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  • Whitney Collins 3:30 pm on 2016/09/01 Permalink
    Tags: a wild yarn, book reviews, , , ,   

    Carl Hiaasen’s Latest is a Razor-Sharp Comedy Caper 

    Sometimes readers are in the mood for a brainy, whip-smart thriller, sometimes they simply crave a hilarious page-turner. But, more often than not, these two genres don’t intersect. Enter Carl Hiaasen, the renowned Miami Herald columnist who has written more than a dozen laugh-a-minute crime novels, including the unforgettable Bad Monkey, Lucky You, and Skinny Dip, as well as award-winning children’s books like Hoot (which became a feature film) and savvy non-fiction such as Team Rodent (an unapologetic rant about Disney).

    Now Hiaasen is back with more of his signature clever comedy in new novel Razor Girl, an outrageous, rollicking read about Buck Nance, a missing redneck reality star, and troublemaker Merry Mansfield, who can’t stop shaving—and crashing—while driving (hence the title). Hiaasen is in top form in this read, brandishing like never before his unstoppable triple threat of unparalleled plot lines, people, and predicaments. Here’s why Razor Girl is so sharp.

    The Plot Lines
    Hiaasen doesn’t just take a single interesting character in a single high-stakes scenario and lay things out from A to Z. Instead, he presents a variety of threads that ultimately all intersect…in the ways you least expect. Like a giant Seinfeld episode, Razor Girl follows several storylines. There’s the main one: the disappearance of the star of hit reality show Bayou Brethren and the mad scramble to locate him before his family, his mistress, and all of Hollywood fall apart. But there’s also the storyline of the kidnapped talent agent, the lawsuit over an erectile dysfunction medication, a giant diamond ring hidden in a container of smoked fish dip, and a former detective-turned-cockroach cop who’s determined to solve the mystery of Buck and also get his E.R. doctor-girlfriend back from Oslo. (Just to name a few.)

    The People
    Hiaasen is a master of character development, cramming his wild tales full of fiction’s funniest names and faces. In Razor Girl, be prepared to meet the cast of Bayou Brethren (a loose parody of Duck Dynasty), which includes not just the missing Buck, but brothers Buddy, Clee Roy, and Junior—all once upper-class Wisconsin boys who fell into Hollywood after their accordion band was discovered and they subsequently changed their names, grew beards, and dirtied their dental work. You’ll also meet Merry, the aforementioned razor-happy redhead; Miracle, the tantrum-throwing mistress; Trebeaux, the sand-stealing, erosion-control thief; and Big Noogie Aeola, a New York mafia dude who likes his flip-flops. We’ll leave some out for the sake of surprise, but brace yourself for Blister, Brock, Krystal, Amp, and a posse of giant Gambian rats, among other eccentrics.

    The Predicaments
    True to Hiaasen form, Razor Girl doesn’t stop with its memorable plot and people. Its over-the-top predicaments will have you gasping for air. Like the time Buck Nance’s shaved, ZZ Top-style beard is found in a restaurant’s quinoa. Or the time Miami ex-con Zeto electrocutes himself while trying to charge his Tesla. Or the time an angry mistress crashes a website with doctored Bin Laden photos. We probably should mention the mongoose named after Buck’s brother Clee Roy that’s kept as a pet and tied to a dining room table leg, but we’ll stop short of describing the corpse found by honeymooners in Cuba. Wherever you turn in this beauty, there’s more proof that truth may not be stranger than fiction after all. Suffice it say, there are more scrapes in this must-read than Razor Girl herself can shake a disposable Bic at, making it one of Hiaasen’s best exploits yet.

  • Dell Villa 3:00 pm on 2016/09/01 Permalink
    Tags: , book reviews, , commonwealth, , ,   

    Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth Paints a Thorny Family Portrait 

    For a story that begins and ends with a party, there’s an astonishing amount of anger, sadness, and deceit in Commonwealth, Ann Patchett’s latest novel about intertwining families. But this powerful story reflects life, so for every broken relationship, harrowing circumstance, or unforgivable offense, there is an equally weighty counterpoint: forgiveness, growth, or even levity. Herein lies an optimistic central point, which we have come to expect from Patchett: the defining moments of our lives are only as dark as we allow them to be.

    The Keating and Cousins families become suddenly, inextricably connected on a sultry Sunday afternoon in Torrance, California in the early 1960s. Citrus trees are heavy with fruit, and a modest bungalow is filled to bursting on the occasion of baby Franny’s christening. Her parents, Beverly and Fix Keating, have thrown the party, and when Bert Cousins—an acquaintance twice-removed—arrives with an unwieldy bottle of gin, the celebration severely alters its course. Bert and Beverly’s instant connection, though discreet, will soon tear their immediate families apart.

    Instead of detailing Beverly and Bert’s romance, which ultimately takes the couple from Torrance to Arlington, Virginia, Patchett’s superbly woven narrative quickly shifts its focus to the children. In the wake of divorce and remarriage, the two Keating girls and the four Cousins children come to lead unsettled, peripatetic lives. They live with their mothers on opposite sides of the country during the school year, but are thrust together into two bedrooms “with one bathroom and one cat between them” every summer in Virginia.

    Unsupervised and unruly from the start, the six kids become a “fierce tribe,” and they share common enemies: their parents. But, even though there is unquestionable loyalty among them, their own relationships are fraught with difficulties. Caroline and Franny Keating despise each other, and nobody can tolerate the obnoxious baby of the group: Albie. Left to their own devices summer after summer, the posse resorts to unorthodox methods of control where Albie is concerned and tragedy, always lurking just beyond the page, swoops in at the earliest opportunity to break the fragile families even further.

    From there Patchett fast-forwards and rewinds seamlessly, relaying the experiences of each of the Keating and Cousins kids far into adulthood, eventually taking us to a place where the stories of their childhood become more public than any of them could have imagined.

    At once a spellbinding narrative and a realistic mediation on the elasticity of truth, love and relationships, Commonwealth begs an essential question: does your life story actually belong to you? There are the stories we are told, the stories we tell ourselves, and then there are the stories we believe. At some point in all of our lives, these narratives collapse, and all that’s left is love—and family. In a novel where every single word matters—even the names of the richly drawn characters are meaningful—Patchett asks a lot of her readers. And she might be suggesting, rather eloquently, that having a family means you never have your own story. Instead, every member holds a thread.

    Commonwealth is on shelves September 13.

  • Tara Sonin 8:00 pm on 2016/08/25 Permalink
    Tags: a great reckoning, book reviews, inspector gamache, , ,   

    Chief Inspector Gamache Faces A Great Reckoning 

    Louise Penny is back with A Great Reckoning, the twelfth novel in her Chief Inspector Gamache series. A whodunit full of suspense, it stars a map that leads to nowhere, two corrupt policemen, four cadets-in-training with skeletons in their closets, and one Commander seemingly beyond reproach—but possibly capable of murder.

    Commander Armand Gamache is an honorable, stalwart vehicle of justice. He has long been portrayed as a silent, keen observer of corruption, tasked with rooting it out without much fanfare, but he has seen his fair share of bloodshed—from the early loss of his parents in a gruesome accident, to his time as an officer of the Sûreté, the elite Canadian police force. But throughout his adventures, Gamache has managed to keep his own hands clean.

    Until now. The application of a mysterious cadet to the Sûreté Academy propels Gamache out of his cozy retirement in Three Pines and into the trenches of educating cadets at the academy—cadets he fears have already been corrupted by the illicit dealings of the former man in charge, Serge Leduc. During his time at the Academy, the lines between justice and vengeance blur to the point that Gamache is soon implicated in a terrible crime: the murder of Professor Leduc, by a bullet wound straight to the head.

    The mystery of Leduc’s murder is further complicated by multiple narrators and points of view, many of which we learn straight away are unreliable. There are those loyal to Leduc among his inner circle of elite students, who do not trust Gamache, and then there’s Amelia Choquet, the goth cadet with a past—and the girl whose application compelled Gamache out of retirement.

    While Armand investigates Leduc’s murder, four cadets are implicated because of a map found in the man’s possession at the time of death—a map that belonged to Gamache, but found its way into the hands of the students by way of a unique training exercise. The mystery of the map coincides with the mystery of the murder inasmuch as they are parallel trains racing toward the same point—but the murder is the most fascinating track to follow, as everyone Gamache interacts with—from the students, to his second-in-command and son-in-law Jean-Guy, to Inspector Lacoste—believe him one moment to be completely above reproach, and in the next find him possibly capable of murdering a man who was his rival for power.

    A Great Reckoning is structured like an intricate game of Jenga: it stacks up questions into a tower and over the course of the story, removes them one by one in search of an elusive truth. Who is Amelia Choquet? What is her connection to Armand Gamache? Did Armand murder Leduc? After so many years spent rooting out corruption, was he corrupt himself? What is the importance of the map? Penny reveals the answers to these questions with impeccable pacing, but even more impressive is her rich development of her characters over the course of the story. The moral seems to be that the ghosts of the past come to roost too late for souls to be saved, but justice is still worth fighting for—because every once in a while, something good does come of it.

  • Whitney Collins 9:00 pm on 2016/08/18 Permalink
    Tags: , book reviews, , , , , , , , , tell-alls   

    Honest, Tender, Normal, Dark: 4 Ways Amy Schumer’s New Memoir Is Not What You’d Expect 

    The inimitable Amy Schumer, known for her brash and unabashed standup comedy (as well as her Emmy-winning show Inside Amy Schumer and Hollywood blockbuster Trainwreck), has published a memoir, and it’s not what you’d expect. Yes, it’s full of humor and, yes, Schumer has plenty to say about sex, but The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo surprises readers by introducing them to an Amy fans and critics have never met. Schumer’s autobiography reveals a woman both more complex and more ordinary than the persona seen on stage and screen. Here are four ways The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo will astound you.

    It’s Honest
    Anyone familiar with Amy Schumer’s standup knows she doesn’t sugarcoat her intimate escapades or her love of pasta with parmesan cheese. But beyond the frankness of her sex life and food cravings, audiences have never been privy to her world laid bare. In The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo, Amy gets real about her teenage shoplifting habit, her mother’s unorthodox style of discussing the facts of life, and her botched bat mitzvah. She also talks about her family’s financial woes, as well as that time, when she was 9, that she demanded to see a shrink so she could name ALL her fears, specifically earthquakes and getting a tapeworm.

    But one of the funnier instances of honesty in Schumer’s book is her chapter titled “What I Want People To Say At My Funeral.” This gem of a section humanizes superstar Schumer and shows how she wants others to see her (as endlessly generous), how she hopes to be remembered (as making everyone feel better), and how she’d liked to be honored (guests should bring pasta dishes to the funeral and pour them into her coffin).

    It’s Normal
    Amy Schumer is no diva; she’s just your average self-described “introverted,” “half-Jew,” “Long Island trash receptacle” who struggles with things regular people struggle with: making small talk, enduring family gatherings, sitting through long meetings, and managing weight gain, bad hair, and trying to keep it real. Wealth is novel to her (she has an entire chapter “On Being New Money”), and she doesn’t take her success for granted. In fact, she gives lots of her income away, sometimes tipping outrageously, sometimes taking her sister to Europe, sometimes giving generously to families affected by PTSD.

    Amy has also had a lot of everyday jobs. She’s been a bartender at a lesbian bar, a fry cook, a hot dog seller, a barbershop sweeper, a steakhouse server, a basketball referee, and a fitness instructor, so Hollywood fame is still something of a shock. All that said, the best instances of Schumer’s normal-ness shine through in the old diary excerpts sprinkled (and hilariously footnoted) throughout the book. If you weren’t convinced of Schumer’s girl-next-door status, one read of her 1994-era journal entry and you’ll be convinced.

    It’s Dark
    It’s easy to think famous folks, particularly funny ones, live lives full of sunshine and frivolity, but Schumer’s memoir can go surprisingly and refreshingly dark. For starters, she tells all about her ailing father’s battle with multiple sclerosis. Like the heartbreaking times he publicly soiled himself, the last time she was able to go bodysurfing with him, and how a stem cell advancement brought him to tears. She also dishes on her long history of binge drinking and blackouts, the troubling way she lost her virginity, and how the victims of gun violence have changed her life permanently.

    Most dark is her chapter about Dan, a man who physically and emotionally abused her. Her candidness about domestic violence, and how even strong, outspoken women like herself can become victims, is a compelling and important read. Schumer’s honesty isn’t just unexpected, it could potentially save a life.

    It’s Tender
    Schumer may be known for speaking her mind, telling people off, and pulling the Irish goodbye, but she’s also incredibly loyal and tender. In her memoir, she consistently gushes over her brother and sister and niece, clearly adores her Inside Amy Schumer staff and assistants, and waxes wistful about her childhood and parents and high school friends. She also devotes an entire (outrageously funny) chapter to her ugly stuffed animal collection, and shares cherished memories of the time she spent working at a summer camp for people with special needs.

    Schumer is able to get sweet without being sappy; she’s able to show us her soft side without compromising her grit. And we get to see this best in a section titled “Things That Make Me Happy.” We won’t pull a full spoiler here, just leaving you with a small sampling of things that make Amy not just joyful, but more accessible to her fans, like: “My toddler niece laughing or doing pretty much anything.” “Riding a horse.” “Hearing my brother Jason play his horn.” “Scones.” “Smoked salmon.” “Telling a new joke that I’m excited about onstage, even if it doesn’t do well,” because “telling a new joke never gets old.”

  • Kat Rosenfield 8:00 pm on 2016/08/02 Permalink
    Tags: book reviews, , ,   

    Megan Abbott’s You Will Know Me Is an Unsettling Teen Girl Noir 

    On the eve of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, few events will inspire as much slack-jawed amazement—or furious debate—as the women’s gymnastics competition. Inside every spangled leotard, under every perfectly made-up face, is a fierce athlete who has pushed herself to unthinkable limits for a chance at Olympic gold. Working through devastating injuries, racing against the clocks of their own biology, elite gymnasts give up their girlhoods to training in the hopes of achieving greatness in the narrow window of time between peak skill level and the onset of puberty—knowing the development of womanly hips or breasts will effectively end their careers.

    For these reasons, women’s gymnastics has long been side-eyed as a breeding ground for eating disorders and body image issues. But in Megan Abbott’s ninth novel, You Will Know Me, it’s a place for much darker things to grow—in the hearts of the gymnasts themselves, in the tangled web of glad-handing and fundraising that fuels Olympic hopes, and in the cracks that form in a marriage and a family where one person’s dreams are so big there’s no room for anyone else to have dreams of their own.

    Katie and Eric Knox are not the type of helicoptering, high-achieving couple who pinned expectations on their kid before she even left the womb. In fact, they’re not the kind of couple who had much in the way of expectations at all—not even of making their relationship work after marrying young and hastily in the wake of an unplanned pregnancy. But Devon, their daughter, turns out to be gifted not just beyond her parents’ expectations, but beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. By the time she’s a teenager, her promise as a gymnast is not only the driving force of her life, but the glue holding her family together. Katie and Eric, and their younger son, Drew, are nothing but accessory planets orbiting the bright star of Devon’s athletic hopes.

    For Eric, being Devon’s biggest supporter is a role he was born for; he’s a big shot by association thanks to his gift for fundraising on behalf of the BelStars gym where Devon trains, and a serious feather in the cap of the booster club made up of fretful (and kinda thirsty) gymnastics moms who hope some of Devon’s lustre will rub off on their own girls. Katie, by contrast, still occasionally finds some distance and perspective—feeling in turns awestruck by her kid, amused at the way gymnastics has overtaken her family’s life, and concerned by the sense that she understands Devon less and less as Devon’s achievements get greater and greater. And when tragedy strikes, and a beloved member of the gym community is killed in a hit-and-run accident just weeks before a major qualifying tournament, Katie is the closest thing to a voice of reason amid a chorus of parents whose primary concern is that the funeral will put a real crimp in the girls’ training schedules. But even she can’t fathom the truth that’s about to emerge, or the lengths to which members of this insular, cutthroat community will go to protect one of their own—or their own interests.

    Abbott excels at delving into the dark underbelly of teen girl–world and unearthing the worst of what’s buried there, and You Will Know Me is no exception. Foreboding hangs in the air from the first, and there are no lulls once the tension begins to build. The expertly woven mystery unravels from Katie’s point of view, which for readers creates the alluring but ultimately mistaken sense of knowing exactly what’s going on; we can see Katie’s blind spots, but what lurks behind them isn’t always what we think.

    Ultimately, it’s that sense of misdirection even more than the mystery’s ultimate conclusion that makes this such a compelling read, and an unsettling one. Through her mother’s eyes, we see Devon not as a person but as a series of inscrutable metaphors. As Katie sits in the bleachers, separated from her daughter by barriers both physical and ephemeral, Devon is a bouncing ponytail; a distant goddess; a well-oiled machine; a body of knotted muscle with a girl stuffed somewhere down inside it. She is made of stone, of sinew, of meat. Her baby brother insists she once climbed out the window and took flight, a raptor with beady eyes and claws for feet—and though everyone laughs and says he was only dreaming, there are parts of that vision that feel like the truth. Do the Knoxes truly know their daughter? Do they truly know each other?

    The whodunit resolution in Abbott’s story is satisfying, but it’s not the point. Rather, it’s the questions that linger on after you’ve closed the book that opened with a promise: You Will Know Me. But do you? And are you sure you want to?

    You Will Know Me is on sale now.

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