Monday, September 25, 2017

The Misfortune of Marion Palm

Title:  The Misfortune of Marion Palm
Author:  Emily Culliton
Publication Information:  Knopf. 2017. 304 pages.

ISBN:  1524731900 / 978-1524731908

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

Opening Sentence:  "Marion Palm is on the lam."

Favorite Quote:  "It still astounds her that as a family they collectively did nothing. It must have been hard to do so little. It had to be."

Marion Palm walks out on her family - her husband and her two young daughters. Is it to be a journey of self-discovery? Is it to be foul play? Is there a secret life to be discovered? The book has so many directions in which it can go. How will it move forward?

Therein lies the issue for me. The book does not truly move forward. It moves backwards into Marion's past and the reasons she gets to this point. However, that past is not about her marriage or her children. They are almost an aside for her. Her past reaches back to her childhood, and the journey by which Marion Palm learns to steal. She is, in her own words, not a thief but a "woman who embezzles." It satisfies a need in her, and she is seemingly good at it. She has managed to embezzle almost $200,000 from her daughters' school. Fear of getting caught supposedly makes her run, but as the story develops, perhaps that is not the only reason she runs. Constraints of family seem not to be for Marion Palm.

Therein lies the other issue for me. The other perspectives in this book are those of Marion Palm's husband and her daughters even though they may not necessarily be the center of her story. Nathan has inherited a trust fund and is otherwise a struggling author. He is also completely self-involved. His is not surprised by Marion's departure, nor does he seem overly concerned.

Ginny and Jane, one a teenager and the other even younger face their own issues which have something to do with their mother but not entirely. They are abandoned by their mother at a restaurant, but that seems not the have the impact you think it might. They act out and get into trouble, but again that seems less about their mother's disappearance than about an entire dysfunctional household. Jane's story also encompasses an autistic boy who goes missing at the same time. I am still not entire sure what role that plays in this entire book.

Marion's all deal with Marion's disappearance in their own way, but, at the same time, nobody seems overly concerned. The most concerned individuals in the book seem to be the school board member who want to reclaim the embezzled money and the detective who is investigating the matter. They seem to be commentary on the Palm family, which is clearly dysfunctional and scattered.

Unfortunately, none of the main character generate interest or empathy. I keep reading to see if the story develops. Will there be a reckoning for Marion's embezzling? Will there be a resolution to Nathan and Marion's marriage? Will the need of young children impact a mother's decisions? There really is not a conclusion. The book ends somewhat as it begins; the only plot point seems to be that Marion Palm walks out on her family. To some extent, the entire book feels like the middle of a story. I want to know more about the beginning, and I want there to be an ending that brings closure.

The marketing for the book promises wit and humor. Sadly, I find neither in the book. It is a sad snapshot with unlikable characters. The marketing also promises an adventurous "bad girl" heroine. I am all for "bad girl" heroines to cheer for. However, I find myself not cheering for this one.


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Thursday, September 21, 2017

How to Find Love in a Book Shop

Title:  How to Find Love in a Book Shop
Author:  Veronica Henry
Publication Information:  Pamela Dorman Books. 2017. 352 pages.
ISBN:  0735223491 / 978-0735223493

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

Opening Sentence:  "He would never have believed it if you'd told him a year ago."

Favorite Quote:  "It was the kind of bookshop that stole time:  people had been know to miss meetings and trains, lost among the shelves."

Sometimes I just need a feel good book. A book about small town life with everyone knowing everyone and all lives intermingled has its quirky characters. Sweet love stories often make a charming read. As an avid reader, of course, I am a sucker for books set in and around bookshops or libraries. It's an added bonus when I can have all of that in one.

This book works. It's not complicated. It's not hard to envision how the story will go or how the book will end. There is no great mystery. There are no action sequences. There is no big denouement. It is simply a sweet, charming story that is perfect for a beach read or a cozy fall read with a blanket and a cup of tea.

The book begins with an ending. Emilia's father dies. She is devastated as her father was the one parent she ever knew. Life will never be the same. Not for Emilia and not for many others in the small village of Peasebrook. Julius Nightingale was the owner and operator of Nightingale Books (such a lovely name for a bookshop!). He moved to town with his infant daughter and never left. He lived a quiet life in his little bookshop in a quiet town. Yet, his death leaves a bigger gap in the town's life than his daughter ever imagined.

The book briefly tells Julian's own tragic love story, but the main story is about Emilia and the other residents of Peasebrook.  Every character has a story, and almost everyone has a love story. A secret love. An old flame. A love too shy to express itself. A love that remains quiet because it feels unworthy. A love lost. A love tested by the arrival of a child. A selfish emotion that calls itself love. A friendship that now shows glimmers of something more. A once-love that is now more a friendship and a partnership. Love and life in the town of Peasebrook gravitates around Emilia and Nightingale Books.

The individual love stories are tempered by the love of a community for one of its own. The town (or at least most of the town) gathers around Emilia through her father's death and through the fact that Nightingale Books is in financial trouble. Julius was dedicated to the people in his life; he was much more lax about the business end of Nightingale Books. His illness exacerbates the problem, and Emilia inherits a mess. A developer stands ready to pounce of the valuable real estate. To Emilia, the store is her childhood, her legacy, and her promise to her father all rolled up in one. However, can she make it work with the physical and financial mess Julian leaves behind? With her own persistence and with a little help from her friends, maybe - just maybe - she can.

As a reader, I find myself engaged in her story and in all the love stories in the book. I hope that each and every one works out.


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Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Sisters

Title:  Sisters
Author:  Lily Tuck
Publication Information:  Atlantic Monthly Press. 2017. 176 pages.
ISBN:  0802127118 / 978-0802127112

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

Opening Sentence:  "We are not related - not remotely."

Favorite Quote:  "I also wanted to ask him:  And who do you love best? Me or her?"


My first reaction upon opening up this book is, "That's it?" I check my galley many times and am almost ready to send a message saying I received an excerpt and not a complete book. Then, I do a little research, and discover that I do indeed have the complete narrative and that indeed is all there is. My next reaction is, "Really?"

Anyways, past that bumpy beginning, I settle in to read the book. Short novel? Long short story? Novella? Call it what you will. Sometimes, much can be said and conveyed in a short span. So, I begin and end, reading the entire story in one sitting.

At first glance, this book is a story of a marriage, much like Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offil. Both books are about a relationship. The biggest similarity is the one that makes these books unusual. None of the characters have names. They are identified in relationship to each other. Husband. Wife. Son. Daughter.

This book, however, goes so far beyond the relationships. This is a book about one woman's obsessions and the destructive power of those obsessions. The "sisters" in this book are two women who are at different times married to the same man. The first wife is also the mother of two children - a boy and a girl - who are now the step-children of the second wife. The narrator is the second wife.

The salient facts of the relationships are as follows. Husband and wife number one were at some point happily married. They have two children together. Husband met wife number two while still married to wife number 1, "but by then he and his wife were not getting along." A divorce happened, and Husband is now married to wife number two. Marriage number two has now existed for several years for the son in now an adult and a a daughter is now married.

However, wife number two is obsessed with wife number one. This is a book of that obsession. The story is a stream of consciousness tell-all that sounds like it comes from a therapist's couch. Wife number two's memories jump through time, back and forth from the beginning of her relationship with Husband to the present time. The bigger memories are co-mingled with the minutiae of life - a speeding ticket, a meal, a dress, etc. - which add details but little relevance.

In essence, this book is a character sketch of a disturbed, obsessed mind. One element seems missing from the book. This woman displays an incredible memory for the details of years ago, but no memories indicates that any person in her life recognized her obsessions or attempted to get her help.

 Unfortunately, some of obsessive tendencies translate into actions that I do not care for. Translate that into eeewwww and just no. Saying exactly what this bend in the story is would be a spoiler. So, I am just leaving it at it's not for me. These segues could easily have been left out without impacting what story there is.

The ending, though not surprising, is very abrupt. The ending symbolizes the effect of her obsessions but clearly would not the end of the obsessions. Thus, the book at this end feels unfinished. Overall, an unlikable main character and story line but a memorable book for its short length and unusual approach.


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Monday, September 18, 2017

The Underground River

Title:  The Underground River
Author:  Martha Conway
Publication Information:  Touchstone. 2017. 352 pages.
ISBN:  1501160206 / 978-1501160202

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

Opening Sentence:  "When the steamboat Moselle blew apart just off its Cincinnati landing, I was sitting below deck in the ladies' cabin, sewing tea leaves into little muslin bags and plotting revenge on my cousin Comfort for laughing at me during dinner."

Favorite Quote:  "We want to believe a story is true. We use our imagination to convince ourselves. We can't help it."

Much history has been written of the underground railroad, an informal networks of home and individuals that provided a path for those escaping slavery in the United States. So, the premise of this book about following a similar path on the "underground river" in the 1800s intrigues me.

History also tells of numerous, courageous abolitionists who risk everything for their beliefs that slavery always has been and always will be wrong. The premise of this book about a woman who becomes a coerced helper in this endeavor intrigues me. May gets involved in the underground journey because she has a debt to pay; she have never been exposed much to or thought much about the horrible institution of slavery. The idea of following on her journey of learning and her ultimate belief in what she is doing intrigues me. The potential for a story of an awakening intrigues me.

All of this, of course, is from the book description. That description and the cover are what lead me to pick up this book. Unfortunately, the book does not deliver what I expect, and I end the book disappointed. Based on my expectations, I am not the reader for this book.

Primarily, I expect a story of slavery - those who wish to perpetuate it, those who hope to escape it, and those who help along the way. That story is in the book, but it does not enter the book until almost half way through. The first half of the book is about a riverboat theater and the cast of characters who call it home. There is a brewing love story, descriptions of the riverboat and theater cultures, and the stories of relationships and conflicts that arise living in such close quarters.

The story centers around May, who joins the riverboat theater after she is essentially abandoned by her cousin Comfort Vertue (yes, that is the name). The key character trait stressed about May is, "I can be very literal ... when I talk ... I say what I think." This is further elaborated into the fact that May thinks herself incapable of lying. This, of course, is put to the test as she gets involved in the underground river. The only issue is that this trait is stressed over and over again. It is stressed not through actions, but essentially repeated many times over in words. After while, my reaction is that I get it. May is literal. Move on. Tell me something else.

That leads to my third issue in the book. It tells a story. That's what a book is supposed to do, right? Yes, up to a point. However, the books that pull me in are the ones that don't seem to tell the story. Rather, the characters appear to be living the story. This book, for me, never reaches that point. Hence, I am never fully engaged in the characters or the plot. That, to me, is disappointing for a book whose premise holds such promise.


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Thursday, September 14, 2017

The List

Title:  The List
Author:  Patricia Forde
Publication Information:  Sourcebooks. 2017. 336 pages.
ISBN:  1492647969 / 978-1492647966

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

Opening Sentence:  "Smith Fearful was a scavenger."

Favorite Quote:  "Without words, we will be imprisoned in the here and now forever ... The here and now is only the smallest part of who were are. Each of us is all that we have been, all our stories, all that we could be."

The List is a middle grade book that is based on the interesting premise that if you control people's ability to communicate, you control their actions and hence their impact on the world. Limits communication and you limit an individual's ability to influence their environment.

The List is set in a post-apocalyptic, dystopian world where man's abuse of Earth has caused The Melting, a literal melting of the polar ice caps. One man, Noa, saw it coming and successfully built a place called the Ark. The names in this book are not the most creative ones, but perhaps that is because it is geared towards a younger audience, and more obvious connections influence comprehension.

Noa seeks to create a world - to save the world - but according to his rules. Control and force are the source of his power. A key tenet of the Ark is to limit communication. Music and the arts have been forbidden. Language itself is limited to, as you might guess from the title, a list. The list is about 500 words but getting shorter by Noa's decree. Certain professions have additional words specific to their work, but those are to be used only by specific people and in specific circumstances. Beyond that, words are whittled down to what Noa considers the essentials.

Benjamin is the wordsmith of the Ark. His job is to collect errant words and be the keeper of the list. Letter (makes me think letter?) is his twelve year old apprentice. As often happens in such books, her childhood has a tragic story. Sadly, in his word searching, Benjamin disappears, and Letta becomes the official wordsmith.


Of course, she learns that things are not always what they seem in the Ark, and that the individual viewed as the savior of this community may have other plans. Conflict between the two sides persists.  Note that the book does have scenes of violence and some descriptions of torture. Parents and teachers should determine its appropriateness for their middle grade audience.

As a adult reading the book, the story has two competing forces - the power and love of language and the environmental statement on the destruction of Earth by man. It is the environmental message that is at the heart of this book. Language is a means to control man towards Noa's environmental goals. Interestingly, for a book with a strong environmental message, the story includes no real if age-appropriate scientific information. Only one character is depicted as a scientist, and he exists on the periphery of the Ark society.

In fact, in a story of the past, Benjamin tells Letta about how "they [scientists] were seen as the enemy, the people who had opposed the Green Warriors before the Melting. There was no place for them in Ark." It is unclear how to balance that with the fact that current science is pointing out the dangers of man's abuse of earth. It is, in fact, the scientists leading the charge for environmental protection, and others who undermine science. On that point, the story may be confusing for a young audience. Which side is science on?

What I do leave the book with is the love and necessity of language. I can't imagine limiting it to a list. I can, however, imagine being a wordsmith whose life's work is to gather words.


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Monday, September 11, 2017

The Readymade Thief

Title:  The Readymade Thief
Author:  Augustus Rose
Publication Information:  Viking. 2017. 384 pages.
ISBN:  0735221839 / 978-0735221833

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

Opening Sentence:  "To make your way to the DePaul Aquarium and Museum of Natural History, on Petty Island in the middle of the Delaware River, you can drive through New Jersey and over the only bridge."

Favorite Quote:  "What do you do when the one true thing in your life turns out to be a lie?"

The story of the thief begins in the middle. Someone from the past has found her, and she does not want to be found. Lee Cuddy is only seventeen years old and has already been through a lot in her life. She is living on the periphery of society, under the radar, making do as best as she can.

There is a lot going on in this book. Shoplifting. Teenage angst. Child abuse. Homeless teenagers. Criminal cults. Murder. Physics theories. Ancient codes embedded in art work. Internet hackers. Sex trade. Drugs. Corruption. Love story. Teenage pregnancy. Those are just the things I remember.

It makes for an entertaining read up to a point. After a while, too much becomes just that. Too much. Following Lee's story is like jumping from one thing to the next to the next to the next. The fact that the book starts in the middle adds to that feeling because the story both moves forward and fills in the back story. So, the jumps occur in all directions. Oddly, even with all that encapsulated in one book, the book is at times slow moving. Overall, I keep thinking that less may have been more in this situation.

The connections in Lee's story are also at times unbelievable. Chance plays a big factor. People in Lee's seem either really really evil towards her or really really nice. Even some people who are complete strangers help her in a way that is not entirely believable. Even when they suffer for it, they continue to help. Yes, people like that exist in the world. However, the characters in this book are either one extreme or the other, and that is not realistic.

The scientific bent and the connection to the art world in this book comes through the works of Marcel Duchamp, a French artist. The book features the Société Anonyme as the name of a group. Duchamp with others started a society by that name for the promotion, exhibit, and collection of art. His piece, The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (also known as The Large Glass), is the work around which this story centers. Interestingly, Duchamp also had a series of works knows as the Readymades, found objects which he chose to collect and exhibit as art. That connection is not followed in the book, but makes for a possible reason for the title.

The connection to the art world has led to a comparison of this book to Dan Brown's books. For me, that comparison does a disservice to this book. The book does feature Marcel Duchamp's art works, but there is so much else going on that it becomes just a part of the story not the heart of the story as it is with Dan Brown's books. In addition, while the book itself is atmospheric and descriptive, that descriptive style does not extend to the works of art being discussed. In fact, having read the book, I can visualize the fictional places and events described but cannot visualize the real art pieces. I enjoyed learning about the work through the research I did while reading.

The imaginative and colorful descriptions of the places in the book are my favorite part. An abandoned museum. Underground tunnels that wind their way through the city. A building with a clown's head. A building called the Crystal Castle. The vivid descriptions create a suitably creepy and dark atmosphere that underlies this story and remains the most memorable part of the writing.


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Sunday, September 10, 2017

The Dying Game

Title:  The Dying Game
Author:  Asa Avdic
Publication Information:  Penguin Books. 2017. 288 pages.
ISBN:  0143131796 / 978-0143131793

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

Opening Sentence:  "One afternoon, the unit secretary came into my office."

Favorite Quote:  "Wink murder ... It goes like this:  One person is randomly chosen as a murderer and another is the detective. The other players, the victims, know who the detective is, but they don't know the murderer. Then everyone walks around the room. The murderer kills people by discreetly winking at them. When someone gets blinked at, they fall down dead. When the detective thinks he knows who the murderer is, he accuses the suspect. If the detective is right, he wins; if not, the murderer wins."

The year is 2037, and the world is not the one we know. Most of Europe operates under a benignly named but strictly controlled Union of Friendship. The game is real except it is not really a game. The rules are real except that each person thinks they are playing different game, and each person is given a different set of rules.

The reader knows the role Anna Francis plays and the rules she is given. What the actual goal of this project is keeps me wondering throughout the book. I guess at where it is going but do not guess correctly as to how. The "how" is the roller coaster ride of this book which the reader takes right along with Anna Francis.

Anna Francis knows only her work. Anna's mother is raising Anna's daughter; a father is not in the picture. A secret - a disaster both personal and professional from Anna's perspective - in her past has brought her from the forefront of major projects to a bureaucratic office job in Stockholm. Anna is given the "opportunity" to take on a new project to help with the recruitment of a new member for the RAN project. The book never explains what the RAN project is except to imply that the project is beyond top secret, and its members are a very elite group. Anna is asked to give a few days of her life to observe the candidates for this position as they are placed in a field test on the remote, secluded island of Isola.

Oh, and, she will be presumed dead for most of those days. That is indeed the test as Anna understands it. The candidates are to be led to believe that Anna has been murdered by one of them. With no way on to or off the island, how will that impact those who remain. The objective is to see how the individuals handle that situation. Anna is given an entire secret realm underneath and throughout the house from which to observe and report. That is the test. Or is it?

Once Anna is on the island, nothing is quite as she envisioned. Someone completely unexpected from Anna's past is part of this situation. Anna's "death" is staged as planned, but then events don't go quite as Anna or the other individuals on the island have been led to expect. New relationships are formed. Old relationships are rekindled. People appear to die. People disappear. Storms hit the island. Communication is cut off. Transportation is cutoff. The scenario is perhaps not as controlled as it was put forth by the project coordinators. Or is it?

Different perspectives throughout the book fill in some holes in the narrative, but the ending of the book leaves loose ends. What is the RAN project? What is the story of the man from Anna's past? What completely is Anna's story? What happens next? This last question arises not because the story feels incomplete but because Anna's character becomes real and I want to know. This last question is what warrants the success of this storytelling. I am left wondering what happens next and questioning if sequel will come to explain more. I want to know.


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