Purity by Jonathan Franzen

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"So many Jonathans. A plague of literary Jonathans."

Jonathan Franzen has reluctantly accepted his role as one of America's most prominent literary authors. He writes massive novels about broad ideas that garner critical and popular success. Despite the persistent buzz around his previous novels The Corrections and Freedom, I've never been inclined to read any of his works for myself. When a book club that I follow through Goodreads announced his latest Purity as their monthly selection, I decided to see what all the fuss was about.

The main protagonist is Purity "Pip" Tyler, a twenty something year old who is saddled with overwhelming debt, an underwhelming job with a corporation that she's pretty sure is nothing more than a scam, and a reclusive and emotionally unstable mother who refuses to reveal the identity of her absentee father. Pip uses her sarcasm and unyielding devotion to her mother to cope with the less than ideal place she finds herself in. She comes up with a plan to address the first of her problems. If she can discover the true identity of her father, she might be able to convince him to help alleviate some of her debt. Unfortunately, Pip's mother refuses to give even the slightest hint to the man's identity.

The story begins to turn from a focus on family drama to more current affairs when Pip is afforded the opportunity to intern with The Sunlight Project. The initiative is comparable to WikiLeaks. The project is led by Andreas Wolf, the German equivalent to Julian Assange, who claims his work comes from pure intentions. As Pip travels across the globe to further bring to light the truths of the world, she secretly hopes to unearth a truth of her own. Even though she is excited to do what she considers to be meaningful work, she is equally eager to use The Sunlight Project's vast resources to finally uncover the name of her father.

At nearly 600 pages, Purity is an ambitious work that blends complex characters and situations around its central theme. Beyond the present day story of Pip's search for her father, Franzen writes numerous backstories that end up forming the majority of the work. Through these detours, we gain a greater understanding of each of the characters that Pip is encountering in her life. With the dexterity of a masterful wordsmith, Franzen strings together these plots in a way that allows each to have a unique identity without ever detracting from the book as a whole. It is the idea of purity that brings these pieces together. Each character is motivated by their own idea of what they believe to be pure actions. Even with an ending that did not seem worthy of the story that preceded it, Purity is a thought provoking and surprisingly enjoyable read that makes me eager to read Franzen's other novels.

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.

(2016, 22)



Burn by James Patterson

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By now I know exactly what to expect when I open a James Patterson novel. His heroes will be classic good guys with just enough personal baggage to keep us invested in them. His villains will be psychopaths hellbent on taking down the hero. The story will unfold through short chapters that usually end in mini cliff-hangers. All combined, these elements keep the pages turning quickly and provide a mild diversion from everyday life. It is a tried and true formula that has turned Patterson into one of the bestselling authors of all time. Even when I complain about his use of co-authors to churn out multiple books a year and the deficit in quality this has caused, I can't help but come back for more. And so I started Burn, the seventh installment in the Michael Bennett series knowing pretty much what I was in store for.

Michael Bennett and his brood of adopted children finally return home to New York after being hidden in witness protection for most of the last novel. Despite having nabbed one of the most notorious drug lords in the world, Bennett is not given the hero's welcome he expected. Instead, the NYPD has assigned him to lead a community outreach squad in Harlem. The poorly supported squad lacks the resources and personnel to adequately assist the large population that it has been charged with. The bureaucratic systems that people have to follow to provide tips to the squad means that potentially valuable information goes unnoticed by the people who are supposed to act on it. When a burned body is found at a property of a previously ignored tip, Bennett vows to correct the broken system and bring justice to the people he has been tasked with serving.

Just as Michael is starting to implement changes at the squad, he gets pulled into another high profile case. This time a string of jewelry heists have left the department stumped. When the higher ups beg Bennett to step in, he only agrees to assist if he can continue his duties with the outreach squad as well. Soon he finds himself back in the crazy juggling act that his turns into all too often. The stresses of work coupled with a budding romance with his live in nanny and the duties of being a single father begin to take their toll on him. But Michael is determined to give his best in all aspects of his life. He is the hero after all.

As I expected, Patterson delivered on all of the usual fronts. The Michael Bennett series is probably my second favorite Patterson saga behind the Alex Cross books, and Burn is certainly a worthy continuation of the story. More so than usual, I found the real joy of this novel was in reading about Michael's personal relationships with his family. That drama seemed to outweigh the more surface level crime threads in the book. In fact, with so much time devoted to developing a romance and maintaining the unique Bennett clan, the actual mystery was too brief. As I got to the last couple of pages, I would have even preferred a cliff-hanger that the rushed ending that we got. Still, Burn does nothing to deter me from looking forward to the next installment. The next time I'm looking for a quick and fun read, I'll definitely turn to a Patterson novel again.

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.

(2016. 21)


Be Frank With Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson

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Reclusive author M.M. Banning, Mimi to her friends, values her privacy. Years ago, she wrote a novel that became a literary phenomenon. She reaped the financial rewards of the novel and lived a life of blissful anonymity. But all of that changed when Mimi found herself the victim of a Bernie Madoff style scheme. In order to climb out of the massive financial hole that she finds herself in, Mimi will try to make lightning strike again. She has to write a new novel, and she has to do it fast!

Banning's publisher is excited to learn of the author's plans. After publishing her first book all those years ago, they'e been waiting not so patiently in the wings for a new one. Naturally, they aren't taking any chances with this sophomore effort. They'll do anything in their power to ensure the next M.M. Banning novel arrives without a hitch. Twenty four-year-old Alice, a publishing assistant, has been assigned the unenviable task of living with the novelist to make sure the new work comes to fruition.

When Alice arrives at the secretive Banning estate, she is greeted with hostility by the reclusive author who does not appreciate a new person invading her life. Alice is also surprised to learn that Mimi is the mother to a young child, Frank. Frank is a peculiar character in his own right. Everything about the boy seems to be inspired by a bygone era. He is dressed in a suit and speaks as if he's been transplanted from a scene in Casablanca. As Alice begins her residence with the Bannings, she must learns to cope with their eccentricities and become part of Mimi's daunting effort to save her family in the only way she knows how.

From start to finish, Be Frank With Me is an absolute delight. The story takes a classic fish out of water scenario and evolves it into a sometimes comedic, sometimes tragic, but always engrossing character study. As I read, I couldn't help but draw comparisons between the fictional Mimi and Harper Lee. While I hesitate to say Claiborne Johnson was inspired by the real life solitude of Lee, it is hard not to see the similarities. Still, it is Frank who truly captured my imagination in this one. As he reveals himself to Alice, I couldn't help but feel sorry for him. His childhood innocence is slowly eroding away as he realizes that he does not fit into the world outside of the one his mother created for him. In the end, Be Frank With Me is a charming novel that questions the expectations that society places on itself.

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.

(2016, 20)




The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

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"I have lost control over everything, even the places in my head."

There is no denying that one of last year's "it" books was The Girl on the Train by debut author Paula Hawkins. Everywhere I looked, it seemed people were reading the book! Amongst my fellow reviewers, reaction to the novel was pretty polarizing. They either loved it or couldn't even stand to finish it. I'll admit that I had a slight aversion to jumping on the band wagon. I've voiced my disapproval of book's that contain the word "girl" in the title just to draw a comparison to Gone Girl. I feared that this would be yet another subpar imitation of that novel. As I started reading it, however, I soon found that I couldn't have been more mistaken.

Life has been hard on Rachel. The grief of not being able to conceive a child eventually took its toll on her marriage. As depression settled in, Rachel turned to alcohol to ease the pain. Her husband turned to another woman. Now, Rachel's life is nothing more than a mundane routine of work and self medication. Each morning she rides the train to work, passing the home she once shared. For a brief instance, she can see into the homes of her former neighborhood. One young couple in particular draws her attention, and she begins to fantasize about their seemingly perfect life.

This voyeuristic curiosity soon begins to take over Rachel's life. She looks forward to her twice daily glimpse into the couple's perfect relationship. Besides alcohol, the story of Jason and Jess (names that Rachel has assigned) becomes her escape from the depression that clouds her mind. Soon reality invades Rachel's fantasy and shatters the idealistic narrative that that she constructed. The Jess has gone missing and the Jason seems to be the primary suspect. Determined to help the couple and to preserve the one part of her life that is positive, Rachel contacts the police to tell them about everything she has watched. But how can the police trust the word of someone who has never even met the couple? More so, how can they seriously consider the word of a woman who gets blackout drunk every evening?

In The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins uses an unreliable narrator to cloud her otherwise straightforward thriller into a murky mirage of uncertainty. Through her consistently inconsistent recollections, Rachel attempts to string together a narrative that is mired in alcohol induced chasms. For her part, Hawkins does an admiral job getting us to care for Rachel. She is a character who seems to be the sole enabler of her misfortunes, but the backstory that Hawkins provides gives her both depth and sympathy. Even though I guessed the conclusion a few pages before it was revealed, the pulse pounding suspense that permeated every moment toward that discovery more than made up for that flaw. The Girl on the Train is a cleverly plotted novel that deserves every bit of the acclaim it has received. If this debut is any indication of things to come in Hawkins career, I can't wait to see what she comes up with next.

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.

(2016, 19)

Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

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"Remember, every treasure comes with a price."

When the blistering heat of the Texas summer hits, I usually change my reading habits a bit. My idea of the perfect summer read is a book that has a quick pace, doesn't require too much deep thought, but one that also doesn't sacrifice quality in favor of being fun. With that in mind, I decided to pick up Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan. This novel has been sitting on my shelf for a couple of years, just waiting for the perfect moment to be read. Described by the publisher as a "outrageously funny debut novel", Crazy Rich Asians seemed like the perfect book to kickoff my summer reading.

The novel follows Nicholas Young and his girlfriend Rachel Chu as they travel to Singapore to meet Nick's family. The academic couple have lived comfortably together for a few years in America. While Rachel and Nick are very comfortable with her single mother, they have yet to meet Nick's large extended family. As the couple heads to Singapore, Nick begins to stress about the details of the meeting. He loves Rachel, but his family can be difficult to deal with. He's also left out one giant detail about his family. . . they are unfathomably wealthy!

Eleanore Young is worried sick about her son. Word has traveled through the grapevine of her various social circles that Nick is bringing home his girlfriend Rachel with the intent to propose to her. Surely these rumors must be mistaken. How could Nick be ready to propose to a girl when he never even mentioned the woman to his mother?! Worse, if the rumors are to be believed, Rachel is an ABC (American Born Chinese). Mrs. Young will not stand to have her son's emotions and bank account be taken advantage of by a woman who is not worthy of the Young family's stature. She vows to do everything in her power (lots of money means lots of power!) to protect Nick and to maintain the prosperity of the Young family name.

Crazy Rich Asians is a novel full of family drama and satire that reads like an over the top soap opera in the same vein as the TV show Desperate Housewives. The tone is light and the pace is brisk. In other words, the novel works as a diversional summer read. Those expecting anything more than that may be disappointed. While Kwan is clearly writing from experience, his story ends up being nothing more than a surface level melodrama. I found myself chuckling at the absurdity of some of the situations, but found it really hard to connect with the over-the-top characters. At over four hundred pages, the material soon begins to overstay its welcome and becomes redundant. Worse, when the book does finally end, most of the narrative threads are left open for a sequel. I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy this book, but the overlong length and lack of any clear resolution might be enough to deter others from spending time with this crazy rich family.

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.

(2016, 18)





Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews

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"I don't know how to live a normal human life."

Greg Gains has high school all figured out. The school is comprised of various cliques, and a student's social status within the school is determined by which clique they are in. As anyone who has gone through high school can imagine, finding your place within that enigmatic social structure can be quite the challenge. Greg has a simple solution. Rather than exhausting himself with the search for the perfect clan, Greg doesn't belong to any of them. By keeping a low profile, he avoids any of the complications that come with a social life.

With all that in mind, you may wonder how Greg manages this life of self-imposed solitude. The truth is that he isn't actually the loner that he seems to be. Greg has only one real friend, Earl. The two boys bonded over a love for classic films and spend their spare time crafting movies of their own. With a dysfunctional family to deal with at home, Earl has little time or interest in finding other friends. This makes him an optimal companion for the introverted Greg.

Greg seems destined to escape high school unscathed, but the titular dying girl comes along and changes everything. Rachel and Greg had the kind of awkward young love that was doomed from the start. He only ended up dating her because he was too peculiar to score the girl he truly desired. That was a while ago. His master plan of not belonging to any group meant limited interaction with people other than Earl. . . especially an ex girlfriend. Now that his mom has dropped the bombshell that Rachel has cancer, Greg feels obligated to reconnect and somehow cheer her up. There's only one problem. Befriending the campus's resident dying girl threatens the anonymity that Greg has desperately tried to achieve.

In Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, author Jesse Andrews defies the conventions of the teen romance genre with satirical wit and emotional heft. Any expectations that I had as I began the novel were immediately negated. Greg narrates the story with the kind of self deprecating humor that is both amusing and genuine. The story itself is not uncommon. It is the way that Andrews plays with our preconceptions of the story that makes the novel so compelling. While other books like The Fault in Our Stars use a cancer story to maximize dramatic and sentimental effect, this novel takes a more nuanced and realistic approach. In a genre that usually tries to inject some kind of deeper meaning into the narrative, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl dares to take situations at face value. By embracing the mundane nature of everyday life, the book is ultimately elevated to a remarkable commentary on death.

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.

(2016, 17)

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