Thursday, August 30, 2018

Book Review: "Educated: A Memoir" by Tara Westover


Harrowing, heartbreaking, and ultimately triumphant, Educated is at times difficult to read and not at all what I expected, but I couldn't tear myself away from it.

"Mother had always said we could go to school if we wanted. We just had to ask Dad, she said. Then we could go. But I didn't ask. There was something in the hard line of my father's face, in the quiet sigh of supplication he made every morning before he began family prayer, that made me think my curiosity was an obscenity, an affront to all he'd sacrificed to raise me."

Until she was 17 years old, Tara Westover never went to school. Her father was convinced that the government was out to get them in every way, so his children got their education at home—not through books and studying, but through preparing for the End of Days by making survivalist kits, canning endless jars of fruit, and being prepared for a siege at any time.

Tara's mother was a midwife and healer, so she helped her mother prepare the various tinctures and remedies she used. At other times she worked in her father's junkyard with her siblings, salvaging scrap metal and dealing with the various injuries that came with this work, because her parents didn't believe that doctors or hospitals could heal better than herbs and the Lord's power. The problem was, they were so isolated that there was no one to help ensure the children learned any actual facts, or protect them when behavior turned violent.

When one of Tara's older brother's left the family compound in Idaho to study at Brigham Young University, for the first time Tara realized there was a world outside her father's blustery preaching. Despite having never set foot in a classroom, she began to study for the ACT exam, teaching herself enough math, grammar, and science to achieve the score she needed to attend BYU herself. But this decision didn't please her father, who believed college professors were liars and hypocrites sure to take Tara down a blasphemous path.

In Educated, Westover shares her story about being caught between loyalty to family and God, and the desire to find your own way, to learn things on your own. She touches on learning about things like the Holocaust and the civil rights movement for the first time, and how difficult she found being on her own, dealing with the disapproval of her father.

While this book deals with the educational triumphs Westover ultimately achieves despite all of the obstacles thrown in her way, this is a tough story to read as well, because she also shares what it is like to constantly have your self-worth undermined by those who claim to love you and want what's best for you. How can you ever truly believe you deserve a life in which you don't have to worry about abuse, humiliation, and degradation, when it is your own family causing these things? Where do you find the strength to say you've had enough when you know doing so might cost you your family?

I'm late to the party in reading this, and I will admit this wasn't quite the book I expected, as I thought it would focus more on Westover's education than her upbringing and the emotional and physical abuse she endured for years. Obviously, this, too, was part of her education, but at times I found the continuous pattern of behaviors really difficult to keep reading about. I realize that those around her must have felt the same way—just when they thought she might be making a breakthrough she let the same things happen to her over and over and over again.

Even though this wasn't an enjoyable book per se, it was written so skillfully, and Westover's story was so compelling that I read the entire book in a day thanks to a flight and a long car ride.

This is an important, poignant, thought-provoking book which demonstrates how one woman found the courage to achieve despite being surrounded by those who told her she shouldn't or she couldn't. What a punch this packed.

Book Review: "Heretics Anonymous" by Katie Henry

Michael has tried to stay positive. But after his family moves for the fourth time in 10 years—and a month and a half into his junior year of high school, no less—he's starting to lose himself. Especially this time, when his parents have enrolled him at St. Clare's, a prestigious Catholic prep school. Because Michael, you see, is an atheist.

"I didn't lose my faith or anything. I never had it in the first place. I never believed in any kind of God, just like I never believed in werewolves, or ghosts, or that mixing Pop Rocks and soda would make your stomach explode."

Angry at his father for uprooting the family once again and then never being home on top of it all, Michael is still determined to find a friend, just so school doesn't totally suck. In his history class, he witnesses a fellow student exasperating the nun who is their teacher, and he thinks he may have found a fellow atheist. Instead, he discovers that Lucy is a Catholic and wants to be a priest, but she isn't satisfied with the Church's attitude toward, or treatment of, women, among other things.

Outcasts in their own way, Lucy and Michael become friends, and she introduces him to the school's other "fringe" students: Avi, who is Jewish—and gay; Max, who wants to wear a cloak even though it clashes with St. Clare's dress code; and Eden, who is a Celtic Reconstructionist Polytheist (she believes in multiple gods). Together, they are Heretics Anonymous, a secret society which exists mostly to give them an outlet to be free to be whomever they want to be.

As Michael's friendship with his fellow Heretics grows (as do his feelings for Lucy), the group starts to wonder whether it can serve a greater purpose and effect change within the school. But what starts as a set of humorous pranks aimed at highlighting the inconsistencies in some of the school rules (not to mention its treatment of sex), begins to take on a life of its own when something happens to a beloved teacher. Suddenly Michael wants the group to call attention to the school's true hypocrisies, but he doesn't realize just how much he's putting at risk, including his friends.

"The only thing more dangerous than someone who doesn't care about the rules is someone who does—and wants to break them anyway."

When you've finally found a community in which you belong, is that enough to satisfy you? Is it our responsibility to point out to others the hypocrisies that surround them, even if they may not be interested? When you don't believe in something, do you need to pretend you do just to make others happy? In Heretics Anonymous, Katie Henry attempts to answer those questions against the backdrop of familial angst and the heated emotions of high school relationships.

I really enjoyed this book. Henry hooked me from the beginning, and while she did paint some of the school's rules and administration as hypocrites, she didn't make them caricatures, and showed a different side of Catholicism through Lucy's character. While not every character is as fleshed out as I would have liked—I feel that there were some great stories to be told by delving deeper into Avi, Max, and Eden's characters—Lucy and Michael are flawed but utterly fantastic.

While this book is about religion in a small way, it's more about friendship and belonging and trust, about the hopes we hold on to long after we should lay them to rest, and the hurt that we feel when we realize people don't keep their promises. This is a sweet, funny, thought-provoking story, and I wouldn't have minded spending more time with these characters. I'll definitely keep an eye out for what Henry comes up with next!!

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Book Review: "Sweet Little Lies" by Caz Frear

"Some fears can never be shared. Some fears are so cataclysmic that to share them would be tantamount to suicide."

When Cat was eight years old, Maryanne Doyle, a pretty teenager from the Irish town where Cat's family was on holiday, disappeared. Cat and her older sister were both reasonably obsessed with Maryanne, as was nearly every male in town.

While no one could figure out where Maryanne could have gone, Cat knew one thing: her father told a lie when he said he didn't know anything about Maryanne or her disappearance. And their relationship was never the same after that day.

Eighteen years later, Cat is a Detective Constable with London's Metropolitan Police Force. Still a little on edge after the troubling end to her last case, she is quickly thrown into a new case, this one dealing with the murder of a young wife named Alice Lapaine. Cat and her colleague believe Alice's husband is the prime suspect in her murder once more and more information is uncovered about their relationship, but all that changes when the police department receives a phone call which links Alice to Maryanne Doyle.

Cat doesn't know what to do. When she starts putting the facts together, including the fact that Alice's body was found not far from the pub her father runs, she wonders if the suspicions she's had about her father all these years really were warranted. Could her father really have been responsible for Maryanne's disappearance? Could he have harmed Alice, too? If she divulges her connections to Maryanne, she'll be taken off the case, and the more that she gets involved, the more she puts her job at risk. But the more she tries to get to the bottom of her father's involvement, the more danger she's in of ruining their relationship—and her relationship with the rest of her family—for good.

The deeper the police force digs into the cases, the more twists and secrets they uncover. Cat wants to help solve the cases and bring the killers to justice, but at the same time, she's afraid of what she might find out.

Sweet Little Lies is a great read—tremendously compelling, full of many twists and turns that keep you guessing, even though I had a few suspicions that proved warranted. Cat is a fascinating character, desperate for approval, craving love and stability, and yet unwavering when she believes someone has done something wrong. (She's not quite as vigilant about her own transgressions, but hey, she's human.)

I thought the book started a little slowly, but once it picked up steam I couldn't get enough of it. Caz Frear is a terrific storyteller, and it's hard to believe this is her first book. I saw this listed somewhere with the subtitle "Cat Kinsella, #1," so I'm hoping another book with Cat is in the works.

There are so many mysteries and crime novels out there, but Sweet Little Lies is definitely worth adding to your list. Plus, if you're a Fleetwood Mac fan, not being able to get the song "Lies" out of your head while you read might be an added bonus!!

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Book Review: "Charlotte Walsh Likes to Win" by Jo Piazza

"Only let the world see half of your ambition. Half of the world can't handle seeing it all."

That was a piece of advice given to Charlotte Walsh by her mentor, a former governor, U.S. Senator, and Ambassador to the United Nations, when she encouraged Charlotte to run for the U.S. Senate in her home state of Pennsylvania.

It doesn't matter that Charlotte got out of her hometown—and away from the East Coast—as quickly as she could, and that she hasn't been home for years. Charlotte and her mentor believe she has what it takes to make a difference in the lives of Pennsylvanians, not to mention shake up politics as usual in the Keystone State.

So Charlotte, who in the meantime had become a high-powered Silicon Valley executive, moves back to her downtrodden hometown with her husband Max (who graduated from high school a few years before her) and their three young daughters. It's quite a shift for all of them—it reopens old family wounds and causes some strain in Charlotte and Max's marriage, as he has to put his own career ambitions on hold in order to become the girls' primary caregiver. But it will all be worth it once Charlotte is elected to the Senate.

Charlotte has great ideas, and truly desires to make a difference in the lives of her fellow Pennsylvanians, especially women, who have been particularly mistreated and disillusioned following the last presidential election. The Democrats rarely even run anyone against Charlotte's challenger, a long-time incumbent who represents the type of dirty, old-school politics that she doesn't want to get mired in.

"Charlotte was sick to death of being told to feel sorry for the working-class white man. Being a mediocre white guy doesn't mean you deserve to be crowned a king, get a job, or get laid. The cavalry is not coming for you. Of course, she could never utter these thoughts out loud to anyone."

It doesn't take long for her to realize the challenges a female political candidate faces, even in this day and age, especially when she is running against a man. Charlotte has to get accustomed to her clothing and shoe choices to be documented, has to remember to come across as strong but not threatening, forceful but not angry. Although she vowed to run an honest, clean campaign, she finds herself having to tailor her message to whatever group she is speaking, even if that strikes her as pandering and opportunistic.

When she is given information about a secret involving her opponent's family, one which might allow her to take a comfortable lead, she has to decide whether her principles are more important than potential victory. And when her opponent's campaign uncovers a secret which has potential not only to affect the race but her marriage, Charlotte has to remember why she decided to run for the Senate in the first place, and how much she is willing to sacrifice.

Charlotte Walsh Likes to Win couldn't be any more timely for the world we're living in right now. Even after the 2016 election, Charlotte had to lose her idealism relative to politics, particularly female political candidates, and the inequities they face versus their male counterparts. Why is it okay for her opponent to have been married multiple times but her marriage has to be perfect? Why does it matter what shoes she wears to a campaign appearance, or even just a trip to the grocery store? These are questions which may seem all too familiar for some.

I thought this was a terrific, utterly compelling book. It's not necessarily surprising, especially if you pay attention to the political world, but it doesn't matter, because Jo Piazza is a great storyteller. The characters and the scenarios they find themselves in may seem familiar, but Piazza adds her own twists and turns, and she makes you wonder exactly what will happen come Election Day. (This is a question many in the U.S. are asking themselves about now.)

While Charlotte's character is a Democrat, the story is more about her campaign and her life as it is affected by the campaign, and it doesn't spend a ton of time getting too political. So if you've been trying to avoid that subject for a while, this is still a fun book you won't be able to put down.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Book Review: "Our Homesick Songs" by Emma Hooper

This book. My heart is full.

The Canadian fishing town of Big Running is nearly empty. Only a few families remain, and their numbers dwindle by the day. This has been happening ever since the fish disappeared—no one knows why it happened, but those whose lives depended on fishing or the town in one way or another have found new jobs, new homes, and left.

Finn Connor and his family are among those who have stayed, but his parents, Aidan and Martha, who grew up in town, have begun working alternate months at an energy site up north in Alberta, adding more strain to their marriage and the family unit. But 11-year-old Finn is determined to find a way to save the town and his family at the same time. Aided by stories told by his elderly accordion teacher, who is the only person remaining in Little Running, the town across the river, Finn slowly but surely devises a plan, with great ingenuity and the heart that only a young child can have.

Meanwhile, Cora, Finn's older sister, spends her days decorating the abandoned houses in town by turning them into different countries. One house becomes Italy, another England, a third becomes Mexico. But once her creativity and her supply of houses wanes, Cora realizes what she wants more than anything is a chance at a normal life, with both parents together, with friends, maybe even a dog. She comes up with her own plan, one more dramatic—and one which will take her farther—than anyone can expect.

The narration in this exquisite book shifts between the present and the past, tracing the events which brought Aidan and Martha together and the challenges they faced when they were younger. From the tragedies faced by those living in a fishing town to the romantic temptations which test a marriage, from the fantasies we weave when we are young to the fantasies which bring us through our days, Our Homesick Songs is a book about family, love, bravery, keeping the faith, the importance of music, and its contributions to the power of memory.

"They didn't have cameras then, so they didn't have photos of home, of where they were from. And most sailors and explorers were rubbish at painting, that's why they were sailors and explorers, not painters, so the only, the best, way for them to remember home was through singing, through the songs and tunes they knew from home. When they were homesick, when they needed to remember where they were from, they could sing to see, to remember. They could close their eyes to block out where they were, and sing and remember where they used to be."

I absolutely loved this book. It felt like a look into a magical place, the kind of town that doesn't exist anymore, even though sadly, towns like this exist all over. The characters were unbelievably special and beautifully drawn, and the story captured my heart from the very first page. Often when a story shifts between past and present, I find one segment weaker than the other, but both stories grabbed me, and I would have been happy reading a book which focused on just one of them.

I've never read any of Emma Hooper's books, but her talent absolutely blew me away. Her voice and her use of imagery was spot-on. At times her style is very spare, so it took a little getting used to, but the whole story was just amazing. If I could have, I would have read the entire book in one day—as it was, I stayed up late because I desperately had to finish it!!

This may not be a book for everyone, but it is one I won't soon forget.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Book Review: "The Man Who Came Uptown" by George Pelecanos

I know I ask this of certain authors from time to time, but why isn't George Pelecanos a star?

In addition to being the author of some pretty terrific crime novels, he's been a writer on television shows like The Wire and Treme, and co-created the series The Deuce. I've often heard about his books becoming movies, but nothing ever seems to come to fruition, and I just don't understand it. This man should be a household name. His books should be seen in people's hands wherever they read in public.

With his newest book, The Man Who Came Uptown, Pelecanos shows that he is a master at creating characters who are more comfortable veering from the straight and narrow, but often have the best of intentions, and he flexes his suspense and action muscles like nobody's business. But at the same time, he shows off a more introspective side, as this book is also a tribute to the love of books and the transformational power of reading.

Michael Hudson is a young man in prison, determined to serve his time without making any enemies or causing trouble. The bright light during his sentence is his interaction with Anna, the prison librarian, who introduces him and his fellow inmates to books and authors they might never have read or even heard of otherwise. Michael, in particular, is tremendously appreciative of Anna's attention and her book recommendations, as she is opening his eyes and his mind to the beauty and power of words and images.

When Michael's sentence is overturned thanks to the manipulations of a private investigator, he is ready to start again. He knows he made some foolish mistakes, but he wants a new life—he wants to find a job, make something of himself, take care of his mother, and find time to read. Even though the Washington, DC he knew before he went to prison has started to change, with gentrification and newer stores, restaurants, and houses popping up everywhere, it still feels like home to him, and with a book in his hand, he feels even more secure.

When the man who saw to his release from prison comes to collect the debt Michael owes him, Michael knows he has a choice. But what path is the right one: doing what is necessary to square your obligations like a man, or running the risk of having to go back to prison again, and destroying everything he has started to build? As the crooked private investigator gets more and more enmeshed in trouble, Michael isn't sure whether honor is worth the risk.

I'll admit, when I started reading this I expected another of Pelecanos' crime novels, so I didn't understand why it was taking so long to get to the action and suspense, why he was laying out so much of the story. But when I realized what he was doing, I let myself enjoy the beauty of his writing and his characters (something I always do when reading his books, although my pulse is usually pounding at the same time), and thought about just how important reading has been to me all my life.

When the criminal elements of the plot kick in, Pelecanos goes at them full throttle, and you don't realize just how much you've gotten invested in these characters, so you're hoping the age-old battle fought by the man trying to start his life anew won't end the same way here. This book isn't one of his most explosive, and that's totally fine, as long as you know to expect that.

Pelecanos is one of those authors that needs to be read. Whether you're a fan of crime writing, suspense, beautiful storytelling, or like to read about Washington, DC in the 1970s and 1980s, you can find one of his books to match your desire. And don't miss this one—especially if you're like me, and your life has been changed by reading.

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

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Book Review: "Girl Made of Stars" by Ashley Herring Blake

Powerful, emotional, and thought-provoking, Ashley Herring Blake's Girl Made of Stars is a beautifully written, poignant book about the bonds of family and friendship, gender and sexual identity, the emotional traumas faced by victims of sexual abuse and assault (not to mention the "blame the victim" mentality which is all too prevalent), and the confusion and anxiety which often accompanies love.

This was utterly phenomenal.

"Once upon a time...a brother and sister lived with the stars. They were happy and had wild adventures exploring the sky."

Mara and Owen are twins, so similar and yet so different from one another, yet they are incredibly close. But one night following a big high school party, Owen's girlfriend Hannah (who is also one of Mara's best friends) accuses Owen of raping her. How could someone Mara once shared a womb with, someone she knows better than anyone else, have done such a thing? Even as their parents rally around Owen and declare his innocence, can Mara believe her brother is truly innocent? If not, what does that do to their relationship? And if so, what happens to her friendship with Hannah?

Confused, hurt, and angry at so many people after the incident, Mara feels adrift because her relationship with her ex-girlfriend Charlie is tremendously uncertain. She knows she wants to be with Charlie but is afraid of what that means, afraid of letting someone get too close. But more than that, Mara has been able to keep a traumatic event in her own life a secret, but at what cost? If she speaks up, will anyone believe her? Will her parents believe her? Or will she be treated by her peers, her friends, her family in the same way Hannah has been?

"What else is there to do? What else is there for any girl to do, when everyone but her can just forget everything like a random bad dream? I have no idea what moving on sounds like, looks like. I've spent the past three years trying and decidedly not getting over anything."

Girl Made of Stars doesn't exist in a fantasy world where every person who does wrong is punished, and everyone learns from their mistakes. It's a book that accepts that life is often grey rather than simply black and white, but we can't stop fighting for what is right, fighting to make sure those who do wrong are punished. I think that's why this book works so well—it's never heavy-handed or preachy, but it does emphasize the difference between acceptable and unacceptable behavior.

Ashley Herring Blake is amazingly talented. Her ear for dialogue, her eye for evocative imagery, the flawed yet unforgettable characters all dazzled. One of the greatest compliments I can give is that this book felt a little like one of Jandy Nelson's exquisite books, two of my absolute favorites (I'll Give You the Sun and The Sky is Everywhere), yet she is an author with a style all her own.

Like many YA books—and like life, honestly—there are moments in this book in which you wish the characters would just say what they were feeling rather than avoid the truth. But while those moments may cause frustration they are realistic, particularly given the issues that these characters are confronting, so it didn't detract from my enjoyment of this book.

Beautiful, emotional, and thought-provoking. I couldn't ask for anything more!

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Book Review: "The Seasonaires" by Janna King

Six beautiful young men and women have been given an exceptional opportunity, to spend the summer on Nantucket and work for popular fashion brand Lyndon Wyld. They'll be "seasonaires"—influential brand ambassadors—for Lyndon Wyld, creating buzz for the entire collection, at events and especially through social media, where it's the number of followers and likes that tell the tale.

The group members are an interesting mix—Mia, a scrappy young woman from South Boston who dreams of a career in the fashion industry but has always put family in first; Presley, the beautiful, blonde beauty queen from the South who is the returning seasonaire from the previous summer, and wants to return again; Jade, the independent, beautiful daughter of a music icon and a model, who has plans of her own; Cole, the handsome introvert; J.P., a designer who can't be swayed from his ambition—and Grant, the carefree stud who flirts with everyone, and has never met a party he doesn't like.

The seasonaires have a pretty sweet life—visiting the Lyndon Wyld store and generating publicity at different events during the day, partying and socializing at night. The maven behind the brand, Lyndon Wyld herself, and her wily sister Grace keep watch on the group members via social media and know when they're doing the right things as well as the wrong things. But the group isn't prepared for an increasingly dangerous rivalry with another fashion brand, whose models are tougher and less supervised, as well as the copious amounts of alcohol, drugs, violence, and betrayal that they're faced with.

Mia loves the opportunities she's getting but can't turn off her protective nature, even when it means caring about a troubled model from the rival brand. She's also unprepared for not knowing whom to trust, and as the summer goes on, her suspicions and fears grow, ending in the murder of someone close to her, and she doesn't understand how a magical summer could turn so dangerous.

After reading a few dark, emotionally heavy books, I was looking for something lighter and more entertaining, and The Seasonaires definitely fit the bill. Janna King has created a fascinating look at a group of young people doing something I had never thought about, but I couldn't stop reading. This is one of those stories where a lot of the plot hinges on actions caused by things people don't say to one another, and people getting access to others' text messages, phones, and social media accounts, but I still found the story really enjoyable.

It's funny; much of the criticism of this book I've seen has stemmed from the fact that people couldn't identify with the seasonaires' activities, and that the reliance on social media, on stories and selfies and likes, made them feel old. I didn't agree with that. The plot may not be earth-shattering, and you may see much of the story coming (and there's at least one plot thread that falls flat since it tells more than shows), but I devoured this book in one day, and enjoyed it from start to finish.

If you're looking for a lighter read, or the perfect book for a late-summer break, try The Seasonaires. It'll definitely put you in the mood for a beach, and maybe a shopping trip or two!

Friday, August 10, 2018

Book Review: "An Anonymous Girl" by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen

The next time you consider signing up for a research study, you might want to think twice—and you will after reading this book!

You're Invited: Seeking women aged 18 to 32 to participate in a study on ethics and morality conducted by a preeminent NYC psychiatrist. Generous compensation. Anonymity guaranteed. Call for more details.

Jess is a makeup artist who came to New York dreaming of a career in the theater. She has a lot of secrets she's kept hidden, which has led her to become totally self-reliant, although money is one of the biggest sources of anxiety she has to deal with. When she overhears a client thinking about not showing up for a research study she was supposed to participate in—and it pays $500—Jess decides there's nothing wrong with pretending to fill in for the young woman, since $500 would really help with this month's rent.

Jess figures all she'll need to do is answer some questions, collect her money, and leave. She wasn't expecting the questions to be difficult, like Could you tell a lie without feeling guilt? Describe a time in your life when you cheated, or Have you ever deeply hurt someone you care about? But more than that, she wasn't expecting the psychiatrist conducting the study—whom she never met—to give feedback on her answers, and encourage her to be more honest and more in-depth.

As the sessions continue, and the payoff increases, Jess can't help but wonder what the study really is all about. While she is utterly unsettled when the psychiatrist, whom she finds out is the renowned Dr. Lydia Shields, asks whether Jess would be willing to expand her participation in the study. But when Jess learns that the compensation would be significantly higher, there's no way she can turn Dr. Shields' request down.

Expanding her participation in the study is definitely not what she expected. Dr. Shields starts to tell Jess where to go, how to dress, and whom to meet—and in some cases, that entails striking up a conversation with a specific man. Jess begins feeling uncomfortable, and wonders exactly what Dr. Shields wants to accomplish. More and more, she questions whether she can trust the doctor—and then Jess discovers a disturbing coincidence that she needs to hide from her, or the doctor could destroy her life.

An Anonymous Girl is a pretty wild book, full of twists and turns. You wonder how you might react in the same situation, but at the same time I found myself shaking my head in disbelief at times that Jess could be so clueless. There were definitely some surprises thrown in, but ultimately I had my ideas about how the plot would unfold. I just kept hoping that things wouldn't go completely awry, and I was pleased they didn't.

Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen, whose last book, The Wife Between Us, contained some shockers but didn't quite click for me, definitely kicked it up with An Anonymous Girl. I didn't love some of the characters (and I wondered whether some of this stuff could and does really happen) but the pacing of the book was terrific, and I was hooked from start to finish. I was also glad that the twists they threw in fit with the plot rather than just be included to confuse and shock.

I know this book will be everywhere when it's released in January, because it's the type of book you can't put down, and it definitely will keep you wondering what comes next. Hendricks and Pekkanen mesh well together, and I can't wait for their next book.

NetGalley and St. Martin's Press provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Book Review: "Give Me Your Hand" by Megan Abbott

"I guess I always knew, in some subterranean way, Diane and I would end up back together. We are bound, ankle to ankle, a monstrous three-legged race. Accidental accomplices. Wary conspirators. Or Siamese twins, fused in some hidden place. It's that powerful, this thing we share. A murky history, its narrative near impenetrable. We keep telling it to ourselves, noting its twists and turns, trying to make sense of it. And hiding it from everyone else."

When Kit and Diane became friends in high school, for the first time, Kit recognized her intelligence as an asset. Diane encouraged her to believe in herself, believe she could accomplish anything she wanted, that she wasn't destined to attend college in her hometown and never amount to much. The two grew inseparable, challenging and pushing each other, both hoping to achieve a prestigious internship. Kit always felt as if she were one step behind Diane, but that didn't stop her from wanting, from trying.

One night, Diane told Kit a secret she had kept hidden from everyone. This wasn't just any secret—this was the biggest secret Diane had, about the worst thing she had ever done. Kit didn't understand why Diane had to tell her this, and it completely destroyed their friendship. Any time she looked at Diane, Kit felt the weight of the knowledge she had about her. She knew she should tell someone, but she can't bring herself to, but she can't escape knowing, either. Still, she hopes that once they graduate high school she'll never see Diane again.

Years later, Kit is where she wants to be—working in a lab under one of the most formidable female scientists, who is just about to receive major grant funding for a project looking at a once-taboo, misunderstood, "female issue." Kit is hoping to be one of the people chosen to work on this grant. And then, unexpectedly, Diane arrives, brought into the lab specifically by Kit's boss.

"Everyone always likes the best, wants the most, admires deeply, the girl who's just out of reach. The girl no one can touch, really. We don't know why we're drawn, but it's unstoppable."

Without warning, Kit faces the same feelings about Diane she had hidden away after high school. All she wants to do is work, but suddenly she's competing with Diane again, trying not to think of what Diane told her all those years ago. But in a moment of weakness, Kit makes a mistake she can't take back, and suddenly Diane is there, protecting Kit, keeping her secret.

Can Kit keep both of their secrets? Is Diane a threat to her, professionally and/or personally? How far will things have to go before Kit feels secure in her work, and her life—or will that ever be a possibility?

Megan Abbott has created some of the best "mean girl" characters in fiction over the last few years, in novels like The Fever, Dare Me, and You Will Know Me. In Give Me Your Hand it's more "crazy girl" than "mean girl," but her work is equally memorable—and unsettling.

This is an interesting story of female intelligence, friendship, rivalry, and relationships, and the challenges women in academia (particularly in science) face to get ahead. It's also a look at how far we would go for a friend, if there's a secret that we'd consider too big to keep for someone, even if we care about them.

Even though this book is fairly predictable, I couldn't stop reading it. I needed to see how far Abbott would take her plot and her characters, hoping she wouldn't go completely off the rails. Give Me Your Hand isn't the strongest of Abbott's books I've read—I think that goes to Dare Me (see my review)—but it's still entertaining, and it will be difficult to get out of your mind.

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

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Book Review: "A Ladder to the Sky" by John Boyne

When you get ready to read a book by an author whose two previous books wound up at the top of your year-end best lists (and they're truly among some of the best books you've read, at least in the last decade), you get a little nervous whether lightning will strike thrice, or whether you're putting too much pressure on the book. (I am the one who has preached measured expectations when reading new books by favorite authors, because each new book deserves to be weighed on its own merit, not compared to others the author has written.)

All that being said, John Boyne, author of The Absolutist (see my review) and The Heart's Invisible Furies (see my review), has done it again. He has created an unsympathetic, morally dubious character who is utterly unforgettable, and has slayed me in the process.

Maurice Swift is a handsome young writer with a tremendous amount of ambition, but he lacks the talent to back it up. No matter. When he meets noted novelist Erich Ackermann at a West Berlin hotel in 1988, he immediately recognizes that the older man is attracted to him. Ackermann is desperately lonely, and is energized by Maurice's companionship, so he invites the young man to travel with him around the world to participate in different literary events.

Maurice uses his sex appeal, and the tantalizing promise of giving Ackermann more of him, to encourage the writer to divulge a secret he has long kept hidden from the world, a secret with potentially damaging consequences if it is discovered, despite the fact that it happened when Ackermann was a teenager in the midst of World War II. Maurice realizes this story will be the perfect basis for his first novel, so once he gets what he needs from the man, he's ready to move on—and he doesn't seem to care what it does to Ackermann, or his career.

But once Maurice gets a taste of literary fame, he can't imagine life without it. After an encounter with famed writer Gore Vidal which makes him uncertain of how far his looks can help him succeed, he moves from literary circle to literary circle, from the U.S. to London and all over the world, in search of his next opportunity. And as he moves through his life, the stakes get higher and higher—until there's nothing he won't do for fame—but is a life alone worth the acclaim of success?

Although there are similarities to The Talented Mr. Ripley, A Ladder to the Sky is a novel all its own. Maurice is an utterly amoral character, and as much as you dislike him, you have to admire his cunning, his ambition, his single-minded pursuit of fame. We've seen this story before, but in Boyne's hands the suspense crackles, the longing of those Maurice strings along is tremendously affecting, and you can't wait to see whether he'll get his comeuppance.

Boyne throws some surprising twists into the plot, and takes the story to a different level. He's one of those storytellers that hooks you from the very start, and keeps you engrossed in the plot from start to finish. While his last two novels have remained in my mind because of the way they touched my heart, A Ladder to the Sky will stay in my mind because of Maurice Swift's character and his unbridled ambition.

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

Friday, August 3, 2018

Book Review: "My Life as a Goddess: A Memoir through (Un)Popular Culture" by Guy Branum

"We talk about nature and nurture when analyzing a person's character. We see two ways that an identity is formed. One is biological, the mean of parents' traits passed down genetically. The other is environmental: How did the world around this person guide and encourage him? The problem is that by either of these methods, I shouldn't be me. I should be shorter and dumber and not at all concerned with what pairs well with star anise syrup in a cocktail." (BTW, it's notes of orange.)

At a young age, Guy Branum already knew he was different. Growing up in Yuba City, a farming town in Northern California, he was much larger (both taller and fatter) than his peers. Big boys were supposed to be fighters, but Guy didn't have it in him to fight. What he wanted to do was sit inside, read, and learn, find answers to the endless number of questions he had, about nearly everything in the world. But that met with disapproval from his parents, especially his father, who wanted his son to act "normal."

As Guy grew older, as he grew bigger and fatter, he indulged his father's wish and played high school football for four years. But he never had any passion for it. And as he realized he was gay, he knew that was another reason society would look down on him. What he wanted more than anything was to get out of Yuba City, go someplace more exciting, and be free of the expectations of those around him. And while he felt bad about himself, and tried to hide himself and who he really was in plain sight for so long, at some point he realized that he was worthy of love and success and praise, no matter what others might say or think.

"I'm not supposed to like myself, and I'm certainly not supposed to think that I should matter. The world has spent a lot of time telling me that, and in the past thirty or so years, I often listened, because we all listen. The world is mostly full of fine facts and good lessons, but some of those facts and lessons were built to keep you down. And I got kept down for decades. Then I remembered that I was a goddess. I may not always feel like it, but I have powers."

In My Life as a Goddess, a memoir/collection of essays, Branum shares his long journey to self-discovery, from his difficult relationship with his father to the love of movies he shared with his mother; his discovery of his sense of humor and his writing ability while attending Berkeley—which led to an interesting run-in with the Secret Service; what he believes to be society's struggles with both fat and gay people; finally feeling free enough to go to gay clubs; and the rise of his career as a stand-up comedian, comedy writer, and occasional actor.

Parts of this book were literally laugh-out-loud funny. (I got more than my share of odd looks when I read this book in public, and the one time I laughed so hard I couldn't breathe I realized I needed just to read it at home.) Branum's love of pop culture, television sitcoms, movies, and music felt so familiar to me. More than a few times I thought he and I could be great friends, or we'd try to out-funny each other, and he'd probably win, so I'd feel bitter.

But this is more than a comic memoir. My Life as a Goddess has real emotional heft to it as well, and I found myself nodding and even tearing up at times as I recognized situations which occurred in my own life. Branum is tremendously insightful but he doesn't feel sorry for himself; he recounts his life in a very matter-of-fact way. You may think that the difficulty of his journey helped turn him into the immensely funny man he has become, and certainly you see that with a lot of LGBT people, whose creativity was burnished amidst poor treatment.

Branum's childhood and his growth into adulthood was a difficult journey, but thankfully he has risen above it, and more thankfully for us, he is willing to share himself with us. At times he rambles a bit on unrelated topics (and he even recognizes it as he is doing it), but then his heart and his sense of humor shine through, and you realize this book, and this man, are truly special.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Book Review: "Boomer1" by Daniel Torday

A fascinating, timely, and thought-provoking meditation on the craziness of our internet-obsessed culture, the generational divide between Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Millennials, and just how far our lives can drift from what we've planned, Daniel Torday's Boomer1 is both funny and eerily prescient.

Mark is a bluegrass musician, a journalist and editor, and a student completing his PhD in English. He hopes to find fame as an insightful political writer, although he wouldn't mind if his band hit it big either. When he meets Cassie, a fellow musician, who plays bass in an all-female post-punk band, he feels like he has met a kindred spirit, especially when he discovers Cassie knows how to play the fiddle as well. The two embark on a relationship, which brings both security, if not wild passion.

But as Cassie's media career starts to take off, Mark finds himself at a dead end, which doesn't help their struggling relationship much. After she rejects Mark's marriage proposal, he's left with no prospects, career- or otherwise. With no money and nowhere else to turn, Mark decides to live the Millennial stereotype—he moves home to Baltimore to live in his parents' basement.

As he starts figuring out his future, his anger grows, so he adopts a pseudonym and starts filming a series of online video rants against baby boomers. The so-called Boomer Missives tap into a vein in society, of people stuck in the same rut he is, feeling the same feelings, and wanting to find someone else to blame. But before he knows it, these videos become a rallying cry for those who feel downtrodden, put upon, and want their chance without having to wait to pay their dues. Suddenly, he goes from spokesperson to revolutionary—with potentially dangerous consequences.

Narrated alternatively by Mark, Cassie, and Mark's mother Julia, a child of the 1960s who thought her life would be much more rebellious than it turned out, Boomer1 delivers quite a punch. There are times when it almost doesn't seem like fiction, because you could totally see something like this happening in today's world.

This is a very well-written book, but I found the pacing really slow. Although I've seen other reviews say that things started to pick up, it didn't for me. I definitely enjoyed the story, but I just wanted things to move quicker, and I wanted to like the characters a bit more, but the book certainly gave me a lot to think about.

If you like a dose of reality mixed in with your fiction, Boomer1 may be just the ticket for you. It will definitely get you thinking!

NetGalley and St. Martin's Press provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!