Monday, August 29, 2016

You Will Know Me

If the Rio Olympics non-stop coverage of the “Final Five” wasn’t enough and you’re still jonesing for more yurchenkos and floor exercises, you might want to check out You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott, the author’s latest mystery set amidst the cutthroat world of girl’s gymnastics.

From the publisher: "How far will you go to achieve a dream? That's the question a celebrated coach poses to Katie and Eric Knox after he sees their daughter Devon, a gymnastics prodigy and Olympic hopeful, compete. For the Knoxes there are no limits--until a violent death rocks their close-knit gymnastics community and everything they have worked so hard for is suddenly at risk. As rumors swirl among the other parents, Katie tries frantically to hold her family together while also finding herself irresistibly drawn to the crime itself. What she uncovers--about her daughter's fears, her own marriage, and herself--forces Katie to consider whether there's any price she isn't willing to pay to achieve Devon's dream."

While an engaging read, You Will Know Me didn’t quite live up to the hype for me. The plot was compelling, the characters well written, but though the writing was taut and the storyline fraught with a tension that early on kept me curious and turning the pages, the suspense never crescendoed and instead remained at a singular flat note; interesting but by no means ‘thrilling’. As for the mystery itself, well, it wasn’t much of one, especially given the heavy handed foreshadowing employed by the author at various points. In the interest of full disclosure, I will confess that that my lack of enthusiasm for the book is in part due to my dissatisfaction with the tale’s resolution. What can I say, the real world is far from perfect, so when it comes to literary fiction I want my romances to have happy endings and in mystery/thrillers, my bad guys to get their well-deserved comeuppance.

I'm 0 for 2 when it comes to this author, as I had a similar experience with her 2014 novel, The Fever; another edgy teen-focused mystery that was all the rage at the time. Though I can wholeheartedly concede that Abbott is a good author with novels featuring intriguing plots and nuanced three-dimensional characters (with a special gift for writing angsty teenage girls that are the perfect mix of wide-eyed innocence and lolita-esque menace), there's been just that little something (je ne sais quoi) missing in each story that's kept them at blah and shy of BLAM.

You Will Know Me’s window into the high-pressure, high-stakes world of gymnastics was definitely intriguing, but on the whole, I felt the author didn’t quite stick her landing.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The Kind Worth Killing

I'm always leery when any book is touted as the "next" anything. The next Gone Girl or the next Girl on the Train seem to be the go-to comparisons lately for any twisty, page-turning suspense thrillers. Sadly, the comparisons usually fall short, but The Kind Worth Killing by Peter Swanson, deserves every complimentary comparison and word of praise for as they say in Boston, the book was wicked good!

From the publisher: “On a night flight from London to Boston, Ted Severson meets the stunning and mysterious Lily Kintner. Sharing one too many martinis, the strangers begin to play a game of truth, revealing very intimate details about themselves. Ted talks about his marriage that’s going stale and his wife Miranda, who he’s sure is cheating on him… But their game turns a little darker when Ted jokes that he could kill Miranda for what she’s done. Lily, without missing a beat, says calmly, “I’d like to help.” After all, some people are the kind worth killing, like a lying, stinking, cheating spouse. . . .Back in Boston, Ted and Lily’s twisted bond grows stronger as they begin to plot Miranda's demise. But there are a few things about Lily’s past that she hasn’t shared with Ted, namely her experience in the art and craft of murder, a journey that began in her very precocious youth. Suddenly these co-conspirators are embroiled in a chilling game of cat-and-mouse, one they both cannot survive . . . with a shrewd and very determined detective on their tail.”

The Kind Worth Killing was an enthralling and addictive read. A twisty tale of lies, revenge, double-crosses and murder. The pacing, plot and writing were perfect, with the cherry on top of this confection being the amazingly layered and complex characters. The book offers no real hero/heroine in the lot, they’re all pretty awful human beings, but as far as captivating – well hat’s off to Lily, a sociopath for the ages that inspired equal parts fear and reluctant admiration.

Other than the tale’s twists and surprises which abound, The Kind Worth Killing also parallel’s Gone Girl in its unforgettable delivery of a wonderfully wicked female character. Gone Girl’s author Gillian Flynn once said “Libraries are filled with stories on generations of brutal men, trapped in a cycle of aggression. I wanted to write about the violence of women… Isn’t it time to acknowledge the ugly side? ... I particularly mourn the lack of female villains — good, potent female villains… I’m talking violent, wicked women. Scary women.” In Lily Kintner, author Peter Swanson delivers in spades.

Ingenious, engrossing and more than a little chilling, The Kind Worth Killing is a page-turning must read with a killer ending.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Invisible

"To love someone is to see a miracle invisible to others." - Francois Mauriac

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Aunthood & Me

A dear friend at work sent me a belated Happy Auntie’s Day message on Monday, along with a link to a great New York Post article. The article entitled “the most undervalued women in America are childless aunts” focused on the countless women that fill this role in a family and the pivotal function they play to the vitality of the family as a whole in both the dedicated time, positive influence, emotional connection, and financial gifts shared with their nieces/nephews. I must admit that both receiving the email and reading the article were wonderfully validating. Here was someone that understood how important this role was in my life and an article that acknowledged the value I brought to my family's life.

All of us can agree that motherhood is a life-affirming role, and also one not all women are blessed with experiencing for any number of reasons. I myself haven't been blessed with a child of my own; at this point in my life I should probably say WASN’T blessed with a child, since that seems more reflective of the fact that at 48 it’s not ever going to happen, as opposed to HAVEN'T with its implied ‘yet.’ Nonetheless, I do feel like God blessed me with the next best thing - to be an Aunt – for it has been and continues to be one of the most joyous, rewarding, fulfilling, and awe-inspiring experiences in my life.

As most or some of you know, I've been blessed with two nieces and three nephews by my two brothers. I’ll admit that while I love all of my nieces and nephews deeply, I do have a special bond with the two youngest, the infamous knuckleheads that are at the forefront of my daily thoughts, worries and prayers and regularly mentioned here. I was just out of puberty and on the cusp of becoming a self-absorbed teenager more focused on pimples, Regents exams, and the lack of invites to the prom when my older, by 12 years, brother had his kids. So while I loved kids then as much as I do today, my nieces and nephews especially, my nurturing or mothering gene hadn’t really kicked in yet. With my knuckleheads on the other hand, well, they entered my life 16 and 18 (almost) years ago respectively and have been the sun around which my heart revolves ever since.

Of course, I’d be lying if I said having nieces and nephews completely silenced the nagging toll of my biological clock, especially in my younger years while the clock still actually ticked, now it’s either gone digital or run out of batteries. It’s pretty quiet in there. I would have loved to experience the miracle of pregnancy or to experience that undoubtedly soul-stirring moment when a small, more perfect version of yourself and the man you love looks at you and utters the word Mom. The dreams were sweet; Noah and Noelle, those would have been their names, and I, of course, would have been the most perfect of moms – patient, understanding, loving, forgiving, cool (not sure how I would've pulled that off since I've never been cool a day in my life, but it's a dream people) and a wiz on homework, mending broken hearts, and motivational speeches. But alas, it was not to be. Luckily, though I didn’t get to experience the above, the dreams were replaced by a reality just as sweet.

Thanks to my knuckleheads and my sister-in-law and brother who have kindly shared them with me, I got to change poopy diapers, soothe fears, read bedtime stories, wipe tears and boogers, watch cartoons with warm little bodies snuggled by my side, attend special friends breakfasts at school, organize Easter basket scavenger hunts and exploding watermelon experiments, participate in dance-offs (a sight to behold), sit through choir recitals, cheer at baseball, basketball, and what seems thousands of soccer games, help with school projects and studying for tests, share and help instill in them my love and trust of God, anxiously sit in waiting rooms during surgeries for ear tubes, removed adenoids and a broken ankle (God willing the last), sit in judgment of new girlfriends (all totally unworthy), help with college essays, and now worry about driving, college and the unknowable (but hopefully bright and happy) future. Most importantly, I got to love wholeheartedly and unconditionally, and was (am) loved in return.

In short, aunthood, it's the best, I love it! Much like parenthood, aunthood doesn't come with a how to manual, but if you're new to the role, I found you'll never go wrong if you rely on this quote as your guiding principle, “Every child needs at least one adult who is irrationally crazy about him or her.” Be that person.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Rio or Bust!

As we bask in all of the sweaty, unbearable glory (horror) of the dog days of summer, I’m looking forward to only two things: fall and of course, the summer Olympics. Yeah baby! Yup, the countdown is on folks; we’re only 10 days away from Rio 2016. USA’s team of Olympians features 555 athletes of which 364 are rookies making their Olympic debut on the world stage; each ready after years of hard work and sacrifice to take that all important last step towards making their dreams come true. While California is the most represented state with 125 athletes, as a proud New Yorker I’m thrilled to say that we’ve contributed 30 gritty and tough as nails athletes of our own ready to make us all (New Yorkers, Alabamians, Alaskans, Arizonan, …heck Americans) proud.

I’ve posted my sentiments on the Olympics in years past, so I’ll undoubtedly be repeating myself, but I’ll say it nonetheless, I love the Olympics. I love the athletes and the dedication, integrity and never say die attitude for which they stand; I love the opening ceremony and the feeling of collective pride we all get to feel for our respective athletes; I love the underdogs, longshots, dark horses, and Cinderella stories that help fuel our own resolve and strengthen the hope and faith we have that all our dreams are possible; and I love the fact that for a short period of time, we can put aside our gripes and differences and stand shoulder to shoulder as Americans – not Republicans or Democrats, Whites or Blacks, Catholics or Muslims or any other number of labels which sometimes separate us - rooting for other members of our American family.

Every Olympics we’re offered new heroes to cheer and goose-bump inducing memories to store in our collective memory banks, none more special than those times when we beat the odds and can write our own chapter in history. And though we cheer for our own with heartfelt chants of U-S-A, U-S-A, we’re always willing and eager to embrace other athletes that embody the purest essence of the Olympic spirit. What could be better than the best athletes in the world, striving to be the best they can be, competing in the spirit of fair play, and ultimately helping to bring all of us – all nations – together in peace?

I honestly can’t wait, so on Friday, August 5th – the night of the Opening Ceremony, I’ll be ordering a pizza, pouring myself a cold drink, and sitting on the edge of my seat ready to erupt into loud and proud cheers for all the athletes of the world, though maybe just a little bit louder when the stars and stripes enters the building.

Monday, July 25, 2016

A Man Called Ove

As Shrek once wisely said (yes, I’m quoting a fictional green ogre), “ogres are like onions” in that they have layers. The main protagonist in A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman might not be green, smelly or live in a swamp, but he’s every bit the bad-tempered ogre at the book’s onset until the author slowly peels back the layers and reveals the incredible beating heart and inner beauty of this grumpy, complex, yet lovable hero.

From the publisher: “Meet Ove. He’s a curmudgeon—the kind of man who points at people he dislikes as if they were burglars caught outside his bedroom window. He has staunch principles, strict routines, and a short fuse. People call him “the bitter neighbor from hell.” But must Ove be bitter just because he doesn’t walk around with a smile plastered to his face all the time? Behind the cranky exterior there is a story and a sadness. So when one November morning a chatty young couple with two chatty young daughters move in next door and accidentally flatten Ove’s mailbox, it is the lead-in to a comical and heartwarming tale of unkempt cats, unexpected friendship, and the ancient art of backing up a U-Haul. All of which will change one cranky old man and a local residents’ association to their very foundations.”

A Man Called Ove was a charming, poignant, and moving tale that will definitely go on my list of favorite reads for the year. This feel-good story was the first novel from Swedish author Fredrik Backman, which along with his two newer books, has been translated into English for our reading pleasure; and what a pleasure it was. Long story short, this is a story of love in which the reader slowly learns of the past joys, heartaches and losses that shaped Ove’s life. It’s said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and Ove’s beauty, though at first hidden like the sun behind clouds, becomes blindingly apparent as no beauty shines brighter than that of a good heart.

As I’ve fessed up in the past, I’m a sucker for a good love story, and this one was a doozy. The author did such an amazing job in conveying the depth of Ove’s love for his wife Sonja, and in so doing equally conveyed the extent of Ove’s sense of loss. Ove and Sonja, two new names to add to the list of epic literary love stories, sharing the kind of love that forever separates your life into before and after he/she came into it. (“Ove had never been asked how he lived before he met her. But if anyone had asked him, he would have answered that he didn’t.”). Alternating between past and present, the wonder of the tale is that love in all its power and beauty is found not only in Ove’s past, but also his present, and serves to save him yet again.

A Man Called Ove is a truly wonderful book that speaks to the healing power of love and friendship. A memorable story and character that will make you laugh, and harkening back to my onion analogy, make you shed more than a few tears.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Currently.

Excited… for the weekend and my knucklehead's 16th birthday.

Feeling…like the heat is between OMG and WTF. So ready for autumn!

Enjoying…my condo’s central air.

Hoping… for a short summer.

Thinking…I want to move to Alaska.

Listening…to Joey + Rory Hymns CD. Timeless beauty that can touch the weariest soul.

Reading… a lot.

Watching…America’s Got Talent and $100,000 Pyramid.

Loving…Breyer’s black raspberry chocolate ice cream. Luscious goodness in every spoonful.

Needing…to exercise.

Eating…as my Saturday morning treat, an egg white veggie flatbread and a jelly donut from DD, because even breakfast should include dessert.

Drinking…French Vanilla Swirl iced lattes from DD (whole milk, extra sweet please).

Wanting…to magically lose weight without diet and/or exercise or a million dollars, because then I won’t care if I’m 20 pounds overweight.

Enjoying…time with my knuckleheads as college drop-off day draws ever near. Tearful sigh. :o(

Thursday, July 7, 2016

A Street Cat Named Bob

"Everybody needs a break, everybody deserves that second chance," proves true for both human and animals alike. A Street Cat Named Bob: And How He Saved My Life by James Bowen is a feel good memoir about a struggling street musician and his feline guardian angel and how they saved each other.

From the publisher: “When street musician James Bowen found an injured cat curled up in the hallway of his apartment building, he had no idea how much his life was about to change. James was living hand to mouth on the streets of London, barely making enough money to feed himself, and the last thing he needed was a pet. Yet James couldn't resist helping the strikingly intelligent but very sick animal, whom he named Bob. He slowly nursed Bob back to health and then sent the cat on his way, imagining that he would never see him again. But Bob had other ideas.”

Sweet, charming and heartwarming, A Street Cat Named Bob, is an uplifting book that reminds us that when it comes to helping us through our struggles, God does indeed work in the most mysterious of ways. As a recovering drug-addict fighting for survival on a daily basis, James finds a kindred spirit in the slightly battered stray that fortuitously comes into his life. Like too many members of our society that for any number of reasons fall through the cracks, James and Bob were invisible to everyone but each other, yet as they earned each other's trust and friendship an unbreakable bond was forged. Even though the hopelessness James felt during his worst days was slowly abating, each day was still a struggle to leave the fog of heroin, booze and petty crime far in the past. But in caring for Bob, James gave his life purpose for someone needed him; they needed each other.

Truly as if heaven sent, Bob proved a life-changing force for James; filling his days with hope, joy, friendship, and love. Though James is our narrator (a truly amazing feat if it had been Bob), I have to admit that the story touched me most because of Bob’s role in it. I’m always amazed and humbled by the beauty and goodness of animals, especially those rescued from hardship, that despite past hurts and fears sometimes suffered at the hand of us supposedly more evolved humans, find it within their little (too big for their body) hearts to love and trust again so unconditionally. It's truly one of life's greatest mysteries, though maybe not, because in all honesty I do think they are heaven sent. A gift to see us through our darkest days, our loneliest nights, our deepest fears and to bestow upon us a love, of which given our human frailties, we could never be truly worthy.

Though a simple tale, A Street Cat Named Bob reminds us that we’re never truly alone, that like the song says “the sun will come out tomorrow,” and that animals can make the best of friends.

PS. By the way, Bob is coming soon to a big screen near you. Here’s a link to the film's trailer.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Geeks

I'm not a music buff; I'm the geek with WCBS 880 news on my car radio, but I heard this on Good Day New York today and fell in love with both the catchy tune and inspired lyrics. Enjoy!

Friday, July 1, 2016

It's Okay to Laugh: (Crying is Cool Too)

I have a confession, I’m an easy crier; it’s a curse I tell you. Much like my laughter comes easy, so do my tears. A sad movie is a given, if you make me really angry – then too, but heck even a sappy happy ending causes equal waterworks. I was ashamed of myself recently when I got teary-eyed during a stupid commercial. It wasn’t even that Sarah McLachlan SPCA commercial (I change the channel as soon as I hear the song’s first chord or else I’ll be blowing my nose for the next half hour); it was for Lowe’s – the home improvement store. I wanted to slap myself, but in all fairness, search for Lowe’s “Home Love” commercial and tell me if that doesn’t give you the feels. Anyway, it doesn’t take much to make me cry, so when you give me a beautiful love story, one involving soul mates somehow finding each other in this great big world whom life in all its capriciousness separate, I’ll give you a puddle of my tears on the floor. It's Okay to Laugh: (Crying is Cool Too) by Nora McInerny Purmort is a beautifully written memoir guaranteed to make you do both.

From the publisher: “Twenty-seven-year-old Nora McInerny Purmort bounced from boyfriend to dopey “boyfriend” until she met Aaron—a charismatic art director and comic-book nerd who once made Nora laugh so hard she pulled a muscle. When Aaron was diagnosed with a rare form of brain cancer, they refused to let it limit their love. They got engaged on Aaron’s hospital bed and had a baby boy while he was on chemo. In the period that followed, Nora and Aaron packed fifty years of marriage into the three they got, spending their time on what really matters: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, each other, and BeyoncĂ©. A few months later, Aaron died in Nora’s arms. The obituary they wrote during Aaron’s hospice care revealing his true identity as Spider-Man touched the nation. With It’s Okay to Laugh, Nora puts a young, fresh twist on the subjects of mortality and resilience.”

This was an amazing read; funny, poignant, and real. I don’t know if it’s permissible to be heartbroken over a lost love that isn’t your own, but I was. In reading Nora and Aaron’s story, I fell in love with them, I fell in love with their love story, because this book is just that – as Nora eloquently states “it’s not a cancer story, it’s a love story. With some cancer.” Honestly, it seems they shared the kind of love to which the rest of us aspire, and while their tale of love and loss could be maudlin or melancholy, it is never that. It is sad at times, heartbreaking at others, but also beautiful, uplifting and inspiring.

Nora is an amazing author – funny, witty and brutally honest. Her humor breathes life into every moment she shares with us. Yet in her grief she generously reminds us of how darn lucky we are. How even in times of tragedy and heartbreak there are blessings to be counted. Nora reminds us that it’s okay to laugh, or cry, or rage at whatever raw deal life puts before us, but to have faith that in the end everything will be okay.

It’s Okay to Laugh reminds us that life can be so stupidly unfair yet so amazingly beautiful (like a beautiful rose with some sucky thorns). So read this book and when life gives you a hundred reasons to cry, show life that you have a thousand reasons to smile and remember to H.O.P.E. (hold on, pain ends).

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Being Mortal

Benjamin Franklin astutely said "In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes." Thankfully modern science has altered the course of human life, helping us all to live longer, delaying the inevitable. In Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande, the surgeon and author asserts “We’ve been wrong about what our job is in medicine…We think it is to ensure health and survival. But really it is to enable well-being. And well-being is about the reasons one wishes to be alive.” Being Mortal is a book about the experience of mortality in today's society. Relying on anecdotal evidence from doctors, patients, health care providers and families, as well as his own personal experience with the death of his father, Gawande highlights how people experience the end of their lives – from the elderly in nursing homes forced to give up their privacy and autonomy, to seriously ill patients who face their waning days living through painful treatments that drain both their body and soul.

In Being Mortal’s critique of the nursing home system, which comprises the largest part of the book, Gawande examines how the old have to yield all control over their lives in accepting the rigidity of nursing home life; ceding their privacy in shared rooms and all control thanks to set schedules for every activity and hour of their day. While the official aim of an institution is caring and safety, for many of its residents it isn't always what some would call living. Gawande asserts that there are possibly better approaches out there today, and offers compelling success stories of caring innovators that have come up with groundbreaking solutions by thinking outside the box. One such example is a retirement community in the Boston suburbs called NewBridge. While still a nursing home, it’s so different from what we’ve come to expect; instead of housing 60 people to a floor in shared rooms along hospital corridors, NewBridge is divided into smaller pods with no more than 16 people. Each pod is called a household. Rooms are private and built around a common living area with dining room, kitchen and activity room like a home; namely, like the homes many elderly have been forced to give up.

The latter part of the book focuses on terminal patients, end of life care, and how many times medicine fails those it is supposed to help. Gawande discusses how many times doctors, including himself, and patients avoid talking honestly about the choices faced by ill patients near the end. While there is always something more which can be done, the question doctors and patients avoid is whether it should be done. “People with serious illness have priorities besides simply prolonging their lives,” he writes. “If your problem is fixable, we know just what to do. But if it’s not? The fact that we have had no adequate answers to this question is troubling and has caused callousness, inhumanity and extraordinary suffering.” Though Gawande doesn’t offer easy answers on this subject, his wholehearted advocacy of hospice care is readily apparent. In speaking of his own father’s experience with hospice care he states “Here is what a different kind of care — a different kind of medicine — makes possible.”

Being Mortal is a fascinating and eye-opening read. A book that compassionately sheds a light on truths that realistically will impact us all one day, whether directly or indirectly. More importantly it offers a lesson in empathy, for every story shared comes with a name that is or was a living, breathing human being that was sad, lonely, sick, or scared and fighting for their due respect from life and those around them.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Redemption Road

At over 400 pages, Redemption Road by John Hart is a literary thriller that reads like a much smaller book as the pages fly by in the reader’s need to embrace a wide cast of vivid and compelling characters and unlock the tale's multiple mysteries. It is an utterly riveting and gripping multi-layered story, beautifully written, where nothing on the page is filler but instead every word serves a purpose.

From the publisher: "Imagine: A boy with a gun waits for the man who killed his mother. A troubled detective confronts her past in the aftermath of a brutal shooting. After thirteen years in prison, a good cop walks free as deep in the forest, on the altar of an abandoned church, a body cools in pale lining. This is a town on the brink. This is Redemption Road."

I loved Redemption Road. This is my first John Hart novel, but it definitely won't be my last. A crime thriller with an emotionally charged plot perfectly paced, dealing with a murder mystery and the always volatile subjects of police corruption and prison abuse. The story is so well-constructed and characters so fleshed out that you feel an incredible sense of familiarity with each; the more you learned about each, the more you wanted to know. Relying on multiple points of view, the plot and parallel subplot develop at a relentless, yet very deliberate pace. With tension, suspense, and intricately woven truths and secrets that are slowly and meticulously revealed, Hart has constructed with the precision of a surgeon with a scalpel and the prose and beauty of a poet, a moving tale about real people who are nuanced, complex and unforgettable.

While the mysteries were relatively predictable, it was the characters that kept me joyfully reading for they were truly memorable in their depth. Like the real world, the good and bad guys aren't easily identified, no white and black hats. Flawed, conflicted, with a history; saved yet lost, loyal yet treacherous, innocent yet corrupted. Using light and shade, Hart has created characters that feel incredibly authentic. Central to the story are Elizabeth, feisty yet emotionally wounded, she’s a good cop accused of the excessive force shooting (18 bullets) of two men caught raping and torturing a young girl, who is left fighting for both her future and her freedom; Adrian, an ex-cop and ex-con struggling for his soul and very sanity; and Channing, a girl trying to piece herself back together after the most soul-altering of experiences. Each is on their own path to redemption, without even knowing it. The amazing thing is that in each wildly different character the reader can find a palpable piece of humanity with which to connect and empathize - one's desperation, the other's fear, love, hate, and/or bravery.

The book's jacket touts John Hart as the one and only author to win back-to-back Edgars (the most prestigious awards in the mystery genre) for best novel. If Redemption Road is any indication of his talent, then it's no surprise why. Redemption Road is quite apropos a story of redemption (duh) that speaks to the strength and resilience of the human spirit to face its demons and overcome, emerging battered and scarred but triumphant.