Thursday, May 31, 2018

Book Review: "The Stranger Game" by Peter Gadol

You're in a public place and a person or group of people catches your eye. It may be the way they look, their actions, things they're saying, but you just can't stop yourself from surreptitiously watching them. You don't want to get caught, but you can't look away, and you (and perhaps even a companion) imagine who these people are and what they're doing. When they get up, or leave the area where you've been watching them, you may even be (more than) slightly interested in following them, but you know it's too risky, or even foolish.

Take this at least one step further and you have the crux of Peter Gadol's enigmatic new novel, The Stranger Game.

After a few weeks with no contact, Rebecca comes to the realization that her on-again, off-again boyfriend Ezra has disappeared. She can't figure out where he would have gone without any warning, even though their relationship was in one of its odd periods. But he left without giving notice to his job or paying his rent, so she starts to wonder whether something has happened to him.

When she reports his disappearance to the police, they don't seem concerned in the slightest. They suspect Ezra is off playing "the stranger game," a cultural phenomenon which seems to have gripped society. In the game people choose someone to follow (unbeknownst to them), and while the initial objective of the game was to get as close as possible and follow for as long as possible without getting caught, it seems the game has transformed, becoming more complicated and, in some cases, sinister.

In order to see just what type of craze has affected Ezra, Rebecca tries the game. She is almost immediately sucked in, and it starts to affect other aspects of her life. At times she even has trouble distinguishing between who is playing and who is not. She meets Carey, a handsome and mysterious man who awakens her emotions, which have been hidden away for so long. But Carey also draws her further and further into the game, and she doesn't know whom to trust—or where she is safe.

"And then I wondered how many kinds of games people played with strangers every hour every day. We were, each of us, isolated creatures who ached for proximity, for intimacy with others, but who also out of primal self-preservation insisted on and maintained a safe distance. These stranger games we invented shuttled us somewhere halfway between stations of affinity and detachment, but more often than not we ended up at the latter destination. It was a miracle anyone ever connected with anyone. Most of the time we were cast back into our own longing."

To borrow a phrase from Winston Churchill, The Stranger Game is, "a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma." I love the basis on which Gadol built his novel, as I am one of those people who is fascinated by people-watching and wondering about the dynamics between groups I see in public. However, I felt that as the book progressed, the twists became more and more confusing until I, like Rebecca, wasn't sure what was real and what was artifice, part of the game. And while I'm okay with suspending disbelief when I read, I just found the whole premise a little unlikely.

Gadol has always been one of my favorite writers. His earlier books—The Mystery Roast, Closer to the Sun, The Long Rain, Light at Dusk, Coyote, and Silver Lake were all really fantastic, and he is one of those authors for whom I've waited a long time for a new book. As always, his use of language and imagery, and his ability to evoke emotions and connections is superlative. I just wish I liked this book more—despite the interesting concept, it just didn't gel for me.

Looking forward to the next one, however!

NetGalley, HARLEQUIN — Trade Publishing, and Hanover Square Press provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Book Review: "If You See Me, Don't Say Hi" by Neel Patel

With his debut story collection, If You See Me, Don't Say Hi, Neel Patel serves notice that he is a talent to be reckoned with. The 11 stories in this collection are packed with emotion and turn people's perceptions and stereotypes of most Indian Americans on their ear.

Some of the characters in these stories follow traditional paths, while others are anything but traditional—they're Facebook-stalking exes or creating schemes to facilitate booty calls. But in each of these stories, the characters face moments of truth, and often need to make a split-second decision which could have significant ramifications. These dilemmas give the stories extra weight, and make them compulsively readable. I read this entire book in one day.

I really enjoyed all of the stories in this collection, but my favorite stories included: "Just a Friend," in which a young gay man wants to know the secrets his older, married boyfriend has been hiding—but doesn't quite expect what he finds out; "God of Destruction," which tells of a woman enchanted by the wi-fi repairman; "Hare Rama, Hare Krishna," which juxtaposes a teenager's navigating his parents' marital troubles with his acknowledgment of his own sexuality, and all of the good and bad that comes with that; and the title story, which follows the tumultuous relationship of two brothers, from the teenage years through adulthood.

The last two stories in the collection, "World Famous" and "Radha, Krishna," are connected, and are the two I loved best. The stories follow a young man and a young woman who were thrown together as children but went their separate ways, and then reconnected in adulthood, only to find that both had been more scarred by their lives then they'd care to admit. These stories were poignant and thought-provoking, so different than I expected, and I could have read a novel with these two characters. (That is the case with some of the other stories, too.)

Patel imbues his stories with humor, emotion, sexuality, empathy, even surprise at times. He creates some characters you will root for and feel for, and others you might dislike, or not quite understand. There is a warmth to his writing, but he doesn't put his characters on a pedestal—he lets you see them the way others see them.

I thought this was an excellent story collection, and definitely heralds Patel as someone I am going to follow in the future. I know not everyone is a short story fan, but these are stories with some emotional heft, so they feel worth the investment of your time.

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

Monday, May 28, 2018

Book Review: "Don't Believe It" by Charlie Donlea

Looking for your next beach read? I think I've found it for you: Charlie Donlea's Don't Believe It. A unique storytelling style, full of twists and turns and surprises, this one will keep even the most jaded of thriller readers guessing at least a little bit.

Ten years ago, medical student Grace Sebold and her boyfriend Julian Crist were in St. Lucia, celebrating the wedding of two of Grace's closest friends. After being apart for most of their relationship, Grace and Julian were finally going to be in the same place, as they were both matched to the same residency program. But one night, Julian was murdered, and Grace was the prime suspect.

There was both physical and circumstantial evidence pointing to Grace as Julian's murderer, and it didn't take long for a jury in St. Lucia to convict her. Grace has spent 10 years in jail, pursuing every avenue to get the verdict overturned, all to no avail. But then her pleas pique the curiosity of Sidney Ryan, an up-and-coming documentary filmmaker whose previous work helped exonerate three criminals.

Even though Sidney remembered watching Grace's trial as it unfolded in the media and there seemed to be a preponderance of evidence, she feels there's more to Grace's pleas of innocence than simply wanting out of jail. The documentary she begins producing, The Girl of Sugar Beach, promises to explore the murder from all angles, and within a few weeks, after some eye-opening discoveries, it becomes the most watched documentary in television history.

Every week, the world is held in thrall by the documentary. As Sidney starts uncovering mishandled evidence, additional suspects, and what amounted to a conspiracy to convict Grace quickly all those years ago, she also finds some anomalies she can't quite explain. While the success of The Girl of Sugar Beach will allow Sidney to dictate the path of her career, she has to make a crucial decision: does she pursue ratings, or the truth? Will pursuing the former obscure the latter, and could it result in Julian's killer going (or continuing to go) free?

You can get more of a plot synopsis on Goodreads, Amazon, and other sites, but I'm going to stop now. I went into Don't Believe It almost completely blind to what the book was about, and I feel that was a pretty terrific decision.

This book grabbed me from the very first page. I had suspicions about would happen (I'm one of those thriller readers who suspects every character in a book), but Donlea kept flipping the script little by little, so I wasn't sure exactly what to expect. Even as new characters were being introduced, I wondered what the outcome would be, and while I don't know that I was completely satisfied, I like the premise that was hinted at.

I have never read any of Donlea's previous books, so I was really impressed with his storytelling. He took you into to the production of the documentary, and you watched information unfold as Sidney and her crew did. The narration shifted between the past and the present, between a few different characters—sometimes you're not even sure who is narrating.

I will say that there were a few plot threads that were introduced that didn't get explored, and I don't know if Donlea was purposely throwing in some red herrings to confuse the reader or if they just didn't get picked up. That was a little frustrating for me, because there were a few points I didn't understand.

Beyond that, I devoured Don't Believe It pretty quickly. I anticipate seeing lots of people doing the same this summer, whether on the beach, on the plane, or elsewhere. It's definitely a thriller worth diving into!

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

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Book Review: "A Place for Us" by Fatima Farheen Mirza

Poignant, warm, and thought-provoking, A Place for Us is a tremendously self-assured look at an American Muslim family, and the obligations and tangles that family and religion create.

Family and friends of Rafiq and Layla gather for the wedding of their oldest daughter, Hadia, who has broken tradition by marrying for love and not marrying a match arranged by her parents.

Hadia has always been headstrong, but she has made her parents proud by becoming a doctor, again, not a choice usually made by Muslim daughters. At Hadia's side as always is her younger sister, Huda, dutiful and proud, always looking to keep the peace, which is a quality necessary for her job as a teacher.

While the family is a bit nervous because of the wedding, the tension is increased because Hadia has invited her youngest sibling, their brother Amar, to the wedding. No one has seen him in three years. As the only boy, he was favored, but he was more sensitive, demanding, difficult, and always knew how to provoke feelings of love and dissension among his family members. Hadia wants him to attend the wedding but is also afraid of what unresolved issues he may bring with him.

How did the family get to this point? The book spends a great deal of time looking back, from the days before Rafiq and Layla married and their young family grew, to the days where the challenges began. It is a fascinating exploration of how the most innocent of actions or intentions can go spectacularly awry, and how one decision can cause significant ripples which affect many people. The book also moves beyond the wedding, looking at the aftereffects of events that happened that night.

The majority of the book alternates the narration between Layla, Hadia, and Amar, while later chapters are also narrated by Rafiq. You see the same events through different eyes, what those moments meant, and how they shape events around them. Within each chapter, there are recollections of various events at different times, so it does get a bit confusing trying to determine the time and place of what you're reading.

I found A Place for Us so emotionally rich, a fascinating study of a family struggling with how to reconcile the traditions and beliefs of their religion with the needs and wants of the ever-changing world, particularly post-9/11. All too often there was a depth to the characters I didn't initially expect—just when I believed a character was acting a particular way for a reason, with a different perspective, my assumptions were flipped.

I thought this was a terrific book, truly a self-assured literary debut by Fatima Farheen Mizra. I honestly never understood much about Muslim families beyond what I've seen on television and in movies, so I welcomed this opportunity to learn more. This book made me realize once again that no matter how different two families may be, the issues they face are often quite similar.

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

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Book Review: "Half-Truths and Semi-Miracles" by Anne Tyler

"The first thing I tell people is, I'm just an ordinary woman. I'm just like you, I say, I can see they don't believe me."

When she was 17 years old, on what seemed like just a regular afternoon, Susanna discovered she had an exceptional ability. While caring for her aunt, who was suffering from a migraine, Susanna rubbed her forehead, and—amazingly—her pain was gone. She healed her.

Word of Susanna's ability travels fast, much to her chagrin. People begin to travel from near and far in the hopes that Susanna can heal them. But while people say that Susanna's power is God-given, she isn't quite sure. If God is granting her the ability to heal people, why does she fail sometimes? Is it her shortcoming, a lesson God is trying to teach her, or is the person somehow to blame?

The power to heal has changed Susanna's life profoundly. In this short story, famed author Anne Tyler paints a portrait of a woman shouldering an overwhelming burden. She cannot understand why she can't heal everyone, and why when she so desperately needs to call on her ability, she doesn't succeed, and it leaves her questioning why she was chosen to tread such an arbitrary, often thankless path.

Anne Tyler has been one of my favorite authors since the 1980s, so any opportunity to read her work is such a treat. Half-Truths and Semi-Miracles is poignant and compelling, and once again, Tyler has created a memorable character. However, the story was so short it almost seemed truncated. I wanted more time with Susanna, more time to share her struggles and see how her life was affected.

Even though I wish the story was longer, it's still a strong example of Tyler's storytelling talent. If you think about it, it's essentially a literary amuse-bouche to whet our palates until her new novel comes out in July! Can't wait!

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

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Book Review: "The Pisces" by Melissa Broder

"Did it take a mythological deformity to find a gorgeous man who was as needy as I was?"

So, if you watched the film The Shape of Water and thought to yourself, "I wish I could find a sea creature to, well, you know," then Melissa Broder's new book, The Pisces, is for you. I didn't know there was such a thing as merman erotica, but here it is. (Seriously.)

Lucy's life is falling to pieces. She's been working on her doctoral dissertation on Sappho for nine years, and she doesn't know what to do with it anymore, because she's not even sure what her point is. Even worse, she and her longtime boyfriend Jamie break up, and before she knows it she's wandering around town half-dressed and drugged, and she suddenly is harboring violent tendencies.

Her older sister comes to the rescue, convincing Lucy to take the summer at her fancy house on Venice Beach and take care of her beloved dog, Dominic. She promises to attend group therapy, swear off dating, work on her dissertation, and revel in the love the dog can provide. However, it's not long before she becomes depressed by how pathetic her fellow group members seem, and she feels the need to fill the empty space inside her by having sex with anonymous men she meets on Tinder.

"Was it ever real: the way we felt about another person? Or was it always a projection of something we needed or wanted regardless of them?"

One night, while sitting on the beach rocks alone, she meets Theo, a handsome and mysterious swimmer. He seems to be everything she is looking for—sexy, intuitive, sensitive, and immensely attracted to her. She comes back to the beach rocks to find him on subsequent nights, but she isn't sure what his deal is—is he a night surfer, a swimmer, or just some guy who never seems to get out of the water?

As her life continues imploding, she discovers the truth behind Theo's identity: he's a merman, but not one of the horrible creatures portrayed in mythology. Theo may be a merman, but he's all man, and their sex life satisfies her more than any of the recent encounters or her relationship with her boyfriend ever did. But as Lucy tries to make their relationship work by bringing him to her sister's house, she realizes that this kind of life may be more complicated than she realizes.

Faced with the prospect of losing Theo, she makes some crucial mistakes, and when he asks her to live with him underwater, she thinks it might be the solution to all of her problems. Is she totally crazy, or is this the key to everlasting love? What does "living" with him really entail?

In The Pisces, Broder creates a portrait of a woman who desperately wants to feel desired and feel loved, and she believes only a man can make her feel fulfilled. The book is part social commentary on the pressure women feel to behave as expected, and how easily they can be taken advantage of, and it's part fantasy (you know, the merman part). At times the book is painful to read because of the loneliness and depression that Lucy and some of her fellow group members suffer from.

As you might imagine given the subject matter, this book is pretty sexually explicit, and it's probably more of a book for women than it is for men. It tends to drag a little bit at times, as Lucy keeps cycling through her depression and indecisiveness. I also had a bit of a problem with the way she treated the dog, so those who are sensitive to the way pets and animals are treated in books may be troubled by her behavior.

Broder is a tremendously creative storyteller, and she imbues her characters with heart, sensitivity, and humor, as well as some serious libidos. This is an odd book, but it's definitely one of the most unique ones I've read in some time. It certainly may make you think twice when you're at the beach at night!

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Book Review: "Leave No Trace" by Mindy Mejia

Ten years ago Josiah Blackthorn took his nine-year-old son Lucas camping in the Boundary Waters, an area of northern Minnesota full of forests and ice-cold lakes. One day it appeared their campsite was ravaged by bears or other creatures, and the two were never heard from again. Once media interest died down, the Blackthorns were all but forgotten.

Until a night 10 years later, when now-19-year-old Lucas Blackthorn was apprehended trying to rob an outfitter store. He became aggressive and violent, and was uncommunicative, so he was sent to the local psychiatric hospital for observation. Both the doctors and law enforcement want to know what happened to Lucas' father, but he refuses to talk—to everyone except Maya Stark, the new, young assistant speech therapist, who seems to engender reactions from the once-lost no-longer-a-boy.

While at first her interactions with Lucas are mainly keeping him from hurting her and others, Maya begins to build what she belies is a genuine connection with him. She can't explain why he feels like he can trust only her, and she can't quite determine where she crossed the line from acting in a professional capacity to wanting him to be able to find his father, without having to go through law enforcement. She knows he doesn't need speech therapy; what he needs is a protector, an ally, and despite warnings from her supervisor and her father, she's determined to be that ally.

The thing is, Maya has issues of her own. Her mother abandoned their family when she was a teenager, and she's spent a number of years blaming herself, as if she wasn't enough or right for her mother. And that's not the only secret Maya is hiding.

"What lies beneath us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us."

Will Maya do the right thing, if she can figure out what that is? Will her single-minded determination to help Lucas put her in danger? Will helping him get her the answers she has been seeking to her own questions, or will her decisions end in disaster?

In Leave No Trace, Mindy Mejia has given us a taut, compelling exploration of the pull of family and the need to be understood. I devoured this book, and while there were certain twists I expected, she threw in some surprises here and there. I found these characters fascinating and even a little unique, and while certainly I questioned Maya's judgment, I could see how past events in her life could lead her to make the choices she did.

Sure, not everything in this book is realistic. But you could see why the characters were compelled to do what they did, and how certain events unfolded. The coincidences and other things didn't bother me. I was hooked from start to finish.

I really enjoyed Mejia's last book, Everything You Want Me to Be (see my review), and with Leave No Trace she proves she's capable of something completely different. She's definitely an author I'll continue to watch with great anticipation, because no matter the genre, she's immensely talented!

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

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Book Review: "Paris Trance" by Geoff Dyer

"People talk about love at first sight, about the way that men and women fall for each other immediately, but there is also such a thing as friendship at first sight."

Luke is an Englishman in his mid-20s who decides to move to Paris in order to write a book. But when he arrives, he quickly realizes the city, and his life there, aren't what he imagined.

He's renting a decrepit apartment in the wrong neighborhood, he barely speaks or understands French, and he can't seem to meet anyone, especially a woman, no matter how hard he tries. He's considering moving back to England but knows that would be admitting failure and taking a step backward.

Then he meets Alex when he begins work at the same warehouse. Alex is a fellow English expatriate, and the two quickly find the rhythm of an intense friendship. With Alex in his life, things begin picking up for Luke—he finds a better apartment, and he begins playing soccer with his other colleagues. These victories bring his bravado back, and it's not long before he meets Nicole, a beautiful Serbian woman, with whom he falls completely in love.

"Even when we recall with photographic exactness the way in which someone first presented themselves to us, that likeness is touched by every trace of emotion we have felt up to—and including—the moment when we are recalling the scene."

As Luke and Nicole's relationship intensifies, Alex meets Sahra, a brilliant interpreter, and the two couples become inseparable, sharing meals, drinks, countless films, activities, travel—even the occasional drugs. Nicole and Luke's relationship is the more passionate and mercurial one, buoyed by wild sex, periodic arguments, and Luke's unending desire for fulfillment. Alex and Sahra are more stable—while their relationship might not reach the same levels of passion, their love is a steady one, which seems key to its future.

Paris Trance follows the four through more than a year of their relationships, the ups and the downs, and how the differences between the two couples—and the two men—become more evident as time carries on. The book also gives a glimpse into the future, and what happens to each of the couples, how some can change with the curves that life throws at you while some cannot.

This story is a beautifully compelling look at friendship and love, how some can enjoy the present while preparing for the future while others can only focus on what is in front of them. The book conveys the flush of relationships, the bonds of friendship, the insecurity of love so well, and captures both the tumultuous moments and the quiet ones. The banter between Luke and Alex, and at times, the four of them, is really enjoyable.

I really enjoyed this book, although I definitely enjoyed Alex and Sahra's characters more than Luke and Nicole's. The story has a poignancy at times, while other times it moves with a frenzy. The one thing I didn't quite understand is the periodic shifts in narration between first and third person. There is also some graphic, borderline kinky sex in the book which some may find awkward or unnecessary.

While elements of the plot of Paris Trance may seem familiar, in Geoff Dyer's hands the book feels unique. The book may not be perfect, but I'll remember it for a long while as a book that touched my emotions.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Book Review: "Ruthless Magic" by Megan Crewe

If The Hunger Games hooked up with Lev Grossman's The Magicians, the baby might somehow resemble Megan Crewe's newest book, Ruthless Magic. While the setting isn't quite as dystopian as the former, and there isn't the type of quest featured in the latter, this book shares elements of both without feeling like a retread of either.

In a society not too far into the future, there are people with magical abilities and there are those without, known as Dulls. The North American Confederation of Mages oversees the use of magic, and each year they decide which 16-year-olds will be chosen to become a part of the magic world, and which ones will be "dampened," essentially having their magical powers lessened so that they'll only be able to use one particular skill for professional purposes.

The Confederation is particular, though—they want to be able to control magic, so they only like to choose descendants of magical families rather than let "new magic" people in or those who came from less exclusive pedigrees. Those rejected by the Confederation have one course of appeal—they can stand for the Mages' Exam, a mysterious, brutal challenge that no one talks about—if they remember it, or survive.

Finn Lockwood is part of a prominent magical family, but his skills have always been lacking, much to his chagrin. Although it is his legacy to be accepted into the world of magic, he wants to be able to use his magic to make a difference; he doesn't want to be saddled with some low-level job. Declaring he'll stand for the Exam gives him the chance to succeed or fail on his own, and he's willing to take the risk.

Rocío Lopez grew up poor, the daughter of Dampened parents. She's spent all of her free time learning about magic and enhancing her skills, and she knows she's more talented than most. She should be a shoo-in for a place in the Confederation, but she is rejected because of her background, so she has no choice but to stand for the Exam, despite the risks that her family is all too sadly familiar with.

Everyone who believes themselves worthy of a place in the Confederation comes to Rikers Island to stand for the Mage's Exam. It will be unlike anything they've ever faced before—a test of will, intelligence, magical skill, and courage, and it will show them (and the Examiners) just how far they're willing to go in order to succeed. Although they have different reasons for wanting to succeed, Rocío and Finn become allies—and possibly more—and vow to protect one another, as well as others in their group, although when magic is involved, whom can you really trust?

I found this to be a really engaging, creative, and quick read. Ever since the Harry Potter series I've been completely fascinated by magic and those who have the skills, and love the dynamics among fledgling and skilled magicians with different abilities. I was really pleased Crewe decided to shift the narration of the book only between Finn and Rocío; I was afraid she'd alternate it among others as well and I thought that might get more confusing.

I've never read anything Crewe has written before, but I was really dazzled by her storytelling and her world-building (even if the world was our own). She has created some engaging characters with real emotions and real struggles, and even gave us those to root against. There's some great action in here, some brutal magical challenges, and the pace flowed really nicely.

Obviously, when I say the words "magic" or "fantasy," there are some who roll their eyes or immediately say, "This one's not for me." You know who you are. But if you're looking for something new, Ruthless Magic may be an interesting book to try. I'll be waiting for the next one in the series. (Apparently if you join Crewe's website, you get a free prequel to the book, so that's where I'm heading next!)

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

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Book Review: "Noir" by Christopher Moore

Well, it's been a while since I've read a book that should have been accompanied by a drum set, in order to generate rimshots after every joke, but this definitely felt like one of those!!

"There are times in a guy's life when he finds himself floating facedown in a sea of troubles, and as hope bubbles away, he thinks, How the hell did I get here?"

It's 1947 in San Francisco. The country has just started putting all of its pieces back together following World War II. Sammy "Two Toes" Tiffin is the evening bartender at Sal's Saloon, and he spends his evenings helping the city's denizens bury their troubles with the help of cheap liquor. Sam always has his hand in some other scheme, either because he needs to make more money or he has connections that range throughout the city. (Most often both.)

Then one night, of all of the gin joints in the world, in she walks—a flirtatious blonde, "a size-eight dame in a size-six dress and every mug in the joint was rooting for the two sizes to make a break for it as they watched her wiggle in the door and shimmy onto a barstool with her back to the door." The dame, it turns out, is named Stilton (like the cheese), and she takes a shine to Sammy. And the shine is more than mutual.

As much as Sammy would like to do nothing more than romance "the Cheese" (as everyone refers to Stilton), he's got his hands full. His boss wants him to recruit a group of women to "entertain" a bunch of VIPs. He may have been inadvertently involved in the assault and kidnapping of a somewhat racist policeman. Oh, and he might have also brought a deadly black mamba snake into San Francisco—and the snake didn't waste time before inflicting some damage.

But is that why two dark-suited, sunglasses-wearing investigators are on his trail? Or is there something else?

When the Cheese goes missing, Sammy needs to take action. He recruits a motley group of friends and associates to help him follow her trail, and it leads them into the middle of one hell of a mess, with cross-dressing members of a secret club, government investigators bent on "taking care" of anyone that gets in their way, and, well, there may be a space alien in the mix as well.

Sammy doesn't know what to make of any of it, but he knows he wants the Cheese back, so he'll take on any enemy that comes his way—even if it may be carrying a space blaster.

Noir is a wacky, corny, somewhat disjointed novel that is simultaneously funny, odd, confusing, and downright bizarre. But all of these adjectives perfectly describe the storytelling of Christopher Moore, author of books like The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove and Island of the Sequined Love-Nun, among others. As I saw in the description of this book, "Think Raymond Chandler meets Damon Runyon with more than a dash of Bugs Bunny and the Looney Tunes All Stars," but I'd throw in a little Men in Black as well.

I was a big fan of Moore's in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but after a while I found myself rolling my eyes more than laughing when I read his books. For some reason I expected something slightly different from Noir, and while it started out that way, by the end there were so many competing storylines, not to mention occasional narration from Petey the black mamba snake, that I just wasn't sure what I was reading.

This is a book that takes on its story with great gusto. I marveled at Moore's creativity, but all in all, Noir didn't quite work for me. However, if zany, no-holds-barred books pique your interest, definitely give this one a try.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Book Review: "My Ex-Life" by Stephen McCauley

In 1987, I read Stephen McCauley's The Object of My Affection. I fell head over heels in love with that book about the often-blurred lines between love and friendship, and how we sometimes confuse security for happiness. I've read it a number of times since then, and it is easily one of my favorite books. (The less said about the film adaptation with Jennifer Aniston and Paul Rudd the better.)

Through the years, I have read all of McCauley's other books, and he continues to be one of my favorite writers. I love the way his characters never quite have it all together (who does, really), and I so enjoy his commentary on the state of modern relationships, be they romantic, platonic, familial, or all of the above. He is, however, one of those authors who makes me wait quite a long time between books—his last book, Insignificant Others, was written eight years ago, but he generally lets four or five years elapse between books.

Needless to say, I was well overdue for a McCauley fix, and happily, his newest book, My Ex-Life provided a terrific remedy.

David Hedges' life is in a bit of a tailspin. His partner, Soren, has left him for an older, wealthier man, his beautiful rental home in San Francisco is being put up for sale (and he most definitely cannot afford to buy it), and he's gained more than a few pounds recently. And how did he wind up in his 50s?

The last thing David was expecting was to hear from Julie Fiske, one of his oldest and dearest friends—who also happens to be his ex-wife.

"He and Julie had a history, albeit an ancient and complicated one. They hadn't seen each other in almost thirty years, hadn't spoken in more than twenty, and David assumed that their story, like a few other things in his life—his desire to visit Petra; his vow to study piano; his sexual relevance—had ended. This didn't diminish her importance to him. His memories of her lingered, faded by the years in flattering ways."

Life has been a mess for Julie, too. She is in the midst of her second divorce, and her soon-to-be-ex-husband wants to sell their home (which Julie has been operating as a not-too-successful Airbnb property) right out from under her. Julie isn't sure where she can find the money to buy the house herself, although the thought of having to leave the seaside town outside Boston is utterly unappealing. Plus, she may have a little bit of a problem with marijuana.

Julie and David reunite under the request that David, whose job entails helping high school kids pull together their college applications and get into the school of their (parents') choice, help Julie's daughter Mandy with the same task. Mandy doesn't think she's much of a catch for a college, and has more than enough problems with her self-worth to worry about SAT scores and essays. But she knows her mother is in a downward spiral, so she agrees to work with David.

When David agrees to visit Julie, he does so in an attempt to rescue her from her current situation, not to mention escape the current craziness in his own life. It doesn't take long before they've slipped into the comforting familiarity of their relationship, albeit with a more mature (and realistic) eye. But there are some secrets which haven't been revealed in 30+ years, secrets which could damage their relationship—and their view of the path their lives took, not to mention people with designs on hurting all three of them.

Once again, McCauley brings his signature wit, candor, and emotion to a story of two people with a rich and complex shared history. While you've seen characters like Julie, David, and Mandy before, McCauley draws you in and makes you care about them and the mistakes they're making, even if you can predict what might happen. There is humor, frustration, hurt, poignancy, and reminiscences, as well as plenty of instances in which the characters wonder if what they remember is accurate or viewed through the happy haze of reunion.

My Ex-Life is a story about the truths and lies we tell ourselves and others, and how the strength to survive is often within ourselves, but it takes a good push from someone else to find it. It's also a story about friendship, love, and secrets, and how it's still possible to have the first two once you've worked through the third.

I remain a huge fan of Stephen McCauley, and I'd encourage you to read his books. I only hope, if he sees this review, he considers not making me wait another eight years for his next book? (Pretty please? I can type it for you if that would help.)

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Book Review: "The Nowhere Man" by Gregg Hurwitz

It's an indication of how many books I read last year that while Gregg Hurwitz's Orphan X, the first novel in his Evan Smoak series, made my list of the best books I read in 2016, I never got around to reading the second book, The Nowhere Man, until now, despite the fact that it came out in early 2017. There's even a third book out. I have to catch up!!

The Nowhere Man is a little bit uneven, so it's not quite as good as its predecessor. But when the book clicks, as it does in places and then consistently in the last third or so, you realize what a kick-ass character Evan Smoak is, and that Hurwitz can write both action scenes that crackle as well as scenes which deliver real emotion.

When Evan Smoak (not his real name) was young, a man rescued him from a troubled life and he trained Evan how to kill. When he got older he became the Nowhere Man, the last resort for a person in desperate trouble. No one knows who the Nowhere Man is, but they know if they call him, he will help rescue them from a seemingly helpless situation.

A call from a teenage girl in a desperate situation leads him to the existence of a sex trafficking operation, which abducts vulnerable young women and sends them into the hands of nefarious characters. As usual, Smoak works to cut the operation off at its knees, but as he tries to determine just how deep its roots are, he is abducted by an utterly unanticipated nemesis, who wants something from Evan, and will stop at nothing to get it.

Suddenly, Evan finds himself captured in an unknown location, under guard by a number of trigger-happy mercenaries, and at the mercy of a sadistic, opportunistic individual with unlimited resources and a real inferiority complex. His captors think they've got the best of Evan, but they don't understand just whom they're dealing with—but outsmarting this clan will push Evan to his very limits, physically and intellectually.

"What did it say about him that he was so easily put back together? He'd long thought that it was a positive attribute, a testament to his durability, but now it felt artificial, unhuman. He was rebuildable, a snap-together Lego toy."

As Evan plots his escape, he is haunted by the need to rescue two different people, and he has his own visions of his surrogate father figure, whose death Evan feels responsible for. And then he realizes that those who hold him captive aren't the only enemies he'll have to defeat.

There are some great twists and turns in this book, and I just love Evan's resourcefulness, and the life he has built for himself, even though it is lonely. There were some fight scenes that literally had my heart pumping as I was amazed at the way he and his enemies kept turning the situation. But Hurwitz also showed his ability to create introspective and poignant moments as well, which gave the book—and its characters—real depth.

Parts of the plot really require you suspend your disbelief, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but I kept hoping that Hurwitz wasn't going to get totally bizarre with the story. (Close, but not quite.) My main criticism is that I love Evan when he is doing what he does best—rescuing those in need and making those responsible pay. Given that he spends a significant part of this book captured (although slowly enacting his revenge), it tended to dull my enthusiasm after a time.

If you're looking for a great series, pick up Orphan X and prepare to be blown away. The Nowhere Man is definitely worth a read as well, and I'll need to check out the third book in this series (which I've heard is fantastic) pretty soon. There's lots of violence, so those who don't enjoy that should steer clear, but if you're okay with fictionalized violence, get ready for your pulse to rise!!

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Book Review: "Number One Chinese Restaurant" by Lillian Li

Growing up in the New Jersey suburbs in the mid-1980s, my family ate dinner out nearly every Sunday evening, and more often than not, we ate Chinese food, as did many other families in my town. (I used to joke that there were classmates I saw more regularly at the Chinese restaurant than I did in high school!)

While there were several different Chinese restaurants in our area, and everyone had a favorite, we frequently ate at one particular restaurant, whose owners my parents had known for a number of years. The owner and his wife seemed to have a fascinating relationship, and the high school gossip I was then loved to make up stories about what was going on in their lives, as well as the lives of the other employees. Perhaps those memories were what drew me to Lillian Li's Number One Chinese Restaurant—that, and the fact that Li's book takes place in a suburb of Washington, DC known for its Chinese restaurants.

The Beijing Duck House in Rockville, Maryland, has certainly seen better days, but it's still a favorite among the community's restaurants. The creation of immigrant Bobby Han, the Duck House was once a place where presidents and celebrities dined, but Bobby's death left the restaurant caught between his two sons, the more managerially suited Johnny, and the more impulsive, ambitious Jimmy.

Jimmy has dreams of getting away from his father's legacy and opening a fancier Asian fusion restaurant where he'd never again have to serve the dishes which exhaust and repulse him. But to make his dream possible requires striking a deal with the devil, one who has been on the outskirts of their family for years now, and doesn't know how to take the word "no" for an answer.

When tragedy strikes, it may make the achievement of Jimmy's dreams closer to reality, but it also upends the lives of many others. For longtime employees Nan and Ah-Jack, they are forced to confront the so-called elephant in the room, their friendship/flirtation, and decide whether to pursue something more after 30 years. But if they do, how will this affect Ah-Jack's wife and Nan's rebellious teenage son, Pat?

Pat, a dishwasher at the Duck House since being expelled from high school, is in the midst of a flirtation with Annie, the hostess, who happens to be Jimmy's niece. While Annie has very little love for her father or her family's restaurant, she's not expecting to get pulled into a scheme which threatens to destroy both.

As Jimmy tries to hold on to his dream, he must battle his brother, their seemingly ineffective mother, and the family friend whose menacing presence has always kept everyone on edge. But what does Jimmy really want? Is it making a name for himself, or continuing to bask in the spotlight his father built all these years ago.

There's a lot going on in this book, with no shortage of melodrama, family dysfunction, angst, and even a little crime for good measure. While the different situations the characters find themselves in certainly have potential, they never really grabbed my interest as I had hoped. I don't know if there was too much to digest (no pun intended) all at once, or if it was more that the characters weren't particularly sympathetic, but I felt that the plot really dragged, and never picked up much steam.

If you like stories of family dynamics, you might enjoy this one. The one thing I truly appreciated about this book is that Li didn't spend too much time dwelling on the food, so I didn't get as hungry as I often do when reading books about restaurants and cooks!

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

Book Review: "The Line That Held Us" by David Joy

After reading David Joy's newest novel, I've come to the conclusion that writers like him and Michael Farris Smith deserve their own sub-genre of fiction, one that I'll call "bleak-tion."

This sub-genre would contain beautifully written books in which a feeling of despair or doom is quite pervasive, and you know that something monumentally, well, bleak is going to happen. (See Joy's The Weight of This World or Smith's Desperation Road or The Fighter.) I don't mean this in a disparaging way, but you shouldn't read these novels in search of a belly laugh.

In the latest addition to the world of bleak-tion, The Line That Held Us, Darl Moody is a country boy who may not have a ton of ambition, but he has taken good care of his mother as well as his married sister and her family since the death of his father a few years before. He's never done anything worse than drink one (or two) too many, except perhaps try and hunt a deer before the season officially opens.

When he's convinced he has seen a colossal buck roaming another man's land, he needs to find it. He knows that poaching is wrong, and he knows it's even worse when you're hunting off the land of a man who is out of town for his sister's funeral, but this buck could provide enough for him and his family to eat. Although the deer proves elusive, he spots a wild hog and takes aim.

It's not a hog he has killed, however; it's Carol "Sissy" Brewer, the slower, gentler son of the brash, violent Brewer family. Carol was hunting ginseng on the farm when he was shot. Darl doesn't know what to do, so he turns to the only person he has ever been able to count on, his best friend since childhood, Calvin Hooper. Despite Calvin's misgivings, he agrees to help Darl bury Carol, and the two vow never to tell anyone what happened that night, which becomes progressively harder as they become increasingly haunted by the events of that evening.

When Carol's older brother Dwayne comes looking for him, he knows right away something bad has happened, and he will leave no stone unturned until he finds what happened to him, and whom shall be held responsible. This determination to uncover the mystery of his brother's disappearance sets him on a collision course with Darl and Calvin, and threatens to upend all of their lives. Dwayne believes in an eye for an eye, and he will exact his revenge, no matter how many people get hurt in the process.

Needless to say, this isn't a happy read, but it is powerful—even gut-wrenching at times—and you probably can predict how the story will unfold. But Joy is an exceptional storyteller, and even the commonplace becomes more fascinating when seen through his lens. He so accurately evokes the mounting sense of dread, the fear, the unhingedness that his characters feel, and he draws you into a story which only rarely has moments of lightness.

Fair warning: this is a book with some graphically depicted violence (mostly toward humans and once toward an animal) and some pretty detailed descriptions of the process a body goes through once a person's life ends. (It made for a somewhat squeamish read on my red-eye flight, I must tell you.) If those things are triggers for you, you'll probably want to pass this one by.

You may want to have a more lighthearted novel at the ready after you finish The Line That Held Us, but you should definitely read this, if only to see a master of "bleak-tion" at work once again.

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

Monday, May 7, 2018

Book Review: "The Astonishing Color of After" by Emily X.R. Pan

Lyrical, emotionally powerful, even fantastical at times, The Astonishing Color of After is a stunning, poignant look at grief, family, love, and secrets that packs a real punch, and leaves you with gorgeous images in your mind.

"We try so hard to make these little time capsules. Memories strung up just so, like holiday lights, casting the perfect glow in the perfect tones. But that picking and choosing what to look at, what to put on display—that's not the true nature of remembering. Memory is a mean thing, slicing at you from the harshest angles, dipping your consciousness into the wrong colors again and again."

Leigh Sanders has always caught people's attention—for the colorful streaks she puts in her hair, her artistic talent, and her mixed heritage, as her mother is Chinese and her father is Irish-American. But no matter how many times she asked through her childhood, she's never met her maternal grandparents, never heard much about her mother's life before she met Leigh's father while studying in America. It's always a door that has remained closed, and if anything, Leigh's attempts to open it have been met with real resistance from her parents.

Then one day, the bottom falls out. Leigh's mother commits suicide. Although her depression always seemed a part of their lives the last several years, neither Leigh nor her father ever really thought this would happen. Leigh tries to figure out what signs she might have missed, what she could have done differently, while at the same time, she blames her father's withdrawal from their lives, his continual business travels, for leaving her mother so vulnerable.

In the days following her suicide, Leigh believes her mother keeps returning to her in the form of a beautiful red bird, but when she calls out to her, or asks her to stay, the bird flies away. What is her mother trying to tell her? What does she want Leigh to do?

"Once upon a time we were the standard colors of a rainbow, cheery and certain of ourselves. At some point, we all began to stumble into the in-betweens, the murky colors made dark and complicated by resentment and quiet anger."

As if all of that isn't complicated enough, Leigh must also face facts that on the day her mother killed herself, Leigh finally kissed Axel, her best friend and (perhaps not-so) secret crush. How can she reconcile those two events?

Her father finally relents and travels with Leigh to Taiwan so she can finally meet her maternal grandparents. There she hopes that she'll finally understand what her mother is trying to tell her, what she wants her to remember. As she begins to learn more about her mother and the reasons she closed herself and Leigh off from her heritage, she learns powerful lessons about the power of memory, loss, ghosts, and the connections of blood and friendship.

This is a beautiful, heartfelt, somewhat quirky book, which shifts between real and fantasy, present and past. At times it's necessary to suspend your disbelief, as Leigh is able to witness memories she never knew about (or, in some cases, wasn't alive for), and there's a lot of discussion about ghosts, as they're revered and feared in Taiwan. Additionally, being an artist, Leigh tends to reflect and explain moods in color, particularly unusual shades of color, so that may strike some as off-putting.

Those quirks aside, The Astonishing Color of After really is astonishing. Emily X.R. Pan captures teenage angst, grief, and fears perfectly, and the strange unevenness of family dynamics. This is a book that dazzled, lyrically and emotionally, as it made me tear up, which is always a fun thing to do on a plane ride! This may not be a book for everyone, but for those who decide to read it, I hope it paints a beautifully emotional portrait for you as well.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Book Review: "Luckiest Girl Alive" by Jessica Knoll

Well, I think it had been a few days since I saw a book compared to Gone Girl so thankfully we didn't lose a step. Truthfully, though, other than the fact that both books have the word "Girl" in their title, I don't know what they have in common, so maybe someone else can explain the need to compare the two.

Ani FaNelli finally has it all. She's engaged to a gorgeous, wealthy man from a notable family. He makes her feel safe and secure, and allows her to buy the designer wardrobe she needs to fit in. She also has a terrific job, writing for one of the most popular women's magazines, and while she is wearying of writing sex column after sex column, her boss promises a tantalizing opportunity not far in the future.

But in her teenage years, Ani, then known as TifAni, longed desperately to fit in, to be considered part of the popular crowd at the prestigious Bradley School. Her need to belong led herself to be more vulnerable than she would have been ordinarily, and although she quickly was befriended by a sarcastic group of outcasts, she wanted to be invited to the in crowd's lunch table, to be best friends with the girls everyone talked about.

A decision made in a split second made her the target of a humiliating event, and so while she became the talk of the school, it wasn't for the reasons she had hoped. But that event set her and her classmates on a dangerous course, one which will change many of their lives in ways they hadn't expected.

Years later, Ani is invited to tell her side of the story in a documentary. She desperately wants to show her old classmates that she isn't the same girl, that she finally has it all and is a worthy opponent. But what secrets will this documentary lay bare? Will she be able to channel the fear and anxiety she has had since those days? Is she truly a survivor, or a master manipulator?

Jessica Knoll creates a flawed and enigmatic character in Ani, and teases out her plot little by little, so you want to keep reading. There was some suspense, as I wanted to know how Ani's secrets, and how Knoll was going to resolve everything. Some of the twists were predictable, some less so, but while this was a diverting book that I read on a long flight, I don't know that I enjoyed it as much as I had hoped. Knoll certainly can write; I just found some of what happened really implausible, and at times, Ani was so unlikable that I just didn't care.

While I was reading this book on a plane, several passengers told me how much they liked it, so I may be in the minority here. But I just wanted to be wowed a little more, to feel a bit breathless when I finished the book, and that didn't happen.