Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The Invoice

Title:  The Invoice
Author:  Jonas Karlsson
Publication Information:  Hogarth. 2016. 208 pages.
ISBN:  110190514X / 978-1101905142

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

Opening Sentence:  "It was such an incredible amount, 5,700,000 kronor."

Favorite Quote:  "You see ... that way you have of being impressed by everything you experience. In our formulas...well, what can I say? It quickly mounts up?"

What if happiness was taxed? What would your happiness be measured at? Do you recognize your own happiness? What makes for a happy life? These are the philosophical questions this very short novel takes on in a quirky, slightly dystopian way.

Our nameless hero leads what he believes is a small, humdrum life. He works part time, lives alone, pines for a lost love, and has one friend. Nothing much, he feels, to be be excited about. One day, he gets a bill for over 5 million kronor. What for, you might ask? Because "being alive costs."

So begins his adventure or misadventure. Initially, he has no idea what the bill is for. Once he figures that out, he has no idea why his bill is so high especially compared to others. He undertakes all kinds of arguments to lower the bill. Each episode becomes a reflection back on some aspect of his life - his love of movies, his great love affair, his apartment, and other parts of his life. Every episode - the ones he perceives as happy and those he views with sadness - results in his bill increasing. Of course, he is completely and absolutely unable to pay the amount.

On the other side of the argument is the nebulous, bureaucratic organization with their charts, figures, graphs, and formulas. The World Resource Distribution (WRD) organization has a dystopian "big brother is watching" feel. They know all about our hero's life, down to the details. The face of that organization, however, becomes the very human Maud, the customer service representative that our hero calls repeatedly.

So goes this seemingly simple story. It is about an unnamed man, a woman named Maud, and an ever increasing bill. It has, of course, a fable like quality with a philosophical interpretation. This book does not have the humor of Jonas Karlsson's first book The Room. That book created a social and professional construct I related to and found laugh out loud funny. This book is more sweet and nostalgic than funny.

It is short and very quick to read. It is simple. It is simply written. It has a main character reminiscent of Walter Mitty or of Don Tillman. It has a clear message about the little things in life and the meaning they carry. It has an ending that has me going, "Aaawwww....sweet" and leaves me smiling.

I am not even sure why I like the book as much as I do; I just know I do.  I think the reason is that in its simplicity, the book conveys a powerful message. In this very complicated world, how wonderful is it to sit down with a simple, sweet story. How wonderful is it to be reminded of the joy of our every day life. How wonderful to be reminded that so many times our joy comes from our willingness to live and take something from every experience. I suppose I am at the time and place in my life for that message to make an impact.

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

Monday, June 27, 2016

The Invisible Library

Title:  The Invisible Library
Author:  Genevieve Cogman
Publication Information:  Roc. 2016. 352 pages.
ISBN:  1101988649 / 978-1101988640

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

Opening Sentence:  "Irene passed the me across the stone floor in smooth, careful strokes, idly admiring the gleam of wet flagstones in the lanternlight."

Favorite Quote:  "One of the most important aspects of command is not giving orders that won't be obeyed."

This book had me at the title. Like many a bibliophile, I love books about books. The thought of action, adventure, and mystery surrounding a Library pulls me right in. A Library that exists hidden in the midst of a myriad of parallel alternate worlds, and a Librarian's ability to traverse these different worlds adds greater potential. A Library with the stated objective of "finding unique works ... and saving them in a place out of time and space" draws me in further. A Library that provides infinite, immortal access to the knowledge of the world is a book lover's dream. A Library that acts as protection and haven to those who bind themselves to it reinforces the symbolism a library holds. The main character Irene is, of course, a Librarian on a mission to preserve a particular text; the mission is one for which she is prepared to fight for and risk her life. The premise gets better and better.

Then, it gets complicated, very complicated. This book has a lot going on. A steampunk-like London setting. Alternate worlds. Zeppelins. Dragons. Werewolves. Magic. Fae (as in fairy) folk of the evil variety. Detectives. Renegade Librarians gone over to the dark side. Double crosses and betrayals. Magic referred to as Language. Even some humans. Like I said, this book has a lot going on. Fewer elements may have allowed more attention and room to develop each element. For example, I find the idea of an invisible library and the power of language intriguing. However, the book takes place primarily outside of the Library and does not explain the use of Language or the workings of the Library. I want to know more; I want to explore the Library. Werewolves, zeppelins, and such I can do without.

For the most part, the book also reads like a children's or young adult story. The inclusion of so many different elements with less depth in each lends to that image. The one main exception is an odd exchange between two main characters about their physical awareness of each other and the decision to pursue or not to purse that as a physical relationship. That tension definitely places this book in the adult camp even though it is incidental and unnecessary to the story.

With all the elements in the book, the book is an action packed adventure. Things happen one after the other, lending to the main theme of chaos leading to trouble. At the same time, the book feels a bit monotone. That is perhaps because the main characters are not all that compelling; much more attention is given to developing the world around them. I don't find myself cheering for them or reading furiously to make sure that they will survive all the situations they find themselves in. The book is a fun read. It is a light, entertaining read. It is just not a compelling one. It is also clearly the first book in a series, and I am as yet undecided as to whether I am vested enough to read on. Maybe, maybe not.

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

Friday, June 24, 2016

The Ringmaster's Wife

Title:  The Ringmaster's Wife
Author:  Kristy Cambron
Publication Information:  Thomas Nelson. 2016. 352 pages.
ISBN:  0718041542 / 978-0718041540

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 only see what we want to see -  in people, in love, and in life."

Favorite Quote:  "You could never fit in ... You were made to stand out."

This book is a beautiful story of two strong women and the enticing environment of the Ringling Brothers Circus.  The two women - Mable and Rose - choose different paths but share many things. They both have dreams and seek a life different from the one to which they are born. They both possess the courage to pursue that dream and to choose a different life. They both have the strength to persevere.

Mable Burton Ringling was a real person. Born in Ohio, she left her family home to pursue a future in Chicago. She worked and struggled. It was there she met John Ringling, one the brothers who created and ran the Ringling Brothers Circus. The married when she was 30. Mable never actively got involved in the running of the circus, but her gracious and gentle influence was felt throughout. Her most enduring legacy is perhaps their home in Sarasota, Florida, Cà d'Zan.

The character of Rosamund Easling is pure fiction. Born into British nobility, she leaves a pre-determined life, taking a leap into the unknown in America. Lady Rosamund Easling becomes Rose the circus performer. In her path lie love, adventure, fame, and intrigue. Some would see her succeed; some would see her fail. It is her journey that becomes the story of this book.

Mable's story starts about a quarter century before Rose's, but the two meet when Rose arrives in Sarasota, Florida, the home of the Ringlings. The book weaves back and forth, looking at the trajectory of both their lives - the differences in their paths and the similarities in their characters. Rose's story, being the fiction, is much more developed that Mable's story. Very little is known about Mable Ringling's life, particularly her childhood and how she actually met John Ringling. In the book, she appears as a role model and guide for Rose and for other members of the circus family.

These characters and their love stories are the main plot of this book. The circus setting though gets equal billing. The author paints a very visual picture of life in and around the Big Top. The picture engages all the senses in all the sites and sounds of the circus. The book transports you to the center of that Big Top. Interestingly, the book makes a point to talk about the special care the animals receive. This seems counter to what the press is saying currently about animal shows. I wonder if that is a difference of the times or if the author offers a defense of the industry. Just an interesting side note to the story.

The story itself starts off slow. The switching between characters and time periods is a little difficult to follow at the beginning. The ending of the book is seeped in melodrama - attacks, accidents, and fires - dramatic much like the action in a Big Top. In between though is a story that immerses me in the world of the circus and the lives of these two women. Memorable characters, a memorable setting, and a love story make for an engaging summer read.

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

Wednesday, June 22, 2016


Title:  Pond
Author:  Claire-Louise Bennett
Publication Information:  Riverhead Books. 2016. 208 pages.
ISBN:  0399575898 / 978-0399575891

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

Opening Sentence:  "First of all, it seems to us that you were very handsome."

Favorite Quote:  "English, strictly speaking, is not my first language by the way. I haven't yet discovered what my first language is so for the time being I use English words in order to say things. I expect I will always have to do it that way; regrettably I don't think my first language can be written down at all. I'm not sure it can be external you see."

A reclusive woman, whose name we don't know and whose age we don't know, is the main character and the narrator. She lives in a cottage by a pond with no name somewhere in Ireland. These are her musings about her life, a few other unnamed characters, and the things that surround her. "The late-scale changes in fact were of no interest to me at all; it was the small things that remained constant which sort of attracted me." That statement about describes the book. It focuses on the small details of life from the pears in a bowl to the rocks by the cottage to a discussion of broken knobs on a stove.

This book focuses narrowly on the internal dialogue of one main character and narrator. This book structure can make for a wonderful character study as in An Unnecessary Woman. However, for that to be successful, by the end, I need to feel like I know the person; the character must become real. Unfortunately, in this book, that does not happen for me. I know about this unnamed character's world but not much about her other than her frequent references to being drunk. I don't get a picture of her from the details of her world

This book is episodic in nature. It is a slim volume with short chapters ranging from a couple of sentences to a few pages. It is, in some places, billed as a collection of short stories, all related through the one narrator. This technique can be very successful as in The House on Mango Street if the vignettes join together like the pieces of a puzzle to create a bigger picture. Unfortunately, in this book, that does not happen for me. By the end, I am still not entirely sure who this woman is or what the book is exactly about.

This book is also very much about its language. As a lover of books and languages, I love words and being introduced to new words. This book is certainly full of them. Adventitious - not native. Deracinate - to tear something out by the roots. Fervid - intensely enthusiastic.  Panoply - an impressive collection. Solanums - a plant related to the nightshade family. The words are fascinating, but assembling an entire book of them becomes too much. It leaves the impression of a book that is trying to be clever and consciously and deliberately using "big" words. Complex ideas can often be expressed in the simplest of words to create an impact. The more complex the word, the more the focus shifts from the idea to the word itself. In this story, often a word or phrase jumps out, and the idea remains lost.

The fact of a nameless, description-less main character implies that there is deeper meaning to be found in the book. The focus on the mundane, minute details implies that a symbolic meaning exists beneath the surface. The use of complex words implies that there are things to be learned here. Unfortunately for me, that meaning remains unfound even by the end of the book.

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

Monday, June 20, 2016


Title:  Siracusa
Author:  Delia Ephron
Publication Information:  Blue Rider Press. 2016. 304 pages.
ISBN:  0399165215 / 978-0399165214

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 have a snapshot of me standing on Finn's shoulders when I was twenty-nine, a trick we'd perfected."

Favorite Quote:  "Nothing is unforgivable ... It depends on your capacity for forgiveness."

This is a book of two marriages, one mistress, and one little girl. Michael and Lizzie. Finn and Taylor. Two couples.

These are marriages crumbling except that no one has acknowledged it yet. These are marriages full of lies and deceit, but, for the most part, that too is unspoken and beneath the surface. One person is having an affair. Two of the people are emotionally entangled and still drawn to each other. Two are parents. All are well to do, being able to afford a vacation in Italy. However, why in the world they ever go on vacation together is beyond me. All are also dissatisfied and petulant. All are on the beautiful Italian shore; yet, what comes across is a drab, dreary environment. The hotel is not good enough. The place is not good enough. The guide is not enough. You get the picture. Nothing is good enough.

The book is written in alternating chapters from the perspectives of these four individuals. It often tells the different perspectives of the same set of events. This results in these characters being relatively well developed. They are not likable, not a single one, but the book does create a full image of their feelings and motivations, trough their own eyes and through the opinions of the other three. One's career may go the way of the one hit wonder. One needs constant reassurance. One is trying to save her marriage. Two are trying to see if parenthood can cover the cracks in the marriage and if the child takes priority over the marriage. All see what they choose to see and cover up the lies necessary to suit their vision of reality.

Then, you have ten year old Snow. She is the daughter of one of the couple. She is the least developed and most mysterious of the characters, but, as the only child in this adult world, she is also at the center of the story. According to the parents, she has been diagnosed with extreme shyness syndrome. Who knew that is even a thing? Her mother wants to wrap her in bubble wrap and mold her in her own image. The mother's descriptions of Snow often sound like they are describing a toddler not a pre-teen. Her father feels detached from her but thinks she may have his spark. Snow is a child by age, but is she really?

The plot revolves around relationships and affections that develop where they should not and a mistress who shows up where she should not. The first half of the book is really about developing the characters and the situation. Then, the mystery and the "action" hits building to a dramatic, if somewhat predictable, conclusion.

The characters are not likable. The entire scenario is not entirely believable. However, the writing is such that it keeps me reading and engaged even as I want to look away. Reading this book is like passing by the scene of a crash scene. You know things are going to be bad. You don't really want to see. Yet, you can't help but look.

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

Friday, June 17, 2016

Jonathan Unleashed

Title:  Jonathan Unleashed
Author:  Meg Rosoff
Publication Information:  Viking. 2016. 288 pages.
ISBN:  1101980907 / 978-1101980903

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

Opening Sentence:  "Jonathan came home form work one day to find the dogs talking about him."

Favorite Quote:  "He wondered why no one had written a book called How to be a Person."

The short version of the simple plot is that Jonathan is a young man who has moved to the big city but who finds life is different from what he envisioned. The job, the home, and girlfriend all don't quite go the way he expects. On top of that, unexpected pets enter his life and, of course, change him for the better. What is a young man to do?

We have the man Jonathan. He arrives in New York, looking to make a life and a career. With a job, an apartment, a girlfriend, and two dogs, he seems to have everything going for him except that he really doesn't.

We have the job. Jonathan works at a new age advertising agency. The office is an open concept space, decorated with the remains of a train station. It seems like an environment made for creativity except that it is not. Jonathan's client rejects every original idea and wants the same information regurgitated again and again. The introduction of Greeley as the boss's assistant brings a change, but Greeley's purpose in the book seems to be to guide Jonathan on his path, in a all-knowing guardian kind of way.

We have the apartment. Jonathan find what should be the perfect apartment except that it's not. He rents a place in New York with no paperwork and the possibility that he may have to vacate at any moment. The situation begs a question that Jonathan decides not to ask because after all, he's getting a nice New York apartment out of it.

We have the girlfriend. Jonathan's girlfriend works for a bridal magazine and follows him to New York with her own job opportunity. It should be the perfect chance for them to start a life together, except that it is not. Let's just say the reunion is not quite the happy one expected.

Finally, we have the dogs. Jonathan's brother is in Dubai for a job assignment, and leaves Jonathan to watch over his two dogs. Jonathan has never been a dog-person; he expects to not like these dogs except that he does. He bonds with these dogs to the point of having imaginary conversations with him and analyzing what they might be saying about him.

Put all these together and you have this story that seems to meander unleashed and unmoored. Don't get me wrong. Parts of the book are funny. However, I don't think I was the right audience for this book. I did not quite get the point or see the point or understand the point or something.

To me, it seems like this book wants to approach the style and story of The Rosie Project but is unsuccessful in doing so. Jonathan is not a likable enough character to capture that same feeling. The book seems to be about Jonathan finding greater meaning and satisfaction in his life. At the same time, he seems just lost and unmotivated, somewhat pummeled along by circumstances. It makes it difficult to root for his success. This hint at a more serious meaning keeps the book from being just a light-hearted, feel good dog-person book like Dog Gone, Soon Again.

Not exactly a simple feel good read. Not exactly a serious journey of self-discovery. Not bad but not exactly the book for me.

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

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

This Must Be the Place

Title:  This Must Be the Place
Author:  Maggie O'Farrell
Publication Information:  Knopf. 2016. 400 pages.
ISBN:  0385349424 / 978-0385349420

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

Opening Sentence:  "There is a man."

Favorite Quote:  "I have a theory ... that marriages end not because of something you did say but because of something you didn't."

Daniel. Claudette. Niall. Phoebe. Lenny. Marithe. Todd. Lucas. Teresa. Maeve. Ari. Nicola. Timou. Rosalind. Calvin.

Donegal, Ireland. London, England. San Francisco, California. Fremont, California. New York, New York. The Scottish Borders. Cambria, Sussex, England. Goa, India. Brooklyn, New York. Chengdu, China. Suffolk, England. Paris, France. Dlasland, Sweden. Bolivia. Belfast, Ireland.

1944. 1986. 1989. 1993. 1994. 1995. 1996. 1999. 2003. 2005. 2010. 2013. 2014. 2015. 2016.

These are the narrators, settings, and time of the intertwined narratives that comprise this story. At the center of the story is Daniel, a flawed, not always likable man. The book begins his story in 2010 in Ireland. It moves forward to 2016 while other narratives reach as far back as 1944 to paint a picture of Daniel's life. The narrators range from complete strangers to a parent, a wife, a friend, in-laws, and his children.

These are a lot of perspectives and time periods to keep straight. Occasionally, I find myself getting a little lost as to where I am in the story. The chapter subtitles are the only place the perspective, place, and time are identified. The chapters all have other titles which is what the table of contents includes. That makes it difficult to flip through the book to try and find a particular character or time to connect the dots of the story.

I also find myself wondering why some perspectives are included. The stories of these characters like Lucas, Maeve, Lenny, and Rosalind seem to stand apart from Daniel's story, and their perspectives seem not relevant to Daniel's story. Interestingly, because they stand apart from Daniel's story; these characters become the more memorable ones of the story. The rest seem to blend together.

Claudette's story is the one I find most fascinating. Here is an actress, who leaves behind fame and fortune to hide away in a remote corner of Ireland. Why? She meets Daniel, who manages to pierce through her defenses. How? I do wish her story was explored more, but, at the end of the day, this book is about Daniel and their marriage as it relates to Daniel.

Therein lies part of the issue. The central vision I have of Daniel is that he is a man who takes the expedient route and whose actions seem self-centered. That is not a setup for a sympathetic main character. However, all the different perspectives somewhat blur his character, so I am not even sure if my vision is even correct. Since the book is about him, I would like to understand, but even by the end, I don't feel like I know who he is.

All that being said, the writing of the book is beautiful. The individual chapters envelop me completely in the story and perspective being told in the chapter. I feel myself falling into the story, and then the chapter ends, and I am pulled away to a different person, time, and place. I wish I could have stayed longer with any given story within this story.

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

Monday, June 13, 2016

My Last Continent

Title:  My Last Continent
Author:  Midge Raymond
Publication Information:  Scribner. 2016. 320 pages.
ISBN:  1501124706 / 978-1501124709

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

Opening Sentence:  "As I lead tourists from the Zodiacs up rocky trails to the penguin colonies, I notices how these visitors - stuffed into oversize, puffy red parkas - walk like the penguins themselves:  eyes to the snowy ground, arms out for balance."

Favorite Quote:  "In science, in the natural world, things make sense. Animals act on instinct - of course, they have emotions, personalities; they can be cheeky or manipulative or surprising - but, unlike humans, they don't cause intentional harm. Humans are a whole different story..."

"It seems like there are two kinds of people who come to Antarctica. Those who have run out of places to go, and those who have run out of places to hide." Which of these describes Deb Gardner for Antarctica is her last continent? It is where her journey as naturalist and penguin expert leads her year after year. For a few precious months, she is able to study the penguins and to educate people of the delicate environment of Antarctica and the impact humans are having on this environment.

Antarctica is also Keller Sullivan's last continent. He comes to Antarctica for entirely different reasons and falls in love - with the penguins, with the continent, and with Deb. Where will that lead him?

The first page of the book introduces the accident of the cruise ship Australis in which 715 passengers and crew died, including two rescuers. Australis is the Latin word meaning southern; it is also the name of an actual ship that did sink, although not in Antarctica. These two facts have no relevance to the story, but I find these bits of reality in my fiction intriguing.

The declaration about the disaster sets up the entire book. As a reader, you know it's coming. It looms over and underlies everything else in the story. The questions are about everything else. How? Who perishes? Who survives? How does it all turn out for the main characters? As a reader, I am hooked.

Then, the book goes back - to the week leading up to the shipwreck and to the preceding years developing the story of Deb and Keller and what brings them back to this place year after year. Weaving narratives sometimes don't work, leaving me thinking where I am in the story. In this case, however, it works. The back story of the characters makes me care about them, and the story forward makes me worry about their fate.

The book of course is a love story. It is about two solitary people who find solace in the peace and vastness of Antarctica, and who also find each other. It is about a relationship that strives to survive in extreme conditions and in a situation where two separate lives only come together for short periods of time. A crisis is approaching, and the question is will the relationship survive? Will the individuals survive? Given certain clues in the book, the ending is not really surprising. I expect it, but still I keep wondering that maybe it will turn out differently.

The book is also the story of a place and an environment. I have never been to Antarctica, nor am I likely to go. To me, the book captures what I imagine the grandeur of the continent to be. It is quiet, peaceful, pristine, majestic, and dangerous all together. The descriptions of the penguins add another picture to my mental image. There is an underlying message of the impact of humans on this environment and these beautiful creatures. The message too works without sounding preachy; it completely fits into the story and into Deb's character.

The book tells a visual story for the place and then penguins are themselves characters in this story. I cannot envision this story taking place anywhere but there. The penguins become metaphors for the human story also. The descriptions - the solitary penguin, the mating and nesting habits, the caring for family, the losses - all parallel the human story of the book. It makes both the human and the naturalist story more real.

All in all, a beautiful debut.

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

Friday, June 10, 2016

Chasing the North Star

Title:  Chasing the North Star
Author:  Robert Morgan
Publication Information:  Algonquin Books. 2016. 320 pages.
ISBN:  1565126270 / 978-1565126275

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

Opening Sentence:  "He was called Jonah because he was born during a terrible storm and his mama said soon as she let go of him and put him ashore in this world of folly and time the thunder quieted and the wind laid."

Favorite Quote:  "Somehow men ... knew that the worst pain, the most lasting pain, was not to the body but to one's dignity. That's what their punishments were intended for, to destroy the last sliver of your dignity."

Jonah is born into slavery on a South Carolina plantation. He manages to learn how to read and write. He dreams of escape, and on the day of his eighteenth birthday, leaves his family and runs north. Along the way he meets Angel, a young woman born into slavery and raised to be a man's toy. She knows no other life and thus finds the use of her body to make her way as an acceptable path. Jonah is running, and for her own reasons, Angel follows.

This is a book for adults, but for the most part, it reads like a young adult book. It is very simply told, as in without much depth. Please note that is not a young adult book, and contains graphic descriptions of violence and "adult" encounters.

The story goes as follows.They run together. Jonah tries to leave her behind. Angel catches up. They get caught. They almost get caught. They run some more. So the story repeats to its conclusion.

Jonah is eighteen, and up to now, his life has been of a house slave. He often seems to lack common sense, and I am unsure how he actually manages the survive and make his way north. He is a runaway slave. He decides to, umm, "frolic" in the woods with a girl, and returns to find his money stolen. Really? Someone offers to show him their cellar and a new lock they've designed, and he goes. Really?

Angel is actually the more intriguing character. She too has lived her life as a house slave, working in the kitchen and as a sex slave for her master. Compared to Jonah, she seems to have much greater street smarts. She manages to find him several times after he abandons her, and she bails him out of a few dire situations.

The most intriguing part of her story is that she treats casually the use of her body to get out of a situation or to make a living. Embedded in there is the story that this her enslaved life has led her to this acceptance. Unfortunately, that is never developed in the book. It is presented at face value; she is this free-spirited young woman with a cavalier approach towards sex and the use of it. Unfortunately, the book also takes the approach of describing many of these adult encounters in detail, too much so for my taste.

The story is one of slaves but not really one of slavery. The book seems to lack the intensity and the emotional impact that a story such as this could have. Both Jonah and Angel have left their families and the only home they have ever known. Jonah has been whipped and beaten. Angel has been turned into a prostitute. All these elements and more are in this story, but their impact is not. As a reader, I find myself not really vested in Jonah and Angel's story, not as a story of two young people and not as a story of slavery.

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

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Magruder's Curiosity Cabinet

Title:  Magruder's Curiosity Cabinet
Author:  H. P. Wood
Publication Information:  Sourcebooks Landmark. 2016. 368 pages.
ISBN:  1492631485 / 978-1492631484

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

Opening Sentence:  "At last, the giant reaches Hell Gate."

Favorite Quote:  "Not one of us knows what we can do, until one fine day, we stand up and do it."

Think Coney Island, New York, and you think of the ocean, the boardwalk, the games, the rides, and the shows. Even today, Coney Island is the home to a long-running circus sideshow with sword swallowers, fire eaters, and a new group of artists born different, who celebrate their talents.

This same environment existed on Coney Island in the early 1900s - a melee of shows, scam artists, and playgrounds for the rich and famous. Dreamland was an actual theme park founded by William Reynolds, a former state senator. In the book Dreamland is a dream only for the rich. The fictional Magruder's is at the other end of the spectrum, a small curious museum that does not encourage visitors but serves as a gathering place for the characters who call Coney Island home.

Now superimpose on this festive, carnival environment the divide between the rich and the poor and the gap between the establishment and those who seem to exist on its fringes. Add a layer of intrigue amongst those looking to do the right thing versus those looking simply to further their own cause. Now superimpose on that an outbreak of the plague brought in on an immigrant ship. Put all that together with some very colorful characters, and you have this book.

The plot of the story goes that a young woman is left stranded on Coney Island. She is new to the country. Her brother has died, and her mother disappears. She needs help. Circumstance leads her to Magruder's Curiosity Cabinet. Here, she finds help. Soon, the situation grows more and more dire for her mother's disappearance becomes tied to a much larger intrigue. The onset of the plague threatens Magruder's. The authorities threaten Magruder's, and others would see it destroyed for their reasons. Even in the middle of the devastation, though, new relationships blossom. Friendships and even love are born.

Even with the rich setting and dire plot, it is truly the characters who are the heart of the book. The characters divide into two camps - the Unusuals and the Dozens. The Unusuals are the carnival people, the ones who are the sideshows of Coney Island. Zeph is the legless man with dreadlocks. Dr. Timur is the mysterious (mad?) scientist with the ability to build amazing contraptions. P-Ray is the Turkish boy who keeps fleas as pets and who will not speak. The Dozens are the rest, so referred to because they are "a dime a dozen." Kitty is the young woman who has lost her mother. Spencer Reynolds is one of the Coney Island elite, but he chooses a different path.

The book at times reads almost like a fairy tale, but it is definitely not a book for children. It deals with serious, adult issues, but the whimsy of a carnival setting and a mad scientist keep the seriousness from settling into depression. Even against the dark background of the plague, the book has moments of joy and humor and moments which are a pure flight of fancy.

Ultimately, this is a book about acceptance. The physical descriptions of Unusuals depict the stereotypes associated with circus sideshows. However, the characters are developed to delve behind the stereotypes and reveal that underneath the surface, we are all the same. We love. We hope. We care. We suffer. We rejoice. We sacrifice. The characters make this a memorable story about about friendship and community because "here on Coney Island, we learn to take each other as we are."

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

Sunday, June 5, 2016

The Wonder Trail

Title:  The Wonder Trail: True Stories from Los Angeles to the End of the World
Author:  Steve Hely
Publication Information:  Dutton. 2016. 336 pages.
ISBN:  0525955011 / 978-0525955016

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

Opening Sentence:  "There were stories like this way before there were books."

Favorite Quote:  "There's no need to make up experiences. Why do that extra work of imagining? If you just go out into the world far enough, you'll find plenty that's crazy and worth putting down."

"Part travel book, part pop history, part comic memoir..." So reads the marketing material for this book. For me unfortunately, it fails to deliver in any of these directions.

Let's take travel. This book documents a journey the author took from "Los Angeles to the end of the world." The end of the world, in this case, is the tip of South America. If you follow the geography, this route leads through beautiful landscapes, world-known landmarks, and vibrant cultures. Unfortunately, having read the book, I don't have a sense of any of it - the places or the people. The aspects of the descriptions that stand out are the repeated anecdotes of drinking and girls, two things I really have no need to hear about. I have no sense of the wonder some of these places might inspire; the travel component of the book lacks substance.

Let's take history - even pop history. Periodically, amongst the travel, short chapters pick and describe a point of history. The descriptions do not flow with the story but rather seem dropped in. Also, I don't know how accurate the history even is. Towards the beginning of the book, the author makes a claim, "I won't make anything up, though. Everything I put in this book is true. I saw it or heard it or experienced it myself, or else it's something I learned that I looked into and I believe to be true." Yet, the book contradicts that outright. Not everything is true. For example, the book begins with a quote attributed to Ponce de León, but if you read to the end of the book, the author's note points out the quote is fabricated. It "just seems like a good quote the world could use." What?

Let's take comic. Perhaps I am not the target audience for this type of comedy. The prolific use of curse words is not funny to me. Referring to fellow authors as "an obvious baller of a woman" or "a b***ch" is not funny to me. The other, more nebulous feeling I am left with is in the tone of the book. It seems not to be funny as in fun, but seems to poke sarcastically at pretty much everything in its path - history, landmarks, people, and culture. To me, this is not funny; in fact, it borders on disrespectful.

Let's take memoir. The author begins the book by acknowledging the genre of travel memoirs. "Lately, women have been dominating the filed, perhaps because they've realized the emotional journey is more important than the physical one." This book, however, is not about an emotional journey; it is more an extended vacation. The author had the time, went on this trip, and then went home. As an individual journey, the book does not leave me knowing or understanding the author any better than I did at the beginning, other than the facts that he likes to party and that his lifestyle affords the luxury of a trip such as this one.

Clearly, I am not the right reader for this book. I love the idea of a "wonder trail" but unfortunately, this version is not the armchair trip for me.

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

Friday, June 3, 2016

Radio Girls

Title:  Radio Girls
Author:  Sarah-Jane Stratford
Publication Information:  NAL. 2016. 384 pages.
ISBN:  0451475569 / 978-0451475565

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

Opening Sentence:  "She ran, weaving in and out of the startled pedestrians, but her pursuer was still close on her heels."

Favorite Quote:  "... that's a very bad habit, playing yourself down. We all have a life story, age notwithstanding."

The first public broadcast via radio occurred in 1906. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), the oldest national broadcasting company, came into being in 1922. John Reith, the son of a Scottish minister, soon assumed leadership of this fledgling organization. Hilda Matheson came to the BBC in 1926 after a career in espionage and as a political secretary to Lady Astor. The late 1920s brought to Europe the rise of Germany and its covert supporters and opponents. The late 1920s also brought the rise of women in the workforce and the suffrage movement to England. This came in the face of many who continued to believe that a woman was not as capable as a man and that a woman's place was in the home.

This is the turbulent period in history on which Radio Girls is based. The main character Maisie Musgrave is pure fiction weaved into this very real history. Born in Canada, Maisie Musgrave grows up in New York and then finds her way to England, which calls to her as home. Her difficult childhood is a recurring topic in the book, but is never fully explained. She finds herself independent and alone in the city, with her own abilities as her only means of survival. She lands in the middle of Hilda Matheson's history when she gets a job as a secretary at BBC.

Initially, mousy and unsure of herself, Maisie grows up in the job. Under Hilda's mentoring, she discovers her own abilities and begins to aspire to more. Her dreams shift from just finding a husband to making a career. Prevalent attitudes stand in her way, but Hilda's example and unorthodox ways show the possibilities. Romance enters the picture, but the focus remains on Maisie's ability to go far beyond what she could have imagined.

I enjoy this book for both the history and the fiction. I have never read about the start of broadcasting.  Although I have read many books set during the World Wars, I have not read much about the period in between. This book captures both and a lot of political and social history. The political history is the aftermath of the war, the rise of Germany, and the role of the media - radio being the newest - in affecting politics. The social history includes the impact of and the views towards differences in gender, race, social class, and sexual identity. The book beautifully weaves the history into the story such that they are one and the same.

The fictional Maisie is a well developed character that I find myself relating to and cheering for. Her story is one of self-discovery and growth. Through the book, she discovers the woman she is meant to be. A woman not defined by the cruelty of the childhood. A woman not defined by a husband. A woman not defined by a prescribed role in society. Rather, a strong independent woman with a contribution to make and goals to reach.

Fascinating, turbulent history. A strong main character. A little romance. Lots of intrigue. All the makings of a good read.

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