Posts Tagged book review

book review: Made for Love

made for love

Made for Love by Alissa Nutting. Ecco| July 2017| 320 pages | $25.99| ISBN: 978-0-06-228055-8

RATING: *****/5*

“During her marriage, she sometimes visited her father just so she could feel better about her life when she left. A trip to his home always made a pretty convincing argument that his gruff personality, heavy flaws, and the shortcoming of her childhood that his present-day existence kept freshly resurrected in her memory were fixed roadblocks that would prevent her from ever experiencing true joy, so her choices and lack of personal ambition or work ethic or relative sobriety didn’t really have to matter.”

So much to love about this novel. It’s smart, a bit bawdy, immensely clever, introspective and observational. Hazel recently left her tech billionaire husband, Byron Gogol, and moved in with her father at a trailer park for senior citizens. Her father, who just received his mail-order sex doll Diane, isn’t all that thrilled to have a new roommate. Hazel wants to start over but Byron isn’t going to make it easy.

The marriage seems a compromise. Byron wanted a wife and Hazel wanted an escape from what she assumed would be a rather dead-end life. Author Alissa Nutting writes: “Her life was going to be different from what she’d thought. This had felt sad and she wasn’t sure why, because she’d always planned on having a terrible life. But familiar terrors: loneliness, paycheck-to-paycheck ennui, unsatisfying dates with people a lot like her whom she wouldn’t enjoy because she did not enjoy herself.” She met Byron while in college and they married fairly quickly. His power and wealth dazzled her. He seemed both delighted by her and intrigued by her. [“Here was the thing: Hazel had not delighted her parents, ever. Nor had she delighted herself.” And then . . . “Hazel had never intrigued her parents or herself either.”] She’s been with him for a decade and over the years he’s become more controlling and Hazel’s been limited. During the marriage he’s kept tight tabs on his wife through technological surveillance and tracking. Hazel reached her limit when he planned to connect them via brain chips in a “mind-meld.” Byron’s methods to track down and bring his wife back become intense, severe and threatening. Hazel realizes she must make drastic measures or this megalomaniac will control her for the rest of her life. Or he’ll kill her. Neither appeals to her.

“It was easy to get along with him because she acted like a mood ring, always agreeing with what he found great and what he found intolerable.”

Technology connects us in a plethora of ways yet also disconnects us by making in-person communication less frequent and less necessary in many situations. It’s rare to find someone that has absolutely no social media presence. And if you do it’s just a bit suspect. How can one possibly keep up on news, politics, entertainment, celebrities and college friends without twitter, Facebook and Instagram. We rely on technology for both our professional and social lives. When you end a relationship there’s generally tons of data out there on social media to remind you of that relationship or make it difficult to move on. Plus how are relationships defined in the age of social media?

There’s a blunt honesty, offbeat humor and near absurdity in Nutting’s writing. It’s easy to relate to Hazel’s predicament and moods. Most readers will find solace in both her determination to begin anew and her frustrations in allowing the relationship to continue as long as it did. She’s not afraid to tackle unpleasant or taboo subjects [Nutting’s previous novel Tampa focused on a teacher-student romance] nor does she hold herself back in delving into these topics. In this novel it’s wealth and sex and loneliness and relationships. There’s the strange and humorous relationship between her father and his sex doll Diane. He treats the doll like a person. He’s content with her company.

In her marriage, Hazel felt lonely and isolated. She felt sad and detached. Nutting writes:  “But Hazel hoped now that after so many bad years of internal and external surveillance, of cohabitation with someone she’d grown to hate and fear alike, the absence of sadness might feel something like contentment, or close enough. At one point she meets a guy in a dive bar named Liver who tells her: “I just meet women in this bar. Mainly they use me to help them reach bottom. I’m like a brick they grab onto midair. Sleeping with me helps them admit their lives have become unmanageable. They realize they want and deserve something more, and then their recovery process can begin. I get laid in the meantime. Win-win.” Sounds quite like the last few lowbrow working-class guys I’ve dated.

The perfect blend of absurd and genuine, Made for Love is one of the best novels I’ve read this year.

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Harper Collins.

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book review: Lonesome Lies Before Us

lonesome lies before us

Lonesome Lies Before Us by Don Lee. W.W. Norton| June 6, 2017| 336 pages | $26.95| ISBN: 978-0-393-60881-6

RATING: *****/5*

Despite talent, alt-country/Americana musician Yadin Park’s musical career never took off due to his insecurities, lack of charisma and stage presence and then Meniere’s disease, a debilitating hearing disorder. Being a musician, an artist of any kind isn’t an easy profession. The music industry and the entertainment industry subsist mostly on the youth. It’s easy to age out of the music industry as it places a premium on youth and beauty and not always talent. Of course to maintain longevity one must possess talent. The entertainment industry can afford to be fickle as support then drop artists that don’t pull in money. How long does someone want to scrape by in hopes of quitting the day job? It’s infrequent that someone can do that. As author Don Lee stated at a recent book reading at Newtonville Books: “You have to have a certain amount of luxury and leisure to pursue those arts.” It’s true. While the starving artist sounds romantic, in reality it’s not comfortable or feasible for most people long-term.

“It was a relief, really, to be out of the music business. He was glad to be done with it. He was satisfied with his life in Rosarita Bay—quiet and anonymous, with no ambitions other than to make an honest living and have a roof over his head and be with Jeanette and her family. He’d been certain that he would never return to making music again. That was why the emergence of the new songs had been such a surprise to him.”

As a child, Yadin listened to his father’s LPs—Emmylou Harris, Townes Van Zandt, Gram Parsons, John Prine. [For authenticity, Lee worked with indie musician Will Johnson who wrote some lyrics which appear in the novel.] He became drawn to these sad, expressive songs. Lee writes: “All these songs about longing, regret, and betrayal, about broken hearts and belated apologies, about drinking, cheating, and leaving, about the lonely road and cheap motels and drifters, dreamers, outcasts, and the forlorn—they changed Yadin in ways he could not express yet could feel.” Living in Chapel Hill, he soon joined a band but wasn’t thrilled about performing and most artists need to tour. He became romantically involved with his bandmate Mallory Wicks. After a record label signed the band, Yadin became overwhelmed and soon left completely.

Now living in California and working for a carpeting company, Yadin recently started writing and recording songs again. His girlfriend Jeanette Matsuda, laid off from a salaried position years ago, cleans hotel rooms. Both Yadin and Jeanette gave up career goals and remain a bit stagnant and settled in simple lives which don’t particularly satisfy them. Lee writes: “Without quite realizing it, she had fallen into a persistent low-grade funk over the years, which became more pronounced when she was laid off and then was being rejected for job after job. Incessantly she would interrogate the choices and decisions she had made, and had convinced herself that she was a failure, a loser. She had crimped inward, fearful that if she exposed herself she would be ridiculed and betrayed.” Lee said that last decade’s financial crisis influenced this novel. He wanted to write about privilege and class. He also explained: “There are a lot of working class Asians and you never see them portrayed in books.”

One day Mallory Wicks, now a well-known actress and musician, checks in to Jeanette’s hotel. Yadin visits Mallory and she suggests they collaborate together. She knows he’s talented and that she has the celebrity power but not that much talent. Her star power wanes and she knows that a strong new album might bring her back into the spotlight. As this happens, both Yadin and Jeanette find themselves doing quite a bit of existential examination. Is this all there is? How did we get here? Have I accomplished enough? Am I happy? Am I where I want to be or need to be? How can I live a fulfilling and satisfying life? As someone middle-aged re-evaluating her path, this novel resonated with me. In Yadin and Jeanette’s unfulfilled goals and unrealized ambitions, I see my own failings. This line in particular: “She could only mourn the life she had been unable to create.” How many people remain in comfortable yet unsatisfying relationships in order to avoid being alone?

 “Granted, there wasn’t a lot of passion between them, and this was chiefly her fault, she knew. Both had been in love just once in their lives, while very young, and both had been heartbroken. Neither had ever married, nor had been in a relationship of any significant length. They might have been together more out of attrition than anything resembling ardor, but they cared for each other, they helped each other, they were companions. It was enough for Jeanette, and she had hoped it would be enough for Yadin, but lately she had begun to worry that it wasn’t.”

It’s a powerful novel with phenomenal writing and quiet, intense characterizations. As a music critic and book critic, novels about musicians always appeal to me. This novel draws the same emotions as aI also adored Don Lee’s gorgeous novel The Collective. One of my favorite authors, Lee’s writing dazzles me.

–review by Amy Steele

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book review: The Fact of a Body

fact of a body

The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich. Flatiron Books| May 2017| 336 pages | $26.99| ISBN: 978-1-250-08054-7

RATING: ****/5*

Some people are true crime fanatics. I’ve read In Cold Blood and some other true crime books but don’t often gravitate toward them. Memoir appeals to me and that’s what drew me to The Fact of a Body. I also may or may not have wanted to go to law school.

Both a memoir and a true crime book, The Fact of a Body is a riveting page-turner but also a disturbing read I had to step away from a few times. To apply to Harvard Law School, Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich wrote the admissions essay about her opposition to the death penalty. During a summer internship at a New Orleans law firm, Marzano-Lesnevich begins to question that stance when she’s tasked to the re-trial of convicted murderer and child molester Ricky Langley. He’s been on death row for years. Not only does her research cause Marzano-Lesnevich to question the death penalty it also brings up her own past family trauma.

Meticulous research and painstaking detail allow readers into the life and crime of Ricky Langley as well as into Marzano-Lesnevich’s terrifying childhood when her grandfather molested her and her sister. Now a law student, she wants to comprehend the why and how. Her grandfather got away with it. Ricky got sentenced to death row. While it could be academic and legal in tone, it’s a compelling, shocking, devastating, frightening and phenomenal read. There’s this chilling line: “The room where now, in the closet, Jeremy Guilory’s body stands rigid, wedged in, wrapped in the blue blanket from Ricky’s bed, a white trash bag covering his head and shoulders.” Or this: “The camera doesn’t linger. It catches the blond hair and then falters in the face of the boy. But on Jeremy’s lip right now—too small for the camera to catch, and no one’s looking at him that closely, no one wants to look at a boy that closely—there is a single dark pubic hair.” Marzano-Lesnevich balances the narrative and the facts just so. It’s a truly powerful reconciliation of past and present.

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Flatiron Books.

Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich will be in conversation with Kristen Radtke on Thursday, June 1, 2017 at Brookline Booksmith

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book review: The Leavers

leavers

The Leavers by Lisa Ko. Algonquin Books| May 2017| 338 pages | $25.95| ISBN:

RATING: *****/5*

An intense mediation on race, culture, identity, sense of place and belonging, The Leavers by Lisa Ko is a gorgeous and thoughtfully written debut novel that should resonate with progressives and allow others insight into the struggles of undocumented immigrants. It’s not that they don’t want to follow protocol. It’s often that they have few choices. It’s the story of what happens when Deming Guo’s mother Polly, an undocumented Chinese immigrant, fails to return from her job at a nail salon. She just vanishes. She doesn’t contact the family. No one knows if she’s been deported or if she just took off. As a single mother she struggled to cover expenses as a nail technician. After a month or so, her boyfriend’s sister sends Deming off to a foster home in the suburbs where two dogged white professors adopt Deming and change his name to Daniel Wilkinson. They mean well and want Daniel to have the best educational opportunities afforded to him. They want him to have choices for his future.

The story’s told from Daniel’s perspective as well as that of his mother Polly. Daniel struggles to fit in at this white enclave in upstate New York. He doesn’t do well in school and he develops a gambling problem. His parents aren’t happy and Daniel moves to Manhattan to live with a friend and join his band. Although Daniel is now in his late teens he still wonders why his mother abandoned him and never tried to find him. This definitely affects the relationship with his parents as well as his ability to figure out where he fits in. He often thinks about his birth mother and wonders why she doesn’t care enough about him to track him down. That’s enough to make a young man become wayward and develop a gambling addiction.

In the United States, Polly had created a challenging but routine life for herself. She lived with her son and a boyfriend named Leon. Ko writes: “I didn’t want a small, resigned life, but I also craved certainty, safety. I considered suggesting to Leon that we marry other people, legal citizens, for the papers, and after a few years we could divorce our spouses and marry each other.” Now back in her homeland China, she lives a rather comfortable life working as an English teacher. She’s married and lives in a nice apartment. Readers also finally discover what happened when Polly went to work that day at the nail salon. Polly went through a horrific ordeal after ICE placed her in a camp for illegal immigrants. The harsh and nearly inhumane conditions could easily break someone down. It was shocking to read about these middle-of-nowhere holding facilites. Just harsh.

Debut author Lisa Ko said that this novel was inspired by real-life stories of undocumented immigrant women whose United States-born children were ultimately taken from them and raised by American families. She states: “With The Leavers, I want to decenter the narrative of transracial adoption away from that of the adoptive parents.” It’s an important topic when our current president wants to keep people from entering the country as well as crack down on undocumented immigrants, even ones living quiet hard-working lives who have young American-born children.

READ THIS NOVEL. It provides insight and empathy in the plight of immigrants in this country. It’s utterly heartbreaking yet often optimistic and shows resilience among the characters.  I can’t recommend this novel enough. Lisa Ko utilizes lovely prose, a riveting story-line and relatable, flawed characters to highlight the challenges immigrants face today.

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Algonquin.

Lisa Ko will be reading at Harvard Book Store on Wednesday, May 17 at 7pm.

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book review: When You Find Out the World Is Against You

30653836

When You Find Out the World is Against You by Kelly Oxford. Dey St.| April 2017| 310 pages | $26.99| (ISBN13: 9780062322777

RATING: ***/5*

Kelly Oxford is described as “the famed blogger, named one of Rolling Stone’s Funniest People on Twitter… one of the most followed and beloved Twitter celebrities.” Sometimes tweets can transfer to writing essays but often the short, pithy style at which one excels on Twitter can’t be transformed into a detailed essay. This collection is definitely hit or miss. It’s an easy quick read and sometimes an essay collection is cool as you can skip around and pick it up here and there to read an essay. Most of these type essays aren’t for me. I’m not one that finds humor in every situation. The essays on parenting definitely didn’t appeal to me and it’s not that I don’t read about parents. I do. it needs to be a well-written and compelling piece. The essays on anxiety are pretty good and I wish there were more of those. I think maybe she tackled too many subjects here.  I prefer intellectual/existential essays.

I’d tangentially heard of Kelly Oxford but I don’t think I follow her on twitter. I’m aware of the #NotOkay hashtag campaign. creating a trending hashtag seems the pinnacle of online social media success. If your tweets, Instagram pics or Facebook posts don’t go viral then what’s the point to even post them? It seems that way at least. I respect and appreciate that Kelly Oxford created this hashtag which allowed women to feel safe in reporting their stories of sexual abuse after the Donald Trump/Billy Bush tape. She wrote: “I immediately open my Twitter account and see everyone tweeting about this. This is huge. This leaked tape is demanding a response.” Then: “My tweet is instantly being retweeted, but I feel like what I wrote isn’t as clear as I want it to be. So I tweet again.” Later she tweets another and says: “If no one responds, I’ll delete that tweet.” So if nobody immediately responds it’s not worth tweeting? this mindset I don’t comprehend. I tweet a lot. I’m sure my tweets get seen but they’re not always liked or RTed. That’s the way it goes. On people’s bios you see them say that they started such and such hashtag. I’m not jealous of this.

Here are a few good quotes:

on her father: “Whisker burn was his nice way, with skin abrasion, of telling me it was time to get up. I put up with it, because I worried this could be my only interaction with him for the day.”

being a hypochondriac and frequent visitor to doctors: “When I was eight, I’d stolen several thousand of those long Q-Tip strep-throat things from under that sink, you  know, to practice swabbing my throat at home, to rid myself of the gag it caused.” (useful in many ways)

on anxiety: “When I reached the top of the stairs, I instantly felt panic. Like from the very pit of my soul I felt I was worthless and everyone knew it and I would never every climb out and feel better. That even if I did climb out, it would still be as terrible as it felt right at that moment. I felt like I was jailed inside by own sick body and my body was definitely going to kill me.”

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from William Morrow.

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book review: Lady Cop Makes Trouble

lady copyLady Cop Makes Trouble by Amy Stewart. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt| September 2016| 320 pages | $26.00| ISBN: 978-0-544-40994-1

RATING: ***/5*

This was an overall fun and enjoyable read. I didn’t read the debut Kopp Sisters novel Girl Waits with Gun so maybe it wasn’t a good idea to read the second book. I do think that even in a series each book should be a stand-alone that anyone can pick up to read and figure out what’s going on. Despite not knowing the case from the first novel which did carry over to this novel–at least in consequences for Constance Kopp and her position as deputy sheriff—I could mostly piece together what I needed. The youngest sister Fleurette confused me at first and I didn’t know if she was a daughter or niece. I absolutely admire and appreciate that Amy Stewart found clips in which to base this case and that Constance Kopp was a real person. Stewart explained, “I’m lucky enough to have a huge treasure trove of newspaper clippings covering 1914 and 1915. Constance was in the paper all the time. This book covers one particular incident that made headlines nationwide: the pursuit of a convicted criminal.” This is a delightful description of Constance’s duties for the New Jersey sheriff’s department: “I wasn’t just a chaperone for wayward girls. I carried a gun and handcuffs. I could make an arrest, just like any deputy. I earned a man’s salary. People did find it shocking and I didn’t mind that one bit.” Constance stands as a strong, determined female working in the male-dominated field of law enforcement. She doesn’t seem deterred when men don’t know how to speak with her or how to react to her as she carries out her varied responsibilities. She lives with her sisters, Fleurette and Norma, in the countryside in New Jersey. Norma seems content to raise homing pigeons and not venture far from home. Fleurette dreams of the stage and for now acts in a local production. The sisters look out for one another and serve as sounding boards for each other. Not having sisters it seems a wonderful thing. This case didn’t quite enthrall me enough for a mystery/thriller, fortunately the strong female lead makes up for my lack of interest and sometimes confusion in the case. I rooted for Constance and her sisters to fight the system and to fight sexism.

–review by Amy Steele

 FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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book review: Pull Me Under

pull-me

Pull Me Under by Kelly Luce. Farrar, Straus and Giroux| November 2016| 272 pages | $26.00| ISBN: 9780374238582

RATING: *****/5*

At the novel’s beginning, twelve year old Chizuru Akitani, the Japanese American daughter of acclaimed violinist Hiro Akitani, fatally stabs a classmate. She’s bullied in school for one of the most common reasons children tease other children, she’s different– she’s a hafu—Japanese for mixed blood [“Hafu implied my Japanese-ness was the only part of me that mattered, that there would never be enough.”] and fat. Her American-born mother commits suicide. Her father didn’t spend that much time with her (or her mom). She suppressed anger for as long as she could until she was pushed too far by the bully. It’s explained like this: “I noticed at a young age—four years old, five—a dark presence in my chest, a blackness, clinging to the back of my heart. Mostly the thing lay dormant and I could put it out of my mind. But occasionally it swelled like an infected gland. These were the times I felt hurt or angry, the sensations so closely linked that I never separated them until a therapist pointed out the difference. My anger was an organ.”

The haunting story unfolds methodically revealing details. Chizuru serves time in a juvenile detention facility, must denounce her Japanese citizenship, changes her name to Rio and moves to the United States to attend college. She reinvents herself while rarely looking back on her past. Rio strives to blend in and succeeds. This seems quite a positive and mindful manner in which to exist. Rio becomes a runner—“I’d found a way to soothe that curdled feeling of anxiety; when I ran, the bad things fell away.” She becomes a nurse, marries her college boyfriend and has a daughter. She’s the good wife, good mother, and good employee. Of her life in Colorado: “I feel like what I am: a thirty-eight-year-old mother and wife with a retirement fund and a house in the suburbs and a Volvo. My life has been built for safety.” While in the United States, many might present several various facades for various relationships or settings, there’s a name for it in Japan—“Interactions revolve around honne and tatemae. Honne is what you really think and feel; tatemae, like the façade of a building, is the face you show to the world.”  Globally, women are expected to suppress emotions, feelings and thoughts. Perhaps more so in Japan than in the United States although it’s clear per societal standards and the general zeitgeist that outspoken women and poorly behaved women rarely get rewarded compared to male counterparts.

Decades later, Rio returns to Japan to reconcile her present with her past and perhaps embrace forgiveness. Her husband and daughter know nothing about her past. Rio reflects: “Sal doesn’t know all of me. Maybe this is true of all husbands and wives; after all, there are inaccessible places in each of us. Places few would understand, and marriage, I’ve come to believe, is about finding someone who understands the right things without digging up the wrong ones.” At her father’s funeral she reunites with a former teacher, a New Zealand-native named Danny. When Danny says she’s going on a pilgrimage through Japan’s numerous temples, Rio decides to tag along. Along the trail, the women start hiking with a young law student named Shinobu. What Rio discovers about herself as well as her father may affect her life back in the United States.

“I can be hafu, if I want; I can always find someone to call me incomplete. But I can be whole, too; I can be unsplit and complete in the fragmented way that a life is a life.”

Pull Me Under is an exquisitely dark psychological thriller which examines identity and place through its compelling protagonist and story. It’s easy to empathize with Rio and understand her motivations to minimize her Japanese ancestry. Author Kelly Luce provides detailed descriptions –“Ryozenji is all worn stone and dark, weathered wood. A pond with a fountain sits in the middle. Goldfish swarm the edge where an old woman tosses bread. She pinches off a piece and holds it out. A white and orange spotted fish jumps fully out of the water.”–and fascinating cultural elements—“I fill my basket with the candies I loved as a kid: sesame sticks, caramel frogs, tubes of sugar decorated with astrological signs.” Every aspect of this novel creatively allows readers to become fully absorbed from beginning to end.

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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