one of the best books I read in 2010, and years later, it remains one of my favorites.
That book, populated by two very different high school students, both named Will Grayson. One Will Grayson's best friend, "Tiny" Cooper, who isn't shy about his size or his sexuality, and tries to push Will to declare his feelings for his best friend, Jane, all while Tiny is getting ready to produce his autobiographical musical.
This "companion piece," authored by Levithan, is the script of Tiny's musical, complete with his commentary/stage direction, which in some cases, lets the reader in on how the lives of both Will Graysons, Jane, and Tiny progressed after the book ends. But mostly, the musical gives tremendous insight into what it's like to live a life where everyone thinks they know who and what you are, and just how much courage it takes to put yourself so far out there and be happy with who you are every day.
"There are those of us who draw our power from those electric moments when everyone is watching, everyone is listening, and there is the most perfect silence you can imagine, the entire room waiting to hear whatever you will say next. Especially for those of us who ordinarily feel ignored, a spotlight is a circle of magic, with the strength to draw us from the darkness of our everyday lives."
Tiny's character really resonates for me. I remember what it was like to feel most at home in the middle of a stage, singing my heart out to an audience, even if it was an apathetic one. I remember what it was like not feeling comfortable in my own skin, but still wishing that I'd find others like me. And I remember what it was like to like someone so much, and fall so fast, that the biggest mistake you could make was expressing how you felt too soon. His musical is full of the unconditional love Tiny gets from his family and his best friends, as well as flamboyant musical numbers, some of which even star the ghost of Oscar Wilde.
While it's difficult to read a musical as if it were a book without knowing what the songs sound like, getting a glimpse into Tiny's heart, head, and personality more than makes up for it. Levithan once again treats his characters with the respect and love they deserve, and looks beyond the stereotypes. I hope this isn't the last we see of Will, Will, Jane, and Tiny...maybe Levithan and Green can team up again?
Monday, March 30, 2015
Thursday, March 26, 2015
Gail Amendola, the matriarch, has tried to hold her family together any way she can. She and her husband Michael have weathered their own storms during their marriage, but they've now settled into a peaceful and happy life in their golden years. Oldest son Peter, the smart one, couldn't get out of Staten Island fast enough, and becomes a successful lawyer, yet meets his downfall in an attempt to protect "one of his own," another young lawyer from his hometown. Middle son Franky has always been the troublemaker, and he was always fiercely devoted to Bobby, and his death has sent Franky far down the wrong tracks.
As the family prepares for Bobby Jr.'s birthday party, they are forced to confront something they never expected to happen: Tina, Bobby's widow, whom he dated since they were in high school, has met a man. After nearly 10 years of widowhood, of mourning her husband and leaning on his family to help her raise their children, she's ready to move on with her life, and thinks she's found the person to help her do it. And he's not even from Staten Island.
"He was the absolute best possible version of that man, the absolute best. To try to love some lesser version of him would be the greatest insult to his memory she could imagine. If she wanted to feel love (and she was still young and wanted to love and be loved in return), she needed to meet someone who didn't feel like a cheap imitation of her dead husband."
Small Mercies focuses on a week in the life of the Amendolas, as they try to process their feelings about Tina's new man and what that means to how they continue to deal with Bobby's death. It shifts perspectives among the family members, and moves back and forth between past and present, to provide a clearer picture of the good and bad times in their lives. It's the story of anger and frustration, hurt and heartbreak, love and happiness, grief and loss, and ultimately, hope.
Eddie Joyce is an absolutely fantastic writer and he has created a flawed yet all too human family. But despite having grief as a central theme of this book, it isn't morbid or maudlin; there are certainly some parts which provoke emotions, but by and large, this is simply a powerful story of a family fighting to stay together and come apart. At times it gets a little bogged down in melodrama and predictable plot twists, but for a debut novel, this is a pretty strong and terrific read.
Tuesday, March 24, 2015
When The Kizuna Coast opens, Rei and her new husband, Michael Hendricks, are settling into their lives in Hawaii. But newlywed bliss is short-lived once the couple learns that a powerful earthquake has rocked the northeast coast of Japan, followed by a devastating tsunami that left enormous death and destruction in its wake. Although Rei is relieved to find out that her family members living in Japan are all safe, when she receives a distressed phone call from her mentor and former boss, antiques dealer Mr. Ishida, who has been injured and displaced by the storm, she promises to go to Japan to help him.
Getting to Japan shortly after such a disaster proves challenging (not to mention upsetting to her husband), and once she arrives, in order to get to the city where Mr. Ishida is, she must offer her services as a disaster relief volunteer. But before she arrives in Tohoku, she visits Mr. Ishida's shop, only to discover it may have been burglarized. And when she finally is reunited with him, she finds that while he is concerned about his shop, he is most concerned about the whereabouts of his employee, Mayumi, who unexpectedly met him in Tohoku on the day of the tsunami, but seems to have disappeared.
At first, Rei doubts just how devoted of an employee Mayumi is, but then she starts to uncover more information about the tumultuous life this young girl led. And as she finds herself trying to help find out what happened to Mayumi, and get Mr. Ishida back to his shop, she is also overwhelmed by the destruction, both physical and emotional, that the tsunami caused. To top it off, her worries begin to grow about her husband as well, whose job sends him near the Fukushima nuclear reactor, which was damaged during the storm.
Reading The Kizuna Coast is like being reunited with old friends. Rei's character hasn't changed, although she has gotten a bit more mature at times, but her doggedness and her compassion remain the same. While this book dealt more with her experiences in the tsunami-stricken area, it was still good to see the return Mr. Ishida, as well as her close friend and former roommate, Richard; her aunt, Norie; and her doctor cousin, Tom. The plot is a little predictable but it doesn't matter, because Rei is a warm, fascinating character and Massey does such a great job making you care about her and those with whom Rei is dealing. And as always, there's even some fascinating information about Japanese antiques thrown in for good measure.
If you're a mystery fan, I'd definitely encourage you to pick up a book in Massey's Rei Shimura series. They're fun and compelling, and they've really taught me a great deal about Japanese culture I probably wouldn't have learned otherwise. Plus, you now have 11 books to read in the series, so hopefully if you get hooked, by the time you're done, Massey may write another!
Thursday, March 19, 2015
Violet ("Vee") has wanted to be a prima ballerina for as long as she can remember. And as a girl from a wealthy family, she can dream whatever she wants to and achieve her dreams. When she meets Ori, whose family life is less than stable but whose talent is greater, Ori becomes Vee's strongest advocate and biggest fan, protecting her from self-doubt and those who seek to tear her down. But as they find themselves in the midst of their teenage years, and Ori's talent begins to shine brighter than Vee's, their friendship is tested. And when Ori is accused of an act of unspeakable violence, their once-unbreakable bond is destroyed.
Amber has been locked up in the Aurora Hills juvenile detention facility for as long as she can remember. Sentenced at age 13 for allegedly murdering her abusive stepfather, she has become all too expert at navigating the tricky culture of Aurora Hills, knowing the people she can talk to, the places she can go, the questions she can ask of her fellow inmates, and the way she must behave to pass the time. The facility is rocked one night by a mysterious power outage, which harms the delicate balance Amber has been able to maintain and threatens her relationships. It also leads to her getting a new cellmateOriand the two lonely girls form an unlikely bond.
The Walls Around Us is part a story about living with loneliness, betrayal, and guilt. It's a story about the power of friendship and how even the strongest relationships can be shattered by lies. Nova Ren Suma's writing is absolutely beautiful, lyrical and almost poetic at times. You think you know what might happen but you're utterly unprepared for what does, particularly because the book has some supernatural, ghost story-esque elements as well. It's a tremendously interesting twist on a not-quite-typical story which has aspects of teenage angst as well.
I have never read anything that Nova Ren Suma has written before, but I was blown away by her storytelling ability. I'll admit the way the book concluded confused me a bit because I'm not 100 percent certain what happened with one character, but I still thought this was a tremendously unique and compelling book. I'll definitely need to check out some of her previous books.
Tuesday, March 17, 2015
"Children deserve care."
So is the motto of Bay Area pediatrician Bill Blair. When he finished serving in the Korean War, he left his Michigan home and decided to pursue a degree in pediatric medicine in San Francisco. While on a leisurely drive into the Portola Valley one day, he came upon three acres of wooded land which he was so taken by, he purchased it on a whim. Of course, he had no money to actually build on the land, so he just visited it from time to time.
When he meets shy Penny Greenway, he finds underneath her calm demeanor a reservoir of passion and yearning, and they plan a life together, one in which they will build a house on Bill's land and raise three children. And although the house works out as planned, they wind up having four children, which upsets Penny more than she's willing to let on, and ultimately, being a wife and mother isn't enough to satisfy her, and she seeks the opportunity to become an artist, without much worry about what that might do to her family.
Years later, Bill and Penny's children are grown, with the three oldest still living near their childhood home, while the youngest, James, the hyperactive "problem child," has never settled down. Yet James' return to his hometown unsettles the stable lives of his siblingsRobert, a doctor like their father; Rebecca, a psychiatrist; and Ryan, a schoolteacherand unearths old resentments among each of them, and raises questions about the state of their parents' relationship when they were growing up. James is still the one no one can contain or control, he is still the one easily dissatisfied and mercurial, yet he desperately wants to belong, whether among his siblings or in the community where he lives.
Ann Packer's The Children's Crusade is a tremendously well-written, intriguing, and emotional look at family dynamics, and how the decisions adults make while parenting have the potential to cause ripples in their children's lives for years to come. It's also a story of regrets, unfulfilled wishes, fears, things unsaid, and both the power and peril of memory.
"I remembered my memory of the moment, because after so long that's what memory is: the replaying of filmstrip that's slightly warped from having gone through the projector so many times. I'll never know what actually happened and what distortions I added."
The book shifts between present day, looking at each of the adult children, and key moments in their childhood and Bill and Penny's marriage. Packer does a great job developing her characters and drawing you into their lives. The majority of the characters aren't completely likeable, but you feel for them, and you want to know what happens to them even after the book has ended.
Packer's The Dive from Clausen's Pier remains a book that has stuck with me years after I read it, and I've always been a fan of her writing. While The Children's Crusade moves slower than that book, it's still a rich, complex story that I enjoyed tremendously.
Friday, March 13, 2015
Twelve-year-old Caitlin is growing up in Seattle, being raised by a single mother who works at a local container porta menial, laborious job that barely helps them make ends meet. Because her mother can't afford child care, and can't pick Caitlin up directly after school, Caitlin spends each afternoon at the aquarium, which is no punishment for her, since she loves fish more than anything.
"The only thing that kept me moving along that street each afternoon was the blue at the end, the sea visible because we were on a hill. That blue promised the aquarium. A gauntlet leading to a sanctuary. I could have stayed in an after-school program, but it was my choice to visit the fish. They were emissaries sent from a larger world. They were the same as possibility, a kind of promise."
Caitlin studies the fish each day, and reflects on their place in the world at large. One day, she meets an old man who seems as enamored of the fish as she is. He strikes up conversations with her and is amazed at her knowledge of these denizens of the deep. They begin to meet at the aquarium each afternoon. As Caitlin struggles with what is going on in her lifeher mother coming under scrutiny for bringing her to work at night when she does overtime, Caitlin's feelings for her best friend Shalinithe old man proves to be her salvation. Although Caitlin wants to keep him a secret from her mother because she is worried how she'll react, the man insists Caitlin introduce him to her mother.
But little does Caitlin know what fissures this man will open in her life, in her relationship with her mother, and her mother's psyche in general. For the first time in her life, Caitlin sees how brutal and painful life can be, how it can derail you from all you want and all you hope for. She finds herself living in fear of losing all that she loves, and all that she wants.
Aquarium is truly a sucker punch to the gut. It is vivid in its depiction of how hurtful and cruel a person who feels they are wronged can be, and how easily they can injure another person physically and emotionally. It's a book about how the sins of adults are often visited on their children, and how easy it can be to take your own frustration and sadness out on those who are more vulnerable. But as brutal as it is, there is still a glimmer of hope deep inside.
"The worst part of childhood is not knowing that bad things pass, that time passes. A terrible moment in childhood hovers with a kind of eternity, unbearable."
I found this book tremendously difficult to read and a bit disturbing. The transformation Caitlin's mother undergoes, while realistic, is so drastic and shocking it's nearly over-the-top, but you can understand how a woman so beat down by life could have so much anger inside her. But in trying to illustrate this point, I felt that Vann might have taken it a little too far, because it became difficult to sympathize with her, and those who watched her actions occur.
I'd never read anything Vann has written before, but I was truly amazed at the depth of his talent. And it is that talent, that storytelling ability, that kept me reading even as my heart hurt for Caitlin. This isn't necessarily a book you'll enjoy, but it is one which will leave your mind reeling.
Thursday, March 12, 2015
Many of the stories in this collection are about relationshipsbetween siblings (when one has technically sprung from the other's shadow); best friends (when one of them has a lifelike, life-size, animated doll that another covets); ex-lovers and former actors (one of whom is hosting a ghost hunting show); and total strangers (when one is a 15-year-old girl who pretended to be an adult while playing an online game, and goes to a hotel to meet her much older onscreen companion). But while the core themes of these stories are typical, the way Link lets the stories unfold is anything but.
So many story collections these days have what I call "nuggets": stories that seem to end before they really pick up momentum. The stories in Get in Trouble are substantive, and really wrap you up in a fully-fleshed narrative. (Longer stories are great as long as you like them.)
I really enjoyed eight of the nine stories in this collection, but some of my favorites included: "The Lesson," in which a gay couple attends an old friend's wedding on a remote island while they're awaiting the birth of their child via a surrogate they're not 100 percent sure about; "The Summer People," which tells the story of a teenage girl growing up in rural North Carolina, who is the caretaker of a house occupied by mysterious residents who make goodand badthings happen; "I Can See Right Through You," about when a pair of former ex-lovers and actors who are always tied to each other emotionally have a reunion in Florida, where one is hosting a ghost-hunting television show; "The New Boyfriend," about a group of best friends and one's life-size, likelike, doll "boyfriends"; and "Light," a unique story about a woman plagued by her twin brother, who actually sprung from her extra shadow.
I had never read anything Link has written before, but I am utterly enamored of her storytelling ability. Even though I do read some fantasy and science fiction books, I tend to be more of a traditionalist when it comes to short stories, but these really hooked me. They're unique and different and well-written and memorable, and they deserve to be read.
Tuesday, March 10, 2015
New York City wills and trusts lawyer Jeremy Best has nearly always taken the safe choices in his life, causing him more regrets than he'd like. He does have one interesting secret: he's also a poet of some promise, publishing under the pen name Jinx Bell. He certainly dreams of renown, but beyond having his poems published in a few literary journals, he keeps his talent hidden.
He is utterly unprepared for the arrival in his life of Spaulding Simonson, the 19-year-old troubled daughter of his boss. Although she refers to Jeremy at age 33 as "already halfway to dead," somehow she knows that Jeremy and Jinx Bell are one and the same. And she loves his poetry. Spaulding is unpredictable, emotional, even erratic at times, but fiercely intelligent and immensely talented.
Jeremy can make a long list of reasons why he shouldn't get involved with Spaulding, the least of which is he's on the partnership track at his law firm and he's just received news that shakes him to his core. But he can't seem to get her out of his system, and she is inexplicably drawn to him, particularly as he encourages her to live her own life and never give in.
Seth Greenland's I Regret Everything is a story of an unlikely couple, one who is trying to be less predictable and one who is trying to take control of her life for perhaps the first time. It's the story of letting your heart have power over your head, even though that's the last thing you're comfortable doing. It's also a story of wordplay, of poetry, of creativity. Because the book shifts in perspective between Jeremy and Spaulding, the tone shifts with their personalities, which is unsettling for a brief second, but wonderful once it kicks in.
I absolutely loved this book. It threw me for a loop a few times (in a good way), and I wondered just where Greenland would take the plot, but Jeremy and Spaulding are such unique characters that drew me in instantaneously. Greenland is such an excellent writer, and his narrative occasionally has a near-poetic quality. I couldn't sleep last night, so I devoured this book in practically one sitting, and as much as I loved it, I'm disappointed it's done. Bravo.
Monday, March 9, 2015
While I know most authors dream of achieving astronomical success with their first book, I'd imagine that's a lot of pressure, since everyone's expectations regarding your subsequent books are unfairly ratcheted up, and many will expect you to write similar books over and over again. And reading through some of the reviews I've seen of Sara Gruen's At the Water's Edge, it definitely seems as though many of her fans were expecting a redux of Water for Elephants. (There are some similarities beyond the word "water" in both of their titles, but they are different books.)
It's 1944, deep in the thick of World War II, amidst Philadelphia's high society. Maddie Hyde, her husband Ellis, and his best friend Hank have always been a bit of a trio, despite everyone's hope that one day Hank will settle down with the right woman. Both Ellis and Hank are unable to serve in the war, which causes them no end of disapproval from others, and leads the three to act perhaps a bit more recklessly than they otherwise might, which serves to further alienate Maddie from her wealthy inlaws. But when the trio's scandalous behavior at a fancy New Year's Eve party causes quite an uproar, the resulting arguments lead Ellis' father to throw the couple out of the family home and cut off Ellis' allowance.
With seemingly no other option, Hank convinces Ellis they should head to Scotland to try and find photographic proof of the famed Loch Ness Monster, a quest that Ellis' father once went on, and it led to his public ridicule. The two drag Maddie along, and they soon find themselves (after a treacherous journey across the Atlantic) at an inn in a small Scottish town, in the midst of austerity of the war. When Ellis and Hank leave Maddie alone at the inn to fend for herself as they try and track down the creature, she finds herself questioning the people and the lifestyle that she once knew, and tries to decide in what direction her life should go.
I'll admit I was particularly enamored of Water for Elephants, but I didn't let that color my expectations toward this book. I thought that here Gruen told an interesting story, despite the fact that I found the three main characters generally flighty and unlikable. (The supporting characters, on the other hand, were more colorful and compelling.) Where Gruen excels is her ability to evoke a sense of place and time, and her description of the Scottish highlands was quite vivid. But in the end, although well-told, this book was a little too melodramatic for my liking, but I don't know whether that will disappoint her fans or those who enjoy a dollop of historical romance.
Saturday, March 7, 2015
"Something inside me is wrong. Sure, there are things in my life that make me feel alone, but nothing makes me feel more isolated and terrified than my own voice in my head."
Aysel spends a lot of time on Smooth Passages, a website for people who want to die. In a section of the site called "Suicide Partners," which is dedicated to people looking for others to make their final plans with. It is in this section that Aysel meets Roman, a 17-year-old who lives in the next town over. He, too, wants desperately to die, wants to do it with someone who lives within an hour of him, and he wants to die on April 7. That's non-negotiable.
As Aysel gets to know Roman, and gets drawn into his life, she realizes the depth of his sadness, but she is uncomfortable sharing her reasons for wanting to die, for fear she may alienate him. As the days draw closer to April 7, she starts to wonder if death is really the answer for the two of them, or if she's better off finding them reasons to live. But Roman isn't interested in changing his plans, no matter how Aysel makes him feel.
"I once read in my physics book that the universe begs to be observed, that energy travels and transfers when people pay attention. Maybe that's what love really boils down tohaving someone who cares enough to pay attention so that you're encouraged to travel and transfer, to make your potential energy spark into kinetic energy."
My Heart and Other Black Holes made me sad, and it gave me hope. It painted a tremendously accurate, effective, and emotional picture of teens dealing with depression and despair, and how the need to escape those feelings becomes greater than anything else, even connections with others. Jasmine Warga created memorable characters you truly feel for, and I've been thinking about them even after finishing the book.
This book will generate comparisons with Jennifer Niven's amazing All the Bright Places, and while the two share a general theme, they're very different books. This book is a little more straightforward; I felt as if Roman and Aysel talked more like teenagers and dealt with more teenage-like problems that Violet and Finch did in Niven's book, but I felt as if the plot in this book was a little more predictable. This book is no pale imitation of Niven's, however; it is tremendously well-written and affecting, and it deserves to be read on its own merits.
In the end, it's important to realize that even if your problems seem insurmountable, there is always a solution other than suicide. Anyone dealing with those feelings needs to get help, needs to let someone else in, even if the thought is overwhelming. Give someone else the chance to listen to you, to hear you, to help you.
Thursday, March 5, 2015
Book Review: "The Job Pirate: An Entertaining Tale of My Job-hopping Journey in America" by Brandon Christopher
So begins Brandon Christopher's chronicle of the 81(!) jobs he held since graduating from high schoolsome lasted a few minutes, some a few hours, some a few days, some even a few months. While some of the jobs he had were exciting in their own right, some strictly called for menial labor, some required dealing with customers and even cash registers, and some were just downright gross.
Many of us have started jobs only to realize they're utterly and completely wrong for us, or the boss is a total douchebag, or what is required is far more taxing (physically or emotionally) than we imagined, and we've dreamed of just walking off the job in a blaze of glory, telling the boss what they can do with the job, or even, in the most passive-aggressive fashion ever, simply not returning the next day or after a lunch break. But many of us don't do that. However, Brandon Christopher didmore than once, sometimes in spectacular fashion.
From his experience as a not-entirely-skilled limousine driver hired to drive Wu-Tang Clan, to finding himself in the middle of a tug-of-war between coworkers (and a little sexual harassment) while working as a proofreader and writer for a series of gay porn magazines, from the physically and emotionally harrowing experiences as a mortuary driver and a member of a moving crew, to the disgusting (not to mention ethically challenging) work as a plumber's assistant, The Job Pirate is at times hysterically funny, and at times moving, as Christopher struggles with whether this path he has found himself on is the right one for his future.
I enjoyed this book and at times, certainly found myself nodding along with some of his observations (not to mention muffling my laughter so I didn't laugh out loud on the train). It is a little scattered, in that he jumps through different periods of time, so I found myself needing to re-acclimate myself occasionally to which jobs he had before the one he was discussing. And at times, he shifts away from his job anecdotes to share other reflections and incidents (including a BB gun battle he had with a friend, or an attempt to find a willing participant for a threesome with him and his coworker), and those aren't as interesting as his experiences working.
The Job Pirate is at times a cautionary tale not to do the things Christopher has done, but it's fun to read about someone doing some of the things at jobs you might have thought of once or twice (or maybe more). Lots of fun.
Tuesday, March 3, 2015
Driving through a neighborhood, looking at the houses you pass by, do you ever stop and wonder about the lives of those who live there? Looking from the outside in, we never know about the problems people face, whether their lives are mundane or full of excitement and tension, what their desires and regrets are, and what drives them forward.
Lauren Acampora's intriguing, well-written collection of linked stories, The Wonder Garden, strives to give us insight into the lives of strangers, as she focuses on the residents of Old Cranbury, a well-heeled suburb not far from Manhattan. From John, the home inspector whose intense attention to detail in his professional life hasn't seemed to translate into his personal life; to Madeleine, whose life is upended when her husband leaves his corporate advertising job to pursue a career as a healer; from Harold, whose fascination with the brain veers into bizarre territory after he forms an alliance of sorts with a surgeon; to Camille, whose frustration with motherhood and life after divorce fuels her desire for a life elsewhere, these stories chronicle hope and disillusionment, happiness and hurt, desires realized and desires thwarted.
Acampora does an excellent job creating a sense of a community, and although it's difficult at first to remember which characters were which as they showed up in future stories, once I did, I enjoyed catching another glimpse of them through the lens of another character or situation. Some of the characters are tremendously flawed, some of them are simply caught up in an unexpected or strange situation, and some are just trying to go about their daily lives.
Among my favorite stories in the collection were: "Ground Fault," which followed a home inspector whose personal life is more in disarray than his professional one, but some spillage is inevitable; "Floortime," about a woman struggling to reach her autistic son and willing to consider any means to do so; "Elevations," about a couple struggling with the separate needs of each person; "The Umbrella Bird," which chronicles a woman who must reconcile a drastic change in her husband; and "Moon Roof," in which a woman's inability to move into traffic underscores issues in the rest of her life.
I really enjoyed this collection and think Acampora is a terrific writer. A few of the stories didn't work for me, either because I found the main character so unlikeable or because I found the premise of the story less interesting, but on the whole this is a really strong collection, and definitely signals the arrival of a fantastic new talent.