Monday, April 24, 2017

My Last Lament

Title:  My Last Lament
Author:  James William Brown
Publication Information:  Berkley. 2017. 352 pages.
ISBN:  0399583408 / 978-0399583407

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

Opening Sentence:  "Now let me see, how to I turn this thing on?"

Favorite Quote:  "For me the thought of my becoming an older version of myself was troubling. What would happen to the person I already was? Would it disappear inside the older one. I wanted to grow up, but I didn't want to let go of what I meant when I thought I or me."

How to describe my reaction to this book? It's tough. I like the story better than I do the book, if that makes sense.

The story is of World War II and its aftermath in Greece. It is the story of Aliki, a young girl who sees her father executed in front of her. It is a story of a young woman who survives through everything life hands her - death, desperation, poverty, hunger, loss of home, loss of love, everything. It is the story of a young woman who feels responsible for one young man, falls in love with another man, and spends her life torn between the two.

It is the story of two young men who both love the same girl. One is a boy with medical challenges in a time and place when mental health and other such medical issues are not and cannot be provided for. The other is a young man who is a refugee, a survivor, and an artist. Through his shadow puppets and his plays, he expresses himself. Between the three of them lies a story of love, jealousy misunderstandings, and all emotions that surround such a love triangle. The story of these three young people is set in the atrocities of war, with executions, bombings, camps, and the plight of refugees.

The story has characters you can feel for. It is a piece of World War II history not often told. It is an emotional, dramatic story. It has all the making of a great, engaging read.

Yet, here is my dilemma. This book fails to engage me. I want to know what happens, but, at the same time, I don't really want to read through the entire book to find out. I am not entirely sure what it is, but something keeps me from fully vesting into this story.

Perhaps, it is the structure. The story is told in the voice of the old woman Aliki looking back on her life. The setup is that Aliki is on of the last of the lamenters, giving voice to the grief and mourning of others. In this book, Aliki does not set out to be a lamenter; it comes to her and from her unbidden. The narration of this story is through Aliki telling her story on tape at the request of a researcher. The chapters of the book correspond to the sides of the cassettes as she records her story. At the end of a side of cassette, the book pulls back to Aliki's present and the impending death of an old friend. The back and forth ultimately makes sense but is somewhat jarring if you don't pay attention to the connection between past and present.

Perhaps, the disconnect in the story occurs because the telling of this tale seems to be mired in details that don't change. The basic story is one of episodes between these three individuals. The dynamics of this triangle don't really shift. They seem to repeat in various forms throughout all the different background situations. For a historical fiction book, this book is very narrowly focused on these three lives, the dying art of lamenting, and the dying art of shadow puppets. The political and war history is on the periphery; it provides context but not the main story. The book is much more about an undiagnosed, untreated mental issue and about Aliki's balance between self-preservation and responsibility.

My parting thought on this book is that in some ways, it reads like a memoir of Aliki's life, her last lament becoming a lament of her own life, if you will.


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Thursday, April 20, 2017

Miss Mary's Book of Dreams

Title:  Miss Mary's Book of Dreams
Author:  Sophie Nicholls
Publication Information:  Zaffre Publishing. 2017. 320 pages.
ISBN:  1785761765 / 978-1785761768

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 I first scribbled those words in my notebook a couple of years ago, I thought that I was writing the end of a particular story, the story of Mamma and me."

Favorite Quote:  "We all have so many different selves inside us, like Grace's set of Russian dolls, made of painted wood. You opened one to find another, and another inside that and another, until you discovered the tiniest doll, not much bigger than a seed or a grain of rice ... Who was the Ella in the centre of it all - the Ella that she was when every other self had been opened up and set aside? That, she thought was what she was searching for."

This is a a book about magic - literally and figuratively.

It is the story of three generations of women - Maadar Bozorg, Fabia, and Ella - and of two sisters Selena and Bryony who enter their lives.

Maadar Bozorg is the storyteller and spell weaver in her homeland in Tehran, Iran. Fabia's story and the beginning of Ella's is told in the book The Dress. In that book, Fabia and young Ella come to York, and Fabia opens a shop of vintage clothing. The book is about hints of the the "Old Country;" about Fabia and Ella having the gift to see "the signals" in the world about situations, emotions, and people; and about the secret messages Fabia embeds in the embroidering or sewing the clothes. This book continues their story.

Although a sequel, this book does stand alone. The story and the characters are easily followed without the background of the first book; in fact, it may add to the mystery and magic about them. This book is Ella's story - her mother's dress shop which has now evolved into Ella's bookshop, her marriage, her young daughter Grace, and a new customer - Bryony - to whom Ella's finds herself drawn.

This book is also about Ella's discontent, a feeling that life is somehow off kilter. Is it that she misses her mother? Is that her writing does not seem to progress amidst the demands of family? Is it her husband's beautiful co-worker? Is it the constant denials of "the signals" she sees emanating from other people? Is it that her vision for her life seems clouded?

This is book about all that but not just for Ella. This book is about each of these women finding a path forward for their lives - their own bit of magic, if you will. "When we finally listen to our instincts, when we're able to listen past all the chatter in our hearts, past all the things that other people tell us, all the advice and information, everything we read or learn and everything we think we should be thinking ... right back to what we feel, deep inside our own bodies ... that, my dear, is the strongest magic of all." For each of the women - Fabia, Ella, and Bryony - this discovery takes a different direction. It becomes a choice of where to live. It becomes a choice of career. For all three, it becomes decisions about relationships. A little actual magic helps things along, but what really draws these different stories together is that for each, it becomes about making that decision for themselves.

You might ask. In the middle of all this, who is Miss Mary? Miss Mary is not actually a character in this story. Her book is. Miss Mary is described as a witch who lived centuries ago. She can to an unfortunate end at the hands of the society she lived in. Her wisdom and her spells were left behind in her book - the book of dreams. This is one of those special books that finds its way to a reader who needs it. Snippets of advice from this fictitious book find their way sprinkled throughout the story of these women.

Strong women. A bookshop. A really special book. A little big of magic. A beautiful combination for a sweet, engaging story. Definitely one for the "feel good" pile of stories.


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Sunday, April 16, 2017

Long Black Veil

Title:  Long Black Veil
Author:  Jennifer Finney Boylan
Publication Information:  Crown. 2017. 304 pages.
ISBN:  0451496329 / 978-0451496324

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

Opening Sentence:  "This was a long time ago, before my first death, and none of us now are the people we were then."

Favorite Quote:  "There are so many things I'd like to explain. That when I was young I did not have the language to describe the workings of my own heart. That if I had it all to do over again, I would have told my truth from the beginning. That the struggle to find a connection between the people we have been and the people we become is not some crazy drama unique to people like me. It's all of us."

August, 1980. Philadelphia. A wedding. A museum. An abandoned penitentiary. Six friends - Rachel, Quentin, Tripper, Maisie, Wailer, and Casey; a younger sibling - Benny; and a teacher - Herr Krystal - go exploring the ruins of the Eastern State Penitentiary at night. Why? Who knows. It seems like a teenage prank except that this is a group of college friends the day after celebrating the wedding of two in the group. It never quite makes sense to me, and let's just say it proves to be a bad decision.

One of the group never emerges.

July 1987. The group has, for the most part, scattered, not necessarily because of the events of that night but just because that is how life goes sometimes. One of the friends makes a dramatic decision about their life, again not necessarily because of the events of that night but because it is the right choice for a life. The connection back to that fateful night is incidental at this point.

September 2015. A body is discovered at the penitentiary. Not just any body but the body of the one who disappeared all those years ago. Another member of the group is accused of murder. A friend can bear witness that the accused is not the murderer. However, that defense of a friend could cost this person their own carefully built life.

Confused yet? Me too. The book very quickly introduces many characters and the relationships between them. The same cast of characters appears in all three time periods; however, people change, and relationships shift. At the same time, the characters seem not to mature much beyond that night twenty-five years in the past. It is, at times, difficult to keep every thing straight; it is even more challenging to vest in any one character's story.

Eventually, this story is really about one member of the group. It is about coming to terms with one's own identity. It is about making the choices that are right for yourself. It is about a tough choice between the safety of self-preservation or the risk to help a friend and let the truth emerge.

The issue is that all these choices really have nothing to do with the dramatic event that begins this book. As such, the two stories compete with each other. On the one hand, this book is about an individual emotional journey of self-discovery. This is a journey about identity and about giving voice to your true identity. That by itself has the potential to be a powerful story. This is the "character" part of the book.

On the other hand, this book is about a murder mystery and about a group of friends who survive a severe trauma. As a reader, I expect that trauma to leave an impact, and the story of subsequent time periods to deal with that impact. It really does not. This is the "plot" part of this book. Unfortunately, the two do not go together, making this a challenging book for me.


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Friday, April 14, 2017

The Idea of you

Title:  The Idea of You
Author:  Amanda Prowse
Publication Information:  Lake Union Publishing. 2017. 332 pages.
ISBN:  1503942333 / 978-1503942332

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

Opening Sentence:  "Are you nervous, sweetie?"

Favorite Quote:  "When you have kids you watch them grow, love them, guide them and have days when you could happily abandon them, but every day is your training ground and every month, every year merges into the next, and it happens fast."

The main idea underlying The Idea of You by Amanda Prowse is the definition of "you." The dedication to the book points the way. "The Idea of You is dedicated to every women who has known the pain of miscarriage, who has felt her hopes and dreams of motherhood end without warning. Maybe she is like me and is unsure of how to grieve, how to mourn something that was never whole, and yet touched her soul in a way that is difficult to describe." The "you" in the book is clearly a child lost. Sprinkled throughout the book are Lucy Carpenter's musings addressed to a baby girl - a child lost.

Lucy and Jonah meet. Lucy is recovering from a broken relationship and meets Jonah at the christening of a friend's baby. The rest, as they say, is history. They fall in love, marry, and look forward to a long and happy life together. They also look forward to raising a family together. Pregnancies come but sadly are followed by miscarriages. Lucy's sadness begins to overshadow other aspects of her life, her career, and her marriage.

Everybody surrounding Lucy seems to be a parent. Her sister has her brood. Her co-workers have kids. Even Jonah has a teenage daughter from a previous marriage. This compounds the sense of isolation that Lucy feels.

What is the meaning of motherhood? Is it giving birth that makes you a mother? Is it something else? This sense of grief, this longing, and these questions are the poignant basis for this book. The emotion definitely comes through. However, two things keep this book from having a more powerful impact for me.

First, this book is about Lucy. Lucy's emotions and thoughts are all about Lucy. This is especially true in two scenarios. It is true in how the character of Jonah is treated in the book. With each miscarriage, he too loses child. Warranted, the loss of a mother carrying that child is different, but nevertheless, a father experiences grief as well. However, that does not really come through in the book. This is about Lucy's loss, and Jonah comes across as a little too understanding and a little too perfect in his support. Lucy's focus on Lucy is also clear with her response to a teenager in crisis. Lucy walks away to deal with her own grief and her own emotions. The reality of being an adult - a parent by the fact of giving birth or by choice of love - is that you help the child first. As such, while I sympathize with Lucy's losses, she comes across as a somewhat self-absorbed character.

Second, the resolution of this book steps away from the grief and loss of miscarriage. Hints are dropped throughout, but, at the same time, that second story line seems out of place. It is still about profound loss but not the same loss. As such, the book becomes about two main themes, and the second overshadows what initially draws me into the book. I wish the book had explored more its initial theme of miscarriage and its impact on not just the woman but the family who experiences it.


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Monday, April 10, 2017

Lola

Title:  Lola
Author:  Melissa Scrivner Love
Publication Information:  Crown. 2017. 336 pages.
ISBN:  0451496108 / 978-0451496102

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

Opening Sentence:  "Lola stands across the craggy square of backyard she shares with Garcia."

Favorite Quote:  "Today is for deceit, the calming salve one spreads over wounds not to make them go away, but to forget they are there."

I picked this book to read with a great deal of hesitation. I looked at it on different lists and different venues offering galleys and walked about. My concern was that this would not be the book for me. The world of the gangs of south central Los Angeles is a violent and brutal one. I was concerned that a story set in that world would be too violent for me. Yet, something about the description kept pulling me back to this book.

The idea of a female gang leader in a world still completely male dominated is intriguing. The idea of a book based on such a female character is intriguing. "Lola spent the first twenty-three years of her life, until she met Garcia, figuring out how to make sure men didn't feel threatened by her. It is a skill that has served her better than any chocolate cake recipe every will." So, my curiosity won out over my concern, and I was fortunate enough to get an advance copy the read. The world of gangs and drug cartels is out of my comfort zone, but I am glad I did read this book.

First, the little stuff. The logic and facts of this book could use some research and editing. Certain medical details and certain inconsistencies in descriptions can easily be corrected. However, in light of the character and story, I look past the details. A little annoying, easily fixable, but ultimately able to be ignored, at least for me.

Now to the story and the characters themselves. The book both is and is not what I expected.

The world described is violent and brutal. This is not a book for the faint of heart. Prostitution, drugs, murder, bribery, beatings, violence against women, racial tensions, corruption, and child abuse are all a part of this book. How could they not be? These are the unfortunate realities of this world, and this at times make this a very uncomfortable book to read.

What is more unexpected is the character of Lola. She is most definitely not the damsel in distress. She is more the knight in shining armor. Different, sometimes conflicting sides of her character are explored. On the one hand, she is the unstated leader of the Crenshaw Six, a rag tag gang looking to break into the big leagues of the drug zones of Los Angeles. As such, she has a cool, rational mind and a ruthless nature. She makes tough choices, including punishing her own as a means of establishing and maintaining her credibility.

On the other hand, we see a compassionate woman with love in her heart. The compassion shows both for those she calls her own and those whose lives touch hers in some way. Her conflicted feelings towards her mother, the balance between being her brother's protector and his boss, her relationship with Garcia, and her pure love for Lucy all help round out the other side of this gang leader.

Ultimately, this is book about a strong woman in extreme circumstances who manages not just to survive but thrive and carve a life out for herself in a man's world. Considering this is Melissa Love's debut novel, I look forward to her next character. Lola certainly leaves and impression!


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Thursday, April 6, 2017

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane

Title:  The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane
Author:  Lisa See
Publication Information:  Scribner. 2017. 384 pages.
ISBN:  1501154826 / 978-1501154829

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

Opening Sentence:  "'No coincidence, no story,' my a-ma recites, and that seems to settle everything, as it usually does, after First Brother finishes telling us about the dream he had last night."

Favorite Quote:  "Anguish. Courage. Sacrifice. This is mother love. This is what I must find in myself now."

I wanted to love this book. Years ago, I read Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See and absolutely loved it. I have since read her other books, but none have managed to capture the intensity or feeling of that first book. I keep coming back though because I love the ideas of her books. I love learning about cultures and about how people - their hopes, dreams, and fears - are the same the world over no matter how different their ways of life, their beliefs, and their choices may seems. I love that they focus on strong women carving out their place in life. I am still hoping that one captures the depth of that first book.

This book also sets up a premise of a culture to explore and a strong heroine to feel for. It is also a story of mothers and daughters. Li-Yan is a member of the Akha minority in China. She and her family live in a remote village and have farmed tea for generations. And not just any region or tea of China. They are in the great tea mountains of Yunnan region and produce what has become well known as Pu'er tea.

Li-Yan lives with her parents, her siblings, their spouses, and children. The family unit work and live together, eking out a living gathering and selling the tea from their groves each day. The family is part of the broader family of the village. Respect for and following of the Akha traditions is the rule they live by.

Li-yan is different. She does well in school and asks questions - even about centuries old traditions.  You might say she is somewhat of a rebel. This is her strength, but it also lands her in trouble with her village traditions. The book begins when Li-Yan is ten and traces the trajectory of her life into old age. A defining moment is when Li-yan finds herself single and pregnant at age seventeen. She breaks with tradition and secretly puts the baby up for adoption. So many turning points of her life stem from that one decision and from the family's tradition of being tea growers.

I enjoyed the first half of the book more so than the second. The first half is about Li-yan's journey to define herself, apart from the traditions from which she comes. It is about reconciling love for family and community that is separate from her thoughts on certain Akha traditions. The first half is also about relationships. My favorite character is actually not Li-yan but her mother. She is Li-yan' mother, matriarch of the her family, a village elder, and the village midwife. She is central to Li-yan's story and displays a quiet strength and wisdom that is inspiring. I wanted to know her story and her perspective, but the book is very much Li-yan's story.

The pace of the first half is unhurried including plentiful descriptions of the setting, the business of tea, and of culture. The one thing that is troubling in the first half are some of the traditions of the Akha people the author chooses to highlight. Let's just say, the impact is disturbing. It does leave me wondering why it is necessary to include other than to shock. It sets a background for Li-yan's story, but Li-yan's story of being an unwed mother would work without that added negative. In today's world, where so many are quick to identify differences and find fault, it would be better if the focus had stayed on the same-ness of human experience, whether in a cosmopolitan first-world metropolis or a tiny, off-the-grid village in China. It is what unites us that should be given light not what may divide us, at least in a work of fiction.

The second half of the book completely shifts pace and focus. The book is still about tea and the big business of tea. However, the book travels far and wide from the insular feeling of the first half. The second half seem jammed with story lines. An old acquaintance enters again. A friendship results in rivalry and worse. Economic boom and bust happen in the world of tea. These are just some of the more "global" events, not even the more personal twists and turns of Li-yan's life.

For me, the first and the second half of the book don't match up in style and story line. Sometimes, less is more, and the deeper and slower pace of the first half works better in this case. The book is still enjoyable in its entirety, but some of the depth is lost to the momentum and speed of the second half.


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Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage

Title:  Hourglass:  Time, Memory, Marriage
Author:  Dani Shapiro
Publication Information:  Knopf. 2017. 160 pages.
ISBN:  0451494482 / 978-0451494481

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

Opening Sentence:  "From my office window I see my husband on the driveway below."

Favorite Quote:  "I cannot bring myself to even idly wish any of it - not even the most painful parts - away. Eighteen years. Change even one moment, and the whole thing unravels. The narrative thread doesn't stretch in a line from end to end, but rather, spools and unspools, loops around and returns again and again to the same spot. Come closer now and listen. Be thankful for all of it."

The words that come to mind reading this book are nonlinear, personal, intimate, quiet, and reflective. Dani (aka Daniele Joyce) Shapiro has been married to "M" (aka Michael Maren) since 1997 - nineteen years. He is a screenwriter; she is an author of novels, memoirs, and magazine articles. They are parents to a teenage son Jacob.

This slim book is a reflection and commentary on marriage. It is also about how and what we choose to remember and how and what we choose to forget. It is about survival, perseverance, and compromise. After all, a marriage takes work from both spouses to foster, nourish, and grow the relationship. Dani and M together persevered through their child's serious illness; now, they persevere through the teenage years. M gave up his career as a news correspondent partly because of her fears for his safety. She worries that perhaps that was too great a sacrifice. They cheer on each other's successes and worry when career and other individual challenges arise. This is about marriage with all that entails about two people and two families coming together to create a new life.

Last summer, Dani Shapiro wrote a column for The New York Times titled "When You Write a Memoir, Readers Think They Know You Better Than They Do." That is quite a mouthful for a title, but true. As the article states, "When I write a book, I have no interest in telling all, the way I absolutely do long to while talking to a close friend. My interest is in telling precisely what the story requires. It is along the knife’s edge of this discipline that the story becomes larger, more likely to touch the “thread of the Universe,” Emerson’s beautiful phrase."

The book Hourglass establishes that intimacy between author and reader. It makes me forget that I am reading a carefully crafted piece of work and makes me feel as if I have a window on her life. Fact, fiction, or otherwise, it doesn't really matter. What makes this a great book for me is the reaction it elicits in me. The craft of Dani Shapiro's writing makes it feel real and heartfelt. It also begins in me a reflection on my own life. I may not remember the specific details of this book over time, but that feeling of quiet reflection will linger.

I do feel that this is one of those books whose reception will depend on where the reader is in his or her life. That is true of all books, but it feels more true of this one because it is a reflection on an institution like marriage and because of its meandering, quiet pace through memory. This is not a memoir with a linear timeline or a plot; it is more like picking through a photo album, drifting from memory to memory until an image more expansive than the photographs themselves forms.

This is the first book I have read by Dani Shapiro. I look forward to reading more.


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Sunday, April 2, 2017

Himself

Title:  Himself
Author:  Jess Kidd
Publication Information:  Atria Books. 2017. 384 pages.
ISBN:  1501145177 / 978-1501145179

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

Opening Sentence:  "His first blow:  the girl made no noise, her dark eyes widened."

Favorite Quote:  "Words are capable of flying. They dart through windows, over fences, between bar stools, and across courtyards. They travel rapidly from mouth to ear, from ear to mouth. And as they go, they pick up speed and weight and substance and gravity. until they land with a scud, take seed, and grow as fast as the unruliest of beanstalks."

Who is Himself in this story? Is it Mahony who comes to the village of Mulderrig looking for his past? Is it the culprit in this mystery - the unnamed man on whose brutal actions the book opens? In the etymology of Irish English, the pronouns "himself" and "herself" can be used as "he" or "she" might be. Is Himself here? Is Himself the guilty party? Is it Himself? And so on. The terms are often used in this way to refer to someone of importance.

Why the language lesson? Because the language and cultural background is the charm of this book. It is what makes this murder mystery out of the ordinary. The plot is a fairly simple one. The book open on a murder being committed. Fast forward years later. Mahony, an unknown young man comes to a small village. Why? His stated reason is to get away from city life. The real reason is to search for his past, to find a murderer, and perhaps to seek vengeance. The small town setting gives rise to a whole host of eccentric characters. Some would help him; others have something to hide and would like to see him disappear. Slowly, the layers are peeled back, revealing connections and relationships until finally the murderer is revealed. A dramatic conclusion ensues.

What makes this book intriguing is the setting and the background of Irish folklore. Ghosts sometimes lead the way for those who have the gift of "sight." A tree protects a baby from a murderer. Magical places exist - "a low-tide island you could wait years for and still never see. This wasn't a coincidence; it was a benediction." A Brigadoon, perhaps?

The cast of characters is what you would expect in a small town novel. Mahoney is the handsome, sultry "bad boy," with his leather and cigarettes. Shauna is the small town girl who's been hurt before. Mrs. Cauley is the village matriarch (of sorts), holding court. There is the town busybody, the priest, and the town "bogeyman." A little quirkiness, a little humor, a little romance, and a little magic draw the characters together in the story. Ultimately, though, the book has too wide a cast, and the "good" characters are drawn out with much greater detail than the "evil" characters. It takes a while to get the characters - living and dead - and their relationships straight to settle into the story. The fact that the book moves between two time lines - Mahony's and his mother's - with overlapping characters exacerbates this issue.

The book sets up the folklore and the background beautifully. The beginning is colorful and atmospheric. However, the story itself flounders. It seems to loop through the same spot. The pace is slow, and the characters, plot or setting don't really build. About part way through, I find myself losing interest in the characters and the outcome.

Overall, the plot is a little scattered and falls a little short of the build up. However, I love the premise and setting and enjoy the descriptive writing.


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Thursday, March 30, 2017

A Bridge Across the Ocean

Title:  A Bridge Across the Ocean
Author:  Susan Meissner
Publication Information:  Berkley. 2017. 384 pages.
ISBN:  045147600X / 978-0451476005

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

Opening Sentence:  "The afternoon sun lies low and sweet among the clouds that hug the harbor, bathing the promenade deck in shimmering half-light."

Favorite Quote:  "It is complicated fighting for freedom and justice, but necessary if they were to hold on to what made them human and not beast."

This book follows a commonly used structure to tell the story in two time periods. A character and story exist in the the present. A character and story exist in the past. There is a link between the two. In alternating sections, the book tells both story, drawing them together into a conclusions. In some books, this structure works very well. In some, it does not. In most, I find myself more drawn to one character, story, and time period. The key to my enjoyment of the book most often lies in how well the two stories come together to form a cohesive whole. The drama and the mystery of these books often lies in the connection between the past and the present.

In this book, the present story is that of Brette Caslake. She lives an every day life of home, work, husband, and family. However, one extraordinary ability makes her feel different and often alone. She has the ability to see and talk to ghosts. This ability has literally haunted her from childhood, and she has spent her life trying to hide it and to escape it. However, it continues to influence every decision she makes. A request from an old friend brings her to the ship Queen Mary docked in Long Beach, California. It also brings her face to face with her ability again and makes her think that perhaps she needs a different approach. This chance encounter becomes the connection in this book to the story of the past.

The story of the past is that of Simone Deveraux, Annaliese Kurtz, and of World War II. Simone Deveraux is a child of the French Resistance, and Annaliese Kurtz is the wife of a Nazi officer. Both have indescribable horrors that they look to escape. They come to the Queen Mary for passage to the United States as war brides. Their lives overlap and takes a turn that neither could have imagined.

The book goes back and forth between the three women. Brett's story is about coming to terms with who she is. Simone's story is of survival. Annaliese's story is one of escape. Of the two time periods, the story of the past is definitely the more compelling one. Of the three characters, Simone is the most compelling.

What does not really work in this book is the connection between past and present. An attempt is made to create a metaphorical correlation. "The are afraid of what they can't see, just like us. It's as if there's a bridge they need to cross. And it's like crossing over the ocean, Brette. They can't see the other side. So, they are afraid to cross." Unfortunately, for me, the connection is lost. Brett's story and the story of her ghosts goes in a direction so far as to become unbelievable. The contrast between the stark, factual reality of the war story and the supernatural story of the present makes that feeling even stronger. The ending to Brett's story is also completely unexpected, as in it is somewhat unrelated to the actual story. The ending and the connection between past and present seems almost tangential by the end. In this story of two times, the story of the past clearly wins out in terms of characters and plot.


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Monday, March 27, 2017

Spaceman of Bohemia

Title:  Spaceman of Bohemia
Author:  Jaroslav Kalfar
Publication Information:  Little, Brown and Company. 2017. 288 pages.
ISBN:  0316273430 / 978-0316273435

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

Opening Sentence:  "My name is Jakub Prochazka."

Favorite Quote:  "We know that the world operates on a whim, a system of coincidences. There are two basic coping mechanisms. One consists of dreading the chaos, fighting it and abusing oneself after lost, building a structured life ... in which every decision is a reaction against the fear of the worst ... This is the life that cannot be won, but it does offer the comfort of battle - the human heart is content when distracted by war. The second mechanism is an across-the-board acceptance of the absurd all around us ... This is the way to survive in this world, to walk up in the morning ... and exclaim, 'How unlikely! Yet here we are,' and have a laugh, and swim in the chaos, swim without fear, swim without expectation but always with an appreciation of every whim, the beauty of screwball twists and jerk that pump blood through our emaciated veins."

I started reading this book expecting a story like The Martian by Andy Weir. Both are about a lone astronaut surviving not only the elements but also the loneliness of their situation. What I discovered is that this is about where the similarity ends. The Martian is a book about survival; Spaceman of Bohemia is really anything but that.

I want to have a conversation with Jaroslav Kalfar and ask him what he was thinking when he wrote this book, and I mean that in the best way possible. This is a book that leaves me thinking. I am still puzzling over what the story meant. Is it a flight of fancy about a man traveling to space to investigate a dark cloud that hovers over earth? Is it a metaphorical journey about a man dealing with the psychological scars of his childhood and the impact of the father's sins being visited on the child? Is it a somewhat satirical, absurdist commentary through Czech history and current events? Is it perhaps all these things?

The literal story centers on Jakub Prochazka, a professor of astrophysics. About a year and a half before the book begins, a comet has cast a cloud over earth. Countries are in a race to be the first to explore the cloud and gather samples and data. The Czech's mount a one man mission that is to last several months. Months going. Months coming. A brief period in the cloud to gather data. Jake Prochazka is chosen to be that one man. Then comes the solitary journey and its ramifications for his body, his mind, and his relationships.

For Jakub, this mission is also a way to redeem his family's name for he is also the son of a member of the Communist secret police. Although his father dies when Jakub is a child, Jakub cannot escape the cloud of his legacy. How does the reader learn this? Why, through the alien Jakub meets on his journey, of course. A large, hairy spider like creatures appears in Jakub's spaceship. At first, it is unclear whether the creature is real or a figment of Jakub's mind. Regardless, the creature has the ability to delve into Jakub's psyche and his emotions. In this way, Jakub's solitary journey in space also becomes a reflection on his past and the country's history.

This book has a very small cast of characters. What makes this story work is the character of Jakub. The reflections back give his character substance to balance the absurd vision of a man hanging out and eating Nutella in outer space with a giant spider as his only friend. What gives it even more impact is the first person narration. Jakub tells us his own story, and his alien friend literally takes the reader inside Jakub's mind. The second half of the book does not quite live up to the first half, but ultimately, this is a book that makes me think and leaves me thinking about it days later. That makes it a good read for me.

I am excited that is a debut novel. I look forward to seeing where Jaroslav Kalfar's imagination goes next.


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Saturday, March 25, 2017

The One-Cent Magenta

Title:  The One-Cent Magenta: Inside the Quest to Own the Most Valuable Stamp in the World
Author:  James Barron
Publication Information:  Algonquin Books. 2017. 224 pages.
ISBN:  1616205180 / 978-1616205188

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

Opening Sentence:  "My improbable descent into Stamp World started at a cocktail party that had nothing to do with stamps."

Favorite Quote:  "These days, stamps are museum exhibits, relics of a world that knew the world from stamps. Once, stamps were tantalizing because they had gone places. And they depicted places most people would never see:  exotic destinations."

In 2014, the one-cent magenta sold for a record-breaking $9,480,000 at a Sotheby's auction in New York City. The stamp has in fact set a new record for price the last four times it has sold. The stamp is now exhibited, by permission of the owner, at the National Postal Museum of the Smithsonian Institute. So, what is it about this tiny little piece of paper that makes it so valuable?

The one-cent magenta is a stamp issued by the colony of British Guiana (what is now the country of Guyana). Only a small number were printed because the postage was used in an emergency when the ship carrying the official postage failed to arrive in Guiana. Only one is known to be in existence today. Rumor has it that a second was found but purposely destroyed. Hence, the stamp's value lies in its rarity. It's the only one of its kind.

This book tells the journey of this stamp from its origin in 1856 to its present home. More than that, it tells the story of each of its owners. As such, it is a walk through history and a walk through the world of philately and stamp collecting. Although not academic in its reading, the book includes a lot of details - name, places, dates. The book also includes an extensive list of end notes substantiating its research. These range from academic writing's to the author's own interviews with individuals.

The first couple of chapters set up the background with the author's introduction to the world of stamp collecting and with the introduction to the man who would be responsible for the 2014 Sotheby's auction. Then, the book goes back to the original creation of the stamp in 1856 and travels forwards through nine chapters as the stamp journeys from British Guiana through Glasgow, Long, New York to its current home in Washington DC. Each chapter title also includes the rising price of the stamp each time it changes hands; the changing currency shows its travels:

  • 1856 - original - one cent
  • 1873 - six shillings
  • 1878 - £120
  • 1878 - £150
  • 1922 - $32,500
  • 1940 - $50,000
  • 1970 - $286,000
  • 1980 - $935,000
  • 2014 - $9.5 million

All this for a not-very-pretty-looking piece of paper not even an inch in size. All this because it is the only one in existence. That is the world of the collectors. I know very little about the hobby or business of stamp collecting, but even I recognize some of the names who have played a role in this stamp's history.

The histories of the owners is told in a light, easy to read narrative. It is almost gossipy in tone, with chapter titles describing characters such as "The Man in the Yachting Cap," "The Plutocrat with the Cigar," and "The Angry Widow." The story is not just about the stamp but about other parts of the owners' lives - business deals and personal relationships - that led to some of their actions. This stamp represents wealth; people and money can lead to some interesting machinations and decisions. The only question again is will this stamp ever change ownership again and what will the price be?


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Thursday, March 23, 2017

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Title:  I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
Author:  Maya Angelou
Publication Information:  Bantam Books (my edition). 1969 (original). 246 pages.
ISBN:  0553279378 / 978-0553279375

Book Source:  I read this book as a selection for a local book club.

Opening Sentence:  "I hadn't so much forgot as I couldn't bring myself to remember."

Favorite Quote:  "See, you don't have to think about doing the right thing. If you're for the right thing, then you do it without thinking."

I have long been familiar with Maya Angelou's work through her work as a civil rights activist and through the numerous times her work is cited by others. I have long found much of what she wrote inspirational. I have bookmarked, re-read, and shared many of her quotes.

This is the first time, however, that I have read one of her biographies in its entirety. In her life, Maya Angelou wrote seven autobiographies, detailing different aspects of her life. I Know Why the  Caged Bird Sings is the first of the seven. The book was originally published in 1969, when Maya Angelou was forty-one years old. It tells of her life from childhood to the age of seventeen - the years 1928 to 1945.

This is the story of a child growing up from Missouri to Arkansas to California and back again. The book is an episodic story, much like The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros and like Another Brooklyn or Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson. All the books are the coming of age stories of young women if difficult social and economic circumstances. So it goes with this book.

The story is a harsh and sad one, dealing with poverty, racism, abandonment, rape, sexual abuse, and teenage pregnancy. There are moments of joy and love also, but mostly, the book is a series of sad truths told in an explicit, graphic manner. For that reason, the book has found its way on and off of school curricula. In other words, parents, use your judgment as to the appropriate age for your child to read this book. This is not an easy book to read and an even more difficult one to discuss. Yet, it is an important one for this history is part of the fabric of our nation.

The only other Maya Angleou work I have read in its entirety is Letter to My Daughter. That book is a collection of essays based on her own life that offer advice for a young woman growing up. Now knowing read the biographic background adds a whole new level of understanding to those letters and to her other words I hear quoted. That book seeks to inspire and educate; this one almost seems to want to shock.

That is perhaps the biggest surprise of this book. I expect to find the inspiration I have always found in Maya Angelou's words, and I don't, at least not in the words themselves. This book is more about shaking people's comfort level and forcing a look at the harshness of life that some have to face. The events related are more tragic than inspirational. The writing is dark, matching the tone of the events themselves. The story is told with an emotional detachment that is perhaps necessary for survival in those circumstances. No, the inspiration to be found in this book is not in the writing. However, Maya Angelou had courage to live this life, the courage to move forward from the events described, and the courage to tell the story in such a public way. That is where the inspiration lies.


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Monday, March 20, 2017

Minds of Winter

Title:  Minds of Winter
Author:  Ed O'Loughlin
Publication Information:  Quercus. 2017. 500 pages.
ISBN:  1681442450 / 978-1681442457

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

Opening Sentence:  "In a mystery worthy of Agatha Christie, a valuable marine chronometer sits on a workbench in London, crudely disguised as a Victorian carriage clock, more than 150 years after it was recorded as lost in the Arctic along with Sir John Franklin and his crew in one of the most famous disasters in the history of polar exploration."

Favorite Quote:  "You mourn your dead but you must go on living:  to do otherwise is impious."

John Franklin was a Naval officer, an explorer, and appointed lieutenant governor. In 1845, he took the helm of one more expedition. The goal was to chart a portion of the Northwest Passage in the arctic. This had never been done before. Two ships, the Erbus and the Terror, sailed forth. Neither returned. The ships became icebound along their journey. Ships and crew were both lost. Stories about the fate of the crew abound and range from succumbing to the elements to cannibalism.

Over the succeeding years, John Franklin's wife orchestrated numerous missions to determine the fate of the expedition and of her husband. Over a hundred years later, an artifact from the expedition thought to be lost turned up. How did it survive? Who did it survive with? How did it come to London? Who hid it in a disguise? The mystery has never been resolved.

The expedition, the mystery surrounding it, and the searches after have been captured in books, movies, and music. This book adds to that legacy.

Presumed lost in the arctic wilds, how did the chronometer end up disguised as a clock in Victorian England? I got lost in these voyages of polar exploration and the riddle of John Franklin's chronometer. The issue I have with the story is that it lacks an anchor. It jumps time periods, locations, and perspectives. At times, it seems more a collection of short stories linked together by the thread of this one expedition. That format indeed may have worked better but as a reader, I don't expect continuity between short stories as I do in a novel.

As short stories go, I enjoy some sections more than other. The opening of the book sets the stage for a story that is part adventure and part love story. The imagery of the ships done up for a dance, the sounds of the music, and the sights of gentleman and ladies conjures a lovely picture. The chapter sets up Sophia as the likely heroine of the story. Then, the chapter ends, and the book shifts. Sophia appears throughout the book, but more as a cameo in the middle of the stories of others. Her story feels unfinished.

The story in the current time frame is set around Nelson and Fay, each of whom have their own reasons for seeking the past. The plot, however, is all in the past. Nelson and Fay's story of the present gets lost in the past. It seems more a conduit to the history rather than developing into its own.

Perhaps, the most interesting of the stories was that of Ipiirviq aka Joe Ebierbing aka Eskimo Joe about half way through the book. This is a story of family, love, culture, adaptation, and exploitation. Although told from his perspective, this is as much his wife Taqulittuq's story. The descriptions of his "friends" putting him and his family on display in the Barnum "museum" are just heartbreaking. I could read an entire book based on their story, but this book shifts away on its path through history.

Having read the book and then researched the history, I did learn about the mystery of John Franklin's fatal expedition. Sadly, too many characters, too many plot lines, and a confusing timeline keep this from being the book for me.


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Saturday, March 18, 2017

The Fifth Petal

Title:  The Fifth Petal
Author:  Brunonia Barry
Publication Information:  Crown. 2017. 448 pages.
ISBN:  1101905603 / 978-1101905609

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

Opening Sentence:  "Isn't it a little late for praying?"

Favorite Quote:  "... once you start demonizing groups of people, when you make them the other, you can justify doing just about anything you want to them, can't you? Look at history if you don't believe me."

Take witchcraft and new age healing practices. Add some mythology. Place it in a historic Salem, Massachusetts setting. Throw in an atmospheric country estate. Write in an eclectic group of strong female characters. Stir in a mystery and a dash of a love story. Orchestrate everything through a police chief with a history and a story of his own. The end result is an entertaining, magical tale.

After reading this book, I realize that it carries on characters introduced in a previous book, which I have not read. Fortunately, this book stands alone well. I can tell that the characters have history, but it adds to the mystique and mystery of the book rather than making me feel like I am missing a piece.

The scene opens on a hospital ER and a terrified little girl holding on to a rosary so hard that it leaves a permanent scar of a perfect five petal rose on her hand. (Think symbolism.) Three women, including the girl's mother, have been murdered.

Fast forward twenty-five years to Halloween night in Salem, Massachusetts. In the middle of the festivities, a young man dies. The conclusion is murder.

The murders so many years apart are related. The accused is a homeless woman, Rose Whelan, who was once a scholar and is now considered mentally ill. She claims it is the work of a banshee, "a mythological female spirit whose mournful cries were considered omens on death."

News of this accusation brings Callie Cahill back to Salem. She still has the scar on her hand, but the little girl is all grown up. She comes back upon discovering that her "aunt" Rose is alive even though Callie has been led to believe that Rose died.

The history of this book goes back to the Salem witch trials in 1692. On July 19, 1692, five women - Sarah Good, Elizabeth Howe, Susannah Martin, Rebecca Nurse, and Sarah Wildes were hanged in Salem. Their crime was witchcraft.

The fiction goes that Rose Whelan is looking for the place of their death - the hanging tree. She is descended from one of the witches along with Callie Cahill and the women murdered at the beginning of the book. She seeks to consecrate the ground where their ancestors are buried. The mystery proceeds as amongst the women of this book, the police chief identifies descendants of four of the witches. The identify of the fifth - the fifth petal on the rose, if you will - may lead to the solution of all the deaths or yet another victim.

Based on the character descriptions, I guess at the identity of the murderer early on in the book. Based on the description of the setting, I guess where the climax of the book is likely to occur.  However, it does not matter. It is fun following the history in the book, the symbolism (the oak tree, the five petal rose, the role of music in healing), and the intrigues of what ends up being a small town story.

What is even more interesting about the ending is that it leaves an opening for interpretation. The mystery is resolved, but the ending does leave you wondering. Did what I think happened really happen, and does it imply that another book might be coming?


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Thursday, March 16, 2017

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life

Title:  Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life
Author:  Yiyun Li
Publication Information:  Random House. 2017. 224 pages.
ISBN:  0399589090 / 978-0399589096

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

Opening Sentence:  "My first encounter with before and after was in on the fashion magazines my friends told me to subscribe to when I came to America."

Favorite Quote:  "Memory is a collection of moments rearranged - recollected - to create a narrative. Moments, defined by a tangible space, are like sculptures and paintings. But moments are also individual notes of music; none will hold still forever."

To even try and understand this book, you have to understand the context in which it came to be written. "Writing this book has taken about two years now, as long as the period that led to it, a year of descending into the darkest despair and a year of being confined by that despair. The bleakness, which can be summarized with a few generic words - suicide attempts and hospitalizations - was so absolute that it sheds little light on things. A sensible goad is to avoid it." Oh my.

Yiyun Li's life has taken many turns. Born in China, she grew up in Beijing. She came to the United States as a scientist to study; she received a Master's in degree immunology from the University of Iowa. She walked away from science to explore her writing, becoming part of the Iowa Writer's Workshop. She has won many awards for her writing, including the prestigious McCarthur Fellowship, the so-called "genius grant." She currently lives, teaches, and writes in California. In some ways, she has achieved her American dream. Yet, in 2012, she tried to kill herself. Twice. This memoir is an outcome of that struggle in her life.

The title comes from the work of another author, Katherine Mansfield. Katherine Mansfield lived in the late 1800s and early 1900s. She is known for her short stories, her journals, and for the fact that she died at the young age of thirty-four from tuberculosis.

The fact that the title comes from another author's work is indicative of the way in which this reflective memoir goes. To a great extent, it is a collection of essays rather than a linear narrative. Many of the "essay" center on or reference passages from works that bring either explanation or inspiration to the author.

I completely relate to the idea of finding ourselves in books and of reading a sentence that says what we are unable to express. "I would like to believe that there are as many alternatives in life as in fiction; that roads not taken, having once been weighed as options, define one as much as the irreversible direction of the chosen path." Even more so, I find myself thinking of the idea that no two readers ever read the same book because we each bring to any book the sum of our experiences. For the author, both reading and writing provide this purpose. "To read oneself into another person's tale is the opposite of how and why I read. To read is to be with people who, unlike those around one, do not notice one's existence."

I struggle with how to rate this book. On the one hand, I have enormous respect for the author's struggle with mental health. I wish her health and joy. I agree with the role books can and do play in our lives. On the other hand, I find the book itself very difficult to engage with. Unfortunately, I don't the see the lesson or wisdom being shared. I do feel a voyeur to an intensely personal battle. The book to me wanders as the battle might, trying thought after thought to see if one might provide the path out. This book reads as a therapeutic outlet for the author rather than a memoir to be shared with others. So, I see the struggle, wish her well, and move on.


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