and Elizabeth Bishop. She relates the challenges these celebrities faced and the lessons their lives embodied to the challenges she faces trying to put May's death and the circumstances around it behind her, trying to be a different person, trying to find friends who accept her for who she is, even if she is trying to reinvent herself and hide her feelings of guilt and shame.

"I want people to know me, but if anyone could look inside of me, if they saw that everything I feel is not what it's supposed to be, I don't know what would happen."

The letters chronicle Laurel's experiences in high school, as she starts making friends with a group of people who have more than their own share of problems, and falls in love with a boy named Sky, who hides some of himself from Laurel as she's doing the same to him. The letters tell of the sadness Laurel feels at how much her life has changed since May's death and her parents separated. And many of the letters share Laurel's strong love for May, how May tried to protect her and make her feel at ease, even while May was going through struggles of her own.

The secrets that Laurel keeps inside are slowly revealed, but only after they threaten to disintegrate her relationships with those she cares about. And while the revelations aren't really a surprise, to read about the pain and guilt and burden that one young girl feels forced to carry on her shoulders alone is really emotional. You find yourself wanting Laurel to open up to her family and friends, yet you, too, are worried how they might treat her in the end.

This is a beautifully written, bittersweet, and poignant book about finding the strength to carry on, and finding the person you need to be. It's also a book about learning to trust again when those you depend on have betrayed that trust. While not all of the letters work as well as others, Ava Dellaira's writing is so compelling, so nuanced, I found myself moved nearly to tears while reading this book.

It's interesting: I hadn't heard of this book until I received a targeted promotional email about it from Stephen Chbosky, author of one of my favorite books of all time, The Perks of Being a Wallflower. This book tapped an emotional reservoir that Chbosky's book did, albeit coming from a different place, and like Wallflower, it's a book that will stay with me.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Book Review: "All I Have in This World" by Michael Parker

Michael Parker's All I Have in This World is a beautifully written, poignant, sometimes meandering novel about two people damaged by their mistakes and the aftermath of them, and an old car that somehow binds them together in a strange way.

Maria fled her home in Pinto Canyon, Texas just at the end of high school, when a life-changing decision she made resulted in a tragedy she couldn't escape. Ten years have gone by, and Maria has stayed away from Texas, and barely kept in touch with her mother. Maria has moved from place to place, job to job, and, at times, from man to man, although the holes in her life have yet to be filled. But she makes the decision to return home for a little while, and is surprised by how much she is still affected by the events that caused her departure.

Marcus dreamed of breeding Venus flytraps, and building a farm and educational center for them on his family's acreage in a small North Carolina town. But Marcus' lack of business and museum acumen, as well as his lack of foresight, has led to the bank foreclosing on and seizing the land, land which partially belongs to his sister. Marcus decides to leave North Carolina and head for Mexico, with the money he was able to salvage, and did not share with his sister what happened. A stop along the way in Pinto Canyon for a hike along the Rio Grande results in his truck getting stolen with nearly everything he owned inside.

Maria and Marcus meet at a used car lot. Both are looking for a car—Maria to avoid having to share with her mother, and Marcus to be able to head to Mexico as he originally planned. The two both set their eyes on the same car, a 1984 sky blue Buick Electra. In a snap decision, the pair agrees to share the car, regardless of the fact that they had never really met (or introduced themselves, for that matter), and both have different plans for the car. But they agree to use the car on alternate days, as both try to gain some footing again in their world.

All I Have in This World tells the story of two people desperately trying to hang on and make some sense of their lives, and find a way forward that doesn't involve giving up. Both need to come to terms with what they've done and move on, but neither can seem to handle either of those monumental steps. As life pushes in around them, they are both unsure of what to do next—face their problems or flee again?

This book also tells the story of the Buick Skylark through the years, from when it was first transported from the factory as a young girl with a heart problem watches the car trailer drive past, to the various people whose lives the car touched through the years, until it wound up on the used car lot where Marcus and Maria found it. For its previous owners, the car was both a point of pride and pain, a talisman and a bittersweet reminder.

Michael Parker is tremendously skilled, and he has created two characters with so much depth and pain in their lives, not all of it their own making. I felt as if the story took a bit to get going, as really the book hit its stride once Maria and Marcus met, but both of their stories are tremendously compelling. At times the book is a little hard to follow, and I felt that the ending was a little more ambiguous than I would have liked, but in the end, this book has stuck with me. I felt for Marcus and Maria and their struggles, and would like to know more about whether they were able to put their pasts behind them and find happiness. A unique, interesting, and emotionally rich book.