Tuesday, August 29, 2023

Book Review: "The Invisible Hour" by Alice Hoffman

Sometimes a book starts out so strongly, then veers into a strange and unexpected direction that completely takes you out of the narrative. Sadly, that happened to me when I read Alice Hoffman’s newest novel, The Invisible Hour.

Mia is a young woman who has spent her entire life in the Community, a cult in Western Massachusetts that forbids nearly all contact with the public, considers books to be evil, and punishes transgressors with unorthodox methods. Her mother died just before Mia was able to convince her to try and escape, leaving her under the harsh and watchful eye of Joel, her mother’s husband and the mercurial leader of the Community.

Although books are forbidden, Mia’s first time in a library changed her life. She started reading every chance she got, stealing books from the library and hiding them wherever she could. But her secret was discovered, and after several warnings, she is told to await her punishment the next morning.

That night she discovers The Scarlet Letter, and the book speaks to her in a way that no other has. So much of this book mirrors her life and that of her mother. But how could a book written several centuries before so perfectly capture the hell she is living in?

The book helps fuel her courage to escape, and she begins a new life, where she experiences the freedom to pursue her dreams without fear of reprisal, and is raised with love. But Joel is constantly able to track her down and let her know he is watching her, so she is often afraid to be out in public.

She also grows more obsessed with learning about Nathaniel Hawthorne, the man whose words continue to speak to her soul even after she is able to flee the Community. And then, through the magic and elasticity of time, she travels to the past, where she is both inspired and inspires, loves and is loved.

I enjoyed the early parts of the story, and felt the poignancy and desperation. I also really enjoyed Mia’s life once she escaped the Community. However, I felt that Joel was a very one-dimensional character, and his ability to constantly find Mia (even through time travel) was ludicrous.

And as much as I love a good time travel story, this portion of the book absolutely didn’t work for me. Sure, I had to suspend my disbelief, which wasn’t a problem, but the whole storyline felt very disjointed. I’m an enormous Alice Hoffman fan, but this book was sadly disappointing for me.

Book Review: "Hello Stranger" by Katherine Center

Sadie has been determined to follow in her late mother’s footsteps and become an artist. But her lack of success has certainly created a wedge between her and her surgeon father, who vowed he’d never give her a dime once she decided to give up medical school to pursue art.

And finally, she’s on her way. She’s placed as a finalist in the North American Portrait Society’s competition (a contest her mother was a finalist in when she died), and winning this could be the break she needs, financially and career-wise.

She’s ready to celebrate–and the next thing she knows, she’s lying in a hospital bed, in need of urgent brain surgery. Although her doctor says the surgery can wait until after the competition is over, her father forces her into having the surgery right away, because the medical problem she has was the same thing that killed her mother.

While the surgery was supposed to be fairly routine, Sadie is shocked to discover that the surgery left her with a “probably temporary” case of prosopagnosia, or face blindness. She can see perfectly, but when she looks at a person’s face, it appears to her as a jumble of mismatched parts. It’s tremendously difficult for anyone to deal with, but especially for someone who paints portraits for a living. Even when she encounters a person she knows, she doesn’t recognize them, because the lack of facial recognition throws off her perceptions.

As she tries to deal with the potential of having to live with this condition permanently, as well as confront the major family issues she has faced for years, she finds herself falling for two very different men at the same time. She keeps thinking about her dog’s veterinarian, imagining a life with him. But why does her mind keep wandering back to one of her neighbors, who seems like he’d be less of a suitable choice? Is she doomed to a life alone?

Katherine Center is definitely an auto-buy author for me. This was a sweet read, but not one of my favorites of hers. There’s a twist that I suspected very early on, and I thought the whole family dynamic was just too unbelievable and annoying for me, especially given the destruction caused and the reasons behind it.

Book Review: "Once More with Feeling" by Elissa Sussman

Katee Rose is living the life she’s always wanted. She’s a huge pop star with fans all over the world, giving sold-out concerts, and topping the charts. The media can’t get enough of her, especially her relationship with Ryan LaNeve, the breakout star of the beloved boy band CrushZone. But fame and constant media scrutiny have their price. She doesn’t love that producers keep auto-tuning her voice, and she hates having to worry about everything she eats, everything she wears, and making sure she’s always “on” in case she inadvertently upsets a fan.

And as much as she cares about Ryan, having a relationship in the public eye is exhausting. Which is why she finds herself turning more and more to her good friend Cal, another CrushZone member. Cal is quiet, more mature, and he seems to understand Katee more than Ryan. And when friendship turns to romance, it destroys everything–her relationship with Ryan, her career, her reputation, and her future, as well as her friendship with Cal.

Years later, Kathleen Rosenberg is fine with her life outside the spotlight. But when her best friend Harriet’s musical–with a part she created specifically for Kathleen–has an opportunity to get to Broadway, Kathleen is thrilled for her friend. Harriet is determined that Kathleen gets another chance at fame. That chance, however, is in the hands of Cal, now a successful director and choreographer. Neither has spoken to the other since the implosion of both of their careers, and both blame each other.

Can Kathleen trust Cal this time with the possibility of a second chance? They both know the scrutiny the show and both of them will be under if she gets the role, but they also know that it has the potential to resurrect both of their careers. What to do when the chemistry and the old feelings reawaken? Is there potential for a comeback in their romantic lives as well, or will that be too much for the show to sustain, not to mention the public scrutiny?

Elissa Sussman’s last book, Funny You Should Ask, was one of my favorite books of last year, so needless to say, I had very high hopes for this book. While it was an enjoyable read, and I loved the behind-the-scenes look at the mounting of a musical bound for Broadway, it was a little too predictable, and the whole book ran far longer than it needed to. (What is it with super-long rom-coms lately?)

But Kathleen and Cal definitely had chemistry, and it’s always great to read a rom-com with more mature characters.

Book Review: "New Adult" by Timothy Janovsky

Nolan has dreamed of a career in stand-up comedy for years; he’s just waiting for his big break to come along. But despite waiting tables at a famous comedy club and getting the chance to perform onstage, his chance at fame keeps eluding him.

Barely able to make ends meet, his family keeps urging him to pursue a “real” career. And that’s not the only place where he’s stuck: he’s also totally in love with his best friend and roommate, Drew, but he’s afraid to tell him how he feels in the event he messes up their relationship.

When Nolan’s sister–clearly his parents’ favorite–is getting ready for a picture-perfect wedding, Nolan decides to bite the bullet and ask Drew to be his date. (And maybe it’s time to hang up his dreams of comedy success.) But during the wedding, he finally gets his big chance to fill in for a famous comedian. Does he follow his dream or stay at the wedding? Needless to say, his leaving mid-wedding and standing Drew up doesn’t sit well with his family or his roommate, and he has horrible, blow-out fights with all of them.

Left alone, Drew wishes on a set of magical healing crystals–a wedding favor–to skip to the good part of his life. When he wakes up, it’s seven years later, and his dreams have come true. He’s now a tremendously successful comedian who has made a fortune bashing romantic relationships. He has everything he wants, except a relationship with his family. And what about Drew? Drew is gorgeous, successful, and can’t stand the sight of him.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Nolan discovers that success isn’t all it’s cracked up to be without the people you love. But how can he convince Drew and his family that he deserves another chance after so much time has passed? Is he willing to give up his dreams to be the person they wish he could be?

I’ve enjoyed Timothy Janovsky’s earlier books, and this was a fun and moving read, definitely more emotional than I expected. Sure, it’s predictable and a little silly, but it may make you think twice about wishing on magic crystals anytime soon.

Book Review: "Congratulations, The Best is Over!" by R. Eric Thomas

I don’t read many nonfiction or essay collections, but when I saw that R. Eric Thomas had written a follow-up to his fantastic Here for It, I definitely had to go out of my comfort zone again. And I’m pleased to report that Congratulations, The Best is Over! is equally amazing, the perfect combination of thought-provoking, emotional, and hysterical.

In the early essays in this collection, Thomas and his husband David are living in Philadelphia and both are happy. But when David finds a job as a pastor at a church just outside Baltimore, the couple decides to move. This is a significant decision for Thomas, as Baltimore was his hometown, a place he didn’t want to move back to “even to be buried.” (The things we do for love.)

Thomas writes about what it’s like to return to a place you never wanted to come back to, the hell of moving, and the struggles of making friends as adults (particularly as a mixed-race, same-sex couple). There are also hysterically funny essays about Thomas attending his 20th high school reunion only to find someone else’s picture on his nametag, going to get his eyebrows threaded and bringing some celebrities whose eyebrows he admired (including a Muppet), and even his experience at an urgent-care facility after cutting his arm.

In the second part of this collection, many of the essays are a bit more serious, dealing with the death of David’s father, living in a fairly conservative part of Maryland in the lead-up to the 2020 election, and getting more in touch with his history. But of course, Thomas does throw in some humor, as he recounts his and David’s efforts (mostly David’s) to create a paradise in their backyard, and his harassment at the hands of a bunch of gay frogs. (Seriously.)

Thomas is a fantastic writer. Even if you’ve not experienced the things he writes about, his accounts are so engrossing and enjoyable that I couldn’t tear myself away. I’ll absolutely be waiting for whatever he writes next.

“But between the best days of life and the worst days of life, between what you thought your life would be and what it is, between two people, there is a vivid and strange expanse in the middle. This is the middle.”

Book Review: "Bellies" by Nicola Dinan

“I wore a dress on the night I first met Ming.”

When Tom meets Ming at a drag night at a bar near their university, both men are mutually attracted to one another. Tom, only recently out, is attracted to how together Ming seems, how serene, how confident in his future as a playwright and his sexuality. It’s not long before the two become inseparable.

As their relationship deepens, Tom realizes that Ming not only struggles with anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder, but he seems increasingly dissatisfied with his body and appearance for reasons he cannot explain to Tom. After graduation, the couple moves to London, but no matter how they try to settle into their future together, the tension between them starts to intensify.

And then Ming tells Tom he intends to transition and become a woman.

The second half of the book follows Ming and Tom’s lives after Ming’s transition. Not only does this affect their relationship but their circle of mutual friends, and each confronts their own professional and personal issues. What happens after someone transitions? Can this individual who is finally living authentically find peace and satisfaction? And what parts of our lives should be open to public consumption?

This was a tremendously interesting premise. It was thought-provoking, emotional, funny, and insightful. Not much really happens in the book: it’s definitely character- and dialogue-driven, and it reminded me of a Sally Rooney novel. (That could be a positive or negative comparison depending on your opinions of her books.)

In the end, I just wish I enjoyed the characters more, so I could have been fully invested in the story.

Book Review: "Tom Lake" by Ann Patchett

Ann Patchett is one of my absolute favorite authors. I’ve read all of her books—fiction, essay collections, even Truth and Beauty, her memoir about her friendship with the late poet Lucy Grealy. Not only do I love how she writes, but quite often, her books appear tremendously simple, only to surprise you with their depth. Her latest novel, Tom Lake, appears to be the story of a woman sharing youthful memories with her adult daughters, but it’s so much more than that.

When she was young, Lara was an actress of some promise. She had a prominent role in a movie that could make her a star, but its release was delayed, so she got an opportunity to perform in summer stock at a theater company in Michigan called Tom Lake. There she lands the lead in two plays, where she gets to share the stage with a charismatic, talented young actor named Peter Duke, and it’s not long before the two fall into a relationship. After that summer, Peter became a famous actor.

In the spring of 2020, Lara recounts her relationship with her daughters, as they have all returned home to the family’s cherry orchard in Northern Michigan amid the pandemic. Even though some of the story is familiar (and was the cause of much consternation during her oldest daughter’s teenage years), there is much that Lara has kept to herself all this time. Her reminiscences fill the long, laborious days of picking cherries and trying to keep the orchard afloat, and provoke strong emotions and opinions among her daughters.

This is such a gorgeously told story of family, love, memory, motherhood, and recognizing that happiness can come from a path other than the one you dreamed of. It’s also about growing up and finding out about your parents' lives before they were your parents. It’s an emotional story that will stick in my mind for some time.

“There is no explaining this simple truth about life: you will forget much of it. The painful things you were certain you’d never be able to let go? Now you’re not entirely sure when they happened, while the thrilling parts, the heart-stopping joys, splintered and scattered and became something else.”

Tuesday, August 15, 2023

Book Review: "Speech Team" by Tim Murphy

Growing up in the Massachusetts suburbs, Thomas "Tip" Murray dreamed of a glamorous life as a screenwriter, a foreign correspondent, or a film critic. Now in his early 40s, he couldn't have gotten further from those dreams: he's a recovering drug addict and alcoholic, living in Providence with his solid and dependable husband, Marcus, and he works as a writer for an educational nonprofit.

One day he hears from his high school best friend, Natalie, that Pete, one of their classmates and Speech Team members, has committed suicide. While neither of them had thought much about Pete in many years, they were shocked to see that in his farewell post on social media, he mentioned that their Speech Team coach, Gary Gold, once made a devastating comment to him. Pete's post triggered some memories for Tip, memories of his own insult at the hands of Mr. Gold.

The more Tip thinks about Pete and Mr. Gold, the more obsessed he becomes with high school memories—the positive and the negative. He and Natalie (mostly at his urging) decide to look up two of their other classmates: Anthony, who is now a famous fashion designer, and Jennifer, the once-intense intellectual who is now a college professor. After some awkward moments, the four reunite and rehash some old memories. And then they discover one thing they all have in common: each was stung by an insult from Mr. Gold.

The quartet finds that Mr. Gold is still alive and now living in Florida, so they decide to take a road trip down there and confront him. But what they find is not at all what they were expecting. And Tip is slowly losing his grip, which puts his sobriety and his marriage at risk.

This book really hit close to home for me, but that only made me love it more. I went to high school in the 1980s and graduated the same year as the characters did. I struggled with my sexuality and was bullied quite a bit, much like Tip. And I had a high school teacher who bullied me, and more than 35 years later, some of the things he said still linger in my mind. (No one needs to worry about me confronting him, however, since he died a few years ago.)

I was so excited when I saw this book at the store, because I'm a huge fan of the way Tim Murphy writes. (Christodora was an utterly fantastic book.) This is, as I've read, a much more personal book for Murphy, and it definitely felt that way. It was tremendously thoughtful, and thought-provoking.