Thursday, December 31, 2015

Book Review: "Call Me Home" by Megan Kruse

Beautifully poetic yet emotionally brutal at times, Megan Kruse's Call Me Home is absolutely fantastic. I stumbled on it when it was recommended by a columnist on a blog I read faithfully, and it really blew me away; clearly the last book I'll read in 2015 is one of the best I'll read all year.

Amy is growing up in the small Texas town of Fannin, and she dreams of something better in her life. She thinks she has found it in Gary, who is mercurial but passionate, and whoo dreams of getting away from Texas and the disregard of his family. The two move to rural Washington, and it isn't long before Amy realizes that Gary's passion quickly turns violent.

The couple raise two children, Jackson and Lydia, and Amy bargains with herself that if she lets Gary continue his periodic abuse of her without reprisal, he won't turn his eye onto the children. But Jackson and Lydia know all too well what is going on, and Jackson tries to protect his younger sister from the realities of their parents' marriage. As Jackson's homosexuality becomes more apparent, both Amy and Lydia realize that they must do what they can to protect him as well.

After several thwarted attempts to escape, Amy finally succeeds in leaving Gary, taking Lydia with her, and hoping Jackson will find the freedom to live the life he wants. As Amy returns to her hometown to try and retrace the steps that took her into the life she has fled, Lydia tries to understand what would keep her mother tethered to her father for so long, and whether she has any of her father inside her.

Meanwhile, Jackson, after a period of hustling, decides to go to Idaho, where he gets a job on a construction crew. He is conscious of being different from the other men and tries to keep his sexuality a secret, but it's not long before he embarks on a potentially dangerous relationship, which tests his heart in ways he has never experienced.

Call Me Home is about what we do for love, and how sometimes we put our own self-interests last, much to our detriment. It's about the pull of family and those we choose as our family, and the importance of belonging and feeling a sense of security. And, of course, it's also a book about the destructive effects of abuse on all of those who witness and live through it.

Megan Kruse is a tremendously gifted writer. Her storytelling is lyrical, poetic, and mesmerizing, as she weaves the story through different points in time, narrated by Amy, Jackson, and Lydia. Jackson's story is probably the most fleshed out and he is the most fascinating character, and at times I found myself nearly reading with my hands over my eyes, afraid something might happened to him. This is a moving book that packs a powerful punch, and I hope Kruse's talent finds itself a wide audience.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Book Review: "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" by Jesse Andrews

Yep. All the feels. And what would you expect from a book with a title like Me and Earl and the Dying Girl?

When I read Jesse Andrews' soon-to-be-published second book, The Haters, last month, I remarked that I had wanted to read Me and Earl and the Dying Girl first, but had held off because I thought I might see the movie version instead. But I never got around to seeing the movie, so I gave the book a shot, given the rave reviews it has gotten.

Happily, I wasn't disappointed. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is goofy and a little juvenile at times (but then again, so am I), but it has tremendous heart and humor, and is far more realistic dialogue-wise than a lot of other young adult books out there, where the characters are so clever and wise beyond their years it's easy to forget they're supposed to be teenagers.

Greg Gaines is an awkward, self-deprecating high school senior, who spends most of his time trying not to be noticed. He's nice to everyone but not too nice, for fear that people might think he's affiliated with a particular group or clique and judge him for it. He's basically just trying to bide his time and stay out of sight.

"So in order to understand everything that happened, you have to start from the premise that high school sucks. Do you accept that premise? Of course you do. It is a universally acknowledged truth that high school sucks. In fact, high school is where we are first introduced to the basic existential question of life: How is it possible to exist in a place that sucks so bad?"

Greg really only has one friend, Earl, although their relationship mostly revolves around grossing each other out, cursing, eating, playing video games, and making really amateurish films. So Greg is utterly unprepared when he learns that Rachel, a girl he used to know from Hebrew school, is dying of leukemia, and his mother wants him to spend time with Rachel to cheer her up.

This book isn't one of those in which the main character makes remarkable discoveries about life and friendship while spending time with a terminally ill friend. Greg doesn't really have an epiphany—in fact, he spends most of his time with Rachel vacillating between trying to make her laugh, making her laugh, and saying things he wished he didn't say. And then things devolve even further when Greg and Earl are convinced to make a film for Rachel, and they have no idea what to do, and what the consequences of their actions will be.

I laughed out loud more than a few times reading this book, and I got choked up more than a few times, too. But while the book is a little bit zany at times, it felt very real—while it's been some time since I was a teenager, Greg reacts to situations in ways I'd expect less-than-well-adjusted teenagers would react. I liked that Andrews didn't try too hard to hammer you with messages about cherishing every moment, or fighting as hard as you can, since that wouldn't have fit with the book.

The humor is a bit juvenile at times, and there is a lot of cursing (because, again, teenagers). But if goofy and puerile don't put you off, you'll be rewarded with a book that has sweetness within its ornery nature, and balances the funny with the emotional. For me, that makes a pretty enjoyable read.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Movie Review: "Room"

Simply put, Room is a gut-wrenching sucker punch of a movie. If you haven't heard anything about it or the book it's based on, so much the better, so I'm going to keep this review to the basics.

Jack (Ethan Tremblay) is five years old. Like any five-year-old, at times Jack is demanding, questioning, and/or hyperactive, but his mother (Brie Larson), who is raising Jack on her own, does everything in her power to keep him happy. They tell stories, watch television, do crafts, and run races, among other things, and Jack knows how much Ma cares about and wants to protect him.

As long as he can remember, Ma has told Jack stories about the world around them. But now that he is five, she tells him the truth, and she needs his help. She needs Jack to be braver than he has ever imagined, and do something incredibly scary, but something that will hopefully change their lives.

Room, based on the novel by Emma Donoghue, is an immensely powerful, incredibly moving film about the incredible sacrifices a mother makes to keep her child safe and happy despite extraordinary circumstances, and the one chance she takes to try and change their situation. It's the story of how we choose to deal with a situation beyond our comprehension, and how lives change. And it's also the story of how sometimes in our rush to protect someone else, we forget to deal with our own problems, and the difficulties this may cause.

I have been a fan of Brie Larson's since I saw her amazing performance in Short Term 12 a few years ago. That movie was on my list of the best movies I saw in 2013, and Larson's performance should have garnered her a Best Actress Oscar nomination. But as good as that performance was, her performance in Room is rawer and more powerful. It's emotional and angry without being maudlin, and you can read the conflicts her character faces in every expression, every gesture. This is an Oscar-winning performance, plain and simple.

Although Jacob Tremblay is actually nine years old in real life, he is tremendously believable as a five-year-old, especially one as unique as Jack. He perfectly captures the frustration and limited comprehension of children that age, yet Jack's bravery is incredible, and Tremblay imbues his performance with both vulnerability and innocent bravado. If there is any justice, he'll receive a Best Supporting Actor nomination in a few weeks.

While this movie may not seem realistic, sadly, it is more real than we'd like to imagine, but we don't get to hear the stories of those in Ma and Jack's situation. Room is never flashy, never overdone—if anything, its power lies within its simplicity. This is a must-see, although it will stay with you for some time afterward.

Movie Review: "Carol"

Therese Belivet (a wide-eyed Rooney Mara) is a clerk at a New York City department store in the 1950s. She's not really certain what she wants out of her life, but knows there's more to offer than a job she doesn't really care for, and her earnest boyfriend, who keeps trying to convince her to go on a European trip with him.

When Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett), a New Jersey housewife, sweeps into her department, her glamour and attitude immediately captivate Therese, nearly leaving her at a loss for words. But when Carol leaves her gloves at the store, Therese sees it as an opportunity to once again interact with this woman who has inexplicably fascinated her in ways she had never imagined possible.

The two strike up a friendship of sorts, and it is soon clear that both are smitten with each other. While this has happened before to Carol, Therese can't seem to explain it, although for the most part she is willing to let Carol take the lead. But Carol's decision to pursue this relationship comes at great peril to her family—her soon-to-be ex-husband, Harge (Kyle Chandler), has filed a petition for sole custody of their young daughter due to a "morality clause." Carol must face the dilemma of whether to follow her heart or allow herself to be "cured" so she can spend time with her daughter. This leaves Therese, who had never imagined herself in this position in the first place, in emotional limbo, as well as uncertainty about the other facets of her life as well.

Blanchett is absolutely dazzling as a woman whose public bravado masks deep vulnerability and fear. As she tells a friend who says she hopes Carol knows what she's doing in getting involved with a younger woman like Therese, Carol replies, "I never did." While she has the same speech patterns as her character in Blue Jasmine, this isn't a woman putting on airs or reinventing herself—this is a woman who is trying to play the role expected of her but her heart keeps getting in the way.

My only exposure to Mara's talent was in her Oscar-nominated turn in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, so to see her play someone reasonably subdued and timid at first, but whose courage awakens with her heart, was a true revelation. In this film, Mara has a clean-scrubbed freshness, similar to Audrey Hepburn's in Roman Holiday, and her eyes are so tremendously expressive, so they provide a dimension beyond her dialogue. Both Blanchett and Mara are immensely deserving of Oscar nominations. As Carol's former girlfriend and confidante, Sarah Paulson does a terrific job with her small-yet-pivotal role. While Chandler gets to play the heavy, he does bring more emotional depth to his character, a man who knows his wife was probably going through the motions but he continues to love her anyway.

Carol is beautifully filmed with exquisite attention to detail, in a way similar to director Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven, another film which dealt with relationships that didn't fit the mold of society at that time, and how they affected those around them. I wondered where the plot would go, and was pleased with the way the story unfolded. More than anything, however, I realized that while our world is far from perfect, it is a hell of a lot better than the world of 1952, when Patricia Highsmith wrote the book upon which this movie is based. But Haynes treated this love story like any other, and that added to the film's poignancy. Truly excellent.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Book Review: "Mendocino Fire: Stories" by Elizabeth Tallent

Relationships have the potential for tremendous complexities and complications, which is why they're such valuable literary fodder. In her newest collection of stories, Mendocino Fire, Elizabeth Tallent mines these challenges as they arise among family members, romantic partners, and others, and proves nothing is as simple as it seems.

Not every story worked for me, as I found that some of them tried to cram too many disparate ideas together, but there were some stories that absolutely knocked me out. My favorites included, "Tabriz," in which a man watches his life begin to unravel when he unearths an expensive rug at a dump; "Briar Switch," chronicling a woman's return home in the midst of a blizzard upon learning that her estranged father is close to death; "Never Come Back," which follows a man whose good intentions complicate his family's life in numerous ways, time and time again; "The Wrong Son," about a young man's complicated relationship with his taciturn father; and my favorite story in the collection, "Nobody You Know," which tells of a woman's struggles following her divorce, and what occurs upon her return home.

I'd never before read anything Tallent has written, and I was tremendously impressed by her mastery of language and imagery. While her sentences tend to be very wordy, they're not verbose, and I found myself marveling numerous times at each story. Here's just one example, from "The Wilderness":
"She could swear that an enthralled reader nineteen years old is the most beautiful animal on earth—at least, she's seen one or two who were, in their spellbound moment, the incarnation of extremest human beauty. They were not themselves. Literature looked back at her from their eyes and told her certain things she was sure they ought not to have understood at their age."
Tallent's, well, talent, is evident throughout this collection, and I'm now interested in reading some of her earlier work. I've been fortunate to find so many short story writers whose work I've enjoyed this year, and I'm happily adding Tallent to that list.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Movie Review: "Brooklyn"

Sometimes you see a movie or read a book which utterly charms you so much, that one of the most apropos words you can use to describe it is "lovely," and that is not disparaging in any way. Brooklyn is such a movie—it's charming and beautiful and it worms its way into your heart without your even realizing it.

In the early 1950s, Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) is growing up in Ireland, living a less-than-remarkable life. Even though she's smart she can't find a job beyond working as a shop clerk, and there doesn't appear to be much opportunity on the romantic front as well, so her older sister arranges for Eilis to go to America, and she'll have a job and a place to stay lined up. But life in Brooklyn, even among countless Irish immigrants, is tremendously lonely, and all she can think about is going home.

Little by little she becomes more acclimated to her new home, and is enrolled in bookkeeping classes. And while at an Irish dance, she meets Tony Fiorello (Emory Cohen)—he's not quite the Irish lad she envisioned, but his attentiveness, affection, and enthusiasm for the future he has envisioned for them helps her to fall for him rather quickly. As she tells her sister in her letters home, she finally feels at home all the way across the ocean.

When tragedy strikes, and Eilis plans to return home to Ireland for a month, she must make some crucial decisions about Tony. And as she settles back in to her old life, she suddenly realizes that there are opportunities in Ireland for her as well, and that her home isn't really as small and provincial as she once thought. But as she grows more comfortable back home, and plans for her future should she stay begin taking shape, she must decide once and for all on which shore she belongs—and whether she should take control of her own life or allow it to be controlled as it always has been.

On the surface, this seems like a fairly simple story, but it is full of complex emotions, difficult decisions, and the thrill of watching someone blossom in their life for the first time. Ronan's performance is tremendous—sensitive yet strong, brave yet giddy, and truly moving. You may not agree with the decisions she makes, but you see how difficult her decisions are, and you may wonder how you might react if you were a 1950s woman torn between life in the home you've always known and life in the home you've built for yourself.

Cohen isn't the strongest actor (although he's better than he was on Smash, where he played Debra Messing's petulant son), but his charm is infectious, and you can see why Eilis would be attracted to him aside from his looks. Julie Walters and Jim Broadbent, as two adults Eilis turns to in America, turn in charming performances within the small roles they're given.

In the end, this is Ronan's film. She's come a long way from the petulant troublemaker she played in Atonement, which earned her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nod back in 2007. This is a fully mature and complex performance, once which has caught the attention of a number of film critics' groups, and is expected to earn her a Best Actress nod next month. This movie will make you cry, laugh, and smile—sometimes all at once. And how can you ask for more?

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Book Review: "The Drifter" by Nicholas Petrie

Full disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review. Many thanks to NetGalley and PENGUIN GROUP Putnam for making it available!

I've said in previous reviews that when I read great thrillers, I often think of my late father, with whom I would trade recommendations of books in this genre. Boy, would he have loved this one. Balancing tightly wound suspense, crackling action, and excellent character development, Nicholas Petrie's The Drifter is the type of book for which series and action films are made.

Peter Ash is a veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan, who returned home after multiple tours of duty plagued by "white static"—serious claustrophobia brought on from the traumatic stress of combat. It's so bad he can barely stand to be indoors for more than a few minutes, which is why he spent the last year traveling the country, sleeping outside.

When he learns that Jimmy, one of his friends from his days in the Marines, committed suicide, he is overcome with guilt that he never tried to see him or make sure he was doing okay. To repay his perceived debt, Peter returns to the "regular" world to help Jimmy's widow and their children by doing some repairs to their house. As he starts fixing the dilapidated porch, Peter discovers that living under the house is the ugliest, meanest dog he has ever seen, and no one is quite sure where it came from.

Underneath the house Peter also finds an old suitcase full of money and explosives. It's not long before he realizes that there have been people watching Jimmy's house, trying to find where he hid the money—which puts Peter and Jimmy's family in harm's way. And as Peter tries to understand just what Jimmy might have gotten himself into, he discovers people willing to help veterans like himself, and he finds both unlikely allies and very dangerous, unlikely enemies. Who can he trust, and of whom should he be wary?

From the very start Petrie reels you into the book, and doesn't let you off the hook until the very end. Peter is a complex, fascinating character, and Petrie really did his research on the challenges veterans have faced after returning home. Even though I had suspicions about where the plot might go, I couldn't stop reading this, and definitely felt my pulse quickening as I raced toward the ending.

The Drifter is a tremendously self-assured debut, and I'll definitely be watching for what comes next from Nicholas Petrie. I hope that this was just the first book in a series featuring Peter Ash—he's a character who deserves to become as familiar as Jack Reacher and others.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Book Review: "Signal to Noise" by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

I just love it when I find a book I've never heard of and know nothing about and it just totally takes me by surprise and wows me. Such is the case with Silvia Moreno-Garcia's Signal to Noise, a heartfelt, nostalgic look at music, love, family, a little magic, and the friendships of our youth which never quite leave us.

Mercedes ("Meche") is growing up in Mexico City in 1988. She's a smart girl and obsessed with music—her father is a DJ, so she thinks of everything in terms of different songs. She and her two best friends, Sebastian and Daniela, form their own little band of outcasts, no matter how hard they try to fit in, and escape their broken families (at least Meche and Sebastian's). And truly, in many ways they are just your average teenagers—Daniela has a crush on one of their teachers, while Sebastian and Meche are both infatuated with the most popular and attractive guy and girl in their class, and neither pays them much attention.

But Meche is determined to change the course of their lives so things go in their favor. When she discovers she can cast magic spells using particular songs, she enlists the help of her friends to help the spells hit their target. And while their success starts changing their lives slowly but surely, they realize there are many potential downsides—the intoxicating power that turns good intentions into bad, and the way that their friendships, particularly Meche and Sebastian's, are changing because of the magic.

"Meche and Sebastian were used to each other, comfortable in their proximity. They folded and kept their dreams in the same drawer, spun fantasies side by side, lived in the easy harmony of youth which did not know the need for tall walls and sturdy defenses."

More than 20 years later, Meche returns to Mexico City, which she fled after everything in her life changed. Her estranged father has died, and she reluctantly attends his funeral, and once again encounters both Sebastian and Daniela. So much was left unsaid back then, so many feelings were unexpressed, except the resentment that each of them feels, particularly Meche. As Meche deals with all of her damaged relationships, she turns to music again, and wonders if it will help her coast through the tumultuous times the way it used to, or if she will have to confront all of the emotions she has bottled up for so long.

It's amazing how relationships can turn on a simple act, a simple misunderstanding, a simple word said in anger. This is even truer in adolescence, as the stress of friendships and relationships is compounded by the usual teenage angst. Signal to Noise explores the delicate yet fiery nature of these relationships, as well as the hurts that our family can cause us as well. Betrayals are never taken lightly, especially when they come from those we're closest to.

Being a huge music fanatic for most of my life, I easily identified with how music shaped Meche's life. And I remember the intensity of the friendships of my teenage years, and how utterly awful betrayal—real or imagined—felt. Moreno-Garcia has captured this time in life, these emotions, these passions so vividly, and while the thread of magic in the plot is a little fantastic, it doesn't detract from the story. So much in our life can hinge on the things that are and aren't said, and this book mines that vein very effectively.

I'd like to thank Amanda Nelson of Book Riot, who included this book on her list of 13 of the best books of 2015 you may have missed. I'm so glad I found this book, and hope others pick it up, because I'd love to discuss it with you!

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Book Review: "We've Already Gone This Far: Stories" by Patrick Dacey

Full disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review. Many thanks to NetGalley and Henry Holt & Company for making it available!

Patrick Dacey's story collection, We've Already Gone This Far, is moving, amusing, thought provoking, and truly excellent. The stories are linked in as much that they either take place in the small town of Wequaquet or the characters once lived there or are descended from those who did, and many of the stories mention characters who have been the focus of a different story. This is certainly a look at working-class America, but many of these characters don't have the typical problems you'd expect of the working class.

Life is not always good for the characters in these stories, but even when they're struggling they're experiencing moments of grace, or whatever grace means to them. These are parents, spouses, misfits, soldiers, and those just desperate to find their moment. These stories are about love, sex, self-esteem, despair, devotion, and hope. Dacey is a writer with a tremendous gift.

Only one story of the thirteen in this collection really didn't work for me, but some of them really wowed me. Among my favorites were "Downhill," in which the father of a blind child is struggling to make ends meet and provide his son a world he feels safe and happy in; "Mutatis Mutandis," which told the story of a woman who has let herself go who finds redemption of a sort when she gets plastic surgery provided by a television talk show; "Patriots," in which one woman finds herself outraged and moved by her neighbor; "Acts of Love," about two men whose marriages are in trouble who meet while living in temporary housing; and "Never So Sweet," in which a young boy is forever affected by the death of his uncle and the impact his uncle's girlfriend had on the boy's life.

I've often said that for me, one of the hallmarks of a good story is when I feel myself wishing the story were longer, even novel-length. I honestly could have seen many of the stories in Dacey's collection expanded into novels, and would love to know more about some of these characters. Dacey's use of language is vivid and poetic, and his storytelling is mesmerizing and emotional at times. This is really a collection worth reading, and I look forward to seeing what's next in Dacey's career.

Book Review: "Dryland" by Sara Jaffe

Ah, adolescence. Our adult lives may be difficult from time to time, but nothing beats the anguish and turmoil—real or imagined—of the teenage years.

Fifteen-year-old Julie Winter, growing up in 1992, is trying not to make any waves. She's following her best friend Erika, listening to her obsess over crushes and trying to be popular. Since her older brother, who nearly qualified for the Olympics as a swimmer, fled to Berlin without much explanation, she's trying to figure out what made him go, and who he really was.

When Alexis, the swim team captain, recruits Julie to join the swim team, it gives way to a lot of different feelings. She's anxious about swimming again but although she doesn't want to be compared to her brother she wants to make everyone proud. But more than that, she's confused by her feelings for Alexis, who has more than her own share of confusion where that is concerned. Julie doesn't know whether what she's feeling is right, or true, or if she should act on it, and if she does, what it all means. She finds herself turning to Ben, an old friend of her brother's, to help her understand both her own issues and her brother.

This was a very quick read—I read the entire book in a day—and Sara Jaffe really captured the voice and the angst of adolescence. I found the book moving and really well written, but I found it frustrating as well, because there's so much that remains unsaid for so long, in so many different areas. Julie herself is an interesting and sympathetic yet somewhat irritating character, because she's just so passive. I really liked Ben, though, and almost wish he was more of a factor in the story.

I wouldn't want to repeat most of my teenage years, but Jaffe gave those memories more than a good jolt with this book. It's an effective mix of the weighty and the frivolous issues we faced back then, with a good dose of nostalgia and emotion.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Book Review: "Thin Blue Smoke" by Doug Worgul

Warning: If you’re a fan of barbecue, do not read Doug Worgul’s Thin Blue Smoke on an empty stomach! You will feel intense cravings that may only be satisfied by a trip to your local barbecue establishment. Perhaps twice, depending upon how long it takes you to read the book.

Hunger pangs aside, I thoroughly enjoyed Worgul’s book. It’s utterly charming, occasionally moving, humorous meditation on life’s ups and downs, surviving the challenges thrown at us, the redemptive power of love and friendship, and how sometimes life just doesn’t go the way you planned. While the book takes place in Kansas City, it honestly felt as if it were one of those wonderful little books about a small town, where nearly everyone is connected in some way.

LaVerne Williams had a brief stint as a major league ballplayer when he was younger, and the end of his baseball career still haunts him more than he’ll admit. He and his wife own a small but popular barbecue joint in Kansas City, and sometimes it succeeds despite LaVerne himself. But beneath his cantankerous exterior lies a vulnerable core, a man devoted to preparing barbecue his way, and a heart laid bare more than once.

A.B. Clayton has been working at the restaurant for as long as he can remember, and given the challenges with his own upbringing, views LaVerne and Angela as surrogate parents as well as bosses. He is a shy, sensitive man, whose world revolves around the restaurant and his few friends, but he knows there is more out there.

Ferguson Glen is an Episcopal priest who was the star of the literary world when he was younger, but he was never able to live up to his early potential. Always unsure of his place in the spiritual world, his drinking problem is his biggest challenge, and it may keep him from realizing what he truly loves.

The lives of LaVerne, A.B., Ferguson, and a number of others unfold in Thin Blue Smoke. A novel in vignettes, the chapters move back and forth in time and are narrated by different characters, but as each chapter unfolds it provides more insight into what makes them tick. This is a beautifully written book about life, love, music, friendship, and, of course, food, and it really grabbed hold of my heart.

At times it’s difficult to keep time and place straight, and there are a lot of characters to remember. And Worgul introduces one plot element toward the end that I thought was unnecessary, but luckily it disappears fairly quickly after making its mark. But in the end, this is a book with so much heart, and so many vividly drawn characters, that in addition to desiring barbecue, you want to spend more time with them.

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Friday, December 11, 2015

Book Review: "Movie Game" by Michael Ebner

Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review. Many thanks to NetGalley and Pen and Picture for making it available!

The story of a teenager who spends much of his life watching or thinking about movies, Michael Ebner's Movie Game reads kind of like a blockbuster movie. There's action, intrigue, mystery, romance, violence, sex, and even a little drama. But like many popular blockbusters there's so much shoehorned into the plot it veers off the rails from time to time, but its charm ultimately keeps you reading.

It's the summer before Joe's senior year of high school. He spends nearly every waking moment watching or thinking about movies, or playing the rapid-fire Movie Game with his buddies, which he usually wins. He considers himself the defender of distraction-free movies, and often follows offenders home after the movie has ended. Joe also has late-night encounters with Nikki, who keeps their relationship a secret from her real boyfriend, and he's a big fan of dark dipping, or swimming in neighborhood pools late at night.

Joe and his older sister have been keeping up appearances since their father disappeared three years ago and their mother left to live with her new boyfriend, afraid if authorities find out Joe is without parental supervision, social services may step in. While Joe is a cinephile, his sister is an excessive reader. But what Joe doesn't realize is that government agents have him on constant surveillance, because their father isn't quite who he said he was.

"Their excessive consumption of fiction was an essential distraction from their broken home."

Suddenly Joe's life seems more and more like a movie—his new college-aged girlfriend may have hidden motives for their relationship, the stories he's been telling his sister to push her to live her own life are actually less elaborate than the truth, and then there's the increasingly annoying presence of the federal agents, who want his help tracking down his father, who has apparently become a terrorist. All that, and he's still dealing with the trauma of his high school girlfriend's tragic death three years earlier.

Will Joe choose the bonds of family over the long arm of the law? Will he finally get the girl he deserves? Will he be able to continue winning at the Movie Game, or will a new competitor supplant him? And most importantly, will they all live happily ever after?

Ebner's book is a little wacky and far-fetched (I can't tell you how often I had to remind myself that Joe was supposed to be entering his senior year in high school given his level of sophistication), but it's fun, funny, and even a little bit moving. There is a lot going on in this book—too much, I think—so the plot really goes all over the place, and you sometimes don't know what scenario you're in at a particular moment. But Joe is a fascinatingly charming yet flawed character, and you're compelled to keep reading to see where his story goes.

Summer movie season may be over, but Movie Game is like a summer movie in book form. All you need is the popcorn.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Book Review: "The Unfinished World and Other Stories" by Amber Sparks

Full disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review. Many thanks to NetGalley and W.W. Norton & Company for making it available!

The descriptions of Amber Sparks' new collection of stories plus a novella compared her to Kelly Link and Karen Russell. While there are elements of the macabre, the futuristic, the fantastic in these stories, Sparks' voice is all her own—it's at once familiar and unusual, jarring and moving, and quite intriguing.

There isn't really a theme that weaves through all of the stories in this collection, although each is characterized by the outpouring or manifestation of some emotion and/or desire—love, grief, sadness, fear, the desire for a new start, etc. The stories take place in the past, present, and future; there is even an adaptation of a fairy tale thrown in for good measure. (Ironically, it's one of the same fairy tales adapted by Michael Cunningham in his newest book, A Wild Swan and Other Tales, which I read last month.)

While I didn't quite "get" everything in this collection, and some of the stories didn't work for me, there were some absolute stunners. Some of my favorites included: "Things You Should Know About Cassandra Dee," about an overweight girl with a special gift that isn't quite a blessing; "And the World Was Crowded with Things That Meant Love," one of the most straightforward stories in the collection, which is not your usual love story; "Thirteen Ways of Destroying a Painting," a humorous tale which featured an immensely determined time traveler; "The Janitor in Space," which is poignant and beautiful; and "The Cemetery for Lost Faces," which chronicled a brother and sister who handle their grief through taxidermy and unusual art.

If you're a fan of more traditional stories, this collection might not be for you, but if you can open your mind to stories which may force you to think of the future or the past, pick up The Unfinished World and Other Stories. You'll be intrigued, you'll be moved, you'll shake your head at Sparks' creativity, but most of all, you'll get to witness her storytelling talent and her deft skill with language and imagery first hand.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Book Review: "Paulina & Fran" by Rachel B. Glaser

Many of us probably knew someone like Paulina, one of the title characters in Rachel B. Glaser's debut novel, Paulina & Fran. Always larger than life, always wanting to be the center of attention, women and men are drawn to her, and they often feel illuminated by her attention—until she tires of them and discards them, leaving them resentful. She seduces men and women to feel desirable and in control, and doesn't handle rejection well. And she isn't interested in other people's lives or problems at all, despite her reassurances to the contrary.

An art school student with little to no discernible artistic talent, Paulina is coasting academically. On a school trip to Norway, abandoned by the most recent object of her infatuation, she meets Fran, who is equally beautiful although she lacks Paulina's confidence, possesses artistic talent she can't seem to harness, and is sweet and trusting. The two quickly form an intense bond.

"She felt Gretchen was the kind of girlfriend she would be offered again and again by the adult world, the real world, but Paulina was someone truly original, someone who existed only once."

Paulina and Fran's friendship blossoms fully, leaving their other friends by the wayside. And then Fran decides to begin dating one of Paulina's ex-boyfriends, someone Paulina grew tired of and rejected. But as happens so often in life, once Fran finds him appealing, Paulina isn't so sure she doesn't want him anymore. However, she instead decides to do everything in her power to destroy their relationship, even if it means severing her friendship with Fran at the same time. And in one fell swoop, one action and its aftermath change everything, including their paths post-graduation.

This book was really intriguing, although both main characters aren't particularly likable. In Paulina, Glaser creates such an egotistical yet flawed dynamo, one who always draws your attention when she's on the page, yet after a while her fury and appeal peters out. (Luckily she regains both for a short while.) While people like Paulina do exist, at times I just found her ability to coast from opportunity to opportunity a little unbelievable. But Glaser's dialogue is funny, ribald, and occasionally moving, and her use of language and imagery is particularly vivid. She truly captures the mixture of innocence and cynicism that comes toward the end of college, and the weariness of recent graduates as they try to find their way.

I've seen this referred to as a "woman's novel." While it is about women, and perhaps women are more likely to have the type of intense friendships that occurred in the book, Paulina & Fran was definitely intriguing and entertaining for me. I think we could all use a little of Paulina's energy in our lives, perhaps without some of her intensity.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Book Review: "The Haters" by Jesse Andrews

Full disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review. Many thanks to NetGalley and ABRAMS Kids for making it available!

I never read Jesse Andrews' Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, because just when I discovered the book, the movie was about to come out, and I hate reading books just before I see the film adaptation. Then, of course, I never got around to seeing the movie, so I figured I'd jump on the chance to read his second book, The Haters. I'm glad I did, because while it didn't blow me away as I hoped it would, it made me laugh out loud more than a few times, and yeah, it moved me, too.

Wes and Corey have been best friends since childhood. They have a number of things in common, including a love of all kinds of music, as well as the uncanny ability to pretty much hate on every type of music as well. They share a fairly juvenile sense of humor (including the teenage boy-fueled obsession with the word "dick") but they're both a little more sensitive than they let on as well. When they get the opportunity to attend jazz camp, they're both pretty excited—and then they arrive to find it's almost all guys who are utterly pretentious, and most are more talented than they are.

And then they meet Ash. She's free-spirited, older than they are, inexplicably hot, and she shares their absolute love of music. After jamming together for more than three hours they think they've found kindred musical spirits. When circumstances at jazz camp don't quite go their way, Ash has a brilliant idea: the only way they can achieve greatness as a band is to hit the road and play wherever, whenever they can. So they leave camp (and their cell phones) behind and take off in Ash's SUV for The Haters' Summer of Hate Tour. What could possibly go wrong?

The Haters is wacky, funny as hell, a little moving, and pretty juvenile (not that that's a bad thing). Having never read Andrews' writing before, I don't know if this book is similar to his first or if his way of storytelling is unique for this story, but it took some getting used to. Wes is a terrific narrator but he used a simile or metaphor in almost every sentence in the first 10-20 percent of the book, and some of them were references to obscure musicians or musical styles that went over my head. I almost gave up on the book, but I'm glad I persevered, because it's a really enjoyable read if you know what to expect.

Juvenile dialogue aside, this is a book about friendship, lust, music, growing up, adventure, and the positive and negative effects parents can have on us. This book has a great deal of heart, which is what makes it more than just your average book about kids in a band. I definitely need to go back and read Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, too.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Book Review: "The Grownup" by Gillian Flynn

This short story by Gillian Flynn had easily one of the best, most memorable opening lines I've ever read: "I didn't stop giving hand jobs because I wasn't good at it. I stopped giving hand jobs because I was the best at it."

Given that opening salvo, however, The Grownup isn't really raunchy, nor is it erotica or sex-focused. The 64-page story is narrated by a smart young woman who spent her formative years learning from her mother how to beg for money (mainly because her mother didn't want to have to work otherwise), and it wasn't long before she became better at it than her mother. In her adulthood she found a job at Spiritual Palms, which provided tarot readings, fortune telling, and other "spiritual" analysis—however, her job was more physical (hence the opening lines).

After suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome ("...when you give 23,546 hand jobs over a three-year period, carpal tunnel syndrome is a very real thing."), she becomes an aura reader. It's not long into this job before she meets Susan Burke, a well-to-do wife and mother who is in utter distress, convinced her house is evil and so is Miles, her 15-year-old stepson. In Susan, the narrator sees a ticket out of her current situation, as she believes she can mine Susan's crisis into a more upper-crust spiritual adviser-type position. But when she visits Susan's house, and meets Miles, it isn't long before she realizes she may be out of her league—there probably is evil in the house, but whether it's coming from Susan, Miles, or the house itself, she's not quite sure.

The Grownup hooked me completely from the very beginning. (How could it not, really?) It's funny, a little creepy, and full of surprises, all in just 64 pages. While it's billed as a ghost story, I don't quite agree—perhaps if Flynn had took the story a little further those elements would have presented themselves. I wasn't wild about the ending but it certainly has left me thinking.

I've been a fan of Gillian Flynn's since she published her first book. Reading The Grownup seems a little like a tease, so I hope a new novel is on its way. And in the meantime, I may need to read George R.R. Martin's Rogues anthology, which is the book Flynn originally wrote this story for. This was definitely a good, quick, fun read.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Book Review: "Dream House" by Catherine Armsden

"She pondered how shared feelings could pull people closer, or, left unaddressed, like a misplaced or forgotten line in a drawing, could change the course of lives. There were no blueprints for a human life, no architect to pore over details that would ensure a sound and enduring structure."

In Catherine Armsden's beautiful, moving Dream House, Gina Gilbert is a San Francisco architect whose life is in the midst of significant turmoil. Her parents died suddenly in a freak car accident, and she and her older sister Cassie must pack up their childhood home in Maine so it can be sold by their parents' landlord. The house was the epicenter of some of Gina's most cherished moments, as well as many tumultuous ones, as she and Cassie navigated their parents' stormy relationship, their mother's emotional outbursts, and the tension that existed between their mother and her sister, who lived in the family's legacy, a house once owned by Sidney Banton, secretary to George Washington.

At the same time, Gina is growing increasingly anxious over the well-being of her own children, not realizing that her over-protectiveness and emotional instability mirrors her mother's when she was growing up. And it's been nearly two years since she and her husband bought property in Marin, but despite her ability to design houses and serve her clients' requests, she seems to have "architect's block" when it comes to designing her own house, a fact that is putting a strain on her marriage.

Gina returns to Maine to try and figure out where her head is, and spend some time with her childhood home. As she approaches the house like an architect would, studying the form and structure of each room, she also unearths memories, both good and bad, and reframes her parents' tumultuous relationship. She also tries to understand her mother and what made her act the way she did, and begins remembering the family issues she had repressed or forgotten, in the hopes she might be able to come to terms with her own issues.

Many books have been written about the reflection and soul-searching that comes after the death of one's parents, and the return to our childhood home. While some of the issues that Armsden explores in Dream House aren't new, her tremendous storytelling ability and use of language elevates this over other similar stories. But what sets this book apart is the way it juxtaposes emotion with architecture, and how both come together to tell the story of a family.

"Perhaps in this world there were no owners or renters, only borrowers choosing a bit of ground to call home during their short stay on earth. We must choose carefully, Gina thought; when we set our walls down to enclose something ordinary or extraordinary, we must be passionate about what we capture, inside and out."

This book really struck me in so many ways, and so many times I found myself in awe of Armsden's writing. I'll admit that Gina's character and her indecision irked me from time to time, but I understood where she was coming from, and just found the whole story tremendously moving. A great find.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Book Review: "Try Not to Breathe" by Holly Seddon

Full disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review. Many thanks to NetGalley and Random House/Ballantine for making it available!

Here's a question: does anyone else, when they read mysteries, find themselves suspecting everyone, and whenever a new character is introduced you try to determine whether that person is the culprit? I don't believe I'm alone in that behavior, but it's difficult to disengage the "detective" part of my brain!

Holly Seddon's tense debut novel, Try Not to Breathe definitely had me entertaining lots of possibilities in my mind. When Amy Stevenson was 15 years old, she disappeared from home. While the police tried to tell her parents she ran away, they knew that wasn't something Amy would do. And when she was found shortly thereafter, her body severely beaten, no one could figure out what happened and who assaulted her—and Amy, who was in a persistent vegetative state, couldn't tell.

Fifteen years later, Alex Dale, a reporter whose career and personal life had both seen better days, was researching a story on advances being made by a local neurologist, who boasted of some success "communicating" with some patients in a persistent vegetative state. When Alex comes upon Amy in the hospital, she remembers the case that captivated the area for some time, and the turmoil it brought to many whose lives were turned upside down.

Alex is determined to stand up for Amy, to try and find out the truth once and for all. Solving a cold case is never easy, but Alex has an extra burden as she is a barely functioning alcoholic whose life, career, and health have been destroyed by her addiction. But the more Alex digs into the case, interviewing those who were closest to Amy, she knows that there are answers amid the mystery, and it is up to her to try and bring some closure for Amy's sake, while Amy remains conscious but mostly unaware of where she is and what has transpired in her life since the assault. Mostly being the operative word...

I thought this was a really interesting concept for a book, and enjoyed the way Seddon teased out the story despite my best efforts to figure it all out before she was ready to divulge details. Alex's character in particular was really fascinating, and I felt Seddon did a terrific job giving voice to Alex's alcoholic existence and her continued decline despite the regrets she carried with her. While not all of the characters were as fleshed out as I would have liked, Alex drives the story, and she is so appealing (while being so flawed) that I really was invested in her quest. The tension level rises and rises as the plot moves forward, and for the most part, I really liked the direction Seddon took the story in.

For a debut novel, this is a pretty self-assured book. So many mysteries fail as they try too hard; Try Not to Breathe will captivate fans of the genre.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Book Review: "A Wild Swan and Other Tales" by Michael Cunningham

The idea of putting twists on the fairy tales we know and love isn't a new one. Many books have given these familiar tales a modern spin, a more macabre tone, even made them more politically correct, as the originals were decidedly not!

In A Wild Swan and Other Tales, Michael Cunningham, one of my favorite authors, tries to humanize the tales a bit, modernizing them, and imbuing many with more emotion and character development than the originals offered. He looks at some familiar tales—Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel, Rumpelstiltskin—and others I wasn't familiar with. All in all, it's an interesting exercise, one which I think had mixed results.

As I've said many a time before, if a story hits me emotionally without making me feel manipulated, it definitely resonates. The stories I liked best in this collection either moved or amused me, sometimes both. My favorites included "Jacked," in which Jack (of beanstalk fame) is a lazy man-child whose encounters with the giant provokes intriguing feelings in the giant's wife; "Little Man," an amusing and moving take on Rumpelstiltskin; "Beasts," an interesting twist on Beauty and the Beast; "Steadfast; Tin," a story about a couple which reminded me more of "How I Met Your Mother" than any fairy tale; and my favorite, "Ever/After," a moving look at the idea of happily ever after.

I love the way Michael Cunningham tells a story, and I've always found that characterization is among his many strengths, so those stories in which the characters were front and center worked best. A few of the stories were odd, and one was told in such a way that I wasn't exactly sure who was narrating it or what was happening.

Overall, this was an intriguing and worthwhile read. If you like fairy tales, give this a try—it's not quite the tales you know, but they'll definitely get you thinking.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Book Review: "Juventud" by Vanessa Blakeslee

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an unbiased review. Many thanks to Curbside Splendor Publishing for making it available!

The epigraph of Vanessa Blakeslee's emotional debut novel includes a quote from the great Gabriel Garcia Marquez which I feel so accurately sums this book up: "What matters in life is not what happens to you but what you remember and how you remember it."

Growing up the daughter of a wealthy landowner in Colombia, Mercedes Martinez lives a life of privilege—a driver takes her where she needs to go, maids take care of her every whim, and she never wants for anything. Yet her life isn't perfect—her mother left when she was very young and never tried to get in touch, and what Mercedes really hopes for is true love.

When she meets Manuel, a passionate young activist who is firmly rooted in his faith and the need for radical changes in their country, she is instantly smitten. Manuel and his brother Emilio open her eyes to the plight of the poor in Colombia, and how she cannot simply accept her father's worldview on what is happening around her.

It's not long before Manuel and Emilio cause Mercedes to re-evaluate all that her father has told her about his life before she was born, and why her mother left Colombia and never tried contacting them. She begins to suspect that her father is far more dangerous than she could ever have imagined, and wonders exactly why he is trying to keep her and Manuel apart, instead forcing her to go to boarding school in America.

An act of violence one night changes everything, and she realizes her only option is to flee to America and leave her old life behind her. But as she grows older, her life is always shadowed by her suspicions and the events of her teenage years. Fifteen years later, she returns to Colombia to try and find answers, but is absolute truth ever possible, or just more questions?

I'll admit I know very little about Colombian history and the violence which occurred in that country, so I found Juventud both enlightening and disturbing. Blakeslee really captured Mercedes' voice so well, and I felt she gave the character complexity so she was so much more than a pampered teenager who suddenly found a conscience. I also found that she had a deft hand when it came to evoking the dichotomy of Colombia's beauty and the extreme poverty and violence affecting the country.

At times the plot moved a little slower than I would have liked, and yet I felt it rushed a bit when Mercedes went to America. I felt as if some of the other characters were a little less fleshed out, but this is Mercedes' story. At its heart, Juventud is a moving story about love and loss, and how our lives are shaped not only by what we see and what we do, but also by the things we don't say, the questions we don't ask.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Book Review: "Hidden Bodies" by Caroline Kepnes

Full disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review. Many thanks to NetGalley and Atria Books for making it available!

Holy crap, this was one roller coaster ride of a book!

Last year, Caroline Kepnes' You pretty much hooked me completely, as it introduced New York City bookseller Joe Goldberg and his love/obsession with Guinevere Beck. That book was also a pretty wild ride, and a testament to Kepnes' writing talent as she made you care about a character whose actions weren't quite admirable. (To say the least...)

In Hidden Bodies, Kepnes brings Joe back, and kicks up the story a few more notches. After his relationship with Beck ended, Joe figured he was destined for a life alone. And then beautiful, quirky, mysterious Amy Adam comes into his bookstore and intrigues him pretty much immediately. They're on the same wavelength intellectually, the sex is mind-blowing, and her refusal to embrace any form of social media—where Beck's life was an open book—enamors her to him even more. But just as he's ready to propose, and completely leave Beck behind, Amy disappears, leaving Joe hurt, angry, and betrayed.

The clues Amy left in her wake leave Joe with only one option, no matter how odious it may seem to him—he decides to move to LA to find her. It's not long before Joe finds himself face-to-face with all of the quintessentially LA stereotypes he had only heard about—from the bookstore manager/aspiring actor/aspiring screenwriter to the aging comedian, the gossip columnist who just wants to be loved to the narcissistic talk show host. But try as he might, Joe cannot find Amy, and his obsession about finding her grows ever stronger.

But then Joe finds Love. Literally. Love Quinn, the do-gooder heiress to a grocery store fortune, steals Joe's heart and introduces him to a world of privilege and, well, love, that he never dreamed of. Joe knows that Love is his destiny, and if there are some bumps along the road to eternal happiness, well, a guy's gotta do what a guy's gotta do to ensure he gets the life and the love he deserves, right? No matter what.

Even more in this book than in her first, Kepnes so fully occupies Joe's character in every way—intellectually, emotionally, sexually—that I had to keep reminding myself that this book was written by a woman. Even when the plot gets a little bit unreal from time to time, there is not a false note in Joe's character, and once again, I found myself rooting for him at the same time I was disgusted by him. I really had no idea how Kepnes would tie up the plot, and that doesn't happen for me with many books.

Is this a realistic book? I hope not. But it's utterly entertaining, and I was completely hooked from start to finish. I just let it devour me as I devoured it, caught between wanting to finish it quickly to end my suspense and wanting to savor it. This isn't a book for everyone, but if you like books about seriously flawed but fascinating characters with a penchant for sex, violence, and foul language, pick up these books. (And while you don't have to, I'd recommend starting with You, the first book in Joe's story.)

Friday, November 13, 2015

Book Review: "Dear Mr. You" by Mary-Louise Parker

Full disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review. Many thanks to NetGalley and Scribner for making it available!

I'm sure I'm not the only one who has wondered just how much actors are like the characters they portray. Yes, I know that they're acting, but sometimes you wonder if particular roles hew a little closer to a particular actor's personality.

I've been a fan of Mary-Louise Parker's since I saw her in Prelude to a Kiss on Broadway in 1990. I was tremendously intrigued by her intelligence, the power she exuded onstage, and the indescribable quirkiness she brought to her role. And no matter what roles I've seen her play, all three of those qualities come through, and she seems as if she'd be a fascinating and fun person to get to know.

In her new book, Dear Mr. You, Parker gives more credence to that assumption as she gives glimpses into her life through letters to various men with whom she interacted—family members, lovers, mentors, teachers, and people with whom she had random encounters. These letters are at times poignant and filled with emotion, at other times raunchy, sexy, romantic, and/or nostalgic; and at other times they share regrets, hopes, and wishes.

Many times, the intended recipients of these letters aren't identified by anything other than enigmatic titles—"Dear Risk Taker," "Dear Popeye," "Dear Big Feet," "Dear Young Leman"—that only those closest to Parker would know their real identities, but other letters are written to family members or people with whom she came into fleeting contact, such as "Dear Firefighter," "Dear Mr. Cabdriver," and "Dear Mr. Orderly."

Some of these letters were absolutely moving, such as those she wrote to the grandfather she never met, her father, close friends and mentors, and those who left an indelible impression on her life in a moment—in particular, the letters she wrote to a random firefighter she passed on the street just after the 9/11 attacks and to the oyster picker she imagined was responsible for providing the oysters her dying father so enjoyed. Parker's use of language and imagery was so beautiful at times. Here's one example:
"It was short but I loved our little trip. We fell in love, but the way you love a view that comes along once or twice in life. You don't want to leave it because it feels like, yes of course, this is the perfect spot. Those moments always come with a little shock and I love that sensation, when you think, this is too good, I'll catch up with everyone else later. You just have to take in the truth of that expanse a few more seconds before it changes and becomes something else entirely, or before you do."
At times, however, the letters were a little too cryptic, a little too precious, a little too jumbled for me to follow. It was difficult trying to gain emotional traction with some of the letters without really understanding to whom she was writing, or of what she was referring. And of course, I'm only human—I wanted to know which letter was about Billy Crudup!

All in all, this is beautifully written and fascinating book, conveying complex emotions and giving just a little more insight into a talented actress and tremendously interesting woman.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Book Review: "An Infinite Number of Parallel Universes" by Randy Ribay

The state of so-called "young adult" fiction these days is so diverse and the incredible array of talented writers in this genre is really dazzling. As I've remarked many times, they certainly didn't have these kinds of books when I was growing up!

The one thing about YA fiction that sometimes puts a slight damper on my enjoyment is the precocious nature of the dialogue in many books. So many YA characters are wise beyond their years, sarcastic and proud of it, and ready with an insightful, sensitive, and/or cutting remark in a split second. And while this dialogue can make you gasp, and reach for a highlighter (or press the highlight key on your e-reader), sometimes it's all just too clever to be true, you know?

One of the reasons that I really enjoyed Randy Ribay's An Infinite Number of Parallel Universes, other than it just felt, well, sweet (and not in a bad way), was that the dialogue felt much more realistic than many other books in this genre. Not all of the characters are fully evolved emotionally or intellectually, and Ribay allows them to be flawed, to hurt each other intentionally and unintentionally, and if they're sensitive, it's because it works for that particular character.

Mari, Dante, Archie, and Sam are long-time friends who have been playing Dungeons & Dragons together for years. As they get ready for their senior year in high school, everyone's lives are in the midst of major turmoil, but none have really shared their problems with each other. Archie is struggling with the effects his parents' divorce is going to have on his life and his friendships, Mari is trying to decide whether to contact her biological mother, Dante wants to come out to his friends but faces ignorance from his family, and Sam's relationship with his girlfriend is on the skids.

At first, the book follows several days through each of the characters' eyes (so you see how two people view the same incident in a completely different way). And then, in an effort to help Sam (not to mention avoid their own problems), the four embark on a cross-country road trip, and find themselves in the midst of utter chaos, self-discovery, and the kind of adventure you can only experience when you're young and your whole life is ahead of you.

While the plot is familiar, and you may even have seen some specific incidents before (or you can see them coming), this is a tremendously engaging and charming book. Not all of the characters are likable, but you still root for them, and that is in large part to the love Ribay has for them, which comes across in his storytelling. This is a sweet book that may take you back to your high school days, but hopefully with none of the angst you might have experienced back then!

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Book Review: "The Lesson" by Jesse Ball

Sometimes a book clicks for you and sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes you devour a book and sometimes you can't seem to make headway and just want the whole thing to end. Sadly, it was the latter for me where Jesse Ball's "The Lesson" was concerned. I was intrigued by the concept of this 137-page novella, but the story never engaged me, and I'll admit that I struggled to really understand the point of it all.

Ezra and his wife, Loring, were chess masters. Following Ezra's death, Loring continues giving chess lessons, both as a way of making ends meet, and as a small source of companionship in her old age. When she agrees to teach a young boy, Stan, she is immediately intrigued by him. It's not long before she is convinced that somehow Stan is the embodiment of her late husband.

When you lose someone you love so dearly, someone with whom you've spent so much of your life, the idea of their coming back in one form or another is definitely appealing. As Loring begins seeing more evidence that supports her belief about Stan, she wonders if this is the truth or if her mind is simply seeing what it wants to.

The problem with this story is that it meanders all over the place. It's a reflection on grief, love, and loss, and look at how societies treat the elderly. It's also a commentary on what dreams are, why games can be important to both adults and children, and the importance of belief in things that can't quite be explained, such as magic. But far too often, Ball veers from the core of his story into random details that he picks up and drops just as quickly, which made it very difficult to comprehend. Here's one example:

"The caretaker was there, and saw her walking. He came up, and with him his wife and daughter. This wife and this daughter, they were the same person, by a series of odd coincidences, but we will not go into that at the moment."

I've never read anything by Ball before, so I don't know if he was being deliberately obtuse and mysterious with the way he told this particular story, or if this is the way he writes. I was expecting a story about human emotion and perhaps a little mystery, and while I did find a bit of the former, much of the story left me disconnected and frustrated.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Book Review: "The Short Drop" by Matthew FitzSimmons

I was able to read this book through Amazon's Kindle First program. Thanks to Amazon and Thomas & Mercer for making it available!

My dad was a pretty voracious reader, and he particularly liked thrillers—Michael Connelly, Lee Child, John Sandford, and Dennis Lehane were among his favorite authors. Whenever I'd read a great book in this genre, especially when it was by a new author or one even I'd never heard of, I always would mention it to him and encourage him to read it. Although he passed away about 18 months ago, I still think of him when I read a great thriller, and wish he was around so I can pass on some more recommendations.

Boy, he would have loved Matthew FitzSimmons' The Short Drop, and I did, too. It's honestly been a while since I've gotten totally immersed in a book like this, one that left me breathlessly turning pages and wishing that the phone wouldn't ring during lunch so I could see how the book ended. It has some great action, characters that are much more complex than they appear on the surface (although some are just what you'd expect), and there's even a few twists I didn't see coming.

Ten years ago, 14-year-old Suzanne Lombard disappeared from her home. By all accounts, it appeared she ran away to meet a mystery boyfriend, although her trail quickly went cold. Suzanne wasn't just any runaway, however—at the time of her disappearance, her father was a U.S. senator, and his political star rose as his family grieved for their missing daughter.

Gibson Vaughn was the son of Benjamin Lombard's trusted chief of staff, and he was in essence an older brother to Suzanne. They were tremendously close, until a scandal rocked the Vaughn family, leading to tragedy, and sending Gibson to the Marines, where his legendary hacking skills were put to good use.

As the 10th anniversary of Suzanne's disappearance draws closer, Benjamin Lombard, now the vice-president, is expected to become the next President of the United States. At the same time, Lombard's former security chief asks Gibson, a former nemesis, to help him with a covert investigation into Suzanne's disappearance. It's not long before Gibson helps uncover a tangled web of secrets that have the potential to destroy many lives—and put the lives of Gibson and his investigative partners at risk, not to mention force him to relive emotional moments from his past that he tried to forget.

I found this book utterly compelling from start to finish. I tend to get irritated when the villains in thrillers are all-seeing, all-knowing, and always one step ahead of the protagonists, but it is a testament to FitzSimmons' storytelling ability that I wasn't bothered when that happened in this book. You don't know who to trust, and my head was spinning with possibilities about where the plot would go. Sure, you may have to suspend a little disbelief here and there, but I bought the story hook, line, and sinker.

If you're a fan of taut thrillers with at least a little bit of emotional complexity, get yourself a copy of The Short Drop. I can't believe this is FitzSimmons' first book; I definitely can't wait to see what's next for him.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Book Review: "Why They Run the Way They Do" by Susan Perabo

Full disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review. Many thanks to NetGalley and Simon & Schuster for making it available!

I choose to read a book for many different reasons—it's written by an author whose I work I enjoy, it was recommended by a friend or critic, it's one of the "buzzier" books out there at a current time, or it was recently adapted into a movie I missed. But other times my decision to read a book is purely a visual one—first I get intrigued by the cover design, then I pick it up (or look it up online) and see if the plot description draws me in. So while you can't judge a book by its cover, I do often select a book because of it.

All that babble to explain that it was the cover of Susan Perabo's soon-to-be-released story collection, Why They Run the Way They Do, that piqued my interest first. However, after devouring all 12 stories fairly quickly, I'm so thankful the cover design was so intriguing, because otherwise I might have missed an affecting, well-written, memorable collection by an author whose work I'm going to need to keep reading.

The characters in these stories face emotional crossroads of all kinds—spending time with their terminally ill mother, dealing with a serious infatuation with a childhood best friend, being confronted with evidence of an extramarital affair in an unusual way, or trying to help a friend escape a mental hospital so she can commit suicide, for starters. But so many of these stories are more complex than that, even surprising at times. (There's even one story called, of all things, "This is Not That Story," which opens up a number of intriguing plot twists but then cuts them off by saying, "But that is not this story.")

Perabo's voice is so deft; while the majority of her main characters are female, she is equally talented with male protagonists as well. She packs a tremendous amount of heart, character development, and plot into fairly short stories, but they don't ever feel confusing or unfinished. I've always said that for me, the sign of a great story collection is if I am interested and invested enough in the characters to wish that they were part of a full-length novel; I could see that with many of these.

Among my favorites in this collection (and it was hard to narrow it down to just a few to mention in this review) were: "Story Goes," which follows two young female residents of a mental hospital, when one asks the other to help her escape so she can commit suicide; the title story, in which a receptionist must deal with the affair she is having as well as the imminent departure of her best friend and companion; "The Payoff," about two eight graders who witness two teachers in a sexual act—and they make an interesting decision about how to handle it; "Michael the Armadillo," in which a couple must deal with an unusual reminder of one's infidelity; and "A Proper Burial," when a woman spends a weekend with her terminally ill mother before her condition starts to decline.

I've been so blown away by the quality of the short story collections I've read this year, and Why They Run the Way They Do is an excellent addition to that continuously growing list. Fans of short stories: here's another one for you to hopefully enjoy as much as I did!

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Book Review: "Slade House" by David Mitchell

No one writes quite like David Mitchell. His last book, The Bone Clocks, made the list of my favorite books I read in 2014, and now I was utterly captivated by the quirky, slightly creepy, and utterly compelling Slade House.

Slade House is a bit of an anomaly. If you go looking for it most days, you won't find it—you'll simply go down the narrowest alley you've ever seen and search in vain, and if you ask passers-by whether they've heard of Slade House, chances are they'll look at you like you've gone mad. But the truth is, Slade House is only visible every nine years, and only if you've been chosen by the house's owners, a mysterious brother and a sister, will you get the chance to enter. You'll be amazed by the beauty of your surroundings, the grandeur of the house—and then you'll start to realize all is not what it seems. But by then, it's too late.

Slade House spans five decades, beginning in the 1970s, and follows an unlikely group of people as they encounter the house and its owners. A misfit teenager accompanying his musician mother for a recital, a recently divorced policeman with an eye for the ladies, a college student who joined her college's Paranormal Society to get closer to one of her fellow students, and an investigative journalist all enter the house; some have knowledge of its existence, some are totally unaware. And then it becomes difficult to distinguish what is real and what is in their minds.

I'm not going to say more about the plot for fear of spoiling it. Once again, David Mitchell has created a tremendously unique story with lots of twists and turns (and there's even a tiny overlap with a character from The Bone Clocks, but you don't have to have read that book to enjoy this one. This book has vivid imagery, fascinating characters, and even takes some trips into the territory of authors like Stephen King, Peter Straub, or Dean Koontz, but still remains completely Mitchell-ian. (If that word doesn't exist, now it does.)

Give yourself a little post-Halloween treat that won't pack on the calories, and pick up this book. Chances are, like me, you're going to want to read more of Mitchell's books afterward.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Book Review: "Hide" by Matthew Griffin

Full disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review. Many thanks to NetGalley and Bloomsbury USA for making it available!

Poignant, beautiful, and moving, Matthew Griffin's Hide is a powerful love story that you don't often see depicted in movies, books, or television shows, but it is truly resonant and relevant.

It isn't long after World War II when Frank, returning home from military service, meets Wendell, a shy, taciturn taxidermist, in a rural North Carolina town. At this time in society, relationships such as theirs could mean being ostracized from their families, losing their jobs, shock treatments or institutionalization, going to jail, even losing their lives. But the two are drawn to each other, and decide to move into a house on the outskirts of town, where other than going to work each day they keep to themselves.

It's a solitary existence and a life filled with the fear of discovery, but their love endures for more than 50 years. And then one day, Wendell finds Frank on the ground beside his carefully tended garden—and their lives change in an instant. As Frank's physical condition worsens, and his mental acuity and mood deteriorate, Wendell faces the dual pressure of caring for a stubborn, physically incapacitated old man, and watching the love of his life decline.

They say that growing old isn't for the faint of heart, and watching the health of the person you love go downhill is tremendously difficult. Hide so beautifully captures the feelings of regret and loss, of anger and frustration, the split-second thoughts that you might be better off if they were no longer suffering. But this story is also moving because of the lives that Wendell and Frank had to live, the measures they took to avoid discovery, the sacrifices they had to make.

Griffin perfectly occupies the voices and mannerisms of his characters. While there were times that the story moved a little slower than I would have liked, I couldn't stop reading, even as I dreaded where the book might end. Hide is a moving tribute to love, and a salute to the sacrifices made by those who came before us, so we can live the lives everyone deserves to, loving the person we choose.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Book Review: "Beauty Queens" by Libba Bray

Beauty pageants are often frequent targets of satire, even if most of the aspects that are lampooned are pretty exaggerated. We love to pull out the "world peace" trope, and revisit the idea that beauty pageant contestants are dumb, even if in reality they're quite often tremendously accomplished. (And I say this as both a fan and a nearly 12-year volunteer with the Miss America Organization.)

The young women in Libba Bray's satire, Beauty Queens, a cross between Miss Congeniality and Drop Dead Gorgeous, with a little bit of the media-related commentary of Max Headroom are in a class by themselves. They're flying to the beach to compete in the Miss Teenage Dream pageant, and their every move is being captured by film crews, with the culminating event being the televised pageant itself. And then the unthinkable happens—their plane crash-lands on a deserted island, killing the majority of the contestants and all of the adults involved, and leaving a select few to fend for themselves.

From the get-go, Miss Texas, Taylor Rene Krystal Hawkins, wants the survivors to keep practicing their musical numbers, keeping up their beauty rituals (despite losing most of their cosmetics, not to mention food and water and hygiene products), because Miss Teenage Dream is always prepared. But Miss New Hampshire, Adina Greenberg, who never really cared much about competing anyway, thinks it's crazy the girls don't concentrate on surviving the elements and try to get rescued. They can't have a pageant if all the contestants have starved to death or get eaten by wild animals, can they?

But what the contestants don't realize is that the island isn't deserted—it's actually the site of a top secret compound run by "The Corporation," the conglomerate that produces the pageant as well as nearly every popular television show (like Patriot Daughters," featuring a sexy Betsy Ross, and Captains Bodacious, which features a group of telegenic young men masquerading as pirates), movie, book, and record, not to mention pharmaceuticals, fashions, and beauty products. And The Corporation is about to take part in a very shady business deal with a very shady foreign dictator.

Beauty Queens lampoons so many elements of pageants, from the pushy mothers who strong-arm their daughters into competing, to the vapid contestants who know a lot about makeup and smiling but little about the world around them. And then there's the most famous Miss Teenage Dream ever, Ladybird Hope, now an aspiring presidential candidate. Her take on why the pageant is important:

"Our country needs something to believe in, Barry. They need us to be that shining beacon on the hill, and that shining beacon will not have all these complications and tough questions about who we are, 'cause that's hard, and nobody wants to think about that when you already have to decide whether you want Original Recipe or Extra Crispy and that little box is squawkin' at ya. And let me tell you something, Barry, that shining beacon will have a talent portion and pretty girls, because if we don't come out and twirl those batons and model our evening gowns and answer questions about geography, then the terrorists have won."

Parts of this book were quite funny, and the contestants' adventures were interspersed with "commercials" from The Corporation. But after a while, as the plot got more and more outlandish, it started to lose steam, and it just wasn't as funny anymore. There were only so many times the contestants could joke about the slutty one, the lesbian, and the token minorities, or the plot entailed the contestants defending themselves with everyday beauty tools and products before the book just lost its appeal. I think if this book were shorter, it definitely would have been funnier, but instead it appears Bray tried to cram as much as she could into the plot.

If you enjoy satire and social commentary about just how silly the media is and how much control it has over us, you may enjoy Beauty Queens. It's definitely amusing, even laugh-out-loud, stupid funny in places. I just wish it didn't lose steam before it ended.