Monday, June 30, 2014

Book Review: "A Sudden Light" by Garth Stein

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

When you're growing up, you rarely give much thought to your family history or your ancestry. In some cases, you have no idea (through no fault of your own) what your family history is, because of the myriad tensions and estrangements that characterize many families.

That is definitely the case for 14-year-old Trevor Riddell. In the summer of 1990, strained by financial problems, his parents agree to a trial separation, which sends his mother back to live with her family in England, and sends Trevor and his father, Jones, to the Pacific Northwest to visit his father's family. Trevor didn't even know the extent to which his father Jones still had a family, as Jones has been estranged from them for some time.

But when they arrive at Riddell House, the family's decrepit mansion, which is constructed of giant, whole trees, and is set on a huge estate overlooking Puget Sound, Trevor begins to understand the real reason for their trip. Jones has one mission: to convince his aging father, Samuel, who is suffering from dementia, to sign over the property rights, which will allow Jones and his sister, the enigmatic Serena, to sell the house and the property and live a life of wealth. That, however, is easier said than done, as Samuel doesn't want to leave Riddell House, because he is visited by his late wife's ghost.

And that's not the only visitor to the house. The family patriarch, ruthless timber baron Elijah Riddell, mandated that the house be allowed to return to untamed forestland, as a way of making up for the millions of trees his business killed over the years, and Trevor begins to have visions of Elijah's son, who won't rest until his single-minded agenda of carrying out Elijah's wishes is successful. Trevor holds the key, and he is torn between what might ensure his parents get back together, and fulfillment of a promise a father made to his son nearly 100 years before.

I thought A Sudden Light was a moving, beautifully written story about the powerful hold that family can have on us, and how we cannot let ourselves be destroyed by what happened in our past. This is a story about manipulation, loyalty, love, and the desperate need to do the right thing—if you can figure out what the "right thing" truly is. While the "ghost story" elements might not appeal to everyone, I found them to be an integral part of the plot, and really added to the book's appeal.

I am among the few who didn't read Garth Stein's The Art of Racing in the Rain, so this was the first time I had the opportunity to experience his writing. I enjoyed this book tremendously and found it truly an emotional, beautiful book. I know that a story about the tenuous relationships between fathers and sons would hit me hard just a little more than six weeks after losing my own father, but beyond the sap factor, I really loved this.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Book Review: "The Blessings" by Elise Juska

"It's about these contradictions...having this identity as part of a big family but also this part of yourself that's separate, dealing with your own private stuff, that they never really know. Or dealing with the same stuff, just differently."

The Blessings are a large Irish Catholic family living in the Philadelphia area. Elise Juska's novel of linked chapters gives a glimpse of many of the members of this family as they deal with happiness, struggles, and tragedies—namely the death of the family patriarch and the untimely death of the oldest son. The book progresses in linear fashion through time and follows several generations of the family, from the matriarch, Helen, forced to confront grief after the deaths of both her husband and her son, John, to Helen's three surviving children and John's young widow, Lauren, to a number of Helen's grandchildren as they grow into adulthood.

These are stories of the bonds that tie us together and the unspoken hurts and petty thoughts that tear us apart. These are stories about the fulfillment of dreams and the realization that not all you've hoped for will come to fruition. You get the opportunity to experience the lives of these people alongside of them, with, in some cases, a little more knowledge about what's going to happen to them than they have.

"You hear how people's priorities change and eventually they go back to where they came from, like some kind of homing instinct. And you think it won't happen to you, but then something changes, and there you are."

I found The Blessings to be a compelling and well-drawn portrait of a family drawn together in times of happiness and sadness. I'll admit, however, that although each chapter had overlapping characters and situations, it didn't feel like one novel, but more like a collection of linked stories. (Not that there is anything wrong with that.)

Juska did a terrific job in imbuing her characters with unique personalities, so I had no problem keeping each of them straight even as some of them married and gave birth to their own children. As with any novel-in-chapters, some of the stories are more interesting than others, but on the whole, this is a tremendously interesting look at one family's ups and downs, and it definitely makes you look at your own family in a different light.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Book Review: "Mr. Mercedes" by Stephen King

One of the things I love about Stephen King is his ability to create memorable villains and heroes. Even when a book isn't one of his best, the characters are often one of the things that sets his writing apart from other authors. Characters like Pennywise, Annie Wilkes, Jack Torrance, even Christine, remain seared in my memory years after I've read the books in which they've appeared. Mr. Mercedes, King's newest book, doesn't rank among some of his best, but I still found its protagonist, the villain, and some of the supporting characters pretty strong.

Early one morning, a large crowd of people gathers to line up for a job fair. Many of the people are desperate for work. And suddenly, without warning, a man drives a Mercedes into the groggy crowd, killing eight people (including an infant) and wounding nearly twenty more. The Mercedes was stolen from a wealthy woman, although she denies leaving her key in the car, and the perpetrator left no traces behind. It's as if he planned this crime perfectly and knew what he needed to do to escape detection.

Several months later, former detective Bill Hodges, feeling useless and depressed after retirement, gets a letter from the man purporting to be "Mr. Mercedes." He divulges facts only the killer could know, and although he vows that he isn't interested in committing another massacre, he does prey on Hodges' depression. However, the letter ultimately shakes Hodges out of his doldrums, vowing to catch one of the criminals he couldn't bring to justice before retirement, and ensuring he prevents another tragedy from occurring.

Hodges will have his work cut out for him. Not only does he need to keep his shadow investigation secret from his former partner and the police department, but "Mr. Mercedes" is far more twisted and intelligent than he realizes. And the criminal has plans for Hodges—and for a future scheme—and he will not be deterred by anyone. But what Mr. Mercedes doesn't realize is that Hodges, too, has some tricks up his sleeve, plus an unlikely pair of assistants to help save the day.

While I thought the plot of Mr. Mercedes was fairly formulaic, and not at the level of some of King's best books, I really thought the characters were vividly drawn. Even though they grew from stereotypes, I found each of them far more complex than initially expected, and that made the book more compelling for me to keep reading. King's use of language and metaphor is always spot-on, and I also liked how he threw in a few inside jokes about some of his more well-known books as well.

If you're a fan of Stephen King, this is a good book for beach or vacation reading (although it will make you think twice about going into a crowded place or waiting on a long line of people). It's not vintage King, but it's definitely entertaining.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Book Review: "My Salinger Year" by Joanna Rakoff

I read more fiction than nonfiction, but quite often when I read memoirs they tend to recount the challenges, tragedies, or dysfunction that the authors have experienced or overcome. That's one of the reasons I found Joanna Rakoff's My Salinger Year so refreshing.

In the late 1990s, Joanna takes her first "real" job post-graduate school, as the assistant to the main agent at a prestigious literary agency. For years, "the Agency" has been a lion in the literary world, represents some true legends, including "Jerry," aka J.D. Salinger. Yet the agency seems mired in the past, shunning the use of modern technology (correspondence is still typed on typewriters rather than computers), and its old school approach leaves it vulnerable. For Joanna, who dreams of becoming a poet, day after day of typing up dictated letters from her boss isn't entirely challenging, and she hopes to be given the chance to read manuscripts and perhaps someday discover the next great author.

"I did, desperately, want to be part of the Agency, more than I had wanted anything in ages, and without really understanding why—I had to relinquish some semblance of myself, my own volition and inclinations."

One of Joanna's responsibilities is to respond to the enormous number of fan letters Salinger receives daily. People of every age and walk of life write to Salinger, asking for advice, for validation, for support, and bare their hearts, telling him how much his books have meant to them. Having never read any of Salinger's books, she doesn't quite understand why people are so affected by his writing. Joanna is supposed to send a form letter explaining that Salinger doesn't want to see any of his fan mail, but she is so moved (and in some cases, perturbed) by these letters that she takes it upon herself to respond to some of them on her own.

Meanwhile, Joanna struggles with her own love life, torn between her Socialist boyfriend, an aspiring writer and boxer who doesn't quite show her the love she deserves, and her college boyfriend, whom she left without warning. She also is forced to confront financial realities after being taken care of by her parents for so long. As she waits for her literary dreams to come true, she wonders what her future holds—both within the Agency and in life.

My Salinger Year is a funny, moving account of a young woman's experience in the literary world, something you rarely get a glimpse of. It's also a tremendously well-written look at the power of books and the written word, and its ability to move and affect us. While I've never worked for a literary agency and didn't get the chance to meet J.D. Salinger, I identified with some of Joanna's struggles, which made the book fascinating and affecting.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Book Review: "The Geography of You and Me" by Jennifer E. Smith

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

Lucy and Owen meet cute—they're stuck in their apartment building elevator, between floors, during a citywide blackout. Lucy lives on the 24th floor, and has lived in New York City for as long as she can remember, while Owen is the son of the new building superintendent, and lives in the basement. Lucy loves all that the city has to offer, while Owen would rather be anyplace else. Yet they feel a connection between them, and when they are rescued from the elevator, they spend the rest of the night wandering the crowded streets and sleeping on the roof—the place where Owen feels most relaxed—and staring at the stars.

But all in the course of teenage romance never runs smoothly. Both Lucy and Owen have abandonment issues—Lucy's parents are always jetting off to someplace exotic, leaving her and her older brothers alone. And Owen and his father are struggling to recover from a tragedy that has rocked their lives. After their one night together, Owen and Lucy feel incapable of trying to recapture the magic of that evening, and before long, Owen moves away with his father, and Lucy moves to Edinburgh with her parents.

Since they barely knew each other in the first place, why do they feel so torn, between the excitement of a new place and longing for the place they left? Communication between the two is infrequent—although it raises both of their spirits when it happens. It isn't long before both have embarked on new lives, separated by more than simply geographic distance. And although neither can describe why they're still drawn to each other, they also can't describe why they can't seem to connect in the right way, and then their lives continue taking them far from one another.

"If you were to draw a map of the two of them, of where they started out and where they would both end up, the lines would be shooting away from each other like magnets spun around on their poles. And it occurred to Owen that there was something deeply flawed about this, that there should be circles or angles or turns, anything that might make it possible for the two lines to meet again. Instead, they were both headed in the exact opposite directions."

The Geography of You and Me is a tremendously engaging, sweet, enjoyable book about the struggle between one's head and one's heart, the struggle to do what you know you should do versus what you want to do. It's a book about the walls we put up to keep the hurt out, and how we don't always realize those walls keep the happiness out as well. And it's a book about overcoming the challenges of distance—in miles, in communication, in desire.

Those of you who have read my reviews before know I'm a bit of a sap, but I was moved by this book, and really enjoyed it. I know some of its emotional tug came from my residual grief over the recent loss of my dad, but I still felt the story touch my heart, even though I had a feeling I knew how it would resolve itself. Jennifer E. Smith did a great job creating these characters and their story, and while at times I wanted to shake them both, just to make them tell the other how they truly felt, I know that this type of silence is more common than those who are completely verbose about their feelings.

If you're a sap like me, or just like sweet love stories, give this a try. And maybe next time you get in an elevator you'll look around at who you're riding with...

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Book Review: "The City" by Dean Koontz

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

"...childhood is a time of fear as well; some of those fears are reasonable, others irrational and inspired by a sense of powerlessness in a world where often power over others seems to be what drives so very many of our fellow human beings."

Jonah Ellington Basie Hines Eldridge Wilson Hampton Armstrong Kirk was born in the late 1950s to Sylvia, an exceptional singer, and her erstwhile husband, Tilton, who saddled Jonah with all of those names in an effort to ingratiate himself with Sylvia's father, Teddy, who was a musician. But as Jonah grows, he realizes that his father is not a dependable person, and he drifts in and out of their lives until the moment Sylvia puts her foot down, when Jonah is eight years old.

One day Jonah meets a mysterious woman he calls Pearl, a woman who calls him "Ducks," and intrigues him beyond anything he can imagine. She claims to be the heart of the city in which he lives, and she can see everything that is going on within it. She unlocks Jonah's musical ability and finds him a piano on which to practice, and then opens his eyes to some disturbing visions. Over the next two years, he sees Pearl several times, and in his dreams she shows him more disturbing things that obsess him.

When he sees a woman featured in one of those visions, he wants to understand who she is and what will happen to her, but in doing so, he sets in motion a chain of events that will drastically impact his life and those he loves, and cause him to question what causes people to do the things they do. It's a lot of pressure for a 10-year-old boy trying to be the man of the house.

The City is an intriguing, well-written look at growing up in what seems like a simpler time, yet life isn't ever simple. It's the story of feeling like you're carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders, and how finding an ally can make the responsibility easier and so much harder to bear. And it's the story of how we carry the scars of our youth through our entire lifetime.

When an author is prolific, like Stephen King, John Grisham, or Dean Koontz, we tend to expect the familiar from them. It's not that every book they write is identical, or isn't creative; it's just surprising when we read a book that's a departure from what we're used to. That was definitely the case with The City; while it's been a while since I've read one of Koontz's books, this definitely wasn't quite what I expected from him. While there are some distinctive Koontz-ian touches, this is a more straightforward novel than I've seen him write in a while, although what I expected when the book began was vastly different than where the book finished.

If you pick up The City expecting a novel full of fright and horror and psychological drama, you'll be disappointed, but if you pick it up expecting a nostalgic look at growing up and facing the demons you know and those you don't, it will be worth your time.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Book Review: "Adam" by Ariel Schrag

Sometimes when we're attracted to a person we bend the truth about ourselves a little bit to get them to like us. But no one does it quite like 17-year-old Adam Freedman.

As Adam's junior year of high school ends, he's not quite sure he fits in with friends anymore, because they all have girlfriends and he tends to be a little more on the awkward side. He desperately wants a girlfriend, however, and really wants to lose his virginity (although don't tell anyone he's a virgin). When his friends start pairing off in couples, leaving him the odd man out, Adam decides to spend the summer living with his sister Casey in New York City, where she is a student at Columbia and has fully immersed herself in the LGBT culture, without worrying that their parents will find out.

Adam finds himself drifting aimlessly through the summer, still feeling like a third wheel, and longing to meet the girl his dreams have envisioned—a beautiful redhead—so he can go back to his California high school a completely different person. When he meets Gillian—a redhead, no less—at a rally in support of same-sex marriage. He is instantly smitten, and when they meet again at a party, the two feel a strong connection. There's just one problem—Gillian is a lesbian, and has no desire to date a man. What's a guy to do?

Desperate to build a relationship with Gillian, he pretends to be transgender, one who was born female but has transitioned to male, which explains Adam's youthful appearance. (He's also led her to believe he's 22, the same age she is.) Adam knows that a lie, especially one so serious, isn't a good foundation on which to build a relationship, but he can't stand the thought of being without Gillian. The more intense their relationship grows, the more he feels pressure to tell the truth, but instead he learns everything there is to know about being transgender, so his cover doesn't get blown.

But Adam realizes how one lie leads to other lies, and the pressure of maintaining such a facade takes its toll on happiness. And he also learns that memorizing facts about what it's like to be transgender doesn't even scratch the surface of understanding what life is really like. Along the way he'll find himself in some compromising positions (both sexually and ethically), and he'll be more surprised than he ever imagined.

Ariel Schrag's debut novel is sweet, funny, and quirky. At times I found Adam's character a bit reprehensible, but then I remembered he was only 17, and many an immature 17-year-old has done far worse, particularly in the pursuit of sex and love. (Often more the former than the latter.) Adam pokes fun at every LGBT stereotype, and while it does raise some interesting social issues, ultimately it's simply a charming boy-meets-girl novel, albeit this one tweaks that formula a bit.

I enjoyed this book, quirks and all, and found Schrag's storytelling ability to be breezy and refreshing. I'll definitely be watching to see what comes next in her career.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Book Review: "I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You" by Courtney Maum

British artist Richard Haddon has finally found success with his first solo show in Paris, although he feels he's lost his edge and is selling out. And while he should be happy to finally be selling his work, the rest of his life is a shambles. His affair with an American journalist has ended, as she's left him to marry a cutlery designer. Richard's despondence over the end of his affair exposed the secret to his wife Anne, a successful French attorney, who is maintaining cordial relations solely for the sake of their young daughter.

But when a painting that Richard made for Anne when she was pregnant and they were deeply in love sells as part of his show, the bottom drops out of their relationship, and he suddenly realizes he is going to lose both his wife and his daughter. And after months of not really caring, he feels the potential of this loss greatly. He knows he must do all that he can to win his wife back, which won't be easy, because he has to first realize what relationships and love are really all about. And at the same time, he's desperate to get some of his professional edge back.

"But can we come back to love after an absence, or does it die from neglect?"

I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You is an enjoyably moving and funny story about a man trying to regain control of his life, professionally and personally. It's about realizing that perfection isn't perfect, and isn't possible, but that reality has so much more to offer. And it's also about seeing things in a different light.

Courtney Maum does a great job with this book. Richard and Anne aren't always tremendously likeable, but I really enjoyed their characters and rooted for them to be happy. And while the plot of the book is fairly familiar, Maum throws in some fun twists and supporting characters along the way. Some of the reviews I've read of this book liken it to a mix of Where'd You Go, Bernadette and Beautiful Ruins, but I disagree. I think this is a fun, sweet, fairly straightforward book that should be enjoyed without comparison to anything else.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Book Review: "Remember Me Like This" by Bret Anthony Johnson

In the small town of Southport, Texas, the Campbells seemed like the perfect family. But one afternoon, their 11-year-old son Justin mysteriously disappears. Four years pass without any tangible clues, or any idea what happened to him.

The uncertainty takes its toll on Laura and Eric, both of whom find very different ways of trying to cope with this loss. Their younger son, Griffin, who fought with Justin earlier in the day he disappeared, is also struggling with guilt and uncertainty. They still hold out hope that they'll find Justin, or at least understand what happened, and they're not quite ready to move on.

"That was the inconceivable and debilitating shock: You could grow accustomed to what had once seemed so miserable and alien. You could feel a foreign presence in your body, endure the pain and deep threat of it, and not notice as it turned to bone."

After four years of false leads and shaky optimism, Laura and Eric get a call one day from the police. Justin has been found—alive—in nearby Corpus Christi, and he appears to be fine. Strangely, he had been nearby all along and they never knew it. Buoyed by this unbelievable turn of events, they are excited for their lives to get back to the way they once were. Yet amidst all the happiness comes uncertainty and fear—can Justin cope with what happened to him? Is he angry at his parents for not being able to find him? Will he be able to get on with his life and progress normally, or will he be damaged by his experiences? And how will the rest of them truly be happy and relax knowing that in a split second, everything can change?

"Really, once the worst happens, it's always happening. It's never not happening."

Bret Anthony Johnson's Remember Me Like This is a beautifully written, moving book about coping with tragedy and coping with happiness, how both force us to remain on edge. It's a book about whether to face and give voice to our fears, or keep them bottled inside. It's also a book about the fragility of love and the strength of family, and how it forces you to do things you might never imagine.

I really enjoyed this and thought it was tremendously compelling. At times I worried where the book would go, but Johnson did an excellent job slowly unfolding the plot and getting me fully enmeshed in this family and their story. It may be a little difficult for some to read given the subject matter, but it's not really a heavy, emotional book. It's just a pretty excellent one.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Book Review: "The Vacationers" by Emma Straub

Other than holidays and weddings, there's nothing quite like a vacation with family and friends to hit all the right buttons on the dysfunction scale. No matter how idyllic, relaxing, and/or fun the plans seem like they'll be, some type of crisis, tension, or anguish (if not all three) is sure to arise, and turn everything at least slightly topsy-turvy.

And so it goes in Emma Straub's newest novel, the fun, breezy, The Vacationers. New Yorkers Franny and Jim Post have planned a two-week vacation to the Spanish island of Mallorca. This is a much-needed vacation—although they're getting ready to mark their 35th anniversary, tensions and recriminations have been bubbling up at home since Jim's long-time job at a men's magazine ended.

Coming along for the journey to this island paradise are the couple's daughter, Sylvia, who will start college in the fall, but is plagued by the betrayal of friends and social media's fixation on her misguided exploits at a party; their son, Bobby, a Miami real estate agent, and his older girlfriend, Carmen, a personal trainer, both of whom are arriving with luggage and baggage; and Franny's best friend, Charles, and his husband, Lawrence, who are dealing with anxieties of their own.

During the two-week period, the extended Post clan will sunbathe, swim, eat themselves into oblivion a time or two, visit a few tourist spots, and confront a host of issues—from infidelity, insecurity, uncertainty about the future, lust, betrayal, anger, and deception. (Just to name a few.) But while that laundry list may make The Vacationers sound like a heavy, melodramatic book, it's truly anything but. In Straub's capable hands, the plot flows like the waters of the Mediterranean, and the characters, while flawed, hook you quickly.

This is a book about the balance between keeping up appearances and letting it all hang out, dealing with the truth or continuing to live in denial, and fighting for what you want (as well as what you don't). There isn't necessarily anything unique about the plot, but it's still fun and interesting, and a really quick read.

Truth be told, The Vacationers couldn't be any more appropriate of a title for a book that will be perfect to read on the beach, on an airplane, by the pool, or wherever your vacation takes you.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Book Review: "We Were Liars" by E. Lockhart

This was one crazy roller coaster ride of a book. And I mean that in a good way.

Cadence Sinclair Easton is the oldest grandchild of a wealthy family that owns an island off Martha's Vineyard. Each summer she and her mother, along with her two aunts and their families, join Cadence's grandparents on the island. But while the Sinclair family endeavors to project the image that life is perfect and everyone is happy, that is far from the case—Cadence's grandfather, the patriarch of the family, manipulates her mother and her two aunts into a King Lear-esque war over who should own which house on the island, and who should inherit much of the Sinclair family fortune.

Although family tension causes some strife, Cadence is happily ensconced in her own world on the island with her two cousins, Johnny and Mirren, and Johnny's best friend, Gat, who is the son of Johnny's mother's boyfriend. Gat is Indian, and although he wouldn't trade his summers on the island for anything, he strongly feels that the elder Sinclairs don't believe he is worthy of being a part of the family. But that doesn't stop Cadence from falling madly in love with Gat, the summer both are 15 years old.

One day Cadence wakes up in the hospital, the victim of a traumatic brain injury. No one really knows what happened to her, what caused her to be found shivering on the beach. Plagued by debilitating migraines, unable to remember much of what happened that summer, Cadence is tremendously depressed and longs for the companionship of Gat and her cousins, who appear to have abandoned her in the wake of the incident. It is not until she returns to the island two summers later than she can begin to confront them and try to understand what really happened that night—and what has caused everyone to refuse to talk to her about it.

The less said about the plot of We Were Liars, the better. This is a book with a lot of twists and turns you'll want to savor. It reads a bit like a movie or a cross between Gossip Girl, Pretty Little Liars, and perhaps One Tree Hill. While the characters are perhaps a little familiar, as are the emotions of young love, betrayal, and family turmoil, E. Lockhart imbues the story with a freshness, an emotion, that will keep you hooked.

I wanted to read the entire book in one sitting, and read it in a little more than a day. Don't read a lot of reviews before reading We Were Liars—give yourself the chance to experience it not knowing much about it. It's definitely a book that will keep you thinking.