Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Book Review: "Big Little Lies" by Liane Moriarty

Liane Moriarty's last novel, The Husband's Secret, was tremendously popular last year, and when I finally got around to reading it I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it, domestic drama and all. Her newest novel, Big Little Lies, explores similar territory as it looks at the haves and have nots in a small Australian community, and throws in a little mayhem, melodrama, and murder to boot.

Another year of kindergarten is about to start at the Pirriwee Public School. Madeline, who loves to be the center of attention and will fight for any cause—or person—she thinks needs her support, is struggling, because her ex-husband Nathan and his new yoga-instructor wife Bonnie have moved to the same community, and their young daughter is in the same class as Madeline's daughter, Chloe. (And don't even get her started on the fact that Madeline and Nathan's teenage daughter Abigail would rather live with her father—who abandoned her and Madeline when she was an infant—than her mother.)

Madeline's gorgeous best friend, Celeste, has a picture-perfect life. She has the gorgeous, enormously wealthy husband, Perry, and two beautiful twin sons. Perry gives Celeste anything she wants, and their lives are the envy of most of the parents in their community. But what looks like the perfect life from the outside can be far from perfect on the inside, and Celeste has to figure out how to regain control.

New in town is single mother Jane, who is younger than most of the other parents—so young, in fact, that she is often mistaken for one of the children's nannies or au pairs. She is fiercely devoted to her young son, Ziggy, and despite the way many of the parents treat her, she becomes fast friends with Madeline and Celeste.

When a bullying scandal erupts in the kindergarten class, battle lines are drawn between groups of parents. As the most innocent of incidents are misinterpreted and re-interpreted, the scandal threatens to explode, and it brings many other issues between spouses, between friends, between sets of parents, to a head. And it all explodes one evening, at the school's "Elvis and Audrey" Trivia Night, when everything goes much too far, and someone winds up dead.

I really enjoy the way Moriarty writes. She completely hooks you in this tempestuous little community and gets you invested in the characters, and just when you think you know where she's going to take the story, she flips the script on you. The book flashes back to the months before Trivia Night, and is interspersed with commentary from a Greek chorus of sorts comprised of the other parents, as well as the teachers and administrators from the school.

There was a period of time when this book reminded me of Julia Fierro's Cutting Teeth, in that I found many of the supporting characters so odious that I wasn't sure I wanted to keep reading. But the main characters are so much more complex than I first thought, so I was glad I kept on, because in the end, despite my feeling for some of the characters, I really enjoyed the book as a whole. This is a fun, melodramatic, soapy read, definitely one which will amuse and intrigue you—unless this is the type of life you live.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Book Review: "Tiny Ladies" by Adam Klein

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

Carrie is a caseworker in Iowa doing her best to help her clients overcome their struggles and make a fresh start of their lives. She's trying to do the same thing—her previous tenure in the same role while living in San Francisco ended disastrously, with her having an affair with Victor, a dangerous client, and resuming a drug addiction that has had her in its grips since her teenage years. She's desperate to keep her life together, but she can't keep herself from caring too much about her clients.

"Caring about people is wounding. That's why so many people are reluctant to care. It hurts."

When Carrie meets Hannah, a troubled young woman with more than her own share of problems, Carrie feels like helping Hannah might be what she needs to finally move her life forward. But as she realizes Hannah is a more complicated person than she first thought, Carrie finds herself having to confront someone from her past, someone she hoped would never find her, and it sets her on a dangerous path.

Tiny Ladies is a brutal, beautifully written novel about the toll addiction takes on a person's life and those around them, and how hard it is to break the cycle of addiction when it's in your blood. It's a story about struggling to do what is right while your life is spiraling out of control, and you wonder if the effort it takes every day is truly worth it. The book shifts in time throughout Carrie's life, from her childhood growing up poor near the Florida Everglades, the daughter of two drug addicts, to the start of her own addictions, and her relationship with Victor, which has disastrous consequences for more than just her career.

I had never heard of Adam Klein before but the description of this book intrigued me tremendously. Klein is tremendously talented, and he so perfectly captured Carrie's voice and her soul, which isn't always a strong suit of male authors. This isn't a happy book by any means, and at times the storyline seems a little disjointed, but it is so powerful, and you find yourself urging Carrie not to make the same mistakes again, to try and pull her life together. This was an excellent read I'm glad I stumbled upon.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Book Review: "Thunderstruck & Other Stories" by Elizabeth McCracken

The short stories in Elizabeth McCracken's great new collection, Thunderstruck & Other Stories, may not leave you feeling all shiny and happy inside, but you will find yourself marveling at her writing ability, and how she captivates and compels you in just a few short pages. These are stories that look at the bleaker side of life, love, and relationships, but many pack a serious punch.

Some of my favorites in this collection are: "Juliet," which tells the story of a community rocked by a murder, as narrated by staff from the library, who knew both the victim and the alleged murderer; "Property," about a young widower who moves into a dilapidated rental home and finds himself confronted by the detritus the landlord left behind; "The Lost & Found Department of Greater Boston," told by the manager of a local grocery store, who feels a vested interest in the life of the teenage son of a missing woman; "Hungry," about a woman dealing with a dying son, an angry daughter, and a granddaughter who won't stop eating; and the title story (which is probably my favorite), about a family that flees to Paris in an attempt to curb their teenage daughter's rebellious behavior, and finds themselves affected in ways they could never imagine.

It has been a while since I've read one of McCracken's books, although I remember how much I enjoyed the wonderful The Giant's House a number of years ago, but I remember how much I love her storytelling skills. The stories in this collection hooked me pretty quickly, and left me thinking about them even as I went on to the next one. And even now, a few days after I've finished the collection, some of the stories—particularly the ones I've named above—have me wondering what happened to the characters when the stories ended.

If you're a short story fan, pick up Thunderstruck & Other Stories. The stories themselves might not make you joyful, but McCracken's writing certainly will.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Book Review: "Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage" by Haruki Murakami

Tsukuru Tazaki is a studious, solitary man. Always fascinated by railway stations (he finds simply sitting in a crowded train station, watching the trains and the passengers come and go), he lives in Tokyo, working as an engineer building and renovating stations. He doesn't really have any friends, and has really only had a few romantic relationships with women.

When Tsukuru was in high school, he had four very close friends—two boys, the rugged, athletic Ao, and the studious, shy Aka; and two girls, the talented, beautiful Shiro, and the equally enigmatic but less vibrant Kuro. The five were tremendously close and inseparable throughout high school, forming a perfect harmonious unit. But as much as Tsukuru reveled in the friendships, he always felt a bit like the odd man out, and wondered what his friends gained from him. He was the only one to leave their hometown of Nagoya to go to college, yet whenever he returned home, the five quickly came together again.

Yet one day during college, everything changed. Tsukuru received a call from one of his friends telling him they never wanted to see him again, offering no explanation. He was devastated by this loss, and for some time thought he might die. Although he was able to bounce back, complete his studies, and pursue a successful career, his life was forever shaped by this sudden loss of his friends, and he wondered whether it was his own flaws that caused this friction.

As an adult, when Tsukuru meets Sara, and is interested in pursuing a relationship with her, he tells her about his old friends, and how that loss affected his life. She encourages him to find them and understand why they cut him off without any explanation. His search for answers re-opens old wounds and revives old anxieties, but it also surprises Tsukuru, and teaches him things about himself he never imagined.

It's been a while since I've read a book by Haruki Murakami, and while the book definitely has a meditative tone, it's one of Murakami's most straightforward books in quite some time. If you've ever felt like you don't fit in, ever wondered whether people truly care about you or just say they do, or ever lost friends for reasons you haven't understood, this is definitely a book you'll identify with. It makes you think about the paths our lives take, and how our interactions with friends when we're young affect us in ways we never truly understand.

Murakami is a tremendously talented writer. His prose is incredibly evocative, and I really thought the characters in this book were very well drawn. The book captivated me from start to finish, although the plot unfolded slowly. If I had any criticism of the book, it's that it left a few subplots hanging, particularly a friendship Tsukuru had that ended without reason. But on the whole, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage was fascinating and a really worthwhile read.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Movie Review: "Boyhood"

I'll admit, I was a little late to the party on Richard Linklater's trilogy of Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight, but when I finally saw all three I couldn't believe I had missed them all these years. So needless to say, I didn't want to let another Linklater movie pass me by. And after seeing Boyhood, I can honestly say I am so glad I saw it.

Boyhood is the story about a young boy named Mason (Ellar Coltrane) growing up in Texas. When the movie begins in 2002 he's a mischievous, easily distracted six-year-old, mostly behaving the way typical six-year-olds do: taking every risk imaginable, simultaneously being terrorized by and terrorizing his older sister (Lorelai Linklater), ogling the lingerie section of a store catalogue with a friend.

Mason is also a sensitive dreamer, one who does all of his homework but doesn't turn it in because the teacher doesn't explicitly ask for it. He and his sister live with their mother (Patricia Arquette), who is tired of struggling to make ends meet for her family and wants to go back to school so she can make something of her life. When they move to Houston, the kids get a visit from their less-than-present father (Ethan Hawke), a man-child who desperately wants to be a part of his children's lives but he isn't so sure he's ready for the responsibility.

The movie follows Mason as he grows up, but in case you weren't aware, Linklater did something absolutely fascinating in making this film: instead of using other actors to play Mason and his sister as they grew, Linklater filmed this over the course of 12 years, gathering his actors together once a year or so to mark progress and see where the year has taken the characters. It's an absolutely mesmerizing tactic that gets you more invested in the characters and the story than perhaps any other movie, because you're actually watching them grow and change, essentially in front of your eyes.

Although I watched Boyhood with a bit of trepidation, waiting for the moment that everything would fall apart for the characters (and there are a few times I felt sure it would), this is a movie that for the most part doesn't lay on the drama but instead revels in the conversations of Mason's life—with his father talking about the future of the Star Wars franchise while on a camping trip; with one of his high school teachers, desperate to light a fire under him; with a girlfriend, espousing his philosophies of life; and with his mother as he prepares to leave for college. The dialogue and the situations ring true, and the fact that we've seen these actors grow makes them all the more real.

With a running time of two hours and forty-two minutes, you're probably wondering if a movie that's a snapshot of a "real" life could hold your attention. It absolutely does, mainly because the performances are so riveting. Coltrane is truly a find; I can only wonder if Richard Linklater truly realized early on just what an old soul Coltrane was as a child, and how that quality would bring such weight to his performance as a teenager. Linklater's daughter Lorelai transforms into so much more than the bratty, overly dramatic older sister, and I only wished for the opportunity to see more of her. Arquette has a meatier role than Hawke, but both bring toughness and vulnerability to their performances as they navigate life's ups and downs.

I can't recommend this movie enough—although I'll pay it forward, much as my friends did, and warn you to hit the restroom before the movie begins. Much like an excellent short story or novel, I'm left wondering what happened to Mason and his family once the camera stopped rolling. And that, for me, is the mark of excellence—to care enough about the characters you can't stop thinking about them.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Book Review: "F" by Daniel Kehlmann

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

In 1984, Arthur Friedland takes his young sons, Martin, Eric, and Ivan to see a famous hypnotist, The Great Lindemann. Arthur doesn't believe in hypnosis and declares himself immune, but he goes to the show to humor his boys. Yet Lindemann calls Arthur up onstage and influences him to reveal his darkest secrets—many of which revolved around Arthur's desire to become a published author and free himself of the yoke of family—and then encourages Arthur to turn his ambitions into reality.

Within a few days, Arthur has emptied out his and his wife's joint bank account and disappears, only to re-emerge as an infamous author years later, with his most famous book leading people worldwide to question their own existence, and some even commit suicide after reading it.

Each of the boys are influenced in some way by their encounter with The Great Lindemann and their father's subsequent escape. Martin becomes a priest, although he struggles with his own devotion, as well as his addiction to food. Eric, a banker, is slowly losing his grip on reality as his career is tanking, while Ivan, once a talented artist, instead uses his talents to become a forger. Each of the boys has a cataclysmic encounter on the same day, which throws each of them further into chaos.

I am a voracious reader, but I tend to like books that are relatively straightforward. F is not one of those books. It tries too hard to be clever and mysterious, and it never gave you enough background to truly understand the characters or the issues they were dealing with. One of the greatest conceits of the book is that each of the sons has a mysterious encounter (on 8/8/08) with several people all named Ron—I just didn't understand the point.

This book was translated from German, so it's entirely possible that the narrative resonates more in its native language. But because Daniel Kehlmann was so deliberately obtuse and mystical in the way he unfolded the plot and developed his characters, I was never able to get immersed in the book, and truly don't understand the point of it at all.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Book Review: "The Good Girl" by Mary Kubica

Dear publishing world, for the love of all that is holy, can we stop referring to any book with a scintilla of suspense in it as "the next Gone Girl"? Honestly, these books have very little in common (except for one or two unlikeable characters), so the comparison either sets up unfair expectations or might cause those who disliked the original book to pass this one by. And they shouldn't.

Mia Dennett is the headstrong daughter of James, a powerful and ego-driven Chicago judge, and his English wife, Eve, who has been a victim of her husband's domineering nature for so long that she has become utterly malleable. One night Mia's boyfriend cancels their date at the last minute (a frequent occurrence), leaving her alone at the bar where they were to meet. She drinks a little too much, and finds herself flirting with Colin Thatcher, who provides just the right salve for her vulnerability that night.

But when Mia decides to go home with Colin, she gets far more than just a one-night stand. Colin was actually paid to abduct her and deliver her to a notorious criminal, so he could hold her for ransom. However, something convinces Colin not to follow the original plan, and instead he takes Mia to a secluded cabin in Minnesota. The two go into hiding, hoping they can steer clear of law enforcement and those who originally paid Colin to abduct Mia.

At first, their relationship is built on dominance and fear, as Colin must threaten Mia to get her to stay with him. But eventually, Mia realizes there is far more to Colin than meets the eye, that he is vulnerable and emotionally needy, and Colin realizes that Mia isn't the spoiled little rich girl he assumed she was when he was hired to abduct her.

The Good Girl shifts perspective between Colin, Eve, and Gabe Hoffman, the police detective investigating Mia's disappearance, and it shifts from the events leading up to and through her abduction to the aftermath. Gabe is determined to find out what happened to Mia, despite constant resistance from her father, and Eve is wracked with guilt that she wasn't the mother she knew she could be, and is desperate for one more chance.

This is one of those books that makes you suspect everyone isn't what they seem to be. Even though some of the plot points seem to be fairly obvious (at least to me), I definitely wondered how Mary Kubica was going to tie everything up—or even if she was going to. I definitely thought Kubica tried to hard to make James, and to some extent, Eve, fairly unlikeable characters (although in different ways), but I found Mia and Colin's characters tremendously interesting. I almost wish the book could have focused on them the entire time.

I enjoyed this book and found myself pretty hooked, even as I hoped that Kubica wouldn't take the plot in a certain direction. She's a very skilled writer, and this is definitely worth a read if you like suspense/crime novels.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Book Review: "We Are Not Ourselves" by Matthew Thomas

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

Eileen Tumulty grew up in Queens in the late 1940s and 1950s, raised by Irish immigrants in Queens. Eileen's father was a legend in their community, a larger than life figure whose counsel everyone in the neighborhood sought. Her mother faded into the spotlight, and was incapable of showing Eileen any real emotion. Alcohol was always plentiful in their lives, and the quality of her parents' marriage and the calmness of their home depended mostly on how much alcohol was consumed, and who was the one doing the drinking.

The dysfunction in her parents' lives forced Eileen to become independent and take charge at an early age. Intelligent and driven, she was still a woman growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, so while she dreamed of a career as a lawyer or doctor, she chose the road that was open to smart girls like her, nursing. And as she flourished in her studies, she was determined to have a life—and a marriage—better than her parents.

When she meets Ed Leary, a young scientist who is very different from the men she has met before, she believes she has found the man who will help her fulfill her dreams. Yet she quickly realizes that Ed's ambitions do not match hers—in fact, he is far more satisfied with the status quo than she understands. And as her career advances and she hopes for a home of their own, a haven to raise their son, Connell, she discovers that what she believes to be Ed's lack of ambition, his stubbornness, and inflexibility, actually mask a larger problem that will change all of their lives.

We Are Not Ourselves is a moving story about a family affected by challenge, and how it both brings them together and tears them apart. It's a book about wanting more than you have, as well as not wanting what you do have. It's also a story about the fragility and intensity of relationships between spouses, and between parent and child.

Matthew Thomas is a very talented writer. While I liked the book's plot at its core, I felt as if the story could have been told perhaps even more effectively in 300 or so pages rather than the 640 pages the book runs. The challenges that the Learys face take a very long while to be fully revealed; while I understand the importance of the background of Eileen's childhood as it served as a catalyst for all she longed for in adulthood, the book spent more time than it needed to there, and in laying out the details of the Learys' day-to-day lives. I found the last quarter or so of the book the most moving, and where Thomas' writing really hit its stride.

If you like sprawling family sagas, this is definitely a book for you. There is much to like about We Are Not Ourselves; it's just the payoff takes a very long time to reveal itself.

Book Review: "One Plus One" by Jojo Moyes

I first stumbled onto Jojo Moyes last year, when I read Me Before You. One of the best books I read in 2013, it left me a sobbing mess. I also really enjoyed reading The Girl You Left Behind, which didn't cripple me as much emotionally, but still moved and compelled me.

In Moyes' newest book, One Plus One, Jess is in the midst of some hard times. Struggling for money since her husband left more than two years ago, she works two jobs in order to (barely) make ends meet. Her stepson, Nicky, is sullen and not willing to fit in, yet he keeps getting beaten up by the town bullies. Her daughter, Tanzie, is tremendously skilled in mathematics, and her teacher has recommended her for a scholarship at a prestigious private school, which would change Tanzie's life and give her opportunities she wouldn't get otherwise. The problem is, even with significant financial aid, the school is still too expensive for Jess.

Ed Nicholls is a geek-turned-millionaire, whose childhood obsession with computers launched him into a prestigious software career. He's also hit a bit of a rough patch, finding himself cut off from his business and his best friend, forced to take refuge in his vacation home in order to keep a low profile. He and Jess have a few run-ins, as cleaning his vacation home is one of her jobs. But when Jess and the kids find themselves in a time of extraordinary need, Ed becomes their savior, and the four embark on a road trip filled with moments of anxiety and laughter, disclosures and diversions.

One Plus One demonstrates Jojo Moyes' talent as a storyteller. Despite the fact that you can predict early on exactly how the plot will unfold, her characters, even when flawed, are tremendously appealing, people you want to spend time with and learn more about. In particular, I really enjoyed Jess' children, Nicky and Tanzie, as you see how their differences from their peers and their struggles simultaneously make them individuals but cause them significant struggles.

This story isn't without its quirks, and at times it seems like anything that can go wrong, any wrench that can be thrown into the situation does. But One Plus One is sweet and endearing, which makes reading it enjoyable. While this isn't as moving a book as some of Moyes' others, it's still worth picking up, because you'll like participating in the road trip that Jess, Ed, Tanzie, Nicky and their dog must take. Good fun.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Book Review: "A Cold and Broken Hallelujah" by Tyler Dilts

Long Beach Homicide Detective Danny Beckett has more than his share of demons to wrestle. Struggling with chronic, often intense pain from an injury he sustained in the line of duty, still dealing with the psychological trauma of losing his wife tragically, he fully immerses himself in his job, and other than one friend, tends to spend most of his time with colleagues.

"I know I'm better at investigating murders than I have ever been or will ever be at anything else. It's the only thing I've ever been good enough at to make me forget my chronic pain and my grief and to engage me so fully and completely that I'm lost to anything else."

Beckett and his partner, Detective Jen Tanaka, draw a gruesome case—a homeless man was burned to death by three teenagers, ostensibly to bolster their reputation with gang members. For reasons he cares not to dwell on, Beckett is determined to find the identity of the murder victim, and figure out whether there was a reason he was killed, or if he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The deeper Beckett and Tanaka dig into the murder, the more they realize the situation is more complicated than they first suspected, and more dangerous. They are driven to protect the brother of one of the accused murderers, and more and more, Beckett finds himself beginning to idealize the murder victim. At the same time, he is being forced to confront a situation outside of his personal comfort zone, and he isn't sure he's ready.

Tyler Dilts may very well be one of the best crime writers you've never heard of, and you should remedy that. Danny Beckett is a terrific character, complex and complicated, and Dilts' series of books featuring him (this is the third), is really terrific. While all of the books in the series are dark given Beckett's character, A Cold and Broken Hallelujah is a little darker than the first two. If you like crime novels, give Tyler Dilts a try. You'll be drawn in by his writing ability, and you'll find yourself wanting more.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Book Review: "Let's Get Lost" by Adi Alsaid

Let's Get Lost is sweet, quirky, and more than slightly implausible in places, but it's one of those books where the characters act like and say things you wish people would in real life.

Leila is a free spirited young woman on the ultimate road trip—she's headed from her home in Louisiana to see the Northern Lights, which she has always wanted to see. Driving her bright red car, moving from place to place, she comes upon several different people, each in a time of need or dealing with an emotional crisis. Acting as a cross between a fairy godmother and a partner in crime (sometimes literally), Leila tries to help each of them find a way to solve their problems, winding up in some interesting and occasionally zany situations.

In Vicksburg, Mississippi, she comes upon Hudson, a young mechanic who has a great deal of pride in his hometown, but is heading toward a life-changing opportunity. On a highway in Kansas, she encounters Bree, a runaway shouldering some heavy emotional burdens, but who still has a zeal for seizing opportunities that come her way. Leila finds Elliot in Burnsville, Minnesota on the night of his high school prom, when he's dealing with disappointment that his love of the movies had never prepared him for. And in British Columbia, Leila crosses paths with Sonia, a young woman with a tough decision to make.

To each of the people she encounters, Leila appears as a mystery and a savior (although their interactions don't always end with them feeling the same way), and she helps them find solutions to the things that are bothering or worrying them—sometimes she guides them, sometimes she helps them find the answers within themselves. While the issues they deal with aren't unusual, sometimes the manner in which they try and solve their problems is, and that's where the book sometimes loses steam, because the situations they find themselves in a few times are just too implausible.

But Hudson, Bree, Elliot, and Sonia aren't the only ones changed by these experiences. As helpful as she is, Leila, too, has her own issues, and her own journey of self-discovery to make, and it takes her to Alaska and back. She, too, realizes there aren't always answers to the questions that plague us.

I enjoyed this book a lot, even if I had to suspend disbelief a few times. This is a book about realizing that as insurmountable as your problems may seem, you can actually solve them—all it takes sometimes is the opportunity to talk them out with someone, plus a little faith. It's also the story of how it's so much easier to help others than it can be to help yourself. It's an emotional, funny, sweet book.

I really liked the characters and felt that Adi Alsaid did a great job giving them complexity. Each of the sections of the book read like their own novellas—I just wish that I knew where things ended for them. That's definitely a mark of a good storyteller.