Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas - Daniel Kelly is a talented swimmer who hopes one day to win Olympic gold. He receives a swimming scholarship to an elite boys school and attempts to shrug off his working class upbringing and prove he is The Best. The Fastest. His competitive drive is all-consuming and his intense anger at any slight—perceived or real—starts to create big problems for him in the pool, in class and at home. The story is good, but exhausting. Tsiolkas’ free-wheeling chronological narrative, taking huge leaps in time and space, is not my favorite. Kelly is a flawed protagonist—almost too flawed. I like the honesty of creating a really unlikable character, but it’s hard to cheer for him, whether he’s swimming or screaming or thinking. The strength of the main plot could have benefited from this being a trimmer, more cohesive book. Tsiolkas tried to tackle too many themes and characters, and that, along with the choppy narrative structure, made the book more tiring than thought-provoking. I received this book free in exchange for a review.
Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead - This is a great example of where a back-and-forth chronological structure can really work in a book’s favor. Astonish Me is about Joan—an American ballerina—who helps a Soviet ballet star defect to the US. The Soviet dancer, Arslan Rusakov, remains a constant fixture in Joan’s life even after the years pass and she marries and has a child with another man. This book—about ballet, love, marriage, friendships—is a treat to read. The chronological structure I mentioned above allows Shipstead to continue revealing crucial back story and context as the novel progresses. Most important: This doesn’t feel like a cheap maneuver to keep the drama high. I really enjoyed this one.
The Loyal Lieutenant by Georgie Hincapie - You look at the cover of this book and you think, “Great! We can finally hear Hincapie’s side.” That’s the book I wanted to read. I always loved watching him ride. His long, celebrated career was exciting and interesting. This book is not. Once I cracked the cover, I started to quickly figure out the more juicy parts of his story by what he didn’t include. If you don’t sniff out the same thing right away, you certainly will when you open to the sparse and carefully curated picture section in the middle of the book. Hincapie wants to write the “let’s play down the doping and Lance Armstrong association” game here by talking about everything else instead. When he does mention the reason most people will pick up the book (he put Armstrong on the cover, come on!), it either comes off heavily edited or is a rehashing of what we already know. Let me put it this way: I would have read this book even without all the doping scandal revelations of the past few years. And, yes—I know there are only a few ways you can say, “That climb was fucking hard and I was pedaling as fast as I could.” But George. GEORGE. First: The ghost-writing sucked. The voice doesn’t feel authentic and there is flowery, splashy prose to back that up. Second, he eagerly speeds through the US Postal and the Tour de France years to get back to his more singular accomplishments in the classics. Understandable, okay, but annoying for the reader. He didn’t have to expunge one for the other. If you’re going to tell your story, tell the whole thing. Which leads me to my third issue: He really wants to lift the doper mantle right off his shoulders. He tries several tactics to make this happen. He downplays it. He talks about his naturally high hematocrit level which limited the amount of dope he could do. (This is fair, but reads like a “I did it but not as bad as that other guy” whine.) He talks about when made the decision to ride clean in the late 2000’s. He talks about this a lot. What he doesn’t talk about is anything that could potentially tarnish the good guy reputation that he hopes to preserve. The funny thing is that the more he pleads his case, the more he tries to strategically skip from Tour to Tour in order to move on to other things, the more I began to believe that he was instead an integral, upper level cog in the US Postal doping machine.
Wheelmen by Reed Albergotti and Vanessa O’Connell - I’ve now read several books about the Lance Armstrong fiasco and this one differs by coming at the doping conspiracy from a mostly financial perspective. Lance Armstrong The Athlete is superficially discussed (his Tour de France wins occupy a few paragraphs each), but Lance Armstrong The Celebrity and Lance Armstrong The Charity Founder are researched in great detail. It might be easy—especially if you didn’t get interested in this story until it started blowing up—to wonder why Lance’s doping seems to fully eclipse the other cyclists who transfused their blood alongside him. Why is he so vilified, especially when you take into account his massive personal and financial investment in a cancer foundation he created? Wheelmen lays out that answer very neatly. It’s no secret that Lance Armstrong was a focused, driven, ambitious athlete with a mean streak. Wheelmen demonstrates how his personality and ego were very complementary of the general corporate greed and powerful sports entities that have followed him through the past few decades. Since his admission to Oprah on TV that he did dope during his Tour wins, he has continued to frame the doping in a leveling-the-playing-field context. If you didn’t dope, you weren’t even a competitor. This trite, dismissive attitude is laughable against the backdrop of the Armstrong Machine that the authors of Wheelmen write about. Did other cyclists lose $75 million in sponsorships in a single day after recording a poorly performed interview with the most famous talk show host in the world? No. That’s why they’re still writing books about this cyclist. And, as far as the Lance Armstrong-postmortem books go, this is a good one.
Stuck in the Middle with You: A Memoir of Parenting in Three Genders by Jennifer Finney Boylan - You may know Boylan from her memoir She’s Not There. In this book, Boylan talks about parenting roles and how her personal parenting experiences in different genders (pre- and post-transition, primarily) impacted her and her family. Boylan writes beautifully. She is funny, insightful and poignant—sometimes all in the same paragraph. Her memoir portions of the book are fantastic. Unfortunately, there are regular breaks for short Q&A interview sessions Boylan conducts with other writers, friends, etc. I found these uneven—some were very insightful, others not so much—and I started skimming through them hoping to return quickly to Boylan’s story. And another thing: While I enjoyed (loved) Boylan’s voice throughout the story, the story omits her wife’s point of view almost entirely. Boylan mentions wife Deidre often, but we get little idea about their personal relationship or interactions. I get it—this IS Boylan’s memoir after all or perhaps there were privacy issues involved—but Boylan’s intimate memories of her sons felt incredibly rich and detailed compared to the references to Deidre. Although I wanted more—more Boylan, more Deidre—I still came away thinking this book was pretty great. It was sweet and heart-warming, full of love and food for thought. I received this book free in exchange for a review.
Have you read either one? What are you all reading now?
I’ve had this on my Kindle for so long that I almost forgot about it. Luckily I scrolled past it this week, started reading, and immediately wished I’d done so sooner.
It’s a rich, layered book set in a rural, elite Vermont college. (Where else? So many good stories begin at rural, elite colleges.) The narrator, Richard, arrives there by way of financial aid and sets out to prove himself worthy of the institution by seeking to enter a demanding and clique-ish group of Classics students. Their professor—notoriously stingy about accepting new pupils—finally accepts Richard into the fold. Richard’s fellow students are brilliant and bizarre and he is drawn to them by their camaraderie, their leisure pursuits and their common interest in Greek literature.
But, given the title and the first few pages of the book, it’s obvious that this is a group with secrets. Some are small (but terrible) and some are larger (and more terrible still). Richard navigates his way through the group of friends and their ever-growing list of terrible decisions feeling conflicted: He is loyal and repulsed. He is an accomplice and an outsider. The book becomes increasingly suspenseful, but it never feels cheap or frenzied. It was a very, very good read.
I usually love a good dysfunctional family novel, but Mother, Mother (a story about a mom with Narcissist Personality Disorder told through the eyes of her two youngest children) is almost too disturbing to enjoy.
I like psychological thrillers/dramas. I like them a lot. This book takes that genre to a new level—mental health gone awry! Watch them squirm! That makes it difficult to read. The book is about Josephine, a deeply disturbed mother. We learn about her through the eyes of her autistic, home-schooled son William and her rebellious middle child, Violet. The eldest daughter, Rose, escaped the family and ran away from home. Josephine’s husband Douglas lives firmly under her command and is content to let her call the shots. (For a while, anyway.)
Josephine is a fascinating, terrible character, fleshed out in uncomfortable detail. She’s abusive and manipulative. She’s obsessed with her youngest son, turning him into a pseudo-husband/emotional ally and this becomes creepier as the book progresses. The other family members interact with Josephine in any number of different ways to try to keep her at bay. They are alternatively frightened, cautious, placating—and that’s the book’s strongest quality. The book conveys their animosity (Violet), loyalty (William) and submission (Douglas) so well.
But I didn’t love the book. It was predictable. There’s a mystery throughout with a big twist and reveal near the end, but I saw it coming long before it happened. Losing the element of surprise (the best thing about psychological thrillers) left me annoyed. Besides that, this book made me very anxious. The relentless manipulation and emotional blackmail was exhausting. I’m happy to leave it behind.
I received this book free in exchange for a review.
I’m a big Stephen King fan and was really looking forward to reading this. Long story short: It wasn’t my favorite. It’s not that it wasn’t exciting or suspenseful. It really was. Maybe it’s because I’m hoping every new King will be an 11/22/63. It’s not really fair to make that comparison. This is completely different type of book. Mr. Mercedes is a classic detective-on-the-case story—no supernatural stuff here—with classic Stephen King-isms sprinkled throughout.
The retired detective in the story is close to what you’d expect. He’s overweight, depressed and haunted by a mass murder case he could never solve. That case involved someone running down and killing people standing in a job fair line. A heavy Mercedes sedan was the murder weapon. The police could never get any solid leads and the case went cold, but the retired detective (Bill Hodges) is sucked back into the hunt when a taunting letter arrives at his home years after the fact.
It’s a good read. It’s genuinely creepy every now and then and at those points I’d remember, oh yes! This is a Stephen King novel. But the rest feels a little too basic for him. To make matters worse, the ending wasn’t worthy of the rest of the book. The suspenseful build-up to the end was fun, but once I read past the climax, the plot suddenly felt like a rapidly deflating balloon. Pffffft.
It wasn’t my favorite but it’s Stephen King, which means it’s still better than most run-of-the-mill thrillers. If you’re a fan, it’s worth reading because it’s so different than his other work. If you’re new to Stephen King, read these first instead.
The Martian by Andy Weir - This book has no business being as engaging and good as it is. I started reading it and didn’t stop until my plane taxied into the gate. (I had 5% left when the landing gear went down. PUSH FORWARD) It has thousands of amazing reviews so I don’t know why I was surprised that it was so good. In The Martian, a team of astronauts lands on Mars to conduct various research projects. Mark Watney, a botanist, is one of them. He’s there to analyze soil samples. This isn’t the first group of astronauts to land there—this book is set in the future, so their visit has the feel of a still exciting but almost routine space mission. (Similar to the way the collective public feels now about International Space Station visits?) Anyway, while in the middle of their research, they get a warning that a dust storm is approaching their position. They hunker down and try to weather the storm, but it’s more severe than they anticipated. Things intensify and a violent accident forces Watney’s team to evacuate and leave him behind—they assume he’s dead. He’s not. Watney is stranded with no communications to earth and no foreseeable chance of survival (he calculates he will starve to death long before a rescue arrives). The book is told mostly in the first person through Watney’s logs, though the book visits mission control and his former crew further into the story. Watney is one of the most interesting characters I’ve read this year. He’s smart, resourceful and funny. Really, really funny. The book has some of the same space fear-and-survival themes as Gravity or Apollo 13, but Weir made Watney’s character a completely original one. The realistic technical details were expertly woven into the plot too—they never become tedious or overwhelming. This is a hard book to follow up. It’s one of the most exciting books I’ve read this year (see also: I Am Pilgrim) and I can’t wait to see what Andy Weir writes next.
California by Edan Lepucki - This post-apocalyptic novel about a couple trying to survive in the California wilderness after society crumbles is good…but not great. I enjoyed the relationship between the two main characters, but the rest of the book felt uneven and sluggish. The book doesn’t say exactly why the country is in ruins, though hints include an energy crisis that is mentioned briefly. When the population became more desperate and violent as societal structures broke down, the wealthier citizens barricaded themselves in Communities, or planned developments with armed guards, basically. The rest were left to fend for themselves or they could try to gain access to the ready food, healthcare and shelter that the Communities had. It’s a slow burn kind of book—and I don’t mind that—but this burned way too slowly. I mean, I was pretty invested in the characters through the first quarter of the book and was only mildly interested in their fate by the end. The ingredients for a great book were there: It’s hard to deliver an original post-apocalyptic book these days. This one just couldn’t come together.
Have you read either one? (Put The Martian on your list immediately if you haven’t read it yet!)
This book is set in one day—Philadelphia on Christmas Eve Eve—and follows several different characters, including Madeleine, a nine-year-old aspiring jazz singer who recently lost her mother to cancer; Madeleine’s teacher Sarina; The Cat’s Pajamas club owner Lorca and his son Alex, and several others. Madeleine and Sarina are the most engaging and Madeleine’s feisty independence made her a fun character to spend time with. As the book gradually winds all the characters closer and closer together, they all benefit, becoming more important and interesting to the reader.
It’s a strange book to describe—the story is very literal at first, but it becomes fantastical or fairy tale-like at unexpected times. This felt a little off-putting while I was reading it. Now, about 12 hours after finishing the book, I think the fantastical elements were a good idea. The entire book feels a little magical, so what’s one more magical thing among the rest?
If you’re looking for a new book club read, this would be a fun option. (It’s also short and fast enough not to be a burden to club members who drag their toes.) It has plenty to talk about in terms of plot and characterization and there are a few passages in the book that are really, really delightful and worth marking to come back to later.
The best way I can think to describe this book is to tell you how I felt after reading it. Did you have a childhood movie or book that you would watch or read often? And it left with you this little warm feeling in your stomach that made you feel like everything in the world could be as fun and magical as what you just saw or read about? After turning the last page of 2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas, I recognized the happy, contented feeling as one I’d had before: It was like the childishly optimistic, happy afterglow that would stick around after a favorite movie or book. I didn’t think 2 A.M. was the perfect book, but it did make me smile. That counts for a lot when it comes to books these days.
I received this advance review copy for free, but I’ll always write an honest review. Even if I hate it. Especially if I hate it! I love writing angry reviews.
Our narrator is Emily Shepard, a teenage girl whose parents were killed when the Vermont nuclear power plant they worked at suffered a catastrophic meltdown. Emily’s story comes in pieces as she reflects on the past. She tells us early about Cameron, a young boy she stumbles upon when they are both living on the street post-meltdown. They’re both hiding there for different reasons and she takes him under her wing. We don’t hear much about him again for a little while—her story is divided into two sections: B.C. and A.C. (Before Cameron and After Cameron).
The plot of this book is inherently interesting and dramatic, but it’s also dark and sad. The theme of family—what is it, why does it matter—comes up a lot. Emily’s maternal instincts toward Cameron are a painful reflection on what she’s lost herself (and sometimes doubted she ever had). She acknowledges her parents, but isn’t sure how to feel about them. (I won’t spoil it, but there are a few reasons for this.) When she thinks about home, it’s usually because she’s worried about her dog left in the closed-off radioactive zone around the plant. It’s a very complicated book, touching on everything from mental health to prostitution to alcoholism. It’s also about the danger of aging nuclear power plants, though this point is very subtly made.
It was fascinating to see how well the adult, male author conveyed the voice and actions of a 17-year-old girl. Even better was that he didn’t try to improve her teenage-ness—something that happens so often and is so irritating in novels with teenagers as main characters. There are very few things more contrived than giving teenagers the gift of adult-like conversation and logical decision-making skills. When that happens, we have 14-year-olds who are better read than most college graduates and speak to each other like philosophy professors. In Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands, teenage Emily likes poetry, but it’s a believable interest. She’s not doing university-level literary analysis.
In short, this book is very, very good. The plot is dramatic, yes, but Emily’s vivid and realistic character is the reason I encourage you to read it.
I loved this book. I’m someone that’s maybe a little too obsessed with true crime. I figured the people featured in this book were probably similar to me. Maybe the kind of people who started out watching a lot of Investigation Discovery in their spare time and it snowballed from there. That’s not the case. A lot of them began investigating because there was a local unsolved case that they couldn’t forget about. Some had family members or friends disappear and it pulled them into a labyrinth of other families and friends searching for people too. These sleuths are not really finding out the whodunit of cases. They’re instead solving bodies. They examine descriptions of unidentified bodies—some decades old—and match them up to missing persons reports. (This is a simplistic description and doesn’t really convey the true scope of the hours of research and investigation they do.)
The book itself is a little jumpy and disjointed. There are a lot of people and a lot of unidentified bodies mentioned throughout and it would be hard to keep them straight anyway, but Halber has a tendency to make cosmic leaps through space and time without much warning. I got mightily frustrated at first (GIRL STAY ON TASK, PLZ) because it bounced around every 10 pages or so. Luckily Halber discovers the power of a cohesive narrative about halfway through and we became friends again.
Something this book drives home again and again is that there are an obscene amount of unidentified/unclaimed bodies in this country. Some are buried unceremoniously, some are reduced to bones shoved in a banker’s box in the back of a police station storage room. The estimated numbers in the book are mind-boggling. I can see why these armchair sleuths get sucked in. Don’t these people have someone, somewhere wondering where they went? They have to, right? It’s very sobering.
After reading this book, I looked up how many unidentified bodies have been found in Maryland since 2000. 15 women. 65 men. I clicked on a random woman, aged 25-27. She was assaulted. She had been dead for months when she was found. I hope someone finds out who she is. I hope her family gets to say goodbye.
And that’s why I’m glad Deborah Halber wrote this book. I hope these unsung detectives keep doing their good work. They deserve this recognition (and more) for all the years of research they do to try and bring people home to their loved ones.