On “Holding” by Graham Norton

31364727One of my favorite pastimes on days when I cannot concentrate on anything or sleep more than a few hours is to watch The Graham Norton Showa slightly ostentatious, mildly campy chat show that features major Hollywood stars and musicians who go on to talk about their work. Graham Norton, the eponymous show’s host, has a knack for navigating the personalities that settle on his red couch for the evening—expertly pivoting between guests in order to make a cohesive, often hilarious, show.

So when I found out the same Graham Norton was turning his hand to fiction, I was surprised. The solitary act of writing fiction seemed like the antithesis of something Norton would do. But as he explains on the BBC Radio 4 broadcast, “Books and Authors,” he has always wanted to write a novel and seized the opportunity when it came along.

After already having written two acclaimed memoirs, So Me (2004) and The Life and Loves of a He Devil (2014), Norton strays from using autobiographical content in his debut novel, Holding, though he does return to his native land to tell the story.

Set in a small Irish town called Duneen near the city of Cork, Holding explores the lives of those lifelong residents who, for one reason or another, find themselves stuck there. Sergeant PJ Collins—the town’s sole police officer—is overweight and has nothing else to do but dispense parking tickets. Brid Riordan, Duneen’s resident alcoholic, will not admit that she has a problem even though her family is slipping away from her. And Evelyn Ross—beautiful and composed—lives with her spinster sisters in their family estate, refusing to abandon each other after their parents’ untimely deaths.

When skeletal remains are discovered at a construction site on the old Burke farm, these three—and the entire town—are thrown into the past. Finally, PJ can put his skills to use; his time to shine. But the police lieutenant from Cork who supervises the case questions his competence, secretly referring to him as “Sergeant Sumo.”

They come to believe that the remains belong to Tommy Burke, a boy no one has seen or heard from in twenty-five years. For Brid and Evelyn, the reemergence of Tommy Burke dredges up painful memories. Right before Tommy disappeared, he had been engaged to Brid. He did not love her, which Brid knew, even then; he valued her family’s farmland. But she’s never been able to get past the idea of what her life could have been like with Tommy instead of her husband, Anthony, who looks at her with disgust more often than not.

Evelyn was in love with Tommy and believed he was in love with her as well. For twenty-five years she’s mourned a love that never got the chance to form. She’s lived a half-life instead. Just like Brid. Completely loveless.

Norton’s story hinges around the discovery of a body, but its primary function is to explore the psyches of Duneen’s residents. They wonder what life could have been if things had been different in their youths—if they had only had the chance to leave. If, perhaps, love had come easily for them.

One of Norton’s greatest strengths in Holding is the exploration of solitude as it relates to never attaining love. For his characters, love has been lost, stolen, killed, buried by circumstance, or, quite simply, never found in the first place.

It’s the exact opposite of what people would expect from the public persona Graham Norton puts forth, but this novel exhibits his keen ability to dissect the inner workings of human turmoil. Any reader who is fond of simple little mysteries will enjoy this book. Though Norton’s fans might be hard-pressed to find the entertainer’s personality displayed obviously, they will be able to find his humor in the slight details. It’s well worth a read.

On “What to Say Next” by Julie Buxbaum

30199656This review appears on paperbackparis.com:

Julie Buxbaum‘s new novel, What to Say Next, is a heartwarming exploration of grief, social norms, and first love.Two teenagers from vastly different high school social strata find themselves talking to each other after years of occasional pleasantries. Over the course of the novel, they teach each other how to handle grief and experience love—even when it’s unexpected. They drive past all the noise and go directly to the things that matter.

Half of the narrative in What to Say Next comes from a teenage boy named David Drucker who falls on the Autism spectrum. He dislikes labels and comes up with what he believes is solid evidence refuting the idea that he has Asperger’s syndrome or High Functioning Autism. He’s just different, and everyone in school simply ignores him or forgets that he exists. But he’s had his fair share of torment, so to avoid potentially dangerous situations, David’s popular sister Laura—one-time ruler of Mapleview High—has him make Trust and Do Not Trust lists in his notebook. Each person in his class is profiled with details that he has observed, accompanied by any interactions he has had with that person in the past.

When it comes to Kit Lowell, David notes the way she always sits criss-cross applesauce, how her hair falls in commas across her face, how she smiles at him sometimes. Kit, who is half-Indian (Asian, not Native American, according to David’s notes), is the prettiest girl in school. She is someone with whom he never expects to have any meaningful social interaction.

Until the day she sits at his lunch table.

And the first thing David says? The most recent fact he’s learned about her: “So your dad is dead.”

Thus starts the beginning of their acquaintance as more than just classmates. Kit finds that it’s easy to talk to David. He’s straightforward, tending not to sugarcoat the fact of death. In turn, David experiences the nuance of flirtation, analyzing everything along the way. Much like Don Tillman’s 2014 novel The Rosie Project, David decides to take on the task of studying the mechanics of Mr. Lowell’s accident. Could he have braked in time? Or was death inevitable?

Kit and David come across some heavy truths over the course of the novel, and they come to depend on each other for feedback and support. Buxbaum does a fantastic job of crafting the narrative with both Kit’s and David’s perspectives. The precision and logic with which David approaches life suits the circumstances of Kit’s grief. Like every teenager that opines in a John Hughes movie, these two get each other.

What to Say Next is perfect for people who loved The Curious Incident of the Dog in Nighttime or The Perks of Being a Wallflower. It is effortlessly readable and its characters loveable. Perfect for the last stretches of summer.

On “A Court of Mist and Fury” by Sarah J. Maas

ACOMAF-cover1This review appears on paperbackparis.com:

To say that I stopped breathing for the entire length of A Court of Mist and Fury would not be an overstatement. I knew its predecessor, A Court of Thorns and Roses, set the series up for some cataclysmic changes, but I never expected to be so emotionally drained by the end. That, I say, is the mark of a well-crafted series. Sarah J. Maas‘s world building is compelling, rich with detail, and surrounds the reader completely. Her character building as well remains unparalleled in the YA fantasy genre.

I had my doubts about how good the second installment in the series would be—a classic anxiety for any budding fan. But ACOMAF was even better. So much better, in fact, that I stopped to ask myself why. *SPOILER ALERT* The answer: Rhysand. Rhysand and Feyre. Feyre and Rhysand. The world is righted. Tamlin, that a-hole, is out. Rhysand, Prythian’s resident BAMF, is in. I knew in my gut at the end of ACOTAR that Rhys was Feyre’s mate, but I didn’t know how Maas was going to unspool the threads of their narrative.

In the beginning of ACOMAF, Feyre is severely psychologically damaged by what happened Under the Mountain in Book One. Tamlin is also damaged, but he offers Feyre no comfort. His need to protect becomes overblown and completely stifling. Feyre can barely leave the house because of his new overprotective nature…or is it new? Later on in the novel, Feyre contemplates how her relationship with Tamlin morphed into what it did. When she first came into Tamlin’s court, after years of drudgery and destitution, she needed Tamlin’s protectiveness and the safe environment he provided for her to paint and relax after so many years. Feyre realizes that who she was before Amarantha died when she went Under the Mountain. There is no going back.

Right before she steps onto the altar to marry Tamlin, Feyre knows she’s about to make a huge mistake and she screams internally for someone, anyone, to help her. Enter Rhys. He interrupts Feyre and Tamlin’s nuptials to make good on the bargain he and Feyre made Under the Mountain. He takes her to the Night Court where she slowly, grudgingly realizes how much better life is when she’s learning and doing and being around people who don’t treat her like a porcelain doll.

Tamlin continues to keep her cloistered, and, in the moment that changes the course of everything in ACOMAF, locks her in the Spring Court manor. The animalistic rage that stems from being caged in takes over her body. Rhys and his cousin, Mor, rescue her and take her to the Night Court for as long as she wishes to stay. Feyre feels numb. She feels guilty about leaving Tamlin but knows she couldn’t have stayed without becoming a shell of a person. Rhys has asked for her help. The King of Hybern is about to wage a war that will destroy both Prythian and the mortal world on the other side of the wall.

With Rhys’s help—and the help of his small group of friends/allies—Feyre learns that she is more powerful than most Fae. When the High Lords of Prythian gave some of their power so that she could live, their powers became hers. Ice, wind, fire, water–it’s all at her disposal. Will Feyre work through the trauma of death Under the Mountain? Will they defeat the King of Hybern’s arsenal of magic and deadly forces? Only time will tell.

A Court of Mist and Fury is an absolute thrill ride. Feyre learns how to become a true warrior by using the tools she possesses. She and Rhys seal the bond that was between them for years without their knowledge. (Good riddance, Tamlin.) A new cast of characters brings the realm to life. Cassian and Azriel—Rhy’s Illyrian brothers-in-arms, the ever powerful and charming Morrigan, and the deadly, sarcastic, knife sharp Amren.

Maas developed their narratives with such deft plotting that no reader can start this book without finishing it as fast as possible. It is engrossing, romantic, action-packed, and a sharp study of kingdoms at war. I have no doubt this series will go down as a classic in the fantasy genre, and I cannot wait to get my hands on the third installment, A Court of Wings and Ruin.

On “Rum & Razors” by Donald Bain and Jessica Fletcher

51dtdeGWtwL__SX295_BO1,204,203,200_Another book in and no signs of stopping. The Donald Bain Murder, She Wrote series is the epitome of that coveted little genre that’s been pegged, in recent years, as the “cozy mystery” –that sweet combination of international travel, well furnished rooms, and warm, decadent meals. All of them present in this series.

The novels are light, quick reads that feature one of television’s most beloved characters, mystery writer Jessica Fletcher. From London to St. Thomas, we find her at the threshold of tragedy wherever she goes (a long running joke about Cabot Cove being the murder capital of the country would not be amiss), and treats everything with true dignity and respect. She’s also whip-smart and ready for adventure at the drop of a hat.

In Rum & Razors we see Jessica encounter a more complex moral conundrum than what Bain plotted in the first two novels of the series. In this book, Jessica has just finished another novel and is in need of a vacation. Her good friends from Cabot Cove, Walter and Laurie Marschalk, a travel writer and gourmet chef respectively, have opened a luxury inn on the island of St. Thomas.

What promises to be ten days of paradise immediately turns sour when Jessica realizes how much financial difficulty the Marschalks are in. When Walter ends up dead, there are more than a few individuals who could be responsible. At a travel writer’s conference in the hotel neighboring Lover’s Lagoon, Jessica learns just how unpopular Walter was with his colleagues; he was greedy, arrogant, and a notorious philanderer. One of his mistresses is even present during the entire debacle.

So who murdered Walter Marschalk? Was is the island senator with whom he struck a deal to purchase the environmentally protected land on which the inn sits? Was it the disgruntled employee he just fired? Was it the manager of the lagoon’s neighboring rival hotel? Or was it Walter’s lover and her boyfriend?

Most surprisingly, Jessica has to confront the idea that it might have been her dear friend Laurie who committed the murder. The day after the heinous deed is done, Jessica intercepts divorce papers meant for Walter that had been initiated by Laurie just a few days before. Could she have murdered her husband? Jess can only remember how happy they seemed back in Cabot Cove…But when she thinks about it, Jessica realizes she didn’t really know the Marschalks that well at all.

When Jess’s good friend, Seth, arrives on the island, they make a last ditch effort to find Walter’s killer and exonerate the name of an innocent man caught in the cross hairs of greed.

I cannot recommend these books highly enough. They’re deftly plotted and fun to read–perfect for when you feel like taking a break from other books you might be reading. Better yet, if you’ve never seen the television show these books are based on, watch them ASAP. Angela Lansbury is absolutely timeless as Jessica Fletcher, and I can guarantee you will be binge watching for days.

On “Tash Hearts Tolstoy” by Kathryn Ormsbee

29414576This review appears on paperbackparis.com:

Kathryn Ormsbee‘s new novel Tash Hearts Tolstoy is a creative, heartwarming story about 17-year-old Natasha “Tash” Zelenka who skyrockets to online fame after her web series, Unhappy Families, gets an unexpected nod of approval from a well-known vlogger. The series in question: a modern interpretation of Leo Tolstoy‘s seminal novel, Anna Karenina. Leo is Tash’s main man, a source of inspiration behind her creative pursuits. But Tash is all too aware of the fact that Unhappy Families isn’t quite the heavy-hitting success as its source material. Not even close.

Tash and her best friend, Jaclyn “Jack” Harlow, write and produce the web series, and they stick to a strict production schedule, wrangling temperamental actors, in order to get it out there for the world to see. Because even if the show only has 400 followers, it’s a project they believe in. Everything changes when Taylor Mears—famed web series producer—gives her a nod of approval to several up-and-coming web series. After that, the followers just come rolling in. Fame, however, is not something Tash and Jack are prepared for.

Tash plans and arranges even more than she usually does and becomes emotionally invested in the comments people post about Unhappy Families—good and bad. Jack keeps her cool, but, in doing so, remains blasé about the whole thing. Much to Tash’s vexation, Jack is a purist through and through; she refuses to create art for commercial success or to keep up with the demands of new fans. It’s great for keeping Tash down-to-earth, but terrible for Tash’s hunger to make a name for herself.

Once the final filming sessions are squared away, and their new found fame is under control, a new series of problems come to light. Tash’s sister, Klaudie, plays a small, but integral, role in the show. She and Tash don’t particularly get along, and Tash can see Klaudie has quite a bit of disdain for Tash’s investment in the project. But when she quits early on in the last phase of shooting, Tash is livid. Most of their interactions thereafter are accusatory silences, icy glares, and slammed doors. It’s a nasty fight, fought mostly in silence—a fight that unbalances the zen of the Zelenka household. Though, Mr. and Mrs. Zelenka pour fuel on the fire when they announce that they are going to have a baby.

In the meantime, Tash’s best friends, Jack and Paul, are fearing the worst when their dad, in remission after having had pancreatic cancer, begins having headaches. More strain is piled on when Tash suspects Paul is jealous of her flirtatious correspondence with another online blogger named Thom Causer. He and Tash plan to meet at the Golden Tuba award ceremony/web convention where Unhappy Families has been nominated for “Best New Web Series.”

This leads to an exploration of Tash’s biggest dilemma—something Ormsbee seems dedicated to discussing: asexuality. Throughout the novel, she grapples with fact that she has no desire for sexual contact even though she has romantic feelings, constantly wondering if she’s fully human or not considering that such a sexual drive is what keeps humanity going. Even Jack and Paul don’t really know how to talk about it with her, and Tash doesn’t really know what to say about it. When it becomes obvious that Paul has feelings for her, she lashes out by telling him about all the things he can never have with her.

When she meets Thom at the convention, her explanation as to why their relationship won’t lead to anything physical does not go over very well. He takes on the role of teenage “mansplainer” when he tells Tash she doesn’t know what she’s talking about and is just confused. Disaster ensues.

Tash ends up leaving the convention early when she finds out Mr. Harlow’s cancer has come back with a vengeance and apologizes for everything she said to Paul and for the tension that has arisen between the three friends.

It’s an offbeat story, one that blends the relatively new phenomenon of vlogging and web series with the heaviness of Russian literature. Though I have to say, there is far less Tolstoy in this novel than I accepted. Just a lot of Tash staring at a poster of young Tolstoy on her wall, conversing about what to do with her life.

Ormsbee is a competent, clean writer who’s written a lovely piece of fiction. Her characters are well developed and nuanced to the point where the reader feels true annoyance and happiness for them at certain points in the story. But it would not have been particularly groundbreaking without the discussion of asexuality, which lifted its position to a must read in the LGBTQ+ canon.

Her approach to Tash’s relationship with sexuality is extremely well done because she captures the essence of confusion that comes along with having romantic feelings without wanting the physical aspects that most people expect. Ormsbee places questions of how to navigate a relationship between a sexual person and an asexual person into the narrative and tackles Tash’s own understanding of her proclivities.

If there are other pieces of YA fiction that deal with asexuality, I don’t know of them. Ormsbee has gone where few authors have before, but her work is certainly part of a boom in LGBTQ+ literature that is refreshing in its representation of nuanced sexuality. Tash Hearts Tolstoy is a touching, smart, funny novel worth reading.

On “The Madness Underneath” by Maureen Johnson

51lZGWjeA6LAfter my Maureen Johnson craze faded a few months ago, I thought it might be a while before I got around to reading the next book in her Shades of London series. I’ve read a number of YA books since I burned through Johnson’s canon, but something about The Name of the Star really piqued my interest; I was eager to get back to the series sooner rather than later. From the beginning, Johnson hit all the right points–a boarding school in London, Jack the Ripper, ghost police–it’s all there. And I was so ready for my ship of Rory and Stephen’s romance to come to fruition.

The series’ second installment, The Madness Underneath, seamlessly continues the action of the first novel. It was not, however, as finely tuned as I thought it would be. Because Rory is in limbo in terms of whether she will be returning to Wexford, and then, whether or not she can actually pass school, or how she is going to contribute to the Shades now that she is a terminus, the narrative is noticeably harried. It’s difficult to keep up with Rory in The Madness Underneath. Johnson moves the plot along at a breakneck speed. And though her character development is as excellent as ever in this novel, there are some murky aspects of the text that crop up.

Johnson’s introduction of the story’s new nemesis is odd. Rory’s difficulty with school was an excellent way for Johnson to throw a monkey wrench into the plot. I assumed she would continue on at Wexford while working with the Shades on the aftermath of the Ripper case. But, no. That would be too easy. *Spoiler alert* Johnson takes us on a roller coaster ride that involves an ex-rock n’ roller turned therapist who convinces Rory to run away from school when she finds out how poorly she’s doing academically. I had a lot of difficulty accepting that what was happening was happening as it unfolded. Who is convinced that easily that she should run away? It’s so sudden and so complete that I was confused and skeptical all at once.

Johnson offsets this a bit when Rory realizes that Jane, the therapist, has been drugging her with hash via baked goods. How 70s. This is a meager, though generally acceptable, explanation of Rory’s suggestibility during the entire affair, but it still rubs the wrong way. It doesn’t help that there was so much information and action packed into the last few chapters that it was difficult to jump from Rory’s rambling limbo phase, with hints of lurking danger, to full on danger.

Those last few chapters are heavy hitters. Jane and her lackeys are members of a cult who is trying to “defeat death”–whatever that means–and attempting to use Rory as a tool because of her terminus abilities. When Stephen, Callum, and Boo save her, she and Stephen FINALLY hook up, which was a deeply satisfying moment for a repressed fangirl such as myself, but Johnson steps it up to a whole new level when she kills Stephen off.

He sustains a serious head injury that isn’t immediately obvious to the others, and once they get him to the hospital, it’s too late. Rory insists on keeping her hands on him during his death because she believes its a way to bring him back as a ghost. The novel ends with Rory and Boo searching for him, and Rory’s vow to get payback.

For the most part, The Madness Underneath was a great next step in the series. I seriously didn’t see any of the second half coming. The beginning gets off to a shaky start as Rory finds her footing, but the traipsing through London she does makes up for it. There’s nothing better than some good old-fashioned London history to keep me going, and Johnson threads it into the novel with ease.

I’ve already gotten my hands on the next two installments, and I cannot wait to see how the Shades of London pans out.

On “Alex, Approximately” by Jenn Bennett

514G-2avVpL__SX331_BO1,204,203,200_This review appears on paperbackparis.com:

Jenn Bennett‘s latest novel Alex, Approximately is everything a summer read should be. There’s romance, California sunshine, foggy mornings, surfers, and classic films. What more could you ask for?

Bennett weaves her tale of love, personal growth, and overcoming the lasting effects of trauma with the sights and sounds of coastal California. The imagery of massive redwood trees and boardwalk activity imbues Bennett’s story with a sharp vividness that blooms in the reader’s mind. Through those details, the complex relationship between Bailey Rydell and Porter Roth takes shape.

The novel begins with Bailey’s decision to move across the country because her mother’s marriage to “Nate LLC” is more of a sparring match than a sacrament. After a trauma in her youth involving one of her mother’s unhinged clients, Bailey becomes an evader, branding herself “The Artful Dodger.” She hates confrontation and being put under the spotlight, so when things get heavy, she’s out of there faster than you can bat an eye. Bailey has her evasion tactics down to a science, and she’s prepared to put them to good use when she gets to Coronado Cove.

For several months, Bailey has been corresponding with a fellow classic film lover on an online forum who goes by “Alex.” It isn’t just their love of old movies that make them compatible, though. They get each other in ways others don’t. (What would a YA novel be without a “you-get-me-like-no one-else gets-me trope?”) When Alex invites Bailey—known only as “Mink” online—to a film festival in his hometown of Coronado Cove, Bailey decides not to tell him that she’ll be moving there. To her, it seems like the best way to avoid a sticky situation is to find Alex first and determine whether or not revealing herself would be a good idea.

All she has to go on are a handful of details that Alex has dropped into their conversations: he works in his family’s store on the boardwalk, the store is near a churro cart, and there’s a stray cat hanging out in front. Not much to go on, but Bailey is determined.

Unfortunately, her sleuthing has to take a back burner to her new summer job in “the Hotbox,” a ticket booth in Coronado Cove’s most popular attraction, where Porter Roth becomes her archnemesis.

Porter is incredibly good-looking and charming, but is also, in Bailey’s terms, “a goddamn dickbag.” When provoked, young Bailey does not mince words.

But that’s not really like her. Bailey never gets provoked; she never lets anyone get under her skin that way. Something about Porter makes her blood boil…and elicits some other unholy feelings. She’s still determined to find Alex, but, somehow, Porter keeps getting in the way.

Soon enough, Alex and Mink are talking to each other less and less. Bailey assumes he’s found a girlfriend, which leaves her in a confusing entanglement with Porter. Being with him forces her to break out of the defense mechanisms she’s developed. “The Artful Dodger” goes on an indefinite hiatus as Bailey finds herself opening up to new friends.

Bennett does an exceptional job of parsing out the nuance of Bailey’s relationship with Porter. As things progress, she has to come to terms with change and learn how to trust Porter with the most difficult parts of her past.

I was also interested to find that Bennett promoted a clear, sex-positive message throughout the book, which was uncommon in what I read as a teenager, but is, perhaps, important for young people to read. People often feel quite a lot of shame when it comes to the physical aspect of relationships, but Bennett presents sex as a natural, healthy thing.

Some of the character development for supporting characters fell short of expectation. For instance, Bailey’s mom (What the heck is up with that situation? What parent, no matter what they’ve gone through, allows their kid move across the country and then doesn’t speak to them once? Not a plausible part of the narrative, in my opinion) and Davey (I felt genuinely horrible for this kid. Also, Porter was a legit asshole for fucking with his bum leg. Like his life isn’t already ruined. Just saying.)

But Bailey and Porter grow a lot over the course of the novel, and it’s refreshing to see the roughest parts of that process. The love-hate relationship that unfolds in the beginning of their relationship becomes “compatible arguing” when the two realize they respect each other.

It’s a well-fashioned story, with enough quirk to make it exceedingly charming. There were, however, a few irksome moments…

*This portion of the review contains spoilers*

It’s pretty obvious from the beginning that Porter and Bailey are Alex and Mink. (There are a lot of Tell Me Three Things/You’ve Got Mail vibes going on.) Somehow, though, the initial reveal is not a happy moment. Porter finds out when Bailey’s dad calls her Mink in front of him and he freaks out (irrationally, in my opinion) because he believes Bailey still has feelings for “Alex” and has been keeping this secret from him.

To an extent, it’s easy to understand why Porter would have trust issues; his best friend is a drug addict who steals from his current girlfriend and slept with his ex-girlfriend. Believing that Bailey has kept something from him after they’ve built a relationship on the mutual disclosure of painful memories is enough to seriously freak him out.

BUT…I didn’t get why Porter wouldn’t just tell Bailey about the whole thing once he realized there was nothing to be concerned about. Instead, he tries to make her figure it out, which causes Bailey to lose her shit. (Also, why wouldn’t her dad tell her??? So much confusion for nothing.)

As a plot device, the whole situation is definitely one way to move the narrative forward to its happy conclusion, but goddamn…Everyone just needs to calm the hell down. Hormones are raging and all the California heat has gone to their brains, which is extremely unhelpful for rational discussion. The way the ending played out was ultimately frustrating, but I guess there’s nothing like a healthy dose of dramatic irony to get the juices flowing.

In the end, Alex, Approximately is a quirky, fun read that mixes the light-hearted with the heavy in a way that produces a well-crafted take on the YA formula.