Saturday, July 30, 2016

Book Review: "The Memory of Things" by Gae Polisner

September 11, 2001. A day etched into our memories. Each of us that was old enough to understand the events of that tragic day can remember where they were, what they were doing, when they heard the news, or in some cases, saw the events unfolding before their disbelieving eyes.

In Gae Polisner's exquisitely moving novel, The Memory of Things, 16-year-old Kyle is in class at Stuyvesant High School when the first of the Twin Towers collapses. The school is evacuated and students flee for the safety of home. Rushing across the Brooklyn Bridge, Kyle encounters a girl about his own age huddled on the bridge, covered in ash, wearing a pair of costume wings. She can barely speak, and doesn't know her own name, but Kyle makes the decision to bring her home with him.

Kyle's father is a New York City police detective, and he knows his father is down at Ground Zero, but he doesn't know whether he's safe. His mother and younger sister are stranded in Los Angeles, so it's Kyle, his Uncle Matt, who was seriously injured in an accident a few months earlier, and the mysterious girl, who come together amidst the chaos. Kyle wants to help the girl figure out who she is and where she came from, but the more he helps her, the more he realizes he doesn't want her to remember, to leave him, even though his father would make him do the responsible thing and alert the authorities.

"Tuesday, and those planes, they've broken something. Permanently. And in the process, they've changed everything. And everyone."

The book shifts its narration between Kyle, who is trying to process the tragedy while worrying about his family, caring for his uncle, and simultaneously wanting to help the girl and keep her with him as they grow closer, and the girl, who, through flashes of memories, begins to let her story unfold. This is a beautiful story, about the need to keep hope alive in the midst of any tragedy, because it is often hope that buoys you through. As Polisner says in her equally moving and thought-provoking Author's Note, "Ultimately, this is not a 9/11 story, but a coming-of-age story, one about healing and love. This is a story about hope."

This really was a wonderfully told, compelling story. Polisner is a terrific writer, and I'm definitely going to have to read some of her previous books, because I love the way she let this story unfold. The girl's narration is a little off-putting, as it's mostly told in snippets of memories, but it so works in the frame of this story. I felt Polisner really captured the emotions, the feelings of confusion and hopelessness and fear that so many felt in the first few days after 9/11.

I won't deny that this story is moving and emotional, but it never gets maudlin. It's definitely one I won't forget anytime soon.

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!

Friday, July 29, 2016

Book Review: "An Innocent Fashion" by R.J. Hernández

"I always tell myself, for every thing I loved which I have given up in life, there was something that I gained...Sometimes I know that it's a lie, but—it's what I tell myself. And this is what you must tell yourself too...Tell yourself every day. Otherwise, one day you'll turn, and you won't recognize your dream, or yourself."

Growing up in Corpus Christi, Texas, Elián San Jamar knew he was destined for a life of greatness, far beyond his dull, working-class upbringing. He dreams of a life of beauty, class, and culture, which puts him at odds with his father, who has traditional ideas of what constitutes a masculine ideal. Yet he is unbowed, poring over fashion magazines and waiting for the moment his life will change. And no magazine signifies the realization of his dreams like Régine, the leading New York fashion tome.

Under the guidance of a tough high school teacher, Elián is able to get a full scholarship to Yale, and leave Texas behind. At Yale he reinvents himself as Ethan St. James, an impeccably dressed student who seems ready-made for the high-class life he has dreamed of. He befriends Madeline, a wealthy young woman with ambitions to shake up the political world, and Dorian, the beautiful son of a famous fashion model, who show him the finer things in life that he has missed all of these years.

After graduation, Ethan achieves his dream—an internship at Régine. He knows it will be the first step toward becoming the magazine's fashion editor, and he looks forward to spending his days surrounded by beautiful fashions and gorgeous models. But all too quickly Ethan sees that the dream isn't all it's cracked up to be, as he is treated with barely veiled contempt by some of his coworkers despite his hard work, despite his desire to succeed in the industry. Then he realizes that just wanting something isn't enough, just working hard doesn't always get you what you want. And that is where Ethan starts to unravel, when he realizes that life and success in this dog-eat-dog world isn't about what you know, it's about who you know.

An Innocent Fashion is part social commentary, part psychological study of what it's like to pursue your dreams unceasingly, and what it's like when you realize your dreams aren't what you thought they'd be. There are elements of The Devil Wears Prada but it's not as satirical, and there are familiar elements of fish-out-of-water stories, when the poor young man finds himself in the midst of the world of privilege and excess.

I enjoyed this book but felt it wasn't sure what it wanted to be. I enjoyed the story of Ethan's childhood and how his dreams of being a part of the world of Régine sustained him. His work at the magazine was entertaining at first, and some of the lessons he learned were profound, but his poor treatment at the hands of coworkers grew repetitive after a while. And while I enjoyed his complicated relationship with Madeline and Dorian, I just didn't understand what message the book was ultimately trying to send, especially with the ending.

This is R.J. Hernández's first novel, and he definitely has storytelling ability and a talent for social commentary. Ethan was a complicated and interesting character (although a not altogether sympathetic one), and his journey made for a compelling read.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Book Review: "The Beauty of the End" by Debbie Howells

"I was fourteen when I fell in love with a goddess. Goddesses have that effect, even on teenagers such as I was. Being plump or uncool has no bearing on the ability to fall in love—and my fate was sealed."

Noah Calaway remembers the minute he laid eyes on April Moon. (Even her name intoxicated him.) Even though she barely acknowledged his existence, and he had little if any hope of ever catching her eye, he knew he wanted April. She was mysterious, beautiful, quirky—and even rumored to be a bit of a witch, as she and two of her friends would meet on top of a hill and allegedly cast spells and do other magic. April was everything that studious Noah dreamed of.

Years pass, and April has moved in and out of Noah's life a number of times, in each instance affecting him tremendously. One time they were even engaged to be married when she canceled the wedding the day before it was to happen, leaving him with barely any explanation. Even though it has been some time since the two had been in touch, he is utterly shocked to receive a call from his former best friend Will, who tells Noah that April is accused of murdering a man, and following the incident took a drug overdose and now is in a comatose state from which she isn't expected to recover. While Noah remembers April was a very troubled young woman (and that trouble continued into adulthood), he is unable to reconcile the accusations leveled against April with the woman he knew.

A former lawyer who became a writer specializing in criminal psychology, Noah travels to the town where April lived, ostensibly to find out more information about what happened. He thinks he may represent April should criminal charges be filed against her, but more than anything, he wants to see this woman who meant so much to him, wants to understand all of the things she kept hidden from him. Yet the more he uncovers, he realizes that there are far more complicated—and apparently dangerous—issues at play here, which may have harmed April, and may even have followed her throughout her life.

The Beauty of the End juxtaposes Noah's investigation into what might have happened to April with the story of their relationship through the years, and all of the many instances in which April loved him yet pushed him away. The story isn't told in a linear fashion, so at times it was difficult to figure out at which point in time the story was occurring (despite the dates at the top of those chapters), but the story of their relationship was really compelling.

I definitely liked the story of Noah and April more than the mystery elements of the book. While there were a few more twists and turns than I expected (when I thought I figured out what happened—and I called part of it very quickly—I was frustrated, so I was glad to see Debbie Howells had a few more tricks up her sleeve), I felt that was more routine than the rest of the book.

As I've said before, I tend to be a little cynical when I read mysteries, so I would think those who don't read a lot of them will enjoy this even more than I did. I think Howells did a great job setting the story and ratcheting up the suspense, and although a few of the characters didn't transcend stereotypes, several characters were really fascinating, including April, of course. This is as much a lament on lost love as it is a mystery, so it has some depth to it.

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

Book Review: "Lions" by Bonnie Nadzam

The small town of Lions, Colorado was envisioned to be a grand city, but it never amounted to much. Farming, mining, really nothing succeeded in Lions, and apart from a few small businesses—a diner, a bar, a thrift shop—little by little, the town is dying.

"There was no future in Lions. No matter how many stories you heard about years gone by, no matter how many plans you had stocked up for the future, you were confined to a never-ending present."

The Walker family has lived in Lions for several generations. John Walker is a talented welder who could easily have made quite a living if he and his family moved to Denver or another metropolis, but instead chose to keep his family's welding shop open despite the fact that there was barely any business to be had, and when there was, he usually undercharged his neighbors or let them pay for it in kind. Those left in the town never understood why he did the things he did, and although they thought he was a fine, upstanding man, they somehow saw his refusal to better his life as a character flaw.

"They never could understand John Walker or what seemed to be his lifetime of poor decision making. The backward code he seemed to live and work by—his entrepreneurial failure somehow as perpetual as it was absolute. It was as if each of the Walkers in his time was choosing again and again, every morning in his workshirt with his first cup of coffee, to fail."

One night, a mysterious man and his dog show up in town. He speaks very little, but the Walkers show him tremendous charity, providing him and his dog food, new clothes, even money. When the man visits the town bar, and tempers among the citizens of Lions flare for no reason, the man's appearance sets a chain of events in motion which leads to John Walker suddenly dying of a heart attack, among other things. But before John dies, he asks his teenage son, Gordon, to promise to continue a mysterious errand which generations of Walker men have handled, according to legend.

The death of his father and his mother's grief completely unravel Gordon, who in a short number of weeks was scheduled to leave town with his girlfriend Leigh, whom he has known since they were children, and go to college. Leigh dreams of nothing more than leaving Lions for good and having a life larger than she ever thought possible. She cannot understand why Gordon is suddenly having second thoughts, why anyone would want to stay in a town which is shedding people like a dog sheds its fur, when they have the chance to embrace so much possibility and potential.

Lions is a beautifully drawn portrait of life in a dying small town, and the people who call it home. The book is a little bit allegorical and a little bit mysterious, but it is really well-written and compelling. You could feel the tension these people had between staying where they've lived for most, if not all, of their lives, and the need to go to a more vibrant place. The characters were really well-drawn, and although Leigh seemed like a bit of a spoiled brat, you could understand her point of view as well.

I'd never read anything Bonnie Nadzam has written before, but I was really captivated by her storytelling ability. This is a book which seems simple on its surface, but is really a much more complex and moving story than I expected. Really well done.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Book Review: "Learning to Swear in America" by Katie Kennedy

Poor Yuri Strelnikov. The 17-year-old physicist prodigy has traveled from his Moscow home to California to help NASA stop a giant asteroid that is hurtling toward Earth. It won't wipe out the entire planet, but it may destroy the entire state of California, and cause tsunamis which might wipe out the Pacific Rim.

The thing is, Yuri knows how to stop the asteroid. He even has unpublished research that demonstrates this, research he's sure will earn him a Nobel Prize someday, which is something he has dreamed about since he was very young. But because he is so young, he can't convince his NASA colleagues to listen to him. They don't want to take chances on a kid's unpublished research, they want to use the methods they know—even if it means they won't be successful.

Yuri is alone, shuttled between his hotel room and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory where the work is being done. He can't reach anyone from home, and when he does, he understands that one of his chief academic rivals is looking to take credit for his research. And then he meets Dovie Collum, a free-spirited, creative teenager who tries to live life in a carefree way, although she struggles with those who want to squelch her creative spirit. Little by little, she shows Yuri what it's like to be a real American teenager, and gives him the opportunity to experience some of the simple joys of life.

But in the end, Yuri has a mission, and he is determined to save the world from the asteroid the way he knows how, so he can go home again. How can he convince his colleagues to listen to him, even if his research hasn't been proven, and even if there are inherent risks? Should he just let them do what they think is best, even if it means putting people in danger?

I really enjoyed Learning to Swear in America. I thought it was sweet and funny, and I enjoyed getting to spend time with the characters. It's a reasonably predictable book but I didn't think that took anything away from its charm. This is a book that didn't take itself too seriously even as it dealt with the potential of a disaster, but the characters didn't seem overly precocious or wise beyond their years, save Yuri, but he was only wise in terms of science and math.

Katie Kennedy definitely knows how to write an enjoyable story. Even her author's note was funny. Consider this: "I did a lot of research to write this book, but if you're trying to stop an asteroid, you probably shouldn't use it as a guide. Finally, if you do notice an incoming asteroid, please give the nearest astrophysicist a heads-up because there really are only about a hundred people in the world looking for them. And it really is a big sky."

If you're looking for something that's light and enjoyable, with a little bit of soul-searching thrown in for good measure, pick up Learning to Swear in America. You may know what's coming, but you'll still enjoy the journey.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Book Review: "The Animators" by Kayla Rae Whitaker

"From age eighteen on, I had a partner, a kindred spirit. I had a friend. Someone bound and determined to keep me from the worst in myself."

Sharon Kisses leaves her rural Kentucky home to be a scholarship student in visual arts at a liberal arts college in upstate New York. A few weeks into one of her art classes, she meets Mel Vaught—brash, unabashedly talented and ambitious, and fighting the demons of her own childhood amidst the swamps of Florida. In many ways, Mel is everything Sharon wishes she could be. The two quickly bond over family problems, their shared love of classic cartoons and cult-classic animation, and their desire to shake up the world with their work.

Ten years later, Sharon and Mel are a renowned, award-winning duo of animators. Their first full-length movie, Nashville Combat, a stylized look at Mel's dysfunctional childhood, has turned the entertainment world on its ear, and Mel's unfiltered, often drug- and/or alcohol-fueled behavior, has gained the team even more notoriety. Yet as they begin their publicity tour for the movie, and prepare to accept a major arts grant to support their work, their partnership is starting to fray.

Mel's behavior is getting more and more out of control, and a personal tragedy, which causes her to contemplate using her childhood as fodder for entertainment isn't helping. Sharon is tired of being the responsible one, the one who keeps the stories on track, the one who ensures Mel shows up when and where she's supposed to. She starts to wonder if she is as talented as Mel, or if she's destined to spend her career a step or two behind. Yet when an unexpected emergency occurs, the strength of their friendship and their partnership is truly tested, and both must demonstrate their love for, and reliance upon, one another, and decide whether their work and their relationship are worth fighting for.

The Animators is the story of two people drawn together by talent and passion, and the toll that being a creative genius often takes on a person. It's the story of how we try to hide from the problems and questions that nag at us, and how burying them in our work can have mixed results, professionally and emotionally. It's also the story of the sacrifices people make for their work, and whether you have the right to use your memories as creative fodder if they're shared by others. But at its heart, this is the story of a professional and personal partnership, and all of the joy, pain, and emotional anguish that comes with it.

I really enjoyed this book. Mel is a fascinating, flawed character, and you can clearly see why Sharon was so drawn to her, as well as the price Mel paid for her talent. Sharon is more passive (and some of her actions were really frustrating) but she, too, was an interesting character. I thought this book raised a lot of interesting questions, and it definitely shed more light on the world of animation and cartoons for me. I only wish I could have seen some of the work that was described in the book!

It's hard to believe that this is Kayla Rae Whitaker's debut novel. Her writing is tremendously self-assured, and she really drew me into her story very quickly. I thought at times it moved a little slower than I would have liked, but I really enjoyed the dynamics of these characters, and was sad when the book ended. I really look forward to seeing where Whitaker's career takes her, because she has a true talent. This would make a really interesting movie, actually.

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

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Book Review: "I'm Thinking of Ending Things" by Iain Reid

Seriously, what the hell was this?

"I think what I want is for someone to know me. Really know me. Know me better than anyone else and maybe even me. Isn't that why we commit to another?"

In Iain Reid's I'm Thinking of Ending Things (I'll admit I thought of ending my reading of this book more than a few times), an unnamed woman is on a road trip with her boyfriend, Jake. They've been dating six weeks, and she enjoys his intelligence, his sense of humor, his intensity, and the way he surprises her with simple gestures that show how much he cares, yet she's thinking of ending things with him. But since they're traveling to see his parents, she figures she'll wait and see how the trip goes before making any decisions.

As the drive progresses, the pair have a number of conversations, about the imperfection of memory, the importance of relationships, the value of faith, science, free will, and fear. Periodically the peace of the trip is interrupted by a persistent caller on the narrator's cell phone, but she refuses to answer those calls or discuss them with Jake, although he can clearly see she is agitated by them.

When they arrive at the farm where Jake was raised, the tenor of the visit starts to disturb her. She is left feeling ill-at-ease by Jake's parents, although they're doing their best to be pleasant; she is troubled by Jake's swift mood change as he interacts with his parents; and she sees and experiences a number of things that unsettle, even frighten her. She doesn't know what is going on or what she's supposed to do, but she does know she absolutely must end things with Jake when they return home. Then things utterly disintegrate on the trip home, beginning with an ill-advised stop at a Dairy Queen (in the midst of a snowstorm), and ending with an unexpected detour.

The story of the road trip is interspersed with flashbacks of the past six weeks since she met Jake, as well as snippets of a conversation between two people about a tragic incident.

I had no idea what to expect when reading this. Much of the hype I've seen talked about how terrifying and unsettling the book was, and I guess I agree with the latter part of that statement. To be honest, I am not sure I understand some of what happened in this book, and I guess I don't think any book should purposely be this obtuse. The story just kept getting weirder and weirder, and I couldn't discern what was actually happening and what was the work of an unreliable narrator.

There's no denying that Reid is a talented writer. He kept me wanting to find out what was going to happen even as I kept shaking my head and getting squeamish from time to time, and his use of language was extraordinary. The issues raised in the conversations during the trip were also fascinating and thought-provoking. But in the end, I found this unsettling and ultimately unsatisfying, partially because I think the book took a very strange turn, and partially because I just wasn't sure what I just read.

If you've read this and enjoyed it, we should talk!! I'd love to get someone else's take on this book, especially if you're among those who enjoyed it.

Book Review: "Father's Day" by Simon Van Booy

Six-year-old Harvey (an odd name for a girl, but it is what it is) is living the life of a typical child when her world is turned upside down, with the sudden death of her parents. The machinations of Wanda, a seasoned social worker, lead Harvey to her uncle Jason, her father's older brother, whose troubled past and criminal history kept him a stranger from his family.

Jason is utterly unprepared to become a father. Lonely, reeling from a traumatic childhood and a difficult adulthood, and living with a disability, he has resigned himself to a life of anger, of expressing his frustrations as they occur. He has never expected to amount to much of anything, and never expected anyone to depend on him. Yet something in Harvey touches his heart, and even though he feels he is no match for the needs and mood swings of a young girl, particularly one who has seen so much tragedy at such a young age, little by little he lets his guard down and lets Harvey in.

At times, like any child, Harvey is more perceptive to Jason's vulnerability, yet other times she is utterly childlike, saying what she feels when she feels it without consideration of how Jason might react. And while Jason may be different than the fathers of most of her friends, and their life together is difficult at times, she starts to feel safe with him, and recognize that she is as much a help to him as he is to her.

Can a person who has convinced himself he is unworthy of love and affection allow himself to depend on those emotions? Do we recognize love as we feel it, or does it take time and perspective to help us realize and appreciate it? Are we changed by those we love as much as we change them? Simon Van Booy's beautiful and poignant Father's Day is a portrait of the sacrifices we make for those we care about, and how we may not realize until much later how much those sacrifices mean.

The book shifts between Harvey and Jason's tentative steps towards becoming a family and the challenges they face (some of their own making), and Harvey's reflections some years later as she is working in Paris and awaiting a visit from her father. Given the circumstances that brought them together, and the difficulties both had depending on others, theirs is an emotional story, but one that is uplifting and moving, and demonstrates how the beauty of perspective can show us just how much our actions truly mean to another.

I've been a huge fan of Van Booy since I read his exquisite story collection Love Begins in Winter. I love the way he imbues his characters with shades of grace even while they are flawed, and the emotions his writing provokes are truly memorable. Father's Day is a sweet and moving book, and it certainly made me miss my own father all the more as I read this.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Book Review: "Loner" by Teddy Wayne

"All I could think about, running in a loop, was Veronica Morgan Wells, Veronica Morgan Wells, Veronica Morgan Wells. The quadrisyllable that halves its beats at the middle name, dividing again at its pluralized terminus of subterranean depths. The percussively alert 'c' drowsily succumbing to the dozing 's.' Perfectly symmetrical initials, the 'V' found twice upside-down in the 'M,' inverted once more in the 'W,' and, if spoken, easily confused with a German luxury automaker."

David Federman is an academically gifted student, but he's never been able to make much of an impression socially. While he had a group of friends in high school, they all tended to be those on the social fringe. As an incoming freshman at Harvard, he hopes things will be different. He's ready to trade witty barbs with fellow classmates, become noted for his academic prowess, forge friendships that will last for a lifetime, and, of course, finally have some luc in the romance department as well.

But his chance to reinvent himself socially doesn't seem to be working, and he finds himself part of a very similar group of social misfits as he had in high school, although this time there are a few female members, and he seems to have a reasonably easy rapport (and a great deal in common) with Sara, one of the group's members. And then David sees Veronica Morgan Wells. Veronica is beautiful, intelligent, worldly, and seems to carry herself with immense poise and social grace, the antithesis of David's life to date.

David is convinced that Veronica is the one for him, and all he has to do is prove it. He does everything he can to set up situations where she'll get to know the "real" David, to see him for the smart, witty, generous, romantic guy he knows he is. But as David's obsession with Veronica grows, he starts to make questionable decisions that have ramifications for him academically, socially, and morally. Even as he realizes that Veronica isn't the person she seems to be, he still feels the need to finally be noticed by her as an equal.

Loner is an interesting look at how someone who has always been on the fringes of life—partially by choice and partially because of the social pecking order common to high school and college—finally wants to be noticed by the "in-crowd." It's a book about struggling to find yourself when you appear to be surrounded by a sea of people who already have found themselves, and how feeling you have never really made an impact on anyone starts to take its toll. It's also a book about how we fail to notice what we actually have as we strive for what we think will be better.

Above all, however, Loner is about obsession. David isn't quite the stalker that we've traditionally seen in books and movies, yet you can feel just how palpable his longing is. As you watch this mild-mannered, significantly intelligent young man transform into someone completely different, you wonder whether these characteristics have been latent in him all along, or whether he simply began cracking under the strain of desire and the need for acceptance.

I thought this was a good book, but my main problem was that I found David not particularly likable, which, I guess, is understandable given his actions. I understood his desire to be noticed, to transcend the social doldrums in which he always seemed to find himself, and his inability to recognize what he actually had right in front of him. But as his desire for Veronica intensified, I didn't find him sympathetic in the least, so while I was interested in seeing how the story unfolded, I didn't really care about his plight.

I've never read anything by Teddy Wayne before, and while I didn't find David to be a particularly compelling character the entire book, I thought Wayne did a great job with the "Harvard voice"—the types of things Harvard freshmen talk about when having social conversation. Even David's own thoughts, as evidenced in the quote that began this review, were well-voiced. This was an intriguing look at the downside of college pressure, and Wayne definitely kept me reading to see what happened.

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

Friday, July 15, 2016

Book Review: "The Second Girl" by David Swinson

Frank Marr is a retired Washington, D.C. police detective, revered for his investigative skills. He was good at his job, well-liked by his peers, but he decided that the job got to be a little too much to live with, so he retired early and does some work for a former colleague on the police force who is now a defense attorney.

Or so the story goes. Because only a few higher-ups in the department, know the truth behind his retirement. And only Frank knows his real secret: he is a (mostly) highly functioning drug addict. He does everything he can to feed his addiction, even if it means making some questionable decisions which could eventually put his life—and his freedom—at risk.

It is in the midst of one of these questionable decisions that he finds a teenage girl being held captive in a house owned by a D.C. drug gang. He knows he needs to save her from what will certainly be her fate, but he wonders how he can do that while also finding the drugs he so desperately needs. His conscience wins out (for the most part), so he rescues the girl, and is lauded for his heroics, although he'd prefer to remain out of the spotlight so he can continue avoiding suspicion.

When a second family from the same neighborhood asks if Frank can help them find their daughter after the police are unable to provide assistance, he's tremendously reluctant. He had vowed never to work a missing persons case, especially where a teenage girl is concerned. But his need to uncover the truth, and his ability to be one step ahead of the police because of his ability to bend the rules where necessary wins out, and it's not long before Frank starts uncovering an operation that could spell danger for more teenage girls—and could lead to the end of Frank's secret life.

Having lived in the Washington, D.C. area for nearly 30 years, I always love books that take place here, especially when they're not political in nature. Frank Marr is a terrific, complex character, one you can't help but root for even as he does stupid, risky things over and over again. David Swinson isn't afraid to expose Frank's vulnerability, showing the irony of his strong sense of right and wrong even as he does everything wrong in his own life. I also liked Frank's relationship with his boss-of-sorts/former colleague, Leslie, and his former buddies from the police force.

I enjoyed Swinson's style and the way he let action scenes unfold. The plot of The Second Girl may not be surprising, but the appeal of Frank's character definitely raises the quality of this book up a few notches. I look forward to seeing what's next in Swinson's career!

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Book Review: "Christodora" by Tim Murphy

When I think of books that read like a movie, I often think of crime novels and thrillers, because as riveting as action or chase sequences might be to read, they always raise your pulse another few notches when you watch them unfold.

Tim Murphy's Christodora couldn't be further from that type of book, but its tremendously memorable cast of characters, a plot spanning 30+ years, and the sheer emotional power of its story would truly lend itself to a powerful film adaptation. I'd love to watch these characters interact in front of my eyes, as they've not yet gotten out of my mind even several days after I finished the book.

The Christodora is one of those iconic apartment buildings in New York City's East Village, once on the fringe of the city's urban decay. Jared Traum, a sculptor, lives with his artist wife, Milly, in an apartment that has belonged to his family for years. Their neighbor, Hector Villanueva, was once a noted AIDS activist, but he now spends his days in a drug-addicted haze, and his life crosses paths with the Traums and their adopted son, Mateo, in more ways than they can imagine.

The book spans back and forth through time. It starts in the 1980s, where Milly's mother, Ava, is a New York City health department official caught up at the start of the AIDS epidemic and the resulting fears and prejudices that hampered the city's response to the disease for so long. Ava takes Hector under her wing until he becomes part of the movement which demands accountability and appropriate treatment. Meanwhile, Ava is dealing with her own struggles with mental illness, which play out throughout Milly's life, and shape her decisions both consciously and unconsciously. The book traces Milly and Jared's relationship, and their decision to adopt young Mateo, and follows Mateo into adulthood, as he battles his own demons and searches for his own identity, and runs through the 2020s, as the ramifications of many of the characters' decisions continue to impact their lives.

Christodora is a richly told, beautifully written, and tremendously moving story about family, love, loss, ambition, battling one's demons, overcoming obstacles both physical and emotional, and the bravery needed to move on. I've seen the book referred to as an "AIDS novel," and while the epidemic and those involved in the battles against this horrible disease play a significant part in the story, it relies just as heavily on the emotional, professional, and romantic struggles of its characters. Murphy does a fantastic job creating complex characters and getting you heavily invested in their stories—it took a tremendous amount of composure not to dissolve into tears more than a few times while finishing the book on an airplane!

The book is not without its imperfections. The narration meanders from time period to time period, character to character, and it took a while to have everything coalesce in my mind. There are a lot of characters, some more peripheral than others, so I struggled periodically to keep everyone straight. And while I loved these characters so much, I found Milly's character to be somewhat rigid and unsympathetic, although I understood why. But the truth is, these issues are minor frustrations which didn't dull my emotional investment and, truthfully, my sheer love of this book.

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

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Book Review: "The Jealous Kind" by James Lee Burke

Through the years I've had the opportunity to read books by so many incredibly talented authors. I have "discovered" new authors I've never heard of and experienced the latest works of authors whose every book I've read. Of course, along the way, I've developed some favorites, but I'll tell you this: when he's at the top of his form, there is no one who writes like James Lee Burke. No one.

While Burke is best known for a few series of books, particularly those featuring Louisiana police detective Dave Robichaux and his erstwhile troublemaker friend, Clete Purcell, The Jealous Kind is a stand-alone novel, although tangentially related to Hackberry Holland, a character in another one of Burke's series.

It's 1952 in Houston, Texas. The world is on the cusp of the Korean War; the economic disparities between the haves and have-nots couldn't be more clear; and racial relations are continuing to deteriorate. Aaron Broussard is a high school junior who has always done a good job fading into the crowd, although his familial history of mental illness and alcoholism leaves him prone to "spells," fugue-like states when he doesn't quite know what he's doing. One night while at a drive-in in Galveston, Aaron sees the beautiful, feisty, and intelligent Valerie Epstein, and he is instantly smitten. When he sees Valerie fighting with her boyfriend, Grady Harrelson, a petulant rich kid with a penchant for violence, Aaron suddenly feels emboldened enough to step into the middle of the fight and protect Valerie.

This one act sets a chain of events in motion, events which mire Aaron, his best friend Saber, Valerie, Aaron's family, and others in a spiraling web of violence, degradation, and betrayal. There are run-ins with organized crime, street gangs, and one of the richest families in Texas with nefarious connections. There are also undertones of corruption, Communism, and the brainwashing and abuse of young men. All of this is territory that James Lee Burke can mine to exceptional results.

As Aaron tries to protect his family and further his relationship with Valerie, he is determined to right whatever wrongs he caused, as well as find out exactly who is behind the threats and the violence being perpetuated. He is a young man with a strong sense of honor yet the immense need to say whatever is on his mind, no matter whom it might hurt, and more often than not he winds up blundering into a situation which puts him and those he cares about at risk.

While this is a stand-alone novel, the characters of Aaron and Saber reminded me a great deal of Dave Robichaux and Clete Purcell. Dave, although tremendously flawed and enormously troubled, has a very strong sense of right and wrong (which is sometimes misplaced), but it doesn't stop him from angering the wrong people, who wish to do him harm. And Clete, like Saber, is a character who cannot leave well-enough alone and is his own worst enemy, but his pride and his loyalty to his friend often get him into trouble.

Beyond the violence and tension in this book, which Burke ratchets up periodically, this is a book about the power of first love, and how far we'd go to protect it. It's also about overcoming your family's ghosts and scandals, but doing right by those who raised you. And it's also a story about the depths some will sink to in the name of greed, revenge, pride, and jealousy.

There's so much I liked about this book, but as always, I'm transfixed by the sheer power of Burke's words and his vivid imagery, which conjures up the place and time of this book (and many of his others) so perfectly. If you've never read his work before, this isn't a bad one to start with, but I'd encourage you to pick up a Dave Robichaux novel or two as well, to see the master at work.

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

Book Review: "Behold the Dreamers" by Imbolo Mbue

Jende Jonga believes in the American Dream. A Cameroonian immigrant, he came to the U.S. to make a better life for himself, and he dreamed of providing opportunity for his wife, Neni, and their young son, Liomi, who eventually are able to join him in an apartment in Harlem. Neni pursues education to become a pharmacist, while Jende drives a cab and hopes for a better opportunity.

Good fortune presents itself in the fall of 2007, when Jende lands a job as the chauffeur of a senior executive with Lehman Brothers, Clark Edwards. Clark and Jende build a solid relationship based on mutual respect and trust, as Jende assures Clark he will turn a blind eye (and ear) to the conversations Clark has while in the car, the people with whom Clark meets, and the places Jende takes him. Over time, Clark becomes a fixture in the Edwards family, driving Clark's mercurial wife, Cindy, as well as the couple's two sons, hippie idealist Vince, who wants to denounce all his father has worked for, and young Mighty, who is fascinated by Jende and Neni's culture. Cindy even offers Neni a temporary job as a housekeeper at the Edwards' house in the Hamptons.

But as the financial crisis looms, and the pressures of working for Lehman Brothers begin taking their toll on Clark, the Edwards' marriage begins to crack under the stress, placing Neni and Jende squarely in the middle, testing both of their loyalties. Meanwhile, problems with Jende's immigration status cause more problems for the couple, straining their own marriage, as each tries to pursue their own solutions. When the Great Recession hits, it does more than cause the downfall of Lehman Brothers and a nationwide economic collapse: it throws the very idea of the American Dream into jeopardy for Jende and Neni.

Imbolo Mbue's Behold the Dreamers is a look at the immigrant experience through the eyes of a married couple, who have similar and different desires, and different solutions to their problems. This is a book about whether to fight for what you want and believe, or whether it is wiser to capitulate to forces larger and stronger than you, and how to overcome your problems. It's also the story of how people who have always seemed different suddenly find themselves falling into traditional (and not always welcomed) roles expected from their culture.

I thought this was an interesting book, as it helped you understand why so many people want to leave their countries and come to America. It's both the myth of a world of opportunity, as well as the chance to prove your worth to those in your country, that beckons many to the U.S., but it is far from the perfect world so many immigrants envision. And it is a look through immigrants' eyes at the lives of those they think have everything, and notice that their problems are eerily similar in many ways.

Mbue did a great job capturing the voice of Jende and Neni, and portraying their experiences and challenges. I felt as if that could be the entire story, without the drama surrounding the Edwards family, which seemed much more routine and stereotypical. And while I know what significant financial and emotional stress can do to a marriage, I really didn't like the way that Neni and Jende's characters transformed as things started going downhill for them.

This is definitely a heartfelt book, about the need to feel that you're providing for your family, and the need to feel stable, and feel loved and appreciated. I felt it dragged a little at times, but Mbue is a talented writer with an ear for dialogue, and a promising future ahead of her.

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

Friday, July 8, 2016

Book Review: "The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko" by Scott Stambach

"...from what little I know of the outside world, I am fairly certain that my comrades and I live in hell. For most of us, the hell is in our bodies; for others, the hell is in our heads. And there is no mistaking that, for each of us, hell is in the empty, clinical, perfectly adequate, smudgy, off-white brick walls that hold us in here. In spite of my intelligence, I'm forced to accept that I'm one of the lucky ones."

Ivan Isaenko has lived at the Mazyr Hospital for Gravely Ill Children in Belarus since he was born 17 years ago. While he suffers from significant physical disabilities, his intellect and his sense of humor are sharp, so he spends his monotonous days reading any book his favorite nurse, Natalya, brings him, and he keenly observes what is going on and being discussed around him, often faking a catatonic state so he can eavesdrop on conversations among doctors and nurses. And when those activities don't satisfy him, he uses his condition to manipulate those around him, much to the significant aggravation of the nurses and the hospital's cantankerous director.

Given his disabilities, Ivan knows he'll never live the type of life he reads about in books or watches on old television shows during TV time each day. He never knew his parents, since they abandoned him shortly after birth. He knows he'll never fall in love or have a relationship with a woman. Most of all, he knows he'll never leave the Mazyr Hospital for Gravely Ill Children, unless it's after his death. But if it's any consolation, he has the whole system in the hospital figured out—he can tell before almost anyone which of his fellow patients have less than three months to live based on the medicines they're allotted.

And then Polina arrives. Polina is beautiful. Polina once had parents, a boyfriend, a life outside the hospital, but after her parents' death and her leukemia diagnosis, she has nothing. Ivan is immediately bewitched by her beauty, her intelligence, and her spirit, but he is too afraid to even look at her for fear she will be repulsed by his physical condition. Yet little by little, the two people who decided to never let anyone in begin to trust each other, and develop a relationship of sorts which challenges them both. Suddenly, Ivan has transformed from someone who never really wanted anything to someone who wants one thing only: he wants Polina to live.

As you might imagine, a book taking place in a hospital for gravely ill children definitely has some emotional undertones, but for the most part, Scott Stambach is careful to keep the story from becoming too maudlin. There is more than enough sly humor, talk (and descriptions) of blood and other bodily secretions, obsession with sex (much like you'd expect from any 17-year-old), and fighting against authority to lighten the mood now and again. While some of the characters are little more than caricatures of typical Soviet Bloc-type people, Ivan, Polina, Natalya, and, to a smaller extent, the hospital director, are fascinating, complex characters. This is a funny, sarcastic, thought-provoking, and moving book, and you find yourself becoming invested in Ivan's story even as you know how it will unfold.

I thought the book started fairly slowly and took a while to pick up steam; while reading the first quarter of the book or so I wondered if I should keep reading. But once Polina appeared in the story, the plot really took shape, and Ivan went from becoming a quirky, slightly annoying (yet sympathetic) character to a fully realized character, one who was very interesting. Being a sap, I definitely teared up at times reading this, but it wasn't a depressing read, just an enjoyable, sweet one. (The one thing that makes me bristle, however, is the marketing ploy that calls this book The Feault in Our Stars meets One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. No, no, a thousand times, no.)

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!

Monday, July 4, 2016

Book Review: "Midair" by Kodi Scheer

"I had a secret: I wanted to leave the earth in a spectacular fashion. Specifically, by leaping from the Eiffel Tower. The end seemed ideal—high above the city, soaring through the air just as my heart stopped and my brain released a rush of endorphins, causing intense euphoria."

Nessa Baxter, a high school graduate from Illinois, is at the end of her rope. The sudden death of her beloved brother, coupled with the negation of one of her greatest achievements because of the actions of a fellow classmate, have left her with nothing to live or hope for. She convinces three of her former French Club classmates, including the one who betrayed her, to accompany her on a trip to Paris. The other three girls are looking forward to seeing the sights, shopping, eating to their hearts' delights, and hopefully being romanced by some handsome French men, and they are totally oblivious to Nessa's plans or her ulterior motive.

As a way of covering her tracks, she encourages the girls to participate in an intense game of Truth or Dare. She has no idea how the game will spiral out of control as the girls attempt their dares, and uncover surprising truths that shock Nessa. She tries hard not to let her guard down because she doesn't believe any of her traveling companions care about her or will be sad when she dies—all she wants to do is end her pain, and make sure that Kat, her betrayer, knows that she is responsible for her death.

Midair is a sad story of just how helpless and hopeless a person can feel when everything in their life seems to be going wrong. But it's also the story of how the need for revenge can consume you as much as depression can, and be equally self-destructive. As Nessa gets to know her traveling companions a little better she realizes they're more than just the stereotypical "mean girls" she assumed they were, but when the only thing that's helped you get through each day is the thought that you're going to end your life and hurt someone else, how can you let your plans get derailed?

This is definitely a thought-provoking book about the pressure to achieve that is placed on teenagers, and the bullying that occurs—both subtly and openly— in high schools. Kodi Scheer captured the voices of these characters quite authentically, not falling into the trap common to YA novels of making her characters more erudite and sarcastic than most adults. The problem I had with this book is that while the core of the story resonated and made me feel, the resolution of the story—particularly given the way the book is narrated—didn't ring true for me. (I'm avoiding a bit of a spoiler here.)

I've never read anything by Scheer before, but this book was very compelling, and it made me think. She definitely has a style similar to Megan Abbott, and I look forward to seeing what comes next in her career. And of course, if you suffer from depression and feel as if you have nowhere else to turn, please ask for help. Suicide is a permanent solution to what can be a temporary problem, no matter how bleak it may seem.

Little A and Kindle First provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Book Review: "The Summer That Melted Everything" by Tiffany McDaniel

It's the summer of 1984 in the small town of Breathed, Ohio. Fielding Bliss is a fairly typical teenager until the day his father, Autopsy (is Autopsy Bliss not one of the best character names you've ever heard?), the town's prosecutor, puts in the newspaper an invitation for the devil to visit Breathed.

"If the devil was going to come, I expected to see the myth of him. A demon with an asphalt shine. He'd be fury. A chill. A bad cough. Cujo at the car window, a ticket at the Creepshow booth, a leap into the depth of night."

Imagine Fielding's surprise when a tattered-looking young boy arrives in town, claiming to be the devil. It seems hard to believe, and many think the boy, who calls himself Sal ("From the beginning of Satan and the first step into Lucifer. Sa-L."), is probably a runaway or a kidnap victim, not the devil himself. But he brings an unending heatwave to town, and suddenly, disasters begin to occur in his presence, although no one is quite sure whether he is causing the incidents or if it is people's reactions and fears that are to blame.

It isn't long before Sal becomes an integral part of the Bliss family, but their fellow Breathed residents are less than enamored of this fact, as they get riled up by a neighbor and former friend of the Blisses. As the heatwave continues ceaselessly, tempers flare, damaging insults are hurled, friendships end, rumors are spread, and Fielding finds himself suddenly confused by his family. Sal continues to maintain that he is the devil, and he brings about changes in people willing to talk to him, leading them to self-discoveries that change their lives. And as Fielding uncovers secrets his family and others hold, he knows he should react a certain way, but instead he acts like a typical teenager, which only adds fuel to the fire. So many things happen that remain unmentioned by his family, and this lack of discussion causes even more hurt and harm.

The Summer That Melted Everything is utterly mesmerizing, and it took me by surprise just how much it touched me. It's a book touching on powerful issues—racism, homophobia, fear of AIDS, agoraphobia, child abuse, religion—yet it never seems heavy-handed or preachy. This is a tremendously moving book; while much of the plot may not be surprising, Tiffany McDaniel did such a great job giving complexity and heart to her characters that you can't really distinguish which characters you should root for and which ones you should view as villains. I completely understood what motivated everyone to act the way they did.

The book is narrated by a much older Fielding, who reminisces about that life-changing summer, and the scars it left him with throughout his life. At times it was hard to distinguish when the plot was unfolding as it happened and when Fielding was recounting memories of other times in his life, and the emotional trauma Fielding suffered makes his older self a fairly unsympathetic character periodically. But when the story is fully told, much of his motivation becomes clear (although some plot twists confused me a little).

I've often commented that I read from a place of emotion, and if a book is well-written and it touches me emotionally, it resonates for me more than one that does not. It will be a long time before I'll be able to get The Summer That Melted Everything out of my mind. This book might not be for everyone, but if you open your mind, you'll be affected and moved.

Tiffany McDaniel, 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!