Thursday, March 30, 2017

A Bridge Across the Ocean

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 27, 2017

Spaceman of Bohemia

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

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

Opening Sentence:  "My name is Jakub Prochazka."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, March 25, 2017

The One-Cent Magenta

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 23, 2017

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 20, 2017

Minds of Winter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, March 18, 2017

The Fifth Petal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 16, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 13, 2017

The Forgotten Girls

Title:  The Forgotten Girls
Author:  Owen Laukkanen
Publication Information:  G. P. Putnam's Sons. 2017. 368 pages.
ISBN:  0399174559 / 978-0399174551

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

Opening Sentence:  "You don't ever surf the trains on the High Line."

Favorite Quote:  "You're probably going to die, anyway. Do something useful with your life before you go."

The forgotten girls - runaways train hopping their way across the country - are the victims. The perpetrator a serial stalker and murderer. The setting is the cold winter near the Canadian border along the high line railway line. The FBI detectives assigned to the case are Kirk Stevens and Carla Windermere.

A man is found with gruesome pictures on his phone. A young woman is found murdered and left on the side of the railway tracks in the cold expanse of Idaho. So begins a modern day police procedural. The good guys chase the clues in the real world and the cyber world. What starts as an isolated murder case becomes a pattern of disappearances that sets off the hunt for a serial killer - "the ghost rider". The objective is to bring justice to the victims and to capture the killer before he claims another victim.

Detectives Kirk Stevens and Carla Windermere are partners; as such they bring a history to this book. Note that this is book six featuring Stevens and Windermere, but it stands alone and such "series" are likely to do. For the two, this is another case but one that involves young women at risk. It becomes personal.

Mila Scott, a friend to the latest victim Ash, becomes the face of all the victims. She is young and alone. She is fearless in her life but fearful of authority and society. Above all, she wants justice for her friend. She is the vigilante of the story and could possibly be the next victim. She also is the emotional anchor for the book. Ash is gone, but Mila can be saved. Or can she?

What is fascinating about this book is that in addition to the search for the killer, the book develops the world of the forgotten girls, the train hoppers, the runaways. "The rider jungle was a terrifying place. It was a society all its own, with rules, laws, and customs she could hardly imagine." This world exists on the fringes on society, and yet is a society in itself. There are the powerful and the protected. There are friendships. There are relationships. These "forgotten" of the mainstream world come together in their own community.

What is also intriguing is the dedication of the book. "To the memory of the missing and murdered women of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. You are not forgotten." The reference is to the over 60 women who disappeared from this neighborhood in the 1980s and 1990s. In 2007, Robert Pickton was convicted of the murder of six women. He claimed to have killed forty nine. These are the "forgotten girls" the book vows to remember.

This book follows the police chase both from the perspective of the detectives, the girls, and the killer - "the ghost rider." These interludes from the killer's perspective along with the cold, solitary setting really help sets the eerie atmosphere of the book.

A fiction with a reminder that these things do also happen in real life.

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

Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Wanderers

Title:  The Wanderers
Author:  Meg Howrey
Publication Information:  G. P. Putnam's Sons. 2017. 384 pages.
ISBN:  0399574638 / 978-0399574634

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

Opening Sentence:  "Nothing feels as free as this!"

Favorite Quote:  "This was the thing about miscalculation, errors, mistakes. You admitted them, you used them as teachable moments, and then you moved on. You didn't forget, but you didn't dwell."

The goal - Destination Mars.

The company - Prime Space Systems Laboratory.

The first step - Proving that it's possible.

Well, in actuality, it's possibly the millionth step in a process a billion steps long. The research, design, and development of the science come before. More research, redesign, and redevelopment will come after. This is the step to determine if it's humanly possible; it is a year and a half long experiment unlike any before.

Prime Space System Laboratory creates what is perhaps the most extensive simulation ever imagined.  Three astronauts - Helen Kane, Yoshihiro Tanaka, and Sergei Kuznetsov - are chosen for the simulation. All of them are experienced; all of them have been to space before and perhaps dream of going again. At the moment, this simulation is the closest they can come.

This time they are not actually going to space, but they are the test for the real thing. In the deserts of Utah exists the experimental world that mirrors the experience of travel to and existence on Mars. The Prime Space crew attempts to create every possible scenario from personal crises to technical disasters to test the endurance of the crew. It's not real, but at the same time, the astronauts experience the reality of the test - the isolation, the perceived distance from their world, the threat of imminent disaster, the close quarters living with two other strangers not to mention the technical challenges and pursuits such a mission entails.

This intriguing premise, the cover, and the marketing are what lead me to read this book. Unfortunately, the book suffers from two things.

First is the number of characters and perspectives the book captures. Of course, the book captures the three astronauts. In addition, it depicts the view of one of the Prime Space development team tasked with monitoring the experiment 24/7. Further, the book encompasses the stories of family members - Helen's daughter, Sergei's teenage son, and Yoshi's wife. They are the ones left behind with their own issues and problems that don't necessarily relate to the adventure their loved ones are on. In some ways, this book about space exploration is also about individuals exploring within their own selves, their paradigms, and their priorities. Unfortunately, it becomes difficult to track all the different perspectives. It is even a bigger challenge to fully vest in any of the characters because the book offers a glimpse and then moves away to someone else.

Second, this book suffers from its own marketing. The book is described as Station Eleven meets The Martian. I loved both those books; that is a main reason why I chose to read this book. Mind you, those two books are entirely different from each other in plot and story telling. However, both completely drew me in. This book unfortunately reminds me of neither. Perhaps, that accentuates my reaction to this book because I was expecting something that was not delivered. Hence, the marketing does the book a disservice.

Sadly, I end up not the right reader for this book.

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

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Say Nothing

Title:  Say Nothing
Author:  Brad Parks
Publication Information:  Dutton. 2017. 448 pages.
ISBN:  1101985593 / 978-1101985595

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

Opening Sentence:  "Their first move against us was so small, such an infinitesimal blip against the blaring background noise of life, I didn't register it as anything significant."

Favorite Quote:  "A good lawmaker has to be forever willing to change his viewpoint, to consider someone else's needs, to compromise. A judge has to learn to make a decision and stick with it."

Say Nothing is a fun read, but... Say Nothing is a quick read, but... Say Nothing is an entertaining read, but... The big "but" in all of this is that Say Nothing as a story is also implausible to the point that reality interferes with the enjoyment of the story. Reading throughout, in the back of my mind is the idea that this does not sound as if it could happen. Towards the end, as the drama picks up, that feeling is reinforced. The ending pushes it even further. So, while I enjoy the book, throughout is the reactionary thought, "Really?" So, why does this story seem implausible?

First is the background of the main character. Scott Sampson is a federal judge in Virginia. His career has been in politics and the judiciary. He is well versed in situations in which people try and influence his opinions. He has been in many situations in which he has literally and figuratively been in the line of fire. This book begins as his two young children are kidnapped, and he is told to follow directions and, as the title states, say nothing to anyone. Judge Sampson does exactly that. As a parent, I can completely relate. There is nothing I would not do to protect my children. However, the analytical side of me questions his choices. He is a federal judge connected with law enforcement and the judiciary. This may not be the first time he or his family have been threatened. Isn't there another way? Are there not protocols in place to assist in this situation?

Second is the fact that no one knows. Two children disappear. No one notices. Judge Sampson and his wife do tell her family, but other than that no one notices. The children are six year old twins and almost always together. No one questions seeing one without the other. The Sampson tell the school suddenly that the children will now be homeschool. No notice is given. No conversation is had. No red flags go up at the school. A long term employee is let go. No questions are asked. Really?

Third is the children themselves. They are precocious and surprisingly mature given their very young age. Two children are kidnapped, threatened, and possibly physically abused. Yet, these very young people maintain an equanimity that could not be found in adults in that situation. Surprising, to say the least.

Finally, there is the buildup to the dramatic ending. The buildup is long, making the central portion of the book drag somewhat. No spoilers here, but the end when it finally arrives a little over the top. One story line I find completely unnecessary. Leave the focus on the kidnapping and the court case; why introduce this complete separate side story? The ending can be achieved without it. The identity of some of those involved in the crime comes as a surprise, which is usually a good thing in a mystery. This one though leaves me wondering really? Given the setup, it seems unbelievable.

All that being said, I do have fun reading the book, suspending disbelief, and just going along. What more can I say?

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

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

The Confessions of Young Nero

Title:  The Confessions of Young Nero
Author:  Margaret George
Publication Information:  Berkley. 2017. 528 pages.
ISBN:  0451473388 / 978-0451473387

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

Opening Sentence:  "This is not the first time I have been imprisoned."

Favorite Quote:  "Gradually those thoughts lost their grip on me, as every thought will, sooner or later. I learned to live with the knowledge I had; people can get used to anything, even horror, and it begins to feel normal ... Thus we make peace with ourselves and our weaknesses..."

Many books recently have taken historical figures and built fiction around their stories. Readers have strong opinions on this in both directions. I look for two main things in a historical fiction book. First and foremost, it has to tell a story I enjoy. That, of course, is what I look for in all fiction. The plot, the characters, the emotion.

Second, I enjoy the fact that a fiction book points me in the direction of history I otherwise may not read. Never once do I take the fiction for history. It is not history. It is a story in a historical context. So, during or after reading a historical fiction book, I often find myself researching credible nonfiction sources for the history; the Afterword to this book presents many such resources for those with further interest. I probably will not read a nonfiction biography of Emperor Nero or a history of ancient Rome. However, I do find myself reading through online encyclopedias and other history sites to learn a little bit more about the historical context. Thus, a fiction book usually succeeds in causing me to learn history. Ultimately though, a fiction book is always about the story.

What makes this story work is the fact that it is about a young boy caught up in intrigues and machinations from his very birth. No one, not even his own mother, is someone he can count on. That initially sets up young Nero as a sympathetic character. The fact that this book starts when he is about three years old makes it even more so. That impact is intensified for most of the book is a first person narrative through his eyes. This doesn't match at all the image history portrays of the emperor, but remember, this is a fiction book about a child. As a reader, I feel sorry for him as a child. Through the book, I watch the growth, and I watch the young man emerge. That development of character makes for a good read.

What also makes this book work is the detail with which the ancient Roman world is described. Margaret George is known for doing extensive research and for bringing that to her books. Is it 100% historically correct? With a first person narrative through the eyes of a child and the word "confessions" in the title, I don't expect it to be. Again, I can find plenty of nonfiction sources for accurate, textbook descriptions. What works here is that this is the world of this book, and I can picture it as if I am present in it. One of Margaret George's previous novels has been made into a miniseries, and I can completely see this one interpreted in that format. I can envision the sights and sounds of this world, and that makes for a good read.

Be warned. This is part 1 of a two book set. As such, it of course ends at a crucial point. Considering it's easily possible to look up Nero's history, it's not really a cliffhanger. We all know how this story ends. However, in the fictional world, it will keep me waiting for the next book even as the author and publisher celebrate the publication day of this first one.
*** BLOG TOUR - Welcome Margaret George! ***

Listen to Margaret George discussing defining moments of Nero's life.

by Margaret George
Berkley Hardcover
On Sale: March 7, 2016
Price: $28.00
ISBN: 9780451473387

THE CONFESSIONS OF YOUNG NERO takes readers through the early life of Rome’s infamous Nero. Through the machinations of his mother, Agrippina the Younger, Nero became emperor at the age of sixteen, the last of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. But the road was a frightening one.  The young boy, an intelligent, sensitive and watchful child, had a series of psychological shocks from an early age.  His cruel uncle Caligula and his scheming cousin Messalina threatened his life, and his domineering and ambitious mother Agrippina married and poisoned two men en route to securing the throne for her son. Agrippina viewed Nero’s power as an extension of her own will. But once on the throne—like the teenage boy he was—Nero did not want to take orders from his mother.  Soon the world was not big enough for the two of them. Thereafter he was remembered as a hedonist and tyrant who “fiddled” while his people burned. But the truth behind the caricature, revealed here, shows Nero to be instead a product of his mother’s relentless ambition, and the incest, violence, luxury, and intrigue that have gripped Rome’s seat of power for generations.

Margaret George is the author of the bestselling Autobiography of Henry VIIIMary, Queen of Scotland and the IslesThe Memoirs of Cleopatra; and Mary, Called Magdalene.
Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

The Barrowfields

Title:  The Barrowfields
Author:  Phillip Lewis
Publication Information:  Hogarth. 2017. 368 pages.
ISBN:  0451495640 / 978-0451495648

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley and the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "The desk is the same as he left it."

Favorite Quote:  "We realize, though, because we must, that remembrance is finite. It crosses only so many generations before it fades to indistinction. One man remembers his father and perhaps his grandfather and the details of the lives that were lived. But it's harder to see further back in time. I know the name of my great-grandfather, but our living time did not intersect. We did not walk the earth at the same time. Thus, to me he's a photograph; a story I heard my grandfather tell. He's not a life I remember. And my children may not know him at all, unless by chance they can find him in a book.  In time, he will be forgotten entirely, just as we all will with enough revolutions of the earth around the slowly expiring sun. Each fragile heart now beating will one day stop ... We are little more than one tree's growth of leaves in hillside forest. We will enjoy our brief moment in the sun, only to fall away with all the other to make way for the next bright young generation."

Do any of us ever escape the traumatic events of our childhood? Can any of us move beyond that trauma and go on with complete, fulfilled, happy lives? Can any of us even undo the lifetime conditioning of parental approval or disapproval? These are the questions driving the characters of this book. I would like to think so. I would certainly hope so. Life presents examples in both directions.

A mother cannot understand her son's love for books and his passion to be writer. "Book ain't everything, hone. Writing's not everything. The truth is, and you're not gonna want hear this, but you can't make a living that way. You just can't." A son spends a lifetime trying to prove that he can.

A father disappears with no warning, leaving behind his wife, his son, and his daughter. A son spends a lifetime trying to outrun that abandonment and to understand why. In some ways, he repeats his father's behavior, leaving his mother and sister far behind.

A baby is adopted. Years later, the young woman seeks out her birth mother. She searches to understand the circumstances of her birth and adoption and to know the identity of her birth father.

I love the premise of the book. Even more so, I love the way in which the author develops the setting of the Barrowfields, an old decrepit mansion outside of Old Buckram in the mountains of North Carolina. The image conjured is that of a dark and Gothic environment, not 1980s in the Appalachian Mountains. The house has its own history of murder and death, again involving parents and children. It matches the darkness that surrounds these characters.

That being said, I find myself not really caring about the characters. The young woman is named Story, a touch that seems too cutesy for the story. It distracts. Her story also seems to stand completely separate from the rest of the book. It goes with the theme but not the plot of this book.

The son Henry unfortunately does not read as a likable character. His focus throughout is his own angst to the exclusion of what his mother and his sister experience.

The father, Henry Aster, is a more intriguing character than the son Henry. After all, he is described as the "chronically bibliophilic boy" Love that description! He reads everything, collects books, and lives in his library. What's not to appreciate? Sadly, he spends his life trying to prove his worth to his family. This one aim of his life surpasses all others; success or failure of this one goal drives all other things in his life out. That's a story and character I want to know more about.

The story is told through the son's perspective so we get only glimpses of Henry's story. The big reveal at the end is neither climactic nor unexpected. It is a reveal only in that the son finally comes to terms his father's life. It would be interesting to see where Henry's (the son) life goes from this point.

Characters and setting are the focal points of this promising debut novel. I look forward to reading more from Phillip Lewis.

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

Friday, March 3, 2017


Title:  Harvest:  Unexpected Projects Using 47 Extraordinary Garden Plants
Author:  Stefani Bittner and Alethea Harampolis
Publication Information:  Ten Speed Press. 2017. 224 pages.
ISBN:  0399578331 / 978-0399578335

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

Opening Sentence:  "Harvest is a practical  inspirational, and seasonal guide to living with an edible landscape.

Favorite Quote:  "A garden is an extension of your living space. It should reflect your style and be a place where you want to spend time. A garden can benefit and enrich your life in so many ways."

This book makes me want to run out to my garden and start planting. No matter that some of the plants in this book may not thrive in my area. No matter that it's twenty-five degrees outside, and we have snow in the forecast for tonight. This book appeals to the gardener, crafter, and cook in me. It is about dreams of warmer days and calm afternoons enjoying the bounty of our harvest.

Both the content and the structure of the book bring forth that dream. The subtitle of the book tells you the content. This is a book about forty-seven garden plants. The plants are organized by three "gardening seasons" - early, mid, and late. Depending on your geographic location, of course, the exact timing of early, mid, and late will differ. The book contains a reference for the US hardiness zone map; you have to know or look up the zone you are in to determine what timing and what plant may work in your garden.

The book offers twelve plants for the early season, nineteen for the mid season, and sixteen for the late season. Within a particular season, the plants do not appear organized in any fashion, but it is a short list so it doesn't really matter. The entire table of contents is on one page so any plant in the book can be easily found.

The section on each plant is about four pages long. The text introduction to the plant includes two parts. In the Garden address the zone in which the plant can be grown, plant size, and some planting and care instructions. Harvest, as you might think, suggests how to harvest, store, and use the plant. For each plant, a "project" or use is then given. Some are recipes such as pickled rhubarb or lavender and mint tea. Some are medicinal or cosmetic such as gardener's salve or rosewater facial toner. Some are craft-oriented such as blueberry dye or flowering basil arrangements. None of the "projects" are complex. The appeal is more in the ideas and the teaching of the concept of using your garden for these purposes.

What really makes this book though is the photography. The simple yet vibrant cover of the book is my main reason for picking up this book. It is inviting in its simplicity, and the vibrant colors on the neutral background grab your attention. The visual appeal of the book continues throughout. The pages alternate between text and full-page, full-color photographs. Yes, indeed; half the book is pictures that make me want to run to the garden center and start planting.

The foreword of the book references the Slow Food and corresponding Slow Flowers movement. The book manages to convey that thought completely. The book invites you to slow down and to take the time to, well, smell the roses. That is, after you plant them and nurture them until they blossom. While I wait for my garden season, I have this book to make me feel as if I am there already.

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