Sunday, April 30, 2017

Book Review: "The Locals" by Jonathan Dee

Few contemporary authors have as keen an eye for observing society and personal dynamics as Jonathan Dee. His previous novels have looked at the haves and have-nots, the way the public revels in and revolts against scandal, and failing and thriving marriages, among other topics.

In his latest novel, The Locals, Dee takes on the foibles of a small New England town being caught in a tug of war between those who want the town to stay the same and those who believe it can be better than it is, and are willing to invest in it—as long as things go their way.

Howland, Massachusetts has never been much of a tourist attraction; there's really only one site worth seeing, the historical home in which a former railroad baron and his ill wife once lived. In the days post-9/11, Howland is, like many towns, populated by those who believe in personal freedoms and those who believe the government should do anything it can to keep people safe.

Mark Firth, a contractor and home restorer, was actually in New York City on 9/11, as he was planning to give a deposition in a case against the man who swindled him out of his family's savings. Now, as he worries about how much longer people will need his services and what that will do to his family, and thinks about those wealthy people who come up to Howland, build fancy houses, and leave them empty all winter, he wonders why some people have all the luck and others have to fight for every last thing.

Philip Hadi was one of those wealthy people, but after 9/11, he brought his family up from New York permanently, as he wasn't sure whether as a wealthy financial manager he might be a target of a subsequent attack against the U.S. He employs Mark's company to bolster his home's security features, and the two build a relationship of sorts, one which inspires Mark to look beyond contracting and home restoration and consider pursuing investment in Howland's housing market.

Meanwhile, Hadi, who enjoys the small-town feel of Howland and believes it can be more than it is, becomes the town's first selectman, and uses his money to essentially buy the town's loyalty, as he saves businesses and citizens from foreclosure and bankruptcy. But as he moves to turn the town into a wholly different place, and encroach on personal freedoms he doesn't agree with, the town starts to push back.

These stories play out against a backdrop of those of other Howland residents, including Mark's sister, brother, wife, daughter, and other citizens. There are stories of infidelities, alcoholism, struggling to find yourself, dealing with aging parents and feeling as if you're the only one carrying that weight, financial woes, etc.

I felt as if Dee tried a little too hard to make this book an epic story of sorts, because there are just so many characters mentioned in and out of different sections that it was difficult to remember who was whom. Then, suddenly, as the book would move into another section, an undisclosed amount of time would have elapsed and major (although perhaps not surprising) plot points would simply be mentioned in passing.

Dee is a great writer, and his storytelling shines through this book, which is a little more of a downer than I expected. I just wish he made his characters more appealing and sympathetic, because I didn't feel there was really anyone to root for. Additionally, I felt that the whole first section, although it helped develop a little bit of Mark's character, was nearly superfluous, so I'm not sure why it had to drag on as long as it did. Still, the social commentary Dee provides is tremendously insightful and on point, especially in today's political environment.

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

Book Review: "White Fur" by Jardine Libaire

What a crazy, terrific book! Being a child of the 1980s, and given the fact that's when this book takes place, nothing captures the essence of White Fur better than these lyrics from the song "Obsession" by Animotion:
You are an obsession
I cannot sleep
I am your possession
Unopened at your feet
There's no balance
No equality
Be still I will not accept defeat
I will have you
Yes, I will have you
I will find a way and I will have you
Like a butterfly
A wild butterfly
I will collect you and capture you
You are an obsession
You're my obsession
Who do you want me to be
To make you sleep with me
You are an obsession
You're my obsession
Who do you want me to be
To make you sleep with me
The moment Elise Perez sets her eyes on Jamey Hyde in their New Haven neighborhood, she knows she wants him. Although they live next door to each other, they couldn't be more different. Elise was raised in housing projects all over Connecticut—she never knew her father, and became familiar with a life of sex, drugs, violence, and neglect all too early. Jamey, on the other hand, is a blue-blooded child of privilege—scion of an influential banking family, heir to a fortune, and son of an unstable film actress. He finds Elise fascinating, sexually alluring, and yet can't figure out why he'd want her in his life.

"But Jamey doesn't want to know her for the same reason that—(his brain starts fuzzing up here, trying to save him from the thought he's about to think)—for the same reason a farmer isn't close to his animals—it's not supposed to last."

It starts out as purely sex—Jamey doesn't take Elise out on dates or invite her to parties or even over to his house, but Elise knows she has baited the hook and will ultimately reel him in. Elise wants more, wants it all, but it isn't because of Jamey's money or his social standing (which she doesn't really understand at first, anyway), it's because she wants everything—love, sex, companionship, the kind of relationship she's only seen on television and in movies.

"She's always been an outsider. She isn't clearly black or white or Puerto Rican, and the world where she grew up was easier if you were one thing or the other, or if you claimed one thing or the other, which she could have done but never did."

Jamey feels simultaneously drawn to Elise and repelled by his attraction and his growing feelings to her. He knows this isn't what is expected of him, not what he was raised to do, yet the more he realizes he cares for Elise as more than a source of constant sexual fulfillment, the more he becomes enamored of the way it will upset the apple cart of his social circle. He doesn't want anyone to judge him or their relationship, although he doesn't realize exactly how he's treating Elise at the same time. And then his family gets involved, and the whole game changes.

White Fur explores the age-old theme of dating outside your social strata, disobeying your family, and deciding to follow your heart instead of what you've been raised to do. This is a book about how love can change us in ways we want it to, and ways we hope it won't, and whether giving in to those feelings is surrender or the right thing to do. And beyond that, this is a story of whether a love which causes so much trouble is the right love or simply an act of rebellion.

Based on the way the book begins, I was expecting the story to unfold very differently than it did, but I loved the path that Jardine Libaire took her plot down. These characters were fascinating, frustrating, at times even a little repulsive, but I couldn't get enough of them. Even though there are elements you expect, the plot takes many different twists (one which I wasn't quite sure about), and you find yourself rooting for these two to last even if you're not sure whether they will.

Libaire was tremendously attentive to her book's 1980s vibe, and the grittiness of New York City, where much of the book takes place. This is a book that is a little raunchy, a little romantic, a little predictable, but you can't stop reading, because you wonder how the plot will be resolved. Just a surprising, terrific read.

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

Book Review: "Ragdoll" by Daniel Cole

Despite the fact that I had a medley of Aerosmith's Rag Doll and Rag Doll by The Four Seasons running through my head while reading this book (not because of any plot points, just because my head is full of musical earworms), Daniel Cole's Ragdoll was a pretty fantastic, page-turning crime novel. It's a rarity when a book like this can surprise me, when my habit of suspecting nearly every single character introduced doesn't irritate me when the crime is solved, but Cole did a great job with this book.

Dogged police detective William Oliver Layton-Fawkes, nicknamed Wolf, has received more than his share of notoriety, most of it more negative than anything else. After catching the suspected "Cremation Killer," London's most prolific serial killer in its history, his reputation went from hero to villain as the trial highlighted manipulation of evidence, police brutality, and suspicions of abuse in his own marriage. When the suspect was acquitted, Wolf's actions wind up getting him suspended and hospitalized in a mental institution, his life a shambles.

When the killer acts again, and Wolf is proven to have been correct all along, he returns to the police force under psychological evaluation and more supervision than he has had in the past. But it's not long after he's handed his most grisly murder case, which the press has labeled "The Ragdoll Murder"—the body is made of the dismembered parts of six victims, sewn together like a puppet. As Wolf and his colleagues set out to identify the victims and find the killer, but their work is foiled by the press, particularly Wolf's ex-wife, Andrea, a ruthlessly ambitious reporter. Andrea anonymously receives photographs of the crime scene as well as a purported list of the killer's next six targets, with the dates he plans to kill them. Last on the list: Wolf.

The police force finds themselves in a race to protect the people on the killer's list, but realize they are dealing with a more ingenious and dangerous nemesis than they originally believed, not to mention one willing to use the media to help pressure the police into making mistakes. At the same time, the intensity with which Wolf throws himself into this case threatens to reopen the emotional wounds he suffered during the Cremation Killer case, and has the potential to pit colleagues against colleagues in solving the crime.

Cole balances the crime-solving in this book with a great deal of character development as well as suspense, action, and emotion. Wolf is a fascinating, flawed character I hope to see again, and the relationships with his colleagues which Cole explored were complex and compelling. This is a book which works on all levels, which is often a rarity with crime novels.

It's amazing to think that this is Cole's debut novel, because his storytelling is tremendously focused and on-point. While there was one plot point I didn't love, I enjoyed this book immensely, and if I were anywhere other than my association's annual conference I would have devoured it in a second. Don't be swayed by the unusual musical earworms it spawned in my head—pick up Ragdoll if you're a fan of crime novels, because this is one not to be missed.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Book Review: "The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley" by Hannah Tinti

One thing about love, be it romantic, parental, filial, even platonic, is that sometimes you can't help whom you love, and you find yourself loving someone in spite of their faults (if not even because of them). Do we turn our backs on those we love just because they may be imperfect, despite all they may have given us? These ideas and questions are at the core of The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, Hannah Tinti's exquisite new novel.

For as long she can remember, it's just been the two of them—Loo and her father, Samuel. He's a mysterious man, with scars all over his body, including many from bullet wounds, but his rough exterior belies a deep sensitivity borne from the death of her mother, Lily, when she was very young. Samuel and Loo have a nomadic like existence in her childhood—just as it seems they're getting settled somewhere, suddenly one day her father will come home and tell her they're moving away, and they pack up only the essentials and flee wherever they're living, setting out on a new course. One of the only constants she knows is the shrine of sorts her father builds for her mother wherever they go, tiny glimpses into a life she never really knew.

"The marks on her father's body had always been there. He did not show them off to Loo but he did not hide them, either. They reminded her of the craters on the moon that she studied at night with her telescope. Circles made from comets and asteroids that slammed into the cold, hard rock because it had no protective atmosphere to burn them up. Like those craters, Hawley's scars were signs of previous damage, that had impacted his life long before she was born. And like the moon, Hawley was always circling between Loo and the rest of the universe. Reflecting light at times, but only in slivers. And then, every thirty days or so, becoming the fullest and brightest object in the sky..."

In Loo's teenage years, Samuel recognizes the need for constancy, so the two move to Olympus, the New England town where her mother grew up. He finds work—and challenges—as a fisherman, while Loo tries to fit in at the local high school. But it isn't long before the characteristics that make Loo special, the behaviors that come from a young girl raised only by her father, that she becomes an outcast, which awakens a surprising anger deep inside her, at the same time that she finds herself drawn to one particular boy.

The longer they stay in Olympus, the more entangled in the community and its quirks both become, yet the more Samuel can't seem to escape his old ways. Loo becomes more desperate to know about her mother, and the secrets her father has kept hidden all her life, and being Olympus helps to unlock some of those mysteries, yet leaves her questioning just who her father is, and whether the things he has kept from her all of her life were lies or simply sins of omission.

As much as this book is about Loo and Samuel's relationship, it's also Samuel's story, a chronicling of his criminal past and where each of his bullet scars came from, and the story of a love he thought would save him, a love he didn't nurture and care for as much as he should have. And it's also the story of a man trying desperately to tread the right path for his daughter despite his inability to keep his own demons at bay.

This was a fantastic, moving, beautifully told book. The relationship between Samuel and Loo is truly a special one, and even though he's not the best role model for his daughter, and he introduces elements into her life she would have been better off without, these things give color and shape to their relationship. There are times you wonder if Loo might be happier and more adjusted without her father, but then again, what would her life be without him?

While The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley is essentially a two-person story (with Lily's presence a strong third element), Tinti doesn't give the supporting characters short shrift. These are fascinating, flawed, memorable individuals who are so much more complex than they first appear. Not all of these characters are likable, but they truly bring something special to the book.

You may not think that Samuel is deserving of sympathy (or empathy, for that matter), but like many a flawed character in literature, you care about him despite his flaws, and for his good qualities, especially the fierceness with which he loves and protects his daughter. This is a book I won't soon forget.

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

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Book Review: "Letters to a Young Writer: Some Practical and Philosophical Advice" by Colum McCann

I love following friends on Goodreads who have similar tastes in books to mine. It's always fascinating to see different people's perspectives on books you've read, to see if they love the same ones you do, and if they were as disappointed as the ones which let you down. The potential downside? When it seems as if EVERYONE has read a book that you hadn't even considered, or just haven't gotten to yet. You know what I mean...

It's not that I hadn't considered reading Colum McCann's Letters to a Young Writer: Some Practical and Philosophical Advice, it's just that there are always far too many books and far too little time, so I thought a foray into nonfiction might bog me down. And then the reviews started popping up—people were breathless with their praise, they were moved, some were even in tears! Well, hell, I couldn't let this one pass me by then.

The fact is, when I was in fifth grade I wrote my first novel. Since I was mostly influenced by my afterschool diet of soap operas and my prime-time consumption of television shows like The Love Boat and Fantasy Island (it was the 70s, after all), the book was a tad melodramatic. In fact, my very first reviewer, my aunt, said to me, "So, does anyone in this book do anything more than get married, have affairs, have babies, kill each other, and die?" Well, no. Needless to say, the novel died a quick death.

I have dreamed of being a writer for most of my life. I write quite a bit as part of my "real job," but not fiction (although the occasional marketing copy or memo to my Board of Directors might qualify). I've written a few short stories that I tried to get published, but I've never gotten that far. I know I have a story, or a novel, inside me, but I just can't seem to flesh out the ideas enough to get them on paper.

Needless to say, McCann's book didn't just speak to me, it sang. Filled both with new takes on advice I've heard before, and new perspectives I hadn't considered, Letters to a Young Writer both encouraged me and made me realize the things I've perhaps been doing wrong in my pursuit of the fiction deep within me.

"One day you might find yourself hating writing precisely because you want to make it so good. Yet this awful truth is just another form of joy. Get used to it. The sun also sets in order to rise."

Beyond the inspiration of this book, what I loved is that while McCann treated writing as a calling, something writers feel they must do, he recognizes it can't be the only thing. He talks about the need to escape the pressure of writing, the need to enjoy life outside (and the outside), and the importance and sheer beauty of reading, one of my most favorite activities in the world.

"You read to fire your heart aflame. You read to lop the top of your head off. You read because you're the bravest idiot around and you're willing to go on an adventure into the joy of confusion. You know when a book is working. Give it time. ... A good book will turn your world sideways."
I am energized by this book, with the desire to write, certainly, but also the desire to read more of McCann's work. The fact that he could dazzle me so with a book about writing, combined with how I felt about Thirteen Ways of Looking (see my original review), definitely convinces me to revisit the one novel of his I had trouble with, as well as his other books.

Do you need to be a writer, or want to write, in order to enjoy this book? It certainly helps, but the fact is, anyone with an appreciation of the craft of writing, or who simply marvels at the lyrical beauty of sentences will enjoy this. McCann is a writer at the top of his craft, sharing his craft with us as he tells us about his craft. It's a little meta, but it's a lot fantastic.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Book Review: "Who is Rich?" by Matthew Klam

If people were happy with their lives, if they weren't having to deal with crises of conscience, relationships, and faith, what would that mean for the state of fiction? Much in the way that evil characters are more fun to read (and write) about, unhappy characters definitely provide a richer mine from which to build a novel.

Rich Fischer, the protagonist of Matthew Klam's Who is Rich?, is definitely unhappy. At one point he was a cartoonist of some renown, but he now works as an illustrator at a magazine which covers politics and culture.

"Illustration is to cartooning as prison sodomy is to pansexual orgy. Not the same thing at all."

The only thing really left from those better days is that every summer he travels to New England to teach a four-day cartooning workshop at a week-long arts conference. It's not the most fulfilling opportunity, but it does get him away from his family and from the constant problems weighing on his mind and his psyche.

"I wasn't a teacher. I didn't belong here. I'd ditched my family and driven nine hours up the East Coast in Friday summer highway traffic so I could show off in front of strangers, most of whom had no talent, some of whom weren't even nice, while I got paid almost nothing."

Rich and his wife Robin are unhappily married and on the verge of utterly resenting each other full time. Their two young children have their own dysfunctions, and how the couple chooses to handle (and/or ignore) these issues adds more strain to their exasperating relationship. Money is always tight, their sex life is almost non-existent, and both are often bitter, about their relationship and their lives.

"Was it a good life? Was I more joyful, sensitive, and compassionate in my deeply entangled commitment to them? Was there anything better than seeing the world through the eyes of my nutty kids? Was my obligation to Robin the most sincere form of love?...Was this as close to love as I was ever going to get? The closer I got, the more I wanted to destroy the things I loved. Something rose up in me, threatening me. I had to deflect it somehow."

There is one bright light drawing him back to the workshop this year—Amy. Amy is a painting student whom Rich met at last year's workshop, and they shared a flirtation, a little bit more than that, and then spent the winter alternately texting and longing to see each other, and punishing themselves for wanting this. She lives in a wholly different world than Rich—Amy is married to an extremely wealthy, reasonably loathsome Wall Street magnate who is barely home, and rarely pays attention to her and their children when he is. And as much as Amy wants more, wants something different, she isn't sure if she deserves that, and if so, if Rich is that something different.

This is an interesting meditation on monogamy, marriage, children, middle-age, financial success, and whether abandoning your dreams for something more stable makes you a sell-out or a failure. It's also an exploration of what kind of happiness we should expect from life—should you take what you're given or should you hope for more?

Klam is an excellent writer. I read his story collection, Sam the Cat: And Other Stories, about 17 years ago, and he's been one of those writers I've been waiting for years to write another book. This definitely didn't disappoint, although it's a bit more of a downer than I expected. Given the subject matter, it's not too surprising, but I felt the book flowed a lot more slowly because of its morose tone. There are moments of lightheartedness, even humor, but the dilemma that Rich and Amy find themselves in, and Rich's own struggles tend to take more precedence, at least early on.

Who is Rich? definitely made me think, and helped me keep the challenges of my own life in perspective. And isn't that why we read sometimes, to make us feel better about our lives than those the characters are living?

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

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Book Review: "The Dinner Party and Other Stories" by Joshua Ferris

Sometimes you love every book an author writes, and other times you have a completely different reaction to every one of their books. Joshua Ferris definitely falls into the latter category for me—Then We Came to the End left me bemused yet ambivalent; I absolutely couldn't get into To Rise at a Decent Hour; and I really enjoyed The Unnamed.

Despite that mixed track record, I still really enjoy the way he writes, so I jumped at the chance to read an early copy of his first story collection, The Dinner Party and Other Stories. Overall, I really enjoyed it—he kept some of the quirks which occasionally throw me in his writing in check, and these stories are compulsively readable. They're fascinating, some are really packed with emotion, some are a little bizarre, and you just want to know how Ferris will tie things up.

Many of the 11 stories in this collection seem fairly innocuous at first, with characters you think you've seen before—a husband dreading another dinner party with his wife's oldest friend and her husband; the retiree who laments growing old alone; a man who is falling to pieces because he believes his wife has left him. But as you delve deeper into these stories, you discover that nothing is quite what it seems, and which gives each story a little bit of an unexpected kick. Sometimes that doesn't quite work, but for the most part, it really does.

Only one story in the collection really didn't excite me, but my favorites included: "The Pilot," in which an insecure writer gets invited to the party of a famous writer he met once, but he wonders if she meant to invite him, and he struggles with whether to go; "The Valetudinarian," about an elderly man struggling with growing old alone, whose life is literally changed by the arrival of an intriguing gift from an estranged friend; "More Abandon, or What Ever Happened to Joe Pope," which tells of a man's exploits in his office after hours; "The Breeze," about a woman who nearly comes undone with the possibilities which arrive with an unexpected spring breeze; "The Stepchild," in which an actor seeks out a woman he met one night, in order to counter his despair that his wife has left him; and the title story, which tells of a couple awaiting friends to come over for a dinner party, despite the fact that the husband is utterly over them.

There were many times in these seemingly simple stories that I was wowed by Ferris' prose. One such example comes from "The Stepchild":
And what you are growing here, and there, and over there, are little moments, and the memories make a life that can't be taken away from you by anyone or anything, not other people's fickleness, not even death. In the long run, you know, that's better than bowls of dried flowers, or whatever.
I don't believe that every person who has been successful at writing novels is as successful writing stories, and vice versa. But I felt that Ferris' storytelling ability was on great display in The Dinner Party and Other Stories. These were stories which really resonated, and worked for me in ways that his novels haven't always succeeded. And even if you've never read any of his books but you're a short story fan, this is a collection worth exploring.

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!

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Book Review: "The Upside of Unrequited" by Becky Albertalli

Becky Albertalli, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways...

I fell in complete and utter love with Albertalli's first book, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda (see my original review). I devoured it in less than a day, and it was a no-brainer that the book showed up on my list of the best books I read in 2015.

As you might imagine, the minute her newest book, The Upside of Unrequited, came out, I pounced. I bought it at like 12:01 a.m. on the day it was released—I set my alarm and woke up to buy it, dork that I am. I tried really hard to keep my expectations from getting utterly out of control, because when you love an author's first book, don't you expect—and hope against hope—that you'll love every one of their subsequent books, too?

Molly Peskin-Suso is 17 years old. She's funny, smart, sensitive, and amazingly crafty—she can actually make the things you see on Pinterest. She makes desserts (including safe-to-eat raw cookie dough) in mason jars. She knows she has a bit of a weight problem, but everyone tells her what a pretty face she has, and sometimes her anxiety gets the best of her. But she's also a hopeless romantic—a fact that can be easily borne out by the 26 crushes she's had on boys throughout her lifetime.

"There's a reason I've had twenty-six crushes and no boyfriends. I don't entirely understand how anyone gets a boyfriend. Or a girlfriend. It just seems like the most impossible odds. You have to have a crush on the exact right person at the exact right moment. And they have to like you back. A perfect alignment of feelings and circumstances. It's almost unfathomable that it happens as often as it does."

One night, Molly's twin sister Cassie meets Mina, the girl of her dreams. (Actually, Molly meets her, but immediately knows that she's Cassie's dream girl.) For the first time, Cassie is smitten beyond a simple hook-up: Mina is relationship material. Suddenly Molly finds herself on the outside looking in—of course Cassie wants to spend time with Mina and talk about Mina, and she's totally happy for her, but she's a little sad, too. But it's not like Cassie is one of those people who throws everyone else away when she's in a relationship—one of Mina's cute hipster friends, Will, seems to like Molly, so they should totally hook up and they can double-date!

Will is cute and charming and seems to think Molly's funny. And while Molly has proven that she's more than capable of having crushes on boys, with Will it seems like she's more excited about the idea of having a crush on him than actually feeling that way. Maybe that's because she's just met Reid, a chubby, adorable fan of Game of Thrones, Tolkien, and the Renaissance Festival. Reid makes her feel that way, but if she lets herself fall for him, won't it ruin everything with Cassie?

"If I had to describe the feeling of a crush, I'd say this: you just finished running a mile, and you have to throw up, and you're starving, but no food seems appealing, and your brain becomes fog, and you also have to pee. It's this close to intolerable. But I like it. More than like it. I crave it."

Amidst the backdrop of a family wedding, a visit from their wacky, critical, slightly racist grandmother, and the emotional crises of other friends, Molly needs to decide what she feels, and for whom, before she ruins everything with everyone. Including Cassie. It's too much for anyone, much less a 17-year-old with questionable self-esteem and a history of public vomiting.

I really, really enjoyed this book. Becky Albertalli drew me in on the very first page and didn't let me go until the very end, and I'll admit, I was sad that the book ended. While I'll admit I found Molly's inability to express her feelings or thoughts to anyone tremendously frustrating at times, I understand that doing so poses a challenge for anyone, especially someone who suffers from anxiety.

There was just so much to love about this book—dialogue and behaviors that actually seemed teen-like, as opposed to old-beyond-their-years; the flush of excitement that accompanies crushes, first loves, and infatuation; boys I could totally see myself crushing on if I was that age; and the realistic relationships between sisters, friends, parents and children, and those who like each other. Albertalli's characters are so special and memorable that you'd love to be friends with them in real life, even if their parents are probably younger than you. (Sigh.)

A lot has been made about the incredible diversity of the book's cast of characters—Molly and Cassie have two moms, one black and one white, they're being raised Jewish, characters are straight, gay, lesbian, and pansexual—but none of it seems forced, and very little of it is really a focal point. This is just a sweet, special book, about relationships, about finding the courage to believe you're worthy of love, and following your heart, not what people tell you your heart should feel.

If you've not read Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, read that, too, and you'll see why I'm a huge Becky Albertalli fan, and why I read her new book on the day it was released. (And then you can join me in my vigil for her next book.)

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Book Review: "Mrs. Fletcher" by Tom Perrotta

With books like Election, The Abstinence Teacher, The Leftovers, and Little Children, Tom Perrotta has proven to be a master commentator on the foibles of society, on people's attitudes toward love, sex, relationships, religion, parenthood, and morality. He has a wry wit and isn't afraid to expose his characters' flaws, and he does so again in his newest novel, Mrs. Fletcher.

A divorcee in her mid-40s, Eve Fletcher is at a bit of a crossroads. Her only son has left for college, leaving her completely alone for the first time. As she starts trying to figure out how to fill that loneliness, she gets a random text one night from a number she doesn't recognize, which tells her, "U R my MILF!" The text throws her for quite a loop, and as she tries to figure out who might have sent it to her, she suddenly finds herself on the internet, following an interesting chain which leads her to, a porn website she can't seem to tear herself away from.

"What that meant, Eve realized, was that you couldn't really say, I'm not a MILF, because a MILF was in the eye of the beholder. The other thing she'd learned was that you shouldn't google the term if you didn't want to find yourself swimming in an ocean of porn."

As Eve tries to fight her growing porn habit (or is it an addiction?), the videos she watches every day sends her mind into territory she had never thought about before, territory which has the potential to make things difficult in her job as executive director of a local senior center, as well as make her look at people and situations with a very different eye. She isn't sure which end is up, or with whom she wants to end up.

Meanwhile, Eve's son Brendan, a jock and, quite simply, a bit of a douchebag, is having a tough time adjusting to college. He's the type of guy who has multiple shirtless pictures of himself on his Facebook page, because if you look good shirtless, shouldn't you show your body off? Brendan had thought college would be an endless parade of parties, drinking, drugs, and, perhaps most importantly, sex with a wide assortment of women. But with his roommate mostly AWOL, and most of his friends into their own things, it turns out girls don't like it when you call them things like "slut" and "bitch," and college doesn't go so well when you barely concentrate on your classes.

Eve and Brendan both find themselves confronting the after-effects of mistakes they make, mistakes which cause both of them to despair in very different ways. Can Eve overcome her porn habit and find her way to a "real" relationship? Is college the right path for Brendan, and if so, will he find people who think the way he does, or will he need to be the one who changes?

Mrs. Fletcher is a fascinating, fairly explicit look at how our attitudes toward sex, sexuality, relationships, and morality are formed, and how they change. It shows that when sex is all you think about, and you think with your libido instead of your brain or your heart, the direction you move in is probably going to get you in trouble. It's also a book about finding happiness with yourself before you can find someone else.

I love the way Perrotta combines humor with social commentary. While his books have dealt with sexuality before, this was a pretty frank book, and it touched on some very interesting territory, territory which may make some uncomfortable. It's definitely very thought-provoking.

These characters, particularly Brendan, aren't particularly sympathetic—they make a lot of stupid mistakes and sometimes don't even realize they're doing so. I found myself amazed at what Eve got herself into, and how she thought, but at the same time, she wasn't willing to speak up to her son about the way he was behaving.

I enjoyed this book, but I don't think this ranks up there among Perrotta's best. Still, he writes like very few other authors out there, and it's always great to read his work.

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

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Book Review: "Skyscraper of a Man" by Michael Bowe

There's a sense of nostalgia that pervades Michael Bowe's novel Skyscraper of a Man, and it's not just because the book takes place in the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s. The book felt old-fashioned to me, but not in a negative way—it's a story told utterly without gimmick or guile, simply a well-told story rich with character and plot, the kind of book that seemed much more prevalent years ago than it does today.

"While some accomplish great things, others like myself simply manage to be in the right place at the right time as momentous events occur, members of a fellowship that I call The Coattails Club. It is, after all, an inevitable aspect of human history; a talented, inspired few will live noteworthy lives while a fortunate few will bear witness. And for any writer, again like myself, there is no role more fortuitous than that of witness."

Peter Dalton, the Nick Carraway-esque narrator of Skyscraper of a Man, grew up in a middle-class household in suburban Delaware in the 1960s and 1970s, what he referred to as "perfect conditioning for an insignificant life." His parents placed education above almost all else, so Peter decides to go to Stanton University in a town called Cavanaugh (I never quite figured out where in the U.S. it was supposed to be). He is overwhelmed about being away from home but excited about the future.

Within the first few days of college, he meets Benjamin Franklin Matthews, a local Cavanaugh boy of modest means, raised by a Revolutionary War buff and owner of the local printing press. Pete realizes very quickly that Ben is unlike anyone he has ever met—someone so sure of himself and his place in the world, someone with the bravado to dream big but with the intelligence and ambition to build a foundation for, and the drive to work to achieve, his dreams. Ben awakens a slightly lower-grade ambition in Pete, and quickly the two set their sights on becoming the first freshmen in more than 20 years to get an article published in the college newspaper.

As they pursue their journalistic ambitions, Pete and Ben, along with Pete's roommate Danny, once a promising football player sidelined by injury, and Ben's girlfriend Tyler, an aspiring journalist whose ambitions might rival Ben's, form a quartet of sorts, each working to pursue their dreams and enjoy this formative time in their lives. But it's not long before Ben takes the first step and launches Cavanaugh Weekly, a newspaper he hopes will position his hometown for significant growth in the future, and put him on the road to the fulfillment of his dreams. He convinces Pete to drop out of college with him and become the newspaper's editor, a move that Pete quickly jumps at.

As the years pass, Cavanaugh Weekly becomes a paper of significant influence and success, and Cavanaugh itself is on its way to becoming the city Ben imagines it can be. While Pete is tremendously fulfilled by his work, Danny and Tyler each experience roadblocks they don't expect. But it is Ben who is the shining star, and he decides to run for mayor, tangling with a dangerous career politician. Can Ben run as a truly principled candidate, or will the system—and his opponent—break him? Is Cavanaugh ready to elect a political neophyte on the strength of his personality and his vision for the future?

One review of Skyscraper of a Man hailed its "silver screen potential," and truly, I could see this adapted into a riveting television miniseries, because the themes of friendship, ambition, disillusionment, fighting for your dreams, and realizing life rarely winds up as we plan, are tremendously resonant and universal. Bowe imbues his characters with passion, flaws, and complexity, so you want to know what will happen to them, if they will achieve all they hope to.

While the plot isn't necessarily surprising—you pretty much know what will happen in many cases before it does—the storytelling draws you in and keeps you hooked. This is simply good old-fashioned storytelling—I know I keep using that word but it's always refreshing when you read a book that generates excitement without pyrotechnics, violence, or suspense, but on the strength of its plot and its characters.

The author provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks, Michael, for making this available! I look forward to seeing what comes next for you!

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Book Review: "This Savage Song" by Victoria Schwab

So when I finished devouring this book last night before I went to bed, I tried to think of the best way to sum up my feelings. Sometimes when I'm at a loss for words I turn to those more articulate than I am, so:
Ah, thanks, Oprah!

It is a time in the (hopefully very) distant future. At one point, monsters tried to take control of a city. It led to massive destruction, but ultimately a truce was reached which divided the city. One half is run by Harker, a ruthless man whose ambition and lust for power are nearly as dangerous as the monsters he allows to roam free, so he can then charge the city's residents for his protection from them. The other half of the city is run by the more noble-minded Flynn, who wants to keep his residents safe by controlling the monsters, not harnessing them as pawns in a shakedown.

Neither side has complete support, as the truce seems to be weakening. Harker's daughter, Kate, who has gotten herself expelled from her sixth boarding school in five years, has returned home, much to her father's chagrin. She wants to prove that she is just as ruthless as her father, and wants him to finally let her stay with him, and take her under his wing. But she must battle not only her father's ambition and his memories of her late mother, but also the monster he has trained as his second in command.

When Kate is sent to another school in town, Flynn and his followers jump at the chance to get someone close to her, to watch for signs the truce may be breaking. Flynn's youngest son, August, who wants simply to be kind, to live a good life, is pressed into service. The thing is, August is a monster, the rarest of the three breeds, who can steal a person's soul by playing his violin. He needs to hide his secret from everyone in school, especially Kate, but for the first time in his life, he feels as if he belongs, he starts to make friends, and he is fascinated by Kate's intelligence—until she figures out what he really is.

When an attempt on Kate's life sends them both fleeing, they must make a truce of their own. August wants only to protect Kate, and Kate wants to live, although she isn't sure if capturing August could be the prize she needs to cement her relationship with her father. As they seek freedom and safety, they still long for the comfort of their families, even as they realize their families may not provide the safe haven they thought. They must fight not only the enemies they expect but enemies they don't, and they face the toughest battle of all—the enemies within themselves.

Right off the bat, I'll say that obviously this isn't a book for everyone. If you don't like this type of fantasy story, Victoria Schwab's storytelling, no matter how strong a spell she casts, probably won't lure you in. But don't rule it out because you think it's going to be all Twilight-y (a new adjective), because the monsters in this book don't have the Cullenesque shimmer, and more importantly, one of the best things that Schwab does in this book is keep the lovesickness and most of the angstiness out. That makes This Savage Song a much stronger story instead of some YA-ish soap opera.

I love authors who can take you into another world and immerse you so fully. That's a credit to Schwab's incredible creativity and the imagery she uses. There is a vividness to the pictures she paints, and I'd love to see this made into a movie to see just how closely what I saw in my mind's eye while reading this book hews to the film adaptation. Is it a little overly dramatic at times? Sure. A little predictable? Of course. But it doesn't matter, because the characters she has created fascinated me, flaws and all.

When you add to your stress level at work by taking a longer lunch than you should so you can keep reading, you know you've found a good book. (Lucky I'm the boss!) When you find yourself taking your glasses off during the NCAA championship so you can race through the remainder of the story before bed, you know you've found a good book. This was tremendously entertaining and well-done, and I'll be all over the sequel when it comes out this summer!

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Book Review: "The Chalk Artist" by Allegra Goodman

Whether she intended it or not, I feel like Allegra Goodman's newest novel, The Chalk Artist, is two books in one.

It's a love story of sorts between two dreamers who come from different backgrounds and share different perspectives on how to make their dreams come true. At the same time, it's also a look at the world of video gaming and virtual reality, and the way it pulls all different types of people into its wake. On the surface you wouldn't think that these two disparate halves could make a whole, but the end result is a tremendously compelling, beautifully written, slightly imperfect book.

Collin is a tremendously talented artist who never felt like he belonged in art school. His preferred medium is chalk, and he's all too happy to create beautiful pictures and images to captivate viewers, only to erase them and start again. It's a philosophy he follows in life, too—nothing is really permanent. He's really biding his time, waiting tables, acting and designing in a theater company he and his roommate founded, and trying to figure out what the future holds.

When Nina walks into his restaurant, he's immediately smitten. A Harvard graduate who is teaching as part of Teacher Corps, she wants to dazzle her students so they love literature and poetry as much as she does, but she can't seem to reach them or get them to pay attention to her. Although it takes her a while to let her guard down with Collin, she loves how his creativity and fearlessness has awakened her, and she hopes her practical nature will inspire him to do something real with his artistic talent.

Nina is the daughter of a gaming and technology mogul whose video games are tremendously popular. His soon-to-be released game is revolutionizing the world of virtual reality, so in an effort to help Collin harness his talent in a practical way, she convinces her father to give Collin a try at his company, Arkadia. It's a move which energizes him but creates barriers—both real and artificial—in their relationship.

Meanwhile, Arkadia is using some slightly questionable marketing tactics to raise the anticipation for its newest game, and a student at Nina's school, Aidan, gets caught up in both the game's incredibly dazzling magic and the painful realities that his obsession causes. It could prove dangerous not only to him, but to his twin sister, Diana, a student in Nina's class, and others.

When I started reading The Chalk Artist, I couldn't understand why Goodman would want to muddy the waters of Collin and Nina's story with a completely unrelated thread about a teenage boy obsessed with virtual reality. But the more I read, the more I realized how this virtual world really served as a counterpoint to Nina's need for permanence and real reality, and there was so much more to this plotline than I first thought.

Goodman's writing practically sings when she describes UnderWorld and Collin's art. Her imagery really felt as if it would be right at home in any fantasy novel, and it was unlike anything I've seen from her work to date. While Collin and Nina's story is definitely one you've seen before (and depending on your personality, you'll definitely prefer one character over the other), it still is compelling, and you hope that neither will do something stupid.

Not everything works in the book—I felt that Aidan's sister was a little superfluous, and felt like the plot shifted back and forth a little too abruptly at times. But overall, I enjoyed this a great deal. I'm a big fan of books that embrace the power of dreams of all kinds. This book really solidified Goodman as a favorite author of mine, one whose deft hand has created some truly memorable characters through the years.

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