Tuesday, March 20, 2018

The Chalk Man

Title:  The Chalk Man
Author:  C. J. Tudor
Publication Information:  Crown. 2018. 288 pages.
ISBN:  1524760986 / 978-1524760984

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 girls' head rested on a small pile of orange-and-brown leaves."

Favorite Quote:  "We think we want answers. But what we really want are the right answers. Human nature. We ask questions that we hope will give us the truth we want to hear. The problem is, you can't choose your truths. Truth has a habit of simply being the truth. The only real choice you have is whether to believe it or not."

Eddie is a child in 1986. Eddie is an old man in 2016. The chalk man defines his life in both these times. The summer of 1986 becomes a turning point in the lives of Eddie and his friends. It starts off as a summer of bike riding, playing, childhood squabbles, and secret codes. It turns into a summer of accidents, death, and murder. The repercussions of that summer linger through the lives of Eddie and his friends. Eddie seems to have compartmentalized the experience and is living a narrow, somewhat lonely life in the same house in the same small English village. Yet, in 2016, the past reaches out and shakes the foundations of that small, safe world.

The book touches on a number of very disturbing themes. Into Eddie's childhood world enter the sometimes violent conversations surrounding a woman's right to choose, illicit relationships, disfiguring accidents, death, and a hacked up corpse. His adult world is of lonely souls holding on to the secrets of childhood, hate born out of a catastrophic accident and the trials and tribulations of life itself. The book is dark and bleak.

Many of the characters in the including Eddie are not particularly likable. The childhood squabbles go considerably beyond what may be considered acceptable child behavior. Bicycles end up thrown in a river out of spite. Older bullies beat up a younger child severely. A child shoplifts on a regular basis; taking things seems a compulsion, but no one notices. A teacher crosses the line in his involvement with a student. The adults in Eddie's childhood world wrapped up in their own worlds. Many of the characters, children and adults alike, are chilling.

Eddie himself is an unreliable narrator. The summer of 1986 seems to not have the innocence of childhood. Eddie appears to have underlying psychological issues that go unaddressed as a child and as an adult. Eddie's life seems governed by the rule of omission. "What shapes us in not always our achievements but our omissions. Not lies; simply the truths we don't tell." In Eddie's case, those omissions are disturbing and rather creepy.

The plot has many layers and many mysteries that connect by a thread in Eddie's childhood. Too much connects too conveniently in the end. All the loose ends are tied up. The present day story introduces characters and connections that stretch the boundary of believability again in a rather unsettling way.

Regardless of the unlikable characters and the tied up ending, the book works. The story is told in a manner that is compelling and that keeps me reading. The writing successfully creates a chilling and creepy atmosphere even flipping back and forth between two periods.

Even though the characters are children, there is not that emotional reaction to protect. The reaction is more like a fascination with the bizarre and disturbing turns of this book. The book carries this through beyond the solution to the mystery of the chalk man. The true ending of the book leaves a chill and a shiver. Innocent chalk drawings on a sidewalk now carry a whole different meaning.

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

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Dangerous Crossing

Title:  Dangerous Crossing
Author:  Rachel Rhys
Publication Information:  Atria Books. 2018. 368 pages.
ISBN:  1501162721 / 978-1501162725

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

Opening Sentence:  "Sandwiched between two policemen, the woman descends the gangplank of the ship."

Favorite Quote:  "I only wanted to tell you that you will survive this, even though you might think that you cannot. You just have to keep putting one foot in front of the other, one step at a time."

On the eve of World War II, a young woman leaves her home and her family to travel half way across the world to begin a new life in Australia. Lily Shepard leaves behind the secrets of her past and looks to begin again. This sounds like a story of adventure, courage, and history coming to life.

Unfortunately, the book becomes the story of the ocean voyage itself - a view on to a fish bowl, if you will. It is a snapshot of a diverse group that come together in close quarters for a finite period of time. The only commonality that draws these individuals together is the fact that they are on this journey together. Max and his wife Eliza. Edward and his sister Helena. A Jewish refugee named Maria. A fascist named George. And, of course, Lily.

They represent different economic, social, religious, and cultural backgrounds. This is the nod to the history underlying the book. The ship in the book is the SS Orontes, an actual ocean liner that ran the England to Australia route during the 1930s until it was commandeered as a troops ship in 1940.

However, the book is not really about the history. It is about the stories of these individuals - the pasts they leave behind and the secrets they hide. Unfortunately, this devolves into a story of who is chasing who, who likes someone, who does not. In other words, this is a story of relationships, the socially acceptable ones and the ones considered taboo at the time. The stereotypes and social norms of the time become the motivating point for the characters.

The book description puts forth the mystery of two deaths during this voyage. However, the mystery is not much of one since the events do not occur until well into the book. The majority of this book is about the relationships and the characters.

As such, most of the book feels slow and often repetitious. Sea sickness. On again, off again flirtations. An occasional nod to the political background of the time. The "cultural" aspect of a new port thrown in for good measure. The story bounces along until the big secret finally emerges. At the end, I am left questioning. I read over 350 pages for that?

Plot aside, a book can create a great reading experience through a compelling character. Again, the book description sets up Lily Shepard as a young woman independent enough and courageous enough to take on this journey away from everything she has ever known. There are hints at a sadness in Lily's past that compels her to take this journey. That, however, is not really developed in the book.

Unfortunately, the character envisioned by the description does not come to life within the story itself. Lily seems more buffeted around by the events and the characters around her. Her story on board this ship unfortunately turns into one about a man rather than one about an independent woman standing on her own. The other characters actually have the more interesting stories, but the book's focus is Lily. Sadly, both the plot and the main character make this not the book for me.

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

Monday, March 12, 2018

The Boat People

Title:  The Boat People
Author:  Sharon Bala
Publication Information:  Doubleday. 2018. 352 pages.
ISBN:  0385542291 / 978-0385542296

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

Opening Sentence:  "Mahindan was flat on his back when the screaming began, one arm right-angled over his eyes."

Favorite Quote:  "You have come to a good place. There is room for you here."

Civil war in Sri Lanka turned thousands into refugees. Fiction such as The Story of a Brief Marriage by Anuk Arudpragasam and Island of a Thousand Mirrors by Nayomi Munaweera described this harrowing war and reinforce the fact that in war, the victims are on all sides.

This book picks up on an actual historical event that resulted from the Sri Lankan civil war. In August, 2010, the Thai cargo ship MV Sun Sea brought almost five hundred Sri Lankan refugees to British Columbia, Canada. The ship had been tracked since June and was finally intercepted by Canadian authorities. The refugees were placed in a detention facility, and a lengthy process began to determine admissibility into Canada. The arguments waged on all sides. These were families seeking to escape violence and destruction; these were insurgent seeking to bring illicit activities and instability into Canada. Both arguments likely had merit depending on the case. The question was how to separate one from the other. Two years passed. The majority of the refugees were released; some were deported. Some investigations continued.

This book brings to life this heated conversation through fiction. If I have one criticism, it is that the book tries too hard to cover every angle of this refugee conversation:
  • Refugees who face "exhaustion where he thought of the future; terror when he remembered the past"
  • Attorneys and organizations who work to provide help
  • Politicians on either side of the conversation - "Canada is not in the business of turning refugees away. If we err, let it be on the side of compassion." versus "... a brown man with a beard begging for asylum? ... Not on my watch."
  • Immigrants - "third-culture people who slipped in and out of identities like shoes" - who are completely a part of their adopted homeland and yet straddle between the culture they call home and the culture they call heritage
  • Immigrants who are completely a part of their adopted homeland and find no immediate connection with the people or culture of their heritage
  • Survivors of the Japanese internment during World War II to draw a comparison between the two situations (This is the piece that feels like a stretch to include in this story.)
The book does, however, successfully bring to life the hopes and the fears on all sides. The most emotional of the stories is that of Mahindan and his young son. Mahindan is one of the refugees. He lost his wife in childbirth; he makes this journey with his young son. At the detention center, he is separated from his son for the men's accommodations provide no place for children.

Mahidan's story is of the refugees hearings in Canada. Chapters also reach back into the past to his childhood, his loving marriage, the losses he faced, and the impossible decisions he made to get to this point. "Did she now know what it was like to have so little agency? To be faced with such cruel options it was as if there was no choice at all?"

The difficult but very real thing about this book is that it gives no answers and no absolutes.
Even the ending is not neatly wrapped into a package. I actually turned the page looking for more and am surprise when there is not. As a reader of fiction, I want an ending. In this book, for some, there is an ending. For some, there is a beginning. For some, there is neither; the story seems to stop in the middle of their journey. However, that is the reality of this very emotional situation. There are no easy answers, only a hope for peace and compassion and an appreciation for any meaningful effort to keep the conversation going.

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

Thursday, March 8, 2018

The Immortalists

Title:  The Immortalists
Author:  Chloe Benjamim
Publication Information:  G.P. Putnam's Sons. 2018. 352 pages.
ISBN:  0735213186 / 978-0735213180

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

Opening Sentence:  "Varya is thirteen."

Favorite Quote:  "She knew that stories did have the power to change things:  the past and the future, even the present ... the power of words. They weaseled under door cracks and through keyholes. They hooked into individuals and wormed through generations."

If you knew the day you were going to die, how differently would you live your life? Does your belief or lack of belief in that piece of information determine your choices? Is it your choices that make the prophecy come true, or was it predestined anyways? If you are given this information, does your belief or lack of belief even matter? Is the knowledge alone enough to influence your choices?

These are the questions this book grapples with. The story is told through the eyes of the four Gold siblings - Varya, Simon, Klara, and Daniel. It is the summer of 1969 in New York's Lower East Side. Varya is 13, Daniel is 11, Klara is 9 and Simon is 7. The Gold children hear of a woman with the ability to tell your future. In particular, the psychic claims the ability to tell anyone the day they are going to die.

They latch on to the idea and find the woman. Individually, they meet with her and then go running. What starts out as a harmless adventure rattles all of them. The question remains. Is it the knowledge that leads to the path or was the path pre-determined? Regardless, the information causes irrevocable changes in their lives.

The book then continues the story in what feels like four connected novellas - one for each of the siblings. The book begins with Varya's voice in that fateful summer. Simon's story goes from 1978-1982. Klara's story picks up the thread in 1982 and continues through 1991. Daniel's story joins in 1991 and continues through 2006. Finally, the book ends again with Varya's story.

The stories, particularly Simon's, also picks up on the social history of the times. Mind you, the stories are not always easy reading. The characters are not always likable. However, what remains is that throughout the lives of these individuals, I see peeking through the children that they were when given the burden of knowledge. In that way, the book reminds of The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt.  The stories have the qualities of a train wreck - terrible things happen and catastrophic decisions are made; yet, as a reader, I cannot look away. Regardless of the bad choices, I care about these children and what happens to them. I want things to work out for them.

The book begins with what is the most compelling of the stories - Simon's. It is heartbreaking and terrible to watch what happens to this young man even when much of it happens by his own choices. The least engaging and perhaps most unbelievable of the stories is Daniel's. Perhaps, that is by intent for Daniel refuses to acknowledge a belief in the prophecy. Yet, his decisions belie that statements. He sets out to make things right, but his choice leads to something completely different. It leads back to the question of choice or destiny.

As expected, the book also makes some strong statements about life and belief. Some of the ones I find memorable:
  • "Nobody picks their life. I sure didn't ... Here's what happens:  you make choices, and then they make choices. You choices makes choices."
  • "Most adults claim not to believe in magic, but Klara knows better. Why else would anyone play at permanence - fall in love, have children, buy a house - in the face of all evidence there's no such thing? The trick is not the convert them. The trick is to get them to admit it."
  • "Life isn't just about defying death ... It's also about defying yourself, about insisting on transformation. As long as you can transform, my friends, you cannot die. What does Clark Kent have in common with the chameleon? Right when they're on the brink of destruction, they change. Where have they gone? Nowhere we can see. The chameleon has become a branch. Clark Kent has become Superman."
A memorable book that leaves me with the firm belief that I do not ever wish to pursue the knowledge given to these children. True or not, believed or not, it changes lives. Words matter, and thoughts matter.

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

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Tell Me More

Title:  Tell Me More
Author:  Kelly Corrigan
Publication Information:  Random House. 2018. 240 pages.
ISBN:  039958837X / 978-0399588372

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

Opening Sentence:  "There was no real reason for it to fall apart that morning."

Favorite Quote:  "The other problem with language is that arranging words into sentences requires we flip on our thinking machine, which necessarily claims some of our focus, so that as soon as we start deciding how to explain a feeling, we're not entirely feeling the feeling anymore, and some feelings want to be felt at full capacity."

The subtitle of this book refers to "the 12 hardest things I'm learning to say." That begs the question. What things? The answer is in the chapter titles. It's like this. Tell me more. I don't know. I know. No. Yes. I was wrong. Good enough. I love you. No words at all. Onward. This is it.
As a memoir, this question-based structure implies that the book is more essay-like than a chronological story. Each essay pulls together Ms. Corrigan's experiences that, for her, address the thought of that chapter. The focal point of each essay is the title idea; the personal stories are the supporting evidence. Each essay stands alone. However, the life story can seem to stop abruptly and pick up again at a different point in the book when the same individuals or situations are used in a different chapter. The structure also means that the continuity of the emotion is not there consistently. I find myself feeling the joy and the sadness momentarily, but then the book moves on to something else. Sometimes, it winds its way back to that situation again, but then the emotional connection has to be found again. The point here is to convey the ideas not necessarily tell the story.

The scenarios from Ms. Corrigan's life captured in this book reflect her demographic of a seemingly comfortable lifestyle with a stable home and income; the challenges and lessons described do not stem from that struggle. The situations range from the day to day task of parenting teenagers to the life-changing loss of a parent to the tragic, very premature death of a friend. There are others, but it is these three that stand out to me. The stories of grief touches my heart, and the descriptions of her teenage daughters in particular leave me wondering what her daughters think of the way in which they are portrayed.

The book description refers to Ms. Corrigan's writing as "the streetwise, ever-relatable voice." The ever-relatable aspect is the conversational tone of the book. At times, it reads like a conversation over a cup of tea with a friend, but more often, it is a stream of consciousness thought process related to the idea of the chapter title. It jumps, but as a reader, it takes me longer to follow that jump.

The "streetwise" may refer to her use of what may be at times inappropriate language especially in a household with teenagers. Her humor is often referred to as self-deprecating, but at times it seems too much so. Certain moments of the book reach me, but much of it does not touch an emotional cord.

A book of this nature relies on its feeling of authenticity. That is what creates my connection as a reader. I do not for one second question the authenticity of Ms. Corrigan's experiences or emotions. Just as a book, this telling seems to come across to me as trying too hard to portray that authenticity. Moments touch me, but overall I am not moved. It's not bad, but it does not grab me as I expect it would.

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

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Last Stop in Brooklyn

Title:  Last Stop in Brooklyn:  A Mary Handley Mystery
Author:  Lawrence H. Levy
Publication Information:  Broadway Books. 2018. 320 pages.
ISBN:  0451498445 / 978-0451498441

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

Opening Sentence:  "On December 4, 1891, Russell Sage had a hunch."

Favorite Quote:  "Change has to start somewhere ... Who knows? Maybe honesty and fairness will catch on and push aside the greed and violence that have gripped our country."

This book is the third in the series of Mary Handley mysteries. All are set in the 1890s in Brooklyn, New York. Interestingly, for all its layers, the one thing the book does not bring to life in detail is the place. A lot of the book is set in and around Coney Island - the last stop in Brooklyn. At this time in history, Coney Island was one of the larges amusement parks in the country. Millions of visitors flocked to Coney Island every year. This book is more about New York political history than about Coney Island, however.

Mary Handley is Brooklyn's first female private detective. As such, she fights social norms with her profession and her independence. While Mary does not work for the New York Police Department (NYPD), she is connected in positive and negative ways with the work of the police. Some try and use her skill in solving crimes; some would rather not have her investigate where they feel she does not belong.

The books are also connected to the history of Brooklyn and New York. Real historical figures feature in the books. In this book, that translates to Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th president of the United States. Interestingly, about a decade before he became President, Mr. Roosevelt served as the President of the New York Board of Police Commissioners. In that position, he was responsible for introducing significant reforms to address the corruption within the Police Department. In this work, Mr. Roosevelt was assisted by journalist and photographer Jacob Riis who also makes an appearance in this book along side of some of New aristocracy.

The plot of the book has many layers of mystery. Mary starts off investigating what seems like a relatively straight forward adultery case. From that, she get involved in a cold case about the murder of a prostitute. A man was sent to jail, but was it the right man? From that comes a pattern of similar murders all the way to a relatively recent one. That leads Mary much deeper into a plot that suggests corruption at the highest level of the Police Department. In the background is Mary's family and personal life and the historical prejudices and divides of the time.

The focal point of the story is clearly the history of corruption and prejudice. The solution to the prostitute murders, when finally revealed, seems almost tangential. To me, the different story lines do not tie together into a cohesive whole although the story lines do stem from the same set of murders. However, one - the identity of the murderer - goes very personal, and the other - the police handling of the cases - goes very societal. As such, they seem independent of each other.

What is eerie about this book is how current it sounds. The setting is Brooklyn in the 1890s, but so many of the conversations could be and are taking place today. Part of the reason is that the tone of the book is very modern compared to the time period. Part of it is the fact that the issues remain relevant today. Race relations. Immigration. Corruption. Prejudice. Women's equality. The names and the faces have changed, but sadly, many of the conversations remain.

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

Sunday, February 25, 2018

The Music Shop

Title:  The Music Shop
Author:  Rachel Joyce
Publication Information:  Random House. 2018. 320 pages.
ISBN:  0812996682 / 978-0812996685

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

Opening Sentence:  "There was once a music shop."

Favorite Quote:  "Helping someone is entirely different from being involved. Helping is all on your own terms."

This book picks up on a formula often used in books. A bookseller, a dressmaker, a musician, and so on has a special ability to find just the right book, dress, music, etc. to meet the needs of their customer. The customer most often does not even realize their own needs. Of course, the bookseller, dressmaker, musician, etc. has his or her own needs and angst. Slowly, in solving the concerns of other, he or she manages to find their own path forward.

The books have the potential to be sweet and uplifting. They call for a belief in that ability or the "magic" of the book. Call it magic, call it serendipity, call it grace. Whatever the name, we all have that need to believe. Overall, the stories are feel good reads. The biggest "if" of the stories is the reader's ability to believe.

The time period is the 1980s London. The setting is a run-down neighborhood of London. The significance of time to this book is because of the technology of music. The early 1980s were when music compact discs (CDs) came our commercially. They could store more music. They did not have to be rewound like cassettes tapes. They eliminated some of the scratch and interference of records. They introduced an entirely new way of sharing and listening to music.

Most people made the switch, but not Frank, the operator of a small music shop. He is older, set in his ways, and quirky as such characters are likely to be. His biggest stand is that he refuses to embrace CDs and is insistent on selling only vinyl records. Why? It's never quite clear. It is interesting as currently, vinyl is making a comeback in music. Unfortunately, for Frank at that time, vinyl records are a losing proposition.

Of course, Frank is surrounded by a cast of other quirky characters. The retired priest who runs a gift shop. The tattoo artist who likes Frank but who Frank never quite sees. Frank's assistant who has the best intentions to help but that often leads to disaster. Finally, Ilse Brauchmann who mysteriously arrives on Frank's doorstep and changes everything.

In addition to the characters, the book has a lot of story lines. Periodically, chapters reveal Frank's eccentric childhood and the love and the scars it leaves behind. Frank makes certain choices about his music business which have implications for the store. The run-down little street is threatened by building code violations and developers looking to take over. Frank and Ilse Brauchmann develop an instant connection, providing the love story in the book. There is a story of unrequited love. After all that, a fire is thrown in for good measure.

One reason for picking this book is the fact that I do believe in the impact of music. I have different pieces I turn to based on what emotional need I have at a particular moment in time. In this day of digital music, that constitute that I have a play list for every mood.

Unfortunately for me, this book becomes about something different than the power of music. I never quite buy into the characters or the story. I cannot quite identify why, but I don't. Perhaps, it is the multiple story lines. Perhaps, it is the insta-love story of Frank and Ilse. Perhaps, it's a lot of characters, dispersing the focal point of the book. Somewhat, it never quite becomes real for, which is sad because a sweet, feel good story about the power of music would be a welcome one.

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

Friday, February 23, 2018


Title:  Green
Author:  Sam Graham-Felsen
Publication Information:  Random House. 2018. 320 pages.
ISBN:  0399591141 / 978-0399591143

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 am the white boy at the Martin Luther King Middle."

Favorite Quote:  "What I'm trying to say is that best - the only - way to think about things is systemically. That's a big, scary word, so I'll say it again. Sys-tem-ic-ally. I know you came here to ask, 'How did Skip make it?' But I'd rather you ask, 'How come hardly anyone else is making it?' What's the system doing to hold so many of us back?"

I so want to love this book. The discussion of racial and economic inequality is such an important one in our society. Any attempt to add to that conversation in a positive meaningful way are welcome. What makes this book even more intriguing is the fact that it present a different perspective on the conversation. The narrator is David Greenfeld, a middle school student who is one of the few white students at Martin Luther King Jr Middle School in Boston in 1992. He experiences life as a minority in his school.

Interestingly, there is actually a Martin Luther King K-8 school in Boston. I don't know if the reference in the book is to that school, or if the name in the book is given for other, more obvious reasons. It really does not matter to the story; I just like to see if the connections exist in real life.

Another historical note is the fact that the book is set in 1992 around the time of the Rodney King trial. That verdict of the trial led to violent riots in Los Angeles and repercussions on race relations that were felt throughout the country if not the world. This context seems a deliberate choice to add another layer to the story.

The book seeks to the tell the story of a friendship, of boys growing up, and of a realization that inequality exists. David Greenfeld finds that even growing up in an environment where he feels a minority, his race and his parent's socio-economic backgrounds provides him with privileges and opportunities that do not exist for many around him. A powerful lesson.

Because of the topics it discusses and the lesson it intends, I want to love this book. The intention is clearly there. Unfortunately, for me, those points get lost in the telling of this story. The narrator is a middle school boy. If you know middle school boys, you know that that age at times has a language of its own, and at most times, that age is a mix of immaturity and hormones.

It is these factors that make this book a challenge for me. In an attempt to bring to life middle school, the book speaks in slang. Unfortunately, the slang is at times difficult to understand and at times just too much. For me, the language steps over the story and becomes a focal point because I find myself spending more time to understand the words than to capture the meaning.

The other undeniable aspect of that age is puberty and an interest in sexual exploration. Unfortunately, I find much of the repeated sexual references and the slang terminology to describe those interactions off putting. For this reason, while the book has a middle school narrator, parents and educators should preview the book to ensure its appropriateness for their audience. Also, this aspect of growing up is not the intended focus of this book. Unfortunately, for me, it becomes a focal point, taking away from the main story.

I applaud the intent and the effort although the end result is not for me.

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

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Death Below Stairs

Title:  Death Below Stairs
Author:  Jennifer Ashley
Publication Information:  Berkeley. 2018. 336 pages.
ISBN:  0399585516/978-0399585517

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 had not been long at my post in Mount Street, Mayfair when my employer's sister came to some calamity."

Favorite Quote:  "I was an arrogant woman, telling others about the moral virtue of hard work, when I only performed it for one end - the well-being of my daughter. Without that to drive me, what I did was empty."

A death amongst your staff is not an auspicious beginning to a new job. Yet, that is exactly what happens to Kat Holloway. A murder no less. A young maid is found dead in the pantry shortly after Kat takes a job as the cook for the household of Lord Rankin in Victorian London. Is it a romance gone bad? Is the murderer a member of the household? Is it a mystery that extends beyond Lord Rankin's household? No matter what the reason, Kat feels responsible for the young woman, and so begins the adventure to solve a murder.

The mystery of this book has all the makings of a political espionage novel, set in a very proper English nobility setting of course. What starts as the death of a maid leads all the way to a plot against Queen Victoria herself. The royalty, however, does not quite make an appearance in this book; the book remains clearly focused on the main characters.

This book reminds me somewhat of Deanne Raybourn's Veronica Speedwell mysteries. The English setting, the strong female lead, the connection to royalty, and the relationship between Kat Holloway and Daniel McAdam all create a similar reading experience. Death Below Stairs is the first in a new series; however, the book clearly implies a back story for both characters in a ways that makes them more rounded characters.

Kat Holloway's back story is developed more than Daniel McAdam's. He remains a mystery which I am sure will be explored in subsequent books. The nature and origin of their relationship is also not yet explained; that too may come in subsequent books. I believe there is a prequel that may provide some of that background. I have not read it, and it really does not impact my enjoyment of the book. At the moment, it is sweet enough and mysterious enough to make me say I would like to know more.

What makes this book for me is the characters. Kat Holloway, by profession, is a cook and a good one. She is well composed, articulate, strong, and independent. Best of all, she is not afraid to speak her mind and takes no nonsense from anyone - her employer, her staff, or her friends. On the other hand, the book also develops a non-romantic storyline which bring our her worries and her vulnerabilities. This makes her all the more likable.

Daniel McAdam is the handsome but mysterious hero. He seems to be chameleon-like, fitting in to whatever role he takes on at a particular moment. He fits in with equal ease all the ranks of this Victorian society. He seems knowledgeable about a vast array of topics and professions. How and why remains to be told in subsequent books. He seems almost perfect, but it works especially paired with Kat. They are a good match.

Even the household of Lord Rankin is not without its cast of characters. They are all developed with a skilled hand to play a role - sometimes surprising - in this mystery. That is what keeps the mystery a mystery until the very end. I look forward to the next book in the series.

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

Thursday, February 15, 2018

The Maze at Windermere

Title:  The Maze at Windermere
Author:  Gregory Blake Smith
Publication Information:  Viking. 2018. 352 pages.
ISBN:  0735221928 / 978-0735221925

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

Opening Sentence:  "He was trying to explain to her how he'd gotten to be where he was."

Favorite Quote:  "Here's a budding novelist's question:  Can the appearance of people suggest their reality?"

It takes a while for the realization to hit in this book. It is not about the characters or the times. This book's main feature is its location of Newport, Rhode Island, a playground of the super wealthy. Located in Narragansett Bay, Newport is a seaside community probably best known for its now historical mansions, the summer "cottages" of the wealthy including the Vanderbilts and the Astors.

Currently, Newport has three areas, including Bellevue Avenue with its many mansions, on the National Historical Landmark Districts. Many of the homes are also individually listed as Nationally Historical Landmarks and are at times open as museums to the public. The book also features Newport Casino, which is not a gambling establishment but an athletic complex now home to the International Tennis Hall of Fame.

The book brings this environment to life through five different time periods and five different characters from 1692 to 2011. The voices the author chooses are of characters that are at the periphery of the social elite that make up Newport society. An orphan Quaker girl. A aging tennis pro. A handsome man wanting to secure his place before age overtakes. An author at the beginning of his career.

Through the individual stories, the book reaches into conversations about race, gender equality, the taboos on sexual orientation through time, economic disparity. The book makes a great effort to present the views held at the time period relevant to each story - not an easy feat. Underlying all of that is the place which endures. It changes shapes and appearance, but it endures.

In some ways, the book reminds me of David Mitchell's work. The story lines spread over time gradually imploding onto to a central theme. However, for me, this book does not reach the same level of intensity or connection as Mr. Mitchell's work.

The "maze" of title is a literal and figurative one. One of the mansions has a hedge maze leading to the ocean. The structure of the book itself resembles a maze. From chapter to chapter, the books moves between the time periods and the characters with no visible connection. However, name and places recur, creating a sense of connection. Eventually, the books seems to fold on itself, somewhat reaching the heart of the maze.

It is this very construct that is the strength and weakness of the book. I started it and put it down. I picked it up, found myself lost, and started reading from the beginning. I put it down. I picked it up, found myself lost, and started reading from the beginning again. Finally, I went back, read the book description again and more carefully, started paying attention to the time period in the chapter titles, and began again.

After a while, two things happen. Each character and time period acquires its own unique tone, and I realize that the book is more about the place. Finally, I settle into and finish the story, but it takes work. The format is a challenge.

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

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

The Drinking Food of Thailand

Title:  The Drinking Food of Thailand
Author:  Andy Ricker, JJ  Goode, and Austin Bush (photographer)
Publication Information:  Ten Speed Press. 2017. 272 pages.
ISBN:  1607747731 / 978-1607747734

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

Opening Sentence:  "Long before I opened Pok Pok, before I even knew there was such a thing as 'Norther Thai food,' I learned a lesson about drinking in Thailand."

Favorite Quote:  "It also deserves note that the title of teh book is The Drinking Food of Thailand, not Thai Drinking Food. This might seems like a minor distinction, but it's an important one. It's meant to emphasize that the dishes eaten in Thailand have points of origin as diverse as the people and ethnicities - Thai, Tai Yai, Chinese, Burmese, Lao, among others - who make up the population of the country."

What, you might ask, is drinking food and why would a non-drinker like myself explore drinking food? The author sets the expectation. Drinking food is:
  • "to be snacked on while you make merry"
  • "defined as much as by what they are as by whether they're eaten with rice, or at least enough to fill you up" 
  • "typically eaten from a communal plate"
This definition conjures up an image of foods I am familiar with as every culture has its compendium of snack foods. My interest in food and culture draws me to this book even as a non-drinker. It is a different look than can be seen in other Thai food cookbooks. So, there are two ways to look at this book - as a cookbook and as a travelogue into a food culture. I choose it for the latter, but let's look at it as a cookbook first.

Some recipes in this book meet the image I conjure up of bar food, and some definitely do not. That is where the cultural education comes in. "Thais have a particular roster - and a particularly vast and exciting one - of dishes that are closely associated with drinking that I've seen again and again ... Often insistently spicy, salty, chewy, and/or sour, they're meant ... to keep the night going."

The book categorizes the recipes as follows:  snacks, soup, chile dips, fried foods, grilled foods, salads, stir fries, and late-night/morning food. Some like snacks, dips, and fried foods I expect. Other such as soup, salads, and stir-fries I don't expect on a bar food menu. As a reference, the book also includes a section on staple recipes such as spices mixes and sauces.

Delving deeper into the book furthers the cultural education for some of the ingredients are new to me, and the combination of the ingredients is new to my cooking. The book contains recipes for only about 50 dishes plus a handful of staple recipes. Some like fried cashews are relatively simple and self explanatory. Others, however, have much more complex with a much longer list of ingredients. (I counted 30 for one recipe!)

The author does note that no ingredient substitutions are noted unless they absolutely won't impact flavor of the dish, and that shopping at an online source or a Asian grocery story will be necessary to find the ingredients. Interestingly, the author also notes, "for the most part, the recipes in this book will be easier to cook ... This is not because I've dumbed them down, but rather because drinking food tends to require less work than other culinary categories." 

The relatively short list of recipes and the specialized ingredients means this will not likely be a cookbook I turn to often. And that's okay because this is one I pick and enjoy for the cultural introduction. I have never traveled to Thailand; nor am I likely to experience this drinking aspect of Thai culture. This book provides that arm chair travel.

The recipes in the book are punctuated by images and stories from the author's travels in Thailand. Andy Ricker is an American restaurateur who has spent over two decades traveling through and studying Northern Thai food. He brings that knowledge back to an American audience through his restaurants and now his books. For that look into culture and foods and ingredients different than those familiar to me, I truly appreciate this book.

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

Monday, February 12, 2018


Title:  Gnomon
Author:  Nick Harkaway
Publication Information:  Knopf. 2018. 688 pages.
ISBN:  1524732087 / 978-1524732080

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 death of a suspect in custody,' says Inspector Neith of the Witness, 'is a very serious matter.'"

Favorite Quote:  "Little by little, though, the sense of crisis is fading, as the twin businesses of living and deciding a way forward takes precedence over the assignment of historical blame."

Gnomon. With a title like that, my first step is to look up the word. Is it a real word or a made up names? Turns out, the word "gnomon" comes from Greek and is the name for the portion of a sundial that creates a shadow. Knowing that, the cover takes on a different meaning. The word has taken on different interpretations in mathematics with implications of angles, shapes, and relationships between shapes. In particular, a geometrical definition was the part of a parallelogram that remains after a similar parallelogram has been taken away from one of its corners.

A Greek mathematical reference. What Gnomon translates to in the story is part of the mystery of this book. Now, I am intrigued.

The book description presents a dystopian world in which everything is monitored, in the name of maintaining transparency, safety, and peace. Every citizen, every thought, and every memory. Periodically, random citizens are subject to testing. It is in fact advised as a health enhancing exercise. An official "clearing of your head" if you will.

Of course, not everyone agrees with this approach. The story begins when a dissendent, Diana Hunter dies while in custody of the System. That never happens until, of course, it does. It appears the System is not as perfect as it seems.

Inspector Mielikki Neith is assigned to investigate. With a name like that, I look it up. "Mielikki" in Finnish mythology is the goddess of the hunt, an appropriate epithet. "Neith" is the name of an Egyptian goddess, also known as the creator. Inspector Neith is literally given Diana Hunter's mind to study. What she finds is the adventure of this book.

A dystopian world. A mystery. An investigation. References to mythology. Now, I am even more intrigued.

I don't know if the connections are intended or it's my imagination. It doesn't matter because I jump in, ready for a story of adventure for the book description lists Athens, Carthage, London, and journeys within the mind and memories of the characters. I love the premise the book establishes.

This is where, unfortunately, I get stuck. The expression goes that I cannot see the forest for the trees. That about sums up my reaction to this book. I love the premise. However, the writing - the words, the language, the constructions - seems to be at the forefront of this book. I find myself more focused on how something is said rather than on what is being said. In other words, the writing takes over the reading experience rather than the story. The entire book - regardless of the narrator - has a sameness of tone and language making it even harder.

What makes this an even bigger challenge is the length of the book. At almost 700 pages, the book calls for a compelling story to hold me to the story. The compelling premise is there, but the telling of the story does not live up to the premise. I pull myself back to the story time and again, but it is difficult to do so for that long a period of time. The story is lost in the words.

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

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

The Story of Arthur Truluv

Title:  The Story of Arthur Truluv
Author:  Elizabeth Berg
Publication Information:  Random House. 2017. 240 pages.
ISBN:  1400069904 / 978-1400069903

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 six months since the November day that his wife, Nola, was buried, Arthur Moses has been having lunch with her every day."

Favorite Quote:  "I suppose we might be old-fashioned, but I don't think love is. Who doesn't need it? We all of us need it, especially those who say they don't. It's like oil in the crankcase, we can't run without it."

The story of Arthur Truluv is a story about loneliness and about friendship that can be found in the unlikeliest of places and about the family we create. For that, it is a sweet, sentimental, and heart warming story.

Arthur Moses (no, his name is not really Truluv) is a widower. His life consists primarily of visiting the graveyard and having lunch by his wife's side daily. Maddy is a teenager with her own sorrows. She lost her mother, and her father has not recovered from that grief enough to be there for his daughter as she needs him. Lucille is Arthur's irascible neighbor; she too is alone, and she too dreams of more.

Arthur and Lucille are quirky and older, a character type that has featured in many books recently. However, this book is not really about the quirks or even the old part. It is about how this unlikely trio bands together. In that, the book also gets at the friendship and the bond that can exist between generations. Arthur is in his eighties, and Maddy is seventeen. Yet, both share that feeling of being alone and abandoned, and both respond to that in the other.

Mind you, suspend your disbelief and check any analytical tendencies before reading this book. The plot itself is a contrived set of circumstances. Arthur and Maddy meet by chance at the cemetery. Arthur manages to pierce Maddy's shell where either other adults have not tried or tried and failed. Maddy gives Arthur the very corny nickname of Truluv, and he likes it. Lucille's entire story of love found and lost is a far reach and stands apart from the rest of the plot. The fact that Maddy's father is not really part of the story given the circumstances seems unlikely. The situation in which Maddy finds herself feels designed to make a point. The sorrow at home, the bullying at school, and the self-serving boyfriend all create more and more burdens for this young woman, and then all of a sudden, things turn around. The neat, packaged ending to this book can be seen coming, and, of course, there is the obligatory cat.

The characters also embody a "character." Arthur is the lonely, kind, and wise old man. Maddy is the scared but oh-I-got-this teenager looking for security and love. Lucille is the cantankerous old biddy with a heart of gold. The characters neither evolve nor really change in the book. They remain as I envision and behave in ways I expect.

Interestingly, most of this does not matter. The book is not really about the specific plot line or even the development of the characters. It is about the emotion. The book captures loneliness and loss as well as the joy that comes forth in caring and being cared for. It is that feeling which draws me in and keeps me reading, and even the neat, packaged ending leaves me hoping that things will work out for all the characters. Perfect for when I need a sweet, feel good story.

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

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Enchantress of Numbers

Title:  Enchantress of Numbers:  A Novel of Ada Lovelace
Publication Information:  Dutton. 2017. 444 pages.
ISBN:  1101985208 / 978-1101985205

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

Opening Sentence:  "A piteous mewling jolts Lady Anabella Byron from her melancholy contemplation of the fire fading to embers though the evening is still young."

Favorite Quote:  "Passion fades where once it burned brightly, but love, real love, can grow where only friendship was before."

Augusta Ada King-Noel, Countless of Lovelace was born Augusta Ada Byron, daughter of poet and nobleman Lord Byron. She was, in fact, his only legitimate child born out a marriage that lasted only until Ada was a few months old. Her parents separated shortly after her birth, and Ada Lovelace never had a chance to know her father.

Ada Lovelace's disputed claim to fame is her contribution to the filed of mathematics and computer science. Some credit her with being the world's first computer programmer; others discount her contribution to the work of Charles Babbage and his analytical engine.

Clearly, two stories are at play here. One is the story of the Byron's doomed marriage and its impact on the entire life of Ada Lovelace. The other is the story of Ada Lovelace, a pioneer as a female scientist and mathematician in a 1800s England.

I begin the book expecting the second story. Based on the title, I expect to the read the story of the woman of science and her pioneering accomplishments in the sciences. Quickly, I am disabused of this notion for the first part of the book is before Ada's birth; it is the story of her mother Annabelle and how she comes to marry and then separate from Lord Byron. It sets the foundation for Ada's upbringing.

This book is very clearly the first storyline. It is the story of Ada's family life, in particular her relationship with her mother. At first, this is disappointing for the book is not the story I am expecting. However, I decide to let go of preconceptions and attempt to appreciate the story for what it is - family, relationships, a child growing up, and a woman coming of age.

For that story, though, the book is too detailed and at times seemingly repetitive. In a nutshell, Ada's mother seeks to ensure that Ada will not fall prey to the madness she feels Lord Byron suffers from. Yet, at the same time, she is content to leave Ada in the care of her grandparents and various governesses. Ada has a rather lonely and sad childhood. That is the story that is told in various instances and various iterations through more than half of the book. I feel for Ada the child but don't need a couple of hundred pages to get there.

The second half of the book correspondingly feels rushed and not completely developed. For example, Ada makes a comment at one point of marriage being as constraining as her mother's control. However, that is never explored. At point, it seems Ada struggles with post-partum depression, but that too seems told in passing. The scientific contributions of Ada's life almost becomes incidental to the story.

What makes the book even more challenging is after the first section about the Byron's marriage, the book switches to a first person narrative from Ada's perspective. Mind you, the "perspective" begins with her infancy. The book addresses the fact that these are collected memories, but at the same time, it is just an odd construct. The first person narrative does not quite work in this situation. Regardless, the book is an interesting tale of a poet's daughter who grew up to be a mathematician.

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

Saturday, January 27, 2018

The Underground Railroad

Title:  The Underground Railroad
Author:  Colson Whitehead
Publication Information:  Doubleday. 2016. 320 pages.
ISBN:  0385542364 / 978-0385542364

Book Source:  I read this book for our local book club.

Opening Sentence:  "The first time Caesar approached Cora about running north, she said no."

Favorite Quote:  "Freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close but from outside, from the empty meadow, you see its true limits. Being free had nothing to do with chains or how much space you had. On the plantation, she was not free, but she moved unrestricted on its aces, tasting the air and tracing the summer stars. The place was big in its smallness. Here, she was free of her master but slunk around a warren so tiny she couldn't stand."

The history of slavery in our nation is brutal and horrifying. The history of those who stood against it is inspiring. It has been depicted in many ways through both fiction and nonfiction. It deserves to be remembered. It needs to be remembered so that it may never be repeated and so that the impacts that are felt to this day can be addressed. The history alone makes this book worth reading.

Putting the acknowledgement of history aside brings me to its telling in this book, and I am not sure what I think. Do I go with the fact that if each retelling of this history educates even one person, it is worthwhile? Do I go with the fact that this, as a book, failed to engage me as others in this genre have?

The Underground Railroad presents the history of slavery - those who worked to abolish it and those who worked to preserve it - through the eyes of a slave named Cora. The book begins with Cora as a young child on a plantation in Georgia. She is alone and uncared for, an outcast amongst even the other slaves on the plantation. Cora's mother is notorious for having escaped and having left Cora behind. Still Cora survives, independent and courageous. A series of events push Cora to something she has never before considered - escape.

This brings Cora to the Underground Railroad - to those who would help her and to those who would beat her back into slavery. With her story as the anchor, the book explores different facets of the history - the brutality and inhumanity of slavery, the actual underground railroads, scientific experiments, communes, and even the slave bounty hunters. The issue is that Cora as a character does not develop through the book. That and the jumps between episodes in her life to capture the different historical points keep me from fully engaging with the story.

My other, bigger issue is that this book depicts the underground railroad as literally that - a physical labyrinth railroad lying beneath the ground with stations, dead ends, and stationmasters all the way along its path. To me, this is necessary and does not add a visual image I need to imagine the risks and dangers real people took to make the escape paths possible. The "underground" implies the absolute secrecy that was essential; anything else meant death and destruction for all involved. The literal interpretation of that word seems to belie the risks involved.

All historical fictions is just that - fiction. The fiction title enables liberties - reimagining a timeline, describing conversation, bringing to life characters - with the history to tell a compelling story. However, this history itself is so compelling that it needs no embellishment especially not one so completely unbelievable. The embellishments in many ways diminish the history by introducing somewhat trivial fictional devices to tell the story. I am left wondering why.

Regardless, for the history the book depicts, read it and remember it. "We can't save everyone. But that doesn't mean we can't try. Sometimes a useful delusion is better than a useless truth."

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

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Strangers in Budapest

Title:  Strangers in Budapest
Author:  Jessica Keener
Publication Information:  Algonquin Books. 2017. 352 pages.
ISBN:  1616204974 / 978-1616204976

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

Opening Sentence:  "She'd grown used to called the Danube by its Hungarian name - Duna."

Favorite Quote:  "What she did know was that ... all those lives shattered on European shores during and after the wars, and on an asphalt driveway in America - those lives whose truths had disappeared into a vault of eternity beyond her reach - were not gone or silenced. She could hear them calling."

Annie suffers from "trailing-spouse syndrome."  What, you might ask, is that? I know I did. Apparently, it is the name given to the experience of a spouse who follows his/her partner to another city or another country because of a job. It is usually used in the context of an individual working in an expatriate assignment.

Annie would not describe herself as a trailing spouse. She feels that she and her husband Will made the choice together to pursue business opportunities in Hungary. They have personal and professional reasons to leave their Boston home. With the fall of communism in 1989, the 1990s in Hungary are a time of capital potential. Will has grand ideas; the question is whether any of the them will pan out.

Unfortunately, Annie is not involved actively in the actual business, leaving her with a lot of time on her hands. She does not mix much with the other expatriate wives; she is looking for what she feels is a more immersive experience. She is focused on her infant son; yet, most descriptions are those of leaving him with a babysitter. Her actions do not seems to match her loftier opinion of herself. She sadly comes across as a snob.

For example, one thing that rankles in this book is the way Annie describes the adoption process. Annie and Will are parents to an adopted infant son. One of the stated reasons for them leaving Boston is the supposed continual intrusion of the adoptive services into their lives. It just seems an odd note into the book. It also does not develop into a plot line; so, it seems unnecessary. The adoption process, while not perfect, creates families. Why cast it in such a negative light when neither the child not the process is the actual story?

Annie's imagination is finally captured when a neighbor from the US asks her to check on an gentleman who has recently come to Budapest. He is elderly and ill and perhaps in need of assistance. Annie cannot help but get involved. The story gets complicated when it appears that Edward Weiss is in Hungary for revenge for his daughter's death. He pursues the man he considers her murderer. Although there is no connection between Annie and the Edward, she decides to help him. Really?

The story gets more complicated when Annie and Will's story intersects with Edward's story in more ways than they thought. Unfortunately, for its complications, the book never quite comes together. Annie and Will are rather one dimensional in their pursuit of economic success. Edward Weiss is single-minded in his need for revenge. Other characters that could have provided depth are not developed at all. Annie's family has a back story, but that too is never fully developed. The ending, the supposed climactic conclusion, just feels flat. Because the interest in the characters doesn't develop, neither does the interest in plot.

Aside from the plot, my reason for picking the book is the setting - Budapest at the end of the Cold War. Unfortunately, from Annie's perspective, I don't really get a sense of the place. Annie is centered on her life and her child. The book really could have been set anywhere and been the same story.

One of my favorite things about fiction set in varied locations is the inspiration it provides for me to research the actual place; sadly, I find no such inspiration in this book. I feel that I know as little about Budapest after reading the book as I did before reading the book, and there goes my last reason for reading this book.

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