Friday, July 21, 2017

Trophy Son

Title:  Trophy Son
Author:  Douglas Brunt
Publication Information:  St. Martin's Press. 2017. 288 pages.
ISBN:  1250114802 / 978-1250114808

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 the end, man shapes the world, but the world gets the first crack at us."

Favorite Quote:  "I wondered then what hero meant. what does it take to be the hero of your own life? choice, certainly. You have to be in charge of  your life to be the hero of it. What if you make bad choices, or just-below-average choices? Do you need to reach the cheese to be the hero, and then what the hell is the cheese anyway? Self understanding? Happiness? A Wimbledon title? Could the cheese be to perform one noble act in an otherwise unremarkable life spent not in charge of it?"

First, a disclaimer. I enjoy watching tennis, but am not an avid fan tracking the sport. I am not that avid a fan of any sport, but I do enjoy watching a good competition in any sport. As such, my reading of the book clearly differs from that of an avid tennis fan. In other words, as with any other book, the reader's background impacts their enjoyment. This is true of any book, but I feel the topic of this one merits a disclaimer.

Second, another disclaimer. This book is a work of fiction even though the first person narration makes it sound like a memoir. In addition, reference is made by name to actual major, world class tennis players. References are made to their choices which I have never heard in the news or heard associated with those names. Substance abuse is a serious business. It might be naive to think that major sports are all clean, and this book is clearly marketing as fiction. However, the name-dropping adds nothing to the story, but even fiction should be limited in the liberties it takes while naming names and alleging wrongdoing.

Disclaimers aside, I read this book more for the family story than the sports story. Anton Stratis is not your average teenager. He has been groomed to be an elite tennis player and to fulfill the dream of winning that this parents as former Olympic athletes could not achieve. Anton practises for hours on end. Tennis takes precedence over school. Tennis takes precedence over friends. Tennis takes precedence over family. Pretty much, tennis takes precedence over everything. In a nutshell, tennis has been Anton's entire life as directed by his father. As Antons grows up, he wishes for what he feels is a more "normal" life of school, parties, friends, and relationship. 

The description of the book leads more towards the family story not the sports story. I expect it to center on Anton's relationship with his father, his father's drive to make his son a star, and the son's struggle to assert his independence. The book does begin with that, but as the book progresses, the relationship hovers on the periphery of the story. This book really becomes about Anton growing up in the world of elite athletes. It is about the choices he makes as his life expands beyond the world of tennis. It begins as a child rebelling against a parent and ends with an adult make choices about the path of his life.

The book is quick read. It is an easy read. The dynamics between Anton, his parents, and his brother are interesting. The details of tennis are voluminous. As a whole, this is a book about extremes. The father's focus on practice is to the point of abuse. The girlfriend is famous and driven in her own career. The substance abuse problem not just exists but extends to everyone. The choices is all or nothing. Everything is an extreme, which in turn means that nothing stands out. Interesting but perhaps a little over the top.


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Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Roanoke Girls

Title:  The Roanoke Girls
Author:  Amy Engel
Publication Information:  Crown. 2017. 288 pages.
ISBN:  1101906669 / 978-1101906668

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

Opening Sentence:  "The first time I saw Roanoke was in a dream."

Favorite Quote:  "As a little girl I'd tried to please, tried to live by a simple refrain my mother repeated  like a desperate prayer in my ear:  be good be good be good. But I'd known even then it wouldn't work..."

Jane, Sophia. Penelope. Eleanor. Camilla. Emmeline. Allegra. Lane. These are the Roanoke girls with Allegra and Lane being the youngest generation. Roanoke is a family home that "looked like something an insane person would build..." Lane comes to Roanoke for the first time as a teenager when her mother's death leaves her orphaned. At that time, Allegra is the only other Roanoke girl in residence. Lane loses her mother as a teenager while Allegra lost her as a toddler. Lane has known another life while Roanoke is all Allegra has.

Their grandparents Yates and Lilian are raising them both. A friendship blossoms between Lane and Allegra. So does a rivalry as is likely to happen at that age. Lane also learns the dark history of the Roanoke girls. They either run or die. All of them. Things happen; a rift happens; and Lane leaves, promising never to return. Lane runs.

Fast forward many years. Lane finally returns for Allegra has disappeared. Did she die or did she run? What underlies the darkness at Roanoke? Set in a small town in Kansas, that is the premise of this book. This premise underlies many a wonderful family and small town stories. Like other books in the genre, the book moves between past and present. Reading such a book is the process of slowly peeling back the years of history to finally get at the answer. Sometimes, the answer is satisfactory and sometimes not. More often than not, the process of getting there makes for an interesting read.

The biggest issue with this book is that it drops a bombshell near the beginning of the book as to the reason for the history of the Roanoke girls. It's difficult to discuss without a spoiler, but let's just say, the answer is a disturbing topic so reader beware. More than that, its placement in the book removes much of the mystery surrounding these young women and, as such, removes much of the interest from the book. Even more than that, after the big reveal, the book proceeds in a relatively predictable manner; no further surprises really come except for the extent to which the darkness prevailed in that household. Even at the end, the books wraps up this twisted family into a neat package of hope for the future - neither satisfying not realistic. Although not graphic, the repeated explanations of what happens at Roanoke conjures up disturbing images I wish I could unsee.

The crux of engaging in a book about an emotionally charged topic is engaging with the characters. The characters in this book fall into four groups. The townspeople who have no idea what goes on in their midst. Those who suffer. Those who inflict suffering. Those who watch and allow it to happen. The book is narrated through Lane's eyes who falls into one of these groups, but I fin her a difficult character to engage with. She is one of the Roanoke girls but perhaps not the most interesting one. Through her eyes, the rest of the story then becomes a distanced and somewhat limiting view.

 All these things combined with the unpalatable topic makes this a challenge book to finish.


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Friday, July 14, 2017

Extraordinary Adventures

Title:  Extraordinary Adventures
Author:  Daniel Wallace
Publication Information:  St. Martin's Press. 2017. 336 pages.
ISBN:  125011845X / 978-1250118455

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 news came just after dinner via a telephone call from a representative of an organization called Extraordinary Adventures."

Favorite Quote:  "As impossible as it may have seemed months ago, there was a remote chance that he could have been here with any one of three women ... She was the only one he would have wanted to remember having gone with."

A promise of a free vacation to a resort in exchange for listening to a time share marketing pitch.
A somewhat clueless and apparently friendless main character.
A mother who paraded "uncles" in front of her young son.
A dug up skeleton of a childhood pet.
A robbery of an apartment.

All this within the first few chapters of the book with an expectation of more to come. The first two sounds doable; the rest, not so much.

Edsel Bronfman (what a name!) is the main character. The book opens when Edsel receives a phone call saying he has won a free stay at a resort. There are two caveats. The first is that he must listen to a time share marketing pitch for the resort. Just listen. That's it. Easy enough. The second is that the stay is for two. Edsel must bring a companion on this adventure. Therein lies the issue. Edsel cannot think of one single person that he could or would want to ask. He seems to have no friends. He would definitely not ask his mother. He probably cannot ask a coworker. What to do? Edsel Bronfman has seventy nine days to figure it out because he cannot let this free offer go by.

Books about quirky but endearing characters are a common story line, particularly since the success of The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion. This book is another in the same genre.  Unfortunately, instead of quirky and endearing, the characters in this book are simply odd and sometimes a little creepy. This is true particularly towards the beginning of the book when as a reader, I invest in the characters. Books about odd and creepy characters can sometimes be quite the adventure to. Unfortunately, this one does not reach that goal either for its aim is to charm and amuse. The goal of the book and the setup of the story clash and draw me away from the book. Instead of being charmed, I find myself putting the book down and walking away. It takes some doing to come back to it.

The book aims for a journey of self-discovery and growth as thirty-four year old Edsel Bronfman seeks to find himself a companion. His interactions with his mother sadly point to an emotionally abusive childhood. As an adult, he finds himself her only caretaker as she declines further and further into dementia. As an adult, it is now Edsel's time to find his path. It is an interesting premise, but somehow, I find myself just not connecting with the character at all. Again, I find myself putting the book down and walking away.

The book also aims for a romantic comedy as Edsel's inexperience with the ladies is on full display in his feeble attempts to reach out in friendship. This aspect of the book has the expected highs and lows and a predictable ending.

Both the self-discovery and the sweet love story do emerge in the book, but the beginning and the lack of engagement with the characters unfortunately make it very difficult to get there. By that time, I find myself completely uninvolved in Edsel's story. Sadly, not much to say other than that this was not the extraordinary adventure for me.


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Monday, July 10, 2017

The Bedlam Stacks

Title:  The Bedlam Stacks
Author:  Natasha Pulley
Publication Information:  Bloomsbury USA. 2017. 336 pages.
ISBN:  1620409674 / 978-1620409671

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

Opening Sentence:  "Although I hadn't been shot at for years, it took me a long time to understand that the bang wasn't artillery."

Favorite Quote:  "Stop looking at it as an impossible thing and start looking at it as a thing that must be done."

Bedlam - noun meaning a scene of uproar and confusion, or, in archaic use, an insane asylum or madhouse. Bedlam aka Bethlehem - a small village in the hills of Peru. How much one definition has to do with the other, I leave you to discover.

The story on its surface is about Merrick, an adventurer who finds himself depressed and stagnating because of what he considers a career ending injury. A friend offers him a commission on behalf of the East India Company. The treasure being sought is a source of quinine for India; this source is found in the remote regions of Peru. Merrick's expertise and connections are of value for his grandfather once traveled to and lived in these very regions. Merrick is intrigued and agrees to the mission. Things come full circle when the grandson returns to the grandfather's history.

The Bedlam Stacks is the second novel by Natasha Pulley. Her first book, The Watchmaker of Filigree is a dark and atmospheric book that sends you around in circles like the intricacies of the clockwork it features. It is a book set in a fictitious 1800s London but with a somewhat futuristic feel. It begins with a bomb blast and ends focused on a friendship.

In some ways, The Bedlam Stacks is similar. Both are set in the same 1800s universe, but this book begins in England but brings you to the forests of Peru. Both books are very visual tales. Both are centered on a main character, who for the most part is alone in life. Both become focused on a friendship (perhaps more?) between two men of disparate ages. Both involve clockworks as a recurring motif. Certain characters from the first book even make cameo appearances in this one.

In other ways, the comparison between the two books flat. Perhaps, that is a risk of a second novel that attempts to follow the themes and style of a very successful first book. A understandable inclination perhaps but, in this case, for me not a successful one. I requested this book expecting to be carried away as I am by the first, but I was not. Perhaps, that is the book, and perhaps that is my expectations as a reader.

Perhaps the reason is also partly the characters themselves. The clockmaker at the heart of the first book is a character shrouded in mystery. The book develops the character through his relationships. In this book, Raphael (who plays the comparable role) is a much more present character. A mystery about his past is the heart of this story, but the character loses some of his mystery by being so much a part of the story.

Perhaps another reason is that the first book is a mix of the historical setting and a futuristic fantasy with many elements associated with steampunk literature. This book mixes in a lot more - Inca mythology, science fiction about the essence of time, futuristic technology, and magic. The story is still a visual one, but the elements become muddled. Disappointing for I was so looking forward to this book.


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Thursday, July 6, 2017

The Witchfinder's Sister

Title:  The Witchfinder's Sister
Author:  Beth Underdown
Publication Information:  Ballantine Books. 2017. 336 pages.
ISBN:  0399179143 / 978-0399179143

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

Opening Sentence:  "1645, and the Civil War in England has begun its fourth year."

Favorite Quote:  "Resentment buried is not gone. It is like burying a seed:  for a season it may stay hidden in the dark, but in the end, it will always grow."

The Witchfinder is historical figure Matthew Hopkins. The Witchfinder's sister is Alice, a fictional character. The book is the story of this historical figure told through the perspective of his fictional sister.

Matthew Hopkins lives in the town of Manningtree in Essex in England during the 1600s. England is in the middle of a civil war between the Parliamentarians and the royalists. Suspicion and superstition abound. For many, the objective is to find someone to blame for anything and everything that goes wrong. More often than not, that blame falls on the women, particularly those not living a traditional lifestyle of child rearing and drudgery.

That is where Matthew Hopkins comes in. In his self-appointed role as Witchfinder, it becomes his job to confirm or deny the claim of witchcraft. History tells us that most of the claims were confirmed; in his short career, Matthew Hopkins is said to have been responsible for the death of over 300 women.

Historically, very little is known about Matthew Hopkins' family life. What remains is his mark on history. This book presents a fictional story of what that life would have. It tells of a childhood accident that leaves his scarred, the death of his father that changes the family's circumstances, and Matthew's gradual submersion into this life he chooses. His sister is not marred by visible scars and finds a different path through the same circumstances. Widowed young, she is forced to return and forced to be dependent on his brother. Once back in Manningtree, Alice is pulled more and more into the darkness of the times and the darkness of her brother's choices.

More than Matthew Hopkins' story, this book is Alice's story. It is only her perspective the reader sees. Her emotions and her shock at what she finds in Manningtree after being away for over five year. It is also her conversations and relationships that take center stage in the witch hunt. The much more interesting story would be that of Matthew Hopkins himself, of those proclaimed to be witches, and of the trials. Because of the narrator of the story, the book does not give the broader historical picture and feels like a sideline view of the main plot.

What accentuates this feeling even more is the fact that the pace of the book is very very slow. The first third of the book seems almost all back story. It lasts a little too long and keeps me from engaging for I spend that time waiting to get to the main story.

Even more than Alice's story, this book is the story of the darkness. The writing does a beautiful job of creating a cold and grim picture of the small town of Manningtree. The entire book has an overwhelming dark and somber feeling which carries forward through to the end. The ending too leaves a lingering thought of darkness with one word - Salem. The atmospheric writing is perhaps my favorite part of the book and makes me look forward to seeing what Beth Underdown writes next.


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Thursday, June 29, 2017

The Shadow Land

Title:  The Shadow Land
Author:  Elizabeth Kostova
Publication Information:  Ballantine Books. 2017. 496 pages.
ISBN:  0345527860 / 978-0345527868

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

Opening Sentence:  "Sofia, the year 2008"

Favorite Quote:  "People seem to believe that despair is the same as anguish, but it is not. It's true that despair is surrounded by anguish, but at its core, despair is silent, a blank page."

The Shadow Land brings to life a part of history and a part of the world about which I have read very little - Bulgaria in the aftermath of World War II. In 2008, a young American woman Alexandra comes to Sophia on a trip of remembrance and healing. She has no connections with the country and knows no one there. However, as children, she and her brother Jack used to dream of other places, and Bulgaria was Jack's place on the globe. So, Alexandra comes to remember Jack and reconcile with his disappearance as a teenager.

An accidental meeting leaves Alexandra holding the bag, literally. She finds herself in possession of an urn of ashes from a family she runs into outside of a hotel. She has no idea who they are, but she does understand what the urn means. The idea of the family losing that commingles with her own grief and sets her on a path to find the family and return what must obviously be very precious to them.

A chance puts her into the cab of driver Bobby. He in turn gets involved in Alexandra's quest to return the urn. This leads them both to places, times, and a history they could not have imagined.

The ashes are of Stoyan Lazarov. His story is of the communist regime in Bulguria from the 1940s to the 1960s. His story is one of death and deprivation in the forced work camps for individuals accused of crimes against the nation. The impact of the regime continues today.

The first half of the book proceeds with the story of the present and the past moving independently. As a reader, I know that the stories will connect, but am unsure how. At this juncture, the story of the past is the more emotional and moving one, but the story of the present is what moves the plot forward.

Interestingly, the book centers on and revolves around Alexandra and her quest to return the run, but she is somewhat superfluous to the main story itself. The history does not involve her or anyone she is connected to, and even in the present, she is an outsider with a view on this culture and political situation. The story of her grief over her brother begins the book but is not resolved. It becomes instead a venue to tell the bigger story of the tragedy of the work camps.

The book is written as a narrative, especially the sections dealing with the past; much of it is a story being told as opposed to a story unfolding. This is noticeable at the beginning of the book but fades as the intensity on the narrative grows. Ultimately, the story of the past shifts to a first person account, which accentuates the impact of the horror.

The further the book progresses, the closer the past and present come until they ultimately collide. Some of the connections are a surprise, but the kind that make you go, "Of course, that makes sense." The book is a slow beginning but builds to a dramatic conclusion that has me turning pages late into the night to finish.


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Tuesday, June 27, 2017

The Bookshop at Water's End

Title:  The Bookshop at Water's End
Author:  Patti Callahan Henry
Publication Information:  Berkeley. 2017. 352 pages.
ISBN:  0399583114 / 978-0399583117

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

Opening Sentence:  "We are defined by the moods and whims of a wild tidal river surrounding our small town, cradling us in its curved basin."

Favorite Quote:  "Sometimes we tell our stories and sometimes our stories tell us."

Bonny Blackenship is an Emergency Room doctor in Charleston. She loves her career but has concerns about her rocky marriage and her twenty year old daughter Piper who seems misguided and directionless. A terrible accident one night puts Bonny's career in questions and sets her on a path to reevaluate her life. To lick her wound and to reflects, she retreats to a family summer home on the river at Watersend, South Carolina. Along with her, she brings her daughter and her best friend Lainey, her childhood "Summer Sister."

Lainey brings burdens of her own. Her last summer on the river was the summer her mother disappeared. Her body was never found; her disappearance was never resolved. Lainey has never stopped looking. Her brother Owen went the other direction and seems to keep nothing of permanence in his life.

Now, this group finds its way back to this place that was both the place of Bonny, Lainey, and and Owen's idyllic childhood memories and of their worst childhood nightmares. The permanent residents of the town become part of this story, both as a gateway to the past and as a path to the future.

Like many other beach reads, the characters' concerns multiply and grow. Told in alternating views, the reader follows the path of Bonny, Lainey, and Piper. A few time, Mimi the bookseller's perspective comes though, but not as much as you would think based on the book title. Also in keeping with a beach read, by the end, the story lines comes together, secrets are revealed, the past is resolved, and the path forward becomes clear.

The story - all the story lines - do find a conclusion. However, some of them do feel unfinished and unresolved. The story of Bonny's marriage although brief has a ring of truth to it; the dissolution of a love and the realization that a partner is not who one envisioned comes through. The story of Bonny and Owen on the other hand is told, but the emotions and reasoning are not really explored. Owen's character as a whole seems undeveloped.

The story of Lainey and Owen's mother goes in a direction that seems to jump from beginning to end. The middle - the struggle of a young woman who may never know what happened - would make for an emotional, engaging story. That does not come.

Piper is perhaps the most engaging character. A twenty year who needs and finds an attitude adjustment. Her attitude towards adults balanced with the way she cares for Lainey's children present a lovely picture of the contradictions of a young adult trying to find her way in life.

For a book with "bookshop" and "water's end" in the title, the story has little to do with either. What the book does have are many elements for a story about women, family, secrets, small town life, and finding direction in life. The Bookshop at Water's End is a book to be read on a casual afternoon at the water's edge. In other words, it is a nice easy summer beach read.


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Friday, June 23, 2017

Music of the Ghosts

Title:  Music of the Ghosts
Author:  Vaddey Ratner
Publication Information:  Touchstone. 2017. 336 pages.
ISBN:  1476795789 / 978-1476795782

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

Opening Sentence:  "Suteera wakes amidst the high grass to a tremor several meters away."

Favorite Quote:  "Truth, she believed, lies in what is said as much as in what isn't, in the same way that a melody not only is a sequence of audible notes but encompasses the spaces and pauses in between. When listening to music, you must learns to take in even the atmosphere of an echo."

As in her first book In the Shadow of the Banyan, Vaddey Ratner returns to the atrocities and impact of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia in this book, Music of the Ghosts. The Khmer Rouge came to be as a result of the Vietnam War in the late 1960s. They came to power in the 1970s as a result of a civil war in Cambodia. The years that followed were years of war, genocide, family, executions, and vast destruction. The impact of their tyrannical rule is still felt today. These books, though fiction, are a reflection of the author's own experiences of survival through this regime, making these stories intensely personal.

In the Shadow of the Banyan tells the story of survival through the eyes of a very young and innocent narrator. The book is heart breaking in its imagery, intensity, and, at the same time, innocence. Music of the Ghosts is about memories - memories of those who survived. This book brings together those who were the victims and those who would have been considered the perpetrators. It blurs the line between perpetrator and victim in highlighting the fact that some of those who joined the Khmer Rouge with the best of intentions for their homeland also became the victims of the regime's atrocities.

The book brings together different perspectives - the Old Musician who ended up on the wrong side of history and bears the scars and the guilt of lifetimes; Narunn who lost everything and yet emerged willing to try and make things better; and Suteera who found escape and a home in a new land but could never leave the memories behind.

The book blends past and present, navigating through memories and emotions and their impact on the individuals trying to live life forward. The books reads as though music and thoughts echo through the years, with the vibrations felt through all time.

As with In the Shadow of the Banyan, the imagery and the writing is visual and beautiful. At times though, this book seems to try too hard. I find myself caught up in the historical / political / philosophical point being made:
  • "... The American have officially ended their airstrikes in Cambodia. Other nations quickly condemned this denouement as irresponsible, leaving in its wake a massive refugee crisis and a government military, a supposed US ally, now far outmatched by the insurgent army. A clear indication of how the United States will treat the rest of its Asian allies, and perhaps the rest of the world. When the going gets tough, one diplomat decried, the tough abscond."
  • "Your progress was the justice I dreamt for my country. The right that would've eradicated the wrongs of my history...."
  • "When I think of the unfathomable suffering, the countless lives lost and broken, I'm left with this profound hope that someday there will exist a world where justice is not simply the exchange of a life for a life, an ideal of retribution to right a wrong, but a path one walks and lives, a way of being."
  • "This is what we all live with as a people, the painful awareness that this history - war, atrocity, genocide, whatever its name - surrounds us persistently, at times binding like a metal chain, other times incorporeal as dust. Even so, we can still move forward, with the small choices we make each day. To love , to harbor and protect, to rebuild."
The history being narrated is an important one, and the commentary on the political ramifications are timely. However, in reading fiction, I would rather be carried away by the story and being left with an understanding of the history. This book stops short of that feeling. Nevertheless, I am a fan and look forward to seeing what Vaddey Ratner writes next.


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Monday, June 19, 2017

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

Title:  Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine
Author:  Gail Honeyman
Publication Information:  Pamela Dorman Books. 2017. 336 pages.
ISBN:  0735220689 / 978-0735220683

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

Opening Sentence:  "When people ask me what I do - taxi drivers, hairdresers - I tell them I work in an office."

Favorite Quote:  "I do exist, don't I? It often feels as if I'm not here, that I'm a figment of my own imagination. There are days when I feel so lightly connected to the earth that the threads that tether me to the planet are gossamer thing, spun sugar. A strong gust of wind could dislodge me completely, and I'd life off and blow away, like one of those seeds in a dandelion clock."

When a book begins with a title like Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, three thoughts come to mind. First, Eleanor Oliphant is such a great name. Memorable too. Second, this book possibly joins the plethora of books in recent years about quirky but endearing characters such as Jonathan, Britt-Marie, Max, and Don Tillman. Third, my guess is that the book is probably going to be about the fact that Eleanor Oliphant is indeed not fine at all. Turns out, all three thoughts are relatively correct.

Eleanor Oliphant's name is part of her story. It is not the name she is born with, but it is the one she lives with and cherishes. Why? Well, that is part of the story.

Eleanor is indeed a quirky character. She works in an office, is a loner, and very set in her routines. She does not seem unhappy, but she does not seem happy either. She exists in her regimented world, seemingly alone except for her weekly phone calls with her mother. Those conversations seems to hold a completes story of a troubled relationship in and of themselves.

That leads to the third part of my guess. Eleanor is definitely not fine. Underlying the seeming quirkiness lies a dark and sad past, and the seeming oddities of character are actually a fragile hold on a perceived normal life. Eleanor has grown up. She has gone to the university. She holds down a steady job. She lives independently. However, does Eleanor indeed have a life or does she merely exist in her life? "These days, loneliness is the new cancer - a shameful, embarrassing thing, brought upon yourself in some obscure way. A fearful, incurable thing, so horrifying that you dare not mention it; other people don't want to hear the word spoken aloud for fear that they might too be afflicted, or that it might tempt fate into visiting a similar horror upon them." Why is Eleanor alone? Why is she the way she is? Is it a chance of nature and biology or it a matter of nurture?

Eleanor's world shifts when she meets her colleague Raymond, who has a story of his own. He manages to create a chink in Eleanor's armor, and the tragic past comes pouring out. "It takes a long time to learn to live with loss, assuming you ever manage it. After all these years, I'm still something of a work in progress in that regard."

This book drifts away from a being a light hearted story of an oddball character into a story of trauma, survival, and the courage to live again. Eleanor's approach to life is a tad annoying until her back story explains it; thus, I find the book a little difficult to get into but then I find myself completely absorbed in Eleanor and the little girl that she was. I go from annoyance at some of her behaviors to admiration for her courage. The only caveat is that the healing process in the book seems to occur rather quickly and somewhat easily, and it is most assuredly not.

Regardless, Eleanor becomes a memorable character, and her story one that will stay with me.


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Tuesday, June 13, 2017

MacArthur's Spies

Title:  MacArthur's Spies: The Soldier, the Singer, and the Spymaster Who Defied the Japanese in World War II
Author:  Peter Eisner
Publication Information:  Viking. 2017. 368 pages.
ISBN:  0525429654 / 978-0525429654

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

Opening Sentence:  "Just hours after the surprise assault on Pearl Harbor in December 194`, Japanese planes launched a second attach 5,300 miles away, bombing and strafing U.S. military airfields surrounding Manila in the Philippine Islands."

Favorite Quote:  "... the grief and final confrontation of the truth were overwhelming."

The soldier is John Boone, who turns from soldier into rebel leader. The singer is Claire Phillips aka Claire Maybelle Snyder, Clara Fuentes, and Dorothy Fuentes; she reinvents herself as the need arises to survive and to help others survive. The spymaster is Chick Parsons, an American who pretends to be a Panamanian in the Philippines to gain information from the Japanese to help the Americans.

Three Americans from entirely differently places and with entirely different interests all play a role in support of the Allied Forces in the Philippines during World War II. Their approaches are different. Their personal goals are different. Yet, their individual efforts all manifest themselves in working for Allied success and Japanese defeat.

No one believed the War would come to Manila until it did, suddenly, shockingly, and almost unopposed. The Allied forces, the Philippine people, and the expatriates living in Manila were left dead or scrambling for their lives. Many died. Many left or were forced to leave. Some stayed and fought. Perhaps, they were not dressed as soldiers and did not carry weapons you could see, but they were soldiers in a war nevertheless.

My reason for choosing this book is that I have read many books about or set during World War II but never this particular setting or this particular history. As such, the topic and the time period intrigued me. The book does deliver on that history. I know much more now about this intriguing piece of history than I did before reading the book.

For a few reasons, this book remains short of being a completely engaging book for me. First is the author's note which acknowledges that Claire Phillips' statements about her role in the War included "distortions she and some of her comrades-in-arms told after the war." In addition, a bit of research also notes that she sued the US government for restitution for the assistance she provided to the resistance efforts. These facts somewhat tarnish the image of the heroes who "defined the Japanese." Knowing what comes after makes it difficult to stay engaged with the characters during the story.

Second, the books jumps between the different fronts on which these three - soldier, singer, and spymaster - operated. The transitions from one to the other are not always smooth. As such, the flow of the story is broken. I understand that this book is history not story; however, many a history books are written in a way so as to be thorough in their facts and engaging in their stories. This one sticks more to the facts.

Third, the depth of the research presented also becomes the book's downfall. The book at times feels mired in its own details. It seems a listing of facts. This happened. Then, this happened. Then, this happened. Again, the detail is perhaps expected in a history book. However, again, the story falls prey to the writing style with the continuity and the arc of the story becoming weighed down with perhaps unnecessary facts.

I am glad for the history this book introduced me to. I just would have preferred a more concise, more story-like telling of the history.


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Saturday, June 10, 2017

Swimming Home

Title:  Swimming Home
Author:  Mary-Rose MacColl
Publication Information:  Penguin Books. 2017. 432 pages.
ISBN:  0143129961 / 978-0143129967

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

Opening Sentence:  "American swimmer Miss Gertrude Ederle has been taken unconscious from the icy waters of the English Channel, which have proven more than a match for even the stronger female swimmers of the world."

Favorite Quote:  "... you couldn't miss what you'd never had."

From the shores of an island off the coast of Australia to a charity clinic in London to a women's swim club in New York, this book is partly about women's swimming and the race to sponsor the first woman to swim the English Channel. More importantly, this book is about secrets - the ones we keep from those we love the most. Done out of love and a sense of protection, these secrets alter lives forever.

Catherine Quick is fifteen years old, and she swims like she breathes. Life on a small island off the shores of Australia is all she has ever known. Losing her mother at a very young age, her father and her native caretaker are the only family she has ever known. The rest of her blood-related family lives in England. Sadly, her father dies, and her aunt in London, not those Catherine considers family, is appointed guardian. The definition of family is the question. Is it the one we are born into or is it the one fostered with love.

Louisa is middle-aged, single, and a practicing surgeon in London. Her independent lifestyle makes her an anomaly in society. However, Louisa does not care and is solely focused on her women's clinic, providing care for women who cannot get it elsewhere. A child, no less a teenager half way across the world, is not in her plans. The role of women is the question whether in their personal or professional lives.

Nevertheless, Louisa does what she thinks is the right thing and brings Catherine to London in the hopes of providing a better education and a better life than she thinks Catherine could have on the island. She tries to do what she thinks is in Catherine's best interest. The definition of parenting is the question whether it is a role you choose or one you are thrust into.

Catherine does not adjust well, missing her family and the water. She longs to return to both. One Louisa cannot see happening, but the other leads them both to a successful American businessman. Manfred Lear Black wants to sponsor Catherine as a contender to become the first woman to swim the English channel - a feat that has been tried before but never successfully completed. This brings both Catherine and Louisa to New York. It is disappointing that in a book about a strong independent woman, a man still plays such an instrumental role in advancing her plans. Expected perhaps for the time and place but disappointing nevertheless.

Simmering under this surface are all kinds of secrets - Louisa's past, Catherine's family in Australia, and more. All are secrets begun and kept with the best of intentions. However, many have unintended consequences. Eventually, secrets come out, and life changes directions again.

An interesting piece of history about swimming and women's independence and a not-uncommon premise about family secrets make this book a quick and easy read. The globe-hopping story creates a seemingly quick pace, but the plot itself moves fairly slowly. Although the focus is on Catherine's swimming, this book is very much Louisa's story. For this reason, this belongs in adult fiction even though Catherine's story has a young adult flair. Either way, the book is a quick, light summer read.


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Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Anything is Possible

Title:  Anything is Possible
Author:  Elizabeth Strout
Publication Information:  Random House. 2017. 272 pages.
ISBN:  0812989406 / 978-0812989403

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

Opening Sentence:  "Tommy Nuptial had once owned a dairy farm, which he'd inherited from his father, and which was about two miles from the town of Amgash, Illinois."

Favorite Quote:  "IT was beyond his understanding, but it was all right. And it had been."

Elizabeth Strout's books and I have been a hit or miss combination. I loved Olive Kitteridge when I read it years ago. The Burgess Boys was not a book for me. Then came My Name is Lucy Barton, which I loved. That leads me to this book, which is supposed to be a companion / follow on to My Name is Lucy Barton. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, I find that Anything is Possible is not the book for me.

My Name is Lucy Barton is fiction that reads like a biography. Through a period of illness and conversations with her mother, the reader gets a picture of Lucy Barton's life - both present and the past in Amgash, Illinois that she fled. Anything is Possible picks on the other side of the story if you will. It brings the reader to Amgash and to Lucy's family and to many of the people whom Lucy Barton remembers and who remember her. Unfortunately, I don't remember the details of My Name is Lucy Barton. One because I read it a year and a half ago. Second because that story includes other people but is all about Lucy and how they touch her life. This book makes frequent references to Lucy such that I feel that I need to have read that book recently or even read them side by side to see both sides of the story. This feeling becomes stronger as the book goes on because I enjoyed My Name is Lucy Barton. I don't enjoy this one and wonder if that link is the missing piece

Anything is Possible covers a wide cast of characters; chapters wind back and forth between their stories. The common thread becomes Lucy Barton except that she is largely absent in the book. I find myself getting lost among the characters and have trouble separating what details go with which story. More than that, I really don't care for any of the characters enough to try and follow his or her story.

Even among the stories, I cannot find one to anchor the book or even to enjoy on this own. The stories include rather unpleasant details dealing with rather unsavory topics. Serious topics. Relevant even perhaps. However, for the most part, I just want to step away from the details which seem to focus on the grotesque. There seems to be no joy or hope in these stories or in this entire town.

The title of the book still puzzles me. Before reading the book, the words "Anything is Possible" symbolize hope and possibility. After reading the book, my takeaway is that many depressing and odd and disturbing are possible in this town. My parting thought becomes that if this is the life of Amgash, Illinois then I am not surprised that Lucy Barton fled the town.

I am truly disappointed because I loved My Name if Lucy Barton. The emotion and the connection of that book is lacking in this one. However, perhaps, when the next Elizabeth Strout's books comes out, I will still give it a try for it may be a gem.


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Sunday, June 4, 2017

The Girl In Between

Title:  The Girl In Between
Author:  Sarah Carroll
Publication Information:  Kathy Dawson Books. 2017. 256 pages.
ISBN:  0735228604 / 978-0735228603

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

Opening Sentence:  "I'm invisible."

Favorite Quote:  "Ghosts can't exist without people. Without people and their pasts and their memories."

The word homeless has a very short definition in the dictionary. As an adjective, the word means "without a home." As a noun, it means "person or persons who lack permanent housing." Some dictionaries expand this a little further to state that the implication is that the person or persons typically live on the street.

Such a short definition for such a complex, thought provoking, emotional subject. The Girl In Between presents a view of the tragedy of homeless life through the eyes of a young girl. She and her mother live in the Castle, at least that is what Ma tells the girl. To stay safe, the girl must not leave the Castle and must certainly stay out of sight of the Authorities for they may take her away from Ma. In the eyes of child, this seems to make sense, and, after all, the Castle is big and all their own.

Translated through an adult readers eyes, this mother and child live in an abandoned building. The mother creates a story to allay the little one's fears and to perhaps provide some semblance of stability.

Ma herself is an intriguing character and, at times, an infuriating one. Alcohol and drugs are involved. Unsavory characters who may wish them harm are involved. A caring grandmother and a home exist, but Ma has left them far behind. On the other hand, the young girl gives the impression of being cared for and being loved. Ma's story is never told in the book. How and why did she end up on the streets with her little girl?

The story is told from the perspective of this young girl. The writing style captures well the innocence of her age and the lack of understanding that is appropriate for her age. As an adult reader, I can see so much of what she does not, and I can understand why she does not. As a parent, I want to reach out and protect this defenseless child from a life on the streets, from the unsavory men in her mother's life, and sometimes from her mother herself. Again, the writing of the book does a beautiful job of eliciting that emotion and that protective instinct.

I do guess the twist in the book relatively early in the book but think that because all the clues that seem clear to me point that way, the book will surprise me and go in a different direction. It does not. However, the emotion of the ending still gets to me, and the lack of surprise does not matter.

This book is the kind of story that stays with you. The young main character and the protective emotions the writing elicits make it memorable. The fact that it takes on the very serious issues of addiction and homelessness in a unique way makes the book memorable. The fact that the book stresses the universality of this story by not naming its characters beyond an identifier such as Ma and the Caretaker makes it memorable. The fact of a seemingly abrupt ending pushes further the message of a harsh truth. The reminder that this fiction represents the reality of so many makes the book memorable. Read it and then think how each one of us can be part of the solution.


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Friday, June 2, 2017

Grief Cottage

Title:  Grief Cottage
Author:  Gail Godwin
Publication Information:  Bloomsbury USA. 2017. 336 pages.
ISBN:  1632867044 / 978-1632867049

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

Opening Sentence:  "Once there was a boy who lost his mother."

Favorite Quote:  "Funny how the same person can be an entirely different entity to various people."

A single mother goes out to get a pizza dinner and is killed in a car accident. Eleven year old Marcus is left orphaned. Charlotte, his eccentric older aunt, is left as the boy's guardian. The young boy finds himself grief stricken and removed from the only life he has ever known. A self-proclaimed loner finds herself having to take charge of a child. All of this takes place on the lovely coast of South Carolina.

Add to the mix a decrepit old beach cottage with a ghost story attached to it. A family - parents and a child who were on holiday - was lost to a hurricane. No bodies were ever discovered. Due to the tragedy, the cottage became known as Grief Cottage. Now, it sits abandoned and gradually crumbling into the sand.

In Marcus's life, the cottage becomes a focal point out of his own loss and grief. The idea of the cottage and and the mystery of the family's disappearance provides an an anchor as he drifts into his new life and his new home. The possibility of the boy's ghost still being in the cottage captures his imagination. The liberty to explore and this interest provides an outlet for his emotions. A ghost story to think about is much preferable to dwelling on the loss of home and even worse, the loss of his mother and the traumas of his childhood.

Charlotte has own baggage of loss and grief from the past. Marcus's arrival alters the seclusion she encases herself in. She is forced to face things she has long buried.

In this way, this book becomes a family story as, damaged and scarred, Marcus and Charlotte create their own family story line. The book also becomes a reflection on death, grief, and growing up.  An actual ghost story gives added dimension to this reflection.

The premise and build of the story works. Somewhere along the way, it loses me. The pace, especially the first two-thirds of the book, is very slow. For a while, it works. Then, it seems repetitive. Charlotte likes being alone. Marcus leaves her alone, disappearing to inspect the cottage and approach the ghost boy ever closer. Repeat the next day. And the next. And the next.

Then, towards the end, the fast forwards and tries to bring a closure to all the components of the story. The mystery of the cottage and the vanished child develops into an actual story rather than remaining a means to Marcus's healing. The book rushes to find a conclusion.

For some reason, the characters and the book doesn't quite ring true and does not quite connect. I find myself reading a little and then putting it away to read something else. I did finish but without any real connection or conviction about how it should end. That is surprising considering the story is about such a sympathetic main character - an eleven year old orphaned child who has had thing pretty tough in life.


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Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley

Title:  The Twelve Lives of Samuel  Hawley
Author:  Hannah Tinti
Publication Information:  The Dial Press. 2017. 400 pages.
ISBN:  0812989880 / 978-0812989885

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 Loo was twelve years old her father taught her to shoot a gun."

Favorite Quote:  "Their hearts were all cycling through the same madness - the discovery, the bliss, the loss, the despair - like planets taking turns in orbit around the sun. Each containing their own unique gravity. Their own force of attractions. Drawing near and holding fast to whatever entered their own atmosphere ... they would find love and lost love and recover from love and love again."

Samuel Hawley is a criminal. Loo Hawley is his twelve year old daughter. Despite everything, Samuel Hawley has good in him, and he loves his daughter. Loo's mother is only a memory kept alive by the box of mementos that Samuel Hawley carries from home to home. For Loo, life has always been her father and her. For Samuel Hawley, life is a string of scars on his body, each of which signify a place, a set of people, and a memory.

The beginning of the book finds Samuel returning with Loo to Olympus, Massachusetts. This was the home town of Loo's mothers. He hopes to stop watching his back and to allow Loo some chance at a normal life. Samuel struggles to outrun his past and his memories. Loo struggles to grow up and to fit in.

In alternating chapter, the book tells the story of Samuel's past and of Loo's coming of age. The book traverses many years of Samuel's life, with each chapter talking about one scar. Each represents a turning point in Samuel's life until it ultimately culminates in his return to Olympus. For Loo, the book works its way through her teenage years, with all the angst and heartache and joy that entails. Each chapter alludes to a lesson Lou learns as part of growing up. Of course, the past and the present meet with Loo attempting to untangle the mystery of her father's past and her mother.

For several reasons, I am not the right reader for this book. First, the violence and the guns. I except it in the story of Samuel's life for he bears the scars. However, I do not expect the violence in and from Loo's story. Guns are a part of every day life. A response to bullying turns into breaking someone's finger. After a while, it is just too much, too much violence and too much of a cavalier attitude towards violence.

Second, the characters remain hidden behind the violence, particularly Samuel. He remains somewhat of an enigma almost all the way through the book. Unfortunately, instead of being intrigued, I lose interest. Each of the chapters of his life seem like they begin with the idea of a crime and end with a wound. It doesn't feel like it gets beyond that until far into the book, and by then, it is too late. On the other hand, Loo is a young women who has lost her mother early in life and who is muddling her way through her teenage years. Her character would be more sympathetic except again for the violence.

Third, until well into the book, Samuel's story and Loo's story seem to travel separate paths. Loo does not appear in Samuel's story until far into the book, and Loo's chapters are more about her teenage life rather than her father's past. They interrelate, of course, but I could read Samuel's chapters sequentially or Loo's chapters sequentially and get a sense of their story. The merging of past and present comes too far in to the book.

All that being said, the writing and phrasing of the book is beautiful at times. However, overall, I am still not the reader for this book.


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Saturday, May 27, 2017

Killers of the Flower Moon

Title:  Killers of the Flower Moon:  The Osage Murder and the Birth of the FBI
Author:  David Grann
Publication Information:  Doubleday. 2017. 352 pages.
ISBN:  0385534248 / 978-0385534246

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 April, millions of tiny flowers spread over the blackjack hills and vast prairies in the Osage territory of Oklahoma."

Favorite Quote:  "An Indian Affairs agent said, 'The question will suggest itself, which of these people are the savages?'"

The history is disturbing and chilling, made even more so because it is an actual history not fiction. The theme is ages old, forever present in this world. People kill for money. The extent to which such greed can reach is scary in the history of the Osage murders. The book is intense and compelling.

Let's set the stage. The Osage nation lives and prospers. The settlers come and want the land. Gradually, the Osage are pushed in land allotments with the settlers getting the pick of the fertile farm land. Even worse, the Osage are deemed incapable of managing their own financial affairs; the finances of many are placed in the hands of guardians who are not of the tribe. Many guardians use this as a opportunity to line their own pockets.

The Osage own their land under the Allotment Act, and they own the rights to deposits of oil, gas, coal, or other minerals found in the land. Land could be bought or sold; mineral rights had to be inherited through the tribal rolls.

In the early twentieth century, the tribe leases out its land for exploration. Oil is discovered and discovered in such abundance that the Osage are wealthy beyond anyone's imagination. As the book jacket describes, "In the 1920s, the richest people per capita in the world were members of the Osage Indian Nation in Oklahoma."

"Then, one by one, the Osage began to be killed off." Some were outright shot. Some disappered. Some appeared to have died of no cause; it was later clear they were poisoned. Some of those who came to investigate also met a similar end. Then, the newly created FBI under the leadership of J. Edgar Hoover got involved and exposed the diabolical plan underlying these deaths.

This book recounts this history in three main sections. Chronicle One:  The Marked Woman anchors the story and makes these murders about individuals and a family. Mollie Burkhart survived this systematic extermination but lost most of her family. This section of the book walks through the lives of specific individuals who were killed and the impact of the deaths on their families and communities. It depicts those who came to help, those who appeared to help, and lays the groundwork for the shock of discovery as to who is actually the mastermind of this plot. This section is also the emotional anchor of the book because it takes the history and makes it intensely personal. This is not reading about a case; it is the story of Mollie and her family.

Chronicle Two:  The Evidence Man is about the involvement of the newly created FBI, the investigation, and the prosecution of those deemed to be guilty. This section appears to bring to closure the story of Mollie Burkhart family as those responsible are brought to justice. This is the story of an investigation and a court trial. Sadly still relevant today are the discussions that the level of prosecution, accountability, and punishment depended both on the race of the victim and the race of the perpetrator. Justice was sadly not, and still is sadly not, color blind.

Chronicle Three:  The Reporter is the surprise in the book. The case of the murders of Mollie Burkhart's family was resolved. What more was going to occupy a third of this book? That is when the history becomes even more disturbing and chilling. This reporter delves into the fact that the scope of the murders did not end with the case of Mollie Burkhart's family. Many more cases went unsuspected, unreported, and unresolved. Justice was not done. The book leaves the reader with a reference to the story of Cain and Abel in the Bible. "The blood cries out from the ground."


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