Saturday, March 30, 2019

Book Review: "The Ash Family" by Molly Dektar

Berie is unsure of what path to follow with her life. She seeks something more meaningful, something more essential, but she hasn't any idea of what that is until she meets enigmatic Bay at a bus station near her home in North Carolina. Bay promises Berie the life she's been imagining, on a farm cut-off from the rest of the world, where they live communally, fully off the grid.

"This was the real world, he explained, and if I stayed I'd get a real-world name to replace my fake-world one. He said I would come to understand that there was no definite self: in the Ash family there was no selfishness, so there were no possessions, no children, no couples."

Bay tells Berie that she can stay for three days or the rest of her life. The Ash Family Farm seems to be the solution she needs, so she changes her name to Harmony and settles in. And as different as life on the farm is from anything else she's experienced, anything else she's been used to, she finally feels a part of something, and begins making friends.

But like anything that seems perfect, life on the farm isn't quite that. More and more, Harmony starts to question things that are happening to her friends. She knows she needs to leave yet this is the first place she's truly felt she belonged, so can she ignore the warning signs she sees? When does belief change into brainwashing, when does devotion turn to fear?

The Ash Family is an interesting exploration of life in a cult, and how, once you begin to see things as they really are, you sometimes can't seem to decide between whether to stay or whether to go. Do we pay attention to the truth in front of our own eyes, or do we disbelieve the things we see? Is the feeling of belonging enough to overcome the misgivings we have?

There was an underlying sense of tension in this book that Molly Dektar really teased out quite well. While I found certain things about the book frustrating, such as a lack of character development in some cases, and not as much weight to the plot as I wanted, I was taken in particular by Dektar's evocative use of imagery. Her description of things was so vivid, poetic almost, that I felt like I could see things she mentioned very clearly.

This book reminded me in some ways of the independent film Martha Marcy May Marlene, starring Elizabeth Olsen and John Hawkes. That movie, too, talked about a cult with an enigmatic leader, and also left me with more questions than answers. But even with its shortcomings, this is an interesting story, one that will definitely keep me thinking long after I've moved on to other books.

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

This book will be published April 9, 2019.

Book Review: "Little Monsters" by Kara Thomas

"Girls are not princesses, and I know all the possible endings to the stories about the girls in peril. They're rarely happy."

After her troubled relationship with her mother became too much to bear, Kacey Young moves to the small town of Broken Falls, Wisconsin to live with the father she'd never met and his family—his wife, his 13-year-old daughter Lauren, and his stepson, Andrew.

It's hard to stand out as the new kid in a small town, so Kacey is grateful when Bailey and Jade take her under their wing. The inseparable duo became a trio, and they spend a great deal of time together. But it seems like Bailey and Jade don't share Kacey's satisfaction for quiet nights at home (which are a huge change from the turmoil-filled days and nights living with her mother), and they try to convince, even blackmail Kacey into sneaking out of the house with them most weekend nights.

"I really thought I could be a part of it, the day Bailey pulled up to the curb where I was waiting for Andrew after school and said, We're going to my house. I knew that it was an invitation to something much bigger. Two becoming three. But three is an uneven number. When there are three, someone always winds up out in the cold."

After a disastrous evening where the girls try to conduct a séance at an abandoned barn near the site of an infamous tragedy in town, Kacey is dreading having to go to the biggest party in town with Bailey and Jade, because she knows they'll make her pay for what they perceive to be her mistake. But strangely, they never text her about going, and she's both surprised and fearful that she was left out.

But the next morning, Jade calls because Bailey never made it home from the party, and she wants Kacey's help to try and find her. The more Kacey tries to find out what happened to her friend, the more she starts to look like an object of suspicion herself. And the more truth she seeks, the deeper she finds herself mired in a web of secrets and lies that make her question those closest to her, and she starts to wonder whether ghost stories can actually be real.

Little Monsters captures all of the emotions and intensity of teenage friendships, along with the mysteries and lies of small-town life, and the scars caused by family dysfunction and secrets. There are a lot of elements at play in this book, and Kara Thomas brought all of them together very deftly, making this a quick and utterly compelling read, even if it ultimately wasn't as surprising as I thought it might be.

I really enjoyed this book, and it reminded me of a Megan Abbott book with less cruelty and more twists. But that's not to say that Thomas' style or storytelling ability is derivative or imitative in any way—I love her voice, and I'm definitely going to read the rest of her books as well.

This is a riveting tale of friendship, jealousy, obsession, fear, family, and the things that happen when no one is honest with their feelings and fears. I couldn't get enough of it.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Book Review: "Little Faith" by Nickolas Butler

"How do you disagree with someone you love so fiercely?"

By and large, life has been good to Lyle Hovde. While he and his wife, Peg, dealt with the crushing grief of losing their infant son, they had the good fortune of eventually adopting a baby girl, Shiloh.

The teenage years were difficult, and there was a period during which she was estranged from them, but now she has returned home to their rural Wisconsin town with her six-year-old son, Isaac, in tow.

Lyle and Peg are doting grandparents, and Isaac brings them so much joy and love, along with a spark of life and energy as they head into their golden years. But while they love spending time with Isaac, Lyle, in particular, has been growing concerned with Shiloh's deepening alliance with a new church, one run by a magnetic young preacher whose ideas tend toward the extreme.

Faith has been a troubling concept for Lyle since the death of his son many years before. He and Peg still attend the church they always have—the church they met at, in fact—but Lyle doesn't quite believe in a divine being, or the power of prayer. He finds comfort in the familiarity of being in the same place every Sunday, of watching those around him grow old like he is, but he doesn't have any use for the words being spoken or the prayers being uttered.

When Shiloh and Steven, the preacher of her church, believe that Isaac has the ability to heal people, Lyle knows that his daughter is being led astray. He sees Steven for whom he truly is, but he knows that rocking the boat at all with Shiloh may cause her to leave and take Isaac away from them. As Steven's hold on Shiloh intensifies, Lyle and Peg begin to fear for their daughter and grandson, and that Steven may use them for his purposes.

The shaky detente continues until Lyle and Peg realize that Isaac's life may be in danger because of his mother's beliefs, and the influence of Steven and those in the church. As much as they want to keep the peace with their daughter, they know they must do everything they can to fight for Isaac's safety, even if it means jeopardizing their relationship with Shiloh. They cannot bear the thought of losing another little boy.

Little Faith is the latest novel from one of my absolute favorite authors, Nickolas Butler. (His first two books, Shotgun Lovesongs and Beneath the Bonfire, are two of the best books I've read in years.) This is more than a story of parents forced to choose between their daughter and their grandson. It's a tremendously thought-provoking meditation on faith, the beauty of old friendships, and the enduring power of love.

I loved this book so much. This reminded me in some ways like a novel written by Kent Haruf or Leif Enger, in that I just found myself in awe of Butler's prose, his imagery, and his exceptional characters. The story feels familiar but I was totally invested because I found so many of the characters so appealing, like people I wish I knew. You know where the story is headed and you hope you're wrong, but you cannot tear yourself away.

There's an immense charm to books that take place in small, rural towns, especially when the author has respect for their characters. Little Faith is really a triumph of storytelling and quiet emotion, one that I'll be thinking about for a long time afterward.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Book Review: "City of Windows" by Robert Pobi

When I was reading Robert Pobi's upcoming thriller City of Windows, I could hear what I imagined the movie trailer voice-over would be in my head. "Just when he thought he was out...they pulled him back in!"

New York City is hit by the worst blizzard in history. As a black sedan stops to allow a pedestrian to cross in front of it, an almost-impossible sniper shot hits the driver of the car in the head, killing him instantly, not to mention creating a grisly scene on the road in front of it. Given the car was at E. 42nd Street and Park Avenue, home to countless high-rise buildings, it is almost impossible to pinpoint the building from where the shot was fired, and the weather is wiping away any trace evidence that might help.

The FBI needs a miracle worker to help them figure out where to look. They turn to former agent Lucas Page, who left the Bureau after losing an arm, a leg, and an eye, and nearly his life. Given what he went through, he has no love for the FBI, and he has put that phase of his life behind him. He's tried to rebuild, as a college professor and an author, and he and his wife are foster parents to a fairly large brood of children.

The last thing Page wants to do—or his wife wants to allow him to do—is help the FBI. But he can't fight it, especially when he learns that the victim was his former partner, Doug Hartke.

Page has an uncanny ability to see trajectories, angles, and view the city landscape as a sort of geometrical landscape. His brain works in ways mysterious even to him, rapidly calculating figures, algorithms, and helping him solve the riddle of where the bullet was fired from. It's an ability he didn't lose, even after his injuries and the grueling recovery he endured.

"Lucas stood in the intersection, lifted his arms, and slowly rotated in place, absorbing the city in a numerical panorama that pulsed and danced and flashed through his head. He took in the numbers around him, feeding the data into a series of instinctive algorithms that even he did not understand. It was an immediate process, fired up with an automaticity he could not explain. It was like being at the center of a vortex, and the lines of code carpeting the landscape swirled around him at a speed too fast to absorb in any conscious way."

Hartke's murder is, sadly, just the tip of the iceberg. It seems as if every time Page solves a piece of the puzzle, everything changes again, leaving the FBI bringing up the rear, seemingly powerless to stop yet another murder with yet another miraculous sniper shot. Even though there are obvious similarities between the victims—each was in law enforcement—there has to be something more than that dooming them.

A reluctant man, hampered by the after-effects of serious injuries and immense resentment, is the FBI's only hope against a killer that seems to be taunting them. But the deeper Page digs, the more he uncovers, the more at risk he puts his family and himself. It's a race against time and the elements, and it could wind up with Page the victim once again.

I thought this was such a cool concept for a thriller. This was like a mash-up of that old television series Numb3rs with a touch of A Beautiful Mind (just the math genius part, not the schizophrenia) and a little bit of Jeffery Deaver's Lincoln Rhyme series thrown in for good measure, but in the end, this was a creation all Pobi's own.

Page is an absolutely fascinating character, and I was mesmerized by how Pobi described the way he thought and the way he worked. While there are certainly some clichés thrown in here, there is a tremendous amount of suspense, and the setting of the book definitely worked in its favor. Even though I joked about hearing the movie trailer voice-over in my head, I can absolutely see this being adapted into a fantastic movie.

At times I felt the book was a little more cerebral than I would have liked, but I still couldn't get enough of this story and Page's character. Just when I feel like so many thrillers feel like every other one, I find a book that proves me wrong. City of Windows is definitely one of those books.

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

This book will be published August 6, 2019.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Book Review: "Love & Gelato" by Jenna Evans Welch

"You know, people come to Italy for all sorts of reasons, but when they stay, it's for the same two and gelato."

Lina is only in Italy because of a promise she made to her mother on her deathbed.

She isn't moved by the country's beauty—she's having too difficult a time dealing with the fact that she's going to be living WITH HER FATHER (about whom she never knew anything), much less living in a house in the midst of a famous cemetery, because he is the caretaker.

Why didn't her mother ever tell her anything about her father? What could have happened 16 years ago that would have been so bad that she not only fled Italy, but she never returned, and never made contact with the man again? All Lina wants is answers, and what she knows she doesn't want is to spend time getting to know Howard, umm, her father, or settle in—she's ready to head back to the U.S. and move back in with her best friend, Addie.

But little by little, Italy's charm starts to wear her down, and so does Ren, the handsome Italian-American boy who lives not too far away. And when Lina gets her hands on her mother's journal from the time she spent in Italy, she's determined to find everything she can about why her mother kept so much a secret from her, and why she left this magical place and a man she was supposedly in love with.

"Maybe that was just part of the Italian experience. Come to Italy. Fall in love. Watch everything blow up in your face. You could probably read about it on travel websites."

The deeper she gets into her mother's journal, the more confusing things become. It looks like her mother was an expert at keeping secrets, and if they're revealed, they could be painful for some. So with Ren as her sidekick, she embarks on a journey to trace her mother's steps and figure out the path her love story took—no matter what the consequences. And along the way she understands just how her mother fell in love with such a beautiful country, and how complicated the line between love and friendship can become.

Having just read a fairly emotional book, I was looking for something lighter and fun. Love & Gelato totally hit the spot—it was sweet, well-written, and I fell totally in love with it. It was a YA novel that certainly didn't feel like one, and yet the characters spoke like teenagers, not like sarcastic comedians.

Jenna Evans Welch's prose made this novel sparkle like the Italian countryside, and her imagery was tremendously evocative. There really isn't anything surprising in this novel—not even the "surprise" that Lina discovers—but that doesn't matter. Love & Gelato has so much charm, heart, and romance at its core that I flew through the book, and now I'm sad that it's all over.

If you're feeling like you need a change of pace from brooding thrillers or family dysfunction, Love & Gelato may be just what il medico ordered! I know I'll be reading Welch's new book when it's released in May.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Book Review: "The Girls at 17 Swann Street" by Yara Zgheib

Sometimes reading is less an entertaining experience than one intended to teach, to provoke emotions, and make you think. That was definitely the case with Yara Zgheib's powerful The Girls at 17 Swann Street.

"How does one forget how to eat? How does one forget how to breathe? Worse: how does one remember? And how does happiness feel?"

Anna Roux is 26 years old. She was a dancer in Paris, a profession which pays close attention to an individual's weight and appearance. There was a time she lived life with great gusto, enjoying all her favorite foods, and cooking her specialty dessert, sacher torte. And when she met the man of her dreams, Matthias, they enjoyed the finer things in life, punctuated by food, wine, and adventure.

But after an injury sidelined her dance career, Anna agreed to follow Matthias to the U.S., where he had gotten a job in St. Louis. She dreamed of finding another dance opportunity, or at the very least, teaching dance. But there were no opportunities to be found, and the more time she spends alone, the more depressed she gets, and the more she starts worrying about her weight. A job in a supermarket does little to lift her spirits or self-esteem, and little by little, she gives up the foods she loves.

"They had both become too comfortably settled in the magical kingdom of make-believe. She made believe that she was happy and all was fine and he made believe it was true. It was less painful than confrontation. Confrontation just led to fights. And so she ate nothing and they both ate lies through three years of marriage, for peace, at the occasional cost of no more roller coasters, no more sharing ice cream and French fries."

As Anna's weight plummets, her health deteriorates, as does her relationship with Matthias. When her weight hits a dangerous low—88 pounds—she is admitted to 17 Swann Street, a residential program where women with life-threatening eating disorders go for treatment. Anna meets the other residents—Emm, the self-proclaimed leader of the girls, and the veteran of the house; fragile, compassionate Valerie; and Julia, who is always hungry. These women face the challenge of constant supervision, counseling, giving up most freedoms, and the worst thing of all, they must eat six meals a day.

Anna wants to recover, she wants her life and her husband back. Yet the thought of having to eat so much food, especially fattening food like bagels and cream cheese, pasta, and yogurt, is absolutely paralyzing. She cannot understand how she can survive when she's gotten by for so long with eating so little. But more and more, she realizes that her life and her marriage are worth fighting for—and they can only survive if she's willing to accept her problems and understand what kind of help she needs.

This is such an emotionally powerful book. Zgheib captures the emotional and psychological struggles faced by women with eating disorders, the immense discord that exists between knowing you have a problem and the powerlessness you feel to do anything about it. It's also an eye-opening look at how what we see—about ourselves, those we love, and our memories—is often so far from reality.

The Girls at 17 Swann Street is told in short chapters, alternating between Anna's memories of Paris, the early days of her relationship with Matthias, and the despair she began feeling when they moved to the U.S., and her time in treatment, her struggles to recover, and her relationships with the other women. For me, this was an eye-opening look at eating disorders and how they take their toll on women in particular, even when they know they need help.

"Only 33% of women with anorexia nervosa maintain full recovery after nine months. Of those, approximately one-third will relapse after the nine-month mark."

I've struggled with my weight for most of my life, but I'm fortunate that I've never had to deal with the kind of problems the women in this book did. I'm grateful to Zgheib for such a powerful story and for illuminating the struggles that so many people, especially women, deal with every day.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Book Review: "The Opposite of Always" by Justin A. Reynolds

Do you believe that there is one person out there for each of us? If so, should we do everything we can to find that person, and once we do, never let them go, no matter what it takes?

Jack King has spent most of his life pining for his best friend, Jillian. (Come on, their names are Jack and Jill. How could that not work?) She's everything he's ever wanted. But she's in love with Jack's other best friend, Franny (short for Francisco), and he can see how happy they make each other. So instead of finally working up the nerve to tell Jillian how he feels, he figures he'll live a lonely life, forever a third wheel instead.

One night at a party at the college he and Jillian will be attending in the fall, he meets Kate. She is beautiful, quirky, hysterically funny, and claims to be as awkward as he is. And suddenly, it's like, Jillian who? He falls quickly and totally for Kate, and even though she tries to resist him a little bit, he can tell she feels the same way.

"You're moving along life, doing your thing, managing your priorities and commitments—And then suddenly you meet THE ONE. And you fall completely out of the orbit you've been spinning in. And now you're doing laps around this new world. And you're hoping gravity can sustain you. But there's no way of knowing if it can until you realize it can't. Guess it's all an orbit of faith."

As the last few months of his high school days fly by, Jack's relationship with Kate grows more intense. And then one night, everything changes when she doesn't show up for an important occasion. He finds out that she's in the hospital, suffering from a genetic disease. She tries to push him away, saying she doesn't want his pity, but he wins her over. Victory, however, is short-lived, because she dies not long after, and his true love is gone.

But somehow Jack finds himself back at the moment he and Kate met. He can't explain it but he doesn't care if it doesn't make sense. All he knows is he wants to spend as much time as possible with Kate, which is, of course, hard to explain to someone he's just met. Armed with the knowledge that Kate's life may be short, Jack is determined to save her. But he quickly learns that altering the way life is supposed to flow has consequences, not just for Kate, but for his relationships with Jillian, Franny, and his parents.

Yet no matter how hard Jack tries, he keeps failing and Kate keeps dying. But even worse, he can't figure out what he's supposed to learn by having to live the same few months over and over again. And when he tries to make even more drastic changes, he winds up causing more hurt and anger in others' lives, and even putting those he loves at risk.

The Opposite of Always is a fascinating, thought-provoking, poignant book, one I enjoyed tremendously. Justin A. Reynolds has created a group of memorable characters and dropped them into the middle of an inexplicable situation, and then each time, it's like he shakes the dice a bit and a whole new scenario reveals itself, giving his characters even more to deal with. Jack and Kate are adorable, even if they're not always completely sympathetic characters.

I love YA rom-coms, and throwing a little time travel into the mix certainly took this book to a different dimension. As if the teenage years aren't confusing enough without time travel! Obviously this book requires a healthy dose of suspending your disbelief, but if you're a sucker for love stories, even tragic ones, and you like time travel, The Opposite of Always is one for you. It's a powerful reminder that sometimes the person most in need of saving is ourselves.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Book Review: "Malibu Bluff" by Janna King

I've always been partial to soap operas and melodrama. Growing up, I used to watch General Hospital after school (in the heyday of Luke and Laura—the first time around) and then moved on to more daytime and nighttime soap operas, like Dynasty, Dallas, Falcon Crest, and Knots Landing. When the era of big hair and shoulder pads passed, I was able to replace those programs with 90210, Melrose Place, and, I'll admit, even a little of The O.C..

This is one of the reasons I've enjoyed Janna King's two novels in her Seasonaires series: The Seasonaires (see my review) and now, Malibu Bluff. They're soapy, fun books that make me feel like summer, and honestly, I wouldn't have been surprised to hear one of the characters in this latest book utter the words, "Welcome to the O.C., bitch."

Famed fashion designer Lyndon Wyld is a shrewd entrepreneur. She recognizes that the success of her clothing line doesn't just hinge on the stylishness of the clothes, but it's more about the buzz she can create. So she hires a group of beautiful young people for the summer to be "seasonaires"—social media brand ambassadors, raising public chatter about her clothes and looking great while wearing them. It's an amazing opportunity for an unforgettable summer, to live the glamorous life.

While things with last year's group of seasonaires didn't quite go as planned, Lyndon was able to ride out the storm and has decided to up the ante this summer. She's moved the group to a Malibu mansion and doubled their salary—but expectations are greater, too, since not only will they have to have a near-constant presence on social media, but they'll also be filmed this year by Brandon, the son of Lyndon's business partner.

Returning to shepherd this year's group is Mia, who hopes to use the summer to recover a bit from her mother's recent death. Her best friend and nemesis, Presley, is handling public relations for the brand, and she knows what it's like to turn trouble into opportunity. Presley hasn't quite forgiven Mia for all that transpired last year, so she's going to have to watch her back. And this year's group is full of stunners looking to grab every opportunity that comes their way, but each comes with their own baggage, so Mia will have her hands full.

As Mia tries to get back into the swing of things, and concentrate on Lyndon's promise of her own collection, she finds it increasingly more difficult to put the events of last year behind her. And little by little, as some who tried to do her harm begin circling around again, she has to decide whether she's willing to risk her dreams, her life, or the safety of those around her. Perhaps this "dream life" isn't quite what it seems...

Once again, King has written an utterly readable book, providing a glimpse at "how the other half lives," full of glamour, glitz, and sudsy melodrama. I still find myself shaking my head at times, incredulous that there really are people who make a living building buzz for brands on social media—and then I remember that I post book reviews on Instagram and other social media channels. (But the old man in me sometimes emerges saying, "What? They make money putting pictures up? Unbelievable.")

You could read Malibu Bluff without having read The Seasonaires but I wouldn't recommend it, because events and people that are alluded to in this book are more rounded out once you have the background from the first book. These characters aren't necessarily likable or sympathetic, but then again, that's part of their appeal, much like the characters from the soap operas I used to watch.

If you're looking for a light read that makes you long for summer, beautiful people, and stylish clothes, Janna King has just the answer for you. I don't know if another book in this series will come, but if it does, I'll be waiting!

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

This book will be published May 7, 2019.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Book Review: "Run Away" by Harlan Coben

In recent years, Harlan Coben has written some of my favorite thrillers. He's one of those authors who skillfully combines rich character development with heart-pounding suspense. Even his signature Myron Bolitar series meshed humor and sarcasm with suspense.

I have been eagerly awaiting the publication of Run Away, Coben's latest thriller for several months, and was excited to get my hands on an advance copy a few days before its release. While this won't surpass Home as my favorite of his books, Coben has another terrific book on his hands.

One of the worst things a parent must face is when they're unable to save their children from their problems. Simon Greene knows this all too well—his oldest daughter, Paige, always so studious and creative, fell into a relationship with an older man who got her addicted to drugs. Simon and his wife have tried to help Paige free herself from this man and get clean, but they never can fully succeed; she always seem to slip right back into his clutches and back in the throes of addiction.

It has been a while since Simon has seen his daughter and he worries what the ramifications of that fact may mean. But when a friend mentions that he saw Paige playing music in Central Park, Simon tries everything to track her down. And when he finally does, he has a split connection with Paige—before her face contorts in fear and she flees. When Paige's boyfriend tries to keep Simon from running after her, Simon does the only thing he can—he punches the man in the nose. But when bystanders intervene, Simon is arrested and Paige and her boyfriend escape.

Even though his wife tells him they should let Paige go, Simon cannot let his daughter continue to destroy herself. But as things get more complicated, they both recognize that they need to stop at nothing to save their daughter. Even if that means putting their own lives on the line, risking their family's safety—and laying bare some secrets that are better left hidden.

What would you do if your child was in danger? How many signs might you have missed, how many things could you have done differently that might have helped sway your child toward a better path? And what decisions to keep things secret might have changed everything?

Coben starts with a believable premise—a father trying to save his daughter—and creates a thriller with lots of twists and turns. There are so many questions that come to light as Simon starts to dig deeper into the circumstances that brought Paige into her boyfriend's clutches, and what happened after he punched him. I really couldn't put this book down, and flew through it.

There were definitely some surprises to be had here, and there was some rich emotion and character development as well. There was one storyline that didn't work for me at all, and while I like where Coben took things, the addition of two characters really frustrated me when they appeared periodically. But other than that, this had my heart pounding, my brain scrambling to figure things out before the characters did, and might have even brought a tear to my eyes once or twice.

If you've never read any of Coben's thrillers, I'd highly recommend Home and Don't Let Go in particular. And definitely pick this one up, too. If you like a well-written thriller that offers more than suspense and action, these are great books for you.

This book will be published March 19, 2019.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Book Review: "The Music of What Happens" by Bill Konigsberg

Whenever I read a YA rom-com featuring LGBTQ characters, I feel so happy that kids today have these books to read, to see that finding someone to love doesn't have to be a dream they'll have to give up because of whom they're attracted to.

At the same time, I can't help but be a tiny bit bitter that these books didn't exist when I was a teenager, because I certainly could have used that encouragement instead of having no role models or examples to look toward.

Bill Konigsberg's The Music of What Happens is sweet and funny and romantic, but it's also poignant and deals with some serious issues as well.

Max is an athlete. He's tremendously easy-going and never appears to let anything faze him. His closest buddies are totally cool with him being gay, as is his mom.

Jordan is highly strung, a talented poet who doesn't believe he's worth much of anything. He totally wants a boyfriend but doesn't think anyone would find him attractive or interesting enough to have a relationship with him (or even sex), so he spends most of his time hanging out with his two girlfriends, whom he calls his "wives."

"The world will make you vulnerable. If you're acting like you're not, that's what you're doing. Acting."

Max and Jordan's meet-cute is at a food truck. Jordan and his mother have just resurrected his father's food truck for the first time since he died, and they're desperate to make it work, since they're in significant financial need. But neither Jordan nor his mother know the first thing about food trucks, or cooking, or food safety, and Max arrives at the counter just as Jordan's mother begins melting down. So Max, who likes to cook, volunteers to help save the truck—and, perhaps, their lives.

The last thing Jordan wants is to spend the summer with a dude bro like Max, but of course he realizes Max is far more complex and sensitive than he leads anyone to believe. As the two of them strive to take the food truck world by storm, they start enjoying each other's company more and more, and they don't let any truck-related setbacks get them down. But deep down, both boys are struggling—Max with a painful secret that confuses even him, and Jordan with his having to parent his mother, who is in a destructive spiral that could hurt them both.

"I think about the half notes of dissonance, between what I hear and what someone else hears, and those moments where the world is so cold, and when someone reaches their hand out to you. In those symphonic, connected moments where another soul joins you and feels what you feel, and you can breathe again. Like right now."

The Music of What Happens may not surprise you and it may not break new ground, but it's utterly charming and just so wonderful. I love the fact that Konigsberg avoided the typical drama when a character reveals to their peers or their family that they're gay, and instead just began from a place where it wasn't a big deal to those around them, the way life should be.

I believed in these characters. They felt authentic and dealt with real problems, and I totally believed that the two would fall for each other. I also believed in their struggles, the things about their friends and family that bothered them but they never spoke up about, and the unique perspectives each brought to their own lives and their burgeoning relationship. If there was any false note, it was Jordan's mother, who seemed to fade in to cause chaos and then fade out again.

This is the first of Konigsberg's books I've read and I absolutely loved it. I need to go back and read all of his earlier books because I love the openness of his storytelling and the complete charm of his characters. They're funny without being stand-up comedians, they're sensitive and romantic.

I hope that there are kids out there who feel encouraged by books like The Music of What Happens. The YA genre continues to be so rich with talented writers tackling important issues with humor and grace, and showing that no matter whom you love, your love story can come true. Don't we need more of that?

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Book Review: "When All Is Said" by Anne Griffin

Imagine you're on travel by yourself and you decide to spend an evening at a local pub. You're seated at the bar and one of the bar's patrons starts speaking—partially to you and partially to himself.

With nothing else to do, you listen to the man tell his stories. At first you're not sure what to make of it all, but little by little, you find yourself fairly engrossed in what he has to say. Sometimes his conversation is entertaining, sometimes it meanders a little too much, and sometimes it's even a bit emotional.

This is precisely the way it felt reading Anne Griffin's charming debut novel, When All Is Said. In this case, the man is 84-year-old Irish widower Maurice Hannigan, and the pub is actually the bar of a grand hotel in town. With his wife dead for two years and his adult son living in America, Maurice is usually alone, but this isn't just any night.

Tonight Maurice has decided to toast five special people in his life, and give them the due he never has. And with each toast comes a recollection of memories about that particular person, many of whom are now gone. Maurice's stories tell of love, fear, grief, family, courage, wonder, and frustration, of feeling incapable of expressing your opinions until the moment has passed you by. He's unafraid to make himself look the fool, the villain, or the one who causes pain, but he's also unafraid to illuminate his own pain, sorrow, and regret.

There are people we spend our entire lives with who touch us, and there are those who leave their mark after only a short time. There are situations that define us, and our actions during those times stay with us, showing us that a moment's victory may actually lead to a lifetime of regret. But a person's life is a long series of memories, people, scores that are settled and those that never are, hearts we won and those we lost.

"I'm here to remember — all that I have been and all that I will never be again."

When All Is Said feels so much like the stories told by kindly old men in pubs, because that's what it is. Obviously by having the book narrated in the first person you lose the perspectives of the other characters in the book, and you're left only to wonder what they thought about different situations. But what you gain in this case is the amazing persona of Maurice Hannigan, who is willing to lay bare his own flaws while sharing what five people have meant to him.

A number of people whose literary tastes I share have waxed fairly poetic about this book, so I wonder if that built it up a little too much for me. I enjoyed this but felt each of Maurice's stories went on a little too long, and while there were moments that choked me up, I was surprisingly not as moved as I thought I'd be given what a colossal sap I am.

Don't get me wrong, this is lovely and charming story, but it just didn't grab me quite as much as it has others. Maybe I was affected with Grinch syndrome while reading this, in that my heart was two sizes too small. There's no other reason to explain it, because Griffin has created a memorable character in Maurice, and his story is beautiful and touching.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Book Review: "Some Choose Darkness" by Charlie Donlea

There are so many thrillers and crime novels out there these days, so it takes something special to stand out. Sometimes it's crazy twists, surprise endings, or action that leaves you breathless. Other times it's the characters that get your attention, whether they're the heroes or the villains.

Some Choose Darkness, Charlie Donlea's upcoming thriller, didn't necessarily surprise me once the story got going, but its characters, particularly its protagonist, absolutely wowed me. That's what elevates a thriller.

Rory Moore is a forensic reconstructionist. She spends her days reviewing cold cases to see what the police and investigators might have missed, and she has an uncanny ability to forge a connection with the victims, to envision the most minute of details. But she knows her limits, and often needs to take breaks between cases to ensure she doesn't burn herself out or cause herself significant anxiety.

When Rory's father dies, as an unofficial partner in his law firm (she has her law degree but doesn't practice), she's responsible for disbursing his cases to other attorneys. But there's one case she can't pass off, because the client is about to be paroled, and the presiding judge worked closely with Rory's father on the terms of his parole. So reluctantly, Rory agrees to represent the man for the sake of the parole process.

In the late 1970s, the city of Chicago was rocked by the disappearances of five young women. Their bodies were never found and police couldn't find any clues, so the perpetrator was nicknamed The Thief by the media. It took meticulous research and investigative work by an autistic woman named Angela Mitchell (although back then no one knew what autism was, so she was labeled mentally ill) to help police break the case and identify the perpetrator. But Angela disappeared before the police could find out how she pulled all of this information together.

Forty years later, The Thief is about to paroled for Angela's murder. Rory doesn't understand why her father took such an interest in his case to the point that he represented this man for so many years, and even agreed to manage his financial assets why he was in prison. But the more she digs into the case, and the work her father did on The Thief's behalf, she uncovers secrets she was never meant to find, and connections between her father and Angela Mitchell that make her wonder if she ever knew him.

Donlea's previous book, Don't Believe It, was fantastic, so I had great hopes for this book as well. While I've read a lot of thrillers about murderers who enjoy the rush of killing, it wasn't until Donlea started revealing more about Rory's character, and telling Angela's story, that the book really hit its stride. It was the first thriller I've read that had people with autism as main characters who weren't necessarily the victim, and both characters were tremendously fascinating.

I really like the way Donlea tells a story, and he threw in some definite twists and turns along the way—some I saw coming and some that surprised me a bit. The narration shifts mainly between Rory in the present day and Angela in the late 1970s, with some periodic interjections from The Thief. The book really starts picking up steam, and I found myself racing to see how everything would be wrapped up.

If you want a thriller with lots of heart-pumping action, Some Choose Darkness isn't that book. But Donlea knows how to create suspense, and that, coupled with some unforgettable characters, makes this a book worth reading. I hope we haven't seen the last of Rory Moore.

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

This book will be published May 28, 2019.

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Book Review: "Daisy Jones & The Six" by Taylor Jenkins Reid

"I am not a muse. I am the somebody. End of fucking story."

I am a gigantic music fan. I was in a band in high school and college, and sing almost everywhere. As much as I love music and lyrics, I'm equally as fascinated by those who make the music and what inspires them to write the songs they do, not to mention the stories of connection and tension and dissension among band members."

This obsession was one of the myriad reasons I couldn't wait to get my hands on Taylor Jenkins Reid's newest book, Daisy Jones & The Six. Reid is the author of one of the best books I read last year, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, and given the way she depicted the often-tumultuous personal life of a famed actress from Hollywood's heyday, I had a feeling she'd knock it out of the park with this look at the music business.

She knocked it way out of the park. This book, written as an oral history of the band, reads as if you were watching an episode of VH1's "Behind the Music" crossed with the amazing movie Almost Famous.

Daisy Jones & The Six was one of the legendary bands of the 1970s, turning out hit after hit, filling stadiums and arenas across the country, and captivating the world with what appeared to be the electric relationship between singer/songwriters Daisy Jones and Billy Dunne, the musician who headed The Six. But what made the band end everything in the middle of their world tour, when they had everything in the palm of their hands?

Growing up in Los Angeles in the late 1960s, Daisy Jones was a free-spirited teenager who wanted to be a singer more than anything. Essentially left to raise herself, she spent her formative years in some of LA's most famous clubs and bars, sleeping with rock stars, and experimenting with every kind of drug. As she moves into her early 20s, her beauty opens doors but her voice gets her noticed. She's more than ready to be the next big thing.

Brothers Billy and Graham Dunne put together a band, hoping to make a living making music. But Billy's magnetic appeal and his talent as a singer and songwriter take the group to the next level, and The Six, as they come to be called, are on their way to becoming stars. But fame and the tantalizing distractions that materialize for rock musicians, particularly in the 70s, test Billy's mettle and put the band at risk, as well as Billy's marriage to his longtime girlfriend, Camila, and their young family. If Billy is going to succeed at both music and marriage, he must battle his demons.

Billy and Daisy cross paths when their mutual producer brings Daisy in to sing a duet for The Six's record. Their connection is immediate, powerful, and electrifying, and it will change everything for everyone. It is the stuff of legend.

"Some people will never stop being themselves. And you think it drives you crazy but it is the very thing you will think about when they are gone. When you don't have them in your life anymore."

The story of Daisy Jones & The Six may not be anything new if you're a fan of the stories behind famous bands, but Taylor Jenkins Reid succeeds in making this utterly compelling from the very first sentence, and she makes you wish these musicians actually existed, so you could hear their music and watch videos of their performances, to catch a piece of the fictional legend she has made you believe in.

Daisy Jones & The Six is powerful because it's a story about ambition, need, fear, longing, love, jealousy, connection, talent, and music. But at the same time, it's a story about how exhausting it is to fight your demons on a daily basis, and it is equally as exhausting to give in to your demons as well. There is raw emotion in this book, and it is so potent that at times I felt like I was right there in the middle of the stories everyone was telling.

Reid is one heck of a storyteller. I had been dying to read this since I finished Evelyn Hugo at the end of last year, but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't get access to an advance copy of this book. I worried that seeing so many people rave about this book would build it up too much for me. But I truly believe this is worthy of the hype it's getting. They're now making it into a television series for Amazon and I honestly cannot wait.

You need to read Taylor Jenkins Reid's books. If you're not a music fan, pick up The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo first, and you'll see how masterfully she tells a story. But Daisy Jones & The Six is like a song you won't be able to get out of your head.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Book Review: "The Au Pair" by Emma Rous

Seraphine and Danny Mayes are twins, born at Summerbourne, their family's estate on the English coast. Not long after their birth, their troubled mother, Ruth, leapt off the cliffs and fell to her death.

And as if that tragedy wasn't enough chaos for one day, the family's young au pair, Laura, also fled Summerbourne, never to be heard from again. While the twins were raised by their father and their fiercely protective maternal grandmother, the local townspeople never ceased whispering about the events of that day, talking about family curses, sprites that steal babies, and other dark magic.

Years later, the twins' father has died in an accident and Seraphine is in mourning at Summerbourne. While going through her father's possessions, she finds a photo that intrigues her. The photo is of their parents and their older brother, Edwin, and in the photo her parents look blissfully happy. But what's mysterious about the photo is their mother is only holding one baby, and it was taken the day they were born, just before their mother's suicide.

Who is the baby in the picture, Seraphine or Danny? Why isn't the other baby in the picture? Seraphine has always felt that her grandmother treated her differently than Danny—does she know something about her parentage? What caused Laura to run away all those years ago? And why, on what seemed to be one of the happiest days of her life, would their mother commit suicide after giving birth to both of them?

With no real information except the photo she found and a copy of Laura's au pair contract, Seraphine decides to try and figure out what happened that day. She wants to determine the truth of who she is, and why everything went so awry that day. Little does she know that there's someone determined to keep those secrets secret, and the more she digs, the more she puts herself—and others in her family—in danger.

The Au Pair is full of family drama and intrigue. I just can't get enough of novels about family secrets, and you throw in a little mystery and I'm totally there. Emma Rous throws in lots of twists and turns—so many that at one point I had to re-read a section to be sure I was clear on what was happening—and while there might not be many surprises (if any), she created a compelling enough story to keep me flying through it.

The story shifts back and forth between Seraphine's attempts to figure out the secrets around the day she and Danny were born, and Laura's time as an au pair, until everything comes to a climax. If you're like me, you'll suspect practically everyone, and even wonder if there was a little of the supernatural involved as town legend would have it.

If you like your mysteries with a healthy dose of family melodrama, pick up The Au Pair. It's a fascinating read, and it feels like it would be a terrific made for television movie. Read it before it gets adapted!

Book Review: "Field Notes on Love" by Jennifer E. Smith

Sometimes I need a break from brooding thrillers and mysteries, where everyone is a suspect (at least in my mind) and the subject matter can be heavy at times. I saw a friend recommend Jennifer E. Smith's newest book, Field Notes on Love, and it definitely seemed to be what I was looking for—a good YA rom-com.

Two hours later I finished the book and I'm so glad I read it. Such a sweet, fun, engaging story—it totally hit the spot!

"Do you ever feel like you need to shake things up? Or just step outside your life for a minute?"

Hugo's life has always been tremendously routine. The youngest of a set of sextuplets, he's always been surrounded by people, and while things can be chaotic, his future path is all but determined, since a generous benefactor provided scholarships for all six children to attend college in Hugo's hometown of Surrey, England. But as much as he loves his family and wants to be close to home, he longs for something more, although he doesn't know what that is.

He and his girlfriend have the perfect plan before she heads off to college in California: they'll travel across the U.S. by train, from New York to California, stopping in a few major cities along the way. And then she breaks up with him, although she gives him the tickets to use. But of course, there's a catch: because she handled the details, all the reservations are under the name of Margaret Campbell. And the tickets are non-refundable and non-transferable.

So, he conducts a search for another Margaret Campbell to make the trip with.

Enter Mae Campbell (Margaret is her full name). Mae has known her entire life that she wanted to be a filmmaker. Yet when she is rejected by USC's film school, she starts to wonder if an adventure is what she needs to stir up her creativity and inspire her next film, so she can convince the film school to let her in. When she sees Hugo's ad searching for another Margaret Campbell, she feels that this is the opportunity she has been looking for, something her adventure-seeking and romance-loving grandmother agrees with.

While Hugo and Mae begin traveling together simply out of necessity and convenience, it isn't long before the two are drawn to one another, and begin to see that adventure—and perhaps even romance—is what both were needing. But along the way, they'll learn a lot about themselves and their plans for their future, as both find inspiration to do things differently than they always have.

A few years ago I read Smith's The Geography of You and Me and absolutely loved it. I had forgotten just how much I enjoy her writing style, how warm and approachable it is, and how well she draws her characters. Field Notes on Love is exactly the same way—nothing in the plot is particularly surprising, but that doesn't matter, because I couldn't get enough of this book and these characters.

With "love" in the title, you can expect there is lots of talk about what love is and what it means to different people. As a self-professed sap, I enjoyed the exploration of that topic, but found the characters' journeys of self-discovery equally enjoyable. Plus I never felt like Hugo and Mae were too clever and precocious for their own good, which is all too common in YA fiction.

If you're looking for a light read to charm its way into your heart, Field Notes on Love may be just what you're looking for. All aboard!

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Book Review: "The Winter Sister" by Megan Collins

Life changed completely when Sylvie was 14 years old. Her older sister, Persephone, disappeared one night, after sneaking out to meet her boyfriend, whom her mother forbade her to date. Sylvie kept lots of Persephone's secrets—because that's what sisters do—and she keeps hoping that Persephone will come home. It seems even more unfathomable when Persephone's body is found just a few days later.

Sylvie is wracked with grief and guilt, and she tries to get the police to focus on whom she believes the suspect is. She's unprepared when they really don't share her suspicions, but she's even more unprepared for the depth of her mother's anger and guilt. Her mother takes to violent expressions of grief, and long bouts of drinking, and Sylvie can't handle it any longer, so she leaves town and moves in with her aunt and cousin.

Sixteen years later, Sylvie's aunt summons her home to care for her mother, who has been diagnosed with cancer. The last thing she wants to do is return to the memories of Persephone's murder, especially since the crime was never solved, and her feelings about it, as well as her mother, who changed so drastically after Persephone's death.

"I couldn't pretend that, just by turning thirty, I was old enough now to have outgrown my feelings of motherlessness."

As she tries to negotiate her relationship with her mother and her always-mercurial moods, Sylvie finds it difficult to dwell on anything other than Persephone, especially when she encounters her sister's ex-boyfriend Ben, who now works as a nurse at her mother's cancer center. Sylvie has always believed Ben had something to do with Persephone's death, and tries to convince the police they should still consider him a suspect after all these years, but little by little, she comes to understand that the situation regarding her sister's death was more complicated than she could imagine.

She feels like she owes it to her sister to figure out what happened to her. It may resolve her own feelings of guilt, but at the same time, it could further destroy her mother and their relationship. Sometimes secrets are kept for a reason, and sometimes unearthing them only causes more heartache than good.

The Winter Sister is more of a mystery than a thriller, but along with the whodunit comes a healthy dose of family dysfunction. It's an interesting story about how the simplest of actions can scar us in ways we never realize, and how those scars affect us and our actions for the rest of our lives. It's also a look at how one secret can lead to a tangled web of them, a web that it is often difficult to escape.

This is Megan Collins' debut novel, and its strengths definitely show that she has a terrific future ahead of her. I thought at times the pacing of the book was a little slower than I would have liked, and some of the characters needed a little more complexity. But I thought she showed restraint where she could have taken the book down a very melodramatic path, and I definitely appreciated this.

Maybe reading a book called The Winter Sister made me feel even colder these last few days, but Collins' storytelling was worth the extra blanket!

Monday, March 4, 2019

Book Review: "Where the Forest Meets the Stars" by Glendy Vanderah

There are books you read that you enjoy, there are books that you love, and then there are the books you hold in your heart. Having just finished Glendy Vanderah's stunningly beautiful debut novel, Where the Forest Meets the Stars, I know it will be one to cherish. What a special book this was.

Joanna Teale is an ornithologist who is recovering from a double blow: her mother's death and her own battle with breast cancer. Bearing physical and emotional scars, she returns to her graduate research on nesting birds in a rural Illinois town. She interacts with very few people—only the man from down the road who sells eggs, and those she encounters on her trips to the laundromat when the rain keeps her from her fieldwork.

One night her solitude is broken by the appearance of a barefoot young girl dressed in dirty clothes, who has bruises on her body. The girl claims to be an alien from the distant planet Hetrayeh, and she calls herself Ursa Major. She says that she is on her own type of graduate study, and can return to home only after she witnesses five miracles. (It's up to her to determine what constitutes a miracle.)

Jo is worried about what kind of a family situation Ursa has left, and even though she is concerned about her bruises, she knows the right thing is to return Ursa to wherever—and whomever—she escaped from. But Ursa sticks to her story about being an alien, and when Jo calls the sheriff to report Ursa's appearance, she runs away. And when the sheriff's deputy doesn't prove helpful anyway, Jo lets Ursa stay with her—temporarily—until she figures out what to do next.

As the days pass, Jo begins to rely more and more on Gabriel, her next-door neighbor and the "egg man," to help her figure out what to do with Ursa, since the child has become attached to him as well. Gabriel has his own traumas to deal with, including social anxiety and a host of family-related issues, but the two can't help but be drawn to one another. Inherently, however, they know that a relationship between them can't work, given the fact that Jo will return to her graduate studies in the fall, and they also know that they need to contact the police, so Ursa can be returned to her family or at least placed with a foster family.

But why hasn't Ursa shown up in any missing-children bulletins? How can this young child not only read, but understand ornithology texts and Shakespeare? Why won't she tell them the truth about where she really came from, and why does she keep endangering herself by running away every time Jo and Gabe try to get to the bottom of her family situation? There can't possibly be any truth to the story she's telling them, can there?

"Gabe started to live as Ursa did, in an infinite present disconnected from the past or future. Jo let him have his fantasy. And she let Ursa have hers."

As the summer draws to a close and all of their lives approach a crossroads, one night will change everything. It will put all of them in danger and expose the lies they've been telling themselves, and threaten to destroy the fragile trio they have built, even if it's built on a dream or a fantasy.

From the very first sentence, I was hooked on this story. It reminded me a little of Eowyn Ivey's beautiful novel The Snow Child, in that the presence of a seemingly magical child transforms those in desperate need of rescue. But Where the Forest Meets the Stars has its own magic, buoyed by Vanderah's masterful storytelling, gorgeous imagery, and the immense heart of this book.

I'll admit as I was reading this, I vacillated between wanting to get to Ursa's "real story" and hoping that she was perhaps telling the truth, despite the fact that such a resolution might require me to suspend my disbelief. But at its core, Where the Forest Meets the Stars is a story about friendship, love, bravery, and how the family we choose is often more important to us than the family we belong to, so I decided it didn't matter how Vanderah wrapped up her story.

When I saw that this book was one of Amazon's Kindle First selections last month, I really wanted to read it, but couldn't fit it in. However, I couldn't wait any longer, and nearly read the entire book yesterday during a cold, rainy day. It was one of those books you want to devour yet savor, and of course, I was sad when I finished it. But I know these characters will live in my mind and my heart for a long time to come.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Book Review: "I'm Fine and Neither Are You" by Camille Pagán

"It takes courage to be yourself when everyone expects you to be someone else."

Penelope Ruiz-Kar is the glue holding her family together. She's the breadwinner, working in the development office of a medical school. But much to her chagrin, she's also the disciplinarian of her two children, and often the cook, cleaner, and organizer, despite the fact that her husband Sanjay is a stay-at-home dad while picking up some freelance writing jobs.

All too often she's frustrated with everything and everyone, and wonders how she's strayed so far from her dreams of being a writer of children's books.

Penelope is also tremendously envious of her best friend, Jenny. Jenny always looks like she's posing for a magazine, her house is always perfectly clean and inviting, her daughter is polite and charming, her lifestyle blog influences many women, and she and her husband still have passionate sex—a lot. How can Jenny accomplish it all without breaking a sweat when Penelope just wants a do-over, perhaps of her whole life?

When a sudden tragedy illuminates the fact that Jenny's life isn't quite as perfect as it seems, Penelope is thrown for a loop. She has to stop pretending everything is fine in all aspects of her life, and she needs to be more honest—and that needs to start with Sanjay. They both agree that things in their marriage could use some work, so each makes a list of changes they want the other to make, and each promises complete honesty.

"Something between us had shifted over the course of our marriage, particularly the last two to three years. We had gone from being lovers to best friends to...roommates who routinely irritated each other. If I was honest with myself, that was what it felt like most of the time."

Total honesty seems like a good idea...but in reality it causes more problems than it solves, especially as Penelope starts becoming a little too honest with people around her. And while she and Sanjay want to commit to fixing their marriage, it isn't as easy as they thought it would be. Is it possible at all? Is their marriage destined to fail and are they powerless to stop it, or is there something they need to do?

Camille Pagán's I'm Fine and Neither Are You is a funny, thought-provoking, poignant look at how difficult it can be to balance marriage, work, and family, and not kill yourself—or each other—in the process. It's also a look at the lies we tell each other—and ourselves—and how uncovering the truth is so difficult and often painful, but it's truly necessary.

This was a quick, enjoyable book that I read over the course of the day. I had never read anything of Pagán's before, but I really liked her balance of humor, poignancy, emotion, and soul-searching. This is definitely a book that made me realize that whenever I think a person may have it all and I'm envious, that I don't really know the challenges they're facing.

Lake Union Publishing and Amazon First Reads provided me an advance copy of this book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making it available!

The book will be published April 1, 2019.

Friday, March 1, 2019

Book Review: "Recursion" by Blake Crouch

This was some crazy s--t.

"What's more precious than our memories? They define us and form our identities."

Blake Crouch's new book, Recursion, is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.

Crouch's Dark Matter, which was one of the top five books I read in 2017, blew me away, even though I wasn't 100 percent sure I understood everything I read. But this book? This is a fascinating, albeit confusing, meditation on memory and how crucial what we remember is to our identity. It's a roller coaster ride which cements Crouch's reputation as a master of meshing unbelievable science and emotion.

Barry Sutton is a detective in New York City who is summoned when a woman is threatening to jump from a skyscraper. She tells him that she is suffering from False Memory Syndrome, which somehow leaves you with vivid memories of a life and experiences you never had. Often these memories feel more real than the life you are living, and it is immensely disorienting—and possibly contagious. The woman tells Barry that she is devastated by the fact that her son has been "erased," even though people tell her she never had a son. And then she leaps to her death.

Meanwhile, Helena Smith is a neuroscientist who has been working on research to help map our most precious memories and how to preserve them. If she succeeds, people with dementia and brain injuries might one day be able to remember moments and people that have slipped from their grasp. The pace and scope of her research is significantly accelerated by the involvement and support of an eccentric, wealthy benefactor. But what's behind his interest?

As Barry tries to investigate what's behind False Memory Syndrome—or if it exists at all—he finds himself in the middle of a disturbing mystery. Has someone figured out the ability to manipulate our memories and make us believe things that never existed? If our true memories are wiped out and replaced, does that change who we are? And at what cost?

Barry and Helena's stories alternate as they represent both sides of the coin—the beneficent research looking to make a difference in how we retain our memories, and the shadowy side, using memories for destructive purposes. Recursion started a little slowly for me, but picked up speed as the book moved along, until it careened toward a conclusion.

The ideas behind the book were fascinating and thought-provoking, but the book itself didn't quite work for me as well as I had hoped given how much I loved Dark Matter. Each story on its own was compelling but the constant shifting back and forth, and having to keep track of when things happened, often made me lose focus. But once again, Crouch proves his talent as a storyteller and a brilliant mind.

If you're a fan of science fiction thrillers that make you wonder if what you're reading might actually be possible, pick up Recursion. And don't miss out on Dark Matter or Crouch's Wayward Pines trilogy, because this guy knows how to write.

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

This book will be published June 11, 2019.