Saturday, April 30, 2016

Book Review: "We Are the Ants" By Shaun David Hutchinson

I stayed up until nearly 2:00 a.m. to finish this book and I cannot stop thinking about it. Honestly, I read a good amount of YA fiction, and a lot of it is tremendously well-written and emotionally evocative, but I've not been this blown away by a book since I read Jandy Nelson's I'll Give You the Sun, which made my list of the best books I read in 2014.

Seriously. This one was brutal and absolutely beautiful.

"Sometimes I think gravity may be death in disguise. Other times I think gravity is love, which is why love's only demand is that we fall."

For the last few years, aliens have periodically abducted Henry Denton. As if high school wasn't already difficult to deal with. The aliens don't tell Henry what they want from him or why they've chosen him, but apart from leaving him nearly naked in strange places all over his Florida town, they haven't hurt him too badly.

No one believes Henry's stories, except his boyfriend Jesse. But Jesse recently killed himself, and Henry believes he is to blame, or at least should have seen how badly Jesse was hurting. Everyone else in Henry's life, including his fellow classmates, taunt him and call him "Space Boy," making every day at school a living hell. And his home life isn't much better—his mother works more and more shifts as a waitress while her real dream is to be a chef; his older brother abuses him physically and psychologically nearly every day; and his grandmother, suffering from Alzheimer's, seems to have fewer and fewer lucid moments.

The aliens have given Henry an ultimatum: Earth will be destroyed in 144 days, unless Henry makes the decision to save the world. All he has to do is push a button. But does Henry want to save the world? Is the world really worth saving without Jesse in it?

"Most people probably believe they would have pressed the button in my situation—nobody wants the world to end, right?—but the truth is that nothing is as simple as it seems. Turn on the news; read some blogs. The world is a shit hole, and I have to consider whether it might be better to wipe the slate clean and give the civilization that evolves from the ashes of our bones a chance to get it right."

As the deadline draws closer, Henry searches for evidence that the world is worth saving—in the bully who wants to be with Henry in secret but terrorizes him in public; in Audrey, his former best friend, who used to be an enormous part of his life; in the new student who adds some mystery into Henry's life; and Henry's family members, each dealing with their own struggles. Sure, there are moments when life isn't so bad, but Henry has to decide whether humanity is worth saving or if letting the world end would also end his own emotional anguish.

We Are the Ants is a difficult book to read at times, emotionally. It seems incredible that Henry would allow himself to be treated the way he is by so many people, and that no one would put a stop to it, but the truth is, this type of thing happens more often than not in real life. He is such an incredible character—as are many of the supporting characters—that you root for them to be happy even as you begin to understand that maybe Henry's pain is too much for anyone to bear.

That's not to say that the book is a total downer. There were many moments that made me smile and laugh, and moments that touched my heart and made me even cry good tears (as opposed to the ugly ones I cried at other times). I haven't ever read anything that Shaun David Hutchinson has written before, but after this, rest assured I will. This is such an inventive, moving, beautiful book I feel utterly privileged to have read. I won't soon forget it.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Book Review: "The Second Life of Nick Mason" by Steve Hamilton

Five years ago, Nick Mason went to prison, expecting to serve a 25-year sentence. He tries to live day by day and stay out of trouble, and dreams of what his life used to be like with his ex-wife and his young daughter.

One day he is summoned by Darius Cole, a fellow inmate whose power within and outside the prison has never ceased despite the double-life sentence he is serving. He calls the shots and lives a fairly pampered existence, and he takes a liking to Nick because of his ability to keep to himself and stay even-tempered. It isn't long before Cole offers to make the rest of Nick's sentence disappear—for a price.

How could he refuse the chance to get out of prison while his daughter is still young, to be able to do what he pleases when he pleases, without having to watch his back? Nick is given a home in a posh Chicago neighborhood, fancy clothes, a classic sports car, and money to burn. But as you'd imagine, this freedom doesn't mean he's truly free—he is given a cell phone by one of Cole's associates, and whenever it rings, day or night, he must do whatever he's told to.

As Nick waits for his orders, he tries to visit his ex-wife and daughter, as well as one of the friends he protected the night things went wrong for them. But Nick's unexpected release doesn't sit well with everyone, including another one of his cohorts from the fateful night five years before, and the dogged police detective who arrested him and doesn't understand how he was able to regain his freedom. Nick would like to pursue a new relationship, but doesn't know if it's wise to involve someone else in his situation.

And when the orders come, it forces Nick to do things he'd never imagined, and it's not long before he realizes he's being used as a pawn in a battle where there are no good guys. He must decide whether to continue to follow the orders he is being given, or follow his conscience and put his life, his freedom, and those who loves in jeopardy. It's a no-win situation, and the stakes are getting progressively higher.

I don't know why Steve Hamilton isn't more famous. I think he's one of the best crime writers out there right now. His series with flawed Michigan private investigator Alex McKnight are absolutely fantastic, and the few stand-alone books he's written have been pretty tremendous as well. The Second Life of Nick Mason deserves to stand alongside his other books—Hamilton once again delivers crackling action, taut plot development, and some strong and memorable characters.

I believe I read that this book has been optioned for a film adaptation, and that doesn't surprise me. It reads like a movie, and I don't mean that in a disparaging way. If you've never read one of Hamilton's books before, and you're a crime fan, you can't go wrong with this one, the incredible The Lock Artist, or any one of his Alex McKnight books. Hopefully you'll see what the world hasn't quite seen yet—Steve Hamilton is a writer to be reckoned with.

First to Read and G.P. Putnam's Sons provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

Book Review: "Your Father Sends His Love: Stories" by Stuart Evers

Maybe it's because the two-year anniversary of my father's death is approaching in a few weeks that first attracted me to reading Stuart Evers' new story collection. But while certainly many of these stories focus on the relationships between fathers and their children (or, in one case, grandchildren), there are stories which focus on other emotional connections and relationships as well.

Among my favorites in the collection were: "These Are the Days," in which an elderly man tries to mediate tension between his estranged son and his granddaughter; "Something Else to Say," which follows the reunion of a man and his best friend, who has experienced a series of emotional crises, and the man's efforts to identify topics to keep their conversation flowing; "Sundowners," about a married woman in the midst of an affair with a younger man, who wants her more than she does him; "Wings," where a woman gets a tattoo in memory of her less inhibited sister and it suddenly frees her emotionally; "Frequencies," in which a man babysits his infant son while his wife is away on business, and he overhears snippets of an interesting conversation on the baby monitor; and my favorite story, "Lakelands," about a man who makes a weighty sacrifice in defense of his gay son.

I had never read anything Evers had written before, and I definitely enjoyed his way with language and imagery, as well as his skill with dialogue. Some of these stories packed a real emotional punch, while I didn't quite understand the point of several others. I felt as if he was at his best when he told straightforward stories; a few more experimental stories don't work as well. Interestingly enough, I felt as if the collection was front-loaded so that the majority of the strongest stories came early on.

The number of talented writers out there today doing magic with short stories grows larger and larger by the day. While not every story succeeds, by and large, Stuart Evers demonstrates his significant talent with Your Father Sends His Love. These are well-written stories that examine the fragility of relationships of all kinds, and they'll definitely resonate in your mind after you're done reading them.

NetGalley and W.W. Norton & Company provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Book Review: "Before the Wind" by Jim Lynch

"Families split over money, betrayal and abuse, over resentments, infidelities and misunderstandings, over people being jackasses. Most anything can rattle the fault lines. Yet I know of only one family torn asunder by a sailboat race."

Joshua Johannssen has sailing in his blood. It's virtually all he and his siblings have known basically since birth. His grandfather designed sailboats, his father designed and raced them, and the two passed down this fever to Josh, his older brother Bernard, and their younger sister Ruby, a true sailing prodigy. They knew sailing terms and how to race boats in every weather condition better than they knew the English language or how to relax with any other pastime. Even their scientist mother plays a role, teaching them about the disbursement of air and water molecules, and how to measure the wind.

But something happened and everything changed. Josh, now 31, lives on a boat and repairs boats at a marina not far from his childhood home in Washington State. The family sailboat business has hit hard times and faces bankruptcy after too many lawsuits caused by their father's cutting corners. Their mother is becoming obsessed with solving a series of scientific equations that promise a significant monetary reward. And both his siblings have fled far away, Ruby to Africa, where she helps care for the poor and sick, and Bernard to who-knows-where, as he has become a fugitive and a champion of the working class.

"...strains of this gentle madness course through my family the way diabetes or alcoholism clusters in others. For years, sailing bound us. We were racers, builders and cruisers. It was our family business, our sport, our drug of choice. Yet eventually, sailing blew us apart, too."

It is Swiftsure, a famed sailing race, that brings the entire Johannssen clan together for one last hurrah. Sailing an old family boat altered by Josh (following his father's orders) to allow it to compete with the newer, faster crafts, their father hopes that this will be the moment that repairs all of the damage done through the years (although he's not quick to acknowledge his role in all of that damage), and restores the Johannssen name, reputation, and business. But the entire family is unprepared for what occurs, and the revelations that are revealed.

Jim Lynch may be one of the best writers you might never have heard of, and Before the Wind is a pretty terrific book. Lynch again returns to his beloved Pacific Northwest, and has created an utterly compelling portrait of a dysfunctional family both brought together and torn apart by their mutual obsession with sailing. This is beautifully written, emotionally gripping, humorous, and insightful.

I have one caveat for you: Before the Wind goes heavy on sailing terms. You may not know spinnaker from starboard, or boom from boat, but in the end, this is a story about a family, and you can guess what most of the terms mean. The book starts a little slowly, but much like a sailboat, it picks up speed and emotion and heft, until you're completely immersed. While I'd recommend any and all of Lynch's books, this is a great one to start with. I loved this.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Book Review: "The Vanishing Year" by Kate Moretti

When you watch a thriller or crime movie, at some point a character tells the beleaguered protagonist, Trust no one. If they listen to that advice, they find themselves questioning everyone's motivation, second-guessing seemingly innocent gestures even from people they know. (That is if they're smart, which characters in thrillers or crime movies rarely are.)

I operate the same way when I read a thriller or crime novel. I guess I've read so many through the years, and seen all kinds of twists, that I see almost everything as a potential clue toward the villain and/or the plot's resolution. That's definitely what happened when I read Kate Moretti's new book, The Vanishing Year.

Zoe Whittaker appears to have it all. At one point in her life she didn't even have enough money to give her mother a proper burial, and when she first arrived in New York, she was living in a homeless shelter. But now she is married to Wall Street tycoon Henry Whittaker, who indulges her every whim and surprises her with romantic trips and gifts, and she is helping make a difference with her charity involvement. It's a far cry from the purple-haired, multiple-pierced floral apprentice she was when she met Henry.

While her life was vastly different back then, no one really knows how different. No one really knows that Zoe wasn't always Zoe, and that she was involved in things which put her life in significant danger. She had no choice but to flee that life, that existence, even if it meant saying goodbye to good memories as well as frightening ones.

Without warning, Zoe's past seems to have found her. While there are parts of her past she'd like to understand, there are many parts she hoped she'd escaped for good. She can't tell Henry, whose moods are growing increasingly mercurial. She doesn't know whom to trust, where to turn, or what to do. And the danger seems to be growing dangerously closer and closer.

I thought this book had tremendous potential, even if we've seen this type of plot before, the woman-who-isn't-who-you-think-she-is, the damsel-who-used-be-in-distress-and-is-again. Moretti kept me guessing for a while just how the story would unfold, and I kept trying to figure out which character would end up being the one (or ones) who betrayed Zoe. I just found the story took far too long to build up steam, there were red herrings that were sprinkled throughout the plot unnecessarily, and in the end, I was disappointed.

I am a really tough critic of this genre of fiction because I read a lot of it, so I either like to be surprised or I like to be impressed with the author's execution of the plot even if it unfolds as I've expected it might. That's a tall order, so I would encourage you to pick up The Vanishing Year if it sounds intriguing to you. Hopefully if you're not as demanding as I am, you'll find it a suspenseful and more enjoyable read than I did.

NetGalley and Atria Books provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

Book Review: "The Hopefuls" by Jennifer Close

The Washington, DC area gets a bit of a bad rap. Sure, there are people who work within presidential administrations and on Capitol Hill that are a little status-obsessed, and really only want to deal with those who have similar jobs. (I've attended more than a few parties in my years down here in which people literally disengaged when they found out I worked in the association management field rather than in politics.)

But this area is unique in many ways—random encounters with political figures still leave me a little starstruck nearly 29(!) years after I arrived, and you can't beat the magic of an inauguration, especially when it's a candidate you supported. (Getting stuck behind a motorcade when you're in a hurry immediately gets old, however.)

When Wisconsin native Beth Kelly uproots her cosmopolitan New York City life to move with her husband Matt down to Washington, DC, where he had accepted a job with President Obama's Presidential Inauguration Committee, she's a bit shell-shocked. It's hard to believe that the Nation's Capital can feel like such a small town (unlike the anonymity you can escape into in NYC), the pace is really slow, and all anyone talks about is politics. And themselves. And what they do working in politics. And others who work in politics.

With no real career prospects and no friends to speak of, it's a fairly lonely existence for Beth. And the other downside to living in Washington is their close proximity to Matt's family, ruled by a mother who thinks Matt can do no wrong, and who treats all of her daughters-in-law as if they are outsiders no matter how long they've been married to her sons. Beth tries to get acclimated to the city and her new life, but it doesn't seem to be working.

Salvation comes when Matt meets Jimmy Dillon, a charismatic White House staffer, and Beth becomes very close with Jimmy's wife, Ashleigh, a Texas girl who is utterly unlike Beth in every way. The two couples become very close, and when Beth gets a job on a DC-social scene website, things seem to be looking up. But as Jimmy's career seems to be rising, Matt's seems to be stalling, and his jealousy of the opportunities Jimmy is getting—opportunities that Matt believes he is more deserving of—it threatens to drive a wedge into their friendships as well as Matt and Beth's marriage.

I found The Hopefuls to be a really enjoyable and fun read. Jennifer Close really hits all of the right notes about the culture and interpersonal dynamics in Washington, and what it's like for an outsider looking in. Even things that may seem outlandish to those unfamiliar with the city had me nodding and even laughing out loud a time or two. (I can actually recall having a conversation with friends about how many of the Safeway grocery stores in DC have nicknames—the Social Safeway, the Soviet Safeway, etc.—so it was funny seeing that in the book.)

Close is a very engaging writer with a keen ear for dialogue. I enjoyed the characters although I found Beth to be a little too passive throughout nearly the entire book, and I kept wanting her to get angry or make a scene. I also thought that perhaps Close drew out Beth's unhappiness with the area a little longer than necessary, but it didn't really interfere with my enjoyment of the book.

If you've never lived in the DC area, you may be amazed or skeptical of the culture that Close describes in the book. It's pretty dead-on, though, but you don't have to know anything about this city to enjoy The Hopefuls. It's fun (and funny), enjoyable, and well-written. It feels like a great summer book.

NetGalley and Knopf Doubleday Publishing Company provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Book Review: "Imagine Me Gone" by Adam Haslett

How much are we willing to sacrifice to help those we love? Are we willing to put aside our own happiness for a fleeting chance at saving another?

When Margaret learns that her fiancée John has been hospitalized for depression, it throws her completely. This is 1960s London and she is a transplanted American, in love with John's professional and public steadfastness and his emotional vulnerability when the two are alone. She knows she must make a choice: should she support John through his time of need and marry him despite not knowing whether his illness will return (as it has in the past), or should she try and find a way out, follow a steadier and more certain path?

Her decision to put her faith in John and their love seems like the right one at first. The couple raises three children, but Margaret realizes she needs to be the realistic one, the disciplinarian, while John's more mercurial moods endear him to their children. It's not long before it becomes clear that their eldest son, Michael, intense, passionate, and fiercely intelligent, is plagued by many of the same demons his father is. This manifests itself into borderline obsessive emotional attachments with women, and the same type of obsessive belief in certain social causes.

As Michael struggles with adulthood, love, employment, and simply surviving on a daily basis, it falls to Margaret and her two other children, Celia and Alec, to care for him, to endure his mood swings and his anxieties, and protect both Michael and their mother from the challenges of a life plagued by mental illness and anguish. But to do so, Celia and Alec must put their own relationships and careers at risk, which becomes a more difficult choice when having to do it time and time again.

As you'd expect from a book about a family's struggles with mental illness, Imagine Me Gone is moving and poignant. Adam Haslett, whose previous books (You Are Not a Stranger Here and Union Atlantic) dazzled me, is a tremendously talented writer, and he has created vivid, complex characters, none more so than Michael. My challenge with this book, however, is that in telling the book from each character's perspective, Haslett chooses to tell Michael's story through his delusions, fantasies, obsessions, and paranoia. It makes the book, particularly his chapters, difficult to read and understand, and while they give insight into Michael's mind, they don't advance the story in any way.

This is a well-told story of a family barely holding themselves together. But while the story is an emotional one, I had trouble connecting with it in many places. It almost seemed that Michael's psychological issues, told in vivid color, dulled everyone else's stories alongside his. But Haslett's writing is still something to behold.

NetGalley and Little, Brown and Company provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

Monday, April 18, 2016

Book Review: "The One-in-a-Million Boy" by Monica Wood

Well, I know I'm a sap, but this one had me in pieces. Or maybe there was just something in my eyes...

Ona Vitkus is 104 years old, a Lithuanian immigrant whose prickly exterior belies a warm heart, a mischievous spirit, and a lifetime of regrets. When the local Boy Scout troop assigns an awkward yet earnest scout to help her with household tasks to earn a merit badge, she's ready to scare him away as she has the others, if he doesn't disappoint her first.

Yet there's something about this boy that makes Ona let down her guard. Perhaps it's his lack of self-confidence, or his incessant curiosity about her life. Perhaps it's his emotional openness and his desire to be won over by everything she does. Or perhaps it's his obsession with the Guinness Book of World Records, which even fuels in Ona a desire to find a record she can achieve, even at her age.

The two form a close bond, made more so as he chooses her as an interview subject for a school assignment. But when one weekend when the boy doesn't show up, and his father Quinn, an erstwhile musician who had trouble connecting with his son, appears in his place, Ona feels hurt and disappointed that he abandoned their relationship and their quest. It isn't long, however, before she realizes the boy died suddenly and inexplicably, and Quinn decides to pick up his son's tasks in an effort to better understand the boy who bewildered him, who never seemed to get what Quinn wanted to give him.

Quinn is adrift, wanting to land on his feet professionally yet feeling utterly lost psychologically. Belle, his ex-wife (twice) and the boy's mother, won't let him share in her anger or her guilt, and all she wants to do is make Quinn pay for not giving their son the love and security he needed and deserved. But while she wants both to mourn her son and get on with her life, she starts to realize that Quinn might have the right idea in forging a relationship with Ona in an effort to keep the boy alive.

The One-in-a-Million Boy is moving, beautiful, and even a little whimsical. Ona and Quinn are particularly fascinating characters, and I love the way Monica Wood gave Ona so much more depth than I first expected. Amazingly, however, it is the boy who is the most memorable character, despite the fact that we never learn his name, and you mostly see him through the eyes of Ona and his parents, as well as his myriad lists of Guinness recordholders.

This is a special book, one which dwells not on surprising plot twists but rather on pure emotion. You may know where Wood will take her characters, but you savor the journey anyway, and if you're like me, you may tear up (at the very least) a time or two.

Book Review: "A Doubter's Almanac" by Ethan Canin

Can we escape the legacy of our parents or are we doomed to repeat their mistakes? Is genius more of a blessing or a curse, and what needs to be done to ensure it's more of the former than the latter? Are approval and recognition more powerful forces than love and security? These are just some of the questions Ethan Canin strives to answer in his latest book, A Doubter's Almanac.

Growing up in the 1950s in northern Michigan, Milo Andret lived a somewhat solitary existence. His parents kept to themselves and expected him to mostly do the same, and it didn't seem to faze him all that much that he didn't have much success making friends.

"He felt affection for his parents, and he understood that they felt affection for him. But the three of them hardly questioned one another, and they almost never revealed to one another anything of importance."

Milo knows he has talent, however, first demonstrated by his prowess in woodworking, and then when he attends graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley in the 1970s, he realizes his genius in mathematics stands him head and shoulders above his peers. But for someone who has always tried to blend into the background and not be noticed, his intelligence is finally something for which he strives to be recognized, and he doesn't care if people are jealous or offended by his treatment of them.

While at Berkeley he meets an alluring young woman who bewitches him, and he meets the man who will be his rival, both intellectually and romantically. Under the tutelage of his faculty adviser, Milo is challenged, bullied, and cajoled into defining the course of his dissertation, one that will once and for all demonstrate his superiority. But even when he makes this career-shaping discovery, it's not enough for him, and it sets his life on a constant struggle for fulfillment, satisfaction, and the need to prove and re-prove his intellectual prowess. It's debilitating, physically dangerous, and has harmful effects on those around him.

A Doubter's Almanac follows Milo's life into old age, his cantankerous and self-destructive nature never waning, even as it hurts those closest to him. It also follows the struggles of Milo's wife and children, particularly his son Hans, who seems destined to follow in his father's footsteps even if it's his sister who is the smarter one, and Hans' own appetite for self-destruction. The book examines whether we have any power to set our own course in life, or whether it is predetermined for us.

I've been a big fan of Ethan Canin's for a really long time, and I just love the way he tells a story. That being said, I didn't warm to A Doubter's Almanac as much as I hoped I would. The book got really technical and in-depth with regard to mathematical principles and equations, and given that I barely skated through the minimum number of math classes I had to take in high school and college, I couldn't get into those sections. And after a while, I realized that the emotional distance that Canin created for his characters kept me at arm's length, making it difficult to become fully invested.

Parts of this book are moving, and nearly all of it is spectacularly written, but I felt a little detached from the plot and the characters. Still, it is always a treat to read something written by Ethan Canin, and if you're not physically allergic to math, you might really enjoy this.

NetGalley and Random House provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Book Review: "The Ramblers" by Aidan Donnelley Rowley

Many books depend on dramatic events to advance their plots, as the chaos these incidents wreck can leave indelible marks on a book's characters. However, there is often equal, if not greater, power in those books which focus on the more mundane crises and their effect on people. It doesn't take a catastrophe to cause emotional upheaval and eventual renewal—sometimes these happen in the midst of everyday life.

Aidan Donnelley Rowley's beautiful book, The Ramblers, falls more into the latter category for me, but that doesn't lessen its appeal or its power one iota. The story of three people at emotional crossroads, who need to move on from dwelling on the problems which hold them back, this is a moving examination of finding strength within ourselves, learning to trust when every fiber of our being tells us we shouldn't, and coming to terms with our fears.

Clio Marsh is an ornithologist whose bird-watching walks through Central Park have become noteworthy and have started to earn her a following. The daughter of an emotionally unstable mother, she's always kept most people at arm's length in an attempt to protect herself and the legacy she is so fearful of inheriting. Yet when she meets Henry, an older hotelier who charms her and protects her as no one else ever has, she wants to let herself fall completely but she is worried he may abandon her if he knows the truth about her family.

Clio's best friend, Smith Anderson, is living proof that being raised by one of New York's most prominent and wealthy families doesn't guarantee happiness. While she's happy with her success as a professional organizer (despite the vociferous objections of her father), she's having trouble decluttering her own crisis-laden life, between pining for her ex-fiancée, who ended their engagement abruptly, dreading her younger sister's wedding and the speech she needs to write as maid of honor, and wondering where a recent flirtation might go.

Tate Pennington knew Smith peripherally when she and Clio were fellow students at Yale. He thought he had it all—a successful career and a great marriage, but even as he abandoned life in the financial sector to create a wildly successful startup, he discovered that everything wasn't quite what he expected. Heartbroken and unsure of his next move, he returns to New York and tries to decide whether forging ahead with a new life is right for him, or if there's still a chance to salvage what was lost.

Even thought I couldn't really identify with these characters much, Rowley made them tremendously appealing, even though they were flawed. I found myself fully invested in their stories, emotionally and otherwise, and while there wasn't necessarily anything shocking about the way the plot unfolded, I savored everything about this book. Rowley is a terrific writer with a very engaging style and a strong storytelling ability, and I just enjoyed everything about this book. Emotional without being melodramatic, wry without being quirky, this is a definite winner.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Book Review: "You Know Me Well" by Nina LaCour and David Levithan

I'm starting to think that David Levithan is my spirit animal. With every one of his books, he just gets me, you know?

Despite the fact that they sit next to each other in their high school calculus class, Mark and Katie have barely spoken to each other. So their official "meet cute" encounter is unlike any you've heard of—Kate is hiding in a gay bar at the start of San Francisco's Pride Festival, running away before she gets the chance to meet the girl she's been dreaming about for months, when she sees Mark dancing on the bar. In his underwear.

Mark, too, is having his share of issues, despite winning the underwear contest. He's only at the bar because his closeted, more-than-best-friend Ryan, wanted to take a risk and go to the Pride Festival this year, and Mark would do anything to be with Ryan. Even if Mark has never told Ryan how he really feels about him. And when Ryan meets another guy, Mark is unsure of what to do, and where he fits in.

That night is the catalyst for an intense friendship between Mark and Kate, two people who had always known of, but never truly knew, the other. Mark must confront his feelings for Ryan and make a decision about whether to let his friend follow his own path, regardless of where that leaves him, or fight for what he wants more than anything. And Kate, who is a year older, must confront her own friendships, her fears, her feelings of inadequacy, and her inability to let herself go—even if she would go toward what she has always wanted.

Can a person you've never really known get to know you so well in just a short period of time? What does embracing that relationship to its fullest mean for those with whom you have intense, lengthy history? Told in alternating chapters between Kate and Mark's perspectives, You Know Me Well is a book about knowing when to listen to your heart and when to trust your head, knowing whom you can count on and when, and the possibilities of, well, becoming who you truly are.

I absolutely loved this book. Obviously I can identify with Mark's character more than Kate's (in more ways than I'd care to divulge), but I found his struggles, his emotions, even his wrong moves more appealing. At first, Kate's inability to tell people how she felt and what she was thinking, which led to chaos with nearly everyone in her life, was a bit frustrating, until she explains why.

I have been a fan of Levithan's for years now, and truly devour each of his books (those he writes himself and those he writes with others) in one or two sittings. Nina LaCour's style meshes so well with David's; although I'd assume David wrote Mark's chapters and Nina wrote Kate's, I don't know that to be true, and either way it just worked beautifully. This is a book that made me smile, made me cry (of course), made me grateful for those in my life, and made me a little bitter (I'll admit) that my high school experience couldn't have been this way, but then again, those scars made me the person I am now.

NetGalley and St. Martin's Press provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Book Review: "Cruel Beautiful World" by Caroline Leavitt

For 16-year-old Lucy Gold, life is about feeling love, passion, emotion. It's the late 1960s, and in her Boston suburb of Waltham, she thinks she's the only one with these kinds of feelings. Her older sister Charlotte is beautiful and smart, but would rather study and get good grades than pursue any kind of relationship, and her adoptive mother Iris is much older, so Lucy is sure she's never known love before either. It's so hard with no one understanding her, everyone writing off her difficulties with school, and no one expecting much from her.

Until she meets William. William is the coolest teacher in her high school, is the object of many of her classmates' romantic obsessions, with his longer hair and his laid-back manner. His unorthodox teaching methods win him praise with the students but anger the administration. It's not long before Lucy recognizes in William a kindred spirit, a romantic just like she is, and he encourages her creative writing and tells her she has talent to be a famous writer someday.

One day Lucy and William run away, to an isolated town in Pennsylvania, where he's landed a teaching job at a free school, which suits his teaching style. Because she is a minor and he is transporting her across state lines, Lucy has to leave without telling anyone where she is going. And while she enjoys living with William in their own little house, where she can write and cook and practice for the day she turns 18 and they can get married, she quickly tires of being alone every day, with William not allowing her to go anywhere or meet anyone.

Meanwhile, Charlotte and Iris are devastated by Lucy's disappearance and try to figure out where she could have gone, what could have happened to her. Charlotte, in particular, finds herself unable to focus on her schoolwork or meeting people, because all she can do is wonder what happened to her sister, for whom she has always served as protector. Was there some sign that she or Iris missed? Would she know in her heart if Lucy were in danger? The loss, the uncertainty weighs on them more than they could imagine.

Caroline Leavitt is a tremendously talented writer, and she has a particular knack for capturing emotions. (If you've never read her work before, I'd definitely encourage you to read Pictures of You.) Cruel Beautiful World is not only about love and loss, but it's about finding the strength to pick yourself up and rebuild your life. It's a story of realizing you can't blame yourself for everything that goes wrong even if you've always been the protector. And it's also a story about the need to allow yourself a few glimmers of hope.

I thought this was an absolutely beautiful, emotional book. I loved Leavitt's characters and would have enjoyed spending more time with them. She really captured the dichotomy of spirit and responsibility that characterized the late 1960s and early 1970s, and the fear that many felt after the Manson Family murders. I just needed to see how she tied her story together, so I'll admit I woke up in the very early hours of the morning to finish reading it. I was pleased it didn't leave me a total emotional mess, but I was moved and I can't quite get this book out of my mind hours later. And that's the sign of a great one.

NetGalley and Algonquin Books provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!