Thursday, April 30, 2015

Book Review: "Where They Found Her" by Kimberly McCreight

The body of an infant has been found near a creek on the campus of Ridgedale University. No one knows whose baby this was, who killed the baby, and, of course, why someone would have done such a terrible thing. Molly Sanderson, a freelance journalist who has mainly covered the arts, lifestyle, and human interest beat for the Ridgedale Reader finds herself assigned to cover the story, and she is unprepared for the toll it will take on her psyche.

Following the loss of her second baby, Molly suffered a near-nervous breakdown, which took a toll on her marriage and her ability to care for her other daughter, who was still quite young. And although she was able to overcome this deep depression, and her husband's job at Ridgedale has given them a chance for a fresh start, this story—and the memories it unearths—has the potential to tear open wounds that time has healed. While she knows inherently she should give up the story, and her husband all but begs her to turn it over to another reporter, Molly is determined to get to the bottom of the story in the hopes it may provide some closure for her. As Molly begins to uncover a series of secrets many people in power would prefer to leave hidden, she finds herself getting entangled in a web where many people's behavior appears suspect, including several people she knows well.

Where They Found Her is narrated not only by Molly, but two additional, very different women, each with a linkage to the story. Sandy, a high school dropout desperate to right her life and find the correct path for her future, is forced to play parent for her tremendously immature and undependable mother. And Barbara, the wife and mother determined to have the "perfect" life, is haunted both by memories she hoped she'd never have to deal with again, and problems faced by both of her children.

There is no such thing as the "perfect" community, or the "perfect" family. But Ridgedale has more than its share of secrets and dysfunction. And Molly is determined to find out where all of the paths converge, especially if she can figure out what happened to the baby, and who she belonged to, no matter what it does to her, her life, and her relationships in the process.

As I was reading Kimberly McCreight's new book, I found myself wondering which alternative I like better: a book in which you figure out what is going to happen before it is revealed, or a book that introduces so many possible solutions you haven't a clue what is going to happen. I think I prefer the latter, in which category this book definitely falls. McCreight definitely keeps you guessing, and her writing is taut and compelling. If I had any criticism of this book, it's that there are a lot of characters to keep straight, not all of them likable, so when the characters I didn't care much about narrated the book or appeared in the story, I wasn't as interested as I was otherwise. However, on the whole, this was a very interesting and suspenseful read, more so than I imagined, even though I figured out part of the plot.

McCreight is a really talented writer. Her first book, Reconstructing Amelia, was one of my favorite books of 2013. If you like mysteries with a lot of emotion, give either of her books a try.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Book Review: "Paper Towns" by John Green

I have a lot of ambitions in my life, but one of the ones I wish for the most is to be as clever and well-spoken as the characters in John Green's books. While I don't know many teenagers who speak the way his characters due, I am obsessed with the way he writes dialogue, especially banter, and although I think I do fairly well for myself conversationally, I wouldn't mind the the wry observational quality of his characters.

While I believe Hazel and Augustus, the main characters in Green's The Fault in Our Stars (easily one of my most favorite books of the last several years), are the pinnacle of Green's dialogue mountain, Quentin Jacobsen and Margo Roth Spiegelman (okay, so Green knows how to name his characters well, too), the main characters in Paper Towns definitely have moments which should easily be added to his conversational pantheon.

Quentin and Margo grow up living next door to each other in a suburban Florida town. When they are younger, the two find the body of a man who apparently committed suicide, and while this discovery should have cemented their relationship, it wasn't long before Margo drifted away, finding popularity, new friends (not to mention boyfriends), and an alleged life of adventure, while Quentin is content to life a quieter life, albeit one filled with close friends, video games, and worshiping Margo from afar.

As their senior year of high school comes to close, one night Quentin is awakened by Margo, climbing into his bedroom window, dressed like a ninja. She enlists a reluctant Quentin to be her accomplice and assistant with a series of revenge-related activities throughout their area. (And while she promises no breaking and entering, she promises no such thing about breaking or entering.) While Margo's schemes push Quentin's blood pressure fairly high, and bring the duo into a few dangerous close calls, the late night ride awakens his confidence and sense of adventure, and he hopes that this will be the start of a whole different relationship with Margo.

What he doesn't expect, however, was that Margo would disappear the next day, something she has done a few other times over the years. And when he finds out that the other times Margo disappeared she left obscure clues her family couldn't figure out, he becomes convinced that she has left him clues to find her this time. He seeks the help of his two best friends, Ben and Radar, to try and determine where she could have gone, why she left, and how he can find her, so that perhaps she'll realize the new, more confident Quentin she inspired is someone worth getting close to.

But what Quentin discovers is that people's reasons for their actions don't always make sense to anyone other than themselves, and sometimes our perceptions of a person and what motivates them is vastly different than reality. He also learns about the power of quiet observation, the intensity of friendship, and his need for people to act the way he wants them to.

"Just—Just remember that sometimes, the way you think about a person isn't the way they actually are."

I really, really enjoyed this book, and it once again cemented John Green among my favorite writers. While Paper Towns has a great deal of humor and heart, at times I didn't find Margo to be as fascinating of a character as the others were, so much like Ben and Radar, I sometimes wondered why Quentin was spending so much time trying to find her. But again, Green's dialogue and his storytelling hooked me quickly and completely, and I read this book over a few hours. (You also can't quibble with a book that uses Walt Whitman's poetry as a significant plot point.)

The movie adaptation of Paper Towns comes out later this summer, and I hope it's as faithful to Green's book as the movie version of The Fault in Our Stars was. A book this good deserves an equally good movie, but like always, I'd suggest reading the book first, to get the first-hand exposure to Green's talent. And maybe it will inspire you to plan adventures of your own.

Book Review: "The Fall of Princes" by Robert Goolrick

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

The 1980s were the decade of excess, the decade in which the Gordon Gekko-esque "Greed is good" mantra ruled Wall Street (and not just the Oliver Stone movie of the same name), and young "Masters of the Universe" raked in millions upon millions of bucks in financial trading, only to blow it through excessive spending, drugs, and sex. It was also the decade in which the promiscuity of the 1970s led to the horror of AIDS, the early days of which caused people to commit suicide, and family members and friends to shun those with the disease.

In Robert Goolrick's The Fall of Princes the 1980s are the backdrop for a lamentation of sorts, narrated by Rooney, who reached the highest of the highs as a trader for one of the elitest companies, only to plummet to the lowest of the lows a short while later. Rooney entered the Wall Street world as a young man somewhat confused about what direction his life would take, but once he realized the potential he had to make millions and millions of dollars, his ambition exploded, and he quickly became one of the most prolific young traders, earning—and spending—an absolute fortune. He became known as one of the "BSDs," or "Big Swinging Dicks," the phrase somebody coined to describe this cocky band of brothers.

"When you strike a match, it burns brighter in the first nanosecond than it will ever burn again. That first incandescence. That instantaneous and brilliant flash. 1980 was the year, and I was the match, and that was the year I struck into blinding flame."

The exhilaration that came with the power and privilege of the job brought with it access to women (and men), alcohol, drugs, cigars, and the finest in fashion, vacations, homes, and other luxuries. But as Rooney tells it, while it required a herculean amount of effort to make the money, it was far, far too easy to spend it, especially in their efforts to have the best of everything.

The Fall of Princes traces Rooney's rise and fall, his friendships and romantic relationships, and the lives of those around him. You see the cocky, handsome, well-built, well-dressed specimen of a man he was, and the timid, regret-filled man he became, consumed with longing for the life he no longer had. Rooney takes you on a tour of a not-too-distant time, of trying to be the best and have it all, but realizing that all of the money in the world can't buy you love, or self-worth, or certainty of your place in the world.

While Rooney and his friends are much like the characters in movies like The Wolf of Wall Street, I still found his character utterly fascinating, and I found this book to be compelling, heartfelt, and far deeper and more complex than I thought it would be. Goolrick, whose earlier novels like A Reliable Wife and Heading Out to Wonderful captured simpler times further back in history, is an excellent chronicler of place and time, and really captures the high and low points of 1980s culture and society, as well as how life feels when you're in your ascent, as well as once you've hit your lowest point.

If you're fascinated by the culture of cocky excess that characterized the 1980s on Wall Street, or you like to see the conceited meet their downfall, you'll find The Fall of Princes a tremendously interesting book.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Book Review: "This is Your Life, Harriet Chance!" by Jonathan Evison

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

At 79 years old, perhaps Harriet Chance hasn't quite lived the life she imagined. Her husband Bernard has been dead nearly two years but he has recently been showing up again (and not just when she's alone), and their encounters seem very real, despite the fact that everyone else thinks she's losing her marbles. When she finds out that just before his death, Bernard entered a drawing for an Alaskan cruise—and one—Harriet sees this as a chance to scatter his ashes and perhaps move on into her twilight years.

Convincing her children (who are doting on her for the wrong reasons) that she's perfectly capable of going on a cruise by herself is one thing; actually managing the cruise at her age is another. So what if she indulges in a little more wine than she should? She's entitled. But when a long-held secret is divulged, Harriet is utterly unprepared for how it will cause her to question everything she has held dear for 60 years, and even more, she's totally thrown by the surprise appearance of her estranged daughter on the cruise.

This is Your Life, Harriet Chance! is a rollicking ride through all of the moments, big and small, that brought Harriet to her current state. As further clarity is given to incidents in her childhood, throughout her marriage and raising her children, and caring for Bernard through his decline, you begin to learn that Harriet isn't as blameless as she seems for incidents in her life, but she's also not the only one responsible. This is a book about soldiering through disappointment when your dreams don't work out as you had hoped, the sacrifices we are forced to make in life and how we handle them, how our behavior and the choices we make can haunt us, and how love can both surprise and injure us.

I loved Jonathan Evison's first book, The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, and this book had a similar banter-ish tone to it. This is both a humorous and emotional book, sometimes melodramatic, sometimes surprising, sometimes endearing. The narrator of the book kept referring to the way that each episode in Harriet's life would come up at random as like a pinball machine, and that is the way it felt at times. It was hard to keep the way her life flowed straight when things came up willy-nilly in that way, but although some of the incidents in her life were predictable, Harriet is still an interesting, albeit slightly flawed, character, even if everything that happened wasn't her fault.

I enjoyed this book, although not as much as Evison's first, but it's definitely and interesting and somewhat heartfelt look at the near-totality of a woman's life, and how each event somehow led to another.

Book Review: "The Dead Lands" by Benjamin Percy

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

I'll admit I'm a bit of a hypochondriac, but I have come a long way from being convinced I had the plague when I caught a bad cold while reading Stephen King's The Stand many years ago. If I hadn't, I certainly wouldn't be able to read many of the post-apocalyptic, dystopian novels out there that chronicle the world after major pandemics without convincing myself I had whatever illnesses wiped out most of the world!

Benjamin Percy's The Dead Lands chronicles a future world in which our planet was hit by a massive flu epidemic that wiped out millions. In an effort to prevent the further spread of the disease, or perhaps wipe out those they felt were carriers, many countries detonated nuclear blasts, which caused further illnesses in survivors and caused animals to mutate into savage, deadly creatures.

In what used to be St. Louis, a walled outpost called The Sanctuary has thrived for many years, purportedly protecting its citizens from the threats of the outside world, while governing through fear, violence, and corruption. The only bright spot in this bleak existence is a museum devoted to chronicling artifacts and events of the past, curated by Lewis Meriwether, the highly intelligent son of the Sanctuary's former mayor. One day, from the dead lands surrounding the Sanctuary, a lone woman comes riding in, telling of places far away where there is water, and natural resources, and life beyond the drudgery they all know. While the mayor tries to brand her as a deadly savage, she has come for one reason: to bring Lewis Meriwether back with her.

But the tales that the woman tells prove too enticing for some. Mina Clark, a tough ranger with demons of her own, convinces Lewis (yep, in case you haven't been following along: Lewis and Clark) and a group of others to follow this woman, Gawea, into the dead lands, and find out whether the world she promises beyond the Sanctuary is true. But they're utterly unprepared for the danger—both human and otherwise—and the beauty which they will find. And getting to Astoria, Oregon isn't half the battle.

I'd never read anything by Percy before but I was tremendously impressed by the vividness of his language and the world he painted. The characters were really fascinating, although at times the shift in perspectives among so many characters became a bit confusing. Ultimately, though, I didn't think the book delivered on its promise—I felt as if it took far too long to get going, at times it was unrelenting in its brutality (how many mutant creatures could one group of people encounter?), and the whole thing didn't quite have the payoff I was hoping for.

The Dead Lands is a well-written and unique addition to the dystopian landscape, although a little bit more horror-focused at times than other novels in this genre. It's certainly not the Lewis and Clark story you're used to!

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Book Review: "The Art of Being Normal" by Lisa Williamson

Lisa Williamson's The Art of Being Normal is a moving, well-written reminder of how brutal, yet how beautiful, the world can be to those who are different.

David Piper has really never fit in. Apart from his two best friends, most of his fellow high school students ridicule him for being different. One of the school bullies has called him "Freak Show" since they were younger, but David is willing to wait him out until high school ends. His parents think he is gay, and are waiting for him to tell them.

What David wants, more than anything, is to be a girl. But as he grows taller and more like his father, he wonders if this will ever be a possibility.

Leo Denton is the new kid in David's high school, coming from a poorer area to the more posh private school. Overly exaggerated tales of his exploits at his last high school follow him, but he lets people say what they want about him. Yet while he wants to remain under the radar, two events occur which ensure that wish isn't granted: he stands up for David when he is being bullied, and then he falls for one of the most beautiful and talented girls in school. It's not long before secrets he hoped wouldn't be exposed come to light.

I felt The Art of Being Normal so accurately captured the feelings one experiences when you are different, when you are bullied, and how you just wish you could hide to avoid the ridicule and abuse. Williamson created such complex characters that you feel for and root for, characters you think about after the book is over. Even if once the story hits its stride you have a feeling how the plot will unfold, you're completely drawn into the characters' lives and you want to know what is going to happen.

Like so many YA books out there these days, this type of book didn't exist when I was growing up. I'm so glad that it exists now, however, and hope that people read it, are moved by it, and perhaps convinced to change their behavior, to understand that their definition of "normal" isn't everyone's. So well done...

Monday, April 13, 2015

Book Review: "The Kind Worth Killing" by Peter Swanson

Wow, I thought this was great.

"Truthfully, I don't think murder is necessarily as bad as people make it out to be. Everyone dies. What difference does it make if a few bad apples get pushed along a little sooner than God intended? And your wife, for example, seems like the kind worth killing."

When Ted Severson meets Lily Kintner in a London airport bar, he is taken by her unique beauty and enjoys their playful, carefree banter while their mutual flight to Boston is delayed. And as one martini turns to two (and then more), once their plane takes off, they begin to play a game of absolute truth. No judgment.

Perhaps it's the liquor that loosens his tongue, or Lily's presence, but Ted begins to reveal the problems he's experiencing with his wife, Miranda, and that he's pretty certain she's having an affair. Knowing a divorce will cost him a great deal of money and more than a little bit of humiliation, he jokes that it would just be easier to kill Miranda. When Lily first replies, "I think you should," and then later adds, "I'd like to help," he's utterly surprised, a bit freaked out...and more than a little intrigued.

The two begin to devise a seemingly foolproof plan, but Ted can't help but wonder whether Lily is actually serious about it, or if somehow she'll end up trapping him somehow. But what Ted doesn't know is that there is far more mystery to Lily than he can even imagine. And then everything gets a little bit more complicated...

I'm going to stop my description at this point for fear of giving anything away, although this is a book that succeeds both because of its intricate plot as well as the strength of Peter Swanson's writing. This isn't a book that thrives on surprises, although Swanson throws in a few. I just found the characters so compelling, both the ones I liked and the ones I didn't, and I really wanted to know exactly how he'd tie everything up. And now, of course, I'd love to know what happens next.

I don't want to hype this, but this is definitely a book worth reading!

Friday, April 10, 2015

Book Review: "The Marriage Hearse" by Larry Duberstein

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

Have you ever been forced to spend a period of time in the company of a person you absolutely dislike, someone whose every word, every habit grates on your nerves? That's the way I felt about Maurice Locksley, the novelist narrator of Larry Duberstein's The Marriage Hearse.

Locksley is a 40-year-old writer of some renown. He is married to Kim, a beautiful poet, with whom he has a four-year-old son, Benny. He also maintains a reasonably cordial (if not slightly odd) relationship with his ex-wife Adele, who is mother to his two other children, Will and Sadie. And as if that wasn't enough, he is also having an affair with Maggie, a young artist he met when she was teaching children at his young son's daycare.

The Marriage Hearse follows Locksley over approximately a 10-1/2-hour period one winter's night. On the way home to have dinner with Kim and Benny, he stops in at a local bar for a few drinks, and begins to ponder the path his life has followed as well as the roads not taken. Much self-introspection (and perhaps a little self-delusion) follows.

The night is ripe for a bit of a midlife crisis, for trying to decide exactly what he wants out of life and love. Does he want to continue his intellectually and emotionally challenging marriage, or does he want to throw it all away for the possibilities that a relationship with Maggie might provide, that is if she's willing to provide it? Does he want to be a pariah, a savior, a lover, or a fighter?

"I am not even what I often am, a happy fella who thinks he's not."

I found this book insufferable, mainly because Lockley's character was. He speaks in pun and in riddle, using creative spellings and turns of phrase, and I found it very difficult to care about him. (For example, when referring to his wife, he says "I and Kim" because "Kim and I" reminds him of the musical The King and I, and he doesn't want to think of himself as bald.) And while the story is interesting and his voyage of self-discovery (and slight self-loathing) is compelling, after a while I just wanted to scream at him to get over himself.

Apparently this is a reissue of a book originally published in 1987. Maybe others might find Locksley more amusing than annoying. Perhaps it's a demonstration of Duberstein's writing talent. I just couldn't enjoy this.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Book Review: "Trail of Broken Wings" by Sejal Badani

"We had learned to appreciate our lies like a veil over our lives, each untruth stronger than the facts."

When their father falls into a coma, three sisters are forced to confront the secrets of their childhood that they've tried to keep hidden. Growing up in an Indian-American family, they were always taught to value appearances above everything else, and they succeeded, as from the outside looking in, they were a model family. But that couldn't have been further from the truth.

Sonya, the baby of the family, was the brunt of most of her father's anger and violence. She fled home as quickly as she could, and used her photography career to keep her at a distance from life, refusing to allow herself to connect with anyone, afraid her secret shame will be revealed.

Trisha was her father's favorite, and while she was able to stay safe while growing up, watching her mother and sisters be victimized certainly took its toll on her. She's created the perfect suburban life, but there's still a wall she can't seem to take down, and she doesn't understand why.

The oldest daughter, Marin, remembers what life was like in India, before her family moved to America. Her father's abuse has shaped her into a ruthless businesswoman, stopping at nothing to get what she wants, and she doesn't quite understand what happens to those who get caught in the crossfire, even if they are people she cares about.

Trail of Broken Wings is a powerfully moving book about the dangerous and destructive cycle of violence and abuse that affects far too many families, as well as the secrets we keep and the lies we tell, ostensibly to protect those we love. But we don't quite understand just how those secrets can affect our adult lives, and the lives of those around us.

Sejal Badani is a very talented writer, and her use of language borders on the lyrical and poetic at times. The challenge with this book, however, is that in painting an accurate picture of the long-term effects of abuse, her characters are at times both sympathetic and unlikeable, and some of the situations seem a bit melodramatic. And even though you probably have an idea of how Badani will tie up the story, it's still very compelling.

Domestic and child abuse is a serious subject that is still too often swept under the rug. Even if books like Trail of Broken Wings may cause some discomfort, these are stories that need to be told.