Sunday, August 28, 2016

My take on: Before the Fall

One summer evening, eleven people boarded a private airplane bound for New York. The takeoff was uneventful. But just minutes into the flight, things take a turn for the worst. The plane plunges into the ocean. Just two people survive, a man who made the flight mere minutes before the door closed, and a four-year-old boy. What led to their survival and the aftermath is at the heart of Before the Fall by Noah Hawley.

Before that fateful flight Scott Burroughs lived in relative obscurity in Martha's Vineyard. He's a recovering alcoholic and a somewhat successful artist. All he wanted to do that night was get to New York, and meet with gallery representatives about his latest collection of paintings. He never imagined he would be on a private plane with a bunch of rich people. But a last-minute invitation from his new friend Margaret "Maggie" Bateman, and Scott is on the plane. Scott doesn't remember a lot about the crash. Somehow he survives, and so does J.J. Bateman, Maggie's son. With little J.J. on his back, Scott manages to swim to safety. It's a miracle! Or is it?

Scott is a hero to the media, and to J.J.'s family. But Scott doesn't think he's a hero. He doesn't want to play the part of a hero. He doesn't know how to handle the pressure. He's thrust into a role he doesn't want. Scott decides to disappear. He chooses to hide at the home of a very rich woman -- a woman he doesn't really like. But she serves a purposes, to hide him from the media. But J.J. is never far from his mind. This little boy has lost his mother, his sister, Rachel, and his father, David. J.J's aunt Eleanor and her husband, Doug, are thrust into the role of parents. Eleanor embraces her new role as mom. She wants what's best for him. Whereas Doug wants what's best for J.J.'s money. David ran a media network, and his multi-million dollar fortune is now J.J.'s. It's not long before Eleanor is questioning her husband's motives.

While Scott and Eleanor deal with the aftermath, the media continues to spin it's own story. First, Scott is the hero but then things start to turn. Bill Cunningham, a rogue anchor at David's network, turns Scott from a hero into a murderer! In Bill's mind, it's suspicious that a no-name painter made it onto a plane with a bunch of rich people. Bill wants to get the "truth" out to the world. His version of the "truth." Was Scott having an affair with Maggie? Why is Scott now shacking up with a rich woman? Was Scott somehow paid to bring the plane down? Why did Scott survive?

Bill's broadcasts are nothing more than innuendo, sensationalism, and immorality rolled into one. Which is an interesting indictment on today's media culture. I think this book reflects what a lot of people believe about the media. In this book, you have a devastating crash. The focus should be on why that happened and how. But all it takes is one person, and a different narrative takes shape. It doesn't matter if the story is wrong. All that matters is that people watch. I loved this book. Sometimes it's a sad read, but it's also a very compulsive read. As I got closer and closer to the end, I didn't want it to end. People are dead and it's hard to read what happened to them. The book alternates between the present and the past. With each passing chapter, readers learn what led up to the passengers and crew boarding the plane. You learn what these people were like. All of them had some kind of emotional issue weighing on their minds. I read that the movie rights have been sold for this book and that Hawley is writing the screenplay, I sincerely hope Hollywood does this story justice!

Rating: Superb

Note: I received a copy of the book from the publisher (Grand Central Publishing). Before the Fall is one of the summer selections for She Reads.

Monday, August 22, 2016

My take on: Another Brooklyn

Good things come in small packages. The same can be said of Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson. This book manages to pack an emotional punch in just under 200 pages.

Following the death of her father August returns to Brooklyn. Returning to Brooklyn is like returning to the past. Returning to Brooklyn brings back a flood of memories. Some were good, some were bad.

Brooklyn was the place where August grew from a child, to a teenager, and finally into a young woman. A place where August, Sylvia, Angela, and Gigi, became close friends. Together they explored Brooklyn and the world beyond their homes. Together they learned to protect each other from the drug addicts, prostitutes, and sexual predators in their neighborhood. Together they found boyfriends. Together they broke up with boyfriends. Together they learned to grow into their own skin. Together they learned to become young women.

Angela, Sylvia, and Gigi were people that August loved dearly. But they weren't enough to fill the void in August's heart. The void left by her mother. August and her brother were always looking for their mother. They believe she'll make it to Brooklyn. Their father knows better, and so does August. But August was in denial. August believes her mother went crazy and her father moved the family from their beloved Tennessee to Brooklyn for their safety. But if August faces reality, she'll realize what really happened to her mother (read the book if you want the answer).

This reads like a poem to Brooklyn. It's not a linear novel, more like one long memory. And that works. Jacqueline Woodson exquisitely captures the innocence, sadness, confusion, and euphoria a person can feel as they grow from a child into an adult. This is the first book by Woodson that I've read, and what a treat this was. Now, I have to make sure I read her last book, Brown Girl Dreaming, as soon as possible!

Rating: Superb

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

My take on: Along the Infinite Sea

When I first read the pitch for Along the Infinite Sea by Beatriz Williams, I had no clue it was the third book in a series. Normally, I wouldn't read book #3 without reading the other books first. But I'm a sucker for historical fiction, especially World War II fiction. Fortunately, it wasn't necessary to know the backstory from the other books.

It's the summer of 1966 and Pepper Schuyler is in a bit of trouble. She's pregnant and unmarried. She had an affair with a married man. A married politician. A married politician who seduced a young woman. This isn't a real relationship. After discovering she's pregnant, Pepper's life is thrown into turmoil. How is Pepper going to provide for her baby? What does the future hold? Pepper has a lot to figure out. In the interim, she finds a way to score a big windfall.

Pepper finds and restores a vintage Mercedes, which she sells at auction for six-figures. To Pepper, it's just another car. But to the buyer, Annabelle Dommerich, it's so much more. During WWII, this car saved Annabelle's life. She used it to escape Nazi Germany. There has to be a story there. How and why did Annabelle escape? What's Annabelle's story? Like Pepper, is she running from something or someone? On the outside, Annabelle seems like a strong woman. When it comes to Pepper, Annabelle can see that she needs a friend. Annabelle offers Pepper a sympathetic ear and a place stay. It's just what Pepper needs. But what does Annabelle need? Inwardly, you can tell Annabelle is holding back pain from the past.

Slowly, Annabelle tells her story. She once had a Jewish lover and a Nazi husband. Each chapter alternates between the past and the present. Sometimes I'm not a fan of that, but it works here. What didn't always work for me was the romance. As a young woman, Annabelle fell in love with the mysterious and older Stefan. She nursed him back to health and got more than she bargained for -- she fell in love. She fell in love a little too quickly for my tastes. Overall, I did like how the past weaved seamlessly with the present. I was more attached to Annabelle's story than Pepper's. Perhaps because Annabelle had experienced a lot more in life, she was a survivor. At times this is an overly dramatic story, but it's a worthy read.

Rating: Give it a try

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

Monday, August 15, 2016

My take on: If You Left

Every year I read at least one book that I am totally floored by. It's so good, that it's hard for me to find fault. So far this year, If You Left by Ashley Prentice Norton is that book. It might not be the popular opinion, but I loved this book.

Althea and Oliver Willow's marriage is on the brink. Althea suffers from mental illness. She has her somewhat good periods, called the Visions. And she has her really bad periods, called the Tombs. She has been in and out of mental health facilities. She's barely a wife to Oliver. Not that he deserves it. Oliver is controlling and demanding. He's learned to navigate through her struggles. But that's given Oliver a power over Althea, one that he's reluctant to relinquish. He micromanages everything she does. He controls the money. He calls constantly. He wants to know what she's doing at all times. He disrespects Althea at every turn, flirting with other women in her face. It was pretty clear to me that Oliver had cheated on Althea.

Perhaps all of this is Althea's punishment for being such a terrible mother to their daughter, Clem. Although Althea made it clear to Oliver that she never wanted to be a parent, they still adopted Clem as a baby. Maybe this was Oliver's way of creating a normal life. A normal wife. But there's nothing normal about Althea. At just 10 years old, even Clem knows there's plenty wrong with her mother. Clem doesn't even call Althea "mom" or "mommy." To Clem, Althea will always be "Lune." To the outside observer, calling your mother "Lune" could be considered rude but in this family it's a term of endearment.

Clem and Althea don't really have a mother-daughter relationship. They're more like roommates passing in the night. But Althea can see she is losing her family. Does she really want her family? Even Althea isn't sure. Maybe it's time to find out. Althea starts with baby steps, drinking tea in the afternoons and sitting down to dinner with Clem. Then, their annual summer trip to their home in the Hamptons offers an opportunity for Clem and Althea to bond. Althea wants to renovate their Hamptons house, a project she and Clem can do together. The only wrinkle, Althea has to bring along Claire, a wannabe interior decorator who works for Oliver. Althea and Clem can grow closer, but with a chaperone. A chaperone who eventually wears out her welcome. When it's just Althea and Clem, old habits die hard.

Once again Clem and Althea are nothing more than roommates passing in the night. Why? Because someone else dominates Althea's time and thoughts. Someone who makes Althea believe there is more to life than just Oliver and Clem. This all sounds very selfish and callous, but maybe Althea needs to breakaway from Oliver and Clem in order to get better. Althea is a complex woman. She's a woman of privilege, which might stop readers from relating to her. It did with me. As a character, Althea is a horrible person but she made for such good storytelling. I enjoyed this book from end to end!

Rating: O.M.G.

Note: I received a copy of the book from FSB Associates in exchange for an honest review.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

My take on: The Star-Touched Queen

One of my reading goals for the new year was to broaden my horizons. When it comes to sci-fi/fantasy books, I can be a bit of a book snob. I vowed to change that. More and more I'm saying "yes" to books outside of my comfort zone.

I said yes to The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi. A young girl is cursed. She's cursed with a horoscope that predicts only death. With a little bit of Indian folklore and mythology mixed in, this book caught my attention.

Maya is the outcast in her father's kingdom in Bharata. The harem wives shun her. Only her sister Gauri speaks to Maya with any affection. Gauri hangs on Maya's every word. Which makes it all the more painful when Maya must leave Bharata. She has to leave to save her family. She has to leave to save herself. She has to leave with a man, Amar. A man who wants to be her husband, and Maya to be his queen. Together they will rule a distant land. Doing so will save not just Maya's life, but the lives of her family and the people of Bharata.

The premise was certainly interesting. At times, the writing is very poetic. Animals talk. The animals that talk also want to eat humans. Mirrors hold the clues to the otherworld. Jewels can be plucked from trees. Time passes in greater stretches in Maya's new kingdom than in Bharata. Pulling a single thread from a tapestry in one direction or the other could severely alter the future. This is a very imaginative world. But the overall book fell flat for me. At first Maya, doesn't really like Amar. She borderline hates the person she married. But then suddenly she's in love with Amar. I hate insta-love. Unless it comes natural, insta-love just doesn't work for me. There's a lot of descriptive passages, which just went over my head. I didn't get it. Why is Maya the only savior? I'm not saying she can't be a savior, but the hows and whys just didn't make sense to me. I've seen so much praise for this book, and I don't get it. I don't say that to be mean, I just didn't fully understand this book.

Rating: Meh

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

Monday, August 1, 2016

My take on: The Summer that Melted Everything

I'm not sure what I just read. The Summer that Melted Everything by Tiffany McDaniel was like nothing I've ever read before. And I mean that in a good way. It needs to be read more than once to fully appreciate all of the complexity and nuance.

The devil has come to Breathed, Ohio. It's the summer of 1984. The hottest summer ever. It's also the summer where the Bliss family welcomed the devil into their home. Autopsy Bliss, a conflicted lawyer, puts a request in the local paper for the devil to come to town. Does he really want the devil to come to town? Who would wish for something like that? Does he want the devil to torment his family or the town? Or maybe he's trying to atone for something. Whatever the reason, something is about to happen.

The devil comes to the Bliss family in the form of a 13-year-old black boy, who goes by the name Sal. Almost immediately, Sal becomes a part of the Bliss family. Fielding Bliss, the youngest of the family, becomes fast friends with Sal. He becomes part of their world. He becomes a member of the family. Mrs. Bliss never leaves the house. But she manages to travel all over the world within her own home. Each room in the house, including the bedrooms, is a different country. Eldest son Grand is a star high school baseball star. On the outside, Grant appears to be the perfect son. But even Grand has a little chink in his armor. Grand is afraid to embrace his true self, instead choosing to perpetuate the myth of the perfect son. Fielding is just trying to keep the family together anyway he can. It doesn't always work.

Sal doesn't look like the devil. No horns coming out of his head. No fire shooting out of his mouth. But his mere presence certainly makes people think he's the devil. Mysterious accidents and suspicious deaths, all of which are attributed to Sal. There is a lot of hatred and racism directed at Sal and the entire Bliss family. Is it all just coincidence? Is Sal really the devil? Sal is actually very wise and level-headed. But his presence brings out the worst in the town of Breathed. The fear, the hatred, and the anger was always there. Sal was just a convenient excuse for the town's behavior.

Each chapter clues readers into Fielding's future and his past, both of which get more bleak as the book progresses. I grew attached to these characters. It's hard not to, especially when you know that something bad is about to happen. This isn't a happy story, but it is very engrossing, hypnotic, and timely. Yes, I said timely. The book is set in 1984, but the issues then are still relevant now. Fear, hatred, anger, and the myriad of other social issues are a perfect reflection of today's world. To sum it up, I highly recommend this book!

Rating: Superb

Note: I received an e-galley from the author in exchange for an honest review.