Monday, April 30, 2018

Book Review: "Feast: True Love in and out of the Kitchen" by Hannah Howard

"Life is big and scary. Food is constant, safe, dependable."

Growing up in Baltimore, Hannah Howard always loved and appreciated food—ethnic and gourmet specialties as well as comfort food. Her mother was always dieting, always trying to shed those stubborn pounds, and Hannah, who was always taller and more amply proportioned than her classmates, inherited those struggles. She wanted to be popular, to be pretty, to be able to wear different clothes, but she couldn't outrun her body type or her love of food.

As she grew tired of hating how she looked in the mirror, she began starving herself. When she didn't eat, even though she felt dizzy and incapable of physically making it through the days, she was more satisfied with herself. When she occasionally slipped, falling prey to immense food binges, she made herself pay even more, with hours and hours at the gym, and existing only on coffee and yogurt for days.

Just before she enrolls at Columbia University, Hannah and her family move to Hoboken, New Jersey, and she gets a job scooping gelato for a brooding chef. She winds up in an all-consuming, dissatisfying, psychologically destructive relationship, which wreaks havoc with her head, her heart, and her self-esteem. It begins a pattern of these relationships, which only serve to exacerbate her growing battle with food and her self-image.

She gets a job as a hostess at New York's famed Picholine restaurant. While constantly worrying about how she looks and whether her clothes fit her takes a toll, she is around some of the world's best food, and she starts to truly appreciate the finest cheeses and other ingredients, all while her mind is making her believe she is fat and ugly.

"Not eating makes me feel powerful, but my goal is never to starve. I am obsessed with food. I read the new food blogs, every article and recipe in Gourmet and all of the cookbooks stacked in the Picholine office. My goal is to be so thin that it's okay, necessary, that I eat. Once I get to some magical, impossible land of skinnydom, I will stop starving and start some living."

Hannah's struggles with her body, her appetite, her unbridled love of food, and her poor self-worth make her an easy target romantically, and she winds up in poor relationship after poor relationship, with men who are emotionally unavailable, too old for her, and/or dealing with their own problems and addictions. She starts to realize she can never recover and never reconcile her love of food until she begins to love herself, which is no mean feat.

Feast is a powerfully emotional account of one woman's battle to accept herself as she is, and realize she is so much more than her weight and self-image. The depths to which she sinks, physically and emotionally, hit home for me, as I've struggled with my weight and my self-worth for many years, and I, too, love food and love to explore different cuisines, despite my worry about the calorie and fat levels of what I'm eating.

While at times you may wonder why Hannah allows herself to be treated so poorly and why she can't seem to rise above her addiction, and you want to scream at her to show some backbone, to walk away from her mistakes and stop endangering herself. But at the same time, you see just what a toll her physical and emotional state has taken on her.

Howard is a tremendously engaging writer, and the fact that she juxtaposed descriptions of amazing culinary encounters with instances of emotional and physical trauma made the book poignant, real, and hunger-inducing. I enjoy memoirs that combine physical and emotional struggle with a favorite pastime, and even though this was difficult to read at times, I really enjoyed it and felt connected to her character.

Don't read this on an empty stomach or if you're feeling low about your appearance!

Book Review: "The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell" by Robert Dugoni

Sam Hill's birth in 1957 caused quite a stir, as he was born with ocular albinism, which left him with red pupils. While his religiously devout mother viewed his eyes as evidence of the extraordinary potential his life holds. That's not the unanimous view of everyone in their community, however—his Catholic school classmates refer to him as "Devil Boy."

Sam's mother was determined that her son live life with great gusto, and not be discouraged by those who treat him badly or try to keep him from the opportunities given to every other child. Sam becomes the target of a trio of school bullies who wish to do him harm because of his eyes. But while his mother believes that events in Sam's life are determined by God's will, Sam isn't quite so sure that God would want him to suffer in fear and loneliness.

It's the arrival of Ernie Cantwell, the only African American kid in school, who first makes Sam believe people could be heaven-sent. Ernie becomes Sam's closest friend and confidante, and the two help each other battle those driven by fear and prejudice. And when brash Mickie Kennedy arrives at school, she is tougher and stronger than many of the boys, and proves that you really can go through life not caring what people think.

The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell follows Sam as he travels from childhood to adulthood, experiences the flush of first love and lust, is buoyed by the intense loyalty and love of his closest friends, and, for the first time, realizes that God's will isn't always positive. When a tragedy hits close to home, he has to change the course of his life and become the man his mother always knew he would be, and he learns to keep people at a distance so he doesn't get hurt—although that doesn't always guarantee emotional safety.

This book chronicles 40 years of Sam's life, relationships, work, love, family, and the bonds of friendship. It's the story of faith, disbelief, loyalty, and the struggle between right and wrong. But more than that, it's the story of one extraordinary boy who grows into an extraordinary man.

I thought this was a really great book. Sam is a fascinating yet flawed character who is able to find strength and courage in the face of tremendous adversity, thanks to an incredible support system of his parents and his friends. I grew very attached to these characters and found myself worrying about and cheering them, and wishing they'd say the things they needed to, to those they needed to.

I have seen many people wax poetic about Robert Dugoni's Tracy Crosswhite series, although I've not read any of them. I was really impressed with his storytelling in this book—in some ways it felt a little like John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany or something similar. It's a book that touched me emotionally and made me think at the same time.

My one criticism of the book is that it was a bit melodramatic at times, and I felt that a subplot involving the return of a figure from Sam's childhood really wasn't necessary. But beyond that, this is a book which grabbed me from the very first page, and I read it in just a few hours while on a long flight. And I may have brushed away more than a tear or two...

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Book Review: "Leah on the Offbeat" by Becky Albertalli

When I fall in love with a book's characters, I'm often sad when the book ends, because I want to spend more time with them, and I feel like I've become engrossed in their lives in some small way. So when a sequel comes along, I'm tremendously excited, and of course, I hope it is worthy of the original book.

I absolutely loved Becky Albertalli's Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda (see my review), and it was one of my favorite books of 2015. Seeing the movie adaptation, Love, Simon, made me fall in love with those characters once again, so when I heard Albertalli had a sequel coming out, I marked the publication date on my calendar, and bought the book at 12:00 a.m. the day it came out.

Leah on the Offbeat picks up shortly after its predecessor ended, but this book focuses on Leah, Simon Spier's best friend. She projects a tough exterior but on the inside, she's struggling. She's the only one of her immediate circle of friends not to be part of a couple. She's a talented drummer and artist, but she never seems to have enough confidence in her abilities or believe people will think she's talented. And as the child of a single mom, they're always struggling financially, so she doesn't have the freedom her friends do.

Leah's biggest struggle is with herself. Only her mother knows she's bisexual—she hasn't even told Simon, and he's openly gay. She has kept a close friend at a distance because her feelings were getting muddled somewhere between friendship and a serious crush, but her friend doesn't understand Leah's coldness. But if Leah admits her feelings she knows she'll only get hurt, and she could destroy their circle of friends as well.

"But it sucks when life moves along without you. Sometimes I feel left out even when life's moving along with me."

As senior year of high school heads toward its conclusion, tensions are running high as people decide what college to attend (or have decisions made for them) and what that will mean for their relationships. Prom, too, is upping the drama factor, and although Leah would rather just be alone rather than watch the object of her affection dance the night away with her boyfriend, she accepts the invitation of a friend, even though she knows it may be setting up unrealistic expectations for him.

When a relationship is ended, Leah has to decide what to do. Does she finally speak about her feelings and risk it all, or does she just let life—and possible love—pass her by again in an effort to protect everyone? As she keeps getting mixed signals from the one person she wants to be with, she feels utterly out of tune, and it hurts.

"It's like when a song changes key, or starts on the offbeat, or shifts its meter halfway through. It's that hiccup you get in your chest. That tiny huh moment. Like maybe something's kind of wrong. Or maybe something's about to change."

I just love the way Albertalli tells a story, and I love the emotions and heart with which she imbues her characters. Of course as I was reading the entire book, I kept seeing the faces of the actors who played them in Love, Simon, but I didn't find it distracting. I realized just how much I missed Leah, Simon, Abby, Nick, Garrett, Bram, even Martin.

I definitely enjoyed this book but I really struggled at times to feel sympathy for Leah. I realize how much emotional turmoil she was dealing with in terms of her bisexuality and feeling left out, but she really made herself unlikable a lot of the time in the way she treated her friends, her mother, nearly everyone. That being said, I recognized some of her feelings, so it didn't detract from devouring this book.

I also felt a little cheated that Albertalli chose to skip the resolution of one major plot point and just move past it, telling rather than showing what happened afterward. While I understand that perhaps the drama might have dragged down the book, I just didn't believe everyone would have accepted things so positively immediately.

Regardless of those criticisms, this was a tremendously enjoyable and lovable book, and while it didn't quite rise to the level of its predecessor (which is a ridiculously high bar), if you loved her first book and/or The Upside of Unrequited, definitely read this. (But if you haven't read Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, or seen the movie, read that book first.)

Now I can't wait until the fall, when a book co-written by Albertalli and Adam Silvera comes out. So much anticipation!!

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Book Review: "Love and Other Words" by Christina Lauren

I'm not a fan of the term "chick lit," because I think it's often used to downgrade a book, to connote that it shouldn't be taken seriously or it's not as well-written as "real" novels. But the truth is, whether you call Christina Lauren's new book, Love and Other Words, "chick lit," "women's fiction," or whatever, I absolutely loved it—gender label be damned!!

Macy and Elliot were inseparable as teenagers. Elliot's family lived next door to the house her father built for the two of them to escape to on weekends and holidays, while mourning the death of her mother. Macy and Elliot's shared love of reading, their quiet, contemplative, even sensitive nature, drew them together quickly, and cemented a friendship that was the biggest thing in their lives.

But as they grew toward adulthood, their feelings blossomed. Elliot was no longer the awkward, gangly kid she used to know—he was becoming a man she couldn't get out of her mind, one with whom she wanted so much more than companionship, and trading favorite words. He felt the same thing about Macy, and hated the fact that he only was able to spend time with her on weekends and holidays, when he wanted to be with her always.

And on the night he finally declared his love for her, something they both felt so intensely, he wound up breaking her heart, leaving her a complete wreck. Macy never spoke to him again, never returned to the house, and left Elliot wondering how things could have changed so drastically, how he was going to live without the person he thought about every day. Macy, too, had to rebuild her life, and she coped by keeping everyone at arm's length, never letting anyone close enough to hurt her, never giving anyone a chance.

Eleven years later, Macy feels like she's pulled herself together. She's a pediatric critical care resident, and she's engaged to an older, well-established man with a young daughter. Maybe there's not a lot of passion, but the sex is great, and she feels, well, secure. Isn't that enough? It seems that way until she runs into Elliot one day at a coffee shop near her hospital.

"He's my person. He's always been my person. My best friend, my confidant, probably the love of my life. And I've spent the last eleven years being angry and self-righteous. But at the end of the day, he tore a hole in us, and fate ripped it wide open."

As Macy and Elliot try to catch up on the last 11 years, the intensity of their feelings for one another come rushing back instantly. But is she willing to throw away the security she's found for a chance to get hurt again? Would they even work as adults anyway, when so much within and between them has changed? And how can they get past what happened 11 years ago if she's not sure she can even talk about it, let alone deal with it?

I thought this book was excellent—every heartfelt, emotional, sexy, melodramatic second. Love and Other Words takes the story of best friends who become something more and then throws them into utter discord. You may have your suspicions about what happened but you can't understand what would necessitate not speaking to one another for so long, and building barriers around your life like Macy did.

I loved these characters, even when they were being selfish, petulant, or just plain ridiculous. There is just so much heart and emotion in this book, so much love, and I couldn't get enough. I would've devoured the entire book in one day if I wasn't in the middle of my busiest time at work. I know when I pick up my Kindle while I'm sitting at traffic lights so I can squeeze in a page or two, I'm hooked.

Christina Lauren, the authors (it's a pen name for two friends) of one of my favorite books from last year, Autoboyography (see my review), once again prove they're excellent storytellers who want you to feel and think and grow along with their characters. Don't worry about what genre this might fall in—just call it "great fiction," or even, "lit lit." (See what I did there?)

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Book Review: "Every Other Weekend" by Zulema Renee Summerfield

"It is 1988 and America is full of broken homes. America's time is measured in every-other-weekend-and-sometimes-once-a-week. Her drawers are filled with court papers and photos no one looks at anymore. Her children have bags that're always packed and waiting by the door."

Nenny is eight years old when her parents tell her and her brothers, Bubbles and Tiny, that they are getting divorced, their father is moving into a new apartment, and they'll see him every other weekend.

After living in a house with their mother and a friend of hers from the hospital where she works, their mother starts dating a new man, Rick, a Vietnam vet who also works at the hospital. Rick has two children of his own, Kat, an emotional, know-it-all 16-year-old, and Charles, who is Nenny's age.

Once Nenny and her siblings have gotten used to the upheaval in their lives, they are thrown another loop when their mother and Rick marry, and they move into Rick's house. Suddenly, Nenny has more siblings and has to deal with a mother who must spread her attention and love even thinner, plus she must navigate the newness of Rick, his off-putting silences, his thriftiness, and the emotional distance he seems to keep.

Nenny is a nervous child with an overactive imagination. She fears experiencing the types of disasters she hears about on the news—fires, earthquakes, home invasions—but she also fears unbelievable scenarios she's dreamed up, like Mikhail Gorbachev drafting her and all of her classmates into the Russian army, or her mother disappearing, never to be heard from again. But as she prepares for what she believes to be the worst to happen, she and her family are unprepared for the tragedy that does occur.

Every Other Weekend is a nostalgic look at growing up a child of divorce, when all of the things you've relied on for security are gone, and you have to become acclimated to an entirely new life. It's a book about desperately wanting to be noticed, wanting to be loved, and having that need be so palpable. It's also a book about how families can change shape and reform, and how it takes time to realize that comfort and love come from surprising places, when we least expect it.

This was a sweet book, and Zulema Renee Summerfield really created a memorable character with Nenny—silly, sweet, emotional, loving, confused, fearful, and curious. I thought the book would be pretty predictable, yet Summerfield definitely chose her own path from time to time. She's a very talented writer, and none of her characters are more precocious than their ages—they sound authentic rather than too clever for their own good.

The story shifts between real life and Nenny's fears, as well as some strange chapters which felt a little more like non sequiturs than plot devices, and that disrupted the flow of the story for me. But at its core, this is a poignant story with a lot of heart, featuring an endearing character you'll remember.

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

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Book Review: "The Only Story" by Julian Barnes

"First love fixes a life forever: this much I have discovered over the years. It may not outrank subsequent loves, but they will always be affected by its existence. It may serve as model, or as counterexample. It may overshadow subsequent loves; on the other hand, it can make them easier, better. Though sometimes, first love cauterises the heart, and all any searcher will find thereafter is scar tissue."

When Paul was 19 years old and visiting his family in a stifling London suburb while on summer break from university, his mother encouraged him to visit the local tennis club. While silently mocking the self-important people who took their tennis seriously and themselves even more so, he is randomly partnered in a tournament with Susan Macleod. Despite the obvious differences between them—Susan is in her late 40s, married, mother to two adult daughters, the two develop a strong bond.

Susan likes to tease Paul for his youthful braggadocio, his lack of real knowledge of the world around him and relationships, and his playful nature. Paul is utterly fascinated by Susan's sense of humor, her candidness about her unsatisfying marriage and her less-than-appealing husband, and the sense that she's not concerned or shocked by anything. After a long period of flirtation, the two become lovers.

Despite disapproval from his parents and some in the community around them, Susan and Paul carry out their relationship hidden in nearly plain sight. He spends a great deal of time at her house, being routinely welcomed and abused by her husband and daughters, and Paul wonders if everyone knows the truth and chooses not to delve too deeply, or if they're fooling everyone. An idealistic young man, he dreams of running away with her one day, rescuing her from the life she seems unhappily chained to.

"One of the things I thought about Susan and me—at the time, and now, again, all these years later—is that there often didn't seem words for our relationship; at least, none that fitted. But perhaps this is an illusion all lovers have about themselves: that they escape both category and description."

When the couple finally does flee to London and move in together, at first it seems like the realization of their (mostly Paul's) dreams. He has escaped his parents' disappointment and helped free Susan from a loveless and occasionally abusive marriage. But little by little, the cracks in their relationship begin to show themselves, the differences between them magnify, and Paul realizes that there is deeper unhappiness in Susan than he ever could imagine.

In The Only Story, Julian Barnes provides a meditation on first love, on the most impactful relationship in our lives, and how it shapes our later views on love, relationships, happiness, and trust. It's a longing, nostalgic look at what seemed like simpler times, before we realized what a hold the world had on us, and how factors beyond our feelings for one another can affect our relationships. It's also an insightful commentary on obligation, desire, commitment, and emotion.

Barnes is really a magnificent writer. I absolutely loved his book The Sense of an Ending (see my review), which I read seven years ago. But while I marveled at Barnes' use of language, emotion, and imagery, I didn't find this book particularly captivating. I was drawn in by the subject matter, but it moved very slowly, and meandered quite a bit. Paul also had a way of being coy with his narration, which frustrated me.

May-December romances are familiar literary fodder, and today, we're just as apt to read stories about younger men and older women, with the man being more affected than the woman. While Barnes definitely brings a few new twists to this age-old trope, I wish that The Only Story had a little more spark for me, so I could remember more than just how beautifully told the story was.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Book Review: "How to Walk Away" by Katherine Center

When you can accurately predict nearly the entire plot of a book, yet you still can't tear yourself away from it—that's when you know you've found a good one.

Margaret Jacobsen has always been an overachiever. She worked tirelessly to get good grades and succeed in school. She has been dating her handsome, steadfast boyfriend, Chip, for several years now, and she just landed her dream job, even though she wasn't quite qualified. Everything is leading her up to the moment she's been waiting for—she knows Chip is going to propose and they'll begin their journey to happily ever after.

Yet how often does everything turn out just as you've planned it? In a split second, perhaps the most magical moment in her life to date turns into her biggest nightmare, and she's powerless to stop it. The next thing she knows, she wakes up in the hospital, having to face obstacles like she'd never imagined.

"We were the very definition of helpless, and as I realized that, it also hit me that everything I'd been looking forward to was over before it even began. Chip and me—and the lakeside wedding we'd never have, and the rescue beagle we'd never adopt, and the valedictorian babies we'd never make. They say your life flashes before your eyes, but it wasn't my life as I'd lived it that I saw. It was the life I'd been waiting for. The one I'd never get a chance to live."

Suddenly, the woman for whom everything has worked out perfectly has her whole life turned upside down. Yet at the very moment when all she wants to do is wallow, she has to deal with those around her as well. Chip is drowning in self-pity and wants Margaret to forgive him and give him the easy way out, without an ounce of sacrifice on his part. Her mother has taken on this challenge as she's taken on every other obstacle in life—full steam ahead—and will stop at nothing to make her daughter fight to get every ounce of her life back and believe that is possible. Margaret's sister Kit returns after a three-year absence, and tries to help her with her quirky sense of humor and her unflagging sense of enthusiasm.

And then there's Ian, Margaret's physical therapist. The one the hospital staff thinks is too mean for Margaret's wounded psyche. The only PT who doesn't encourage or laugh with his patients, but instead just pushes them harder. The one who seems as if he feels nothing for anyone, except rage for his boss and the situation he's found himself in.

Margaret wants some semblance of her life back, but doesn't know what that entails, and she doesn't know how to handle those who purportedly know better than she does. How can she look forward to a life that will never be the same, never be what she had dreamed of? Will she even be able to have the things that "normal" people want—love, a family, a job, a future?

"I kept things calm, I stayed pleasant, I took my medicine—but the truth is, I had woken up in a dystopic world, one so different that even all the colors were in a minor key, more like a sour, washed-out old photograph than anything real. It looked that way, and it felt that way, too."

From the very first pages, How to Walk Away drew me in. As soon as I figured out what was happening, I knew where the plot would go, and while at first I was a little frustrated, this book won me over almost immediately. These characters seem familiar yet they are so appealing, even when they're acting selfishly, headstrong, impetuous, or insensitive. It didn't matter that I knew what would happen from start to finish—I cared about these characters and needed to be part of their story.

This is a book about finding hope and courage where you think you have none, about how you need to be the person to motivate yourself and buoy yourself through tough times—you can't depend on those around you. It's also the story of how it's always great to have family and supporters and loved ones around, but you have to learn to do things for yourself, too.

I'm being a little evasive with the plot even though many reviews explain just what happened to Margaret. I thought it was better to let the story unfold for you, even though you might very well predict it, too. This is tremendously appealing and so winning, that even when you wonder just how likely it would be that certain things would happen, you tell yourself to stop overanalyzing and keep enjoying.

A book that tugs at your heartstrings and makes you talk to yourself: how can you ask for anything more? I can see a lot of people really loving this one.

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, April 16, 2018

Book Review: "The Smell of Other People's Houses" by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock

First of all, how freaking cool is this title?

Dora dreams of the stability of a family, of being able to sleep at night without fear, of belonging and feeling wanted. She has never had those things with her own parents, but she gets them living with her best friend Dumpling and her family.

No matter how secure Dora feels, she knows it's just a matter of time before she has to return to her real life, to embarrassment and poverty and danger, because you can't outrun your family. Even when something good happens, it brings out what you've tried to forget about.

Ruth barely remembers her father, and her mother's mysterious disappearance leaves her and her younger sister in the care of her immensely strict, cold grandmother, who watches over them to ensure they never think too highly of themselves or believe they are better than others. But when Ruth finds herself in trouble, she learns there is far more to her grandmother than she imagined, and she also learns that one mistake doesn't doom you for life.

Alyce dreams of being a ballet dancer, and she's talented enough to follow her dreams. But the only life she's ever known is on her father's fishing boat. How can she tell her father she wants to dance and not help him? How can she abandon her mother and pursue her dreams?

Hank and his two younger brothers need to escape their unstable home life, and they decide it's better to run away than continue living amidst possible danger. But when a single incident puts one brother in danger, Hank has to decide whether to put his trust in those he doesn't know, or risk everything.

" a matter of survival, I don't take people at face value. I wait. Some people may look harmless, but most are just waiting to flare up and burn you if you get too close. You can never be too careful."

In Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock's gorgeous debut novel, these characters' lives will become intertwined in ways they could never have predicted. They'll realize that people really can save us in our time of need, even people we've never known before. They'll realize that each of us has untapped reservoirs of courage that we can rely on. Even more, they'll realize that sometimes the family we choose brings us more love than the family we're born into.

The Smell of Other People's Houses is immensely heartfelt, a story of friendships and families and secrets and hopes and fears, set against the backdrop of Alaska in the 1970s. While the situations these characters face are certainly familiar, they're still tremendously compelling in Hitchcock's hands. This is a book full of emotion and beauty, which so accurately captures the big and small moments of life.

As much as I loved this book, it's not perfect. There are a lot of characters in this book and it took a while to figure out which one was which, and how each was connected to the story. The narration shifts among the four main characters, so there were moments when I had to remember which person was telling the story. But for me, those quirks didn't detract from the book's overall appeal and poignancy.

I thought this book was really special, and it's one I won't forget anytime soon.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Book Review: "Norwegian by Night" by Derek B. Miller

Sigh. I really wanted to like this one.

Derek B. Miller's Norwegian by Night tackles a lot of weighty issues—growing older, how we deal with grief, being a stranger in an unfamiliar place, reconciling our spiritual identity, unrest among Eastern European countries, and bonds that form between strangers. It's a pretty ambitious mission for a book that's supposed to be a bit of a thriller.

Sheldon Horowitz is nearing the end of his life. His beloved wife Mabel has died, and he has never gotten over the death of his son Saul during the Vietnam War. Whether or not he's suffering from dementia is a matter of debate, as is the question of what he did during the Korean War—Sheldon insists he was a Marine sniper, although there's no evidence of that as far as Mabel ever knew.

"His memories were just becoming more vivid with age. Time was folding in a new way. Without a future, the mind turned back in on itself. That's not dementia. One might even say it's the only rational response to the inevitable."

Begrudgingly, Sheldon agrees to leave his longtime home in New York City and move with his granddaughter Rhea and her husband Lars to Norway. It's more than a bit of a shock for Sheldon, being in a country where he doesn't speak the language, and where he's only one of 1000 Jews. So he expresses his displeasure with generally refusing to do what Rhea asks of him, and being increasingly more cantankerous.

One day when Sheldon is home on his own, he hears the woman who lives upstairs quarreling yet again with a man whose voice he hears quite frequently. That day the screaming becomes more strident, and before he realizes what is happening, Sheldon protects the woman's young son from what appears to be impending violence. The two hide, and when Sheldon realizes what has happened, he knows the boy is in danger, and the two of them flee.

As the pair begins their journey to find safety, they make an unlikely duo—an 82-year-old man who spends a lot of time in his head remembering people and times past, and a young boy that Sheldon calls Paul, a boy who speaks no English and isn't quite sure what has happened. For Sheldon, protecting the boy seems like an opportunity for a second chance, and it brings back memories that he has carried with him all these years.

If this book was just about Sheldon and Paul's search for safety and the people hunting them down, this could have been a really fascinating and heartfelt thriller. Unfortunately, Miller took the plot all over the place—it was often difficult to determine when Sheldon was reminiscing and when he was focused, there was a lot of conversations among the people hunting for the boy and discussion of the plight of Kosovo at the time, and the plot also got hijacked by the chief police inspector as she tried to find Sheldon before the bad guys did.

I know some people really enjoyed this book, but it was just too scattered for me, and there was so much stuffed into one story I found it hard to keep my interest. I liked many of the characters, so I might consider reading another of Miller's books (it looks like he's just written another, American by Day, which features the chief police inspector) in the future. I just wish this one worked out a little better, because it had so much potential.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Book Review: "The Gunners" by Rebecca Kauffman

From a young age, the six of them were inseparable friends—Mikey, Jimmy, Sam, Alice, Sally, and Lynn. They pranked and teased, protected and supported each other, and even helped each other cheat in school. They became The Gunners, after the name on the mailbox of the abandoned house in their neighborhood they took over as their de-facto clubhouse. Even into their teenage years, they knew they'd be friends forever. But of course, that wasn't what happened.

"As children, The Gunners could not have imagined that by the time they were sixteen years old, one of them would turn her back on the others, and the group would be so fractured by the loss, the sudden and unexplained absence of this one, that within weeks the other friendships would also dissolve, leaving each of them in a dark and confounding solitude."

Mikey Callahan never leaves their hometown, although the rest of The Gunners head off in every direction. All of them except Sally, whose sudden, mysterious departure from the group caused its demise. Sally still lives in town as well, but even though she and Mikey see each other, she never speaks to him or even pretends to know him. It further reinforces Mikey's feelings of loneliness and disconnection—he has a tenuous, almost formal relationship with his father, and he is slowly going blind due to macular degeneration. For a 30-year-old, he feels old and alone.

Although Mikey and his old friends keep in sporadic touch, they are all brought together when Sally unexpectedly commits suicide. Jimmy, Sam, Alice, and Lynn return home, each bearing their own wounds from life. As they reunite and reminisce, each is buoyed by rekindling the bonds of friendship, and pained by Sally's absence, and the confusion and hurt they all still feel about her abandoning the group. But many are also burdened by the belief that it was their actions that caused Sally's break from the group and their lives, and perhaps led to her suicide years later.

It's always amazing how vividly childhood memories can live on into adulthood, and how the hurts we sustain in childhood can continue to haunt us as well. Rebecca Kauffman's heartfelt story captures the innocence and the pain of growing up, the beauty and the disillusionment that friendship can bring to our lives, and how the memories and the connections we make are ones to be cherished our entire lives.

The Gunners tells a familiar story in many ways, yet Kauffman throws in her own unique touches. The narration shifts from childhood to adulthood, alighting on different memories of each of the friends. This is a beautifully written, poignant book with fascinating characters, but we don't get to know all of them as well as I wish we had. Mikey, however, is the heart and soul of this book, and his journey, his longing, tugs at your heart and your emotions.

For those who are disturbed by such things, there is a segment toward the end of the book (which runs far too long, although I understood the overall point Kauffman was looking to make) which takes place in a meat processing plant, so there are descriptions of animals being killed and processed. I pretty much skimmed most of it, but it may upset some.

While the plot of The Gunners didn't remind me of the movie Stand By Me in any way, I couldn't stop thinking of my favorite quote from that movie while reading this book: "I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?"

This book is a wonderful tribute to the power of connection, of belonging, and the beauty of friendship. I so enjoyed this.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Book Review: "Emergency Contact" by Mary H.K. Choi

I totally agree, soon-to-be Princess Meghan! (Yes, I know she won't actually be called that, but I don't care.) I loved loved loved this book, and it reminded me of how good an amazing YA book (or any book for that matter) makes me feel.

Penny can't wait to go to college and escape her high-maintenance mother, Celeste. Celeste seems to forget she's the mother and Penny's her daughter, and having to keep avoiding your mother's attempts to be your best friend and dress like you and talk about cute boys is utterly exhausting. All Penny wants to do is become a writer and leave her old life behind, and even if it's just a little more than an hour away from home.

Sam is a mess. His family life is a shambles, he lives in a storage room above the coffeehouse where he works, and he had to drop out of school because he couldn't afford it. He's trying to get over his cheating ex-girlfriend (who can't seem to stay away completely), and he wishes he had more money so he could take a film class and start making documentaries.

Although Penny and Sam meet once when she visits his coffeehouse with her roommate, Jude, who is sort-of Sam's ex-niece, their meet-not-so-cute occurs when she spots Sam having a panic attack on the street and she rescues him. Their shared quirky sense of humor quickly bonds them in friendship, and the two become each other's emergency contact, and a sounding board for the things they're feeling about life around them.

Their relationship is purely textual, but they can't get enough of each other. They can say anything they want to each other, and it's amazing how dependent each becomes on the other. Both feel the desire, the pull to take a further step, but what if the other doesn't reciprocate those feelings? What if they don't work as more than friends? How can they jeopardize this incredible relationship they've built?

"It wasn't a romance; it was too perfect for that. With texts there were only the words and none of the awkwardness. They could get to know each other completely and get comfortable before they had to do anything unnecessarily overwhelming like look at each other's eyeballs with their eyeballs. With Sam in her pocket, she wasn't ever alone. But sometimes it wasn't enough. Penny knew she should be grateful, yet there was this niggling hope, this aggravating notion running constantly in the background of her operating system, that one day Sam would think about her and decide, 'To hell with all these other chicks I meet every day who are hot, not scared of sex, and are rocket scientists when it comes to flirting, I choose you, Penelope Lee. You have an inventive, not-at-all-gross way with snacks, and your spelling is top-notch.'"

How do you know when to take a leap of faith and risk it all? How can you protect yourself from the possibility everything could go amazingly wrong? And how can you let other people in when you've spent so much of your life insulating yourself from everyone to be sure you don't get hurt? Emergency Contact tries to answer those questions, and does so with such memorable, amazing, quirky, awkward characters I absolutely loved.

This is one of those books where the main characters talk at a sophistication level above where most people their age do, but for Sam and Penny, that absolutely worked. Even though you've probably seen this story before, maybe countless times, in Mary H.K. Choi's hands, it's so fresh and appealing, and I just couldn't get enough.

I never trust when blurbs compare one book to another, yet the comparison to Rainbow Rowell's Franklin & Park (one of my all-time faves) isn't way off the mark. There's a quirkiness to Choi's writing that is utterly endearing, much like Rowell's, and both authors have so much heart.

Loved it. Loved it. Loved it.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Book Review: "The Dependents" by Katharine Dion

Gene and Maida Ash were married for 49 years. Gene loved his wife very much, even if he didn't necessarily know how best to show it. But he enjoyed their life together, even if he felt that there were times where Maida didn't express herself fully or let him know how she was feeling—about him, their marriage, their daughter, anything.

He isn't sure how to handle his grief. His daughter, Dary, with whom he has never quite seen eye to eye no matter how hard he tried, returns home with her daughter to try and help him, and Gene and Maida's closest friends, Ed and Gayle, also provide assistance and a sympathetic ear. Trying to think of life without Maida feels strange, although perhaps less stressful at times, and he is unsure of how he will spend his time and energy now that he is alone.

"There were people who told him his grief would diminish, but he didn't believe them. That his father's death was still an experience reverberating inside him after all these years suggested that the distance a person traveled from death was just along a circle, and all it took was one new loss to show you that you were still traveling the same line."

As he begins to think about his life and marriage, he starts wondering if Maida was as happy as he thought she was, if she was actually satisfied with their marriage. He begins to question events in their past, things she said and did, and wondered if he was missing signs she was giving. What was the true nature of Maida's relationship with Ed, since it was Ed who introduced the two of them in the first place? Was she looking for Gene to be more, do more than he was? What is the source of animosity between him and Dary?

The Dependents shifts between the present and the past, providing a look at Gene and Maida's relationship from the beginning, and exploring how Gene tries to deal with the loss of his wife and the anxiety this loss is causing him, since he isn't sure what to think about their relationship any longer. You see Maida through Gene's eyes, and you see his earnestness to be a good husband, yet his initial awkwardness at how to initiate a relationship with her.

This is an interesting look at the cycle of grief, and how in an instant you can go from being with someone to their being gone. The book explores the question of how we can ever really know a person, even if we've been with them forever, and whether you should trust your memories or begin questioning things after the fact, and whether the answers to those questions will be helpful anyway.

Katharine Dion is a really talented writer, and she very effectively captured the emotions that accompany loss, and how the grieving person interacts with others. She also dealt with the struggle between acceptance of grief and still wanting more from life, and whether doing so is a betrayal of the person you've lost.

I struggled with this book a bit because I think it left a lot of questions. What were we to believe about Maida, in the end? Was she satisfied with her marriage and her life, or did she settle? Was there more to her relationship with Gene, or others? And why did Dary have such anger toward Gene? I didn't feel like these questions were settled, which left me in as much uncertainty as Gene, and that isn't entirely satisfying.

This is a good effort for a debut novel, however, and I look forward to seeing what comes next in Dion's career.

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!

Friday, April 6, 2018

Book Review: "I'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer" by Michelle McNamara

Since its publication earlier this year, some have asked whether Michelle McNamara's utterly engrossing true crime book, I'll Be Gone in the Dark, would be as popular if McNamara, the wife of comedian and actor Patton Oswalt, hadn't died suddenly while writing the book in 2016. While that tragedy certainly raised the book's profile, the fact is, this is a tremendously well-written and compelling book, worthy of every bit of acclaim it's gotten. It's just sad McNamara isn't around to appreciate the response to her years of hard work.

"Violent men unknown to me have occupied my mind all my adult life—long before 2007, when I first learned of the offender I would eventually dub the Golden State Killer. The part of the brain reserved for sports statistics or dessert recipes or Shakespeare quotes is, for me, a gallery of harrowing aftermaths: a boy's BMX bike, its wheels still spinning, abandoned in a ditch along a country road; a tuft of microscopic green fibers collected from the small of a dead girl's back. To say I'd like to stop dwelling is beside the point."

Unsolved crimes—particularly murders—were an obsession of McNamara's from when she was 14 years old. Growing up the youngest of six children in Oak Park, Illinois, in the mid-1980s, a young woman from her neighborhood was murdered one night while jogging. Even though some boys she knew might very well have seen the murderer shortly after he committed his crime, the murder was never solved, and from that act of senseless violence, a fascination which turned into an obsession and a career was borne.

"I was a hoarder of ominous and puzzling details. I developed a Pavlovian response to the word 'mystery.' My library record was a bibliography of the macabre and true. When I meet people and hear where they're from I orient them in my mind by the nearest unsolved crime."

McNamara created the true crime website, where she enjoyed rehashing unsolved cases with the police and others originally involved in them, as well as other armchair detectives. But nothing gripped her like the havoc wreaked by the man she dubbed the "Golden State Killer," a man who terrorized Northern California for more than 10 years in the 1970s and 1980s, committing 50 sexual assaults and 10 brutal murders, before disappearing without ever being caught.

In I'll Be Gone in the Dark, McNamara laid out the grisly, disturbing trail this killer and rapist left behind. Buoyed by painstaking research, she provides stories about his victims and those who got away lucky, the dogged police officers and detectives tasked with hunting down this criminal mastermind. It's fascinating but frustrating, in that without the technology used today in solving crimes, without the kind of knowledge about serial killers and serial criminals that exists today, this criminal was able to escape.

While that in and of itself makes for an interesting read, McNamara wasn't afraid to talk about herself as well, and how this obsession affected her life. Reading this book brought you closer to the mind of a fascinating woman, one who will never be able to tell her own story in greater detail, nor will she be able to see how people reacted to her book. She was a great writer, and her research and interpretation was top-notch. There was a reason that police detectives were willing to talk with her and rehash the crimes they couldn't solve—because they knew she got them.

In his blurb for the book, Stephen King said it best: "What readers need to know—what makes this book so special—is that it deals with two obsessions, one light and one dark. The Golden State Killer is the dark half; Michelle McNamara is the light half. It’s a journey into two minds, one sick and disordered, the other intelligent and determined. I loved this book." Yep.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Book Review: "Inside Charlie's Chocolate Factory" by Lucy Mangan

My favorite movie of all time is Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, the original version, starring Gene Wilder. (People who ask, "Which version," flummox me; as far as I'm concerned, there was never any reason to remake it in the first place!)

The book has always been a favorite of mine, too; in fact, Roald Dahl is one of those authors whose books were such an integral part of my childhood. (Interestingly, I've seen the movie so many times, and it's been a while since I read the book, so I sometimes forget which things were carried over into the film, and which things were created anew!)

Lucy Mangan's Inside Charlie's Chocolate Factory was written in 2014, to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Dahl's book. For fans of the story and the movie, this book is a treasure trove of trivia, memorabilia, and fascinating facts, about what led Dahl to write the book, his life at the time it was written, and the inspirations behind each of the movie adaptations. Some things I knew, and some things I was really surprised by.

Some things I found really interesting:
  • The name "Willy Wonka" was pulled nearly out of thin air—Dahl's brother used to make a kind of boomerang for him, which he called "Skilly Wonka," so when Dahl sat down to write the book, he remembered that, and decided to change two letters in the name, and the rest is history.

  • Broadway actor (and eventual Academy Award winner) Joel Grey was one of director Mel Stuart's first choices to play Wonka in the 1971 film, yet despite his proven ability to sing, dance, and act, he felt Grey "wasn't physically imposing enough" to be a surrogate father figure to the children. (They found out later that Fred Astaire had been interested in playing the part, but nothing came to fruition; perhaps the fact that Astaire was in his early 70s at the time convinced him not to pursue it.)

  • Although in my mind, and the mind of countless moviegoers through the years, Gene Wilder was truly the quintessential Willy Wonka, apparently Dahl disliked Wilder's portrayal. Apparently he wanted an actor like Peter Sellers, and he was unhappy that Wilder was completely wrong for the role, playing it for "subtle adult laughs." (Ironically, that's one of the things I love so much about his performance—the sly asides which became clearer with multiple viewings, and getting older.)

This book once again reminded me why I love Willy Wonka the character, and the movie, so much. Mangan did some terrific research and although the book doesn't quite follow a linear path—it jumps between the book and the movie adaptations from time to time—Mangan keeps your interest the whole way through. This is as much a story of Dahl as it is his characters and his creative process.

You don't have to be the kind of person who knows the entire movie word for word, used a quote from the movie as his senior quote in college ("We are the music makers and we are the dreamers of dreams"), and has a collection of character figurines in their office at work to enjoy this book. If you have fond memories of being read, or reading, Dahl's original book, or watching the movie, you'll enjoy this deliciously delightful trip into the world of pure imagination.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Book Review: "True Fiction" by Lee Goldberg

Hollywood, instead of "rebooting" a franchise for the umpteenth time, adapting another television or Broadway show into a movie, or launching another comic book character, I have your next property right here. Lee Goldberg's newest novel, True Fiction already reads like a movie, combining a little bit of television shows like Castle with movies like the Jack Reacher series. It's a quick read, with appealing characters and a frenetic pace.

Ian Ludlow is an author of a best-selling series of thrillers featuring Clint Straker, a James Bond-esque action hero who always knows how to save the day—and perhaps the world—and, as you might imagine, is quite popular with women all over the globe. But as much as he'd like to think there are lots of similarities with his character, no one would mistake Ludlow for Clint Straker.

"What they saw was a guy on the dark side of thirty with the soft body of someone whose idea of exercise was walking into McDonald's rather than using the drive-through."

When a passenger plane crashes into a busy Waikiki hotel, Ludlow is horrified, because he knows this wasn't just some tragic accident, and he knows who is behind it. He knows because several years ago, he was part of a group of thriller writers tasked by the CIA to dream up the unlikeliest of terror scenarios, ostensibly to help the agency prepare for any potential disaster. During that group meeting, Ludlow was the one who dreamed up how something like this could happen.

After he puts together some facts about recent occurrences in his life, he realizes his life is in danger. With Margo, the woman hired to escort him to a few local book signings, as his only companion, Ludlow must figure out how to stay one step ahead of the shadowy political conspiracy that needs him to disappear. It's not too long before the pair realizes that to survive, Ludlow needs to think like his famous character—which shouldn't be too hard, since he created him, right? But the enemy they face has more resources at their disposal, and they'll stop at nothing to get rid of these dangerous nuisances.

This is a crazy book—even though so much of the action at first glance seems far-fetched, given what's been going on in our world lately, it's scary to think that at least some of this—especially the use of technology to track Ludlow and Margo's escape attempts—might actually be possible. Sure, you probably know how things will resolve themselves, but Goldberg does a great job getting you hooked on the plot from the get-go, and you can't wait to see where the story will go.

I didn't realize how prolific a writer Goldberg is—he's written more than 30 books, including 15 Monk mysteries. This was a terrific introduction to his storytelling talent, and I practically devoured this book. It was great to read a book that felt like a movie, and didn't let up on the action and suspense until the end. Hope to see this on the big screen someday, and I hope there's another Ludlow book on the horizon!

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Book Review: "The Family Next Door" by Sally Hepworth

"The truth was, despite appearances, she didn't know much about her neighbors at all."

I've been reading a lot of books over the last few years about tight-knit neighborhoods in which secrets are brewing below the surface—Liane Moriarty's Big Little Lies, Marybeth Mayhew Whalen's When We Were Worthy, Jessica Strawser's Not That I Could Tell, and now, Sally Hepworth's newest book, The Family Next Door, just to name a few.

Reading these books certainly makes me wonder just how many secrets were hidden in the suburban New Jersey neighborhood where I grew up years ago!!

Pleasant Court, in the Australian town of Sandringham, has always been a quiet spot, where houses are quite expensive because there is a beach at the end of the road. No one new has moved in for quite some time, especially no one single, so the neighborhood is thrown a bit when Isabelle (who lives alone but spoke of a mysterious "partner" to the real estate agent) moves in alone. Everyone wants to know more about her—is she straight or gay, what brings her to Sandringham, why is she renting her house, and what secrets is she hiding?

The thing is, despite their curiosity about Isabelle, there are other residents of Pleasant Court who have things to hide as well, despite how picture perfect their lives seem. Why is Fran out jogging for long stretches of time two, sometimes three times a day? Is she punishing herself for something? Why is Ange's husband never where he says he is, even though he always seems so willing to help her with the kids or household chores? Why is his phone ringing all the time? And should people be worried that Essie, who several years ago left her baby daughter alone at the park, might be suffering from postpartum depression again after the birth of her second child?

As each individual struggles to navigate the chaos of their own lives, they still want to know more about Isabelle. While she's friendly to everyone, she seems to know a lot about Essie and her life, and it's Essie with whom she really wants to build a friendship. And as Essie's initial unease around Isabelle starts to deepen into something more intense, her family and friends start to get concerned. What does Isabelle want? Why did she move here? The secrets threaten to upend many lives, and roil the relative calm of Pleasant Court.

So many people raved about this book, and I was excited to read it not long after it was released. I found it took a while to build up steam, but once Hepworth started ratcheting up the suspense, it became pretty fascinating. I will admit there was one twist I just didn't see coming, and given how many thrillers I read, it's no mean feat to surprise me. The characters are certainly quirky and flawed, but for the most part, the issues they're dealing with are commonplace, so it doesn't feel like you have to suspend your disbelief.

I'd imagine this is going to be a book you see lots of people reading over the next few months, as it's a perfect vacation/beach read. This may have been the first of Hepworth's books I've read, but it won't be the last, because she's a talented storyteller, not drowning her story in lots of extraneous subplots, and throwing in enough red herrings to keep you guessing.