Mar 312014
 

Picture this: a verdant park full of sunshine and open spaces, tennis and basketball courts, a sprinkler pad, playground area. In this park, people are LARPing (Live Action Role Playing…I know, I didn’t know either) in full dress. Kids are learning to ride their bikes. A tot practices walking with a tiny walker. Across the park, a diverse group of kids roll down the hill while a young mother sunbathes and the father chases after their child. Puppies abound. Women in colorful saris walk after their rollerblading children. A sweet little girl no older than about two and a half runs with a kite string in her hand as her father looks on, tossing an errant frisbee back to a couple. A preteen walks the trail, writing in his notebook and singing to himself. In a far corner, a larger group takes a break from tossing a ball to eat barbecue while beneath a shady tree, a young couple kicks off their shoes and toasts with stemware, a fancy picnic, by my standards.

In Central Park, this would be nothing out of the ordinary. But where I live, in Beaumont, Texas – a place named among the nation’s worst for wellbeing by the Gallup Healthways Study – I have to pause and really appreciate the diversity and joy around me. Of course, out of the over 150,000 people in the area, just 674 were polled as to their well being. The study itself is based on rising obesity, environmental issues, and employment, but as is often the case, most journalistic outlets equate this with dissatisfaction and unhappiness, especially on the heels of another study last year that analyzed the tweets of those in this area.

Of course, I’m not one to look at my environment and toss aside the very real concerns mentioned in the first study, but these polls are opinion polls, and I’m not too inclined to put much stock into them until someone begins going door to door to weigh and measure citizens and study their mental health. Of course I wish my corner of Texas were more pedestrian/cyclist friendly. I wish for more life in my historic neighborhood. I wish there were less racism and more art. I sincerely wish our economy depended less on the refineries that surround us. But I also know there are good people here. People who look out for each other’s kids and play catch in the park with any child interested. Artistic people. Intelligent people. People who come together after natural disasters to lend helping hands. People taking chances to build the lives they want in the place they live now, not the place they plan to move down the road. People who recognize that to live in a great place, you must invest in that place. (Like The Giving Field or Boomtown Film & Music Festival or the ever-growing farmer’s market.) And I also recognize that there are places, popular, top-of-the-wellbeing-list places that have the same sorts of problems we do – and different ones altogether.

What I do know (and what I often have to remind myself as a self-proclaimed homebody) is that, just as in any place, the more you step out your front door and away from whatever is keeping you inside, the more your immediate environment expands, and while I won’t be LARPing any time soon, I will carry the memory of walking hand in hand with the man I love, laughing and talking and people watching in wonder for a long long time.

Mar 042014
 

pg1*I received this ebook from the publisher Melville House in exchange for an honest review.

Billy Ridgeway is a do-nothing. He works at a Greek deli when he can make it on time. He thinks his girlfriend may have dumped him, but he’s not sure. And the short stories he’s written are pure crap – he’s got a writeup in an NYC lit magazine to prove it. When the Devil shows up in his apartment with good, no, great coffee and offers to publish Billy’s novel if he’ll just do him a tiny favor, Billy isn’t even tempted. Ok, maybe a little. All he has to do is steal the Neko of Infinite Equilibrium, a cat statue, from a powerful warlock.

At first, Billy can’t be bothered. If he can’t even get his girlfriend to return his calls, how could he possibly face a warlock? But soon, whether or not Billy wants to help the Devil isn’t an option as he’s in up to his neck and discovers he’s a hell wolf and that his entire life up to this point has been a lie. As he races across the city, Billy learns a lot about what he’s capable of, and if he lives through this weirdness, maybe he’ll be able to do something after all.

The Weirdness is absolutely, positively one of the most original takes on the nearing middle age, suffering male writer bit. Because frankly, had this been another story about a guy who is too lazy to get off his ass and do something, I’d have hated it. Hell, I may not have even finished it. But Jeremy Bushnell manages to turn this story on its head in what should be the most ridiculous novel you’ve ever read.

Instead, Billy and his really lovely counterparts, specifically his best friend Anil, are people you feel for. They’re doing what they have to in order to make it. Maybe Billy hasn’t been doing his part, but he’s obviously unhappy. He has a job that is fine but isn’t a career. His writing isn’t transcendent. His love life…yeah, it’s not great. In a lot of ways, Billy has just shut down, and he can’t figure out how to restart until the Devil shows up. And ain’t that the way of things? Ok, maybe the Devil doesn’t really show up in order for you or me to get out of our funks, but it takes something pretty out of character or, in this case, out of this world.

Add this to your Goodreads shelf.

Feb 062014
 

pg1*I received this book from the publisher Bourbon Street Books in exchange for an honest review.

Jessica Mayhew’s psychotherapy office is a sanctuary of sorts. She goes in, listens to her patients, and goes home. Her life is routine, and she likes it that way. But her routine is disturbed when her husband admits to sleeping with a younger woman in what he says was a one-night stand. Her teenage daughter Nella has pulled away from her. And at work, a new client, Gwydion Morgan, an actor and the son of famous film director Evan Morgan, unsettles Jessica.

Gwydion has a phobia of buttons and is concerned it may affect his work in a period film. However, as their sessions continue, a recurring dream Gwydion has dominates their sessions. In the dream, he is a child on his father’s boat. He hears a disturbance and then a splash before he wakes up, unnerved. When Jessica makes a house call after Gwydion’s mother calls her, concerned he may be suicidal, she learns Gwydion’s au pair drowned at their cliff side home, and she begins to wonder if Gwydion’s dream is reality. What really happened to the au pair?

The House on the Cliff - beginning with its cover – looked like an absolutely perfect read for the dreary January weather we’ve been having. Set in Wales, the tone and the subject matter are eery and dark. However, the longer I read, the more I had to shake my head. I thoroughly enjoy mysteries whose detecting character isn’t necessarily a detective. That said, the main character should also exhibit a sense of investigation that makes his or her foray into detecting plausible. Instead, Jessica is a bit of a mess. She is certainly curious, but she never seems to pair her curiosity with rational, measured thought. Unable to forgive her husband for the affair, she quickly entangles herself with her patient (!), delves into his family history without authorization, manages to alienate and place her daughter in danger, and make an altogether ridiculously foolish move at the end of the book. Though I enjoyed the writing, The House on the Cliff left me wondering if Jessica Mayhew is capable of leading a mystery series.

If you’re so inclined, add this to your Goodreads shelf.

Feb 042014
 

pg1*I received this ebook from the publisher Touchstone in exchange for an honest review.

“I, to this day, hold to only one truth: if a man chooses to carry a gun he will get shot. My father agreed to carry twelve.”

Thomas Walker is 12 when his father decides to venture out West to sell Samuel Colt’s Improved Revolving Gun. But a mere three days into the journey, Walker’s father is shot dead, and Thomas is left to find his way home with nothing but a gelding, a wagon, and a wooden model gun for protection. He encounters Henry Stands, a former ranger who reluctantly takes on responsibility for Thomas as they make their way back East. Told from the adult Thomas’s recollections, Road to Reckoning is part dime store novel and part coming-of-age tale.

Road to Reckoning was my first “wow” novel of 2014. Lautner’s choice to have an older Thomas narrate his tale allows for poignant moments of recollection, such as when he talks about journeying out with his father and the anticipation he felt:

Every word he spoke would be to me.

It is a fault of nature that fathers do not realize that when the son is young the father is like Jesus to him, and like with Our Lord, the time of his ministry when they crave his words is short and fleeting.

These observations aren’t often enough to become laborious, but they fit well in the telling. At the same time, Thomas also recognizes that his father doesn’t belong in the West, and his brief time there is evidence of that. Thomas can’t help but grudgingly look up to Henry Stands. Henry Stands, with his foreign gun the Native Americans think is magic, swaggers into this story and into Thomas’s life with a charisma that becomes the stuff of legends. Though he’d just as soon be without the burden of a young boy, he also recognizes his duty, leading to one of the best scenes in the book, when Stands faces down a group of men with nothing but a wooden pistol:

What you may make of a man approaching abomination with a wooden pistol in his hands is your faith’s decision. If you are young I hope it does not inspire too much. If you are older you may think Henry Stands foolish, or worse, bitten by madness, or you may yet feel something rising in your chest at the thought of yourself about to stand down four armed men with nothing but your valor and self as your only true weapon. I have given you only a wooden toy.

Though most of the comparisons call True Grit and The Sisters Brothers companion reads, much of Road to Reckoning reminded me of Huck and Jim’s journey in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Just as Huck and Jim are an unlikely pair who do fine with one another as long as they’re on the Mississippi, Thomas and Henry’s tenuous alliance seems sure until others interfere.

A product of the West*, Road to Reckoning fits its setting well while also tempting readers with its story of danger and derring do and the after effects on the young man at the heart of it all.

Add this to your Goodreads shelf.

*Lautner does a masterful job with his depiction of the West, particularly as the author lives in Wales (!).

Jan 232014
 

pg1*I received this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.

Emily Crossley and Robert Drake would never be matched up on eharmony or match.com. Each is passionate about politics and his or her own key issues. Emily works for a nonprofit devoted to ridding the planet of gas-guzzling SUVs. Robert is a businessman whose business it is to market those same SUVs.

When they meet at an anti-SUV rally Emily hosts, sparks fly…but less from lust and more from a sense of righteousness. Robert follows up with a string of emails, and Emily is intrigued, asking him out before she loses her nerve. As Emily and Robert’s arguments grow more and more heated, so does their attraction.

But how do you reconcile an attraction to someone so inappropriate for you on paper? Emily and Robert both struggle with this, yet each is level headed and logical, able to articulate their stances in ways that aren’t offensive to the other. Plus, there’s more to each than politics. Robert loves astronomy. Emily loves to read. At one point, Emily even questions whether she uses her politics as a way to separate herself from others, a moment of brutal honesty. But it is each character’s openness with one another that allows them to fall in love until Robert’s demanding job overwhelms any chance they have of being together.

At first glance, The Drake Equation made me nervous. Not only is it a romance novel, but it’s also a novel involving two characters whose political beliefs are diametrically opposed. To be together, miraculously, neither Robert nor Emily suddenly changes his or her political beliefs. Neither one gives up a career for the other. That’s not to say that Robert and Emily don’t change or compromise, but so often in romance novels, one or the other of the characters in the couple makes a change that makes my skin crawl a bit. Heather Walsh avoids that and creates a cast of intelligent, thoughtful characters without unrealistic obstacles getting in the way of love, making The Drake Equation the perfect romance novel for people who hate romance novels.

Add this to your Goodreads shelf.

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