Sunday, December 31, 2017

Book Review: "Stillhouse Lake" by Rachel Caine

Stillhouse Lake is a great book. I mean, stay-up-until-2:00-a.m.-to-finish-it great. I read the whole thing in just a few hours, and my heart was pounding pretty fast for a while afterward!

"I'm glad I've escaped a hell I had hardly even recognized when I was burning in it. Glad that I've pulled the kids out, too."

Gina Royal had your typical, everyday life. Her marriage to her husband Mel had its ups and downs, but for the most part, they were happy, and she felt comfortable raising their two children, Lily and Brady, together. They were the family she had always wanted.

One day, a seemingly innocent car accident totally derails Gina's life, as it reveals that her husband has been a serial killer for a number of years. He used his garage workshop to commit the murders and store the bodies, and Gina had no idea. Mel always said that he had some expensive tools in his workshop, so he kept it locked. How could she have missed the signs, spent all of this time thinking her life with her husband was normal?

When Mel went on trial for the murders, Gina found herself in the public eye as well, and on trial. It didn't matter how many times she swore her innocence and her ignorance of Mel's crimes, there were many in the press, in the neighborhood, across the world, and even within her own family, who believed she had a hand in the murders. Mel's supporters on the internet criticized, bullied, shamed, and threatened her in droves, enough that she had to take the kids and run, creating new identities and starting all over again—several times.

Now Gina is Gwen Proctor, and her kids are Atlanta (Lanny) and Connor. In a remote town called Stillhouse Lake, they finally feel comfortable after so many years of fleeing when people started asking too many questions or Mel's minions found them. The kids are weary of giving up their lives in the blink of an eye, of having no friends, having to set and reset the house alarm, and of watching their mother driven to the brink of violence and fear in an effort to keep them safe. All three of them start to think about fixing up their house, making friends, building a life again.

And then the body of a young woman is found in the lake near their house, and the similarities to Mel's crimes are eerie. Gwen's first instinct is to flee, but how can she do that to her kids again? Should she finally let her guard down and let someone know the truth about who they are, or is there someone who already knows it? Who is behind this murder? Does she still need to fear Mel, even though she's left no trail?

One thing is for certain: she is no longer a victim. If it comes to defending her children or herself, she will fight to save them. No matter what that takes.

This was one hell of a thrill ride! Rachel Caine reels you in on the first page and doesn't let you go until you've read the last word. Gwen is one badass mom, although I, too, wondered if she really was as innocent as she claimed she was. But having read other books in which characters have to run away when their identity is exposed, I felt as if Stillhouse Lake was one of the strongest in depicting how that split-second decision affects the children involved, those who've never had a say in what happened to them.

As I've remarked before, my general MO when reading thrillers is to trust no one. I really was wondering how Caine would resolve everything, and while I felt like I had to stretch my disbelief a bit, it didn't frustrate me that much. Caine is an amazing storyteller—there aren't a lot of books that would keep me reading late into the night, desperately needing to see how the book ended!

If you're a thriller fan, you'll want to grab this one—I know I'm ready for Book #2!

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Book Review: "Rich People Problems" by Kevin Kwan

Sometimes the best antidote for the craziness of the world is reading a wacky book. (It leaves my head clearer than drinking would, anyway.) Kevin Kwan's Rich People Problems, the third in his Crazy Rich Asians series, was just the ticket. Campy, a bit melodramatic, and utterly outrageous, Kwan's tales of three generations of Chinese families, set mostly in Singapore, provides a hysterical glimpse into how the ultra-rich live.

"Peel away the veneer of wealth and sophistication and you'll find extremely provincial, narrow-minded people. The problem is that they all have too much money, and it's come so easily to them that they think they're bloody geniuses and so they are always right."

Su Yi, the matriarch of the Young Family, is on her deathbed. She has a massive fortune, capped by Tyersall Park, a 64-acre estate on prime land in Singapore. While Asian tradition would usually expect Su Yi to leave the estate to her eldest son, Philip, many believed she'd bequeath it to his son, her favorite grandson, Nicholas. But Nicholas has been estranged from his grandmother after she voiced her disapproval of his marrying Rachel, whom she viewed as a common Chinese girl, so he hasn't been home to visit her in several years.

With disposition of Su Yi's estate in question, her entire family heads to Tyersall Park to hopefully get into her good graces (and perhaps move up a bit in her will) before she passes. Her eldest daughter, Felicity, knows that she'll probably get the short end of the stick because of her gender, but she has bigger fish to fry—her daughter Astrid is scandalizing the family with her relationship with her college boyfriend Charlie Wu. The family never thought that he was good enough for her, even though he is a self-made technology tycoon now, they don't want the two to get together now, even though both are on the verge of divorcing.

Another grandson, Eddie Chang, has also come to be with Su Yi, with his family in tow. Eddie is the most status-conscious of any of the family members—he always has to be sure people know he's wearing top-of-the-line designers, the most expensive and unique shoes (one pair needed to be dyed multiple times, so they took weeks to be ready for him), and the most luxurious of luxury timepieces. He is bound and determined to finally get the respect he believes he deserves, and if that means keeping others away from his grandmother until he wins her over to his side, so be it.

While Nicholas says he doesn't care about the estate and doesn't want to revisit the hurt his grandmother caused, he realizes he needs to say goodbye to her. (Plus, his high-strung mother insists about five times a day, when she's not interrogating him and Rachel about when they'll give her a grandchild.) His return home dredges up some resentment (especially with his cousin Eddie), but spending time with Su Yi and other family members reminds him of the importance of family, but reinforces how smart he and Rachel are to live in New York!

Meanwhile, former, umm, actress Kitty Pong has finally gained some status with her marriage to China's second-richest man, Jack Bing. But her quest for respectability keeps falling short, as she can't seem to reconcile her schizophrenic tastes in fashion and decor with what is expected of someone in her position. Even worse is the fact that she is convinced her stepdaughter, fashionista-turned-attorney's wife Colette, is trying to upstage her at every turn. No matter how hard she tries to stand out, Colette seems to be in her way, despite her sudden passion for the environment and no-frills fashion.

"Scientists talk about how we inherit health issues from our parents through our genes, but we also inherit this entire lineage of fear and pain—generations of it."

Rich People Problems is quite funny as it chronicles the over-the-top behavior of these people as they battle for an inheritance, social acceptance, love, and most of all, more money. Kwan imbues his book with painstaking details (even his footnotes are hysterical while also being informative) and a litany of designers, couture, and descriptions of food sure to make your stomach growl quite loudly.

Even the characters' names are amazing—my favorite is probably Scheherazade Shang, or Harvard Bing, the infant son of Kitty and Jack. The visuals Kwan's imagery conveys are eye-popping, and some of the dialogue is campier than any soap opera diva or villain's.

Like many, I've occasionally thought about what life might be like if I didn't have to worry about money—what I would do, where I would go, what I would spend it on. But the amount of money the characters in this book throw around (one character gets an eye lift for a rare fish to make it look younger) is unfathomable, which makes the book so much fun to read.

A true guilty pleasure.

Book Review: "Our Dark Duet" by Victoria Schwab

You know when you want to absolutely devour a book, but it's the last book in a series you love, so you're torn between reading it in practically one sitting and savoring it for as long as you can? That's the way I felt about Victoria Schwab's Our Dark Duet, the second and apparently final book in Schwab's Monsters of Verity series. (The first book, This Savage Song, was pretty fantastic, too. See my original review.)

"There were two kinds of monsters, the kind that hunted the streets and the kind that lived in your head. She could fight the first, but the second was more dangerous. It was always, always, always a step ahead. It didn't have teeth or claws, didn't feed on flesh or blood or hearts. It simply reminded you of what happened when you let people in."

Kate Harker and August Flynn should never have known each other, much less become friends. Kate's father was a notoriously power-hungry man who harnessed the monsters that roamed the half of the city he controlled, and then charged the city's residents for his protection from them. August is the adopted son of Henry Flynn, who wants to keep the residents of his half of the city safe by controlling the monsters, not harnessing them as pawns in a shakedown.

August is also a monster, the rarest of the three breeds, who can steal a person's soul by playing his violin. He simply wants to to be kind, to live a good life, and not face the reality of his familial responsibilities, but he cannot escape what he is. He and Kate were thrown together, and after weathering fear and mistrust of one another, they built a relationship, more than a friendship, and each became indebted to the other in a bloody battle for survival.

Six months later, after fleeing her home city, Kate has become the monster hunter she always knew she was destined to be. But when another breed of monster appears, the so-called Chaos Eater, one who feeds on bystanders' emotions and fears in order to reap violence, she finds she has some sort of dangerous connection to it, and it lures her home to Prosperity, where old and new nemeses await her. Meanwhile, August has assumed his rightful place as heir apparent to his father's task force, but he is still conflicted between what is expected of him and what he wants from his life.

"And here in Prosperity, Kate had found a purpose, a point, and now when she met her gaze in the mirror, she didn't see a girl who was sad or lonely or lost. She saw a girl who wasn't afraid of the dark. She saw a girl who hunted monsters. And she was damn good at it."

Kate's return to Prosperity drops her back into the thick of the war between the monsters who wish to rule the city and those who wish for peace. She faces the resentment of those who hate her for who her father was, and don't believe in her capabilities. She doesn't understand what happened to August, where the boy she once knew has gone. And she knows that in order to fight the Chaos Eater she must unleash her own inner monster, and there may be no turning back once she does.

There's a lot more to this book, but I don't want to ruin it for anyone. I would say if this interests you, read This Savage Song first, because this book builds on that one. I know this series isn't for everyone, but if you've ever thought about giving YA fantasy/science fiction a try, here's a series worth cutting your teeth on.

I loved Our Dark Duet immensely, because Schwab pulled me right back into the amazing, dark world she created, and gave me even more emotion, conflict, and epic battles. I haven't read her other series but I definitely will have to, because she is an incredible storyteller. I loved these characters and their relationships, and my only frustration is that the series ended so soon.

I'm not a fan of so many books being adapted into movies and/or television series, but I'd love to see these books get adapted. Schwab's words and imagery deserve to be read, but this incredible world she has created deserves to be seen as well. I'd love to see how August and Kate, their family and friends, and those monsters translate onto the screen. So sad to see this end, but Schwab has a huge fan in me!!

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Book Review: "Crime Song" by David Swinson

Retired DC police detective Frank Marr returns in Crime Song, the second book in David Swinson's great series. Frank is, for lack of a better term, a total mess. His addiction to cocaine and alcohol got so bad that he was forced to resign from the police force, so now he works as a private investigator, making just enough to live and (mostly) support his drug habit.

He agrees to do a favor for his somewhat-estranged aunt, who helped raise him after his mother died, and figure out what trouble his college-aged cousin Jeffrey has gotten himself into. Frank hasn't seen Jeffrey since he was a little kid, but when his aunt says that Jeffrey has been skipping his classes at George Washington University, he figures it should be easy to determine what he's up to. And after some surveillance at a trendy nightclub downtown, he confirms that Jeffrey has become a relatively small-time drug dealer.

Frank remembers Jeffrey as a kid, and part of him wants to talk some sense into Jeffrey himself, but instead he's going to report his findings to his aunt. Just before making that phone call, Frank's house is ransacked and a body is left on the floor—Jeffrey's. There's even a possibility that Frank's missing gun might have been the murder victim. It's more than enough to strain the fragile relationship with his aunt, not to mention possible damage his reputation for good.

Once the police are reasonably convinced Frank didn't have a hand in any of this, they promise to try and find all of his stuff and, more importantly, figure out what happened to Jeffrey. Of course, the police's involvement doesn't dissuade Frank from running his own investigation. He has some latitude as a private investigator, but he just can't get caught interfering. He wants answers, and perhaps equally important, he needs to replenish his stash, so if he comes into contact with a drug dealer he can steal from, so much the better.

As Frank follows the trail of his missing stereo equipment, records and CDs, and other electronics, he finds a pretty extensive operation involving drug dealers and addicts selling to fences who look the other way, and thinks he's found his guide into the madness in the persona of a conflicted cab driver. But there's a lot more than meets the eye than burglaries and drugs—and somehow, unknowingly, Frank is in the middle of all of it.

Will more lives be endangered, including his own, before he figures out the truth? How far can he let things go without telling the police what he's found? Can he even trust the police, or should he deliver his own justice? And how is he involved, and by whom? No matter what he does, he risks it all—his ability to work as a PI, the possibility of a relationship with his aunt, his friendships and his fragile relationship with a former police colleague-turned-defense attorney, his reputation, and his life.

Swinson tells a great story. This was an addicting crime novel from start to finish, and in fact, having a little bit of a staycation (and a sick husband), I read the book in one day. Frank Marr is a terrific character. He's utterly flawed and has his own skewed sense of right and wrong, yet he's doggedly loyal once he's trying to solve a case. He knows his addiction will destroy him, but he doesn't see a way out, and frankly, he's not too interested in finding one.

Not a lot of what happens plot-wise is too surprising, but that doesn't really matter. Following Frank, seeing how good of an investigator he is despite his issues, and watching his conflict between sharing what he knows with the police and dealing with everything on his own is fascinating and compelling. I like some of the supporting characters in these books, and I was sad that Swinson didn't give us a little more Luna or Leslie, but ultimately this is Frank's show.

Having lived in the DC area for years, I love a good locally set crime novel. Swinson's series is definitely worth picking up, and you'll marvel over the complexity of such a flawed, yet good, man.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Book Review: "So Much Blue" by Percival Everett

While I'm not one of those people who believes every painting needs to have meaning, on more than one occasion I've looked at an abstract piece and wondered just what the artist was striving for. Sometimes a painting strikes me initially as simply a jumble of colors or shapes or objects, but after looking at it a few times, suddenly everything clicks into place and makes sense.

That's how I felt about So Much Blue by Percival Everett. I'd seen some tremendously positive reviews of the book, and it has been included on more than a few year-end best lists. Initially, I wondered how (and if) the seemingly disparate pieces of the narrative would come together and what it all meant, but when they did, I was utterly wowed by the book as a whole.

Kevin Pace is a somewhat-misanthropic painter of some renown. His success certainly has made his family's life more comfortable, but he doesn't seem fazed either way. He is currently working on a major piece—a canvas of twelve feet by twenty-one feet (and three inches) that is covered entirely in shades of blue. He won't show it to anyone, not his wife, his children, or his best friend, Richard. This painting might be a masterpiece or it might garner no response, and he doesn't really care.

"To say that a painting is like a story is a pedestrian utterance, not altogether untrue, but uninspired, though that hardly stops people from making such invidious and unwarranted comparisons. The painting that was my life was static, hardly a story at all, moving but with no moving parts, changing but without alteration."

Kevin's life is characterized by secrets. Ten years ago, while he was in Paris working with a gallery owner selling his work, Kevin had an affair with a young watercolor painter. He wasn't looking for an affair and didn't allow himself any delusions it would continue or shake up his life, but the relationship touched him more than he imagined. But he never told his wife about the affair, although she knows something occurred while he was in Paris.

In 1979, while they were in college, Kevin and Richard headed to El Salvador, as the country was on the cusp of war, to find Richard's brother Tad, who apparently disappeared down there. The two have no idea what they're getting themselves into, and engage the services of The Bummer, an American war criminal, to try and find Tad and bring him home. What they encounter, and the situation Kevin finds himself in, has never left Kevin's mind. It caused him to become an alcoholic for a number of years, and this, too, has always been a source of distance between him and his wife, since he's never shared what happened down there.

"The real sadness was that I drifted away from my wife and children because of alcohol, but instead of finding the current back to them when I ceased, I camped out on an uncharted island in the middle of myself."

When Kevin's teenage daughter asks him to keep a secret of her own, he finally realizes the cost of secrets, the cost of keeping those he cares about at arm's length for so long. He also thinks about the sacrifices he has made for his art, whether those sacrifices changed him in any way, and whether a painting should take such precedence in his life.

"The fact that it was secret served its secrets, my secrets, and suddenly I understood at least one rather simple and perhaps obvious forehead-flattening truth, that a secret can exist only if its revelation, discovery, even betrayal is possible."

It takes a little while for the separate story threads to weave themselves together into something cohesive, but when it does, this is a powerful meditation on the lengths we go to protect ourselves, even at the expense of those we love. Everett provides cogent commentary on the artist and the artistic process, and also shows how one secret can beget others.

Kevin is a difficult character to like at times, but once you understand the weight he has been carrying, his detachment makes far more sense. Everett tells a beautiful story, one with flashes of humor and sensitivity. I think I'll carry Kevin in my mind for a while now that I've finished this book.

Much like a painting or other work of art, So Much Blue may not hit everyone the same way, but for me, this was so worth the journey.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Book Review: "Watching Glass Shatter" by James J. Cudney

Is there any better time to read a book about family dysfunction than around the holidays?

James J. Cudney's Watching Glass Shatter is an immensely readable, deliciously soapy novel about a family on the verge of being torn apart by secrets. It's also a commentary about how when it appears people have it all, they often aren't satisfied, and things are much more complicated than they seem from the outside looking in.

Ben Glass and his wife Olivia are about to celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary. They have five wonderful sons, and Ben is in the process of beginning to plan his retirement from the law firm he has led tirelessly for years. But the family is thrown into turmoil by Ben's sudden death, which leaves Olivia shocked, despondent, and wondering what she is going to do with the rest of her life given all that she and Ben had planned.

The truth is, Ben's death is actually not the worst of it. After reading Ben's will, his attorney reveals a secret a conflicted Ben has kept hidden for many years: when Olivia gave birth to one of their sons, the baby died shortly after his birth. Rather than tell Olivia, who was asleep at the time, Ben was able to find a young woman looking to give her infant son up for adoption, so Ben arranged for them to switch babies, and never said a word, although he always felt guilty and wanted to tell the truth.

To make matters worse, Ben directed his attorney to find his son's biological mother upon his death. Only once the woman is located (if that is possible) can the information about which son this was be revealed. Olivia feels angry, betrayed, and utterly despondent that in addition to losing her husband and best friend, she has now learned she lost a baby years ago, and she may lose one of the young men she has raised from birth.

As the attorney searches for the woman, Olivia decides to spend time visiting each of her sons, trying to determine if she can uncover the truth, but more importantly, ensuring that their lives are progressing the way that she and Ben hoped they were. In addition to experiencing a little friction with her daughters-in-law, what she finds is that each of her sons is carrying his own burden, his own secret that is torturing him. If all of these secrets are revealed they have the potential to destroy her family completely.

There is quite a lot going on in Watching Glass Shatter and I just couldn't get enough of it. Some of the secrets I could see coming, but I was hooked from start to finish. I've seen that Cudney is a fan of soap operas, and that comes as no surprise reading this book, and that's part of what makes it so enjoyable. He deftly avoids the plot or the dialogue becoming too campy or melodramatic, however.

You may know how this story will resolve itself, but it doesn't matter one bit, because you'll want to see it/read it with your own eyes. This is a compelling addition to the dysfunctional family genre, and I look forward to seeing what Cudney writes next!

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Book Review: "Far from the Tree" by Robin Benway

This book...

Robin Benway's Far from the Tree recently won the National Book Award. It's a beautiful, thought-provoking tearjerker of a book, a meditation about family and its different forms, as well as the fears we don't share with those we love, and how what we don't say is often more of a roadblock than the things we do.

At times this book had me like:

While at other times it had me like:

Grace is an only child, although she's always known that she was adopted. But shortly after she gives birth to her own daughter while she's still in high school, and gives the baby up for adoption, she decides that it's time to start looking for her biological mother. She more than surprised to find out from her parents that Grace had two biological siblings—an older brother, Joaquin, and a younger sister, Maya, whom she never knew existed.

Maya is tremendously outspoken about everything, perhaps because she's the lone brunette in a house full of redheads. Her adopted parents' marriage is floundering, her mother has a drinking problem, and she's always felt the outsider in her family, since her younger sister was born shortly after her parents adopted her. She's not sure what she hopes to find in her biological siblings, but she hopes it brings her security.

While Grace and Maya were adopted as babies, Joaquin has spent his life in and out of foster families. Even the times he let his guard and his heart down, he ultimately was disappointed and hurt, so he's determined not to let that happen again, even when the situation looks promising. More than anything, he's afraid that he believes he can hurt the people who care about him, so he's afraid to let anyone get too close, even Grace and Maya.

Each of the siblings has their emotional wounds and their secrets, which poses challenges for their relationship but also demonstrates just how much they have in common. Beyond their mutual love of eating their French fries with mayonnaise, and their similar physical characteristics, the three share the fear of telling the people they care about the truth, about letting them see all of their problems, which has resulted in friction with others in their lives. But little by little, they let their walls down with one another and try to help each other face those fears—which is far easier said than done.

"Maya wondered if it would ever be like this with Grace and Joaquin, the ability to just sit quietly side by side, content in the knowledge that no matter what happened with your parents, or your girlfriend, that your siblings will still be there, like a bookend that keeps you upright when you feel like toppling over."

There is a lot of emotional upheaval in this book, as the siblings deal with their own issues as well as search for their biological mother. I enjoyed this book quite a bit, but I'll admit I found their inability to verbalize the things they were afraid of/angry about tremendously frustrating. I know this was a realistic depiction of how people, particularly teenagers, often handle their problems, but to have it be the case with three people at the same time was a bit bothersome.

Beyond wanting to shake the characters so they'd finally say what needed to be said, I really enjoyed this book and was tremendously moved by it. It was a very real reminder about the fears and anxieties adopted children and children in the foster care system face, and it also demonstrated how feeling like you belong for the first time can truly make a difference.

This is a really well-written book. Benway had an ear for dialogue that was on-target for teenagers without making them sound so much wiser and more sarcastic than their years. I'm always a big fan of books which make me feel while they make me think, which is why I definitely recommend Far from the Tree.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Book Review: "Boys Keep Swinging: A Memoir" by Jake Shears

"Writing about your life is panning your imagination for shiny bits. Much memory is grimy and covered with fuzz, like a component of some unknown thing that was left under your couch for years, attracting dust bunnies. When you find it, you're unsure what it was used for in the first place. You do your best to wash the pieces off and line them up on a table, in hopes that with a little concentration they might be understood for what they were. And maybe you find that a couple of the pieces fit together."

I decided to read Boys Keep Swinging, a new memoir by Jake Shears, the lead singer of the musical group Scissor Sisters, both because I was a big fan of the group's music and because, well, I'm fairly enamored of Shears, who has a penchant for posing for and taking pictures of himself in various states of undress. (Whatever. We all have our Kryptonite.)

Beyond his music and his physical appeal, I honestly knew nothing about Shears. In fact, I'm embarrassed to admit that because of the intonation he uses in some of Scissor Sisters' songs (say that five times fast), I thought he was Australian. But as much as this book is about the rise of Scissor Sisters and how Jake dealt with finally achieving his dreams, Boys Keep Swinging is so much more than that—it's a poignant and entertaining look at one man's quest for happiness, a sense of belonging, and peace with himself.

Shears, born Jason Sellards, was raised in Arizona. From a young age he knew he wasn't like everyone else—he didn't like sports, he preferred the company of adults (particularly adult women) to his peers, and he had a talent for writing and telling stories. And as he grew into his awkward teenage years, and realized he was gay, he wasn't ready to acknowledge this fact to his parents or those who knew him, but that didn't stop him from dressing and acting flamboyantly. He just didn't care what people thought, although he feared how his parents might react.

The book follows his journey into adulthood and self-acceptance, and his desire to find his place. He tells of friendships made and those lost, sometimes because of his own actions, and his desire to find someone to love. He endures interesting work and living situations, but slowly begins to realize he feels most alive when in front of a crowd, whether dancing on top of a bar in his underwear, performing in drag, or finally, writing and performing music he wrote.

As Shears describes how Scissor Sisters came to be, and the struggles the band faced on its way to success, he also touches on the numerous people—famous and behind the scenes—who inspired and helped him. He also isn't afraid to shy away from discussing how even at the pinnacle of professional and personal success he had trouble being happy, instead worrying whether everything would fall apart and he'd be left with nothing.

Unlike some memoirs, Shears doesn't paint himself as perfect in any way—he's more than willing to enumerate his flaws and how he mistreated some of those people closest to him. He's not afraid to discuss his regrets or his insecurities, even those he still deals with. That made reading this book a much more moving and fulfilling experience.

I enjoyed this book for a number of reasons, but particularly because I identified with Shears' struggles growing up, dealing with the bullying of his peers and seeking the acceptance of his parents and others. How many young people trying to come to terms with their sexuality and wondering if they'll ever find happiness haven't felt the way he did? I also identified with his struggles to feel happy even amidst the success and fulfillment he had achieved, as I've been there, too.

I felt that the book dragged a bit in places, particularly in the lead-up to the birth of Scissor Sisters. There was a lot of the same story over and over again, just with different celebrities or men he knew mentioned. (At times it feels like he has met or knew nearly everyone in the music business, as well as some celebrities!!) But Shears' writing style is engaging and self-deprecating, which made this tremendously readable. (I'd imagine the audio book, if one is produced, will be terrific if he reads it himself!)

Even if you don't know his music or aren't tantalized by his physical appeal, Boys Keep Swinging is a worthwhile read. I don't often pick up celebrity memoirs unless I think there's some depth to be found, and there was lots to be found here.

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

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Book Review: "Elmet" by Fiona Mozley

Fiona Mozley's Elmet is one of the most lyrical, atmospheric books I've read in some time. The descriptions of this area of rural Yorkshire, and the environment that surrounds the main characters, are tremendously poetic and vivid, yet Mozley doesn't use more words than necessary to get the mood or her story across. It's almost as if she strove for a simple, no-nonsense tone befitting her salt-of-the-earth characters.

In the book's epigraph from Ted Hughes, we learn that Elmet was "the last independent Celtic kingdom in England...stretched out over the vale of York," as well as "a sanctuary for refugees from the law." This is where 14-year-old Daniel lives with his 15-year-old sister Cathy and their father, in a house their father built himself. They are self-sufficient, living off the land around them.

Their father, John, is known for his ferociousness as a bareknuckle fighter. He is a gentle giant yet a man not above using his fists to get what he needs or wants, or to punish those who have done wrong in his eyes. This behavior is inherited not by Daniel, who is happier tending to the family's dogs and serving as cook rather than protector, but by Cathy, who strikes back at her classmates who bully her.

Their life is a simple, happy one, until Price, the greedy tyrant who owns most of the land in the area, begins to cause trouble. The more he wants to bleed his tenants dry, the more it angers them, especially John, who finds himself assuming a leadership position among his fellow tenants, uniting them against Price. They decide on a rent strike, and John defends the group when the bailiffs come to enforce laws on Price's behalf.

As with any struggle between the haves and have-nots, the tension simmers until it hits a breaking point. And that's where Elmet loses its way somewhat, veering a bit into melodrama and slightly less plausible events. While the book's conclusion isn't surprising, it still seemed a bit far-fetched to me, and that was disappointing. I also found a few of the characters, including Price, seemed a little two-dimensional, where there was potential to make them complex, flawed people.

Amazingly, Elmet is Mozley's debut novel, and it was a finalist for this year's Man Booker Prize. A few glitches notwithstanding, Mozley's storytelling is so assured, so compelling, that I have little doubt she's going to have an amazing career ahead of her. Is the book perfect? No, but it is tremendously memorable and beautifully written. It's one that has haunted me since I read it a week or two ago.

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

Monday, December 18, 2017

Book Review: "Our Lady of the Prairie" by Thisbe Nissen

"So much of this life we spend holding ourselves together, when all we're really looking for is someone who might undo us completely."

Theater professor Phillipa Maakestad is finally settling into her life. Married for years to fellow theater professor Michael, they struggled for years with their daughter, Ginny, who suffered from mental illness and drug addiction. But now Ginny has finally stabilized, and is set to marry a young man she has known since childhood.

And then, much to Phillipa's surprise, while teaching a semester in Ohio, she falls madly in love with another man—Lucius, a history professor. When they finally succumb to their passions, their affair consumes her. She can only think about being with Lucius, which is problematic, considering she needs to return to Iowa for Ginny's wedding. But how can she pretend that everything is fine, everything is the same, when absolutely everything has changed?

"What I won't back down from is this: Lucius and I met and we were a twister. We tried to keep ourselves apart, but some forces are too great. Some forces are beyond control."

Phillipa confesses her affair to Michael just before her return home, but they vow to keep up appearances for Ginny's sake. That should be easy, right? Well, Phillipa wasn't counting on a wedding-day tornado, Michael's strange request for getting revenge for her unfaithfulness, and her continually disapproving, obstinate mother-in-law, whom Phillipa thinks might have been a Nazi. It's more than any one person can handle, much less one already dealing with an intense love for another man.

Our Lady of the Prairie is a slightly zany, poignant, and periodically frustrating look at one woman who decides the best way to deal with her midlife crisis is just to let everything around her implode, whether intentionally or accidentally. It's a story about being caught between the life you want and the life you're obligated to. It's also the story of how when we try so hard not to hurt anyone we often wind up hurting everyone, including ourselves.

Thisbe Nissen does a terrific job in painting a portrait of a woman who was so deliberate through so much of her life that when she finally throws a little caution to the wind, the results are disastrous. Phillipa has spent so much time taking care of her daughter, her husband, her mother-in-law, even her students, but she doesn't really know how to take care of herself, or even understand that she, too, is worthy of happiness of her own. She's not the most sympathetic character but you understand many of the choices she makes, and given what she has dealt with in her life, you may wonder if she's entitled.

Parts of this book had me laughing aloud, and parts had me tearing up. It's set in the months leading up to the 2004 presidential election, when the country was divided in its feelings about George W. Bush, and Nissen captured that mood well.

There were, however, some threads of the story I just didn't understand the point of, particularly Phillipa's belief that her mother-in-law was a Nazi. Any time she interacted with Bernadette, the story lost its appeal, and there's an overly long section in which Phillipa imagines she's living Bernadette's life which almost made me stop reading the book. In the end, I didn't feel that Nissen even resolved this part of the story, so I definitely could have done without it.

I've never read anything Nissen has written, but I was utterly taken by her storytelling and her ear for dialogue. There's a lot to this book, but it's a fascinating, emotional, and often-humorous look at one woman's life in the midst of crisis after crisis (many which are self-inflicted), and you wonder just where Phillipa will end up. It's a little wacky, but it has a lot of heart.

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

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Book Review: "The Lost Prayers of Ricky Graves" by James Han Mattson

Social media has made it possible for us to connect with people from all phases of our lives, all over the world. Sadly, it has also made it easier for people to bully, ridicule, criticize, gossip, and humiliate. No matter how many connections we may have, are these true relationships? Will the people with whom we share photos, pithy sayings, humorous videos, and casual greetings actually be there to help us in our time of need?

These are questions James Han Mattson addresses in his immensely current, poignant new novel, The Lost Prayers of Ricky Graves.

Ricky Graves was a teenager growing up in a small town in New Hampshire. He often felt disconnected from his peers, his older sister moved away to pursue her own life, and his mother was often emotionally distracted and vacant. He wondered whether he'd ever find someone to understand him and feel the same way he did. One night, tired of being embarrassed and ostracized by his peers, he kills himself and another classmate, and shoots another.

Five months after the incident, the town's residents are still reeling and searching for answers. Ricky's older sister Alyssa returns to town to confront her mother about Ricky's death, at the same time dealing with her own guilt about being so detached from Ricky for so long. But Alyssa has her own issues, her own demons to confront.

"But I suppose death does weird things to your memory, makes you think of the person in a way that's better than the person actually was."

This book shifts back and forth between the events leading up to the shooting and the aftermath, and is told in first-person accounts, emails, and chat-room transcripts. Ricky's story is pieced together by the perspectives of a number of people—Mark, the one survivor of the shooting, who is haunted by his guilt and his visions of Ricky's spirit; Corky, Alyssa's ex-boyfriend, who once was Ricky's camp counselor, and wonders whether he missed some of the signs of what might happen down the line; Claire, one of Ricky's classmates, who vacillates between her own guilt and her misplaced desire to avenge those who caused it; and Jeremy, who inadvertently became Ricky's confidante when they chatted online, but he had no idea how troubled Ricky was.

I can't say I enjoyed this book, but it was very affecting and thought-provoking. Sadly, what happened to Ricky and how he reacted has become all too common in today's world. Unfortunately, I found most of the characters pretty unlikable, and one plot thread in particular had me concerned Mattson was going to take the book from the poignant to the ridiculous. (Luckily, it didn't quite go there.) Some of the plot threads felt unresolved or too pat for me as well.

All too often I wonder about social media's affect on society and our interpersonal relationships, and I read far too much about those being bullied online. The Lost Prayers of Ricky Graves will definitely get you thinking in the same regard, and make you wonder just how many kids are facing the same feelings Ricky did, hopefully without the same results.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Book Review: "Into the Black Nowhere" by Meg Gardiner

Meg Gardiner, Meg Gardiner, Meg SLAY me! Reading UNSUB a month or two ago just blew me away, and here you are again, with another heart-pounding, completely riveting novel featuring FBI profiler Caitlin Hendrix. What an amazing series this is turning out to be!!

In a little town called Solace, Texas, women are literally disappearing on Saturday nights. One moment they're there—on a concession line at a movie theater, in a mall parking lot, in their car stopped at a railroad crossing, even at home with their baby—and the next second, they're gone. There are no signs of struggle. Did these women go willingly?

Caitlin Hendrix, a rookie FBI agent recently assigned to the agency's Behavioral Analysis Unit, heads to Texas to help determine whether there's a serial killer preying on women in this town just outside Austin. When they find their first bodies, they discover a disturbing, gruesome sight—the women, both blonde, have been meticulously laid out in white, baby-doll nightgowns, with full makeup. Their wrists are slashed and they lay face up, almost like sleeping princesses, and their bodies are surrounded by Polaroid pictures of other victims yet to be found, posed in the same way.

As she and her colleagues try to make sense of just what kind of person would be the mastermind behind such a crime spree, the killer strikes again, outside of Solace, in order to throw the FBI off his trail. But with the help of a tip from a woman who has lived most of her life in fear, they find their man—a handsome, charismatic businessman who can gain a woman's trust in a split second, and isn't afraid to depend on a little subterfuge if necessary. He immediately identifies Caitlin's own demons, and tries to use them against her in an effort to disarm her.

The FBI finds themselves in a high-stakes game of cat and mouse once the killer uses his intellect and charm to make a fool of them. From Wyoming to Oklahoma to the Pacific Northwest, Caitlin and her colleagues try to gain the upper hand on this man before he kills again—and try to figure out just how he's able to get the information and advantages he needs. It's a race that could prove deadly to more than his usual victims, and one which could put Caitlin's mental state at risk as well.

This book, much like the first in this series, had me from page 1 and left me breathless until the very end. Gardiner is so skilled at giving you just enough evidence but leaving you in the same place as the FBI, so you aren't frustrated by knowing more than the crime fighters do. There are some terrific action scenes in this book, worthy of the best thrillers, and Gardiner also pays close attention to character development.

In UNSUB, more attention was paid to Caitlin's relationship with ATF agent Sean Rawlins, and I like the interaction between the two of them. I missed that in this book, although clearly there are some plot points which I guess are setting up the third book in the series. (Plus, Gardiner makes Sean sound seriously sexy, so that's always a welcome distraction from the profiling work, lol!)

This is truly one of the best series I've read in some time, and I will breathlessly await the next book in the series, even though my wait will be a little longer than it was between books 1 and 2! Into the Black Nowhere is just excellent. You can't go wrong with these books!!

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

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Book Review: "Foolish Hearts" by Emma Mills

Every so often, after I've read a number of thrillers, crime novels, or even emotionally draining books in a row, I seek out what I like to call a "literary palate-cleanser," essentially a book which appears to be a little bit lighter in tone and one which won't have me eyeing my neighbors and delivery men, expecting a crime to break out.

The "palate-cleanser" term isn't meant to be a disparaging one—sometimes I'm just looking for a book that's funny and/or sweet, that won't send my psyche or my suspicious nature into overdrive.

Emma Mills' new book, Foolish Hearts, seemed to be exactly what I was looking for. And to be honest, when I saw the book was ranked #1 in Amazon's category of "Teen & Young Adult Theater Fiction," I thought, as a former theater kid, how can I miss? But this is so much more than a book about the theater—it's a book about friendship, family, telling yourself and others the truth, facing your fears, and realizing that people are so much more than they seem upon first (or even second or third) impression.

Claudia attends the exclusive Prospect-Landower School for Girls, mainly because her father is a teacher there. She's much more comfortable hanging out at home, playing video games with her best friend Zoe and her older brother, and living a life in which she doesn't have to interact too much with her much wealthier classmates, some of whom are obscenely rich, and some are private-island rich. Claudia isn't interested in stepping outside her comfort zone at all since her boyfriend broke up with her a few years back.

"In truth, we are rarely all on the same page. More often than not, they're all on one page, and I'm on a completely different one. It can't be helped most of the time. Society itself puts us on different pages. They drive Range Rovers and have celebrity deejays at their sweet sixteens. I had to scrape and scrounge and toast subs, and remake the subs that I toasted badly, just to buy a car."

But in an effort to try and be more involved in school for her senior year, she attends a luncheon party thrown by one of her classmates, and almost instantly gets herself into trouble, as she winds up inadvertently overhearing the breakup of the couple in her class, Iris and Paige.

"Together, [Iris] and Paige hold the titles of class president three years running (Iris), most popular girl in our grade (Paige), and cutest couple in our school (collectively). Thought 'cutest' isn't quite right. I don't think anyone who knows her would use the word cute to describe anything relating to Iris Huang...she's also ruthless and unforgiving and, some would say, ill-mannered and incredibly unpleasant."

When Iris realizes Claudia has been eavesdropping on such a traumatic moment, she threatens to destroy Claudia if she tells anyone what she heard. And when an assigned pairing for an assignment goes completely awry, their "punishment" is to audition or be in the crew for the school play, A Midsummer Night's Dream. Although Iris gets a small part and Claudia gets to work on the costume crew, the two are thrown together more times than either can count, and Claudia starts to wear Iris down, at least a little, until Claudia realizes that Iris is uncharacteristically obsessed with a boy band that she enjoys, too.

As the two try and build something resembling a friendship, Claudia also keeps getting thrown together with Gideon Prewitt, the goofy, handsome star of the play. Gideon keeps sending Claudia signals that he'd like to get to know her better, and everyone, except Claudia, seems to understand this. But the more she starts thinking about Gideon that way, the more her fears keep tripping her up, so she keeps finding reasons to keep their relationship as fun and platonic as possible, because she can't imagine Gideon would reciprocate her feelings, or if he did, would she be discarded just as quickly?

Foolish Hearts is sweet and funny, full of flawed characters who won't tell anyone how they really feel, but it utterly warmed my heart. While high school is so much more complicated than it was back in the dark ages when I attended, Mills still evoked an incredible feeling of nostalgia for me, a longing for simpler times, when the biggest anxieties were doing well on exams and wondering whether someone liked you back.

The plot isn't necessarily surprising, but it is tremendously enjoyable. I liked the way Iris and Paige's relationship wasn't a source of drama or controversy, it was presented in a matter-of-fact way, simply as another plot point.

Foolish Hearts definitely fit the bill for what I was looking for in a read, and I'll be sure to read some of Mills' other books. If you enjoy YA fiction that doesn't necessarily come with any heavy drama or messages, give this a try.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Book Review: "The Night Trade" by Barry Eisler

"Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster."

After introducing Seattle sex crimes detective Livia Lone in a sizzling, eponymous novel last year, Barry Eisler drops her into another sensational story of revenge and trying to put your demons to rest.

For most of her life, Livia has been haunted by the events of her childhood and teenage years, when she and her younger sister Nason were sold by their parents and forcibly taken to America, and horribly abused both by the men who trafficked them and then others. What they endured was beyond anything imaginable, and those incidents are what led Livia to pursue a career in law enforcement, particularly sex crimes, so she can right some of the wrongs she and Nason experienced.

When she is offered a position on a government task force combating sex trafficking in Thailand, she jumps at the chance to return home and exact revenge on the men who took her and her sister from the only life they had known. The government is trying to hunt down Rithisak Sorm, a notorious criminal kingpin and trafficker, whom Livia has learned was behind her own ordeal as well. It is an opportunity that seems almost too good to be true for her.

Returning to Thailand proves to be emotionally challenging, but she focuses on the overall objective of the mission. One night, when she has tracked Sorm to an exclusive nightclub in a Thai resort town, she discovers she's not the only one hunting Sorm. In the midst of a gunfight that goes spectacularly awry, Livia meets Dox, a former Marine sniper and mercenary-for-hire, who is consulting with U.S. intelligence to take Sorm down.

While the last thing Livia wants is a connection of any kind, she starts to realize that perhaps two hunters are better than one. And as reluctant as she is to open up to anyone, Dox's simple kindness and empathy helps her make him understand just how important meting out her own form of justice for Sorm truly is for her. He doesn't question her motives or her intent—he too understands that sometimes the only resort you have is killing someone.

But the deeper Livia and Dox dig into tracking Sorm down again, the more they realize they are up against forces more nefarious than they could have imagined. It seems that Sorm is a key component of a massive conspiracy which involves branches of U.S. intelligence, and not only do they want to keep Sorm alive, but they're willing to protect him no matter what the cost—and no matter how many people need to be harmed in the process.

The Night Trade is an action-packed yet emotional thrill ride by one of the best crime and thriller writers out there. Eisler's John Rain novels are among some of my absolute favorites, and now with two Livia Lone books under his belt, he proves he can write thrillers with equally kick-ass women as well. It was so terrific to see Dox (a character from the Rain novels) and Livia team up, so I hope a John Rain/Livia Lone pairing won't be far behind!

Livia is an absolutely electrifying protagonist, and while you worry that her demons may lead her too far down a path of retribution, the fine line she walks is so poignant and compelling. She reminds me a bit of Lisbeth Salander, in that they're equally badass and sadly, equally damaged, but still vulnerable.

Eisler's John Rain series is absolutely amazing, and so are his Livia Lone books. But there's a downside to his prolificness: the more he writes, the more impatient I get when I finish his latest book. Don't let these books, or these characters, pass you by!

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

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Book Review: "Bad Girls with Perfect Faces" by Lynn Weingarten

Wild, a little campy, and totally addictive, I devoured Bad Girls with Perfect Faces in a matter of a few hours. What a great read for a lazy Sunday!

"Be careful when your feelings are too strong, when you love someone too much. A heart too full is like a bomb. One day it will explode."

Sasha and Xavier have been best friends for about a year. They seem to get each other perfectly, to speak a language unique only to them. When Xavier starts dating Ivy, Sasha doesn't get jealous or weird about it. She's there for Xavier when Ivy blows off their plans, and she calms his fears when he thinks Ivy might be cheating on him. And when they break up, and Xavier barely leaves his room for about a month, Sasha is there for him, trying to make him laugh, and helping him do anything but think about Ivy.

Lately, Sasha realizes her feelings for Xavier have changed. She needs to tell him how she feels, but she's afraid to jeopardize their friendship. She just can't keep it a secret anymore. Or maybe just a little longer.

Before Sasha gets her courage together, they run into Ivy at a club. She wants Xavier back. She promises it will be different this time, that she'll never hurt him again. But Sasha knows better. She doesn't want Xavier to hurt the way he did for the month he and Ivy were broken up, and of course, there are her own feelings to consider.

She needs to prove to Xavier once and for all that Ivy can't be trusted. She creates an online profile for a guy named Jake, and starts building a friendship with Ivy. She knows that Ivy won't be able to resist. But she has no idea what ripples she'll set off.

"Back then I couldn't have imagined what would happen later, how everything would twist around inside me. But that's the thing about life. No matter how smart you are, you'll just never be able to imagine any of what's coming for you, not until it's right there, standing on your throat."

There are a lot of plot twists to be had here, so I'm not going to say anything more. Suffice it to say, even when what happened was a campy and/or unrealistic, I was completely hooked, because I had to know what happened. The book is a little melodramatic, but it's a book about high school seniors, so weren't relationships cause for melodrama back then?

I have never read anything Lynn Weingarten has written, but I'm definitely a fan now. I found this book utterly irresistible and compulsively readable, and the characters fascinated me. It reminded me a little of Karen McManus' One of Us is Lying with its multiple narrators and the general mood of the book.

If you're looking for a book to keep your attention on a sleepless night or a lazy day, pick up Bad Girls with Perfect Faces. It's troubling but definitely a wild ride!!

Book Review: "Light it Up" by Nick Petrie

There's this feeling I get when I'm reading a series of books I like. It's like hanging out with old friends—it feels good to see them again and spend some time with them, and while the circumstances are always a little bit different, I know what to expect of them, and I like that.

Although Light it Up is only Nick Petrie's third book featuring awesomely badass drifter Peter Ash, I got that feeling when reading it. Peter is one cool, complicated character that I find totally fascinating—a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan whose PTSD manifests itself as claustrophobia that makes it difficult for him to be indoors or closed-in spaces for long periods of time. Peter is fiercely loyal, and that loyalty can demonstrate itself in dangerous ways, for those who choose to test it as well as for himself.

When Peter meets Henry Nygaard, despite the significant difference in their ages, there is an immediate kinship built on their shared veteran status (although vastly different wars), their strong work ethic, and their mutual belief that both may still be capable of redemption and happiness despite all they've done in their past. When their work rebuilding trails in the Pacific Northwest ends at the conclusion of a summer, they're ready to part ways, until Henry asks Peter for help, a clarion call Peter is unable to resist.

Henry's adult daughter runs a security company in Denver, a company he helped her set up, partially as a way of making amends for not knowing she existed until not too long ago. She told Henry that her husband, a former veteran himself, and his crew disappeared one day while making a run for one of the rapidly growing entrepreneurs in Colorado's cannabis business.

The money, the vehicle, the men—all have gone without a trace, and the police have no clue of their whereabouts. Henry's daughter needs a new crew to handle a money run for another businessman, and she needs this to succeed or all she has put together will collapse.

Henry recruits Peter and a few other vets to help with this run. When everything goes spectacularly wrong, Peter barely escapes with his life, and he realizes that they're up against a far more formidable foe than simple highway robbers. But what is there to be gained if the actual financial payoff isn't that high? How lucrative can the cannabis business really be, when so many in the state are growing and selling it these days?

In trying to figure out who is behind the attacks, Peter stumbles into a much deeper plot, being organized by those who will stop at nothing to get what they want. As he enlists some friends, including investigative reporter June Cassidy, with whom Peter dares to perhaps hope for a future, he realizes there is danger hidden within this seemingly mellow business, danger which could affect them all.

Petrie hits another home run with Light it Up. This is such a terrific series and Peter is an immensely fascinating character, someone far more complex than the troubled, musclebound Marine you think he is at first glance. This book gives you more of a glimpse into his mind and his heart, while not letting up for one second on the action. There are truly some scenes in this book that are tailor-made for the big screen, chases and fights and encounters that leave your heart racing.

I believe I've said in my reviews of Petrie's earlier books, The Drifter and Burning Bright, that I don't know why he isn't a star, and why Peter Ash isn't as well-known as Jack Reacher. (Lee Child even blurbs Petrie's books!) Read this one, or any of these books in the series, and maybe you'll agree with me—and then tell as many people as you can about them!

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

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Book Review: "The Liars' Asylum: Stories" by Jacob M. Appel

"Aunt Jill had been courting Mitch W. at the Citarella fish counter for eight relentless months, stockpiling our freezer with pompano filets and hand-sliced sable, when the giraffe painter swept her off her swollen feet."

There are few, if any, authors out there who can start a short story like that, and yet not have it dissolve into a total farce. Yet with his latest short story collection, The Liars' Asylum, Jacob Appel once again proves his talent for memorable phrases and stories that both make you smile and tug at your heart.

This is the fourth collection of Appel's stories I've read, after Einstein's Beach House, Coulrophobia & Fata Morgana, and Miracles and Conundrums of the Secondary Planets, and I find myself again in awe of his storytelling ability, his knack for combining just the right amount of quirk with the right dash of emotional poignancy. It's not just his imagination that dazzles, but it's also the way he creates memorable characters that are far more complex than they initially appear at the start of the story.

The Liars' Asylum features eight stories, each one with its own special qualities. My favorites included "Bait and Switch," the story which opens with the line mentioned above, about a teenage girl tasked by her man-hungry aunt to find her a beau; "Picklocks in Oblivion," in which a man who transports invalids is being convinced by his bewitching young girlfriend to commit an unthinkable act; "When Love Was an Angel's Kidney," about a young girl who falls in love with a daring kidney patient attending her parents' dialysis camp; "Good Enough for Guppies," in which a man must deal with his wife's outrage over her elderly mother's sudden urge to remarry; and the title story, about an emergency room psychiatrist faced with a phenomenon which could greatly affect his life.

The fact is, though, while I mentioned five stories, the remaining three were equally strong, but it didn't make sense to describe every story! At times Appel's dialogue made me laugh, at times it made me think, and it times it even choked me up a little. While some of these stories may have crazy situations at their core, they are not unbelievable or farcical stories—you feel as if you could see each of these happening in front of you.

If you're a fan of short stories, pick up this collection or any of Appel's story collections and see why I consistently find him one of the best story writers out there these days. I know there are many of you who don't consider yourself short story fans, but don't discount the literary form completely until you've tried some of his stories. I don't know why he's not more well-known, because his talent certainly merits that level of recognition.

The author and Black Lawrence Press provided me a complimentary copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

Monday, November 27, 2017

Book Review: "Warcross" by Marie Lu

Heck yeah, this was awesome!

My taste in video games has always hewed more toward the classic arcade games—Pac-Man, Asteroids, Space Invaders—and I'll admit, I haven't actually played a video game since my roommates and I had an old Nintendo system freshman year of college. But even though I can't compare the goings-on in Marie Lu's latest book, Warcross, with any first-hand knowledge, that didn't make me like it any less.

"Some people still say that Warcross is just a stupid game. Others say it's a revolution. But for me and millions of others, it's the only foolproof way to forget our troubles."

Warcross is more than a game—it's a worldwide phenomenon. This virtual-reality game has held the world in its thrall for the last 10 years, and it has spawned an empire. While the "official" version of the game is played by teams of highly trained players from around the world who have become celebrities, people play it constantly, rehash old matches, and spend millions on products and other virtual accoutrements related to the game.

Like any game, Warcross has also led to a rise in those seeking to make illegal profits from it, betting on the game illegally. Emika Chen, a teenage hacking wizard, works as a bounty hunter, tracking down those running afoul of the law. But the bounty hunting racket is tremendously competitive, and Emika can barely keep her head above water financially, since she's stuck paying down her late father's gambling debts as well. She's less than 72 hours from being evicted from her apartment and being left with nothing, and nowhere to turn.

With no other alternatives, Emika decides to hack into the opening game of the international Warcross Championships. She expects to sneak in undetected, steal a few things, and sneak back out, with no one the wiser. Instead, she accidentally glitches herself right into the middle of the action for a split second—and then all hell breaks loose. She figures it's just a matter of time before she is arrested, but instead, she gets an invitation from Hideo Tanaka, the handsome, mysterious young billionaire who created Warcross.

Much to Emika's surprise, Hideo summons her to Tokyo, and offers her a job: he wants to put her in the game, as a real contestant, to spy on what he believes is a security breach. Someone is trying to wreak havoc, and Hideo believes Emika is the only one who can solve the problem. In almost no time, Emika goes from being nearly homeless to a true celebrity, whose every move has the tabloids abuzz.

"What must it be like to have a perfect life? To be a superstar beloved by all? To be able to pay your bills on time and buy whatever you want?"

The more Emika becomes immersed in the game, the more she craves the adrenaline rush of both the strategy and the celebrity—not to mention she finds herself becoming more and more drawn to Hideo. As she works to figure out what nefarious plans are in play deep within Warcross' code, she must decide who are her friends and who are her foes, an endeavor which will take her deep into the shadowy virtual underworld. But what she finds is even more sinister than she or Hideo even suspected, and the plot has ramifications for the entire Warcross empire and those involved.

I've read Marie Lu's Legend and Young Elites series, and I've always been impressed both with her storytelling and, essentially, her world-building, as she creates a completely different universe for each of her series of books. Both talents are dazzlingly on display in Warcross, along with some great action, suspense, emotion, and fascinating character development. Her descriptions really brought the game and the world of Warcross to life for me, and I could imagine this will make a really cool movie.

Obviously, the subject matter will rule this book out for some people, but I think it's more than a book about a video game. While I'm not sure I loved the ending (although it's tremendously thought-provoking), I found this moved about as quickly as I'd imagine a video game would, but with far more substance than you'd expect. Marie Lu continues to prove she's a force to be reckoned with, and I'll eagerly await the next book in this series!

Friday, November 24, 2017

Book Review: "Green" by Sam Graham-Felsen

"I am the white boy at the Martin Luther King Middle. Well, one of two. Kev, my oldest friend and the biggest dick I know, is the other. But if you had to pick just one, it'd be me. There are a few other white kids in the system (unless you count Boston Latin as a public school, which you shouldn't), and I pretty much know all of them."

Dave Greenfeld (aka "Green") is starting the sixth grade in Boston in 1992. His "hippie parents" have no interest in the latest fashion trends or really any of the status symbols that would ease his transition into middle school—they'd rather buy his clothes at thrift shops, and don't see the need to spend money on fancy sneakers, even if no one else would be caught dead in year-old Filas. He wishes his parents would just send him to private school, like they do his troubled younger brother, Benno.

Middle school starts pretty much the same way elementary school ended for Dave—the girls pretty much ignore him, and he gets bullied by kids of all races. Even Kev, his oldest friend, would rather avoid him and hang out with the cooler kids. Avoiding bullies and being friendless seems to be Dave's destiny, unless he aces the placement test that will guarantee him a spot at Boston Latin, the best public high school in the city. If you get into Latin, you're going to college, guaranteed.

One day, Dave is surprised when one of his fellow classmates, Marlon Wellings, stands up for him. Marlon lives with his grandmother in the public housing projects down the street from Dave's house. But Marlon is far from the stereotypical "projects kid": he is driven by his ambition to get into Latin, he steers clear of those who want to draw him into their gangs or their trouble, and he's obsessed with the Boston Celtics, especially his favorite player, Larry Bird.

Mar and Dave become fast friends, and they spend their time hanging out at Dave's house, watching vintage Celtics games (Mar has them all on videotape), playing "nasketball," a game Dave made up involving a trampoline, and listening to Mar's obsession with doing well on the Latin placement test. Dave envies Mar's devotion to his church (Dave was raised a "secular Jew," although his family doesn't observe any religion, which is a frustration to his paternal grandfather, whose entire family was killed in the Holocaust), his fascination with going to Harvard some day, and the way he doesn't seem to let anything bother him, yet Dave knows he has issues of his own.

But when Mar is not around, Dave is still being bullied, and confronting the violence that breeds in the urban community in which he lives, as well as among his own classmates. He becomes more and more desperate for his parents to put him in private school because he doesn't think he'll be able to do well enough on the Latin placement test to escape his school, but his parents would rather just report Dave's problems to the principal, making him even more a target. He's afraid to stand up for himself, let alone his friends, like Mar.

As Mar begins experiencing problems of his own, problems he doesn't want to discuss with Dave, Dave realizes that there are differences between the two of them that they keep running into. He never really thought he was actually luckier than his friend, and doesn't quite understand the struggles that Mar faces, snap judgments from people that don't even know him. But little by little, those differences strain their relationship, causing both of them to act in ways they never imagined they would.

Green is an insightful, thought-provoking coming-of-age novel which deals with some significant issues without being overly heavy-handed. Sam Graham-Felsen, in his debut novel, provides interesting, and at times poignant, commentary about racial and cultural differences, and how they can strain a friendship. He has also created a fascinating, flawed narrator in Dave, who at times seems much older than his age, and at times reminds you that you're listening to life filtered through the eyes of a sixth-grader.

I enjoyed this book but thought the pacing was a little slow, and the same things seemed to happen a few times before the plot advanced. There were a few plot threads that never really got resolved, particularly why Benno refused to speak for more than a year, and there were veiled references to tragedies within Dave's father's family that never were addressed. Why allude to things that you're not willing to wrap them up?

One warning: there's a good amount of attention given to Dave's burgeoning hormones and his increasing obsession with masturbation, so this could make you uncomfortable.

Much like the main character himself, Green is imperfect but tremendously engaging. Sam Graham-Felsen has created a refreshing new narrator with a fascinating and moving perspective on growing up in the midst of racial and cultural tensions. It's a surprisingly timely book, even though it takes place in 1992.

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

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Book Review: "Do You Realize?" by Kevin Kuhn

George just needs a break. He hates his middle-management job, his teenage kids are a hassle, and he feels as if he and his wife just aren't connecting anymore. Why can't he return to the less-complicated days, when he and his wife were in the flush of love, and his whole life seemed ripe with promise?

One day, on his train ride to work (the timing of which he has down to the second), the seat next to him is taken by a sloppy, jovial, headphones-wearing, bearded guy named Shiloh. But rather than exchange small talk, Shiloh asks George an interesting question—"What is love?" What ensues is a fairly philosophical and scientific conversation, far more intriguing than a typical conversation you'd have on the train.

As strange as the conversation was, George hopes he sees Shiloh again. When he does, another philosophical and scientific conversation ensues, which leaves him wondering just what Shiloh is trying to tell him. And then one day, Shiloh asks him for a favor: would George be willing to beta-test an app he has developed for the soon-to-be-released Apple Watch? At first, George wonders whether this request is some sort of scam, but when Shiloh gives him the watch, he figures, what can he lose?

When George's family experiences a traumatic event, he discovers that Shiloh's app is actually a time-adjustment app, which allows George to travel back in time. But there are restrictions on this travel—he can't go back further than 25 years, and he can't do this more than 10 times in total—and he also learns that he's traveling to alternate versions of the past, so any changes he tries to make may have a ripple effect down the road, but it might not change what actually happened.

Shiloh and George's friendship deepens, and he tries to get George to realize how important it is not to take life for granted. And as his family is further tested, George must make a decision about whether the past is worth changing, or if life is worth living no matter what happens.

Do You Realize? was tremendously thought-provoking and intriguing. How many of us have wished we could have done one thing differently in our past, wondered about the ripple effect of one event or one action? George is definitely an everyman-type character; the challenges and frustrations he has are felt by so many on a daily basis. But as always, it is how we respond to adversity that characterizes us.

With great power comes great responsibility, and with Shiloh's app, he suddenly has the power to change things. But how do you know what to change? Do you risk altering the course of a tragedy at the risk of something else occurring? Do we focus too strongly on one crisis at the expense of allowing another to happen? These are the intriguing questions Kevin Kuhn raises in this book.

I found this story to be very engaging and compelling, and Kuhn did a great job getting me hooked almost instantaneously. He definitely tells a really enjoyable story. My one criticism of the book—and it's a minor one—is it's a little more science-y than I could handle, and Shiloh's explanations and diatribes tended to run a little long for me. It was a little more telling than showing, but it didn't affect my overall enjoyment of the book.

This type of book may not appeal to everyone, but don't be put off by the time-adjustment element. While it does add another dimension to the story, at the same time, the core of the book is more about dealing with the challenges that life throws at us, and how we need to pay attention to what's in front of us.

The author and Beaver's Pond Press provided me a complimentary copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

Friday, November 17, 2017

Book Review: "The Wife Between Us" by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen

"In my marriage, there were three truths, three alternate and sometimes compelling realities. There was Richard's truth. There was my truth. And there was the actual truth, which is always the most elusive to recognize. This could be the case in every relationship that we think we've entered into a union with another person when, in fact, we've formed a triangle with one point anchored by a silent but all-seeing judge, the arbiter of reality."

Vanessa's marriage is over. She once had a handsome, rich, powerful husband, and they lived a life of luxury. But they drifted apart, and her husband found another woman. Now she lives with her aunt, wears out-of-date clothing, and is a shell of herself, working a job she hates just to make ends meet.

Nellie is a bubbly, young, beautiful preschool teacher. She's finally met her Prince Charming, the man who will rescue her from her messy shared apartment, her nights spent as a cocktail waitress (even though she enjoys them), and takeout meals before hanging out with her friends at various bars and clubs. She also has secrets of her own, and things that cause her to be afraid, and she hopes her fiancé will save her from those, too.

If you think The Wife Between Us is a story about a jilted wife jealous of her husband's new fiancée, you're not quite right. This is a story about how things are seldom as simple as they seem, and how appearances can be deceiving. It's also a story about trust, fear, truth, manipulation, and finding your own way.

Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen throw a lot of twists into this book, which is why my description is fairly spartan, because I don't want to spoil anything for you. Every time you think you have things figured out, they swerve again, so you definitely want to keep reading, to see where it all winds up.

There are a lot of thrillers out there these days, and many of them deal with relationships that don't go as planned, and the aftermath of breakups, as well as the manipulation that often occurs within a relationship. While the twists definitely jolted the plot a bit, overall I felt a lot of the plotlines were very familiar. At times, I found myself growing a little impatient with the pace of the story, because I wanted to see where Hendricks and Pekkanen would go next, and wanted to move past some of the more commonplace incidents.

Is this a compelling thriller? It definitely has its moments, and many of my Goodreads friends have raved about this, so maybe I've just read too many books in this genre this year. It did keep me guessing, though, and sometimes I was right, and sometimes I was wrong. This will probably be one of the beach reads of 2018, so don't let me dissuade you from picking it up.

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!

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Book Review: "Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance" by Ruth Emmie Lang

One of the factors that helps transform a very good novel into a great one is memorable characters. And while I've read a lot of books this year and over the last several years that featured characters I couldn't quite get out of my mind, it's rare to find a character as special, as incredible as Weylyn Grey, the main character in Ruth Emmie Lang's terrific Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance.

"Weylyn doesn't quite fit into the world we're familiar with," Daddy said, choosing his words carefully. "He's a strange boy, but in a wonderful sort of way."

Orphaned at a young age, Weylyn was raised by wolves—literally, he lived with a pack of wolves—and is more comfortable being with animals and living outdoors than following traditional social constraints. But that doesn't mean he doesn't get lonely, and when he meets 11-year-old Mary Penlore in the woods, and he saves her from being attacked by one of his wolves, Mary realizes that Weylyn is unlike anyone else she has ever met, and even then she realizes she needs him in her life, and in fact, is willing to run away from home and live among the wolves with him.

The thing is, when Weylyn is around, interesting things happen. The weather seems to change dramatically, he can literally communicate with animals of all types, and he seems to be able to stop tornadoes and storms from happening. But at times, it also appears he might cause those things to happen. He can't explain it, and no one around him can either (if they actually believe what they see), but his biggest fear is somehow he'll cause harm to someone he cares about, so he's more willing to go it alone than hurt someone.

"I've been called magic, but I wouldn't use that term exactly. I like to think of myself as always being in the right place at the right time, or the wrong place at the wrong time. Very rarely am I simply in an acceptable place at a generally convenient time."

Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance follows Weylyn through his life, as he makes his way across the country. It's a story told by those who got to know him, even for a short while, and feel the amazing impact he had on their lives. A family challenged by the decision to take young Weylyn in as a foster child, a teacher struggling with her own childlessness, a young mayor tired of living his life in his father's shadow, even a young boy who wants to believe magic is real—these are the people whose lives Weylyn touches. And as a touch point is Mary, whose life always bears the indelible impact of knowing him.

This is one of those special books that requires you to suspend your disbelief, or simply believe that there are things in life that may seem impossible to grasp, but you just need to accept them. If magic, and communicating with animals, and causing strange phenomena to occur doesn't appeal to you, you'll probably not enjoy this book. But if you do, and you can just let yourself take a leap along with the characters, this is a story you'll marvel over.

I was absolutely charmed by this book from start to finish. I loved nearly all of the characters and I loved Weylyn's relationships with the many people he met. One character remarked that Weylyn might be "too good for this world," but fortunately the world isn't quite as cruel to him as I feared it might be. I also worried that Lang might take the plot into melodramatic territory, and I was so pleased she steered clear of that.

Lang is a fantastic storyteller, and her imagery and dialogue are so skilled, it's so hard to believe this is her debut novel. Books like this don't come along too often, so this is a special one to savor. I can't wait to see what Lang has up her sleeve in the future.

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!