Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Book Review: "Night Sky with Exit Wounds" by Ocean Vuong

The most beautiful part of your body
is where it's headed, & remember
loneliness is still time spent
with the world.

To read Ocean Vuong's Night Sky with Exit Wounds is to be dazzled by gorgeous lyricism. I picked this up as part of my exploration of contemporary poetry I have been experimenting with over the last several weeks. It's amazing the breadth of talent that exists in this genre.

I realized after reading the first few sentences of Vuong's first poem just how talented he is. It certainly explains why this book won the 2016 Whiting Award and the 2017 T.S. Eliot Prize, because some of his stanzas simply took my breath away.

Use it to prove how the stars
were always what we knew

they were the exit wounds
of every
misfired word.

Vuong spent the first two years of his life living in a refugee camp, and he never knew his father. This sense of emptiness is palpable through many of the 35 poems in this collection, as Vuong imagines reasons why his father wasn't part of his life. He imagines his father meeting violent or tragic, accidental ends, or even being imprisoned. In several poems, he imagines encounters with his father at various stages of his life.

Like any good son, I pull my father out
of the water, drag him by his hair

through white sand, his knuckles carving a trail
the waves rush in to erase.

Some of the poems touch on mythological themes, some touch on more realistic, violent ones, exploring the experience of Vietnamese refugees. One poem, "Aubade with Burning City," is based on the fact that Armed Forces Radio played the song "White Christmas" as a code to begin Operation Frequent Wind, the ultimate evacuation of American civilians and Vietnamese refugees by helicopter during the fall of Saigon in 1975. The poem juxtaposes verse with lyric fragments from the song, to beautiful effect.

The more poetry I've been reading, the more I realize that just as I prefer "traditional" short stories over those which take more experimental forms and narratives, I feel the same way about poetry. At times, Vuong experiments with form, language, even writes a poem using footnotes, and those poems didn't work for me.

In the end, however, Night Sky with Exit Wounds is at times contemplative, fiery, even erotic. Vuong's power lies in his words, and the emotions he conveys through them. While poetry doesn't get the type of recognition fiction and other genres get, Vuong definitely deserves to be heralded as an artist for our time.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Book Review: "The Great Alone" by Kristin Hannah

Oh, man, this book.

In 1974, the world was turned upside-down, what with Vietnam, the gas crisis, Watergate, and so much more to cause people to feel unsettled. Thirteen-year-old Leni Allbright knew these feelings all too well, but more because her father, Ernt, a Vietnam POW, has never quite been the same since he returned from being captured during the war. Leni watches the almost all-consuming love her parents have for each other, which is exacerbated by the times when her father "just isn't right," suffering nightmares, mood swings, and violent rages which have caused them to pick up and move several times over the last several years.

"One thing every child of a POW knew was how easily people could be broken."

After Ernt loses another job, he makes an impulsive decision: he is going to move his family to a small town in Alaska, and settle on some land left to him by a fellow soldier. The thought of moving somewhere so remote, so dangerous, so unknown, is tremendously frightening, but Leni's mother, Cora, has never abandoned her husband no matter what he has done, so she's willing to follow him into the wilderness, in the hopes this may be the fresh start he needs.

When they arrive, they are all bewitched by the immense beauty of Alaska in summer—the vivid colors, the sounds of animals they had never seen in person before, the feel of living off the land. Yet they know that winter is not that far away, and they've heard that many people don't even survive one winter in Alaska. With limited money and supplies, they prepare as best they can, but they are buoyed by the generosity of the community they've moved into, despite Ernt's resentment that others are providing for his family.

"Alaska isn't about who you were when you headed this way. It's about who you become. You are out here in the wild, girls. That isn't some fable or fairy tale. It's real. Hard. Winter will be here soon, and believe me, it's not like any winter you've ever experienced. It will cull the herd, and fast. You need to know how to survive."

Winter pushes the Allbrights to their limits, and Ernt's mental state begins to deteriorate more and more. Leni realizes that her father is dangerous and she can't understand why her mother continues to stay with him, to even provoke his moods somewhat, and yet refuse to leave when things get bad. And they get bad, with increasing frequency. But Leni knows that she cannot leave her mother, or she might not be able to save her.

As Leni gets older, she becomes less forgiving of her father's moods and her mother's refusal to help them escape. When the community's residents get divided between those who want to see change and modernity brought to the wilderness, and those who prefer living off the grid and fending for themselves, Ernt's resentment grows, drawing his entire family into a dangerous struggle, one from which escape is becoming increasingly unlikely.

The Great Alone is the story of survival, not just in the harsh Alaskan wilderness, but within your own lives. It's a book about confronting your fears and realizing how strong you are, of feeling the need to protect those you love from pain or hurt no matter what the sacrifices you must make in exchange, and how the things we most want to say are the hardest to verbalize. This is a book about courage, the power of love and friendship, and an unshakable bond between parent and child.

I've never read any of Kristin Hannah's books before, and I don't know why that's the case, but this book blew me away. The story is tremendously compelling, and even though it has familiar elements, Hannah's storytelling made it feel fresh. There is such a poignancy in this book, and I'm not ashamed to say it wrecked me emotionally at times, but I kept reading and reading and just couldn't stop. Thanks to a cold, rainy Sunday, I read the entire book in one day, but now I'm sad it's over.

Is this predictable? Perhaps a bit. But this is an exceptional story populated by complex, fascinating characters and vivid imagery that made you feel you were experiencing the beauty and harshness of Alaska. Boy, did I love this.

"In the vast expanse of this unpredictable wilderness, you will either become your best self and flourish, or you will run away, screaming, from the dark and the cold and the hardship. There is no middle ground, no safe place; not here, in the Great Alone."

I have four words for you: Read this book now.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Book Review: "The Wife" by Alafair Burke

It's been said the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. While this may not be a surprise to those who have read her work before, but as a first-time reader of Alafair Burke, I can definitely say that storytelling talent definitely runs in the family! (She is the daughter of one of my all-time favorite authors, James Lee Burke.) But the thing is, James Lee Burke never quite got my pulse pounding as hard as his daughter did in her new book, The Wife!

Angela Powell's husband Jason was quite the guy—smart, handsome, and successful; a best-selling author; a sought-after consultant; and a frequent expert seen on television programs. Ever since she met him when she was catering a high-end party in the Hamptons, he's always stood by her. Not many men would willingly start a relationship with a woman and her young son, but Jason was persistent, and within a year they were married, and she was able to leave her old life behind—which entailed many tragic secrets.

"We need an explanation, something to reassure us that the horrible things that happened to them could never happen to us."

As Jason's star rose, Angela stood beside him, always the dutiful, loving wife. She loved her husband, loved the life they had, even though his every foray into the public eye made Angela nervous that somehow she'd be dragged into it with him, that the careful façade she worked so hard to build might come tumbling down.

When Jason mentions that an intern at work is accusing him of inappropriate behavior, Angela finds it preposterous. If her husband is guilty of anything, it's being a little too handsome and smart at the same time, and maybe a little more flirtatious than is acceptable in the business world. But when a second woman, an executive for one of Jason's clients, steps forward with more serious allegations, Angela starts to wonder if her husband is telling the truth. Did Jason do what these women are accusing him of? If so, what will that mean for their marriage? Perhaps more importantly, what will it mean for her and her son?

As more evidence against Jason mounts, she still stands behind her husband. Perhaps he was unfaithful, and maybe she was in part to blame for some of his behavior, but she is unwilling to consider the ramifications of his guilt. However, she's decided to start taking a closer look at her husband, just be sure she isn't tying her own future to a liar. And when Jason's primary accuser goes missing, she doesn't know whether to feel relief or fear.

This plot summary just scratches the surface for fear of revealing any twists or surprises. Burke certainly has more than a few of those up her sleeve in this book. You may think you've seen all of this before, and perhaps you have, but not with Burke at the helm. She's a fantastic storyteller, leading you along and making you wonder if the story is going to follow the tried-and-true path, but all the while you're suspecting every character that makes an appearance. (Or maybe that's just me.)

I devoured this book in the matter of a few hours, and all the while I wondered why it's taken me so long to read Burke's books given how much of a fan I am of her father. Regardless, Burke is a writer all her own, deserving of praise on her own merits.

I fully anticipate this will be a popular vacation/beach read this year, because in addition to the requisite amount of suspense, and the he-said, she-said nature of some of the accusations, The Wife isn't a lightweight, throwaway book—it's one to wow you.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Book Review: "The Largesse of the Sea Maiden: Stories" by Denis Johnson

"It doesn't matter. The world keeps turning. It's plain to you that at the time I write this, I'm not dead. But maybe by the time you read it."

Denis Johnson's last short story collection, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, was published about eight months after he died from lung cancer at the age of 67. That fact certainly adds a feeling of melancholy to the collection, even when he isn't writing lines like the ones above. It's also a fairly dark book about facing mortality and one's failures.

I first came upon Johnson's writing in the mid-1990s when I read his collection Jesus' Son (way back in the days before I wrote book reviews or counted how many books I read), and it has honestly stuck with me all these years later. I forget at times what a phantasmagorical ride he often took you on, and that his stories had such surprising depth, even when they were a little bizarre, but his deft hand with imagery and word choice often had me re-reading paragraphs more than once, simply to marvel at what he had written.

It was certainly inevitable that I'd come to The Largesse of the Sea Maiden with higher expectations than I probably should have had, given these stories were the last thing he had written (at least as well as we're aware). Unfortunately, I found the collection somewhat uneven—a few stories didn't quite work for me, but they were bookended by one spectacular story and one really good one.

I liked the story "Strangler Bob," a quirky story about a man in prison. While it, too, has some dark elements, there is more humor in this story than most of the others. But my two favorites in the collection were "Doppelgänger, Poltergeist," in which a writing instructor looked back on his relationship with his most gifted student, who became a famed poet, but who also had a strange obsession with Elvis Presley, and the exceptional, unforgettable title story, in which an aging ad man reflects on his life, his successes and his failures through the years, and some of the more interesting people and situations he encountered.

In that story, Johnson shares some truly poignant lines which make it more evident he knew this was his final book. "I note that I've lived longer in the past, now, than I can expect to live in the future. I have more to remember than I have to look forward to. Memory fades, not much of the past stays, and I wouldn't mind forgetting a lot more of it."

The literary world has lost a true treasure in Johnson, and if offbeat, beautifully written fiction appeals to you, I'd encourage you to pick up Jesus' Son and Train Dreams, his more recent novella. Those of you who are short story fans might enjoy this collection as well, if only for a few of the stories, but some may find it difficult to follow.

RIP, Mr. Johnson, and thanks for sharing your immense talent with the world.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Book Review: "An American Marriage" by Tayari Jones

For the latest resurrection of her book club, Oprah chose Tayari Jones' latest novel, An American Marriage. Raw, powerful, full of searing emotion, this is a book which speaks not only to the relationship between man and woman, husband and wife, but it touches on the bond between parents and their children, even in adulthood, and the mercurial nature of life.

"Love makes a place in your life, it makes a place for itself in your bed. Invisibly, it makes a place in your body, rerouting all your blood vessels, throbbing right alongside your heart. When it's gone, nothing is whole again."

Celestial and Roy first meet in college, he being the somewhat-smooth acquaintance of her childhood friend, Andre. Although Roy is attracted to Celestial almost instantaneously, she's less impressed with him. But when they meet again a few years later in New York, the two fall in love. Roy is drawn to her creativity and her fierce sense of independence, while she is impressed that he knows just what he wants from life, including her.

The two settle in Atlanta. Roy starts becoming a successful sales executive, while Celestial's art career is on the verge of taking off. Their marriage isn't without its bumps, as the couple starts talking about whether or not to have a baby. But one night, everything changes. Roy is accused of committing a crime Celestial knows he is innocent of, and he is sentenced to a 12-year prison sentence.

"Looking back on it, it's like watching a horror flick and wondering why the characters are so determined to ignore the danger signs. When a spectral voice says, get out, you should do it. But in real life, you don't know that you're in a scary movie. You think your wife is being overly emotional. You quietly hope that it's because she's pregnant, because a baby is what you need to lock this thing in and throw away the key."

Celestial doesn't know how to deal with a husband in prison, and she's not sure she knows how to be alone. Although she loves Roy, she starts spending more and more time with Andre, who has loved her from afar (and closer than that) for as long as he can remember. Roy struggles with the idea of spending 12 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit, and finds it difficult to be so isolated as the outside world keeps marching on. He vacillates between wanting Celestial to wait the 12 years for him and wanting her to go on with her life.

Five years into his sentence, Roy is unexpectedly released. He finds that life is very different in so many ways, even just five years later. He is unsure what to expect from his marriage—although he and Celestial had difficult times while he was in prison, she never filed for divorce, so he wonders if he has a chance to resume their life together. She is caught between the love she knew, the one she felt tethered to, and the love that gives her security she has always craved. But which one is right for her?

Narrated in alternating chapters by Roy, Celestial, and Andre, An American Marriage is a searing portrait of the ragged ways we fall in and out of love. Jones is such a talented writer, and you actually feel the same dilemmas faced by her characters. She has such an ear for dialogue, for capturing emotion, and for showing how our relationships can both make us feel safe and make us come undone.

As complex as these characters are, none of them are completely sympathetic, and Jones doesn't force you to choose a side in this struggle. There was an instance when I thought the plot would veer into utter melodrama and tread a path I've seen too many times, but Jones showed some restraint, thankfully. I wasn't sure if I liked any of the characters fully, but I was still utterly engrossed in their lives.

"You can never really unlove somebody. Maybe it changes shape, but it's there."

This book really was excellent. It makes you think while it tugs at your emotions, and that felt very fulfilling. And once again, this book proves Oprah knows how to pick 'em.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Book Review: "The Cruel Prince" by Holly Black

So after reading a few rather dark and emotionally heavy books, I thought I could use something a little "lighter." I decided to explore the fantasy genre a bit, which is something I don't do often enough. I had heard quite a bit about Holly Black's latest book, The Cruel Prince, so I decided to give it a try.

This was an absolutely excellent, creative book, but make no mistake—it definitely wasn't a "light" read! However, I was hooked from start to finish, so it didn't matter one bit. What a fantastic story!

It seemed like any other Sunday afternoon. Seven-year-old twin sisters Jude and Taryn are lazing about, while their older sister Vivienne watched television absentmindedly. There is a knock at the door, and a tall, mysterious man stands on the doorstep, a man who makes their mother turn pale. Before the girls even realize what is happening, their parents are murdered and the man has stolen them away to live with him in the High Court of Faerie.

Ten years later, Jude and Taryn have done their best to fit in, but they are constantly reminded they are different from the fey who live in Faerie, not just because the girls are mortal and the others are not. Taryn wants to become fully acclimated, live the life that she is expected to, but Jude wants more. She wants to be known for her strength, her intelligence, her bravery. She doesn't want to be "less than," doesn't want to blend into the background.

"I don't desire to do as well in the tournament as one of the fey. I want to win. I do not yearn to be their equal. In my heart, I yearn to best them."

Jude's refusal to back down, to kowtow to those who tell her she should be subservient. This earns her the condemnation and hatred of several young fey, most especially Prince Cardan, the youngest son of the High King—and perhaps the cruelest son. He and his friends delight in their torment of Jude, threatening her with and inflicting physical and emotional violence upon her, leading her to make impetuous decisions which strain her relationship with Taryn.

"Faeries make up for their inability to lie with a panoply of deceptions and cruelties. Twisted words, pranks, omissions, riddles, scandals, not to mention their revenges upon one another for ancient, half-remembered slights. Storms are less fickle than they are, seas less capricious."

Jude is able to secure herself a key position within the Court, and she hopes it will lead to greater things. She realizes she is capable of deception, treachery, bravery, and bloodshed, and none of those things really bother her. But she's utterly unprepared to become embroiled in the middle of a bloody civil war for the crown, and she is shocked to learn how her family is involved in some of the betrayal as well.

She has to act quickly in order to figure out how to save herself and those she cares about from certain violence and possible danger. This will require the most courage and intelligence she has ever had to demonstrate, and it also means she must once again tangle with Prince Cardan. But in order to make sure her family and Faerie itself are safe, she realizes some sacrifices must be made.

I rarely read books in this genre, and now I'm not sure why. I found this absolutely compelling, mesmerizing even, as Black reeled me into this incredible world she created. Her imagery is tremendously vivid, but this is definitely a book I'd love to see played out on screen, just to see how all of the characters and the kingdom around them look. Black masterfully weaved suspense, intrigue, emotions, violence, and even a little romance to fantastic effect.

Not being familiar with the fantasy genre, particularly the world of the fey, Black used a lot of terminology to refer to the different creatures that I wasn't familiar with, but that's what dictionaries and Google are for! There were times when the large cast of characters became a little confusing, as I wasn't sure which character was which, but that forced me to slow down a little bit and savor Black's storytelling.

This is definitely not a book for everyone (I can hear some of you saying, "Not for me" as you read this review), but if you've ever thought about reading a book like this, I'd encourage you to pick The Cruel Prince up. It's really an unforgettable experience and a cool story the likes of which I've not heard for some time. I'm a fan of Black's work now, that's for certain!

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Book Review: "Lullaby Road" by James Anderson

Some books seem tailor-made for sequels. While you're reading them you get the sense that there's so much more to the story, and in some cases, the author leaves you hanging. But some books seem complete when you've finished them, and although you enjoyed spending time with the characters and found the story compelling, you'd never expect a sequel. (Of course, there are other times you dislike a book you couldn't imagine reading a follow-up, but that's another story.)

I really enjoyed reading James Anderson's The Never-Open Desert Diner (see my review) last year. The story of a trucker in the Utah desert whose solitary life is turned upside-down by the appearance of a mysterious woman was tremendously satisfying and even a little quirky, and I loved the characters Anderson created. But I was surprised to see that Anderson had written a sequel, Lullaby Road (not that it stopped me from grabbing it), because I thought Ben's story was told.

Boy, was I wrong.

Ben is still working as a trucker on Route 117, which most of the year is either affected by back-breaking heat or treacherous snow and ice. He's trying to pull his life back together to some semblance of normalcy after he was shaken to the core by tragedy. All he wants to do is make his deliveries, get paid, and survive.

One snowy morning, making his routine stop for diesel before getting underway on his route, the proprietor of the truck stop tells Ben someone left something for him. It's not just "something"—it's a small Hispanic child who refuses to speak, and the child is accompanied by an over-protective dog. A note is pinned to the child which says:

"Please Ben. Bad trouble. My son. Take him today. His name is Juan. Trust you only. Tell No One. Pedro."

Pedro was the tire man at the truck stop, but he seems to have disappeared. No one will give Ben answers; in fact, everyone from the truck stop has disappeared. He can't leave the child alone in the snow, but the last thing Ben needs is a child to worry about, especially one which appears to have a penchant to take off running in an instant. He needs to find Pedro, but he also needs to start his route before weather conditions get too treacherous.

That split-second decision changes everything for Ben. Everything seems out-of-sorts on his route, even the people and customers he knows all seem a bit different. And in the course of the next several days, he'll realize just how much danger is around him, danger that threatens those he knows, as well as him and the child in his care. It's as bleak as the road that lies ahead of him.

Lullaby Road has a lot of twists and turns—some which make sense and some which confuse, so I'm being purposely vague in my plot summary. Ben is used to encountering people who have taken to the desert because they're not interested in social interaction and are on the run from something, but Ben finds a lot more about those he's known only casually and encounters some new personalities along the way. Barely anyone is particularly friendly, and some are downright deadly.

I love the way Anderson tells a story, and I love the hardscrabble characters he has created. I never quite understood why so many people are quick to dislike Ben, except perhaps for incidents from his past, since he doesn't seem much different than the rest of them, and his reactions to the situations he's in seem to be fairly natural, yet many people call him out for his behavior. But beyond that I was fully engrossed in this story, even as it got a little confusing, and ultimately darker than I had anticipated.

I'd definitely recommend reading Anderson's first book before this one, as Lullaby Road refers to things that occurred in, and characters from, that book. But this one is a truly worthy sequel. I'm not sure if another book is in store, but now I'm hoping there is.

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

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Book Review: "The Fighter" by Michael Farris Smith

"To be alive at all is to have scars."
—John Steinbeck

Michael Farris Smith chose the above epigraph for his new novel, The Fighter, and there may be few epigraphs more well-matched than this one.

Jack Boucher has been fighting since nearly the day he was born. Abandoned at a young age, shifted from foster home to foster home, he quickly learned not to get attached to anyone or anything, to always watch his back. At 12 he finally finds Maryann, the foster mother who wants to care for Jack, wants him to know he's worthy of being cared about. But now Maryann suffers from dementia, and most days doesn't even know her own name, let alone Jack's.

And Jack has more than his own share of problems. Decades of bare-knuckle fighting have left him in unspeakable pain, and the immense number of concussions he has sustained through the years has left his brain shell-shocked. He carries with him a notebook in which he has to write down those people who pose a danger to him, as well as other information, since he's incapable of remembering it himself. He's also become a champ at self-medicating, using stolen painkillers chased with liquor to take the edge off.

"He felt the twenty years of granite fists and gnarled knuckles beating against his temples and the bridge of his nose and across his forehead and into the back of his head. The sharp points of elbows into his kidneys and into the hard muscles of his thighs and into his throat and the thrust of knees against his own and into his lower back and against his ears and jaw."

Maryann has trusted her one legacy, her family home, to Jack. But gambling debts have put the house and the land in the hands of the bank, and he has only eight days to make good on what is owed before it is sold. For Maryann to lose her history, and for Jack to be responsible, is a loss too great to ponder, even if she isn't aware of what is going on around her. Jack is determined to get the money he needs, by gambling or other means.

There's one other drawback in his way—Big Momma Sweet, who rules the Mississippi Delta and has eyes and spies everywhere. You don't owe Big Momma and not square your debts, not if you want to survive. You may think you can hide, but you can't. Jack is ready to pay off his debt and finally get his life back—and then disaster strikes. Addled by pain and burgeoning dementia of his own, it appears he has only one avenue left—getting back in the ring one more time, despite the consequences.

Smith writes about desperation and last chances more effectively than most authors out there. The Fighter is often brutal and relentless, but there are notes of hope. Jack is a fascinating character, and you are drawn into his struggles, even if you have a feeling you know where things will end up. The story of his hard-fought childhood and the woman who saved him is poignant, and you understand why he's willing to risk everything for her.

I didn't love this book as much as Smith's last, Desperation Road (see my original review), because I found its pace a little erratic, and the relentless brutality started to depress me. But I love the way Smith writes, and this is still a tremendously worthwhile read, although hard to take at times. He definitely has a fan in me!

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

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Book Review: "The Apocalypse of Elena Mendoza" by Shaun David Hutchinson

Shaun David Hutchinson's The Apocalypse of Elena Mendoza may be one of the craziest, most thought-provoking books I've read in some time, if not ever. It's wild, poignant, forces you to suspend your disbelief, and some may even think it's sacrilegious or blasphemous, but it definitely cements Hutchinson as one of the best YA authors out there right now, one who combines science, emotion, and life's daily struggles to tremendous effect.

"The apocalypse began at Starbucks. Where else did you expect the end of the world to start?"

Elena Mendoza is used to being an outcast. She is the product of a virgin birth (seriously)—but she wasn't born in a barn or at the beach at sunrise. Her mother was a teenager, banished by her parents because they believed she was lying about getting pregnant. But the truth is, Elena was the product of parthenogenesis, a process where an offspring is born from an unfertilized egg. It was more common in the insect world, but she was the first child created this way.

No one has taken the time to find out the truth, though; instead, they ridicule her, calling her "Mary" (which technically isn't even correct), and treating her like a freak. She doesn't have a lot of friends—in fact, she spends most of her time either working at Starbucks or with her best friend, Fadil—but she doesn't really care.

Elena also has a wicked crush on Winifred "Freddie" Petrine, even though she is part of the crowd that makes fun of her. When Freddie comes into Elena's Starbucks one day, she can't stop staring, until even the siren on the Starbucks cups tells her to say something to Freddie. But when Elena goes to approach Freddie, a boy from their high school pulls out a gun and shoots Freddie, and the next thing you know, Elena is healing her gunshot wound, seconds before the shooter disappears into a beam of light in the clouds.

So now Elena can heal people. But with that power comes a downside—well, many of them—in that every time Elena heals someone, more people disappear for no reason. The voices keep telling her she can save the world, but is that true, or is she actually condemning innocent people to disappear, affecting their families and friends, for no reason except to help someone else? And when Freddie tells her she wishes she didn't save her, what does that mean?

"It also hadn't stopped me from wondering if I might actually be special or from dreaming that my miraculous birth meant I had a destiny that would one day be revealed. I longed to fit in, to discover whether I was playing a lead role in the grand cosmic drama or merely a bit part with no lines. My miraculous birth and the voices had, for years, fueled my convictions that I had a purpose—that I would lead a significant life—and all I'd wanted was for someone to notice me."

As the voices continue to pressure her, Elena struggles with her abilities and whether she should do anything. But she also struggles with love, friendship, family, responsibility, and trying to figure out why the boy would shoot Freddie in the first place. This is a book built on a crazy concept, but it's one with tremendous heart, and it makes you think about what you would do in a similar situation. Who are we to decide who lives and who dies? But can we be content if we do nothing at all?

Hutchinson is an amazing writer. His characters are tremendously vivid and complex, and not just the main characters, either. Some of the supporting characters are fascinating as well, and although I'm glad they didn't distract from the main story, it would have been great to get to know some of them better. While this book didn't leave me as emotionally wrecked as his amazing We Are the Ants (see my review) or last year's At the Edge of the Universe (see my review), it has a beauty and a power all its own.

Clearly, this isn't a book for everyone. But don't discount it as simply folly, because it's so much more than that. This is a book that tackles depression, bullying, family dysfunction, discrimination, friendship, jealousy, love, sexuality—yet it never hits you over the head. I'd love to sit down at a table with Hutchinson and learn what makes him tick, because his mind is a fascinating thing.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Book Review: "Mr. Flood's Last Resort" by Jess Kidd

Some authors know just how to tell stories. Jess Kidd is one of those. Fresh on the heels of her magnificent, magical book Himself (see my original review), which made my list of the best books I read last year, she dazzles with her storytelling ability again in her new book, Mr. Flood's Last Resort.

Maud Drennan is a caregiver whose seemingly unflappable attitude hints at a world-weariness you wouldn't expect of someone her age. But Maud isn't sunny and naive—a childhood tragedy left her slightly traumatized, and it somehow left behind a crowd of saints who appear to Maud at random times each day, befitting of the situation she's in. These aren't always welcome saints, mind you, but they do provide a sort of companionship.

Maud has been assigned to the irascible Cathal Flood, a cantankerous old man who has taken pleasure in running off his previous caregivers any way he can—through fear, intimidation, even threats of physical violence. Mr. Flood lives in a dilapidated old mansion, filled to the brim with collector's items, decaying trash, and what seems like hundreds of cats who roam through the house. Maud is Mr. Flood's last resort, because if he doesn't let her get the house in order, his son has threatened to put him in an old-age home, something the old man will never let happen.

At first, Mr. Flood torments Maud, changing moods so quickly her head spins, and trying the tricks that scared his previous caregivers away. But Maud doesn't scare too easily, and after a while, he realizes she has respect for some of the items he's been keeping all these years, and the two form a tentative bond. (It doesn't hurt that neither trusts his son.)

But strange things do happen in the house. Maud hears noises when there's no one around, and even the cats react to invisible stimuli which startle and upset them. And how can she explain the photos which keep appearing mysteriously, photos which hint at secrets held deep within the house? Do these photos point to long-forgotten crimes, crimes which only she can help solve?

Do people of a certain age have the right to live their last years however they want, or must they adhere to others' wishes? If you sense a mystery, is it your responsibility to try and solve it, even if it means betraying the trust of someone you've started to care for? Can you help someone pull their life together if you don't have yours fully together?

Along with a cast of remarkable characters, Kidd addresses these questions in Mr. Flood's Last Resort, and shows that the special environments she created in her first book weren't a fluke. This is a story about how important it is to come to terms with what happens in our lives, and that sometimes we must forgive ourselves as well as forgive others. It also is a story which demonstrates that our eccentricities don't make us less of a person, or less worthy of happiness.

Although I felt the book moved a little slowly at the start, and lost steam a time or two, this was such an enjoyable read. Kidd drew me in to this world she created, and it felt so true—when Maud was combing through the piles and piles of junk, trash, oddities, and neglected collectibles, I felt as if I were in the mansion with her, smelling the dust and decay. There's certainly some predictability to this book, but that didn't detract from its immense charm.

This type of book won't be for everyone. Those who like more realistic fiction and can't let themselves loosen the bounds of belief may find this odd or bizarre. But Kidd is such a marvelous storyteller, you should let yourself experience her books—if not this one, definitely Himself.

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

Friday, February 9, 2018

Book Review: "All We Can Do Is Wait" by Richard Lawson

It seemed like just another day in Boston. And then, without warning, the Tobin Bridge collapses, with about 100 cars on its span at the time. These were people just going about their business—students, parents, families, people racing to work or school or home or to some other obligation or exciting occasion.

"It was hard to say who was less lucky, the ones who fell into the water or the ones who fell onto Charlestown, debris tumbling on top of them. Was it better to be swiftly crushed or to slowly drown in your car?"

As news of the tragedy spreads, loved ones of those believed to be on the bridge gather in the emergency room of Massachusetts General Hospital. Among those gathered is a group of teenagers, waiting for word about the condition of their family members or friends. They comfort each other, provide solace and support, and offer a sympathetic ear to listen to the others' fears, their regrets, even their secrets.

Siblings Jason and Alexa are waiting for news about their parents. For nearly a year, Jason has withdrawn from his family, preferring to spend his days in a stoned haze, where he is cut off from his feelings. Alexa resents her older brother for abandoning her emotionally, because she has really needed someone to turn to this past year. Yet each is hiding a secret that threatens to further widen the gap between them at a time they need each other most.

Scott's girlfriend Aimee was traveling over the bridge with friends en route to a theater production. Scott is deeply in love with Aimee but worries their relationship will fall apart once she leaves to go to college. He can't help but resent her a little bit because she seems just a little too excited to leave town for school. Maybe she's excited to leave him, too? He knows he's been difficult lately, but he just wants the opportunity to tell Aimee he loves her, so she'll realize they're meant to be together.

Kate, Skyler's older sister, has always looked out for her. Even though she's only two years older, Kate has in some instances acted like Skyler's aunt, even a surrogate mother, especially since their parents are no longer in the picture and their grandparents live in Cambodia. When Skyler was in danger and hid that fact from everyone, Kate knew—and once again, rescued her. So as Skyler waits to find out whether Kate survived the bridge collapse, she wonders how she might possibly survive without the person who has meant everything to her.

Facing uncertainty as to whether your family members or other loved ones are alive, dead, or seriously injured is a difficult task for anyone, much less teenagers dealing with their own problems at the same time. For Jason, Alexa, Scott, and Skyler, just being in proximity to each other brings some comfort as they wait for answers. At the same time, each struggles with reliving past regrets, looking at the events that brought them to this moment.

All We Can Do Is Wait gives evidence to the adage that "misery loves company." The book grabs you right away and keeps you rooted to the characters' stories, to the pain and fear each has borne to this moment, and the pain each could face depending upon the condition of their loved ones. At first I found it interesting that not one of these teenagers had anyone else who was worried enough about them to track them down at the hospital, but you realize that each of them have only themselves and those in the bridge collapse to depend on.

This is a really engaging story that reads a bit like a movie—I could honestly see these scenes playing out in my head. That's a testament to Richard Lawson's writing ability. I did think the book was perhaps a little too melodramatic and angsty even given the setting and the situation facing the characters, but that wasn't a deal-breaker for me. I waited for the "big reveal" in the case of one character, and it unfolded exactly like I expected, but it still choked me up a little.

At a few points I found the characters a little immature, and then I realized these were high school students. It was actually refreshing to find characters that weren't more sarcastic and erudite than people twice their age. There were a few places I worried Lawson might take the plot into total melodrama, and I was glad he avoided that.

This was a very fast read for me and I was completely invested in the story; in fact, I would love to know what happens next to these characters. I hope never to be in a situation like this, but I think Lawson accurately depicted the emotions and the events that would occur if a tragedy like this occurred.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Book Review: "Sweet and Low: Stories" by Nick White

The characters in Nick White's soon-to-be-published story collection Sweet and Low are all trying to figure out their next steps. These are all different kinds of people—widows, ex-lovers (or on the verge of becoming ex-lovers), teenagers, men become rapidly disillusioned with the path their lives are taking—yet each struggles with questions, decisions that could impact their lives.

I first became familiar with White's writing when I read his debut novel, How to Survive a Summer (see my original review), last year. That story, about a young man who can't seem to shake the experience of attending a gay conversion camp when he was younger, had a searing, haunting quality at times, and demonstrated White's talent for creating powerful emotion in quiet moments.

White's stories don't share the same subject, but they reinforce his talent, and I found many of them tremendously compelling, poignant, and beautifully told. The first half of the collection is composed of miscellaneous stories; linked stories comprise the second half, following Forney Culpepper from boyhood to disillusioned adulthood. Some of the stories are longer than others, and some honestly felt like they could be expanded into full-length novels.

Among my favorite stories in the collection were: "The Lovers," which follows a widow trying to figure out life without her husband, and his lover, who has become obsessed with getting back a family heirloom he gave the man before his death; "These Heavenly Bodies," about a troubled adolescent who is bewitched by a beautiful pair of conjoined twins; "The Exaggerations," which tells of a young boy living with his aunt and uncle, and only starting to understand the mysterious paths adults travel; "Gatlinburg," about a couple trying to give their relationship one more try on a vacation to the Smoky Mountains; "Break," the story of three college friends who get more than they bargained for on a weekend trip; and "Lady Tigers," in which a high school senior haunted by family scandal can't keep his mind off the school's basketball coach—with disastrous consequences.

I'm not always a fan of linked stories, but I thought they worked well here. White's characters are tremendously appealing, and at times I found myself disappointed that a story ended because I wanted to know more of what happened to the characters. I always view that as a mark of a talented writer. One warning: two of the stories have brief moments of animal cruelty—the stories don't glorify it, and both incidents are over quite quickly, but I know some people like to be prepared.

Even when a story didn't quite click for me, I was still drawn to White's writing ability, his ability to draw me in. He's definitely going to be an author whose career I'll continue to follow, and I hope this collection earns him some notice. Once again, I am reminded of why I love reading short stories.

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

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Book Review: "Ordinary Beast: Poems" by Nicole Sealey

Though we're not so self-
important as to think everything

has led to this, everything has led to this.
There's a name for the animal

love makes of us—named, I think,
like rain, for the sound it makes.

Continuing my foray into contemporary poetry, I recently picked up Ordinary Beast, a new collection of poems by Nicole Sealey. The book was named one of NPR's most anticipated poetry books of 2017, and reading Sealey's work, you certainly can understand why.

This is a fascinating collection, at times dazzling, at times perplexing, but continuously powerful and emotional. Sealey writes with a burning passion about love, sex, race, history, and legacy, using words that immediately conjure vivid images. Interestingly enough, while some poems appear and read more like "traditional" poems, some appear and read more like prose, but they're no less effective.

I love you, I say, desperate
to admit that
the flesh extends its vanity
to an unknown land
where all the wild swarm.
This is not death. It is something safer,
almost made of air—
I think they call it

The collection contains 26 poems, many of which are quite short, some of which use an experimental style of layout, which made it difficult to gauge the poem's full meaning. Since I'm close to being a poetry neophyte, I tended to enjoy those poems which were a little more traditional, the ones whose meaning seemed more evident. But even in those poems which didn't quite work for me, Sealey's talent was immensely evident, line after powerful line.

We fit somewhere between god
and mineral, angel and animal,

believing a thing as sacred as the sun rises
and falls like an ordinary beast.

I've really been enjoying this exploration of contemporary poetry. I'm learning that, just like the world of fiction, the depth of talent out there today is immense, and I'm also beginning to understand the type of works which appeal to me. Nicole Sealey is clearly an artist in this genre, and I'd encourage those of you who enjoy a mix of styles in your poetry to pick up this collection.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Book Review: "Still Me" by Jojo Moyes

Few people can leave me emotionally jumbled quite like Jojo Moyes can. The first book of hers I read, Me Before You, literally had me ugly crying, and I'll admit a healthy sob or two while reading its sequel, After You. Even one of Moyes' standalone books, The Girl You Left Behind, left me puffy-eyed.

Now Louisa Clark returns in a third book, Still Me. While not as sob-inducing as the first two, Moyes still knows how to play my feelings like a piano, and it was wonderful to be back with these characters I've come to "know" over the last few years.

Lou once promised someone special to her that she'd live boldly. But after rebuilding her life following crushing grief, she's finally gotten the courage to do just that, accepting a job working for an ultra-rich family in New York City. She leaves her family and her boyfriend behind and heads to America, ready to say yes to everything life has to offer her.

"You're going to feel uncomfortable in your new world for a bit. It always does feel strange to be knocked out of your comfort zone."

Working as the assistant to Agnes Gopnik, the much-younger second wife of a tremendously wealthy financier and philanthropist, Louisa gets to see first-hand that you can have everything you've dreamed of and yet still be crushingly unhappy. Agnes loathes being on public display, judged by the gossipy, vindictive friends of her husband's first wife, yet she is forced to travel in the same social circles. She knows her stepdaughter hates her, knows their housekeeper likes nothing more than to torment her. Yet she finds a kindred spirit in Louisa, in that they're both struggling to be present in two very different worlds.

"You always have one foot in two places. You can never be truly happy because, from the moment you leave, you are two selves, and wherever you are one half of you is always calling to the other. This is our price, Louisa. This is the cost of who we are."

It isn't easy juggling her responsibilities with thinking about her boyfriend and her family back home, all of whom seem to have made great strides in their lives since she's been gone. Louisa likes being in the middle of fancy New York society but sees how it could feel so lonely, and sometimes is torn between the glitz and glamour, and the more comforting security she feels at an endangered library in Washington Heights, or a vintage clothing store which helps feed her unique fashion sense.

When Louisa finds herself in an untenable position because of secrets that have been shared with her, she is unsure where to turn, a situation not helped by her anxieties over her foundering relationship with her boyfriend at home. It takes meeting two people—an elderly woman who knows all about doing it your own way no matter the cost, and a wealthy young man who reminds her of someone she misses dearly—to show her the choices she needs to make, and the importance of remaining true to who you are.

"The key was making sure that anyone you allowed to walk beside you didn't get to decide which you were, and pin you down like a butterfly in a case. The key was to know that you could always somehow find a way to reinvent yourself again."

Still Me was really enjoyable and definitely poignant in places. It's a powerful meditation on being true to yourself, no matter how many people want you to do otherwise, and the struggles doing so may cause. It's also a story about the importance of saying what you think, of expressing how you feel (which these characters were definitely not good at), or else what occurs around you might not be what you wanted.

There aren't a lot of surprises in this book—there were many times when something happened and I thought to myself, "Ah, so this will happen at some point," and I wasn't ever wrong. But that didn't bother me as much as it might with other books, because these characters are so engaging, and Moyes' storytelling just draws you in and feels comfortable and familiar. You could read this book without reading the first two, but you have no idea what you're missing, particularly with Me Before You.

Still Me didn't quite blow me away, but I devoured the book anyway. Louisa is just one of those characters you root for even as she's making missteps, and it's so good to spend more time with her and her family again. This is a series that keeps on giving—the feels, that is.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Book Review: "In Another Country, and Besides" by Maxwell Jacobs

Wow, this book was crazy!

Harry Hoffman is an English writer living in Europe sometime after World War II. One night in Venice he witnesses a shocking scene in the streets, and he makes a split-second decision which haunts him afterward. Trying to recover from that moment, he stumbles into a bar, where he catches the eye of a bewitching woman.

When he finally connects with this woman, Cleo, he is immediately drawn to her. They begin a flirtation, with the promise of more. For Harry, whose psyche is waited down by past sorrows, Cleo is the distraction and the pleasure he has been seeking. Against the backdrop of Venice's Carnival, he hopes that their relationship can proceed further, but he discovers that Cleo isn't immune to the charms of men other than him.

Distraught and feeling at his wits' end, Harry travels to Lake Como with a young woman he has just met. Again, Harry finds himself alone at a time when he expected companionship, and his feelings are a jumble of anger, loneliness, jealousy, and rehashing past sorrows and regret. When an unexpected act of violence leaves him reeling, so he flees for home in Zurich, only to run into Cleo again.

It turns out that Cleo isn't without her secrets or problems, either, and drama seems to follow her wherever she goes. But despite her past actions and the potential for danger, Harry can't keep away from her. Yet jealousy, fear, uncertainty, and suspicion complicate things.

And that's when the book starts to take an unexpected turn. Harry is a far more complicated character than you first assume, and you're not sure if the story he is telling is accurate. What secrets has he been hiding? What will become of his relationship with Cleo?

I'm being purposely vague in my plot description because the story takes a lot of twists and turns. Maxwell Jacobs definitely knows how to keep the suspense growing, as you wonder just what will happen next. It's far more complicated a story than a writer struggling with his next book and dealing with loneliness, that's for sure!

Jacobs is a very talented storyteller, and he keeps you wanting more. I will say that the book was a lot darker than I expected, and I'm not really sure if the assumptions I made about Harry's character were correct, because I felt the story was a bit vague on the details of his past, with only slight allusions made that you might miss.

This was a fascinating character study and a compelling look at the darkness of one man. I hope it finds an audience, because Jacobs is a really talented writer.

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

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Book Review: "Brass" by Xhenet Aliu

"...often the love your mother gives feels like it's being rejected by your body, as if you're the B-positive recipient of an A-negative blood donation."

The often-complicated relationship between mothers and daughters has been fodder for literature, movies, and music for many, many years. What is it about this type of relationship that can bring such fierce love, friendship, and loyalty, as well as resentment, anger, and frustration, often simultaneously?

Obviously, those questions are somewhat lost on me, but that doesn't mean I don't enjoy reading about the dynamics of these relationships! Xhenet Aliu's first novel, Brass, examines the sometimes unfulfilling, tenuous bonds between a woman, her mother, and her daughter, and the result is moving and tremendously compelling.

Elsie is an unmotivated high school graduate unsure if she'll ever amount to anything much. Waitressing at the Betsy Ross Diner in her hometown of Waterbury, Connecticut, her mother is a frustrated alcoholic who has pretty much left Elsie and her younger sister to raise themselves, with occasional meddling. Constantly living hand-to-mouth, it's not hard to dream of something better, but she doesn't have many expectations in that regard.

When she meets Bashkim, a line cook who escaped the political unrest in his native Albania to work at his relatives' diner, she is drawn to his weary worldliness, and finds his anger, as well as his simultaneous bravado and despair, immensely magnetic. Her grandparents immigrated from Lithuania, so she thinks she understands Bashkim's situation and that of his coworkers. She knows he has a wife back in Albania, but she doesn't care, and it's not long before she has fallen in love with him.

"I didn't want to think about how it was unfair that some people had it so much worse when I'd already committed to fixating on people who had it so much better."

Elsie finds herself pregnant, and although Bashkim professes happiness for their situation, and promises to take care of her and the baby, she isn't completely sure that's what she wants. As he struggles with the troubles back home and what to do with his wife, Elsie realizes what she wants more than anything is a ticket out of Waterbury, away from the life she has had to date, and wonders whether Bashkim will be the one to help her achieve that.

Seventeen years later, Elsie's daughter Luljeta dreams of escaping her Connecticut hometown, just as her mother once did (although she doesn't know that). But when her plans to attend NYU don't materialize, she can't fathom the thought of spending her adult life with her mother, with not enough money or opportunities to enjoy life. For the first time, she starts to wonder what her mother has been hiding all these years where her father is concerned, and she's determined to uncover the truth.

When she finds out the truth is far from what she's been told through the years, she decides to find him, and see if perhaps that relationship might bring her more joy and promise than the one she has with Elsie. She doesn't know what to expect, and in fact, doesn't even know how to get there, but she knows she must do it on her own.

"She could have explained that he was a frightened man, and a frightened man, like a frightened dog, was a potentially dangerous thing. She could have said those things instead of repeating, if the topic ever came up, that your father was simply an asshole, the same term she applies to people who don't matter at all, like guys who cut her off in traffic and Bill O'Reilly. But if she lied about where he was, who's to say she wasn't lying about what he was? What if he wasn't just some asshole, and you weren't better off without him?"

Switching narration between Elsie and Luljeta, between past and present, Brass is a moving account of the sacrifices made for love and parenthood, and how often we ignore the signs that what we're running toward may be no more appealing than what we're running from. Instead of giving one side of the story, Aliu gives us both sides, which really deepens the poignancy of the narrative.

While at times the book moved a little slower than I would have liked, I thought Aliu was a terrific storyteller, and I was completely drawn into Elsie and Luljeta's stories. These are women accustomed to not having control of their lives, so there were many times when I wanted to shake them into action, into saying what needed to be said.

No one relationship is perfect, and it requires an equal amount of give and take to make it work. I'd imagine where mothers and daughters are concerned, finding that balance may be difficult for a while, if not forever. Brass is a fascinating look at two women whose lives need that balance, and who realize they need others to help them, too.