Friday, June 30, 2017

Book Review: "Zero Sum" by Barry Eisler

There are few authors out there today who can get my pulse racing like Barry Eisler, especially when it's one of his John Rain thrillers. These books are the perfect balance of excellent character development, crackling action, and heart-in-your-throat tension, and I honestly cannot get enough of them. Why these books aren't as well-known by the general public as some more-mediocre series is beyond me.

I'm happy to report that Eisler's newest John Rain thriller, Zero Sum, is equally as fantastic as its predecessors. This is another book which recalls Rain's earlier days, tracing the rise of this lethal-yet-complicated mercenary. It's 1982, and Rain has returned to Tokyo after a 10-year absence working in the Philippines. When he meets with an old friend in order to find some murder-for-hire work, he discovers that the assassin business has been monopolized by an upstart—Victor—half-Russian, half-Japanese, all psychotic, with a chip on his shoulder and the belief everyone should fear him.

Victor has cornered the market on all murders for hire, upsetting even the crime families. Rain is determined to find out how he was able to get such a toehold in the system so quickly, and find out where his support was coming from. Despite warnings to the contrary, Rain gets hired by Victor, who presents him with an interesting challenge: kill a government minister or face bloody death at the hands of Victor or one of his henchmen.

Although the job should be easy for someone with Rain's skills, Rain isn't one to take the easy path. He's more interesting in stalling in order to get Victor riled up, which would give Rain an opportunity to take him out. But what Rain doesn't count on is Maria, the government minister's beautiful Italian wife, who awakens passions that Rain has tamped down for far too long. Getting mixed up with the wife of the man he's supposed to murder certainly complicates things, and the more he finds out about the forces that brought Victor into play, and what they really want, the higher the stakes get for Rain—and everyone he cares about.

"When you live a little longer, you see the world as it really is. And yes, even then it can be shiny and bright, but also you know it has sharp edges. And sometimes what's shiny is exactly what's sharp. If you want to get close to it, it means you get cut."

Zero Sum moves at a lightning pace, with lots of fantastic action, although the violence gets a bit graphic and gruesome, so if you're bothered by that, this might not be the book for you. There are political conspiracies, psychotic killers, introspection, and some pretty hot sex thrown in for good measure. Eisler and John Rain are once again truly at the top of their game, and it is always so great to be back in Rain's world. (As much as I love his John Rain books, I'm hoping Eisler will write another book with one of his newest characters, Livia Lone, who featured in her own eponymous book last year.)

While Eisler has had a few bestsellers, interestingly enough, they tend to be his more modern thrillers rather than his John Rain books. But truly, these are fantastic, because there's so much to them beyond suspense and action. These are smart, well-written, and, dare I say, even sensitive. Here's hoping there are more John Rain stories to tell!

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

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Book Review: "Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine" by Gail Honeyman

I'll admit, when I started reading Gail Honeyman's debut novel, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, I thought about issuing a moratorium on quirky characters who can't seem to pick up social cues or are oblivious to how people usually behave when interacting with peers, coworkers, those who provide service, and others. Obviously these are colorful characters to write about—it seems as if the literary world is full of them.

But the more time I spent with Eleanor Oliphant, I realized that her behavior was more the result of circumstance than will, nurture if you will, rather than nature. And then I thought about how boring the world might be if everyone acted the way they were expected to, said the right things, and never expressed their true feelings. (Lord knows if I couldn't roll my eyes, my head might explode.)

Eleanor lives by her routines. She eats the same meals, wears the same clothes, has her weekly chat with Mummy, and has her weekend rituals, which include frozen pizza and enough vodka to keep her pleasantly drunk all weekend. For the most part, she eschews interactions with her coworkers, whom she mostly thinks are daft and lazy. They make fun of her both behind her back and in front of her, and she doesn't really care.

"I do not light up a room when I walk into it. No one longs to see me or hear my voice. I do not feel sorry for myself, not in the least. These are simply statements of fact."

Two things happen which throw her routines off-kilter. First, while attending a concert with a coworker, she spots a handsome musician and is quickly smitten. She has decided that he is the one for her, and starts to ready herself for their first encounter, during which she knows he'll sweep her off her feet and they'll live happily ever after. She needs a makeover and new clothes, and she starts doing research on her soon-to-be-beloved.

Meanwhile, one afternoon she and Raymond, the IT guy from her office, whom she considers poorly groomed and a bit bumbling, save the life of an elderly man who falls in front of them. Saving Sammy's life suddenly gives Eleanor two unexpected relationships, friendships, that she has never had before. She still acts the way she believes to be appropriate, and says things that most wouldn't, but she begins liking the feeling of belonging, of companionship, which she never realized she wanted.

"Some people, weak people, fear solitude. What they fail to understand is that there's something very liberating about it, once you realize that you don't need anyone, you can take care of yourself. That's the thing: it's best just to take care of yourself. You can't protect other people, however hard you try. You try, and you fail, and your world collapses around you, burns down to ashes."

Eleanor's social awkwardness, her lack of a filter, her inability to grasp exactly how people expect her to behave, actually hides a great deal of secret pain, pain and memories even she has hidden. And when she is forced to start recognizing just what a burden she has carried for so much of her life, and who was responsible, it threatens to break her. Suddenly she realizes she may need to do something she never has—depend on others, and reveal things about herself she's always kept hidden, in order to move forward. If she wants to.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is really a special book. Even if some of Eleanor's behaviors are similar to other quirky characters you might have seen, she is totally unique, and while off-putting, just absolutely wonderful. You both marvel and are saddened by the burdens she has carried, and how she copes with them. I found myself becoming protective of her, worrying there would come an instant where someone made a total fool out of her (with her own help, of course).

Honeyman really did a terrific job with Eleanor. Even as she began letting down her guard, Honeyman kept her character consistent, but never let her become unsympathetic. While this is certainly Eleanor's story, I liked the other characters as well, although they certainly didn't get as much attention. I thought the ending was a little too pat for my taste, but I really enjoyed this overall, and don't think I'll be forgetting Eleanor or her story anytime soon.

God bless the people who challenge our notions of "appropriate" and "normal," because they are what keeps our world interesting!

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Book Review: "A House Among the Trees" by Julia Glass

For me, reading a Julia Glass novel is like returning home after a long trip, or visiting close friends or family. You immediately feel so comfortable, so happy, and so interested in what is going on around you. I've been a fan of hers since her very first book, Three Junes, and while her books aren't always perfect, I love the way she unfurls her stories, and creates immensely memorable characters.

Tomasina "Tommy" Daulair was 12 years old when she first met beloved children's book author Morty Lear. She doesn't know who he is or what he has written, but he becomes immersed in sketching her younger brother while he plays on the playground, and she is caught totally unaware a few years later when she finds out that her brother became the inspiration for the main character in Lear's most famous book.

These encounters serve as the start of a 40+-year relationship, with Tommy serving as Morty's trusted assistant, confidante, and all-around savior. The job, and their relationship, opens Tommy's life to a lot of different opportunities, but despite the fact that Morty is gay and older than she is, her job and Morty's dependence on her serves to close off her life to little but him. And for the most part, she's fine with that fact.

Unexpectedly, Morty dies in a freak accident while Tommy is out running his errands. She is completely shocked to find that Morty has left her their Connecticut home and all of his possessions, and while she is overwhelmed by his generosity, when she realizes that he also intended for her to carry out many of his complicated, confusing, and sometimes surprising requests he outlined in his will, she resents having to do his dirty work one last time.

As she tries to figure out what her future holds, since so much of her life was lived on Morty's terms, she must deal with several different people, each of whom wants something else from her, or from Morty's estate. From her estranged younger brother, Dani, who has always resented her relationship with Morty, especially after learning he was the author's inspiration all those years ago and got nothing for it, to Meredith Galarza, the museum director to whom Morty all but promised much of his work, only to find he changed his mind without telling her, and Nick Greene, the handsome, Oscar-winning actor cast as Morty in a film about his life, to whom Morty disclosed secrets he never even shared with Tommy, these encounters will force Tommy to deal with Morty's legacy, and what he meant to her, in many different ways.

"It was invigorating to be indispensable to a man like Morty; at times it was a source of pride—even vanity. But equally vain was her notion that to meet his expectations would permit her to know him inside and out; to know, as the filmmakers believe they do, the inner Lear."

Spanning the years of their relationship, from their first encounter through the tumultuous times of Morty's life, including the death of his lover from AIDS, A House Among the Trees is an indelible portrait of life with an artist, and how easily dependency can merge into codependency, on both sides. It's the story of a woman struggling to find herself after so long of having her life defined by her job, which was so much more than a job, and it's also an interesting exploration of how much we truly know someone, even after working and living with them for more than 40 years.

Morty's character bears some slight similarities to Maurice Sendak, but this is hardly a fictionalized account of that man's life. Once again, I loved the way Glass told this story, and I loved the emotions she evoked in its telling. While I liked Tommy's encounters with Nick, Meredith, and Dani, at times when the story shifted to Nick or Meredith's perspective, it seemed a little jarring, and I wanted to get back to the core of the story. The pacing can be a little slow at times, but I felt this book in my heart and my mind, and overall, really enjoyed it.

There's a warmth to this story, and to most of Glass' writing, that I am so enamored of. If you like Glass' books, this is another one to savor; if you've never read her before, she's definitely an author worth exploring.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Book Review: "Final Girls" by Riley Sager

This book kicked some serious ass!

"We were, for whatever reason, the lucky ones who survived when no one else had. Pretty girls covered in blood. As such, we were each in turn treated like something rare and exotic. A beautiful bird that spreads its bright wings only once a decade."

Ten years ago, Quincy Carpenter went to the woods with five of her friends to celebrate her best friend's birthday. But instead of the carefree celebration they planned, that night turned out to be something out of her worst nightmares. She was the only one to survive a brutal massacre. She can't seem to remember what happened, nor does she want to—all she remembers is being covered in blood and being rescued by a policeman after outsmarting a killer she can only refer to as "Him."

With that incident she became part of a group the press called the "Final Girls," with two other sole survivors of massacre-style attacks—Lisa, who witnessed an attack on her sorority house which left nine of her sorority sisters dead, and Samantha, who survived a late-night attack at the motel where she worked. The three girls want nothing more than to put their lives back together and somehow shake the memories that haunt them, as well as the guilt that they survived when their friends or others did not.

"Even before Pine Cottage, I never liked to watch scary movies because of the fake blood, the rubber knives, the characters who made decisions so stupid I guiltily thought they deserved to die. Only, what happened to us wasn't a movie. It was real life. Our lives. The blood wasn't fake. The knives were steel and nightmare-sharp. And those who died definitely didn't deserve it. But somehow we screamed louder, ran faster, fought harder. We survived.

Quincy has done fairly well pulling her life together, thanks in large part to her Xanax prescription, which helps keep any lingering anxiety at bay. She has a successful baking blog and a handsome, steadfast boyfriend, Jeff. She also knows that Coop, the policeman who saved her life all those years ago is always looking out for her, ready to come if she needs him.

But then Quincy finds out that Lisa, one of her fellow "Final Girls," has apparently committed suicide, despite how hard she fought to survive all those years ago. If that isn't enough to cause Quincy to lose her composure, it turns out Lisa emailed her right before she died, trying to make contact with Quincy. And then Samantha shows up, ostensibly to check up on Quincy once she heard about Lisa's death (despite the fact that they've never met).

It appears Samantha has other motives in mind, too, as she is intent on getting Quincy to relive that night at Pine Cottage 10 years before, and challenges Quincy's carefully composed life. The more she forces Quincy out of her comfort zone, the more Quincy wonders why Samantha really appeared, and whether everyone else in her life is right to be suspicious. When new information about Lisa's death is revealed, Quincy doesn't know where to turn, or whom to trust, and whether she can handle reopening her memories to the trauma she survived 10 years ago.

Final Girls is full of suspense and twists and turns. Riley Sager is definitely a talented storyteller, and she knows how to throw a few misdirections the reader's way, so you don't know how things will be resolved in the end. She does a great job illustrating the dichotomy of Quincy's life, and how quickly the calm she has come to know can be shattered. I also like the way she developed Quincy and Sam's characters—I don't feel as if the other characters were given the same complexity and depth.

This is definitely one of those books which will make a terrific movie. I really enjoyed this a great deal, although some of the shifting back and forth between past and present was a little more jarring than it should have been. If you're a fan of suspense novels, this is one you'll want to pick up. It certainly will make you think the next time you hear about a sole survivor of a horrific incident.

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

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Book Review: "The Rope Swing: Stories" by Jonathan Corcoran

I've become such an enormous fan of short stories over the years. They allow talented authors to develop a world in miniature, to quickly draw you into a story and endear their characters to you, and tie everything up (or leave it purposely ambiguous), all in the span of a relatively small number of pages. They can experiment with different narrative styles or themes, or link their stories around a particular set of characters, setting, and/or time period. When it all works, short stories can be breathtaking, sometimes even more than a full-length novel.

A number of the stories in Jonathan Corcoran's collection, The Rope Swing, reached that level for me. The characters in these stories are at a pivotal moment in their lives—the railroad for which their once-successful town was known has taken its last ride, they must make a critical decision about a relationship, they're faced with grief, uncertainty, bitterness, and pain. Each of the stories is either based in a small West Virginia town, or the characters have their roots there, and many of the characters overlap in several of the stories.

My favorites in this 10-story collection included: "Corporeal," in which a relatively sheltered teenager must confront her father's suicide, and decides this is the moment to start bucking her mother's overprotectiveness; "Pauly's Girl," about a woman trying to find her way after her platonic life partner has died; "Felicitations," which tells of a genetic counselor in rural West Virginia facing some critical decisions of her own; "Appalachian Swan Song," about a once-booming town watching the very end of its railroad; "Through the Still Hours," in which one-half of a gay couple tries to figure out why his relationship no longer satisfies him any longer, and what he should do; and my absolute favorite, the title story, about two young men on the cusp of admitting their secrets to one another, but one is unsure of what taking that first (or last) step could mean.

I found this collection when I saw it had been nominated for a Lambda Literary Award. (I found this somewhat ironic because I think there were fewer gay-related stories in here than anything else, but I could have lost count.) Corcoran is really a fantastic storyteller. It's amazing how he can imbue his stories with such powerful emotions in such a small number of pages, and how he makes you feel them just as strongly as his characters do. Only one or two stories didn't work for me, and it wasn't that they weren't well-written, but rather that I just didn't feel as immersed in those as I did the others.

I've had conversations with a number of Goodreads friends as to why they love short stories, or why they don't appeal to them. I can definitely say up until about 15-16 years ago I definitely was in the latter camp, but now I am hooked. There is so much talent out there writing beautiful stories, so if you're willing to give it a try, The Rope Swing may be a great way to ease you in.

Me? I'll be waiting for the next step in Corcoran's career.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Book Review: "The Appointment: Lost & Found (Book 1)" by Luke P. Narlee

Man oh man, I won't be able to get this one out of my head for a while...

It's funny; I used to read a ton of dystopian novels. I remember marveling just how far-fetched they all seemed, how hopeless the authors made life out to be, and how change could be inspired by the resistance of one person. And then (pardon my editorializing) the events of the last few months has brought the far-fetched a little closer. While I'm not ready to volunteer as a tribute, the idea of our country hacked to bits in a battle between the haves and the have-nots, a world where pollution is more the rule than the exception, and people find themselves without food, healthcare, jobs hits a little closer to home for me.

Luke Narlee's The Appointment: Lost & Found isn't quite like that, but there are dystopian elements which seem eerily prescient considering when he must have been writing this. But beyond that, this book is like a cloud formation or one of those Magic Eye puzzles—you aren't quite sure what you're seeing at first, and everyone has a slightly different perspective, but you can't look away, because you're utterly transfixed. And can you ask for much more from a book than that?

The human race is on Lockdown, imprisoned behind a wall which is protected by trigger-happy guards. The expression of emotions is no longer allowed, and to ensure this remains the rule, any form of entertainment—smartphones, music, even photographs—have been forbidden. People shuffle aimlessly through their miserable existence, not making eye contact and barely reacting to the world and the other misanthropes around them.

Jacob Johansen is one of them, but he hasn't completely surrendered to the bleakness even though he knows he should. He keeps seeing these glimpses of memory—people, places, situations—which he has a feeling once meant something to him, but he cannot remember enough, and that makes him both disheartened and frustrated.

One day he receives an invitation to an appointment. He doesn't know who has invited him and what this invitation really means, but he knows he has nothing left to lose, except more time shuffling around in abject boredom and depression. It turns out, however, Jacob has been selected for a "special" project, one which will open up his mind again to what he could be, and remind him of who he once was.

And that's when this book totally takes off. Jacob finds himself in many different situations, perhaps in different worlds, where his life has gone in a wholly new direction. It has almost a Dark Matter-esque feel to it, as you wonder whether there are multiple Jacobs in multiple universes, if these are real memories, or some sort of manipulations. It's just such a cool concept, so vividly told and it really captures your imagination.

One of the great things about this book is I had absolutely no idea what to expect, so I'm being fairly vague in my plot summary so you can enjoy the way it all unfolds. (I'll be honest—I'm still not 100 percent sure what happened but I think Narlee has left some room for interpretation, which is even cooler, in my opinion.) In thinking of the best way to describe this book, I found an old quote:

Narlee's first book, Guest Bed (see my review), also packed a few punches, but it was a completely different type of story. The fact that the same author wrote these two totally different books just proves how talented Narlee is. Not only is the plot complex and memorable, but so are the characters. The book takes a little while to get rolling, but once it does it never lets up.

This may not be a book for everyone, but if you're willing to step outside your comfort zone, I think you'll be richly rewarded, and like me, you'll be ready for Book 2!!

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

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Book Review: "Give a Girl a Knife" by Amy Thielen

About 14-15 years ago (how can that be?) I went to culinary school, and worked as a personal chef for about 18 months until the economy started tanking. At that time, I always had this dream of opening a little restaurant, nothing super fancy. Of course, once I worked at a restaurant for a brief period, that dream died quickly—I thrive on pressure and chaos, but the frenetic pace of cooking in a restaurant, not to mention the pressure of having to always get everything right, would have driven me insane.

That journey in self-discovery is reinforced whenever I read a chef's memoir. Just hearing about the frenetic nature of readying plates in a high-end restaurant is enough to send me reaching for a Xanax. (Check out Michael Gibney's excellent Sous Chef: 24 Hours on the Line for a great example of this.)

"Cooking wasn't just a job; it was a life—what looked to all outsiders, including my own boyfriend, like a pretty terrible life. It was, as Aaron feared, a real affliction. And possibly, a dysfunctional relationship."

While Amy Thielen's terrific new book, Give a Girl a Knife, dips into this territory, as it chronicled her tenure cooking for some of the finest chefs—David Bouley, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Daniel Boulud, and Shea Gallante—in some of New York's most famous restaurants, it didn't dwell on this exclusively. The more time Thielen spent working on fabled, complex dishes, with ingredients and techniques not often seen in everyday kitchens, the more she realized that behind every fancy plate are the backbones of her Midwestern culinary heritage—potatoes, onion, bacon, and butter—lots of butter.

Thielen grew up in Northern Minnesota, in a town known as the home of the nation's largest French fry factory. Her mother, like generations of women before her, reveled in cooking homey, delicious, yet seemingly uncomplicated dishes reflective of Midwestern culture and the German, Austrian, and French heritage of their ancestors. Dishes like pork roast, spaetzle, fermented sour pickles, poppy seed coffee cake, and the infamous hotdishes, laden with bacon and (quite often) cheese, were part of almost every meal for Thielen and her family, yet when she decided to go to culinary school and pursue a career as a chef in New York City, she couldn't get far enough away from those elements, until she realized how truly interrelated everything was.

Give a Girl a Knife juxtaposes Thielen's culinary career with a chronicle of her growing up surrounded by food and the magnificent women who brought the food to delectable life. It also dealt with her struggles as she and her boyfriend (and eventual husband) Aaron tried to bring their dream of living in an off-the-grid, hand-built cabin deep in the Minnesota woods to life. It is during their time in the cabin that awakens Amy's love of food, of coaxing beauty, as well as both subtlety and vibrance, from homegrown fruits and vegetables, as well as meats.

But the time she spends in New York City, as much as she feels it embraces her talents, leaves her longing for the solitude of their cabin, and inspires her journey to better understand her culinary heritage from the beginning. It's a journey that shapes her and her career, as well as her path for her future.

"I'd spent years trying to erase those homely flavors from my past, but when I gave my nostalgia an inch, it ran down the road a mile. Like an archaeologist picking in the hard-packed clay, I felt a need to return home to excavate the old flavors and all the feelings I'd ever tied to them."

At one point when she is trying to decide what to do with her life, Thielen considers being a food writer. It's certainly another career path which would bring her success, because she is a tremendously talented writer, able to paint sensory pictures in your mind's eye with her words. Of course, my snap reaction to this book, with its vivid, beautiful descriptions of complex gourmet dishes, comfort foods, fresh fruits and vegetables?

Beyond wanting to gnaw the seat of the airline passenger in front of me (serves him right for trying to recline his seat back into my lap anyway), I loved the emotions and the ideas that this book conveyed. You can certainly see why Thielen has succeeded in her career, and it was enjoyable to read about her artist husband and how his dream of the cabin in the woods really inspired her life's work. They're certainly a remarkable pair!

My one criticism of the book is the jumbled timeline—one second Thielen is working in New York, then she and Aaron are moving to Minnesota, then she's a teenager, then she's back in New York—at times it just got very confusing.

But in the end, that's a small price to pay because the book is so compelling, so enjoyable, and so hunger-inducing. If you're fascinated by chef stories, if you're a foodie, or if you just to like to eat, pick up Give a Girl a Knife. And have some food nearby!!

Monday, June 12, 2017

Book Review: "Lovecraft Country" by Matt Ruff

Yeah, Tina, that's how I felt after reading this book. This was one crazy, creative, confusing ride!!

In 1954, the U.S. was still deep in the throes of segregation and blatant racism. When Korean War veteran Atticus Turner finds out his estranged father Montrose has gone missing, accompanying a young, confident-looking white man to a small town in New England, Atticus knows he must find him and see what trouble he has gotten himself into. Accompanied by his Uncle George, publisher of The Safe Negro Travel Guide, and his childhood friend Letitia, the trio experience more than their share of racist and dangerous encounters along the way, as they travel in and out of less open-minded communities.

"White people in his experience were far more transparent. The most hateful rarely bothered to conceal their hostility, and when for some reason they did try to hide their feelings, they generally exhibited all the guile of five-year-olds, who cannot imagine that the world sees them other than as they wish to be seen."

When they arrive in the small town of Ardham, Massachusetts, and the sprawling manor home of Samuel Braithwhite (who happens to be the ancestor of those who owned Atticus' grandmother), they are somewhat shocked to find Montrose kept prisoner in the cellar of an Ardham building. Braithwhite and his son Caleb are part of a secret order called the Order of the Ancient Dawn, and the group has very interesting plans for a ritual to regain their power—a ritual that involves Atticus. And while Atticus may have a trump card to play, using it may unleash years of danger upon his family and friends.

What follows are interconnected chapters involving Atticus, George, George's wife Hippolyta and his son Horace, as well as Letitia and her sister, Ruby. The chapters involve all sorts of magic, occult, ghosts, racism, space and time travel, social commentary, and threats of violence, as one who was once in power tries to establish his dominance again. These are wild stories for which you'll need to seriously suspend your disbelief, but Matt Ruff tries to provide pointed commentary on how racism can destroy the fabric of our country and cause people to do things they know they shouldn't.

Lovecraft Country pays homage to the horror novelist (and racist) H.P. Lovecraft. It's well-written and creative, but it just gets too unhinged after a while. The narrative in each section seems disjointed and the pacing at times moves slower than I would have liked. But when the book starts barreling toward its conclusion, it makes you feel a little breathless, as you wonder how Ruff will tie everything up.

Matt Ruff's first novel, Fool on the Hill, a fantasy totally unlike this book, is one of my favorite books of all time. His subsequent books definitely challenge your perceptions of reality and are tremendously thought-provoking. I know that this was the objective here, too, but it just didn't quite click for me. But if a combination of social commentary, allegory, and the occult sounds irresistible to you, definitely pick this up, because combined with Ruff's storytelling talent, it may be a home run for you.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Book Review: "Words in Deep Blue" by Cath Crowley

Seriously. This book had me sobbing like I haven't since All the Bright Places or maybe even Me Before You, although there's not quite the same level of tragedy. But as I was crying so hard I wet my t-shirt (don't judge), at the same time I was thinking that I may very well become obsessed with Cath Crowley's writing after this one.

Henry and Rachel were best friends. They were utterly inseparable, and the truth is, Rachel was in love with Henry. She knew that Henry was fascinated by Amy, the pretty new girl in school, but she figured she needed to tell him how she felt before she moved away. So she wrote him a letter and tucked it inside his favorite book at his family's bookshop, and she waited for him to come to her.

He never showed up, and he texted her to say he overslept the morning she was leaving. She realized that it was time to put Henry and their relationship behind her. So she left town, and didn't respond to his letters or any of his attempts at contact. She built a new life for herself, one without Henry.

Three years later, Rachel returns to her hometown. So much has changed, most notably, her brother drowned, making it impossible to be near the water, which was her most favorite place to be. She is unable to feel, unable to derive any joy out of her life, so her mother sends her to live with her aunt. And although the one thing Rachel wants to do is avoid seeing Henry altogether, it's completely unavoidable, since they'll be working together in the bookshop.

Henry, meanwhile, doesn't understand how his best friend could have forgotten him. He doesn't understand why she's so angry, so closed off, so unwilling to laugh with him or tell him anything. But Henry has his own crises to contend with—Amy has broken up with him (again), and started dating the handsome jerk from high school, and his divorcing parents are fighting over whether to sell the bookshop. He doesn't know a life that doesn't include the shop—his family lives above it, after all—but at the same time he wonders if selling might make the most sense, since he would finally have the money to treat Amy the way she wants to be treated, when she realizes it's Henry she loves.

The bookshop is known throughout Australia for its Letter Library, a collection of books in which people have left letters (or written things) for others throughout the years. Flipping the pages of any of these books provides a glimpse into the beauty and imperfections of love, infatuation, grief, anger, and joy. As Rachel works to catalog the markings inside these books, she realizes that perhaps she needs to open herself up to life a little bit again, and discovers some of her fears about her brother's short life, fears that have paralyzed her, aren't true.

As Henry and Rachel try to rebuild their friendship, they must contend with the secret she's been hiding about her brother, as well as the three-year-old elephant in the room. But Henry still can't figure out what he wants from life—romantically or from the bookshop. Both of them must take a leap when the very thought of stepping outside their comfort zone is more than they can handle.

"What's the point in living on past the moment when those we have loved have left us? And how can we ever forgive ourselves for letting them go?"

Words in Deep Blue is emotional, angsty, moving, and occasionally frustrating, but it is just so good. (I haven't even touched on the parallel storyline featuring Henry's younger sister.) Yes, I wanted to beat the crap out of Henry for most of the book, but he's a pretty authentic teenage guy, who wants what he wants regardless of how others feel. And while I get irritated when characters could move forward if only they would say what needs to be said but they don't, this, too, is more like life than fiction.

Not everyone out there is into YA, but this is a pretty terrific YA book. I love that the characters aren't refugees from a John Hughes film or a John Green book—while perhaps they're a bit more erudite than typical recent high school graduates, they're not coming up with bon mots you want to write down and try out on your friends either. (Or is that just me.) This is a book that made me feel, yes, all the feels.

Cath Crowley, can't wait for your next book. But perhaps a warning I'll need Visine next time?

Book Review: "The Winter in Anna" by Reed Karaim

This book was utterly exquisite and moving, yet told with such gorgeous simplicity.

"We would like to think we will recognize the people who come to matter to us at first sight, but of course that's absurd. They often slip into the corners of our lives, unnoticed, then taken for granted, until one day, if we are lucky, we see them anew with startled comprehension, and think, There is my best friend, or There is the woman I love, or There is someone who saved me."

In a split second, Eric Valery decides to drop out of college just before he graduates, and gets a job as a reporter at a newspaper in small-town Shannon, North Dakota. It is there he meets Anna, a fellow employee, whose outer calm belies a life full of disappointment, pain, and emotions, the depths of which no one truly knows.

It's not long before the two strike up a close friendship, and Eric begins to understand there is so much more to life than what he thinks and has experienced, understands what life is like for those who truly struggle. Anna, too, learns from this friendship, as she gets to experience Eric's confidence and idealism, and feels buoyed by his enthusiasm for the small town in which they live and work.

Little by little, Anna begins to trust Eric, and reveals to him the secret pain she carries with her. She teaches him that there is so much more to life than what he sees in front of him, but all of it—moments both happy and sad—are what makes life richer, even if it is difficult. And as Eric faces his own sadness and his own indecision, he realizes that we cannot always choose the circumstances we're handed, but what we do with those circumstances is what makes a life.

The Winter in Anna is Eric's reflections on his relationship with Anna years later, as he remembers the person who perhaps meant more to him than anyone, although the realization of that fact may not have come right away. It's a portrait of a young man with his whole life ahead of him, who finds someone that both directly and obliquely changes the course of his life.

"No one had seemed to defy the idea that our future is written in our past more than Anna."

There was so much I loved about this book. I found the characters so fascinating, so complex, and even though one key plot point is revealed in the first few pages of the book, my love for these characters kept me reading every single word. Reed Karaim infuses his book with such emotion and so many life lessons, and his prose is absolutely gorgeous. Even his imagery is poetic. Take this example:

"The afternoons swell with diffused light, the trees are kaleidoscopes, the sky cracks gently along the edge, and all the colors spill into early evening. It's a time when the unexpected perfection of a particular day can stop you in midstride, when your thoughts slow down to take on a renewed clarity and you make a series of small resolutions to do better from here on out as you turn up your collar against the approaching winter."

I'm always loathe to compare writers since everyone is so unique, but Karaim's style and lyricism reminds me of Kent Haruf and Leif Enger. I read this book on a plane ride and just fell in love with it. It's one of those times I wish I was reading the actual book instead of a digital copy, so I could tell people on the plane how special this book was. (I'm usually not interested in making conversation with people on planes so I can concentrate on reading, so this is a big deal.)

Some may find the pacing a little slow, but I really thought The Winter in Anna was one of those special books you hope to find every so often, and you don't want it to end, nor do you want to lose the memories of these characters.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Book Review: "Six Stories" by Matt Wesolowski

Wow, this was crazy good! I wasn't really sure what to expect but it definitely surprised me!

I may be in the minority, but I never listened to any of the Serial podcast. I know, I was supposed to be fantastic, but strangely enough, I have a real problem focusing if I have to just concentrate on listening to something. Reading, watching television, listening to music are all fine, but listening to a podcast or an audio book doesn't work for me. I'm a little too manic, I guess!

Matt Wesolowski's Six Stories follows the work of investigative journalist Scott King, whose program of the same name explores complicated cases, looking at them from six different perspectives. (Get it? Six perspectives, six stories?) He doesn't have a particular purpose in selecting the case—he's not an advocate for freeing unfairly prosecuted criminals or looking to reopen cases, he's just fascinated by complicated cases.

King decides to take on the 1996 disappearance of 15-year-old Tom Jeffries, who went missing during a trip his Outward Bound-type group took to the Scarclaw Fell Woodlands Centre. Tom was one of five teenagers who participated in the trip, and none of his peers knew what happened to him—when they went to bed he was there, and when they awoke in the morning, he was gone. Tom's body wasn't discovered until a year later by the son of the man who bought the land where the Centre once stood. His death was ruled a "misadventure," and no one was found liable.

Twenty years later, King interviews many of those involved at the time—the leader of the outdoors group who took the teens on the trip, a man who became inadvertently enmeshed with the teens, and several of the participants themselves, as well as the man who discovered Jeffries' body. The story that emerges years later sheds new light on the events leading up to the night Jeffries disappeared, the dynamics of the group of teenagers and their sometimes-troubling behavior, the instances in which more adult supervision might have changed things, and the disturbing and bizarre legends and ghost stories about a sinister figure or creature who haunts the Fell.

"There is evil in the world. There is definitely evil in this world of ours. We carve monuments to our fallen, engrave them with the names of those whose lives were snuffed out when trying to stop evil. We don't forget."

What really did happen the night Jeffries disappeared, and why did it take a year for his body to surface? Was someone supposedly innocent actually guilty, or was there a supernatural force at play? Can our memories, our interpretations of events which occurred so long ago, particularly when we were young, be trusted, or is everything open to manipulation? Can the person who weaves the threads of the stories together be trusted either?

This was a tremendously compelling book, full of suspense and twists. While I might have had some suspicions about how things would unfold, Wesolowski really kept me guessing, and kept me hooked as if I were listening to one of his podcasts. The story is a little creepy, a little sad, a little frustrating, and a little confusing—just like life itself.

I'm still not 100 percent sure how everything tied together, or what really happened in the end, but I enjoyed the ride Wesolowski took me on. Definitely one of those books that grabs you and doesn't really let you go.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Book Review: "One of Us Is Lying" by Karen M. McManus

If One of Us Is Lying was a television series, I would binge-watch it wholeheartedly. It's been a while since I've gotten so into a book I've devoured the majority of it in one sitting when I haven't been on a plane. This hooked me completely, and I'm surprised how much I liked it.

Five students have detention one afternoon. There's Cooper, the golden boy and star baseball player trying to decide between college and the major leagues; Bronwyn, the class valedictorian who plans to follow her family's legacy and go to Yale; Addy, one-half of the picture-perfect couple and a homecoming princess; Nate, the bad boy, on probation for dealing drugs (and still selling them not so secretly); and Simon, the despised (and kind-of feared) creator of About That, Bayview High's gossip blog. They're all in detention for something none of them did, and they can't understand why the teacher doesn't believe them.

Before detention is over for the day, Simon is dead, and apparently, it wasn't an accident. It's not long before investigators discover that the next day, Simon was planning to publish items about Cooper, Bronwyn, Addy, and Nate—items which could potentially destroy all of their lives. Suddenly the four of them are the suspects in Simon's murder, and are pariahs among their fellow students, most of whom hated Simon until he died, then turned him into a tragic figure.

Suddenly four people who weren't really friends (or at least since childhood) are brought together. Each claims their innocence—but is one of them lying, or did someone else get involved? And how, when it was just five of them in the classroom that day? Can they clear their names and get their lives back?

It turns out that Bronwyn, Cooper, Addy, and Nate all have secrets they'd prefer to have kept hidden. In some cases these aren't even the secrets that Simon threatened to expose. But when the truth is revealed it will impact their relationships with each other and their friends, as well as their futures. Can they handle it?

Karen McManus did a great job with this book. It's amazing—she basically took most of the typical high school stereotypes, yet gave her characters a little more depth than you'd expect. Even though you probably will have suspicions of how the plot will unfold (and most of those suspicions will be correct), it's still interesting the way McManus pulls everything together. I couldn't get enough of this book, and even though the story wrapped up, I wouldn't have minded if it ran longer.

This was a great read. And let's put it this way: only for a novel as skillfully written as One of Us Is Lying would make me willing to relive memories of some of the angst, emotions, drama, and insecurities of high school. (And since you know so many books have me singing a particular song, for no reason whatsoever, this book had me singing "One of Us" by ABBA. But this was an easy one: the song actually has the lyric "One of us is lying.")

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Book Review: "Castle of Water" by Dane Huckelbridge

Dane Huckelbridge, look what you made me do!

Sophie is a French architect. She and her new husband, Etienne, have spent the first few days of their honeymoon in Tahiti, and now plan to spend the second leg on of of the Marquesas Islands, specifically the one where the French entertainer Jacques Brel—who is Sophie's favorite singer ever—spent his last days.

Barry is, or until just recently, was, an investment banker in New York. The life he led in high finance isn't the life he dreamed of—what he wanted more than anything was to become a painter. He was accepted to art school, yet made the safe choices which led him down the less exciting but more stable path. But he's finally decided it is time for all of that to change, and he literally heads from his downtown office to Tahiti with the clothes on his back and some extra pairs of contact lenses. His ultimate journey is the island in the Marquesas where his idol, Paul Gauguin, finally found the inspiration to unleash his genius.

Sophie, Etienne, and Barry are the three passengers on a small plane heading to the island of Hiva Oa. Yet they fall short of their destination when their plane crashes in the middle of the South Pacific. Not everyone survives, yet those who do are faced with an unending number of challenges, starting with the fact that the island they wind up marooned on is virtually unknown by the world, and is nowhere near the flightplan their pilot filed before take-off.

With miles and miles of nothing but water surrounding them, meager food sources, and not much in the way of shelter, the survivors must make their way to do just that—survive. At the same time, they must learn to trust one another, as well as live with the realization that if they can ever find their way home, or at least back to some semblance of civilization, it cannot happen alone.

"What does it take to not only survive such a thing, but then live the rest of your life with that thing inside you?"

You've seen this story before. You may even be able to figure out the plot from the bare-bones summary I've given. But you know what? It doesn't matter. Dane Huckelbridge brings all of the familiar elements to this book but adds a dash of insouciance, some well-placed history and trivia, and some beautiful storytelling. His imagery helps you picture the island in your mind's eye, and visualize the characters' struggles and victories as you're reading about them.

I thought the plot took a little while to build up steam, and I could have done without the characters adhering to well-known stereotypes early on. But beyond that I really enjoyed Castle of Water, even if it had me singing "Candle on the Water" from the Disney movie Pete's Dragon. (If you have no idea what I'm talking about, don't google it unless you're a Helen Reddy fan.) It was a lovely, special book, and proves that Huckelbridge is definitely an author to watch in the future.

As an aside, I'm not to keen to get on a plane in a few days.