Monday, January 22, 2018

Book Review: "Don't Call Us Dead: Poems" by Danez Smith

After reading Rupi Kaur's gorgeous Milk and Honey (see my review), my first encounter with poetry in quite some time, I decided to delve a little deeper into the genre.

I picked up Danez Smith's Don't Call Us Dead, which was a finalist for the National Book Award for Poetry in 2017. At turns searing, sensual, provocative, tragic, and evocative, Smith's collection is a potent commentary on race, sexuality, violence, prejudice, promiscuity, homophobia, AIDS, and death. Some of the poems absolutely took my breath away, and some painted immensely vivid pictures in my mind.
i know when the wind feels
as if it's made of hands

& i feel like i'm made of water
it's you trying to save me

from drowning in myself, but i can't
wed wind. i'm not water.
The above stanzas are from "summer, somewhere," an epic poem of sorts, which envisions an afterlife for young black men killed by police. It is emotional, anger-inducing, and tremendously thought-provoking, and Smith's language conveys both the peace and security this new world provides, while at the same time recognizing the tragedies that brought those to this place.
here, there's no language
officer or law, no color to call white.

if snow fell, it'd fall black. please, don't call
us dead, call us alive someplace better.

we say our own names when we pray.
we go out for sweets & come back.
Other poems deal with men struggling to fight their sexuality, yet succumbing to promiscuity, to risky sex and furtive hookups that they know could doom them. The poem "bare," deals with taking that risk.
if love is a room
of broken glass, leave me to dance
until my feet are memory.
Smith's words are sometimes brutal, sometimes explicitly sexual, sometimes painful. This may not be a collection for everyone, but it should be, because it helped me think about the families left behind when their children are lost to violence, the men raised to be masculine but who struggle with embracing the reality of who they are, how those diagnosed with HIV and AIDS struggle with their mortality.

Not every poem worked for me, but those that did left me mesmerized. Smith is an absolutely incredible writer, and I'll definitely pick up another of his collections. This is poetry that may make you uncomfortable, but it dazzles at the same time.

2017 Oscar Nominations: What I Think...

Tomorrow isn't just another Tuesday: the Oscar nominations will be announced in the morning.

I've been reasonably (ha) obsessed with the Oscars since the 1980s, and so we make an effort to see every movie and performance nominated for the major awards before the Oscar telecast. (If what happens tomorrow is what I think, we won't have much more to see, thanks to a very movie-heavy holiday season.)

(I also have this stupid human trick that I can recite all of the nominees for the major categories—Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, and Director—from every year since the Oscars began in 1927. Seriously.)

But I digress.

For a while now, I've been making my predictions for which movies and performances I think will get nominated, then after the nominations are announced I come back and analyze how well I did. (Note: this isn't necessary who I think deserves to get nominated; often there's a pretty gap between what I want and what actually happens, because the Oscars are as much about paying back old slights, trying to take advantage of popularity, and other crazy politics as they are about who gave the best performances. But I digress.)

So, here's what I think will happen tomorrow around 8:38 a.m. ET. I know there's bound to be a surprise and/or disappointment (for me) or two, so...

Best Picture
The Big Sick
Call Me By Your Name
Get Out
I, Tonya
Lady Bird
The Post
The Shape of Water
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Analysis: Since 2009, the Oscars have played coy with the number of films that get nominated for Best Picture. Using a preferential ballot, they'll allow as few as five and as many as ten nominees based on a threshold. I've predicted nine, but wouldn't be surprised if as few as six get nominated. Mudbound is another movie being talked about as a potential nominee, but since it was released by Netflix, that may be its disadvantage. Phantom Thread is another outside possibility.

Best Actor
Timothée Chalamet, Call Me By Your Name
Daniel Day-Lewis, Phantom Thread
James Franco, The Disaster Artist
Daniel Kaluuya, Get Out
Gary Oldman, The Darkest Hour

I feel secure about Chalamet, Kaluuya, and Oldman, and reasonably secure about Day-Lewis. The fifth spot would have belonged unequivocally to James Franco until the multiple allegations of sexual impropriety surfaced a few weeks back. However, since the story broke one day before voting ended, I think he'll probably still sneak in amidst the five. If not, I'd expect to see either Denzel Washington for Roman J. Israel, Esq. or, if the film resonates with Oscar voters, Tom Hanks for The Post. (Amazingly, Hanks hasn't been nominated in 18 years.)

Best Actress
Sally Hawkins, The Shape of Water
Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Margot Robbie, I, Tonya
Saoirse Ronan, Lady Bird
Meryl Streep, The Post

Analysis: I feel secure about three of these nominees—Hawkins, McDormand, and Ronan—and feel Robbie is a fairly sure bet. Once again, it's that fifth slot that bewilders me. I would have thought Streep would be nearly certain to nab her 21st nomination, but The Post hasn't caught fire with many film critics or awards groups. While I still think she'll make the cut, other possibilities are Judi Dench, playing Queen Victoria yet again in Victoria and Abdul, Jessica Chastain in Molly's Game, or Michelle Williams for All the Money in the World. And if I had my way, you'd see perenially overlooked Annette Bening on the list for Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool. Break, heart, yet again...

Best Supporting Actor
Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project
Armie Hammer, Call Me By Your Name
Richard Jenkins, The Shape of Water
Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Michael Stuhlbarg, Call Me By Your Name

Analysis: So I'm going against the grain here and predicting what I want to happen. I have a feeling that Stuhlbarg, despite having the scene of the movie in Call Me By Your Name and also appearing in The Post and The Shape of Water will get overlooked, and Armie Hammer might as well. This will upset me a great deal. However, I wouldn't be surprised to see either of them and/or Richard Jenkins passed over for Christopher Plummer, who redid all of Kevin Spacey's scenes in All the Money in the World, Woody Harrelson for his smaller, somewhat-more-sympathetic part in Three Billboards, and 2015 winner Mark Rylance, who could ride the waves if Dunkirk gets lots of nominations tomorrow. And never count out Michael Shannon for The Shape of Water.

Best Supporting Actress
Mary J. Blige, Mudbound
Holly Hunter, The Big Sick
Allison Janney, I, Tonya
Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird
Octavia Spencer, The Shape of Water

Analysis: Janney and Metcalf are the two sure things here. I think 2011 winner Spencer will get her third nomination, and I believe Hunter will ride the popularity of her little movie that could. Blige was nominated for both Golden Globe and SAG Award, but she may be hurt by the fact that the film is released by Netflix. Hong Chau has gotten great reviews (and Golden Globe and SAG Award nominations) for Downsizing, but she's the only thing mentioned positively related to her film. Other possibilities are Lesley Manville for Phantom Thread, Tiffany Haddish for Girls Trip, getting the Melissa McCarthy-type nod, or possibly Kristin Scott Thomas for her turn as Clemmie Churchill in The Darkest Hour.

Best Director
Guillermo Del Toro, The Shape of Water
Greta Gerwig, Lady Bird
Martin McDonagh, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk
Jordan Peele, Get Out

Analysis: The five nominees I selected are also the five nominees for the Directors' Guild Award. Rarely do those nominees match the Oscar nominees completely, so I think there will be at least one person snubbed, and it may very well be Nolan, who has been passed over a few times in his career. (I hope it's not Gerwig or Peele that gets snubbed.) Who could replace Nolan or other snub-ees? I'd honestly love to see Luca Guadagnino get nominated for Call Me By Your Name, and it would be incredible to see Dee Rees get nominated for Mudbound alongside Gerwig, for two female Best Director nominees for the first time in history. Other surprises could include Paul Thomas Anderson for Phantom Thread or even two-time winner Steven Spielberg for The Post, although I doubt it.

And there you have it! Check back tomorrow to see which noms excited me, which enraged me, and which shocked me.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Book Review: "The Somnambulist's Dreams" by Lars Boye Jerlach

Wow, this book was one crazy ride!!

How crazy have your dreams gotten? I'm not one of those who tries to figure out what my dreams mean, but I have wondered if it's appropriate to get mad at a person for doing something to you in your dreams. (I told a friend I was angry with them for borrowing my car and then parking it in my refrigerator. This is why I don't try to interpret my dreams.)

"I have finally decided to write to you about my dreams, and trust that you will recognize and know the true me and not be abhorred by the fantasies of my mind, over which I have no control. I am, as far as I know, compos mentis and yet I cannot explain, even to myself, where the figments originate. Beside their esotericism, I do not know if there is any other significance to them."

One day, a lighthouse keeper who lived in a lighthouse off the New England coast found a collection of writings from his predecessor. He discovers these writings are recollections of dreams his predecessor had while working at the lighthouse, which he has shared with his wife. But these are no ordinary dreams. Each dream is stranger and more confusing than the next, yet they seemed very real to the man experiencing them.

"The dreams have always been the same, and despite some slight variations, they have not changed for as long as I can remember. I have attempted to name the places that I visit, though without proper research, I cannot be sure if they hold true. I have not ordered or dated the dreams, as it seems that there is no beginning or end to them. They flow into one another, like a stroke from a painter's brush, to form one complete but enigmatic picture."

Given the solitary nature of the lighthouse keeper's job, the man becomes utterly transfixed at reading his predecessor's dreams. He, too, wonders what the dreams signify, and whether anything similar will happen to him, as a result of having only his light for company.

This book is truly a creative, almost phantasmagorical adventure. Lars Boye Jerlach imbues his story with such fantastical details, lyrical language (complete with words I had to look up), and evocative imagery, and he makes the tale utterly compelling, because you find yourself needing to know what the dreams mean, and what happened to the man who wrote about them. The dreams meld fantasy and reality, past and future, elements from literature, music, and film, with some common elements woven through.

The Somnambulist's Dreams is such a unique experience, one I don't think I'll forget anytime soon. It doesn't quite follow a particular narrative thread, and it may leave you guessing, but it's pretty wild, and I thought it was great. If this sounds like it's up your alley, definitely give this a shot.

The author provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

Friday, January 19, 2018

Book Review: "The Escape Artist" by Brad Meltzer

It's amazing to think that it's been nearly 22 years since Brad Meltzer burst on the scene with his first book, The Tenth Justice. I remember him being quite the wunderkind at the time, and I even went to a book signing at one of those long-defunct bookstore chains, either B. Dalton or Waldenbooks. (Remember those?)

Every single one of his novels since then has made the bestseller list, but somewhere along the way I couldn't keep up with him, so it has been a while since I read one of his books. But his upcoming novel, The Escape Artist, is already getting quite a bit of buzz, so I figured I'd see what the fuss is about. This is a great thriller, full of twists and turns and sensational action, but it also has some great character development and packs an emotional punch.

Jim "Zig" Zigarowski is a mortician. Some call him a genius, because he can repair significant damage to a body, making it possible for families to view their loved one and not have any idea just how badly the body really looked. He spends his days in perhaps the most important funeral home in the country, at Dover Air Force Base, where he is responsible for handling the bodies of American soldiers who died in the line of duty, as well as those injured in catastrophes such as 9/11.

After a military plane crashes in the Alaskan wilderness with some important VIPs on board, Zig knows Dover will be getting the bodies. And while the victims include the head of the Library of Congress, it's one particular victim that catches Zig's attention—Sergeant First Class Nola Brown. Nola knew Zig's daughter when they were younger, and saved her from a potentially life-threatening injury one night, but she disappeared shortly thereafter. Zig is determined to do right by Nola—and then he finds out it isn't her body in the coffin shipped to Dover.

So if Nola is alive, what happened to her? And why is everyone ready to believe she is dead? Zig can't stop from digging into the truth, especially when he finds a clue that Nola might have known what was happening that fateful day in Alaska. But the more he investigates, the more he finds himself entangled in a web of conspiracy, crime, violence, and potential scandal, which can be traced back to some of the highest positions in the U.S. government. And the more he digs, the more danger he puts himself in, as well as those around him, because those looking for Nola are always one step ahead.

But Zig also finds that Nola brings trouble wherever she goes. She's not interested in being found, nor is she interested in Zig's help. She doesn't care about the connection they shared—she simply wants to follow the trail that led to the plane crash, wants to understand who was responsible, and what they were into. She's utterly unprepared, however, for just who is involved.

"The deepest wounds—the ones that pierce you to your core—they heal, but they never disappear."

The Escape Artist is a top-notch thriller, but it's also a book about loss, pain, recovery, regret, and the physical and emotional scars we bear. Zig and Nola are fascinating characters, both tremendously stubborn yet vulnerable at the same time, although Nola seems a bit of a sociopath as well. The book shifts between the present and Nola's childhood, to illustrate the events which shaped her attitude and the armor she has built around herself.

There are a lot of characters with nicknames (The Curtain, Houdini, Horatio) to keep straight at times, and I'm still not 100 percent sure that I fully understood the operation that Nola and Zig uncovered. I also felt that the villain went on a bit too long in his dramatic "here's why I did what I did speech," a la the villains in superhero movies. But those were minor irritations, because I just felt the story was fascinating, and Meltzer delivered some fantastic action scenes and crazy twists and turns.

I imagine you'll see this one a lot over the next few months, so be sure to pick it up when it is released in March!

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

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Book Review: "Love, Hate and Other Filters" by Samira Ahmed

"I guess I don't know how to live the life I want and still be a good daughter."

Maya Aziz is a 17-year-old high school senior, the American-born daughter of Muslim Indians. Her mother expects her to be the perfectly obedient daughter, intelligent and demure, ready to head to college not far from her Illinois home and study medicine. Of course, that will do until her parents find the man she'll marry.

Maya, however, has utterly different plans for her future. Ever since her father gave her a video camera when she was younger, she feels most comfortable observing life through a lens. She dreams of a filmmaking career, and secretly applied to NYU so she can study her craft. But how will her parents take the news that she's ready to move far away from home and live her own life?

On the romantic front, Maya can't help but be intrigued by Kareem, a handsome college student and fellow film buff with whom her parents hope she'll make a match. He's everything her parents want for her, yet beyond being a suitable boy, he has a bit of an independent streak as well, and he clearly is attracted to Maya. So why is it that all she can really think about is Phil, a friend since childhood and the star quarterback of her high school football team, and one-half of the school's most popular couple?

As Maya tries to navigate her life the best way she can, she learns that there is far more to Phil than meets the eye, but she can't let herself think about him romantically when he's dating someone else. Besides, his not being a Muslim would pretty much rule him out in her parents' eyes—if she ever had a chance with him anyway.

When a terrorist attack happens in the state capitol, all of Maya's dreams are dashed. She once again realizes the prejudice she and her family and other Muslims face when something tragic happens. As violence and threats hit even closer to home, Maya wants to push past her fears and let her parents know that life—and her future—can't stop moving forward, but they are determined to protect her by clipping her wings. To what extent should she pursue her own path, and what will that mean for her relationship with her parents? And what about Phil?

"I'm scared. I'm not just scared that somehow I'll be next; it's a quieter fear and more insidious. I'm scared of the next Muslim ban. I'm scared of my dad getting pulled into Secondary Security Screening at the airport for 'random' questioning. I'm scared some of the hijabi girls I know will get their scarves pulled off while they're walking down the sidewalk—or worse. I'm scared of being the object of fear and loathing and suspicion again. Always."

Love, Hate and Other Filters is, in a lot of ways, two books in one. It's the story of an independent, creative girl determined to live life her own way, despite expectations and customs to the contrary, and it's a look at how all of her brashness is powerless in the face of love she doesn't feel entitled to. In that way, it feels like a typical YA book, and Samira Ahmed really lets you into Maya's heart and mind.

At the same time, this is a book about the prejudice Muslims face in our country, especially since 9/11. It tells of the fears Muslims have when they hear of an incident, how they hope against hope the perpetrator wasn't a Muslim so it won't cause people to look differently or angrily at them, even though they have nothing to do with what happened. It's also a story about how hard it is to decide whether to give in to your fears, to let them control you, or to fight them head on.

I really enjoyed this book, although at times it felt a little disjointed between the two storylines. But Ahmed created really engaging characters, many of whom transcended stereotypes, and she did throw a very unexpected twist in as well. I loved Maya and found Phil, Violet, Kareem, and Hina to be pretty fascinating. I wouldn't have minded if the book was longer, because I wanted more of their stories.

Love, Hate and Other Filters definitely gives you something to think about, but it's not heavy-handed in its messaging. It's a worthwhile, enjoyable read, although it may skew a little younger than many recent YA books I've read.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Book Review: "Milk and Honey" by Rupi Kaur


I really didn't know what to expect when I picked up Rupi Kaur's exquisite collection of poetry and prose. Poetry is often hit or miss with me—I totally appreciate it as an art form but sometimes I just don't get it. (I'm as creative as the next person, but sometimes my brain is tired and just wants to be told what something means rather than struggle to decode it. Sorry, I'm a Neanderthal.)

Milk and Honey is about happiness and despair, hurt and joy, love and sadness, and finding the strength to overcome your struggles. It is at times erotic, poignant, empowering, harrowing, and a celebration of all of the amazing qualities of women. Divided into four chapters—the hurting, the loving, the breaking, and the healing—each deals with a different step in relationships, both with someone else and with yourself.
most importantly love
like it's the only thing you know how
at the end of the day all this
means nothing
this page
where you're sitting
your degree
your job
the money
nothing even matters
except love and human connection
who you loved
and how deeply you loved them
how you touched the people around you
and how much you gave them
Some of the poems are accompanied by small illustrations. I'd imagine that the print version of this book would make a beautiful gift for someone; I'm not sure if I missed out on something reading it on my Kindle, because I'm not 100 percent sure if each separate page is a separate poem or if the book is just laid out strangely. (I am also not quite sure if only some of the poems have titles or if each poem has its title at the end, meaning the stanzas between titled pages represent one poem.)

Kaur is an absolutely dazzling writer. Her words evoke emotion, sexuality, femininity, anger, and hope. While perhaps some of this resonates more for women than for men, I still found this incredibly touching, incredibly moving, incredibly motivating, and at times simply breathtaking.
you might not have been my first love
but you were the love that made
all the other loves
This collection won't be for everyone. You need to be willing to put aside conventional notions of punctuation, capitalization, and the way sentences are divided. But more than that, you need to be willing to be vulnerable, to listen to Kaur's messages, and feel the feelings she is trying to convey. If you can do that, you will be richly rewarded by the beauty of Milk and Honey.

Book Review: "Killman Creek" by Rachel Caine

After delivering a heart-pounding, stay-up-real-late-to-finish-it thriller with Stillhouse Lake (which was one of the best books I read last year), Rachel Caine returns with Killman Creek, another adrenaline-boosted installment in this series. Once again, she delivers quite a punch!

“For years I clung to a terrible fiction of a marriage—a life in which Melvin Royal controlled every aspect of my reality, and I failed to realize or fear it. Gina Royal, the old me, the vulnerable me…she and the kids were Melvin’s camouflage for his secret, terrible life. On my side of the wall, I had only known that it all seemed so normal. But it never was, and now that I’ve left Gina Royal behind I clearly see that. I’m not Gina anymore. Gina was tentative and worried and weak. Gina would be afraid that Melvin would come hunting for her. Gwen Proctor is ready for him. I know in my heart that it all comes down to us. Mr. and Mrs. Royal. In the end, it always has.”

Gina Royal seemed to be living the perfect suburban life—loving (although slightly controlling) husband, two beautiful children. Then one day that illusion shattered when she and the world realized Melvin was a brutal murderer, and he perpetrated his crimes in their garage. After being arrested as his possible accomplice and facing the scrutiny of those who wondered how she could be so oblivious, Gina took the kids and fled, changing their names and hiding where she hoped those who believed she was responsible for her husband’s imprisonment and promised to make her pay couldn’t find her. Gina became Gwen Proctor, a kickass, take-no-prisoners, fiercely protective mother.

But even when they thought they found security in idyllic Stillhouse Lake, that illusion was again shattered. And although she wants to flee with her kids again, when she learns that Melvin has escaped from prison, she knows that he will stop at nothing to find her and the kids. She cannot—she will not—let him get to them, but she’s more than willing to use herself as bait if she has to.

Melvin isn’t willing to end Gwen’s anxiety anytime soon, however. Aided by a shadowy group of hackers and thugs, Melvin won’t be happy until he destroys Gwen and everything she holds dear, especially her already-shaky relationship with their children. There comes a point when even Gwen can no longer completely believe she didn’t play a part in Melvin’s crimes, leaving her completely isolated and vulnerable.

“You never understand how vulnerable you are in this age of social media until something breaks against you, and then…then it’s too late. You can shut down Facebook, Twitter, Instagram; you can change your phone number and your e-mail. Move to new places. But for dedicated tormentors, that isn’t a barrier. It’s a challenge.”

Is there anyone left for Gwen to depend on, or should she just surrender to Melvin’s manipulations, if it means saving her children? Will that even satisfy him? And as far as the kids are concerned, do they know whom they can trust? Will their decisions lead them into the trouble their mother warned them about, or will they realize a different truth about her, too?

Killman Creek is an excellent follow-up novel, nearly as strong as its predecessor. In this book, Caine shifts narration between Gwen, her kids, and Sam Cade, the mysterious man the family has called friend even though his motivations are questionable.

Caine is one terrific writer. She can balance razor-sharp action, nail-biting suspense, and moments of actual emotion, as she explores what hell Melvin hath wrought, and its effect on everyone involved in the story. There are times that you don’t know what is going to happen, or whom you should trust, and there are times you want to scream at the characters for making stupid blunders.

I’ll admit I would have been happier had the book been narrated just by Gwen and Sam, but I understood the perspectives the kids brought to the story, and the deepening of the narrative by doing so. As annoying as some of their actions were, they seemed true-to-life, especially for kids in the middle of such a maelstrom.

While you can read this book without reading Stillhouse Lake, why would you? Start at the beginning and then read this book. You’ll savor two taut thrillers in the hands of a badass writer. I can’t wait for what comes next!!

See all of my reviews at, or check out my list of the best books I read in 2017 at

Friday, January 12, 2018

Book Review: "This Could Hurt" by Jillian Medoff

Things at Ellery Consumer Research Group haven't quite been the same since the crash of 2008. Even the HR department took its licks, shrinking from 22 to 16 to 13 people, then finally to 11. But even though promises of stability were made throughout the company, even a year later, times were tough, and rumors of more layoffs float throughout the halls.

Rosa Guerrero is the chief of human resources at Ellery, a woman who fought hard through the years to get where she is now. She battled hostility, sexism, ethnic prejudice, but now, comfortably in her 60s, she rules the roost, and is well-respected throughout the company and within her own department. She knows the importance of both looking the part and acting it, and her own employees seek her advice, her counsel, her knowledge, and of course, her approval and favor.

She knows that the company may need to downsize itself a little longer, but she wants to do everything to protect her employees. She tries to put plans in place that will keep her staff out of the crossfire, while continuing to demonstrate her value and that of her team, but circumstances constantly foil her. Her staff is somewhat of a motley crew of ambition, ego, insecurity, hunger for power, and occasional dysfunction. What's a boss to do?

After discovering the wrongdoing of one long-time employee, Rosa feels betrayed, and starts to wonder how much longer she can handle the pressure of the job, especially as the CEO is breathing down her neck, expecting her to find ways that will allow for more people to be laid off. Little by little, chinks start to appear in Rosa's once-impenetrable armor, and her staff realizes they must protect her if they're going to be able to protect themselves.

This Could Hurt follows Rosa and her employees through a tumultuous year. From Lucy, the immensely ambitious yet insecure woman whose professional life flourishes while her personal life languishes, to Kenny, whose degree from Wharton makes him feel he's just biding time in this job until something better comes along—until he realizes nothing might, Leo, fiercely devoted to Rosa and the company, yet unhappy with himself and the path his life appears to be on, to Rob, happily married yet wanting more than he has, each employee faces crises, of conscience, of faith, and in their lives.

Truth be told, this book didn't work for me. I think it couldn't decide whether it wanted to be funny (sporadically the book features unnecessary footnotes a la Kevin Kwan's Crazy Rich Asians series, yet none were as humorous as intended) or serious, because the book did deal with some emotional issues as well as office politics, but it never stayed firmly in one camp. While I started out thinking the characters were interesting, none of them were really that likable, and their foibles and issues became repetitive.

I feel like when authors write novels about the workplace, they strive to capture the magic that the television show The Office had, but I've yet to find a book that can tap into that effectively. This Could Hurt is well-written and had an interesting premise, but it took too long to wrap itself up, and its conclusion, told in organizational charts over the years, is jarring, because they divulge changes in the characters' lives without explaining them.

I'm disappointed, but you can't win them all. At least reading this book made me realize I've worked in far crazier and more dysfunctional places, no contest there!

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Book Review: "Fire Sermon" by Jamie Quatro

When Garth Greenwell, whose book What Belongs To You (see my review), absolutely blew me away last year (it even ranked in the top five of the best books I read in 2016), took a pause from his social media hiatus to encourage people to read Jamie Quatro's Fire Sermon because of its absolute beauty, you can believe I listened.

I've got to say, Greenwell didn't steer me wrong. This book contains some of the most gorgeous prose I've read in some time, although the book as a whole didn't quite hit a home run for me. Still, there's so much raw emotion here—love, loss, hope, regret, fear, grief, wonder, and need—so it's really something.

"Was it something we carried in ourselves—something I sent out to you, and you sent out to me? Or did it exist independently, a potential fire hovering in the middle space between us, appearing only when we looked at one another? In which case, the second we stopped looking, the fire disappeared."

Maggie and Thomas met in college and married shortly after graduation. Maggie is a scholar, but is willing to put her educational pursuits on hold while she raises the couple's two children. She is happy (for the most part) doing her part to be the dutiful wife, devoted to her husband, her children, and God. While their relationship isn't perfect, she knows Thomas loves her passionately, and she feels secure in their life together.

When she resumes her teaching career, she begins a correspondence with James, a poet. At first, she is dazzled by his talent and marvels at their shared interest in theological writing, and their correspondence is professional and intellectual. But little by little, their communication transforms into something deeper, something that offers temptation, fantasy, perhaps even hope. When they finally meet, they are overcome by their feelings, and Maggie realizes all she has been missing her entire life.

Yet all too quickly, as strong as their feelings for each other run, they are consumed by guilt. Maggie must reconcile her devotion to God with her infidelity, her desire to throw everything away for James with the vows she took to love her husband until death do they part. They try to avoid seeing each other, even talking to one another, sticking solely to correspondence, but even that is tremendously difficult.

Will God forgive her? Should she confess to Thomas, even if that might jeopardize the family she holds so dear? Does she even deserve all that God gives her? Should she follow her heart, and stop caring about the consequences?

"(But would you leave a husband who, when you wake in the middle of the night, your body slick with sweat—dreaming you had to say goodbye to a man you slept with, once upon a time, but the man doesn't care, he has better things to do, he doesn't mind that he'll never see you again and the pain in your chest is so acute it forces you awake, gasping for air—this husband gets up to bring you a glass of water, then holds your hand across the mattress until you fall asleep? A man who, when your son brings home a girl who dropped out of high school and wants only to get married and have a kid, sits with her for an hour and talks about the benefits of higher education, offers to pay for her to take the GED and apply to colleges? Would you leave such a man? Or would you think: confess, repent, he is the one who should leave?)"

Fire Sermon examines one woman's struggles between the life she promised to live when she was 21 years old and the life she believes she so desperately wants, essentially a battle between duty and passion. At times powerful, at times quietly poignant, this is a book full of passion, conflict, need, and faith.

The book jumps between past and present, between Maggie's relationship with Thomas and her time with James, and also includes a great deal of theological conversation between Maggie and James, and Maggie's own conversations with God and an unidentified person. As someone who doesn't have much awareness of theology, while I understood the point that Quatro was making, I felt like those portions of the story slowed everything down and didn't quite work for me.

Maggie is a fascinating, fiery, flawed character, and Quatro draws her with such complexity. I was so taken by the storytelling and the language she used here, and I absolutely need to read her story collection now. Even though this book didn't quite knock me out, it's a story that really made me think, and I can't stop marveling at what a fantastic writer Quatro is.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Book Review: "Tin Man" by Sarah Winman

Oh my god, did I love this book. I don't know if everyone will feel the same way I did, but this one had me from the first page to the last.

I know that blurbs on the covers of books often come from friends or other authors from the same publisher, but when Matt Haig says, "This is an astoundingly beautiful book. It drips with tenderness. It breaks your heart and warms it all at once," how can you resist?

"'There's something about first love, isn't there?' she said. 'It's untouchable to those who played no part in it. But it's the measure of all that follows,' she said."

Ellis is a quiet boy growing up outside London. His mother has always felt a little stifled in their town, so she wanted Ellis to follow his dreams, to keep drawing, and to stay in school, paths that aren't necessarily encouraged in the 1960s. He meets Michael, the grandson of a local shopkeeper, and they become fast friends, Michael's more ebullient nature as a complement to Ellis' thoughtfulness.

As the two grow into manhood, they are nearly inseparable. Their friendship transforms, deepens, but both cannot give what the other wants. Then one day Ellis meets Annie and the two are instantly smitten with one another. Yet this isn't the type of story in which one friend gets discarded when the other gets married—Michael becomes a part of Ellis and Annie, an inseparable companion to each in a different way. They are whole when the three are together, mischievous, exuberant, bold.

But after a time, Michael needs to live his own life, and he leaves Ellis and Annie behind. This challenges the couple, as they find themselves becoming what they always swore they wouldn't be—ordinary. And as Michael sees places in the world he always wanted to, and experiences deep emotion, he feels a hole where his friends once were.

"In those days of my twenties and early thirties, I remember how friendships came and went. I was too critical — a disagreement over a film or politics gave me permission to retreat. Nobody matched Ellis and Annie, and so I convinced myself I needed nobody but them. I was a sailboat at heed to the breeze, circling buoys before heading out to the uncomplicated silence of a calm bay."

When Michael returns, the circle is once again completed. Yet he returns with secrets, secrets that could threaten the delicate balance of their lives. But their love for one another, and the joy they get from their friendship, is as if no time has passed.

I'm being a little vague in my description because I felt part of the story's beauty and power was letting the plot unfold. It jumps around through time from the 1960s to the 1990s, and shifts narration between Ellis and Michael. This is an immensely memorable story about friendship, love, and longing, and the blurred lines between those things.

This is a simple story, really—a tale as old as time, if you will—but it held me in its grasp completely. It runs just under 200 pages, so I read the entire book in an evening. This was not quite what I was expecting, but it absolutely blew me away. Sarah Winman's writing is so lyrical but yet it packs a punch. I loved these characters, and was sad that the book ended when it did—I'd love to see a sequel because there's so much more which could transpire.

It took eight days, but Tin Man is the first book to truly dazzle me in the new year. Again, it may partially be a function of the fact that books that touch my emotions really resonate for me, but this one I won't forget anytime soon. Wow, wow, wow.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Book Review: "The Woman in the Window" by A.J. Finn

Paranoia, the destroyer
Self-destroyer, wreck your health
Destroy friends, destroy yourself
The time device of self-destruction
Light the fuse and start eruption
—The Kinks, Destroyer

Reading A.J. Finn's new, much-hyped thriller, The Woman in the Window, I had lots of paranoia-related songs running through my head (including Garbage's I Think I'm Paranoid and the line from Harvey Danger's Flagpole Sitta which goes, "Paranoia, paranoia, everybody's coming to get me..."), but I felt the above lyrics by The Kinks described this book's protagonist perfectly.

Anna Fox used to be a successful child psychologist. She used to have her life together—marriage, family, career—but 11 months ago, a trauma left her with agoraphobia, so she's been unable to step outside of her New York City home all this time. She spends her days watching black and white movies, playing chess and learning French online, drinking too much while ignoring or doubling up on her meds, and counseling others like her in an online forum for people with agoraphobia.

She also has a bit of a photography habit, which stems mostly from her interest in watching what is going on outside her home, particularly in the homes of her neighbors. She's seen some pretty interesting things, including the recent afternoon activities of Mrs. Miller, who moved in across the street with her husband.

"Watching is like nature photography: You don't interfere with the wildlife."

When a new family, the Russells, move in directly across the park from her, Anna is quickly transfixed by them. They seem almost perfect—husband, wife, teenage son. She meets the son first and then the wife, and is amazed at how much she enjoys the wife's company. And then one night, as she watches through their windows, Anna sees something her eyes cannot believe. She knows it's something horrible, something she must alert the police about, and even provide help herself.

And that's the moment when everything turns upside down. Did Anna actually see anything, or was it a hallucination from her medicine or the old movies she has seen over and over again? What is she to believe, her eyes or those who tell her what her eyes have or haven't seen? What, and who, is real? Does she have anyone or anything to fear?

This is a taut thriller that definitely hooked me from the get-go. I had a lot of questions as I read, and wondered how Finn was going to bring everything together. While I felt like the book borrowed a lot from other thrillers and even some of the old movies Anna watched, the suspense definitely gets under your skin, and you absolutely want to fly through the book to see what the truth really is. Throughout most of the book, Anna feels like an old woman, but that's because of her condition. I had to keep reminding myself how old she really was.

I felt like the whole story took a little too much time to play out—there were only so many times I could handle Anna's drunken binges, her not being believed by those she trusted, and her intense paranoia, which pushed everyone away. But there are some great twists here, some I didn't quite see coming and one I suspected (which disappointed me), and much like many thrillers and crime novels, the perpetrator spends far too much time explaining themselves and their motivations.

I read a lot of thrillers so I tend to be really cynical about them. This is a good one, and I'd imagine this one is going to have many people eagerly turning the pages and staying up late because they can't get enough!

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Book Review: "How to Stop Time" by Matt Haig

"If you saw me, you would probably think I was about forty, but you would be very wrong. I am old — old in the way that a tree, or a quahog clam, or a Renaissance painting is old."

Because of a rare medical condition, Tom Hazard has been alive since the 1500s. Born into a wealthy French family, he has traveled all over the world, assumed many different identities, and led a life characterized by adventure, trauma, emotion, and loneliness. Tom has performed with Shakespeare, explored with Captain Cook, shared a cocktail with F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, and experienced the drastic changes the world has undergone through the centuries.

Even though he has seen incredible things, what Tom wants more than anything is a normal life. He had that once, back in Shakespeare's time, when he met a woman and fell in love, but as his unchanging appearance caught the notice of suspicious and fearful townspeople, he had to leave that life behind. Yet he's never stopped thinking of her and wishing things were different, that he was different.

"So, don't think of me as a sexy vampire, stuck for ever at peak virility. Though I have to say it can feel like you are stuck for ever when, according to your appearance, only a decade passes between the death of Napoleon and the first man on the moon."

Those like Tom are watched over by a group called the Albatross Society, which protects them and ensures they keep their longevity a secret from the general public. The shadowy head of the society, Hendrich, controls Tom and calls in favors to move him to place to place every eight years (since that is about the period of time before people notice he doesn't seem to grow any older). But Hendrich has his own ulterior motives, and his own methods of ensuring Tom and his brethren are kept in check. And the one major rule Hendrich has impressed upon Tom for many years now? Never fall in love.

Tom's latest persona is as a history teacher in London, a place that stirs old memories for him, memories of love and loss. But when he meets a beautiful French teacher who seems to think she's seen him before, he starts to wonder whether the rules to which he's adhered are truly worth it. What good is living for hundreds of years if you have to do so alone, without letting anyone get close to you? But Hendrich will stop at nothing, will use everything and anyone to ensure his charges comply with his rules.

This is a fascinating, beautiful, moving book about love, loss, loneliness, and adventure. How to Stop Time shifts between Tom's current life and the different persona he assumed throughout the years. It's both a rollicking adventure through time and a love story through time, populated with fascinating characters and events.

Matt Haig is a tremendous storyteller, and I found this book so creative, poignant, and enjoyable. It gets a little slow at times, but for the most part it's just such a beautiful story. Obviously, some suspension of disbelief is necessary for a story like this, but at its core, it's a book that explores universal themes. Definitely a winner.

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

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Book Review: "You Think It, I'll Say It" by Curtis Sittenfeld

Many of us, whether we'll admit it or not, have made snap judgments about people. Sometimes we judge people we might have met once, or known a long time ago, and are coming into contact with them again after a while. Sometimes we believe something about a person we know well, while other times, it's people we don't know, but we formulate an opinion based on something we hear them say or do.

The characters in Curtis Sittenfeld's first story collection, You Think It, I'll Say It, are all guilty of judging others, but the tension in the 10 stories occurs when those judgments are revealed to be incorrect, either gradually or all at once. The end result are thought-provoking stories which leave their mark in your head, and at times, in your heart.

I enjoyed all of the stories in the collection, although I felt eight of them were the strongest. My favorites included: "The Prairie Wife," in which an unappreciated housewife realizes a popular celebrity was a girl she was romantically involved with briefly during summer camp, although the celebrity is now a married darling of conservatives; "Gender Studies," which follows a college professor's fling with her airport shuttle driver—for the wrong reason; "Off the Record," about a freelance writer lined up to interview an actress on the cusp of major fame, someone she had connected with when interviewing them a few years earlier; "The World Has Many Butterflies," in which a man and a woman engage in a gossipy game every time they see each other, but only one interprets that as the sign of something deeper; and "Do-Over," about a reunion between two boarding school classmates who each have different interpretations of past events.

I've been a fan of Sittenfeld's since I read her debut novel, Prep, back in 2005. I found it so engaging and surprising, and I've followed her work ever since. That same talent is more than evident in You Think It, I'll Say It—these stories aren't outlandish or unrealistic, and you could imagine the situations the characters face happening to you, or hearing about them from people you know. Her writing style is so breezy and approachable, and there were times I didn't realize how dazzling her words were until after they passed me by, kind of like a person wearing a cologne or perfume you suddenly catch the scent of.

I know short stories aren't for everyone, but this is one of those collections I think even non-story lovers might enjoy. Most of the stories feel like mini-novels, and there were at least a few I'd love to see developed into something more expansive. You Think It, I'll Say It is a prime example of why I love stories, and the incredible talent it takes to make a collection work. Come on, give it a shot!

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

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Book Review: "Things I'm Seeing Without You" by Peter Bognanni

"The morning after I dropped out of high school, I woke up before dawn in my father's empty house thinking about the slow death of the universe. It smelled like Old Spice and middle-aged sadness in the guest room, and this was probably at least part of the reason for my thoughts of total cosmic annihilation. The other part I blame on physics. The class I mean. Not the branch of science."

Tess has been in a downward spiral since Jonah died. She met Jonah at a party although he attended college in Boston. They spent time together one night (although she spent most of it puking and/or sleeping after drinking too much), and then began a long-distance relationship via text, chat, and email. Even though they kept talking about seeing each other again, Jonah always seemed to put off making plans, but still, Tess was content. More than content—she fell in love with him.

Can you sustain a relationship when you never see the other person? Tess and Jonah shared every thought, even inventing a game called "Things I'm seeing without you," where each person describes what they are seeing at that moment in time.

"At some point, I didn't know when, life had only started to feel real when I wrote to him about it. I was a better, funnier version of myself when I told him things. Life was manageable that way. My brain was manageable."

She had no idea Jonah suffered from depression, and was utterly unprepared for his suicide. In fact, she didn't even know what happened until she saw things people posted on his Facebook wall. Unable to cope, she dropped out of the Quaker high school she was attending in Iowa and decamped to her father's house in Minneapolis, where he has lived since her parents' divorce. She has no motivation to do anything, yet she continues to write to Jonah, and that gives her a little bit of comfort.

As she tries unsuccessfully to process Jonah's death and how it has affected her, she starts helping her father with his latest business venture, as a funeral planner who dabbles in animal funerals. (Don't ask about the exploding dog.) While she first sloughs it off as a joke, she starts becoming emotionally invested in helping their clients, realizing that giving a person a funeral how they want it to be is a much better gift than she'd imagine. It's the kind of closure that causes her even more emotional pain.

One day, Tess gets a message that completely knocks her for a loop. Suddenly her pain and sadness are mixed with anger, loss, and betrayal, and she doesn't know how to process these feelings. She doesn't know what to do or how to handle her feelings, which causes a great deal of tension between Tess, her father, and a rival funeral planner who is barely holding her own self together.

Can you mourn someone you might not have really known? How do you handle a loss that seems to utterly encompass you to the point where you're incapable of doing anything else? What is the proper way to say goodbye to someone you've loved? Peter Bognanni strives to answer those questions, as best as they really can be answered, in Things I'm Seeing Without You.

I first discovered Bognanni's writing when I read his amazing book, The House of Tomorrow. Some of the same emotion and angst that characterized that book is present here, as is Bognanni's talent for storytelling. There is a great deal of poignancy in this book, and some truly beautiful moments. The dialogue between Jonah and Tess, and even some of Tess' interactions with others, is clever and often funny, without being too precious or sophisticated.

My main challenge with the book is that Tess is a fairly unsympathetic character, even before she has a reason to be. That made it a little more difficult to feel her pain, because she was so mean to everyone else, even though that meanness was caused by grief. I understood why she felt the way she did, but she kept everyone at such an emotional remove. I also felt like it took a little too long to come to a conclusion—things dragged on a bit longer than I felt they needed to.

That being said, I was moved by Things I'm Seeing Without You, and it's made me think about life and relationships a little differently. Bognanni is such a great writer, and now I'll begin the wait for his next book!

Monday, January 1, 2018

Book Review: "The Shadow Girl" by Misty Mount

Have you ever felt invisible? Even though you may be speaking or doing something to get attention, have you ever felt like people just aren't hearing or noticing you?

Thirteen-year-old Zylia feels that way constantly. But it's more than being one of six kids, competing for the attention of her parents, and it's more than just adolescent insecurity or impatience. There have been times where her mother literally doesn't see her, doesn't serve her breakfast alongside her siblings. There even was a time when the kid sitting in front of her in class didn't pass her a quiz because he didn't see she was there, and the teacher didn't even notice.

Is she actually disappearing, crazy as it sounds?

There's one person who notes Zylia's presence, though—her grandmother, although she is in the throes of dementia. Zylia keeps hearing that she somehow resembles her great-aunt Angelica, who disappeared many years before, when she was Zylia's age. Anytime she goes near her grandmother, the woman becomes gets agitated, accusing Zylia of knowing where Angelica is. Her grandmother believes Zylia is keeping Angelica from her.

In her quest to understand what is happening to her, Zylia discovers that her fears are justified—she keeps inadvertently traveling into a shadowy "in-between" dimension. Can she stop this from happening permanently, before it's too late? Can she solve the mystery of what happened to Angelica, and perhaps give her grandmother some comfort? And perhaps most importantly, can she just start living a "normal" life, and focus on friends, and perhaps the boy she has a crush on?

I'm being a little vague in my description of the plot in an effort not to give too much away. This is a book that should be enjoyed as the plot unfolds for you.

I really enjoyed The Shadow Girl, and it surprised me tremendously. When I first started reading the book, I thought it was going to be a tale of adolescent woe, but it turned out to be something completely different, and beautifully imaginative. Misty Mount captured the buzz of a huge household, the sibling dynamics, the dialogue of school and home so perfectly, and yet as the plot shifted, her storytelling shifted with it. Her use of imagery is immensely lyrical, almost poetic.

This is a book about self-discovery, finding bravery when you think you have none, and trusting that those who care about you will stand by you. There are elements of fantasy which will require you to suspend your disbelief, but they so perfectly fit within the confines of the story Mount has created. Oh, yeah, and the names of the characters are awesome.

If you've ever struggled with being shy, feeling insecure, you'll identify with Zylia, and you may even cast a few wayward glances toward your reflection in the mirror, just to be sure.

The author provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

The Best Books I Read in 2017...

Well, this has been quite a year, hasn't it? It's been a year of utter craziness and turmoil, but I helped mitigate the sheer wackiness and what-else-could-go-wronginess by reading. A lot. Like more than ever before.

I read 172 books in 2017—the most I've ever read (or at least since college, when I managed a bookstore and was able to read most of the day). This high total was the fringe benefit of a year of significant travel, a few days of vacation here and there, insomnia related to a case of severe bronchitis and the flu simultaneously, and most of all, some pretty amazing books.

As I've done for the last eight years, I went back through all of the books I've read and come up with a list of my favorites. Culling 172 books down to a finite number was really, really difficult, so what I've done is come up with a list of 25, along with an additional 13 which just fell short of the very best but they're too good to miss.

I've linked to my original review of each so you can read more about each one. I'd love to hear your thoughts, and know which books you'd count among your favorites, even if you didn't read as much as I did! I'll list my top five (in random order) and then the remainder of the books will be in random order as well—ranking would be far too complicated!!

The Best of the Best

Beartown by Fredrick Backman: Backman's book is focused on a small town which many think is dying out, a town literally obsessed with hockey. I was thinking I would get a Swedish Friday Night Lights but instead found so much more than a hockey novel. Backman pulled off a colossal feat, a literary mic drop. See my original review.

The Heart's Invisible Furies by John Boyne: A book about love of all kinds. This is a story of friendship, love, sexuality, bravery, pain, loss, violence, politics, religion, prejudice, and trying to find peace within ourselves, against a backdrop of some of the more tumultuous times in our world. It's a searing look at how all too often we hide our true selves from those we care about, out of fear, self-loathing, and self-preservation. See my original review.

Sadness is a White Bird by Moriel Rothman-Zecher: 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. I absolutely loved this book and found it very surprising at times. See my original review.

The Force by Don Winslow: Nothing short of a masterpiece, this hopefully will be the book to finally make Winslow a household name. While the story of corruption in the ranks of the NYPD may be a familiar one, in Winslow's hands, it is raw and gripping, one of those books you can't stop reading, and it feels incredibly current. It's magnificently told—it's a big novel with a big vision and a fairly large cast of characters. See my original review.

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid: At once both sharply current and dreamily magical, this book is social commentary, fantasy, and an emotion-laded look at how we crave connection even in the most chaotic, the bleakest of times. At a time in our world where some wish to label all immigrants in a negative way, this is a stark reminder of why so many flee their countries, and how their humanity is often lost in the process. See my original review.