Thursday, June 30, 2016

Book Review: "Between Here and the Yellow Sea" by Nic Pizzolatto

Before he created the acclaimed television series True Detective (at least the first season), before he wrote the superlative thriller Galveston (read my original review from 2011), Nic Pizzolatto wrote a short story collection called Between Here and the Yellow Sea in 2005.

It's always really interesting to me to read an author's early work, especially when you've read their more recent books. Sometimes you see them struggling to take control of their storytelling ability, their voice, their imagery, and other times you find flashes of genius, genius which becomes even more pronounced as their career progresses. Pizzolatto's collection of nine stories (apparently Amazon has another version of the collection with two stories not included in the original, but I didn't read that one) is moving, poignant, and thought-provoking, and a number of stories pack a punch.

The characters in these stories are struggling—with loss, adolescence, demons real or imagined, and, of course, all types of relationships. All but one of the stories worked for me, although I had a number of favorites, including: "Ghost Birds," in which a park ranger and BASE jumper wrestles with emotional crises and confronts the fears instigated by his risk-taking girlfriend; "1987, The Races," which tells of a young boy forced to provide emotional stability and companionship to his father, who has been slower to recover following his divorce from the boy's mother; "Two Shores," in which a young man struggles to understand his feelings (and control his curiosity) after the reappearance of an old girlfriend; "Amy's Watch," about a teenage girl forced to make sense of the various relationships in her life; and the fantastic title story, which follows a young man and his high school football coach as they drive to California, ostensibly to kidnap the coach's daughter and bring her back to Texas where she belongs.

I read a lot, but even when a book is really well-written and enjoyable, after I finish reading it I sometimes have trouble recalling specific plot points. But a few days after finishing Between Here and the Yellow Sea, I can't seem to get some of these stories out of my head. I've said before that the true sign of an excellent story collection for me is if I can envision some of the stories as full-length novels, and I definitely could here with more than a few of them.

Pizzolatto has real storytelling talent. If you've not read Galveston, I'd definitely encourage you to. Beyond that, I hope that he can fit in another novel or story collection sometime in the future, between his television and film writing gigs. This guy deserves to be read as well as have his work come to life on the big and small screens.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Book Review: "A Hundred Thousand Worlds" by Bob Proehl

Despite the fact that it's less than 400 pages long, and other than flashbacks takes place over the course of a few days, the first word that comes to mind to describe Bob Proehl's A Hundred Thousand Worlds—other than the superlatives I'll use later—is "sprawling." This feels like a big novel, but while its cast of characters is a bit large, there are times when it feels very intimate, as it explores the dynamics of relationships, particularly between mother and child.

"Everything changes, all the time. Even if you tried not to change, things would change around you till you'd have to. It's like you're a story, not a picture."

Valerie Torrey starred for several years in a popular time travel-themed television show, Anomaly. As often happens in the entertainment world, she and her costar, Andrew Rhodes, became romantically involved around the same time their characters did. Valerie became pregnant and the two got married. But while the show continued, their relationship became strained because of the pressures of parenthood. When a shocking event occurs, it signifies the end of the show and the end of their marriage. Valerie takes their young son to New York, where she ekes out a living as a semi-successful theater actress and homeschools Alex.

A few years later, Valerie agrees to a series of comic-cons, as her character and Anomaly are still popular with this audience. They plan to end up in California, where Alex will be reunited with his father, whom he's only seen on television in his new Californication-type series. But the reunion isn't going to be what Alex expects, and this takes a toll on both mother and child as they make their journey from convention to convention.

Along the way, they meet a group of comic book writers and illustrators, and we get glimpses of that world as well, from a talented illustrator who builds a rapport with Alex, to one of only a few female comic writers, who struggles with being taken seriously despite her copious talent. Alex and Val also encounter a group of women who dress as female comic book characters, and act as a Greek chorus of sorts.

This is a book about relationships—between friends and colleagues, between lovers past and present, and between parent and child. It's also a book about the blurry yet magical line between fact and fiction, and the power of storytelling. This is totally fitting since Proehl's storytelling ability is dazzling. The cast of characters is fascinating, complex, flawed, and utterly gripping, and although you know where much of the story will go, you savor the journey.

This book isn't perfect; when it touches on the backstories of different comic book characters you've never heard of it loses its way, but only briefly. I loved the book most when all of the characters were interacting, or when the focus was simply on Alex and Val—I liked the other characters but wanted more of the story's core. But this book had so much heart, and so much beauty, that I can't get it out of my mind, and I was sad when I finished.

If you're not a comic book fan, don't let that dissuade you from reading this book. This is a story more about people than comics. It's just so richly satisfying, and lovely.

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

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Book Review: "The Assistants" by Camille Perri

As a society, we love rooting for David over Goliath, for the underdog to get their day, for people we perceive to be unethical or just plain evil to get their comeuppance. But what if we knew the underdog wasn't entirely virtuous or correct—would we still root for them, because we think their foe is worse?

I always marvel when a writer can make readers root for, or sympathize with, characters who aren't entirely on the up-and-up. It's the hallmark of shows like Dexter or even The Sopranos, that you'd rather the bad people not get caught even if they deserve to. Despite the fact that this is her debut novel, Camille Perri demonstrates this skill very well in The Assistants.

"All important men have assistants. That's the first principle I want you to remember. Do important women also have assistants? Yes, of course. But men rule the world. Still. That's the second principle I want you to remember. Men still rule the world. Not because this is some feminist manifesto, but because it's a simple fact essential to how this all started."

Tina Fontana is 30 years old, and the assistant to Robert Barlow, a media mogul who is CEO of Titan Corporation. (Think a Texan, slightly-less-odious Rupert Murdoch.) Robert trusts Tina implicitly, and she's great at her job, solving problems, schmoozing those who want things from her boss he's not willing to give, making reservations, and corralling the staff. She knows she's smarter than her day-to-day tasks prove, and she certainly is worth more than her meager salary, but she feels integral. For an assistant.

One day, she stumbles on an accounting error related to one of Robert's expense reports, an error that presents her with a tidy sum of money. This money would be enough to pay off her student loans, and allow her to perhaps pay her phone bill and eat dinner at a restaurant. Given Titan's finances, this would be just a drop in the bucket. Would anyone even notice anyway?

Once her ethical lapse is discovered, Tina finds herself helping another assistant within the company eliminate her debt. But while she knows she was wrong, and she'd just like to put it all behind her, as more people get involved, Tina realizes her life is changing. Suddenly she's not the mild-mannered assistant who slices limes perfectly for Robert's cocktails. Suddenly she's at the forefront of a movement she unwittingly started, one attempting to bring equity where there never has been before. But it can't work, can it?

While obviously the plot of The Assistants is far-fetched (I'd imagine), it's a really enjoyable read. We know inherently Tina and her crew are committing crimes, and we know their good fortune can't last forever, but we want it to. Perri does a great job unfurling Tina's ethical and emotional dilemmas, but she's careful not to paint Robert as too much of an ogre either. This book definitely taps into some very relevant themes in today's world, including gender inequity and student loan debt.

This really was good fun, and a tremendously entertaining, quick read. If you're the type of person who roots for the "bad guys," you might enjoy this book. I definitely did.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Book Review: "They May Not Mean To, But They Do" by Cathleen Schine

The challenges, frustrations, and fears associated with aging parents and how to care for them (even when they're not interested in being cared for) are issues that many have dealt with or will struggle with in their lifetime. Is our way always the right way? Do we heed our parents' wishes even if we don't think they're in their best interests, or that they even understand their wishes? How can we balance our feelings with what they're feeling?

In Cathleen Schine's new novel, They May Not Mean To, But They Do, 84-year-old Joy Bergman loves her husband Aaron so much that she alone is caring for him as he deals with dementia and the aftereffects of bowel cancer. She still works full-time at a small museum in New York City, even though the new technology befuddles her, and she's exhausted more often than not. But she cannot fathom putting Aaron in a nursing home or assisted living facility (they're riddled with disease), hiring someone to help her care for him (too many strangers), or slowing down her own life (what would she do then?).

Joy's decisions concern and frustrate her two children, Molly and Daniel. While Molly lives in California with her wife, Daniel lives with his wife and children in New York, and both can't seem to understand why their mother won't make it easier on herself. They love their father and are saddened watching his decline, but they also want their mother to take care of herself, yet she refuses their help and advice at every turn, although she's not above throwing some Jewish guilt into the mix every now and again.

An unexpected health crisis for Joy, followed by Aaron's death, leaves her both more vulnerable and more resolute in her decision to "age in place." She isn't interested in making new friends, developing hobbies, moving out of their apartment into an assisted living facility, or discussing her finances with her children, despite their continued individual and collective pleas. And when Karl, a man she dated before she married Aaron, re-enters her life, she is both giddy with the possibility of not being alone, and frightened by what any step toward a relationship could mean. Needless to say, her children want her to have nothing to do with Karl—and aren't above throwing a little guilt of their own at their mother.

"The Bergmans against the world. There was no room for an outsider. The emptiness left by Aaron's death was not a space to be filled; it was a bond to be protected."

They May Not Mean To, But They Do explores the emotions, the roadblocks, and the fears that everyone deals with when parents get older and their physical and mental well-being becomes shakier. Schine does a good job not to take sides in the conflicts between Joy and her children, and explores how those on the sidelines—spouses, grandchildren, friends—have an even tighter road to navigate, supporting their loved ones but deciding where to voice their own opinions. While this is a moving topic, Schine tells her story with humor and imbues all of her characters with flaws, so no one appears to be the "winner" in this debate.

I thought the book was well-written but it never really reached the heights I expected it to. While I certainly understand all of the characters' emotions and actions, Joy, Molly, and Daniel are all fairly unappealing, and there were times I wanted to shake each of them because their passive-aggressive behavior, their denial, and their guilt was just too much. Some of the plot was a little too formulaic for me. But while this book didn't engage me as much as I hoped it would, I know others have loved it, so perhaps those closer (or further away) from the central themes of the book may enjoy it more. Schine's storytelling is always a joy to behold, however.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Book Review: "Last Seen Leaving" by Caleb Roehrig

Flynn returns home one night to find the police at his house. His mind races as to why they could be there—did they find the small amount of pot he had hidden in his desk? But he is utterly unprepared for what the police detectives tell him, that his girlfriend January is missing. The thing is, Flynn hasn't seen her in almost a week, and the last time he did see her, she broke up with him. And she's been ignoring his texts and calls since then.

January had been unhappy since her mother's new husband, a wealthy politician running for the Senate, moved her to a private school where she felt alienated from all of the other rich students. And although Flynn and January's relationship had its challenges, he cannot figure out why she would have disappeared or what could have happened to her, and their closest friends don't understand it either. But as Flynn digs a little deeper, he finds that the stories January was telling others don't match up with reality. He knows something must have happened to her, and he's determined to find out the truth.

But as Flynn tries to uncover the truth about January's disappearance, especially as disturbing evidence surfaces, there is another truth he must face as well—the truth about himself. That may be harder and potentially even more painful than figuring out what happened to January.

Last Seen Leaving is really two books in one. It's both a mystery, as Flynn and others try to figure out the truth behind January's disappearance, and it's also a book about self-acceptance, and finding the strength to embrace your true self. I think the book succeeds more on the latter than the former, and in fact, I think I might have enjoyed it a little more if that was all it focused on. Flynn was a really interesting character, and I liked his interactions with his peers, and his memories of his relationship with January.

It's not that the mystery part was bad; I just felt like it was a little formulaic, with stereotypical villains and the predictable (at least to me) red herrings to throw you off the real trail. Everything was wrapped up (somewhat) a little too seamlessly for me, and I kept remembering that Flynn was actually just a high school sophomore as he was acting like the brave detective all of a sudden.

While the book is a little uneven, at its heart it's an enjoyable and moving story, one which I can identify with very strongly in places. (The self-acceptance piece, not the disappearing girlfriend one.) Caleb Roehrig is a talented writer and I would have loved more time with Flynn, so I look forward to seeing what's next in Roehrig's career.

NetGalley, Macmillan Children's Publishing Group, and Feiwel & Friends provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

Friday, June 17, 2016

Book Review: "See How They Run" by Tom Bale

Wow, this book had so many twists and turns, it left me kind of breathless.

As parents of a newborn, Harry and Alice French are fairly sleep-deprived. It seems like whenever they're just about to drift off to sleep, their daughter Evie wakes up, needing to be fed, changed, and/or held. But one night all three do fall asleep...and then Harry and Alice awake to find masked men in their bedroom.

These aren't just your routine burglars looking for some easy-to-find cash, jewelry, or other valuables. These men have baggies around their shoes to avoid leaving any traces behind. They're convinced that Harry and Alice know the whereabouts of a man named Edward Renshaw, a man who goes by other names, such as Grainger or Miller. Not only do the intruders think the Frenches know this man, they think the couple received a package addressed to him, and they want it. They're willing to stop at nothing—including killing Evie—to get what they want.

But Harry and Alice know nothing of Renshaw. They didn't receive a package. After some very harrowing moments, the intruders believe their story and plan to leave the house, but not before warning Harry and Alice that they'll be watching their every move, and if they call the police or tell anyone what happened or that they're looking for Renshaw, the threat is plain—they will kill Evie.

Although relieved the intruders left them reasonably unharmed (at least physically), this incident throws their world into turmoil. Determined to protect their daughter at any cost, both Harry and Alice try to do their own share of detective work to figure out why the intruders thought they knew Renshaw. Each does what they think is right, but the secrets they keep from each other, and the paths they choose to follow put the three of them in even more danger. Figuring out whom to trust becomes harder and harder, and once they are separated, the trouble and the danger grow.

"It got him thinking about timing, and chance, and how the significance of those small, often innocuous decisions never became clear until you looked back and saw how your life had been nudged, irrevocably, in one direction or another, for better or worse."

This was a pretty gripping thriller which read like a movie. There was lots of action and suspense—there were a number of times I had no idea what to expect, and that doesn't happen all that often for me. I liked the way that Tom Bale kept contorting the plot, allowing information to unfold little by little, so we knew the same amount as the characters (for the most part). While there were times I thought the characters were simply stupid for getting themselves into more and more trouble, I guess I could understand how fear could drive them to such actions.

This isn't a perfect book—I didn't feel that we got to know any of the characters enough, and many of the villains are just shadowy characters. But there is so much suspense and excitement in the book it doesn't quite matter. I definitely want to read Bale's next book, which comes out in September. This will be a fun beach read that will probably make you check and double-check your door locks before you go to bed!!

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Book Review: "The Invoice" by Jonas Karlsson

How much would you pay for happiness, for special memories, for a reasonably pleasant life? Is a placid existence worth more than a turbulent, more passionate one?

In Jonas Karlsson's new book, The Invoice, the unnamed main character lives a simple life. He's a film buff, working part-time in a video store in Sweden, where he likes to talk to people about movies, although he rarely gets the chance. He has a few friends whom he sees periodically, but since a relationship ended some time ago, he has no one special in his life. Mostly his nights include re-watching his favorite movies, and enjoying pizza and/or ice cream. It's not an exciting life, but even though he doesn't have much money or promising career prospects, he's not unhappy.

One day he receives an invoice from an unknown national company. The invoice is for an amount of money he cannot even fathom, and it doesn't explain why he suddenly owes this money. He soon finds that he's turned a blind eye to something that's happening in Sweden—people are literally being billed for the expense of their lives, differing amounts based on events that have occurred throughout their lives, how happy they have been, etc. But what he cannot understand is how can someone with not much to show for himself owe the largest amount of money in the country?

This is a charming little fable of sorts, which raises some interesting issues about happiness and how people perceive our lives differently than we do. Are happy moments better than those which cause us to feel strong emotions? Should we really be financially responsible for how our lives turn out emotionally?

I thought this was a sweet book, but it never really engendered a great deal of excitement for me. (Which, perhaps in light of this book isn't a bad thing?) I kept expecting something big to happen, and although there were some lovely small moments, it just didn't wow me as much as I thought. But the main character is appealing in a sweet, befuddled way, and I thought parts of the book really were charming. An interesting idea to think about.

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

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Book Review: "The Young Widower's Handbook" by Tom McAllister

"You don't fall in love, like some people do, with the idea of being in love, but rather with her, specifically, and only her. Throughout high school and college, you were an extra in the movies of other people's lives, never better than the fourth most charismatic person in any group; your role was to be the designated driver and to occasionally deliver a sarcastic one-liner that your friends could later repeat and claim as their own. And yet when you speak, she listens."

Hunter Cady was utterly, completely in love with his wife, Kait. Sure, they had their disagreements, times when each wanted something different from their relationship and each other. Kait was occasionally frustrated at Hunter's lack of motivation career-wise, and his ability to see anything through to completion. Hunter wished Kait was more forthcoming about her past, and didn't understand why she got so anxious sometimes, and so depressed on other occasions. He was always there for her; why wasn't that enough?

But Hunter is totally unprepared when Kait dies suddenly one night. How could she die, when it seemed like just another day? How could he be a widower at age 29? What about all of the plans they had, the promises that one day they'd save enough money to travel to all of the places they had dreamed of? They were supposed to grow old together.

" fall in love with something intangible, the hollowness like devastating hunger when she's gone, the sense of safety she engenders, as if her presence alone will protect you from the terrors of the real world."

Hunter becomes completely despondent. His hippie mother tries to help, his corporate-minded father tries to snap him back to reality, and Kait's family, who never really liked him anyway, tries to bully him into giving them Kait's ashes. He doesn't know what to do, but he knows that his life won't be the same, and he can't go on pretending it is. He sets off on a cross-country journey with Kait's ashes, to try and better understand the woman to whom he was married, and what shape his life is going to take now that she's gone.

Along the way, he has some strange encounters with Renaissance Faire employees, bachelorette party celebrants, a long-married couple with a parrot named Elvis, and an older man still longing for his wife, who disappeared a number of years ago. And as he chronicles his journey, and deals with the reactions of those back home, Hunter reflects on his and Kait's relationship, and how while she made him believe he could be a better man than he ever was, he gave her comfort and security and love, even without the grand romantic gestures and the big trips she might have wanted.

As you'd imagine from the title, this book is a bittersweet, moving portrait of a man struggling to cope with an unfathomable loss and seeking the strength to move on. It's also funny, sarcastic, and reflective, as Hunter realizes all the factors that go into a successful relationship. There are parts of the book that are sad, yes, but this is not the sob-fest I expected it to be, which made me happy.

I really enjoyed this book, and was absolutely wowed at times by Tom McAllister's storytelling ability. I thought Hunter's road trip went on a bit too long, and I couldn't honestly believe the behavior of Kait's family, but I can't get this book out of my mind, and I can't stop wondering what happened to Hunter next. Really lovely book.

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

Friday, June 10, 2016

Book Review: "The Serpent King" by Jeff Zentner

Life is pretty tough for Dill Early. It wasn't always easy growing up as the son of a controversial Pentecostal minister who, along with members of his congregation, handled rattlesnakes and drank poison. But when his father runs afoul of the law and winds up in prison, life gets even harder for Dill. He must deal with the constant bullying of his high school classmates and the suspicion and cruel treatment of former church members and others in his small town of Forrestville, Tennessee.

The future looks bleak for Dill—he cannot even begin to consider college because he has to help his mother survive financially, given the mountain of debt they live with since his father's legal troubles occurred. But fortunately, his two best friends, Lydia and Travis—outcasts in their own right—are there to attempt to cheer him up and support him. Lydia, the creator of a fashion and culture blog, can't wait to get out of Forrestville and start a new life, hopefully as a student at NYU. Travis would rather spend time reading and re-reading his favorite series of fantasy books then focus on his own problems, which he has largely kept a secret from his friends.

As the end of their senior year in high school draws closer and closer, and Lydia gets more excited about leaving their town behind her, Dill gets more and more upset. He feels as if she'll be happy not only to get out of town, but to get rid of him and Travis, and that hurts him more and more, especially as Dill comes to realize just how strong his feelings are for her. Lydia tries to encourage Dill to think beyond the limits he and his mother have put on his future, tries to make him believe that college is an option. But Dill views her attempts to help as wanting to change him. And as events in their lives go from bad to worse, he's afraid to make himself even more vulnerable, and he doesn't want to jeopardize their relationship.

"Because we should do things we're afraid of. It makes it easier every time we do it."

The Serpent King is a beautiful and moving book, at times bleak and at times hopeful. It absolutely captured my heart and my mind. I loved these characters and their interactions with each other. These characters may be somewhat wise beyond their years but they act like real teenagers—you don't marvel at their dialogue at the same time you wonder whether teenagers really talk this way. I was utterly invested in this story from the very first page, and as much as I wanted to read the whole thing so quickly, I was really sad that it was over when I was finished.

This is a book about how we can't let our lives be dictated by our families or our heritage, and we can't let those around us limit our potential. But more than anything, this is a book about friendship and how it frees and changes us, and how we must find the courage to act on our desires and wishes before it's too late.

"And if you're going to live, you might as well do painful, brave, and beautiful things."

Jeff Zentner is such an assured writer; it's amazing to think this is his debut novel. I really loved this, and once again, I marvel at the amazing talent being demonstrated in the YA genre these days, although this isn't a book just for young adults by any means.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Book Review: "The Unseen World" by Liz Moore

For Ada Sibelius, the center of her universe was her scientist father, David. He raised her on his own, homeschooling her, and every day he took her with him to his job, where he directed a computer science lab at the Boston Institute of Technology. David treated Ada like an adult, encouraging her to learn as much about the lab's work as she could, interact with his employees and graduate students, and develop her own theories about the work he was doing, trying to create a computer truly capable of social interaction with humans.

But as much as she loves every minute spent with her father, both in the lab and on the trips they take each year, at times Ada wishes she were a "normal" 13-year-old, with friends and perhaps even a boy to be interested in her. As that longing grows, David's mind starts to fail, and it isn't long before Ada must move in with David's most trusted employee and her three sons, and go to a "real" school for the first time in her life. She doesn't know how to act or what to do, and most of all, she misses her father and her days in the lab.

As if the teenage years weren't awkward enough for Ada, it suddenly comes to light that David might not have been who he said he was. What do you do when everything you've been taught, everything you believe about your life and the way you were raised is called into question? What does that mean for who you are, and how do you figure out what is true and what isn't? Ada must try and make sense of all of this upheaval in her life, while still struggling with her father's declining health.

Ada is determined to uncover the truth about her father's identity. Spanning from the 1980s to the distant future, as well as reaching back into the 1940s and 1950s, The Unseen World follows Ada well into adulthood, as she tries to understand the mysteries her father left behind, and how that affected their relationship and her ability to connect with others. The book also follows David's work, starting from a primitive system on an early computer into the sophisticated gadgetry of the future.

This is a beautifully written, poignant book, about a young woman whose life is utterly turned upside down when everything she had believed in is called into question. It's a book about identity—where and when it matters and does not—and about the sacrifices some people made in order to live "normal" lives. It's also a book about the unknown and the unsaid, and how both transform us when we least expect it.

While at times the book gets into a little more detail around computer science and virtual reality than I would have liked, at its core, it's a moving, well-told story. Ada is a special character and you really feel her heart while reading this book, and I found David pretty fascinating as well. The shifting of time periods was a little distracting to the flow of the story, but I still couldn't stop reading it, because I wanted to know where Liz Moore would take her characters. And of course, sap that I am, there was more than one occasion where I found myself a little teary-eyed.

Moore's previous novel, Heft, was pretty dazzling, so I had high expectations for The Unseen World. She didn't disappoint, creating another memorable, emotional, wonderful book worth reading.

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!

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Book Review: "Sweetbitter" by Stephanie Danler

"I wanted to say, My life is full. I chose this life because it's a constant assault of color and taste and light and it's raw and ugly and fast and it's mine. And you'll never understand. Until you live it, you don't know."

When we first meet Tess in the summer of 2006, she has just left home and driven to New York without any real plans, just a rented room in an apartment in Williamsburg. She somehow manages to find a job as a "backwaiter" at a famous New York restaurant, and it changes her life in ways she cannot even imagine.

Sweetbitter chronicles a frenetic year of Tess' life—one of excess, exhaustion, enthusiasm, emotion, and education (not necessarily in that order). Those who have never waited tables or worked in a restaurant don't really understand that it's a far more difficult job than you could imagine, and when you work at an exclusive restaurant, the pressure on everyone, from the dishwashers and the food runners and the bartenders to the servers, managers, and hostesses, is brutal. Tess finds herself in the middle of a sea of employees, many of whom have been at the restaurant for a number of years, and have fought battles with each other and the customers over and over again.

It's not easy being the newbie in a pressure-filled sea. Tess gets screamed at by the chef, tasked with cleaning out drains no one has touched in perhaps forever, falls down stairs, but starts to realize she is tougher than she thought and enjoys the job more than she could imagine. She builds a relationship with Simone, a senior server at the restaurant whose tip totals are legendary, someone whose section regulars request to be in. Simone becomes a sort of sensei for Tess, teaching her about wine, taste, the beauty of using all of your senses, and, of course, about life in the process.

"You're only beginning to learn what you don't know. First you must relearn your senses. Your senses are never inaccurate—it's your ideas that can be false."

Tess also becomes infatuated with Jake, one of the restaurant's bartenders. He is enigmatic and elusive, simultaneously flirting with her and keeping her at arm's length, and Tess is warned by many of her colleagues that Jake's demeanor isn't artfully sullen, but rather hides a great deal of emotional complexity. Yet her attraction to Jake makes her both vulnerable and courageous.

I thought this was a pretty fascinating and well-written book. I worked as a server at a few restaurants during my college days, and while none were as high-end as this one, I certainly recognized some of the situations and the personalities that Stephanie Danler described. At times pretentious, at times emotional, Tess is a really interesting and flawed character. She annoyed me at times, but I can only imagine what someone so young might experience in a world populated by late-night drinking, drugs, food, and the hotbed that the pressure cooker-like environment of the restaurant world can be.

Danler is a really talented writer. There were sentences and paragraphs that wowed me, even as the characters frustrated me, and that was one of the aspects of this book that definitely elevated it. Some people have likened it to Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential, which I don't quite see, but I think this is a book that is compelling in its own right. If you've ever wondered what it's like behind the scenes of a well-known restaurant, you'll enjoy Sweetbitter. But don't read it on an empty stomach if you're a foodie!

Friday, June 3, 2016

Book Review: "Modern Lovers" by Emma Straub

If as The Beatles said, "All you need is love," then why does it make everyone so crazy? Emma Straub's tremendously enjoyable Modern Lovers looks at love and sex and relationships among two intertwined families, and how we sometimes let our past history affect our present and our future.

Zoe, Elizabeth, and Andrew met in college, and the three of them, along with another fellow student, Lydia, formed a band called Kitty's Mustache, which gained some notoriety while they were at Oberlin. Elizabeth and Andrew became a couple fairly quickly, while adventurous Zoe was the lesbian everyone wanted to sleep with, and Lydia hung around the fringes, keeping most of the trio at arm's length. But as college bands do, the group disbanded, although Andrew and Elizabeth got married, and Lydia became a star on her own.

Fast forward more than a few years later. Elizabeth and Andrew live down the block from Zoe and her wife, Jane, in a Brooklyn neighborhood. Their teenage "cool" has definitely chilled, and been replaced by the same woes everyone has—raising children, financial concerns, marital challenges. When Elizabeth is contacted by a film producer interested in making a film about Lydia's life, wanting not only Elizabeth to allow the film to use the band's best song (which became a hit for Lydia a few years later), but also for the trio to allow their lives to be portrayed in the film, it causes some tension between Elizabeth and Andrew, who isn't interested in reopening that chapter of his life.

Meanwhile, the two couples are surprised when Zoe and Jane's brash daughter, Ruby, begins a relationship with Elizabeth and Andrew's son, Harry, which coaxes him out of his shell and encourages him to act spontaneously for the first time. But anxiety over their children's relationship takes a back seat, for as summer unfolds, the couples struggle with trust issues, questions about the future (and their futures), and how much the past should stay in the past.

"People didn't take turns having difficult moments; they came all together, like rainstorms and puddles."

I'm a fan of Emma Straub's. I really liked her last book, The Vacationers, and found this book a sweet, compelling, and thought-provoking read, even if the characters can be a little annoying. (But isn't that the way people are in real life as well?) I thought Straub really did a great job capturing the dramatic and the quiet moments of long-time marriages and friendships, and how people choose to deal with the crises (real or imagined) they're faced with. It's also an interesting look at trying to find your purpose in life even as you're nearing 50, or whether you're defined by the successes you had earlier in life.

This book doesn't really pack any surprises, but it's an enjoyable, well-written read. It made me smile, it made me nod my head from time to time, and it definitely got me invested in what was happening to the characters. Straub is a talented writer, and she's written another book that's really worth reading.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Book Review: "The Children" by Ann Leary

Boy, family relationships are tough enough to deal with, but when you throw money into the mix, all bets are off, you know?

Charlotte Maynard and her sister Sally grew up at "Lakeside," a large Connecticut home that has been in their stepfather's family for generations. At times it seemed as if their stepfather, affable musician and artisan "Whit" Whitman, cared more for Charlotte and Sally than his own two sons, Perry and Spin, who only visited Lakeside on weekends and vacations, and were treated a bit like houseguests.

When Whit died, a provision in the Whitman family trust allowed for his widow, Joan, to continue living at Lakeside. Slightly agoraphobic Charlotte lives with her mother, where she writes a secret (and quite successful) blog, and still has a complicated relationship with her old boyfriend Everett, who serves as the estate's caretaker and lives in a cottage nearby. Sally, a musician, has more than her own share of problems to contend with, and flits between New York City and Lakeside, where she both craves and is repelled by the love of her family.

The relative peace is shattered when Spin—everyone's favorite as both a child and a grownup—brings home his new fiancée, Laurel, a beautiful, confident, and utterly irresistible woman with a life full of accomplishments and an air of mystery. Laurel's glamour and energy bring an interesting dynamic to the family, and her curiosity and questions make her a catalyst for Charlotte in particular to begin acting outside of her comfort zone. But as Laurel begins ingratiating herself, old wounds are reopened, old secrets come to light, and hidden angers bubble to the surface, threatening displacement and dissatisfaction among everyone.

As she proved with her last book, The Good House, Ann Leary is at her best when she is chronicling complex, flawed characters and the ripples they cause. The characters in The Children, particularly Charlotte, Joan, Sally, and Everett (who is more than meets the eye), are pretty fascinating, and this book is at its best when examining their relationships, interactions, and foibles.

The problem is, not only is Laurel not complex, she's utterly a stock character. If reading my plot synopsis gives you an inkling of where you think the story will go because it sounds familiar, you're probably right. And that is what is utterly disappointing about the book—that such a talented writer would rely on cliché (and shallow cliché at that), without even giving an explanation of why the character does what she does. (It's funny; at one point in the book one character alludes to an old horror movie gimmick, but that holds utterly true for the book as well.)

While I didn't love this book, there's much to like, particularly Leary's characters and her storytelling ability. This may not be as good as her previous novel but it's still an interesting look at family dynamics and dysfunction—and when is that ever boring?