Thursday, March 15, 2018

Dangerous Crossing

Title:  Dangerous Crossing
Author:  Rachel Rhys
Publication Information:  Atria Books. 2018. 368 pages.
ISBN:  1501162721 / 978-1501162725

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

Opening Sentence:  "Sandwiched between two policemen, the woman descends the gangplank of the ship."

Favorite Quote:  "I only wanted to tell you that you will survive this, even though you might think that you cannot. You just have to keep putting one foot in front of the other, one step at a time."

On the eve of World War II, a young woman leaves her home and her family to travel half way across the world to begin a new life in Australia. Lily Shepard leaves behind the secrets of her past and looks to begin again. This sounds like a story of adventure, courage, and history coming to life.

Unfortunately, the book becomes the story of the ocean voyage itself - a view on to a fish bowl, if you will. It is a snapshot of a diverse group that come together in close quarters for a finite period of time. The only commonality that draws these individuals together is the fact that they are on this journey together. Max and his wife Eliza. Edward and his sister Helena. A Jewish refugee named Maria. A fascist named George. And, of course, Lily.

They represent different economic, social, religious, and cultural backgrounds. This is the nod to the history underlying the book. The ship in the book is the SS Orontes, an actual ocean liner that ran the England to Australia route during the 1930s until it was commandeered as a troops ship in 1940.

However, the book is not really about the history. It is about the stories of these individuals - the pasts they leave behind and the secrets they hide. Unfortunately, this devolves into a story of who is chasing who, who likes someone, who does not. In other words, this is a story of relationships, the socially acceptable ones and the ones considered taboo at the time. The stereotypes and social norms of the time become the motivating point for the characters.

The book description puts forth the mystery of two deaths during this voyage. However, the mystery is not much of one since the events do not occur until well into the book. The majority of this book is about the relationships and the characters.

As such, most of the book feels slow and often repetitious. Sea sickness. On again, off again flirtations. An occasional nod to the political background of the time. The "cultural" aspect of a new port thrown in for good measure. The story bounces along until the big secret finally emerges. At the end, I am left questioning. I read over 350 pages for that?

Plot aside, a book can create a great reading experience through a compelling character. Again, the book description sets up Lily Shepard as a young woman independent enough and courageous enough to take on this journey away from everything she has ever known. There are hints at a sadness in Lily's past that compels her to take this journey. That, however, is not really developed in the book.

Unfortunately, the character envisioned by the description does not come to life within the story itself. Lily seems more buffeted around by the events and the characters around her. Her story on board this ship unfortunately turns into one about a man rather than one about an independent woman standing on her own. The other characters actually have the more interesting stories, but the book's focus is Lily. Sadly, both the plot and the main character make this not the book for me.

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

Monday, March 12, 2018

The Boat People

Title:  The Boat People
Author:  Sharon Bala
Publication Information:  Doubleday. 2018. 352 pages.
ISBN:  0385542291 / 978-0385542296

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

Opening Sentence:  "Mahindan was flat on his back when the screaming began, one arm right-angled over his eyes."

Favorite Quote:  "You have come to a good place. There is room for you here."

Civil war in Sri Lanka turned thousands into refugees. Fiction such as The Story of a Brief Marriage by Anuk Arudpragasam and Island of a Thousand Mirrors by Nayomi Munaweera described this harrowing war and reinforce the fact that in war, the victims are on all sides.

This book picks up on an actual historical event that resulted from the Sri Lankan civil war. In August, 2010, the Thai cargo ship MV Sun Sea brought almost five hundred Sri Lankan refugees to British Columbia, Canada. The ship had been tracked since June and was finally intercepted by Canadian authorities. The refugees were placed in a detention facility, and a lengthy process began to determine admissibility into Canada. The arguments waged on all sides. These were families seeking to escape violence and destruction; these were insurgent seeking to bring illicit activities and instability into Canada. Both arguments likely had merit depending on the case. The question was how to separate one from the other. Two years passed. The majority of the refugees were released; some were deported. Some investigations continued.

This book brings to life this heated conversation through fiction. If I have one criticism, it is that the book tries too hard to cover every angle of this refugee conversation:
  • Refugees who face "exhaustion where he thought of the future; terror when he remembered the past"
  • Attorneys and organizations who work to provide help
  • Politicians on either side of the conversation - "Canada is not in the business of turning refugees away. If we err, let it be on the side of compassion." versus "... a brown man with a beard begging for asylum? ... Not on my watch."
  • Immigrants - "third-culture people who slipped in and out of identities like shoes" - who are completely a part of their adopted homeland and yet straddle between the culture they call home and the culture they call heritage
  • Immigrants who are completely a part of their adopted homeland and find no immediate connection with the people or culture of their heritage
  • Survivors of the Japanese internment during World War II to draw a comparison between the two situations (This is the piece that feels like a stretch to include in this story.)
The book does, however, successfully bring to life the hopes and the fears on all sides. The most emotional of the stories is that of Mahindan and his young son. Mahindan is one of the refugees. He lost his wife in childbirth; he makes this journey with his young son. At the detention center, he is separated from his son for the men's accommodations provide no place for children.

Mahidan's story is of the refugees hearings in Canada. Chapters also reach back into the past to his childhood, his loving marriage, the losses he faced, and the impossible decisions he made to get to this point. "Did she now know what it was like to have so little agency? To be faced with such cruel options it was as if there was no choice at all?"

The difficult but very real thing about this book is that it gives no answers and no absolutes.
Even the ending is not neatly wrapped into a package. I actually turned the page looking for more and am surprise when there is not. As a reader of fiction, I want an ending. In this book, for some, there is an ending. For some, there is a beginning. For some, there is neither; the story seems to stop in the middle of their journey. However, that is the reality of this very emotional situation. There are no easy answers, only a hope for peace and compassion and an appreciation for any meaningful effort to keep the conversation going.

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

Thursday, March 8, 2018

The Immortalists

Title:  The Immortalists
Author:  Chloe Benjamim
Publication Information:  G.P. Putnam's Sons. 2018. 352 pages.
ISBN:  0735213186 / 978-0735213180

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

Opening Sentence:  "Varya is thirteen."

Favorite Quote:  "She knew that stories did have the power to change things:  the past and the future, even the present ... the power of words. They weaseled under door cracks and through keyholes. They hooked into individuals and wormed through generations."

If you knew the day you were going to die, how differently would you live your life? Does your belief or lack of belief in that piece of information determine your choices? Is it your choices that make the prophecy come true, or was it predestined anyways? If you are given this information, does your belief or lack of belief even matter? Is the knowledge alone enough to influence your choices?

These are the questions this book grapples with. The story is told through the eyes of the four Gold siblings - Varya, Simon, Klara, and Daniel. It is the summer of 1969 in New York's Lower East Side. Varya is 13, Daniel is 11, Klara is 9 and Simon is 7. The Gold children hear of a woman with the ability to tell your future. In particular, the psychic claims the ability to tell anyone the day they are going to die.

They latch on to the idea and find the woman. Individually, they meet with her and then go running. What starts out as a harmless adventure rattles all of them. The question remains. Is it the knowledge that leads to the path or was the path pre-determined? Regardless, the information causes irrevocable changes in their lives.

The book then continues the story in what feels like four connected novellas - one for each of the siblings. The book begins with Varya's voice in that fateful summer. Simon's story goes from 1978-1982. Klara's story picks up the thread in 1982 and continues through 1991. Daniel's story joins in 1991 and continues through 2006. Finally, the book ends again with Varya's story.

The stories, particularly Simon's, also picks up on the social history of the times. Mind you, the stories are not always easy reading. The characters are not always likable. However, what remains is that throughout the lives of these individuals, I see peeking through the children that they were when given the burden of knowledge. In that way, the book reminds of The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt.  The stories have the qualities of a train wreck - terrible things happen and catastrophic decisions are made; yet, as a reader, I cannot look away. Regardless of the bad choices, I care about these children and what happens to them. I want things to work out for them.

The book begins with what is the most compelling of the stories - Simon's. It is heartbreaking and terrible to watch what happens to this young man even when much of it happens by his own choices. The least engaging and perhaps most unbelievable of the stories is Daniel's. Perhaps, that is by intent for Daniel refuses to acknowledge a belief in the prophecy. Yet, his decisions belie that statements. He sets out to make things right, but his choice leads to something completely different. It leads back to the question of choice or destiny.

As expected, the book also makes some strong statements about life and belief. Some of the ones I find memorable:
  • "Nobody picks their life. I sure didn't ... Here's what happens:  you make choices, and then they make choices. You choices makes choices."
  • "Most adults claim not to believe in magic, but Klara knows better. Why else would anyone play at permanence - fall in love, have children, buy a house - in the face of all evidence there's no such thing? The trick is not the convert them. The trick is to get them to admit it."
  • "Life isn't just about defying death ... It's also about defying yourself, about insisting on transformation. As long as you can transform, my friends, you cannot die. What does Clark Kent have in common with the chameleon? Right when they're on the brink of destruction, they change. Where have they gone? Nowhere we can see. The chameleon has become a branch. Clark Kent has become Superman."
A memorable book that leaves me with the firm belief that I do not ever wish to pursue the knowledge given to these children. True or not, believed or not, it changes lives. Words matter, and thoughts matter.

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

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Tell Me More

Title:  Tell Me More
Author:  Kelly Corrigan
Publication Information:  Random House. 2018. 240 pages.
ISBN:  039958837X / 978-0399588372

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

Opening Sentence:  "There was no real reason for it to fall apart that morning."

Favorite Quote:  "The other problem with language is that arranging words into sentences requires we flip on our thinking machine, which necessarily claims some of our focus, so that as soon as we start deciding how to explain a feeling, we're not entirely feeling the feeling anymore, and some feelings want to be felt at full capacity."

The subtitle of this book refers to "the 12 hardest things I'm learning to say." That begs the question. What things? The answer is in the chapter titles. It's like this. Tell me more. I don't know. I know. No. Yes. I was wrong. Good enough. I love you. No words at all. Onward. This is it.
As a memoir, this question-based structure implies that the book is more essay-like than a chronological story. Each essay pulls together Ms. Corrigan's experiences that, for her, address the thought of that chapter. The focal point of each essay is the title idea; the personal stories are the supporting evidence. Each essay stands alone. However, the life story can seem to stop abruptly and pick up again at a different point in the book when the same individuals or situations are used in a different chapter. The structure also means that the continuity of the emotion is not there consistently. I find myself feeling the joy and the sadness momentarily, but then the book moves on to something else. Sometimes, it winds its way back to that situation again, but then the emotional connection has to be found again. The point here is to convey the ideas not necessarily tell the story.

The scenarios from Ms. Corrigan's life captured in this book reflect her demographic of a seemingly comfortable lifestyle with a stable home and income; the challenges and lessons described do not stem from that struggle. The situations range from the day to day task of parenting teenagers to the life-changing loss of a parent to the tragic, very premature death of a friend. There are others, but it is these three that stand out to me. The stories of grief touches my heart, and the descriptions of her teenage daughters in particular leave me wondering what her daughters think of the way in which they are portrayed.

The book description refers to Ms. Corrigan's writing as "the streetwise, ever-relatable voice." The ever-relatable aspect is the conversational tone of the book. At times, it reads like a conversation over a cup of tea with a friend, but more often, it is a stream of consciousness thought process related to the idea of the chapter title. It jumps, but as a reader, it takes me longer to follow that jump.

The "streetwise" may refer to her use of what may be at times inappropriate language especially in a household with teenagers. Her humor is often referred to as self-deprecating, but at times it seems too much so. Certain moments of the book reach me, but much of it does not touch an emotional cord.

A book of this nature relies on its feeling of authenticity. That is what creates my connection as a reader. I do not for one second question the authenticity of Ms. Corrigan's experiences or emotions. Just as a book, this telling seems to come across to me as trying too hard to portray that authenticity. Moments touch me, but overall I am not moved. It's not bad, but it does not grab me as I expect it would.

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

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Last Stop in Brooklyn

Title:  Last Stop in Brooklyn:  A Mary Handley Mystery
Author:  Lawrence H. Levy
Publication Information:  Broadway Books. 2018. 320 pages.
ISBN:  0451498445 / 978-0451498441

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

Opening Sentence:  "On December 4, 1891, Russell Sage had a hunch."

Favorite Quote:  "Change has to start somewhere ... Who knows? Maybe honesty and fairness will catch on and push aside the greed and violence that have gripped our country."

This book is the third in the series of Mary Handley mysteries. All are set in the 1890s in Brooklyn, New York. Interestingly, for all its layers, the one thing the book does not bring to life in detail is the place. A lot of the book is set in and around Coney Island - the last stop in Brooklyn. At this time in history, Coney Island was one of the larges amusement parks in the country. Millions of visitors flocked to Coney Island every year. This book is more about New York political history than about Coney Island, however.

Mary Handley is Brooklyn's first female private detective. As such, she fights social norms with her profession and her independence. While Mary does not work for the New York Police Department (NYPD), she is connected in positive and negative ways with the work of the police. Some try and use her skill in solving crimes; some would rather not have her investigate where they feel she does not belong.

The books are also connected to the history of Brooklyn and New York. Real historical figures feature in the books. In this book, that translates to Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th president of the United States. Interestingly, about a decade before he became President, Mr. Roosevelt served as the President of the New York Board of Police Commissioners. In that position, he was responsible for introducing significant reforms to address the corruption within the Police Department. In this work, Mr. Roosevelt was assisted by journalist and photographer Jacob Riis who also makes an appearance in this book along side of some of New aristocracy.

The plot of the book has many layers of mystery. Mary starts off investigating what seems like a relatively straight forward adultery case. From that, she get involved in a cold case about the murder of a prostitute. A man was sent to jail, but was it the right man? From that comes a pattern of similar murders all the way to a relatively recent one. That leads Mary much deeper into a plot that suggests corruption at the highest level of the Police Department. In the background is Mary's family and personal life and the historical prejudices and divides of the time.

The focal point of the story is clearly the history of corruption and prejudice. The solution to the prostitute murders, when finally revealed, seems almost tangential. To me, the different story lines do not tie together into a cohesive whole although the story lines do stem from the same set of murders. However, one - the identity of the murderer - goes very personal, and the other - the police handling of the cases - goes very societal. As such, they seem independent of each other.

What is eerie about this book is how current it sounds. The setting is Brooklyn in the 1890s, but so many of the conversations could be and are taking place today. Part of the reason is that the tone of the book is very modern compared to the time period. Part of it is the fact that the issues remain relevant today. Race relations. Immigration. Corruption. Prejudice. Women's equality. The names and the faces have changed, but sadly, many of the conversations remain.

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

Sunday, February 25, 2018

The Music Shop

Title:  The Music Shop
Author:  Rachel Joyce
Publication Information:  Random House. 2018. 320 pages.
ISBN:  0812996682 / 978-0812996685

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

Opening Sentence:  "There was once a music shop."

Favorite Quote:  "Helping someone is entirely different from being involved. Helping is all on your own terms."

This book picks up on a formula often used in books. A bookseller, a dressmaker, a musician, and so on has a special ability to find just the right book, dress, music, etc. to meet the needs of their customer. The customer most often does not even realize their own needs. Of course, the bookseller, dressmaker, musician, etc. has his or her own needs and angst. Slowly, in solving the concerns of other, he or she manages to find their own path forward.

The books have the potential to be sweet and uplifting. They call for a belief in that ability or the "magic" of the book. Call it magic, call it serendipity, call it grace. Whatever the name, we all have that need to believe. Overall, the stories are feel good reads. The biggest "if" of the stories is the reader's ability to believe.

The time period is the 1980s London. The setting is a run-down neighborhood of London. The significance of time to this book is because of the technology of music. The early 1980s were when music compact discs (CDs) came our commercially. They could store more music. They did not have to be rewound like cassettes tapes. They eliminated some of the scratch and interference of records. They introduced an entirely new way of sharing and listening to music.

Most people made the switch, but not Frank, the operator of a small music shop. He is older, set in his ways, and quirky as such characters are likely to be. His biggest stand is that he refuses to embrace CDs and is insistent on selling only vinyl records. Why? It's never quite clear. It is interesting as currently, vinyl is making a comeback in music. Unfortunately, for Frank at that time, vinyl records are a losing proposition.

Of course, Frank is surrounded by a cast of other quirky characters. The retired priest who runs a gift shop. The tattoo artist who likes Frank but who Frank never quite sees. Frank's assistant who has the best intentions to help but that often leads to disaster. Finally, Ilse Brauchmann who mysteriously arrives on Frank's doorstep and changes everything.

In addition to the characters, the book has a lot of story lines. Periodically, chapters reveal Frank's eccentric childhood and the love and the scars it leaves behind. Frank makes certain choices about his music business which have implications for the store. The run-down little street is threatened by building code violations and developers looking to take over. Frank and Ilse Brauchmann develop an instant connection, providing the love story in the book. There is a story of unrequited love. After all that, a fire is thrown in for good measure.

One reason for picking this book is the fact that I do believe in the impact of music. I have different pieces I turn to based on what emotional need I have at a particular moment in time. In this day of digital music, that constitute that I have a play list for every mood.

Unfortunately for me, this book becomes about something different than the power of music. I never quite buy into the characters or the story. I cannot quite identify why, but I don't. Perhaps, it is the multiple story lines. Perhaps, it is the insta-love story of Frank and Ilse. Perhaps, it's a lot of characters, dispersing the focal point of the book. Somewhat, it never quite becomes real for, which is sad because a sweet, feel good story about the power of music would be a welcome one.

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

Friday, February 23, 2018


Title:  Green
Author:  Sam Graham-Felsen
Publication Information:  Random House. 2018. 320 pages.
ISBN:  0399591141 / 978-0399591143

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

Opening Sentence:  "I am the white boy at the Martin Luther King Middle."

Favorite Quote:  "What I'm trying to say is that best - the only - way to think about things is systemically. That's a big, scary word, so I'll say it again. Sys-tem-ic-ally. I know you came here to ask, 'How did Skip make it?' But I'd rather you ask, 'How come hardly anyone else is making it?' What's the system doing to hold so many of us back?"

I so want to love this book. The discussion of racial and economic inequality is such an important one in our society. Any attempt to add to that conversation in a positive meaningful way are welcome. What makes this book even more intriguing is the fact that it present a different perspective on the conversation. The narrator is David Greenfeld, a middle school student who is one of the few white students at Martin Luther King Jr Middle School in Boston in 1992. He experiences life as a minority in his school.

Interestingly, there is actually a Martin Luther King K-8 school in Boston. I don't know if the reference in the book is to that school, or if the name in the book is given for other, more obvious reasons. It really does not matter to the story; I just like to see if the connections exist in real life.

Another historical note is the fact that the book is set in 1992 around the time of the Rodney King trial. That verdict of the trial led to violent riots in Los Angeles and repercussions on race relations that were felt throughout the country if not the world. This context seems a deliberate choice to add another layer to the story.

The book seeks to the tell the story of a friendship, of boys growing up, and of a realization that inequality exists. David Greenfeld finds that even growing up in an environment where he feels a minority, his race and his parent's socio-economic backgrounds provides him with privileges and opportunities that do not exist for many around him. A powerful lesson.

Because of the topics it discusses and the lesson it intends, I want to love this book. The intention is clearly there. Unfortunately, for me, those points get lost in the telling of this story. The narrator is a middle school boy. If you know middle school boys, you know that that age at times has a language of its own, and at most times, that age is a mix of immaturity and hormones.

It is these factors that make this book a challenge for me. In an attempt to bring to life middle school, the book speaks in slang. Unfortunately, the slang is at times difficult to understand and at times just too much. For me, the language steps over the story and becomes a focal point because I find myself spending more time to understand the words than to capture the meaning.

The other undeniable aspect of that age is puberty and an interest in sexual exploration. Unfortunately, I find much of the repeated sexual references and the slang terminology to describe those interactions off putting. For this reason, while the book has a middle school narrator, parents and educators should preview the book to ensure its appropriateness for their audience. Also, this aspect of growing up is not the intended focus of this book. Unfortunately, for me, it becomes a focal point, taking away from the main story.

I applaud the intent and the effort although the end result is not for me.

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