Review: Red Agenda

Several weeks ago (possible almost two months, at this point?), Smith Publicity reached out to me via Instagram and asked if I’d be interested in reviewing some titles for them. My reaction was pretty much: Um, duh! Who doesn’t love receiving free books to review?! Their first books on offer: horror and political thriller. Both are out of my wheelhouse, but the political thriller seemed least likely to make me pee my pants in fear, so I opted for that one.

Red Agenda, by author Cameron Poe, is a plot-driven narrative that follows a handful of US government officials — CIA, military, & the like — as they uncover and attempt to thwart a potential nuclear war-inciting trade between a communist Russian submarine designer/genius and the Kuwait government. There’s somewhat of a slew of primary characters — Dan Archer, CIA mission coordinator and archenemy of Levi Carp, who is another CIA coordinator and royal jerk; Nick, a submarine-operating whiz; Andri, the Russian mastermind behind the world’s most advanced weapon of underwater warfare; George, a soon-to-be-retired CIA operative stationed in Kuwait; and a handful of others. As a devious plot by power-hungry minds comes to life in the Middle East, Dan is tasked with saving the world from corrupt US officials and other general scheming bastards.

The book gets off to a well-paced start, thrusting readers right into the action of Red Agenda as Poe ups the ante on drama with the turn of each page. Sure, the work focuses on a wealth of political problems; but it also hosts a number of familial and relationship dramas from start to finish. Ultimately, I was intrigued by the plot, and that interest kept me going through some other less-than-desirable features of the novel.

A few things I didn’t particularly care for:

  • This novel is dominated by males — and while that isn’t a bad thing, in and of itself, Poe used the primarily-masculine cast to employ several exceedingly derogatory slurs toward women over and over and over again. Hear me out, here: I’m well aware that “bitch” is a high-traffic insult in the realm of everyday vocabulary; however, I think Poe went over the top with his excessive use of this term and — my personal most-hated-word — the “c-word.” Guys, I almost stopped reading at the first use of “c***.” For real. I hate the word that much. And it wasn’t just one character who used it; multiple males did. Ugh. No.
  • Characterization is weak. I’m realizing now more than ever that I am not much of a plot-driven reader. When I feel like the characters are whole, when I feel as though they’re real — then I’m invested. Sadly, I caught myself rolling my eyes at character dialogue and actions multiple times in this book. See next note.
  • Cliches: Prestigious, Successful Man Turns Lesbian Straight! Man and Woman Overcome Life-Threatening Stressful Situation by Having Steamy Sex!

Although the novel caps out at 350-some pages, I did get through it pretty quickly — a testament to the speedy plot-driven nature of the work. That’s a plus. However, I was turned off by the aspects listed above; enough so to consider this book a 2-star read. That being said, I know that I am also not the primary audience for this book; I think if you’re into political thrillers, this would be a solid 3-star title.

Overall: 2 stars; this one was just not for me.

I was gifted a copy of Red Agenda by Smith Publicity, Inc., in exchange for my honest opinion and review. All ideas and words are my own.

Renee’s Summer Reads: The Big List

It’s not quite June, and I’m already certain this one’s going to be a hellacious summer. We’ve had several consecutive days of 90+ degree temps and Friday is forecasted to hit 104 — for the love — so I’m writing off spring altogether. Nice effort, sister. Better luck next year. (But really. Please. Next year.) I’ll be real honest with you all: I’m probably going to avoid the outdoors as much as possible, until this heat wave decides to back off a bit.

I’m heading back to teaching in the fall (half-time, to tell the truth, but still) and I’m already scrabbling to read as much as is humanly possible before August 20th rolls around. In honor of the literature feeding-frenzy that is, truthfully, already under way, here’s a list of books I’m looking forward to reading this summer! (Also: it’s highly likely I won’t finish this pile. Also also: it’s also very probable I will add some other titles as the weeks pass. I’m a fickle girl, I know.)

  1. Something Wonderful by Todd S. Purdum. Nonfiction. Henry Holt Books sent me a FINISHED HARDCOVER COPY of this bad boy and let me tell ya — I am stoked to pick it up after I finish my current read. Per the dust jacket blurb: A relevatory portrait of the creative partnership that transformed musical theater and provided the soundtrack to the American Century. Yep, you guessed it: this is a biographical portrait of Rodgers and Hammerstein, the musical gods who essentially provided the soundtrack for my childhood. I can’t wait to read and share with my sister, who’s an actress; but I might be most invested in the memories I’m sure this book will bring to the surface, regarding lazy summer days spent in my late grandmother’s living room watching The King & I and Oklahoma! and my all-time favorite, The Sound of Music.
  2. Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool. Fiction. My mom’s been hounding me to read this work — by none other than a Wichita, Kansas author! — for no fewer than five years. She finally pressed a copy of it into my hands last time I was home, and here we are! It’s set in fictional small-town Kansas and follows Abilene Tucker, a young girl whose father sent her away for the summer so that he could work a demanding job. Abilene feels abandoned, so she hops off the train in Manifest, Kansas in search of clues about her father’s past. I’m such a sucker for coming-of-age novels (for real — probably my favorite genre) and I know this one won’t disappoint.
  3. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. Fiction. I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve made it to 28 — and through a BA in English — without having read this American classic. It’s touted as a “poignant and deeply understanding story of childhood and family relationships,” and centers on a young woman’s coming-of-age experience (what’d I tell you about those stories?!) in the poverty of early-20th Century Brooklyn.
  4. The Small Backs of Children by Lidia Yuknavitch. Fiction. From the back cover: “In a war-torn village in Eastern Europe, an American photographer captures a heart-stopping image: a young girl flying toward the lens, fleeing a fiery explosion that has engulfed her home and family. The image, instantly iconic, garners acclaim and prizes — and, in the United States, becomes a subject of obsession for one writer, the photographer’s best friend, who has suffered a devastating tragedy of her own. In a bid to save the writer from a spiraling depression, her filmmaker husband enlists a group of friends . . . to rescue the unknown girl and bring her to the United States.” This book comes with so much praise — I’m confident it’s going to be a great pick.
  5. Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge by Erica Armstrong Dunbar. Nonfiction. I was alerted to this recent release via a Facebook post by Simon & Schuster, regarding works about fierce women. This promising work follows the escape of Ona Judge, Martha Washington’s chief attendant, and her attempt to escape the ownership of her white masters (who were dodging the law at every twist and turn in every attempt to recapture their “property”). I really, really love a good work of historical nonfiction — especially when it’s related to a subject I know little (or nothing) about.
  6. Suicide Club by Rachel Heng. Fiction. This work by debut author Rachel Heng was kindly gifted to me by Henry Holt Books and releases in July. It’s a futuristic work, set in NYC — where people live hundreds of years and are obsessed with achieving immortality. The main character, Lea, is one such person — until an unexpected twist of fate draws her into the inner circle of “Suicide Club,” a group that seeks to live outside society’s norms (aka, the pursuit of eternal life) and achieve death on their own terms. What more do you need to know, guys? I’m fascinated.
  7. Not Her Daughter by Rea Frey. Fiction. I won this August 2018 release in a Goodreads giveaway. The story focuses on two women and a child: an unfit, unhappy mother; a successful, lonely woman who commits a crime to rescue a child that reminds her of herself; and a little girl, whose world is filled with silence and solitude.
  8. A Hope More Powerful than the Sea by Melissa Fleming. Nonfiction. In truth, I was looking for Decca Aitkinhead’s All at Sea when this work caught my eye at Barnes & Noble. Its cover features vivid blue painted waves and the blurb describes this novel as an account of “Doaa, a Syrian girl whose life was upended in 2011 by the onset of her country’s brutal civil war. . . . Adrift in a frigid sea, no land in sight, just debris from the ship’s wreckage and floating corpses all around, nineteen-year-old Doaa Al Zamel stays afloat on a small inflatable ring and clutches two little girls — barely toddlers — to her body.” This immigrant narrative looks to be utterly compelling and heartwrenching.
  9. Whistle in the Dark by Emma Healey. Fiction. Henry Holt Books sent me this July release to review, and I’m really glad for that, because it sounds absolutely fabulous. The story starts with a couple who is traumatized but relieved to have their fifteen-year-old daughter returned to them after she went missing for several days. However, she’s gone mute and the court of public opinion is swirling with theories. In an effort to save her family, the girl’s mother, Jen, sets off on a journey to discover the truth of the events that led to her daughter’s disappearance — and the darkness that she may have encountered while she was gone. I haven’t read Healey’s first book — Elizabeth is Missing — but it’s a critically-acclaimed work and award winner, and that’s usually a strong indication for author potential.

What’s at the top of your summer TBR pile? Drop a comment below and let me know! 🙂 Happy reading, bookworms.

Review: Number One Chinese Restaurant

June will be upon us soon, friends, but before you make your TBR pile for the month, take a quick look at Number One Chinese Restaurant by debut author Lillian Li. This title is slated for release June 19 and I am so excited about it! 

From the publisher:

The Beijing Duck House in Rockville, Maryland, is not only a go-to solution for hunger pangs and a beloved setting for celebrations; it is its own world, inhabited by waiters and kitchen staff who have been fighting, loving, and aging within its walls for decades. When disaster strikes, this working family’s controlled chaos is set loose, forcing each of them to confront the conflicts that fast-paced restaurant life has kept at bay.

Owner Jimmy Han hopes to leave his late father’s homespun establishment for a fancier one. Jimmy’s older brother, Johnny, and Johnny’s daughter, Annie, ache to return to a time before a father’s absence and a teenager’s silence pushed them apart. Nan and Ah-Jack, longtime Duck House employees, are tempted to turn their thirty-year-friendship into something else, even as Nan’s son, Pat, struggles to stay out of trouble. And when Pat and Annie, caught in a mix of youthful lust and boredom, find themselves in a dangerous game that implicates them in the Duck House tragedy, their families must decide how much they are willing to sacrifice to help their children.

For a debut, this novel was remarkably tightly-woven and, in my humble opinion, well-edited. When it comes to reviewing books, there’s a lot I can forgive about plot — but I can’t stand reading a badly composed narrative. Prose is practically everything to me (really, I’ll completely overlook a boring plot if the writing is melodic) . . . and Li’s work does not disappoint (not in terms of plot, or prose!).

Though comedic at times (Ah-Jack is a charmer, people), the novel has an underlying melancholic vibe as readers unwrap the gift that is Li’s work. Characters are vibrant, in an ironically simple way. I felt like Nan and Pat and Jimmy were all utterly possible human beings, and as such, empathized with their frustrations, shortcomings, and tiny triumphs. I wanted to slap Pat for Nan (y’all, I’m praying my kid somehow eludes the attitude portion of teenage years), I was repulsed by Uncle Pang’s sneaky demeanor, and I wanted to hold Annie soothingly (despite her frequent moments of unlikeable-ness). The characters in this novel weren’t remarkable or amped up or, truth be told, super memorable in the long run; but that’s exactly what made the novel work for me. Everyone was so simply usual, I believed their reactions and was sucked into the storyline.

Perhaps the greatest gem of Number One Chinese Restaurant: Li’s skillful infusion of the concepts of community as family and our inherent human desire to be someone else to meet another’s needs.

I worked in the restaurant industry for five or so years and I can attest to the sense of community (& therefore belonging, or ostracism) that occurs within a restaurant. Relationships are fiercely loyal — until someone fucks up beyond repair — and often, time spent together at work spills over into time outside the restaurant until suddenly, the people you see at work are the people you see at home and the line is so blurred between the two, you aren’t sure who you are without your job (read: your work family). As you read, watch for this development in the Duck House characters as the story unfolds.

Adding to Li’s ability to create absolutely believable characters: the subtle manner in which we learn that each character has crafted some sort of facade, some exterior personality, with which to appease his or her colleagues/family/love interests — and how inherently human that perversion of ourselves is. I was touched by characters’ realizations that they had even tricked themselves into believing (if only for a brief time) that they were this other person, only to realize when the fog had lifted — it was all for someone else’s benefit . . . and in most cases, that personality distortion has not benefitted either parties significantly. Perhaps, Li seems to observe, these personal tweaks we make actually serve to damage us far more greatly than they do to benefit others. After all — everything comes out in the wash, right?

Overall: A solid 4/5 stars. Read this debut if you enjoy family/community dramas.

The Mother

Brown strands of hair clung to the corners of her mouth before the wind blew them free, whipping her choppy locks into tangles that could pass for bedhead (if the person scrutinizing her hair had just crawled out of bed, and had yet to put in their contacts, she thought). The woman sighed. There is no such thing as “wind-tousled” hair when one lives on the plains of the Midwest; rather, there are fifty-mile-per-hour wind gusts that render combs useless and tease manes into something resembling the wildling ‘do of Disney Tarzan.

Why bother? She tucked a few errant strands back behind her left ear — not for the first or last time, to be sure — and pushed the screen door open. As the woman surveyed the horizon for the first time this evening, she kept a firm grip on the door. It had been opened against the unrelenting wind, but in Kansas, one could never be too careful. At any given moment, the breeze would shift its course, pulling the door from her grasp and slamming it back against the siding — bending the inadequately spring-loaded door closer and forever rendering it somewhat-less-useful.

The sky was bleached a milky white, as odd a color she’d ever seen it. There was no hint of blue, nor sign of the sinking sun (it was, after all, nearly eight) — only the faintest trace of umber mingled in with the white. Tomorrow, the forecast showed yet another wind advisory; it was likely the dust particles that were whipped into a froth today wouldn’t even settle overnight, and tomorrow’s sunrise would be obscured behind a haze of filth. It was impossible to accomplish anything significant with the wind battering you at every turn; even breathing seemed inadvisable on days like this.

The woman’s shoulders slumped as the screen door banged shut behind her. The house loomed behind her, its ghastly shingled siding an eyesore against what would otherwise be a relatively unblemished (albeit dry and sparse) horizon. From within the walls, she could just barely hear the whimpering cries — her son’s Bedtime Blues, as she’d mentally dubbed them. Every night, without fail: the crying. She wondered if he would ever outgrow it. Surely, the woman thought, surely someday he would fall asleep without the wounded cries of a child whose mother refused to rock him to sleep every night. Surely.

I could just go, she whispered to no one, not even herself (who’d know she was lying). She took a step, toes crunching blades of grass long-dead. The cries were fainter — was the baby still crying, or was this her imagination at work? Often, she didn’t know; especially in bed at night, when the pitch black seemed to play tricks on her ears. How was that possible? It was as though the darkness blanketed sounds, muffled everything except the whirring of her thoughts. Definitely fainter. Probably her imagination.

The woman took another step, and then fifteen more, stopping only at the cool bite of the barbed-wire fence. Now she could hear nothing of her life inside the barracks house, only the trilling of some bird that didn’t know it was bedtime and the distant thrum of tires on the highway.

She turned to her right, holding the top wire of the fence loosely in her fist — sometimes, the wire grazed the inside of her palm, other times it was as though she were grasping air — and closed her eyes. Methodically, probing the ground for holes and pinecones with her tentative steps, the woman made her way to the end of the line. Now the white of the sky had given way to a murky blue-brown, and a hazy blob of orange lingered where sky met earth. The woman definitely could not hear crying, not the child’s or her own. There was only the sound of daylight dying in the arms of Night. And the sound of her pulse, which had grown louder as she walked along the fence, as though the barbs that had torn open her flesh had also unleashed a voice: her heartsong.

Eyes open, she trotted to the car that sat miserably where she’d neglected it the last time she had left the house (six days ago), blanketed in chalky dust and roasting inside — hot air belched into her face when she jerked the handle, it rolled over her like a wave of ocean born in the bowels of an oven.

The baby was still inside. He would be sleeping now, the woman knew. His father would be home in a few hours; before midnight, most likely.

I could just go. There it was again! That lie.

With a grunt, the car came to life at the twist of the key.

He’ll be home in a couple of hours. Maybe even earlier, she reasoned. Sometimes he’s home earlier. The sun was no longer visible at all, the sky now nearly-indigo. The car’s air conditioner had sprung to life immediately, bathing the woman at first in a warm wash of air; but now, her arms were chilled, an odd sensation coupled with the slimy warmth of her thighs against the leather seats. She flicked the lights on, bumped the gearshift into drive. Slowly, slowly, the woman released pressure on the brake, allowing the vehicle to move forward of its own accord. It creeped maddeningly slowly toward the gravel road, but she could not depress the gas pedal. The instinct was there — press down — but somewhere the neurons that transmitted the message from brain to foot were misfiring, or not firing at all, the lazy little bastards.

They rolled onward, the woman and the car, neither in much of a hurry. She wondered if the baby still slept; sometimes, he woke up after an hour or two looking for his mother. They could spend all their waking hours together and he still needed the woman in his sleep, she mused. How magnificent, the needing! — she wasn’t sure that any other creature on the earth required so much from their mothers as infant humans. She knew for certain that calves could be weaned from their mothers within a handful of months, and of course by then, they were already foraging for the greenest shoots of grass and wandering farther from the herd every day. She crawled to a stop several yards before the road, the car idling tiredly at the woman’s indecision.

I could just go, she repeated. I could just go. But — the thought hung in the air before her, and her stomach lurched at the rest of the statement. The woman sighed — it felt like her first breath since she’d exited the house — and shifted the car into reverse. She didn’t quite run the handful of steps up the sidewalk and back to the door, but there was a renewed sense of urgency. Was that the baby, crying, or were her ears playing tricks on her again?

Her palm grasped the smooth metal of the door handle as headlights swept over the yard.

Everyone was home, now.

Review: My Ex-Life

Here’s the thing about contemporary fiction: such works are often the soda of literature, bubbling and frothing with excitement for a short while before ultimately falling flat months (or short years) later when political digs and technology references have lost their relevance. Sometimes, though, I get lucky and read a piece of contemporary lit that isn’t just timely and charming, but also thought-provoking and re-read worthy.

My Ex-Life by author Stephen McCauley, unfortunately, falls into the former of the two categories.

30-second synopsis: Middle-aged Julie and her teenage daughter, Mandy, are scrambling to make ends meet in a haphazard (and possibly illegal?) Airbnb in a quaint coastal town in New England. Julie’s got a not-addicted pot problem and Mandy has a rather lackluster enthusiasm for school, work, and life in general. On the other side of the country, Julie’s ex-husband David is facing a mid-life crisis of his own: he’s just been dumped by his considerably-younger-and-thinner boyfriend . . . who is buying the home he rents out from underneath him. David and Julie reunite for a few weeks in the summer, seemingly so David can help sort out Julie’s problems; but the two quickly find that simple fixes and good intentions aren’t always enough to make things right.

Reviews on Goodreads for the newly-published novel seem to fall on two separate ends of the rating spectrum: there are those who love the work, who are absolutely convinced it is of the utmost relevance for this time and that the characters are vividly drawn and ultimately McCauley has done no wrong with this stunning piece of literature; and then, there are the disgruntled and defensive conservatives who have stumbled upon this title that is clearly not intended for them.

I’m falling somewhere between the two: I’m not convinced, by any stretch of the imagination, that this book will ever be a re-read for me (or even a book that I remember much from six months down the road); but I was also not put off by the numerous snarky jabs at Republican values and religious individuals, despite the fact that many of these jabs targeted people in my general demographic (I’m a moderate, white, middle-class Catholic from the Midwest). I didn’t take offense to McCauley’s caustic observations on non-Democrats because, well, to make the assumption that all of those zingers were meant to rankle me just seems rather smug and self-occupied, doesn’t it?

My Ex-Life was quick, if not a bit mind-numbing: there wasn’t a lot in this book that required deeper consideration or reflection. (Maybe if I were middle-aged, there’d be more of the latter?) In this sense, it was a perfect summer read — carefree, easy, and just significant enough to make me feel as though I hadn’t wasted my time. I enjoyed David’s character most, and was appreciative of the novel’s approach to themes of regret and reinvention.

I do have a few gripes that might align with some of the more disgruntled readers’ opinions, though. Primarily: the book felt like one long, drawn out generalization after another. This was my first McCauley book, so I’m not sure whether the author intentionally conflated the novel with hyper-cliched characters and over-generalized observations about cultural groups or if these not-so-subtle proclamations were the author’s beliefs subconsciously masked as “character development.” (I’m willing to bet he’s a smart man, so I’m guessing it was intentional — satirical?) I wasn’t offended by his snarky one-liners about Catholics and Midwesterners; really, I just became weary of how every single character seemed to fulfill some oversaturated stereotype and was somehow a representative for entire cultural or social groups. Also exhausting: every wealthy character was clearly a WASP with evil intentions; every teenage girl was obviously devoid of personal depth and purpose beyond staged selfies; every gay man was certainly abused by his straight friends as a flamboyant stylist and emotional support. The immediate assumptions made by characters — or McCauley? — just became tedious over the course of 300-some pages.

I really wanted to see more complexity to McCauley’s characters; sadly, I felt like the novel digressed too often into snarky zingers intended to wow readers with wit — and these moments ultimately took me “out” of the story and, in turn, out of the characters’ world.

Overall: 3 stars. This book will make for an ultimately engaging, light summer read; but don’t pick it up if you’re staunchly conservative or even mildly religious and take offense to alternative (read: critical) viewpoints.

Thanks to Flatiron Books for the advance copy. All opinions in this review are my own.