Friday, January 29, 2016

Book Review: "The Narrow Door: A Memoir of Friendship" by Paul Lisicky

"What is it like to know a single human in time?"

In The Narrow Door, his poignant, gorgeously told memoir, novelist Paul Lisicky paints a picture of the two overarching relationships in his life—one with the late novelist Denise Gess, and one with his ex-husband, a poet he refers to as M. More snapshots from random moments in time than a fluid narrative, this is an account of how fundamentally our lives our changed by being needed and wanted, as well as being slighted and hurt.

Paul Lisicky met Denise Gess when the two were teaching assistants at Rutgers. Denise was larger than life, confident in front of a classroom or a crowd, and seemingly much more sure of her writing ability than Paul, who always felt as if he needed to throw up when teaching, and lacked the self-confidence in his own storytelling skills. The two quickly form a tight bond, borne of insecurities, a mutual love of Joni Mitchell, and the desire to succeed in the writing world.

The Narrow Door traces the path of Paul and Denise's friendship—the cherished moments and memories they shared, the secrets they kept from each other, the resentments and jealousies they tried to mask, and the way they rescued each other at times of need. Paul recounts the ways Denise changed his life, both for better and at times, for worse, and shares the pain her 2010 death from cancer caused him.

"Perhaps what we love about a friendship is that it makes us look over our shoulders, stay on our toes. We watch our words. There are never any rules to guide us, no contracts, no bloodlines, just the day after day of it. It's work, though it pretends it's painless and easy. And beneath everything: the queasy possibility that it all might end tomorrow."

This is also the story of his relationship with M, one which started as a friendship and blossomed into romance. Lisicky recounts the ways love changes us, the ways we often take its presence for granted, and how easy it is to ignore the problems and hope they go away. How do we make the difficult decision of how long to fight for love, and when to walk away?

The book jumps around from memory to memory, from the 1980s when Paul and Denise first met, to 2010, following her death and as Paul's relationship with M begins disintegrating. At times it's a little disorienting because you have to remember where the characters were at that particular point in time, but Lisicky reels you back in fairly quickly. It also tells of the things he focused on to avoid focusing on his anguish and loneliness, although I wished he didn't dwell as much on those things, but how can he change what he felt?

I wasn't familiar with Lisicky's work before finding this book, but I was really dazzled by the way he writes. If you've ever had a friendship that dominated so much of your life, and/or a relationship that held your heart for so long, perhaps The Narrow Door will resonate for you. And even if you can't identify with what Lisicky went through, the sheer poignancy of his emotional account will grip you.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Book Review: "The A to Z of You and Me" by James Hannah

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

Ivo, a man in his 40s, is nearing the end of his life at a hospice facility. He's alone—no friends, no family come to visit him—and it's clear he's very, very sad. The only people he talks to are the hospice nurses, and one in particular realizes the emotional pain he's in. To keep his mind sharp, she encourages Ivo to play the "A to Z" game—think of a body part that begins with each letter of the alphabet, and a memory that goes with it.

As Ivo reluctantly begins the game, you quickly see that there are so many causes for his sadness and his loneliness. You realize that he is a man whose situation—physical and otherwise—is both of his own making and caused by others. With each memory, you see a childhood marked by the death of his father and the strong friendships he built. You see how, like most teenage boys, he more than dabbles in alcohol, cigarettes, and drugs, even as he starts to understand the toll it's taking on his body.

You also see that at one point Ivo was truly lucky in love, finding his soulmate, yet his passivity and his disregard for himself damaged that relationship. As he moves through the alphabet the memories unfold, and you see where things could have been different if he had acted instead of being simply a participant in his own life. And although he fights the memories at first, and reels from the pain they cause, as his condition worsens he welcomes them, and wonders if it is too late to set the record straight with those still in his life.

Given its concept, The A to Z of You and Me is a sad book, although it's not maudlin. Ivo isn't merely a victim—his flashbacks clearly reveal how he treated those closest to him, how he was led astray, and how he wound up dying in his 40s, alone. But this is also a book about the way connections with others can change us, the beauty of reveling in simple joys, and how friendship can save us, in a way, if we're willing to let it.

I thought this was a well-written and compelling book, full of heart, although at times I wearied a bit of the A to Z concept. James Hannah scatters a few twists through the book although, for the most part, you know where it is going to go, and that doesn't really matter. This is definitely a book that encourages you to reach out, to say the things you should to those who matter, because you never know when you won't get another chance.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Book Review: "Orphan X" by Gregg Hurwitz

Holy freaking crap. This book absolutely rocked—every heart-racing, pulse-pounding second!

When Evan Smoak (not his real name) was young, a man rescued him from a troubled life. The man became a surrogate father to Evan, training him in every imaginable form of self-defense, weaponry, and intelligence. In short, he trained Evan how to kill, as part of an off-the-books program called the Orphan Program, which took children from difficult life situations and taught them to be employed as assassins. As far as the program was concerned, the Orphans were known only by letters—Evan became Orphan X.

Evan was one of the best assets the program had ever seen. Yet as he began to question who was hiring the Orphans to kill their targets, and why these people were selected, he realized that this wasn't the life for him.

But he needed to do something with his skills, so he became the Nowhere Man, the last resort for a person in desperate trouble. No one knows who the Nowhere Man is, but they know if they call him, he will help rescue them from a seemingly helpless situation. And all he asks in return is that the beneficiary of his services pay it forward, by passing his contact information to one person in need.

It's a fulfilling but lonely existence. He's become so good at compartmentalizing, at keeping the outside world at a safe distance, that he is utterly unprepared when complications in the form of personal connections start popping up. And then comes the ultimate test, when he realizes someone is hunting him, someone who knows he was Orphan X, and is using his work as the Nowhere Man to exploit and expose him. But suddenly all of the tricks and plans and rules he has followed don't seem to be working the way they usually do. Someone thinks the way he does, and is determined to destroy him.

Orphan X hit all of the right notes for me—fantastic action, more than a few twists, some excellent character development, and some pretty cool gadgetry. In lesser hands, Evan could have been turned into a stereotypical assassin-with-a-heart, but Gregg Hurwitz gave him a lot of complexity, which made him all the more fascinating.

If you like this type of book, pick up Orphan X. I had never heard of Gregg Hurwitz before reading this, and now, I believe, more people will know his name, because this is one that will knock you flat. (And I'm already casting the movie version in my head.)

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Book Review: "Everything, Everything" by Nicola Yoon

"Just because you can't experience everything doesn't mean you shouldn't experience anything."

Nicola Yoon's Everything, Everything is a love story. But beyond the boy/girl romance in the book, it's also about parental love, and loving yourself, and the consequences that occur when we think we're doing the right things for love's sake. It's sweet, engaging, and moving, even if it's a bit predictable, and like many YA books out there these days, the characters are tremendously insightful and articulate. And did I mention it was moving? (Or maybe I have something in my eye.)

All Maddie knows is the incredibly sheltered life she's lived for as long as she can remember. Suffering from a severe immune disease, the act of simply going outside, or coming into contact with someone or something that hasn't been decontaminated, could cause her to become fatally ill. She reads, takes classes online, and spends time with her nurse and her mother, and dreams about what the outside world might be like. And she wishes something could change.

And then one day a moving van pulls in next door, revealing a new family, which includes Olly, a teenage boy about Maddie's age. He is dressed all in black—black t-shirt, black jeans, black sneakers, and a black knit cap—and the moment he looks up at Maddie's window and waves to her, she knows she's in trouble. But she's never been allowed to even make friends, so how can she hope to get to know Olly, or even more? Is love, and living beyond what you believed possible, worth risking your life for?

This was a quick, fun read. Maddie was a great character, and I really enjoyed Olly as well, and although this was Maddie's story, I wouldn't have minded getting his perspectives on things, especially about the turmoil in his own life. I suspected at one point where the plot would go, so it wasn't a surprise to me, but I enjoyed this book very much anyway. The chemistry between the two of them was really engaging, and reminiscent of a lot of other YA books I've really loved in the last few years.

Yoon tells a great story, and she livens it up with journal entries, medical records, lists, and other items. I'm not ashamed to admit the book choked me up, and while it's not quite on par with some of my favorite YA books (Eleanor & Park, All the Bright Places, The Fault in Our Stars), this has a terrific charm all its own.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Book Review: "What Belongs to You" by Garth Greenwell

Some books dazzle you with plot twists and action, yet some books can truly wow you with the power of their storytelling, their language, and their imagery. Garth Greenwell's debut novel, What Belongs to You, definitely falls into the latter category. It's stunning, emotional, lyrical, and it quietly grabs you and doesn't let go.

One unseasonably warm afternoon in October, our narrator, an American teacher living in Bulgaria, goes to a restroom in Sofia's National Palace of Culture. This is a restroom where men go to have sexual encounters, and he is aware of this, but meeting Mitko, a young hustler, takes him by surprise. He pays Mitko for sex, and finds himself immensely drawn to him, so he returns to that restroom over and over. And although he knows inherently that Mitko is going through the motions with him as he probably does with his other "friends," he still hopes that he might find his way into Mitko's heart.

" helpless desire is outside its little theater of heat, how ridiculous it becomes the moment it isn't welcomed, even if that welcome is contrived."

He comes to terms with the fact that while Mitko may enjoy their encounters, ultimately Mitko sees him as a source for money, and there is a fine line between knowing you're being used and fearing you may be harmed as a result. As he tries to decide what to do with Mitko, an urgent message forces him to confront his own childhood, and the mistreatment and veiled disgust with which he was treated once he accepted his sexuality. He also tries to decipher the patterns in his behavior that has led him to the same situations time and time again.

"...always I feel an ambivalence that spurs me first in one direction and then another, a habit that has done much damage."

What Belongs to You is a novel about desire, and the desire to be wanted. It's about the struggle between following your heart and your libido instead of your head, and both the consequences and triumphs that come from doing so. It's also about how the hardest thing to do is reconcile your own issues with self-esteem, and finally realize only you can be responsible for your happiness and satisfaction.

Greenwell's talent is evident from the very first lines of this book, and his poetic use of language and storytelling ability sustains through the book's entirety. I truly cared about the narrator and worried what would become of him, hoping against hope that Greenwell wouldn't abandon the purity of his story for the sensational, and was so pleased he didn't. This is a beautiful, magnificent, deeply felt book, and I felt privileged to read it. I can't wait to see where Greenwell's career takes him—I know I'll be following.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Book Review: "When I'm Gone" by Emily Bleeker

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

How well do we really know the people we love, those we've built a life with?

If you ask Luke that question about his wife, Natalie, he'd say he knows her better than everyone. They dated in high school before he had to move away, and once they found each other again in college, they seemed destined to be together. And together they've built a family, with three wonderful, loving children.

But when Natalie dies of cancer, it throws Luke for a total loop. He doesn't know how he'll cope, how he'll be able to raise the children without her. And when they return from Natalie's funeral, he finds a letter on the floor of the entry foyer, delivered through the mail slot. It has no postmark, and it's in Natalie's handwriting.
Dear Luke,
First let me say—I love you…I didn’t want to leave you…
The first letter was written on the first day Natalie's cancer treatment began. And then additional letters show up, with varied frequency—sometimes daily, sometimes a few days or even a week passes before the next one arrives. The letters give Luke advice on how to handle the children, what to do for them and for himself, and give him insight into how Natalie was feeling, physically and emotionally. He doesn't realize just how much he comes to depend on the letters, even as Natalie forces him outside his comfort zone, to do things he never would have expected he'd be able to do.

But the more he reads them, the more the questions start to arise. Who was the "Dr. Neal" she keeps referring to in her letters, and what was their relationship? Why did she have an envelope for an organization that facilitated adoptions, and why is there a picture of Natalie and her high school boyfriend at the organization's headquarters? Were there other things she kept hidden from him all this time?

When I'm Gone is the story of a man who has led a difficult, turbulent life but finally finds a haven, only to discover that the haven is not quite what he imagined. And as he tries to process what might be crucial secrets Natalie kept hidden, he also must keep his children surviving and thriving, deal with a disapproving mother-in-law, and the stress of the strange relationship of Natalie's best friend and her policeman husband. For a man raised in the midst of anger and chaos, this may be more than he can take.

I enjoyed this book but it was a different story than I expected, although that didn't disappoint me. Luke is an interesting, complex character, and you really felt the emotional turmoil he was experiencing, the conflicts between wanting to wallow in his own grief and be present for his children. I just felt as if Emily Bleeker tried to pack in so many different twists and turns, so many different crises, that the book became a little too melodramatic for its own good. I think it could have flourished with perhaps a little less drama, because the core of the story was just so good.

I really enjoyed Bleeker's first book, Wreckage, and this one reinforces that she has strong storytelling ability. It raises some interesting questions, and may even choke you up a little. I could totally see it as a made-for-television movie, and that's not a bad thing.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Book Review: "Goodnight, Beautiful Women" by Anna Noyes

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

It's amazing how much power a short story can have, how much emotion and plot and imagery and detail can be packed into a finite number of pages. It's one of the things I love so much about short stories—while, obviously, I love reading novels, and have been absolutely dazzled and bowled over by many books I've read, I've had similar reactions to short stories as well. It's so gratifying to see the short form is still so popular, and that there are so many incredibly talented writers out there doing wonders with short stories.

Add Anna Noyes to that list. Goodnight, Beautiful Women, Noyes' soon-to-be-published collection of stories, contains some absolute stunners. As you might imagine, each of the 11 stories are about a woman (or women) or girl experiencing anguish, crisis, or uncertainty (sometimes more than one). How they choose to confront these turning points—or avoid them—provides moments of turmoil, transformation, or, in some cases, great strength.

While not every story in the collection worked for me, most of these stories moved and amazed me. Some of my favorites included: "Hibernation," in which a woman struggles with the emotional breakdown and apparent suicide of her troubled husband; "Safe as Houses," which followed a teenage girl on the cusp of womanhood as a sexual assault happens nearby her home; "This Is Who She Was," a story about the brief yet impactful relationship between a young woman and her boyfriend's mother; "Werewolf," in which a woman wracked with guilt about a lie she told as a child does penance by spending each weekend with her intellectually challenged cousin; and the title story, which follows a young woman on a road trip with her mother and stepfather, when she is surprised by a revelation from her mother.

These stories are at times funny, sad, thought-provoking, troubling, even sexy. Noyes has a true gift with language and imagery, and she really gets you invested in her characters within a few short pages. I love finding new, talented short story writers, and I look forward to seeing what is next in Noyes' career. She's definitely a writer I expect to hear more from in the future.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Book Review: "A Monster Calls" by Patrick Ness

Well, it didn't take long to find the first book to make me cry in 2016...

"Your mind will believe comforting lies while also knowing the painful truths that make those lies necessary. And your mind will punish you for believing both."

Every night, 13-year-old Conor O'Malley wakes up from a terrible nightmare, one which leaves him screaming, crying, and gasping for breath. One night, at exactly 12:07, there is a monster at his bedroom window, calling his name. But it's not the monster he's been expecting, the one from his nightmares. This is a different type of monster, one from the elements around him rather than from the horrors he sees while he sleeps.

"In fact, he found he wasn't even frightened. All he could feel, all he had felt since the monster revealed itself, was a growing disappointment. Because this wasn't the monster he was expecting."

This monster promises to tell Conor three tales, each which carries with it a powerful lesson. And when the monster is done, it will demand that Conor tell it his own tale. But with that tale, the monster wants something Conor cannot even fathom. The monster wants the truth, which is far more dangerous than anything.

A Monster Calls is a beautifully moving, emotional story about a young boy dealing with a struggle he cannot handle. He doesn't want people to look at him or treat him differently, but he wants to be seen. But most of all, he wants the path his life is veering toward to change, quickly. And sometimes confronting the truth is the most painful struggle of all.

Patrick Ness blew me away with his latest book, The Rest of Us Just Live Here, which made my list of the best books I read last year, but I was utterly unprepared by the sheer emotional power and anguish of this book. Ness based this book on an idea created by author Siobhan Dowd, who died before she could do anything with it, and knowing that adds an extra note of poignancy to this story.

Ness is a fantastically talented writer, and I will be slowly but surely working my way through the rest of his books. While this is a sad and, ultimately, hopeful book, in the wrong hands it could have turned maudlin. This is just so good, so beautiful, and it truly moved me. Get a box of tissues and read this—you may be sad, but you'll feel so lucky afterward that you found this book.

2015 Oscar Nominations: What actually happened

This morning, the nominations for the 88th annual Academy Awards were announced. The Revenant led all films with 12 nominations.

Yesterday I posted my predictions for what films and performances I thought might get nominated. And now, it's time to compare my thoughts to reality and see where they differ.

Best Picture
The Big Short
Bridge of Spies
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian
The Revenant

Analysis: You never know how many films will be nominated for Best Picture. The Academy chose eight again this year, although I had predicted nine. I chose all but Room, which was a tremendously pleasant surprise, instead thinking that Carol and Straight Outta Compton would be nominated. So I'm going to say I went 7/8 in this category.

Best Actor
Bryan Cranston, Trumbo
Matt Damon, The Martian
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant
Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs
Eddie Redmayne, The Danish Girl

Analysis: I went 5/5 here. Very happy with this category, although, as I said last night, I would have been happier had Michael B. Jordan gotten nominated for Creed. But I knew that wouldn't happen.

Best Actress
Cate Blanchett, Carol
Brie Larson, Room
Jennifer Lawrence, Joy
Charlotte Rampling, 45 Years
Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn

Analysis: I went 4/5 here, but through no fault of my own. As I mentioned last night, there was a great deal of debate about the so-called "category fraud" occurring, in which actors who gave leading performances were being campaigned for supporting categories. I thought the Academy would nominate Alicia Vikander, who was the female lead in The Danish Girl, in this category, but they did not. The good news, at least, is that never-nominated Charlotte Rampling finally received a nomination. So, lemons—lemonade.

Best Supporting Actor
Christian Bale, The Big Short
Tom Hardy, The Revenant
Mark Ruffalo, Spotlight
Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies
Sylvester Stallone, Creed

Analysis: I went 5/5 here, too, although I would have been happier if Ethan Tremblay and Paul Dano made this list for their amazing performances in Room and Love & Mercy. I'm happiest about Stallone's nomination—amazingly he was nominated for playing the same character twice, 39 years apart. Pretty cool.

Best Supporting Actress
Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight
Rooney Mara, Carol
Rachel McAdams, Spotlight
Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl
Kate Winslet, Steve Jobs

Analysis: Even though I got four of five actresses correct, I technically went 3/5 here, since, as I mentioned above, Alicia Vikander was nominated for The Danish Girl in this category instead of Ex Machina. And while I was hoping Joan Allen might sneak in here for Room, I wasn't disappointed that Rachel McAdams received her first nomination.

Best Director
Lenny Abrahamson, Room
Alejandro G. Iñárritu, The Revenant
Tom McCarthy, Spotlight
Adam McKay, The Big Short
George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road

Analysis: I went 4/5 here. I really thought Ridley Scott would get nominated for The Martian, and, in fact, thought he might win the Oscar on his fourth nomination, but instead the Academy surprised with a (deserved) nomination for Abrahamson. Amazingly, only Iñárritu, who won last year and was nominated in 2006 for Babel, has ever received a Best Director nod before.

Who will win? Well, I think DiCaprio and Larson are relative locks for Best Actor/Actress, but who knows about everything else? February 28 is the big reveal...

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

2015 Oscar Nominations: What I think

It's that time again. Tomorrow morning at around 8:37 a.m. ET (aka hella early on the West Coast), the nominations for the 88th annual Academy Awards will be announced. There are guaranteed to be at least a few surprises—some pleasant, some not so much.

I've been a student and a fan of the Oscars for more than 30 years (egads), and as many of you know, we make every effort to see every film and performance nominated for the major awards (if we haven't already). No matter how much I listen to the chatter about who and what critics think will get nominations, there's never complete certainty. So for a number of years now, I've been making my predictions as to which films and performances will receive nominations. Sometimes I'm dead-on (or close), and sometimes I'm left scratching my head, but that's what makes it interesting.

This year is particularly fluid because there isn't really one movie that everyone has gotten behind, and there are even some questions as to whether certain performances should be considered in the lead or supporting categories. So I'm going to take a stab at this the best I can. Then check back tomorrow to see how I did!

Best Picture
The Big Short
Bridge of Spies
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian
The Revenant
Straight Outta Compton

Analysis: One of the quirks of the Oscars in recent years is that there is no fixed number of Best Picture nominees, beyond a minimum of five and a maximum of 10. Some years there have been nine, a few there have been ten, last year there were eight, so who knows? I predicted nine, although I feel like Brooklyn, Bridge of Spies, Carol and Straight Outta Compton are iffier than the others. Obviously, Straight Outta Compton isn't quite what you'd expect to get nominated for an Oscar, but it has been tremendously well-received, was nominated for best cast by the SAG Awards, and would be an antidote to those who have (rightfully) claimed that the Oscars don't often honor films about/made by/starring minorities. Other outside possibilities are Room, Inside Out, Beasts of No Nation, and, of course, the juggernaut, Star Wars: The Force Awakens. (If I had my way, Creed would get nominated.)

Best Actor
Bryan Cranston, Trumbo
Matt Damon, The Martian
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant
Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs
Eddie Redmayne, The Danish Girl

Analysis: I feel fairly confident about this group of five nominees, but of course, there are slight possibilities that Johnny Depp, once a leading contender for a nomination could still get one for his work in Black Mass (for which he received a SAG Award nod), Will Smith for his Golden Globe-nominated turn in Concussion, and, if the Academy voters have issues determining between lead and supporting performances, they could give a nod to either Christian Bale or Steve Carell for The Big Short. (If I had my way, Michael B. Jordan would get a nod for Creed, but then again, he should have been nominated two years ago for Fruitvale Station, but don't get me started.)

Best Actress
Cate Blanchett, Carol
Brie Larson, Room
Jennifer Lawrence, Joy
Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn
Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl

Analysis: Larson, Blanchett, and Ronan are locks in this category. Vikander should be, but despite being the female lead in her film (she even had more screen time than Eddie Redmayne), some think she could end up in the Best Supporting Actress category. I think perennial Academy favorite and 2012 winner Jennifer Lawrence is the weakest link here, but ultimately if Vikander gets demoted, I think Charlotte Rampling may get her first nomination for 45 Years, or Maggie Smith could sneak in for The Lady in the Van. (I'd love to see Lily Tomlin get nominated for Grandma, but, alas, I think not.)

Best Supporting Actor
Christian Bale, The Big Short
Tom Hardy, The Revenant
Mark Ruffalo, Spotlight
Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies
Sylvester Stallone, Creed

Analysis: This is the toughest category to predict. In addition to these five men, there are at least six more who could sneak in—Steve Carell for The Big Short, Ethan Tremblay for Room, Idris Elba for his Golden Globe- and SAG-nominated turn in Beasts of No Nation, Michael Shannon (also nominated for both) for 99 Homes, Paul Dano for Love and Mercy, and Michael Keaton for Spotlight. I'm picking Hardy as an outside possibility because I think The Revenant will get a ton of nominations tomorrow, and much like Jonah Hill did two years ago for The Wolf of Wall Street, Hardy could ride the momentum. I will be most perturbed tomorrow morning if Stallone is left off the list. (My ideal five would be Bale, Dano, Ruffalo, Stallone, and Tremblay.)

Best Supporting Actress
Joan Allen, Room
Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight
Rooney Mara, Carol
Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina
Kate Winslet, Steve Jobs

Analysis: If Vikander doesn't get bumped down to supporting for The Danish Girl, I predict she'll get two nominations. (And I think she was even better in Ex Machina.) I'm secure about Winslet, and reasonably so about Mara, although she should be a lead actress nominee, and Jennifer Jason Leigh. I'm picking a surprise in this category with Joan Allen, much as Laura Dern's nod for Wild last year, although Helen Mirren could snag another nomination for her hateful, hat-wearing Hedda Hopper in Trumbo. If either Spotlight, Brooklyn, or Mad Max: Fury Road have a great day tomorrow, I wouldn't be surprised to see Rachel McAdams, Julie Walters, and/or Charlize Theron in this category.

Best Director
Alejandro G. Iñárritu, The Revenant
Tom McCarthy, Spotlight
Adam McKay, The Big Short
George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road
Ridley Scott, The Martian

Analysis: Best Director is always a tough category to predict, since directors nominate themselves, and quite often the nominated directors don't always match up with the Best Picture nominees (although more so since the number of Best Picture nominees has expanded beyond five). I think McCarthy and/or McKay could be vulnerable here, and could get passed up for Steven Spielberg (Bridge of Spies) and/or Todd Haynes (Carol), or a nominee I can't think of.

Fingers crossed!!

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Movie Review: "The Big Short"

I would have liked to have been part of the pitch meeting for this movie:
"There's this book about the housing crisis of 2005 and how it decimated the world economy, and how a few people in the financial world saw it coming and made it big, despite everyone thinking they were crazy. We should make a movie about that. Oh, and let's make it a comedy."
However it did happen, the end result was that Adam McKay's The Big Short is a tremendously thought-provoking, occasionally hysterically funny, slightly confusing yet utterly well-done film, part character study and part meditation on the greed-is-good mentality that kept the U.S. economy afloat for far too long.

Dr. Michael Burry (a shaggy-haired, shorts-wearing Christian Bale) is an eccentric hedge fund manager who spends hours if not days sequestered in his office, walking around barefoot, air drumming and pondering the financial world. While doing some analysis, he comes to the conclusion that the U.S. housing market is a sandcastle waiting the arrival of a big wave. Given the autonomy he has within his company, he proceeds to go to several major banks and bet against the housing market, investing millions of dollars for when it fails. The banks think he's utterly crazy, and are more than happy to agree to his proposal. Everyone, even his own investors, think Burry is crazy, especially since the crash (if it happens) is a few years down the road, and the fund must pay out millions waiting for that to happen.

Meanwhile, cocky banker Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) of Deutschebank gets wind of Burry's scheme and wants in on it. He connects with Mark Baum (Steve Carell), an angry, idealistic fund manager who runs an independent fund under the auspices of one of the larger banks. Mark is struggling with his own emotional issues but is tremendously interested in exposing the corruption inherent in the financial industry. Although he and his colleagues don't necessarily trust Vennett, they go into business with him, particularly after discovering how bond agencies are overrating a majority of mortgages.

Unless you're a financial whiz, or were fully immersed in the news when the crisis did occur, some or all of the plot of The Big Short may fly over your head. But while there's a lot of financial terminology bandied about, McKay tries to give it a humorous treatment, with explanations from Margot Robbie while drinking champagne in a bathtub and Selena Gomez gambling in Las Vegas, among others. But while the facts behind the plot may be difficult to decipher or follow, what works so well about the movie is the growing sense of doom and tension that pervades it, its humor, and the fantastic performances McKay shepherds.

Bale's performance is full of quirks, but underneath the cocky bravado and eccentric behavior lies the heart of a man who wonders if he really made the most colossal mistake based on a hunch. As his colleagues, employees, and investors pull away from him, you see a man struggling between doing what he's fairly certain is right and what is better for his clients. He so fully occupies this part you forget that this is the same guy who played Batman.

While Carell's performance is a little closer to the characters he has played in other films, he still brings a great deal of complexity to the part. Mixing anger, bravado, and righteous indignation with emotional fragility, I found his performance stronger than nearly any other dramatic role he has had, particularly his Oscar-nominated turn last year in Foxcatcher. Gosling is at his smarmy, cocky best, sometimes speaking directly to the audience, sometimes snarling, sometimes pondering the enormity of the situation he's found himself in.

What sticks in my mind most about The Big Short beyond the things I've already mentioned are the quietly powerful moments when the characters realize that in order for them to succeed and achieve what they're aiming for, a multitude of lives will be ruined, and our economy might not recover. No one in the movie takes that lightly, even as they're making millions of dollars.

Many are considering The Big Short one of, if not the, leading contender for Best Picture at this year's Oscars, both for its filmmaking and the timeliness of its message. While I don't think it was the best movie of the year, it's certainly one that merits some recognition, and perhaps a second viewing to cut directly to its heart without getting lost in the jargon.

Book Review: "Written in Fire" by Marcus Sakey

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

Boy, do I hate it when a book series ends...

I devoured the first two books in Marcus Sakey's fantastic Brilliance trilogy, so I both eagerly anticipated and dreaded the arrival of the last book in the series, Written in Fire. I've finally caught my breath, as the action and the tension intensified as the book drew to a close!

One percent of the country's population is composed of brilliants, those with extraordinary physical, cognitive, emotional, and/or perceptive gifts. But despite these talents and abilities, these so-called "abnorms" have been feared, reviled, mistreated, and targeted for all kinds of abuse in the 30 years since their discovery became public knowledge. This mistreatment has brought the country to the brink of civil war, norm vs. abnorm, in a battle for the very heart and soul of society.

Written in Fire begins with the country reeling from a devastating attack by the abnorm community. This has led to laws which require that all abnorms be microchipped for easy tracking, but even worse, lynch mobs across the country are targeting and killing them simply for being different. But the country still wants more, still wants retribution. While secret plans are being hatched within the U.S. government, a citizen-led militia of thousands of people is planning to attack the settlement where many of the abnorms live. And in the settlement itself, the most notable abnorm—a brilliant terrorist unwilling to stop until the world realizes the absolute power of brilliants—plots ultimate chaos and destruction.

Nick Cooper, a former detective who used to hide his own abilities as a brilliant to help the government track others like him who wished to do evil, understands why his fellow brilliants are angry. But at the same time, he cannot allow the world he knows, the world in which his family lives, to be destroyed by civil war. He'll do everything he can to fight his old nemeses to bring an end to the forces which want to harm the country—no matter what the cost.

While this book is tremendously imaginative, much of its plot rings eerily familiar to current circumstances, with so many people fearful of all Muslims, demanding they be tracked, barred from entering the country, even killed. But this book explores both sides of the argument: Should years of mistreatment and abuse justify violence and destruction? Is it right to categorically fear what we don't know or understand? Is self-defense really a valid argument for attack?

What I've loved so much about these books is that Sakey balances thought-provoking plot, pulse-pounding action, and truly complex, memorable characters, even the villains. By the third book I found myself truly attached to these characters I feel I've gotten to "know." Much like some other series, this book is definitely a bit darker than its predecessors, but that didn't dull my enjoyment in any way. And while I often feel books in a series can be read out of sequence, I'd definitely recommend picking up Brilliance, the first book, first, and then reading them in order to feel the full power of Sakey's storytelling.

I won't soon forget this series, and I'll be interested to see what Sakey comes up with next. But in the meantime, I'll miss Nick, Natalie, Shannon, Bobby, Ethan, John Smith, the Epsteins, and so much more. Don't pass these books up.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Book Review: "The Game of Love and Death" by Martha Brockenbrough

Love and Death are old friends and nemeses, locked in an eternal battle. One night in 1920, the two decide to play another round of their game. Each picks a young baby as their player. Love chooses Henry; Death chooses Flora. If when the two grow to adulthood they choose each other at the cost of everything else, Love wins; if they do not before a certain amount of time elapses, Death wins, and she can claim Flora's life.

Henry and Flora couldn't be more different. Henry, a young white boy, is raised by the wealthy family of his best friend. He is smart, musically talented, and thirsting for something he can't name. Until he meets Flora, an African American girl raised by her grandmother. She dropped out of school to help run the jazz club her parents once owned, but she dreams of being a pilot like Amelia Earhart.

"He was...forever looking for the one who'd make him feel as if he'd met his other half. He'd yearned for it his entire life, not that he could talk to anyone about it. And this girl ... there was this ... quality about her, something so alive."

Henry becomes obsessed with Flora, more so when he hears her sing. And although she feels a certain inexplicable pull each time she sees Henry, Flora doesn't want to sacrifice her dreams of flight for anyone or anything. But more than that, she knows how an interracial romance in 1937 Seattle could rock both of their worlds and the society around them, although Henry is willing to risk everything—the possibility of an education, the love of his surrogate family, a future—just to be with Flora.

As the couple drifts toward and away from each other, Love and Death manipulate the situation as much as possible to get their desired outcome. In the meantime, the world around them is battling poverty, racism, and corruption, as those they care about fight their own battles as well. Who will win in the end, Love or Death? Will this be a love story for the ages, or one destroyed by the same old hurts and slights?

I thought this was a tremendously fascinating concept for a book. Henry and Flora's characters really fascinated me, how one gave into love so readily and one fought it every step of the way as a protective measure. Some of the supporting characters, particularly Henry's best friend Ethan, were really well-drawn, too.

My challenge with this book is that for the most part the same thing happens, over and over again. While I, well, loved Love's character, Death really frustrated me. (Truer words have never been spoken, you know?) She was just too manipulative and honestly reminded me of a villain from a crime novel, who always seemed to be hiding just around the corner from where something good happened, or always seemed to be one step ahead, and I found that really frustrating. I understood the point, but it really dampened my enjoyment of the story.

Even with that, however, I was dazzled by Martha Brockenbrough's writing ability. Her use of language and imagery was mesmerizing; I really could see so much of the book as if it were on a movie screen in front of me, and that doesn't always happen when I read books. It really helped elevate the story and kept me reading. I also really liked the way she treated concepts like homosexuality in the book, especially given the time frame during which the book was set.

I'm loving the fact that several of the books I've read so far this year have started from really unique ideas. That bodes well, I think, for a fantastic year of reading!

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Book Review: "Harmony Black" by Craig Schaefer

I was able to read this book through Amazon's Kindle First program. Thanks to Amazon and 47North for making it available!

Harmony Black is a slightly uptight, by-the-books FBI agent. Well, as by-the-books as you can be when you're a practicing witch.

Harmony is an operative for a secret program called Vigilant Lock, which was created to battle occult threats—by any means necessary. She's very good at her job, saving society from the monsters that threaten to harm it, but being good at her job means having to destroy people—living and undead—and that is starting to take its toll.

She is unprepared for the emotional toll of her next assignment, however, when she becomes part of a team tasked with hunting down the Bogeyman, a tremendously dangerous creature with a penchant for stealing young babies from their unsuspecting parents, and then disappearing. Harmony knows the Bogeyman all too well, as it had a tragic affect on her childhood, and although she wants to make the creature pay for his crimes, she is conflicted about returning to her hometown of Talbot Cove to do this.

It's not just the Bogeyman that Harmony needs to worry about, however; it appears Talbot Cove is home to more than a few other creatures, including shape-shifting, body-borrowing demons and cambion. All of them are sure to make life for her and her new team pretty miserable—and very dangerous.

I thought this was a lot of fun, and Harmony is a really unique and appealing character. I've never read anything that Craig Schaefer has written before, but apparently Harmony is a character introduced in another of his series. (If you are a fan of Schaefer's series featuring Daniel Faust, be sure you're caught up before reading this book, because apparently there are some spoilers for that series in here.)

This book has some great action, lots of creepy stuff, and really fascinating characters. The pacing is great, too; my only challenge with the book is that there is a lot of exposition as characters explain what drives certain creatures. But it doesn't take too long before your heart starts pounding again.

If you like your crime novels with an unusual twist, and aren't put off by demons and other creatures walking among us, check out Harmony Black. She's a welcome addition to the genres this book straddles.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Movie Review: "Ex Machina"

Cool and creepy, Ex Machina is pretty terrific and quite memorable.

One day, Caleb (Domhnall Gleason, General Hux from The Force Awakens), who works for a major internet company, finds out that he has won a major prize—the opportunity to spend a week at the remote mountain retreat of the company's reclusive CEO, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Caleb is blown away by the compound and its surroundings, although Nathan's genius, as well as his hard-partying nature, makes him a little ill-at-ease.

It's not long, however, before Caleb understands why he was chosen to win the prize—Nathan has created the world's most sophisticated artificial intelligence, housed in the body of a beautiful female robot, and he wants Caleb to evaluate just how successful and human-like the A.I. is. As Caleb begins interviewing Ava (The Danish Girl's Alicia Vikander), he is quickly struck not only by her beauty, but by the interest she shows in him.

The more time he spends with Ava, the more he is drawn to her, and it appears she feels the same. But are these feelings true, or just programmed? Does she know what she is actually speaking of? At moments it appears Ava knows full well what is going on around her, even as Nathan is spiraling out of control. And then Caleb realizes that he is a pawn in a bizarre and troubling game of cat-and-mouse, but he isn't sure who has control—Nathan, Ava, or himself.

I didn't know much about this movie before watching it, but it hooked me right away. Vikander is utterly mesmerizing, and Caleb isn't the only one she had watching her every move. She so perfectly portrays the mix of human intelligence and robotics—there are times you watch her discovering herself and her abilities and it's hard to believe Vikander is an actual human being. While she has gotten a lot of well-deserved accolades for her work in The Danish Girl, she's also gotten some recognition for her performance in Ex Machina, and this is where I hope she snags an Oscar nod.

Gleason does a great job balancing the naivete of his character with his sudden desire to take control of the situation. I found myself wondering how long he was aware of what was going on before he acted. Isaac—of whom I'm a huge fan—does a pretty great unstable, paranoid, and somewhat evil genius.

This is a movie which will have you thinking long after it's over. You'll marvel at what the filmmakers did, and you won't be able to get Ava out of your mind anytime soon...

Movie Review: "The Hateful Eight"

I don't know what it says about me that Quentin Tarantino's movies don't really shock me anymore. That's not to say that they've gotten boring, or he's suddenly decided to make a family-friendly Disney musical (that would be something to see), it's just that I've come to expect certain things from one of his movies—cool music; foul and racist language; violence; and, of course, gore. But even though his films have these features, how he weaves them together is part of what makes them truly Tarantino-esque.

The Hateful Eight is Tarantino's eighth film. It takes place in Wyoming after the Civil War, in the dead of winter. A blizzard is on its way. Legendary bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell) is riding in a stagecoach, handcuffed to the notorious Daisy Domergue (a zany Jennifer Jason Leigh), whom he plans to take to the town of Red Rock so she can hang for her crimes, and he can collect the $10,000 reward. But with the blizzard arriving any minute, he plans a pit stop at Minnie's Haberdashery, so the pair can sit out the storm.

On the way, John and Daisy encounter a lone figure in the blizzard, Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a famed Union soldier, another bounty hunter who was once hunted himself by the Confederate Army. After a tense exchange, Ruth agrees to let Warren ride along with him and Daisy, although he's not entirely convinced Warren isn't planning to steal his prisoner.

Ruth's suspicion of Warren doesn't lessen when the stagecoach encounters another lone figure in the blizzard, namely Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), the son of a famed Confederate vigilante, who claims he is the new sheriff of Red Rock, so he needs to get to town so Daisy can hang and Ruth can collect his reward. Ruth thinks Mannix's claims are dubious, but he wants that $10,000 reward, so he lets Mannix ride along as well.

When they arrive at Minnie's they learn they're not the only ones who thought about waiting out the storm. They encounter a motley crew: Bob (Demián Bichir), one of Minnie's employees; Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth, playing the Christoph Waltz role), Red Rock's resident hangman; the mysterious John Gage (Michael Madsen); and Confederate General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern).

And then The Hateful Eight completely flips the script. While the first half of the film is a little slow and calm (by Tarantino standards), the second half never stops. And that is where the movie really catches steam, and tries to out-Tarantino itself from time to time.

The Hateful Eight was filmed in 70mm, and at the theaters across the country that are showing the movie in that way, there's even a 20-minute intermission. It's really worth the investment—the cinematography is outstanding and panoramic, even if most of the movie doesn't leave the inside of Minnie's Haberdashery.

Like so many of Tarantino's movies, much of the acting is pretty spot-on. Jennifer Jason Leigh gives one of her best performances in years, sassy, taunting, and tough, but vulnerable at moments as well. Roth is very funny, as is Goggins, and Russell mixes bravado and paranoia to hilarious effect. I'm not always a fan of Jackson's performances in recent years, because I think his bluster can overwhelm at times where some shading or nuance would be more appropriate, but I thought his usual kick-ass stuff worked perfectly here.

While I don't think The Hateful Eight rises to the level of some of Tarantino's other films, it's still quite good once it gets rolling. If you're a Tarantino fan, or if you've no problem with more-than-liberal use of the "n" word, physical violence (including to women), vomiting, and gore, you should enjoy this film.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Movie Review: "Bridge of Spies"

I'm not exactly sure when my Tom Hanks fatigue started. For a while it seemed like he played a similar role in so many movies—the steadfast, unflappable hero, no matter what the situation—and he was involved in producing television shows, plays, etc. Every time I turned around, there he was. And while I enjoyed him in Saving Mr. Banks, I thought his accent in Captain Phillips was a little too reminiscent of the old Pepperidge Farm commercials of my youth.

All of this is prelude to say that I didn't have enormously high expectations for Bridge of Spies, but given the awards buzz the film has been getting, particularly around Mark Rylance's performance, I figured we'd give it a try. And I was very pleasantly surprised, both by the film itself, and the performances, anchored by Hanks.

It's the height of the Cold War and Americans fear the Russians and the threat they may detonate an atomic bomb. A purported Soviet spy, Rudolf Abel (Rylance), is caught, and Americans clamor for his execution. For reasons he (and I, to be honest) doesn't understand, insurance attorney James Donovan (Hanks) is handpicked by his law firm to defend Abel. But while Donovan is expected to simply give Abel a proforma defense, he is committed to ensuring his client gets the due process he deserves under the law, even if those in the legal system, his firm, his family, and his community disagree.

Donovan's doggedness catches the eye of the CIA, and following the Soviet Union's capture of U.S. pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) while on a covert mission, the CIA enlists Donovan's help to negotiate for a trade of prisoners, Abel for Powers. This is a mission unrecognized by the U.S. government, and Donovan is essentially on his own.

He travels to East Germany, which is caught between German and Russian politics, just as the Berlin Wall is being put up. Despite his instructions to the contrary, Donovan pushes Russian and German officials for the prisoner exchange on the U.S.' terms. This sets up a potentially dangerous cat-and-mouse game for all involved.

While I'll admit I rolled my eyes at the unlikelihood an insurance attorney would suddenly be employed by the CIA for delicate negotiations with foreign entities, Bridge of Spies is based on true events. The movie definitely kept me guessing, because I really didn't know how the plot would resolve itself.

I thought Hanks did a terrific job in this movie—he conveyed his fear for his family and his future as he struggled with his need to see justice served. Rylance's performance is funny and understated, and while I don't think it's Oscar-worthy, I do think it deserves recognition. Steven Spielberg's direction is tremendously assured and not showy, and while this film certainly had a message (one that resonates particularly in this time when so many fear ISIS and Muslims in our society), it wasn't too ham-handed in its delivery.

This was an entertaining and compelling film, a reminder that there are still good stories out there to be told.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Book Review: "The Enchanted" by Rene Denfeld

This book was not at all what I expected, and it utterly blew me away.

"This is an enchanted place. Others don't see it but I do."

When you think enchanted places, the last thing that comes to mind is an ancient prison, but that is where this beautiful book takes place. It is narrated by a prisoner on death row, where the prisoners are kept in an underground dungeon of sorts. The narrator cannot speak, but he sees and envisions incredible things—golden horses who run hard beneath the prison following every execution, and tiny men that hammer away inside the prison's stone walls, carrying the gossip, threats, and laments from cell to cell.

The narrator isn't upset that his death is imminent. He lives for the moments when the prison trusties bring him books, and he lives for the moments when his other senses come alive in the prison—his ability to hear the magical sounds and smell the scents coming from outside the prison walls.

"I have been inside one locked room or another since I was nine. I am accustomed to it, buried inside rooms that are buried inside other rooms that are buried inside electric razor fences. The walls that might make others feel like they are suffocating have become my lungs."

In the midst of the corruption that runs through the prison behind the kindly warden's back (kindly despite his role in walking men to their executions), two people work to change the tenor of the environment—a fallen priest, whose role is to counsel men waiting for death, and a woman, known as the Lady, who is hired as an investigator to try and get some of the prisoners' death sentences overturned. When she begins looking into the case of an inmate who doesn't want her help and wants to die, she uncovers secrets which hit a little too close to home for her.

This is such a compelling story; it's as much about the goings-on inside a prison and the musings of a man condemned to death as it is about the lives of those who work within the system, and how they are able to keep moving forward day to day in the midst of such crushing circumstances. It's also a book about the small things that can bring hope and happiness, even when you're a death row inmate.

I thought this was going to be more fantastical than realistic, and while there are elements of fantasy and imagination, this is a book firmly rooted in the realism of the criminal justice system. And while it's certainly a bit of a downer, Rene Denfeld has created such a memorable cast of characters, and designed such a unique spin on what we've come to expect from books and movies about prisons, this is a book you'll feel in your heart as it engages your mind. Denfeld's storytelling and her use of language were pretty fantastic.

I won't be surprised to see this book on my best-of list for 2016 early next year!!

The best books I read in 2015...

So, in case you haven't noticed, I read a lot.

I love movies, and try to exercise as much as I can, and love spending time with those I care about. But when I have spare time, I usually read. Reading brings me peace and relaxation, it helps calm my mind (even when the books I'm reading may ratchet up my blood pressure or make me an emotional wreck), and through the years it has brought me so much joy.

In 2015, I read 140 books. This is the most I've ever read (at least as long as I've counted), and this isn't bad considering I got a new job, did a lot of traveling for work, moved into a new house, and readied our old house for sale. I've read some phenomenal books, some great ones, a lot of good ones, and honestly, very few bad ones. I've been blown away and I've been disappointed; I've devoured books in one sitting or one day, and I've struggled to finish a few. But this was a great year for reading, as far as I'm concerned—and there are a lot of books I wanted to read that I didn't get to!

As I've done the past few years, I've selected the best books I read this past year, plus a few more that just fell short of the very best but I still think they're too good to miss. I've linked to my original review of each so you can read more about each one. I'd love to hear your thoughts, and know which books you'd count among your favorites, even if you didn't read as much as I did!

While I've traditionally put this list together in random order, I'm going to list my top six of 2015, and then list the rest randomly.

The Best of the Best

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara: Simply put, this was a masterpiece. The best book I read all year, and one of the best of this decade. The book spans several decades in the lives of four college friends, and contains one of the most memorable characters I've ever seen, the enigmatic and troubled Jude. It's 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. Read my original review.

All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven: Touted as The Fault in Our Stars meets Eleanor and Park—an unfair comparison which doesn't negate the fact that this book left me as much of an emotional wreck as the other two—this is the story of two teenagers who have the best-ever meet-cute but ultimately deal with crushing grief and debilitating mental illness. While as with many YA books published recently, the characters are far more articulate and intelligent and sarcastic than most teenagers really are, the dialogue was beautifully written, and I found the characters, Finch in particular, to be truly memorable. Grab the tissues and the Visine—you'll need it with this one. Read my original review.

I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes: An intense, terrific read that had my heart pounding, amazingly, this was the first book I read in 2015, and it never truly left my mind. It's the story of an immensely clever man on the hunt of someone who might be even more clever—and infinitely more dangerous. It's the story of friendship, of loyalty, of bravery, of trying to do right by those who believe in you. There's some fantastic action and suspense—it's a sweeping thriller with intelligence and heart. Read my original review.

Infinite Home by Kathleen Alcott: Lyrical, moving, and absolutely exquisite, this is a book about how we find comfort, and sometimes anguish, in the home we make for ourselves and the family we choose to embrace, biological or otherwise. It's also a book about finding strength where we didn't know we had it, and the different ways we adapt to and cope with change. The story of Edith, the landlady of a Brooklyn apartment building for years, and her tenants, this is a memorable book, told in short chapters, memorable both for how it is told and the characters on whom Alcott focuses. Read my original review.

All This Life by Joshua Mohr: Tremendously thought-provoking, compelling, and slightly disturbing, this is an intriguing commentary on the chaos wrecked by society's constant obsession with social media, and how it simultaneously connects and disconnects us. I found this book really fascinating and powerful. Mohr weaved a number of seemingly disparate storylines together, and all but one seemed like a story you'd hear about from a friend, or perhaps see on social media. So many issues, emotions, and tough questions are pondered here, but the book never really seems heavy; it seems very current and relevant. Read my original review.

Secrets in Big Sky Country by Mandy Smith: Mandy Smith's powerful, painful memoir is worthy of tremendous notice, and Smith is to be praised for bringing attention to the tragedy of child sexual abuse. The story of Smith's sexual abuse at the hands of her uncle/stepfather, which began at age three, and the effects it had on her life from adolescence through adulthood, as well as her brother's, this is brutal, but it isn't gratuitously graphic—it's honest. Smith bared her soul and her scars, and I hope it helps make strides toward greater awareness and prevention of this abuse. Read my original review.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Book Review: "Keep You Close" by Lucie Whitehouse

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!

Lucie Whitehouse knows how to write a thriller. I really enjoyed her last book, Before We Met, and her newest book, Keep You Close, scheduled to be released in May, ratcheted up the excitement and surprises even more.

Rowan Winter gets a surprising call one day and learns that Marianne Glass, once her closest friend, has died in a tragic accident. It has been 10 years since Rowan and Marianne have spoken despite Rowan's attempts to reconnect, but the pain of Marianne's loss is very real for her. They were once inseparable, and for a young girl with an absent father and a dead mother, Marianne's family and her friendship meant everything to Rowan. But Marianne became a successful artist, and all that Rowan knew of her life was what she read in the newspapers.

"But you were similar, too — I could see why you were so close. Marianne had her talent and you had your brain and you were both...driven. You sparked off each other."

Even after all of these years apart, Rowan cannot believe that Marianne fell from the roof of her home, because she remembers the paralyzing vertigo she suffered from. She can't believe that Marianne would have tried to take her own life, even if she was apparently suffering from depression again. And the day after her death, when Rowan receives a card from Marianne saying, "I need to talk to you," she knows it's a sign that someone else is responsible for Marianne's fall.

Returning to the town where Marianne lived and they once spent all of their time, Rowan is determined to look into the events of her death. It's not long before she finds herself caught up in the memories of their youth—the good times and the slights, the friends Rowan lost when her friendship with Marianne ended, and times when Marianne's perfect family didn't quite seem so perfect. And she also starts to rekindle a romance that never quite got off the ground all those years ago.

But the more Rowan learns and the more she suspects, the more her paranoia grows. Is there anyone she can really trust? Are Marianne's so-called friends really who they say they are? Does Rowan have anything to fear if she uncovers the truth?

I've commented before that it's hard for me to read mysteries because I often find myself figuring things out before the characters do, or suspecting everyone and everything. While I certainly had my theories while reading Keep You Close, and worried Whitehouse might take the easy way out, she definitely kept the surprises coming and had me guessing. It's a familiar-enough story, but she kept it fresh, and many of the supporting characters were equally fascinating.

If you like this genre of books, definitely introduce yourself to Lucie Whitehouse. I can definitely see this becoming the "beach read" of summer 2016—I definitely hope so, because she deserves some recognition!