Monday, July 31, 2017

Book Review: "Shadow Ranch" by Robin Covington

Robin Covington's Shadow Ranch is a H-O-T story. But reading it made me blush like crazy. I don't embarrass too easily, and I don't have a problem with explicit sex scenes. It's something totally different than that.

You see, I've known Robin Covington long before she was Robin Covington, back when she was just a super-awesome, take-no-prisoners, smart, dynamic, funny friend with whom I attended middle school and high school. Imagine reading a sex scene when you keep thinking about the fact that it is written by someone who knew you when you were more awkward than you are now! Even in my own house, as I read the story, this was me:

Luckily, there was a good story to go along with the hot scenes, so my face didn't catch on fire!!

Eli Sutherland is an artist. He hasn't been back to his family's ranch, Shadow Ranch, in some time, not since his mother was convicted of killing his father there. But when his mother dies, and he needs to escape his life in Austin, he starts thinking about moving back home. It actually may be the perfect place to work on his art. And hide.

His remaining family isn't too happy that he has returned, nor is the man he paid to run the ranch, but he doesn't care. When he meets Shep Lockwood (how hot is that name?), a sexy Texas Ranger, he's even more convinced that he's making the right decision. But will the concussion he sustains when another murder is perpetrated at the ranch make him turn tail again? Or will Shep protect him, and help him figure out who is behind the trouble?

Despite knowing Robin as long as I have, I've never read anything of hers before, and I'll admit that I was drawn in partly because of the man on the cover. (Whatever.) Robin tells a great story, one without clichés, and all embarrassment aside, she can write a pretty steamy sex scene. (This is the second full-on M/M romance I've read, and both were written by women. I know some have a problem with women authors writing M/M stories, but if they're all as talented, I see no problem!)

If I had any criticism, it's that it was too short. I'd love to see these characters in something a little longer—I can't guarantee I won't get all bashful again, but it's worth the red face. And if you like this genre, your face may be red too, just from fanning yourself!

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Book Review: "Words on Bathroom Walls" by Julia Walton

Adam has recently been diagnosed with schizophrenia. He knew something was wrong with him, and he's both horrified and relieved to know what it is. As much as it hurt to lose his friends, who all stopped talking to him after his diagnosis, he has a chance for a new start—he's going to attend a new school as a junior, and he's been enrolled in a promising drug trial which hopefully will help him manage his illness, or at least alleviate the anxiety he feels when he sees the people in his visions.

"I really didn't want to be crazy. Nobody wants to be crazy, but now that I know what's happening to me, now that I understand what's going on in my head, I don't want to think about what it means to know you're crazy. To know that your family knows you're crazy."

While starting a new school is always daunting, he's determined to keep his illness a secret so nobody treats him differently or starts to worry they can't be around him. He also has to struggle with keeping a brave face for his mother and stepfather, both of whom worry about him, but Adam knows that even his stepfather is a little concerned about their safety if things go awry. It's a lot of pressure, but he believes the drug will help him weather it.

As with almost anyone new in school, Adam must deal with a bully who believes he is better than anyone else because his parents are wealthy, but he also makes a good friend and tries keeping his head down as much as possible. And then he meets Maya—beautiful, fiercely intelligent and opinionated, and someone for whom Adam wants to remain well and act as "normally" as possible. But that means hiding a part of himself from her, even if she may be more observant than he realizes.

"I'm not afraid of telling Maya about me. At least not in the same way I'm afraid of losing control. It's just not something I want to think about too much. I want to keep her far enough away so she won't ever have to see me as I actually am. I don't want to lose my secrets, because they keep me safe...I guess I just don't want her to know the truth. I'm afraid of what she'd do with the information. I doubt she'd ever climb through my window again. She might even be afraid to be alone with me. It might ruin the way she looks at me with her side smile, the one that secretly makes me feel like I'm waking up on the first day of summer vacation."

Adam and Maya grow closer and closer, and their feelings for each other grow deeper and deeper. At the same time, the drug Adam has been taking starts failing, and it's making him more anxious, making his symptoms more vivid and less easy to hide. He's trying to hold it together the best he can, but with pressure from all sides, he's unsure how much longer he can keep his secret before people start to think of him differently, and their relationships change, something he fears more than his illness.

I've honestly never known anyone who was schizophrenic (or, I guess, never had anyone share their diagnosis), so I appreciated the unfiltered look at the illness that Words on Bathroom Walls gave me. This is a powerful, moving, emotional book which does a beautiful job capturing an adolescent's struggle with keeping up appearances, both for himself and those around him, and the pressures that causes.

This book really made me think. I realized how even our best intentions get outweighed by our inner fears and prejudices, no matter how hard we try. I also never thought about how a person living with an illness might feel if someone with the same illness does something wrong; in this case, Adam's feelings and those around him after the shooting in Sandy Hook, since the shooter was schizophrenic. What a powerful scene, one which really opened my eyes.

There was so much to like about this book. Julia Walton is a fantastic writer, and her characters were truly fascinating, even if they didn't always behave the way you hoped they might. Adam was insightful, sarcastic, and sensitive, but I didn't find him or his friends more erudite than typical teenagers. I also loved the fact that Walton had her characters react in what you think would be realistic ways to the situations around them.

My only criticism of the book was that some of the plot was really predictable, and that disappointed me a bit. One event I absolutely saw coming, and it irritated me when it actually happened, even though I know it was true to how that character would react. I also wondered if Walton was hinting that Adam's friend had some medical issues of his own, but then that storyline never picked up again, so I don't know whether that was intentional or not.

The truth is, though, those are minor little gripes. Words on Bathroom Walls is beautifully written and definitely will make you feel, and it may also make you think. It was a special book I'll think about for quite some time.

Book Review: "The Best Kind of People" by Zoe Whittall

"When someone is your husband or father, that's simply who they are. You don't stop to question much about them, unless you're given reason to, and they'd never been given reason to."

The Woodbury family is well known in their suburban Connecticut town; in fact, the family has lived there for years and the Woodbury home is a fixture in the neighborhood. About 10 years ago, George, a popular science teacher at the town's prep school, thwarted a gunman who came into the school to kill one of the receptionists, so he has been viewed as a hero for some time. It's more than a bit of a shock when one night, George is arrested for allegations of sexual misconduct and inappropriate behavior with several female students.

The news ripples through the Woodbury family and their town, causing a multitude of reactions. George's steadfast wife, Joan, an ER nurse, cannot understand how the man she has known and loved and lived with and raised children with could be the person who did the things he's being accused of. Their 17-year-old daughter Sadie, smart and popular, suddenly finds herself a social pariah, and she isn't sure her father deserves the benefit of the doubt that everyone expects her to give him. Andrew, their son, who couldn't wait to leave their suffocating small town so he could finally be himself, is now a lawyer in New York City, and is struggling with memories of his past he has tried so hard to leave behind, as well as a partner who wants to support him and his family.

As the family grapples with reconciling the man they've known, or the man they thought they've known, with people's reactions toward his alleged crimes, they struggle with their own feelings. Did they miss the signs all along, did they deny seeing anything out-of-the-ordinary, or did all of this really come out of the blue? Is it part of a plot to discredit George, as he claims, or has he done a masterful job at hiding his true nature? Dealing with this on a day-to-day basis proves difficult for each of them in different ways, especially given those in their family and community who both want to help and who think they all should pay.

"Even if they turned out to be lies, those stories were there, obstacles between them, things she couldn't un-hear or un-imagine. Someone had taken Joan's only confidant, the one person who actually knew her completely, and her best friend, and replaced him with a monster. The person she knew and trusted was gone."

The Best Kind of People starts with an interesting premise, how well we truly know those we love, or if they are capable of pulling the wool over our eyes and harming others. We need to figure out if we're in any way to blame, either for somehow enabling the behaviors or denying their existence, or if the person's sins are all their own. It's also a story about the dynamics of a family who always thought had everything, only to find out there were lies underneath it all.

While this is a compelling albeit familiar storyline, the story gets a bit muddled when it looks at the social reaction to George's alleged crimes, pitting those who immediately believe what the girls accuse him of versus those more conservative voices in the community who believe women make false claims of sexual misconduct and rape simply to cover up their bad judgment or mistakes. Additionally, a thread in which a local author (who also happens to be dating the mother of Sadie's boyfriend) decides to write a book about the scandal, and manipulates Sadie to get information, felt a little bit creepy, and actually raised more questions that the story never answered. And honestly, I'm not really sure what the ending meant.

This is the first book of Zoe Whittall's I've ever read. She definitely knows how to unravel a story little by little, and create memorable characters. I felt that The Best Kind of People tried a little too hard to be dramatic, and actually wound up creating melodrama instead that undercut the story's power. But it's definitely an interesting story, even if the characters aren't as sympathetic as you'd expect them to be.

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

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Book Review: "Cold Harbor" by Matthew FitzSimmons

If an author has only written three books, can you say that their latest is "vintage [author's name]"? Well, I don't care. I've just read Matthew FitzSimmons' third book, Cold Harbor, which is the third book in the Gibson Vaughn series, and I can say unequivocally that it is vintage FitzSimmons, in that it kicks ass just as much as the first one did. Why isn't this guy famous yet?

Gibson Vaughn was kept in a CIA black-site prison, isolated from all human contact for a significant period of time. He had no concept of the difference between day or night, and at times he had no idea whether he was really alive or dead. Visions of his childhood friend, Suzanne, and his father kept him company, helped him to cope, and gave him the will to survive, so he could one day be reunited with his young daughter (if she is even still young), and he can enact revenge on the man who has taken him prisoner.

When he is released into the cold, he has no idea how long he has been imprisoned. At first he doesn't even know where he is. All he has are Suzanne and his father's ghosts, cajoling him, bullying him, pushing him toward dual missions—Suzanne wants him to find his daughter and rebuild their relationship; his father wants him to get revenge on the man who ruined Gibson's life.

As Gibson tries returning to the life he knew before he was imprisoned, he finds the readjustment to be very difficult, and his constant ghostly companions don't help matters any. He discovers how many things have changed—rarely for the better—since he has been gone, and he needs to figure out how to get his head, his life, and hopefully, his daughter, back. But it won't be easy, as he quickly makes himself a suspect in a crime he wasn't even around to commit, and is under scrutiny by law enforcement.

The more he tries keeping his head down and doing what he needs to do in the hopes it will heal him, the more roadblocks he runs into, and the more he becomes reacquainted with both old friends and old nemeses. He can't seem to escape the trouble that follows him, and he gets embroiled in a dangerous scheme, unsure of whom he can trust, and whether he'll even come out of it alive, and if he does, what his life will be like afterward.

Cold Harbor is the story of a desperate man trying to regain control of the life he once knew, only to find that life doesn't really exist anymore. When everything you knew, everything you worked toward is impossible to have now, where do you go and what do you do? And does getting revenge against those who've wronged you the therapy you need, or does that open you up to more harm than good?

When FitzSimmons' first book in the series, The Short Drop (see my original review), was published two years ago, it took me by surprise and absolutely blew me away. At that point I knew this was an author worth watching, and I couldn't wait for the series to continue. While I didn't love the second book quite as much as the first, Gibson Vaughn is one of my favorite characters in recent years, and I couldn't wait to find out what happened to him after the last book ended.

Cold Harbor is FitzSimmons firing on all cylinders, and it proves once again that he is a writer with tremendous talent, and that Gibson is a character I can't get enough of, even as he's having trouble distinguishing reality from madness. This is a fantastic series, and this is a writer you need to read if you like this genre. Believe me, you'll want to read him now, so you can look totally cool when he hits the big time—which I hope happens soon.

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

Monday, July 24, 2017

Book Review: "The Force" by Don Winslow

I have been a fan of Don Winslow's for more than 20 years, starting when I found his series featuring Neal Carey, one of the more unlikely private investigators I had seen back then. (This was a time when there wasn't such a glut of books featuring unlikely PIs.) Through the years I've read pretty much everything he has written, and I kept hoping there would be a book that would finally catapult him to the level of fame his talent so deserves.

Simply put, his latest book, The Force, is nothing short of a masterpiece, and it appears to be the book which might finally make Winslow a household name. While the story of corruption in the ranks of the NYPD may be a familiar one, in Winslow's hands, it is raw and gripping, one of those books you can't stop reading, and it feels incredibly current. It is definitely one which will make one hell of a movie. (And it already has been optioned, so it will be one to watch!)

The Manhattan North Special Task Force, otherwise known as "Da Force" (as if said with a New York accent), is the NYPD's most elite unit. Created to crack down on the influx of violence, gangs, guns, and drugs infiltrating the city, particularly in the Harlem area, the detectives who serve on Da Force are among the toughest, smartest, most bad-ass cops the city has to offer. At the helm of this unit is Detective Sergeant Denny Malone, who relishes his power and all he can accomplish with it. And boy, does he love his job.

"All Da Force detectives are kings, but Malone—with no disrespect intended to our Lord and Savior—is the King of Kings. Manhattan North is the Kingdom of Malone. Like with any king, his subjects love him and fear him, revere him and loathe him, praise him and revile him. He has his loyalists and rivals, his sycophants and critics, his jesters and advisers, but he has no real friends. Except his partners."

Malone and his partners have given every inch of themselves to the city. They've put themselves at serious risk of injury and death (and have the scars to show for it), and have witnessed the utter horrors that people inflict on one another, whether due to the influence of drugs and alcohol, for revenge or retribution, if they perceive someone is threatening their business interests, or simply out of boredom or cruelty. It's a job that wears you down, but Malone and his partners and his fellow officers love it anyway.

"The cops feel for the vics and hate the perps, but they can't feel too much or they can't do their jobs and they can't hate too much or they'll become the perps. So they develop a shell, a "we hate everybody" attitude force field around themselves that everyone can feel from ten feet away. You gotta have it, Malone knows, or this job kills you, physically or psychologically. Or both."

The thing is, police work is a lot about "what have you done for me lately," so no matter what heroic deeds Da Force does, there's always pressure from higher up to keep crime stats down, keep guns and drugs away, keep people from being murdered. Ultimately, to succeed, you can't be 100 percent idealistic, nor can you be 100 percent innocent. And through their years in the NYPD, Malone and his partners haven't done everything by the book. There may have been times when evidence or weapons were planted, when money changed hands to make things go away, where lawful procedures were skirted or avoided. If the end result is what is desired, what's the problem?

When Da Force makes the biggest heroin bust in the city, they're hailed as hero cops. Yet Malone and his partners actually steal some of the drugs and some of the money before turning everything else in. They're entitled. But this sends them down their slipperiest slope yet, and when Malone catches the eye of the feds for a fairly routine (but still illegal) thing, he finds himself caught in a trap, and has to decide whether to save himself or betray his fellow officers, something he vowed he'd never do.

The Force is magnificently told—it's a big novel with a big vision and a fairly large cast of characters, yet the cops at its center fully grab your attention. Malone is far from perfect and he'll admit that to anyone. He knows that somewhere along the line he and his comrades stepped out of line, but once you get used to the privilege and the perks and the money and the prestige, can you go back and admit your mistakes? This is a man so in love with the job and what they can achieve, he can't think of doing anything else in the world.

Elements of the plot are definitely familiar, but woven together with Winslow's amazing storytelling, it is completely riveting, and I read nearly the entire book on a cross-country flight. Perhaps because of all the references to Serpico I kept seeing a young Al Pacino as Malone, but the characters and the images are so vivid, I watched the book play out in my head as I was reading it. I cannot wait to see this adapted into a movie, because in addition to the violence and bravado and corruption there are moments of true tenderness and emotion and vulnerability.

As you might expect, there is a lot of violence in this book, and in a book which takes place in a culture greatly affected by racism, there is strong language and racial and cultural epithets used throughout. None of it felt gratuitous to me, but I know some may find that triggering or troublesome.

Ever since I learned Winslow would be writing this book, I couldn't wait to read it. Now that I have, I am so excited about the response it has received from critics and readers across the country. He is definitely a writer worth reading, and whether you start with this book or one of his others, you're sure to find an excellent, exceptionally written story.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Book Review: "Young Jane Young" by Gabrielle Zevin

Living in the Washington, DC area during the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal, you just couldn't escape it—everything from news to gossip to rumors to hatchet pieces about Lewinsky, even spoofs of her on Saturday Night Live and other television shows. And while President Clinton certainly was the subject of a great deal of criticism, in many people's eyes, it seemed like Lewinsky was the only one to blame, and yet for quite some time you never heard her side of the story, but certainly her life was adversely affected.

In Gabrielle Zevin's Young Jane Young, Aviva Grossman interns for an up-and-coming Florida congressman with whom her family was friends when she was younger. Immensely smart and driven, with possible ambitions of a political career of her own someday, at first Aviva does the "typical" intern stuff—answer phones, send out mailings, make phone calls—but as she demonstrates her intelligence, the congressman and his staff begin relying on her for more serious tasks.

It's a few years after the Lewinsky scandal, but clearly Aviva didn't learn from that, as she and the congressman begin an affair. She knows it's wrong, but she falls in love with him, and she really believes him when he tells her that his marriage hasn't been happy for some time. Since she can't tell anyone about this, she keeps an anonymous blog about their relationship, this in the early days of blogging when she has no way of knowing if anyone is even reading what she writes.

When news of the affair becomes public, Aviva becomes a laughingstock. She can't get a job because of her "fame," her family is disgraced, and even graduate school seems a remote possibility because anyone with an internet connection can find out what she has done. She finds that she has no choice but to leave Florida and head far away, to Maine, where she changes her name to Jane Young and begins her life anew.

Years later, Jane has a successful event planning business and is raising her headstrong daughter Ruby to make smarter choices than she did. When Jane is convinced to run for mayor of her small Maine town, it's not long before her past is exposed. And when Ruby finds out that her mother isn't quite the person she believed she was, Ruby sets off a chain of events which bring Jane and her family back into a time of her life that she had tried putting behind her.

Young Jane Young is told from a number of different perspectives—not only Jane and Ruby's, but also Jane's mother, whose life was also affected by her daughter's scandal, and Embeth Levin, the congressman's wife. The narrative shifts from the time of the scandal to the present, and even includes a pseudo "Choose Your Adventure" section in which Aviva gets the opportunity to tell her side of the story.

This is a fascinating book which shows how quick we are as a society to rush to judgment about someone, even if that someone is our own family member, and how we often don't realize how many ripples a scandal can cause in other people's lives. It's also a book about owning your mistakes and trying to move on, but how sometimes you just can't outrun your past. Of course, it's also an exploration of the double standards that still pervade our society, double standards we've seen play out recently in our political arena here in the U.S.

I've read a few of Zevin's books in the past, with my favorite being The Storied Life of AJ Fikry (see my original review), which made my list of the best books I read in 2014. I really like the way she writes, and I like the way she made her characters fascinating despite their flaws.

I was frustrated by Ruby's actions after she discovers her mother's past. No matter how intelligent and independent Ruby was supposed to be, I just found the way she reacted and what she did a little unbelievable and immensely unlikable, despite understanding why she felt the way she did. The whole thing just seemed more melodramatic than the rest of the book, and it irked me.

Despite my irritation with a portion of the book, this was a very fast and enjoyable read, and an interesting look at the lifecycle of a scandal and its victims. Zevin's talent as a storyteller takes a familiar tale and makes it funny, fascinating, and a little soapy.

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

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Book Review: "Less" by Andrew Sean Greer

It's been said (in a catty way, of course) that after age 42 gay men become invisible, that no one wants an older gay man except, if they're lucky, another gay man. Andrew Sean Greer's beautifully moving but slightly uneven new novel, Less, deals with a man coming to terms approaching his 50th birthday, wondering if he'll ever find true love, and trying to define himself and his career. No small feat, there!

When he was in his early 20s, he was the boyfriend of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Robert Brownburn, who was a member of the famed Russian River School of writers and artists. Even though the relationship ended after a few years, Arthur has always been defined somewhat as the former boyfriend of Robert Brownburn, even as he experienced a slight bit of renown in his own literary career. Robert will always be Arthur's first love, even though Arthur knows he frittered away the relationship as many much-younger gay men would.

As Arthur's 50th birthday approaches, he is in the midst of a crisis. His former boyfriend of nine years (this time he picked someone younger) is getting married to someone else, and Arthur has been invited to the wedding. His publisher isn't interested at all in his newest novel. And he wonders if he'll spend the rest of his life alone, unloved and unsuccessful. So he does what any self-effacing person would do: he flees the country.

But he's not running away. (Well, yes, he is.) He's pursuing a number of different literary opportunities across the globe, which will end with some time at a writer's retreat in India, where perhaps he will be able to fix what ails his novel. Along the way he travels to Mexico, Italy, Germany, France, and Morocco, plumbing the depths of his soul, looking back at the memories of relationships gone sour, and trying to figure out where he goes from here, and whether he's made the biggest mistakes of his life by simply deciding not to decide things, not to say things, not to do things.

How does a man who always seems to intrigue, always seems to provoke feelings in others, figure out his self-worth, and find the courage to act instead of waiting for things to happen to him? There are lessons to be learned in mistakes and failures, but does he want to learn those lessons? What awaits him on the other side of 50?

Less is an emotional, somewhat elegiacal meditation on aging, love, and one's professional and romantic legacy. It is at times poignant, at times funny, even a little ridiculous occasionally, but tremendously thought-provoking. Greer brings so much poetry and beauty to his sentences, and even if his main character is a somewhat elusive enigma, at least to the reader, his lamentations and his journey are utterly fascinating.

I enjoyed this book quite a bit. I felt as if so much of this story was so interesting, so moving, that I was a little irritated when the narrative veered into almost farcical and/or metaphysical territory a few times. In a sense you know how the story may ultimately unfold, but Greer makes you wait a really long time for the payoff, and there were a few moments I just wanted Arthur to stop moping, stop walking around with his head in the sand, and speak, or act, the way he knows he should.

I have been a huge fan of Greer's since reading his first story collection, How It Was for Me. While it took me a while to get into what is perhaps his most famous book, The Confessions of Max Tivoli, I absolutely loved his other books, The Path of Minor Planets, The Story of a Marriage, and The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells. He is an absolutely beautiful storyteller, and even though this book has some flaws, reading Greer's writing is like eating a fine meal or watching a beautiful movie or play—you just don't want it to end, you want to savor every minute.

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

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Book Review: "The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue" by Mackenzi Lee

Just when you think that no one is writing anything original, along comes a book that is so different in many ways that you wonder how the author came up with the idea in the first place, and how they were able to sell it to a publisher. Mackenzi Lee's The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue is one of those books. What a sensational story, with characters I won't soon forget!

In 18th century England, Henry "Monty" Montague has grown up a son of privilege. His father is a lord with a sizable estate and business concerns, all of which he expects Monty to take over sometime soon. The thing is, Monty is more than a bit of a rake—a lovable one at times, but a rake nonetheless—one who is far too fond of carousing, drinking, causing trouble, and finding himself in romantic situations with a large number of young men...and women. All of this and he's not quite 18 yet!

Monty and his best friend, Percy (with whom Monty is more than a little besotted) are scheduled to have one last hurrah—a Grand Tour of Europe, where they will see the sites and have their last gasps of fun, after which Monty will begin working alongside his father and becoming a responsible adult, while Percy will leave for law school in Holland. But Monty's father has tired of his son's escapades and sharply curtails what his son has planned, sending along a teacher/chaperone of sorts who will monitor all of their activities. And then his father makes the ultimate threat—embarrass the family one more time, or get caught with another young man, and Monty will be disinherited.

"I'm too useless to make a life on my own, no matter how odious the one selected for me is. I'm well shackled to my father, no way to escape or want things for myself."

While at first his father's restrictions put a damper on the Grand Tour, it's not long before Monty and Percy begin to sneak away and enjoy themselves, under the watchful and jealous eye of Monty's younger sister, Felicity, who is supposed to be dropped off at finishing school along the way, despite her desire to pursue an educational and career path open only to men in those days.

"It occurs to me then that perhaps getting my little sister drunk and explaining why I screw boys is not the most responsible move on my part."

The more time Monty and Percy spend together, the more he wants to divulge his feelings for his best friend, despite his father's warnings. Yet one of the many things Monty is clumsy at is expressing his feelings, and more often than not, he winds up pushing Percy away, which is precisely what he doesn't want. One night, in a pique of jealousy and mischief, Monty makes a rash decision that puts the trio in danger, and sends them fleeing through France into Spain and Italy, throwing them into untenable situation after untenable situation, and forcing them to do—and say—things they never thought they would.

Along the way they will reveal and uncover secrets about one another which may forever change their relationships and their futures, and Monty, in particular, will finally begin to understand what life is like for those not born into privilege. But will these discoveries be enough to free them from danger and change the course of their lives?

The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue is both a rollicking adventure and an emotional book about finding what makes you happy (or whom), and accepting who you are and where your life should lead. It's also a book about coming to terms with the world around you and finally acting like an adult when you've been coddled and indulged for far too long to really understand the challenges other people face. Despite the setting and the characters' backgrounds, this is book with universal themes, and one that is just so wonderfully told that it made me laugh, smile, and, of course, get a little teary-eyed more than a few times, too.

I seriously loved this book. The characters Lee has created, from Monty, Percy, and Felicity to those they encounter along the way, are all fascinating in different ways. Monty does get annoying from time to time, and you wish he'd just do and say what he needs to, but I just couldn't get enough of him. I would love to see this as a movie, because I think these characters and their story would be as fascinating to watch unfold as it was to read. I can't wait to see what Lee comes up with next.

I really don't have any more words to express how I felt about this book. Maybe Meryl Streep can help.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Book Review: "Goodbye, Vitamin" by Rachel Khong

It's ironic how a book told so simply could pack so much beauty and emotion into its words, but Rachel Khong's Goodbye, Vitamin did just that. This is a somewhat quirky, slightly odd book that I found quite moving—in fact, I had to do the "no, I'm not crying, I'm just rubbing my eyes" thing more than a few times on my plane ride this morning.

Ruth is 30 years old. Her engagement has ended and she feels untethered to the life she has known, so she comes home to visit her parents for the holidays. She has avoided her family for a while after hearing stories of her father's drinking and his infidelities, so she is unprepared to find her father, a former college professor, in the throes of dementia, while her mother is trying to care for her father, but in an oddly detached way. Ruth agrees to quit her job and move home for a year to help out, although she probably is in equal need of help, albeit a different kind.

"What imperfect carriers of love we are, and what imperfect givers. That the reasons we can care for one another can have nothing to do with the person cared for. That it has only to do with who we were around that person—what we felt about that person."

What follows are reflections on a difficult year for her family and herself, told as diary entries of a sort. She reconnects with old friends, gets involved in a scheme to try and help her father's self-worth, tries to understand why her relationship ended (and wonders if she really cares), and attempts to figure out her parents' relationship with each other. At the same time she takes tentative steps toward her own future.

There are moments of humor, poignancy, frustration, and beautiful emotion in this book. At the same time, Ruth is one of those characters you wish would say the things she really wants to say, but she's so used to taking such a passive role in her own life. (She left college weeks before graduating because her then-boyfriend wanted to move away.)

I really enjoyed this book, and despite the fact that the story is told in small snippets of events from each day, I didn't get the feeling I was missing anything from the story. It did feel a little disjointed at times—although there was an over-arching narrative, the story jumped quickly from day to day, so it didn't flow quite as neatly as it could have.

Khong's storytelling, however, is utterly exquisite. While her style is rather spare, much like Weike Wang in Chemistry (see my review), she can wring humor and emotion from the simplest sentences. I can't wait to see what she writes next, because her talent really is dazzling.

For those who have dealt with a loved one or friend suffering from dementia, this may be a difficult read. But Khong took what could have been a maudlin subject and added other dimensions, so it's the story of a family's journey through difficult and good times, instead of simply the story of a man growing increasingly ill. That's the mark of true talent.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Book Review: "The Late Show" by Michael Connelly

Here's a little bit of an oxymoron for you: Michael Connelly is one of my favorite authors, yet I haven't read one of his books in a while. I love the way he writes, but somewhere along the way I lost track of which Harry Bosch books I've read so far, so I've missed a bunch of them. I'll have to just suck it up and read from somewhere in the middle, because he sure knows how to tell a story.

The good news is, with The Late Show, he's introduced a brand new character to get hooked on, LAPD Detective Renée Ballard. She has her issues (and I look forward to Connelly spending more time exploring them in future books) but she's definitely not as dark and cynical as Bosch is (not that there's anything wrong with that). And with this new book, once again, Connelly proves he's a master at weaving suspense, emotion, character development, and some good-old-fashioned police work.

Ballard works the night shift in Hollywood, known as the late show. She and her partner are often the first to respond to different incidents throughout the night and early morning—robberies, assaults, the occasional homicide—but they usually don't see them through to fruition, because they're kicked to the day squad. This frustrates Ballard, who once had a promising path as a detective, only to be shuffled to the late show after filing a sexual harassment complaint against a supervisor.

She loves the job, but it frustrates her, because she has so much more potential than taking initial statements and then leaving them to someone else to solve. And she knows that she could solve at least some of the cases, probably more so than those who take them on, but overtime isn't allowed, and she just needs to learn how to play the game.

But one night gives her a little more than she bargains for. First, she and her partner are called to the scene of a transgender prostitute who was brutally beaten and left for dead. The amount of violence perpetrated on this individual amazes Ballard, and she is reluctant to let the case go, because she wants to find who could do such a thing. While at the hospital, they're called to watch over a young waitress shot in what appears to be a multiple homicide case at a nightclub. When the woman dies from her injuries, Ballard wants to understand if she was intended to be a victim or if she was just collateral damage.

Both cases give her more than she bargained for. And as much digging as she wants to do on the nightclub shooting, the lead detective on the case is her former supervisor who had her demoted to the late show, and her former partner, who refused to back her up in her claims, is involved. The more she gets involved trying to track down the perpetrator in the assault case, and the more she tries to find dirt in the shooting, the more she finds the cases are intertwined, and bring her own demons to light at the same time.

"To me it's like the laws of physics—for every action, there is an opposite and equal reaction. If you go into darkness, the darkness goes into you. You then have to decide what to do with it. How to keep yourself safe from it. How to keep it from hollowing you out."

Renée Ballard is a brilliantly drawn character. I love her determination, her hard-headedness, her vulnerability, her strong (if occasionally misplaced) sense of right and wrong, and the way she takes her job seriously. She is definitely flawed, and you can see the potential for those flaws to cause her danger. But she is a truly fascinating character, and in Connelly's hands, she so transpires the stereotypical qualities you often see in fictional female detectives.

Once again, Connelly does a terrific job balancing the narrative of the story with its suspense and action. There are a few twists and turns along the way, and I was hooked from the start. Reading The Late Show reminded me why Connelly is one of the greatest crime writers around, and it makes me want to kick myself that I've let so much time slip by since I've last read one of his Bosch books.

Ballard isn't portrayed as a superwoman, but she's a super woman, and one I can't wait to see in another book sometime soon. This is a fantastic start to a new series I hope has the staying power of Bosch's.

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

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Book Review: "Seven Days of Us" by Francesca Hornak

At one point in Seven Days of Us, Andrew, the somewhat snarky and elitist patriarch of the Birch family, equates all of the drama affecting his family with a popular British soap opera. But then he realizes it's even crazier than all that.

"Never mind EastEnders—this was pure telenovela."

He's not quite wrong. In her debut novel, Francesca Hornak throws more issues and crises at the Birch family, more secrets thought buried, than you can even imagine. It's like multiple Jodi Picoult novels meshed together without the ethical issues her characters have to consider. And yet despite all of it, you can't help but feel sympathy for some of the characters, anger for others—you want to shake some of them just to get them to say what they need to—but you find yourself moved by what is happening to them.

It's been a long while since the Birches eldest daughter Olivia has come home for Christmas. She always has obligations which keep her away—or are they excuses? But this year, after a stint treating a major disease in Liberia, she must be quarantined for seven days, so she and her family are going to spend it together, cozy as anything, at the family's seen-better-days country estate. They're not allowed to go anywhere or see anyone, and to top it off, wi-fi and cell coverage is spotty at best.

Andrew, a haughty former war correspondent-turned-restaurant critic, would rather be anywhere but stuck with his family for seven days, especially once he receives an email he has subconsciously been expecting for a while now. His wife, Emma, who once shelved dreams of her own career in order to raise their children, can't wait to spend the week nurturing both of her children, especially since it will keep her mind off a secret of her own.

Younger daughter Phoebe can't concentrate on much more than the excitement of her recent engagement. She wants the perfect wedding, the perfect life, and she's not happy that her older sister can't focus on anything but the disease in Africa. It's not all that's important, after all! Olivia lives in constant trepidation that she might test positive for the disease and put her family in danger, and she can't seem to focus on her family's first world problems. But all the while she is haunted by a decision she made in Liberia, and wonders how it will affect her future.

As the family unearths old arguments and wounds, and inflicts new ones on each other, the arrival of two unexpected guests throw everyone and everything completely off-kilter. It seems like the perfect recipe for a dysfunctional holiday—but the stakes could be higher than nearly anyone realizes.

"This was why she despised secrets. When they emerged, as they always did, they opened up a whole labyrinth of other unknowns."

About halfway through Seven Days of Us, I wasn't sure if I was enjoying it, even though I was hooked on the story. The characters really weren't likable, and I just didn't understand why no one would talk to each other and say what they're feeling. I get the whole British stoic stiff-upper-lip thing, but come on. But the more I read, the more I found myself immersed in all of the drama, and even if some of the problems the characters faced were all too familiar, it didn't matter.

That's mainly because Hornak made her characters very real, despite all the drama swirling around them. You've seen these people in real life—heck, some of them may even be your own family members, with or without the British accents. The book is sappy and a little silly but it's ultimately warm and sweet. While there's no way I could spend seven days quarantined with my family, after reading this book I just had to call everyone, just to make sure everyone was okay.

If you like a healthy helping of melodrama along with your family dysfunction, definitely pick up Seven Days of Us. See if you agree that it's a little like a telenovela.

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

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Book Review: "Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic" by Alison Bechdel

Family dysfunction, bow down to the Bechdel family.

Alison Bechdel's father Bruce was an enigma to her while she was growing up—an English teacher and director of the family-owned funeral home (aka the "Fun Home") who had an exacting eye for fashion, decor, and gardening. He wasn't a bad father, but he always seemed to keep her and her brothers at arm's length, not to mention her mother.

While Alison remembered some special, tender times, she remembered more moments of being forced to wear an outfit she didn't want, scolded into meeting his tough cleaning standards, and feeling bewildered at his obsession with making sure all of the flowers around their house always looked perfect.

When Alison was in college, she came out to her parents as a lesbian. Shortly thereafter, she found out that her father was gay. While perhaps not entirely surprising if she added up all of the signs and clues she might have noted subconsciously, the discovery still throws her for a loop. And while they had one half-conversation about this, a few weeks after his revelation, her father died, leaving a legacy of mystery and confusion in his wake.

"Perhaps my eagerness to claim him as 'gay' in the way I am 'gay,' as opposed to bisexual or some other category, is just a way of keeping him to myself—a sort of inverted oedipal complex."

Fun Home is both a daughter's efforts to make sense of her father's life and death as it is an account of growing up uncomfortable in your own skin, of knowing you are different but being afraid of acknowledging it for fear everything might change, even though it should. It's a story of coming to terms with who you are, while remembering a man who really never had that luxury.

I'm really late to the party in reading this, and while I've heard some of the music from the musical version of Fun Home, I never saw the show either. I've never read a graphic novel/memoir before (although I read lots of Archie, Betty, and Veronica comics growing up, and was addicted to the Silver Surfer), and this was both a refreshing and challenging format for me.

This book practically pulsates with emotion, anger, and confusion, as well as the uncertainty that comes with self-discovery. When it dealt with Alison's own life or her father's struggles to find himself, the book is strongest, but it spends a lot of time holding up their story against a backdrop of classic literature (which her father so loved), and after a while I didn't enjoy those portions as much. However, as someone who wishes his father was still alive so we could have conversations about life there never seemed to be time for then, I found Fun Home beautifully moving.

If you mostly read books via Kindle or another e-reader, do yourself a favor and borrow or buy the printed version of this one. I was so glad I made the investment to enjoy the power of how Bechdel's illustrations told as much of the story as her words. While this wasn't perhaps as good as I had expected it to be, it still is powerful, and I'll remember it for some time to come.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Book Review: "The Driver" by Hart Hanson

When I saw that Hart Hanson, creator of the television show Bones, had written a thriller, I jumped on it pretty quickly. And while there are certainly similarities between the show and the book, particularly the smart-ass banter between the characters, The Driver is a rip-roaring, complex, humorous, and satisfying thrill ride, with some fantastically memorable characters.

Michael Skellig is a limo driver, the owner of his own limousine company. A former Army Special Forces officer who has seen and done things he doesn't like to talk or think about, he hears voices on the wind of those he has killed in the past. But strangely, these voices don't mean him harm, they warn him of impending danger, and sometimes force him to wise up before something goes totally awry. Skellig's employees are all fellow veterans, each with their own set of issues to deal with, whether physical, emotional, or cultural.

"I don't know for absolute sure whether the voices I hear in the wind are supernatural or if they're just in my head. Do they tell me things I don't know or things I just don't know consciously? Are those voices my own guilty subconscious trying to tell me something and the only way to get my attention is to speak to me in the voices of those whose lives I've taken? Or do ghosts actually exist?"

Skellig has spent more than a day driving Bismarck Avila, a skateboard star-turned-business mogul, from place to place. While waiting for Avila to come out of a hotel, he is waiting with his car in an alley when the voice of one of his victims warns him that trouble is on the way. He rushes into the hotel and is able to thwart an attack on Avila's life, although in the process one of Avila's bodyguards is killed. And when Skellig wakes up in the hospital a few hours later, he finds himself the only suspect in the bodyguard's murder.

Being at the right and wrong place at the right and wrong time throws Skellig into the midst of Avila's problems, which further intensify around the time he blackmails Skellig into becoming his personal driver. People around Avila keep winding up dead, and Skellig is too curious and too noble just to let things unfold around him. And as the danger mounts for Skellig and his colleagues, it also causes friction in his relationships with his sometime-girlfriend (and attorney), Connie, and his friend and periodic nemesis, Detective Delilah Groopman, Connie's best friend, with whom Skellig has always been a bit infatuated.

The Driver is a wild ride which will make one hell of a movie. Hanson has created some complex characters whom I hope to see more of, and as you might imagine, he has a knack for memorable dialogue and some pretty fantastic action scenes. He throws in some gimmicks as well which irritated me a little—in trying to describe how one character speaks, he writes many of the words this character says In Capital Letters, and another tends to talk in fragments, so. He writes. That way. (See what I mean?)

But those quirks aside, I really enjoyed this book and hope it's just the start of a long relationship with Skellig and his ragtag band of compatriots. This is a fun, cool read, and hopefully it marks the start of a fantastic writing career for Hanson.

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

Friday, July 7, 2017

Book Review: "Bad Dreams and Other Stories" by Tessa Hadley

So let's get this out of the way first: contrary to what the title and the cover design of this book may lead you to believe (as it did me), this is not a collection of horror stories, or tales of the macabre. In fact, if any of the stories in this new collection cause you to have, well, bad dreams, it is because of the immensely accurate way Tessa Hadley captures everyday life and the single moments when things change.

The 10 stories in Hadley's collection are mostly about ordinary people going about their regular everyday lives. In some of the stories, one incident causes a shift for the protagonist; in others, it's a series of events. For some, the shift is felt by them alone, while for others, the shift changes the course of lives, dramatically or imperceptibly.

Some of my favorite stories included: "Flight," in which a woman tries to mend her relationship with her estranged sister while visiting their hometown in the United Kingdom; "Experience," about a lonely woman living in a borrowed house who discovers some secrets about the house's owner when she finds her diaries; "One Saturday Morning," which tells of a young girl whose parents receive an unexpected visit from an old friend who comes with sad news; "The Stain," about a housekeeper caring for an old man, who finds out some less-than-savory things about his past; "An Abduction," in which a young girl on the cusp of womanhood accepts a ride from a group of older boys; and "Silk Brocade," about a piece of, you guessed it, silk brocade fabric, and its journey throughout the years.

I have been meaning to read Hadley's work for some time, but some other book always seems to distract me. I thought reading a collection of her stories would be a good introduction to her writing style. I definitely like the way she tells stories—her characters are well-developed and intriguing, and she has a lyrical touch where imagery and setting are concerned. I definitely intend to pick up one of her novels in the near future.

The thing is, though, while I enjoyed a number of these stories, I wasn't quite sure of the point of some of them. A few of the stories seemed fairly inconsequential, and I found myself wondering if I had missed some subtle key element, or if that particular story didn't really have a purpose beyond simply, well, telling a story.

For those of you wary of short stories because you think they require more concentration and focus, I'd recommend this collection, because the stories are well-told, yet for the most part, they are uncomplicated plot-wise. I'm glad to finally read Hadley's work, and look forward to seeing her talent in long form sometime in the near future.

Book Review: "The Heart's Invisible Furies" by John Boyne

Few authors can slay me emotionally while simultaneously making me think, the way that John Boyne does. His book The Absolutist (see my original review), is one of my favorite books of all time, and also made my list of the best books I read in 2012. Five years later, I still can't get that book out of my mind or my heart.

While not all of Boyne's books have caught my interest, his latest, The Heart's Invisible Furies, utterly knocked me out. I read the entire book in one day (thanks to two airplane trips, a delayed flight, and time to kill before an out-of-town meeting), and found myself at various times moved, angered, touched, perplexed, and devastated. (Sometimes I existed in more than one of these states simultaneously.)

I honestly don't know if there are appropriate words to express how much I love Boyne's writing, so I'll turn to Janice from the television show Friends:

Cyril Avery is born in 1945 out of wedlock to a fiercely independent teenager in Dublin, who is cast out in disgrace by her small Irish village. Adopted by Charles, a wealthy, womanizing ne'er-do-well and Maud, his novelist wife (who writes like a fiend but is horrified if her books sell or get any fanfare), whose parenting style consist mostly of forgetting he's there, forgetting he's a child, and reminding him he's adopted, Cyril is a quiet, intellectual child, mostly observing the crazy behaviors around him.

When he is seven years old he meets Julian Woodbead, the son of Charles' lawyer and childhood friend. Even at seven, Julian is infinitely more glamorous and worldly than anyone Cyril can imagine, and Cyril is utterly transfixed by him. This chance encounter begins a lifelong relationship which will bring Cyril to the greatest heights and the lowest lows, force him to understand who he is and what he wants and feels he deserves from life, and come to terms with his homeland and its domination by religion, as well as his unique upbringing.

The Heart's Invisible Furies follows Cyril from birth and then moves in seven-year intervals through his life. This is a searing look at how all too often we hide our true selves from those we care about, out of fear, self-loathing, and self-preservation, but it's also a look at how circumstances both within and beyond our control shape our lives and our chances at happiness and satisfaction. This is a story of friendship, love, bravery, pain, loss, violence, politics, religion, prejudice, and trying to find peace within ourselves, against a backdrop of some of the more tumultuous times in our world.

While my description makes this book sound more ambitious than it is, at its heart, this is a book about love of all kinds. Boyne's writing truly took my breath away at times, and even if I found Cyril's character a little too passive occasionally, I still felt for him, as well as the other characters Boyne created. There was a little too much violence in this book (not truly graphic in every case) but I know the scenes were in keeping with the world and time in which they were set.

This book didn't leave me in tears as often as The Absolutist did, but it moved me all the same. (And speaking of The Absolutist, props to Boyne for a subtle tip of the hat to that book in this one.) This is a book that needs to be read, be felt, and be pondered. I know I'll be thinking of the beauty and emotion of The Heart's Invisible Furies for some time.

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

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Book Review: "The Marsh King's Daughter" by Karen Dionne

Helena and her parents lived an isolated life in a cabin on marshland in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. They had no electricity, no creature comforts, but Helena learned so much from her father—how to hunt; how to shoot; how to kill, dress, and cook an animal; how to appreciate nature and the outdoors.

She never understood why her mother always seemed so afraid of her father, although she knew he hurt her from time to time, and while he punished Helena and sometimes taught her very painful lessons, she still idolized him, and wanted to be just like him.

When she was 12 she finds out that her father kidnapped her mother when she was a teenager, and has kept her captive for 14 years. Helena was the product of this abduction. Although she is still too young to fully grasp the implications of this discovery, and is torn between still wanting to stay with him, and escaping a man she knows has the potential to be savagely violent.

"Most of the time when I look back at the way I was raised, I'm able to view things fairly objectively. Yes, I was the daughter of a kidnapped girl and her captor. For twelve years, I lived without seeing or speaking to another human being other than my parents. Put like that, it sounds pretty grim. But that was the hand I was dealt, and I needed to call a spade a spade if I was ever going to move forward..."

Years later, Helena's past is a secret from everyone, and in many ways, she is miles away from the girl she was when she was 12. She has a loving husband, two young daughters, and a business making artisan jams and jellies from the fruit that grows near her Upper Peninsula home. At times the niceties of social convention she learned late in life chafe her, and she must escape to the solitude and nature she cherished so much as a child. But despite her odd idiosyncrasies, her husband has no idea of her lineage.

And then, some 20 years after her escape from the marsh, she hears on the news that a prisoner has escaped from his maximum security confinement, killing two guards, and is headed toward the marshland. Her father. Suddenly Helena's life is wide open, much to her husband's surprise, and she realizes that her father is headed her way. She must do what her father trained her all those years ago: find him and capture him, before he harms others, before he destroys her family and the life she has made.

"The truth is, sometime between the officers' first question and when the door closed behind them, I realized that if anyone is going to catch my father and return him to prison, it's me. No one is my father's equal when it comes to navigating the wilderness, but I'm close. I lived with him for twelve years. He trained me, taught me everything he knows. I know how he thinks. What he'll do. Where he'll go."

In The Marsh King's Daughter, Karen Dionne has created a tense, emotional narrative, juxtaposing the story of a girl raised by a father she idolizes but doesn't understand, in an environment she loves but has no clue about the real reason they live there, and the story of a woman who has buried her past and tried, fitfully, to start anew, even though you can never truly lose who you are. Helena's past and present unfurl, and you understand what has brought her to this moment, but you don't really know how she'll react, when she's never truly felt comfortable anywhere other than the marsh.

I thought this was a really terrific read, and it's one of those books that will make a fantastic movie. I was able to visualize Helena's search for her father, the warring feelings inside her hoping she'll find him and hoping he'll have left her behind once and for all. Dionne is a great storyteller, and even though the plot may be a little predictable, you are pulled in from the beginning and don't want to put the book down until you see how everything unfolds.

A few caveats, however. For a book full of tension, I felt it dragged on a tiny bit too long—I wanted to know everything about her childhood on the marsh and how she got to present day, but I also wanted the confrontation between daughter and father to come quicker than it did, although the payoff is worth it. The book does have some graphic violence (towards men and women, and some towards a child), some graphic descriptions of hunting and butchering animals, and a little bit of animal cruelty, so be forewarned. One or a combination of these may be a deal breaker for some.

I hesitate using the term "beach read," but The Marsh King's Daughter really feels like one, full of suspense, action, and emotion. It definitely helps put your own life problem and your own relationship with your parents in perspective, because I certainly hope the fictional life Dionne created for her far outweighs the complications of yours!!

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Book Review: "Aftercare Instructions" by Bonnie Pipkin

Sometimes a character, and by extension, a book, wears its heart on its sleeve. You just can't help but be moved by what the author puts their character through, and you think about what it might be like for those actually dealing with these situations. Such was the case for me with Bonnie Pipkin's wonderful new book, Aftercare Instructions. I found it thanks to an advertisement on Goodreads, and I don't think I'll get it out of my head anytime soon.

"Sometimes you make a choice that can save your life. You might make your choice for one reason, before the real reason even becomes clear. Like this morning when I refused the sedation. The reason was because I wanted to feel it. I wanted to feel my choice as it left my body. I didn't know it would actually make all the difference in the world when my one, and only one, escort bailed mid-procedure, and I found out by walking into the waiting room, scanning a sea of hopeful eyes, and finding absolutely nowhere safe or familiar to land. In that moment, I was thrown into the deep, deep water. And in the deep, deep water, there is no way to breathe. Yet somehow, something propels you forward. Survival mode, I think it's called."

Seventeen-year-old Genesis Johnson has been struggling for some time. Her life was turned upside down when her actor and playwright father (and drug addict) died of a heroin overdose, and her mother has never been able to get back to reality. Genesis finds herself caring for her mother instead of vice-versa, after a problem with one of her prescriptions (it wasn't a suicide attempt) lands her in the hospital, and causes Gen's grandparents to take custody of her younger sister. Gen is just trying to get by the best she can.

When her classmate, Peter Sage, takes an interest in her, she doesn't know what to do. This is the first time in her life she's really been excited about someone, but she is so afraid to let her guard down. She knows that Peter's ultra-religious mother disapproves of Gen and her family, especially when the truth about how her father died becomes public. She warns Peter that her emotional baggage will be too much for him to handle, but he convinces her that loving a person means loving everything about him, so she lets herself fall. Hard.

But when Gen becomes pregnant unexpectedly, the difference in her and Peter's worlds becomes abundantly clear. Although they agree that her getting an abortion is the only right choice, it causes friction in their relationship, and she promises not to tell anyone else their secret. When Peter abandons her at the abortion clinic during her procedure, she feels utterly betrayed, and starts to question all of the things they said to one another and the promises they made.

"Now that he's gone, I know nothing has healed under the patchwork job he did. There aren't any instructions anywhere on what to do when your dad dies like he did and then your boyfriend leaves you at Planned Parenthood while you're getting an abortion."

How do you find the strength to keep going when all you want to do is curl into a ball and retreat from the world? How do you keep helping those who depend on you and not shut out those who care about you? But perhaps most importantly, how do you realize that as much as you can think of nothing except your own crises, your own pain, you need to realize that others around you have their own issues, and want you to help them and understand them as they do the same for you?

Aftercare Instructions demonstrates that just because your life may seem as if it is falling apart, there's only so much you can push people away and mistreat them before they abandon you when you need them most, even if you can't focus on anything but your own problems. It's a book about coming to terms with a painful legacy we may have had nothing to do with, but realizing that it doesn't give you carte blanche to inflict pain on others or hurt others. It's also a book about finding the strength to let go of your burdens and try again, perhaps not full steam ahead, but slowly, gingerly, until you can stand on your own.

I really liked this book, even though Gen wasn't always the most sympathetic character. Pipkin's storytelling is unique, as she juxtaposes chapters dealing with Gen's current situation, with scenes from a play which portray the evolution of her relationship with Peter and the crises they face. This is one of those books where you wonder how no adults really caught on to everything that was going on, but given Gen's family situation, it isn't surprising.

There is a lot of angst in this book, but it's not melodramatic, or overly angsty, like many YA books are. Sure, many people might not think that the crisis of first love is that big of a deal, but given everything else in the book, you can understand why. Ultimately, this isn't a book for everyone, especially if you're bothered by issues like abortion and underage drinking, but this is a moving, thought-provoking, well-written story, once again proving the quality of YA fiction out there today.