Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Book Review: "The Last Pilot" by Benjamin Johncock

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

In The Last Pilot, Benjamin Johncock brings a true-to-life, "you are there" feeling to the fictionalized story of Jim Harrison, a test pilot for the U.S. Air Force, who in the late 1940s and 1950s was one of the elite few attempting to break the sound barrier. It was a dangerous task, one that led to countless pilot deaths and injuries, but the risk was worth the potential reward.

Harrison and his wife Grace live in the middle of the Mojave Desert along with the other pilots risking their lives for this achievement. And if the worry over the potential harm that could come to Jim wasn't enough, the couple is struggling with fertility issues, although they want so desperately to have a baby. And when Grace miraculously becomes pregnant, Jim puts aside the chance to become one of the nation's first astronauts so he can help raise the couple's daughter, Florence.

When tragedy strikes, Jim must decide whether to pursue the opportunity to join the Space Race, or wallow in the sadness and guilt that threaten to envelop him. But although he has shown tremendous bravery and fortitude in the face of amazing risk and danger, he is utterly unprepared for how hiding his pain may come to haunt him, not to mention the effect a life in the public spotlight will have on his marriage.

Jim appears alongside such real-life astronauts as John Glenn, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Jim Lovell, Chuck Yeager, and Deke Slayton, but his inclusion in their story never seems false. This is a tremendously well-researched and interesting look at the U.S. in the midst of the Space Race, and how the astronauts dealt with all they faced. But beyond that, this is a book about how dangerous unacknowledged feelings of guilt can be, and the harm that comes from the things that remain unsaid. It's a powerful look at grief and loss, and the need to come to terms with one's feelings.

If you're interested in the early days of the Space Race and never tire of movies like The Right Stuff and Apollo 13, this might be a book for you. Johncock goes into immense detail to provide context, but even while he's immersing you in facts, he's also capturing emotions as accurately. Maybe it was all of the detail that numbed this book's appeal for me; while I thought it was well-written, it just didn't grab me as I had hoped it might, but I've seen many other 4- and 5-star reviews, so it might just be me.

Book Review: "Modern Romance" by Aziz Ansari

I'm a big Aziz Ansari fan, so when I saw that he had written a book giving his take on the good, the bad, and the ugly regarding romance in this day and age, I had to read it. But far from being just a repetitive set of riffs on dating, sexting, sex, breakups, etc., Ansari teamed up with a noted sociologist and other researchers, did a tremendous amount of work (including in-person and online focus groups all over the world), and provided a fairly comprehensive look at relationships, love, sex, and dating trends, complemented by his distinctive comedy style.

"In the history of our species, no group has ever had as many romantic options as we have now. So, in theory, this should be a great thing. More options is better, right? Well. It's not that easy."

Ansari takes a look at the way different generations approached dating and choosing the person with whom to settle down, as well as how the advent of computer dating, personal ads, dating apps (like and Tindr), texting, and sexting have impacted relationships. He looks at how the so-called "phone world" (where all of us are so ruled by communicating via our phones) affects infidelity, paranoia, and snooping. And he also looks at dating and the relationship between the sexes in different societies, such as Qatar, Japan, France, and Argentina.

While I didn't find most of what Ansari wrote about to be particularly shocking (except, perhaps, looking at certain statistics, like how many people in younger generations think it's okay to end a relationship via text or social media, yet don't want it done to them), but his spin on everything, punctuated by quotes from those who responded to focus groups or other inquiries conducted through the research for the book, is humorous, insightful, and in most cases, dead-on accurate.

This is an interesting book with flashes of humor, rather than a humorous book with flashes of information, as you might expect simply seeing Ansari's face on the cover. If you go into this book knowing that, and are interested in just how much the dating world has changed through the years, you'll be surprised, enlightened, occasionally appalled, and entertained.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Book Review: "Bull Mountain" by Brian Panowich

There's a sense of impending danger that pervades Bull Mountain, Brian Panowich's excellent debut novel, from nearly the very first sentence. And even though we've seen this tug-of-war between good and evil before, this battle between what is blood and what is law, Panowich's lyrical prose, ratcheted-up tension, and crackling action make this familiar story immensely compelling.

Bull Mountain in North Georgia has been home to the Burroughs clan for a number of generations. The Burroughs aren't what you'd call an upstanding family—years of running moonshine led down the dangerous path to production and sales of marijuana and crystal meth. Hal Burroughs, the oldest of three brothers, runs his kingdom with an iron hand, a violent temper, and an army of minions willing to kill or fight to defend the family's honor and all it holds dear. Mess with Hal Burroughs, you're more than likely to wind up buried in a hole somewhere.

"Up here it's something different. It's something deeper than bone. It's not something that they earned or had to fight to get. They were born into it, and the fight comes on real hard when someone threatens to take it away. It's an integral part of who they are—who we are."

Clayton Burroughs, Hal's youngest brother, followed a different path, one which led him to the post of sheriff in the town closest to Bull Mountain. He knows all too well what goes on up on that mountain, as he watched his father and brothers lash out at those who dared to challenge their domain or their livelihood. Clayton has let his brother be, even as lawmakers have tried unsuccessfully to bring Hal and his posse down. But when a straight-shooting ATF agent comes to Clayton with an offer to leave Hal alone as long as he agrees to turn over his more dangerous gun supplier, he sets a chain of events in motion that will rock Bull Mountain to its core.

While there are a few surprises to be had in this book, for the most part, you know what is going to happen, but the story is so well-told, you don't care. Panowich paints evocative lyrical pictures of place and time, creates characters that are fascinating despite their familiarity, and keeps the action and suspense going, until you're on the same runaway train that Clayton, Hal, and others are on. There's one plot twist that seems far too obvious, and it disappointed me a little bit, but beyond that, while the battle of lawful versus lawless is clear, what isn't necessarily clear is where the lines are drawn, making the book even more interesting and enjoyable.

I can't wait to see what is next in Brian Panowich's career, because it's definitely started with a bang. The Burroughs clan is a family you don't want to mess with, but you won't be able to get enough of them either.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Book Review: "Fortune Smiles" by Adam Johnson

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

Adam Johnson is a tremendously talented writer, with a unique and creative voice. Interestingly enough, while I couldn't get into his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Orphan Master's Son, I enjoyed his previous short story collection, Emporium, so I had high hopes for his newest collection, Fortune Smiles. And I'm pleased to say that Johnson didn't disappoint me—nearly all of the six stories in this collection were powerful, a few were very moving, and at least one was a bit disturbing.

In my favorite story in the collection, "Interesting Facts," a terminally ill woman grows increasingly angrier about the thought of her husband and family moving on after her death. A programmer tries to deal with his wife's mysterious illness in "Nirvana" by speaking with a simulation he created of the recently assassinated president. In "Hurricanes Anonymous," a UPS driver searches for the mother of his young son, whom she abandoned to his care, while dealing with other emotional challenges as well as life in Louisiana following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The warden of a notorious Stasi prison in East Germany is the protagonist of "George Orwell Was a Friend of Mine," and he has some trouble reconciling his memories of his job with those who try and tell the prison's story. And "Dark Meadow" chronicles the struggles of a IT repairman who also happens to have a bit of a child pornography addiction, although he doesn't see it that way. (Interestingly enough, Johnson revisits North Korea, the setting for The Orphan Master's Son, in the title story of this collection, and I found it to be the weakest.)

While Johnson's storytelling ability is outstanding, I feel his greatest strength comes from the characters he has created. These stories are longer than your average short stories and some pack more of a punch, but the characters have stuck in my head the most. The stories are at times quirky, but they're tremendously compelling and get under your skin, which for the most part is a good thing. If you're a short story fan, or a fan of Johnson's, definitely give this one a read.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Book Review: "A Little Life" by Hanya Yanagihara

I'll cut to the chase on this one fairly quickly: Hanya Yanagihara's A Little Life is nothing short of an utter masterpiece. This book is one of the most dazzlingly brilliant, emotionally moving books I've ever read, and it will be a long time before I can get these characters and their story out of my head. And truth be told, as painful as this book was in places, I don't know if I want to be rid of these characters anytime soon.

"It is always easier to believe what you already think than to try to change your mind."

A Little Life spans several decades in the lives of four college friends—Willem, who becomes an actor; Malcolm, an architect; JB, an artist; and Jude, who becomes a lawyer. Each has their own emotional triggers and their challenges, both professionally and personally. While the book focuses on each of the four, it is enigmatic, troubled Jude who serves as the book's anchor and its soul.

I went into this book knowing very little about the plot, mainly what I've outlined above, and I honestly am thankful for it. This is such a powerful book, and as issues were confronted, joyous moments celebrated, and troubling moments lamented over and deeply felt, not knowing what to expect made the impact of the story even more resonant for me.

Yanagihara is a writer of exquisite beauty and she has created fascinating characters; none more so than Jude and Willem. Jude is truly unlike any character I think I've ever come across (and I read a ton of books). Never has a character moved me so, upset me so, and made me feel so powerfully. This is a story that finds wonder in the mundane but also dwells on truly troubling issues as well. Obviously, it is a book about the power of friendship and love—platonic, romantic, filial—but it is also a story of the fragility of emotions, the fears we must confront, and the devastating effects a lack of self-worth can have.

This is a difficult and painful book to read in many places, but even as it tore my heart and made me cry (more than a few times), I couldn't get enough of it. It's amazing that a book of 700-plus pages can feel at once both so weighty and so light, but that is a testament to Yanagihara's talent. I find it hard to believe I will find a better book this year, and I think this may very well be among the top three books I've read in the last several years.

I try not to hype books, nor do I try to give into hype. But read this. In the end, this is a book that needs to be read, with characters who need to be experienced and felt. Just wow.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Book Review: "Armada" by Ernest Cline

"Ever since the first day of kindergarten, I had been hoping and waiting for some mind-blowingly fantastic, world-altering event to finally shatter the endless monotony of my public education. I had spent hundreds of hours gazing out at the calm, conquered suburban landscape surrounding my school, silently yearning for the outbreak of a zombie apocalypse, a freak accident that would give me super powers, or perhaps the sudden appearance of a band of time-traveling kleptomaniac dwarves."

Even though Zack Lightman wants his life to be more exciting, he definitely isn't ready for what's about to happen. Daydreaming one day in his high school class, he looks out to see what he thinks is an alien spaceship from Armada, his favorite video game. But given that he spends hours and hours playing the game with his friends, conducting "missions" on behalf of the so-called Earth Defense Alliance, and has risen to become one of the top 10 players of the game in the world, he starts to wonder if he's hallucinating, and maybe he should step back from the game a little bit.

And then the unthinkable happens. A space vehicle arrives at his high school and whisks Zack away to a top-secret location, where he learns that the planet really is in trouble, and is about to be attacked by the aliens he has always believed were fictional. But it's going to take more than soldiers to defend the planet—it's going to take the talents of skilled gamers like Zack from all over the world to save the fate of humanity. Is life imitating fiction, or has fiction been imitating life all this time?

Ernest Cline's first book, Ready Player One was pretty fantastic, and it was one of the best books I read in 2011, so I've been eagerly anticipating Cline's follow-up. Much like that book, Armada is chock full of references to 80s and 90s science fiction movies, video games, and pop culture. (It pains me to admit I had to Google some of those references. Don't judge.)

I thought this was a fun read, with a lot of heart and some surprising bursts of emotion. It really did feel at times like watching a big adventure movie like Independence Day—I felt exhilarated at times, at times I wondered what would happen, and I even felt myself tearing up a time or two. The plot took a while to really get traction, however, and there are places where there was a little too much detail that went over my head. But in the end, I love the way Cline writes, and I enjoyed this book, and look forward to seeing what's next for him...if there's another adventure to be a part of, count me in.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Book Review: "The Wolves that Live in Skin and Space" by Christopher Zeischegg

Full disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an unbiased review. Many thanks to Rare Bird Books for making this available to me.

The Wolves That Live in Skin and Space is troubling, haunting, a little bewildering, and immensely mesmerizing. I'm not quite sure what to make of it, but I can't stop thinking about it.

Danny Wylde is a fairly well-known adult film actor who also does some work on cam for those willing to pay him. As he puts it, "Porno lights the stove top. Camming provides the stuff to throw in the pot."

While he tries to discourage his most profitable cam client from falling in love with him, Danny is conflicted about his feelings for his friend and fellow porn performer, Sara. When another client encourages to meet him in real time, and promises to make it worth his while financially, the decision seems easy for Danny. But he has no idea that taking this step will lead him into the man's bizarre, disturbing fantasy world, and put Danny and others around him in grave danger.

And that's just the tip of the iceberg. As Danny struggles with the need to make money and his on-again, off-again desire to make more porn movies, he starts falling in love for the first time, with a young man who has more than his own share of troubles, including a mother bent on destroying Danny. He's not sure what he wants out of his life, his career, or anything, and he doesn't even realize how little control he has over his own destiny.

Christopher Zeischegg, also known as adult film performer Danny Wylde, is a tremendously talented writer. He has created a story that gets under your skin, disturbs you as it draws you in, and leaves you wondering what happened, much as his characters feel throughout the book. This is dark, almost phantasmagorical at times, and incredibly graphic. It's definitely not a book for everyone, but for those who enjoy this type of book, it will definitely affect you.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Book Review: "More Happy Than Not" by Adam Silvera

It's been said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing twice but expecting a different result each time. I'll also say that insanity is believing a book will make you an emotional wreck (admittedly an easy feat, but...) and reading it anyway. And so it was with Adam Silvera's beautiful, sad, thought-provoking book, More Happy Than Not.

Life hasn't been easy for Aaron Soto. He has grown up poor in a Bronx housing project, his father committed suicide in their small apartment, he struggles emotionally from time to time, and his relationship with his friends, many of whom are on their own troubled paths, is often tenuous. But there are good things, too—his love of comic books, drawing, and a Harry Potter-like fantasy series of books; at times he and his friends play many of the games they played when they were younger (albeit ratcheted up a notch or two); and he has a wonderfully supportive girlfriend, Genevieve, about whom he cares a great deal.

And then one day, he meets Thomas, a boy from a nearby housing project. Thomas is different from Aaron's other friends—he knows what he wants to do with his life (or at least he thinks he does), he's obsessed with movies, and he seems to know Aaron, and know his struggles, because Thomas has faced his own challenges. Like a light switch flipping on, suddenly Aaron realizes his strong feelings for Thomas, feelings he never knew were possible before. He doesn't want to hurt Genevieve, but he can only think about Thomas, and wanting to be with him.

The thing is, Aaron's new-found happiness doesn't sit well with his old friends. Rather than allow himself to get killed, and hurt the ones he cares about further, he seeks out a controversial procedure being conducted by The Leteo Institute, which promises to wipe out memories you want to get rid of. A boy he grew up with had it done, so it seems to be the best way to get his "old" self back again. But no cure-all is what it seems, and Aaron's life and those of his friends and family become more complicated.

"Memories: some can be sucker punching, others carry you forward; some stay with you forever, others you forget on your own."

More Happy Than Not raises a lot of thought-provoking questions. Are the bad things we experience in life better off wiped from our memories, or do those moments help make us who we are? Is being gay the worst thing that can happen to you? Should we deny who we really are and how we really feel for the sake of others?

This book is beautiful and sad and so moving. Nearly everyone who has struggled with identity and self-esteem issues, especially in the face of potential disapproval from those around them, has probably felt and thought the same things that Aaron has. While some of the characters appear to be tremendously stereotypical on the surface, the further you delve into the book, you realize the plot and the characters are far more complex than you think they will be.

I read the entire book in one day and cannot get it out of my mind. It's definitely a downer, but Silvera is a fantastic writer, and I can't wait to see what's next for him.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Book Review: "The New Neighbor" by Leah Stewart

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

"Who in the world will still want you, once they know everything you have to tell?"

Margaret Riley is 90 years old. She lives by herself on a Tennessee mountaintop, and feels that her age gives her the right to keep people at arm's length, to speak sharply and to the point, and even be cruel when she wants to. But what most people in her town don't know is the type of life Margaret lived when she was younger—a fiercely independent nurse who served in World War II and saw more than her share of death and destruction. She also loved deeply and has more secrets than she cares to admit.

One day Margaret's relatively dull existence is disturbed by the arrival of Jennifer Young, who moves into the long-empty house across the pond, with her young son, Milo. Margaret can sense there is something Jennifer is hiding and is determined to figure out what it is, and she's not above using her age and a little subterfuge to aid her detective work.

Jennifer is hiding something. She's hiding herself and Milo, determined to make a new start, away from the trauma and guilt that plagued her life before she fled. She wants Milo to grow up happy and healthy and safe, and she tries her hardest to keep everyone at arm's length so no one cares enough to try and figure out what her story is. But living this kind of solitary life is hard, so she starts to let down her guard. And then when Margaret asks her to help record her life story, she is tremendously intrigued to find out what secrets the old woman has been hiding—but she doesn't realize Margaret is manipulating her.

The New Neighbor is billed as a different twist on Zoe Heller's What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal, a book I absolutely loved. And while Margaret's lonely and predatory nature is somewhat similar to Barbara's in Heller's book, I found the tales Margaret told to be a little unclear, and at points I wasn't sure if what she was saying really happened or she was just using the story to manipulate Jennifer into divulging her own secrets. I felt that Leah Stewart was setting the plot up for a confrontation that never happened, and while I was glad the story wasn't that predictable, I still wanted more.

I absolutely loved Stewart's earlier novel, The Myth of You and Me, and devoured it in practically one sitting several years ago. While The New Neighbor isn't as strong as that book, Stewart's talent for storytelling and character development (even unlikeable characters) is still evident, making this book an intriguing if not entirely satisfying read.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Book Review: "The Sunlit Night" by Rebecca Dinerstein

Rebecca Dinerstein's The Sunlit Night is a quirky, charming, and moving book about the power love—both familial and romantic—has on our lives, even at times of great uncertainty.

Upon graduating from college, Frances' life is completely turned upside down. Her relationship with her boyfriend has ended while her sister has just gotten engaged to a guy of whom their parents don't approve, and to top it off, much to her utter surprise, her parents are getting divorced. With no one or nowhere to turn, she flees to a tiny Norwegian archipelago nearly at the top of the world, to pursue an apprenticeship with an artist.

Almost 18 years old, Yasha Gregoriov emigrated to the U.S. from Russia with his father when he was very young. Working in his father's bakery every day, the two spend years waiting for his mother to join them as she promised. But she never did. And when Yasha's father becomes ill at the same time his mother mysteriously reappears, Yasha is unsure what to do—reveal the truth to his father and risk his dying, or let his father continue living under the charade that one day his wife might return? When his father dies, Yasha is determined to fulfill a promise he made: to bury his father at "the top of the world."

"Love and geography had become synonyms, both meaning: move across a great space."

Yasha and Frances find each other in the midst of great emotional turmoil. The archipelago of Lofoten, where they both have come, seems isolated but is a bit of a tourist mecca, and it is populated by some tremendously colorful characters. Will their growing feelings for one another provide them the security they need at tumultuous times in their lives, or will other obligations win out?

I thought this was an enjoyable book that was a little bit eccentric at times, but it had a great deal of heart. The narrative structure was a little confusing toward the end, as the book had originally shifted between Yasha and Frances per section, but then suddenly shifted per paragraph. And at times I felt that Dinerstein spent more time on those around them than on Yasha and Frances. But these are tremendously interesting characters that grab hold of you, and you find yourself rooting for them to soldier on.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Movie Review: "Inside Out"

If you've ever felt like a jumble of emotions but you can't figure out why, don't be alarmed. The emotions themselves will take control of the situation—if they can.

That's the premise behind the immensely clever, quite enjoyable Inside Out, the latest from Pixar. Riley is a young girl growing up in Minnesota, living a fairly happy life. She has a great relationship with her parents and friends, plays ice hockey, and enjoys being a bit of a goofball every now and again. And much of this is thanks to (and in some cases, despite) her emotions—Joy (Amy Poehler), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Anger (Lewis Black), and Sadness (Phyllis Smith). The quintet watch over Riley each day, helping her navigate situations, and create core memories she will cherish.

Things get a bit tumultuous when Riley's father decides to move the family to San Francisco. Joy tries her hardest to reign all of the other emotions in and keep Riley the happy-go-lucky, fun-loving girl she always has been, but with the moving van getting lost and their new house not being quite what she was expecting, it's not easy. Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Anger start exerting their power, throwing Riley's personality off-kilter, and putting all of her favorite memories in jeopardy.

I found this movie really ingenious in the way it portrayed how our memories are generated and preserved, why we forget certain things, where our dreams come from, and how our memories often contain more than one emotion. While it got a little bogged down in detail from time to time, watching the emotions interact with each other, and how each one reacted to certain situations, was really charming. (And when the movie showed what was going on in other characters' heads, it was absolutely hysterical.)

As with any movie that deals with growing up, family, friendship, anxiety, and cherished memories, Inside Out provokes its share of emotions along with laughs. Poehler and her compatriots do a great job voicing the emotions—Smith and Black are particularly funny. This may be a little more cerebral (no pun intended) than recent Pixar movies, but it's a lot of fun, and truly charming to boot. And the next time you feel a particular way, you may thankѿor curse—your emotions!

Book Review: "Finders Keepers" by Stephen King

I thought Stephen King and I were on a roll. 11/22/63 was one of the best books I read in 2011, and I enjoyed Revival and Mr. Mercedes as well. I really wanted to like Finders Keepers, the second book in a trilogy (along with Mr. Mercedes), but it left me underwhelmed.

Not that it didn't start with a tremendous amount of promise. The book begins in 1978, when young criminal Morris Bellamy decides to rob John Rothstein, a famous author in J.D. Salinger-esque reclusive mode, who wrote a trilogy of books featuring nonconformist hero Jimmy Gold. But Morris was offended that the trilogy ended with Jimmy selling out, so he decided that not only would he find out whether Rothstein had written anything else in his more than 20 years of literary silence, but in Annie Wilkes-like fashion, he also would confront the author about the direction in which he took his iconic character. The confrontation doesn't end well for Rothstein; Morris kills him and takes all of his hidden money and the hundreds of notebooks Rothstein has filled through the years. He has no time to savor this, however; he hides all of his spoils in a trunk and then promptly gets himself arrested again and imprisoned for 25 years.

Decades later, a boy named Pete Saubers, who coincidentally is living in Morris' childhood home, stumbles upon the hidden trunk. The found money proves the answer to his family's financial troubles, and he is absolutely transfixed by the opportunity to read the unpublished fourth Jimmy Gold novel. But this is a Stephen King novel, so you know that upon Morris' release from prison, he is going to come looking for his hidden treasure, and he won't take lightly the fact that it's gone. It takes the return of the crime-detecting trio from Mr. Mercedes—Bill Hodges, Holly Gibney, and Jerome Robinson—to figure out what is happening and save Pete and his family before it's too late.

It's funny, but writing this plot synopsis makes me wonder what's wrong with me that I didn't enjoy this book more. Maybe it was Morris' character seemed a little rote to me, or maybe I never bought into Bill, Holly, and Jerome as a trio of crime fighters in the first place. I felt that once the trio came into the picture about halfway through the book, it lost a lot of its steam, because in order for the characters to get up to speed with what had been happening, the story had to essentially be retold to them. While there are some twists and turns, and King has definitely set the scene for the final novel in the trilogy in quite an intriguing fashion, I just felt that the whole thing took to long to unfold.

Other Goodreads friends have rated this highly, so if you're a King fan and you've been intrigued by this book, definitely give it a shot. I'll nurse my disappointment and still pick up his next book that isn't part of the trilogy, so we're all good.