Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Invoice by Jonas Karlsson

This Swedish satire will have you pondering your own External Happiness score and the price due for the universe's pleasures.

A young man receives an extraordinarily large bill from a vaguely governmental-sounding agency. Of course, it's junk mail and he ignores it. Until the next bill comes with an additional service charge added.

He soon strikes up a strange friendship - maybe even flirtation - with the woman at the agency who's assigned to his remediation call. But the more they talk, the higher and higher his bill total climbs.

It's an odd, intense little book (pocket-sized and just 200 pages). I wanted to know what would happen, but I was at the same time off-put by the seriousness of the story's oppressive bureaucracy. It's a nightmare: he can't escape an enormous government bill despite the fact he knew nothing about it. Will they kill him? What is the punishment for exceeding the threshold?

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Modern Lovers by Emma Straub

Love is on everyone's minds this hot, steamy summer in Brooklyn: there's old love, new love, infatuation, blind devotion, friendship and more, all smoldering within this tight-knit neighborhood.

Before they got married, Elizabeth and Andrew were in a college band, along with Zoe who lives down the block. Now, there's a film in development about the fourth band member (a sterotypical rock star comet who flared then burned out), and each is emotional about reliving their youth on the big screen. Meanwhile, the two family's teenagers are filled with raging hormones, which puts a whole new wrinkle in the neighborhood's soap opera drama.

I liked the book a lot - as I'd also liked the author's The Vacationers earlier this year. The characters aren't simple cookie cutters - Elizabeth is a perfect real estate agent and a devoted mother, but she's also a flawed friend and prone to fits of drama when faced with something unexpected. I actually found her a bit of a pill and couldn't wait for her to get karma-slapped for her self-absorption.

My only criticism is that the book wraps up with a tie-it-up-in-a-big-bow chapter that's just scrapbook tidbits telling you what path each character took. The book could have been stronger with a more ambiguous ending that finished with summer's end.

I listened to this one in audio narrated by Jen Tullock, who was awesome.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Everybody's Fool by Richard Russo

I love funny, true, heart-tugging literary fiction about small towns and the people you meet who live in them. Every town's unique, yet there's a commonality in all of them.

Sully's a crusty geezer with a short life expectancy due to a bad heart. Rub is Sully's needy best friend - Rub's also the name of Sully's mangy little dog because he loves barking orders and seeing which of them responds. Then there's Sully's former lover Ruth, who owns the diner, and her husband the junk man. Get the picture?

The other part of the story lies with police chief Doug Raymer, who's coming unraveled faster by the minute as the story goes on. He starts out by obsessing over his dead wife while standing at attention in the sun in uniform during a funeral, where he eventually faints and lands in the fresh-dug hole. That's just the start of his problems.

I loved, loved, LOVED this book. I adored this book. It's smart and funny, and the audiobook narration by Mark Bramhall was stellar. That's not to say I couldn't see through the plot in several places (I right away knew the identity of Becca's lover), but I was willing to overlook that for the startling turns the plot made elsewhere.

There are a few loose ends not wrapped up at the end, but I'm also OK with that. This was the second time Russo has presented us with life from North Bath, New York, so perhaps we can hope for more someday (but I won't hold my breath: there were 22 years between "Nobody's Fool" and this one).

Friday, August 26, 2016

Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike by Phil Knight

I think the hallmark of a good nonfiction book is that you get completely engrossed in something you previously had little to no interest in. Therefore you'll understand when I say this is a fantastic book about shoes, track athletes and international business relations.

Phil Knight comes off as the kind of guy you want to have a drink with, but probably don't want to marry or have as a boss. He was a driven entrepreneur who played fast and loose with a lot of money (and not all his own) in the early days, and he almost lost it all multiple times.

But he believed in what he was doing, and he built an amazing "family" of dedicated professionals who believed in the product, too. He talks about Nike's partnership with college and professional athletes without this turning into a name-dropping celebrity memoir, which it easily could have been.

It's probably a great guide for what-not-to-do in business; it's also a stunning example of success despite breaking all the rules. In all, I thoroughly enjoyed the book in every way. I laughed out loud at times, and I bit my fingers along with their strife (even though I knew it would come out).

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Pogue's Basics: Life, Essential Tips and Shortcuts (That No One Bothers to Tell You) For Simplifying Your Day by David Pogue

This book is a compendium of those so-called "hacks" they're always click-baiting you with on Facebook. Read the book! Don't click the ambiguous links!

Actually, I learned a lot reading this book. Yes, I knew to use a piece of uncooked spaghetti as a long matchstick. But I didn't know how to make shortcut keystrokes in my iPhone for my email address or my phone number - very helpful when you fill in a lot of online forms.

This is a pick-up-and-put-down kind of book; best to dip in and read a bit, rather than try to read all the way through. But I guarantee there's something here you didn't know - and you'll be simply STUNNED when you discover it.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Maestra by L.S. Hilton

A chance encounter with a former classmate on the London train platform is the spark that leads to murder, thievery, and a life of luxury on the lam for art specialist Judith Rashleigh.

Working for a famous art auction house isn't as posh as Judith had hoped. When her corrupt boss throws her into a couple of intentionally bad situations, she's not only smart enough to get herself out of the jam, she also makes a pivot move that puts her ahead. It's the start of a high-society life hiding in plain sight.

This book is quick and thrilling. Judith doesn't know how long she can make the scam work, but she's willing to bet it all. It's about looking right (high fashion, gorgeous and thin), acting right (smart, but acquiescent) and making "friends" with the most advantageous rich men.

In addition to being a lightning fast scam story, it's also a fashion buyer's guide and a steamy erotic party-hop. You were warned!

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Every Anxious Wave by Mo Daviau

Karl's a nice enough guy, but maybe a little lonely. When he discovers a wormhole that allows him to drop into and out of the time continuum, he builds a side business transporting people to seminal rock concerts. See Hendrix at Monterey Pop! Watch the Ramones at CBGB!

When he bumbles a date and accidentally sends a friend to 980, Karl is forced to enlist the help of an astrophysicist to work the science end of getting him back. Lena's a socially awkward genius in punk goddess guise. Of course, there are sparks. Of course, there are complications.

It's a fun, light book full of 1990s music references and the kind of characters to whom you can relate. The time travel begins to make things a little sticky - not everybody is as diligent as Karl about not altering the past - but even at its twistiest the story never gets super sci-fi complicated.

I read it in a single sitting, and it was a welcome departure from more serious topics I'd been pondering. Plus, now I keep trying to decide what my ultimate concert experience would be ...

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson

Bryan Stevenson has spent his career working for the poor, the mentally ill, for youth tried as adults, and for other people somehow disadvantaged and lost in the American justice system. It's hard work, and it doesn't pay well. Every day he's faced with horrible stories of lives lost and damaged - yet he keeps at it with grace and diligence and perseverance.

In this book, Stevenson discusses his legal cases, uses notable individual stories to exemplify his points, and outlines the cultural need for compassion.

The book is heartbreaking, yet optimistic. The plight of some of their clients is truly upsetting - innocent people on death row, children abused in all ways and incarcerated with adults, mentally ill individuals without medical treatment. Stevenson and his Equal Justice Initiative staff have made great strides in cases argued and won with the Supreme Court.

It's the kind of book that forces you to look around you and wonder how you can make some difference. I can't argue a case before the Supreme Court. But I could lend a hand to the homeless. I could try to be a role model for disadvantaged kids. I could ... do something. And that's where it starts.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Alex as Well by Alyssa Brugman

When Alex decides to move forward in life as a girl, her mother doesn't take it well - she throws a crying, screaming tantrum wailing about how could he do this to her?

Readers learn early in the book that Alex was born intersexed, purposefully named in a gender-neutral manner, and raised in a scientifically notated experiment avoiding gender-stereotyped toys and biases. Yet despite that, her mother was sure all along Alex was a boy. Alex doesn't know this, and for her it's a more traditional transgender teen experience.

It's an interesting look at the two-sides-to-every-story idea, but I found the book fell flat with me. Too much comes too easy: a lawyer who helps for free, a new school willing to overlook a lapse in paperwork, money that falls into her lap. Alex is sort of a brat - and yet not anywhere near as bratty as her parents' actions would indicate. Alternate chapters are blog posts from Mom's point of view - which are every bit as bratty and self-consumed (even the commenters carry on their own dramas and turmoil).

This one's OK, but I've certainly read better in the same genre and for the same audience.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Unicorn vs. Goblins: Another Phoebe and Her Unicorn Adventure by Dana Simpson

Who am I kidding: either you've loved the first two books in this series and you're gaga about this one too, or you tapped out early and have moved on to something else.

Because this book is totally awesome in the same way that Phoebe and Her Unicorn and Unicorn on a Roll are totally awesome.

School's out and Marigold and Phoebe are up to their usual adventures. This year, there's summer camp - but making new friends is easy when you've packed a unicorn! Phoebe's frenemy Dakota and her magic hair make an appearance, too, and this time Phoebe has to help her get out of a spot of goblin trouble.