Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Book Review: "The Sunlight Pilgrims" by Jenni Fagan

People often comment that there are not many original ideas out there. While that seems true sometimes, at other times you find a book that is pretty unique in certain ways, and isn't at all what you expected. That was definitely the case with Jenni Fagan's The Sunlight Pilgrims. While not everything meshed the way I had hoped, this was a unique and surprising book, and it definitely has stayed in my mind.

It's 2020 and the world is in the grips of the coldest temperatures on record, hitting below zero every day. There's snow in places there never was, rivers are overflowing and then freezing, and a giant iceberg is making its way from Norway to the coast of Scotland. People are panicking, rioting in the streets, and wondering if this is the end of the world. Those who can are fleeing to warmer temperatures, not that there are many places where those can be found.

While he'd like to head to what he believes are warmer climes in Vietnam, Dylan MacRae is on a mission. Reeling from the losses of both his beloved grandmother and mother, and with his family's movie theater being foreclosed upon, he travels to the Scottish Highlands town of Clachan Fells, where his mother apparently bought a caravan (trailer) before her death. He hopes to eventually get to the Orkney Islands, where his grandmother was from, to scatter both of their ashes.

When he arrives in Clachan Fells, he finds a community of people trying to understand what is coming and fearing the worst, expecting that this endless, brutal, unprecedented winter will be deadly for so many. He meets Constance Fairbairn, a survivalist of sorts, and her 12-year-old daughter, Stella, both of whom intrigue him in different ways. Constance lives by her own set of rules and has been judged by her fellow residents for years, and doesn't seem to care—except where their judgment affects Stella.

"Before it was just poverty, pestilence, terrorists, pedophiles, drugs, eating disorders, online grooming, meteors skimming a bit too close for comfort. Now every single person...looks like they are terrified they're all about to become frozen corpses."

Dylan quickly gets enmeshed in Clachan Fells life, and becomes a vital part of Constance and Stella's lives. His presence is welcomed by some but not all, and he finds he is actually more connected to the community than he thought. Stella struggles with identity and self-esteem issues, and is torn between wanting the approval of others and not caring. Beyond worrying about their survival, Constance wants her daughter's life to be easier than hers has been.

This book was intriguing and had surprising emotional depth, as I expected the book to be more about surviving this somewhat-dystopian environment. The characters were tremendously compelling and I found myself rooting for them. I just felt at times the book didn't get fully enmeshed in its plot, and brought up points that it never resolved. My biggest pet peeve about this book, however, was that Fagan didn't use quotation marks when characters spoke, simply m-dashes, so you couldn't distinguish when different characters were talking to one another, or even who said what.

Still, this is more a story about finding yourself and tapping into your own strength than it is about surviving the elements. Jenni Fagan is a talented storyteller, and this book will remain in my mind for a while.

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

Monday, August 29, 2016

Book Review: "Come Twilight" by Tyler Dilts

"I'm only really good at two things—investigating homicides and denial."

While a bit of an oversimplification, that statement describes Long Beach homicide detective Danny Beckett fairly well. He's excellent at his job, but his life has been plagued by tragedies and misfortune, not to mention a serious injury which causes him a great deal of pain from time to time.

A new relationship has suddenly brightened his outlook on life a bit, making him realize he's not quite as bitter and resistant to change as he thought he was. He finds himself enjoying new restaurants in Long Beach's hipster neighborhood, keeping a spare suit in his girlfriend's apartment, and even he is surprised to discover he likes watching Downton Abbey. All of this is tremendously gratifying to those who care about Beckett, especially his longtime partner, Jen Tanaka.

One night Danny and Jen get a call for what appears to be a suicide. But some quick detective work on Danny's part reveals that this was actually a murder, and the pair must identify the perpetrator. And while they seem to be on the right track, everything is derailed when one night, a bomb hidden in Danny's car detonates while it sits in a mechanic's shop. Suddenly there must be an investigation on who tried to kill Danny as well, and whether the two cases are related.

This new development leaves Danny paralyzed by fear, and eventually sidelines him from the murder investigation. Holed up in Jen's house for protection, he is at once both fearful and frustrated, wanting to solve the murder case while desperately trying to understand who would want him dead. His need for independence puts him in further danger and threatens to jeopardize his relationship with his colleagues, particularly Jen. But what happens when he has to decide between breaking the rules and saving a life, a life which might lead to answers?

I've commented before that Tyler Dilts really should be a household name. He's an excellent crime writer, but what makes his work stand out above so many others in this genre is his rich characterization and attention to plot, in addition to weaving mysteries Danny and Jen must solve. Come Twilight is the fourth book featuring Danny and Jen, and each time I read one of Dilts' books it feels like reuniting with old friends. (This being said, you don't have to read the books in order, although they do briefly mention things that happened in earlier books.)

I really enjoyed this book, and like Dilts' previous ones, I found myself emotionally invested in the plot and interested in seeing where things would lead. And if one major plot point wasn't a surprise to me, it didn't affect my enjoyment—if anything, the mystery is secondary to the plot and characters themselves.

If you like crime novels with complex, well-drawn characters, pick up Come Twilight or any of Dilts' three earlier books. Like me, you'll wonder why more people don't know who Tyler Dilts is, and perhaps you can help me figure out how we can change that.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Book Review: "I Will Send Rain" by Rae Meadows

I love it when a book slowly takes you by surprise, as you realize what on the surface seemed like a fairly simple story dazzles you with emotion and beauty of its telling, when a story about a family tested by difficult times and tragedy reveals its richness, layer by layer. Rae Meadows' newest book, I Will Send Rain, is definitely one of those books.

The town of Mulehead, Oklahoma, as with many towns in the Great Plains region of the U.S. in the mid-1930s, cannot escape the drought. It's wrecking havoc on farming families everywhere, including Annie Bell and her husband, Samuel, who moved to Oklahoma as homesteaders and little by little, built a farm they were proud of, then a family. But now the Bells are suffering—their crops yield little, and the whole town is paralyzed by the economic and emotional effects the drought is having.

When the dust storms start hitting Mulehead, the Bells truly feel they're close to rock bottom. Samuel, who tries valiantly to keep his farm limping along, is suddenly plagued by dreams of severe rain that he cannot explain, nor can he explain what he is compelled to do as a result of those dreams. Their 15-year-old daughter, Birdie, is in the flush of young love and wants much more out of life than Mulehead can offer her, but doesn't think anyone can understand her hopes and dreams, even if she is risking her chance at freedom. The Bells' young son, Fred, a sensitive, old soul, is plagued by dust pneumonia, and Annie herself finds herself tempted by a new admirer for the first time in her life, and is unable to understand the fervor of her husband's actions.

"More and more, he saw the drought as a test of faith. More and more, she feared the drought would free this tight coil of restlessness in her, expose her as someone less than steadfast."

As conditions in Mulehead worsen, Annie is torn between the path she has taken her entire life and the chance for something new, something that might offer her a way out of the crushing devastation the community is experiencing. But can she risk everything she has, everything she knows, for the slim hope of a chance? Does she really want to? And as Annie tries to make sense of what is happening to her family, her home, and her faith, she knows that problems won't simply be solved with much-needed rain, but she has to decide whether to see things through or finally live life for herself.

I thought this book was truly lovely, full of tension, emotion, anguish, and hope. Meadows so perfectly captured the anxiety and fears of this terrible period in American history, how people were affected and how they coped. As I mentioned earlier, this seemingly simple story of a family dealing with adversity packed so much power, so much beauty, that even when you had a feeling how certain plot threads might resolve themselves, you felt the story and these characters in your heart.

I'll admit that at first I was hesitant to read I Will Send Rain because historical fiction doesn't always resonate with me. But this book was really just so good, and Meadows' storytelling ability shone through a book which takes place in such a drab time and setting. This is a book—and an author—worth taking into your heart.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Book Review: "The Grand Tour" by Adam O'Fallon Price

Richard Lazar was once a writer with promise. His first novel garnered some acclaim but his subsequent work never quite connected with the public, and quickly disappeared. After two failed marriages and a disastrous relationship with his daughter, Richard finds himself fat, old, and drunk, and living in a trailer in the middle of Arizona.

"The nice part about being young wasn't really being young; it was not being old."

It's as much a surprise to him that his memoir of his time as a soldier in Vietnam has received some of the best reviews of his career. People are suddenly paying attention to him for the first time in his life, and more than that, they want to hear him read. His publisher sends him out on a book tour, although given his penchant for indulging in more than a healthy dose of "liquid courage" before a reading or interview, often with less-than-stellar results.

At a college in Washington, Richard meets Vance Allerby, the awkward young president of the Richard Lazar fan club. (There's currently only one member, but that could change at any time.) Vance's admiration of Richard borders on hero worship, and he is hoping Richard will read the novel Vance has been writing and give him advice, possibly open a few doors for him, so he can stop living with his troubled mother, working a dead-end job, and wondering if he will ever amount to anything. But his meeting Richard, and Richard's behavior during and after his scheduled reading, not to mention the advice he gives Vance, couldn't be further than what Vance had hoped.

To make it up to him, Richard invites Vance to drive him to the rest of the West Coast stops on his book tour. Vance jumps at the chance to spend more time with someone he admires, but he has no idea what he's in for. He doesn't realize that driving Richard means caring for, practically babysitting, Richard, and watching his self-destructive behavior continue declining. Richard never seems to learn his lesson, despite the toll this self-abuse is taking on his health, his relationships, and his literary reputation. But it's possible, too, that Richard isn't the only one in need of rescue.

"In a general sense, Vance felt he'd spent his whole life around adults who acted like children, who needed constant tending to and worrying over, and a glance at the passenger seat didn't help to dispel the feeling that he might easily take on the same role with Richard."

The Grand Tour is an interesting look at two men who couldn't be more different and yet who are strangely the same in many ways. This is a book about coping with lifelong disappointment no matter how long your life has been, and how even when you know what path you need to take to change things, you're often unable or even unwilling to follow it. It's also a book about the relationship between parent and child, both biological and surrogate, and how easy it is to let down those who care about us the most.

Adam O'Fallon Price does a good job in creating these characters who are definitely more than meets the eye, although that doesn't mean they're particularly sympathetic. The book takes a while to build up steam, and in some places reminded me of many other literary or cinematic road trips. After a while, though, the book really becomes a bit of a downer, because the characters never seem to make headway, and you wonder just how much worse Price can make their situations.

While somewhat predictable, Price does throw in a surprise or two. He's a talented writer, and despite their faults, he keeps you interested in his characters, even if you're not sure whether it's an empathetic interest or a can't-look-away-from-the-trainwreck kind of interest.

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

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Book Review: "The Dream Life of Astronauts: Stories" by Patrick Ryan

So let me make one thing clear before you make the decision whether or not to read this collection of short stories based on the title: despite taking place at or around Cape Canaveral (in some cases simply in the same Florida county), the majority of these stories have nothing to do with astronauts.

While a few have the space program as a narrative thread within them (or at least mention something space-related in passing), for the most part, these well-written stories are about people who find themselves at a crossroads in their lives. Some are emotional, some are thought-provoking, and at least one was laugh-out-loud funny, and a few are interconnected with others in the collection.

Among my favorites in the collection were: "Earth, Mostly," in which a woman who is raising her granddaughter finds herself assigned to a driver's ed class after a traffic accident and is attracted to the instructor; "Go Fever," which is about a man whose coworker is convinced his wife is poisoning him (but that's just the tip of the iceberg); "Miss America," in which an aspiring Miss America contestant is taken to an audition with a less-than-reputable talent scout, while she is dealing with upheaval in her own life and her mother's; "Fountain of Youth," about a man in witness protection from the Mafia now living in a retirement community and matching wits with the power-hungry head of the condo board; "The Way She Handles," which tells of a young boy whose parents' marriage hits a rough patch with the arrival of his carefree uncle; and the beautiful title story, in which a young man is drawn to a former astronaut and is unprepared for what comes next.

While one or two of the stories didn't resonate for me as much as the ones I mentioned above, Patrick Ryan is a tremendously talented writer, and he created some memorable characters and situations I really enjoyed reading about. Although I felt that a few of the stories could have taken place anywhere and the connection with Cape Canaveral almost felt like an afterthought, it is the foibles of the human heart and our interactions with lovers, colleagues, family members, children, and strangers that powered these stories and imbued them with impact.

I am continually amazed at the immense talent among those individuals writing short stories today, and Ryan definitely belongs in this community. If you like short stories, this is a collection worth reading, even if you're not a space enthusiast. I look forward to seeing what's next in his career.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Book Review: "You Will Know Me" by Megan Abbott

While the so-called "mystery" part of this book held about as much suspense as whether Ryan Lochte and his swimming compatriots were actually robbed at gunpoint in Rio, You Will Know Me further cemented Megan Abbott's talent as one of the best creators of mean girls (and adults, for that matter) that is currently writing.

"And so gymnastics became the center, the mighty spine of everything for them."

Katie and Eric Knox have given nearly everything in pursuit of their daughter Devon's dreams of becoming a gymnastics superstar. But while many parents would let their children's dreams override any semblance of a normal life for their family, Devon isn't just any aspiring gymnast—her coach believes she can make it all the way to the Olympics. So do the other parents whose children practice in the same gym Devon does—they know their children simply orbit around the planetary force Devon represents and hope that simply being in her presence and watching her might pay off.

Katie and Eric barely have a minute for their "real" lives outside of practices, coaching sessions, and meets. Fortunately their precocious young son Drew is content to watch his sister and occupy himself, so he doesn't appear to mind that he play second fiddle to his sister. And while Katie is the one who spends most of her time shuttling Devon back and forth, Eric has taken an increased role as head of the gym's booster club, and isn't afraid to use his handsome charm when necessary to get things he wants for the gym, especially when they could impact Devon's chances of success.

And then the sudden death of a member of their close-knit gym family throws them all for a loop, and threatens to disrupt Devon's progress toward the tournament for which she has been practicing, which in turn, causes ripples for the other girls and their families. Eric tries to take charge and do what's best for Devon and, by extension, the gym, but Katie starts to wonder if all of that effort, all of the hungry ambition is worth it. Is it worth turning these young girls into women while their bodies don't catch up? Is it worth all of the sacrifice, the hurt, the fears, the destruction of people's lives?

"That was what gymnastics did, though. It aged girls and kept them young forever at the same time."

The more rumors swirl around the gym community, the more Katie tries to figure out just what happened and what, if any role her husband played in the tragedy, while hoping not to discover the actual answers. But as she gets to see the full scope of Devon's ambitions, and all that people will do to ensure their star reaches the heights they believe she is destined for, Katie doesn't know whether to be repulsed or to root for her daughter with all of her might.

Especially in the midst of the 2016 Olympic Games, this book was definitely intriguing, and it's probably a lot more realistic than it might seem at first glance. Abbott created a particularly odious group of characters, most of whom had slightly noble intentions but lost them somewhere along the way. (Those who aren't utterly unlikable are pretty freaking clueless.) This is the third of Abbott's books I've read (after Dare Me and The Fever) which boasts such a motley, well-drawn crew of miscreants.

While this book is certainly entertaining, as I mentioned earlier, you can see the resolution of the "mystery" coming from a mile away. I guess if this book hadn't been peddled so hard as a mystery I might not have cared, but that was the one piece of the book that didn't work for me. This was a fairly fascinating and timely look at the single-minded pursuit of dreams and just how far people would go, but it didn't grab me as much as I hoped it would.

Still, this is a slightly creepy look at the group think of helicopter parents and people who live vicariously through their children's accomplishments. Perhaps you'll recognize someone you know in one of the characters—I certainly did!

Monday, August 15, 2016

Book Review: "A Tragic Kind of Wonderful" by Eric Lindstrom

Mental illness is something many people, including teenagers, live with every day. Yet all too often, these people force themselves to deal with their illness in secret, hiding the truth from loved ones and friends for fear they'll be treated differently, that people will expect less (or more) of them, and that they'll always be thought of as a person with a mental illness rather than simply a person. But of course, not letting those they care about see the truth means that they aren't willing to let themselves be truly known.

"I can't let anyone know what really happened, or what's wrong with me. I can't bear the thought of how they'd look at me, and treat me, if they knew how many pills I take every morning just to act more or less like everybody else."

For 16-year-old Mel Hannigan, life with bipolar disorder is a daily struggle, yet only her parents and her aunt, as well as one friend of her grandmother's, know what she is dealing with. During one particularly bleak period she stayed out of school and isolated herself from her closest friends, so they believed the lies of another friend, and ended their relationship with her. And although she's found new friends, she keeps them at arm's length, never letting them truly see the real Mel.

As Mel tries dealing with the re-emergence of emotions around her old friends, she meets someone new, someone she'd like to pursue a relationship with. But how can she let him in when she knows he won't like the real her, when if he knows the truth he'll treat her differently and always want to hover over her and wonder when her next cycle will be? As she tries to keep her emotions in check around relationships new and old, she also must come to terms with a tragedy from her past, and figure out exactly how she can live in its shadow.

A Tragic Kind of Wonderful is beautiful, heartbreaking, and so accurate in its portrayal of the many shades of bipolar disorder. Eric Lindstrom so perfectly captured Mel's voice through her ups and downs (the downs, which manifest them as ups, are eerie and so candidly portrayed), and how each person in her family deals with her condition. The book also captured the teenage attitude and dialogue without being overly precocious—you can hear these characters saying the things they do in the book without wondering if there really are 25-year-olds inside of them.

This is a book about realizing your problems are too big for only you to handle them, and the importance of trusting people and letting them in, but at the same time recognizes the value and necessity of self-protection. It's a book about letting ourselves feel, and not being afraid to admit how and when we're hurting. And this is an important book for those struggling to understand just what mental illness can do to a person.

I'm always loath to compare books to others, but I'll admit that this reminded me a bit of Jennifer Niven's fantastic All the Bright Places, but more for its honesty and its heart than anything else. They're two wholly different and equally superlative books. Read them both, because they're both tremendously exquisite.

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

Book Review: "Livia Lone" by Barry Eisler

Barry Eisler has done it again. The author of the fantastic series of thrillers featuring John Rain has created another memorable, kick-ass character.

Growing up in Thailand, Labee protected her younger sister, Nason. Labee was brave, feisty, independent, good with tools and with weapons needed to hunt food. One day she and Nason are abducted by a group of traffickers to whom her parents sold them. Labee doesn't understand why they were sold, or what is going to happen to them, but she knows above anything that she must protect Nason. Facing abuse at the hands of their abductors, she constantly tries to keep Nason safe even at her own expense, until one day her rage and protective instinct get the best of her. And that is one of the last times she sees her sister.

When she finds herself rescued in the small town of Llewellyn, Idaho, she isn't sure what to expect, even as she is presented the chance for a new life. Taking the name of Livia, she finds herself not far from the life she knew before despite her surroundings, but the only thing that keeps her surviving on a daily basis is her desire to know what happened to her sister and where she is—and her vow to seek revenge on those who harmed them. She takes this passion for justice and a first-hand knowledge of monsters like her abductors and becomes a sex crimes detective in Seattle. She does everything she can to bring rapists and other criminals to justice, or she handles it her own way when the system fails.

"Sometimes, she almost wanted the prosecutor to say no, or to plea the charges down. It was a reason, an excuse, to do it her way instead. But she knew she had to be careful of that temptation. There was a balance. She respected the system, but she wouldn't be a slave to it."

Slowly but surely she tracks down those responsible for her and Nason's abduction years before. And when she uncovers a massive conspiracy was behind her rescue, for nefarious purposes, she forces herself to relive those days of torture to get the answers she seeks, to try and find what happened to her sister once and for all, and to make people pay. She has waited too long and suffered too much to let anyone get the best of her this time, no matter the risks and no matter what it costs her.

Livia Lone is a dark and disturbing book, but the bravery of its main character and Eisler's storytelling ability make it impossible to put down. Livia is one of the most fascinating female characters I've seen in quite some time, perhaps since first meeting Lisbeth Salander in Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy. She is raw, passionate, brave, and has a tremendous heart to go along with her physical and mental toughness. This is a young woman who thought she has lived her whole life for one purpose, to find her sister, but really helps so many more people through the work she does.

I love the way Eisler writes, and his facility with both action scenes and suspense are tremendous. Livia seems like a character who would be as fascinating to see on film as she was to read about. I hope to see Livia in another book someday—perhaps joining forces with John Rain?

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

Friday, August 12, 2016

Book Review: "The Things We Wish Were True" by Marybeth Mayhew Whalen

"And yet, Jencey understood, there were the things she wished were true, and there was what was actually true. She was learning that there was usually a great distance between the two.

Sycamore Glen, North Carolina is one of those small towns. You know, the ones where everyone knows everyone's business, where people remain entangled in each other's lives from childhood on, where secrets are hidden just out of sight. Bryte grew up in Sycamore Glen, pining for the boy her best friend dated, wanting a love and life to call her own, and years later, she has everything she wanted. But behind her happiness lies a secret, and the pressure to hide it may cause her to risk everything she holds dear.

It seemed that Jencey had everything she could want while growing up in Sycamore Glen. Yet one day she left without warning, without explanation, leaving those who loved and cared about her feeling angry, hurt, and betrayed, and forced to rebuild their lives without her. Years later she returns after her life is upended, and her reappearance causes fears to be reawakened, and ripples into other people's lives.

Zell is the neighborhood helper, always the one to bring food to a family dealing with a tragedy, lend support when it is needed, quietly observe what is going on around her. Yet she has her own secrets, things she hopes never come to light despite the fact that they might help someone else. And there is still things she isn't aware of.

One summer, a near tragedy occurs. It brings people together, threatens to tear others apart, and starts to gnaw away at the secrets everyone has hidden away. The courage and curiosity of one brave young girl is both what the town needs and what could potentially destroy relationships and lives.

If The Things We Wish Were True sounds a lot like a soap opera, it definitely has a soapy, melodramatic tone, and I don't mean that in a disparaging way. There's a lot of drama, both real and manufactured, and these people sure do have a lot of buried skeletons! But amidst the secrets and the fears are inherently good people caught up in circumstances they can't control, and the possibility of redemption and happiness where some might have feared there would be none.

I enjoyed this book, but then again, I always loved a good soapy novel every now and again. While some of the plot twists I saw coming pretty early on (and perhaps that's what was intended), Marybeth Mayhew Whalen threw in some surprises as well. At times this book reminded me of a less campy Desperate Housewives (more for the secrets than the mischief-making women) and at other times it reminded me a little of a Liane Moriarty novel, but it didn't try to steal style from anyone.

Whalen keeps you wondering what will become of her characters, whose names annoyed me but they themselves really didn't. This book feels like a good beach read, but it's just a plain good one.

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

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Book Review: "Kindred Spirits" by Rainbow Rowell

"Elena couldn't remember the first time she saw a Star Wars movie...in the same way she couldn't remember the first time she saw her parents. Star Wars had just always been there. There was a stuffed Chewbacca in her crib."

Elena grew up watching the original Star Wars trilogy, as the movies were her dad's favorite. He loved them so much that he made her promise never to see the prequels, because it would corrupt her enjoyment of the movies. But while she loved the films because they made her feel closer to her dad, as she got older, they actually began to mean something to her. They became hers, movies she not only knew by heart but felt in her heart.

When The Force Awakens was getting ready to be released, she was so excited she could barely think. She so wanted this to be a special occasion, so she makes the decision to camp out on line in front of the movie theater for a few days. She envisions bonding with her fellow line-mates, trading movie trivia and inside jokes, building friendships and bestowing nicknames. This will be life-changing.

She's utterly unprepared for the reality of the camping out experience. She's one of only three people waiting. Thanks to global warming it's not that cold, but she worries about having to go the bathroom, and charge her phone, and what it will be like not to shower for a few days. While the two guys waiting with her seem perfectly pleasant, they don't seem like lifelong friend material. Plus, her mother keeps driving by the theater, trying to convince her to come home and go to the movie when it opens, like everyone else.

Kindred Spirits is a sweet short story that fits in perfectly with Rainbow Rowell's other books. It's a story about self-discovery, letting go of your expectations, friendship, and finding others who share your obsessions, particularly those you least expect. (And, like so many of Rowell's books, it's got a healthy dose of fan obsession.) This story was written for World Book Day, and it definitely made me feel warm inside.

I love Rowell's writing (Eleanor & Park is among my absolute faves), so as much as this story touched my heart, it also left me with a full-size longing for another Rowell novel. I enjoyed this story very much, but it was almost too short. Even though it had a complete plot arc, I was sad to see it end so quickly, and wanted more. This is a great appetizer for Rowell fans, but you'll be left hungry for more, and I hope she has something else up her sleeve sometime soon!

Monday, August 8, 2016

Book Review: "Whatever.: Or how junior year became totally f$@cked" by S.J. Goslee

I guess it was only a matter of time before the high school stoner comedy genre got a little more depth. S.J. Goslee's Whatever. is just like your favorite pothead—it makes you laugh and roll your eyes sometimes, you get a little frustrated, but in the end, you enjoy spending time with it, and even think it's pretty sweet.

Mike Tate is about to start his junior year of high school. He has a great group of friends, with whom he plays music in a crappy band, drinks beer, watches one of them attempt one crazy stunt after another, and spends a lot of time getting stoned. He's known his girlfriend, Lisa, for a long time, and she's more like his best friend than his girlfriend a lot of the time. (So what if he doesn't know what to do with her boobs?) But still, he's totally surprised when she breaks up with him and says they were never really dating anyway, and he's even more surprised when she tells him why she broke up with him.

Suddenly Mike finds himself in completely new territory. He's not sure about what he's feeling, or how his friends and family will react. Because Lisa has suckered him into running for vice president of his class, he's now in the midst of student government—and even worse, homecoming. He's even been nominated to the homecoming court. Why can't things just go back to normal. And more importantly, why is Rook Wallace, who terrorized him when they were younger, suddenly smiling at him all the time? Is he trying to subdue him so he can attack him when he least expects it?

Whatever. is about coming to terms with who you are for perhaps the first time in your life, which may feel uncomfortable or strange. It's about friendship, infatuation, confusion, man crushes, fear, and love, as well as a healthy dose of mischief and stupid stunts. And it's about saying the things you want to say even if you're afraid to, even if not everyone will like what you have to say.

I enjoyed this book a lot, and thought it was sweet and funny and thought-provoking. Although I liked Mike's character, and thought that he had a good heart, at times he frustrated me because of the things he didn't say (as well as some of the things he said and did), but I know so many of his actions were realistic. While there isn't much surprising in this book (there were a few things I thought might happen, but they didn't), it's still a tremendously appealing story, and it definitely took me back to my high school days, where fun, confusion, and insecurity reigned equally.

Goslee really captured the teenage voice well, particularly those of teenage boys. This book is just another example of how far YA fiction has come since I was young (there really wasn't any beyond The Hardy Boys back then), and how much the world has changed for the better.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Book Review: "Dark Matter" by Blake Crouch

"If there are infinite worlds, how do I find the one that is uniquely, specifically mine?"

I needed to catch my breath before I wrote this review. Holy hell, what a ride this book took me on!

One night Jason Dessen is cooking dinner in Chicago home with his wife, Daniela, and their teenage son, Charlie. Jason and Daniela share news about old friends who have achieved noteworthy success recently, and think wistfully about how their lives might have been different if they had pursued their own careers, in physics and art respectively, if they hadn't chosen to settle down and raise a child. But Jason knows he is happy with his life, and he's in love with his wife.

Before dinner is ready, Jason walks downtown to join his old college roommate for a celebratory drink. Walking back home later that night, Jason hears footsteps behind him, and the next thing he knows, he's been abducted by a masked, armed man, who forces him to drive to a deserted parking lot. But while he expects to be murdered, he is surprised when his abductor starts asking him questions about his life and his family, including, "Are you happy in your life?"

When Jason wakes up, he is strapped to a gurney, surrounded by people in hazmat suits. Apparently he's been gone for a while, although at first he doesn't know where he is or where he has been. But little by little he realizes that his life as he knew it doesn't exist—to paraphrase The Talking Heads, his wife is not his beautiful wife, his job is different—nothing is as he remembers. He is now a noted scientist who has accomplished something thought impossible. What happened? How did everything change?

Blake Crouch's Dark Matter is an absolutely fascinating story of a man who wakes up to find out that the life he knew didn't exist, no matter how vivid his memories were. But which life is the dream, the one he is in now, or the one he remembers? Can he ever make it back to what he remembered, and if not, what will happen to him?

For fear of giving anything away to those who've not read this yet, the above plot summary just scratches the surface. This book delves into the science of choice, the idea that for every path we take there are many we don't, yet are those threads of our life being lived simultaneously? While the science of this book was a little confusing for someone who took the easiest path to achieving my college science requirements, this is a sci-fi book of surprising emotional depth, crazy twists, and action worthy of a great thriller. So many people have raved about this book and I was worried I wouldn't feel the same way, but I absolutely do. This was surprising and just so excellent. I couldn't get enough.

Kudos to Blake Crouch for such a creative, well-written book. This will make a fantastic movie, but for now, it's one hell of a read, so if you've been wavering about reading it, give it a shot. Suspend your disbelief and get ready for your heart to start beating pretty fast.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Book Review: "Poisonfeather" by Matthew FitzSimmons

Last year, Matthew FitzSimmons took the literary thriller world by storm with his debut novel, The Short Drop. The story of Gibson Vaughn, convicted of hacking into a powerful congressman's files when he was a teenager, and his search for redemption (as well as his entanglement in a political mystery), that book was utterly fantastic and made my list of the best books I read in 2015.

Gibson Vaughn returns in Poisonfeather, FitzSimmons' newest thriller, and although this book is a little overly ambitious for its own good, FitzSimmons makes it clear he knows how to create memorable characters, ratchet up suspense, and write some pretty crackling action scenes.

Charles Merrick was a billionaire famous for bilking average citizens out of their fortunes in a scam similar to that of Bernie Madoff. (Merrick had nothing but disdain for Madoff, however, and felt his operations were much smoother and more sophisticated than Madoff's "Ponzi scheme.") For reasons no one following Merrick's case can understand, he was only sentenced to eight years in a minimum security prison, leaving countless people's lives destroyed by his greed.

As Merrick's release from prison draws closer, an interview he gives to a financial magazine draws quite a bit of attention, as it appears that he is hinting that he didn't actually lose all of the money he stole from his investors. This draws the ire of an unsavory cast of characters from all over the globe, and little by little, many of them converge on the small West Virginia town where Merrick's prison is located.

Vaughn is trying to rebuild his life after the events which occurred in The Short Drop, but with little success. He is summoned to meet with Hammond Birk, the judge who gave him the chance to join the Marines instead of sentencing him to prison for his crimes when he was younger. Judge Birk was among the victims Merrick swindled, and he convinced family members and those who worked for him to invest as well, with disastrous results. And although Birk does not want Vaughn to risk turning his life upside down to try and recover his money, Vaughn feels he owes the judge for the path he was able to take with his life, and begins building a plan to outsmart Merrick.

What Vaughn isn't expecting, however, is how many other people have similar ideas, and how dangerous they are. Not only does he have to contend with those he suspects have been helping Merrick from the inside and outside, he has to deal with the trigger-happy friend of Judge Birk's nephew, who got him involved in this whole scheme in the first place. And then there's a mysterious bartender, a Chinese government official with a passion for fly fishing, a band of dangerous thugs, a gang of criminals with a shoot-first-ask-questions-later philosophy, and the CIA. It's a little more than he bargained for, but all in the name of repaying a debt, right?

I love Vaughn's character, and thought there were a number of characters in this book that FitzSimmons drew quite well, and I hope that some of them might resurface in future books. Where Poisonfeather differed from The Short Drop is that the first book was really about Vaughn and his fight to clear his name, understand his past, and solve a mystery, while in this book, he often takes a back seat to other characters, some more interesting than others. I really felt at times there were just too many characters and too many side stories going on, and even though most of them were tied up by the end of the book, it made the plot more confusing and a little less solid.

FitzSimmons knows how to tell a story, there's no doubt about it. I just wish he trusted in his protagonist more and didn't try to overburden the plot with a gigantic cast of characters. And while it's fun to watch a greedy billionaire get his just desserts, the financial bent of this story took a little more time to explain. But at the end of the day, this is another strong thriller, full of tension, action, and a little emotion, all anchored by a pretty fantastic, complex, and flawed character. I'm looking forward to more from FitzSimmons and Gibson Vaughn in the future.

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

Monday, August 1, 2016

Book Review: "Harry Potter and the Cursed Child" by J.K. Rowling, Jack Thorne, and John Tiffany

So, let me collect myself...

I was a little late to the party with the Harry Potter series, but that was a good thing, so there were three or four books already published when I got hooked. Eventually I had to wait until J.K. Rowling wrote each one, and although I tried to demonstrate some self-control, I'd usually devour them fairly quickly. When the last book was released, I think I waited about six months to read it, because I couldn't fathom the idea of not having any more time with Harry, Hermione, Ron, and the gang. But then I broke down, read it, and broke down again (emotionally).

So when Harry Potter and the Cursed Child came out, you'd think I might want to hoard it for a while, especially in light of Rowling's recent announcement that this would be the last story in the series. Well, I just couldn't. It's Harry freaking Potter, for pity's sake! But given my attachment to the series, would this new story—a play, to boot—live up to my expectations? Would the chemistry between the characters feel the same? Would this generate the same emotional reactions I've felt before?

Yes, yes, and yes.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child takes place 19 years after the last book. Harry is married with three children (if you've still not read the last book in the series, I'll not spoil the surprise of who his wife is), and is barely keeping things afloat as a high-level employee at the Ministry of Magic. His younger son, Albus Severus Potter, is about to start Hogwarts, and isn't too keen on the legacy of being Harry Potter's son following him through school. It doesn't take him long to distinguish himself as utterly different than his father, and his choice of best friend causes him even more alienation at the hands of his fellow students.

As his time at Hogwarts rolls on, Albus grows more and more disenchanted with school and his father. After an argument with Harry one night, Albus makes a decision in the heat of the moment that he wants to undo a wrong his father caused a number of years ago. Little does he know this will set into motion a chain of events which will cause the present, the past, and the future to collide, bringing the threat of danger, grief, loss, and the possible return of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. All in all, it's a lot to face.

I'll stop here with the plot description for fear of giving anything away. I absolutely loved this story. Even though it was a little strange reading it as a play rather than a book, I got the old, familiar feelings as I was reading, became both excited and melancholy as old characters returned, and definitely was struck by suspense and trepidation as I wondered how the plot would wrap itself up. This is definitely more a book about Albus than it is about Harry, Ron, Hermione, Draco, and the rest, but it still touches on the Potter-esque themes of friendship, hope, anger, abandonment, grief, and fear.

"People think they know all there is to know about you, but the best bits of you are—have always been—heroic in really quiet ways."

This is truly a perfect quote to sum up what is so special about Harry Potter. I'm so glad to have had another chance to spend even a short amount of time with these characters, back in their world. I hope Rowling will reconsider again allowing the world more visits with Harry and crew, but until then, this was a worthy nugget to hold on to.