My Kind of Crazy, by Robin Reul (2016)


Were I in high school, I would totally have a crush on Peyton Breedlove. She’s one of those weird girls who wears tee shirts emblazoned with 1970’s rock band logos, and ripped jeans with smiley faces drawn on her exposed knees. She refuses to eat fruits or vegetables with skins.

Oh, yeah. And she’s a pyromaniac.

We all have our faults, though, right?

However, it’s not Peyton that high school senior Hank Kirby has in his sights for a prom date. He wants to ask one of the hottest girls in school, the beautiful, surprisingly nice Amanda Carlisle. Average guy Hank knows that to have any chance, he’ll have to devise something extra special to get Amanda’s attention and woo her into that all-important prom date. His plan seems brilliant.


One night, he sneaks into Amanda’s front yard, and sticks sparklers in the ground, spelling out “PROM.” He lights them, then calls Amanda’s name. She comes to the window just in time to see the huge cedar tree in her front yard burst into flames and threaten to burn down her house. Hank’s ingenious plan had basically turned into arson. Hank turns tail and hauls ass away on his bike, hoping he can escape.

When he discovers a missing piece of evidence, he returns to the scene, only to find the mysterious Peyton holding the incriminating sparklers box. She compliments him on his fire and returns the box.

Thus begins a friendship, a ride so wild Hank could never have imagined where it would lead.

That’s the beauty of Robin Reul’s novel “My Kind of Crazy”: the characters.

Everyone has their quirks. Hank’s best friend, for example, is a lazy-eyed Italian named Nick, whose father is rumored to have killed a man. The two are the type of friends who are thrust together by circumstance. Neither of them are horrible geeks, but they’re certainly not A-list popular.

All too soon, Peyton finds Hank and Nick in the cafeteria, and an interesting triangle is set up. Amanda and prom pretty much disappear from Hank’s mind, as he finds himself drawn to the troubled, mysterious Peyton. Then Amanda—who finds the arson/promposal intriguing—sets up an online questionnaire, trying to discover her would-be suitor’s identity so that she can accept his offer and go to prom with him.

Over 400 guys sign up, answering questions about how and why they performed the pyrotechnic act.

How the Amanda Carlisle sweepstakes turns out is just one of the great surprises in “My Kind of Crazy.”

There’s so much to love in this book. To me, the greatest joy in reading it is that Robin Reul obviously had a ball creating this world. Her characters all have their own brand of crazy working. Like all teens, there are parental issues, some worse than others. There are the standard issues all teens face—the inevitable awkwardness, even among the elite, the love for chili cheese fries, worrying about appearance, et cetera. But Ms. Reul loves her characters, and treats them all with affection, even when they’re at their worst.

“My Kind of Crazy” is an apt title, too. Everyone in the novel has their own set of oddities. Even the apparently flawless Amanda…I mean, who sets up an online contest for an unknown guy to be her prom date? Especially when the guy nearly burned down her house. That’s just weird.

What Robin Reul is able to do, though, is show that while we’re all crazy, sometimes our crazies mesh harmoniously, and we create bonds stronger than we ever imagined possible.

I once had a girl tell me, “The crazy in me gets off on the crazy in you.” (It turned out she was a complete lunatic, but it was still a great line)

In the end, Hank, Peyton, Nick, and even Amanda are all changed in their own ways. It’s a tweak of confidence here, a dollop of affection there, and a whole lot of self-discovery along the way. The ending leaves us with a sense that everyone will be okay. Nobody’s life will be perfect. Nick won’t be the lothario he dreams of being, and Hank will never be a hero like in one of his beloved comics, but we know they’ll be fine.

That’s what we do in this world. We make our way through as best we can, even though—as the song goes—“Mama, we’re all crazy now.”

By the way, that song was originally by the English band, Slade, then covered by Quiet Riot.

Peyton would know this. And that’s why I’d have loved her.

Most Highly Recommended
(nb: I received an advance review copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley)

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“Hello?”, by Liza Wiemer (2015)


There are so many different openings I came up with to review Liza Wiemer’s miracle of a novel, “Hello?”, yet not one of them really works.

I thought of the REM song lyric, “Everybody hurts, sometimes.” In “Hello?”, everybody hurts at some point or another. Sometimes, it’s because of their own actions—a missed signal given or acted upon, a lie left to fester too long. Other times, the hurt comes from the death of a most-cherished loved one, or memories of long-ago wounds. Still others hurt because they don’t know how to relate to their loved ones’ pain—or when, simply, to give them the space and time they need to sort out their feelings.

I thought, too, of a really nasty curveball. In baseball, a great curveball comes out of the pitcher’s hand, and it looks so incredibly enticing—OMG, this guy made a mistake! I’m going to smash this into the cheap seats—then, right at the point the batter swings, the ball breaks sharply downward, and bat misses ball by a ridiculous margin. “Hello?” is full of curveballs. Liza Wiemer’s characters all have their secrets and scars (some scars metaphorical, others corporeal). When some of her characters think they know another’s truth, there’s the sharp break, and they’re off by a mile.

Similarly, as readers, we are kept back on our heels, as curveball after curveball leaps up at us from the page. Practically every time we know just what a person has been through or why they behave a certain way, there it is, and we’re left wide-eyed, wondering how we could’ve been so badly fooled.

This isn’t authorial trickery, though. It’s our own fault for expecting people—and characters—to be so easily predictable and shallow, that we can properly assume what lurks beneath their respective surfaces. We know the clichés: the good-hearted, nice-guy jock, the unruly party girl, the emo outsider, the emotionally stunted sad girl. We know them all so well, but “Hello?” chips through these veneers, and shows us what we so rarely see: the insecurities and desperation to be understood that lurks around dark corners in each of our hearts. It is a tribute to Ms. Wiemer that her writing peels back these layers, so we can see in her characters those same emotions and feelings most of us try to hide.

The image I finally settled upon as best representing “Hello?” is the Olympic Rings. Five rings, interconnected into one symbol.

Indeed, “Hello?” has five main characters, all of them high school seniors. There’s Tricia, who just lost her grandmother, her last surviving relative, and her only link to her past. Emerson is a popular jock and excellent student, whose heart holds a terrible guilt he’s incapable of releasing. Angie has secrets so dark she can only express her thoughts through her poetry journal. Brian is a potter, a hugely talented artist, who sets his own life aside for his best friend, a choice that hurts them both. Brenda is a brilliant actress and screenplay writer, who is most comfortable seeing herself in the third-person, as if she were a character in her own drama.

These five lives intersect in some ways that are predictable—students at the same small high school would obviously know each other, for example—but it’s the serendipitous way other circles connect that makes “Hello?” such a joy to read.

GOD, there are so many things I would love to write about “Hello?”, but spoilers. “Hello?” deserves for each reader to approach it without any preconceived notions, able to savor every nuance and twist with fresh eyes.

At the end of the day, The Universe has an odd way of working things out, and what begins with a tearful, late night, wrong number phone call, can somehow end up with a hugely satisfying resolution. The Universe has a bitch of a curveball. So does Liza Wiemer. “Hello?” is a beautiful, intelligent, unpredictable ride.

Take it.

Most Highly Recommended

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Dorothy Parker Drank Here, by Ellen Meister (2015)

One of my favorite things about “Dorothy Parker Drank Here” is learning that author Ellen Meister has created a series starring the sharp-tongued Mrs. Parker. Book #1 was the excellent “Farewell, Dorothy Parker.” “Dorothy Parker Drank Here” is the second installment.

Here, Mrs. Parker decides she doesn’t want to be alone for all eternity. So she tries to get reclusive author Ted Shriver—who’s holed-up in one of the Algonquin Hotel’s rooms, impatiently waiting to die from a brain tumor—to sign the famed Algonquin Guestbook. If he signs, he will be allowed to remain in The Algonquin as long as he wants.

Mrs. Parker’s problem, however, is that all of her friends seem anxious to move on into the light once they die. She’s not ready to go.

She soon finds herself helping TV production assistant, Norah Wolfe, as she tries to land an interview with the intensely private and rude Shriver. Between guiding Norah, and cajoling Ted Shriver directly, wheels are set in motion. However, the story takes twists and turns Norah is ill-prepared to handle, and in the end, she faces what could be the greatest tragedy of her young life.

The beauty of this series, of course, is that Dorothy Parker’s ghost plays such a role in things. She’s ready to tongue-lash any idiots who cross her path, and there are plenty of idiots, both in New York and the various situations she encounters. It’s almost like “Murder, She Wrote,” but with a shrewish wit helping her various new acquaintances.

As in “Farewell, Dorothy Parker,” Ms. Meister shows an encyclopedic knowledge of Dorothy Parker’s wit. Even when not using one of Mrs. Parker’s direct quotes, the author has a firm, hilarious command of what she would say, and how she would say it.

Dorothy Parker is sui generis in American letters. She could out-snark anybody, which is what makes her such a wonderful recurring heroine. It will be interesting to see whether Ms. Meister can maintain the first two volumes’ quality across a series. After all, Mrs. Parker deserves no less.


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Dirty London, by Kelley York (2014)

London Noble is a high school senior, who—unlike most of her counterparts—doesn’t want to be popular. She really just wants to fly under the radar, unnoticed, till she can graduate and move on.

Her life is complicated by her younger sister, Jasmine, who is mentally unstable and doesn’t always take her meds. Add into the mix that she and her sister are polar opposites who have to share a room, plus London’s serious dislike of her estranged father, and you find one very stressed-out young woman.

Oh, yeah. Plus London is secretly gay.

One day, she finds herself invited to join the drama club. A girl London has been crushing on is in the club, so she accepts. While there, she meets Wade, a hugely popular stud. The two bond in drama club, and become friends of a sort.

Oh, yeah: it turns out Wade is secretly gay, also.

Their solution is a simple, if ill-advised one: London and Wade will act like a couple. They go on double-dates, carry on in school hallways, and look like a legitimate dating couple.

Where the complications arise is that few of the school’s popular girls can believe Wade would date London, who’s essentially a nobody. The only possible explanation, in their eyes, is that London is putting-out. After a night of drama club…well, drama, the rumor gets out that London has slept with another popular boy. Then another boy confesses that he, too, has had sex with London. Then another.

Eventually, London—who’d wanted nothing but anonymity—finds herself called the school slut. Her locker becomes emblazoned with the words “Dirty London,” and the popular girls are ruthless in taunting her.

Her only solace seems to be with Amber, a quiet fellow drama club student. Amber understands and serves as a friend when London most desperately needs one. The two grow closer, until London has forgotten all about the crush that got her into drama club in the first place.

Kelley York’s novel, “Dirty London,” does an excellent job presenting a troubled young girl. London just wants to escape high school unnoticed, and yet there she is, embroiled in the biggest social scandal of the year. Her relationship with her popularity-driven sister deteriorates with each subsequent embarrassing revelation, especially when London figures out exactly where Jasmine’s psych meds have been going.

London can’t believe the situation she’s found herself in, but with Amber’s help, she manages to cope. When illusions begin to dissolve in her world—when the truths out—London’s life becomes quite a bit easier.

I love Ms. York’s portrayal of London. I didn’t really want to be popular in high school, either. Let the other kids worry about it. Like a lot of teens, I just kept my head down and did my work, till I could graduate and go off to college. I had more friends than London—most kids do—but the idea was the same. Popular kids have some sort of manifest destiny to be popular, a golden ticket few of us are given.

Jasmine, too, is beautifully written. She is embarrassed by her sister in general. She doesn’t want any of her popular friends to know that London is her older sister. She cringes every time somebody could make the association. The way their relationship evolves is wonderfully handled.

I also like the way Amber figures into the story. There were no explosive meeting sparks. Amber just wants to be in the background, too. She doesn’t act in drama club. All she wants to do is work on sets and backdrops. That’s a perfect metaphor for her role in school, even as she grows to be more of a star in London’s eyes.

High school can be a bitch under the best of circumstances. In London’s case, it grows to seem insurmountable. But with Amber’s help and Wade’s—plus her mom’s—London can find her way through, and thrive despite her tumultuous year.

Highly Recommended

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Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, by Therese Anne Fowler (2013)

Years ago, I was out drinking with a friend who was having marital problems. He was on his third marriage to the same woman, a decidedly unstable woman at that. I couldn’t help but ask him, “Dave, WHY do you keep marrying her, when it always ends up like this?”

He shook his head, and ruefully drained his Manhattan. “She’s my Zelda, Tom. She’s my Southern Belle. My Zelda.”

I knew just what he meant.

He was referring to the notoriously tumultuous relationship between F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda Sayre, the so-called “King and Queen of The Jazz Age.”

Their legend is famous: wild parties, famous friends, a relationship so vibrant it crackled from New York City to the fashionable salons of Europe. Scott was uncontrollably alcoholic; Zelda battled severe mental illness. It’s as legendary as Fitzgerald’s magnum opus “The Great Gatsby.”

But what if the reality were different from that legend?

In “Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald,” author Therese Anne Fowler provides Zelda’s autobiography from that period.

That’s the hard part about reading this book: remembering that it IS, in fact, a novel. The writing and tone are perfect representations of what an autobiography would sound like. Ms. Fowler has researched Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald exhaustively, and that comes through in this book.

I keep calling it “a book,” because it really transcends belief as a novel. Many of the details are real, gleaned from other tomes written about this magical, tragic pair. So much was written about the two, that there is no shortage of source material, and I get the feeling Ms. Fowler has read it all.

But what she fills in are the personal details, the “behind closed doors” realities that other tomes leave behind. We see Zelda playing with the couple’s daughter, Scottie, making paper dolls and learning French together. We are a fly on the wall for horrific arguments and the odd lashing out. We see the nasty splits and the passionate makings-up.

The human villain here—the one who Zelda says led Scott astray—is Ernest Hemingway. The book is filled with references to Hemingway, and his various misbehaviors and cruelties toward both Fitzgeralds. (In his book “A Moveable Feast,” Hemingway was less than kind in his portrayal of F. Scott Fitzgerald, so that part feels believable.)

The way Zelda narrates her life with Scott is equally believable.
For all of the majesty and hell of her ride with Scott, Zelda Fitzgerald—Queen of The Jazz Age—was really just Zelda Sayre, daughter of a Montgomery, Alabama, judge. That’s how she is at the narrative’s beginning and, having come full circle, at the story’s end.

The relationship between Scott and Zelda is truly, legendarily tragic. I’m not a Fitzgerald scholar by any means, but I’ve read about the alcoholism, tempestuousness, and constant money problems.

The couple’s relationship has to be the most storied relationship of that period, a tale of grandeur and human weakness. What Therese Anne Fowler has done in “Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald” is to flesh out this tale in a conversational style, to give humanity and validity to the salacious legends. Ms. Fowler’s work is an amazing achievement.
It’s just really damned hard to believe that it’s a novel.

Most Highly Recommended

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Farewell, Dorothy Parker, by Ellen Meister (2013)

Violet Epps is a famous film critic for America’s top weekly entertainment magazine. Her specialty—the very core of her celebrity—is her acerbic skewering of bad films. So arrogant are her reviews, that it’s difficult to believe how shy she is in real life. She avoids television appearances, and refuses to use her fame to get good seats at restaurants or other perqs.

Not everyone is so shy about using her fame. Violet had a reservation for lunch at New York’s famous Algonquin Hotel. She was going to break-up with her boyfriend, who was planning to move in that weekend. He loudly used her name to get seated and order drinks, mortifying Violet, and strengthening her resolve to end the relationship. When the moment is at hand, the Algonquin’s general manager comes to her table, and asks whether Violet will sign the restaurant’s guestbook. Violet looks through the book, and sees the first page. Right there is the signature of her idol, Dorothy Parker.

When Violet touches Mrs. Parker’s signature, she’s suddenly taken with a fit. It’s almost like Dorothy Parker’s spirit is possessing her. But that couldn’t happen, right? Violet faints. When she comes-to a few moments later, she slips the Algonquin register into her bag, and rushes from the hotel.

Back in her apartment, she opens the book again, and touches Mrs. Parker’s signature. Suddenly, Dorothy Parker is sitting there in Violet’s living room, asking for a cocktail.

Thus begins Violet’s incredible journey with Dorothy Parker. Mrs. Parker—she always insists on being called Mrs. Parker, and calling Violet Ms. Epps—serves as a teacher, a friend, a confidante, a nuisance, and a general befuddlement to Violet. Generally, Mrs. Parker occupies her own body (she can be corporeal as long as the guestbook is open). There are other times when she possesses Violet, generally when Ms. Epps needs a little backbone.

As their relationship wears on, Violet does grow stronger. With Mrs. Parker’s help, she’s able to dump her boyfriend, find a new boyfriend, improve her standing at work, and—best of all—fight for custody of her niece, Delaney.

The transformation from the shrinking Violet to the strong Ms. Epps is a striking one, and it’s one of the great joys of “Farewell, Dorothy Parker.” At the book’s core, though, is the beautifully realized friendship between the two women. Dorothy Parker was famous for her biting, frequently harsh wit, and we are privy to that. I laughed out loud at a bunch of her bon mots, and my Kindle is filled with highlighted quotes.

There are tender parts, too, where Violet helps Dorothy deal with her insecurities and her own fears. Their relationship is hardly just teacher and pupil.

By the book’s end, both Violet Epps and Dorothy Parker are redeemed, and ready to move on with their life and afterlife, respectively.

It’s been a long time since I’ve so thoroughly enjoyed a book like this. The characters are wonderful, especially author Ellen Meister’s portrayal of Dorothy Parker. I recently had the pleasure of reading the biography, “Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell Is This?” by Marion Meade, and Ms. Meister does an excellent job of capturing Mrs. Parker’s essence. It’s always dicey when an author mixes real characters into an otherwise fictional novel. “Farewell, Dorothy Parker” does this seamlessly.

This is one of those novels that ended long before I was ready for it to end. However, it wraps-up at the right time, and on the right note.

All in all, “Farewell, Dorothy Parker” contains periods of pure joy, interspersed with serious patches. In short, it’s the same rollercoaster ride most of our lives are.

Pity we all can’t have Mrs. Parker to guide us.

Most Highly Recommended

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William Shakespeare’s The Jedi Doth Return (William Shakespeare’s Star Wars, #6), by Ian Doescher (2014)

If you’re a fan of the original Star Wars trilogy–as well as a fan of Shakespearean prose–you will find perhaps no greater treat than Ian Doescher’s “William Shakespeare’s Star Wars” trilogy.

The premise is simple, if painstakingly difficult to execute. Doescher took one of Hollywood’s most-beloved film series, and wrote it as William Shakespeare would have.

Well, or might have, if The Bard knew anything about Death Stars and androids.

All three films are reimagined in beautiful Shakespearean language. This takes some serious skill on the author’s part. Not only did he need a firm grounding in William Shakespeare’s writing style, he also needed an expert knowledge of the Star Wars saga.

“The Jedi Doth Return” is the third installment, and it’s a good one. We follow Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia–and loyal droids C3PO and R2D2–as they battle “Jabba of the Hutt” for their freedom. Then it’s off to the forest moon of Endor, where they have to disable the newly renovated Death Super Star’s energy shield, in order that the rebellion can destroy it. Then–huzzah!–peace will reign throughout the Universe.

Ah, if only it were that easy. The evil Emperor Palpatine and his dark henchman, Darth Vader, have other plans. The forest moon housing the energy shield generator is full of Imperial troops. Forsooth! The Rebels were tricked! Thus, Han, Leia, Chewy, and the droids have to team up with small, teddy bearesque creatures called Ewoks to defeat the Imperial troops and disable the shield.

Even worse, Luke Skywalker is bound to face off with Darth Vader, who we know from “The Empire Striketh Back” is actually Luke’s father. Luke’s plan is to turn his father back from the Dark Side, and restore him to his destined place as a Jedi Knight.

If you’re one of the three or four dozen people on Earth who hasn’t seen “The Return of The Jedi,” I won’t spoil the story.

All I can do is tell you that this installment of “William Shakespeare’s Star Wars” is an amazing ride.

One small note, though. I think the first two episodes translated slightly better to the Shakespearean treatment, for they worked better at conveying the visual aspects of each film. The entire scenes on the forest moon, Endor, were harder for me to imagine strictly based on the description. I don’t think this was any fault of Ian Doescher’s at all, just that “The Return of The Jedi” had settings far different from the more easily described space sets in the first two. (Even the desert scenes in the first novel were more readily translated to prose)

I remember feeling the same way watching “Return of The Jedi” in the cinema. When it got to the forest moon, I shook my head: What the hell is THIS doing out in space? It was like Star Wars had moved to a redwood forest.

That small observation aside, reading “The Jedi Doth Return” kept a smile on my face, just as the first two installments did. The stories are so familiar to me–and, I imagine, to literally millions of others–that this revisiting was a joy to read.

If you hated the Star Wars films, I doubt you’ll like this book. If you loved Star Wars, but you’re iffy on Shakespearean prose, you might still like it. The language here is not as foreboding and impenetrable as much of Shakespeare’s work, and the narrative construction often cracked me up.

For example, R2D2’s dialogue is, true to the film, a bunch of beeps and blaps and whistles. However, when R2 speaks to the audience in an aside, he’s surprisingly sarcastic and funny.

All in all, Ian Doescher’s “William Shakespeare’s Star Wars” series is a joy to read, a true tour de force of writing skill. More importantly, though, it’s an inspired piece of storytelling from an author who’s also–quite obviously–a huge fan of these epic tales.

Highly Recommended

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