Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Book Review: "Bonfire" by Krysten Ritter

Krysten Ritter rocks. Not only is she a total badass on Jessica Jones, and she rocked my world (and made me laugh out loud constantly) on her old television series Don't Trust the B— in Apartment 23 (still bitter it was canceled), but now her debut novel, Bonfire, is a really good read. I hate overachievers...

Abby Williams couldn't get out of her Indiana hometown, Barrens, fast enough. Tormented by her childhood best friend Kaycee and her band of mean-girl minions, mistreated by her father, she fled the first chance she got, changed her accident and landed a job as an environmental lawyer in Chicago.

"I couldn't even explain it to myself. All I knew is that Barrens broke something inside of me. It warped the needles on my compass and turned the south to north and lies to truth and vice versa."

Ten years later, Abby's firm is investigating Optimal Plastics, the most high-profile company in Barrens, and the one that single-handedly rescued the town from all but certain elimination. The thought of going home again and facing her nemeses, including her father, is almost too much to bear, but she'll admit that the opportunity to enact a little revenge isn't totally unappealing. But it's not too long after she arrives back in Barrens that she realizes that the more things change the more they stay the same—or people want to pretend things have changed, even when they haven't.

As Abby and her colleagues try to make sense of whether Optimal is truly the town's savior or more of a danger, she finds herself unable to shake her memories of a scandal that Kaycee and her three friends were involved in all those years ago, a scandal which could possibly have ties to the problems with Optimal occurring today. She's desperate to find out what really happened to Kaycee, who allegedly disappeared all those years ago, and she is trying to decide whom she should trust—if anyone.

To uncover the truth, Abby must reopen doors that people want to remain closed, and that includes coming to terms with her father as well. She finds a web of blackmail, corruption, trading sexual favors, and lie upon lie. Her job and her mental state, perhaps even her life, are at stake.

I'm always a little bit dubious when a celebrity writes a novel. Sure, there are talented writers among them, but for every Carrie Fisher and Ethan Hawke comes a James Franco or Joan Collins. Ritter has a natural voice as a storyteller, and the book quickly hooks you and doesn't let you go, even as you may see how things will play themselves out. She is particularly impressive with her imagery as well as her descriptions of emotions, and what it's like to return home to a place where you never felt comfortable anyway.

It's not a perfect debut—she falls into the trap that so many action and crime movies do, where the villain gives a long, dramatic speech justifying why they were so hell-bent on destroying everything. (See Michael Shannon in Man of Steel for one.) But while that is a little annoying, I found Bonfire a really compelling read, one I devoured pretty quickly and enjoyed quite a bit. I'll definitely be looking out for Ritter's next book at some point.

Okay, how about a Don't Trust the... reunion?

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

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Book Review: "Chemistry" by Weike Wang

Here's a bit of a cautionary tale for those of you who might put too much pressure on your children to succeed academically, or those of you who push yourself too hard.

"The optimist sees the glass half full. The pessimist sees the glass half empty. The chemist sees the glass completely full, half in liquid state and half gaseous, both of which are probably poisonous."

Chemistry is spare and slightly quirky, yet it is surprisingly profound and moving. The unnamed narrator of Weike Wang's debut novel is a PhD student in chemistry at a university in Boston. She's been at her studies for several years and hasn't yet had the research breakthrough that will lead to her completing her dissertation, receiving her PhD, and hopefully getting a job, much to the chagrin and frustration of her Chinese parents, who will accept nothing less than success from her. They don't want excuses, delays, explanations—if she doesn't get her PhD, she's no longer their daughter.

"Ninety percent of all experiments fail. This is a fact. Every scientist has proven it. But you eventually start to wonder if this high rate of failure is also you. It can't be the chemicals' fault, you think. They have no souls."

As if her academic challenges weren't enough, her longtime boyfriend Eric has proposed marriage. A fellow scientist, Eric has followed his academic dreams without any challenges, and is on the cusp of getting a teaching job somewhere other than Boston. He doesn't understand why she can't accept the possibility that perhaps chemistry, and maybe even science altogether, isn't right for her. All he knows is how right they are for each other, so he can't fathom why she won't accept his proposal and go with him wherever his job takes him, and stop allowing her parents to rule her life.

But how can she give up her dreams to follow Eric, without giving her work all she has? Can she actually make a life with someone who has never had to struggle, whose parents support his every move, and give him the self-belief he needs?

When the pressure becomes too much to bear, she makes a split-second decision that changes everything. And now she has no idea what she wants, from her career, her relationship, her parents, or herself. Should she teach? Should she marry Eric and/or move with him? Should she tell her parents how she really feels, or work to finally make them proud of her? The dilemmas she faces turn her into a wholly different person, one she doesn't always recognize or even like.

"Eric has said that I carry close to my chest a ball of barbed wire that I sometimes throw at other people."

I found this really fascinating. Wang's narrator tells the story in the style of a person for whom English is not her first language, so at times the narrative is very spare and/or stilted, but the use of language and imagery really works here. The narrator doesn't come across as the warmest person, but Wang gives glimpses of her vulnerability and the emotion beneath the steely surface she has built to defend her from her parents and from those who don't believe women have a place in science.

Chemistry is definitely a quirky book that might not be for everyone. As she seeks to find answers to problems for which answers aren't always readily available, she is finding her way, with sometimes comical, sometimes emotional, and sometimes stoic results. She's a flawed character but one with surprising sensitivity, and you get to understand why she hides that away.

Don't let the title scare you. I got a "D" in high school chemistry (hope my mother doesn't read this) and vowed never to deal with that subject again, but I still found this a really compelling, beautifully told read.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Book Review: "Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies" by Michael Ausiello

It has been said the definition of insanity is doing the same thing multiple times but expecting a different result. Did I really believe I could read Michael Ausiello's lovely, bittersweet memoir Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies, a book of which its editor said, "You'll cackle; you'll sob," and not be a sobbing mess when it was done? I mean, I cry watching the car commercial where the little boy gets a dog, and then when he's grown up and goes to college, the dog is old. Color me insane, I guess.

Spoiler alert: while I wasn't out-and-out sobbing at the end of the book, I was pretty emotional.

Michael Ausiello is one of my favorite go-to sources for television-related gossip and information. I've been following him since he wrote for Entertainment Weekly and, and am an avid fan of the site he founded, In 2001, when he met Christopher "Kit" Cowan at a benefit, he was smitten instantaneously, both because of Kit's good looks and the easy banter they quickly fell into.

Their relationship took off, but like all relationships, dealt with some rough spots along the way. Some challenges were common—dealing with infidelity, financial independence, Kit's marijuana habit, Michael's emotional insecurities—and some were a little less so: Michael's, umm, obsession with all things Smurf, and Kit's prodigious collection of sex toys. But even through the rough patches, both realized how much happier they were together, and how much they truly were two halves of a whole, along with their long-suffering cat, Mister Scooch.

In 2014, in the middle of their 13th year together, Kit was diagnosed with a rare, aggressive form of neuroendocrine cancer. For Michael, Kit's illness not only brought him face-to-face with the threat of losing the love of his life, but it reminded him of losing both of his parents to cancer when he was younger. But Michael took on the role of Kit's caregiver as fully as he did every interview with a celebrity, every column he wrote, every guest appearance he got to make on a television series.

Although the two had eschewed marriage in the past (while supporting the right of everyone to marry the person they love), they got married just before Kit's first chemo appointment. This allowed Michael to be fully engaged in every aspect of Kit's treatment and care. And while Kit faced his bleak prognosis with the same good humor he approached every day, he never seemed to get the upper hand on his cancer, and after a tough battle, he passed away in February 2015.

While Spoiler Alert is a chronicle of Kit's fight with cancer, and how he and Michael faced down the disease and the setbacks together, this book is more than just a sad account of a life nearing its end. This is also a story of a relationship, a love affair, from start to finish, with the funny and sweet moments, the challenges and the anxieties, and all of the emotion and beauty of two people who truly gave each other their whole heart, their humor, and their love.

This certainly was a book that hit me hard emotionally, and made me want to hold my own husband and my own loved ones a little bit closer as soon as I finished reading it. (Plus I couldn't see while reading the last chapter I was crying so hard.) But it was also a book that made me laugh, made me recognize myself and my own relationship in certain anecdotes Michael shared, and made me thankful that he was willing to share his relationship with Kit with us, although I'm sorry this is why he did.

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

Friday, May 26, 2017

Book Review: "Standard Deviation" by Katherine Heiny

It has been a long while since I literally laughed out loud while reading a book, but Katherine Heiny's debut novel, Standard Deviation, had me cracking up more than a few times. (Nothing quite like sitting at the chiropractor laughing to yourself and having everyone wonder if you need more than your back adjusted...) Zany, contemplative, occasionally moving, and tremendously insightful, this is a book about love, family, raising children, temptation, and origami.

"It had begun to seem to Graham, in this, the twelfth year of his second marriage, that he and his wife lived in parallel universes. And worse, it seemed his universe was lonely and arid, and hers was densely populated with armies of friends and acquaintances and other people he did not know."

Graham's wife, Audra, is tremendously outgoing, the type of person who can tease a story from a stranger with whom she's waiting in line within a matter of minutes. This is the complete opposite of Graham, who would prefer to blend into his surroundings, and would rather not know the personal peccadilloes of everyone in their apartment building, their son's pediatrician, even his wife's yoga teacher.

"Audra could converse with a statue. (In fact, once in the ER she had had a long talk with a man who turned out to have had a stroke and could only communicate by blinking.)"

Audra is vastly different than Graham's first wife, Elspeth, a slightly standoffish lawyer. But Audra has decided that she wants to be friends with Elspeth, so through the sheer force of her personality, she wills Graham to make it happen. For a little while it works, which leads Graham to wonder what his life might have been like if he had stayed married to Elspeth, and wonder what it was that kept their relationship from working. (Other than the fact that he cheated on her with Audra.)

In addition to Audra's utter vivaciousness, the couple deal with the challenges of raising a son with Asperger's. When Matthew becomes interested in joining an exclusive origami club (seriously), the couple throws themselves into their son's passion as much as the other socially awkward members of the club will allow. And as Matthew navigates the difficulties of adolescent friendship, again, Audra, dragging Graham along for the ride as they try to convince a boy to be friends with Matthew again (even if a little bribery is involved).

Standard Deviation made me laugh quite a bit, but it also made me tear up a few times, and it made me think. Sometimes Audra is almost too wacky to be believed, but yet I know a few women who seem to befriend everyone they meet, even those not interested in speaking. The book is a fascinating, touching, humorous meditation about what love, marriage, and parenthood mean, and how those who don't remain in our lives still have the tendency to affect us.

I remember wanting to read Heiny's debut story collection, Single, Carefree, Mellow, but you know—too many books and not enough time. Given how good this was, how well Heiny balances humor and heart, the quiet moments of life along with the zany ones, I'll definitely need to give her stories a try as well.

Even if you don't have an Audra, an Elspeth, a Matthew, or a Graham in your life, this book is so worth picking up. I don't think I'll get these characters—or the things Heiny made them say or do—out of my mind anytime soon. And I don't think I mind that one bit.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Book Review: "Anything is Possible" by Elizabeth Strout

I don't know about you, but people watching utterly fascinates me. It's really amusing to watch the dynamics of families and groups of friends, but what's even more fun is making up stories about those we see, developing a narrative about their relationships, challenges, and victories. (It would be great to find out how far from the truth these stories are, wouldn't it?)

Reading Elizabeth Strout's new collection of linked stories, Anything is Possible, feels like a cross between people-watching and eavesdropping, because the stories give you glimpses into people's lives you might not ordinarily get, without facing the embarrassing risk of getting caught. These stories are beautifully written, at times utterly moving, and, like people-watching, often truly fascinating and compelling.

I haven't read Strout's My Name is Lucy Barton, but the stories in this collection feature Lucy's small Midwestern hometown of Amgash, Illinois, and Lucy has a presence in many of the stories, and an adult Lucy is a character in one. These are stories of people struggling with challenges—emotional, romantic, familial, professional, even philosophical. As Strout says of a character in one of her stories, but this applies to most of them, "Life had simply not been what she thought it would be."

My favorites in this collection included: "The Sign," in which an elderly man finds his faith tested after a conversation he has with a troubled man he occasionally looks after; "Sister," where an adult Lucy Barton returns to her hometown and her siblings after being away for nearly 20 years; "The Hit-Thumb Theory," about a Vietnam veteran suffering from PTSD who has a dilemma that could radically change the course of his life, and he finds a moment's solace in a small bed-and-breakfast; "Windmills," in which a lonely widow changes her life after reading a book written by someone from her hometown; and "Snow-Blind," about a shocking discovery a young actress makes after she has left her family behind.

These are not happy, well-adjusted people in many cases. A few of the stories deal with odd sexual situations, and at times the characters are quite mean to each other. But Strout's talent as a storyteller makes even the somewhat bizarre stories, and those with unappealing characters interesting, and you want to keep reading them.

Interestingly enough, I've only read one of Strout's earlier books, The Burgess Boys, and I didn't like it that much. But now I'll definitely need to read more of her work, because I really found these stories moving and so well-written. If I had any criticism, it's that she uses subsequent stories to advance the plot of previous ones, referring to a character and saying, "Did you hear that so-and-so did...?" But that was a minor irritation for me.

I know short stories, even linked ones, don't appeal to everyone. But Anything is Possible feels a little like hanging out a party—you spend some time with lots of different people and get the opportunity to hear something about their lives and what makes them tick, then you move on. But the good news is, you don't have to bring an appetizer, help clean up, or worry how you're going to get home afterward.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Book Review: "The Awkward Age" by Francesca Segal

Ah, family drama. What would we do without you? I'm just glad none of these issues happened on The Brady Bunch (although apparently some of the shenanigans were occurring backstage)!

It has been a number of years since Julia Alden's husband died, leaving her with a young daughter, Gwen. Julia and Gwen have been an inseparable duo, weathering life's problems and enjoying adventures together, just the two of them. But now Julia has fallen in love with James, an American OB/GYN who has made his home in England for years. James has awakened Julia's passions—for life, love, sex, and security—things she figured she'd never find again.

The two plan to merge their lives and their households together, and receive nothing but enthusiastic support from James' daughter as well as Julia's inlaws, a couple which has their own interesting relationship. The roadblock? Gwen, now 16, completely dislikes James, and can't even deign to keep her hatred a secret. Not only does she resent the fact that her mother has found happiness again and (as she sees it) abandoned her, she now has to share her house with James and his egotistical, 17-year-old son, Nathan.

Every day is an emotional minefield for the blended family. But after a Thanksgiving trip to James' Boston hometown, Gwen and Nathan begin to see each other in a different light. It's not long before the new relationship turns the household upside down, bringing drama and recrimination, and severely testing Julia and James' relationship.

"How was it possible that one spoiled, angry teenager had wrested control of all their lives?"

Even as your children grow to adulthood, are you expected to sacrifice your own happiness for their sake? Should your loyalty always lie with your own child, even if it might cause stress in your own romantic relationship? How much, and for how long, should you owe your child for a difficult childhood? Does honesty really mean telling the person you love everything you feel, even if it's about their child?

The Awkward Age is an interesting look at these questions. It's a take on modern relationships, gender roles, and how often the things we don't say to one another can cause the most damage. The book definitely has a soap opera-esque feel, even veering into melodrama, and at times I wanted to shake some of these characters to get them to be sensible.

I absolutely loved Francesca Segal's first novel, The Innocents (see my original review), an interpretation of The Age of Innocence set in a Jewish suburb of London. Segal created fascinating characters and a plot you couldn't tear yourself away from.

I didn't feel as if she succeeded as well with The Awkward Age. I thought the first part of the book, which dealt with Julia and James' growing relationship and how everyone around them reacted, was really interesting, but once the melodrama began it lost a bit of its appeal. Perhaps the plot was realistic, but everyone just acted so unpleasantly and dodged around the elephant in the room for so long, I wished I could have walked into the story and set everyone straight.

Segal is an excellent writer, and there is a lot to like about this book. Her characters, while irritating, are really well-drawn. (I found Julia's inlaws and James' ex-wife fascinating.) I just wish this book was less dramatic and more contemplative, because when her storytelling does the talking, the reader definitely wins. (P.S.: Definitely read The Innocents!)

Monday, May 22, 2017

Book Review: "He Said/She Said" by Erin Kelly

Now that's the way you do a thriller.

Kit and Laura are young and newly in love in the summer of 1999. Kit, who has been chasing solar eclipses since his childhood, convinces Laura to join him on a trek to Cornwall for a festival, during which they're expected to see a total eclipse of the sun. While the weather doesn't quite cooperate to give them the full eclipse experience, it still wows Laura, as she truly understands why Kit finds these events so mesmerizing, and loves being able to share them with the man she loves.

Walking back to their campsite after the eclipse, Laura comes upon a man and a woman. At first she doesn't understand what she's seeing, but then she realizes that the man appears to be taking advantage of the woman. She, then Kit, intervenes, the woman is dazed, the man is angry and protests his innocence. Once the authorities take over, the peace of the event is shattered for Kit and Laura, knowing they may find themselves part of a trial in the future.

After the case is over, the woman gets in touch with Laura to express her gratitude for their help. As the woman becomes needier and needier, both Laura and Kit have concerns, but how can Laura turn a woman away who has had her whole life turned upside down, even been betrayed by those she considered friends? Little by little, Laura starts feeling unsure that she made the right decisions—did she actually see what she thinks she saw? Is the victim as innocent as she appeared?

"...that's the thing with secrets. They're leaky; you can't decide to share the bits that suit you without a million questions oozing out. You have to solder a part of yourself shut."

Fifteen years later, Kit and Laura have changed their names and live almost in hiding, off the physical and virtual grid. Every move they make is one made cautiously, and both live in fear that everything they've built can be destroyed in a moment. But while they share the same fears, they also have vastly different things they are afraid of, things which have caused Laura nearly paralyzing anxiety and have strained their marriage.

"There is so much unshared life to intrude upon the marriage; so much opposing history. The defining event of my life is the defining event of Laura's. I don't know how couples who haven't been through something like that stick together."

With so much at stake, they know their fears will catch up with them. And when they do, will they—and their marriage—be able to survive?

He Said/She Said seems like a pretty basic thriller at first, but Erin Kelly's storytelling keeps you hooked. If you read thrillers, or even watch crime-type shows on television, you've seen this story before, and you have a feeling what will happen. At least you think you have. But Kelly never rests on plot-as-usual; she stretches everything to the limit, so just as some of the things you expect to happen do, the next second you're shocked by what else unfolds.

The book may get a little more melodramatic than it needs to at times, and because certain aspects of the story take a while to unfold, I found myself confused by the behavior of some of the characters. But this was a really well-written book, and Kelly kept me hooked from start to finish. While I could have passed on the jet-lag-induced insomnia, I didn't mind passing the time devouring the remainder of this book.

I've only read one of Kelly's previous books, The Poison Tree, and I remember enjoying that, too. While she's apparently referred to as "the queen of the killer twist," I think if you just let the story unfold as Kelly intended it, and don't keep focusing on the twist, you'll be able to concentrate on all of the things that made this a great thriller.

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!

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Book Review: "Edgar and Lucy" by Victor Lodato

Edgar Allan Fini is an eight-year-old boy unlike any other. Because he suffers from albinism, his physical appearance is tremendously unique (a fact not quite appreciated by his bullying peers), but his heart and his mind are far more advanced in many ways than most kids his age. Since his father's death when he was a baby—an event no one speaks of—he lives with his mother, Lucy, and his beloved grandmother, Florence, with whom he has a special connection.

"Even those who loved you best were bound to find the flaws if they stared long enough. To lose his grandmother's favor would be the end of everything. Unlike his mother, whose light flashed on him only intermittently, like the beam of a lighthouse, the old woman was nothing less than the sun. The idea that she might think less of him filled the boy with shame."

Edgar has his secrets, but then again, so do Lucy and Florence. Lucy mourns for the passionate, troubled man who rescued her from a troubled childhood and loved her fiercely, yet she continues to be angry with him for leaving her alone with his mother and their infant son. She tries to fill her husband's absence with alcohol and destructive relationships with other men, yet she can't help but wonder if she made the right choice all those years ago when her husband needed her most. While she loves Edgar, she doesn't know how to deal with him, and is happy to defer his parenting to Florence, despite what she believes Florence thinks about her.

Florence, on the other hand, mourns for her lost son and tries to understand what happened to him and what role she played in his problems. She has pinned all of her hopes on Edgar, and loves the young boy with the force of her being, yet she wants to be sure he doesn't follow in his father's footsteps. She tries desperately to shelter him from the outside world, and from the mess she believes Lucy is making of her life and the memory of her son.

One day, feeling hurt, alone, confused, and angry, Edgar makes the decision to befriend a man with his own secrets and his own tragedy. It is a decision that impacts both his and Lucy's lives profoundly. Edgar must figure out what means the most to him, and what he truly wants, while Lucy must come to terms with her marriage, her husband's problems, her own childhood, and her relationship with her son.

I'm being fairly vague with my plot description because there are a lot of elements which are more powerful if you let them unfold rather than learn about them in advance.

Edgar and Lucy is a book a number of my Goodreads friends rated very highly and felt very passionate about, so despite my trying to tamp down my expectations, I had high hopes. This is a beautifully written book—seriously, Victor Lodato is a prose master, creating imagery and using language which truly took my breath away. It's very powerful emotionally, and Edgar and Florence's relationship made me a little teary. But despite the beauty of its storytelling, I liked, but didn't love the book.

I wished that the story was tighter, as I felt the plot dragged on longer than it needed to. After a while I just wanted the plot to resolve itself. There are elements of mysticism I didn't quite understand, and at times there were characters I felt were extraneous. I was thankful that Lodato didn't take the story down a path I feared, and I felt that there was so much going on at times that it diluted the powerful heart of the story. But maybe these are the quibbles of someone who expected too much—perhaps if you just go into this book knowing you'll be moved, you may enjoy it more than I did.

At its heart, Edgar and Lucy is a book about the beauty and pain which come with relationships and love of all kinds, and how painful it can be to be the one left behind. If you like beautiful writing, you'll be blown away. Heck, you may even cry.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Book Review: "The Breakdown" by B.A. Paris

As Kermit the Frog is fond of saying, it's not easy being green. It's also not easy being a voracious yet all-too-human of a reader, who tries desperately not to let the hype of all of my Goodreads' friends five-star reviews creep in and color my expectations of a book. Sometimes immovable Robot Larry wins, and sometimes the flawed mess more commonly known as Larry does. Apologies in advance.

Cass seems to have it all—a loving husband, a job she enjoys, a secure financial position, and good friends. One night in the middle of a huge rainstorm, she takes a shortcut home through the woods (in her car, not with her picnic basket), even though she promised her husband she would avoid that route. When she's nearly home she comes upon a car on the side of the road, in the midst of the storm, and she sees a woman sitting in the car.

Cass should stop and see if the woman needs help, right? But the woman doesn't have her flashers on, and didn't honk her horn—wouldn't she do that if she needed help? Then Cass realizes this could be a scam of some sort, one which might leave her vulnerable in the middle of the woods on a rainy night, with no mobile service to call for help. Since the woman must already be waiting for help, Cass decides to drive home and alert the authorities afterward, but when she arrives home she forgets about it.

The next morning, Cass is distraught to find out a woman was found murdered in her car in the woods the previous night, the woman she saw. But she was fine when she drove by, wasn't she? Or was the killer still in the woods, waiting to see if Cass would stop so he could kill her, too? Cass is utterly wracked by guilt, but she can't admit to her husband that she took the shortcut. As the days following the murder pass, Cass is barely able to function—she's consumed by the thought that she could have helped the victim, and she's growing increasingly more afraid that the murderer saw her stop that night, and is planning to silence her.

Cass' days are spent feeling convinced she's being watched, worrying that someone is trying to break into her house, and someone keeps calling her house but not saying anything. She's coming utterly unglued, and to make matters worse, she's starting to forget things—plans she's made, occasions she's planned—even whether she took her pills or activated the burglar alarm. The only way she can seem to cope is by taking pills to calm her anxiety, but they leave her in a drugged stupor, much to the chagrin of her husband.

Why can't she get past the murder? What is happening to her that she can't remember anything? Will she wind up alone, unaware of what is going on around her?

The Breakdown took a while to build up speed and tension. Obviously you know something will happen, but you don't know what or when. For a while, Cass' character really started grating on my nerves because she was just a sniveling mess, falling to pieces at the slightest thing, yet taking all sorts of risks. And then...BOOM. B.A. Paris throws in a twist which, while not utterly surprising, really turns the plot on its ear and sends the book careening to its conclusion.

I haven't yet read Behind Closed Doors so this was my introduction to Paris' storytelling. Once the book hit its stride, I really enjoyed it, and found myself reading it quicker and quicker, so I could see how everything panned out. While it took a little while for the tension to build, once it started she didn't let up, which is the mark of a good thriller.

I tend to be really hard on thrillers, so I can totally see why others fell so hard for this one. I still have Behind Closed Doors on my to-read list, and I have little doubt that The Breakdown will be seen on beaches, airplanes, and e-readers once it is released this summer, and deservedly so.

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!

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Book Review: "A Promise to Kill" by Erik Storey

If you like your thrillers heavy on action and a little lighter on plot, check out A Promise to Kill, the second book in Erik Storey's series featuring mercenary-turned-drifter Clyde Barr. Storey knows how to write some great action scenes, and this book has lots of fighting, battles between good guys and bad, situations in which a female character saves the day (just like real life, more often than not), and even a little terrorism.

Clyde Barr is a solitary man, but one who understands the meaning of loyalty. It's not so much that he never shies away from a fight, it's just he is very committed to making sure that the little guy, such as it is, doesn't get taken advantage of. It was the hallmark of his time as a mercenary of sorts in Africa, the Middle East, and South America, and he paid the price for it at one point, with a stint in a Mexican jail.
(P.S.: I'm not casting aspersions on Barr's character. I just love this line.)

Barr is wandering in the Utah desert, alone with a horse and a mule, planning to clear his mind and do some hunting. He runs into an elderly Native American man from the nearby Ute reservation who is in the throes of a medical emergency and rushes him to the hospital, despite the man's reluctance to be off the rez. At the hospital, he meets the old man's daughter, Lawana, a doctor at the reservation's clinic, and his grandson Taylor. Seeing that they're in need of help at the family's ranch, Barr agrees to stay on to help until the man is on his feet again. Although Lawana doesn't quite trust him, she is in desperate need of help.

It isn't long before Barr notices the reservation is in some trouble: a group of bikers has overrun the place, filling the community with fear and violence. The one tribal policeman can't do anything about it because he can't arrest white men, and the government won't get involved in cases like these. Despite his instincts to try and solve the crisis and send the bikers on their way, Barr tries to lay low and focus on working the ranch, but it isn't long before the bikers attack a local boy, and send Barr's temper skyrocketing. Lawana warns him not to make trouble, but avoiding trouble isn't what makes him tick.

As Barr and some local tribe members prepare to do battle, he discovers that the reason the bikers have taken over the reservation and refuse to stay isn't just a penchant for violence and a need for power: there are more nefarious elements involved, and the threat actually ranges far beyond the reservation itself. When his actions put Lawana and Taylor in danger, Barr knows he must act and act quickly, but is this an enemy he can beat? Can one man really protect an entire town? Will the members of the tribe rally around an outsider?

I really enjoyed this book and read the entire thing in one sitting on a plane ride. The action sequences really kept the story rolling along to its conclusion, and while I wasn't surprised by much of what happened (and wondered if one whole plot element was even necessary), I was pretty hooked anyway. Storey writes really good thrillers, also evidenced by the first book in his Barr series, Nothing Short of Dying (see my original review).

As I mentioned earlier, the book doesn't spend a lot of time in backstory, which suits this book well. This is one you can pick up even if you didn't read Storey's first book in the series. This type of drifter-ish character, like a Lee Reacher, is always fascinating, and Storey has definitely created a memorable member of that group. If you like this genre, check this guy out.

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

Monday, May 15, 2017

Book Review: "At the Edge of the Universe" by Shaun David Hutchinson

Did you ever get the feeling you and an author would be great friends (or perhaps mortal enemies), simply based on the books they write and the way they tell stories? Even if that's irrational as thinking you'd be great friends with a television character, I still believe that from time to time.

Near the top of my list would be Shaun David Hutchinson, who absolutely slayed me with We Are the Ants (see my original review), which was in the top five of the best books I read last year. Now he's back with At the Edge of the Universe, which I loved nearly as much, and it just convinced me I'd love to spend time just talking to Hutchinson and understanding how he thinks. At the very least, I'd love to be friends with one of his characters.

Ozzie and Tommy have been best friends since childhood, and they've been boyfriends since the eighth grade. Tommy is so much of Ozzie's world, the two have weathered so much, particularly Tommy's abusive father, and they dream of one day escaping their Florida hometown. And then one day, Tommy disappears, without any warning. But worse that that, Tommy has ceased to exist—no one but Ozzie remembers Tommy, and all of the memories that the two shared, or shared with others, have been amended or totally rewritten.

"It's impossible to let go of the people we love. Pieces of them remain embedded inside of us like shrapnel. Every breath causes these fragments to burrow through our muscles, nearer to our hearts. And we think the pain will kill us, but it won't. Eventually, scar tissue forms around those twisted splinters like cocoons. They remain part of us, but slowly hurt less. At least, I hoped they would."

As Ozzie desperately tries to figure out what happened to Tommy, and convince those around him—including Tommy's mother—that he actually existed, Ozzie begins to realize that the universe is shrinking, and perhaps Tommy was taken away into some alternate universe. But that's not the only crisis Ozzie has to face—his parents are getting divorced, his older brother has joined the military and is about to head to basic training, and one of his best friends, Lua, is becoming distant as her dreams of musical success start coming to fruition.

Then Ozzie is paired with Calvin on a physics class project. Calvin was once a star wrestler, class president, and all-around popular guy, until the day he quit wrestling and student council, came into school every day wearing the same hoodie and jeans, and mostly sleeps through class. Obviously there's something that made Calvin change so abruptly, and Ozzie wants to get to the bottom of it, but at the same time, he really can only focus on finding Tommy. But as he gets to know Calvin, he can't deny that he might be falling for him, but he doesn't know what to do—is it unfair to Tommy for Ozzie to pursue another relationship, or should he try and move on? And what if Tommy really doesn't exist?

As the universe continues to shrink, and Ozzie's life continues to change, he knows he has a finite amount of time to find Tommy. But he also realizes there are so many more people in his life with problems. Should he help solve those, even if it might betray their trust, or should he not lose site of his goal? And will there be a universe left when he decides?

Even though it's a little confusing when the plot goes all science-y, this is a beautiful book that hits you right in your heart. Once again, Hutchinson combines sci-fi and emotion to create a tremendously compelling, moving story about friendship, love, loyalty, trust, family, secrets, and selfishness. There is so much here to like, even if the characters aren't always 100 percent sympathetic, but it is Hutchinson's storytelling, his use of language and dialogue, that kicks this book up another notch. His characters may be wiser than their years, but they don't sound as if they just walked out of a John Green novel, where every sentence is a sarcastic burn or a philosophical insight.

Hutchinson is open that as a teenager he struggled with depression and contemplated suicide, so he has a tremendous amount of empathy for his characters and their problems. I do wish he had dwelled a little less on the physics, but it didn't keep me from loving this book and these characters. Like We Are the Ants, it will be a long while before I'll be able to get this story out of my mind. Is it 100 percent plausible? No. Does it matter? Not to me, given how tightly it grabbed my heart.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Book Review: "The Leavers" by Lisa Ko

The Leavers by Lisa Ko is utterly exquisite. This book about two different people's struggle between doing what is right, what people want and expect them to do, and what they want to do, is tremendously moving and powerful. As the title suggests, it's both a story of those who leave and the effect on those who are left.

Deming Guo is 11 years old. He's being raised by his mother, Polly, an undocumented Chinese immigrant, and they live in a crowded Bronx apartment with Polly's boyfriend, his sister, and his nephew, who is Deming's surrogate brother. Polly wants more than her exhausting job at a nail salon—she wants the opportunity to make more money and not kill herself in the process. Deming wants his mother to be around more yet he wants her to have the money to give him what he wants.

One day, Polly leaves for her job, and never returns. At first, no one is exactly sure where she went. Did she go to Florida to pursue a better job opportunity, and she'll send for Deming when she gets on her feet? But if that's the case, why hasn't she gotten in touch with anyone? Deming doesn't understand why his mother has left him, and bargains with himself constantly that if he does better in school, is nicer to his peers, Polly will return. But she doesn't.

When the burden of caring for Deming becomes too much to bear for those left behind, he becomes the foster child of an older couple, Peter and Kay, both college professors, and they convince him that to better adjust and assimilate with his peers in upstate New York, he should change his name to Daniel. Daniel has a great deal of trouble adjusting, however, something that causes Peter and Kay a great deal of difficulty, since they aren't sure if they're even suited to be parents anyway. But still, they adopt Daniel, and pressure him to buckle down academically.

The Leavers follows Daniel as he grows into a rudderless young man, torn between wanting to pursue his own dreams and wanting to please his parents, or he's afraid they'll leave him as his mother did. It also traces Daniel's struggles to understand what happened to his mother and deciding if he should try and follow some leads that might have presented themselves to him. The book also follows Polly from her childhood in China to the day she disappeared, and outlines the difficult choices she is forced to make.

Ko's storytelling is truly breathtaking, as she has created two characters who capture your heart and will stay in your memory. Neither character is 100 percent admirable, and at times their actions are frustrating, but you understand their struggles and feel for them. And while some of the other characters may make decisions that anger or frustrate, you see that they're also very complex, no matter how much time they're in the book.

I absolutely loved this book, and read the entire thing in one sitting while on a plane. I was moved, I was blown away, I wanted to shake the characters and make them act or say the thing that might move things forward, and ultimately, I was sad when I was done. I cannot wait to see what's next for Lisa Ko, because this was one hell of a book.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Book Review: "Since We Fell" by Dennis Lehane

Dennis Lehane is truly one of my most favorite contemporary authors. He electrified me the minute I read the first Kenzie-Gennaro mystery (and all of the others that followed) and dazzled me with Mystic River, and while not every subsequent novel has been a home run, the indisputable fact is, I love the way he writes.

Needless to say, I pounced on Since We Fell, his newest novel, practically at midnight the day it came out. I've decided that how you feel about this book may very well depend upon whether you've been led to believe it's a thriller or a novel. As a novel, it's definitely thrilling, particularly the last third or so, but as a thriller, it's not quite as pulse-pounding as you would probably expect it to be. Expectations. Tricky things, no?

Rachel Childs had a difficult childhood. Raised by a single mother who refused to give her any information about her father, Rachel was simultaneously nurtured and bullied by her mother, smothered and neglected. After her mother's death, her search for her father leads her to meet some interesting people, and learn just how difficult and controlling her mother really was.

Given her dogged investigative thirst, Rachel finds success first as a print journalist, then a television news reporter. She is being groomed for major success when, covering the aftermath of the Haiti earthquakes, she has a breakdown on the air. Her career in ruins, she becomes a virtual shut-in, barely leaving her apartment, licking her wounds. And then one day a chance encounter with someone from her past, someone who has always intrigued but confused her, makes her realize that happiness might not be totally out of her grasp.

Rachel and her husband live a relatively quiet, reasonably ideal life. He travels a bit for work, and encourages her to overcome her agoraphobia, little by little, but doesn't push too hard. He wants her to find the strength to thrive on her own. But then one afternoon, as she decides to venture out on her own, she makes a shocking discovery that throws her for a bit of a loop. As she tries to make the puzzle pieces fit, she uncovers a web far more tangled than she could ever imagine. She isn't sure whether she should let her panic attacks consume her again or if she should battle back for the first time in a long time. And she's not even really sure what she's battling against.

Since We Fell takes a while to build up steam, but it's still a well-told, compelling story about a woman driven to uncover secrets, first about her father, and then about the news stories she covers. It's a story about a woman knocked back on her heels, and whether she should try to find the strength to knock back, or if she should just be content with being a has-been more famous for appearing crazy than the work she did. It's also a story about how an unexpected relationship might not save you, but it may give you the courage you need to save yourself.

Lehane's storytelling is in fine form here, and once he kicks the book into thriller mode, the engine just takes off, leaving you breathless at times. There are a lot of twists and turns here, some I saw coming, some surprised me. It's not necessarily new ground, but it's kind of like having a familiar dish prepared by a master chef—everything is just a little bit better.

Years ago, a few days after Mystic River was released, I met Lehane at a reading and book signing. When I told him I had already read the book, he said, "But the book came out Tuesday. It's Friday, man. I don't think I can write that fast!" I offered to sharpen his pencils if that would help. Needless to say, I've done it again, and I know I may have to wait a few years until Lehane's next book. But Dennis, if you're reading this, I'd be glad to sharpen some pencils if it will help.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Book Review: "The Gypsy Moth Summer" by Julia Fierro

The fact is, I'm not a fan of bugs. I recognize they're all God's creatures, I know that some bugs actually help the environment, and the demise of certain bugs can spell peril for our world, but that doesn't change the simple fact that (most) bugs creep me out. And don't even get me started if I see/feel one crawling on me.

I probably should have considered this when I decided to read Julia Fierro's The Gypsy Moth Summer, which takes place in the summer of 1992, when gypsy moths invade Avalon Island, off the coast of Long Island. So many times in the book these bugs were crawling on people, landing in inopportune places, swarms of them were making noise, and I cringed the whole time. The preface of each chapter even had information and drawings of the caterpillars and moths. I can't stop itching...

Okay, moving on now. The Gypsy Moth Summer is about a community under siege from natural and unnatural, human and insect causes. Avalon Island is ground zero in the battle between the haves and the have-nots—the perfectly manicured, coiffed, and bred citizens of East Avalon versus the tougher, working class residents of West Avalon, which also is home to the island's main source of income, Grudder Aviation, birthplace of planes and bombers that fueled the nation's victories when at war. But suddenly, Avalon residents are getting sick with unexplained cancers, and people are wondering: is Grudder to blame?

When prodigal daughter Leslie returns to Avalon with her African-American husband and biracial children in tow, it turns the island upside down. While the more progressive residents are thrilled at Leslie's happiness, even her devil-may-care attitude, the welcoming, accepting spirit isn't shared by everyone on the island. And while the resident group of teen mean girls from East Avalon have nothing but disdain, one of them, Maddie, whose family background straddles both sides of the island, finds herself falling head over heels for Brooks, Leslie's son. But there are many not content to let that happiness be.

I felt many times while reading this that Fierro was trying to capture the spirit of Liane Moriarty's Big Little Lies, with a little bit of Mean Girls thrown in. All of the elements were there—those living with privilege and those without, secrets, scandals, mysteries—but it didn't quite capture either the suspense or the camp of Moriarty's book.

Fierro is undoubtedly a talented storyteller, and she did a terrific job evoking the imagery of the island as well as the different personalities which made up the cast of characters. But I felt in trying to create drama, she threw everything she could into the plot—disease, racism, abuse, animal cruelty, sex, even class warfare. Between all of that and the shifting narration, it became a little confusing at times.

I've seen a lot of great reviews of this book, so if the elements of the plot appeal to you, I'd encourage you to read it. You certainly won't be disappointed by Fierro's writing ability—as long as you can stomach the bugs.

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!

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Book Review: "Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore" by Matthew Sullivan

How do you select the books you're going to read? Oftentimes I'm drawn to books written by authors I love (and sometimes I decide to give an author another shot), and other times I choose books and/or authors which have been hyped or those about which I've heard good feedback. And then sometimes, it's something intangible, like the cover design catches my eye, so it leads me to read the description, and I'm hooked.

This is the crazy way my mind worked when I decided to read Matthew Sullivan's terrific Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore: I used to work in a bookstore, I love going to bookstores, and I really enjoyed Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore (see my original review), one of the last books I read which took place in a bookstore. The gamble definitely paid off with this one—while it wasn't what I was expected, it was so much more.

Lydia is a bookseller at Denver's Bright Ideas Bookstore. Not only is she excellent at her job because she's well-read and perfectly satisfied to work where she is, she's tremendously patient with a group of people she calls the BookFrogs—the downtrodden, sometimes homeless regulars (most often men) who make the bookstore their surrogate home.

"Lydia's skills as a bookseller came mainly, she believed, from her ability to listen. A raging case of bibliophilia certainly helped, as did limited financial needs, but it was her capacity to be politely trapped by others that really sealed her professional fate. From bus stops to parties to the floors of the store, Lydia was the model of a Good Listener—a sounding board for one and all. Strangers and acquaintances and the occasional friend unloaded on her by the hour..."

One night, just as the store was closing, Lydia finds Joey, the youngest, most sensitive and inquisitive BookFrog, with whom Lydia has struck up a friendship of sorts, has committed suicide on the store's top floor. She knew that Joey had had his problems in the past, but he never seemed desperate enough to consider suicide. When she finds out that Joey has bequeathed Lydia his meager possessions—mostly a few random items and a milk crate full of books, most of which he bought from the store, she is saddened for the path his life took. But as she flips through his books, she discovered that pages in each were defaced, as if he was sending Lydia coded messages of some kind.

As Lydia tries to figure out what Joey was trying to tell her, she also finds among Joey's possessions an item from her own childhood, something she cannot figure out how he would have gotten. You see, Lydia has her own secrets as well, basically a childhood tragedy that has caused her to keep everyone, even her boyfriend, at arm's length, and never let them truly know who she is and what she has been through.

The messages in Joey's books, along with the resurgence of her own memories and insecurities, leave her on edge, a condition further exacerbated by the reappearance of one of her childhood best friends, as well as a dogged police detective and her estranged father. She is determined to find out what Joey was asking of her, and she realizes she needs to get answers to the questions that have haunted her own life since she was younger, even if that means reliving an experience that still chills her.

While this book is billed as a mystery, and there certainly are suspenseful elements of the plot, there is so much more to the story. This is a book about giving people a chance no matter who they are or what their background is. It's a book about friendship, sacrifice, the need to feel wanted and loved, the danger of secrets, the grief we keep hidden inside, and how the love of books can truly be pervasive. I found this book so surprising and so moving—even as I figured out how the plot would unfold I was so invested in Sullivan's characters I couldn't stop reading.

Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore is really a special book, and Sullivan is truly talented as a storyteller. Because it straddles a few genres, I hope it doesn't get lost in the shuffle, because this is a fantastic read—full of emotion, a little suspense, and a lot of heart.

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

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Book Review: "The Half-Life of Remorse" by Grant Jarrett

Many believe that people come into our lives for a reason—to provide support or companionship during a critical time, to impart knowledge or wisdom we might not otherwise gain, or to help us reach a goal we might have believed was unattainable.

When Chick and Sam meet, both have been living on the streets for some time. Neither is exactly sure for how long, or is really interested in dwelling on how they came to this point. Both have held jobs from time to time to help them survive, but for the most part, it's been their survival instinct that has kept them alive, although both might question if seeking shelter and food wherever you can find it, no matter how unsavory, is really living.

"When you live out here on the street, it don't matter much what town you're in. One place is pretty much the same as the other far as I can tell, and I figure I been around more than most. Sure, some places maybe got nicer weather than others, and some's got cops or thugs, which is pretty much the same thing, with nothing better to do with their time than roust some poor beggar from a park bench or a bus station so the rats can have it to theirselves, but still in all, you figure out what's what soon enough if you want to keep breathing, which maybe sometimes you do and maybe sometimes you don't."

Sam sees in Chick somewhat of a kindred spirit, although they are very different from one another, but Sam invites Chick to share the rudimentary shelter he has put together under the stairway of a church. Sam insists he is a wizard, one who has lived for hundreds or perhaps thousands of years, so Chick worries a little bit about Sam's mental condition, but little by little they begin to trust and count on each other, and Chick helps find ways to make their meager day-to-day existence a little more palatable.

Chick has spent his adult life haunted by a crime he was part of when he was a teenager. He's never been able to shake what he saw, or his guilt in simply just being a bystander as things unfolded. When Sam starts having visions of a man in trouble, a man whose life is apparently in danger, he wants to try and help. And when Chick realizes what Sam's visions mean, he must make a critical decision: does he help Sam return to the scene he keeps seeing in his mind's eye, and risk having to divulge his own role in the incident, or should he let Sam's delusions continue?

Meanwhile, Claire, Sam's daughter, hasn't seen her father since she was very young, but she's never given up hope that he'll return to her someday. She lives with her own emotional and physical pain, but she is unprepared for what her lifelong wishes might mean for all those involved.

The Half-Life of Remorse may turn on a very convenient coincidence, but it doesn't lessen the power of this book. This is a story about two men trying to steer clear of their past, although only one really knows what they're doing. It's also a story about the kindness of strangers, and the empathy one shows another, even when doing so may be harmful or hazardous to themselves. It's also the story of love and redemption, hope and the power of memory, and the beauty of friendship.

The book shifts narration among all three main characters, and Sam's portions take a little bit of getting used to, because he uses very fancy words befitting of his perception of himself as a wizard. But the emotions, particularly in Chick's parts, are palpable even though he is a man of few words, and you can tell he really doesn't know how to handle the situation he's found himself in. The other quirk is that because Chick, in particular, isn't well-educated, his narration tends to have a lot of "must ofs" instead of "must haves," and other grammatical errors. (I seriously had to turn my inner editor off when reading those sections.)

Grant Jarrett is a pretty fantastic writer. While his first book, Ways of Leaving (see my original review), had almost a Tropper-esque vibe to it, this book is more spare in its narration, at times reminding me a little of Kent Haruf. He really deserves some renown for his talent, and perhaps The Half-Life of Remorse may push him into the spotlight. It certainly should.

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

Friday, May 5, 2017

Book Review: "The Hate U Give" by Angie Thomas

Wow. Just wow.

In my life so far, I've had the opportunity to experience many different things, but there are certain things I'll never get/have to experience. For example, I'll never experience childbirth, not that I'm complaining, although I once had a cortisone shot in my hip flexor, and my orthopedist said she thought those hurt just as badly. (You can debate on that.)

I'm also fortunate enough that I'll never have to worry about the police viewing me as a threat as soon as they see me, just because of the color of my skin. I'll never have to think about the possibility of a routine traffic stop turning into something more dangerous just because a policeman gets nervous. That's something I take for granted, but I won't now that I've read Angie Thomas' searing, powerfully moving The Hate U Give.

Starr is 16 years old. She feels like there are two of her—the devoted daughter who lives in a poor neighborhood and saw her best friend get killed in a drive-by shooting when they were 10, and the student at the fancy prep school her parents sent her and her brothers to in order to get them out of the ghetto, the student who doesn't speak the way she does at home, and lets very few people into her "real world." Even her boyfriend at school, Chris, with whom she watches reruns of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air doesn't know the "real" Starr, although he says he wants to.

"Funny how it works with white kids though. It's dope to be black until it's hard to be black."

One night while Starr is at a party in her neighborhood, she runs into her childhood friend Khalil. Khalil was her first crush, and although she hasn't seen him for a while, it feels good to reconnect. When a fight breaks out at the party, the two leave before things get out of hand. Not long afterward, police pull Khalil's car over, and before they know it, Khalil gets shot and killed by the cop. He was unarmed.

Khalil's death throws Starr and her family into a tailspin. The media has already branded Khalil a drug dealer and a thug. Starr doesn't feel like she can tell her friends at school what happened because that would be exposing them to a part of her she has tried to keep hidden, but she is angered by the attitude of one of her friends toward Khalil's shooting. Starr is afraid of the ramifications of telling the truth of what happened that night to police, prosecutors, everyone—what if police target her family? What if others think she should just keep her mouth shut? And will speaking up make the difference anyway, if most of the time white cops don't pay the price for shooting black people?

"I've tweeted RIP hashtags, reblogged pictures on Tumblr, and signed every petition out there. I always said that if I saw it happen to somebody, I would have the loudest voice, making sure the world knew what went down. Now I am that person, and I'm too afraid to speak."

Starr's involvement in Khalil's death uncovers friction in a number of places—between her parents, who argue about the merits of getting their family out of their neighborhood versus their responsibility to making sure it doesn't die; between her father and his nemesis, the leader of a powerful gang, who is intertwined with Starr's family in too many different ways; between her and Chris, as well as her friends at school; and between the factions of their neighborhood and others in the community, some who riot for the sake of rioting and don't care what destruction they cause, and some who understand the power of their actions.

The Hate U Give is tremendously moving and just so current given what is happening in our society. While certainly it focuses on police brutality and the anger minorities feel when the authorities don't get punished for doing wrong, it is quick to point out that not all police are bad, just as not all black people are drug dealers, gang members, or looking to do harm. This is a book about racism, but it's also a book about family, friendship, loyalty, community, and how often it truly does take a village to save someone. This is a book that addresses the plight that many young black men face, but it doesn't place the blame on anyone but them, either.

I thought Thomas did a great job with this book, making sure it wasn't too heavy-handed in its messaging or too extreme in its plot. She created characters you grew to care about, characters you were invested in, so when pivotal events occurred, you were moved by them. This really blew my mind, and I think this is a book which really deserves all of the hype it is getting.

Several times in the book Starr's mother uttered the quote, "Sometimes you can do everything right and things will still go wrong. The key is to never stop doing right." I hope The Hate U Give reaches those despairing whether doing the right thing is still worth it even if it doesn't get the result they want. Because it really, truly is.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Book Review: "Trajectory: Stories" by Richard Russo

Some authors make you wait a while between books. In some cases, it's a L-O-N-G while. And then, sometimes, the fates smile upon us—in just about a year we've gotten not only Everybody's Fool (see my original review) from Richard Russo, but now we have Trajectory, a collection of four stories, which again show why he is a writer to be reckoned with.

But don't be fooled into thinking that because Trajectory contains only four stories, it will be a quick, breezy read. That is not the case. Nearly 260 pages in length, these stories have heft, complexity, and emotional depth. Each of the stories have their roots in Russo's oft-visited New England (although a portion of one story is set in Venice, home of his beautiful novel Bridge of Sighs), and feature characters at emotional crossroads.

I really enjoyed all four stories, although I struggled a little bit with the longest of the four, "Voice," in which a former academic recovering from a professional catastrophe agrees to accompany his estranged brother on a trip to Venice, and finds their relationship has disintegrated even more than he imagined. I liked the story but it shifted back and forth from Venice to the narrator's academic crisis a little too often, and I'm never enamored of books whose plot turns on a failure to communicate.

The other three stories were tremendously moving, and I had a hard time picking a favorite. The stories were: "Intervention," about a realtor facing a major medical crisis who is reminded of his father's being in the same position years before—and he wonders if he should follow his father's actions; "Milton and Marcus," in which a once-semi-successful writer is enticed by an elderly movie star to revive a script he wrote years ago, only to be bewildered by the racket of show business; and "Horseman," which tells of a college professor unnerved by both professional and personal challenges, and unsure what her next step should be on both fronts.

I've always said that the mark of a good story is when I find myself thinking about what happened to the characters after the story ends, and wishing I could read a novel just with those characters. Each of the stories in Trajectory fall in those categories, both because I became so enamored of the characters, and I would have loved to get more of their backstories.

I have loved Richard Russo since I picked up Mohawk in 1986. I have read every one of his books since then, and even when they don't quite click, I can't get enough of his storytelling. I just hope the embarrassment of riches we've experienced this year doesn't mean an even longer wait for his next book!!