Friday, July 21, 2017

Trophy Son

Title:  Trophy Son
Author:  Douglas Brunt
Publication Information:  St. Martin's Press. 2017. 288 pages.
ISBN:  1250114802 / 978-1250114808

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "In the end, man shapes the world, but the world gets the first crack at us."

Favorite Quote:  "I wondered then what hero meant. what does it take to be the hero of your own life? choice, certainly. You have to be in charge of  your life to be the hero of it. What if you make bad choices, or just-below-average choices? Do you need to reach the cheese to be the hero, and then what the hell is the cheese anyway? Self understanding? Happiness? A Wimbledon title? Could the cheese be to perform one noble act in an otherwise unremarkable life spent not in charge of it?"

First, a disclaimer. I enjoy watching tennis, but am not an avid fan tracking the sport. I am not that avid a fan of any sport, but I do enjoy watching a good competition in any sport. As such, my reading of the book clearly differs from that of an avid tennis fan. In other words, as with any other book, the reader's background impacts their enjoyment. This is true of any book, but I feel the topic of this one merits a disclaimer.

Second, another disclaimer. This book is a work of fiction even though the first person narration makes it sound like a memoir. In addition, reference is made by name to actual major, world class tennis players. References are made to their choices which I have never heard in the news or heard associated with those names. Substance abuse is a serious business. It might be naive to think that major sports are all clean, and this book is clearly marketing as fiction. However, the name-dropping adds nothing to the story, but even fiction should be limited in the liberties it takes while naming names and alleging wrongdoing.

Disclaimers aside, I read this book more for the family story than the sports story. Anton Stratis is not your average teenager. He has been groomed to be an elite tennis player and to fulfill the dream of winning that this parents as former Olympic athletes could not achieve. Anton practises for hours on end. Tennis takes precedence over school. Tennis takes precedence over friends. Tennis takes precedence over family. Pretty much, tennis takes precedence over everything. In a nutshell, tennis has been Anton's entire life as directed by his father. As Antons grows up, he wishes for what he feels is a more "normal" life of school, parties, friends, and relationship. 

The description of the book leads more towards the family story not the sports story. I expect it to center on Anton's relationship with his father, his father's drive to make his son a star, and the son's struggle to assert his independence. The book does begin with that, but as the book progresses, the relationship hovers on the periphery of the story. This book really becomes about Anton growing up in the world of elite athletes. It is about the choices he makes as his life expands beyond the world of tennis. It begins as a child rebelling against a parent and ends with an adult make choices about the path of his life.

The book is quick read. It is an easy read. The dynamics between Anton, his parents, and his brother are interesting. The details of tennis are voluminous. As a whole, this is a book about extremes. The father's focus on practice is to the point of abuse. The girlfriend is famous and driven in her own career. The substance abuse problem not just exists but extends to everyone. The choices is all or nothing. Everything is an extreme, which in turn means that nothing stands out. Interesting but perhaps a little over the top.


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Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Roanoke Girls

Title:  The Roanoke Girls
Author:  Amy Engel
Publication Information:  Crown. 2017. 288 pages.
ISBN:  1101906669 / 978-1101906668

Book Source:  I received this book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "The first time I saw Roanoke was in a dream."

Favorite Quote:  "As a little girl I'd tried to please, tried to live by a simple refrain my mother repeated  like a desperate prayer in my ear:  be good be good be good. But I'd known even then it wouldn't work..."

Jane, Sophia. Penelope. Eleanor. Camilla. Emmeline. Allegra. Lane. These are the Roanoke girls with Allegra and Lane being the youngest generation. Roanoke is a family home that "looked like something an insane person would build..." Lane comes to Roanoke for the first time as a teenager when her mother's death leaves her orphaned. At that time, Allegra is the only other Roanoke girl in residence. Lane loses her mother as a teenager while Allegra lost her as a toddler. Lane has known another life while Roanoke is all Allegra has.

Their grandparents Yates and Lilian are raising them both. A friendship blossoms between Lane and Allegra. So does a rivalry as is likely to happen at that age. Lane also learns the dark history of the Roanoke girls. They either run or die. All of them. Things happen; a rift happens; and Lane leaves, promising never to return. Lane runs.

Fast forward many years. Lane finally returns for Allegra has disappeared. Did she die or did she run? What underlies the darkness at Roanoke? Set in a small town in Kansas, that is the premise of this book. This premise underlies many a wonderful family and small town stories. Like other books in the genre, the book moves between past and present. Reading such a book is the process of slowly peeling back the years of history to finally get at the answer. Sometimes, the answer is satisfactory and sometimes not. More often than not, the process of getting there makes for an interesting read.

The biggest issue with this book is that it drops a bombshell near the beginning of the book as to the reason for the history of the Roanoke girls. It's difficult to discuss without a spoiler, but let's just say, the answer is a disturbing topic so reader beware. More than that, its placement in the book removes much of the mystery surrounding these young women and, as such, removes much of the interest from the book. Even more than that, after the big reveal, the book proceeds in a relatively predictable manner; no further surprises really come except for the extent to which the darkness prevailed in that household. Even at the end, the books wraps up this twisted family into a neat package of hope for the future - neither satisfying not realistic. Although not graphic, the repeated explanations of what happens at Roanoke conjures up disturbing images I wish I could unsee.

The crux of engaging in a book about an emotionally charged topic is engaging with the characters. The characters in this book fall into four groups. The townspeople who have no idea what goes on in their midst. Those who suffer. Those who inflict suffering. Those who watch and allow it to happen. The book is narrated through Lane's eyes who falls into one of these groups, but I fin her a difficult character to engage with. She is one of the Roanoke girls but perhaps not the most interesting one. Through her eyes, the rest of the story then becomes a distanced and somewhat limiting view.

 All these things combined with the unpalatable topic makes this a challenge book to finish.


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Friday, July 14, 2017

Extraordinary Adventures

Title:  Extraordinary Adventures
Author:  Daniel Wallace
Publication Information:  St. Martin's Press. 2017. 336 pages.
ISBN:  125011845X / 978-1250118455

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "The news came just after dinner via a telephone call from a representative of an organization called Extraordinary Adventures."

Favorite Quote:  "As impossible as it may have seemed months ago, there was a remote chance that he could have been here with any one of three women ... She was the only one he would have wanted to remember having gone with."

A promise of a free vacation to a resort in exchange for listening to a time share marketing pitch.
A somewhat clueless and apparently friendless main character.
A mother who paraded "uncles" in front of her young son.
A dug up skeleton of a childhood pet.
A robbery of an apartment.

All this within the first few chapters of the book with an expectation of more to come. The first two sounds doable; the rest, not so much.

Edsel Bronfman (what a name!) is the main character. The book opens when Edsel receives a phone call saying he has won a free stay at a resort. There are two caveats. The first is that he must listen to a time share marketing pitch for the resort. Just listen. That's it. Easy enough. The second is that the stay is for two. Edsel must bring a companion on this adventure. Therein lies the issue. Edsel cannot think of one single person that he could or would want to ask. He seems to have no friends. He would definitely not ask his mother. He probably cannot ask a coworker. What to do? Edsel Bronfman has seventy nine days to figure it out because he cannot let this free offer go by.

Books about quirky but endearing characters are a common story line, particularly since the success of The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion. This book is another in the same genre.  Unfortunately, instead of quirky and endearing, the characters in this book are simply odd and sometimes a little creepy. This is true particularly towards the beginning of the book when as a reader, I invest in the characters. Books about odd and creepy characters can sometimes be quite the adventure to. Unfortunately, this one does not reach that goal either for its aim is to charm and amuse. The goal of the book and the setup of the story clash and draw me away from the book. Instead of being charmed, I find myself putting the book down and walking away. It takes some doing to come back to it.

The book aims for a journey of self-discovery and growth as thirty-four year old Edsel Bronfman seeks to find himself a companion. His interactions with his mother sadly point to an emotionally abusive childhood. As an adult, he finds himself her only caretaker as she declines further and further into dementia. As an adult, it is now Edsel's time to find his path. It is an interesting premise, but somehow, I find myself just not connecting with the character at all. Again, I find myself putting the book down and walking away.

The book also aims for a romantic comedy as Edsel's inexperience with the ladies is on full display in his feeble attempts to reach out in friendship. This aspect of the book has the expected highs and lows and a predictable ending.

Both the self-discovery and the sweet love story do emerge in the book, but the beginning and the lack of engagement with the characters unfortunately make it very difficult to get there. By that time, I find myself completely uninvolved in Edsel's story. Sadly, not much to say other than that this was not the extraordinary adventure for me.


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Monday, July 10, 2017

The Bedlam Stacks

Title:  The Bedlam Stacks
Author:  Natasha Pulley
Publication Information:  Bloomsbury USA. 2017. 336 pages.
ISBN:  1620409674 / 978-1620409671

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Although I hadn't been shot at for years, it took me a long time to understand that the bang wasn't artillery."

Favorite Quote:  "Stop looking at it as an impossible thing and start looking at it as a thing that must be done."

Bedlam - noun meaning a scene of uproar and confusion, or, in archaic use, an insane asylum or madhouse. Bedlam aka Bethlehem - a small village in the hills of Peru. How much one definition has to do with the other, I leave you to discover.

The story on its surface is about Merrick, an adventurer who finds himself depressed and stagnating because of what he considers a career ending injury. A friend offers him a commission on behalf of the East India Company. The treasure being sought is a source of quinine for India; this source is found in the remote regions of Peru. Merrick's expertise and connections are of value for his grandfather once traveled to and lived in these very regions. Merrick is intrigued and agrees to the mission. Things come full circle when the grandson returns to the grandfather's history.

The Bedlam Stacks is the second novel by Natasha Pulley. Her first book, The Watchmaker of Filigree is a dark and atmospheric book that sends you around in circles like the intricacies of the clockwork it features. It is a book set in a fictitious 1800s London but with a somewhat futuristic feel. It begins with a bomb blast and ends focused on a friendship.

In some ways, The Bedlam Stacks is similar. Both are set in the same 1800s universe, but this book begins in England but brings you to the forests of Peru. Both books are very visual tales. Both are centered on a main character, who for the most part is alone in life. Both become focused on a friendship (perhaps more?) between two men of disparate ages. Both involve clockworks as a recurring motif. Certain characters from the first book even make cameo appearances in this one.

In other ways, the comparison between the two books flat. Perhaps, that is a risk of a second novel that attempts to follow the themes and style of a very successful first book. A understandable inclination perhaps but, in this case, for me not a successful one. I requested this book expecting to be carried away as I am by the first, but I was not. Perhaps, that is the book, and perhaps that is my expectations as a reader.

Perhaps the reason is also partly the characters themselves. The clockmaker at the heart of the first book is a character shrouded in mystery. The book develops the character through his relationships. In this book, Raphael (who plays the comparable role) is a much more present character. A mystery about his past is the heart of this story, but the character loses some of his mystery by being so much a part of the story.

Perhaps another reason is that the first book is a mix of the historical setting and a futuristic fantasy with many elements associated with steampunk literature. This book mixes in a lot more - Inca mythology, science fiction about the essence of time, futuristic technology, and magic. The story is still a visual one, but the elements become muddled. Disappointing for I was so looking forward to this book.


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Thursday, July 6, 2017

The Witchfinder's Sister

Title:  The Witchfinder's Sister
Author:  Beth Underdown
Publication Information:  Ballantine Books. 2017. 336 pages.
ISBN:  0399179143 / 978-0399179143

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "1645, and the Civil War in England has begun its fourth year."

Favorite Quote:  "Resentment buried is not gone. It is like burying a seed:  for a season it may stay hidden in the dark, but in the end, it will always grow."

The Witchfinder is historical figure Matthew Hopkins. The Witchfinder's sister is Alice, a fictional character. The book is the story of this historical figure told through the perspective of his fictional sister.

Matthew Hopkins lives in the town of Manningtree in Essex in England during the 1600s. England is in the middle of a civil war between the Parliamentarians and the royalists. Suspicion and superstition abound. For many, the objective is to find someone to blame for anything and everything that goes wrong. More often than not, that blame falls on the women, particularly those not living a traditional lifestyle of child rearing and drudgery.

That is where Matthew Hopkins comes in. In his self-appointed role as Witchfinder, it becomes his job to confirm or deny the claim of witchcraft. History tells us that most of the claims were confirmed; in his short career, Matthew Hopkins is said to have been responsible for the death of over 300 women.

Historically, very little is known about Matthew Hopkins' family life. What remains is his mark on history. This book presents a fictional story of what that life would have. It tells of a childhood accident that leaves his scarred, the death of his father that changes the family's circumstances, and Matthew's gradual submersion into this life he chooses. His sister is not marred by visible scars and finds a different path through the same circumstances. Widowed young, she is forced to return and forced to be dependent on his brother. Once back in Manningtree, Alice is pulled more and more into the darkness of the times and the darkness of her brother's choices.

More than Matthew Hopkins' story, this book is Alice's story. It is only her perspective the reader sees. Her emotions and her shock at what she finds in Manningtree after being away for over five year. It is also her conversations and relationships that take center stage in the witch hunt. The much more interesting story would be that of Matthew Hopkins himself, of those proclaimed to be witches, and of the trials. Because of the narrator of the story, the book does not give the broader historical picture and feels like a sideline view of the main plot.

What accentuates this feeling even more is the fact that the pace of the book is very very slow. The first third of the book seems almost all back story. It lasts a little too long and keeps me from engaging for I spend that time waiting to get to the main story.

Even more than Alice's story, this book is the story of the darkness. The writing does a beautiful job of creating a cold and grim picture of the small town of Manningtree. The entire book has an overwhelming dark and somber feeling which carries forward through to the end. The ending too leaves a lingering thought of darkness with one word - Salem. The atmospheric writing is perhaps my favorite part of the book and makes me look forward to seeing what Beth Underdown writes next.


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Thursday, June 29, 2017

The Shadow Land

Title:  The Shadow Land
Author:  Elizabeth Kostova
Publication Information:  Ballantine Books. 2017. 496 pages.
ISBN:  0345527860 / 978-0345527868

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Sofia, the year 2008"

Favorite Quote:  "People seem to believe that despair is the same as anguish, but it is not. It's true that despair is surrounded by anguish, but at its core, despair is silent, a blank page."

The Shadow Land brings to life a part of history and a part of the world about which I have read very little - Bulgaria in the aftermath of World War II. In 2008, a young American woman Alexandra comes to Sophia on a trip of remembrance and healing. She has no connections with the country and knows no one there. However, as children, she and her brother Jack used to dream of other places, and Bulgaria was Jack's place on the globe. So, Alexandra comes to remember Jack and reconcile with his disappearance as a teenager.

An accidental meeting leaves Alexandra holding the bag, literally. She finds herself in possession of an urn of ashes from a family she runs into outside of a hotel. She has no idea who they are, but she does understand what the urn means. The idea of the family losing that commingles with her own grief and sets her on a path to find the family and return what must obviously be very precious to them.

A chance puts her into the cab of driver Bobby. He in turn gets involved in Alexandra's quest to return the urn. This leads them both to places, times, and a history they could not have imagined.

The ashes are of Stoyan Lazarov. His story is of the communist regime in Bulguria from the 1940s to the 1960s. His story is one of death and deprivation in the forced work camps for individuals accused of crimes against the nation. The impact of the regime continues today.

The first half of the book proceeds with the story of the present and the past moving independently. As a reader, I know that the stories will connect, but am unsure how. At this juncture, the story of the past is the more emotional and moving one, but the story of the present is what moves the plot forward.

Interestingly, the book centers on and revolves around Alexandra and her quest to return the run, but she is somewhat superfluous to the main story itself. The history does not involve her or anyone she is connected to, and even in the present, she is an outsider with a view on this culture and political situation. The story of her grief over her brother begins the book but is not resolved. It becomes instead a venue to tell the bigger story of the tragedy of the work camps.

The book is written as a narrative, especially the sections dealing with the past; much of it is a story being told as opposed to a story unfolding. This is noticeable at the beginning of the book but fades as the intensity on the narrative grows. Ultimately, the story of the past shifts to a first person account, which accentuates the impact of the horror.

The further the book progresses, the closer the past and present come until they ultimately collide. Some of the connections are a surprise, but the kind that make you go, "Of course, that makes sense." The book is a slow beginning but builds to a dramatic conclusion that has me turning pages late into the night to finish.


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Tuesday, June 27, 2017

The Bookshop at Water's End

Title:  The Bookshop at Water's End
Author:  Patti Callahan Henry
Publication Information:  Berkeley. 2017. 352 pages.
ISBN:  0399583114 / 978-0399583117

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "We are defined by the moods and whims of a wild tidal river surrounding our small town, cradling us in its curved basin."

Favorite Quote:  "Sometimes we tell our stories and sometimes our stories tell us."

Bonny Blackenship is an Emergency Room doctor in Charleston. She loves her career but has concerns about her rocky marriage and her twenty year old daughter Piper who seems misguided and directionless. A terrible accident one night puts Bonny's career in questions and sets her on a path to reevaluate her life. To lick her wound and to reflects, she retreats to a family summer home on the river at Watersend, South Carolina. Along with her, she brings her daughter and her best friend Lainey, her childhood "Summer Sister."

Lainey brings burdens of her own. Her last summer on the river was the summer her mother disappeared. Her body was never found; her disappearance was never resolved. Lainey has never stopped looking. Her brother Owen went the other direction and seems to keep nothing of permanence in his life.

Now, this group finds its way back to this place that was both the place of Bonny, Lainey, and and Owen's idyllic childhood memories and of their worst childhood nightmares. The permanent residents of the town become part of this story, both as a gateway to the past and as a path to the future.

Like many other beach reads, the characters' concerns multiply and grow. Told in alternating views, the reader follows the path of Bonny, Lainey, and Piper. A few time, Mimi the bookseller's perspective comes though, but not as much as you would think based on the book title. Also in keeping with a beach read, by the end, the story lines comes together, secrets are revealed, the past is resolved, and the path forward becomes clear.

The story - all the story lines - do find a conclusion. However, some of them do feel unfinished and unresolved. The story of Bonny's marriage although brief has a ring of truth to it; the dissolution of a love and the realization that a partner is not who one envisioned comes through. The story of Bonny and Owen on the other hand is told, but the emotions and reasoning are not really explored. Owen's character as a whole seems undeveloped.

The story of Lainey and Owen's mother goes in a direction that seems to jump from beginning to end. The middle - the struggle of a young woman who may never know what happened - would make for an emotional, engaging story. That does not come.

Piper is perhaps the most engaging character. A twenty year who needs and finds an attitude adjustment. Her attitude towards adults balanced with the way she cares for Lainey's children present a lovely picture of the contradictions of a young adult trying to find her way in life.

For a book with "bookshop" and "water's end" in the title, the story has little to do with either. What the book does have are many elements for a story about women, family, secrets, small town life, and finding direction in life. The Bookshop at Water's End is a book to be read on a casual afternoon at the water's edge. In other words, it is a nice easy summer beach read.


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