Sunday, December 30, 2018

Book Review: "An Absolutely Remarkable Thing" by Hank Green

It was 2:45 in the morning, and April May was walking home in New York City after a long night of working. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw it:

"A ten-foot-tall Transformer wearing a suit of samurai armor, its huge barrel chest lifted up to the sky a good four or five feet above my head. It just stood there in the middle of the sidewalk, full of energy and power. It looked like it might, at any moment, turn and fix that empty, regal stare on me. But instead it just stood there, silent and almost scornful, like the world didn't deserve its attention."

April decides to call her friend Andy to see if he could take video of this statue, whom she has called Carl. The two record some video footage just to be sure there was some record it existed, and that it wasn't just some prank. They goof around a bit with the statue, post some footage to social media, and crash.

What awaits April and Andy the next morning is extraordinary. Not only has their video footage gone viral, but apparently, Carls have shown up in cities all across the world. No one understands what they want or where they came from, but one thing is clear: April and Andy have found themselves at the center of a media frenzy, and April is determined to get out in front of the story, even if it means becoming a more public person than she has ever wanted.

"Even Before Carl, I spent time thinking about what I'd say if I ever had a platform to say it. That's what art is about, right? I mean, not app interfaces, but art. Much of the best art is about balancing between reflecting culture while simultaneously being removed from it and commenting on it. In the best case, maybe an artist gets to say something about culture that hasn't been said and needs to be said."

The pair connects with Miranda, a scientist, who believes that the Carls are asking for materials—iodine, americium, and uranium. When a small experiment with Carl leads to chaos across the world, people, including the U.S. government, start to worry if the Carls' intentions are positive and/or peaceful, which forces April to realize that there are individuals out there who want to advance their own causes, and will use Carl—and her—as pawns.

An Absolutely Remarkable Thing is as much a story about the origins and intentions of the Carls as it is a commentary on our fame-obsessed culture. April discovers, slower than she might have hoped, that while it may be exciting to get everything you've always wanted, to appear on every conceivable television program and talk show, and even have the president's private phone number, there are consequences, which can put your own safety at risk, as well as your relationships, your health, even your future.

This book was a little zany for my tastes. I felt like it didn't really know whether it wanted to be more of a sci-fi mystery about the Carls or more of a lampoon of the culture of celebrity, and meshing the two didn't quite work. While there are parts of this book which feel very current, after a while I thought things were getting repetitive and a little bit overly complicated.

I'm a big fan of John Green, and his brother Hank definitely shares some storytelling characteristics, as well as a penchant for characters whose primary language is sarcasm. I thought Hank Green had a really interesting idea, but he didn't quite execute it as well as he could have. There are definitely interesting, humorous, and insightful moments here, but overall, the story seemed a little too wacky.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Book Review: "See All the Stars" by Kit Frick

I really enjoyed this book and found it surprisingly poignant. Think of it as not-so Mean Girls crossed with We Were Liars or One of Us is Lying, where you know something happened, but you just don't know what or who was responsible until you get further into the book.

Once the four of them were practically inseparable friends—Ellory, Ret, Jenni, and Bex. While Ret always had control over the group's dynamics (or the others paid the price), they spent most of the first three years of high school in each other's orbit. But everyone knew that Ret and Ellory were the closest, and while Ret liked to keep Ellory on her toes, she knew Ellory would always come running when she wanted her to.

"Little by little, she drew me to the surface. Soon Ret's world was my world, her friends my friends. It was like it had always been that way. Everything Ret touched felt electric, exciting, a little bit dangerous. Including me. Before Ret, I was basically invisible. With Ret, I was somebody."

But now, as Ellory prepares to start her senior year of high school, she is alone. Her friendships have been destroyed, her classmates whisper about her (or even dare to ridicule her), even her teachers treat her with caution. She just wants to make it through until the end of the school year, when hopefully she can go to art school across the country. Until then she wants to put everything that happened toward the end of junior year behind her, when everything changed, leaving her feeling angry, guilty, hurt, and alone. But there's one person who keeps writing her notes that doesn't want her to forget just yet.

How did everything change so drastically? During junior year she was in love with Matthias, a beautiful but troubled classmate. Even though her relationship with Matthias limited her ability to be at Ret's beck and call all the time, she still was able to hang out with Ret, Bex, and Jenni, and enjoy their usual pastimes. Why is she the one everyone treats differently? Why didn't anyone take her side?

See All the Stars shifts back and forth from junior year when life seemed idyllic, to senior year when everything is so different and Ellory is an outcast. Recounting the lazy summer days, the flush of first love, the jumble of emotions, the tug of obligation between romance and friendship, to the jealousy, recriminations, confusion, and anger, the book both gradually reveals what happened how Ellory struggles to make sense of all of it, and how, ultimately, she realizes what must be done if she can ever move on.

I really enjoyed the way Kit Frick set this story up. While at times the jumping back and forth between past and present was a little confusing, by and large it really worked to stoke the suspense and make you question just which characters you can trust. While some of what happened was not surprising, there was one moment that surprised me, and I actually had to go back and re-read the previous pages, thinking, "Wait, what?"

Certainly what some of the characters go through is moving, but what was most poignant is how in a split second everything can change, how insecure people act often act in selfish and cruel ways, and how hard it is to pick up the pieces of your life when not all that occurred was your fault. All of those emotions run through See All the Stars, and while there is certainly no shortage of teenage angst, there's little melodrama.

Once again, I must marvel at the immense depth of talent in the YA genre right now. There are so many different types of YA books being written right now, and there are some authors, like Frick, who really know how to tell a story and pique your emotions. This was a good one, and I can't wait to read her next book.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Book Review: "The Best Bad Things" by Katrina Carrasco

This book takes you on a wild ride, with a protagonist unlike any other.

Alma Rosales is a detective, trained by the famed Pinkerton Agency. That's pretty unusual for a woman in the 1880s. But the thing is, Alma isn't all that interested in playing by the rules. She doesn't respond too well to authority, she has (more than) a bit of a violent streak, and she likes dressing up as a man to go undercover. None of this sits well with the Pinkertons, who dismiss her.

Now Alma works for Delphine, who runs a smuggling ring—and who happens to be Alma's occasional lover. On the hunt for stolen opium, Alma figures the only way to find the criminal is to go undercover. So she pretends to be Jack Camp, a dockworker, and she figures that by befriending the local boys and getting in with the crew, she'll be able to unmask the criminal. If only it were that easy...

The deeper Alma ingratiates herself (as Jack), the more she finds it hard to keep her wits about her and remember to whom she's told what lies. She's also playing both ends against the middle in the romance department as well, and Delphine in particular doesn't take that too well. With the Pinkertons circling, Alma needs to marshal all of her strengths in order to kick ass and take names—or she could die trying.

There are a lot of twists and turns and double-crosses in The Best Bad Things, so I'll keep my plot summary fairly vague. Suffice it to say, Alma is one of the most fascinating characters I've read about in a long time. I'm loving the recent trend toward gender-fluid characters and characters whose sexuality isn't the defining trait, but it's not so much the norm when books take place outside of present-day.

But as fascinating a character as she was, I didn't like her very much. She really had a mean streak and I couldn't determine what its origin was, but it made it difficult to sympathize with her. I'm also not sure that I really bought the whole cross-dressing thing—I just kept waiting for it to all fall apart. There are some intense sex scenes in the book, some which were tinged with violence, so that may be a trigger for some folks. The book also jumps around a lot, so the story and the timing of certain things became confusing from time to time. It was interesting to learn about the crime that took place in Washington in the late 1880s, and to see the myriad roles women played in such a lawless society.

Even with its flaws, this was a really interesting book. I hope more authors take risks like Katrina Carrasco did her, and create unique characters that defy stereotypes and aren't above some occasional ass-kicking.

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!

Book Review: "Children of Blood and Bone" by Tomi Adeyemi

Tomi Adeyemi's Children of Blood and Bone has appeared on countless year-end "Best of" lists. After reading it, I can unequivocally say that the accolades are justified. This is a triumph of storytelling, and Adeyemi has built a fascinating world with unforgettable characters.

"They don't hate you, my child. They hate what you were meant to become."

Orïsha was once a land where magic ruled. Those with magical ability, the maji, could do many different things. Some could control water, others could control fire, some read minds, and some were able to summon forth souls. But King Saran was afraid of the kind of power the maji had, so he ordered their destruction. One night, the magic died, and those who were heirs to that power were treated as outcasts, thought of as maggots.

Zélie was young the night her mother, a powerful maji, was murdered, and her father was badly beaten. Their lives, and the life of her older brother Tzain, have never been the same. The king's men take advantage of Orïsha's citizens, raising taxes on a whim, and essentially working them to death. Tzain wants to follow the rules, but Zélie has a rebellious spirit, and won't surrender without a fight.

"He wants to believe that playing by the monarchy's rules will keep us safe, but nothing can protect us when those rules are rooted in hate."

It turns out that the artifacts that can resurrect magic were never destroyed. When Zélie and Tzain are on a trading mission, they rescue the princess, Amari, who is trying to escape the evil of her heritage. Reluctantly allowing her to join them, they discover that she has possession of the magical scroll, one of the pieces needed to bring magic back. And because she has magic in her blood, Zélie is the only one who can save magic and defeat the monarchy.

It won't be an easy fight, as Inan, the heir to Saran's throne (and Amari's brother) will stop at nothing to destroy magic once and for all, and anyone who gets in his way. It's far more complicated, though, than simply following his father's orders and proving his mettle as the future king—Inan has a connection to magic he cannot let anyone find out. But Zélie knows his secret, and isn't above using it if she can.

This will be a battle for the very soul of a people and the lives they were born into. It will require more strength than they could ever imagine, and the ability to let their minds rule, not their hearts, for their hearts could lead them into the most dangerous territory of all.

I thought this was a terrific, creative concept. It's tremendously detailed, and it took a while for me to get all of the characters straight in my mind, but I was hooked on this story from the get-go. Adeyemi created such a fascinating world, and even though you've seen these themes before, you haven't seen them played out by characters like these. There are a lot of accent marks over certain letters in many names, so I wonder if listening to the book would help clear some of the mystery of how particular words were pronounced.

At times this book was electrifying and at times the pace dragged a little bit, but overall, the story is compelling and affecting. I am looking forward to seeing what happens next in this series (it looks like the next book is due in March) and hope it recaptures the magic (pun intended and unintended) of Children of Blood and Bone.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Book Review: "The Museum of Modern Love" by Heather Rose

Fans of 80s music, do you remember Hall & Oates' song, "Method of Modern Love"? The one that went, "M-E-T-H-O-D O-F L-O-V-E. It's the method of modern love..."? Because of a slightly similar title to this book (and nothing else), I couldn't get that song out of my head the entire time I read this! (I'm sure those of you who aren't familiar with the song are wondering what the hell I'm talking about.)

Pardon my digression.

Art fascinates me. While I tend to be a fairly literal person when it comes to art I enjoy (although I'm a sucker for Georges Seurat's pointillism), I'm always amazed by how differently people can interpret the same work of art. And that's not even taking performance art into consideration, which is a whole different jar of paint. (I was trying to go with an arty metaphor.)

Arky Levin is a musician who composes film scores, but he's hit a rough patch. His wife's unexpected departure has left him time to work, but he cannot seem to make any progress, so he decides to visit the Museum of Modern Art as a diversion.

"Levin was ready for something big. What was the point of turning fifty if you weren't ready to peak?"

At the museum he stumbles on an exhibit that he cannot get out of his mind. Visitors sit across a table from the performance artist Marina Abramović, without saying a word. (This is based on Abramović's real installation in 2010.) They can sit for as long or as little as they like; they can stare directly at the artist, glance at her shyly, or do whatever they choose. Some cry, some beseech the artist for some silent words of encouragement or strength, some simply enjoy being part of an art installation.

While the people who participate in the exhibit find themselves inexplicably changed, so do those simply viewing it. Arky is fascinated by the installation, and becomes one of a number of museum-goers who return day after day, simply to watch the parade of people sitting across from the artist. As he builds connections with his fellow observers, reflects upon his troubling relationship with his wife, and thinks about his work, he, too, starts to feel changed, as if somehow the exhibit is helping him through osmosis of some kind.

"Art is really a sort of sport. To master the leap is essential. It is the game of the leap. Practice, practice, practice, then leap. The starting point may be different for each, but the goal is the same. Do something worthwhile before you die."

The Museum of Modern Love is certainly a commentary about art and its effects on the viewers, the artist, and the participants, but more than that, this is a book about connection, human connection, and how much we hunger to be seen, heard, and viewed as relevant, as worthy. Of course, as the title suggests, this is also a book about love, and how we are changed by both its presence and its absence.

This was a tremendously thought-provoking book with many layers. I wasn't exactly sure what to expect when I started it, and my expectations kept changing as I read it. There are a lot of characters, and at times, the alternating of perspectives (as well as the shifting of time in Arky's recollections of his relationship with his wife) felt a bit confusing. But just like the way your perceptions change if you stare too long at a painting, the book's complexities kept revealing themselves.

Performance art isn't for everyone, and this book won't be either. But Heather Rose does a masterful job at creating such a unique story, anchored by some fascinating characters.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Book Review: "Confessions of the Fox" by Jordy Rosenberg

When I first saw the description of this book, I thought it was going to be similar to Mackenzi Lee's book, The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue, which I loved and absolutely devoured. There's just something to be said for historical novels which tweak the then-conventional ideas of gender and sexuality.

While Confessions of the Fox is definitely a creative idea, it really didn't work for me. I've never been a big fan of the whole is-what-you're-reading-true-or-simply-a-construct-of-the-narrator's-imagination concept, and this book trades on that idea a lot. I thought that Jack, in particular, was a fascinating character, but I kept stumbling over the idea that what I was reading might not actually have happened, and that made me lose focus quite a bit.

Jordy Rosenberg did a terrific job with this idea, but the story as a whole just didn't work for me.

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

Book Review: "The Dakota Winters" by Tom Barbash

Imagine what it must be like to have a famous father, and to play a role in his fame. Imagine what it's like to be so enmeshed in his situation that you're not sure where his path ends and yours begins, or how to separate the two.

That describes Anton Winter's life pretty perfectly. His father, Buddy, was a famous late-night talk show host, and for years Anton, his mother, and his siblings played parts in many of the sketches his father did.

As Anton got older, he played a more crucial role in the show, running through Buddy's monologue with him, prepping him regarding his various guests, and prepping the celebrity and non-celebrity guests as well. And then one night, Buddy had a bit of a nervous breakdown and flamed out, and disappeared for a while.

Finding himself at loose ends, Anton goes to Gabon with the Peace Corps for 10 months, and returns home after a particularly bad bout of malaria, which nearly killed him. It's January of 1980, and he returns to his family's apartment in the Dakota, the legendary complex in New York City. The city, and the country, are on edge, with crime in the city on the rise again, the Iranian hostage crisis, and presidential politics heating up.

While there's tumult around them, Buddy is back to his old self, if not better and stronger. He is a more present figure in the lives of his family for the first time in a long while, and the stability feels like the return of an old friend. But Buddy is longing to get back into show business, and Anton wants to help get him there. It's not long before Anton is becoming his emissary, trying to find an angle to get him a place in front of the public he misses so much.

As Anton works to find Buddy's next opportunity, he's trying to decide what's next for him as well. He fills his nights working as a busboy at a fancy restaurant, and he spends time getting closer with one of his father's close friends and their neighbor in the Dakota, John Lennon. What John wants more than anything is to learn how to sail, and Anton is able to teach him, and bring the singer peace amidst the demands of fans for more music.

The Dakota Winters was a really fascinating read, full of the complicated, interdependent relationships among family members who try to make another's dream happen. There are lots of show business-related tidbits, and the book had a real you-are-there feel for different places and moments in history, like the 1980 Winter Olympics and some rallies for Ted Kennedy during his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.

I really enjoyed the characters in this book, although Anton and Buddy were the most vividly drawn of all. I also found the scenes with John Lennon pretty fascinating, and while this is a work of fiction, his personality seemed very much in keeping with what I've read about him in the year prior to his death. I've never read anything that Tom Barbash has written before, but he definitely has a knack for telling a great story.

The pacing was a bit slower than I would have liked—I felt like the book was moving toward a few inevitable conclusions, and it took a little longer to get there. I also found the transition to the epilogue of sorts to be kind of abrupt, and given how much I became attached to the characters, I felt a little gypped by that. But none of these issues were insurmountable, and there's so much to enjoy about this book.

I joke sometimes that when I think "40 years ago," I think of the 1960s, but crazily enough 1979 will be 40 years ago next year. (Next week, actually.) The Dakota Winters is a great snapshot of that time, and a great family story.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Book Review: "Night of Miracles" by Elizabeth Berg

Having just read Elizabeth Berg's sweet, life-affirming book, The Story of Arthur Truluv (see my review), I dove right into its follow-up, Night of Miracles, rather than wait for the characters to get a little bit foggy. It was nice not to have to say goodbye to the characters right away.

"This is what happens. You live past your time of importance and relevance and the world must be given over to the younger ones. Lucille is all right with that notion. As the old folks yielded to her as a young woman, she will yield to the young folks coming up after her."

Lucille Howard knows she's getting on in years, but she's not willing to simply sit around and let loneliness and despair conquer her. Her baking classes, started at the suggestion of her dear friend Arthur, have become so popular that she has to hire an assistant. She never would have thought so many people would want to learn how to bake (even though she knew nobody baked as well as she did), and she's shocked that her classes appeal to men and children as well as women.

Things have gotten so popular, she needs to hire an assistant, so she hires Iris, a newcomer to their small town of Mason, Missouri. Iris doesn't know how to bake, actually (her answer to Lucille's question, "What can you add to milk to make it a substitute for buttermilk?" was "butter"), and she doesn't need to work, but she needs a distraction from thinking about the way her marriage ended and how she quickly left her old life in Boston.

Night of Miracles also brings back Maddy and Nola from The Story of Arthur Truluv, and introduces some new characters whose lives connect with Lucille and Iris. Much like its predecessor, this book is about how we come to depend on our friends, even people we don't expect to become friends, to help us through life's challenges. Without realizing it, our friends become our family, sometimes providing more support and love than those who share the same blood with us.

Most of the characters in this book are dealing with some sort of challenge, be it grief, sadness about the path their life has taken, illness, self-esteem, or loneliness. As you might imagine from reading this book, everyone's problems will be taken care of (if not quite solved), and they'll realize that the challenges they face make the outcome that much sweeter, but it takes a while to come to that discovery.

"What Maddy has come to believe is that certain life circumstances make for people who walk with a psychic limp for all of their days. Never mind the progress they seem to make, peel back a few delicate layers and there it is: a stubborn doubting of worth; an inability to stand with conviction behind anything without wondering if they should be standing there at all; a sense that if they move in this direction it's wrong; and if they move in that direction, that's wrong, too."

Once again, Berg has created a warm and moving book, sweet and predictable yet enjoyable. I didn't think it was as strong as The Story of Arthur Truluv, however, because there were a lot of characters introduced in this book that didn't do much, and simply popped in and out of the story to advance the plot. (I found Lucille's next-door neighbors almost an afterthought.)

While I enjoyed Lucille's character, and that she is so much more than the know-it-all curmudgeon she appears to be, she wasn't quite appealing enough to anchor a book the way Arthur was.

That being said, reading Night of Miracles was like returning to a place you enjoy. Definitely read The Story of Arthur Truluv first, but both books will make you smile, and maybe even evoke a tear or two. Berg knows how to tug at your heartstrings without being manipulative or maudlin. These seem to be perfect books for the holiday season.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Book Review: "The Story of Arthur Truluv" by Elizabeth Berg

Elizabeth Berg's The Story of Arthur Truluv is like a hug in book form. Sweet, moving, and life-affirming, it makes you long to know, or associate with, people like these characters.

"Arthur thinks that, above all, aging means the abandonment of criticism and the taking on of compassionate acceptance. He sees that as a good trade."

Arthur Moses is 85 years old. Every single day he visits the cemetery where his beloved wife, Nola, is buried. He has lunch with her every day. He wishes he could see her again, or at least get a sign that she knows he's visiting, but it doesn't really matter, because these visits are an important part of his life.

Beyond going to the cemetery, tending to his rose garden, and dealing with the unpredictable affections of his cat, his life tends to be fairly routine, and spent mostly alone, although he and his know-it-all neighbor Lucille will sometimes spend time talking on Lucille's porch. It's not necessarily an eventful existence, but he's not unhappy, and he feels he's doing more than simply biding his time until he is reunited with his wife again.

One day while at the cemetery he meets Maddy, a lonely, introspective, 18-year-old girl who spends time there every day in an effort to escape from school and the bullying and disdain of her fellow classmates. Maddy is touched by Arthur's kindness and generosity, and starts to look forward to seeing him at Nola's grave, and confiding in him things she can't tell anyone else.

"She doesn't exactly know why kids don't like her. She's good-looking enough. She has a sense of humor. She's not dumb. She guesses it's because they can sense how much she needs them. They are like kids in a circle holding sticks, picking on the weak thing. It is in people, to be entertained by cruelty."

When Maddy mentions to Arthur that she is in need of a place to stay, he opens his home to her, paying her a salary for taking care of him and cleaning the house. It isn't long before Lucille, who is coping with her own issues, becomes the third member of an unlikely trio, each trying to find the things they can do on their own, yet they are buoyed by the companionship they never had, or at least haven't had in some time.

Berg did such a wonderful job with this book. These characters have struggles, struggles which at one point threatened to consume them, but they persevered, and discovered how much better life can be when spent with people who care about you, and whom you care about. The Story of Arthur Truluv is a moving example of how the family you choose can often provide more love and security than the family into which you are born.

While the book is predictable, it is just so charming. Arthur seems a little too good to be true sometimes, but Berg gives you glimpses of things his late wife criticized him for, or wished he did differently. The other characters are also memorable and their flaws make them even more human. She so accurately portrays emotions like grief, loneliness, and despair.

"'See, that's what I do. I am the audience. I am the witness. I am the great appreciator, that's what I do and that's all I want to do. I worked for a lot of years. I did a lot of things for a lot of years. Now, well, here I am in the rocking chair, and I don't mind it, Lucille. I don't feel useless. I feel lucky.'"

At least every now and again, it's great to read a book that restores your faith in the goodness of people. With The Story of Arthur Truluv, Elizabeth Berg has given us such a book.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Book Review: "Things You Save in a Fire" by Katherine Center

Add Katherine Center to the list of authors I've discovered this year whose work has utterly wowed me. Between her newest book and How to Walk Away, which I read earlier this year (see my review), I've become a big fan while becoming emotionally unglued. Because that's how I roll, y'all!

Cassie has always been tough as nails. As one of very few female firefighters at her Austin firehouse, she knows that she has to do everything better, be stronger, faster, and tougher, and never show one ounce of emotion. It's something she's been comfortable with since her mother abandoned her and her father on Cassie's 16th birthday. Cassie has never really let anyone get too close to her, because vulnerability means weakness in her book.

But on a night that should be one of her proudest achievements, Cassie's carefully constructed façade cracks, and the results are shocking, to say the least, to those who know her best. She creates quite a mess for herself—so much so that when her estranged mother calls and asks her to move to Boston for a year to help her through some serious health issues, Cassie ignores her gut instincts and agrees. But she makes it perfectly clear that she's not there to reminisce or be friends with her mother, she's only there to help.

"I reminded myself again that she was only Diana. Of course, our parents get an extra dose of importance in our minds. When we're little, they're everything—the gods and goddesses that rule our worlds. It takes a lot of growing up, and a lot of disappointment, to accept that they're just normal, bumbling, mistaken humans, like everybody else."

Cassie takes a job in the small town of Lillian, a town which has never had a female firefighter and isn't interested in one. In fact, the captain thinks female firefighters may very well lead to the decline of Western civilization. So once again, she's bound and determined to do everything better than any of the men on the squad, and not allow them to treat her like a girl. She ignores the hazing, the teasing, and those who want to see her fail, and she outdoes them at every turn.

The one thing she can't seem to ignore, however, is the rookie—Owen Callaghan, son of a retired firefighter, who joined the squad in Lillian the same day Cassie did. Sure he's good-looking, fit, and can cook like nobody's business, but Cassie knows she is a better firefighter and EMT than he is. But why does her stomach flip every time she seems him? It's not like she hasn't worked around gorgeous men before, but for some reason, she can't get him out of her mind, and it doesn't help that they get paired up for everything.

Cassie came to Lillian to work, not to date, and besides, dating a fellow firefighter is career suicide. That's the one main thing her captain in Austin told her before Cassie left—never date firefighters. So no matter what, she's just going to ignore the rookie and treat him like one of the guys. Because in Cassie's eyes, love equals vulnerability, which equals failure.

If you've spent your entire life guarding yourself from any sign of weakness, keeping everyone at arm's length, can you be truly happy? Which is harder, forgiving someone for hurting you or forgiving yourself? How do you decide whether it's worth risking everything you've built your life around to pursue something that might not work out, and might hurt you?

Things You Save in a Fire is one of those books where you can probably guess most (if not all) of what will happen, but it doesn't matter one iota, because you're totally hooked. Once again, Center creates vulnerable, likable, relatable characters and makes you care about them, makes you root for them, makes you angry when roadblocks occur, and makes you fearful that something bad will befall these characters you've come to know.

This is a book about how the walls we build to protect ourselves often keep more people out than we realize, and before we know it, we're safe but alone. This is a book about realizing that being a little vulnerable doesn't mean you're still not tough or brave, and it's also a book about when you know it's right to sacrifice what you want for those you care about.

Like any story where matters of the heart, family issues, and relationships are dealt with, Things You Save in a Fire is moving at times, a little poignant, and you might find something is in your eye once or twice. But this is one of those books that wins you over from the very first page, and doesn't let up, so it's worth a few tears (at least).

NetGalley and St. Martin's Press provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Book Review: "Kitchen Yarns: Notes on Life, Love, and Food" by Ann Hood

"First we eat, then we do everything else."
—M.F.K. Fisher

Like music, food often has such an indelible role in our memories. Many of us can remember where and when (and in some cases, with whom) we first tried certain foods, and some of us can even remember the meals or dishes we'd consider best-ever (or even worst-ever). Some turn to food for comfort, for celebration, for companionship, while some even have a complicated relationship with food. But no matter what, we can't deny the place food has in our lives beyond simple nourishment.

In her new book, Kitchen Yarns: Notes on Life, Love, and Food, Ann Hood reflects upon the connection between certain dishes and specific memories or times in her life. There are the pleasant memories of family, her first job as a flight attendant for TWA, dishes associated with her children. Then there are those dishes which remind her of times she was struggling, with grief, loneliness, despair, anger. And then there are the nostalgic recipes, which came from cookbooks that are heavily stained or have fallen apart through years of use. Each essay marks a particular time or memory, and each is accompanied by at least one recipe.

"When I write an essay about food, I am really uncovering something deeper in my life—loss, family, confusion, growing up, growing away from what I knew, returning, grief, joy, and, yes, love."

There's the never-fail Chicken Marbella recipe from The Silver Palate Cookbook, which only failed her one time, when she was falling in love. There are the potato recipes enjoyed by two of her children, and the baked potato recipe from her new husband, the one which made her actually enjoy baked potatoes. Whether it's the blueberry muffins which remind her of the department store where she worked as a teenage model, or the various dishes her Italian grandmother and her mother afterward filled the days and nights of her childhood with, this book captures the warmth, the feeling of connection cooking brings. You know, this is why everyone winds up in the kitchen during a dinner party!

This book hit so many special notes for me. I love to cook and love to read recipes, but despite my struggles with liking food far too much (especially those dastardly carbohydrates), food has such a special place in my memories. I remember the dishes taught to me by my mother and grandmothers, those I learned in culinary school, those I tried to recreate after being wowed by a certain dish in a restaurant, and the foods I turned to during difficult times. There's a reason that when families in the Jewish religion mourn so much food is served—food truly can bring comfort, albeit temporary, as well as fellowship.

"That even in grief, we must take tentative steps back into the world. That even in grief, we must eat. And that when we share that food with others, we are reclaiming those broken bits of our lives, holding them out as if to say, I am still here. Comfort me. As if with each bite, we remember how it is to live."

I have been a big fan of Hood's storytelling (I loved The Obituary Writer and Somewhere Off the Coast of Maine), but her writing in this book just dazzled me. I could see the ripe tomatoes in the tomato pies, taste the richness of the cassoulet, hear the crunch of her father's Indiana fried chicken. Needless to say, my stomach growled the entire day as I read this, and I cannot wait to try so many of the recipes she included in the book.

Kitchen Yarns will whet your appetite and wet your eyes from time to time. I think this is the perfect book to give as a gift to those with whom you've shared recipes, meals, and memories related to food.

Hopefully you'll be inspired to dig out recipes of your own that remind you of certain moments, and you'll think of food as more than simply a means to an end, but a way of expressing love, support, happiness, or helping you through life's difficult times. Ann Hood has given us a real gift with this book.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Book Review: "The Poet X" by Elizabeth Acevedo

Wow. This was absolutely phenomenal. What a powerful gut punch.

Elizabeth Acevedo's National Book Award-winning The Poet X is deserving of every single accolade that comes its way. This immensely moving novel-in-verse will light a fire inside you while it takes your breath away.

Xiomara Batista is about to start her sophomore year at a high school in Harlem. She has been the object of male attention since she grew tall and her body grew curves. Her fiercely religious mother has only mistrust for Xiomara, as she is convinced that a teenage girl with a body like that will only get into trouble. But Xiomara spends more time fighting the jeers and the curious stares, and standing up for her meeker twin brother, Xavier, whom she refers to as "Twin."

"The other girls call me conceited. Ho. Thot. Fast.
When your body takes up more room than your voice
you are always the target of well-aimed rumors,
which is why I let my knuckles talk for me.
Which is why I learned to shrug when my name was replaced by insults.
I've forced my skin just as thick as I am."

The best way Xiomara finds to combat everything that threatens to bring her down—her mother's religious fervor and mistrust, her father's disregard, the secrets that Twin seems to be hiding, and her growing desire for a boy to like her—is to write. She fills a well-worn leather notebook with her thoughts, her fears, and her poems. As her new English teacher encourages her to join a poetry club, Xiomara knows her words can't ever be heard by others or her secrets will fly away.

When she and her lab partner, Aman, begin a flirtation which grows ever more intense, Xiomara knows her mother's rules. She is not allowed to date, not even allowed to go anywhere with a boy. But for the first time, she decides to disobey her mother and spend time with Aman. She feels happiness, desire, guilt, confusion, but more than that, she can't quite understand why these feelings are wrong.

"How does a girl like me figure out the weight
of what it means to love a boy?"

But secrets can only be kept secret for so long. When Xiomara's secrets are exposed, their discovery, and her mother's reaction, threatens everything—her relationship with each of her family members, her self-worth, even her ability to express herself through poetry. She is lost, adrift, until she finds one beacon to help guide her back on course.

At times this is a difficult book to read because Xiomara's mother is so unflinching in her beliefs and so outwardly cruel to her daughter. In a small way, she reminds me of the mother in Celeste Ng's Little Fires Everywhere, because you just can't understand how a mother's love for her child could turn so twisted and cruel, even though you learn the reasons behind it.

Xiomara is a truly unforgettable character, and although you don't see him as much, I loved Twin as well, and wished he was more of a presence at times. To watch someone who has always carried herself with so much bravado find herself so vulnerable is sad, but you hope that she'll bounce back even bigger and stronger than she was.

I absolutely loved this book and read it in one day. I am not a fan of audio books but I am considering listening to this one, which Acevedo narrates herself, since she is an award-winning slam poet. I was utterly mesmerized by Acevedo's words and how they metamorphosized into such a memorable voice for Xiomara—simultaneously tough and soft, passionate and fearful.

This is a book about family, religion, friendship, young love, wishing you could be who your parents want you to be but not wanting to give up who you are, and the transformative power of words. The Poet X is a book I won't soon forget.

"I only know that learning to believe in the power of my own words has been the most freeing experience of my life. It has brought me the most light. And isn't that what a poem is? A lantern glowing in the dark."

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Book Review: "One Fatal Mistake" by Tom Hunt

There's something to be said about a thriller where you can predict pretty much everything that will happen, yet you can't tear yourself away from it. That was the case with Tom Hunt's One Fatal Mistake. Its pacing left my heart pounding, and even though I had my suspicions about how the plot would unfold, I needed to know where Hunt would surprise me.

Joshua Mayo is 18 years old, a talented golfer with his whole future ahead of him. In just a few months he's heading off to college, where he hopes to study landscape architecture and eventually design golf courses. But one night, everything changes. He accidentally kills a man in the middle of a deserted nature preserve, and fearful of having to go to jail for his bad luck, he decides not to report the crime to the police, and hopes that the body might never be found.

Moving on with his life, however, isn't as easy he imagined it would be. Joshua is wracked with guilt, not to mention fear that somehow he slipped up, and his crime will be discovered. His mother Karen knows something is wrong with Joshua but he won't tell her anything. But when he disappears late one night, she knows she needs to follow him to see how she can help, or even protect, him. That split-second decision sets them on a collision course with disaster, and it could put everything they hold dear at risk.

How far would you go to protect your child? Is there anything you wouldn't do? Karen knows she'd lay down her life for her son. She may have to, unless she can think of a way to get them out of the dangerous trouble they've found themselves in.

There's rarely a slow moment in One Fatal Mistake. I'm being fairly vague in terms of plot description because it definitely helps to let things unfurl little by little. I definitely wanted to shake the characters from time to time for all of the stupid decisions they were making, but who's to say that people in those situations might not act that way in real life?

Of course, as with most thrillers, you need to suspend a little disbelief. But like I said, this is a book that hooked me from start to finish—I read most of it in a few hours—and I like the way Hunt fed the plot to you, little by little. I wish I was surprised a little more, but this was still a roller coaster ride of a book.

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, December 11, 2018

Book Review: "The Proposal" by Jasmine Guillory

Freelance writer Nikole Paterson is spending a beautiful weekend day at a Dodgers game with Fisher, the guy she has been dating for the past few months, and a bunch of his friends.

"She didn't have anything against baseball, exactly. It was just that she'd rather be spending this beautiful spring day at home with her laptop and a glass of bourbon on the rocks than outside at a baseball stadium with a warm beer. But when the hot dude you were sleeping with wanted to go to a Dodgers game for his birthday, you sucked it up and went along with him and his bros."

The game takes an unexpected turn when Fisher surprises her with a marriage proposal on the Jumbotron, in front of the entire stadium. It isn't fake surprise with which Nik reacts to this proposal—it's utter disbelief. (Plus he spelled her first name wrong.) She and Fisher haven't even said they love each other (and she doesn't love him), much less discuss marriage. But there Fisher is, on one knee in the middle of the stadium, holding a princess ring. She has no choice but to turn him down, disappointing the entire crowd, not to mention raising the ire of Fisher and his bros.

Of course, she wants to crawl into a hole and hide, but there she is, still in her seat as the game goes on. When the camera crew starts to descend upon her, a guy watching the action from a few rows up takes pity on her, and he and his sister extricate Nik from the imminent media feeding frenzy, and spirit her out of the stadium to the relative safety of her best friends.

It turns out Carlos is a pediatrician—and a damned sexy one on top of that, not that Nik noticed. (Well, that much.) But Carlos also spends a lot of his life protecting and caring for his widowed mother, his sister, and the other women in his family, so the rescue role comes easy for him. However, Nikole's beauty isn't lost on him, but he knows better than to let on that he's even remotely attracted to her.

"If she had to pick a strange man to rescue her, at least it was one who was outraged by the right things."

In the days and weeks following the proposal fiasco, Nik finds herself leaning on Carlos more and more, and she can't get him out of her head. Her friends keep encouraging her to have a rebound romance with the sexy doctor, but she isn't sure she needs the complications. For his part, Carlos can't stop thinking of Nik either, and isn't sure exactly what she wants from him—but he knows what he'd like from her.

When the sparks between them finally ignite, they agree that all either of them wants is something casual. They enjoy each other's company, great food, and pretty hot sex. Beyond that, they have an easy, comforting companionship, and each provides the other with the support and encouragement they need. It's the perfect situation—nothing serious, just fun and lots of terrific sex.

You can probably guess how the rest of the book will unfold, and you'd probably be mostly right. But even predicting what will happen (and I wasn't 100 percent right, as I expected a little more melodrama) didn't take away from the appeal of The Proposal. As she did with her first book, The Wedding Date (see my review), Jasmine Guillory hooked me from the very first page. Her characters may have some flaws, but they're just so charming, so much fun, the kind of people I'd probably hate in real life but inexplicably love reading about.

This year has brought many pleasant literary surprises, and chief among them is how much I've come to like so-called "chick lit," or women's fiction. These books have been the perfect foil after too many emotionally laden or intellectually exhausting books, and they've helped bring balance after I start looking at everyone suspiciously because I've read too many thrillers and crime novels at once.

I find the term "chick lit" a bit denigrating, as if the authors writing in this genre don't deserve the same respect as writers of more general fiction. The fact is, much like the young adult genre, there are some terrific, talented writers out there worthy of notice and renown. This year, I've become a huge fan of writers like Guillory, Christina Lauren, and Taylor Jenkins Reid.

I've said on more than one occasion (more like 100 occasions) that I'm a gigantic sap. I'm so glad there are books like The Proposal which are fun reads that also appeal to the sappy part of me. Now I have to wait until July 2019 for Guillory's next book!

Monday, December 10, 2018

Book Review: "Washington Black" by Esi Edugyan

"How was it possible, thought I, that we lived in such nightmare and all the while a world of men continued just over the horizon, men such as these, in ships moving in any direction the wind might lead them?"

George Washington ("Wash") Black is an 11-year-old slave growing up on a sugar plantation in Barbados in 1830. He has felt the cruelty of his master and his overseers, and seen the violence with which other slaves are treated. But when the master dies, there is little time to rejoice, as the new master appears to be equally, if not more, twisted and sadistic.

Wash is surprised and frightened when he is pulled from the fields to become the manservant to the master's eccentric brother. Christopher Wilde, or Titch, as Wash calls him, is a man of science, a man desperate to study the natural world around him and make brilliant discoveries. Titch treats Wash as his research assistant, and under Titch's tutelage, Wash's talent for nature drawing begins to flourish.

Titch's greatest dream is to soar through the skies in the Cloud-Cutter, a balloon-like contraption he has designed. No one, Wash included, believes it will ever be able to leave the ground or travel far, yet Titch is determined to make sure it is ready for the right conditions. And when a man dies, and Wash is the leading suspect, Titch and Wash know they must disappear far from Barbados—and they hope the Cloud-Cutter will help them get on their way.

The two make their way across the Atlantic, traveling up the east coast of the U.S., up into Canada and eventually, to a remote outpost in the Arctic. All the while they live in fear that the bounty hunter searching for Wash will find them, but they fail to understand that black men are treated the same way no matter where they are.

"It had happened so gradually, but these months with Titch had schooled me to believe I could leave all misery behind, I could cast off all violence, outrun a vicious death. I had even begun thinking I'd been born for a higher purpose, to draw the earth's bounty, and to invent; I had imagined my existence a true and rightful part of the natural order. How wrong-headed it had all been. I was a black boy, only—I had no future before me, and little grace or mercy behind me. I was nothing, I would die nothing, hunted hastily down and slaughtered."

When Titch and Wash are separated, Wash realizes for the first time that he is the only person he can count on to save himself and change his life's circumstances. His journey takes him through Canada, to England, Amsterdam, and the windswept deserts of Morocco. Amazingly, he learns the lessons it takes men their entire lives to learn (if that), lessons about betrayal, love, identity, independence, and self-worth.

Washington Black is a tremendously thought-provoking look at a boy who becomes a man as most of the world looks at him as less than that. Wash knows he is more than people believe he is, yet proving that to them—and himself—causes more emotional pain, and puts him at great risk. He is a tremendously fascinating character, one it will be very hard to forget.

Esi Edugyan is a magnificent storyteller, and in addition to the suspenseful, emotional, powerful parts of her story, she does a fantastic job with imagery as well, as her characters travel across the world. This book is a meditation on what freedom truly is, and how we are just as responsible for freeing ourselves as those whom have kept us captive. It is a story that will make you think, it will make you angry at times, and in the end, it will make you feel.

I've never read anything of Edugyan's before, but I was tremendously impressed with her talent. This isn't necessarily a fast-paced book although it never felt slow. I just immersed myself in Wash's incredible journey.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Book Review: "Too Much is Not Enough: A Memoir of Fumbling Toward Adulthood" by Andrew Rannells

I've always thought that Andrew Rannells was my spirit animal.

Seriously, when I first saw him perform in his Tony Award-nominated role in The Book of Mormon, I thought to myself, if I were younger, thinner, and more talented, I could totally be him. But since I'm none of those things, I've become a big fan, having seen him in both Book and Falsettos on Broadway, and watched him on television in both Girls and The New Normal. (He's also a really fun guest on the late night talk show circuit.)

Needless to say, when I was offered the chance to read an advance copy of his memoir, Too Much is Not Enough (the title comes from a lyric from the song "Fame"), I jumped at it. While I was expecting a humorous, heartfelt chronicle of how Rannells made it to Broadway and what it's like to be famous, this book was much more than the former, and didn't really touch on the latter.

This book isn't your typical celebrity memoir of brags and name-dropping. It's actually a more universal story about pursuing your dreams even when everything is telling you that you might want to reconsider. It's also a story about coming to terms with who you are and the need for self-acceptance, or at least getting to the point where you don't give a s--t about what people think. And at the same time, it's the story about navigating the challenges of familial relationships, and how to cope when your family is far away.

Of course, much of this book is Rannells' story about moving from Omaha to New York City in 1997 and enrolling in the theater program at Marymount Manhattan College, and how everything didn't quite turn out the way he thought it would. School wasn't the magical, inspirational classes he saw in Fame, he was living in squalor, and Broadway casting directors weren't quite welcoming him with open arms. (How was he even supposed to find them?)

You also get the story of his childhood, how he became interested in theater and his desire to be a star grew, his relationships with his family, and the always rocky road of coming to terms with his sexuality, and the dysfunctions which accompany finding your way out of the closet and into your first sexual encounters and romantic relationships. (Often the two are not mutually exclusive.)

Rannells tells his story in a witty, often-sarcastic, conversational style which I'm sure belies the anxiety, despair, and depression he felt as things were occurring. There are moments when Rannells recounted incidents which left him emotionally vulnerable, and I'll admit I choked up a time or two. He also sprinkles in a liberal dash of pop culture references which I absolutely loved, and at times he literally made me laugh out loud.

Discussing his fondness for certain color sashes with his altar boy outfit, he said, "Red was my favorite; that was for feast days of martyrs. I think it appealed to me on two levels: I've always loved a martyr story...and I love a classic pop of color. I was dramatic and stylish even as a fourth grader."

Other than being familiar with some of his work, I didn't know much about Rannells, so I really enjoyed learning about his early life. The book ends with his first big break on Broadway, five years before The Book of Mormon, so I found his story really relatable, more about dreams, disappointments, family, friendships, and the search for love and self-acceptance—not to mention wardrobe struggles, figuring out how to call out sick from your job when you have multiple auditions, and trying not to collapse from hunger when you have no money.

I devoured this book in a day. It was so terrific to read a celebrity memoir that was funny, self-deprecating (without trying too hard), and quite enjoyable, one that leaves you feeling like a bigger fan than you might have been when you started. I'll definitely appreciate his performances even more in the future, because I know how hard he worked to get where he is.

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

Friday, December 7, 2018

Book Review: "Once Upon a River" by Diane Setterfield

It was a dark and stormy night...

Well, not exactly. But it is a dark night in 1887, the solstice night, the longest night of the year.

"As is well-known, when the moon hours lengthen, human beings come adrift from the regularity of their mechanical clocks. They nod at noon, dream in waking hours, open their eyes wide to the pitch-black night. It is a time of magic. And as the borders between night and day stretch to their thinnest, so too do the borders between worlds. Dreams and stories merge with lived experience, the dead and the living brush against each other in their comings and goings, and the past and the present touch and overlap. Unexpected things can happen."

A crowd has gathered at The Swan, an ancient inn on the Thames River. The crowd is prone to storytelling, and no one tells a story like Joe Bliss, the husband of the Swan's landlady. But that night a story all its own takes shape—a wounded man comes staggering in and collapses, caught by some of the men at the inn. He appears to be carrying a doll or puppet of some sort, but the crowd is once again shocked when they discover it's not a puppet, but the lifeless body of a small child.

"Her skin shimmered like water. The folds of her cotton frock were plastered to the smooth lines of the limbs, and her head tilted on her neck at an angle no puppeteer could achieve. She was a little girl, and they had not seen it, not one of them, though it was obvious."

When Rita Sunday, the town's most reliable medical personnel, arrives, she takes care of the unconscious man and mends his wounds, and then examines the little girl. No one is sure what the little girl's connection is to the man, but a pall falls over the crowd at her untimely and tragic death. And then, a few hours later, she starts breathing again. No one, not even Rita, who searches for a scientific answer, understands how this could have happened.

Who is this little girl? To whom does she belong? Where is she from? How is she connected to the wounded man? No one can find out any answers, especially because the little girl is mute and cannot provide any information. But of course, that doesn't stop those from near and far from inventing stories that explain her situation. And while fictions grow and become more elaborate, there are three families who believe the little girl belongs to them, and each has a complicated story about how they know this to be so, stories as twisted as the Thames itself.

First and foremost, Once Upon a River is a tribute to the art of storytelling. It is beautifully told, and Diane Setterfield weaves together folklore, magic, myth, and good old tall tales as she unfolds this mystery. But beyond the questions that arise about the little girl, this book tells other stories as well, revealing long-held family secrets, regrets, recriminations, and suspicions.

This is a dense book with a lot of characters. It took me a little while to get everyone straight in my head, because there are a few narratives unfolding at once. While I usually read really fast, the pacing of this book was a little slower, so I couldn't rush through it, and while I felt like it plodded a little bit from time to time, in the end, the pacing worked. If you rush through the story, you'll miss some of the richness of the plot.

Setterfield knows how to set a mood, how to create fascinating characters, and how to tease out just enough suspense to keep you always wanting more. Once Upon a River is a special story, and I could totally see it as a television movie or miniseries, because so often the book came to life in my mind's eye.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Book Review: "P.S. I Still Love You" by Jenny Han

This series is so sweet and enjoyable, it definitely makes me smile. Such a nice change of pace to read a book like this every now and again!

"'Lara Jean, I think you half-fall in love with every person you meet. It's part of your charm. You're in love with love.'"

Lara Jean and Peter were just pretending to have a relationship. Somewhere along the way, she got a little forgetful about what was real and what was make-believe. But Peter was just going along with it, right? He couldn't possibly like her the way that she likes him, could he?

When they decide to start dating, Lara Jean is excited and nervous, at the same time. She loves the way being with Peter makes her feel, but she's afraid he'll hurt her or expect too much from her, so they make a contract which includes a promise not to break each other's heart. Of course, she's still not happy about his relationship with Genevieve, his ex-girlfriend and Lara Jean's former best friend, but she's trying not to dwell on it too much. She should trust Peter when he says there's nothing going on beyond helping a friend through tough times, even if she feels like sometimes he'd drop everything for Gen, but not for her.

When a video of Lara Jean and Peter is made public, she is horrified by the things people assume about her. She is touched by how much Peter is bothered by it, but he insists Gen had nothing to do with it, even though Lara Jean knows it was her. Even more than the embarrassment factor, Lara Jean is irritated by the double standard that exists between girls and boys.

"Boys will be boys, but girls are supposed to be careful: of our bodies, of our futures, of all the ways people judge us."

Unexpectedly, another boy from Lara Jean's past reappears, awakening feelings from when they were younger, and confusing her. Is it possible to be in love with more than one person at the same time, even if you're not acting on those feelings? How do you know whether the way you feel about a person is based on nostalgia or real life?

Two guys vying for her attention, worrying that her widowed dad needs to start dating, dealing with betrayal and uncertainty in her relationship with Peter—it's a lot for anyone to deal with, let alone someone with as much sensitivity and heart as Lara Jean. But she's determined to make the most of her life, even if not everyone will be happy with the decisions she makes.

I really enjoyed To All the Boys I've Loved Before, the first book in the series (see my review), and I felt the same way about this second book. It was great to return to Lara Jean's world and all of the characters I enjoyed in the first book, and that same charm and heart was here as well.

I haven't watched the television series based on these books, but I've heard it's good, too. Jenny Han created such a great cast of characters, characters I root for (and against, depending on the person). P.S. I Still Love You, like its predecessor, hooked me from the very first page. Of course, I want to dive right into the third and final book, but I'm going to wait a bit, because then I'll have nothing to look forward to in regard to this series! (Such a hardship, reading is.)

Is it predictable? Sure. Does it matter? Not in the slightest. For a fun, sweet, enjoyable, romantic diversion, dive in to this series.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Book Review: "Where the Crawdads Sing" by Delia Owens

It seemed like everyone had read this one already and couldn't stop raving about it. For some reason, despite all the hype, I just wasn't sure about this one—I thought it was going to be like the Jodie Foster movie Nell, about a feral girl alone in the woods who speaks her own language and somehow gets all tangled up in the real world.

While there is a little bit of the girl-against-the-world thing, I needn't have worried. This book is heartfelt, warm, and endearing, and utterly deserving of the praise and love being heaped on it. It is definitely a story that will live in my mind for a long time.

In the 1950s, Kya is a young girl growing up in a ramshackle cottage in the marshes off the North Carolina coast. She is the youngest of five children, the daughter of a wounded WWII veteran prone to drinking and violence perpetrated on his wife and children. One day when Kya was six years old, her mother left, followed by each one of her siblings. Left to fend for herself, she learns early that she is the only one she can count on, and turns to the gulls and other marsh creatures for companionship, until she befriends a couple who runs the gas and tackle shop where she refuels her boat.

"Her most poignant memories were unknown dates of family members disappearing down the lane. The last of a white scarf trailing through the leaves. A pile of socks left on a floor mattress."

As Kya grows older, rumors swirl in town about the "Marsh Girl," and it becomes a show of bravery to run through the marsh, tag her house, and run freely home. But Kya is so much more than the little girl once ridiculed on her one day of school. She is sensitive, inquisitive, intelligent, and passionate about the marsh and the creatures that inhabit it. When she meets a young man willing to open more of that world up to her, she can't get enough, although it leads to the vulnerability of opening her heart as well.

"'It ain't just that. I wadn't aware that words could hold so much. I didn't know a sentence could be so full."

When Kya finds someone that she believes loves her for who she is, she is fearful about leaving the marsh but willing to do so for love. Yet once again, she learns she is the only one she can truly depend on. And in 1969, when Chase Andrews, once the town's football hero and the son of a prominent business owner, is found dead, the townspeople suspect Kya, as they have never believed her more than "marsh trash" even though she has proven herself capable of so much more.

"For years I longed to be with people. I really believed that someone would stay with me, that I would actually have friends and a family. Be part of a group. But no one stayed. Not you or one member of my family. Now I've finally learned how to deal with that and how to protect myself."

Where the Crawdads Sing is a love letter to nature, but it is also a beautiful story about what you can accomplish when people believe in you and instill you with that confidence. At the same time, it's a story which causes us to examine our prejudices against those who are different from us, how readily we want to believe the worst about people we don't even know. It's also a story about the beauty of human relationships, and how much they give us, even through the simplest of interactions.

Delia Owens has created an amazing, thought-provoking book. Her use of imagery is so lyrical, almost poetic, that you can see the marsh, the gulls, the feathers, in your mind's eye. As great as that is, her characters are incredibly special. Even the characters who seem the least complex have surprising moments, but characters like Tate, Jumpin', Jodie, and of course, Kya, are simply amazing.

There is a simple beauty to this book and so much heart. Read this and you, too, will be thinking about these characters for a long time afterward.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Book Review: "The Lost Girls of Paris" by Pam Jenoff

C'est magnifique!!

In 1946, shortly after World War II ended, Grace Healey is living in New York, fleeing for an anonymous life in the city after the tragic death of her husband. One morning on her way to work she takes a detour through Grand Central Station, where she trips over a suitcase hidden beneath a bench.

She can't resist opening the suitcase, and when she finds a group of photographs, each of a different woman, she can't seem to explain why she has this powerful need to keep them.

Grace soon finds out that the suitcase belonged to Eleanor Trigg, a British woman who ran operations for a group of female spies during the war. These women were deployed throughout Europe, given missions as radio operators, couriers, and other necessary positions to help defeat the Nazis. Twelve of these women—the women in the photographs Grace found—never returned home. This motivates Grace to try and figure out what happened to them, and what Eleanor Trigg was looking for in New York City.

Grace's quest to uncover the truth is juxtaposed with the story of two other women. We follow Eleanor as she is tapped to create this program that brought women into the war as special agents, then tries to understand what is going wrong as her agents are being captured and messages are being compromised, and then, after the war, she, too, wants to understand what happened to the women under her supervision. The book also follows Marie Roux, one of Eleanor's special agents, a young mother who wasn't really sure she was cut out for this type of mission, yet found her bravery and strength just when she needed it most.

The Lost Girls of Paris is inspired by true events. It really does a great job putting a human face on those courageous people, particularly young women, who risked everything to help defeat those seeking to destroy the world.

I am not one who typically reads historical fiction—in fact, I think I've read one other work of historical fiction this year. But when I was offered a chance to read a pre-publication copy of The Lost Girls of Paris, something about the book intrigued me. I thought it was an excellent book, full of rich characters, suspense, emotion, and historical details, all of which made it a tremendously fast read. (I read the entire book in one miserably rainy day.)

I'm new to Pam Jenoff's books, but I was really impressed with her storytelling ability and the evocative imagery she used. I felt the different conditions Marie found herself in, I heard the noises of the city as Grace encountered the suitcase at Grand Central Station. The book took a little bit to build up momentum, but it really hooked me, as I hoped I'd get answers to all of the questions the characters raised.

If you're not a fan of historical fiction, don't be dissuaded from reading The Lost Girls of Paris. It's an excellent novel, a great character study, and even has some suspense, as you wonder how everything will be resolved. If you are a fan of this genre, you probably already want to read it! (And if not, you should!)

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

Friday, November 30, 2018

Book Review: "My Lovely Wife" by Samantha Downing

If you're looking for a heartwarming love story, a tale of two people whose marriage is so full of love and devotion...find another book. This was one crazy, tension-filled, suspenseful book that had me shaking my head and wondering what would come next!

On the surface, they seem like the perfect family. He is a tennis pro at the local country club, she is a successful, high-end real estate agent. They have two teenage kids who play sports, do reasonably well in school, and only give them a bit of backtalk now and again. They eat dinner together every night—no cell phones at the table—and they are totally involved in their children's lives.

But when you've been married for a while, how do you keep the passion burning? How can you keep your spouse from being tempted by the fruit of another? Every couple has their own tricks, their own strategies. Theirs just happens to be a little bit more, umm, unorthodox.

The beauty of this book comes from the surprises that lurk when you least expect them, so I'm keeping my plot summary to a bare minimum. Promotions for My Lovely Wife have described it as a cross between Dexter and Mr. and Mrs. Smith; I found it a little more of the latter (boy, what Brad and Angelina could have done with these roles in their heyday) and not so much of the former. But forget about comparisons, because this is a book all its own.

Samantha Downing has taken a genre that is getting a little tired and predictable at times, and thrown in some "wait, she's not going to do that, is she?" along with more than a few "oh, wows," and sprinkled in a few "holy craps" to boot. I certainly don't want to think that there are people out there like this couple, but given the book's depiction of the media and our crazy world, anything is possible.

What a wild ride this was. My Lovely Wife keeps you flipping those pages because you absolutely must know what happens next, and you cannot get enough of this story and these crazy, amoral characters. I'm sure there are people who won't like this, but it made a believer of me!!

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

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Book Review: "Matchmaking for Beginners" by Maddie Dawson

What a terrific, sweet charmer of a book this was!!

Every family has at least one oddball, one eccentric. Free-spirited Blix Holliday is her family's black sheep, and that doesn't bother her one bit, because she doesn't like them much anyway.

She believes there's a perfect match for everyone, she believes in thought energy, watching people's auras, and her ability to wish things into existence—and she has a book of spells to prove it. Now in her 80s and terminally ill, she wants to live whatever time she has left on her own terms, surrounded by joy and those she loves.

"This is a family that is rotten at its core, no matter what the decor tells you. I see things as they are, right through the fakery and pretense. I can still remember when this place really was authentically grand, before Wendy Spinnaker decided to throw thousands of dollars into some kind of fake restoration of its façade. But that sums up this family's philosophy of life perfectly: plaster over the real stuff, and slap a veneer on the top. Nobody will know. But I know."

When she meets Marnie MacGraw, her great-nephew's fiancée, she immediately feels the two are kindred spirits. Both share some of the same abilities, like the ability to see when two people are destined for one another. But Marnie just wants a normal life—husband, kids, a house in the suburbs—so she doesn't believe Blix when she tells her that there's a great big life out there waiting for, an exciting one far beyond the comforts she craves.

"The subversive truth about love is that it really is the big deal everyone makes it out to be, and it's not some form of security or an insurance policy against loneliness. It's everything, love is. It runs the whole universe!"

Marnie's marriage ends shortly after it began (and it never quite began), but she still can't believe that Blix was right, and that she's capable of exciting things. Little by little, she pulls her life back together and starts to trust her heart again, only to be thrown for another loop, when she learns that Blix has died and bequeathed her brownstone in Brooklyn. (Of course, the bequest isn't as straightforward as she expected.) But it's not just the house—Blix has "left" Marnie all of her pet projects; namely, her friends who are all desperate for love but they just don't see themselves as ready, or even worthy.

So now Marnie finds herself in Brooklyn, uprooting her life and those closest to her once again. She's looking for a quick resolution to the whole brownstone issue, so she can get back to Florida and the plans she's made for her future. She doesn't understand how Blix thought her capable of greatness, because she just wants ordinary comforts. Yet as she settles into her life in Brooklyn and deals with some unexpected surprises and challenges, she starts to realize that perhaps Blix's work needs to be carried on—and maybe she's the one who needs to do it. The only challenge is, she needs a little of this work herself.

"Everybody wants love, and the ones who appear to want it the least actually need it the most."

This was one of those books that feels like a great big hug. It hooked me from the very first page and didn't let go, and I found myself utterly immersed in these characters. Is it predictable? Sure. Did it matter? Not in the slightest. This book was the perfect antidote to the heavy books I've read most recently, and it not only made me smile, but it made me tear up through the smiles, too.

I thought Maddie Dawson did such a terrific job creating quirky and complex characters. Not everyone is likable (just like real life), and not everyone is 100 percent good or selfless (again, just like real life), but even though the book made me believe that just a little touch of magic and mysticism can exist in our world, it also was tremendously believable, because quite often the people who can be difficult to love are the ones who need that love most.

Three cheers for Matchmaking for Beginners. When you need something to charm you, pick this one up.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Book Review: "Sadie" by Courtney Summers

"Thirteen, Mattie. I kept you alive for thirteen years. Waking her up in the morning, making her meals, walking her to the school bus, waiting for her at its stop when the day was over, grinding my bones to dust just to keep us holding on and when I lay it out like that, I don't know how I did it. I don't know where, underneath it all, you'd find my body. And I don't care. I'd do it all again and again for eternity if I had to. I don't know why that's not enough to bring her back."

Man, this book is going to haunt me for a while!!

Sadie's whole life was her younger sister, Mattie. They lived in a small Colorado town in the middle of nowhere, where no one really ever wanted to stay if they could escape. Sadie didn't know her father, and her mother was an alcoholic and drug addict who favored Mattie, but never had her life together long enough to really care for her.

Sadie made raising Mattie her primary responsibility. They had something of a surrogate grandmother in May Beth, the woman who owned the trailer park in which they lived, but for the most part, the two of them were on their own in between sporadic appearances from their mother and her various boyfriends. Mattie worshiped her older sister and knew she could depend on her.

But as Mattie approached her teenage years, she began challenging Sadie more and more. And when their mother left for good, sending a postcard from Los Angeles, Mattie wanted nothing more than to go find her, and she didn't understand why Sadie didn't want to go. So one day, when Mattie was 13, she left, ostensibly to find her mother. Three days after going missing, Mattie was found murdered.

Mattie's death destroyed Sadie. But she isn't going to sit idly by, mourning her sister. She's going to find the man she knows is responsible and kill him.

"I'm going to kill a man. I'm going to steal the light from his eyes. I want to watch it go out. You aren't supposed to answer violence with more violence but sometimes I think violence is the only answer. It's no less than he did to Mattie, so it's no less than he deserves. I don't expect it to bring her back. It won't bring her back."

Sadie goes on a lonely journey across the state of Colorado, telling no one where she has gone, putting herself in harm's way again and again, in order to find her sister's killer. She is only 19 years old.

Courtney Summers has created an absolutely incredible, haunting, poignant sucker punch of a book. It's sad, hopeful, disturbing, thought-provoking, and it hurt my heart, but it was amazing. Sadie is one of the most unforgettable characters I've seen in some time, and even if her methods weren't always above-board, her motivations were. She was still a young girl at heart, forcing herself into a very adult role, and there are moments in Sadie that illustrate that dichotomy so well.

The book alternates two different forms of narration—Sadie's first-person account and a podcast, which picks up the girls' story from the very beginning and follows until Sadie's own trail has grown cold. West McCray, the podcast creator and narrator, interviews those Sadie encountered on her journey and doesn't exactly know what story he's really following until it might be too late.

Sadie is easily one of the best, most affecting books I've read all year. Summers did a fantastic job. And while Sadie is a novel, stories like these, sadly, are all too true.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Book Review: "The Life We Bury" by Allen Eskens

It's been said you should never think you know everything about a person's struggles because they may be struggling in ways you could never imagine. There's also the old saying that you shouldn't judge a book by its cover. Both of those concepts get healthy exploration in Allen Eskens' bleak yet wonderful The Life We Bury.

Joe Talbert is struggling to get by on a day-to-day basis. He can barely afford college yet he's determined to stay there as long as he can, but he has to deal with the demands of his bipolar alcoholic mother, who often leaves him to tend to Jeremy, his autistic brother. Sometimes the tug-of-war between family and college is more than he can bear, yet he is wracked with guilt at the thought of leaving his brother in his mother's irresponsible and erratic care.

He gets an assignment in English class to interview a stranger and write a biography of them. Procrastinating for far too long, he goes to a nearby nursing home in the hopes of interviewing one of the residents. Instead, he winds up meeting Carl Iverson, a terminally ill man recently released from prison after more than 30 years, who was medically paroled to the nursing home. A Vietnam vet, Carl was convicted of the brutal rape and murder of a young girl.

When Carl and Joe begin talking, Carl makes it clear he will not lie to Joe. He simply wants to tell Joe his story, and Joe wants to understand why if Carl and his friend Virgil both insist that Carl is innocent, things went so awry during his trial and Carl never tried to correct the situation in all this time. How can he reconcile the man's heroism in Vietnam with the grisly crime scene pictures and the testimony presented against him?

"No sin could be greater than a sin that cannot be rectified, the sin you never get to confess. So this...this conversation with you...this is my dying declaration. I don't care if anybody reads what you write. I don't even care if you write it down at all...I have to say the words out loud. I have to tell someone the truth about what happened all those years ago. I have to tell someone the truth about what I did."

The more Joe and Carl talk, the more interested Joe becomes in the events of 30 years ago. He and his neighbor, Lila, begin combing through the files from the trial and start uncovering threads that never had been pursued at that time. But why didn't Carl give his attorney this information? Why did he simply give up and let the jury convict him?

The Life We Bury is both a compelling mystery and a moving character study of a young man dealing with more than his share of problems, who is determined that truth and justice get their due. His efforts aren't entirely magnanimous—he's hoping that his actions might help alleviate some guilt he's been carrying around for a long time. But by putting everyone else, including his brother, first, does he destroy his own chances to move beyond the bleak existence he's had for so long.

Allen Eskens is a fantastic writer, a fact I discovered when I read his amazing The Deep Dark Descending (see my review) last year. The Life We Bury was his debut novel, and it was pretty great itself, although I'll admit that I rolled my eyes a tiny bit that two college students would suddenly fancy themselves detectives.

That quirk notwithstanding, Eskens hooked me from the very first sentences, and even though I had some idea of how the book would resolve itself, that didn't affect my enjoyment at all. I loved Joe's character, and found his struggles between family and doing his own thing to be very familiar.

You can bet I'll be reading Eskens' other books now that I loved the first two I've read. He's a great combination of storyteller and master of suspense, and that makes for some great reading.