Archive for March 2020

Less by Andrew Sean Greer


My quarantine reading continues today with Andrew Sean Greer's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Less. This is one of those books that I felt almost obligated to read. It pretty much checks off most of the boxes for the kinds of books I wish there were more of. LQBTQ character? Check. Critical acclaim? Check. Heck, at a terse 260 or so pages, even the length seemed great. Still, as is all too common with too many of the books I buy, Less has sat on my bookshelf unread for a couple of years now. It even made it into the box of carefully curated books that made the move with me to my new house last month! And so, with a shelter in place order in effect for my county and only a finite number of Netflix shows to catch up on, it was finally time to dust off my copy and give this novel the read it very much deserved.

Arthur Less is a man on the brink of crisis. His longtime publisher has rejected his latest attempt at a novel, his former lover has announced his marriage to another man, and, perhaps most distressing of all, Less is about to have his 50th birthday. Things really couldn't be worse for this fabulously cosmopolitan man. At least his tailor-made blue suit still fits like a dream. Oh, there's one more thing. This former lover, the one who broke Less's heart and is marrying another man, has had the nerve to ask Less to attend the upcoming nuptials as a friend. The nerve of some people!

Not to worry though. Less has a plan. He conveniently has a stack of requests for his appearance at multiple literary events that span the globe. Normally Less would carefully peruse the invitations, accepting the ones that were either the most prestigious or the most lucrative, but this emergency is no time for caution. Less enthusiastically accepts each offer, a move that will conveniently see him on the other side of the world for his 50th birthday and the dreaded wedding of his ex-lover. What could possibly go wrong?

I think that readers' enjoyment of Andrew Sean Greer's Less will hinge upon their ability to empathize with the titular character. He's not likable in the traditional sense, and I think that may make it a bit hard for readers to connect with him. As a member of the LGBTQ community myself, I initially struggled to see beyond the stereotypical aspects of this character as a gay man. They were good for some brief chuckles, but there had to be more for me to invest in this story. Fortunately, I stuck with Mr. Less and was able to find a completely fulfilling and beautiful narrative as I went on his journey. Beyond the surface level satire lies a very raw and intimate portrait of a man dealing with aging, love, and loss. The depiction of one of Less's former relationships is probably one of the most realistic that I've ever read. My biggest takeaway from the novel is that ultimately life hinges upon love and human connection. Nothing more and nothing less.

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.
(2020, 8)

The Sun Down Motel by Simone St. James


It has been a while since I truly could not wait to get my hands on a book. I think back to the days of waiting for the next Harry Potter novel to publish, grabbing up a copy at midnight, and breathlessly reading into the early morning. That's the level of anticipation with which I approached Simone St. James' latest novel The Sun Down Motel. You see, The Broken Girls, her previous release, was THE book of 2018 for me. Something about combining a cold case mystery with a dash of supernatural horror entranced me to no end. Even as I write this review, I can't escape the spell that novel cast upon me. Seriously, read The Broken Girls! Anyway, I've been anxiously awaiting the release of this novel pretty much since finishing her last. I was fortunate enough to be provided with an advanced copy of the novel from the publisher (I sought out this review copy, something I rarely do!) and am pleased to say that I thoroughly enjoyed this book too.

The small town of Fell, NY is beyond the place that would be considered "off the beaten path". It is the kind of place that only the locals seem to truly be aware of. Aside from the local college, there isn't really anything else to draw someone to stay. As such, the local Sun Down Motel has seen better days. The year is 1982, and the motel is only drawing drifters and locals who are up to no good. Despite the ramshackle appearance and questionable occupants, Viv Delaney sees the motel as the ideal stepping stone to her future aspirations. If she can just hold down a job as a night clerk for a few months, she'll have enough saved to make the big move to NYC.

In the present day, the old motel is still standing and operating, a little more run-down than before, but a fixture of the town nonetheless. Looking for a reason to escape her life, especially after her mother succumbed to cancer, Carly decides to follow in the footsteps of her aunt Vivian and move out to Fell. Decades ago, Viv disappeared without a trace. The mystery of her vanishing has haunted Carly's family ever since. Determined to retrace Viv's steps, Carly takes on the same job as a night clerk and does some amateur detective work of her own.

Like The Broken Girls, The Sun Down Motel finds great success in immersing the reader in its sense of place. The titular motel is presented in such detail that I could feel myself getting lost in its decaying surroundings. St. James writes alternating chapters of past and present day, the two taking on a mirror-like quality as Carly retraces the journey of Viv all those years ago. At times, I did find myself jumping back to the beginning of the chapters to remind myself which time period/perspective I was in. The two girls' stories are so similar that it did get a bit tedious to keep track of who I was reading about. Still, I eagerly raced through each page to see what would happen next. Ultimately, The Sun Down Motel is a novel about haunting. The place is haunted by the ghosts of the town's horrific past, and Carly is haunted by the questions surrounding her aunt's disappearance. The two threads come together in a beautiful, albeit a bit rushed, conclusion that left me stunned at the sheer magnitude of emotions I was feeling. Simone St. James has a way of leaving me haunted by what I experienced at the end of her works to the point that I'll find myself reflecting on them for days and weeks after finishing. Count this one as another win from an author who is quickly becoming one of my favorites.

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.
(2020, 7)

The Other People by C.J. Tudor


"Missing is limbo. You're stranded; in a strange, bleak place where hope glimmers faintly at the horizon and misery and despair circle like vultures."

C.J. Tudor's writing flew on to my radar a couple years ago. I was enamored by the review copy of her debut novel, The Chalk Man. She followed it up with another stellar standalone novel The Hiding Place and turned her books into instant "must-reads" for me. Enter her latest novel The Other People. Once again, I graciously accepted a copy from the publisher and dove in with heightened anticipation. There's a reason I'm such a proponent of Tudor's work, and this latest novel is no exception.

How's this for a hook? Gabe is driving home from work one evening when he's stopped behind a beat-up clunker of a vehicle. In the rear window, he can just make out the face of a young child, a girl. Recognition overcomes Gabe's mind as he realizes the girl in the car is his daughter Izzy. He has to be imagining things. Izzy is home with her mother. Just as his mind is about to move past what must be an eerie coincidence, Gabe is thrust into full-on panic. Through the dust of the vehicle's window, the little girl mouths the word "Daddy."

With that opening setup, Tudor immediately grasped my attention. This brilliant premise allows the structural gymnastics that follow to be a little more palatable. The Other People follows three main perspectives. There's Gabe, desperately searching the interstates for his long lost daughter, Katie, the diner waitress who frequently serves Gabe, and Fran and her daughter, running from the people who seem so keen on finding them. Tudor deftly shuffles between the trilogy of characters while also bouncing between past and present day. In less skilled hands, this would become a narrative jumble, but in Tudor's hands, it is a winding thrill ride to the shocking convergence of the three threads.

If there's a weak link to the story, it may be the supernatural element that exists. For fear of spoiling, I won't go into details, but I found the more fantastic plot points to slightly detract from the driving action. While effective on their own accord, I don't feel like these elements were fleshed out enough to be truly pivotal to the story. That being said, all of Tudor's work has been the kind that requires some suspension of disbelief (its all fiction after all), so I'd be lying if I said this took away too much from my enjoyment. As with her previous two novels, The Other People by C.J. Tudor is a highly original thriller that will have the pages turning and your mind escaping into a brilliantly conceived world. This is the kind of escapism reading we are going to need in these trying times, and Tudor is the perfect author to deliver. Go ahead and add this to your "to be read" list. I'll be anxiously awaiting her next novel in the meantime.

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.
(2020, 6)

Long Bright River by Liz Moore


"I tried to ignore the low noise that thrummed throughout my day, some tolling, cautionary bell. I wouldn't listen. I wanted everything to stay as it was."

A lot has happened since I last posted a review. For starters, I purchased a house! The past month or so has been full of packing, unpacking, and sorting through all of my belongings. I was proud of "only" bringing 128 books to the new place with me, gifting and selling quite a few along the way. Then I found another 3 boxes of books that hadn't been unpacked from my last move. Needless to say, I bought another 2 bookcases to house the new discoveries! Just as I was settling in to the new place, the global health pandemic overtook our world. I'm fortunate to work for a company that cares about both my health and financial situation, but I'll be at home for the foreseeable future. The one silver lining to all of this is that I finally have a spare moment to get back to writing reviews!

As children, sisters Mickey and Kacey were inseparable. The two always turned to each other and had each others back. As the innocence of adolescence wore off, the allures of adulthood pulled the sisters into opposite directions. Mikey found refuge in a community program that partnered youth with police and firefighters. In fact, she would even follow the example of those adults and become a police officer herself. Kacey, on the other hand, followed a darker path. Unable to break the bind of addiction, she lives on the streets. Mickey hasn't heard from her in years, but she keeps tabs on her elder sister and makes sure no harm comes to her.

Mickey has plenty on her plate. As a single mother fighting gender biases in her male-dominated workplace, it can be hard to get by the day by day. Her partner of years is on a leave, and she's struggling to mesh with her new counterpart. Worst of all, Kacey is missing. No one has seen or heard from her in several months. Each time Mickey comes to a crime scene she worries this will be the time the victim is her sister. Pulled by the unending bond of her youth, Mickey is determined to find her sister and to find the closure of a lifetime of sorrow and uncertainty. She'll stop at nothing to bring her family to safety, even if that means putting herself into harm's way.

In Long Bright River author Liz Moore combines a riveting missing person story with an emotional exploration of the bonds of sisterhood. The subject matter is dark, the kind of gritty, real-world narrative that fills you with unease as you turn each page. Still, I found myself glued to the pages, not daring to look away or take a break. Moore employs flashbacks of the girls' youth to give context for their adult selves. By the end, I was breathless with emotion, sucked in by the fight against personal vises for the sake of family connection. As with all of the best books, it is the characters that inhabit Moore's world that makes Long Bright River such a visceral and rewarding read. It is not the kind of novel that allows you to escape into a brighter world, but it is a powerful and poignant reflection on a side of our world that doesn't always get illuminated.

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.
(2020, 5)

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