Saturday, September 30, 2017

Book Review: "Best Day Ever" by Kaira Rouda

Paul Strom has the perfect romantic weekend planned for his wife Mia—their two sons will be in the care of their babysitter, and they will head to their lake house outside Columbus, Ohio.

It's been a while since they've been able to spend any time alone, given how hard Paul works to provide for their family, and how much time and effort parenthood requires. He's even planned a playlist of songs that remind them of different occasions throughout their relationship.

It's really going to be the best day ever.

As they drive up to the cottage, some little annoyances pop up. Mia starts talking about going back to work, which Paul will absolutely not tolerate, since he's the breadwinner and he wants her to be home to care for their children. Mia gets angry that they got a late start because of a mysterious phone call Paul received, so they can't stop at her favorite bakery for croissants. (This is a big deal, since Mia has become a vegetarian of late, after suffering from unexplained fatigue and weakness for a while.)

But even with the little frustrations, both Paul and Mia are committed to making the day the best ever. They want to recapture the magic of when they first met, when Paul was an up and coming executive at an advertising agency, and Mia was a young copywriter. At that moment, Paul knew what he wanted—Mia—and he always got what he wanted, no matter what. And Mia loved how in control Paul was, and how he won her over.

Things haven't been perfect between them lately, but how often do marriages run into tough times? Paul is determined to make everything better. But why are Mia's questions putting him on edge? Is she testing him, or does she suspect him of something?

Is there such a thing as a perfect marriage? Best Day Ever explores how well we really know our spouses, and explores how quickly a fragile trust can be broken down. Kaira Rouda throws lots of twists and turns into the plot, which spans a little more than one day in the life of a couple. She also introduces another creepy main character into the literary world, as Paul Strom is definitely the type of person you wouldn't want to encounter.

I wasn't sure what to expect from this book. I had seen some tremendously positive reviews and some lukewarm ones, and given how many thrillers I read, I wasn't sure if Rouda would be able to surprise me. The truth is, even though this is a familiar story, Rouda knows how to ratchet up the tension little by little, so you really are left wondering just how she'll tie everything together.

This is a fast read—I devoured the book in a day. It was a little predictable in places but I liked disliking these characters so much. Rouda definitely has a great deal of talent, and I'll be interested to see what she comes up with next.

Book Review: "Invictus" by Ryan Graudin

Looking to take a bit of a rollicking ride, meshing time travel, history, and science fiction? Check out Ryan Graudin's Invictus, and get ready to head into the future—and back into the past.

Farway ("Far") Gaius McCarthy is the son of a time traveler from 2354 AD and a gladiator from ancient Rome. For all intents and purposes, he shouldn't have even been born, since his existence challenges the laws of time. Growing up hearing of his mother's exploits throughout time, there is nothing he has wanted more than to follow in her footsteps.

When Far fails the final exam he needs to be admitted into the government's time travel program, he insists that someone hacked into the system, but his dreams are crushed. So when he is offered the opportunity to captain his own ship and lead his own crew, he jumps at the chance, even if it means being under the thumb of a criminal, who forces Far to travel throughout time, stealing valuable antiquities and black market delicacies.

As captain, Far hits his stride, and he and his crew travel through time, sometimes barely escaping danger, but never missing an adventure. And then on a journey to steal a valuable book from the Titanic before it sinks, Far encounters Eliot, a mysterious young woman whom he believes he's seen before, and who always seems to be just a step or two ahead of him, throwing his missions into chaos.

It turns out Eliot is more connected to Far than anyone knows, and has secrets that have major ramifications for his future and those of his crew—not to mention their pasts. Yet as much as they don't know whether to trust her or fear her, they have to decide whether her warnings about the imminent danger to time are true, and if so, what they can do to change things before everything changes around them.

Invictus is a fun adventure, one which raises interesting theories of time and how the slightest moves can impact the world and history. Graudin has created a fascinating cast of characters, full of quirky personalities, and you find yourself rooting for them to get out of the scrapes in which they find themselves, even though in many cases they're technically committing crimes.

The plot gets a little bogged down and confusing at times, borrowing elements from Blake Crouch's Dark Matter and other sci-fi novels that touch on the concept of multiple universes. I felt like things could have been tightened up a bit, because it took a while to resolve everything. But Graudin's storytelling is really entertaining, and I think this could be a fun movie, kind of a Firefly with a little less bad-ass attitude.

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

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Book Review: "Catalina" by Liska Jacobs

Why is it so fascinating to read about people in the midst of crises, mostly of their own design? Is it like rubbernecking as you pass a gruesome accident on the highway, that can't-look-but-can't-look-away feeling? Or is it more the reinforcement of how lucky we are that our lives aren't that bad, a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God moment?

Whatever the reason, reading about people whose lives are a mess can be fascinating. And if you look in the dictionary next to the word "mess," you might find Elsa, the protagonist of Liska Jacobs' debut novel, Catalina. She's just been laid off from her dream job as personal and executive assistant to one the curators of New York's Museum of Modern Art after a torrid affair with her married boss, and she's trying to figure out her next move.

She heads home to Bakersfield, California, with designs on blowing through her "very generous" severance package. After a few days' visiting her mother, she leaves with most of her mother's prescription drugs, and retreats to a fancy hotel in Santa Monica, where she spends her days and nights in a drug-addled, alcohol-soaked haze, flirting (and more) with random men she meets, and leaving even teenage boys bewitched. But as high as she gets, it can't really numb the pain from losing her lover and her job.

As much as the she dreads the thought, she decides to reunite with her college friends, whom she hasn't seen since she fled for the East Coast more than five years before—her ex-husband Robby, who still pines for her and wonders where they went wrong, her childhood friend Charlotte ("Charly"), and Charly's flirtatious, overgrown frat boy husband, status-conscious Jared.

"I can almost feel my old self, that girl who loved art—museums especially—who dreamed of a career far from here. Poor girl, joke's on you. You're back. Your old life just waiting for you, like a second skin."

Elsa convinces her friends that she's on a much-needed vacation from the craziness of MoMA, and they mostly believe her, despite a smile that doesn't quite meet her eyes, manic mood swings, and overindulgence in both alcohol and random pills. The group plans to embark on a sailing trip to Catalina Island, along with Robby's super-outdoorsy, over-achieving girlfriend Jane, and Tom, a wealthy, arrogant client of Jared and Robby's, who owns the boat they will travel on. It's a perfect opportunity to enjoy the beauty of the island along with copious amounts of liquor and pills (at least as far as Elsa is concerned), and perhaps rekindle some of the fun they used to have.

It's not long before Elsa realizes her friends are having troubles of their own. Charly and Jared are struggling with fertility issues and Jared's mercurial moods, alternating between attentive and overly flirtatious, which puts Charly even more on edge. Charly longs to rekindle her friendship with Elsa but notices that Elsa doesn't quite seem to care about any of them, as much as Charly hopes that's not true. Robby, despite being happy with Jane, misses the Elsa he used to know, and wants her back, not this sharp-edged, high-strung addict she has become.

Fueled by a lack of inhibition and depression over the shambles of her life, Elsa blunders from one bad situation into another, leaving her perplexed and concerned friends in her wake, until she starts to stir up trouble among the group. The false joviality and sense of nostalgia gives way to rehashing old hurts and frustrations, not to mention new ones, as Elsa is only interested in self-gratification, and she doesn't even know what will make her happy anymore.

Despite the somewhat depressing nature of Elsa's downward spiral, Catalina is immensely readable. I devoured the book in about a day, and although I wondered exactly when (and if) Elsa would hit rock bottom, and what (and/or whom) she'd take with her, I couldn't look away. You can't believe one person could make such a mess of things, and you wonder whether she'll realize she's only making things worse, but her path of self-destruction is fascinating, even while it's pathetic.

Even though Elsa's story is familiar, Jacobs' does a terrific job drawing you in, hooking you on these characters that aren't particularly likable, who can't seem to say the things they want to. At times she shifts the narrative into flashback mode, or in her stupor Elsa imagines certain things happening, so I got a little confused occasionally. But Jacobs' has created a soapy, messy story to get lost in, and her use of language in describing the beauty of Catalina borders on poetic.

Beach season may be over for part of the world, but it's never too late for a beach read! I enjoyed this a lot, and can't wait to see what comes next in Jacobs' career.

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

Monday, September 25, 2017

Book Review: "Sing, Unburied, Sing" by Jesmyn Ward

Profound, poetic, and at times painful to read, Jesmyn Ward's Sing, Unburied, Sing is searing, truly a soaring literary achievement that I won't stop thinking about anytime soon.

Jojo is 13 years old, on the cusp of manhood but in some ways still very much a child, longing for the security and comfort of an easier time in his life. He and his younger sister Kayla (short for Michaela) have essentially been raised by their grandparents, since their mother Leonie is often absent, either physically or emotionally, as she "ain't got the mothering instinct," and their father Michael is in prison. Three-year-old Kayla often looks to Jojo for food, love, and nurturing, which often irritates Leonie when she is around.

Growing up a biracial child in Mississippi isn't easy, but Jojo's grandparents, Pop and Mam, have taught him compassion and love, as well as survival skills to weather the hard times both physical and emotional, and how to be a good man. But Mam is dying of cancer, and her illness seems to be eating away at Pop as well. Leonie is also having a difficult time dealing with her mother's illness, as she was always such a force in her life.

"Growing up out here in the country taught me things. Taught me that after the first fat flush of life, time eats away at things: it rusts machinery, it matures animals to become hairless and featherless, and it withers plants. Once a year or so, I see it in Pop, how he got leaner and leaner with age, the tendons in him standing out, harder and more rigid, every year. His Indian cheekbones severe. But since Mama got sick, I learned pain can do that, too. Can eat a person until there's nothing but bone and skin and a thin layer of blood left."

Given her choice, Leonie would rather be with Michael, just the two of them, although at times she wants her children to need and love her. But the fact that Leonie is black and Michael is white makes their relationship difficult where his family is concerned—his father has made it clear that she and her children are not welcome in their home. To combat these stresses, Leonie spends a lot of time getting high, which has its own drawbacks—she is haunted by visions of her dead brother, Given, who was killed in a hunting accident. She knows Given disapproves of her, and she wants him to go away, but she refuses to give up the drugs that bring on his presence.

When Leonie gets word that Michael is being released from the notorious Parchman penitentiary, she is determined that she and the children will greet him there, even if it means a road trip across the state. Accompanied by her coworker, Misty, the trip to Parchman is rockier than she imagined it would be, with Kayla getting sick and Misty insisting on a few detours to pick up some "sustenance." And even though she dreams that once she sees Michael he'll sweep her and the kids away to their own life, more often than not, Leonie wants to hit the kids for annoying her, and just wants them to be back with her parents. And the trip becomes ever more fraught with peril from there.

In addition to Given's spectral presence, the book is also haunted by the presence of Richie, a young boy Pop knew when he was a prisoner at Parchman years ago. Only Jojo can see and hear Richie, who wants to know how he met his end years ago, so he can finally be at rest.

There is a lot going on in this book, but Ward's narrative is utterly mesmerizing. I felt this pervasive sense of doom or danger while reading and kept hoping everything wasn't going to fall apart. It is testimony to Ward's skill as a storyteller that a book dealing with such complicated, heavy themes as racial identity, grief, violence, addiction, the responsibilities of parenthood, and the dark places our minds can go still generated suspense and flowed so beautifully.

The book does have its difficult moments, which may cause people anguish. Leonie's feelings toward her children saddened me, but you can see she is a much more complex character than you initially think. There are also some graphic descriptions of violence and animal butchery that may be hard for some to read. Others may not understand the mystical elements of the story—the ghosts, the spiritual powers that some of the characters have—and if those aren't elements you traditionally enjoy, you may not like this book as much.

Even though many Goodreads friends had raved about this book, I was hesitant, because I wasn't sure if it would be too much for me. I was surprised at how much I loved it and how quickly the story moved.

This is the first of Ward's books I've read and it won't be the last—this is an absolutely stellar achievement, and easily one of the best, and most unique, books I've read all year.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Book Review: "Release" by Patrick Ness

Patrick Ness' new book, Release, is essentially two completely different novels in one. The core story is absolutely wonderful, thought-provoking and emotional, funny and sweet, and it reaffirmed why I am such a fan of Ness' writing. While I think I understood the point of the second story, I don't understand why it was necessary to tack it on here, so I guess I would have preferred some sort of explanation or connection between the two.

Some may be so put off by the second story that it may detract from your enjoyment of the core story, and that's unfortunate, because there is so much heart and poetry to be found.

One hell of a day is in store for Adam Thorn. His ex-boyfriend-of-sorts, Enzo, is leaving to move to Atlanta, and he still can't seem to shake his feelings for Enzo or completely process how and why their relationship ended. And although a new boy, Linus, is more than happy to take Enzo's place, and might possibly be in love with Adam, Adam is struggling with feelings of betrayal and low self-worth. He hopes everything will work its way out at Enzo's farewell "get-together."

Meanwhile, there is a crisis at home which roils his ultra-religious family. While Adam has gotten used to his parents' barely hidden disapproval of him (although he's never come out to them), it still hurts to see how easily they will forgive the missteps of his brother, who is following in the footsteps of their preacher father, but that they don't get him. But more and more, Adam knows that your chosen family is so much more important and cherished than the one you're born into.

For Adam, that chosen family is his best friend, Angela, and her family. Adam and Angela have gotten each other since a near-death experience bonded them together as young children. Adam envies Angela's relationship with her free-spirited parents, while Angela is saddened for her friend's treatment at the hands of his family. She's willing to fight his battles for him or with him, and always has his back. But she, too, has a bombshell for Adam which threatens to rock their solid core.

As if the day can't get any worse, things at his part-time job at the "evil international mega-conglomerate" come to a head because of his creepy, lecherous boss, Wade. When Wade gives Adam an ultimatum he really can't refuse despite the implications, it sets up multiple confrontations which put Adam on the short end of the stick. It's really enough to break anyone, much someone struggling as much as Adam is.

Meanwhile, as Adam's life appears to be falling apart, a second story is occurring, one with a plot that is part fantasy, part supernatural (I think). In this story, which takes place at the same time and in some of the same places as Adam's story, a faun with mysterious powers must save his young queen from enacting her revenge, even if it means destruction for them both. There is some overlap to Adam's story (that eventually becomes clear), but I don't actually know if what takes place in the story really does happen in Adam's world.

I'm trying to be somewhat vague, even with Adam's story, because it flows so beautifully as it unfolds. Nothing is necessarily earth-shattering or unique, but there's just so much love, pain, angst, and heart, I fell head over heels for the story. And while the other story is confusing, Ness is still a tremendously poetic guide, so I marveled at his language even as I found myself asking over and over, "What does this have to do with the story?"

Ness knows how to tug at your heartstrings and how to make you laugh. The relationship between Adam and Angela felt so loving and genuine that it makes you wish you had a friendship like that (or perhaps inspires you to call that special friend and let them know how you feel about them). While Adam's situation is a little depressing at times, you know there are so many teenagers just like Adam struggling with these same issues. I know I struggled with some of them myself back before movable type was invented.

One interesting thing, which may or may not put you off this book: Release is the first book I've read that actually has sex scenes between two gay teenagers. (They're of age, though, so relax.) They're not completely explicit but they're definitely more detailed than what you usually see in YA novels. So be warned if that makes you uncomfortable.

Not everyone will love this book, because of that odd second plot. I totally understand that, but it's sad, because I think that at its core, Release is a book about finding the freedom you need to be yourself and live your own way, no matter who you are or how you choose to label yourself. It's also a book about love, both conditional and unconditional, whether it's among family, between friends, or in a romantic sense.

While this isn't quite the home run I had hoped it would be, I still love the way Ness writes, and it will be a while before I can get this book out of my head. I still have to catch up on some of Ness' older books, too.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Book Review: "Exit Strategy" by Steve Hamilton

Steve Hamilton is one of a handful of authors who can leave my pulse pounding when I'm done reading his books. I'll honestly never understand why he isn't more famous, because not only does he know how to write an action scene, he's a fantastic storyteller, one who creates thrillers with immense depth and characterization. Exit Strategy, the second book in his new series featuring Nick Mason, once again proves Hamilton is at the top of his form.

Nick Mason was in the middle of a long prison stint when he caught the eye of hardened criminal Darius Cole, who was imprisoned possibly for life but yet still ruled the entire system. Somehow Cole is able to pull enough strings to get Mason released years ahead of time, but of course, for a price: Cole essentially owns Mason—whatever he orders Mason to do, he must do, or he'll either find himself back in prison, or dead.

This time he has been given a seemingly impossible task: kill the three witnesses responsible for putting Cole in jail in the first place, to whom the government is turning once again for a retrial. Of course, these aren't ordinary witnesses—they're buried deep inside the federal witness protection program in sites unknown to almost everyone. But Cole has amazing information sources, so Mason is sent on a number of hunting expeditions taking him to both rural and urban locations. If Mason is successful, Cole might be set free; if any of the witnesses survive to testify, it could guarantee Cole's imprisonment for life—and destruction of everything Mason holds dear.

While Mason pursues his tasks knowing what is on the line, he is still trying to find a way out of Cole's clutches. He wants a life that is his, one that doesn't force him to jump every time his cell phone rings, one which doesn't allow him to come clean to those he cares about. But that kind of life is only possible if he can guarantee that Cole is destroyed, which, of course, can only bring about his own destruction.

The clock is ticking, and what Mason doesn't count on is that as he hunts the witnesses is he is being hunted at the very same time, by one of the three men he will need to kill. This ruthless assassin who once performed the very same lethal tasks for Cole that Mason does now isn't content to wait for Mason to try and kill him—he decides to take the fight to Mason as well.

If Cole is freed from prison, will Mason ever be free, or will he then become dispensable? Can Mason complete the mission he has been given without turning into the cold-hearted monster who controls him? Can he complete the mission before he becomes the target? Is there a price too high for his freedom?

Hamilton ratchets up the suspense little by little, and keeps the action flowing throughout. There are some fantastic action and chase scenes in this book, with plenty of twists and turns to keep you guessing. Mason is one of those characters like Jeff Lindsay's Dexter who is a true criminal, but you root for him anyway. You want him to win, even though he is doing some of the same things the book's villains are doing.

That you care about this flawed character is truly a testament to Hamilton's skill as a writer. While I hope he'll one day return to Paradise, Michigan, home of his series of books featuring private investigator Alex McKnight, it is always great to see what he can do with a new series or a standalone book.

Even if you didn't read The Second Life of Nick Mason, which is this book's predecessor, if you're a fan of crime novels and thrillers, you'll find this one gets your adrenaline pumping and doesn't let go. And can you ask for anything more?

Monday, September 18, 2017

Book Review: "In the Fall They Come Back" by Richard Bausch

Ben Jameson is fresh out of graduate school when he lands a teaching job at a small private school in Northern Virginia, Glenn Acres Preparatory Academy. It doesn't matter that he didn't pursue education as a course of study while in college, and never really thought of himself as a teacher—the school needs an English teacher and he needs a job. He doesn't think this is what he'll want to do for the rest of his life, but he's fine with that.

He finds the atmosphere at Glenn Acres a little unorthodox, but that doesn't bother him, because his teaching methods aren't quite by the book, either. (At one point the head of the school has to remind him that he needs actual lesson plans, because the state mandates students learn some specific things, not just participate in discussions about writing.) Ben is tremendously idealistic, it's not long before he thinks this job may be a noble calling of sorts, one that will allow him to make a difference in young people's lives.

When Ben is told by his colleagues that one of his students is being physically abused, and encouraged to watch over him, Ben cannot sit idly by and allow this to continue to happen. Even though his colleagues tried unsuccessfully to intervene in the past, Ben believes he must get involved and he must save this boy. Instead of helping, he makes even more of a mess of the situation, causing trouble for the school, and causing him to have to act contrary to what he feels he should do if he has any hope of keeping his job and keeping the student in school.

This idealism happens a few more times for Ben, once in the case of a withdrawn, mute, and psychologically damaged student, and another time in dealing with a precocious troublemaker who is over 18, but is bound and determined to graduate anyway, even if she hasn't to date. In each case, Ben feels compelled to do the right thing, even if he has no idea what the right thing really is, and even if his blundering actually makes things worse rather than better.

"This is not a story about teaching. Nor is it about education, or school, although most of what happened started in a school. This is a story about caring a little too much; or maybe about not caring enough. I really don't know which. The only thing I know for certain is that I wish a lot of it did not happen."

Reading other people's reviews of Richard Bausch's In the Fall They Come Back leads me to wonder if I completely missed the point of the book, because I really didn't like this at all. While I saw the point he was trying to make relative to the fact that the best of intentions is often not enough to change things the way we want to, and how idealism can sometimes be a harmful thing, I found much of this book tremendously predictable, and many instances in which if people had just said what they meant, or what needed to be said, chaos in some cases might be avoided.

I also found the description of the school and its administration to be very far-fetched; while this private school might not have had to hew to all of the same rules and regulations public schools did, I found it hard to believe that a school which allowed two aged dogs to do their business in classrooms would actually be able to operate. I found many of the characters to be unlikable, even the main character, whom you just couldn't believe could be so stupid over and over again, yet his desire to give, to make a difference, blinds him.

Bausch is a storyteller with a strong body of work, yet I found this book to be one of his weakest, plus it runs far longer than it should. However, since many other reviewers have loved this book, you may want to see if you hew closer to their opinions than mine, which might be the mark of a clueless reader rather than an astute one.

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

Book Review: "The Cuban Affair" by Nelson DeMille

Why Nelson DeMille, you sly old dog! Where has your sarcastic sense of humor been hiding all these years?

I've read a number of DeMille's books through the years—The Charm School, The Gold Coast, The General's Daughter, Cathedral to name a few—and while I enjoyed all of those, I don't remember them being funny. But in his newest book, The Cuban Affair, he displays a playful side I haven't seen before, and it brought a new dimension to his writing.

"Being captain of your own fate doesn't mean you always make good decisions."

Daniel "Mac" MacCormick is a decorated war veteran with more than a few scars to show from his two tours in Afghanistan. Although his patrician family back in Maine hoped he'd amount to something after recovering from his wounds, Mac has different ideas. He spends his days in Key West as the owner of a 42-foot charter fishing boat, and he specializes in sunset cruises, fishing trips, drinking to excess, and perhaps more than a little womanizing. It doesn't seem like such a bad life for a 35-year-old.

Well, maybe he could use a little more money. And that's why he agrees to meet Carlos, a Miami lawyer with connections to anti-Castro groups of Cuban citizens wishing to someday make it back to their country. Carlos tries to hire Mac and his boat to work a 10-day fishing tournament in Cuba, but Mac turns him down because he doesn't think the job is on the up-and-up. Undeterred, Carlos sweetens the deal, offering Mac two million dollars instead. And although Mac knows if a deal seems too good to be true it usually is, he decides to hear Carlos out.

When Mac meets Carlos' clients, including a beautiful Cuban-American architect named Sara Ortega, the chance to spend time with Sara plus make more money than he has in his lifetime proves enticing. It turns out that years ago, Sara's grandfather hid more than 60 million dollars in a cave in Cuba so it didn't fall into the wrong hands, and Sara and her colleagues want Mac's help to rescue the loot and return it to its rightful owners, Cuban exiles all. It's a mission that could make Mac a wealthy man—not to mention a wanted one, or worse, a dead one.

The Cuban Affair follows Mac and Sara on their mission to Cuba as part of a study group from Yale. They know what they need to do, and have their plans set, but Mac doesn't realize how many loose ends there are to deal with—and of course, he has no idea what he doesn't know, or what he's not being told. All he knows is he wants Sara and he wants his money, and he doesn't know if he'll get either.

This is a meticulously researched book, providing a tremendous amount of information about how the relationship between Cuba and America deteriorated through the years, and how the anticipated "Cuban Thaw" between the two countries could change everything—for both better and worse. It's also an in-depth look at the anti-Castro forces both within and outside Cuba.

I really liked Mac's character, and found Sara to be a bit of an enigma (as did Mac). I also enjoyed some of the supporting characters, including Mac's first mate, Jack, a cantankerous and perhaps slightly crazy Vietnam vet with a penchant for slightly twisted t-shirts. DeMille definitely generated some good suspense in the book, because I kept expecting everyone to double-cross everyone multiple times over, and you want to know how everything will be resolved.

At times I felt the book got bogged down with all of the history and factual details, so it seemed more like a nonfiction book than a thriller. And while once the action got going the book really crackled, it took a little too long to get to that point—I felt a little too much time was spent setting up background and painting the scene. But DeMille's storytelling talent, and Mac's dry, slightly ribald sense of humor definitely helped add levity.

I'd love to see another book featuring Mac some day. I believe he's a terrific addition to the cast of memorable characters that DeMille has created through the years. While this book is a little uneven, it's still great to see a master at work, and experience a new side of him.

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

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Book Review: "Little Fires Everywhere" by Celeste Ng

Sometimes one of my greatest frustrations with books I read is that it is difficult for me to believe that a character would do something egregious as a knee-jerk reaction to something they don't agree with. I know, I'm reading fiction, which isn't always directly based on real life, but sometimes a character's actions are so ridiculous and ring so false that they really change my feelings about a book.

Other times a character is so unlikable (although you may discover it's all an act) that they're just so off-putting, and they detract from the book's appeal.

Both things happened for me while reading Celeste Ng's new book, Little Fires Everywhere, and I'm so disappointed, because I wanted to love it. While I found much of the book simply beautiful, the plot—and one character—travel down a path that I found a little too far-fetched and irritating that it spoiled how I felt.

To someone on the outside looking in, the Richardson family seems like the quintessential Shaker Heights, Ohio family—two successful and driven parents, four good-looking children, sure to follow in their parents' footsteps. The perception isn't all false—Elena Richardson, who returned to her hometown after college to raise a family, is a reporter for the local paper; her husband is a successful attorney. Their children, each one year apart, are each popular and successful in their own way, except the youngest, Izzy, who has a knack for standing out, especially if it means pushing her mother's buttons.

When Mia Warren, an enigmatic, slightly bohemian artist, and her daughter Pearl arrive in Shaker Heights, and move into the Richardsons' rental apartment, the family quickly falls under their spell. Pearl, who has moved more times than she can count, always on her mother's whim, has finally extracted a promise from Mia that they will stay in Shaker Heights, and she is excited to finally be able to make friends and cement relationships instead of biding her time until she leaves town again.

Pearl and the Richardsons' younger son, Moody, become close friends, although quickly she becomes a part of the family. Mia, too, in addition to working on her art, begins working for the Richardsons, becoming an unexpected confidante for older daughter Lexie, and forging a relationship with Izzy that she can't have with her mother. But Mia is also wary of the Richardsons and doesn't quite trust that all is as perfect as it seems.

When a custody battle involving one of Elena's oldest friends becomes fodder for the media, everyone in town has an opinion. Elena discovers that she and Mia are on opposite sides of this fight, which causes Elena to view Mia with suspicion. Suddenly she feels the need to find more about this mysterious woman who holds her family in her thrall, and Elena doesn't realize—or care, really—about what damage the truth may cause, for everyone.

"All her life, she had learned that passion, like fire, was a dangerous thing. It so easily went out of control. It scaled walls and jumped over trenches. Sparks leapt like fleas and spread as rapidly; a breeze could carry embers for miles. Better to control that spark and pass it carefully from one generation to the next, like an Olympic torch. Or, perhaps, to tend it carefully like an eternal flame: a reminder of light and goodness that would never—could never—set anything ablaze. Carefully controlled. Domesticated. Happy in captivity. The key, she thought, was to avoid conflagration."

Little Fires Everywhere is a powerful meditation on motherhood and the sometimes-tenuous bond between mother and child. It's also a book about the destructive power of secrets, misunderstandings, and miscommunication, and how easily problems could be avoided if people would just say what they thought, or speak up rather than let a person roll over them. At its most poignant, this is a book about the damage that can be done by neglect or mistreatment, even when it's unintended, and how finding someone who seems to care about you can be a life-changing force.

Ng is a storyteller with such quiet power. As she did in her spectacular first novel, Everything I Never Told You, she captures the routine and dramatic moments in a family's life, uncovering just how much goes on underneath the silences. While I appreciate her fearlessness in creating unappealing characters, I really was unhappy with some of her choices, which I won't reveal for fear of spoiling the plot, but they just seemed so ludicrous (and in one case, just a wee bit convenient and predictable) that one character and her treatment of others became almost one-dimensional.

I've seen many glowingly positive reviews of this book, so I wouldn't let my criticisms dissuade you from reading it if it interests you. Ng is an immense talent, and I look forward to seeing what's next for her. If you do read this, I would love to talk to you after you're finished, to see what you thought about the things that frustrated me.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Book Review: "They Both Die at the End" by Adam Silvera

Well, what else would you expect from a book called They Both Die at the End?

"No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don't want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life's change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new."

—Steve Jobs

Shortly after midnight on September 5, Mateo and Rufus both get a call they've never wanted to receive. It's from Death-Cast, the company that lets people know they're scheduled to die sometime that day.

Mateo recently turned 18, and while he was too scared to go away to college, he has a lot of plans and dreams—he's going to attend school online, and hopefully become an architect some day. He's really only close to his father, who raised him, and his best friend Lidia, and he spent a lot of his life being too shy to do the things he imagined doing, to be the person he wanted to be, and live the life he knew he should. But that doesn't mean he's ready to die.

"Because I refused to live invincibly on all the days I didn't get an alert, I wasted all those yesterdays and am completely out of tomorrows."

Rufus is three weeks from his 18th birthday, and although his life has been marked by serious loss, he knows who matters—his foster parents, his two foster brothers/best friends, and his ex-girlfriend Aimee, who Rufus still can't believe has left him for another guy. In fact, when Rufus gets the call from Death-Cast, he's in the process of beating the crap out of Aimee's new boyfriend, even though that is totally out of character for him.

Both boys know they don't want to die alone, yet they know that they don't want their deaths to traumatize those they're close to. Using the "Last Friend" app, Mateo and Rufus meet. They're both very different—there's nearly no challenge that Rufus is afraid to tackle head-on, while Mateo spends so much time alone, fearing the unknown and worrying people will deceive or laugh at him. But when they meet, each vows to help the other live the best End Day they can—live it to the fullest, no regrets.

The boys will face some challenges, share secrets with one another that they've never told others, and deal with their fears, together. They'll say goodbyes to those they care about, and do things that they've always dreamed of. And at the same time, they'll both realize how much you can live in just one day.

Between this and The Immortalists (see my original review), my reading taste has skewed a little morbid lately. But while They Both Die at the End certainly is an emotional read, kudos to Adam Silvera for not making it as maudlin as I feared it might be. Did I cry? Well, of course. But I didn't feel like someone punched me hard in the feels repeatedly, which made me enjoy this more.

I'll admit I wanted a little more backstory into the whole Death-Cast thing, especially since this book takes place September 5, 2017 (ironically, the day Silvera's book was released). It saddened me that two young men were scheduled to die at such a young age, and I wish it took a little less time for Mateo to break out of his shell. But those minor quibbles aside, I really loved this book, the relationships the characters had with each other, and the message that life is uncertain, so why not live it to the fullest whenever you can?

With More Happy Than Not, History is All You Left Me, and now this book, Silvera has rapidly joined my list of authors I would follow almost anywhere to read their work. (That never avoids sounding stalkerish, but don't worry.) I love the way his mind works, I love the emotion, heart, and beauty he brings to his books, and I love the way he respects his characters, because it really shows.

You can always count on me to recommend books which will give you a good cry. They Both Die at the End is tremendously affecting and really unforgettable, and yeah, it will give your tear ducts some good exercise, too.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Book Review: "The Child Finder" by Rene Denfeld

You've got that right. But it's not Gaston who has slayed me this time, it is Rene Denfeld's exquisite new book, The Child Finder.

Denfeld has left me breathless before, with her incredible debut novel, The Enchanted (see my original review), which made my list of the best books I read last year. With her second novel, she proves her talent for creating exceptionally memorable characters and beautiful stories which you cannot get out of your mind.

Naomi is an investigator with an uncanny ability of finding lost children. She is often the last resort for desperate parents and police, sometimes even defense attorneys, who call her the "Child Finder." But as successful as Naomi has been at finding out what happened to these children, even saving many of them, Naomi was once a lost girl, too, and she can't quite remember what happened to her before she was found.

"Each child she found was a molecule, a part of herself still remaining in the scary world she had left behind. Eventually they would all come together and form one being, knitted together in triumph. We are not forgotten, her actions told her. You will not put us aside."

Naomi is hired by the Culver family to find their daughter Madison, who went missing three years ago in Oregon's Skookum National Forest, when they were looking for a Christmas tree. No one can figure out what happened to Madison—did she get lost, did she fall into an abandoned mine hole or other crevasse, or was she taken by someone watching the woods? While the latter option is a disturbing one to ponder, the bitter cold and snow makes it unlikely she might have survived otherwise, let alone still be alive three years later.

Naomi is methodical in her search, knowing that one misstep, or misjudging the weather, could prove dangerous. Yet as she tries to figure out what might have happened to Madison, whether she is alive, and if so, where she might be, she has her own struggles to deal with. She wants to figure out what the nightmares that have her running in her sleep and waking with a howl mean, and where the missing pieces of her own childhood memories lead.

"Her entire life she had been running from terrifying shadows she could no longer see—and in escape she ran straight into life. In the years since, she had discovered the sacrament of life did not demand memory. Like a leaf that drank from the morning dew, you didn't question the morning sunrise or the sweet taste on your mouth. You just drank."

She must also understand why she can never stay in one place, and why she doesn't allow people to get too close to her. And more than that, she faces a decision about her future, and how she feels about the one person who has been a consistent figure in her life for as long as she can remember.

I fell in love with The Child Finder from its very first lines. This is a quietly powerful and emotional story, one of tragedy and triumph, loss and hope, of the balance between uncovering the truth and letting memories be. The chapters are narrated alternatively by Naomi and a magical child, and the characters in this book will find their way into your mind and your heart.

Denfeld is an exceptional writer, and she knows how to draw you into a story and keep you hooked from start to finish. This is a must-read, and if you've never read The Enchanted, run, don't walk, to get that one as well. I will now wait impatiently for Denfeld's next book.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Book Review: "The End of Eddy" by Édouard Louis (author), Michael Lucey (translator)

"Words like affected or effeminate could always be heard in the mouths of adults around me: not just at school and not only by the two boys. They were like razor blades that would cut me for hours, for days, when I heard them, words I picked up and repeated to myself. I told myself over and over that they were right. I wished I could change. But my body would never obey me, and so the insults would start up again."

Eddy Bellegueule, a young man growing up in a poor town in northern France, is forced to confront how different he is from his peers at an early age. While he wants to be viewed as a man, as masculine, his voice is higher than most, his mannerisms are effeminate, he is unathletic (and not really motivated to try playing sports), and as much as he tries, he cannot hide his growing attraction to men. This spells disaster for a young man among lower class and working class people, whose favorite pastimes include drinking, getting into fights, fighting while drinking, and bragging about their sexual conquests.

The sad part is, the abuse Eddy takes isn't just at the hands of classmates or fellow townspeople—it comes from his own family, who don't understand how or why he is what he is, and are embarrassed that someone like him can be tied to them. While he hears his parents use racial and cultural slurs constantly, he also must get used to his father calling people (including him, from time to time) "faggot" and other derogatory names. It is a depressing life for Eddy; at times he tries valiantly to live along the margins and hopefully go unnoticed, and other times he tries to do what will help him "pass"—find a girlfriend, get into fights, attempt to have sex. But it is difficult for Eddy to escape his true identity.

"And yet I had understood that living a lie was the only chance I had of bringing a new truth into existence. Becoming a different person meant thinking of myself as a different person, believing I was something I wasn't so that gradually, step by step, I could become it."

The End of Eddy is nearly relentless in its brutal depiction of a young man coming to terms with his sexuality and his identity in an environment in which being different is not only discouraged but often met with physical violence and emotional abuse. This is an autobiographical novel, and Édouard Louis brings tremendous emotion to this story of a boy so desperate for approval and love from those around them that he is willing to destroy who he really is, just in the hopes that his parents and siblings would treat him differently.

This was a beautifully written but difficult book to read, because it was very bleak, but Louis treads carefully in not painting his characters as too black and white; you can see that Eddy's parents just don't know what to make of their son, and want to love him but want him to live an easier life, too.

At times, The End of Eddy was a little emotionally uncomfortable for me. It certainly brought back painful memories of adolescence, of desperately trying to be "normal" yet dealing with the slurs of people who wanted to label me because I was different. And of course, different isn't bad, but they didn't see that. But while this book is a tough read, it does sound a note of hopefulness as well, because sometimes the simple act of embracing who you are is what you need to combat those who try and bring you down.

I don't know if this is a book for everyone, but it definitely is one that will make you think and make you feel. It made me grateful that I am where I am at this point in my life, and while no one's life is 100 percent struggle-free, it truly does get better.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Book Review: "The Burning Girl" by Claire Messud

The friendships we form when we are younger often have a profound effect on our lives, even into adulthood. And although I can't speak from experience, it's often been said that female friendships, particularly those forged during adolescence and the teenage years, can be tremendously intense, providing special memories and, in some cases, inflicting emotional pain.

Cassie and Julia have been friends for as long as they can remember—since nursery school. They've always been an inseparable part of each other's lives, and have shared their secrets, fears, desires, and dreams. The summer before seventh grade they spend volunteering at the local animal shelter, hiking in the woods outside their small Massachusetts town, and secretly visiting the abandoned asylum in the woods, imagining the lives of those imprisoned there.

But little by little, things change between Cassie and Julia that summer, and into the school year that followed, when the two are assigned to different academic levels, and Cassie makes new friends who encourage her to act in a more rebellious manner, and develop relationships with boys. Julia feels the loss of Cassie palpably and can't seem to figure out what went wrong, wishing that things could return to how they were before.

"It's a different story depending on where you start: who's good, who's bad, what it all means. Each of us shapes our stories so they make sense of who we think we are. I can begin when Cassie and I were best friends; or I can begin when we weren't anymore; or I can begin at the dark end and tell it all backward."

Even though they barely speak, Julia keeps tabs on Cassie through a mutual friend. She learns that Cassie's relationship with her mother has become tenuous since her mother found a boyfriend, a man who makes Cassie tremendously uncomfortable in her own home and who convinces her mother to become even more restrictive of Cassie's freedoms. And as her home life continues to deteriorate, Cassie leans on the one thing she has always depended on, the memories of her dead father, and even that doesn't provide the security it once did.

The Burning Girl is more than the exploration of how intensely an adolescent friendship can affect us throughout our lives, but it also is a reflection on how well we can truly know a person we have grown up and shared so much with. At the same time, this book shows the sometimes painful realization between daydreams and realities, and reminds us that sometimes we need to be saved even if we don't want to be.

While I like the way Claire Messud writes (and I'm a big fan of a number of her earlier books, including When the World Was Steady, The Last Life, and The Emperor's Children), this book really didn't wow me. I feel that this story has been told many times before.

I'm never particularly enamored of when crucial events in a book are relayed third-hand, that the protagonist told one person, who told the narrator, who then shared what they had learned. It often made me wonder whether the story was actually reliable, or whether there were threads I should doubt. I also tend to get frustrated when a book's plot is advanced more by conjecture and assumption than actually witnessing events taking place.

There are powerful moments of longing, emotion, and betrayal in The Burning Girl, but they weren't quite enough to generate a lot of passion. I also was thankful that Messud avoided taking the plot in one direction I feared she might.

Perhaps the fact that I never quite had a friendship like this (and I'm not a female) might have dulled the book's power for me, so if this sounds intriguing, I'd encourage you to pick this book up.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Book Review: "The Immortalists" by Chloe Benjamin

If you could know the exact day of your death, would you want to find out? If you did find out, how would knowing that information affect how you lived your life? These questions are at the heart of The Immortalists, Chloe Benjamin's deeply affecting and beautifully written new book.

In 1969, growing up on New York's Lower East Side, the Gold siblings learn that there is a traveling fortune teller in their neighborhood who can tell anyone the day they will die. While not everyone is sure that this is actually true, the four children—straightforward Varya, bossy Daniel, impetuous, magic-obsessed Klara, and dreamy Simon—decide to find out.

What the woman tells each of them that day will greatly affect their lives, none more so than Klara and Simon. Klara, wanting nothing more than to pursue a career as a magician and illusionist, can't get out of New York and away from her stifling family soon enough, and she lets her younger brother Simon convince them that the two should flee to San Francisco after Klara graduates from high school. Simon knows he is different and dreams that San Francisco will be the place he can finally be free to be who he is, to find love and be someone other than the son destined to inherit his family's garment business.

Klara watches as her brother pursues his life with reckless abandon, and while she wants to pursue her dreams as well, she knows she must be the stable one for him. Both are driven by the fortune teller's prophecy, which causes them to be more reckless and impetuous than they should, but also to take chances they might not otherwise pursue, to truly live their lives to their fullest. And when Klara finally meets someone who can help take her to the cusp of the world she craves entry to, she envisions bringing her illusions and tricks to an appreciating public, no matter the toll it takes on her.

"Some magicians say that magic shatters your worldview. But I think magic holds the world together. It's dark matter; it's the glue of reality, the putty that fills the holes between everything we know to be true. And it takes magic to reveal how inadequate reality is."

Meanwhile, Daniel and Varya, both angry and envious that their younger siblings left them responsible for their aging, widowed mother, try not to focus on whether what the fortune teller told them will come true, yet both pursue more grounded, stable careers—Daniel as a military doctor responsible for determining which soldiers are healthy enough to go to war, and Varya as a researcher determined to find the secrets of longevity. But each have secrets of their own, as well as the shared secrets which cause them increasing fear, anxiety, and guilt.

The Immortalists is a fascinating book, one which was both surprising and predictable. Parts are truly moving and powerful—the first two sections, which focus on Simon and Klara, are much stronger than those which focus on Daniel and Varya. Daniel's section veers off-course with the reappearance of a character and a situation that seems entirely too pat, and Varya's section loses a bit of focus when it dwells in-depth on the science of her research, but the conclusion recaptures the passion, emotion, and beauty of the beginning.

Benjamin is a fantastic storyteller and she has created a tremendously thought-provoking book. Is our destiny really predetermined, or can we have a hand in changing what is destined? Does the idea of knowing how long your life might last encourage you to live life to the fullest, or does it instead fill you with more fear and dread than the unknown would?

I don't think I'll be able to get this book out of my mind anytime soon. The characters were so vivid, and even when the plot lost track, I was immersed in the story, which I'm being vague about because I don't want to spoil anything. I can't wait to see what comes next in Benjamin's literary career.

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