Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Book Review: "Love and Other Words" by Christina Lauren

I'm not a fan of the term "chick lit," because I think it's often used to downgrade a book, to connote that it shouldn't be taken seriously or it's not as well-written as "real" novels. But the truth is, whether you call Christina Lauren's new book, Love and Other Words, "chick lit," "women's fiction," or whatever, I absolutely loved it—gender label be damned!!

Macy and Elliot were inseparable as teenagers. Elliot's family lived next door to the house her father built for the two of them to escape to on weekends and holidays, while mourning the death of her mother. Macy and Elliot's shared love of reading, their quiet, contemplative, even sensitive nature, drew them together quickly, and cemented a friendship that was the biggest thing in their lives.

But as they grew toward adulthood, their feelings blossomed. Elliot was no longer the awkward, gangly kid she used to know—he was becoming a man she couldn't get out of her mind, one with whom she wanted so much more than companionship, and trading favorite words. He felt the same thing about Macy, and hated the fact that he only was able to spend time with her on weekends and holidays, when he wanted to be with her always.

And on the night he finally declared his love for her, something they both felt so intensely, he wound up breaking her heart, leaving her a complete wreck. Macy never spoke to him again, never returned to the house, and left Elliot wondering how things could have changed so drastically, how he was going to live without the person he thought about every day. Macy, too, had to rebuild her life, and she coped by keeping everyone at arm's length, never letting anyone close enough to hurt her, never giving anyone a chance.

Eleven years later, Macy feels like she's pulled herself together. She's a pediatric critical care resident, and she's engaged to an older, well-established man with a young daughter. Maybe there's not a lot of passion, but the sex is great, and she feels, well, secure. Isn't that enough? It seems that way until she runs into Elliot one day at a coffee shop near her hospital.

"He's my person. He's always been my person. My best friend, my confidant, probably the love of my life. And I've spent the last eleven years being angry and self-righteous. But at the end of the day, he tore a hole in us, and fate ripped it wide open."

As Macy and Elliot try to catch up on the last 11 years, the intensity of their feelings for one another come rushing back instantly. But is she willing to throw away the security she's found for a chance to get hurt again? Would they even work as adults anyway, when so much within and between them has changed? And how can they get past what happened 11 years ago if she's not sure she can even talk about it, let alone deal with it?

I thought this book was excellent—every heartfelt, emotional, sexy, melodramatic second. Love and Other Words takes the story of best friends who become something more and then throws them into utter discord. You may have your suspicions about what happened but you can't understand what would necessitate not speaking to one another for so long, and building barriers around your life like Macy did.

I loved these characters, even when they were being selfish, petulant, or just plain ridiculous. There is just so much heart and emotion in this book, so much love, and I couldn't get enough. I would've devoured the entire book in one day if I wasn't in the middle of my busiest time at work. I know when I pick up my Kindle while I'm sitting at traffic lights so I can squeeze in a page or two, I'm hooked.

Christina Lauren, the authors (it's a pen name for two friends) of one of my favorite books from last year, Autoboyography (see my review), once again prove they're excellent storytellers who want you to feel and think and grow along with their characters. Don't worry about what genre this might fall in—just call it "great fiction," or even, "lit lit." (See what I did there?)

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Book Review: "Every Other Weekend" by Zulema Renee Summerfield

"It is 1988 and America is full of broken homes. America's time is measured in every-other-weekend-and-sometimes-once-a-week. Her drawers are filled with court papers and photos no one looks at anymore. Her children have bags that're always packed and waiting by the door."

Nenny is eight years old when her parents tell her and her brothers, Bubbles and Tiny, that they are getting divorced, their father is moving into a new apartment, and they'll see him every other weekend.

After living in a house with their mother and a friend of hers from the hospital where she works, their mother starts dating a new man, Rick, a Vietnam vet who also works at the hospital. Rick has two children of his own, Kat, an emotional, know-it-all 16-year-old, and Charles, who is Nenny's age.

Once Nenny and her siblings have gotten used to the upheaval in their lives, they are thrown another loop when their mother and Rick marry, and they move into Rick's house. Suddenly, Nenny has more siblings and has to deal with a mother who must spread her attention and love even thinner, plus she must navigate the newness of Rick, his off-putting silences, his thriftiness, and the emotional distance he seems to keep.

Nenny is a nervous child with an overactive imagination. She fears experiencing the types of disasters she hears about on the news—fires, earthquakes, home invasions—but she also fears unbelievable scenarios she's dreamed up, like Mikhail Gorbachev drafting her and all of her classmates into the Russian army, or her mother disappearing, never to be heard from again. But as she prepares for what she believes to be the worst to happen, she and her family are unprepared for the tragedy that does occur.

Every Other Weekend is a nostalgic look at growing up a child of divorce, when all of the things you've relied on for security are gone, and you have to become acclimated to an entirely new life. It's a book about desperately wanting to be noticed, wanting to be loved, and having that need be so palpable. It's also a book about how families can change shape and reform, and how it takes time to realize that comfort and love come from surprising places, when we least expect it.

This was a sweet book, and Zulema Renee Summerfield really created a memorable character with Nenny—silly, sweet, emotional, loving, confused, fearful, and curious. I thought the book would be pretty predictable, yet Summerfield definitely chose her own path from time to time. She's a very talented writer, and none of her characters are more precocious than their ages—they sound authentic rather than too clever for their own good.

The story shifts between real life and Nenny's fears, as well as some strange chapters which felt a little more like non sequiturs than plot devices, and that disrupted the flow of the story for me. But at its core, this is a poignant story with a lot of heart, featuring an endearing character you'll remember.

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

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Book Review: "The Only Story" by Julian Barnes

"First love fixes a life forever: this much I have discovered over the years. It may not outrank subsequent loves, but they will always be affected by its existence. It may serve as model, or as counterexample. It may overshadow subsequent loves; on the other hand, it can make them easier, better. Though sometimes, first love cauterises the heart, and all any searcher will find thereafter is scar tissue."

When Paul was 19 years old and visiting his family in a stifling London suburb while on summer break from university, his mother encouraged him to visit the local tennis club. While silently mocking the self-important people who took their tennis seriously and themselves even more so, he is randomly partnered in a tournament with Susan Macleod. Despite the obvious differences between them—Susan is in her late 40s, married, mother to two adult daughters, the two develop a strong bond.

Susan likes to tease Paul for his youthful braggadocio, his lack of real knowledge of the world around him and relationships, and his playful nature. Paul is utterly fascinated by Susan's sense of humor, her candidness about her unsatisfying marriage and her less-than-appealing husband, and the sense that she's not concerned or shocked by anything. After a long period of flirtation, the two become lovers.

Despite disapproval from his parents and some in the community around them, Susan and Paul carry out their relationship hidden in nearly plain sight. He spends a great deal of time at her house, being routinely welcomed and abused by her husband and daughters, and Paul wonders if everyone knows the truth and chooses not to delve too deeply, or if they're fooling everyone. An idealistic young man, he dreams of running away with her one day, rescuing her from the life she seems unhappily chained to.

"One of the things I thought about Susan and me—at the time, and now, again, all these years later—is that there often didn't seem words for our relationship; at least, none that fitted. But perhaps this is an illusion all lovers have about themselves: that they escape both category and description."

When the couple finally does flee to London and move in together, at first it seems like the realization of their (mostly Paul's) dreams. He has escaped his parents' disappointment and helped free Susan from a loveless and occasionally abusive marriage. But little by little, the cracks in their relationship begin to show themselves, the differences between them magnify, and Paul realizes that there is deeper unhappiness in Susan than he ever could imagine.

In The Only Story, Julian Barnes provides a meditation on first love, on the most impactful relationship in our lives, and how it shapes our later views on love, relationships, happiness, and trust. It's a longing, nostalgic look at what seemed like simpler times, before we realized what a hold the world had on us, and how factors beyond our feelings for one another can affect our relationships. It's also an insightful commentary on obligation, desire, commitment, and emotion.

Barnes is really a magnificent writer. I absolutely loved his book The Sense of an Ending (see my review), which I read seven years ago. But while I marveled at Barnes' use of language, emotion, and imagery, I didn't find this book particularly captivating. I was drawn in by the subject matter, but it moved very slowly, and meandered quite a bit. Paul also had a way of being coy with his narration, which frustrated me.

May-December romances are familiar literary fodder, and today, we're just as apt to read stories about younger men and older women, with the man being more affected than the woman. While Barnes definitely brings a few new twists to this age-old trope, I wish that The Only Story had a little more spark for me, so I could remember more than just how beautifully told the story was.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Book Review: "How to Walk Away" by Katherine Center

When you can accurately predict nearly the entire plot of a book, yet you still can't tear yourself away from it—that's when you know you've found a good one.

Margaret Jacobsen has always been an overachiever. She worked tirelessly to get good grades and succeed in school. She has been dating her handsome, steadfast boyfriend, Chip, for several years now, and she just landed her dream job, even though she wasn't quite qualified. Everything is leading her up to the moment she's been waiting for—she knows Chip is going to propose and they'll begin their journey to happily ever after.

Yet how often does everything turn out just as you've planned it? In a split second, perhaps the most magical moment in her life to date turns into her biggest nightmare, and she's powerless to stop it. The next thing she knows, she wakes up in the hospital, having to face obstacles like she'd never imagined.

"We were the very definition of helpless, and as I realized that, it also hit me that everything I'd been looking forward to was over before it even began. Chip and me—and the lakeside wedding we'd never have, and the rescue beagle we'd never adopt, and the valedictorian babies we'd never make. They say your life flashes before your eyes, but it wasn't my life as I'd lived it that I saw. It was the life I'd been waiting for. The one I'd never get a chance to live."

Suddenly, the woman for whom everything has worked out perfectly has her whole life turned upside down. Yet at the very moment when all she wants to do is wallow, she has to deal with those around her as well. Chip is drowning in self-pity and wants Margaret to forgive him and give him the easy way out, without an ounce of sacrifice on his part. Her mother has taken on this challenge as she's taken on every other obstacle in life—full steam ahead—and will stop at nothing to make her daughter fight to get every ounce of her life back and believe that is possible. Margaret's sister Kit returns after a three-year absence, and tries to help her with her quirky sense of humor and her unflagging sense of enthusiasm.

And then there's Ian, Margaret's physical therapist. The one the hospital staff thinks is too mean for Margaret's wounded psyche. The only PT who doesn't encourage or laugh with his patients, but instead just pushes them harder. The one who seems as if he feels nothing for anyone, except rage for his boss and the situation he's found himself in.

Margaret wants some semblance of her life back, but doesn't know what that entails, and she doesn't know how to handle those who purportedly know better than she does. How can she look forward to a life that will never be the same, never be what she had dreamed of? Will she even be able to have the things that "normal" people want—love, a family, a job, a future?

"I kept things calm, I stayed pleasant, I took my medicine—but the truth is, I had woken up in a dystopic world, one so different that even all the colors were in a minor key, more like a sour, washed-out old photograph than anything real. It looked that way, and it felt that way, too."

From the very first pages, How to Walk Away drew me in. As soon as I figured out what was happening, I knew where the plot would go, and while at first I was a little frustrated, this book won me over almost immediately. These characters seem familiar yet they are so appealing, even when they're acting selfishly, headstrong, impetuous, or insensitive. It didn't matter that I knew what would happen from start to finish—I cared about these characters and needed to be part of their story.

This is a book about finding hope and courage where you think you have none, about how you need to be the person to motivate yourself and buoy yourself through tough times—you can't depend on those around you. It's also the story of how it's always great to have family and supporters and loved ones around, but you have to learn to do things for yourself, too.

I'm being a little evasive with the plot even though many reviews explain just what happened to Margaret. I thought it was better to let the story unfold for you, even though you might very well predict it, too. This is tremendously appealing and so winning, that even when you wonder just how likely it would be that certain things would happen, you tell yourself to stop overanalyzing and keep enjoying.

A book that tugs at your heartstrings and makes you talk to yourself: how can you ask for anything more? I can see a lot of people really loving this one.

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!

Monday, April 16, 2018

Book Review: "The Smell of Other People's Houses" by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock

First of all, how freaking cool is this title?

Dora dreams of the stability of a family, of being able to sleep at night without fear, of belonging and feeling wanted. She has never had those things with her own parents, but she gets them living with her best friend Dumpling and her family.

No matter how secure Dora feels, she knows it's just a matter of time before she has to return to her real life, to embarrassment and poverty and danger, because you can't outrun your family. Even when something good happens, it brings out what you've tried to forget about.

Ruth barely remembers her father, and her mother's mysterious disappearance leaves her and her younger sister in the care of her immensely strict, cold grandmother, who watches over them to ensure they never think too highly of themselves or believe they are better than others. But when Ruth finds herself in trouble, she learns there is far more to her grandmother than she imagined, and she also learns that one mistake doesn't doom you for life.

Alyce dreams of being a ballet dancer, and she's talented enough to follow her dreams. But the only life she's ever known is on her father's fishing boat. How can she tell her father she wants to dance and not help him? How can she abandon her mother and pursue her dreams?

Hank and his two younger brothers need to escape their unstable home life, and they decide it's better to run away than continue living amidst possible danger. But when a single incident puts one brother in danger, Hank has to decide whether to put his trust in those he doesn't know, or risk everything.

"...as a matter of survival, I don't take people at face value. I wait. Some people may look harmless, but most are just waiting to flare up and burn you if you get too close. You can never be too careful."

In Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock's gorgeous debut novel, these characters' lives will become intertwined in ways they could never have predicted. They'll realize that people really can save us in our time of need, even people we've never known before. They'll realize that each of us has untapped reservoirs of courage that we can rely on. Even more, they'll realize that sometimes the family we choose brings us more love than the family we're born into.

The Smell of Other People's Houses is immensely heartfelt, a story of friendships and families and secrets and hopes and fears, set against the backdrop of Alaska in the 1970s. While the situations these characters face are certainly familiar, they're still tremendously compelling in Hitchcock's hands. This is a book full of emotion and beauty, which so accurately captures the big and small moments of life.

As much as I loved this book, it's not perfect. There are a lot of characters in this book and it took a while to figure out which one was which, and how each was connected to the story. The narration shifts among the four main characters, so there were moments when I had to remember which person was telling the story. But for me, those quirks didn't detract from the book's overall appeal and poignancy.

I thought this book was really special, and it's one I won't forget anytime soon.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Book Review: "Norwegian by Night" by Derek B. Miller

Sigh. I really wanted to like this one.

Derek B. Miller's Norwegian by Night tackles a lot of weighty issues—growing older, how we deal with grief, being a stranger in an unfamiliar place, reconciling our spiritual identity, unrest among Eastern European countries, and bonds that form between strangers. It's a pretty ambitious mission for a book that's supposed to be a bit of a thriller.

Sheldon Horowitz is nearing the end of his life. His beloved wife Mabel has died, and he has never gotten over the death of his son Saul during the Vietnam War. Whether or not he's suffering from dementia is a matter of debate, as is the question of what he did during the Korean War—Sheldon insists he was a Marine sniper, although there's no evidence of that as far as Mabel ever knew.

"His memories were just becoming more vivid with age. Time was folding in a new way. Without a future, the mind turned back in on itself. That's not dementia. One might even say it's the only rational response to the inevitable."

Begrudgingly, Sheldon agrees to leave his longtime home in New York City and move with his granddaughter Rhea and her husband Lars to Norway. It's more than a bit of a shock for Sheldon, being in a country where he doesn't speak the language, and where he's only one of 1000 Jews. So he expresses his displeasure with generally refusing to do what Rhea asks of him, and being increasingly more cantankerous.

One day when Sheldon is home on his own, he hears the woman who lives upstairs quarreling yet again with a man whose voice he hears quite frequently. That day the screaming becomes more strident, and before he realizes what is happening, Sheldon protects the woman's young son from what appears to be impending violence. The two hide, and when Sheldon realizes what has happened, he knows the boy is in danger, and the two of them flee.

As the pair begins their journey to find safety, they make an unlikely duo—an 82-year-old man who spends a lot of time in his head remembering people and times past, and a young boy that Sheldon calls Paul, a boy who speaks no English and isn't quite sure what has happened. For Sheldon, protecting the boy seems like an opportunity for a second chance, and it brings back memories that he has carried with him all these years.

If this book was just about Sheldon and Paul's search for safety and the people hunting them down, this could have been a really fascinating and heartfelt thriller. Unfortunately, Miller took the plot all over the place—it was often difficult to determine when Sheldon was reminiscing and when he was focused, there was a lot of conversations among the people hunting for the boy and discussion of the plight of Kosovo at the time, and the plot also got hijacked by the chief police inspector as she tried to find Sheldon before the bad guys did.

I know some people really enjoyed this book, but it was just too scattered for me, and there was so much stuffed into one story I found it hard to keep my interest. I liked many of the characters, so I might consider reading another of Miller's books (it looks like he's just written another, American by Day, which features the chief police inspector) in the future. I just wish this one worked out a little better, because it had so much potential.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Book Review: "The Gunners" by Rebecca Kauffman

From a young age, the six of them were inseparable friends—Mikey, Jimmy, Sam, Alice, Sally, and Lynn. They pranked and teased, protected and supported each other, and even helped each other cheat in school. They became The Gunners, after the name on the mailbox of the abandoned house in their neighborhood they took over as their de-facto clubhouse. Even into their teenage years, they knew they'd be friends forever. But of course, that wasn't what happened.

"As children, The Gunners could not have imagined that by the time they were sixteen years old, one of them would turn her back on the others, and the group would be so fractured by the loss, the sudden and unexplained absence of this one, that within weeks the other friendships would also dissolve, leaving each of them in a dark and confounding solitude."

Mikey Callahan never leaves their hometown, although the rest of The Gunners head off in every direction. All of them except Sally, whose sudden, mysterious departure from the group caused its demise. Sally still lives in town as well, but even though she and Mikey see each other, she never speaks to him or even pretends to know him. It further reinforces Mikey's feelings of loneliness and disconnection—he has a tenuous, almost formal relationship with his father, and he is slowly going blind due to macular degeneration. For a 30-year-old, he feels old and alone.

Although Mikey and his old friends keep in sporadic touch, they are all brought together when Sally unexpectedly commits suicide. Jimmy, Sam, Alice, and Lynn return home, each bearing their own wounds from life. As they reunite and reminisce, each is buoyed by rekindling the bonds of friendship, and pained by Sally's absence, and the confusion and hurt they all still feel about her abandoning the group. But many are also burdened by the belief that it was their actions that caused Sally's break from the group and their lives, and perhaps led to her suicide years later.

It's always amazing how vividly childhood memories can live on into adulthood, and how the hurts we sustain in childhood can continue to haunt us as well. Rebecca Kauffman's heartfelt story captures the innocence and the pain of growing up, the beauty and the disillusionment that friendship can bring to our lives, and how the memories and the connections we make are ones to be cherished our entire lives.

The Gunners tells a familiar story in many ways, yet Kauffman throws in her own unique touches. The narration shifts from childhood to adulthood, alighting on different memories of each of the friends. This is a beautifully written, poignant book with fascinating characters, but we don't get to know all of them as well as I wish we had. Mikey, however, is the heart and soul of this book, and his journey, his longing, tugs at your heart and your emotions.

For those who are disturbed by such things, there is a segment toward the end of the book (which runs far too long, although I understood the overall point Kauffman was looking to make) which takes place in a meat processing plant, so there are descriptions of animals being killed and processed. I pretty much skimmed most of it, but it may upset some.

While the plot of The Gunners didn't remind me of the movie Stand By Me in any way, I couldn't stop thinking of my favorite quote from that movie while reading this book: "I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?"

This book is a wonderful tribute to the power of connection, of belonging, and the beauty of friendship. I so enjoyed this.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Book Review: "Emergency Contact" by Mary H.K. Choi

I totally agree, soon-to-be Princess Meghan! (Yes, I know she won't actually be called that, but I don't care.) I loved loved loved this book, and it reminded me of how good an amazing YA book (or any book for that matter) makes me feel.

Penny can't wait to go to college and escape her high-maintenance mother, Celeste. Celeste seems to forget she's the mother and Penny's her daughter, and having to keep avoiding your mother's attempts to be your best friend and dress like you and talk about cute boys is utterly exhausting. All Penny wants to do is become a writer and leave her old life behind, and even if it's just a little more than an hour away from home.

Sam is a mess. His family life is a shambles, he lives in a storage room above the coffeehouse where he works, and he had to drop out of school because he couldn't afford it. He's trying to get over his cheating ex-girlfriend (who can't seem to stay away completely), and he wishes he had more money so he could take a film class and start making documentaries.

Although Penny and Sam meet once when she visits his coffeehouse with her roommate, Jude, who is sort-of Sam's ex-niece, their meet-not-so-cute occurs when she spots Sam having a panic attack on the street and she rescues him. Their shared quirky sense of humor quickly bonds them in friendship, and the two become each other's emergency contact, and a sounding board for the things they're feeling about life around them.

Their relationship is purely textual, but they can't get enough of each other. They can say anything they want to each other, and it's amazing how dependent each becomes on the other. Both feel the desire, the pull to take a further step, but what if the other doesn't reciprocate those feelings? What if they don't work as more than friends? How can they jeopardize this incredible relationship they've built?

"It wasn't a romance; it was too perfect for that. With texts there were only the words and none of the awkwardness. They could get to know each other completely and get comfortable before they had to do anything unnecessarily overwhelming like look at each other's eyeballs with their eyeballs. With Sam in her pocket, she wasn't ever alone. But sometimes it wasn't enough. Penny knew she should be grateful, yet there was this niggling hope, this aggravating notion running constantly in the background of her operating system, that one day Sam would think about her and decide, 'To hell with all these other chicks I meet every day who are hot, not scared of sex, and are rocket scientists when it comes to flirting, I choose you, Penelope Lee. You have an inventive, not-at-all-gross way with snacks, and your spelling is top-notch.'"

How do you know when to take a leap of faith and risk it all? How can you protect yourself from the possibility everything could go amazingly wrong? And how can you let other people in when you've spent so much of your life insulating yourself from everyone to be sure you don't get hurt? Emergency Contact tries to answer those questions, and does so with such memorable, amazing, quirky, awkward characters I absolutely loved.

This is one of those books where the main characters talk at a sophistication level above where most people their age do, but for Sam and Penny, that absolutely worked. Even though you've probably seen this story before, maybe countless times, in Mary H.K. Choi's hands, it's so fresh and appealing, and I just couldn't get enough.

I never trust when blurbs compare one book to another, yet the comparison to Rainbow Rowell's Franklin & Park (one of my all-time faves) isn't way off the mark. There's a quirkiness to Choi's writing that is utterly endearing, much like Rowell's, and both authors have so much heart.

Loved it. Loved it. Loved it.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Book Review: "The Dependents" by Katharine Dion

Gene and Maida Ash were married for 49 years. Gene loved his wife very much, even if he didn't necessarily know how best to show it. But he enjoyed their life together, even if he felt that there were times where Maida didn't express herself fully or let him know how she was feeling—about him, their marriage, their daughter, anything.

He isn't sure how to handle his grief. His daughter, Dary, with whom he has never quite seen eye to eye no matter how hard he tried, returns home with her daughter to try and help him, and Gene and Maida's closest friends, Ed and Gayle, also provide assistance and a sympathetic ear. Trying to think of life without Maida feels strange, although perhaps less stressful at times, and he is unsure of how he will spend his time and energy now that he is alone.

"There were people who told him his grief would diminish, but he didn't believe them. That his father's death was still an experience reverberating inside him after all these years suggested that the distance a person traveled from death was just along a circle, and all it took was one new loss to show you that you were still traveling the same line."

As he begins to think about his life and marriage, he starts wondering if Maida was as happy as he thought she was, if she was actually satisfied with their marriage. He begins to question events in their past, things she said and did, and wondered if he was missing signs she was giving. What was the true nature of Maida's relationship with Ed, since it was Ed who introduced the two of them in the first place? Was she looking for Gene to be more, do more than he was? What is the source of animosity between him and Dary?

The Dependents shifts between the present and the past, providing a look at Gene and Maida's relationship from the beginning, and exploring how Gene tries to deal with the loss of his wife and the anxiety this loss is causing him, since he isn't sure what to think about their relationship any longer. You see Maida through Gene's eyes, and you see his earnestness to be a good husband, yet his initial awkwardness at how to initiate a relationship with her.

This is an interesting look at the cycle of grief, and how in an instant you can go from being with someone to their being gone. The book explores the question of how we can ever really know a person, even if we've been with them forever, and whether you should trust your memories or begin questioning things after the fact, and whether the answers to those questions will be helpful anyway.

Katharine Dion is a really talented writer, and she very effectively captured the emotions that accompany loss, and how the grieving person interacts with others. She also dealt with the struggle between acceptance of grief and still wanting more from life, and whether doing so is a betrayal of the person you've lost.

I struggled with this book a bit because I think it left a lot of questions. What were we to believe about Maida, in the end? Was she satisfied with her marriage and her life, or did she settle? Was there more to her relationship with Gene, or others? And why did Dary have such anger toward Gene? I didn't feel like these questions were settled, which left me in as much uncertainty as Gene, and that isn't entirely satisfying.

This is a good effort for a debut novel, however, and I look forward to seeing what comes next in Dion's career.

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

Friday, April 6, 2018

Book Review: "I'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer" by Michelle McNamara

Since its publication earlier this year, some have asked whether Michelle McNamara's utterly engrossing true crime book, I'll Be Gone in the Dark, would be as popular if McNamara, the wife of comedian and actor Patton Oswalt, hadn't died suddenly while writing the book in 2016. While that tragedy certainly raised the book's profile, the fact is, this is a tremendously well-written and compelling book, worthy of every bit of acclaim it's gotten. It's just sad McNamara isn't around to appreciate the response to her years of hard work.

"Violent men unknown to me have occupied my mind all my adult life—long before 2007, when I first learned of the offender I would eventually dub the Golden State Killer. The part of the brain reserved for sports statistics or dessert recipes or Shakespeare quotes is, for me, a gallery of harrowing aftermaths: a boy's BMX bike, its wheels still spinning, abandoned in a ditch along a country road; a tuft of microscopic green fibers collected from the small of a dead girl's back. To say I'd like to stop dwelling is beside the point."

Unsolved crimes—particularly murders—were an obsession of McNamara's from when she was 14 years old. Growing up the youngest of six children in Oak Park, Illinois, in the mid-1980s, a young woman from her neighborhood was murdered one night while jogging. Even though some boys she knew might very well have seen the murderer shortly after he committed his crime, the murder was never solved, and from that act of senseless violence, a fascination which turned into an obsession and a career was borne.

"I was a hoarder of ominous and puzzling details. I developed a Pavlovian response to the word 'mystery.' My library record was a bibliography of the macabre and true. When I meet people and hear where they're from I orient them in my mind by the nearest unsolved crime."

McNamara created the true crime website TrueCrimeDiary.com, where she enjoyed rehashing unsolved cases with the police and others originally involved in them, as well as other armchair detectives. But nothing gripped her like the havoc wreaked by the man she dubbed the "Golden State Killer," a man who terrorized Northern California for more than 10 years in the 1970s and 1980s, committing 50 sexual assaults and 10 brutal murders, before disappearing without ever being caught.

In I'll Be Gone in the Dark, McNamara laid out the grisly, disturbing trail this killer and rapist left behind. Buoyed by painstaking research, she provides stories about his victims and those who got away lucky, the dogged police officers and detectives tasked with hunting down this criminal mastermind. It's fascinating but frustrating, in that without the technology used today in solving crimes, without the kind of knowledge about serial killers and serial criminals that exists today, this criminal was able to escape.

While that in and of itself makes for an interesting read, McNamara wasn't afraid to talk about herself as well, and how this obsession affected her life. Reading this book brought you closer to the mind of a fascinating woman, one who will never be able to tell her own story in greater detail, nor will she be able to see how people reacted to her book. She was a great writer, and her research and interpretation was top-notch. There was a reason that police detectives were willing to talk with her and rehash the crimes they couldn't solve—because they knew she got them.

In his blurb for the book, Stephen King said it best: "What readers need to know—what makes this book so special—is that it deals with two obsessions, one light and one dark. The Golden State Killer is the dark half; Michelle McNamara is the light half. It’s a journey into two minds, one sick and disordered, the other intelligent and determined. I loved this book." Yep.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Book Review: "Inside Charlie's Chocolate Factory" by Lucy Mangan

My favorite movie of all time is Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, the original version, starring Gene Wilder. (People who ask, "Which version," flummox me; as far as I'm concerned, there was never any reason to remake it in the first place!)

The book has always been a favorite of mine, too; in fact, Roald Dahl is one of those authors whose books were such an integral part of my childhood. (Interestingly, I've seen the movie so many times, and it's been a while since I read the book, so I sometimes forget which things were carried over into the film, and which things were created anew!)

Lucy Mangan's Inside Charlie's Chocolate Factory was written in 2014, to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Dahl's book. For fans of the story and the movie, this book is a treasure trove of trivia, memorabilia, and fascinating facts, about what led Dahl to write the book, his life at the time it was written, and the inspirations behind each of the movie adaptations. Some things I knew, and some things I was really surprised by.

Some things I found really interesting:
  • The name "Willy Wonka" was pulled nearly out of thin air—Dahl's brother used to make a kind of boomerang for him, which he called "Skilly Wonka," so when Dahl sat down to write the book, he remembered that, and decided to change two letters in the name, and the rest is history.

  • Broadway actor (and eventual Academy Award winner) Joel Grey was one of director Mel Stuart's first choices to play Wonka in the 1971 film, yet despite his proven ability to sing, dance, and act, he felt Grey "wasn't physically imposing enough" to be a surrogate father figure to the children. (They found out later that Fred Astaire had been interested in playing the part, but nothing came to fruition; perhaps the fact that Astaire was in his early 70s at the time convinced him not to pursue it.)

  • Although in my mind, and the mind of countless moviegoers through the years, Gene Wilder was truly the quintessential Willy Wonka, apparently Dahl disliked Wilder's portrayal. Apparently he wanted an actor like Peter Sellers, and he was unhappy that Wilder was completely wrong for the role, playing it for "subtle adult laughs." (Ironically, that's one of the things I love so much about his performance—the sly asides which became clearer with multiple viewings, and getting older.)

This book once again reminded me why I love Willy Wonka the character, and the movie, so much. Mangan did some terrific research and although the book doesn't quite follow a linear path—it jumps between the book and the movie adaptations from time to time—Mangan keeps your interest the whole way through. This is as much a story of Dahl as it is his characters and his creative process.

You don't have to be the kind of person who knows the entire movie word for word, used a quote from the movie as his senior quote in college ("We are the music makers and we are the dreamers of dreams"), and has a collection of character figurines in their office at work to enjoy this book. If you have fond memories of being read, or reading, Dahl's original book, or watching the movie, you'll enjoy this deliciously delightful trip into the world of pure imagination.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Book Review: "True Fiction" by Lee Goldberg

Hollywood, instead of "rebooting" a franchise for the umpteenth time, adapting another television or Broadway show into a movie, or launching another comic book character, I have your next property right here. Lee Goldberg's newest novel, True Fiction already reads like a movie, combining a little bit of television shows like Castle with movies like the Jack Reacher series. It's a quick read, with appealing characters and a frenetic pace.

Ian Ludlow is an author of a best-selling series of thrillers featuring Clint Straker, a James Bond-esque action hero who always knows how to save the day—and perhaps the world—and, as you might imagine, is quite popular with women all over the globe. But as much as he'd like to think there are lots of similarities with his character, no one would mistake Ludlow for Clint Straker.

"What they saw was a guy on the dark side of thirty with the soft body of someone whose idea of exercise was walking into McDonald's rather than using the drive-through."

When a passenger plane crashes into a busy Waikiki hotel, Ludlow is horrified, because he knows this wasn't just some tragic accident, and he knows who is behind it. He knows because several years ago, he was part of a group of thriller writers tasked by the CIA to dream up the unlikeliest of terror scenarios, ostensibly to help the agency prepare for any potential disaster. During that group meeting, Ludlow was the one who dreamed up how something like this could happen.

After he puts together some facts about recent occurrences in his life, he realizes his life is in danger. With Margo, the woman hired to escort him to a few local book signings, as his only companion, Ludlow must figure out how to stay one step ahead of the shadowy political conspiracy that needs him to disappear. It's not too long before the pair realizes that to survive, Ludlow needs to think like his famous character—which shouldn't be too hard, since he created him, right? But the enemy they face has more resources at their disposal, and they'll stop at nothing to get rid of these dangerous nuisances.

This is a crazy book—even though so much of the action at first glance seems far-fetched, given what's been going on in our world lately, it's scary to think that at least some of this—especially the use of technology to track Ludlow and Margo's escape attempts—might actually be possible. Sure, you probably know how things will resolve themselves, but Goldberg does a great job getting you hooked on the plot from the get-go, and you can't wait to see where the story will go.

I didn't realize how prolific a writer Goldberg is—he's written more than 30 books, including 15 Monk mysteries. This was a terrific introduction to his storytelling talent, and I practically devoured this book. It was great to read a book that felt like a movie, and didn't let up on the action and suspense until the end. Hope to see this on the big screen someday, and I hope there's another Ludlow book on the horizon!

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Book Review: "The Family Next Door" by Sally Hepworth

"The truth was, despite appearances, she didn't know much about her neighbors at all."

I've been reading a lot of books over the last few years about tight-knit neighborhoods in which secrets are brewing below the surface—Liane Moriarty's Big Little Lies, Marybeth Mayhew Whalen's When We Were Worthy, Jessica Strawser's Not That I Could Tell, and now, Sally Hepworth's newest book, The Family Next Door, just to name a few.

Reading these books certainly makes me wonder just how many secrets were hidden in the suburban New Jersey neighborhood where I grew up years ago!!

Pleasant Court, in the Australian town of Sandringham, has always been a quiet spot, where houses are quite expensive because there is a beach at the end of the road. No one new has moved in for quite some time, especially no one single, so the neighborhood is thrown a bit when Isabelle (who lives alone but spoke of a mysterious "partner" to the real estate agent) moves in alone. Everyone wants to know more about her—is she straight or gay, what brings her to Sandringham, why is she renting her house, and what secrets is she hiding?

The thing is, despite their curiosity about Isabelle, there are other residents of Pleasant Court who have things to hide as well, despite how picture perfect their lives seem. Why is Fran out jogging for long stretches of time two, sometimes three times a day? Is she punishing herself for something? Why is Ange's husband never where he says he is, even though he always seems so willing to help her with the kids or household chores? Why is his phone ringing all the time? And should people be worried that Essie, who several years ago left her baby daughter alone at the park, might be suffering from postpartum depression again after the birth of her second child?

As each individual struggles to navigate the chaos of their own lives, they still want to know more about Isabelle. While she's friendly to everyone, she seems to know a lot about Essie and her life, and it's Essie with whom she really wants to build a friendship. And as Essie's initial unease around Isabelle starts to deepen into something more intense, her family and friends start to get concerned. What does Isabelle want? Why did she move here? The secrets threaten to upend many lives, and roil the relative calm of Pleasant Court.

So many people raved about this book, and I was excited to read it not long after it was released. I found it took a while to build up steam, but once Hepworth started ratcheting up the suspense, it became pretty fascinating. I will admit there was one twist I just didn't see coming, and given how many thrillers I read, it's no mean feat to surprise me. The characters are certainly quirky and flawed, but for the most part, the issues they're dealing with are commonplace, so it doesn't feel like you have to suspend your disbelief.

I'd imagine this is going to be a book you see lots of people reading over the next few months, as it's a perfect vacation/beach read. This may have been the first of Hepworth's books I've read, but it won't be the last, because she's a talented storyteller, not drowning her story in lots of extraneous subplots, and throwing in enough red herrings to keep you guessing.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Book Review: "From the Corner of the Oval" by Beck Dorey-Stein

Beck Dorey-Stein was a twenty-something former teacher unsure of not only what she wanted to do with her future, but whether she'd even be able to find a job to sustain her until she figured out her life. Living in Washington, DC to be closer to her boyfriend, she cobbles together a number of part-time jobs to make ends meet, but she's envious of those who know what they want.

When she answers a Craigslist posting for a job, she figures it won't amount to anything. She's more than shocked to find out that this isn't a random clerical job—it's a position as a stenographer in the Obama White House. Stenographers don't take dictation anymore—instead, they're in the background of every speech, every presentation the president makes, no matter where in the world he is, microphone in hand, recording his words and transcribing them for history and/or public release.

From the Corner of the Oval follows Beck as she learns the ropes of her job and White House protocol, builds friendships with her colleagues in different positions throughout the administration, and begins to travel the country—and the world—viewing current events and the president's reactions to them at close range. She gets to have opportunities she never would have thought of, such as traveling on Air Force One and running on a treadmill next to the president.

"We're always just a few ticks, clicks, updates, and pings away from personal and collective disaster, but right now we're not our titles but our own selves—people with backgrounds and futures and exes and half-dead pets and crazy parents and broken hearts and broken hearts and big dreams; people who are listening to the president as he tells a funny story from two countries back, twelve hours ago, depending on which time zone you're counting in. We're so different, but we're swimming in this same punch-drunk delirium, and we have one major thing in common: We've found ourselves, shockingly, amazingly, how-the-fuck-did-this-happen crazily, flying halfway around the world on Air Force One. We are lucky. We are so goddamn lucky."

The constant demands of her job take their toll on her relationship with her boyfriend, who after volunteering with Obama's re-election campaign in 2012, becomes more desperate to recapture that enthusiasm and magic. Their on-again, off-again, often-long-distance relationship leaves her vulnerable to the advances of another senior staffer, someone far from appropriate relationship material, yet someone Beck finds unable to resist, no matter how many times she winds up hurt.

As the Obama presidency moves closer to its conclusion, Beck becomes ever more enamored with her job and the president, and more confused about what her next step should be. This book so accurately captures the enthusiasm so many felt around the Obama administration, his family, and his reactions to the events which unfolded—tragedies like Sandy Hook and the Boston Marathon bombing, and his historic trips to Cuba and Vietnam. At times I felt sad reading the book because of the immense juxtaposition between his administration and the one currently in the White House.

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this book. Dorey-Stein is so engaging, and she drew me right in as she began recounting her experiences. Her story was told almost in an "aw, shucks" manner, as if she couldn't believe her good fortune in getting to be witness to history and be in such close proximity to this president. Her description of the despair many of her colleagues felt when Hillary Clinton lost the election stung, because I remember feeling similarly, although for different reasons.

I don't read a lot of memoirs, but this was so appealing, so enjoyable, and such a quick read. All of the people with whom Dorey-Stein shared her writing throughout her tenure in the White House weren't lying—she really can write, and we are lucky she shared her seemingly unbelievable journey with us.

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

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Book Review: "Legendary" by Stephanie Garber

Legendary, the second book in Stephanie Garber's Caraval series, takes you on a kaleidoscopic ride full of dazzling imagery, incredible magic, and so many twists and turns, you wonder what will come with each subsequent page. It's a little dizzying, a little mesmerizing, and immensely memorable.

Before I get fully into the review, I must say that all I kept thinking about when reading this book was:

"Legend truly did deserve the name he'd given himself. Tella wondered if Legend's games ever ended, or if his world was an endless maze of fantasy and reality that left those caught inside it forever suspended somewhere between the two."

Caraval is a magical performance which usually occurs once a year. It is a grand spectacle, where no one is sure what is real and what is merely part of the game, and yet lives are forever changed by what happens within it. Everything that happens in Caraval is orchestrated by the world-renowned Caraval Master, known only as Legend. No one knows Legend's true identity—in each game he is portrayed by someone else, taking on another form. But few have more power.

Donatella (Tella) Dragna is a feisty, almost-fearless young woman who found herself swept up in the madness of Caraval when her older sister Scarlett escaped the island on which their father was holding them both prisoner. After rescuing Scarlett from an uncertain fate and saving her from an arranged marriage sure to ruin her, the sisters made it through Caraval, and now have their lives ahead of them, finally free of their father's control. But why aren't they happy?

Tella, it seems, is determined to uncover the truth behind a painful family secret. To do so, she has made a bargain with a mysterious and dangerous criminal, who has promised to give Tella what she so desperately longs for. But of course, there is a price: this person wants to know Legend's true identity, so he can use it for nefarious purposes. There really is no perfect solution for Tella, but getting what she wants means more than almost anything, so she agrees to his bargain.

Tella must immerse herself in a special round of Caraval, where the stakes are higher than ever before. Along the way, she will tempt fate—and her own mortality; encounter a dangerous heir to the throne whose power is very real; and she'll question the intentions of everyone she comes into contact with—including her own sister. She'll also be challenged by her own heart, which she never believed would lead her to love, and even if it is, she's not sure that the person at the end of the path is worth the risks and sacrifices she must take. All the while, Tella isn't sure what is real and what is merely part of the game.

"She liked the thrill that came with taking risks. She loved the feeling of doing something bold enough to make her future hold its breath while she closed her eyes and reveled in the sensation that she'd made a choice with the power to alter the course of her life. It was the closest she ever came to holding real power."

This is a fascinating series of books, and Legendary is a worthy sequel to Garber's first book, Caraval (see my review). The world she has created is fascinating, dazzling, a combination of fantasy and magic that paints pictures in your mind which are utterly glorious. I would love to see these books as movies, just to see how a filmmaker could capture this tantalizing universe.

When you're reading a book where the main character isn't sure what is real and what is artifice, things tend to get a little confusing from time to time. I had to re-read some paragraphs here and there to make sure I understood what I read. And there are a lot of different storylines and legends being unwoven in this book, so at times my attention wandered a bit until the story focused back on Tella's efforts to win Caraval. When the book hits its groove, you just want to devour it and experience it all at once.

I feel like I've been saying this a lot in my reviews recently, but this is definitely not a book for everyone. If this interests you, I'd recommend starting with Caraval first so you can truly appreciate the magic Garber creates here. This reminded me a little bit of Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus, so if you loved that book, definitely give this series a try. I definitely hope Garber takes us back to Caraval once more!!

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

Monday, March 26, 2018

Book Review: "The Sky is Everywhere" by Jandy Nelson

Jandy Nelson doesn't just write books—she creates dazzlingly beautiful, poetic masterpieces of words and images, which leave you breathless and shaken to your core, your mind spinning. Her second book, I'll Give You the Sun (see my review), still holds a place in my heart and my brain almost four years after I read it, and it made my list of the best books I read in 2014.

I've always wanted to read her debut novel, The Sky is Everywhere, but I've held back, because it made me happier knowing there was still one of her books I had yet to read. But after being a bit of an emotional wreck after seeing Love, Simon this past weekend (what an amazing movie), I thought why not just plumb my emotional depths? Once again, this book had me crying, exclaiming aloud at some of her words, and seriously wanting to applaud when I was done. (And I thought her second book was a tiny bit better than this one!)

"I wonder why bereaved people even bother with mourning clothes when grief itself provides such an unmistakable wardrobe."

Lennon—Lennie for short—is consumed with crushing grief after the death of her older sister, Bailey. Bailey, an aspiring actress, was larger than life, dramatic, a force of nature drawing everyone into the centrifugal force of her being. Lennie, more cerebral, a musician, was more than happy to play second fiddle to her sister, who has been her protector since their mother left them with their grandmother when they were little.

"He was telling us that Thoroughbred racing horses have these companion ponies that always stay by their sides, and I remember thinking, That's me. I'm a companion pony, and companion ponies don't solo. They don't play first chair or audition for All-State or compete nationally or seriously consider a certain performing arts conservatory in New York City...they just don't."

In the wake of Bailey's sudden death, Lennie is emotionally adrift, and amazingly, the only anchor she can find is Toby, Bailey's boyfriend, of whom Lennie was always a little bit jealous. Suddenly their relationship is overcome by intense longing and passion, something that Lennie has never felt before, yet she isn't sure whether she actually wants Toby, or if being with him is a way of preserving her sister. And when a breathtakingly handsome new boy, an immensely talented musician, comes to school, Lennie finds herself falling for him with an intensity she never knew possible, yet it is an intensity complicated by her feelings for Toby.

"I kiss him. I mean really kiss him, like I've wanted to do since that very first day in band. No sweet soft peck about it. With the same lips that just kissed someone else, I kiss away his question, his suspicion, and after a while, I kiss away the someone else too, the something else that almost just happened, until it is only the two of us, Joe and me, in the room, in the world, in my crazy swelling heart. Holy horses."

The Sky is Everywhere is a book about how we attempt to cope with crushing loss, and how we are often blind to how those we love are dealing with the same grief. It's a book about how love consumes us, bewitches us, makes us believe we are the only ones who have ever felt this way, and that it's okay to act impetuously, foolishly, carelessly with others' feelings.

At the same time, this is also a book about finally finding yourself after willingly standing in shadow for so long, about coming into your own and finding the courage to act, and about understanding how your past shapes your future. Nelson's storytelling fills you with emotion, makes you root for her characters, and just leaves you gasping with amazement at times because of her word choices and the feelings Lennie is experiencing. You want to hug her and protect her, yet you want to shake her, too, because of her single-mindedness as she ignores her family members and friends.

I hope Nelson has another book in store for us soon. Not everyone enjoys YA books as much as I do, but Nelson's books are so beautifully written, so intensely felt, that you're missing out. She is a talent that deserves to be experienced, and her stories deserve to be read.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Book Review: "The Italian Party" by Christina Lynch

On its surface, Christina Lynch's The Italian Party is like a fancy dessert—it's lovely to look at, but you aren't sure if there will be any substance beneath the decorative frills. But when you dig in, you realize there's more to it than meets the eye.

Newlyweds Scottie and Michael leave America to move to Siena, Italy, where Michael will be selling Ford tractors to Italian farmers, to get them to start absorbing American culture. It's the 1950s, not long after World War II, and there are signs that Italy is ripe for the influence of Communism, something that America fears.

Scottie and Michael don't really know each other that well—they married fairly quickly, and each made assumptions about the other. Scottie left her studies at Vassar (she wasn't much of a student anyway, and feels good about getting her "MRS." degree), and doesn't want Michael to know that before marrying him she was mostly interested in celebrity gossip, fashion, and horses. Meanwhile, Michael is all too happy to flee his parents' unhappy marriage and the memories of an older brother who died in the war, a brother who wasn't very nice to him anyway.

Neither is really sure how to make a marriage work, and both have major secrets they're hiding from the other. Michael is ostensibly "working" in Rome quite a bit, or he's at his office trying to sell tractors to reluctant Italians, which leaves her home alone, without much knowledge of Italian or anyone to talk with. It leaves her vulnerable to the attentions of other men, so in an effort to help her cope, Michael encourages a teenage boy from the community, Robertino, to teach her Italian.

When Robertino disappears, Scottie is determined to find out what happened to him, and she becomes a thorn in the side of those supposedly investigating his case. The deeper she digs, the more secrets she uncovers—about her husband, his job, their marriage, and their purpose for being in Italy. While these secrets throw her completely off-guard and make her wonder what she should do, they also ignite a passion within her, a passion to make things right in a city she has come to love.

"Italy was not carefree and sexy like they made it seem in Roman Holiday. It was dense and mysterious and dangerous and confusing."

Novels taking place in Italy, like Jess Walter's Beautiful Ruins or Delia Ephron's Siracusa, tend to charm me, because their setting often seems so magical and glamorous. That charm worked for me with The Italian Party as well. I thought Lynch did a good job juxtaposing the frivolous and serious, interjecting elements of history with the story of a relationship built on secrets and lies.

At times my attention wavered a bit, when the characters stopped to lecture each other a bit about history and politics, but for the most part, I really enjoyed this. Lynch definitely kept me guessing—even though many elements seem familiar, the way she put them together made the story compelling. Her characters are flawed yet fascinating, and she did a terrific job with imagery and details. Oh, and if you read this with an empty stomach, man, you'll be hungry!!

I was intrigued by this book when I saw a number of my Goodreads friends reading it, and even though their opinions were mixed, I really wanted to read it. I enjoyed it—it's not perfect, but it's a compelling, well-written read, with lots of twists and turns.

Ciao, bella!!

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Book Review: "The Frontman" by Ron Bahar

If John Hughes made a movie about a slightly nerdy, Jewish high school student torn between pleasing his parents and pursuing the career (and the girl) of his dreams, it would be a lot like Ron Bahar's The Frontman. This is a fictionalized account of the author's life in the 1980s, growing up in Lincoln, Nebraska, the son of Israeli immigrants.

For as long as he can remember, Ron has known his parents have expected him to be a stellar student so he can go to medical school. He's willing to work as hard as he can, and he's actually interested in medicine, so following this path isn't too hard for him. But he has other ambitions, too, and he's getting tired of hiding those from his parents or pretending they don't matter.

Ron loves to sing, and he knows the words to nearly every 80s song there is. He's most comfortable lip syncing or singing karaoke, but every now and again he dreams of the glory that could come from being a band's lead singer. When his friends start to give him the opportunity to sing a song or two during their band's performances, he starts to love the adrenaline rush that performing gives him, not to mention the attention he gets from the girls in the audience!

Everyone tells him how talented he is as a singer, and even someone in the music business tells him he shouldn't let his voice go to waste. But his parents don't like the idea of him using his voice for anything other than religious purposes, so how would they react if he abandoned his (and their) dreams of medical school for a career in music?

And that's not his only dilemma. He has had a crush on Amy Andrews, the daughter of close friends of his parents, for quite some time. Amy is beautiful, smart, friendly, and crazy enough, she likes insecure, geeky Ron as much as he likes her. Wounded by her parents' divorce, Amy wants someone to be true to her and protect her, and she wants to believe Ron is that person. Ron wants to be that person, and more than that, he wants Amy. There's just one problem.

"Even at the tender age of twelve, however, I understood that, to my parents, Amy represented the ultimate forbidden fruit: the non-Jewish girl to the Jewish boy. With regard to my feelings, I knew they knew, they knew I knew they knew."

The more success he has in singing, the more jealous and distant Amy becomes, plus he has to hide how much he's enjoying it from his parents. He doesn't want to disappoint them, but whose dreams should he pursue—his or his parents'? Is there a happy medium? Can he get his parents to accept Amy as the one he loves?

This is a goofy, endearing book, full of 80s references (each chapter is prefaced with a snippet of lyrics from a song that hit the charts in the 80s), and quirky humor. Since Bahar lived this life (or at least a version of it), he obviously has a great deal of affection for his characters, even as they do misguided or inappropriate things. And who hasn't struggled between doing what you want and what your parents want?

The Frontman is a quick, fun read, one that brought back lots of memories.

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

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Book Review: "Need to Know" by Karen Cleveland

Wow, this was so good!

If you're looking for a suspenseful thriller that will keep you guessing, one that seems tailor-made for the movies, look no further and pick up Karen Cleveland's Need to Know. (In fact, the film rights have already been sold to Universal Pictures for Charlize Theron.)

Vivian Miller has the perfect life—a handsome, supportive husband, a challenging job as a CIA analyst, and four beautiful kids. Sure, with her career moving at breakneck speed she's not at home as often as she'd like, so she's missing key moments in her children's lives, but she's doing important work that impacts the country, as she tries to track down a Russian sleeper cell here in the U.S. It's what she has been working for, and success means a big promotion.

One day, in the midst of some surveillance on the laptop of someone believed to be a handler of Russian spies, she makes a discovery that takes her breath away and turns everything upside down. For someone who has always been so sure of what her next steps are, she suddenly feels completely out of control, and doesn't know where to turn. But the one thing she does know is she must protect her children, her family, and the life she has known—no matter what the cost.

It seems like whatever decision Vivian makes is the wrong one, and it plunges her deeper and deeper into a situation with serious ramifications. She knows, however, that she is stronger than everyone thinks she is, and she tries to search for a way to turn her situation around. But whom should she trust? How will she know if believing in someone will be her downfall, and possibly cost her her family, her future?

I'm being somewhat vague because even though you can guess some of what will happen in this book, there still are a lot of twists and turns I didn't see coming. From nearly the very first page, Cleveland revs the engine of this story and doesn't let up until the very last page. Vivian is a pretty tough character, and I could totally see an actress like Charlize Theron playing her.

If you like spy thrillers and espionage, or television shows like The Americans, this book should be right up your alley. I nearly read the entire book in a day, because the pacing and the storytelling were top-notch. Now I can't wait to see what Cleveland does next!!

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Book Review: "Digging In" by Loretta Nyhan

My mother, God rest her soul
Couldn't understand why the only man
She had ever loved had been taken
Leaving her to start
With a heart so badly broken
Despite encouragement from me
No words were ever spoken...

—Gilbert O'Sullivan, "Alone Again Naturally"

I loved this! What a great story.

Jesse was a part of Paige's life since eighth grade, and he was her only love. Often it was the two of them against the world, and she always knew she could count on her husband and their marriage. Then one day, an accidental tap of a highway median, and it was all over—he left her alone with their teenage son, Trey.

"Forever. Till death do us part. The thing is, no one tells you what to do when the parting happens. And they forget to explain that when death is sudden, the parting is actually a ragged tear, not a clean separation. It leaves all the ends unfinished, and they just unravel and unravel and..."

That was two years ago, yet she's still drifting through life. The house is in disrepair, the yard is a shambles—much to the chagrin of her uptight neighbor, whose anger seems excessive despite the number of dandelions and other weeds that have popped up. Trey, now a high school senior, is getting increasingly frustrated with his mother's antics, preferring the stability of a friend's house. And even though she used to be able to coast at her advertising job, a new boss has changed the dynamic at work, leaving Paige and her colleagues to compete for their jobs.

"Death was final, but grief wasn't; it was a dirty street fighter who rose again and again even when I thought I had successfully knocked it to the ground. King of the sucker punches."

One night, staring at the condition of her lawn, remembering Jesse's obsession with ensuring it was perfect and reeling from her neighbor's anger at her neglect, she starts to dig. Putting her hands in the dirt feels therapeutic, but she makes a mess. As the hole gets bigger, she decides she's going to turn the entire backyard into a vegetable and herb garden, which again runs her afoul of her neighbor and others in her perfectly ordered and manicured community. Yet for the first time, she doesn't really care.

She's determined to make her garden work, but she's barely holding it together otherwise. Her son is hurting and angry, her boss is disappointed and wondering if he should cut her loose, and her homeowners' association is on her tail, but little by little she realizes she's the only one who can rescue her life. With the help of friends old and new, and the interest of a kind policeman, she starts to take root into her new reality, no matter how difficult it may be.

Even though you've seen this story before, in Loretta Nyhan's hands, it's so engaging, enjoyable, and poignant. Paige is a tremendously sympathetic character, yet she has her flaws, and it's fascinating as she realizes that some of the things that brought her so much comfort throughout her marriage might have left her at a disadvantage now. But as much as she just wants to put her head in the sand and just mourn Jesse forever, she knows she must pull herself and her life together, for her sake as well as her son's.

The way each person deals with grief in this situation is very different, but some of the emotions Paige experiences I've seen in my mother as she has navigated life since my father's death nearly four years ago. Incredibly, Nyhan was in the middle of writing this book when she lost her own husband, which certainly increases the poignancy of this book and Paige's story. There certainly are moments which might bring a tear to your eye, but this isn't a maudlin book in any way—it's warm and immensely readable, and I nearly read the entire book in a day.

Lake Union Publishing made this available through Amazon's First Reads program. Thanks for making this available!

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Book Review: "Crimson Lake" by Candice Fox

I've never been to Australia, but it's definitely a place I'd love to visit someday, and I find myself obsessed with all things Australian. I also think it's a terrific setting for books, particularly thrillers—there's just something about the dry heat, the wetlands, the bush country that seems unrelenting to me, which is one reason I've been drawn to books like Jane Harper's terrific series featuring Aaron Falk, The Dry and Force of Nature, and now, Candice Fox's Crimson Lake.

Ted Conkaffey was a police detective in Sydney—well-respected by his peers and good at his job, happily married with a newborn baby daughter. Needing to escape his house one afternoon after an argument with his sleep-deprived wife, he decides to take a drive and then go fishing. A random stop on the road to fix something in his car puts him in the wrong place at the wrong time, and he has no idea just how those six minutes will turn his life upside down, as he is accused of abducting and attacking a young girl he saw along the road that day.

Imprisoned for a crime he swears he didn't commit, his wife and his longtime friends and colleagues turn their backs on him. His release for insufficient evidence doesn't vindicate him, it merely frees him. With nowhere to go, and no one who believes he's innocent, he heads north to the wetlands of a small town called Crimson Lake. He tries to keep a low profile but it's not long before people figure out who he is and what he stands accused of, so he must defend himself from vigilantes and two dogged policemen who want to do him harm.

Through Ted's lawyer, he connects with Amanda Pharrell, a quirky, eccentric private investigator—and a convicted murderer, who served time for a gruesome crime when she was a teenager. The two team up to try and find out what happened to the author of a wildly popular book series which juxtaposed religion and young adult drama. It turns out the author had some secrets of his own, and there appears to be more than a few people who wished him harm.

As Amanda and Ted work their case, Ted isn't entirely sure whether Amanda was guilty of the crime she was punished for, and he can't stop himself from looking into it. Meanwhile, he continues to be taunted by those who believe he shouldn't be free, and those who don't like the idea of the two criminals joining forces—and some mean to do him, and perhaps Amanda, grave harm if they don't heed their warnings.

This is one of those books that hooks you at page one and doesn't let you go. It's taut, tense, and it packs quite a one-two punch of action and suspense. Ted and Amanda are both fascinating characters—you really don't quite know what to believe about either of them. Fox is a great storyteller, and she really makes you feel you're right there in the croc-infested wetlands with her characters, hearing the sounds of nature and watching your surroundings.

I had never read anything Fox has written before, but I was really impressed. I'm excited there's a second novel in this series due out soon, because I'm definitely hooked. There may be an unending supply of thrillers and mysteries out there these days, but Crimson Lake is one you should add to your list.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Book Review: "The Shakespeare Requirement" by Julie Schumacher

Jason Fitger, the beleaguered English professor who was the protagonist of Julie Schumacher's very funny Dear Committee Members, takes us on a return trip to Payne University in Schumacher's new book, The Shakespeare Requirement. Fitger, pompous and irascible as ever, finds himself elected chair of the English department, and he has no idea of the chaos and aggravation that awaits him.

As if having to work on substandard equipment and in squalid conditions isn't bad enough, the Economics Department and its chair, Roland Gladwell, who convinced the university and corporate sponsors that his department needed state-of-the-art classrooms and technology, now has his eye on the English Department's remaining space. Fitger has to guard himself against angry wasps, faulty air conditioning, and a computer that might work—if he could ever get the University's IT department to schedule an appointment. (And don't try to set up a meeting with him on P-Cal, the university-wide calendar system, as he refuses to use it.)

But these problems are just the tip of the iceberg. He has to deal with a department in shambles, get his colleagues to adopt a new-agey Statement of Vision for the department (just ridiculous), and his attempts to get a 90-year-old Shakespearean scholar to retire backfire when the man convinces the press that Shakespeare isn't important to the English Department any longer. Plus, any requests he has have to be approved by the dean, who happens to be his ex-wife's lover. It's enough to make any man crumble.

The Shakespeare Requirement follows Fitger as he navigates university and department politics, tries to figure out exactly what his relationship is with his ex-wife, and wonders what secrets his assistant, Fran, is hiding. The book shifts narration among a number of characters—Fitger, his ex-wife Janet; Philip, Fitger's boss and Janet's lover; Fran; Roland Gladwell; Professor Cassovan, the Shakespeare expert; and Angela, a sheltered student away from home for the first time.

What I enjoyed so much about Dear Committee Members (see my review) is that it was an epistolary novel—the whole story was told through letters Fitger wrote to various people within and outside the university. His voice was tremendously memorable and at times hysterically funny, plus it reminded me of a committee chairman I was working with at the time.

However, this book is told in the traditional narrative style, which didn't quite work for me. While most of the characters used the same pompous, high-brow language that Fitger did in the earlier book, the story didn't flow as well in this manner. I thought there were too many characters to follow, and after a while there were so many machinations to keep straight, so much politics to navigate, I didn't enjoy it as much as I had hoped.

Stories of systemic dysfunction and office politics are often humorous, and some may find this funnier than I did. There's no doubt that Schumacher is a talented storyteller, and these characters are fascinating. I'd love her to write another epistolary novel someday—it's a terrific change of pace!

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

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Book Review: "In Sight of Stars" by Gae Polisner

Klee (pronounced "Clay") worshiped his father. They shared a love for art and artists, especially van Gogh, and they spent countless hours together painting and visiting museums and galleries, and Klee loved listening to his father's stories, even the ones which were so clearly made up. He knew his father gave up his dreams of becoming an artist to have a stable job as a lawyer, but his father wants him to have the chances he never had.

His father's sudden death turns Klee's life utterly upside down. He's forced to leave New York City, leave his best friends behind, and move to a house in the suburbs with his mother, whom he thinks of as "The Ice Queen." He doesn't think she's sad enough about his father dying, and he blames her for everything that has gone wrong. But he just needs to bide his time a little bit longer before he can go to art school in Boston, fulfilling his father's wishes.

Klee feels angry and abandoned, and isn't dealing well with his grief. But then he meets Sarah, a free-spirited girl in his art class at his new school, and he is drawn to her immediately. She simultaneously draws him in and keeps him at arm's length, but she recognizes Klee's talent and his generous heart (as well as his abs). He starts to think that perhaps Sarah can save him from his crushing grief, but she has her own troubles, and doesn't like it when he broods.

"I follow silently, wondering what it is about her that breaks my heart and fills it at the same time, that scares me but comforts me, that makes me want to tell her things I can't begin to find words for."

One night, feeling that Sarah is pulling away from him and suddenly being confronted with what he believes is the truth about his parents' marriage, things go utterly, utterly wrong. In a moment of abject despair, Klee's actions land him in what is known as the "Ape Can," a psychiatric hospital for teenagers.

As Klee begins to deal with the feelings that sent him spiraling downward, he must begin to confront the truth—about his father, his mother, his parents' relationship, and his relationship with Sarah, and he needs to figure out what is real and what he has imagined, or dreamed into existence. With the help of an understanding therapist, a unique hospital volunteer, and a few of his fellow patients, he starts to realize that he can pick up the pieces and live his life doing what he loves—art.

In Sight of Stars (taken from the van Gogh quote, "For my part I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream") is told in two perspectives—present time and Klee's life after his father's death—in order to get a full picture of the challenges he has faced, and you get to uncover the truth at the same time he does. It is gorgeously told, and you feel the emotions, the struggles, the epiphanies that Klee does.

Gae Polisner, whose last book, The Memory of Things (see my review), made my list of the best books I read in 2016, writes with such beauty, such empathy, such heart. I loved these characters, and wouldn't have minded if the book were twice as long.

I struggled a bit with the start of the book, because in an effort to help you see things from Klee's traumatized and drugged perspective, the narration was a little jumbled and I wasn't sure what was real and what were his hallucinations. But that ended quickly, and I found myself utterly hooked on this story, needing to figure out what had happened. Polisner made me cry, she made me laugh, and she made me think. There were so many times I just marveled at her turn of phrase, or a piece of imagery.

In Sight of Stars might not necessarily break new ground, but it touched my heart and my mind. This is a book that says you can't go it alone, that we need to come to terms with the flaws of those around us as well as our own flaws, admit what is hurting or bothering us, and that is how we can find the strength to move on. I hope those who need to hear that message get their hands on this book.

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!

Monday, March 12, 2018

Book Review: "Us Against You" by Fredrick Backman

"...we only pretend hockey is complicated, because it isn't really. When you strip away all the nonsense surrounding it, the game is simple: everyone gets a stick, there are two nets, two teams. Us against you."

Frederick Backman's Beartown (see my review) was probably the best or second-best book I read last year. This story of a Swedish town that is literally obsessed with hockey, and which faces a crisis that will practically tear the town apart, surprised, delighted, and devastated me, all over the course of a few short hours as I plowed through it very late one night.

Given how I felt about that book, I approached the sequel, Us Against You, with a bit of trepidation. Could Backman achieve magic in Beartown again? Were there new stories to tell, and would they affect me with the same level of emotion and, frankly, devotion, that the first book did? Once again, I plowed through the 450-page book within a few hours, and stayed up very late at night to finish it. Now I can answer my questions unequivocally: yes, yes, and oh my god, yes.

In fact, I'll leave it to Rob Lowe to sum up my feelings.

Beartown is struggling to right itself after the crisis which nearly destroyed the town, but so many lives will never be the same. The town is dealt another blow when it learns that their beloved hockey club will be liquidated, a decision of local politicians, and all of the funding will go to the hockey club of their rival town, Hed, where many of the former Beartown players have gone. This decision upends those for whom hockey was a job, a dream, an escape, a scapegoat, and a tradition.

But one crafty person isn't willing to let Beartown hockey die—it's all part of a larger master plan for power. A most unusual coach is hired, and they begin building a new team with an unlikely squad of players—Benji, the lone wolf battling between self-destruction and redemption; Amat, smaller than the other players but perhaps more talented than anyone; Bobo, Amat's best friend, who can't skate well but can't imagine a life without hockey; and Vidar, an exceptionally talented goalie with an exceptionally short (and dangerous) fuse.

As Beartown, and its residents, try to recover, marriages and long-time friendships will be severely tested, loyalties will be questioned, split-second decisions will damage and endanger lives, and hearts will break. Violence becomes a more-present part of their everyday lives as the rivalry between Beartown and Hed intensifies, and the big game draws near. Everyone will face moments which could utterly destroy them, but amidst all of the darkness, there are glimpses of hope.

"People will say that violence came to Beartown this summer, but that won't be true, because it was already here. Because people are always dependent upon other people, and we can't ever really forgive each other for that."

This book absolutely blew me away. I wasn't sure if Backman had it in him a second time, but he has written a sequel that is just as good as its predecessor, which was exceptional. I love these characters so much—the ones you root for and the ones you root against. Reading this book was like getting to visit old friends—you revel in every minute because you know you'll be sad when your time together is over. That was definitely the case here.

You really should read Beartown first, both because it provides a great framework on which this book is built, and because it is fantastic on its own. Even though these books are about a hockey-obsessed town, they are about so much more than that. That's where Backman keeps surprising you.

God, I hope there's a third book. I'm ready for another late-night read, where I'm laughing and sobbing and feeling sentimental all over again. Who can ask for anything more?

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