Saturday, June 30, 2018

Book Review: "The Great Believers" by Rebecca Makkai

At the start of The Great Believers, Rebecca Makkai's beautifully poignant yet meandering new novel, it is 1985, and Yale Tishman and his partner, Charlie, are preparing for the memorial service for Nico, a friend who has recently died of AIDS.

The gay community in Chicago where they live has been devastated by this recently discovered disease, as have gay communities across the country. The sense of loss they feel is just beginning to hit them, as they begin hearing more and more about people getting sick, more people living in denial and fear, more people simply disappearing.

As much as the disease and people's attitudes towards it affect him, Yale has other things to focus on. As the development director for a university art gallery, he stumbles on an unexpected windfall: an elderly woman wants to bequeath her collection of 1920s artwork to the gallery. But uncertainty about the artwork's authenticity and familial outrage at the potential value of a gift that could be given to strangers causes Yale and his colleagues more stress than anticipated, at a time when emotions are running high in his relationship with Charlie as well.

With the disease circling ever closer, Yale finds his life changing in many ways, and he begins relying more and more on Fiona, his friend Nico's younger sister. Fiona is wise beyond her years, and finds herself acting as a companion of sorts, and ultimately, power of attorney, for many of her late brother's friends. It's a role that impacts her greatly.

"'The thing is, the disease itself feels like a judgment. We've all got a little Jesse Helms on our shoulder, right? If you got it from sleeping with a thousand guys, then it's a judgment on your promiscuity. If you got it from sleeping with one guy once, that's almost worse, it's like a judgment on all of us, like the act itself is the problem and not the number of times you did it. And if you got it because you thought you couldn't, it's a judgment on your hubris.'"

In a parallel storyline which takes place 30 years later, Fiona has traveled to Paris to try and find her estranged daughter, who had fled the U.S. after joining a cult. Fiona's relationship with her daughter has always been difficult, but she hopes to make peace with Claire. She stays with an old friend from Chicago, Richard Campo, a photographer who made his name in the 1980s taking pictures of those in the community affected by AIDS, many of whom were his friends and former lovers.

Surrounded by memories both photographic and anecdotal, Fiona is haunted by the ghosts of her friends. She comes to realize how much she sacrificed caring for and loving these men, sacrifices which affected her marriage, her relationship with her daughter, and her life. But given the chance, would she do it over again, or would she put herself and her own life first?

Parts of this book were tremendously moving and poignant, reminding me both of the movie Longtime Companion and, at times, Tim Murphy's gorgeous novel, Christodora (see my review), although this is very different. Makkai did a phenomenal job capturing the emotions, the fears, the culture, and the challenges of those infected with AIDS in the early days of the disease.

I enjoyed Fiona's character and her journey, but I could have done without her protracted search for her daughter and her interaction with another random character, although I like the way her modern-day storyline intertwined with Yale's. And while I loved Yale's character and could have read a book about him alone, I'll admit I could have done without the whole art thing, although it did set other plot points into motion.

I was fortunate to come of age after AIDS had been discovered so I understood the risks and methods of prevention much better than those who came before me. But that doesn't mean that life in the late 1980s and early 1990s weren't without fear and ignorance and prejudice toward those with the disease.

Makkai is a tremendously talented writer, and I've read a few of her previous books. While this book frustrated me at times, I still really found it compelling and emotional, and feel like Makkai did an excellent job examining a bleak time in the LGBT community.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Book Review: "The Book of Essie" by Meghan MacLean Weir

Praise the lord!!

How quick we are to judge people, even if (or especially) when we don't know them. This is even more the case where celebrities are concerned—we think we know the people we see on television or read about in magazines, yet quite often they're far more complex, and their lives are more complicated than we could ever imagine.

Esther "Essie" Hicks has spent nearly every minute of her life in the public eye. Her family has been a reality show staple with Six for Hicks long before her birth. The world has been both fascinated and repelled by her mega-church preacher father, her iron-willed mother who pulls all of the strings, and her siblings, as they've grown into adulthood and lives of faith and service all their own.

"Our family rejected materialism and popular culture and yet we also produced it. The show...paid for the SUVs Mother and Daddy drove, the lake house, the 'spiritual retreat' that was actually a villa in Saint John. It paid for the car seat I rode home in from the hospital, the muslin blankets I was swaddled in when I slept. It paid for my first backpack when it came time for me to go to school, Mother having by then completely abandoned giving lessons in the living room, not just because her time and energy were better spent promoting our brand but also because marketing said that what our audience wanted at that point was a character who was 'normal.'"

When Essie's mother Celia discovers she is pregnant, she and the show's producers must decide what to do. Do they spirit Essie out of the country for an abortion? Do they hide Essie away and then pretend that Celia has given birth to a miracle baby so late in life? Or better yet, do they marry her off, thus reaping the incredible publicity which could accompany a whirlwind romance and storybook wedding?

Celia doesn't realize that Essie is manipulating the situation, pairing herself off with a fellow classmate, Roarke Richards, despite the two of them never having spoken to one another. Roarke has his own secrets, but he is willing to help Essie sell their love story to the world. But once he finds himself part of the story, he realizes that there is far more to Essie than he ever believed, and she is not the judgmental, flighty sycophant he imagined she was.

With the help of reporter Liberty Bell, once immersed in her own media spotlight in the world of ultra-conservative religion, Essie hopes to make her true story known once and for all. But in the meantime, she wants to know why her older sister left home a few years ago, never to return, and wonders whether she'll be willing to help her. However, Essie and Roarke have to be willing to pay a tremendously high price if they share the truth with the world. Are they?

A meditation on the cult of celebrity and the hypocrisies they bring along, The Book of Essie was pretty fantastic. I was hooked from start to finish, even though I had a feeling how much of the plot might unfold. We've seen people like these characters in the media, or perhaps we even know people in similar situations without the glare of the public eye, and yet the story was utterly fascinating.

Certainly a story like this favors one "side" over another, but I liked the way that Meghan MacLean Weir didn't quite make Essie's family and others to be one-dimensional religious zealots. She certainly captured the fervor that conservative celebrities engender, and the issues they use to generate passion among their believers, but she didn't mock everyone with strong religious beliefs. She's a really talented storyteller, and she made you root for Essie and Roarke (and Liberty, too, to some extent).

In a world where everyone is just one or two viral videos away from temporary fame, The Book of Essie is a compelling, well-told look at how fame can be both a positive tool and a dangerous weapon, because of the way it can convince you that your version of reality is the right one. If you've ever wondered how a religious family might handle a scandal or two, this one's for you.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Book Review: "Jar of Hearts" by Jennifer Hillier

That's the feeling I get when a book that everyone else has been raving about turns out to be as amazing as you hoped. In this case, believe the hype—Jennifer Hillier's Jar of Hearts is pretty fantastic!!

"The past is always with you, whether you choose to think about it or not, whether you take responsibility for it or not. You carry the past with you because it transforms you. You can try to bury it and pretend it never happened, but that doesn't work. Geo knows that from experience. Because buried things can, and do, come back."

Georgina Shaw and her two best friends, Angela Wong and Kaiser Brody, were pretty much inseparable in high school. But one night everything changed. Angela went missing one night after a party, and Geo and Kaiser's friendship was never the same. No one knew, or even suspected, the secret that was weighing her down. Who could imagine that she could have anything to do with Angela's disappearance?

Fourteen years later, Geo is an executive on the fast track at a pharmaceutical company in Seattle, engaged to the firm's CEO. She's poised to have it all, and then Angela's remains are found buried in the woods not far from where Geo grew up. The Seattle police department, where Kaiser now works as a detective, has discovered that Angela was an early victim of Calvin James, a serial killer responsible for at least three other murders, who has been dubbed the Sweetbay Strangler.

While the police view Calvin as a cold-blooded killer, he was Geo's first boyfriend when she was in high school. A few years older than she was, Calvin was sexy, volatile, and controlling, and while their relationship was far from perfect given his temper, she couldn't get enough of him, and he was just as obsessed with her. But the night Angela died, everything changed.

Geo carried the secret of what really happened to Angela for 14 years, and when it is finally exposed, and she winds up in prison, her carefully planned life is turned upside down. But as she takes the punishment she deserves, she—and her hometown—are once again shattered by the discovery of more murders, similar to those of the Sweetbay Strangler. It is only then that Geo realizes just how dangerous secrets and lies can be.

I tried to be really careful with my plot description, because Hillier lets her plot unfold slowly, teasing out details, and she had me hooked on this book from start to finish. Geo is a fascinating character, and I kept hoping there would be reasons to continue rooting for her. I also loved Kaiser's character, and really loved the dynamics of the two of them interacting after so long apart.

I wasn't completely surprised by the plot, but I still loved this book. Hillier did a great job with keeping the story moving and not getting too bogged down in reminiscences, since so much of the plot was driven by modern-day events. This is a terrific thriller, full of suspense as well as the realization that what happens in your youth can never be put completely behind you.

Grab this one before they turn it into a movie or television miniseries!!

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Book Review: "The Silliest Stories Out of Bustleburg" by Jimmy Misfit

Many cities get a deservedly bad rap, but none are quite like Bustleburg, a city in rapid decline. Major chemical companies, processing plants, refineries, and waste treatment localities are poisoning the city, creating a so-called "Death Garden." The Yuckamud River has caught fire countless times, and the city's skyline has been voted ugliest skyline every year for the last 20.

But it's not just the environmental conditions in Bustleburg that make it "America's Worst City." The city implemented a caste system similar to India, "so they changed it to where four quadrants were laborers and one quadrant simply got to be top dogs no matter what." (No one who doesn't belong in Burnsvale is allowed to go there.) Libraries and trees are forbidden (well, trees are allowed as long as they stay put in the Municipal Tree Sanctuary), and caffeine, chocolate, and most music is sort of illegal. (Plus, it's very hard for a restaurant to get an oven since they're a fire hazard, but restaurants are doing wonders these days with microwaves, and cold fusion bistros are all the rage.)

Jimmy Misfit's unique, zany collection of stories about this dying metropolis are full of people who find themselves in crazy situations when they run up against Bustleburg's rules and notorious citizens. From the eager employee of the Bustleburg Environmental Lobby who finds his tour to attract new employees hijacked by the local crime family to the young girl who learns about preferential treatment when she has to capitulate to the town's corrupt mayor, from the man excited about his job at I Can't Believe It's Tofu only to be paired up with a new employee with ulterior motives to the striking firemen, Misfit's stories are full of humor, creativity, and turns of phrase sure to make you guffaw.

While these stories certainly are caricatures, Misfit imbues them with heart, as well. Not all of his characters are buffoons or villains—some are simply trying to make their way against the tide, which just happens to be the entire city of Bustleburg. This is definitely one of those books that can provide a total change of pace, the perfect antidote to too much melodrama, murder, or domestic angst. Misfit definitely gets points for creativity here, as he essentially built a whole town full of characters, foibles, and situations!!

Give this one a try when you're looking for a good chuckle.

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

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Book Review: "Tell Me Lies" by Carola Lovering

Sometimes we can't help loving a person who is utterly wrong for us. It's not that we might not have anything in common, or we come from different backgrounds—it's when we love a person despite the fact that they treat us horribly, and yet we keep coming back, pretending this time everything is going to be different.

Lucy is a freshman at Baird College, a small school in California. She's so happy to leave her stifling Long Island home behind, full of preppy social climbers and those with no ambition except to marry each other, have preppy babies, and hang out at the country club. She wants more out of life than that—she wants to be a travel writer and see the world.

When she meets upperclassman Stephen DeMarco at a party she isn't impressed. He's intriguing, perhaps slightly attractive, but she just doesn't feel into him. Even though he tries to ask her out occasionally, she's just not interested in starting anything with someone for whom she doesn't feel anything.

Most men would walk away; Stephen sees Lucy's disinterest as a challenge. Little by little, he pursues a campaign to win her, using tried-and-true techniques which have worked on numerous girls and women through his life. He makes Lucy believe she is worth pursuing, makes her believe that she is beautiful and he wants her more than anything else. It changes something in Lucy, although it puts a tremendous amount of pressure on her to maintain what she believes Stephen wants and sees.

"People always say that you can't have your cake and eat it, too, but you can. I know what girls in Lucy's position want to hear, and I can provide that. More flattery doesn't make the girl feel better, just addicted, and then you've hooked her because she continues to be hungry for that certain category of feedback."

It's not too long before Lucy and Stephen start an intense, on-again, off-again relationship that spans Lucy's entire education at Baird, as well as after she returns to New York following graduation. Her relationship with Stephen consumes her—she's either thinking of him, wondering what he is doing when he's not with her, or making herself sick that she's not with him. It exposes her every vulnerability and puts her other relationships and her education in jeopardy.

Both Lucy and Stephen have secrets they hide from one another. And as Lucy tries, over and over, to regain control of her life, she can't resist her feelings for Stephen, and she knows that if everything was perfect, he'd feel the same. Is she wrong to keep pinning her hopes on someone who keeps disappointing her? Will it ever be different?

"What was I doing? Why was I still chasing him? Did I even like him as a person? How could I ever bank on a future with someone I couldn't trust? There was that one stubborn, annoyingly veracious part of me that knew wanting Stephen had to be wrong. If you ignored the gray and got really honest, if everything in the world was separated into black and white, into good and bad, Stephen would fall into bad."

Narrated in alternating chapters by Lucy and Stephen, Tell Me Lies is a compulsively readable, soapy, and fascinating look at both sides of a relationship. You see the unvarnished, unlikable truths about both characters, their vulnerabilities and foibles, and what they'd like to portray to the other. And as each feels that pull from time to time, you see how a relationship—whether or not it's love—can be all-consuming.

I couldn't get enough of this book, even though the characters are pretty unsympathetic. Carola Lovering does a fantastic job of drawing you in to this push-and-pull, this obsession of sorts between the two characters. You almost want to look away at times when the characters' vulnerabilities are so exposed, and you also may look back on your own life and wonder which of the characters' behaviors you might have emulated at one time or another.

At times, this is a pretty brutal book, and the relationship and the periods between encounters dragged on a little more than I would have liked, but I couldn't stop reading. I was glad that Lovering didn't go for full melodrama with one plot point, and I was glad another major issue was settled before the book ended. While it's not quite the sunny beach book you might want, it's definitely an addictive read you'll devour.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Book Review: "Calypso" by David Sedaris

For me, reading David Sedaris' books is like hanging out with that slightly strange friend—you may think you're crazy, but at least there's someone crazier than you out there!

I've been reading Sedaris' books on and off for a number of years, since his first collection, Barrel Fever, in 1994. In addition to helping bolster my self-esteem, he's always good for a fair amount of chuckling, giggling, and all-out belly laughing, not to mention his unique ability to highlight some of life's frustrating, mystifying, and joy-inducing foibles. Plus, every now and again he simply makes me gasp at his observations.

Calypso, his newest collection, certainly is chock-full of laughs, and there's a good supply of slightly gross observations about bodily functions and other physical issues. But I wasn't prepared for how emotionally rich this collection would be—on a number of occasions I found myself getting a little choked up as Sedaris pondered growing older, the aging and death of family members, the legalization of same-sex marriage and what it meant for his relationship with his boyfriend, even the mood of the country following the 2016 presidential election.

It's funny—in one story Sedaris talks about his mother-in-law, and how she "likes to interrupt either to accuse you of exaggerating—'Oh, now, that's not true'—or to defend the person you're talking about, someone, most often, she has never met." Some of his observations are so outlandish that I'll admit occasionally thinking like his mother-in-law, saying to myself, "That can't be true." Regardless of whether it is or not, Sedaris had me latching on to his every word.

I'm not a Puritan by any means, but I'll admit there were a few stories that were a little heavy on bodily functions and feeding things to animals (read the book and you'll know what I'm referring to). However, so much of this book was terrific, beautifully written, funny, wry, sarcastic, and even poignant. In many of the stories (as is often the case), Sedaris spoke of his family and his relationship with his father, which continues to confound him, even as his father moves into his 90s.

"Honestly, though, does choice even come into it? Is it my fault that the good times fade to nothing while the bad ones burn forever bright? Memory aside, the negative just makes for a better story: the plane was delayed, an infection set in, outlaws arrived and reduced the schoolhouse to ashes. Happiness is harder to put into words. It's also harder to source, much more mysterious than anger or sorrow, which come to me promptly, whenever I summon them, and remain long after I've begged them to leave."

Calypso is a pretty terrific book, further testament to Sedaris' skill as a storyteller, a social commentator, and an observer of this crazy world we live in. His writing is great for some laughs (don't be shocked if you laugh out loud a time or two, so if you're self-conscious, don't read this in public), and this book is good for a few tears as well!

Monday, June 11, 2018

Book Review: "Southernmost" by Silas House

"'Sometimes we laugh and sometimes we cry and as long as we're alive, we can deal with everything else. You know?'"

Shortly after the Supreme Court legalizes same-sex marriage, a flood ravages preacher Asher Sharp's small Tennessee town, leaving many in his congregation homeless or with significant property damage. In the wake of the flood, Asher offers shelter to a gay couple, and they begin to visit his church, which roils his congregation to no end, as many believe the flood was caused by the Supreme Court's decision.

Asher's simple act of kindness emphasizes the cracks in his marriage to Lydia, devout and unyielding in her religious beliefs. But for the first time in a long time, Asher realizes that it is not his job to judge, it is his job to offer kindness, shelter, tolerance. These are qualities he didn't offer his own older brother, Luke, when he admitted his homosexuality—Asher turned his back on his brother and Luke left town, never to return again, although he has sent a few cryptic postcards through the years. This time, Asher is determined not to make the same mistakes by letting hate in his heart.

After delivering an emotional sermon preaching tolerance, Asher's congregation votes to remove him from his job. Lydia files for divorce as well as full custody of their nine-year-old son, Justin. Although his faith that he made the right decision is stronger than ever, he cannot face the idea of only seeing his son on occasional weekends and vacations, but he is unwilling to say he was wrong to call for tolerance and acceptance of all people.

With nowhere to turn, Asher takes Justin late one night and the two flee to Key West, where Luke's postcards were sent from. Asher hopes to reunite with his brother after all these years, and perhaps find peace at the same time. But a journey made in fear of being captured is an exhausting one, and Justin vacillates between wanting to be with Asher and wanting to return home to his mother and grandmother. He doesn't understand why all of the adults in his life can't simply agree with one another so that life could return to normal.

In Key West, Asher and Justin find their place in the colorful community, and learn powerful lessons about faith, trust, belief, forgiveness, and the redemptive power of love. But Asher knows in his heart that this happiness must be fleeting, for if he is to teach his son anything beyond not allowing hate in his heart, he must do the right thing and return to Tennessee with Justin.

Is love enough to overcome life's problems, to turn people away from hatred? How do we reconcile the beliefs we've been taught with the way life changes? How do we allow ourselves to let our guard down when we've experienced hurt and prejudice? In his exquisite and emotional new book, Southernmost, Silas House strives to answer those questions.

I thought this was a beautifully written, poignant book, one which really made me think. It's not an unfamiliar story, particularly in these turbulent times where the law says one thing but some people's beliefs cause them to act differently, but it still touches the heart. House's prose is lyrical and his imagery is evocative, and he gives both Asher and Justin distinctive and memorable voices to tell the story.

I wasn't sure what to expect with this book, but I found it completely compelling and a very fast read. I have often wondered how members of the clergy deal with reconciling what they've been taught, the words they live by, with the world they live in, and Southernmost captures that struggle, as well as the struggle to belong, to be understood, and to be loved and accepted for who you are, not judged for whom you love.

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

Book Review: "Limelight" by Amy Poeppel

If you're looking for an enjoyable read with a lot of heart, Amy Poeppel's Limelight may be the book for you.

Allison Brinkley has her hands full. She's been the most vocal proponent of moving her family from their suburban Dallas home to the wilds of New York City when her husband is offered a new position within his company.

She can't wait to live in a brownstone, enjoy the beauty of Central Park, and spend time with one of her best friends, who has been trying to get her to come to New York for years. She already has a teaching job lined up, too, so she's completely set.

But then reality sets in. She discovers they can't afford a brownstone (more like an apartment in a high-rise building), her friend is escaping to the New Jersey suburbs, and her job has fallen through. All that, and her older daughter is barely speaking to her, her younger daughter is doing poorly in school, and she's already been called into school by her son's principal because of inappropriate behavior. Was moving the right decision?

Ever the optimist, Allison still tries to rally her family—not to mention herself—around the excitement of New York. But when another career opportunity falls through, she starts to despair. Then opportunity comes her way in the most inauspicious of circumstances, when she has a fender-bender with a BMW in front of her son's school—while the "popular mom crowd" watches.

Her accident leads her to a luxury penthouse on Central Park West, where she encounters a foul-mouthed, hungover, spoiled teenager—who happens to be Carter Reid, a famous pop singer and teen heartthrob who seems to be taking a turn down the path of rebellion, spewing curses (and vomit), throwing punches, and causing trouble wherever he goes.

Carter is in New York City, abandoned by those who were working for him, in order to star in Limelight, a Broadway musical adaptation of the famous Charlie Chaplin film. The thing is, though, Carter doesn't want to do the musical and wants to fly home to Los Angeles. He doesn't care that he signed a contract, or what the implications are for his career or his fortune.

Amidst the wreck that Carter is making of his life and his career, Allison finds an opportunity to regain her self-worth, find a purpose, and perhaps finally fall in love with the city that never sleeps—plus she might even get her kids to talk to her again. But it's going to require a lot of patience, marshaling her teaching skills, and buying a lot of cell phones!

This was a really fun read. Even if the story is utterly improbable, it charms you from start to finish. It's a bit of a love note to New York City, a paean of sorts to the power of positive thinking and encouragement, and a look at how if you take the bull by the horns, you can achieve success in the strangest of ways.

I enjoyed Poeppel's last book, Small Admissions (see my review), and I felt the same way about this book as well. Allison is a sweet yet persistent character who is determined not to give up, and although many of the other characters have their faults, I still found myself utterly engaged by the story. (It's probably about 50-75 pages longer than it needs to be, though—Carter's shtick grew thin fairly quickly.)

Poeppel threw in lots of nuggets about Broadway, celebrity gossip, and New York City living along with the plot. This is definitely one of those books that are perfect to relax with on a rainy day, and enjoy the lighthearted story. I'll definitely read whatever Poeppel writes next—and I'm even thinking about checking out the Charlie Chaplin movie, too!

Friday, June 8, 2018

Book Review: "Still Lives" by Maria Hummel

The Rocque Museum was one of Los Angeles' hidden treasures—an art museum for art lovers and collectors more than for tourists. While this set the institution apart, this also took a toll on its finances. Everyone is desperate for a hit exhibition, including the founder's daughter, who is tired of bailing out the museum and the director, who is worried about job security.

They think they've found it in Still Lives, an exhibition by artist and provocateur Kim Lord. Lord painted self-portraits with her standing in for famous murder victims such as Nicole Brown Simpson, Kitty Genovese, Chandra Levy, and the Black Dahlia, in an effort to make a statement about how society and the media sensationalize violence against women. The pictures are chilling, eerie, and disturbing, and the elite of the art world are gathering at the Rocque to see the exhibition unveiled.

There's one issue though: Kim Lord doesn't show up for her own opening. Key museum staff receive texts that she'll be delayed a bit, but she never appears. And while her disappearance is helping boost the number of visitors, the longer she doesn't surface, the more concern grows, especially when some staff recount Lord's mentioning she felt she was being stalked in the museum.

Maggie Richter, a member of the museum's communications and PR office, wants to understand what happened to Kim, too, and it's not just because that would make her job easier. Maggie's ex-boyfriend, gallerist-on-the-rise Greg Shaw Ferguson, essentially dumped her for Kim, and it's not long before he stands accused of Kim's disappearance. Maggie wants to believe that the Greg she knew wouldn't be capable of anything nefarious, but she knows there are things he isn't telling her.

As Maggie searches for clues within Kim's own work, she begins to notice there is a lot more behind-the-scenes drama at the museum than she realized. Little by little, she starts to suspect others might have been responsible for Kim's disappearance, but she can't seem to make sense of their motivation. At the same time, she, too, becomes a suspect, given Kim's relationship with Shaw, but Maggie isn't sure what might happen—will she stand accused of a crime, or will she fall prey to the real perpetrator, who is determined to stop her progress?

"Find the who. Who gets hurt. Who gains. Whose life will never be the same."

This book is a fascinating look at the art world, the rise and fall of artists, the struggles of museums, and how collectors can change the flow of careers. At the same time, it's also a bit of a whodunit, one of those books in which an average, everyday person finds themselves immersed in trying to solve a crime despite having no real skills at doing so, and despite the fact they're putting themselves in danger.

The information that Maria Hummel provides gives a lot of insight into the former, and I like the way she describes the dynamics of the museum staff and the goings-on around the mounting of an exhibition. But as the book shifts full-time toward Maggie trying to figure out what happened to Kim and who was responsible, it loses its footing a bit. There is so much extraneous information thrown into the plot that I can't figure out what were supposed to be red herrings and what were just unresolved threads of the plot.

I like the way Hummel writes—this book has a breezy style, and the characters, while somewhat irritating, definitely got me invested in the story. While I enjoyed the book, I just wish the mystery part was executed a little cleaner, because it really had a lot of potential.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Book Review: "Find You in the Dark" by Nathan Ripley

I had this feeling of pervasive dread while reading Nathan Ripley's Find You in the Dark, kind of like watching a horror movie. I wasn't exactly sure what would happen but the tone of the book was so creepy that I kept reading while waiting for something bad to occur.

Martin Reese is a technology executive who was able to retire very early in order to spend more time with his wife and teenage daughter. But he fills his days in a very unusual way—using police files on serial killers that he buys illicitly, he finds long-buried bodies of their victims and unearths them. Then he calls the police anonymously and lets them know where they can find the bodies, although not without taunting them a little.

He doesn't do this for the glory or for some kind of weird or sexual urge. He does this simply to help the families who have spent years, perhaps even decades, without being able to put their loved ones to rest to get some closure. The only souvenirs he takes from his "digs" are photos, photos which he includes in a computer scrapbook that gets locked away.

One police detective doesn't see Martin's "work" as magnanimous; she thinks that if he's digging up these bodies there must be something else wrong with him. Will he soon lead them to bodies he murdered and buried on his own? She wants to apprehend this individual she has dubbed "The Finder" before he gives them something inexplicable to find.

And that's not the only attention Martin is getting. When he buys the file of infamous serial killer Jason Shurn, whom he believes might have abducted and murdered his wife's sister nearly 20 years ago, and he locates a body, he finds a recently murdered corpse in the same gravesite. It turns out that Martin may be uncovering someone else's kills as well—and they're not too happy about it. How far will they go to get him to stop?

While comparisons to Dexter are inevitable, Find You in the Dark is totally different. It does have a dark, creepy tone, and while it has a similar feel to many other thrillers out there, it definitely has a somewhat unique concept. Ripley knows how to ratchet up the suspense, and even though in the end things turned out a little more predictably than I expected, I definitely wondered where he would take the plot.

I thought this was a good read, although the pacing moved a little slower than many other thrillers. This isn't a book that will leave you breathless, but it definitely will leave you wondering what happens next.

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

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Book Review: "The Last Cruise" by Kate Christensen

Some people love cruises with absolute passion. They can think of no greater vacation than sailing the seas, enjoying all of the creature comforts of the ship (including endless parades of food), and exploring the different ports of call. I have many friends and family members who would take a cruise as often as possible if cost and time were not an issue.

I've never been on a cruise, and to be honest, I've stayed away because of all of the horror stories I've seen in the media—the loss of power and water, the fires, the tipping over, the massively contagious viruses that spread among passengers and crew, and pirates. I know these things don't happen often (although some seem to happen more frequently), but I don't know if I like people enough to be stuck with them in the middle of the ocean.

While Kate Christensen's The Last Cruise isn't going to spur crowds of people to immediately book a cruise, it's more than a litany of things that could go wrong at sea.

The Queen Isabella is a vintage ocean liner from the 1950s which is going to make one more voyage, from Long Beach, California to Hawaii, before it is retired from service and sent to the salvage yard. The cruise ship company has decided to make this trip a nostalgic one—passengers will enjoy "old-fashioned" food like Steak Diane and Baked Alaska, as well as classic cocktails and vintage music. Oh, and there won't be wi-fi on the cruise, either.

The cruise couldn't have come at a better time for Christine Thorne. She left her farm home (and her farmer husband) back in Maine to meet her old friend for a vacation. Christine hopes to settle her mind while on the cruise, and determine whether the life that drew her away from New York City and a potential career in journalism years ago is still what she wants, or if she needs to start anew.

Miriam Koslow is an Israeli violinist who, along with her ex-husband, is part of a long-standing quartet which plays on many of the cruises run by the company. The owners of the ship are also the benefactors of the quartet. This last cruise leads Miriam to contemplation of her own mortality and that of her fellow musicians, and leads her to realize she needs to seize what she wants for the rest of her life, no matter the consequences.

Mick Szabo, one of the executive sous-chefs, is only on the cruise because he's filling in at the last minute for someone else. Working for a temperamental, well-known chef puts him on edge, but his skills are top-notch, and he's determined to prove himself worthy of a career beyond cooking on cruise ships. He's unprepared, however, for how tensions among the crew will affect the job he has to do.

Suddenly, everything changes, and the passengers and crew of the Queen Isabella find themselves facing more than where they'll sunbathe that day, what outfit they'll wear to dinner, or how to deal with the insubordination of an employee. They'll have to deal with issues of health and safety, whether there will be enough food and water, and what to do in case a storm comes their way. These crises will test everyone's mettle, bring long-hidden issues to the forefront, and put people in situations they weren't prepared to face.

Much of what occurs in The Last Cruise is unsurprising, and you can see it coming nearly from the beginning of the book. But Christensen still draws you into the story, and creates tremendously evocative images so you can almost smell and taste the food, hear the music, and see the nostalgic glamour around you. Not all of the characters are likable, but you become invested in their stories, and you wonder what will happen to them.

While the events that occur in the book aren't far-fetched if you've seen any news stories about cruise ships, but I felt like there was just too much happening, one thing after another. It almost became too melodramatic—there was a brief moment where I was expecting locusts or frogs to come next. I also thought the villains in the book were too much of a caricature—I would have liked something more than the greedy, insensitive tycoon.

Even with the things I didn't like, I still found The Last Cruise to be a good story. I wouldn't recommend you bring it with you on a cruise ship, however!

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