Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Book Review: "An American Marriage" by Tayari Jones

For the latest resurrection of her book club, Oprah chose Tayari Jones' latest novel, An American Marriage. Raw, powerful, full of searing emotion, this is a book which speaks not only to the relationship between man and woman, husband and wife, but it touches on the bond between parents and their children, even in adulthood, and the mercurial nature of life.

"Love makes a place in your life, it makes a place for itself in your bed. Invisibly, it makes a place in your body, rerouting all your blood vessels, throbbing right alongside your heart. When it's gone, nothing is whole again."

Celestial and Roy first meet in college, he being the somewhat-smooth acquaintance of her childhood friend, Andre. Although Roy is attracted to Celestial almost instantaneously, she's less impressed with him. But when they meet again a few years later in New York, the two fall in love. Roy is drawn to her creativity and her fierce sense of independence, while she is impressed that he knows just what he wants from life, including her.

The two settle in Atlanta. Roy starts becoming a successful sales executive, while Celestial's art career is on the verge of taking off. Their marriage isn't without its bumps, as the couple starts talking about whether or not to have a baby. But one night, everything changes. Roy is accused of committing a crime Celestial knows he is innocent of, and he is sentenced to a 12-year prison sentence.

"Looking back on it, it's like watching a horror flick and wondering why the characters are so determined to ignore the danger signs. When a spectral voice says, get out, you should do it. But in real life, you don't know that you're in a scary movie. You think your wife is being overly emotional. You quietly hope that it's because she's pregnant, because a baby is what you need to lock this thing in and throw away the key."

Celestial doesn't know how to deal with a husband in prison, and she's not sure she knows how to be alone. Although she loves Roy, she starts spending more and more time with Andre, who has loved her from afar (and closer than that) for as long as he can remember. Roy struggles with the idea of spending 12 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit, and finds it difficult to be so isolated as the outside world keeps marching on. He vacillates between wanting Celestial to wait the 12 years for him and wanting her to go on with her life.

Five years into his sentence, Roy is unexpectedly released. He finds that life is very different in so many ways, even just five years later. He is unsure what to expect from his marriage—although he and Celestial had difficult times while he was in prison, she never filed for divorce, so he wonders if he has a chance to resume their life together. She is caught between the love she knew, the one she felt tethered to, and the love that gives her security she has always craved. But which one is right for her?

Narrated in alternating chapters by Roy, Celestial, and Andre, An American Marriage is a searing portrait of the ragged ways we fall in and out of love. Jones is such a talented writer, and you actually feel the same dilemmas faced by her characters. She has such an ear for dialogue, for capturing emotion, and for showing how our relationships can both make us feel safe and make us come undone.

As complex as these characters are, none of them are completely sympathetic, and Jones doesn't force you to choose a side in this struggle. There was an instance when I thought the plot would veer into utter melodrama and tread a path I've seen too many times, but Jones showed some restraint, thankfully. I wasn't sure if I liked any of the characters fully, but I was still utterly engrossed in their lives.

"You can never really unlove somebody. Maybe it changes shape, but it's there."

This book really was excellent. It makes you think while it tugs at your emotions, and that felt very fulfilling. And once again, this book proves Oprah knows how to pick 'em.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Book Review: "The Cruel Prince" by Holly Black

So after reading a few rather dark and emotionally heavy books, I thought I could use something a little "lighter." I decided to explore the fantasy genre a bit, which is something I don't do often enough. I had heard quite a bit about Holly Black's latest book, The Cruel Prince, so I decided to give it a try.

This was an absolutely excellent, creative book, but make no mistake—it definitely wasn't a "light" read! However, I was hooked from start to finish, so it didn't matter one bit. What a fantastic story!

It seemed like any other Sunday afternoon. Seven-year-old twin sisters Jude and Taryn are lazing about, while their older sister Vivienne watched television absentmindedly. There is a knock at the door, and a tall, mysterious man stands on the doorstep, a man who makes their mother turn pale. Before the girls even realize what is happening, their parents are murdered and the man has stolen them away to live with him in the High Court of Faerie.

Ten years later, Jude and Taryn have done their best to fit in, but they are constantly reminded they are different from the fey who live in Faerie, not just because the girls are mortal and the others are not. Taryn wants to become fully acclimated, live the life that she is expected to, but Jude wants more. She wants to be known for her strength, her intelligence, her bravery. She doesn't want to be "less than," doesn't want to blend into the background.

"I don't desire to do as well in the tournament as one of the fey. I want to win. I do not yearn to be their equal. In my heart, I yearn to best them."

Jude's refusal to back down, to kowtow to those who tell her she should be subservient. This earns her the condemnation and hatred of several young fey, most especially Prince Cardan, the youngest son of the High King—and perhaps the cruelest son. He and his friends delight in their torment of Jude, threatening her with and inflicting physical and emotional violence upon her, leading her to make impetuous decisions which strain her relationship with Taryn.

"Faeries make up for their inability to lie with a panoply of deceptions and cruelties. Twisted words, pranks, omissions, riddles, scandals, not to mention their revenges upon one another for ancient, half-remembered slights. Storms are less fickle than they are, seas less capricious."

Jude is able to secure herself a key position within the Court, and she hopes it will lead to greater things. She realizes she is capable of deception, treachery, bravery, and bloodshed, and none of those things really bother her. But she's utterly unprepared to become embroiled in the middle of a bloody civil war for the crown, and she is shocked to learn how her family is involved in some of the betrayal as well.

She has to act quickly in order to figure out how to save herself and those she cares about from certain violence and possible danger. This will require the most courage and intelligence she has ever had to demonstrate, and it also means she must once again tangle with Prince Cardan. But in order to make sure her family and Faerie itself are safe, she realizes some sacrifices must be made.

I rarely read books in this genre, and now I'm not sure why. I found this absolutely compelling, mesmerizing even, as Black reeled me into this incredible world she created. Her imagery is tremendously vivid, but this is definitely a book I'd love to see played out on screen, just to see how all of the characters and the kingdom around them look. Black masterfully weaved suspense, intrigue, emotions, violence, and even a little romance to fantastic effect.

Not being familiar with the fantasy genre, particularly the world of the fey, Black used a lot of terminology to refer to the different creatures that I wasn't familiar with, but that's what dictionaries and Google are for! There were times when the large cast of characters became a little confusing, as I wasn't sure which character was which, but that forced me to slow down a little bit and savor Black's storytelling.

This is definitely not a book for everyone (I can hear some of you saying, "Not for me" as you read this review), but if you've ever thought about reading a book like this, I'd encourage you to pick The Cruel Prince up. It's really an unforgettable experience and a cool story the likes of which I've not heard for some time. I'm a fan of Black's work now, that's for certain!

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Book Review: "Lullaby Road" by James Anderson

Some books seem tailor-made for sequels. While you're reading them you get the sense that there's so much more to the story, and in some cases, the author leaves you hanging. But some books seem complete when you've finished them, and although you enjoyed spending time with the characters and found the story compelling, you'd never expect a sequel. (Of course, there are other times you dislike a book you couldn't imagine reading a follow-up, but that's another story.)

I really enjoyed reading James Anderson's The Never-Open Desert Diner (see my review) last year. The story of a trucker in the Utah desert whose solitary life is turned upside-down by the appearance of a mysterious woman was tremendously satisfying and even a little quirky, and I loved the characters Anderson created. But I was surprised to see that Anderson had written a sequel, Lullaby Road (not that it stopped me from grabbing it), because I thought Ben's story was told.

Boy, was I wrong.

Ben is still working as a trucker on Route 117, which most of the year is either affected by back-breaking heat or treacherous snow and ice. He's trying to pull his life back together to some semblance of normalcy after he was shaken to the core by tragedy. All he wants to do is make his deliveries, get paid, and survive.

One snowy morning, making his routine stop for diesel before getting underway on his route, the proprietor of the truck stop tells Ben someone left something for him. It's not just "something"—it's a small Hispanic child who refuses to speak, and the child is accompanied by an over-protective dog. A note is pinned to the child which says:

"Please Ben. Bad trouble. My son. Take him today. His name is Juan. Trust you only. Tell No One. Pedro."

Pedro was the tire man at the truck stop, but he seems to have disappeared. No one will give Ben answers; in fact, everyone from the truck stop has disappeared. He can't leave the child alone in the snow, but the last thing Ben needs is a child to worry about, especially one which appears to have a penchant to take off running in an instant. He needs to find Pedro, but he also needs to start his route before weather conditions get too treacherous.

That split-second decision changes everything for Ben. Everything seems out-of-sorts on his route, even the people and customers he knows all seem a bit different. And in the course of the next several days, he'll realize just how much danger is around him, danger that threatens those he knows, as well as him and the child in his care. It's as bleak as the road that lies ahead of him.

Lullaby Road has a lot of twists and turns—some which make sense and some which confuse, so I'm being purposely vague in my plot summary. Ben is used to encountering people who have taken to the desert because they're not interested in social interaction and are on the run from something, but Ben finds a lot more about those he's known only casually and encounters some new personalities along the way. Barely anyone is particularly friendly, and some are downright deadly.

I love the way Anderson tells a story, and I love the hardscrabble characters he has created. I never quite understood why so many people are quick to dislike Ben, except perhaps for incidents from his past, since he doesn't seem much different than the rest of them, and his reactions to the situations he's in seem to be fairly natural, yet many people call him out for his behavior. But beyond that I was fully engrossed in this story, even as it got a little confusing, and ultimately darker than I had anticipated.

I'd definitely recommend reading Anderson's first book before this one, as Lullaby Road refers to things that occurred in, and characters from, that book. But this one is a truly worthy sequel. I'm not sure if another book is in store, but now I'm hoping there is.

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

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Book Review: "The Fighter" by Michael Farris Smith

"To be alive at all is to have scars."
—John Steinbeck

Michael Farris Smith chose the above epigraph for his new novel, The Fighter, and there may be few epigraphs more well-matched than this one.

Jack Boucher has been fighting since nearly the day he was born. Abandoned at a young age, shifted from foster home to foster home, he quickly learned not to get attached to anyone or anything, to always watch his back. At 12 he finally finds Maryann, the foster mother who wants to care for Jack, wants him to know he's worthy of being cared about. But now Maryann suffers from dementia, and most days doesn't even know her own name, let alone Jack's.

And Jack has more than his own share of problems. Decades of bare-knuckle fighting have left him in unspeakable pain, and the immense number of concussions he has sustained through the years has left his brain shell-shocked. He carries with him a notebook in which he has to write down those people who pose a danger to him, as well as other information, since he's incapable of remembering it himself. He's also become a champ at self-medicating, using stolen painkillers chased with liquor to take the edge off.

"He felt the twenty years of granite fists and gnarled knuckles beating against his temples and the bridge of his nose and across his forehead and into the back of his head. The sharp points of elbows into his kidneys and into the hard muscles of his thighs and into his throat and the thrust of knees against his own and into his lower back and against his ears and jaw."

Maryann has trusted her one legacy, her family home, to Jack. But gambling debts have put the house and the land in the hands of the bank, and he has only eight days to make good on what is owed before it is sold. For Maryann to lose her history, and for Jack to be responsible, is a loss too great to ponder, even if she isn't aware of what is going on around her. Jack is determined to get the money he needs, by gambling or other means.

There's one other drawback in his way—Big Momma Sweet, who rules the Mississippi Delta and has eyes and spies everywhere. You don't owe Big Momma and not square your debts, not if you want to survive. You may think you can hide, but you can't. Jack is ready to pay off his debt and finally get his life back—and then disaster strikes. Addled by pain and burgeoning dementia of his own, it appears he has only one avenue left—getting back in the ring one more time, despite the consequences.

Smith writes about desperation and last chances more effectively than most authors out there. The Fighter is often brutal and relentless, but there are notes of hope. Jack is a fascinating character, and you are drawn into his struggles, even if you have a feeling you know where things will end up. The story of his hard-fought childhood and the woman who saved him is poignant, and you understand why he's willing to risk everything for her.

I didn't love this book as much as Smith's last, Desperation Road (see my original review), because I found its pace a little erratic, and the relentless brutality started to depress me. But I love the way Smith writes, and this is still a tremendously worthwhile read, although hard to take at times. He definitely has a fan in me!

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

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Book Review: "The Apocalypse of Elena Mendoza" by Shaun David Hutchinson

Shaun David Hutchinson's The Apocalypse of Elena Mendoza may be one of the craziest, most thought-provoking books I've read in some time, if not ever. It's wild, poignant, forces you to suspend your disbelief, and some may even think it's sacrilegious or blasphemous, but it definitely cements Hutchinson as one of the best YA authors out there right now, one who combines science, emotion, and life's daily struggles to tremendous effect.

"The apocalypse began at Starbucks. Where else did you expect the end of the world to start?"

Elena Mendoza is used to being an outcast. She is the product of a virgin birth (seriously)—but she wasn't born in a barn or at the beach at sunrise. Her mother was a teenager, banished by her parents because they believed she was lying about getting pregnant. But the truth is, Elena was the product of parthenogenesis, a process where an offspring is born from an unfertilized egg. It was more common in the insect world, but she was the first child created this way.

No one has taken the time to find out the truth, though; instead, they ridicule her, calling her "Mary" (which technically isn't even correct), and treating her like a freak. She doesn't have a lot of friends—in fact, she spends most of her time either working at Starbucks or with her best friend, Fadil—but she doesn't really care.

Elena also has a wicked crush on Winifred "Freddie" Petrine, even though she is part of the crowd that makes fun of her. When Freddie comes into Elena's Starbucks one day, she can't stop staring, until even the siren on the Starbucks cups tells her to say something to Freddie. But when Elena goes to approach Freddie, a boy from their high school pulls out a gun and shoots Freddie, and the next thing you know, Elena is healing her gunshot wound, seconds before the shooter disappears into a beam of light in the clouds.

So now Elena can heal people. But with that power comes a downside—well, many of them—in that every time Elena heals someone, more people disappear for no reason. The voices keep telling her she can save the world, but is that true, or is she actually condemning innocent people to disappear, affecting their families and friends, for no reason except to help someone else? And when Freddie tells her she wishes she didn't save her, what does that mean?

"It also hadn't stopped me from wondering if I might actually be special or from dreaming that my miraculous birth meant I had a destiny that would one day be revealed. I longed to fit in, to discover whether I was playing a lead role in the grand cosmic drama or merely a bit part with no lines. My miraculous birth and the voices had, for years, fueled my convictions that I had a purpose—that I would lead a significant life—and all I'd wanted was for someone to notice me."

As the voices continue to pressure her, Elena struggles with her abilities and whether she should do anything. But she also struggles with love, friendship, family, responsibility, and trying to figure out why the boy would shoot Freddie in the first place. This is a book built on a crazy concept, but it's one with tremendous heart, and it makes you think about what you would do in a similar situation. Who are we to decide who lives and who dies? But can we be content if we do nothing at all?

Hutchinson is an amazing writer. His characters are tremendously vivid and complex, and not just the main characters, either. Some of the supporting characters are fascinating as well, and although I'm glad they didn't distract from the main story, it would have been great to get to know some of them better. While this book didn't leave me as emotionally wrecked as his amazing We Are the Ants (see my review) or last year's At the Edge of the Universe (see my review), it has a beauty and a power all its own.

Clearly, this isn't a book for everyone. But don't discount it as simply folly, because it's so much more than that. This is a book that tackles depression, bullying, family dysfunction, discrimination, friendship, jealousy, love, sexuality—yet it never hits you over the head. I'd love to sit down at a table with Hutchinson and learn what makes him tick, because his mind is a fascinating thing.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Book Review: "Mr. Flood's Last Resort" by Jess Kidd

Some authors know just how to tell stories. Jess Kidd is one of those. Fresh on the heels of her magnificent, magical book Himself (see my original review), which made my list of the best books I read last year, she dazzles with her storytelling ability again in her new book, Mr. Flood's Last Resort.

Maud Drennan is a caregiver whose seemingly unflappable attitude hints at a world-weariness you wouldn't expect of someone her age. But Maud isn't sunny and naive—a childhood tragedy left her slightly traumatized, and it somehow left behind a crowd of saints who appear to Maud at random times each day, befitting of the situation she's in. These aren't always welcome saints, mind you, but they do provide a sort of companionship.

Maud has been assigned to the irascible Cathal Flood, a cantankerous old man who has taken pleasure in running off his previous caregivers any way he can—through fear, intimidation, even threats of physical violence. Mr. Flood lives in a dilapidated old mansion, filled to the brim with collector's items, decaying trash, and what seems like hundreds of cats who roam through the house. Maud is Mr. Flood's last resort, because if he doesn't let her get the house in order, his son has threatened to put him in an old-age home, something the old man will never let happen.

At first, Mr. Flood torments Maud, changing moods so quickly her head spins, and trying the tricks that scared his previous caregivers away. But Maud doesn't scare too easily, and after a while, he realizes she has respect for some of the items he's been keeping all these years, and the two form a tentative bond. (It doesn't hurt that neither trusts his son.)

But strange things do happen in the house. Maud hears noises when there's no one around, and even the cats react to invisible stimuli which startle and upset them. And how can she explain the photos which keep appearing mysteriously, photos which hint at secrets held deep within the house? Do these photos point to long-forgotten crimes, crimes which only she can help solve?

Do people of a certain age have the right to live their last years however they want, or must they adhere to others' wishes? If you sense a mystery, is it your responsibility to try and solve it, even if it means betraying the trust of someone you've started to care for? Can you help someone pull their life together if you don't have yours fully together?

Along with a cast of remarkable characters, Kidd addresses these questions in Mr. Flood's Last Resort, and shows that the special environments she created in her first book weren't a fluke. This is a story about how important it is to come to terms with what happens in our lives, and that sometimes we must forgive ourselves as well as forgive others. It also is a story which demonstrates that our eccentricities don't make us less of a person, or less worthy of happiness.

Although I felt the book moved a little slowly at the start, and lost steam a time or two, this was such an enjoyable read. Kidd drew me in to this world she created, and it felt so true—when Maud was combing through the piles and piles of junk, trash, oddities, and neglected collectibles, I felt as if I were in the mansion with her, smelling the dust and decay. There's certainly some predictability to this book, but that didn't detract from its immense charm.

This type of book won't be for everyone. Those who like more realistic fiction and can't let themselves loosen the bounds of belief may find this odd or bizarre. But Kidd is such a marvelous storyteller, you should let yourself experience her books—if not this one, definitely Himself.

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

Friday, February 9, 2018

Book Review: "All We Can Do Is Wait" by Richard Lawson

It seemed like just another day in Boston. And then, without warning, the Tobin Bridge collapses, with about 100 cars on its span at the time. These were people just going about their business—students, parents, families, people racing to work or school or home or to some other obligation or exciting occasion.

"It was hard to say who was less lucky, the ones who fell into the water or the ones who fell onto Charlestown, debris tumbling on top of them. Was it better to be swiftly crushed or to slowly drown in your car?"

As news of the tragedy spreads, loved ones of those believed to be on the bridge gather in the emergency room of Massachusetts General Hospital. Among those gathered is a group of teenagers, waiting for word about the condition of their family members or friends. They comfort each other, provide solace and support, and offer a sympathetic ear to listen to the others' fears, their regrets, even their secrets.

Siblings Jason and Alexa are waiting for news about their parents. For nearly a year, Jason has withdrawn from his family, preferring to spend his days in a stoned haze, where he is cut off from his feelings. Alexa resents her older brother for abandoning her emotionally, because she has really needed someone to turn to this past year. Yet each is hiding a secret that threatens to further widen the gap between them at a time they need each other most.

Scott's girlfriend Aimee was traveling over the bridge with friends en route to a theater production. Scott is deeply in love with Aimee but worries their relationship will fall apart once she leaves to go to college. He can't help but resent her a little bit because she seems just a little too excited to leave town for school. Maybe she's excited to leave him, too? He knows he's been difficult lately, but he just wants the opportunity to tell Aimee he loves her, so she'll realize they're meant to be together.

Kate, Skyler's older sister, has always looked out for her. Even though she's only two years older, Kate has in some instances acted like Skyler's aunt, even a surrogate mother, especially since their parents are no longer in the picture and their grandparents live in Cambodia. When Skyler was in danger and hid that fact from everyone, Kate knew—and once again, rescued her. So as Skyler waits to find out whether Kate survived the bridge collapse, she wonders how she might possibly survive without the person who has meant everything to her.

Facing uncertainty as to whether your family members or other loved ones are alive, dead, or seriously injured is a difficult task for anyone, much less teenagers dealing with their own problems at the same time. For Jason, Alexa, Scott, and Skyler, just being in proximity to each other brings some comfort as they wait for answers. At the same time, each struggles with reliving past regrets, looking at the events that brought them to this moment.

All We Can Do Is Wait gives evidence to the adage that "misery loves company." The book grabs you right away and keeps you rooted to the characters' stories, to the pain and fear each has borne to this moment, and the pain each could face depending upon the condition of their loved ones. At first I found it interesting that not one of these teenagers had anyone else who was worried enough about them to track them down at the hospital, but you realize that each of them have only themselves and those in the bridge collapse to depend on.

This is a really engaging story that reads a bit like a movie—I could honestly see these scenes playing out in my head. That's a testament to Richard Lawson's writing ability. I did think the book was perhaps a little too melodramatic and angsty even given the setting and the situation facing the characters, but that wasn't a deal-breaker for me. I waited for the "big reveal" in the case of one character, and it unfolded exactly like I expected, but it still choked me up a little.

At a few points I found the characters a little immature, and then I realized these were high school students. It was actually refreshing to find characters that weren't more sarcastic and erudite than people twice their age. There were a few places I worried Lawson might take the plot into total melodrama, and I was glad he avoided that.

This was a very fast read for me and I was completely invested in the story; in fact, I would love to know what happens next to these characters. I hope never to be in a situation like this, but I think Lawson accurately depicted the emotions and the events that would occur if a tragedy like this occurred.