Friday, March 30, 2018

Book Review: "From the Corner of the Oval" by Beck Dorey-Stein

Beck Dorey-Stein was a twenty-something former teacher unsure of not only what she wanted to do with her future, but whether she'd even be able to find a job to sustain her until she figured out her life. Living in Washington, DC to be closer to her boyfriend, she cobbles together a number of part-time jobs to make ends meet, but she's envious of those who know what they want.

When she answers a Craigslist posting for a job, she figures it won't amount to anything. She's more than shocked to find out that this isn't a random clerical job—it's a position as a stenographer in the Obama White House. Stenographers don't take dictation anymore—instead, they're in the background of every speech, every presentation the president makes, no matter where in the world he is, microphone in hand, recording his words and transcribing them for history and/or public release.

From the Corner of the Oval follows Beck as she learns the ropes of her job and White House protocol, builds friendships with her colleagues in different positions throughout the administration, and begins to travel the country—and the world—viewing current events and the president's reactions to them at close range. She gets to have opportunities she never would have thought of, such as traveling on Air Force One and running on a treadmill next to the president.

"We're always just a few ticks, clicks, updates, and pings away from personal and collective disaster, but right now we're not our titles but our own selves—people with backgrounds and futures and exes and half-dead pets and crazy parents and broken hearts and broken hearts and big dreams; people who are listening to the president as he tells a funny story from two countries back, twelve hours ago, depending on which time zone you're counting in. We're so different, but we're swimming in this same punch-drunk delirium, and we have one major thing in common: We've found ourselves, shockingly, amazingly, how-the-fuck-did-this-happen crazily, flying halfway around the world on Air Force One. We are lucky. We are so goddamn lucky."

The constant demands of her job take their toll on her relationship with her boyfriend, who after volunteering with Obama's re-election campaign in 2012, becomes more desperate to recapture that enthusiasm and magic. Their on-again, off-again, often-long-distance relationship leaves her vulnerable to the advances of another senior staffer, someone far from appropriate relationship material, yet someone Beck finds unable to resist, no matter how many times she winds up hurt.

As the Obama presidency moves closer to its conclusion, Beck becomes ever more enamored with her job and the president, and more confused about what her next step should be. This book so accurately captures the enthusiasm so many felt around the Obama administration, his family, and his reactions to the events which unfolded—tragedies like Sandy Hook and the Boston Marathon bombing, and his historic trips to Cuba and Vietnam. At times I felt sad reading the book because of the immense juxtaposition between his administration and the one currently in the White House.

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this book. Dorey-Stein is so engaging, and she drew me right in as she began recounting her experiences. Her story was told almost in an "aw, shucks" manner, as if she couldn't believe her good fortune in getting to be witness to history and be in such close proximity to this president. Her description of the despair many of her colleagues felt when Hillary Clinton lost the election stung, because I remember feeling similarly, although for different reasons.

I don't read a lot of memoirs, but this was so appealing, so enjoyable, and such a quick read. All of the people with whom Dorey-Stein shared her writing throughout her tenure in the White House weren't lying—she really can write, and we are lucky she shared her seemingly unbelievable journey with us.

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

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Book Review: "Legendary" by Stephanie Garber

Legendary, the second book in Stephanie Garber's Caraval series, takes you on a kaleidoscopic ride full of dazzling imagery, incredible magic, and so many twists and turns, you wonder what will come with each subsequent page. It's a little dizzying, a little mesmerizing, and immensely memorable.

Before I get fully into the review, I must say that all I kept thinking about when reading this book was:

"Legend truly did deserve the name he'd given himself. Tella wondered if Legend's games ever ended, or if his world was an endless maze of fantasy and reality that left those caught inside it forever suspended somewhere between the two."

Caraval is a magical performance which usually occurs once a year. It is a grand spectacle, where no one is sure what is real and what is merely part of the game, and yet lives are forever changed by what happens within it. Everything that happens in Caraval is orchestrated by the world-renowned Caraval Master, known only as Legend. No one knows Legend's true identity—in each game he is portrayed by someone else, taking on another form. But few have more power.

Donatella (Tella) Dragna is a feisty, almost-fearless young woman who found herself swept up in the madness of Caraval when her older sister Scarlett escaped the island on which their father was holding them both prisoner. After rescuing Scarlett from an uncertain fate and saving her from an arranged marriage sure to ruin her, the sisters made it through Caraval, and now have their lives ahead of them, finally free of their father's control. But why aren't they happy?

Tella, it seems, is determined to uncover the truth behind a painful family secret. To do so, she has made a bargain with a mysterious and dangerous criminal, who has promised to give Tella what she so desperately longs for. But of course, there is a price: this person wants to know Legend's true identity, so he can use it for nefarious purposes. There really is no perfect solution for Tella, but getting what she wants means more than almost anything, so she agrees to his bargain.

Tella must immerse herself in a special round of Caraval, where the stakes are higher than ever before. Along the way, she will tempt fate—and her own mortality; encounter a dangerous heir to the throne whose power is very real; and she'll question the intentions of everyone she comes into contact with—including her own sister. She'll also be challenged by her own heart, which she never believed would lead her to love, and even if it is, she's not sure that the person at the end of the path is worth the risks and sacrifices she must take. All the while, Tella isn't sure what is real and what is merely part of the game.

"She liked the thrill that came with taking risks. She loved the feeling of doing something bold enough to make her future hold its breath while she closed her eyes and reveled in the sensation that she'd made a choice with the power to alter the course of her life. It was the closest she ever came to holding real power."

This is a fascinating series of books, and Legendary is a worthy sequel to Garber's first book, Caraval (see my review). The world she has created is fascinating, dazzling, a combination of fantasy and magic that paints pictures in your mind which are utterly glorious. I would love to see these books as movies, just to see how a filmmaker could capture this tantalizing universe.

When you're reading a book where the main character isn't sure what is real and what is artifice, things tend to get a little confusing from time to time. I had to re-read some paragraphs here and there to make sure I understood what I read. And there are a lot of different storylines and legends being unwoven in this book, so at times my attention wandered a bit until the story focused back on Tella's efforts to win Caraval. When the book hits its groove, you just want to devour it and experience it all at once.

I feel like I've been saying this a lot in my reviews recently, but this is definitely not a book for everyone. If this interests you, I'd recommend starting with Caraval first so you can truly appreciate the magic Garber creates here. This reminded me a little bit of Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus, so if you loved that book, definitely give this series a try. I definitely hope Garber takes us back to Caraval once more!!

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

Monday, March 26, 2018

Book Review: "The Sky is Everywhere" by Jandy Nelson

Jandy Nelson doesn't just write books—she creates dazzlingly beautiful, poetic masterpieces of words and images, which leave you breathless and shaken to your core, your mind spinning. Her second book, I'll Give You the Sun (see my review), still holds a place in my heart and my brain almost four years after I read it, and it made my list of the best books I read in 2014.

I've always wanted to read her debut novel, The Sky is Everywhere, but I've held back, because it made me happier knowing there was still one of her books I had yet to read. But after being a bit of an emotional wreck after seeing Love, Simon this past weekend (what an amazing movie), I thought why not just plumb my emotional depths? Once again, this book had me crying, exclaiming aloud at some of her words, and seriously wanting to applaud when I was done. (And I thought her second book was a tiny bit better than this one!)

"I wonder why bereaved people even bother with mourning clothes when grief itself provides such an unmistakable wardrobe."

Lennon—Lennie for short—is consumed with crushing grief after the death of her older sister, Bailey. Bailey, an aspiring actress, was larger than life, dramatic, a force of nature drawing everyone into the centrifugal force of her being. Lennie, more cerebral, a musician, was more than happy to play second fiddle to her sister, who has been her protector since their mother left them with their grandmother when they were little.

"He was telling us that Thoroughbred racing horses have these companion ponies that always stay by their sides, and I remember thinking, That's me. I'm a companion pony, and companion ponies don't solo. They don't play first chair or audition for All-State or compete nationally or seriously consider a certain performing arts conservatory in New York City...they just don't."

In the wake of Bailey's sudden death, Lennie is emotionally adrift, and amazingly, the only anchor she can find is Toby, Bailey's boyfriend, of whom Lennie was always a little bit jealous. Suddenly their relationship is overcome by intense longing and passion, something that Lennie has never felt before, yet she isn't sure whether she actually wants Toby, or if being with him is a way of preserving her sister. And when a breathtakingly handsome new boy, an immensely talented musician, comes to school, Lennie finds herself falling for him with an intensity she never knew possible, yet it is an intensity complicated by her feelings for Toby.

"I kiss him. I mean really kiss him, like I've wanted to do since that very first day in band. No sweet soft peck about it. With the same lips that just kissed someone else, I kiss away his question, his suspicion, and after a while, I kiss away the someone else too, the something else that almost just happened, until it is only the two of us, Joe and me, in the room, in the world, in my crazy swelling heart. Holy horses."

The Sky is Everywhere is a book about how we attempt to cope with crushing loss, and how we are often blind to how those we love are dealing with the same grief. It's a book about how love consumes us, bewitches us, makes us believe we are the only ones who have ever felt this way, and that it's okay to act impetuously, foolishly, carelessly with others' feelings.

At the same time, this is also a book about finally finding yourself after willingly standing in shadow for so long, about coming into your own and finding the courage to act, and about understanding how your past shapes your future. Nelson's storytelling fills you with emotion, makes you root for her characters, and just leaves you gasping with amazement at times because of her word choices and the feelings Lennie is experiencing. You want to hug her and protect her, yet you want to shake her, too, because of her single-mindedness as she ignores her family members and friends.

I hope Nelson has another book in store for us soon. Not everyone enjoys YA books as much as I do, but Nelson's books are so beautifully written, so intensely felt, that you're missing out. She is a talent that deserves to be experienced, and her stories deserve to be read.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Book Review: "The Italian Party" by Christina Lynch

On its surface, Christina Lynch's The Italian Party is like a fancy dessert—it's lovely to look at, but you aren't sure if there will be any substance beneath the decorative frills. But when you dig in, you realize there's more to it than meets the eye.

Newlyweds Scottie and Michael leave America to move to Siena, Italy, where Michael will be selling Ford tractors to Italian farmers, to get them to start absorbing American culture. It's the 1950s, not long after World War II, and there are signs that Italy is ripe for the influence of Communism, something that America fears.

Scottie and Michael don't really know each other that well—they married fairly quickly, and each made assumptions about the other. Scottie left her studies at Vassar (she wasn't much of a student anyway, and feels good about getting her "MRS." degree), and doesn't want Michael to know that before marrying him she was mostly interested in celebrity gossip, fashion, and horses. Meanwhile, Michael is all too happy to flee his parents' unhappy marriage and the memories of an older brother who died in the war, a brother who wasn't very nice to him anyway.

Neither is really sure how to make a marriage work, and both have major secrets they're hiding from the other. Michael is ostensibly "working" in Rome quite a bit, or he's at his office trying to sell tractors to reluctant Italians, which leaves her home alone, without much knowledge of Italian or anyone to talk with. It leaves her vulnerable to the attentions of other men, so in an effort to help her cope, Michael encourages a teenage boy from the community, Robertino, to teach her Italian.

When Robertino disappears, Scottie is determined to find out what happened to him, and she becomes a thorn in the side of those supposedly investigating his case. The deeper she digs, the more secrets she uncovers—about her husband, his job, their marriage, and their purpose for being in Italy. While these secrets throw her completely off-guard and make her wonder what she should do, they also ignite a passion within her, a passion to make things right in a city she has come to love.

"Italy was not carefree and sexy like they made it seem in Roman Holiday. It was dense and mysterious and dangerous and confusing."

Novels taking place in Italy, like Jess Walter's Beautiful Ruins or Delia Ephron's Siracusa, tend to charm me, because their setting often seems so magical and glamorous. That charm worked for me with The Italian Party as well. I thought Lynch did a good job juxtaposing the frivolous and serious, interjecting elements of history with the story of a relationship built on secrets and lies.

At times my attention wavered a bit, when the characters stopped to lecture each other a bit about history and politics, but for the most part, I really enjoyed this. Lynch definitely kept me guessing—even though many elements seem familiar, the way she put them together made the story compelling. Her characters are flawed yet fascinating, and she did a terrific job with imagery and details. Oh, and if you read this with an empty stomach, man, you'll be hungry!!

I was intrigued by this book when I saw a number of my Goodreads friends reading it, and even though their opinions were mixed, I really wanted to read it. I enjoyed it—it's not perfect, but it's a compelling, well-written read, with lots of twists and turns.

Ciao, bella!!

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Book Review: "The Frontman" by Ron Bahar

If John Hughes made a movie about a slightly nerdy, Jewish high school student torn between pleasing his parents and pursuing the career (and the girl) of his dreams, it would be a lot like Ron Bahar's The Frontman. This is a fictionalized account of the author's life in the 1980s, growing up in Lincoln, Nebraska, the son of Israeli immigrants.

For as long as he can remember, Ron has known his parents have expected him to be a stellar student so he can go to medical school. He's willing to work as hard as he can, and he's actually interested in medicine, so following this path isn't too hard for him. But he has other ambitions, too, and he's getting tired of hiding those from his parents or pretending they don't matter.

Ron loves to sing, and he knows the words to nearly every 80s song there is. He's most comfortable lip syncing or singing karaoke, but every now and again he dreams of the glory that could come from being a band's lead singer. When his friends start to give him the opportunity to sing a song or two during their band's performances, he starts to love the adrenaline rush that performing gives him, not to mention the attention he gets from the girls in the audience!

Everyone tells him how talented he is as a singer, and even someone in the music business tells him he shouldn't let his voice go to waste. But his parents don't like the idea of him using his voice for anything other than religious purposes, so how would they react if he abandoned his (and their) dreams of medical school for a career in music?

And that's not his only dilemma. He has had a crush on Amy Andrews, the daughter of close friends of his parents, for quite some time. Amy is beautiful, smart, friendly, and crazy enough, she likes insecure, geeky Ron as much as he likes her. Wounded by her parents' divorce, Amy wants someone to be true to her and protect her, and she wants to believe Ron is that person. Ron wants to be that person, and more than that, he wants Amy. There's just one problem.

"Even at the tender age of twelve, however, I understood that, to my parents, Amy represented the ultimate forbidden fruit: the non-Jewish girl to the Jewish boy. With regard to my feelings, I knew they knew, they knew I knew they knew."

The more success he has in singing, the more jealous and distant Amy becomes, plus he has to hide how much he's enjoying it from his parents. He doesn't want to disappoint them, but whose dreams should he pursue—his or his parents'? Is there a happy medium? Can he get his parents to accept Amy as the one he loves?

This is a goofy, endearing book, full of 80s references (each chapter is prefaced with a snippet of lyrics from a song that hit the charts in the 80s), and quirky humor. Since Bahar lived this life (or at least a version of it), he obviously has a great deal of affection for his characters, even as they do misguided or inappropriate things. And who hasn't struggled between doing what you want and what your parents want?

The Frontman is a quick, fun read, one that brought back lots of memories.

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

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Book Review: "Need to Know" by Karen Cleveland

Wow, this was so good!

If you're looking for a suspenseful thriller that will keep you guessing, one that seems tailor-made for the movies, look no further and pick up Karen Cleveland's Need to Know. (In fact, the film rights have already been sold to Universal Pictures for Charlize Theron.)

Vivian Miller has the perfect life—a handsome, supportive husband, a challenging job as a CIA analyst, and four beautiful kids. Sure, with her career moving at breakneck speed she's not at home as often as she'd like, so she's missing key moments in her children's lives, but she's doing important work that impacts the country, as she tries to track down a Russian sleeper cell here in the U.S. It's what she has been working for, and success means a big promotion.

One day, in the midst of some surveillance on the laptop of someone believed to be a handler of Russian spies, she makes a discovery that takes her breath away and turns everything upside down. For someone who has always been so sure of what her next steps are, she suddenly feels completely out of control, and doesn't know where to turn. But the one thing she does know is she must protect her children, her family, and the life she has known—no matter what the cost.

It seems like whatever decision Vivian makes is the wrong one, and it plunges her deeper and deeper into a situation with serious ramifications. She knows, however, that she is stronger than everyone thinks she is, and she tries to search for a way to turn her situation around. But whom should she trust? How will she know if believing in someone will be her downfall, and possibly cost her her family, her future?

I'm being somewhat vague because even though you can guess some of what will happen in this book, there still are a lot of twists and turns I didn't see coming. From nearly the very first page, Cleveland revs the engine of this story and doesn't let up until the very last page. Vivian is a pretty tough character, and I could totally see an actress like Charlize Theron playing her.

If you like spy thrillers and espionage, or television shows like The Americans, this book should be right up your alley. I nearly read the entire book in a day, because the pacing and the storytelling were top-notch. Now I can't wait to see what Cleveland does next!!

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Book Review: "Digging In" by Loretta Nyhan

My mother, God rest her soul
Couldn't understand why the only man
She had ever loved had been taken
Leaving her to start
With a heart so badly broken
Despite encouragement from me
No words were ever spoken...

—Gilbert O'Sullivan, "Alone Again Naturally"

I loved this! What a great story.

Jesse was a part of Paige's life since eighth grade, and he was her only love. Often it was the two of them against the world, and she always knew she could count on her husband and their marriage. Then one day, an accidental tap of a highway median, and it was all over—he left her alone with their teenage son, Trey.

"Forever. Till death do us part. The thing is, no one tells you what to do when the parting happens. And they forget to explain that when death is sudden, the parting is actually a ragged tear, not a clean separation. It leaves all the ends unfinished, and they just unravel and unravel and..."

That was two years ago, yet she's still drifting through life. The house is in disrepair, the yard is a shambles—much to the chagrin of her uptight neighbor, whose anger seems excessive despite the number of dandelions and other weeds that have popped up. Trey, now a high school senior, is getting increasingly frustrated with his mother's antics, preferring the stability of a friend's house. And even though she used to be able to coast at her advertising job, a new boss has changed the dynamic at work, leaving Paige and her colleagues to compete for their jobs.

"Death was final, but grief wasn't; it was a dirty street fighter who rose again and again even when I thought I had successfully knocked it to the ground. King of the sucker punches."

One night, staring at the condition of her lawn, remembering Jesse's obsession with ensuring it was perfect and reeling from her neighbor's anger at her neglect, she starts to dig. Putting her hands in the dirt feels therapeutic, but she makes a mess. As the hole gets bigger, she decides she's going to turn the entire backyard into a vegetable and herb garden, which again runs her afoul of her neighbor and others in her perfectly ordered and manicured community. Yet for the first time, she doesn't really care.

She's determined to make her garden work, but she's barely holding it together otherwise. Her son is hurting and angry, her boss is disappointed and wondering if he should cut her loose, and her homeowners' association is on her tail, but little by little she realizes she's the only one who can rescue her life. With the help of friends old and new, and the interest of a kind policeman, she starts to take root into her new reality, no matter how difficult it may be.

Even though you've seen this story before, in Loretta Nyhan's hands, it's so engaging, enjoyable, and poignant. Paige is a tremendously sympathetic character, yet she has her flaws, and it's fascinating as she realizes that some of the things that brought her so much comfort throughout her marriage might have left her at a disadvantage now. But as much as she just wants to put her head in the sand and just mourn Jesse forever, she knows she must pull herself and her life together, for her sake as well as her son's.

The way each person deals with grief in this situation is very different, but some of the emotions Paige experiences I've seen in my mother as she has navigated life since my father's death nearly four years ago. Incredibly, Nyhan was in the middle of writing this book when she lost her own husband, which certainly increases the poignancy of this book and Paige's story. There certainly are moments which might bring a tear to your eye, but this isn't a maudlin book in any way—it's warm and immensely readable, and I nearly read the entire book in a day.

Lake Union Publishing made this available through Amazon's First Reads program. Thanks for making this available!

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Book Review: "Crimson Lake" by Candice Fox

I've never been to Australia, but it's definitely a place I'd love to visit someday, and I find myself obsessed with all things Australian. I also think it's a terrific setting for books, particularly thrillers—there's just something about the dry heat, the wetlands, the bush country that seems unrelenting to me, which is one reason I've been drawn to books like Jane Harper's terrific series featuring Aaron Falk, The Dry and Force of Nature, and now, Candice Fox's Crimson Lake.

Ted Conkaffey was a police detective in Sydney—well-respected by his peers and good at his job, happily married with a newborn baby daughter. Needing to escape his house one afternoon after an argument with his sleep-deprived wife, he decides to take a drive and then go fishing. A random stop on the road to fix something in his car puts him in the wrong place at the wrong time, and he has no idea just how those six minutes will turn his life upside down, as he is accused of abducting and attacking a young girl he saw along the road that day.

Imprisoned for a crime he swears he didn't commit, his wife and his longtime friends and colleagues turn their backs on him. His release for insufficient evidence doesn't vindicate him, it merely frees him. With nowhere to go, and no one who believes he's innocent, he heads north to the wetlands of a small town called Crimson Lake. He tries to keep a low profile but it's not long before people figure out who he is and what he stands accused of, so he must defend himself from vigilantes and two dogged policemen who want to do him harm.

Through Ted's lawyer, he connects with Amanda Pharrell, a quirky, eccentric private investigator—and a convicted murderer, who served time for a gruesome crime when she was a teenager. The two team up to try and find out what happened to the author of a wildly popular book series which juxtaposed religion and young adult drama. It turns out the author had some secrets of his own, and there appears to be more than a few people who wished him harm.

As Amanda and Ted work their case, Ted isn't entirely sure whether Amanda was guilty of the crime she was punished for, and he can't stop himself from looking into it. Meanwhile, he continues to be taunted by those who believe he shouldn't be free, and those who don't like the idea of the two criminals joining forces—and some mean to do him, and perhaps Amanda, grave harm if they don't heed their warnings.

This is one of those books that hooks you at page one and doesn't let you go. It's taut, tense, and it packs quite a one-two punch of action and suspense. Ted and Amanda are both fascinating characters—you really don't quite know what to believe about either of them. Fox is a great storyteller, and she really makes you feel you're right there in the croc-infested wetlands with her characters, hearing the sounds of nature and watching your surroundings.

I had never read anything Fox has written before, but I was really impressed. I'm excited there's a second novel in this series due out soon, because I'm definitely hooked. There may be an unending supply of thrillers and mysteries out there these days, but Crimson Lake is one you should add to your list.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Book Review: "The Shakespeare Requirement" by Julie Schumacher

Jason Fitger, the beleaguered English professor who was the protagonist of Julie Schumacher's very funny Dear Committee Members, takes us on a return trip to Payne University in Schumacher's new book, The Shakespeare Requirement. Fitger, pompous and irascible as ever, finds himself elected chair of the English department, and he has no idea of the chaos and aggravation that awaits him.

As if having to work on substandard equipment and in squalid conditions isn't bad enough, the Economics Department and its chair, Roland Gladwell, who convinced the university and corporate sponsors that his department needed state-of-the-art classrooms and technology, now has his eye on the English Department's remaining space. Fitger has to guard himself against angry wasps, faulty air conditioning, and a computer that might work—if he could ever get the University's IT department to schedule an appointment. (And don't try to set up a meeting with him on P-Cal, the university-wide calendar system, as he refuses to use it.)

But these problems are just the tip of the iceberg. He has to deal with a department in shambles, get his colleagues to adopt a new-agey Statement of Vision for the department (just ridiculous), and his attempts to get a 90-year-old Shakespearean scholar to retire backfire when the man convinces the press that Shakespeare isn't important to the English Department any longer. Plus, any requests he has have to be approved by the dean, who happens to be his ex-wife's lover. It's enough to make any man crumble.

The Shakespeare Requirement follows Fitger as he navigates university and department politics, tries to figure out exactly what his relationship is with his ex-wife, and wonders what secrets his assistant, Fran, is hiding. The book shifts narration among a number of characters—Fitger, his ex-wife Janet; Philip, Fitger's boss and Janet's lover; Fran; Roland Gladwell; Professor Cassovan, the Shakespeare expert; and Angela, a sheltered student away from home for the first time.

What I enjoyed so much about Dear Committee Members (see my review) is that it was an epistolary novel—the whole story was told through letters Fitger wrote to various people within and outside the university. His voice was tremendously memorable and at times hysterically funny, plus it reminded me of a committee chairman I was working with at the time.

However, this book is told in the traditional narrative style, which didn't quite work for me. While most of the characters used the same pompous, high-brow language that Fitger did in the earlier book, the story didn't flow as well in this manner. I thought there were too many characters to follow, and after a while there were so many machinations to keep straight, so much politics to navigate, I didn't enjoy it as much as I had hoped.

Stories of systemic dysfunction and office politics are often humorous, and some may find this funnier than I did. There's no doubt that Schumacher is a talented storyteller, and these characters are fascinating. I'd love her to write another epistolary novel someday—it's a terrific change of pace!

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

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Book Review: "In Sight of Stars" by Gae Polisner

Klee (pronounced "Clay") worshiped his father. They shared a love for art and artists, especially van Gogh, and they spent countless hours together painting and visiting museums and galleries, and Klee loved listening to his father's stories, even the ones which were so clearly made up. He knew his father gave up his dreams of becoming an artist to have a stable job as a lawyer, but his father wants him to have the chances he never had.

His father's sudden death turns Klee's life utterly upside down. He's forced to leave New York City, leave his best friends behind, and move to a house in the suburbs with his mother, whom he thinks of as "The Ice Queen." He doesn't think she's sad enough about his father dying, and he blames her for everything that has gone wrong. But he just needs to bide his time a little bit longer before he can go to art school in Boston, fulfilling his father's wishes.

Klee feels angry and abandoned, and isn't dealing well with his grief. But then he meets Sarah, a free-spirited girl in his art class at his new school, and he is drawn to her immediately. She simultaneously draws him in and keeps him at arm's length, but she recognizes Klee's talent and his generous heart (as well as his abs). He starts to think that perhaps Sarah can save him from his crushing grief, but she has her own troubles, and doesn't like it when he broods.

"I follow silently, wondering what it is about her that breaks my heart and fills it at the same time, that scares me but comforts me, that makes me want to tell her things I can't begin to find words for."

One night, feeling that Sarah is pulling away from him and suddenly being confronted with what he believes is the truth about his parents' marriage, things go utterly, utterly wrong. In a moment of abject despair, Klee's actions land him in what is known as the "Ape Can," a psychiatric hospital for teenagers.

As Klee begins to deal with the feelings that sent him spiraling downward, he must begin to confront the truth—about his father, his mother, his parents' relationship, and his relationship with Sarah, and he needs to figure out what is real and what he has imagined, or dreamed into existence. With the help of an understanding therapist, a unique hospital volunteer, and a few of his fellow patients, he starts to realize that he can pick up the pieces and live his life doing what he loves—art.

In Sight of Stars (taken from the van Gogh quote, "For my part I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream") is told in two perspectives—present time and Klee's life after his father's death—in order to get a full picture of the challenges he has faced, and you get to uncover the truth at the same time he does. It is gorgeously told, and you feel the emotions, the struggles, the epiphanies that Klee does.

Gae Polisner, whose last book, The Memory of Things (see my review), made my list of the best books I read in 2016, writes with such beauty, such empathy, such heart. I loved these characters, and wouldn't have minded if the book were twice as long.

I struggled a bit with the start of the book, because in an effort to help you see things from Klee's traumatized and drugged perspective, the narration was a little jumbled and I wasn't sure what was real and what were his hallucinations. But that ended quickly, and I found myself utterly hooked on this story, needing to figure out what had happened. Polisner made me cry, she made me laugh, and she made me think. There were so many times I just marveled at her turn of phrase, or a piece of imagery.

In Sight of Stars might not necessarily break new ground, but it touched my heart and my mind. This is a book that says you can't go it alone, that we need to come to terms with the flaws of those around us as well as our own flaws, admit what is hurting or bothering us, and that is how we can find the strength to move on. I hope those who need to hear that message get their hands on this book.

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!

Monday, March 12, 2018

Book Review: "Us Against You" by Fredrick Backman

"...we only pretend hockey is complicated, because it isn't really. When you strip away all the nonsense surrounding it, the game is simple: everyone gets a stick, there are two nets, two teams. Us against you."

Frederick Backman's Beartown (see my review) was probably the best or second-best book I read last year. This story of a Swedish town that is literally obsessed with hockey, and which faces a crisis that will practically tear the town apart, surprised, delighted, and devastated me, all over the course of a few short hours as I plowed through it very late one night.

Given how I felt about that book, I approached the sequel, Us Against You, with a bit of trepidation. Could Backman achieve magic in Beartown again? Were there new stories to tell, and would they affect me with the same level of emotion and, frankly, devotion, that the first book did? Once again, I plowed through the 450-page book within a few hours, and stayed up very late at night to finish it. Now I can answer my questions unequivocally: yes, yes, and oh my god, yes.

In fact, I'll leave it to Rob Lowe to sum up my feelings.

Beartown is struggling to right itself after the crisis which nearly destroyed the town, but so many lives will never be the same. The town is dealt another blow when it learns that their beloved hockey club will be liquidated, a decision of local politicians, and all of the funding will go to the hockey club of their rival town, Hed, where many of the former Beartown players have gone. This decision upends those for whom hockey was a job, a dream, an escape, a scapegoat, and a tradition.

But one crafty person isn't willing to let Beartown hockey die—it's all part of a larger master plan for power. A most unusual coach is hired, and they begin building a new team with an unlikely squad of players—Benji, the lone wolf battling between self-destruction and redemption; Amat, smaller than the other players but perhaps more talented than anyone; Bobo, Amat's best friend, who can't skate well but can't imagine a life without hockey; and Vidar, an exceptionally talented goalie with an exceptionally short (and dangerous) fuse.

As Beartown, and its residents, try to recover, marriages and long-time friendships will be severely tested, loyalties will be questioned, split-second decisions will damage and endanger lives, and hearts will break. Violence becomes a more-present part of their everyday lives as the rivalry between Beartown and Hed intensifies, and the big game draws near. Everyone will face moments which could utterly destroy them, but amidst all of the darkness, there are glimpses of hope.

"People will say that violence came to Beartown this summer, but that won't be true, because it was already here. Because people are always dependent upon other people, and we can't ever really forgive each other for that."

This book absolutely blew me away. I wasn't sure if Backman had it in him a second time, but he has written a sequel that is just as good as its predecessor, which was exceptional. I love these characters so much—the ones you root for and the ones you root against. Reading this book was like getting to visit old friends—you revel in every minute because you know you'll be sad when your time together is over. That was definitely the case here.

You really should read Beartown first, both because it provides a great framework on which this book is built, and because it is fantastic on its own. Even though these books are about a hockey-obsessed town, they are about so much more than that. That's where Backman keeps surprising you.

God, I hope there's a third book. I'm ready for another late-night read, where I'm laughing and sobbing and feeling sentimental all over again. Who can ask for anything more?

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

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Book Review: "Not That I Could Tell" by Jessica Strawser

Boy, do I love a little bit of soapy neighborhood melodrama and mystery...

"It's no great accomplishment to get someone to believe a lie. It's not that hard, really. Look at me: doctor's wife, working mom, good neighbor. You've already summed me up, haven't you? You're already filling in the blanks. But whatever you're writing there, it's not the truth. And that's fine by me. It's easier, knowing you don't know me at all."

One Saturday night, a group of female neighbors gets together around the firepit of one of their houses. They're excited with the prospect of adult company, and by the fact that their baby monitors actually work in the backyard. They all have a little too much wine that night, leaving everyone feeling a little worse for the wear the next day. But all agree it's a price worth paying, and the conversation flows all over the place.

Life proceeds as usual on Monday until they get a real shock: Kristin, the seemingly near-perfect mother of twins, the class mom always willing to pitch in, has disappeared along with her children. Some of her clothes and the children's clothes and favorite toys are missing, as is her mother's heirloom china. But her cell phone was left behind.

Kristin didn't seem at all dismayed that her divorce from her gynecologist husband Paul was nearly final. No one knows what to think about her disappearance, and as the police begin investigating, they uncover secrets that she never shared with her friends, secrets which make them fear the worst. As public suspicion centers around Paul, he tries to focus attention back to his soon-to-be ex-wife, all the while trying to make himself seem more sympathetic.

Kristin's friends and neighbors try to make sense of what has happened, and how they were unaware of what Kristin was going through. For Clara, who lived next door, Kristin's disappearance and the facts swirling around remind her of an incident from her past that she has tried to put behind her, but she finds herself in the middle of the scandal, which causes issues for her husband and her young children. And Izzy, the neighborhood's newest resident, tries to stay above the fray and not pass judgment, because she is dealing with emotional issues of her own.

How well do we know our friends? Should we listen to those around us or should we trust our own instincts? Not That I Could Tell follows the model of books like Big Little Lies and Marybeth Mayhew Whalen's When We Were Worthy, providing a compelling narrative, a healthy dose of melodrama, and a mystery that eats at the fabric of friendships and the neighborhood.

Jessica Strawser does a great job with this book. I devoured it in practically one sitting, and although I had my suspicions of how things would resolve themselves, that didn't dampen my enthusiasm one bit. You've seen this before, but Strawser's storytelling ability keeps you turning the pages. I think this would make a great TV movie, too.

I was looking for something a little lighter, and this definitely fit the bill. This will make a great vacation read!

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!

Friday, March 9, 2018

Book Review: "Scythe" by Neal Shusterman

Wow. Mind totally blown by this one.

In a future world, mortality, war, illness, hunger have all been eradicated. Injuries are quickly healed by the body's own (amped-up) healing properties. Even aging is something you can counter—when you're tired of being your age, you can "turn" yourself into someone younger—over and over and over again.

The only way to control the population is through gleaning—killings of seemingly random people—and they are carried out by scythes, individuals commanded to commit these gleanings. Scythes are revered and feared within society, and while each scythe has their own methods of choosing whom to glean and how, they follow a strict code of behavior and have specific quotas as to the number of people they are to glean each year. It is a necessary evil, and death is no longer feared or worried about.

"The ending of human life used to be in the hands of nature. But we stole it. Now we have a monopoly on death. We are its sole distributor."

After each has an encounter with a scythe, teenagers Citra and Rowan are chosen to apprentice to one of the area's most respected scythes, Honorable Scythe Faraday. This is a role neither wants, for although their families will get immunity from gleaning for as long as they live if they are chosen to become scythes, their lives will be relatively solitary and austere, for they must spend most of their days gleaning or preparing to glean. Who would seek out such a life?

As Citra and Rowan learn from Scythe Faraday, they realize the nobility of the role, the conflicted emotions with which many scythes approach their responsibilities, and the physical, mental, and intellectual skills needed to become a good scythe. While the two are drawn to each other, they know that only one of them will become a scythe at the end of the year, and that competition confuses and motivates them. At the same time, they are forbidden from romantic entanglements with each other, so they channel their feelings into their preparation.

But the world of scythedom is in the midst of its own upheaval, and suddenly Rowan and Citra are pitted against each other, being trained by different scythes. Citra becomes apprentice to Scythe Curie, one of the most famous of the early scythes, while Rowan is an apprentice to Scythe Goddard, one of the bold new scythes, who believes more in his celebrity and presence, and challenges the customs of the traditional scythes. It is Goddard who sets a challenge in motion: whichever apprentice is chosen to become a full-fledged scythe will automatically be expected to glean the other.

This is an utterly fascinating, thought-provoking, exceptionally written book that I could not get enough of. Scythe is a compelling meditation on a world without mortality, and how those tasked with culling the population live their lives and approach those they choose to glean. It's a study in conscience, in guilt, in friendship, and in finding nobility in such a disturbing task.

I have never read any of Neal Shusterman's books, but I'll definitely be reading the second book in this series soon (I'm trying to be patient and not devour it immediately) as well as more of his work. He created such a fascinating world I wanted to know more about (I've not made any mention of the Thunderhead, which is the benevolent ruling entity in the world, and that's intriguing in and of itself), not to mention tremendously complex and distinct characters I couldn't get enough of.

I know that YA isn't a genre for everyone, and this book might sound a little out there for some, but this is really a fantastic book. It's better written than many YA books, and it actually makes you think, and invests you in the plot. Give this one a shot.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Book Review: "Asymmetry" by Lisa Halliday

How do you judge a book—do you just consider whether or not you liked it, or do you also take into consideration whether or not the author's attempt at conveying a message worked for you? This dilemma arose for me after reading Lisa Halliday's debut novel, Asymmetry.

The book is unevenly divided into three novellas. I loved the first one, enjoyed parts of the second one, and really didn't understand the purpose of the third one. Since the third novella portrayed a character from the first novella in a rather unflattering (although not unsurprising) light, I didn't enjoy it at all, and kept waiting for something more to happen.

While it appeared that the first two novellas are completely unrelated, apparently the third novella sheds some light on the characters in the first two, or at least deepens their meaning. I'm not ashamed to say I didn't see that, and honestly, I'm not a fan of having to read something so closely as if to search for hidden meaning. But unfortunately, it dampened my overall enthusiasm for the book, despite it being well written.

"Folly," my favorite, is the story of Alice, a young editor living in New York City shortly after 9/11. She is having an affair with the famed writer Ezra Blazer, a legendary author who is significantly older than she is. Their relationship occurs in fits and starts, as Blazer does everything he can to ensure Alice doesn't become too attached, and in a small way, ensure he doesn't become too dependent on her. As the novella explores Alice's life both with and without Blazer, it also explores the writing process, and how what we read has an influence on what we write, and how we see.

"Madness" follows Amar, an Iraqi-American man who is detained at Heathrow while on the way to visit his brother in Kurdistan. The novella juxtaposes his interrogation, as he tries to make sense of why he is being detained beyond his heritage, and his experiences the last time he and his family visited Iraq. It also provided commentary on identity, ambition, relationships, and the fraught environment of post-Saddam Iraq.

In the third, and shortest, novella, "Ezra Blazer's Desert Island Discs," Blazer returns to appear on the famed BBC radio program and shares his thoughts on which music he'd most want to have with him if stranded. Beyond a list of musical acts and their significance, Blazer shares some memories from his life which provide more insight into his character—and he flirts shamelessly with the program's host.

I believe Halliday really has some talent as a writer. There were a number of times I marveled at her language and imagery. I loved Alice's character in particular, and was fascinated by her relationship with Blazer. I'll admit that I felt a little gypped when her story ended and Amar's began. Amar's story was uneven—I definitely found the scenes with him being interrogated far more compelling than the rest of his rather disaffected life.

While this was an intriguing read, as I mentioned, I didn't see the thread that connected the novellas, so the book as a whole didn't work for me. This could work for others, however—I know a few people who thought it's one of the best books written thus far in 2018. Regardless of where you end up, Halliday is a talent worth watching.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Book Review: "Force of Nature" by Jane Harper

"Later, the four remaining women could fully agree on only two things. One: No one saw the bushland swallow up Alice Russell. And two: Alice had a mean streak so sharp it could cut you."

Nobody likes corporate teambuilding retreats. But employees from the boutique accountancy firm BaileyTennants are off for a three-day hike and camping adventure in Australia's Giralang Ranges. Even the firm's chairwoman and chief executive, brother and sister, are part of the group heading out.

The group is divided into men and women, and each will be expected to traverse a path through the wilderness, camp out (with supplies provided by the outfitter running the retreat), and head back to the starting point two days later.

Yet it doesn't quite go as planned, at least for the women's group. Four of the five women arrive back at the starting point several hours late, with various injuries, bruises, and complaints. One woman, Alice Russell, seems to have disappeared, after acting interchangeably ill-at-ease and aggressive since the trip began. No one knows if Alice left of her own volition to find her way back, or if something untoward happened to her in the wilderness.

Aaron Falk, a federal police agent, and his partner, Carmen, get involved in the search for Alice. They're worried about her whereabouts, of course, but for an entirely different reason, as she was part of an investigation they were conducting, looking into malfeasance at the firm. Alice was supposed to deliver some key evidence to them the day after the retreat, but now she—and, apparently, the evidence—seem to have disappeared.

No one is quite sure where suspicion should lie. Did Alice flee and make it out safely? Did someone within the firm's upper echelons catch wind of what she was helping with, and act to protect themselves? Are there lies behind the slightly different stories each of the remaining women in the group tell of their days in the wilderness? Or is there another dangerous presence lurking in the wild?

In an effort to find Alice and keep their investigation alive, Aaron and Carmen's search will take them deep into the menacing wilderness of the Giralang Ranges. The search will uncover secrets that many of the retreat participants are hiding, and will lay bare some painful memories for Aaron as well.

Jane Harper's The Dry, her debut thriller and first book featuring Aaron Falk, was absolutely fantastic. It was one of the best books I read last year, so needless to say, I've been anticipating this follow-up a great deal. It's always a bit of a challenge when you read the next book in a series you love—you don't want it to feel formulaic but you do want it to feel familiar, and have the same elements that made you love the previous book.

Harper is a terrific storyteller. She loves to build suspense at a slow burn, until you are flying through the pages, desperate to figure out what happened. Much as she did in The Dry, she creates such an evocative sense of time and place, so you felt the cold, the gloom, the menace of the wilderness as it closed in. (I even felt my throat get parched as she described the women's struggles to find water.)

Force of Nature shifts narration between the present, as the search for Alice continues, and the past, recounting the women's actions from start to finish. It's a tremendously captivating story and I was hooked right from the beginning. What was missing in this book for me was Aaron. Even though he's the main character, because of the way the book was narrated, he was only in the story about half the time, and I am such a fan of his character, I wanted more of his presence.

Don't get me wrong: this is still a great book. If you're new to Harper's writing you could pick this one up and not feel like you missed anything, and you'd find a compelling, well-executed thriller. This book did nothing to diminish my enthusiasm for Harper's work, and I so hope that there's a third book in this series on the horizon, hopefully with twice the Aaron!

Monday, March 5, 2018

Book Review: "Paris in the Present Tense" by Mark Helprin

I first encountered Mark Helprin when I read his beautiful, magical book, Winter's Tale, many years ago. It utterly transfixed me, and took me into a completely different world. I read a few of his other books over the years and they didn't quite move or touch me the same way, but I still marveled at his storytelling, as it's sometimes much harder to tell a story rooted in reality than in a fantasy world.

Helprin's latest book, Paris in the Present Tense, definitely drew me in from the very beginning. It has an old-fashioned feel, yet I mean that in the most complimentary way. It really reminded me of one of Ward Just or William Maxwell's books, full of rich character development, reflections on life and mortality, and the travails of the human heart.

"Music is the voice of God (when done properly)."

Jules Lacour is 74 years old. He is a cellist, a veteran, a Holocaust survivor, a father and grandfather, and a man who deeply misses his late wife. He has never pursued the path of financial comfort, but he has never regretted it more than when he learns that his two-year-old grandson is suffering from leukemia. He wishes he had the money to help pay for Luc's treatments. How he decides to obtain that money is one of the main threads of the story, and it carries quite a wallop!

This book is a fascinating study of emotion and mood, a look at a man who doesn't believe you should stop being outspoken because you grow older. Helprin explores how racism and anti-semitism are attitudes still carried by many people, in Paris and elsewhere in the world, despite the destruction they have wrought.

Don't worry that this is simply a brooding, heavy story, however; Jules is a fascinating, complex character—at times irascible and cranky, at times flirtatious and romantic. He is deeply philosophical and there is a great deal of discussion about the importance of music in his life, which is something I share. There are just so many facets to this man and his story that kept me reading, even when the pacing slowed down a little more than I would have hoped.

Paris in the Present Tense is full of dialogue you'll want to read over and over again to be sure you didn't miss a beat, evocative imagery, and an incredible sense of place—I felt Paris around me at times when reading it. I'm still not 100 percent sure if the entire book worked for me as a whole, but Helprin's storytelling made it a book to savor. Amazingly thought-provoking.

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

Friday, March 2, 2018

Book Review: "People Like Us" by Dana Mele

"Does someone who does one bad thing, even one really bad thing, deserve bad things to happen to them? Deserve to be murdered or framed for murder?"

Kay Donovan wanted a chance to reinvent herself after a pair of tragedies marred her life and tore apart her family. She gets that chance by attending exclusive Bates Academy.

Although she is on an athletic scholarship, which sets her apart from her incredibly rich classmates, she becomes a star soccer player and part of the school's most exclusive clique. These girls are notorious for their cruelty, and while everyone wants to be their friend, it's more out of fear than popularity.

"You can get away with murder if you're lucky. You don't even have to be smart. Just have a social or political one up on everyone else. People look the other way if they want to. Everybody knows it."

One night before a ritual post-party swim, the girls make a horrifying discovery: the lifeless body of a fellow student. No one seems to know who she was, but it's not long before they all become suspects in her murder, especially Kay.

Then it turns out that the dead girl got her revenge, as she created an online scavenger hunt-of sorts for Kay, forcing her to expose her friends, At the same time, her new friendship with a girl they once ridiculed is causing a rift between Kay and her best friend, Brie, and making everyone around her suspect she had a hand in the girl's death.

While trying to solve the challenges the dead girl has given her, Kay has to come to terms with the betrayal of those she cares about, and figure out whom she can trust. But more than that, she has to decide who she is, and whether she's ready to come to terms with the destruction she's caused.

Dana Mele's People Like Us strives to be a cross between Mean Girls and Heathers, with a little bit of Karen McManus' One of Us is Lying, with mixed results. Mele tells a good story, and throws in lots of twists so you're not sure which characters to trust. I also liked that the characters' sexuality was presented in a matter-of-fact way.

The problem I had with this book is that none of the characters were sympathetic, especially Kay. That made it difficult to get fully immersed in the story. I also was a little disappointed with the way some of the plot was resolved, because I felt with all of the possible solutions Mele had, this was a bit of a cop-out.

In the end, however, this was an entertaining read, and I think it would make a fun movie.