Monday, December 10, 2018

My take on: Start Without Me

It's holiday time, so it's time for holiday reads! In Start Without Me by Joshua Max Feldman, for the first time in years Adam has an invite to the Thanksgiving table. After several failed rehab attempts, the recovering alcoholic is facing the daunting task of spending the holiday with his family. A holiday meal is something most people look forward to, but not Adam. It means he has to talk to his parents, talk to his siblings (and to their families). It means no alcohol. It means being present and accountable -- something Adam struggles with in his sobriety.

Simple tasks pose a challenge, like making coffee for his family. Adam accidentally breaks the coffee pot and flees the house because he's afraid of the consequences and the potential judgment from his family. To him, it makes more sense to flee the family home in Connecticut and head back to the safety and routine of his new home in Seattle. But a chance encounter at an airport restaurant derails Adam's chance to runaway.

Like Adam, flight attendant Marissa is dreading Thanksgiving dinner. A marriage riddled with strife about race and money, is only going to get worse if Marissa's husband, Robbie, finds out she's pregnant with a baby that's not his (not a spoiler since that little tidbit is revealed very early). When Adam asks to sit at her table, Marissa borders on saying no but says yes. It's a decision that helps and hurts both Marissa and Adam. It helps that they have someone to talk to. But it also hurts that they have someone to talk. Each can be objective about the other's problems. Each person serves as a welcome distraction to their own problems. It's easier for them to talk to a stranger because you don't have to worry about disappointing a stranger. While neither is ready to face their problems, a friendship is born. A friendship that leads to a troubled, sad, funny, and heartwarming road trip.

I would call this the dark and satirical book version of the movie Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. Two strangers who wouldn't otherwise be friends find a way to confront the past so that they can move forward in the present. Like real life, nothing wraps in a neat little bow. Both Adam and Marissa have to face the messes they made and by the end there is some hope for the future. I loved this book, and I think you will too!

Rating: Superb

Note: I received a copy of the book from the publisher (HarperCollins) as part of a blog tour with TLC Book Tours

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

My take on: Family Trust

Family dramas are a sweet spot for me, and my latest read Family Trust by Kathy Wang was right up my alley.

Family patriarch Stanley Huang is dying of cancer. Stanley is facing his own mortality with a positive, but slightly passive attitude. His wife, Mary, his much younger second wife, has him eating all kinds of cancer-fighting foods. While his kids, Fred and Kate, and his ex-wife, Linda, wished he would approach death with a little more practicality.

Getting Stanley to get his legal and financial affairs in order is proving difficult. However, Fred, Kate, and Linda also have their own problems to deal with. Fred has dreams of career advancement, while his girlfriend, Erika, has dreams of a diamond engagement ring and a large bank account. Kate is supporting her two kids and her "entrepreneur" husband, Denny. Financially savvy and retired, Linda has suddenly discovered the joys and perils of online dating.

Personally, I found the stories and shenanigans of Stanley's extended family to be far more interesting. Fred seems to only tolerate his golddigger girlfriend. Everything has to be the most expensive and best quality for Erika. Anything less than the best won't do. She also seemed borderline racist. Erika, a native of Budapest, didn't grow up around people of other races, which is sometimes her excuse for the things that come out of her mouth. But Fred tolerates this to a point. As an Asian man, he struggles with the belief that women don't find him desirable or attractive. So it makes sense that he would put up with Erika, that is until he reaches a breaking point.

Kate doesn't mind being the sole breadwinner because she has faith that her husband's startup will one day take off. But how can that day come when Denny spends most of his time in the attic "running" his business. Kate isn't sure what Denny does all day in the attic. On some level she doesn't want to know, but eventually curiosity gets the better of her. She starts spying on Denny and changing up her routine in hopes of "catching" him in the act. In the act of what? She's not sure, but she's about to get hit over the head with what seems to be the obvious answer: an affair. Kate suspects he's cheating, but hesitates on acting upon her suspicions.

Linda on the other hand, steps out of her comfort zone and into the adventures of online dating. The first few in-person dates don't go so well. But a relationship via phone calls and video messaging are right up Linda's alley. She has the companionship she seeks without the drama and pressures of actually living with someone. But even this relationship has its limitations once her paramour starts asking for money. My radar went up immediately. The dude has to be a scammer. He professes his deep undying love for a person he's never met, all the while asking for money for his own kids (if they exist). And he can't come to the United States -- yet. For a woman who comes across so smart, sarcastic, and witty, I thought she was acting rather dumb in her online relationship.

Overall, I like the book but thought the pacing was a bit slow. Fred, Kate, and Linda narrate the book, and sometimes I felt the author went off on a lot of unnecessary tangents and overly long backstories. When Kate makes the decision to spy on Denny, it was because of a technological tool created at the company she works at. But it took several pages before the author made the connection between the two, which was annoying to me. I think 50-75 less pages would have made for a tighter and more enjoyable story.

Rating: Give it a try

Notes: I received a copy of the book from the publisher (HarperCollins) as part of a blog tour with TLC Book Tours

Sunday, November 11, 2018

My take on: How to Be Alone

Being alone means something different to everyone. To me, it means being devoid of family, friends, and even casual acquaintances. It's more than being without a romantic partner. To me, being completely alone means you don't have someone to turn to when you really need it. I'm single but I don't know what it truly means to be alone, which is why I was intrigued by my latest read How To Be Alone: If You Want to, And Even if You Don't by Lane Moore.

The author had an abusive childhood, lived out of her car as a teenager, and struggled in multiple romantic relationships. But she's managed to persevere, building a career as a writer, comedian, actor, and musician. With her background, there is certainly a story to tell.

There are things I can relate to, like putting friends in certain categories. There are some friends you can literally pour your heart out to, but then there are others who will never be more than a drinking buddy. The belief that there is a "soulmate" is a common theme in some of the essays in the book. You grow up believing there is a "soulmate," you'll meet this person at a certain age, and they will solve all of your problems. As the author points out, the belief in "soulmates" makes for great TV and movies, but it's really just an illusion. No one person can solve everything and make everything perfect.

What I can't relate to is having an abusive family, online dating at 13, not knowing my extended family, and living out of my car. I don't point these out as if they're the fault of the author, but I wish her essays tackled these issues with more depth. I felt like I got a very surface level understanding of her background. I guess I was looking for more insight into how her past shaped her present, but perhaps that's material for her next book!

Overall, this book felt like it was more about how the author felt alone in her friendships and romantic relationships not necessarily how she was completely alone. The strongest essay was actually the last one, aptly titled "How to Be Alone." The biggest takeaway I got from that essay is that just because you don't have a perfect group of friends or the perfect romantic partner, you're not alone. The person you talk to casually everyday waiting for the train, a co-worker who you crack jokes with, or the person you chat with in line at the grocery story knows that you matter. Not everything was a home run for me with this book, but there was a lot to like.

Rating: Give it a try

Note: I received a copy of the book from the publisher (Atria Books) in exchange for an honest review. 

Monday, November 5, 2018

My take on: The Splendor of Birds

The only birds I see on a regular basis are the pigeons when I get off the subway. To me, they're more of a nuisance than a thing of beauty. But I'm all for getting out of my comfort zone and looking at things in a new light.

The Splendor of Birds, a 500-plus page tome, is a vivid exploration of more than 130 years worth of photos and paintings from the National Geographic archive. And "vivid" seems like such a mild description of the artwork in this book. To truly grasp it, you have to see the photos/artwork up close. The vibrant colors of some of the birds, like cobalt winged parakeets, ostriches, and hummingbirds, really pop on the page.

I would say the book is 90 percent photography/paintings, with the other 10 percent focusing on the history of Nat Geo magazine and the publication's coverage of birds. The first managing editor of the magazine had a love birds, so much so that he championed for the use of color and photographic images. Sections labelled "Then & Now" showcase the challenges of photographing birds in the past and the present. Film vs. digital photography was particularly interesting. In 1986, one photographer was fortunate to have several roles of film with, leading to the perfect shot of penguins swimming underwater. In 2012, another photographer didn't have to worry about reloading the camera because with digital photography thousands of images can be a single memory card.

The mix of history and photography plays well here. Although I wish there was a little bit more text. There are a couple snippets here and there about the backstory of some of the photographs and I wanted more!

Rating: Superb

Note: I received a copy of the book from the publisher (National Geographic) as part of a blog tour with TLC Book Tours

Sunday, October 21, 2018

My take on: Educated

If Educated by Tara Westover was a fiction novel, I would think it was excellent. As a memoir, this was missing a level of believability and authenticity that I look for in non-fiction. My measuring stick for non-fiction is do I believe what I'm being told. I believe some parts of this book, but some were just toooooo far-fetched.

Tara Westover grew up in a survivalist, Mormon family. Tara grew up in the mountains of Idaho, with parents who were always preparing for the end of days. Her parents didn't believe in traditional medicine, her mother's herbs and oils were the only options. Tara and her siblings were all born at home, leading to them growing up without birth certificates or proper identification. Imagine not being able to prove who you are when you really need to? I certainly can't. Traditional school wasn't an option, instead Tara and her siblings were homeschooled by their mother. Working the land and making it work for you were how the family survived. Getting an education, getting a job, and integrating into regular society was not something to strive for. But some of her brothers did want out. They wanted to be free from their father's mood swings and his constant belief in conspiracy theories. They wanted an education.

Some of Tara's brothers got out. Her older brother Tyler wasn't built for mountain life, he loved books and music. He made it through college and encouraged Tara to do the same. How could she without any type of formal schooling? She studied and she studied hard for entrance exams. Against all odds she got into Brigham Young University, despite never having gone to any school prior. Going to college was a frightening experience but it was also a safe space. Another brother, Shawn, was becoming increasingly violent toward Tara. Almost to the point of killing her, all the while her parents did nothing to stop it. College was an escape. College was hard, but also eye-opening for Tara. She learned about psychology, history, mathematics, and grammar. History was particularly illuminating, as Tara learned about the Civil Rights Movement and the Holocaust for the first time. Professors and fellow students mistook Tara's ignorance of these topics as rudeness. But she genuinely knew nothing of these important moments in history because she had been taught that the outside world was evil.

Tara was getting an education, but she was stuck between two worlds. The one where possibilities are endless, and the other where only her father's word is the gospel. What do you do when you want both? You want your family in your life and you want a life of knowledge and opportunity. But what if one is more detrimental to your physical and emotional health? That is what Tara Westover was facing. That struggle is clear and believable throughout the book. What I struggled with is the description of several accidents and the subsequent medical treatments. Two of Tara's brothers and their father both have serious accidents, including severe burns of significant parts of their body. Going to a hospital, if at all, was a last resort instead Tara's mothers herb mixtures were the only forms of medical treatment. I firmly believe that modern traditional medicine does not have all the answers, but when it comes to burns and brain injuries I DO NOT believe herbs are the answers. I do not believe that a person could SURVIVE with herbs alone as medicine. That's where the story seems to venture from non-fiction to fiction. Those parts read like a novel not a memoir. I know truth can sometimes be stranger than fiction, but this book was lacking in believability for me.

Rating: Give it a try

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

My take on: I Know You Know

I love crime/thriller books and I'm on a bit of a run with those books right now. The last book I finished was by Karin Slaughter, clocking in at almost 500 pages. Generally I like to switch genres after I've just finished a book, but I made an exception with 
I Know You Know by Gilly Macmillan. With a title like that, there has to be a good story behind it.

This centers on two murder cases -- twenty years apart. In 1996, friends Charlie Paige and Scott Ashby were murdered and dumped like trash behind a dog track. A young man, Sidney Noyce, with the mental capacity of a 10-year-old was convicted of the crime, but there have always been doubts about his guilt. Fast forward twenty years and the same detective, John Fletcher, who found the bodies of Charlie and Scott, is working a new case with eerie similarities to the past. Fletcher has never forgotten about the case that made his career, especially since Charlie died in his arms. Now he must decide if the two cases are related. 

Memories of Charlie and Scott also haunt their best friend Cody Swift. He's convinced the wrong man was convicted of the crime. After years away from his hometown of Bristol, Cody has returned to confront the past and to learn what really happened to his friends. But at what cost? Dredging up the past can only open painful wounds. To get at the "truth" Cody starts a podcast, speaking with investigators, reporters, and relatives of Charlie and Scott. He will have to get people like Charlie's mother, Jess, to confront harmful memories. Jess has moved on and started a new family, and has no interest in speaking to Cody. 

There are a lot of layers to this book. Not everyone is what they seem. At first, Fletcher presents as an earnest detective. He believes with his whole heart that the right man went to prison. But with each chapter, it's clear the mistakes and liberties that Fletcher took with the case. He's not the most scrupulous detective, Fletcher is somewhat corrupt. He tries to stay on the right side of the law, but gets pulled in other directions. Jess is very much the grieving mother. She has deep regret for how poorly she raised Charlie, and is determined not to make same mistakes with her daughter, Erica. But even she is deeply flawed. It's understandable that she has no desire to participate in Cody's podcast, but her reasons are not completely genuine. She doesn't want to revisit the person she used to be, and she doesn't want Cody digging into her own actions the night Charlie died. Why? What does she have to hide and why? There are so many pieces to the puzzle, and it was intriguing seeing how the past connected to the present. Who is guilty? Who is innocent? What was the endgame? Why were Charlie and Scott murdered? What was the motive? It was a thrilling ride and I would definitely read another book by Gilly Macmillan. 

Rating: Superb

Note: I received a copy of the book from the publisher (HarperCollins) as part of a blog tour with TLC Book Tours


Saturday, September 29, 2018

My take on: The Kept Woman

I've only read two of her books, but I have to say Karin Slaughter is one of the best crime writers I have ever read.

At first, I was a little turned off by the length of her books, they're often close to the 500-page mark. But, like a bag of chips, once you get started on one of her books it's hard to just stop at just one page or even a chapter. That was no different with the latest entry in her Will Trent series, The Kept Woman.

Of course the book opens with a murder. The murder of a sleazy ex-cop named Dale Harding.  Enter the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and special agent Will Trent and his partner, Faith Mitchell. The body was found at a construction site,  a location with ties to a rich, bad-boy, basketball player named Marcus Rippy. Will and Rippy have a complicated history. Will spent the last several months trying to send Rippy to prison for a brutal rape. But money and power made that a futile effort.

Does Rippy have any involvement in Harding's murder? If he does, then Will can finally put Rippy behind bars. The crime scene is a treasure trove of clues. There's blood everywhere but according to medical examiner Sara Linton, who also happens to be Will's girlfriend, all of the blood couldn't possible be from Harding. That means there's another victim. A victim who's somewhere bleeding to death. That someone just might be Will's estranged wife, Angie Polaski.

How does this all tie together? How does this all work? Just a couple of the many questions. Will is devastated at the prospect that Angie's life is in danger, not because he wants her back in his life but because they have a lot of history together. A history that even Sara can't break through. And on some level he still cares for Angie. Will and Angie can understand each other's pain better than anyone. But Angie has spent years emotionally torturing Will, and who knows (hint hint) she could be doing it again. I haven't read any of the other books in the series, but this told me all I needed to know about Angie Polaski's character. She's got a lot of spunk, but that's outweighed by what a monster her character can be. The first half of the book centers on the investigation, as Will and Faith delve into Harding's life including why someone would want to kill him. Karin Slaughter gets you deeply invested into that storyline and then she switches gears, telling Angie's side of the story. I wanted to get back to Will's story but I quickly got immersed in Angie's perspective. Angie's always working an angle, even if her original intentions were good she finds some way to screw it up -- and screw it up big time. I can't say too much about the second half of the book without spoiling it. But I will say, I kept wondering how the first half of the book ties in with the second. It does all tie together like the pieces of a big puzzle and I enjoyed putting them together in my mind!

Rating: Superb

Note: I received a copy of the book from the publisher (HarperCollins) in exchange for an honest review. 
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