Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Book Review: "Do You Realize?" by Kevin Kuhn

George just needs a break. He hates his middle-management job, his teenage kids are a hassle, and he feels as if he and his wife just aren't connecting anymore. Why can't he return to the less-complicated days, when he and his wife were in the flush of love, and his whole life seemed ripe with promise?

One day, on his train ride to work (the timing of which he has down to the second), the seat next to him is taken by a sloppy, jovial, headphones-wearing, bearded guy named Shiloh. But rather than exchange small talk, Shiloh asks George an interesting question—"What is love?" What ensues is a fairly philosophical and scientific conversation, far more intriguing than a typical conversation you'd have on the train.

As strange as the conversation was, George hopes he sees Shiloh again. When he does, another philosophical and scientific conversation ensues, which leaves him wondering just what Shiloh is trying to tell him. And then one day, Shiloh asks him for a favor: would George be willing to beta-test an app he has developed for the soon-to-be-released Apple Watch? At first, George wonders whether this request is some sort of scam, but when Shiloh gives him the watch, he figures, what can he lose?

When George's family experiences a traumatic event, he discovers that Shiloh's app is actually a time-adjustment app, which allows George to travel back in time. But there are restrictions on this travel—he can't go back further than 25 years, and he can't do this more than 10 times in total—and he also learns that he's traveling to alternate versions of the past, so any changes he tries to make may have a ripple effect down the road, but it might not change what actually happened.

Shiloh and George's friendship deepens, and he tries to get George to realize how important it is not to take life for granted. And as his family is further tested, George must make a decision about whether the past is worth changing, or if life is worth living no matter what happens.

Do You Realize? was tremendously thought-provoking and intriguing. How many of us have wished we could have done one thing differently in our past, wondered about the ripple effect of one event or one action? George is definitely an everyman-type character; the challenges and frustrations he has are felt by so many on a daily basis. But as always, it is how we respond to adversity that characterizes us.

With great power comes great responsibility, and with Shiloh's app, he suddenly has the power to change things. But how do you know what to change? Do you risk altering the course of a tragedy at the risk of something else occurring? Do we focus too strongly on one crisis at the expense of allowing another to happen? These are the intriguing questions Kevin Kuhn raises in this book.

I found this story to be very engaging and compelling, and Kuhn did a great job getting me hooked almost instantaneously. He definitely tells a really enjoyable story. My one criticism of the book—and it's a minor one—is it's a little more science-y than I could handle, and Shiloh's explanations and diatribes tended to run a little long for me. It was a little more telling than showing, but it didn't affect my overall enjoyment of the book.

This type of book may not appeal to everyone, but don't be put off by the time-adjustment element. While it does add another dimension to the story, at the same time, the core of the book is more about dealing with the challenges that life throws at us, and how we need to pay attention to what's in front of us.

The author and Beaver's Pond Press provided me a complimentary copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

Friday, November 17, 2017

Book Review: "The Wife Between Us" by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen

"In my marriage, there were three truths, three alternate and sometimes compelling realities. There was Richard's truth. There was my truth. And there was the actual truth, which is always the most elusive to recognize. This could be the case in every relationship that we think we've entered into a union with another person when, in fact, we've formed a triangle with one point anchored by a silent but all-seeing judge, the arbiter of reality."

Vanessa's marriage is over. She once had a handsome, rich, powerful husband, and they lived a life of luxury. But they drifted apart, and her husband found another woman. Now she lives with her aunt, wears out-of-date clothing, and is a shell of herself, working a job she hates just to make ends meet.

Nellie is a bubbly, young, beautiful preschool teacher. She's finally met her Prince Charming, the man who will rescue her from her messy shared apartment, her nights spent as a cocktail waitress (even though she enjoys them), and takeout meals before hanging out with her friends at various bars and clubs. She also has secrets of her own, and things that cause her to be afraid, and she hopes her fiancé will save her from those, too.

If you think The Wife Between Us is a story about a jilted wife jealous of her husband's new fiancée, you're not quite right. This is a story about how things are seldom as simple as they seem, and how appearances can be deceiving. It's also a story about trust, fear, truth, manipulation, and finding your own way.

Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen throw a lot of twists into this book, which is why my description is fairly spartan, because I don't want to spoil anything for you. Every time you think you have things figured out, they swerve again, so you definitely want to keep reading, to see where it all winds up.

There are a lot of thrillers out there these days, and many of them deal with relationships that don't go as planned, and the aftermath of breakups, as well as the manipulation that often occurs within a relationship. While the twists definitely jolted the plot a bit, overall I felt a lot of the plotlines were very familiar. At times, I found myself growing a little impatient with the pace of the story, because I wanted to see where Hendricks and Pekkanen would go next, and wanted to move past some of the more commonplace incidents.

Is this a compelling thriller? It definitely has its moments, and many of my Goodreads friends have raved about this, so maybe I've just read too many books in this genre this year. It did keep me guessing, though, and sometimes I was right, and sometimes I was wrong. This will probably be one of the beach reads of 2018, so don't let me dissuade you from picking it up.

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

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Book Review: "Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance" by Ruth Emmie Lang

One of the factors that helps transform a very good novel into a great one is memorable characters. And while I've read a lot of books this year and over the last several years that featured characters I couldn't quite get out of my mind, it's rare to find a character as special, as incredible as Weylyn Grey, the main character in Ruth Emmie Lang's terrific Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance.

"Weylyn doesn't quite fit into the world we're familiar with," Daddy said, choosing his words carefully. "He's a strange boy, but in a wonderful sort of way."

Orphaned at a young age, Weylyn was raised by wolves—literally, he lived with a pack of wolves—and is more comfortable being with animals and living outdoors than following traditional social constraints. But that doesn't mean he doesn't get lonely, and when he meets 11-year-old Mary Penlore in the woods, and he saves her from being attacked by one of his wolves, Mary realizes that Weylyn is unlike anyone else she has ever met, and even then she realizes she needs him in her life, and in fact, is willing to run away from home and live among the wolves with him.

The thing is, when Weylyn is around, interesting things happen. The weather seems to change dramatically, he can literally communicate with animals of all types, and he seems to be able to stop tornadoes and storms from happening. But at times, it also appears he might cause those things to happen. He can't explain it, and no one around him can either (if they actually believe what they see), but his biggest fear is somehow he'll cause harm to someone he cares about, so he's more willing to go it alone than hurt someone.

"I've been called magic, but I wouldn't use that term exactly. I like to think of myself as always being in the right place at the right time, or the wrong place at the wrong time. Very rarely am I simply in an acceptable place at a generally convenient time."

Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance follows Weylyn through his life, as he makes his way across the country. It's a story told by those who got to know him, even for a short while, and feel the amazing impact he had on their lives. A family challenged by the decision to take young Weylyn in as a foster child, a teacher struggling with her own childlessness, a young mayor tired of living his life in his father's shadow, even a young boy who wants to believe magic is real—these are the people whose lives Weylyn touches. And as a touch point is Mary, whose life always bears the indelible impact of knowing him.

This is one of those special books that requires you to suspend your disbelief, or simply believe that there are things in life that may seem impossible to grasp, but you just need to accept them. If magic, and communicating with animals, and causing strange phenomena to occur doesn't appeal to you, you'll probably not enjoy this book. But if you do, and you can just let yourself take a leap along with the characters, this is a story you'll marvel over.

I was absolutely charmed by this book from start to finish. I loved nearly all of the characters and I loved Weylyn's relationships with the many people he met. One character remarked that Weylyn might be "too good for this world," but fortunately the world isn't quite as cruel to him as I feared it might be. I also worried that Lang might take the plot into melodramatic territory, and I was so pleased she steered clear of that.

Lang is a fantastic storyteller, and her imagery and dialogue are so skilled, it's so hard to believe this is her debut novel. Books like this don't come along too often, so this is a special one to savor. I can't wait to see what Lang has up her sleeve in the future.

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

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Book Review: "Autoboyography" by Christina Lauren

Yes, Leo, me, too. All the feels.

I couldn't love Christina Lauren's Autoboyography any more if I tried. As I've said so many times, I am so happy that young adult books like this exist and are readily available in today's world, to help this generation realize that whatever their problem is, they will be able to overcome it, and thrive. But at the same time, I can't help but be perhaps a tad bitter that not one book like this existed when I was growing up, because I sure could've used some encouragement through the struggles, even if it was only fictional!

Tanner's family moved to Provo, Utah when he was 15 years old. It's a tough time to relocate your life from a liberal city like Palo Alto, especially if you're a bisexual teenager moving to a predominantly Mormon town—when your family isn't Mormon. Tanner's parents encourage him to keep his sexuality under wraps until he graduates and leaves Provo, not because they're embarrassed or they disapprove, but they don't want him to have to deal with the scrutiny and criticism of the Mormons in the community.

With one more semester left in high school, Tanner's best friend Autumn encourages him to enroll in "The Seminar," an exclusive high school class in which every student will write an entire book by the end of the semester. Even though Tanner can be kind of lazy when it comes to meeting deadlines, he figures, how hard could it be?

"'Come on. I moved here when I was fifteen—which I think we can agree is the worst time to move from Palo Alto, California to Provo, Utah—with a mouth full of metal and no friends. I have stories.' Not to mention I'm a half-Jewish queer kid in a straight and Mormon town. I don't say that last part, not even to Autumn."

When "The Seminar" begins, it upends Tanner in a way he never expected. The prodigal student from last year's class, Sebastian Brother, whose novel was so good the teacher sent it to publishers and the book is about to be released to great fanfare, is helping mentor this year's students. From the minute Tanner sees Sebastian, he is utterly rocked by his attraction to him, and it's not long before Tanner has fallen head over heels in love with him. But given that Sebastian is the son of an LDS bishop, and a model student, there's no way he reciprocates Tanner's feelings, right?

"I can't read him. I can't grasp him. I have no idea what he's thinking and if he's messing with me or if he really is this good, but never before have I wanted so fiercely to lean forward and put my mouth on someone's neck, begging them to want me."

The harder he falls for Sebastian, the more Tanner's life is disrupted. He's never even come out to Autumn, and their relationship is kind of complicated, so he can't share his feelings with her. His parents want him to be happy, but they're very wary of him getting involved with anyone affiliated with the Church, since they know it won't—it can't—end well. He should just stop obsessing over Sebastian, ask one of his female friends to the prom, and hold off just a little longer.

One problem: "His smile ruins me. The feeling makes me uneasy, a dramatic lurch that tells me I need to have him or I won't be okay."

This book works for me on so many levels. The characters are tremendously well-developed and they're not 100 percent sympathetic; they're each selfish in their own ways. While the story's trajectory is, in a lot of ways, unsurprising, I was so happy that the plot didn't blunder into some of the stereotypical pitfalls I expected given the subject matter.

I also was pleased that the book wasn't too heavy-handed in how it addressed Mormons' views on homosexuality—while it was accurate in general, it didn't make every Mormon out to be a villain, although it did question how parents could put religion over their children's happiness.

Unsurprisingly, Autoboyography gave me all the feels, and I finished the entire book in one day. As I sit and write this review just a few hours after a majority of Australian citizens voted in favor of marriage equality, I am encouraged that one day books like this will become the exception and not the rule, because people will accept everyone's sexuality as just another element of their identity, like eye color or height.

For now, though, it's great that books like this exist, because everyone needs to understand that love is love, and everyone deserves to love whomever they choose.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Book Review: "Roll the Dice" by Wayne Avrashow

It's hard to live in the Washington, DC area for as long as I have without becoming at least a little bit of a political junkie. And while our current political climate has me interchangeably ranting, raving, and lamenting, I'm still fascinated by (most) political figures, how parties pick their candidates, and the march toward the election. (Especially the good old days, when we didn't have to think about Russian collusion, cough, cough.)

That's why I jumped at the chance to read Wayne Avrashow's first novel, Roll the Dice. Avrashow, an attorney, is a former campaign manager in Los Angeles politics and was a government commissioner, so he knows of what he speaks. (Although I don't really want to know how much of the inspiration for this book came from real-life events, lol!)

Tyler Sloan is one of the country's biggest rock stars. He's won Grammys, filled stadiums, even been nominated for an Oscar. He has fans all over the world, and he's had more than his share of beautiful women over the years. Politics is in his blood—his father, a former governor, narrowly lost the Democratic nomination for president. But it's still a surprise to nearly everyone when he decides to run as an independent candidate for an open U.S. Senate seat in his home state of Nevada.

Can a celebrity with no political experience be taken seriously as a political candidate? Should they? (No comment.) Sloan's Democratic and Republican challengers quickly dismiss him as a neophyte, a lightweight. They hint about scandals in Sloan's past—sex, drugs, even blasphemy—each of which calls his character into question. But Sloan didn't just wake up suddenly and decide to get into politics. He's given a great deal of thought to his positions (and in fact wants to share his views on every issue far more than his campaign staff wants him to), and he has answers to every accusation that his opponents can throw at him.

Sloan quickly realizes, however, that his celebrity has its limits. Every single event from his past, everything he said and did, even the lyrics of his songs are analyzed ad infinitum by political commentators, reporters looking for a fresh story, and his opponents. He wants to campaign on the issues, but he quickly learns the way the political system works. He doesn't want to stoop to pettiness, but it seems as if every time he turns around he has to justify something from his past, or try to prove to a skeptic that he's more than just a celebrity seeking an ego boost.

His campaign is an uphill battle, and he doesn't have much time. He'll need to deal with scandals among his staff and questions about difficult times in his past, and he'll need to weather his often-strained relationship with his father, whose support he'll need. Will he be able to prove his worth as a potential senator, or will he become a gimmick, a cocktail party trick? Will he be able to handle what comes his way, or will he ultimately fold under the pressure? And is there a secret in his past that will keep him from a possible victory?

Although it may be a little predictable at times, Roll the Dice is a tremendously compelling read. While its examination of the politics of celebrity may perhaps hit a little too close to home given our current environment, Sloan definitely seems to be a candidate who has more to offer than charm, fame, and sex appeal. I definitely couldn't stop reading this, because I wanted to see what obstacles Avrashow would throw in Sloan's way, and just how he would tie everything up.

I feel like this book would make an interesting movie or television mini-series—it just has the right amount of intrigue and drama, as well as emotion and personal interaction, plus the fascinating madness of politics. Avrashow definitely knows his way around a campaign and it shows, and truth be told, this would have been a pretty intriguing election to watch!!

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

Friday, November 10, 2017

Book Review: "Sadness is a White Bird" by Moriel Rothman-Zecher

Oh, wow, this book was so gorgeous and moving and amazing! (Sorry I'm not more enthusiastic about it.)

Jonathan has just turned 19 and is serving in the Israeli army, a responsibility he has taken very seriously. Yet when Sadness is a White Bird begins, Jonathan is in a military prison, telling his story as a letter of sorts to one of his best friends. But how did someone so eager to serve his country wind up in prison, doubting whether military action against the Arabs is the right thing to do?

Although he was born in Israel, Jonathan and his family lived in Pennsylvania for a number of years before he persuaded them to return to their homeland so he could serve in the army, as required of all Israeli citizens. Jonathan's grandfather, who was from the Greek city of Salonica (also known as Thessaloniki), saw his entire community wiped out by the Holocaust, and through his sorrow, played a role in the establishment of the Jewish state of Israel in 1948, so Jonathan sees military service as a family inheritance.

When he meets brother and sister Laith and Nimreen, twin children of one of his mother's Palestinian friends, the three become immediately inseparable. Through their weekly adventures, they talk, share poems (and joints), and Jonathan begins to see what life in Israel is like for Arabs. While his first reaction is to defend his country's efforts to protect itself from militant Arabs, Nimreen and Laith try to explain Palestinians' allegiance to the same country, yet view their treatment by Israelis as persecution not protection. It's not long before Jonathan wonders if he really believes in the country he will be defending, whether it is possible to love your country yet question its motives at the same time.

The story weaves back and forth between Jonathan's time with Nimreen and Laith and the growing love he has for both of him, and his time in the military, leading up to the actions which land him in prison. Nimreen and Laith don't understand why Jonathan is still so adamant about serving in the military when he has begun to see that blind allegiance is not the only path, and it strains their relationship. Jonathan is torn between pride in his country and the comradeship he finds in the army, and knowing one day he may come in direct conflict with people dear to Laith and Nimreen.

This is an absolutely beautiful and poignant book, in part a coming-of-age novel, in part a story of self-discovery, as well as a story about how our idealism and naivete change as we grow older. This is a story about longing and belonging, about how sometimes there is a gap between what is expected and what is right. Moriel Rothman-Zecher does such a wonderful job taking you along Jonathan's path of self-discovery, feeling the things he feels, and he keeps you in suspense as to why he is in prison, and whether the letter he is writing will ever reach its intended audience.

I absolutely loved this book and found it very surprising at times. The characters are so memorable, and Rothman-Zecher's storytelling is so lyrical and beautiful. It will be some time before I get this one out of my head, not that I want to.

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

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Book Review: "The Chalk Man" by C.J. Tudor

Sometimes you see a bunch of your Goodreads friends raving about a book, and you hope that you'll find it just as good as they did. In the case of C.J. Tudor's terrific debut thriller, The Chalk Man, that definitely was the case for me.

"Personally, I have found that it is much better to take your fears, lock them up in a nice, tightly shut box and shove them into the deepest, darkest corner of your mind."

In the summer of 1986, Eddie and his four best friends—Hoppo, Fat Gav, Metal Mickey, and Nicky (even though she was a girl)—were on the cusp of adolescence. They bike around, commit mischief, tease each other, and try to avoid Mickey's older brother and his bullying friends. It seems like a magical summer—they even leave coded messages in chalk for each other to spell out their plans or their whereabouts.

But the idyllic time seems to be ending, as the adults around them wind up in the midst of some trouble, and tragedies strike close to home. Then one day, a strange chalk man leads them to a dismembered body in the woods. Nothing is ever the same again.

Thirty years later, Ed is still living in his childhood home. He'd like to think that he's put the events of that summer behind him, but the fact is, he's never been able to settle down into a relationship, he still spends time with Gav and Hoppo, and he teaches at his old school. When he gets an anonymous letter with a chalk man in it, it dredges up those memories, as does the return of an old friend who had seemingly gone away. And when he finds out that all of his friends received a similar letter, he realizes that perhaps not everything was tied up as neatly as they thought all those years ago.

Are there real answers to be found, and if so, what good would it do to find them? Will solving the mystery put everyone's demons to rest and allow them to get on with their lives, or will it put them in danger? Can we ever recapture our childhood innocence after it has been shattered?

The Chalk Man hooked me from the very first page and didn't let go. It evoked a little bit of the nostalgic feelings of Stand By Me, with a little more mystery and violence, and a lot of heart. There's a lot going on in this book, lots of twists and turns to keep you guessing and lots of interesting characters to fascinate and (perhaps) distract you. Tudor is a terrific storyteller, and it's so hard to believe this is her debut novel, because the writing is so self-assured.

Like with any thriller, I always suspect everyone, and while I was a little surprised at certain twists, and I didn't love every choice Tudor made, I thought this was a great read, one that made me wish I had just a few minutes more to linger over the book every time I picked it up. Believe me, this is one you'll want to read before everyone else starts talking about it.

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

Monday, November 6, 2017

Book Review: "Robicheaux" by James Lee Burke

I've said it before and I'll say it again: James Lee Burke is one of the finest fiction and mystery writers of our time. Ever since I read my first Burke novel in the late 1980s, I have been an enormous fan, and he continues to leave me in awe with his ability to create some of the most vivid, memorable characters I've ever read about (every time one of them appears in his books, I can immediately recall details about each), along with tremendously evocative, almost poetic imagery.

He is one of my favorite authors of all time, and having met him at a book signing, he's a warm, gracious, and friendly guy, too. Simply put, I'm a fan.

My favorite of Burke's characters is Dave Robicheaux, the Louisiana police detective. He is fiercely loyal, sensitive, and immensely flawed, which makes him one of the most fascinating (and at times depressing) characters to read about. In Robicheaux, Burke's 21st novel featuring his most popular character, Dave is struggling with the death of his wife Molly in a car accident. Her sudden loss has ratcheted up his alcoholic cravings, his nightmares of his time in Vietnam, and his visions of Confederate soldiers.

"Why should an old man thrice widowed dwell on things that are not demonstrable and have nothing to do with a reasonable view of the world? Because only yesterday, on a broken sidewalk in a shabby neighborhood at the bottom of St. Claude Avenue, in the Lower Ninth Ward of St. Bernard Parish, under a colonnade that was still twisted out of shape by Katrina, across from a liquor store with barred windows that stood under a live oak probably two hundred years old, I saw a platoon of Confederate infantry march out of a field to the tune of 'Darling Nelly Gray' and disappear through the wall of a gutted building and not exit on the other side."

When the crushing sadness wrecks his prized sobriety, suddenly Dave becomes more of a danger to himself and others, as his anger at his wife's death threatens to overwhelm him. Then, in the midst of a murder investigation, he discovers that he may have been the one who killed the victim, the man who was responsible for Molly's death. As his boss and former partner, Sheriff Helen Soileau, fights to figure out whether to pity Dave or fire him, Dave and his best friend, the irascible Clete Purcel, try to figure out Dave's whereabouts during the murder, and whether his melancholy was strong enough to turn to violence.

As with any Robicheaux novel, Dave and Clete find themselves entangled in a web of unsavory characters, each one with a grudge against Dave and/or Clete, and each one burdened with their own baggage. From Mafia enforcer and aspiring film producer Fat Tony Nemo and his enforcers, novelist Levon Broussard and his troubled wife Rowena, to the enigmatic and possibly dangerous local boy-made-good (or did he) Jimmy Nightingale, who aspires to political power, Dave and Clete need to figure out just exactly how far each is willing to defend themselves from those who appear to be encroaching on what they believe to be theirs. Throw in a dangerous contract killer and a police detective with his own issues, and you have a mess of epic proportions, which the infamous "Bobbsey Twins from Homicide" will be lucky to survive.

Burke does an excellent job of depicting characters whose good qualities are often outweighed by their flaws, but he doesn't immediately condemn everyone. Dave struggles with questions of morality, mortality, and loyalty, and while he is sworn to uphold the law, if those he cares about are harmed, he isn't above enacting his own code of justice. While it seems as if everyone out there has an axe to grind with Dave and Clete, issues which often get visited upon those the two care about, their first thoughts are always protecting those they love and the city they care about.

"Like most of us who subscribe to the egalitarian traditions of Jefferson and Lincoln, I did not want to believe that a basically likable man could, with indifference and without provocation, commit deeds that were not only wicked but destroyed the lives of defenseless people."

While I've enjoyed nearly everything that Burke has written, I love his books featuring Dave Robicheaux the most. These characters have come to feel like family through the years, and reading about them again and again is so pleasurable. And not a book goes by without Burke's imagery taking my breath away. When I first visited New Orleans years after I started reading his books, it felt so real, so accurate to the portraits he has painted through the years.

Robicheaux isn't a quick-moving caper packed with action and thrills. While there is some terrific suspense and a little bit of gruesome violence, this is a book that makes you think and makes you feel rather than raises your pulse. None of Burke's characters are perfect, but they are so complex, so thought-provoking, it doesn't matter that you may be troubled by some of their actions.

Once again, it is an immense pleasure to read a book by James Lee Burke. While at times he switches between the different series he has created, I hope another Robicheaux book is imminent, but I'll be happy to read whatever the master delivers next.

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

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Book Review: "The Ghost Notebooks" by Ben Dolnick

Nick and Hannah's relationship is in a bit of a tumultuous phase—she recently lost her job, they've both been reluctant to talk about getting married even though that is the next logical step in their relationship, and there's tension all over the place—when Hannah admits that she has applied for a job as the director of the Wright Historic House, a museum devoted to an obscure 19th century writer and philosopher in a tiny upstate New York town.

The time between her first phone interview and the job offer seems to fly, and while leaving New York City for a small town isn't quite what Nick had in mind, he's realized he doesn't want to lose Hannah. And for a while everything seems charming—they speak to each other in Masterpiece Theater-like accents, enjoy visiting the town's one grocery store, and can finally listen to the sounds of nature outside their home as opposed to the hustle and bustle of the city. But then the reality of running a museum that very few visitors come to, and dealing with the machinations of a volunteer related to the person whose life the museum commemorates becomes more of a chore than a pleasure.

One night Hannah wakes Nick claiming to hear voices talking, but Nick hears nothing. There have been rumors through the years that the Wright House is visited by ghosts, and a woman whose family lived in the house before it became a museum once disappeared under mysterious circumstances. The stress of being convinced she is seeing and hearing things starts to take its toll on Hannah's already-fragile psyche and her relationship with Nick, which is already straining under the stress of trying to settle on wedding arrangements.

Nick awakens one morning to find Hannah gone. As he tries to figure out what happened to her, he starts to realize she was more emotionally fragile than even he realized, and he is determined to understand whether the house really is possessed by spirits which haunted Hannah, or whether it was her own mind playing tricks on her. His quest forces him to confront concepts of ghosts and the legacy of a troubled writer, and compels him in directions he'd never imagined before.

I honestly wasn't too sure what to make of The Ghost Notebooks. It's certainly an interesting exploration of how a relationship fares under intense pressure, emotional and otherwise, and it's also a look at how grief and extreme emotional stress can cause you to act in very bizarre ways. But I don't know what Ben Dolnick was really trying to say about the situation his characters found themselves in, and whether there really was something supernatural going on, or whether it was some sort of self-fulfilling prophecy.

I've read all of Dolnick's other books—Zoology, You Know Who You Are and At the Bottom of Everything—and I really enjoy the way he writes, and the complexity he brings to his characters. I felt that on the whole, the story flowed well, but it went a little off the rails after a while, and I don't know if that was intentional or not. In the end, while there were some poignant parts of the story, it didn't resonate for me as I'd hoped it would. But if anyone else reads this and has a different take, I'd love to hear it!

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

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Book Review: "The End We Start From" by Megan Hunter

Sometime in the future, London is submerged beneath floodwaters, and people fear the end of the world is drawing near. As the floods approach a woman gives birth to a baby boy, Z. Within a few days, she and her husband R must flee their home and search for a safer place.

Each day they worry about whether the floods will find them. When they take refuge with R's parents, they discover that the fear is never far away from them. And while the woman is worried about what is happening in the world around her, and how R is reacting to it all, she spends so much of each day simply marveling at her baby and how he is growing, flourishing even as the future is uncertain. She is overwhelmed by her maternal feelings, by the miracle she and R created.

As the trio moves to a camp where other displaced people are living, the claustrophobia, the uncertainty, the panic becomes too much for R to bear. He leaves his wife and baby, ostensibly to see what other options are out there, but both know what this departure could signify.

"He says it will only be for a week or so. To get a break. To look into other options. He says we should stay, that it is safer. The relief is hanging from him, a loose shirt. I look at the car before I lose it. I try to take in all of its details. Before he leaves, I put his full hand over my face, like a mask. I do this even though there is no point. Even though smells can't be held."

As circumstances force her to move again, she begins making friends with others in similar situations. But she longs for her husband, reflects on their love, and tries not to stagger under her feelings of love and responsibility for her son. She cannot stop living even though she misses her husband, because she must live for her son. She must show him love, experience his moments of joy and sadness, and watch him grow.

I never would have imagined a book so sparsely written could be so lyrical, but The End We Start From feels almost poetic at times. Megan Hunter chose her words so carefully, it was as if she wanted to be sure no excess words distracted from the beauty of her writing.

"Our city is here, somewhere, but we are not. We are all untied, is the thing. Untethered, floating, drifting, all these things. And the end, the tether, the re-leash, is not in sight."

As much as Hunter's prose is breathtaking, the story itself could use a little more meat. Maybe it was her intent for her readers to fill in the blanks she left in the story, but I would have preferred a bit more narrative. I also found the gimmick of referring to every character with their first initial (the protagonist only interacted with one person per letter, it appeared) to be a little twee. I'm never a fan of books that refer to people or places that way.

This was a moving, thought-provoking read, one that I completed in one sitting. (I took a bit longer for lunch because I had to finish this book.) I liked it a good deal but didn't love it as I'd hoped—it's not perfect, and Hunter's storytelling choices may rub some the wrong way. To me, however, The End We Start From signifies the birth of a new literary talent. Megan Hunter is definitely one to watch, because if this is her first novel, I can only imagine what comes next.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Book Review: "Two Girls Down" by Louisa Luna

I love when a book you stumble upon by an author you're not familiar with turns out to be a terrific read. Such was the case with Louisa Luna's Two Girls Down. It's a well-written, suspenseful whodunnit with some pretty fascinating characters.

A single mother, sometimes Jamie Brandt just needs a break from her two daughters, 10-year-old Kylie and 8-year-old Bailey. They're always wanting something, needing something, and she's just tired. What she wouldn't give for a few minutes of peace.

On the way to a birthday party, Jamie and the girls stop at a strip mall so Jamie can pick up a gift. She's just going to be five minutes, and she knows letting the girls come into the store will only lead to fighting, whining, and chaos, so she leaves them in the car with the ignition running. When she comes out of the store about 10 minutes later, her car is there but the girls are missing.

With the town's police force stretched beyond its means due to budget cuts and a growing drug epidemic, Jamie's family hires Alice Vega, an unorthodox bounty hunter with a good record of finding missing children. The local police don't take too kindly to Alice's involvement in the girls' case despite the fact they can't devote any resources to it, so she decides to turn to Max "Cap" Caplan, a former police detective who resigned from the force in disgrace.

Cap is trying to put his past life behind him, but it isn't rewarding taking pictures of cheating spouses and tracking down bail skips, so as much as he wants to avoid interacting with his former colleagues, there's something about Alice Vega that draws him in.

Alice and Cap make a commanding pair, and they start making progress on trying to find out what happened to the girls, which of course leads to the inevitable run-ins with the police. Little by little they have to determine which leads are false and which have potential, which people pose a threat and which people were merely in the wrong place at the wrong time, and uncover just how deep this crime runs within the town. At the same time, Alice and Cap have to struggle with their own demons, knowing every second they delay or ponder could result in the girls' deaths, if they aren't dead already.

I thought Luna did a great job with this book. Like with so many mysteries, I suspected nearly every character that popped up in the narrative, and I kept hoping she wouldn't disappoint me by taking the easy way out. I thought the resolution of the story was a little more complicated that it needed to be, but it definitely affected me, because as depressing as it was, I know that Luna didn't just invent this scenario out of whole cloth.

There was a good amount of tension and some great action, I thought Cap was a terrific character, and Alice is a bit of a badass! Luna knew how to ratchet up the suspense and toss in some characters you can't figure out if you should root for them or not. I don't know whether she intends this to become a series, but I hope to see more of Alice and Cap. There's so much I'd love to know about their backstories, too.

I really enjoyed this and read most of the book in one day. I'll definitely be looking for the next book in Luna's career! This one is worth a read!!

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

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Book Review: "Fresh Complaint" by Jeffrey Eugenides

Ever since Jeffrey Eugenides burst on to the literary scene in the early 1990s with The Virgin Suicides, he's proven himself to be an expert commentator on the foibles of the human condition, sex, adolescence, relationships, family dynamics, and, at times, the often-mundane challenges of everyday life. He further cemented that reputation with Middlesex and The Marriage Plot, so when I heard that he'd finally be coming out with a short story collection, I was excited to see if he'd be able to capture this same kind of magic in short form.

The verdict? His stories, some of which were written as early as 1996, definitely demonstrate his talent for creating memorable characters and vivid dialogue. Some have a dreamier quality, while others are more moving and poignant. The challenge is, not all of the stories are that interesting, so while you can savor Eugenides' storytelling ability, you might find yourself wondering what the point was in some cases.

Among my favorites in the collection: "Baster," about a woman in her 40s who decides it's time to use a somewhat unorthodox way of getting pregnant, and how that decision affects a former boyfriend; "Complainers," which chronicles the decades-long relationship between two women, and how one responds when the other's infirmities start impacting her independence and her spirit; "Air Mail," the story of a young man's observations as he searches for enlightenment while traveling the world; "Find the Bad Guy," about a man trying to rebuild his marriage; and the title story, about a young girl's desire to escape her immigrant family's customs, so she makes an impetuous decision which turns a British physicist's life upside down.

At their best, Eugenides draws you into the stories from their very first sentence, creating tension and empathetic characters whose lives and situations you become invested in. When the stories didn't work for me, they just didn't quite capture my attention (one seemed like an excerpt from Middlesex or an early outtake), or I didn't quite understand what he was trying to say. Fortunately the good stories outnumbered the weaker ones, but some of the weaker ones made the collection feel a little bogged down.

Eugenides is one of those authors who tends to take a while between novels. I hope that since Fresh Complaint was mostly a collection of previously written material, we won't have to wait much longer for a new book. (The Marriage Plot was released in 2011.) Still, these stories are a nice way to tide you over until the next book comes along, if you're one of those who could use a Eugenides fix.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Book Review: "White Houses" by Amy Bloom

Fifty-five years after her death, and more than 70 years after she left the White House following her husband's death, Eleanor Roosevelt remains one of the most intriguing women in history. She certainly was a role model for trailblazing women not interested in being confined to the boxes in which society wants to contain them, but rather working to bring about change wherever it is needed.

While much is known about her public persona, her personal life has always remained more of an enigma. More and more, it is understood that her marriage to FDR was more one of convenience than romance, and while his affairs were the stuff of gossip, hers, with women, were kept more secret.

Perhaps Eleanor's most notable relationship was with Lorena "Hick" Hickok, once the most prominent female reporter in the U.S. Hick and Eleanor met in 1932 when Hick was covering FDR's campaign for president. Instantly smitten although the two come from vastly different worlds—the patrician Eleanor was both enchanted and horrified by Hick's rough-and-tumble exterior—after spending some time together their friendship deepens into intimacy.

Hick moves into the White House and becomes known as Eleanor's "first friend." Their relationship is as talked about within White House circles as FDR's are, but the president seems content if his wife is, and he gives Hick a job within the administration. And while it is clear both women love each other, Eleanor is conflicted about her feelings for Hick, her role as First Lady, and whether she should continue to enjoy her relationship, or whether she isn't a suitable match, and if she should set Hick free.

Amy Bloom's White Houses is a fictionalized account of the decades-long relationship between two women who have seen so much, yet still find wonder in each other, even at a time where such relationships could mean ruin. It's a story about how the power of love isn't always enough to see you through, but the strength of a friendship can power a relationship. It's also a story of a woman who grew up poorer than poor finds herself in the midst of a life she couldn't even begin to dream of, yet she can't have everything she wants.

"I wasn't in love with Eleanor. We had agreed that 'in love' had burned out after four years for us, the way it does for most of us, in two months or two years and, I guess, never for some lucky people. Instead of a trail of fire roaring through, those people get small candles steadily lighting the way home until death do they part, and only the young are stupid enough to think that those two old people, him gimping, her squinting, are not in love. I got by. I lived amputated, which sounds worse than it felt. I learned to do all kinds of large and small tasks, with part of me missing, and I feel pretty sure that the people who watched me in the world thought that I was entirely able-bodied."

White Houses follows the two women through three decades of their relationship, and flashes back to Hick's hardscrabble childhood and young adulthood, where she learned how to fend for herself. Although it moves a little slowly at times, it's a poignant love story and a look at history that I found fascinating, moving, and thought-provoking. Hick is brash and confident, yet she has a tender, vulnerable side that Eleanor often brings out in her, while Eleanor had two faces—the public woman bent on saving the world, and the private woman who just wanted to be loved but didn't know if she was worthy.

I have been a big fan of Amy Bloom's for a number of years and find her writing absolutely dazzling. This book is beautifully written, and while I didn't completely warm to Bloom's last few historical novels, preferring her more modern fiction, I really enjoyed this one. Her words conveyed the emotional conflict, the longing, and the protectiveness both women felt, and brought so much depth to this story.

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

Monday, October 23, 2017

Book Review: "UNSUB" by Meg Gardiner

Don't mind me...just waiting for my pulse to get back to normal.

When one of your absolute favorite crime writers continually waxes poetic about how incredible a book is, you probably should listen. So I have Don Winslow to thank for recommending the amazing UNSUB by Meg Gardiner.

This is a book that has my heart pounding and my pulse racing, and I very well might wind up with nightmares (this is why I stopped watching shows like Criminal Minds on television), but holy crap, was it worth the ride. (P.S.: If you haven't read Winslow's The Forcesee my original review—you MUST.)

Like many families in the Bay Area in the 1990s, Caitlin Hendrix's family was wracked with fear about a highly intelligent, immensely dangerous serial killer called The Prophet, whose gruesome, graphic murders had everyone on edge. But Caitlin's family was different, as her father Mack was the lead detective trying to stop the Prophet from his ritual killings. All told, eleven people were murdered, each one more horrifying than the next, and each left with the ancient sign of Mercury somehow etched on them. The strain of trying to catch the Prophet broke Mack, destroyed his career and his marriage, and wrecked Caitlin's childhood.

"Caitlin could still recite the Prophet's profile from memory, almost word for word. Organized killer. Regards the murders as his mission. Extrovert. Has social skills and may be regarded as charming and outgoing. Incredible anger at women. He will show the dark tetrad of personality traits: Machiavellianism, narcissism, psychopathy, and sadism."

After 20 years' silence, the Prophet returns with a vengeance. Caitlin, a detective with only six months under her belt, is brought on to the task force assembled to try and succeed where Mack and his colleagues failed. But this time around, the Prophet is bolder, showier, and even more cold-blooded. And he has his sights set on Caitlin, to draw her in and break her the same way he broke her father all those years ago.

As much as she is cautioned by her superiors, her boyfriend, even her father, not to lose herself in the Prophet's hellish mission, her carefully constructed barrier starts to fall. Finding the Prophet becomes a personal quest for Caitlin because he has made his wrath so personal against her. He wants to make her look like a fool, and then crush her with her failures.

The Prophet taunts law enforcement with his gruesome murders and his messages. What do they mean? Why is he escalating his destruction? Where was he for more than 20 years? Is this really the Prophet or simply a copycat? They are running out of time before this monster truly closes in—but will Caitlin succeed where her father failed? And if so, at what price?

Gardiner starts with a bang and never lets up for nearly 400 pages. She toys with her readers much like the Prophet did with law enforcement, teasing out some of the facts while confounding and frustrating you at the same time. Caitlin is a fantastic character—while she feels the weight of the victims (and her father's legacy) on her shoulders, she definitely doesn't think she's a superwoman; she just needs to make this monster stop, while figuring out what makes him tick.

This is more than simply a thriller. Gardiner imbues her story with heart and emotion at the same time as she's ratcheting your pulse up with suspense and some terrific action. Some of the murders are pretty heinous, but not worse than most thrillers or a few episodes of Criminal Minds or Law & Order: SVU. I just love the way she told this story, and I certainly can see why Winslow raved about it.

One of my frustrations with thrillers is when the killer is always one inexplicable step ahead of those hunting them down. That frustration bubbled up briefly here, but I like how Gardiner got around it, although one plot device seemed a tiny bit contrived. But nothing could stop me from devouring this book. I'm a newcomer to Gardiner's writing, but this won't be the last of her books I read. She's one hell of a writer, and this is such an excellent book.

In closing, I say to Don Winslow: thank you. And now I'll definitely listen to you in the future!

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Book Review: "When We Were Worthy" by Marybeth Mayhew Whalen

Well I was born in a small town
And I live in a small town
Probably die in a small town
Oh, those small communities
All my friends are so small town
My parents live in the same small town

—"Small Town," John Cougar Mellencamp

Marybeth Mayhew Whalen once again shows off her knack for getting inside the scandals and secrets of small-town America in her new novel, When We Were Worthy, and she does so in great soapy fashion.

"In Worthy, truth lived right next door to perception, but they weren't exactly friendly neighbors."

Worthy, Georgia is a small town ruled by football, as many small Southern towns are. "Once football season started, we were more the team than the town." Two beautiful cheerleaders, Brynne and Mary Claire ("MC"), rule the school, making or breaking lives by the amount of attention they pay to others. When they bestow their friendship on two sophomore cheerleaders, Keary and Leah, and encourage them to join the varsity squad, it elevates their social standing, but it also makes the two girls beholden to the seniors and their friends.

One night, after a successful game, the victory spirit of Worthy is cut short, when an accident claims the lives of MC, Brynne, and Keary. The boy who appears to have caused the accident is also from town, and survives, which, in the eyes of many in town, is unfortunate. The town and its residents are thrown for a complete loop—the cheerleaders become the stuff of legend, angels chosen to descend to heaven, and Worthy's citizens are mired in grief, anger, and suspicion.

When We Were Worthy follows four women in the midst of the tragedy—Leah, who should have been in that car with her friends that night, but the reason why she wasn't may be worse than the accident; Marglyn, a grieving mother trying to make sense of it all; Darcy, once one of the town's cheerleaders, but now the mother of the boy responsible for the accident; and Ava, a substitute teacher who moved to Worthy with her husband, who grew up there, and has a secret that, if exposed, could cause many ripples through the town. From many of these women, you get a slightly fully sense of those who died, their good points and their foibles, and their real effect on others in Worthy.

The tension simmers in the town, and you know a powder keg will explode somewhere. Will it be those who threaten to hurt the boy allegedly responsible for the girls' deaths? Will it be the marriage that is barely holding together, or the one which has recently come apart? Will the secrets that have been hidden get exposed, and will the truths come to light? Whalen knows how to keep your attention, giving you just enough to keep reading, and keep wondering what will happen.

This is the second book of Whalen's I've read, and I am again impressed at her ability to create drama without it veering into melodrama, soap opera tension without devolving into camp, and characters that aren't always sympathetic but you can't stop reading about them. Many have compared her to Liane Moriarty (as if more than one author can't seem to occupy this space), and while there is some similarity, Whalen has a style and a talent all her own.

When We Were Worthy isn't a book that makes you think, except perhaps what you might do if faced with the situations some of the characters were. But it is a tremendously entertaining book, one that cements Whalen's storytelling talent. If you like small-town drama, you'll like this one.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Book Review: "Neanderthal Opens the Door to the Universe" by Preston Norton

"You know what the most dystopian idea in the world is to me?" I asked. "The idea that our feelings don't matter. We might as well be robots."

Since his older brother died, Cliff Hubbard has been alone. He has no friends in high school, but he can't sneak through undetected, since he's 6'6" and weighs 250 pounds. He couldn't be any more noticeable; his classmates have bestowed upon him the nickname "Neanderthal." They ridicule him and mock his size, his appetite, his appearance, his loneliness.

But things are, perhaps, worse in his trailer-park home. His unemployed father, usually drunk, sits around and broods and takes out his frustration on Cliff, as he also used to do with Shane. Sometimes that frustration is expressed through verbal abuse, but more often than not it's manifested through physical violence. Cliff's mother, who works herself to the bone so they don't get evicted, sees what her husband has done to her sons, but she mostly keeps quiet, which angered both Shane and Cliff.

While there are a lot of people in school Cliff doesn't like, it's golden-boy quarterback Aaron Zimmerman he hates the most. Aaron coasts through life, driving his classic sports car, having every girl in school throw themselves at him, while he and his friends ridicule those they feel are beneath them. Even the teachers give Aaron a pass.

And then one day Aaron returns to school after being in a coma following an accident. He says he had a near-death experience, during which he spoke to God, who gave him a mission: make Happy Valley High School suck less. This mission has five components that will ensure success and God tells Aaron the one person that can help him is Neanderthal. As crazy as the whole thing sounds, Cliff eventually agrees to help Aaron, both because he wants to make school suck less perhaps more than anyone (except God), and for the first time, he has a friend, a purpose.

The mission isn't an easy one: they need to set the school's meanest bully on a different path, help a gang of drug dealers realize the error of their ways, help an angry English teacher recapture his passion for teaching, deal with the school's most vindictive club, the Jesus Teens, and stop a hacker who seems to know everything that is going on. Nearly everyone thinks they're crazy, but they're more than happy to sit back and watch them fail, because it's not easy to fix a school that's so badly broken.

The deeper Cliff wades into Aaron's mission (or is it God's?), the more he starts to come into himself, and the more he realizes how little he actually knew about his brother. And while fixing what is broken in school, as in the rest of his life, isn't easy, for the first time he realizes he is more than what people say about him.

Neanderthal Opens the Door to the Universe is a mash-up of a lot of elements prevalent in YA fiction these days, but Preston Norton puts his own twist on things. Cliff is such a memorable character—my heart just hurt for him at times, and I just wanted him to open up to people, because here's this smart, sensitive kid that everyone ridicules because of how he looks. There are a lot of supporting characters, some of whom are really fascinating, and some which don't rise above typical teen clichés.

There's a lot going on in this book, and at times I wish that Norton had concentrated the plot on one or two threads rather than multiple ones. I loved the way he pulled everything together, however, and I'll admit I was even surprised at one point with a twist he threw in. Some of the dialogue definitely rivals John Green's, but I think there's a lot more subtle (and not-so-subtle) sensitivity at play here, too. And, yeah, it choked me up, too. Damned book.

I've been reading a good amount of YA in recent years and I'm always blown away by the talent and the quality of writing that is out there. I wish not every book set in high school dealt with bullying (which seems to get crueler and crueler with every book) and teachers and administrators who let it go on unabated, if not encourage it. Believe me, I know bullying exists and the reality is, it is getting crueler, especially with the anonymity of the internet, but sometimes these books hit a little too close to home for me, even years and years after high school.

Neanderthal Opens the Door to the Universe really has a lot of charm and a lot of heart. Cliff is a special character I won't stop thinking about for a while, and I look forward to seeing what's next from Preston Norton.

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

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Book Review: "The Deep Dark Descending" by Allen Eskens

Oh. My. God. I think my breathing has just gotten back to normal. What a fantastic book this was!!

"Your thoughts are dominated by one thing. They have been ever since I came on board here. Sure, it ebbs and flows. Some days are better than others. But your wife's death is always there, just below the surface."

Homicide detective Max Rupert has spent the last several years mourning his wife Jenni's death in a hit-and-run accident. Not only does her loss remain fresh every single day, but he blames himself, as he's sure some case he was working on or a criminal he once helped imprison was somehow responsible for her death. When he is given evidence that proves, in fact, she was murdered, he must decide what to do with this information, since he knows nothing will bring her back to him.

Once he overcomes the shock and emotions this new discovery provokes, Max knows the only option is to hunt down those responsible for Jenni's murder, even if it puts his police career at risk. In trying to find out what Jenni stumbled upon that led to her death, he discovers far more evil closer to home than he even imagined. And he will stop at nothing to make those involved pay, no matter what the need for revenge may do to him.

"I needed a war room, a place where I could immerse myself in Jenni's case with no distractions, a place where I could release my inner Mr. Hyde and indulge in my own form of masochism, like those penitents who flog themselves into religious ecstasy. In this room, I would purge all other thoughts from my head and focus on one task—hunting down the people responsible for my wife's death."

As Max digs for the truth, he and his partner Niki are in the midst of a case in which a young woman was murdered and another man was severely burned. The case is a sensitive one, but they don't realize just how sensitive until they find themselves dodging department politics and old secrets while trying to do—and protect—their jobs. But Max's first priority is meting out his own private justice.

At a frozen lake on the border of the U.S. and Canada, Max must decide what kind of a person he is: the type who will descend into his own private madness on a quest for revenge, even if it destroys him, or does he follow the conscience that has made him a successful police detective—and a man his wife would be still be proud of. And before he acts, he must decide whether the information that brought him to this point is actually correct, or whether he is being manipulated.

Allen Eskens starts this book off at full throttle and never, ever steps back. Even in quieter, more contemplative moments where Max is alone with his grief and his indecision, Eskens ratchets up the tension until you feel your heart pounding and you cannot stop reading, because you must know how the plot will be resolved. (I stayed up very late to finish the book because I literally could not stop reading.)

I have never read any of Eskens' other books before, although I've always meant to, but now I am completely in awe of his talent. Not only is The Deep Dark Descending a true thriller, but it is an exceptionally told story. Eskens is as comfortable writing action scenes and police procedural scenes as he is describing the frozen environment around Max as he comes to a decision about the path his revenge will take. This is a book that you feel in your gut and your brain, because you appreciate the action and the storytelling simultaneously.

This is definitely one of the best books I've read all year. Do yourself a favor, thriller fans, and pick this up ASAP.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Book Review: "Turtles All the Way Down" by John Green

From the outside looking in, Aza seems to have it all. She's smart and sensitive, and she tries hard to be a good daughter, a good student, and a good friend. But life for Aza isn't what it appears: she struggles every day with invasive thoughts, thoughts which at times leave her unable to focus on nothing but the fear and anxiety they cause.

"It's so weird, to know you're crazy and not be able to do anything about it, you know? It's not like you believe yourself to be normal. You know there is a problem. But you can't figure a way through to fixing it. Because you can't be sure, you know?"

When Aza and her best friend Daisy learn about the disappearance of the town's notorious billionaire, Russell Pickett, the father of one of Aza's childhood friends, they are intrigued by the mystery. And when Daisy learns that there is a $100,000 reward for information leading to Pickett's capture, she convinces Aza to help her investigate. While Aza honestly doesn't care about the money, she's doesn't mind that she gets to be reunited with Davis Pickett, on whom she had a crush when she was younger.

As Davis and Aza grow closer, both struggle with questions about the meaning of life and the true nature of existence. Aza tries to help Davis deal with his feelings of abandonment, whether he even wants his father to return, and what it will mean for him and his younger brother, Noah, since their mother died several years earlier. Davis tries to help Aza by understanding the intensity of her thought spirals, and helping her have the type of relationship she can handle, but as her problems deepen, no one can provide her any comfort.

Turtles All the Way Down is an unblinking look at living with mental illness. There's no candy-coating Aza's feelings, and how helpless and frustrating her illness is for her family and friends. It's also a poignant look at just how much we need love, friendship, acceptance, and understanding, and how debilitating it can be to try and understand the challenges that life throws at us.

There's a point in the book when Daisy tells Aza that someone once said she was like mustard, "great in small quantities, but then a lot of you is...a lot." To be honest, while I believe this is an important book, I found it was a little like mustard, and almost relentless. In his quest to give readers a you-are-there feeling where mental illness is concerned, I felt as if John Green sacrificed the book's humor and much of its heart. While Aza and Davis are fascinating characters, I found Daisy tremendously unlikable, while many of the other characters aren't well drawn.

As always, Green's teenage characters are wiser and more erudite than most adults. But that aside, he really shows his storytelling skills when describing Aza's anxiety. Here this paragraph, for example:

"I don't know, like, I'll be at the cafeteria and I'll start thinking about how, like, there are all these things living inside of me that eat my food for me, and how I sort of am them, in a way—like, I'm not a human person as much as this disgusting, teeming blob of bacteria, and there's not really any getting myself clean, you know, because the dirtiness goes all the way through me. Like, I can't find the deep down part of me that's pure or unsullied or whatever, the part of me where my soul is supposed to be. Which means that I have maybe, like, no more of a soul than the bacteria do."

I loved loved loved The Fault in Our Stars and really enjoyed Paper Towns, and I would be lying if I said I didn't hype this book up in my mind. As someone who has struggled with depression and anxiety in my life, and struggled to describe how they make me feel, this book is definitely helpful. I wish I liked it more, but I'm glad I read it. Now maybe I'll go back and read some of his older books.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Book Review: "Her Body and Other Parties" by Carmen Maria Machado

If you think of works of fiction like works of art, Carmen Maria Machado's debut story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, is an abstract painting. It's undoubtedly gorgeous and attention-getting, there's no one right way to interpret the things you see (or read), everyone will see something different in it, and each time you look, you'll catch something you didn't see the first time. You may also find yourself wondering, "What did that mean?"

Seven of the eight stories in this collection are a mesmerizing combination of atmosphere, sexuality, emotion, and gorgeous, gorgeous storytelling. There is also a strange undercurrent of creepiness running through many of the stories. I'll admit I was a little bit nervous while reading, and I kept waiting for something horrible, for a bogeyman to reveal itself, or some shocking event to occur. That tension is almost addictive, because you want to keep on reading, wondering just what Machado has up her sleeve.

The stories that stood out the most for me were "Inventory," in which a woman recounts her sexual exploits as the world is slowly being consumed by an unexplained plague; "Real Women Have Bodies," where a young woman working at a prom dress shop makes a shocking discovery about what makes the store's gowns so unique; "Eight Bites," about a woman visited by an unwanted houseguest after weight loss surgery; the immensely creepy "The Resident," in which a writer at an artist's colony has trouble with the lines blurring between past and present, fact and fiction; and the sexy, mysterious "The Husband Stitch," where a woman's husband has been begging her for years to remove the green ribbon from around her neck, but she never has.

The one story, which is more of a novella, that absolutely didn't work for me, was "Especially Heinous," a spoof of sorts of Law and Order: SVU, which provided brief synopses of 272 episodes of the show, adding supernatural elements, ramping up the show's sexual tension and emotional instability, and throwing in some mundane twists as well. I just didn't get it, and it dragged on far too long for me, but I've seen other reviews refer to this as the best in the collection, so what do I know?

Her Body and Other Parties is a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction, and it is truly the debut of a dazzling, fearless new voice in the world of short stories. While I wish I could talk to someone about what they think happened in some of the stories, I honestly can't stop thinking about the worlds Machado created, and how masterfully she reeled me into them.

This isn't a collection for those who like their stories to be more straightforward, or those uncomfortable with sex scenes both implied and explicit, but if you're in the mood for some genre-defying fiction, pick up this collection. You'll get to witness the start of what is sure to be an incredible career.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Book Review: "What Happened" by Hillary Rodham Clinton

"Losing is hard for everyone, but losing a race you thought you would win is devastating."

I was one of many Americans watching the 2016 presidential election results come in, feeling shock, disbelief, horror, and utter disappointment as the realization that Hillary Clinton had been defeated began to sink in. I really thought, despite the last-minute bombshell dropped by now-former FBI Director James Comey regarding her emails, that she'd be able to prevail.

I honestly believed, as did Clinton and her staff, as well as polling organizations, political experts, and many media outlets, that despite the concerns so many had expressed about her character and her lack of trustworthiness, the idea of electing a person who had never held public office, one who (at least to me) clearly was unprepared for the presidency, would finally persuade people to cast their votes for Clinton.

As we know, the polls and many political experts and others were wrong, and Trump is now president. There were a lot of factors contributing to his victory—the never-ending email scandal being one significant one—but I still found it hard to understand just how a woman I felt was perhaps the most qualified individual ever to run for president could be defeated. (And as hard as it was for me and so many of Clinton's supporters to understand, I could only imagine how she must have felt!

What Happened is not only a powerful, first-hand account of the 2016 election and its aftermath from Clinton's viewpoint, but it's also a candid look at what convinced her to run for president again after losing the Democratic nomination to Barack Obama. It's also an in-depth glimpse into Hillary the candidate, Hillary the former First Lady and dedicated public servant, Hillary the mother, wife, and daughter, Hillary the friend, and Hillary the person.

"I wear my composure like a suit of armor, for better or worse. In some ways, it felt like I had been training for this latest feat of self-control for decades."

While the book does tread on some familiar territory, it's pretty candid in sharing things you probably didn't know about Clinton. Not only does she share the emotion, despair, disappointment, and frustration she felt when she lost, but she also shares how she felt being vilified as horribly as she was during the campaign, going from being the most-admired woman in America when she left her position as Secretary of State to being followed by people chanting "Lock her up" and pictures of her in prison clothes. She doesn't go into great depth about the challenges to her marriage through the years, but she does touch on the struggles she had, and how she addressed her questions and her fears.

Some have questioned why Clinton wrote this book, and immediately assumed she would point fingers at everyone other than herself as factors contributing to her defeat. While she does discuss the impact of many factors—from Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein's participation in the 2016 race to the imbalanced media coverage she received, as well as Trump's oversized persona—she reserves the largest amount of blame for herself.

"On the campaign trail, I offered ideas that I believed would address many of the underlying causes of discontent and help make life better for all Americans. But I couldn't—and wouldn't—compete to stoke people's rage and resentment. I think that's dangerous. It helps leaders who want to take advantage of that rage to hurt people rather than help them. Besides, it's just not how I'm wired. Maybe that's why Trump was now delivering the inaugural address and I was sitting in the crowd."

At times, the book gets a little too in-depth in areas of policy, as Clinton shares those issues which are most important to her and how she feels America could move forward. She also discusses areas she believes Democrats need to focus on in upcoming elections if they want to be successful.

But what makes What Happened so good is the raw emotion Clinton imbues it with. I read the book, I didn't listen to the audio version, but I could still hear her voice narrating it, and there were times when the things she said really choked me up. I can't imagine what it must be like to come so close to achieving a goal you spent nearly eight years of your life tirelessly pursuing, not to mention the disappointment you felt about letting your supporters down, but this book evoked those emotions so powerfully. She also wasn't afraid to show glimpses of her sense of humor and the generosity of her spirit.

I remember how disappointed I felt the night the election results came in, how I struggled to reconcile the country Trump and his supporters saw from the one I did. But if Hillary Clinton can persevere, I know I can.

"Things are going to be hard for a long time. But we are going to be okay. All of us."

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Book Review: "Millard Salter's Last Day" by Jacob M. Appel

Today is Millard Salter's 75th birthday. He has a pretty full day planned—a busy day as a psychiatrist at New York's St. Dymphna's Hospital, lunch with his seemingly unambitious, 43-year-old son Lysander, and a visit to the grave of his second wife Isabelle, whose death he's still mourning. He has promised to help his current flame, Delilah, take care of an important task, and then he plans to end the day by killing himself.

Millard isn't sick or depressed or frail. But he knows all too well the indignities and infirmities that old age can bring, and he's determined to exit before his quality of life is impacted by any of them. He also doesn't want to be a burden to his children, nor does he want people to chronicle or lament his eventual decline.

He's trying to get everything in his life as settled as possible so his death doesn't cause a lot of disruption. He has divested himself of most of his patients and tied up as many loose ends as he can. But the course of life, even when you're planning to end your life, never runs smoothly—Millard encounters frustrated bureaucrats, power-hungry colleagues, depressed patients, a fiercely loyal employee, and a student looking for a recommendation. Oh, and there's a lynx on the loose at the hospital. Luckily, Millard's sly sense of humor helps him take everything in stride.

As Millard goes through the day, he realizes he won't leave this world without some regrets, but he tries to make things right where he can, so he can end his life feeling reasonably satisfied with how things will be after his death. And as he reminisces about his childhood, his marriages, and his career, he sees how much everything has changed, and he doesn't want to feel like a dinosaur.

This was a really interesting concept on which to build a book. Millard is a complex character—he definitely cares about his family and his patients but he's not above some mostly good-natured ribbing of his colleagues. Given the book's plot, this could have veered into either maudlin or treacly territory, and to Jacob Appel's credit it really didn't. You could see as the book unfolded that this was a man who was proud of his life and his accomplishments, but didn't want to linger too long.

Appel is a fantastic writer—he's written some fantastic short story collections I've absolutely devoured—Einstein's Beach House, Coulrophobia & Fata Morgana, and Miracles and Conundrums of the Secondary Planets. His writing is always characterized by a healthy balance of quirk and heart, and both are on display here. I just felt this book meandered a little too much—some of Millard's pranks and reminiscences went on a bit too long, and so many subplots, supporting characters, and odd situations were shoehorned into the book that I felt it distracted from the story at the book's core.

One other caveat, which may be a positive or a negative one for you: the book's marketing blurb mentions A Man Called Ove, and while Millard may have his cranky moments, I don't think he's quite the curmudgeon that Ove was. So don't go into this book expecting that, or don't steer away from this book because you feared that.

Millard Salter's Last Day isn't perfect, but it's tremendously thought-provoking and well-written, with an immensely vivid main character. I think it's a great book club selection, because it could be the source of some fascinating conversation. And as always, Appel demonstrates his talent as a storyteller.

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

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Book Review: "Love and Other Consolation Prizes" by Jamie Ford

"'My theory,' Maisie said, 'is that the best, worst, happiest, saddest, scariest, and most memorable moments are all connected. Those are the important times, good and bad. The rest is just filler.'"

For Ernest Young, born Yung Kun-ai in China just before the start of the 20th century, some of the worst and saddest moments in his life came at a very young age. At five years old, the illegitimate son of a white missionary and a Chinese woman, he and his mother know abject poverty, which causes his mother to make two heartbreaking decisions, one of which is sending him away to America, ostensibly so he can find a better life.

While he is lucky to survive the overseas journey, his life when he arrives in America isn't much better, as he is bounced from place to place, with no true companionship and no one to give him affection, and he is ridiculed by his appearance because of his mixed cultural background. At 12 years old, Ernest Young (as he is now called) is a charity student at a boarding school in Seattle, treated with general disregard by a wealthy patron who pays for his education. He longs for more opportunities, to get more out of life.

His patron brings him to the 1909 World's Fair, and tells him the next step in his life: he will be the prize in a raffle at the fair, and the winner will take him "to a good home." To the surprise of everyone, including Ernest's moral-crusading patron, the winner of the raffle is Madam Flora, the savvy, flamboyant madam of a high-class brothel. Madam Flora is known for making sure her "girls" are not only beautiful but well-educated and sophisticated; she calls them her "Gibson girls." Flora has had her heart set on a houseboy, and she knows Ernest will fit the bill.

Ernest becomes friends with Fahn, an outspoken housemaid with whom he has a previous connection, and Maisie, Flora's headstrong daughter, and little by little, finds himself smitten with both young women. As strange as it may seem given the setting, for the first time, Ernest feels at home, feels part of a family. But when Madam Flora's job-related illness becomes too much to bear, it threatens to ruin the lives of all who live in the brothel, and sets Ernest, Fahn, and Maisie on different courses which might separate them.

Fifty years later, as the World's Fair returns to Seattle, Ernest is caught up in the memories of his childhood when his daughter hears the story of him being offered as a raffle prize. For Ernest, these memories are bittersweet, particularly as he tries to help his ailing wife deal with her own memories, and ensure his children are protected from the ultimate truths of their parents' lives.

It's funny, but when I'm trying to think of a book to read, I always forget Jamie Ford, yet every time I read one of his books, like the exceptional Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, I wonder why he slips my mind. Perhaps it's because his writing seems so effortless, and he so easily is able to pull me into his stories and fascinate me with his characters.

While I wasn't as emotionally wrecked by Love and Other Consolation Prizes, I still enjoyed it a great deal. Even though you as a reader know more about the plot than the characters do, there were still a few surprises Ford threw in. I did wish the plot was a little more linear, because I found the shift between past and present a little jarring occasionally, and I felt things moved at a slower pace than I would have liked. But these characters and their story is a beautiful, heartfelt one (made all the more emotional when you learn it is based on a true story), and there are some emotional moments worth savoring.

This is a book about overcoming struggles, the difficulties in following your heart, and what it feels like to finally belong somewhere, with people you care about who care about you, after never believing that could be true. If you enjoy historical fiction that doesn't feel historical, or you just like well-written stories, pick up Love and Other Consolation Prizes. It's a story you'll keep thinking about.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Book Review: "Best Day Ever" by Kaira Rouda

Paul Strom has the perfect romantic weekend planned for his wife Mia—their two sons will be in the care of their babysitter, and they will head to their lake house outside Columbus, Ohio.

It's been a while since they've been able to spend any time alone, given how hard Paul works to provide for their family, and how much time and effort parenthood requires. He's even planned a playlist of songs that remind them of different occasions throughout their relationship.

It's really going to be the best day ever.

As they drive up to the cottage, some little annoyances pop up. Mia starts talking about going back to work, which Paul will absolutely not tolerate, since he's the breadwinner and he wants her to be home to care for their children. Mia gets angry that they got a late start because of a mysterious phone call Paul received, so they can't stop at her favorite bakery for croissants. (This is a big deal, since Mia has become a vegetarian of late, after suffering from unexplained fatigue and weakness for a while.)

But even with the little frustrations, both Paul and Mia are committed to making the day the best ever. They want to recapture the magic of when they first met, when Paul was an up and coming executive at an advertising agency, and Mia was a young copywriter. At that moment, Paul knew what he wanted—Mia—and he always got what he wanted, no matter what. And Mia loved how in control Paul was, and how he won her over.

Things haven't been perfect between them lately, but how often do marriages run into tough times? Paul is determined to make everything better. But why are Mia's questions putting him on edge? Is she testing him, or does she suspect him of something?

Is there such a thing as a perfect marriage? Best Day Ever explores how well we really know our spouses, and explores how quickly a fragile trust can be broken down. Kaira Rouda throws lots of twists and turns into the plot, which spans a little more than one day in the life of a couple. She also introduces another creepy main character into the literary world, as Paul Strom is definitely the type of person you wouldn't want to encounter.

I wasn't sure what to expect from this book. I had seen some tremendously positive reviews and some lukewarm ones, and given how many thrillers I read, I wasn't sure if Rouda would be able to surprise me. The truth is, even though this is a familiar story, Rouda knows how to ratchet up the tension little by little, so you really are left wondering just how she'll tie everything together.

This is a fast read—I devoured the book in a day. It was a little predictable in places but I liked disliking these characters so much. Rouda definitely has a great deal of talent, and I'll be interested to see what she comes up with next.