Friday, May 17, 2019

Talk to Me

Title:  Talk to Me
Author:  John Kenney
Publication Information:  GP Putnam's Sons. 2019. 320 pages.
ISBN:  0735214379 / 978-0735214378

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

Opening Sentence:  "Ted Grayson has been pushed out of an airplane."

Favorite Quote:  "Alone with their thoughts. The bravest thing. Today we would do anything to run from our own thoughts. The noise of our minds, the voices. So we check the phone, the text, the email, the alert. Why look inside for the answer when you can look outside?"

This book begins as if picked from the headlines these days. A news anchor - a man with a long, well respected, public career - makes an entirely inappropriate comment to a young woman. The moment is captured on camera. The video is posted online. It goes viral. The commentary comes from all sources, reviling the man.

Initially, I am not sure that I want to read fiction about today's headlines. I don't know that I want to follow along on a conversation between his defenders and his accusers. Who is right? Who is wrong? Who wins? Who loses? The reality of that is enough to not need the fiction right now.

Much to my surprise, the book turns in a different direction - a far more compelling fiction. The book turns into a story of a father and a daughter. "Why are we here? What's the point? After we are stripped bare, naked before the world, after everything is taken away, all we have is our children. And we have two basic, fundamental jobs as parents. To love them. To protect them." It also becomes a commentary on quickly changing public opinion especially as influenced by today's overabundance of "news" sources and open forums on which to state that opinion. "The history of the world is the history of miscommunication."

The personal story is that of Ted Grayson, an almost sixty-year old TV anchor. He has seen considerable professional success and is well respected in this field. His personal life, however, is a shambles. His time on the road as a reporter and his focus on his career leaves him estranged from his family. Claire, his wife of thirty years wants a divorce.  His daughter Franny harbors a lifetime of regrets and resentments. At the same time, Franny wants to somewhat follow in her father's footsteps. Her career is beginning; she writes for an online website. It purports to be "news" but is truly aiming for the sensationalist clicks. Her father's downfall offers Franny a chance to build her own career as her boss offers her the opportunity to write and publish a interview. Where the conversation between father and daughter goes, I leave to your imagination or reading. What a sensationalist website does with that conversation, I also leave to your imagination or reading. Bonds are broken and healed.

The broader social commentary of this book is all about social media and its "news". The basis of this book is a casually made video that is posted online and that goes viral. Ted Grayson's fate is decided in the court of popular opinion based on this video. A sensationalist website preys upon a private conversation to gain "clicks" and exacerbate the situation. What they do may be legal, but ethics is a whole other question. Public opinion, just as quickly, turns on another video.

We knows this happens. Unfortunately, we see it in the daily headlines these days. This book does a great job of laying it out as a story. It is really this process that is the story of this timely book. The book is entertaining but does leave me reflecting on this very serious reality.


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Tuesday, May 14, 2019

The East End

Title:  The East End
Author:  Jason Allen
Publication Information:  Park Row Books. 2019. 304 pages.
ISBN:  0778308391 / 978-0778308393

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "After sunset, Corey Halpern sat parked at a dead end in Southampton with his headlights off and the dome light on, killing time before the break-in."

Favorite Quote:  "If only he could write as he saw things, maybe this place wouldnt' be so bad, though each time he'd put pen to paper and tried to describe these solo hours at the ocean, or anything else, the words remained trapped behind locked doors deep inside his head."

The East End is not a mystery. You know in the first few pages who dies and how. The East End is not a thriller either although it is a very quick read. The East End is more a look at the difference between the economic ends of the Hamptons - those who can afford the lavish, expensive summer homes and those who spend their lives working in those homes. Beyond that, The East End is a story full of troubled, flawed characters making some terrible choices in efforts to make the right ones.

The plot is a fairly straight forward one covering a period of only about 3 days. Corey and his mother Gina work in the Sheffield's home. One night, he witnesses a death at the Sheffield home. It turns out the death leads to a bigger secret about Leo Sheffield. Corey is not the only witness. The question becomes what will Leo Sheffield do to keep his secret.

The characters all run fairly close to a stereotype. Corey is the handsome, brooding teenager from the working class side of the tracks. He has his flaws, but underneath has a good heart. Gina is a struggling single mother unable to break the cycle of poverty, alcoholism, drug use, and a violent ex. Leo Sheffield is the businessman, who believes he has to keep up appearances and thinks that money is the answer. Sheila, Leo's wife, is not a true participant in the events of this book but is a strong presence as the snobby, pretentious rich woman.

The characters do not develop beyond the stereotype.That also means that not much unexpected truly happens in the book. There are no sudden shifts in character and no huge twists in the story.  Perhaps if the intent of the book is to highlight the stereotypical differences of the Hamptons society, that is exactly the point.

The book is a very dark one - literally and figuratively. Even with the short period of time the book covers, much of what happens happens at night. Through the characters, the book highlight several serious issues - a suicide attempt, a struggle with alcohol and drugs, a near rape, a need to hide sexual identity, and a penchant for risk taking. These are the undercurrents to the story and create an even darker story.

With the darkness and the short time frame, the author manages to create an intensity that keeps me turning pages even though there is no real mystery to be solved. I keep reading to find out what happens to each of these characters. Each of them makes some horrible choices - breaking and entering, alcohol, drugs, violence, theft, and more - at some point. At the same time, I find myself feeling sorry for all of them (well, all of them except for Gina's ex).

What is interesting about the ending is that it does not seem to be exactly an ending. I turn the last page and think ... but what happens to them. What happens next? The fact that I invest enough into the characters and the story to want to know says to me:  good read perfect for the beach when summer arrives.


The East End Blog Tour
Author: Jason Allen
ISBN: 9780778308393
Publication Date: 5/7/19
Publisher: Park Row Books

Author Bio:
Jason Allen grew up in a working-class home in the Hamptons, where he worked a variety of blue-collar jobs for wealthy estate owners. He writes fiction, poetry, and memoir, and is the author of the poetry collection A MEDITATION ON FIRE. He has an MFA from Pacific University and a PhD in literature and creative writing from Binghamton University, and currently lives in Atlanta, Georgia, where he teaches writing. THE EAST END is his first novel.

Book Tour:

Author Q&A:


Q: What inspired you to write THE EAST END?


A: Initially, I mainly wanted to illuminate the inner lives of the working class people of the Hamptons. I grew up there, and as a working class person in a seasonal resort area that attracts the wealthiest of the wealthy, as the Hamptons does, it’s impossible not to compare what “they” have versus what “we” have. I’d always been fascinated by just how extreme the disparity was between the multi-millionaire visitors and those of us who scraped by year after year, and that tension played out in so many ways each summer season. So I wanted to explore class, but also addiction, secrecy, obsession, and to do my best to write a complex story that highlights that tension among the disparate classes of people in the Hamptons. What I found over time, after delving into the depths of each character’s psyche, is that I truly believe that we are all more than the assumptions others might impose upon us.


Q: What are some of the main themes in the book or some of the key takeaways?


A: The main themes are class (specifically class-divide), alcoholism and addiction, secrecy, obsession, loneliness and longing, and identity (including sexual orientation/ identification). The key takeaway, I hope, is that we should try our best not to judge any book by its cover. I had an easy time empathizing with the teenaged character, Corey, even as he starts breaking into houses, and also for his mother, Gina, even as she’s hitting bottom with alcohol and pills and is relatively absent from her two sons’ daily lives. I was surprised to find how much I cared about the billionaire character, Leo Sheffield, when in the past I could have easily written him off as just another greed-driven destroyer of the world, someone who deserves no empathy—but it was gratifying to care about them all, despite their flaws and bad decisions.


Q: What are the commonalities you discovered between the elite and the middle-class characters?


A: Everyone suffers. Everyone loves. Everyone longs for something or someone. We’re all so flawed, all bumbling along through our lives; we’re all having a human experience, no matter our socioeconomic status. It just so happens that it will always be a bit harder for working class people in general—hardest of all for the poorest of the poor.


Q: What was the hardest part about writing your debut book?

A: Maintaining relationships, maybe? It’s understandable that it might not be easy for most people to be in a relationship with someone who wants to spend days off from work in their pajama pants, shut away in a room for hours at a time. The work itself, I honestly love it—even when it feels like hard work. It’s incredible that after many years of writing, now I get to work on my next novels as others are reading The East End. I guess the hardest part is what happens after the writing is finished. I want everyone to like it… haha.


Buy Links:

Social Links:
Twitter: @EathanJason



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Sunday, May 12, 2019

The Witch of Willow Hall

Title:  The Witch of Willow Hall
Author:  Hester Fox
Publication Information:  Graydon House. 2018. 368 pages.
ISBN:  1525833014 / 978-1525833014

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "It was the Bishop boy who started it all."

Favorite Quote:  "Fairy stories they might be, but every story starts from a seed of truth; if not, why would we be drawn to them as we do?"

Willow Hall has a tainted and tragic past. The Montrose family, who now calls Willow Hall home has a tainted and tragic past. The house and the family share that trait. The question is whether that past will reach out into the present and destroy this family and its future.

Father, Mother, and the three Montrose sisters - Catherine, Lydia, and Emeline - leave Boston permanently to take up residence at Willow Hall in New Oldbury. A scandal, which is gradually revealed thorughout the book, drives the Montrose family away from Boston and from society in general. A scandal also surrounds Willow Hall itself and the family of its former owner, John Barrett.

One aspect of the book I don't understand is the description and eventual reveal of the initial scandal that sends the Montrose family running from Boston. Of all the possible scandalous situations to put into a story, that seems an extreme choice. It is also never explained in the book, and nothing really comes of it. The points made are that it is scandalous beyond belief, that it is loathsome to society and to family, and that the extent of it must never become public. The reasons for it could probably be an entire book on its own. The back story of how and why is never explained in this book.  It remains an unresolved, jarring note - one that may perhaps be more memorable than the main story itself.

Interestingly, this scandal is not the main story of this book. It is the background that precipitates the events. The main story, however, is made clear by the book's title - witch. This book is about a young woman coming to terms with who and what she is and about taking control of it. In the center is Lydia. "It is one thing to know what to do, but another to find the strength and courage to do it." That is Lydia's journey. The first step is to acknowledge and accept. The second is to learn what to do. The third is to actually do it and to control it.

Embedded in the story are the emotions of family love and a romance. Surrounding it are ghost stories and the setting of an atmospheric old house, an abandoned mill, a pond, and a forest. At the heart of it is also a sibling rivalry to an extreme. "I don't know what it is about my sister, but she has the power to cut me down like no one else. My insecurities come rushing back, winding their way up my bones like ivy." There is even a duel thrown in for good measure.

Ultimately, this book is a romance and family drama much more so than about witches and ghosts. Either way, suspend disbelief, and the setup makes for a very quick, entertaining read. The Witch of Willow Hall is a debut novel. The fact that the back story of the scandal is not explained in this book and that the ending is the beginning of new relationships makes me wonder if other books are planned following the same characters. I suppose it remains to be seen.


Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Transcription

Title:  Transcription
Author:  Kate Atkinson
Publication Information:  Little, Brown, and Company. 2018. 352 pages.
ISBN:  031617663X / 978-0316176637

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Miss Armstrong?"

Favorite Quote:  "Choice, it seemed, was one of the first casualties of war."

Kate Atkinson's Life After Life was an intriguing take on a tale of reincarnation. It was a fascinating but long story. Just a bit too long for my taste. I found the book starting to drag and really slow down in the middle. I am glad I persevered to the end, but it was difficult at times.

This book is a completely different story. This is a story of World War II and espionage and of its ramifications years later. My reaction, however, is somewhat the same. It is a story with potential, but it goes on too long for my taste. In this case though, the book starts off really, really slow.

It introduces a main character, Juliet Armstrong, with her impending death. It is 1981, and she has been hit by a car. The book then goes back and wanders back and forth between 1950s and the 1940s. During the war, Juliet is recruited into the war effort and then pulled into espionage. After the war, she works for BBC and wonders if her past will stay in the past.

Unfortunately, Juliet Armstrong is a somewhat lackluster character. Perhaps, the nondescript setup is deliberate and part of the story. Perhaps, it's incidental. Either way, it becomes difficult to connect to the character which in turn makes it difficult to continue reading which in turns makes it a challenge to care about the ending. Her motivations are not revealed until the end, and sadly, by then, it is too late in the story to try and understand.

The book, from the beginning, introduces a lot of other characters, and I am not sure which ones will be important later and which ones I should remember. The book then also jumps in time and place, making it more difficult to keep the characters straight or invest in any of the side stories.

Unfortunately, I find myself without a connection to any of the characters or the story itself, making it a really challenging read. I persevere, but it is a challenge. This book theoretically builds to its twist and the big reveal.

For me, a twist in a book works if it finds a fine balance. On the one hand, it should be a surprise. On the other hand, once it arrives, I want that feeling that the clues were there all along. I should have seen it coming if I had read things the right way. If the twist is not a surprise, then it's not really a twist. If it is completely out of the blue, then it loses credibility and is not believable. It leaves me wondering where that came from. In this book, unfortunately, that is what happens. I am left wondering why I read a lengthy story only for it to go somewhere completed unexpected. What was the point of the build up?

Perhaps, after two books, I might say that the descriptions of Ms. Atkinson's books sound like stories I would enjoy. However, sadly, I don't think I am the reader for the works I have read.


Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Sold on a Monday

Title:  Sold on a Monday
Publication Information:  Sourcebooks. 2018. 352 pages.
ISBN:  1492663999 / 978-1492663997
Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Outside the guarded entrance, reporters circled like a pack of wolves."

Favorite Quote:  "Even when life's downright lousy, most kids are still so resilient because ... well, I guess 'cause they don't know any different. It's like they only realize how unfair their lives are if you tell them. And even then, all they need is the smallest amount of hope and they could do just about anything they set their minds to..."

On August 5, 1948, The Vidette-Messanger published a tragic image - four children on the front steps of a home with a sign that read, "4 children for sale. Inquire within." The image, as expected, created quite a stir at the time of publication, both for the dire straits of the family depicted and for suspicions that the image had been staged by the reporter.

Much research has been done, and many articles have been written about the family pictured and about the eventual outcomes for the children. It is a truly sad history, and one that I would likely never have known except for this fictional story.

Kristina McMorris has taken inspiration from this history and created a fiction about a similar image - this one picturing two young children and a similar sign. The book description sets up three main characters - the mother, the reporter Ellis Reed who takes the photograph, and Lilian Palmer, another employee at the newspaper. It asks the question of "how much [the reporters] are willing to risk to mend a fractured family."

In the telling, this book really becomes the story of Ellis Reed and Lilian Palmer. Both have circumstances in their lives that make the impact of this photograph intensely personal. Both are in the newspaper industry, hoping to get a break in their careers. Both also deal somewhat with the ethical implications of the decisions made regarding the photograph and the subsequent news story. A totally unnecessary romantic element to the story is also introduced.

The plot then turns to bring in the fate of the children photographed and of their mother. That introduces new characters and new back stories. This plot also adds elements of intrigue, more in line with a mystery or detective story. The story of what happens to the children could probably make an entire separate book. In this one, it overshadows both the historical context of the book and the ethical questions posed by Ellis Reed's decision.

For me, what is missing is the emotional and historical story behind such an image. What drives parents to that sense of desperation? This is briefly touched upon, but the character of the children's mother never fully develops. The economic and political history that led to the actual image is not explored in this book at all. In other words, this book uses a snippet of history but does not build on that. It is rather more a detective type story built on an old headline.

For me, what is also missing is a deeper look at the ethical and moral implications of Ellis Reed's decisions regarding the photograph. Yes, he tries to make things right, but does that undo the original decision? What are the consequences? What should be the consequences? In this day and age of attacks on press integrity and difficulty distinguishing real news and quasi-news sensationalist sources, that conversation is too important to not address. This story speaks to his guilty conscience but not the broader reaction to his choices. So, at the end, this book is an interesting story but one that leaves a lot of potential unexplored.


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Thursday, May 2, 2019

Boomer1

Title:  Boomer1
Author:  Daniel Torday
Publication Information:  St. Martin's Press. 2018. 352 pages.
ISBN:  1250191793 / 978-1250191793

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Claire Stankowitcz changed her name to Cassie Black at the beginning of her first year of college."

Favorite Quote:  "You know, lately you really have been doing a lot of what someone who didn't know you as well as I know you, as your mother, might call ranting."

I am not the reader for books in which individuals insert curse words into every conversation. I am not the reader for books that begin with sexual encounters for a character. I am not the reader for books in which that beginning character is not even the primary, central character of the book. I am not the reader for books that seems to capture the worst stereotypes of two entire generations. I am not the reader for books in which I cannot quite figure out the point. Sadly, for all these reasons, I am not the reader for this book at all.

The book begins with a rather self-centered young woman. Claire Stankowitcz has reinvented herself as Cassie Black. She is a struggling musician. She is also unsure of her own sexual identity. Random circumstance introduces her to Mark. Mark is a bluegrass musician, former journalist, and a candidate for a PhD in English. Cassie and Mark get involved. Unfortunately, her vision of the relationship ends up being vastly different from his. She leaves him.

With all this focus on Cassie at the beginning, it is interesting to learn that this book is more Mark's story and that it seems to begin when Cassie rejects him. Why then the story of Cassie? I don't know. Anyways, Mark takes his "broken" heart home to his parent's basement in Baltimore. Enter Julia, Mark's mother who is a child of the sixties and has a story of her own to tell. Why is her story in this book? I don't really know.

Mark is unhappy, broke, and living in his parent's basement. He determines that the baby boomer generation is responsible for all that ails his life. "It was the baby boomers who had what he wanted, who in their geologic later years had petrified until they were protecting all the natural resources, who had what his friends and his colleagues and his fellow alumni and all those twenty-year-olds and thirty-year-olds and even some forty-year-olds in all the bars in Fort Green and Bushwik and Williamsburgh, in Oakland and Berkeley and Petaluma, in crown heights and Prospect Heights and Pacific Heights and Ditmas Park, wanted."

It is unclear quite how that leap happens, but it does. So begins his verbal war on an entire generation. So begin the "boomer missives." The book continues through these three different perspectives. The idea is essentially to present these different approaches to life and three different perspectives on the state of the world as the boomer missives begin in 2010. The plot is essentially that what starts as a verbal diatribe gets out of hand. In this day and age of things going viral, that seems an almost forgone conclusion. Of course, it gets out of hand. The question for me is do I really care?

The issue for me lies in a statement that Mark makes towards the beginning of this venture. "I want to tell you a story, and I want you to think about just where you fit in that story yourself." The issue for me is that I don't find myself fitting into this story at all.


Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

The Phantom Tree

Title:  The Phantom Tree
Author:  Nicola Cornick
Publication Information:  Graydon House. 2018. 384 pages.
ISBN:  1525805991 / 978-1525805998

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "She saw the portrait quite by chance, or so she thought."

Favorite Quote:  "It is entirely possible to bargain with an enemy if there is something that you both want and so it proved. Thus we were bound together through time."

The Phantom Tree has a little bit of a lot of things in it - England in the 1500s, time travel, the role of women in society, witches, history, adventure, romance, male privilege, and strong, sympathetic characters. What I enjoy most about the book is that the twists and turns manage to surprise me. A few I see coming, but several I don't. This keeps me turning the pages until the very last one. The twists - one in particular - also gets me emotionally. I wish things had turned out differently. That surprises me because I do not feel particularly attached to the character until that point.

Those are my cryptic summary thoughts on a book that has its shares of mysteries.

Alison Bannister sees a portrait claimed to be a previously undiscovered painting of Anne Boelyn. Alison knows better. She knows that the image is of Mary Seymour. Further, Alison knows that the image holds the key to her past. For, Alison is a time traveller stuck in a time that is not hers.

Alison and Mary meet as little girls when both are orphaned and thrown upon the mercies of family members during the 1500s in England. They are thrown together and forced to get along. They do not exactly become friends. Little do they know that their fates are forever entwined, and one will perhaps be the best friend to the other.

Circumstances and sometimes their own naivete and choices create a turbulent childhood. "People with happy families so often don't realize how lucky they are." As teenagers (which was a ripe old age for a girl at that time), things get worse. I leave you to imagine what worse may mean for a young woman without family and backing at that time.

From the very beginning, we know how Alison's story for this time period sort of ends. She finds herself in a different time period and begins a new life. How does she get there? What keeps her there? Why? What becomes of Mary? Having now seen the portrait, what choice will Alison make about the past, the present, and the future? What of her new life, where people don't know that she is from the past?

These are the questions that this book tumbles through as I keep turning pages to see where it goes and what becomes of these girls. Reader beware. Although the main characters are young women, this is an adult book with violence and adult themes and situations.

The mix of historical fiction with time travel works in this book. The time travel seems to go along with the belief in witches and curses prevalent at the time. The book at no time feels futuristic or science fiction like. The time travel simply requires the same suspension of disbelief as putting myself in England in the middle of the 1500s.

Contrasting this premise, the emotions of the book feel real. Alison's quest for the past seems entirely believable even when she has found and created a beautiful new life. Mary's innocence in the face of the connivers that surround her also seems credible. Maybe, all of this happens because I vest in the stories of these characters. Regardless of the reason, this book holds my attention all the way through to the end.


Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.