Let’s Get Back To The Party by Zak Salih

At one of many the first same sex marriages to follow 2015’s Supreme Court marriage equality ruling, childhood friends Oscar and Sebastian run into each other since an ill-fated evening on a college campus a decade earlier. When Let’s Get Back to the Party starts off, we find the two friends (who were once inseparable) at the same wedding, but with totally different life goals.

Sebastian is envious of the grooms. He wants is to settle down. His latest relationship has just ended and when we meet him, he’s still stinging from the breakup, extremely lonely and living in his father’s old house in the sleepy suburbs of D.C. While his love life is lacking, he is happy with his job as a high school art history teacher. And when he runs into Oscar, he sees a chance to rekindle their friendship now that they are both grown up, openly gay adults.

Oscar, on the other hand, is reluctantly at the wedding and spends the reception on his phone trying to set up a post reception hook up. Oscar is tired of attending weddings, tired of gay bars and drag shows (as he laments) being invaded by bachelorette parties and straight people and gay culture fading as more of his friends settle down and have babies.

He has no interest in reconnecting with Sebastian, he has no space in the fabulous life he’s leading of random hook up after hook ups, boozy bunches and evenings of bar hopping for a “boring” suburbanite like Sebastian.

As they go their separate ways after the wedding, Oscar (having been stood up by his post- reception hook up) meets and befriends an older gentleman at the bar – who turns out to be a prolific queer novelist and gay icon, one who fought at Stonewall and embraced his gay lifestyle long before most were “out”. Oscar becomes fascinated by him, and his ability to not hide who he is or his lifestyle.

Sebastian returns to his quiet suburban life, but he also gets drawn into a relationship but with someone of a different generation– one of his students. As the faculty member charge of his school’s LGBTQ club, he meets Arthur. He envies and is fascinated by Arthur’s ease to be himself, at an age Sebastian had to hide his sexuality. His fascination grows to a harrowing borderline of obsession that builds to a climactic event (and a shocking revelation involving Oscar).

Both men learn about themselves from their respective new friendships, which span three generations of gay men, from AIDS-era to today. Along the way, they find each other and friendship again but not without some major bumps and near-catastrophic lessons along the way.

THE FINAL WORD: I love when a book creates characters so vivid, I feel like I know them. Zak Silah has painted Oscar and Sebastian so well that I found myself getting irritated with them both as if they were my friends irl for some of their actions. I also found myself cheering for them. This is a very powerful and immersive story. Thank you #NetGallery and Algonquin for inviting me to read this book!

“The Fortunate Ones” by Ed Tarkington

The Fortunate Ones by Ed Tarkington

The Fortunate Ones was one of those books I plowed through in just a few days. Author Ed Tarkington immerses the reader into the world of central character Charlie Boykin, a young man who lives in a low-income area of east Nashville with his single, cocktail-waitress mother, a former debutante who fled her wealthy upbringing when she got pregnant with Charlie and her family tried to force her to give him up.

Charlie is perfectly happy with his life especially the African American neighbors who take him in as one of their own. Everything changes, though, when Charlie’s mom secures a scholarship for him to attend a prestigious prep school, a school full old money Southerners, future senators and CEOs-in-the-making.

As a scholarship student, Charlie is a fish out of water until he’s taken under the wing of Arch Creigh. A popular, charismatic and also fatherless kid, Creigh pulls Charlie into the rarified world of privilege and rich kids who run wild without parental supervision. Charlie and Arch form a brotherly bond until a secret is exposed that rocks their tight-knit group of friends and sends Charlie running away from a crowd he never really felt at home with anyway.

The book reflects the disparity between rich and poor, black and white while uncovering the seedy side of politics. It also reveals how no matter how much money you have, you are not immune to addiction, illness (both physical and mental) and feelings of isolation.

On a personal note, I love the fact that some of of the story takes place in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, a magical town 170 miles outside Mexico City where my in-laws retired to about five years ago. It is one of my favorite places on earth, and I especially enjoyed the passages that really captured the beauty of this special place (it’s obvious the author has spent some time there himself), and it made me long for the day we can return.

THE FINAL WORD: The Fortunate Ones is part coming-of-age, part family dysfunction, part love story … but it is gorgeously written and a story that stayed with me long after I finished the last word. HIGHLY RECOMMEND.

Thank you #NetGalley for inviting me to read this book.

“Take It Back” by Kia Abdullah

I don’t know about you, but sometimes when I read a certain kind of book, I can totally visualize the movie version or Netflix miniseries, even the actors should play which characters. Take It Back is one of those books. And Riz Ahmed is that actor (I mean, I think he should be cast in everything, but I digress).

Take It Back is a mystery/thriller with brilliant London lawyer Zara Kaleel as the central character. She defies her family’s plans by leaving an arranged marriage and a high-paying, high-profile legal career to use her talents to fight for victims of sexual assault at a non-profit. The consequences of her choices change her life, estranging her from her family and causing her to rely on a steady flow of Xanax to tamp down any emotions she feels as a result.

Her latest case involves Jodie, a 16-year-old girl with extreme facial deformities. On top of struggling her whole life with bullying and mocking by others and living with a mean, alcoholic mother, Jodie tells Zara, she was horrifically raped at the hands of four classmates. And these classmates, like Zara, are Muslim immigrants.

Zara agrees to help Jodie and quickly finds herself in a struggle between fighting for truth and justice for her client, while facing accusations of being a traitor to her own community.

The case eventually goes to trial and becomes one of the most controversial criminal trials in London history. In the process, it also tears the Muslim community apart. I, too, felt similarly conflicted: Who is to be believed? And to what degree? As details from the night of the alleged rape unfolded, I went back and forth wondering who was telling the truth.

And then, just when you think you’ve figured out what really happened … BOOM! The big twist. At the very end.

THE FINAL WORD: The disturbing story, Kia Abdullah’s brilliant writing and the real-world parallels make Take It Back a riveting read. Highly recommended!

And a note to the filmmakers who are wise enough to snatch up the rights to this story, I have two words: Riz Ahmed.

“The Push” by Claire McGowan

The Push by Claire McGowan is a straight-up murder mystery with breadcrumbs—of all sizes— scattered throughout story that will keep the reader engaged in trying to figure out just what happened from the first page until the last.

The story follows a group of disparate characters with little in common other than living in London and being expectant parents. We meet them at a community group for expecting parents run by boho-chic Nina. But at the center of it all is Jax, a 38-year-old, first-time mother-to-be, who is pregnant by her much younger boyfriend Aaron, a handsome bartender she met at a speed dating event.

Almost immediately, the story jumps ahead six months to a barbecue where the group reunites after most of the babies are born. The characters soon realize, however, this is no typical backyard get-together, as one of them falls to their death from a balcony.

From the moment we learn of the accident (or was it?), McGowan takes us on dizzying ride jumping between the modern-day investigation of the death and an examination of the lives of each of the characters prior to the fateful party. We learn about Jax’s tumultuous life and Aaron’s dramatic backstory, as well as the not-so-perfect lives of their former classmates.

Creating even more mystery is the fact McGowan keeps the victim’s identity a secret through half of the book. Her deliberateness in doling out information about the characters, including some dark secrets, serves to further heighten the story’s intensity.

THE FINAL WORD: With twists and turns aplenty, The Push reminded me of an old-fashioned murder mystery, like Agatha Christie would have written. While some clues are fairly easy to piece together (at least for this armchair detective), others are definite jaw droppers. I thoroughly enjoyed following McGowan’s trail of breadcrumbs and would PUSH other fans of the genre to read it too.

Thank you to #NetGalley for the advance reader copy!

“Little Cruelties” by Liz Nugent

When a book promises a little dark, family dysfunction, I am IN (not sure why since my own family has a very normal amount of dysfunction). And Little Cruelties did not disappoint, though, “little” isn’t a word I’d use to describe the level of dysfunction in this family.

Focusing on the Drumm brothers, Nugent brings the toxicity and damage caused by their deeply flawed relationships to the forefront. At the root is their mother, a washed-up singer who still expects her family to treat her like a star. No surprise, the boys, born a year apart, spend their childhood competing for her attention and eventually, grow to resent her, each other and their father for catering to his wife’s whims, as well.

The brothers’ upbringing and the resulting damage color virtually every aspect of their lives. To them, competition isn’t harmless sibling rivalry but, rather, a means of survival. As a result of their individual experiences, each takes a very different path in life, yet, their “mind games” still manage to take a significant toll on the others—until, in the story’s climax, one of the brothers dies.

It doesn’t get much more dysfunctional than that.

THE FINAL WORD: It’s not exactly an uplifting read, but Little Cruelties is so well written and engaging, it definitely kept me turning the pages.

“The Book of Two Ways” by Jodi Piccoult

Over the years, I’ve read many of the prolific Jodi Piccoult’s novels, and to me there’s no one who can capture the intricacies of human interaction, especially when it comes to enduring grief and tragedy, like she can. The Book of Two Ways is very similar to Piccoult’s books I’ve read, but at the same time, it’s unlike any other. And that is why this review goes “two ways.”

Let’s start with the ways I loved the book. For one, Piccoult proves, yet again, her mastery of painting vivid and memorable characters, and in this case, Dawn is the stand-out. A former aspiring archaeologist who now works as a “death doula,” she fascinated me with her interest and abilities in addressing a subject as complex, private and difficult to talk about , as death. Through Dawn and her experiences, Piccoult is able to examine death in ways that are both thought-provoking and comforting (at least to me).

I also appreciated techniques Piccoult used to frame the story. When the story begins, for example, Dawn is on a plane that is about to crash. Who she thinks about in those moments is not, as she might have predicted, her current husband but, instead, a past love. From here, the book splits—Sliding Doors-style—into what Dawn’s life would have been like had she stayed with her dashing, fellow archaeologist and love Wyatt versus her actual life with her steady, solid husband Brian. 

The second way I’d review The Book of Two Ways would be to point out what I didn’t love about it—mainly, the heavily detailed sections on ancient Egypt and hieroglyphics. While I’m sure they’d be fascinating reading for many history buffs and fans of Egyptian culture, they weren’t of much interest to me, and I found myself mentally checking out during those parts. I’m also not sure these in-depth descriptions contributed much to the overall story line. For me, I wanted to get back to the relationships, Dawn’s realizations and her ultimate fate.

THE FINAL WORD: Overall, The Book of Two Ways is a wonderfully written story with a couple of plot twists and plenty of rich and descriptive details, contemplative character development and thoughtful examination of interpersonal relationships. In other words, it’s exactly what fans have come to expect from Piccoult. And also, what they wouldn’t.

“Shit, Actually” by Lindy West

Reading Shit, Actually: The Definitive, 100% Objective Guide to Modern Cinema is like becoming ensconced in an comfy, cozy couch on a rainy Sunday, channel surfing until you find one of those movies you’ve already seen but you’re like, “I could watch this again.” Then settling in for the rewatch with your funniest friend who picks apart the plot holes and character flaws you never noticed before—and makes you laugh your ass off in the process.

A hilariously outspoken writer, comedian and activist, West is probably best known from her 2016 memoir Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman and/or its small-screen adaptation Shrill, which premiered on Hulu in 2019. She uses her real-life experience as a writer and executive producer on Shrill and former movie critic, as well as being a certified cinephile and pop culture addict, to take a second—sarcastic and just-the-right-amount of critical—look at more than 20 contemporary movie “classics.”

From Face/Off, Garden State and Titanic to Harry Potter, Reality Bites and Shawshank Redemption (oh, yes, she did!), West skewers them one by one. And thanks to her, I’ll never look at any of them the same way again.

THE FINAL WORD: There are two kinds of people who will truly appreciate this book: 1) people who are already fans of West and her humor; and 2) anyone who saw Titanic and screamed at the screen as the old lady casually tossed the “The Heart of the Ocean” INTO the actual ocean knowing the guy from Twister and one of those astronaut movies dedicated his life to finding it but never did because she had it the WHOLE TIME—but not after making him listen to, like, three hours of her Titanic story first.

And let’s not even get started with whether or not that door could have held poor Jack, too.

“American Dirt” by Jeanine Cummins

I woke up this morning and thought, “Let me just read for, like, 15 minutes before I get out of bed. So I rolled over and grabbed American Dirt. Fast forward three hours, and I had finished the entire book.

Jeanine Cummins’ vivid and stunning story follows a Mexican family who are rocked by narcos violence and the survivors’ arduous journey to cross the border into the U.S. It’s eye-opening, suspenseful and totally engrossing. Suffice it to say, Oprah’s Book Club does it again.

THE FINAL WORD: You know when someone says a book was so good, they couldn’t put it down? This is one of those books. In other words, don’t pick it up if you don’t have three hours to spare.

“A Good Marriage” by Kimberly McCreight

This is a book cover for A Good Marriage

For me, a good beach read is either a light, sunny story that requires very little of my overtaxed brain except to enjoy the escape; OR a mystery thriller that puts my mind into overdrive trying to unravel the whodunit, completely absorbing my brain and blocking out the real world.

For me, A Good Marriage was the latter, and it was totally absorbing. It’s a legal thriller/murder mystery by Kimberly McCreight (I’m a huge fan of her previous book Reconstructing Amelia).

At the core of the story is a brutal murder that happens in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, a neighborhood which looks picture perfect. But much like on Instagram, the images projected are often covering up real life—where seemingly flawless families and couples have plenty of secrets hidden behind the posts. Take for example, the murder takes place the night of the neighborhood’s annual “key party.” After the sweet, pretty wife of a tech millionaire is found dead at the foot of the stairs of their mansion, her husband, being held at Rikers Island prison, contacts his former law school colleague Lizzie to help prove his innocence. From there, his secrets, his wife’s secrets, the neighbors’ secrets and Lizzie’s secrets come to light with twists and turns that remind us you never know what is REALLY happening behind closed doors.

THE FINAL WORD: For me, A Good Marriage was the perfect summer read, a true page-turner that kept me engaged from beginning to end. It’s like HBO’s Big Little Lies and The Night Of and Netflix’s The Staircase had book baby.

“Hollywood Park” by Mikel Jollet

Hollywood Park is a memoir by Mikel Jollet, who some of you may know as the lead singer of The Airborne Toxic Event (the band has been around since 2008, but their haunting name could not be more appropriate than it is in 2020). Only 46 years old when he wrote the book, Jollet had already endured lifetimes of pain and misfortune as he navigated through experiences I can only describe as jaw-dropping (and not in a good way).

For starters, Jollet is born into the controversial Synanon cult that lived just below the Hollywood Sign in the ’60s and ’70s). He manages to survive, but life after the cult is difficult and dangerous in its own way.

Surrounded by addiction and poverty, Jollett lives with his mentally-ill mother who has a loose grasp on reality and highly questionable taste in men, not to mention having to contend with his own lingering questions and pain from his early days in the cult. As you can imagine, it’s a hard story to digest, especially knowing the book is a memoir, but his words and writing are so magical, it’s worth any feelings of discomfort.

As a reader, I was intensely waiting and cheering for Jollett to get to the crossroads where his life takes finally a turn for the better. I plowed through the book, and as soon as I put it down, I immediately downloaded some Airborne Toxic Event music. I wanted to continue to enjoy his hauntingly beautiful prose, especially after gaining a unique insight into the songs’ themes and lyrics.

THE FINAL WORD: You don’t have to be a fan of indie rock or post-punk revival (or even know what they are, for that matter) to be drawn in by Hollywood Park. If you like superbly-written memoirs and stories of survival (like another favorite of mine Educated), you, too will give this book two thumbs up.

A special shout out to my beloved “word dealer” Ron Block for sending this remarkable book my way.