Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Author Spotlight: Heather Gudenkauf

Author Diane Duane once said “Reading one book is like eating one potato chip;” a truer statement has never been uttered. Whenever I find a book I love, my first instinct is always to quickly find that author’s previous works or their next. Finding a great book is easy, but finding a great author that reliably, book after book, delivers an edge of your seat suspense, heart-melting romance or a page-turning thriller isn’t such an easy feat; so when I do find such an author, I love to share them with you, my family and friends, which was the rationale behind my author spotlight posts.

This month I selected Heather Gudenkauf, the New York Times best-selling author of the book I’m currently reading, Little Mercies, as well as three older novels which I had previously read, making her a perfect spotlight candidate. As you’ll note from my previous author spotlights, my reading preferences lean toward gripping suspense novels or spine-tingling thrillers and Gudenkauf’s novels are no exception. Not only do her novels deliver on the tension, drama and the always requisite twist and turns you’d expect from the genre, but she offers compelling and insightful character development for each of her protagonists, ensuring moving, poignant and always memorable stories you’ll carry with you long after you’ve finished the last page.

All three of Gudenkauf’s novels (The Weight of Silence, These Things Hidden, and One Breath Away) are set in Iowa, where she’s supposedly lived nearly all of her life and you can readily see in each why it pays to write what you know, because she perfectly captures the local color, people and culture. She also conveys with seeming ease the sense of family and close-knit bonds found in those small towns, while never overlooking the fact that human frailties – weakness, evil and sin – are found in rich and poor families, and large cities and small towns alike.

A key feature in all of Gudenkauf’s novels is the fact that she uses multiple narrators, written in both the first or third person. Gudenkauf’s talent is notable here in the fact that despite the sometimes obvious similarities in gender and age between her multiple narrators, she manages to create characters that for all their commonality still remain uniquely different from one another with singular voices, including their own hopes, fears, and longings. Gudenkauf has equal ease in finding the voice of a child – their innocence, fear, and sometimes blind courage (in an author interview I read, she credits this ease with the fact that she was a classroom teacher and in education for 20+ years), as she has in conveying the heartfelt gratitude and love of an adoptive mother (“You were a wish that we made every morning when we woke up and a prayer we said before we went to bed each night;” Claire’s beautiful words to Joshua in These Things Hidden).

In short, I love Gudenkauf’s novels because while her stories show the darkness present in many human hearts; tackling subjects sometimes ripped from the headlines, like child abandonment, child abuse or school violence; she also hopefully reminds us that at heart we are all flawed individuals trying to do our best and sometimes we deliver on that innate potential for good. So without further ado, here's a brief summary of each novel, from oldest to newest.

The Weight of Silence. It happens quietly one August morning. As dawn's shimmering light drenches the humid Iowa air, two families awaken to find their little girls have gone missing in the night. Seven-year-old Calli Clark is sweet, gentle, a dreamer who suffers from selective mutism brought on by tragedy that pulled her deep into silence as a toddler. Calli's mother, Antonia, tried to be the best mother she could within the confines of marriage to a mostly absent, often angry husband. Now, though she denies that her husband could be involved in the possible abductions, she fears her decision to stay in her marriage has cost her more than her daughter's voice. Petra Gregory is Calli's best friend, her soul mate and her voice. But neither Petra nor Calli has been heard from since their disappearance was discovered. Desperate to find his child, Martin Gregory is forced to confront a side of himself he did not know existed beneath his intellectual, professorial demeanor. Now these families are tied by the question of what happened to their children. And the answer is trapped in the silence of unspoken family secrets.

These Things Hidden. When teenager Allison Glenn is sent to prison for a heinous crime, she leaves behind her reputation as Linden Falls' golden girl forever. Her parents deny the existence of their once-perfect child. Her former friends exult her downfall. Her sister, Brynn, faces whispered rumors every day in the hallways of their small Iowa high school. It's Brynn—shy, quiet Brynn—who carries the burden of what really happened that night. All she wants is to forget Allison and the past that haunts her. But then Allison is released to a halfway house, and is more determined than ever to speak with her estranged sister. Now their legacy of secrets is focused on one little boy. And if the truth is revealed, the consequences will be unimaginable for the adoptive mother who loves him, the girl who tried to protect him and the two sisters who hold the key to all that is hidden.

One Breath Away. In the midst of a sudden spring snowstorm, an unknown man armed with a gun walks into an elementary school classroom. Outside the school, the town of Broken Branch watches and waits. Officer Meg Barrett holds the responsibility for the town's children in her hands. Will Thwaite, reluctantly entrusted with the care of his two grandchildren by the daughter who left home years earlier, stands by helplessly and wonders if he has failed his child again. Trapped in her classroom, Evelyn Oliver watches for an opportunity to rescue the children in her care. And thirteen-year-old Augie Baker, already struggling with the aftermath of a terrible accident that has brought her to Broken Branch, will risk her own safety to protect her little brother. As tension mounts with each passing minute, the hidden fears and grudges of the small town are revealed as the people of Broken Branch race to uncover the identity of the stranger who holds their children hostage.

Why not give one of these three novels a try? You won’t be disappointed.

McKenzie's Hope

You know those chain letters you'd sometimes get in your mailbox which threatened dire consequences if you didn't pass them on, which you sometimes begrudgingly did just because there was just the teensiest bit of doubt in your mind that you'd drop dead the next day if you didn't? (I hated those!), well sometimes equally abhorrent is receiving at work a link to a tear-jerking video you can’t help yourself but view. You click on the link, view it, and then look like a total loser as tears run down your face, your nose starts to drip, and if you’re like me, your face gets all red and splotchy.

Well, don’t hate me, but I’m going to share just one of those videos with you, which dummy that I am I viewed to the expected results. Nonetheless, though I’m sorry to do it to you, this is just too beautiful not to share. Be prepared to cry but please watch this incredibly moving video. It epitomizes what it means to be a great dad. OMG, it is such a knot in your throat-type of beautiful, that I’m tearing up just typing this.

In the video, Mike Carney lifts his 12-year-old daughter McKenzie from her wheelchair and performs a heartwarming dance set during a summer pageant.

Now here is where all your tears will have been worth it. You see McKenzie has been diagnosed with a type of mitochondrial disease, which is life threatening, and the family travels more than 500 miles to Florida from Georgia for specialized treatments, which she has been responding to well. Unfortunately her insurance doesn't cover those treatments, but you can help out by making a donation at McKenzie’s Hope on Go Fund Me.

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Rosie Project

OMG…I loved The Rosie Project! I know I said The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry was my favorite book so far this year, but they say it’s a woman’s prerogative to change her mind and I’m exercising said right. The Rosie Project by Australian author Graeme Simsion was sweet, endearing, and funny (I was laughing out loud in parts) and unlike The Storied Life - no tears - only a silly happy grin left as proof of the experience. I loved everything about it; from its original story, to its uplifting message, but most of all, its lovably quirky romantic hero, Don Tillman.

Don Tillman is a 39-year old socially-challenged yet brilliant genetics professor, quite possibly somewhere in the autism spectrum, though Don seems oblivious to the fact. With a strict schedule for every part of his life (workouts, showers, and lest I forget, the requisite 94 minutes for bathroom cleaning on Tuesdays) as well as a standardized meal system (a set meal for each day of the week) thereby reducing the need for cookbooks and shopping, Don’s life runs like a well-oiled machine.

Don’s a quirky guy but fully aware of his social limitations, as he says given he’s tall, fit, intelligent with a relatively high status and above-average income, he should be attractive to a wide range of women. “in the animal kingdom, (he) would succeed in reproducing,” but with women, not so much; whether it’s women or making friends, both have proven a difficult feat for Don, hence his limited list of friends (only two) and the need for the Wife Project. The Wife Project involves a carefully thought out 16-page questionnaire designed to find his perfect mate (vegetarians and smokers need not apply); as for punctuality, well, apparently when it pertains to appointments, answering (b) a little early would be patently incorrect, the correct answer is (c) on time.

Don isn’t having much luck with his questionnaire, online or speed dating (his friends Gene and Claudia say he needs to practice his social skills), but then by pure happenstance he meets Rosie. Rosie is in all ways the “world’s most incompatible woman. A barmaid. Late, vegetarian, disorganized, irrational, unhealthy, smoker – smoker! – psychological problems, can’t cook, mathematically incompetent, unnatural hair color.” Yet, despite the fact that to see her again would defy all logic, he does, offering his expertise on DNA to help her identify her biological father aka the Father Project.

As the two spend more time together, Don begins to see Rosie for the beautiful and intelligent women she is, as she forces him out of his comfort zone and into the big bad world. With one madcap caper after another, including the Mass DNA Collection Subproject, a trip to New York and scaling a building, Don draws ever closer to doing the most illogical thing in the world, falling in love.

This was such an incredibly fun read; one which once started, I could not put down. A perfect love story filled with hijinks, laughs, and a teensy bit of science thrown in for good measure, featuring two vulnerable people, polar opposites in every way, that charmingly remind us that love can conquer all. A story of hope for all of us that feel a little different, with a simple reminder to grasp our dreams and face our challenges bravely, for sometimes with great risk comes great rewards.

Simsion’s characters were each so wonderfully fleshed out. I loved Don, not in spite of his quirks and awkwardness, but because of them. As for Rosie, for all of her tough girl persona, you could see her vulnerabilities, the doubts and fears carried with her since childhood. I loved that they each made the other’s life better for being in it; sure Rosie’s impact on Don’s life was more readily apparent by the end of the book, but the mere fact that (spoiler alert)…Rosie returned Don’s love, conveyed a trust she’d previously never been able to give to another man.

The Rosie Project is a MUST (yes, I’m putting it in all caps people) read!; an original, upbeat, and unforgettable book with soooooo much heart.

P.S. Since I know you’ll love The Rosie Project as much as I do, I thought I’d let you know that there is a sequel coming in the near future. Woo-hoo!! Our beloved couple is back again in The Rosie Effect, which based on Amazon will be published December 2014.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

The Black Hour

Lori Rader-Day’s debut novel, The Black Hour, was a compelling page-turning mystery, aptly described as “a terrific whydunnit!” since the crime’s culprit is a known entity from the onset and we've been tasked instead with determining the motive. Smart and suspenseful, I was riveted to its every page and suspicious of every character.

Set in Chicago, the tale focuses on Dr. Amelia Emmet, a 38-year old sociology professor and unpublished author of a manuscript titled “Silent Witness: The Sociology of Violence in the American Midwest” who teaches at Rothbert University. The research topic of her life’s work hit a little too close to home ten months ago when Amelia was shot by a student, who then took his own life. Still coping with the physical aftereffects of the attack (the unending pain, a limp, and a growing dependence on painkillers), Amelia is returning to work against her supervisor’s advice and her own better judgment in hopes of getting her life back to normal.

Nathaniel Barber is a grad student more than a little intrigued by Chicago’s violent history. Nath faced some dark personal moments of his own recently (a broken engagement, his mother’s death), but he’s focused on building a brand new start. Assigned as Amelia’s teaching assistant, Nath becomes a quasi-friend and buffer between Amelia and the questioning and dubious stares of students and fellow teachers alike who still wonder about her role in the attack, despite her insistence that she'd never even met Leonard Lehane before the day of the shooting. Despite their growing bond, Nath hasn’t been exactly forthcoming about his true reason for choosing Rothbert University or the topic of his dissertation, namely the attack on Amelia.

Each facing their own dark demons and fears, the two will slowly and separately dig for the truth behind the why; making new friends, allies and quiet possibly enemies in their determined pursuit of finding out what led Leonard Lehane to that darkened hallway 10 months ago, and in doing so face each of their respective black hours, possibly putting their very lives in danger.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I loved that the author kept you on your toes, always guessing as to each characters respective agenda and ultimately showing that not everyone was exactly as they seem. As I stated above, the shooter's identity is a known factor which only left the why; though having that information could have put a damper on the tale's suspense, the author wrote an intelligent narrative filled with lies and intrigue, which made the protagonist's (and by extension the readers) search for the motive still reliably absorbing.

The story is told through two alternating first person narrators, Nath and Amelia. The narrative featured a pervasive feeling of fear and apprehension, as friend and foe alike fell under Amelia and Nath's scrutiny, helping the reader to empathize with a victim's feelings of paranoia after an attack, where the boogey man is seemingly hiding behind every shadow. The Black Hour featured not only great storytelling, but also a great ending that I really didn't see coming (I had an inkling, but it was minute and passing). Kudos to any author that can put it all out there for their readers, and still somehow leave us in the dark.

The Black Hour's twist on your usual suspense novel made it original and engrossing. A tale that readers can plow through with equal parts excitement and trepidation as they make their angst-filled way through a minefield of complex characters and lies.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Frog Music

Frog Music is the latest novel from Emma Donoghue, the acclaimed Irish author of 2010’s best-seller Room. Based on a true unsolved murder in 1870s San Francisco, the author drew from countless newspaper articles, legal documents and more to write the novel, offering a fictional resolution to this long-forgotten crime. Frog Music revolves around the enigmatic Jenny Bonnet, an independent young woman unafraid of bucking the strictures placed on women by society at the time.

It’s the summer of 1876 and San Francisco is dealing with a heat wave and smallpox epidemic when 27-year old Jenny Bonnet, a gun-toting frog catcher and bike riding free spirit who dared to fight the norms of the day by wearing men’s suits (even if it meant being thrown in jail), is shot to death. Blanche Beunon, a French burlesque dancer, prostitute and ex-circus performer was Jenny’s friend and survives the attack unscathed. Determined to do right by her friend and bring her murderer to justice, Blanche sets off to find the truth, firmly convinced she was the shootings true intended victim and that the finger of blame will point directly at Arthur Deneve, her French lover and the father of her child, and his “friend” Ernest Girard.

As Blanche begins to ask questions in search not only for the truth but for her young son’s whereabouts, we learn not only about Jenny’s past but also about Blanche herself and the circumstances which lead up to the fateful night at the Eight Mile House in San Miguel Station when Jenny’s life was cut short. Through flashbacks in Blanche's narration we bear witness to her role at the House of Mirrors in San Francisco’s Chinatown where she performed, the illicit rendezvous she regularly had after performances with rich clients willing to meet her price, the complicated ménage à trois arrangement she had with Arthur and Ernest, and the poor forgotten child whom, thanks to Jenny, she finally saw fit to save.

I was really looking forward to reading this book, given the amazing job Donoghue had done on Room, but while I found the book offered a true sense of the time (the location, the people, the social issues faced by the citizenry, including discrimination and baby farms), the characters left a lot to be desired. Sadly, whether not fully fleshed out, like Jenny who wasn’t in the story enough and became just a compilation of contradictory facts and memories, or else downright unlikable like our main protagonist Blanche, they offered no reason to care or feel invested in their plight. It’s an interesting albeit gritty story, but one with very little heart, perfectly defined by the author herself as “a murder mystery among lowlifes.”

Frog Music is a sordid tale featuring lurid sex scenes and as I said characters lacking many redeeming qualities. Arthur and Ernest were leeches feeding off Blanche, using her body for their personal sexual pleasure, as well as using the money she earned on her back as a piggybank for their gambling habit. As for Blanche, it wasn’t the fact that she loved sex or was OK with being used by those two cretins that tainted my opinion of her, hey to each their own; instead her greatest sin was that she'd turned her back on her child and not because of need or for his greater good, but out of pure convenience. As the Madame from the House of Mirrors throws in Blanche's face, she could not play the innocent victim kept in the dark as to the condition of P’tit’s care while being farmed out; the truth was that “she was happy to be relieved of the burden of his care,” and until she met Jenny she hadn’t asked questions because she hadn’t really wanted to know, preferring instead the luxury of a carefree life.

Despite the mystery aspect of the book, I found no tension-filled suspense as we drew closer to the story's resolution, which could be because I also felt no overwhelming concern for Blanche's well-being. In truth, the most gripping and compelling parts of the tale were Donoghue’s depictions of the time’s social issues; both the discrimination of Chinese immigrants, including them being singled out and blamed by the Health Department as the source of the smallpox epidemic or being targeted in riots and their properties destroyed out of pure ignorance, but more horrifying still was the truth about the city’s baby farms, which I had never even heard about, described as infanticide in the guise of day care, where children withered and suffered as a direct result of neglect.

Frog Music was a passably tolerable read; nothing to write home about, but at times a nonetheless informative and captivating look at a long-gone time in our American history.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Mr. Mercedes

Mr. Mercedes is the latest thriller from Stephen King and let me tell you that though King is best known as the “King of Horror”, he’s proven he’s got a real claim on the title “Master of Suspense” as well, as he clearly shows he can do no wrong no matter the genre; whether horror, thriller, or heck even romance (he does a credible job with it in some of the plot points in this novel). The truth is Mr. Mercedes is an incredibly gripping, edge of your seat crime novel with memorable characters, both protagonist and antagonist, featuring a story that easily strikes fear in the human heart without relying on supernatural powers or scary clowns, instead doing so by evoking the all too real evil present in our own society.

Mr. Mercedes starts with the gruesome and all too familiar scene of a mass killing by a deranged assailant. Hundreds of people lined up in the pre-dawn hours awaiting guaranteed jobs at a local job fair become the direct targets of a stolen gray Mercedes driven by a masked driver intent on running over as many bodies as possible. Dubbed Mr. Mercedes by the press, the killer escapes. Recently retired detective Bill Hodges, previously assigned to the case, is struggling with his newfound free time. Lonely, overweight and hooked on reality TV, Hodges now spends his time reminiscing about the good old days, obsessing over the one that got away, and as of late playing with his late father’s gun and giving serious consideration to ending it all.

It was another day of the same when Hodges receives a letter from someone identifying themselves as the perk (perp), and taunting him with his knowledge of the crime; clearly instigating Hodges to end his miserable life. Despite Mr. Mercedes’ clear hopes of pushing the depressed detective over the edge, his letter only serves to fuel Hodges and give him a purpose and goal to catch the sicko and prevent a future tragedy. Brady Hartsfield, an IT consultant for an electronics store by day and ice cream man by night, lives with his doting alcoholic mother. Brady got a pure thrill from not only killing all of those people with the car and getting away with it, but unbeknownst to the police, also playing a role in the suicide of the stolen car’s owner, and is now positively giddy at the possibility of pushing just the right buttons to get the old man to kill himself as well.

Brady is smart (though thoroughly insane) and at an advantage with his knowledge of today’s technology, but his downfall just might be that he’s underestimated his opponent, for Bill Hodges is a great cop, who with the help of two of the unlikeliest partners, will do everything in his power to hunt down this evil and stop him before he has the chance to strike again.

I had never been a Stephen King fan in the past; the only book of his which I read prior to this year was The Green Mile, but I must say these last two novels – both Doctor Sleep and Mr. Mercedes - have won me over and made me a loyal reader. Though different in genre, I loved Mr. Mercedes no less than Doctor Sleep and like with that book I was completely enthralled by this tale’s battle between good and evil. From the first page to the last, King has delivered a riveting cat and mouse chase between a police officer as smart and insightful as any of the famous PI’s found in fiction (Mike Hammer, Phillip Marlowe, or Sam Spade) and a maniacal killer whose deranged mind proves to be the detective's perfect counterbalance.

Alternately narrated by Hodges and Brady, the plot delivers in both pacing, smarts, and action, but it really is the cast of characters that raises the quality another notch. Hodges is likeable and smart and his flaws and vices only serve to make him more human, but it’s his two allies that deliver the perfect emotional punch for me; Jerome, a young African American teenager who cuts Hodges’ lawn and also provides the technology know-how to navigate online chat rooms and computer kill programs, and Holly, a single 40-something year old, emotionally stunted by an overbearing mother who is coping with psychological and emotional problems including OCD and anxiety which have her popping Lexapro like tic tacs. Of course, there’s also Brady, who gives us a scary look at the darkness found in the mind of a twisted individual; from his stomach turning mommy issues, to his hate of the world and everyone in it.

Mr. Mercedes was a suspenseful must-read that was all the more chilling thanks to a spine-tingling villain who proves to be a believable real-life monster with boy next door good looks; the kind of psychopath we hear about in the news way too often lately.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Going Bovine

Going Bovine is a YA novel by Libba Bray which I read thanks to positive feedback I heard from various sources (it actually won the 2010 Printz Award for excellence in young adult literature), and though it hasn’t become a new personal favorite by any stretch of the imagination, I can say reading it was quite an experience (sorry for the less than ringing endorsement). Going Bovine is about 16 year old Cameron Smith, an indifferent high school slacker floating through life without really living it. Cameron is an underachiever or maybe he just seems that way compared to his twin sister Jenna (“perfect hair, perfect grades, perfect social standing”). Cameron on the other hand just wants to do some pot in the school bathroom with his “sort of friends…if getting high in high school bathrooms and occasionally sharing a table in the caf counts as friendship,” sure he could care more, but you have to concede that when your dad is a college physics professor and your mom teaches in the local community college, you have a lot to live up to.

It’s in English class discussing Don Quixote that Cameron suffers the first of the hallucinations (at first thought to be marijuana-induced), where he briefly glimpses flames licking at the walls of the room as his body seemingly on fire with pain like every touch was connecting with raw nerve endings causes him to lash out and strike another student, namely Chet, Jenna’s boyfriend. This episode earns him not only a five day suspension but also a visit to a drug counselor and a shrink. Unfortunately, despite some nasty psych meds, the hallucinations continue until the last one lands him in the hospital undergoing a battery of tests wherein a specialist finally diagnoses him with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a fatal neurological disease more commonly known as the human form of Mad Cow Disease.

Hospitalized after yet another incident, Cameron’s condition is quickly deteriorating when he is initially visited by Dulcie, a hallucination (or angel?) with pink hair, boots, a riveted breastplate and wings; she informs Cameron of his mission, which is namely that he can both save his life and the world if he finds the mysterious Dr. X, a time traveling physicist. Though at first unswayed by Dulcie’s request, Cameron quickly changes his mind and with the help of his hospital roommate, Gonzo, a death-obsessed, video-game loving dwarf, the two take off on their quest to New Orleans, Florida, and more as we tag along for the adventure of Cameron’s life; as he learns the difference between existing and living.

The book jacket describes this as a dark comedic journey, and while there were laughs to be had during this surreal adventure, I still found it more a tragedy than anything else. As a reader, I could never quite shake the thought that Cameron’s adventure, for all its farce and mayhem, was in fact the hallucination (or maybe heavenly sent escapade?) of a young man on his deathbed. In fact, you really can’t forget, as interspersed amongst the fun the author wrote in unexpected passages, sometimes only a sentence or two in length, that gave the reader a glimpse of Cameron’s true reality; so you’d be chuckling about some asinine hijinks or another, and the scene would switch back to the grim hospital room where a nurse is caring for his IV or his mom is heartbreakingly sitting by his bedside, gently stroking his hair and crying.

While the author’s message to live life to the fullest while you can comes through loud and clear, my heart could never quite fully get in on the fun; I think it was like a self-protective mechanism on my part because of the inevitable heartbreak I knew was coming. One other complaint is that parts of the book (mainly in the middle) are at times a little confusing. The novel heavily references Don Quixote, a book which I never read, so maybe that’s part of the problem. I will say that the ending is incredibly touching and poignant, and I also liked that in the end, you’re left with just a little bit of doubt as to what really took place: real or not, hallucination or heavenly dream.

I think I’ll leave it by saying that Going Bovine is a judge for yourself kind of book; for me, it wasn’t horrible, it wasn’t great; but in the long run, I’m glad for the experience.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Good Luck of Right Now

I’ve been batting a thousand lately in my book selections, and this offbeat and uplifting gem is no exception. The Good Luck of Right Now is the latest novel from Matthew Quick, the acclaimed author of The Silver Linings Playbook, who has once again brought us a cast of quirky and original characters for whom to root and love.

Bartholomew Neil is 39 and newly alone since the death of his mom with whom he’d lived his entire life and whom he’d cared for after she was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Bartholomew’s mom had been Richard Gere’s biggest fan and after the chemo and brain surgery failed and dementia set in she took to pretending he was Richard. By the time she was confined to the sofa bed in the living room with a morphine pump in her arm, Bartholomew was playing Richard twenty-four hours a day. As Bartholomew tells it, she pretended he was Richard Gere and Bartholomew “pretended Mom wasn’t losing her mind…pretended she wasn’t going to die…pretended I (he) wouldn’t have to figure out life without her.”

Bartholomew has never worked or really been part of the outside world; before his mom’s illness his days were limited to home, church, and the library. Now on his own, Bartholomew has no one except for Wendy, the young grief counselor (in training) who’s got issues of her own and Father McNamee, a friend and father figure who has been a constant throughout his life. Wendy urges him to fly “You need to find your flock now. Finally leave the nest, so to speak;” and sure, it sounds good but he is at a loss as to where to start, that was until he received a cosmic clue. Prepping his mom’s clothes for donation, Bartholomew finds in her underwear drawer a “Free Tibet” form letter from none other than Richard Gere himself and he sees in it a sure sign that maybe Gere was meant to help him now that his mom is gone, and so begins a one sided conversation as Bartholomew writes soul-baring letters to Richard Gere on a wide range of topics.

It is through these letters that we get a window into Bartholomew’s fledgling new life and growing hodgepodge family whose members include newly defrocked priest Father McNamee, struggling with alcoholism and bipolar disorder; the Girlbrarian, whom Bartholomew has loved from afar forever, and Max, her foul-mouthed brother currently grieving the loss of his cat. But what story could be complete without a road trip? Well, there’s one of those too, as this madcap bunch of flawed yet lovable human beings decide to hit the road in a road trip to end all road trips, making their way to Canada to visit cat Parliament, find Bartholomew’s long lost dad, and so much more.

I love this book! The Good Luck of Right Now is a charming, original and sweet tale of loss and grief, love and hope, and friendship and acceptance where it’s never too late to reach for your dreams. In Bartholomew Neil, Matthew Quick has given us a struggling hero (we’re never told of Bartholomew’s limitations, but I think it might be autism or Asperger), whose innocent vulnerabilities encompass a kind soul willing to put others before himself. A poignant tale where each character’s past hurts and loneliness is erased with the caring and understanding of new friendships and simple kindness.

While I was touched by each character, I must say it is Bartholomew who won my heart. I think it’s because I felt like I could so relate and empathize with his loss. Sure, I don’t have Asperger, though given my social awkwardness and anxiety sometimes I wonder, but I felt his grief and I understand the impact of losing a mother; of losing someone you not only love, but who was your life and gave your life purpose. Bartholomew’s love was evident in every shared memory of his mom; in the simple statement that “mom could make small things seem miraculous. That was her talent.” Equally apparent and endearing was Bartholomew’s goodness as through sheer kindness and grace he helped cobble together a family from these misfit strangers that somehow in this great big world were able to find each other.

The Good Luck of Right Now is a feel good story that is funny and touching; filled with your fair share of F-bombs thanks to Max, though that didn’t bother me in the least since each usually came with an at times offensive but always hilarious rant. Let me tell you that there is a humanity and heart in this tale not found in many books. The Good Luck of Right Now reminds us that love and friendship can be the light that illuminates our path on our darkest days and the courage that helps us face our deepest fears.

Monday, July 7, 2014

A Land More Kind Than Home

In 2013 I read a total of 46 books over the span of the year (an unprecedented number for me), so this past January I decided to up the ante and set a goal of reading 52 books in 2014; one for every week of the year. While I was going strong straight through April, work and other distractions threw me off my pace but thanks to my TV shows summer hiatus and a number of true gems which I was able to plow through in less than a day, including this book, I’m slowly but surely making up for lost ground. In fact, counting Mr. Mercedes, which I’m currently reading and more than half way through, I’ve read a total of 24 books. Woo-hoo! On a related note, thanks to a friend’s suggestion, I’m using Shelfari as a motivating force for staying on track; as you might have noticed I even added the widget here on the blog. I don’t know if you guys use it, but I just love perusing my virtual book shelf and giving myself a little pat on the back for every book I add to it.

Onto the true subject at hand, which is a review of A Land More Kind Than Home by Wiley Cash. Back in February I read Cash’s latest novel, This Dark Road to Mercy, which proved a wonderfully engaging coming of age tale and thriller rolled into one. Though I just found this mesmerizing tale, A Land More Kind Than Home is actually Wiley Cash’s 2012 debut novel; an engrossing thriller, character-based novel, and Southern tragedy all in one that so deeply immerses you in its setting, story, and protagonists that it reads more like a memoir than a fiction novel.

Set in Marshall, a small town in North Carolina, A Land More Kind Than Home tells the story of 9-year old Jess Hall and his older brother Christopher, a mute that everyone calls Stump. Dad, Ben, grows tobacco on their farm, while mom Julie is a devout follower of Pastor Carson Chambliss and his River Road Church of Christ in Signs. More cult than church with newspaper covered windows in their storefront locale, the parishioners handle snakes and perform laying of hands to cure their ills. Though Jess is the younger brother he’s always looked out for his older brother, but despite being frequently warned by their mom about snooping, one day one simple act of curiosity on Stump’s part has tragic consequences that lead to his death and set off a chain of events that pits good vs evil and changes one family and town forever.

A Land More Kind Than Home is a truly engrossing page-turning tale that I enjoyed from the first page to its tragic yet foreseeable conclusion. Inspired by a true story which took place in Chicago in which an autistic boy is smothered during a church healing service, the author transplanted our fictional tale’s setting to a place closer to home and as a product of the South and of North Carolina in particular, he perfectly captured the local color, the landscape and the culture of rural life in Marshall and made it an integral character in this tale. A bittersweet tale of faith, love and redemption; while the tale focuses on the tragic consequences surrounding the Hall family, our three narrator’s shared memories and truths reflect on their entire Appalachian community and tell their collective story.

Our story is told through three main narrators who each offer a unique perspective of events as they take place over the course of six fateful days; Jess Hall, Stump’s young and naïve brother, innocent to the evils of man and as such oblivious to the consequences of their actions on that momentous day or the result of ultimately divulging his secret; 81-year old Adelaide Lyle, the local midwife and moral conscious of the church, and the person solely aware of the venomous snake in their midst in the form of Carson Chambliss; and lastly, Sheriff Clem Barefield, the local sheriff tasked with investigating Stump’s death, whose life is intrinsically linked with the Hall family due to the death of his own son many years ago.

Each one of these characters is fully fleshed out with evocative back stories and memories shared through flashbacks that bring each more fully to life and movingly inform the reader as to the driving force which has shaped each of their lives. Adelaide and Clem are the more compelling voices; a fact which is undoubtedly due in part to the fact that they are older characters with more life lived and in turn more wisdom and insight to share. They’ve each lived lives scarred by pain and loss, yet equally touched by love and joy and those palpably conveyed emotions make them relatable and real.

Despite its heartache and loss, in the end the author redeems the tale’s darkness and its main characters with a sense of hope and healing. A Land More Kind Than Home is a powerful and poignant novel dealing with themes of faith and family which are brilliantly conveyed through three unforgettable voices.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

Have you ever read a book that so charmed and enchanted you that you read its every page with a smile on your face? Such was the case for me with this wonderful and unforgettable novel. I smiled with joy, I smiled through laughter, and I smiled through my tears, as this tale’s words worked their magic and wrapped themselves around my heart like a dear friend's warm embrace. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is a little book with so much heart, whose every page reminds me why I love to read. "No man is an island; every book is a world." Believe me, visit A.J. Fikry's world as soon as you can, because you won't regret it.

A.J. Fikry is the widowed owner of Island Books, a small bookstore on Alice Island. Embittered by life and loss, A.J. has successfully pushed away all those who care about him - Ismay, his sister-in-law; Ryan, her author husband and A.J.'s best friend, and even Chief Lambiase, with whom A.J. shares the painful memories of the night he lost his beloved wife, Nic. A.J. is lost; his bookstore is struggling, his life is a mess thanks to nights spent drinking himself into oblivion, and he can't move forward - living his life wrapped in memories of the past.

Life has moved on despite his loss, and he gets such a reminder when he meets Amelia Loman, the new sales rep for Knightley Press and the replacement for recently deceased Harvey Rhodes. A.J.'s pain and frustration come to a head on the fateful day of their meeting, and the grumpy and at times acerbic A.J. isn't very kind to the quirky and idealistic young Amelia. If possible, things get even worse for A.J. when the night of their meeting his treasured copy of Tamerlane, a rare collection of poems by Edgar Allan Poe, intended to serve as his retirement fund is stolen from his home.

Flummoxed by the theft and consternated by the steady stream of curious Alice Island citizens (aka gawkers) trudging through his door, life and fate (as they are wont to do) throw A.J. a little curveball when he finds an unexpected package in his store when he returns from an evening run. This small in size yet monumental in impact package changes his life forever.

In case I didn’t make it clear enough above, I love this book! It’s a story of love, loss, hope, and redemption. In A.J. Fikry we find the perfect protagonist; one whom like all of us is just a little screwed up. There is an honest humanity and frailty in A.J. that you can’t help but love; he’s loved and lost and like a little hermit crab whose thin skin needs protection from the elements, A.J. has chosen to hide his heart behind a tough external crabby (pardon the pun) shell in order to protect himself from the cruel world that has wrought such suffering on his soul.

Along with a beautiful story that like life itself has ups and downs, joys and tears, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is a book filled with simple truths. Each chapter in the book is preceded by the title of a short story or a book and a note from A.J. describing what he liked about it and in those words of wisdom he shares universal truths about books but also about life. In one such note, A.J. states "my latter-day reaction speaks to the necessity of encountering stories at precisely the right time in our lives...the things we respond to at twenty are not necessarily the same things we will respond to at forty and vice versa. This is true in books and also in life."

A.J. wisely reminds us all that in reading books we are not isolating ourselves in our own little insular worlds, but instead trying to connect; to find a shared common bond with others, one that binds us and affirms that we are not alone. In A.J.’s world of books, he’s found the perfect definition of our lives “We are not quite novels. We are not quite short stories…In the end, we are collected works.”

Words cannot fully express how much I loved this book. The characters (A.J., Amelia, Maya, Chief Lambiase, etc.) became beloved friends that I hated saying goodbye to at the story’s end. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is a true gift to readers of all ages and one that I will treasure always.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

That Night

Back in 2010 I read Chevy Stevens' debut novel Still Missing which proved to be a gut-wrenching and gripping psychological thriller and my favorite book for that year (check out this old post). Despite my initial admiration for this talented new author, I subsequently skipped both of her follow up books but I was instantly intrigued by That Night's (her latest novel) book description when I came across it back in January when I was drafting my 2014 book preview post. After reading That Night I can eagerly report that it was a phenomenal read; a suspenseful and well-paced story that hooked me and held me in its grip from the first page to the last.

That Night introduces us to 34-year old Toni Murphy who is being released from prison, having served 16 years incarcerated for a crime she didn't commit. Toni and her boyfriend Ryan were only 18 when they were arrested, tried and sentenced for the brutal murder of her sister Nicole. Out on parole, Toni is determined to stay out of the hell that was jail. After a tense and eventful stay at a half-way home for just released convicts, Toni is finally allowed to go back to her hometown, where she tries to slowly rebuild her life - finding a job, connecting with her dad, and even adopting a dog, Captain, the best thing to happen to her in a long time.

Life at 18 had been miserable thanks to a clique of high school mean girls whose leader, Shauna, had made it her mission to torment Toni at every turn, but nothing had prepared her for the daily struggle and brutality of jail. Now free, Toni is determined to keep it that way, a less than easy feat when Ryan, the love of her life, with whom she's allowed no contact as a condition of her parole, shows up convinced he can figure out the truth of Nicole's murder and determined to enlist Toni's help in proving their innocence.

As Ryan starts to ask questions, it becomes apparent that those mean girls know more about that night than the lies they testified to on the witness stand and someone has dark secrets for which they might be willing to kill again in order to keep them silent. As truths are revealed, Toni will have to decide if she's willing to risk it all to find out what really happened that night.

What a great book! That Night was enthralling from beginning to end and once started I could not put it down. No lie, I started it at 6 pm on a quiet Sunday night and did not put it down until just passed midnight after reaching its satisfying conclusion. As much as the tale is one of murder, mystery and suspense, it packs an equally compelling emotional wallop in its depiction of teenage bullying and even more powerfully prison life - the fear, solitude, and incredible sense of loss and isolation.

The story alternates between past and present so the reader is witness to Toni's developing transformation and growth from a scared kid to a tough woman ready to face her life and fears head on. The chapters which reach back into the days and months preceding Nicole's murder offer a scary look at the effects of bullying; a life lived in fear and uncertainty, in which the victim doesn’t know what comes next and is seemingly helpless in stopping their aggressor. Each day becomes a non-stop struggle where peace can’t be found at school, home or even at work. The narrative surrounding high school was perfectly written to incrementally ratchet up the tension as the reader drew ever closer to the actual night of the crime when our protagonists lives were changed forever.

The jail related chapters depicted not only the dark side of jail but also the humanity to be found there. The human connections made as strangers grasped for friendship and commonality in an effort to build a family away from their own. A sad statement probably true of many inmates was the fact that Toni had to grasp camaraderie and compassion from fellow inmates and guards, since her own family – mostly her mom – turned away from her due to doubts of her innocence.

I fully connected with Toni. Her character was so well written – human and real; she wasn’t perfect by any means, but I could nonetheless empathize with her false imprisonment, her early innocent bewilderment and later resignation as freedoms and rights were stripped away from her making her question her own sense of self as she paid the price for a heinous crime of which she was innocent. While Ryan’s role in the book is minimal given that Toni is the book’s sole narrator, the relationship between the two nonetheless felt real and strong, whether they were 18 or 34. The author portrayed in their relationship a simple bond of love and friendship that remained unbroken by time or distance.

That Night is a book that touches your heart and tests your nerves, featuring a petite heroine whose strength is forged in the fire of pain and grief and whose steely resolve and hopeful spirit the reader can’t help but admire.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Boy, Snow, Bird

Why, hello there! I have been totally unmotivated to post of late. Life continues. Still working, still reading, and still watching TV and movies, but the summer heat has brought the usual case of the lazies, which means I’d rather be anywhere but in front of the computer blogging. Nonetheless, whenever I find a truly great book and I’ve found one or two gems lately (The Good Luck of Right Now, That Night, and The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (my 2014 favorite, so far)), the need to share the news with family and friends outweighs the lethargy and helps to motivate me to exert a modicum of effort in order to catch you guys up with some reviews.

I’m so behind on my posts, so I’ll start with Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi, a small book and quick read which I finished four or five novels ago. I picked up the book mainly thanks to a generous review from Entertainment Weekly that described it as a retelling of the classic tale of Snow White. I’ll warn you right now though that if you’re looking for the next Wicked or even Maleficent then this book is not for you. The similarities between the fairy tale classic and this book are miniscule to say the least, and I’d say in all honesty the comparison was more a ploy to sell books than anything else.

Boy, Snow, Bird begins its tale in the winter of 1953 in NYC when Boy Novak, the rat catcher’s daughter, escapes the clutches of her sadistic father and makes her way to a small town in Massachusetts. Boy meets and marries Arturo Whitman, a widowed jeweler who has a beautiful young daughter named Snow. Boy is enchanted by the winsome girl and hopes to be a good mother to her husband’s child, but circumstances quickly change when Boy gives birth to a daughter of her own, Bird, who is dark-skinned and exposes the Whitman’s long guarded secret that they are in fact light-skinned African Americans passing for white.

Here’s where the comparison to Snow White comes in, for Boy takes on the role of the wicked stepmother shipping off the beautiful Snow to be raised by Clara, Arturo’s dark-skinned sister who had also been sent away to remain hidden like a guilty sin. Time passes and the story takes some unexpected twists and turns as the characters attempt to give us insight into the subjects of race, beauty and self-identity.

I know this book has received rave reviews from some, including the New York Times, but I just did not connect at all with Boy, Snow, Bird. The book is divided into three parts, narrated by Boy, Bird, and then Boy again, respectively. I found the earliest parts of the book the most compelling read; where we meet Boy, our heroine; a sympathetic figure (initially) cast in the role of lost, mistreated, and unloved waif. Boy’s early freedom and initial forays into discovering both herself and love held some emotional resonance, but then the tale quickly grinds to a halt.

The narrative holds no tension, drama, or emotion, and as such the tale dragged both in pacing and character development. I felt the plotline surrounding Snow could have proved interesting and held some potential, but the author made it nearly a non-issue by shipping her off to live with her aunt and not reintroducing both her views and insights until a teenage Bird connects via letters with her long missing sister. Familial jealousies and the racial prejudices of the time were highlighted in the story, but unlike other books dealing with the racial divide (like The Help or The Invention of Wings, both of which I loved) I felt so disconnected from the characters with no sense of emotional investment in their circumstances (whether good or bad), that in all honesty I was rushing through the last two chapters not because I couldn’t wait to find out what happened to the characters, but because I just wanted to finish the darned book, and don’t even get me started on the end which is totally out of nowhere.

Boy, Snow, Bird
proved a disappointing read to me, but given the high praise lauded on the book’s young author I’ll definitely give one of her other novels a try in the future.