Thursday, January 31, 2019

Book Review: "You Know You Want This" by Kristen Roupenian

Wow, what a crazy collection of short stories this was!!

Kristen Roupenian's debut collection, You Know You Want This, is at turns frank, brutal, disturbing, kinky, poignant, emotional, and eye-opening. Her stories are about relationships of all kinds—parental, romantic, sexual, those between friends and lovers, and even those between relative strangers. The relationships are rarely equal, in that most often, someone has the upper hand, although it might not always last for long.

This collection reminded me a little of Carmen Maria Machado's fantastic collection Her Body and Other Parties, in that they explore imbalances of power between the genders, and a number of the stories have some sort of erotic charge. A few of the 12 stories in this book are a little weirder than most, with violence, fear, and even the supernatural at their core, while some take a more traditional route.

Among my favorites in this collection were: "Bad Boy," in which a couple starts out wanting to help their friend get over a dysfunctional relationship, only to create an even more dysfunctional relationship with him; "The Boy in the Pool," about childhood best friends who had grown apart, and a teenage crush on an actor from that same period; "The Matchbox Sign," which tells of a couple struggling with problems real and imagined; "Scarred," about a woman who conjures her heart's desire, a naked man, after finding a book of spells in the library; and "Cat Person," in which a young woman finds herself in a relationship with a man for whom she's not sure how she feels.

Roupenian has a vivid imagination, a talent for evocative imagery, and she creates characters which, for the most part, seemed like everyday people trapped in some unusual situations. (Obviously that doesn't apply to every story.) While a few of the stories were a little too bizarre for my tastes (and she's unflinchingly graphic with her descriptions of violence, blood, gore, and a little bit of the macabre), overall, I found this a fascinating collection, one that will definitely stick in my mind for a long while.

This is the first short story collection I've read in 2018, and I hope it signifies that this will be a year of fresh stories from writers new and seasoned, full of memorable characters and situations that make me feel, make me think, and at times, make me a little uncomfortable.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Book Review: "The Unhoneymooners" by Christina Lauren

So there I was, feeling a bit of withdrawal since it had been more than two months since I'd read a Christina Lauren book (I read four of their books in 2018, and one in 2017). Then, like a bolt out of the blue, I saw that NetGalley was offering advance copies of their newest book, The Unhoneymooners, and I literally pulled my car over into the first parking lot I saw and submitted my request. (True story. And I kept to my no NetGalley requests while driving rule.)

Of course, I was granted access to the title, and one day later? I devoured the book and will (kind of) patiently wait for their next one. (A long, long time ago I went to a book signing of John Grisham's for The Pelican Brief. I told him how much I liked the book and he said, "Man, Larry, I just finished this one. Slow down!") But once again, Christina Lauren doesn't disappoint, but gives me all the feels and leaves me giddy.

Olive and Ami are identical twins. As far as Olive is concerned, Ami has always been the lucky one, while Olive has recently been laid off from her job and had to move back in with her family when her roommate moved out. Plus, Olive's biggest achievement is getting stuck in an arcade claw machine when she was younger.

Ami is also lucky in love—she's about to marry Dane, who may be a little too frat bro-y for Olive's taste, but Olive is happy that her sister is happy. Ami has been able to put on her entire wedding and reception through contests and drawings (which explains the ridiculous, Skittle-green bridesmaid's dresses), but she's given Olive a number of tasks on the big day, most of which include interacting with Ethan, Dane's older brother—and Olive's nemesis since their first meeting took an ugly turn a few years ago.

"Too tall, too fit, too classically pretty. Never friendly, never trustworthy, never any fun. He puts on an innocent smile—innocent on the surface: a flash of teeth, a dimple, but in his eyes, it's all black-souled."

When Ethan and Olive are virtually the only two people not to contract food poisoning at the reception, Ami and Dane have a free honeymoon in Maui that is use-it-or-lose-it. Olive is certainly not going to let Ethan enjoy Maui by himself, so she agrees to go. They both figure there will be plenty of opportunities to enjoy the beautiful scenery—and lose the other. But when they realize they'll need to pretend to be giddy honeymooners for 10 days, it seems like a small price to pay for paradise, right?

When unexpected encounters with people from both of their lives force them to tear into their acting roles with greater passion, Olive starts to realize that she doesn't mind spending time with Ethan and pretending to be married to him. Maybe he's not as bad as she thought he was—and maybe she can't get enough of being with him. But what is real and what is an act? What will happen when they leave paradise and go home to Minnesota? Will they fall back into their antagonistic relationship?

The thing about Christina Lauren's books (other than terrific characters you root for, great emotions, humor, and hot sex) is that even though you probably can predict most of what will happen, you get so hooked on the story, and you're so charmed by it, that it doesn't really matter. Their books get me every time—like I said earlier, I get a little giddy, a little emotional, and I just want more.

If you're a fan of rom-coms, or just want a lighter book to divert you from brooding thrillers, Christina Lauren's books are just the ticket. Their book Love and Other Words made my list of the best books I read last year, while Roomies, My Favorite Half-Night Stand, and Josh and Hazel's Guide to Not Dating were not far behind. (Plus, Autoboyography, one of their few YA books, is utterly AMAZING.)

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

Monday, January 28, 2019

Book Review: "The Falconer" by Dana Czapnik

Lucy is a high school student growing up in New York in 1993. She's a so-called "pizza bagel"—a mix of Jewish and Italian heritage. She's not afraid to speak her mind, even if it's to trash-talk, and she's a talented basketball player, comfortable playing among men and boys—and she knows she's good, too.

"I'm not just the leading scorer at my school, I'm the leading scorer in the entire league for two years running, which you would think would garner me the same amount of respect Percy gets. But I'm a girl, and I'm really tall and I don't have Pantene-commercial hair and I'm not, let's say, une petite fleur, so everyone just assumes I'm a lesbian."

As tough as Lucy appears, she also has a vulnerable side, especially when it comes to her best friend, Percy. He's the heir to a major fortune, and things come easy to him, but he likes to pretend he's poor, likes to talk about how horrible America is and how hard people have it. Lucy is in love with Percy, and although she knows he doesn't feel the same way about her, she isn't willing to give up hope, but she also isn't willing to follow him with lovesick stars in her eyes.

"Even though I know Percy isn't remotely interested in Sarah as a person, he likes her in a way he'll never like me, so our jealousy of each other is mutual and equally damaging, which I recognize with the left side of my brain. But I'm a creature forever ruled by the right, the part that holds what a more sentimental person might call the whims of the heart."

Lucy doesn't understand why men and boys are treated differently than women, and even portrayed differently in art. Her favorite statue in Central Park is called "The Falconer," and it depicts a boy releasing a falcon into the wind. She resents how girls and women would be depicted as girlish, afraid of the world around him, yet this boy appears powerful and strong. That's what she wants to have.

Dana Czapnik's debut novel follows Lucy as she struggles with her relationship with Percy, with self-esteem and what her peers think of her, and having to confront the uglier parts of life, people, and the betrayal of trust. Lucy has courage but how do you keep strong in the face of adversity, how do you continue to have self-confidence when you're constantly getting knocked down?

I found Lucy to be a very well-drawn, vivid character. I've seen some comparison to Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, and while I don't really see that, she definitely has a memorable, sometimes acerbic, sometimes vulnerable voice that sticks with you. She is a character you root for, one you take into your heart.

While I loved her character, I struggled with the book overall. At times I felt as if it was told in a stream-of-consciousness style, with long play-by-plays of basketball games and meanderings through New York history, art history, etc. It just didn't hold my attention as much as it hoped, so I found myself skimming through certain parts of the book.

When The Falconer worked, it worked well. It made you feel with, and for, Lucy. While for me, the book was uneven, it clearly demonstrates that Czapnik is a storyteller with a great future, one whose work I'll be watching for.

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

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Book Review: "The Other Americans" by Navidad Thélamour

"That's how socioeconomic stratification works, you know. We all end up in the same circles and stay there."

I've read a lot of books that explore the dynamics between the haves and the have-nots, and the machinations that those in power use to attempt to stay there. But until now, I've never read a book that explores those concepts within the African-American community.

With her debut novel, The Other Americans, Navidad Thélamour paints a portrait of one powerful family and those who orbit around it, and in doing so creates a dramatic, almost soap opera-esque story I couldn't get enough of.

The Dessommes family has been one to reckon with in Atlanta society for some time. Like every family, they have their ups and downs, but they do their best to make their ups public and keep their downs private. Vince Dessommes has been groomed to take over the family business since he was born—his father taught him how to be a man, and his mother made sure that his every move was the right one. Of course, that meant essentially ignoring their younger daughter, Jillian, letting her know she was definitely less than her brother.

Vince is ready to ascend into his father's spot at the top of the company and take over, but no one's quite ready for that yet. His ambitions create serious pressure for his wife, Delaney, whose dreams of becoming a social worker were put on hold (permanently) when Vince proposed. She isn't quite sure why she chose a life for which she has little control in charting its course over the one she wanted, but the closer Vince gets to achieving his ambitions, the more he wants his wife to fulfill her expected role.

"Power was something better used than left to get rusty, she'd learned. A Dessommes family trait that never seemed to skip a generation. Nothing had changed, in that regard, and nothing ever would."

Laney's best friend, Aaliyah, doesn't understand Laney's choices either. As a Trinidadian, she is viewed by the Dessomes family as an outsider, more because she reminds them of their blackness, of a heritage they don't want to think about. Aaliyah believes that hard work should be rewarded with success, and she is determined to succeed in the marketing firm where she works, so she puts in long hours and works tirelessly. But she doesn't factor in the disadvantages she faces as a woman, nor does she realize that for others, naked ambition means pulling strings rather than working hard. And she's not going to take it.

Jillian Dessomes has long been the one on the outside. It's one thing to be treated as an afterthought by your parents (although they expect you to keep up appearances and make the family look good), but what is it about her relationship with her brother Vince that unhinges her so, that causes her fondness for drugs, razor blades, and inappropriate relationships? What will it take to find the peace she so desperately needs?

All of these storylines intersect in The Other Americans, and create a tension-filled, emotional, thought-provoking read. This is a book about family loyalty, ambition, the need for independence, craving acceptance and love, and how people continue to surprise you in ways you don't expect—both positively and negatively. This was a compelling book, as I love stories about dysfunctional family and relationship dynamics.

Thélamour does a great job in her debut novel, and her writing is very self-assured. While some of the characters are very well-developed, I found Vince's character to be a little less complex. There was also one storyline involving the return of a character from Vince and Jillian's youth that seemed extraneous to me—it's like, clearly she had a purpose but I wasn't sure what it was except to create drama in another relationship.

If you like this type of story, pick up The Other Americans. It says in Thélamour's bio that she's working on a follow-up, and I'd love to see that.

The author provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Book Review: "No Exit" by Taylor Adams

Warning: don't read Taylor Adams' No Exit before bed.

While there are some creepy parts (and some gruesome ones), those aren't the reasons I'm warning you. It's quite simple, actually: if you start reading this book, there's no way you're going to want to put it down. You're going to want to stay up until you finish the book, and then once you're done, you'll probably have a little excess adrenaline that will keep you awake longer.

Trust me, I was severely overtired this morning, so I speak from experience!

College student Darby Thorne has just gotten word that her mother is dying and is about to undergo potentially dangerous surgery. Although their relationship has never been good (her mother said that when she was pregnant with Darby she thought she had the flu, so she almost killed her with Theraflu), Darby cannot miss the chance to apologize and make amends in case time is short.

To get home, she has to drive from Boulder, across the state of Colorado, and into Utah. But Mother Nature has other plans, as a massive snowstorm and her old car don't feel like facilitating her trip. Before she knows it, she's stuck in the middle of a blizzard in the Colorado mountains, with only a highway rest stop for shelter. She can't get a cell phone signal to see how her mother is or let anyone know she's delayed, and she left her phone charger in her dorm room.

"Here Darby was, the underachieving secondborn, trapped at a lonely rest stop just below the summit of Backbone Pass, because she'd tried to race Snowmageddon over the Rockies and failed. Miles above sea leavel, snowed in inside a '94 Honda Civic with busted windshield wipers, a dying phone, and a cryptic text message simmering in her mind."

There's not much to the rest stop—some coffee and hot cocoa, a few vending machines, and four strangers. Sandi and Eddie are cousins heading to Denver for Christmas; Ashley is gregarious, handsome, and perhaps trying a little too hard to be sociable and funny; and then there's Lars, a rodent-faced mouth-breather who gives Darby the creeps. It's quite a motley crew to pass the time with, especially when there's no real entertainment save endless card games.

When Darby goes outside to the parking lot to try and find a cell signal, she makes a frightening discovery: she finds a little girl being held captive in a cage inside the van parked next to her. The van door is locked, and she certainly can't make too much of a fuss, because she has nowhere to escape to. Whose van is it? Whom can she trust?

"What were the odds of stumbling across a kidnapping in progress? While trapped overnight in a snowy rest stop? It was all too fantastical to be a part of Darby's life."

Darby must not only think of herself, but of the little girl. With two lives on the line and no way to contact anyone to help her, the ball is in her court. But there's more to her fellow travelers than meets the eye, and navigating her way through this may take more strength and courage than she has.

No Exit takes off with the first few paces and never lets up until the very end. Adams ratchets up the suspense and the tension page by nerve-wracking page, and the atmosphere was so evocative that I actually felt colder than normal while reading this book. Darby is a terrific character—complex, flawed, impulsive, and yet determined to fight the odds and save the little girl's life.

I really enjoyed this book. It was full of twists I saw coming and I few I didn't quite expect. Some of the twists, though, made me roll my eyes a little, but that's when the book felt a bit like a summer blockbuster, where you don't question how long the battle will continue until resolution is achieved, because nothing ever goes smoothly.

I had heard a lot of buzz about No Exit so I was really eager to read it, and Adams definitely didn't disappoint. The book probably should come with a trial-sized supply of tranquilizers, though, to calm you down once you've finished!

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Book Review: "Late in the Day" by Tessa Hadley

The two couples were the closest of friends—Alex and Christine, and Zach and Lydia. Before all four met each other, Lydia and Christine were friends from school, as were Alex and Zach. When they all were living in England, their families spent a great deal of time together, and even their daughters grew up together. While they each shared some similarities, each was very different from one another.

One night, Alex and Christine plan for a quiet evening, when the idyll is broken by a phone call. Lydia is calling from the hospital to say that Zach died suddenly. The two are utterly shocked by Lydia's news, and rush quickly to tend to her, to tell Lydia and Zach's daughter, Grace, who is in school in Glasgow, and to handle the details that are necessary when such a tragedy occurs.

How do you help a friend who is grieving the death of her husband when you, too, are grieving the death of a cherished friend? What words can convey support while not focusing too heavily on your own loss? Alex and Christine feel unmoored, as if a part of them has died, as jovial, big-hearted, creative Zach always seemed to bring rationality and heart into their relationships with one another. Lydia is unsure of what to do—she is unable to tend to Zach's affairs, or even process the thought of being alone in their house without him.

Yet when Lydia moves in temporarily with Alex and Christine, being all together doesn't help assuage their grief. What it does instead is bring to the surface the difficulties in Alex and Christine's relationship, and unearth hidden feelings among the three of them which were buried a long time ago. Without Zach, the cracks become apparent in all of their relationships, but for a time they keep their peace out of respect for his death.

"Anyway, she didn't think any longer about the truth in that same way: as a core underneath a series of obfuscations and disguises. In the long run, weren't the disguises just as interesting, weren't they real too? She and Alex were so unlike, really: associated through some accident in their youth—the accident of his choosing her, because of what he thought she was. Since that beginning, they had both changed their skins so often. Marriage simply meant that you hung on to each other through the succession of metamorphoses. Or failed to."

Shifting back and forth between the early days of their relationships and the present, Late in the Day is an examination of the strange ways grief manifests itself, how it reignites old passions, opens old wounds, and creates friction in places there never was any before. It's a look at how we think of close friends as part of our family, but yet there are times we realize friends are no substitute for our family.

Tessa Hadley is a very talented writer, and she has a keen eye for dialogue and character development. From the very outset I predicted how the story would unfold, and I'll admit I was a little disappointed, because it seemed almost too predictable. I really never understood what the characters saw in each other except the pull of gravity keeping them together, and I felt that Lydia, Christine, and Alex were fairly unlikable, full of recriminations yet unwilling to say what's on their mind.

I didn't enjoy this book as much as I had hoped I would. I found the pacing to be very slow (the flashbacks, while edifying as to how the characters got to where we are now, dragged on for far too long) and things seemed a bit disjointed at times. I also wasn't sure what message Hadley was sending with the way she tied things up.

I read Hadley's The Past a number of years ago and found it very enjoyable, and I also enjoyed her collection of short stories, Bad Dreams and Other Stories. While Late in the Day wasn't a winner for me, I'll definitely keep reading Hadley's work, because I do love the way she writes.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Oscar Nominations: What I Think Will Happen

Those of you who know me well know that I've been fairly obsessed with the Oscars for years now. We do our best each year to see every movie and performance nominated for the major awards, and thanks to my ridiculous trivia-laden brain, I can tell you everyone nominated for Best Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, and Director, as well as all of the movies nominated for Best Picture, since the Oscars started in 1927. (It's a super-useful skill on the open market.)

Tomorrow morning at around 8:37 a.m. ET this year's Oscar nominations will be announced. As I've done for a number of years, I am listing my predictions of what I think will get nominated for the major categories (along with some analysis of what I wish would happen), and then tomorrow I'll see how I did.

So, here goes!

Best Picture
Black Panther
Bohemian Rhapsody
The Favourite
Green Book
A Star Is Born

Analysis: Every year since 2009 there has been a variable number of Best Picture nominees. Some years there are seven, eight, nine, even ten. No one knows how many there will be because of the way Best Picture nominees are voted for. I'm picking eight—if the Academy goes with one more I think it will be either If Beale Street Could Talk or First Man (which I loved); First Reformed, Mary Poppins Returns, or Crazy Rich Asians could surprise as well.

Best Actor
Christian Bale, Vice
Bradley Cooper, A Star Is Born
Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody
Viggo Mortensen, Green Book
John David Washington, BlacKkKlansman

Analysis: If I had my picks, I'd have Lucas Hedges for Boy Erased and/or Ethan Hawke for First Reformed in there. While sadly, Hedges doesn't have a chance this year (and he also turned in another award-worthy performance in Ben is Back), Hawke could sneak in and replace Washington (Hawke has won more film critics' awards than any other actor). There's also a chance that Willem Dafoe could get a nod for his performance as Vincent Van Gogh in At Eternity's Gate.(Sadly, two other really strong performances—Ryan Gosling in First Man and Robert Redford for The Old Man and the Gun—don't even make the discussion.)

Best Actress
Yalitzia Aparicio, Roma
Glenn Close, The Wife
Olivia Colman, The Favourite
Lady Gaga, A Star Is Born
Melissa McCarthy, Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Analysis: While I believe that Close, Colman, Gaga, and McCarthy have their slots sewn up, that fifth one is anyone's guess. I'm betting Aparicio will ride a huge wave for Roma tomorrow, but other possibilities are Emily Blunt for Mary Poppins Returns, Viola Davis for Widows, Nicole Kidman for Destroyer, and critical favorite Toni Colette for Hereditary. (If everything was fair, Julia Roberts would get a nomination for her fantastic performance in Ben is Back, and Charlize Theron deserves a nod for Tully, but comedies never fare well.)

Best Supporting Actor
Mahershala Ali, Green Book
Timothee Chalamet, Beautiful Boy
Adam Driver, BlacKkKlansman
Sam Elliott, A Star Is Born
Richard E. Grant, Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Analysis: One of the things that will make me so happy tomorrow is if Sam Elliott finally gets his first Oscar nomination after a long career. However, I think he's the one with the best chance of being left off the list, too, in favor of last year's winner, Sam Rockwell, for Vice. (It's also possible that Chalamet, who received Golden Globe and SAG nominations, could be overlooked instead. If The Favourite leads the nominations tomorrow, Nicholas Hoult could also sneak in.

Best Supporting Actress
Amy Adams, Vice
Emily Blunt, A Quiet Place
Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk
Emma Stone, The Favourite
Rachel Weisz, The Favourite

Analysis: I really, really, really want Claire Foy to be nominated for First Man. I'm hoping she gets in over Blunt, who was the female lead (I hate when leading performances get nominated for supporting awards). I'd also like to see Nicole Kidman get nominated for Boy Erased, but that seems unlikely, as does my sentimental favorite, Michelle Yeoh, for Crazy Rich Asians. While King really should be the favorite for this award, there's an outside chance she could get passed over, like she did for the SAGs, although I doubt that will happen.

Best Director
Bradley Cooper, A Star Is Born
Alfonso Cuaron, Roma
Peter Farrelly, Green Book
Yorgos Lanthimos, The Favourite
Spike Lee, BlacKkKlansman

Analysis: I'm sticking my neck out with my prediction of Lanthimos over Adam McKay for Vice (who received a Directors Guild of America nomination along with Cooper, Cuaron, Farrelly, and Lee), but there's often one surprise. There are many times that actor-turned-directors don't get nominated when their films do (Ron Howard for Apollo 13, Ben Affleck for Argo, Penny Marshall for Awakenings), so Cooper could get left out, although I'd be surprised. Other possibilities include Damien Chazelle for First Man, Ryan Coogler for Black Panther, and Barry Jenkins for If Beale Street Could Talk.

How off will I be? Check back tomorrow and I'll let you know. (If you listen closely, you might hear me cheering or crying, "Why?", tomorrow, too.)

Book Review: "Looker" by Laura Sims

"I'm grateful they've never thought to install blinds. That's how confident they are. No one would dare stand in front of our house and watch us, they think. And they're probably right, except for me.

Laura Sims' Looker is a story about obsession, about how easy it can be to transfix on something when everything else isn't going your way. The unnamed narrator has had a tough time lately—her marriage has ended, partially because of her fertility problems, and her job as a lecturer at a local college is in jeopardy. All she has left is the cat her husband left behind, and the actress.

Ah, THE ACTRESS. She lives on her block, in a beautiful brownstone, with her screenwriter husband, their three young children, and a host of staff. The narrator is a bit obsessed with the actress—she's watched her career go from small indie films to blockbusters, and watched her profile grow. But more than that, she believes that she and the actress have so much in common, and that they could even be friends, if the actress would just give her a chance.

As things start to spiral out of control in both her job and her relationship with her estranged husband, she begins to focus more on the actress and her family. She even has a room in her apartment which she has filled with the actress' cast-offs, and she thinks the actress might even appreciate that. She just needs to figure out her approach, and when an interaction at the annual neighborhood block party shows promise, she gets excited and anticipates the start of a terrific friendship.

But that is not meant to be. And while most people would recognize the gulf between the two women, she does not. She is determined that the actress will notice her, no matter what it takes.

At just under 200 pages, Looker is a quick read that rapidly picks up steam. At times, you're not quite sure whether what the narrator is telling us is true, or if it is just a scenario she has created in her mind, so that adds another layer to the story.

Sims does an excellent job creating a portrait of mental illness and obsession, and how easy it is to focus on something you perceive to be happy and successful when you feel your life is in turmoil. The book is so short, however, that I felt things ended just as they were really taking off, and the ending itself was a little abrupt. But it's a suspenseful, sad, slightly creepy story that definitely kept my attention.

There is some animal cruelty in the book, for those of you who avoid books that include that. While some of the story certainly is predictable, some of it didn't quite go the way I thought it would, which actually pleased me, and kept me reading. You may think differently about your local celebrities after this!

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Book Review: "Talk to Me" by John Kenney

"But deep down in places he rarely allowed himself to go, Ted knew he was a lie. A handsome, large-headed, reasonably intelligent lie. They had made him this thing, this...character, this cartoon, really, where once, long ago, Ted had been a reporter. A writer."

Ted Grayson is a well-respected television news anchor. At 59, he's one of the last bastions of the "old guard" of news media, as television networks battle with cable and internet for ratings and advertising dollars. The definition of what is "news" has also changed since he got his start, and at times he doesn't even recognize the industry he's working in.

But while he is well-regarded by the viewers, his family doesn't have the same opinions about Ted. He and his wife, Claire, have been estranged for some time (following a long period of time where they were estranged even while living in the same house). She is weary after years of neglect, infidelity, and Ted's need to chase a story instead of actively participate in his marriage. Ted's daughter, Franny, hates him. Nothing he does is not deserving of scorn, even if Franny has more than her own share of issues.

"Life changes. This was the essence of news. Why did it come as such a shock to an anchorman?"

One night, in the middle of a newscast, things go spectacularly awry. Ted loses his temper and goes on a profanity-laced and misogynistic rant. It's a momentary lapse, but it doesn't wind up on camera, so everyone is hoping it will blow over. But then it hits the internet, and then it's a matter of minutes before Ted, and everything he represents, wind up in big trouble. Everyone has an opinion, and none of them are anything less than career-ending.

Franny, who works for a popular "news" website, watches her father's downfall with bemusement. But when it is suggested that she interview Ted for an article to help bolster her somewhat-flagging prospects at the site, she isn't sure whether she really hates her father enough to make career hay at his expense. Ted, on the other hand, wonders if it matters at all what Franny writes. Maybe he does deserve everything that's coming to him. Or maybe it's an opportunity to gain some control of himself before it really is too late.

John Kenney's Talk to Me is the story of a man whose career—and his life—are in freefall. It's a look at what it's like to finally have to come to terms with the choices you've made and whether you would make them again, and at whose expense you've made them. Ted's problems aren't unique—we've seen this type of story play out many times in real life, both involving celebrities and "real" people.

At the same time, this is a book about our scandal-hungry society, how the media loves to put people up on a pedestal only to gleefully knock them down when they make a mistake. It's a commentary about how quickly bad news, errors, or misdeeds travel, and the ripples they cause. It's also a look at the balance between news and entertainment, and how easy it has become to confuse the latter for the former.

When the book focused on Ted and his downfall, and how clueless he really was about the ramifications of what he did, I really enjoyed Talk to Me. But the more it focused on the outrage caused by Ted's rant, the reactions of those in society and the media, and the machinations of Franny's boss, I didn't find the book as interesting. I guess I feel like we're living in that society right now, and I didn't need much more of an analysis of how angry and unforgiving we can be to those who do things we perceive to be egregious.

Kenney is a great writer, and he has achieved a tough feat of making you care about unlikable characters. Ted and Franny in particular were complex, flawed yet sympathetic characters whose trajectories I understood. I didn't feel as if Kenney gave Claire as much depth, and I found a tangential storyline with an old roommate of Franny's to be mostly unnecessary.

So while I wasn't head over heels for Talk to Me, there are enough redeeming qualities to recommend it. There's some real emotion here amidst the melee, and it is those moments that make this book worthwhile.

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

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Book Review: "The Dreamers" by Karen Thompson Walker

Confession time: I'm a total hypochondriac. I don't watch medical shows, because I've convinced myself I'm dying of things it's medically impossible for me to contract. I caught a bad cold two days after finishing The Stand, and I was convinced the end was near. I'm a mess.

Needless to say, it might not have been the best idea to finish Karen Thompson Walker's The Dreamers just before bed, but luckily I'm here to tell you about it.

"The only way to tell some stories is with the oldest, most familiar words: this here, this is the breaking of a heart."

Another semester of college has started in a sleepy Southern California town. Kara leaves a party one night saying she doesn't feel well. Everyone figures she's probably had too much to drink. She gets into bed and falls asleep. She's still asleep when her roommate, Mei, leaves for class the next morning, but Mei isn't concerned, because Kara has done this before. Kara is still asleep when evening comes, but no one can wake her, not Mei, not Kara's friends, not even the paramedics or the doctors at the hospital where she was taken.

The doctors can't figure out what's wrong with her, nor can they explain why she dies the next day. But everyone is unprepared when a second girl in Kara's dorm falls asleep, then a third. That's when panic starts to set in, and as more students, and others they come into contact with at the school fall asleep, fears of an epidemic are sparked.

While doctors are stymied by what is sweeping through the college, and how it can be prevented from spreading, they also make an unusual discovery: "there is more activity in these minds than has ever been recorded in any human brain—awake or asleep."

Slowly, the virus begins to spread through this small town. First it's the hospital and college personnel who fall prey, and then it starts to affect an ever-widening circle of those they've come into contact with. Sarah and Libby, two young sisters, are determined to protect themselves; Ben and Annie, two young professors, withstand the strains of their marriage to try and keep their infant daughter safe; Nathaniel, another professor, worries he may be kept from visiting his husband, who is in a nursing home; and Mei, who, along with another student, tries to make a difference once she stops submerging herself in her own fears.

The Dreamers is a tremendously thought-provoking book about how we come together and tear ourselves apart in the midst of a crisis like this. It's a portrait of fear, courage, love, stubbornness, sacrifice, and selfishness, and the stories of those affected and those waiting to see if they'll be next are very poignant.

As she proved with her first book, The Age of Miracles (see my review), Walker is a great storyteller, combining scientific elements with fantastical ones to yield a book rich with emotion. Where I struggled with The Dreamers, however, is how things were wrapped up. I felt left with more questions than answers, and I really wasn't sure what kind of a message she was sending. The book needed a clearer ending more fitting of the complexity of the plot.

That criticism aside, this is a book that will make you think about how you might act in a similar situation, if you were any of these characters. I look forward to reading Walker's next book, because her talent is too good to sit idle.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Book Review: "Red, White & Royal Blue" by Casey McQuiston

Oh. My. God. I couldn't have loved this book more.

It was sweet, it was romantic, it made me cry, it made me hopeful, it made me bitter that there weren't books like this when I was growing up, but it made me so happy there are books like this now for those who need it.

Alex Claremont-Diaz is the First Son of the United States. His mother is finishing her first term as president and is gearing up for a bruising re-election fight, and his father is a congressman from California. Alex is quite a celebrity—he's good-looking, charming, politically savvy, and exceptionally smart, and along with his older sister and the genius granddaughter of the vice-president, comprise the so-called "White House Trio," a group of popular millennials constantly (and purposely) in the public eye.

Alex is happy to do whatever is expected of him to help his mother, unless that whatever includes playing nice with Prince Henry of Wales, an heir to the throne (the "spare," actually) and a constant thorn in Alex's side.

"It's not a grudge, really. It's not even a rivalry. It's a prickling, unsettling annoyance. It makes his palms sweat."

When the pair's interaction at a royal wedding turns into a confrontation with embarrassingly messy (and expensive) results, damage control is necessary on both sides, so a fake friendship is created for the press and the public on both sides of the pond.

Spending time together is torture for both Alex and Henry, but somewhere during the public appearances aimed at positive photo ops, Alex realizes there's more to Henry than the handsome, perfect, and bland persona that infuriates him. Somewhere along the way both start to enjoy each other's company and the companionship via text, email, and phone that results. No one else really understands the demand of their respective roles, and no one else really understands the demons that cause them moments of sadness and doubt.

Without warning (at least to the two of them, not the reader), Alex and Henry fall intensely for each other. Both know the risks of their relationship becoming public, but they can't stay away from each other, which is no mean feat, considering Alex's mother is running for re-election and Henry is in the UK. Are they ready to jeopardize everything—Alex's mother's chance at a second term, the disapproval of Henry's grandmother the queen and the rest of his family, not to mention the damage to the monarchy? But can they walk away from each other if they need to?

"When Alex was a kid, before anyone knew his name, he dreamed of love like it was a fairy tale, as if it would come sweeping into his life on the back of a dragon one day. When he got older, he learned about love as a strange thing that could fall apart no matter how badly you wanted it, a choice you make anyway. He never imagined it'd turn out he was right both times."

Casey McQuiston made me fall hopelessly in love with this book and these characters. Even the supporting characters have more to them than meets the eye, and it's what made this book so utterly special. Is it predictable? Sure. Does it matter? Hell, no. The emotions, the fears, the doubts, the what-ifs—none of it is melodramatic, it's just so damned lovely.

Beyond the story that McQuiston has told so well, what I loved most about this book is the hope that such a love story could actually be real in this day and age. Sure, a couple like Alex and Henry would have to face crazy resistance and prejudice and opposition from many quarters, but it's definitely possible. And for an adolescent struggling with their sexuality, wondering if they ever could live happily ever after with their own prince, princess, or whomever they dream of, this book isn't a total fantasy.

I know in January 2020 (egads) when I look back on the best books I read in 2019, Red, White & Royal Blue will be among them, even though the lack of serial comma in the title is killing me. This sweet, sexy, emotional, truly special book is one I won't soon forget.

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, January 15, 2019

Book Review: "Sugar Run" by Mesha Maren

There are some books which fill you with a sense of foreboding the minute you start reading them, sort of the way you may be poised to put your hands over your eyes when watching a scary movie—you know something bad will happen, but you just don't know when.

That's the way I felt while reading Mesha Maren's Sugar Run. This novel about a woman's quest for a new beginning even though she quickly falls into all of her old habits isn't scary, but you can just feel that things could fall off the rails at any minute, and you wish it wouldn't. (Or at least I wished it wouldn't.)

Jodi was sentenced to life in prison when she was 17 years old, in 1989. Unexpectedly, she is released 18 years later, and she has a plan for what to do with this newfound freedom: move back to her childhood home in rural West Virginia and live on her grandmother's land, where she spent the majority of her youth. But first, she is determined to fulfill a promise made before she went to prison: rescue the developmentally and emotionally challenged younger brother of an old friend.

"Coming home was like disappearing in a way, she thought, slipping back into the past. Until a week and a half ago she had thought she would not return here until death—a body shipped to a family that barely remembered it, a body to be laid back into the mountains to rest—but now here she was, not just a body but a jumble of wild thoughts and emotions, coming home."

Less than 24 hours after being released from prison, heading to a small Georgia town, she encounters Miranda, a beautiful but troubled young mother of three, with a taste for pills and alcohol and a complicated relationship with her ex-husband, a once-famous singer. Despite every sign pointing her in the opposite direction, Jodi falls for Miranda, and the two begin planning a future that includes raising Miranda's children and her friend's brother back in Jodi's hometown. It seems almost too good to be true.

But when they return home to West Virginia, nothing is quite as it seems. Jodi and Miranda's idyllic plans are quickly dashed, and it isn't long before Jodi finds herself caught up in her family's potentially dangerous dysfunction, which could send her back to prison, if not endanger her life. Helping care for four children—not to mention a flighty, unstable girlfriend—in an area where same-sex relationships are far from welcomed, leaves Jodi unsure of which end is up and what she should do next.

"She told herself this was different, this was new, but still she could feel the weight of those mountains, even unseen, the heaviness of all that familiarity."

Can you ever truly outrun your mistakes and get a chance for a fresh start, even in the same old place? Where do you find the strength to recognize the signs that you're being pulled down again into another potentially destructive situation, even if there are glimpses of good amidst the chaos? Why doesn't anything work out the way you hope it will?

Switching back and forth between the months leading up to Jodi's arrest and the present, following her release from prison, Sugar Run is a story of a woman searching for second chances but not looking very far, or thinking clearly about what the right decisions are. It's also a story of a woman who really had no chance given the environment in which she was raised, and returning to it doesn't seem like the smartest idea. But can you escape your past?

While nothing horrible happens in the book, there are lots of close calls, and I still had this pervasive sense that everything could fall apart in a matter of minutes. Even though Jodi certainly is to blame for her own situation, the complexities that Maren has given her make her an appealing character despite her faults. She definitely knows how to tell a story and create an environment with tremendously vivid, evocative imagery.

Strangely, given all of the tension I felt while reading the book, the pacing was very slow, almost plodding. I also wasn't sure what Maren was trying to say with her characters—was she saying it's okay to live life the way they did because of their circumstances, or was she simply depicting what happens all too often in impoverished, rural areas?

Sugar Run is quite a debut novel, and it definitely hints at a promising career for Maren. She definitely gives her readers lots to think about!

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Book Review: "Freefall" by Jessica Barry

I don't know about you, but sometimes when I'm reading a book, something about the title triggers a song (or even two) in my brain, something that keeps running through my head the entire time. Needless to say, I was glad I devoured Jessica Barry's Freefall in one day, because I don't know if I could have handled Tom Petty's "Free Fallin'" running through my head longer than that! (If it gets stuck in your head, you're welcome.)

"Here are the facts: I am alone. I am on a mountain. The plane I was on has crashed. My body is covered in bruises and cuts and my left leg has a wound that will soon become infected if I don't clean it. My finger is strained or broken and quickly swelling. I have very little food and water. The sun is still high but it will be dark in a few hours and my only shelter is a twisted hulk of metal that could, at any minute, explode."

Allison Gardner survived the crash of her fiancé's plane in the Colorado Rockies. But even though she is battered and bruised, she knows the last thing she can do is wait at the crash site for someone to rescue her. If they know she's alive, they will find her and kill her. She has to force herself to get as far away from the crash as possible, because she's come too far to die now.

When Allison's mother, Maggie, learns that Allison is presumed dead, she is devastated, confused, and shocked. She and Allison have been estranged since a family tragedy two years ago, so she had no idea why Allison would be on a private plane, nor was she even aware that Allison was engaged, much less to the handsome CEO of a successful pharmaceutical firm. Maggie wants to understand the woman her daughter became in the two years since they've spoken, and the more she starts digging into things, the more she realizes things in Allison's life weren't what they seemed.

Two headstrong women are determined to succeed, Allison in trekking across the mountains in order to find a safe place to hide before she is found, Maggie in uncovering the secrets no one is telling her about Allison's life the last two months. Maggie has no idea of the danger her daughter was in, and has no idea of the risks she is taking looking for answers.

Freefall alternates in narration between Allison and Maggie, and most of Allison's chapters flash back to her life before getting on that plane, and why she needs to keep alert and keep going. It's a fascinating, fast-moving story that has some twists you can see coming if you've read any thrillers, but some twists surprise you. Barry keeps you hooked on both of their stories, and keeps you hoping that both women will be successful in their quests.

I really enjoyed this book, and as I mentioned, I read nearly the entire thing in one sitting. Barry has a great talent for teasing out the suspense and unfurling secrets little by little, almost in real time as Maggie starts looking into what happened to Allison. This was a great thriller for a snowy day, and I look forward to seeing what Barry comes up with next!

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Book Review: "Normal People" by Sally Rooney

Sally Rooney's upcoming novel Normal People almost felt like a puzzle, in that you didn't really know what you were truly getting until all of the pieces came together. Beautifully written although a little slow in its pacing, it's a novel full of deep emotions, which made it difficult to read at times.

Connell and Marianne know each other from high school, although they pretend not to, plus his mother works as a cleaner for her family. Marianne is a bit of a laughing stock in school, mainly because she doesn't care what her classmates think of her. Connell is tremendously affected by what people think of him, so when a connection starts to grow between him and Marianne, and turns to something physical and even emotional, they keep it hidden, and he ignores her in school.

"At times he has the sensation that he and Marianne are like figure-skaters, improvising their discussions so adeptly and in such perfect synchronisation that it surprises them both. She tosses herself gracefully into the air, and each time, without knowing how he's going to do it, he catches her."

Marianne feels so intensely for Connell, and she is willing to let him possess her completely. He can't explain his feelings for Marianne, except that she thinks so highly of him, but he continues to fear what his peers would think if they knew what was going on. He winds up treating her badly, leaving her to deal with her own emotional distress.

One year later, both are studying at Trinity College in Dublin. Connell feels uneasy, no longer the popular fellow he was in high school, and has difficulty relating to his peers and fitting in. Marianne, on the other hand, is comfortable in this world, enjoying deep conversations about the political and economic issues facing society, and being looked at as an object of desire, not ridicule by her fellow students. No matter what other opportunities present themselves, the pair finds themselves drawn to each other once again, enjoying the way their interactions make them feel yet falling into the same patterns which cause friction.

"Marianne had a wildness that got into him for a while and made him feel that he was like her, that they had the same unnameable spiritual injury, and that neither of them could ever fit into the world. But he was never damaged like she was. She just made him feel that way."

Normal People follows Marianne and Connell through their time at college, through different relationships and the periodic circling back to one another, whether solely for friendship or something else. Each chapter, with a few exceptions, takes place a few months after the last one. But Marianne's penchant for self-destruction and Connell's inability to cope with the emotional stresses he faces leave them both unsure what their relationship should be and could be, if anything.

Marianne's feeling she is unworthy of being loved without abuse or mistreatment, and the way she is treated by her family, boyfriends, and others, is very difficult to read about at times. Connell's bouts with depression are also quite painful to read, so at times this book felt very heavy, and its pacing seemed to move much slower than I would have liked. And like many books which focus on relationships, at times I wanted to shake both characters to make them say the things they wanted to, to each other and other people in their lives.

Despite the book's emotional turmoil, Rooney's writing is exceptional. There were so many passages beyond the two I've cited in this review that I read over and over again, marveling at her use of language and imagery. She definitely got me completely immersed in this book and these characters, even when things seemed particularly draining or moved slowly. Normal People is really affecting, and it will stick with me for a long time.

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

Friday, January 11, 2019

Book Review: "Two Can Keep a Secret" by Karen M. McManus

With Two Can Keep a Secret, her follow-up to the excellent One of Us is Lying (see my review), Karen M. McManus proves she's not a flash-in-the-pan talent, but rather a pretty terrific storyteller, one who is tremendously skilled at depicting the complex behaviors of teenagers, and the mysteries that unfold in front of our eyes.

Ellery and her twin brother Ezra have to leave their California home and move to Echo Ridge, a small town in Vermont, and live with their maternal grandmother while their mother goes to rehab. They've never been to Echo Ridge before, and barely know their grandmother, despite the fact that their mother grew up there, and was even crowned homecoming queen. But that night, their aunt (their mother's twin sister) disappeared and was never seen or heard from again.

Their aunt's disappearance wasn't the town's only tragedy. Five years ago, Lacey Kilduff was crowned homecoming queen and was then found murdered shortly thereafter. It's a crime that affected many in Echo Ridge, as the murder was never solved, yet many town residents have their suspicions about who is guilty, and they take it out on anyone connected to him.

"'I should probably preface this by saying...I think about crime a lot. Like, an abnormal amount. I get that. It's sort of a problem. So you have to take what I say with a grain of salt, because I'm just this...naturally suspicious person, I guess.'"

For someone fairly obsessed with true crime, a town with as many secrets as Echo Ridge is a treasure trove for Ellery. Not only does she want to understand what happened to her aunt Sarah all those years ago (not to mention why her mother has kept them from Echo Ridge), but she begins finding clues to what might have happened to Lacey. And when it appears that someone is threatening to harm another candidate for homecoming queen, Ellery is determined to uncover all of the answers—but it may put her own life in danger in the process, because someone wants to keep the town's secrets hidden.

Just like anytime I read a book that has any type of mystery component, I'm immediately suspicious of everyone. A new character shows up? Bam, they're a suspect. The funny thing is, McManus really did keep me guessing here, and while I wasn't shocked with how things resolved themselves, I wasn't disappointed either. There definitely were some good twists to be had here, and McManus gave you characters to root for and characters to instantly dislike. (And here's a funny point—this is the third book I've read in the last year with a main character named Ellery.)

A hallmark of YA books is characters that are more articulate and sarcastic than most adults, and while that's certainly the case with the characters in Two Can Keep a Secret, it felt right here and didn't detract from how much I liked this. I also liked the way diversity was presented as almost an afterthought—there was too much going on in the high school and around town for anyone to focus on someone's sexuality or ethnicity. (I would have liked a same-sex relationship thrown in, but I know that wasn't the focus of the story.)

As far as I'm concerned, McManus is now two for two, and seeing as I started this book the day after it was released, I'll probably have a while to wait until her next book. I'm sure it will be worth the wait, but until then, I love marveling at the incredible depth and breadth of talented writers creating such fantastic YA books these days.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Book Review: "The Hating Game" by Sally Thorne

"I have a theory. Hating someone feels disturbingly similar to being in love with them. I've had a lot of time to compare love and hate, and these are my observations."

Lucy Hutton hates Joshua Templeman. Serious, out-and-out hate. And the feeling is more than mutual. Yet the two are essentially joined at the hip, professionally, as each serves as the executive assistant to one of the co-CEOs of Bexley & Gamin Publishing.

Every day is essentially the same—Lucy and Joshua are caught in a continuous battle of wills and perpetual one-upmanship, as they try to keep ahead, and therefore keep their boss ahead, of the other. They're polar opposites, too—Lucy is friendly, willing to give people the benefit of the doubt and work late. She likes brightly colored clothes and is absolutely quirky, while Joshua is ruthless, feared (and hated) by the majority of his colleagues, a person whose desk is meticulously organized and who wears a different colored shirt each day, according to a specific order you can set your calendar by.

"We're engaged in one of our childish games, which requires no words. Like everything we do, it's dreadfully immature."

When an opportunity for promotion is announced, both Lucy and Joshua are ready. Lucy has dreamed of working for a publisher since she was young, but if she were to get the job, what she'd relish most is being Joshua's boss. Joshua knows he has the educational qualifications and the ruthlessness needed, and knows he could beat Lucy out for the position with one hand tied behind his back.

But as the stakes grow higher and their competitiveness grows more intense, something changes. Suddenly the games they're playing start taking on a new dimension. Lucy is suddenly realizing there's more to Joshua than she has assumed, and Joshua starts feeling protective of Lucy, maybe even a little possessive. Could it be possible that she doesn't hate him after all? Is it true that he might feel the same way about her? Is this just another game? And if not, what happens when one of them gets the promotion and the other one doesn't?

Unless you've never read or seen a romantic comedy, you probably could guess what will happen in this book by the simple plot outline I've provided, and you probably won't be entirely wrong. But that doesn't detract from The Hating Game's charm one iota. You find yourself rooting for these characters, wanting to shake them so they'll come to their senses sooner, worrying about what will happen to them along their way to the conclusion you predict.

I found myself reading a number of these books in 2018, and I honestly was surprised how much I enjoyed them. They awaken the sap in me, sure, but they're also good stories, stories which don't put me into a deep funk like some thrillers or crime novels do, stories which don't make my head hurt from thinking too hard about what they mean. Sally Thorne is another terrific writer in this genre, and now she joins Christina Lauren, Jasmine Guillory, Katherine Center, and others whose books I've been devouring lately.

When you're in the mood for a story with heart, with quirky characters, a little competitiveness and family drama, and some pretty hot sex, add The Hating Game to your list. I know I'll jump on Thorne's next book when it's released later this month, and you know what? There's no shame in loving these rom-coms. (At least that's what I'm telling myself, lol!)

Monday, January 7, 2019

Book Review: "The Spectators" by Jennifer duBois

Both a commentary on the dysfunction incited by the sensational talk show culture of the late 1990s and a meditation on the gay community before and during the AIDS crisis, Jennifer duBois' upcoming book The Spectators is at times beautiful and lamenting, at others meandering and confusing.

Matthew Miller is a talk show host whose show, "The Mattie M Show," is a spectacle. With programs that focus on taboo relationships (including a man and a goat) and routinely feature fighting (a la Jerry Springer), the show becomes a cultural lightning rod, one of those programs that commentators like to point to as a sign that our society is in decline.

When a shooting occurs in an Ohio high school, and it turns out the students responsible were huge fans of the show, Mattie becomes an object of intense scrutiny, as does the show bearing his name. The more his critics debate the show's sensationalism, whether it is staged or authentic, and what its role was in the tragedy, the more people—even those who work on the show—realize how little they know about Mattie.

As Cel, the somewhat disconnected, disenfranchised publicist for the show, tries to figure out who her boss really is and how they might right this sinking ship (if she even cares to), she starts to hear rumors of Mattie's past, as an ambitious politician whose career was met with scandal. Does this explain Mattie's attitude toward the show's problems, or hint at what his next step might be should the show get canceled?

Meanwhile, Mattie's former lover, Semi, a playwright, tells a different story, a story of Mattie in the carefree yet politically tense 1970s in New York City, when he went from lawyer to idealistic politician. Through Semi's eyes, we see how the gay community transformed from one of merriment and freedom to one wracked by the horrors of AIDS, how it affected the culture, politics, relationships, everything.

While there was a link between Semi's relationship with Mattie in the past and the Mattie of current times, quite often it felt like The Spectators was two separate books. The chapters narrated by Semi—some of which felt like they were being told by a Greek chorus of those whose lives were touched by AIDS—were beautifully written, poignant, even emotionally searing at times, but when the narration shifted to Cel and the issues with the show, I started to lose interest.

The discussion about media sensationalism and its role in society's crises is certainly a relevant one, yet I didn't feel like the book was willing to stake out a position whether those who foment antagonism or appear to embrace spectacle and falsehood have any responsibility for prejudice, violence, or other actions taken by their viewers or listeners. But even more frustrating for me was the fact that Cel had very little charisma as a character let alone a narrator. Much of her interactions with other characters seemed stilted or stammering, and it seemed crazy that a popular show would employ such an inarticulate person as its publicist.

duBois' talent for imagery and emotion was particularly evident in those chapters narrated by Semi and others. There were many passages which I read more than once and thought were almost poetic. Sadly, the book as a whole didn't work for me. I almost wish the whole book could have followed Mattie, Semi, and his friends through the 1970s and beyond rather than get distracted by the whole issue with the television program. Oh well.

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

Friday, January 4, 2019

Book Review: "The Killer Collective" by Barry Eisler

"The killing business has its own gravitational pull, and if you get too close, or stay too long, you'll never break free."

Man oh man, Barry Eisler knows how to write thrillers! His books featuring "retired" hitman John Rain, and his newer books featuring troubled sex crimes detective Livia Lone are fantastic, but this one really hits a home run. Way to get my heart pounding!

Livia is leading the Seattle Police Department's involvement with the FBI in a joint investigation of a child pornography ring when she and a consultant discover that there are some pretty influential people caught in this horrible, tangled web. But as Livia searches to identify the culprits, the investigation is quickly shut down.

Of course, Livia is not one to be easily dissuaded—until she finds herself the target of an attempt on her life. If it weren't for her police-sharpened instincts and her martial arts skills, she probably would have been killed, but instead, you should see the other guys. Still, it doesn't take an investigative genius to know that she has stirred up a hornet's nest, and it's one that is going to get infinitely more dangerous if she doesn't drop the matter. And the likelihood of Livia walking away from children being put in the worst kind of danger is nil.

Ironically, the hit on Livia, along with two other people, was originally offered to John Rain, who refused, both on principle (he never kills women) and because he didn't like the attitude of the person trying to hire him. This refusal proves to be a bit dangerous for him and two former colleagues who connected him with the potential customer. Suddenly Rain's retirement looks to be a thing of the past, as he tries to figure out what is behind all of the violence.

When Livia calls on former Marine sniper (and Rain's best friend) Dox for help out of her predicament, he turns to Rain. It doesn't take long before they've essentially created a squad of highly trained killers to try and go after the mastermind of the whole circle of violence. In addition to Rain, Dox, and Livia, there's Rain’s estranged lover (and Mossad agent) Delilah, lethal black ops soldier Daniel Larison, and their former commander, Colonel Scot “Hort” Horton. No one should want to cross this group—but they know all too well someone will, soon enough.

The race to kill before being killed, and capture the person behind the hit on Livia and the squelching of the child pornography investigation takes the group across the world, before everything explodes in Paris. Lives are at stake, but so are some complex emotions—love, anger, fear, loyalty, betrayal, and revenge.

The Killer Collective meshes together Rain, Livia, and characters from Eisler's previous books so well. While there are references to previous books, even I didn't read some of them, and yet I didn't find that a problem at all. Not only is there some fantastic action, double-crosses, and impressive weaponry, but Eisler doesn't just give you stock characters—these are complex characters with layers of emotional baggage and, in some cases, long-standing friendships and relationships. This makes the book so much richer.

The book takes a little time to build up momentum as it sets everything up, but once it does...boom! There was just so much to like about this book, the same way I've felt about every one of Eisler's books I've read through the years. For me, having Rain, Dox, and Delilah together felt like dropping in on old friends, and adding Livia to the mix added to the book's complexity and emotion.

Essentially, Eisler has created a more literary version of The Expendables—that movie series that brought together Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Jet Li, Chuck Norris, Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Bruce Willis, and other action heroes.

Amazon First Reads and Thomas & Mercer provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Book Review: "The Outsider" by Stephen King

Despite its name, Flint City has always been more like a small town, where everyone knows everyone's business. The town is rocked by the brutal violation and murder of 11-year-old Frank Peterson, and everyone wants justice to be served swiftly once the perpetrator is caught.

The police have the fingerprints and eyewitness testimony they need to make an arrest. Shockingly, everything points to Terry Maitland, an English teacher, husband and father, and beloved Little League coach, who was named Flint City's Man of the Year just a few years earlier. Driven by a zealous DA and a police detective whose son was once coached by Maitland, the police make a very public arrest of their suspect—within the last few swings of a decisive Little League game.

No one can believe "Coach T" is guilty of such an unspeakable crime, but once they hear of his arrest, everyone is quick to condemn a man who enjoyed coaching and teaching adolescents. Maitland not only insists he is innocent, but he provides significant evidence to bolster his alibi, enough to make the police wonder whether they made a mistake arresting him before fully investigating his whereabouts the night of the murder.

When DNA evidence backs up the police's suspicions, they aren't quite sure what to think. How could Maitland have been in two places at once? Was he simply setting up an alibi because his crime was premeditated, is someone trying to frame him, or is there something (or someone) else to worry about? After a succession of tragedies, the police need to figure out exactly what happened to Frank Peterson, and whether or not Terry Maitland was responsible, or they'll have to face serious repercussions.

In need of help, they turn to Holly Gibney (a character from King's Mr. Mercedes trilogy) for investigative assistance. But what she and the police begin to uncover is something far more troubling than they could ever imagine. Was Maitland the innocent man he said he was? Did he pull the wool over everyone's eyes, including those closest to him? Or is there more to fear?

Stephen King fires on all cylinders with The Outsider, using his immense talent for evocative imagery and multidimensional characters which creep you out. I wasn't sure what was going to happen in this book, although I had my suspicions, but King threw in lots of twists and turns here to keep me guessing. Nothing was quite like what it seemed, which made this story so compelling.

The one problem I've had with some of King's books in the past is I feel they lost steam as they wind their way toward a conclusion. That happened here as well—just as I expected everything to speed toward the conclusion, things seemed to peter out a little bit, and I felt like the ending was a bit of a disappointment, almost an afterthought given how well he set this book up.

I've been a big fan of King's work since the 1980s, and I don't believe that will change anytime soon. If you like his writing, you should enjoy The Outsider. His writing is once again pretty terrific, and he can tease out suspense and fright like no one else out there.

The Best Books I Read in 2018...

Wow, another year has come and gone. I can't figure out where 2018 went! It's been a wacky, busy year, but I helped mitigate the sheer wackiness and what-else-could-go-wronginess by reading. A lot. Like more than ever before. (And I thought I reached that ceiling last year.)

I read 186 books in 2018—the most I've ever read (or at least since college, when I managed a bookstore and was able to read most of the day). I traveled a lot this year, and spent a lot of time on planes, in airports, and tossing and turning in hotel rooms, which certainly enabled the increase in the number of books I read. So did a few cases of insomnia, a few blissful days of vacation, and some pretty fantastic books I couldn't put down.

I didn't love every book I read; in fact, there were more than a few I stopped reading so I didn't bother to write reviews, and there were also more than a few (sadly) that petered out before the end, so I wound up skimming through the remainder of the book. I hope that's not a continuing trend in 2019!!

As I've done for the last nine years, I went back through all of the books I've read and come up with a list of my favorites. Culling 186 books down to a finite number was really, really difficult, so what I've done is come up with a list of 25, along with an additional 12 which just fell short of the very best but they're still too good to miss.

I've linked to my original review of each so you can read more about each one. I'd love to hear your thoughts, and know which books you'd count among your favorites, even if you didn't read as much as I did! I'll list my top five (in random order) and then the remainder of the books will be in random order as well—ranking would be far too complicated!!

The Best of the Best

Tin Man by Sarah Winman: Oh my god, did I love this book. I don't know if everyone will feel the same way I did, but this one had me from the first page to the last. This is a simple story, really—a tale as old as time, if you will—but it held me in its grasp completely. It runs just under 200 pages, so I read the entire book in an evening. This beautiful book about friendship and love will remain in my head for a long time. See my original review.

An Exaltation of Larks by Suanne Laqueur: This is a story about friends that become family as well as the often-blurred lines between friendship and love. It's a story about how we can never completely outrun the traumas we face, the challenges of parenthood, the trust that is so key to the success of long-term relationships, and what it is like to feel like you keep missing your chance at happiness. Absolutely blew me away. See my original review.

A Charm of Finches by Suanne Laqueur: When I read An Exaltation of Larks, people told me that the follow-up was even better. And they were right. This is a gorgeous, sensitive, sexy, emotional book, full of moments that made me smile, made me blush, horrified me, and made me full-on ugly cry at times (on a plane, no less). It's a beautiful story of finding love and self-worth, of realizing it's okay to depend on others, and of how redemptive that love can be. See my original review.

Sadie by Courtney Summers: Man, this book is going to haunt me for a while!! Courtney Summers has created an absolutely incredible, haunting, poignant sucker punch of a book. It's sad, hopeful, disturbing, thought-provoking, and it hurt my heart, but it was amazing. This is easily one of the best, most affecting books I've read all year. And while this was a novel, stories like these, sadly, are all too true. See my original review.

Us Against You by Fredrick Backman: This is the sequel to Beartown, one of the best books I read in 2017, but it's equally amazing. Reading this book was like getting to visit old friends—you revel in every minute because you know you'll be sad when your time together is over. Even though these books are about a hockey-obsessed town, they are about so much more than that. That's where Backman keeps surprising you. See my original review.