Monday, March 20, 2017

My take on: The Hike

The Hike by Drew Magary is an odyssey through an Alison in Wonderland-like world on acid. Trust me, this is a compliment! I know this might not be popular opinion, but this is one of the best, funniest, and weirdest books I've read in a long time.

Yes, The Library at Mount Char was weird, but that took me a long time to like and understand. I think The Hike succeeded where the latter didn't. The Hike could almost pass for a children's story, if only for that pesky cursing, drinking, and mild sex!

Ben is an ordinary dude, with an ordinary life. He has a wife, Teresa, and three children. Everything is normal....until he heads to the Poconos for a business trip. After settling into his hotel, Ben decides to go for a hike in the woods. What could go wrong? Everything!

At first, it seems like Ben is lost. Did he see that tree before? Did he pass that rock before? But things take an odd turn. He sees two men with Rottweiler faces burying a body. Yes, men with dog faces. Men with dog faces who are out to kill Ben. Somehow he gets away from them, finding a tent, drinks, and a backpack filled with food. How is it that supplies just happen to magical find their way to Ben? Nobody is that lucky, but he's not about to squander his good fortune. Partaking in beer and hot dogs, Ben takes the first of several trips down memory lane. He dreams of a former girlfriend, but it feels so real that Ben believes he's cheating on Teresa. Is it all just a really bad dream? He'll wake up soon from this nightmare won't he?

There is no waking up from this nightmare, at least not any time soon. In the morning, Ben seems to be caught in some medieval world. He encounters Mrs. Blackwell who doesn't seem to understand anything Ben is talking about. Like how does one charge their phone, when this lady doesn't even know what one is? But she's there to set Ben on his path and offer some very wise advice. Ben has to find the producer and to do so he has to stay on the path. If he leaves the path, he's not only risking his life but his sanity.

Along his travels, Ben meets some very funny, dangerous, and weird characters. A crab named Crab becomes Ben's sidekick. Yes, don't call Crab anything other than "Crab" or he'll snap your fingers off with his claws. As insane as it sounds for a grown man to speak with a talking crab, it's funny and it all makes sense. Ben and Crab appear to be a real-life Odd Couple, but they become friends and save each other at every turn. When they meet Fermona, a human-eating wise-cracking giant, Ben and Crab work together to outsmart her.

Days turn to weeks. Weeks turn to months. Months turn to years. Yes, Ben is stuck in this wackadoo alternate universe for years. The friends and enemies he makes on this journey come and go. The only constant is Ben. Slowly, he's losing his physical and emotional strength. How will he ever get out of this cycle? Does he want out? If he does get out will he be the same? Will his family be the same? Will they even remember him? Sometimes it felt like Ben's journey was a way of atoning for his past sins. He gets to re-live many prominent moments in his past. The memories are so vivid, it's hard to know what's real and what isn't. But each morning it's clear that Ben is far removed from reality.

This was my office book club pick, and I really didn't have high hopes. Fantasy just isn't my thing, but I'm trying to read outside of my comfort zone. I'm glad I did. From start to finish, I was hooked. It's heavy on the fantasy/magical realism, but it's also about discovering the depths of one's own humanity. It becomes clear that the answer to Ben's problems is not within this wacky world but himself. Whenever he realizes that he just might be saved. Overall, this was a fun, heartwarming, fascination, and WACKY read!

Rating: O.M.G. !!!

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

My Take on: The Possessions

Somewhere in the distant future, there exists a society that reconnects people with dead loved ones. Eurydice a.k.a. Edie works as a "body" at the Elysian Society. The bodies surround themselves with clothing, pictures, and other sentimental items of the deceased, immersing themselves in the lives of those who have passed. Then with the swallowing of a pill called a lotus, the bodies cease to exist and the dead take over. It's all done in a controlled environment and has worked to great success. But that only works as long as everyone follows the rules. Edie is tempted to break those rules but it comes at a cost in this thrilling debut, The Possessions by Sara Flannery Murphy.

In her five years at the Elysian Society, Edie has always played by the rules. She doesn't get attached to her clients. She goes to work and then she does home. She doesn't socialize a lot. Edie's co-workers don't know much about her. She's the goody-two shoes in the office. But the cracks in Edie's armor start to show once she takes on Patrick Braddock as a client.

Patrick's wife, Sylvia, drowned more than a year ago and is still grieving. He comes to the Elysian Society for help. With Edie's help, he gets to feel, touch, and talk to Sylvia again. When the first session is over, Edie would normally go back to her life. The lotus pills don't allow bodies to retain memories of their sessions. But there's something different about Patrick and Sylvia. He gives Edie some of Sylvia's sentimental items to keep, including a beloved book and her favorite shade of lipstick. She feels connected to the Braddocks more than any other clients. But that connection has a price. Edie is also having very vivid dreams, which could possibly be Sylvia's memories. Sylvia died under mysterious circumstances. Did she really drown accidentally or was something more sinister at work? The answers to those questions become Edie's obsession. She starts meeting Patrick outside the confines of the Elysian Society. The professional boundaries start to blur. Is Patrick just a client? Or does Sylvia want more? A real relationship? But what if Patrick isn't the grieving husband? Is risking her career worth it?

I'm not sure what I was expecting with this book. The premise sounded very unique. I went into this thinking it would lean toward science fiction. What I got was a thrilling, romantic suspense book. This a strange and weird city. Who would want to subject themselves to such a process over and over again? Connecting with a loved one sounds like a good idea, but what do you do when you have to go back to your regular life? This was a different take on a dystopian society, making for an addicting read.

Rating: Superb

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

Friday, February 24, 2017

My take on: The River at Night

Four friends head off for a little fun and a little adventure. Sounds like a good idea right? But what if that weekend getaway turned into a nightmare? Stripped of all your worldly possessions, food, and water, what would you do to survive? Is it every man, woman, and child for themselves? Or would you find some way to rely on each other?

That's the scenario Wini, Pia, Sandra, and Rachel, are facing in The River at Night by Erica Ferencik.

In the past, Wini, Pia, Sandra, and Rachel went for the typical girls getaway: beaches, sun, sand, and alcohol. Thanks to Pia's adventurous spirit, the tropics have been replaced with a camping and rafting trip. In the midst of a divorce, Wini is reluctant to rough it out in the woods. And Pia's plan, isn't exactly well thought out. Which I found a bit odd for modern women. But of course they all go, otherwise there would be no point to this book.

The trip starts out fine. They trek from their big-city lives to a small town in Maine, where some of the locals aren't so welcoming. But their young river guide, Rory, makes up for that. He and Pia clearly have a lot of mutual affection, much to the chagrin of Wini, Sandra, and Rachel. Sometimes the lovebirds don't seem to realize not everyone wants to see and hear their lust for each other, leading to a lot of tension in the group. But all of that has to be put aside once they venture out on the river. Rory makes it clear that all of the bickering has to stop once they're in the water. The surging rapids are in charge and everyone will have to listen and work together.

What should be a unique experience for Wini, Pia, Sandra, and Rachel becomes a fight for survival. A freak accident leaves the four women alone with nothing but their helmets and the clothes on their backs to survive. It's at this point where the book comes alive for me. It was a little slow for me and I was waiting for the hook. For the suspense. The closest comparisons I can think of to this book are the movies Deliverance and The River Wild. In both movies, everything starts out sunshine and roses and then everything turns to %&*^ (insert your four-letter word of choice)!!

There are moments when I thought these women would turn on each other. Who do they trust? Themselves? The woods? Or two mysterious strangers who might have ulterior motives? I won't go into detail on that one, I think that would be giving away too much. Anyway you slice it, these women will never be the same after this trip. If they do survive, how can they go back to normal life after such a traumatic experience?

The wilderness and the river are like extra characters, every time the women venture into both it threatens to consume them literally and figuratively. There are moments when all of them feel like giving up. Just let the elements take them. But just when you think they're at their lowest points they come back. At its core, this is about friendship and learning who you are when everything has been taken away. It's a suspenseful and enjoyable read.

Rating: Superb

Note: I received an e-galley from Wunderkind PR in exchange for an honest review.

Excerpt: The River at Night by Erica Ferencik



Read on for a little snippet from The River at Night by Erica Ferencik
1

Early one morning in late March, Pia forced my hand.
A slapping spring wind ushered me through the heavy doors of the YMCA lobby as the minute hand of the yellowing 1950s-era clock over the check-in desk snapped to 7:09. Head down and on task to be in my preferred lane by precisely 7:15, I rushed along the glass corridor next to the pool. The chemical stink leaked from the ancient windows, as did the muffled shrieks of children and the lifeguard’s whistle. I felt cosseted by the shabby walls, by my self-righteous routine, by the fact that I’d ousted
myself from my warm bed to face another tedious day head-on. Small victories.
I’d just squeezed myself into my old-lady swimsuit when the phone in my bag began to bleat. I dug it out. The screen pulsed
with the image of Pia Zanderlee ski-racing down a double black
diamond slope somewhere in Banff.
My choices? Answer it now or play phone tag for another week.
Pia was that friend you love with a twinge of resentment. The
sparkly one who never has time for you unless it’s on her schedule,
but you like her too much to flush her down the friendship toilet.
“Wow, a phone call—from you!” I said as I mercilessly assessed
my middle-aged pudge in the greasy mirror. “To what do I owe the
honor?”
Of course I knew the reason. Five unanswered texts.
Pia laughed. “Hey, Win, listen. We need to make our reservations.
Like, by tomorrow.”
I fished around in my swim bag for my goggles. “Yeah, I
haven’t—”
“I get it. Nature’s not your thing, but you’re going to love it
once you’re out there. Rachel and Sandra are chomping at the bit
to go, but they have to make their travel plans. We all do.”
With a shudder, I recalled my frantic Google search the night
before for Winnegosset River Rafting, Maine.
No results.
“Just wondering why this place doesn’t have some kind of
website. I mean, is it legit?” I asked, my voice coming out all high
and tinny. Already I was ashamed of my wussiness. “I’d hate to
get all the way up there and find out this is some sort of shady
operation—”
I could feel her roll her eyes. “Wini, just because some place
or something or someone doesn’t have a website doesn’t mean
they don’t exist.” She sounded windblown, breathless. I pictured
her power walking through her Cambridge neighborhood, wrist
weights flashing neon. “It’s a big old world out there. One of the
reasons this place is so awesome is because no one knows about it
yet, so it’s not booked solid before the snow’s even melted. That’s
why there’s space for the weekend we all want, get it? This year,
it’s the world’s best-kept secret—next year, forget it!”
“I don’t know, Pia . . .” I glanced at the time: 7:14.
She laughed, softening to me now. “Look, the guy who runs the white-water tours is a good friend of my dad—he’s my dad’s friend’s son, I mean, so it’s cool.”
          “Can’t believe Rachel would want to—”
“Are you crazy? She’s dying to go. And Sandra? Please. She’d get on a plane right now if she could.”
With a wave of affection I pictured my last Skype with Sandra: kids running around screaming in the background, papers to correct stacked next to her. When I brought up the trip, she’d groaned, Hell, yes, I’m game for anything—just get me out of Dodge!
“Wini, listen up: Next year—I promise, we’ll go to a beach somewhere. Canc├║n, Key West, you choose. Do nothing and just bake.
“Look, Pia, I’m at the pool and I’m going to lose my lane—”
“Okay. Swim. Then call me.”
I tucked my flyaway dirty-blond bob—the compromise cut for
all hopelessly shitty hair—under my bathing cap, then hustled my
stuff into a locker and slammed it shut. Do nothing and just bake.
Did she really think that was all I was interested in? Who was the
one who rented the bike the last time we went to the Cape? Just
me, as I recalled, while all of them sat around the rental pouring
more and more tequila into the blender each day. And my God—
we were all pushing forty—shouldn’t awesome and cool be in the
rearview mirror by now?


I crossed the slimy tiles of the dressing room and pushed open
the swinging doors to the pool. The air hit me, muggy and warm,
dense with chlorine that barely masked an underwhiff of urine
and sweat. Children laughed and punched at the blue water in the
shallow end as I padded over to my favorite lane, which was . . .
occupied.
It was 7:16 and frog man had beat me to it. Fuck.
For close to a year, this nonagenarian ear, nose, and throat doctor
and I had been locked in a mostly silent daily battle over the
best lane—far left-hand side, under the skylights—from 7:15 to
8:00 each weekday morning. Usually I was the victor, something
about which I’d felt ridiculous glee. We’d only ever exchanged
the briefest of greetings; both of us getting to the Y a notch earlier
each day. I imagined we both craved this mindless exercise,
thoughts freed by the calming boredom of swimming and near weightlessness.
      But today I’d lost the battle. I plopped down on a hard plastic seat, pouting inside but feigning serenity as I watched him slap through his slow-motion crawl. He appeared to lose steam near the end of a lap, then climbed the ladder out of the pool as only a ninety-year-old can: with careful deliberation in every step. As I watched the water drip off his flat ass and down his pencil legs, I realized that he was making his way to me, or rather to a stack of
towels next to me, and in a few seconds I’d pretty much have to talk to him. He uncorked his goggles with a soft sucking sound. I noticed his eyes seemed a bit wearier than usual, even for a man his age who had just worked his daily laps.
“How are you?” I shifted in my seat, conscious of my bathing
cap squeezing my head and distorting my face as I stole the odd
glance at the deliciously empty lane.
“I’m well, thank you. Though very sad today.”
I studied him more closely now, caught off guard by his
intimate tone. “Why?”
Though his expression was grim, I wasn’t prepared for what he
said.
“I just lost my daughter to cancer.”
“I’m sorry,” I choked out. I felt socked in the soft fleshy parts;
smacked off the rails of my deeply grooved routine and whipped
around to face something I didn’t want to see.
He took a towel and poked at his ears with it. A gold cross hung
from a glimmering chain around his thin neck, the skin white and
rubbery looking. “It was a long struggle. Part of me is glad it’s over.”
He squinted at me as if seeing me for the first time. “She was
about your age,” he added, turning to walk away before I could
utter a word of comfort. I watched him travel in his flap step the
length of the pool to the men’s lockers, his head held down so low
I could barely see the top of it.
My hands trembled as I gripped the steel ladder and made my
way down into the antiseptic blue. I pushed off. Eyes shut tight
and heart pumping, I watched the words
She was about your age
hover in my brain until the letters dissolved into nothingness. The
horror of his offhand observation numbed me as I turned and
floated on my back, breathing heavily in the oppressive air. As I
slogged joylessly through my laps, I thought of my own father
rolling his eyes when I said I was afraid of sleepaway camp, of third
grade, of walking on grass barefoot “because of worms.” As cold as
he could be to my brother and me, not a thing on earth seemed to
frighten him.
I had barely toweled myself off when my phone lit up with
a text from Pia. A question mark, that was it. Followed by three
more. Methodically I removed my work clothes from my locker,
arranging them neatly on the bench behind me. I pulled off my
bathing cap, sat down, and picked up the phone.
         My thumbs hovered over the keys as I shivered in the over-
heated locker room. I took a deep breath—shampoo, rubber, mold,
a sting of disinfectant—and slowly let it out, a sharp pain lodging in my gut. I couldn’t tell which was worse, the fear of being left behind by my friends as they dashed away on some ├╝berbonding, unforgettable adventure, or the inevitable self-loathing if I stayed behind like some gutless wimp—safe, always safe—half-fucking-dead with safety. Why couldn’t I just say yes to a camping trip with three of my best friends? What was I so afraid of?
Pool water dripped from my hair, beading on the phone as I commanded myself to text something.
Anything.
I watched my fingers as they typed, Okay, I’m in, and pressed send.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Freeks by Amanda Hocking

When I saw the review pitch for Freeks by Amanda Hocking, the cover sold me immediately. It's a beautiful cover. I thought there has to be an intriguing story within those pages.

Roaming from town to town, Mara has never had the chance to be a normal teenager. Her family isn't "normal" by society's standards. Mara's family is a traveling carnival, complete with a strongman, a woman who can create fire, a man with incredible healing powers, and a psychic -- who just happens to be Mara's mother. Gideon, the carnival leader, can read minds. Just about everyone at the carnival has special or supernatural abilities. Everyone except Mara. Or perhaps she hasn't reached her potential yet?

At age 18, Mara is on the cusp of adulthood, and all she wants is a life that doesn't revolve around the carnival. She longs for simple things. She longs for things most people take for granted, like sleeping in a home that doesn't have wheels. Maybe even having friends. Maybe having a boyfriend. She gets a chance at all of that when the carnival stops in the small town of Caudry. Mara is never in a town long enough to put down roots, so a one-week stay in Caudry won't change that. Or will it?

While everyone else at the carnival is settling in at camp, Mara takes the time to explore the town. She meets a handsome local boy named Gabe. There's an instant connection, which I wasn't a big fan of. Mara certainly deserves a chance at normalcy and happiness. I like parts of their relationship, but it moved a little too quickly for my tastes. But what came through really well was Mara's sense of trepidation. She wants to open up to Gabe about her life at the carnival but is fearful of rejection. Most people perceive carnival people or carnies as freaks. What if Gabe is no different?

Mara doesn't have a lot of time to worry about Gabe. Why? Something or someone is stalking the carnival. Something dark and scary is after them. It comes out at night. It doesn't have a face. It moves quickly. It attacks quickly. People are disappearing. People are getting seriously injured. The local police are no help. Mara and her family have no choice but to help themselves. No one is allowed to walk alone at night. Everyone has to look out for each other.

The mystery surrounding the attacks is definitely intriguing. There's not a lot of clues as to what is going on. For me, that made for a compulsive read. At first, I thought perhaps a human force was behind everything. But as I got deeper and deeper into the book, it was clear something supernatural was at work. Overall, I like the writing and plot but I felt the ending was a little rushed. About 30-40 pages from the end, I was wondering where the resolution was. What was going to happen? I think this is supposed to be a standalone book, but I think this book deserves a sequel. There was more story to tell. Fingers crossed!

Rating: Give it a try

Note: I received a copy of the book from the publisher (St. Martin's Griffin) in exchange for an honest review.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

My take on: The Library at Mount Char

An odd woman who wears sweaters, with bicycle shorts and rain boots. A knife-wielding, tutu-wearing psycho who walks around with blood caked on his skin. A woman who can resurrect the dead. A woman who has died and been resurrected so many times, she's a few sandwiches short of a picnic. A seemingly normal man gets caught in the mix, and he even manages to befriend a lion along the way. All of them at the mercy of a mysterious Library.

Confused? I certainly was the first time I tried to read The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins. Early last year I tried to read this book, but I only made it to page 54.

The first time around nothing made sense. I couldn't understand the timeline. I couldn't understand the plot. At the time, I was trying to break out of my comfort zone. I wanted to read more fantasy books. I thought I made a mistake with this one. But...I was wrong.

I gave the book a second chance, and I was pleasantly surprised. I will admit I struggled to get through the first 50 pages, then the next 50 pages. After that the pacing picked up and the book finally started to make sense.

All of the odd characters made for a fascinating story. Carolyn, the odd woman in the bicycle shorts, truly marches to the beat of her own drum. She comes off as crazy, but Carolyn is actually very smart. She always has a plan. Plans that aren't always clear at the outset, but by the end of the book I realized Carolyn was the master of the long con. She gets everyone to do what she planned all along, including unsuspecting Steve, an ordinary ex-con turned plumber. She recruits him for a robbery. She's vague on the details. Tempted by the taste of money, a reluctant Steve goes along with Carolyn. When things go wrong, Steve is left alone to take the fall.

What was the point of all of this? What was Carolyn's endgame? It's almost too complicated to explain! The short version, Carolyn and her oddball siblings, including tutu-wearing David, are desperately searching for Father, the leader and patriarch of the Library. He's gone missing.  Father's children, including Carolyn specialize in one category or catalog. Carolyn is a master of languages. David is a master at murder and mayhem. Jennifer can resurrect the dead, which is good because Margaret spends a lot of time with the dead. Together the contents of the Library have the power to control the world. If Father isn't found soon, control of the Library could fall into the wrong hands.  Power like that is almost too hard to resist.

Carolyn, David, Jennifer, Margaret, and the other offspring of the Library are powerful people. They often interact and live with people in the "normal" world. But even with all their power, they're missing a sensitivity chip or at least an awareness of how weird their behavior is. They know nothing of personal hygiene and walk around smelling really bad. They don't realize their clothing or lack of clothing is strange. Steve almost can't take all of the oddball behavior, but soon it all makes sense to him. It makes so much sense, that Steve becomes dear friends with a lion named Naga.

None of this sounds like it should go together, but it does. I'm not even sure I'm doing this book justice. There's so much going on, it could take a full-page in the New York Times to explain it. Overall, this is a BIZARRE, but darkly funny book.

Rating: Superb

Note: I received a copy of the book as part of Penguin RandomHouse's Blogging for Books in exchange for an honest review.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

My take on: Big Little Lies

Shortly after the ball dropped in Times Square, closing the door on 2016 I spent the early morning hours of 2017 finishing Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty. Why? Because like a bag of potato chips this book was truly addicting. I couldn't just stop at one page.

This is a tragic, but darkly funny story about three mothers. All of them have problems. All of them lie to themselves on how to fix those problems. But at the end of the day, their tight friendship and the love they have for one another is what saves them.

It all started with trivia night. What was supposed to be a night of fun for the parents of Pirriwee Public School ended in a murder investigation. To understand how we got to this point, the author takes us back six months, to kindergarten orientation day.

Battle lines are quickly drawn on that day. Young single mom Jane and her five-year-old son, Ziggy, have just moved to the area. Jane and Ziggy are basically nomads, constantly moving and never putting down roots. But maybe this place will be different? Ziggy can make new friends. Maybe Jane can make some new friends? Fellow moms Madeline and Celeste immediately take Jane under their wings. Madeline becomes like a big sister to Jane, helping her with everything from school projects, to parenting advice, to life advice. It all comes in handy when Ziggy gets branded as a violent bully by Renata Klein, the queen bee mother of the kindergarten class. Renata's daughter, Amabella, accuses Ziggy of choking her. Ziggy denies the accusation, and Jane believes her son. Madeline and Celeste also believe Ziggy. Aligning themselves with Jane is tantamount to starting World War III. But Madeline doesn't care, she can't stand Renata anyway.

Madeline is a woman not to be messed with. She lives and dies for her family and her friends. But she is also funny, witty, and charismatic. She's also a fixer. She wants to fix everything and everyone. However, she struggles to fix her own family. She's devoted to her husband, Ed, and children, Abigail, Fred, and Chloe. But Madeline sees her ex-husband, Nathan, and his new wife, Bonnie, as threats. Bonnie is the cool one, she's a yoga teacher, a free spirit, compassionate about the environment and the world at large. Bonnie is everything that Madeline is not, which is very appealing to the impressionable Abigail. Despite her father being absent for most of her life, Abigail wants to spend more time with Nathan and Bonnie. Madeline tries to be OK with this. She tells Abigail what she wants to hear, but internally Madeline is a mess.

Celeste is also a mess, but no one can tell. Celeste is good at hiding her problems. She's also an expert at lying about her problems. She lets the outside world see what they want to see. Celeste always presents herself as the perfect wife to Perry, and the perfect mother to her twins, Josh and Max. The air of perfection is nothing but a facade. Every time Perry returns from one of his frequent business trips he gives his wife a beautiful gift. He's full of regret and remorse, but not for his absences -- for his behavior. Whenever Celeste "disrespects" her husband he hits her. He never hits her face, but everywhere else. And Celeste has gotten good at hiding her bruises. Each time it happens, Celeste makes excuses for Perry. If Celeste hadn't aggravated Perry, it wouldn't happen. If Celeste would just stop talking, it wouldn't happen. There's always a reason why it could have stopped. There's never a reason to leave, but there's always a reason to stay. She has physical freedom, but not the emotional freedom or fortitude to leave Perry.

Throughout the whole book, there is an air of mystery and intrigue. It's a compulsive read. With each chapter, we get closer and closer to the deadly trivia night. Everyone's lives reaches a crescendo on that night. Everyone has grown and become a better person leading up to that night. Life and especially death are not funny topics, but Liane Moriarty made them funny and heartwarming at the same time. I can't wait until the miniseries. I hope HBO sticks close to the book!

Rating: O.M.G.
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