Sunday, November 19, 2017

The Art of Hiding

Title:  The Art of Hiding
Author:  Amanda Prowse
Publication Information:  Lake Union Publishing. 2017. 288 pages.
ISBN:  1611099552 / 978-1611099553

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

Opening Sentence:  "Nina caught the red light only a spit away from the entrance to the boys school."

Favorite Quote:  "And if ever the real world feels too big or too scary, remember that is is nothing more than a little ball travelling through space and it fits right into the palm of your hand and the more courage you have, and the braver you are when facing it, the easier it is to conquer!"

The Art of Hiding is a rags to riches to rags story. Nina McCarrick is a first generation immigrant from Denmark and comes from humble beginnings. She falls in love and marries into wealth. Finn McCarrick is an up and coming businessman who wants nothing more than to take care of Nina. And she lets him, giving up on her independence and her dreams. Years pass, and they build a beautiful life. Two handsome young boys. A mansion in the suburbs. A private school education for their children. Nina never worries about money; Finn handles all of that. Nina never feels like she quite fits in, but life is good.

Then, Finn dies, and Nina discovers that her life is not at all like it appears. Bankruptcy drives Nina and her boys back to the modest neighborhood in which she grew up. Fortunately, she has the support of her sister Tiggy.

Such a premise sets up a story of survival and the courage to move forward. At the end, the word that comes to mind is sadly cliché. Unfortunately, for a couple of reasons, the story fails to engage me.

First is the stereotypes and extremes that the book builds its world on. Nina finds no friends in her life with Finn. She lives in a mansion, but it is more like a gilded cage. She portrays everyone in that life as money minded, shallow, and unpleasant. Back in her own modest neighborhood, she meets only people willing to lend a hand and help things work out for her and her boys. Perhaps, the intent is to depict the effect Finn's control on her life and the release from that control as Nina rediscovers herself. Unfortunately, what comes through is just the stereotypes because even after Finn's death, none of those relationships change.

Second is the character of Nina herself. She comes across not as a woman trying to survive a catastrophe, but as a self-centered woman not giving thought to those around her. Unfortunately, shallow is the word that comes to mind. This particularly manifests itself in her relationship with her sister Tiggy. Tiggy cares for Nina both as big sister and mother after their mother died. Yet, Nina leaves her behind when she marries Finn. Again, perhaps the intent is to depict the effect Finn's control on her life but what comes through is that Nina walks away. Tiggy is the first and only person to truly come to Nina's assistance when Finn dies. However, Nina is not appreciative of that support and certainly does not give thought to the challenges and struggles of Tiggy's life.

Finally, there are aspects of this book that leave me frustrated. First and foremost, Nina is completely clueless about the state of their finances when Finn dies. Does that happen in real life? Sadly, yes. Should it happen? Absolutely not. No one should be content with being told essentially to "not worry your pretty little head about it." (That cliche is mine not a quote from the book.) Secondly, one reaction is missing in Nina throughout the book. I wait for it, but it never comes. Anger. Anger towards Finn who treated her in such a manner and who managed to wreak such havoc with their lives. Nina never finds that anger, which seems completely unrealistic.

At the end, a story that should have been about courage and survival turns into one about shallow characters and stereotypes. Not the book for me.

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

Saturday, November 18, 2017

The Little French Bistro

Title:  The Little French Bistro
Author:  Nina George
Publication Information:  Crown. 2017. 336 pages.
ISBN:  0451495586 / 978-0451495587

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

Opening Sentence:  "It was the first decision she had ever made on her own, the very first time she was able to determine the course of her life."

Favorite Quote:  "Every woman is a priestess if she loves life and can work magic on herself and those who are sacred to her. It's time for women to remind themselves of the powers they have inside."

As with Nina George's first book The Little Paris Bookshop, the premise of this book sounds like it could be a powerful story. A sixty-some year old woman remains in a controlling, abusive marriage for over forty years. The only way out visible to her seems to be suicide. That suicide attempt is how the book begins on the banks of the Seine River in the beautiful city of Paris.

As you might expect, Marianne's attempt is unsuccessful and lands her in the hospital. Her husband returns home, leaving Marianne to recover alone and then follow him home. Instead, Marianne runs. A found object, a painted tile, sets her on a path to Brittany. The name of the Finistére region on the west coast of Brittany comes from the Latin phrase meaning end of the earth. For Marianne, it seems fitting that she will end her life there.

As you might expect, she does not. Instead, she rediscovers life in and around a little French bistro in the small village of Kerdruc on the coast. A host of characters enter her life. Each brings their own back story. Each touches Marianne's life in some way, and Marianne leaves each one changed, providing just the right words and actions at just the right time.

As you might expect in a story about escaping the past, the past often comes to find you. The final step of the escape of course is the reckoning with the past. Oddly, the aspect that is never explored is why Marianne marries this man in the first place and why she stays in the marriage for over forty years. The corollary that then does not follow is how after a lifetime, she manages rather quickly to find her independence and her voice. That lack of development means that as a reader, I don't completely buy into Marianne's story. I don't ever feel that her character is fully revealed.

Unfortunately, as with Nina George's first book, this one ends up in a place that belies the strong premise. What sets up as almost a coming-of-age story for an older woman scatters into many other things. The book introduces a wide cast of characters and follows their stories in addition to Marianne's. While interesting in their own, following a wide array of stories means that no one story gets developed in depth.

What should be the story of a woman finding her strength also turns into a romance. I would love for a book about a woman finding her voice and her independence to remain about that. I would love to see the point made that coming out of a relationship, first learn to be yourself and by yourself before entering a relationship again.

Finally and unexpectedly, the book also introduces a magical element which is completely unnecessary to the book. Magical powers? Healers? Druids? Why not just people? On the other hand, that is the one unexpected element in this book.

Sadly, despite its premise, the plot and the characters fail to develop, making this not the book for me.

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

Sunday, November 12, 2017

The Waking Land

Title:  The Waking Land
Author:  Callie Bates
Publication Information:  Del Ray. 2017. 400 pages.
ISBN:  0425284026 / 978-0425284025

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

Opening Sentence:  "I felt safe that night in Laon, safer than I had any night before in the city."

Favorite Quote:  "we have to be merciful ... If we're not, then what are we?"

When Lady Elana Valtai is about five years old, she and her family walks into what is essentially an ambush. No blood is shed, but Elana is kidnapped and held as insurance such that her father will no longer threaten the king in power.

Fast forward about fifteen years. Elana lives as a princess, having been cared for like a daughter by the king who kidnaps her. What she knows is the king's version of history and the fact that her family never came back for her. They seemingly left a five year old and never looked back. The secret Elana holds is of her past and of her magic, one because of guilt and the other because magic is a forbidden art.

Then, her world changes yet again. The king dies; rivals emerge; and Elana is on the run for her life. Her escape leads her back to her childhood home and her family. Here, she learns that there is another version of the history she has been taught and another side to the story. Allegiances are questioned and questioned again. An epic struggle for the kingdom ensues, with sorcerers, handsome princes, princesses who can defend themselves, and all the intrigues of royal politics.

Battling for the empire with kidnappings, rival kingdoms, armed soldiers, and sorcerers is unfortunately not quite the exciting, adventure-filled story I expect it to be. Unfortunately, the "epic" is not quite so epic. Primarily, this has to do with the depiction of the main character, Lady Elana. Warranted that at a young age, her world has been upended twice. It would be natural for her to question beliefs and actions. However, that uncertainty and that questioning somewhat takes over the book. Considering that she is the narrator of the story, what the reader sees is her internal monologue of uncertainty more so that the story itself. This also makes the pace of the story seem really slow, which does not work considering the plot line. Every plot twist seems to be accompanied by Elana's questions. Should I? Shouldn't I? Who do I trust? What do I do?

I am also disappointed in that the romance and Elana's romantic thoughts take over what should have the story of a strong, independent young woman capable of standing on her own. Not every story needs a love story, and not every princess needs a knight in shining armor. I would much prefer the story of the princess who is a brave knight.

The magical element, particularly the power of the earth, is present but not really developed as a main point in the book. Given the cover and the title, I expect there to be a greater importance placed on the land itself and on the role of humans as the stewards of the land. That message is really not the objective of this book.

The most interesting aspect of this book is the world the author creates. Admittedly, the reader gets a limited view through Elana's eyes. However, what is visible sounds like the forests of medieval England, Ireland, and Scotland with the addition of modern weapons. Royal palace intrigues usually make for an entertaining story, and this book is no different. It just falls short of the being the grand adventure it could have been.

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

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Something Like Happy

Title:  Something Like Happy
Author:  Eva Woods
Publication Information:  Graydon House. 2017. 432 pages.
ISBN:  1525811355 / 978-1525811357

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

Opening Sentence:  "You can't always pinpoint the precise moment that your life goes wrong."

Favorite Quote:  "...sometimes it's in the contrasts. Hot bath on a cool day. Cool drink in the sun. That feeling when your car almost skids on ice for a second and then you're fine - it's hard to really appreciate things unless you know what it's like without them."

Polly and Annie are strangers, until they are friends. One is living while she is dying. The other one is dying while she still has a lot of life to live.

Polly is a terminal cancer patient with a brian tumor that will lead to her death soon, really soon. Yet, Polly is determined to be happy and live every one of the days she has left.

Annie is physically healthy, but emotionally in pieces. Her marriage ended, ending many friendships along with it. She is working in a dead-end job and living in an apartment which she has not yet made home. Her mother suffers from dementia, with lucid moments becoming more and more rare. Annie has a lot to be sad about.

Polly and Annie meet at the hospital, and Polly makes Annie her project, if you will. She is persistent and edges her way into Annie's life, determined to have Annie join her project of a hundred days of happiness.

The book proceeds predictably with its repeated message about making the choice to be happy, about looking around and seeing the blessings in life, and about taking control of your own happiness. As you might expect, other friendships an romances emerges.

The serious moments in the book emerge from different sources, some predictable and the others more unexpected. The predictable one of course is Polly's story. How could a story of a lovely young woman struck down with a deadly disease not be sad? Beyond that though, it turns out that Polly has a story that goes beyond her illness. It is a reminder for Annie that all of us have a story. Thankfully, many are not catastrophic like Polly's but each life has sadness and joys. It depends on where you keep the focus.

A serious aspect of this book is embedded in a side character's story. One of the doctor is portrayed as aloof, abrupt, and focused. However, behind that demeanor is a story of an immigrant and a refugee trying to build a new life and devastated by the grief of the suffering of family left behind. Polly makes the point broader, "You know, nearly every doctor I've had in here is foreign. People say its' a bad thing, but what I'd like to know is, who would be doing those jobs if there weren't here? Thank goodness they can, is what I say!" Again, the point becomes that everyone has a story, but we have to choose to listen.

Another serious statement is found in the story of Polly's brother. His is the story of a fear of rejection, abuse, and the courage to emerge from both. The smooth, polished actor surface of his persona hides the story within. Again, a story exists. Joy and sorrow exist.

The book is predictable, sad, and sweet. There is nothing subtle about the points it tries to make. However, the central theme is a reminder that we all need at times. "How about a hundred days of doing our best to be alive - even if it's sad, or ordinary, and we want to cry most of the time? That's what living is, I think. Letting it all in. The happy days, the sad days, the angry days. Being awake to it."

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

Monday, November 6, 2017

The History of Bees

Title:  The History of Bees
Author:  Maja Lunde
Publication Information:  Touchstone. 2017. 352 pages.
ISBN:  1501161377 / 978-1501161377

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

Opening Sentence:  "Like oversized birds, we balanced on our respective branches, each of us with a plastic container in one hand and a feather brush in the other."

Favorite Quote:  "But first and foremost the knowledge made me richer. Richer than the other children. I was not beautiful, not athletic, not good with my hands or strong. I could not excel in any other fields. In the mirror an awkward girl stared back at me. The eyes were a little too small, the nose a little too big. The ordinary face revealed nothing about what she was carrying - something golden, something that made every single day worth living. And that could be a means of getting away."

Three time periods. Three parents and their children. Three families and their struggle for survival. And the bees or the lack of bees.

Years ago, I read A Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd. A few years ago, I read a book titled The Bees by Laline Paull. Recently, environmental news has been full of articles about bees dying and the devastating effects that could have on our world. All of this reading has left an impact. So, when I saw a book titles The History of Bees, I flew at the chance to read it.

This book is fiction, of course. It is and is not a history of bees. Most of the book is like reading three independent stories in three completing different time periods and settings. What ties them together is the bees. In the 1850s in England, there is William, a biologist and a man who is trying unsuccessfully to make his mark on science. In 2007 in the United States, there is George, a beekeeper who is trying to keep his family business going in the face of economic, environmental, and familial adversity. In 2098 in China, there is Tao, a human pollinator who does the work of bees and who would do anything for her only child Wei-Wen.

The book alternates between the three time and three points of view. At the beginning, that makes the book a challenge, keeping the time lines and characters straight and trying to guess at the link between the three. Soon, however, that ceases to matter as the stories take over. The progression is effectively handled so that when the conclusion and connections come full circle, it seems like a natural outcome.

Throughout the book, you know the stories connect and you know the connection is the bees, but the how and the why does not become clear until the "a-ha" moments until the end. However, that does not matter. The three stories themselves are engrossing with developed main characters that I feel for. The writing evokes vivid images of these three completely different worlds.

Of course, the book makes its environmental and political statement. With such a topic, I expect it. However, this book accomplishes that in a natural way within the context of the story rather than a moralistic statement that happens to be couched in a story.

The parallel and equally important theme in this book is the bond between parent and child. William is disappointed in his son Edward and for a long time, does not see the potential in his daughters, particularly Charlotte. George and his son Tom are somewhat estranged as Tom's dreams lead away from the family business and George cannot envision a future with no one to carry on the family legacy. Tao spends every waking moment thinking of how to give her toddler son a better life and a better shot at life, especially given the regimented dystopian society she lives in. The joys, sorrows, hopes, and disappointments of parenthood bring an emotional grounding to this story. They give the story its heart and make the environmental message a memorable one.

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

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Young Jane Young

Title:  Young Jane Young
Author:  Gabrielle Zevin
Publication Information:  Algonquin Books. 2017. 320 pages.
ISBN:  1616205040 / 978-1616205041

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 dear friend Roz Horowitz met her new husband online dating."

Favorite Quote:  "Anticipating the worst doesn't provide insurance against the worst happening."

Young Jane Young dives into the world of politics, the seemy underside that often times wreaks havoc with lives. Rachel Shapiro is a mom, fierce in her love for her daughter but concerned about the choices her daughter makes and the consequences of those choices. Aviva Grossman is the young woman who falls in love with the wrong person and forever alters the course of her life. Embeth Levin is a wife who has to decide the balance between the good and the bad in her marriage. Jane Young is a woman content to leave her past far behind and live a quiet life in a small town in Maine. Ruby Young is the next generation, who draws the thread between past and present closed.

The book hits at serious issues of the gender divide that still exists in so many arenas but particularly in the world of politics. The story is about strong women who make compromises to live with the double standards and come around time and time again upon these inequitable gender standards.

A married man has an affair. The woman is shamed as having seduced him. A wife holds no expectations of fidelity. The young women caught in a political scandal is forced to build a new life after the headlines fade and move on to the next scandal. The secret of a woman's long ago past comes back to impact her current career.

This book is interesting because it is unexpected. The book is clearly focused on the women in the story even though the plot is all about the impact of their relationships with the men in their lives. The characters of the men, particularly the married politician at the heart of the scandal, are relatively one-dimensional and only present to give definition to the women's stories.

The story also begins in one direction and then takes a turn with every character. Just when I think I know where it is going, it brings in the impact on another person and tells another side of the story. Admittedly, the first half of the book is an adult perspective and the more interesting part of the book.

The entire section from the Ruby Young's perspective is a little too precocious for my taste. Ruby is young; yet, she helps her mother run her business, has her own American Express card, tells the story in letters to her pen pal, and has the confidence to take of on her own on a cross-country trip to find her past. Cute but a bit much. The ending winds back to an adult perspective and plays a game of "what if" which again brings the book back to the serious underlying issues.

The book is a quick, often light-hearted read that in its breezy manner leaves me with a lot to think about. "Because the things we don't have are sadder than the things we have. Because the things we don't have exist in our imagination, where they are perfect."

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

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Understanding Color in Photography

Title:  Understanding Color in Photography: Using Color, Composition, and Exposure to Create Vivid Photos
Author:  Bryan Peterson and Susana Heide Schellenberg 
Publication Information:  Watson-Guptill. 2017. 144 pages.
ISBN:  0770433111 / 978-0770433116

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

Opening Sentence:  "When I first launched my dream to be a professional photographer back in the 1970s, I began as most did at that time:  by shooting with the less expensive black-and-white films."

Favorite Quote:  "Your photographic vision, which comes from within, is vitally important to your art of image-making. As an artist, you take responsibility for your vision, you own the creative process; the creative process does not own you! Your vision is inside you and is shaped by many factors, not the least of which is your love of color."

A reader's perspective and background is crucial to understanding their review of any book. It is even more crucial in a review of an instructional book such as this one. I am an amateur photographer - a hobbyist. I shoot both with my phone which is always with me and with a larger DSLR camera and lenses whose intricacies I am still exploring.  I work in both color and black and white. My snapshots are of my family; they are more about capturing memories and the moment rather than photographic skill. My favorite subjects for exploring photographic skills are things in nature. One day, of course, my hope is to apply one to the other.

I first explored Bryan Peterson's teaching through online sources. Bryan Peterson is an accomplished photographer and the author of many books and the force behind a photography school. His books have long been resources of photographers looking to learn. This book is no different. Learning to See Creatively explored ideas on really seeing the world around you. This book explores the world of color:
  • evaluating the interplay between light, exposure, and color
  • using color in composition through ideas such as complementary vs. analogous vs. monochromatic colors, the weight of colors, and the color wheel.
  • understanding the psychology of color and using those ides for impact in photographs
  • using tools to enhance colors
Clearly, any book such as this one presents the author's philosophy on the subject. For example, the section on tools to enhance colors are relatively short and at the end of the book. Both the section on filters and photo editing begin with a statement that the author is not a fan of using tool. He does use them, but the preference is not to.

This book is not for the complete novice. It assumes an understanding of the terminology of photography - f-stop, ISO, white balance, shutter speed, and so on. However, it is also not equipment dependent. The ideas in the book can be used whether you have a camera which adjusts for all these settings or a point and shoot with automatic settings. The writing style of the book is also like a personal narrative or conversation (lots of you... and I....), making it more accessible to readers.

This book is both instruction manual and a spring board for inspiration. The setup of the sections is similar - text embedded in a multitude of photographs with each photograph specifying the technical setup of the shot and the story behind the shot. The full color photographs, of course, make this book. Just flipping through the book creates a rainbow of images to enjoy. The photographs are from around the world, but the subject matter is ordinary enough to be found in your own neighborhood - an orange, a street vendor, a bird, leaves, paint brushes, a match and its flame, for example. The key is not have great vistas to photograph but learning to seeing the beauty in the ordinary.

That perhaps is my favorite aspect of Bryan Peterson's books. He makes beautiful photography approachable and achievable. Putting it into play, of course, takes practice, but the inspiration is invaluable.

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

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Pieces of Happiness

Title:  Pieces of Happiness
Author:  Anne Ostby
Publication Information:  Doubleday. 2017. 320 pages.
ISBN:  0385542801 / 978-0385542807

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 dear friend - Can I still call you that?"

Favorite Quote:  "Power lies in knowledge. Especially in deciding whether to use it."

From Norway to a cocoa plantation in Fiji. That is the path Kat's life has traveled in the forty years since she left high school, her family, her friends, and her home. She and her husband Niklas traveled the world from project to projects and in their sixties finally settled on the island of Fiji. Sadly, Niklas drowned, leaving Kat to carry on alone.

Now comes the improbable premise of this book. Kat reaches out to four girlfriends from high school - Ingrid, Lisbeth, Maya, and Sina. She has not seen these women since high school, and even at that time, not all friendships were stable. After all, it was high school. Anyways, Kat reaches out and invites the women to Fiji, not for a visit to reconnect but to live with her on her cocoa plantation. The premise stems from the fact that Kat spent the intervening forty years wandering the world and, other than her husband, formed no other lasting friendship. So, these high school friends still represent her core of friends.

Now comes the even more improbable aspect of this book. All four women say yes. All four remained in Norway after  high school, never venturing far from the homes they grew up in. All four created lives with careers, families, and friends. Yet, enough sadness exists in their lives for each one to say yes to such an invitation and to say yes to an opportunity to almost begin again.

Believable or not, you decide. Or suspend disbelief and go along to see what the story brings.

Beyond the unlikely premise, the story proceeds as you might expect. Each woman, including Kat, herself, brings all their baggage with them - the secrets, the successes, the fears, and the love accumulated over their sixty some years of life. Gradually, of course, the secrets old and new emerge, and paths forward emerge. Throughout this process, Kat's housekeeper Ateca serves as the "Greek chorus" of this book, offering commentary and clarification on how the reader should view the five women.

 What I expected to see explored further was the beautiful setting of Fiji. The book really does not paint a picture of the backdrop; the only point to be made is that it is so completely different from Norway. For its beautiful setting, the book is not a visual story; it is all about the characters, relationships, and emotions. The book does attempt to capture some of the culture of Fiji, particularly through Ateca's commentary as she attempts to help these newcomers traverse the traditions. At times, the commentary seems just that - commentary - rather than an integral part of the story; however, it is still fascinating to learn about a culture I don't know much about.

What I do enjoy about the book is that it focuses on some of the issues of aging - physical constraints, the need for companionship, the joy and struggle of children growing up, and the vital role of friendship. This books becomes about the past we carry with us, what we choose to hang on to, what we let go of for our own benefit, and what deserts us. That is the memory of this book that will stay with me.

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

Thursday, October 26, 2017

The Epiphany Machine

Title:  The Epiphany Machine
Author:  David Burr Gerrard
Publication Information:  G.P. Putnam's Sons. 2017. 432 pages.
ISBN:  039957543X / 978-0399575433

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 epiphany machine will not discover anything bout you that you do not, in some way, already know."

Favorite Quote:  "Almost anything could be tattooed on my arm and I would recognize it as a murmuring from the deepest part of my soul, because at some point or other I've wanted everything. I've wanted to be everyone. There have even been rare occasions when I have wanted what I am supposed to want and have wanted to be what I am supposed to want to be ... That's the entire reason the machine seems to work; anything that you can claim is in somebody's head has probably been there at some point. People feel a shock of recognition at the truth, but they feel a shock of recognition at a lot of other things, too."

Some books reach out and grab you. Some books leave you at the end untouched. Then, there are the few that just sit. Usually, I read a book in a couple of days either if I am engrossed or if I just want to get to the end. Rarely, I encounter a book that sits on my nightstand for days or weeks. I pick it up and put it down. I restart it. I pick it up and put it down. I eventually finish, but it takes a while. The Epiphany Machine became one of those books.

The premise of the book sounds wonderful and grapples with philosophical questions. A machine exists that that will tattoo on your arm a truth about you. Do you want to know? Do you perhaps already know what the machine will write?

The perspective in the book is mostly from the viewpoint of Venter Lockwood. He is a child at the beginning of the book; both his parents have used the machine. His father's tattoo reads, "Should never become a father," and his mother's tattoo reads, "Abandons what matters most." Both tattoos impact Venter's life because how could words like that taken at face value not impact a child The question I expect to see explored is whether the epiphany machine is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Does the machine write what is embedded in a an individual or does the writing cause the person to believe that about themselves and make decisions in that light, forever altering the course of their lives? What is the ripple effect of these decisions on the people who surround them?

The book doesn't quite go in that direction. It seems to turn more in a way to explore history through the lens of the epiphany machine. What might have been the tattoo on the arms of historical figures? What is the cultural phenomenon of the epiphany machine? Why do people want to know? What are they hoping to gain? Again, intriguing questions.

The book does not quite commit in that direction either as the story narrows down to Venter and his life and to a memoir like approach to his search for his own history and the history of his parents with the epiphany machine. The story follows him from childhood to middle age. It is here that the book gets bogged down. Venter is neither a likable nor a really interesting character. His story also gets into entirely unnecessary graphic descriptions of personal encounters. Unfortunately, his story ultimately finds not a defining moment or closure. Is his life defined by the revelations of the epiphany machine? Is his life defined by the fact that he gives meaning to these revelations? Is there indeed truth in the machine or is belief what drives its success?

For many, the word "epiphany" has religious meaning. The word itself can also mean "a moment of sudden revelation or insight" however that insight may manifest itself. I suppose that is what I expected from this book - a moment where it all comes together, where it perhaps leaves a life lesson, or where it perhaps has a dramatic pause. Unfortunately, although the book probes a wide array of intriguing questions, that epiphany never comes.

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

Tuesday, October 24, 2017


Title:  Sourdough
Author:  Robin Sloan
Publication Information:  MCD. 2017. 272 pages.
ISBN:  0374203105 / 978-0374203108

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

Opening Sentence:  "It would have been nutritive gel for dinner, same as always, if I had not discovered stuck to my apartment's front door a paper menu advertising the newly expanded delivery service of a neighborhood restaurant."

Favorite Quote:  "Here's a a thing I believe about people my age:  we are the children of Hogwarts, and more than anything, we just want to be sorted."

The mention of sourdough bread conjures up a smell and a taste, perhaps even a memory. The mention of bread conjures up images of hearths, homes, and warmth. This book takes those mental images and places them in the context of a post-modern futuristic world of genetically engineered food products, robots, and business intrigue. This book then takes this incongruous combination and places it in the sometimes beautiful and sometimes concrete industrial jungle of what seems to be present day San Francisco Bay.

Lois Clary is a worker at a company called General Dexterity. "At General Dexterity, I was contributing to an effort to make repetitive labor obsolete ... In other words, you solved a problem once, and then you moved on to more interesting things." Lois works on robot arms on a quest to forever improve the efficiency of repetitive motion tasks.

She goes to work. She comes home. She goes to work. She comes home. She goes to work. She comes home. Her life is a repetitive motion. She does not seem to have much in terms of family, friends, or other life other than the Lois Club of San Francisco. Yes, this is a club of women named Lois with chapters around the world apparently.

A brochure left in her apartment door brings escape in the form of food - spicy soup and bread from Clement Street Soup and Sourdough, a place that delivers. This soup and bread becomes Lois' sustenance both physically and emotionally. She in turn becomes the restaurant's Number One Eater.

Then, disaster strikes as the operators of the restaurant are forced to leave the country because of visa issues. They leave Lois with a gift - directions, kitchen utensils, and their very own, very old sourdough starter. Their one request is for Lois to keep the starter alive. It'll be easy, they say.

What is a girl who codes robots for a living and does not cook supposed to do with that? So begins Lois' adventures into baking, the world of science and food, the collaborative and competitive realities of artisan food vendors. "Baking, by contract, was solving the same problem over and over again, because every time, the solution was consumed. I mean, really:  chewed and digested."

The twists and turns in this book lead in some eccentric directions, but somehow it - singing bread starters, underground farmer's markets, scientifically engineered nutrition gone haywire - all works. The whole things is all together bizarre, but somehow it all forms a cohesive whole story I want to keep reading.

Some of the futuristic developments have me laughing with the eccentricities of the science and the characters. These element add a surreal touch to the entire book. Lois' story, however, has me caring as this chance encounter leads her down a path she could never have imagined and as she becomes the woman she never dreamt possible.

Robin Sloan's first book, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore is a similar mix of old and new, technology and traditional tale set in San Francisco. Both books successfully create an intriguing fanciful world full of charm and adventure. The first book reaffirmed my love affair with bookstores. This one leaves me with an urge to start baking again.

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

Sunday, October 22, 2017

How to Behave in a Crowd

Title:  How to Behave in a Crowd
Author:  Camille Bordas
Publication Information:  Tim Duggan Books. 2017. 336 pages.
ISBN:  0451497546 / 978-0451497543

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 was a darker brown stain on our brown suede couch."

Favorite Quote:  "when people talk about love, Dory, they call it love because it is a festive word, like champagne. You hear the cork pop just saying champagne. But what they're really talking about when they say love is attachment, its, which are, admittedly, less glamorous words. And when they say you only love once ... they don't mean it in a cheesy romantic way or anything you now? It's very practical, in fact:  there is no time in life to get to know and ... tie yourself to more than one person."

I am not quite sure what to make of this book. I am undecided if the book lost something in the translation, or somehow, I just do not see the point. I get the premise, but I don't really get the book.

The book description calls the book "an absorbing, darkly comedic novel that brilliantly evokes the confusions of adolescence." Clearly, I am not the reader for this book for I miss the humor and the entire idea of a coming of age story.

Isidore "Dory" Mazal is the youngest of six siblings, growing up in a small town outside of Paris. His mother is the parent present along with the man they call "the father" who seems to travel a lot. Dory's siblings, all in their own way, are brilliant. They have skipped grades, are about to get their doctorates, are on the brink of fame, or are otherwise spectacular in some way (if only in their own vision of themselves). Dory, who is eleven as the book opens, is none of these things especially in his own vision of himself.

When tragedy strikes the family, Dory finds his strength - or so the premise of the book states. It more like Dory discovers that even the spectacular older siblings and the adults in his life are perhaps as lost as he is. The tragedy and its aftermath is, of course, part and parcel of Dory's growing up. Coming of age stories, particularly in the face of tragedy, can be touching and sweet. This one is not. When a book describes the sex-life of a twelve year old as if it is the most natural thing, I am done. I am clearly not the reader for the book.

Dory's other main line of thought is the idea of running away. Many adolescents (dare I say, even adults) contemplate running away. However, Dory actually does at times and seems none the worse for wear. Again, the tone is casual and nonchalant as if none of it matters.  This seeming lack of emotion in what is a challenging time for a family and a challenging time for an adolescent is probably the biggest stumbling block for me as a reader.

This book is filled with what the description calls quirky characters. Unfortunately, for me, quirky goes too far as to be the story of a dysfunctional family with characters that are not necessarily likable or unlikable. Sadly, either reaction would be better than the fact that for me, they elicit no interest or reaction at all. I am left with a sensation that I missed some connection.

The tragedy that is the heart of this book is casually announced in a single sentence. That's it. Not funny. Not sad. Not anything at all. I almost miss the announcement the first time through. I find myself rereading the page before and the page after for something more. What occurs should elicit sympathy for this family and particularly for this little boy but sadly elicits no reaction at all.

Overall, I am trying to explain my reaction to this book and struggling to put it into words. Honestly, that is because I walk away with just the idea that I missed something.

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

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Impossible Views of the World

Title:  Impossible Views of the World
Author:  Lucy Ives
Publication Information:  Penguin Pres. 2017. 304 pages.
ISBN:  0735221537 / 978-0735221536

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

Opening Sentence:  "The day Paul Coral vanished, it snowed."

Favorite Quote:  "I was just a human-shaped supply of erudition and random bits of data that kept the paintings from falling off the walls."

My favorite part of this book is the wonderful title and cover. In fact, that was my primary reason for requesting this book. Beyond that, I am not entirely sure what to make of the story.

The book is marketed as a mystery centered around an ancient map and set in a New York museum. The setting and premise are intriguing; this was my my other reason for requesting the book. A historic museum, a missing person, and a ancient map provide the perfect set up for mystery and adventure. Unfortunately, the mystery does not really go anywhere. I am left at the end wondering what the point was. I persevere through the entire book hoping for an epiphany or a resolution but one really does not come. Having read the entire thing, I am not sure I could exactly describe the characters or what the story was really about.

In the middle of this "adventure" is the personal story of the main character Stella Krakus. She has a soon to be ex-husband who antagonizes her. She has a mother who is an icon in her own right and Stella does not measure up. She has a boss who has his own agenda. Overall, Stella, or at least her life, is cracking up. Unfortunately, for all her misfortunes, Stella's character as the narrator falls prey to the tone of the book. She becomes a relatively annoying heroine.

At the root of this sadly is the language and narrative style of this book. I am a lover of words and language, but I am also a believer that you choose your words to suit your message. In this book, for me, the writing and the language gets in the way of the story. Big words and complex language seems to be used not for the story but rather for the sake of language itself. The writing style and word choice gives the entire book a pretentious feel and leaves me as a reader disengaged from the story.

For example, the main character describes her condition as follows:  "This, to be honest, made me feel like a microbe that was living under the shoe of a cockroach that was living under the sink of two of the most doltish frat boys you'd ever want to meet on a Billyburg corner at midnight midvape who'd just moved in together to explore heir dreams of becoming middle managers." What? I think that translates simply to the fact that she feels undervalued in her job. Yes? No? Maybe? Who knows.

What compounds this feeling is the fact that almost the entire book is a first person narration with very little dialogue or interaction to break up the style of storytelling. Another example towards the very beginning of the book:  "I have modes of being that are less than elegant ... On this particular morning, I assumed the demeanor of a roach on its way back to its nest through a lighted kitchen." What is with the roach motif? Very little in the book breaks up this narrative style, ultimately leading to a disappointing reading experience.

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

Sunday, October 15, 2017

The Luster of Lost Things

Title:  The Luster of Lost Things
Author:  Sophie Chen Keller
Publication Information:  G.P. Putnam's Sons. 2017. 320 pages.
ISBN:  0735210780 / 978-0735210783

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

Opening Sentence:  "Somewhere in the Fourteenth Street subway station there is a statue of a little bronze man who waits for a train that never comes."

Favorite Quote:  "Out there might be dark places to be afraid of and lonely islands to escape from and terrifying heights to fall down, but what also awaits are more places to see and people to know and friends to make and experiences to share, and what could be more worth the pain than to open up and let yourself be a part of a sweeping story."

Walter Lavender Jr is an unusual young man. His father, a pilot, has been lost. His mother has build a life for Walter. She runs a bakery, but not just any bakery. This bakery is sprinkled with its own magic, created by a magical book that Walter Lavender Sr. left behind. The legend of the book is a magical story all its own. In the midst of this, Walter Lavender Jr. is loved and cared for by his mother, the workers in the bakery, his giant dog Milton, and his neighborhood.

Walter has a knack for finding things - lost things. Sadly, a speech impediment leaves him unable to articulate his thoughts in ordinary conversations. He finds his voice in his quests for lost things, but his inability to communicate in day-to-day interactions leaves him the subject of ridicule and bullying.

The book has this perfectly charming beginning setup. A caring neighborhood where people seem to know each other and care for each other. A magical book and a magical bakery. A precocious young main character.

Of course, drama comes to town in the shape of a new landlord who threatens the bakery and the neighborhood. On top of that, the Lavender's magical book goes missing. Therein lies the plot of the book. Walter can find things; he now just needs to do it for himself. This sets him on a quest around the city and through the paths of a wide assortment of characters. The book winds its way to a predictable ending.

Walter is a likable character, and as a adult, I want to make this child's path easier. The idea of a caring neighborhood and a magical bakery, of course, holds appeal. However, the book slows downs and begins to drag as Walter winds him way around the city in his search. Too many characters and too much of the same thing lead away from the charming, cozy beginning.

The publicity for the book calls to the readers of The Curious Incident of the Dog at Night and A Man Called Ove. This book reminds me more of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer. Both books are about young boys dealing with the loss of their fathers. Both books are set in New York City. Both are about a quest to find something literal - a lock that fits a key and a lost magical book. In the quest to find the missing item, both stories are about a cast of characters who meet the young boys and who leave them with a lesson and a step forward. In both stories, the adult characters clearly take a back seat to the boys. Both stories are ultimately about these boys finding a way through their grief with the innocence of childhood.

One main difference is the use of magic realism in this book; the magical book is the missing item which serves only to accentuate a child's imagination. The fact that it is magical is not essential to the story. This book for me creates a more lasting impression because of the charm and warmth of the beginning, and maybe things are just better with a belief in a little magic.

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

Friday, October 13, 2017

Everything We Left Behind

Title:  Everything We Left Behind
Author:  Kerry Lonsdale
Publication Information:  Lake Union Publishing. 2017. 348 pages.
ISBN:  1477823972 / 978-1477823972

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

Opening Sentence:  "He dreamed about her again."

Favorite Quote:  "I urge you to come to terms with past mistakes, to forgive those who have wronged you, and find peace within yourself. You might discover that despite the losses, you've gained so much more."

The question of this book is can you go home again? When time has passed, can you return to a life and expect to pick up the pieces and step right back in? The even bigger question is do you really truly even want to?

Everything We Left Behind is the follow up Kerry Lonsdale's debut book Everything We Keep. The first book is about Aimee Tierney as she deals with the disappearance of her childhood sweetheart and husband to be, James Donato. By the end, the book reveals how and why James disappeared and how Aimee moves forward.

This book picks up six years later when James returns to California. The story is now about James remembering and moving forward. Aimee has started life anew. She is running a business, is married, and has a child. James is a widower with two boys, wondering how he got to where he is. He is rediscovering himself. In some ways, his life has been wonderful in the last six years. In other ways, it has not been his life at all, at least not the one he thinks he knows.

James' medical condition, which carries forward from the first book is dissociative fugue. This is a psychiatric disorder in which an individual can have two completely different personas - memories included. The individual is either one or the other, and can remain in one states for days, months, or even years as with James. Within each state, the individual is completely immersed in that life, emotions, actions, memories and all. Unless the individual has been told, there is no recognition or acknowledgement of another life. However, when a transition occurs from one persona to the other, the individual has no memory of the other.

James Donato is also Jaime Carlos Dominguez, widower and father of two. He has been happily so for six years. The discontent and sadness arrives when Carlos  awakes one day as James. Now, back as James, he struggles between his two identities and the love he has in both. His journey is further complicated by family and business intrigue that forced James to becomes Carlos now finds him again. So, his struggle to rediscover also turns into a struggle to survive, escape, and protect his family.

This book is more challenging than the first to follow. James story is more difficult to follow than Aimee's. The timeline is not linear. Past and present collide more in this book. Aimee's stories of the past were clearly nostalgic memories of the past. James's memories are that but also introduce decisions, actions, and incidents that are now coming forward into his present and threatening the life he has built. As such, past and present sometimes become blurred.

Perhaps, the nonlinear timeline creates a disconnect. Perhaps, James is a less interesting character than Aimee. Perhaps, the styles of the books and the story they tell is too similar. Perhaps, I read the two books one after the other. Perhaps, the mystery is lacking, and the ending is predictable. For all these reasons, this book is still an entertaining read but a less engaging one than the first.

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

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Everything We Keep

Title:  Everything We Keep
Author:  Kerry Lonsdale
Publication Information:  Lake Union Publishing. 2017. 304 pages.
ISBN:  1503935310 / 1503935310

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

Opening Sentence:  "On our wedding day, my fiancé, James arrived at the church in a casket."

Favorite Quote:  "... I learned not to let go too easily of the people I want in my life. Friends, people I care about a lot."

As a reader, everything we have to leave behind in in this book is disbelief. Just go along for the ride.  Mystery, mysticism, medicine, business, criminal activity, family, and love all play a part in this debut novel. Keep in mind, this book is the beginning of a series (or has at least one sequel). So, don't expect everything to be all wrapped up by the end.

Overall, though, this book is about endings and beginnings. Aimee Tierney is a pastry chef working in her parent's restaurant and getting ready for her wedding to the love of her life, her childhood sweetheart, James Donato. Sadly, the book opens with a funeral instead of a wedding. The church, the guests, and even the flowers planned for the wedding become the backdrop for James Donato's funeral. It's an ending to everything Aimee has ever dreamt of. It's an ending of life as she knows it.

From the beginning though are signs that all is not as it appears. A stranger approaches Aimee at the funeral suggesting James may not be dead. So begins Aimee's story. Hers is a story of beginning again and moving into the future and of reflecting on the memories of the past as it ends. Aimee works at her parents' restaurant which is set to change hands. Aimee mourns this ending, but it leads to a new beginning and new dreams. She mourns for James and the life they shared and the life they still had yet to share. His death, however, forces life in a new direction.

The book also becomes the story of a search for closure. What happened to James? Is he or is he not dead? That is the mystery of the book. The answer to that question is no real surprise, but the "how" is the point of interest. The "how" involves a lot of moving parts fitting together just so. Not the most believable story but a fun journey.

The one point that is of concern in this book is that a rape occurs, and it is covered up by both the victim and someone who loves her. That is not okay. I understand that it happens in real life, but in a fiction book, I disagree with the message being sent particularly when the main story is not the terrible impact of those actions. Rape and a cover up are not okay. That is never okay. Also, the incident seems to be compartmentalized in the victim's life. Other than an abiding dislike and distrust of the perpetrator, it seems to not have had a lingering effect. That to me undermines the seriousness of that crime and its devastating effects in real life. Again, that is not okay.

Suspend disbelief is my recommendation for this book. Coincidences and leaps abound. The love story is sweet and sappy. However, with a relatively sympathetic character at the heart of it, it makes for a quick enjoyable read. In that, the book becomes a perfect beach or rainy afternoon read.

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

Monday, October 9, 2017

The Great Quake

Title:  The Great Quake: How the Biggest Earthquake in North America Changed Our Understanding of the Planet
Author:  Henry Fountain
Publication Information:  Crown. 2017. 288 pages.
ISBN:  1101904062 / 978-1101904060

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

Opening Sentence:  "Riding shotgun beneath the clouds in a rattling De Havilland Otter, George Placer gazed down upon an Alaska he's never seen before."

Favorite Quote:  "Of the thousands upon thousands of earthquakes that happen around the world every year - from imperceptible tremors to powerful shakes like the one that hit Lituya Bay - roughly one in sixteen occur in Alaska. That makes the state one of the most quake-intensive places on the planet."

One in sixteen earthquakes in the world occur in Alaska. Just think about that. One in sixteen. The strongest earthquake ever measured occurred in Alaska in March 1964. The earthquake measured 9.2 on the Richter scale; that is before the scale broke because the earthquake was too strong to be measured. According to the US geologic survey, an earthquake of that magnitude causes almost total destruction at its epicenter with damage extending to far distances and changes in the land's topography that are permanent.

The Great Quake is the story of this natural disaster and how it changed science and how it impacted those who lived through it. Two things about this earthquake made it unique. The most obvious, of course, is its strength. The second is that, at that time, scientists did not know what caused the earthquake. It sent the Geological Survey on a scientific quest to determine the cause. What they found gave credence and credibility to the theory of plate tectonics. The science describes the structure of our planet and provide an explanation for natural events. The research done as a result of the Great Quake has forever changed this study.

Mind you, I find science fascinating but do not really look to read dry, scientific tomes. I find history fascinating, but, again, I look for the story of history more than a rote description of facts, figures, and timelines. This book satisfies on both counts. It contains science and history, but it is indeed a story.

The story of the people is front and center in this book rather than the science of the earthquake itself. Geology is explained, but this is not a book about geology. Again, it is a story of those whose lives changed because of this earthquake - Alaskan residents whose lives were literally upended by the earthquake, citizens who became heroes, and the scientists who rushed to study the events.

As a story, the book develops the "characters" if you with background information on their lives before and after the earthquake. In other words, this book goes beyond the quake both before and after. It anchors around George Plafker, the US Geological Survey scientist who was instrumental in the study of this earthquake. This past May, Geoge Plafker was awarded the 2017 Harry Fielding Reid Medal, the highest honor awarded by the Seismological Society of America (SSA). This award honors his lifetime contribution to the study of seismology, which stems in large part to the work he and the US Geological Survey team did in Alaska in the aftermath of the 1964 story.

In its style and approach, this book reminds me of Erik Larson's work. With eyewitness accounts, interviews, scientific information, and a narrative story-telling approach, this book makes for an engrossing and entertaining scientific history.

A note: The e-galley I received includes no images. I do not know if the print version does, but I hope it does for the images I have now looked up online give a whole new meaning to what the author manages to describe in words.

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