Friday, September 30, 2016

Book Review: "This Was Not the Plan" by Cristina Alger

When Charlie Goldwyn's beloved wife Mira, the free spirit to his workaholic lawyer, dies unexpectedly and leaves him with a young son, he does the only thing he can think of—buries his grief in work. He has a few years to make partner, so he gives his all, and it doesn't matter that he has no work/life balance—it'll all pay off when Caleb is older and they have the money for everything he'll want.

Charlie is lucky that his twin sister Zadie is willing to give up her own life in order raise his son, and while he means to be there for outings and parties, work always seems to get in the way.

Two years after Mira's death, Caleb is a sunny five-year-old obsessed with natural disasters, who has a penchant for tiaras, brightly colored clothes, tutus, and sparkles. And thanks to some ill-advised comments made during a firm cocktail party, Charlie is now unemployed, trying to make sense of his future, his son, and his guilt over Mira's death. His time with Caleb teaches him what a great kid his son is, despite his being barely there, and how much he embodies all of the things everyone loved about Mira.

Is he capable of being a good father, especially when his relationship with his own father barely exists? Can he get his old job back, or at least find a better one? Is financially providing for your child the most important part of parenthood? Will he ever be able to move on with his own life, and should he try? This Was Not the Plan explores all of Charlie's questions, as it shifts from the start of his relationship with Mira to the present day.

This book was so enjoyable, so sweet (not in a bad way), and even if it wasn't really surprising, I was hooked from start to finish. Charlie isn't an entirely sympathetic character, and you wonder if he'll ever be able to completely overcome the traits that made him a great lawyer but not always a great husband, brother, or son. But I really was enamored of the way his relationship with Caleb changed, and I particularly liked the way Cristina Alger treated Caleb's five-year-old flamboyance with respect.

A book doesn't always have to dazzle me or cripple me emotionally to make me enjoy it. This Was Not the Plan is a well-written, engaging, and extremely likable story about family, friendship, love, and finding hope again. It may not break new ground but it's definitely a good read.

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

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Book Review: "The Fall of Lisa Bellow" by Susan Perabo

When a tragedy strikes a friend, or even someone we're merely acquainted with, we wonder how that person or family is handling what happened. "I can't imagine what they're going through," we might think, or, sometimes more commonly, "There before the grace of God go I." Susan Perabo's new novel, The Fall of Lisa Bellow, looks at a tragedy through the eyes of a young girl who witnessed it, as well as her family, and illustrates reactions we might not be proud of, but which seem completely understandable in the wake of what occurred.

Meredith Oliver is an eighth grader with marginal self-esteem. She and her two best friends spend their time loathing the "mean girls" of their class—the pretty, popular girls who are the center of everyone's attention, criticize and belittle their classmates, and make many students hope they can avoid the girls' notice. One of the queens of the group, Lisa Bellow, was Meredith's friend in fourth grade, but obviously a lot has changed since then, and although Meredith and Lisa have lockers next to each other, Meredith lives in somewhat-constant fear that Lisa will embarrass her publicly,, relegating her to the bottom of the social strata of middle school.

One day after school Meredith goes to get a soda at a nearby deli before walking home, and Lisa is there, criticizing the sandwich maker. Without warning, a masked man with a gun enters the shop, orders both girls to get on the floor, and demands access to the store's safe. Meredith is calm at first, and helps Lisa deal with what is happening, but it's not too long before she herself begins to panic. The man demands Lisa stand up and he takes her from the store, leaving Meredith behind on the floor.

The Fall of Lisa Bellow looks at how Meredith handles the mixed blessing of being safe and being the one left behind. She vacillates between catatonia and rebellion, throwing her already worried parents further into a tailspin. She even imagines speaking with Lisa, and imagines what is happening to her, even picturing what it might be like if the two of them were abducted together.

Behind the fragility of Meredith's condition, the book also looks at how Claire, Meredith's mother, is handling this close call her daughter experienced. What happens when you realize you can't protect your children from everything out in the world? How can you keep living life as usual when you know there's a chance something might affect your children, something you can't control no matter how hard you try? How do you help your children if they won't tell you what they need, what they're feeling, what they're afraid of? And how do you handle everything else around you—your marriage, your job, your other relationships—when all that matters is what happened?

This is a tremendously thought-provoking book, and as she did in her incredible story collection, Why They Run the Way They Do (which made my list of the best books I read in 2015), Perabo pulls you into the story almost immediately. There is tension, there is emotion, there is even a little bit of disgust (perhaps even a bit more than you think), but there are also glimmers of hope.

Where I struggled with this book is that while I understood what might make the characters act the way they did, and certainly sympathized with them, I really didn't like Claire or Meredith's characters very much. Claire's behavior at different times in the book was almost horrifying, and while I realize Meredith was dealing with significant post-traumatic stress, her actions and reactions made her difficult to root for. But as I thought about how this book and these characters made me feel, I realized my reactions might be more true-to-life for observers of a family dealing with such a crisis, and I realized again what a genius storyteller Perabo is.

I didn't love this as much as her story collection, but this is still a very well-written book. If you're unfamiliar with Perabo's work, you owe it to yourself to pick up one of her books. You'll marvel at her words, but also the choices she makes in telling her characters' stories.

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

Monday, September 26, 2016

Book Review: "Eveningland: Stories" by Michael Knight

I don't know about you, but I have a list (both mental and written) of authors whose work I have enjoyed through the years, and from time to time I check all of the book-related websites to see if any of these people have books coming out in the near future. Some of these authors are more prolific so I don't have to wait a long time between books, but others keep me waiting for years, and in certain cases I wonder whether they're even planning to write another book.

I found Michael Knight's work when his first novel, Divining Rod, and his first story collection, Dogfight and Other Stories, were both released in 1998. The power of his storytelling emanated from his use of language and rich characterization, as well as his ability to create tension and drama without resorting to histrionics or elaborate plot devices. And although Knight's stories appeared periodically in publications following the release of his first two books, I waited five years for his next one, and then seven years for the one after that. (I wasn't aware he had written a holiday-related novella between the two.)

Since 2010 I've been hoping Knight had another story collection or novel in him, so when I saw on NetGalley that his latest collection, Eveningland, was due out in March 2017, you can bet I submitted my request as soon as possible! Six years of elapsed time haven't dulled his talent, and reading these stories felt like visiting with an old friend, a person with whom you can talk for hours on end.

Eveningland is a collection of seven somewhat-connected stories, each of which takes place in Knight's native Alabama. The stories are set between the Deepwater Horizon oil spill into the Gulf in 2010 to the arrival of a destructive hurricane, although not every story is firmly rooted in time as a concept. Each story focuses on relationships—between husband and wife, lovers, family, even strangers. And while each story seems relatively simple, it's surprising how quickly these characters find their way into your mind.

All of the stories in this collection worked for me on some level, but my favorites included: "Smash and Grab," in which a teenage girl turns the tables on a burglar—and keeps him guessing; "Grand Old Party," which tells of a man who suspects his wife's infidelity and decides to confront her and her lover, but doesn't think it through; "Jubilee," about a long-married couple preparing for the husband's 50th birthday party; "Our Lady of the Roses," in which a young art teacher at a Catholic school finds herself at odds with her career, her faith, and her relationship; and "Water and Oil," which tells of a teenage boy worried about the encroaching oil spill yet distracted by a more worldly waitress at his father's marina.

There are flashier short story authors out there, but Knight is a tremendously talented storyteller. Eveningland sneaks up on you quietly, hooks you quickly, and leaves you wanting more from Knight. I hope I don't have to wait six more years!!

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

Friday, September 23, 2016

Book Review: "Kids of Appetite" by David Arnold

As I was devouring (no pun intended) David Arnold's sensational new book, Kids of Appetite, I started pondering the existential question, "Why do I read?" As you'd probably imagine there isn't one easy answer to that question—at different times I may read for entertainment, escape, information, motivation, or to be moved, and quite often it's a combination of more than one of those.

While I didn't set out to read Kids of Appetite to be moved, this story of the bonds of friendship, preserving your own identity, overcoming tragedy, giving yourself (and others) a second chance, and the jumble of emotions which accompany first love absolutely moved and dazzled me. This is truly a special book, full of emotion, surprise, and beautiful storytelling, and it has found its way into my heart.

"We are all part of the same story, each of us different chapters. We may not have the power to choose setting or plot, but we can choose what kind of character we want to be."

Things haven't been the same since Victor Benucci's father died two years ago. Afflicted with Moebius syndrome, a neurological disorder that primarily causes facial paralysis, Vic is unable to blink or show much facial expression at all, which causes him to be ridiculed and treated as if he's stupid, which he most certainly isn't. He finds it difficult to make friends, and he misses his father tremendously, as he introduced Vic to the beauty of asymmetry in art. But as Vic's mother is trying to rebuild her life, he doesn't know how he fits in.

In the midst of an emotional crisis one night, Vic runs into Madeline Falco, a beautiful girl he's seen around a few times before. Mad has more than her own share of tragedy to overcome, but she recognizes in Vic a kindred spirit in need of help. She introduces him to her three companions, with whom she shares a unique family-like existence. They offer to help Vic with one major challenge he has undertaken—to solve the riddle his father left for his mother regarding where to scatter his ashes. But as Vic recognizes he can't hide forever, he is completely drawn to Mad, and he finds that she is as much in need of rescue as he is.

"I think Mad saw in books what I saw in art: the weightless beauty of the universe."

The book alternates between chapters narrated by Vic and Mad, and also shifts between the present, during which a police investigation is taking place, and eight days prior, when Vic meets Mad and her friends. While there are some twists in the plot that are given away in the book's synopsis, some are not, and part of this book's beauty is in letting the story unfold for you, so I'll stop with my plot summary.

I honestly cannot say enough great things about this book. While it's classified as YA, it definitely doesn't feel that way except for the fact that the main characters are teenagers. It's just so well-told, so moving, and anyone who has struggled with loss, feelings of powerlessness, and being ostracized for being different when inherently you're the same will identify with it. I haven't read Arnold's first book, Mosquitoland, yet, but you can bet I will.

It's amazing to think that there are still three months left in 2016 and I've already read so many incredible books which have left indelible impressions on me. Kids of Appetite is definitely one of those.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Book Review: "The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo" by Amy Schumer

Because I spend more time reading and going to the movies than watching television, I'll admit I was a little bit late to the party where Amy Schumer was concerned. I know I heard her name, but wasn't familiar with her comedy until I saw an article on Facebook referencing an appearance she made on Ellen DeGeneres' show, where she made Ellen laugh out loud more than a few times. (Needless to say, I did, too.)

Once I found her, I became a pretty big fan, watching most of her stand-up specials and her television show, and of course, seeing her movie debut, Trainwreck. Her humor is certainly not for everyone, and as a man, some of her jokes get lost on me, but I love her comic timing and her talent to be self-deprecating in a hysterical way. So while I don't traditionally read celebrity books, I decided to give The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo a try, not really sure what to expect, but I was pleasantly surprised at the way she balanced her humor (including some things she has done in stand-up) and her journey of self-discovery and self-acceptance.

"I know my worth. I embrace my power. I say if I'm beautiful. I say if I'm strong. You will not determine my story. I will. I'll speak and share and fuck and love, and I will never apologize for it. I am amazing for you, not because of you. I am not who I sleep with. I am not my weight. I am not my mother. I am myself. And I am all of you."

Schumer made me laugh out loud more than a few times (if you're a fan, don't read this on public transportation unless you don't mind people thinking you're losing your mind), she made me chuckle and smile quite a bit, made me a little uncomfortable sometimes, and beyond that, made me think. She's not afraid to say exactly how she feels about issues, people, sex, drugs, her family, stand-up comedy, women's rights, even gun control. She touches on growing up as a child of a broken marriage, and how her parents' issues affected her. She also talks about her insecurity about her own looks, and how she finally was able to embrace confidence in the face of those who criticize and disparage her.

This is a fun and occasionally moving read, and while I felt she went on a little too long at times, I really enjoyed it. Schumer doesn't try to be anyone other than who she is, and I think she'd be a fascinating person to know and spend time with. If you're not a fan, or if strong language and sexual references make you uncomfortable, this might not be a book for you. But if you like a good laugh, and like to know how different celebrities are in "real" life versus their onstage/onscreen persona, check this one out.

"I look at the saddest things in life and laugh at how awful they are, because they are hilarious and it's all we can do with moments that are painful."

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Book Review: "Coulrophobia & Fata Morgana: Stories" by Jacob M. Appel

Often when I read a book by an immensely talented yet reasonably unknown author, especially when it's not their first book, I wonder about the randomness of fame. Why is it that some lesser-talented authors continue to see their books catapult to success, time after time, while others whose work is far superior don't get the level of recognition they deserve? I know it has something to do with the publisher they're with, and the publicity they receive, and at times the genre they're writing in might not generate the type of excitement that more bestseller-ready genres do, but it frustrates me sometimes.

I find myself asking this question a lot about authors, and I certainly asked it again when reading Jacob M. Appel's newest story collection, Coulrophobia & Fata Morgana. Here's a writer with so much talent, so much creativity, so much heart, that I just can't figure out why more people aren't saying, "Did you read Jacob Appel's latest book?" And this isn't the first book I've read of his—I think I've said the same thing when I read two of his previous story collections last year, Einstein's Beach House and Miracles and Conundrums of the Secondary Planets, which both received honorable mention on my list of the best books I read in 2015.

How can you not love an author who starts a story with this line? "My father fancied himself a shrewd landlord—he refused to rent to lawyers, the children of lawyers, even a college girl 'who had law school written all over her'—but he bit off too much when he sublet to the mime." C'mon, short story fans, let's make this guy a star!

There are many things I love about Appel's stories. He's a great writer, and his stories all share a similar quirkiness, although one that doesn't detract from their overall power. But they also possess a great deal of emotion, which in some stories is utterly apparent from the start, but in others it surprises you until you've completed the story and you've realized how much you've just been moved in a short number of pages.

Among my favorite stories in this collection: "Pollen," in which a teenage girl schemes to trick her cousin and ends up being the one who gets hurt more; "Hearth and Home," which tells of a lonely diplomat's wife pondering an affair while they're living in Norway; "Saluting the Magpie," about a man struggling with his overprotective wife's fears about their infant daughter; "The Butcher's Music," in which a butcher has to deal with the unexpected return of her estranged, more successful sister, while also navigating striking workers and the romantic intentions of a rival; "Boundaries," which tells of a pair of border control guards facing a potential crisis; and "Coulrophobia," the story with the terrific opening line, about a family turned upside down when a mime rents the other half of their duplex.

Appel has such finesse with his stories, and every time I read one of his collections, I wish most of the stories were longer so I can know more about these characters and what happened to them when the stories are done. If you like short stories and you've never read any of Appel's work, I'd encourage you to do so. His stories are sometimes funny, sometimes moving, sometimes thought provoking, and always excellent.

The author provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Book Review: "When Breath Becomes Air" by Paul Kalanithi

Wow. I had to wait a little bit to pull myself together before writing a review of this exquisite book, even though I am tremendously late to the party on this one.

"...See what it is to still live, to profoundly influence the lives of others after you are gone, by your words. In a world of asynchronous communication, where we are so often buried in our screens, our gaze rooted to the rectangular objects buzzing in our hands, our attention consumed by ephemera, stop and experience this dialogue with my young departed colleague, now ageless and extant in memory. Listen to Paul."

Paul Kalanithi was, by all accounts, an excellent neurosurgeon, with the potential of being a true guiding force in medicine and science. He spent most of his early adult life seeking knowledge on multiple fronts, from literature and science to philosophy and ethics. When he finally decided to pursue a career in neurology, he wasn't just content to be a doctor—he wanted to understand and identify with his patients fully, to help them and their families adjust to whatever their new reality would be following a diagnosis, an accident, a surgery.

"I was pursuing medicine to bear witness to the twinned mysteries of death, its experiential and biological manifestations: at once deeply personal and utterly impersonal."

At the age of 36, Paul was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer. Suddenly his life has transformed him from doctor to patient, not an easy transition for anyone, especially someone as hands-on with patient care as Paul had been. While he and his internist wife Lucy are prepared for the worst, Paul's oncologist has hope, and doesn't allow him to wallow in his diagnosis. If he wants to stop being a neurologist, she tells him, it has to be because he doesn't want to continue or wants to pursue something else—his cancer won't stop him.

As he struggles with thoughts of his future, however long that might be, he ponders how to fill that time. Should he continue working in a field that has so richly given back to him, and given him the chance to touch so many lives? What gives a life value, and how can that value be measured? What obligations does he owe his family, his friends, his wife, his infant daughter?

"At those critical junctures, the question is not simply whether to live or die but what kind of life is worth living."

When Breath Becomes Air is an intellectual and deeply emotional memoir, written by a young man with so much promise, so much heart, so much empathy. It is both a reflection on coming face-to-face with one's own mortality and a commentary on the responsibility doctors have to help their patients and their families through that same reflection, whether it happens with some warning or suddenly. It is also a love story, of a man and his wife, a man and the child he will never truly know, and a man and his career.

You know from the very start of Abraham Verghese's introduction to the book that Paul lost his battle with cancer, yet the end of his life, and the epilogue written by Paul's wife still feel like sucker punches. You mourn a man you probably never knew, but you feel truly blessed he chose as one of his final acts to share his life, his death, and his thoughts with the world, because we are all better for them.

"'The thing about lung cancer is that it's not exotic,' Paul wrote in an email to his best friend, Robin. 'It's just tragic enough and just imaginable enough. [The reader] can get into these shoes, walk a bit and say, 'So that's what it looks like from here...sooner or later I'll be back here in my own shoes.' That's what I'm aiming for, I think. Not the sensationalism of dying, and not exhortations to gather rosebuds, but: Here's what lies up ahead on the road.' Of course, he did more than just describe the terrain. He traversed it bravely."

This is a beautiful book, truly a work of art that I won't soon forget. Easily one of the finest books I've read in some time. My thanks to the Kalanithi family, and Paul himself, for this opportunity to view such an exceptional man at such a critical juncture in his life.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Book Review: "Monsters: A Love Story" by Liz Kay

I love when a book comes from out of nowhere and charms you completely. That was definitely the case with Monsters: A Love Story. I can't remember how I found out about this book, and although the plot isn't necessarily earth-shattering, it's an enjoyable twist on the traditional love story.

Stacey Lane's world was rocked when her husband Michael died, leaving her alone with their two young boys. Michael was an actuary, a planner, someone who believed in the power of routine, not just in raising children, but in all aspects of life. This is only one area in which Stacey, a poet, feels woefully inadequate. She believes that she and her sons are doing their best to handle their grief, and she's trying to figure out exactly how to carry on.

"It's the boys and I who are floundering. Just in different ways. They want nothing more to change, and I want everything to."

She is tremendously surprised when she gets an email from a producer inquiring about adapting her second book of poetry, Monsters in the Afterlife, for the big screen. While it received some critical acclaim when it was released, this novel-in-verse (a feminist reimagining of sorts of Frankenstein) doesn't seem particularly commercial. But the next thing she knows, her book has been optioned for film, and she's flying to Turks and Caicos to meet the screenwriter and the film's male star, who also plans to produce the movie, as he's the person who first thought it would make a good movie.

Stacey is utterly unprepared when she realizes the man behind the movie is Tommy DeMarco, a certifiable movie star, utter heartthrob, and total ladies' man. It's easy to be attracted to Tommy, especially when he is such a passionate fan of her work, and of course, Stacey has been feeling lonely since Michael's death. When their intense friendship moves to the next level, the sex is intense and they really enjoy being together, but given that she lives with her family in Nebraska and Tommy lives in LA, and since Tommy has been known to sleep with nearly every younger woman with a pulse, there's no danger of their relationship going anywhere, and that's totally fine with her.

As Stacey and Tommy's friendship deepens and the two get more involved in each other's lives, Stacey still finds it easy to keep him at an emotional distance. After all, she's been warned not to get too serious about him. Yet as she starts dating someone more solid closer to home, she needs to figure out exactly what she wants, and if she really is content with someone who won't make her life bigger, but perhaps will make it more stable.

I really enjoyed this book even as I had a pretty strong feeling about how everything would resolve itself. I liked the way Liz Kay pretty much flipped the gender roles in this relationship, making Stacey the one who really was fine without commitment, the one who sent mixed signals. The dynamics of Stacey and Tommy's relationship worked well, and I enjoyed the book's intellectual side as well as its romantic one.

This is a fun, sweet, moving story about putting your life back together (or trying to), the challenges of single parenthood no matter how old your children are, the creative process, and the importance of trust. You may have seen this story played out before, but it doesn't feel pat or boring, just really enjoyable.

Book Review: "Carousel Court" by Joe McGinniss Jr.

If you're feeling the slightest bit down or depressed with the direction your life is currently heading, I'd suggest you skip this book. While certainly well-written, Joe McGinniss Jr.'s Carousel Court is a tremendously dark, almost brutal depiction of how the American Dream can slip out of your fingers, and its effect on a marriage and the psyches of both parties.

Phoebe and Nick Maguire are tired. They're tired of slaving away at their jobs, they're tired of their Boston neighborhood, and most of all, as parents of young Jackson, they're just physically tired. When Nick gets offered a production job in Southern California, they jump at the chance to restart their lives, and dream of a house near the beach.

As with many dreams, their reality falls short. They make the decision to buy a McMansion in a newer neighborhood, and they add many extras—granite countertops, a pool, even a rock-climbing wall—which will double their money once they sell it. The problem is, they've bought at the height of market, and it's not soon after that they find themselves stuck with this house, in a neighborhood replete with foreclosed house after foreclosed house, where their neighbors light their belongings on fire and patrol the chaos with guns.

Nick is desperate to be the provider for his family, which is no easy task amidst economic chaos, but he comes up with a scheme that may put them back on the track they've wanted to follow. Phoebe is surviving on an immense amount of drugs, and is becoming less and less motivated to continue her pharmaceutical sales job, a field in which she had stellar success back in Boston. She mostly uses her body and her sexuality to convince doctors they should prescribe the drugs she's selling, but even that power doesn't satisfy her. As she becomes increasingly self-destructive, she, too, is toying with ways to regain her financial independence, even if they put her at odds with Nick.

The threat of violence and unlawfulness is pervasive, as Nick's new scheme catches the attention of people with very little to lose. And as Phoebe's downward spiral continues, Nick realizes he may have to choose between his marriage and his son, and protect him before Phoebe's careless disregard causes them all harm.

This is really a depressing book, but I believe for those whose desperation grew during the financial crisis of the late 2000s, it's not that far from truth in some cases. You feel a sense of impending doom and danger, and it almost makes you want to read the book with your hands over your eyes because you don't know if you want to see what's going to happen. (For those who react viscerally to reading about animals being mistreated or harmed, you may want to skip this book.)

The dissolution of Phoebe and Nick's marriage is really brutal as well. I saw a blurb for this book compare it to Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road, and it definitely has a similar feel, particularly to the Leonardo DiCaprio/Kate Winslet film adaptation. After a while the whole thing got to be too much for me—too much of the same behaviors over and over again, too many days of prescription drug abuse and alcohol, too much unhappiness.

I'd never read anything by McGinniss Jr. before, but I was really impressed at how well he portrayed a toxic marriage in the midst of economic disaster. It was a little hard to take after a while, much like Revolutionary Road, but I was still impressed with his artistry.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Book Review: "The Wangs vs. the World" by Jade Chang

Before I start my review of Jade Chang's The Wangs vs. the World, here's a question: how do you feel when an author has their characters frequently speak in a different language, and they don't provide translation? Does that irritate you? It does me, even if I can generally figure out what they're saying.

"History had started fucking Charles Wang, and America had finished the job."

Charles Wang was a force to be reckoned with, a self-made man who left his home in Taiwan and over the years, built a multi-million-dollar cosmetics empire. He and his wife, Barbra (yes, she named herself for Barbra Streisand) rub elbows with celebrities and are written about in magazines and newspapers.

But then the financial crisis hits the U.S., and that, coupled with Charles' unending ambition and his belief that he knows better than financial experts, leads to his total ruin. His house, his companies, his assets get seized by the bank, and even his cars get repossessed. He's angry and vows this won't be the last of him, so he plans to travel to China, where he's convinced an ancient law will allow him to claim his family's ancestral lands, so he can get back on top again and prove his might.

First, he pulls his precocious, style-savvy daughter Gracie out of boarding school he hasn't been able to pay for, tells his aspiring comedian son Andrew that there's no more money for college (or his expensive SUV, which gets repossessed), and Charles, Barbra, and the children plan to make a road trip from the West Coast to the upstate New York home of his oldest daughter Saina, a once-renowned artist who has gone into hiding after her last show was met with critical disdain.

But Charles has no idea what kind of issues each member of his family is dealing with, and how those issues will come into play during their roadtrip, and truth be told, he isn't that interested. On this trip, relationships, careers, even lives are at stake. Will Charles be able to regain his position on top, and restore his family's lives to the manner in which they've become accustomed?

To be honest, I had a lot of issues with this book, not the least of which was the foreign dialogue issue I mentioned at the start of this review. Based on the description of the book, I expected it to be a less-campy version of one of Kevin Kwan's books (Crazy Rich Asians, China Rich Girlfriend), but it definitely wasn't. I got the impression, however, that parts of it were intended to be funny but they just fell flat for me.

My biggest problem with this book was that I cared very little for any of the characters. Any time I felt one of them was sympathetic they did something else to change my mind. For a book with Charles Wang as its anchor, the story didn't dwell on him as much until the end, choosing instead to focus on his three children and his wife, and it felt as if Chang just kept throwing new curves at them. This was definitely a book I thought about not finishing more than a few times, because the story kept dragging on, and it just kept getting sillier.

I really liked Chang's ear for dialogue (when it was all in English) and she has a talent for evoking images and characters. Maybe I just had unfair expectations of this book, but this one just didn't work for me.

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

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Book Review: "Harmony" by Carolyn Parkhurst

"Today you may be the mom whose child seems to old to be having a tantrum in the post office (or the one whose child is touching her head to the floor of a Chinese restaurant—right there, she's doing it again), but tomorrow you may be the mom whose child holds forth on the difference between 'time' and 'thyme' in the produce aisle of the grocery store."

Life for Alexandra Hammond and her husband Josh seemed to be going well, living in Washington, DC, raising two young daughters—not bad for a couple who met while in their late teens. But when they start to realize their older daughter Tilly is having issues with her intellectual and emotional development. She's immensely smart and focused, but has trouble with anger management, social interaction, inappropriate language, and risk taking.

The Hammonds try everything they can to help Tilly's development, but even with one-on-one classes and counseling, the issues she has seem to get worse and worse. Their younger daughter Iris vacillates between pride when her sister's intelligence shows through and embarrassment when her behavior in public calls attention to her entire family. And when Tilly is asked to leave yet another school, Alexandra and Josh are at their wits' end, and it's putting a strain on their marriage.

In the midst of the chaos, Alexandra meets Scott Bean, a charismatic child behavior counselor who helps parents realize they're not to blame for their children's issues—the world they live in, the foods they eat, societal pressures, all of that are to blame. His advice helps Alexandra and her family cope with the rough spots in which they find themselves, and as she realizes that perhaps she isn't fully equipped to handle Tilly on her own, Scott presents the Hammonds with a unique opportunity: join him in rural New Hampshire where he is building a "family camp" for families like theirs. The Hammonds can be one of the camp's "core families" and serve as a role model for others.

The Hammonds sell everything they own and move to New Hampshire, where they're forced to do without television, internet, cell phones, junk food, etc., and instead focus on healthy interaction, outdoor activities, and everyone taking personal responsibility for certain tasks. They meet the two other "core families" and at first they feel as if they're flourishing in this new environment, yet the same problems arise, as do resentments about the sacrifices they must make to stay at camp, and Scott's quasi-cult leader-like behavior. But will this provide the breakthrough the Hammonds need to help Tilly? Will they be able to serve as role models for other families struggling with the same issues?

I really enjoyed Harmony for the most part, even if it was somewhat predictable. The book raised some interesting questions for me, particularly how a family deals with one child who requires more love and attention than others, and how the child deals with their sibling. It's also a look at whether bringing families with similar issues together, getting them to focus on structure without outside stimuli, can be an effective method.

The book switches back and forth between narration by Alexandra and Iris, who bring different perspectives to the story and what life is like raising and living with Tilly. But the most fascinating and poignant chapters are those narrated by Tilly, as they provide some creative foreshadowing and show just how astute and sensitive she is. It's not a perfect story by any means, and at times you want to shake the characters for not raising the issues that concern them, but at the same time you can understand why they are so wary to bring strife into what seems like a fragile bubble of salvation.

I have loved Carolyn Parkhurst's work since reading The Dogs of Babel a number of years ago. (Still can't get that one out of my head.) She has a deft touch with personal and familial interaction, and imbues her stories with subtle and overt notes of poignancy. This book is moving, intriguing, slightly frustrating, but very fulfilling, and I'm always glad to get to experience her talent.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Book Review: "The Wonder" by Emma Donoghue

Emotional, at times disturbing, and tremendously thought-provoking, The Wonder once again demonstrates the sheer power of Emma Donoghue's storytelling ability, which first dazzled me with the extraordinary Room.

Lib Wright was a nurse alongside Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War, escaping her own personal issues. But after the war, even for a Nightingale Nurse, life is monotonous; she is treated with disdain by her supervisors and fellow nurses, and is left to little more than menial work. But when an unusual opportunity for work comes her way, she jumps at the chance.

Eleven-year-old Anna O'Donnell is growing up in a small Irish village. She claims not to have eaten anything for several months, and says she is subsisting on manna from heaven. Anna and her family have become a sensation throughout Ireland and England, journalists have covered the story with a combination of skepticism and hope, and people have begun to flock from all over the world to spend time with the "wee wonder."

Lib, along with a nun who is also a nurse, is hired to watch Anna around the clock, to prove whether Anna's claims are true. They are to watch Anna for two weeks, trading shifts, and then report on their findings, which would determine if the girl is the miracle which some claim she is, or if she is perpetrating some kind of fraud.

Is the girl getting some sort of secret nourishment, or is she really surviving on manna from heaven? Lib, who doesn't share the same religion as the O'Donnells or most of Ireland's citizens, is instantly skeptical, and believes she will uncover the truth fairly quickly. She searches for any way that Anna could be sneaking food, or if her family is in on the lie. But as she gets to know Anna, and understand where her religious devotion comes from, she finds herself doubting her own training and religious beliefs, and wondering if Anna really is part of a miracle.

But as Anna's condition starts to decline, Lib must decide what her true role is: is she merely investigating Anna's claims, or is she responsible for protecting the child, even if those around her might be endangering her? How can she go against her mentor's training, to remove any emotional involvement with her patients?

The Wonder posed some interesting questions, and Donoghue unfurled her plot and ratcheted up the tension, little by little. While I had my suspicions about how the story would tie itself up, it is tremendously compelling from start to finish, although it certainly was a little disturbing as well, because I don't understand the type of religious devotion which imbued the characters.

This book reminded me a bit of Ian McEwan's The Children Act, in that its protagonist faced an interesting emotional and ethical dilemma which they thought they would be able to solve fairly quickly given their professional expertise, but then found themselves drawn in beyond their expectations. Donoghue did a great job with this story, which made me think as it made me feel.

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

Friday, September 2, 2016

Book Review: "Tell Me Something Real" by Calla Devlin

The beautiful, blonde Babcock sisters—brash, confident, artistic Adrienne; sensitive, musical Vanessa; and the youngest, devoutly religious Marie—are growing up in San Diego in 1976. The Babcocks struggle with the same problems many families do—their father works too much and gets bullied by his boss, Vanessa doesn't practice the piano as much as she should, and Adrienne spends a little too much time mouthing off.

But what sets the Babcocks apart is sadness. Their mother has leukemia, and her decline is taking its toll on their family. The girls spend much of their time with their mother at a small clinic across the border in Mexico, where she frequently receives a controversial alternative treatment that doctors in the U.S. aren't allowed to prescribe. While the girls enjoy their time at the clinic, and have found themselves woven into the fabric of its daily life, they hate to see their mother suffering, and even though they know her time is short, they can't picture life without her.

At the clinic they meet Barb, a woman who has befriended their mother while her teenage son, Caleb, receives the same alternative treatment their mother does. Barb and Caleb move into the Babcocks' house, and it isn't long before she has taken control of the unruly, disoriented household, bringing organization and emotional steadiness into the chaos. Caleb awakens feelings in Vanessa she never imagined feeling, and all she wants is to be with him, and worries about his health despite being in remission.

"I learned from Mom that each word is a risk. It takes a certain amount of courage to converse, especially when one of the primary topics of conversation is terminal illness."

As their mother enters what everyone believes will be her last days, their lives are turned upside down. Everything they had depended upon they begin to question, and they wonder what kind of answers they want, and what they will mean for their future. Vanessa, in particular, is torn between her love for her family and her desire to leave home to study at a prestigious music conservatory, but she is unsure she can leave everyone, including Caleb, to pursue the one thing which brings her joy.

I'm being deliberately vague because I don't want to give away one plot twist that Calla Devlin so deftly slips into this book. Knowing it might not affect your enjoyment of the story, but it was nice to be surprised. Tell Me Something Real is an emotionally compelling story of a family in crisis, missing their emotional rudder yet unsure if they'll ever regain their momentum. At the same time, it's a story of the jumble of emotions that accompanies first love, and how we hope the things and the people we care for most can help complete us.

As you might imagine from a book about a family dealing with terminal illness, at times the book veers dangerously close to melodrama, but for the most part Devlin keeps a steady hand on her story. She's a terrific writer and even if you don't get to know all of the characters as well as you get to know Vanessa, who is the heart (and voice) of the book, you can see the immense thought she has put in to all aspects of her story. This is a moving and affecting read, and although it is classified as YA fiction (not that that is a bad thing), it definitely didn't feel that way.